Here's how to replicate Darina Allen’s perfect Christmas dinner

From the turkey to the potatoes, Darina Allen cooks up the perfect festive feast for Christmas.

The Christmas frenzy is well under way. Fairy lights twinkle, Christmas decorations festoon the shops and high streets. Just yesterday a lovely lady stopped me in the street and asked where could she find my Christmas book; apparently she’d lent it to a friend years ago who’d lent it to another friend and the net result was she never got it back. I hear this a lot.

The original Simply Delicious Christmas, published in 1989 has been out of print since 2011 but as a result of these kinds of requests my Christmas book, A Simply Delicious Christmas, has been reprinted in hardback by Gill and Macmillan with all the original recipes and 100 new ones, so no need to panic. It could make a handy Christmas present plus give you an excuse to ask for the original dog-eared paperback copy.

There have been many requests this year for the traditional recipes, I’ve included the roast turkey with all the trimmings but since I wrote the original Christmas book, I’ve realised the value of brining the turkey before cooking.

I can’t tell you how much it enhances the flavour of even mediocre poultry. Simply submerge the bird in a brine solution of six litres water to 600g salt overnight. Next day drain, dry, stuff, and cook.

Here’s another dilemma and another question that I’m regularly asked: To stuff or not to stuff the bird. Well it’s a resounding YES from me. It desn’t matter how good your stuffing is, it won’t be up to much if it’s just cooked in a pie dish or tin foil. The juices of the turkey enhance it immeasurably but don’t pack the cavity too tightly — the heat needs to be able to penetrate fully into the centre of the stuffing during cooking. Stuff the neck end also and tuck the flap underneath, secure it with the wing tips, and so you have lots extra for all the stuffing lovers in the family.

Hopefully, you’ve ordered your turkey by now. Personally I favour a bronze turkey and like to get it ‘New York’ dressed, so I can hang it for three or four weeks. No butcher will do that for you but for me it hugely enhances the flavour.

A ham is just a brilliant standby, particularly at Christmas. Order that well ahead also but if you can’t find a nice, fat, succulent ham, my top tip is to choose a fine piece of loin of bacon. If anything, streaky bacon, with its stripes of fat and lean, is even more juicy and delicious — and deliciously inexpensive.

Now, a few words for the cook on surviving Christmas. If you’ve got a big crowd for Christmas dinner, ask for help. I certainly do and you know what? It makes it all more fun for everyone, plus we can pass on the skills to the younger generation, boys and girls.

Making a plum pudding, mincemeat, cranberry sauce, brandy butter, bread sauce, stuffing, preparing Brussels sprouts and celery is not exactly rocket science but it all takes time and it makes all the difference to the enjoyment of the meal if as much as possible can be prepared ahead.

I don’t know about you but I have to make lists — make yourself a cup of tea or coffee, sit down, relax, and make a week’s planner. Christmas is not just one day, it now lasts five days to a full week. Insert the basic meals for each day, then start on the list of jobs and allocate a certain number of tasks to ensure everyone has a share in the fun and work. A sense of humour is vital and somehow lightens the load for everyone. Don’t forget a hug for the cook.

Stock up your pantry

A well-stocked cupboard of dry goods makes it so easy to rustle up meals in moments by adding a few fresh ingredients or even leftovers.

Apart from the obvious dry goods — flour, onion, potatoes, pasta, rice, spices — for Christmas add pannetone, Panforte di siena, clementines, mandarins, streaky bacon, chorizo, salami,pickled herrings, spiced beef, tortillas, pitta bread, good quality chocolate, nuts, sardines, tuna, anchovies, tinned tomatoes and beans, and extra virgin olive oil.

Recipes

Irish Cranberry Sauce

Beautiful cranberries are now grown on the Bog of Allen. How cool is that?

Here's how to replicate Darina Allen’s perfect Christmas dinner

Cranberry sauce is also delicious served with roast turkey, game and some rough patés and terrines. We enjoy this simple cranberry sauce best. It will keep in your fridge for a week to 10 days. Also great with white chocolate mousse.

Serves: 6 approximately

Ingredients:

  • 175g fresh cranberries (look out for the Irish-grown cranberries)
  • 60ml (4 tablespoons) water
  • 75g granulated sugar

Method

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.

There are other good things to add to cranberry sauce: Cranberry and orange – use freshly squeezed orange juice instead of water and add the rind of half an unwaxed orange.

Cranberry and apple: mix cranberry sauce made as above with half quantity of Bramley apple sauce, so good.

