The year I nailed Christmas: chefs and cooks recall the year when everything went right

Guillaune Brahimi's ice-cream and chopped Mars bar dessert for Christmas.
Guillaune Brahimi's ice-cream and chopped Mars bar dessert for Christmas. Photo: Nic Walker

Pressure. Expectation. Family. For people hosting Christmas lunch or dinner it's a yuletide cocktail that is not always sweet. Although many breathe a sigh of relief when Christmas Day passes, there are a few of us who have cracked (at least, the culinary) Christmas code. From accompaniments, mains and desserts to novel alcoholic punches, here are the insights gleaned from some people who, for one year at least, have nailed Christmas.

The year: 2012
The chef: Carolyn Creswell, businesswoman
The advice: read the instructions

The owner of Carman's Kitchen was in NSW's Mossy Point with her family, about to host 15 people for Christmas lunch when she discovered the rental house didn't have a proper oven. Lumbered with a smallish microwave convection unit instead, she sat down and spent 10 minutes reading the instructions and used a meat thermometer to turn out a perfectly roasted turkey (regular checks with a meat thermometer were key). "It was absolutely amazing, I think, because everybody's expectations were disastrously low," she says. Creswell's other tips include keeping notes (including recipe tweaks and reminders) for each Christmas and setting the table early to give the impression to guests that you are on top of your game. "That was my mum's housewife tip to me," she says.

The year: unknown
The chef: Guillaume Brahimi, Guillaume
The advice: less is more

"Christmas is all about being organised and less is more," says the Sydney chef. His sensible advice is best illustrated by a Christmas dessert recipe passed down to his wife Sanchia from her aunt. Each year the Brahimis fill a plastic Christmas tree mould with a mixture of vanilla bean seeds, chopped up Mars Bars, Bounty Bars and Fry's Turkish Delight and a 2 litre tub of vanilla ice cream. After setting in the freezer overnight it's turned out on Christmas Day with uniform success. "When you de-mould it – well, let me tell you, everybody is happy at home."

The year: 2002
The chef: Scott Pickett, Estelle and Saint Crispin
The advice: keep them guessing

After years overseas Melbourne chef Scott Pickett flew back from London in 2002 to surprise his Adelaide parents. On the way there, after vigorously catching up with mates in Sydney on Christmas Eve, he fell asleep in the airport lounge and missed his plane. "They woke me up at 11.30am and the flight had gone at 9am. I was freaking out," he says. Pickett got a flight in the end and took a $200 taxi ride to his Aunty's place in Murray Bridge. He was five hours late but his parents thought he was coming home for New Year's Eve so it was "surprise", mission accomplished. These days Pickett has a young family of his own and fresh prawns, oysters and cold champagne are always part of the Christmas equation. Each year he makes a simple oyster dressing by frying shallots in peanut oil and adding them to a mix of rice wine vinegar, mirin, soy sauce and sesame oil.

The year: 2013
The chef: Jess Ho, brand manager
The advice: use your contacts

With her parents' dance cards fully-booked at Church on Christmas day Jess Ho usually finds herself organising an orphans' Christmas lunch of between eight to 25 lonely chefs, bar tenders, waiters and marooned international students. Given her hospitality contacts getting ingredients is a cinch but last year was a particular standout. She bought 10 kilograms of Warialda beef short ribs, scored them, and then made a Korean barbecue marinade of soy, kiwis, salt, sugar, sesame oil, lots of ginger and spring onions. "Everyone got their big chunk of meat and, if you're in hospitality you often don't get to eat a lot of protein … [so] it was a bit family-style. We got to lean over the table and get a bit of this, a bit of that. People were just going for it."     

Oysters by Scott Pickett.
Oysters by Scott Pickett. Photo: Dean Cambray

The year: 2004
The chef: Annabel Crabb, ABC journalist
The advice: brine is sublime

Once upon a time, before Annabel Crabb and husband Jeremy Storer had three children, they lived in London. For Christmas in 2004 they decided to try brining a turkey for the first time. They plunged the bird into a bucket filled with salt, water, cinnamon sticks and other spices, chopped lemons and maple syrup and left it out (in the cold) on the back doorstep overnight (weighted heavily to deter urban foxes). The next day they roasted it with great success. "The brining process makes the meat very tender and juicy – apparently (Crabb doesn't eat meat) – and it was broadly declared to be the best turkey ever." For canapes she offered guests boiled quail eggs with toasted sesame, cumin seeds and salt and for dessert she turned to her mother's Christmas ice-cream invention: take bought vanilla ice cream, let it soften a bit, then fold through a mix of toasted almonds, melted chocolate and pitted cherries or booze-soaked fruit. You can make it ahead of time and refreeze or serve immediately, if you like. "It goes very nicely with a bit of Christmas cake."

