Champagne is a favourite Christmas drink, but its welcome effects can be quickly damped if the precious bubbly foams up as it is poured and runs down the outside of the glass to cover the hand and arm of the eager recipient. Scientists from the French Oenology Institute have recently discovered that this happens because the surface of even the most expensive glass is covered with microscopic glass tubes that trap tiny air bubbles as the champagne is poured. Each air bubble acts as a “starter” to initiate the formation of a rapid succession of bubbles from the dissolved carbon dioxide.
The catastrophic effects of this process can be reduced by filling the miniature tubes with liquid before pouring the champagne. A bold host or hostess will do this with a quick flick of the wrist to pour just a tiny bit of champagne first, letting it foam up for a few seconds before pouring the rest in. The canny host or hostess will have pre-rinsed the glasses with white wine – just as effective, and much more reliable.
Cooking the Turkey
Which part of the turkey do you prefer to end up on your Christmas plate? My own preference is for the leg, on the basis that most cooks tend to overcook, rather than undercook the meal on Christmas day. The legs take a lot longer to cook than the breast, and are less likely to be ruined from overcooking. Legs need more time to cook because legs are designed for running, and contain a lot of connective tissue that takes time to become tender as it is cooked. Professional cooks follow the technique recommended by my colleague Peter Barham in “The Science of Cooking”, which is to separate the legs from the rest of the bird and cook them for a longer time in a different oven, usually at a lower temperature than that used for the breast. This isn’t an option that is usually available to the domestic cook, but there is another, brilliant solution, suggested by the American food writer Harold McGee.
Harold uses ice to cook his turkey! The way that he does it is put the whole turkey in the oven, and then place some crushed ice securely wrapped in aluminium foil (NOT plastic!) on top of the turkey. Then he cooks the turkey as normal, but the breast doesn’t start cooking until after the ice has melted, and so is still tender by the time that the legs have cooked. Problem solved (so long as you remember to put a drip tray in the bottom of the oven to catch the water as the ice melts).
Cooking the Turkey (Part 2)
My own preferred method (which I also use for steamed puddings) is to use a polystyrene box, perhaps from the fire engine that you have just given as a present to a child or grandchild. It doesn’t matter, so long as it is clean and big enough to hold a turkey. I line the inside of the box with aluminium foil, cook the turkey in the oven for about three-quarters of the normal time, then drop it into the box, put the lid on, and wrap it with masking tape to stop any draughts leaking through the cracks. The meat will keep cooking under the heat that it has already taken up from the oven, and will not get cold so long as the insulation is thick enough (at least one centimetre, and preferably two centimetres) to prevent significant loss of heat.
Mulled wine is a favourite Christmas drink, and is easily prepared using sachets of mulling spices. Even when we follow the recipe on the box or bottle, though, that spicy flavour often fails to come through.
The answer is to forget the recipe, and use science instead. Most recipes recommend putting the sachets directly into hot (not boiling) red wine and letting time and nature do the job of extracting the flavours. Those flavours come from oily substances in the spices, and oils don’t dissolve very readily in wine, which is mostly water. They dissolve much more easily in alcohol, so the answer is to warm the sachets (and any additional spices, such as cinnamon and cloves) beforehand with a centimetre or so of brandy (which contains around 40% alcohol) in the bottom of the saucepan for ten minutes or so. When you are ready to make your mulled wine, add the flavoured brandy bit by bit (plus sugar to taste) to the hot red wine until it tastes just as you want it.
The Flaming Pudding
All inflammable liquids have a “flash point” i.e. a temperature below which they will not burn. The flash point for brandy is around 27 degrees, so to get those beautiful blue flames, heat the brandy first. There’s no need to risk a fire by putting it on the stove. Just put some in a saucepan and warm the saucepan (on the outside!) with hot water from the tap.
The brandy burns with a blue flame because it is burning perfectly. Yellow flames arise when imperfect burning produces an aerosol of carbon particles that glow yellow in the heat of the flame.
The Flaming Pudding (2)
Inject some brandy into the centre of the pudding. It will feed the flames, which will continue to burn for longer and produce more of those lovely caramelly flavours on the outside of the pudding.
The Flaming Pudding (3)
Use some of the flavoured brandy that you prepared for the mulled wine to burn on the outside of the pudding.
Getting the Brandy Into the Mince Pies
A mince pie isn’t the same without brandy, but getting the brandy into the pie without ruining the crust can be distinctly tricky. The Oxford scientist and pioneering TV cook solved the problem by using a hypodermic syringe to inject the brandy into the pie. The modern-day domestic cook can achieve the same result by flattening one end of a drink straw, half-filling the straw with brandy, and then slipping the flattened end of the straw into the tiny gap between the top and bottom crusts of the pie. If the brandy doesn’t run in under gravity, you can help it on its way by squeezing the top end of the straw.
Save Money with Cheese
With your guests seated and happily conversing, you have time to sit back and worry about how much this dinner is actually costing. One place to save money is on the wine, but what if your guests notice that you have stopped producing the good stuff in favour of the cheap special from the local supermarket?
The answer is cheese. Recent research has shown that cheese, or any other salty food, acts to reduce the perception of bitterness, such as that from the tannins in red wine. So produce the good red with the main meal, where it belongs, but if you are producing a cheaper red later, make sure that your serve your guests with something salty as well. They may even comment on the smoothness of the wine!
Readers with a scientific turn of mind may like to help me test what may be an even better trick. I have found that foods containing monosodium glutamate (MSG) seem to work even better than foods containing common salt when it comes to enhancing the flavour of red wine. No, I don’t mean Chinese food, with MSG as an additive. MSG is a natural material, found in particularly high concentrations in tomatoes and Parmesan cheese, which may explain why red wine and Italian food go so well together. My colleagues who teach a gastronomy course at the Philadelphia Restaurant School are now checking out this effect – any readers’ observations would be most welcome.
The Old Coffee Ploy
Cheap wine may be excusable. Cheap coffee never is, but if you are forced for reasons beyond your control to resort to inferior coffee, or even instant coffee, there are several tricks that you can use to convince your guests that they are drinking something better. One, which is fairly well-known, is to put a few coffee beans under the grill so as to fill the room with a coffee aroma. Another, sometimes used in restaurants, is to put a fresh cardamom pod into inferior coffee for a few minutes before serving (don’t forget to remove it!). Best still is to soak the pod in whisky for a few minutes, then throw the pod away and pour the whisky into the coffee to make Gaelic coffee as a perfect finale to your Christmas dinner.
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