19 December

For you

Here’s my Christmas present to you: yuletide gift-bringer selection tool

And this is what you do with it:

  • Print it out, double-sided. (Flip it on the short-edge if your printer gives you that option.) This should give you a page with doors on one side and green text boxes on the other, and a second page with pictures on one side and nothing on the other.
  • Cut around 3 of the 4 sides of each door, but don’t cut the left sides of the doors. (A Stanley knife[1] is a good tool for this, and a steel ruler will help you get it very straight.)
  • Put glue on the page with the green text boxes, but don’t put any on any of the green parts. Make sure you glue the edges well.
  • Carefully put the picture sheet on top of the green sheet, lining up the edges well, to make a sandwich:
    • The door sheet will be on the bottom, facing down.
    • The green text box sheet will be on the back of that.
    • The pictures will be the start of the next layer, facing down.
    • The top of the sandwich will be the blank page.
  • Now wait for the glue to dry.

Then you will have something that opens like an advent calendar but will explain the difference between the guys in red to your visitors. (You, of course, already know the difference between Sinterklaas and Father Christmas!)

2016-12-19

Jeremy was helping me cook dinner when Danni asked, “What are we doing on Sunday?”

“You should know – we’ll be at your parents’ house,” said Jeremy.

“Not on Sunday,” said Danni. “We’re Serbian.”

“You are?” I said. “That’s wonderful!”

“What’s so good about being Serbian?” asked Jeremy, and then he added, “Is it racist to think that all Serbians are good?”

“Serbians celebrate Orthodox Christmas,” I explained, “and that’s on the 7th of January.”

“That’s right,” said Danni, “so what are we doing on Sunday?”

“Hey Mum, we can come to Christmas after all!” said Jeremy when he finally worked it out.

“That’s really, really good news,” I replied. (I felt like a two-tonne hat had just been taken off my head, and my eyes teared up, but I blamed the latter on the onions.)

I’ll have to extend the table after all. “Cosy” just doesn’t feel like Christmas to me. And I can justify making cherry tarts now, which is even better!

Mind you, it does mean I’m heading back to the supermarket tomorrow for mascarpone. And I’ll have to see if there’s any chance my butcher can upgrade me from that size twenty turkey. (We’ll have enough for dinner but there wouldn’t be much left over for tea and that’s not the way we roll in my house!)

[1] Also known as a retractable safety knife, or a box-cutter. (Yes, that’s the tool that brought down planes on 9/11, but it can be used for good as well as for evil.)

18 December

Dishing it up

There’s one more thing to do with your menu and running sheets: work out which dishes you’ll be using for each dish so that you can be sure that you’re not planning to put the mousse in the same glasses as the jelly[1] and the mince tarts on the same plate as the gingerbread.[2]

And if you have any cooking tools that might be in contention (for example, the one favourite saucepan that you use for béchamel sauce and custard) check that you’re not overlapping with those too.[3]

18 dec 2016
Laying down the ladles.

William’s next problem is that his mother’s present was at my place but he needs it under his family tree and he still refuses to handle it himself. So he proposed that I drop around to his family home tonight, taking one of the small fruitcakes he saw in my kitchen as a present and an excuse. But this plan has three flaws before he’s finished with Step One: Jill doesn’t like fruitcake; I’ve only made enough for the people I was planning to give them to;[4] and since we don’t usually exchange presents, Jill will feel awkward that she has nothing to give me in return.

Step Two is that I bring the vase in my handbag (which is the next flaw: the package is so big I’d need an overnight bag and Jill would wonder if I intended to stay). Then William would create a distraction – he didn’t give details of this, but he did mention that his mother comes running when she hears something breaking! – so that I could slip the present under the tree.

“William,” I said, “does Allison still work in the city?”

She does and he’s given me her phone number and we’ll run with my plan instead: I’ll ring William’s sister, arrange to meet her at lunchtime and handover the gift, and she will put it under the tree when she visits her mother on the weekend. And neither Jill nor I will ever need to know how William was planning to create the sound of something breaking.

[1] I once found a mouse in a glass I was planning to use for jelly, and I can tell you that gave us both a fright.

