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Celebrated pastry chef Anna Olson shares strategies for a cosy, joyous holiday season

Celebrated pastry chef Anna Olson shares strategies for a cosy, joyous holiday season
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Anna Olson is a self-described “holiday nerd.” As soon as Labour Day hits, so too does a yearning to put up the Christmas tree. Each year, the pastry chef and cooking show host fields copious questions about how to plan for the holidays. As an unabashed fan of the festive season, this is naturally a conversation she loves to have.

“There are some fundamental questions. And the biggest one and most consistent is… ‘Can I freeze it?’ so with that comes the larger picture of ‘What can I make ahead?’ Part of holiday survival for a lot of people is having those resources,” says Olson.

Ont.-based pastry chef Anna Olson is the author of eight bestselling cookbooks and host of several Food Network shows. Mike McColl

“A big part of holiday planning is you want to commit to kitchen time (but) not everyone has it. How do you apply that time to the best use so that when Friday dinner rolls around, you’re not so exhausted you have to take a half day off of work?”

With this overriding question in mind, she included a make-ahead tip for every recipe in her new cookbook, Set for the Holidays with Anna Olson (Appetite by Random House, 2018). The first half of the book is comprised of menus – including hors d’oeuvres, snacks and shared plates, leftovers and lighter meals, and the main event – while the second half is devoted to baking.

From highlighting freezer-friendly baked goods to suggesting time-savers such as pre-blanching vegetables and washing salad greens in advance, Olson designed her strategies, menus and instructional photos to help minimize seasonal stress. “Even making mashed potatoes ahead has a little tip to it,” she says. “And of course the baking: what freezes well, what doesn’t freeze well and what ages well in the cupboard.”

By crafting menus rather than presenting stand-alone recipes, Olson illustrates the interplay between different dishes, showing home cooks how various flavours and textures can work together. But, she emphasizes, “You don’t have to entertain differently just because you’re having guests over.”

Raspberry jam Danish wreath from Set for the Holidays with Anna Olson. Janis Nicolay

Case in point, Olson’s brunch centrepiece – baked ham with roasted applesauce and horseradish cream – is just as enjoyable laid out simply with buns and mustard as it is repurposed as a decadent croque monsieur (toasted ham and cheese sandwich) bake or hearty split pea and ham soup.

While some occasions call for more elegant fare – like her New Year’s Eve menu, which includes oysters with mignonette, whole roasted beef tenderloin with horseradish hollandaise and a flourless chocolate Mont Blanc torte – a casual get-together with friends over a pot of carbonnade (Flemish beef and beer stew) and substantial salad can be just as special.

“We put so much pressure on ourselves to deliver for others – friends and family – and set the bar up here,” Olson says, gesturing a very high benchmark. “I just want to be there to walk you through it so when the time comes, you can actually sit back and appreciate those magic moments.”

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