Wherever you are in the world, and however you celebrate, I hope this season brings you peace and joys. I’m sharing a food essay I wrote to celebrate the food and atmosphere of Christmas. I’ve included links in the story to the holiday recipes here on the blog. You can hear the podcast by clicking the arrow below:
Blessings to all,
The flavours and aromas we’ve come to associate with this season are so evocative — baking smells of spice and citrus, roasting herbs and bird — that a whiff or even a thought can bring back in an instant a connection with Christmases past. We create such an immersive atmosphere around this holiday – the food, the music, the lights, and of course all those social customs that bring us closer to each other, that it’s hyper-charged with memory, as though time collapses to bring the other Christmases we’ve had close to the surface.
The childhood food ritual I recall with simplest joy was centred on Christmas cookie making with my sisters and our Mom, rolling and cutting out Santas and bells, and decorating them with messy icing and gumdrops. We’d also make fanciful checkerboards and pinwheels, powdery snowballs and jelly thumbprints… Some years we’d take them to a ‘cookie exchange’ where everyone would swap, bringing home a marvellous assortment.
My mother’s Texas pecan pie always graced the table on Christmas Day, and in later years, she would also bake a gorgeously chocolate eight-layered Hungarian Dobosh torte, which in the student and early-career years when we didn’t make it home, she would wrap up and mail to us, inspiring enormous, homesick gratitude.
There was also the homemade-from-scratch pizza on Christmas Eve, when we decorated the tree. And though Dad often lobbied, we thought hilariously, for a suckling pig with an apple in its mouth, the main event on the day itself was invariably turkey, except for when we went to Nanny’s for her Neapolitan Italian feast. Her long table groaned with homemade ravioli dressed with a tomato gravy made with huge joints of braised pork and beef, an all-day affair that made us kids restless for our toys, mollified only with the fried balls of dough called Struffoli, coated in honey and sprinkles, which we would lick and crunch while the grownups stained their teeth on cigarettes and Poppy’s homemade wine.
Breakfast Christmas morning was cinnamon rolls: the billowy kind with a sugary glaze, sometimes homemade, sometimes the supermarket novelty kind packaged in a cardboard tube we had to smack on the edge of the counter to open. One year our mother fulfilled one of my food and literature fantasies by surprising us with a marmalade roll like Mrs Beaver gives the Pevensey children in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I was utterly transported by this sticky wonder to snowy Narnia, and am so touched that she did this for us.
Over the years, like many people’s, our Christmas traditions have become more international, accumulated through the extension of our multi-cultural family and friends, through our travels, and from living in other countries.
Like the Scandinavians, I’ve always found Christmas Eve the most special of these special days. The stage is set, the curtain goes up, the performance flows, but this is the quiet movement. Christmas Eve food for us is a Scandi cold bord, of salmon lax with citrus and dill, beetroot and cucumber, dense rye bread, and akavit. Some years there’s Toscakaka, a caramelised almond cake I encountered years ago in Norway, baked by a caring woman named Elsa, who invited me into her home at Christmas and served a delicious Bergen fish soup and this memorable cake. I would sometimes find it at my favourite café overlooking the city’s harbour, where I would sit with my notebook on those winter afternoons, dark as night, when snowflakes filled the air with sparkles and the tea lights on the table enchanted me with their flickering flame. This was koselig — what the Swedes and Danes call hygge — the essence of quiet contentment that time in a homely place can afford – that gift I prize during the holidays above all adventures. Christmas Day is for me now, in most years, about English food in the Dickensian tradition – some years turkey – or if we’ve celebrated American Thanksgiving the month before, then it might be beef, Yorkshire pud and sherry trifle; or our favourite game bird, the partridge, cooked pink with crisp skin. The menu doesn’t vary as much as I would expect of myself as an adventurous cook, but there seems to be something collectively reassuring, if not required, about the continuity of these foods.
For Boxing Day I’ve often made caponata, our favourite Sicilian vegetable concoction of sweet-sour aubergine and peppers, celery, capers, olives and garlic, or maybe it will be Annarella’s fennel with onion and sage and Concetta’s peppers, all made with the olive oil from Fabio’s trees. And at some point in the in-between days, our palates will crave one of Eng Seng’s Malaysian curries: Roti Canai, with its delicious sauce to be mopped up with flaky flatbread; or tamarind chicken in coconut milk, with okra and lime.
I’d rather not have to spend the rest of the winter working off holiday poundage, so I’m also very glad of our beautiful Fenland celery, whose beautiful flavour has made it a Christmas favourite since Victorian times, and for the English pears, apples, and walnuts I’ve set aside. I’m planning plenty of salads, which I love at this time of year when so much food prep involves oven-time and stove-top steam.
The British Christmas baking traditions are very different from those of my childhood. When I was a teen starting to cook in earnest, I encountered in a Cooking of the World series from the library, those alien British mince pies, dense, dark Christmas cakes, and dangerously flaming Christmas puddings, all made, it seemed, with sultanas, which sounded far more exotic to me than California raisins. These mysterious luxuries seemed to me like something in a fairy tale, and I was desperately curious to experience them.
