How to Christmas provides you with rivers of knowledge from which you can create a wonderful festive season. Although we never claim to be a cookery website full of recipes and culinary know-how, we clearly appreciate food and drink are major ingredients in the celebrations. We also appreciate the beauty of gathering with family and friends to enjoy the combination of good company and delicious fayre.
So within this Parties & Hosting section we give you guidance on such topics as hosting, etiquette, cocktails, canapes and cookware – all to accompany our countdown calendar that helps you focus the preparations. Follow our Countdown Calendar and you will read our recommendations for the go-to cooks and their books, along with key food websites and apps – and through the years we have encouraged you to tackle your own Christmas puddings, cakes and mince pies. We like to think we can all give those a whirl – and to that end we have our own simple mince pie recipe on this very page. We also talk turkey. Elsewhere on the site we have must-see movies and must-own music, so it only seemed fair we should also consider some must-have food & drink items for your Christmas pantry. But, as is our wont, the recommendations are not always your average fayre. Happy feasting!
Christmas would not be complete without a traditional array of goodies filling the shelves of your cupboards, pantry, fridge and freezer. But there’s no reason why you can’t give the familiar a twist. In that vein, we love…
Fortnum & Mason’s Mulled Wine Jelly with Edible Gold Leaf – metal work but not as we know it. Delicious.
If you really adore Father Christmas and really want those great gifts, you will leave him a magnificently iced decorated cookie from biscuiteers.com. Bespoke orders, delightful tins, prompt delivery and decadent icing: simply special.
Stilton is a festive favourite, but if you want to take your smelly cheese up a notch try Stinking Bishop instead. This washed-rind cheese has been produced since 1972 by Charles Martell and Son at Laurel Farm, Dymock in Gloucestershire. Every four weeks while it matures, it is immersed in perry made from the local Stinking Bishop pear – hence the name. It even has Wallace & Gromit’s seal of approval.
Jaffa cakes – but not as we know them. Marks & Spencer has released festive versions in recent years in inviting deep red boxes with non-orange fillings, like cherry and cranberry.
If you enjoy mince pies, you’ll be tempted by this – Joe & Seph’s mince pie flavoured popcorn. There’s Christmas in every crunch.
Stollen cake is a national treasure in Germany and was first created as a Christmas bread in 1545, since when the recipe has been adapted many times. But its stollen bites that we recommend as a twist on the original, especially those produced by Booths. A word of warning: they’re incredibly moreish.
Champagne is a Christmas treat to savour. Madame Bollinger said of Champagne: “I drink it when I am happy and when I am sad. Sometimes I drink it when I am alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory.” Booths and Waitrose are among those offering bottles of bubbly by Duval-Leroy, one of the last Champagne houses still entirely family-owned.
Fortnum & Mason’s Madeira is delicious, but there’s also the superb Christmas Pudding Madeira from this renowned Piccadilly store. Perfect with cheese after your edible Christmas pudding.
At snafflingpig.co.uk there are pork scratchings instead of chocolates behind each window of A3 sized Advent calendars emblazoned with the words “Merry Piggin’ Christmas”. As the website blurb points out, calendars can be great for a sweet tooth “but if you’re more of a savoury loving swine, they’ve tended to be a piggin’ let down.” Thus the creation of these tasty porky delights.
M&S Tops Christmas Taste Test
Marks & Spencer came out tops in Good Housekeeping magazine’s annual independent taste test of Christmas food and drink for 2017. M&S had 14 products in the top five for each category, with its turkey, cranberry sauce and sparkling wine claiming victory over the equivalent offerings from rival supermarkets. Results were made public in mid-October 2017.
Aldi came first in the Christmas pudding category with its “Specially Selected Golden Topped Christmas Pudding” and in the vegetarian meal section, with its spinach, leek and cheddar cheese parcels. Tesco “Finest Mince Pies” won the mince pies category. There were 16 Christmas staples tested in all, including smoked salmon, pigs in blankets and brandy butter. During the test, all products were removed from the packaging and blind-tasted.
The Marks & Spencer winning turkey was the British Oakham turkey crown with pork, sage and onion stuffing for £27 and its table-topping sparkling wine was the £10 Prosecco.
