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Irish Christmas Menu

As you might expect, Irish Christmas traditions extend to the dining table, and food and drink play as big a part in holiday celebrations in Ireland as elsewhere in the world. On the topic of drink, December can get a bit chilly, so many partake of mulled wine or a hot Irish whiskey to warm their bones, especially after a frosty session of caroling. Although the Christmas traditions of individual Irish families can vary widely, below are some of the traditional dishes served in Ireland at Christmastime.

Starting Early: Holiday Menu Preparations

Christmas cooking typically begins early in the holiday season, because some of the most popular dishes require days of advance preparation. These can include plum pudding, and seed breads. Miniature mincemeat pies (the size of tarts) are served throughout the Christmas season, and can be prepared ahead of time as well.

One of the holiday dishes that calls for large helpings of lead time is the delicacy known as Irish spiced beef. While the recipe itself is simple, the dish requires two solid weeks of spicing and marinating. A large brisket of beef is kept in the refrigerator; it is coated with brown sugar, and every day for nine days, it is rubbed thoroughly with a spice mixture consisting of juniper berries, allspice, peppercorns, and salt. No cooking takes place until the twelfth day of this process. After cooking, it is again refrigerated and pressed by putting a heavy weight on top of it. The combination of pressing and chilling allows the brisket to keep fresh for up to four weeks. Between the main feasts of the holiday season, families slice off some spiced beef from the brisket in the refrigerator, and serve it cold with fresh bread and butter.

Irish Christmas cake is another traditional dish requiring well more than a wee bit of patience. It contains a mix of fruits – citrus peel, cherries, dates, raisins, currants – as well as nuts. The secret to an optimal finished product, however, is brandy (or in some cases, Irish whiskey); there is brandy in the batter itself, and after baking the cake is covered with a brandy-soaked cheesecloth, which of course soaks right into the cake as it hibernates in the refrigerator. The cake typically sits soaking in the fridge for a period of three weeks before serving.

Christmas Eve

The traditional Christmas Eve meal is fish, such as hake or cod, served with creamed potatoes. In some households, Christmas Eve is a day of fasting, with this fish dinner being the first meal of the day. After the family finishes eating on Christmas Eve, bread and milk are laid out on the kitchen table, and the door is left unlocked as a sign of hospitality. Do not overlook St. Nicholas; before retiring for the night, tradition dictates that you leave mince pie out as a snack for Santa, and a bottle of Guinness to wash it down with. Delivering all those presents is thirsty work!

Christmas Dinner

The most traditional entrée for Christmas dinner is roast goose or duck with sage or onion stuffing, cranberry sauce and bread sauce. Currently, however, roast turkey may have supplanted goose as the most popular main dish for Christmas. (If you traveled far enough back using your Irish time machine, you would likely have feasted on a boiled ox head, particularly in the Irish counties of Tyrone, Armagh, and Monaghan.)

This entrée is served with other meat (e.g., ham and sausages), roasted and/or boiled potatoes, and a selection of vegetables (e.g., brussels sprouts, cauliflower, carrots, and parsnips) and bread. Dessert? Let's have several, including Christmas plum pudding with brandy or rum sauce, a slice of mince pie or two, assorted chocolates, and some Irish Christmas cake, which is usually freed from its long confinement in the refrigerator and cut on Christmas afternoon.

You're Not Done Eating Yet

Since the official holiday season continues until the feast of the Epiphany on January 6 (also known as Little Christmas), there is much more feasting to be done. Keep slicing away at that spiced beef in the back of the fridge; there's also much more mince pie, puddings and Christmas cake lying about, waiting to be finished off. Nollaig Shona Duit – Happy Christmas to You!

Suggested Books: Irish Recipes and Food

Irish Traditional Cooking
Irish Traditional Cooking

by Darina Allen

Darina Allen is well-known to the Irish for her simple, fresh approach to cooking. Here she presents the full spectrum of traditional Irish dishes.

Elegant Irish Cooking: Recipes from the World's Foremost Irish ChefsElegant Irish Cooking: Recipes from the World's Foremost Irish Chefs

by Noel C. Cullen; photos by Ron Manville

This is an assortment of 166 recipes from top chefs in Ireland. While the recipes celebrate Irish cuisine and culinary traditions, they range from the traditional to the more progressive. The recipes may be elegant, but even beginners can prepare them without fancy techniques or special knowledge. The book features beautiful color photography by Ron Manville.

Lonely Planet World Food IrelandLonely Planet World Food Ireland

by Martin Hughes

This is a complete guide to the rich scene of Irish food and drink. In this volume, you'll get not only descriptions of the food, but the cultural perspectives behind the food, with pub lore, food-related customs, maps, and a spot of history as well.