Nigella Lawson
Photo: Lis Parsons
Best known as the domestic goddess, Nigella Lawson has gained fans worldwide for her no-fuss, casual approach to cooking and entertaining. In her newest cookbook, Nigella Christmas, Lawson features easy-to-follow recipes and holiday entertaining advice to help even the most hesitant of party-throwers. Lawson talks to about her holiday style and about her main focus during the season: food, family, friends and festivities.

Christine M. Paik: In Nigella Christmas, you talk a lot about how Christmas is the one time of year when people who aren't party-givers give parties. What advice do you have for those who are really intimidated by throwing a great bash?

Nigella Lawson: In cooking and party giving, but also just in living generally, you have to have such an odd mixture between a firm structure and flexibility because you've got to obey the rules, but you've got to go with the flow as well. I always think it's really important to write a list of what you're proposing to do. But then I think you have to go through the list and probably cross about half the things out. Because it's in all of our natures to overreach and to want to do much more than is either feasible or really desirable. … Settle on three or four things you want to give people to eat. I tend to settle [for] just one alcoholic cocktail and one mocktail, as well as water. You're not an octopus—there are only two pitchers of drinks you can carry around!

My other tip is I cook … everything in those throwaway foil tins because the washing up is a huge stress. And if you're cooking something quite liquid, you just double up so it's firmer. And I used to feel slightly guilty about this, but [I] used to say to people, "If you have to choose between saving the environment and saving all sanity, go for your sanity." A friend of mine who is very active in the green movement says actually those aluminum trays are very eco-friendly because the foil recycles so well. And it's probably more eco-friendly than washing detergent. So you can feel lazy and virtuous, which is a good start to the holidays!

CP: I happen to be one of those people who only throw parties during the holidays. And no matter how much in advance I prepare, I'm still completely overwhelmed and worried that people won't like the food or will be bored. You make it look so easy!

NL: The holidays can be so overwhelming! I'm a home cook. I'm never going to be cook things that you need a brigade to help you with. Particularly at this time of year—holidays is about home. It's not even appropriate to eat fancy restaurant food. Somehow there is something in us—the winteriness, the family feeling—it's not about the fancy. So I think in a way, people should stop berating themselves for not being able to do something that would be served in an expensive restaurant, because that wouldn't be wanted.

I think to some extent—although I've been a judge in reality cooking shows—I do think they probably to some extent do a disservice to the home cook because it makes us all imagine we're a part of those shows and people will come and make comments when, of course, we're just inviting our friends. And no one has the sort of friends who are looking to see whether you overcooked or undercooked. It's about sort of feelings and relationships this time of year. I think that [as] women we all have this terrible tendency to judge ourselves and beat ourselves about our shortcomings and be ever ready to dwell on our flaws. And I think maybe one should be generous to other people at this time of year, but perhaps a bit more generous to one's self. And just think: "I'm doing the best I can. I'm not having these marked up. It's my own kitchen and my own home, and I'm going to enjoy myself, and I know everyone else will too." And I think that's probably the most important thing to say.

Christmas Chocolate Cookies
Photo: Lis Parsons

CP: When it comes to preparing food for a holiday party, I think people always want to serve things that dazzle or have a certain "wow" factor. But you don't necessarily feel that way.

NL: All the recipes—none of them require any particular expertise or dexterities, I don't have those things. I've learned more the more I've done, but nevertheless, a lot of the cakes and cookies are just like one process—you just do everything one bowl.

The Christmas Chocolate Cookies —you don't even need to roll anything out. You just mix it together and roll them into the balls. They're so pretty and festive, and they really are child's play to me. What I love about them [is] they have a homespun look to them. I think that's really important. I don't want things to look like they come out of a box or a store. …I do think that what a lot of people think of as perfection to me— it's such an elusive idea. I like the homespun because if you can't be homespun during the holidays, when can you?

CP: Some of the recipes in the book aren't your standard holiday fare—I'm thinking of the Choc Chip Chili in particular. How did you come up with that?

It's so easy for a crowd. I don't know how long I've had them, but those red enamel casseroles. Every year you get out the big casserole again, you put everything in it, and it's simple because you cook in advance. You reheat it, you serve it in the same dish you cook it in. It's kind of really paring down the labor but actually intensifying the festiveness and enjoyment.

As for adding chocolate chips—I'm very interested in chili and the way everyone has a different recipe. A lot of chills, sometimes they have a very small amount of cocoa powder. I suppose it's like a molé really. Cocoa powder doesn't really give sweetness—it's actually quiet bitter. But what it has is depth. I think it's like a cross between smoked paprika and smoked cinnamon. It has that kind of depth to it and sort of resonance. And I wondered if instead of using the cocoa powder, if I used chocolate that was dark, whether it would give that same feeling of intensity but without sugariness. (Although a bit of sweetness in a way is a very good balance to the amount of chili, certainly in sausage you've got in there.) And it really worked! It's not a big amount, but it just somehow, makes it darker, more luscious. You'd know it had something extra, but you'd never say it's got chocolate in it. But I point it out in the name of the recipe because I think it makes people laugh, and they think I'm teasing them when I say, "Do you want my chocolate chip chili?" It causes great merriment—after all, this is the season to eat, drink and make merry. It's appropriate!

CP: Besides the cooking of the food, preparing the décor can be overwhelming too! How do you like to decorate your home and holiday tables?

NL: I don't care at all about matching china. I kind of go overboard on red, white and green, and I don't really mind it if it's all the same. But I do collect vintage holiday china. I've been collecting those from vintage stores and eBay for years, so I get that out. I put canisters of cutlery on the table … so everyone can help themselves—I like a bit [of] bustle. I get my red napkins out—they're not that expensive. I've got some, again, rather inexpensive Swedish-inspired wooden decorations that ware meant to hang from the tree, like snowflakes or deer—I just dot those around the table. … And then I have a bowl of holiday fruit. One year, I had this lovely thing of red apples and walnuts and red grapes all around the table.

I'm lucky that I have a lovely old wooden table. I don't do an awful lot of tablecloth work. Not least because once you've got cranberry sauce spilled on it, and you've got so many children and everyone passing things, you know it's not going to last until the next year! So I think it's easier. I don't know, I suppose everyone has a different aesthetic. I like things to be both simple but cozy. So I don't want it all perfect and elegant.

And I love tea lights. It's so lovely. Flickering lights is actually that makes everyone, I think, feel so cozy.

CP: Thank you for sharing your recipes and entertaining advice.

NL: I always love talking about the holidays … but I wouldn't if I had to make everything perfect.

Oh! You have to put in my great rule: Food and family together can be very combustible, so you always have to have someone there that your family doesn't know well enough to behave badly in front of! Can be a close friend of yours, but as long as the rest of your family doesn't know that person!

Recipes from Nigella


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