A Christmas Feast - How to make a traditional British Christmas dinner...the easy way!
Updated: Dec 16, 2020
A traditional British Christmas dinner is not as complicated as you may think. Follow our handy guide to recreate an Anglo Saxon family feast day
The traditional British Christmas Dinner is fairly well known, but as always there is a story behind the famous dish. We take a look at the history of the British Christmas Dinner and give you a nice and easy 'how to' guide to prepare a fabulous Christmas meal hassle free!!
The British Christmas Dinner has evolved over the centuries. In the Medieval period, the meat on the main course has been cited as Boar, although that was probably not a common choice for anyone beyond the wealthiest in society. In the 16th and 17th centuries, goose or capon were common and the rich would often opt for peacock or swan. Turkey is first noted on the Christmas table in the 16th century. It is said that Henry VIII was the first monarch to dine on turkey at Christmas. It was noted that by 1573 Turkey was the common choice, although goose was still predominant through to the Victorian era.
Turkey became widespread in the 1950s as refrigeration became commonplace, prior to that it was still considered a luxury.
It is worth noting, that despite the popular belief that Turkey was a cultural import from America, the bird has been a Christmas tradition in the UK for many hundreds of years. That being said, the Turkey was imported to Britain from the Americas when Yorkshireman William Strickland purchased six of the birds from American Indian traders in 1526.
The classic Christmas dinner will see a turkey accompanied by stuffing & sausages wrapped in bacon. Stuffing of poultry dates back to Roman times but the history of sausages (chipolatas) wrapped in bacon (often referred to as Pigs in Blankets) is unclear. A chipolata is a thin sausage made of ground pork and seasoned with herbs, salt and pepper.
This may vary in different households, but universal staples are roast potatoes and the dreaded sprout. Brussel Sprouts are the subject of tantrums and arguments as they feature on the Christmas menu and divide opinion. Whilst they have been cultivated in Europe since Roman times they found their popularity grew in the UK from the 19th century. It is believed the Victorians found the novelty of eating a "mini cabbage" quite entertaining. How they became part of the Christmas menu is unclear but widely believed to simply be an example of seasonal availability combined with the development of the modern roast dinner menu.
Parsnips are a firm favourite in my household and often prove a bit of a mystery to the Spanish. But you will be pleased to know that all ingredients required for a good Chrimbo spread can be located in Corte Inglés!
Christmas dinner would be nothing without a gravy to soak the meat and Cranberry sauce to give a sweet kick. But a Christmas plate also features Bread Sauce and often horseradish sauce as well.
If you still have any space left for food, Christmas pudding will finish you off. The sweet course of Christmas pudding has been an established staple since the medieval era, a rich soaked fruit cake mix normally served with alcohol-fuelled cream or butter condiments.
Beyond the plate
A vital part of a British Christmas Dinner is the cracker! A novelty presented at the Christmas table. A decorated tube that contains a small gift, a joke and a paper crown. They have a small banger mechanism so when they are pulled apart they make a crack noise. The inventor Tom Smith came up with the idea when he heard the crack of a log on a fire. Crackers were first introduced in 1847 and you can now find a variety of styles of crackers on the market. Some luxury crackers come in at an extraordinary price! These are not culturally common in Spain and if you want to complete the full Christmas experience you will need to locate some crackers online.
Preparing the feast
So make sure you are properly stocked, and we don't mean the food, we mean the chef's wine store and follow our step by step guide to ensure a Christmas dinner triumph.
Preparing a good Christmas dinner runs up against a major challenge almost immediately. If you are cooking for a family then the size of the Turkey will almost certainly dominate your oven space. There are two viable solutions to this dilemma. Either buy a crown or boneless joint rather than a full bird or use two ovens. If you are only using the one oven consider the logistics of how you will use the top shelf space in the oven or consider using peas as your second veg which do not need to be roasted. In our case, we make use of two ovens and transfer the turkey during the day. This is not as bizarre as it sounds, It is advised to leave the turkey to rest for upto an hour prior to carving.
