Food

Nigel Slater’s recipes for the Christmas season | Food


You can plan Christmas dinner. A neat list in black ink on white paper – a roast goose and a figgy pudding; a seating plan and a playlist of carols – but Christmas is not about just one meal. There are the smaller feasts to consider, meals for special friends and family who may be at someone else’s table on Christmas Day. A roast turkey may feel inappropriate on such occasions – a bit premature or over the top – but the event must still be special. My own plans (I am a list-maker) include a menu that feels right for any time over the next few weeks, from now till New Year’s Eve.

I am looking forward to Christmas more than ever this year. The tree will be twinkling aside the fireplace, its branches laden with old baubles and frosty lights; there will be presents tied up with golden ribbon and the pudding – rich, sweet and heady with brandy – will be no doubt be puttering away on the stove. Yes, there will be the sound of carols, but tucked in the background will be the soft crackle and hiss of something roasting in the oven.

Sometimes there is a goose or perhaps a turkey, but this year’s roast both for The Feast and the many other “little feasts” will be pork – a neatly rolled loin, its crackling brushed with garlic and rosemary, carved in thick slices with red cabbage and sauerkraut. (There will be a little redcurrant jelly and juniper in the recipe too.) It will be the centrepiece along with a platter of mixed mushrooms and a herbed chickpea cream. I will also be presenting a dish of brussels sprouts, if only for myself.

There must be pudding, by which I mean the pudding, but its fruity richness is not for everyone, so there will be a dish of pears in a glistening syrup for those who yearn for something lighter. I always feel this meal should glitter with wine glasses and candlelight, golden crackling, champagne and sugar frosting. This year I am icing biscuits – little gingerbread stars – with which to decorate an alternative cake spiced with ginger and chocolate nuggets. Those I don’t use will be packaged and brought to the table to nibble another time with coffee.

This is the meal I will use, perhaps trimmed a little, throughout the Christmas season. The menu is special, but not so specifically tied to the season that it would seem out of place during the next few weeks. I might serve the pork with sauerkraut alone or halve the quantities for the ginger cake and make a single-layered version, but much will depend on how many are round the table. (Vegans will get the mushrooms cooked without the butter, the chickpea mash will be made minus the cream, and I will make a salad of crisp shredded fennel, blood orange and mint. A meal that will be followed by the poached pears.)

As someone who generally avoids hefty first courses, I have long been mulling over how to start my festive meals. Should I pass round a vast plate of oysters or a wooden board of gravadlax? A salad of chicory and blue cheese? Or perhaps a ceviche with citrus, chilli and coriander. This year will be one of the above, I am honestly not sure which yet. Starting a Christmas list is one thing. Finishing it is another thing altogether.

Pork with green olives and sauerkraut

I ask my butcher to bone and tie the pork loin – my own attempts are less than perfect – and I think it helps to keep the meat unwrapped for as long as you can before cooking, so the skin is dry. (It will make for better crackling.) Rather than roasting by the clock, I find a meat thermometer is a sound investment, especially for cooking pork and beef. You can pick them up from cookware shops.

I make the olive and lemon dressing while the pork is resting. The cabbage can be started when the roast pork has about 20 minutes to go. It is a good-natured dish and will keep warm in its pan, covered by a lid or reheated at the last minute.

Serves 6
pork loin 2kg (boned, scored and rolled weight)
olive oil 6 tbsp
garlic 3 cloves
rosemary 3 bushy sprigs

For the dressing
green olives 120g, stoned
parsley 20g
lemon juice 2 tbsp
olive oil 4 tbsp

For the cabbage
red cabbage 1kg
olive oil 3 tbsp
juniper berries 10
yellow mustard seeds 2 tsp
cider vinegar 3 tbsp
redcurrant or other fruit jelly 3 tbsp
sauerkraut 250g

Set the oven at 200C fan/gas mark 8. Put the pork, rolled and tied, in a roasting tin and rub with a little of the olive oil – just enough to moisten the skin. Once the oven is hot enough, roast the pork for 30 minutes until the skin is starting to puff and blister.

Peel and roughly chop the garlic. Finely chop the rosemary leaves, discarding the stems. Mix the rosemary and garlic with the olive oil, season with salt and pepper. Remove the pork briefly from the oven and spoon the rosemary and garlic oil over the meat, then return to the oven and lower the heat to 160C fan/gas mark 4. Continue roasting for 45 minutes till its juices run clear, or until the internal temperature of the meat reaches 60C on a meat thermometer.

