November 30, 2012

Exercising the Rite and Right for Christmas Pudding

The days are sharp, short and cold now.

I find myself looking at the weather radar screen for the striations of pale blue that tell me that snow is on its way. Yes. I want snow at this time of year. And Toronto tends to have a force field around it that pushes snow in every direction but inward.

Yes that was a taunting jab at the gods.

Canadians are completely bonkers about this. A White Christmas is more than a movie – it’s a national rite. I get a little thrill from seeing catalogues of sweaters, slippers, and snow sliders. I buy apple cider by the jug. I can’t do anything about a fireplace without setting off the smoke alarms, as we don’t have a fireplace.

I know what it is. I’m looking forward to Christmas – for the sense of festivity, for the food.

And an important ritual has just passed. Mum has finished making her Christmas puddings. And she’s written down the recipe for the first time in her 85 years. (Okay I give her a waiver for the first decade…maybe two.)

If you like Christmas fruitcake (I know, I know I’m talking to a select audience)…are partial to the deep scent of allspice, cloves and sweetness…and you haven’t tried Christmas pudding…it’s kind of a combination of naughty and nice. And maybe, just maybe, an acquired taste.

I still remember one Christmas…when I was about 9 – back when we dressed up for Christmas dinner – ladies in long dresses, men in suits and ties, when the ritual of the Christmas pudding hit its stride. The pudding was always brought on a platter from the kitchen to the dining room in a kind of procession like a birthday cake…the lights went dim, then in came a flaming mound of pudding – the blue alcohol-ho-ho-ho-lic flames tickling the entire pudding – right down to the plate. There was a plentiful supply of brandy. And there were cheers all round.

And I hated it. I loved the cream and the custard that went with it…but the pudding. Yuck. Everyone was so happy to see the platter come in. And I burst into tears. Sobbing, needy tears. “Why – sob - can’t – sob - I – sob – like – sob - Christmas pudding? What’s wrong with me?”

I got cuddled and calmed and given a bowl of peaches to have with my cream…but I still felt the indignation of not being a part of it, and not ‘getting’ it.

But I wasn't alone. The Christmas pudding world is split decisively and irrevocably between those who love and those who hate it.

As it turns out I grew up to LOVE it – especially my Mum’s – and am now making up for some seriously lost time.

Of course, I found out that the majority of the people in my world would choose the canned peaches and cream over anything like Christmas pudding.

Which is fine. More for us right?

My Mum was in a rush to get them made in November – she says they need at least a month and (Delia Smith suggests 6-8 weeks and no more).  That said - Mum told me her aunt found an old Christmas pudding in the larder that had been put there during the war and forgotten. About five years later they discovered it during a larder excavation and decided to give it a go in the steamer. She said it was delicious - although you could only stomach a small slice as it was so rich...and in a time of such is as good as it gets.

This is a mashup of Mum’s various recipes and experience with Delia Smith’s recipe…the best kind of mashup.

My Mum’s Christmas Pudding (adapted from Delia Smith’s Christmas) and how it looked on Christmas night

Makes 2 - 1 pint puds

4 oz. suet, shredded (if you’re a vegetarian, this is not for you. I find suet in the freezer section of the market, usually next to the tubes of sausage meat)
2 oz. flour
4 oz. breadcrumbs
1 tsp. ground mixed spice
¼ tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
“a good pinch” of ground cinnamon
8 oz. dark brown sugar
4 oz. sultanas
4 oz. raisins
10 oz. currants
(the recipe does call for 1 oz. candied peel, but I draw the line at candied peel…ugh…so we add a little more of the other dried fruit, or add dried cranberries.)
1 oz. chopped almonds
1 small apple, peeled, cored, finely chopped
Zest of ½ large orange
Zest of ½ large lemon
2 eggs
2½ oz. barley wine (Mum has never used any of these liquors in her pudding…)
2½ oz. stout
2 tbsp. rum

Mum always uses brandy or cognac, and used the rum for the first time this year. Use any malt liquor, she says. She’s used rye and/or whisky. She has also topped up with apple juice if she doesn’t have quite enough.

The day before: Take a large mixing bowl, mix together the suet, flour, breadcrumbs, spices and sugar.
Gradually mix in all the dried fruit and nuts. Add the apple and orange and lemon zest.

In a smaller bowl mix the liquor, then add the eggs and beat thoroughly.

Here comes the muscle part: add this liquid concoction to the other ingredients and mix thoroughly.

I love this part in Delia Smith’s recipe: “It’s now traditional to gather all the family round, especially the children, and invite everyone to have a really good stir and make a wish…”

It should be sloppy. Cover the bowl and leave overnight.

