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.

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.

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?

3 December

The icing on the cake

If you’re into the icing arts,[1] a Christmas cake is a good platform for them so jump in soon so that you can use the cake as a table centrepiece throughout the festive season.

But if you’re not keen on piped lace and sugar angels, skip the icing.[2] You could put a cake frill around the edges (which is a good option if you decorated the top with almonds) or put an actual Christmas decoration on top[3] provided it’s not going to shed glitter or other inedible substances and that you’re going to be able to wash the cake crumbs off it later.

2016-12-03
Quite frilling.

Gemma at work mentioned that she and her husband Paul have decided not to go home to Western Australia for Christmas.[4] They do now have a social circle in Melbourne but, although you can celebrate your birthday with friends, they’re usually busy with their families at Christmas so she was asking me about very small turkeys. (“They’re called chickens,” I said.)

“Would you like to have Christmas with us?” I asked, and she would.

I’m feeling merrier already (and I think I can justify pudding and trifle and cheesecake and fruit salad for a table of six).

[1] Like Auntie Pat: she didn’t just ice mince tarts, she considered cakes mere vehicles for frosting and she would even ice plain biscuits, particularly if she was practising a new technique or a dicey colour scheme. (Her family forced her to draw the line at toast.)

[2] Because Cassidy is not the only person who thinks that’s too much sugar.

[3] Nanna had a plastic sleigh she saved for this purpose every year.

[4] New mortgage: no funds.

2 December

The queen of tarts

My turn-the-lights-on cocktail party went very well last night: it was a few friends, a few relatives, a few pretty drinks and a pretty good time. We finished up with mince tarts which I think are best when small, made with thin pastry, cooked in gem scone tins for a pleasing round shape and topped with a small star of pastry.[1] Or you can cover them completely or use a different Christmas shape.

Here’s my recipe – but you don’t really need one: just use your favourite pastry, be it homemade or store bought, and your best fruit mince (ditto), assemble the tarts and cook them.

Mince tarts

02 dec 2016.jpg

Makes 24

Preparation time 55 minutes

Start 90 minutes ahead

1 cup plain flour

1 cup self-raising flour

125g butter

¼ tsp lemon juice (or vinegar)

1/3 to ½ cup water

1½ cups fruit mince

Preheat the oven to 190˚C. Grease two 12-hole gem scone trays.

Sift the flours together and rub in the butter. Add the lemon juice to the water and mix enough into the flour mixture to make a firm dough. Knead the dough lightly until smooth and roll out very thin.

Cut circles out of the pastry that are slightly bigger than the diameters of the tart holes in the trays. Cut stars out of the pastry scraps that are slightly smaller than the diameters of the holes in the trays. Line the tart holes with the pastry circles, fill with fruit mince just short of the top, add pastry stars and bake for 25 minutes or until pastry is lightly browned. Cool in tins.

*

I decorated my dining room today. I used big swoops of fat green tinsel with a single red bauble hanging at each of the high points and it looked really good with the clover garden walls. (Mind you, with a mere four of us, we don’t have to use the dining room at all: we’d fit on the coffee table in the lounge room.)

[1] Auntie Pat used to ice them but this is extremely unusual, totally unnecessary (they are sweet enough already) and irritatingly confusing: people would think they were getting a flattish cupcake and would find themselves with a mouthful of raisins instead.

23 November

Frozen

Some biscuits freeze well so, if you’d like to get ahead on the perishables for your hamper, you could cook them today, freeze them and then package them up just before Christmas.[1]

Here’s a recipe for orange thins that you can cut into any shape you like, so why not go for some kind of animal and put stripes or spots on them with chocolate when you thaw them in December? (Or, of course, go with a Christmas shape, like a star or a camel).[2]

Spiced Orange Biscuits

2016-11-23

Makes 60

Preparation time 1 hour 20 minutes

1 orange

3 cups (450g) plain flour

2 tsp baking powder

4 tsp ground ginger

1 tsp ground nutmeg

1 tsp ground cardamom

250g butter

1½ cup (300g) brown sugar

3 tsp sweet sherry

Preheat the oven to 180˚C. Grease 3 baking trays.

Zest the orange. Sift the flour, baking powder and spices into a large bowl.

Cream the butter and sugar. Mix in the sherry and zest, and then fold in the dry ingredients.

Knead the dough lightly and roll out to 2mm thickness. Cut into shapes and place on trays. Bake for 8 minutes until golden brown and crisp.

*

The picture Dad took of that Christmas dinner forty years ago is now mine and it hangs on the photo wall in my dining room, a frozen moment of a perfect Christmas. But it wasn’t the presents or the pudding or the carols that perfected it: we set aside this day to be joyful and then we set about being joyful all day with the people we loved. Joy, I think, is a product of what’s in your heart rather than what’s in the world around you. But it still helps to be in a safe environment with a happy family, and I was blessed with both of those.

[1] This does require freezer space, of course, which was at a premium in my cousin Russell’s friend Yan’s house: he was an amateur taxidermist and if he found an interesting specimen of roadkill during the week, he’d put it in his freezer until he could work on it on the weekend.

[2] It’s not just sheep and donkeys – camels are nativity animals too. (And my sister Wendy’s favourite Christmas hymn when she was a child was “Oh camel, ye faithful.”)