A Christmas diary | Cookup Classic

Christmas presents can be a problem — but perhaps the solution is in your very own kitchen, Anu Lakhan discovers. This piece was originally published in Issue 70 (November/December 2004)

  • Illustration by Shalini Seereeram
  • Photo by Alp Aksoy/Shutterstock.com

The dread I feel at Christmas is entirely owing to the gift situation. A fairly traditional Hindu upbringing has failed to instill a healthy degree of asceticism among my relatives: we are devoted to presents. This poses problems for someone with the shopping aptitude of a watermelon. It has taken me the better part of three decades to figure out that my salvation lies where it inevitably does: in food.

The 12th Day Before Christmas

Halfway through December, and though I have not bought a single present, it appears that I still have an unusually large number of siblings, small relatives, and assorted persons in my life. How did I let this happen? Again. Because I am a coward. I fear the rabid shoppers coveting their neighbours’ goods and the slow descent into madness from over-exposure to shrill children’s choirs and cuatros. I stare at the series of gift-lists like I’m reading a tarot deck.

The 11th Day Before Christmas

A dozen lamb pastelles later (“consumption pattern” on my retail expeditions measures what is eaten, not bought) and still no presents. No, no one in my family wants a poinsettia-patterned tea-cosy or a manger scene made from egg cartons, but if I eat enough of these very sugary cookies I may fall into a coma and not wake up until Easter. Online shopping has proved unsuccessful because it deprives me of the false hope of impulse purchasing.

The 10th Day Before Christmas

And then, as if by divine inspiration, it hits me: food! No one in my family cares much for getting flowers, so I’d thought that, like the perishable blossom, the transient pleasures of the edible would be derided. But is my family not the very one whose only excess greater than gift-giving is lavish cooking? I let the idea, the rightness of it, sink in under the weight of Christmas party ham and homemade bread. This is no box-of-chocolates, tin-of-biscuits idea: it calls for skilled planning, deep character insight, and actual work. But I feel equal to the task: I fear nothing in my own kitchen the way I fear the manic traffic and Santa-driven fire engines.

The 9th Day Before Christmas

I throw out all the old lists. I line up my cookbooks and recipe files and make notes. No one makes anything easy for me. There are allergies to be considered, vegetarianism and a host of other infirmities. That really good chicken liver paté recipe that insists on feeding about fifty no matter how I adjust it is out. No shellfish, nothing with too much chocolate. This is worse than catering for a party, because there must at least be the appearance of sensitivity to the needs of those being fed.

The 8th Day Before Christmas

I know what I can’t make and what I won’t make. Pastelles, perhaps the best reason not to hibernate for Christmas, are out of my league. Making them involves something tricky with cornmeal and something intimidating with a banana leaf. Besides, they’re too common just about now. It’s too late to take on the monumental sausage-making task I have started to fantasise about. I don’t know how sorrel became the Christmas drink since I don’t know anyone who willingly consumes it.

The 7th Day Before Christmas

I settle on three items all from the noble family of baked goods: shortbread, toffee bars, and a very light fruitcake. Shortbread is always a winner because, though easy to make, it has the glamour of things that a long time ago came home in suitcases after international travel. The toffee bars really contain no toffee at all. They fall somewhere between biscuit and brownie texture, are filled with almonds, may or may not be covered in chocolate, and as far as I can tell are not made outside of my family. The misnomer remains something of a mystery, as does the origin of the recipe. The fruitcake is my concession to the spirit of the season.

The 6th Day Before Christmas

I’m still deciding on the best time to deliver the goods — surely five o’clock on Christmas morning, my family’s traditional gift-swapping time, is not a propitious time to offload high-calorie treats on either the aged or already-hyper youth. In the meantime, I can work out the problem of presentation. I have intelligently structured my schedule so that there is plenty of time to chase appropriate packaging. Tins, which I am determined to use for their snazzy yet quaint feel, are only deceptively commonplace. In truth, I am on the verge of surrendering to zip-loc bags when I finally find a place willing to sell me unbranded tins. Forget all this “it’s what on the inside that counts” business. If you’ve ever bought anything that was an eighth the size of its blister pack you know that appearances matter. I make labels with a picture of a Zen-like cat in honour of my newfound peace with the holiday and of my newfound pet, who is both a cat and Zen-like.

