How to cook the traditional festive feast this Christmas

From starters to the main course, Darina Allen and Rory O’Connell unveil the ultimate Christmas feast – including the traditional turkey and all the trimmings.

Christmas is almost here again and my grandchildren are wild with excitement and anticipation.

Letters are already winging their way to Santa and some have been making Christmas cookies and helping to stir the plum pudding.

Brother and sister Darina Allen and Rory O’Connell cook up a festive feast at Ballymaloe. Picture: Denis Minihane

They love to hear stories of Christmas when I was a child and are incredulous when I tell them how a little mandarin or clementine in the toe of my Christmas stocking was a huge treat to be eaten slowly and enjoyed segment by segment.

In fact, one of the biggest challenges nowadays is to encourage children to think of those less fortunate and perhaps wrap up some of the toys and clothes they have outgrown to share.

Hopefully, you’ve ordered a nice plump, free-range turkey or goose for Christmas day and decided on the accompaniments. Many people start with the idea of doing something different this year but if you have family coming home for Christmas they usually don’t want you to change a thing.

The traditional Christmas dinner is sacred in many families and that is what memories are made of, the favourite stuffing, Mam’s gravy, plum pudding, trifle and Christmas cake.

Every detail must be the same, I’ve given recipes for traditional turkey and goose on the Examiner website in the past but in this column I am sharing my new favourite way to cook the turkey and my new favourite stuffing (inspired by ‘the dressing’ used by US friends for Thanksgiving), with chunkier pieces of bread rather than the breadcrumbs we usually use.

I dry brine the turkey the day before, then roast it over the tray of stuffing so the juices can drip into the dish and flavour it deliciously. It cooks much faster than a whole bird and you don’t have to forgo the stuffing either.

Try to find duck, goose fat or good lard to roast the potatoes. The flavour will be a revelation. Peel, blanch and refresh the potatoes on Christmas Eve, dry and keep them in the fridge in a covered box. Sprouts can be halved or better still quartered and blanched in boiling water for 2-3 mins, then drained and plunged into ice to stop them cooking.

Drain them well and refrigerate, ready to be reheated in boiling salted water just before Christmas dinner. Don’t forget lots of melted butter and freshly cracked black pepper to serve.

I also love celery in a rich parsley sauce, another dish that can be tucked away in the freezer a week or two ahead. Cranberry sauce can also be made weeks in advance, make more than you need for presents or gift hampers for even busier friends.

Bread sauce can also be made several days ahead and reheated, even frozen, if that works better for you.

In our house we have both plum pudding and trifle, everyone loves Mummy’s plum pudding. Once again think about making an extra one or two for gifts to share with someone less fortunate.

A glazed loin of streaky bacon is our secret favourite dish at Christmas, it is super succulent and juicy and a fraction of the price of ham.

The best discovery is that it can be reheated if cooked and glazed ahead.

So with all that preparation done you too can really enjoy Christmas day. Remember to allocate responsibility of different aspects of the festivities to different members of the family of all ages, thus sharing the fun and passing on the skills to the next generation – laying the table, arranging the flowers, as well as the cooking.

Have a wonderful fun-filled Christmas with family and friends and look out for your neighbours too.

All your favourite Christmas recipes and many more besides are in my book Darina Allen’s Simply Delicious Christmas published by Gill Books.

Rory has also shared a couple of delicious starters to serve before your Christmas dinner.

Rory O’Connell’s Cucumber and Elderflower Granita

I think granitas are great for the home cook as they are so easy to make and bring a little of the smartness we expect in restaurants to your own family table.

This delightful version seems to suit either the beginning or the end of a meal depending on what else you are serving.

The amount of juice you can extract from a cucumber does vary throughout the year and without a doubt large home-grown cucumbers yield more juice than the some-what more slender imported varieties, so perhaps it is worth having a little extra cucumber to hand to ensure you end up with the 350ml of juice required in the recipe.

The process of making the icy granita is simplicity itself and just requires a little commitment from you to return to the freezer to give the ice the occasional stir up.

Serves 6-8

    500g cucumber

    3 tablespoons of lime juice

    115ml elderflower cordial

Optional garnishes:

    elderflower blossoms, leaves or petals of Tagetes

    marigold or a cucamelon very thinly

    sliced, pomegranate seeds, myrtle berries.

Peel the cucumber and cut into dice. Place in a blender and puree until smooth. Pass the cucumber puree through a fine sieve pushing to extract the juice and fine pulp - and you should end up with 350ml of the strained juice.

Discard any extra. Add the lime juice and cordial to the cucumber and mix well.

Place the juice in a pyrex bowl and place in the freezer and freeze until nearly set.

Break up the partially frozen ice with a fork or a whisk until it looks rather slushy and returns to the freezer.

