For someone of my relatively tender years, I’ve cooked a lot of Christmas dinners. Working as a chef over a Christmas season, it was one every other day in December and when you’re cooking for up to 300 people, you have to learn some shortcuts and cheats. So my Christmas gift to you dear readers, is me sharing them here, in the hope that cooking the Christmas meal will be as enjoyable for you as it is for me. With only the very occasional swear word…. And remember, even if it all goes horribly wrong, there are very few problems that a glass of Champagne and a smile can’t solve.
A few golden rules
- Always buy the best bird you can afford, and please try to make sure it’s free range and properly reared. Inferior, barn-reared turkeys have virtually no flavour, and because they are killed younger yield less meat, so are actually bad value for money. Our turkey for the magazine was provided by Kelly Bronze – they hang their birds after slaughtering so they develop the most delicious gamey flavour – well worth the extra money.
- No matter how big it is, your turkey will almost never take as long as you think it will to cook. Believe me, I know! Buy a digital meat thermometer and trust it – if it reads over 72C, your turkey is cooked, so take it out of the oven.
- Remove your turkey from the fridge 2 hours before it goes in the oven to let it come back to room temperature – this helps it to cook more evenly. All the stuffing and trussing can be done in advance so all you have to do is butter it and cook it on the day. Stuff the neck and place an orange in the cavity. An empty cavity heats up like an oven, meaning that the turkey breasts are cooked from the inside and outside which will dry them out. The orange absorbs the heat and steams, to provide moisture and flavour.
- If you’re pushed for space in the oven, remember that your turkey will keep warm for 1-2 hours loosely covered with tin foil on the side, so don’t worry about putting your veg and extra stuffing in until the bird comes out. This also has the advantage of allowing you to turn the oven up to brown the spuds, without worrying about the turkey.
- Use your microwave. Peas, greens, cabbage, bread sauce, Christmas pud can all be cooked in it to save space on the hob. If you’re blanching anything before frying it (sprouts for example) you can do that in advance, run them under cold water to cool, drain and store them in the fridge then heat them back up in the frying pan when ready.
- Don’t keep opening your oven to check everything. The rate that heat leaves an oven is astounding, and it takes a long time to come back to temperature. When you do have to go into it, be quick, and remove whatever it is that needs attention rather than adjusting it with the oven door open. The same goes for the fridge – keep it closed as much as you can and store drinks etc in buckets of ice (or outside) to stop people going in there so much.
- Enlist some helpers to give you a hand prepping and washing up as you go. Don’t feel guilty – a glass of fizz, some Christmas music and suddenly the kitchen is the best place to be!
Don’t sweat the small stuff
- Don’t panic over gravy not thickening at the last minute. Buy or make some good fresh chicken stock and do it the night before (or even freeze it a few weeks in advance), then just add the pan juices from the turkey when you reheat it.
- Your veg (apart from the potatoes) can all be peeled and prepped the day before. Rather than soaking things in water which will make them soggy, wrap them in damp kitchen roll and leave somewhere cool overnight (a garage is ideal and will save space in the fridge.)
- Lay the table first thing in the morning (or the night before) – or better still, get someone else to do it. Child labour in this department is perfectly acceptable and they’ll thank you when they start giving dinner parties of their own. Put all glasses out of your way so that people can help themselves to drinks without getting under your feet.
My time plan – In our house we aim to sit down and eat at about 6pm. We started this tradition as we found that eating at lunch time left everyone asleep by four, and the cooks bad tempered and exhausted. This way, we have a lovely leisurely morning, get the presents done, then start cooking in the afternoon when it’s more appropriate to do it with a glass of Prosecco in hand. Much easier for everyone and no snoring grannies.
To serve lunch at 6pm cooking a 4kg turkey that will serve around 6-8 with leftovers (NB. although this is my time plan, it’s hardly ever stuck to as inevitably chatting, drinking and the dogs get in the way. Don’t worry about it if you run behind. Roasted veg will all hold for half an hour easily and all steaming can be done completely last minute. Don’t panic – just enjoy yourselves.)
- 2.15pm – Heat the oven to 220C. The turkey should be stuffed, weighed and out of the fridge.
- 3.00pm – Butter and season the turkey and put it in the oven (see our turkey recipe here) Check it after 1 hour 30 minutes with a thermometer to see how it’s doing. If the thermometer says it’s done, take it out.
- 4.45pm – Par-boil the carrots and potatoes, heat the roasting fat and prep them for the oven.
- 5.00pm – Remove the turkey from the oven, place on a lipped board to catch the juices and cover loosely with foil. Put the potatoes and carrots in the oven and put the parsnips on to steam.
- 5.15pm – Put the parsnips in the oven.
- 5.30pm – Put the stuffing and chipolatas in the oven. Warm the gravy and the bread sauce and get the sprouts ready.
- 5.40pm – Put the condiments on the table (except the gravy), ask everyone to sit down, fry off the sprouts, steam the green veg and delegate someone to carve the turkey.
- 5.50pm – Once everything is out of the oven, warm serving dishes and plates – you can use the microwave for this too. Grab three people – two to ferry dishes to the table and one to help you quickly clear up to make space in the kitchen for empty plates. Serve, sit down, and pour yourself a large glass of wine.