It was a sparkling frosty morning as I drove up to Lime Wood Hotel in the New Forest for a day of Christmas cookery at HH & Co Backstage cookery school. Headed up by renowned Michelin-starred chef Angela Hartnett and Lime Wood’s Luke Holder, the cookery school offers a wide range of inspirational, unfussy courses. The scene could not have been more perfect. Baskets full of dark and aromatic seasonal greenery were being uploaded from a florist’s van outside as I walked up the stone steps and into the entrance hall complete with crackling log fire, lanterns and festive foliage.
The day began with tea, coffee and freshly baked warm pastries before getting to work. The cookery school kitchen itself is down a white painted staircase in the hotel’s basement, with spacious and very well-equipped marble topped work stations around a central demonstration area. A sizeable scrubbed old pine table was beautifully laid for lunch with pretty blue and white china plates, white linen napkins and christmas crackers. As I tied on my complimentary crisp white HH & Co Backstage apron, I knew I was going to really enjoy my day.
Iain Longhorn was to be our chef for the day and he explained his thinking behind the menu we’d be cooking: how to take the hassle out of Christmas cooking, whilst maximising traditional flavour and adding in a few new ideas. He asked if any of us had stories of frazzled Christmas cookery and it seemed all of us did. Times we knew we should be enjoying the moment with our loved ones, but were instead slavishly working through endless to do lists. I have a Delia Smith Christmas book I wouldn’t be without (mainly because my mum gave it to me when I took over doing Christmas from her) that is liberally spattered from years of use. But there’s no getting away from the fact that cooking a whole turkey with all the trimmings is a major undertaking that usually starts with an early morning grapple with the bird to insert stuffing between the skin and the breast. Not a job for the weak or faint-hearted. Always done in my dressing gown and sometimes even before I’ve had my morning cup of tea. In my experience, the work doesn’t let up until it’s getting dark again and the kitchen full of washing up.
Now I can see an alternative. A delicious, festive Christmas lunch full of traditional and seasonal flavours designed to enable the cook to take part in the festivities of the day too. It’s got to be worth a go hasn’t it? Here’s what we cooked, how we did it and the full ingredient list for each recipe at the end.
I’d barely got the lens cap off my camera before Iain was showing us how easy it is to make your own frangipane. We’d need it for the fresh fig tarts we’d be creating later. He was right. Within moments he’d whisked up butter and sugar in the mixer and then started adding a little beaten egg at a time. His tip to stop the mixture curdling at this stage is to ensure the eggs are at room temperature, not cold from the fridge. All is not lost if your mixture does curdle though – Iain suggests adding a little flour to bring it back again. Next the ground almonds and flour were sifted and then folded in. Frangipane done! Iain added his mixture to a piping bag to keep in the fridge until half an hour before piping. You take it out of the fridge to help it become spreadable again. The tip here for making life easy, is to make the frangipane up to 4-5 days before Christmas so you can make the tart itself on Christmas Eve.
If, like me, you have always cooked a whole ham as well as a turkey, you’ll love this next idea for avoiding the queue for the oven. Ham hocks, slow cooked in advance and then made into a terrine to serve as a starter to the main meal with plenty of leftovers to be sliced up with cold cuts afterwards. The hocks we were going to be eating had been slow cooked for 3 hours until the meat was literally falling off the bone it was so tender.
Ham Hock Terrine
First job is to take the soft, yielding meat off the bone and shred it loosely, discarding any fat or gristle. The warm, juicy meat smelled so intensely delicious that it was impossible not to eat a few choice pieces as I worked. The still-warm meat pieces were then gently combined with agri dulce red wine vinegar, finely chopped parsley, the cooked carrot finely cubed as well as dijon and wholegrain mustards (Iain had a truffle mustard that was really delicious and I am going to try and track down some for myself as it added an extra, almost earthy, depth of flavour.)
Next, the cooking stock from the hocks was added to a pan, seasoned with pepper (no salt) and reduced down. We didn’t actually add any gelatine as there was plenty from the cooking of the hocks, but if you wanted to ensure your terrine sets, you could dissolve some soaked gelatine in the hot stock at this stage.
