Christmas: The last 36 hours

Extracted from the book Delia's Happy Christmas.

A foolproof, timed countdown that will take you from Christmas Eve morning to the main event - lunch.  We have not added any images of recipes in this planner so that you can either print it off and attach it to your kitchen cupboard, or read it on your tablet or mobile. Each recipe title has a clickable link...

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I have retained this chapter more or less as it was, simply because so many people have found it helpful (including me, it has to be said). It’s a kind of chronology of all that the cook needs to do in the final 36 hours leading up to Christmas lunch. Even if you’re not serving the traditional lunch set out below, you may still find it helpful to see some sort of framework into which different recipes can be inserted. Don’t forget too, that sometimes people drop in unexpectedly at Christmas. That’s one of the lovely things about it, and you just have to accept that you might be taking off your apron and pouring drinks just when you thought you had space to make the mince pies! So, given the inevitable disruptions, this countdown is not a rigid, must-be-obeyed sort of thing, but rather a few gentle reminders to help you through some busy hours.

Early am

In practice this means sallying forth for the freshest vegetables (sprouts, leeks, parsnips, onions, carrots, celery, swede, potatoes) and fruit (oranges, clementines, grapes, bananas, dates, cranberries), because they need to last over the whole holiday.  Everyone else will be doing the same, of course, so do get our early and, before you leave the house, read the various shopping lists out loud. You may have forgotten something.  Have you got milk, cream, bread, pet food, the turkey…?


Now at last your fresh and magnificent bird has reached its destination.  There is no need to wash or wipe it, just place it on a sheet of greaseproof paper and remove the giblets.  Make sure you know what it weighs: your supplier should have written it down – if not, you might find the bathroom scales helpful, but make sure you keep it on the greaseproof paper.  Store it (uncovered) in the fridge till just before you go to bed.  You may well need to remove a shelf from the fridge to house it, but if space is a desperate problem, don’t worry: you can use an unheated bedroom, or the garage (with suitable covering) – even, in an emergency, the locked boot of the car, which can be pretty cold on a winter’s night.

Click here for Delia's Turkey Giblet Stock Recipe

Later am

A good time to get these chores out of the way.  Always my choice for Christmas lunch are the tiny, tight button sprouts and I prefer to serve then plain as there as so many other rich flavours around.  Prepare 700g-1kg for 8-10 people, and keep them stored in a polythene bag in the fridge till needed.  Another regular is parsnips: my recipe for these is Parsnips with Parmesan.  They can be prepared in advance right up to the oven-ready stage.  Store them laid out on a tray in the fridge or in a cool place.  Also at this stage, if you’re serving them with drinks, take the sausage rolls out of the freezer to defrost for an hour, then warm them in the oven for 5 minutes.

Early pm

Christmas simply isn’t Christmas without a trifle.  I find this is the best time to assemble it.


It used to be a tradition in our house to see to all the Christmas baking to the backdrop of the live broadcast of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge.  But now I just take them ready-cooked from the freezer as and when I need them, and enjoy eating the warmed mince pies with my feet up and a cup of tea listening to the carols.  This is the moment when Christmas really begins for me.  (To warm the mince pies from frozen they should have 45 minutes out of the freezer to defrost, then be placed in a medium oven for 5 minutes and dusted with icing sugar before serving.)

Later pm

Now is the time to make up the stuffing ready to go into the turkey tomorrow.  I firmly believe that the whole idea of stuffing a large bird like a turkey is to help to counteract the drying-out process during cooking.  Minced pork (or pork sausagemeat) is an ideal ingredient for this because the fatty juices from the pork help to keep the flesh of the turkey moist.  For this reason all the stuffings below have pork as a main ingredient.  All the stuffings are for a 5.5-6.5kg turkey.

Note:  If you like your stuffing firm, so that it cuts in slices, add a beaten egg to bind it.  If, like me, you prefer it crumbly, leave the egg out.  Also it is important to remember to remove the stuffing from the fridge before you go to bed and leave it covered in a cool place – it shouldn’t be too chilled when it goes into the turkey.

Eighteenth-century Chestnut Stuffing

American Turkey Stuffing

Traditional Pork, Sage and Onion Stuffing

Early evening

In our family there are those who like bread sauce as the accompaniment to turkey and there are those who prefer cranberries – and there are some of us who have both! The following is quite positively the best cranberry sauce I’ve ever tasted and it’s oh, so easy to make.

Cranberry and Orange Relish

If you’re still on your feet by this time, you can also prepare the onion and cloves ready for the Traditional Bread Sauce and place in a saucepan covered with clingfilm.  And why not weigh out the butter and sugar for the Christmas Rum Sauce and cover them in a saucepan ready for the off tomorrow?

