If money is not issue for you at Christmas, then I have two challenges for you. Take a note of how much money you have to spend to get a real sense of real luxury and email me at Ōtaki Mail. If enough let me know I will report back. The second challenge is to buy some luxuries and add them to the Christmas collection boxes for distribution to families on tight budgets.
There is not much agreement about how the 12 day idea took root around Christmas. By the Middle Ages in Europe the twelve days began with Christmas Day celebrating the birth of Jesus, the following days were tagged to a particular saint and often had a special food, and the final day, the twelfth day and ‘twelfth night’ had its own set of customs including a special cake. I daresay the twelve days are pagan with a Christian overlay.
I can’t get very excited about the medieval or religious aspects of the twelve days, but it is good to have a finite number and twelve has become a sort of Christmas number, so use it.
Christmas when you are living on little can be a challenge, and the luxuries that others seem to take for granted can be (or seem) out of reach. By spreading the tastes of Christmas and making small rather than large versions you can enjoy some luxury even on little.
I like Christmas food. I like the novelty, that it’s not an everyday item. I like the sense of luxury, so that even small portions are thoroughly enjoyable. There’s a sentimental, traditional feel to it. Christmas gives me permission (if not the where-with-all) to splash out on both the money and the calorie front. And for many of these tastes once a year is enough.
However, many of these foods are expensive to make or buy, and as I live alone and don’t entertain much quantity can be a problem. So this article is my take on working around these limitations and enjoying my twelve tastes of Christmas.
Spread these out over 12 days, but pick your twelve days — any time in December or January. No need to be picky about it, if it still feels like a Christmas taste then enjoy it in February. No need to join the days together, no need to start at any particular time.
When you spread it out you can avoid the times when things get very expensive. Delicacies like raspberries, strawberries or new potatoes, become very expensive in the week before Christmas, so hold off on enjoying those luxuries until the price comes down (or get in ahead of the price rise). Other things are marketed specifically for Christmas, and will go on special once Christmas is over — that’s the time to enjoy them.
Christmas evolved as a mid-winter festival, a time when fruit was no longer on the trees. Three of the traditional Christmas treats are made with dried or preserved fruit: cake, pies and pudding. These are very rich, very sweet, and quite expensive to make. But they have two virtues: you only need a small portion to feel like you have had plenty, and they keep.
(Well, in our day and age we are likely to super-size our portions, but that is not about taste or enjoyment — let’s avoid American super-size habits and don’t let advertisers convince us ‘more is better.’)
People made large Christmas cakes, often a month or more before Christmas. These cakes not only keep but the flavours meld as they sit. You cut the cake for Christmas but you can keep eating it for a month or two (small portions, remember?).
Lets face it, hot steamed puddings and summer don’t go together. So while Aunt Betty’s individual steamed plum puddings are not the real thing, they are about the right quantity for one person wanting a taste of tradition in summer. Wait for the after-Christmas specials to get them even cheaper. Wait for a cold day. Thirty seconds in the microwave then serve with a dollop of whipped cream, a spoon of icecream, or make some custard for it.
Christmas mince pies
The traditional pie has an apple and dried fruit mince often made a month or more before Christmas when the cake was being made. The Christmas mince too improves in flavour over time. However there are now some lovely fresh fruit mince recipes, especially for us enjoying summer at Christmas.
If you have never made your own pastry read up on it. It’s just flour, butter and water. Or buy pastry from the supermarket and roll it out to make some pies.
Or buy some pies from the supermarket when they come on special.
They can be eaten as they are, they can be warmed in the microwave or the oven and eaten with cream or icecream.
These are such a luxury. Sigh. Love them. They are a very intense-flavoured thing, so even a few are a wonderful luxury. Don’t add them after a meal, make them a special event: raspberries, a sprinkle of icing sugar or castor sugar, whipped cream. Half a dozen, and eat with a teaspoon. If you are not sharing a punnet with a friend, then wait 2 hours and have six more. Yum.
