Holiday gatherings don’t have to mean hectic preparation

Adrienne Freeman Originally Published December 20, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated December 19, 2012 at 10:48 a.m.
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It doesn’t matter if your family celebrates Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa, the season usually brings a reunion of relatives, excited little ones, students home for a well-deserved break from studies and, hopefully, a reconnection with friends who become estranged by location but not by love.

All these different visitors also can mean conflicting schedules. A little advance preparation and a kitchen gadget that works the long hours for you — the slow cooker — allow you to extend your hospitality as a splendid hostess and not a short-order cook.

The “low-and-slow” technique has been well-known to cooks for generations, but slow cookers and the brand-name Crock-Pot were introduced in a big way in the early 1970s. The improvements over the years have been extensive — now some models are digital, are available in a variety of price points, can turn themselves on and off or switch to a warm setting, and the removable cooking pots are usually dishwasher-safe.

These recipes all can be prepared the day before and popped in the oven for baking, or the slow cooker recipes can be timed to be ready when you are. Now, even the latest sleepers can enjoy your efforts, and you can enjoy the pleasure of your guests.

SLOW COOKER BREAKFAST CASSEROLE

Ingredients:

12-15 breakfast sausage links or 1 pound bulk sausage, cooked and broken into bite-sized pieces

12 eggs

1 cup milk

salt and pepper, to taste

1 package (2 pounds) frozen hashed brown potatoes with diced onions and peppers

1 tomato, diced

2 cups cheddar cheese, shredded

Directions:

In a large bowl, beat eggs together with milk. Add salt and pepper. Stir in sausage pieces, frozen potatoes, tomato, and cheese. Spray slow cooker with cooking spray and pour in egg mixture. Cook on low heat for 6-8 hours.

(Oval slow cookers cook faster than the typical round ones — make sure to check at 6-hour mark if using an oval one.)

BAKED CINNAMON FRENCH TOAST

Ingredients:

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

16 slices white sandwich bread

1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened

3 cups whole milk

6 large eggs

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons good-quality vanilla extract

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Mix cinnamon and sugar together in a small dish. Line two large baking sheets with foil. Place the bread slices on the baking sheets in one layer. Spread each slice of bread with 1 teaspoon of butter, then sprinkle with 1 teaspoon of the cinnamon-sugar mixture, covering evenly. Toast the trays of bread in the oven until the bread is golden and the cinnamon-sugar begins to caramelize, about 7 to 10 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 375 and let the toast cool slightly.

Generously butter a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Cut two slices of the cinnamon toast in half horizontally. Arrange the cinnamon toast in two rows along the width of the pan; begin with the bottom half of one slice of toast and place 7 more slices in an overlapping layer, finishing with the top half of the slice. Repeat with another 7 full slices and 1 halved slice of cinnamon toast in the second row. (This leaves you with equal thickness throughout) Whisk the milk, eggs, salt and vanilla in a medium bowl and pour evenly over cinnamon toast in baking dish. Let sit for 15 minutes for the custard to absorb; or, if you are preparing ahead of time, wrap the dish in plastic wrap and leave in the refrigerator until morning.

Before baking, if you’ve got any extra cinnamon-sugar (you’ll likely have a tablespoon or two), sprinkle it over the French toast. Bake for 30 minutes, until puffed and golden and liquid is set. Cut into squares and serve plain, with fresh fruit and yogurt or with maple syrup.

SLOW COOKER APPLE CIDER

Ingredients:

2 quarts apple cider

1/4 cup packed brown sugar

1/8 teaspoon ground ginger

1 orange, peeled and cut into sixths

2 cinnamon sticks

1 teaspoon whole cloves

Small square of cheesecloth

Directions:

Tie the cinnamon sticks and cloves in cheesecloth and secure with kitchen twine. Place apple cider and all other ingredients in slow cooker. Cover and simmer on low.

Cider will be ready in about 3 hours, but can continue simmering on low or warm. Remove cheesecloth bag and orange wedges; serve.

SAUSAGE BALLS

Ingredients:

1 (1-pound) package bulk pork sausage, hot/spicy variety

3 cups baking mix (recommended: Bisquick)

4 cups grated sharp Cheddar

1 cup milk

1 teaspoon dried rosemary, crushed

1 teaspoon dried parsley flakes

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease the bottom and sides of a large baking sheet. Combine all ingredients in a large glass bowl. Mix well with your fingers. Form into 1-inch balls. Place the balls on the baking sheet. (At this point, they can be stored in the refrigerator, covered in plastic, for 24 hours or until you are ready to cook them.)

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes until golden brown. To prevent sticking, move the balls with a spatula halfway through cooking. (Can also be served with mustard, barbecue sauce or other condiments as appetizers.)

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