Cooking the Christmas dinner is my job in our house. And I love it. All those courses and juggling of logistics. The annual realisation that our oven is too small to cope with the scale of my ambitions. Ladling goose fat from the pan. And a family meal which — just once a year — can take as long as it needs to take, without kids rushing off to a rehearsal or to finish homework or even just to escape their relatives.
Every year I like to try to something new. Most recently a rich and marzipan-y German cake called a stollen (lesson, don’t leave it too long in the oven — it dries out). The year before, a really proper beef gravy, starting from baking the bones, which was 36 hours brilliantly well spent.
This year, with rather more time on my hands than usual, I’ve made my first-ever proper Christmas puddings, with grated quince and everything. (Question: do 20p pieces really need to be wrapped in foil before going into the mix, as Yvette has insisted?)
But there is one Christmas culinary challenge I’m still trying to crack — how to deliver a really good seasonal starter for Christmas Day. Over the past few years, I’ve tried a range of ideas; I did a chestnut risotto, but it was really much too filling; a turkey and ham terrine, which, though it looked fabulous, was a bit dull; and a salmon mousse — tasted OK, but lacked pizzazz.
Last year I decided to drop the Christmas theme and go for something fancy and flavourful, but light rather than heavy. And it worked. So if, like me, you’re still grappling with menus as the big day approaches, this is my starter suggestion: individual crab and Gruyère soufflés.
Yes, soufflés — and please don’t just throw your Spectator across the room in disgust. Because for all the hype, soufflés are actually really easy and reliable. They always work for me. And you’re bound to have a few ramekins sitting around on the top shelf.
So here we go…
2 tbsp grated Parmesan
1 large knob of butter (35g)
Same volume of plain flour
350ml whole milk
140g Gruyère cheese, grated
300g crabmeat (white or a mix of white and brown: basically a large dressed crab)
Dash of Tabasco or half tsp of red chilli, finely diced
1 tsp tomato purée or
Dijon mustard (optional)
1 tbsp chopped fresh dill or parsley (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 180˚C/Gas mark 4. Butter eight ramekins and sprinkle the insides with the grated Parmesan. Separate the six eggs, keeping all the whites and four of the yolks.
Melt the knob of butter in a saucepan and add the same volume of plain flour. Whisk together and cook for a couple of minutes, then slowly add the milk, stirring all the time until the sauce boils and thickens.
Take the sauce off the heat and allow to cool slightly; three minutes will do. Then stir in 100g of the grated Gruyère (holding back the other 40g for later). Stir in the crabmeat. I would also add the dash of Tabasco at this point, or the finely diced red chilli. But that’s a matter of taste of course. You could also add some tomato puree or Dijon mustard, though I don’t think they are needed. But do stir in the four egg yolks, and some salt and pepper.
In a separate and clean bowl, whisk the egg whites until they form what cooks call stiff peaks — i.e., peaks which stay stiff. Use an electric mixer — a hand-whisk works but takes a long time!
Transfer a third of the stiff egg whites into the crab and cheese sauce and stir it all in. This makes the next ‘folding’ step much easier. Pour the thick yellow sauce back into the gap in the egg white bowl you’ve just created and sprinkle the other 40g of grated Gruyère on top. If you are feeling ‘cheffy’ you could add some chopped fresh dill or parsley — totally optional.
Now carefully fold the stiff egg whites and the cheesy crab sauce together, using a gentle figure of eight stir, until it’s all properly combined. Finally, spoon the mixture into your eight ramekins. I would cook them for 25 minutes until they are nice and brown, but another five minutes won’t do any harm.
And there you have it, a fancy Christmas starter. I hope they work for you. I will admit though, I’m still hankering after a further ‘Christmas-y’ touch this year. Crab, Gruyère and cranberry? I’m not convinced…
Ed Balls teaches at the Harvard Kennedy School and King’s College London and was shadow chancellor from 2011 until this May. This recipe first appeared in the Spectator’s Christmas treble issue.