It's not about what's on the table, but who's around it. That's my treasured philosophy about holiday entertaining.

Even though I've spent decades making homemade bread and built a business around getting hot, delicious rolls onto tables in a fast and easy way, gathering people around the table is always my ultimate goal. And I know many of you set that as a goal too, especially during the holidays.

But as we say in Alabama, it can "take some doin'" to make those holiday celebrations happen. That's why I've developed a few make-ahead tips and do-ahead tricks that I call "shortcuts to special." They help get me from here—recovering after Thanksgiving—to there—celebrating Christmas day in a relaxed way with family and friends.

And relaxing with guests is where I want to be. Not frazzled in the kitchen on Christmas morning, but out by the tree, watching the wrapping paper fly and the grandkids beaming over their gifts. Leading up to Christmas, I want to have time to notice a lonely neighbor who may need a Christmas Eve dinner invitation. Or to really think about the reasons we celebrate every December.

Here's hoping these tips—and one of my favorite make-ahead recipes, shared below—help you do those kinds of things, too.

Identify make-ahead items on your menu. Don't just keep your menu in your head: Write it down and create an action plan for what you can make before the big day.

For instance, I put together my cornbread dressing in stages: bake the cornbread two days ahead; chop the vegetables the next day and store them in zip-top bags; then, on the day of the meal, mix all the ingredients and bake. Think about your own holiday favorites and plan how you could spread out the work load.

Set the dinner and buffet tables up to five days ahead. The holiday table is like a mosaic: every item placed just so. The most important pieces? The faces of the people sitting around it. I try to imagine who will be there, how the centerpiece will work with the stemware and candles, what fits on the table and what has to move to the buffet. On Christmas, it's easy to execute the plan—stress free.

Days ahead, I select serving spoons for each dish and label what goes inside each with an index card. No last-minute scrambling for the right platter or the gravy boat!

Use what's already in the fridge. I always keep a cheese ball—that staple of Southern hospitality—on hand to serve drop-in guests during the holidays. But what to do with the leftovers? I just spread them inside my Parker House Style yeast rolls, baked quickly from the freezer, to make hearty, little sandwiches perfect as part of a Christmas brunch or as a mid-morning pick-me-up.

My favorite is Parker House rolls filled with leftover turkey and a dab of orange marmalade to round out a Christmas brunch menu. Homemade goodness in a jiffy.

Jump-start dessert. To make my easy Cinnamon Bread Pudding, look for a pan of Sister Schubert's® Cinnamon Rolls in your grocer's freezer section. Just thaw and cut them into pieces, then drizzle with the icing packet. Next, mix up a quick custard to pour on top and sprinkle with pecans and golden raisins. (See the recipe, below!)

It's so easy, you'll want to make two—one for your family and one to share. All year I keep a list of people I want to remember during the holidays. Surprising them with this beautiful bread pudding warms my heart as much as I hope it warms theirs.

Sister's Cinnamon Bread Pudding from Cast Your Bread Upon the Waters (Idea Boutique, 2009)

  • 1 pan of Sister Schubert's® Cinnamon Rolls
  • 8 egg yolks
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 quart heavy cream
  • 1 cup sugar
  • Pinch of salt
  • 2 tablespoons butter, cut into small cubes
  • 1 cup pecans, coarsely chopped
  • ½ cup golden raisins
  • 2 teaspoons bourbon or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Butter a 9 x 13-inch casserole dish. Remove rolls from package, and cut into 1-inch cubes. Using a large mixing bowl, whisk eggs with egg yolks until light and fluffy.

Add cream, sugar and salt, whisking to combine thoroughly. Flavor custard with bourbon or vanilla extract, stirring until well distributed.

Place rolls into prepared casserole and pour custard over. Make certain that all of the bread is wet with custard. Dot casserole with butter and sprinkle with pecans and raisins. Cover tightly and refrigerate for 8 hours or overnight.

Preheat oven to 350º. Bake on center rack until pudding is golden and center is set, approximately 55 to 60 minutes. Allow pudding to stand for 10 minutes before serving.