WHEN I WAS a child in England, my family would gather at my Aunt's house for Christmas Day. There were 20 of us, and how she managed the food for us all out of her ordinary kitchen, I'll never know.
She had been up before anyone to start the turkey, so it would be roasted to perfection by noon. All the extra racks were out of the oven to accommodate the 40-pound bird. Many saucepans would be bubbling on top of the stove when we arrived, but the savory aroma of the turkey filled the house.
We would set up the table, pushing severeral tables together to make one huge one. All the chairs in the house were needed and the bigger children sat on cushions on a plank of wood between two chairs, to make extra seats.
The room was filled with tinsel garlands and strings of Christmas cards. When we sat down for Christmas dinner, it was a merry meal. First we pulled the crackers. Each person had a cracker, a party favor wrapped in crepe paper. When pulled hard from each end they exploded. Out tumbled a folded paper hat, a printed joke and a trinket or small game. Sometimes we never found the trinket which had shot out of some especially noisy cracker. We all donned paper hats and laughed at each other's jokes.
Then came the food. First the turkey on its enormous platter. My uncle manned the carving tools with flourish while the women brought in the rest of the feast. To go with the turkey were fat pork sausages, bacon curls and roasted parsnip. Inside the turkey were two stuffings, sage-and onion in the big cavity, thyme in the back. The sauces were turkey gravy and bread sauce, which is a thick white mixture flavored with onions and cloves. There would be roasted and boiled potatoes and several fresh vegetables from the garden, such as brussels sprouts; creamed onions, steamed cauliflower and boiled carrots.
More excitement came with dessert because of the silver coins hidden in the Christmas pudding. The pudding (plum pudding) had been maturing since November, and was an incredibly rich agglomeration of dried fruits and spirits. It was brought to the table all round and steaming, decorated with a twig of holly. Somewhere inside there were two or three silver sixpences, poked in by my aunt that morning, for some lucky ones to discover in their slice. With the pudding we could have hot custard sauce, dollops of whipped cream or brandied hard sauce -- or all three, since it was Christmas.
At this point the children often left the table, but the grownups dallied for strong cups of tea with mince pies. Mince pies are small round pastries filled with mincemeat.
In the afternoon, when the dishes were done, we all played Lotto (Bingo), betting with pennies; and there might be an impromptu talent show. Then it was tea time, served buffet-style.
We started tea with dainty sandwiches, perhaps egg-and-cress. There would then be two cakes, one always being a Madeira cake (similar to poundcake), favored by the older folks. I always hoped the other would be my aunt's chocolate-walnut Victoria sponge cake, and it often was.
Finally came the Christmas cake, a magnificent fruit cake decorated according to tradition. Over the cake (which was almost black with dried fruit and molasses) was a generous layer of almond paste and over that, a handsome coat of stiff, white icing. On top were miniature Christmas trees and a tiny Father Christmas or Santa Claus; oraments used only on this cake. We washed this all down wth strong tea from my aunt's bottomless teapot.
Incredibly, this wasn't the last meal of the day. We also had supper at about 11 p.m. It wasn't necessary to assemble so many tables and chairs then, for some of the children would be asleep on top of beds upstairs.
For supper, beer was the adult's drink, the children had milk. My uncle carved a cold ham brilliantly and with it we had cold turkey and stuffing. Some of us made sandwiches with the meat. We had an array of pickles from which to choose, such as pickled onions, brown chutney and piccalilli, made of cauliflower in mustard sauce. If all this sounds indigestible, I suppose it was -- but how good, and sharp the pickles tasted after a day of satiation.
Mercifully, there was no dessert at this meal. We dispersed into the night with last calls of "Merry Christmas!" My aunt, who had got up first was, I'm sure, the last to go to bed. CHRISTMAS CAKE (Makes 1 cake) 1 1/2 cups flour Pinch of salt 1/2 teaspoon baking powder 1/4 teaspoon baking soda 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg 1/4 cup mixed candied peel 1/4 cup halved glace cherries 1/4 cup blanched, chopped almonds (2 ounces) 2 cups mixed dried fruit (mix seedless raisins, currants and golden raisins equally) 2 eggs 2 tablespoons sherry or milk Finely grated rind of 1/2 lemon 1/2 cup butter 1/2 cup brown sugar 1 tablespoon molasses
This cake should be made at least one week before it is to be eaten.
Sift together the flour, baking powder, soda and spices. Lightly flour the peel and cherries and mix them with the almonds, rind and whisk together the eggs and sherry. Cream the butter, sugar and molasses. Alternately add the flour mixture and egg mixture to the butter mixture. Do not overbeat. Stir in the fruit. Put into a 7-inch round pan greased and lined with wax paper on the inside and lined on the outside with brown paper tied with string (this prevents the cake from scorching during the long cooking process).
