I’m a great fan of Christmas because it gives the family a focus and brings everyone together – I uphold any celebration that does this.
And I have fond memories of my childhood – I’m the youngest of 10 children and our Christmases were amazing – we always had an enormous freshly-felled pine tree the tip of which touched the high-studded ceiling. More impressively for me and all my siblings, the presents stretched right across the room – you could barely walk in the large sitting room for fear of standing on something. I have no idea how my parents made their meager earnings stretch so far, but no one went without, and I always thought I was the luckiest girl alive when I received a new doll, or a plaything. One of the best presents I received was a golden-haired doll with eyes that blinked. My sister was jealous because, she’s a blonde and she was given a similar doll with blinking eyes but with short brunette hair. Oh the fights! The other best present was a toy cake mixer with a button that made little beaters go round and round. It was just gorgeous.
My father really came into his own at Christmas-time. Once all the glasses of milk and biscuits which dad eventually managed to persuade us to change to bottles of beer, had been left for Santa, and he had got us off to bed, we were usually helped on our way with a swig of something strong and ‘medicinal’, it was after midnight, and he sat up preparing bags and bags of sweets and surprises for our stockings. He got dressed up and darted in and out of our rooms delivering stockings – he never got caught – but his answer was at the ready had he been: there were so many of us that he had to give Santa a hand!
We also had the house decorated to the nines, with hand-made streamers strewn everywhere, and Xmas-tree lights, which were the bane of my father’s life, because, with old tree lights, you may remember, if one light went, it caused the whole string of them to go, so you had to methodically work through every light until you found the dodgy one. The lights were beautiful, bells and balls, all glass and painted, not like the plastic ones you get today. Dad also made a huge wooden Santa silhouette with ‘feet’ that he would ‘plant’ in the front lawn every Christmas. No one ever stole things in those days – the Santa was put out every year, and packed up safely at the end of the silly season, bikes were strewn on the front lawn and forgotten about until the following morning. It was safe back then and everyone knew their neighbours, especially the women because they chatted over the back fences while they hung up the washing.
Our Xmas-day feast was all about roasted meats, roasted vegetables, new potatoes and fresh peas and beans from the garden. My sisters and I would sit in the sun – it was always sunny on Xmas day – shelling peas, eating as many as we shelled. There was usually a roast of lamb or pork, roasted kumara and pumpkin, and always a ham. My father would scrub out the old stone ‘copper’ in the wash house and cook the ham in it by lighting a fire underneath it and keeping the fire ticking along for the several or so hours it took to cook the ham. He loved ham. And that brings me to traditions.
My dad is now 96- 97 this coming Februrary. He still loves ham. He spends Christmas day with us every year. I gather together the stray ones in the family, those who have lost their loved ones, or those who are now single. This year it’s just a small group of 8, but dad will at least get to spend the day with 4 of his children, and that’s what he loves.
Whenever I think about what to cook for Christmas day, the starting point has to be the ham. I sometimes think I’ll flag it, but then I think of dad. I sometimes think we’ll have the ham then, and anything else I care to cook, but then I think of dad, and I always come back to what he loves most, that is, ham with plenty of mustard, new potatoes, fresh peas and beans. I usually get carrots in there, too.
I still cook a turkey, sometimes, depending on how many I am cooking for, a leg of pork, or other meats – I have done little baby chickens before – but turkey seems to be the most sort after dish. And I’ve started a tradition of my own which I guess now I will never be able to break: the stuffing. I make double quantity of a really delicious stuffing and use some to stuff the turkey and the rest I shape into balls and cook quickly until they’re golden and crunchy. My children beg me for them. They go nuts about them. They love stuffing balls more than anything in the world. So, of course we will have stuffing balls.
I also make some little sweet bits and pieces, such as German almond biscuits cut in the shape of stars and glazed with egg white and icing sugar which puffs up as they cook and looks like snow. These are actually called zimsterne, but we just call them star biccies because that’s what the kids called them when they were young. I also make some gorgeous walnut and chocolate balls the recipe given to me by a Czech woman years ago. And I make mince pies and a Christmas cake.
On the surface it may seem a bit ho-hum – nothing exceptional here, but it is so steeped in years of family love and tradition that I can’t waver from it. I am not sure what I will do when dad is no longer with us.
On reflection, in my magazines, I do all manner of non-traditional Christmas menus, and these we eat with relish, but I’m usually preparing these in September or October, so it’s like we’ve had ten Christmases by the time it really does come around. This year I have done an all-seafood menu, which is stunning, and various dishes with veal, chicken, lamb and pork in the magazines, but we’ll be eating traditional food in our house. We usually start with a bit of Italian flare, with melon and prosciutto, good croissants, panettone, and maybe a glass of light bubbly, just my husband and two children. This is around 11.00am, then the family arrives about 2.00pm the main meal is served about 5.00pm – and we party into the night, sending dad home in a cab, and the others staying over.
Boxing day is different, we spend it with our closest group of old friends (truly old, now!), and we do a joint-meal, with leftovers. It’s always interesting to see what they’ve had at their various family celebrations. They’re all great cooks, but mostly, they have traditional fare.
For something different, try this stunning Fillet of beef studded with mortadella and pistachio nuts, and finish with the most impressive dessert I’ve ever created, Choux pastry tree with white chocolate and raspberries.
There are heaps more Christmas recipes on my site, including Pavarotti’s ham – the ham I cooked for Signor Luciano Pavarotti when he came to NZ in 1999 – turkey breast in verjuice with green grapes and almonds,quick mince pies, chocolate mince pies and my stunning meringue mountain with strawberries.