The final countdown: A timely guide to the perfect Christmas feast

 

23 December

3pm Time to get that turkey roasting! For the average 6.5kg turkey, rub generously with softened butter, loosely shroud in buttered foil and place on an oven tray. Initially, roast in the oven, preheated to 220C. After 45 minutes turn the oven down to 170C and cook for 4 to 5 hours. Remove the foil for the final 30 minutes. Leave to rest for…

"Whoa, steady on," the more perceptive reader might erupt at this point. "Maybe it has escaped your attention but today is Sunday. Christmas Day isn't until Tuesday. I know the turkey needs to rest for a while after roasting, but isn't 42 hours a bit on the long side?"

Well, yes, you have a point if you want to eat warm turkey on Christmas Day. But no less an authority than Elizabeth David maintained that, "Many people have sensibly come round to the idea of cooking their bird the day before and thereby avoiding some of the last-minute anxiety. By the time a large bird is carved and served it is usually tepid anyway."

Despite the perils of cooking your bird at exactly the same time as the rest of the country – every Christmas my mother would complain, "There's something wrong with the electricity" – most of us like it hot.

Still, there are a few things that we can do in advance to reduce the nerve-shredding tumult of Christmas Day in the kitchen. So…

3.05pm Cranberry sauce is a relatively recent addition to the trimmings that bring culinary colour to the blank canvas of the turkey. If you prefer to make your own version of this tart livener, now is the time. Nigella adds a slug of cherry brandy while Heston includes vodka, but orange juice works just as well. Pour 300ml orange juice into a pan and stir in 150g sugar, add 350g fresh cranberries and bring to a boil, stirring continuously. Add a good sprinkling of fresh-grated nutmeg and simmer for five minutes. For those who think this is one task too many, Marks & Spencer's fresh cranberry sauce (£2.99), packed with whole berries, is the pick of the crop – as long as there is some left on the shelf.

3.30pm One home-made item infinitely better than anything bought from a shop is bread sauce. For anyone who wants a traditional Christmas, Clarissa Dickson Wright points out in her lively History of English Food that this curiously effective mixture of bland and spicy is "very reminiscent of what would have been popular… in the Middle Ages". The best and easiest version comes from Nigella Lawson. Turning the tables on her ceaseless urge to tinker, I've adapted her recipe myself. Peel and quarter an onion, stud each bit with a clove. Add to 1 litre of whole milk in a saucepan. Stir in 1 tsp salt, fresh-ground black pepper plus a grating of nutmeg. Heat milk but do not allow to boil, When onion softens, remove from the heat. Nigella says you should leave the mixture to "foggily infuse". She leaves the lumps intact in her sauce but I find the application of a hand-blender beats any amount of foggy infusion. Nigella adds "rough cubes" from "a good-quality white loaf, sliced thickly and left to stale overnight", but good-quality white bread can be hard to find. Baguettes, however, are not. A foot or so of Waitrose stone-baked baguette, chopped into small cubes (include crust), works dandy. Stir into the oniony milk until the sauce is thick. Add a drop more milk if necessary, but Jane Grigson says that it "should not spread on the plate". Stir in a great dob of butter and a splash of cream and leave for reheating on Christmas Day.

6pm Time for a drink. A sloe gin would be good.

24 December

10am While I would not inflict the panicky desperation of Christmas Eve shopping on anyone, if you are braving the wild-eyed throng in the supermarket, may I suggest a few additions to your shopping list? A dozen oysters (69p each in Waitrose, 60p in Morrisons); a packet of English muffins; two packets of ready-made hollandaise sauce; smoked streaky bacon; eggs; a couple of tins of goose fat; some good chipolata sausages; a brace of partridge… We'll come back to them in due course. In the meantime, it's a good time to prepare a few veg for tomorrow.

2pm Peel a peck or two of good roasting potatoes. Leaving my Republican tendencies to one side, I favour King Edwards or Duke of Yorks. Maybe two pecks might be a trifle excessive but there is one eternal rule of Christmas lunch: you can never have enough roast potatoes. Peel, chop and parboil for 10 minutes, then keep at room temperature until the morrow.

3pm The Festival of Nine Lesson and Carols from King's College Cambridge is the perfect accompaniment while trimming sprouts for tomorrow. I am a late convert (sprouts not Christianity). The worst thing I ever put in my mouth was a sprout (boiled to hell as part of a hospital meal) but so was one of the best (parboiled then fried with butter and bacon in a long-departed Chelsea restaurant). Following my Damascene conversion in SW3, I have always stuck to this combination, though Delia advocates sautée baby sprouts with shallots and chestnuts, while Nigella adds green beans, pancetta or pecan nuts. Don't cut the traditional "X" in the bottom of each sprout – it only makes them soggy. After the sprouts, you might pre-prepare the accompanying bacon – cut into lardons and fry.

