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So many must cast a wistful – if possibly slightly grateful – eye when they read yet another Christmas recipe featuring turkeys to feed 16, trayfuls of roast potatoes and Brussels sprouts and industrial quantities of cranberry sauce. Many of us – and I do not exclude the extended Leigh family from this – will be feeding the masses as usual this year but there are probably almost as many who will be celebrating (and I choose the word with care) Christmas with a much smaller number of people. There are couples or threes or fours who will be very content to have exchanged the hurly-burly of the family refectory for the quieter pleasures of the little dining table.

Talk of geese and turkeys will not resonate with such folk. A pheasant might make for a suitably modest little Christmas, a truffled chicken would be a fine extravagance but I think the simple joy of a roast duck – not modishly rare but gently cooked through – is just as appropriate. With a rich stuffing, some robust Alsace red cabbage and a tart apple sauce this should be a better balanced but no less sybaritic feast.

Whatever one cooks and eats this Christmas, I cannot help thinking that the actual cooking process should be one of the chief pleasures. I am reminded of Bill Baker, a much-missed wine merchant of heroic proportions and generosity, who always did the cooking on Christmas day. Straight after breakfast he would nobly dispatch his cherished family to attend the morning ceremony at Wells Cathedral and, on their departure, open a bottle of Louis Roederer Cristal champagne. He generally reckoned to have finished the bottle by the time he had roasted the potatoes and before his family returned – whereupon he would open a more modest bottle and toast everyone’s health. Charity begins at home.

To start

Salmon and brown shrimp salad, dill and horseradish dressing

Purists may wish to use their own freshly grated horseradish: personally, I think a dash of vodka works wonders with “shop” horseradish sauce.

1 good Cos (Romaine) lettuce

2 tsp horseradish sauce

1 dsp vodka (facultatif, or optional, as the French would say)

1 dsp lemon juice

1 dsp cream

2 tbs sunflower oil

1 dsp coarsely chopped dill

150g smoked salmon

50g brown shrimps

● Remove outer leaves of the lettuce and cut into ribbons. Wash the salad in cold water and spin dry. Make the dressing by whisking together the horseradish sauce, the vodka and the lemon juice with a generous pinch of salt and some milled white pepper. Whisk in the cream and then the oil in a slow stream so that it emulsifies. Finish with the chopped dill and taste for seasoning.

● Simply arrange the lettuce on two plates and pour the dressing over. Arrange the smoked salmon in strips on top of the salad and then sprinkle the brown shrimps on top. Decorate with a few sprigs of dill and serve.

To follow

Roast duck, prune and apple stuffing

The legs of the duck should still be slightly pink (and cut into thinnish slices), while the breast should be pretty much cooked through but not remotely dry. A very generous portion for two – but could stretch to four with the gammon from the cabbage side dish.

1 Aylesbury style duck, approximately 2kg in weight, with giblets, and with the neck flab intact

200g good pork sausage or sausage meat

1 lemon

12 stoned soft prunes

½ Cox’s apple


6 clove heads

6 sage leaves

2 Bramley apples

Piece of cinnamon

6 cloves

1 large shallot

1 dsp sugar

2 tbs sherry vinegar

1 glass red wine

150ml chicken stock (or a cube and water)

● Chop the wings off the duck at the first joint, remove the giblets and carefully lift up the neck flap. Scrape the wishbone clean and then remove it by detaching it at the bottom and twisting it free (this helps greatly with the carving). Chop the neck, gizzard and wings into smaller pieces and distribute them around the perimeter of a large roasting pan. Preheat the oven to 200C.

● Remove the sausage meat from its casings and place in a bowl. Finely grate the zest of the lemon over the meat. Chop the prunes coarsely and add to the mix. Peel and dice the apple, macerate in a little lemon juice and add in turn.

● Chop the liver and heart of the duck quite finely and season with salt and pepper. Grate a little nutmeg into the mix and crush in the clove heads. Finish with the finely chopped fresh sage leaves. Knead this mixture very well with your hand and then place a third in the neck cavity of the duck. Draw the neck flap over and then stitch up the skin with a trussing needle or close it with a fine skewer. Roll the remaining stuffing into a sausage shape in a piece of foil and place it to steam in the red cabbage (see below).

