Angela Hartnett answers your Christmas food questions

So, what are the alternatives to mince pies? How should I glaze my ham? Where do you stand on sprouts? And is it ever OK to use bread sauce mix from a packet?

Wednesday 17 December 2008 01:00

The chef Angela Hartnett was born in Wales to an Irish father and a Welsh-Italian mother and grew up in Essex. Her Italian family, who come from Emilia-Romagna, have inspired much of her cooking.

After a stint working in Barbados's Sandy Lane Hotel in the early Nineties, she earned her stripes in the notoriously tough and chauvinistic world of Michelin-starred cooking under the tutelage of Gordon Ramsay at Aubergine, where she worked six-day weeks alongside Marcus Wareing. She rose to head chef at Petrus and earned her first Michelin star at the Connaught in 2004.

In 2007, she was awarded an MBE for services to the hospitality industry and left the Connaught to throw herself into planning Murano, an Italian "fine dining" restaurant in Mayfair, and the more informal York & Albany in north London, both of which opened earlier this year. She lives in east London with her Jack Russell, Alfie.

I'm bored of mince pies. Can you recommend any other sweet treats to keep me interested this Christmas?

Angela Hitchin by email

You could make flapjacks and dip them half in chocolate, or buy a panforte, an Italian gingerbread with hazelnuts, honey and almonds – like hard nougat. Or you could get a classic panettone and serve it with vanilla ice cream.

Turkey is very much an Anglo-American thing. What would an Italian family dine on?

Giles Warren, Hertfordshire

They would probably have lamb, or fish the night before. A lot of families on islands like Ischia have fish on Christmas Eve, when there is a big celebration. For dessert, it depends on the region. My family come from Emilia Romagna in the north and we always do zabaglione (made with egg yolks, sugar and cream) and most people do panettone. There is generally a lot of nougat and people often put chocolate in the nougat, which is very popular.

Last Christmas Day, I spent ages making my own bread sauce. But then on Boxing Day, I couldn't be bothered, and used a packet sauce. I really couldn't tell the difference. Is there something wrong with my tastebuds?

Emily Thurlow, London, N16

I doubt anything is wrong with your taste buds, you probably just used a very good packet sauce. The good ones are the ones seasoned with nutmeg and onion. I've never bought a good bread sauce, so I'm not sure which is the best, but I'm sure somewhere like Waitrose would do a good one, or Sainsbury's. To make your own, make sure you infuse the milk the night before with onion, cloves, nutmeg and spices.

I'm so worried about Christmas Day. It's the first time I've had to play host to my husband's family. They're all real foodies and set very high standards when they cook for each other. There'll be 13 of us round the table, and I've never cooked for so many people before. I'm obsessing about how to organise everything. Is there any advice you could give to help me keep my cool in the kitchen?

Susannah Draper, North Yorkshire

Get drunk! Thirteen is a fair number if you've never cooked for a large party before, but if they're family who love and care for you, then you should get them to help and bring a few courses round. That way you won't have to worry about preparing a Christmas cake or pudding. Do as much as you can in advance – cook the turkey a bit early so you have space in the oven to do the rest of it later. Just relax and do what you want: do a fish if you don't feel you want to do turkey – don't overstretch yourself. I think everyone feels it's too much, but it's much better to do two great dishes rather than four mediocre ones. End with a real wow factor such as a great chocolate mousse with loads of whipped cream and roasted almonds or pecans on top. Soak some raspberries in liqueur and put them at the bottom of tall glasses and layer the mousse on top.

I've just lost my job, and the prospect of an expensive Christmas is freaking me out. My wife and I have agreed not to buy each other presents, and to spend what little money we have on gifts for our two sons. We do want to give ourselves a treat on Christmas Day, after such a horrible few weeks, but we really need to keep the cost down. Any hints?

Julian Khan, Edinburgh

Don't necessarily go for turkey. If there are four of you, go for a really good organic chicken and maybe do some fish. Everyone feels they have to be very traditional, but you could do something different. If you go into a supermarket near Christmas they just want you to buy stuff and it's temptation all the way. Go with a list so you're organised, and try not to be tempted.

What special dishes will you be serving at your restaurants over the festive period?

Graham Mitchell, Bath

On Christmas Day at the York & Albany we're doing all the classics, and we have roast beef and braised halibut as alternatives to turkey and a nice foie gras and chicken terrine and artichoke and truffle salad. We're also doing the classic turkey, Christmas pudding and a yule log with a lovely pumpkin soup to start. I think we have about 180 booked for Christmas lunch and I'll be cooking. Murano is closed, but on New Year's Eve we're doing a seven-course tasting menu.

What was your favourite Christmas dish as a child?

Angus Spence, London, SE1

I like anolini, which isn't really Christmassy in terms of an English Christmas, but it's an Italian Christmas speciality. It is little pasta balls like little dumplings stuffed with veal and beef and you serve them in a broth. We always have them on Christmas Day.

