Herbs and cream cheese slotted in under the skin along the breasts not only flavour the bird but also keep the flesh beautifully moist – and pushing the mixture in is not the fiddle it sounds. Thyme works particularly well, but ring the changes with tarragon, marjoram, dill or sage, being more moderate with pungent herbs such as sage. Serves 4
For the underskin stuffing 75g cream cheese 2 tsp of thyme, finely chopped if necessary zest of half a small unwaxed lemon 1 garlic clove, finely chopped Sea salt Freshly ground black pepper
1.5kg free range organic chicken Half a small unwaxed lemon (without its zest – see above) 20g butter Several sprigs of thyme 1½ or more garlic cloves, roughly squashed Sea salt Freshly ground black pepper
Heat the oven to 220C/200C fan oven/gas mark 7.
Mix the stuffing ingredients in a bowl.
Untie the chicken and discard the wodge of fat (if there is one) just inside the cavity. Rub the outside of the chicken with the cut side of the lemon, then put the lemon inside, squeezing it as you go. Smear a third of the butter in the cavity under the breast, then add the thyme, garlic, salt and pepper.
Now, push your fingers under the skin covering each breast, to make two pockets running alongside the breastbone. If you can’t reach far enough, gently pull the skin from the outside. Using a flattish teaspoon or rounded knife, push the cream cheese mixture into the pockets, easing it along from the outside with your fingers. It’s important not to tear the skin.
Tie the legs and parson’s nose together, but not too tightly. Smear the rest of the butter over the breasts and legs of the bird and season with salt and pepper.
Put the chicken in a lightly greased roasting tin and cook it for 20 minutes. Then turn the oven down to 190C/170C fan oven/gas mark 5 and turn the tin round.
There probably won’t be enough fat for basting yet, but you will need to baste the chicken two or three times over the next hour. You will also need to cover the breast loosely with a butter paper or a small square of foil as soon as it goes deep golden (which it will do sooner than usual because of the cream cheese).
Total cooking time will be 80-90 minutes. Check that it is cooked through by skewering the fattest part of the inside thigh: the juices that run out must be clear with no trace of pink. Transfer the bird to a really hot plate, cut the tie and leave it to rest for 15 minutes while you make the gravy.
Pour off most of the fat in the tin, then add some hot vegetable cooking water or hot water (from the kettle not the tap). The quantity will depend how much cooking juice has been produced and that will depend on your oven and the dimensions of your tin. Be guided by the amount of gravy you want to make.
Now add a glass of wine – a small glass if it’s a fortified wine such as Madeira (which makes particularly good gravy) or a rich sweet wine such as Sauternes, and a larger glass if it’s an ordinary drier white or rosé. If you’ve only got red, use that, but cautiously if it’s a big, tannic, oaky number. Bring to the boil and cook for a minute, or longer if you need to reduce it.
Carve the chicken and serve it with the gravy and the full gamut of Sunday lunch veg - or just gravy, chunky bread and a salad.
Original photograph by David Loftus