Except for the week before Christmas strawberries are freely available and not wildly expensive. Sometimes you can pick up a larger punnet of cheaper jam strawberries, not as fancy, but the taste is the same. You can pick your own at Penray, but watch how many you pick so you don’t get an expensive surprise at the till, and there will be times when they don’t allow ‘pick your own’, especially before Christmas, so phone first.
Strawberries are wonderful just as they come or cut them up with a little sugar and leave them to make a rich syrup before serving with whipped cream and or ice cream. Or buy a little tub of chocolate dip for them from the supermarket.
It’s just egg whites and sugar, I know. Maybe a bit of vinegar or baking soda in some recipes. Should be simple but I’ve not managed it yet. I’ve got as far as meringue, but no further. Anyway when you live on your own a whole pavlova is too much — there is a limit to how much pavlova one person can eat.
But there are mini pavlovas. You can buy them from Countdown in Waikanae in packs of 12. Ask any friend going south to get a pack for you. One mini pavlova, a strawberry or raspberry a dollop of whipped cream is just right. Kiwifruit works. The tartness of the fruit balances the super-sweet pav. Maybe a slice of orange, a grating of chocolate or a crumble of chocolate flake.
Well here in the North Island this is luxury in the extreme. Look out for the cherry sellers in the carpark opposite New World, or the Coastlands Mall. Save up for it, and buy a small bag. Or buy just six from the supermarket. Just eat them. One at a time. Suck the last cherry taste off each pip before spitting it out. Savour them.
Do you like custard? You probably like trifle too. I don’t, so I’ll sneak in brandy snaps here instead. Silly things, I always make a mess when I eat them, and what a performance getting the cream into them, once a year is about my limit, but the crunch…
Pick the tiny ones out of the bin at the supermarket (even the incy ones) or save up for a box of gourmet new potatoes. Rub the skins off or leave them on, but never peel them. The fresher they are the easier the skins come off. Choose any meal to add this Christmas treat to. They only take 10-15 minutes to cook. Drop a bit of mint in while they simmer to be traditional. Serve with butter.
Want to grow your own?
It takes a bag, a seed potato and lots of compost, water and attention. Next year plant your own at Labour weekend and eat your own at Christmas. You could join the potato competition at Ōtaki Hydroponics to buy your potato and bag and maybe win prizes as well as having your own Christmas potatoes. You can get get gardening help from Transition Towns (www.transitionTown.otaki.org.nz). You will want to start making your compost now, in Summer, with your vegetable scraps and garden clippings, so it is ready to feed your new potatoes when you plant at Labour Weekend.
I eat fresh peas raw, out of the pod. (It’s sacrilege, but I prefer frozen peas to fresh when they are cooked.) You can sometimes pick your own, keep an eye out. When buying a packet at the supermarket look for very green pods — when they get pale they are getting old and are not nice. They take a bit longer to cook than frozen peas. These too you could grow yourself.
The Seasonal Surplus Stall starts again January 7th, in front of Memorial Hall 11am. Maybe someone will bring in fresh peas to sell there. They are great gardeners, and can help you get going growing your own.
Roast your favourite meat. For me it is lamb. Put some kumara and carrot in to roast with it. Take the time to make a gravy with the drippings. Roast meals are expensive, a real luxury, but they can last for more than one meal. Cold meat on fresh bread is a wonderful followup, or shepherds’ pie with minced up left-overs. A lamb hock can make a mini roast, adding its meaty richness to roast vegetables, and giving a few slices of meat too.
Hands up who can afford to buy a whole leg of ham? Can fit it in their fridge? Can eat it all before it goes off? Not me. But I can enjoy some slices of ham off the bone from New World, sliced up with tomato on fresh bread or in a roll. You might splash out on some luxury Lewis Road butter from Countdown while you are at it. Use the butter on the new potatoes too.
That’s my list. Make your own list, sort of like an Advent calendar. Tick them off as you enjoy them. Anticipate the next one, don’t rush them. Never disdain small servings — enjoy every mouthful. Merry Christmas.