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Food writer Nicola Miller explores cookbooks old and new to help us make this Christmas the festive feast we really want

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I love a Christmas-themed cookbook, no matter how idealised or rarified the writer’s Christmas appears to be. At this time of year, I fully embrace whimsy, sentimentality and romantic images of snowy Hallmark Christmases, despite the ad-hoc nature of my festive plans.

I am also a sucker for a firm taskmistress in the form of Elizabeth David and Delia Smith when it comes to food prep and timings; these food writers are bossy just when you need someone to be. Some of my choices are newly published, while others are old favourites, but they all possess distinctive writerly voices. Think of their authors as a Christmas chorus of cooks sent from the publishing heavens to help you celebrate in whatever way you see fit.

Advent: Festive German Bakes to Celebrate the Coming of Christmas by Anja Dunk (Quadrille Publishing Ltd; £25)

Advent (53451518)
Advent (53451518)

I am rather keen on the idea of a cookbook that celebrates Advent and the coming of Christmas as opposed to just the day itself, which – for some people –can be more stressful than enjoyable. It’s an important psychological distinction, and Dunk’s book is a very gentle and comforting way to relax into the days before The Day as it doesn’t feel cluttered with ideas. And it’s so atmospheric, I half-expected the book’s forest-green and gold embossed cover to be scented with balsam. (Yes, I sniffed it!) Advent is an insight into Dunk’s own Christmas memories, growing up in Wales with her German mother, yet it doesn’t make me feel inadequate about my patchy efforts to conjure up some festive cheer. Illustrated with homely, warm photos and 24 utterly lovely woodcuts by Dunk, each section offers ideas for decorating your home as well as gorgeous food. Day one offers a recipe for saltzteig (salt dough) to fashion into table wreaths whilst, further along, we are tempted by recipes for Muesli Breakfast Rolls, Coffee Fondant Biscuits, Marzipan and Almond-Stuffed Dates, Linzer Cookies for the traditional butter teller plates and all manner of tree decorations, stollens and fruited bread.

At Christmas We Feast: Festive Food Throughout the Ages by Dr Annie Gray (Profile Books; £12.99)

“While it’s true that much of the surface paraphernalia of the modern Christmas can be ascribed to one or two decades (mainly the 1840s), there are deeper themes which cross the centuries,” writes Dr Annie Gray in her introduction to At Christmas, We Feast, an archly written and fascinating ‘exploration of the history of the dishes and ingredients that we associate with Christmas’. Gray is an accomplished British historian, author and TV and radio presenter, appearing in series like the BBC’s Victorian Bakers and as a panellist on Radio Four’s The Kitchen Cabinet. She explores the mutable nature of our festival foods via chapters chronologically arranged from the 4th century onwards. There are chapters on how gingerbread started as a rich person’s food and the British fondness for pig at Christmas, the history of the trifle, ‘epic’ Christmas pies, a plea for the return of ‘Twelfth Cake’, and Christmas, ‘post-war and beyond’. There are reworkings of older recipes, too. I love the sound of Eliza Acton’s Tipsy Cake, Hannah Woolley’s Brawn, Wine Chocolate made with ruby port, and a strange ‘Christmas Omelette’ containing mincemeat from Alfred Suzanne’s ‘sarcastic’ cookery book about the odd things the British and Americans did to their food. An excellent bibliography at the end (as you’d expect from Dr Gray) will please those inspired to read more.

At Christmas We Feast (53451520)
At Christmas We Feast (53451520)

The Christmas Chronicles by Nigel Slater (4th Estate; £26)

