In early December the playlist begins to drift out of the WM’s study. Cavalry, Emerson Lake and Palmer and the Drummer Boy are my favourites; I can take Sting and Status Quo but Mariah and the Bangles make me reach for the earplugs around the 5th.
A little before or after, the dreaded question ‘whatdoyouwantforchristmas’ starts flying about. I know – some of you have bought, bagged and maybe even wrapped the pressies around last March or earlier, in the sales, but that’s not me (or most of us, let’s be honest). So we browse, peruse the tedious ‘gifts for her or him’ sections on trendy sites, the brave ones venture out into shopping centres and all get equally frustrated. Now I’m NOT the type to purchase Christmas gifts 8 months in advance but I do have a handy tip: make notes. Throughout the year, when your nearer or farther mention things they hanker after (and that’s to exclude the Lazzara yachts and private islands), make a note. You’ll be grateful for this on 15th December.
I won’t go into trees and decorations: it’s not my domain, my forte or my pay grade. I must say though it’s naff but cheerful to have some cheap LED strings around the bookshelves, kitchen units, outside doors, porch or garden shrubs. Don’t get too hung up about tasteful – it’s not tasteful, it’s Christmas.
The most important element is food: my domain, my forte or so I like to think. And seeing as you’re reading this, you’re probably not the M&S Christmas-for-two turkey mini-crown kind. I’ve tried to put together here a bunch of tips and recipes, for what it’s worth. If it makes anyone enjoy Christmas more, I’ll be ecstatic.
Don’t get pissed on Christmas Eve. I know, the festive spirit (or spirits) and all, but if a turkey awaits you in the fridge, you need to be cold turkey. Excuse the bad pun and all the other bad puns.
Make a list. Make several lists: a present list (a past and a future too; see warning about puns), a food list with cooking dates, a shopping list (book Ocado NOW, it might be too late already), a baking list, a guest list and a party outfits list. And a list of people who on no account should be invited even on the Boxing Day.
Control the potluck. Food wasting is the cardinal sin of holidays, so if you’re bringing food, make sure there aren’t going to be five bowls of trifle and not a single vegetable side. If it’s at yours, give clear instructions to people about what to bring. So they’ll think you’re a bully, so what. Better than five bowls of trifle.
Don’t serve trifle. It’s a wannabe-failed tiramisu and usually downright disgusting.
Go for the bowls on the table serving style. The loading everyone’s plate individually belongs with the butler and two footmen; otherwise everyone gets their food cold already: the first one through waiting, the last through being served from cooled down pans.
Don’t believe when they say they’re too full for pudding. Especially if it’s something chocolatey and tasty instead of trifle (see point 4).
Cheese before pudding if you’re French; cheese after pudding if you’re posh; cheese with the pudding for perfect balance. There’s nothing like a slice of fruit cake with a chunk of Stilton on the same plate.
However large your dining table (but I’m talking to ordinary people here), get something to serve as a sideboard. Garden table. The massive box that Amazon sends really small things in. Kitchen stool. Sideboard. That’s where all your spuds, sprouts, desserts and cheeses can happily live waiting to be grabbed.
Set up somewhere for kids to go play as soon as they are bored with food, which will be about 10 minutes in. Garden shed. Under stairs cupboard. Just joking.
Get everyone out for a walk when things are flagging and you’re yearning for them to clear so you can finish your half a bottle of pinot or claret in peace and quiet. Half the guests will rush off home and the others will at least sober up on that walk.
Last but not least: mind the allergies. Ask, grill, enquire and ask again what sensitivity ails your guests, especially the ones you don’t know too well: the new girlfriend, the baby graduated into toddler and the current stepmom number two. Though peculiarly, come Christmas some sufferers shake the disease. And the vegetarians will be all right – just cook the potatoes in oil instead of those lovely, fragrant, deliciously salty beef drippings. I know.
Christmas breads are delightful; I can’t imagine holiday breakfasts without a huge wedge of, initially pillowy and soft and later toasted and buttered, sweet yeasted cake studded with raisins or marzipan. It is very worth looking up festive breads from all over the world; they are incredible finds and not so difficult to make.
Do you need a starter? It’s worth asking the question. Likely there’s a ten pound bird to follow with more potatoes and sides to feed twice the crowd; and don’t forget the puddings. But if you’re a master of creating well balanced festive meals, knock yourself out. Just make sure it’s a/ cold, b/ can be prepped ahead and just wait in the fridge (and likely as not be forgotten) and c/ light and small, preferably incorporating raw veg which we’re not likely to be ingesting loads of later on.
I have two (stretching to three if warming drawer included) ovens and I wouldn’t cook three or even two different meats. Unless people bring a variety, go for one, ask the butcher or check online the required tonnage of the roast for your crowd and try to avoid the ‘turkey forever after’ scenario.
Turkey cooking times
Except for chicken and pork (well cooked) and beef (medium-rare), the poultry wants to be cooked medium. The resting time will make sure there will be well-cooked parts for the fussy eaters. The roasting times below are for the turkey; they will work for goose and duck as well. For any other roasts apply the rule of thumb: 20 minutes at high heat followed by 15 minutes at lower heat per pound of meat.
If your turkey comes with an instruction, use that.
- 6 to 8 pounds (2.7 – 3.6kg) 2-1/2 to 3 hours
- 8 to 12 pounds (3.6 – 5.4kg) 3 to 4 hours
- 12 to 16 pounds (5.4 – 7.2kg) 4 to 5 hours
- 16 to 20 pounds (7.2 – 9kg) 5 to 5-1/2 hours
- 20 to 24 pounds (9 – 10.8kg) 5-1/2 to 6 hours
Gravy and sauces
Gravy is a must. It’s more important than the roast. Don’t even think about Bisto.
The simple recipe is this: any fat spooned off the meat roasting dish about halfway through goes into a skillet, you don’t need much. Two tablespoons of flour whisked in, followed by a pint of stock/broth/vegetable cooking liquid; cook it down until almost too thick. Secret ingredients: 2 tbsp. red currant jelly and a teaspoon of mustard. The just pour in any roasting juices and there goes the best gravy.
As important as, if not more than the roast. It is perfectly all right to pre-cook veg, just make sure it’s only light blanching. Roast potatoes can’t be prepped days in advance – sorry. Parboiled potatoes from the fridge will take about ten years to roast properly. Have them sitting parboiled on the worktop at room temperature; blast the roasting tray with oil in the oven until smoking and get them in an hour before serving time. And do puddings only if you know you’ll get free oven capacity – otherwise it’s going to be a disaster and better give them a miss.
Cut corners here if you need to: shop-bought meringues topped with whipped cream and fruit will be fantastic – don’t stress about Christmas pudding. Nobody likes it anyway. Or chop up some nuts, chocolate and dried fruit to put on good vanilla ice cream with custard or cream for sundaes – who says you can’t have ice cream at Christmas?
If you ran out of time or steam to make fancy desserts, serve a cheese selection. Carb-fearing hipsters will thank you. Get them (cheeses not hipsters) out of the fridge early: no sin like cold cheese; and serve with bunches or grapes, apples, crackers and blobs of chutney or good thick plum, fig or apricot jam. For the board pick a couple of hard cheeses (Cheddar, Manchego, Tomme, Gouda or Gruyère); a couple of soft smelly ones (Brie, Camembert, St Nectaire, Vacherin, Époisses or Munster for the adventurous); one blue (Stilton, Gorgonzola, Fourme, Roquefort) and one goats. Won’t go wrong – oh, and place three or four small knives as people will invariably walk off with a cheese knife.