Nigel Slater, guardian.co.uk, Modified: April 19, 2013 16:09 IST
In this extract from Nigel Slater's Kitchen Diaries II, it's Christmas Eve and the cranberry sauce and mince pies are ready.
The kitchen is heavy with expectation. Sugar-crusted mince pies, whose sweet, spice-laden filling has spilled out and caramelised on the baking tin; syrup-preserved ginger that I have dipped into bitter chocolate waits on sheets of snow-white baking parchment; oranges spiked with cloves hanging from ribbons make the kitchen smell like something from Hansel and Gretel. Every inch of counter space is home to something for the feast: a bottle of brandy for the pudding, a red cabbage too big for the fridge, and enough sweets and treats, from candy canes to clementines, to fill an army of Christmas stockings.
The fridge, too, is an Aladdin's cave of delights. Links of shiny chipolatas for roasting with the goose; a cracked bowl of apple sauce speckled with cinnamon; the glistening cranberry sauce to bring out for Boxing Day sandwiches with crisps and ice-cold Cox's apples. There is a rolled joint of ham, which I simmered earlier in apple juice and juniper, awaiting its final coat of marmalade, mustard and crumbs; some little carrot patties that will be served to the vegetarians with a sauce of fresh ginger and coriander and a pot of organic cream for the plum pudding.
I want to stop, sit down and pour myself a little drink. Something sweet and seasonal that wouldn't normally get past my lips, such as a glass of golden Madeira, something that smells of Christmas. I want to sit and take it all in, to gloat over what I have done and to calm my suppressed panic about what there is left to do. The tree sparkles with gold and silver, the carols are on and the house is, for once, as warm as toast.
The cabbage is pickled, the marinated salmon is ready to slice, the plum pudding is primed for its second steam in the morning. I have poached a dish of quinces (though I'm not entirely sure why) and have secured the ribbon round the cake with a pin. The pomegranates are peeled and the seeds crumbled into a bowl ready to drop into glasses of champagne; a pineapple is "panic-ripening" by the Aga.
But then, I have still to climb on the roof to lift the caps off the chimneys (for an open fire, you understand, not for the arrival of some jolly, bearded guy with a sack of toys), make the stuffing for the goose, make mustard sauce for the smoked salmon and knock up some brandy butter for those who insist on it for the pudding. I prefer cream with my pud, but if I am making a sweet Christmas butter, then it will have plenty of finely grated orange and lemon zest in it, and a knife-point of nutmeg, too. Rather than the traditional sage and onion, I am stuffing a chickpea and sausage mixture up the goose's bum as well as roasting some potatoes around it. The fat that pours out will be poured off for roasting potatoes another day.
If all this sounds a bit overexcited, I should explain. I am a relative newcomer to Christmas celebrations. Having fought (and lost) against its non-negotiability for years, I now find I am well and truly hooked up in wrapping, shopping and chopping more than is probably wise for someone of my years. Plum pudding and the laden tree I have always had a soft spot for, but the lure of the rest of the celebrations eluded me until surprisingly recently. Now I think I could eat roast goose and the trimmings every week of the year. The Christmas spirit has slowly, almost unnoticeably, crept up on me, like wrinkles.
One of the most successful of all Christmas desserts has been my habit of passing round a giant plate of edible treasures after, or sometimes instead of, pudding. A vast oval serving plate piled high with all manner of goodies: shelled almonds, expensive chocolates, sticky dates, pistachio nougat, chunks of uncut candied orange peel, huge seedy raisins on the vine, marrons glacés, and even some of those rather naff foil-wrapped liqueur chocolates that one sneers at yet secretly quite fancies.
I would be lost without the presence of a great fruit-studded panettone. I know there are those who think it's just a big Italian cupcake, but so what? A thick slice, toasted and served with a cappuccino, is a mid-morning treat, and the warm candied peel in it makes the house smell even more Christmassy. The ancient, lightly yeasted bread can also be hauled in to act as an impromptu dessert, either by sandwiching slices of it together with a lemon curd and cream or in a bread and butter pudding. Its calm spice notes will perfume the egg custard and send the most heavenly wafts of warm vanilla floating through the house.
This is the most magical of all moments - the hour of peace and quiet before we go to bed on Christmas Eve. It is when I put the carols on and pray for overnight snow. This is also the point at which I open the fridge and make a checklist of things to do tomorrow: the bird, of course; slice the red cabbage for stewing with apples and cinnamon; make the batter for some Christmas-morning blini to eat with slices of smoked salmon and glasses of champagne in lieu of breakfast; squeeze the orange juice. There will, of course, be some sort of Christmas Day drama - there always is - and especially as I have a sneaking suspicion I'm out of tin foil. But I'm not going to look. This is the moment I have been waiting for all year, and I'm going to open a bottle, sit in peace and breathe in the glorious citrus-and-nutmeg scent of Christmas Eve.
Extracted from The Kitchen Diaries II by Nigel Slater, Fourth Estate, RRP £30. To order a copy for £19.99, with free UK p&p, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshopIn picture: Nigel Slater. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod
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