So, Heston Blumenthal, where do I go to buy the best turkey? What's on your kitchen playlist? And can Paxo stuffing be turned into foam?
Q. Last year, after the Nigella's Christmas Kitchen TV show, everyone went mad for goose fat. Shops sold out, as everyone snapped up the precious tins in the hunt for the perfect roast potatoes. But I missed out completely, as I'm vegetarian. Is there an alternative I could use? Mr J Christie, Kent
A. Actually, I think olive oil's better than goose fat. Goose fat can be wonderful – if you like the taste of goose and duck. But there are two factors to consider when you're choosing the fat or oil for roasting potatoes. The first is the flavour contribution the fat will make; the second is the fat's physical property of how well it crisps the food. Goose fat is not the best for crisping potatoes. And that's good news for vegetarians.
My all-round choice for perfect flavour and crispness is olive oil. If you want to add some flavour to the potatoes, remember that oil is a brilliant mechanism for absorbing flavours and aromas. So you can add flavour to the oil with anything you want to use, really. The obvious option is to put garlic and rosemary in with the potatoes, but you can add all kinds of flavourings – spices, herbs or chillies.
You can even use the potato peelings. Most people throw them away, but all the potato's flavour comes from just underneath the skin, not from the centre. So you could wash the potatoes, take the peels, pat them dry, then put all of them into a pan of oil and infuse the flavours over a low heat for a few hours. Strain the oil off, and you have potato-flavoured oil to roast potatoes in. That way, you put the potato flavour back on the potato.
Q. You're clearly a man who likes a kitchen gadget. I'm cooking for the whole family this year, so I think I deserve a present. What single piece of cooking kit should I go for? Mr D Lees, Essex
A. Well, we can probably assume you've already got a big Kenwood-style food mixer. So, if I were you, I'd get a box of dry ice. I know it's not a gadget exactly, but you can really have fun with it. In my new book, I've listed the supplier I use: it's a website, http://ind.yara.co.uk. You http://www.ind.yara.co.uk can keep dry ice in the freezer for a couple of days. Take some custard and pour it into the bowl of your mixer. You don't even have to make custard, just buy it (not the really glow-in-the-dark stuff, but fresh custard from the supermarket). Take out your dry ice and bash it up (but don't touch it with your hands as it's really cold). Pour some dry ice, as a powder, into the bowl, put the whisk on slow, and in three minutes you have ice-cream.
You can also do this trick with mandarins or tangerines. Put them into a bowl of dry ice until they start to freeze. You don't want them to go rock hard; they obviously need to be soft enough to eat. But as they chill down so quickly, something brilliant happens. You can peel them, put a segment into your mouth, and you have fizzy orange – it's like Fanta.
Q. There must be more to sherry than Harvey's Bristol Cream. Could you suggest a Christmas tipple? J Satchel, Middlesex
A. I love sherry. There are so many to choose from, so I can't say I have a favourite, but at Christmas a Palo Cortado is fantastic. The process of making it is quite confusing, but it starts out as a different kind of sherry altogether: Amontillado. Then, for a slightly mysterious reason, a tiny amount of the Amontillado changes and develops into Palo Cortado. It's all about the yeasts in the juices.
Q. How much of Christmas lunch can you prepare in advance, to take the stress out of the big day? Louise Grange, North London
A. The single most important thing about Christmas is that you don't want to be stuck in the kitchen all day. I cook every year at home, but all the vegetables are done beforehand: peeled, chopped and in their pans. Then you just have to worry about the bird. If you are doing turkey, aim to have it out of the oven to rest for an hour and a half. You'll be amazed at the difference it makes to the meat. It makes it so much more moist. People rarely bother with that, but you really ought to, and the timing's not hard.
A little while before you take out the turkey, start boiling the potatoes. When the turkey comes out of the oven, the potatoes will be ready to go in. For the sprouts or cabbage, or whatever vegetables you're having, you just have to put them on the heat at the end.
Q. Is there a way of cooking goose without having to bail out the oven every 10 minutes as the fat pours out? Ms K Guest, London
A. What I do is cut off the legs and trim off all excess fat. Don't throw any away. Chop up the excess fat, and put it in a pan. Salt the legs overnight, then brush the salt off. Lay them in the pan with the fat, and cook them for a couple of hours. And you have this wonderful dish, like confit of duck. You can even put this meat in with your sprouts. So all you're really roasting is the breast and carcass, and you've got a lot less fat to contend with, and it takes less time.
