How to cheat at Christmas lunch (in the nicest possible way)
Ah Christmas. The time of year we all come together and panic as one. Even for Christmas tragics like me, the whole of December is a bit like a personal Tour de France. There are two major legs of the race – ‘The Presents’ and ‘The Lunch’. Presents generally come right with a bit of pre-race prep (or a 12-hour shopping marathon on Christmas Eve). Lunch, however, is a little harder to blag your way through. Probably because it’s more of sprint and it’s closer to the finish line. So if it’s your turn to host this year, or you got sloshed at Christmas drinks and drunkenly invited a bunch of ‘orphans’ over to yours for Christmas day, you’re in grave levels of strife. Especially if you’re no MasterChef. The only answer is to fake it.
Cheat No 1: Cheers! Get the drinks circulating.
The truth is that everything tastes great when you’re a little tipsy, so start by plying them with alcohol. Champagne with some raspberries is a great choice and a step up in fanciness from West Coast Coolers (or Two Buck Chuck).
For an added level of authenticity, you could go all Arctic circle and prepare some glögg. It’s a sweet mulled wine which even the Scandis cheat their way through using a very handy pre-made mixture. Head to Ikea and grab some while you’re buying your table decorations*, throw it in a big pot with red wine and sugar and orange peel, then let it simmer. Don’t lose your focus and let it boil – that removes the alcohol and completely defeats your purpose! As it simmers, Google the recipe so you can explain the process in great detail – just as if you made it yourself.
*Yes, you need to buy table decorations. They distract people from the food.
Cheat No 2: Appetisers (are easier to make than dinner)
Just before your visitors cross the fine line between sobriety and sobbing out their life story to your blow-up Santa, serve up some cheese and crackers. These are not Jatz, mind you. They are the hoity toity ones you get at the deli counter at Woolies, incorporating chunky bits with fancy names like pepito.
Good cheese options are brie, camembert, or goat’s cheese. Please avoid the Kraft Singles, despite all the temptation and heavy discounting. If you really want to impress your guests and don’t mind spending a little more dosh, skip Woolies and get yourself to a nice deli. If you really, REALLY want to impress them, head to a place with a slightly pretentious refrigerated cheese room filled with unpasteurised stuff from France with wisps of goats hair sticking out of it. This is just so you can tell people that you did so and get some extra culinary kudos.
Serve it all on a large white serving plate (that you borrowed from your mum) with some sliced pear and dried apricot, because that’s what they do in all fine establishments like your own. And because it tastes pretty good when you do.
Cheat No. 3: The main meal.
Now let’s get this straight – Turkey is not an option when hoax cuisine is on the menu, so you need to go with a ham – the other Christmas meat. The good news is that most people order a glazed ham from the butcher, so don’t be embarrassed to tell your guests that the ham is a bought one. After all, the best way to get away with something is to tell just enough of the truth. Leave it covered in a cloth out of the fridge somewhere out of direct heat and light so it gets to room temperature on Christmas Eve. If Santa and his reindeer don’t eat it on their way through, you’ll be able to warm it a little in the oven on Christmas Day before you serve it (put a small oven-proof container of water in there with it so that it doesn’t go all dry).
Ham tastes divine with Cranberry sauce. Cranberry sauce is allegedly easy to make but let’s not go crazy. Just buy a jar when you’re at the deli, or grab some Lingonberry jam while you’re at Ikea buying your table decorations*. Budget on a good tablespoonful per guest. Transfer it out of the jar into a nice little bowl before you put it on the table. Borrow one of your Nanna’s little souvenir spoons from Hawaii to serve it out.
*Sigh. We’ve been through this. Yes, you have to buy table decorations. They distract people from the food.
Sorting the roast vegetables should be fairly easy. From your department store to your local chicken shop, roasted veggies are literally everywhere and they re-heat pretty well. Find someone open on Christmas eve, or be brave and cook them yourself. They have them pre-sliced and seasoned at the grocery store these days – you just have to whack them in the oven for a bit longer than you heat your ham. A no-cook option is the humble potato salad. Buy it ready-made from somewhere fancy, or get it out of a tin and add boiled eggs, a little more mayo and some fresh fennel to it.
Side salads are also an important part of the charade. If even salad dressing is not in your repertoire, put dainty little jugs of olive oil and balsamic vinegar on the table so guests can dress to their taste. Voila! Complete ineptitude masked by thoughtfulness.
The poshest and simplest salad to assemble is made up of blueberries, mild blue cheese and baby spinach. Wash (just the berries and spinach, not the cheese), dry and whack it all in a bowl together with a dash of salt and pepper and some nice olive oil. If you can stretch yourself, add two parts balsamic vinegar to one part olive oil. For a garden salad my two-year old can make, buy a plastic packet of mixed lettuce leaves, and combine with cherry tomatoes and sliced cucumber. Same dressing as above.
Cheat No. 4. The pudd.
As a famous chef once said: Eating a meal without dessert is like finishing a sentence without a full stop. Fortunately, this is the easiest part of the meal to fake convincingly, and establish your MasterChef reputation for at least 365 days. The only equipment you need is a loaf-shaped cake tin, which you’ll need to borrow from your mum.
Buy a litre or so of the nicest vanilla ice-cream you can find, and the nicest, darkest, booziest-looking Christmas pudding you can find. A few days before Christmas, soften the ice-cream out of the fridge for a little while. It needs to be softer, but still frozen. Empty the ice-cream into a big bowl, and crumble the pudding into it, combining with a wooden spoon. You’ll be able to judge when to stop, but there should be more ice-cream than pudding in the mixture. Line a cake tin with greaseproof paper and let some hang out over the sides. Spoon the mixture into the tin, press it down so that there are no air bubbles and re-freeze. Just before serving, turn it out onto a rectangular platter (that you borrowed from your mum) and spoon some tinned prunes and a bit of their juice over the top. You can also sprinkle crushed pistachios over the top if you’re not risking a trip to the hospital resulting from an anaphylactic episode.
Another option is to take the classic pavlova route. A store-bought pavlova is obvious a mile off because it is so smooth and perfectly round, but everyone does it, so you’ll get away with it too. Just pile it up with a ridiculous amount of sweetened whipped cream and summer fruit and drizzle passionfruit pulp over the top and down the sides. It’ll look like it just escaped from Pinterest, guaranteed.
Final words of encouragement…
By the time dessert is over, your guests should be slightly inebriated. They should also be quite full and dozy, but just in case, be sure to bury all evidence of your culinary sleight of hand. Use the neighbour’s bin in the wee small hours if you have to. If challenged, deny strenuously and implement diversionary tactics – pour the challenger another drink. Lastly, avoid suspicious body language. Look your guests square in the eye, and modestly claim the credit for a great Christmas lunch.
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