We all love the traditional side of Christmas – but that doesn't mean there isn't room for a few twists and surprises to keep the occasion up-to-date. Read on for 25 tips and tricks for a truly quirky Christmas.
From secret ingredients to tarted up tipples, find out how to give your festive celebrations a refresh...
1. Makeover your mince pies
Tradition says that you should eat a dozen mince pies between Christmas and Twelfth Night. If that seems heavy going, try these mincemeat samosas for a change.
2. Go gluten-free
Try these crumble-topped pies, full of festive spirit minus the gluten.
3. Move over, mincemeat
4. The rise and rise of smoke
The Smoking Gun (£69.99, lakeland.co.uk) is a handheld gadget that lets you smoke anything you can lay your hands on, be it cheese, meat or fish. Alternatively, reach for Maldon Smoked Sea Salt Flakes or Halen Môn Smoked Sea Salt, smoked paprika (from supermarkets – we prefer the sweet or milk versions) or Lune Valley Smokehouse Smoked Butter (£1.85 for 110g, lunevalleysmokehouse.co.uk). Liquid smoke (in hickory, mesquite and pecan flavours) gives an instant charred hit to foods (£2.55 for 118ml, melburyandappleton.co.uk), but add just a drop at a time, as it is highly potent.
5. Fabulous fats
It's easy to go on autopilot when reaching for cooking fats, but they do make a subtle difference to your result. Everyone loves roast potatoes roasted in goose fat, but it doesn't stop there...
Can be reheated to a higher temperature than regular butter, which means it is a luxurious medium for frying; it also makes a superior hollandaise or Béarnaise sauce. You can clarify your own by gently warming 250g unsalted butter, then straining into a small jug and discarding the white whey that collects at the bottom. Alternatively, buy a 250g pot of Lurpak Cook's Range Clarified Butter (from larger supermarkets).
The traditional choice for Yorkshire puddings. It also makes superb chips.
First it was bacon lardons, then it was cubed pancetta. The latest porky treat to wow the food world is lardo – strips of Italian pork fat cured with herbs and spices. It is so tasty that you can eat it shaved on toast (£4.34 for 100g from vallebona.co.uk). An alternative for cooking is a jar of Ibérico lard (from the black-footed, acorn-eating pigs of Spain - £2.75 for 190g, melburyandappleton.co.uk).
6. Instant pick-me-ups
Dried chilli flakes
To cut through richness, rather than add heat. Sprinkle on the turkey instead of pepper, on potatoes, gratins and sprouts. Try our recipe for Toasted sesame sprouts.
Baste the turkey with it, splash it in gravy or over green beans.
Finely shredded, they can give a lift to carrots, peas and other vegetables. Melt a knob of butter in a pan, stir in the onions for 1-2 minutes, then mix in the vegetables.
7. Glorious butters
Flavoured butters take minutes to make but they're so useful, and will add a new slant to favourite dishes. Stir the butter into veg, use to top meats or fish, add to soups and sauces for luxury and sheen, or spread on brown bread to serve with smoked salmon. The possibilities are endless. Find out how to make our favourite flavours and the base recipe for all combinations.
8. Sprinkle a little magic
An instant way to liven up the appearance and texture of a dish is to sprinkle on a topping before or after cooking. You can make a quick topping by crushing different snacks. The easiest way to crush evenly is to put your ingredients in a bag and roll them with a rolling pin (bashing them will give you a mixture of dust and big bits). When it comes to sprinkling, do it from well above the dish - you'll find it lands far more evenly. Try these:
Popular with guests on dinner party roasts, stews and grills.
Adds a finishing touch to the most glamorous of breakfast dishes - kedgeree - as well as fish or soups.
Sprinkle over vegetarian meals and Asian dishes.
9. Dazzle with drizzles
Give a dish a restaurant-style finish with a drizzle. Balsamic glaze and pomegranate molasses are both perfect on savoury canapes, salmon and grilled meats.
To make a Japanese-style glaze for a pork roast, mix 3 tablespoons of each; sake, mirin, miso paste and sugar, 2 teaspoons mustard, 1 teaspoon vinegar and a dish of sesame oil. Glaze before cooking and serve the rest drizzled over.
To make a Christmas spice syrup to pour over fruits, ice cream, pancakes or French toast, put 250ml water in a pan with 200g sugar and simmer until dissolved. Add 1/2 vanilla pod, split, a thumb-sized piece ginger, sliced, zest 1/2 orange and spices of your choice (for instance, a cinnamon stick or 6 cloves) and simmer for 5 mins. Strain, then cool. Will keep in a jar in the fridge for up to 2 weeks.
10. Jazz up your prosecco
The light flavour and delicate fizz of prosecco make it an ideal candidate for imaginitive mixing. Try our favourite blends for a sophisticated party tipple.
11. Christmas sparkler
If you find mulled wine a bit heavy, try our Mulled Port & Lemon for a refreshing alternative, served chilled in festive 'frosted' glasses.
12. A change from wine
This year, try new ciders and beers. If you like Champagne, give cider a go - especially a bubbly, medium-dry style. With the turkey, pick a vintage or oak-aged cider for extra complexity. Alternatively, explore an array of specialist beers. Avoid mixing the bitter styles with the sweet flavours of the lunch - wheat beers have a creamy, citrus spiciness. Lagers are always refreshing, and full-bodied Belgian ales balance any richness. Make room in the fridge or shed to chill them down.
13. Hold the booze
It may sound a little unfestive, but if you're the cook, you may decide to hold off the Champagne until later. If everyone else is starting the day with a Buck's Fizz, treat yourself to one of these alcohol-free mocktails.
