Celebrating contemporary casseroles: Vivian Howard reimagines the comfort food of her childhood

Sift magazine’s holiday issue presents dozens of inspirations for baking that bring families together. In this excerpt, Sift invites chef Vivian Howard to write about her delicious take on contemporary casseroles.

Growing up, holiday meals at my house were a smorgasbord of Pyrex dishes, bubbling hot with “cream of something” mixed with a “can of something else.” Each one topped with crispy bits of cracker, potato chips, or breadcrumbs, casseroles were how the women in my family fed lots of people efficiently. My mother, my grandmother, and my sister assembled the casseroles in advance — an exercise in planning — and baked them up while the turkey was carved and the ham soaked up its glaze.

Vivian Howard for @kingarthurflour

Today, I still call on casseroles to celebrate. The ingredients have changed, but the basic structure and function of a casserole still ring true in my home kitchen. I like the convenience of putting one together before guests arrive, maybe even days before, and simply sliding it in the oven to bake as I compose the salad or open wine to accompany the meal.

And whether I’m making one that’s savory, sweet, or a casserole that straddles the line between the two, I still stick to the basic formula of a creamy filling under a crisp topping. But instead of creamy canned soups, I call on eggy custards, rich cheese sauces, or roux-thickened stocks to bind my fillings. And even though I love Cheez-Its and French’s Crispy Fried Onions, I prefer crunch from tiny croutons tossed with olive oil, naturally coarse cornmeal, or fried confit potatoes.

The American casserole genre developed out of a need for convenience, and the cans, crackers, and chips were important pieces in that “fast, easy, and portable” puzzle. Although times have changed, I know modern versions of the casserole will continue to comfort us, feed our families, and foster celebration, because they are exceptionally delicious.

Comfort food good enough for company. Check out Vivian Howard's contemporary casseroles. Click To Tweet

A Few of My Favorite Things Casserole via @ kingarthurflour

A Few of My Favorite Things casserole

Garlic- and rosemary-infused potatoes crown this flavorful steak dish, giving new meaning to “meat and potatoes” for dinner.

Butternut Squash Gratin via @kingarthurflour

Butternut Squash, Italian Sausage, and Turnip Green Gratin

A rich, cheese-laced sauce surrounds sweet roasted squash, hearty turnip greens, and lightly spiced sausage for an immensely satisfying dish with a down-home touch.

Cranberry-Rosemary Breakfast Pudding via @kingarthurflour

Cranberry-Rosemary Breakfast Pudding

Your kitchen will smell like French toast when you pull this sweet, custard-y casserole from the oven.

Duck, Date and Rutabaga Pie via @kingarthurflour

Duck, Date, and and Rutabaga Pot Pie with a Duck-Fat Biscuit Crust

Earthy, rich, and sweet all at once, this skillet meal is a perfect excuse to invite people over for supper.

Smoked Gouda Spoonbread via @kingarthurflour

Sweet Potato Spoonbread with Smoked Gouda and Poblanos

Spoonbread is a moist, soufflé-like side dish from the South. A little sweet, a little spicy, and a lot delicious, it’s best served right out of the oven at its maximum puffiness.

Our thanks to Vivian Howard for her wonderful recipes. If you haven’t explored the delicious discoveries in the Holiday issue of Sift, we hope you’ll pick one up soon!

Susan Reid

Chef Susan Reid grew up in New Jersey, graduated from Bates College and the Culinary Institute of America, and is presently the Food Editor of Sift magazine. She does demos, appearances, and answers food (and baking) questions from all quarters.


  1. Carol Boone

    It’s nice to see recipes from Vivian starting to appear in national popular media. I think she is one of the best of our new young chefs around today. Certainly the most innovative using the common foods of our country and making them new again. Truly a creative force.

  2. Julie

    Thanks for some new ideas! These look great and the combinations of ingredients very interesting! I think I will start with the duck recipe followed by the spoon bread. Can’t wait to try these! Thanks for sharing.

  3. Mary Hughey

    Is there a typo in the ingredients for the topping in the recipe for A Few of My Favorite Things? It calls for 3 cups of olive oil????

    1. PJ Hamel

      No, Mary, that’s the correct amount. The olive oil has to immerse the potatoes, and it just takes quite a bit. PJH

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