A Trifle More Christmas Baking

Okay, so I wrote the Christmas Baking blog post a couple of days ago, and then this happened. We picked another mountain of fruit this morning, and it happened to be a bread day. My original plan was to bake a pie, but my husband agitated for a trifle, but without the custard, which he’s not fond of.

So into the baking rotation went a lemon cake. Once it was cool, I sliced it and layered it with fresh fruit (strawberries, raspberries, black currants and blueberries), raspberry sauce, and a mixture of cream cheese, whipped cream, sugar and vanilla (inspired by this trifle recipe, but I measured nothing, and ignored most of the directions).

Just making it made everyone smile. Eating it … Oh my! I think I have a new favourite Christmas dessert!

Christmas Baking

When I was a kid, my mother would start her Christmas baking just after Thanksgiving. She’d bake dozens of kinds of cookies and freeze them. For weeks before the big day, there would be a big platter of cookies—a few of each of the types she’d made—out for eating. It was a child’s dream. I don’t remember her making anything but cookies for holiday desserts. We certainly didn’t need anything else, with all those cookies available.

Before moving to New Zealand, my holiday baking was similar (though with only one child eating cookies, I didn’t make quite so many as my mother did—she had three young cookie eaters). But it’s changed a lot since then.

Cookies are made with ingredients that store well—flour, butter, sugar, nuts—that’s great for winter baking, when fresh ingredients are hard to come by. But Christmas falls at the height of the summer fruit season here—it’s no wonder the traditional Christmas dessert here is pavlova—a meringue ring filled with fresh fruit (Unfortunately, I’m really not fond of meringue).

At the moment on our property, we are harvesting black currants, red currants, gooseberries, raspberries, strawberries, cherries, and blueberries. With as much as 10 kilograms of fruit coming in every two days, much of that harvest goes into jam, sauces, chutney, or simply gets frozen for later use. But it would be a shame not to bake with that fruit, in favour of cookies, which I can make any time of the year.

So we’ve been enjoying strawberry shortcake, currant pie, and gooseberry crisp. For breakfast, we’ve been eating waffles smothered in fruit, and muffins studded with fruit. For snacks, and with every meal, we’ve been eating fresh fruit—whatever hasn’t gone into baking or the freezer.

Oh, there are cookies, too (why not?). But it’s the fruit I snitch while walking through the kitchen, and it’s the pie I crave for dessert.

Some day I’ll dispense with the cookies entirely … Maybe I’ll even learn to like pavlova.

The Ghost of Christmas Trees Past

Growing up, my parents had an artificial Christmas tree. It was hauled out of the attic the weekend after Thanksgiving and assembled and decorated, ushering in the Christmas season.

I remember one year having a real tree—I loved the smell in the closed-up winter house.

When my husband and I married, we spent a few years finding our Christmas tree tradition. For the first two years, we had an eight-inch tall artificial tree in our mud house in Panama. After we returned to the US, we wanted something bigger. So we spent months making a six-foot papier-mache tree, binding on raffia needles and painting bark on the branches. It was a labour of love, and we used it until we had to move across the country, and knew it wouldn’t survive the experience. 

Then babies happened, and for a few years, our Christmas trees were real trees—there was no time or energy for creativity in those early years.

By the time we moved to New Zealand, we were settled into the parent routine enough to be creative again. And summer Christmases invited creativity. We fashioned trees out of driftwood, dead branches pruned off trees in the yard, an old fishing net, fencing wire and flax stalks, copper plumbing, live runner beans—most trees were inspired by what was lying around the property at the time.

Last year, we fashioned a DNA strand as a Christmas tree. Elegant and simple.

This year, we went for crazy, creating an architectural monstrosity from cardboard boxes.

You might wonder what the point is—wouldn’t it be easier and more, well, Christmasy to do a more traditional tree? Yes. But what is a Christmas tree for?

I view a Christmas tree as a focal point—somewhere for family to gather. Our trees have always been decorated with ornaments that have a history—maybe they were made by someone special, or given by a friend, or came from an exotic location. Decorating the tree has always been a time to celebrate the family stories behind the ornaments.

Why shouldn’t that family activity extend to making the tree itself? This year’s tree took a lot of time to make, and we spent several evenings as a whole family working on it—making a tremendous mess of the living room, laughing, and enjoying each other’s company and creativity. That’s exactly what Christmas traditions should do.

