Christmas Feast

What do the Independent's food writers cook at Christmas?

Simon Hopkinson,Annie Bell
Saturday 14 December 1996 00:02 GMT

Of all the recipes over the last two years, the one for roast goose stuffed with potato has been the most sought after. Last Christmas, a keen cook I know telephoned in a flat spin from her house in the Dordogne. She had lost the recipe and, having had much success with it the year before, was desperate to repeat it. It is a great pleasure to know that recipes have become part of someone's annual repertoire - and particularly pleasing, considering that the goose recipe was the very first piece of copy I filed for this newspaper. So here it is again. The late Peter Langan introduced this way of cooking his goose to the menu at Langan's Brasserie, where it makes regular appearances around this time of year.

I would add, incidentally, that Langan's remains one of the world's most wonderful restaurants: always full, always buzzy, genial service from `real' waiters and one of the most agreeable dining rooms anywhere. And the food is spot on, fitting and unsullied by fad or fashion. Long may it please and prosper.

Whether stuffing a goose with mashed potatoes can be viewed as being particularly Irish (potatoes don't go with everything, after all) is a moot point. What is recorded, however, is a recipe for duck done this way, which can be found in A Life with Food by Peter Langan, and annotated by Brian Sewell. It was his grandmother, Callinan's, recipe, and, apparently, her "only contribution to good eating".

Langan said - and I agree: "The classic error the inexperienced cook makes is to overstuff the bird to be cooked, often with raw forcemeat. It forms a brick in the cavity, and then they wonder why the poor bugger tastes like cardboard." Sound advice. eloquently delivered.

You should collect a goose that has its neck intact (that is, still with the skin surrounding the vertebrae), this can be removed in the piece, the skin stuffed with a highly seasoned liver-and-pork forcemeat and then immersed into a bath of molten goose fat and carefully simmered until tender. This is a tradition in south-west France, where stuffing a goose neck is as common as walking the truffle hound.

Roast goose stuffed with mashed potato, serves 6

1 goose, dressed weight about 10lb/4.5kg or so, with giblets

salt and pepper

1.4 kg/3lb potatoes, peeled, chopped into large chunks and rinsed thoroughly.

2oz/50g butter, goose or duck fat

4 onions, peeled and coarsely chopped

2 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped

1 heaped tbs chopped fresh sage leaves

grated rind of 2 lemons

plenty of freshly ground black pepper


for the gravy:

1oz/25g goose fat

4 rashers of streaky bacon, chopped

1 goose neck bone, coarsely chopped

1 goose gizzard, cleaned (ask your butcher) and coarsely chopped

1 onion, peeled and chopped

1 carrot, peeled and chopped

2 sticks of celery, chopped

2 tbs Calvados

5fl oz/150ml Maderia

10fl oz strong chicken stock

1 dsp redcurrant jelly

1 heaped tsp arrowroot, slaked with a little water

I think that the Chinese method of pouring boiling water over the surface of a duck or goose is the best way to achieve a crisp skin: the skin of the bird must first be punctured many times with the point of a thin skewer or sharp knife. These little holes then open up on contact with the boiling water and allow the subcutaneous layer of fat beneath to flow out. The bird should then be allowed to dry.

If you have an electric fan, hang the bird, directing the flow of air directly onto it. Do this by an open window and leave for a few hours, or, preferably, overnight. The instruction two years ago was the simpler method of placing it on a wire rack by the same open window, turning from time to time. The fan method, however, works even better, so if you have one, use it. The end result of all this palaver should be moist flesh and parchment-like skin without the usual goo. Believe me, it's worth it.

Before giving the goose the treatment as described above, remove the great gobbets of fat that lie just inside the cavity, attached to the skin. Put them in a pot with 2 tbsp oil and place on a very low light. Allow to melt. Goose fat is precious and keeps for ages in the fridge. As the goose is roasting, tip off the fat that constantly drips into this pot. You will be amazed at the amount collected. Use it to fry potatoes in with garlic and parsley. Awfully good, y'know.

Pprepare the goose as described above. Pre-heat the oven to 425F/220C/gas mark 7. Rub salt all over the goose and sprinkle inside the cavity with some pepper. Boil the potatoes in salted water until tender, drain well and coarsely mash. Fry the onions in the butter, goose or duck fat until golden brown. Add the chopped garlic and stir into the mashed potato along with the sage, lemon rind and pepper. Pack this mixture into the cavity of the goose.

