My face must have reflected my feelings as I walked into the living room because my husband Joe looked up at me and asked, “Why the long face?”
“Oh, Joe, I just got off the phone with Angie. She’s feeling down in the dumps and not looking forward to Christmas at all.” I explained to Joe that Angie’s son and daughter in law with their eight year-old twins were going off to Germany to spend Christmas. They spent last Christmas with Angie and this year it was the turn of the other grandparents.
Charlie’s her only child and I sympathized with Angie because the same thing was happening to Joe and me. Our eldest, Adam, was in the army and would be in Afghanistan until February. Our daughter Linda was in California with her husband Greg. They are screenwriters just getting their careers up and running and they weren’t taking any time off for the holidays.
My little sister Angie and her husband George live in England, my older brother Bob lives in Canada with his wife Julia, and Joe and I live in Sydney, Australia. We are an international family if ever there was one, and while we love to spend a real family Christmas together, it gets difficult when we are dotted all over the globe the way we are.
The phone rang again and it was Angie ringing back. She had just spoken with our brother Bob and he suggested we all get together in England for Christmas, just the three of us old empty-nest couples, and make it a real English Christmas, just like our old fashioned Christmases back home when we were kids.
“Oh, Angie, you must have woken him up,” I said, “isn’t it the middle of the night in Canada?”
“Yes, I suppose so. But he didn’t mind. Now that his kids have grandchildren of their own, he’s not planning on seeing much of them this year. And I think it cheered him up to talk about getting together for Christmas. I said you and he could come here, we’ve got enough room without the kids. Just think of it Mary, an old-fashioned English Christmas. Won’t it be lovely?”
“You know, it does sound rather nice, just what we all need. Joe and I will start working on travel arrangements. Don’t you go making yourself ill with too much cooking and cleaning, we can come early and all share that, it’ll be fun. Have you still got all the old family recipes? If not, I do, I’ll get them out and email some of them to you. Thank you Angie, you’ve made my day. Wait till I tell Joe, he’ll love it. I’ll phone Bob and Julia later. Shall we talk again tomorrow?”
Joe was tickled pink about going back to England for Christmas, and he sat down at his computer and started looking for good deals on flights. I went to my kitchen to look at cookbooks. It may not be the most important ingredient for a happy Christmas, but food has to be near the top of the list of what makes the holidays so special and enjoyable.
For the next two weeks, we sent emails and made phone calls back and forth, deciding on when we’d arrive in England, how long we would stay, what fun things we might do while there, and what we would have for Christmas dinner. There was no argument for the turkey, that was what we had every Christmas as children, and our Mum had stuffed it with Paxo herb stuffing and surrounded it with roast potatoes, carrots, and parsnips, and poured her slightly lumpy gravy over it. With the turkey we always had brussels sprouts. Dessert was, of course, a Christmas pudding, steamed in its white porcelain basin on top of the stove. We had custard, made with Bird’s custard powder, and sometimes cream with the pudding.
We three children had each kept to this basic Christmas dinner menu when we left home to marry and raise families of our own, but we all made it more modern, and probably healthier, with a few changes. None of us cooked stuffing inside the bird, it was baked in a separate dish, and nobody would use Paxo or any other stuffing mix, because we all loved to cook and had tried different recipes for stuffing. As a family we had tried, every year, to be together for Christmas. Sometimes we couldn’t do it, but often we did, so we had all sampled each other’s Christmas specialties. All of us voted that the best stuffing recipe was Julia’s chestnut stuffing: there was no discussion, we were unanimous.
We also voted for our usual roast potatoes, carrots, and parsnips. Julia sprinkles a little chopped garlic, grated fresh ginger root, and black pepper on her carrots and parsnips, which makes them shine. Brussels sprouts were voted for by all of us, and we all cook them using Julia’s method of steaming them after cutting a cross in the trimmed stem end, which allows any damaged outer leaves to fall off and makes them cook faster.
These days we all like to eat more vegetables, so we voted to add steamed cauliflower and broccoli, and green beans, to our plates. We would have to wait and see what was available in the markets before Christmas before we knew what we would actually eat to accompany the turkey, but our list was quite basic. And Julia had obviously been elected the vegetable chef.
My sister Angie had a wonderful old Aga stove in her big kitchen, and she knew how to coax it into performing at its best, so she was elected, by default, to cook the turkey. She would also cook the ham, which was eaten as the main meal on Christmas Eve and again on Boxing Day. Angie’s husband, George, a retired butcher, was given the task of finding us the best turkey and ham, and he always helped Angie with cooking.
All that was left was the pudding and all the delicious baked goods that belong to Christmas in England. We all used the recipe our Mum had given us for the pudding. This recipe, along with an old-fashioned pudding basin with a lip, had formed part of her wedding presents to Angie, Julia, and to me, and we all treasured both the basin and the recipe. It made a dark, rich pudding with a delicious flavor, and contained not only currants and sultanas, but chunks of almonds, grated carrot and apple, and beer. Both Angie and I made Bird’s custard to have with the pudding, because we liked it, and so did our husbands, George and Joe. Julia usually served her pudding with brandy butter and cream, so we decided we’d have all three available to have with the pudding: custard, cream, and brandy butter. We never flamed our puddings when we were growing up, but all of us did that now. When the pudding is removed from its steamer and from its basin it is placed on a flat dish. A shot glass full of brandy is placed in a pan of simmering water until it gets hot, then it is poured over the hot pudding, and a match put to it until blue flames flare up around it. All the lights should be out when you do this. Some people set light to it in the kitchen then carry it out to the dining table, but I prefer doing the lighting ceremony in front of everyone at the table.
Every year when it’s time to flame the pudding, our family tells the same old stories of accidents surrounding the ceremony. Here’s an example: One year I forgot to remove the decorative sprig of holly poked into the top, which caught fire. Joe poked a fork at it to pull it out with a flick of his wrist. It came out alright, but didn’t stay on the fork. It sailed over the table and landed on the armchair by the door, setting the upholstery alight! We still have that chair, it’s burn hole covered by a throw blanket: we will never get that chair recovered, it holds the memory of everyone’s laughter during what we now call “the great Christmas Pudding accident.”
Christmas puddings are best if made about a month before Christmas, so Angie was given the task of making the pudding and storing it in her larder. The pudding is steamed for about six hours, cooled, then packaged up, and on Christmas Day it is steamed again for about two hours.
As the baker of the family, I was given the task of making mince pies, Dundee cake, cheddar pennies, shortbread, a chocolate log, and any other cakes or biscuits our family couldn’t live without for the holidays. I would travel armed with my trusted recipes for all of these. Bob and Angie phoned me one day to ask if I had the recipe for the Christmas scones or biscuits that our maternal grandmother, our Yorkshire grandmother we called Granny, used to make. No, I didn’t have a recipe like that, but yes, I did remember eating them, and loving them. Neither Bob and Julia, nor Angie and George could find a recipe for them, nor remember what they were called. I did a Google search but came up with nothing. So I sat down to think about the taste, and what might have made them taste that way, and I jotted down ingredients as I thought of them: flour, sugar, butter, mixed spice, pinch salt, currants, mixed peel, vanilla essence, glace cherries, nuts, and perhaps milk or eggs.
I began to experiment. At first I made biscuits, or cookies as they are called in Australia and America. They tasted good, but that wasn’t right, the texture was softer than a biscuit, but not like a cake. Could they have been scones? That didn’t seem right either, but I tried anyway, making a basic sweet scone recipe with flour, baking powder, salt, butter, sugar, spice, a little milk, vanilla, and with currants, peel, almonds, and glace cherries stirred in. Yes, that was it! They were scones. But we all remembered our Granny had a special name for them, maybe it was even a funny-sounding name?
Bob and Angie were happy I’d discovered a recipe similar to the treats we had enjoyed from our Granny, and Bob agreed with me that she had given them a funny name. We reminisced about our Yorkshire Granny and Bob remembered she was the one who used to call him “my little fat rascal,” even though he was a skinny little boy. That did it, the penny dropped and I remembered. These scones were called “fat rascals.” Both Bob and I looked online and found them, found recipes, and their history. Fat Rascals are a rich scone, “fat” because they are filled with fruit and nuts, and “rascals” because they have a face marked on top with almond teeth and cherries for eyes.
Joe and I arrived at Heathrow a week before Christmas. We stayed overnight in London to see the lights, then hired a car and drove down to Folkestone on the south coast, where George and Angie live. The first thing I baked in Angie’s kitchen was a batch of fat rascals, which were ready and waiting for Granny’s little fat rascal Bob when he and Julia arrived the next day. We all enjoyed them immensely, amid numerous cups of tea and hours of reminiscences about our wonderful old Christmases in England, when we were young.