I love to cook. I'm always attempting much too complicated recipes, in my far too tiny kitchen. Problem is, it never works out very well. And never is this more apparent than when my family starts signing up for dishes to cook for Christmas dinner.
Everyone has, by now, caught onto the fact that the dishes I contribute are pretty below-average (on several occasions, mediocre would have been too kind a word). So, for the past few years, my enthusiastic attempts to sign up for turkey duty have been immediately shot down with kind suggestions that perhaps I would like to bring some after-dinner mints instead.
Devastating blows, obviously, to someone as uncomfortable with failure as I am (my mantra is something along the lines of, if at first you don't succeed, try, try, try again and still force-feed everyone your soggy bread sauce, anyway).
So, when The Ritz-Carlton invited the team down to their Culinary Academy to spend the afternoon learning how to cook festive specialties, of course I couldn't resist.
The Academy takes place as an interactive cooking demo, in front of the open kitchen outside Lagoon restaurant. When we arrive, the whole area is covered in fancy festive decorations, from cakes and gingerbread houses to baubles and tinsel. Chef de Cuisine Will Khala and Executive Chef Gael Cruchet introduce themselves, and we’re brought festive mocktails, teas and coffees. We’re also given a booklet of recipes with room to make notes. (Top tip: actually use it. You won’t remember the precise temperature the inside of a turkey should be when cooking).
We start with the turkey basics. How to season it, why you should use butter instead of oil, the pros and cons of using different fruits like lemon for flavour. Obviously, we don't cook an entire turkey, but we are shown how to prepare it, right up to the moment it goes into the oven, and then the chef pulls out a perfect, golden here’s-one-I-made-earlier example to demonstrate the best way to carve.
Next, it’s onto the vegetables. Instead of showing us how to roast a tray of potatoes and veg, we are shown how to make a delicious medley in a pan. Simple, quick and far easier to manage than a jam-packed oven schedule on Christmas Day. This way, he tells us, your veg can be prepared in advance and just warmed up before serving.
In fact, for much of the class we talk strategy. As anyone who has ever tried to cook an entire Christmas dinner for more than two people will know, a full festive feast takes near military-precision planning to pull off, so for many I’m sure these tips will be a life-saver.
We go from an idiot-proof recipe for cranberry sauce, to (my personal favourite) Brussels sprouts with beef bacon, mushrooms and chopped chestnuts. Throughout the afternoon, both chefs insists that we should be creative at home. Keep the basic essentials of preparation, he says, but add whatever flavours you like. If you like fruity flavours, for example, stick a couple of orange slices into the roasting pan. Prefer your turkey to taste nutty and earthy? Bung in a load of chestnuts and mushrooms.
I'm so inspired at this point that I promptly send several assertive messages to our family group chat, insisting it's my year for the turkey and no-one can stop me. I’m convinced that come December 25, I will have made the world's most perfect turkey.
Chefs Khala and Cruchet are amazingly patient. Our incessant questions range from the complicated to the downright silly. But, they give us a thoughtful, detailed answer. By the time we leave, we’re all pretty confident that any roast poultry we prepare from here on out will be practically Michelin-starred.
We're also there to try the gingerbread house decorating session that The Ritz runs, so for the last hour things get more hands-on. We’re presented with one beautifully decorated house, and one blank canvas – so to speak – and let loose sweets and icing. With four of us enthusiastically piping and sticking (and snacking), the final result is less masterpiece and more primary school art project, and my inner control-freak is itching to bat everyone else away so I can realise my vision of a fairytale Time Out cottage.
But, in the spirit of Christmas – since you're supposed to share and all that jazz – I hold back and let my colleagues join in. I'll have plenty of time for my show-stopping moment on Christmas Day. Whether my family likes it or not.
Festive Culinary Academy: QR200 per person. Sat Dec 17, 10am-noon. Gingerbread decorating: QR300 per child (includes a buffet). Dec 16, 23 and 24, 10am and 3pm. The Ritz-Carlton Doha, West Bay Lagoon (4484 8550).
Four to try
Festive dinner dos and don'ts
Do: add fruit
Citrus flavours work particularly well with poultry, so adding lemon or orange wedges to the roasting pan, and placing them inside the cavity, will add a lovely, fresh flavour to whatever bird you're cooking, whether it's turkey, chicken, quail or duck.
Do: foil your turkey
The reasons for this are two-fold. Firstly, you want the meat to retain as much moisture as possible (so that you don't end up with dry meat) and have plenty of juices to turn into gravy. Secondly, because you want the inside to be well-cooked without burning the skin. Remove the foil towards the end of roasting to turn the bird lovely and golden.
Don't: use oil
It will run off into the bottom of the pan without properly diffusing through the meat to make it moist. With chunks of butter you can push it into the space between the skin and the meat which will keep the moisture inside the turkey for as long as possible. Butter will also combine with your seasoning to create a rich, but subtle, flavour.
Don't: be afraid of seasoning
Many people under-season a turkey because they're afraid of making it too salty. It's true that the sheer amount of seasoning needed for a seven-kilo turkey is pretty phenomenal, but remember that this is a huge – seriously huge – amount of meat, and there's nothing worse than a bland, under-seasoned turkey.
Be liberal with it and ignore your instincts to hold off.