This will be our seventh Christmas together. The first we spent in India, the second in Ecuador - unorthodox celebrations before we returned to our Christmas roots. Over the past four years we have forged our very own traditional Christmas like all families, built on the foundations of childhood with our own small personal twists. For the first time I have been in charge of the kitchen, after years of assisting my mother and my aunt, both marvellous, calm cooks. Both had decades of experience behind them, but welcomed their children and nephews and nieces into the kitchen, instructing us all without ever patronising. Our opinion was sought on seasoning and other matters, and it was respected.
This year our meal will begin, as it nearly always has done, with smoked salmon (I vaguely recall a couple of deviations via smoked eel and smoked sturgeon). It arrives in the post, usually from a smoker in Ireland who keeps his smoke and his cure mild and lush. We eat it on home-baked brown bread, smeared thinly with butter and a dab of creamed horseradish, washed down with champagne. The salmon, I suspect, is the part of the meal Florence, almost four, and Sidney, two, like best.
For the main course, I bring out the pink and white Worcester service we used on special occasions when I was a child. Neither of us adults is particularly fond of turkey - even the thighs of a well-exercised free- range bird are on the dull side - but we wouldn't serve anything else. Turkey is such a good excuse for other bits and pieces. Gravy, simmered long and slow, cranberry sauce with a generous slug of port (actually, I'd run out of port when I was making it a week ago - it's in the freezer - so this year it's gingered up with dregs of damson gin and creme de cassis), little chipolatas, bacon rolls, oodles of stuffing. The potatoes have to be really crisp on the outside and melting inside which means parboiling first, then roasting them late in the day, in their own pan of fat. We usually add parsnips to the pan too, because we both adore them. Bread sauce is our one small bone of contention. William likes it made with sliced bread and so rather gluey. Since he cares more about it than I do, I've given in on this one, as long as he makes it himself.
Dimming the lights, igniting the brandy and bringing in the flaming Christmas pudding is a small piece of magic that I relish. Oohs and aahs and excitement are generated despite the already extended stomachs. For those who really can't force down more heavy food, or those who are plain greedy and want two puddings, I have a new answer this year - a light, slippery, mulled grape juice jelly, that will shimmer in the light of the candles and the dying brandy flames .
In the dark of early evening, we sit and crack the odd walnut or hazelnut in the last glittering candlelight, the peel of satsumas and shreds of crackers scattered across the table, too sated to move far. Our meal has in essence been no different from those of thousands of others around the country, or from those of our childhood. Yet the small twists here and idiosyncrasies there have transformed it into our own family tradition.
Chestnut, apple and lemon stuffing
Jane Grigson's giblet gravy
Mulled grape juice jelly
This is the method I find most successful. The muslin soaked in melted butter protects and bastes the breast without preventing browning. In working out when to put the turkey in the oven, allow for an extra half- hour's resting time (for the bird, not you!) between oven and table.
1 large turkey
1 quantity of stuffing
salt and pepper
1 large square of muslin
175g/6oz unsalted butter
Note the exact weight of the turkey before you discard the wrapping or box. Weigh the stuffing and add the two figures together. Stuff the bird (see below). Weigh any left-over stuffing (it can be rolled into balls, and added to the pan some 25 minutes before the turkey is done, to roast with the potatoes and parsnips) and subtract this figure from the combined weight of stuffing and turkey, to get the total weight of the bird. Write it down! If it's less than seven kilos (16lb), allow 30 minutes per kilo. For every kilo over that, add another 20 minutes (so a seven-kilo bird will take three and a half hours, a nine-kilo one needs a further 40 minutes). Write this down too - plus the time you want the bird to go in and the time it should come out. What with drinks and presents and quarrels and whatever, it's all too easy to forget.
Pre-heat the oven to 375F/190C/Gas 5. Melt the butter. Fold the muslin in four, then dunk it into the pan of butter, prodding with a spoon to ensure it soaks up as much as possible. Lay over the breast of the bird, covering completely. Roast the bird, basting every half-hour or so. About an hour before it is done, remove the muslin and take a look. If the bird is brown enough, cover with foil to protect it during the rest of cooking. Remove the foil 10 minutes before time is up, to allow skin to crisp.
