Trevor the tree is awaiting visitors. He’s all decked out, flickering happily by the window, not lifting a limb to help me as I give the flat a thorough cleaning. Visitors, it seems, are the only real reason for mopping my kitchen floor and hiding all my clutter in the desk. Tomorrow night he will be the star of a rather spectacular melding of tradition since we will be celebrating both Hannukah and Christmas at the same time.
Tradition is a funny thing when you are an American living in England. Some customs you accept with open arms and others you spurn. I will never forget the first time I learned of the traditional English ‘Christmas Dinner.’ I was convinced this friend was having a good joke at my expense. He said the meal consisted of turkey, Brussels sprouts, balls of stuffing, roast parsnips and a Christmas pudding for dessert. Brussels sprouts for Christmas? My only exposure had been a dinner in which I’d gagged on my first green globe, saving the rest of the family from the same fate since my mother announced with exasperation that she didn’t want anyone else to choke. The fact that Brussels sprouts were considered celebration food in England did not bode well. And what in the world were parsnips, I wondered, hopefully some English delicacy that would save the meal from being soured by the veggies. They turned out to be strange anemic looking carrots with a sweet taste and a texture like a potato. As for the Christmas pudding, this really had to be seen to be believed. The explanation was interesting. Well… It’s sort of like a rich fruit cake only it is steamed in a pot for several hours in boiling water…
This was the final straw. A steamed fruit cake? Fruit cake in America is something you re-gift as soon as humanly possible, the one holiday confection that people are capable of rejecting. Up until this point in time I’d thought my grandparents were the only people in the world with a fondness for green cherries and dried out pieces of pineapple wrapped up in cellophane.
What’s surprising is that after living here eight years, I have become a fan of the English Christmas dinner. Brussels sprouts, it seems, are delicious when they haven’t been boiled within an inch of their lives. Parsnips roasted with thyme and drizzled with a bit of honey are a fine thing indeed. I can’t say I’ve ever truly warmed to the Christmas pudding but every year I enjoy watching someone try to light it on fire at the table. (For my American readers… the Christmas pudding is doused in brandy, lit on fire, and then brought to the table as a wonderful yuletide spectacle.) In reality someone stands over the pudding with a pack of old matches or a lighter, swearing because the damn thing won’t light, pouring on more alcohol, making what is quite a moist stodgy dessert into something altogether more soggy. If you’re lucky someone lights themselves on fire and flaps around the room, more satisfying on so many levels.
One of the American traditions that I cling to at this time of year is making Christmas cookies. Not only are they scrummy and gorgeous, they are also a real pleasure to make, much less work than cakes and pies but just as satisfying. I’ll never forget the first time I had my friend Jennifer over so we could exchange gifts. ‘Let me make you a small cookie plate,’ I told her as she followed me into the bedroom. Hunched in front of our storage space in the eaves of the house, I began pulling out tin after tin of homemade biscuits, carrying them into the table in the living room. I had made most of the usual culprits: chocolate chip, peanut butter, fairy fingers… plus a few new ones. Jennifer was an instant cookie convert.
For the last two years I haven’t managed to honour this tradition. We’ve either been away or having the kitchen remodelled. So this year we’re bringing back Santa’s favourite treat and Jennifer and I are going to have a little exchange
I’ve certainly broken with tradition this year, but I can’t say I’m disappointed. I think the cookies that have made the cut are rather delicious and there is an excellent mix of flavours. I didn’t want to go overboard so I’ve made seven different cookies. One year I made ten and let’s face it, ten is just excess. (Seven is sensible…. says my husband who likes cookies.) Here are this year’s winners:
These are wonderful… definetley a favourite this year… rich and chocolaty with just a hint of peanut butter. The oats are finely ground and give them a crumbly texture that I really love. They are a bit more labour intensive than your standard cookie because you have to grate 12 ounces of chocolate by hand… Don’t attempt it without a microplane!
These are a new yummy addition. Candy canes are crushed up and folded into the meringue mixture. I’ve made them look a bit more festive with some edible Christmas disco glitter. I suspect my mother would love these since she is fond of her peppermint patties!
I make these with the students in my Italian cookery course. They are probably the quickest cookies to make and they have a sophisticated taste, surprising since they are essentially made of only three ingredients: egg white, sugar, and ground almonds.
I managed to find a royal icing recipe that didn’t contain raw egg white and it was easy to make and fun to pipe onto the stars and trees. These are not the cakey variety of gingerbread. Mine are crisp and very spicy. Delicious.
This is a cookie made with my sister in mind since I have been sustaining her coconut craving for years by sending her Bounty bars in the mail. The combination of oats, chocolate and coconut is heaven.
I got this recipe out of a Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall recipe booklet that my father in law saved me from the newspaper. The drizzle of chocolate makes them reminiscent of a Ferrero Rocher.
This recipe reminded me of my Dad because one of his childhood memories is extra pastry scraps cooked in the oven with cinnamon and sugar. This recipe came from Epicurious and involved making homemade puff pastry. I was lazy and bought good quality all-butter puff pastry instead. The only other ingredients are sugar and cinnamon making these pretty simple even if they look complicated. They taste divine.
Tomorrow night will be a lovely evening of Christmas cookies and homemade latkes in honour of Hannukah. At the moment there is a pumpkin sitting on my living room table that we bought for Halloween and never carved with my sister and her family when they came to visit. My husband, inspired by the eccentricity of Trevor, has decided to carve a Menorrah instead of a face… We are going to add a new candle each night.
Here’s to tradition: the new, the old, and the bizarre!