Absolute beginners: a novice’s guide to cooking Christmas dinner

Date:

Did you sign up to host Christmas this year? Everyone back to yours? Is November you hating over-exuberant, wildly generous, hedonistically ambitious September you? Don’t panic.

If this is the first Christmas you’ve stepped up to provide this most emotionally loaded of meals and you’re feeling nervous, let me tell you the story of my first married Christmas in our first flat with a cupboard full of never-before-used plates and glasses. We began on Christmas Eve with a drinks party for the neighbours, followed by lunch on Christmas Day for just the dozen or so family members, working up to a grand finale on Boxing Day with an afternoon tea for, it felt like, anyone we had ever met. Don’t do that.

Try to think of it as just a generous Sunday lunch, and not to focus on things that may go wrong. Everyone’s left the chipolatas in the oven at one point or another, and roasting the turkey with the giblets still in it is practically a rite of passage.

Then there are the proper disasters. My friend Julia describes the time her exacting sister-in-law asked her to make a ham for the feast. “I found a recipe for a bourbon-basted ham, which I thought would be perfect for a Tennessee girl like me. I opened the oven to baste it and a small explosion occurred – a fireball emerged, burning off all my eyelashes and singeing my eyebrows.”

It’s only one day. Enjoy yourself, and consider anything short of burning off your facial hair a success.

Planning: what’s the worst that can happen?

Begin by making a list, several lists. If you’re anxious, give yourself a fighting chance by not leaving everything to the last minute.

Work out how many people you’re feeding and check you have enough chairs, plates, cutlery, glasses and serving dishes. Arrange to borrow what you don’t have. People like to help out and the slightly random nature of Christmas tables is part of their charm.

Check who’s vegan or vegetarian. Unless you fancy doing what I did one year, which is making a spinach pie with odds and ends from the freezer one Christmas morning when I should have been sipping champagne, because I forgot about the vegetarian cousin.

Inquire about food allergies – and be punctilious about observing those – but don’t be asking people what they like, because they will tell you and then you’re suddenly running a restaurant with eight different kinds of potatoes.

Do you really like that?

Many of us have fixed ideas about what Christmas dinner should be, which is somewhere between a Victorian Christmas card and a Hallmark Channel movie. Don’t impose someone else’s template on yourself. It is astonishing how often people cook things on Christmas Day neither they nor their family and friends care for much, just because of the straitjacket of tradition. This is absolutely the day when you should have exactly what you want, whether that is a massive roast dinner or an all-day grazing buffet of treats. It’s not a test you can fail. Don’t like parsnips? Don’t cook parsnips. Ditch Christmas pudding if you hate it. It can be whatever you want it to be. Make your own rules and traditions.

Delegate someone else, or a couple of someone elses, to hand out snacks and drinks Illustration: Rocío Egío/The Observer

All is safely gathered in

Once you’ve decided what you’re eating, plan your shopping. If you can still get one, bagsy yourself a supermarket delivery slot, order online treats such as smoked salmon, meats and cheeses, and put in orders at your local shops to be collected in Christmas week.

If you’ve left it too late to do all of this, don’t panic. You can scramble together the makings of an outstanding Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve if you have to. It might be a bit more of an adrenaline rush than you intended, you might have to scale it down a bit and be a little flexible about what you serve, but it can still be memorable for all the right reasons.

Shortcuts

We have elevated the concept of “from scratch” to almost fetishistic levels, but on this day of days, I think it’s perfectly acceptable to lighten the load a bit and buy in some components if you don’t have the time or inclination to make them yourself. There are great versions of cranberry sauce, stuffing, pigs in blankets, gravy, brandy butter, custard, mince pies and Christmas pudding and cake out there if you shop around.

Too much or not enough?

I never make starters on Christmas Day. There is so much food, and it’s more friendly and cheerful just to have small canapes for people to nibble with drinks while you finish off the last-minute cooking. You want your snacks to be just substantial enough so people aren’t drinking on an empty stomach, not so large that they spoil people’s appetites. Plating up, serving and then washing up a whole extra course feels like a lot more work than strictly necessary.

When we flip through cookbooks and magazines looking for inspiration, we take the serves four, or six, or eight as gospel. Yes, perhaps, on a normal day, but on Christmas Day when the temptation is to serve half a dozen or so side dishes, you often end up with far too much. I hate an overloaded plate, so I am deeply happy with just two or three vegetable dishes to accompany the meat. The sweet spot is enough for Christmas Day, plus leftovers to see you through Boxing Day without the need for more cooking.

