Like for many women around the world, Christmas is usually a stressful time for me. What is it with this persistent search for perfection? I am not an A type organised homemaker by any means but as soon as Christmas comes around, my nurturing instincts go into overdrive. I become momentarily convinced that orchestrating a perfectly varied menu means a memorable time will be had by all. The truth is, having a good time means actually being relaxed enough to enjoy the occasion.
To make matters worse, my birthday takes place just two days before the big day. As if that isn’t bad enough, by some wicked twist of fate, my whole family celebrate their birthdays over the festive season. With my mother the May baby being the exception, the mayhem begins with my father at the end of November, my brother on 15 December, me on the 23rd, flanked by my sister the poor thing on the 24th followed by my aunt on 30 December. What feels like the shortest straw is my stepmom’s on the 1st of January (ah, all those bleary-eyed birthday mornings) and the cherry on the proverbial cake is actually my partner on the 4th of January. Guess who never, ever gets a cake on his birthday!
In this crazy family of Capricorns it’s almost impossible to keep everyone happy. Luckily some of us are less demanding than others. It took me until my late 20s to relax and stop expecting picnics with smoked salmon and trips up Table Mountain via the cable car (which to this day hasn’t happened yet, woe is me). Nowadays I am content with tea and cake in the nearest and nicest coffee shop. But I will always dress up in my best frock, of course.
A few years ago however, my stepmom tried to do right by one and all. My sister wanted a chocolate mousse cake for her birthday, and I had baked a lemon madeira the day before. Then, on Christmas day we had sherry trifle with preserved ginger, as we usually do. We enjoyed our lovely lunch of glazed gammon and salads but when it was time for dessert we just couldn’t. The sight of all the leftover birthday cakes in a row, with the trifle just begging for attention, was a sight I will never forget. Even for the excesses of Christmas, you really CAN have too much of a good thing.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered that my reigning kitchen goddess, the food writer Elizabeth David had the same problem. Their madness started on 9 December with her younger sister and ended on the 27th with the elder sister. And just like me: “When we grew up that elder sister married a man who was born on the 28th. Later my younger sister’s only daughter chose to appear on the 19th. For us as children, then Christmas meant a period of present-giving, birthday cakes, candles and crackers prolonged to the point of satiety and beyond.” I know the feeling.
Ever pragmatic, she continues: “Well I know that any woman who has to provide for a lot of children or a big family has no alternative. We are so many fathoms deep in custom and tradition and sentiment over Christmas; we have got so far, with our obsessive present buying and frenzied cooking, from the spirit of a simple Christian festival that only the most determined of Scrooges can actually turn their faces to the wall and ignore the whole thing when the time comes.”
This year I read this and thought: “Oh! If only I could turn my face to the wall!” But try as I might, the infernal spirit of Christmas always wins out. Despite not having a big family lunch this year, the next thing I know I am complaining that there aren’t enough mince pies and (slightly resentfully) singing Christmas carols under my breath.
Yet despite it all, my favourite Christmas tradition of all is a generous platter of cheese, crackers and local preserves. I am at my most content lying on my back with a crispy biscuit in the one hand, onto which blue cheese has been crumbled, topped with a slice of jewel-like preserved green fig. This pungent/sweet combination encapsulates all that is marvellous about a South African Christmas.
CHEESE PLATTER with ROASTED ALMONDS and ROSEMARY CROSTINI
Have some fun combining cheeses and preserves. I usually go for a combination of local and imported cheeses. Remember to serve the cheeses at room temperature and, if you want to be snobby about it, sample the soft cheeses and progress to the blue cheese so your palate stays enlivened. Line a large platter with overlapping vine leaves and arrange the cheeses, biscuits and crostini on top, scattered with the roasted almonds and fresh grapes. Serve the preserves in separately small bowls.
These are the combinations I like:
Goat’s cheese & chilli ginger jam
Blue cheese & whole green fig preserve
Parmiggiano-Reggiano & fresh green grapes
Pont l’eveque & sliced quince jam
Mature cheddar & sliced green apple
Red Leicester & hanepoot raisins on the stem
Boerenkaas with cumin & beetroot jam
Brie & olive marmalade
Fresh ricotta & pomegarante rubies
Wensleydale & preserved whole orange or orange curls
The perfect crostini
Buy a packet of mini pita breads (Greenshields bakery makes the best). Depending on the size of the crowd, use as many as desired. Preheat your oven on the fan setting to 180 degrees. Cut the pitas in half lengthways with a small sharp knife. Place on large baking tray so there’s plenty of space between them. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with Ina Paarman’s rosemary and olive seasoning. Bake until golden, then flip over to brown on both sides. These are also marvellous served warm with homemade guacamole.
Roasted spiced almonds
Dry roast almonds in a pan and when evenly browned take off the heat and sprinkle with cayenne pepper, ground roasted cumin and turmeric. Then add coarse salt and treacle sugar. Quickly swirl the pan but do not stir, coating the almonds in the caramel. Tip onto a plate to cool.
River Cottage digestive biscuits
Make your own and you’ll never look back! I love these biscuits made with one of our most ancient of grains, spelt. It lends a wholesome nuttiness.
300g wholemeal flour, or wholemeal spelt flour
200g medium oats
25g unsalted butter, softened
75-125g soft brown sugar (depending on how sweet you would like your biscuits)
2 tsp fine salt
2 tsp baking powder
1 T milk
Pulse the flour and butter together in a food processor until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs, or by rubbing the butter and flour together with your fingertips in a large bowl. Add the oats, sugar, salt and baking powder and mix together with your hands, adding a little milk a few drops at a time until everything comes together into a slightly sticky dough.
Dust with more flour, then press into a disc about 25cm in diameter. Wrap in cling film and chill for at least 30 minutes, to rest and firm up a bit. The dough will keep well in the fridge for a few days. Remove it from the fridge approximately an hour before you want to roll it out, as it will become very hard.
Dust the dough with flour and roll it out carefully, dusting regularly with more flour to stop it sticking, until it is about 3 to 4mm thick. As it is quite sticky and brittle, you may find it easier to roll between two sheets of greaseproof paper or cling film, also dusted with flour.
Cut out the biscuits with a round cookie cutter and use a spatula to transfer them to non-stick baking sheets or ordinary baking sheets lined with baking parchment. Place in an oven preheated to 180°C and bake for 5-10 minutes, checking regularly after the first 5 minutes. They should be golden brown around the edges and lightly coloured on top.
Remove from the oven and leave the biscuits to cool and firm up on the baking sheet for a few minutes before transferring them to a wire rack to cool completely.
Have a stress-free Christmas!