Q. How do you get your turkey perfectly golden on the outside without the meat becoming dry? Tim Pritchard, Nottingham
A. Cook it for a longer period than you normally would, at a much lower temperature: 60C or so. That way you keep the flesh moist. Take it out, put the oven up to 250C – or as high as it will go – and put the goose or turkey back in. Obviously, really keep your eye on it; I don't want people saying: "I burnt our Christmas lunch thanks to you." But the skin will crisp up very quickly. And it has to be really hot so it doesn't dry the insides.
Q. Have you ever really messed up? Mimi Anderson, East London
A. Years ago, yes. All the techniques I use have been developed by messing things up. We learn more by making mistakes than by not making them.
Q. Is there anything more constructive I can do with the turkey giblets, other than making stock and then throwing them all away? James Walsh, Lincoln
A. If you're making the confit goose leg (see above), put the gizzard in with it. Well, like I say, I'd cook goose instead, and the liver is delicious. Sauté it really quickly and serve with the goose. The heart's not great; you could put it in your stock, but it's quite bitter.
Q. Who would be on your dream Christmas guest list – and who would be on your nightmare list? S Richman. North London
My nightmare guest would be a vegan. I completely understand vegetarianism, and there are some wonderful pleasures in eating food that doesn't involve meat and fish. But Christmas is an occasion when people come together – friends, family – for social interaction around the table, and when you decide you're not going to eat the meat or fish, then surely you get no enjoyment from that, and well, I just think you shouldn't be there.
As for my dream guests, well, I really just want my family. As an adult, and especially as a parent, you get the benefit of seeing the excitement in the children. I just love it.
Q. Do you have an iPod playlist for when you're in the kitchen? Leo Leigh, Brighton
A. I certainly do, and it has all kinds of things on it. There's one album I'm into by a DJ called Dr Rubberfunk. And I'd definitely have a three-CD album called Ethiopiques. It's Ethiopian jazz, put together by Claude Challe, the guy who does the Buddha-Bar albums. At Christmas, it's quite nice to have some diversity. And you have to have a Christmas CD. Don't start playing it too early, or Christmas Day will come and everyone's sick of it already.
Q. How do you apply the principles of molecular gastronomy to the unsubtle business of stuffing? And can you make Paxo foam? Juliet Perry, Lancaster
A. Why would you want to make foam stuffing? Actually, I don't like to be branded with the term "molecular gastronomy". What I do is still cooking – the difference is that we've got far more equipment. When you look at a car from the 1920s and a car today; it may have power steering and air conditioning and electric windows, but it's still a car. Likewise, we used to cook with fire, then someone invented the kettle, the grill, the electric food processor, microwave ovens and fridges. So if it's OK to use, say, an oven, then it's OK to use a centrifuge or freeze-dryer. It's the same; you use some equipment to do something to the ingredients. So the molecular thing is not a phrase I use. It dates back about 20 years, to some people who wanted to use science centres to find out why a soufflé rises, and why eggs thicken a custard when you heat them, and why coffee is bitter. What I do is just cooking.
As for stuffing, the important thing is where you're going to put it. People sometimes make stuffings to fill the whole cavity of a turkey, but forget that. You can do all sorts of better things. You could buy some sausage casings and make your own stuffing sausages. Or get some cabbage leaves, cook the leaves, put the stuffing inside, wrap them into a ball and steam or poach them for a bit, and you have cabbage dumplings.
Or you can take some onions, cook them whole, scoop out the centre, mix it with some meat – say, the confit of goose leg (see above), or add some chopped liver and herbs – and then put that inside the onion. So don't feel you have to fill the whole bird. Otherwise you're stuffed.
Q. What's the flashiest dish you've ever made? Florence Hardy
A. There's this one dish we cook at The Fat Duck, on special occasions. The last time was for a boy's birthday. I'm not telling you how it's done, but you start by asking someone to pick a petal from a rose, then we spin it round in a dry brandy glass and it turns into an egg. Then you crack that egg into the pan, and out of it comes bacon-and-egg custard. Then you put nitrogen into the pan and stir it, and it freezes the custard, so it looks like scrambled egg but actually it's bacon-and-egg ice cream. It works by sleight of hand. It's magic.
