Soak a tea towel in butter for the perfect turkey… and other tips for a fabulous festive feast
Worried your turkey will be dry, your sprouts soggy and your roast potatoes flabby this Christmas
Fear not — Food Journalist of the Year Felicity Cloake, author of Perfect Christmas Day, has tried and tested Delia’s festive recipes, Heston’s, Nigella’s and many others to come up with the definitive guide to cooking the best Christmas dinner ever.
Christmas dinner is perhaps the one meal of the year where even the most relaxed cook feels the pressure of perfection — and, though few menus can be more familiar, it’s probably the one we all feel least confident about.
Bon appetit: Felicity Cloake has tried and tested numerous recipes to find the perfect Christmas dinner
For many of us, the meal is a jumble of much-loved and fiercely defended family rituals. But even if you feel bound by no such ties of tradition, it’s an undeniably delicious menu.
Remember, a turkey is nothing but an outsized chicken and who feels daunted by the idea of cooking that for a Sunday roast If you do, don’t panic — the tried-and-tested key to producing any such meal is planning ahead.
Decide what you’re going to make, do all the shopping and make a time plan. Then decide when you want to sit down to eat and work backwards from there, bearing in mind that the turkey should rest for at least half-an-hour before you carve it.
Don’t be afraid to delegate — most people like to be useful at Christmas — and make one of those jobs to ensure you are never without a drink, be that sherry, champagne or just a nice cup of tea.
Then take a deep breath, think happy thoughts . . . and make sure you don’t get lumbered with the washing up.
Tasty turkey: Place a tea towel that has been soaked in butter over the meat before cooking
PERFECTLY MOIST TURKEY
Why so many of us put up with tinder-dry turkey on one of the most important feasts of the foodie calendar is a national mystery.
It’s time to turn to the experts for advice.
Delia Smith has an apparently foolproof method that involves basting the bird generously with melted butter, seasoning it, topping it with streaky bacon and then wrapping it festively in foil.
The meat is relatively juicy, but the skin, while tasty, falls short on the crispness front.
Leith’s Cookery School has a secret weapon: a square of cook’s muslin, available from most kitchen shops.
You soak the material in a bowl of melted butter, season the turkey, then drape the muslin reverentially over it and pop it in the oven.
A fabulous result: a crunchy cinnamon tan skin, and moist meat beneath.
Once you’ve invested in some muslin, the easiest way to roast your turkey is, fortunately, also the best.
Paul Kelly, the pioneering Essex farmer who reintroduced Britain to the mature, bronze- feathered birds that first won our hearts in the 16th century, advises a cooking time of just two-and-a-half hours for a 6kg bird, urging customers to use a meat thermometer to ensure their Christmas dinner is cooked all the way through.
And it works — trust that thermometer, and you will have a moist, tasty bird.
1 turkey, with giblets
Salt and pepper
1 bay leaf
1 large piece of cook’s muslin
1 meat thermometer
Turkey cooking times guide
Because the time your turkey takes to cook depends on its weight and the life it led, bear in mind that these cooking times are approximate, suggesting only the time you should begin checking the temperature of the bird — it may take longer to cook through: 3kg = 1 hours; 4kg = 2 hours; 5kg = 2 hours; 6kg = 3 hours; 7kg = 3 hours; 8kg = 4 hours; 9kg = 4 hours.
Take the turkey out of the fridge a couple of hours before you plan to cook it. Preheat oven to 180c/350f/gas 4. Weigh turkey and calculate required cooking time. Melt the butter in a large bowl, and soak the muslin in it until it’s absorbed. Season turkey liberally and put into a roasting tin with the turkey neck, giblets (except the liver), onion, bay leaf and 300ml water. Cover the turkey completely with the buttery muslin and put it into the hot oven.Check the turkey is cooked by piercing the thickest part of the thigh with a meat thermometer: the temperature should read 75c and the juices should run clear. Put it back in the oven if it isn’t quite done, and check the temperature every ten minutes. When it is cooked through, remove the muslin, take the turkey out of the tin and put it in a warm place to rest for at least 30 minutes before you carve it.
Super roast potatoes and parsnips: Use olive oil for a healthier option
ULTIMATE ROAST POTATOES
There’s no big secret to success: you don’t need to dust the potatoes with semolina, as Nigella does (too grainy), or toss them in seasoned flour, as recommended by Good Food magazine.
Don’t boil them to the point of disintegration like Heston — but do follow his example and add some of the peelings to the pan when parboiling; they really do improve the flavour.
Toss the potatoes gently while draining to rough up the edges. All you really need then is hot fat, and an even hotter oven.
Olive oil is surprisingly good — but the unhealthier goose fat gives the best flavour of all.
