With so much riding on the big day, the pressure is on the cook, and even small slips can seem calamitous. Here are the best ways to avoid disasters – and the best ways to recover if they do occur.
Aaargh, the turkey does not fit in the oven!
The bird (or joint) should fit in the oven with a good 2cm of reserve all around – and certainly not touch the sides or top, or you risk burning or even oven flare-ups. Too much pressure? If the sides are the problem, remove the legs by cutting the joint between the lower chest and the upper thigh. The thighs can then be roasted on a tray under the turkey crown.
Calculate the cooking time based on the weight of the crown – it will be less than the whole chicken, so less risk of overcooking the breast meat – but put the legs in half an hour earlier. Don’t forget to allow about half an hour for the meat to rest before serving.
If the bird is too big, it’s almost certainly because the stand in the box is too high. Take it out and place a layer of carrots (halved lengthwise) on the bottom of the roasting pan, and place the turkey directly on top of it. Still no good? Flatten it. Remove the legs as above, then with large kitchen scissors or poultry shears, cut each side of the backbone and remove. Press down hard on the bird’s sternum to flatten the crown, then roast as above.
The British Poultry Council recommends that it is ready to be removed when a meat thermometer reaches 65°C, as the temperature will reach 70°C while it rests. With a good quality turkey like a Kelly Bronze, I pull mine out when it hits 55-60C and find it still reaches a safe temperature but is juicier.
Help, I overcooked the germs and I don’t know how to get them back
You are on trend. Crunchy veggies are so Y2K: now they’re soft sprouts, so you can just sizzle them in a pan with plenty of hot butter (to banish excess water) and scatter them over crispy fried breadcrumbs with lemon zest.
You don’t feel it? Drain well and pass through a food processor with a large piece of butter, a little cream, ground pepper, a good grated nutmeg and salt. Enjoy a sweet green mash so delicious you may never eat sprouted seeds any other way again.
My roast potatoes refuse to crisp – what can I do?
This is my worst kitchen nightmare. Get the right temperature: the optimum is 200C/180C fan/gas mark 6 to 220C/200C fan/gas mark 8, although it is possible to get good results at 180C/160C fan/gas mark 4, but it will take more time. Make sure there are not too many potatoes in the tray; they should be in a single layer, slightly spaced.
Overcrowding in the oven can also be the problem: if the potato tray shares the oven, the steam from the roast meat or other vegetables can make the hot air too humid. Take the meat out to rest and use the time to increase the temperature for a really crispy coating on the potatoes.
I help things by boiling the potatoes in water with baking soda added (¼ teaspoon per liter) then mixing them with ½ tablespoon flour, ½ tablespoon cornflour and 3 tbsp hot juice, goose fat or olive oil per kilo of potatoes before roasting them.
The potatoes you use are also important: if they have been poorly stored (in the refrigerator, for example) or are not fresh, they will have too high a sugar content and will turn black without crisping. Dirty potatoes tend to be better than washed potatoes, which can absorb excess water, and Maris Piper and King Edward are roasting mainstays. A reliable alternative is Albert Bartlett Rooster potatoes, which yield consistently moist roasted potatoes.
Ouch, Uncle Jim arrives on Boxing Day and just told me he’s gluten-free.
Ask if he is celiac or gluten/wheat intolerant. If it’s the latter, gluten or wheat may make it uncomfortable, but it may be able to handle small amounts with no noticeable effect. That said, it varies from person to person. So do your best to keep things wheat- and gluten-free — hold the bread and thicken the sauce with corn flour rather than regular flour — and let him know if something at the table isn’t. gluten-free, so he can make a choice.
If he has celiac disease, even a little will trigger an autoimmune response. You’ll need to be careful about gluten-containing ingredients in anything he eats: The Celiac Society recommends setting up a gluten-free prep area 6 feet from where gluten-containing foods are prepared. If it’s too late to hit the stores for emergency gluten-free items, apologize to Uncle J and ask him to bring his own bread or crackers and bake some potatoes. additional soil or rice.
