Christmas is not a good time to be a perfectionist. There’s just too much that can go wrong - failed baking, fractious relations, a gift not being received well... the list goes on. The more you want everything to be nice and have everyone playing happy families, the worse things are likely to turn out. Shakespeare coined it when he said: “Expectation is the root of all heartache.”
The best way I know to avoid being stressed out at Christmas is by being organised. The days of flying by the seat of your pants, pulling rabbits out of the hat are over. Christmas lunch or dinner will be served at room temperature. There will be no gravy (my mother always used to say “don’t fall into the gravy”, which was code for not getting plastered with wine before you got Christmas dinner on the table. Hey, it happens). Other people will bring salads to accompany the ham you are going to make look pretty and warm up. The only thing you are actually going to cook on the day is a pot of new potatoes.
The time you spend is going to be on setting the scene. When people arrive at a table that looks like it’s ready for a party, they immediately feel treated and ready to enjoy themselves. You could give them a boiled egg and they’d be happy. In fact, right now in fancy French restaurants, you will often be served halved hard-boiled eggs topped with a tasty curry or herb mayo as a first course - it’s very trendy. And certainly a lot less of a fiddle than those devilled eggs, which require you to take out the hard egg yolks, mash them up with a flavoured mayo and then pipe or spoon them back in.
Lay the table with a pressed tablecloth (or an ironed sheet) and sprinkle over handfuls of rose petals or some other flower petal (nothing poisonous). Put out candles and small bowls of cherries, figs and almonds, Christmas crackers and festive napkins.
To start, serve a platter people can share and pass around. Make a chunky salsa verde and partner it with a big platter of lightly cooked asparagus. Or put together a mixed antipasto platter with cold meats, pate, dippy things, olives, gherkins and fresh vegetable bites. If you’re feeling flush, buy a decent chunk/side of hot smoked salmon and serve it with sour cream mixed with a dollop of horseradish, a good squeeze of lemon juice and a pinch of salt, or with chopped capers and fresh dill swirled through. A big bowl of cooked chilled prawns always feels like a treat for a starter course, served up with home-made mayonnaise and crunchy lettuce cups (put out some bowls of warm water with sliced lemon on the side for people to use as finger bowls). Serve fresh warm bread or a big stack of crostini on the side. Pudding is where you want to pull out the stops - brandy snaps, meringues, berries, icecream - you can buy everything and assemble it, or make my decadent no-bake caramel pavlova and pop in the fridge, ready to bring out and decorate on the day. However you serve it, here’s wishing you a stress-free Christmas dinner. Enjoy!
Spiced honey mustard ham
The two-stage process I use here ensures a wonderfully rich deep glaze, and the flavour from mānuka honey takes it to the next level. For a half-ham, you will only need half the ingredients — the cook time remains the same.
1 whole bone-in ham or champagne ham
¼ cup Dijon mustard
1tsp ground allspice
1 tsp ground cloves
3 Tbsp caster sugar
25g whole cloves
ORANGE HONEY GLAZE
½ cup mānuka honey or other flavourful dark honey
Zest of ½ an orange, finely grated
2 Tbsp orange juice
Up to 24 hours before serving, prepare the ham by preheating your oven to 150C fan bake. Place ham on a large oven tray and warm in oven for 10-15 minutes until the skin starts to loosen (this helps it peel off easily). Remove warmed ham from the oven, cut through the skin around the shank, then peel off the skin by gently pushing your fingers between the skin and fat. Discard the skin. Work carefully so as not to rip chunks of fat out of the skin - you want a smooth surface. Spread mustard over the ham. Mix ground allspice, cloves and sugar to combine and sprinkle over the top and sides of ham, patting in evenly.
Bake ham for 30 minutes (this can be done a day or two in advance — if not proceeding at once, chill the ham for later use). Remove ham from oven and, when it’s cool, insert whole cloves in rows all over the surface.
To make the glaze, place honey in a pot with orange zest and juice and bring to a boil. Remove from heat as soon as it bubbles up. Gently brush glaze all over top and sides of ham without displacing cloves. Increase oven temperature to 160C fan bake. Bake ham for 20 minutes, then remove, brush with more glaze, and bake for a further 30-40 minutes or until it’s a rich deep golden colour. Brush once or twice with glaze from bottom of the roasting dish. Remove from oven and brush over any leftover glaze, then stand for at least 10 minutes before serving. Serve hot or warm or at room temperature. Ham can also be reheated from chilled at 160C fan bake for 30 minutes
Glazed ham will keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks. Cover sliced surfaces with baking paper, or store ham in a ham bag or an old pillowcase dipped in lemonade (this stops it from going slimy).
Roasted vegetable salad with hazelnuts
You can change up the ratios of root vegetables as preferred or available for this satisfying salad. It travels well, so is great for a potluck Christmas table.
Ready in one hour.