Roast Turkey – Simple Not Stuffed
Frozen Turkey Advice: We recommend you start with a fresh grain-fed turkey – but understand a frozen turkey might be more convenient. If you buy a frozen bird ensure it has been frozen without added water. It is crucial you allow plenty of time for it to defrost slowly and thoroughly. Remove all packaging, remove the neck and giblets from the inner cavity and then rest the turkey on a tray to catch any liquid as it defrosts. Cover the turkey before putting it in the fridge. Defrosting in the bottom of the fridge is recommended so there can be no spills onto food below it. If you don’t have enough room in the fridge you can defrost the bird in a cool place like a garage, away from children and pets. It can take a couple of days for a large turkey to thaw. There will be guidelines on the packaging. Never cook a partially frozen turkey as it may cook unevenly and harmful bacteria could survive. Wash your hands and all utensils and work surfaces after handling poultry. Visit www.NHS.uk and check their Healthy Christmas section for more guidelines.
Fresh Turkey Advice: Remove the outer packaging, take the neck and giblets from the inner cavity (use for stock or discard) and rinse the turkey under cold water. Pat the skin dry with paper towels. Put the turkey in a roasting tray, sprinkle with salt and black pepper and leave it overnight in the fridge on Christmas Eve night. Always disinfect the sink after the rinsing process and thoroughly wash your hands and all utensils and cutting boards/work surfaces after handling raw poultry.
Cooking Day: Take the fresh or defrosted turkey from the fridge two hours before cooking and liberally cover the skin with softened butter. Put it on a wire rack in the roasting tray. Cover it with aluminium foil. Place one large sheet lengthways and the other widthways and bring together to make a sealed foil dome. Make sure there is room between the skin and foil to allow air to circulate. Leave the covered turkey at room temperature until you are ready to put it in the oven. The rack will allow the juices to drip from the bird while cooking and also allow heat to circulate, reducing cooking time.
Oven Temperature: Pre-heat the oven to gas mark 7 (that’s 425 degrees Fahrenheit, 220 degrees Celsius, 200C fan) and cook the turkey at that temperature for the first 20 minutes. Lower the oven temperature to gas mark 4 (350F, 180C, 160C fan) until the final 20 minutes of cooking time. At that point, remove the foil, increase the heat to gas mark 6 (400F, 200C, 180C fan) and allow the turkey to brown. Baste the bird with its own juices for an extra golden colour. Basting every hour of cooking is recommended.
Cooking Times: There will be instructions on the packaging to guide you on cooking times. But at the oven temperatures we suggest what follows is a decent rule of thumb:
10lb turkey… around 2 hours in total (feeds up to 8 people)
15lb turkey…around 2 hours 45 minutes (feeds up to 12 people)
20lb turkey…around 3 hours 30 minutes (feeds up to 15 people)
If you prefer to work in metric weights this should help:
At a steady gas mark 4 (350 degrees Fahrenheit, 180 degrees Celsius, 160C fan) –
Allow 45 minutes per kg plus 20 minutes for a 4.5kg turkey
Allow 40 minutes per kg for a turkey that’s between 4.5 & 6.5kg
Allow 35 minutes per kg for a turkey that’s over 6.5kg
Remember, these are cooking times for turkeys without stuffing. Stuffed turkeys take considerably longer. Turkey crowns and turkey rolls will have shorter cooking times – and again instructions will come with the packaging.
Almost Time to Serve: Ovens vary so check the turkey is cooked through. Stick a skewer in the turkey thigh and/or breast and ensure the juices are clear in colour and not at all pink. The legs should have some ‘give’ in them as well. If you are using a food thermometer, make certain the thickest part of the bird – between the breast and thigh – reaches 70 degrees Celsius for two minutes. Always be prepared to cook the turkey a little longer if necessary. Once you are happy it is cooked through but not overdone, leave it to rest for another 30 minutes on a carving platter. Then you will be ready to carve.
375g plain flour; 260g unsalted butter; 125g caster sugar; 2 eggs; 600g mincemeat; Icing sugar for dusting
1 – Rub the flour and softened butter together in a bowl to create a crumb-like mixture. Mix in the sugar and one egg. Fold the mixture on a lightly floured surface until the pastry forms. Do not overwork the mixture.
