Monday, 28 November 2011

Christmas is coming – that means cooking!

I thought about telling you all about my Cognitive Behavioural Therapy module and my fascination with Attachment Theory but I think it will have to wait for another time because …it’s time to get out my special recipes and begin my Christmas cooking – hurrah!
Growing up in Melbourne, I could never see the point of rich fruit cakes, Christmas puddings with brandy butter, and big roast dinners  in the middle of summer  which is when Christmas falls in Australia and the rest of the southern hemisphere.  If you have never been south, imagine eating like that in the middle of July here and you’ll get some idea of how weird it was.  However, I grew up in a family that originated in the northern hemisphere  - my mother’s father came from Ireland, her mother, although born in Oz, had English parents, while my father’s father was English and his mother American.  Our family tradition dictated that we celebrated Christmas with all the northern hemisphere traditions, the only concession being to serve chicken instead of turkey that my mum considered to be tasteless and dry.  In those days chicken was a luxury that we ate only at Christmas day and Easter Sunday, one bird carefully carved to feed all eight of us accompanied by roast vegetables, many of which had been lovingly grown by my dad in the backyard.
Since I was little, traditions have changed so much in Australia. Back then the indigenous culture was pretty much ignored and non-indigenous Australians looked outward to their ‘mother country’ for validation and tradition, taught in school that our arrival in Australia was the start of the civilisation and taming of this wonderful country. How wrong we were.   
Now Christmas cards often feature Father Christmas as a surfie in shorts, singlet and sunnies with Oz kangaroos, echidnas and wombats instead of reindeer.
People gather for barbies and salad on the deck or the beach, well armed with Aerogard to fight off the hoards of mozzies and flies* while others celebrate this mid summer festival with a beach holiday or wonderful cuisine originating from our Asian neighbours - China Vietnam, Japan, the Pacific Rim – and given that special Australian twist. Then there is that wonderful and new tradition of Christmas in July where those who love all the European rich food traditions of their ancestry gather together for a feast in the middle of winter down under – July.  How sensible it that? Besides - what a great excuse for a party!

Coming to England, I finally got the mid winter celebration thing of eating, drinking and making merry in the bleakest, darkest time of the year.  It isn’t just a Christian tradition either; so many other cultures and religions have festivals of lights, feasting and gatherings at this time.
..So here I am and I love it!  This week I got out all my recipe books stained with little blobs from the years of turning pages with sticky fingers and marked with scribbled notes of when I cooked the recipe, who was with me and what we thought of it –  such comments as “yumbo” “scrumptious “ “cooked this with currants instead of sultanas ‘cos he forgot to buy them” and “bit of a disaster - we forgot to put the timer on” .  For the last few years I have got together with my lovely neighbour Gill, originally from Zimbabwe, for our cooking sweatshop.  It is so much more fun to cook with someone else.
As I type this my mincemeat is cooling in jars and I am waiting for the Christmas cakes to cook.  I am feeling rather nervous because Gill is the cake expert and she has left me in sole charge of assessing when they are cooked.  Mincemeat is so easy to do – a matter of bunging all the ingredients in a pan, leaving it overnight to suffuse and then cooking for 3 hours in the oven at 150  the following morning.  You then give it a stir, spoon it into jars and leave it to mature until you’re ready to make mince pies closer to Christmas.  I am absolute rubbish at making pastry so I have given up trying! I just use the ready-made stuff from the supermarket instead.  In my opinion, no perfect looking bought mince pie comes anywhere near a wonky old home made one with attitude!
Now making Christmas cake is whole different animal and thank goodness for Delia Smith’s Christmas book and my mentor Gill.  Gathering all the ingredients together is fairly simple and, like mincemeat, you soak the fruit, juice and alcohol overnight and then mix in all the other ingredients.
It is the preparation of the cooking tin that is quite a technique but lots of fun if you have a friend with you and lots of gossip to catch up on.  The cake tin has to be lined with four layers of buttered greaseproof paper, and after adding the mixture, is wrapped with a further two layers of brown paper and tied up with string.  A loose cover of brown paper is laid gently on the top of the mixture to stop it burning and the cake cooked for about 4 ½ hours at 150 .  I had always been scared of cooking a Christmas cake until Gill and I did our first joint session three years ago.  I love the whole ritual of it now – so any of you out there who want to give it a go – Delia is the queen of recipes that always work – so long as you follow the instructions perfectly!
I have taken so long writing this blog that the cake is now cooked and cooling on a rack.  When completely cold I have to ‘feed’ it before wrapping it in greaseproof paper and re-feeding it weekly. Feeding involves pricking it all over the top and bottom with a darning needle and spooning brandy over it.  As I ‘feed’ my cake I am reminded of when I was a nurse so many moons ago, and every ward would be given a Christmas cake to share amongst the staff.  Those rock hard tasteless cakes must have been bought as a job lot but by filling 50 ml syringes with the donated alcohol from grateful patients and injecting them (the cakes, not the patients!) at regular intervals we  rendered them (the cakes, not the patients!) wonderfully tasty!
This time of year is, for me, about gathering with friends and family and celebrating with wonderful seasonal food and drink.  I am totally not bothered about presents – if you can’t eat it or drink it I am sooo not interested!  Maybe it’s old age creeping up on me – or I am just weird!
…so my next cooking venture will be gingerbread, shortbread and chocolate truffles so watch this space for updates…and I might even tell you a bit more about my course!
*Translation  Oz  - English
Barbie = barbeque    Sunnies= sunglasses    Surfie=surfer     Mozzies= mosquitoes     Aerogard= an insecticide roll-on to (hopefully) detract  the flies and dissuade  the mozzies’ from treating you as their Christmas dinner


  1. What wonderful words about this season – this is all about working together creating food with love and marking an annual ritual of family and friends. Thanks Alice for evoking the flavour of Down Under's season too! We are gradually making the season our own to enhance the deeper meaning while minimising the rich cooking. The pace of life is exactly the opposite as we wind down the year – for us it is the frantic end of year before going on summer holidays. And although the emphasis isn't on the retail madness, as a former shopowner I do spare a thought for the poor retailers who sorely need this annual injection of capital to carry them through, at this time more than ever.

  2. It does feel so out of synch when skyping to Oz as I am getting up while you are winding down ready for bed, me in my wintery clothes snuggling up to keep warm while you are brushing away the flies and dresssed in cool summery t-shirts and dresses!