Slow cookers often conjure up images of winter comfort food, like belly-warming stews and meaty braises, which are undeniably perfect for this time of year.

That said, the humble slow cooker is not usually associated with the ultimate winter meal: Christmas dinner. While you can technically cook a turkey in a slow cooker, that golden skin (often an essential part of a holiday meal) only comes from slow oven roasting.

Still, most of us know Christmas dinner preparation is an exercise in careful balance and timing — the turkey comes out of the oven, a side dish goes in — often making for a stressful day of cooking. This is where the slow cooker can come in.

There are plenty of side dishes, appetizers, and even desserts you can do in the slow cooker to free up the precious real estate of your oven and streamline Christmas dinner prep. Starting with appetizers and holiday snacks, classic nuts and bolts work beautifully in a slow cooker — they need to cook low and slow in an oven anyway, so crisping up in a slow cooker on your counter makes sense.

Likewise, many cheesy holiday dips work well in mini slow cookers. Show up to a holiday party with your dip still in the cooker, and you won’t have to pester the host to make room in the oven to reheat it.

For the main event, slow cookers can be used to “roast” vegetables — a big batch of beets works well in a slow cooker, as does a medley of root vegetables like parsnips, carrots, and sweet potatoes tossed with fresh herbs. It’s also possible to do braised cabbage, whole cauliflower, or an entire butternut squash, which can be scooped right out of the skin and turned into a Christmas dinner mash.

Potatoes also work — try scalloped, baked or even mashed potatoes. Since they all go in for about five to six hours, the slow cooker lets you get a lot of your cooking out of the way in the early part of the day, leaving you free to relax until it’s time to make the gravy. Slow cooker desserts aren’t particularly common, and you can easily make most traditional Christmas desserts ahead of time anyway, but there are good reasons to do desserts in a crock.

Slow cookers can create a remarkably even cooking environment for custards that need the gentle steam of a bain-marie. Or, if you like a warm dessert, spoonable pudding cakes are perfect for the slow cooker, and can be done with Christmas gingerbread and caramel flavours. Finally, don’t forget the beverages — a slow cooker can keep a pot of mulled wine or cider warm all evening long. Just set out a ladle and some mugs next to the pot so guests can serve themselves!

There are a number of holiday appropriate recipes in the new The Best of Bridge: The Family Slow Cooker, co-authored by myself, Julie Van Rosendaal and Sue Duncan, but here is one of my holiday favourites:

Glogg

thinkstockphotos-499278688.jpgServes 8-10

A Best of Bridge classic, made even easier in a slow cooker! A hot spiced beverage that brings together brandy, wine and beer — perfect for holiday entertaining.

1 bottle red wine
330 mL bottle beer
1 cup (240 mL) brandy
1 orange, sliced
1 lemon, sliced
¾ cup sugar
3 cinnamon sticks
1 Tbs whole cloves

1. Pour the wine, beer and brandy into a 4- to 6-quart slow cooker.
2. Add orange, lemon, sugar and cinnamon sticks.
3. Place the cloves into a spice bag or a tea ball and add to the slow cooker.
4. Cover and cook on low for three hours or until the Glogg is warm and the spices have steeped.
5. Remove the cloves and cinnamon sticks. If your slow cooker has a warm setting, set it to warm for serving.

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