Christmas traditions – they’re a funny old lot, aren’t they? For a start, how did the idea of a snowy Christmas with frost on the windows and northern hemisphere pine trees become so pervasive that you see shops in countries like my native South Africa (where Christmas falls in the middle of summer) giving their display windows a spray of mock “snow” and hang icicles everywhere? And in the centuries since Europeans brought the idea of Christmas to the southern tip of Africa you’d think we might have come up with an alternative and more native tree to use as a Christmas tree (a baobab, maybe?). Or maybe let our Santas dress in slightly more summery attire. But no. Every year we pretend to have Christmas in the middle of winter while the mercury is hitting 30 degrees Celsius outside. It makes no sense!
Then again, quite a few other countries have equally nonsensical ideas: the English and their coins baked into Christmas pudding, waiting to fracture an unsuspecting tooth; the citizens of Caracas, Venezuela, who attend morning church services between 16 and 24 December on roller skates; the Japanese who prefer KFC for their Christmas dinner (you can even book tables at KFC restaurants for the occasion!); or the Catalonians with their “pooping log” that “poops” sweets and candies on Christmas eve before being burnt in the fireplace.
But here’s one that you may not be familiar with: every year on Dec. 24 at 3 p.m., half of Sweden sits down in front of the television for a family viewing of the 1958 Walt Disney Presents Christmas special, From all of Us to All of You (or Kalle Anka och hans vänner önskar God Jul - ”Donald Duck and his friends wish you a Merry Christmas” – in Swedish). Kalle Anka has been airing without commercial interruption at the same time on Sweden’s main public-television channel on Christmas Eve since 1959 and consists of Jiminy Cricket presenting about a dozen Disney cartoons from the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s such as some of the Silly Symphonies and clips from films like Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and The Jungle Book. The programme remains pretty constant year on year apart from a live introduction by a host and the annual addition of one new clip from the latest Disney-produced movie. Kalle Anka is typically one of the three most popular television events of the year, with between 40 and 50 percent of the country tuning in to watch. The only explanation offered for the show’s special place in the hearts of Swedes is the fact that the show first aired in 1959, when Swedes were just starting to own televisions and the novelty value was huge. For many years, Christmas was also the only time when Swedes could see Disney animation on television. The annual airing has become no less a fixture of Swedish Christmas tradition than the Queen’s Christmas message is here in the UK – a comforting constant in a rapidly changing world.
Much as I love Sweden, I do not think that the annual watching of Donald Duck and his friends is something in which I would voluntarily get involved. You see, as far as I am concerned the main role that duck should play at Christmas is as the chief ingredient in the menu, not as the star of the entertainment! For celebratory meals I have in the past cooked Nigel Slater’s fantastic whole roast duck with pancetta and potatoes and I was on the verge of repeating that last weekend when I remembered that I had a new toy to play with: my Sous Vide Supreme machine! For those of you who missed my detailed post on what sous vide cooking entails, it denotes a method of cooking where food is sealed in airtight plastic bags and cooked in a water bath at a carefully regulated constant temperature, for unusually long times and at temperatures much lower than are normally used for cooking. It’s a great technique for making sure that bulky or awkward-shaped cuts of meat get cooked evenly all the way through (something you struggle to do with conventional cooking) and it works wonders on cheap cuts of meat, transforming them over time into something quite sublime. But is it also a great method to use for cooking duck breasts that normally shrink to a fraction of their original size during cooking as the fat cooks out. With sous vide cooking, all the moisture stays in pouch and some of the fat starts rendering out into the meat during the cooking process, meaning that the meat does not dry out and the breasts do not shrink. Of course, one of the limitations of sous vide cooking is that the meat also does not brown, but a couple of minutes in a hot pan at the end of the cooking process sorts this out. I wanted to give my duck breasts a slightly spicy yet Christmassy flavour, hence the Chinese 5-spice mix which is packed with the flavours of star anise and cloves. The sauce is partly a take on the retro classic duck l’orange, and partly inspired by the charred orange and rum flavour combination mentioned in the 2013 McCormick Flavor Forecast which I recently previewed. The combination is as delicious as it is visually appealing. I served my duck breasts on a sweet potato mash, also seasoned with a bit of Chinese 5-spice, with roasted green beans tossed in soy sauce and sesame seeds on the side. And what I should have done was make a sound recording of the moans of pleasure that guests made as they took their first mouthfuls – the best endorsement a chef can hope for. This would make a fantastic alternative to a roast for your Christmas meal, especially if you are looking for something a little different this year.
DISCLOSURE: I received the sous vide machine and vacuum sealer for free from Sous Vide Supreme for review purposes.
- 6 duck breasts, about 150g each
- Chinese 5-spice
- FOR THE SAUCE:
- 1 large orange, sliced into 6 slices
- a knob of butter (for frying)
- golden caster sugar (for frying)
- 1 cup soft brown sugar
- 1 Tbsp cornstarch
- ¼ cup Cointreau
- ⅓ cup orange juice
- zest of 1 orange
- 1 tsp good quality chicken stock powder
- Fill the sous vide machine and set it to pre-heat to 56.5 Celsius. Remove all packaging from the duck breasts and pat dry. Season generously with Chinese 5-spice mix (or just salt and pepper if you prefer). Vacuum seal the breasts in the suitable sous vide plastic pouches on full vacuum. Do not overcrowd the plastic pouches – make sure that the breasts each have clear space around them so as to minimise the risk of uneven cooking.
- Once the water reaches the correct temperature, place the sealed vacuum pouches into the water bath and cook for at least 45 minutes but up to 4 hours (mine probably had about 3.5 hours). Once you are ready t brown the breasts, remove them from the vacuum bags and dry thoroughly with paper towels.
- Place the breasts skin side-down in heavy-bottomed non-stick frying pan over high heat – use a splatter screen because they are going to sizzle and spit! Fry on high for about 2 minutes, then reduce the heat and continue to brown, occasionally pressing the breasts down to ensure good contact between skin and pan, until golden brown and crisp. Flip each breast over and cook the second side for 30 seconds or so, just to get it hot. Transfer the breasts to paper towel-lined plate and allow to rest for 5 minutes while you make the sauce.
- For the orange slices, heat a knob of butter over medium high heat in a frying pan. Make a little mound of golden caster sugar on a plate and dredge both sides of each orange slice in it. Place the orange slices in the melted butter and cook over medium high heat until starting to char slightly; then turn over and repeat on the other side. When charred enough, remove from the pan and set aside.
- For the sauce, in a clean saucepan mix the sugar and the cornstarch together – use a larger one than the ingredients indicate as the sauce will bubble up. Over medium heat, add all the remaining ingredients and stir till the sugar is dissolved. Allow the mixture to boil and thicken for 5-10 minutes and pour over each duck breast,after garnishing with a slice of charred orange.