Ah Christmas. Whether or not you embrace the whole turkey-and-trimmings shebang, food tends to play a significant role for most of us on this particular holiday.
Yet, despite our best intentions to be super-organised, it's all too easy to wind up in a sweltering kitchen on the big day, manically pulling things in and out of the oven while keeping a beady eye on the hob. Enter, the slow cooker.
From showstopping baked hams to tasty red cabbage and taters, this gadget is the perfect tool for getting ahead. And when you're working in the build up to Christmas, looking after the kids or tackling your Christmas shopping, what could be more comforting than knowing you have a nourishing soup or hot toddy to come home to? Case closed.
Here are some of our favorite festive recipes that can be rustled up with minimal effort in a slow cooker, before, during and after Christmas.
Is there anything more festive than a glossy baked ham? No siree! While in days gone by gammon needed to be soaked (to remove saltiness), furiously boiled and then oven-blasted, now things are far simpler. Ham is best cooked slowly and gently, to stop it from drying out – in this case, we suggest cooking your joint around eight hours before you plan to serve it. Simply plonk it into the slow cooker with some onion, garlic and thyme, and let it do its thing. If you want to serve it whole and glazed rather than shredded, finish it off in the oven for 10 minutes or so, smothered in treacle or honey and studded with cloves.
Tip: Served with a parsnip and potato rosti, this is the perfect dish to throw together on Boxing Day.
Try making this Gluhwein in your slow cooker – it's perfect for when you have guests popping over. Simply combine red wine with slices of orange studded with cloves, plus cinnamon sticks and caster sugar. Simmer this tasty mixture for around 15 minutes before cranking your slowcooker onto the 'warming' setting. Voilà – hot mulled wine, whenever you're ready for it.
Tip: Prefer mulled cider? All of these hot toddies are perfect for making in the slow cooker.
Basic chicken broth
Post-Christmas chicken – or turkey – broth is certainly slow-cooker-compatible. Put all your leftover bones in the cooker with a couple of carrots, some celery, an onion, a head of garlic, bay leaves and some peppercorns, and simmer on a low setting for around 8-12 hours. Once you've got this nutritious, ultra-tasty stock, you can use it however you like – in risottos, soups, chicken pies or stews.
Tip: To make a vegetarian or vegan broth, omit the chicken wings or bones and double the vegetables, then continue the recipe as directed.
That winter breakfast staple, we never get tired of porridge. And what could be better on a frosty morning than waking up to a hot, creamy batch of the stuff? Put all your ingredients – using the ratio of one cup of oats to three cups of milk – into the slow cooker before you go to bed and leave it on the lowest setting for 7-8 hours. When you wake up just loosen it up with a little more milk, give it a thorough stir and serve it with your topping of choice (grated apple, sliced banana, berries, honey, maple syrup, peanut butter... the list goes on).
Tip: To make this recipe vegan, simply substitute cows milk for a dairy-free alternative, like oat, almond, soy or hazelnut milk.
braised Red cabbage
There's really no obligation to serve sprouts at your Christmas dinner. Seasoned and fried up with pancetta they can be delicious, but there are plenty of alternative veggie side dishes out there. And one of the best things about braised red cabbage (besides how downright delicious it is) is that you can prepare it in a slow cooker, thus saving yourself much needed hob and oven space. Simply layer up all your ingredients – butter, onion, apple, red cabbage, brown sugar, cider vinegar, cinnamon, apple juice and water – and leave to cook for 4-5 hours until perfectly tender.
Tip: To really get ahead, you can freeze braised red cabbage for up to two months before you want to use it, before reheating in a pan or in the microwave before serving.
Forget about all that boiling and draining – with a slow cooker you can prepare the creamiest mashed potato from start to finish. And it couldn't be easier – perfect if you're making enough for a crowd. Place peeled and chopped potatoes in the slow cooker, before adding a splash of milk and leaving them to steam soft, for about 4 to 5 hours on 'high'. Mash them in the slow cooker, before stirring in butter and warmed milk to taste, along with salt and pepper. No reheating necessary, thanks to this clever ol' gadget. Minimal washing up, and maximum tastiness – sounds good to us!
Tip: Make this recipe vegan by substituting butter for olive oil, and milk for vegetable stock.
Another great stove-top saver, why not make cranberry sauce in your slow cooker? Add your ingredients – that's cranberries, Cointreau, orange zest, orange juice, caster sugar and maple syrup – to the cooker, before leaving it to cook on high for 3-4 hours. What would your Christmas turkey be without a gleaming red dollop of cranberry sauce?
Tip: Cranberry sauce freezes brilliantly, so decant a glut of it into tupperware and bring it out whenever you're knocking up a roast dinner.
Instead of oven cooking your Christmas pudding, try placing the basin in your slow cooker, before pouring in boiling water until it reaches halfway up. Then ensure the lid of the cooker is on firmly, and leave it to gently steam for 10 hours.
Tip: On Christmas day, pop your pudding back in the slow cooker for another 4 hours, until it's heated through.