Viv Groskop, guardian.co.uk, Modified: April 19, 2013 15:33 IST
Every year I vow Christmas will be different this time. And every year I end up covered in icing sugar and reheated jam, crying. But secretly happy.
For some people Christmas is a time for family, relaxation and calm. Not in this house. Here Christmas is the time for culinary excess, gargantuan effort and a great deal of self-indulgence. It is the time for making professional canapés in industrial quantities. It is the time for concocting grandiose plans involving homemade eggnog, the ultimate festive hot crab dip and complicated mince pie recipes with ground almond pastry, cranberry and apple mincemeat and pecan and pistachio toppings. Without all this ambition - and, to be honest, the intention is far more important than the execution - it isn't even December.
Every year this involves increasingly complicated and megalomaniacal visions of gourmet excellence. Every year these mostly go horribly wrong. Every year I vow this year will be different. Every year I forget what happened last year and start thinking up new ways to torture myself. It's like 50 Shades of Grey crossed with Delia's Happy Christmas (her best book). There's no Red Room of pain. There's just me in my kitchen covered in icing sugar and reheated apricot jam. Crying. But secretly happy.
Most people regard the mix of Christmas and food as a source of tension. There is all the pressure of the big family get-together and having to feed large numbers of relatives with anger management issues. Now on top of all that there's the aesthetic weight of the foodie Christmas porn that surrounds us for months in advance. Not only must you cater on a grand scale, but you must do it stylishly, tastefully and most probably organically, too.
But if you use that as inspiration rather than an ideal, there is surely much warped pleasure to be had in attempting to create the perfect imperfect Christmas. It's not about wanting to be like the TV chefs with their lavish festive feasts. Who is fooled by their airbrushed, food-stylist-assisted spreads anyway? It's about trying to create something magical - no matter how flawed - under your own steam. And forcing yourself to enjoy the attempt, however it may turn out. Perhaps this is even more important in a recession. After all, if you do everything from scratch yourself, it will be cheaper anyway, right? (Wrong. This is denial. We'll all spend money we don't have. But never mind.)
For me, the quest for the ultimate, over-the-top festive treats started as a reaction against my boringly predictable childhood Christmases. My mum was the one who did everything in our house. It was a safe, respectable, traditional Christmas with all the trimmings. It felt almost superstitious. As if deviating from what was expected might cause something terrible to happen. The tradition-for-the-sake-of-it always grated. As did watching Mum slave in a kitchen for hours on end, grim-faced and determined.
In those days rules seemed to triumph over fun. But why must we have brussels sprouts when no one likes them? Why Christmas pudding when no one even eats any of it? Why mushy peas for grandad when no one else will have them near them and they are disgusting and stink the place out? The attitude was: "This is manageable. And it is traditional. Anything else is madness. Best not to over-stretch yourself." Fun, unpredictability or going off-piste? Dangerous and ill-advised.
Away from the Christmas meal, if we had people round for Boxing Day then other "traditional" things would be served which were equally unwanted. Frozen supermarket sausage rolls. Cheesy footballs. Chicken vol-au-vents. Has anyone ever in the history of the universe ever actually enjoyed a vol-au-vent? That stuff is funeral food with no place at Christmas parties. Christmas parties need some madness. This involves risk. And investment. And so the seed of enthusiastic but labour-intensive rebellion was sown.
Thirty years on, however, no one in my family wants the kind of madness I would serve up as a main course on 25 December. (It would be one of those bird-stuffed-in-a-bird-stuffed-in-a-bird things if I had my way.) No. My stoical husband does that bit. The turkey, the bread sauce, the roast potatoes. That way everyone knows they will get a decent Christmas dinner. He is dependable. And good at Sunday roast. I am neurotic and showy. Once everyone has accepted this, my energies can then focus - in a lunatic, scattergun and obsessive manner - on everything surrounding lunch.
I am a maker of fiddly canapés, themed cupcakes and elaborate structures which collapse at the last minute. I love the small things, the food equivalent of baubles and stocking fillers, because they're frivolous and self-indulgent and there is no reason to have them other than the fact that you want them. The aim is to find things everyone wants but doesn't dare ask for. The perfect hot chocolate with Christmas-themed sprinkles, a stick of cinnamon and a grating of nutmeg. Miniature Christmas cakes wrapped with red velvet ribbons. Cookies for the tree with the stained glass window effect. I've tried them all - never really successfully. But they're all back on the list this year. Because I am damned if I'll be beaten by them.
Now that we're all assaulted by global foodie options and expert advice from Delia's 18th-century chestnut stuffing to Nigella's festive butternut orzotto, the choice can seem bewildering, like the Christmas equivalent of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I think this is inspiring. But it's not for everyone. My husband would probably rather I didn't become obsessed with things such as a festive sidepiece (not actually for eating) in the shape of a Martha Stewart Wedgwood snowflake cake, made by dusting icing sugar over a paper doily. Or the Australian Women's Weekly Christmas miniatures catalogue featuring hors d'oeuvres fit for a doll's tea party such as walnut-sized Christmas puddings and mini mince pies.
Sometimes I wonder if anyone apart from me really likes all this gastronomic tat. Last December I spent weeks scouring books for a recipe for the perfect seasonal crab dip. Who doesn't love a hot seafood dip at a Christmas party? As the hallowed platter - piping hot, delicious - went round at a drinks party I heard someone mutter, "God, it's like Margo in The Good Life." The variety of hand-decorated seasonal cupcakes also caused stress. "Did you make these yourself? It must have taken you ages. Why bother?"
I see it written on their faces: "If this is what you're expecting, you're not coming round to ours. We've only got Twiglets and Quality Street." Because for many people the whole point of Christmas is to make cooking easier not more difficult. They want a dose of tradition without getting stressed. That's all right. We will agree to differ and I will come to your house and eat green triangles. But I say this approach is for wimps. Or enemies of Christmas.
Still, we don't talk about the biscotti year. I made three different kinds of seasonal biscotti: cherries and almonds; chocolate and pistachio; chocolate orange and cranberry. I spent a fortune on ribbons and special snowman bags to put them in. And then I couldn't be bothered to wrap them and forgot to give them away as presents. Within 24 hours, I had somehow eaten them all myself. "Mummy, where are all those things you made?" "Er... they got eaten." Christmas is about generosity. And there is no better gift than indulging your worst side. Long may I suffer. Wassail!
In Picture: Model: Ivane G at Profile Models. Photograph: Gary Salter for the Observer