Oxmas: Brining a Turkey

Oxford is a strange place to be for lots of reasons, one of which is the concept of ‘Oxmas’. Because the University terms are so short, lasting only eight weeks, term finishes very early- this year on Saturday 1st December. If you want a college or society Christmas dinner while everybody is still around, it’s got to happen in the last week of term, i.e. November. All this adds up to spending the last week of November going to carol services, eating turkey and minced pies, drinking mulled wine, and giving your friends gifts before going home and waiting three weeks for Christmas to arrive for everybody else. Very strange.


Oxmas has become an annual tradition now in the Oxfood household, with old university and school friends coming back in early December to catch up, pull crackers, and enjoy some good food. Each year I try to make something different, still sticking on the theme of roast turkey, and, of course, trying to make the food better than last year’s meal. Last year I made a three-bird roast, with a turkey, duck, and pheasant, sowing the entire thing together to create an enormous ‘meat pillow’. The previous year was Christmas dinner en miniature, with a roast poussin each and tiny roast vegetables on everybody’s plates. Christmas pudding has also come in various guises too. Last year was a Christmas pudding millefeuille, with brandy crème patisserie, and the previous year Christmas crackers, made out of filo pastry with Christmas pudding inside. Hard to top? This year I just tried to make basic roast turkey, and Christmas pudding, as well as I could. The ‘Oxmas pudding‘ was made months in advance, but the turkey required more though.

As is well known, one of the main problems with turkey is keeping it moist. There are lots of different solutions- foil, butter, basting for example- but the one I wanted to try this year was brining. Brining involves marinating the meat in a salt solution- the brine- for a few days beforehand, so that the meat can absorb more water to keep it moist in cooking. According to Harold McGee’s ‘McGee on Food and Cooking’, the salting has two main effects. Firstly protein filaments, which normally coagulate into dense substances when cooked, are dissolved, resulting in meat which is more tender. Secondly, the salt causes the an increase in water capacity of the muscle, so the meat can absorb about 10% of its mass in water. You still lose water in cooking, but the meat retains more water through brining. Similarly, the areas of the turkey which are most prone to overcooking- the outside- have absorbed the most water.

It is interesting then to compare this to ‘dry-brining’, which is not much more than salting. I talked to a few friends about cooking turkey beforehand, and they all recommended dry-brining, as it was quicker and easier to do. Given the science of brining above, you would achieve the first effect of dissolving protein filaments, creating a more tender turkey. The second effect of plumping up the turkey with water would not happen, however, so you would still lose the same amount of moisture during cooking as regular turkey. In the quest to get the turkey really moist, it was clear dry-brining wouldn’t do.


There are, additionally, some problems with brining a turkey. Firstly, the logistics. We had large number of people to feed, so needed a big bird. Where do you store a large turkey, along with around 12 litres of brine, for a few days? One option was to buy a disposable plastic bin, but fortunately we had a cool box we borrowed, which (just) fit our turkey inside along with all the brine we needed. Keeping it cool was another challenge (although we weren’t that concerned given how salty the environment was), but we needed a good few ice trays to keep the temperature down. The logistics of brining are definitely worth thinking about if you are going to brine a large animal yourself.

The second problem was a culinary one though. As you would expect, the meat is quite salty, as are the juices which come off it. We rarely eat salty food, so were worried the salt would dominate the flavour of the meat. If you want to make gravy out of the juices, either it will be extremely salty, or you’ll have to blend it with another liquid (we used cider, which worked well). The recipe below also adds a fair amount of sugar to the brine, as sugar counteracts salt on your palate, which can be another solution to this problem.


Overall, I would say that the results were mixed. The texture of the turkey was very good, moist as you would hope, and this was agreed by all of the diners. But I think the brine affected the taste of the turkey too much. It was quite salty, but not as bad as it could have been, but the herbs and spices in the brine came through too strong, and the taste of the turkey was too complex. I’m not sure I would do a brined turkey again, because of the taste. Given the effort it took, and considering there are other good methods to keep a turkey moist, it was just too much. A fun culinary experiment though, and a great Oxmas.


I took this recipe from Nose To Tail Eating. You may need to make several quantities for the whole turkey.