Ready-to-eat foods can be a minefield, so check packages carefully; although crisps are mostly made from potatoes (gluten-free), they often contain ingredients like barley malt, which is not gluten-free. The same with drinks: beer is not suitable for celiacs, but whiskey is fine (even if it is made from rye and barley). Wine, cider and other spirits also pass the test. There are many cross-check lists on celiac.org.uk.
A guest of mine brings his girlfriend for lunch and I just found out she is a professional chef
Don’t stress! Poor chefs – on the rare occasions when non-professionals invite them to dinner, they have to give endless apologies from the cook. The truth is, they’re extremely grateful to be taken care of, and unlike the non-cooks in your party, they appreciate the work you’ve put into it.
I just can’t accept the idea of doing everything from scratch. What can I cheat?
Go easy on yourself; there are great ready-made options for toppings and treats. Roasted potatoes, as I mentioned before, are a real problem. But Aunt Bessie’s Frozen Duck Fat Roast Potatoes (around £3.50 for 700g in larger supermarkets) are impressive; only equal size and shape will tell you. Bake them 10 minutes longer than indicated on the package for a really crispy finish.
If you’re hosting a small-scale Christmas, a ready-made batch of braised red cabbage means the rest of the brassica won’t be hiding in the fridge until the New Year. Some versions are too sweet but Cook’s (£2.95 for 200g) is well balanced.
Stuffing mixes may evoke school dinners, but some of the fresher versions are excellent. I tried 14 different store-bought versions – here’s my verdict. Most of them are heavy on the pork, which is delicious but, with pigs in blankets, can lead to an overload of sausage meat.
For a vegetarian and gluten-free option, try Merchant Gourmet Chestnut Stuffing (£2.50 for 200g, Sainsbury’s). Finally, making brandy butter doesn’t take much effort, but having store-bought butter means you don’t have to buy a bottle of brandy just for that. All the supermarket versions I’ve tried are good (containing an average of 6-7% brandy), but Tiptree’s has a generous 11% (£3.20 for 170g of Ocado).
Oh no, I just burned the pigs in blankets
How burnt are they? Are they just extra dark and crispy? In this case, sprinkle with yogurt, sprinkle generously with chopped parsley, sprinkle with pomegranate seeds and call them toasted. Passed that? Life is too short to peel bacon. Ditch them: you’ve got stuffing, you’ve got gravy, you’ve got sprouts, so the major Christmas food groups are already represented.
The sauce is in crisis
The greasy sauce is grim, but the meat juices in the roasting pan are likely to be coated with a layer of fat. Smug Christmas preppers will use a sauce separator, basically a jug with a low spout that lets you pour the non-greasy juices under the oil layer and into the sauce boat. You do not have any ? A teapot with a long spout extending from the base of the pot will also work.
Alternatively, let the gravy cool a little then pour it into a rinsed plastic milk bottle. Prepare two bowls. Once the fat has risen to the surface, cut a hole in the bottom corner of the bottle and let the juice drain into a bowl. Once it looks like the fat is about to run out, quickly switch bowls and let the fat drip in (save it for cooking). Reheat the sauce and serve.
Is the sauce lumpy? Give it a quick blend with a hand blender or in a blender, then pour it through a sieve.
My mother in law offered to bring the smoked salmon but produced a very small package. How can I make it stretch more?
Never mind: smoked salmon was once a rare luxury, so give it the full treatment. Prepare a bruschetta to accompany your drinks, using thin slices of toasted bread topped with sour cream or cream and lemon juice mixed with a little horseradish and some chopped capers. Gently place a slice of smoked salmon on top. If you insist on hitting the store for more, here’s the Telegraph’s verdict on the best smoked salmon and where to buy it.
Eek, I can’t flambé Christmas pudding
What alcohol do you use? It usually needs to be at 35% or more to light up, but brandy, whiskey, vodka, and even gin work well. You’ll need to heat it up in a small saucepan first, then light it with a match before pouring it over the pud – and make sure the pudding is in a deep dish to catch any excess liquid. If all of that sounds a little spooky, the pudding looks beautiful surrounded by tealight candles. Put a candle on each plate with a slice of pudding, so everyone can light the Christmas flame.