The days between Christmas and New Year’s Day are, in Ireland, one long food-and-drink festival. It’s all about eating, drinking, and making merry in the company of extended family and friends, and each meal can and will last for hours.
Irish families tend to be huge, so it’s quite usual to have 30 or more people around the table. To feed them all, several courses and a lot of food is needed, which explains why traditionally, when the festivities kick off on Christmas Day, there isn’t just a turkey but also a ham and more. Christmas dinner starts at lunchtime but extends well into the afternoon and evening. All the delicacies are washed down with cider and Guinness. The odd glass of wine may also be served, but wine is not a priority for the Irish.
The 26th of December is St. Stephen’s Day, when leftovers are made good use of. Side dishes and gravy are equally important; accompanying the ham and turkey, there may be five different potato dishes and at least three sauces. The favorite dessert, plum pudding, needs to be prepared months beforehand because it must thoroughly soak in brandy.
The traditional foods for New Year’s Eve are corned beef, cabbage, carrots, and onions. For digestion, there are shots of good whiskey or brandy.
Here are all the Irish dishes you must eat during the holidays — and how they are prepared.
1. Guinness Roast Turkey
This is Ireland, so, naturally, the turkey gets an Irish twist. Two days of preparation are needed to produce this juicy bird.
First, it gets marinated. For this, you need a big pot with a heavy lid. In go yellow mustard seeds, black peppercorns, bay leaves, brown sugar, salt, a few cups of water, and six large cans of Guinness stout. Mix until the sugar and salt are dissolved, then put the turkey in, close with the heavy lid, and let it marinate in the fridge for 24 hours. Take the turkey out and pat dry.
The Irish turkey is stuffed with sausage meat, onions, cloves, cut-up tinned chestnuts, and fresh cranberries and transferred to a roasting pan. Cover the breast with bacon slices and roast the turkey until tender.
- Gravy is made from the turkey juices, turkey stock, butter mashed with flour, and the onions from the roast.
- In a separate jug, bread sauce is served. This is made from simmering onions spiked with cloves, peppercorns, milk, butter, grated nutmeg, cream, and freshly grated white bread crumbs, all mixed together and cooked in a rather lengthy process. Before serving, onions and cloves are removed. The result needs to be a smooth, creamy white sauce with extra bread crumbs strewn in.
- The Irish make things from scratch, so their cranberry sauce doesn’t come out of a can. Water, sugar, and orange juice are brought to the boil. Fresh cranberries, orange peel, and a cinnamon stick are added and simmered until all berries have popped. Let cool and refrigerate until served.
Irish mashed potatoes, also known as colcannon, are super creamy because they are made half and half with butter. They also include cabbage or kale. Other side dishes boiled potatoes, gratin, Brussels sprouts, carrots, parsnip, turnips, and fried bacon from the turkey.
2. Honey And Mustard Glazed Ham
Before the whole ham goes into the oven to be glazed and roasted, it needs to be boiled in a mixture of water, orange juice, bay leaf, and clove-studded onions. Then it’s simmered for about 1 hour. Transfer the ham to a roasting dish, make crosswise incisions, and insert the cloves. Glaze with a mixture of honey, sugar, orange juice, and whole-grain mustard. Baste the ham with the juices during the roasting time.
3. Stew For St Stephen’s Day
The 26th of December is St. Stephen’s Day in Ireland, which coincides with Boxing Day in the UK. St Stephen was a deacon in Jerusalem known for his charitable work, and he was the first Christian martyr.
This is also a day for visiting friends, more often than not for dinner, so, again, the meal has to be big. The Irish favorite is a hearty stew, made from turkey and ham leftovers, all covered in a thick gravy. Guinness and cider flow in rivers to wash it all down, including the thick roast potatoes flavored with sea salt, pepper, and thyme.
4. Irish Starters
The Irish not only love their hearty meat and sausages, but also seafood. A typical starter would be smoked salmon or a prawn cocktail made with a mixture of prawns and crab meat.
