Sunday, December 18, 2011
Writers and editors on food 12: Helen Evans
Helen Evans, a former teacher, lives in Armidale NSW and is a writer, storyteller and textile artist. As well as visiting early childhood centres each week as a storyteller, Helen runs the family gallery in Uralla, NSW, where examples of her textile art can be seen(as at right). For more details visit her website www.helenevanswriter.com.au
In this beautiful piece, Helen remembers childhood Christmases, and a favourite recipe.
Christmas dinner has always been the meal of the year for my family. Traditional British fare of baked vegetables and roast meat as the main course were what my Mother had grown up with, and she maintained that tradition all her life. We were lucky during the war years, that a cousin in the country used to bring in a hen, dressed in its feathers, for us. My brother removed the feathers on Christmas Eve and it rested in state in the meat safe that hung on the back veranda until Christmas morning when it would be stuffed with bread crumbs and herbs. Daybreak found us gathered excitedly on Mum’s bed to open parcels and then to play with the treasures until breakfast. As soon as that meal was over, it was time to make the Christmas pudding. My Dad, who was in Malaya from 1941 serving in the AIF, had never liked traditional Christmas pudding, so Mum made his favourite, a steamed date one accompanied by jelly, custard, stewed cherries, and cream. We three children always helped to make it. I stirred the jelly crystals, my sister beat the eggs for the date pudding, my brother cut the dates and measured them into small piles, each one an ounce, while Mum creamed the butter and sugar. We stood there expectantly to take turns in adding the ingredients at the right moment, to put in the three-penny and sixpenny bits, and to clean out the bowl when the mixture was transferred into the aluminum pudding bowl. Before the lid was secured, we had greased pieces of brown paper that Mum tied over the top of the bowl with string. The big old iron pot had been brought in from under the laundry tubs, and was by then bubbling and steaming on the gas stove. Mum carefully lowered the pudding bowl into the water and after adjusting the water level, that lid was also put in place. The pudding cooking, Mum put the chook in the baking pan to brown in the oven, then peeled potatoes, pumpkin, squash, carrots and stringed the beans. As the morning progressed the aroma of the food began to fill the house, something never to be forgotten. As there was no refrigerator, the red jelly was sitting in a dish of cool water in the coolest spot under the grape vine. We had decorated the dining room several days before, but for Christmas dinner, the special white damask cloth was put on the table and the precious silver cutlery came out from the sideboard. The pewter and glass tankards that Dad had sent from Malaya would be filled with lemonade and there was a dish of lollies and table raisins that Mum had found somewhere.
Serving the dinner was a nervous time for Mum. Would the meat be just right, would the vegetables lift from the baking pan, would the pudding be cooked through? We’d all be dressed in our best and waited quietly while Mum removed the dish from the oven and served up the meal in the kitchen. We carried our plates, all piled high, into the dining room and sat while grace was said. How we enjoyed those Christmas dinners. Our pudding plates were also filled generously and topped with thick cream skimmed from the boiled milk. Milk had to be boiled in order to keep it fresh. The pudding was always perfect and none of us swallowed the hidden money. We counted out our cherry stones to the old rhyme tinker tailor soldier sailor… My brother always managed a second helping, but then feeling so full, would have to let his belt out. Washing the dishes was also a family affair and the rest of the afternoon was for resting and reading.
Each of us has developed a new Christmas dinner tradition, but those far off Christmases still bring a smile to my face and no desert is more enjoyed by me than date pudding. The big old iron pot originally owned by my Grandmother, now lives under my laundry tubs and comes out each Christmas to cook the pudding. Here is the recipe for the date pudding.
Steamed Date Pudding
8 oz dates
8 oz flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 tablespoons milk
Pinch of salt
Cream butter and sugar and add well beaten eggs. Stir in milk, add dates (stoned and chopped). Sift flour, baking powder and salt and stir in very lightly. Turn into greased mould. Steam for three hours.