Christmas is fast approaching and although I have a couple of recipes I need to blog, I thought I'd have a quick rundown of the top tips and hints for Christmas day. I've made Christmas dinner a few times now on my own but even when I was younger I used to help my Mum. There are some keeping your sanity tips here but also food safety tips (which is what I do as a job) because there is always a spike in food poisoning at this time of year and toddlers more than anyone need to be protected.
1. Don't panic. Christmas dinner is just a big Sunday lunch and it doesn't need to be perfect. People don't really notice once they're full of champagne, sausages and sprouts whether the turkey was perfect. (I know this from experience, I cooked for 11 last year after moving two weeks before and the new oven was a bit fiercer than my old one meaning I overcooked the bird. Did anyone notice? Nope.)
2. Plan your turkey (or other roast) to be cooked 1 hour before you intend to eat but start checking before the 'due' time. This is good for two reasons, turkey especially needs to rest and will stay warm wrapped in foil for quite a long time. Secondly, if the turkey is finished, there's then loads of room in the oven for roasties, chipolatas, parsnips etc.
3. If you have one, reheat your Christmas pudding in a slow cooker. Microwaves if you forget are fine but especially home made Christmas puddings are best (and more moist) if reheated in steam rather than in the microwave. The only problem is the last thing you want to do is take up a ring on the hob, so the slow cooker is a funky way round it and something I only tried for the first time last year. Just put an old upturned side plate in the bottom and rest your bowl on top then pour boiling water around it. Cook on high for about 3 hours.
4. Make some stock and do it in advance. For all of my "people don't notice the turkey" chat they do notice the gravy. A great way to make really tasty gravy is to get some chicken wings, roast them in the oven until they're browned and then bung them all into a slow cooker or sauce pan with some water. Bubble away for 30 mins - 1 hour in a saucepan or 2-3 hours in a slow cooker. Strain and freeze until you need it. Then put with the juices and, if the flavour isn't strong enough, a chicken stock cube on the big day and bubble up until the flavour is to your liking. Thicken with cornflour paste (made from cornflour mixed with cold water) and whisk in.
5. Don't make too many vegetables. The first time I did Christmas Dinner I think I made 10 different types and three of those were variations on potato! Who needs potato cooked three ways? Last time I kept it down to sprouts, carrots, roast potatoes, peas and sweetcorn and no-one complained! In fact I think they were happier as there were more roast potatoes!
6. Leave the fancy vegetables to the TV chefs. If you want do braised red cabbage as that can be made the day before and reheated but all the prinking with side dishes is a waste of time and no-one is all that bothered.
7. Prep the vegetables the night before. Although it is just a big roast dinner, the vegetable preparation does take time. Remember if you're used to cooking for 3 and then you're cooking for 12, everything will take four times as long. So peel the carrots and sprouts and put into a plastic bag in the fridge (plastic bags are easy to fit around your over stuffed refrigerator!)
8. Talking of the fridge, turn down the temperature (i.e. turn up the power). On most fridges this means turning up the number. So if it's on number 2 perhaps put it on number 4. Fridges are less efficient the more full they are which is why it's best to turn down the temperature to make sure things stay safe. I'm a food safety geek so I have a fridge thermometer. If you do, between 2-5oC is ideal but many domestic fridges are nearer 8-10oC.
9. Another fridge tip, take things out which don't need to be in there. Ok, chutneys, pickles mustard, ketchup, those kind of things are better stored in the fridge once opened but they will be ok for one day at room temperature, you're not going to do yourself too much mischief. Also take things out like unpeeled potatoes, carrots, parsnips, sprouts. You can get away without refrigerating these (until they're peeled). Also remember that outside is unlikely to be much above 6 or 7 degrees which can be great for storing booze!
10. Prepare the stuffing the night before. There's a great recipe for a simple chestnut stuffing here and it's fine prepped, put in the baking dish and covered in the fridge overnight.
11. Take your turkey out of the fridge for a bit before roasting and preheat your oven otherwise it will take a long time to come up to temperature.
12. Make sure you wash your hands well after handling the turkey and clean any surfaces or equipment which have come into contact with it. There is no need to rinse poultry under the tap (people actually do this believe it or not), all that does is spread cross contamination. I'm a bit of a stickler for this because I work in food safety but once the turkey is in the oven it's best to have a good clean down before you move onto other things.
13. If you have one, use a thermometer to check the temperature of your turkey. You will hear lots of advice about what temperature to aim for but the food safety answer is that you can aim for different temperatures but it's not just the temperature but the time. So stick a probe into the thickest part of the meat and, for me, I aim for 75oC but I hold it there for 30 seconds to make sure it has held that temperature for at least that long.
14. Don't put the stuffing in the turkey, it prevents good air circulation and you will have to recalculate cooking times. If you think about it a turkey has a great source of hot air circulation inside and out which helps it cook reasonably quickly. If you fill that up with stuffing, you make it all cook much more slowly and the last thing you want for a lovely turkey is dry breast meat.
15. As soon as leftovers are cool, put them in the fridge. If space is at a premium, I have to admit I have stripped the turkey meat on Christmas day and put the bones in the slow cooker for stock straight away, as a turkey kind of monopolises the fridge.
16. Have something available for toddlers to eat if you're not planning to eat the main meal until 1 or 2. Last year I made a little pot of chestnut stuffing for my toddler for him to eat at midday. He was then napping during our meal and finished his nap just as pudding was being served. It worked really nicely and the last thing you want on Christmas day is a grouchy hungry toddler or one that's wired on chocolate. That said, don't bother cooking something different for toddlers if they will eat at the same time. Even babies will find something in a Christmas dinner to have a munch on. I remember my, then 6 month old nibbling on a sprout!
17. Ask for help. I'm not doing Christmas lunch this year but I am doing boxing day for 14 and 12 are staying overnight. So far I have my Mum making sausage rolls, one sister bringing pate and tiramisu and another sister bringing mince pies. Asking for help is not weakness it's necessity!
18. Buy more butter, milk and bread than you think you need. Ok, I realise the shops are only shut for a few days but it's surprising how much of this you get through.
19. Oh and don't turn into a crazy person... It is just one day of the year. Yes, this really was the pork pie queue last year! This year the queue was longer, in the rain.
20. Have a merry Christmas! After all it's all about having fun!