Christmas is creeping up on us — and somewhat faster than those tasked with cooking the festive feast for the whole extended family might like.
Whether it’s the risk of drying out the turkey, the seemingly-endless trimmings to prepare or the stress of soggy sprouts, there’s something about cooking for the big day that can send even the most accomplished cooks into meltdown.
But wait, this year there’s a change in the air. Take Marks & Spencer’s festive advert, with its rather controversial message: shove the tyrannical traditional chores and, instead, just do what you want. Sophie Ellis-Bextor is shown torching the not-yet-written Christmas cards, while actress Zawe Ashton whacks the dreaded Elf on the Shelf into the ether.
And it’s not just M&S. There’s Nigella saying we should give Christmas cake the heave-ho and halt our relentless quest for perfection, and Mary Berry telling conscientious Good Housekeeping readers: ‘Who cares if you didn’t make it all from scratch!’ Yes, the mood this year is definitely one of minimal effort for maximum results.
As the author of Six-Minute Showstoppers, which aims to take the stress out of cooking, I’ll raise a toast to that. From roasting the turkey overnight to plum puddings that you can knock up in just six minutes, here’s my guide to cheating your way to the perfect Christmas dinner…
START MAKING THE GRAVY — TODAY!
‘Tis the season for roasts — and Christmas dinner is really nothing more than a super-size Sunday lunch, with lashings of gravy.
Start making yours today by boiling the bones of yesterday’s roast chicken. Let the stock reduce down until it’s thick and glossy, add plenty of seasoning and (my secret ingredient) a generous teaspoon of Marmite for salty savouriness.
Then decant it into a freezer bag and lay it flat to freeze. You can later defrost it and use it to baste your turkey, flavour your stuffing and make your Christmas gravy.
Jamie Oliver’s recipe is a favourite in our house because it’s so simple: once the turkey is roasted and resting, pour the stock into the tray, scrape the crispy bits into the stock and place on a medium heat on the hob for ten minutes to thicken.
TIME SAVED: 20 minutes
PREP, BAG AND FREEZE YOUR VEG
Make trimmings a breeze by peeling, chopping and even seasoning carrots and parsnips now — then freezing them in ziplock bags.
They’ll easily keep until Christmas (they should last three months), and you can simply cook them from frozen on the day.
Red cabbage, too, tastes better when it’s had time for the flavours to mature and soak in. So make yours now, stick it in a freezer bag and simply warm it through in a saucepan when you need it.
If you really want to cheat, all the major supermarkets sell bagged honey-roast parsnips, julienne carrots and pre-prepared sprouts, which you can simply tip into roasting trays and cook. Just make sure you hide the packets at the bottom of the bin.
TIME SAVED: 20 minutes
MICROWAVE THE BRUSSELS SPROUTS
It just wouldn’t be Christmas dinner without the veg everyone loves to hate. But if you, like me, have spent too many hours peeling and crossing your Brussels sprouts, this is the cheat for you that can even be done the day before.
Simply chop off the tough outer leaves and base from each sprout and put around 500g of them (enough for six) in a heatproof bowl with a tablespoon of water.
Cover with clingfilm and microwave on high for five minutes, shaking the bowl halfway through so they cook evenly. If you’re super-organised, you can do this 24 hours ahead of time and keep the sprouts, well-covered, in the fridge.
Now, add a few knobs of butter, a tablespoon of honey and plenty of seasoning. Cover again, microwave for another minute —and they’re done. If you want, you can mix in cooked pancetta, chopped onions and chestnuts at this stage.
TIME SAVED: 20 minutes
COOK YOUR TURKEY WHILE YOU SLEEP
Brining, stuffing and preparing the turkey has many of us up at 6 am on Christmas Day, in a mad scramble to get the bird — which can take up to five hours to cook — into the oven to roast.
Then there’s the issue of it taking up every inch of space in the oven, leaving no room to squeeze in the roast potatoes or veg.
There’s a simple solution to the turkey conundrum: put it on to roast the night before, and let it cook gently while you sleep.
A 4 kg bird, which will feed six, needs around ten hours uncovered at 80-100c.
Check it when you wake up in the morning — it might look a little pale — and baste it with all those meaty juices. Pierce the thickest part of the leg to see if the juices run clear. If they do, take the turkey out and wrap it tightly in foil and keep it in a warm part of the kitchen.
Two hours before you’re ready to eat, put the oven up to 220c for around 40 minutes to brown the turkey and caramelise the skin. Take it out and let it rest, wrapped in foil, until it’s time to carve.