2 – Roll it out to 3mm thickness and use a 10cm round cutter to make 16 bases for the mince pie tin. Make the remainder of the pastry into 7cm circles for the lids.
4 – Beat the second egg and dab it round the edge of each mince pie. Gently press on the lids and seal. Add pastry decoration if you wish. Brush the rest of the beaten egg onto each mince pie and cut a small hole in each lid.
5 – Bake for 15-20 minutes at 220 degrees Celsius (200C fan, gas mark 7, 425F). Once golden on top, remove from the oven and allow them to cool. Take the pies out of the tin and rest on a wire rack. Dust them with icing sugar. Pile them invitingly on a festive plate and top with a sprig of seasonal greenery. Irresistible.
Did you know…Altmarkt Square in the heart of the German city of Dresden has held a Striezelmarkt since the mid-15th century – one of the oldest festive markets in Germany – and has Stollen at the centre of the celebrations? Since 1434, the market has preserved its distinctive character. The market’s name comes from the Christmas bread Stollen, which is also known as “Striezel” in Middle High German. Every year the traditional Stollen Festival is celebrated in honour of this delicacy and each year the ceremonial first slice of the giant Stollen at the Striezelmarkt is followed by a Stollen procession through the Baroque Old Town.
Chocolate Panettone Bread & Butter Pudding
Sliced Chocolate Panettone; 60g Raspberries; 60g Sour cherries; 60g Caster Sugar; 150ml Red wine; 175ml Double cream; 175ml Milk; 2 Tblspns Raspberry Jam; 2 Tblspns Chocolate drops; 2 Blocks unsalted butter; 5 Eggs; 1 Lemon
2 – Pre-heat oven to 180 degrees C (160 fan oven) or gas mark 4.
3 – Butter slices of panettone and cut into approximate 6cm quarters.
4 – Butter a large baking dish. Put layers of slightly overlapping panettone in the dish.
5 – Drain the berries/cherries and keep the liquid. Put half the berries over the first layer of panettone. Sprinkle on a few chocolate drops.
6 – Put the other buttered slices on top and cover with the rest of the berries/cherries. Add a few chocolate drops to taste, but this is not essential. You may feel there is enough chocolate sprinkled through the panettone itself.
7 – In a large jug (more than 570ml in volume), pour in milk, cream, 50ml more of red wine and the liquid saved from the berries/cherries. Stir together.
8 – Beat five eggs and add to the mixture in the jug. Lightly whisk in the caster sugar and the zest of one lemon. Pour the liquid over the panettone in the baking dish.
9 – Put the dish on a baking tray and bake for 50 minutes. The pudding should be set but light in the centre and crispy on top when finished.
10 – Five minutes from the end of baking, warm the jam and glaze the top of the pudding. Add just a few chocolate drops. Leave the pudding to settle for 10 minutes after baking. Serve with ice cream or thick fresh cream.
Elf Helper: If you are giving homemade food as gifts, remember to attach a tag or label outlining use-by dates, storage instructions and any possible re-heating details.
Christmas puddings are every bit as much a part of a quintessential British Yuletide as Christmas crackers, greetings cards and mince pies and, like many traditions in the UK, have a strong link to Victorian times. Click here to view our Christmas Puddings page in the How to Christmas Traditions section.
The page includes a brief history, pudding poems and our favourite puddings providers. If it’s a Christmas pudding recipe you require, we love Nigella’s “Ultimate Christmas Pudding”, using Pedro Ximenez sherry – which is a sweet, dark and sticky sherry with a hint of liquorice, fig and treacle. You’ll find the recipe on Pages 137 to 139 of the book “Nigella Christmas”.
Cut an orange into quarters and pierce the skin of each piece with two to three cloves. Squeeze the juices from a second orange into a pan and add the orange quarters, two tablespoons of brown sugar, two cinnamon sticks, a bottle of full-bodied, fruity red wine – like a Shiraz and a dash of brandy to your own taste. Warm gently over a low heat for approximately 10 minutes before serving in latte-style mugs.
