a very fake christmas


cauliflower panna cotta with smoked trout

My family is pretty diverse when it comes to our climatic preferences. While I am a big fan of dry heat and really struggle with Sydney’s humidity, my Dad longs for the air to be warm and soupy. My little brother, Dom, just likes it hot. So much so that he has driven across the Nullarbor a couple of times without even thinking about turning the air conditioning on. And then there’s my snow bunny sister, batgirl, who loves the cold and practically breaks out in a heat rash if the temperature creeps higher than 20degC.

Batgirl’s heat phobia is so extreme that it has lead her to a career as a perpetual ski bum…ahem… ski instructor and soon to be ski patroller. This has enabled her to fulfil the quest for a perpetual winter, changing hemispheres just as things awaken from their winter slumber and the days lengthen.

In week she will once again be jetting off to the ‘powder heaven’ that is Utah. Which means that come Christmas time we will be one family member short around the table. So to make up for her impending absence at our real Christmas feast, Batgirl has come up with a brilliant new family gathering called ‘Fake Christmas’.

The beauty of Fake Christmas, apart from a chance to get together as a family and feast, is that we tend to adopt all the fun the aspects of real Christmas without taking on the aspects that can make this holiday stressful. No need for last minute shopping with the crowds, no frantic wrapping of gifts, but most of all no pressure for everyone to have a ‘perfect’ Christmas.

On the food front, while our family tends to be fairly traditional with turkey and ham on December 25th, Fake Christmas gives me a chance to be more creative.  This year for the first time, inspired by a lovely lunch a few weeks ago at my dear friend Amanda’s, I decided to tackle a whole fish on the BBQ.

I love fish cooked on the bone and often go for ‘plate’ sized baby barramundi or snapper or your smaller fish like sardines or garfish. But for some reason I have never tried cooking a really big fish. Yet it really is the perfect thing for feeding a crowd. There’s nothing like the sight of a monster 3.6kg ocean trout on the BBQ to impress your guests. I had originally planned to present the fish at the table and serve from there but I didn’t allow for the actual amount of space that a fish of that size commands. With our ten seater table full to the brim, there really wasn’t room for theatrics so I ended up serving in the kitchen. All that was needed then were a few salads and veg on the table for everyone to help themselves.

While I did toy with the idea of a retro prawn cocktail as an elegant starter, the thought of peeling prawns for ten people was a little off putting. So instead some pearly pink smoked rainbow trout atop a bed of caramelised witlof and a creamy savoury panna cotta did the trick.

I had planned a fish free main course option for my sister Sass’ boyfriend in the form of boring BBQ chicken breast. Yet somehow it completely slipped my mind for entree and it wasn’t until I had served up that I realised my error. Fortunately Craig was polite enough to brave the smoked trout and ended up loving it so much that he ate everything on his plate….there’s hope for him yet. In hindsight, however, to cater for a vego in the family, a sharp goats cheese would have made a nice substitution for the trout.

There’s something about berries that just works for me at Christmas, even when you’re faking it. And a prepare ahead dessert is always a good way to minimise stress when feeding a crowd. So a mixed berry compote served with a light but luscious, almost cheesecakey little ‘heart’ of cream seemed like the perfect finale.

I didn’t appreciate it when I was younger but my mum makes the most amazing fruit cake. This year she made 5 cakes for Christmas so we were lucky enough to have some to nibble on with our coffee after a hard day of Fake Christmas celebrations around the lunch table. I’m yet to be inducted into the ancient art of Christmas cake baking but promise to share the recipe when I am. For now June says that the secret to good cake (and happiness?) is a very heavy hand with the brandy which makes perfect sense to me…all good things…

a very fake christmas
cauliflower panna cotta with smoked trout
BBQ whole ocean trout with egg and caper sauce
(BBQ marinated chicken breast – for the non fish eaters)
asparagus with almond butter
warm kipfler potato salad
watercress salad with onion dressing
cream ‘hearts’ with mixed berry compote
june’s legendary christmas cake


cauliflower panna cotta with smoked trout
serves 12

While a savoury panna cotta may seem pretty out there to some, it’s a great way to begin a meal. The lovely creamy texture is the perfect bed for slightly sweet caramelised witlof and a topping of smoked trout.

This was inspired by a recipe in Jame and Jeremy’s Strodes book Two’s Cooking. Feel free to do as they do and serve smoked eel instead of the trout.

1/2 head cauliflower, broken into florets
chicken stock
250mL milk
250mL pouring cream
5t gelatine (or 5 x 2g gelatine leaves), see note
4 red shallots, finely sliced
2T balsamic glaze
2T white wine vinegar
2T butter
4 witlof, halved and finely sliced lengthwise
1 smoked rainbow trout, skin and bones removed, flesh broken into chunks
1/2 bunch chives, chopped
1/2 bunch chervil, leaves picked

For panna cotta, place cauliflower in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to the boil and simmer for 15mins. Drain then cover again with stock. Simmer until cauliflower is super tender and almost falling apart. Allow to cool slightly  then puree in a food processor until very smooth. Reserve 2 cups of puree. If there is not enough, make up the volume with additional chicken stock.

Heat milk until very warm but no where neat boiling, remove from heat and stir through gelatine (if using leaves soak them first in cold water for ten minutes to soften and then squeeze to remove excess moisture). When gelatine is dissolved, stir through cream and 2cups of puree. Season well.  Grease 12 x 1cup ramekins or round moulds and divide mixture between. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

For the witlof, heat butter in a large frying pan and cook witlof and shallots over a medium heat for approx ten minutes or until softened. Add balsamic glaze and vinegar and continue to cook stirring frequently until the mixture is caramelised and the liquid has reduced. Season and cool to room temperature.

To serve, unmould panna cotta onto small plates (give it a good shake and it should come out). Top with a layer of witlof mixture. Sprinkle with chives and then top with a layer of trout pieces. Finish with a crown of chervil leaves.

Note: I usually use gelatine leaves but on this occasion had to resort to powdered gelatine. Now I know why most recipes recommend leaf form, the powdered gelatine is very difficult to disperse in the hot liquid and even though I strained out the lumps, there were still little lumps of gelatine in the panna cotta.


BBQ whole ocean trout with egg and caper sauce
serves 10-12

3.6kg ocean trout, cleaned and scaled
1 small bulb fennel, fronds reserved and roughly chopped, bulb sliced
2 lemons, sliced
1/2 bunch dill, roughly chopped
olive oil
for the sauce:
8 eggs, hard boiled, peeled and roughly chopped
1 1/2 cups homemade egg mayonnaise
4T small capers in salt, rinsed, drained and chopped
1/2 bunch dill, chopped
4 sprigs flat leaf parsley, leaves picked and chopped
lemon juice, to taste
lemon halves, to serve

Wipe trout clean and then make incisions down each side to allow more even cooking and to assist with serving. For a photo click here. Lay out large lengths of foil on a work space, overlapping until you have enough to comfortably wrap the whole fish. Rub the surface of one side of the fish with oil and season. Place the fish in the centre of the foil oiled side down.  Oil and season the other side of the fish and then stuff the cavity with fennel, dill and lemons.

Wrap fish tightly in foil, like a mummy and then place wrapped fish on a large flat oven tray. Heat BBQ with a hood to approx 200C. Place fish in the centre of the BBQ and cover with hood. Cook for approx 20mins then turn fish over and cook for another 20mins. Turn off heat and leave fish to rest in the warm BBQ for at least an hour.

Meanwhile for sauce, combine ingredients adding enough lemon juice to make it really fresh and zesty. Season and refrigerate until ready to serve.

To serve, place a slice of ocean trout on each warmed plate along with a dollop of sauce and a lemon half. Pass remaining sauce separately.

BBQ marinated chicken breast
serves 1-2

This was the option for the non fish eater amongst us.  By bashing the chicken into thin pieces you can have it all ready and then quickly char for a couple of minutes on each side just before serving.

1 chicken breast
zest of 1 lemon
3 sprigs thyme, leaves roughly picked
2T olive oil
1T lemon juice

Cut chicken into 4 strips and then bash each strip between two sheets of plastic with your fist or a meat mallet until very thin, approximately doubled in surface area. Combine marinade ingredients and season well. Mix chicken through marinade and cover. Allow to stand for an hour or so then BBQ over a very high heat for 1-2 minutes each side or until well charred and cooked through. Allow to rest for ten minutes before serving as per the ocean trout above.

asparagus with almond butter
serves 10

I’ve already confessed to my asparagus addiction, something I share with my mum. So it was unthinkable to have fake Christmas, conveniently timed at the height of asparagus season, and not serve these gorgeous green spears in some form or other.

