Christmas Cooking


Fionnuala Quinlan of the Weekend Examiner telephoned a few weeks ago with a challenge. Could we teach a busy hack how to cook a traditional Christmas dinner in just a few hours? Pól O’Conghaile had dabbled a bit in the kitchen but never cooked a turkey or made a pudding before. This year, he had promised his girlfriend who had recently been diagnosed as a Coeliac that he would produce the festive feast.

He wanted to be able to cook the bird and all the trimmings so we ordered a fine free range turkey – sourcing a really good turkey is crucial to produce a delicious roast turkey – so we ordered a fine bird from a local farmer Nora Ahern, who has been supplying Ballymaloe House with fine poultry reared on her farm in Edmonstown in Midleton, for the past 30 years.

Pól brought his own gluten free bread, so we showed him how to make bread crumbs in a matter of seconds in a food processor. Gluten free bread crumbs appear to be less absorbent than ordinary crumbs so reduce the butter by one ounce. Same in the plum pudding and bread sauce. We spent quite a bit of time showing Pól basic knife techniques which are so crucial to enjoying cooking in the kitchen. So many people don’t allow themselves the luxury of a couple of decent steel knives. Every chore is a struggle when the knife is blunt whereas when you master a couple of basic knife techniques, one can chop slice in a rhythmic way and suddenly it all becomes great fun. We showed Pól how to chop and slice and how to hold a knife for maximum flexibility.
Pól was surprised how simple it was to make the Cranberry sauce. We used organic Irish cranberries grown by Ciara Morris in Co Offaly. Pól always hated Brussels sprouts but wanted to learn how to cook them. The sprouts had been picked in the walled garden in Ballymaloe House just a few hours earlier. They were fine big sprouts so we cleaned them and cut them into quarters so they cooked quickly. We showed him how to blanch them in well salted boiling water and refresh them in ice cold water to stop the cooking and set the colour. This means they can be cooked ahead and heated up just minutes before they are to be served. However it was the crusty roast potatoes which he seemed to favour most. Delicious floury Golden Wonders, par cooked for just a few minutes and then tossed into smoking hot duck fat and roasted until they were crisp on the outside and soft in the centre.
Pól was also amazed how easy it was to make plum pudding, again to make a gluten free version. We used Myrtle Allen’s recipe as a base. The secret is to buy really plump delicious fruit and proper fresh suet. Make no mistake the best plum puds are made from beef suet but remember to serve the pudding on really hot plates. The boozy sauce base can be made weeks in advance again. Just add whipped cream to taste.
The proof in the pudding is in the eating so are looking forward to hearing how it all turns out on the day.
Traditional Roast Turkey with Fresh Herb Stuffing, Cranberry Sauce and Classic Bread Sauce

Serves 10-12
This is my favourite roast stuffed turkey recipe. You may think the stuffing seems dull because it doesn’t include exotic-sounding ingredients like chestnuts and spiced sausage meat, but in fact it is moist and full of the flavour of fresh herbs and the turkey juices.  Cook a chicken in exactly the same way but use one-quarter of the stuffing quantity given.

(4.5-5.4kg) 1 x 10-12lb, free-range and organic turkey with neck and giblets,

Fresh Herb Stuffing

175g (6ozs) butter
350g (12oz) chopped onions
400-500g (14-16ozs) approx. soft breadcrumbs (check that the bread is non GM)
50g (2oz) freshly chopped herbs eg. parsley, thyme, chives, marjoram, savoury, lemon balm
salt and freshly ground pepper

neck, gizzard, heart, wishbone and wingtips of turkey
2 sliced carrots
2 sliced onions
1 stick celery
Bouquet garni
3 or 4 peppercorns

For basting the turkey

225g (8ozs) butter
large square of muslin (optional)

Cranberry sauce (see recipe)
Classic Bread sauce (see recipe)

large sprigs of fresh parsley or watercress

Remove the wishbone from the neck end of the turkey, for ease of carving later. Make a turkey stock by covering with cold water the neck, gizzard, heart, wishbone, wingtips, vegetables and bouquet garni. (Keep the liver for smooth turkey liver pate).  Bring to the boil and simmer while the turkey is being prepared and cooked, 3 hours approx.
To make the fresh herb stuffing: Sweat the onions gently in the butter until soft, for 10 minutes approx., then stir in the crumbs, herbs and a little salt and pepper to taste.  Allow it to get quite cold.  If necessary wash and dry the cavity of the bird, then season and half-fill with cold stuffing.  Put the remainder of the stuffing into the crop at the neck end. 

