Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas tips

Here is a column I wrote for the New Statesman in 2006 (here is the original). It may be of some use, or reassurance.

The most stressful cooking experience of the year approaches. In search of inspiration and reassurance, one turns to the Christmas cookery specials in the press - and finds complex timetables of tasks stretching over several days. But this is not an end-of-year cookery exam. It is a meal, albeit a big one, for family and possibly friends. Here, with apologies to vegetarians, are a few tips about what is worth doing, and about what you can happily neglect.

The turkey: The key point is to get it off to a good start. Take it out of the fridge the previous night. Turn up the oven to full heat for half an hour, and then adjust it to gas mark 6/200°C when you put in the turkey. After half an hour, you can turn the dial to as low as gas mark 2/150°C for the remainder of the cooking time. The rule of thumb is 20 minutes for each 500g and 20 minutes extra; but, with larger birds, the time side of this ratio decreases.

How do you stop the breast meat drying out? You cannot, entirely. Ignore instructions to cover all or part of the turkey in foil: they are based on the erroneous assumption that a moist environment keeps meat moist. In fact, moisture has the opposite effect, because it cooks so efficiently. I am not convinced that turning the bird during cooking has any effect, either - so that is another job you do not have to worry about. But it is a good idea to slide butter, and perhaps a couple of rashers of bacon, between the skin and the breast.

Is the bird ready an hour early? Excellent. Loosely covered in foil, it will retain heat for that time; and, in any event, lukewarm meat is fine, provided you have hot gravy.

Gravy: You do not have to thicken it. Flour numbs flavour. So making the gravy is very simple: tip the juices from the roasting pan into a bowl; deglaze the pan with water or wine, and add these juices to the bowl; when the fat rises, get rid of most of it; thin these juices with stock, made from giblets and/or the wings of the turkey (or vegetables, if you like). You can heat up this mixture at the end.

Potatoes: Parboil them, and let them dry. You have time to roast them while the turkey rests.

Stuffing: Put this into a gratin dish, which goes into the oven (below the potatoes) when the turkey comes out. Make bread sauce* in advance, remembering that it will thicken.

So, for the climax, the only new things you have to cook are the inevitable sprouts, and perhaps some glazed carrots. Get your assistants to take through the turkey, vegetables and stuffing, and to start the carving. Meanwhile, warm the bread sauce and the gravy.

Pudding: Make a lemon mousse the day before. You've already had bread sauce and stuffing; leave the starchy Christmas pud for later.

*Bread sauce - Put 400ml of milk into a saucepan. Add an onion studded with a couple of cloves, a bay leaf, a few peppercorns, and some scrapings of nutmeg or mace. Bring slowly to a simmer. Turn off the heat, cover, and leave for 30 minutes or longer.

Remove the flavourings, and throw in breadcrumbs. (You'll have to use your judgement on the quantity, bearing in mind that the sauce will thicken, and continue to thicken if you let it cool again before warming it later.) Bring to a simmer once more, adding more breadcrumbs or milk until you achieve the consistency you like. Check the seasoning; you may not need much salt, because bread is salty. Finish the sauce with a knob of butter, or some cream.

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