Q. For the first time in my life (I'm 26) my mum's not cooking on Christmas Day – I am. Is there something I can do to impress everyone? Gemma Robinson, Southend
A. Get the roast potatoes spot on. Start by using the perfect roasting potatoes: Maris Pipers. Peel and cut them not in half but in quarters, so you leave lots of angles; these are the bits that go crispy. Put them into salted water. This next bit is the key; you have to boil them until they're just about to fall apart. Carefully – they'll be really delicate – drain and let them cool a little so they firm up a bit.
Put olive oil in the pan. Make sure the oil comes a centimetre up the side of the pan – people often don't put enough oil in the pan. Put it in the oven at 190C, get the roasting tray hot, and keep turning them until they have a glass-like crunch. And 20 minutes before the end, add some rosemary and garlic to the oil.
Q. After an illness, I have been left dangerously allergic or intolerant to: gluten, wheat, corn, yeast, nuts, lactose, fructose, nightshades (tomatoes, potatoes etc), soya and other legumes. How can I stuff the turkey? Ali Lister, Newark, Nottinghamshire
A. Barley's usually OK for people with allergies, as are oats. You could make stuffing with meat from the leg of the turkey, cooked with some onions, garlic, barley, chopped liver, a few oats and a little bit of sage or rosemary.
Q. Is anything better than bread sauce with turkey? Tom Crabtree, Boston, Massachusetts
A. I like bread sauce on its own, but I prefer to have something else with it. Like gravy. To make the best gravy, you may have to buy some chicken wings, but they're not that expensive. Put them in the pan with the roasting juices and some white wine. Cook that down, then add some water. Make sure you've got enough sweet veg, like carrots, and onions particularly. Add some of the fat coming off the bird, and a tiny bit of white wine at the end to give it some freshness.
Q. On Boxing Day, I'm hosting a champagne lunch for eight. Could you suggest some interesting recipes that make use of the obligatory leftovers? I lack the imagination to think of anything other than turkey sarnies. Help! Timothy Sewell, Taunton, Somerset
A. A pie would be really nice. On Christmas Day, you're best off serving as much breast meat as you can from the turkey, because the breast, which tends to be dry anyway, gets even drier later on, especially if you cook it again. So take as much leg meat as possible, and sauté loads of leeks with lots of salt and pepper. Cook some button mushrooms, sliced, in butter and a bit of white wine. Then chop the turkey into some fairly large pieces. Mix all that together and use it for the filling. You can just buy in some puff pastry, and there you have a pie. Serve a sauce with it – use the carcass to make a stock, boil it right down, add some white wine, with a bit of cream, mustard and butter.
Q. Will putting meat in mince pies ever make a comeback? Fiona Roberts, Ipswich
A. Oh yeah. You can make it yourself that way. You should really have started a month beforehand, though. You basically use the alcohol and sugar to cure the meat, leaving it in the fridge. Suet is made from the fat around the kidneys. So if you put a little bit of kidney fat into the mix, it's fantastic. I'm currently experimenting with using the marrow scooped out from inside venison bones.
Q. Can you suggest a suitably festive and light dessert to serve alongside a regular Christmas pud? A lot of people find it too rich after a heavy main course, and I'm fed up with offering fruit salad as the alternative. Mary Dudsley, Wells, Somerset
A. Get some really delicate shortbread biscuits, and serve junket with that. You can flavour the junket with something light, like rosewater, orange flower water or rose petals, and serve with the shortbread.
Q. Do have a recipe for the perfect festive caramelised ham? Anne Rushton, Kent
A. I've cooked hams before at Christmas, but not for a long time. I'm going back years now, but you basically poach the ham in its broth, take it out, dry it, criss-cross the skin, then coat it in a mixture of brown sugar and honey and mustard, stud it with cloves and then roast it.
Q. I've got a big family and I'm on a tight budget – any tips on how to keep costs down? Gilly Graeme, Banbury
A. Roast some extra potatoes, and do them in vegetable oil if olive is too expensive. It's all about bulking up on the things that are cheap and nice to eat. If you go for some of the exotic stuff, just don't go for as much of it. A mistake so many people make is to buy a huge turkey that they don't need. Many people buy the cheapest turkey, which is understandable, but it's not the only option. You might consider something like a pork shoulder, and braise it with lots of vegetables. Make sure you buy something that won't give you so much leftovers that you end up throwing it away.
