Christmas is one of my favourite times of the year, which is perhaps surprising for someone as bitter and curmugeonly as I can be. It goes without saying that, as for most of the population of the western world, all the supposedly religious elements of this time of year are utterly irrelevant to me, which essentially leaves a period in which one does not have to work, when you can eat as much excellent and unhealthy food as passes your way and when you can consume vast quantities of alcohol (which would normally have your friends and relatives booking you a place in rehab) whenever you please and without anyone so much as raising an eyebrow. And you get free stuff, as well. What’s not to like about Christmas?
Of course, the Fates do not tolerate unadulterated joy without exacting some kind of price. Christmas has, alas, plenty not to like. Aside from the fact that the rampant commercialism long ago crossed the line over into “irreparably tacky”, there’s also the ubiquity of Christmas music during this season, which is near-universally abhorrent. And furthermore, there’s relatives. Even my normally easy-going family tends to squabble like cats in a bag at Christmas time, so by mutual consent the extended family only tends to get together at less pressurised times of the year. He Whom I Call beloved comes from a family which, unlike mine, is verb Big on Christmas, so most years when I’ve not been working the holiday season, we’ve generally spent the afternoon with his family after seeing my dad in the pub that morning. I’m normally too knackered and hungover to object, so it’s an arrangement that works.
An unexpected pleasure of working for The Bakery is that this year I find myself with five days off around Christmas. Being used to only having half of Christmas day off if I’m lucky, this makes a pleasant change. So, for the first time in a few years, we are hosting them for Christmas lunch. Not only does this mean that I get to cook pretty much what I want, but also that if it all gets a bit much I can disappear into the kitchen with a book and a bottle of wine and claim to be doing something food-related. That was the intention, at any rate.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m actually very fond of my in-laws. They’re lovely people. However, my mother-in-law has Opinions on what a Christmas meal should be. One of the closest things my family has to a Christmas Tradition is the cooking and consumption of a ham. A big one, generally roasted with honey, mustard and a foolish amount of whiskey. So that’s what I was intending on serving this year. However, my mother in law a) won’t eat pork and b) wanted turkey. Leaving aside the fact that I loathe its bland, dry meat, there is no way in the three worlds that I am going to cook a sodding great turkey for four people. A turkey crown was suggested. Which is just the dry, inedible parts of turkey at double the price. I reasonably pointed out that, as long as I retain my strength, no fucking turkey, turkey part or turkey-derived product was coming out of my kitchen. We have therefore compromised on beef. I did initially float the idea of brisket, not only because I can just chuck it in a pot and forget about it, but also because it’s a lovely cut. My dear husband did point out that, while admittedly delicious, brisket isn’t all that festive. So roast rib of beef it is.
The second hurdle came with dessert. Last time they came over for Christmas, I ordered in a Paris-Brest from the pâtisserie down the road. A lovely, delicate choux pastry ring filled with a light crème pâtissière. Perfect after a heavy, filling meal. Unfortunately, the verdict on this was that, while undoubtedly delicious, it wasn’t really very “festive”, and what a shame it was to miss out on the traditional Christmas pudding and flaming brandy butter. Discreet enquiries revealed that neither husband nor father-in-law particularly like Christmas pudding. I’m not keen on it myself. I went through a cavalcade of suggestions for alternatives: zuppa inglese, galette des rois, syllabub, croquembouche (seriously, at this point I was willing to make a whole sodding croquembouche, which would have taken up the best part of the day, just to avoid Christmas pudding), tarte aux amandes, which were all nixed as being “too French”, despite at least one option being Italian. What do they expect? I was trained in the tradition of French cuisine, ferfucksake. They’re lucky I’m not insisting on a cheese course (I might do, actually. No fucking Stilton, though.) Finally, it was suggested that we have a Christmas pudding anyway and I content myself with an individual portion of profiteroles or similar. Seeing this as something of an insult to my hospitality, I retorted that in that case the ham was back on the menu and the mother in law could have a single breast of turkey. With unexpected tact and wisdom, my poor husband (who was acting as go-between) decided not to pass this on, but rather suggested Christmas cake. Mollified somewhat by his assurances that I make excellent fruitcake, and that I could put as much marzipan and royal icing on it as I please, I gracefully acceded.
So, with these parameters in mind, I can actually start to plan out what I’m going to cook. The starter will probably be a spread of small nibbly things, like parmesan and chili biscotti, plenty of cured meats, miniature pains de campagne, cheeses, spanakopiti, gougères, etc. Festive tapas, basically. Followed by roast parsnip soup. Easy enough to throw together and plate, and most of the stuff I’ll be making from scratch can be done in advance. The main is going to be the rib of beef, served with roast potatoes, Yorkshire puddings, garlic and butter mushrooms, a Brussels sprout and chestnut gratin, petits pois à la française and braised cabbage. Again, stuff which can be done in advance. With Christmas cake to follow, probably with a citrussy crème fraîche affair to cut through the sweetness. Given the five days off thing, I’m fully expecting to spend all day on Christmas Eve cooking, with just reheating and chucking the beef in the oven on Christmas Day. Which gives me ample time to get sloshed on red wine. Hurrah! Merry Christmas to one and all, etc.
1) There are, of course, some honourable exceptions. I would be happy to listen to Fairytale of New York at any time of the year. And this version of everybody’s favourite ode to festive date-rape, Baby, It’s Cold Outside, from Glee’s Christmas episode is utterly adorable.
2) I encountered another pleasing difference from the Trade only yesterday. I’m currently laid low with a particularly vile cold, and was sent home from work, with the firm admonition that I shouldn’t have come to work in the first place. In the hospitality industry, about the only acceptable excuse for being ill off work is missing a limb, and even then only if blood is still dripping from the stump. Once it’s cauterised you’re expected to be back on the line. Taking time off work is simply not done: I’ve described before how I’ve been to hospital after maiming myself and then gone straight back to work and finished my shift. Of course, we all pay pious lip-service to the idea that if one is struck down with some kind of gastric problem one shouldn’t come into work in order not to pass it on to the customers, but in practice this rarely happens. I’ve heard (possibly apocryphal) tales of chefs with the shits keeping a bucket to crap in behind the pass and continuing through the evening service. If you ever get food poisoning from a restaurant, it’s more likely to be an ill chef than bad shrimp.