Put the goose in a roomy roasting tin, still on it's wire rack, and place in the oven. Roast for 30 minutes and then turn the temperature down to 350F/180C/gas mark 4. Cook the goose for a further two-and- a-half hours or so. This is one of those rare instances when basting is not required, as the more the fat runs off the goose, the better.

Make the gravy whilst the goose is cooking. Fry the bacon in the butter, goose or duck fat in a heavy bottomed saucepan, until crisp and brown. Add the duck neck bone and cook until well coloured; ditto the vegetables. Pour off any excess fat and add the Calvados and Madeira. Bring to the boil and reduce until syrupy. Pour in the chicken stock, redcurrant jelly and simmer for 30 minutes. Strain through a fine sieve into a clean pan. Allow to settle and lift off any fat that is floating on the surface with some kitchen paper. Whisk in the arrowroot and bring the gravy back to a simmer until clear and slightly thickened. Keep warm. Note: do not boil, or the arrowroot can break down and thin the gravy.

When the goose is cooked, remove from the oven and allow to rest for 15 minutes or so before carving. And why not serve some of those fried potatoes cooked in goose fat that I mentioned earlier, as well as the potato stuffing; the contrast is really good. Any other green vegetables is a matter for you, but an accompaniment of big bunches of watercress are jolly nice.

Stuffed goose's neck, serves 4 as a first course, or 6 as a hot accompaniment to the goose

You might be interested to know that I threw this together in a matter of minutes. This is not a brag, a crow or in the style of a Martha "I know this sounds a touch tricky and I can do it much better than you anyway but you must try" Stewart recipe, it is just that it really was easy to do.

Life is certainly not too short to stuff a goose's neck. Apart from anything, you already have some of the ingredients: heart and liver (or at least you should have), and the neck skin. Make sure you request of the butcher or game dealer that he cuts the neck as close to the goose's head as possible. Once home, cut the neck skin away from the goose as close as you dare to the bird itself. Lay it out flat on a chopping board and slice off any very thick lumps of fat (put these in a pan with other lumps of melting fat that have been removed from just inside the goose's bottom - see goose recipe). Place between two sheets of grease-proof paper and carefully beat flat with a rolling pin or meat bat. Place in the fridge to firm up, still between the paper.

Mince together the following, once, through the large hole blade of the mincer:

goose liver and enough duck or chicken liver (or, indeed, raw foie gras if you can find some) to measure up to 175g/6oz

goose heart

175g/6oz rind-less belly pork

50g/2oz streaky bacon or pancetta

175g/6oz duck breast (available very easily in supermarkets) skin removed

1 small clove peeled garlic

1 tsp fresh thyme leaves

1 heaped tbsp freshly chopped parsley

1/4 tsp salt and plenty of pepper

1/4 tsp ground allspice

1 small egg, beaten

40g/11/2 oz fresh breadcrumbs

2 tbsp Armagnac

Remove the goose skin from the fridge and peel off the paper. Lay out with the inside of the skin uppermost. Spoon the minced mixture onto the skin and roll up loosely. Stitch the skin together along the join with needle and a double thickness of black thread (easier to see). Do not make the package too tight as the skin will shrink as it cooks. Place in a deep pan that will hold it neatly and strain over some of the goose fat until the "sausage" is well covered. Poach very, very gently - just a few bubbles - for 1 hour.

If serving hot, leave in the fat for 10 minutes before carving into thick slices, remembering to remove the thread before doing so. If serving cold, leave to cool in the fat and then place the whole thing in the fridge for anything up to 2-3 weeks. Remove from the fat, scrape off any excess and slice thinly like a pate and serve with Cumberland sauce or a fruity chutney

Annie Bell's favourite Christmas accompaniments. Photograph by Patrice de Villiers

Christmas dinner, as I know it, has never been a time of rationale. By the time different factions have stated their preferences for what will go with the goose, the turkey or whatever, other ceremonial creature it is that will be offered up, the result more often than not is a quirky assembly.

Musing on this, I had a conversation with Simon Hopkinson about what he prefers served with his bird. "Nothing", he replied. "I want the goose, mashed potato, the juices and that's all." In other words, the perfect- world scenario where there's no wilful relative with visions of sprouts with chestnuts.

In our household, we always seem to end up with an inordinate number of choices. Not that I'm not complaining, if there's one dish for every person in the room, the vegetable-minded fare quite well.

All the recipes here are for side dishes in the meat-and-two-veg sense, old favourites that are seriously easy, bearing in mind that you may need to produce a number of them. And, except for the roast potatoes, which have limited appeal if reheated, it is worth making extra, given you may not feel much like cooking in the days to follow.

