For many, “stress-free” entertaining feels like an oxymoron — and a common phrase when a holiday looms large on our calendar. How can getting your house clean (not just regular clean, but mother-in-law clean) and preparing an impressive meal ever be stress-free?

While I can’t help with the cleaning or the mother-in-law, I can offer some tips on how to make a lovely holiday dinner without losing your mind.

Most people find timing to be a big issue when they entertain. Is everything going to be done at the same time? Even if it is, will I have time to get everything plated beautifully for my 20 dinner guests before it all gets cold? Will everyone be sitting and ready to eat at the right time, when the food is hot and still tastes good? The answer to all of the above is probably no.

That’s OK, there are loads of workarounds for timing issues, and almost all of them involve the term “make-ahead.” Whenever possible, I select a main dish that can be fully or partly assembled in advance, so I have the time to carefully make any adjustments necessary to ensure success.

The difference between “meh” and memorable can boil down to having a moment to taste whatever I’m cooking to make sure the seasoning is right. That step, while it seems so basic, is easy to forget when you’re trying to get everything to the table.

One dish that has multiple elements (a meat, a sauce and a garnish) can feel like three, so unless two of those elements can be made ahead, nix that idea for something a bit more streamlined.

Avoid dishes that have a short window in which they can be successfully served. Leave the cheese soufflés and molten chocolate cakes for another occasion, preferably one with only a few people.

Instead, choose dishes that can be enjoyed whether they’ve cooled off or been heated up. In other words, embrace room-temperature foods.

This week’s recipe avoids all of the aforementioned pitfalls.

Asparagus, Bacon and Gruyère Strata can be made up to a day in advance and simply popped in the oven to cook. There’s no last-minute fussing or plating. All you have to do is cut it and set a spatula next to it. Your guests will get the idea. While it holds its heat for a long time, it tastes great at room temperature, too.

More important, this dish tastes good and looks impressive. Loaded with creamy, nutty-flavored Gruyère cheese, smoky bacon and fresh asparagus, this savory bread pudding, with its beautiful bouquet of fresh asparagus spears roasted on the top, is the ultimate crowd pleaser that’s just as at home being the main dish as it is being served alongside your holiday ham.


Meredith Deeds is a cookbook author and food writer from Edina. Reach her at Follow her on Twitter ­at @meredithdeeds.