Test that the bird is cooked by thrusting a skewer into the fattest part of the thigh. If the juices run clear it is done. If they are pink, return to the oven. In an emergency, with underdone thighs but breast cooked through, and a hungry gathering clamouring for food, you can cut off the legs, put them back in the oven for another half hour or so, and serve breast meat alone. But you should still let the bird rest out of the oven for half an hour before serving.
CHESTNUT, APPLE & LEMON STUFFING
This has become my favourite stuffing, with the sweet mealiness of chestnuts and tart notes from the lemon and apple. There's plenty here to stuff a large bird, fore and aft. These days we are told not to put stuffings with meat into the central cavity, though we always survived with no sign of illness in the past. The difference, I imagine, is that many people now buy frozen turkeys. If the bird has not been thoroughly defrosted before being stuffed and is laid in the oven in an icy state, there is a risk that even after the hours of cooking it may not be cooked to the heart, allowing bugs to breed. Track down a high-quality turkey that has not been frozen and keep it cool. Remember, though, to let it come back to room temperature before cooking. If it must be a frozen bird, follow instructions for thawing scrupulously; if you are concerned that it may not be entirely frost-free, stuff only the rear end, under the flap of skin, and put the remaining stuffing in the oven in a shallow dish, dotted with butter, for 30 to 40 minutes.
If you have time, use fresh chestnuts. You'll need about 800g (1lb 12oz) in their shells. Score an "X" on each shell, then put them in a pan with enough water to cover. Bring up to the boil and boil for one minute. Turn off the heat and take the chestnuts out one or two at a time, to peel off the tough outer skin and the tenacious inner skin. As chestnuts cool they become harder to peel, so if necessary bring the pan back up to the boil once or twice. Once you've peeled enough chestnuts, having thrown away any discoloured or wormy ones, place in a clean pan with water to cover and simmer again until tender. Five minutes may be enough, but keep checking. If you want to eliminate this tedious task, then second best are those vacuum-packed cooked chestnuts sold in most good supermarkets. Tinned chestnuts in brine are hopelessly soggy and tasteless.
Enough for one large turkey
1 large onion, chopped
2 tablespoons olive or sunflower oil
4 large cloves garlic, chopped
2 eating apples, cored and diced
170g/6oz soft white breadcrumbs
5 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
finely grated zest and juice 1 lemon
300g/11oz peeled, cooked chestnuts, roughly chopped
1-2 eggs, lightly beaten
salt and pepper
Fry the onion gently in butter and oil until translucent. Add the garlic and fry for a few more minutes. Cool slightly, then mix with the remaining ingredients adding enough egg to bind. Fry a knob to test seasoning, then adjust.
This is, more or less, my mother's recipe for the gravy to go with the turkey. A good gravy like this one is the making of the Christmas turkey, providing moistness and flavour in abundance, thus making up for the inherent deficiencies of the bird itself. In the recipe she gives for it in English Food (Penguin), she suggests serving the pan juices separately, bolstered with a little alcohol. I usually combine them all, letting the gravy boil down while the rest of the main course is being finished and taken to the table.
Make the gravy base a day or two before Christmas Day, leaving plenty of time for it to boil down to give the smooth, intense flavour that characterises the best gravy.
1 set turkey giblets, minus liver, or 2 sets chicken giblets, minus liver
2 carrots, quartered
1 onion, halved
90ml/3fl oz dry white vermouth or 150ml/5fl oz dry white wine
250g/9oz stewing veal, cut in pieces
2 tomatoes, halved and grilled
1 level tablespoon flour
Put giblets, carrots, onion, wine, herbs and veal into a large pan over a high heat. Stir everything about and when it begins to change colour, add the tomatoes and enough water to cover by about an inch. Season with pepper and a little salt. Cover tightly, leave to simmer for two hours. Strain carefully.
In a small saucepan melt the butter and continue to cook it until it turns a golden noisette brown (it will also smell delicious). Stir in the flour, and when it is well mixed in, moisten with the hot stock. Allow to cook gently for about half an hour, so that the flavour is mellow, then correct the seasoning.
Reheat the sauce when the turkey is nearly cooked. Add about 100ml (4fl oz) port of Madeira and leave to simmer away. When the turkey is done and is resting, pour off the juices from the pan, and skim off the fat. Pour the juices into the gravy, and carry on simmering until ready to serve, by which time the gravy should be of fine flavour and a good pouring consistency.
