Features & Stories

Behind the Cookbook: Josceline Dimbleby on Cooking for Christmas

by Josceline Dimbleby

When Sainsbury’s asked me to do a book for them in 1978, to see if publishing cookbooks to sell in their stores would be a good idea, I suggested a book of Christmas cooking, not only because there were no others at that time (Delia followed me a year later) but as I had three young children and a big extended family our house had become a hub for Christmas eating.

My first cookbook, A Taste of Dreams, had been published two years before in 1976 and was far removed from the traditional dishes one associates with Christmas. My recipe ideas were inspired by a peripatetic childhood spent in Syria and Peru, and soon after by trips to India and other far flung places. At that time the idea of putting Indian spices in a homely Shepherd’s Pie seemed distinctly odd to many people but when they realised that my strange combinations tasted good, and worked, the book was a success. As a result a career I had never considered (I trained as a singer) was launched, and I was credited with being the first food writer in the UK to create cross-cultural recipes.

With Christmas cooking I felt it was important that the festive dishes should be reassuringly familiar in character and appearance. But I wanted them to taste better. I decided that old favourites such as turkey or goose, stuffings, mince pies, plum pudding with brandy butter, and Christmas cake must all be included. I tried out different ideas to enhance flavour and texture so the most famous Christmas dishes all had an exciting twist. I also created other dishes and vegetable ideas to be eaten over the festive season which were original but nevertheless had a Christmas or New Year identity.

Cooking for Christmas was sold in Sainsbury’s for decades, and has been published by others since. The most rewarding aspect for me is that because traditional dishes are repeated at Christmas family gatherings each year I have heard from many people that they feel I am one of their family. While I was speaking at a literary festival a woman got up to tell me this, but overcome by emotion, she burst into tears!

My most famous recipe was Mince Pies De Luxe with Orange Pastry. Every Christmas, now forty-one years later, people tell me that they are making my pies yet again! As my inclination in cooking is always to try new ideas I tell those who contact me of variations I have made. I hardly change the orange pastry except to include even more finely grated orange zest. Previous generations of grandmothers rightly maintained that lard combined with butter produces the lightest pastry and for vegetarians you can use a vegetable fat instead. I now always add a raw cranberry or two on top of the mincemeat in each pie; they explode in a beautifully scarlet burst while cooking, and create a lovely sharpness and succulence in the pies. Added lemon juice also hugely enhances bought mincemeat and if you want to add alcohol I think a little calvados is nicer than brandy.

Young children and some adults often say they dislike Christmas pudding but I started making a plum pudding with no sugar—why should it need sugar with all that fruit? And no flour - except for a few breadcrumbs to lighten the texture. I used lots of squishy prunes, walnuts, and coarsely grated orange zest (this version appeared in Josceline Dimbleby’s Complete Cookbook, published by Harper Collins in 1997). I noticed that most children liked it and adults sometimes had an astonishing three helpings.

The fresh sharpness of orange is miraculous at Christmas; for the ‘brandy’ butter—something I loved as a child as it felt so naughty and grown-up—I now always use Cointreau (which has an orange flavour) instead of brandy, and mix lots of finely grated orange zest in the butter too. Orange juice is transformative to cranberry sauce—I never understand why some people buy commercial cranberry sauce as it takes only minutes to make using fresh cranberries, and tastes far nicer.

I’ve often been asked if I’ve had Christmas disasters. A true disaster stands out. One year my brother, who is something of a pyromaniac, helped me turn out my lovingly made, circular plum pudding. Unseen by me he quickly inserted a few small sparklers into it. I poured on some brandy, he lit it. As I proudly approached the family table with my flaming Dickensian pudding it exploded dramatically, throwing delicious pieces all over the room and onto the ceiling, where they stuck. I found it hard to forgive my brother!

Josceline Dimbleby was brought up both abroad and in England. She trained as a singer at the Guildhall School of Music but then became one of Britain’s most popular food writers for over forty years. Her cookery books have sold well over 2 million copies in the UK alone, and been translated into many languages. Her first book A Taste of Dreams, published in 1976, won the Andre Simon Award for the best cookery book of the year.

Since then she has published seventeen cookery books and was cookery correspondent for the Sunday Telegraph newspaper for 15 years, winning a Glenfiddich Award for her pieces on India and the Far East.

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