Christmas cooking webchat with Delia Smith
Delia Smith, the doyenne of British cookery, joined us for a Christmas cooking webchat on 25 November 2011. You wanted to know what Delia would do to make the perfect gravy, her favourite recipes and whether <whisper> she enjoys the odd kebab after a night out?
Delia's first Christmas book, Delia Smith's Christmas, has been the cookery bible since its publication in 1994, when shops ran out of cranberries and Delia became known as the Cranberry Queen.
In 2009, Delia's Happy Christmas hit the shelves with over 100 new recipes and an invaluable hour-by-hour countdown to the last 36 hours before Christmas dinner is served. Browse more Delia know-how at Delia Online.
Christmas dinner | Perfect gravy | Christmas pudding | Christmas cake | Mince pies | Boxing Day | Roast beef | Vegetarian | Baking | Favourite recipes | Essential cooking skills | Football and miscellany
reastie: I'd like to know if you always cook Christmas lunch yourself for your family and if you enjoy it or find it all quite stressful like us plebs? Any tips on how to make it less stressful gratefully received.
Delia: Yes, I do always cook the Christmas lunch, because I have this thing about wanting it to be how I want it to be. I do enjoy it, but as the years go by, it gets more stressful - because it is, after all, you know, the biggest feast of the year! The only advice I can give you is my own step-by-step instructions called The Last 36 Hours, because these really do help enormously and even I have to follow it.
AlfalfaMum: What would be your top recommendation for vegetarian Christmas dinner? Also, I have to thank you for your gorgeous spinach and four cheese lasagne recipe - it's been one of our favourite dinners for years now.
Delia: My favourite vegetarian recipe for Christmas is something called cheese and parsnip roulade. It has a sage and onion stuffing, and is served with bread sauce. So if others are eating turkey, it's all in the same vein. It's been really popular since I published my first Christmas book 20 years ago.
Checkmate: My question is, do you manage to get to church on Christmas Day and, if so, how do you fit it in with all the cooking? We're trying to teach our children the real significance of Christmas, but haven't yet made it to Church with them on the actual day, as we get so bogged down in cooking and putting batteries in new toys. Midnight mass on Christmas Eve is not an option while they are so young.
Delia: Yes, I do manage to go to Church, but it's all done like clockwork, and we always have a 7kg turkey, so it goes into the oven at around 7am or 7:30am, so I'm able to go 8am mass whilst it's still in the oven. I had to give up on midnight, because I was too tired to cook the next day!
soupforthesoul: What is the best tip you can give Mumsnet regarding the Christmas dinner and what is your favourite biscuit?
Delia: The best tip is sit down and make a plan - or follow my plan! And my favourite biscuit was years ago, in the Book of Cakes, someone in our church called Jeannie gave me her recipe for ginger nuts, which has always been brilliant.
Scritchy: For some unknown reason, I make the world's worst gravy. It either ends up lumpy, separated or so thick you could slice it up and eat it on a cream cracker. It's my turn to make Christmas dinner this year and I really don't want to cop out and buy fresh gravy the day before, so are you able to shed any light or pearls of wisdom on how to make the perfect home-made gravy?
Delia: If I could achieve one big ambition, I would like to give the whole world some gravy training. I have done it on TV, and I have written extensively about it in my books, but it still comes up over and over.
So, here goes! When you've removed the turkey, or whatever you're roasting from its baking tin, you're left with fat and juices. When you tip the tin, they separate, with the fat at the top and the juices underneath.
Spoon off the juices into a bowl, until you're left with about two tablespoons of fat. Now add a rounded tablespoon of plain flour, and work the flour into the fat with the back of the tablespoon, until you get a smooth paste.
After that, add a little stock from time to time, whisking now with a balloon whisk after each addition of stock. All you need to do is be quite vigorous with your whisking, and when all the liquid is in, you'll need one, to one-and-a-half pints for a large turkey!
