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?

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.”)

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).

16 November

Ginger bread beer

In my opinion, soft drink comes straight from Satan: the only thing in it that could be considered food is sugar – and we all get too much of that – and there’s quite strong evidence that sweet drinks contribute significantly to obesity[1] but if there’s a time it’s appropriate to drink pop, it must be Christmas.

You could consider making your own ginger beer. It doesn’t have significantly more food value[2] but you can at least avoid the foam inhibitors and artificial flavourings of commercial soft drink. Children will usually find this fun (and you can turn it into a science lesson) and the ginger beer is good as a mixer, both in punch (see 16 July) and in cocktails.[3] In fact, it’s useful enough to be a good addition to a hamper.  So here’s my father’s recipe:

Ginger beer

2016-11-16

Makes 10 litres

Preparation time 1 hour

Start 1 to 2 weeks ahead

2 lemons

1 knob of ginger (approx. 120g)

10 litres water

1 kg sugar

3.5g dried yeast

Peel the lemons and slice them thinly. Cut the ginger into thin slices and bruise with a rolling pin.

Put the sugar in a large vat and add the lemons and ginger.

Boil 1 to 2 litres of water, pour into the vat and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Allow to cool.

When cool, add enough cold water to make the volume up to about 10 litres. Sprinkle the yeast on top, cover with a clean tea towel and leave it at room temperature to ferment.

The ginger beer will be ready to bottle when the fermentation has caused all of the solids to float to the top, and the drink is peppered with small bubbles. (This takes about a day in summer, and about a week in winter.)

Strain the ginger beer into plastic soft drink bottles[4] and let stand again. When the bottles are tight (after about 3 days in summer), open a bottle carefully and taste the product. If the flavour is right, refrigerate all the bottles and then drink your delicious ginger beer at your leisure.

*

I rang Matthew yesterday, once I got myself back together.

“It’s just going to be you and me for Christmas,” I explained.

“We could go to a restaurant if you like,” he said.

“Over my dead body!” I replied.

“Then we’ll stay home and be merry anyway,” he said.

But I don’t know how I’m going to reorganise the menu. I rang my butcher and said. “Bill, cancel those two size thirty-six turkeys and put me down for one size twenty.”

“How many are you feeding?” he asked.

“Two,” I said.

“I could do you a nice turkey breast roast,” he said.

“It’s a whole bird or nothing,” I replied. “Don’t worry, I have plenty of recipes for leftover turkey. And please swap my four-kilogram ham for the smallest you’ve got.”

He offered me pre-sliced ham, but I wasn’t having any of that. Not for Christmas!

So that’s the meat sorted (all the way through to February, I think!) but I currently have five desserts on the list and you just can’t justify that for two people, but how can we not have pudding and trifle and cheesecake and fruit salad? It’s still Christmas, even if there are only two of us.

[1] Even the ones with low-cal sweeteners.

[2] It does have lemon in it but not enough to stop you getting scurvy.

[3] Moscow mule = vodka + ginger beer + mint leaves + lime wedges (and absolutely nothing equine).

[4] The plastic can take a surprising amount of pressure, thus avoiding the back-cupboard explosions that were all too common in the days that my father kept his ginger beer in glass. The bangs startled guests and were a waste of bottles, soft drink and time (because it took a while to clean up the mess) but Dad said he enjoyed the frisson of danger he felt whenever he approached the cupboard.

6 November

Nailing down the feast

You’ve already sketched out what you’re eating for Christmas (classic turkey, prawn fest, fusion buffet?) and now it’s time to nail it down. Start with Christmas breakfast, trundle right through to Christmas supper (if anyone in your crew can pace themselves that well)[1] and list every dish and every drink. And if you find gaps or clashes, settle in and sort them out.

If you’re depending on others who are less organised than you,[2] they may not yet know what they’re providing, so get them to commit to a category (cold dessert, meat platter, salad or whatever) and let them know the constraints (Bernie is doing coleslaw and Sally is making sticky date pudding) to head them in the right direction.[3] Then add the other feasts you’ll be catering for, even if it’s just shortbread for a morning tea at work and icy poles for after-school care.

If there are any tight spots, like too much to cook on Christmas Eve or you’ve scheduled the gingerbread house for the night you’ll be at the bridge club knees-up, reschedule, delegate or simplify. Cook-ahead dishes can help (provided they’re delicious, like trifle and chocolate ripple cake, rather than dubious, like Auntie Margie’s jellied salad).