400g brown sugar
600g sea salt
12 juniper berries
12 cloves
12 black peppercorns
3 bay leaves
4 litres water

Make the brine. Boil all the ingredients up together in a large (or several) pans, making sure the sugar and salt have dissolved. Leave to cool before applying to the meat.



Cranberry and Cinnamon Pannetone

Pannetone, like Lebkuchen, is one of those foods which just gets me excited about Christmas. For the family Christmas, my aunt would bring a huge pannetone over from the continent, which could never be big enough for the whole family. I’d get up in the morning after they arrived, find half of it already gone, and sit down to a generous icing-sugar dusted slice with the morning coffee, and catch up with relatives. Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without pannetone, so when I hosted my “Oxmas” meal for a number of friends this last weekend, I decided to give making one a go.

Pannetone is remarkably similar to brioche. Both are bread-based, with lots of eggs and butter to make a richer dough. Also, as with brioche, the baking process is particularly important as well. The large amount of fats in both of these breads interfere with the development of gluten networks, which is why the dough ends up light and fragile (for more information see here). It is therefore important to let the gluten network develop (and the bread to rise a little) before incorporating all of the butter, to end up with the right texture of bread. If you are using a sourdough starter (which I didn’t), then you won’t have quite the same problems, as the gluten network is in some sense more well established.

There are a couple of key differences though. Pannetone is traditionally made with a sourdough starter, the dough kneaded three times, and left for several days to give the bread the delicate texture. According to Larousse Gastronomique, pannetone contains raisins and candied orange and lemon peel. It seems I’ve taken a few liberties with these identifying characteristics of pannetone, not using a sourdough starter, and putting in my own fruit, but you can adapt the recipe below for a more traditional cake if you want.

Another thing of interest is the mold to use for baking the pannetone. I looked through the ones I have, and with a lot of silicone bakeware, none of them looked like they would support a large bread which is expected to expand a lot in the oven. Because I was feeling creative, I decided to use a large metal castle mold (roughly like this) I had bought a few years ago to make chocolate castles. I was a little concerned that the dough wouldn’t expand very well in the mold, as it was quite compressed, and the textures might be different at different parts in the cake. But this was not to be. The pannetone was light and fluffy everywhere, and, apart from a few cranberries in the turrets, the shape worked very well. Who doesn’t want a castle pannetone this Christmas? Not me.


Cranberry and Cinnamon Pannetone

This recipe is based on one from BBC Good Food. I’ve left out the white chocolate, because I don’t think the flavours match well, left out the mixed peel, as I don’t like it, and added some cinnamon, to make it more Christmassy.

500g strong white bread flour
2tsp dried active yeast
100g golden caster sugar
200ml milk
3 eggs
2tsp vanilla extract
200g butter, the best quality you can afford
200g dried cranberries
1tbsp cinnamon
icing sugar, for dusting

1. Make the dough. Warm the milk to hand hot. In an electric mixer (or by hand), combine the flour, yeast, sugar, milk, eggs, and vanilla extract. Knead for 3 minutes, then set aside in a warm(ish) place for an hour. Get the butter out of the fridge.
2. Incorporate the butter. Cut the butter into small pieces. Put the dough back into the electric mixer, and, at a low speed, gradually add the pieces of butter until incorporated into the dough. Set aside again for another hour.
3. Cook the pannetone. Preheat oven to 160ºC. Add the cranberries and cinnamon to the pannetone dough, and put the dough in a mold. Leave to rise for another 30 minutes. Cook in the oven for 45 minutes, then put on a rack to cool. Dust with icing sugar to serve.


Restaurant Review: Folly Bridge Brasserie

The Folly Bridge Brasserie is an easy place to overlook. I’ve been in Oxford for six years now and never been there, or even heard it suggested as a place to go for dinner. Formerly an Indian restaurant, it is hard to imagine that somewhere with such a great riverside location would not be much more popular than it was. Perhaps because The Head Of The River is just across the way, or the fact that it’s a bit of a walk to get there, or that it is not particularly easy to spot just walking around- the Folly Bridge Brasserie is just hard to find. Recently, though, I got the chance to discover it when a friend suggested that our research group go there for our Christmas dinner.

