Culinary Chatter: My Christmas

Well it’s December the 24th, and here we are. A few hours to go.

Cynics may carp, to borrow from Nigella, but I wallow in all the sparkle of the season, as you probably can tell. When I’m not working, sleeping, or working out, I’m in the kitchen knocking up various festive staples. Christmas is as much as about ritual and tradition as it is celebration and excess, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. It’s about food, fun and family.

Obviously, you’re going to get the naysayers, the nutritionists’ columns in the press urging us all to be healthy this Christmas – because the average person consumes 7000 calories on Christmas Day alone – and find some way of pouring haterade on the season of joy and goodwill. Last year, my newly-found culinary nemesis, Calgary Avansino (yes you can probably tell I really dislike this invasive American food fascist enormously) published this piece of dross, targeting the insecure and those who may have suffered eating disorders to forgo the warmth and tradition and eat clean over Christmas because after all, having one or two days where you just shed your dietary hangups and enjoy yourself just cannot happen under any circumstances. I won’t spoil the festive joy by way of another anti-clean-eating rant, but all I have to say to Ms ‘bye bye roasties’ Avansino – take your sanctimonious preaching and anally retentive puritanism and shove it where the sun doesn’t shine. The one thing I can’t stand is the annual influx of ‘oh my god I’m gonna get so fat’ whingers. Don’t try and make me feel bad for a bit of annual indulgence, nobody’s making you eat it – load up on the vegetables instead of the pigs in blankets, pipe down and take several seats. Or just get a freaking life and stop seasoning your Christmas dinner with so much guilt.

Now let’s get back to what matters.

In connection with my earlier post on seasonal storecupboard staples, I also have my set dishes that I cook year-in, year out. I have to confess that my Christmas is very much a Nigella one. Her Christmas book is a bible, never off the shelf throughout December, and many staples have result – her enchanting lamb and date tagine, decadent yet gratifyingly low-effort quickly-scaled mont blancs; her wonderfully evocatively-scented mulled cider; her scarlet and fiery chilli jelly (de rigeur for any leftover cooked meat or cheese),  the celestially-fragranced yet lethal lycheeni cocktail and her tangily crimson cranberry-studded mincemeat are all compulsory in my kitchen and made with gusto every year.

My ‘day’ job is a night time shelf stacker and I visit the gym three times a week, but I always make time for the kitchen. It’s so easy to get frazzled at this time of year, thinking that you’re a slave to the stove, feeding family and friends around the clock and trying to make that never-reached ‘perfect Christmas’, but for me, part of the sheer joy of Christmas is digging out these annual dishes and wallowing in the traditions.

People ask me ‘how do you have time?’

Admittedly, I don’t have children or demanding-out-of-working-hours commitments bar sleeping, so I’m lucky in that respect. But I also feel that although you can buy really pretty good Christmas cakes, puddings and mince pies off the supermarket shelves these days, nothing is like making your own and the warm feeling of seeing people dive into something you spent time over.

Like my Christmas cake – same recipe, which I shared with you on Stir-Up Sunday, it’s all fairly uncomplicated, and most of all – you KNOW what went in. And this will be the second year running I will be making my own marzipan and fondant icing, which after years of buying premade, I found that with my vintage 1970s Kenwood Chef, are uncannily easy to make. And actually, having made Nigella’s Easy Chocolate Fruit Cake for a works buffet, I may have to reconsider next year’s…..we shall see. And to be quite honest, I am fond of a proper old-fashioned fruit cake as anyone who’s witnessed the number of tea loaves I produce over an average year will testify – so whilst we’re still in the winter period…watch this space.

Mince pies  – my mother has always made her own, and I did even in my student days, albeit with jarred mincemeat (nothing wrong with that). But once I realised just how simple mincemeat is to make, I now do totally home-made mince pies too. Mincemeat is literally bunging ingredients together and stashing it laced in alcohol somewhere cool and dark. I tend to go old-school for mine – 2014’s effort came from a 1940s Ministry Of Food leaflet seen online, and this years, which will see me into 2016 and maybe even 2017, came from a cookbook from 1934.

