OUR 2020 COVID Christmas
Christmas 2020 was always going to be different.
We are used to festivities where half of the family is missing, because they are either living overseas, visiting in-laws or just decide to celebrate on their own on a deserted island!
For many years, cruising and living in Cairns, we have hosted orphan Christmases with fellow stranded friends. And one of the most memorable Christmas Day was in 2011, when anchored in the Caribbeans, we started the day with a snorkel followed by a local feast on the beach…just us and the locals.
What I am trying to say is that rolling with the punches is not unusual for us, many a times have we had to make the most of less than ideal situations. 2020 being the topsy turvy year of COVID, was the most challenging though in terms of uncertainty and anxiety.
In the lead up to this year’s Christmas, I had hopes to host our familiar crowd of 25. That number then dropped, initially due to family dramas then COVID dramas, wth borders closing and preventing interstate guests to travel up to Sydney. In the end, it was just as well, as an outbreak in the northern beaches a week before, led to new restrictions for the region of Greater Sydney: 10 adult visitors and “unlimited” number of children under 12 for the 3 days over Christmas.
So it was the usual gang of Mr T’s children and families joining , Mal and Danielle, Craig and Kathy, Shelley, Tania, Carolyn, Ian and Rosalie. We just managed to fit in with the new rules.
As for the food, the menu was devised weeks earlier. Times may be uncertain lately, but some things stay the same. That meant seafood, duck and Christmas cakes. At least! I pre-ordered what I could, and recipe tested what I couldn’t ( thanks to the family and friends who helped with the tastings !).
As always, I wanted to include new dishes and couldn’t decide which to leave out so we ended up with 5 Hors d’oeuvres to nibble on, 2 entrees, 1 main, 3 sides, 4 desserts. I texted the menu to our guests, asking them to bring their appetite and their favourite drinks, as a warning this would be a very long and late lunch!
So, here is what went down.
The nibbles were a mix of make-ahead finger food, such as sun-dried tomato pesto madeleines, mini cheese quiches, smoked trout, sour cream and cucumber slices. We also had foie gras and chutney on sourdough toasts ( I served the foie gras and chutney still in the jar for people to spread on their own toasts, it might not have been the best idea, I think people like easy finger food ). The only thing requiring last minute assembly was salmon roe and taramasala vol au vents, which Rosalie, Tania and Shelley were happy to be tasked with.
Then, we sat down for our entrees of baked oysters with parmesan breadcrumbs and curried salmon cassolette. Why 2 entrees? I know that the children and some adults are not fans of oysters ( raw or cooked ) so that was my way of providing an alternative. I served them “catering-style”, alternating between each guests, anticipating them to swap or share as they wished. It turns out Mr T didn’t want to share my salmon and kept his oysters all to himself.
We took a breather, and moved to the lounge room to open the presents, while the main and sides finished cooking in the oven. It was Christmas chaos as usual, a happy mess of excitement, torn wrapping paper, laughter, and loud exclamations.
Onto the main, the traditional duck magrets ( breasts ) were served with the equally traditional potatoes roasted in duck fat. There was also a pumpkin gratin and a Christmas salad, which was put together at the last minute so we could have something green on the table.
Desserts was a little different this year. Instead of the French Buche de Noel I usually make, I baked a Spiced Christmas Tree cake. This was mostly because I bought a Christmas Tree mould last year and wanted to use it again. I made a Moscato and Cherry Jelly last year with great success, and decided to bake a proper cake for the big day. It took a little practise to assemble, not unlike a gingerbread house, and once decorated and covered with icing sugar snow, it was the centrepiece of the dessert board. Then there were fruit cakes caneles, cold chocolate fondant and a raspberry semi-freddo, which acted as a sauce for all the other sweets.
It was well into the night when someone mentioned calling an Uber home before the clock hits midnight. I suspect that is to avoid the holiday surcharge, but also because some of our guests had to wake up at the crack of dawn to attend Christmas breakfast somewhere else. If we were in France, it would be the time to bring out more champagne and have a toast “Joyeux Noel”
I always look forward to Christmas Day. Not so much for the gifts but because it is always a day of peace and quiet for us after the busyness of Christmas Eve. Normally Maliney would be hosting Christmas dinner at Shelley’s but since she and John were stuck in Victoria, I opened our house to the girls and family friend, Tara, on the condition that I didn’t want to cook again ! I needn’t have worried, all the girls love cooking and watching them take over the kitchen was actually a joy to watch.
