MANY HOME COOKS look forward to cooking the big Christmas feast with as much excitement as when they contemplate a visit to the dentist. It's probably the biggest meal you'll have an opportunity to make and, since the holiday comes only once a year, it's not as if you can do a test run. The dishes that make up the feast, though, are quite easy and, if you keep side dishes and desserts to a minimum - or better yet, ask guests to bring dessert - you can simplify things further. You'll want to cook your own favourite Christmas dishes, but here's a rough timeline to help get you started. Today: If the bird isn't thawed yet, start now. Experts say the safest way to thaw a turkey is in the fridge, but this can take several days. You can hurry things along by immersing the frozen turkey for several hours in the sink or a big pot of cold water and changing the water every 30 minutes. This will start the thawing process, which can be continued more safely in the fridge. If the turkey is already thawed, give it a little more flavour by rubbing it (remove the bag of innards first) inside and out with about half-a-cup of white wine, then put it back in the fridge. Check the recipes and make sure you have all the necessary ingredients; try to finish all your grocery shopping today, but leave enough leeway tomorrow for last-minute dashes to the store. Tomorrow: Make the cranberry sauce by cooking the fresh or frozen berries with water, granulated sugar, fresh orange juice, a little fresh lemon juice and the grated zest of one orange. Simmer until the berries are soft and the sauce has a good consistency - add more orange juice if necessary (the sauce thickens as it cools). Store in the fridge. Cut the bread for the stuffing into cubes and leave out, uncovered, overnight - this lets the bread dry so it absorbs more broth (and hence, more flavour) when you cook it. Plan on four small loaves of crustless sliced white bread (six slices to the pack) to feed 12 people. Christmas Day: An unstuffed turkey is fully cooked when an instant-read thermometer inserted into the fleshiest part of the thigh registers 82 degrees Celsius or when the juices are clear when you pierce the thigh with a knife. A six-kilogram turkey (to feed 10 to 12) takes about three hours, so if you want to serve Christmas lunch at 1pm, put it in the oven at about 9.30am. I prefer to cook the stuffing separately - the stuffing absorbs the turkey juices, making the bird dry. A stuffed turkey takes about an hour longer to cook. You can use the following recipes, or for more detailed instructions, use those of chef Thomas Rebler's on Page 5. At 8.30am, take the turkey out of the fridge to give it time to reach room temperature. Remove the bag of innards from inside the bird and set aside for the stock for gravy. Loosen the skin under the breast of the turkey and rub the flesh with softened unsalted butter. Rub the skin of the whole bird with more butter, then sprinkle inside and out with salt and pepper. Put the turkey, breast-side down, in a roasting pan. At 9am, preheat the oven to 220 degrees Celsius. Melt unsalted butter (for basting) in a small saucepan. Put the bird in the oven at 9.30am - roast for 30 minutes at 220 degrees, then lower the heat to 160 degrees. Baste the bird every 30 minutes with the butter and pan juices. After two hours, turn the turkey over so the breast has time to brown. About 30 minutes before you are scheduled to take the bird from the oven, insert an instant-read thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh, but not touching the bone. If it reads 82 degrees Celsius (or if juices are clear), take the bird from the oven; if it's not ready, remove the thermometer and continue to cook. Start making the stock for the gravy by simmering the heart, giblet and neck of the bird with water. Most people have their own recipes for stuffing. I make my mother's - dice 250 grams of bacon and cook over low heat. Pour off the fat as it renders and save this for sauteing the vegetables. When the bacon is crisp, remove it from the pan. Saute a diced onion in some of the bacon fat; remove from the pan when soft and translucent. Saute diced celery in more bacon fat and when fairly soft, add to the onions and bacon and toss together. Unless you have a very large pan you'll have to cook the bread in batches. Add a little bacon fat to the pan, add some cubed bread and cook over a low heat for several minutes. Pour chicken broth (I use Swanson's) into the pan and stir lightly as the bread absorbs the liquid. The bread should be moist but not sopping wet. Empty into a large bowl and continue until all the bread is used. Lightly toss the bread with the bacon, celery and onion, season with pepper (it probably won't need any salt because the broth is salty) and sprigs of fresh cilantro. Press gently into a buttered baking dish, cover with aluminium foil and set aside. Boil new potatoes in their skins until just tender. Halve or quarter according to size, then put in a baking pan with unpeeled cloves of garlic. Drizzle with olive oil then sprinkle with large crystal sea salt and cracked pepper. Put in the oven when the turkey has about one hour to go. Make the chestnut soup according to Annabel Graham's recipe on Page 5 (quadruple the batch in order to feed 12). When the bird is cooked, remove from the oven and set aside for about 20 minutes. Put the stuffing into the hot oven to warm through; after 20 minutes, remove the foil and continue to bake until lightly brown. Pour the fat and pan juices from the roasting pan into a heatproof glass bowl. The fat will rise to the surface. Make a roux with three to four tablespoons of the fat (or more, if you're in the company of gravy lovers) and an equal measure of plain flour. Whisk constantly until light brown. Add a little of the pan juices to the roux, whisking constantly to prevent lumps. Continue to add the pan juices, the strained stock (from the turkey heart and giblet) and canned broth until it's of sauce consistency - don't add too much stock at once or the gravy will be lumpy. Keep warm. Prepare the vegetables of your choice. I like fresh pea pods, which I saute with garlic and a little soy sauce. Another colourful side dish is candied carrots. Boil baby carrots until tender, then drain. Melt unsalted butter in a large pan, add carrots and stir to coat thoroughly. Add soft brown sugar and stir until it's melted and has glazed the carrots. At 1pm, serve the soup (re-heat if necessary). Let the designated carver serve the turkey while you bring out the cranberry sauce, stuffing, potatoes, vegetables, gravy, wines and beverages. Let's hope you asked your guests to provide the dessert; if you didn't, there's probably a nice box of chocolates under the Christmas tree to serve with the coffee.