Baking up Christmas

The smell of pudding, that rich combination of fruit and sugars, pervades the house. I am home again, watching my mother becoming increasingly frustrated attempting to cover the pudding with greaseproof paper and tinfoil. The string with not go right, will not tie tight enough.

My first Christmas in Turkey in 2001, my first away from home, my first as a married woman, I cooked rice pudding.

My husband regarded the sticky mass with barely disguised wonder, comparing it to the milky rice pudding known to Turks as sutlaç. He ate it though, warned by my red-rimmed eyes that any comment could bring back the tears.

The next year we travelled to Dublin. Twelve hours later than planned, transferring through Paris instead of London we made it to my parent’s house. All food provided by my mother, helped by my sister.

The following year we celebrated my daughter’s first month of life with Christmas. In a haze of feeding and changing, I relied on my mother’s package to supply Christmas – pudding, mince, custard.

Christmas 2004 we were heading for Dublin again, this time delayed by a bomb scare in Charles de Gaulle. We arrived a mere six hours late on Christmas Eve.

Since the arrival of our son the following November we have not returned to Ireland for Christmas.

Each year I add to my Christmas repertoire. One year trifle, custard made with my mother-in-law’s rough ground cornflour; the next Christmas cake, with dried sour cherries turning the cake pink; then mincemeat, over reliant on apples. A turkey roasted but lacking the pork sausage meat in the stuffing.

Some things I make myself instead of waiting anxiously for a parcel from Ireland. Each year the recipes are honed and altered to what I can find around. Almonds are ground in the blender after being blanched to remove their skins. Dried apricots substitute for glace cherries. Candied peel is made from orange and lemon rinds. Fresh ginger is replaced by ground after a cake that was virtually medicinal in its bitterness. Dried figs are never a good idea in a cake.

The one thing that still escapes me is icing the cake. The almond icing is good, the royal icing smooth, but any hint of decorating beyond that ends with bizarre blobs of coloured icing that would look like a Dali painting if they were a little more artful.

This year I’ve attempted a pudding for the first time.

The smell is right, the colour is right. And the taste is perfect.

What special effort do you make to capture the spirit of Christmas?