Nigel Slater has said that “if your idea of Christmas is all candy canes and fluffy kittens, then this is not the book for you. We should never forget that winter is as deadly as she is beautiful”. The Christmas Chronicles is part of a greater Northern European tradition, where folklore and fairytales are woven into sere landscapes, and the feasting is hearty and staying. Its grey cover patterned with silver birch trees embossed in gold perfectly captures the tension between frigid outdoor conditions, the warmth of woollen clothing during a brisk walk, and our return to hearth and home. It isn’t sentimental, though. Slater’s embrace of winter is well-earthed and clear-eyed, loving and reflective, written in a loose diarised form so you can dip in and out. Musings on fire, the scent of winter, coming in from the cold, choosing the tree, the joy of Christmas markets in Germany and the unwrapping of ornaments, the stillness of a Japanese Onsen in winter, and the necessary pleasure of list-making are studded with recipes; sometimes these are little more than a mere suggestion, and at other times they are detailed. And what recipes! A passion fruit cake made from leftover panettone; a Hot-Smoked Fish and Leek Pie to eat after the evergreens have been brought in to adorn the house; Dried Fig and Marsala Tart to help with list-writing; a sweet dish of Rice with Cream, Almonds and Scarlet Fruits; and a Lemon, Orange and Basil Ice inspired by a visit to wintry ice cream stands in Japan. There’s a fry-up for a rainy day in the form of a plate of Apples, Potato and Bacon; Cranberry Focaccia to celebrate the eve of a new year, and a recipe for Roast Pumpkin with Dukkah and Pomegranate accompanied by a perfect little essay on Advent Calendars.

Visions of Sugar Plums by Mimi Sheraton (Random House; prices vary)

Written in 1968 by Mimi Sheraton, who served as the restaurant critic at the New York Times between 1975 and 1983, you will need to hunt down secondhand copies of this little gem. Sheraton focuses on traditional Christmas food worldwide and isn’t interested in ‘reinterpreting’ these recipes. This book serves as documentation. ‘No Christmas memory would seem to be complete without recollections of the holiday foods, most especially the sweets: the yeasty coffee bread golden with saffron and mace; the aged and ripened fruit cakes spiked with whiskey or brandy and jewelled with bits of candied fruits; crisp butter cookies peppery with ginger or aromatic with anise; darkly rich mince pies, plum cakes and puddings; the flaming wine punches and soul-warming wassails; the sensuously sweet taffies and marzipan candies; and the pervasive comfortable scents of vanilla, peppermint, nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves,’ is a paragraph that sends me into raptures. Recipes for Cherry Whiskey Cake, Prune and Walnut Dumplings, Lebanese Crullers glazed with Honey Syrup, Chestnut Fingers and Rye Cookies from Finland, German Anise Drops, Danish Advent Pretzels, Pennsylvania Dutch Belsnickles, Estonian Honey Cake and Portuguese Sugarplums, and an ‘Island-Spiced’ Eggnog from the Caribbean will fill a nostalgic heart with quiet joy.

The Official Downton Abbey Christmas Cookbook by Regula Ysewijn (Titan Books UK; £24.99)

I have a confession: Having never watched a single minute of Downton Abbey, I wondered whether I was qualified to review a cookbook based on the hugely popular TV series. But when I saw that not only was the brilliant Regula Ysewijn its author, but the book’s foreword had been written by food historian Dr Annie Gray too, I knew this would be a meticulously researched cookbook, filled with delicious and well-tested recipes. Ysewijn’s other cookbooks, based on her fascination with the history of traditional British baking, are some of my favourites. So, readers get a beautifully written account of seasonal festivities and traditions in the UK illustrated with stills from the show. Recipes are contextualised, and Ysewijn is particularly good on the Edwardian cooks and cookbook authors who made this food. There are sections on subjects such as ‘How To Host a Downton Christmas’ and little recipe notes that provide background information. I particularly liked the savoury meat pie and pudding section; there’s a recipe for a magnificent Yorkshire Christmas Pie that was once served to Queen Victoria at Windsor. Filled with chicken, partridge, pheasants, quails, two saddles of hare, and flavoured with Madeira and spices, this pie was an edible status symbol. This book doesn’t just cover what the rich ate, though; Ysewijn tells us about Hackin Puddin’ made with beef, oats, spices and suet and traditionally served ‘early in the morning on Christmas Day in several counties in northern England’ to male workers of the household, too.