TIPS

You can never make too many roast potatoes.
One small, shredded red cabbage, braised, is enough for approximately 200 people.

Can you delegate?

I don’t know, can you? I confess to being far too much of a control freak for this, but that is my own personal failing. I think it can work if you are quite specific about what food and help you need.

On the day, when you’re busy in the kitchen, delegate someone else, or a couple of someone elses, to hand out snacks and drinks. People also are generally keen to help plate up and serve, clear the table and wash up. Let them.

What can you do ahead?

A week or so before Christmas, begin running down the foods in your fridge and freezer to make room for the feast to come. It’s a bit dispiriting to spend Christmas Eve praying for a cold snap so that stashing the turkey in the garage overnight doesn’t give your guests food poisoning.

Pies, stuffing, pigs in blankets, lots of side dishes and gravy can be made ahead and frozen if you want, or made the day before and put in the fridge until you are ready to cook them. If frozen, don’t forget to allow time to defrost, or add extra minutes to the cooking time.

You can prepare the vegetables the day before and put them, covered, in the fridge. You can even parboil them (steam or boil them briefly), then refresh them in iced water so they’ll take even less time to cook the next day.

If possible, set the table the night before so you’re not in a tearing rush and can enjoy making it look pretty.

Countdown

At some point in the days before Christmas, make yourself a cooking plan, a countdown to getting everything on the table roughly at the same time. It will make you more relaxed when you’re attempting to scramble it all together while simultaneously trying to thank Auntie Annie for her hand-knitted apron and stop the kids from eating all the chocolate baubles off the tree.

illo of cheese and drinks to go with Absolute beginners guide to Christmas dinner
Don’t worry about starters on Christmas Day. Illustration: Rocío Egío/The Observer

There are lots of time plans online you can adapt for what you’re serving, but essentially work out your rough timings from whatever your slowest cooking item is – often the large piece of meat, or the Christmas pudding if you’re steaming it rather than zapping it in the microwave like 89% of the population.

Consider buying a cooking thermometer – depending on how keen a cook you are, you can buy a simple meat thermometer which indicates the internal temperature of your bird or joint, or a more elaborate one, such as the Thermapen instant-read thermometer.

Overloaded ovens can struggle and take longer to cook things than you anticipate, so bear that in mind. But meat can rest a lot longer, covered on a warm plate, than the often suggested 15-20 minutes. While it’s resting, you can whack up the oven and finish the roast potatoes and any other vegetable dishes. Warmed plates and serving dishes, and hot gravy, help too.

Allow yourself plenty of time. Invariably, even with all of your planning, everything can take longer than you anticipate.

Boring essentials

It’s easy to forget a lot of these tedious items as you focus on the excellence of your menu, but if you remember them, it’ll make the whole day run much more smoothly.

Plenty of ice
Lots of nice soft drinks, for health, hydration and sanity
Bin bags
A lighter or long matches for lighting candles and the Christmas pudding
Extra-wide tinfoil
Dishwasher tablets and washing-up liquid
Plenty of clean tea towels and washing-up cloths for tidying up
A multipurpose cleaner you can use on the floor and the countertops
I know it makes it sound like going into battle, but a basic first aid kit: pain killers, indigestion remedies, Savlon or some other antiseptic cream or spray, plasters.

Enjoy yourself

This is not only possible but – with apologies to the Baby Jesus – almost entirely the point. It’s not all self-interest – if you’re relaxed and happy, your guests will be too. But remember, you can only do what you can do, which is to create a welcoming atmosphere and a great meal for everyone to share. If there is anyone around the table determined to be a curmudgeon, that’s on them and nothing to do with you. Try to resist giving them the attention they crave.

Pace yourself. If you drink, don’t hit the booze too early and too hard. It will make everything else more stressful. Reward yourself with a cold glass of something delicious when it’s all well under way.

Most importantly of all, don’t worry about it being perfect. It won’t be. Something will go wrong, but if you’re calm and cheerful, you can style it out. No one will notice you left the chipolatas in the oven until Boxing Day or forgot to warm the plates. At least not anyone you need to care about. And if an eyebrow-singeing incident does happen, either actually or metaphorically, this Christmas’s disaster is next Christmas’s best anecdote.

Debora Robertson is the author of Notes from a Small Kitchen Island: Recipes and Stories from the Heart of the Home (Michael Joseph, £26)

Share post:

Popular

More like this
Related