“A lovely thing about Christmas is that it's compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together.” Garrison Keillor
I'm not sure I should post the picture above as my lead picture. I mean the one thing that is not a dilemma at Christmas is the turkey and being reminded that although the turkey is not a beautiful bird it's very much a bird with personality is a bit confronting. At least as shown here. It's a bit distressing being reminded that one is eating something that was once alive and bursting with personality. But yes, it does fit the theme of Christmas dilemmas.
And I did love the photograph. It's worthy of prizes I think and possibly we should all be shown it before Christmas. Although, as I said, it's the one thing that will not alter from Christmas to Christmas in the Dearman family. It has to be turkey, done to Robert Carrier's recipe covered with muslin and basted with orange flavoured butter, and it has to be stuffed with Jane Grigson's celery and lemon stuffing. This is not it, but it's a pretty generic picture of our kind of Christmas turkey.) Everything else is negotiable. That is not. The only dilemma about the turkey is when to buy it - there's always a touch of worry that they will run out and you will be left without turkey - and also how big a turkey to buy. But these are trivial worries although I have been known to lose sleep worrying about it. One year I thought I would save the worry by ordering two smaller birds - we are a reasonably big group at Christmas - or we were then. But then, on the day before Christmas Eve when I went to collect them I was told that one had been given to someone else and there were no more to be had. Total panic. Fortunately nearby Woolworths had some, but for a moment there I lost it.
Of course there have to be roast potatoes but the way I roast them varies from year to year - Greek ones are good I have found for example. There also has to be Alsatian cabbage. The photograph is not the actual recipe I use but it looks pretty much like the finished result. The original recipe is from my very old Cordon Bleu Cookbook and consists of braising your cabbage very slowly for a long time with lots of butter, some sliced apples and onions and lemon juice. I think I have occasionally replaced this with Brussels sprouts but it's not the right time of year for them here - they were around $14.00 a kilo I noticed today! - and yes I know it's not really the time for cabbage, but there is always cabbage and it is good for a crowd. Moreover it can be made a day ahead and simply reheated.
No my real dilemmas are twofold. A starter and a dessert. I have agonised over this. First the starter. In recent years the tradition has been gravlax, prepared by me, and prawns and sometimes oysters, provided by my daughter-in-law's lovely mother. However, this year I am not visiting the Queen Vic Market and there are no large pieces of salmon to be had locally and so we are resorting to smoked salmon.
I read a few pieces in The Guardian on what to do about starters and came to the conclusion that most of their writers thought it was best to stay simple on this and that, fundamentally, everyone just wanted to get stuck into the turkey. Nigel Slater just went for oysters, but most of us don't like oysters. In fact I remember one year when we were a larger gathering and Leoni had brought some oysters, that nobody - or hardly anyone - ate them which was a bit upsetting for her. So this year it's just prawns, although there may only be three of us who will eat them with relish.
We do however, have some smoked salmon and also some smoked ocean trout. Maybe even a smoked trout. Initially I started perusing the web for something exciting to do with it - maybe make those corn blinis with romescu sauce but top them with smoked salmon perhaps, but really it's a bit of a faff, and as one of those Guardian writers said, you have enough to do without adding extra preparations. So it was back to simply plating it up. And then I read this:
"Eventually I reached a conclusion: the solution to the Christmas Day starter was shopping. For a while this was smoked salmon, the good stuff with a little tension and bite: a supply of capers, lemon, black pepper and the right sort of crackers, and away we went. It looked classy. It was performative. It bellowed Christmas. There was only one problem. It turned out, inexplicably, that not everyone liked smoked salmon." Jay Rayner
Which did indeed give me pause for thought - I'm not sure that my son and his sons are really into smoked salmon, so perhaps a few slices of classy ham and chorizo on another plate will do the trick. But I am still going to do the smoked salmon, and just as I was despairing at finding anything simple - like virtually no work at all - I found this - smoked salmon carpaccio with fried capers and herbs which is really just smoked salmon with an interesting scattering of stuff on top. That's what we do these days isn't it? Scatter things on top of stuff. Or drizzle. This one is a bit of both I think. Classy bread will be required I think.
The seafood kind of starter, I notice, has become a tradition here - and it's definitely more Australian. It may even be warm enough to eat outside - if we can keep the mozzies at bay.
The other dilemma is dessert. Dessert is never a fixed thing at Christmas in this house. There is no tradition here, so this year I'm going to be very brave - considering my past lack of success with meringue - and I'm going to have a go at the Ottolenghi Test Kitchen's Brown sugar meringue roulade with burnt honey apples. It looks suitably festive, meringue in the form of pavlova is a sort of traditional Ozzie Christmas dessert, and most of the difficult bit can be made in advance. I think I will just have to make the meringue on the day and assemble it - but three hours before dinner. I have all day. And I really need to get some classy ice cream for those who like ice cream with dessert - although there's not really any room for it in the freezer. I just have to work out a timetable - like Jay Rayner:
"It was, and remains, the only day of the year when I write a timetable. I start with “2pm – serve” at the bottom and work backwards up the sheet of paper until I get to something like “9am – oven on”. Over the years, everything in between has changed." Jay Rayner
He's right you know. It's the only day of the year when I write out a timetable too. I sometimes write it up on my kitchen blackboard. Sometimes on a scrap of paper. I definitely have to start work on it though as there is a bit of extra shopping required I think. And my timetable doesn't begin with turn the oven on - it begins with two, maybe three days before and all the things I can do in advance.
Which brings me to the mince pie dilemma which I almost forgot. David loves mince pies, and so do I and our family tradition was mince pies for Christmas Day breakfast and present giving. Mince pies are just too much with the roast turkey and everything don't you think? However, it's our younger son and his family - the ones in Europe - who also like mince pies. I know for a fact that my other son definitely does not, and I'm not sure the children or their mother do either. I shall have to make some though - for David and I have the Robertson's mince already to go. I could give them to our sort of in-laws as a gift I guess - well bring them out with the dessert. And they can certainly be made in advance. Another item on the timetable.
Other people who are more trendy than I have other dilemmas with the mince pies in that they use the mincemeat to make Danish pastries instead of mince pies or Mincemeat baklava like Nigel Slater. Non negotiable I reckon. It has to be mince pies, although those other things - there are lots of others - however gorgeous looking are for another time. I mean it's just not Christmas.
However, in a break with tradition, this year my lovely ex almost-daughter-in-law has invited us to her place for Christmas Day to demolish some of the leftovers. And for that I offered to make pigs in blankets which was enthusiastically received. I suggested this because of this recently published Sticky pomegranate and pistachio pigs in blankets from Ottolenghi. I don't really do pigs in blankets at Christmas, but seeing this I thought I just had to, but couldn't quite see where to fit them into the feast. They didn't somehow go with prawns and smoked salmon. So the Christmas Day invitation was a godsend. Although maybe it's just a bit too Ottolenghi for the grandsons and David? Maybe I'll make some like this and some perfectly plain ones. After all you just add the sticky bit at the end.
So fingers crossed I have solved all the Christmas food dilemmas. We won't even talk about the dilemmas over present giving. Although they also seem to be more or less solved.
"The age-old ingredients need to be present, otherwise we risk Christmas losing its soul, but they have moved on towards a less heavy feast." Nigel Slater
There has to be soul, although without the other half of our family half of its soul has gone missing.