Keeping the Christmas tradition alive

From the turkey and stuffing, to the roast potatoes and gravy, Darina Allen begins our Christmas food special with recipes for the perfect festive feast.

EVERY Christmas, cookery writers wrack their brains to come up with new twists on the festive meal but after all our efforts most people just want the same old favourites. When the kids come home for Christmas, they cling to the happy memories of Mammy’s dinner and don’t want anything else.

They totally don’t want any change — the same starter, a big blousy burnished turkey or goose, lots of roast spuds and gravy, the pudding and maybe a trifle, and if it had jelly and hundreds of thousands on top, so be it. That’s what we want to find. There are so few certainties in life — Christmas dinner is a tradition to be cherished, not to be messed with and certainly not something to be tampered with lightly.

Here is our favourite family tradition:

¦ Grape and Melon with Mint

¦ Traditional Old Fashioned Roast Turkey with Fresh Herb Stuffing

¦ Cranberry Sauce and Bread Sauce

¦ Roast Potatoes, Creamed Celery, Brussels Sprouts, Winter Green Salad

¦ Mummy’s Plum Pudding with Mrs Hanrahan’s Sauce and/or Brandy Butter

¦ Old Fashioned Trifle

Here are a few behind-the-scenes tips to get this meal onto the table so everyone, including the cook, enjoys the day.

We’re a big family and often sit 28 – 30 people for Christmas dinner. Everyone, down to the four- and five-year-old grandchildren, is allocated a job; it might be to lay the table, draw place names, fold the napkins, arrange the crackers. All this adds to the fun.

A couple of days before, make the Christmas trifle but don’t add cream, cover and keep in the fridge.

Make Cranberry sauce, breadcrumbs (pop into the freezer until needed).

The day before, make the grape and melon cocktail, we peel the grapes, but if that is a step too far, just cut in half — I’ll give you a special dispensation because it’s Christmas!

Brine the turkey, this is optional but it hugely enhances the flavour.

Make the base of the homemade lemonade for kids. Make stuffing and creamed celery — cover and keep in the fridge. Prepare Brussels sprouts, cover with damp kitchen paper and again refrigerate or keep in a cool pantry if you have such a thing.

Take out serving dishes and carving knife and fork. Make sure the knife is razor sharp. Lay the table if possible.

On Christmas Day, pop on some Christmas music, pour yourself a glass of sparkly something and head for the kitchen.

Drain the turkey from the brine and dry well. Stuff the cavity of the bird, truss lightly and cover with butter soaked muslin, pop into the pre-heated oven.

Weigh and work out timing, the larger the turkey the lower the heat.

Pop on the ham or bacon, it’ll take 3 or 4 hours to cook depending on size.

Mix the ham glaze in a bowl. A piece of streaky bacon looks less posh but it tastes delicious and is much easier to cook.

Roast potatoes. Blanch and refresh sprouts.

Decorate the trifle and keep cool.

One hour before dinner, put the plum pudding to steam. Scoop brandy butter into a bowl and put on the sideboard at room temperature.

Close to dinner, lift the turkey from the roasting tin onto a serving plate; cover the whole dish with tin foil and large towel doubled to keep warm. Oven space can be at a premium on Christmas Day.

Skim fat and make gravy with the residue. Increase the heat in the oven, glaze the ham.

Have a pot of boiling salted water ready to reheat sprouts. Call in some trusty troops to help if not already there.

Reheat the celery and sprouts; they won’t take more than a couple of minutes.

Add a nice big blob of butter and lots of freshly ground pepper.

Ask someone to light candles and check the fire.

Pour a glass of sparkly for everyone and another for yourself.

Heat plates either in oven or in a sink full of hot water.

Put the grape and melon cocktail on the table; call the family and guests.

After the first course, carve the turkey and ham onto hot plates, have lots of help to pass them and dishes of vegetables and boiling hot gravy around.

Tuck in and enjoy. Seconds anyone? Put dessert plates in a hot oven. Toss and pass around a green salad, essential to make room for pudding.

Have the designated kitchen elves clear the plates and fill the dishwasher.

Turn the plum pudding out onto a hot plate, slosh with whiskey, light a match or have sparklers.

Turn down the lights. Serve on really hot plates with brandy butter or Mrs Hanrahan’s sauce.

Serve trifle or fruit salad or tangerine sorbet on cold plates. Next the crackers, if they are still intact; ours are invariably pulled at the beginning so we can all wear silly hats and get into the spirit.

Three cheers and lots of hugs for the cook.