(This recipe also works for 450g parsnips — blanch for three minutes instead, and cook for about 45 minutes)
1.2kg floury potatoes, eg Desiree, King Edward, Maris Piper
Salt and pepper
Jar of goose fat or 4tbsp olive oil
Preheat the oven to 190c/375f/gas 5. Wash and peel the potatoes, reserving the peel. Cut them in half or quarters, depending on their size. Put them into a large pan of salted boiling water, along with some of the peelings — it’s easiest if you put this in a little net or muslin bag. Parboil for eight minutes, until slightly soft to the point of a knife, but not cooked through.Meanwhile, put 2tbsp of goose fat or 3tbsp of olive oil into a roasting tin and put it in the oven to heat up. Drain the potatoes, discarding the peel, then put them back into the pan and shake gently over the heat to rough up the edges. Take the roasting tin out of the oven and put it on the hob over a gentle heat. Put the potatoes in one by one — they should sizzle as they hit the pan — and baste all over. Season according to taste.Roast for about an hour, until your potatoes (or parsnips) are golden and crunchy, keeping an eye on them and basting with a little more fat if they are beginning to look dry.
Tip from Martha Stewart: Add a dash of madeira to your gravy
With gravy, I tend towards simplicity. As turkeys are lean beasts, it’s a good idea to add some water to the roasting tin before cooking — otherwise, I find, there isn’t much in the way of meat juice to play with.
Making a giblet stock, la Delia, feels like an extravagance of effort. Instead, add the giblets (apart from the liver, which will make your gravy bitter) to the roasting tin before cooking.
This should give you a well-flavoured base for your gravy, which you can top up with chicken stock or water as required.
I take a leaf out of U.S. domestic goddess Martha Stewart’s book and add a generous slug of madeira — its rich, honeyed flavour works brilliantly, and you can serve the rest of the bottle with some Christmas cake the next day.
1 tbsp plain flour
4 tbsp madeira
570ml hot stock or water
Once the turkey is cooked, pour the juices and fat from the roasting tin into a gravy separator, or skim off as much of the fat as possible and discard.
Mix the flour to a paste with 2tbsp of the meat juices. Put the roasting tin on a medium heat and add the flour, stirring well.
Gradually whisk in the rest of the meat juices, the madeira and a ladleful of stock, mix well, then add the rest of the stock. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring, until the gravy has reached the desired thickness. Season and serve.
Added flavour: Complement sprouts with toasted almonds
Sprouts are very dense, so it’s easy to overcook the outer leaves while leaving the inside raw and unpleasantly cabbagey.
However, there’s no need to mark them with a cross, whatever Nigella or Raymond Blanc may claim. This will just make them water-logged and mushy.
Instead, the most important thing is to pick small sprouts, and to watch over them like a hawk as they cook.
If you can find only large ones, take a tip from Gordon Ramsay and cut them in half before boiling.
I tried serving them with chestnuts, as suggested by Leith’s Cookery Bible, but found the textures too similar; crunchy toasted almonds are a much better complement.
500g Brussels sprouts, washed
and trimmed, halved if large
Large knob of butter
100g flaked almonds
1. Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. Add the sprouts, and cook until just tender — depending on their size, this will take five to eight minutes, but keep checking because overcooking is fatal.
2. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a large frying pan and add the nuts. Toast until lightly browned. Drain the sprouts, add to the pan and toss well to coat. Season to taste and serve immediately.
Fruity: Orange juice can be added to cranberry sauce
DIVINE CRANBERRY SAUCE
Making your own cranberry sauce is absurdly simple and can be done well ahead of the big day.
Steer clear of Delia’s cranberry and orange relish, which calls for the fruit to be finely minced before you cook it.
Apparently, cranberries don’t take kindly to being attacked with a knife, and the process is tedious and surprisingly laborious.
And, in any case, cranberries, as most other recipes acknowledge, kindly break down of their own accord when heated, giving a more interestingly varied texture.
However, I do like the orange juice in Delia’s recipe, although I find the amount of peel overpowering — a sprinkling, as suggested by Leith’s, is quite enough.
The port Delia uses gives a much richer flavour than the cherry brandy in Nigella’s redder than red version, which I found to be rather sickly.
Juice of 1 orange plus zest of orange
210g caster sugar
450g fresh cranberries
2 tbsp port
1. Put the orange juice and sugar into a pan and heat gently, stirring, until the sugar has dissolved. Add the cranberries and bring the mixture to a simmer, then cook until most of the berries have burst and you have a loose sauce.
2. Continue to simmer until it thickens: it will continue to set as it cools, so stop cooking when it still seems a little too liquid.
3. Stir in the port and orange zest, then serve. Or put into sterilised jars to use later — it will keep for at least two months.
Extracted from Perfect Christmas Day by Felicity Cloake, published as an ebook by Penguin at 1.99. 2011 Felicity Cloake