Tuesday, 4 December 2012

December 4th - Best laid plans....

Dear Nigel,

Are you a list person? I am a list person. There's the Christmas card list (-I've written three), the Christmas present list (easier since the advent of one-click-and-it's-yours), and, of course, the Christmas food list. The latter started off as a pleasant evening perusing all my favourite recipe books and deciding what people wanted to eat this Christmas. There were requested favourites such as Millionaire's shortbread for Tom, Smoked Salmon soup for James, Traditionals such as my Granny Burn's Christmas cake (for which no Christmas could possibly happen without), and other inspiring or useful recipes. So, QED; and i went to bed feeling I'd sorted - and actually already done - Christmas.

Now, here we are first-footing into December and the items cooked and stored are lagging behind the advancing days on the calendar. I count them up and realise that unless i make one extra dish every day of the week from now until Christmas then Christmas is not going to happen. Like some ridiculous horse race we put ourselves through it every year.

 Alison Pearson may have smashed up some bought mince pies to make them look homemade but this is nothing compared to the expectations of  family members that this year must be at least as good, if not better, than last year. I may feel like i want to retire to bed with a bottle of sloe gin and a half-read book but other members of the family would soon put a stop to that. Christmas may be for everybody but you'd better make sure you want what everyone else wants. My second son, Christopher, declared last year 'the best Christmas ever' - so however am i going to top that?

I return to THE LIST and decide to make mince pies with the little ones. This is one of those areas where imperfection is almost a requirement. I manage to knock out a few dozen mince pies on one end of the table whilst Sophie is busy hammering pastry into submission at the other. Once levered off the table into tins they are being over-generously filled ( supermarkets' ideas of 'generous fillings' and my kids' seem to differ somewhat), and stamped with carpet-sized stars.

 I stop for a moment and catch  a look of deep concentration as Molly carefully paints each star with a whitewash of floury milk. And it is at this point that all the lists and panic and pressure of Christmas goes completely out the window. This is what it's all about, and if there are huge gaps in the Christmas menu and we are resorting to opening a packet of cheese straws on Boxing day then nobody will really care.

I turn to your diary for December 1st and see that you, too, feel the change in the air. 'Unlike so many other meals, Christmas cannot be left to chance. Planning, rarely part of my kitchen life, is essential.' The reason you give is that 'you tend to remember every Christmas'....and that 'every dish that fails or disappoints will be mentioned at every Christmas from now till kingdom come.' I think you are perfectly right here. I still recall very well the turkey from a friend that was still being plucked at nine o'clock Christmas eve and that was so huge that we had to fairly ram it in the Aga to make it fit.

You serve up a warming dish of mashed cumin and paprika-spiced parsnip croquettes in a tomato sauce enlivened with sherry vinegar (page 473) to chase out the  cold on a bone-chilling evening. I hadn't noticed the cumin in here before but am keen to give it a go now. I seem to have made several cumin-based recipes lately in a bid to ward away the fog of colds that seem to pass endlessly around at this time of year. Some say 15 raw garlic cloves works a treat, and i expect it does if you want to be billy-no-mates.

Bored with the usual Christmas cake you concoct a version of the french Buche de Noel that is more to your liking. There is something distinctly naff about the arrangement of two swiss rolls pretending to be a log - as made by every girl guide doing their cookery badge in the 70's. Your version contains a homemade  praline - a festive 'crown of glistening, caramel-coated hazelnuts' and a butter cream made with Nutella (pg 476). I will, of course, be making the TRADITIONAL version. And, as is traditional, it will probably still be sitting there half - eaten until well into January. Perhaps if there were not small children around who consider it their right to decorate it, i could possibly get away with it. Maybe in a few years time...It's not as if it's most people's first choice from the table anyway, but then it does have its uses when someone drops by unexpectedly.

Best wishes for a stress-free run up to Christmas,


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