Can't face the family free-for-all? Simon Hopkinson has some suggestions for a cosy Christmas feast

I was extremely pleased and gratified to hear from a sprinkling of last year's readers who were, once again, very pleased to be furnished with festive recipes that might suit a smaller gathering. Rather than that which is more usually offered around this time of year, these meals are for the contented couple who, against all odds, have happily chosen to remain indoors, quietly prepared a delicious Christmas lunch just for themselves, and drunk a couple of bottles of exceptionally fine wine before, finally, retiring to bed with either James Bond, The Queen or Calvados and the cat (one of Powell and Pressburger's lesser known cinematic treats).

I was extremely pleased and gratified to hear from a sprinkling of last year's readers who were, once again, very pleased to be furnished with festive recipes that might suit a smaller gathering. Rather than that which is more usually offered around this time of year, these meals are for the contented couple who, against all odds, have happily chosen to remain indoors, quietly prepared a delicious Christmas lunch just for themselves, and drunk a couple of bottles of exceptionally fine wine before, finally, retiring to bed with either James Bond, The Queen or Calvados and the cat (one of Powell and Pressburger's lesser known cinematic treats).

Unashamedly, all three recipes I am offering are pretty damn rich. But, after all, this is just fine when it's only the two of you: you may indulge and please yourselves. There are no grannies, no permanently dieting teenage daughters, and no "little darlings'' who will, respectively, worry, shrink away and be horribly sick.

Just think, this freedom also allows you to pull six crackers each and giggle stupidly over the jokes without embarrassment (having already chosen to be very drunk indeed, by now, helps enormously here). With genuine affection, you may lovingly offer up a tiny folding set of miniature screwdrivers in exchange for lipstick and eye shadow - tightly wrapped up within a floral handkerchief - without, for once, the inevitable interjection of "I wanted that!'' followed by a tantrum. And you do not need to put a paper hat on your head if you do not want to.

A very happy Christmas to one and all (and especially to two and no one else at all)!

Roast duck with cider, cream and apples

Serves 2

An unseasonably gruff note by way of introduction, but it is one that has been heavy on my mind for some time. Although fully aware that each of the metric measurements for the quantities of cider and cream given for the duck sauce may look absurd, it is only because this happens to be the way in which they are sold in the supermarket: a quaffing can of Woodpecker cider is a curious 440ml and a pot of double cream comes in at an even more absurd 284ml.

Truly, I now see these lingering translations from imperial as nothing more than a sad joke. It may seem pathetic to point this out, but it only needs another three or four tablespoons of cider to take the present contents of this can up to 500ml. And, as if you didn't know, 284ml of cream is exactly half a pint, yet it requires even less to get this one up to 300ml - a single teaspoon.

In retrospect, I guess there may have been occasional moments when you have cursed me over what I consider to be sensibly ordered amounts. Perhaps the supermarkets have long been analysing this situation. Considering that most sane recipe writers these days now choose to "round up'' their millilitres (it is rarely down), I guess that this dilemma can only gently force the more timid shopper to purchase more, therefore making up the shortfall. Don't get taken in! As near as dammit, a tablespoon or so either way in all recipes will make little or no difference. But, truly, I think something should be done very soon about these increasingly outdated, unhelpful measures, don't you?

1 fresh duck, dressed weight about 1.5kg, or so

salt and pepper

3 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and cut into large dice

25g butter

1 level tbsp golden caster sugar

squeeze of lemon juice

a splash of Calvados

For the sauce

2 x 440ml cans of sweet cider; Woodpecker, for preference

284ml pot of whipping cream

Regular readers will know that the Chinese method of pouring boiling water over the surface of a goose, then hanging it up to dry prior to roasting, is one of the best ways to achieve a crisp, dry skin. The same method equally applies to duck where, by tradition, its skin is first deftly punctured many times with the point of a thin skewer or sharp knife (and that is just under the skin, not into the flesh). Then it is placed upon an inverted bowl, or similar, within the sink, and fully drenched all over with boiling water poured directly upon it from the kettle.

Those little holes will open up upon contact with the boiling water, so the subcutaneous layer of fat beneath can flow out as it cooks later. The bird should then be allowed to dry (a pleasing amount will also drain away during this process too). I find that the best way to do this is to either rest it on a wire rack or hang it up on a meat hook; whichever method you choose, the close proximity of a breezy open window will enormously assist and speed up the process; 3-4 hours will just about do, but overnight will give the finest results.

Preheat the oven to 450°F/ 230°C/gas mark 8. Give the duck the treatment described above. Then rub salt all over the skin and sprinkle some inside the cavity as well, together with a little pepper. Now put the duck on a wire rack placed inside a roomy roasting tin and slide into the oven. Roast for 20 minutes and then turn the temperature down to 350°F/180°C/ gas mark 4. Roast for a further 40-50 minutes, or so.