[2] I’m sure you can improvise but it’s easier if you work it out now rather than at the last minute. My friend Jill’s daughter Allison went to kinder with my own daughter so Jill also had to do a dish at short notice when the branch fell on the kinder roof. All of her actual serving dishes were at her mother’s house (which Jill was using as a free storage locker while she painted her house, so she covered a pizza box in foil and put her cupcakes in that. It did look good but, unfortunately, it still smelled of garlic, which is not an appetising aroma for lemon coconut butterfly cakes).

[3] It’s too late to be practical to ask for a new saucepan for Christmas

[4] Inflict them on, says Jeremy. But he doesn’t like fruitcake.

17 December

Shop till you stop

Embrace the warmth and light of the summer morning and hit the supermarket early. Take your list and your green bags, and make sure you have a cool bag and some freezer bricks too.[1]

2016-12-17
Ship-shape shopping.

William and I met in the mall this afternoon[2] and went to the crystal section of the best department store. The moment we were within flailing distance of displays of china, William put his hands into his pockets and refused to take them out again.

“I’m not touching anything,” he said. “I can afford one vase but I can’t afford breakages.”

We found a vase I’m sure Jill will love but William wouldn’t handle it so I carried it to the service desk for him. And he wouldn’t even take his hands out of his pockets to liberate his wallet, so I paid for it too. (He transferred the cost to my bank account as soon as we left the shop and bumped into a shopper as he did so, so I understand his strategy.)

[1] In case the warmth of the summer morning is too warm.

[2] Which was Hell. Unless you’re lonesome for the peak-hour crowds of Tokyo, you should be glad you’ve finished your Christmas shopping.

 

16 December

In the running

You’ve got your menu, you’ve got your shopping lists and now it’s time to make a careful culinary running sheet[1] so write down the times you need to do each cooking task on Christmas Day. When are you putting the turkey in the oven? When do you need to get the water boiling for the pudding? When will you (or your helper) chop the onions for the salads?[2]

If there any other hectic cooking schedules in the next week,[3] do running sheets for those too, and if you find any tight spots (too much to do at once) you can see the problem now and can plan around it.

You could consider doing some preparation steps earlier[4] Or you could swap to a different dish, and even delegate!

2016-12-16
Lists – the Christmas angel’s best friend.

My friend Jill’s son William dropped in tonight and explained his predicament. He asked his mother what she wanted for Christmas and she told him in great detail and it was all about crystal. The problem is that he didn’t listen. Then he realised what he’d done and he asked her to tell him again and she did and he tuned out again.[5] William said he didn’t think he could ask her three times, so he’s turned to me instead.

And he’s in luck: Jill has often admired my big crystal vase, there are similar designs in the shops and it fits William’s budget. We’ll head out tomorrow.

[1] Those who make running sheets should be able to avoid running entirely.

[2] “When will you give up and get take-away?” is not likely to be an option on a day that most of the shops are closed.

[3] Although I’ve recommended two days for rainbow jelly, I can cut it down to one if the rest of my day is flexible. This came in handy when a tree fell on the roof of Hannah’s kinder and they had to move the break-up barbecue to the primary school and bring it forward three days to fit around the school schedule.

[4] Cheesecake, trifle and chocolate ripple cake are all best made a day or two ahead, and some biscuits can be made weeks ahead and then frozen. (Some biscuits can also be eaten frozen, but it won’t help your diet to know that.)

[5] I can’t blame him for this: I know men in their fifties who could not concentrate on a discussion about crystal, no matter what was at stake.

15 December

Berried treasure

Summer has come so late this year that I haven’t had enough raspberries to make jam yet, but here are my two favourite raspberry recipes, which I love not because they taste good (although they do!) but because if things are hectic, you just need to take the first step now (which is dumping the berries in the drink) and you can leave the next steps until the new year. (You can even wait till after Australia Day if you like.)

Here is my recipe for raspberry vinegar, which, although it sounds like a condiment, is actually a cordial. So dilute it with water and serve it cold.[1]

Raspberry Vinegar

2016-12-15A

Makes 1 litre

Preparation time 10 minutes

Start 1 day ahead

500g raspberries

2 cups white vinegar

2 cups caster sugar

Put the raspberries in a glass or china bowl and add vinegar. Cover the bowl and let stand overnight.

Strain out the berries and put the liquid in a saucepan. Add the sugar and stir over low heat until it is dissolved. Bring to the boil and simmer for 1 hour.

Pour into sterilised bottles, seal and keep in a cool, dark place.