Refreeze and repeat the process three more times to achieve a flaky and shard-like consistency. The granita is then ready to serve or can be stored until you want to serve it.

I keep the granita covered in the freezer to protect the delicious and delicate flavour.

Serve the granita in chilled bowls or glasses just as it is or with some of the suggested garnishes.

Rory O’Connell’s Roast Red Onion Leaves with Smoked Eel and Horseradish Mayonnaise

Choose small red onions for roasting as you really want the finished leaves to be bite-sized. The smoked eel can be replaced with smoked salmon or mackerel.

Makes 20 pieces or bites

    4 small red onions

    1 tablespoon olive oil

    Sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper

    250g smoked eel cut into dice or thin slices

    5 tablespoons horseradish mayonnaise (see recipe)

Garnish: Sprigs of chervil or watercress

For the Horseradish Mayonnaise

    2 egg yolks

    2 tablespoons of Dijon mustard

    1 tablespoon of caster sugar

    2 tablespoons of wine vinegar

    150ml sunflower oil or light olive oil or a

    mixture of both oils

    1 heaped tablespoon of grated horseradish

    1 teaspoon of chopped tarragon

Preheat oven to 200C. Cut the unpeeled onions in half straight down through the middle and through the root. Brush the cut surfaces with olive oil and place cut side down on a roasting tray. Cook for 20-40 minutes or until the onions feel completely tender.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool.

When the onions are cool, separate the layers of onion to achieve little cup-shaped leaves. These can be prepared in advance and stored at room temperature.

To assemble, place the onion leaves on a serving dish. Spoon a little of the horseradish mayonnaise into the base of each leaf and follow with a piece of eel and a spring if chervil or watercress.

To make the Horseradish Mayonnaise

Put the egg yolks, mustard, sugar and vinegar in a bowl. Whisk well and add the oil gradually in a slow and steady stream while whisking all the time.

The sauce will emulsify and thicken quite easily. Add the horseradish and chopped herbs.

Taste and correct seasoning. It is unlikely to need salt because of the large quantity of mustard.

Chill until needed.

Spatchcock Turkey with Chunky Herb Stuffing and Best Ever Gravy

I can’t think why I didn’t think about cooking the turkey in this way years ago. There are lots of advantages to spatchcocking or butterflying the turkey. The technique is easy to master yourself particularly if you have a good quality poultry shears and offers several advantages. The bird cooks much faster and cooks evenly resulting in moist and juicy meat and even more delicious crispy skin.

Serves 12 – 15

1 free range turkey (approx. 5 kg/12lbs in weight)

Dry Brine

1 level teaspoon of pure salt for every 450g/

1lb of turkey

75g soft butter

1 dessertspoon finely chopped rosemary

150ml water


Fresh Herb Stuffing - Optional

170g (6ozs) butter

350g (12oz) chopped onions

450g (1lb) of chunky white breadcrumbs

made from good bread. (or the same quantity

of gluten-free breadcrumbs)

50g (2oz) freshly chopped herbs eg. parsley,

thyme, chives, marjoram, savoury, lemon


Flaky sea salt and freshly ground pepper

For the Gravy

1.2L (2 pints) homemade turkey or chicken


or 850ml (1½ pints) homemade turkey and

chicken stock and 300ml (½ pint) cream (optional)

1 tablespoon rosemary, freshly chopped (optional)


To make the fresh herb stuffing

Melt the butter, add the chopped onions and sweat on a low heat until translucent, 10 mins approx. Add the cubed bread, stir to combine, add the chopped herbs and season lightly. Remove to a roasting tray to cool. This can be made ahead and frozen if more convenient.

How to spatchcock

To spatchcock or butterfly a bird, first remove the wishbone from the neck end, (save for stock). Lay the turkey breast side down on a chopping board. Use a poultry shears to remove the back bone by cutting along both sides (chop the bone into 4 or 5 pieces and use to make a stock for gravy later).

Then flip the turkey breast side up and rotate the legs so the drumsticks point outwards.

Press down firmly on the breast bone several times to flatten the bird, then tuck the wingtips behind the breast to make a neat shape.

Trim the excess neck fat from the end of the breast and add to the stock. If possible plan to spatchcock the bird 24 hours ahead to allow time for brining which hugely enhances the flavour of the bird.

Note: The bone structure of a free range turkey is much more robust than that of an intensively reared bird so if this all seems too much to tackle, ask your butcher to spatchcock the turkey for you.


The night before, brine the turkey – this isoptional but it hugely enhances the flavour of the bird.

There are two options, wet or dry brining, both give a good result, but for this recipe I favour dry brining. Here’s how to do it: Lay the bird on a rimmed baking tray, sprinkle salt evenly over the entire surface from a height of about 6 inches. Slide it into the fridge or store in a cold place overnight.