In my younger days I used to dash off to Midnight Mass and return home with a group of friends for spiced cider, sausage rolls and pickled shallots at about 1.30 am. Nowadays I like a good night’s sleep before cooking the Christmas lunch, so I opt for an early night and morning Mass instead. Early or late, though, it is important to take the turkey out of the fridge now to allow it to come to room temperature so that it heats up immediately when you put it in the oven.  The same applies to the stuffing, store them covered in a cool place, and you also need to remove 75g of butter to soften ready for the morning.  Now your fridge will be looking on the empty side, it’s a good time to slip in the white wine, champagne, mineral water, children’s drinks and anything else that needs to be chilled.

Early am

The specific timings that follow are those tested over the years in our house, but because lunch time will vary from one family to another you can adjust these timings to suit yourself.  With young children you will doubtless be up early and want to eat lunch reasonably early; with older children it’s not quite so important to open the presents at first light of dawn!

For an average family – sized 6.5kg turkey (oven-ready weight) I am calculating for a 2.00 pm lunch.  If you plan to eat half an hour later or earlier, simply add or subtract 30 minutes to or from my timings.

Many people have their own favourite way to cook turkey, usually because it’s the way they were taught.  I’m sure there is no best way, and I offer you the following method simply because it has always worked well for me and countless others.  The turkey is placed in a ‘tent’ of foil, which essentially means it cooks in an oven within an oven.  If you wrap the foil too closely to the turkey, though, it ends up steaming instead of roasting.  Give it plenty of space between the flesh and the foil and it will roast in its own buttery juices without becoming dry.  This method keeps all the juice intact.  If you allow the bird to rest for 30-45 minutes before carving all the juices which have bubbled up to the surface will seep back and ensure the meat is moist and succulent.

3.5-4.5kg turkey
30 minutes at 220˚C/gas mark 7, then 2 ½-3 hours at 170˚C/gas mark 3, and a final 30 minutes (uncovered) at 200˚C/gas mark 6.

6.75-9kg turkey
45 minutes at 220˚C/gas mark 7, then 4-5 hours at 170˚C/gas mark 3, and a final 30 minutes (uncovered) at 200˚C/gas mark 6

Please bear in mind that ovens and turkeys themselves vary and the only one sure way to know your turkey is cooked is to pierce the thickest part of the leg with a thin skewer, the juices running out of it should be golden and clear (there should be no trace of pinkness).  You can also give the leg a little tug to make sure there is some give in it

For a 6.5kg turkey. (see above for notes on other sizes)

It’s only dangerous to put turkey stuffing inside the body cavity if either the turkey or the stuffing is not defrosted properly, because the heat will not penetrate it quickly enough.  If both are at room temperature it is perfectly safe.

6.5kg turkey, oven-ready
75g butter, softened
225g very fat streaky bacon
1 quantity of stuffing
extra-wide strong turkey foil and a
small skewer or cocktail sticks

7.45 am

Preheat the oven to 220˚C/gas mark 7

First stuff the turkey with your chosen stuffing.  Loosen the skin with your hands and pack the stuffing into the neck end, pushing it up between the flesh and the skin towards the breast (not too tightly), because it will expand during the cooking).  Press it in gently to make a nicely rounded end, then tuck the neck flap under the bird’s back and secure with a small skewer or some cocktail sticks.  Don’t expect to get all the stuffing in this end – put the rest into the body cavity.

Now arrange two large sheets of foil across your roasting tin, one widthways and the other lengthways (no need to butter them).  Lay the turkey on its back in the centre, then rub it generously all over with the butter, make sure the thigh bones are particularly well covered.  Next season the bird all over and lay the bacon over the breast with the rashers overlapping each other.  I always put some over the legs as well.

Now wrap the turkey loosely in the foil.  The parcel must be firmly sealed but roomy enough to provide an air space around most of the upper part of the bird.  So bring one piece of foil up and fold both ends over to make a pleat along the length of the breastbone.  Then bring the other piece up at both ends and crimp and fold to make a neat parcel.

8.15 am

Place the turkey in the preheated oven, where it will cook at the initial high temperature for 40 minutes.

Once it is in, you can peel the potatoes ready for roasting and keep them covered with cold water in a saucepan.

Because of the sausagemeat stuffing and the bacon rashers already on the bird, we don’t serve bacon rolls and chipolatas.  But if you do, now is the time to prepare them as follows: brush a shallow baking tray with oil and arrange the sausages on it in two rows.  For the bacon rolls, stretch the rinded rashers out as far as you can, then roll them up very tightly, thread them on to long flat skewers and place them next to the chipolatas and pop them back in the fridge ready to go in the oven at 1.15 pm.

Now begin making the bread sauce (see 11.45 am)

8.55 am

Lower the temperature to 170˚C/gas mark 3. Now take a break! . At this point everything should be under control, so you can time time out of the kitchen to help the kids unwrap their presents, have a coffee or tidy the house.  After that, prepare and set the lunch table, making sure you have all the right glasses for pre-lunch drinks as well as the table.  It’s a good idea to arrange the coffee tray now, too, and line up the brandy and liqueur glasses.  Pop the plates and serving dishes into the warming oven, and don’t forget to warm a large plate for the turkey.

