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On the Table: Why cooking boosts festive spirits




From simple sweet treats to the many-dished main event, cooking for Christmas can provide both comfort and a welcome distraction in challenging times, writes Cambridge Cookery MD Tine Roche

Swedish oat and cocoa balls are ideal for little cooks, says Tine Roche (42492969)
Swedish oat and cocoa balls are ideal for little cooks, says Tine Roche (42492969)

I am writing this piece on the late September morning that followed the announcement on tightening restrictions on social gatherings. After six months of almost unbroken sunshine and a brief chance to reunite with families and friends, torrential rain is pouring down. The prospect of a Christmas that will keep loved ones apart, consigning elderly to a festive period separated from children and grandchildren, fills me with immense sadness, and the change in weather doesn’t help.

However, as always, turning one’s thoughts to food can lend some comfort and help divert the mind from darker thoughts. With Christmas on its way, I would like to say just a few words on the main feast.

If turkey is your family favourite, then please remember that this is just a big chicken. If you can fit your bird in a normal size oven, then it can’t possibly need much more than four hours to cook.

All vegetables can be prepped at least a day in advance, cooked “al dente” and kept in the fridge until ready to be reheated in a blast of hot butter and a little water.

Most of us prefer to eat light and healthy and most families will also cook for vegetarians, so pack a punch when it comes to your vegetables. Give carrots a North African vibe by roasting them with cumin seeds and a drizzle of oil mixed with pomegranate molasses.

Create a colourful centrepiece on a large platter by piling on, in no particular pattern or order, orange slices, nuts, dried fruits, feta or goat's cheese, fresh figs and drizzle with a little honey and olive oil dressing. A hugely refreshing addition of raw ingredients to stimulate the palate and stave off indigestion.

My personal choice for Christmas is goose - but it is expensive, and once the fat has rendered down, does not offer as much meat as you think when you look at its size. But my goodness, it’s delicious and it does go a long way as it is so rich. Due to its fat content, the meat cooks down and the skin crisps up in a way very similar to crispy aromatic duck.

All it needs by its side is slow cooked, sweet red cabbage (which benefits from being made one or two days in advance), roast potatoes (cooked in some of the goose fat that melts down at the start of roasting), and some Brussels sprouts (cooked from raw in a frying pan of crisped up pancetta and its fat, with some cooked chestnuts stirred in at the end).

To distract and relax both young and adult minds in the run-up to Christmas, try making homemade sweets and do some baking together. Letting children loose in the kitchen may seem like the last thing a stressed parent needs, but it is amazing how much you can get done while working side by side with a child engaged in its own gooey, sticky and finger-licking mess.

For the very youngest, Swedish oat and cocoa balls are perfect. They require no baking, fit perfectly in small hands and demand to be eaten while being made.

Mix 200g of soft butter with 400g of oats and 150g caster sugar. If the butter is very warm, chill the mixture briefly before rolling into golf ball-sized orbs. Roll in desiccated coconut or confectioner’s sugar.

Another Nordic favourite and childhood memory of mine are raspberry slices - topped with berry-red jam and snow-white icing, they look and taste the part. Made from meltingly tender, egg-rich shortcrust pastry, to which gets added a little baking powder, the slices are made by rolling out 6-7mm thick strips of pastry, using the back of a teaspoon to create a groove along the length of each strip and filling it with good quality raspberry jam. Bake in a hot oven for 10 minutes and, when cooled, drizzle with a simple glacé icing and toasted, flaked almonds before cutting on the diagonal into 4cm long bias-cut pieces.

Whatever you choose to make for this festive season, lend a thought to food banks and shelters, who will all be more than ever in need of donations.



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