Some cooks do like to be prepared, especially at Christmas. Their turkey or goose will have been ordered from an irreproachable source many weeks beforehand. The stuffing will be made 48 hours in advance, the Brussels sprouts peeled and criss-crossed at the base and the potatoes peeled and quartered the day before, the milk infused for the bread sauce and the cranberry sauce ready to go. The fridge will be an orderly collection of bowls and containers of food sealed with film. The Christmas lunch will be an effortless performance after a morning of church, a brisk walk and a protracted and relaxed present-giving around the tree, the meal served punctually at 1pm or, as it’s Christmas, 1.30.
This may indeed be your modus operandi. If so, I fear this column may not be for you. I belong to a different tribe. Apart from anything else, chefs have to work on Christmas Eve, so Christmas Day itself often comes upon us with a bit of a thud. I have driven to the country on a Christmas morning with a raw turkey in the boot alongside other essentials such as a side of smoked salmon, some marrons glacés and a cherished bottle of Châteauneuf du Pape. It has not been unknown for me to abuse a certain item of Swedish stove-making technology as it whimpers its way through a Christmas afternoon in a conspiracy not to rise above 110°C and a stubborn refusal to brown my potatoes.
Such traumas are, I like to think, firmly in the past. These days I am an old hand at the Christmas game. Although the prospect of feeding a large family from a standing start can be daunting, the traditional turkey roast is not such a difficult task. A little focus is required and a ruthless refusal to be distracted from the path. The last-minuter, I fear, has no time for church or fresh air in the lungs, for he is wedded to his stove. With these precepts and this schedule at your side, Christmas morning should be pleasurably industrious. The rewards come later. Quantities for 10, give or take.
Rowley Leigh is the chef at Le Café Anglais, London
For more columns, go to www.ft.com/leigh
There is no need for the last-minuter to let standards drop. Although the small vacuum-packed chestnuts are very good, I have to have the mealy tang of freshly roasted chestnuts in the stuffing. It is a good job to get out of the way as early as possible.
A 5kg-6kg turkey, preferably a “bronze” from a free-range flock and hung for five days
Its neck, wing tips, liver, heart and crop
300g fresh chestnuts
500g very lean sausages or sausage meat
8 sage leaves
2 sticks of celery
For the gravy – thyme, bay leaf and a stock cube
½ bottle dry white wine
9.00 Light the oven (Mark 6, 200°C, 400°F), get the turkey out of the fridge and have a quick breakfast. Get the chestnuts and nick each one down its rounded side with a small sharp knife. Roast them on a tray in the oven for 20 minutes.
As soon as the chestnuts are cool enough, peel them and break them into large pieces. Put the sausage meat in a bowl and add the chestnuts. Mix in the finely grated zest of the lemon and the finely chopped sage leaves. Break in the egg, add a pinch of salt and a little pepper and knead the mixture well to make a stuffing. Pull back the flap of the skin covering the neck of the turkey and cram in the stuffing. Cover with the flap and thread a skewer through the skin to secure the stuffing. Season the main cavity generously with salt and pepper but leave empty. Place the bird on a metal trivet set in a large oven tray with sides at least 4cm high. Smear the butter over the breasts of the turkey and season well with milled white pepper and a liberal scattering of sea salt.
10.30 Put the bird in the oven. Prepare the gravy ingredients by chopping up the giblets, wing tips and the neck of the turkey into small pieces and place in a bowl. After washing the carrots and celery, peel the onion, slice them all thickly and place in a separate bowl. Now for the bread sauce.
11.15 Baste the turkey breast and legs with the fat and butter collected at the bottom of the roasting tin. Dot the chopped-up neck and giblets over the base of the tray, return the turkey on its trivet and into the oven. Next, brandy butter.
12.00 Baste the turkey again, which should be a beautiful golden brown. The bird, especially the breast, now requires protection with aluminium foil. Sprinkle the chopped-up onion, carrot and celery over the giblets. Do not adjust the heat, but return the turkey to the oven while you prepare the veg.
12.30 Check the turkey. Make sure the vegetables are not burning and reduce the heat to Mark 4 (150°C, 300°F). Continue to cover the bird and return to the oven. Put the Christmas pudding in a pan half full of water, cover with foil and place on a low heat. Supervise carefully over the next three hours, making sure it is not drying up.
1.00 Take the turkey from the oven and transfer it on to a serving platter or tray to rest. Probe the knee joint with a skewer to make sure the juices run clear and ensure that the bird is cooked. Cover with its foil and put in a warm oven (Mark ¼, 80°C, 170°F). Pour off the fat from the original turkey tray into a small bowl. Keep the giblets and vegetables behind in the tray. Add a stock cube, the thyme and bay leaves and pour in the white wine, plus 200ml of water. Return to the oven. Pause for champagne, presents and the first course.
2.00 The spuds should now go into fresh, cold, salted water on to the boil, as should the swedes and carrots. Make the cranberry sauce.
2.15 Take the turkey tray – which should have now produced a rich gravy – out of the oven and strain the contents into a saucepan. Turn up the oven temperature to Mark 9 (240°C, 475°F). Remove the potatoes when they are parboiled. Drain in a colander, dust with two tablespoons of flour and shake gently to distribute the flour and to rough up the edges. Heat a large tray in the oven and then add the fat from the turkey, slugging in some fresh oil. Once very hot, introduce the potatoes, spreading them evenly across the tray. Baste them a little with some of the fat and season.