Bake for 1 1/2 hours at 350 degrees and 1 hour at 300 degrees. Do not overcook -- test with a skewer in the middle. It comes out clean when done. Cool in pan and frost with marzipan and royal icing (recipes below). Store in airtight container. Do not refrigerate. MARZIPAN 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons confectioners' sugar 3/4 cup granulated sugar 2 eggs 3 drops almond essence 2 1/4 cups ground almonds (12 ounces)
Sift the confectioners' sugar to eliminate lumps. Mix sugar with almonds and granulated sugar. Add essence and eggs to nuts and sugar. Knead till smooth.
Brush top of cake with warmed apricot jam. Cut marzipan in half and roll out, on a surface sprinkled with granulated sugar, into a circle and press down firmly, trimming edges of marzipan if necessary. Turn cake upright again. Roll out remaining marzipan into a strip the right length and width to fit the sides of the cake. Brush this strip (not the cake) with warmed apricot jam.
Press the strip into position around the cake, making a neat join. Roll a jam jar firmly over the top and around the sides to make a smooth surface. Allow marzipan to dry out for 2 to 3 days in a cool place before icing the cake. Do not refrigerate. ROYAL ICING 3 cups confectioners' sugar (1 pound) 2 egg whites 1 teaspoon lemon juice 1/2 teaspoon glycerine*
*Your pharmacist sells this in small bottles. It is not expensive. It prevents the frosting from turning rock hard.
Sift the sugar free of lumps. Beat the egg whites until frothy. Beatbeat in half the sugar, add the lemon juice and glycerine. Beat in the rest of the sugar. The icing will be quite stiff and will stiffen more as it dries, so use immediately. Cover the marzipanned cake with icing, using a palette knife. Either a smooth finish or a peaked snow scene texture is traditional. Leave half a day to dry. Decorate, perhaps with silver dragees, ribbon bows, or miniature Christmas figurines. Do not refrigerate. Store in an airtight container. ROAST POTATOES
Parboil peeled potatoes until half done. Transfer drained potatoes to roasting pan, filled to 1/4 inch depth with hot fat (especially good if some meat juices are in the fat). Roast in hot oven, basting periodically and turning once, for about 25 minutes, till browned and crisp. Temperature can vary from 375 to 450 degrees, depending what else is cooking in the oven. ROAST PARSNIPS
Same method as for roast potatoes, cutting the parsnips into thick sticks. Parsnips will not so much crisp in the oven as become soft and glazed. MINCE PIES (Makes about 12) Commercial mincemeat, about 1 cup Pastry for 1-crust pie -- your usual recipe. 1 egg beaten with 1 teaspoon water to glaze.
Make pastry and roll out 1/8 inch thick. Using 2 sizes of plain or fluted cookie cutter (or substitute) cut pastry into 12 circles 3 inches across and 12 circles 2 1/2 inches across. Place all the smaller pastry circles on an ungreased cookie sheet and center each with 1 rounded teaspoonful of mincement. Brush the edges of the large circles with water and place them on top of the pies, sealing the edges well with a pastry wheel or a fork. Brush with beaten-egg glaze. Pierce tops with a fork for steam to escape (so steam does not burst the seal during cooking.) Bake at 375 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes till pastry is crisp and delicately browned. Eat warm or cold. Store in an airtight container. CHOCOLATE-WALNUT VICTORIA SPONGE CAKE (Makes one 2-layer cake) 3/4 cup butter or margerine 3/4 cup sugar 3 eggs 1 cup self-rising flour 1 cup all-purpose flour Pinch of salt 2/3 cup grated semi-sweet chocolate 3/4 cup walnuts, chopped medium fine A few whole walnuts
Cream fat and sugar. Beat eggs till frothy, and beat into creamed mixture.
Fold flours into egg mixture, adding milk 1 tablespoon at a time, if necessary, to obtain a dropping consistency. Fold in nuts and chocolate. Spread batter equally in two 8-inch-round cake pans, greased and floured. Bake at 350 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes till springy and done. Whenn cool, sandwich the layers together with milk chocolate frosting and frost the top and sides similarly. Decorate top with whole walnuts. CHRISTMAS PUDDING 2 cups raisins 2 cups currants 2 cups golden (muscat) raisins 1 pound suet, riced and flour-coated* 4 cups soft white breadcrumbs 1 cup chopped, mixed citrus peel 1 cup blanched, chopped almonds 1 1/4 cups brown sugar 8 eggs Salt, cloves nutmeg and cinnamon to taste 2 tablespoons vinegar 2 cups flour 2 tablespoons brandy (or milk), or more to make moist
*If you have access to English products, Atora brand shredded beef suet is what is called for. I have converted all the other ingredients from their English expression in pounds and ounces but I am unable to convert 1 pound suet into its cup equivalent. One pound of suet can be bought and weighed from a butcher.
Sift together flour and spices. Beat eggs till frothy. Mix all ingredients in a large bowl, adding brandy as needed to moisten all. Grease one large or two small earthen bowls (pudding bowls) and fill with the mixture. oWith string tie on a lid of foil. Steam for 12 hours. When cool, wrap airtight and keep in a cool place (not a refrigerator) for several weeks. On Christmas Day, steam again for 2 hours to heat it through.
Note: if inserting coins, use only pure silver ones -- others may start adverse chemical reactions in the pudding.