Our cheat sheet offers hosting help that allow you to focus on the fun festivities. By SophieMorris
After two years of pared-back Christmas Days, many of us hoped we’d be indulging in Bacchanalian excesses this year – the sort to make Princess Margaret blanch.
The reality is shaping up rather differently, and I’m all for it. Cutting costs and making do are at the forefront of everyone’s minds, and big retailers are racing to the bottom to offer ua s cheaper Christmas. The bonus fallout? As we look for ways to cut corners cost-wise, we can also streamline effort, faff and waste.
Don’t worry – this has nothing to do with Scrooge and everything to do with self-preservation, especially if you’re the (long-suffering) host of Christmas Day. Stripping back the main event should give us more time to indulge in what the festive season is really about – family, fighting with family, and Boxing Day drowsiness.
Be selfish at breakfast
My favourite hosting tip: keep the best for yourself. Whatever fancy food or drink you can’t do without on Christmas Day, knock it back before the rabble arrives. “I have a giant family so Christmas can be very expensive for the host,” says Chet Sharma, chef patron of BiBI restaurant. He doesn’t stiff his guests with poor ingredients, but he does cheat by indulging in the priciest products with his wife in the morning: “Whether a smoked salmon breakfast or vintage champagne, share with close family only.”
Fizz is lovely but there’s no need to blow the budget here: French Crémant, English Sparkling, Cava and Franciacorta are made using the champagne method and often far cheaper – Aldi’s £8.99 Crémant du Jura was named Best Buy in the Which? sparkling taste test this year.
Or go for trendy Pet Nat (naturally sparkling) wine such as the dark rosé Jung & Sexy with its festive cranberry notes (£16.50) or Kent’s Woolton Chardonnay (£22). Guests who like wine chat will enjoy showing off their knowledge, and anyone who says they only drink champagne hopefully won’t come back next year. Stuck on prosecco? Pre-mix jugs of Negroni sbagliato – pour one bottle and 150ml each Campari and sweet vermouth over ice and orange slices. Get all your glassware and drinks out in advance and show guests where to help themselves.
The best canapés are those served cold. Make your guests earn their keep by serving crackers and cheese or pâté and pickles with utensils and paper napkins so they can dig in – saving you the tedium of basting tiny croutons or blinis with fishy luxuries.
Alternatively, put in some prep time and wow guests with a beautiful grazing board, which saves on dishes and clearing up. “Don’t be afraid to mix and match your products,” says party expert Olivia Vachon, events manager at Italian food emporium Eataly. “Pair a soft blue next to a hard Parmigiano Reggiano to create contrast and interest.” Do your guests and your sofa a favour by not stooping to the ill-fated ‘butter board’ trend.
Once, a cracker provided enough festive joy to keep the kids quiet until mains. It’s now popular to lay the table with other treats such as individual gifts. Why not cut back on the cost (and inevitable waste) and buy scratch cards for each guest?
Or suggests Waitrose chef Paul Gamble, buy and wrap interesting ingredients. Try Cooks’ Ingredients sour dried hibiscus or briny dulse seaweed, or ready-made cooking pastes such as white miso or black garlic. Belazu spice pastes like zhoug, tagine and shawarma, or a jar of Odysea olives, will spark conversations about food and travel and remind them of your brilliant dinner long after it’s over.
Can opener at the ready
Christmas is not the time to be sniffy about tinned foods, and even Monica Galetti of Mere restaurant, formerly and famously a Masterchef judge, admits to using them. “For Christmas, I like to make food reminiscent of childhood and family gatherings,” she says. “We always had a pineapple-glazed ham. The best tip is to use tinned pineapple. I blitz it to a purée then add it to a dry caramel to make a thick glaze ready to brush over the ham.”
Paul Gamble says have a can of cream of chicken soup and frozen pastry on hand to magic any leftovers into a quick pie.
Probably the most obvious advice is to get organised and prep as much as possible. But many hosts don’t realise how far you can go with this. “Cook all the vegetables the day before, cling-filmed in serving bowls with knobs of butter, to be reheated in the microwave,” says Michelin-starred chef Allister Barsby of Hide and Fox in Saltwood, Folkestone.
Gordon Ker, owner of chophouse Blacklock, knows a thing or two about gravy. “We’re never not cooking it,” he says. “Start with beef jus and add meat trimmings. Give yourself plenty of time to reduce slowly, because the thicker it gets the better it tastes. Top with an unsparing glug of madeira and save any juices from your meat and pour them in.”
“For years when hosting I’d make the same mistake of a long elaborate ‘course’ of starters,” says Chet Sharma. “This devolved into easier nibbles, a bit of charcuterie and bread, and slowly has disappeared into one type of canapé, maximum two. That means by the time you get to the main roast (always goose for us) you have the appetite and space to enjoy it. And it means that the 7pm cheeseboard seems less unnecessary.”
Keep it simple
Everyone’s idea of the essential components of a traditional Christmas lunch differ slightly. “I choose three of my favourite sides,” says Allister Barsby. “Probably cauliflower cheese, sprouts with bacon and roast potatoes. That’s all you need.”
Spice up your sprouts
A funky twist will make your Christmas dinner stand out from years past. “Cook [vegetables] ahead and dunk them in iced water,” says chef Luke Farrell of Thai restaurant Plaza Khao Gaeng. “Stir fry just before you sit down with fish sauce, black pepper and a little brown sugar. It’s undetectable as fish sauce, but adds deep richness and umami.”
The main event
If cooking a whole turkey, chefs are unanimous that brining the day before, while officially an extra step, will bring the flavour and succulence the bird so desperately needs.
Michael Caines is one of the UK’s most experienced chefs but even he says get your butcher to do the work for you by asking them to bone and roll it, and take the legs and breast off. “Saves time and the hassle of it!” he says. “Seal off the skin and roast the turkey on top of the bones.”
Chantelle Nicolson, chef owner of Apricity, recommends the same approach, or for non meat-eaters, a whole celeriac as a centrepiece. “Slice and spread with miso paste and nut butter, cover and roast for half an hour,” she explains. “Remove the cover and roast for a further 30 minutes. Delicious with a sauce made with a stock from the celeriac peelings, thyme, a little miso and emulsified with oil or plant-based butter.”
The two-tray Christmas dinner
It’s often said Christmas dinner is nothing more than a big roast, but it’s easy to overcomplicate. Olive magazine’s beautiful festive issue recommends a canny solution with its ‘two-tray Christmas dinner’, which roasts a stuffed turkey breast and a few sides with 20 mins prep and under two hours cooking time. Job done!
The big retailers have worked hard to offer affordable feasts with all the trimmings. First Tesco advertised a full dinner for five – including a 1.5kg turkey crown – for £25 (until 14/12) Then Asda launched its £22 frozen dinner (until 19/12). Sainsbury’s swooped in at the last minute to offer a full feast for less than £4 a head, including a fresh turkey and a sherry trifle.
Simplify things even further by ordering the HelloFresh Christmas box, from £16 a head based on dinner for ten, or £22.50 a head for four.
Buy in dessert
Scott Smith, head chef of The Oarsman in Marlow, recommends buying in pud. “Buy your favourite tart or cake from your local restaurant. It’s a great way to support local businesses, and takes out some of the stress of making your own!”