● Place the duck on a trivet in the roasting pan and cook for 20 minutes on the high heat before turning the oven down to 170C and cooking for a further hour (protect the skin with a piece of foil if it colours too much). Pour out any rendered fat after 45 minutes for roasting some potatoes.

● Peel and core the Bramley apples, slice them roughly and toss them in lemon juice. Place them in a bowl with a couple of tablespoons of water, the cinnamon, cloves and a little more grated nutmeg and microwave for six minutes (traditionalists can simply cook the sauce on top of the stove). Whisk this mixture to a smooth apple sauce. I like my apple sauce to be sharp and tart; others may choose to add a little sugar.

● Once the duck is cooked remove it on its trivet from the roasting tray and leave, covered, in a warm place. Add the shallot, thinly sliced, to the pan and set on a good heat on top of the stove. Once the shallot is coloured, add the sugar and let it caramelise before pouring in the vinegar. Let this boil and reduce to a syrup before pouring in the wine and scraping up all the juices in the pan. Add the stock and let this gravy gently reduce for 10 minutes.

● Serve the duck on a bed of red cabbage with the apple sauce, some roast potatoes and the gravy strained into a little jug. To carve, remove the legs first and then carve long, thin strips with some stuffing attached at one end.

As a side

Red cabbage with smoked gammon

A robust and earthy treatment of red cabbage from Alsace. Normally a fatty, smoked bacon hock would be used. I could not source one in time and used a rather standard piece of smoked gammon joint which proved serendipitous with the slightly fatty duck.

1 red cabbage

2 tbs duck fat or oil

1 onion, studded with 8 cloves

150g smoked bacon

Bouquet garni of parsley, thyme and bay leaf

100ml chicken stock

3 tbs red wine vinegar

● Cut the cabbage in half, cut out the central core and then slice into thin ribbons. Heat the fat in a heavy casserole and add the cabbage on a high heat, turning it regularly and sealing it well, after adding plenty of milled black pepper and a small pinch of salt. Remove two-thirds of the cabbage and place the cloved onion and the gammon joint in the middle of the remaining layer, pushing them down towards the bottom together with the bouquet garni.

● Cover with the remaining cabbage, pour in the stock and vinegar and cover the casserole. Bring to the boil on top of the stove and then cook gently on top of the stove (or a slow oven, if available) for two hours. The cabbage is delicious when reheated.

To finish

Hot chestnut cake with pears and chocolate sauce

The cake will subside a little after cooking but will have a moist, buttery interior. It will serve six comfortably but it is not worth making in a smaller quantity. It won’t hang around for long.

The cake:

1 vanilla pod

200ml milk

200g peeled chestnuts

30g caster sugar

350g unsalted butter

350g caster sugar

6 egg yolks

50g plain flour

● Butter and flour a 22cm springform cake tin and preheat the oven to 180C.

● Split the vanilla pod and add it to the milk in a saucepan with the sugar. Add the chestnuts and simmer very gently until the milk has been absorbed. Blend the chestnuts to a purée in a food processor, adding a tablespoon or two of milk to help make it completely smooth.

● Cream the butter and sugar in the bowl of a mixer until very pale and fluffy and then gradually beat in the egg yolks. Fold in the flour and then add the chestnut purée, mixing very thoroughly to form a stiff batter. Pour into the cake tin and smooth out roughly with a spatula.

● Bake the cake for 45 minutes. It will rise a little as it cooks and will spring back to the touch in the centre when done. Allow the cake to rest in its mould for 15 minutes before turning out on to a plate. Keep warm in a low oven.

2 good pears

1 lemon

375ml dry white wine

50g caster sugar

1 vanilla pod

● Peel the pears, split them in half and remove the cores. Roll them in a little lemon juice. Bring the wine, sugar and vanilla to the boil, add the pears and simmer gently for 10 minutes. Leave to cool in their liquor.

100ml milk

150g extra bitter chocolate

50ml double cream

● Bring the milk to the boil. Add the chocolate in small pieces and stir in off the heat. Whisk in the cream and heat gently. To serve, warm the pears in their liquor, pour a little chocolate on to two plates and add a slice of the cake and a pear (without the liquor, which will make a very good base for a punch).

Rowley Leigh is the chef at Le Café Anglais


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