So, perhaps our trees don’t meet the traditional definition of a Christmas tree, but I think they embody the spirit of the season.

A-Z of Thankfulness–#3

Here’s the final instalment, posted on Christmas day, I hope you all find much to be thankful for today and every day.

Sunshine—The counterpoint to rain, and just as necessary for the garden. It’s also critical for my mental health, and I try to make the most of our sunny days.

Teeth—Where would we be without them? I wish I had appreciated them earlier in life and taken better care of them when I was a teen.

Ukuleles—Who can resist smiling while listening to ukulele music?

Vision—Not just my eyesight, though I appreciate that a great deal, but also the ability to look ahead at what could be. I’ve relied on vision the past twelve years, building a business, and then closing it to become a writer. Many days, that vision has been the only thing getting me out of bed in the morning.

Water—I have not truly experienced a lack of water—not as many people in the world have—but after losing our well in the 2010 earthquake, and experiencing a few years of drought, I have an appreciation for the ease with which I obtain water. I am thankful to have access to clean, safe water.

Xenophilia—The love of the unknown. I love the fact we humans don’t understand everything. I love the fact that in my backyard, there may be insects that have yet to be described by science. I love the fact there are discoveries to be made every day. I love that our world is populated by weird and wonderful life.

Yellow admirals—These butterflies, and all the native insects and spiders in my yard are a source of great pleasure to me. They help me tolerate the weeds, because they rely upon many of them for food and shelter.

Zucchini—How many ways can you eat zucchini? I don’t know, but I love them all. I always plant too many zucchini, and I end up wondering what on earth I’m going to do with them, but they are a wonderful summer staple in our kitchen.

Advent List

It’s the silly season, with end-of-the-school-year stuff piling up with Christmas, summer vacation, and garden stuff.

Once again, lists take centre stage for me. The general to-do list gave way to a ‘before Christmas’ to-do list. That list has now been refined into a day-by-day list, a sort of sadistic Advent calendar counting the days to Christmas.

I’m afraid ‘write blog’ didn’t make it onto today’s list. It was bumped off when I failed to complete ‘pick and process peas’ on yesterday’s list, due to the unexpectedly large harvest.

So, I’m off to blanch and freeze peas. Hope you’ve all had a lovely day and completed everything on you to-do list. Just two more weeks, and we’ll get a day off!

The Christmas Season

Twelve years ago, I was facing my first Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere. Everything felt wrong. I tried to carry on the traditions my husband and I had established in the States; I made truffles and cookies, I decorated with fresh greenery, we strung Christmas lights, we planned a big Christmas dinner, we played Christmas music.

The truffles melted, the greenery turned brown, the Christmas lights were invisible in the long summer evenings, the heavy dinner sat like lead on a hot summer day.

I longed for snow, and all the indoor family time of the northern holiday. I wanted long nights, candles and a roaring fire. I wanted hygge. But it was summer—time to be outdoors, on the beach, enjoying the sun.

Slowly our traditions have adapted to this southern holiday. I realised how far I’d come on Sunday morning. Slicing strawberries for breakfast, the smell of berries made it feel so Christmassy, I started humming carols. Then I laughed at the idea that strawberries equal Christmas.

I thought about all the things my kids have grown up associating with Christmas—long days at the beach, gardening, strawberries, cherries, making jam, making sauerkraut (which usually happens about Christmas eve every year), the ‘traditional’ Christmas salad, the first new potatoes, broad beans, backpacking.

We rarely play Christmas carols anymore (who wants to be indoors?). We bake fruit pies, and not many cookies. We use red carnations from the garden for Christmas decorations. Rather than being a time for focusing inward, Christmas is a time for adventuring—traveling, hiking, exploring.

And so, as we start into this Christmas season, I am looking forward to our travel plans. I’m looking forward to many days at the beach. I’m looking forward to the summer bounty from the garden. I’m looking forward to ice cream, roadside stands selling Otago cherries, outdoor dinners, and warm sun.

And that, I think, is the key of the season—to celebrate what is good about the here and now. To celebrate the bounty we’ve been given, whatever form it comes in—love, friendship, snow or strawberries. To be mindful. To be present in the moment.