Next day, prepare two lightly-greased pudding basins. Split the mixture between them. Cover them with a double sheet of wax paper and a sheet of foil and tie it securely with string. (Another gem from Delia: “…it’s also a good idea to tie a piece of string across the top to make a handle.”)

Put the pudding basin in a steamer, over a pot of simmering water and steam it for 8 hours (steam both puddings for the same length of time - even if in two separate steamers). Keep an eye on the water level and keep adding boiling water from the kettle when it’s getting low.

When it’s done, let it cool. Replace the wax paper and foil with fresh ones.

Keep it in a dark, cool place until Christmas Day.

To reheat it fill a pot with water and bring it to the boil. Put a steamer on top, turn the heat down to a simmer. Put the pudding in the steamer, cover, and let it steam for approximately two hours. Keep an eye on the water level - we've all made the mistake of letting it boil dry…

To serve it slide a knife or spatula around the outer edge of the pudding, place a plate upside down on the top of the pudding bowl, then quickly turn it over. If you’ve loosened the pudding well enough, you should be able to pull the pudding bowl off and reveal a beautiful Christmas pudding all ready to go on the plate. Except for one thing...

The flaming cognac!

Heat a ladle full of brandy or cognac on the stove…suspend it over the pudding and get someone to light a match and bring it close to the ladel – please watch your arms and assorted body parts at this point. Once the brandy is alight, pour it over the pudding – Delia says to do this at the table…not sure how you walk from the kitchen to the table with a flaming ladle of brandy…but…since my kitchen and dining room are one, I can pour the flaming brandy directly onto the pudding and bring the plate with flaming pudding to the table…still pretty spectacular. 

And wayyyyyy better than canned peaches. Seriously.

Serve with whipped cream or rum butter or custard…and may whatever you and your family wished for come true...

November 23, 2012

I Was a Sibling Once

Foreboding joy. I didn’t know there was a name for it.

I came across it in BrenĂ© Brown’s work. I’ve been inspired this week to read more from the University of Houston research professor who came to my attention a few years ago in that spellbinding TED talk she did on vulnerability. She has spent years and years talking to thousands of people about how shame and vulnerability have shaped their lives. Because it does.

I know it.

I, and perhaps I should say we, seem to have slipped down the slope towards reckoning again. I know so many people who are rethinking their lives – their careers – their relationships…it’s a sine wave that oscillates through time…I figure we get to reckon…then we get to test…then we get to deploy what we’ve learned until the next down curve. 


I’m reading Brown’s Daring Greatly in the hopes it can inspire me to believe more in me…so I can believe in myself the way I believe, with jaw-dropping awe, in my beautiful friends and family and husband.

She argues that joy is 'probably the most difficult emotion to feel'. Foreboding joy is that sense you can’t trust how good you’ve got it. That life will kick you in the ass as soon as you relax into joy. So, don’t try it, don’t tempt fate, and best of all, expect the worst.

Well I know that feeling well. I grew up with it. Might as well expect the worst. Because that’s what happens. The worst.

I came by it honestly.

BrenĂ© Brown wrote about looking at her children sleeping – and in that moment full of bliss, she let her guard down…feeling all the love that took her breath away. And in the next moment her mind was flooded with images of terrible things happening to them, “I was sure that no one but me pictured car wrecks and rehearsed the horrific phone conversations with the police that all of us dread…”

My mother got that call.

On the evening of November 23rd in 1970.

My brother, Richard, just two weeks after his 20th birthday, went away with a friend for the weekend. They were going horseback riding. It was cold, so cold that November. His friend pulled up in the red Volkswagen beetle, Richard got in…the sun was going down, the light was very blue and wintry. We heard nothing until the phone rang.

I picked it up. I was seven. I can still hear the man with the Quebecois accent asking to speak to my mother.

Mum was…I don’t know…breaking apart while she listened. When she hung up, she told me there had been an accident. Richard was injured.

The cop wanted to come over. Mum was scared. She called our neighbours around the corner, Uncle Eddie and Auntie Lise…Eddie showed up right away. I ran next door, I think, to get Auntie Val and tell her something had happened.

When the cop arrived I was told to go to the bedroom and close the door. I did. But I went to my Mum’s room, not mine.

And I remember putting my two hands on her dresser and staring hard…so hard into the mirror. Looking for something – I don’t know what…horror, fear…an answer to why this family was being cursed with so many tectonic earthquakes. My father had left a few years before to be with someone else. My brother ran off to live with friends downtown – and turned to drugs to medicate his way through his young manhood which was bearing down on him hard - which took us to more than one hospital in the middle of the night as he overdosed, got hepatitis, freaked my Mum out. Mum had had to go to work, I was bounced from house to house for daycare – and I remember just nodding my head and going with the flow…and trying not to be shattered by it all. Tectonic.

