An Aussie Christmas
We are well into 2015 and I realise that it is probably too late to wish all of you, readers, a Happy New Year. Too late because the festivities ended nearly 3 weeks ago. Too late because the tragic events in Paris 2 weeks ago sent shock waves around the world and cast dark shadows of sorrow and anger. Like most people, I have struggled to reconcile my deep concerns over what the future holds in the divided society we live in, and the hope that the people as a whole would rise to the challenge of learning to live peacefully with one another, no matter how different we all are. Needless to say that, like most food bloggers, I have found it impossible to write for a few days. Somehow raving about our Christmas feast and my favourite cookie recipe seemed…wrong. As I watched the events unfold and the outpouring of grief in the aftermath, I lost all interest in food. Bombarded with relentless news (both on Australian and French channels), I cooked on autopilot, more worried about world peace than kitchen wizardry.
Then gradually, life returned to normal (for us anyway) and being summer holidays in Australia, days have been spent dragged by my kids either at the beach for a surf, in the city for various camps, or at the mall for some sort of retail therapy (not quite working, I must be getting old). We have had a few get together with family and friends both on the boat and ashore, and as laughter and fun dominated, wine and conversations flowed. Hope and optimism came back too, and in these times of turmoil, this is what I wish the most for the New Year. For all of us.
My teenage son, has been reading over my shoulder and is telling me to stop being so dramatic, so I will now end the deep and meaningful part of the post and focus on the original story I had in mind: our Christmas feast and my favourite summer recipes (so far).
As some of you may know, we finally made landfall in Australia in November last year and have been settling back in Sydney, just in time for Christmas. After 3 years away, this was a much anticipated celebration which lasted 3 days! As per the French tradition, Christmas Eve dinner has always been the most important for us. For over 25 years, I have hosted the feast (except for these times when we were at my parents’ house in Paris, then Mum would be in charge) and served the traditional French fare. However, this time, the prospect of having 20 people on the boat (including 7 kids ranging from babies to 7 years old) for a sit down dinner AND a present opening session made me nervous. Thankfully, my husband’s son, Malcolm and his family offered to entertain at their house where the young ones could roam free and splash in the pool all afternoon while the adults got the meal ready. Just like in France, the whole family gathered around the big table: Terry and all his children, their partners, the grandchildren and that’s not counting some of the partners’ family who dropped in for a festive drink…A tribe, my mother would say. Just like in France, Christmas food is very serious business and the menu was devised weeks ago, with many emails exchanged discussing who would be cooking what. For, unlike in France, this was more of a potluck dinner where rather than one individual basking in the spotlight, everyone was asked to bring their signature dish. Think of it as celebrating our differences in a culinary way.
So the menu went like this:
Entrees/snacks: smoked salmon by Malcolm and Danielle, prosciutto wrapped asparagus and Guacamole by Craig and Kathy, curry puffs by Shelley and Tania, prawns with dill sauce by me
Mains: roast pork by Malcolm and Danielle, BBQ duck breasts (magrets) and nectarines by me
Salads: Caesar salad by Tania, rocket and strawberry salad by Craig
Desserts: Buche de Noel au Chocolat (Chocolate Log) by me, chocolate tarts and custard cake by Danielle…
Not mentioning the various treats thru the afternoon (jellies, cookies, etc…).
Had we been in France, we would have waited until midnight to open presents. But as much as our Australian family now enjoys December 24 as part of Christmas, they still don’t think of it as the real thing. They will eat and drink, open presents and try to go home early, anytime between 6pm and midnight, depending on how busy the next day will be. For Christmas Day is THE day for nearly every Aussie and where some families will be lucky enough to enjoy a quiet day at home (like us!), a lot race around trying to please as many relatives as possible. With so many blended families, I am always amazed to watch people travel miles in one day for family visits. Terry’s family is no different: there was early morning breakfast somewhere, brunch or lunch at someone else’s, followed by dinner for some…Throw in a couple of birthdays on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, then you end up with the ultimate party day . In our case, December 25 was a very subdued day, with our kids playing with their new toys, Terry reading his new book, and me…cooking again.
This time we were invited to friends’ house, along with Terry’s daughters, his ex-wife Maliney and her husband John. As I said before, ours is a very blended family, with ex-spouses, half-siblings, step-siblings, grand-children, new partners,… some would say it is a miracle we all get along, I like to think that a single common thread brought us together: my husband, who has always tried to bring the best out of everyone (the fact that everyone is very nice and kind by nature also helps, Terry has had his work cut out for him!) So, off we went to Peppy and Denzel’s place, whom we’ve known for over 20 years and celebrated a few Christmas in the past while staying at Maliney’s. The Christmases at Maliney’s were the stuff of legend, with close friends and families all gathered around the dinner table and this year’s, while hosted by Peppy, nothing had changed apart from the kids all grown up. As in the past, everyone was assigned a particular dish. I contributed my chicken liver mousse; another guest, Vida, made a spicy fish dip, more curry puffs from Shelley and Tania, followed by 2 roast turkeys (one prepared by Peppy, the other by Maliney), John’s Christmas ham and all the trimmings, then Maliney’s Christmas pudding (her signature dessert) AND Tania’s peanut butter cheesecake, which while not a Christmas dessert, was made especially for Shelley’s birthday. As for the drinks, you can’t start a party without John’s frozen strawberry daiquiri, which recipe he keeps a secret. Let’s just say one is deliciously refreshing, two is pleasantly intoxicating, and three is…at your own peril.
More than the great food, I really enjoyed watching the interaction between all of us, young and (not so) old, aussie blokes, exotic wives (Vida is Thai, Peppy is Malaysian, Maliney is Singaporean, and yours truly from Paris!), gorgeous kids of mixed heritage and their partners (from India, Norway…)…Not a sign of discord, the older kids (now young adults) treated the younger ones as equal (that would be my 16 and 11 year olds), newcomers were welcomed with open arms (boy, did I recognise myself in the freshly arrived 21- year old Norwegian girl!) and old jokes circulated around as they did 4 years ago. Maybe it was the Christmas spirit or the daiquiris, but though we only see each other every few years nowadays, I felt really blessed to have such great people in our lives.
Our friends from Cairns, David and Denise, flew in to visit us the next day. Boxing Day is always a quiet day, Terry never misses the start of the Sydney to Hobart yacht race (on TV that is, we’ve taken our boat in the harbour a couple of times before, and could not face the mayhem now), others watch the cricket or go to the movies. While Terry and David watched the boat race, I took Denise to Peppy’s, only to find the gang celebrating still, though this time the kids were gone and it was pure adult fun. Left over ham and cakes were served, washed down by copious amounts of wine and champagne. Denise blended in effortlessly, joining in the laughs…as we drove home, she commented on how friendly and accepting everyone had been. That is exactly how I felt.
All this talk of feasts brings me to the point I meant to make from the start. Christmas in Australia means summer, sunshine and balmy nights. As far as food goes, I can’t think of anything better than grilled meat and fresh seasonal fruits, and my favourite summer meal so far has been this Duck breasts (magrets) served with nectarines sautéed in duck fat. More than chicken or beef, duck is my favourite meat and while in France, where it is plentiful, we would have it at least weekly. In Australia, it is considered a treat and priced accordingly. I serve it on special occasions, savouring every part of it: the crispy skin, the rendered fat and the sweet juicy meat. The following dish was inspired by a recipe I found in my new favourite cookbook A Kitchen in France, where the author Mimi precooks the duck breasts and renders the fat. No different to how I do it, but she finishes them by grilling them over grapevines for a special taste of the vines. While I don’t have grapevines, I still like to flash them on the BBQ for a few minutes, to add a bit of smokiness. I have always reserved the rendered fat to cook potatoes with (they end up so crispy and infused with a unique flavour), but this time I used it to sauté nectarines instead. What a revelation! You should try it, it is a match made in heaven. After such a delicious main, there is no need for very rich desserts (except on Christmas Eve of course), simple coconut macaroons and a coffee round up the meal perfectly.
Grilled Duck Breasts
Serves 4, as a main
4 duck breasts (magrets), about 200g each (Australian cuts are much smaller than in France!)
Coarse salt and ground black pepper
4-6 nectarines, pitted and quartered
- Place the duck breasts on a board, skin side up and score the fat with a sharp knife in a criss-cross pattern. Season the duck on both sides with the salt and pepper, rubbing the salt inside the cuts.
- Put the meat in a large sauté pan, turning the heat to medium low and start pre-cooking the duck breasts. Do not add any extra fat (butter or oil), as the duck fat will render as it cooks and you will end up with a nice pool of it. Cook for 5 minutes, skin side down, pouring off the fat in a bowl gradually (reserve it for later use), then turning the meat over and cook for another 1 minute. Transfer to a plate and keep aside. At that stage, the breasts can be kept for a few hours, until ready to finish on the grill.
- Light up a grill or BBQ. When hot enough, transfer the duck breasts over and grill uncovered for 5 minutes or so on each side (until medium rare). Let them rest on a cutting board for a few minutes.
- In the meantime, heat 2 tablespoons of the reserved duck fat in a large sauté pan over medium heat (or in my case, on the flat plate of a BBQ). Cook the nectarines for about 5 minutes, until golden on all sides.
- Serve the duck breasts with the nectarines. Enjoy!
The credit for the recipe goes to Ferran Adria, owner and head chef of the legendary elBulli restaurant in northern Spain. Hailed as the father of molecular gastronomy, he was voted the best chef in the world and his restaurant the best in the world many times. El Bulli closed in 2011, but Ferran Adria has not stopped cooking and indeed he has opened new establishments such as tapas joints Tickets in Barcelona. I came across one of his books The Family Meal last year while in Mexico, and immediately fell in love with the collection of home cooking recipes for the dishes eaten every day by the staff at El Bulli. I never got to eat there (in its heyday, the restaurant received up to 1,000,000 reservation requests and only accommodated 8,000!), but at least I can pretend I eat the same as the world’s best chef!
Serve 6 – makes 30
200g unsweetened desiccated coconut
200g caster sugar
- Preheat the oven to 180C.
- Mix the coconut and sugar in a large bowl. In another bowl, beat the eggs with a whisk. Stir the eggs into the coconut and sugar mixture. Mix with your hands until combined evenly.
- Using your hands or 2 teaspoons, shape the mix into walnut size balls. Place on a baking tray, lined with parchment paper. Bake for 13 minutes or until lightly golden (watch them, they can burn quickly!!! See the photo). Leave to cool before serving.
- Serve for a light dessert or a special treat with coffee. Enjoy!