Christmas Lists: The Good Stuff

There have been about 25 false starts to this entry. It might be that I just can't get the eloquent juices flowing if I'm not complaining about something. Or it could be that I am just drowning under a quagmire of holiday-related stress right now and therefore am finding it difficult to find anything positive to write about. I challenge anyone and everyone however, to maintain a cheery disposition when you have to tell families in need that your agency has literally nothing to give them and therefore they will be having a very bleak Christmas. The worst part is when they sigh and say, "okay, thank you anyway."
Last night, though, I think I finally made a breakthrough. I was rolling out pastry to make mini-mince pies to take into work and with the radio on WDST in the background, my body liberally decorated with flour, I felt about as cheerful as an elf in Santa's workshop who has found his/her niche.
So I like the food associated with Christmas (mince pies are not something you'd make during the summer). It has not always been this way, believe me. When I as younger Mum, Kirsty and I would drive from the Hudson Valley to Ottawa, Ontario to spend Christmas with our Polish relatives. Catholic Poles, let me tell you quickly, celebrate mostly Christmas Eve by "fasting." It's called Welia.
They start off by stuffing hay under the table cloth to remind us of The Christ's humble beginnings in a manger. Then the head of the household takes a wafer, splits it two and passes half of it to his wife, says "merry Christmas" and smooches her on the cheek. She in turn breaks a piece of her wafer and shares it and it ends up with everyone ending up with a piece of wafer and smooching on the cheek.
When you're 9 years old this is the most awkward and gross thing in the world.
Then they sit down at the table to eat. At one point my cousins, all of whom are magnificent cooks, had this idea that there needed to be 12 dishes to symbolise the 12 days of Christmas. But like I said, we were all "fasting" so this meant none of it could be meat. It was all fish.
When you're 9 years old this is also the most disgusting thing in the world. I remember one Christmas being on the verge of tears, having passed around platters of fish for nearly an hour. There was a whole salmon decorated with cucumber slices to look like scales. It would have been nice if it hadn't also included a mayonnaise dressing, and if it hadn't been immediately been followed by a trout heaped with lukewarm scrambled eggs and mayonnaise dressing. Then the piece de resistance was the carp with... wait for it.. mayonnaise dressing. Then, in case anyone's mayonnaise cravings had not been satisfied there was a Russian salad that was essentially two jars of mayonnaise mixed in with whichever repulsive canned vegetable you'd prefer to imagine here (on a tangent I just want to comment on this bizarre obsession with mayonnaise and ruining fresh veggies that the Eastern bloc is consumed by. I don't get it).
Fish wasn't high on the my list of things I liked to eat at the time, unless it was battered, fried and served with chips in newspaper, but I was trying to be good and polite and therefore take the most minimal amount of fish possible. Yet, somehow, I ended up with a plate full of fish, and the little brat sitting next to me kept pulling my hair to the delight and amusement of her parents ("her motor skills are really coming along nicely!"). Desert was fruit compot (stewed fruit, only the Slavs could come up with such an efficient way to ruin fruit) and mack, a pudding made almost entirely from poppy seeds. When I went back to school and took a physical that involved a urine test they called me into the principal's office because there was a concern I was abusing heroine.
Okay, you are patiently waiting to hear about the good stuff. Well, I'm just going to have to reiterate what I said in my previous grouchy post: The good stuff about Christmas is the giving. I think this is why making mince pies that night helped me exponentially get into the Christmas spirit. My pie dough was perhaps the most beautiful, the best pie dough I have ever made in my life. Another blog I read dismisses this whole notion of making your own pie, and I do see where she's coming from. But pies made from scratch are pies you can take pride in because you literally sweated in the effort of making them. You stood over the bowl with a fork (or rather, I stood over the bowl) and cursed as your fork seemed impervious against the ice-cube like blocks of butter that you carefully cut into the flour and now refuses to form any semblance to the oat flakes that (grumble grumble) Nigella Lawson promised they would within 15 minutes.
You followed the instructions in the book to the last detail, breathlessly hoping that it wasn't all for naught, that these instructions are not just random superstitions but are actually based in fact. I should mention here, however, I hold no truck in this nonsense about blind baking. Waste of perfectly good energy and beans.
Okay, yes, this sounds traumatic and it is. I can't deny that fact; the first pie crusts I tried to roll out in my budding career as a baker were blood-pressure raising nightmares. I would add too much water, or not enough, or the dough wouldn't roll out properly, and when it did and I tried to lift it apart the whole thing would break like ancient silk.
But I can tell you, that someday it will all come together, like it did for me last night. This is possibly because I was really focused on bringing something nice in for people, and I was imagining their smiles, or their looks of concentration on the crust of the mince pie, trying to figure out just what made it so good. Truly, these were pies made with love. So the dough reflected that; there was no problem rolling it out and when I lifted it in my arms (I have earned the right to talk this lovingly about pie dough), it felt like fine linen. It didn't break, it just stretched from my wrists down to the table and I admit I indulged in a few seconds of pure admiration at the beauty of it.
Really, I was so happy about these pies. I was totally absorbed by cutting out the bases, gently nestling them into the pan (a little took snugly it turned out the next day), then meticulously filling them with mince meat (from the jar, it has to be confessed), and then cutting out the lids and smushing them sealed with the prongs of a fork. But I didn't stop there; I had some egg white to dip a brush in and then dusted them with some sugar. 20 minutes later, I had about 20 beautiful pies that I felt really proud to bring into the office.
