Aussie culinary icon Maggie Beer has an overflowing recipe book and unrivalled knowledge of all things food, but above all she just loves Christmas.
Before she turns her hand to judging the new season of The Great Australian Bake Off – premiering on Lifestyle on Thursday January 18 at 8.30pm – Maggie will be hosting Christmas at home with her family in the beautiful Barossa Valley.
Here, the award-winning cookbook writer shares with us a behind-the-scenes look at the Beer Family Christmas; her Christmas menu staples, tips to get prepared for the festive cook-a-thon and how she styles her table.
Beer Family Christmas traditions:
When I was a child in Sydney, our Christmas lunch was casual but wonderful. Both my parents were great cooks but very little work was done on Christmas Day. When I was very young, the pride of the table would be a roast chook. It’s hard to remember just what a luxury that was. Our food became more lavish as the years progressed, and goose became the star of the table.
For me it has been so ever since – Christmas without goose just doesn’t seem right. Having inherited the tradition of a feast of beautifully simple food from my own parents, it is so important to me to continue that tradition for my children, and now my grandchildren. We keep it really simple so there is no fuss or bother, with everyone chipping in so that much of the preparation is done the night before.
Maggie’s Christmas menu:
When it comes to Christmas, I must admit a streak of extravagance – if I am tempted by something special, I’ll justify it by saying, “but it’s Christmas!” The house will be overflowing with flowers, the cellar will be raided for special wines, but our menu doesn't change much from year to year, and is all about having as much ready as possible on Christmas Eve so that the day itself is just a joy.
Seafood forms a large part of our Christmas fare. We usually start with fresh oysters, if we can find non-spawning ones; a sentimental favourite from my childhood that for some reason still evokes the ‘special-ness’ of Christmas. Although not really ‘seafood’, yabbies are always on the menu too if our dams are in a giving mood. I love serving them with a walnut dressing.
Then onto roast goose and one of Saskia’s Barossa chooks with our traditional stuffing of dried cumquats and morello cherries, walnuts, heaps and heaps of fresh herbs and Black Pig belly bacon. So scrumptious it doesn't matter if there isn't enough poultry.
We have a glazed leg of ham too, and plenty of salads. And to finish, a huge dish of jelly from sparkling shiraz filled with fresh raspberries. We never make it to the pudding, so that is always there for later in the afternoon, or as a lovely treat with a cup of tea the following day.
On trying something new at Christmas time:
I can’t help but be a traditionalist at Christmas time, and as far as our family traditions are concerned, they always have ham and Pavlova on the list! But the notion of adding more and more salads and fresh fruit into the mix has been something we’ve embraced to a higher degree in the last few years. There is just so much beautiful produce to choose from in the Barossa at this time of year, and really good produce needs so little done to it, so salads and fresh fruit platters tick all the boxes.
Styling her Christmas table:
My idea of decoration for any special occasion is to bring the season to the table, finding beautiful foliage from my garden or foraged from roadsides. Roses are always my number one choice for any meal, but especially at Christmas I like to find other choices of flora too. Olive branches always look striking on a table, and are in abundance at home with our olive grove just outside the door, but I also love having branches from trees that offer both greenery and produce – figs, almonds, lemons, even immature pears and pomegranates are a wonderful addition if I can bear to sacrifice a few for the sake of beauty!
I always choose my favourite linen napkins, our best glassware and cutlery, and have all dishes accounted for with a chosen serving platter ahead of time. Then it’s just a matter of making sure there are plenty of ice buckets on hand for bubbles, and if we are lucky enough to catch some yabbies, I set up a washstand for those peeling the yabby shells. I like to have everything at hand to reduce the amount of footwork from the table back to the kitchen once we have started eating; it takes a bit of forethought, but it is well worth the effort to be relaxed enough for everyone to really enjoy the day.
Maggie’s Christmas drinks menu:
In truth it will probably include a French Champagne as it’s so accessible. Though for those with lighter alcohol needs; our Pear Cider from our own orchard, served with canapés, a Yarra Valley Chardonnay with mains, and to finish, our Canecut Viognier with Cheese. I should also mention my non-alcoholic wines, Sparkling Ruby Cabernet and Sparkling Chardonnay, both of which give those not wanting to drink alcohol every reason to still enjoy the celebration of good food and company.
Her tips to you for a stress-free Christmas:
Right now I’d be buying the ham to store before glazing and baking closer to Christmas Day, putting in an order for a properly reared free-range turkey or goose, and perhaps even ordering any seafood ahead of time too, if you have a trusted fishmonger. I also try and find the cheeses I’m wanting to have on Christmas day too, as they can be bought now and put aside, along with any staple ingredients like dried fruit, nuts, good extra virgin olive oil, sea salt, anchovies, etc. Checking your basic pantry items is worthwhile at this point; you don’t want to find you’re missing something you need when it may be too late to source it. I also like to think about getting drinks together ahead of time; choosing wines and chilling bubbles can all take place now.
On delicious meals to make using Christmas leftovers:
Can I secretly admit to enjoying leftovers the day after Christmas as much as I do the food on the day itself? Thick cut ham sandwiches with chutney, cold cuts of goose with a fresh salad, ham and cheese toasties, frittata made with leftover roasted veggies and fresh eggs, and anyone who knows me knows how much I prefer Pavlova from the fridge the next day!
Maggie’s favourite last-minute, show-stopping Christmas recipe:
I love making pastry-based open tarts, or ‘galettes’ as they're known by fancier terms. These are a fantastic idea when you need to feed a lot of people with minimal fuss and always look beautiful too, which is of course a big part of the ‘specialness’ of Christmas cooking. We’re lucky to have a wonderful local pastry company in the Barossa; Careme, so I can even get away with not making my own pastry if time is truly against me, and I know it will have all the flavour of its homemade counterpart.
Maggie will be back in Season 3 of The Great Australian Bake Off in January – meet the latest batch of amateur bakers here.