Put 100ml water and 100g golden caster sugar in a pan on a medium heat with the zest of 1 lime and bring to the boil. Take off the heat and allow to cool. Put 1 tbsp of the syrup into a cocktail shaker with ice and 100ml cranberry juice, shake well and strain in to a glass. Put the flat end of a mixing spoon into the glass, level with the cranberry mix, then slowly top up with the juice of 1-2 oranges to make a layered drink. Makes 1 cocktail.
Pour 100ml cranberry juice into a cocktail shaker, add 1 tsp orange marmalade and ice, then shake well. Strain into a Martini glass and top with a slug of ginger beer.
14. Homemade hamper: sweet treat
Update classic fudge with our new combinations in our Funky Fudge recipe. One batch will make 18 pieces of Clementine and Black Pepper flavour, and 18 pieces of Banana & Bacon. Alternatively, choose the one you like best and double the flavourings to make a 36-piece batch.
15. Homemade hamper: savoury feast
It may sound strange, but trust us, it's so moreish - whip up a batch of our savoury Chorizo Jam for any commited carnivore and they'll be begging you for the recipe. Serve it spread on toast or over crackers, or as a condiment that goes particularly well with runny egg yolks.
16. Stocking fillers
Looking to fill little stockings with unusual foodie favours? Take a look at our bumper gift guide, with present ideas from £5 to investment pieces for the keen cook.
17. Trendy turkey
In the United States, brining or salting a turkey to add flavour and succulence has long been a standard procedure. Nigella Lawson introduced the idea to the UK and we’re big fans of the method.
The most important thing is to find a clean container big enough to hold the turkey and liquid, and a cold place to keep it for 4-6 hours (ideally a fridge, but if not, a cold place where you can keep an eye on it). Pour 10 litres of cold water into the container, then dissolve in 300g table salt and add the turkey (add more water to cover if necessary). Remove the turkey, rinse well and dry with kitchen paper before seasoning inside and out with freshly ground pepper (no salt necessary) and roasting in the usual way.
An alternative is to salt the bird. To do this, take 5 tbsp coarse sea salt or salt flakes (not table salt, because it is difficult to spread evenly). Working your hand between the skin and the flesh of the bird, spread 11/2 tsp salt under the skin of each leg, and 1 tbsp salt under each side of the breast. Spread the remaining 2 tbsp salt round the inside of the cavity. Wrap tightly with cling film and chill for 24-48 hrs. Rinse and dry the bird (including under the skin) before seasoning with pepper (no salt) and roasting.
18. Take its temperature
We don’t know a chef who doesn’t swear by their cooking thermometer, so if you haven’t invested in one yet, this is the time to do so - it will remove that element of doubt that always accompanies cooking a big roast. We put top brands to the test and selected the top five for you to choose from.
19. Game changer
- 4.5 kg goose will serve 6
- A capon will serve 4-5
- A duck will serve 2-3
- A guinea fowl will serve 2
- A pheasant will serve 2
- Allow one poussin, one partridge or one wild duck per person for a main course
- You'll need two quails per person for a main course
20. A new choice for cheese
Turn family traditions on their head and serve a baked cheese instead of a cheeseboard. Buy a ceramic Cheese Baker, ideal for brie or camembert (£17.99, lakeland.co.uk), or check out our recipe for Baked cheese with herbs, in which Cornish brie is baked in a box. When the cheese is hot and melty, scoop it out with your favourite savoury biscuits. For a festive flourish, peel back the top rind before baking and pour over 1 tablespoon of kirsch or brandy.
21. Getting legless
Ring the changes with a trick smart restaurants have been doing for years by cooking the legs and breast of the turkey separately. This way you get flavoursome braised leg meat and perfectly roasted breast. Cut the turkey up and cook it in parts. Chop off the legs, then thighs. Brown well in oil in a large flameproof casserole dish, then remove.
In the same dish, brown a few onions and carrots and a stick of celery, all roughly chopped, in the remaining oil. Add 6 garlic cloves, crushed, and 1 bay leaf, then half a bottle of white wine. Bring to the boil, scraping up the browned bits, return the turkey to the dish and add boiling water so the bird is half covered. Cover with a piece of baking parchment and the lid to keep moist, and simmer for 2-3 hrs, turning occasionally, until the turkey is very tender. Remove the turkey, strain the juices and reduce if necessary by simmering until gravy-like. Meanwhile, take the breasts off the carcass and roast with butter, herbs and seasoning pushed between the skin and the flesh in an oven heated to 220C/200C fan/gas 7 for 45-50 mins until they are tender and cooked, and reach 72-74C on a cooking thermometer.
22. Cook on the BBQ
Christmas is the one day of the year when you’re likely to run out of oven space. One option is to use your barbecue – if you have a gas or kettle barbecue, you can treat it as another heat source. From cooking the turkey to a twist on roast potatoes, anything you normally cook in the oven will be just as good this way.
23. Turn leftover Christmas cake into luxury puds
Don't let unloved Christmas cake go to waste - turn it into something refreshingly different with these Christmas cake soufflés, served with jugs of warm caramel sauce to pour into each pot.
24. Make a sumptuous starter with leftover smoked salmon
For a lighter version of pâté, whizz up leftover smoked salmon with any crème fraîche, soured cream, double or whipping cream you've got going spare in our Potted salmon rillette.
25. Change of strategy
The person who takes most of the strain at Christmas is the cook. Make this year different with one simple but very effective alteration to your day: eat later in the day, and keep timings flexible. Christmas dinner is a complex operation, so eat at a time that suits you, and give yourself plenty of leeway. If you plan to eat at 3pm, for example, tell everyone it will be ready between 3-4pm, and firm up timings when the turkey is cooked.
Are you championing a new Christmas tradition this year? Tell us how you'll be celebrating in the comments below...