23 December

Fridge work

Today’s the last delivery day for the year, so leave the postie’s Small Present in the letterbox. (Clearly labelled – you don’t want them to assume it’s to you rather than from you.)

2016-12-23
Jam packed (and not just with jam).

Now you really need to get the fridge ready. Toss everything that you don’t need,[1] carefully consider what you’ll be storing and how you can fit it in and plan where everything will fit on Christmas Day. (I’m making extra room for a pre-cooked rolled pork loin and a supermarket quiche because I no longer have time to cook everything from scratch!)

Also fine-tune your Christmas Day food safety plan:

  • How will you cover food? Will you serve it in containers that have lids? Will you use plastic wrap and foil? (Put them on your shopping list for Christmas Eve if you don’t have enough.) Do you have your ham bag ready?
  • Remember to get all that food back into the fridge pronto and out of the danger zone.

You can cook frozen desserts and cheesecake today. Personally, I’m getting stuck into an ice cream plum pudding because there won’t be enough actual pudding to go around and no-one’s going to feel like waiting two months until something I whip up today has matured properly!

Wendy rang from Tullamarine and she said that they flew with a nice family who had also abandoned ship and don’t know what to do for Christmas because they were expecting to be on a cruise and now they’ve come home to an empty larder and an undecorated house so she invited them to my place, knowing that I always have plenty of everything!

So that’s twenty-five people for Christmas dinner! I’m going to have to buy some extra crackers and more wine and find some extra presents!

“Wendy,” I said, “do you think Gertruda would have time to cook a really big batch of sauerkraut pierogi for Christmas dinner?”

“I’m sure she’d love to,” she replied. “I’ll let her know straight away.”

“And something for dessert too?”

“Count on it,” she replied.

Then Gemma rang, checking if there was anything she could bring.

“Well,” I said cautiously, “how are you off for china?”

“We got a big dinner set for a wedding present that we hardly ever use!” she gushed. “I’ll bring it around!”

And she did. She’s got my sixteen-place white and gold plates and has added her twelve-place white and silver service and she’s currently bustling around, working out how to mix them together in a stylish way. She says she’ll bring glasses and cutlery tomorrow and now she’s talking about serviettes and centrepieces.

“I was going to do conifers and baubles,” I mentioned, “and I have big gold bowls for nuts and lollies.” (Note to self: will need more nuts and lollies.)

Gemma looked at me with my apron and oven mitts and said, “Please can I do it? I love this kind of thing and it was feeling so wrong to be sitting around on Christmas Eve Eve with nothing to do. I can do conifers and baubles and I’ll wrangle punch cups and serving spoons too. I promise it will look lovely.”

And that’s an offer too good to refuse.

By the time Hannah rang, I went to speaker phone straight away so that I could keep stirring.

“You need twenty-one crackers?” she asked.

“It’s twenty-five now,” I said. “Probably thirty tomorrow, the way things are going. And if you ask again on Christmas morning, I expect it will be a hundred.”

“How many crackers have you got?” she asked.

“Fourteen,” I replied.

“Pixie and Poppet are bouncing off the ceiling so we’ll sit down and make crackers together this afternoon and that might calm them down a bit. I’ll drop into the shops on my way over and get eleven trinkets. They won’t be up to your usual standard but I’ll find something.”

“Could you make the crackers silver?” I suggested, thinking of Gemma’s table décor. “And do you think we could have the girls in charge of the punch on the Day?”

“They’ll love it,” she assured me. “Should we start on the punch ice today?”

“Yes, please,” I replied.

[1] Like the leftover pasta from yesterday you thought you’d eat today but actually won’t because you’ll be too full of mince pies.

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.

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.

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?

10 December

The chop

If your Christmas tree is a lopped pine, you can buy it this weekend and it should still be fine for at least a few days beyond the 25th. They do best away from the heat so don’t put them too close to sunny windows.[1]

My council offers a free tree pick up service in January and yours may too but you might need to register beforehand.[2]

2016-12-10
Make a trunk call.

We had planned to undecorate the conference room today but first Adam and then Jessica and then Laura texted me to say that they were sick and wouldn’t be able to make it so I texted them all back and said that we’d reschedule to tomorrow. (Being hungover is a self-inflicted injury and I don’t think it should get you out of cleaning up.)

This left me with plenty of time to meet up with my book club friend Sharon to exchange presents. Hers was wrapped in paper covered with her own whimsical cat sketches and she said that a local craft shop had persuaded her to design some gift wrap. It had turned out very well but she was agonising about whether doing a series of greeting cards would be too commercial.

I don’t see why it’s considered unartistic to make art that appeals to the masses but perhaps that’s why I’m an office worker rather than an artist.

[1] And my niece Emma told her mother that you also shouldn’t take your eyes off the baby when she’s close to the tree: she knew little Mia would enjoy crawling under the piney splendour but she didn’t know that Mia could actually reach up to the lower branches until she found a golden star in her mouth. (Both the baby and the bauble survived the experience.)

[2] My colleague Murray mulches his tree each year and spreads it on his flowerbeds – where you can occasionally see a shard of glittery plastic from a decoration he missed.

 

5 December

Gift tag accounting

This evening (St Nicholas Eve), Sinterklaas leaves presents for Dutch children. Sometimes he hides them in the house and leaves a clue behind; sometimes he leaves them in a sack on the doorstep, knocks on the door and runs away before the door is opened.[1]

Perhaps you’re starting to receive presents now even if your family doesn’t come from the Netherlands? As you unwrap each, keep the gift tag, write what the present was on the back of it (as if you were your own bridesmaid) and put them in a Christmas tin to help you write your present list for next year.[2]

2016-12-05
Tickets on yourself.