Crusty Roast Potatoes

Crusty roast potatoes are just the thing to surround the Christmas roast. A big roasting tin of crusty 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 Pinks. New potatoes do not produce good roast potatoes.

For best results, peel 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 need to do halfway through 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 to 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

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 two to four minutes only and drain. Dry each blanched potato and score the surface of each with a fork. Then toss in chosen oil or fat, season with salt and cook in a single layer in a heavy roasting pan in a heated oven at 230ºC/ 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. Toss in oil or fat. Season with salt and roast as above.

Old-fashioned Roast Turkey with Fresh Herb Stuffing, Cranberry Sauce and Bread Sauce

Serves: 10-12

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 in fact it is 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.

Here's how to replicate Darina Allen’s perfect Christmas dinner

Ingredients

  • (4.5-5.4kg) 1 x 10-12lb, free-range and organic, turkey with neck and giblets
  • Fresh herb stuffing
  • 175g (6oz/3/4 stick) butter
  • 350g (12oz) chopped onions
  • 400g-500g (14-16ozs) approx soft breadcrumbs (check bread is non-GM) (or approximately 1lb 4oz of gluten-free breadcrumbs)
  • 50g (2oz) freshly chopped herbs, eg parsley, thyme, chives, marjoram, savoury, lemon balm salt, and freshly ground pepper
  • Stock 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/2 sticks) butter
  • large square of muslin (optional)
  • Cranberry sauce
  • Bread sauce

Method

Garnish 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 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 cavity of 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 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 tinfoil. 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 warm and allow to rest while you make the gravy.

To make the gravy: Spoon off surplus fat from the roasting pan. Deglaze 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

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. I serve it not just with roast turkey and chicken, but also with pheasant and guinea fowl.

Make the breadcrumbs yourself from stale-ish white bread.

Serves: 10-12

Ingredients:

  • 450ml (16 fl.oz) whole milk
  • 110g (4 ozs) soft white breadcrumbs
  • 2 medium onions, each stuck with 6 cloves
  • 35g-50g (1½ to 2 ozs) butter
  • salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 50ml (2fl.oz) thick cream
  • 2 good pinches of ground cloves or quatre epices

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.

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

Glazed Ham

A glazed ham is one of my favourite Christmas meals and also a brilliant standby for salads and sandwiches for the festive season. We do lots of glazes but of all the ones this is the one that I keep coming back to. You could just use marmalade. You’ll know when the ham is cooked when the rind peels off the fat easily.

Here's how to replicate Darina Allen’s perfect Christmas dinner

Serves: 12-15

  • 1 x 4.5kg (10lb) fresh or lightly smoked ham (ensure it has a nice layer of fat)
  • 30 or more whole cloves, depending on the size of the diamonds
  • 350g (12oz) brown Demerara sugar
  • A couple of tablespoons of pineapple juice from a small tin of pineapple

If the ham is salty, soak it in cold water overnight and discard the water the next day. Cover the ham with fresh, cold water and bring it slowly to the boil. If the meat is still salty, there will be a white froth on top of the water. In this case it is preferable to discard this water, cover the ham with fresh cold water again and repeat the process.

Finally, cover the ham with hot water, put the lid on the saucepan and simmer until it is almost cooked. Allow 25-30 minutes approximately to the pound of cooking time for every 450g (1lb) of ham (usually about four hours, but depends on the size of the ham). When the ham is fully cooked the rind will peel off easily and the small bone at the base of the leg will feel loose.

To glaze the ham: Heat the oven to 250ºC/ gas mark 9.

While still warm, peel the rind from the cooked ham, cut the fat into a diamond pattern and stud each diamond with a whole clove. Blend the brown sugar to a paste with a little pineapple juice. Be careful not to make it too liquid. Transfer the ham to a roasting tin just large enough to take the joint. Spread the thick glaze over the entire surface of the ham, but not underneath. Bake it in a very hot oven for 20 minutes or until it has caramelised. While it is glazing, baste the ham regularly with the syrup and juices.

Serve hot or cold with Cumberland sauce.

Best Brussels Sprouts Ever

Not surprisingly many people loathe Brussels sprouts because invariably they are over-cooked.

Here's how to replicate Darina Allen’s perfect Christmas dinner

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 sprouts haters.

Serves: 4-6 450g

  • (1lb) Brussels sprouts, (cut lengthways top to bottom)
  • 600ml (1 pint) water
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 25-50g (1-2oz) butter or extra virgin olive oil salt and freshly ground pepper

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.

Note: If the sprouts are not to be served immediately, drain and 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 or a hostess trolley.

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