11.45 am

Now is the time to finish off the bread sauce

12.00 noon

Fill a saucepan quite full with boiling water, put it on the heat and, when it comes back to the boil, place a steamer on top of the pan and turn it down to a gentle simmer.  Put the Christmas pudding in the steamer, cover and leave to steam away until 2.15 pm.  You’ll need to check the water from time to time to maybe top it up a bit.

12.15 pm

The Christmas pudding brings us, naturally enough, to the Rum sauce, whose time has now come.

12.30 pm

Increase the oven temperature to 200˚C/gas mark 6.  Now get some help, because you’ve got to lift the turkey out of the oven and it’s heavy!  Remove the foil from the top and sides of the bird and take off the bacon slices.  Now baste the turkey very thoroughly with a long-handled spoon, then return it to the oven for a further 30-45 minutes to finish browning – give it as much basting as you can during this final cooking period.  The bacon rashers can be placed on a heatproof plate and put back in the oven for 15-20 minutes to finish cooking till all the fat has melted and there are just very crisp bits left.  (I like to serve these crunchy bits with the turkey instead of bacon rolls).

12.45 pm

After you’ve dealt with the turkey, parboil the potatoes for 10 minutes, then drain them.  Put the lid back on, and shake the potatoes quite heftily in the saucepan so that they become fluffy round the edges.  Now take a solid roasting tin, add 50g lard or goose fat to it and place on direct heat to let the fat melt and begin to sizzle.  When it is really hot, add the potatoes and (using an oven glove to protect your hands) tip the tin and baste the potatoes so all are coated with fat.  Then place the roasting tin in the oven with the turkey.

1.00 pm

Now for the parsnips.  If you are not doing Parsnips with Parmesan then parboil them for 10 minutes.  Take another roasting tray and add 3 tablespoons of oil and 1 tablespoon of butter to it and place over direct heat.  When the butter and oil are hot, add the parsnips and baste them in the same way as the potatoes.  By now it will be time for the turkey come out of the oven.

1.15 pm

Remove the turkey from the oven and check to see if it is cooked.  Pierce the thickest part of the leg with a think skewer, the juice running out of it should be golden and clear (there should be no trace of pinkness).  You can also give the leg a little tug to make sure there is some give in it.

Increase the temperature to 230˚C/gas mark 8.  Place the parsnips on the middle shelf of the oven (with the potatoes on the top) and the chipolatas and bacon rolls on the lowest shelf or floor of the oven.

Transfer the turkey to a warm serving plate: it will be fine left to rest in the kitchen temperature for up to 50 minutes, loosely covered with double foil, without losing its heat. 

Next pour the giblet stock into a pan and allow it to heat up gently.  Tip the turkey fat from the foil into the tin, discard the foil, then spoon off all the excess fat from the roasting tin into a bowl.  This fat is precious: it’s wonderful for sautéing potatoes, and have you ever tried turkey jelly and dripping spread on hot slices of toast and sprinkled with salt and pepper?  A wonderful Boxing Day breakfast treat.

Next make the giblet gravy.  When you have spooned off the excess fat and juices from the roasting tin and only the 2-3 tablespoons of fat are left, work about 2 level tablespoons flour into this (scraping all the residue from the base and sides of the tin) over a low heat.  Now, using a balloon whisk, whisk in the giblet stock, bit by bit, until you have a smooth gravy.  Let it bubble and reduce a little to concentrate the flavour, and taste and season.  Then pour into a warmed jug and keep warm.

1.30 pm

Turn the chipolatas and bacon rolls over, then you are free for a few minutes to go and have a pre-lunch glass of champagne.  You deserve it.

1.45 pm

Now cook the sprouts in a steamer (or just cover them with boiling water), add salt and cook for 5-6 minutes, then drain in a colander.  While the sprouts are cooking, summon the carver and get all hands on deck to help dish up.  And don’t forget that lovely stuffing inside the turkey!

2 pm

Lunch is served.  Bon appétit!

A little later

Remove the pudding from the steamer and take off the wrapping.  Slide a palette knife all round the pudding, then turn it out on to a warmed plate.  Place a suitably sized sprig of holly on top.  Now warm a ladleful of brandy over direct heat and, as soon as the brandy is hot, turn out the flame and ask someone to set light to it using a long match.  Place the ladle, now gently flaming, on top of the pudding – but don’t pour it over until you reach the table.  (If you don’t have a gas hob, warm the brandy in a small saucepan).  When you do, pour it slowly over the pudding, sides and all, and watch it flame to the cheers of the assembled company!  When both flames and cheers have died down, serve the pudding with Christmas Rum Sauce or Cumberland Rum or Brandy Butter.


The good news is that what you now have, in addition to your aching limbs and heavy eyelids, is a house full of food and absolutely no more cooking to do.  So stretch out, fill your glass and have a very Happy Christmas!

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