Food & Drink: Prue Leith's Christmas: Plan, plan and be merry: If you have a Christmas dinner to cook, says Prue Leith, don't panic - organise. Michael Bateman introduces recipes and a preparation timetable from her new book

IN Prue Leith's household 'feeling Christmassy' does not mean loving and lovable. It means, she says, ratty, bad-tempered and probably tearful.

'For the cook, Christmas is not always undiluted joy,' she says. 'We cherish the Victorian Christmas ideal of peace and plenty, goodwill to our fellow man and good things to eat. But in reality the peace and goodwill are sometimes as hard to achieve as the bounty on the groaning board.'

If the cook is to enjoy Christmas it will only be by planning ahead, and today we publish a second extract from Leith's Complete Christmas (Bloomsbury pounds 14.99) which is designed to help the cook through this anxious time.

Prue Leith says she was told by booksellers that sales of Delia Smith's Christmas, published last year, actually rose immediately after the feast was over. They suppose people look back with regret, wondering what they missed; like those of us who buy language books after we've returned from holiday.

Very well. There are 12 days to go; here is the Leith credo, a blueprint for a stress-free Christmas. 'I've been refining the plan every year,' says Prue. 'It is the single most sought- after piece of advice I have ever offered.'

Caroline Waldegrave and Fiona Burrell, who run Leith's School of Food and Wine, are the book's co-authors and know from their students about the panic that sets in on big occasions. The turkey itself is a bit daunting, the sheer size of it. It's only once a year you might tackle a 20lb turkey, says Caroline, but you can defuse the pressure by thinking of it as a large chicken. 'If you've ever roasted a chicken, you can manage turkey. You just cook it longer and more slowly.'

And don't panic. 'It may end up on the floor,' says Fiona Burrell philosophically. 'It happens, because it's damn heavy with its stuffing in, maybe a good stone and a half, and it's burning hot and slippery. But you just scrape it up and carry on.' Thus speaks the ex-chalet cook who once found herself wrestling with a friendly dog to retrieve a roast turkey - it had rolled to the bottom of

the hill when it fell off the sledge they were pushing to the top.

Prue, of course, has an answer: 'Well, it makes it easier to lift out if you put the turkey in the deepest dish you've got, instead of resting it on the oven grid with the fat splashing down. There's a lot of fat from a turkey. About an inch collects in the bottom of a pan. And instead of using a spoon to baste it, use a basting bulb.'

Good planning means you won't flap, so rehearse this guide before the great event, then pin it up on the fridge door on the day so that everyone else knows the score. It is a mistake to be over-ambitious, for instance by trying to feed more people than you can cope with or by putting on extra dishes such as a salad that you don't need: 'You always find it later in the fridge, having completely forgotten it,' says Prue.

Even with Leith-like planning, you can't anticipate everything that can go wrong. 'My worst memory,' she says, 'was trying to follow a tip from a chef that I'd heard on the radio, that the best way to skin chestnuts was to cook them in fat in a deep fryer. I must have switched on in the middle and missed the warning that you need to make a cut in each one first, because suddenly they were exploding all over the kitchen like hand grenades. I grabbed my husband's coat, wrapped it around my head, crept up to the pan and turned off the heat. The kitchen was a complete mess and my husband's coat was never the same again.'

ROAST TURKEY

If you've been thinking that turkey is too dull and bland a bird for your Christmas dinner, think again. The Real Meat Company and the Pure Meat Company have been pioneering free range birds with flavour for some years. It's obviously good commercial sense, because they're joined this year by Sainsbury which is introducing birds with a gamier flavour, slow-maturing, bronze- feathered turkeys, in 220 of their stores (on sale from Saturday 19 December).

A large square of fine muslin (butter-muslin) is needed for this recipe.

Serves 12

12lb turkey

For the sausage-meat and

chestnut stuffing:

(for alternative stuffing see below)

llb good-quality sausage-meat

llb unsweetened chestnut puree

4oz fresh breadcrumbs

1 large egg, beaten

salt and freshly ground black pepper

To prepare turkey for the oven:

6oz butter

For the garnish:

1 chipolata sausage per person

1 streaky bacon rasher per person

For the gravy:

2 teaspoons flour

turkey stock

1 Make the sausage-meat and chestnut stuffing: mix together the sausage-meat, chestnut puree, breadcrumbs and beaten egg. Taste and season as required. Stuff this into the neck end of the turkey, making sure that the breast is well plumped. Draw the skin flap down to cover the stuffing. Secure with a skewer.

