Christmas is a marathon with two major hurdles - gifts and food. All over the country, mothers, friends, fathers, and grandparents are running themselves ragged trying to create a delicious meal. But not all cooks are born equal and if you are wise enough to know you are terrible but too proud to inform others, you have a dilemma. The answer is to fake it.
When guests arrive wide-eyed and frightened, you can show them just how wrong they were about you ... well, sort of wrong.
The first step to pretending to be a Christmas dynamo is to get people drinking (in moderation). Their compromised taste buds will believe everything is that little more delicious!
For drinks, champagne (or sparkling wine) with a few raspberries is a great choice and a step up in fancy from the everyday bubbly.
Alternatively, in Scandinavia, they drink a sweet mulled wine called gløgg which everyone makes with a handy pre-made mixture. Head to Ikea or other nordic stores such as Nordic Fusion (Mosman and Manly) throw it in a pot with red wine and sugar, then let it simmer. Do not boil it and risk burning out the alcohol! Neglect to mention the premix when talking about how it's made. Google the recipe so you can explain the process convincingly - like you actually made it yourself.
Before family members cross the fine line between sobriety and sobbing out their life story to a plastic Christmas tree, serve some cheese, bread and crackers. Brie, camembert, or goats cheese are all great options. If you really want to impress people, skip the supermarket produce and head to a nice deli. If you really, really want to impress people, head to place with a refrigerated cheese room like Fourth Village in Mosman, just so you can tell people you went all the way to a place with a cold cheese room to test and select these cheeses.
Serve on a large serving plate with some sliced pear and quince paste, because that's what they do in restaurants. And it complements the flavours nicely.
You can make another impressive no-cook starter by pushing cherry tomatoes and bocconcini (small mozzarella balls) onto skewers. Just drizzle olive oil and a hint of balsamic vinegar. Choose vine-ripened tomatoes because they have more flavour.
The main event
The best way to get away with something is telling just enough of the truth. Everyone, or at least a lot of people, order glazed ham from the butcher.
Don't be ashamed to tell your guests that the ham is bought. It's expected. Ordering ham is not a last minute to-do so make sure you head to your butcher sooner rather than later.
Anthony Purhavich from Victor Churchill butchery said of his Christmas offerings, the ham would be his first choice.
"We do a ham that can just be picked up. It's already glazed and can be just put on the table ready to carve."
If you don't like ham, then exchange the word 'ham' for 'turkey' and get ready for things to get a little more complicated. Butchers don't generally do the cooking for you. They lead the horse to water, so to speak, before abandoning you. If you know a more merciful butcher, huzzah! Otherwise you will need to turn to a caterer, such as Whisk Emporium. Those who can manage putting a pre-made dressed turkey in the oven, have a far easier road to travel.
Both ham and turkey taste delicious with cranberry sauce. Cranberry sauce is allegedly easy to make but let's not put you anywhere near a stove. Head to a deli to buy a jar or try lingonberry jam (for extra poshness). Both condiments are thick and tart so you don't need to buy much. A generous smear per guest is enough.
Hunting down roast vegetables should be easy. From DJ's to fast food shops, roasted veggies are sold all over the place. Find someone open on Christmas eve and plan an early invasion. The real trick is finding a place that freshly roasts potatoes because cold potatoes have a very distinct floury texture. If worst comes to worst, say you baked everything the day before. Alternatively, if anyone questions the provenance of your potatoes, just act confused ("providence, que?").
Another option is the classic potato salad. This can last a few days, so head to your favourite source and order it for the day before.
Side salads are also an important element. They can take a meal from gourmet (pronounced "gor-met") to gourmet (pronounced gor-may). If even salad dressing is a recipe for disaster then just place the olive oil and balsamic vinegar on the table so guests can add "as much as they like". Voila, a potential crisis is disguised as thoughtfulness.
The fanciest and easiest dish to do is a blueberry, blue cheese and baby spinach salad. Wash, dry and plonk the ingredients into a bowl together with a little salt and pepper and some olive oil. If you can, add 2 parts balsamic vinegar to one part olive oil. Choose or ask for a milder blue cheese so you don't offend sensitive palates.
For an easy garden salad, add mixed lettuce, cherry tomatoes (so you don't have to chop them) and sliced cucumber. Same dressing as above.
Eating a meal without dessert is like finishing a sentence without a full stop. It's confusing to guests ("is that it?) and you end up trailing on unsure when to stop. Serving desserts too complicated for your average masterchef is a clever way to avoid judgement.
Danny from Gelato Messina points to their annual Christmas Pandoro cake as the perfect choice. Not only is the presentation far superior to anything your friends could offer but customers can choose their own flavours and customise the cake.
"If you really wanted to fake it with your nonna, we’d have to use Italian Nougat, Hazelnut, and Chocolate Fondante [ice cream flavours]. They wouldn’t stand for apple pie, pavlova and dr evil in a Xmas cake."
Another option is take the classic option pavlova/meringue route. A bought pavlova is obvious a mile away because it is so smooth and perfect. Only a machine could do that. But smashing meringues into an eton mess is therapeutic and hides their original flawless design. Mix it up with some sweetened cream and chopped strawberries and you have dessert. The even safer route is to either skip the sweetening of the cream or to buy some passionfruit butter also known as passionfruit curd. Use this to replace the strawberries and don't sweeten the cream. This is the smart choice for those with gluten-intolerant friends.
Bûche de Nöel is a popular French Christmas cake. Essentially rolled chocolate cake with a saucy chocolate cream centre, any French patisserie worth their croissant will be taking orders!
Better yet, let the guests bring desserts. It's the least they can do after you slaved away.
One of the main keys to good food, aside from not burning things, is good-quality ingredients. Avoid supermarket dips and head to your local deli or farmer's market. You can taste the difference.
Lastly, don't leave evidence of culinary outsourcing lying around. If in doubt, deny. And avoid suspicious body language. Look your guests in the eye, and claim the credit for a great spread.