I love turkey and all the assorted trimmings as much as anyone. I even love sprouts. But it is possible to overdose not just on the food but all the Christmas-related recipe features you get at this time of the year.
So I thought I’d share some of my culinary disasters instead, with their remedies where possible.
Let’s start with that dratted turkey. When we moved into our present house we had the kitchen re-done. We installed an Aga and also an electric oven for those times, like Christmas, when you’re trying to cook a dozen things at once.
Our first Christmas in the house, we bunged the turkey in the electric oven. But I inadvertently put it on the fan setting, which meant the oven was much hotter than I thought, so when we took the bird out at the end of its allotted time it literally fell to pieces. Thank goodness for roasting bags, I say, because they stopped it drying out and the bird was still moist.
The upside was it didn’t need a whole lot of carving. There’s not much you can do in those circumstances except dismember it discreetly in the kitchen, smother it with gravy and bread sauce and be thankful that you have a forgiving family.
Then there was the time I promised a cake to a friend to thank him for a favour. I got up at the crack of dawn and merrily embarked on the recipe, assuming I had everything to hand in my well-stocked cupboards. Of course I didn’t and at 5.30 in the morning there’s not much chance of ‘phoning a friend or nipping to the shops for emergency supplies.
I had to substitute apricots for raisins and then realised – it was a boiled fruitcake – that I’d got evaporated milk rather than condensed milk, which is thicker and sweeter. In the end it turned out fine but that’s not always the case. It’s often said there are cooks, and then there are bakers. I definitely fall into the former category. Some of my cake and dessert making efforts have been catastrophic. Have a look at this:
It was a sweet shortcrust pastry and it fell to pieces when I tried to lift it from the pastry board to the flan case. That’s not necessarily a complete disaster because (unless you’re a professional pastry chef in which case this will never happen to you) you can patch it together and press it into the tin and once the filling is in nobody will be any the wiser. But on this occasion, when I blind baked it, it developed a crack across the base.
I know, I thought, I’ll do that thing we did when the pork pie pastry cracked and the molten jelly ran out all over the kitchen. I’ll make a stiff flour and water paste and paint it over the crack.
But I popped it back into the oven for a few minutes to set, forgot all about it and burned the blasted thing to a crisp. It went in the bin and I started from scratch (with a different sweet shortcrust recipe).
Baking is a science and if you get the proportions wrong or make ill-judged substitutions, you sometimes just have to chalk it up to experience. My cheesecake was a case in point. I substituted so many ingredients the result tasted like shaving foam. It was so revolting I fed it to the hens and even they had to keep wiping their beaks on the grass to get the gloop off.
Then there was the tarte au citron. It’s my favourite dessert and I was making it for a supper party. It had loads of eggs and lemons in and I’d bought a giant new tart tin for the big reveal.
I still don’t know exactly what went wrong, although using the wrong set of beaters may have had something to do with it. I cooked it and cooked and it just wouldn’t set. When I served it up the filling ran out onto the plate – possibly the first time my guests have offered to eat their pudding with drinking straws.
But ingredients are expensive and I was determined these wouldn’t go to waste. The next day I carefully scooped out the remaining filling, mixed it with whipped cream and called it a lemon posset. Jolly good it was too.
So if things go partridge-in-a-peartree-shaped in the kitchen for you this Christmas, don’t panic. Think around the problem, get creative with your solutions and if all else fails, hit the bottle.
There was a famous occasion when my late mother-in-law had a house full of junior doctors one Christmas and forgot to turn the oven on for the turkey. They got dinner somewhere close to midnight but as they were all completely plastered by then, no-one minded a bit.
* Mrs Portly is taking a week off to cook for the family. See you next Tuesday and have a very happy Christmas.