Christmas dinner is a meal like no other. It represents continuity, conjuring memories of bygone feasts.
There is nearly always an element of family history in the food we choose for the big day; unique rituals that make the meal special, tastes that connect us to our past.
In my case I do what my mother did. Maybe not in every respect, but always when it comes to her amazing fruity turkey stuffing, which survives to this day, long after her death.
It’s not only about the main dinner. There are other specialities that I still cherish which are part of the ether of her influence. Some are posh, such as Elvas plums which you can buy in Fortnum & Mason, others are a little trashy: in the run-up to Christmas I comb shops for cheese footballs, with diminishing success.
Smoked salmon was a huge treat in my 1970s upbringing — not like now when you can buy it in every supermarket with varying degrees of quality.
UK-based writers including winner of The Great British Bake Off in 2016 Candice Brown (pictured) share festive memories and recipes to inspire you to create your own at home
Christmas Day morning began with a glass of bubbly for the grown-ups and a little smoked salmon on brown bread for everyone; squeeze of lemon juice and a turn of black pepper — utter luxury. Somehow, after blinis blew into our party food lingo, I began to experiment, taking my childhood treat and turning it into something new, which has, in turn, become an integral part of my daughter’s Christmas experience.
I make skinny but rich buckwheat flour pancakes then roll them with smoked salmon, cream cheese, dill and a copse of baby salad leaves. Afterwards, I cut them to make little colourful coils. My daughter fell in love with them, and they have been made on every Christmas Day since — always with her help.
From gingerbread houses to Christmas Eve curries, read on to discover more festive memories — and recipes to inspire you to create your own at home.
MY SHOWSTOPPER TO TOAST NAN’S MEMORY
CANDICE BROWN, 36, won The Great British Bake Off in 2016. She runs a pub, The Green Man, in Eversholt, Milton Keynes, with her brother, Ben. She says:
Margaret Florence, my dad’s mum, was my favourite person in the world. She was the most incredible cook, the most incredible baker. She did everything by hand.
My first memory is of dragging my chair over to watch her make pastry. I could be quite an anxious child but, thanks to Nan, cooking gave me confidence. I baked biscuits with her. She gave me my ‘taste’ for baking.
My parents ran pubs for 25 years so we always had Christmas at the pub. Nan and Grandad would arrive a couple of days before and it would be continuous prep. Nan would make the Christmas cake, a boiled fruit cake, which my grandfather adored. We would boil the gammon and put crosses in the Brussels sprouts, which I still do now. On Christmas Eve we would poach the salmon.
Nan didn’t drink, but she’d have a tiny glass of Glayva (whisky liqueur) while we were cooking.
When she died unexpectedly aged 84, my world fell apart. Everything changed for ever. But I slipped into the role of doing the things that she did. I found her recipe book, full of notes and shopping lists. Some recipes were in cups and grams. There were references to cooking at ‘blood temperature’, a phrase I love.
And seven years ago, I took over cooking Christmas dinner for the family. It just became a solace for me when my brain started being a little bit unkind.
My gingerbread house is a tribute to Nan. I love the idea of people sitting with family or friends, or little ones with grandparents, building and sticking walls with icing, sneaking sweeties instead of placing them on the house. It’s a joyous thing.
When I’m baking it, I’ll have a glass of Glayva and toast Nan’s memory. It feels like she’s still with us.
- 700g plain flour
- 3 tsp ground cinnamon
- 3 tsp ground ginger
- ½ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
- ½ tsp salt
- 450g unsalted butter
- 700g dark soft brown sugar
- 2 large eggs
- 100g stem ginger in syrup, finely chopped
- 1 x bag of coloured boiled sweets (you need about 6-10 for the windows, but you might want some to eat while decorating!)
- 200g caster sugar
FOR THE DECORATIONS:
- 200g dark chocolate (minimum 70 per cent cocoa solids)
- 300g icing sugar
- Food colouring gels of your choice
- Selection of sweets, such as jellies, milk and white chocolate buttons, sugar-coated chocolates and/or jelly beans
- Selection of nuts, such as almonds and hazelnuts
- Desiccated coconut
1. Heat the oven to 160c fan (180c/350f/gas 4) and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.
2. Sift the flour, spices and salt into a bowl. Then, using an electric mixer, combine the butter and brown sugar until fluffy. Add the eggs, then the dry ingredients and stem ginger, and mix until just coming together.
3. Use your hands to form the dough into a ball. Flatten, wrap in cling film and chill in fridge for 30 minutes.
4. Roll out dough between two sheets of greaseproof paper until 5mm-6mm thick. Cut out two sections in the shape of the front and back of a house — it should look like a rectangle with a triangle on top. The long edge should be 18cm and the short edges 16cm, with the triangle sides 13cm each and sloping to form a point. Make two 16cm x 18cm rectangles for the side walls and two 18cm x 15.5cm rectangles for the roof.
Transfer to the baking tray, then cut out the windows and door from the front and back sections. Place in the fridge for 30-45 minutes.
5. Remove from the fridge and bake for 10-15 minutes depending on the size of the section. About halfway through baking (after 8 minutes), place a coloured boiled sweet in each empty window/door space.
6. Remove from oven and, while hot and still soft, neaten the edges using a sharp knife. Cool on a wire rack.
7. To make the caramel for sticking, put the caster sugar and 50ml water in a saucepan over a medium heat. Swirl and allow the sugar to dissolve. Place a cooking thermometer in the caramel and watch until the temperature reaches 160c (325f). Swirl it around so it is an even colour and remove from the heat.
8. Dip the edges of the walls that are being joined in the caramel, one at a time. Hold the walls together until they stick. Using a pastry brush, brush one side and one long edge of a roof piece (where it will join the other) with the caramel and hold on top of the walls. Repeat with the second roof piece and leave to set.
