11 August

Candy canes

A candy cane is a hard peppermint lolly made in the shape of a walking stick and painted with barbershop stripes of red and white. There is a story that it was given to children in Cologne Cathedral in 1670[1] and that it represents the crook of the shepherds of the nativity[2] but there’s another story that it signifies St Nicholas’s bishoply crosier, and neither story explains the stripes. What is certain is that candy canes have been around for centuries.

Candy canes are sturdy and distinctive so you can decorate with them; put them on the tree; have a glass of them on your desk at work; stick them into otherwise ordinary cupcakes; or use them as a garnish on Christmas cocktails.[3] They’re cheap so you can tie one onto a Small Present of any kind to make it suddenly Christmassy and they’re very easy to draw so you can use them as a design for your own cards and wrapping paper even if your artistic skills are minimal.

11 aug 2016.jpg
Can you have too much candy?[4]
[1] Which seems dangerous. One of the most embarrassing moments of Gran’s life was when she gave her small children lollies in church to keep them quiet and realised too late that they had left gobs of stickiness all over the pews and the hymn books.

[2] Which isn’t convincing because, if you were scouring the nativity story for symbols to translate into candy, you’d find a score of more obvious things before you got to shepherds’ crooks.

[3] They work better on grasshoppers than on whisky sours.

[4] Dentists say yes.

10 August

The fruits of the sea

If you’re doing the traditional Australian seafood Christmas, working out your menu and ordering your sea creatures in advance, then picking them up on Christmas Eve is definitely the best plan if you’re keen on the popular favourites like lobster and oysters. But you can trundle down to your fishmonger on Christmas Eve and ask what they’ve got that’s good, thus giving yourself an opportunity to work with the catch of the day. Either way, take your esky with you, and make room in the coldest part of your fridge for the incoming fish before you leave home.[1]

10 aug 2016.jpg
Something’s fishy.

Hannah has volunteered to make bunting for her brother’s party. Jeremy insisted that she do it in the colours of the restaurant (orange and green is what he said but terracotta and cactus is more accurate) and she agreed readily but had a devious gleam in her eye. I think she’s up to something.

[1] My cousin Linda still talks about the time her husband left the third tub of fish in his car one hot Christmas Eve and found it again on Boxing Day.

9 August

Bring a plate

If you’re asked to bring a plate[1] and you’re looking for cheap options, consider:

  • hummus with crudité
  • potato salad
  • coleslaw[2]
  • baked potatoes with garlic butter
  • meatballs[3]
  • pikelets, buttered, with a delicate slice of strawberry on each
  • apple tart
  • rainbow jelly (of which more later).

Make these dishes yourself from scratch and avoid recipes with expensive ingredients and it won’t hurt your pocket too much (but I’m not guaranteeing that it won’t hurt your waistline).

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Having a (meat)ball.

Christmas Day 1970: The women ferried out plates buried beneath piles of turkey, ham, gravy,[4] peas and five kinds of roast vegetables. I wasn’t much of a meat-and-three-veg girl[5] so I didn’t understand why this was supposed to be so special but I felt everyone else’s excitement (and I did like the potatoes).

Naturally there were seconds and even thirds. (Nanna had, of course, catered to allow for this.) Just as traditional were the remarks about why we were eating a hot roast on such a hot day but it was good-natured banter and no-one really considered any other option. It was Christmas, it was turkey: it was as simple as that.

[1] Incidentally, it can be useful to have a sturdy festive plate to put your function food on. My friend Jill has a big melamine platter with a picture of a slightly leery Santa on it and she hates it and has been sending it to school break-ups and end-of-year Scouting functions for a decade (covered with fairy bread or sausage rolls or shortbread as appropriate) and is disappointed every time it makes its way back to her. She wants bring-a-plate to turn into leave-a-plate, but it just won’t work.

[2] Which sounds so much more appetising than cabbage salad.

[3] My nephew Jack whipped up a batch of meatballs for a family barbecue that were very popular until someone asked him what meat he’d made them from and he replied, “I’d rather not say.” (Mind you, knowing Jack, I’m guessing he used standard beef mince from Wendy’s freezer and his only reason for being cagey was to disconcert us.)

[4] But not cranberry sauce, which hadn’t reached the Mallee yet.

[5] And wasn’t even interested in two-meats-and-six-veg.

8 August

Goats of Yule

In Scandinavia, the Christmas gift-bringer was the Yule Goat. This is possibly connected to Thor, the son of Odin and namesake of Thursday, who rode across the sky in a chariot drawn by two goats, but it’s also the last sheaf of grain gathered in the harvest and saved for its magical properties for the Yule festival, and these goats may or may not be connected.

These days, a Christmas fairy or gnome called a julenisse in Norway and Denmark and juletomte in Sweden is more likely to bring the presents.

Yule Goat related activities that you may like to absorb into your own traditions include:

  • decorating with goats (traditionally made of straw or wood)
  • hiding a Yule Goat in your neighbours’ house (and when they find it, they hide it in your house)[1]
  • taking a goat with you[2] when you go carolling from door to door (and also play pranks and let your audience know that the goat is demanding gifts)
  • or you could dress like a julenisse in grey, with a long white beard and a red hat.[3]
08 aug 2016.jpg
What gets your goat?

[1] Use one of the straw decorations – not a real goat.

[2] This one is a real goat.

