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Christmas is/was ... stuffing

"any stuffing should be flavoursome enough to eat on its own."

Nigel Slater

I spent an hour or so this morning stuffing my two turkeys. Yes two - one large, one small to cater for sixteen people tonight and leftovers for Christmas Day lunch tomorrow with my son and family. One turkey is not enough.

The stuffing, thanks to Jane Grigson's recipe, is the highlight for the family, so I made double the amount - a huge bowl. But now I am worried that I don't have enough. Not that I'm going to make any more now. But having now read a few articles about turkey and stuffing, I'm now thinking that perhaps I should take some out and add it to my 'to cook separately' dish.

As you can see I started this post the morning of the big feast on Christmas Eve, but somewhat inevitably I ran out of time. It is now Boxing Day. Christmas has come and gone for another year with all the frenzy, temper tantrums and stress before the event and pretty much all round fun, laughter, good conversation and maybe even happiness, as we all gather around the table to feast, if the resulting mess and clearing up is ignored. And here I will extend a massive thank you to all my guests for their help in doing just about everything, particularly to son and family who fundamentally, peeled what seemed like a hundred potatoes and carrots, cooked it all - including the turkey and the ham - both exceptionally good this year - and moved furniture around with never a complaint.

But back to the stuffing because I really cannot leave this mini series on what Christmas is, without including the stuffing. And it seems it's not just this household.

"I eat it once a year (maybe I eat it three or four times a year, but that’s my job), and I’ve never once wished it was different. Of all the things to “mix up” on the table— turkey, sides, salads, dessert— stuffing should be held sacred" Alison Roman

I am not going to focus on what you put in your stuffing. I suspect more or less every family has their 'never to be varied' version. Every now and then I see a recipe that looks interesting and worth a try - like the one in the Coles Magazine which I mentioned the other day. It featured cherries. Nevertheless there was no way that I was going to do anything other than Jane Grigson's celery, lemon and parsley version. That would be heresy. And I'm sure the same principle applies in families everywhere.

I may have mentioned at one point that I panicked about whether one turkey was good enough or not, so I did buy a second one - which was indeed an excellent idea. Without the second, smaller one, there would have been no leftovers.

Before I got the second one I had determined that if there were no more turkeys left I would just buy a couple of large chickens and hope that nobody would notice. I even thought it would be a good taste test. Treated in exactly the same way would the meat taste different? And obviously if you are a small family , or don't have much money, then I'm sure a chicken would suffice. They don't look much different after all, do they. It's a matter of size more than anything. Online most people seemed to think that there is not much difference in taste, nor in the cooking. It's just a time thing really.

"Roasting a turkey feels a lot less scary when you realise that it’s basically just a very big chicken, and no more complicated than that." Felicity Cloak

Which reinforced my view that actually it's all about the stuffing as far as Christmas goes, but there's no reason you couldn't try out some of those other stuffings some time on a chicken.

I also noticed that some people, including Robert Carrier, whose roasting turkey recipe I follow religiously, do not stuff the turkey at all - although they all do tend to stick some sort of 'flavouring' in the cavity. Which brings me to whether the stuffing should go into the bird or not.

Of course it should thought I. Stuffing, after all, means putting something into something else, doesn't it? Or as Ottolenghi says: "Is stuffing still stuffing when it doesn’t get stuffed?"

It had never, ever, occurred to me not to stuff the turkey. Of course it is always worth making extra and cooking it separately in a dish, or rolling it into balls. But fundamentally the stuffing goes into the bird doesn't it? Well no. Alison Roman - an esteemed American cook is very, very, definite about this:

The stuffing does not go into the bird (ever). The stuffing does not have meat, though you could add it (sausage, bacon). The stuffing has not been tested with gluten-free bread, though I’m sure it would be good if you’re accustomed to gluten-free bread." Alison Roman

I agree with her comments re the meat and the bread, but I looked at her stuffing - shown here - and it just looked all wrong. She was very insistent that the bread should be in biggish chunks and also that it should be dark bread. So very wrong.

