Saturday, 27 August 2011

Don't mention the trifle

Christmas Eve is my favourite day of the year, far better than Christmas Day, which is invariably grey, snowless and crushingly disappointing- spent wondering why I've just spent hundreds of pounds on a day like any other. Every year for as long as I can remember I've gone into a deep misery at about 4pm and vowed that next year it will be different; next year will be spent with a big group of people in the Scottish Highlands, and we'll all sing around a baby grand, getting drunk on mulled wine while our respective children make giant snowmen in a glittery white wonderland. Of course, so far, that "next year" has never come, and the reality of Christmas Day is the same bleak anti climax as every one before it.

"A ray of hope flickers in the sky"? Not so sure about that, Johnny.. 
I think it stems from childhood- by the afternoon, all the presents were opened, the best food was eaten, the boring, overbearing relatives who didn't like loud noises were round and Johnny Mathis was singing "When a Child is Born" in the background. To me, few songs are as melancholy as that one and still to this day its opening bars send waves of moroseness over me so severe that I consider changing my name to Ebeneezer.

Christmas Eve, though- that's a different matter. It's the day before the apathy, the day when everything is still magical, full of hope, anticipation, excitment and sparkles. I have little routines on Christmas Eve that must be adhered to:

  1. The preparation of shapeless, chewy, usually burnt parcels of brown goo that I like to optimistically call mince pies
  2. The creation of paperchains that look considerably more professional at one end of the room than the other, loops  becoming progressively shoddy and misshapen according to how early in the process they were made
  3. Compulsory viewing of A Muppets Christmas Carol
  4. Stocking to be left by the fireplace and a carrot and glass of brandy in the kitchen for Father Christmas and Rudolph (Rosie stopped believing last year, but it's an important tradition- especially the brandy bit)
Invariably the Christmas Eve routine is slightly pressurised given the fact that I still won't have done most of my present shopping, and will have to run around the shops alarmingly close to a nervous breakdown trying to find thoughtful but inexpensive gifts for about 20 people.  Last year I ended up in a Supermarket Sweep style shopping nightmare after meeting friends for a quick christmas drink at 12pm and accidentally still being in the pub at half past three before discovering the shops were shutting at 4pm. Admittedly the gifts I triumphantly handed over my credit card for at 3.58pm were not the most personal I could find, but I convinced myself that most people liked wine (apart from my teetotal cousin, who did look slightly angry).

In addition, most of the cards that I will have written sometime in November, thinking how wonderfully prepared and organised I was going to be, will still be on the table in the front room and I will have to run round sticking those that are for people who live nearby through their letterboxes and putting the others in a "safe place" for next year (ie losing them forever).  Still, despite all the setbacks, I still manage to remain smiling and jolly throughout the whole of the Night Before Christmas, when the sky always seems full of diamonds and the air smells of warm cinammon, oranges and cloves.

Then morning comes. Hopefully and naively, I always pull the curtains open sure that overnight a soft glittering carpet will have fallen from the sky, muffling everything with cotton wool comfort and turning the front garden into Narnia. Every year without fail the reality that this is not to be slaps me in the face like a wet flannel. There is never any snow, not even a token robin to make it look slightly festive, and the sun even manages to make its first appearance in weeks, just to be annoying. Ordinarily I love the sun, seek it whenever I can, but on Christmas Day I resent its very existence- it doesn't even have the decency to hide quietly behind  a snow cloud.

We always do the presents first thing, and I still love watching Rosie open hers, which will have been waiting expectantly under the tree. After half an hour or so of sitting around in pyjamas and listening to carols it's always time to start on the dinner. Most years, my mum and Stepdad come round for Christmas dinner and I do a pretty amazing roast, so that bit's usually relatively stress free. Bizarrely, and uncharacteristically, I time my roasts with military precision and am even more particular about it on Christmas Day- have even been known to write lists and schedules for what bit should go in when.