Then, bring it up to simmering point and watch it thicken. Then, strain it into a serving jug. If you have any lumps, which you shouldn't, remember that's what sieves are for. Do try and look at it properly in one of the books.
fluffyanimal: If I make a Christmas pudding according to a regular recipe, must it be boiled again on the day, or can it be microwaved? In other words, are microwavable Christmas puddings made any differently from traditional ones? I'd love to make my own pudding, but on the day itself I don't usually have enough rings on the hob left to boil the pud, so I usually buy one that can be microwaved. Hence, can I make my own and still microwave it, without needing a special recipe?
Delia: Afraid so! Microwave is death to a real proper pud, maybe OK for factory version, but after all that slow steaming, producing all those wonderful flavours, the answer is no. As far as the hob is concerned, I would ditch one vegetable in favour of steaming the pud. We only have roast potatoes, parsnips and brussel sprouts.
VikingBlood: I am just wondering if next year I can use butter instead of suet when making Christmas pudding, or will it explode or something, go off or taste odd by Christmas?
Delia: The good thing about suet or vegetarian suet is that it comes in little globules and in the homemade mincemeat recipe the very, very slow cooking means those little globules melt, coating all the fruits and peels so that when the mincemeat cools down, they're all completely preserved in it. Without this happening, mincemeat can start to ferment in storage. So, I wouldn't recommend butter but, as I've never tried it, maybe you could try it and let us all know.
southlundon: Is it too late to start on a Christmas cake?
Delia: No, it isn't too late to make a Christmas cake, and you really do need to get the cake pack from Waitrose because everything is measured out and ready to go, you just need to add a few more things. Good luck, I know you'll like it!
JaxTellerIsMyFriend: I made your Christmas cake last year and it went down a storm in this house with everyone except my daughter, who just doesn't like rich fruit cake. Could you please suggest a recipe for a non-fruity but long-lasting cake that can be decorated with marzipan and icing so that my daughter doesn't miss out?
Delia: In my Christmas book, I have an Italian recipe by Anna Del Conte for chocolate Christmas cake – and it's brilliant.
jepa: I've made your Christmas cake for years. My friend soaks her fruit for a week when making her Christmas cake, as opposed to me who soaks overnight. Do you think it makes a difference the longer the fruit is soaked?
Delia: I have two Christmas cakes in my book. One is Creole cake, in which you soak the fruit for a week and the other is classic Christmas cake, where you soak the fruits overnight. They're both equally good I think, so what I do is alternate them and make one one year, and one the next year. The Waitrose cake pack we've done this year has pre-soaked all the fruits, which is helpful for busy people.
grovel:Please advise about "feeding" your Christmas cake. How much? How often? I'd like to do it lots. Can I overdo it? I suspect I overcooked the cake (marginally).
Delia: It's great fun feeding the cake. I like to use Armagnac but cognac or brandy will do. Take a toothpick and make holes all over the surface of the cake and then add about a tablespoon of booze and let it seep into the holes you've made. Then next time you feed the cake maybe a week later, do the same on the underside and the next week go back to the top and so on. There are three weeks now until Christmas so you may want to go shorter intervals than a week, but just get as much as you can.
Ingles2: I make your Irish Whiskey Christmas cake from How to Cook, Book 1, every year, and it always delicious. However, I cook it using an two-oven Aga, and it has been known to take 13 hours in the bottom oven. Would you suggest blasting it in the top oven for an hour or so, or longer even? Advice, please.
Delia: No, I wouldn't. I'm delighted you love the Irish Whiskey cake, so do I! But I think the reason yours has always been so good is that long, slow cooking. I wouldn't change a thing.
downbutnotout: I was almost exclusively raised on your recipes by my mum and grandfather and I have a much-loved collection of your books, some new, some inherited, that are well-thumbed. I make your Christmas cake every year but have never felt equal to having a go at the Poinsettia design topping that I remember from my original version of the Complete Cookery Course. I had to replace that book this year as it had fallen apart (yes, another one!) and the revised edition doesn't seem to show the design. Can I get hold of it anywhere else? (I don't have Happy Christmas yet - must get that.)
