and we’re off…

Phew! The school term is over and we are now galloping towards the 25th. It’s not as though the date comes as any sort of surprise, yet every year I feel slightly caught out by Christmas. Anyway, having had the requisite seasonal bout of Bah! Humbug, a trapped nerve in my shoulder and the three-way bicker-fest that heralds the start of all our holidays… seasonal cheer has finally entered the household, and at last we have a tree. All we need now are some decorations. Yesterday evening biscuits were baked using this recipe, which I wheel out every year, and wonder why I don’t use at other times.

And this morning we sat and iced them. And someone tested them. Quite thoroughly as it turns out. And now I am wondering whether we might not need a second batch.

This afternoon, once the scattered siblings have regrouped, we will hang the biscuits  on the tree and I will feel ready for the drink that at any other time of year dare not speak its name: advocaat. I’m not even sure that I like it that much, but for some reason it seems to suit the business of decorating the Christmas tree. In fact I’d say that the way in which my thoughts turn to this sticky, custardy gloop as soon as I start fiddling about with fairy lights and baubles is Pavlovian.

busy, busy …

To say that this week has been a little hectic would be quite an understatement. But in amongst the craziness fun has been had. Back in October I agreed to participate in a scrap fabric Christmas decorations swap organised by Very Berry Handmade. It seemed like a fine idea, especially as I was in quilt mode at the time and scraps of fabric were scattered around the house.

But – and I think you can probably see where this is heading – fast forward two months and with Christmas just around the corner, maddening last minute requests pouring in daily (She says we’ve got to wear black leggings and Christmassy top), not to mention my having agreed to coordinate a big end of term event at the girls’ school, my plans for a little low-key sewing project morphed into a caffeine-fueled sewing frenzy.

I’m nearly there and it has been fun to do, just not quite as relaxed as I had hoped.

Meanwhile, out in the garden, the dog, as ever, has been hard at work. It turns out that I had disturbed Sybil’s stash of bones when I planted some of my daffs. Silly me. It’s taken me a week to work this out. A week of cursing the dog and re-planting the bulbs, only to find that, under cover of darkness – she’s quite canny when it comes to this sort of thing – she has dug them all up again. I’ve given up with that particular spot. It’s hers. The bulbs have been re-homed. And this weekend I must tackle the last three packs of bulbs – some tulips, which should be fine, and some alliums, which may well fail as a result of being left too long in their box. Who knows. We’ll find out next year.

And on the subject of the garden, the flowers are in short supply so I’m resorting to the tiniest vessels I can find for my Lilliputian posies: old sherry glasses, narrow-necked fizzy drinks bottles, and now these sweet little bottles which someone was chucking out.

Off to the store that I love to hate – Primark  - the only place I can buy a last minute Christmas carols outfit at a price I won’t feel too cross about.

24

Christmas Eve! How did that happen? The beast of a cake, above, was iced in the nick of time yesterday – just before the cousins arrived. Only half of it remains. There are still lots of things to be done, but most of them are of the low-key relaxing variety: an onion needs to be studded with cloves and then left to simmer in milk, an easy orange and almond cake will be made later on while the girls and their cousins watch a film, and some bottles of wine need to be sloshed into a pan and mulled for drinks with neighbours later. Weirdly, because we are not hosting the day itself this year, there are lots of things missing – no Stilton! No mince pies! Actually, I’m not a great fan of mince pies, but Christmas without Stilton is a sort of crime in my book, so that will need to be rectified. So once again, despite my best efforts, I will be off to the shops on Christmas Eve. Aagh!

And this is the end of my mini-marathon of blogging, the end of advent, the end of the daily post. Phew! Normal service to resume sometime soon. In the meantime, Happy Christmas and have a wonderful 2011. And thank you to all who posted such lovely comments over the last few months, it’s so nice to get feedback from time to time. X

23

I love all the little rituals that combine to make Christmas what it is. We are not a religious family, so I think the rituals are particularly important as they give the celebration a meaning and a focus beyond frenzied present buying. For me, as for most people, the 25th is about spending time with my family, and showing them how much I love them – which is a good thing, as I have to admit that it’s not always evident.

Without the ritual of the cake, the tree, the decorations, the cards and the carols, a secular Christmas could be a little dull really. That’s not to say that the presents aren’t pretty key to the whole shebang. They certainly are – I love present-buying, and I know the parcels above will be gleefully received. But it’s more that the ritual helps to balance things. And just in case that all sounds far too measured and calm and reasonable, I also find that Christmas is the single most unbloodybelievably stressful time of the year too: there is a clock ticking, there is an immovable deadline, and there are high expectations (oh, and a very naughty puppy). But nothing that a ridiculous drink, such Warnick’s Advocaat (alcoholic custard in a bottle!?) – something that I simply wouldn’t contemplate drinking at any other time of year, won’t fix.

For more Christmas love check out Tara’s gallery, where this week’s theme, the last of the year, was LOVE in all its forms. I’m a day late, so you may have to scroll down to find the links to everyone else.

22

Iced honey and cinnamon biscuits for the tree. Usually I do this with the girls, but as the various activities piled up I found myself doing this alone, which was rather nice and soothing.