Line a terrine or loaf tin with double layer cling film (to ensure you can get the terrine out when it’s ready to be served) and start to layer in your meat mixture with some of the reduced stock poured over, ensuring it goes in and around the meat. Give the terrine a few sharp taps on your work surface to help this along and the refrigerate for at least 12 hours. This will keep in the fridge for 5 days.
The roasties were next. Best tip of all was that you can par boil them the day before, dry them well and allow to cool before covering and either keeping in the fridge if you have room, or in a cool, dry place – like a garage or shed (but make sure mice can’t have a nibble). As well as saving you from having to peel and par boil potatoes on the day itself, drying them out this way actually makes for crisper roasties.
The potatoes were cut in half and boiled in heavily salted water. I wasn’t the only one who thought Iain was being literal when he said you need to boil them in sea water…!
When you’re ready to roast the potatoes, melt goose fat in a roasting tray until smoking hot, sprinkle the potatoes with polenta and fluff up to ruffle the edges a little and then add to the hot fat and put in the oven to do their thing. Every 20 minutes or so, turn them with a slotted spoon and when they are almost ready, add a few crushed, unpeeled garlic cloves, some sprigs of rosemary and or thyme and a good nob of butter to the pan and toss everything together before returning to the oven until crisp and golden.
Now it was time to get on with preparing the turkey. The thinking behind this recipe is to solve the problem with roasting a whole turkey – namely that the legs and the breast need different cooking times. If you cook the breast of a whole turkey till it’s perfect, chances are the legs will still be undercooked. Similarly by the time the legs are cooked through, the breast is likely to have started drying out.
The solution: get your butcher to debone two large turkey legs for you, stuff with delicious flavours and cook to perfection in a fraction of the time it would take to roast a whole turkey. Personally I prefer leg meat anyway, but if you like to have breast meat too, Iain suggests you simply cook a crown separately. You could order a whole turkey if you’re going to do this, get the butcher to take off the legs and debone them for you, leaving you with the crown.
First thing to do is to cover the leg meat with cling film and bash out to flatten and make even and ready for stuffing.
The stuffing was very simply made by combining good butcher’s sausage meat with the caramelised chopped onions, finely chopped sage leaves, breadcrumbs, milk and seasoning. Roll the stuffing into a sort of sausage shape and position at one end of the turkey meat before rolling up and placing the join underneath. We watched as Iain deftly tied up the roll using proper butcher’s knots, but he reassured us that tying up more simply with ordinary knots would work just as well. The aim is to keep the roll tight and the stuffing inside whilst cooking. A generous glug of oil was poured on top, along with some seasoning to encourage crispy skin. Roughly sliced onions were placed in the bottom of a roasting tin and the turkey rolls on a trivet above. If you don’t have a trivet you can place the meat on top of the onions perfectly well.
Cooking times are 30 mins on high heat (220 degrees) before turning to to 180 degrees for a further 45 minutes. After this, pour in 1 litre of good chicken stock to deglaze the onions and start to form your gravy. Cook for a final 15-20 minutes until the turkey is browned and cooked through. Best way is to test with a meat thermometer. If the core temperature is 65 degrees or above in the thickest part, it’s done. Alternatively push a skewer into the thickest part. Leave for 10 seconds then remove and gently press the metal to your top lip. If it’s too hot to keep on your lip, the meat is done. If not, put back for a bit longer and test again. Remove from the oven and allow to rest for at least 20 minutes. Do not cover with foil as the skin will lose its crispness if you do.
To make the gravy, you strain the cooking juices into a saucepan, skimming off any excess fat with a ladle before bringing to a simmer. Then you whisk in small amounts of the flour/butter paste (known as beurre manié). Keep whisking and adding paste until you have the consistency you like.
Whilst your potatoes and turkey are cooking, you can get on with the Braised Black Cabbage.
You start off by frying the pancetta in a little oil until nicely browned and then add the chestnuts and cook for a further 2 minutes until the chestnuts begin to darken in colour. Remove from the pan and set aside. Now add the blanched cabbage leaves, crushed garlic and white wine and cook out until the wine is almost all evaporated and the caramelised bits lifted from the bottom of the pan.
