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Turkey or roast beef? Here's what the ideal Christmas dinner looks like, according to the experts

Boiled or roast ham? Homemade or instant gravy? And what’s for dessert? A deep dive.

Image: Shutterstock

CHRISTMAS IS COMING. It’s meant to be a time for family, friends and feasting but sometimes Christmas cooking can lose its sparkle.

This time of year can be a minefield of unachievable menus, fussy eaters and, of course, the pressure to deliver. But what does the ‘perfect’ Christmas meal really boil down to? 

I’ve scoured the Christmas cookbooks and consulted some no-nonsense chefs to put together the ultimate guide to cooking on December 25, from the recipe planning to the final spoon of dessert.

1. The pre-dinner prep

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Anyone who knows their onions understands that preparation is key for Christmas. In our house, recipes are broken down into a running order and timing list. It’s a game changer.

Two Christmas guides I swear by are Darina Allen’s Simply Delicious Christmas, a book we grew up with and a favourite in many Irish homes, and Nigella Lawson’s hugely popular Nigella Christmas.

Darina is full of sensible advice while Nigella (a list lover like myself) suggests, “writing out what must be done, and ticking it off as you go, is hugely satisfying.” 

The verdict: Make like Santa and get your list sorted first. 

2. The starters

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It’s imperative to keep it simple here. Graham Herterich, baker and chef, always serves a retro 1970s prawn cocktail, as does chef Hilary O’Hagan Brennan.

“Better if you can get shell on prawns and cook them in boiling water with a tablespoon of sugar, a tablespoon of salt and two lemons for three minutes,” says Hilary. “Then plunge into ice cold water. This keeps them sweet and juicy.” 

In Simple Delicious Christmas, Darina recommends soup as a starter: made ahead, frozen and packed with seasonal winter veggies.

In my own house, smoked salmon always makes an appearance followed by a second starter of chicken liver pate. Both give a great sense of occasion but are simple to serve. Gar Mullins, executive chef at The Marker Hotel, agrees. “I go for smoked salmon for the adults and melon with a raspberry coulis for the kids.” 

The verdict: Keep it simple. Salmon, prawns, pate or soup are great options.

3. Your turkey and ham

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In Ireland, we still fully embrace the traditional turkey and ham. In the four week period up to December 31 last year, Republic of Ireland households bought 6.8 million ham joints and 4.8 million turkeys, according to Kantar Worldpanel.

“None of this going off-piste malarkey for me,” says Hilary O’Hagan Brennan. “It’s not about trying to show off your culinary prowess. It’s about family and tradition, warm fuzzy memories… and great quality ham.” 

If you are tackling a turkey this year, what can you do to get it right? Nigella’s turkey brine recipe took off a few years ago and many home cooks swear by it (me included). The recipe involves submerging the turkey in a spiced brine mix overnight before you cook it, to keep the bird plump and moist while roasting. 

Ham doesn’t seem to get the same fanfare as the turkey, but it’s still essential for most of us – and it’s much easier to serve and handle than the bird. These days, good quality, oven ready ham is easy to come by, and it doesn’t take much more than a boozy glaze to make it a winner. Gar Mullins likes to cook his “in cider and stock and glaze with honey, mustard, few cloves and plenty of brown sugar.”

The verdict: A bit of turkey brining and the traditional trimmings should keep everyone happy.

4. Alternatives to the classic bird

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Not every house is going to partake in turkey and ham, of course. “I’m not a huge fan, we’ll have slow-braised lamb this year,” says Graham Herterich.

Darina Allen offers up a few suitable alternatives  – a roast goose with potato stuffing or a smaller roast pheasant for a party of two or three.

But what if you’re looking for a meat-free main? Is the much dreaded nut-roast mandatory? For veggies at the table, I favour a roast stuffed pumpkin, or a whole roast cauliflower. You can easily cook both with the typical Christmas flavours of herbs and onions, served with the usual trimmings.

The verdict: Skip the nut roast this year. 

5. All the trimmings

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Now we really get down to the important stuff – the sides. Would we be so enthusiastic about Christmas dinner if there wasn’t a table laden with all sorts of sides, sauces and stuffings?

Stick to the family recipes here. “Everyone has their own stuffing recipe with that secret ingredient, their own way of making the perfect roast potatoes and die-hard rules about how to make the gravy,” says Clodagh McKenna.

For Graham Herterich it “has to be my brother in law’s sausage meat stuffing”, whereas in my house my dad serves up three separate types.

Gravy is a given but Christmas is also a time of year where every other sauce option seems to appear: cranberry, Cumberland, mustard. Almost every chef and cook I polled insisted on DIY sauces.

Homemade cranberry sauce, for example, is a no-brainer while fresh cranberries are relatively easy to come by. Nigella Lawson’s simple version with cherry brandy is divine – you’ll be surprised at just how easy it is.

The verdict: You can’t beat homemade stuffing and sauce.

6. Time for dessert (and cheese)

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Christmas is famously the meal that goes on forever: pudding, mince pies, trifle and cheese.

Hilary O’Hagan Brennan favours “a minimum of three” options on her cheeseboard. “You’ll need a really stinky gooey number – and my mum always buys Wensleydale with cranberries which I have been known to polish off on Christmas eve after returning from the pub with my sister.”

Dessert is the focus in Graham Herterich’s house: “Plum pudding with everything, cream, custard, brandy cream and brandy butter!”

If you’re looking for traditional, turn to Darina Allen, who gives us every option for dessert in Simply Delicious Christmas. I adore her Proper Trifle made with sweet sherry, homemade sponge cake and egg custard.

The verdict: If in doubt, one dessert option and a cheeseboard will do.

More: 3 scene-stealing additions to make any dinner feel festive (without a panic)>

More: What to do with… those Brussels sprouts you’re dreading serving up at Christmas>

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About the author:

Ali Dunworth

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