London - Do too many celebrity cooks spoil the Christmas broth? Well, they certainly confuse the whole festive food issue, don’t they?
With their endless books, DVDs and TV programmes full of instructions about everything from turkey gravy to trifle toppings, they certainly mix it up.
To brine or not to brine? To stuff or not to stuff? Sesame seeds or maple syrup on your jazzed-up parsnips? Perhaps some parmesan in the bread sauce this year?
When you are not looking, they add pecans to everything. Given half a chance, they’ll sneak turmeric on to your roasties.
It’s so annoying. They publish new recipes for the sake of novelty, not because someone, somewhere might actually want to eat what they’ve produced. They are monsters of the deep dish, ogres with Agas. And at this time of year, their collective expertise means one thing and one thing only - a Christmas bombe of total confusion.
Over the coming weekend, they will fry your brain cells in the old butter of bafflement, while sprinkling chopped shambles plus a dash of cinnamon-scented lunacy on top.
And this year, to add to the uncertainty, there is a new kid on the block. Delia Smith, Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver - the holy trinity of self-styled Christmas cooking experts - are joined on the bookshelves by Gordon Ramsay.
Yes, Old Shouty is keener than whisky-infused mustard to get in on the lucrative Chrissy action. Turkey, nibbles, stuffing, done! His new glossy, 140-page Christmas With Gordon book is filled with festive recipes “to avoid last-minute panics on the day”. You don’t say. I’m having a panic attack just reading it.
Turkey gravy with cider and walnuts? A “light, steamed” Christmas pudding? Smoked salmon with scrambled egg and “day-old croissants”? How very festive!
And on page 77, we see Gordon smirking impishly as he merrily slices into his five-spice roast goose.
Look again. Is it my imagination or is that honey-glazed and basted creature utterly raw inside? The goose doesn’t look too terrific either.
Anyway, spatulas, glass of restorative egg nog and trussing string at the ready, people. With this celebrated kitchen quartet on board to see us through the culinary rigours of the days ahead, what could possibly go wrong?
To be honest, just about everything.
Having pored over their respective cook books for much of December, what I must tell you is this - they can’t agree on anything.
To flick through the pages of Delia, Nigella, Jamie and Gordon is to find no Christmas cooking consensus. Absolutely none. They argue about everything. It’s as if their roast turkey recipes came from four different galaxies.
They cannot concur about gravy or veg or cheese straws. The four of them would brawl in the streets over the correct way to wrap a slice of bacon around a chipolata.
And for pudding, they are marzipan musketeers, apparently fighting a cake war to the death.
Let us open hostilities with an innocent 5.5kg turkey, the very centrepiece of the Christmas feast.
Nigella? She brines. She steeps her turkey overnight in six litres of salted water to which she adds oranges, herbs and spices.
The process delivers, she says, a “sure-fire succulent” turkey, which makes it tender and easier to carve. She does not stuff. She paints on a maple syrup glaze, no tinfoil, then she roasts her bird for only two and a half hours.
This might seem “shockingly short” to some, she says. However, she insists “the truth is we have been overcooking turkey for years”.
Delia begs to differ. Delia does not brine. Delia does not glaze. Delia stuffs, using a traditional sage mix.
She tucks her pimped-up bird under a blanket of streaky bacon in a tent of foil, then roasts for nearly five hours. She gives it a rest for 50 minutes. Nigella rests for 40 minutes, Jamie says 30 minutes, while Gordon goes for at least 45 minutes.
Why don’t they all give it a rest? Readers, that is a whole other question.
Jamie puts clementines in his cavity, but stuffs his neck. He packs a herby butter under his breast skin and roasts for about three hours.
Gordon is also a convert to the buttery boob job, though he also slips in a few bay leaves.
Neither he nor Jamie brine. Gordon stuffs his cavity with simple aromatics - just onions, lemons, garlic and bay leaves. He roasts for just under three hours, no tinfoil.