The issue of timing
The size of your Turkey will be a key factor in how long you need to have it in the oven. There are many useful and practical Turkey cooking calculators available online. This one by British Turkey can help you calculate how big a bird you need to feed your family, prior to purchase. But a basic calculation can be used as follows:
Roast at 180c/160c fan/gas mark 4 for 40minutes per kilo for the first four kilos then 45mins for every kilo above that, or until internal temperature reaches 65-70c. Therefore a 5kg turkey should be in the oven between 3 and a half and 4 hours followed by a resting period in which the bird continues to cook.
We have even produced a handy video guide to accompany this article
Christmas Day timeline
Father Christmas has delivered his bounty the night before and the kids will have awoken to discover the brandy and mince pie they left out have been consumed and the carrot has been chewed by Rudolph. Presents are opened before breakfast. Different families have different traditions for breakfast, when I was growing up we had fresh crusty bread rolls with a wide selection of jams, marmalades and spreads. I think this was a sticky nightmare so hence my parents only permitted such madness once a year. I have become a fan of smoked salmon blinis with cream cheese or dill sauce. Blinis are Russian or Ukranian mini pancakes. It is a simple recipe but also you can buy them ready made in places such as Corte Ingles or Open Cor.
But another vital part of the Christmas breakfast menu is Bucks Fizz, which is Champagne mixed with Orange Juice, or just Orange Juice and Carbonated Water for kids!
Christmas day church service gives everyone a chance to display new Christmas jumpers and get a good singing session done to help build an appetite, this also allows the chef to have some space and time to prepare in peace.
Kids can spend the day playing with new toys or my family enjoy sitting down to play a board game with some finger food offerings to snack on. Our family would often indulge in a full family dog walk or trip to the pub to once again give the chef a bit of space and calm as they prepare the majestic food offering.
T minus 4.5 hours Pre-roasting preparation
Pre-heat your oven and get your turkey out of the fridge. Turkey is a notorious bird to get right. A common complaint is that the meat is often dry. The secret to getting your turkey cooked properly and not drying out is basting the bird.
Using butter to thoroughly baste the turkey will keep the meat from going dry. Place the turkey on a layer of foil on a large roasting tray. Take a quarter of a stick of butter and place it in a mixing bowl. Add green herbs as is your preference. My personal recipe is a mix of parsley, oregano, basil, rock salt and black pepper. Then blend the mix together so the butter is a smooth paste with evenly distributed herbs.
Then comes the fun part. Get your hands under the skin of the turkey and smother the breast meat liberally with the butter mix. Then rub the mixture across the whole bird. Treat it like you are putting sun tan lotion on and make sure it is thoroughly covered.
Once complete, place several rashers of bacon across the breast and legs of the turkey to help keep the juices flowing. Liberally distribute chunks of onion around the base of the bird and put half an onion and half a mandarin in the bird cavity to give some aromas and extra tang to the taste. The final touch is to cover the turkey with another layer of foil and try and ensure it is sealed in to retain heat and humidity.
Then, load your turkey into the bottom of the oven and you are ready to move on to the next stage.
T minus 4 hours Vegetable prep
Wash your Parsnips and carrots and slice the tops and bottoms off. Slice to desired portion size and place in a pyrex glass baking dish.
Repeat the process with your potatoes which you are going to boil before you roast.
T minus 3.5 hours Stuffing prep
Many households do not stuff their turkey anymore, but serve stuffing alongside. There are various ways of doing this and can be achieved by making stuffing balls (useful for saving oven space) or a slab of stuffing.
Slice and dice an onion and place it in a mixing bowl. Then shake out a liberal amount of Sage and Rosemary and/or Thyme. Add a packet of bacon bits and minced pork. This is then mixed together with your hands. You can use Chestnuts or Walnuts to then add to the mix and then mix in a generous amount of bread crumbs. Ensure you use butter to grease the oven dish before spreading the mix. Alternatively, roll the mix into balls and place them on a greased tray. We added some dried apricot to our mix as a final touch but there are a wealth of stuffing varieties. Another excellent option is to add chunks of apple. The stuffing will need around an hour in the oven, take care not to put it on the bottom shelf as the base will burn.