2 Weigh turkey to establish cooking time (about 3 1/2 hrs for 12-pounder).

3 Set the oven to 350F/

180C/Gas 4.

4 Melt butter, and in it soak a very large piece of butter- muslin (about 4 times the size of the turkey) until butter completely absorbed.

5 Season the turkey well. Completely cover the bird with the doubled butter- muslin and put in the oven.

6 Meanwhile, prepare the garnishes: make each chipolata sausage into 2 cocktail-sized ones by twisting gently in the middle. Take the rind off the bacon and stretch each rasher slightly with the back of a knife, cut into 2 and roll up. Put sausages and bacon rolls into a second roasting pan, with bacon rolls wedged in so that they cannot unravel. 45 minutes before turkey is ready, put sausages and bacon in the oven.

7 When the turkey is done, the juices that run out of the thigh when pierced with a skewer should be clear. Remove the muslin and lift the bird on to a serving dish. Surround with the bacon and the sausages and keep warm while making gravy.

8 Lift the pan with its juices on to the top of the cooker and skim off the fat. Whisk in flour, and add enough turkey stock or vegetable water to make up to about 1 pint. Stir until boiling, then simmer for a few minutes. Taste, and add salt and pepper if necessary. Strain into a warm gravy boat.

Best with red burgundy or any light to medium red.

CHESTNUT STUFFING

Stuffings can be made well in advance and frozen. The bird should only be stuffed at the neck, as placing stuffing in the cavity means that the centre of the bird takes longer to heat up allowing bacteria to multiply rapidly.

8oz chestnuts

1oz butter

1 onion, chopped

1 turkey liver, chopped

4oz fresh white breadcrumbs

l tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

3 celery sticks, chopped

freshly ground nutmeg

salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 egg, beaten

1 Make a slit in the shell of each chestnut. Place in a pan of boiling water and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove the outer and inner skins. Chop the chestnuts roughly.

2 Melt the butter in a saucepan and add the onion and chestnuts. Cook gently for 5 minutes. Add the liver and cook for 2 minutes.

3 Transfer to a bowl and add breadcrumbs, parsley, celery, nutmeg and seasoning. Bind together with an egg.

FORCEMEAT BALLS

Serves 8

2oz cooked ham, minced or very

finely chopped

4oz sausage-meat

2oz shredded suet

grated rind of 1 lemon

1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

1 tablespoon chopped mixed

fresh herbs, eg thyme,

marjoram, sage, basil, mint

6oz fresh white breadcrumbs

salt and freshly ground pepper

pinch cayenne pepper

1/2 teaspoon ground mace

2 eggs

1 Mix together ham, sausage-meat, suet, lemon, parsley, herbs and breadcrumbs. Season with salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper, mace.

2 Beat eggs and gradually add to breadcrumb mixture, beating until well mixed.

3 Using wet hands, roll the mixture into balls slightly larger than a golf ball.

4 Put them in a roasting pan with the turkey or in a separate tin with a little oil or dripping.

5 They will take about 45 minutes to cook and should be turned once or twice.

NOTE: These were traditionally served to make the meat go further and you may not feel them necessary.

CRANBERRY AND ORANGE SAUCE

Serves 8

juice of 2 oranges

8oz sugar

1lb cranberries

1 Put the orange juice and sugar together in a saucepan. Allow the sugar to dissolve over a gentle heat

2 Add the cranberries, and simmer very slowly until just tender.

3 Serve cold.

BREAD SAUCE

Serves 8

1 large onion, peeled

12 cloves

1 pint milk

2 bay leaves

10 peppercorns,

or 1 pinch of white pepper

pinch of nutmeg

salt

4oz fresh white breadcrumbs

4oz butter

4 tablespoons cream (optional)

1 Cut the onion in half. Stick the cloves into the onion pieces and put with the milk and bay leaf into a saucepan.

2 Add the peppercorns, nutmeg, and a good pinch of salt. Leave to stand for 30 minutes, then bring to the boil very slowly.

3 Take the milk from the heat and strain it on to the breadcrumbs. Add the butter and cream. Mix and return to the saucepan.

4 Reheat the sauce carefully without boiling.

5 If it has become too thick, beat in more hot milk. It should be creamy.

ROAST POTATOES

Using this method the potatoes take up more fat, but it's only once a year and they can be kept warm for two hours without spoiling.