If you can get that same sense of satisfaction from some Pillsbury frozen dough, well hats off to you.
Here's how Christmas morning generally pans out in my family: Having succumb to the exhaustive trip from my house to my sister's (this year in Calgary) I'll sleep in, or at least try to; stubbornly ignoring my mother and sister talking in what they think are low whispers. My mother has this passive-aggressive habit of roaming around the room she happens to sharing with me doing what you would think are quiet activities yet somehow they are incredibly loud and sleep-preventing. It prevents her from actually digging you out of bed, but gets you to wake up anyway (usually, for me at least, in a very grouchy state).
Then, when it's at least daylight, and I really can't ignore her dog panting in my ear any longer, I get up.
We make some coffee because we are addicted and then set to opening our Christmas stockings. This is another favourite part of Christmas for me. I'd be much happier if the responsibility of filling stockings landed entirely on my lap, leaving no room for buying presents. I love finding these quirky little things; magnets, little wall calendars, soaps and lotions, maybe some funky pieces of costume jewelry, and then to top it all off, some chocolate and a few clementines. Stockings are so much fun; we sit on the couch in our pajamas and robes, announcing all the little trinkets we got.
Then we'll make breakfast. It used to be scallops wrapped in bacon with maybe some toast and Buck's Fizz (known to the rest of you as Mimosas. Please change your lexicons). Last year it was scallops wrapped in pancetta with endless slices of panetone spread with butter and endless cups of coffee; nice and strong and piping hot, and endless glasses of Buck's Fizz. This meal is perfect. It's special without being completely too rich, I don't feel far too full afterwards, and it's stepped in tradition while still being flexible (the panetone is a nod to the Italianisms of my dad without totally sacrificing ourselves to the dreaded bacala). When the waves of panic threaten to engulf me, I close my eyes and remember how this morning makes it all worth it. We sit at a beautifully set table, eating what I think are delicacies, in our robes and slippers, scratching our unbrushed hair and giving the dog a nice scratch behind the ears. It's the vision of familial intimacy and familiarity.
Then we open presents. Someone, usually me or Kirsty, will station themselves by the tree and distribute presents. You have to make sure that everyone has a present to open at the same time, and that it varies from the giver. I don't feel right, for instance, opening two present in a row from Kirsty. The tags generally have some little clever clue about what it is that you have to read aloud, and then you have to announce what the present is (and of course exclaim loudly over it).
Then we get dressed and go for a walk. This is a fairly new tradition originating, I want to say, in Poughkeepsie, when we decided a nice Christmas present for the dog, Ellie, was a nice long walk. It also helped that the day outside was patently gorgeous. The unspoken rule is that comments on the niceness of the day and of how perfect it is to take a walk must be made several time, semi-regularly.
When we come back in from the walk we begin making Christmas Dinner. The whole turkey dinner, I will be brutally honest, I can do without. A nice leg of lamb, or roast beef, maybe some nice steaks, with some roast potatoes, and greens would be much more delicious. Even a roast chicken would be better. I have told Kirsty that I will eat turkey and Christmas pudding for two days and then I'm going on strike. Let me tell you something about this pudding: It has magical properties and I do not mean good magical properties. It cannot heal anything, for instance, but it does magically multiply overnight. The three of us work at that monster for a week straight and I swear, it doesn't diminish. If anything, it expands. Kirsty confessed to me that she gave up in February.
This Christmas there is a rumour we will be having goose.
Mahatma Gandhi said that God comes to the hungry in the form of food and that is one of the most true statements I have ever heard. But I think, with a little indulgence, you could stretch this saying to apply to many forms of hunger. Food also brings families together, making Thanksgiving one of the most beloved American holidays. There was a certain good feeling in being someone to bring food, in being someone to provide to be the person that brought not only sustenance but really tasty sustenance. This action speaks to the minuscule maternal instinct I possess and I will gingerly disclose my occasional desire to be the person who brings healing chicken soup to a friend who is sick, or be known for my generous Sunday roasts complete with flawless Yorkshire pudding. However, I am not a gifted cook; I am a mediocre cook. I cannot just whip together a meal the way my boyfriend does, though I do take pride in a fish marinade that I came up with and has not yet failed me.
I wouldn't even say I'm a gifted baker. I just take immense satisfaction from it and how easy it is to share the results. Recipes for cupcakes I read as recipes to make friends happy and inform them that I love them. I also don't lose my head when baking. People have this approach it like it's some really complex, mysterious process known as chemistry and the recipe with it's proportions is sacrosanct; that, unlike cooking, there's no flexibility. I don't believe that. There are some recipes that I take a very liberal approach to, and so far it's all been rather tasty. Scones, I will say though, are not for the faint hearted.
It's one thing to make a really delicious meal for yourself and to sit and enjoy it on your own with no obnoxious chatter about what you could have done better distracting you. But that's pure Scrooge talking. Come on, these moments were meant to be shared. A mince pie not shared, even made with culinary perfect dough and home made mince meat, doesn't taste nearly as good as the one shared and given to others.


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