When they called me out of the bedroom, Mum was pulling on her coat. She said I was going to stay at Uncle Eddie’s and Aunt Lise’s until morning. She had to go to the hospital. I wanted to go with her. I didn’t need any more separation. But it was not an option.

The red Volkswagen had raced down the backroads of our small town of Chambly. They were narrow country roads, and there were a couple of small bridges crossing the nearby creek that tumbled into the Richelieu River. We’d had a hard freeze. Snow and ice everywhere. The driver was going too fast – he jumped a bridge, hit a curve, couldn’t make it, slid on ice, and the car tumbled a couple of times and hit a tree. This was not the era of headrests, seatbelts, or airbags. Richard sprawled across the car. The driver crawled out…unharmed.

The next morning I was getting ready for school when Uncle Eddie said I could go see Mum. She wasn’t at home though. She was next door at Auntie Val’s. When I walked in the weight of the air was oppressive and scary. People were around her, all of them looking at me. But all I could really see was her. Mum’s face is seared on my brain. It’s broken into a million pieces, like glass that hasn’t come apart…not yet…but is about to crumble into shards on the ground and impossible to ever fix. She tells me Richard has been in an accident that has caused brain damage. Which at least means he’s alive, I think…but she says no, he's dead.

Okay. Okay. Okay….Okay…

Go to school. Be normal. Life without my brother begins.

In my mother’s own way she tried to keep me from everything painful…I went to school…even during his funeral.

Then things turn into snapshots – my father calling short a vacation with his girlfriend in Barbados. He comes home. When I ask him to stay, he promises never to leave again. He can’t keep it. The sense of adrenaline in my body as I tell my teacher, Mrs. Barry, that Richard died last night. Weirdness. And then her face. And that I’m fine. Just fine.

My mother breaking down as my brother’s best friend comes in the door for the funeral reception – I was home from school as people were arriving. ‘Oh,’ she wails. You can hear a pin drop as everyone looks on. He stops cold in the foyer…She blurts out, ‘if you had come home for the weekend he wouldn’t have gone away.’ But he didn’t come home, couldn’t. So Richard decided to go away with his other friend. 'Shall I leave?' he says. My mother recovers herself, says no of course not…and he comes in…

In the summer of 1970 my brother had finally come home to live. He was getting through his drug addiction – on his own. And yes, that led to some interesting scenes where holes got punched in cupboard doors and walls. Yikes.

I remember after he came home that I was able to tell the neighbourhood kids, ‘my brother will come beat you up if you mess with me.’ I remember him tickling me so hard, that I actually didn’t like having a brother very much at that moment. I remember him patiently examining my attempts at making letters and words. I remember my need to impress him. I remember he decided he was going to become a teacher. And go back to school in January. I remember he loved cooking. I remember he could climb on the roof of the house, without a ladder, to look at the sunset. I remember his guitar. Then his electric guitar…and jumping out of my skin late at night when he turned on the amp. I remember he had a car in the garage – that never worked. I remember him giving me a little leather tobacco pouch that he had. It’s on my mantle now – and it’s my talisman of family. I remember him taking me out for Hallowe’en. In 1970 they almost cancelled Hallowe’en because of the FLQ crisis. Richard walked me round to get my candy. And I felt pretty damned safe, let me tell you. I don’t remember my costume. Little did I know I had but three weeks more with him.

A song by Frank Sinatra called ‘Didn’t We’ came out then…and it used to make Mum cry and probably still would…because it was about almost making it…and Richard, with Mum's help, almost had.

I also lost touch with everyone who knew him – at least until facebook came along. And without them I forgot, or never knew, what he was really like. And at seven when you lose someone like that, you forget what they look like… He had long hair. He was tall. I couldn’t remember life with him. I couldn’t remember his face or his laugh. He disappeared.

And I started calling myself an only child.

So I grew up knowing that sense of foreboding joy. That shit does rain down on people. The phone does ring. And sometimes it is the cops. And after almost 40 years of armouring myself against that, I started a long journey of reckoning. And I let myself know that I wasn’t fine. That it sucked. It was unjust. And it hurt. And it made me so angry.

I don’t know why these things happen to good people. There’s no judgement in nature. It just is.

And reckoning, I've learned the hard way, is actually the upside of the curve of the sine wave. An uphill battle, mind you...but upwards.

I do know love. The real thing. And my Mum and I made it through the worst of things, even those that were yet to come.

