We sat down and spoke to Jamie about his best tips to make your Christmas cooking simple with five ingredient recipes, the biggest mistakes people make when cooking turkey (including buying turkey crowns and defrosting by running under a hot tap which is a huge mistake) and how the Oliver family will be celebrating this year – including making a tree-shaped baked Camembert with his baby son in one hand and the cheese in the other!
The series and book went ballistic out of nowhere, so it was understandable that Channel 4 asked if I could do a Christmas special. Although my immediate reaction was no! To my mind, Quick & Easy is about midweek meals for busy people. Whereas Christmas is a time for indulgence when nobody wants to compromise. Everyone trades up at Christmas, regardless of their budget. But then I thought, the heart of my job is keeping cooking alive and Christmas is a time of year when everyone cooks – even people who normally don’t. You see it in all the statistics, even in data about food poisoning and knife cuts!
Whether you’re a good cook or not, everyone’s nervous. You’ve got in-laws coming round or it’s your first time hosting Christmas dinner. There’s a lot of emotion in the air. So, Quick & Easy Christmas is about doing an awesome Christmas with five-ingredient recipes. Empowering people to have more confidence, more free time and get a bit more organised. Christmas is the one day of the year when cooks and non-cooks can stand in solidarity. Everyone’s Christmas is chaotic. Often a TV exec will say, “We wanna do a stress-free Christmas show” and I’ll say, “Impossible”. But we can make it a little bit less stressful.
It can. Have a shorter shopping list that means you can either spend less, or spend the same by having fewer general ingredients but trading up on them quality-wise. So, we do everything from five-ingredient awesome turkey to veg dishes to a dessert that’s just an incredible celebration of chocolate. You’ll shop less but buy ingredients that give more bang for your buck.
Only a little bit. Not so much by the cooking as the occasion. The default Oliver Christmas is 30-odd people. If I haven’t got it together by the turn they turn up, it’s manic. They all turn up and want to hug and kiss and talk, which is lovely, but I want them to get tasty hot food as well. Cooking for 12 or 15 people is very common in Britain, which is kind of like running a small restaurant. It’s a lot of pressure, so you have to get prepped. If you’re clever enough and get enough done beforehand, you can actually have a nice time and enjoy the moment.
TV people think you can just schedule in kids to be in a show but it just doesn’t work like that. The intention is to include them but if they don’t wanna come, they ain’t coming. But we shot it at home, the kids rocked up and the newest member of the Oliver family – River, who’s two-and-a-half – gets involved. He’s decided I’m great, which is lovely and I’ll take it while it lasts! So he does one recipe with me, then Jools tries to take him away again but he doesn’t want to go and kicks off, so he ends up staying. The same happened with Petal eight Christmases ago when she was the same age. Me and River do home-made doughballs with baked Camembert. It’s a lovely dish, people go nuts for it and we’ve done it in the shape of a Christmas tree. I make it one-handed with River in my arms and every time I got it looking nice, he’d just thwack it and squash it! But we get there eventually.
I hate plans generally in life but at Christmas, even I do a plan. Schedule it all backwards, from the moment when you put the first morsel of food in your mouth, back to carving, back to resting for that golden hour-and-a-half when you take the turkey out, free up the oven and do your other bits. Keep building your plan right back to the start of the day, back to Christmas Eve, even back to the week before. I do it on a chalkboard and it really helps.
It’s a weird one. The one day when more people are cooking than at any other time of the whole year, you’re presented with the biggest object to cook. And the oddest shape, too. Little skinny breasts and little fat breasts all-in-one – like, how does that work? – and these legs that have been supporting the weight of this big old bird. If you overcook it, it’s a nightmare and if you undercook it, it’s a problem.
Never cook a turkey that’s just come out of the fridge. Get it out at least an hour-and-a-half beforehand. You read stories about people running turkeys under the hot tap but that’s the worst thing you can do. Salmonella everywhere. You’ll all have stomach problems! A lot of people still don’t let the turkey rest after cooking, which is dangerous. People think resting the bird is some peripheral, optional, luxury cheffy nonsense but it’s not. It’s still cooking inside with what we call carry-over heat and it’s also relaxing, so juices are going back in. A rested bird is a much nicer, better-cooked, more delicious thing to eat. Don’t waste your money buying turkey crowns. People do, because they’re scared of the whole bird, which is fine if it’s more convenient for you, but you’re still paying for the whole bird so there’s no value gain. And if you can afford it, trade up to a higher welfare bird. Free range and organic birds aren’t just better ethically but have better flavour, you’ll get better gravy from its bones and it cooks about 15% quicker.
If you think The Osbourne’s is funny, the Oliver’s is madness. Peaks and troughs of happiness and tears. I always post an Instagram picture of a lovely tree but because I don’t like to lie, I say, “If you knew the chaos that happened before this picture…” Once I switch the lights on, everyone goes quiet and they’re happy. But the build-up to that is carnage: kids stepping on glass baubles, electric shocks from dodgy fairy lights, squabbling over who gets to do what. It’s exhausting. Afterwards, I invariably collapse on the sofa with a nice glass of whisky and fall asleep.
Jools is so into Christmas. She gets really nostalgic. Christmas was very important to her as a kid because her dad wasn’t very well, so it was important to get Christmas right and of course, that carries on into her own family. She’s an amazing woman but she has this massive problem of feeling sorry for Christmas trees which, let’s be honest, isn’t normal! When we go to get our tree, she’ll find the saddest tree that looks like it’s been neglected and she’ll have to buy it. Then I’ll have to take it home and erect it. Last year, Jools found one that was like a bush. It didn’t have a top, just the bottom half. A Christmas bush. But as per usual, she was right and it ended up looking awesome. A lot of families are like that – they have their own little sentimentalities and traditions.
Hacking my Christmas crackers by sticking new jokes and little gifts in there. Strategically giving the most prudish person the most outrageously filthy joke. Taking out the rubbish little nail-clippers and putting in a box of Viagra. We did that every year with my nan.
I think we give ourselves time off at Christmas and rightly so. The joy of food is indulgence and comfort. It’s buying, cooking and eating for deliciousness, not righteousness. And let’s be honest, life without cake would be really boring. I love sugar, by the way. My problem was the misuse of sugar. Besides, healthy recipes aren’t really the issue at Christmas, the issue is eating too much. It’s not ingredients, it’s sheer volume! Most of us get that wrong at Christmas, including me, and then we all waddle into January the same way every year.
Credit: Jamie’s Quick & Easy Christmas, Monday 17 December, Channel 4 television in the UK and Jimmy and Jamie’s Friday Night Feast, Friday 7 December, Channel 4.
For more festive recipes, see Jamie’s brilliant website – which has videos that you can watch and cook along to.