Now, I am aware that I have made several references to alcohol in this and some of my other posts, and would like to point out that I do not have a drink problem. I do, however, like a drink, and probably more so than often during the festive season. It's the only time of the year that I start early, and it's sort of allowed when there's so much of it about, and when you need red wine to make gravy, mulled wine for visitors, sherry for trifle...
A couple of years ago, dinner was coming along nicely but I was a bit behind schedule with the pudding, which was going to be a traditional trifle. I'd got all the ingredients to make this the most spectacular trifle the world had ever seen- fresh fruits, proper home made jelly and custard, flaked almonds, posh amaretti biscuits, the best Devonshire cream, and sherry. I whisked, whipped and chopped til my right arm could have belonged to Madonna, and made decorations from strawberries and redcurrants that were to sit like jewels on the top. By this point, I was ever so slightly tipsy, and as such unable to properly judge the correct amount of sherry that is acceptable for a family pudding.  After several "just a bit more" conversations with myself I realised that the amaretti biscuits were at this point looking distinctly soggy, so bunged the rest of it the layers  on. It looked great, despite my slightly lopsided application of the fruity embellishments, but I couldn't help noticing that it did smell slightly like the man who sits outside the bus stop every evening. As usual, I went into ostrich mode and ignored it.

Christmas Dinner was a triumph. Juicy turkey, perfect roast potatoes, sunset coloured pigs in blankets, home made gravy, crispy stuffing, all the veg. Everyone seemed impressed, and I was feeling really quite pleased with myself. Then I brought the trifle out. After an initial chorus of "wow, that looks lovely" type comments, my mum gave me a bit of a funny look- one of her "I'm worried about you" looks that usually preceded a lecture or a grounding when I was a teenager. Nevertheless I put my big silver serving spoon into the trifle, ready to serve up the first helping. Aside from the fumes that wafted up at me and caused Rosie to recoil, shouting "Mum, that stinks of wine!" ,  the most disturbing thing was the noise that emanated from it- not a delicate, appetising sound, but a loud, vulgar squelch that could have been either caused by severe flatulence or an embarrassing gynacaelogical condition. Rosie cackled and I shot her a look, then Dan asked how much alcohol I'd put in it- the look he got was even worse.  Having noticed that I was at this point unable to see the funny side- it was gone 4pm on Christmas Day and I was therefore in evil mode- Dan, my mum and Stepdad (Rosie didn't even take a bite, and even I couldn't insist on it, knowing that even a sniff would probably make her pass out) sat quietly pretending to enjoy a pudding that not only must have been 60% proof but sounded completely disgusting. As if by magic, they all became full amazingly quickly and were unable to finish their portions, while I, annoyed, sweaty from hours of cooking and quite inebriated,  was insistent that I would not only eat all of my own but theirs too, while mumbling something about ungrateful- hic- people who've just sat down and watched me - hic- slave away all day. It's been said on more than one occasion that I become slightly like Basil Fawlty when I'm cross, and there was a fair amount of slamming things and shouting at inanimate objects that went on when I cleared away the bowls.

This year I will not be making trifle.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Lethal Potato

I like lots of different films, for many different reasons. I can enjoy slapstick humour or foreign art house films depending on my mood or who I'm with, but guilty pleasures include popcorn action movies like Die Hard, Speed and Lethal Weapon. One of the scenes that's always stood out for me in Lethal Weapon 3 is the one where Mel Gibson and Renee Russo are comparing their battle scars- each of them shows the other a succession of increasingly gruesome scars as part of a bizarre seduction routine. It's something that's been done a few times in films- Jaws and Chasing Amy both had similar scenes, and often if film makers want to make a character edgy or dangerous, they'll give them a battle wound.  There's something mysterious, glamorous and dangerously sexy about scars, especially if they are accompanied by a tale of great bravery and excitement. According to Hollywood though, it has to be the right kind of scar (Brad Pitt in Inglourious Bastards- good, Freddie Kruger- bad).

I have a scar that was the result of a painful injury, and it has been the topic of several converstations, but unfortunately it's neither glamorous or sexy. In fact  it's about as far from that as possible. It is in a very- erm- private place, and was caused by a baked potato.

The exact circumstances of said injury are blurry in my mind, but essentially what happened was I was not very clothed (i.e naked) when removing a baked potato from the oven one evening and it all went a bit wrong. The most likely reason for my nakedness was that I was having a bath (I spend so much time in the bath I'm almost certainly half-mermaid) and lost track of time while listening to music from beneath a face pack, then couldn't find a towel when I realised dinner was burning. Whatever the exact chain of events, I remember there was smoke, and panic, and I opened the oven door to find a shrivelled black thing that once resembled a potato smouldering on the bottom shelf of the cooker.

Once I'd got over the initial backdraft, I reached for the nearest thing i could find (a thin, entirely unsuitable tea towel) and took the tray out. At this point the degree of the unsuitability of this tea towel became apparent-  I may as well have just took the thing out with my bare hands as I burnt my fingers, did a bit of obligatory shouty swearing, and dropped the tin on the floor. Somehow, through some strange act of physics that I'll never understand, the potato didn't stay put on the floor but instead bounced up and hit me, full on, in what would be most politely described as the "lady bits".

