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.

Knickers for Posterity

I visited the Otago Museum a few days ago. Among the many artefacts on display, two in particular caught my eye.

The first was a jar of elastic, saved for reuse and donated to the museum by one Jane Barker-Eames. I immediately thought of my grandmother. Every day for at least fifty years, she’s had the paper delivered to her doorstep. Every day she’s taken the rubber band off the rolled-up paper and carefully saved it. By my calculations, that’s over 18,250 rubber bands, dutifully saved for reuse. No doubt many of those rubber bands went on to perform useful tasks elsewhere, but they added up, filling multiple coffee cans (reused, of course), and forming small drifts in kitchen drawers. 

When Grandma recently moved into a rest home, my mother threw away her large rubber band stash (don’t tell Grandma!).

I suspect Jane Barker-Eames was the daughter of a Mrs. Barker, careful re-user of elastic, and that at some point, she faced my own mother’s conundrum—what do do with Mum’s stuff?

Maybe she didn’t even know that jar of elastics was there, tucked inside a sagging cardboard box in the attic along with a dozen empty thread spools, a moth-eaten sweater, and a small tin of safety pins—the entirety of Mum’s estate was packed off to the Otago Museum. Maybe they could figure out what to do with it.

And upon passing through the museum’s doors, Mum’s stuff was instantly elevated from rubbish to artefact, never to be used again.

I think Mrs. Barker would be disappointed her elastic stash wasn’t used in a new pair of knickers.

And speaking of knickers, the second item that caught my eye was a scrap of woven textile identified as a loincloth. It made me think about the pair of underwear I recently tossed out—the elastic had failed and they no longer stayed up (Where was Mrs. Barker’s elastic when I needed it?). I wondered if the loincloth in the museum had been similarly discarded at the end of its useful life. Little could its wearer have imagined that their dirty old knickers would someday sit enshrined in glass to be ogled at by thousands of people, most of whom would be mortified to have their own underwear similarly on display.

It made me wonder if, someday, my underwear might be displayed alongside Mrs. Barker’s jar of elastic as a lesson in frugal living—for want of a piece of used elastic, this poor 21st-century woman went bare-bottomed. Mrs. Barker, on the other hand, always kept her knickers firmly in place.

Hang on to your elastic, ladies.

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.

Pity the One Percent

I enjoy springtime for its warmer temperatures, flowers and the opportunity to get outdoors more frequently. But it’s the bump in our standard of living that I enjoy most.

Garden excess comes early, in the form of artichokes and asparagus. Add in some home grown oyster mushrooms, spinach, leeks and herbs, and I begin to feel like we have unlimited wealth. Like we’re in the ‘one percent’.

Except, I doubt the one percent gets vegetables as fresh as ours.

And I expect they don’t have the pleasure of strolling among head-high artichoke plants, breathing in their earthy scent and picking twice as many as they need, because, well, why not?

And I know they don’t enjoy passing their excess vegetables on to the neighbours, spreading and sharing riches that cannot be saved, banked, or invested.

So I feel sorry for them, in springtime; they are so poor, and I am a queen.

A Reason to Celebrate

“Wow! What’s the occasion?” he asked.

I shrugged. “I felt like it.”

Then I thought more about it. What’s the occasion?

The sun shone all day today.
I had a good writing week.
The kids have been helpful all day.
The snowdrops are blooming.
Pīwakawakas outside my office door.
The neighbour gave us grapefruits.
My seed order arrived in the post.
I had just enough sugar to make the icing.

Every day is a day to celebrate. Every day is a day to enjoy whatever gifts life offers, no matter how small.

Go ahead. Have some cake. Be sure to try the frosting. It’s one of my favourites:

Grapefruit frosting

Beat until smooth:
250 g (8 oz) cream cheese
1 1/2 cups confectioners (icing) sugar

Add and beat until smooth:
1/2 tsp fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 tsp fresh grapefruit juice
1 Tbsp grated grapefruit zest
1 tsp grated lemon zest

Spread on your favourite cake.

Love your Library

I’ve blogged in the past about how much I appreciate libraries, but it bears repeating. I can’t deny I prefer writing in my lovely office, but modern libraries are beautifully set up for those who need to work away from the office, with power points, standing desks, and quiet spaces. I’ve spent the past two days in the public library. My word count is down, compared to working at home, but I’ve enjoyed the people watching.

One of my key observations from the past two days is how the library is a safe space in the middle of the city. A fellow at the table next to me spent an hour working on a jigsaw puzzle while his computer and phone sat unattended and unobserved on the other side of the room. Parents of toddlers calmly browse the shelves while their little ones scamper around happily out of sight. Those same toddlers swagger through the library to visit their favourite books, posters, and egg chairs as though they’re in their own living room. When their parents eventually look up and find their children gone, they don’t panic, but casually stroll after them, stopping now and again to check out an interesting book on the way. After three o’clock, kids of all ages descend upon the library to read, hang out, and play games until their parents are able to pick them up. The implicit assumption is that everyone in the library is kind, helpful, and honest. I’m sure that’s not entirely true, but the expectation is so high, I think anyone who tried to behave in a socially unacceptable way would be instantly frog-marched out of the library by all the other visitors.

It’s good to have these spaces. It’s a reminder that we can create safe spaces, where strangers from all walks of life can mix and mingle over a shared love of books.

Gluten Culture

“I’m allergic to gluten-free.”

That’s my son’s line when people ask.

In part, it’s true; he’s allergic to buckwheat, which is often used in gluten-free products. But what he’s really saying is that gluten-containing foods are a staple at our house. Our diet and our family culture would break down without gluten.

It’s been a while since I blogged about a bread day, but they still happen. Every two or three weeks my husband fires up the bread oven and bakes two dozen loaves of bread. I follow with a couple of cakes, cookies, or whatever sweets I feel like baking. On the tail-end heat, my husband might throw in some bac-un or seitan—gluten-based meat substitutes.

Between the bi-weekly gluten fests, we make pastries, muffins, scones, crackers, and all manner of other gluten-containing food.

If we took gluten out of our diet, we’d lose a protein source and a suite of family activities.

And, yes, you can bake gluten-free bread, cakes and cookies.

But they’re not the same.

There is something fundamental, something visceral about the feel of gluten—under your hands as you knead bread, in your mouth as you chew it—something that is integral to my family’s enjoyment of food.

Yes, I think we’re all allergic to gluten-free.