FollyBridge_StarterSpecialising in French cuisine, The Folly Bridge Brasserie has a varied menu, with dishes like ‘Escargots de Bourgogne’, ‘Game Terrine’, ‘Rabbit and wild mushroom tagliatelle’, and ‘Chocolate and chestnut yule log’. We had our meal from the Christmas party menu, which required us to order in advance, given there were so many of us. To start, I had a goats’ cheese salad- goats’ cheese, chutney, toast, and salad- well presented and good quality cheese. For the main, Calvados 
pheasant, which came with 
the usual Christmas dinner fixings, all cooked well and delicious. In particular, the roast potatoes were some of the best I have had. To finish, an apricot tart, sprinkled with almonds and blueberries. At £20 a head, very good value, and I would be happy to eat there again.

FollyBridge_PuddingWe started the drinks off with a complimentary glass of prosecco- not quite as fruity as some of the other prosecco I’ve had, but light and delicate, so fine for an aperitif. With the meal, we bought bottles to share around the table. The house white was Sicilian, which seemed strange, given the restaurant was French, and it wasn’t particularly good either. I’ve often said the mark of a good wine list is that the house wine is of good quality, so a little disappointing here. The red we ordered was a Bordeaux, a much better (but more expensive) bottle, which I like, and the wine worked with the pheasant well. Overall though, it looks like the wine list is a little generic, trying to cater to popular wine styles. I’d much rather see a solid French list, for a French Brasserie, designed to go with their food.

Although we were the only people earlier in the evening, the restaurant became very busy later on. With the river right out the window, and low lighting (hence the dark photos), even for a winter’s night it was very pleasant. The staff were very friendly and helpful. It felt like a relaxed restaurant, but without loads of personality- perhaps it is just not established enough to have put its mark on the place. Overall, a nice place to eat, with very good food, but just missing a little something. I would be very happy to come back, but is it my new favourite restaurant? Possibly not.

Pheasant Cassoulet

Cassoulet is one of the French classics. Not much more than a glorified stew, you might compare it to bouillabaisse, boeuf bourguignon, or Lancashire hot-pot, if you want a British equivalent. But, as with all these dishes, what makes a classic is the place they have in gastronomic history, and their connections with certain regions of their home country. For cassoulet, this is the south of France. The lore and tradition that comes along with cassoulet is what you might expect as well. You read stories about shops in the south of France being closed for short periods of the day, putting signs on their doors: “closed on account of the cassoulet”, so that they could pop over to the local bakers to cook the breadcrumb topping. The ingredients are all local fare, using confit’d meat, garlic sausages, or beans grown locally. And there seem to be about as many ways to make cassoulet as there are people who make it.

At its core, cassoulet is a pairing of meat and beans, with a breadcrumb topping. But quite what that meat is, and the variety of beans, seems to be key to the recipe. Flageolet beans or Haricot beans were varieties grown locally, and it is noted in Elizabeth David’s French Provincal Cooking that “butter beans will not do”. A Toulouse cassoulet would use pork and sausages, the Languedoc variety pork, confit’d goose or duck, or, leaving the south of France, an Alsace version with mutton and potatoes. But for me, this one-pot stew was made with whatever you had locally or whatever meat you had preserved. So as long as you go with meat, beans and breadcrumbs, I should think you can call the dish a cassoulet.

I decided to make this version of the cassoulet not because I have strong feelings about different varieties of cassoulet, but because I had a couple of pheasants in the freezer. A friend gave me these pheasants from a shoot, so they had a wonderful gamey flavour, even if I couldn’t hang them in our flat for long enough (Mrs. Oxfood would not have been pleased). I love to stew game birds- often when roasted they dry out easily, and are very fiddly to eat with a knife and fork. But when stewed, the flavour releases across the whole stew, the meat softens, and falls right off the carcass. You don’t have to pluck the bird either- skinning it is much much quicker- so if you are prepping the bird yourself, there is a further incentive. Pheasant is wonderful at this time of year, and a hot meaty stew is just what you want with the current cold weather.

Pheasant Cassoulet

Pheasant Cassoulet

This recipe is adapted from one in Elizabeth David’s French Provincal Cooking. I used two pheasants here, which made a lot of cassoulet, but you can decrease the quantities if you want, to make a smaller amount.

