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Christmas Traditions Observed or Ignored

The 26th December was Boxing Day. That is, the day after Christmas, and in the U.K and the Commonwealth countries, a public holiday. A sort of gathering-of- wits-after- the-madness day. Boxing Day’s origins go back hundreds of years. The word “boxing” allegedly refers to boxes of money or other gifts being given to those who perform various services throughout the year. But why call the day by a present participle – “Boxing” rather than the more active “Box”? Perhaps if the gifts were things rather than money, it would take a long time to pack them up and so a whole day was allowed for this. I can relate. We’re doing a renovation here, and in preparation, I’m packing and packing boxes and boxes and boxes. Books, clothing, Christmas lights and ornaments, and kitchen knickknacks have all gone to Goodwill. I did not inflict my Christmas cake on my family this year. I have given up. After years of trying and often failing to concoct this nutrition – filled fruit cake according to various family recipes, I decided enough was enough. It’s too time consuming. It’s too expensive. It’s too calorie-laden. And Americans hate fruit cake. Now that’s because they have never tasted the true British, alcohol-soaked, immensely satisfying cake. If you don’t have a family recipe, one of my favorites is Nigella Lawson’s from her book, Nigella Christmas (New York, Hyperion, 2009). But it’s too late for all that. Christmas cake must be prepared at least six weeks ahead so the liquor can drench the fruits and preserve its soft, dark richness. I think the problem with those store-bought cakes that everyone claims to hate is that the crystallized fruit stays hard as plastic and about as appetizing in a dry, light colored cake. No wonder it is shoved into the trash can. This year I made a pavlova. If you’re Australian, as I am, the pavlova is a favorite special occasion dessert. It’s rich but not too rich, and actually very easy to make. All you need is egg whites, whipping cream and red berries such as strawberries or raspberries or both. The colors fit the Christmas spirit. Pavlova 6-8 egg whites (depending on number of guests) 1 cup super fine sugar (make by whizzing granulated sugar in the blender) 1 tsp distilled white vinegar Filling 1 pint whipping cream 1 tbs confectioners’ sugar 3/4 lb fresh raspberries, blueberries, strawberries etc. washed and dried with a paper towel. I like to macerate the fruit in 2 tbs sugar for an hour or two before serving, but this is to taste. Preheat the oven to 250 degrees F. Take a pizza pan or cookie sheet and line it with parchment paper. Cut the paper into a 9 inch circle. In your stand mixer, whip the egg whites to a froth, then till soft peaks form. Gradually add the sugar, beating constantly, then the vinegar. Whip it all up till the mixture stands up in stiff peaks. With a spatula, place a big glob of the egg white mixture onto the middle of the parchment circle. Spread it out and create a hilly circle with the rest of the egg whites around the circumference. (Because the whites have been so thoroughly whipped this won’t fall down.) Place on the middle rack of the oven and bake for 1 1/2 hours. Then without disturbing the pavlova, turn off the oven open the oven door a little bit and let the pavlova sit in the cooling oven for at least another 30 minutes. This means it’s quite okay to go away and forget it for a while. When ready to serve, whip cream with 1 tbs confectioners’ sugar until stiff. With a spatula, lay over the pavlova to the edges. It will look hilly. Then put your fruit in the middle of the cream and serve.

Cookbooks As Literature

South Wind Cooked South Wind Through The Kitchen: The Best of Elizabeth David Edited by Jill Norman The North Point Press, 1999 Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation By Michael Pollan The Penguin Press, 2013 Changing Hands, our wonderful local bookstore, exchanges gently used books for store credit. So imagine my thrill when this weekend, I lugged an overflowing box of books from the car to the store, and received in exchange almost $50 in new purchases. I bought two novels and two cookbooks. I read cookbooks. Yes, I really read them as narrative, not just as recipe holders. So it was with pleasure that I delved into the writing of Elizabeth David and Michael Pollan. My mother cooked from a battered and stained Penguin copy of the British writer Elizabeth David’s French Country Cooking. Mrs. David’s chatty, unpretentious books on the cuisine of Southern Europe began to transform the English palate a generation before Alice Waters did the same for Americans. Then again, the English had a harder hill to climb. Returning to Britain from a wartime job in the Middle East in 1946, Elizabeth David was horrified at the deprivation, and the “bleak triumph, which amounted almost to a hatred of humanity” with which rationed food was prepared. She started to write her memories of the sun-drenched food of the Mediterranean. In a career lasting over forty years, Mrs. David wrote nine books and countless articles in a breezy, amusing style. In French Provincial Cooking, she describes “soups delicately colored like summer dresses, coral, ivory, or pale green.” It was in search of similar lively writing that I turned to Michael Pollan’s Cooked. The book follows Pollan’s signature method. A journalist, Pollan interviews people who work rigorously to capture the essence of cooking. Each of his bakers, cheese-makers and fermenters returns to the very basics in an effort to understand the biological and chemical processes by which raw ingredients are transformed into digestible and nutritious food. The recipes are less important here than the descriptions of the years-long apprenticeships that each of these creative individuals undertook. Each was determined to unlearn the time-saving contemporary processed food-ways to return to fundamentals. This is food preparation from scratch, literally, from capturing yeast in the air to allowing bacteria to collect on wooden cheese paddles. Bacteria, which allowed to accumulate, crowd out more harmful germs. This book is the beginning, hopefully, of Pollan’s further investigation into the world of microbes.