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Cracking ideas and recipes for the dinner table on Christmas Day

Considering we generally only eat turkey once a year, there's an awful lot of fuss made about it.

Butcher or supermarket, how big, where to store it? The beastly birds are so massive, they take up half the space in the average fridge or freezer.

And then, finally, comes how to cook it.

Rubbing garlic and herb butter under the bird's skin will make it crisp and golden
Rubbing garlic and herb butter under the bird's skin will make it crisp and golden

Delia Smith has a tried-and-tested recipe in her seminal Delia Smith's Christmas, while Jamie Oliver, Heston Blumenthal, Gordon Ramsay and just about every other TV chef you can think of, have all had a go at coming up with their own twist on the traditional dish.

Methods vary from brining it for 24 hours beforehand - that's submerging it in a bucket of salty water flavoured with things like rosemary, garlic and clementine peel - to rubbing garlic and herb butter under the bird's skin to make it crisp and golden, while the meat underneath - in theory - comes out nice and moist.

Gordon Ramsay
Gordon Ramsay

For all these techniques, though, turkey meat is always much of a muchness. Even a modest-sized bird comes in at about 10lb/4.5kg, with whoppers nearing 17lb on sale for larger families, meaning they need so long in the oven that, unless you concentrate on anything but that, it'll end up dry as a bone.

Gordon Ramsay's take is to joint the bird first, roasting the breasts and legs separately, which dramatically reduces cooking time.

Gordon Ramsay's take is to joint the bird first
Gordon Ramsay's take is to joint the bird first

That can only be a good thing, but it's also worth remembering the instructions of Georges Auguste Escoffier, the godfather of French cuisine, who wrote in his 1903 book Le Guide Culinaire: "Roast in a moderate oven". And that's it.

There are a few golden rules though, like getting the turkey up to room temperature before cooking.

It takes a while, so if it's in the fridge and you're roasting on Christmas Day morning, take it out the night before. You should try to keep the bird moist too, with a bit of butter on the breast and perhaps some bacon

Use bacon to keep the turkey moist
Use bacon to keep the turkey moist

You could, however, just forgo turkey altogether and eat something else.

After all, we only started eating turkey in the 16th century - Henry VIII was the first monarch to eat it as part of his festive feast - with goose and boar very popular before then. Goose has remained popular, although during Victorian times it was expensive, prompting hard-up fans of the gamey bird to start Goose clubs, like a street urchins' version of a supermarket reward card.

There's an argument for eating whatever you like on Christmas Day, too. If you'd really be happier with steak and chips, why not have that? Of course, if you're going to do that, make sure it's the best steak you can manage, and pull out all the stops with the bearnaise sauce. Similarly, if nothing would please you more than a nice lamb chop, a pasta dish, or an array of roasted veg, go for it. Just don't skimp on anything - make it a feast.

'A turkey Wellington's a perfect alternative for those who still want turkey but don't want the hassle'

If you still want the focal point of a big meal but are tempted to break away from tradition, other joints are worth considering.

A turkey Wellington's a perfect alternative for those who still want turkey but don't want the hassle. You could make it a day or two in advance and just cook it on Christmas Day.

If you still want poultry, maybe have a couple of chickens, or a cockerel for a stronger flavour and more meat. Guinea fowl, slightly smaller than chickens, are particularly good, especially if you're cooking for just yourself and one other.

A fore rib of beef is another alternative. This means shifting around some of the side dishes - you can't serve it without Yorkshire puddings - but it's worth it. And a cold beef sandwich with a load of mustard on Boxing Day is hard to beat.

Whatever you choose, remember to think about the size of your kitchen and oven space, ease of cooking and, above all, what you'll actually enjoy. Tradition is important at Christmas, but tasty grub is essential. Here are three ideas for inspiration.

Turkey, brie and cranberry wellington
Turkey, brie and cranberry wellington

Turkey, brie & cranberry wellington

(Serves 8)

2 x 500g blocks all-butter puff pastry

Plain flour, for dusting

1 egg, beaten

For the stuffing:

2tbsp butter

1 leek, finely sliced

100g/4oz gammon, chopped

4 sausages, skins removed

5 sage leaves, chopped

85g/3oz fresh breadcrumbs

Salt and pepper

For the filling:

2 turkey breasts

200g Brie, sliced

4-5tbsp cranberry sauce

For the filling, trim your turkey breasts: you want to create a long tube of meat in the middle of your Wellington, similar in shape to a fillet of beef - you can use the trimmings in the stuffing, so don't worry about wastage. Once you have the correct cylindrical shape, slice a pocket into the breasts, deep enough so that the Brie and cranberry sauce will stay inside, but be careful not to cut all the way through. Divide the cranberry sauce and Brie between the two turkey breasts, then chill in the fridge while you make the stuffing.

For the stuffing, heat the butter in a frying pan and gently cook the leek for about five minutes. Don't get too much colour on the leeks, you want them soft. Meanwhile, finely chop the turkey trimmings and add to the pan with the gammon. Cook for about five minutes, then remove and allow to cool slightly. Mix with the sausage meat, sage and breadcrumbs, then season.

Roll out the first block of pastry on a floured surface to about the thickness of a £1 coin: you want a long, thin shape that's about 5cm wider than the turkey breast and 5cm longer than the length of the turkey breasts placed end to end. Gently lift this onto a baking sheet and put the turkey breasts on top, followed by the stuffing.

