A FEW WEEKS TO GO…
Never underestimate the importance of good planning. This is the time to gather your preferred recipes, work out how many people will be eating, make the necessary multiplication and write your ingredients list. Armstrong is always surprised that people leave it to the last minute to work out how much food they need for each person. He says: “It’s amazing how many people would do it in a more ad hoc way, as they are getting the meal together in the kitchen, but it’s something to do at the first step.”
When writing a shopping list, split it into separate headings for each category, such as meat products, fish and beverages. “This saves you a huge amount of time,” Armstrong says.
Place your orders in good time. This could mean phoning local suppliers like a butcher or, if you’re a super-planner, placing your order online with a retailer such as Ocado. “The great thing about online ordering is that you can book your delivery slot and change the order around before the day. But slots go quickly at Christmas so you have to act quickly.”
Take a leaf out of a professional chef’s book and make a list of any equipment you’ll need on the big day that’s specific to your recipes. Armstrong says: “You don’t want to get to the day and suddenly find you don’t have the right size tin foil or oven dish.”
When choosing recipes, keep it simple and cook within your knowledge. If you do want to try something new, practise the recipe in advance so it goes smoothly on the day. Picking a cold starter, such as game terrine or gravlax, is a good option as you can plate it up, put it on the table and get back to cooking. “Christmas is about people getting together so the standard of cooking shouldn’t be that of a three-star Michelin restaurant,” the chef says.
A WEEK TO GO…
With your orders already placed, the actual buying or delivery of ingredients can usually be completed by two days before the big day. “Unless you choose something really fragile for your starter, all the main things like turkey, sprouts and chipolatas can be stored for two or three days,” Armstrong says.
Don’t be afraid to buy ready-made elements of the meal. After all, a proper homemade Christmas pudding needs to be made weeks in advance. Armstrong says: “The centrepiece of your meal is the bird with all the trimmings, so if you focus on that you can do something super simple or even pre-made for the first and last course.”
ONE DAY TO GO…
You can get the meal oven-ready on Christmas Eve so that Christmas Day is as stress-free as possible. Make sure your turkey is trussed and stuffed and, to save time, you can peel your garlic and veg too, but make sure you store peeled potatoes in water.
Salad can be picked and washed in advance and the dressing prepared. Prepare cold starters and desserts, too.
Accompaniments, such as cranberry sauce or jellies, can be made on Christmas Eve as well. Armstrong adds: “Bread sauce should be made on the day you’re using it, but you can get the breadcrumbs weighed up and have the ingredients ready the day before.”
If you’re using an Aga, you can begin cooking your bird in the top left-hand oven on the night of Christmas Eve so it just needs to be finished off on Christmas day.
ON THE DAY…
Whether you’re having goose or turkey, prioritise your bird and work out when it needs to go in the oven. Cooking times vary according to size but, as a rough guide, allow 20 minutes per pound, plus an extra 20 minutes overall. Once cooked, cover and allow to rest before you serve it. Armstrong says: “I’d recommend starting on a hot temperature of around 200C. Cook it initially for about half an hour, by which point the bird will be brown but uncooked. Then turn the oven down and cook through [for the relevant time]. Make sure you’ve done the calculation in advance.”
Roast potatoes are next on the list of priorities as they often take longer than expected. “As people only tend to have one oven, it can get very moist and you find you can’t do the bird and roasties at the same time,” Armstrong says. “But the great thing about roast potatoes is you can cook them off on the day, and then heat them back through before serving.”
When the bird is resting, it’s a good time to make a sauce in the pan, and get your veggies on the go last. Armstrong adds: “Be careful not to overcrowd your oven or it won’t work as well. Be realistic, and if you can’t do roast parsnips, for example, make a parsnip puree.”
You can make the meal as complex as you like, throwing in nibbles and canapes, but Armstrong reckons less is more. “Once your guests get stuck into the booze and you know you’ve got a huge meal ahead, it’s best to make it nice and light so people will really enjoy what they eat at the table.”
TIPS FROM THE TOP
Fellow chefs share their handiest festive hints…
James Martin: “All the boiled veg can be cooked the night before. Once cooked, drain the vegetables and put them ice cold water, then drain them off, put them in a tray and place it in the fridge. When you want to use them, put the vegetables in a pan and pour a kettle full of water over the top. Leave it for one minute and then drain the veg off down the sink. It gives you perfectly cooked veg!”
Michel Roux: “Christmas should be a family gathering and everyone has to chip in. Find out who wants to do what and get people to do what they love. And don’t overdo the meal – do one course very well and, if needed, buy a bit of food prepared by other people.”
Michel Roux: The Collection is published by Quadrille, £25.
Nigel Slater: “Find a recipe that is ‘cut and come again’. It can be a pate, a pie or a pudding – anything you can make one day and serve the next. That way, you’ve got something tucked away and you don’t have to start cooking immediately when you wake up. And if anyone rings the doorbell you’ve got something for them.”
Nigel Slater’s The Kitchen Diaries II is published by Fourth Estate, priced £30.
Clarissa Dickson Wright: “Christmas dinner is actually the easiest and most predictable meal in the world. Keep it to what people can reasonably eat and stay sober until it’s put on the table. The problem is people start drinking too early and get in a muddle and that’s when things go wrong.”
Jo Wheatley, 2011 winner of The Great British Bake Off: “When I’ve got spare time, I make packs of different types of pastry and pop them in the freezer with labels. When you want to make mince pies, you can get the pastry out the night before, make a batch in the morning and you can freeze them again after baking. You don’t have to make everything in one go.”
To book one of Le Cordon Bleu’s courses, including gourmet and short courses, visit www.lcblondon.com or call 020 7400 3900