Turkey or nut roast? Felicity Cloake’s perfect Christmas dinner recipes | Christmas food and drink

While there are people who see Christmas time as an opportunity to try out new and exciting recipes, my family is not among them. We have roast turkey only once a year, which means it’s always a big, bronzed, buttery treat – why would we want to change? That said, I’m always tempted to make a sneaky nut roast as well; another unfairly under-rated dish that’s just as good with sauteed sprouts, cranberry sauce and all the other delicious festive sides that I’ll never tire of. If you’re similarly inclined, here’s a handy guide to the season’s greatest hits.

The perfect … roast turkey and gravy (pictured above)

Roasting a turkey feels a lot less scary when you realise that it’s basically just a very big chicken, and no more complicated than that. Because the breast is so large, the only potentially tricky bit is making sure you don’t overcook it before the legs are ready, which is why I recommend covering it with a muslin, or a clean tea-towel, soaked in butter to keep things well basted at all times. I also strongly suggest investing in a cooking thermometer to give you peace of mind, rather than erring on the side of caution – cooking times vary depending on the bird itself, as well as on the temperament of your oven and what else you have in it. (If you do happen to overcook it, carve it, lay it out on a platter and soak in hot gravy before serving.)

Prep 5 min
Cook 2 hr plus rest
Serves 6-8

1 x 3-4kg whole turkey, preferably with giblets
170g butter
1 big piece cook’s muslin

½ onion
1 bay leaf

For the gravy
1 tbsp plain flour
568ml hot poultry stock, or water
4 tbsp madeira

Take the turkey out of the fridge a couple of hours before you want to start cooking. When you’re ready, heat the oven to 180C (160C fan)/350F/gas 4.

Melt the butter in a large pan and soak the muslin in it until it’s absorbed. Season the turkey liberally, and put it in a large roasting tin with the neck, giblets (except the liver, which you can dispose of as you wish, either by using it in stuffing, feeding it to a suitable pet or putting it in the food waste), onion, bay leaf and 300ml water. Cover the turkey with the muslin, pour any extra butter over the top and put the tray into the hot oven. After an hour and 20 minutes, turn up the heat to 220C (200C fan)/425F/gas 7, remove the muslin and check the temperature at the thickest part of the thigh, away from a bone – once it hits 60C, the bird is ready, so you can at this point judge how much longer to leave it in the oven by how close it is to that mark.

Return the bird to the oven, uncovered, and roast for about another 25 minutes, depending on the reading from the thermometer – if you don’t have a thermometer, the juices should also run clear from the thigh. Once cooked, take the bird out of the tin and put it in a warm place to rest for at least 30 minutes before carving.

Meanwhile, make the gravy. Pour the juices and fat from the roasting tin into a gravy separator, or skim off and discard as much of the fat as possible from the top. In a small bowl, mix the flour and two tablespoons of the meat juices to a smooth paste, and pour the rest of the juices back into the tin. Put the tin on a medium heat, and stir to dislodge any bits stuck on the bottom. Whisk in the flour paste, slowly so it doesn’t form lumps, followed by the madeira and, finally, the stock. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring, until it has reached your desired thickness. Season to taste, strain into a jug and serve with the turkey.

The perfect … cranberry sauce

Making your own cranberry sauce may sound like a step too far at a time when we already have too much on our plates as it is, but all you have to do is tip the ingredients in a pan and let them bubble away happily for results that are sharper, fresher and infinitely more interesting than the stuff that comes in a jar – an ideal festive effort-to-reward ratio, as far as I’m concerned.

Prep 5 min
Cook 10 min
Serves 8

Juice of 1 orange, plus zest of ½ orange
210g caster sugar
450g fresh cranberries
2 tbsp port

Put the orange juice and sugar in a small pan and heat gently, stirring, until the sugar dissolves. Add the cranberries, bring to a simmer, then cook for about eight minutes, until most of the cranberries have burst and you have a loose sauce: it will set as it cools, so stop cooking when it still seems a little too liquid.

Stir in the port and orange zest, and serve, or store in sterilised jars.

The perfect … nut roast

Felicity Cloake’s Christmas nut roast, vegetarian gravy and red cabbage.
Felicity Cloake’s Christmas nut roast, vegetarian gravy and red cabbage.

While it’s great that nut roast is no longer the only vegetarian choice in town, when done well, it’s more than a match for more modish meat-free mains. This one, wrapped in festive green leaves, contains some of the season’s best-loved flavours, from sweet chestnuts to savoury sage, as well as a crunchy sprinkling of toasted hazelnuts. If you’d prefer to keep things vegan, replace the stilton with a plant-based cheese, or leave it out altogether and stir in some Marmite (or similar) along with the seasoning.

Prep 10 min
Cook 1 hr 30 min
Serves 6 (with accompaniments)

2 large parsnips
Oil, to grease
1 small savoy cabbage, 4–6 outer leaves only
150g hazelnuts
40g butter
1 red onion, peeled and finely chopped
150g chestnut mushrooms, finely chopped
100g cooked chestnuts, roughly chopped
100g stilton (or other vegetarian-friendly or vegan cheese), crumbled
100g brown breadcrumbs
2 tbsp chopped fresh sage
1 egg, or vegan substitute, beaten
Salt and black pepper

Heat the oven to 200C (180C fan)/390F/gas 6. Peel and quarter the parsnips, cook in boiling, salted water until tender, then drain well and mash.

Line a roughly 20cm x 10cm x 7cm loaf tin with foil and grease the foil generously. Blanch six cabbage leaves in boiling, salted water for two minutes: you’ll need enough to line the tin with overlapping leaves, but how many depends on the size of your cabbage, so make sure you have enough before you tip away the water. Once blanched, immediately plunge the leaves into iced water.

Toast the hazelnuts in a frying pan over a medium heat until starting to colour, then set aside. Turn down the heat to medium, melt the butter, then fry the chopped onion for about five minutes, until translucent. Add the mushrooms and cook for another seven minutes, until both are soft and golden.

Roughly chop the hazelnuts and put them in a large bowl with the chestnuts, cheese, breadcrumbs and sage. Add the mashed parsnip, the onion and mushroom mixture, and the beaten egg, season and mix thoroughly.

Line the prepared tin with overlapping cabbage leaves, leaving any excess hanging over the sides, then spoon in the nut mixture, pressing it down well. Fold any overhanging cabbage back over the top, then cover the top tightly with foil and bake for 45 minutes. (Alternatively, keep it in the fridge for a day or so before baking.) Remove the foil from the top and return the loaf to the oven for 15 minutes.

To turn out, put a large serving plate over the top of the tin. Holding the tin with oven gloves, turn the plate over so the loaf inverts on to the plate. Carefully peel off the foil and serve at the table for the full visual impact.

The perfect … red cabbage

Though I often have it with roast pork in the autumn and winter, red cabbage is a relatively recent addition to my festive repertoire. The glorious sweet spices with which it fills the house won me over, though to be honest I still prefer the leftovers with the Boxing Day ham. It’s a handy recipe to have up your sleeve if you want to get as far ahead as possible, because you can keep it in the fridge for a couple of days before reheating.

Prep 15 min
Cook 1 hr 30 min
Serves 6-8

50g butter, plus extra to serve
1 red onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 cinnamon stick
¼ tsp ground cloves
¼ tsp ground nutmeg
1 red cabbage, cored and cut into irregular chunks
1 sharp eating apple, cored, peeled and finely chopped
3 tbsp muscovado sugar
150ml balsamic vinegar
2 tbsp cranberry sauce

Melt the butter in a large pan over a medium heat, add the onion and soften in the butter for a five or so minutes. Stir in the spices and cook for one minute more.

Tip in the cabbage and saute until shiny and well coated. Add the apple, sugar and vinegar, reduce the heat to low, stir well, cover and cook for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally to ensure it doesn’t stick.

Stir in the cranberry sauce and cook for another 25 minutes. Season generously and stir through a knob of butter before serving (or omit the butter, leave to cool, then keep in the fridge until required, adding the butter when you reheat it).

The perfect … vegetarian gravy

Every family has its own Christmas dinner traditions, but if you’re sticking with a roast, then gravy is the one constant – it’s a sauce that brings the plate together like nothing else. Vegetarians, however, tend to be sadly ill-served in this department, yet there’s no need to turn to granules; not only is a meat-free version easy to knock up, but it also has the great advantage of being able to be prepared ahead of time, and simply reheated up on the big day.

Prep 10 min
Cook 40 min
Serves 4

2 tbsp oil
2 onions, peeled and roughly chopped
2 carrots, roughly chopped
2 celery sticks, roughly chopped (use the leaves, too, assuming there are any)
1 bay leaf
1 sprig fresh thyme
10g dried porcini
2 tbsp plain flour or cornflour
200ml white wine (optional)
2 tsp Marmite or other yeast product (optional)
Port and/or madeira, sweet sherry, redcurrant jelly, cranberry sauce, etc, to taste

Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over a medium-low heat, add the chopped vegetables and herbs, and fry, stirring regularly to ensure they don’t catch and burn, for about 15 minutes, until soft and golden.

Meanwhile, whiz the mushrooms to a fine powder in a food processor (or pound them in a mortar), then mix with 100ml of warm water.