Hi Angela – what time are you coming over to make the anolini on Sunday?

Your Auntie Viviana

The cheek of the woman. We made about 500 of them on Sunday evening. If she's got time to write in, she should be making them instead. They're all ready for Christmas Day now.

Who will be celebrating Christmas with you this year?

Julie Thomas, Cambridge

All my family. My brother comes over from New York with his kids to stay for the whole time. My sister-in-law and her parents come over. Then also my mum's family – my uncle and aunt, some cousins. There will probably about 15 of us, so I'll drag them over to the York & Albany. I'm not sure yet.

Do you do the cooking on Christmas Day, or do you take the day off?

Rebecca Flint by email

Yes, generally me and my aunt – we do it together.

I seem to be given panettone every year these past few Christmases and I suspect some regifting. It's delightful for a day, but what can I do with the leftovers?

Sarah Tweed by email

That's an easy one – make bread and butter pudding out of it. Make it as you would a classic bread and butter pudding by layering it up with cream, milk, eggs and some nutmeg, sprinkled with a touch of Demerara sugar to crisp it up a little.

Where do you stand on Brussels sprouts? I know they're traditional, but half my family hates them. Should I give them a miss altogether or is there a way to make them more tempting?

Laura Joret, Bristol

I like them. I think with a nice bit of bacon and chestnuts they're perfect. Cut a little onion up, sautee that and roast it off with the pancetta or bacon. When you've boiled the sprouts, cut them in half and finish them in the pan with the onion and bacon, adding some chestnuts, and glaze with a little white wine.

Where can I get the best mince pies? The pastry always seems to be soggy – even on expensive ones.

Adam Farthing, London, NW1

St John Bread and Wine are the best in London, and Sally Clarke does really good ones as well. To stop them going soggy, store them in an airtight tin or freeze them if you are making them a week before Christmas – then warm them up nicely before eating.

What's the secret of great roast potatoes? I like them good and tough on the outside and soft on the inside, but mine tend to turn out a little sludgy all the way through.

John Walsh, Hull

Fluff them. Make sure when you boil them and drain them, fluff them a bit so that they start to lose their outside edge, and make sure they're covered in plenty of fat. Duck fat is best. Otherwise, use hot oil and make sure it is really hot when it goes in and then just leave them, don't play with them and keep shaking them – once or twice, but not all the time. They should take 25 to 35 minutes to roast.

I want to cook a goose rather than a turkey this year but have been told that because of all the fat, you don't get a whole lot of meat on them. What sort of size bird I would need to comfortably feed eight people?

Jane Wright, Solihull

You're right that you don't get a lot of meat on a goose. For eight people you'll need four to five kilos.

Are you someone who includes the fat from the turkey in the gravy, or do you separate it out?

Steve Milford, by email

I use it in the beginning to make a roux when I'm making the gravy, but I separate it at the end.

Do you prefer to put the stuffing in the bird, or do you do it separately?

Craig Halford, Rotherham

I do the stuffing in the bird, but serve it separately.

What would you do to someone who served a smoked-salmon starter before Christmas dinner? Have them committed?

Naomi Jones, Leeds

I think that's all right. There's nothing wrong with traditional starters like a nice prawn cocktail.

My son's new wife is joining us for Christmas lunch this year, but she doesn't eat pork. What else can I use, other than bacon, to keep my turkey moist on Christmas Day?

Mary Lammers, Ashford, Kent

Oh, that's a tricky one if you can't use bacon. If you have any goose fat that would work. Rub the turkey with goose fat or butter and wrap the whole bird in foil, but like a pillow so there is space between the top of the turkey and the foil. Pour some stock in before sealing the foil and that will lightly steam it and keep it moist while it's cooking.

My mum suffers from a wheat intolerance; are there any alternative recipes for stuffing that you can recommend?

Katja Ford, by email

There's no reason to put bread in your stuffing, you can just use (wheat-free) sausage meat. Make it with things like apricots and nuts, lots of sage and different herbs.

I said I'd host Christmas for my mum and sister this year, but my oven's tiny. I can barely fit a turkey in there, never mind all the veg too. What would you do?

Hattie Logan, Brighton

I wouldn't buy a whole turkey, just buy a breast of turkey like the crown and then you can just cook that. Or a chicken. With the crown you don't need as much oven space and it's not going to take as long as a turkey, and you can even put your veg in and finish off the turkey afterwards. You can do the veg earlier and add a little bit of chicken or turkey stock and butter and lightly glaze them to finish. Or steaming veg is always good.

I'd like to try something new this year, but I do like Christmas to be traditional. Are there any Christmas traditions from other countries I should be trying?

Phil Price, Exeter

The only one I know is from Sweden. They always do a smorgasbord, which is quite fun. They do lots of different types of fish. They might start off with smoked fish, then there will be raw fish like herrings, and then there will be cheese and ham. Then you have the cooked stuff, including meatballs and lamb steaks.