I ducked out to get presents for Gemma and Paul today and was glad that my present shopping is usually finished by now because the crowds are starting to hot up. I found a scarf for her, in a shade of turquoise she wears a lot, and a Guide Dogs calendar for him because the puppies were so darn cute. (I haven’t actually met him and all I know of his tastes is that he likes indoor cricket, but who can resist puppies?)

[1] Is he hiding something, is he merely shy, or is he on the spectrum?

[2] My cousin Peter used to also do a price check on the gifts he received and then use the dollar amount as an input to his present budget for the following year, but he dropped that tit-for-tat approach when he moved to his one-book-for-all model.

24 November

Defaulting

How’s your Christmas shopping going? If it’s not close to finished yet, it might be time for the default shop: that’s where you choose one shop, walk in[1] and stay there until you’ve found a present for everyone on your list.[2] But don’t be too fussy – by now, although you’re still trying to get a good present for everyone, you can accept that the gifts may not be perfect and that a few people may get something that doesn’t excite them. You do better when you can, but when you can’t, don’t let it worry you. Not every present has to be perfect every time. (But this is not an invitation to throw away your standards entirely, as my colleague Murray did the year after he was criticised for giving his family hampers of ill-fitting underwear, when he abdicated all care and gave everyone supermarket gift cards.)

2016-11-24
When your default shop is a fair trade store, you can be certain that someone will get something good for Christmas (the maker for sure, and your recipient perhaps).

I thought I’d finished my own present shopping, but I was just going to send a card to Auntie Gwen and Susan and now that they’re coming to Christmas dinner, I think I should give them presents, particularly since there are only four of us! I don’t have any specific ideas (this is something that I haven’t been working on all year) so I guess I’ll just wander around the shops and hope to be inspired. (People complain (justifiably) about toys being marketed in pink to make it clear they’re for girls, but right now I’d love to go to a shop that had purple packaging on everything that was suitable for retired nurses.) I’ll have to buy some wrapping paper too – I’ve already allocated all the upcycled gift bags that I made.

[1] Or log on.

[2] Don is notoriously difficult to buy for. Last year, when my daughter heard that I was heading out to get a present for him and wouldn’t be back till I had one, she advised me to take a thermos and a sleeping bag.

20 November

On impulse

2016-11-20

Just the thing for white Christmas?[1]
The shops are starting to fill up with things like these Christmas patty cases, so there you are in the supermarket and you think, “How cute! And only three dollars! I’ll get some!” But resist impulse buying, ask yourself if you’d really use them and sleep on it.[2] Three dollars isn’t much by itself, but three dollars every day from now until Christmas is over a hundred dollars and that’s enough to buy something a whole lot better than patty cases.[3]

*

I went to the craft market today where I bought Gertruda’s lace collar a few months back and was tempted to ask them if I could return it! But that would be unchristian of me (yes, I’m an atheist but I have Christian values) so I resisted.

[1] Wendy is vehement in her dislike of white Christmas so Emma cooked a batch every year to tease her. Emma upped the ante each time by adding increasingly delicious ingredients but ceded defeat once she’d reached slivered almonds, flaked coconut and rum-soaked dried apricots. “If that didn’t tempt her, nothing will,” Emma told me. Wendy said if she was going to be bribed to eat copha, it would take at least a sports car.

[2] Carol has both a positive and a negative section in her shopping list: the left column is must-haves like flour and nutmeg, and the right column is must-not-haves like decorations and chocolate.

[3] You could get a kilo of pom poms, a butterfly net and a pogo stick, for example (which could make for a very interesting Christmas Eve).

19 November

If you don’t like the steady trickle Christmas shop, or if you lack the time on the average day or lack a convenient emporium, then you can do your Christmas shopping in one big bang: allocate a morning (or a whole day) to go to a big shopping centre. Prepare yourself the night before: you’ll need comfortable shoes and a capacious bag and you should read your present list and your ideas through carefully and plan your approach.[1]

Theoretically, it’s still a good idea to get the presents you’re sure about first because you may get inspiration for the people you don’t have gifts for. In practice, this might lead to you walking the length of the shopping centre ten times over so, unless you’re keen for this to be physical exercise as well as a logistic exercise, shop geographically by visiting each relevant shop as you pass it.

Take your goods back to the car whenever they get too heavy[2] and stop frequently, either for food (whether from the food court or your own packed lunch, depending on your culinary and fiscal preferences) or just to do something revitalising (like reading the paper).[3]

Save the receipts – both for your records and in case you need to return anything.

2016-11-19
Ready, set, shop!

I bought a really pretty china tea set for Pixie and some lovely wooden farm animals for Poppet. (I don’t know when I’ll see them over Christmas yet but I’ll make sure we meet some time in December.)

[1] My cousin Brian shops online but he still allocates a whole morning for it and he sits down in his study and wanders through web sites until he’s filled his Christmas list. (But he doesn’t wear comfortable shoes … or anything at all. He said he did it naked one particularly humid day and found it did such a good job of keeping his teenagers out of his study while he shopped that he has now made it a tradition.)

[2] Ignore this instruction if you travel by bus (and, if you do travel by bus, consider adding a weight limit to your price limit for presents).

[3] Or Snapchatting pictures of horrible items to your brother and threatening to buy them for him for Christmas, as Hannah did last year.