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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.

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