Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Christmas Eve

Well here it is Christmas Eve and the weather is frightful - warming temperatures and rain mixing with all the snow creating my least favourite winter effect - slush.
Christmas comes with lots of expectation; presents, food, and being home for the holidays. I am not sure where my home really is; my loyalties are divided between two hemispheres and three continents but the food ties me to all of them. Having Christmas cake, shortbread, foie gras, and goose with red cabbage evoke memories of Christmas past; small and big gatherings, mostly happy, a few sad, where the weather was often freezing or sweltering.

This time of the year is also about endings and beginnings, a time of mixed emotions. So amidst all the celebration we should take the time to reflect and remember that the glass is always a least half full and hopefully, with a good wine.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Another good reason to work from home

This is the view from my front door. Unfortunately you can't see the wind - there was a pile of snow on the inside of my door thanks to the wind. This is supposedly the first of two storms destined to hit Toronto before Christmas, with a second is forecast for Sunday. So it looks like I'll be celebrating my birthday indoors. Luckily for me I have food, and wine in the house so I don't have to go out in the storm. Plus I have the perfect excuse to stay inside, in front of the fire and read,Vermeers Hat, The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World by Timothy Brook. This book is a fascinating look at world trade via the paintings of Vermeer.
The first painting discussed is Vermeer's View of Delft, which I have in postcard form pinned to the wall behind my desk. Even as a postcard it is exquisite and I have discovered that this work stands out in his oeuvre as only one of two surviving paintings of outdoor scenes, and the only one where he attempted to paint a large space. Vermeer usually stayed indoors, whatever the weather, and painted carefully staged interiors with people.
Vermeer's paintings are windows that Brook looks through to explain what was going on in the world at this time. I have not only learnt how to look at the paintings more carefully but also how goods, like beaver pelts, tobacco, silver, spices and people moved through the world, from one corner to another in the seventeenth century. Many people talk about globalization as a modern development but this book proves it is much, much older.

Monday, 15 December 2008

It's starting to look a lot like Christmas

Here is my Christmas cake, it has already had two doses of brandy and has been transferred to a tin. The recipe is from the cake volume of the Good Cook Time Life series of cookbooks. Alas they are no longer in print, so look for them at used book stores. While the photography is no match to today's "food porn" it is very practical and informative. The step-by-step photos explain the techniques very clearly and they provide good reference. All the recipes in the collection are from previously published cookbooks. My fruitcake is Margaret Costa's recipe from her Four Seasons Cookery Book. This book has been reprinted by Grub Street in the UK, and is worth seeking out. Margaret's recipe makes two cakes, I halve it and mess around with it a little, I can't help myself. I toss the dried fruit with a good 60ml/1/4 cup of brandy and leave them for at least 24 hours to plump up. And, as you can see from the photo, I put blanched almonds on the top. This means I can forego the marzipan much to my husband's regret. This is a very simple cake to make; it is not really baking but construction. The batter composed of eggs, sugar and a little flour is just enough to coat the fruit and hold the whole thing together while it cooks.

As I have to wait at least until Twelfth Night or later before I cut it, I also made a stained glass cake so I have something to eat right away. This is another construction cake, candied or glacé fruits and nuts held together by the bare minimum of batter. You can use any mix of fruit that takes your fancy, but larger pieces make a more interesting cake. The trick is to slice it very thinly. Now that I have cake, shortbread is next on the list and then some mincemeat tarts.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

The Tree

Finally it feels like Christmas, the tree is key. We picked ours up last Friday, selecting it in the dark and then hauling it up over the balcony into the apartment. We opted for this crazy method because the tree is tall over 3m/10ft, we have 3.5m/11 1/2 ft ceilings, and because getting it up the stairs is always a challenge. This year it would have been even more challenging as the stairwell is stacked with wood, for our wood stove. Despite the dark, cold and my lack of strength, we, well mainly my husband, landed the tree on the icy deck and then carried it inside. We set it up without too much trouble and no arguments, and there it sat all weekend, naked, cold and drinking water. We lay on the couch drinking hot liquids recovering from bad colds. Finally on Monday, our strength returned, the tree had warmed up and the lights went on, followed by the decorations.
We've had to stop ourselves from buying any new decorations; our collection was getting out of hand. We each have our favourites, Santa on the Eiffel tower, hand-crafted wooden ones from Germany, metal ones from Thailand that include an elephant, each has its own story. So now it feels like Christmas. Cards are arriving from friends, and I've written all mine. I am looking up my Christmas recipes and next will be the carols playing on the CD player. I might even make eggnog.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Christmas Preparations

The advantage of living in a northern climate is that finally all those Christmas recipes make sense. In winter our body naturally craves richer foods and as there is a limited choice of fresh fruits, cakes and puddings are made with dried fruits. I ate Christmas pudding, cake and mincemeat in Australia but, when it was 30C outside I really just wanted a bowl of fruit salad. So while I am no fan of the cold and snow, winter is the perfect time for recipes using dried fruits.
I know that Christmas cake induces a strong response from most people, there seems to be no middle ground, you either love it or hate it. I love it and luckily so does my husband. This year I've missed the deadline for making one that will be ready for Christmas. I still plan to bake one next week but it won't be ready to cut until mid-January, when I will appreciate it even more. Luckily there is a cake I can make and eat straight away - Stained Glass Christmas Cake. It's packed with colourful dried fruit and cut in very thin slices, so it resembles a stained glass. I have mincemeat in my refrigerator and a pudding in my freezer and shortbread is quickly made so I am almost ready. I am writing my cards that must be posted on the weekend to reach Australia and England in time and tonight we are going to get a tree. I grew up with fake Christmas trees so for me the real ones are very special. I love the scent, the argument over the decorating and just sitting in the late afternoon with only the tree illuminating the room.
I have a photo of holly growing in Kubota gardens, close to my friends' house in Seattle, to illustrate this post. Another plus for living in the frozen north, I'll be able to decorate my cake, with a sprig of fresh holly instead of fake.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Back In Toronto

Despite the grey skies and cold rainy weather I am pleased to be back in Toronto and sleep in my own bed. I had a great time in Seattle meeting lots of serious fat lovers. I also ate a great bowl of clams at Matt's in the market.

It was also fun in Vancouver, where I had two days of glorious sunshine and blue skies. When I craned my neck around the wall of condos I could even admire the mountains with a dusting of snow. I had a good meal at West where I was lucky enough to dine with Barbara-jo from Books to Cooks and Bonnie Stern and her son. Bonnie has a new book, Friday Night Dinners and her son is responsible for the photography. It is hard to pick out one highlight from our meal, but my local scallops on the foie gras buttered lentils, pictured here was wonderful.
My classes at Barbara-jo's were well organized and drew an interested crowd. I think I have spread the fat and made a few more converts in both cities on the west coast. A day in Toronto, which allowed my suitcase to catch up with me, Air Canada had put it on the wrong plane and it was off to Montreal. I knew there would be a lot of fat lovers there and I wasn't wrong, but more of that later.