behinds the scenes of Christmas

It is out! Thursday 9th of October was the day that many publishers release their autumn offering onto the nations bookshelves and I am completely over excited to be one of those new books hitting the shops! Christmas is my second book with the lovely people at GBBO and BBC books and I am SO thrilled with how beautiful it is!

This wasn't just your ordinary book commission, where you have months, or even a year, to think about, write, develop, test and shoot a book, oh no. Like Winter Kitchen before it, this was a race for the finish line. Eight weeks to write and test 70 recipes and 12 days to shoot the most beautiful Christmas book EVER was all I had!

After years in food mags I'm now pretty used to Christmas in the middle of summer, it has now got to the point where I'd actually really miss having two Christmasses a year but every so often you catch yourself, in the middle of roasting a ham or making mince pies in the sweltering heat of July and you think, what on earth are we doing?!

So, when you look at Christmas, and think just how beautiful a book it is, how warming, frosty and full of festive cheer it is, with roaring fires and snow flakes falling, spare a thought for  us all in mid summer, creating Yuletide magic in the sunshine.

Christmas begins

It all starts with ideas, as every good book does. Once the chapter titles have been agreed i busily got writing recipe ideas and recipes. Mostly i knew in advance which recipes were coming from Paul and Mary and the Bake Off contestants, so from there it was just a simple matter of coming up with 70 new Christmas baking recipes to cover all the occasions of Christmas. The weather was glorious as i sat with Eric the cat, writing hearty pies, Rudolph cakes and eggnog tarts. It isn't the easiest thing to do, get into the mindset of cold dark nights and log fires when you are sitting in the garden in a bikini, surrounded by lazily buzzing bees!

test, test, test

There is nothing more upsetting than a cookbook who's recipes don't work. Sadly there are many which look beautiful and inviting, with delicious sounding recipes that lure you in, only for you to find that the recipes are wrong, with ingredients or method missing or poorly explained or where you can see that for some reason, the recipes just haven't been tested. It isn't always the authors fault, money is tight and often an authors fee doesn't include any kind of budget with which to test the recipes. It is as if it is thought that just because you can cook wonderful dishes, your recipes will automatically work for someone else making them at home.

My years as the food editor of the wonderful delicious. mag taught me that this is definitely not the case. No matter how good or important a chef you are (or think you are), or how well established a food writer, every single recipe needs to have been tested properly. Not just cooked, tested. That means every ingredient is weighed and measured, timers are set, method is thought about and explained. There are wonderful people out there who test recipes for a living. So along with two of my best testers, we set about cooking up every single one of the recipes that i had written. Sometimes more than once!

For weeks my kitchen cupboards were covered with recipes I was testing, my neighbours thought I was bonkers as I knocked on their doors to offer them caramelised onion and Stilton tarts, salmon wellington and advent calender biscuits.

Shooting madness

Once all the recipes are tested, we selected the ones we wanted to shoot. This is an impossible task as we would love love love for all the recipes to have pictures and this just isn't possible. So we sift through the chapters, working out what would look the yummiest, which ones will jump off the page and lure people in. It is true that the recipes that are mostly likely to be the ones that readers cook, are the ones with images, so this decision is one that matters! 

Not only did we have to shoot 70 recipe pics, we also wanted to make the book look extra special, shooting dedicated chapter openers, mood setting pictures, incidentals and a full day of shooting with the wonderful bake off contestants! It was going to be a full on 12 days.

We decamped to Kent for the majority of the shooting to make use of both my prop stylist (and sister) Polly's house as well as my parents house for locations. Being a totally bonkers Christmas obsessed family made it easy to turn boiling hot July into cold and crisp December with a little help from the Christmas drawer, several fireplaces and a large box of fake snow. We are pretty damn good snow technicians after all the years of practice. A few water sprays and chucking it around with gay abandon seems to work for us! Looking at the snowy pictures in the book there is almost no way of telling that just out of shot is a garden in full bloom and a load of people standing around in shorts and summer dresses.

Winter is also the time of wooly jumpers and fireplaces so there was a lot of time spent setting up shots before quickly lighting the fire or wood burner (any longer than a few minutes had us all melting) and diving into festive knitwear and wooly socks.

The Day of the Bakers was one of the hottest imaginable and there we were, trying to convince John Whaite and Cat Dresser to put on Christmas jumpers and cosy up next to a roaring fire! They were all amazing and happily got into the spirit and dived into baked ham and potato gratin at 4pm on a baking (no pun intended) afternoon.

Even the animals got roped in to lie by fires and stand in the snow, all aided by a heavy amount of bribery with smoked salmon and cooked ham or turkey. Much of this action had to wait till 8 or 9 in the evening to get a suitably 'dark at 3pm in December' kind of feel.

Little corners of Christmasness were popping up all over the house as we set up scenes for our beautiful shots whilst in the kitchen I cooked up all the dishes we had chosen to photograph and iced and decorated like a whirling dervish.

The team all worked harder than you can possibly imagine. There were moments of madness, hysteria at the end of a 12 hour day shooting knowing that there is still hours of prep to do for the following day, a small amount tears of rage and frustration as icing slid and melted in the heat, laughter and happiness and rather a lot of singing of Christmas songs. I love this book with all my heart. It is pure Christmas joy and deliciousness. I hope you will all love this book as much as i do and cook heartily from it and keep warm and cosy over the winter.