Shelley brought a turkey she had prepared earlier using the sous-vide method. In her words, it is the easiest way to cook the bird, since the sous vide does all the work for her. She even boasted that she managed to sleep in, while the turkey was cooking! All that was required was 30 minutes browning in the BBQ and the making of the gravy by Anne, under the watchful eyes of her sisters.
Carolyn made a potato salad, a family favourite. And Tania took care of the dessert, a modern version of a pavlova for Shelley’s birthday cake. My contribution was purely to provide the ham and ingredients for a seafood starter.
Carolyn took charge of the ham glazing and baking with military precision.
She also insisted, along with Tania and Tara, on peeling 3 kilos of tiger prawns when I suggested we leave guests to peel their own ( see, that’s how lazy I am on Christmas Day! )
Could someone make a cocktail sauce and mignonette dressing please?
Oh, and what about garlic butter for the lobster tails? Not a problem, they raided the kitchen and whipped up the most delicious meal without a glitch ( they have been well trained ). Should we have some sort of greens on the table? No, said Shelley, it’s my birthday and I don’t feel like vegetables except potatoes.
Fruits were ok though, in the form of watermelons drizzled in raspberry vanilla syrup, topping Tania’s creamy pavlova. She always bakes the loveliest cake for her sister’s birthday, and this one was on the lighter and sweeter side.
Christmas Day ended with a birthday song and a few more drinks, musing about the weird year that is 2020 ( and let’s be honest, a shocker for some of us ) and with still a week to go, who knows what kind of exit it will be. Let’s just hope that 2021 is kinder to all of us.
Salmon Roe and taramosalata vol au vents
While this snack requires assembling, it uses store bought ingredients and doesn’t need cooking. It could easily qualify as a “pantry” staple, except for the wild salmon caviar.
36 store bought small vol au vents
100g wild salmon caviar/roe
- Fill each vol au vents with 1 tsp of taramosalata
- Top each with 1/2 tsp of salmon caviar/roe
- Serve along with bubbly drinks
Sun dried tomatoes pesto madeleines
Here is a great recipe for entertaining. The batter can be prepared the day before, and baked in a few moments. Everyone loves a madeleine, and this savoury version is the perfect aperitif companion.
1/2 cup plain flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
2 eggs, at room temperature
1 tbsp olive oil
3 tbsp store bought sundried tomato pesto
Salt and pepper
- Lightly grease a 12-hole madeleine tin with olive or coconut oil. Place in the freezer until ready to use.
- Place the flour, baking powder, eggs, olive oil, sundried tomato pesto, salt and pepper in a large bowl and whisk until smooth. Leave the batter in the fridge for at least 1 hour or overnight, for it to chill ( this helps with the blending of the ingredients and creates a more aerated batter )
- Spoon the mixture into the cold madeleine tin 2/3 full. Place the batter filled tin back in the freezer for about 10 minutes, while you pre-heat the oven to 180C ( fan ). The cold batter hitting the hot temperature is what creates the typical “hump”
- Cook for 8-10 minutes until puffed and golden.
- Remove from the oven and let rest for 5 minutes, then carefully lift the cakes out of the tin. Cool on a wire rack and serve warm or at room temperature.
Baked Oysters with parmesan breadcrumbs
This is a simple way to serve warm oysters. Crumbing mixture can be prepared the day before, then it only takes minutes to bake and serve.
48 raw oysters, on the half shell
1 cup seasoned breadcrumbs
1 cup grated parmesan cheese
1/2 cup chopped green shallots
Salt and pepper
1 cup softened butter
- Pre-heat the oven at 180C
- Mix the breadcrumbs, parmesan cheese, shallots, salt and pepper in a small bowl. Set aside.
- Place the raw oysters on a baking sheet. Top the oysters with the breadcrumbs and 1/2 tsp of butter each
- Bake for 10-12 minutes
- Serve immediately.
Fruit cake caneles
This is an adaptation from a french recipe called “petits bouchons de noel”. It is a cross between a mini English fruit cake and a French canele, using a mix of dried fruits baked in a canele mould. It is perfect at the end of Christmas meal or to have with tea or coffee pre- or post-Christmas Day. As a matter of fact, I have been nibbling on leftovers for days so my advice is to make extras,(they keep for a while)
Makes 24 large caneles
500g mixed dried fruits ( I used sultanas, prunes and currants. You can also use dates, cranberries or raisins )
the juice of 1 orange
the juice of 1 lemon
2 tbsp brandy or cognac
130g butter, softened
125g brown sugar
150g plain flour
100g almond meal
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
a pinch of salt
- Chop the dried fruits finely and marinate in the orange, lemon juice and brandy for at least 1 hour ( overnight in the fridge is ok )
- Pre-heat the oven to 160C
- In a bowl, combine the flour, almond meal, salt and cinnamon. Set aside
- In a mixer bowl, process the butter and brown sugar with a paddle attachment until pale and creamy. Add the eggs one at a time, making sure they incorporate before each addition. Add the flour mixture, then the fruits and their marinade. Mix slowly until well combined.
- Spoon the mixture into caneles silicone moulds and bake for 45 minutes, checking that it is ready by inserting a skewer inside. It should come out clean and dry.
- rest the cakes in the moulds and turn out on a rack.
- Serve with ice cream or custard as a dessert, or plain with tea or coffee for a break!
Christmas Tree Spice Cake
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Kitchen.
This is a labour of love. Decorated and sprinkled with icing sugar snow, it is perfect as a centrepiece for the festive season. It also tastes delicious, seasoned with warm spices. This recipe comes from the Williams Sonoma Kitchen, using a William Sonoma Nordware mould. It uses vanilla buttercream for assembling but I wasn’t happy with their recipe, preferring to use a much easier one from Not Quite Nigella instead.
3 cups plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
1/8 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp grated nutmeg
1 1/4 tsp salt
1 1/4 cup milk
1 tbsp vanilla extract
225g unsalted butter
1 2/3 cup caster sugar
3/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
Vanilla Buttercream for assembling
- Have all the ingredients at room temperature.
- Position a rack in the lower third of an oven and preheat to 160C. Brush the pan with coconut oil and set aside.
- In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg and salt. In a small bowl, combine the milk and vanilla. Set aside.
- In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter on medium speed until creamy and smooth, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the caster sugar and brown sugar and continue beating until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes, stopping the mixer occasionally to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.
- Reduce the speed to low and add the flour mixture in three additions, alternating with the milk mixture and beginning and ending with the flour. Beat each addition until just incorporated, stopping the mixer occasionally to scrape down the sides of the bowl.
- Spoon the batter into the prepared pan, dividing it evenly between the two halves and spreading a little extra into the head area of the pan. Bake until the center of the cake springs back when touched and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 55 to 60 minutes. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and let the cake cool upright in the pan for 15 minutes.
- Tap the pan gently on a work surface to loosen the cake. Set the rack over the top of the cake, invert the pan onto the rack and lift off the pan. This is where things went wrong for me: the cake would not lift. I had to pry it loose with a knife, tap firmly and gently squeeze it out of the pan. It didnt come out unscathed, and required a certain amount of surgery with toothpicks holding it back together!
- Let the cake cool completely, 3 to 4 hours, before assembling and decorating with vanilla buttercream.
- To assemble and decorate: Return both halves of the cooled Christmas Tree cake to the pan. Level the cake by using a serrated knife to gently saw off the part of each cake half that rose above the edge of the pan. Then remove one half of the tree cake from the pan.
- To secure the two halves together, spread a thin layer of vanilla buttercream, about 1/2 cup, over the cut side of one half of the tree (the one still in the pan). Place the other on top of the buttercream and press down gently to secure the two halves. Refrigerate the cake in the pan until the buttercream is firm, about 30 minutes.
- In the center of a serving plate, place a mound of buttercream the size of the tree’s base. Remove the cake from the pan by lifting the pan vertically and tilting it forward, then catching the cake with your hand. Place the tree upright on the buttercream, cover loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate until the buttercream is firm, about 30 minutes.
- To decorate, sift icing sugar over the cake, as snow. Spread Xmas decorations all over the tree.
- Serves 12 to 14. This cake will last a week in the fridge, covered in plastic wrap.