Do Ahead Christmas by James Ramsden: cookbook review
instead of being in the stereotypical panicked and mucky-aproned host when your friends arrive clutching bottles, you are in a state of complete control and composure.
It was the latter part of this promise (and frequently being the person described in the former) that motivated me to buy James Ramsden’s first book Do-ahead Dinners. James is an unassuming looking young man with a homely face who looks like he’d be comfortable wearing a Christmas jumper all year round. Homely is apposite as he regularly invites hordes of people into his own dwelling and cooks supper for them. This persuaded me that he might have some wisdom to impart when cooking for numbers. There’s no patented secret; it’s all about getting as much done ahead as possible. I road-tested a few dishes and the results were excellent (especially the chicken Plov and zaatar carrots) so was eager to get my hands on Do-ahead Christmas when I got wind of its release.
Getting as much done ahead for Christmas makes sense. There is a pressure of the ‘best-ever’ food that people look forward to year after year, and James acknowledges this. For me though, there is nothing so off-putting as the military lists of planning that may have you freezing the whole feast six weeks ahead and strangling the joy out of festive cooking. I do like to start early with little tasks such as fruit marination in booze for cake, pudding and mincemeat under my belt in October and November.
This book doesn’t hector. There is gentle advice among the pages and in the introduction James says he’s reticent to dictate. He does suggest five of menus for a range of occasions (including the big day itself); I would actually like more of these suggestions.
Layout and look
I adore the styling with old-fashioned block printed wrapping paper and traditional, unblingy decorations forming the frontispiece and chapter intros. It takes me straight back to my childhood when things were less sophisticated and very much about a homemade celebration. It’s beautifully produced and would make a great Christmas gift. The first chapter dives straight into drinks, which is exactly how it is at my Christmas gatherings, and while many of the ideas would suit cooler climates than where I live, tangerine whisky sour and apple, ginger and cranberry virgin cocktail recipes are already bookmarked.
Advice and content
Freezing is given as an option for many main courses but not all recipes freeze ahead. Each recipe is structured into stages. Do ahead (this can be days or hours and gives a minimum) which can be several tasks spread out with guidelines of when to do them and finishing off. For instance the structure for preparing Gravlax on rye crispbread: up to one week ahead (min. 48 hours) make the gravlax; up to one week ahead (min. 4 hours) make the crispbread; up to a day ahead (min. 10 minutes) make the sour cream and horseradish dressing; to serve. There is also advice about scaling up for a crowd overall in the introduction and on some individual recipes. A Christmas day time plan is included as you’d expect – it’s not the most exhaustive I’ve ever seen – and again James exhorts you to adapt it to your own menu.
Recipes to make (or not)
Like all cookbooks, the appeal often rides on whether you share the same taste in food as the writer. James likes strong tastes and anchovies appear in four recipes. Dips and nuts all appear again with a different riff, but there is a more festive and luxurious slant to them. Coffee-roasted beetroot? Interesting…
The aforementioned gravlax on homemade crispbread is firmly on my Christmas planning list. Mini hassleback potatoes as a nibble for parties is a magnificent idea as are the cute little Christmas koftas (who can resist a meatball and these have creamy dip and festive red pomegranate seeds with green coriander leaves). Venison Wellington will be made if I can get my hands on some deer meat and the chocolate orange and hazelnut tart is currently vying for place with the Yule log recipe as the dried fruit haters alternative pudding. And thank you James – I was wondering whether you could actually roast sprouts! Left overs make an appearance and there is a lovely chapter on edible gifts.
However, I can never, ever envisage that I would serve cauliflower soup as a starter for Christmas day (although KP’s request for egg and lemon soup might sound very odd to most people). I would never contemplate making a homemade Eccles cake at any time of the year, let alone eating it with cheese after a Christmas feast.
Quite a few of the recipes are not something I’d include on or around Christmas as they just don’t coincide with my own traditions – but this is quite refreshing. There are no chipolatas or bacon rolls. One thing I cannot forgive James for though. There isn’t a single mention of a parsnip. Seasonal sacrilege!
Staying on my shelf?
My current Christmas culinary inspiration is taken from among the pages of Nigella’s Christmas, the chapter from Annie Bell’s In My Kitchen, recipes from Tamasin Day Lewis’s All you can Eat and a pile of old BBC Good Food, Good Housekeeping and Delicious magazines. Do-ahead Christmas combines some really fresh ideas with a backbone of celebration and tradition and some very good practical advice (without being dull or patronising). James includes his email address and Twitter so you can ask him questions direct which shows an openess and lack of pretence that’s apparent in the whole tone and style of the book. This is a definite keeper.
Thanks to Pavilion who published this book and sent me a review copy. All views my own.
How do you cope with Christmas cooking and are there any ‘go-to’ recipes or books you turn to?