Baking up a storm at Christmas is a long standing tradition in my family. Although my grandmother was not the pioneer, she certainly set the benchmark for my mother and ultimately me. My initiation into the annual ode to gastronomic excess took place many years ago at her groaning table. My mother’s Christmas repasts were only slightly less extravagant and that was because her table was smaller.
The family feast invariably included a mammoth turkey, sides of pork, beef and lamb plus accompanying vegetables, sauces and multitudinous side dishes, followed by a coin studded Christmas pudding the size (and weight) of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s medicine ball. Regularly consumed in the hottest part of a hot Australian summer day without the benefit of air-conditioning, possibly the only reason this banquet didn’t render us all comatose under the table, was that there was very little alcohol served. As it was, for some hours afterwards the only sounds to be heard were snores and digestive rumblings. At least until dinner time which heralded the serving of the ham, the mince pies, the shortbread and the Christmas cake, plus leftover pudding of course for those still peckish.
Not content with the gargantuan effort required to get this lot together, in the lead-up to the big day my grandmother and mother also baked a variety of home made goodies to give away as gifts, not in an attempt to be frugal but because they believed presents from the kitchen represented presents from the heart. Of course, anything in which the giver has invested blood, sweat and tears should be warmly received, regardless of its flaws, as all parents know well. However unlikely the final result, a loved one has laboured to produce it and that’s all that matters. This seems particularly the case when it comes to food.
Cooking may be a loving gesture when it’s performed with no thought of self-interest (which it rarely is). Even then, it’s debatable whether the joy of giving is always enough to redeem what can be an exhausting and frustrating activity, especially when the cook is a perfectionist or an idealist or both.
Sarah Miller debunks the popular perception of cooking as selfless giving in an article called “Why I’ll Never Cook Again”, in which she likens cooking to sex. Cooking a meal for someone is a very personal act, albeit one carried out (usually) in clothes. You’re putting yourself out there in an attempt to have your singular talents appreciated and if they’re not, it can be a real slap in the face.
And then there’s the question of ulterior motives. She recalls a summer holiday where her mother insisted on knocking herself out making pies when she could just as well have been sleeping on the couch or reading or something. The pie (or whatever) is never just a pie. The point of it is never just to give someone a yummy eating experience. Sneaking in there (even if subconsciously) is the idea that whoever eats your food will think you’re kind/generous/caring/brilliant or all of the above for having made it. “We cook to make ourselves indispensable and special,” Sarah Miller says.
Another writer who’s written about the social complexities of cooking is Jeff Sparrow. He recently published an article in The Guardian called “To cook or not to cook? A sensual pleasure for some can be plain serfdom for others“ in which he notes “we are really messed up about food”.
It’s true that the ostensibly mundane acts of cooking and eating seem to provoke more anxiety, hyperbole and borderline hysteria now than they ever have. Cooking is far from the innocently pleasurable activity it may seem. As Jeff Sparrow remarks, “the kitchen’s as fraught as the bedroom”. And let’s not go anywhere near gender role connotations, although at least it’s not axiomatic these days that the boss of the pots and pans will be female. James Joyce would be turning in his grave.
But a disturbing trend seems to have raised its head. What’s been called the “new domesticity” has been chronicled by Emily Matchar in a book called “Homeward Bound“. It seems those long lost domestic arts of preserving, baking bread, knitting, raising hens and so on are being rediscovered and re-embraced by a new generation. Disillusionment with the “get it now” lifestyle, or an escape hatch for frazzled working mums? Who knows, but whatever the motivations, there’s no doubt it’s happening all around us, as evidenced by the popularity of artisanal foods, the Locavore movement, organic gardening, vegetable growing, foraging and so on.
It’s somewhat of a contradiction though, as Jeff Sparrow points out, that the “return to the private seems to be disconcertingly public”, thanks to Instagram, Facebook, Food Blogs and the like. Not content with pursuing our virtuous course of creation from scratch in the privacy of our kitchens, we’re frenziedly capturing every step on camera in order to share it with an envious and admiring audience, preferably before the icing’s dry on the cake. We are truly weird.
If you’ve ever had any doubt about that, Jay Rayner’s little piece (also published in the Guardian) called “In the kitchen I got the power“ should dispel it immediately. In the course of preparing an elaborate roast beef dinner, he too begins to wonder why he’s busting a gut slaving over a hot stove.
It’s just as I’m about to start seasoning the rib of beef, massaging it with mustard powder, salt and lust like it were the thigh of an eager lover, that the question occurs to me.
The question represents every cook’s existential dilemma – why am I doing this (when I could just as well be tossing a frozen dinner in the microwave or sending out for pizza). The answer in his case (as it often is in mine) is that he’s got guests coming over. Not pernickety, hard to please, judgmental guests, but old and dear friends who would doubtless be happy to eat any old nosh, because it’s the company they crave not the food. The unavoidable conclusion is that he’s doing it to impress. Even if we’re eating alone, we’re not beyond trying to impress ourselves, although as Rayner notes:
… when I’m eating alone at least I know it’s a meal with someone I love.
His conclusion is that cooking is not about love, but about control. In the kitchen, you are the boss (which is not necessarily the case in the bedroom). You set yourself a goal and complete it (also not guaranteed between the sheets). “You take the chaos of raw ingredients and you bring order. You make them do exactly what you want them to do and they don’t answer back.” Again the sex analogy falters (unless you’re into bondage).
All this aside (and like my grandmother’s Christmas dinners, it’s been a big aside), I found myself this year following the family tradition in cooking up several batches of home baked Christmas goodies to give away as presents. Given what’s gone before, pondering on my motives would be asking for trouble. Let’s just say I felt in the mood. Here’s what I made (and you can find the recipe by going to the link, except in the case of the Chunky choc-hazelnut stars where I’ve provided it.)
- Gingerbread Men (a second and more successful attempt)
- Gingerbread Cake
- Macadamia, Date and Goji Berry Bars
- Super Easy Shortbread (from the lovely Lucy at Bake, Play, Smile)
- Chunky Choc-Hazelnut Stars (recipe below)
- 125g butter, softened
- ¾ cup brown sugar
- 1 egg
- ¼ cup cocoa power, sifted
- ½ cup hazelnut meal
- 1¼ cups plain flour
- ¼ cup self-raising flour
- 100g dark chocolate, melted
- 120g toasted hazelnuts
- Icing sugar for dusting
- Using an electric mixer, beat butter, sugar and egg together until well combined.
- Stir in cocoa, hazelnut meal and flours.
- Knead mixture into a ball. Shape into a disc.
- Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
- Preheat oven to 170C/150C fan-forced.
- Line 4 baking trays with baking paper.
- Roll out dough between 2 sheets of baking paper until 1cm thick.
- Using a 4.5cm star-shaped cutter, cut shapes from dough, re-rolling dough scraps.
- Place on prepared trays.
- Bake stars, 1 tray at a time, for 10 to 12 minutes or until just firm to touch.
- Stand on trays for 10 minutes.
- Transfer to a wire rack to cool.
- Spoon chocolate into a snap-lock bag.
- Using scissors, snip 1 corner from bag.
- Pipe chocolate onto the centre of each star.
- Top each with 1 hazelnut.
- Set aside for 15 minutes to set.
- Dust stars with icing sugar.
Happy Christmas and enjoy whatever Christmas treats come your way!
by Anne Green