A hot soup never comes amiss as a starter on a cold Irish Christmas, and colcannon soup hits the spot. The ingredients are diced bacon, leeks, small, red potatoes, finely sliced cabbage, and a good dollop of heavy cream, all sprinkled with diced green onions for decoration.
5. Corned Beef And Cabbage For New Year’s Eve
Here is a bit of background to this tradition. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Ireland exported vast amounts of beef to France, the UK, and the U.S. As a result, local market prices for beef became too high for the average Irish person to afford. Beef was considered a valuable treat and was traditionally eaten on New Year’s Eve as a symbol of good luck and wealth. The corned beef is boiled and simmered in a big pot until it has the desired consistency.
Cabbage, on the other hand, was easily available. Therefore, corned beef and cabbage, boiled in a separate pot with carrots, potatoes, and onions, go hand in hand on New Year’s Eve.
6. Plum Pudding
Christmas pudding, in Ireland called plum pudding, is the number one sweet (and boozy) Christmas treat. It is eaten as dessert or at any time in between, even for breakfast.
Plum pudding needs a lot of preparation, and it’s no wonder: Look at the ingredients needed alone! Eggs, flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, chopped almonds, grated apple, brown sugar, the peel and juice of an orange and lemon, raisins, sultana, candied cherries, candied peel, breadcrumbs, Guinness, spoonfuls of hard liquor (like whiskey or brandy), and butter. The more variety, the better the pudding.
Mix the dry and then the liquid ingredients until you have a batter that is lighter than cake. If it’s too dry, just add more Guinness! Fill into a bowl, cover it with parchment paper and a lid, and steam in a bigger pot for something like 12 hours. When the pudding has cooled, remove from the bowl, dribble with brandy and whiskey, seal with a plastic foil, and let is all soak in for weeks.
Reheat the pudding before serving, then douse with brandy and set it alight. Don’t set your room on fire. You can decorate with a little brandy butter and a sprig of holly on top. Leftovers are heated in butter, and a little more brandy is added for good measure.
7. Mince Pies
Just like plum pudding, mince pies are a Christmas and New Year staple sweet and need to be prepared well in advance. You can bake the crust yourselves or buy them ready-made, but the filling is your own work.
You need beef suet, sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon, seedless raisins, chopped almonds, candied citron, dried figs, orange peel, cooked apples, pale, dry sherry, and brandy.
Mix the ingredients, then add the sherry and brandy until well soaked. Cover and keep in a cool place for three weeks. If more liquid is needed, add brandy. Then bake the crust, let cool, fill with the mixture, and bake until the rim is golden brown. Dust with powdered sugar. When kept in a cool place, the mince pies last for a very long time.
8. Sherry Trifle
Trifle is a sweet, creamy dessert that is layered with alcohol-drenched sponge cake, custard, homemade fruit jelly, whipped cream, and fruit toppings. The concoction is served in a big glass bowl or in individual cocktail glasses to show off the pretty layers.
First come the sponge cake fingers, or any jelly-filled Swiss roll cut into slices. This is soaked in dry sherry until the sherry is well absorbed. If you are up to it, you can make the custard yourself or buy it ready-made and spoon onto the sponge. The next layer is fruit jelly, preferably peach or raspberry for color, and a thick layer of vanilla-flavored whipped cream is piped on top. Then decorate with sliced white almonds and any cut-up fruit you like. Serve well chilled.
9. Irish Coffee
For quite some time, I thought Irish Coffee was just a touristy thing, but then my Irish friends convinced me that this is not the case. In fact, the Irish like to finish their sumptuous Christmas dinner with a round of Irish coffee.
Here is how it’s made: Whip the cream until it’s still slightly liquid, brew a pot of strong coffee, and pour the coffee into a heatproof glass. Add as much whiskey as you like, sugar to taste, and stir well until the sugar is dissolved. Then carefully pour the cream over the back of a spoon onto the coffee. It is not supposed to mix or sink to the bottom. If you like, you can sprinkle a little nutmeg on top.