Starting with the potatoes, I like mine crisper even than a packet of potato chips. First, I parboil maincrop potatoes, then drain and shake them in the pan until the outside has roughened to the consistency of a blanket, then pour plenty of olive oil over, scatter with sea salt and roast them. And provided there is room in the oven, you could also roast some celeriac, parsnips and carrots.

Next on the list comes the hotly debated topic of sprouts with chestnuts, a combination people seem to either love or hate. Personally, I love the combination when the sprouts are very small and have been sauteed so they are slightly singed at the edges with nibs of chestnut that have turned fudgey in the centre. As an alternative, I would shred and saute hearts of Savoy cabbages with a pinch of five-spice powder, and combine this with fried onions.

Beyond that, I often puree sprouts with creme fraiche and a drop of red wine vinegar. But celeriac puree renders the most buttery mash. I sometimes combine it with swede and parsnip, again it needs tarting up: as well as enriching, a few drops of something sharp like lemon juice or vinegar.

Gravy gets consumed in indecent quantities, far more than the bird's juices were intended to cope with. Some cooks resort to the vegetable cooking water to thin it down. Better than this is to braise celery hearts, carrots and spring onions with butter and water until tender. Apart from being tastier than the boiled equivalent, you'll be left with a fairly concentrated vegetable stock. And I think that's probably enough, after all someone else might like to have a say. All recipes serve 6

Roast Potatoes

The potatoes shouldn't be too small, otherwise the inside will simply disappear. My ideal roast potato has a thick, crispy skin and a tender, moist inside. It is difficult to gauge exactly how long they will take to cook, since this depends on what else is in the oven and where they are placed. It could be anything from just under an hour to an hour-and- a- half if they're competing with the turkey. So allow on the long side.

3lb/1.4 kg maincrop potatoes

extra virgin olive oil

sea salt

Heat the oven to 190C (fan oven)/200C (electric oven)/400F/Gas 6. Put a large pan of salted water on to boil. Peel the potatoes, they should all be the same size, so halve any large ones if necessary.

Boil for 8-10 minutes then drain into a sieve and allow surface moisture to evaporate. Return potatoes to the saucepan and shake vigorously until the outside of the potatoes is fluffed and textured. Place in a roasting tray, pour over some olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt and roast for one to one-and-a-half hours, turning them halfway through. By the end, the outside should be very golden and crisp.

Sauteed Savoy Cabbage

Make extra to accommodate bubble and squeak when you get to the leftover stage.

11/2 Savoy cabbages

2 Spanish onions

extra virgin olive oil

3/4 tsp five-spice powder

sea salt, black pepper.

Remove the outer dark green leaves from the cabbage. Cut into quarters and remove the core. Shred the cabbage as thinly as possible.

Peel, quarter and finely slice the onions. Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a saute pan or large saucepan and cook the onions over a medium heat for about 8 minutes until they are caramelised and golden, and remove them. Now saute the cabbage in batches, adding more olive oil as necessary. Do not overcrowd the pan. The cabbage, like the onion, needs to turn quite golden; sprinkle over a little five-spice powder with each batch, and season.

Combine the onions and the cooked cabbage in the pan, add 3 tablespoons of water, cover and steam for 2 minutes.

Leeks in White Wine

Leeks in a buttery sauce, where the sharpness of the wine marries perfectly with their sweetness.

1.4kg/3lb leeks

110g/4oz unsalted butter

275ml/10fl oz white wine

sea salt, black pepper

Trim the roots and cut off the dark green shoots. Remove the outer layer and rinse the surface. Slice them 0.5cm/14" thick and rinse well in a sieve.

Place all the ingredients in a saucepan, bring the liquid to the boil, cover the pan and cook over a low heat for 25-30 minutes. Remove the lid, the leeks should be coated in a butter sauce, but if there is liquid remaining, turn up the heat and continue cooking until it has all but evaporated.

Braised Broccoli and Wild Mushrooms

This is as delicious as it is unfashionable. The broccoli cooks over a long period of time to a dull green mush that is the antithesis of the bright green florets, intact after a few minutes in the steamer. Slow- cooking draws out its flavour, and the result is markedly savoury compared to steamed broccoli.

I would serve this in lieu of a vegetable puree. Any leftover can be turned into a soup with the addition of some stock, and perhaps some cooked pasta, with freshly grated Parmesan sprinkled over.

900g/2lb broccoli

350g/12oz wild mushrooms

6tbsp extra virgin olive oil

5 garlic cloves, peeled

sea salt, black pepper

Trim the root section of the broccoli, and, starting at the top of the florets, finely slice the heads. If the mushrooms are large, then slice these too.

Heat the olive oil in a sautee pan or a large saucepan over a medium heat. Place the mushrooms in the oil and stir them for about a minute until they begin to relax.

Add the broccoli and the garlic to the pan, about 1 heaped teaspoon of sea salt, some black pepper and 225ml/8fl oz water. Bring to the boil and then cover the pan. Turn the heat down low and cook the broccoli for 1 hour, stirring it occasionally. The water should be more or less absorbed by the end, and you should have a wet puree. Adjust seasoning.

Braised Celery Hearts and Carrots

4 celery hearts

12 spring onions

6 medium carrots with tops

2 garlic cloves, peeled

3 sprigs thyme, 1 bay leaf

40g/11/2oz unsalted butter

sea salt, black pepper

Heat the oven to 190C (fan oven)/ 200C (electric oven)/400F/Gas 6. Trim the base and the tops of the celery hearts, and the spring onions. Likewise, trim the top and the base of the carrots and peel them. Place the vegetables and herbs together in a casserole, dot with the butter and season, and cover by two-thirds with water. Bring to the boil on the stove top, cover and braise in the oven for 1 hour until tender. Remove and serve the vegetables, the juices can be used as stock for making the gravy. You can make this in advance and reheat it on the stove top if you are short of oven space.

Buttered Beetroot

Cooked beetroot in vac-pacs aren't at all bad if you can't find them raw.

1.4kg/3lb raw beetroot

50g/2oz unsalted butter

sea salt, black pepper

2 tbsp balsamic vinegar

snipped chives.

Try to buy medium-size beetroot of the same size, otherwise they will cook at different rates. Preheat the oven to 160C (fan oven)/170C (electric oven)/325F/Gas 3. If the beetroot are very dirty then scrub them, but most of the supermarket beetroots do not require this. Leave any whiskery roots and the stem intact. Place them in a baking dish, cover loosely with foil and cook for at least 2 hours until tender, longer if they are large.

The skin will wrinkle and once they are cool enough to handle it should slip off with ease. If necessary, use a paring knife to assist in peeling them. Quarter the beetroots. Melt the butter in a large saucepan and sweat the beetroot until they are warmed through and glazed. Season and add the vinegar, and cook to evaporate this. Serve sprinkled with the snipped chives.

Shona Crawford Poole on a gilt trip. Photograph by Charlie Stebbings Let's face it, gilding gingerbread isn't one of life's priorities. It's showy, vulgar, and the whole point in doing it is swank. But Yuletide was never the season of good taste. Swagger and excess defineit now as they have done since long before the nativity had anything to do with our big, midwinter beano.

While worthier souls than me are out carolling for church or charity, I can be found in a sweet-scented fug of ginger, cinnamon and woodsmoke with just a whiff of old fat from the heating oven to intrude on the domestic idyll. Spooning out spices for another batch of gilded gingerbread stars to decorate the tree is as pleasing a ritual as the season offers.

Our household's gilded stars tradition began with an elaborate Swedish gingerbread house called a pepparkaksstuga. It was a never-to-be-repeated construction project for a book about what I described in an application for a British Library reader's ticket as "the culinary traditions of the major Christian festivals". Well, asking to look up Christmas recipes in that august institution's treasured volumes seemed too flimsy an excuse to justify access.

Through this I learned that pepparkskustuga dough is formulated for stability. It doesn't spread or shrink in the oven, and bakes so hard that its edibility is mainly theoretical. But that is with hindsight. On the recipe-testing day there was rather a lot of the unbaked mixture left over, so being Mrs Waste-Not-Want-Not, I dug out the biscuit cutters to fashion a tray of stars in assorted sizes. However sweet, a ships' biscuit isn't much fun to eat, so I painted them with egg white, pressed on gold leaf, and that was the first year the Christmas tree hung with golden stars suspended on loops of golden thread. And the spices mingled agreeably with the scent of pine needles.

Come twelfth night, it did not seem propitious to throw out stars burnished with real gold, so I packed them away, and brought them out, still-scented, the following year. Now the collection grows with a new batch every winter, the tinsel and baubles are left to moulder in the loft, and the tree wears only white lights and golden gingerbread stars. It is in excruciatingly good taste, a perfect example of minimalist swank, damned silly and quite lovely.

