For many of us, the Christmas break is one of the few times in the year that we get to kick back, relax, and devote serious time to simply enjoying ourselves. One of the best bits is the food and drink and – for the most part – the time we spend around the table with family and friends.
That said, Christmas entertaining has its own stresses – you want everything to be perfect, you want everyone to enjoy themselves, and you want everyone to like your meal more than your sister-in-law's last year. That's why we asked a few of our favourite people for their top tips. From matching wine with food, to creating a perfectly balanced cheeseboard – from the outré to the traditional – here's how to get the most out of festive feasting.
Do festive entertaining right
Alex Head, founder, Social Pantry
Christmas definitely gives me more creative license to come up with exciting additions and simple touches which make food look even more impressive. When it comes to Christmas parties, first impressions really count.
Get the party started properly with a selection of canapés or nibbles to welcome your guests on their arrival. A simple soft-boiled quail egg with flavoured salt (think black lava salt for impact or a smoked salt for a more sophisticated flavour combination) will make everyone feel suitably welcomed. At Social Pantry, we love to coat the eggs in an edible gold dust to add a touch of glamour to the evening. To complement your chosen canapés, every Christmas Party needs some fizz. Adding some cassis or sloe gin to your prosecco is an all-time favourite but you can take it one step further with violet crystals, which turns glasses of fizz an eye-catching purple.
The finer details of entertaining are always something that, if executed well, are remembered. Take time to pick out a few classic serving-ware items that complement one another and show off your food. Here's where I like to get a little creative – use a vintage tea cup to hold your quail eggs, or serve a stack of golden brownies on a mirror.
A fun festive twist can always be a nice touch. Our Social Pantry sherry fudge has been a seasonal favourite this year and I like to think we're helping bring sherry back into fashion. A melt-in-the-mouth fudge paired with a golden oldie tipple will not disappoint. It's definitely a Dad favourite!
Remember, entertaining should be as enjoyable for the host as it is for guests. Plan your menu, presentation and drinks well in advance and you'll have plenty of time to enjoy the run up to Christmas and, more importantly, the party.
For more tips, visit alexhead.co.uk.
Make a vegetarian statement
Sarah Wasserman, development chef at Mildred's Soho
The great thing about a traditional roast is that there are often enough vegetable side dishes to sustain vegetarians but at Christmas you really need the king at the table – a centrepiece that makes everyone say "wow".
If you're cooking a meal for both vegetarians and carnivores, there are lots of ways to keep everyone happy. Delicious vegetarian stuffing combining pear, thyme and chestnut, or pumpkin, cranberry and pecan can be used for the meat dishes as well as a side. Likewise, if catering for just one or two vegetarians you could make Yorkshire pudding and then buy some good-quality vegetarian sausages to make individual, meat-free toads in the hole. Or try turning a traditional side dish like cauliflower cheese into a showstopper. Season a purple or romanesco cauliflower with herbs and garlic, then whole-roast it before topping with a rich cheese sauce.
A good meat-free gravy is a great way to make a festive meal extra special. Create a stock with a caramelised onion base, then add fennel, parsnips or similar. Then, as with any good gravy, use a quality (vegetarian) wine or port (reduced) as the base and add the stock. Because you don't have the gelatine from the bones, as you do with meat stock, you have to add a little emulsifier (cornflour or flour) to thicken.
Over the years at Mildred’s we've made a number of great centrepiece dishes. This year, we're excited about our latest Christmas main; a beautiful butternut squash and tofu terrine with roasted squash, hazelnut and redcurrant stuffing and orange maple glaze, and our starter – warm goats cheese and thyme custard, topped with pecan gratin and served with fresh figs. It is so rich and creamy I can't imagine anyone would feel they were being short-changed.
Raise your Christmas spirits
Dawn Davies, buyer, The Whisky Exchange
Big Christmas affairs are much less about pairing the food and the drink and more about keeping all the relatives happy. If you are having a big party stick with some classic choices to please everyone, for example a good fruity sauvignon blanc, a juicy malbec, and champagne or prosecco. If you want a cocktail, do one that you can make before and serve easily – punches and mulled wine are good choices.
It's the smaller affairs that present an opportunity to branch out have some fun! Pick an English sparkling wine instead of champagne and don't do port with your blue cheese but try a sweet red wine like a maury. With the Christmas pud, an Aussie sparkling shiraz will have your guests talking for months.
There are so many digestif options that it is almost impossible to know where to start. One of my favourite post-dinner drinks is Vieille Prune – this tasty eau-de-vie, from producers like Louis Roque, is the perfect match for Christmas cake. You could replace port or sherry with Pineau des Charentes from the Cognac region – it's made from grape juice and cognac, so it's a little nutty but has a great fruit character. For coffee lovers, a snifter of Mr Black's coffee liqueur offers an alternative to a post-dinner espresso.