2 pheasants
2 tins flageolet beans, rinsed
1 bulb garlic
2 packs Toulouse sausages
1 pack streaky bacon, chopped
1 bouquet garni
2 onions, each stuck with 4 cloves
breadcrumbs from about 4 slices of bread

1. Make the stew. Brown the pheasants, sausages, and bacon. Stick everything apart from the breadcrumbs in a large stewing pot. Cover with water, then allow to stew for several hours until the stew reaches a thick(ish) consistency. Keep adding a little more water if you need to.
2. Finish off the cassoulet. Pick the meat off the pheasants, remove the onion, garlic, and the bouquet garni (you might want to transfer to a smaller casserole dish at this point). Cover the stew with breadcrumbs, then return to the oven for 30 minutes until the breadcrumbs are brown.

The breadcrumb topping

An Oxford Lunch

Most of the time when I meet a friend for lunch, we usually just grab a meal in our of our colleges, or the department canteen. Very rarely do I eat out for lunch, partly because of the cost, but partly because of the time it takes out of the day. So when I do want to spend some money and take some time out of my day, it better be good. Instead of going to a restaurant, though, I’ll often just grab bits and pieces from the local stores and bring a bottle of wine from home. But to do this, you need to know where you want to visit a priori, otherwise you could spend hours walking around Oxford looking at food.

Fortunately, Oxford is a great place for food. Perhaps because of the large number of students and international academics in Oxford, there are a large variety of restaurants and delis. With The Covered Market in operation you have your butchers, fishmonger, cheese shop, tea and coffee shop, and greengrocers right in the city centre. Little Clarendon Street is worth a visit, being home to Taylor’s deli, Maison Blanc, G&D’s (ice cream café), Oddbins (wine shop), The Duke of Cambridge and Angels (cocktail bars), and several restaurants. And of course, there are several fun places to visit dotted around Oxford too. I don’t have time to talk about them all, but here’s the usual tour of where I visit if I want to put an exciting lunch together.

Maison Blanc

Bread from Maison Blanc, near Little Clarendon Street
For some reason, although I’ve been in Oxford for 6 years, I hadn’t visited Maison Blanc until this year. Situated just near Little Clarendon Street, this bakery was among Raymond Blanc’s first enterprises in Oxford. Since it’s humble beginnings, Maison Blanc has added a lovely coffee room inside, and everything I have eaten there has been fantastic. Their almond croissants remind me of those I had in Paris, and I am told their almond pain au chocolat are worth looking out for too. But for me Maison Blanc is still about their bread, which I think is heads and shoulders above any other bread in Oxford. My favourite is the rye bread, the ‘Columbier’, but on this occasion we went for a pain de campagne (£2.60).

Oxford Cheese Company

Cheese from The Oxford Cheese Company, The Covered Market
Really there is nowhere else to buy cheese in Oxford. Not cheap, but you definitely buy cheese to get excited about. Fortunately, in the past, I have had the chance to buy cheese for college dinners, so have tasted a lot of the cheeses they have on offer. I think they are particularly strong on goats’ cheeses, with my favourite being the bell-shaped ‘Clochette’ (~£7), and Burgundy washed-rind cheeses like the ‘Ami de Chambertin’ (~£8). I’ve often said it’s more exciting to bring a cheese as a gift than a bottle of wine, especially if you have cheese of this quality to give. On this occasion we went with a soft goats’ cheese from the Loire (~£5), and a creamy white from the Rhône (~£5), to match the Rhône white wine we had.


Dried figs from the greengrocers, The Covered Market
Every time I go to the greengrocers in the covered market they have something new I want to try. Whether it is seasonal fruit, like quinces or damsons, that are hard to get hold of, a large variety of dried mushrooms, or just high quality apples, there is something for everyone. We particularly like the dried figs, which are fantastic with cheese, so picked about 8 of them up here (~£3). Pretty hard not to do when the cheese shop is right next to these greengrocers.