It was ever thus. Gilding gingerbread and other festive foodstuffs goes back a very long way. The beaks and combs of peacocks - never judged good eating, even in their medieval-heyday - were gilded for the best banquets and the plumage, removed with the skin attached before the birds were roasted, was re-united with the flesh in "a lifelike manner" before being sent to table.

Our forebears' feasts were more fabulous than the spit-roasted ox images of Hollywood drama allow. Gilding crops up repeatedly. Spanish Candy, a confection of sugar, violets, cowslips, apples and musk was cut in wedges which were gilded and boxed to keep for a year or more.

Gilding, whether of food, furniture or figureheads, requires gold leaf made from gold beaten thinner than the finest tissue paper. Even gossamer gold leaf is costly, so dishes decorated with it have never been cheap. In the mid-16th century, when imported luxuries such as almonds and currants cost two pence a pound, the gold leaf sold for gilding pills and pastries was sixteen pence for a quarter of an ounce.

Showiest of all the "banquetting stuffes" was marchpane, predecessor of marzipan, and the star of Tudor banqueting tables. Up to three pounds of almonds went into a single, shallow tart of marchpane, which was iced with expensive sugar, embellished with moulded sugar decorations, and, as often as not, gilded, too. Christmas cake with its thick layer of marzipan, lavish icing and gaudy sugar decorations is the true successor of marchpane.

Gingerbread has probably had the longest innings as a gilded foodstuff. Medieval gingerbread was not so much a cake, or even a bread, as a tough slab of spiced honey thickened with flour. The spice and sweetness marked it as special, as did the practice of decorating it with gold. Gilded box-leaves pinned with gilded cloves in a pattern of fleurs-de-lis were among the heraldic decorations described as resembling the tooled leather of cuir-bouilli armour.

In 17th-century slang, gingerbread was a word for money; to have gingerbread meant to be rich. Rub the gilt of the gingerbread and what have you got? A plain, brown, everyday sort of cake to be sure, but also a thing of lesser worth, a broken illusion. To have worked its way so deeply into the language, gilding the gingerbread must once have been commonplace. And doing it is a lot more fun than messing about with icing. The gold doesn't rot your teeth, and it doesn't make your fillings jump, either.

Gilded gingerbread, makes one cake

Gingerbread improves with keeping for a few days after it is baked. This recipe is for a traditional gingerbread which is quite dense and plain. It is of the sort to spread with unsalted butter at teatime.

225g/8oz plain flour

1/2 tsp salt

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

1 tbsp ground ginger

1 tsp ground cinnamon

75g/3oz butter

100g/4oz soft brown sugar

100g/4oz molasses or black treacle 100g/4oz runny honey

2 large eggs

75ml/3fl oz/6 tbsp milk

Line a 20cm/8" square or round deep-sided baking tin with baking parchment, and heat the oven to 190C/375F/gas mark 5. Sift together the flour, salt, bicarbonate of soda, ginger and cinnamon into large bowl.

Put the butter, sugar, molasses or black treacle and honey into a saucepan. Heat gently to melt the butter and stir to blend. Remove from the heat and cool to lukewarm.

Mix together the eggs and milk, then add to the sugar mixture. Blend thoroughly.

Pour the mixture into the centre of the flour and use a wooden spoon to mix to a thick batter. Gingerbread is a very wet cake mixture.

Pour into the prepared tin and bake in the preheated oven for 20 minutes, then lower the oven heat to 170C/325F/gas mark 3 and bake for another 45 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean.

Allow the cake to cool for 30 minutes in its tin before turning it on to a wire rack until cold. Remove the papers.

To gild gingerbread, mask areas to be left plain with paper cut-outs pinned flat to the cake. Paint the exposed sections to be gilded with lightly mixed egg white or, if you prefer not to use raw egg, with a heavy sugar syrup. Lay loose gold leaf on the tacky areas.

Loose gold leaf is flightier than thistledown and the devil to handle. The easiest way to lift it is with a brush charged with static electricity created by friction. Pat it in place with a ball of cotton wool. Gold leaf attached to tissue, called transfer gold, is easier to use but less striking in effect. Because it needs to be rubbed down on to a tacky surface, it is more suitable for gilding hardbaked biscuits or sugar ornaments.

Gold leaf is sold in books of 25 sheets each measuring 84mm/31/4ins square, interleaved with tissue. Prices vary with colour, weight and quantity. Cornelissen & Son Limited, Fine Artists Materials, 105 Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3LA (0171-636 1045, charge from pounds 13.95 for a book of loose gold leaf and pounds 14.40 for transfer gold. Add pounds 2.50 for post and packing.

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