But if you really want to go left field and do something very different that is sweet but fresh why not go for a yuzu sake, a delectably moreish digestif that will revitalise the taste buds.
For the Christmas Day nightcap, I find madeira or marsala a nice way to finish the evening as they are packed with flavour but not sickly sweet. Elsewhere, a good Italian amaro will help aid digestion, but be warned: the bitter herbal flavour isn't for everyone!
When it comes down to it, Christmas is all about treating yourself, and what better way to finish the day than with a simple cocktail like a manhattan or a negroni, both classics that everyone will love.
The Whisky Exchange; thewhiskyexchange.com
An alternative festive wine list
Laure Patry, executive head sommelier, Social Wine & Tapas
For an aperitif on Christmas Day to go with canapes, try a pétillant naturel – a naturally slightly sparkling wine that's refreshing, fun and (as it happens) much cheaper than champagne. You can find some interesting varietals from Loire or Italy. If you want an alternative to sparkling wine, a liqueur can also make a delicious start, like the Liqueur de Tomates from Domaine des Cazottes – it's made from 72 different types of tomato and is a very artisanal product. It works beautifully with black olive and anchovy toasts.
With turkey, look for wines from different countries like Greece, such as a full-bodied assyrtiko from Santorini. Or you could try an orange wine – they have more richness and body than a white. At Social Wine & Tapas we have the Georgian rkatsiteli mtsvane from Nikoloz Antadze – the local grape, Rkatsiteli, is left on the skins and stems for three to six months in qvevri (amphora-like vessels). It has structure and is very perfumed with floral and apricot notes, savoury on the palate with a dry finish.
If you prefer a red, look for a Loire Valley red from the pinot d'aunis grape: it's a very light, fresh, juicy and easy drinking grape. I'd recommend the producer La Grapperie, who make one with lots of aromatic herb and wild strawberry aromas.
To go with cheese, a must for me would be a vin jaune (yellow wine) from Chateau Chalon – if you have a large table it's a very special wine that can be enjoyed on a special occasion and is best with cheese. You could also try a macvin du jura if you like a complex wine with some sweetness. It's actually grape juice fortified directly and aged in oak. We serve Domaine Macle at Social Wine & Tapas, with typical aromas of Christmas pudding, spices and smokiness. Another option is a palo cortado sherry: it has the structure, dried fruits and a dry finish to cut through the richness of the cheese. Fernando de Castilla is a good example.
To accompany your Christmas pudding, try a deep and rich cognac. I recommend the Frapin Chateau de Fontpinot XO.
Social Wine & Tapas, a tapas bar and wine shop in Marylebone, is part of Jason Atherton's Social Company. This Christmas, Laure is offering personal shopping appointments in the wine shop; socialwineandtapas.com.
Surviving the day after
Dan Doherty, chef-director, Duck & Waffle
For me, Boxing Day breakfast is dictated by both what's been cooked and what's happened the day before. Overdone it? There's nothing more rewarding than turning Christmas Day leftovers into a decadent, hangover-curing brunch.
The easiest, and most indulgent, is a good old hash. Sauté leftover roast ingredients together with a good knob of butter. I'd suggest using about 50% roasties and 50% anything else, including chopped turkey, halved sprouts, crushed carrots and even a spoonful of cranberry sauce.
Crumble in some black pudding for good measure and cook it all down for a solid 10-15 minutes so the potatoes get a decent crisp to them and all the flavours have a chance to fall into one another. In the meantime, reduce any leftover gravy with a generous spoonful of HP sauce until it's a thick consistency, and use this to drizzle over the hash that's been crowned with a couple of fried eggs.
If you're feeling a bit over all the Christmas indulgence and fancy something lighter, try a healthy combination of some of my favourite Middle Eastern ingredients. Try a few soft-boiled eggs, peeled and halved, with some hummus, baby spinach, avocado, cherry tomatoes, a drizzle of harissa let down with some olive oil, toasted sunflower and sesame seeds and a touch of yogurt spiced with sumac. You'll have forgotten about the effects of yesterday's feast in no time.
Duck & Waffle is the restaurant on the 40th floor of the Heron Tower; duckandwaffle.com
Leave nothing behind
Tom Hunt, Foodism columnist and eco chef
At Christmas, leftovers are inevitable. But rather than leftovers being something to feel sad about they can become gold dust, a free meal, or the start of an inspirational dinner made up of what would otherwise go to waste. When our time is so precious, this makes leftovers a luxury. It's worth noting that all cooked food keeps perfectly well for four to five days in the fridge. It can be eaten cold or reheated thoroughly until it's hot right through.
On boxing day my family have a tradition – like many others I'm sure – of eating all the leftovers over a late boozy lunch; and it's my favourite meal of the whole week. My tip to impress the family on boxing day with your culinary ingenuity is to get creative. Magic leftover roast meat into a pilaf by combining it with leftover roast vegetables and aromatic spices, boiling it up with rice and serving with dried fruits and yoghurt, Moroccan-style. Stir fry brussels sprouts with soya sauce, sunflower seeds, ginger and garlic for a punchy lunch dish. And if you're lucky enough to have roast potatoes leftover, heat them up with paprika and serve with mayonnaise spiked with chili powder for a quick tapas. Buen provecho!
