The Christmas dinner items you should just buy ready-made – according to the experts

Nigella Lawson
Why not do as Nigella says and give yourself the gift of a few clever kitchen hacks this year? - Robin Fox

When you think about it, Christmas dinner is an absurd idea. Make a list of all the various elements that make up the whole soup-to-nuts affair – from the cocktails and canapes to the 35 parts of the dinner itself, followed by everything required for the inevitable spread of puds – and you start to realise just how much of a task we set ourselves every year. Every dish seems to require a new pan or a much coveted slot in the oven. And that’s before Aunty Shirley arrives with her mini Yorkshire pudding nibble, which needs 15 minutes at 190C at a pivotal moment in proceedings.

It’s why we must, once again, say a silent Christmas prayer of thanks for Nigella Lawson, and not only for her Coca Cola ham. She has granted us special dispensation to take any shortcuts we see fit when preparing our Christmas feast, acknowledging that our “seasonal sanity” may depend on cutting the odd corner. “It makes sense to take advantage of all the high-quality shortcuts you can take now, whether it’s pigs in blankets or brandy butter or gravy,” she says. “I keep my freezer stocked with frozen chopped shallots, which I use in place of onions. They cook faster, taste sweeter and make life much easier.”

Every household needs a Christmas Major General. If that is you, if you are in charge of everything from the shopping to the (careful) delegating, to managing the oven, to overseeing the gravy, why not do as Nigella says and give yourself the gift of a few clever kitchen hacks this year. Stick to our experts’ Christmas shortcuts and even the most discerning foodie at the table won’t bat an eyelid. Crucially, it’ll make your life slightly easier and Lawson’s lore is very clear on this point: “No Christmas has been improved by the cook being in a state of festering resentment.” Too true.


Ed Cumming stumbled upon a canape shortcut when preparing Christmas dinner using frozen food
Ed Cumming stumbled upon a canape shortcut when preparing Christmas dinner using frozen food - Tim Jobling

My colleague Ed Cumming has done some helpful field work here. In a taste test of frozen Christmas food, he declared the Booths brie de meaux and cranberry parcels a win, particularly when improved with extra cranberry sauce. The Iceland tempura king prawns, meanwhile, were “hot, crispy and moreish”, while the Tesco mini coquille saint jacques were awarded top marks. His advice when considering buying in shop-bought canapes? “Stick to fish.”

Grazing boards are popular among the experts. “I definitely wouldn’t be making canapes,” says Tommy Banks, chef-owner of the Black Swan at Oldstead. Rather than feeling we need to assemble dainty nibbles just because it’s Christmas, Banks feels a beautiful board of cold things should do the trick, which is handy when you already have one eye on what time the parsnips need to go in. “Charcuterie is really good as a nibble. Just put it out and everyone enjoys it.”

And if you still want to make something that looks “from scratch” but in reality is a huge cheat? Farokh Talati, head chef at St John Bread and Wine, reminds us to keep a box of pre-rolled puff pastry on hand. “Dijon mustard, grated cheese, cut it into strips, bake it in the oven. Fresh cheese straws.” They’ll be ready in the time it takes you to heat up a pack of pre-made party food.

The main event

Stuffing is ripe for a shortcut
Stuffing is ripe for a shortcut - Russell Mills Product / Alamy

You know what you could do for yourself this Christmas? You could give yourself the gift of not having to peel and cut four sacks of potatoes. “Honestly, if the whole point of Christmas is to be with your friends and family, it shouldn’t matter if your potatoes are pre-cut,” says Talati.

Opting for frozen veg is a handy way to free up fridge space. It also means you can buy it in advance and not worry about it being past its best come Christmas Day. “I’d buy a load of frozen sprouts, frozen potatoes, the whole lot,” says Talati, who feels the key is in the cooking method. A pre-trimmed frozen sprout can be glorious if treated right, whereas fresh sprouts you’ve spent all morning lovingly lopping off the stalk, trimming and criss-crossing could be terrible. “I’d just boil them in salty water until they were cooked through but then in a separate pan I’d fry off some onions, some bacon or lardon. Then cut them in half and pan fry them with all that bacon, maybe a lick of gravy just to bring it together.”

