|christmas presents under the tree|
my maternal grandmother is polish and it is to her that my family owes its celebration of christmas. my early memories of this holiday are of eating minted mitchell’s butterscotch toffees whilst waiting impatiently for babcia, daddy and mama to wake up so that i could open the presents under the christmas tree. i did not care much for minted butterscotch but it was the only way to distract my attention from the impatience. christmas presents were exciting because they almost always included books. i also loved the delicate glass baubles and the multicoloured fairy lights on our tree.
i must have been a much more pragmatic child than my brother because i do not recollect being very surprised by the discovery that santa claus was a figment of the imagination. my grandparent’s house did not have a chimney and the front door was securely triple locked at night leading me to question how santa claus actually got into the house. murad on the other hand was quite taken aback by the discovery that mama, babcia and daddy all santa claus’ and in order to appease him another set of gifts had to appear overnight to make it look like santa claus had come bearing gifts.
my most vivid memories though are of the things that we ate. when i was little there were always christmas biscuits. they were cut into circles, half moons and stars, smelt of butter and vanilla and crumbled easily. they were stored in a plastic biscuit box that had a vine pattern running along its circumference with a brown lid. i loved opening up the box and inhaling the sweet smell before eating them. our christmas cake was made by a lady called mrs. cross, which gave it the name of crossies cake. it was wrapped in decorative see-through red plastic and its top was studded with blanched almonds. it was a dry and under-fed affair with no fondant or marzipan. one could never cut a slice without it disintegrating but it seemed as if christmas would be incomplete without it and so it was there year after year. i do not know why but my grand parents broke with the tradition this year. and that is just as well since last year mama made a really gorgeous dark, fruity and heavily spirit fortified cake last year. this year my brother made christmas cake complete with fondant icing and marzipan. i have not tasted it but am told that it was superb.
christmas pudding also came courtesy of mrs. cross. i developed a taste for this quite early on and particularly loved the fanfare of the brandy flambé. for the love of pudding i put up with custard whose consistency was never perfect. sometimes it was too thin and at others lumpy. in pakistan, rafhan custard powder was used to make custard and it was often bulked up with cornstarch and had a negligible vanilla flavour. i ate it anyway because one needs something milky and custard like to mediate pudding.
in my grandparent’s house, it was christmas eve dinner that was the most significant meal. we always started with barszcz (more commonly known as borscht), the dark magenta of which was stained with a startlingly white swirl of milk pack cream. a lightly crumbed fried fish usually followed after the barszcz. babcia’s chicken roast was the main event and was always perfect. the skin of the chicken was bronzed crisp and the meat tender. daddy was responsible for carving the bird with an electric knife before it was brought to the table. we would have the roast with red cabbage sweetened with apples, fluffy mashed potatoes and boiled peas and carrots. i have loved red cabbage since the time that i ate it at babcia’s house.
at some point the polish makowiec became a christmas staple. variations of this poppy seed roll are common across eastern europe and are traditionally served at christmas and easter. it is daddy (my grandfather) who makes the makowiec that is best described as a brioche like yeast dough spread liberally with a poppy seed mixture shaped like a roulade. daddy’s version had to be adapted because over the years the quality of the poppy seeds in pakistan has deteriorated and they are often gritty with sand. daddy makes his filing with ground almonds instead which gives a marzipan like paste and also tastes delicious.
last year, daddy taught mama how to make makowiec. his recipe is unexacting and based on estimates, a reflection of the fact that he has been making it for years. i therefore had to seek help from trusty old google only to discover a handful of recipes of which i was quite unsure. i had a look at my notes from daddy’s practical cake making session and also sent a list of links to mama to work out which one would be best to use. she responded very promptly with an elaborate set of suggestions that included preparing the dough on the basis of one recipe but including extra yolks as suggested by another and the paste from a third. the person who saved me from this pickle of recipes was wanda, a fellow polish friend whom i met on a food writing course at the guardian a year ago. she was very kind to share with me her mama’s recipe, which is what i used to make my makowiec. it turns out that like my mama wanda adds zest to the dough to perk it up.
|poppy seed mixture for makowiec|
making makowiec is not difficult but it is definitely time consuming. it has many different steps and i was quite challenged by the zest of oranges as i did not have a micro-plane grater. i also had to enlist o’s support in stirring the poppy seed mixture that thickens as it cooks and needs a man’s strength to stir especially if you have been kneading the dough. but baking it was a pleasure mostly because christmas always makes me terribly homesick, and it is nice to eat food that one is familiar with. the only problem with my makowiec was that it was an unmanageable size (it was the length and width of my vegetable chopping board). i will be making it again next year but after tweaking the recipe for size, the ratio of the filing to the dough and by dividing it into two rolls. the cake kept beautifully and tasted better and better the longer i kept it but in the end it was quite fragile as the rum spiked poppy seed mixture bit into the already thin layers of dough. the layers are essential to the architecture of the roll and once they began collapsing it was very hard to cut the roll without it breaking.
this year, o bought a beautiful little tree from miss pem, our local florist in highbury to make christmas perfect. it was a lovely little tree that we decorated with red and gold baubles and draped with lights. o bought candy canes from waitrose a fair number of which he ate, always making sure to balance them out so that the tree didn’t look candy cane bare in some areas.
in creating our christmas traditions i have drawn on some of those that come from my family. i had to do away with christmas dinner though and instead follow the british tradition of christmas lunch. it’s not quite possible to be cooking for christmas eve when one is working. i am almost always running last minute grocery errands on christmas eve, using the later half of the evening to prepare for the lunch on christmas day.
|apricot and hazelnut bread from gail's bakery|
on christmas morning o and i started the day on a glasses of cold bubbly with wedges of white stilton with apricots and some apricot and hazelnut bread from gail’s bakery. i love this fruit sweetened crumbly cheese. we watched an episode of wallace and gromit with it. i had spent christmas eve preparing part of our lunch. i always like cooking red cabbage at least a day earlier as it allows the port, the warm spices of cinnamon and juniper berries and the zest to relax and infuse the cabbage. i also roasted the parsnips with some honey till the flesh was soft enough to be easily mashed albeit with a bit of texture. i also prepared the caramelised whole cloves of garlic and candied lemon peel in line with the ottolenghi recipe that i had selected to jazz-up my brussel sprouts. lastly, i prepared the zesty and citrusy short grain rice stuffing for the chicken. our chicken came from our lovely local butcher godfreys. there is a world of a difference in buying poultry and meat from a good butcher rather than the supermarket. the chicken stock from the carcass was so packed with flavour that when i made pea soup with it a day or two after christmas, the flavour of the peas was extinct and all o and i could taste was the intensely chicken flavour. it would have been best for me to a classic chicken noodle soup instead.
|caramelised whole cloves of garlic|
when i was planning the our christmas lunch i wanted to make sure to have some of the traditional christmas trimmings like parsnips and brussel sprouts but cooked in a not-so-traditional manner. in addition i wanted the colours and flavours to be such that there was brightness along with warming spices likes cinnamon, cloves and juniper berries. i think that the menu below ties these elements together.
m & o’s christmas lunch
roast chicken with cranberry-orange stuffing
honeyed parsnip mash
red cabbage with port and orange
yottam ottolenghi’s brussel sprouts with caramelised garlic and lemon peel
the dessert deli port and orange christmas cupcakes
|the bird from godfreys, ready to roast|
for the perfect roast chicken i follow mama and nigel slater’s set of basic principles. to start preheat the oven to 230 degrees celsius. wash the chicken and pat it dry with kitchen towel. this is necessary because a damp skin will not crisp. then the chicken is to be smeared with butter particularly around the breast where the flesh is prone to dryness. it should be seasoned generously with salt and pepper. stuff the cavity with the stuffing bringing in the rear with aromatics like a bay leaf, a small handful of thyme and two slices of lemon. finally secure the legs with a piece of string. roast the chicken for fifteen minutes. the high heat helps seal the chicken and protects the meat from drying out. if you look closely the skin of the chicken will have tightened. after the first fifteen minutes turn the heat down to a 190 degrees celsius and continue to roast for 45 minutes. occasionally baste the bird with the butter and pan juices during the cooking period. the chicken is done with its juices run clear. the easiest way to test for this is by piercing the thigh with the tip of a small knife. let the chicken rest for at least ten minutes before carving. this is key to letting the juices reintegrate into the meat to keep it moist. if you carve it straight from the oven you’ll lose all the precious juices.
the stuffing for our chicken was along the lines of a citrus risotto. to make it i began with softening four finely chopped shallots in two tablespoons of olive oil. to this i added half a cup of short grain rice, stirring briefly to coat the grains in oil. the rice was then boiled in 340 ml of orange juice with two bruised cardamom pods until tender. at this point i stirred through a handful of cranberries and the zest of two oranges.
the parsnip mash was easy to make but instead of boiling the root vegetables i steam-roasted them in the oven by sealing them under a lid of foil after tossing them in olive oil and a little bit of honey. roasting them gives them a light caramel sear. on christmas day i put them in a heavy bottomed pan, mashed them roughly with a masher and added a little milk to bind them into a textured mash.
|red cabbage braised with port and orange|
when cooked, the red cabbage had a wonderful red-purple colour. i cooked it just enough for it to retain a bit of bite as i like a slightly firm cabbage. to start with i sautéed two small thinly sliced red onions in a knob of butter until they were soft. i then added the spices – a long stick of cinnamon and six lightly bruised juniper berries sautéing for another minute. then i added a whole red cabbage, which had been sliced to a medium thickness along with the juice and zest of two oranges and a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar. at this point i increased the heat to give the cabbage a quick fry. when the juice boils reduce the heat to medium-low, cover the cabbage and let it cook for around thirty minutes. lastly, stir in a small glass of port and cook for a final ten minutes.
the recipe for the brussel sprouts was a bit demanding in that it had many small steps but i am glad i made the effort as they turned out to be really tasty. in fact they were even better when i used them to create a savoury loaf from the leftovers. i must confess to have picked and eaten a fair few of the caramelised whole cloves of garlic because they tasted so good! the recipe for yotam ottolenghi's brussels sprouts with caramelised garlic and lemon peel recipe can be found on the guardian here.
|the dessert deli's orange and port christmas cupcake|
since christmas is about eating until one can eat no more, o and i did have dessert after our very filing lunch. the dessert deli's cupcakes were just the right size. the snowflake patterned fondant had gone festive with a light glitter. they were perhaps the daintiest and prettiest christmas cakes in cups i have seen.