Try to imagine, just for a moment, a December without Christmas.
Days of enveloping darkness without the mulled decadence of a warm mince pie and an irresistible spoonful of brandy cream; the threat of snow in the air without hot baked ham, studded with luscious oranges and cloves; an interminable month of coldest days without a triumphant roasted turkey, replete with toasted chestnuts, fresh cranberry, pork and sage at the end of it all to look forward to.
Pretty bleak isn’t it?
In the classic tale “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” (by Lewis Carroll) four children, evacuated from wartime London, find themselves stumbling through an enchanted wardrobe into a land of snow, strange beasts and a talking lion.
They learn that in this land, Narnia, the creatures are doomed to live in an endless winter. Nevertheless it looks magical enough, with more snow than we’re used to in these parts – so far so good – until we learn that in Narnia it is forever winter but never Christmas.
Now, whilst I’m the first to agree that Christmas can at times be a rather daunting prospect if you’re left in charge of the turkey, just spare an idle thought for where we would be without it: wandering aimlessly in a pandemic riven modern Narnia, without even a Ferrero Rocher to lighten the mood.
No hot roast potatoes, crisp and moreish in a way that only goose fat can render.
No fresh cranberries popping in the pan to make ruby red cranberry sauce. No winter parsnips glazed in maple syrup.
No old-school trifle layered with jelly, sweet cream and topped with a million hundreds and thousands.
No Christmas pudding, rich, boozy and dark, aflame in a darkened room, lighting up little eyes.
No grown-ups only cheese board and Call The Midwife on Christmas night (come on, I’ve got you now, haven’t I?).
But it’s true, the flavours of Christmas time are such a joyful part of winter and the heart of what can still be a quietly magical time, leaving all the commercial nonsense to one side.
That’s not to say it doesn’t bring with it a certain pressure, a frisson of panic in the vegetable aisle and a restless eyeing of the oven, wondering whether it’s quite up to the job for all the roasting, toasting and baking.
I find it helps, when contemplating Christmas in my kitchen, to remember (whether it’s true or not) that people are usually incredibly grateful for whatever you can cheerfully assemble (if it’s not true it should be and they can stay at home and baste their own turkey).
As long as there’s a roast potato or two and a glass of fizz, most souls will merrily capitulate to whatever version of Christmas lunch you can contrive, and will care little whether you have been chained to the kitchen for days in advance or simply thrown a jar of goose fat into the trolley in between remembering to wrap Aunty Bella’s bubble bath and stopping the cat climbing the Christmas tree.
I find it’s quite fun to try to think of little individual elements that will make each person sparkle (OK, if sparkling isn’t realistic then at least thaw enough to put on a Christmas hat).
Canapes are the easiest way to bring a little magical delight to everyone’s taste buds; Christmas lunch is something of a set-piece, meddle with the classics at your peril, but canapes provide a little more scope for imagination. They also have the added bonus of keeping the ravenous hordes at bay while the turkey takes its much-needed rest – an essential part of the process that should never be rushed lest you risk a dry bird.
Sprinkle a few of these moments of deliciousness through Christmas Day and the excitement is contagious. Really, who doesn’t love a canape (well, we’ll come to that in a minute)?
Canapes are the foodie equivalent of the glitteriest Christmas baubles on the tree; delicious, gorgeous and completely indispensable, but don’t go overboard or they’ll spoil the main event. It’s a festive tightrope, but the best part of the day, before the presents have been opened and the soporific effects of the turkey set in.
It’s a way of eating that actively encourages conversation (as opposed to the hushed concentration that tends to descend when the family is finally unleashed upon the full festive lunch).
And consider this: if you go to town on the canapes, a starter is largely redundant and you can simply move from milling around with fizz straight to the main event – does anyone actually want a bowl of Scotch broth before their turkey anyway?
Mini prawn cocktail
Starting with the seafood lovers in the family, for whom Christmas is not Christmas without a crustacean (there’s always a few in every crowd who find them positively abhorrent, making a seafood starter a non-starter). The answer is a mini prawn cocktail, laid out ever so casually, before the main event, for those who wish to partake.
This serves six and is easy to make.
