24 December – Christmas Eve

Eve

Get up, open the last door on the Advent calendar, wolf down some toast and head off to the greengrocer! Be early to avoid the crowds (and to find the best cherries) and bear in mind that there are two attitudes you can take to this:

  • you can be grumpy that the shops are crowded and you can’t find the sugar snap peas and you’ve still got so much to do
  • you can enjoy the excitement in the kids and the tingle of anticipation in the adults around you and you can think of this preparation as a fun part of the feast.

You probably have quite a few things to cook today but you have good running sheets so, again, enjoy the preparation – and the flavours and the aromas. (My house smells like red wine and spices right now, because I’ve just been mulling the fruit for breakfast tomorrow.)

24 dec 2016
Throw open all the doors!

Matthew and Don and Jack came over early with the trailer and have been pushing tables around on the deck. They tried one long rectangle but it didn’t fit so now they’re toying with a U-shape, which they don’t have enough tablecloths for, and I’ve just heard Jack mention white sheets (!) and he said he’ll get some from home if Don will take the trailer back to pick up his magic apparatus. And you know what? I think they’re thoroughly enjoying themselves. (I hope it’s not me that ends up sitting on one of those folding picnic chairs though.)

Jeremy and Danni volunteered for the last-minute present shopping so I sent them off to the mall with my purse[1] and they came home with fancy candles! But I’ve never even met the boat people and for all I know they might like candles. Now the love birds are wrapping the gift wax in the lounge room – in birthday paper because I used up the last of the Christmas paper on Caitlin’s present. (I hope the boat people like dinosaurs in party hats because that’s the wrapping they’re getting.)

Then Ben and Cassidy came around with some of the stuff Wendy has cooked for tomorrow (I do not know why she thought it would fit in my fridge!) and, after Cassidy astonished me by telling me that she was looking forward to a slice of Wendy’s lemon meringue pie,[2] they decided to decorate the deck (which has plenty of fairy lights on it but they won’t be any good at midday). They used all the decorations I excluded from my decoration plan (mostly because I don’t like them – like the ceramic elf with the evil squint) and are now making paper chains from Christmas catalogues. Some would say the result is looking very gaudy but I’m willing to go with “festive”.

Auntie Gwen and Susan, who arrived at ten and are staying tonight and tomorrow night, are peeling potatoes for the potato salad (I was planning a German potato salad but Auntie Gwen is doing her own thing and I have no idea what it will be except that I think she said something about anchovies), and Gemma is folding napkins (they’re paper but I admit they’re looking very good) and has her husband Paul polishing glasses and cutlery ready for tomorrow.

Everyone’s getting in each other’s way but they don’t seem to mind. In fact, I absolutely think the word for today is “merry”.

[1] “We usually do our Christmas shopping in the Boxing Day sales,” said Danni. “There are a lot of advantages to being Serbian.”

[2] “Moderation is important,” she said earnestly. “Really?” I replied, trying very hard not to be sarcastic. “Oh yes. I’ve learned that a little bit of sugar can be a good thing.”

“I’ll bear that in mind,” I said.

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 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.

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.