A very cheffy Christmas

By
Michael James, Matt Wilkinson & Mike McEnearney
Added
12 December, 2017

We caught up with three acclaimed chefs and authors – Michael James of Tivoli Road Bakery, Matt Wilkinson of Melbourne eatery Pope Joan and Mike McEnearney of Sydney canteen Kitchen by Mike (clockwise from top-left below) – to find out their traditions and tips.

Getting ahead


Unless your heart's set on an aged plum pudding, chefs agree that a few weeks is all you need to prepare. “We plan our Christmas in the first weeks of December before it gets too mad at the bakery,” Michael James of The Tivoli Road Baker says. “It’s always good to beat the rush and get your fish, meat, veg and bread orders in early. It saves you from the intense, stressful moments in the days leading up to the event.” Sydney chef Mike McEnearney reckons if you’re not making the classic cakes and pies, you can knock it out the day before: “We sit around a table in the kitchen peeling vegetables, making stuffings and so on, so all we do is cook and eat on the day.” Matt Wilkinson of Melbourne's Pope Joan likes to plan in advance: “Usually we decide on our menu around November,” he says.

The bird is the word


Mike has a hot tip for how you can prepare your turkey perfectly: “I usually bring it out before I go to bed and leave it in a cool place covered with a tea towel overnight, so that when I get to roasting it in the morning it’s at room temperature and will cook evenly. The biggest problem with cooking turkeys is their size and how cold they are in the centre. Your breast will overcook by the time the heat penetrates the inner parts of the bird and the legs – cook it nice and slow to be safe.”

Menu matters


Michael’s menu is traditional and elegant with a few local twists: “We’ll ease into the day with some bubbles and a few croissants. For lunch, we’ll have homemade gravlax and a leg of ham from our friends at Meatsmith, with salads using veggies from our garden and local farmers’ markets. In between courses we’ll have Stilton cheese from Harper & Blohm and mince pies. We’ll finish with a pudding from the bakery; we made them in March, so we’re super keen to tuck into them! I’ll serve that simply with clotted cream – a favourite of mine from my childhood in Cornwall, UK.”

Matt likes to freestyle and incorporate more Australian flavours: “Originally hailing from England, it took me a while to fall in love with Christmas here, but now I could not think of anything worse than hot turkey, gravy and all the trimmings,” he says. “For the past nine years, we’ve had Christmas in country Victoria at Sharlee’s (aka Mrs Wilkinson) mum Leah’s house. We wake up, open one present for each of our hooligans (the kids) and then have a light breakfast. The rest of the present opening happens and we have a second, bigger breakfast of Aberdeen sausage with tomato smash and a few poached eggs from the in-laws’ chooks. We sit down for a long lunch around 2.30pm – a simple affair with minimal cooking. There’s always a free-range ham. Liam, Sharlee’s brother, is with us this year and he’s a fisherman from Queensland, so we’re having scallops, prawns, whiting and Moreton Bay bugs. I’ll probably cook those in the morning and make a few sauces like salsa verde, Parmesan cream, and good old tomato sauce and mayo. We share the salads – I’ll probably do a grain salad, a soy bean salad with sesame oil and miso, and a quick tomato salad. It’s a safe bet that Sharlee’s mum will make a zucchini salad of some sort and a potato salad. Sharlee always does dessert and it’s usually free-form pastry with berries and yoghurt, or peach tartlets with cream. Lunch finishes late and we generally have toasted sandwiches for dinner using leftovers. Boxing Day is similar: we often have friends over, and this year I’ll cook up a big T-bone steak and a Chinese-style duck recipe with about five salads, plus leftover ham and seafood.”

Mike will be spending the day in the English countryside, so the food will reflect the place: “My mother-in-law has a beautiful farm in Wales that rears all types of animals and has all the vegetables we could possibly want. I will be cooking turkey this year that they’ve grown for themselves and for a number of others in their village. I love roast parsnips and potatoes with my turkey.

Thirsty work


The Australian Christmas is steaming hot, so hydration is high on the agenda. “We always have sparkling wine or Champagne,” says Matt. “I think we’ll have quite a bit of rosé this year – Stuart Proud’s is the one I love at the moment – and then I reckon it will be Mac Forbes’ Chenin Blanc and Pinot Noir with lunch. There’ll also be a few G&Ts and beers around.”

A special day with family calls for a special bottle, according to Michael: “This year we’re planning to have the long-awaited pudding with a 1985 Gran Reserve Pedro Ximenez,” he says.

For Mike, it will be slightly different with the Northern Hemisphere season, but the drinks share the same celebratory feel: “Our day usually starts with a glass of Champagne. It’s a special occasion and we often allow our boys to have a sip also. We always have a pot of mulled wine on the AGA stove that we can help ourselves to throughout the day – for me, the smell that emits throughout the house is Christmas.”

Everything but the food


There’s so much more to occasions than what you put on a plate. There’s the company, of course, but elements such as music can really elevate the mood.

“It’s the only day I can abide Christmas carols,” Michael says. “The bakery is a carol-free zone throughout December. It also depends on who is on the decks… our three-year-old daughter would probably have Puff the Magic Dragon on repeat if it were up to her.”

Mike goes even more traditional at his cold-weather Christmas: “We always listen to the Kings Choir Christmas Carols and The Messiah. My mother-in-law has a set of bells that we all gather around and play throughout the day… I’ve never been the best at these and it’s usually me that plays out of tune,” he says.

If you’ve gone to the effort of making a beautiful meal, what you serve it on matters. Whether it’s a sentimental set of ceramics, a shiny brass platter or a statement-making bowl, everyone has their own style. Michael’s favourite piece speaks to his passion: “For me, it’s our Laguiole butter knife. We plate up everything for sharing on our collection of serving dishes we’ve built up over the years… They all have a story that means something to us.”

For Mike, it’s all about the turkey: “I always like to have a nice carving fork and a very sharp carving knife in order to cut slithers of breast and leg so everybody gets even amounts. I stuff the neck with chestnut and apricot stuffing, so a blunt knife just won’t cut it. You need a sharp knife to glide through the breast, so everybody gets a lovely thin slice of stuffing and breast in one piece.”

For more ideas, flip through The Tivoli Road Baker by Michael James, Real Food by Mike from Mike McEnearney, and How it is at Home and Simply Dressed Salads by Matt Wilkinson. 

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