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Christmas dinner in Britain is a high-stakes affair. It’s by far the most important meal of the year, and a time when extended families come together to eat, drink, and be merry. In the U.K., Christmas Eve celebrations last well into the night, with many Brits heading down to the pub, attending midnight mass, or in some cases, both. This pushes breakfast on December 25 to mid-morning, and lunch to late afternoon.
The pressure is on whoever’s cooking to make sure dinner is memorable for the right reasons. In many British households, the timing of the feast depends on the queen’s televised Christmas Day speech, which is often broadcast at 3 p.m. It’s common to eat immediately afterward or to serve the meal during the monarch’s seasonal message. However, there are surprisingly few variations when it comes to what’s on the table. Here are eight foods typically served at a British Christmas dinner.
At Christmas dinner, there’s typically no appetizer — or starter, according to the British — which is unusual for such an important dining occasion. The reason for this is partly because half of the guests have probably already dined at a pub on Christmas morning, but also because the main entrée and rich dessert are so filling, you can’t tackle them on a full stomach. If an appetizer is served, it is likely simple to prepare, such as smoked salmon or a prawn cocktail.
When it comes to drinks, holiday favorites change, but the featured cocktail on the menu is typically sparkling. In Britain, the current trend is serving prosecco, but if you’re really trying to impress your guests, you can’t beat a nice bottle of champagne. This is also the time of year to attempt homemade cocktails or finalize a list of your favorite craft ales.
Roast Turkey, Beef, or Goose
These days, the most popular meat served at Christmas dinner is turkey, but that hasn’t always been the case. In centuries past, roasted goose was more common. The bird wasn’t cheap, so poorer families in Victorian times would pay a little each month to a Goose Club to be able to afford one. By the 20th century, commercially-reared turkeys were less expensive. The birds had an added advantage of feeding more people, and so the tradition evolved. Roasted in the oven for hours until the skin is crisp, turkey at a British Christmas feast is carved into slices and served with gravy.
These days, however, goose is having a revival, thanks to its intense flavor profile, though the majority of Brits still order a turkey. Beef, a favorite meat served at a classic Sunday roast, is often served on Boxing Day (December 26), alongside whatever leftovers remain from Christmas dinner. It’s accompanied by Yorkshires, which are fluffy, crispy puddings baked in a hot oven until they rise. Another option for Boxing Day is a glazed ham, which is sometimes served cold with pickles. Either of these, or a fish dish such as a whole baked salmon, is appropriate for Christmas Eve.
Sage and Onion or Chestnut Stuffing
While some people cook stuffing (or dressing) inside the roasted turkey or goose, it’s simpler to prepare the dish separately. Recipes vary, but two of the most popular types of stuffing are chestnut stuffing and sage and onion stuffing — each family has their own preference. The jury’s out as to whether balls of stuffing or bowlfuls are best, but so long as there’s some on the plate, pretty much anything goes.
For many, this is the best part of the meal. Roasted potatoes should be crispy on the outside, but soft and fluffy on the inside. To master the perfect side dish, choose your potato variety with care. In the U.K., Maris Piper or Desiree potatoes are preferred. In the U.S., Russet or Yukon Gold potatoes will do. Peel the potatoes, cut them into large chunks, and then partly boil them.
After about 10 to 15 minutes, they should still be firm inside, but when drained and shaken, the skin should be soft. In a roasting tin, heat equal measures of butter (for flavor) and olive oil (so the fat doesn’t burn). Goose fat can also be used as an alternative and is sold tinned. Tip the potatoes into the hot fat and roast them on a high heat for 40 to 45 minutes, turning them only once.
Brussels Sprouts and Other Seasonal Vegetables
Many seasonal vegetables appear on the table at Christmas, including sliced carrots, chopped cabbage, garden peas, and roasted parsnips, but brussels sprouts are a must. There’s no particular reason why the leafy vegetable is so popular, but they were a new and therefore fashionable vegetable in Victorian times when many modern Christmas traditions started. Ironically, most Brits get the name of the vegetable wrong, incorrectly dropping the “S” and referring to the miniature cabbage as a “brussel sprout.”
Brussels sprouts form the “love it or hate it” aspect of Christmas dinner, and so attempts are often made to make the vegetable more palatable. This commonly involves mixing the sprouts with crispy lardons or roasted chestnuts, or both. Purists, however, demand nothing more than a slice of butter and a sprinkle of salt.
Pigs in Blankets and Devils on Horseback
In Britain, one of the most popular components of a Christmas dinner is a dish of small, thin chipolata sausages, each wrapped in a slice of bacon. Like pretty much everything else on the table, they’re roasted in the oven. In many parts of the U.K., the wrapped sausages are called “pigs in blankets,” though they aren’t wrapped in pastry as in other parts of the world. In Scotland, they are also called “kilted soldiers.”
Devils on horseback are a similar size but very different in taste. They are prunes wrapped in bacon. The origin of the dish’s name is unknown but may possibly refer to its color — shades of red and black are anything but angelic. These are typically served as hors d'oeuvres rather than a main course, and are sometimes stuffed with blanched almonds.
Cranberry and Bread Sauces
Cranberry sauce, whether homemade or spooned from a jar, is now a popular accompaniment to roasted turkey. It’s a tradition that has also been embraced in the U.S., particularly by those with a tendency to overcook the bird and a need to disguise dry meat.
Bread sauce is less widespread but has been around since medieval times. While it looks like a pile of mush, this thick sauce has a surprisingly pleasant taste. The main ingredients are stale breadcrumbs and milk, but once they are infused with onion, nutmeg, bay leaves, and cloves, the end result is much more palatable than you might have initially imagined.
Christmas Pudding With Brandy Butter
This rich, boozy dessert is dense and dark, but soft enough that it can be eaten with a spoon. Christmas pudding is filled with raisins, currants, candied cherries, chopped nuts, candied orange peel, and, of course, lots of brandy. A Christmas pudding traditionally contains a silver sixpence, which is believed to bring good luck to the person who bites down on it. The mixture is spooned into a large glass basin, covered, and slowly steamed. Baking the dish happens immediately prior to the fourth Sunday of Advent on “Stir Up Sunday.” For dinner guests who don’t like Christmas pudding, a sherry trifle (sponge cake soaked in rum or brandy and topped with jam, custard, and whipped cream) or pavlova (white meringue topped with fruit and whipped cream) is also served.
Christmas pudding is served with brandy butter. This is a relatively new addition, introduced in the 1930s. The recipe couldn’t be simpler: Beat together equal quantities of butter and powdered sugar, then whip in a generous amount of brandy. In the northwestern county of Cumbria, rum is often substituted. Meanwhile, in Cornwall, some families prefer a dollop of clotted cream.
Christmas Cake and Mince Pies
If you thought that after devouring such a massive feast, Brits would be happy to give their kitchens a wide berth, think again. After Christmas dinner comes the challenge of consuming at least one slice of Christmas cake and several mince pies on a full stomach. A boozy fruit cake has been served at this time of year for many centuries, though it was originally consumed on January 6 and called Twelfth Night Cake to celebrate the arrival of the Three Kings. The cake, which is iced and filled with marzipan (almond confection), is another Victorian tradition carried on today.
Mince pies have been around since at least the 16th century, though they once contained chopped meat as well as alcohol, dried fruit, sugar, and spices we associate with modern-day pies. In fact, the only savory ingredient in them today is suet — raw beef, mutton, or lamb fat. For those without a sweet tooth, a round of Stilton cheese served with some crackers and a glass of vintage port will round things off nicely.