¦ Recipes for all of Darina’s Christmas desserts, including Mummy’s Plum Pudding with Mrs Hanrahan’s Sauce, Sherry Trifle and Brandy Butter are available on

Roast Turkey with Fresh Herb Stuffing

Serves 10-12

(4.5-5.4kg) 1 x 10-12lb, free-range and organic, turkey with neck and giblets

Fresh Herb Stuffing:

170g (6ozs) butter

350g (12oz) chopped onions

400-500g (14-16ozs) approx. soft breadcrumbs

(check that the bread is non-GM)

(or approximately 1lb 4ozs of gluten-free


50g (2oz) freshly chopped herbs eg. parsley, thyme, chives, marjoram, savoury,

lemon balm

Salt and freshly ground pepper


Neck, gizzard, heart, wishbone and wingtips of turkey

2 sliced carrots

2 sliced onions

1 stick celery

Bouquet garni

3 or 4 peppercorns

For basting the turkey:

225g (8ozs) butter

Large square of muslin (optional)


Large sprigs of fresh parsley or watercress

Remove the wishbone from the neck end of the turkey for ease of carving later. Make a turkey stock by covering with cold water the neck, gizzard, heart, wishbone, wingtips, vegetables and bouquet garni. (Keep the liver for smooth turkey liver paté.) Bring to the boil and simmer while the turkey is being prepared and cooked, 3 hours approx.

To make the fresh herb stuffing: Sweat the onions gently in the butter until soft, for 10 minutes approx., then stir in the crumbs, herbs and a little salt and pepper to taste. Allow it to get quite cold. If necessary wash and dry the cavity of the bird, then season and half-fill with cold stuffing. Put the remainder of the stuffing into the crop at the neck end.

Weigh the turkey and calculate the cooking time. Allow 15 minutes approx. per lb and 15 minutes over. Melt the butter and soak a large piece of good quality muslin in the melted butter; cover the turkey completely with the muslin and roast in a preheated moderate oven, 180C/350F/regulo 4, for two-and-three-quarter to three-and-a-quarter hours. There is no need to baste it because of the butter-soaked muslin. The turkey browns beautifully, but if you like it even browner, remove the muslin 10 minutes before the end of the cooking time. Alternatively, smear the breast, legs and crop well with soft butter, and season with salt and freshly ground pepper. If the turkey is not covered with butter- soaked muslin then it is a good idea to cover the whole dish with tin foil. However, your turkey will then be semi-steamed, not roasted in the traditional sense of the word.

The turkey is cooked when the juices run clear. To test, prick the thickest part at the base of the thigh and examine the juices: they should be clear. Remove the turkey to a carving dish, keep it warm and allow it to rest while you make the gravy. .

The turkey is done when the juices run clear. To test, prick the thickest part at the base of the thigh and examine the juices, they should be clear. Remove the turkey to a carving dish, keep it warm and allow it to rest while you make the gravy.

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

If possible, present the turkey on your largest serving dish, surrounded by crispy roast potatoes, and garnished with large sprigs of parsley or watercress and maybe a sprig of holly. Make sure no one eats the berries.

Serve with Cranberry Sauce and Bread Sauce.

Cranberry Sauce

Serves 6 approximately

170g (6ozs) fresh or frozen cranberries

4 tbsp (60 ml) water

85g (3ozs) granulated sugar

Put the fresh cranberries in a heavy-based stainless steel or cast-iron saucepan with the water — don’t add the sugar yet as it tends to toughen the skins. Bring them to the boil, cover and simmer until the cranberries pop and soften, about seven minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the sugar until dissolved.

Serve warm or cold. It should be soft and juicy, add a little warm water if it has accidently over cooked.

Note: Fresh cranberries keep for weeks on end but also freeze perfectly.

Bread Sauce

Serves 12

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 — 4 ozs) soft white bread-crumbs

2 medium onions, each stuck with 6 cloves

35 — 50g (1½ — 2 ozs) butter

Salt and freshly ground pepper

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

2 good pinches of ground cloves or quatre epices*

Preheat the 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.

* Quatre Epices is a French spice product made of equal amounts of ground white pepper, cloves, nutmeg and ginger.

Raggedy Roast Potatoes

Everybody loves roast potatoes, yet people ask over and over again for the secret of golden crispy roast potatoes.

Duck or goose fat adds delicious extra flavour to roast potatoes. Good quality pork fat or lard from free range pigs is also worth saving carefully for roast or sauté potatoes. All three fats will keep for months in a cold larder or fridge.