9. Melt the dark chocolate and brush on for a thatched-roof effect.
10. Mix icing sugar with water and food colouring to make a pipeable paste. Transfer to a piping bag and use to decorate, adding sweets, nuts and coconut. Leave to set.
- Recipe from Happy Cooking by Candice Brown (£22, Ebury Press).
SPECIAL FISH DISH THAT MIXES OLD WITH NEW
CLODAGH McKENNA, 46, is an Irish chef and TV presenter on ITV’s This Morning. She lives with her husband Harry Herbert, 62, at Broadspear House, in the grounds of Highclere Castle (of Downton Abbey fame) in Hampshire. She says:
Growing up in Ireland, it was a family ritual to eat fish on Christmas Eve: from fish pie to lobster or smoked salmon. I come from Cork, a port town, so there was so much fresh, locally caught seafood.
In the morning, we’d all go to the nearby English Market to pick up a fish for dinner, plus the turkey, ham and cheese for the next day. Then we’d eat lunch on a terrace overlooking the indoor market.
Clodagh McKenna (pictured), who cooks every night with husband Harry, revealed they will be making her recipe for Goan fish curry this Christmas Eve
Six years ago, my father sadly passed away. I still miss him a lot — and Christmas is such a sensitive time. Everything about the festive period reminds you of the years before, so it’s about keeping those memories of family and closeness going.
However, this year, I’m also excited to be creating new memories with my wonderful husband Harry, whom I married in August. We met by chance at a lunch in 2017, and I knew very quickly that this was it because it felt so easy. The following year, we moved to Broadspear House in the grounds of Highclere Castle. We cook together every night. Harry loves food as much as me. It’s amazing when you find your ‘one’ and can create a home together.
Cooking has always been the biggest part of my life. I can’t imagine eating separately.
This Christmas Eve, we’ve decided to make my recipe for Goan fish curry again. We did it last year and Harry loved it, so it’s become our new tradition. You can make it with any white fish, and it’s a lovely light, fragrant dish that’s a nice break from the heaviness of Christmas Day.
It’s a simple recipe, so only takes half an hour to make.
Goan Fish Curry
- 300g basmati rice, washed well
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 brown onion, finely chopped
- 2 green chillies, deseeded and finely chopped
- 3 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
- 3cm piece of fresh ginger, peeled and grated
- 1 tsp mustard seeds
- ½ tsp ground cloves
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 2 tsp ground coriander
- 1 tsp ground turmeric
- 1 tsp garam masala
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 large tomato, chopped
- 400ml coconut milk
- Sea salt and black pepper
- 350g haddock, cut into 2.5 cm chunks
- 250g king prawns, peeled
- 150 g sugar snap peas
- 2 tbsp coriander leaves, roughly chopped
1. Add rice to a pan of salted boiling water and cook for 10-12 minutes, or until tender. Drain and rinse with boiling water.
2. While the rice is cooking, heat the oil in a large, ovenproof casserole dish or saucepan. Add the onion and fry for 10 minutes.
3. Add the chillies, garlic, ginger, all the spices and the bay leaf. Fry for 2 minutes, stirring constantly, until aromatic. Add the chopped tomato and fry for 2 minutes.
4. Pour in the coconut milk, add a pinch of salt and some pepper and simmer for 8–10 minutes until the sauce has thickened nicely.
5. Gently stir through the haddock, prawns and sugar snap peas. Simmer for a further 5 minutes, check the seasoning and serve with the cooked rice and a scattering of coriander leaves.
- In Minutes by Clodagh McKenna (£20, Kyle Books).
CARAMELISED PEAR TART FRIENDS LOVE ON THE BIG DAY
AINSLEY HARRIOTT, 64, is a TV chef. He has written more than 20 cookbooks. He says:
Ainsley Harriott (pictured) said his cooking totally changed after the birth of his children, as it took him back to his own childhood
As a young chef, I spent 11 years cooking Christmas dinner for other people in hotels and restaurants. But by my early 30s I had my own family.
I met Clare and soon she was expecting our first child, Jimmy, now 31. And how my life changed. Three years later we had Maddie, now 28, and my days were spent revelling in the true value of Christmas. The cooking totally changed. It took me back to my own childhood, when our house would be buzzing.
Now, with the turkey I serve my late mum’s baked ham (rubbed with mustard and sugar) and shred Brussels sprouts and saute them with herbs.
Clare and I split in 2012 after 23 years of marriage, but we’re still good mates. On Christmas Day my partner and I invite friends for lunch.
This recipe is so fresh and easy, I make three or four and we eat them as a starter or for supper.
Caramelised pear, pecan & cheese tart
- 25g butter
- 2 tbsp runny honey
- 2 firm pears, cored and sliced
- ½ lemon, for squeezing
- 1 x 500g ready-made puff pastry
- Plain flour, for dusting
- 125g soft goat’s cheese
- 100g dolcelatte cheese
- Handful pecans/walnuts, chopped
- Leaves of 3–4 thyme sprigs
- 1 egg, beaten (or a little milk)
1. Heat oven to 200c/180c fan/gas 6. Line baking sheet with parchment.
2. In a frying pan over a medium heat, melt butter with honey. Add pears and a squeeze of lemon juice and cook for 2 minutes on each side until caramelised. Remove pears and season, reserving honey caramel.
3. Roll pastry into a 28 x 38cm rectangle 5mm thick. Score a 2cm border and place on baking sheet.
4. Arrange pears within the border. Dot in the cheeses, then pecans. Scatter over the thyme and brush border with beaten egg.
5. Bake for 15–20 minutes. Season, then drizzle with leftover caramel.
- Ainsley’s Good Mood Food (Ebury Press, £20).