Mix two heaped tablespoons of good quality mayonnaise with one level tablespoon of ketchup, a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and zest of one lime, a few drops of Tabasco and a few drops of Worcestershire sauce. Mix the sauce with 180g large cooked peeled king prawns (or try using Scottish langoustines for a real treat).
Shred one little gem lettuce. Layer up the lettuce and prawn mixture in baby gem leaves (like mini cups) and finish with a pinch of smoked paprika. Some diced avocado and chopped coriander are an optional twist on the classic. It’s a crowd pleaser, nostalgic and quintessentially Christmas (for some).
Arbroath smokie patie with toasted crostini
Next on the list to wow and delight is the person who likes fish but not seafood; for whom fish is haddock and haddock is fish. We have at least two of those.
For them I suggest a simple little canape of Arbroath smokie pate, toasted crostini and Granny Smith apple. It’s fresh, delicious with a glass of champagne and the flavour of the smokie speaks for itself.
To make (serves 8): Flake and remove the bones from one smokie. Blitz in a food processor with 100g cream cheese and the juice of half a lemon. Gradually add up to 60ml double cream and a grinding of black pepper, blending after each addition. Spoon into a container and chill in the fridge (you can prepare this in advance).
For the crostini cut thin slices of ciabatta, drizzle with olive oil and toast in a hot oven. Top each one with a spoonful of pate, a curl of cucumber and a few matchsticks of Granny Smith.
Puff pastry tarts with goat’s cheese and caramelised red onion
Then there’s the ravenous person (there’s always one and they know who they are) who doesn’t like seafood or fish, would happily embark on Christmas lunch at midday and have the whole affair done and dusted by 1pm.
To rein in and delight simultaneously they must be fed without realising you’re stalling them. Little puff pastry tarts with goat’s cheese and caramelised red onion are the answer.
To make (serves 8): Take one sheet of puff pastry and using a 7cm pastry
cutter, cut out eight circles. Using a 3.5cm cutter press a smaller circle in the middle of each – but don’t cut all the way through – and lightly prick the inner circle with a fork (you can prepare these in advance and chill them in the fridge).
Put a teaspoon of goat’s cheese on the inner circle and top with a spoonful of caramelised red onion (also easy to prepare in advance, simply slice one red onion thinly and cook on a gentle heat with a teaspoon of butter and a splash of oil, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes or until the onions are very soft and caramelised).
Brush the outer circles of the tarts with beaten egg and bake at 200C for 15 minutes.
Smoked salmon crostinis
Now, let’s not forget the person for whom it simply wouldn’t be Christmas without smoked salmon (fish is clearly a divisive issue in our family and I suspect many are the same).
Rather than putting extra pressure on yourself to make blinis, savoury scones or mini Yorkshire puddings (all of which are, it goes without saying, glorious vehicles for smoked salmon and crème fraiche), I suggest you simply make some extra crostini and top with a dainty dollop of crème fraiche, some fresh dill, a curl of top quality smoked salmon and a little lemon zest.
Pork, cranberry and orange sausage rolls
Last, but not least, comes the contrary old soul who will politely (or less so, depending on your family) decline all of the above and claim that they don’t want to spoil their appetite (I told you, every family has one). I defy that person to resist a pork, cranberry and orange sausage roll.
They’re also incredibly useful for hungry little ones who are beginning to tire of delayed gratification (Christmas does involve a lot of waiting for a six-year-old; throw in a late lunch and mutiny is on the cards).
To make (serves 8): Mix 400g good quality pork sausage-meat (I suggest ordering in advance from your butcher) with two tablespoons of whole cranberry sauce and the zest of one orange. Lay out a sheet of cling film and spread the sausage mix along it, approximately 30cm in length. Roll it up in the cling film and smooth out so that you have a uniform sausage shape. Chill in the fridge.
To assemble the sausage rolls, lay out a sheet of puff pastry and place the unrolled sausage meat on top (discard the cling film!). Roll over the pastry to encase the sausage roll, overlapping underneath by about one inch, trim off the excess pastry and brush the overlapping edge to seal with beaten egg. Brush the whole thing with beaten egg and sprinkle with black poppy seeds.
Cut into 8-10 equal slices and bake at 200C for 25-30 minutes, until golden. The flavours are the very essence of Christmas. It’s also traditional enough not to be called a canape and simply fall into the category of “it wouldn’t be Christmas without…”.