TIME SAVED: 4 hours, 20 minutes (and a lie-in)
DON’T BOTHER PEELING POTATOES
Life’s too short to peel potatoes, especially on Christmas Day. Just boil them, skin on, for around ten minutes until starting to soften.
Drain them in a colander, put them in a bowl with a tea towel over the top and give them a gentle shake. Thanks to the steam and a bit of friction, the skins should simply drop off.
For the tastiest roast potatoes, put them in a roasting tray with hot goose fat or vegetable oil and crumble over a chicken or vegetable stock cube for flavour. Roast for 15 minutes, flip the potatoes, and give them 15 minutes more.
TIME SAVED: 15 minutes
PIMP UP SNACKS FOR GUESTS
Forget stressing about a starter for your guests. If you’re planning the meal as a late lunch, all you need are snacks. Simply decant shop-bought crisps, nuts and breadsticks onto a baking tray and toast them in the oven, drizzled with oil, at 160c for 5-10 minutes.
Put them in bowls and toss them with a teaspoon of salt, a teaspoon of soft light brown sugar and a tablespoon of whatever herbs or spices you fancy: smoked paprika, cayenne pepper or oregano.
It’s easy to give shop-bought dips a home-made touch, too. Spoon them into pretty bowls, drizzle with posh olive oil and sprinkle on some nice toppings.
Crumbled feta and pomegranate seeds work well on hummus, while chilli flakes and spring onions are good with salsa.
For cranberry sauce, just decant the jarred stuff into a ramekin and top with orange zest and a pinch of cinnamon.
TIME SAVED: 1 hour
TRANSFORM SHOP-BOUGHT STUFFING
Supermarket stuffing has a bad reputation, but making your own — all that chopping, sauteing and rolling it into little balls — is enough to fray anyone’s temper.
So take that box of Paxo and turn it into something sensational by mixing it with good-quality sausagemeat (around 450g to feed six), 40g chopped toasted nuts and 100g dried cranberries.
Add plenty of chopped herbs — thyme, sage and parsley will keep it fresh — and the zest of a lemon.
You can put it in the fridge overnight at this stage. Then cook it in a tray alongside the turkey (never inside, as it can hinder the cooking of the bird) for around 40 minutes. Mary Berry would be proud.
TIME SAVED: 1 hour
SAVE ENERGY BY OVEN ‘STACKING’
Energy costs are still sky-high and experts estimate that cooking Christmas dinner can cost up to £25 in electricity.
With a few clever cheats, though, you can cut that cost in half.
Start by wrapping veg, potatoes and pigs in blankets in tin foil rather than using bulky roasting trays. Make ‘parcels’ by going over the top and sealing them tightly.
This way, you can stack several on top of one another around the turkey, using every inch of the available space rather than cooking everything in turn.
Alternatively, buy compact foil trays (£1.40 for five, waitrose.com) that you can wash out and re-use afterwards — saving both on energy costs and the washing-up!
MAKE CHRISTMAS PUD IN SIX MINUTES
Stir-Up Sunday has long gone, but there’s really no need to make your Christmas pudding in advance. Or to go to the effort of ‘feeding’ the mixture with alcohol and steaming it for several hours on Christmas Day.
Instead, you can use shop-bought Christmas cake to whip up individual plum puddings on the day — in just six minutes.
You’ll need a set of miniature microwave pudding moulds (I bought four for £3.99 from lakeland.co.uk) and a few basic ingredients:
- 500g Christmas cake (a half-eaten one is ideal, or buy a cheap supermarket fruitcake)
- 125ml milk
- 2 eggs
- 80g mincemeat
- A slug of sherry
Grease the insides of the pudding moulds with butter, then whizz all the ingredients in a blender. Divide the mixture between the moulds, filling them to just below the top, and microwave them on high, in pairs, for five minutes.
Let them cool in the moulds before turning out on to plates. You can top them — as I have — with melted white chocolate, drizzled down the sides like icing and glacé cherries for a festive finish.
For another instant Christmas dessert, swirl a few tablespoons of jarred mincemeat — or crumbled mince pies — into vanilla ice cream, freeze and serve.
TIME SAVED: 7 hours 54 minutes
Can this £50 gadget REALLY elevate plonk to vin magnifique?
By Helena Nicklin
As a wine trade pro of more than 20 years’ standing, there’s not much I haven’t seen in terms of gadgetry. Some work, most don’t, and others are purely gimmicks.