The 5th Day Before Christmas

The cakes will have to be first: one, because they will keep longest, and two, because they are the easiest to make and will give me encouragement to go on. I find the traditional Trinidadian black cake, the fruitcake to end all fruitcakes, to often be the end of me. Its flavours are so intense as to be daunting. It is one thing for a cake to be difficult to prepare, but I am on principle opposed to foods that ask too much of me at the eating stage. One does not like to feel engaged in a test of wills with dessert. I decide on a lightish sponge imbued with fruit that has been soaking in rum for longer than any primate has been upright. The result is fragrant but not overwhelming, flavourful rather than gagging.

The 4th Day Before Christmas

The trouble with the toffee bars is that their delicate balance does not allow for unlimited multiplication. If the recipe is more than doubled, you end up with something more like insulation material than food. Unlike the magic paté recipe that can feed infinite guests, the toffee bar recipe seems to suffer a diminishing effect. Every time I make it, less comes out of the oven than went in. The more people ask for it, the fewer bars are produced. Might the toffee bar have a bright future on the stock exchange?

The 3rd Day Before Christmas

I have come to feel about shortbread the way I feel about pepper jelly; they are among the most rewarding things to actually cook. No one thinks to make them and therefore people are terribly impressed when they are presented. Unfortunately, the thing that would make my shortbread truly magnificent would be its consent to be cut into pleasing shapes. This is not to be. I do not despair. It is crumbly-buttery-light, never mind the pieces look like continental shift charts.

The 2nd Day Before Christmas

I have the singular delight of delivering my shiny packages just when everyone else is at breaking point. Not only am I to be congratulated on making it through the season without the traditional panic, but my well-timed distribution seems a nice treat for those still suffering. O tidings of comfort and joy.

Christmas Eve

A deep peace envelopes me. Is it the goodwill of the season, or the smug satisfaction of beating everyone to the present finish-line? Does it matter? Maybe this year when I have to wish people “Merry Christmas” at an unholy pre-dawn hour I won’t even snarl. 

Coconut shortbread recipe

4 oz flour
2 oz corn starch
4 oz salted butter
2 oz icing sugar
3 tablespoons freshly ground coconut
1 teaspoon vanilla essence

Sift together the flour and corn starch (also called corn flour, but definitely not to be confused with corn meal). Cream the butter and icing sugar, and add essence before mixing in the flour and corn starch.

Now, about the coconut. A de-husked coconut, referred to as a “dry” coconut, is not hard to find in Trinidad. I can make no claim for any other territory, Caribbean or otherwise. If you’re using a dry coconut, break the shell, remove the hard flesh, peel off the brown skin, and grind, grate, or mince enough to give you three heaped tablespoons. The coconut should be as finely ground as your choice of appliance will allow. “Fresh” frozen coconut will work too, but not the desiccated stuff used to make coconut cream.

Mix the coconut in with the rest of the ingredients. On a sheet of wax paper (lightly buttered and dusted with icing sugar) roll out an eight-inch circle, a little more than an inch thick. Anything less feels stingy, more is starting to become a brownie. Use a fork to make tiny holes all over the circle. Bake at 350° for about thirty minutes.

Whatever’s on your Christmas menu, you need to wash it down. And in any Trini household, the two essential seasonal beverages are sorrel and ponche de crème. Here are two more classic recipes, originally published in the magazine in 2002.

Sorrel recipe

1 lb fresh sorrel (or 1/4 lb dry sorrel)
3–5 whole cloves
1 small stick of cinnamon,
or cinnamon powder (to taste)
1–2 lb white sugar
bay leaf (optional)

Put sorrel and spices in a large saucepan and pour boiling water into the pan, enough to cover fresh sorrel (or, with dry sorrel, three inches above the sorrel). Cover, then place over heat for a few minutes, just enough to bring it to a low simmer. Remove from heat and let it steep overnight. Strain, then add sugar, sweetening to taste. Bottle, putting a clove in each, then cap and let stand (you may need to refrigerate to keep it from fermenting) for four days or so. Serve over ice.

Ponche de creme recipe

1½ cup dark rum
4 eggs
14½ fl oz condensed milk
Angostura bitters
grated nutmeg (to taste)
1 teaspoon lime juice
1 teaspoon vanilla essence

Combine the rum, milk, eggs, essence, and lime juice in a blender. Sprinkle on a few drops of Angostura bitters. Add grated nutmeg. Serve chilled.

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