And at Christmas You Tell the Truth…

I’m not entirely open with you here.IMG_0601

It simply wouldn’t do to spill all the beans.IMG_0607

Sultanabun is my brave, confident (read foolhardy) and competent alter ego who doesn’t worry too much about what people think. Sultanabun doesn’t burn the arse out of her best saucepan by allowing herself to be distracted by Instagram. Sultanabun doesn’t have weird pink scum around her bathroom taps. Of course she doesn’t and she doesn’t find herself sitting, alone, in a coffee shop window with uninvited tears falling down her cheeks. That simply wouldn’t do.

No. There are levels of honesty. IMG_0613

There are always good and bad things about this time of year. That’s sort of the whole point of it, really, when you think about it. Christmas is the light in the darkness, the thing that gets you through. I read an interview with Richard Curtis about writing Four Weddings and a Funeral. He re-wrote his story about four weddings a dozen times but couldn’t get it right. It was too happy, saccherin sweet, until a friend suggested he add in a funeral. It worked. Light and shade, chiaroscuro, that’s life. It’s better because it’s sometimes bad.

It doesn’t do, I think, to pretend that it’s perfect but today I’m choosing to write, honestly, about the things that are good about this time of year.

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Music.

Is there ever so much music about as at Christmas? I love that we belt out Jingle Bells in the car on the way to school, that I can hum Santa Claus is Coming to Town at mid volume while pushing my shopping trolley without anybody even suspecting that I’m mad, and I love that George Michael is going to make it to Number One for Christmas, I love that.

I particularly love the school carol service and nativity play. The Small Girl was, as it turned out, the only homemade donkey at the birth of Jesus which didn’t seem to bother her, or Jesus, one bit. She sang her song, and performed her actions with gusto, shedding only a very small amount of her lustrous mane in the process. As I write she is practicing her party piece.IMG_0703

Creativity (aka Cutting and Sticking).

I love that Christmas grants us all permission to dolly up our homes in whichever daft fashion out hearts desire. The madder the better, if you ask me. It’s all so wonderfully liberating. Once you get past the notion of carting a whole tree inside the house, you can’t really criticise anyone’s style, can you? This from the woman with gold tinsel and multi-coloured lights draped around her sofa.

Every year I get a dose of the bah-humbugs and swear that I can’t be arsed making a real wreath for the front door, every single year.

And then I do.

I thought it would be the work of mere moments to recreate a very simple ring of hazel twigs I saw at a craft fair. It seems I will never learn the lesson that things at craft fairs which seem very simple, invariably, are not.

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Several hours, two glasses of wine, some cursing and forty-two Christmas songs later…IMG_0749

I don’t, in general, have any objection to bells, ribbons or jangly bits on Christmas wreaths. I have previously made a wreath entirely from the wrappers of Cadbury’s Roses so I am reliably unsophisticated in my efforts. This year, however, I had a notion that my wreath would be made exclusively from what my garden (and, being honest, my mother-in-law’s garden) had to offer. I may be still a pheasant feather shy of sophistication but I do like this wreath, a lot.IMG_0753

Kindness.

Have you noticed it? People in cars let you out at junctions with a wave, maybe even a smile if they happen to be belting out Jingle Bells with their kids. People in shops offer to gift-wrap your presents, or double bag your turkey. Strangers tell you stories about their Christmas party, or how they cook their sprouts, or who belonging to them is flying home on Friday. Christmas cards come in the post and surprise me, again, that someone I haven’t spoken to in years still thinks of me. A friend, who I hardly realised knew me so well, turned up on my doorstep with a gift so perfect, so unbelievably thoughtful, it left me breathless.

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Darkness.

Yes, with emotions more contrary than I can explain, I do like it. I like the sound of rain battering the windows. I like the heavy, leaden skies that take striking a match and touching it to a candle from the realm of unnecessary luxury to vital  force. I like the insulating blanketness of it, the closeness of it, the weight of it. And I like that I know, in my heart of hearts, that it will end soon enough. I like the bottoming out of it, the sense of an ending.

If you go all the way down, you get a bounce that brings you clear into Spring.

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And you, my friends who live behind this screen, have shown me real kindness. You have, somehow, endured my litany of complaint. You have encouraged my efforts and applauded my small achievements. I have lovely, lovely followers – you are nice people. Thank you.

I wish you a Happy Solstice Day, clean and bright and with a fine bounce to it, and I wish you a Christmas with just the right balance of light and shade. Nollaig Shona daoibh.IMG_0775 (2)

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For My Child And Your Child Too.

A Boy Called Christmas

I came this close, this close (holds forefinger and thumb together and squints left eye in demonstration of just how close) to writing a post about sadness. Not because I’m sad, but because I’m not, and because, when I am, I can’t write, or say, or even think, anything  productive at all. Anyway, it’s all there, written on a page with a pen, and maybe we can come back to it one day. For now, ’tis the season to be jolly.

Did you know that Santa wrote a book? It was an elf-help book called How To Be Jolly. It had a very limited release but topped the charts for its target demographic. This, and much more, I learned from Matt Haig’s thrilling  exposé,  A Boy Called Christmas.

Haig revealed, at last, the true and previously unrecorded secrets of Father Christmas’s early years. You may wonder how the author learned these facts. Haig, rather honourably I think, refuses to reveal his sources. He argues that you shouldn’t really question such things. He just knows, otherwise why ever would he have written the book?

A Boy Called Christmas

Whether you call the great man Father Christmas or Santa Claus or Saint Nick or Sinterklaas or Kris Kringle or Pelznickel or Papa Noël, the important thing is that you know he exists.

“Can you believe there was a time when no one knew about him? A time when he was just an ordinary boy called Nikolas, living in the middle of nowhere, or the middle of Finland, doing nothing with magic except believing in it? A boy who knew very little about the world except the taste of mushroom soup, the feel of a cold north wind, and the stories he was told. And who only had a doll made out of a turnip to play with.”

Nikolas’ childhood was none too promising. His parents, Haig tells us, were kind and loving but very poor. His mother was a jolly soul, with red cheeks and a warm laugh. His father, Joel, was an industrious woodcutter with only 9 ½ fingers and very tired eyes. Nikolas had no brothers or sisters or friends. His only childhood companion was a small, very hungry, brown mouse called Miika who, even though he had never even seen it, or even smelled it, believed in cheese.

A Boy Called Christmas

Our first clue to Nikolas’ destiny is the fact that he was born on Christmas Day and, for that reason, nick-named Christmas by his parents. Joel even made Nikolas his own wooden sleigh and painted his name, Christmas, on the back of it.

Haig’s account introduces us to Nikolas at eleven years old, soon after his mother had died in a tragic accident. Despite determined efforts to be happy, Nikolas was a bit sad, and maybe a bit lonely, and really, extremely hungry. Little did he know, things were about to get much worse.

Lured by the promise of a rich reward from the King of Finland, Joel the woodcutter undertook a dangerous expedition to the Far North to find proof of the existence of elves. He took with him the Christmas sleigh (but at least not the turnip doll) and left Nikolas in the care of his miserable and ancient (she’s forty-two) Aunt Carlotta.

“Everything about her, even her voice, seemed covered in frost.”

Aunt Carlotta’s shocking deeds do not make easy reading. Suffice to say, Carlotta was greed incarnate, so unbearably mean that poor Nikolas gathered his courage, put his mouse in his pocket, and simply walked away.

“Then, with Miika peeking out at the road ahead, Nikolas turned and headed north through the trees, towards the place he thought he might find his father and the elves, and tried his hardest to believe in both.”

It would, I fear, be irresponsible of me to reveal what Nikolas found at the Far North. You’ll have to read the book. I won’t even whisper a word about the flying reindeer, the truth pixie or the exploding troll. I will not give credence to the miserable lies extolled by The Daily Snow newspaper, or give my opinion of the media mogul elf who believes that goodwill is just another name for weakness.

What I will tell you is this: Nikolas found food. He discovered gingerbread and sweet plum soup, jam pastries and bilberry pie. And, Miika found cheese. While those things may not constitute a happy ending, or a happy Christmas, they are a very good place to start.

This book is so good, it gave me chills. I loved it so much I crocheted a set of the characters for the Small Girl.

A Boy Called Christmas, crochet

The reindeer at the back is Blitzen. Yes, I made him last year and he has changed his name by deed poll at my request. Anyone can have a red nose at this time of year. Standing on Blitzen’s left foot is Little Kip, a very small elf with very big ears. Next to Kip and staring thoughtfully into the middle distance (what my children call the smell the fart pose) is our hero, Nikolas. My best attempt at a tiny turnip doll lies below his hand and Miika, the mouse, is on the chair. Father Topo, Mother Ri-Ri (with the plaits) and Little Noosh make up the cast. I stopped short of Father Vodol, the media Mogul. I made the decision that, for Christmas, it’s as well to believe that he and his ilk don’t exist. Also, I ran out of yarn.

A Boy Called Christmas is a fine story with a very important message, actually several vital messages:

“We must never let fear be our guide.”

“An impossibility is just a possibility that you don’t understand.”

“Humans are complicated.”
“Elves too.”

“Life is pain.”
“But it’s also magic.”

“Perhaps a wish was just a hope with a better aim.”

“…and hope is the most wonderful thing there is.”

With each new book I read from this author, I find myself believing more and more in Matt Haig. To a world darkened by fear-mongering, where fake news is the order of the day, Haig delivers a message of hope, of generosity, of inclusion, and of kindness. You might choose to believe that this book is a fairytale, written just for gullible children. You could believe that this is book is allegorical, that Nikolas’s journey reflects a pilgrim’s progress from friendless boy to benevolent father figure. If you are very brave, you can choose to simply believe, as I do, in a boy called Christmas.

Now, on to that food…(but first, Blitzen and Nikolas doing the King Of The World pose)…

A Boy Called Christmas

An Elfin Feast.

Gingerbread.

Ingredients.

3 oz (80g) butter
3 oz (80g) soft dark sugar
2 oz (55g) golden syrup
1 egg yolk
8 oz (250g) cake flour, sieved
2 oz (55g) crystallised ginger, chopped into small dice
½ tsp baking soda
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp ground ginger.

300g icing sugar and the juice of 1 lime to make icing
Icing pens, baubles, sprinkles, jelly tots, etc.

Method.

Cream the butter and sugar together until the sugar crystals dissolve and the mixture gets pale and fluffy.
Add the golden syrup and the egg yolk and mix well.
Mix the flour, ginger, bread soda, cinnamon and ginger together and then tip the lot into the butter mixture. Mix to combine and then knead the mixture lightly into a ball.
Leave the dough to rest in the fridge in a covered bowl for at least 30 minutes.
Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface and cut out shapes using cookie cutters.
Bake at 180˚C (350˚F) for 10-12 minutes, depending on the cookie size.
Leave to cool completely on a wire rack.
Add the juice of a lime to the icing sugar and mix vigorously. Add more icing sugar if the icing is too runny. Allow your creative juices run riot. Failing that, enlist children.

A Boy Called Christmas

Plum Soup.

Bramley cooking apples are sour and cooking down to a mush. If you can’t find bramleys, use soft cooking apples and perhaps less sugar. At worst, cook the plums in good quality apple juice and omit the water.

Ingredients.

1 ½ lb (650g) plums
1 lb (2 medium sized) bramley cooking apples
6 oz (150g) sugar
5 oz (150ml) water
1 cinnamon stick
1 star anise
1 orange
3 cloves
whipped cream to serve.
 

Method.

Cut the plums in half, remove the stones and place them in a saucepan.
Peel, core and chop the apples and add them to the plums.
Cut a slice from the centre of the orange, stud it with the cloves and add this to the pot.
Cut some strips of peel from the orange, as long as you can make them, and add them to the pot too.
Squeeze the juice of the orange into the pot.
Add the water, the cinnamon stick and the star anise.
Cook over a low to medium heat for 20-30 minutes until everything is soft.
Fish out the spices and pieces of orange and peel.
Whizz up the soup in a liquidiser or with a stick blender until smooth.

You could serve this soup warm but we like it chilled, with a blob of whipped cream on top and a garnish made of the cooked orange peel. We, the grown-ups, also appreciate a slug of sherry stirred in to the chilled soup.

Bilberry Pies and Mince Pies.

Bilberries are the Northern European cousins of blueberries. They look and taste almost the same. If you can lay your hands on bilberry jam, by all means use it. Blueberry jam was the closest I could find. This pastry recipe has been handed down through the generations of my family under the title “pastry for mince pies.” It makes a delicious, sweet and buttery pastry which is easy to handle and reheats perfectly.

Ingredients.

1 jar of blueberry jam
1 jar of mincemeat
8 oz (250g) flour
2 oz (55g) icing (confectioner’s) sugar
5 oz (135g) cold butter
1 egg yolk (save the white for glazing)
1 tsp lemon juice
1 tbsp ice-cold water

Method.

Sieve the flour into a large bowl. Sieve the sugar on top and mix through.
Cut the butter into cubes and add to the bowl.
Wash your hands in cold water and then use the tips of your fingers to rub the butter into the flour until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs.
Mix together the egg yolk, the lemon juice and the cold water. Add this mixture to the flour and butter and fork it through until the dough begins to clump together.
Gather the dough into a ball, pressing it together gently. Use your palms to flatten the ball into a disk shape ready for rolling out. Wrap it in cling-film and allow to rest in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.
Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface and use a suitably sized cookie cutter to make circles to line a bun tray or mini-muffin tin. There is no need to grease the tray as the pies will come out quite easily. Cut out stars, or any shape you like, to make a lid.
Fill the cases with jam or mincemeat and pop the lids on top.
Brush the lids with the leftover egg white.
Bake at 180˚C for 15-20 minutes depending on the size.

A Boy Called Christmas

My title, by the way, is taken from the song Peace on Earth best enjoyed in the gloriously daft and magical Bing/Bowie duet.

I pray my wish will come true, for my child and your child too
He’ll see the day of glory, see the day when men of goodwill
Live in peace, live in peace again.

P.S. The eagle-eyed will have spotted that I took the food photos while I was only halfway through the crochet project. Poor Nikolas is, literally, legless. I blame the optional slug of sherry in the plum soup.

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How Lovely Are Thy Branches.

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree…

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It was a fiasco. (See instagram post here)IMG_0642

Every light that could break, broke. IMG_0646

Some lights died, were resuscitated and died again. Others came out of their brand new packages dead. IMG_0661

It took seven hours, three visits to the local hardware, and a partridge in a pear tree to get it going.IMG_0651

But, despite the chaos and frustration, the mess and expense, the torment to small children waiting with baubles at the ready, for hours, it was a memorable day for all the right reasons. We kept it together. We laughed. We ate cake. We had a couple of stiff drinks. IMG_0657

We kept in mind that, even when it all seems to be going wrong, these days are precious. So very much depends on how you look at things.

This is the view from the kitchen window, street lights versus Christmas tree with honesty (lunaria) inside and teasels outside. I considered writing a whole post based on this photograph. I might yet. IMG_0673

Then I turned on my heel and took this photograph. I love the way the street light still threw its shadows on to this one.IMG_0676

The tree is up. Let the festivities begin.

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Tidings of Comfort and Joy.

Nigel Slater's Fig tart

Right so, who’s up for a frank and honest conversation about perimenopausal symptoms, the perils of freelance writing, and the politics of who is going where on Christmas Day?

No? No. Me neither.

Can we escape, instead, into a book? Come with me, please, this one is worth it.

The books. There are books in the kitchen, books in the study and books in the drawing room. There are books in my satchel, books on my desk and books by my bedside. There are novels and short stories, biographies and diaries, haikus and travelogues. There are gardening books and poetry and of course there are cook books…”He was never without a book.” I can see it now, carved on my gravestone.

He had me at “drawing room” and doubly so at “satchel.” That’s Nigel Slater using some of those words in the English language that we Irish have never felt fully entitled to use. It is an excerpt from a chapter, or entry really, as The Christmas Chronicles is more diary than cookbook, entitled A Sweet Moment. Slater describes the simple pleasure of sitting in a comfortable chair to read a book.

Howling wind or falling snow aside, the best reading companion is the smell of something baking in the oven.

No arguments here.

This is an extraordinary cookbook. I’ve never read any other cookbook that felt so intimate, so genuine, so much like an invitation to step inside a real kitchen and make myself at home.

“Come in.” Two short words, heavy with meaning. Step out of the big, bad, wet world and into my home. You’ll be safe here, toasty and well fed. “Come in.” They are two of the loveliest words to say and hear.

Can anyone else hear the ghost of Christmas present laughing in the background?

And yes, I know the world is a shit-storm at the moment, but we all need a safe harbour.

Nigel Slater’s writing would verge on maudlin, if it wasn’t tempered with such enthralling honesty. He doesn’t pretend that his memories of Christmas past aren’t tainted by grief. He doesn’t pretend that he always makes his own mincemeat. He doesn’t blithely ignore the existence of his competitors on the cookery bookery shelves. He gives credit where credit is due.  He mentions, and thanks, his followers on social media as though they were flesh and blood people.

All of this adds up to something that feels fresh and immediate and very modern. At the same time, by some sorcerer’s trick, Slater endorses time-worn traditions and exudes acute nostalgia. He made my chest ache. Ah, listen, let me cut to the chase. He made me cry. A flaming cookbook made me cry, IN THE SHOP, before I even paid for it.

If you are expecting a book of practical instructions on how to cater Christmas, you may be disappointed. The chronicles take the form of a day-by-day diary, beginning November 1st and ending on the 2nd of February. There is a lot to learn from this book: anything from the history of tinsel, Christmas stamps and pantomimes to the burn rate of candles to the best Brussels sprouts.

Nigel Slater's Fig tart

You don’t know what you are going to get from one day to the next and at times it reads as though it was a surprise to him too. Some of the entries bear all the hallmarks of a sleepy head – half formed thoughts jotted down by candle-light before dawn. A less well established author might have been compelled to edit, to tighten up, but these sleepy paragraphs, to me, were beguiling.

The only fault I found was that the book ends rather abruptly, as though he simply tore this clump of pages from his diary and sent them off to his publisher. One can only presume that we will pick up with him again, on February 3rd. It works, it leaves you wanting more, but it’s a bit too low key for me. I’m needy.

The food? I have two words for it. Comfort and joy.

Have you ever roasted a head of cabbage and then smothered it in cheese sauce? It is, without exaggeration, a cruciferous revelation.

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You’ve heard enough, I think, ( here) about the Jerusalem artichoke soup. Perhaps less of the comfort on that one but certainly joy, or maybe glee. It was worth it for the laughs.

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Cauliflower soup with a cheesy sourdough crouton was an equally delicious and less incendiary option.

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Toad-in-the-hole is not something we habitually eat in Ireland. Like drawing rooms and satchels, and Paddington Bear, this is a particularly British thing that we are not certain we are entitled to enjoy. It’s funny, when you think about it, how distinct are our cultures. I like it that way which, I suppose, is why I resist the blending of them. Regardless, this was undeniably comforting on a wet Saturday night.

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Slater’s recipes are mostly very easy and undemanding. What he offers are suggestions for a way of eating, and a way of enjoying the winter, rather than prescriptions for what is correct, or seasonal, or must-have or must-do or must-make.

My six-year-old made the Lebkuchen Chocolate Cream, all by herself…a triumph!

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The Stollen was my own particular triumph – a first but my no means last attempt. I even made the marzipan. It doesn’t look remotely like Nigel Slater’s stollen but it was very good to eat. Yes, I am quite proud.

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The Ricotta Filo Tart, a sort of Sicicilian baked cheesecake in a crispy shell was almost too pretty to crack open. Almost, but not quite.

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My forays into combining fruit with brandy have already been well-documented (here) but, I assure you, the joy continues.

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I made four jars of Slater’s quince mincemeat. It may not look beautiful but this stuff has been the mainstay of my mental health in recent days. Jar, spoon, Poldark book 10…I may just survive.

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This afternoon, by popular demand, after my girls have had their piano lesson (the piano is in the kitchen which is a very good thing with only occasional drawbacks), I shall make another batch of these quincemeat and mascarpone pies. They are exquisite little self-contained puffballs of Christmas cheer. You do have to eat them while they are still warm. Does that sound like a problem?

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I have only one other Nigel Slater cookbook on my shelves. It is called Real Food. I hardly ever cook from it, I’m not sure why not, but it contains my most favourite ever recipe –for a perfect chip butty. It’s not really a recipe, it’s a poem.

The fact that I didn’t cook much from that book has thus far inhibited me from buying any other of Nigel Slater’s books. That and the inescapable fact that they are quite expensive. Nonetheless, Item 1 on my list of New Year Resolutions is to source (hopefully second-hand) more of his books and to devour them just for the pure pleasure of it.

Slater’s is the sort of writing that makes me feel better. His words provide a sort of nourishment for the weather-beaten soul. I found this book both enlightening and inspiring. I want to eat like this, have a garden like this, make a wreath like this and yes, more than anything else, I want to write like this.

While Nigel Slater may not have the power to halt the shit-storm, he might empower you to shut the door on it. If nothing else, here is a book full to bursting with tidings of comfort and joy.

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Small Joys.

Here’s a thing: I often find myself, completely unintentionally, writing in my head. I form words into sentences, build a pleasing rhythm, hit an excellent (in my mind at least) crescendo and, just as I’m congratulating my inner writer on the marvelous blog post I’ve created, I draw a mental line under it and forget the whole lot. The writing, whether it ever makes it to the page or not, seems to be a lot about drawing lines under things, and moving on.

Not too long ago, I heard an interview with Marie Heaney, Seamus Heaney’s wife. She said that she would watch him tapping out a beat on the steering wheel of the car while he was driving and she would know that he was writing in his head. I thought there was something very moving about that, that she could almost see what was going on inside his head, almost read his thoughts in a kind of tapped out code, and that she let him at it where I would probably have been nagging him about the state of the garden shed.

Anyway, my point is that I have been here in my head, you just couldn’t see me.

I often hit a low at this time of the year, when the light fails but it’s too early for fairy lights. This year though I’m grand and just for that, I am grateful. I do feel the need for quietness, especially after the busy-ness of Halloween and I breathed a long sigh of relief when the kids went back to school.

Let me tell you some of the small joys I’ve been relishing.

I’ve been basking like a cat in the sunshine of these last few days and taking the opportunity to tidy up the garden. We still have a few roses…IMG_9836

…and a few visitors…IMG_9834

…and fruit! I am still managing to nab an alpine strawberry or two most days (I don’t share them) and I have planted (on Rory O’Connell’s advice) a myrtle bush. This is Myrtus ugni, also known as a Chilean strawberry. The berries taste like a strawberry inside a blueberry. To walk out to the garden in November and pick a handful of berries feels like a small miracle.IMG_9816

In previous years I would have cleared the flowerbeds by now but this year I am leaving all the seed heads, including the mighty teasels, for the birds. I can’t tell you how much I love to look up from a book and see a family of goldfinches outside the window. I think they may even be getting used to me sneaking up on them with my camera aloft.IMG_9929 (2)

On our last evening in Paris, after we left Shakespeare and Company, and had a little snog on the street and that kind of thing, Husband and I contrived to bring home a few sprigs of rosemary as a memento. We put them in a water bottle and then transferred them to a smaller-than-100mls shampoo bottle for the flight home and then, with just a little bit of wishful thinking, nursed them in a glass of water for a fortnight until little roots appeared and then potted them up and, hey presto, by the magic of plant science, we have at least one survivor growing strong and making me very happy.IMG_0034

Also making me smile is our substantial crop of chillies. We’ve taken to making fermented chilli sauce about once a month (see this post for more on fermented foods). I’m not certain whether it is the satisfaction of growing the chillies, the prettiness of them, the pride in making the fermented sauce, the kick of eating it or the gastro-intestinal benefits of consuming it but, all in all, the whole affair is making me happy.IMG_9919

Another thing, of even greater joy, is watching the Small Girl playing the piano. She has to climb up on to the piano stool and her feet dangle in mid-air while she reads the notes and counts the beats out loud while she plays and concentrates so hard I can nearly see steam coming out of her ears. The dog, meanwhile, nods his approval.IMG_9914

I could write a whole post about the book in that photo (I did, in fact, in my head). I found it in the wonderful Prim’s Bookshop in Kinsale. It’s Real French Cooking by Savarin, this copy printed in 1956. As well as some hardcore cooking techniques, Savarin includes a generous smattering of cartoons and anecdotes, as he says, “in the hope of pleasing the housewife in a rare moment of leisure.” Did you know, for instance, that the speciality of the Tour d’Argent in Paris is the Canard au Sang, a duck served in the juice of two other ducks? Every duck served has an individual number and a record is kept of who ate it. Number 112,151 was eaten by Franklin Roosevelt in 1929. The Duke of Windsor had number 147,883 in 1935. The late Queen Mother and her guests had numbers 185,197 and 185,198 in 1938.

“Eight months later, number 203,728 went to Marlene Dietrich.”

Is that not fantastic? I’ve suggested to Teenage Daughter that she begin a register of her meringue swans. She continues to think I am nuts.IMG_0033

So far, on Savarin’s instruction, I have recruited the family to help me cook and peel chestnuts and have made a scrumptious Cevennes Pie (pork, chestnuts and apple encased in buttery pastry). There is no photo of the pie, unfortunately, they ate it that fast!IMG_9943

Sticking with the theme of French cookery (yes, I’m a little obsessed of late), I have been watching Julia Child on YouTube. Now listen, I am all to familiar with the feeling of finally getting the joke after everyone else has gone home but forty years late is a record even for me. Alas, so it was. I was two minutes into this clip when the forty-year-old penny finally dropped:

It’s the Swedish chef! For God’s sake, tell me I wasn’t the only Swedish chef fan on the planet who didn’t know this!

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Well, Mr. Henson is still making me laugh so that counts as a good thing.

I’m going to lightly trip over this book:IMG_9945

…which I found desperately sad. It has sat on my shelf for nigh on a year because I was afraid it would depress me and, to be honest, it nearly did. It is good but I didn’t like it. Bring on the happy books, I say.

I bought Matt Haig’s A Boy Called Christmas for Middle Daughter last year but didn’t read it myself until January, too late to recommend it. I read it again last week and am currently on a third reading, aloud to the Small Girl, and it is STILL making me laugh. Read it, please, just read it! I’ll post a review soon.

I have a small (literally tiny, elfin even) crochet project on the go which is making bubbles of glee rise up and burst at the top of my head.

IMG_9946

Ooh, almost forgot, my Cooking The Books project for November is, if I do say so myself, a good one. It’s a cheering recipe and a flipping brilliant book. Belated thanks to the lovely Kathy at Gluts and Gluttony who recommended The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester when we met at Litfest. I loved the book, loved the pudding, and took huge pleasure in writing this article. Find it here.

Now, I have two more joys awaiting my attention. Look what the morning’s post brought:IMG_0032

You will notice I have decided to quietly introduce a few very tiny fairy lights. Sure, why not?

Wishing you many small joys,

Lynda.

Middle-Aged Couple Collapse In Front Of Pilates DVD.

Alright, in fairness to Amit (the remarkably bendy and unreasonably cheerful man in the photo below), we collapsed in peels of laughter. The tears, mind you, were of genuine pain.img_3464-2

Husband posed in front of the camera and pleaded with me to show you his best attempt at this pose but…ah, no…I feel he might regret it and you have imagination enough to fill the gap. Suffice to say, we are making efforts to get bendier in 2017.

Christmas was brilliant. I believe we may claim to have kept it well. My favourite moment of Christmas is always the lighting of the candle on Christmas Eve. As a child I was told that the candle was to light the way for the Holy Family. More recently, President Mary Robinson revived and enriched the tradition as a beacon for the Irish Diaspora.  In our house it is a moment of quiet nostalgia, a lull in the mayhem, a deep peaceful breath.

Christmas candle. Irish tradition.

And then…Christmas morning mayhem

You know it’s a good Christmas when you eat Baked Alaska…baked alaska, Nigella's recipe.

…TWICE!Baked Alaska no.2

That sloe (left) and damson (right) gin were SO worth making! There’s little to choose between them really. The pure sloe version has a bit more zing to it but both are delicious and make fantastic G&Ts. Sloe gin (left) and Damson gin (right).

All that gin meant that only the least taxing of crochet projects could be attempted so I whiled away a couple of movies making little cotton facecloths. I never quite understood why people bothered crocheting facecloths but it was a most relaxing and oddly satisfying occupation. It gave me that feeling that I could survive as a pioneer in the wilderness. Just give me a hook and some yarn and I might cobble together a whole home.crocheted cotton dk facecloth.

Of course, there were many lovely and thoughtful gifts.

My Small Girl made this flower for me and wrapped it up herself in a massive wad of sellotape which significantly delayed the Christmas breakfast.  sunflower

Middle Girl had this stunning bookmark made for me. Always bookmark. In memory of Alan Rickman, aka Snape.Yes, I cried.

Teenage Daughter created our family, including the dog (!), as Lego people! We are all even wearing our favourite outfits! Husband’s Nasa t-shirt is perfect! Are you flabbergasted? I was. Our family, in Lego.

Teenage Son is one of the few people I can rely on to buy me a book. Naturally, he bought a book which he was eager to read himself. He was literally breathing down my neck as I finished the last page and took it from my hands before I closed the cover. The Girl who Saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson is just as quirky and daft as The Hundred Year Old Man.

The girl who saved the king of Sweden. Jonas Jonasson

Santa may also have been guilty of delivering books which he was eager to read for himself. Mistletoe and Murder by Robin Stevens was in Middle Girl’s stocking and we both enjoyed it very much. It’s sort of a British Nancy Drew; very retro and sweet.

Mistletoe and Murder. Robin Stevens.

Oh, this one… A Boy Called Christmas by Matt Haig…deep contented sigh. It’s a perfect book and one I’m certain will become a Christmas classic. A Boy Called Christmas. Matt Haig. Instant classic

Stuffed full of Baked Alaska, we eventually left the house and walked off a gin or two.The beach always seems to be the perfect antidote to the massive lethargy that builds over Christmas.The Dock . Kinsale, Ireland

I thought, before Christmas, that I had run out of energy. I felt that I was spinning too many plates and not getting anything done properly. I was disappointed with my efforts.

I have taken a good, long rest. I have devoted the last couple of weeks to being a Mammy.

I am itching to write again but…

but, but, but… I have run out of gumption. I’ve known all along that if I stopped writing, even for a short while, I would be overtaken by nerves. I’m afeared (spellcheck doesn’t like that word but I do) that I’m making a holy show of myself and afeared that I am exposing myself and my family to ridicule. I’m filled with collywobblish trepidation and, at the same time, filled with the urge to carry on. The only cure, I suppose, is to fake it and see what happens. I should breathe deeply. Those were Amit’s last words just before I keeled over sideways.

Onwards, to a very bendy New Year!

Jamesfort, Kinsale, Ireland.

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Best, Easy, Gluten-Free, Hassle-free, Make-Ahead Frozen Christmas Meringue.

frozen meringue cake

Consider this my gift to you this Christmas.

This frozen meringue cake hardly even merits the title of recipe and yet it has become the chameleon-like stalwart of my repertoire. It is easy child’s play to make. Everybody likes devours it. It can be made to feed any number of guests, young or old, transformed from cake to pudding simply by using a different container and flavours can be varied from season to season as the mood takes you.(You might remember the blackcurrant version, here.)

The only essentials are meringues and whipped cream. Beyond these two, the ingredients are open to creative interpretation. I might have added almonds but for an almond-allergic guest on my list. Walnuts would work. Marrons glacés would be delicious. Mixed citrus peel would be delightfully Sicilian.

I am luck enough to be the proud and fortunate mother of a Teenage Daughter who is happy to avoid studying for her exams by making meringues for me. TD always uses this recipe. Given the week that’s in it, feel free to use shop-bought meringues. They will be grand.

cranberry sauce

I usually find time to make my own cranberry sauce for Christmas and generally make too much (especially since we don’t have turkey) so this recipe puts it to good use.

making cranberry sauce

Homemade cranberry sauce is the work of mere minutes (7, to be exact) and certain to put you in the holiday mood but, again, the to-do lists are lengthy at this time of year so shop-bought will be absolutely fine. I use this recipe.

Ingredients for Christmas Frozen Meringue Pudding:

10 meringues, broken into chunks
250mls fresh cream, whipped
50g hazelnuts, toasted in a dry pan and chopped
1/2 tin of dulce de leche (or caramel sauce)
1/2 jar of cranberry sauce.

To decorate: 100 g melted dark chocolate
To decorate to excess: several Cadbury’s Crunchie (honeycomb) bars and a drizzle of cranberry sauce.
To decorate tastefully: sorry, you’ll have to come up with that one yourself, I’m all out.

Method:

Line a Christmas pudding bowl, or a 20cm cake tin, or individual freezer-proof cups with cling-film.

Scatter the broken meringues into the whipped cream. Dollop the sauces on top. Sprinkle in the nuts. Mix all the ingredients together.

making frozen meringue cake

Press firmly (to eliminate air gaps) into the lined container and freeze overnight.

That is it! Could anything be easier?

Ah, but wait…

…now, my big pudding is safely tucked away in the freezer for Christmas Eve but I made a special itty-bitty pudding just for you. This is just to say thanks, for being out there, listening to me, praising, advising and encouraging me, and keeping me company.

frozen meringue cake

Isn’t that just grand, turned out on to a sparkly plate and de-frocked of it’s cling film.

But wait…surely a lighted candle is called for on this, the second-shortest day of the year, when I want my blogland friends to know how much I appreciate them all, each and every one, and I’m certain a drizzle of dark chocolate could only make it better.

frozen meringue cake

Wait, wait, wait…I have a great idea (famous last words at Christmas)…

…let’s raid the kids’ selection boxes and find a Cadbury’s Crunchie. Then, let’s take a rolling pin and, thinking of that %^&&*^$ who stole the world’s last parking space at the supermarket, smash that Crunchie to smithereens. Ah, yes, that felt good. Are you still there? Have ye all given me up as a mad raving looney?

frozen meringue cake

Wait… last time, I promise,

…a drizzle of cranberry sauce just because I love the colour:

frozen meringue cake

Being serious, these few days leading up to Christmas are always hectic but also somehow the best part. A few goodies like this one stowed away in the freezer can be a genuine mental bulwark against panic.

My best mental health advice, however, is to keep a rolling pin and a large stack of Cadbury’s Crunchies to hand throughout the season.

We are down to the final stretch my friends, the year turns tomorrow and we can raise our heads and face the finishing line. Let’s cheer each other over the line.

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