Toasting the almonds in butter until the butter is just starting to brown makes for a decadent nutty dressing for out green friends.

3 bunches green asparagus
50g butter
large handful sliced almonds

Remove woody stems from asparagus by snapping off the bottom few centimetres. Cook asparagus for 2-6 minutes in a large pot of boiling salted water until they are just past being crunchy but still a little al dente. Drain asparagus and place on a serving platter.

Meanwhile, heat butter and almonds in a frying pan and cook, stirring over a medium heat until foaming and the butter is just starting to go a nut brown colour. Quickly pour butter and almonds over the asparagus. Season and serve hot.

warm kipfler potato salad
serves 10

Waxy kipfler spuds are my favourite for roasting and for salads. The secret to this salad is making sure the potatoes are hot when combined with the dressing so they soak it up.

This salad was adapted from Karen Martini’s version in her great little book Where the Heart is.

1.2kg kipfler potatoes, scrubbed
4 red shallots
1/4C red wine vinegar
zest 2 lemons
juice 1 lemon
1T seeded mustard
1T dijon mustard
1/3C extra virgin olive oil
1/2 bunch flat leaf parsley, leaves picked and torn if large
1/2 bunch dill, chopped

Place spuds in a large saucepan and cover with water. Season. Bring to the boil and simmer for 20-30mins or until potatoes are cooked but not falling apart.

Meanwhile make the dressing by combining all remaining ingredients except the herbs in a large bowl. Season well.

When potatoes are cooked, drain and while potatoes are still hot halve or slice thickly on the diagonal and add to the dressing. Toss to combine and taste for seasoning. Allow to stand for at least ten mins.

When ready to serve toss herbs through salad. I like to serve this salad at room temperature but you could serve it hot if you preferred.


watercress salad with onion dressing
serves 10 as an accompaniment

A simple green salad is always a good idea when feeding a crowd. This dressing was adapted from Jane and Jeremy Strode’s book: Two’s Cooking. The onion gives a lovely complexity to the dressing.  It also works really well with balsamic vinegar or red wine vinegar.

200mL olive oil
1 medium brown onion, finely diced
50mL white wine vinegar
1 large bunch watercress, leaves picked

Heat oil and onion in a small saucepan over a medium to low heat and cook for approx 20 mins or until onion is very soft. Remove from heat, add vinegar and season. Allow to stand for at least 10 mins.

Place watercress in a large bowl. Whisk dressing to combine oil and vinegar and pour over just enough of the dressing to lightly coat the leaves and serve immediately.

Note: You won’t need all the dressing. It will keep in the refrigerator for a week or so.


cream ‘hearts’ with mixed berry compote
serves 10

Berries are great at any time but their gorgeous colour is particularly good at Christmas. I used frozen blackberries and raspberries as they tend to be more economical. Cherries would also work well here.

The ‘cream hearts’ were adapted from Sean Moran’s top little book Let it Simmer. They may sound like a lot of effort but are well worth it and the whole make in advance bit means that you can focus on the main event come Fake Christmas morning.

for the hearts:
1kg ricotta, full fat
1 vanilla bean, seeds scraped
3 egg whites
pinch salt
100g castor sugar
300g sour cream
for the compote:
zest and juice two oranges
150g sugar
1kg raspberries
2 punnets strawberries, sliced lengthwise
300g blackberries
1 cinnamon stick.

Place ricotta and vanilla seeds in a food processor and whizz until ricotta is smooth. Beat egg whites with salt until soft peaks form and then gradually add castor sugar and beat until mixture is glossy and sugar is dissolved. Gently fold ricotta mixture and sour cream mixture through the egg whites.

Cut a piece of muslin into ten 20cm squares. Rinse squares in cold water then wring out and place squares on a clean work surface. Divide the cream mixture between the squares. Gather up the sides of each square to form a little bag. Tie the top of each square tightly with string.

Tie each bag to the rails of your refrigerator so that they are suspended and place a tray underneath to catch any drips. Allow to hang at least overnight.