Once the vegetables are done, stir in the flour, cook for a minute or so longer, then, scraping the bottom of the pan as you do so, stir in the wine, 500ml of water (or 700ml of water if not using wine) and the mushroom paste. Bring to a simmer, stirring until thickened, then pass through a sieve and discard the vegetables and herbs.

Return the gravy to the pan, bring to a simmer, then stir in the Marmite, if using. Add the port or similar to taste; season and serve.

The perfect … roast potatoes

Felicity Cloake’s Christmas roast potatoes, brussels sprouts and bread sauce
Felicity Cloake’s Christmas roast potatoes, brussels sprouts and bread sauce.

Roast potatoes are, let’s be honest, many people’s favourite bit of Christmas dinner – when they’re done well. Crunchy and golden, with a fluffy centre that’s perfect for soaking up gravy, they’re in danger of stealing the big bird’s thunder. The secret to truly great roast potatoes is crisping the potatoes in hot fat (I love good beef dripping) before putting them in the oven. To make them extra-delicious, parboil them with their peel for a more intense flavour.

Prep 5 min
Cook 1 hr 30 min
Serves 6

1.2kg floury potatoes (eg, desiree, king edward, maris piper, Rooster)
4 tbsp beef dripping, goose fat or olive oil

Heat the oven to 200C (180C fan)/390F/gas 6. Wash and peel the potatoes, reserving the peel. Cut the spuds in half or quarters, depending on their size (remember, the more surface area is in contact with the pan equals more crunchy bottom bits, so aim for the biggest flat surface you can get on each), then drop them into a large pan of salted boiling water, along with the peel (it’s easiest if you can put this in a muslin infusing bag), and parboil until you can slide a skewer into them, but they’re not yet soft.

Meanwhile, put the fat in a roasting tin and put it in the oven to heat up. Drain the potatoes, discard the peel, then put them back in the hot pan over a low heat to steam dry, shaking the pan gently to rough up the edges. Take the tin out of the oven and put it on the hob over a gentle heat. Place the potatoes one by one into the tray – they should sizzle as they hit it – turning them as you do, to baste all over with the hot fat.

Season generously, then roast for about an hour and 15 minutes, or until golden and crunchy – keep an eye on them and baste with a little more fat if they begin to look dry.

The perfect … brussels sprouts

I won’t hear a word said against brussels sprouts – for me, these sweetly nutty, miniature cabbages are one of the chief joys of winter, and their mildly bitter note is a brilliant foil for the rich flavours of the rest of the plate. The nuts are optional; you might like to substitute thin slices of crisp bacon or pancetta, or simply a good grating of lemon zest and some black pepper.

Prep 5 min
Cook 15 min
Serves 4

500g brussels sprouts, halved unless tiny
50g flaked almonds
1 large knob butter, or a good glug of olive oil, to make it vegan

Steam the sprouts until just tender – depending on their size, this will take about five minutes, but keep an eye on them because overcooked sprouts are a great shame. Meanwhile, toast the nuts in a large, dry frying pan until lightly browned, then tip out into a bowl.

Drain the sprouts very thoroughly, and melt the butter in the same frying pan over a medium-high heat. Once the butter has melted, add the sprouts and toss until well coated and beginning to brown. Season, transfer to a serving dish and sprinkle over the nuts.

The perfect … bread sauce

Not just for Christmas, but mainly consumed at this time of year, bread sauce is a pleasingly medieval sort of condiment whose delicate spicing plays second fiddle to its comfortingly bland milkiness – here given extra seasonal cheer with a decadent spoonful of clotted cream, though you could substitute ordinary cream, if you prefer, or leave it out altogether. Remember to season it before serving.

Prep 5 min
Infuse 30 min-plus
Cook 15 min
Serves 6-8

1 small onion, peeled
5 cloves
1 bay leaf
500ml whole milk
115g white breadcrumbs
1 tbsp clotted cream, or double cream (optional)
Salt and white pepper
Nutmeg, to grate
Cayenne pepper, to serve (optional)

Cut the onion in half, stud it with the cloves, then put it in a small pan with the bay leaf and milk. Bring very gently up to a simmer, then turn off the heat and leave to infuse for at least half an hour, and longer, if possible.

Remove the onion, cloves and bay leaf from the pan, and gently reheat the milk. Stir in the breadcrumbs, then heat, still stirring, until thickened to your preferred texture. Stir in the cream, if using, season to taste with salt, white pepper and grated nutmeg, and serve warm. If you’d like a splash of colour, top the sauce with a sprinkle of cayenne pepper. Note that this sauce is very happy to be made a couple of days ahead – if you do so, just leave it a touch more liquid than you would normally, because it will thicken on reheating, and store in the fridge or somewhere cold until ready to use.

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