The recipe is from Christmas Treats to Make and Give by Linda Collister, and is very straightforward. I paticularly like the lack of sugar in the recipe (though there is a fair amount of honey), as I often find biscuits like this a bit too sickly sweet, especially once they have are laden with icing and silver balls.

Ingredients: 300g plain flour; 2tsp ground cinnamon; 1tsp mixed spice; 175g unsalted butter (chilled and diced); 6tbsp honey.

(Our mixer broke the other day, so I did this all by hand, and because of that I softened the butter slightly beforehand, with no ill effects.)

Put flour, cinnamon and mixed spice into food processor, or large mixing bowl, and whizz to combine them evenly. Next add the butter and blitz until it resembles fine crumbs or sand. Add the honey and process until it comes together as a soft dough, or, if you are doing this by hand, stir in the honey and then start to work the mixture with your hands. Leave the dough to chill in cling film for 30 mins (you can leave it in the fridge for up to 5 days).

Dust a clean surface with flour and roll out the dough until about 5mm thick. Cut with various shaped biscuit cutters and lay the pieces onto a lightly oiled baking tray. If you want to hang these on the tree, don’t forget to make holes for the ribbon with a skewer. Cook at gas mark 4 (180C/350F) for 10-15 minutes. Leave to cool completely before icing.

For the icing I just filled a small cereal bowl with icing sugar and sloshed in some lemon juice, stirred it in and added more until it formed a paste of the right consistency to drizzle through my home-made icing bag – a freezer bag with a tiny hole in the corner – classy!

As you can see some of the biscuits didn’t quite make it. They were delicious though.

20 & 21

Oops. Falling behind a little now. I had planned to write a Christmassy post every day in the run-up to the 25th. But I’m slipping. A last-minute invitation to see Boing! at the Bristol Old Vic (book NOW, if you can), happily took up a big chunk of yesterday. Afterwards, the Christmas lights, which are twinkling all over the city, transformed what might have been an exhausting trudge home through the snow into an exhilarating adventure. Each time there was a hint of a whinge, a new set of  lights silenced it.

Today, when I should have iced a cake, lots of children appeared, disappeared, reappeared and so on, all day. So, I didn’t ice the cake and neither did I ice the biscuits which should be hanging in the tree. The children also want to know where all the presents are. Martha, in particular is very concerned about lack of parcels under the tree.

19

Icing the Christmas cake part 1: Marzipan

I used the marzipan recipe from the brilliant Kettle Broth to Gooseberry Fool, by Jenny Baker. So easy and so delicious. Even if you think you hate marzipan, in fact, especially if you think you hate marzipan, I urge you to try this. It tastes sublime – nothing like the shop-bought stuff. It takes a matter of minutes to make – I do mine by hand, but it can easily be done in the mixer, if you prefer.

350g ground almonds, 225g icing sugar (sifted), 3 egg yolks (save two of the whites for icing which I’ll post on the 21st, which is when I’ll do it), juice of 1 lemon, apricot jam (2-3 tbsp)

Mix ground almonds with the sugar, in a large mixing bowl. In separate bowl beat together the juice of the lemon and the egg yolks. Now pour lemon and eggs into the almond and sugar mixture and combine, first with a wooden spoon and then with your hands. Very quickly it will come together as a slightly sticky pastry – a tiny dusting of either sugar or almonds will make it easier if you’re finding it difficult to handle. Leave it to rest in a ball whilst you prepare the cake for covering.

Take two or three tablespoons of jam and warm them in a pan with a tiny splash of water, and stir until it is runny enough to brush over the cake. Jenny suggests sieving it, but I don’t bother.

Once you have spread the jam evenly over the top and sides of the cake you can roll out your marzipan. Split the ball into two pieces, one roughly twice the size of the other. This will go on the top once you have rolled it out. I often find that it drapes down the sides of the cake too, and then I use the other piece to patch in the gaps. I usually have enough marzipan left over to make tiny sweets. I roll it into small balls which I then dip in some melted chocolate. It is worth making them quite small, Malteser-size say, as once coated in really good dark chocolate, they are very rich, and very moreish. Brilliant as a last-minute present.

18

The perfect start to the Christmas holiday: snow and a Christmas tree. There was probably only an inch or so of snow, but enough to justify getting the sledge out (or is it a toboggan – what’s the difference?). And there was something ridiculously satisfying about towing the tree home on the sledge. I don’t know why. It’s not as though we’d trudged through snowy woods to cut it down, just over the hill and down the Gloucester Road. Still, it felt good, and the kids absolutely loved it.

13

Today’s plans for Christmas shopping were scuppered by the double whammy of an inset day at my younger daughters’ school, and a parent/teacher meeting at the eldest’s.

On the upside, I managed to off-load the youngest daughter, who spent the day with a friend, and went window-shopping with the middle one, whose face can just be seen reflected in the window display below. No further ahead with the presents though.

 

11 & 12

The girls are agitating for a Christmas tree, but I am holding out until next weekend. In the meantime, these hazel twigs are satisfying their desire for decorations. I am wondering why I haven’t thought about doing this before. It’s so simple and satisfying, and really easy – apart from the moment when I nearly fell off the wall trying to reach a particularly nicely arched stem. It will probably acquire a bit more bling – less is definitely not more where children and decorations are concerned. But at the moment they are mess-making elsewhere in the house, so I am enjoying the lovely shadows it is casting in the last of the day’s sun.