Delia: The old Christmas book is still available on Amazon, but I've just done a new, step-by-step how to decorate online, for Waitrose. So have a look!
gem1979: As we are coming to that time of year again, I need your advice on something topically festive! Last year, I tried to make mince pies using a recipe which suggested not to add liquid to the pastry. So it was extremely dry, crumbled and I couldn't roll it. Does this sound right? Should you add liquid? (It was meant to be like a shortbread dough.)
Delia: The only real problem you have here is that you're not using the right recipe. Please beg, steal or borrow one of my books, or go online, and have the best mince pies ever.
Aworryingtrend: I would like your advice, please, on what to cook on Boxing Day (evening). There will be six adults. I won't have any time on the day as we will be out most of the day, so I would like something either quick and easy in the evening or that can be made in advance and frozen then defrosted. What do you suggest for a special meal that will be a change after turkey and all the trimmings the day before?
Delia: I have to give you one of my own favourites, which is a collar of bacon joint. You score the skin, and then paint the surface of the skin all over with molasses. When you cook this in the oven, it's dead easy. And the skin turns into a delicious sweet and black crunchy crackling. And all you need to do is serve it with another of my favourite Christmas recipes, Cumberland sauce, which can be made the day before. You should find the recipes in the Christmas book, or on the website.
Also, in the back of the book, you'll find the address of a supplier called Lane Farm, who will deliver the joint to wherever you live.
MumblingAndBloodyRagDoll: How on earth do I cook roast beef so that it's not like a leathery old shoe? Is there a way or some trick of roasting a joint of beef really nicely please? Mine are always sad affairs.
Delia: Someone once said that God sent good meat, and the Devil sent cooks. But I believe the opposite! I think nowadays it's going to get harder and harder to find a good piece of beef, and what's happening is lesser joints are being sold as roasting joints.
I would recommend you invest in sirloin, or a two-rib piece on the bone from a reliable butcher or supplier, so you know it's well-hung. I think all the instructions are on my website for you to follow, but once you've got a really good piece of beef, you'll never look back!
thereinmadnesslies: I use your vegetarian cookbook loads, it was one of the first good veggie cookbooks I found where the food appealed to non-veggies as well. Do you plan to do any more vegetarian stuff?
Delia: I've always done vegetarian recipes since I first started all those years ago and I will continue to do them. No more books planned at present but in other areas I will still be doing them. Have you ever made my cheese and potato souffle in the book Frugal Food? That's one of my favourites.
headfairy: I love cooking but I have a big problem is with baking. My cakes always look very flat. They taste OK, but aren't exactly light as a feather. A friend of mine (who bakes beautiful cakes) says the secret to making great cakes is to properly combine the sugar and fat. Is she right? I must admit I tend to lose patience at this stage and I don't think I've ever whipped butter and sugar until it was light and fluffy. It's usually claggy and gritty. Is that the cause of all my baking woes? Or is there some other secret to it? I would so love to be able to bake cakes that rise beautifully and don't resemble a biscuit!
Delia: There are so many things that can go wrong with baking, and one of the main problems is not having the right recipe, and not having the right size baking tin. Over the years it's been very difficult for me as tin sizes have changed at various times, but in the 1970s, I wrote a book called Delia's Book of Cakes. The paperback version of this is still available on Amazon, and I think you would really appreciate it because it kind of takes you by the hand and teaches you about baking.
I have been approached by the publisher to update it, and this might happen, but I still think it would be helpful for you to get the old one.
Creaming butter and sugar is always easier if you have an electric hand whisk. Can't think of me doing it now at my age without one. And it's important to add the egg - just a teaspoon at a time - with the beater still running. You may also like to try not creaming at all! And instead just use very very soft butter, or Stork, and put all the ingredients in together, and simply mix. This is called the all-in-one method.
flakemum: My most used book is Delia's Complete Cookery Course. Shortbread and scones are my downfal,l I would love advice on those please.
