Finer ElementsCountdown to Christmas with Matthew Fort

From recipes to timings and cooking tips, Matthew Fort’s guide to festive feasting will help you carry off the countdown to Christmas with aplomb.

This is a practical guide to surviving Christmas. The countdown to christmas is based on a pretty orthodox approach to the day, because, in the end, that’s what most people have, in spite of the best efforts of chefs and food writers to come up with ingenious alternatives. I have, however, suggested a few ideas along the way.

23 December

Two shopping days left. Have you remembered that the festive season lasts five days? Yes, five days. Make sure you’ve checked:
 – The numbers you’ll be catering for each day
 – Gluten-free, dairy-free, meat-free, fish-free dietary requirements
 – Nut, shellfish and other allergies
 – Your emails for late additions/withdrawals/the latest info on individual dietary requirements
 – Phone numbers for emergency plumber, electrician, cooker and central heating engineer

Have you stocked up with:
 – Aluminium foil (for wrapping up turkey/ham/beef/Yuletide alternative)
 – Cling film, kitchen towels, dishwasher tablets, loo paper, rubber gloves, standby charger for phone
 – Aspirin or other liver/hangover treatments
 – Bottled water for those who feel tap water is too coarse for their delicate digestive systems
 – Extra booze, just in case
 – Eggs, milk, bread, butter, lemons, tea, coffee, tonic water
 – Nuts, crisps, pork scratchings and other snacky items
 – Plasters for Christmas emergencies

Have you made/bought:
 – Brandy butter
 – Cranberry sauce
 – Fruit for fruit salad and other alternatives to Christmas pud
 – Satsumas (or clementines or whatever citrus fruit you choose) to put in the toe of stockings (Fort tradition)
 – Cream
 – Duck fat for roasting potatoes

Make sure you have:
– Taken your turkey (if that’s the cornerstone of your Christmas feast) out of the freezer (if frozen)
– Checked if it’ll go into your pan/oven
– Worked out how long it’s going to take to cook
– Made the brine, if using any 

See also: Which Wine: Matthew Fort’s Guide for Every Occasion

24th December

Check your previous checklists—it’s the last chance shopping saloon—and review your planning for the next day. For example: to brine or not to brine?
It’s a matter of choice. Some people swear by it, but if you use my low-temperature roasting method I’m not convinced it’s necessary. If you adopt the more orthodox roasting process, then it may help keep it juicy. For a 6-7.5kg (12lb-15lb ) bird you’ll need:

6l water (approx)
150g table salt
2 tbsp black peppercorns
1 bouquet garni
4 cloves
2 tbsp allspice berries
1 tbsp juniper berries
200g sugar
2 onions (unpeeled and quartered)
1 x 6cm piece of fresh root ginger (unpeeled and cut into 6 slices)
Stalks from 1 bunch of fresh parsley

Bring all the ingredients to the boil in a saucepan. If you don’t have a pan large enough, add as much water as you can without it boiling over when you heat it up. Simmer for 5 minutes. Pour into a bucket or other container large enough to hold your turkey and add the missing water, if any. Allow to cool. Put the turkey into it with due ceremony. It should have at least 24 hours brining. Dry off thoroughly when you take it out.

Other jobs to do on Christmas Eve include parboiling potatoes, trimming sprouts, peeling parsnips and washing carrots. Take the turkey out of the fridge (and put it into the brine if using it). Remove the wishbone from the turkey (a small surgical operation that will make carving much easier).

Take the mince pies and brandy butter out of the freezer, and set the Christmas pudding in its steamer or pan of water. Arrange bottles of red wine in ranks in the kitchen and put white wines in the fridge. Make sure you have at least two pairs of oven gloves. Don’t drink too much. Get to bed at a reasonable hour. Remember to put fizz into the fridge. Sigh. Get out of bed to do so.

See also: A Guide to Infusing Your Own Spirits

25th December

Stage 1
7.30 reveille. Regret the second bottle of wine last night. Too late. Push on through the pain barrier with the help of breakfast (freshly squeezed orange juice, coffee, poached egg on half a toasted muffin smeared with Gentleman’s Relish).
Check the turkey; veg; cheese (take out of the fridge); puddings; drinks before lunch/dinner; drinks during lunch/dinner; drinks after lunch/dinner; water; aspirin. Take the turkey out of the brine (if using).

Stage 2
Turn on the oven to the appropriate temperature (see below). Put the turkey in.

Stage 3
Start warming plates and serving dishes. Arrange a tray of pre-lunch/dinner drinks and snacks.

Stage 4
Bribe or blackmail other family members into laying the table. Children are particularly suitable for this chore. Check their handiwork. Draw the corks or unscrew tops on red wine. Check the temperature of turkey. Baste if necessary.

Stage 5
Open presents. Take first drink of the day. Start cooking Christmas pudding.

Stage 6
Check the turkey’s temperature again. Baste. Put on pans of water to boil. If you have a second oven turn on to 220°C /425F/Gas 7 and put roasting pan in to heat.

Stage 7
Start roasting blanched potatoes (If you don’t have a second oven, fry them on top).

Stage 8
You deserve/need another drink. Cook the vegetables and warm the gravy. Rest the turkey.

Stage 9
Final check of table. Put the vegetables into serving dishes. Decant the gravy into a jug.

Stage 10
Summon the rabble to the table and get carving.

Get ready for the countdown to Christmas with our range of christmas recipes on The Master Chefs.