The year: circa1984
The chef: Ian Curley, the European
The advice: serve a simple prawn salad

British chef Ian Curley was brought up on big Christmas roasts and hams that left everyone feeling "indulged" so when he arrived in Australia 20 years ago he welcomed the change. "It's a lot more relaxed and you can do a little bit of Asian and really simple stuff," he says. A dish that typifies this approach is a prawn and cabbage salad. Take fresh cooked prawns, peel them and slice the meat finely (spice with paprika, if you like), then combine with chopped cabbage (Asian cabbage is good), basil and mint leaves, extra virgin olive oil and a little bit of lemon juice. "I add a little bit of smoked eel to it because I like the texture but you can add smoked salmon to it quite easily too. It's very Christmassey."  

The year: 2010
The chef: Jason Chan and Jeremy Spencer, West Winds Gin
The advice: pickle your ham in cocktails

Jeremy Spencer, business partner to the award-winning Margaret River gin company's mixologist, Jason Chan, says a tradition started four years ago at an orphan's Christmas for hospitality types at Batch Espresso. They steep a ham in a cocktail for two or three days, smoke it (or you could bake it) to crisp it up again and then serve for Christmas with a (freshly mixed version) of the drink. "You can taste the cocktail through the ham," says Spencer. "It was just a little idea [Chan] had and now each year people want to know what the cocktail's going to be." In the past they've done a Mary Pickford, Rum Old Fashioned and a Daiquiri. This year it's going to be a Martinez. The recipe: two bottles of gin, add equal parts Maidenii sweet vermouth, two dashes of Angostura bitters and a good splash of orange curacao.

The year: unknown
The chef: Rachel Cecil, Fairfield
The advice: fresh current jelly

For home chef Rachel Cecil, Christmas is about the spectacle: Christmas music (not carols), candles everywhere, fresh berries and loads of colour. She has been making a special accompaniment for her roast turkey for years. First, she buys the best red current jelly she can find and fresh currents (about 340g of jelly to a punnet so it holds together on the spoon). The trick to dislodging the currents without squashing them is to run the back of a fork down each stem. Then she folds the currents into the jelly and presents it all in a silver bowl on the table.

Her other tip for dealing with pomegranates (great for salads or for sprinkling over the ham after glazing) is to cut them in half and then hold the cut edge in your hand over a bowl. Then whack the skin hard with the back of a wooden spoon. "All the little pomegranate jewels fall out through your fingers into the bowl," she says. 

The year: 1990s
The chef: Christine Manfield, chef and author
The advice: smoked ocean trout

She can't put her finger on an exact year but Manfield's general advice is to do one thing well. She always buys a couple of boxes of cherries, presenting some on the table and the rest pitted on a pavlova, and she delegates jobs to friends, including salad-making. Most years there's a pink-fleshed fish on the menu, which she bakes in the oven or on the barbecue. Even easier, she says, is smoked ocean trout, which she smokes herself. A pre-smoked ocean trout from Woodbridge, in Tasmania is great, too. She presents the fish with skin removed and a pickled cucumber salad. "Don't try and overachieve," she says. "Keep it simple."

Taking Care of Business punch from Ben Milgate and Elvis Abrahanowicz.
Taking Care of Business punch from Ben Milgate and Elvis Abrahanowicz. 

The year: 2005
The chef: Darren Purchese, pastry chef at Burch & Purchese
The advice: barbecue mango tarte tatin

The British pastry chef's first Christmas in Australia was confusing, what with the warm weather and unusual fruits. With no apples for his usual tarte tatin, he switched to mango and, at the last minute, decided to do it on the barbecue. "I cooked it all in one pan as usual and once the caramel was a nice golden colour I shut the lid. After 20 minutes I had a look and, well, the result was the most amazing dessert, ever." The real trick, he says was turning the tatin over onto a plate without scalding his bare feet with hot, sticky caramel. This chance discovery is now a firm Christmas tradition at home, which he shares with his wife, chef Cath Claringbold.