T minus 3.2 hours Vegetables stage two
Get your potatoes on the boil
Return to your carrots and parsnips and glaze them with plenty of honey. Garnish the dish with some walnuts and black pepper with some full cloves of garlic. The final step is to put some olive oil over the dish and set it aside.
You will need to peel the outer layer of each sprout and cut off the stem. Once done, score a cross in the base of each sprout before placing them in a bowl. I do not boil up my sprouts but bake them so they keep a decent flavour and some crunch. The other secret is using the sausage and bacon fat to marinate them in the oven.
T minus 3 hours Sausages in bacon prep and Sprout prep
This is very simple. Take your sausages and wrap them each in a rasher of bacon before placing them in one half of a baking dish. Line the other half of the dish with remaining rashers and place the sprouts on that surface. Add a packet of bacon bits and some black pepper and some walnut if you like.
T minus 2.5 hours Potato transfer
Drain your potatoes and give them a good tumble in a colander to give them a fluffy edge. The secret to good roasties is using goose fat but alas here in Spain we must settle for pig fat instead. Get the tray basted in the fat before spreading the potatoes on top. Add some garlic cloves and some more fat on top and they are ready to go!
This is the minimum fuss approach to good roast potatoes. If you want them to be outstanding, you must heat the fat first and gently place the potatoes into the hot fat and turn them to be coated all over. This approach needs less time in the oven but more careful prep. 15mins in the oven, turned then another 15 mins and turned again. A final 10-20 mins will crisp them off nicely.
We at Bulldogz recommend a drinks stop at this moment, the hard work is done!
T minus 2 hours Oven rotation
Effectively what happens now is a bit of oven rotation. Remember about an hour prior to eating you will take the Turkey out of the oven so the bottom rack will become available. You will need to rotate your stuffing dish to ensure it does not gets burnt on the bottom of the oven. You will have three baking dishes and one oven tray to rotate around if you have followed our procedure.
T minus 1.2 hours Bread sauce prep
Quickly take the top foil off your turkey but keep the foil cap to use once you remove the bird from the oven.
The Bread sauce can be made up to three days in advance and heated prior to serving, but this moment in your day is an ideal time slot to prepare it. Bread sauce is devastatingly easy and tasty to boot, even if it looks a little unappealing. Take half an onion and stab in four cloves. Place it in a saucepan and pour some milk over it. Then allow that to simmer. Add a pinch of nutmeg a bay leaf and some peppercorns. After twenty minutes strain out the liquid and return it to the saucepan. Take about five or six slices of soft white sandwich bread. Tear them up into smaller chunks then add them to the milk. Stir the mix to avoid it burning and get it to a texture like porridge. It will only need 3 or 4 minutes before you can set it aside.
T minus 1 hour Remove the bird and make the gravy
To check the turkey is cooked you can pierce a leg and if the juices are clear you can be
confident it is done. A sensible principle is if you see any red meat, return the bird to the oven to finish it off. Many people make the gravy in the roasting tray but if you are leaving the bird to rest or returning her to the oven it will still be in use, so I prefer to tip the juices into a pan to prepare the gravy that way. Stand the turkey to rest under her foil cover once more, a further tea towel will help keep the heat in as well if you are concerned.
Pour the juices out and feel free to allow any loose bits of skin or meat to go with it, these little bits will add to taste. It is now when I add another secret ingredient. I repeat the process with the fat from the sausages and sprout dish giving the gravy a further flavour combination and also allowing you to create more gravy without watering it down and losing flavour. Add corn flour to the mix to thicken it up on the hob and take care to stir vigorously to avoid any burning.
