Christmas dinner made easy: planning ahead for the big day

Christmas dinner made easy: planning ahead for the big day

by Clare Gazzard 7 December 2015

Great Christmas recipe tips for planning an easy Christmas dinner with the help of Great British Chefs and Season Cookery School.

Having attended cookery courses in South Africa, Vietnam, Thailand and the Caribbean, Clare is always looking to expand her culinary know-how and improve on recent kitchen disasters.

Having attended cookery courses in South Africa, Vietnam, Thailand and the Caribbean, Clare is always looking to expand her culinary know-how and improve on recent kitchen disasters.

In the pursuit of making Christmas day as stress-free as possible, I attended a day of tips, recipes and delicious festive fare at Season Cookery School run by Exclusive Hotels at Lainston House Hotel. With Chefs’ Academy mentor Andy Mackenzie at the helm for the day, I feel I’ve come away with a little less trepidation for the main event…

Bird or breast?

Don’t get me wrong, the sight of a full blown turkey at the Christmas table is something to behold, but it can sometimes be the most stressful part of the day. How on earth will it fit in the oven? How many hours (or days!) will it take to cook? How do you stop it being dry on the outside yet ensure it’s cooked through in the middle?

Unless you’re feeding a small army, a joint, breast or crown of the turkey can be a much less daunting task. These cuts are still fairly substantial and now widely available through supermarkets and butchers in various stages of preparation. A rolled and stuffed turkey breast is simple to prepare, will still feed six with generous portions, and allows you to get creative with the stuffing mix. As the finished rolled joint is the same size throughout, it is much easier to cook evenly without one dry end or an underdone middle. A turkey crown is an even smaller joint still suitable for roasting, while drumsticks or whole legs can be braised with herbs and spices for a moist, flavourful meat.

Season Cookery School at Lainston House

Veggie, steady, go!

A lot of the faff with the veg on Christmas Day can actually be done well in advance, meaning the hob isn’t cluttered with pans of boiling spuds or steaming sprouts. Roasted vegetables such as potatoes, parsnips and carrots usually need to be parboiled before roasting to soften them. These can be trimmed, peeled and parboiled the day before, then cooled and left covered until ready to roast on the day. This is especially true for Brussels sprouts; a soggy sprout is never a good thing, so to reduce the risk of overcooking they can be parboiled the day before and stored in the fridge. Toss in a large frying pan with some bacon lardons and some chestnuts quickly on the day for a perfect finish.

For completely make-ahead dishes, braised red cabbage is a good way to go. Full of festive flavours, it can be trimmed, sliced and left to braise with red wine, redcurrant jelly, sugar, spices, apple or other fruits for a hour or so until sticky and tender. Simply reheat to serve on the day.

On the side

No Christmas would be complete without the trimmings. Have the pigs in blankets ready wrapped and laid out on a tray to be placed in the oven with no fuss. If you’re not actually cooking the stuffing inside the bird, it can be rolled into balls and laid out on a baking tray or pressed into a tin ready to bake.

Cranberry sauce is best made ahead of time, and as it’s a one pan job, is something that can simmer away for half an hour a few days before, then sit happily in the fridge until serving (just allow it to come to room temperature first). Unfortunately, bread sauce is best when fresh, but the bread itself can be blitzed to breadcrumbs and the onion studded with cloves ready to go.

And for afters…

The dessert itself is one of the easiest parts to have ready. If you’re going for a traditional Christmas pudding, then it simply needs reheating on the day. Although steaming is the most common way to do this, blasting the pud in the microwave for a few minutes will achieve the exact same effect, ready to be unmoulded and flambéed (or not) as desired. The perfect accompaniments to a hot Christmas pud are best served chilled; thick double cream, a flavoured crème fraîche, velvety vanilla ice cream or an indulgent brandy butter can all be made ahead of time and served straight from the fridge...

If straying from tradition, the best bet again is a cold dessert, leaving the oven and hob clear for the main meal. Trifles are still classic Christmas fare but can be easily layered and chilled a day or so beforehand, as things like jellies and custards will need time to set anyway.

Chef Andy Mackenzie

If the fridge is looking a little full at this point, a frozen dessert may be just the ticket instead. Try easy, retro classics like Arctic roll or an ice cream bombe – these highly adaptable desserts can be made with any number of seasonal flavours, perhaps studded with pistachios and cranberries, scented with orange or turned into a chocoholic feast to suit even the most gluttonous of dessert-lovers.

Whatever you’re cooking this Christmas, don’t let the pressure put a dampener on the day. With a little forward planning, you can get the bulk of the work done in advance, leaving you time to eat, drink and be merry when it really matters.

Thanks to chef Andy and everyone at Season for these wonderful hints and tips.