Christmas Dinner 2014

I can’t resist taking on Christmas dinner, even though last year I ended up with my foot in a bucket.

Christmas is fun to cook because it comes with sufficient scale and budget to make it An Event rather than A Meal, yet it’s a uniquely low-pressure one. Everyone else is relieved that they get to spend the morning eating Quality Street instead, and that makes them an easy audience. You just need to serve up within 3 hours of the predicted time – although I’m proud to say I was less than an hour late this time.

Ah, and the other fun thing about Christmas is the chance to play with tradition. This year, I decided to go Swedish-inspired. (Swedish readers are encouraged to look away now and return for the next blog post, because it was not especially authentic. Especially not the gravadlax, as you will see.) I did throw in pigs in blankets and Brussels sprouts too, as nods to British Christmas. Here’s the menu:

Gravadlax with coriander mustard sauce

Swedish spare ribs
Jansson’s Temptation, a gratin with anchovies
Red cabbage
Pigs in blankets
Brussels sprouts with chestnuts, sage and shallots

Butter saffron cake
Granny Bennett’s Christmas pud

Here’s what the main looked like:

main course

(Pics are by Des. Thanks, Des.)

Jansson’s Temptation was a highlight. Apart from its fabulous name, the dish is very easy, and the kick of anchovies adds interest to a creamy gratin. The ribs were tender, but even after I cut the all-spice by 25% it was still a little too strongly flavoured for our taste. Cabbage, by my sister Susanna, was the crunchy style of red cabbage not the slow-cooked sort and pretty delicious.

dinner table

The starter tasted good, so I don’t count it a failure (hard to fail at raw salmon), but it certainly wasn’t gravadlax. I only read through the recipe properly on Christmas Eve, and found that I was, in fact, meant to cure the raw salmon for about 48 hours and clearly that ship had sailed. I also didn’t have a sharp knife to cut it into the ultra-thin slices required.


The cake was a solid sweet bread-with-marzipan-and-fruit number – other than the middle, which didn’t quite cook through. I’ve found this with large sweet breads before: they need longer than the recipe suggests and are difficult to tell if done or not.

cake 2

I had a panicky half an hour or so about 3 hours before serving time, in which I pondered my pathological desire to place myself in stressful situations. However, this feeling passed and I was reminded of how satisfying I find it to orchestrate a complicated meal. Here’s to more cooking in 2015!

My house is warmed

I had a belated housewarming for my new place last night. My North London friends came down to distant south-east St Johns, which was really touching. Here’s what I cooked:

Chorizo in red wine, with the wine switched for cider
Halloumi with chilli
Farinata, an Italian dish made of baked gram flour
Saffron rice
Chickpea and cashew tagine from The Food For Thought Cookbook 1987 (similar… suspiciously so, in fact)
Ratatouille, also from Food For Thought

The star was the chickpea tagine, which was an intriguing mix of sweet and sour and spicy. The chorizo was good too, but it’s quite hard for chorizo not to be. The farinata was interesting – oddly creamy for something that only contains one ingredient – but quite strange for my palate and I probably wouldn’t make it again.

On a geeky note, I discovered my new favourite system for managing many-dish meals: a white board. It’s a simple solution, but writing up a list of the dishes and the cookbook page numbers made a huge difference.

I took a disposable camera for a walk around my new surroundings the other week, and this is what I saw:

Lewisham Market is its own street-ful of stalls.  Three bunches of coriander for a pound = a bargain. Lewisham has a bad rep for crime, but there’s a sense of community here that the stats don’t tell you about.


My way home goes through Tesco’s car park and I couldn’t resist a shot of this car.


The alley that leads to my house.


In the other direction from Lewisham, you end up in Blackheath


and eventually out by the river at Greenwich.


I wonder if anyone knows what this is… There’s a patch of water that’s full of brick tiles, worn smooth by the waves of the Thames. Could there have been a tile factory on the site?


It seems appropriate to end on my favourite adopted cooking pot. It’s. So. Big.


Christmas Dinner

Apparently not taking photos of events I make food at is becoming a habit. Oh, wait, there is one. Here I am in my parents’ kitchen with my foot in a bucket of cold water after pouring boiling stock on it:

xmas dinner

Also in the bucket: ice (for cooling) and lemon (for hilarity).