The year: unknown
The chef: Ben Milgate and Elvis Abrahanowicz, Porteno
The advice: stay cool with a punch

What started as a cheap way to get parties started at home in Redfern has now become a Christmas fixture for Sydney chefs Ben Milgate and Elvis Abrahanowicz. Each year Milgate scoops out the contents of a watermelon and fills it with TCB ("Taking Care of Business") punch. You'll need ginger beer, lemonade, your favourite fruit juice (with corresponding SPC fruit tin, including syrup) and a "shitload" of vodka or gin. "For us the secret ingredient is Passiona," Milgate explains. "And it certainly takes care of business, everyone gets pretty loose." For details of the recipe try their book Recipes For A Good Time.

The year: 2007
The chef: Kylie Kwong, chef and author
The advice: cook Lindy Lee's baked whole fish

Several years ago a friend cooked Kylie Kwong an amazing dish. "It was outrageously impressive, utterly gorgeous to look at, totally delicious and embarrassingly simple to make." It inspired her in 2007 to do her take on Lindy Lee's baked whole fish for Christmas lunch. "I wrapped a 3.5kg whole, gutted and scaled Tasmanian ocean trout in wads of wet newspaper and baked it in a super hot, pre-heated oven for about 45 minutes. It lasted about five minutes on our kitchen table as my food-loving relatives devoured every single part of its gelatinous, silky, delectable flesh, as well as the skin, the head and the tail!" 

Russian prawn salad by Karen Martini.
Russian prawn salad by Karen Martini. 

The year: c2001
The chef: Judie, home cook
The advice: make a "Pavlunda"

It's unclear when the idea struck this Melbourne home chef but there's no denying the genius of this Christmas dessert. It's the Pavlunda: a pavlova in the shape of a Swiss roll. First, cook a rectangular-shaped pavlova base on baking paper. Then, while the base is still warm and malleable, spread a layer mascarpone mixed with yoghurt (or cream), followed by mango and passionfruit. Roll it into the shape of a Swiss roll shape using a tea towel and then serve, perhaps, with a white apple juice sorbet (to look like snow) and garnish with mint. "The kids love it," says Judy, who makes two is she is hosting more than 15 people.

The year: 1989
The chef: Karen Martini, chef and author
The advice: seafood Russian salad

Karen Martini was in her first year as an apprentice chef when she took on responsibility for cooking European Christmas Eve dinner for her family of 16, which included relatives visiting from France. She took on her grandmother's recipe for a Russian salad of crayfish, diced potatoes, carrots and beans in a vinaigrette and presented it in a scooped out crayfish shell. Since then she's tried other variations, including prawns, crab and caviar, which you can see in her latest book Home, which includes a whole chapter dedicated to Christmas cooking. "Everyone likes potato salad. It's a tradition … but you could stir any kind of cold seafood you like through it. We usually eat it with a glass of champagne."

The year I failed Christmas

1. With a 2-week-old baby Annabel Crabb hosted Christmas 2012 at home for 25. Everyone brought a plate and she squeezed in a two-hour afternoon nap. "I did virtually nothing, I made one or two salads and then the rest was pot-luck. I failed Christmas technically but I had a really nice time."

2. When Scott Pickett was younger, he remembers working late one Christmas Eve at the Windsor Hotel. The hotel had given the chefs rooms because they had to start again at 5am but chefs being chefs they partied hard instead, sleeping soundly past 6am. "Until [head chef] Bruno Cerdan came into each of our rooms, one by one and threw a bucket of ice water to wake us up," says Pickett. "If it wasn't for him, we would of slept through to lunch time and stuffed up Christmas lunch at the Windsor for 300+ people!"

3. Sometimes it's the little things. Kylie Kwong's mum always texts her a few days in advance with instructions on what to bring for the family Christmas Day lunch. One particularly busy year she had been frantic with work. From Billy Kwong she duly picked up "the usual" several white-cooked chicken, fresh roots of ginger, spring onion, salt and peanut oil, followed by some roast ducks and barbecue  pork from Chinatown. "Yet in the chaos of Christmas I promptly forgot to take the Billy Kwong House Pickles and XO Sauce, which my extended family usually 'inhale.' D-I-S-A-S-T-E-R!"

4. In his first few years in Australia Guillaume Brahimi and wife Sanchia decided to host Christmas for his French and Australian families. He decided to cook everything from scratch. "I spent the whole night in the kitchen and didn't see the family. The next day I did the same. When I went to bed on the 25th I said, 'never again'."

5. Last year, highly organised Carolyn Creswell ordered all her Christmas gifts from Seed online. When Christmas Eve arrived but no order she resorted to gift-wrapping pictures of the presents instead. On Boxing Day she received an email to say they had all sold out anyway. "That wasn't my finest moment," says Creswell, who this year ordered all her gifts by early November.