Jamie for just over three hours, with tinfoil.
THE MINCE PIES
Even on the simple subject of mincemeat pies, there is no celebrity chef accord.
Take Nigella’s pies. Hers are mini, star-topped, filled with her boozy cranberry-studded mincemeat and dusted with sugar. Her pastry is made with Trex and orange juice. What is she like? Gordon’s pies are also star-topped, but his pastry is made with butter and orange zest. He opts for dried cranberries in his mincemeat, he glazes with egg.
Meanwhile, Jamie takes it upon himself to “reinvent” the mincemeat pie (of course he does). Bish, bash, bosh, he tries to make ‘em posh.
For no good reason anyone can think of, he uses a mixture of puff and filo pastry. He adds chopped blueberries to the mincemeat, makes them in cupcake tins and sprinkles almonds on top.
Have you ever seen a tray of exploded cricket balls? That is what Jamie’s mincemeat pies look like.
Delia comes up with “traditional mince pies”, a notion that tacitly suggests that everyone else’s pies are upstarts. She could be right.
Her pies are stamped with a fluted 7.5cm cutter and 30 years of authority. She makes her pastry with lard and butter, none of that fandangled orange nonsense. Alone among the chefs, she opts for a full lid pie, the tops snipped with scissors, then glazed with milk.
Now that we haven’t got that sorted, how do we bake the blighters? Surely the chefs must agree on that? Surely very much not.
Delia says 30 minutes at 200c. Gordon says 20 minutes at 180c, Nigella says 15 minutes at 220c, while Jamie says 25 minutes at 200c.
That’s about as clear as a Mississippi mud pie.
OK, what about the sprouts? Surely nothing could be simpler that sprouts?
I’m begging all four of you: don’t make this hard. Why don’t we opt for the traditional British way, which is to toss them in a saucepan with salt, boil until Boxing Day and serve with a grimace?
That is hardly likely to happen. First, there has to be a paean to how brilliant they are: Delia’s sprouts are a “long-standing Christmas favourite”, while Nigella’s are an “absolutely basic non-negotiable” part of the feast.
Delia is first off the blocks. For a start, she wails, cutting a cross into the bottom of your sprouts (to help them cook through) is an utter waste of time.
Instead of wasting time with the crosses, Delia advises buying baby sprouts instead, then blanching and frying them with shallots and chestnuts.
No, no, no, says Gordon. Just remove the outer leaves, blanch, fry with pancetta and chestnuts, then add lemon juice and grated zest.
Nigella urges cooks to just let the “outer, blowsier” leaves fall away, somehow managing to suggest undressing and seducing a Brussels sprout, rather than merely preparing it for the kill.
In flagrant opposition to Delia, she does cut a cross if the sprout bottoms are big, the minx. Then she blanches, fries them in butter, and it’s a yes to chestnuts and also to nutmeg.
She also includes variants with pancetta and pecans.
Jamie? He batters his into shreds in a food processor, then adds flavourings such as smoked streaky bacon, sage and Worcestershire sauce.
It is exhausting. It is confusing. It doesn’t really help.
Every year, millions of us want to be the Christmas paragon who has a cake gurgling with brandy under a cape of snowy icing, home-bottled peaches marinating in sweet liqueurs, chutneys made and labelled, baking done, turkey ordered, gravy choices made.
By Christmas Eve in celebrity chef land, everything that needs to be has been plucked, stuffed, stirred, bottled, roasted, wrapped, decorated, polished, trimmed, snipped, marinated, peeled, iced and glazed.
Meanwhile, out in the real word we’re still struggling with the conflicting advice. No wonder, when our marvellous teachers can’t even agree on which end of the turkey to stuff.
Still, there is always Pot Noodle, which this year has been issued in a special Christmas dinner flavour, complete with a sachet of cranberry sauce.
Just add water. And don’t tell Delia and co.