There are ghosts at Christmas. Everyone has them; they’re not just in cartoons and stories. For most they are the shadows of childhood; from the way that Santa trampled a piece of fruit cake with his fingers, to the way he made sure the snifter of whiskey was drained of every last drop. Then there’s the steeped traditions that can’t be shaken; a glazed chequered ham as the centrepiece of lunch and the incessant playing of Robert Downy Junior’s ‘River‘ while you string tinsel on a tree.
For me the linking thread of my adult festivities are the two Christmas decorations that I have given The Hungry One every year. I started back in 2003 when we’d only been dating for six months. There are now 20 of them to unpack in December; each pair is accompanied by a small hanging star with a short message of love and some of what we did that year. There are snow flakes and angels, spheres and small books. Last year’s pair were cookie cutters tied with ribbon that I swiftly bought in New York when he was looking the other way; a plane and an outline of the USA. He opened them on Miami beach after we flew in that morning down from New York, the then blueberry-sized stowaway in tow.
And then there are other ghosts. Christmas has not been an easy time for us for some years now. Anyone who has lost someone close will surely feel the absence keenly during the holidays. It’s reflected in lights and baubles, empty chairs and smaller tables. In our house it’s a loss that gets magnified. The last time we saw The Hungry One’s mother was on Christmas eve. We wore long red and white hats at her insistence and ate a four course feast of oysters, seafood linguine, cheeses and summer berry salad. We closed the meal with wee slices of pudding and mince tarts with tea on the newly renovated balcony. As with any shocking departure, when the phone rang later that week we realised there had been no chance to tie things up neatly with a bow. It was in the months afterwards that we unearthed the very definition of a trial; triggering memories which still cause our hearts to tumble and trip with bitter drip of adrenaline.
It helped to avoid festivities for a while. The first year for the anniversary we fled to Las Vegas.
It was a mistake. We ate glutinous amounts of petit fours at Joel Robuchon on December 24, hoping that the sweets would help fill some of the coldness which found its way through the glass of the heavily discounted rooms at the Mandalay Bay. Christmas lunch was a ‘fatburger’ on the strip. It’s amazing how something so rotund can taste so hollow.
There has been a Christmas in London; the novelty of snow providing levity. We roasted a beastly turkey from the Ginger Pig under the watchful guidance of a friend who was on leave from the test kitchen of the Fat Duck (no pressure). Another year the prelude to December 24 and 25 involved a press trip to South Africa to safari. Songs of ‘Lions and rhinos and giraffes, oh my!’ helped keep our thoughts elsewhere- for a spell.
And last year the day was passed through the blanket of airports, morning sickness and sticky heat on Miami beach. It was just the two/three of us- we had a swim, talked briefly of her and exchanged simple gifts.
Now we’re fumbling through the advent of Christmas in Sydney. Ghosts turn up in unexpected places- the way a cut pine tree smells in the evening warmth of daylight saving, the jewelled colours of mangoes and cherries, bought by the box. I’m finding distraction in the mellowed pages of my grandmother’s recipe book, analysing her recipe for Christmas mince ; suet essential and with the curious inclusion of grated carrot. Quiet measuring, stirring and humming to hush a small one helps ignite some joy. But there are certain carols which are still too hard to listen to.
Yet, the show must go on. We have a little fellow along for the ride now who unmistakeably has his late grandmother’s eyes. He’s here to help us draft new traditions. So, what follows is not someone’s Granny’s Christmas pudding. It’s nobody’s except ours.
It takes The Hungry One’s favourite flavours; good coffee and that raisin-sticky Spanish sherry and employs them to macerate the fruit. The coffee helps temper the sweetness and the sherry gives everything a festive-gleam. There are no fewer than six eggs and a smattering of hazelnuts. I’ve chosen fruits which give a good meld of dark and bright; dates, figs, sour cherries, cranberries and currants.
It’s been steamed and wrapped and sits quietly in the fridge. It’s a beast of a thing; two litres full of it. Some we’ll eat on Christmas lunch with my mother and step father. I’m still working on the rest of the menu The rest we’ll trundle through ice cream- a sweet treat to keep us going in the days that will follow.
With each new tradition we test, a new memory is made. This year as we stand together and eat like kings, we’ll light a candle- and hope that the ghosts of our Christmas future will one day burn brighter than the past.
Espresso and Pedro Ximenex Christmas Pudding
1 x 2 litre pudding basin. Parchment paper. 1 chopstick. String and foil (if your pudding basil doesn’t have a lockable lid).
100 g dried figs, cut into quarters
100 g pitted dates
400 g mix of other dried fruits (I used 100 g raisins, 100 g currants 100 g sour cherries, 50 g dried cranberries, 50 g mixed peel- but feel free to alter to your own tastes)
200 ml of coffee (2 shots of espresso, topped up with hot water)
250 ml Pedro Ximenex sherry (you could replace with brandy)
150 g dark brown muscavado sugar
200 g butter at room temperature
1 pink lady apple, grated
150 g breadcrumbs
50 g hazelnuts, roughly chopped
1 tsp all spice
2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
Here’s how we roll
1) At least one day before baking (though you can do it up to 3) combine the dried fruit with the coffee and sherry in a bowl. Stir to combine and cover and keep in a dark place at room temperature.
2) Grease your 2 Litre pudding basin and line the top with a circle of parchment paper.
4) Add the hazelnuts and the grated apple to your fruit mix and stir to combine.
5) Use electric beaters to beat together the sugar and the butter until it is fluffy.
6) Add the eggs, one at a time, beating in between.
7) Fold the egg/butter and sugar mix into the dried fruit and syrup. Add the flour, breadcrumbs and spices and stir to combine.
8) Pour the mix into the prepared pudding bowl.
9) Cut another circle of parchment to fit the base (the easiest way to do this is to get a square of parchment and fold it into a triangle, then half again and again into smaller isosceles triangles. Take the tip and place it at the centre of the circle and measure out to the edge. Cut in a straight line there- when you unfold you will have the right size circle). 10) Add the lid of your pudding basin, making sure to lock it well, or add another sheet of baking paper and pleat in the centre, then a layer of foil, securing it well with string.
11) Place in a stockpot with an upturned saucer and a chux at the bottom (to help muffle the rattling while it boils). I find a chopstick through the lid helps to lift it out. Pour boiling water 3/4 of the way up the side of the basin and place a lid on the pot. Simmer for around 5 hours, checking every 40 minutes or so to ensure that there is still plenty of water in the pot – topping up with boiling water as necessary. The pudding is cooked when a skewer comes out clean.
12) Warm it in the microwave, or by steaming again on Christmas day. Serve with ice cream, custard, hard sauce- or do what we will probably do and rumble most of it through ice cream and refreeze (there’s a cheerful recipe for ice cream pudding terrine with a boozy chocolate sauce in the ‘Tale of two Christmases’ in Suitcase and a Spatula)