Ray and her husband John Cusimano host a number of intimate holiday gatherings at their Lake Luzerne, N.Y., cabin in the woods.

By Ana Calderone
November 20, 2017 03:19 PM
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Maybe Rachael Ray is such a pro at hosting because she does it so often.

“We use the holiday break to run kind of like an inn—a Holiday Inn,” the culinary star, who spends the season with her husband, John Cusimano, at their Lake Luzerne, N.Y., cabin in the woods, tells PEOPLE in the new Holiday Entertaining issue, on stands now. “We invite people we don’t get to see a lot throughout the year, and we cook, do laundry and rotate the guests so we can try to get everybody in.”

With a revolving door of guests, Ray’s secret to staying calm during the hectic time is to stick to the basics. “Make things that you understand, and that you can see yourself making,” says the talk show host, 49, who also runs her magazine Rachael Ray Every Day and designs her own furniture line The Rachael Ray Home Collection. “Don’t make stuff that’s completely foreign to you.”

Rachael Ray and John Cusimano
| Credit: Christopher Testani
Rachael Ray with friends at her Tuscan-inspired holiday party
| Credit: Christopher Testani

She also stresses the importance of leaning on other people. “If you need help and you suck at baking like I do, or you don’t know how to make cocktails, or you don’t have the money to buy cocktails, that’s what you tell people to bring,” says Ray. “People always say, ‘What do you want me to bring?’ You say, ‘Oh, nothing.’ That’s stupid; just be honest. Tell them.”

Having a great sous-chef by your side doesn’t hurt either. “I do whatever Rachael needs me to do to help get dinner on the table as quickly as possible, because we’re all hungry all the time!” says Cusimano, 50. “All Rachael wants is to go to bed knowing that everyone who came to dinner couldn’t have had a better night and is stuffed beyond belief.”

For more on Ray, including her full Tuscan holiday menu, pick up the Holiday Entertaining issue, on newsstands now.

The couple’s go-to cuisine is Tuscan-inspired (Ray and Cusimano were married in the Italian countryside in 2005 and return every year for an anniversary party with 100 of their closest friends) because it’s about “keeping it simple and letting the food shine on its own,” she says. Get a taste of her menu with her Wine-Brined Turkey & Gravy and Garlic Mashed Potatoes recipes shared below.

Ultimately, though, Ray says the key to a good party is all about a happy host. “The holidays are about giving, but you can’t give to other people unless you start with yourself,” she says. “Pour a glass of wine, make a playlist. Do whatever you need to do to chill out.”

Rachael Ray’s Wine-Brined Turkey & Gravy
| Credit: Christopher Testani

Rachael Ray’s Wine-Brined Turkey & Gravy Recipe

1 (12- to 14-lb.) fresh whole turkey
1 (750-ml.) bottle dry white wine
2 qts. water
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1 large garlic head, ends cut off
1 yellow onion, quartered
1 lemon, sliced into rounds
10 black peppercorns
Herb bundle made of a small handful each of fresh flat-leaf parsley, sage, thyme, and rosemary
1 cup, plus 1 tsp. kosher salt, divided
5 bay leaves, divided
3 yellow onions, roughly chopped
3 celery stalks with leaves, roughly chopped
2 carrots, roughly chopped
2 parsnips, roughly chopped
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
¼ cup chopped fresh herbs (sage, rosemary and thyme)
2 tsp. freshly cracked black pepper, divided
6 cups chicken or turkey stock
4 tbsp. unsalted butter
4 tbsp. all-purpose flour
Few dashes of Worcestershire sauce

1. Remove neck and giblets, and set aside. Using kitchen shears, cut turkey along both sides of backbone removing the backbone from the turkey. Reserve the neck, giblets and backbone for gravy. Flip bird over, and press down on breastbone until cracked; continue to press until flattened.

2. Bring wine to a boil in a stockpot over medium; cook 5 minutes, and let cool. Add water, sugar, garlic, onion quarters, lemon, peppercorns, herb bundle, 1 cup salt and 4 bay leaves, and stir to combine. Increase heat to medium high; bring mixture to a boil, and cook down 10 minutes. Remove from heat, and let cool completely. Transfer brine to a large brine bag or 5-gallon food-safe bucket. Add turkey to brine; seal bag or cover, and refrigerate 1 to 2 days. Remove turkey from brine; discard brining mixture. Pat turkey dry with paper towels, and place, uncovered, in the refrigerator overnight to dry out skin.

3. Place an oven rack in center of oven, and preheat to 425°. Remove turkey from refrigerator.

4. Spread half the roughly chopped vegetables in bottom of a large rimmed baking sheet lined with aluminum foil; set a wire rack over vegetables. Place flattened turkey, breast side up, on rack, and rub skin with 2 tablespoons oil. Sprinkle with chopped herbs and 1 teaspoon pepper; tuck wingtips back and under breast. Roast in preheated oven until a meat thermometer inserted in thickest portion of thigh registers 165°, about 90 minutes, tenting turkey with foil halfway through if skin is getting too dark. Remove turkey from oven, and let rest 15 to 20 minutes before carving.

5. Heat remaining 2 tablespoons oil in a saucepan over medium-high. Add reserved turkey parts, and season with ½ teaspoon pepper and remaining 1 teaspoon salt. Cook until browned on all sides, 5 to 7 minutes. Add remaining half of chopped vegetables and bay leaf. Add stock, and bring to a simmer, and cook, keeping a low rolling boil, 45 minutes; skim off fat. Pour mixture through a wire-mesh stainer into a bowl; discard solids.

6. Melt butter in deep skillet over medium-high heat; whisk in flour when butter foams. Add strained stock mixture, Worcestershire, and remaining ½ teaspoon black pepper, and cook, keeping a low simmer, until thickened, 15 to 20 minutes. If desired, stir pan drippings into gravy.
Serves: 8 to 10
Active time: 45 minutes
Total time: 2 hours, plus brining time

Garlic Mashed Potatoes

8 large russet potatoes (about 4½ lbs.), peeled and cut into 2-in. cubes
8 garlic cloves, crushed and skins removed
1 tbsp., plus 1½ tsp. kosher salt, divided
2 cups warm half-and-half
¼ cup unsalted butter
½ tsp.
1⁄8. white pepper
⅛ tsp. freshly grated whole nutmeg

1. Place potatoes and garlic in a large pot; cover with water, and bring to a boil. Add 1 tablespoon salt, and cook until potatoes are fork-tender, about 15 minutes. Drain potatoes and garlic.

2. Use a potato masher to mash potatoes and garlic, or place a food mill on top of the warm pot you cooked the potatoes in. Mill potatoes and garlic back into pot. Stir in half-and-half, butter, white pepper, nutmeg, and remaining 1½ teaspoons salt until smooth.
Serves: 6 to 8
Active time: 20 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes