The joys of a modest Christmas

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Photo: Mark Gillow

“Grim melancholy, go thy way; the goose hangs high on Christmas Day.” (from The Merrie Christmas Cook Book, Peter Pauper Press)

I have a fractured relationship with Christmas. It’s a hard thing to admit. You swim against the tide admitting such a thing. Something else that’s hard to admit: right now, as I type, I’m listening to Diana Krall’s album of jazz-musak Christmas songs, trying to summon up some enthusiasm for the event.

Her scat-sprinkled Jingle Bells hasn’t worked and I’ve fast-forwarded through Let it Snow and Winter Wonderland. I gave Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep a hearing and thought, yes, I should count my blessings. And change playlists. Quickly. Silly to imagine Diana Krall carolling would be of any use whatsoever.

The forced jollity, the gleaming-toothed happy families of department store advertisements, the expectations of perfection, the great, tacky commercial onslaught — from about November 25 (or when the first sugary ditties start trilling through shop speaker systems) I consider possible escape routes. An island, a cave, a treehouse, inner Mongolia … somewhere I don’t have to think about “celebrating in style”, won’t be told to “refresh my home and keep everyone entertained with the latest holiday essentials”, don’t have to consider “perfect wine and food matches for the festive season” or “how to design a chic Christmas table”. Somewhere I don’t get bombarded into thinking that I’m a failure if I can’t or won’t achieve all that. Bah humbug!

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The Australian Christmas has come a long way since hostesses were advised in The Sydney Morning Herald in 1967 that “roast turkey can be one of the most rewarding dishes a cook can tackle” and that “the man of the house can be very useful, particularly in removing the ropey tendons from the legs”.

We’ve been liberated from hot flushes over roast vegetables and brandy sauce. But we haven’t been liberated from expectation; in fact, in a world of glossy food magazines, celebrity chefs and Maggie Beer’s Christmas Feast, expectations are even higher. It’s all quince-glazed Christmas hams and pan-fried mudcrabs and tiger prawn pyramids and artisanal cheeses and free-range suckling pig and foraged salads and yabbies from a dam. And we’re still gobbling turkey — only now it’s Malaysian style, or stuffed with Middle Eastern flavours, or vincotto-glazed or pomegranate-roasted or soy-poached.

I’ve fallen for these pagan rites of summer before (I’m not alone, am I?) — the monstrous expense, the ugly-prelude-to-gluttony of the fish markets and the supermarkets on Christmas Eve, a short-tempered kitchen, an obscenity of food, over-indulgence and waste, exhaustion and expiration. And the dénouement? A credit card bill resembling the national debt of a small African nation. Nothing there that’s an edifying spectacle. Doesn’t look too much like the shiny-happy advertisements either. It leaves me wondering — if this is an Australian Christmas, have we really come such a long way after all? And what does a good Christmas look like if a visit to a church or a charity isn’t a part of it.

Call me Scrooge, I’ll cope, but a restrained, modest one would seem a good start. Generosity of spirit doesn’t have to equal a gluttony of appetite.

Details are limited at this stage but this year, my family’s Christmas will be a simple one, retro-ish. Maybe some prawns with pink sauce. A couple of good chickens with old-fashioned stuffing. A decent ham, cold. Salads. A book under a tree, my favourite people, and something else a bit special — Aunt Mabel’s Christmas pudding, which has been part of my family tradition as long as I can remember.

It doesn’t need suet, it doesn’t need brandy sauce, it doesn’t need ceremony, it doesn’t need to be made three months ahead. It just needs a little bit of love and a good mixmaster.

Have a good one.

Aunt Mabel’s Christmas Pudding

1 pound (500g) dried mixed fruit
4oz (125g) halved cherries
4oz (125g) halved almonds
4oz (125g) dates, chopped (optional)
4oz (125g) figs, chopped (optional)
fresh nutmeg, grated
pinch of allspice
1tsp vanilla essence
1tsp lemon essence
1 cup rum
1 cup brandy 
½ pound (250g) butter
½ pound (250g) brown sugar
pinch of salt
4 eggs
½ pound (250g) breadcrumbs (fresh, from crustless white bread)
2 big tablespoons plain flour
½ tsp bicarbonate soda (dissolved in a little warm water)

NB: This recipe makes a big pudding. You’ll need a 4 litre pudding basin with lid, or a stainless steel bowl with a good rim and an aluminum foil “lid”; some big bowls; plus a large saucepan with lid that will fit the basin for steaming.
1. 5-7 days before Christmas (or longer): Marinate all the dried mixed fruit, cherries almonds, dates, figs, nutmeg, allspice and essences in the rum and brandy in a glass or ceramic dish that can be sealed. Every couple of days, stir so the fruit and nuts are thoroughly covered in alcohol.
2. Getting ready on Christmas morning: Butter the pudding basin really well and sift a little flour over the greased butter. Shake the flour around the basin to evenly coat the basin with four. Put your big saucepan on the stove about a quarter full of water. Start to heat the water. Take three sheets of aluminum foil, each a square wider than the diameter of the pudding bowl. Grease each side of the foil and stick them together. Set aside.
3. Action on Christmas morning: Cream the butter in a mixmaster until it is light and fluffy. Gradually add the brown sugar until the mixture is combined and fluffy. This could take up to 15 minutes. Add salt, then eggs, one at a time. 
4. Remove the bowl from the mixmaster base. Add the alcohol-saturated fruit and nut mixture, folding gently into the butter-sugar mixture. Add breadcrumbs gradually, folding them through the mixture, then flour and bicarb soda dissolved in a little warm water.
5. Pour the mixture into the greased pudding basin, making sure there aren’t messy bits of mixture around the rim of the bowl. If you’re using a stainless-steel bowl, place the greased aluminum foil layers over the top of the bowl. Tie several lengths of string around the rim tightly, sealing the aluminum foil, then make “handles” with the string so you can lift the basin out of the boiling water. The pudding must be sealed.
6. Place the pudding in the saucepan of simmering water – the water should reach up to a third of the height of the basin. Steam the pudding, covered, in simmering water for 4-5 hours. If cooking ahead, remove from water and allow to cool. To reheat, return to a pot of water and simmer for two hours.
7. Remove the pudding from the simmering water. When the basin has slightly cooled, run a sharp thin knife around the edges of the pudding to loosen it from the bowl. Tip it upside down over a plate or serving platter and tap the basin to loosen the pudding. If you have greased it well, it should slip out on to your platter in a slinky fashion. Serve it with whatever you fancy: custard, cream, icecream.

19 comments

  • Christmas to me means a short shopping trip and a long lunch. That's it. Just don't do the bits you aren't happy with.

    Commenter
    DisDis
    Date and time
    December 20, 2012, 9:11AM
    • I saw the Maggie Beer thing too and thought "how over the top". But I do like my turkey and I love xmas because a) presents! b) holidays c) summertime d) sleeping in. That to me is a winning combo!

      Commenter
      Ms Patonga
      Date and time
      December 20, 2012, 9:55AM
      • I saw the Maggie Beer program, too. But I didn't feel it was over the top. She was thanking her suppliers. I thought the whole shebang was quite relaxed but elegant. I am a Maggie Beer fan though.

        However, I really hate the commercialism of Christmas. I cringe at the advertisments for extravagant but relatively useless gift suggestions on TV. I worry about the people who have nowhere to go to celebrate Christmas. I really HATE this time of year.

        My Christmas will be very simple as usual - close family and a few ot the nowhere else to go crowd. Any presents must be $5 or less. Nowhere near as elegant as Maggie's, but the pavolva might look a bit like hers.

        Commenter
        MaryD
        Date and time
        December 20, 2012, 12:02PM
      • always pushing her 'verjuice' too...yawn.

        Commenter
        sunny
        Location
        sydney
        Date and time
        December 20, 2012, 12:28PM
    • Cool! I was worried this was an excuse for yet another round of pudding bashing, but instead it's a celebration of it. Personally I'll stick with my version, which contains suet and gets made 3-6 months in advance, hung in a cloth in a dark cupboard and boiled for 6 or so hours, but any pudding is better than none :)

      Commenter
      Fred
      Date and time
      December 20, 2012, 10:19AM
      • We're happy orphans this Christmas - our adult children are all elsewhere in the world. Just couldn't get into the Christmas frantics - only cards sent were ones I lovingly made for the eight grandchildren and presents gift wrapped and delivered free from a bookshop. Ham and plum pudding leftovers from a work luncheon and all I have to make is a salad. Champagne and prawns waiting in the fridge, church in the morning and a mountain of books to get through. How come it's taken so long to have the sort of no-fuss. inexpensive Christmas I've always wanted?

        Commenter
        Simple Soul
        Location
        WA
        Date and time
        December 20, 2012, 10:24AM
        • Christmas is a picnic lunch bought from a deli, on the beach with a few bottles of wine.
          That's IT!

          Commenter
          Tom
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          December 20, 2012, 10:53AM
          • Prawns, chicken and ham with pudding after it is more than enough to get you stuffed and insert about a million calories. Thats basically what we do and I'm always rat shit after it.

            I wouldn't mind skipping it for a few years I think. Maybe I'll go off to Nam or something next year.

            Commenter
            George
            Date and time
            December 20, 2012, 1:28PM
            • I still do not understand the point of christmas. Nothing happening at my house. Just another day really.

              Commenter
              dianav
              Date and time
              December 20, 2012, 2:27PM
              • Merry Christmas Diana, may it be a caring and loving day, that is what it is for me and I hope it will be for you.

                Commenter
                Steve Up North
                Location
                Not Near You
                Date and time
                December 20, 2012, 6:08PM

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