Of course, your pudding should really have been steamed and stashed away a good two or three months ago, to mature and mellow out. Still, if you get cracking this week, your puddings will still taste pretty good on 25 December. This recipe makes two puddings, each just enough for six to eight people after all that turkey and trimmings, so you could tuck one away for next year, by which time it will taste sensational.
You can reheat it in a microwave on Christmas Day (remove the silver foil first), but the texture will be much improved by steaming it again.
Makes 2 puddings, enough for 6-8 each
285g/10oz soft brown or white breadcrumbs
110g/4oz dried apricots, chopped
110g/4oz dried figs, chopped
225g/8oz seedless raisins
85g/3oz high-quality candied peel, chopped
60g/2oz almonds, chopped
225g/8oz light or dark muscovado sugar
1/2 level teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground mixed spice
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
finely grated zest and juice 1 orange
finely grated zest and juice 1 lemon
1 eating apple, grated
3 eggs, lightly beaten
150ml/1/4 pint stout
150ml1/4 pint milk
4 tablespoons brandy
butter for greasing moulds
Mix all dry ingredients thoroughly. Add the wet ones, mix well with your hands (stirring may be more genteel, but doesn't work half so well). Divide the mixture between two well-greased 1.5 litre (21/2 pints) pudding basins, filling almost to the rim. Smooth down.
Cover each basin with a large square of greaseproof paper, and over that a large square of silver foil. Tie tightly into place with string, leaving long ends. Loop one of these over the pudding basin and slide underneath the taut string on the other side, then bring up and knot with the other trailing end, to form a handle to lift the pudding in and out of the water with. Trim the silver foil and paper to about 3cm (11/2in) below the string. Time permitting, leave overnight before cooking.
Stand the puddings in a deep heavy- based pan (or two if that's easier). Pour boiling water around them, enough to come about half-way up the basins. Cover the pan(s) - with a dome of foil if no lid fits - and boil for seven hours. Check regularly and top up water level as necessary, with more boiling water.
Leave to cool and store in a cool, dry place (or freeze if you prefer, though they will keep perfectly well for a year and more in a cool cupboard). To reheat, steam again for two hours.
HARD SAUCE OR BRANDY BUTTER
Another recipe from English Food. Brandy butter is a simple affair, but the exact proportion of butter to sugar to brandy is critical. The dash of lemon juice and the nutmeg are small additions, but give it an edge that's hard to beat. My mother made it with icing sugar alone, whereas I mix it with muscovado sugar for its smack of caramel.
Since brandy butter keeps so well, it's worth making double quantities, so that there is plenty for mince pies as well as the Christmas pudding.
Serves around 8-12
240g/8oz unsalted butter, cut in pieces
60g/2oz icing sugar
60g/2oz light muscovado sugar
3 tablespoons brandy
squeeze of lemon juice
Put all the ingredients into a processor and process until evenly mixed. Pile into two small bowls and smooth down. Store in the fridge (it will keep happily for a week or more), or cover tightly and freeze until needed.
MULLED GRAPE JUICE JELLY
As a child, one of my favourite Christmas morning tasks was to decorate the cold lemon souffle my mother made as an alternative to Christmas pudding (the recipe is in her book Good Things.) It remains a favourite, but now I save it for some other festive meal, preferring something less rich. This jelly is light and refreshing, with a flavour that echoes hot mulled wine, but is still suitable for children (both of mine love it). Serve it with scoops of high-quality vanilla ice-cream, or thick rich cream.
110g/4oz caster sugar
1 cinnamon stick
3 strips orange zest
juice 1 large orange
4 allspice berries
1 blade mace
20g/3/4oz gelatine leaves
1 litre/13/4 pints red grape juice
Put all the ingredients except the gelatine into a pan and set over a gentle heat. Heat slowly, without letting the mixture boil, until just below simmering point. Turn heat down to a thread, and keep the mixture at this heat for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste and add a little more sugar if it needs it. Draw off the heat and strain.
Meanwhile, soak the gelatine leaves for three minutes in cold water. One by one, take each leaf out, shake off excess water, then stir into the hot strained grape juice until completely dissolved. Pour the mixture into a jelly mould (or several moulds) rinsed out with cold water. Leave to cool, then transfer to the fridge to set, allowing a good six hours or so to be on the safe side.Reuse content