Posted 18th November 2014 by Martha Burton
The Christmas countdown has begun, marked by the fantastically festive TV adverts, the whiff of pumpkin spice in the air and the supermarket shelves stocked with mince pies. So, it’s time to start planning for the most wonderful time of the year.
This Christmas, for the first time ever, I will be donning my chef’s hat and taking over the kitchen. I have to admit it’s a pretty daunting task, especially as my family would say that Christmas dinner is THE most important meal of the year. No pressure then. But, as I begin to prepare my Christmas menu, what are the most important things to consider? And what should I be watching out for? I spoke to David Proctor, head chef at the Thistle Aberdeen Altens Hotel, to find out.
For any newbies taking on the Christmas dinner challenge, “the key things are “preparation and timing”, says David. His team are responsible for cooking Christmas dinner for more than 2,000 people each year, so he knows a thing or two. David recommends planning early,“Get a pen and a piece of paper and write down how long it takes to cook each item, so you’re basically running off a spreadsheet.”
A perfect Christmas plate is filled with lots of delicious elements: moist turkey, fluffy yet crispy potatoes, sweet roasted carrots, well-risen Yorkshire pudding, flavoursome sprouts and smooth gravy – and that’s just the basics. David suggests, “If you want your lunch ready for 3 o’clock, then work backwards from that, detracting the time for each item and working out when you have to put them in the oven or on the boil”. You should then produce an impressive meal, on time, but be sure to build in an extra 15-minute window, just in case.
It’s also a good idea to cook as much as possible in advance, making sure the big day runs smoothly and stress levels are kept to a minimum. “Get your potatoes and veg prepped early. Desserts can definitely be made ahead and soup can be made the day before and kept in the fridge overnight”, David points out.
Having made a roast dinner or two in the past, I feel pretty confident about cooking the individual components of a Christmas lunch, but I am nervous about bringing everything together as a well-rounded, well-seasoned and hot plate of food. In an attempt to settle the nerves, I’ll be squeezing in a couple of practice sessions. David suggests having a run-through on a Sunday to test it out and get my timings right.
My mum has truly mastered Christmas dinner – apart from that one gravy disaster when she veered away from her classic recipe to try something new and “improved” – (but we try to forget that), and has successfully pandered to each of our special likes and dislikes. I am gravy-obsessed (so the gravy disaster hit me hardest), while my mum loves turkey with crispy skin and my sister is insistent on extra-crunchy roast potatoes – and lots of them. I definitely need to take these festive preferences into consideration when planning my menu.
David’s key concern on Christmas day is the centrepiece. “The biggest thing is your turkey. As long as the turkey’s alright, you’ll be okay”, he says. To guarantee a juicy, flavoursome bird, David suggests: “Put smoked bacon over the skin, add some seasoning and a little oil, then loosely cover with foil cook for a couple of hours”. He also recommends cooking at a low temperature (180 degrees) for the first hour, then increasing the temperature by 50 degrees (to 230 degrees) for the remaining cooking time. I’m well aware that judging the cooking time for turkey can be tricky, and I’ll be taking all the help I can get (the Turkey timer tool looks very handy).
To test if your turkey is ready, David advises putting a knife into the thickest part of the thigh. “If the juices run pink, it’s not cooked. If the juices run clear, it’s good to go!” I plan on saving those juices too, as they will make the all-important gravy extremely tasty.
In my quest for a well-prepared, well-executed Christmas dinner that brings joy to all the family, I’m keen to take on board as much advice and as many tips as possible, so please share yours in the comments box below. How do you prepare for Christmas dinner? What do you do to stay stress-free in the kitchen? David’s final words of encouragement are simple: “Enjoy what you’re doing!”