Enter the Winewizard wine aerator, (£49.95, vinalchemy.com), which claims to do four highly impressive things to your vino: aerate a wine instantly as if it’s had hours in a decanter; make cheaper wine taste as though it costs double the price; ‘neutralise sulphites, a renowned cause of headache-inducing hangovers’; and accelerate the ageing process of a fine wine in minutes.
The Winewizard looks like a miniature fire extinguisher, with a cartridge of compressed air and an ‘infuser’ through which air is pumped into the wine. Each cartridge will work on about 500 glasses.
Michael Pritchard, the man behind the device, says it works by pushing what is essentially normal air (a nitrogen and oxygen mix with ‘no weird gas’) through the wine, allowing the thousands of bubbles to work on a massive surface area of liquid. This supercharges the changes caused by decanting.
You spritz your wine once, or if you like twice — the first zhuzh changes the texture, making it smoother; the second zhuzh, and a couple of minutes wait, lengthens the flavonoids in the wine, making the tannins softer and changing the flavours in the way that more time in the bottle would do. It’s said that all that zhuzhing also neutralises the sulphite additives that cause hangovers.
To test these claims, I tried it on five bottles of inexpensive supermarket wine and one bottle of mid-priced, heavy red that needs a few years to mellow.
MAKES A £5 SAUVIGNON SOFTER
Sainsbury’s House Sauvignon Blanc, £5, sainsburys.co.uk
This is a standard value, aromatic, juicy Sauvignon. After the zhuzh, the acidity is softer and aromatics appear less pronounced.
Verdict: Still £5. What you gain in texture, you lose in aroma.
ALDI CHARDONNAY THAT’S DRINKABLE
Pierre Jaurant Chardonnay, £4.75, aldi.co.uk
It’s fruity with a touch of rubber on the nose. After Winewizard’s ‘magic’, the rubber note has gone, the body is fuller and subtle vanilla characteristics are enhanced.
Verdict: Tested blind, I’d guess this would cost at least £8.
POSHES UP LIDL’S PINOT NOIR
Pinot Noir Vin de France, £5.49, lidl.co.uk
This is clunky, rough and rustic in texture. Post-zhuzh it feels lighter, softer and much more together. Fruit feels brighter, too. I’d drink this now.
Verdict: Much better. Given it’s French, it could get away with a £12 or £13 price tag.
PINK WITHOUT THE STINK
Viña Albali Rosado Tempranillo, £5.50, asda.com
Another pink, but darker and savoury in style. Acidity and fruitiness are a bit out of whack and there’s sulphur on the nose. Once I’ve spritzed, the balance is much better and the stink has lifted.
Verdict: Definitely an improvement. So I would guess a price of around £10.
CAN’T SAVE PUNGENT ROSE
Castellore Dolce Amore Rosé, £5.99, aldi.co.uk
The wine is sweet but also acidic, with a pungent, sulphury nose. Post-zhuzh, it’s more balanced and less stinky. But I still wouldn’t drink it — and I’m not convinced it wouldn’t give me a hangover.
Verdict: Still not a great wine. Now worth around £7
FROM PLONK TO PRIZEWINNER
Pagos del Rey, Ribera del Duero 2021, £11.99 (Mix Six), majestic.co.uk
Famously tannic and concentrated, red wine from Ribera del Duero is often sold far too young, in my opinion. Post-spritz, the tannins are softer and more spicy and chocolatey notes instantly appear. Definitely better, but I’m not yet convinced about the ageing claims, so I give it another spritz . . . Holy moly! Not only has the wine softened as though it’s had two hours in a decanter, it feels mellow as if it’s had more time in the bottle, too.
Verdict: I wouldn’t blink if this were £20-£22. No one will know it’s not a fine wine medal winner.
…so should you buy a winewizard?
Though it works on the cheap stuff, the Winewizard comes into its own with mid-priced wines that benefit from a bit more time open or in the cellar. We’re talking heavier reds, or non-aromatic white grapes such as Chardonnay, especially those with oak.
I didn’t drink enough to get a hangover, so I can’t tell you how efficiently it clears the sulphites, but if it dissipates that sulphurous stink, I believe it can help. It doesn’t feel as luxurious as you’d want at this price, but it’s all about the effect, not the look. And as far as that goes, it gets my vote. I’m really quite amazed.
Robert Johnson is a UK-based business writer specializing in finance and entrepreneurship. With an eye for market trends and a keen interest in the corporate world, he offers readers valuable insights into business developments.