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Christmas with the Aga

By Dave Snowden  ·  December 26, 2009  ·  Cooking

200912260840.jpg Yesterday I outlined the preparation of red cabbage for Christmas Day, now I want to move on to the rest of the meal. Firstly to the turkey, in our case a 22lb Norfolk Bronze. The stuffing is key here and I normally do two. The first is sausage meat in the crop and I always use Wild Boar sausage, it has a richer more gaming taste than ordinary sausage and there is no need to enhance it with herbs and spices. For the main body I mix a dozen each of oysters and chestnuts with a handful of apricots with the breadcrumbs and dampen with milk until it holds together. All of that gets trussed up and put into the bottom oven at the Aga for 15 hours.

Now this is something that only Aga owners can achieve. The bottom oven provides slow cooking that retains moisture far better than a conventional oven. It also means that you put the Turkey in at midnight and its ready at three o'clock the following afternoon. I cover the turkey in streaky bacon and protect the thighs with silver foil for a bigger bird, net result is self-basting and I don't open the oven door until the meat thermometer shows that there is around 40 minutes to go. I invested some years ago in an external meat thermometer that is connected via a shielded cable and has various alarm settings. I set it for 160°F which gives me around 50 minutes to get everything else ready, and of course the main oven is available throughout.

The essence of a good Christmas dinner is not to have the chef in the kitchen, but a part of the dinner table. To achieve this I have a set of vegetable recipes that can be prepared in the morning, then placed in the oven at the last minute. This year we went with the following:

  • Parsnip is a christmas stable, but the vegetable alone can be bland. I cut out the cores and steam until its just about mashable (and with force), i.e. don't overcook in any way and aim to end up with around 900gm of parsnip. Mash the parsnip, then add in 50ml of madera and 150ml of double cream, mix the whole thing up in an over proof dish and dot with half walnuts. Cooled and with a cling film cover it sits on the butchers block in the centre of the kitchen read for a 15 minute insertion in the top oven before serving.
  • Another favorite combines a pound of carrots with a head of celery and half a pint of dry cider (I like Normandy varieties rather than West Country or Hereford but that is a matter of taste). Peel the carrots and slice them into vertical strips just under the size of your little finger, then add them to the cider and simmer for 15 minutes (covered). Then slice the celery and add it in, simmering the whole for another half hour. Drain, retaining the sider and another oven proof dish for the butchers block and another 15 minute insertion. The remaining cider goes into a small sospan ready for rapid reduction to glaze the final dish.
  • Cauliflower cheese is to my mind one of the most difficult dishes to get right. This year I took four small cauliflowers, steam for no more than ten minutes then place in individual dishes covered with a mix of red leicester and caerphilly cheese (and I mean the real stuff not the processed crap you get in supermarkets). Again ten minutes in the top of the oven will bring it to the table in perfect condition. Over cooking is the main danger here, cauliflower lacks any tolerance!
  • Roast tatws are key to a good Christmas. I like to take King Edwards and boil them for around twenty minutes (normally I would drain them after boiling and put the sospan in the bottom oven for 35 minutes, but at Christmas that oven is otherwise engaged. timing is a bit flexible, you want them just starting to crumble. While they are draining (which needs to be through) I heat up walnut oil on a baking tray then then drop the tatws into the fat. I do mean drop, you want some of them to break up. Quickly turn them to ensure they are lightly covered with the oil and put them in the top of the oven for 305 minutes before serving. This means you get wonderful cripsy coats on the tatws that remain intact, and lots of small crispy pieces which everyone loves, although I regard the best as cooks perks.

Now all of that can be prepared in advance. With a quarter of an hour to go before the meal (assuming the oven thermometer is progressing) I put the tatws on to boil and follow the sequence described above. However I can now hand over the kitchen to my son who manages the starter (Scollops and bacon in Madeira source). AAs he serves that I get all my 15 minute jobs into the oven and then go and join the family for the first course, served with a Rose wine. As they finish I return to the kitchen and remove the turkey from the oven. This will be the first time I have seen it since midnight the previous day so its a tense moment! It gets moved onto a wooden platter and is loosely covered with tin foil to keep it warm while allowing it to settle. I pour most of the turkey fat/juice into a large bowl leaving enough to blend with flour. I then add flour and fat/juice progressively (using a whisk) until I have a thick liquid which I cook in the original pan on the hot plate for around 5 minutes before slowly adding in the stock prepared the night before. A dash of whisky and the gravy is complete. Various minions (otherwise known as children) are in the meantime carrying through the vegetables, but Turkey comes last.

I love carving the turkey, its the one time in the year when I bring out the carving set I inherited from my mother. It has been in the family know for four generations so its special. Two bottles of a rich Pinot Noir and a contented meal follows. Christmas Pudding is reserved for Boxing Day, it would simply be too much on top with everything else.