Serves 8

12 medium-sized potatoes

(about 4lbs)

salt

dripping or oil

1 Wash and peel the potatoes and, if they are large, cut them into 2in pieces.

2 Bring to the boil in salted water. Simmer for 5 mins.

3 Drain and shake them in the sieve to roughen and slightly crumble the surface of each potato. (Potatoes roasted without this preliminary boiling and scratching tend to become tough and hard if they are not eaten straight away.)

4 Heat the fat in a roasting pan and add the potatoes, turning them so that they are coated all over.

5 Roast, basting occasionally, and turning the potatoes over at half-time.

BRUSSELS SPROUTS AND CHESTNUTS

Serves 8

2lbs very small Brussels sprouts

1lb fresh chestnuts

2oz butter

salt, freshly ground black pepper

and nutmeg

1 Wash and trim the sprouts, paring the stalks and removing the outside leaves if necessary.

2 Make a slit in the skin of each chestnut and put them into a pan of cold water. Bring to the boil, simmer

for 10 minutes and then take off the heat. Remove 1 or 2 nuts at a time and peel. The skins come off easily if the chestnuts are hot but not

too cooked.

3 Melt the butter in a frying pan, and slowly fry the chestnuts, which will break up a little until brown.

4 Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil, and tip in the sprouts. Boil fairly fast for 5-8 minutes until they are cooked, but not soggy: the flavour changes disastrously if boiled too long. Drain them well.

5 Mix the Brussels sprouts and the chestnuts together gently, adding the butter from the frying pan.

Season with salt, black pepper and nutmeg.

BRANDY BUTTER

8oz unsalted butter

8oz caster sugar

grated rind of 1 orange

4 tablespoons brandy

Cream the unsalted butter and sugar together until very light. Add the orange rind and brandy to flavour fairly strongly. Serve well chilled.

Alternatively use rum instead of brandy; in which case omit the orange rind.

RUM SAUCE

Serve with Christmas pudding

1oz butter

1oz flour

3/4 pint milk

1oz caster sugar

3 tablespoons rum

1 Melt the butter in a saucepan, add the flour and cook slowly for 1 minute. Take the pan off the heat.

2 Gradually add the milk, stirring all the time. Replace on the heat and, still stirring, bring to the boil. Simmer for 2 minutes.

3 Add the sugar and rum, adding more to taste if neccessary.

MINCE PIES

Makes 20-24 tarts

12oz flour quantity well-chilled rich

shortcrust pastry

1lb mincemeat

To glaze:

beaten egg or milk

To serve:

icing sugar

1 Set the oven to 190C/

375F/Gas 5.

2 Divide the pastry in half and roll one half out thinly and use it to line tartlet tins.

3 Fill each tartlet tin about three-quarters of the way up the pastry with mincemeat.

4 Roll out the remaining pastry and either stamp into shapes, such as stars, dampen lightly with water and press firmly but gently on top of the mincemeat or cut into circles to fit the tarts as lids. Dampen the pastry edges and press the tops down lightly, sealing the edges carefully.

5 Brush your chosen glaze on the lids - the milk will give a matt finish, and the beaten egg a shiny finish.

6 Snip the lids with scissors or a sharp knife to make a slit for the steam to escape.

7 Bake for 20 minutes until light golden brown.

8 Cool on a wire rack.

9 Serve warm, sprinkled with icing sugar.-

CHECKLIST AND TIMETABLE: WHAT TO DO AND WHEN TO DO IT

MENU

ROAST TURKEY

STUFFING

SAUSAGES

FORCEMEAT BALLS

BREAD SAUCE

CRANBERRY SAUCE

ROAST POTATOES

BRUSSELS SPROUTS WITH

CHESTNUTS

CHRISTMAS PUDDING WITH

BRANDY BUTTER

AND/OR RUM SAUCE

MINCE PIES AND CREAM

TO enable you to enjoy Christmas Day with the rest of the family rather than spending all of it in the kitchen, get as much as possible prepared in advance. If you also write a timetable for the day it will help to ensure that nothing is forgotten and everything arrives, hot, at the table at the same time.

Make a list of what can be done in advance and tick off each item as you go along. If you are freezing some items, for example stuffing, remember to defrost them in time. The following can be made well in advance:

1 The stuffings (and then frozen).

2 The forcemeat balls (and then frozen).

3 The breadcrumbs for the bread sauce (and then frozen).

4 The mince pies (and then frozen).

5 The brandy butter (and then frozen).

You should make a really comprehensive shopping list. A couple of days before Christmas, make the cranberry sauce. Also, if you have to use a frozen turkey, check how long it will take to defrost and ensure it has defrosted completely by the evening of 24 December (24 hours for a 12lb turkey).

