The Skinny's Guide to Christmas Dinner
Some advice for those of you facing cooking Christmas dinner in the flat – whether you're confident in the kitchen or not, we can help
Christmas has been around for ages. In fact, it’s so ingrained that The Skinny has written some form of Christmas food article in each of the last eight years. With COVID throwing all your usual plans into a spin, we guess there might be more of you than ever facing up to doing the big Christmas cook. We’ve pulled together some advice, tips and ideas that should suit most levels of competence – if nothing else, you’re about to learn about some great new forms of warm alcohol. So get in loser, we’re going Christmas shopping with a view to making some delicious meals mmmm yum yum yum.
When thinking of Christmas dinner, the first thing that pops into your mind will be a large roast turkey. Unfortunately, cooking a whole turkey is an often-disappointing and always-fraught task, mainly because turkeys are enormous and their two main ‘zones’ – the white meat and dark meat – cook at completely different rates. Last year Paul Wedgwood (a chef so good he put his name on the front of his restaurant) gave us a tip that remains true today – separate the legs from the breast meat, so you can cook them… separately. Doesn’t get simpler than that.
For the slightly more adventurous or experienced, we recommend swapping your turkey for a porchetta. It needs a bit more work, but that work is mostly in the form of plucking up the courage to talk confidently to a butcher. You’ll need a piece of pork that’s part loin and part belly; once you’ve beaten your social awkwardness, all you need to do is rub the pork with herbs and garlic, roll it up and whack it in the oven. It tastes great, goes with all the usual Christmas sides, and is very very good.
For the super-adventurous, it’s time to get out your biggest tupperware. Brining meat adds moisture, which can be extremely handy for, say, a turkey. Back in 2014, Jamie Faulkner of our dearly-departed Northwest edition did a round-up of the various options for brining your Christmas bird and found a couple of interesting options. Around 2% salt in a wet brine seems to be a good level, while a dry brine can also be effective but it means being in cooking mode for days at a time. Milk and apple juice injected into the bird can help to tenderise the meat from the inside out, although it must also be said that this is Advanced Shit and The Skinny takes no responsibility for any dairy-related brine mishaps.
Of course, this is moot if you don’t eat meat, but we have some advice for the veggies: hijack the stuffing. Before anyone tries to pack it inside a dead animal, take over and form your stuffing into a loaf to bake in the quiet dignity of its own dish. A nice mushroom and chestnut-heavy stuffing will taste great, hold its own against lots of gravy and roast veg, and it won’t leave you doubled over with meat cramps like the chumps at the other end of the table.
Christmas dinner is an enormous one-course meal. It’s a culinary cross between Buckaroo and Jenga, and an annual contest to see how many discrete bits of food you can fit on one plate. The side dishes are hugely important, and the best bit of advice for beginners is to be prepared. Parboil veg the day before; if you’re going for pigs in blankets, get them tucked up early so you don’t end up waving bacon around on Christmas morning when you should really be getting stuck into fistfuls of After Eights.
‘Chopping vegetables the night before’ and ‘being generally prepared’ are all well and good, but the next challenge you’ll face is gravy. It splits, it goes lumpy, you have to make it on the day, and it causes festive chefs no end of hassle. The solution: the blender. Yes, the same blender that mainly gets used for smoothies can make your gravy silky... smooth. Seems obvious when you see it written down, I suppose. A quick 15 second blast with a stick blender will force all your ingredients to get along; waving a stick blender at your friends for 15 seconds should have much the same effect.
And to really turn things up a notch, you need to move into ‘two sauce’ territory. We’ll revisit this gem of a chestnut puree provided to us by Roberta Hall-McCarron of The Little Chartroom last year. "Chop up a couple of shallots, sweat them down and add some chopped chestnuts. Cover with chicken stock, bring to a boil and then blitz until smooth; it really complements the potatoes." The festive food arms race calls for big, decadent moves, and they don’t get better than dual-wielding saucepans filled with delicious but different brown sauces.
Mull everything! If you want to make your flat feel Christmassy, or give the members of your festive bubble a sense that they’re in good hands, filling the air with the smell of cloves and warm alcohol is a good place to start. Mulled wine is the classic, while mulled cider lets you throw in some whisky for an extra bit of party fuel. If you aren’t drinking, a mulled fruit juice or squash is equally festive. Essentially, just chuck some cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and orange in whatever you have to hand.
Want a drink that’s along similar lines, but with a bit more edge? It’s time for flavoured vodka to make a comeback! Get a bottle, throw in some cranberries, some of those mulling bits from earlier and a few spoons of sugar. Seal it up in an airtight jar, and wait a few days. The pubs may or may not be shut, but now you have some mulled vodka; don’t drink it all at once. Seriously, don’t.
And then there’s eggnog. The apex of Christmas drinks, the answer to the question ‘what if custard was alcoholic?’ It’s complicated, no doubt about it, but there are a number of tricks to make it easier. Keeping a sieve to hand is key if you’re worried about lumps, as is keeping reactive ingredients away from each other until the last minute. Protect the eggs! Or you can just follow US food legend Alton Brown’s recipe which calls for mixing everything together then leaving the eggnog in the fridge for a fortnight, which is one way to keep you from stressing about it.
Nobody has the time or energy to make their own mincemeat, or more accurately they don’t have the energy to remember to start making it. Mince pie filling takes weeks or months to mature, and once it’s finished it may well end up tasting like feet. A simple option is to buy some from A Shop, and then add extra stuff to it until you’re happy. Louise Campbell from Tasty Buns gave us this idea last year – get your shop-bought stuff in a bowl, add some of your favourite festive booze and a bit of fresh lemon zest, and put it all back in the jar.
The final challenge for a Christmas cook is the Christmas pudding. For some reason, it’s tradition to cover it in alcohol and set it on fire, because arson is fine if you’re a middle-class boomer who bought their fire starting kit at Marks & Spencer. According to the president of the Royal Society of Chemistry, John Holman, there are three keys to lighting the pudding.
You need a spirit that’s particularly alcoholic to get the most fire for your money. You want a spirit with plenty of sugar, as that’ll give you a visually pleasing flame before it burns your house down. And most importantly, everything needs to be hot before you start. Make sure the pudding hasn’t cooled, and warm your chosen booze over a flame before pouring it on. Oh, and make sure you have a plan for putting out a tiny fire if things go wrong – after what’s happened this year, better safe than sorry.