For the compote, combine juice, zest, sugar and cinnamon in a large saucepan and bring to the boil. Add strawbs, blackberries and half of the raspberries and simmer for approx ten minutes. Allow to cool.

When ready to serve, stir remaining raspberries through compote and divide between ten shallow bowls. Cut string from the hearts and carefully peel off the cloth. Place in the middle of the berries with the round side facing up.


  • I’ve done a nullabor trip with no air conditioning before… not because of love of the heat… more because of a tight arse Dad who wouldn’t turn it on because it used up too much fuel… Thanks for helping me relive that memory Jules :)

    Love the meal, sounds superb. I must admit I often stare longingly at the trout and salmon in the fish mongers, and think about taking one home to cook up whole. Only having two people to feed is a bit of a dampener though.

    Love the whole meal… savoury panna cotta is something i’ll have to give some serious consideration… nice work.

  • what a gorgeous sounding and looking meal. i love your “fake christmas” idea and i the ocean trout looks very impressive! shall have to give some of these recipes a go soon.

  • Hi, I’ve been visiting your blog for some time and everything looks so yummy and delicious. I like the way you present the dishes and the varieties of them. =) Can’t wait to try them out soon.

  • What a marvelous idea to have fake Christmas! Yummy, yummy food!! I live in Utah, and your sis will be ever so happy to get away from the heat. It’s cold here at the moment! Also, I love peeling prawns…don’t know what it is, but I’m the one who does it every year for our Christmas Eve celebration. I stand at my Mom’s kitchen sink peeling pounds of the stuff. I find it very relaxing.
    Have a great time, and thank you for the lovely recipes!

  • I love the concept! Though I’d do it in the summer time around here…too many food related holidays in the US ’round this time :)

  • hi there! Great work on your blog. I added your blog as a link on mine. Hope you dun mind. shaz, a fellow foodie blogger.

  • Awesome dishes (and photography is amazing as always!). I must admit that my mind boggled a little at the thought of a savoury pannacotta, but only because I’d never even considered it a possibility! With such a feast, fake christmas must have been a satisfying event :D

  • What a splendid looking menu! I confess I did have to google what ‘witlof’ was …. I am hoping it’s Belgian endive …. because that recipe is now on my ‘Must Do’ list !!
    Thank you !!

  • Brilliant Jules. I love berries in summer. Never thought to add cheese hearts before. Geat idea. I smile when I imagine opening the fridge and seeing all the little cheesecloth bundles hanging there.

  • matt,
    I’ve been eyeing off the fish for ages…take one home and find some friends…really worth it

    let me know if you try something

    thanks for leaving a comment. nice to meet new readers

    glad to hear utah is nice and cold…I think I need to change my philosophy on prawn peeling

    you could do fake christmas in july. Heaps of people use it as an excuse for a wintery feast down here.

    thanks for the kind words

    It was a pleasure as always. Thanks for lending your kitchen.

    feel free to link away, always nice to meet a fellow blogger

    the panna cotta was a hit with everyone, although my brother insisted in calling it good goo which doesn’t quite have the same ring to it

    thanks beverley
    nice to meet you too

    I’m pretty sure witlof is belgian endive..I’ve been toying with the idea of adding a glossary…sounds like it would be a good idea

    thanks bea,
    I felt a little dizzy after eating it all…although that may have had more to do with the champagne ;)

    yes they looked really cute hanging up…was almost a shame to take them out

  • Hi Jules,

    Your cauliflower panna cota looks delicious, can’t wait to try it! I love your blog.

    I’m use to working with powdered gelatin, because gelatin leaves are very expensive and not easy to find in stores in the US, were I live.

    The problem you had with the powdered gelatin not dispersing well in the hot milk, is an easy one to solve. For powdered gelatin to disperse well, the milk (or any other liquid you use) needs to be at room temperature, never hot or boiling. This is how you do it: take a small amount of milk (about half a cup or 100ml) from the total amount in this recipe, put the rest of the milk aside. Sprinkle (DO NOT MIX IN THE MILK) the powdered gelatin over of the milk, let the gelatin undisturbed for about five minutes, at this point the gelatin has absorbed the liquid and “swelled”, this process is called “blooming”. While waiting for the gelatin to bloom, heat the milk. Add the dispersed gelatin to the hot (not boiling) milk and mix well. If you follow this your panna cota will not be lumpy at all!

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