I reconnected with a friend of Richard’s, and a couple of years ago we finally met for dinner. I now tease him mercilessly like I’ve known him my whole life. And occasionally he looks at me weirdly – he can see Richard in me. I know it. I hope it doesn’t cause him pain. When we left the restaurant we walked back to our car to give him a ride back to his hotel. My husband, mother, our re-found friend and I heard a whooshing sound overhead…loud enough for us all to look up. A meteor left a trail of silver sparks across the night sky. It was low, and blindingly bright, and beautiful. We all looked at each other…no one spoke. Maybe, just maybe it was a talisman of joy…just pure unadulterated joy. I'd like to think so.

November 13, 2012

On Stewing Beef

Hey, I’m back…know why?

I quit my job.

I loved my job. First staff job ever…pension…benefits…all the grown-up stuff that I haven’t had in a 20 year+ career…

But I faced one of those defining moments that comes along once in a while, when you have to test your own sense of self – really, really think about what you value and care about. I faced it. And I faced it down.

I walked. Because I could. It was stunning. In the sense that I was stunned by the whole thing.

The whole adventure, which took up a few months of this year, was only the beginning of the journey as it turns out. Freedom can be something of a burden.

My psyche decided everything was up for debate – profession, career, education, hair colour, bathroom tiles.

I’m loving, and hating, and wrestling with, the not so-easy-trip…and with all this transition around us, I could use some food I can count on. I’m kind of surprised I put stew in this category.

I’m not a stew person. I mean, as a verb, sure. I can stew. But eating it? Unless it has bourgignon in the title, not so interested.

During Hurricane Sandy, the New York Times posted an old recipe by Craig Claibourne for beef stew. And something in the impending clouds, and wind and rain whispered it was time to try a stew. 

I went up to The Meat Department on our Toronto neighbourhood’s ‘high street’. Apart from being super friendly and helpful, they know their stuff – just spend some time salivating in front of the drying, aged beef - - at various well-labeled stages of delicious degradation…don’t worry it’s behind glass. They also have a chalkboard that takes up the entire wall behind the counter. On it are the listings of the sports teams from baseball, to football to hockey – including a seriously debatable list of athletes who are not welcome in the store. Like Tim Tebow. Now, I disagree. I would so want to sell Tebow a steak…I’d probably name it after him, if he hasn’t trademarked it yet. know...the Tim TBone. Yes I did. That man’s arms looks like he knows his way with a fork – even if everyone debates his throws.

Well…when I have more time and am not trying to stock the house against impending doom, I will grab a coffee and go debate them on that list. Which reminds me - I’d better go see that Aaron Rodgers is welcome…or we’re going to have a problem.

But I was after stew.

My man had a 2-lb. chuck roast with gorgeous marbling that was going to give this stew its heart and soul. He wrapped it in paper and handed it over. I slid it next to my bottle of chianti classico. And leaning into the wind, and the dark, and the now epic rain, I headed home.

I cut the recipe in half. I also made this gluten free for me celiac husband…so no flour to be seen…but note that I’ve told you where and how the original recipe uses it. This will serve 4.

2-lb chuck roast, cut into 2” cubes
1/8 cup olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
½ tbsp. garlic, chopped finely
1 cup onions, chopped coarsely  
3 tbsp. rice flour (recipe calls for 3 tbsp. flour)   
2 cups red wine
1 cup water
2 whole cloves
½ bay leaf (I used a small one)
¼ tsp. thyme
3 sprigs parsley
3 large carrots, peeled

Brown the meat in a large skillet by heating the oil first and adding the beef in a layer. Salt and pepper the meat. Two things to know anytime you’re making a stew or stew-like meal: make sure the beef cubes are dry (I use paper towels) and don’t crowd the pan – if necessary brown the meat in batches. Turn the pieces to get them nice and brown – this should take about 10 minutes.

Add the garlic and onions and cook for another 10 minutes.

Sprinkle the rice flour over the meat and stir in until it’s coated evenly (or use regular flour).

Ahhh the best part…add the wine. Stir and let it all boil and thicken.

Then stir in the water. (OK first time I made this, I added all the liquid at once – my bad – another thing to know: read recipes carefully all the way through before you even start cutting an onion…Given that I couldn’t use flour to thicken the sauce, I ended up making a slurry of cornstarch and water to help the thickening process along).

Add the cloves, bay leaf, thyme and parsley. Cover and simmer for one hour.

Cut the carrots into whatever size you like. The recipe calls for them to be one inch and to be put in the pot for 30 minutes…but they took too long to cook for me (I ended up pulling them out of the pot and throwing them in the microwave to force the issue). So judge for yourself how long you think your carrots will take – and add them to the pot.

Serve…ours went into the shallow bowls along with a heap of mashed potatoes.

It was the perfect anchor on a day of a horrible storm, in a time of stormy change…just what I needed. I went back for more the next day and oh, even better…like life...fingers crossed.