Skip to content

Do Ahead Christmas by James Ramsden: cookbook review

November 20, 2014

Do-ahead Christmas cookbook review - mycustardpieEver recognised yourself in a book?

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.

Do-ahead Christmas cookbook review - mycustardpie

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?


  1. November 20, 2014 4:32 pm

    Nigella’s Christmas is a book I also return to for Christmas inspiration Sally. Lovely review.I can’t wait to read what is going to be in your kitchen this Christmas. My favourite part of the year, EVER.

  2. November 20, 2014 4:51 pm

    A lovely looking and sounding book! I’m not sure though if I’d buy an entire cookbook dedicated to Christmas…



  3. November 21, 2014 12:30 am

    Gravlax is a Christmas day staple in our house, not the least because it can be prepared ahead! I’m slow to make decisions this year and am desperate for inspiration!

  4. November 21, 2014 12:45 am

    I might be panicked but my apron is never mucky – I have a virtual wardrobe of aprons!!

    Nigella Christmas is my absolute go to Christmas book. I wish I had the energy (and several extra stomachs) to make everything in it every year.

  5. November 21, 2014 2:13 am

    What a thoughtfully written review. Despite having more than enough cookbooks, this does look quite a good one. Normally I might drop hints of cookbooks for Christmas cookbooks, but as this seems like it is made for using in the planning of the Day itself, I might have to cave in and buy it for myself! Oh, and I turn to family recipes that I ‘healthify’ as much as would be tolerable on such an indulgent day. Southern cornbread stuffing is a non-negotiable, but I have also acquired family recipes from my MIL that I have made my own too. It is wonderful to hand down recipes through the generations. But it is good to keep the mind open to new ideas and ways of doing things.

  6. November 21, 2014 2:35 am

    Loved you opener – who doesn’t recognise themselves in that, at some point in their lives? I’m not too worried about Christmas as it is always just a close family affair, and we always have a saddle of venison, as per family tradition. But I love the way the recipes are structured – I might give the book a try when it comes to our library 😉 Thanks for the review, Sally!

  7. November 21, 2014 9:58 pm

    What a great review. I really like your writing style. It was so honest and thoughtful with the best opening line. So funny. I really appreciate your thoroughness. It looks like there are some good recipe ideas in here.

  8. glamorous glutton permalink
    November 22, 2014 2:01 am

    I bought do ahead dinners and I’m really impressed with it. This sounds like a definite addition to my shelf. Any help with planning the big day is great, especially as we often have a couple of ‘big days’ with various relatives. GG

  9. November 23, 2014 4:10 am

    Like you I have a number of sources for my Christmas favourites – I have added your inebriated fruit to a list that recipes from Delia, Nigella, Gordon Ramsay and Annie Bell. Every year sees a few new trials and one or two keepers – Annie Bells stilton & pickled walnut toasties are anticipated all year.

  10. November 30, 2014 11:04 am

    Great book review…thanks for sharing!

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: