A Dickens Christmas Dinner

Charles Dickens is often given credit for transforming Christmas into a day of celebration centered on the family, especially Christmas dinner.

“Dickens remembered the dinner he had with his grandparents, a dinner that had fallen out of favor in recent years,” says Alice Ross, food historian and author of “A Christmas Dinner, A Story by Charles Dickens” (Red Rock Press). Dickens wrote about that dinner in 1835, several years before the publication of his more famous “A Christmas Carol.” He created his own family Christmas dinner soon after.

The Dickens’ family dinner was no Scrooge-like affair. The spread was literally soup to nuts with fish, poultry, red meat, side dishes and desserts in between. Turkey was “usual but not irreplaceable,” according to Ross. “It had been brought from the New World so it was not native and therefore special.”

Though his family had turkey as the sole centerpiece of Christmas dinner, English-born Colin Bedford recognizes that for many Americans Thanksgiving is “all about turkey.” So at the Fearrington Village Country Inn in Pittsboro, NC, where he is executive chef, Bedford takes a more Dickensian approach by having a goose (which is what Scrooge gave Bob Cratchit in “A Christmas Carol”) or duck and a red meat, in this case a rib roast that is served with red onion gravy and Yorkshire pudding.

While he likes Chateauneuf du Pape with a rib roast and thinks some Barolos would do well with it too, Max Kast, wine director at Fearrington, says that “if you think about British history, claret would be a logical choice.” I asked him about trying different styles of red Bordeaux, and he said, “It’s a good dish to experiment with because the flavors are fairly simple.”

I chose three wines, all from the superlative 2005 vintage, to go with Bedford’s recipe for rib roast. My favorite of the three was Chateau Branaire-Ducru (92, $86) from St-Julien on the Left Bank. Wine Spectator has suggested that the wine would be best after 2010, which led me to believe that it would be more approachable now than another St-Julien wine, Chateau Talbot (92, $55), which the magazine said needed several years more to reach its peak.

The Branaire-Ducru was, indeed, more approachable but it also had a superb balance of fruit and structure. It was big boned with just enough flesh to stand up to a serious piece of beef. I thought it married best with the beef because it was more restrained than the dense and smoky Talbot.

Because ovens were much less reliable in Dickens’ day, meats were often spit roasted and the vegetables steamed, such as colcannon, a mold of different pureed vegetables that Dickens’ wife Catherine liked to serve. Stewing was another method of cooking vegetables and stewed chestnuts became a fashionable holiday side dish in the first half of the 19th century, according to Ross.

Christmas side dishes today typically include roasted root vegetables such as parsnips, turnips, carrots or rutabaga (“swedes” to the English) cooked individually or in some combination. Roasted potatoes are also common. Bedford’s “Mum” roasts them in duck fat after first par boiling them and scoring the outsides. “The scoring allows the potatoes to absorb more fat,” Bedford says.

Because most green vegetables were not in season during Dickens’ time, cabbage in some form was often served at Christmas dinner. Colcannon, for example, was usually made with cabbage and potatoes. Bedford takes a lighter approach at Fearrington by only using savoy cabbage and gently braising it with vegetable stock, butter, shallots and toasted caraway seeds. Another cabbage variation employed by Bedford and other English-born chefs I talked to is Brussels sprouts. There is a very good recipe for them below.

Mince or mincemeat pies (made with fresh, dried and candied fruit and beef suet, the fat around the cow’s kidney), Christmas pudding (also known as plum pudding) with brandy sauce and Christmas cake (a fruit cake with a layer of marzipan inside and icing on top) were all desserts that came down from the Dickens era to today, though with some modifications. Christmas pudding, for example, was initially boiled in a muslin bag and is now steamed.

However, Lee Hillson, executive chef of T.Cooks restaurant at the Royal Palms Resort & Spa in Phoenix says that at his parents’ house in England trifle was “huge.”  The trifle recipe consists of sponge cake soaked with sherry and layered with fruit, gelatin, custard and whipped cream, then topped with toasted almonds and fruit.

I tried this scrumptious trifle with Jorge Ordonez &  Co Málaga Victoria 2005 (91, $47/375ml). Aside from being a sensational dessert wine on its own, this bright and elegant Moscatel, a collaboration between the highly regarded Spanish negociant Ordonez and Austrian dessert wine master Alois Kracher, nicely complimented the trifle with its fruit sweetness and fine acidity.

With great food and terrific wines, there is nothing to humbug about this Christmas.

Rib Roast

(Adapted from a recipe by Colin Bedford, executive chef of the Fearrington Village Country Inn, Pittsboro, NC)

  • 10-pound standing rib roast (5 bones)
  • 1 bunch fresh rosemary
  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 3 large carrots
  • 4 to 5 large ribs celery
  • 2 large onions
  • 2 heads garlic
  • 1 bunch fresh thyme

1)Bring the beef to room temperature (at least 30 minutes out of the refrigerator) before it goes into the oven. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

2)Remove the leaves from 4 of the rosemary sprigs. Chop with the crushed garlic. Mix in the olive oil to make a paste. Season with salt and pepper. Rub the paste all over the roast.

3)Cut the vegetables in chunks (leave the garlic whole) and place in the bottom of the roasting pan. Distribute the thyme and remaining rosemary over the vegetables. Place the roast on top of the herbs and vegetables and put in the oven for 30 minutes.

4)Turn the heat down to 325 degrees and cook until an instant read thermometer reads 125 degrees for medium rare, about 2 hours. Remove the roast from the oven and cover loosely with foil for 30 to 40 minutes before carving. Serves 8-10.

Red Onion Gravy

(adapted from a recipe by Colin Bedford, executive chef of the Fearrington Village Country Inn, Pittsboro, NC)

  • 1 cup Port
  • 1 cup dry red wine
  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 5 to 6 medium red onions, thinly sliced
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 3 cups chicken broth or beef broth
  • 3 rosemary sprigs wrapped in cheesecloth

1)Combine the Port and red wine in a saucepan over medium heat. Simmer briskly until reduced by half.

2)Meanwhile, melt the butter in a sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring periodically, until they are golden brown, about 15 minutes. Reduce the heat, if needed, to prevent scorching.

3)Add the garlic and cook a few minutes. Then stir in the flour until it is all incorporated. Then add the reduced wines, broth and rosemary. Bring to a boil then simmer for about 20 minutes until the flour taste has gone and the sauce is the thickness you want. Remove the rosemary and serve. Serves 8 to 10.

Yorkshire Pudding

(adapted from a recipe by Colin Bedford, executive chef of the Fearrington Village Country Inn, Pittsboro, NC)

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
  • 2 cups whole eggs (about eight)
  • 2 cups milk
  • Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons finely chopped herbs such as parsley, chives or sage (optional)
  • Vegetable oil

1)Combine the flour and eggs. Then whisk in the milk (with a mixer or by hand) until there are no visible lumps. Strain through a fine mesh strainer. Set aside (Batter refrigerated for up to 24 hours. Bring to room temp before using.)

2)Set oven to 425 degrees. Pour the vegetable oil  3/4 of the way up each mold in a 12 cup muffin or popover tin and place the tin in the oven.

3)Meanwhile, season the batter with salt and pepper to taste and herbs, if desired.

4)When the oil in the tin begins to smoke, after about 10 minutes, remove the tin from the oven and carefully pour out just enough oil so that each mold is about 1/4 full of oil. Pour the batter into each mold to just below the lip of mold.

5)Put the tin into the oven. After 15 minutes turn the heat to 350 degrees and cook for 20 minutes more until the popovers rise and turn brown. (Don’t open the oven until the popovers are done. If you need to open the oven to check, wait at least 30 minutes.)

6)Remove the tin from the oven and unmold. Serve immediately. Makes 12 popovers

Pancetta Roasted Brussels Sprouts

(adapted from a recipe from Sean Eastwood, executive chef, La Valencia Hotel, La Jolla, Calif.)

  • Kosher or sea salt
  • 2 pounds fresh Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved if large
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 5 ounces pancetta
  • 4 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 cup chicken stock
  • Freshly ground black pepper

1)Partially cook the Brussels sprouts in 3 to 4 quarts of BOILING water and 1 tablespoon of salt for 5 minutes. Drain and refresh in ice water. Drain well. This can be done several hours ahead.

2)Meanwhile, cut the pancetta into strips about 2 inches long and 1/4-inch thick. Heat the oil in a large heavy sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the pancetta and sauté until it begins to crisp, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté, until pale golden, about 2 minutes. Stir periodically and lower heat if needed to prevent the garlic from burning.

3)Add the Brussels sprouts, raise the heat to high and cook until heated through and beginning to brown, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add the broth and simmer until the broth reduces just enough to coat the Brussels sprouts, about 3 minutes. Serves 8.

Sherry Trifle

(adapted from a recipe by Lee Hillson executive chef, T.Cooks restaurant, Royal Palms Resort & Spa, Phoenix, Ariz)


  • About 1 pound purchased sponge cake or pound cake
  • 4 tablespoons cream sherry
  • 2 pints fresh strawberries plus more 5 or so for garnish, all destemmed
  • One 6-ounce box strawberry gelatin made according to package directions


  • 3 egg yolks
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 cups milk or light cream


  • 2 cups whipping cream
  • Confectioners sugar
  • 2 ounces sliced almonds, lightly toasted

1)Break or cut the sponge or pound cake into approximately 1-inch pieces.

2)Quarter the strawberries. Lightly toss the cake and strawberries and place in a large glass bowl. Drizzle over the sherry. Pour over the gelatin and allow to set.

3)To make the custard, whisk the egg yolks and cornstarch together in a saucepan. Add the vanilla, sugar and the milk. Mix well and put over medium heat. Whisk thoroughly until custard thickens, about 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from the heat and keep whisking for another minute. Let cool then pour over the gelatin base. Refrigerate.

4)Whip cream, adding sugar to taste. Spread evenly over top of the trifle. Sprinkle with the almonds and garnish with the remaining strawberries. (Trifle can be kept up to 24 hours under refrigeration before serving.) Serves 8 to 10.

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