Fasta Pasta

Felino from Fasta Pasta, The Covered Market
On the way through The Covered Market, it would be hard not to stop here for some charcuterie. An Italian deli, here you can get a box of pasta for lunch with assorted sauces or fillings, pasta to take home, gnocchi, olives, other fine foods like marrons glacé, and charcuterie. I’m not generally a fan of Italian cuisine, but everything I have had here has been delicious. The prosciutto melts in your mouth with a salty sweetness, and the salamis have the right flavour-fat balance. We felt like some Felino (~£5), a softer, light charcuterie, which went very well with everything we had bought so far.


Duck liver terrine from Olives, The High Street
A little walk down The High Street, Olives is a French deli which specialises in sandwiches. A lot of students will have their lunch here, with one friend telling me that one day each week he just gets the sandwich filling of the week, and it’s always lovely. You can get foie gras, truffles, a variety of French wines, terrines and pâtés, soups, and other gourmet ingredients that you won’t be able to find in supermarkets. I usually come in here for pork or duck rillettes, a preparation of meat in fat a little similar to a loose meaty terrine, but they didn’t have any when we went in. Spoiled for choice, we had to make our minds up between lobster terrine and duck liver terrine. Given what we had already bought, we went for the duck (~£3/100g), and headed on home.

A real feast, with the wine we had bought beforehand. All we needed then was the late game heroics from Andrew Luck in the American football game we were watching to finish the experience off.


Normandy Apple Tart

Every now and then I have to come up with a pudding on short notice. I might have some friends coming over, and we just want something to snack on in the afternoon. I might be going to a relative’s, and want to bring a “thank you for having us” pudding. Or I might be helping cater for an event, where my pudding is just part of a spread of food. Given these situations, the pudding can’t be some fussy little creamy thing, as it has to be able to travel well, keep well, and be good served hot or cold. It can’t take too long to make, but at the same time, has to look and taste good. You can’t make a dish with some potentially complex flavours either, as some people might not like them. Sounds like a tall order for a pudding.

Enter Normandy apple tart. Not much more than cooked apples on pastry, the French have always understood the value of simple cuisine. If you have flavoursome apples from a local orchard, and rich, creamy butter, why not just let these sing for themselves? Normandy tart does exactly that. Consequently, if you are going to make this, make sure you have good quality ingredients- try and get some locally grown apples (ideally Cox for UK readers), and use the best quality butter you can afford. Normandy is apple country- take their cider or Calvados, for example- so if you are making a Normandy apple dish, you know it’s going to come out well.

You can see that this pudding hits all the spots. Once cold, you can almost hold the tart upside down and it will keep its integrity (don’t try though, just in case!). I prefer it served cold, but when I served it for friends, served hot was the consensus winner. As for effort, peeling and coring the apples took me the most time- the pastry is quick and simpler than most pastries- so really not a lot of time spent in the kitchen. It went well with cream or crème fraiche, so if you are transporting this tart, you can just take along a tub of whipped cream and a spoon. And as for looks and taste? We were very pleased with the result- nothing complicated, but it didn’t need to be. So if you need to make a pudding for something, why not give this tart a go?

Normandy Apple Tart (La Tarte aux Pommes Normande)

This recipe is taken from Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking, a great recipe book (although sometimes hard to navigate) looking at traditional French cuisine. You’ll need a flan tin of some sort to cook the tart in.

8 good quality sweeter apples, like Cox
250g Normandy butter
12tsp white sugar
250g plain flour
1tsp salt
some milk, for brushing the pastry
crème fraiche, to serve

1. Make the pastry. Rub 125g of the butter into the flour until you have fine breadcrumbs. Add the salt and 5tsp of the white sugar, and mix well. Pour in 4tbsp ice-cold water, then shape into a ball immediately. Without leaving to rest, shape out the pastry into your flan tin. Brush the edges with milk.
2. Cook the apples. Peel and core all the apples. Cut them into slices (as seen in photo). Put half of the butter in a large frying pan, with 3tsp of the remaining sugar. Fry half of these apples in the butter for around 5 minutes. Remove the apples and begin to arrange in overlapping style in the pastry. Repeat with the second half of the apples. Pour the butter juices left over the apples.
3. Cook the tart. Heat the oven to 180ºC. Place the tart in the oven for 30-35 minutes. About a minute before it is done, sprinkle over the last tsp of sugar. Serve hot or cold according to taste.