Add the pancetta and chestnuts back in and pour over chicken stock to cover. Reduce by half on a low heat and then add the cream and continue to cook slowly until the liquid thickens and becomes a glossy coating on the cabbage. It should be sticky and unctuous, not a creamy cabbage soup! Finally, finish with a good twist of black pepper and a handful of sultanas (if using) and a grating of fresh lemon zest.
This was really easy and adds a lovely soft and smooth element to the meal. Simply peel and chop all the vegetables to similar sized pieces and place in a large pan of chicken stock with some whole cloves of garlic and simmer until tender. Drain in a colander, then give the veg a good 5-10 minutes to steam off before adding a generous nob of butter to the pan and returning it to a moderate heat. When the butter has melted, add the veg back in to the pan and coat thoroughly in the butter. Mash roughly and and, when happy with the consistency, add salt and pepper as well as a fine grating of nutmeg. Transfer to a serving dish and pour over some good quality extra virgin olive oil.
Frangipane Fig Tart
It was time for us to get on with our individual fig tarts (the recipe below is for a larger tart which is easier when cooking for larger numbers) and we were each given a piece of sweet shortcrust pastry to roll out and line a tart case. The pastry had vanilla seeds added which I thought was a nice touch and you could easily do at home if you make your own pastry. For convenience, good quality shop bought all-butter frozen sweet shortcrust pastry would be perfect. The important thing to do when rolling out is to keep a border of extra pastry around the top edge to stop the pastry dropping. Once lined, the pastry cases need to be refrigerated. I knew you were supposed to do this with pastry but didn’t really know why, so often haven’t bothered. Iain explalined that if you bake soft pastry straight away after rolling it, the fat element in the pastry will start melting out before the sugar has a chance to caramelise with the butter and the flour and hold the pastry together.
Once chilled, the pastry case then needs to be baked blind. We did this by covering with a length of cling film, adding some baking beans to spread out over the surface, before bringing up the edges of the cling film around the beans and pinching together at the top to secure. Bake at 180 degrees until slightly golden. It will cook some more, so you don’t want to cook completely yet or the finished pastry will be too brown. Don’t worry about baking cling film in the oven. A few of us wondered if it wouldn’t melt in the heat of the oven but Iain reassured us that the temperature needed to do this is much higher than anything you’re going to get to with a domestic oven.
Once the pastry cases had cooled, we spooned in a thin layer of mincemeat and then piped over the frangipane we’d made earlier (remember to take this out of the fridge 30 minutes before you want to pipe it so that it can soften slightly again) before finishing with a whole fig. We’d sliced the stalk off and then cut into to the fig to create a ‘flower’ effect when gently opened out. The fig was gently pushed down into the frangipane before piping a little more in the centre. If you’re making a larger tart, top with halved figs closely arranged, flesh side up. Bake for 25-35 minutes until the frangipane is golden brown and the fruit nicely caramelised. Serve warm with the custard.
Iain’s tip is to make the tart itself on Christmas Eve but not to put it in the fridge as it will go soggy. Keep it at room temperature instead and then just warm gently when you’re ready to serve.
Stem Ginger Custard
Roughly chop the ginger and place in a pan along with the syrup, cream and milk. Bring the pan to a gentle simmer.
Meanwhile cream the egg yolks and sugar together.
When the liquid has come to the boil, remove from the heat and pour half of it onto the egg yolks. Whisk briskly to incorporate the two mixes and avoid the eggs scrambling.
Tip the egg mixture back into the remaining liquid in the pan and continue to whisk.
Return the pan to a low heat and continue to stir with a spatula until the liquid thickens into a custard consistency. Pass through a sieve to remove the ginger and any lumps or skin that may have formed and serve immediately. To make life easier, the custard can be cooked in advance, stored in the fridge until you’re ready to serve and simply reheated to warm.
Time to eat!
Work done for the day, it was time to sit together and enjoy tasting what we’d made. A glass of well-chilled Hambledon sparkling English wine (produced at a winery a few miles from where I live and I know it well!) was the perfect way to kick off the meal along with some mushroom arancini and chilli cashew nuts Iain had put together in between making everything else!