CHRISTMAS EVE

1 Weigh the turkey to establish a rough cooking time - for our bird, about 3 1/2 hours at 350F/180C/Gas 4. (Some people prefer to put turkeys in a hot oven - 400F/200C/Gas 6 - for the first 1/2 hour and adjust cooking time accordingly.)

2 Make or defrost the stuffing and forcemeat balls, keep them chilled.

3 Put the cranberry sauce, brandy butter and cream into serving pots or jugs, cover and put into the fridge.

4 Make the rum sauce.

5 Make some turkey stock from the giblets. Do not use the liver as it makes it bitter. Drain, cool and then chill.

6 Make bacon rolls and twist sausages.

7 Make lots of ice.

8 Prepare sprouts and peel chestnuts.

9 Peel the potatoes - leave covered in water in a cool place.

10 Defrost or make the breadcrumbs.

11 Sharpen the carving knife.

12 Defrost the mince pies.

13 Sort out the dishes that are to be used.

14 Choose the wine; make sure someone has the job of dealing with it on Christmas Day.

CHRISTMAS DAY

This timetable assumes a 12lb turkey and that you will be eating at 1.30pm.

9.15am Turn on the oven. Stuff the turkey and establish the cooking time. If you stuff the cavity as well as the neck, which is inadvisable, allow extra time to make sure it cooks through - about another 1/2 hour.

9.30am Wrap the turkey in butter-soaked muslin and put in the oven.

10.30am Lay the table.

11.15am Fry the chestnuts. Set aside.

11.30am Parboil the potatoes.

11.45am Put the potatoes in the oven.

12 noon Put the pudding on to steam - keep checking the water level.

12.05pm Put the sausages, bacon rolls and forcemeat balls in the oven.

12.40pm Make the bread sauce.

12.45pm Check contents of oven. When cooked, place on serving dishes and replace, uncovered, in the turned-off oven, or keep warm in a low simmering or warming oven.

1.00pm Make the gravy using the turkey stock. Strain into a saucepan for easy reheating. Put the water on for the sprouts.

Do as much washing up and clearing up as possible. Warm the plates.

1.15pm Cook sprouts, reheat chestnuts, mix together. Reheat bread sauce and gravy.

1.30pm Serve, checking:

1 Turkey, bacon rolls, sausages, forcemeat balls. 2 Gravy. 3 Bread sauce. 4 Cranberry sauce. 5 Potatoes. 6 Sprouts.

2.00pm (or whenever) Put the mince pies in a very low oven to warm. Warm through the rum sauce and serve up the pudding, brandy butter, mince pies and cream.

Carving the turkey:

If you are going to carve the turkey in the dining room, use a sharp knife and simply cut thin slices of breast meat and slightly thicker slices of brown meat from the legs and thighs. If you have a large turkey, carve half in the kitchen and carry it into the dining room uncarved side forwards so it looks like a complete bird but is quick to serve.

To carve in the kitchen: remove the breast in one piece. Put it on a board and place the board on a clean tray (to catch all the juices - good for soup, prevents a mess). Slice and arrange down one side of a meat plate. Twist off the leg and drumstick from the same side and cut as elegantly as possible. Arrange down the other side of the meat plate.

Quantities: The turkey recipe is for 12 people but the rest of the recipes are for 8. We assume most people like to have some leftover turkey for use later in the week.

CHRISTMAS STORE CUPBOARD

ON THE Sunday after Christmas (27 December) we will be publishing the third and final excerpt from Leith's Complete Christmas, with recipes for pleasurable post-Christmas eating. They will use primarily ham, turkey, pork, cheese, cooked vegetables - and fruit which is ripening too fast in the warmth of the dining room. As most shops will be shut after Christmas, we suggest extra items you'll need to get in store for these recipes.

LENTIL SOUP

Store cupboard: lentils (using ham stock)

CHEESE SOUFFLES

Store cupboard: eggs (using up your cheese)

QUICHE LORRAINE

Store cupboard: more eggs (using up ham and cheese)

PORK, HAM OR TURKEY PIE

Store cupboard: pastry ingredients (using up surplus cold meats)

WARM TURKEY SALAD

Store cupboard: walnut oil and salad leaves

(using best cold turkey meat)

STIR-FRIED TURKEY

Store cupboard: soy sauce, sesame oil, ginger, and garlic

(using marinated slices of turkey)

FRUIT ICE CREAM

Store cupboard: eggs and stem ginger (using over-ripe fruit)

(Photograph omitted)

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