No basting is required, but as the fat runs from the duck into the roasting tin periodically pour it off into a metal bowl (use this fat to roast potatoes in; there are no better roast potatoes than those cooked in duck fat). Once the roasting time is complete, remove the duck from the oven and allow to cool. Leave the oven on.

While the duck is cooking, prepare the sauce and apples. To make the sauce, pour the cider into a stainless steel pan and bring to the boil. Simmer, allowing it to reduce until very dark and syrupy (you must watch the final stages of reduction like a hawk as, before you know it, all that will be left is a stinking, blackened mess - and a ruined pan to boot). Pour in the cream and whisk together. Bring back to a simmer and further cook until slightly thickened: the consistency of cold, pouring cream. Set aside.

For the apples, melt the butter in a small pan, stir in the apples and sprinkle over the sugar and lemon juice. Allow to stew gently, stirring occasionally (trying not to crush them) until both soft and also touched with occasional golden burnishes here and there. Splash with the Calvados and stir in.

Completely remove each half of the duck from its carcass using a small, sharp knife (I trust that the picture to the right will help you a little here). Place each half of duck into a roomy, preferably oval and shallow, oven-proof serving dish and pour over the sauce. Cluster the cooked apples as two small piles into any obvious gaps between the duck and contours of its dish. Return to the top of the oven and reheat for around about 20-25 minutes, or until all a-bubble and the duck skin is nicely glazed. Serve at once, perhaps with a sharp watercress salad and some small roast potatoes.

Braised pheasant with cabbage, garlic and fat bacon

Serves 2

25g butter

4 thick slices of very fat, streaky bacon, cut into squares

salt and pepper

1 dressed pheasant

10 large cloves garlic, peeled

a generous splash of Madeira or medium sherry

75ml white wine

100ml good chicken stock

3-4 sprigs fresh thyme

1 small, hard green cabbage, divested of tough outer leaves then cored and quartered

Preheat the oven to 275°F/

140°C/gas mark 1. Heat the butter in a large, cast-iron pot (a lidded Le Creuset is perfect, here) and add the bacon. Allow the pieces to sizzle away gently until a generous amount of fat has exuded from them. Lift out and set aside. Season the pheasant with salt and pepper, place it in the pot and carefully allow to colour on all sides, until golden and crusted. Lift out and also set aside.

Now tip in the garlic cloves and stir these against the crusty bits in the bottom of the pot, hoping to pick up scraps of residue in the process, until the cloves have taken on a little colour themselves. Tip off most of the collected, residual fats and pour in the Madeira (or sherry) and white wine. Using a stiff whisk, scrape up all the remaining bits and then add the stock and thyme sprigs. Bring to the boil and put in the cabbage. Simmer until the cabbage begins to wilt and lose its stiffness, then push it to the sides of the pot to make room for the pheasant. Bury the bird into this simmering brew and tuck the bacon pieces around it, pushing them well down.

Cut a piece of greaseproof paper to fit inside the pot (a cartouche) with a little room to spare, so that it comes up the sides a little; a few snips around the edge with a pair of scissors helps the thing to fall into place (I used to think this contraption a waste of time but it really does add a secondary muffle to the proceedings in addition to the lid.) Put the lid on and place in the oven to braise for about 1-1 1/2 hours. Remove from the oven but leave the lid in place for 20 minutes or so, allowing the bird to settle and rest prior to carving. Serve with plainly boiled potatoes, nothing more.

Sirloin steak with green peppercorn sauce

Serves 2

2 x 200-225g thick (this is essential), well marbled sirloin steaks, their edge of fat remaining fully intact

salt

25g butter

1dsp green peppercorns (in brine)

1tbsp Cognac

a small clove of garlic, crushed to a paste with salt

2tsp fine Dijon mustard

100ml whipping cream

 

Take a thick, heavy-based frying pan (cast-iron, for preference) and allow it to become hot over a naked flame. Generously season only the fatty edges of the steaks with salt, and then, pressed together as one double-thickness steak, place them fatty-edge down directly into the dry pan. Over a moderate heat, allow the fat quietly to crisp up, so exuding its grease into the pan (the steaks should not, assuming you took note of thickness being a priority, topple over). The grease will, exactly, be sufficient to fry the meat itself. Once the fat is sufficiently crisp, turn up the heat and cook the steaks as you normally would, and to your liking. Lift out and keep warm on a plate while the sauce is made.

Tip up the pan and remove the pool of fat with kitchen paper - don't wipe out the crusty bits, please! Add the butter to the pan, allow it to froth and add the green peppercorns. Partially squash some of them into the butter using the back of a wooden spoon, and then stir in the Cognac and garlic (there is no real need to flame the alcohol). Allow to combine for a few moments and then whisk in the mustard and cream until all is smooth. Simmer gently - continuing to whisk occasionally - until the copious amount of bubbles begin to reveal an increasingly brown tinge, and the sauce seems of just the correct, creamy consistency to coat a steak nicely. It is your steak, after all - and I don't really think I have to tell you what to do next, do l?

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