None of us want surprises at the Christmas dinner table – it’s all about tradition. From turkey to ham, spiced beef to Brussels sprouts, Darina Allen shares her perfect festive menu
MEMORIES of my childhood Christmas come flooding back at this time of year. How on earth did my beautiful mother manage to create such a wonderful Christmas for all of us, Rory and I have five brothers and two sisters. The excitement built from mid-November onwards when Mummy would start to plot and plan. The Christmas cakes and puddings were made, this took two whole afternoons — she’d wait until we came home from the village school so we could participate; washing and chopping cherries, deseeding moscatel raisins, chopping and peeling — everything had to be done from scratch then, and of course it was an advantage to have a few more hands around to help cream the butter and line the cake tin and stir the plum pudding. That was super exciting because we each had to make a wish, eyes tightly shut, before the fruity mixture flecked with suet was packed into white delph bowls and covered with greaseproof paper: “Don’t forget to overlap it in the centre to allow the pudding to expand.” Little fingers held the knot to secure the twine handle tightly.
Best of all the traditions in our house was to eat the first plum pudding on the night it was made. The Christmas season had begun and without doubt my mother’s plum pudding recipe (inherited from my grandmother and great-grandmother) is the best recipe any of us have ever tasted and I’m not just being nostalgic. If you don’t believe me, try it this year and I’ll expect a flood of cards and emails after Christmas.
Christmas is all about tradition, few want surprises on Christmas day. Everyone, particularly those who are coming home for the festive season, look forward to the same delicious Christmas dinner, a fine roast turkey or goose with all the trimmings, lots of gravy, roasties, Brussels sprouts and in our house creamed celery (sounds oldfashioned, there’s a ring of the Grand Hotel about it). It’s so good with the roast turkey particularly and it’s cooked several days ahead. Keep it covered in the fridge or pop it into the freezer, and just reheat.
Christmas is definitely a ton of work particularly for those who don’t normally spend much time in the kitchen. Let’s make a plan so it’s easier and less stressful. Lists, and lots of them are the way to start, allocate some fun roles to as many family and friends as you can cajole or shame into helping. Start with a two week planner; fill in the basics and your social engagements.
We often overestimate the amount of food we need. Next write a list of jobs, dishes, a shopping list, what can be done ahead. Have the turkey, goose or ham been ordered? The best organic and free-range turkeys get snapped up early so hurry. If there’s just two or four people, ask yourself do you really need a turkey, how about a beautiful organic chicken or a fat free range duck.
Decide if you would like a rich Christmas cake – bake it right away, wrap it well and store it in a cool dry cupboard. It’s wonderful for cutting into fingers to share when friends or neighbours drop by with a glass of port or a cup of tea. Maybe you’d prefer a lighter cake, I love it baked in a low sided rectangular tin and cut into small squares and there’s also a white Christmas cake iced with meringue frosting in my Darina Allen’s Christmas book.
One way or another it’s time to get cracking if you want to have the satisfaction of ticking off some of the “to do” items on your list.
Most of the accompaniments and sauces, both sweet and savoury, can be made weeks ahead, make more than you need as gifts for your friends – cranberry sauce, brandy butter and lots of chutneys and relishes.
Ballymaloe Spiced Beef
Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas in these parts without spiced beef. Although spiced beef is traditionally associated with Christmas it’s available all year round in the English Market. It may be served hot or cold and is a marvellous stand-by, because if it is properly spiced and cooked it will keep for three to four weeks in a fridge. Butchers have their own secret recipe but this recipe has been passed down in the Allen family for generations,
This delicious recipe for spiced beef has been handed down in Myrtle Allen’s family and is the best I know. It includes saltpetre, nowadays regarded as a health hazard, so perhaps you should not live exclusively on it. Certainly people have lived on occasional meals of meats preserved in this way, for generations. This recipe is also gluten-free.