COOK – The Full On Frozen Option
COOK is the name of the company and its aim is always to produce remarkable frozen food. Edward and Dale opened a small shop in Farnham, Surrey in 1997 selling hand-prepared frozen food, with the dream of becoming the best ever makers of ready meals. They have now grown to more than 80 shops around the country. On the COOK ‘about us’ page at cookfood.net it reads: “We’re starting to realise our dream of creating a remarkable food business that’s a force for good in society. In 2013 we became one of the UK’s first certified B Corporations, part of a global movement committed to a better way of doing business. The people of COOK have voted us one of the very best companies to work for. While we’re far from perfect, we’re trying hard. Throughout, we’ve stuck by our founding statement with Edward and Dale leading the way. When you don’t have the time, inclination or, dare we say, talent… we COOK so you don’t have to.”
COOK’s gourmet Christmas Lunch includes the classic Christmas dishes and is ready in less than three hours, alleviating the need for late-night peeling or early-morning chopping. COOK does the hard work for you, allowing you a more relaxing Christmas Day. COOK even works out all the timings for you on a simple downloadable, printable pdf computer file. Gourmet Christmas Lunch for eight may cost you upwards of £110, but there are many other festive options like Christmas Lunch for two, Vegetarian Christmas Lunch for two and the Boxing Day Bundle. Visit cookfood.net and click on ‘Christmas’.
Christmas is a great time of celebration. Intimate gatherings with family and friends can be some of the most memorable. Dinner parties are, therefore, occasions that perfectly lend themselves to the creation of happy memories.
Your cookery skills – make an honest assessment
The number of people you are to host
The space you have to prepare the meal
The crockery and kitchenware available
The number of ovens, grills and hobs you can use
The fridge and freezer space for holding ingredients and prepared dishes
The amount you wish to spend
Your guests’ specific dietary requirements, including awareness of food allergies
You can always set the table the night before if you wish. Tablecloths and napkins may need ironing, glasses may require polishing and candles and table decorations will need setting out. Get out pans, baking trays and serving dishes and double check you have enough cling film and tinfoil for covering dishes once cooked or prepared. Some dishes can be prepared in advance and then frozen without detracting from their flavour. Soups, numerous main courses and puddings can all be cooked and frozen. Search cookery books and internet sites to find those dishes most suitable.
Balance the menu. For example, serving three courses all featuring pastry or bread may make the meal rather stodgy. If you are aware of your guests’ food preferences, creating the menu will be easier. If not, simple dishes that allow diners to select sauces served on the side may be a safer option. Bear in mind that some diners may not welcome certain foods like liver, anchovies or mussels. If they are included in the meal then use them as a part of a dish rather than the main event. Tempering extravagance of flavour or cookery flair does not mean your menu has to be boring. Family and friends will always appreciate simple, tasty, quality food served in a welcoming atmosphere with a convivial host. Essentially, if you want to make a dinner party run smoothly – or are simply honing your hosting and cookery skills – a menu that has as few potential pitfalls as possible is the safest bet. Plan carefully, prepare well in advance and your evening will go wonderfully well.
The RSPCA rightfully remind the public each year that a dog is for life, not just for Christmas. We respectfully borrow that adage and remind you that good manners are for life and not just for Christmas. If you want the manners to be nearer great than good, you might enjoy our etiquette guide. Lord and Lady Grantham will be proud.
When planning your Christmas gathering, decide on numbers and send out invitations in a timely fashion requesting your invitees RSVP by a certain date. Christmas is an incredibly busy time socially so the earlier you can send out your invitations the better. Paper invitations sent in the post are preferable to email invitations, but if the latter are done via an E-card site like jacquielawson.com that is increasingly acceptable.
Be clear with times. If you ask guests to arrive at 7.30 for 8, that means cocktails at half-past-seven and dinner at eight. You may wish to add: “Carriages at Midnight”. In other words, that’s the time you want guests to leave.
If you are an invitee, book a ‘carriage’ ahead of time. Having a taxi ready to take you home at the specified time of midnight shows respect and means your host will not have to turn their house into a taxi-booking service at night’s end.
As host, when deciding on food for the gathering, take all your invited guest’s dietary requirements into consideration. Cater for vegetarians and the yeast and lactose intolerant. Create a flexible menu.