Don't forget Christmas Eve
Massimo Bottura, chef-patron, Osteria Francescana in Italy
Christmas and Christmas Eve are the only two days when I'm nostalgic. On Christmas Eve we always eat fish. We set up a big buffet table with salted cod and a long slice of wild salmon, lightly smoked at a low temperature, because my mum loves salmon. We have burrata that's sent that day from Puglia, with anchovies. People go to the buffet to eat and to chat – it's very friendly.
Then I keep everything very simple. Everyone in my family loves a good risotto. I make a fish soup and use the broth to cook the risotto. We have a big sea bass that's cooked in the oven under salt, and then we break the salt – the kids love that.
Next we'll have soufflé of panettone. We make panettone, then we simmer everything and add the yolk, some whipped egg white and crunchy almonds, then we put it in the oven at 180°C and it comes out not only as panettone, but also as a soufflé.
For us, an Italian Christmas means staying around the table and spending time there. In a life like ours – full of obsession and craziness and travelling – staying in and relaxing with my family is something amazing for me. That's the inspiration for the soup kitchens I've opened around the world.
My one real piece of advice would be to be nostalgic. Don't lose your traditions. It's very important to keep them alive. In art, even the most contemporary artists break all the rules, but they have to know who they are and where they come from.
Massimo Bottura is chef patron of Osteria Francescana, in Modena, currently ranked as number 1 in the World's 50 Best Restaurants; osteriafrancescana.it. His range of olive oils and vinegars is now available at harveynichols.com – read more about them here.
Le grand fromage
Ian Wellens, managing director, The Cheese Shed
The first thing to do is try to create a cheeseboard with plenty of variety, and when doing this there are a couple of rules to bear in mind. The first thing is to try and start with a hard cow's cheese, a blue and a brie. The second rule is that if you add cheeses to the basic three, make sure you add cheeses from different families.
For your hard cheese, the most obvious and popular category is a cheddar. Try to choose a pretty one, like a Cornish Smuggler, which has a tracery of orange veins. For your blue cheese, go for something mild like a Cornish Blue. For your brie choice – these are sometimes known as a mould-ripen cheeses, because they have a downy, white, moulden rind on them, which adds to the flavour – I would recommend a Bath Soft, a fantastic, organic unpasteurised brie. And that's the simple, classic cheeseboard.
If you would like to add a fourth cheese to your cheeseboard, try to remember the second rule, which is to choose from different families. There are lots so it can get complicated, but there are some dead easy ones which we can all remember, like smoked cheese, goats cheese or cheeses which have flavour added to them. A Sharp and Rustic with garlic and herbs is always a good addition.
Contrast is a good rule for accompaniments too. A floury, soft biscuit like an Oval Albert is great with a tangy cheddar, but add a snappy, brittle oat biscuit – or something like a Peter's Yard Crispbread – to go with the softer cheeses. With chutneys, a good rule is to go with one that's mainstream and fruit-based and another that's a little more exotic. That might be the Old Bakehouse Chutney by Clare's Preserves and something like Hillside's Piccalilli Relish – a spicy tweak on an old favourite. And find a place on your cheeseboard for a set, sliceable fruit preserve. Traditionally, the Spanish membrillo uses quinces for this, but Dorset-based Global Harvests make some gorgeous versions with pears, damsons, figs and apples.
The Cheese Shed is a mail-order cheese service specialising in West Country produce, including chutneys, charcuterie and drinks; thecheeseshed.com
Chantelle Nicholson, chef-patron, Tredwell's
Menus should be about balance, so if you're having something very rich then balance it with something that is slightly cleaner on the palate. Citrus works well, and trifle is always a must on my Christmas day list – with loads of sherry! Other festive flavours to highlight are ginger, cloves – in moderation as they're so strong – mulled wine, pine, nutmeg and clementine.
When planning what I'm going to make, I generally balance something fruity, something warm and something chocolatey if you have a large number of guests. This means everyone can have a taste and not over indulge too much.
I particularly like my frangipane mince pies and my treacle tart, which is pure indulgence. I make it with a delicious soft shortcrust pastry base. Shortcrust pastry serves with a soft, crumbly texture, making it the best option for pies, quiches or tarts. To make the perfect shortcrust pastry at home, keep all ingredients and surface area cool, which helps to keep the pastry light and crumbly. Do not over-handle the pastry or roll out with too much flour – you'll find this will develop the gluten and make your pastry harder and tougher. Always rest the pastry between making and after rolling out, as this will reduce shrinkage and keep it 'short'.
4a Upper St Martin's Ln, WC2H 9NY; tredwells.com