If the main event of Christmas Day (ie, the turkey and trimmings) is planned for the evening, and everyone's been up since 6am and eaten a carb-laden breakfast, what would make a smart but light lunch?

Olivia Thompson, London, W6

I would just do a salad. Something really nice and light like a pomegranate and orange salad with some chicory. If you really want to eat, have a bit of fish, but if you're going to eat later make sure you space it out. Or have a late breakfast of eggs or an omelette and don't have lunch at all.

What are the benefits of stuffing the turkey?

Chris Rushworth by email

It keeps it moist and the stuffing cooks nicely in all the turkey juices. And it uses less oven space by reducing the number of dishes you have to cook.

If the whole country decided to have a vegetarian Christmas, what would you suggest so that no one would miss the poor turkey?

Nitin Mehta, Croydon

I think aubergine parmigiana is always lovely – baked aubergines in mozzarella. A nice dish is pumpkin and lentils cooked with bean curd. You could do braised vegetables, such as parsnips and carrots with garlic.

Can you recommend a simple accompaniment to make to go with cold meats on Boxing Day?

Richard Clifton by email

Piccalilli and mustard fruits, which are fruits cooked in a sugar syrup and then finished with mustard essence. They're an Italian dish and quite potent.

I'll be cooking for 12 people this year. Do you ever cut corners in making Christmas lunch? What's your top "cheat"? And can you tell me some good ways to get some of the work done in advance?

Carrie Moore, Stroud

I always do a cold starter and try to do desserts that are easy as well. Do as much in advance as possible. For starters I have done a beetroot and pumpkin salad with goat's curd, and a walnut , blue cheese and chicory salad with a red wine dressing. Or try orange, watercress and pomegranate.

What would be a traditional Italian dessert to serve on Christmas Day as an alternative to the dreaded pudding?

Nina Perna, Coventry

Zabaglione. Take one egg yolk and one dessertspoonful of sugar, and for every egg yolk add an eggcup-full of alcohol – mainly Marsala wine. Mix it all together and cook it over a bain marie before pouring into glasses.

I want to serve cotechino with lentils on 31 December. How do I go about this? I've got the cotechino from a deli. It's shrink-wrapped.

Susan Halpern, Cheshire

You slowly cook the cotecchino itself for a couple of hours. Cook the lentils in a nice vegetable stock with carrots and onions and finish with some diced bacon, sage and parsley.

My seven-year-old is keen to help out in the kitchen with the Christmas food preparations. What easy things shall I get him doing that will get him learning about cooking as well?

Anne Brice by email

Get him to help you make some mince pies and chocolate truffles and biscuits for presents. Get him to help you prepare the vegetables for Christmas Day as well.

What is the best way to start Christmas Day – your perfect breakfast, and your perfect tipple if you start drinking that early?

Abigail Walker, Sheffield

Tipple-wise, we serve great champagne cocktails with brandy, Grand Marnier and a sugar cube, and a raspberry cocktail with raspberry purée and champagne poured on top. Breakfast-wise, I'd start with some eggs to get some protein inside you because it's going to be a long day. I would do scrambled eggs. If you really want it to be luxurious, scrambled eggs with caviar and smoked salmon.

What wine will you be drinking with your turkey?

Peter Crowther, London, N4

A nice dry white like a Burgundy or a riesling. If you want red, go for pinot noir.

I adore frittelle di baccala. My fishmonger says he can get me some salt cod and I'm happy about the soaking in water regime, but where do I go from there?

Hilda Gray, Glasgow

Cook it in half milk, half water. When the fish starts to flake off, flake off all the flesh and mix it together with a choux pastry as you would use for making classic profiteroles. That will bind it all together. Then deep-fry it.

All my children hate Stilton. What's a good festive alternative?

Tom Gilbert, London SW14

Most kids like Cheddar, so I would go for a Montgomery Cheddar. Mont d'Or vacherin is slightly strong, but you heat it in the oven so it has a liquid centre and is great for dipping things in, so it's a nice way for kids to eat cheese.

A big ham for Boxing Day is my favourite part of Christmas food. What is the best glaze and way to cook it?

Adam Butterworth, Kent

Boil it up in a stock with some cloves, onions and peppercorns. Once you've done that, take it out of the oven and cover it with some English mustard. Sprinkle it with Demerara sugar and put it back in the oven and roast it for 35 to 40 minutes. While you're roasting it keep glazing it with its own juices.

Can you share a great recipe for a Christmas cocktail?

Sarah Redman by email

At the York & Albany we're going to serve a brandy-based cocktail called White Christmas which my bar manager, Gee, has devised. It's made with Drambuie, mandarin brandy, fig liquer and topped with a white chocolate cream. It's going to kill everyone.

I've been making curry with the leftover turkey for 20 years. Can you suggest some alternatives, please?

Charlotte Hamilton by email

Turkey stir-fry, turkey and sweetcorn fritters, turkey hash browns or a turkey and leek pie.

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