Downton Abbey Christmas Cookbook (53451528)
Downton Abbey Christmas Cookbook (53451528)

The Pastry Queen Christmas by Rebecca Rather with Alison Oresman (Ten Speed Press, prices vary)

Rebecca Rather lives in Fredericksburg, Texas, a town with German roots. When she moved there back in 2000 and witnessed the annual Nightime Christmas parade, she burst into tears: “The parade symbolised everything I valued about living in a small town”, she writes in this her second of three books about cooking and entertaining, Texas-style. So, if you are looking for a book that captures a small-town Christmas this is it. Multiple cultural influences are drawn from across the USA and Mexico so it doesn’t feel as parochial (ie white) as a Hallmark Christmas either. Recipes for skillets filled with Mexican Ranch Chilaquiles and Rosa’s Tamales with Tomatillo Sauce reflect the state’s Texan-Mexican cuisine. At the same time, Apple Dumplings and Pear and Apricot Jam Bars reflect the town’s German heritage. Neighbouring Louisiana inspires a Day-After-Christmas Cajun Turkey Gumbo, while a recipe for Cowboy Coffee Straight (packed with double cream and Bushmills whisky) comes straight from a ranch campfire. You will need a set of cup measures to cook from this book.

Nigella Christmas: Food, Family, Friends, Festivities (Chatto & Windus; £26)

Nigella Christmas: Food, Family, Friends, Festivities (53451530)
Nigella Christmas: Food, Family, Friends, Festivities (53451530)

“Christmas in my home is about bringing light and fire and warmth into the chill darkness. I love the reminder of the cycle of the seasons, the belief in the beneficence of Mother Nature and the sense that the hearth and the home keep the light alive and provide sustenance and hope,” Lawson writes in her introduction to her Christmas book, published back in 2008. She describes a time when she appeared on a radio show with the high priestess of a Wiccan coven. The latter celebrated the festival similarly: “She felt that the lighting of the oven, the creating of the feast, was the human way of understanding, celebrating and enshrining of Mother Nature. How could I object to that?” Lawson writes before adding, “Christmas is not just a time when the Domestic Goddess comes into her own but a moment to conjure up the Christmas Druid as well,” which always makes me laugh. Think of Lawson as a Christmas midwife, steering us through a time of anticipation, joy and hard work. What follows is a blend of practical advice and kind reassurance; the festively cheery in the form of seasonal kitchenalia (or should that be ‘kitschenalia’) and pages of beautiful food. I’m a big fan of her Boozy British Trifle, which takes no prisoners, a Chestnut Soup with Bacon Crumbles, and an Allspice Gravy. There’s an entire vegetarian set lunch (although lots of Lawson’s recipes are free from meat), ideas for leftovers (Turkey Hash, Turkey Pilaf with Pomegranate and Dill), a Potato, Porcini and Parmesan Gratin, Pumpkin Pancakes with Sticky Maple Pecans, and all the edible tree decorations, Christmas cakes, muffins, and pies you could wish for. And if you have overindulged, there’s even ‘a brace of recipes to help you through the festivities’, prescribed by ‘Dr Lawson’.

Baking For The Holidays: 50+ Treats For a Festive Season by Sarah Kieffer (Abrams & Chronicle Books; £18.99)

Sarah Kieffer is the Minnesota-based writer of the Vanilla Bean Blog and a book, 100 Cookies. In my opinion, this makes her eminently qualified to pronounce on all things wintry and seasonal. (If you want a taste of Minnesota during the winter, watch Grumpy Old Men starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau or A Charlie Brown Christmas, which has snowy scenes based on the neighbourhood of St Paul, the childhood home of its creator, Charles Schulz.) Kieffer’s book focuses on Christmas, Hanukkah and the New Year with recipes for desserts, edible gifts, morning bread and pastries, and all the accoutrements you need to make them taste even better. You’ll be shown how to make so many delicious things: panettone scones, cranberry jam, a Pear-Almond Danish braid, modern fruit cakes filled with kirsch, chocolate and sour cherries, streusel topping for cakes and puddings (Kieffer advises making it in bulk and freezing to be used at will), Blood Orange Turnovers, and Nutella Star Bread all sound delicious. Measurements are in volume and metric, instructions are clear, and there’s a helpful bibliography and music playlist.

Baking for the Holidays (53451516)
Baking for the Holidays (53451516)

Follow Nicola on Twitter: @Nicmillerstale

Winner of the Guild of Food Writers Online Food Writer Award 2020