Make the dressing: remove the meat from the oven, cover lightly with foil and leave in a warm place to rest. Put the roasting tin on the hob over a moderate heat. Roughly chop the green olives, finely chop the parsley and mix with the lemon juice and olive oil.

For the cabbage: cut the red cabbage into pencil thick shreds. Warm the olive oil in a large, deep, heavy-based saucepan over moderate heat. Add the cabbage, juniper berries and mustard seeds and a little salt, then cover tightly with a lid. Cook for 3-4 minutes till slightly wilted, then turn the cabbage with kitchen tongs. Replace the lid, and continue cooking for another 7-10 minutes till the cabbage is tender. Add the vinegar, cook for a minute or two, add the fruit jelly and stir through the cabbage, then add the sauerkraut and toss together.

Slice the roast pork and serve with spoonful of the olive dressing and the cabbage.

Mushrooms with herbed hummus

Mushrooms with herbed hummus.
Mushrooms with herbed hummus. ‘Cook the large ones first.’ Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin/The Observer

A mixture of mushrooms – field, chestnut, oyster, shiitake, shimoji and cepes – is good here, but I have also done it with just field and chestnut varieties. The tender varieties will take less time to cook, so it is worth separating them from the larger types. Unless your pan is particularly large, it may be best to cook the large ones first, remove them to a warm place, then cook the smaller and more fragile varieties.

Serves 4
double cream 250ml
chickpeas 2 x 400g tins
coriander leaves, dill, parsley leaves 35g, total weight
garlic 3 cloves
olive oil 6 tbsp
butter 40g
mixed mushrooms 500g
spring onions 4

Warm the cream and drained chickpeas in a saucepan for 5 minutes over moderate heat. Tip them into a food processor and add the herb leaves, and a little salt and black pepper, then process to a smooth cream. Transfer back to the saucepan.

Peel the garlic and flatten the cloves with the side of a knife or a heavy weight. Warm the olive oil and butter in a shallow pan and add the garlic cloves. Start by adding the largest mushrooms first, keeping the more fragile and smaller varieties until the large mushrooms are starting to turn golden. Finely chop and add the spring onions. Stir regularly but carefully, taking care not to damage the more fragile mushrooms.

Warm the chickpea cream over a moderate heat. Spoon onto a serving plate, then add the mushrooms and serve.

Poached pears with riesling

Poached pears with riesling.
Poached pears with riesling: ‘A half bottle is enough for this.’ Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin/The Observer

As much as I love Christmas pudding (I could cheerfully eat it for breakfast), a refreshing dessert is welcome too. The pears – especially the plump comice – are at their best right now. In our house they are offered with stichelton or stilton, or perhaps a jagged wedge of yellow and grainy parmesan, but they also make a fine sorbet or cake. I poach the pears in sugar syrup the day before, giving them time to chill thoroughly in the fridge. For this recipe, I shall let them marinate in sweet wine.

You could serve the pears with a little cream but I like the pure, simple notes of the poached pears as they are. If sweet riesling evades you, then a light muscat will do nicely. A half bottle is enough for this.

Serves 6
caster sugar 100g
water 1 litre
pears 3
lemon juice of 1
sweet riesling 375ml
blackberries 150g

In a medium-sized pan – I use one about 22cm in diameter – bring the sugar and water to the boil. Peel the pears, cut them in half from stalk to base rubbing them with lemon juice as you go. Squeeze the lemon juice into the sugar syrup, add the pears and lower the temperature to a simmer.

Continue cooking until the pears are tender to the point of a knife. Depending on their ripeness, this may take from 10-40 minutes. Check their progress regularly, they should be thoroughly soft but still retain their shape.

Remove the pears with a draining spoon and transfer to a serving bowl. Reduce the sugar syrup to 200ml, add the riesling, then pour over the pears and chill thoroughly for several hours. Scatter the blackberries over the pears and serve.

Pear and ginger biscuit cake

Pear and ginger biscuit cake.
Pear and ginger biscuit cake: ‘Something to take you time over.’ Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin/The Observer

This is something to take your time over. I chose a cold, rainy day, put the radio on and spent the whole afternoon in the warmth of the kitchen, poaching pears, making biscuits and baking the cake. (I suggest you make either the cake, the biscuits or pears the day before assembly.)

Should you fancy the cake but have less time, you can speed the whole process up by using tinned pears – drained of their syrup – and by using ready-made ginger biscuits (but not gingernuts, which are too hard for this).

The mixture for any ginger cake is quite liquid before baking, so you will need baking tins that don’t have removable bases – otherwise it will leak in the oven. If you want to make a smaller cake, then halve all the ingredients, bake the cake in one 20cm tin and pile the pears and cream filling on top of the cake.