600g piece pumpkin, peeled and seeded
4-5 parsnips, peeled
2large kūmara, peeled
4 carrots, peeled
½ cup hazelnut oil or neutral oil blended with 2 Tbsp roasted hazelnuts
2 Tbsp maple syrup
4 cloves garlic
Small bunch of thyme (or one tsp dried)
Salt and pepper
½ cup roasted roughly chopped hazelnuts.
To serve: About 240g (eight handfuls) baby leaves, such as beet, rocket or watercress
Preheat oven to 180C fanbake or 200C regular bake. Cut vegetables into thumb-sized batons. Place in a large bowl. Blend together oil, or blended oil and hazelnuts, maple syrup, garlic and thyme. Drizzle over vegetables and toss to coat. Spread out into a single layer in two large roasting trays lined with baking paper and season with salt and pepper. Roast until tender and starting to caramelise - about one hour.
Allow to cool for five minutes, then toss through beet leaves and hazelnuts and pile on to a large serving platter.
La Boer - a no-bake caramel pavlova
This is an old French recipe which apparently came out of the Boer War and is known as “La Boer” in France. It takes the idea of floating islands (poached meringues with a caramel topping served over chilled custard), but instead of poaching the meringue and slathering it with caramel, you beat the hot caramel into the meringue, and this cooks and sets it. You’ll need an electric mixer.
Ready in 30 minutes, plus chilling.
Serves eight to 10.
5 egg whites
1 cup caster sugar, divided in half
1 Tbsp water
To serve: Chilled creme anglaise (see below) and fresh berries, edible flowers such as violets, pansies, borage
Place egg whites in a mixing bowl with half a cup of sugar (save the yolks to make the creme anglaise below). Using a whisk attachment, beat until mixture just forms soft peaks. Place water in a small pot, add second measure of sugar and heat over medium-high heat, swirling occasionally until mixture turns a light caramel colour (130C). Remove from heat and, with mixer at medium speed, slowly add the caramel in a thin stream. Once it has all been added, continue beating for another four minutes; mixture will be very shiny and thick.
Spoon into a serving bowl that has been very lightly brushed with a neutral oil such as almond or grapeseed. Cover and chill for at least three to four hours before serving, or up to 24 hours. Garnish with berries and, if desired, small edible flowers.
To serve, spoon a little chilled creme anglaise into each serving bowl and top with a large spoonful of the meringue mixture.
Whisk together 5 egg yolks, 1 tsp of cornflour, 1 tsp of vanilla and 60g of sugar. Heat 500ml of milk to just boiling. Add egg mixture and stir constantly over lowest heat until lightly thickened. Cover with a piece of baking paper cut out to fit over the top to prevent a skin from forming. Chill for at least two hours before serving. It will keep for several days in a covered container.
Match these with ...
(Spiced honey mustard ham)
Jean-Michel Gerin La Champine Vin de France Viognier 2022 ($45)
In my opinion there is no greater wine to imbibe with your Christmas swine than viognier. Pronounced “vee-yon-yay”, it’s a style that has a fantastically, freakishly festive ability to pair with the rich saltiness of the ham and, simultaneously, whatever sticky, cellulite-inducingly sweet glaze you can slather it with. This La Champine viognier is the business. It grows in the granite soils the grape’s spiritual home of Condrieu, east of the town of Valence. It’s a classic example of a variety where ripe apricot and jasmine aromatics may lull you into thinking it’s going to be sweet, yet on the palate it heaves with generously dry, textural, and chalky layers. It’s highly complex, calming and soothing. Christmas or no Christmas, sipping this wine makes me yearn for a holiday. Even just an “International No Email Day” would be nice. mvauron.co.nz
(Roasted vegetable salad with hazelnuts)
Lake Road Single Vineyard Reserve Barrel Fermented Gisborne Chardonnay 2022 ($32)
I feel like if hazelnuts had been mixed in with the roast veges when I was growing up in the 80s (instead of spewful sultanas), then my attitude to vegetables would’ve been a lot more positive. Wine match-wise, if you can imagine gentle aromas of peaches-and-cream in an oak bowl, merging with softly chewy textures, preserved lemon layers, hints of popcorn and a minerally-dry character, then ding-ding-ding! You move on to the next round! Gisborne religiously turns out stylish chardonnay, and hitting it with some barrel fermentation has introduced toasty, nutty characters into each sip, making it roar with these ridiculously tasty roasties. lakeroadwines.co.nz
(No-bake caramel pavlova)
Domain Road Vineyard Central Otago Symposium NV ($35)
How have I got to my ripe old age without knowing about this brain-implodingly beautiful, absolute powerhouse of a pudding? Honestly. I feel cheated somehow. Actually it’s probably for the best because if I’d seen this recipe any earlier, I can tell you right now my BMI would be at “bloody hell!” level. Especially because I’d be itching to pair it with a perfectly punchy, tooth-screamingly sweet dessert wine like this. If the gorgeousness of the bottle doesn’t woo you, what’s inside will wow you. Bursting with lemon honey, candied green apple and soft passionfruit perkiness, this late harvest sauvignon is luscious, lithe and layered with poached pear characters which wash across the caramel meringue magically. domainroad.co.nz