My father finishes most meals in our house in much the same way. If one of us says, “oh, I’m quite full.” He will reply with “You’re not a fool, Harriet.” We respond with a comment about our hilariously witty father and everyone has a chuckle and rolls their eyes. A strange family joke that secretly I hope will continue for many years to come. My father will then turn to my mother and sort of shake his head in disbelief at his empty plate and say, “We do eat well in this house.”
Christmas, for us, is a celebration of not only beautiful food, but the beautiful food we eat all year round. Simple, seasonal ingredients prepared in a relatively straightforward way – never too much of a stretch from what we would eat on a normal weekend.
One of my earliest food memories of Christmas is eating croissants with butter and raspberry jam and freshly squeezed orange juice for breakfast. Even for just the four of us we drank our orange juice out of the crystal flutes and the jam was spooned into a little white dish. We set the table with the damask cloth, my sister and I taking great care to not let jam dollop onto it. Normally we were still in our pjs, wrapping paper strewn across the floor and the Mariah Carey Christmas album humming softly in the background.
The day moved slowly from one meal to the next. One year for an entrée we had avocado halves with smoked salmon draped around the dip in the middle. I must have been one of the only children to look forward to Christmas day if only to eat avocado and smoked salmon.
At about 2 o’clock we sit down to lunch: a ham, with orange marmalade glaze; sometimes a beef fillet or a piece of lamb; new seasons potatoes dripping in a minty butter; and a green salad, often with the first cherry tomatoes of the season and crisp, peppery radish. I do love a summer Christmas.
There is dessert: a trifle, or cheesecake, or tiramisu. Or simply raspberries and chopped strawberries left to macerate in icing sugar for a half hour served with citrus-spiked, softly whipped cream.
But the real event, the part that truly welcomes Christmas into our house is the cake. It is an historic event – my mother has been making this cake since 1976. It is an Alison Holst recipe and the book includes other such 70s delights like mock chicken savouries and a scramble eggs with a tin of spaghetti. The pages are brown and slightly faded with grease stains in the top right corners.
Every year my mother tells the story of the year she forgot the raisins. She had meticulously cut the papers to fit the tin, measured all the ingredients and mixed everything together. She placed the cake in the oven only to turn around and find the bowl of raisins sitting on the bench. She pulled the cake out of the oven, scooped the mix out, scraped the gooey batter off the paper and stirred through the raisins. It worked out fine; the cake is a keeper.
As the cake goes in the oven Mum always says, “Go get the brandy.” I like the pop as the cork is pulled out. I like the feel of the glass bottle: it is like beach glass washed smooth by tides. I lift the bottle to my nose and inhale deeply. I like to feel my torso shake and my neck stiffen with the strain of breathing brandy fumes so intensely.
When the cake comes out of the oven we gather around. We meausre a quarter of a cup and pour it on the piping hot cake. The alcohol fizzes and bubbles. We all lean over the cake, inhaling so deeply our nostrils feel singed and we all stand up spluttering and coughing. We lean in for another hit; Mum pours on another slosh of brandy. Mariah Carey continues to fill our house…
We do eat well in this house! Merry Christmas