Tests and experiments to make the best Christmas Dinner
Christmas Dinner can be a tricky thing to get right, especially in such a manner that all the elements please everyone. Even though there are just two of us in our home (and we’ll be spending the Christmas period visiting both our families, so our own Christmas Dinner happened a few days before Christmas itself), we’ve both grown up with our own families’ slightly different take on the festive feast. Now that we’re making Christmas Dinner for ourselves, it’s important that we settle on the important elements of our home’s dinner. So, in the build up to the day itself, I took some time to experiment with different kinds of meat, veg, stuffing and potatoes, putting Professor Plum through a number of taste tests in order to determine, if not the perfect Christmas Dinner, at least the best dinner for her.
Goose, Turkey or Chicken?
The fundamental issue of the ingredients of a Christmas Dinner is to decide what meat to cook. While the typical choice these days seems to be turkey, it is by no means a ubiquitous one. In my family, when I was growing up, we tended to opt for a chicken instead. Turkey, of course, is not native to this country and was first introduced from America in the 16th century. It has only become more and more popular over time through the influence of festive traditions from across the Atlantic. Before that a Christmas goose was always the mainstay of the Yuletide meal. I decided, therefore, to prepare these three birds and compare to find out which would work best for us at Christmas.
So, I bought a turkey breast, a goose breast and a chicken breast of roughly equal size and roasted them side by side and served a slice of each for Professor Plum to taste.
And what did Diner Professor Plum think? Of the three, the goose is the most different, a gamey, fatty meat more akin to duck. My goose was slightly overdone and, therefore, a little dry, which did it no favours when it came to the tasting. Regardless of this disadvantage, Professor Plum ruled the goose out as too rich a flavour when on the plate with all the other Christmas food. The other two were much more similar, with Professor Plum keen on the moist, tender flesh and crisp skin of the chicken, but eventually opting for the flavour of the turkey as the choice meat for Christmas.
What’s the Best Fat to Roast It In?
While the roasting meat is the centrepiece of Christmas Dinner, it is the potato that is the most delicious part of all. The best way to cook roast potatoes is a discussion that often comes up around this time of year, with the oft repeated mantra that they’re best made with goose fat getting its annual airing (oddly, people only seem to develop this goose fat obssession for the Christmas period, the rest of the year the fat that their spuds are roast in doesn’t seem to matter). I decided to put the goose fat theory to the test.
I peeled and boiled a load of potatoes and then put various different fats in the oven. Recalling my previous chip based experiments, where animal fat (in that case beef dripping) proved to make a more flavoursome chip than vegetable oil, I used two different animal fats – the much discussed goose fat and lard (the latter left over from the mince pies a couple of weeks ago) – alongside vegetable oil and just water as a control group. After roasting the potatoes in these various fat types I put them once more to Professor Plum’s taste test.
Predictably the water potatoes were soft and fluffy, essentially steamed with no crispness, not bad but not roasties either. When it came to the three proper options this roast potato test followed the findings of the chip one with Professor Plum finding both animal fat options more tasty and better textures than the veggie one. There was very little to choose between the lard cooked and goose fat ones. While expressing a mild preference for the goose fat potatoes, Plum admitted that it would be almost impossible to tell much difference between the two.
Meaty, Sweet or Veggie?
With our experiments so far we ended up opting for something fairly conventional and predictable: turkey and goose fat potatoes. With those core elements decided on, we were able to move on to thinking about the trimmings. Pigs in blankets are a no brainer, what’s not to love about the glorious union of sausage and bacon? But how about stuffing? Professor Plum didn’t really perceive stuffing as an essential part of the festive meal, having only had nasty stuff from out of a packet, so I was keen to show her how much extra it could add. I, therefore, made four different types of stuffing – meat based, herby, sweet and fruity, and veggie rice based – cooking a little ball of each for about 25 minutes, and submitted these for her consideration.
1. For the first one I went with the sort of thing that I would usually make under these circumstances: a mix of sausage meat, sage and onion, mixed with breadcrumbs and bound together with egg. While Professor Plum liked this option well enough, she did not appear overly enamoured with it and suggested this much meat on top of everything else may prove a little too meaty.
For the second option I went for something with a more herby flavour, frying bacon lardons with onion and garlic and mixing in parsley, sage, toasted pine nuts and lemon. The bacon content of this one left Professor Plum feeling it was a little too salty, so we moved on to the meat free choices.
For the third one I wanted to use the festive flavour of the chestnuts I had left over from last week’s reindeer. So I roast and peeled more chestnuts, chopped them up and fried them with onions and breadcrumbs and added dried apricots to make a sweeter flavoured stuffing. This one Professor Plum proved very keen on, liking how the sweetness of the apricots would compliment the other festive flavours on the plate. She decided it would be between this and the last one.
For that final option I wanted something a little different from the three breadcrumb based stuffings that I had tried so far, so I made one with basmati rice, adding dried porcini mushrooms, pine nits and lemon. Even though she doesn’t usually care for mushrooms, Professor Plum enjoyed the tastes of this one and even considered if it might be her favourite of the four.
Tasting each stuffing against each other, Professor Plum concluded that the chestnut and apricot was her favourite, so this was the one that became a part of our festive dinner.
Is There Any Way to Make Sprouts Nice?
There are certain Christmas dinner vegetable options that we both agree are right for the occasion and we both enjoy, things like carrots and parsnips are always going to make an appearance, and others that, like Peep Show‘s Mark Corrigan, we can agree are simply “not traditional”. One vegetable that is very much traditional at Christmas, although not really at any other time because most people don’t really like them, is the Brussels sprout.
Neither Professor Plum nor myself have any liking for the little Belgian cabbages and would never normally think to eat them. At Christmas, though, we, along with many others, feel a sort of sense of duty and obligation to eat them, mostly due to the notion of fulfilling that festive tradition. Would it be possible, though, to take the typically disgusting sprout amd make it a tasty, appealing part of Christmas dining?
To try and make sprouts appealing, I came up with three possible options, each essentially covering the vegetable with something much tastier, fattier and less healthy: butter, bacon, or cheese. Firstly, then, I boiled the sprouts and some peas and made an orange and toasted hazelnut butter to melt over them. For the second sprout option I fried some chunks of bacon and more roast chestnuts and stirred them into the sprouts. Finally, I made a cheese sauce from a mix of gruyere and parmesan and covered the sprouts in this and some fried breadcrumbs to create a sort of sprout gratin.
The butter option was quickly dismissed by Professor Plum as being “too much just sprouts”. The orange flavour in the butter was a little harsh as well. The other two fared a little better, but Plum’s preference was expressed firmly in favour of the cheesy one, largely in the hope that, by smothering it in cheese, you could ignore taste, texture and anything else to do with the sprout itself. At the end of the day, though, for all that these three methods each did a little to make the sprouts a little more palatable and we had the chessy sprouts for our own Christmas Dinner, they still were not really very nice and I’d have been happier to do without them.
And that’s our Christmas Dinner. A huge roast turkey with apricot and chestnut stuffing, pigs in blankets, goose fat roast potatoes, carrots, beans, parsnips and cheesy sprout gratin. Was it the best Christmas Dinner possible? No, perhaps not, but we made some useful decisions here. Next year’s Christmas we can add a little more, make a few more tests and experiments, and get a little closer to our perfect Christmas Dinner.