Consider ordering your Christmas meat now: you can wait till December if you’re not certain of numbers but if, like me, you have it all bolted down, you might as well lock it in with your butcher.

2016-11-06
The ripple effect.

Christmas Day 1970: There was a debate about who should do the tea dishes: Caroline and Wendy were clearly on the hook but every other kid had already done double duty that day and two lackeys wasn’t enough. Then Uncle Jim pointed out that neither Uncle Geoff nor Uncle Bill had been involved in the dinner dishes and that solved the problem to the children’s satisfaction – but not to Geoff’s or Bill’s!

[1] When my nephew Jack stops being an ever-growing teenager and becomes a settled adult, I’m going to miss the way he eats like a hippo: I like being able to put down a plate of cranberry chocolate clusters and know that someone is going to say, “Yum!” when everyone else is groaning and saying, “More food?”.

[2] If they haven’t been reading my blog!

[3] My father said that the right direction for Auntie Margie to head was towards the food hall but I know he liked her salami casserole and her whisky blancmange so that was a bit harsh.

5 November

Rainbow jelly

Here’s my (underage) crowd-pleasing rainbow jelly recipe[1].

You need:

  • 1 packet each of red, orange, yellow, green and purple jelly crystals[2]
  • a packet of chocolate coins
  • water and kettle (or anything else that boils water)
  • a mixing bowl and spoon
  • a measuring cup
  • a lot of small,[3] straight-sided[4] drinking glasses[5]
  • a ruler
  • 2 days

2016-11-05A

And here’s what you do:

  1. Make up the purple jelly according to the directions on the packet and leave it to cool to room temperature[6] on the kitchen bench.

2016-11-05B

  1. In the meantime, make sure you have plenty of room in the fridge.
  2. Use the ruler to measure how thick each of the jelly stripes should be. For example, if you have 10cm of space inside your glasses, since you have 6 colours of jelly, if you make each stripe 1.5cm high, you’ll have a centimetre of space left at the top which is about perfect. If you’re mathematically inclined, the formula is:

StripeHeight = (GlassHeight – GapAtTop)/6

  1. When the jelly is cool, pour some into the first glass, using the ruler to get it just the right height, and then do the other glasses, matching them to the first by eye.

2016-11-05C

  1. Carefully drop a chocolate coin[7] into each glass.[8]
  2. Put the glasses into the fridge to set the jelly.
  3. Rinse your bowl and spoon, make the blue jelly and leave it on the bench to come to room temperature.
  4. Pour the blue jelly into the first glass,[9] again using the ruler to get it to the right height.

2016-11-05D

  1. Then add a blue stripe to each of the other glasses, matching them to the first blue stripe by eye.
  2. Put the glasses back in the fridge.

2016-11-05E

  1. Repeat steps 7 to 10 with the green, yellow, orange and red jellies.

2016-11-05F

Some adults will find this irresistible too.

*

 “Mum,” said Jeremy, “I’m going to spend Christmas with Danni.”

I knew the day would come eventually but I didn’t know it would be this year.

“But you only met her a few months ago,” I peeped.

“That’s long enough to know that she’s the one and I want to be with her always.”

“You could both come here.”

“Christmas is really important to her and she wants to spend it with her family.”

I didn’t say that Christmas is really important to me, and I want to spend it with my family because that’s not likely to persuade a young man in love. I guess my best chance is to wait till next year and then propose that they alternate between the two households (and I should count myself lucky that Danni’s parents are still together, which means that they won’t have to alternate between three households).

A colleague once told me that when your daughter marries, you gain a son but when your son marries, you lose a son. But I’m reminding myself that this isn’t that bad, of course. It’s only Christmas.

[1] I promise you that proper rainbow jelly will knock the socks off three-year-old guests.

[2] It’s definitely colour rather than flavour that’s important here and I recommend Aeroplane Jelly’s raspberry, orange, lemon, lime, berry blue and purple grape.

[3] Because nobody needs a lot of jelly.

[4] If the glasses taper (like classic parfait glasses), you need more jelly for the top layers than in the bottom layers.

[5] They don’t have to match.

[6] It won’t set at room temperature unless your kitchen is quite cold (and you can microwave the jelly to liquefy it again if it does set).

[7] This is the gold at the end of the rainbow and is a big part of the appeal.

[8] This is the first reason that the jelly needs to be cool: so that you don’t melt the chocolate.

[9] This is the other reason the jelly needs to be cool: if you pour hot jelly on top of cold jelly, you melt it a little and the colours get murky.