Delia: Try my shortbread, made with semolina. You'll love it. I think it's on Delia Online, if not drop me a line. Scones are dead easy, with one big rule: don't roll the dough too thin, it must be at least ¾in-thick before you cut them out. And of course, you must use the right recipe.
AtYourCervix: Oh. My. Goodness! When I first moved out my mother bought me Delia's Complete Cookery Course. It has been so much used it has fallen apart! I still can't cook but that has more to do with my goldfish-like attention span than the book! Anyway... what to ask Delia? When making cakes do you lick the bowl?
Delia: When I was a child, I always licked the bowl, and the spoon! When I got a bit older, and was watching my weight, I trained myself into not doing so. But I still quite like the taste of raw cake.
ManCrushedToDeathByALift: I use your Complete Cookery Course all the time. But however many times I make pastry without baking it blind, as you advise, it ends up an unmitigated disaster. Do you really make pastry like this or do you actually bake it blind like the rest of us?
Delia: Yes, I do make it for baking blind, absolutely as in the Cookery Course. But I think where people go wrong is, they probably stretch the pastry too much, and don't allow enough up round the edges of the tin,. to allow for shrinkage. However, I have now discovered a completely different way to do this.
This involves lining a tin with pastry, again not stretching it too much, and pricking the base then pop it into a polythene bag and freeze it. Then, have your oven pre-heated with a baking sheet pre-heating as well. Then just pour the filling into the tart, and cook it without pre-baking the pastry and you'll find that it will cook perfectly.
Bucharest: My Mum wants to know how you manage to make pastry and stuff without rolling your long sleeves up and taking your rings off. It drives her a bit mad when we watch you. We are making your cake this year. We made Nigella's last year and it was a bit blowsy and nouveau.
Delia: For some reason, sleeves don't seem to matter but rings is another thing altogether! When I first started cooking for the BBC, they asked me to remove my engagement ring with the blue stone and promptly lost it. My husband spent five years trying to replace it, and finally we found the right stone, in Australia. For this reason, I will not remove my engagement ring.
MirrorballMoon: You have always been a huge inspiration to me, especially in cake baking (I have a small cake business run from home). I would love to know what is your favourite cake? Mine is Battenburg. I could live on marzipan.
Delia: My favourite cake is Preserved Ginger Cake, in a book I did in 1972, but it's also in The Complete How to Cook.
shouldnotbehere: What is your favourite easy-to-cook and cheap recipe? We have been affected by the recession, and I am always economising, and don't like to spend long cooking in the week. I currently do a lot of bulk cooking at weekend (lasagnes, meatballs, ragu sauce, casseroles etc), and then defrost and heat as our ready meals in the week.
Delia: Our own favourite easy-to-cook and cheap recipe at home is to make a really delicious omelette. Mostly with cheese. But it's the easiest thing to do after a hard day, and I like to serve it with a salad and some good bread.
I am noting that you're finding it difficult having been affected by the recession, so I want to say that next week on Delia Online, linked with Mumsnet, we're doing recipes for Christmas in a Crisis, and I'm very excited about how much money we've been able to save, and still get a really good Christmas.
valiumpoptarts: Do you have an emergency Friday night meal plan at all, or do you just get fed up with the whole thing and get a kebab, like I do? (Can't really imagine that you have a doner but it would make me feel better...)
Delia: We have a good Indian curry shop locally, who deliver, so it's heaven and no washing up.
BecauseImWorthIt: I have noticed in the past that you have been slagged off by other 'celebrity' chefs. I'm not asking you slag off any other chefs, but who do you feel writes the best recipes, by which I mean recipes that work as reliably as yours do?
Delia: I rarely use recipes from other books, because I'm always wanting to create things myself. But my favourite cook, and this is the important word – cook, not chef – is Simon Hopkinson, because he knows about real cooking as opposed to what chefs do.
Taffeta: Oh how marvellous! Delia at Christmas! I make your Christmas cake every year Delia, love it. I'd like to know what your favourite food era has been, the one that sits most naturally with you. Cheating food, frugal food, calorie-laden food - which style?