Roll out the second block of pastry, brush the edge of the bottom sheet with egg and lay the top one over. Trim edges to neaten, then crimp together. Can be made up to one day in advance and chilled.

Heat oven to 200C. Brush the Wellington with more beaten egg and, with a sharp knife, score a criss-cross pattern, but don't cut all the way through. Cook for 30 minutes, then cover with foil and cook for another 30-45 minutes. After one hour, check that the middle is hot by inserting a skewer for five seconds - it should feel hot to the touch. Leave to rest for 15 minutes, then slice to serve.

Rare beef with mustard Yorkshires
Rare beef with mustard Yorkshires

(Serves 8)

4 garlic cloves

2tbsp lemon thyme leaves

1tbsp black peppercorns

1tbsp wholegrain mustard

4 anchovies

2tbsp olive oil

2.7kg rib of beef (ask your butcher for it French-trimmed), at room temperature

12-16 potatoes, peeled and halved or quartered

4tbsp sunflower oil

For the Yorkshires:

175ml full-fat milk

2 large eggs and 1 large egg white

1tbsp wholegrain mustard

115g/4oz plain flour

1/4tsp salt

Goose fat or sunflower oil

Heat oven to 220C. Using a large pestle and mortar, grind the garlic, thyme, peppercorns, mustard, anchovies and olive oil to a paste. Rub the mixture all over the beef and put in a large roasting tin. Roast for 25 minutes, then turn down the oven to 160C.

Remove the pan from the oven, add the potatoes and toss in the fat, adding four tablespoons of sunflower oil. Return to the oven for another 90 minutes for rare; two hours for medium rare.

Meanwhile, make the Yorkshires. Make the milk up to 225ml with water. Beat the eggs, egg white, mustard and milk together, then gradually add the flour and quarter of a teaspoon of salt - the batter should be the consistency of thin double cream. Pour into a jug.

Take the meat out of the oven, cover and leave to rest, then turn the oven up to 220C.

Put one tablespoon of goose fat or oil into each of the eight large Yorkshire pudding tins and heat for 15 minutes in the oven, with the potatoes on a lower shelf. Pour the batter into the tins, then cook for 15-20 minutes, without opening the oven, until risen and golden. Serve with horseradish, gravy and your favourite veg.

Christmas goose with root veg, sticky pears and bramble gravy
Christmas goose with root veg, sticky pears and bramble gravy

(Serves 6-8)

4-5kg oven-ready goose, trussed for roasting

2 oranges

4 bay leaves

A bunch of thyme

3tbsp sunflower oil

8 medium carrots, peeled but left whole

8 medium parsnips, peeled but left whole

4 turnips, peeled and halved or quartered

Salt and pepper

For the bramble gravy:

1tbsp golden caster sugar

100ml good-quality red wine vinegar

½ jar bramble jelly (Tiptree does a good one; if you can't find it, use blackberry jam)

100ml strong chicken stock

For the pears:

6 pears

2tbsp icing sugar

Large bag watercress, to serve

Remove all the fat from inside the bird and use a skewer to prick the goose skin all over, especially under the wings. If you have time (though not essential), sit the goose in a sink, then slowly and carefully pour over three kettles of boiling water. Dry with kitchen paper, then leave for one hour or so to dry completely. This will help the skin crisp.

Heat oven to 200C. Season the goose cavity with salt and pepper and stuff with the oranges, two bay leaves and the thyme. Rub the breast and legs with two tablespoons of oil and season generously with salt. Lay the carrots in the middle of a very large roasting tin. Sit the bird the right way up on top of the carrots.

In a bowl, toss the parsnips and turnips with the rest of the oil and bay leaves, then scatter around the goose. Cover the tin with a large piece of foil, scrunching it up at the sides so it's a tight fit. Place the goose in the oven for one and a half hours.

Take the goose out of the oven. Remove the foil and carefully use a baster to suck out most of the fat from the tin into a bowl. Lightly baste the goose and turn the parsnips. Re-cover with foil and roast for another one and a half hours. Suck the fat from the pan again and baste, then increase the heat to 220C. Return to the oven without any foil to brown for a final 30-40 minutes until golden brown.

Remove the goose from the oven and transfer to a large board or platter to rest in a warm-ish place for 30 minutes. Scoop the vegetables out into another roasting tin and keep warm in a low oven. Keep the goose tin to finish making the gravy in.

To make the gravy, remove the oranges from the goose using tongs. Pour off all the fat from the roasting tin into a bowl (keep it for your roasties!). Scatter the sugar into the tin and stir to scrape off any tasty brown bits. Splash in the vinegar, simmer down until practically dry, then stir in the jelly to dissolve, bubble and cook down. Finally, add the stock and squeeze in the juice from the oranges. Bring everything to the boil, then strain into a jug or small saucepan to reheat later.

Peel and halve the pears. Use a teaspoon to scoop out the cores, then cut the pears into quarters. In a bowl, toss the pears in the icing sugar until completely coated. Heat a large frying pan over a high flame and add the pears to the pan. Cook for one minute or so, tossing constantly, until the pears are really well caramelised and slightly burnt around the edges.

Serve the goose on a platter surrounded by watercress and pear wedges. Serve the slow-roasted vegetables in a separate bowl and the gravy in a gravy boat.

Recipes from the BBC's Good Food magazine

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