If your guests wish to contribute, allow them to do so – and don’t be afraid to make suggestions that will serve the gathering well. If a quantity of wine is likely to be consumed, ask for a crisp bottle of white, a full-bodied red or even a dessert wine to be added to the supply you are providing. Other suggestions could be after dinner mints, chocolate truffles, sparkling water or elderflower cordial.
Plan a menu that will demand little preparation time on the night. The idea of inviting friends round is to enjoy their company, not to boast about your culinary skills. For a larger group, consider bringing in outside help that night. Your guests expect to spend time with you.
If you are a guest at a dinner party, don’t take the cheap plonk from a recent trip to France – then drink all the New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. It is rude and disrespectful.
At Christmas, a gift for the host is most suitable. A beautiful Christmas tree decoration in a gift box is ideal. So, too, is a Poinsettia or Hyacinth pot. Flowers that need putting in water are lovely – but that’s also one more job for the host to tackle.
As a host, always greet your guests at the door and immediately ask to take their coats. Introduce new arrivals to guests already there. Offer drinks and canapés.
Have a good selection of non-alcoholic drinks available for the drivers and tee-totals.
For a sit-down dinner, serve cocktails first and after a period of 30 minutes or so invite guests to take their places at the table. If you are not using place cards, the host must indicate where guests should sit. If there are guests who have never previously met, all introductions should be conducted before everyone is seated.
Create the right ambiance. Ensure the lighting is not too bright, but also have enough dimmed lamplight and candlelight to allow guests to see what they are eating – and to see each other.
If guests are late and dinner is ready, allow 15 more minutes before seating everyone or opening up the buffet of food. If the late guests have still not arrived at this point, continue with proceedings. When they eventually arrive, they join the dinner at whatever stage you find yourselves.
Forks are placed to the left of the service plate, knives to the right. Every fork is married to a knife. The soupspoon is placed at the far right of the plate. A safe guideline is to start from the outside utensils and work in with each course.
The bread plate should be to the left of the service plate and glassware should be to the right, in the order they will be used. Remember BMD. Bread to the left, Main to the middle, Drinks to the right.
A water glass should always be the last piece of glassware on the inside of the others. Glasses, like silverware, start from the outside in. At a formal dinner party, five glasses per guest is the maximum. That should cover champagne, white wine, red wine, dessert wine, port and water. Hold a stemmed glass by the stem.
Lay your napkin across your lap. Touch it lightly to your lips to wipe your mouth. Place the napkin on the seat and not the table if you are leaving the table for any reason.
Use your bread plate for bread and butter, olive pits, fish bones and the like.
Break bread into small bite-size pieces with your fingers. Don’t use a knife to cut your bread. Butter the pieces with a bread knife and not a dinner knife.
Open red wine 30 minutes before serving to allow it to breathe. Red wine should be served at room temperature, which is not to say warm. Room temperature guides are taken from pre-central heating days. It is widely accepted in the UK that we serve our red wines too warm and our white wines too cold.
When the meal begins, the host should walk around the table and fill each glass with wine. Thereafter, particularly at a more informal dinner, the host can fill the glasses of the guests closest to him/her and offer the bottle to other guests and ask them to help themselves.
Don’t reach over for anything on the table. Ask for it to be passed. Food at the table should be passed from left to right. A small consideration – but one that might just avoid a bit of confusion.
Do not put your napkin on the table until everyone else has finished eating.
Thank your host and compliment the food – whether or not you enjoyed it!
As host, if you have suggested guests can stay overnight, make them aware of their sleeping quarters on arrival – giving them opportunity to unpack their overnight bag and freshen up.
If you have been invited to stay overnight, take a steer from your host as to the correct time to retire to bed. They might hint “it has been a long day” and “it’s an early start in the morning”. Take heed. If they are happy to stay up for a nightcap, let them suggest it – not you. Determine what time the host is likely to rise the next morning and plan to join them in a timely fashion shortly thereafter.
If you are staying over it is polite to offer your help to clear up at night’s end and to suggest helping with breakfast the next morning. It is unlikely you will be taken up on your offer, but be prepared to follow up on your suggestions.
Remember to send a thank you note after the event. A text will do, an email is better – but a note-card is best of all.