The joys of a modest Christmas
I have a fractured relationship with Christmas. It's a hard thing to admit. You swim against the tide admitting such a thing. Something else that's hard to admit: right now, as I type, I'm listening to Diana Krall's album of jazz-musak Christmas songs, trying to summon up some enthusiasm for the event.
Her scat-sprinkled Jingle Bells hasn't worked and I've fast-forwarded through Let it Snow and Winter Wonderland. I gave Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep a hearing and thought, yes, I should count my blessings. And change playlists. Quickly. Silly to imagine Diana Krall carolling would be of any use whatsoever.
The forced jollity, the gleaming-toothed happy families of department store advertisements, the expectations of perfection, the great, tacky commercial onslaught - from about November 25 (or when the first sugary ditties start trilling through shop speaker systems) I consider possible escape routes. An island, a cave, a treehouse, inner Mongolia ... somewhere I don't have to think about "celebrating in style", won't be told to "refresh my home and keep everyone entertained with the latest holiday essentials", don't have to consider "perfect wine and food matches for the festive season" or "how to design a chic Christmas table". Somewhere I don't get bombarded into thinking that I'm a failure if I can't or won't achieve all that. Bah humbug!
Christmas has come a long way since hostesses were advised that "roast turkey can be one of the most rewarding dishes a cook can tackle" and that "the man of the house can be very useful, particularly in removing the ropey tendons from the legs".
We've been liberated from hot flushes over roast vegetables and brandy sauce. But we haven't been liberated from expectation; in fact, in a world of glossy food magazines, celebrity chefs and Maggie Beer's Christmas Feast, expectations are even higher. It's all quince-glazed Christmas hams and pan-fried mudcrabs and tiger prawn pyramids and artisanal cheeses and free-range suckling pig and foraged salads and yabbies from a dam. And we're still gobbling turkey - only now it's Malaysian style, or stuffed with Middle Eastern flavours, or vincotto-glazed or pomegranate-roasted or soy-poached.
I've fallen for these pagan rites of summer before (I'm not alone, am I?) - the monstrous expense, the ugly-prelude-to-gluttony of the fish markets and the supermarkets on Christmas Eve, a short-tempered kitchen, an obscenity of food, over-indulgence and waste, exhaustion and expiration. And the dénouement? A credit card bill resembling the national debt of a small African nation. Nothing there that's an edifying spectacle. Doesn't look too much like the shiny-happy advertisements either. It leaves me wondering - if this is Christmas, have we really come such a long way after all? And what does a good Christmas look like if a visit to a church or a charity isn't a part of it.
Call me Scrooge, I'll cope, but a restrained, modest one would seem a good start. Generosity of spirit doesn't have to equal a gluttony of appetite.
Details are limited at this stage but this year, my family's Christmas will be a simple one, retro-ish. Maybe some prawns with pink sauce. A couple of good chickens with old-fashioned stuffing. A decent ham, cold. Salads. A book under a tree, my favourite people, and something else a bit special - Aunt Mabel's Christmas pudding, which has been part of my family tradition as long as I can remember.
It doesn't need suet, it doesn't need brandy sauce, it doesn't need ceremony, it doesn't need to be made three months ahead. It just needs a little bit of love and a good mixmaster.
Have a good one.
Aunt Mabel's Christmas Pudding
1 pound (500g) dried mixed fruit
4oz (125g) halved cherries
4oz (125g) halved almonds
4oz (125g) dates, chopped (optional)
4oz (125g) figs, chopped (optional)
fresh nutmeg, grated
pinch of allspice
1tsp vanilla essence
1tsp lemon essence
1 cup rum
1 cup brandy
½ pound (250g) butter
½ pound (250g) brown sugar
pinch of salt
½ pound (250g) breadcrumbs (fresh, from crustless white bread)
2 big tablespoons plain flour
½ tsp bicarbonate soda (dissolved in a little warm water)
NB: This recipe makes a big pudding. You'll need a 4 litre pudding basin with lid, or a stainless steel bowl with a good rim and an aluminum foil "lid"; some big bowls; plus a large saucepan with lid that will fit the basin for steaming.
1. 5-7 days before Christmas (or longer): Marinate all the dried mixed fruit, cherries almonds, dates, figs, nutmeg, allspice and essences in the rum and brandy in a glass or ceramic dish that can be sealed. Every couple of days, stir so the fruit and nuts are thoroughly covered in alcohol.
2. Getting ready on Christmas morning: Butter the pudding basin really well and sift a little flour over the greased butter. Shake the flour around the basin to evenly coat the basin with four. Put your big saucepan on the stove about a quarter full of water. Start to heat the water. Take three sheets of aluminum foil, each a square wider than the diameter of the pudding bowl. Grease each side of the foil and stick them together. Set aside.
3. Action on Christmas morning: Cream the butter in a mixmaster until it is light and fluffy. Gradually add the brown sugar until the mixture is combined and fluffy. This could take up to 15 minutes. Add salt, then eggs, one at a time.
4. Remove the bowl from the mixmaster base. Add the alcohol-saturated fruit and nut mixture, folding gently into the butter-sugar mixture. Add breadcrumbs gradually, folding them through the mixture, then flour and bicarb soda dissolved in a little warm water.
5. Pour the mixture into the greased pudding basin, making sure there aren't messy bits of mixture around the rim of the bowl. If you're using a stainless-steel bowl, place the greased aluminum foil layers over the top of the bowl. Tie several lengths of string around the rim tightly, sealing the aluminum foil, then make "handles" with the string so you can lift the basin out of the boiling water. The pudding must be sealed.
6. Place the pudding in the saucepan of simmering water - the water should reach up to a third of the height of the basin. Steam the pudding, covered, in simmering water for 4-5 hours. If cooking ahead, remove from water and allow to cool. To reheat, return to a pot of water and simmer for two hours.
7. Remove the pudding from the simmering water. When the basin has slightly cooled, run a sharp thin knife around the edges of the pudding to loosen it from the bowl. Tip it upside down over a plate or serving platter and tap the basin to loosen the pudding. If you have greased it well, it should slip out on to your platter in a slinky fashion. Serve it with whatever you fancy: custard, cream, icecream.
Sydney Morning Herald