Few things in life can compare to the pain of being pelted in the most sensitive or areas with something that has just come out of a 200C oven. Clearly, you can't just put it under the tap so I ended up throwing cold water at myself until I'd stopped screaming and shouting inventive swearwords. A sensible person would have probably gone to A and E but 1) it was too embarrassing and 2) I'm not sensible, so dealt with it all myself and after a few days was able to walk without too much pain - although tight jeans were not an option for a good few weeks.

It would certainly take a pretty talented film director to make this incident appear in any way mysterious or seductive. And unsurprisingly, this particular blog entry will remain photo free.     

Saturday, 13 August 2011

The sad tale of Mouse Merrick

The urban dictionary's definition of a Domestic Goddess is:

A female who excels at baking, cooking, cleaning-housework of all sorts. She loves to please and enjoys hearing compliments about her awesomeness around the house/kitchen. She may sew, knit, have domestic hobbies that come out well. She doesn't have to have children to be considered a domestic goddess.

So, the true queen of the house doesn't just make perfect buns and look like she's just climbed out of a 1950's washing up liquid advert, she sews and is a skilled craftwoman too. Her home is full of crochet, cross stitch, embroidery, soft furnishings and lots of pink gingham, all lovingly created by her own fair hands.

As with the baking, I like to convince myself I am good at crafts. Actually, I am ALRIGHT at them..some of them. I do a good job at the school fetes and used to run family learning courses in my old job- kids and their parents used to go away happy with their scrapbooks, modelling clay Pingus and stained glass angels- they probably fell apart as soon as they got home, but they went away happy and that was the main thing.

I get bored quickly with craft activities and the end result is always better from a distance than up close (a bit like me in fact). I made my own kitchen curtains, which are pretty good until you really examine them and realise they're wonky at the bottom, and the house is full of abstract art, mosaics and clay trinket pots all created on rainy afternoons. When a new branch of the craft chain store (you know the one I mean) opened a few weeks ago in my town I was in heaven- it's an Alladin's Cave of shiny, fluffy, beady, bakey stuff and I had to try hard not to let myself let out little squeaks of excitement at every new aisle. I could have remortaged my house in there and still not got everything I wanted. For fear of bankruptcy I only got a few bits and bobs to try- a decoupage kit in the shape of a cat, some jewellery making stuff and a cuddly mouse making kit that I bought because I thought it would be something Rosie and I could do together, and she kept nagging me to get it.

This is how it was supposed to look
£40 and an unexpected additional purchase of polysomething cuddly toy filling later we went home and started on the cuddly mouse. I say we- Rosie took one look at the instructions, decided it looked too much like hard work and went off to play on her Playstation- I was left sat on my own, examining all the different components of said mouse and wishing I'd just bought another bracelet kit instead.

Now, I am not about to sit here and say the intructions that came with this kit were complicated; they weren't, and are so readily available in the aforementioned shop that I would show myself off to be more than a little bit bakward were I to pretend otherwise. But I HATE instructions, probably because I am not very good at being told what to do, even when it's by a little sheet of paper with a diagram on it, so decided, as usual, that the thing looked pretty simple so I wouldn't bother with them. The picture on the front of the packet would be enough and I could easily work the rest out for myself.

I don't know how long the average domestic goddess would take to make a small cuddly mouse complete with whiskers, cute twitchy pink nose and a fluffy white tummy, but after about 20 minutes I'd sewn mine up and all that was left to do was stuff it- literally and metaphorically, so it turned out. There were a few issues with the front/tummy panel, which I think I might have put in upside down, and I lost the button eyes down the back of the sofa and didn't want to risk going in to rescue them for fear of what else might be lurking down there, but I improvised and it was starting to take shape. Ish.

I didn't really know how much stuffing you're supposed to put in these things, so kept going til it felt "pleasantly plump" (clinically obese). Having stuffed the body the head looked a little bit wonky and hollow, so it seemed sensible to put a but of filler up there too. I hadn't factored in the pre- cut eye holes, which now had yellow foamy stuff seeping out of them and were starting to look slightly horrific. Ever the optimist, I remained certain that it would all work out ok in the end and sewed the rest of it up. I found some thick wool that worked as replacement eyes and at least covered up the brain matter that had been poking through and stood back to admire my work.