Stuffing is ripe for a shortcut. Marcus Wareing once revealed he swears by Paxo. It seems to be a universal chef hack, as proved by Pip Lacey of the Hicce Hart. “You can’t go wrong. Take Paxo – just the normal sage and onion one – but then add your own nuts and bolts to it, whether it’s chestnuts or bacon.” A little lemon zest can be a nice addition, and perhaps some of Nigella’s diced frozen shallots, fried off in butter.

The extras

Shop-bought bread sauce is just fine, says Telegraph Magazine editor Lisa Markwell
Shop-bought bread sauce is just fine, says Telegraph Magazine editor Lisa Markwell - Rob Wilkinson / Alamy

You might think a good stock or sauce is the calling card of any self-respecting chef, but many of them swear by buying it in. “Buy your gravy,” urges Lacey. “That’s one of the things at the end where it’s all timed but then you’re messing around making a gravy. These days, supermarkets make some really good sauces. And if all else fails you’ve got Bisto.”

Banks suggest TrueFoods stocks which can be added to meat juices along with other flavourings. “I agree with Nigella. No one in their right mind is making stock at home at Christmas.” You could even go all in and buy their gravy, which is so good you can just “warm it up and it’s good to go”, says Banks. Or get a decent supermarket gravy and jazz it up.

Telegraph Magazine editor Lisa Markwell adds roasted wingtips to a shop-bought gravy as it heats through. As always, an extra splosh of this or that can liven up even a decidedly average gravy. Try madeira or port for sweetness and a little Marmite for savoury depth.

Shop-bought bread sauce is just fine, says Markwell, if heated through “with additional cloves and cream” and checked for seasoning. Meanwhile, the Telegraph’s Xanthe Clay says Aldi’s cranberry sauce wins on flavour among the shop-bought options. Want to make a bought cranberry sauce taste a little more homemade? Just heat it through with a little orange zest and juice, a pinch of ground allspice and a splash of red wine vinegar.

Sweet treats

Mince Pies
Buying jarred mincemeat can halve the work that goes into mince pies - Richard Stonehouse

Of all the elements of Christmas dinner which lend themselves to buying in, pud is surely a no-brainer if for no other reason than because everyone should be too many sherries in by the time it rolls around to notice.

The fastest route to a “so good it must be homemade” cheat, says St John’s Talati, is a good panettone. “When I used to work for Angela Hartnett she would get loads of panetones in and we just used to turn it into the best bread and butter pudding. Make a quick custard and just bake that in the oven. It’s pretty special.”

Trifle is an easy win if assembled from pre-made things. “There’s a really good Nigella recipe that I’ve done before at Christmas time,” says Banks. “Everything is bought in: sponge fingers, custard, jelly, and then you just spice it up with some nice vermouth and it’s delicious.”

Lacey likes an ice-cream bomb, made with “meringues, booze and cream”. Just whip cream with icing sugar and some sort of Christmassy alcohol like brandy, then fold through shop-bought crumbled meringue, freeze it in a Pyrex bowl and turn it out.

When it comes to mince pies, Clay recommends halving your workload by buying in jarred mincemeat (her preference is the Morrisons or the Tesco mincemeat) but making your own pastry. “Proper shortcrust does taste noticeably better than the stuff from the supermarket. [...] In contrast, the mincemeats I tried varied only a little from homemade in terms of ingredients.”

Or just cut your losses and buy a whole dessert. M&S gets an honourable mention from Cumming for their frozen trifle caked Alaska, which he gave five stars. The Telegraph’s resident chocolate expert and author of Cake: A Slice of British Life, Andrew Baker, reports M&S are also onto a winner this year with their passionfruit and white chocolate yule log, which he declares “extremely attractive with a glorious flavour”, while the Aldi Belgian chocolate number is “very creamy, with a rich milky chocolate flavour”.

You could spend Christmas Eve painstakingly rolling a genoise sponge, or you could pop to the shops. The choice is yours.