So, you’ve decided to host the big Christmas dinner and cook it yourself this year, have you? Of course you have — what’s not to love about a holiday dinner? There’s good friends and family breaking warm, crusty bread together, a golden turkey sitting in the oven, creamy mashed potatoes, crispy stuffing and of course, a gorgeous pie for dessert.
It’s hard not to get hungry just thinking about it.
Putting together a huge holiday meal is a pretty big task, though. And those of us who have done it before — including our resident expert Mary Berg — can attest, sticking to what you know and planning everything out is key.
“Don’t go pulling out your cookbooks and making something that sounds great but that you’ve never made before because that’s usually a recipe for disaster. The holidays are all about classics so stick to those,” she advises. “Not many of us have two ovens, so figure out what goes in when and do a game plan. It takes an extra 10 minutes, but it’s going to save you so much headache later on.”
But what do you do if, despite all your planning and good intentions, something just falls a little flat? Well, Mary’s broken down all of the potential holiday dinner disasters, and how to fix them when your dish goes wrong. You can thank her later.
Lumpy or watery gravy
If you find that your gravy has little, starchy lumps littering your otherwise perfectly good sauce, there’s a way to save it: by using a sieve. Berg suggests quickly running the gravy through a fine-mesh one and using the back of a spatula to push the liquid through.
If your gravy’s too thin, however, that’s where the magic of flour and melted butter come in handy: Mary suggests making a roux.
“Throw a couple of tablespoons of butter into a pan, melt it, sprinkle a couple tablespoons of flour on top, whisk and cook it until it’s a golden brown colour and then slowly start adding the gravy to that,” she says, noting that flour — unlike corn starch — needs to cook down, and that this method adds a really nice brown-butter flavour to the dish.
Dry or undercooked turkey
“Fixing dry turkey is a little tricky, but making sure you have a good gravy is key to that,” she says. “Gravy fixes everything in my opinion.”
But as is true with most dishes, prevention is crucial. When she’s cooking her own bird she uses an instant-read thermometer with a wire that emerges from the oven and goes off like an alarm when the bird reaches the ideal temperature. Easy peasy — the bird tells you when it’s ready.
But what if you don’t have a fancy thermometer and your bird just isn’t cooking up in time for the actual dinner? That’s when you carve it anyhow and then turn to alternative cooking methods.
“If you realize it’s getting down to dinner time and the turkey is not fully done, the only thing you can do is carve it up and cook it on a pan. Anything cooks quicker when you take the bones out and cut it into a smaller piece,” she explains.
Lifeless turkey skin
We all want that crispy, golden-brown colour on the turkey skin, do we not? Mary states that this one is all about prevention as well: slather butter just under the turkey skin as well as on top of it, and add a liberal amount of salt to draw out some of the bird’s moisture and give it that golden hue. Then, be sure to baste, baste and baste some more.
If the bird is looking a little done and you’ve skipped this step, Mary says cranking up the oven can be a last-minute fix.
“If it’s not crisping up during the cooking, once the bird is almost done crank up the heat and keep an eye on it, keep basting and watch it as it goes,” she suggests.
Gummy mashed potatoes
We’ve all done it: overmixed our “mashed” potatoes to the point of no return. If you find that your spuds are a little stringy from all that starch, Berg suggests just going with the flow.
“You can’t really fix the gumminess so what I would do is lean into it and add a bunch of cheese,” she says. “There’s a type of French mashed potato that’s half mashed potatoes, half cheese and it’s stringy. The tip is, don’t over-mash. Don’t use a blender or food processer. The most hardware you should use is a hand-mixer and even that you don’t really need.”
Stale rolls or crusty bread
If you’ve bought rolls from the store and find that they’re a little too stale to serve, Berg suggests cutting them up and making a quick oven stuffing or dressing.
“You want stale bread for dressing. I’d tear it up, mix in some cooked onions or celery, a little bit of chicken stock, and maybe throw an egg in there and then put it in the oven to bake so that it’s almost like a savoury bread pudding,” she says.
If it’s crusty rolls or bread you’ve got on-hand though, Mary explains how you can use water and heat to soften them. “Run them under the tap so that they get a little bit damp – not soggy or wet – and pop them in the oven just until they’re warm,” she says. “If you have it on like 350 or 375 degrees Fahrenheit I’d throw them in for five minutes; that way the liquid on the outside steams into the inside.”
Too often those sad creatures sit untouched on dining room tables around the world. If you find yourself with some on your hands, Mary recommends adding two things: acid and texture.
“Say you overcook green beans or something like that — I would recommend a bit of lemon juice or a bit of apple cider vinegar just to brighten them up,” she says. “Then you want to add some texture. So instead of serving them as is, I might melt a bit of butter in a pan, throw some panko breadcrumbs in there and just cook them up until they’re golden brown and sprinkle those on top. Or maybe just toast up almonds or some sort of nut to sprinkle on top to give it a bit of crunch. I think that’s what you miss when you overcook vegetables, that texture component.”
Mary is the first to admit she actually loves an overdressed salad, but not everyone falls in her camp. In that case, the only thing you can do is make more salad.
“Find whatever the heck else you have in the fridge to add to that salad to bump it up,” she suggests.
If your stuffing was inside the bird and you find that it’s a little soggy once you take it out, Berg suggests throwing it back in the oven while the bird rests so that you can serve a nice, crispy dish.
“I would scoop it out, put it into a baking dish and keep baking it outside the bird. That will give it more of a crust on the outside just to give it that little bit of extra texture,” she says. “Bake it off for another 20 minutes or so uncovered. You’re trying to evaporate that water. ”
Don’t add any butter, oil or anything extra either; “if the issue is that it is overly wet, that’s all the bird juices and fat coming out. It’s already drenched in fat and ready to go.”
Burnt pie crust
So what do you do if your pie filling has cooked to perfection, but the crusts are a little burnt? First of all, Berg says to watch your pies while they’re baking, and if you do see the crusts getting a bit too brown then to cover them loosely with tin foil until the rest of the pie is ready.
If it’s too late and the damage is done, whipped cream or ice cream is the way to go.
“If all else fails and you do actually burn it, I’d suggest sugar and creaminess to cut down on that burnt, acrid flavour. So something like a good dollop of sweet whipped cream or a good old scoop of ice cream that melts into it and can almost play off of that burnt flavour. Think of a toasted marshmallow,” she says. “You can also try to slough it off, but it won’t look as pretty. In that case top it off with powdered sugar.”
Fallen whipped cream
So you were pretty proactive in your planning and started whipping up the cream early just to make sure it was ready at go-time, only to find that the poor concoction has fallen into a runny heap. The solution? Mix it again.
“You can re-whip cream if it starts to fall, if you don’t go past a certain point,” Mary says. “Just whip it again and you’re good to go.”
If you are pre-whipping the cream, she explains that adding a bit of dried milk powder and subbing in powdered sugar for the regular white kind will help stabilize it and keep it frothy in the fridge until serving time.
Now what are you waiting for? Go forth and cook. That holiday meal won’t whip up itself.