Well, first and foremost buy good quality ‘old’ potatoes eg. Golden Wonders, Kerrs Pinks or British Queens. New potatoes are not suitable for roasting.

For perfection peel them just before roasting. Choose potatoes of even size and shape. Cut into quarters if large.

Do not leave them soaking in water or they will be soggy inside because of the water they absorb. This always applies, no matter how you cook potatoes. Unfortunately, many people have got into the habit of peeling and soaking potatoes even if they are just going to boil and mash them.

Blanch the potatoes by putting into boiling salted water, bring back to the boil. Then strain off the water in a colander and rinse the potatoes under cold water to refresh.

Dry potatoes carefully, be really pernickety otherwise they will stick to the roasting tin, and when you turn them over you will lose the crispy bit underneath.

Scrape the surface with a fork, roll in seasoned flour (flour seasoned with salt and pepper).

Heat the olive oil or fat in a roasting pan, then toss the potatoes in the pan to make sure they are well coated in hot oil or fat.

Roast in a hot oven (230C/450F/Gas Mark 8), basting occasionally, for 30-60 minutes depending on size.

Brussels Sprouts

Serves 4–6 

These days, Brussels sprouts are often served overcooked, but the traditional way to cook sprouts was to cut a cross in the stalk so they would cook more evenly. I discovered quite by accident when I was in a mad rush one day that if you cut the sprouts in half or quarters lengthways depending on size, they cook much faster and taste infinitely more delicious. If you prefer, use olive oil instead of butter.

450g (1lb) Brussels sprouts 

1½ teaspoons salt 

25g (1oz) butter (or more if you like) 

Salt and freshly ground pepper 

Choose even, medium-sized sprouts. Trim the outer leaves if necessary and cut them in half lengthways or quarter depending on the size.

Salt 600ml (1 pint) of water and bring it to a fast, rolling boil. Toss in the sprouts, cover the saucepan for a minute until the water returns to the boil, then uncover and continue to simmer for 5–6 minutes, or until the sprouts are cooked through but still have a slight bite. Drain very well.

Melt a little butter in the saucepan and roll the sprouts around gently. Season with lots of freshly ground pepper and salt. Taste and serve immediately in a hot serving dish.

If the sprouts are not to be served immediately, refresh them under cold water just as soon as they are cooked. Just before serving, drop them into boiling salted water for a few seconds to heat through.

Drain and toss in the butter, season and serve. This way they will taste almost as good as if they were freshly cooked: certainly much more delicious than sprouts kept warm for half an hour in an oven.

Creamed Celery

Serves 4 — 6

1 head of celery 

Salt and freshly ground pepper 


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


Chopped parsley 

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 1 inch (2.5cm) chunks.

Bring ¼ 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 will go through with ease. Remove celery to a serving dish with a slotted spoon. Thicken the remaining liquid with the roux; add the enough cream to make sufficient sauce to coat the celery. Allow to bubble for a few minutes, pour over celery, sprinkle with parsley and serve.

Note: Can be reheated successfully 

Grape and Melon with Mint 

Serves 5-6

The honeydew melon — which is the one most widely available around Christmas — is not the most flavourful of the melon family; however, this recipe turns it into a delicious starter. The flavour of Grape and Melon with Mint is immeasurably better if the grapes are peeled and pipped.

8 oz (225g) grapes 

1 small or ½ large melon (check first that it is fully ripe) 

2 oranges (not too large) 

1 lemon 

1 tbsp castor sugar approximately 

2 — 3 tsp finely chopped fresh mint 


5-6 tiny sprigs of fresh mint 

Cut the ripe melon in half; discard the seeds and scoop the flesh into balls with a melon-baller if you have one. Alternatively, cut it neatly into 1/2 inch (1 cm) dice. (Scrape the fleshy bits off the skin so that there is no waste, and hide them in the bottom of the bowl under the melon balls: they will still taste delicious).

Squeeze the juice from the oranges and lemon, pour it over the melon and stir in the sugar. Peel the whole grapes and remove the pips with the hooked end of a sterilised paper clip or hair grip. (There is no quick way to do this: the best thing is to make yourself a cup of coffee, sit up on a high stool and listen to something riveting on the radio!)

Stir the peeled and pipped grapes into the melon, with a little freshly-chopped mint if you have it. Taste and add a little more sugar if necessary. Cover the bowl with cling-film and chill until ready to serve.

Serve in pretty white bowls. Garnish each one with a sprig of fresh mint.


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