Food Friday: The best Christmas cookbooks to buy this year
From Delia to Darina, there's a celeb cookbook to guide every level of foodie
If you're about to tackle Christmas dinner for the first time, or if you feel that you need to up your festive food game, then you might be considering the purchase of a cookbook dedicated to the season. But which one? What kind of Christmas cook are you - nervous or ambitious; traditionally minded, or ready to embrace a new trend... or three?
FOR THE PERFECTIONIST
DELIA'S HAPPY CHRISTMAS, DELIA SMITH, EBURY PRESS, €35
My mother was not much of a cook and thought that her time was better spent in places other than the kitchen, so I did not grow up in a household in which Christmas recipes were handed down from generation to generation. (In fact, she had so little time for the whole business that she would make one large batch of fruit-filled batter, divide it in two, bake one and steam the other: bingo! - cake and pudding sorted in one fell swoop.)
So, when I first started to host Christmas myself, I needed a book to tell me what to do, and Delia's was the one that I bought. This is the new and updated edition, with better photographs and some new recipes, but at its core it is the same supremely comforting how-to book that taught me how not to make a mess of the whole occasion, and can do the same for you.
Delia's recipe for roast turkey is infallible and is worth the price of purchase alone. But I also pull out her recipe for bread sauce each year (nobody, but nobody, makes bread sauce as good as Delia's) and my son makes a huge batch of her mincemeat - although he substitutes ice-cold shredded butter for suet, which makes it suitable for vegetarians.
The timetable for Christmas Day needs to be planned with precision, particularly if you are hosting anyone you might like to impress - new in-laws, for instance. For this, Delia is the woman you want at your side. The only downside to Delia is her Britishness, which means that if you want recipes for traditional Irish dishes or Irish variations, you will not find them here.
FOR THE RELAXED COOK (OR THE ONE WHO HOPES TO BE RELAXED)
A SIMPLY DELICIOUS CHRISTMAS, DARINA ALLEN, GILL, €27.99
Darina Allen first published A Simply Delicious Christmas back in 1989, and this 25th-anniversary edition came in 2014. There are undoubtedly copies of the original lurking on the shelves in many Irish homes, but it was a very modest little book and this handsome volume is anything but.
The prospect of a Ballymaloe-style Christmas is a seductive one and Darina's recipes are alluring enough to persuade even a determined non-baker like me to give the cake and the pudding a go.
While I have my suspicions that Delia may be a bit of a Christmas martyr ("I don't mind doing it all, really!"), I don't think that Darina goes in for that kind of thing. Her best advice is to plan ahead and to delegate.
It may be too late for her ideal schedule - some time in late October or early November, she suggests that you take an hour, make a pot of tea or pour a glass of wine, grab a thick notebook, find a comfortable chair, put your feet up and start to plan - but there is still time to cook for the freezer, plan the shopping and make the cake, pudding and mincemeat, even if they won't be quite as fully matured as you might like.
Darina is utterly convincing when it comes to the notion that the preparations can be fun if you involve everyone, give them jobs and pass on skills. If you try to do it all yourself, she warns, "you'll feel stressed and resentful and nobody else will have a good time either".
You'll find all the traditional recipes in Darina's book, as well as some new ones reflecting contemporary tastes. Good suggestions for cooking for those with food intolerances too, and for edible gifts.
FOR THE FIRST-TIME OR UNDERCONFIDENT CHRISTMAS COOK
NEVEN MAGUIRE'S PERFECT IRISH CHRISTMAS, NEVEN MAGUIRE, GILL, €22.99
While I'm not totally convinced that Christmas can ever be perfect - and the notion that other people are having a perfect Christmas when yours is full of ups and downs can be disconcerting - I do think that Neven's is a great book for a new or underconfident home cook.
Even though Neven is one of Ireland's great chefs, working behind the stoves at MacNean House in Blacklion, Co Cavan, his recipes are not cheffy in the slightest. In many ways, he is Ireland's answer to Delia, inspiring confidence and helping beginners to get the basics right, while providing enough in the way of original tips and ideas to provide sparkle when it's needed.
Joanne Murphy's food photography is beautiful (she also shot Darina's book) and I'll definitely be trying the MacNean frangipane mince pies (I do love a frangipane mince pie) and Vera's sherry trifle, named after Neven's late mother. I also love his recipe for a simple buttery herb stuffing (no sausage meat) which is very like the one that I've been making for years.
FOR THE COOK WHO IS NOT HIDEBOUND BY TRADITION
JAMIE OLIVER'S CHRISTMAS COOKBOOK, JAMIE OLIVER, PENGUIN MICHAEL JOSEPH, €29.99
It may come as a surprise to learn that even a free spirit like Jamie Oliver (pictured left) believes in planning, lists and organisation when it comes to traditional Christmas food. That said, there are plenty of recipes for non-traditional dishes too, and it's obvious from the book that these are recipes that come from someone who is the parent of young children - he doesn't get too hung up on doing everything the way that it's always been done; it's more geared towards everyone getting to eat food that they really like.
There is a whole section of the book dedicated to potatoes (thumbs up) and another to vegan and vegetarian recipes. And Jamie's recipes for leftovers are brilliant, so if you're not much of a roast-turkey-with-all-the-trimmings fan, you can look forward to turkey sloppy joes, turkey falafels, turkey pie and even turkey bánh mì. On a practical note, Jamie's method for carving the bird is brilliant, and one that we've adopted in my house with great success. You can find video instructions on jamieoliver.com.
FOR THE COOK WHO LIKES A PARTY
NIGELLA CHRISTMAS, NIGELLA LAWSON, CHATTO & WINDUS, €28
First published in 2008, Nigella Christmas is brilliant and disruptive. While Delia is all about perfection, Nigella (above) is all about having a good time with friends and family - and she gives you all the cocktail recipes that you'll need to make sure everyone is in good form.
Nigella is the first person I remember advocating the brining of the turkey, which is an American tradition, and just one of many ideas in the book that comes from the US. I tried it once and it did make for a supremely juicy, succulent bird. In fact, now that I think about it, I'm going to be brining my bird again this year. Sadly, this book does not contain the recipe for Nigella's notorious Coca Cola ham, but you can find that online. Nigella's roasties, by the way, are the best in the world.
For Nigella Lawson, Christmas is a season rather than a day, and there are plenty of great recipes for the simple supper dishes that make impromptu entertaining a pleasure, rather than a source of stress, at a time of year when everyone's schedule should be a little more relaxed.
FOR THE ROMANTIC COOK
THE CHRISTMAS CHRONICLES, NIGEL SLATER, 4TH ESTATE, €29.99
Newly published this year, Nigel Slater's is the book to buy if you are looking for a full-on wallow in the spirit of Christmas, and the winter as a whole, and have the time to devote to it. This is probably not a book for the beginner - it is not a how-to manual, although few of the recipes are unduly complicated - but would be a great choice for a competent yet jaded home cook who would like to bring a bit of the magic back.
Slater's book is part memoir, part homage to the joys of the season, part history book and part collection of recipes. I was almost surprised to find a recipe for turkey, as my impression of Nigel is that he would prefer goose, but it looks to be a good one. I am very much hoping to spend an evening or two by the fire with this one, glass of sloe gin in hand.