22 December

Uncrate the plates

If your good china is in a dark dungeon somewhere, it’s time to get it out. If you need to dust off your champagne flutes and get the spiders out of the punch bowl, do so. If your silver is tarnished, set your lackeys (or children) to polishing it. And iron your tablecloth (unless it’s plastic).

2016-12-22
Unpacks quite a punch.

Wendy just rang. In the two days since they set sail from Brisbane, half the passengers have come down with viral gastroenteritis and the other half with food poisoning and there’s a cyclone heading for Vanuatu. (Mind you, cyclones are nearly as devious as Gertruda, so who knows where it will actually land?)

“It was terrible!” Wendy said. “You’d walk around another corner and there would be another person spewing. And we didn’t dare eat anything from the buffet so we dined on the chocolates Ben had bought Getruda for Christmas and we’ve been hungry, utterly miserable and holed up in our cabins in the rain.”

So they disembarked at Noumea (because none of them were willing to risk gastro mid-ocean) and they’re flying home and they’ll be here tomorrow.

Which means that they’ll be here for Christmas! Hooray! It really is the season of joy! But I’m going to have to go shopping tomorrow to get enough food (what looked like an abundance of potatoes on Saturday is an embarrassing dearth today) and suddenly I don’t have enough crackers!

I rang Matthew. “My table seats fourteen,” I said. “We can’t have seven people in other people’s laps and I don’t have time to work it out because I have to completely redraft the menu.”

“Leave it to me,” he said. “They’re predicting perfect weather for Christmas so we’ll carry your dining table out onto the deck and add my trestle table and that will give us… fourteen minus two plus six … eighteen. Hmm, we’ll need two trestle tables.”

“Chairs!” I said. “And my tablecloth isn’t big enough! And if it’s going to be sunny, won’t we need umbrellas?”

“I’ll sort it,” he said. “Save your fretting for the turkey.”

The turkey! The little free-range bird I ordered from the butcher and Hannah’s small turkey breast roast won’t be enough![1] I did see a few at the supermarket when I got my extra ham yesterday (not on the bone: it’s a gypsy ham in plastic, which will Have to Do) so I’ll go back this afternoon and hope I’m not too late.

[1] There’s a limit to how far you can stretch a turkey: they’re not elastic.

 

21 December

Getting your act together

People planning Christmas concerts should be rehearsing their acts by now. Those accompanying carols should be running through their music.[1] And if you’re planning some other kind of afternoon festivity, prepare as much as you can today: find a cricket ball, gather some pads and pencils, get out the dress-up box; whatever you need.

2016-12-21

It’s just as well we weren’t planning a concert at my house (if you do a double act with only two guests there’s no audience) because things have changed again!

“Caitlin has thrown Dad out,” Hannah told me. “She’s done it before but she’s always taken him back, so I didn’t want to mention it, but it’s been four weeks now and I think it’s sticking.”

“She’s thrown him out?” I repeated.

“He’s an unfaithful bastard and he doesn’t deserve her.”

Ha! I knew those business trips where he goes away and we all have dinner together were about the wrong kind of business!

“So Caitlin’s still a mess and she’s not very merry and I was wondering if it would be okay if we all spent Christmas with you?”

Of course it is! Hannah will be here for dinner after all! And Pixie and Poppet too, and it’s wonderful to have little children around at Christmas time! (I’ll make rainbow jelly – they’ll love it, although it won’t make them feel nearly as excited and happy as I felt at that moment, knowing that I’d share Christmas with both of my children after all.)

“I can bring my turkey breast and my pudding,” Hannah continued, “but I wasn’t going to do ham so I don’t think we’ll have enough. Is it too late to order another?”

Well, we can try but I’m pretty sure all of Bill’s premium, free-range hams are already spoken for. I’ll check what they have at the supermarket (if I can get a parking spot).

And I’ll have to brave the mall tomorrow to get a present for Caitlin and it’s bound to be mayhem. But I know just what I’ll get her – some of those really good herb snippers – so I should be able to execute it as a lightning raid.

[1] Although Nanna could play anything at sight better than most people could after a week’s rehearsal. (She was, however, unable to play pop songs without making digs about the inferiority of modern music.)

19 December

For you

Here’s my Christmas present to you: yuletide gift-bringer selection tool

And this is what you do with it:

  • Print it out, double-sided. (Flip it on the short-edge if your printer gives you that option.) This should give you a page with doors on one side and green text boxes on the other, and a second page with pictures on one side and nothing on the other.
  • Cut around 3 of the 4 sides of each door, but don’t cut the left sides of the doors. (A Stanley knife[1] is a good tool for this, and a steel ruler will help you get it very straight.)
  • Put glue on the page with the green text boxes, but don’t put any on any of the green parts. Make sure you glue the edges well.
  • Carefully put the picture sheet on top of the green sheet, lining up the edges well, to make a sandwich:
    • The door sheet will be on the bottom, facing down.
    • The green text box sheet will be on the back of that.
    • The pictures will be the start of the next layer, facing down.
    • The top of the sandwich will be the blank page.
  • Now wait for the glue to dry.

Then you will have something that opens like an advent calendar but will explain the difference between the guys in red to your visitors. (You, of course, already know the difference between Sinterklaas and Father Christmas!)

2016-12-19

Jeremy was helping me cook dinner when Danni asked, “What are we doing on Sunday?”

“You should know – we’ll be at your parents’ house,” said Jeremy.

“Not on Sunday,” said Danni. “We’re Serbian.”

“You are?” I said. “That’s wonderful!”

“What’s so good about being Serbian?” asked Jeremy, and then he added, “Is it racist to think that all Serbians are good?”

“Serbians celebrate Orthodox Christmas,” I explained, “and that’s on the 7th of January.”

“That’s right,” said Danni, “so what are we doing on Sunday?”

“Hey Mum, we can come to Christmas after all!” said Jeremy when he finally worked it out.

“That’s really, really good news,” I replied. (I felt like a two-tonne hat had just been taken off my head, and my eyes teared up, but I blamed the latter on the onions.)

I’ll have to extend the table after all. “Cosy” just doesn’t feel like Christmas to me. And I can justify making cherry tarts now, which is even better!

Mind you, it does mean I’m heading back to the supermarket tomorrow for mascarpone. And I’ll have to see if there’s any chance my butcher can upgrade me from that size twenty turkey. (We’ll have enough for dinner but there wouldn’t be much left over for tea and that’s not the way we roll in my house!)

[1] Also known as a retractable safety knife, or a box-cutter. (Yes, that’s the tool that brought down planes on 9/11, but it can be used for good as well as for evil.)

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.

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.

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.