Of Turkeys and Dancing
“We’ll never all fit”, I said in a slightly panicked tone as I looked out into our conservatory. It’s not a small room, but with the oversize Christmas tree and several chunky pieces of furniture there wasn’t much space left for dancing. There were 11 of us here for Christmas dinner and I was struggling to figure out where we would all sit, never mind where we would put the dance floor.
True to my own advice on having a stress-free Christmas dinner I had taken a pretty blasé approach to the food. A few days before Christmas the adults had a quick meeting to decide who would bring what. I volunteered to roast a turkey and cook some hot vegetables. The others said they would bring platters as starters and sides. We all agreed to make a dessert. It sounded simple, relaxed and incredibly tasty. Perfect.
Back when I lived in Dublin I would host a “Christmas Dinner” in November each year for friends who I wouldn’t get to see over the holidays. I never worried too much about the cooking of the turkey but somehow it always turned out moist and juicy. Regrettably, I made never made notes on how I achieved this perfection year after year.
The last time I cooked a turkey dinner was in 2006. It was really Arūnas who cooked dinner that year as my back was very badly injured at the time and I couldn’t stand up. I was also a little spaced out on medication. I know there was confusion over thawing times and we ended up with a turkey in a baby bath full of warm water on Christmas morning trying to defrost it. I sat on a chair, sipping a beer (medicinally) and giving instructions while poor Arūnas ran back and forth like a lunatic trying to cook foods he’d never heard off. (What the heck is a Brussels sprout, anyway?) Somehow he pulled it all together and nine of us sat down to a perfectly cooked turkey. No one cared that it was nearly 8 pm. Everyone was having fun and that was all that mattered.
Because of my lengthy absence from turkey cooking I checked a few recipes to get some guidance on cooking temperatures and durations. I had calculated we’d need a 5 kg bird to feed our party. However, when we called to place our order we were told that the smallest available was 10 kg. That’s a whole lot of turkey – I wasn’t even sure it would fit in the oven! I couldn’t find any consensus on cooking duration for a bird that size but various recipes agreed that using a meat thermometer was the best approach for attaining turkey perfection. They gave three guideline temperatures – the thigh, the breast and the stuffing.
One recipe I read suggested soaking a piece of muslin in melted butter and placing it over the breast to keep it moist and protect it from getting too crispy. Another suggested putting the turkey into an oven that had been heated to “full whack” to kick-start the cooking process and then turn it down after about 10 minutes. Both suggestions seemed to make good sense. Individually, they probably do. Combined, they do not. After 30 minutes of cooking I removed a charred and shrivelled muslin cloth from the bird and had to cover the legs with foil as they were already getting a little more bronzed that I would have liked.
I had estimated that my jumbo bird would take about 5 ½ hours to cook. However, after only 3 hours the thermometer in its thigh had reached the required temperature. It couldn’t be cooked already, surely? I tested the breast and it, too, had reached temperature. My stuffing, however, was still about 10 degrees off. I was thrown. The last thing I wanted was to make our guests ill. By my calculations the bird still needed a few more hours. The thermometer was telling a different story. Erring on the side of caution I popped it back into the oven until the stuffing had reached temperature. Then I took it out, covered it with foil and tea towels and left it to rest. I would not know whether or not I had made the right decision until after our guests arrived.
Other than the turkey, dinner was plain sailing. I made a tiramisu, which can hardly be considered baking – it’s really just assembly. I roasted potatoes and beetroot on autopilot – I cook these most weeks and have them down to a fine art. And I set the table. By which I mean I threw on a cloth and added a stack of plates, a basket of cutlery and pile of colourful napkins. No pomp and ceremony in this house!
At about 4 pm the food started to arrive. And didn’t stop for quite some time. Plate after plate, bowl after bowl, platter after platter. It was like we’d each individually cooked for 11 people. Every inch of the kitchen table was covered, as was the rather sizable table in the conservatory. I had imagined that people would sit around the kitchen table to eat their food, but there was simply no space. They’d have to find a seat and eat off their knees. And now Arūnas was setting up a stereo in the conservatory “for the dancing”.
Somehow, it all worked out beautifully. The turkey breast was a tiny bit drier than I would have liked but the legs were succulent and juicy and everything else was perfect. Everyone found a spot to rest their plate, some sitting, some standing at the counter. No one cared that we weren’t all sitting around a table. In fact, I think that would have been overly formal and changed the atmosphere. As it was, everyone looked like they felt at home, which was exactly what we wanted. We exchanged gifts, played charades and danced around the conservatory until the small hours of the morning. I have no idea how we did it. But we did it, and it was brilliant.