CHRISTMAS PAGE - December 2005
Writing out recipes by hand is a therapy that never fails to soothe, even in
December, when tranquillity is in short supply as the 'to do' list lengthens
and the shopping days before Christmas evaporate with alarming speed. Just
opening my scrapbook - where old favourites and family hand-me-downs rub up
against cuttings from newspapers and magazines - resets my internal motor from
high rev to placid hum. It's not so much the cooking process or even the
anticipation of finished dishes that does it, although the chemistry involved,
especially in baking, is wondrous. It's the pleasurable possibilities conjured
up by those patiently accumulated little alchemies.
Just now I'm copying the recipe for stuffed Georgian cheese breads from a
borrowed magazine; warm and slightly puffy, with a feta, mint, cheddar, and
yoghurt filling, they are almost a meal in themselves. As I turn to a fresh
page and reach for a pen, there slides into my mind the image of a long table
standing out of doors, a table set with silverware and spotless linen, with
polished glassware and favourite pieces of china. There are flowers, of course,
and I'm thinking of the scented and intricately pleated heads of Gertrude
Jeykll roses, of jugs jammed with musky white stocks, or tall creamy stems of
snapdragons which the children will squeeze to see the tiny mouths yawn. The
southern light is diffused by sheltering trees, or vines. Ice tinkles against
glass, merging with the sound of laughter and the drowsy hum of bees. Children
shriek in distant corners of the garden; they are playing instead of
squabbling, picking the still warm filling from the Georgian bread pockets.
My handwritten recipe book contains the possibility of this long afternoon
and of countless other feast days, for within its covers are gathered the
narrow glass dishes of fresh asparagus drizzled with lemon mayonnaise, the
honey-glazed Christmas ham studded with cloves as well as the pudding encased
in floured calico. At a humbler level, the book bursts with morning and
afternoon teas in its recipes for muffins and scones, its teacakes topped with
cinnamon and sugar. It holds the sacred formula for my all-time-favourite cake
made with blue poppy seeds, as well as the carrot cake with cream cheese icing
that my husband adores.
In the front, in a neat script I can no longer produce after years of word
processing, are Christmas recipes copied from my mother's cook book - Rum
Prunes, Rich Malt Fruit Cake, and Last Minute Pudding, which, luckily, I've
never yet needed. My grandmother's wonderful dark and sticky Gingerbread is
there, along with the Fig Jam and Quince Jelly which she simmered in great
batches each long ago summer. There are her homemade soft drinks, too, Lemon
Syrup and the mysterious ginger beer plant that demanded to be fed and, when
bottled, never failed to go off pop in the cellar and make her jump and clutch
at her heart.
Towards the back of the book is a colour photograph, torn from a modern
magazine, of a dish of Baked Apple Dumplings, a pudding so mouth-watering and
simple it makes all fancy-pants desserts look overdone and sickly. Then there
are dishes for which I have lost the equipment as well as the will to repeat,
party pieces such as the Mongolian fire pot, the cheese fondue.
There are, as well, instructions for dozens of untried dishes I might make
some day if and when the mood takes me. What puts me off are lists of
ingredients as long as your arm, or tedious instructions on soaking, dry
roasting, deseeding, grinding. These carefully collected versions of Chicken
Mulligatawny, or the Hungarian Gulyas, with its parsley and caraway seed
dumplings, seem as avidly attention-seeking as a toddler and demand a level of
preparation I can rarely muster. I'll almost certainly never cook them, so what
impulse made me cut them out in the first place remains a mystery.
A friend who has shared many of her best recipes with me refuses to cook
anything that requires more than 5 ingredients, and, glancing through these
complex dishes I am certain she is right. I'd love to concoct finicky desserts
that call for piping bags and repeated beating and freezing, or dark chocolate
layer cakes that promise a disturbingly addictive taste and texture. But life
is short, and in the end simplicity is hard to beat.
Take mince pies. The pastry is easy peasy; the filling can come out of a
jar, and the creative urge that surfaces at this time of year is satisfied by
cutting pastry lids in the shapes of stars, angels, and Christmas trees. After
five minutes in the oven, mince pies scent the house, not just with their
fruity perfume but with the whiff of Christmases past and the anticipation of
those still to come, for cooking is as much about memory and imagination as it
is about ingredients.
Come to think of it, handwritten recipe books are more about dreaming than
doing, but they are also about gift-wrapping special moments with scents and
flavours that will endure in our memory and the memories of those we love. So
when it comes to the question of what to save if the house is on fire, after
the baby and the dog, for this cook it will definitely be that battered black
exercise book with its precious clutch of dreams.