You may want to add some herbs and aromatics to the salt for extra flavour, maybe a little orange or lemon zest, a pinch of smoked paprika, freshly cracked black pepper, a little rosemary or thyme… Grind your chosen combination with the pure salt in a spice grinder.

Next day remove the turkey from the fridge and allow to dry off for 1 -2 hours. (Do not rinse or the skin will not crisp.)

To Cook

Preheat the oven to 200C /425F. Lay the dry turkey, breast side upwards on a wire rack (pat dry with kitchen paper if necessary). Slather the entire surface of the turkey with soft butter, sprinkle with chopped rosemary.

Slide into the preheated oven above another roasting tray containing 150mls water to catch the juices as a basis for your best ever gravy.

Cook the turkey for 15 mins and then reduce the temperature to 180C/ 350F and roast for 1 hour.

Remove the roasting tray of juices and replace it with the tray of chunky stuffing. Retain the delicious juices for making gravy, (you should have about a ½ pint). The remaining turkey juices will drip onto the stuffing and give it a delicious flavour. Stir the stuffing occasionally to incorporate the crusty bits from the edges.

Keep an eye on the turkey, if the skin is browning too quickly you may want to cover it with a sheet of parchment paper.

After 1¾ to 2 hours, test for doneness, prick the thigh with the tip of a knife or a skewer, the juices should run clear. Remove the turkey from the oven, cover and allow to rest while you make the gravy (see below). If you have a thermometer it should read between 75C/165F. Allow the stuffing to cook and crisp a little more about 15 minutes.

To carve

Heat a large serving platter. Spread the stuffing onto the base and keep warm. First, remove the legs, separate the drumstick from the thigh, slice the thigh into 3 or 4 pieces down by the side of the thigh bone.

Remove the wings and divide into the three joints.

Remove both breasts and slice into thick slices crosswise and arrange on top of the stuffing on the hot serving dish. Garnish with flat leaf parsley or thyme and serve with chosen accompaniments.

To make the gravy

Spoon the surplus fat from the retained juices in the roasting pan. De glaze with fat free stock from the giblets and bones. Using a whisk, stir and scrape well to dissolve the caramelised meat juices.

Boil it up well, season and thicken with a little roux if you like.

Taste and correct the seasoning. Serve in a hot gravy boat.

Celery in Parsley Sauce

How retro does this sound, but it’s so good with roast turkey and can be rustled up the day before.

I sometimes add extra milk to make this into a celery sauce – so delicious with a poached turkey or chicken.

Serves 4 – 6

    1 head of celery

    Salt and freshly ground pepper


    120-175ml (4-6 fl.oz) cream or creamy milk

    2 tbsp chopped parsley plus extra for garnishing

Pull the stalks off the head of celery. If the outer stalks seems a bit tough, peel the strings off with a swivel top peeler or else use these tougher stalks in the stockpot. Cut the stalks into 2.5cm (1 inch) chunks.

■ Bring 150ml (1/4 pint) of water to the boil, season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Add the chopped celery, cook for 15-20 minutes, turning occasionally, until a knife willgo through with ease. Remove celery to a serving dish with a slotted spoon.

■ Thicken the remaining liquid with the roux, add enough whole milk or cream to make sufficient sauce to coat the celery, add the chopped parsley. Allow to bubble for a few minutes, pour over celery, sprinkle with some extra parsley and serve.

Note: Can be reheated successfully

Spicy Cranberry Sauce

Make well in advance, cranberry sauce keeps for months.

Serves 10-12

    450g (1lb) sugar

    225ml (8fl oz) water

    125ml (4fl oz) wine vinegar

    1/2 stick cinnamon

    1 star anise

    6 cloves

    5cm (2in) of fresh ginger, peeled and sliced

    1 chilli, split and seeded

    450g (1lb) cranberries

    Lemon juice

Put all the spices, cinnamon, star anise, cloves and ginger into a tied muslin bag.

Place the sugar, water, vinegar and spice bag in a non-reactive saucepan and bring to the boil. Add the cranberries and simmer very gently until the cranberries become tender.

Some will burst, that’s ok, add a little juice to taste.

Bread Sauce

I love Bread Sauce but if I hadn’t been reared on it I might never have tried it — the recipe sounds so dull! Serve with roast chicken, turkey and guinea fowl.

    600ml (1 pint) whole milk

    75-110g (3 - 4oz) soft white breadcrumbs

    2 medium onions, each stuck with 6 cloves

    35 - 50g (1½ - 2oz) butter

    Salt and freshly ground pepper

    75-110ml (3-4 fl oz) thick cream

    2 good pinches of ground cloves

■ Preheat oven to 160C/325F/Gas Mark 3.