Ottolenghi agrees as well, on the cooking outside the bird thing, although he is a little less vehement:

"Generally, though, I prefer to cook my stuffing separately, be that as a tray bake or as individual balls or even muffins. I love the way it gets crisp all over when cooked that way and, perhaps even more, I love the opportunity this provides to challenge the pre-eminent role of any big bird at the table. Rather than playing second fiddle to the main act, I want my stuffing (along with all the other side dishes) to be loud, proud and delicious enough to stand alone."

The muffins he mentions can be found here. Aleksandra Crapanzano, a writer with The Wall Street Journal goes a step further and suggests serving a selection of different stuffings as side dishes for the main event. As if you haven't got enough to do!

Ottolenghi's team in the Test Kitchen go for crunchy too:

"One thing the whole test kitchen agreed on, however, was: the more crunchy bits, the better." Yotam Ottolenghi

Why is this a good thing to do? Well the rationalisation is:

"The advantage of putting the stuffing inside a turkey or chicken before roasting is that it will then absorb all the flavour and juices that develop while the bird cooks. However, this can be to the detriment of the meat, which runs the risk of overcooking and drying out in the time it takes for the stuffing to cook through properly and be ready to eat." Yotam Ottolenghi

Well my experience is that if you cover the bird with muslin and baste frequently and lavishly and get the timing right all will be well. It only dries out if you cook it too long.

I'm not sure I agree with all these gourmets on the choice of bread either. These days it's all about sourdough of course, and the separatists are into chunks as well. Me - I use ordinary, but fresh, white bread and I process it with the parsley into crumbs. The mixture at the top of the page is my leftover batch prior to cooking. At that stage, having read all these much admired chefs rhapsodising about crunchy and crispy stuffing, I asked my son, when he arrived to help with it all, if he would like me to take some of the stuffing from inside the bird an add it to the exterior dish. He was horrified at the idea, which I found reassuring, because although I have always tried to have extra cooked, I have to say that the crunchy top doesn't do it for me. So no - stuffing outside of the turkey is not really stuffing. Acceptable - after all you can only pack so much stuffing into the bird, but it's not the real deal - the vital and traditionally British part of the whole meal:

"Stuffing is one of the main reasons I can never quite bring myself to step away from poultry at Christmas time." Felicity Cloake

"There is a moment, late on Christmas morning, when I can feel myself start to relax. The bird is singing sweetly in the oven. The kitchen smells wonderful. A smell that is joyous, rich, full of happiness and geniality. May I suggest you sit down and take it all in, as I do. Listen to that roast sizzling calmly in the oven, the excited chatter of loved ones, the happy chaos of Christmas morning. Five minutes in which to settle your spirit."

So says Nigel Slater, and he is so right. Well in an ideal sense. I will say that once the birds were in the oven I relaxed somewhat, and several guests - they all arrived at random times - commented on the wonderful smell, but really relaxation doesn't come for me until everyone is served and sitting down. This year there were still last minute decisions to be made re location - inside or outside - and therefore - last minute moving of tables and chairs and laying the table, but as you can see, we made the right decision - it rained - and everyone was happy - even David was smiling.

The other, and possibly even more important thing about the stuffing is the turkey sandwiches the next day:

"There is a moment, usually on Boxing Day, when I stand and eat a doorstop sandwich. It is often the best sandwich of the year. Made with white bread, layers of roast turkey, crisp bacon and stuffing. Coarse-textured stuffing is essential to what I regard as one of the glories of Christmas." Nigel Slater

Again I don't agree on the coarse texture of the stuffing - it has to be spreadable as a base for the turkey, and we have never tried it with crisp bacon too. Maybe we should.

And there's still the vol au vents to look forward to, plus stock, and maybe a pie, quiche, pasta -more sandwiches ... Do you think we really do it all for the leftovers? Tonight It's the turn of the ham and the cabbage. Not sure what exactly but it will be good.

Christmas done and dusted. I hope yours was a good one.

Moving on ...

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