Gentlemen, start your ovens!

Christmas Preparations – episode 6 of your festive boxed set. #HoHoHo

If you’re wanting to make your Christmas cake, now is the time to do it. As you’ll need to feed the cake every week with brandy; by the time you decorate it, the flavour will be rich, moist and so very much better than anything shop brought. In our house growing up, it was very much a family affair. We all had to stir it to make a wish, and it really signalled the start of preparations ‘proper’.

Our family favourite recipe, is one that my grandmother used. It has never failed us, across different ovens, kitchens and now time zones. The recipe is hand-written, covered in cake mix splotches and when I photographed it, was illegible. Therefore, I’m directing you to Delia Smith’s traditional recipe, which she also says was handed down by her grandmother and mother. She says she’s ‘tweaked’ it, but I can’t see where as it’s word-for-word my Granny’s recipe too.  I think it’s the decorative almonds on the top, which seems to be a ‘thing’;, as this gluten free recipe does it too.  If you’re not wanting to make such a large cake, this page on Delia’s website advises on scaling up/down the quantities. One thing I would say you do not miss because you think you’ll be fine is the brown paper round the tin; otherwise you may will end up with a scorched cake. However if you’re hosting Christmas, having a home made cake to bring out, is lovely, particularly if the children help decorate it. As an aside, I used the same recipe to make the wedding cake for my cousin!

Christmas puddings are trickier to make, as you will need a day to prepare and mix the pudding, then a day at home as it bubbles away on the stove. No bones about it, this is a weekend’s project for any of y’all working people, but it does give you a chance to get a run at your big clean on the same day.

My Granny’s puddings were legendary, she’d make three or four each year, to cycle through the puddings made the year before. The best pudding we had by far was when we found lose one she’d given to us under Mum and Dad’s bed, so it was at least three years old. Yum. Now, again for this I’m referring you to Delia Smith. I’ve been looking at recipes online for a couple of weeks and this is by far the most traditional, in terms of ingredients and also the most straightforward, in terms of instructions. Bear in mind for you vegetarians; it’s traditional, so chock full of suet. although there are lots of fantastic alternatives now to get the fat running through the pudding.

Mince pies, to make or not to make? There’s a question for you. I still make mine. I can’t not, however I’m yet to make a successful batch of gluten free pastry, watch this space, as I’ll keep trying, although frozen sheets might be the winner this year. Mince pies ought to be done in the week leading up to the big day, as they only keep for 7-10 days in an airtight container. However, they do freeze well, and if you pop them in the oven to refresh them, no-one will be able to tell the difference.

cookies and piesI continue to make them partly because it was a firm tradition in my family growing up and I want our son to feel that too, but also because popping a couple on desks at work is an easy way to spread the cheer and love of the season. Even if my season is ar$e-about-face now I’m in the Southern Hemisphere! Again, it is what you make of it, not what stores tell you it needs to be.

Store-bought mince meat, (again with suet), is far easier to use if you’re only making a batch or two of pies. If you’re planning on making huge amount, you could make your own mince meat, although I’ve never tried to. I  grew up using Robertson’s Mincemeat, which when I’m feeling frazzled I have been known to eat out the jar with a spoon. Here’s my shortcrust pastry recipe (in ounces as that’s how I learnt it, again from Granny Smith):

  • 8oz plain flour, plus more for rolling
  • pinch of salt
  • 2oz butter
  • 2oz vegetable shortening (or lard)
  • cold water

Rub the fat into the salted flour, every so often shake the bowl to bring the larger lumps to the top and keep rubbing the flour together until it resembles breadcrumbs. Using a knife to stir through the mixture (almost like slicing it), dribble cold water in, the pastry will slowly come together leaving the sides of the bowl clean. Do not add too much water, as it’ll be too sticky, hence the dribble at a time. Don’t over work the pastry either, when the bowl is clean, knead the final ball of pastry gently and leave it in the bowl to rest in the fridge for 2o minutes. Pre-heat the oven to 180c.

Roll out, cut out shapes, put them into your tart pan (greased and floured), add a teaspoon of mince meat to your pie, decorate the top with pastry stars. They’ll only take 10-12 minutes to cook, cool and dust with icing sugar.

This basic recipe can easily be doubled, and as with pastry it can used for normal meat pies, quiche bases, apple tarts (will need to be blind baked first) jam tarts etc. but here’s a secret for your mince pies, add a pinch of all spice or cinnamon to the flour. Yum. I made these for the first company I worked for here in Australia and received a marriage proposal, true story.

Next week we’re going to revise our diaries and look at some crafts for the children in the house to help with. Any suggestions, I’m thinking biscuits, tree decorations and so on. Have a good week!

We don’t talk about the cost of giving

Christmas Prep 5 – Budgets

As promised, before we get too far into the Christmas preparations, we need to think about how much we can realistically spend on everything. Please do not be tempted to blow out your budget, because you think you need to / have to. You do not have to, at all; let’s try to not spend the majority of 2019 paying off Christmas 2018.

I’m not a financial consultant, so this post is actually going to point you towards people who are, like Martin Lewis, the money saving expert. This page on his excellent website is full to bursting with hints and tips on how to create and stick to a budget over the coming months, as well as alternate present ideas.

For those in Australia, Scott Pape also know as the Barefoot Investor – his method of money management is sweeping the nation. Water cooler conversations about safety, savings and splurge are popping up all over the place.

Spreading the cost

  • Please also think about lay-by Big-W, Target and K-Mart offer excellent layby options. It means getting your list ready earlier, but it’s a big tick in the ‘done’ column.
  • Instead of using your loyalty points through the year, save them up to make a big dent in the Christmas food bill.
  • As much as I hate early Christmas decorations, that there are supplies to be had now in the supermarkets, as you tootle round (technical term) with your trolley, add things to your shop now to spread the ‘treat’ cost. B that shortbread, mince pies, a box of chocolates, or get the ingredients to make them if you’re revving up for a Christmas biscuit production line with your children.
  • Having said that, if you don’t want to buy the treats after spending months working on your health this year; move the equivalent money over to a savings account each week instead so you can save up for some thing else to mark the festivities.
  • Play an epic round of Kris Kringle or Secret Santa with your family. Now is the time to open discussions on buying one present for one member of your family. How you manage this would depend on your family, we simply pull names out of a hat and agree on a budget.
  • Something to think about for 2019 is opening a restrictive access savings account, moving money over every pay-day, knowing your nest egg is building up.
  • If you don’t like carrying around change, put all your gold coins into one jar, silver in another. You’ll be amazed at how quickly the money accumulates.
  • If you’re on Pinterest, as to be expected it is chock-full of ideas for homemade gifts. If this is the year you want to make a cake or Christmas pudding, I’ll give you the recipe we’ve used for years. Yes, with gluten free options!

Have a good week, keep adding to your notebook on things you see when out and about shopping that inspire you, or indeed terrify you, so that you can avoid them!

Christmas rules
Picture credit

Killing the ghosts of past Christmases

Christmas Prep – 4

How are you elfgoing on your who-to-buy-for lists? Next week we’re going to start thinking about budgets and saving, lay-by and online shopping, so keep working on the ‘who’s. If you’ve found the perfect gift for someone and squirreled it away already, then write down you’ve got something; (and potentially, where you’ve hidden it…!)

This week I want you to begin to think about your diary commitments for the festivities. I’m going to get through the bumpy ride that is the holidays in one piece and with a smile on your face. If you’re fed up of feeling like you’ve got no time, this’ll help you manage everything in line with your family priorities.

Get your notebook, and write down one the side of page days and dates starting at the back end of November, M 26, T 27, W 28, T 29, F 30, S 1, S 2 and so on. Along the top, ‘Morning’, ‘Afternoon’ and ‘Evening’. This is not a comprehensive diary or replace your diary. Your diary is your diary, complete with show tickets, phone numbers, directions and invitations.

This is the master list so while you’re out and about you don’t double-book y’all. It is the one page you need to look at daily from the middle of November onwards. The page you talk through with your partner-in-crime and if it’s not on here – it does not happen.

month diary date book

Please don’t feel that only have to see people on or around the big dates. Many families charge around like maniacs because they feel pressure to be at one parent’s house in the morning, another parent’s house for lunch, swing past Grandma’s for tea and then run in to see another person in the evening. All on one day!

Multiply that by everyone you “simply have” to catch up with before the end of the year, and it’s no wonder you end up at the beginning of January with your hair on end, a nervous twitch and wondering what the heck happened? Practice after me:

  1. ‘We’d love to, but after last year where we rushed around so much, we’re keeping it local.’
  2. ‘We’d love to, but I’m sorry, the only time we’re going to get to see someone who’s here from overseas is on that day. Can we meet another time?’ Remember, you’ll have your diary with you, so you can pencil it in there and then!
  3. ‘We’d love to, but I can’t. Can I send Hubs/Wifey/Partner instead, or do you want to leave it until it’s a little less chaotic to see all of us?’
  4. ‘I’m sorry, we’re already all booked up. But what have you got open in January when we can really enjoy the time together?’

You do not have to see everyone. I’m giving you permission.

A few years ago, the one day we could get our family together in one place was the 27 December. Did this detract from our celebrations? Not at all. We all sat down to dinner together, laughed and joked, played with the children and had a whale of a time. Christmas is different things for different people, for us, it’s simply being with friends and family. If we’re a day or two late, so what? We’re still together.

As an aside, half of our family are in the UK, we are in Australia the last Christmas we spent with them was in 2007. Our son has never had a Christmas with both sets of Grandparents in one room. If this is something you argue over: please be grateful that you’ve got your family close enough to have this as an option, but have a conversation about splitting the days up. 

If you’re having Christmas at your house, I am telling you NOW to block out the weekend before that, (the 22nd and 23rd, this year as the big days are mid-week). You are not going anywhere other than your shopping for last minute fresh items and putting time in the diary to sit down with a cup of tea. OK?

If you’re not having Christmas at home, block out at least half of one day of that weekend to offer help to the family member that is. Arrive with a bottle of wine or cake or flowers, some food to eat on the hoof, a pair of rubber gloves, a smile and say ‘What can I do to help?’ Then make copious amounts of tea through the day, remind them they’re doing great and when they’re happy everything on their list is done – open the wine, run them a bath, then leave.

If your company has any sense *snort* they’ll have already told you what date your Christmas party is on this year. If not, ask when it is/likely to be. But don’t volunteer to help! Also, ask your spouse when their party is; now is the time to decide do you have to go to both? Think about alternating each year to halve your commitments and remind your significant each week (gently), that you’re all working together, ‘Please don’t double book me/them/you’.

What about babysitters? Have a chat with your mother’s group and other family and friends; pool resources over the weeks and as dates start being added, work together and arrange sleepovers. All chip in to minding other children and giving a child free night option to other parents.

As we get closer towards the festivities ‘proper’ we’re going to be adding other items to our diary, so do not book out your time like mad because you think you’ve got the whole month free. You do not. There are exciting things like present shopping, post office trips, grocery shopping and cleaning to take into account and look forward to.

Can you see why I’m doing this little series of posts to get you through now? Have a good week. keep beavering away with your notebooks on who to buy for, dates for your diary and I’ll see you next week for budgets.

Christmas Prep – 3

Presents, gifts, expectations.

I’m going to warn you upfront, some of you may find this post contentious, but I make no apology for what I’m about to write, because buying presents to exchange at Christmas is for many people the task that causes the most stress and heartache:

  • What do you get for the child who has everything?
  • What do you get for the person who has said they don’t want anything, but you know they still want to open a gift on the day, otherwise they’ll sit in martyrdom for the rest of the holidays?
  • How much should you spend on someone you have to buy for, but don’t particularly want to?

With the advent (pun intended) of online auction sites, from Christmas Day afternoon unwanted gifts that have been sweated over by the giver (too much, too little, too plain, too fancy, or just not their thing) are already being listed to be sold, making the gif-tee a little profit if their present sells.

Aside from being ungrateful and rude, two things which infuriate me, the whole season is about goodwill and sharing, not about presents! It’s just become about ‘stuff’ because we’ve been steered that way by marketing and advertising. This week I want you to think about who you’re buying for, if your list is apparently ever-growing, please think about these questions to ask your family and friends to curtail expectations and expenses:

  1. If you have a large family, what about a Kris Kringle / Secret Santa where you decide on an amount to spend, draw a name out a hat and buy for that person, not their siblings or parents. A variation on Kris Kringle, only buying books as gifts worked really well in my family one year.
  2. Could you all nominate a charity that the family makes a donation to, you get together to enjoy your meal (more on this next week) and get smaller presents for the children to open and play with there and then. 
  3. Have an unplugged Christmas, no games consoles or phone accessories, nothing electronic as a gift. In an ideal world, there wouldn’t be anything like that at the table or afterwards either, but I know I don’t live in an ideal world!
  4. Set a present cost limit – have a competition for the funniest and most inventive presents.
  5. Only buy for the children, but give the parents vouchers for babysitting services or a theatre tokens, meal out vouchers or a cinema gift card.
  6. Give the children vouchers to be redeemed for a day out to the closest city, fancy lunch, museum trip or zoo visit or theme park.

If you’re struggling with money, you have to speak to your family early so people don’t begin their preparations and blow your budget out the water making you feel you have to try and compensate. Then when the day is here – I know it is difficult, but if people try to shame you with their reaction to their gift, do speak up to say that “It was all I could afford to share with you”.

Remember, the true meaning of Christmas is gathering together to celebrate, not being given the latest gadget or thing. By all means have your child think about items that they would like, so you have a ready list if people are stuck with what to buy them (there is a page in your notebook just for this and also for their clothing sizes), however, do not buy everything on the list! Children have to learn that sometimes you don’t get everything you want and that if you want something, you have to work hard and save for it.

Whether you’re religious or not, we are working towards you being able to share your time and energy, not your stresses because you’re worried about presents. Its about presence.

Do you see what I did there?

Next week we’ll talk about juggling your diary, so you don’t end up frazzled before you start.

Christmas prep – 2

Have you got your notebook ready? I want you to start filling in some pages now. The front of the book will be your diary and final to-do lists, the back of the book will be notes so you don’t forget anything.

Leave the first page of your notebook blank, (later if you want to decorate it with festive frivolities, feel free). Open the book to the next two blank pages and head the left-hand page October, right-hand November and writing down the page: 1 M, 2 T, 3 W, 4 T and so on – making a simple day a line diary with dates and days of the week. Repeat for November and December.

This will be your catch-all section for dates and must-do’s. Family get-togethers, shopping expeditions, cleaning, posting dates for overseas parcels and cards, everything you can think of that has a date attached to it, jot it down on these pages. While you’re doing this, check on postal dates for overseas…

Next start splitting the following pages up into weekly tasks:

This will be your section to enable you to plan your weeks out in greater detail. You will need to transfer any appointments into these weekly actions, but keeping the front of your notebook current will make this easy. As we head towards the big days, we’ll also have a day to a page so you can plot out in greater detail.

Starting at the back of the book, keep the back two or three pages clear for scribbled notes on the run, then write heading on each blank page for each section of things you want to remember, for example:

  • Savings and budget
  • Present list – just WHO, not what at this stage
  • Decorations list
  • Who is visiting who this year, (who do you need to catch up with, who do you want to catch up with)
  • Children’s wish list – with clothing sizes for children, handy if you get asked how big is Johnny or Jessica. Make a note so you don’t have to remember to look up their sizes or what they’ve been badgering you for
  • Food list
  • Cleaning list

This week, get your notebook ready to use, remember to put it back in the same place every time you come home. Every Monday, we’ll build on your lists and work towards meeting Christmas morning with a smile on our faces.

Have you started yet?

Thinking about Christmas? I know it still feels like the celebrations are long way away, but Christmas still manages to catch people by surprise. When I wrote the date today, 28 September and thought ‘Whoa! It’s nearly October!’ it feels like December will be here in about a week and a half at the rate this year is rattling past.

Every Monday from now until December I’ll be posting a blog on things to think about, plan, and (most importantly) do as you rev up for the festivities. Starting early will help you keep expenses down, the present list under control and your blood pressure at a sensible level.

This week I want you to find a notebook, this will become your Rough Guide to all things festive. It doesn’t need to be too fancy or too big, you want a book you can easily carry with you when you’re shopping. I’m using a Moleskine Cahier, A5 size, squared pages as I also use that style for my day-to-day journal/diary too.

Also this week, find a designated spot for the notebook and a pen; be it on the bench by the kettle, by your bedside, on top of the microwave – it is where the book will live so it is in one place for the next four months. Whenever you’ve finished writing in it, put it back there. When you’ve taken it out shopping (maybe for a coffee too if it’s behaved itself), put it back in the same place again when you get back home. Trust me on this, please. Having one spot for something to live in, really does make it easier on you.

We’ll start putting things in the notebook next week, let’s just get the book first. All these posts will be in the YOUR FAMILY category, and tagged ‘Christmas’ if you want to find them later on.