A stress-free Christmas dinner

by Gazette Reporter

 Susan Bell
Executive Chef of Howth Castle

One question we are always asked at Howth Castle Cookery School is when should one start cooking Christmas dinner and how do we go about organising it. My answer is always the same – the further in advance you have everything prepared, the better the day and the dinner will go.
With three children at home, the last thing I want to do on Christmas morning is spend the day in the kitchen; missing out on the kid’s excitement as they open their Christmas presents, while I worry about what time the turkey needs to go on.
I always try to prepare a meal that the whole family will enjoy, the kids as well as granny. On December 23 I do any last minute food shopping, I buy all of the perishables like fresh vegetables, cream and an extra carton of milk. Then in the afternoon of Christmas Eve I start the preparation for Christmas dinner.
Many elements of the meal can be pre-prepared, vegetables can be blanched, soup prepared, potatoes can be peeled and even garnishes can be prepared in advance to add those final flourishes to this very special feast.

Starter: Homemade Parsnip and Chestnut Soup
I like to begin our meal with a small bowl of homemade parsnip and chestnut soup.
This dish can be made on Christmas Eve. If you have fussy vegetable eaters in the family I would just tell them it’s soup and leave it at that.
It always amazes me that my children will eat almost any soup but will snub the same cooked vegetable.
Main: Turkey Escalopes with Ham and Thyme Stuffing
One of my favourite Christmas main courses that we teach at Howth Castle Cookery School is our Turkey Escalopes with Ham and Thyme Stuffing.
The great news is that these boned, stuffed and rolled pieces of turkey or “ballotines” can be made up to two days in advance. Keep in the fridge tightly wrapped in cling film until ready to cook.
On Christmas Day these would take up to 30 minutes max to cook and takes the worry out of trying to fit the turkey in the oven and getting the turkey on with enough time to cook through.

The Trim: Roast Root Vegetables, Creamed Brussel Sprouts and Spuds!
Peel your potatoes the day before and leave in cold water ready for mash and roasting on the day.
Creamed Brussel Sprouts are a firm favourite and again a day in advance blanch and refresh the shredded sprouts.
Then on Christmas Day all you need to do is reduce your cream and re-heat the previously cooked sprouts in the cream. Season and serve.
Roast root vegetables finished with cardamon and honey are really delicious.
The root vegetables can be prepared and diced a day in advance so Christmas Day, just put on a roasting tray and into the oven an hour before sitting down to dine.
Bread sauce can be made Christmas Day by simply heating up milk with a small onion infusing in it for flavour, then adding in your bread a little at a time until the right consistency is achieved.
Dessert has caused many arguments over the years – who wants what.
A firm favourite and great family fail safe is Toblerone cheesecake. Again, this can be made on Christmas Eve.
Thus bringing us to Christmas Day which should be fairly hassle free, allowing lots of time for opening presents and family fun.
You don’t need to think about the final cooking of everything until about an hour and a half before dinner is due to be served.
Whilst the children are small I leave the setting of the dinner table to the last minute, for those with older children or adults, get them involved in setting the table in advance.
The dressing of the table should be considered in advance.
Glasses washed and polished, table settings and crackers ready to go with festive napkins and a lovely centre piece at the ready.
This could be a Christmas lights within a beautiful glass bowl dressed with holly or a festive candle framed within a Christmas wreath.
Serve the soup from the kitchen in small bowls and have everything else ready to go in serving bowls, gently warming in the oven.
These serving bowls can be placed in the middle of the table for family service style once the starter has been cleared.
Then sit down with the family and enjoy.
Susan Bell is executive chef at Howth Castle with responsibility for Howth Castle Cookery School, Deer Park Golf’s Club House menu and the estate’s newly launched “The Kitchen in the Castle” catering menu.
This new service will see cookery school’s chefs prepare delicious party food for special events, beautifully packaged and ready to be enjoyed – and impress guests at home.
Cooks of all skill levels are invited to take part in upcoming classes at Howth Cookery School.
A number of special classes are being presented including ‘Christmas Foodie Gifts’ and ‘Preparing the Perfect Christmas Dinner’. Christmas Gift Vouchers are also available.
Howth Castle Cookery School, Howth Castle, County Dublin.
See howthcastlecookeryschool.ie or call 01 839 6182.

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