Londonist has been preparing Christmas dinner for our family for several years now, so we like to think we're a dab hand in the kitchen. (It also gives us plenty of scope for ogling Nigella without feeling too guilty.)
We usually prefer Nigel Slater's approach to cooking, which is pitched somewhere between Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson. Whereas Oliver can come across as a bit too cheffy (despite the supposed 'nakedness' of his cooking) and Nigella's recipes can still be somewhat daunting and complicated to the novice, Slater goes for simple home cooking which nonetheless produces delicious results. A good start for tips on taking the stress out of Christmas dinner (and cooking in general) can be seen in an article on iVillage, and further advice is here on Londonist, as we present our list of tips to help minimise the stress in the kitchen on Christmas day.
Turkey is not your only choice, despite The Worldwide Gourmet's bizarre take on Christmas dinner in the UK. Don't let tradition, or traditional relatives, force you to cook what often turns out to be a nasty dry bit of cardboard-like meat.
Over the years Londonist has cooked dishes like salmon-en-croute with currants and ginger, slow-roasted duck (a particularly good option if there's a small number of you), roast gammon and roast chicken, none of which took away from the festive atmosphere.
Slow-roasted duck - the recipe we used is long lost in the mists of time, but there's a recipe on the excellent BBC Food website here. Duck is quite a fatty bird so a gentle roasting ensures that you get as much of it off the meat as possible, while still keeping the meat succulent. It also makes a wickedly-rich gravy.
Roast chicken - we find Nigel Slater's recipe fool-proof, as long as you're not afraid of garlic. We can't find it anywhere online, but Appetite is an excellent book that is worth a place in every kitchen so just buy it.
Plan your meal with military precision, especially if you don't normally make roast dinners. Even if you're a dab hand in the kitchen, it's worth writing a plan of action down in case you have a few too many sherries and lose your normal sense of control. It seems like overkill but speaking from experience, it's well worth doing. This is still worth doing even if you've bought the ready-prepared food.
To construct your plan, work backwards from the time you want to serve dinner. Don't forget that if you're doing a roast, you need to give time for the meat to rest, so build that time in. You could argue that you need to build into the plan any warm dessert but normally Christmas dinner is so huge, you need to allow your guests some rest time before thinking about dessert. Working backwards, then, an example plan would be:
1500 Serve dinner
1445 Take turkey out of oven / make gravy / put veg in pans to boil
1435 Put pans of water on to boil for veg
1400 Put roast spuds in with turkey
1355 Remove spuds from pan and drain
1330 Put turkey into oven / start par-boiling spuds
1315 Peel spuds, put them into pan, ready to boil
1300 Pre-heat oven to gas mark 6
So, come the big day, with your plan in place, you can see what's happening when, and get dinner on the table at the right time, and there's no chance of forgetting to do things.
Buy puff pastry early! We learnt the hard way last year that puff pastry disappears from the supermarket shelves faster than an exploding egg in a microwave, so don't leave it until the last minute to get the puff pastry in. It keeps in the freezer very well, so you may as well just buy it now if you plan to use it in any recipes. Much as Londonist likes to create meals from scratch using basic ingredients, puff pastry is one of those things that is absolutely not worth making yourself, unless you are a masochist. Which brings us onto the next tip...
Don't over-stretch yourself. There's a temptation with Christmas dinner, and indeed any sort of dinner party, to try and make everything from scratch. If you hate cooking but find yourself in the position of having to prepare dinner, then there's nothing wrong with getting the prepared stuff from M&S. If you normally make your gravy from granules instead of the 'proper' way, stick to that. The food won't be quite as nice as good homemade stuff, but if you hate cooking, you'd probably make a hash job of the real stuff, so why take the risk? Your guests probably won't notice anyway; if you're worried they will, then buy extra alcohol and get them sozzled. Or else drink the alcohol yourself so you're beyond caring. If you are intending to get sloshed prior to dinner, get the deboned turkey from M&S (left) so you're less likely to have any carving accidents. Which reminds us...
Make sure you have a good supply of plasters and other first-aid equipment handy. Alcohol, knives and stress are not happy bedfellows, make sure you have something to alleviate the pain and stem the blood.
If you are prepared to have a go at making things from scratch rather than buy them prepared, these next tips are for you:
Home-made custard is easy. The fresh carton stuff you can buy isn't bad but it doesn't take much skill to make proper egg custard, just patience. You can even make it a day or two in advance to heat up at the appropriate time, so you get plenty of time to make it again if you cock it up and it's one less thing to worry about on the big day. Londonist normally finds Delia's style a touch too patronising, but we can't fault her recipe for traditional custard which has served us well over the years. Vanilla pods are expensive but worth it (just don't roll your eyes too much when relatives complain that there's black spots in the custard, as happened to us last year). If you're planning on making lots of custard in the future, vanilla extract (not essence) is a good cupboard staple to have. Buy the Nielsen-Massey stuff in the big brown bottle (left) if you can see it on your supermarket shelves, it's never let us down.
If you do use vanilla extract instead of pods, our tip is to make sure you put the right amount into the cream/milk as you're warming it up; if you add it into the custard when it's warm, your custard will curdle and look like puke.
Home-made mince pies are also worth it and if you make the pies with muffin trays you get a much better filling-to-pastry ratio. Note that the muffin trays we're talking about make normal-sized muffins, not those ridiculously huge American ones you can buy in coffee shops. We stumbled upon this little trick by accident but it worked really well and Londonist's guests ate all the pies, especially when they were teamed up with the home-made custard. There are plenty of mince pie recipes around but Ainsley Harriot's recipe is easy enough to follow. Just make sure you get decent quality mincemeat. Duerr's 1881 luxury mincemeat (right) is our preferred choice.
Our final tip: be careful with the Christmas pudding. Yahoo explains...
BBC Food - excellent website with searchable recipe database.
uktv Food - another good foodie website worth sticking in your bookmarks.
Waitrose - the chattering classes' favourite supermarket has a well-designed and informative Food & Drink section worth checking out. The monthly recipes are a boon to those who like to make their cooking tie in with the UK seasons.
Marks & Spencer - the supermarket for those who like to think they're buying posh but find Waitrose too intimidating, you'll find everything you need for a lazy, totally stress-free Christmas. We didn't really like the prepared turkey, and the roast spuds weren't nearly as good as our home-made ones, but if you're not a foodie, there's no shame in buying this stuff.