After much boasting that my Christmas dinner would not be at the usual time of half three, but at 1 PM sharp, I of course reverted to family tradition and served up at the gloriously late hour of half four.

I blame the lamb. I bought two shoulders of it and they were enormous and unwieldy and failed to fit inside things. They also weighed 6kg between them rather than the 1kg specified by the recipe. Needless to say, parts of the skin was still visibly raw at the time they were due to have finished cooking. I exaggerate, but only a little.

The lamb recipe was a slow-cooked casserole by Lorraine Pascale. To speed the cooking, I resorted to putting each shoulder in a deep baking tray with its juices coming up almost to the top, sealed all around with tin foil. This worked marvellously, except when it came to turn them, because it was almost impossible to do so without sloshing stock over the sides. I spilt boiling stock over the floor at least three times, but after the first time I kept my feet clear.

For the pescetarians, we did salmon en croûte, which was amazing despite being dubbed “ultimate makeover”. I would make again in a flash if I can ever afford salmon fillets (i.e.: next Christmas). I used puff pastry rather than filo and didn’t regret it.

The starter was goat’s cheese and red onion filo parcels. I was pretty pleased with this, and enjoyed using filo for the first time. It’s delicate and fiddly – lots of layering and brushing with butter – and gave me a new level of respect for hapless Bake Off contestants who have to make their own. The red onions, though, were quite wet and didn’t turn deep-coloured and solid. My guess is that they are not meant to be covered while cooking, as  the recipe specifies.

Medieval Feast

On Friday, I cooked a four-course meal for thirty people. By the Wednesday morning, I didn’t even have a menu plan. You see, I had been sending the magazine I work for off to print, and it had over-run. Still, after a day of hard shopping and another day of solid and slightly frenzied cooking (with excellent help, thanks, Nix and Livi), it worked. I have a single, solitary photo to show for it:

Medieval feast sml

A true Medieval menu (example) reads like a succession of species names, interspersed with a few sweet oddities like jelly, scattered among the savoury dishes. This feast was not a true Medieval menu. Each dish came from an original source, but the composition veered more towards the vegetarian-friendly and was structured in a way we’d recognise – a separate dessert course for example.

A couple of notable things before I get into the nitty gritty. Instantly, you notice that many things taste a little sweet. The savoury lines are blurred. Then, cumulatively, you notice that everything tastes like Christmas. The food has the spices, the dried fruit, the thick and stodgy texture. Perhaps it’s the case that our most traditional English Christmas dishes have simply endured, unchanged, while everything around them evolved.

This is the menu we served, with my thoughts in italics below.

On the Table

breney with chips, aromatic fruit salsa
15th-century English, very good with some anachronistic nachos

manchet bread and fresh homemade cheese with parsley and figs
Big mistake to home-make both of these, although the cheese was delicious and I would do it again under less pressured circs. Manchet bread was as close to white as you could get in the Middle Ages.


pottage of swedes
14th-century English, this recipe resembles the diet of average peasant. As befits peasant fare, this was uninteresting and filling

ember’s day tart
14th-century English, traditionally served on religious fast days. A different and very nice egg and onion tart; we didn’t blind-bake the pastry, which you do need to 

Main Course

rummaniyya, meatballs in pomegranate sauce
13th-century Egyptian, in a History of Food in 100 Recipes. Unusual texture with ground pistachios; flavoured with mint, cloves, rosewater

grete pie with beef and chicken
15th-century English; we dispensed with the under-pastry. All the dried fruit makes this taste rather sweet despite no sugar in it

roasted rice with parmesan
16th-century Italian. Cut down on the suggested sugar and cheese quantities here. Didn’t exactly regret this, but it wasn’t esp sweet or cheesy

stuffed eggs
16th-century Dutch. Good, fiddly.

spinach tart with mozzarella
14th-century French. Thought this might taste a bit too similar to Ember’s Day tart, but was totally different. Very cheesy and genuinely savoury, which made a nice change

wortes, cabbage and leek
15th-century English; forgot to add the parsley to this – that would have made it more interesting


chardewardon, pear mousse with white wine
15th-century English; popular and for once the dessert-like spices felt at home to a 21st-century palate; better with less sugar.