Tuesday, 11 January 2011

The old and the new (and hot and cold) of Christmas food

I was moved to write this by Nicole’s post on the stupidity of a traditional Christmas dinner in the sticky heat of a southern summer.

My late sainted mother was a Scotswoman, and as a result, took Christmas very seriously. I was quite amazed, when I visited the UK two years ago, to discover how ingrained and important those end-of-year rituals are. The sending of Christmas cards to practically everyone you’ve ever met in your whole life, for instance, is a chore not done only by the most slovenly of households. And it requires forethought: cards to foreign destinations must be posted a good month in advance of Christmas. Ironically, the card destined for my friends’ neighbours in Hitchin was the last one to be despatched: on Christmas Eve, the task of exiting the front door, walking five steps to the left, putting the card through the neighbours’ letter-slot and returning home - which had been put off by the father (‘Can’t, the turkey needs basting’), the mother (‘Can’t, I’m doing every-bloody-thing else around here’) and the two teens (‘Ah maaa, do we have to?’) – was finally accomplished by, yes, the mother. ‘Well, that’s the Christmas cards done at last,’ she said, with some satisfaction.

But back to the food. For years – decades – our family did the traditional Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve. Like Nicole’s experience, it was always hot, bothersome and, ultimately, not a meal you’d choose if you were on Death Row. And it was wasteful – for instance, my mother always prepared a large bowl of Brussels sprouts, which was never so much as touched (although lots of people made nasty comments about them). She tipped the whole lot into a Tupperware and put it in the fridge the next morning, and a few weeks later discovered them slowly liquefying and tossed them in the bin. And this happened every year.

Eventually, when we were all finally grownups and could smoke in front of our parents and sometimes tell dirty jokes without being sent to our rooms, we suggested that we ditch the traditional meal and do something that didn’t involve several days with the oven on at 180 degrees. My mother wasn’t madly keen but we talked her round – as long, she said, as she could cook the turkey the day before, and we could have it cold. Deal.

I’d long been responsible for the dessert – in the days of Christmas cake and Christmas pudding (both of which I consider a gustatory abomination), I would simply ask someone’s gran to make it for me (and often the brandy butter too), pay her the bucks, and turn up with it. The first year we had our non-traditional dinner, however, I was tasked with making a vanilla/apricot-chocolate bombe. My mother, who I suspect was enamoured with the shape of it (it’s also round and looks, at least, like a Christmas pudding), sent me the recipe early in December, and I stuck it in my diary to attend to at some other time, which turned out to be the morning of Christmas Eve. So I was quite shocked to read, when skimming the recipe to go shopping for the ingredients, the phrase ‘Leave in the freezer overnight’ appearing not once but twice.

Before I left for the shops, I cranked my freezer up as high as it would go. When I returned, and with the temperature hovering in the high 30s, I started making the bombe. I discovered several things about making a vanilla/apricot-chocolate bombe on a hot Christmas Eve morning when it is required for dessert that evening. I discovered that some things that aren’t left in the freezer overnight don’t actually freeze; I discovered that trying to fit a Christmas-pudding-shaped mould of apricot-chocolate sludge into a reverse-Christmas-pudding-shaped mould of vanilla sludge is a messy business and causes swearing.

I also discovered that vanilla/apricot-chocolate sludge doesn’t travel well in high temperatures. I packed the thing in ice in a coolbox and gunned it the 100 kilometres to my parents’ house, and when I got there I quickly whisked it into my parents’ freezer, hoping that the four hours that remained until it was required on the table would do the trick. It didn’t. Instead of tipping out elegantly onto the waiting plate, it made a sound like an elephant farting, then lazily shook itself free of the bowl before settling into a large puddle of what looked like the crap of an elephant that had eaten too many apricots. Not exactly a Nigella moment.

This year I was entrusted with the salmon mousse (another make-ahead-and-put-overnight-in-the-fridge project, with similar travel-distance requirements). I could not find a salmon mould in which to make it, so it went into the same bowl I’d used for the apricot-elephant-crap bombe (thoroughly washed, of course). The mousse looked suspiciously wobbly when I removed it from my fridge for transportation, and I steeled myself for more hoots of derision when it flopped out looking like, oh, fish-shit. But it didn’t! After a harrowing few seconds during which it clung tenaciously to the inside of the bowl, it sighed quietly, then let go. And voila! A perfect dome of salmon mousse – not as elegant, perhaps, as it would have been in a fish shape, but gratifyingly not looking like poo. I immediately had five glasses of champagne to celebrate.

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