Weigh the turkey and calculate the cooking time. Allow 15 minutes approx. per lb and 15 minutes over. Melt 2 dessertspoons of butter and soak a large piece of good quality muslin in the melted butter; cover the turkey completely with the muslin and roast in a preheated moderate oven, 180°C/350°F/regulo 4, for 3-3 1/2 hours.  There is no need to baste it because of the butter-soaked muslin.  The turkey browns beautifully, but if you like it even browner, remove the muslin 10 minutes before the end of the cooking time.  Alternatively, smear the breast, legs and crop well with soft butter, and season with salt and freshly ground pepper.  If the turkey is not covered with butter-soaked muslin then it is a good idea to cover the whole dish with tin foil.  However, your turkey will then be semi-steamed, not roasted in the traditional sense of the word. 

The turkey is cooked when the juices run clear.

To test, prick the thickest part at the base of the thigh and examine the juices: they should be clear.  Remove the turkey to a carving dish, keep it warm and allow it to rest while you make the gravy.   Cover loosely with greaseproof paper and roast in a preheated moderate oven 180°C/350°F/regulo 4 for 1-1 1/2 hours.

The turkey is done when the juices run clear. To test, prick the thickest part at the base of the thigh and examine the juices, they should be clear. Remove the turkey to a carving dish, keep it warm and allow it to rest while you make the gravy.

To make the gravy: Spoon off the surplus fat from the roasting pan. De glaze the pan juices with fat free stock from the giblets and bones. Using a whisk, stir and scrape well to dissolve the caramelised meat juices from the roasting pan. Boil it up well, season and thicken with a little roux if you like. Taste and correct the seasoning. Serve in a hot gravy boat.

If possible, present the turkey on your largest serving dish, surrounded by crispy roast
potatoes, and garnished with large sprigs of parsley or watercress and maybe a sprig of holly. Make sure no one eats the berries.

Serve with Cranberry Sauce and Classic Bread Sauce

Cranberry Sauce

Cranberry Sauce is also delicious served with roast turkey, game and some rough pâtés and terrines. We enjoy this simple Cranberry Sauce best.  It will keep in your fridge for several weeks.  It is also great with white chocolate mousse, as a filling for a meringue roulade.

Serves 6 approx.

170 g (6ozs) fresh or frozen cranberries
4 tablespoons (60 ml) water
85 g (3ozs) granulated sugar

Put the fresh cranberries in a heavy-based stainless steel or cast-iron saucepan with the water – don’t add the sugar yet as it tends to toughen the skins.  Bring them to the boil, cover and simmer until the cranberries pop and soften, about 7 minutes.  Remove from the heat and stir in the sugar until dissolved.

Serve warm or cold.

Note: Fresh cranberries keep for weeks on end but also freeze perfectly.
Classic Bread Sauce

I love Bread Sauce but if I hadn’t been reared on it I might never have tried it – the recipe sounds so dull!  Serve with roast chicken, turkey and guinea fowl.

Serves 6

600ml (1 pint) whole milk
85-100g (3 – 4 ozs) soft white breadcrumbs (use 6oz of gluten free bread crumbs and increase seasoning)
2 medium onions, each stuck with 6 cloves
35 – 55g (1 1/2 – 2 ozs) butter
salt and freshly ground pepper
75-100ml (3-4 fl ozs) thick cream
2 good pinches of ground cloves or quatre epices

Bring to the boil in a small, deep saucepan all the ingredients except the cream. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Cover and simmer gently on a very low heat (use a heat diffuser mat if possible) or cook in a low oven 160°C/325°F/regulo 3, for 30 minutes. Remove the onion and add the cream just before serving. Correct the seasoning and add a little more milk if the sauce is too thick. Serve hot.

Note: The bread sauce will keep in the fridge for several days – the remainder can be reheated gently – you may need to use a little more milk.

Quatre Epices is a French spice product made of equal amounts of ground white pepper, cloves, nutmeg and ginger.
Creamed Celery

Serves 4 – 6

1 head of celery
salt and freshly ground pepper
roux (see recipe)
4-6 fl ozs (120-175ml) cream or creamy milk

chopped parsley

Pull the stalks off the head of celery. If the outer stalks seems a bit tough, peel the strings off with a swivel top peeler or else use these tougher stalks in the stockpot. Cut the stalks into 1/2 inch (1cm) chunks.

Bring 3 pint of water to the boil, season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Add the chopped celery, cook for 15-20 minutes, turning occasionally, until a knife will go through with ease. Remove celery to a serving dish with a slotted spoon. Thicken the remaining liquid with the roux; add the enough cream to make sufficient sauce to coat the celery. Allow to bubble for a few minutes, pour over celery, sprinkle with parsley and serve.

Note:  Can be reheated successfully

110 g (4 ozs) butter
110 g (4 ozs) flour

Melt the butter and cook the flour in it for 2 minutes on a low heat, stirring occasionally.  Use as required.  Roux can be stored in a cool place and used as required or it can be made up on the spot if preferred.  It will keep at least a fortnight in a refrigerator.

Gluten-free Roux

Roux is used as a thickener in flour-based sauces and occasionally in gravies.  Gluten-free Roux works just as effectively as regular flour based roux and it is great to have some in the fridge, where it will keep for up to a fortnight.  Make it in small or large quantities for future use or it can be made up on the spot if you prefer. 

110g (4oz) butter
50g (2oz) cornflour
50g (2oz) rice flour

Melt the butter in a saucepan and add the cornflour and rice flour.  Combine the mixture with a wooden spoon and cook for 2 minutes on a low heat, stirring occasionally.


How to cook Brussels Sprouts

Not surprisingly many people hate Brussels sprouts because invariably they are over cooked.
The traditional way to cook sprouts was to cut a cross in the stalk so that they would, hopefully, cook more evenly. Fortunately I discovered quite by accident when I was in a mad rush one day, that if you cut the sprouts in half lengthways they cook much faster and taste infinitely more delicious so with this recipe I’ve managed to convert many ardent Brussels sprout haters!

Serves 4-6

1 lb (450g) Brussels sprouts, (cut lengthways top to bottom or cut into quarters)
1 pint (600ml) water 
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1-2 ozs (25-50g) butter
salt and freshly ground pepper

Choose even medium sized sprouts. Trim the outer leaves if necessary and cut them in half lengthways. Salt the water and bring to a fast rolling boil. Toss in the sprouts, cover the saucepan just for a minute until the water returns to the boil, then uncover and remain for 5 or 6 minutes or until the sprouts are cooked through but still have a slight bite. Drain very well.

Melt a little butter in a saucepan; roll the sprouts gently in the butter, season with lots of freshly ground pepper and salt. Taste and serve immediately in a hot serving dish.

Note * If the sprouts are not to be served immediately, refresh them under cold water just as soon as they are cooked. Just before serving, drop them into boiling salted water for a few seconds to heat through. Drain and toss in the butter, season and serve. This way they will taste almost as good as if they were freshly cooked: certainly much more delicious than sprouts kept warm for half an hour in an oven or a hostess trolley.

Crusty Roast Potatoes

8 potatoes, unwashed Golden Wonders or Kerr’s Pinks

Choose medium to large potatoes of even size. Scrub and peel. Put into a saucepan, cover with cold salted water and bring to the boil. Drain thoroughly. Lightly scratch the surface with a fork and season with salt.
Put the potatoes into smoking hot fat or olive oil. Baste occasionally. Cook until soft in a hot oven 230C/450F/regulo 8 for 30-45 minutes depending on the size. Drain well on kitchen paper. Serve immediately.

Alternatively, put the potatoes into smoking hot fat in the same tin as the meat, 40-45 minutes before the meat is fully cooked and baste well. Cook until soft. (Baste the potatoes when you baste the meat and turn them over after 25 minutes). Drain on kitchen paper and serve immediately.

Myrtle Allen’s Plum Pudding with Brandy Butter

Serves 8-10

Making the Christmas Puddings (from The Ballymaloe Cook Book by Myrtle Allen)

The tradition that every member of the household could have a wish which was likely (note, never a firm promise) to come true, was, of course, a ruse to get all the children to help with heavy work of stirring the pudding.  I only discovered this after I was married and had to do job myself.  This recipe, multiplied many times, was made all at once.  In a machineless age, mixing all those expensive ingredients properly was a formidable task.  Our puddings were mixed in an enormous china crock which held the bread for the house hold for the rest of the year.  My mother, nanny and the cook took it in turns to stir, falling back with much panting and laughing after a few minutes’ work.  I don’t think I was really much help to them. 
Christmas puddings should be given at least 6 weeks to mature.  They will keep for a year.  They become richer and firmer with age, but one loses the lightness of the fruit flavour.  We always eat our last plum pudding at Easter.
If possible, prepare your own fresh beef suet – it is better than the pre-packed product. 

6ozs (175g) shredded beef suet
6 ozs (175g) sugar
7ozs (200g) soft breadcrumbs
8ozs (225g) currants
8 ozs (225g) raisins
4 ozs (110g) candied peel
1-2 teaspoons mixed spice
a pinch of salt
2 tablespoons flour
2 fl ozs (50ml) flesh of a baked apple
3 eggs
2 fl ozs (50ml) Irish whiskey

1 x 3 pints (1.75 L) capacity pudding bowl

Mix the ingredients thoroughly.  Whisk the eggs and add them, with the apple and whiskey.  Stir very well indeed.  Fill into the greased pudding bowl.  Cover with a round of greaseproof paper or a butter-wrapped pressed down on top of the pudding.  Put a large round of greaseproof or brown paper over the top of the bowl, tying it firmly under the rim. 

Place in a saucepan one-third full of boiling water and simmer for 10 hours.  Do not allow the after to boil over the top and do not let it boil dry either.  Store in a cool place until needed.

Boil for 1 1/2 – 2 hours before serving.  Left-over pudding may be fried in butter.

Serve with Whiskey Cream or Brandy butter.
Brandy Butter
(Gluten free also)

3ozs (75g) butter
3ozs (75g) icing sugar
2-6 tablespoons brandy

Cream the butter until very light, add the icing sugar and beat again.  Then beat in the brandy, drop by drop.  If you have a food processor, use it: you will get a wonderfully light and fluffy Brandy Butter. Store covered in a glass jar.  It will keep for several weeks.
Thrifty Tip

Save slices of stale white bread to make bread crumbs. Simply trim off the crusts (or leave them on if you don’t mind the flecks of crust) and pop in a food processor or liquidiser, cover and whizz for few seconds until the bread has been reduced to crumbs.
Freeze and use as required for stuffings, crumbles, coatings or buttered crumbs.

Hot Tips

Slow Food Celebration of Winter

Dublin’s Slow Food convivium will be hosting the second of its Seasonal Celebrations – A Celebration of Winter – on December 14th at Temple Bar’s Meeting House Square.
Go along to celebrate the new season’s bounty with our city’s small producers, artisans and community gardens. There will be tasting stalls and music.
All proceeds will go to help encourage edible schoolyards in all Irish schools
01-677 2255
Truffles for Irish Gardeners
Johnstown GAarden Centre offers the unique opportunity to Irish gardeners of growing their own natural summer truffles. Johnstown have teamed up with global truffle expert Dr Paul Thomas to develop young hazel trees impregnated with the truffle fungus that should be ready to harvest up to four years after planting with an expected yield of about 1kg at maturity. This wet summer has been particularly good for truffle finds.
Cork on Ice
Bill Cremin has opened a 700 square meter ice rink under a marquee in Little Island Cork over the Christmas and New Year period. Alongside the marquee is an artisan food tent where you can buy Green Saffron curries, steaming mugs of hot chocolate from O’Conaill’s chocolates and sausages from the Gourmet Sausage Company.
The ice rink will be open until January.  086 2145525

About the author

Darina Allen
By Darina Allen


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