The recipe below makes enough spice to cure five flanks of beef, each 1.8kg (4lbs) approx in size and can also be used to spice beef tongues.
Grind all the ingredients (preferably in a food processor) until fairly fine. Store in a screw-top jar; it will keep for months, so make the full quantity even if it is more than you need at a particular time.
To prepare the beef: If you are using flank of beef, remove the bones and trim away any unnecessary fat. Rub the spice well over the beef and into every crevice. Put into an earthenware dish and leave in a fridge or cold larder for three to seven days, turning occasionally. (This is a dry spice, but after a day or two some liquid will come out of the meat.)
The longer the meat is left in the spice, the longer it will last and the more spicy the flavour.
Just before cooking, roll and tie the joint neatly with cotton string into a compact shape, cover with cold water and simmer for two to three hours or until soft and cooked. If it is not to be eaten hot, press by putting it on a flat tin or into an appropriate sized bread tin; cover it with a board and weight and leave for 12 hours.
Spiced beef will keep for three to four weeks in a fridge.
To serve: Cut it into thin slices and serve with some freshly-made salads and home-made chutneys, or in sandwiches.
Other good things to serve with spiced beef are horseradish sauce and cucumber pickle or warm potato, hard-boiled eggs and scallion salad or avocado, rocket leaves, tomato and chilli jam.
Best Brussels Sprouts Ever
Not surprisingly many people loathe Brussels sprouts because invariably they are over-cooked.
The traditional way to cook sprouts was to cut a cross in the stalk so that they would, hopefully, cook more evenly.
Fortunately I discovered quite by accident when I was in a mad rush one day, that if you cut the sprouts in half lengthways, or better still quarters, they cook much faster and taste infinitely more delicious so with this recipe I’ve managed to convert many ardent Brussels sprout haters! This recipe is also gluten-free.
Choose even, medium-sized sprouts. Trim the outer leaves if necessary and cut them in half or quarters lengthways; cut into quarters if they are very large. Salt the water (it’s really important to add enough salt) and bring to a fast, rolling boil.
Toss in the sprouts, cover the saucepan just for a minute until the water returns to the boil, then uncover and continue for five or six minutes or until the sprouts are cooked through but still have a slight bite. Drain very well.
Melt a little butter or extra virgin olive oil in a saucepan, roll the sprouts gently in the butter, season with lots of freshly ground pepper and salt. Taste and serve immediately in a hot serving dish.
Old-fashioned Roast Turkey with Herb Stuffing, Cranberry Sauce and Bread Sauce
This is my favourite roast stuffed turkey recipe. You may think the stuffing seems dull because it doesn’t include exotic-sounding ingredients like chestnuts and spiced sausage meat, but it’s moist and full of the flavour of fresh herbs and the turkey juices.
Cook a chicken in exactly the same way but use one-quarter of the stuffing quantity given.
Brine the turkey the night before, not essential but it makes for moist, tender and flavourful meat.
Drain and dry well. This is of course optional, but it hugely enhances the flavour of the turkey.
The next day, 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 pate.) 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, 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4, for 2¾ (if brined) to 3¼ 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.
To test the turkey is done 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. Easier said than done when oven space is at a premium, so cover with a large sheet of parchment (I’m not keen on tin foil) and then wrap the whole thing snugly with a warm bath towel. It will keep hot 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.
Present the turkey on your largest serving dish, surrounded by crisp roasties. Garnish 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 and lots of gravy.
Glazed Loin or Streaky Bacon
A ham is traditional at Christmas but I prefer a piece of succulent streaky bacon or loin, less expensive, just as delicious and so easy to carve.
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 lb.
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 250°C/475°F/Gas Mark 9 for 20-30 minutes approx. or until the top has caramelized.
Traditional 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! It’s good with roast chicken and guinea fowl as well as turkey. Use gluten free bread for a gluten free version — you may need more breadcrumbs.
Preheat the oven to 160°C/325°F/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.
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