Sadly, the mouse looked near to death, and would have not been out of place in a freak show- probably in jar held by a lady with a spectacular moustache. Its left ear was about 6cm lower than the right one, which considering the mouse itself was no more than 20cm from top to bottom was quite disturbing to see, and it seemed to have an unfeasably large brain. It certainly looked nothing like the cute, fluffy thing on the instructions and had more in common with the elephant man than the photo on the packet.

Rosie took one look and burst out laughing, and the cat sniffed it suspiciously before slinking off with that weird sideways walk they do when they've seen something terrifying. I, however, have grown strangely attached to this poor unfortunate creature that I have named Mouse Merrick, after poor misshapen John, and he now sits proudly on top of the bookcase- just incase we get any persistent door to door salesmen who need scaring away.

Monday, 1 August 2011 a dropped pie

I have a friend whose favourite insult is "she/he's got a face like a dropped pie". Obviously this isn't a very nice thing to say about someone but it is quite brilliantly descriptive. I know exactly what a dropped pie looks like and I certainly wouldn't ever want it to be compared to my face.

As I mentioned before, I'm good at savoury stuff- unless it involves pastry. Having attempted pastry making on many occasions and ended up on the verge of a breakdown almost every time I've vowed never to do it again- far too stressful and fiddly. (We are talking about simple shortcrust here. the puff variety could drive anyone to complete insanity within half an hour). Plus, I've watched  enough TV chefs to know that you don't actually HAVE to make your own all the time, so it's fine to buy it in a neat little rectangular block. Really.

Anyway, one day I really fancied a chicken and bacon pie, and spent ages shopping for the ingredients. I bought the nicest, leanest pancetta and plumpest, corn fed chicken thigh fillets, trailed the market for fresh thyme and leeks and even picked a bottle of Marsala (thanks Nigella). This was gonna be some tasty pie.

I got home and got started. Recently married and with a small daughter, I was really going hell for leather on the whole homecooking thing. It was, still is, really important to me that Rosie gets decent food instead of living off junk, and from an early age she's helped me cook. On many occasions it would have probably worked out better if I'd let her prepare the whole thing herself.

I took out my perfect rectangle of shop bought pastry and thought what a shame it was to ruin it by rolling it out- but did it anyway. Strange forces must have been at work on this occasion because I took heed of the recipe and baked it blind, before adding the filling. Getting a bit cocky with myself at this point, I lovingly arranged the remaining pastry into an elaborate lattice effect topping and stood back to admire my work of art. Within about an hour I had what smelled like the perfect pie. I peered apprehensively through the oven window, scared to look, and was amazed to find it looked great too. The lattice top was golden, with creamy, mouthwatering filling oozing up in little diamonds. I was so proud and relieved I almost cried.

What happened next was such a cruel act of fate that I can hardly bear to think about it. It was mid September, and still warm outside. There are two things in life that I'm scared of- clowns and daddy long legs. I know the daddy long legs thing is ridiculous (can't say the same about clowns- everyone knows they're evil) because they are so small, and much more scared of us that we are of them, blah blah blah, but I hate the way they float grotesquely through the air, stupid dangly legs trailing behind them, and go straight for your face. I'd left the door open as these were the days of my old kitchen, before the extractor hood came along to suck up all the nasty smells and smoke, and hadn't made the connection that September + open door + lights on= daddy long legs attack.

 Just as I was gently lifting my proudest culinary achievement out of the oven with my gingham oven gloves (I may also have been wearing an apron to complete the cliche) three of the hateful floaty six legged demons headed straight at me in formation- like a nightmarish version of the Battle of Britain flypast. I instantly shrieked and dropped the pie dish on the floor, as its steaming hot innards oozed over my foot. I didn't even consider how much it hurt to have something that had just come out of a 200C oven on my bare skin at that point, so bereft and bemused was I by what had just happened. I thought, for a moment, about scooping it all up and serving it, because it smelt so good and I was starving hungry and distressed, but within about 2 seconds the cat was attempting to eat it, even though it was burning his nose so much that he jumped away as if he'd been slapped in the face.

A dropped pie is a sorry looking thing. It's broken pastry and splodgy, messy, runny filling weeping sadly onto the floor. It's miserable and desperate, and impossible to cure or dress up into something that looks attractive. Anyone who truly has a face like a dropped pie is probably incurably unhappy, bitter and a little bit twisted. And this is what makes it such a brilliant insult.