Getting your dates stoned and cutting corners in case of fire

Getting your dates stoned and cutting corners in case of fire

As the giant ship Merry Christmas sails up the Great Fish River, or whatever waterway you have near you, I find myself once again contemplating that universal mystery: how to get through the festivities with the minimum of fuss. By Diane Cassere

Christmas festivities can be mysterious and when I was a child the confusion was even greater. We were a Catholic family, Irish on the one side and Italian on the other. My grandmother was German so the relatives emanating from the Continent wanted to celebrate on Christmas Eve. The Irish side said this was nonsense, everybody knew that the Wise Men only rode up on their camels on Christmas Morning when the Christ Child was newly born. A giant star in the East, or whatever those shepherds were seeing, was not cause for opening the bubbly yet. Lunch was appropriate. Everyone knows Jesus was born after midnight.

But everyone agreed on one thing, we had to go to mass.

So in the end we did everything, leading to a chaotic dash from one celebration to another, with the adults hungover from the huge dinner and large quantities of booze the night before, my mother cooking the roasts for the lunchtime feast, my Irish grandmother complaining that the chocolates were melting and the children’s stomachs rumbling because we were fasting before communion.

It was a glum procession to the church for the 9.30am mass, which was the one in which a cute little girl carried the Baby Jesus, in the form of a doll wrapped in a tea towel, to the crib.

It was a lengthy business, the mass, because it was the Full Monty including the sermon (with the poor priest looking as hungover as our parents) and a very long string of people making their way to the communion rail to show their yuletide devotion.

And we always had to wait for the large choir to emerge from the balcony to take communion first so that they could sing Oh Come All Ye Faithful while the rest of us took the sacrament.

We kids would fidget and fume, the tantalising gifts under the tree beckoning (the Irish won that round, no gifts until after church on the day) and our new clothes starting to itch in the heat. No Christmas carol is more joyous to me than Hark the Herald Angels Sing because that is the one that we struck up at the end of the service and signalled time to go home.

That’s when the eating started again in earnest. My mother had been given the nod to leave church after the communion and would be frantically cooking roasts (one bird, one beef, one ham) in the kitchen and a variety of vegetables. Starters had been put out on tables, nuts, chocolates (melting), mince pies, fruits and ginger biscuits. After the main course, a burning Christmas pudding was served with brandy butter and mid-afternoon the Christmas cake would come out with cups of tea. It was in short, obscene.

Once you are stuck with a Christmas tradition that’s it, it is yours for life. You replicate the whole thing, from bringing in the Christmas tree and decorating it on 15 December (any earlier and those dead pines would be everywhere by Christmas day) to shopping and, despite every resolution you made on 26 December the previous year, recreating those menus.

In 1972 as a young bride I decided to make a Christmas cake. I had been given that great classic, Cook and Enjoy It, which was rather optimistic I thought. But now was the time to consult it.

I have the book here, to hand, as I write this. My choice was the deviously titled “fruit cake”, on page 200 of the 1972 revised book. I should have been alerted by the fact that the recipe took up just over a whole page in small print and the ingredients ranged from flour and eggs to stoned dates, almonds and glazed cherries. Everything had to be chopped, soaked and seasoned.

Three days and a vast quantity of brandy later, some of which went into the mixture, I had a large cake tin and a sticky dough secured in layers of brown paper and greaseproof paper and an alarming instruction to cut off any projecting edges of said paper in case they caught fire. Not exactly my idea of cutting corners but I obliged.

Right under that was the pithy suggestion that this cake be made at least a month before Christmas, preferably three. A weekly libation of brandy would keep it moist and in good order.

As it was only a week until Christmas I hit upon the idea of pouring large quantities of brandy into it every day. Boy were those dates stoned when it was served.

I never again made “fruit cake” but graduated to mince pies, using a simple short pastry and shop-bought fruit mince. A tip: these always look good because you smother them in caster sugar and it hides any imperfections. Job done.

My suggestion for anyone contemplating marriage is to make sure of three things before committing: can they cook, have they taken any cooking courses (an alternative is obsessively watching cooking shows) and does he or she enjoy cooking?

One negative and he or she should be struck off the list. This is a recipe that applies to both a merry Christmas and a happy marriage.

Joyeux Noël! DM/TGIFood


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