The Christmas pud is an altogether more contentious issue – it’s the hours of steaming that put many (including me) off. But in 2013/early 2014 I had some vodka-soused fruit to use up so I had a go. The resultant pudding is still in storage, fed reasonably regularly since then and hopefully will be tested tomorrow. If it’s a success, I may branch out and make my own pud more regularly. Again, it’s just a bit of mixing and then steaming – all you need to is check the water doesn’t simmer away and you know you made it all yourself.

Finally, the main event – the Dinner. So much fear and anticipation for one meal. I’ve not yet gone the whole hog alone on the day, but I’ve made ‘mock’ Christmas dinners on the last weekend before Christmas as training camp and found it no more laborious than cooking a Sunday roast. So just think of it as a Sunday roast but just allow for more components.

Part of the sheer fear is that of not being able to obtain the vital components. If that happens, don’t break down and cry.

A couple of tips if time hasn’t been kind to the Christmas dinner cook:

The turkey. If you are that person who throws the 5pm-Christmas-Eve-supermarket-tantrum when they sell out of the big birds, or just have not had time to order one honestly, just dish up a large chicken. I honestly cannot detect a difference in taste between the two once they’re smothered in gravy, vegetables, cranberry and bread sauce and you may also have saved a fair bit of money in the process. You can still augment the humble workaday chook with sausagemeat and all your preferred accoutrements. Which brings me to…

the sausagemeat stuffing. Don’t fret if they’ve sold out of the fancy sausagemeat stuffings. Save a few more pennies by purchasing a packet of sausages (even better as you can get some pretty damn good sausages nowadays) and squeeze the meat out the casings. May take a few more minutes but a little mixing (and plus you can add your own extras such as apple, onion, herbs and spices to really make it your own) will bring it together and nobody will know you forgot to buy sausagemeat – after all, the clue is in the name. And it’;s cheaper per kg/100g than the non-cased stuff.

But what about pigs in blankets? No problem, just buy some chipolatas/cocktail sausages and streaky bacon and make them yourself. There’s always a way around the seasonal sell-outs. It’s what I’ve taught myself so when I’m finally handed the baton and responsibility for main event duty, I won’t have a festive meltdown and know there’s always a plan B. A roasted turkey looks no different to a roasted chicken in my opinion, nobody will tell if the stuffing is actual ‘stuffing’ or just improvised from squeezed-out-bangers. And also, if you’re not feeding a huge crowd on the day, you won’t be chased towards 12th night with recurring leftover turkey…

Sprouts? Honestly, ask yourself (and whomever is partaking in dinner with you) who likes them, and who doesn’t? Is it worth putting an extra pan on for something nobody’s going to eat only for them to go cold and unwanted? Obviously every family has their own preferred vegetable combo, so I cannot advise anyone on that. Sprouts are seen as the traditional compulsory veg player but honestly, if the haters outnumber the lovers, just forego them and serve a different green instead. Nobody will hate you!

Bread sauce….this gloriously medievally-scented condiment is THE scent of Christmas day for me, wafting through the house and I will never be without it. Even if I’m the only one who likes it! If you miss out on the plastic chiller tubs, well, it’s not difficult to make. You’ll have bread and milk in the house (between you and me, its fine to use plastic white if it’s all you have!) and most likely onions, cloves, bay leaves, pepper and nutmeg/mace in the store cupboard. It’s just a case of infusing the milk with these aromatics like tea, tossing in the bread roughly hacked up and then let it drink up the spiced milk.until you have a foggily-fragranced mush.

So this tangented and random post sums up how I do Christmas.

From me to you, have a fantastic one, eat and drink and be freaking merry!

Seasons Greetings,

T x



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