Raspberry Vodka

A by-product of raspberry vodka is vodka raspberries, which are good with ice cream, in fruit salad and added to fruity cocktails.

Makes 750ml

Preparation time 10 minutes

Start 3 days ahead

750ml vodka

1 punnet raspberries

water

Garnish: a long string of fake pearls

Place berries and vodka in a large glass or china bowl. (Keep the bottle.) Cover the bowl tightly and leave for 3 days.

Strain the berries from the vodka and pour the vodka back into the bottle. Cap it tightly and place it in a clean milk carton. Fill the carton with water and drape a few strands of pearls around the bottle. Freeze.

Remove the vodka from the freezer and cut the milk carton away from the ice block before serving.

*

My friend Jill’s restless son William texted me (to my surprise) today. “Can you help me choose a present for Mum?” he said.

“Yes,” I answered. “Have you asked her what she wants?”

“Yes. And that’s the problem. Can I visit you tomorrow night?”

I was intrigued by this, but of course I said yes. Why would Jill not suggest a suitable present to her son? (Even if her heart’s desire is a lacy bra and a whizz-bang vibrator, surely she can think of something she’d be happy to put on William’s shopping list?)

[1] Jeremy tried it on chips once. It wasn’t nice.

14 December

Gobble it all up

You’re going to need plenty of room in the fridge, so start clearing it out now. Perhaps you have some frozen food in the freezer that you could be eating over the next week? Then check out your half-eaten jars of sun-dried tomatoes and Cumberland sauce. Could you use them up in meals this week?[1] Should you dump them?[2] And when buying food for the next fortnight, be stingy rather than generous: you don’t want leftovers.[3]

2016-12-14
Running on empty.

The VCE results are out and Jack got 98, which is very good indeed.

I texted him my congratulations and then Wendy rang to tell me that, since Jack had reached the clearly-in score for the course he wanted, he was finally willing to reveal his selection.

“He chose law at Monash,” she said.

“Law!” I said. “He’s an argumentative trickster – I should have guessed.”

“And here’s a bigger surprise: Matthew has known all along. Apparently, he gave Jack a lot of career advice.”

“Why didn’t Matthew tell you?”

“He says he assumed we knew,” she replied.

[1] Nice meals, not the kind of melange my dad would make on the last night of a beach holiday when he’d throw everything in the fridge into one pot, add chilli and any other spices he could get hold of and call it “curry”.

[2] If you bought the Cumberland sauce two years ago for a specific recipe, and haven’t used it for anything else since, you probably should.

[3] In fact, still feeling a little hungry at the end of dinner may inspire you to find a use for Cumberland sauce.

13 December

Let’s wrap

Today is the start of the mid-winter month in Scandinavia, when gnomes and trolls run wild and no work is allowed. In Australia, we have schoolchildren running wild[1] and there’s plenty of work still to be done in workplaces around the country but it gets harder and harder to fit it around the end of year festivities.[2]

As with so many Christmas tasks, you might prefer to wrap all your presents in one big session, in which case you should schedule it appropriately into your (jam-packed) calendar now and, since this a good task for the whole household, you may need to find a mutually convenient time across everyone’s schedules. (This won’t be easy but my sister Wendy solved the problem a few years back by not allowing anyone to have breakfast until they’d wrapped a present first.)

Alternatively, if you like to wrap slowly, start now and do a few each night in front of the television (or in front of the fairy lights and Christmas carols).

2016-12-13
Tearing through the wrapping process.

My colleague Murray surprised me with a Christmas present at the HR morning tea today: a kitchen timer shaped like a cupcake. It was to thank me for the cooking lessons (and I so appreciated his appreciation that I felt like giving him a Christmas present too)[3] and he said that if he’d realised how much people like you when you put a torte on the table, he’d have gone straight to the cakes as a young man and would have left the curried sausages to his middle years.

[1] A few years back, my son Jeremy spent an entire winter holiday on the couch in a zebra onesie, drinking hot chocolate and watching wildlife documentaries. When I suggested that he get some fresh air, he sighed and asked me how long it was going to take for me to realise that we were now living in a virtual world.

[2] To the festive morning tea in the HR department this morning, Murray brought

  1. shortbread
  2. some documents that he needed signed by the HR director,

which, I feel, does not quite demonstrate the proper Christmas spirit.

[3] Maybe a kitchen timer shaped like a cupcake?