It’s funny how things work out. All these years later it’s my job now every year to make my English family’s Christmas cake, using my mother-in-law Joy’s recipe, with a few tweaks of my own. I candy my own orange peel, and mix up my own marzipan, and use unrefined sugar and brandy for the icing. Its many steps are a reality check to my early romanticism, I must confess, especially as I’m seldom organised enough to do them all in good time. But the end-result is always so much appreciated, and I get satisfaction from passing muster on something so culturally sacrosanct.
In vintage years, I’ve rejoiced in baking something whimsically labour-intensive, often in the French tradition: a Yule log Buche de Noel, decorated with meringue mushrooms and chocolate holly leaves; a spectacular croquembouche tree of cream puffs, or a wreath-like Paris Brest, or Profiteroles Pontresina, filled with praline cream; but I’ve also had my lean years, and sad ones, and guest ones, and solitary ones, where I’ve only dreamed about making these things; and in fact, one of the nicest of my Christmases past was the year I did nothing but sleep, and read, and eat toast.
In better times, though, I feel the impulse to revisit the Christmas cookie tradition and bake a batch of gingerbread. The custom of baking gingerbread men grew with the manufacture of tin cookie cutters in the US, at the time when Victoria and Albert made celebrating Christmas in the German-style popular there, as well as in Britain.In medieval Europe, the making of gingerbread using elaborately carved wooden moulds to commemorate high matters of state and church was a prestigious art. Professional gingerbread makers had their own sworn guild, with secret recipes and valuable moulds their most treasured possessions. As sugar and spices became more affordable from the mid-18thcentury, every European culture developed its variants of ginger biscuit art – pepperkaker in Scandinavia, German lebkuchen, springerle and pfeffernüsse, the speculoos from Belgium and the Netherlands, to name just a few, for there are just as many in Eastern Europe. In Britain, moulded and shaped figures were sold at fairs, and there was a flat-style ginger biscuit now known as Grasmere or Cumbrian gingerbread that was popular in the north, plus a paler Ashbourne variety in Derbyshire, and Scottish block gingerbread — all of which survive.
The fragrant ritual of baking my own takes me back. I can lose myself in relaxed concentration and the smell of spices, letting my thoughts drift nowhere in particular while my hands are busy, and this brings me a quiet joy that is most welcome.
For it’s no crime to admit that for a holiday, the festive season requires quite a bit of graft. We expect a lot of our kitchens (and purses) at this time of year – and of ourselves and each other. There is so much to do if you really ‘take on’ Christmas – cards, presents, tree, as well as the turkey, the cake, or whatever you’re making or procuring — and that’s not even considering work, the dark damp days, the car that won’t start, the colds, the day-to-day cooking required in the meantime. The only way to get it all done, we joke, is to tell everyone at home they can’t eat until Christmas.
Sooooo… I’m trying again this year for less and better: choosing a few things I will do in moderation and enjoy the process. I’ve found this helps encourage the spirit of generosity that I’ve sometimes marred by doing too much. I used to worry that I’d disappoint people if I did less, but in fact it makes everyone more relaxed.
All most of us really want is time — with those we care to be with, with ourselves — without breaking the bank or anyone else (maybe with luck we can also stretch to a nap).
Yes, we rebel against its materialism and waste, the insincere sentiments and over-the-top expectations of the commercial face of Christmas. It can put us in debt, rob us of sleep, and make our clothes too tight. If we’re having a hard time in life, this season can make it feel harder.
Yet we succumb time and again to the search for something spirited and meaningful in this time — for the chance to throw off some restraints and take stock of whatever it is that matters most to us — to believe in something a little more magical, in change, in promise and goodness, in common ground.
But I bet you that however I try to get into the healthiest mindset, or simplify simplify, as Thoreau says, there’s bound to be the moment, this year or next, or the one after that, when I’m using every pot and pan in the kitchen in a frenzy of flour and goose fat and finding I have no counter space left as I’m stirring the gravy and trying not to overcook the sprouts while hoping everyone hasn’t filled up on treats and oh, no, we forgot to sharpen the carving knife, and here I am again serving Christmas dinner still in my spattered apron with my hair in knots.
Ahhh, the holidays… They are emblematic of so much we are and wish to be. They embrace the range of human history and emotion, magnifying it all, good and bad, sad and happy, yet stretching towards what is life-giving and generous: the belly laughs, the sharing, the impulse to extend our blessings to others. Despite all the demands and noise of our to-do-list culture, there is beauty and meaning in these times we set aside – quiet stillness, and energy. Yes, it’s all a bit chaotic, but being only human, it seems we really couldn’t have it any other way.
[This food essay was also broadcast as part of the Christmas programme on Flavour, the radio food programme on Cambridge105 FM, presented by Alan Alder, Sue Bailey and Matt Bentman. You can listen to the whole Flavour programme here.]
Other Food Essay podcasts on Crumbs on the Table: