“I’ve made my stollen already,” declared Karin over dinner last Thursday. We’d been invited to Katrin and Andy’s for a Swiss evening and were busily piling salami and raw vegetables into baby-sized frying pans (I just wrote ‘baby frying pans’ and thought against it – I mean, who’d want to fry a baby?) before adding melty cheese and toasting them under the raclette grill. Karin and her husband Matteus are German. Katrin is German but has lived in Switzerland and here we were in Malaysia with Christmas right around the corner.
As dessert, Katrin brought out a plate of homemade lebkuchen, those scrummy soft and spicy cookies dipped in dark chocolate together with chocolate covered marzipan.
Stollen, lebkuchen, raclette, these are the foods that cry out for log fires and woolly jumpers and here we sat under both fan and a/c glad that the heat from the grills was not too sweat-inducing.
Taking your culture’s Christmas traditions with you and recreating them in a new location is something expats work hard to achieve and while I’d never cross the street for a slice of stollen, I’d find it hard to pass up a mince pie and a glass of mulled wine.
Mince pies? If I only make one thing at this time of year it’s mince pies. I’ve got used to the incredulity of those to whom I announce this.
“What? With meat?’ they ask.
“No, they’re sweet. Filled with dried fruit,” I explain.
Their faces fall. But for me, I have to make two dozen mince pies every year. In Dubai, I’d buy the alcohol-laden variety of mincemeat when back in England and smuggle it back. But today, two decades later it is pretty easy to buy anything in the Village Grocer.
And so it was with confidence that I headed to the supermarket last week. I’d already spied a stack of Christmas puddings, chocolate mini rolls, Christmas cake, tree decorations, shortbread and crackers (the sort that go bang, not the sort that you put cheese on). Mincemeat could not be far away. Not so.
I tried the jam section because that’s where it belongs, along with other things in jars. No joy.
I found a shop assistant close to the jars.
“Do you sell mincemeat?” I asked.
She led me to the butchery section.
“No, it’s sweet. For pies,” I explained.
She went pale, gave out a small yelp and summoned the manager, who knew just what I meant and led me to the bakery section, where my prize stood next to a jif lemon and some icing sugar. Of course.
Proud of my achievement I came straight home and made a pound of pastry and then left it in the fridge to rest until the day before I needed to make the pies. We were having a carols and mulled wine evening for a few friends on Saturday and I wanted to make them fresh.
When I took the dough out of the fridge on Friday it was rock hard. I left it to warm up a bit, knowing that in our typical Malaysian air-conditioning free kitchen, it would not take long.
An hour later I poured a liberal coating of flour on the fake marble work surface, wishing for a moment it were real marble as that would be cool. The words of my Bero recipe book came into my mind, ‘knead with a cool hand,’ it demanded. Cool hand? In this kitchen? I turned our wall fan up to full speed.
I discovered I needed way more flour than usual and that the dough stuck to both the work surface and the rolling pin but I perservered, left the unused bits to one side and managed to fill the pie tins fairly well.
Then it all went horribly wrong.
This was when I discovered that YOU CAN’T RE-USE PASTRY OFFCUTS IN A HOT KITCHEN. They stick to the surface despite liberal amounts of more flour. They refuse to stick together. They stick to the rolling pin. They stick to me. In the end I had to jigsaw together the tops to the pies. Now, if my goal had been mincemeat crumble pies I’d have been okay.
Anyway, I shrugged. They’d have to do. Not many of my guests were British and so most people wouldn’t know the difference. A dusting of icing sugar, thick as snow, disguised much of the evidence anyway.
On the evening itself I laid the table with my Christmas cloth, lit a few candles, put up the tree and some lights and Ian got his violin ready. Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without raising a glass of mulled wine with friends and singing Away in a Manger either now, would it? With thanks to Jimmy James for his expert accompaniment on the piano.