Q. What would you suggest if it's 100F on Christmas Day? Gunvant Patel, Melbourne, Australia
A. Air conditioning. And whatever you normally eat at Christmas.
Q. According to Wikipedia, you are into NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) and martial arts. Do you use them to help you to get through the stress of Christmas? Ben France, North London
Actually, I don't find Christmas stressful. I'd say that there are many things in a chef's life that are much more stressful – but occasionally there are benefits. As I'm so busy, I'm allowed to be selfish. My wife sorts out all the presents and so on. I went shopping for the Christmas tree for the first time last year, which was brilliant, but my wife deals with all the presents. I did do martial arts really seriously for 15 years, but I've just stopped because I've had a back operation.
Q. If you were to get a cookbook for Christmas, which would you choose?, Aneesha Noonan, London N1
A. The Encyclopaedia of Practical Cookery volumes I and II, edited by Theodore Francis Garrett. I've been working with a couple of historians, and one of them has this book from the 19th century, which describes the largest menu ever served in Britain – 170-odd courses, served for King George. One course consisted of 10 puffins, each cooked a different way. There were 45 desserts. It's outrageous. The whole book is handwritten, and it cost thousands of pounds, but it would have to be that, if I could have any cookbook at all.
Q. I want to buy a friend a stew pot. Some are too heavy, others won't go in the dishwasher – which is best? Gillian Walker, Guildford
A. You can't choose a stew pot by what goes in the dishwasher. We've got some Le Creuset pots at home, and in the restaurant we use Staubs.
Q. What are the special Christmas extras in the Blumenthal household? Mrs E Jessopp, Bournemouth
A. Roast potatoes, and the confit leg of goose. Black pudding is good with the lunch. Cabbage with a bit of chestnut; smoked bacon and truffle.
Q. Could you suggest a snack to soak up the champagne while everyone's opening presents? Arkesh Patel, Hounslow
A. Gougère. They're like profiteroles but filled with gooey cheese. Cook them really hot in the oven so they're squishy in the centre.
Or, much easier; take a piece of puff pastry rolled very thin and place on a baking tray lined with parchment paper. On top, put some Parmesan and confit tomato, or anchovy and olives and thyme. Put another piece of pastry on top, again rolled very thin. Then another sheet of parchment, and weight it all down with a tray on top. Start baking the whole thing. When it's two-thirds cooked, take it out, cut it into thin shards about an inch wide, and put them in the oven again, this time with no parchment or tray on top, until they crisp up.
Q. Is there any way of making sprouts more palatable? Ben Davis, Staffordshire
A. I'd choose cabbage over Brussels sprouts any day, but if you're going to cook sprouts, cut the bottoms off so you create tiny individual loose leaves, then sauté them. Keep some of the sprouts back, and shred them finely. At the end, put in some raw leaves, so you get a mixture of cooked and raw, to give a really nice crunch. And before you cook them, I'd fry a mixture of onion and garlic, smoked bacon and a tiny bit of chilli. I like cooking with chillies. I don't use them much in the restaurant – it's too much in a big tasting menu – but when I'm at home, I use chillies a lot.
Q. Does adding a sixpence to the pudding do something magical to its flavour? J Ellison, London
A. I have no idea. But I do know that if you put a spoon in the top of a Champagne bottle to keep it fresh, it will do absolutely nothing. If you put an open Champagne bottle in the fridge with no cork or spoon or anything, carbon dioxide will hardly leave the bottle anyway, because of the low temperature.
Q. Where's the best place to find a turkey? Dan Stuart by email
A. Well, I always go for goose. We're buying ours from a free-range farm, Great Clarke Farm in Essex, for the Christmas special TV show, where I'm cooking for Terry Wogan, Kirsty Wark, Dara O'Briain, Rob Brydon, Richard E Grant and Sue Perkins. We've made a stuffing mixture to feed to the geese. It's a mixture of goose-feed flavoured with Christmas-tree essential oil, freeze-dried apple and sage and onion Paxo. And they sleep in a barn with a Santa's grotto, Christmas tree and fairy lights.
Q. Should you light the brandy before you pour it over the pudding? Is there any point to this pyromaniac ritual? Aidan O'Neill, Belfast
A. Well, it's just for show – but then, show's great. Also, it burns off some of the alcohol. If you're going to serve raw alcohol, you may as well pour it into a glass and knock it back.