Serves 12
For the pears
water 750ml
caster sugar 100g
lemon juice of ½
comice pears 4 (about 850g total weight)

For the cake
self-raising flour 250g
ground ginger 2 level tsp
mixed spice ½ tsp
ground cinnamon ½ tsp
bicarbonate of soda 1 tsp
salt a pinch
agave or golden syrup 200ml
syrup from the ginger jar 2 tbsp
butter 125g
dark muscovado 125g
stem ginger in syrup 3 lumps (about 60g)
eggs 2 large
milk 240ml

For the filling
double cream 350ml
vanilla extract 1 tsp
ginger biscuits 90g
mascarpone 350g
dark chocolate 95g

You will need 2 x 20cm round cake tins (without removable bases), the bottom and sides lined with baking parchment, and a couple of baking sheets lined with baking parchment for the biscuits.

Set the oven at 160C fan/gas mark 4. Sift the flour with the ground ginger, mixed spice, cinnamon, bicarbonate of soda and salt. Pour the syrups into a small saucepan, add the butter and the muscovado, and warm over a moderate heat until the butter has melted. When the mixture has simmered for a minute remove from the heat. Dice the ginger finely and add to the pan.

Break the eggs into a bowl, add the milk and beat lightly to combine. Pour the butter and syrup mixture into the flour and spices, and stir gently but quickly until no flour is visible, following immediately with the milk and eggs. Divide the mixture between the cake tins, slide into the oven and bake for about 20-25 minutes until it is lightly puffed and spongy to the touch. Leave to cool for 20 minutes in the tin, then run a palette knife around the edges and turn out on to a wire cooling rack.

For the pears, put the water and sugar in medium-sized (20cm) saucepan. Add the lemon juice to the water, then bring it to the boil. Peel the pears, slice each in half from stalk to base, then lower them into the bubbling syrup, turn the heat down to a simmer and leave them to cook for 20 minutes or until they are translucent and tender. Leave to cool in the syrup.

For the cream filling, pour the cream into a chilled mixing bowl, add the vanilla extract and whisk until thick. Crush the biscuits to rough crumbs (you can do this in a food processor but take care not to reduce to very fine crumbs, you want small nuggets of biscuit throughout). Fold the mascarpone into the cream taking care not to over mix. Finely chop the chocolate and add to the filling. Chill until needed.

To assemble the cake, place one of the ginger cakes on a flat serving plate. Put the pears on top of the cake in a single layer. Spoon 2 tablespoons of the pear cooking syrup over the top. Spoon one third of the chocolate crumb cream over the pears then place the second cake on top and press down firmly. Smooth a second third of the crumb cream over the top and the rest around the sides of the cake. Refrigerate for an hour before decorating and serving.

Iced spice biscuits

Iced spice biscuits.
Iced spice biscuits. Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin/The Observer

Makes about 25-30 small biscuits
For the spice biscuits
butter 70g
light muscovado sugar 80g
black treacle or molasses 2 heaped tbsp
cardamon pods 8
plain flour 250g
bicarbonate of soda ½ tsp
ground cinnamon 2 level tsp
ground ginger 1 tsp
egg yolk 1
milk 3-4 tbsp

For the icing
icing sugar 125g
lemon juice 4 tbsp

Set the oven at 160C fan/gas mark 4. Cream the butter and sugar together in a mixer till light and fluffy. Add the molasses. Break the cardamom pods open and crush the seeds finely. Add them to the mixture with the flour, bicarbonate of soda, egg yolk, cinnamon and ginger. Beat in a couple of tablespoons of milk, then slowly add more until you have reached a point where the mixture can be rolled out like pastry. Bring the ingredients together, then roll out on a floured board, no thicker than pound coin.

Cut out 25-30 biscuits, using a mixture of star or snowflake cutters of different sizes, then place, slightly apart, on one of the lined baking sheets. Place the leftover pastry pieces on a separate baking sheet. Bake the cut-out shapes for 12 minutes. Remove from the oven (they will be a little soft but will crisp on cooling) and transfer to a wire rack.

When the biscuits are cold, make the icing. Put the icing sugar into a bowl, then beat in the lemon juice, either with a fork or using a small hand whisk. Take it steady, only using enough to make an icing thick enough that it takes a while to fall from the spoon. Dip the cookies into the icing and place on waxed paper to dry. Decorate as you wish with sugar crystals, food colourings or edible gold leaf. The biscuits will store in a tin or airtight container for a few days, though the icing may mottle slightly.



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