The recipe for a good Christmas

Posted by , 23 December 2014

Preparing food for family and friends is not a chore, it is an act of love; and the ability to do it well is a gift.

Some people like to claim royalty as their heritage, some like to say they are descendant from someone famous. While I can’t lay claim to either of these, I can claim to come from a line of wonderful women who could cook well. Maybe it was the country lifestyle, and having to prepare copious amounts of hearty food for their farming husbands, sons and hired help. Whatever the reason, I am grateful for the family recipes that have been handed down through the generations and that I seem to have inherited the cooking gene.

I can’t clearly remember when I first started to learn to cook. One of my earliest cooking memories is as a very young girl, barely able to see over the top of the stove, being allowed to stir the porridge on a cold-winter’s morning – with my mother telling me to always stir it slowly in a ‘figure of 8’ to avoid it sticking to the bottom of the pot. Peeling vegetables after school always felt like a treat rather than a chore, and some of my best conversations with my mother happened in the afternoons as we prepared the evening meal together.

My paternal grandmother (Nan C) grew up as a Jewish girl in pre-WWII Poland, moving to Tel Aviv just ahead of the war with her parents and two brothers. It was there that she met my grandfather who was with the Australian Army. They married and she fell pregnant with their first child, and she decided to emigrate to Australia to wait out the war and his eventual return. I can only imagine how terrifying it would be to travel to the other side of the world with a small baby, not knowing who you were going to meet at the other end, or what the life would be like. Nan used to say she couldn’t even burn butter when she arrived, but she had no choice but to dig in and help with life on the farm while living with her mother-in-law and this is how she learned to cook. She was the queen of biscuits and desserts – jam drops, christmas puddings, fruit cake, apple turnovers, cream cake and the most amazing banana cakes…there was always something delicious waiting in a tin for us at her house.

Many hours during school holidays and weekends were spent with my grandmothers. I learned to knit and to crochet, to do embroidery, but best of all they taught me their recipes and how to cook them. I remember shelling mountains of peas for Nan P, and having green fingernails for days afterwards; and spending time peeling what felt like hundreds of crab apples to help her make apple jelly, which we then strained through a muslin bag strung from the light fitting over a bowl on the dining table.

I learned not only their recipes, but all of their little tricks and tips that make a recipe inherently better than what it would be if you just followed the written version. I learned that you never make apple pie in summer, because the air is to warm and moist to make a good pastry, and that you need a light hand to knead the dough for scones. I learned that there really is a difference between melting the butter and mixing it in with a wooden spoon to grating it and rubbing it in by hand. I learned that bread and butter pudding is best made with day-old bread. I learned that the best cooks improvise, and are able to detect exactly what important ingredient is missing when doing the taste test. But the most important lesson that I learned was that preparing food for family and friends is not a chore, it is an act of love; and the ability to do it well is a gift.

Christmas baking is traditional, and nostalgic. This is my first Christmas way from home, our children and my own kitchen. It’s taken a bit of doing to get into the Christmas spirit, so a visit from Catherine demanding a family Christmas dinner was the trigger and finally set me off and running to start my baking. There’s nothing like home baked goodies to give to friends and family as presents.

Nan C used to make 8-10 Christmas puddings every year. One for herself, and two each of her four children’s families for Christmas and Easter. She would start in August or September while the weather was still cool, complaining about the price of over-proof rum (and telling me that it was the ONLY rum to use) and the number of eggs she needed. She would boil them, wrap them, and freeze them, and then lovingly distribute them at Christmas time with instructions on how to defrost and re-boil them. She also made a fruit cake for each family, icing it with marzipan and fondant icing so that we could all fight over the ‘end pieces’. When she died, I inherited her pudding basin and her handwritten recipe book, and they have been proudly used every year since as I try to reproduce a pudding to her standard, usually failing.

The challenge here is finding the key ingredients. I can’t find currants for love nor money. Christmas pudding is definitely not a Swiss tradition, so there is no pudding basin to be found in any of the shops here, and believe me I have looked in them all! I wish that I had the foresight to bring Nan’s basin from home, instead I have had to settle for only making a Christmas fruit cake, and there will be no pudding this year. I can live with this. Somehow it is just not the same when I know my sister won’t be here to fight over who deserves the biggest slice with my dad.

I have made mountains of rocky road, the taste remarkably improved by using Swiss chocolate instead of Cadburys – and I now have my French, Spanish and American friends begging for the recipe after giving them each a bag. The shortbread is baked (and some has been eaten). The jelly for the trifle is in the fridge setting, and the last batch of cooking will be done today when I make the rum balls. Thank goodness we are invited to spend Christmas Day with Katharina, Peter and their children and friends, so there will be plenty of people to eat all this food. Here in Switzerland the weather is perfect for eating a hearty hot meal in the middle of the day, but I am sure that while am eating it I will be thinking of my family and friends at home in Australia and imagining the smell of the ocean and seafood, ham and salad. I guess in the end it doesn’t matter where or what we eat, as long as we keep those that we love close in our hearts and remember to prepare the meal with a cup full of love.

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