T minus 30 minutes
You should have indulged in your second round of celebratory drinking at this point before setting the table. All you have left to do now is welcome your guests, listen to the Queen's Christmas message and carve the turkey. I am very proud to say that I have consistently been able to have a turkey that literally falls apart as I cut it. The meat retains moisture and the legs often literally fall off the bone. Your carrots and parsnips should twinkle in honey glaze, your sprouts should be moist but crunchy. your stuffing should be succulent and aromatic and your sausages in bacon should be making your mouth water.
The main event
Serve at the table if you can and try to ensure everyone gets a mix of dark and white meat. Then once plates are loaded, before you start, pull your crackers and wear your paper crown. Read out your terrible jokes and enjoy your gift. If you are lucky you will get the fortune telling fish which is great fun!
Never fear, one of the traditions of Christmas dinner is left overs. It is a custom to eat reheated or cold Christmas dinner the next day and for several days after to pick at remains from the fridge, cold cut sandwiches or even use the turkey as the base of a Christmas curry. Household pets also enjoy Christmas dinner left overs but be sure not to give your dog any onion or turkey bones.
Christmas pudding is something you can buy in Spain but it is not always stocked. You can buy one online through British Corner Shop It is a very rich pudding and extremely filling, which makes it a challenge after a full roast dinner. It is steam heated while you eat with little fuss. Tradition dictates that you soak it liberally in brandy and set fire to it. Switch off the lights and everyone must sing a Christmas carol until the blue flames die out. Well that is what we do in my family anyway. Part of the fun is seeing how many people can remember the later verses of the carol (We always sing "While Shepherds watched their flocks by night") if the pudding maintains the flames for long enough. This is served drenched in brandy cream or brandy butter. Both of which are very easy to make and fun to consume. Brandy butter is a mix of heated unsalted butter, brandy and brown sugar then chilled back to solid.
If you need to learn the carol "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night" refer to this classic Cathedral rendition. The lyrics can be found here at carols.org.uk
All that is left to do now is either drift asleep on the sofa or become crazed with excitement as it is present time. It has been observed that you can identify the class of a Brit by how late on Christmas day the family opened their presents. In our house we would begin the presents under the tree after my father had enjoyed his post dinner coffee. It was also a family tradition to abandon the table without clearing the wreckage until after presents.
Congratulations, you have made it to the end of a traditional British Christmas Day, well, not quite. Now you must clean up and that can be an intimidating experience. Many hands make light work though and spreading the labour can enable everyone to pack kids off to bed and allow adults to collapse on the sofa and maybe even try and keep their eyes open to watch a film offering or Christmas special TV show. Others might indulge in some parlour games such as Charades or the ever entertaining Pictionary. The authentic experience would obviously include preparations for the second day of celebrations....Boxing Day, but the traditions of the 26th of December are for another day!
Green herbs - Parsley, Oregano, Basil
Bacon bits (cintas)
Chipolatas (thin sausages)
Walnuts or chestnuts
Three large onions
five to six slices of soft white sandwich bread
Size and quantities depend on numbers of guests and we can used an approximate portion planner to help us plan. Note that this portion planner allows for leftovers, which as we have discussed already, is a vital part of the Christmas dinner tradition
The Bulldogz team discussed British Christmas traditions in their first "Dead Air" show that you can listen to here. Conversation includes crackers, food and family traditions and is a nice gentle accompaniment to your Christmas cooking shift.
And finally, some of the following videos can also help add to the atmosphere:
Fireplace complete with crackling logs
The Queens Christmas Message
In our video you will see the first televised Christmas message from 1957 features, but if you use this link you can choose from a whole host of years to get you in the mood
If you want some music choices, you can go with one or all of the following:
The amazing Phil Spector Mowtown Christmas album
Or the ultimate Christmas Carol Choir, from King's College, Cambridge
The Christmas Song World Cup playlist for 2020 can be found at our Christmas Song World Cup homepage
A British institution is the BBC soap opera Eastenders. The show is famed for delivering misery and anguish to our television screens on Christmas day and here is a playlist of classic Christmas moments.
There you have it, the perfect recipe for a perfect British Christmas Day!