8pm Unburdened by compulsory overindulgence, Christmas Eve is the best bit of the whole thing, perfect for a nice fish supper before the meaty onslaught. They certainly think so in Provence (garlic soup, snails, salt cod), Italy (the Feast of the Seven Fishes is liable to include anchovies, octopus, lobster and eels) and Scandinavia, where a dish called lutefisk is traditional: dried cod soaked in water, then marinaded in lye (caustic soda) for two days before being washed in running water and cooked. Understandably, this dish was described by the great fish expert Alan Davidson as "a puzzling phenomenon".Resisting the lure of caustic cod, I regard oysters as an essential part of Christmas Eve. You need an oyster knife and a kitchen towel. Go in at the hinge end and lever open. I tend to have them with nothing more than a squeeze of lemon or a splat of Tabasco, but if you want to make them into a meal, the simplest of oyster recipes comes from the French food writer Edouard de Pomiane: open a dozen oysters, cook some chipolata sausages. "Alternate the sensations. Burn your mouth with a crackling sausage. Soothe your burns with a cool oyster. Continue until all the sausages and oysters have disappeared."

9pm For a second course, I head for partridge, one of the tastiest game birds and also the cheapest if you happen to live in hunting country. I recently turned down roast partridge at £26 on the menu of a City of London restaurant since I had just been enjoying them in North Yorkshire for £4.50 a brace, plucked and dressed. They need no more accompaniment than a drop of gravy, bread sauce and a few game chips. Though some food writers insist you make these crunchy slivers yourself, Rowley Leigh of Le Café Anglais declared in No Place Like Home, "I have no compunction in serving good potato crisps as long as they are unflavoured." Go for Tyrell's Naked Crisps.

11pm Head for port: a bottle of Graham's Crusted will do the trick.

25 December

9am I refer you to the first paragraph of this article.

10am When the fowl is happily in the oven, you can enjoy the most pleasing meal of Christmas Day: breakfast. I'd urge you in the direction of the great American invention eggs Benedict. With ready-made hollandaise, the only tricky part is poaching eggs so the yolk flows freely. For two people, grill eight rashers of streaky bacon. Lightly poach four eggs. Split four muffins and toast. Gently heat the hollandaise. Construct as follows: half-muffin, bacon, poached egg, generous splat of hollandaise. Serve with champagne or prosecco.

12pm If you're a deep-dyed traditionalist, it's time to begin the less-than-fragrant simmering of giblets for stock. Or you can wait and deglaze the roasting pan with wine. A simple gravy alternative is offered by Paul Levy in The Feast of Christmas: "I never bother."

2.30pm Is the turkey done yet? The way to tell is not with a clock but a skewer: when you think the turkey is pretty much there, pierce the thickest regions of leg and breast. If the juice runs clear, it's done. For a belt-and-braces check, the leg should give a little when pulled. Remove from the oven and leave to rest. Now you can start on all the other things that add interest to this generous if bland bird. Whack up the oven to 220C. Put goose fat in a deep roasting pan and place in the oven. When the fat is hot, remove the pan. Spoon in parboiled potatoes, turning them over in the fat as you do so. Cook for 20 minutes then remove and turn over again. Return to the oven along with chipolatas and stuffing for another 20 minutes. Blanch sprouts in boiling water until just tender (around 4 minutes) then drain. Fry in a small amount of oil with pre-cooked lardons until the sprouts begin to turn brown. Gently heat the bread sauce. Stir in more milk to loosen it up. Don't forget to rescue the cranberry sauce from fridge.

3pm Carve turkey. Serve meal. Claret, plenty of it. Damn, forgot pudding. The assembled throng can make do with warm mince pies and Stilton. Quell any complaints with the wise words of St John maestro Fergus Henderson: "The best thing you can do with a Christmas pud is to leave it until next year. A pudding matured for 12 months is much improved." I've done this for several years and it works every time.

Alternative 3pm Forget all of the above and follow the advice of Elizabeth David: "If I had my way – and I shan't – my Christmas Day eating and drinking would consist of an omelette and cold ham and a nice bottle of wine at lunchtime, and a smoked-salmon sandwich with a glass of champagne on a tray in bed in the evening." The latter option particularly appealed to her: "A glorious way to celebrate Christmas." Move over, Elizabeth, I'm joining you.

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