The hock terrine was truly delicious, served with some syrupy Mostarda Di Frutta italian preserved fruits, a little salad garnish and crispy toasted sourdough bread. Not too filling either, so I had plenty of room for the turkey, potatoes and vegetables that followed. What I loved about the turkey was how juicy the meat was with salty, crispy skin and all the flavours of Christmas in the stuffing. I can verify that potatoes par boiled and dried out the day before really do make wonderful roasties.
We all needed a little break to make room for the fig tarts, so we pulled our crackers, put on our party hats and happily shared our Christmas stories and traditions. That’s what festive feasting should be all about don’t you think?
It wasn’t long before we we felt like diving into dessert. The fig and frangipane tart was fragrant, rich and utterly heavenly.
Nicely full and feeling very festive, it was soon time to relocate upstairs to the hotel lounge for a coffee or tea and final chat whilst all the washing and clearing up was done for us! In fact, throughout the day, all our washing up was removed by the wonderful kitchen staff and returned again clean and dry as if by magic. If only all kitchens worked like that!
This menu really does what Iain said it would – provide wonderful seasonal flavours whilst allowing the cook to enjoy fuss-free festive feasting. I’ve made a resolution that this year I am going to really enjoy the time spent with loved ones rather than slavishly consulting never ending to do lists and time plans.
Here’s the collected menu and all the ingredients you’ll need.
Ham Hock and Parsley Terrine
What you’ll need (for 10-12 people):
2 ham hocks
1 large onion – roughly chopped
1 stalk of celery
1 tsp black peppercorns
1 bunch flat parsley
35ml red wine vinegar (preferably agri-dulce)
2 tbsp Dijon mustard
1 tbsp wholegraim mustard
25g gelatine (optional)
Rolled and Stuffed Turkey Legs with Proper Gravy
What you’ll need (serves 10-14)
2 large turkey legs (bones removed)
500g pork sausage meat
2 onions (caramelised and finely chopped)
handful sage leaves (finely chopped)
50ml milk or water
salt and pepper
string to secure
For the gravy:
1 litre good brown chicken stock
3-4 large onions (roughly sliced)
50g plain flour
Crispy Polenta Roast Potatoes
what you’ll need:
Potatoes (you can’t have too many!) Iain recommends Agria or Inca Bella but whatever potato you like to use
thyme or rosemary
Braised Black Cabbage, Pancetta & Chestnuts
What you’ll need (for 6)
4-5 heads cavalo nero (stripped from the stalks and blanched in salted water for 3 minutes)
150g pancetta cut into lardons
150g cooked chestnuts roughly chopped
golden sultanas soaked in madeira (optional)
1/2 clove minced garlic
1/2 glass white wine
1/2 pint chicken stock
100ml double cream
Smashed Roots with Extra Virgin Olive Oil & Nutmeg
what you’ll need (for 6):
3 large carrots
2 large turnips
1 small swede
1/2 large celeriac
3-4 cloves of garlic
chicken stock – enough to cover veg in pan (or water if you prefer)
extra virgin olive oil
Fig Tart and Stem Ginger Custard
What you’ll need (tart serves 8-10)
200g softened butter
200 caster sugar
4 eggs, lightly beaten
100g plain flour
200g ground almonds
1 pkt frozen sweet shortcrust pastry
jar of good quality mincemeat or homemade
10 ripe figs, stalk removed, and cut in half
For the custard:
450ml double cream
200g caster sugar
8 egg yolks
100g stem ginger plus 50ml of the syrup
There’s a wide range of cookery courses available at Lime Wood (most of the people on this course had previously done other courses there and really enjoyed them, hence the return vists.) I can honestly say it was one of the most enjoyable days I have had in a long time and I left feeling nicely full, festive and bursting with good ideas. The hotel was twinkling with lights as I stepped outside and headed home, making sure I made a quick stop at the hotel’s spa shop before I left. I picked up a couple of great Christmas gifts, as well as a beautifully fragrant candle for myself – just like the one that I’d noticed flickering in the ladies cloakroom and filling the entire room with a heady fragrance. What more could you ask?
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