[3] Uncle Bill does this accidentally sometimes.

7 August

Pick another card

Nearly as easy as bauble cards are Christmas tree cards. Cut a Christmas tree out of green paper. You can either use a template or fold the paper in half and cut out a jagged triangle shape.[1] Glue it onto the card and add a bit of glitter.[2] If you want to make it fancy, put a star on top.[3]

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O Tannenbaum.

We skied hard all day, packed our bags and poured our damp, exhausted selves back into the cars for the trip home. Luckily Wendy had plenty of chocolate left over: I’m not sure we would have lasted the journey without it.[4]

[1] My daughter Hannah tried pressing and drying pieces of actual fir one year and they did smell lovely but they crumbled into dust if you touched them and it was impossible to stick them down. So her brother Jeremy suggested using paper shapes for the visual effect, and a sprinkling of Pine O Cleen to add olfactory impact.

[2] Or a lot of glitter. Or make it solid glitter (in which case you don’t have to start with green paper).

[3] It’s like the cherry on the top of the sundae: entirely unnecessary, but appealing nonetheless.

[4] “Having too much chocolate is a survival tactic,” says Wendy. “You’re far more likely to use it than a pocket knife.”

6 August

Brussels sprouts

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who think Brussels sprouts are disgusting and those who say, “Oh you just aren’t cooking them right!” I hate the bastards with a passion[1] and when I first heard of a substance that some people taste as bitter and some people can’t taste at all, it became clear to me. You see, before this substance was tested, there was no evidence that people tasted things differently: it was entirely possible that you and I experience exactly the same sensations when we eat pears and it might be that you don’t particularly like how they taste and that I do. But now we know that, in at least one case, people are having a physically different experience when they eat. I’m sure that’s what’s going on with Brussels sprouts: those of you who think they are palatable cannot possibly be tasting what I’m tasting. To me, they literally taste like poison and I cannot imagine how someone once tried one and considered it to be food.[2]

My antipathy to these nasty little cabbages is so great that I’m reluctant to mention that they’re considered a Christmas dish in Britain, but I must say:

  • Don’t do it.
  • If you really have to, make sure they’re optional.

And please shut up about there being nice ways to cook them. We will never believe you and, if you tasted what we taste, you’d realise that they are too horrible to be fixed even with bacon: it’s as pointless as spraying eau de cologne on a skunk.

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These are not the vegetables you’re looking for.

My casserole was appreciated at the ski lodge tonight but not because I’d balanced the flavours so well.

“Thank God you cooked something soft,” said Don after a hard day’s skiing. “I don’t have enough energy to chew.”

We played a hearty game of canasta last night after tea but I don’t think anyone is up for more than a round of after-dinner mints tonight.

[1] That’s the vegetables, not the people who tell you to sauté the leaves with bacon. (Mind you, I’m not fond of the latter and I wish they’d shut up.)

[2] My friend Sharon’s father lost his sense of taste after a blow to the head in a car accident. This is the point at which he started eating brussels sprouts, saying, “They can’t hurt me now and there’s a theory that they’re actually good for you so it’s time the buggers worked for me rather than against me.”

 

5 August

The way the Germans do it

Lebkuchen is German gingerbread[1] which is traditionally made in heart shapes and I always make these for Christmas because:

  • I love them
  • The chocolate makes them an indulgent treat that I save for special occasions[2]
  • They keep well so you can make them in advance (and keep them going strong in those lazy, post-Yule days)[3]

Lebkuchen

05 aug 2016.jpg

MAKES : 3 dozen
START : 3 hours before
PREPARATION TIME : 10 + 40 + 10 minutes

120g butter                                              1 tsp ground cloves

400g (4/3 cup) golden syrup                 1 tsp cocoa

3½ cups (520g) plain flour                    2 tbs milk

2 tsp bicarb                                              zest of 1 orange, 1 lemon and 1 lime

1 tsp ground ginger                                approx 4 tbs raspberry jam

1 tsp ground cardamom                        185g dark chocolate

1 tsp ground cinnamon                         2 tsp vegetable oil

Melt butter and golden syrup together then cool for 10 minutes

Zest orange and lemon. Sift dry ingredients together and stir into syrup mixture with milk and zest. Cover and stand for 1½ hours.

Set oven to 180˚C. Grease several biscuit trays.

Knead dough on lightly floured surface until it loses its stickiness. Roll dough until 8mm thick. Cut into heart shapes and place on trays, 3 cm apart. Make small round indentations in middle of biscuits (with the rounded end of a wooden spoon handle) and half fill with jam.

Bake biscuits for until 10 minutes until lightly browned. Cool.

Melt chocolate with oil, spread onto bottoms of biscuits and leave until set.

We went to Baw Baw in a convoy of three cars – you’d think we could fit six people into two cars but there were skis and jackets and a hell of a lot of food. (At once stage, it was looking like I’d have to choose between the lemon biscuits and my mittens but I’m glad to say we fitted everything in.)

[1] With cardamom in it which makes it different to English gingerbread.

[2] Although I have heard my nephew-in-law Chris claim that the sixth food group is chocolate biscuits, and that you can’t have a balanced diet without them.

[3] My nephew Ben often visits me around the 27th of December and he has fun with my son Jeremy and then we all have a good chat over afternoon tea but I don’t think his motive is purely social because, when he rings up to check if we’re home, he always asks if we have any lebkuchen left first.