2.30 Put the potatoes in the oven. Leave them to roast without interference for a good 20 minutes. Drain the carrots and swedes. Return to the saucepan and stir on a gentle heat to get rid of any excess moisture before sieving through a mouli-legumes. Add a large couple of dollops of butter, lots of black pepper and a pinch of sea salt, and keep warm in a serving dish, covered with a buttered paper, in the warming oven with the turkey. Turn the roasting potatoes, and remember to keep them well basted in fat.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil and drop in the sprouts. Let them boil for two or three minutes – they should remain bright green and slightly al dente – and then drain. Heat a large frying pan, add a large dollop of butter and the sprouts. Season well and let them brown slowly until golden, turning occasionally. Put in another covered serving dish and add to the oven.
Add any juices from the turkey to the gravy in its saucepan and leave to simmer slowly. Turn the potatoes. Gently warm the bread sauce. Reheat the cranberry sauce at the same time. Drain the beautiful golden brown potatoes in a colander and sprinkle them with sea salt. Put them back in the oven with the door ajar.
3.30 You have reached the finish line. You should now have produced a perfectly cooked turkey, still moist by virtue of not being overcooked, three vegetable dishes and three accompanying sauces. For the last course, bring out the brandy butter and turn out the Christmas pudding.
Treat yourself to another drink. And with luck, someone else will be doing the washing up.
The bread sauce
Bread sauce is possibly my favourite component of the whole meal, but it needs a little time for all the flavours to come together. I leave the onion and bay leaves in the sauce until the last possible moment when the sauce can be quickly reheated, with a dash more milk to loosen it if necessary.
Half a large white loaf
2 bay leaves
Good pinch of nutmeg
100ml double cream
Remove the crusts from the bread and discard. Cut the bread into cubes of about 2cm and leave on a tray in a warm place to dry out a little. Pierce the peeled onion with the cloves and place in a saucepan together with the milk, the bay leaves and the nutmeg. Bring slowly to the boil, simmer very gently for 10 minutes and then leave to infuse, off the heat, for 20 minutes.
The brandy butter
The brandy butter can be made at any time during the morning, but it is a good one to get out of the way early. I am not a great believer in using expensive brandy for cooking.
150g unsalted butter
125g light brown caster sugar
125ml average (3 star) brandy
Cut the butter into small cubes and beat until creamy. Continue to whisk, adding the sugar one spoonful at a time until the mixture is light and fluffy. Continue to beat the mixture as you trickle in the brandy. Transfer the brandy butter to a small bowl and refrigerate.
A very traditional mixture: the roast potatoes and sprouts are pretty much de rigueur but the carrot and swede purée is an optional extra that the very-last-minuter might omit.
3kg floury potatoes
1.5kg Brussels sprouts
Peel the potatoes and cut into roasting-size pieces. Keep some sides straight and others rounded. Rinse and place in a pot of cold water. Peel the carrots and swedes, chop into small chunks and put them in another pot of cold water. Trim the bases of the Brussels and excise any wilted leaves.
Mark a cross in the stalks if you feel so inclined: I think it unnecessary.
The first course: blinis with smoked salmon and herrings
The really pushed last-minuter might find the making of blinis a little ambitious and should simply serve some smoked salmon with some buttered brown bread. The blinis are rather special, however, and not difficult, especially if the last-minuter has accidentally done some preparation the day before.
20g fresh yeast
200g buckwheat flour
200g plain flour
¼ tsp salt
4 eggs + 2 whites
1 side smoked salmon
500g cured herrings
200g soured cream or crème fraîche
1 finely chopped onion
2 tbs capers
Make the starter dough. In a large mixing bowl, warm 50ml of the milk to blood temperature, no more, and dissolve the yeast in it. Add half the buckwheat flour and mix together well. Cover with a cloth and leave to stand in a warm place without a draught for half an hour.
Mix together the rest of the flours and add them to the starter dough, along with the salt. Separate the eggs and add the yolks, all at once, to the mixture and work together really well with a strong whisk to make a thick paste, slowly adding the rest of the (cold) milk, until you have a thick batter. Cover again with a cloth and let stand in the same place for a good hour. The mixture will rise, so make sure the bowl is big enough.
In another large bowl, or the bowl of an electric mixer, whisk the egg whites until they just form stiff peaks. Whisk about a quarter of these whites into the risen dough before folding in the rest. You should have a very light but homogenous batter.
Heat a large, preferably non-stick, frying pan with a small knob of butter. Drop in six or seven spoonfuls of the batter which should spread only slightly to form little blinis. Let them colour on a moderate heat for a minute or two, turn, repeat the process on the other side and lift out of the pan.
Serve the blinis alongside the sliced salmon, the herrings, the sour cream, onions and capers for people to assemble at will.
The cranberry sauce
Fresh cranberries really are superior to frozen, but may be outside the last-minuter’s purchasing remit. If using them, they will need a bit more water and take quite a bit longer to break down.
50g light brown caster sugar
The grated zest and juice of an orange
1 cinnamon stick
3 star anis
Combine the ingredients in a small saucepan with a couple of tablespoons of cold water. Simmer very gently until the cranberries start to break up. Stir well and remove from the heat.