■ Bring to the boil in a small, deep saucepan all the ingredients except the cream. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper.

■ Transfer to the preheated oven and cook for 30 minutes. Remove the onion and add the cream just before serving. Correct the seasoning and add a little more milk if the sauce is too thick. Serve hot.

Note: The bread sauce will keep in the fridge for several days — the remainder can be reheated gently — you may need to use a little more milk.

Glazed Streaky or Loin of Bacon

Serves 12-15

    4-5lbs (1.8-2.25kg) streaky or

    loin of bacon, either smoked or unsmoked

    14ozs (400g) 1 small tin of pineapple - use 3-4 tablespoons approx. of the juice

    12oz (350g) brown Demerara sugar (not soft brown sugar)

    whole cloves 20-30 approx.

Cover the bacon in cold water and bring slowly to the boil; if the bacon is very salty there will be a white froth on top of the water, in this case it is preferable to discard this water.

It may be necessary to change the water several times depending on how salty the bacon is.

Finally, cover with hot water and simmer until almost cooked, allow 25-30 minutes approx to the pound.

Remove the rind, cut the fat into a diamond pattern, and stud with cloves. Blend brown sugar to a thick paste with a little pineapple juice, 3-4 tablespoons approx, be careful not to make it too liquid. Spread this over the bacon.

Bake in a fully preheated hot oven 250C/475F/Gas Mark 9 for 20-30 minutes approx. or until the top has caramelised — baste the bacon 3-4 times during this time.

Remove to a carving dish. Carve in thick slices lengthwise so each slice includes some of the eye of the loin and streaky bacon.

Note: We use loin of bacon off the bone.

Roasted Potatoes

There are two kinds of roast potatoes — those cooked on their own and those cooked around the joint of meat. The latter cook more slowly, don’t look quite so perfect but have a delicious soggy bottom rich with the flavour of the roast meat juices.

    Old potatoes eg. Golden

    Wonder, Kerr’s Pink or Skerry Champions


Peel the potatoes, if they are enormous cut in half or quarters — don’t attempt to wash or worse still soak them in water or they will be wet and soapy when cooked. If you must prepare them ahead then put them into a bowl lined with damp kitchen paper.

Cover the top with more wet paper and store in the fridge, they will keep perfectly well this way for several hours. Dry well otherwise they will stick to the tin and you’ll lose the lovely crusty bit on the base.

Tuck the potatoes around the roast in the roasting tin, toss them in the rendered fat, sprinkle with salt, baste and turn occasionally as they cook — they will take about an hour depending on the size. Cook lots and serve very hot.

A big roasting tin of crusty roast potatoes always invokes a positive response. Everyone loves them. They are easy to achieve but I still get asked over and over for the secret of crunchy golden roasties. So here are my

top tips:

■ Grow or seek out good-quality dry, floury potatoes such as Golden Wonders or Kerr’s Pink. New potatoes do not produce good roast potatoes.

■ For best results, peel the potatoes just before roasting. Resist the temptation to soak them in water, or understandably they will be soggy, due to the water they absorb. This has become common practice when people want to prepare ahead, not just for roasting, but also before boiling.

■ After peeling, dry the potatoes meticulously with a tea-towel or kitchen paper. Otherwise, even when tossed in fat or oil,they will stick to the roasting tin. Consequently, when you turn them over as you will need to do halfway through the cooking, the crispy bit underneath will stick to the tin.

■ If you wish to prepare potatoes ahead, there are two options. Peel and dry each potato carefully, toss in extra virgin olive oil or fat of your choice, put into a bowl, cover and refrigerate. Alternatively, put into a plastic bag, twist the end, and refrigerate until needed. They will keep for five or six hours or overnight without discolouring. Roast potatoes may be cooked in extra virgin olive oil, top-quality sunflower oil, duck fat, goose fat, pork fat (lard) or beef dripping.

Each gives a delicious but different flavour. Depending on the flavour and texture you like, choose from the following cooking methods:

    1. Toss the potatoes in the chosen fat and cook.

    2. If you prefer a crunchier crust, put the peeled potatoes into a deep saucepan, cover with cold water, bring to the boil, simmer for 2–4 minutes only and drain. Dry each blanched potato and score the surface of each one with a fork. Then toss in the chosen oil or fat, season with salt and cook in a single layer in a heavy roasting pan in a preheated oven at 230ºC/450ºF/gas mark 8.

    3. Drain the blanched potatoes, then put the saucepan with the potatoes inside over a medium heat, and shake the pot to dry the potatoes and fluff the blanched surface. Tossin your chosen oil or fat, season with salt and roast as above.

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