Delia: In the early 1970s, I wrote a book called Recipes from Country Inns and Restaurants, and I travelled the length and breadth of Britain and met some incredibly brilliant - sometimes amateur - cooks, cooking the most delicious food that always tasted like homemade. Since the arrival of Nouvelle Cuisine in the 80s, and the era of what I called 'poncey', I'm finding it harder and harder to eat out.
ohmygoshandgolly: You are a huge inspiration and I know that your recipes are always reliable. As a result, your books are the ones I use most frequently. So, what do you cook when you have a 'I can't be bothered to cook' day? Or does that never happen?
Delia: If I really don't want to cook, one of the best treats I know is a pork pie, fresh as possible. So always take it from the very back of the shelf. At home, all it needs is crusty bread and homemade piccalilli.
fergoose: Is there anything you really don't like to or can't cook. And what is your favourite recipe?
Delia: When I learned to cook in a little French restaurant in the 1960s, I had to prepare snails and I never liked preparing them, and so I've never liked eating them! I don't have a favourite recipe, I'm very greedy! I love all food, but my favourite meal is always Sunday lunch.
sfxmum: I love your Christmas recipes but so far I have not tried to make them as mother in law is the Christmas cook. Soon, however, I am likely to take on that job, it is nice to know something reliable will be there to help me. What skills do you consider essential in the kitchen, thinking things like making a roux or suchlike, to arm a new cook on the way to competence?
Delia: Acquiring cooking skills only needs practice, and my own instructions should be sufficient for any basic skill in the kitchen. I feel if anyone following fails it's my fault, because I haven't explained it properly. Good luck.
Champagnesupernova: Someone here has burned tinned sweetcorn. What have your worst disasters been?
Delia: My oven broke down on Christmas Eve! But luckily, we have a spare oven in what used to be the garage, for when we were filming. So although I had to run back and forth in the rain, I did get my turkey cooked on time!
Wordsonapage: Do you regret the "Where are you? Come on then, let's be having you"?
Delia: No regrets whatsoever, might do it again one day. It's given me a special rapport with other supporters everywhere.
hippoCritt: Do you plan out all your meals before shopping or get creative depending on what you have bought? I think of you every time I feed my Christmas cake. I aspire to have a spare room to keep them under the bed like on your TV programme!
Delia: I do plan at Christmas, and shop accordingly, but the rest of the year I like to be inspired by whatever's in season and what's in the shops. So do I do quite a lot of spontaneous shopping!
desserttime: What main dish could you recommend to go with rice that isn't chilli or curry that children would eat?
Delia: My current favourite, if you can believe this, is very simple. I love hard-boiled eggs and cheese sauce served with brown rice and cauliflower. Could be made with white rice! The other thing I would encourage you to do is make risotto for your children, you know, with Italian rice. I think I have several recipes for risotto on my website.
BlueEyeshadow: I wanted to say thank you for your all-in-one white sauce recipe. I make it at least once a week and it never fails! Do you have any ingredients that scare you off a recipe? For me it's gelatine, don't know why but it puts me right off.
Delia: No, I can't think of any scary ingredients, but I do really want to reassure you about gelatine. Now that it's so widely available in leaf form, it really could not be easier. So please, don't be afraid. Just soak it in a little bit of water, until it softens. Squeeze out the excess and it can go straight into hot liquid and disappear in a few seconds. I think you'll probably be able to get these instructions on my website.
YourCallIsImportant: Do you do your own supermarket shopping? And if so, do you find that people follow you around having a nosey into your trolley?
Delia: I do do my own supermarket shopping. I haven't noticed anyone following me around, and because I'm always quite scruffy with no makeup I don't get recognised a lot! But if ever I do, people are always really nice.
Delia: I do want to say a very big thank you to all the people who have been so complimentary about my various books! It's really made my day. I really enjoyed all this, and I don't think I've ever had so many compliments in one hour in my life!
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Last updated: over 1 year ago