Christmas Comforts: Music to my ears!

Since I can remember, I have associated Christmas with big family get-togethers, laughter and happiness. And of course there was the food. Lots and lots of food, for days on end (the leftovers are the best!). It was also the one time in the year where everybody pulled out all the stops to prepare delectable dishes, never to be repeated until the next year! 

My mom was quite the virtuoso, so she would always have some new and elaborate concoction. Through the years, the dishes changed with the fashion (like all the innovative tasteless microwave dishes of the seventies, the moulded foods of the eighties and the
 trio’s of anything during the nineties). 

One phase my mom did skip however, was the simplicity of the twentieth century. She just doesn't do simple, so I took all her over-the-top ideas and simplified it. A few items were always on the menu though: beef wellington and trifle pudding.

When I got married five years ago, we decided to take these Christmas traditions, put a modern spin on it, and create our own special traditional Christmas dinner. True to our extravagant fashion, we treat it like a full scale symphony orchestra production, complete with bells and whistles (literally, in this case). We invite the family over and really make a big deal out of it. We dress up and the table gets set up with the best of everything. Menu’s and name tags get printed, candles everywhere and before you know it, you can hear the music starting to play.

Everything - however small it may seem - works together to create a symphony of ambiance and comfort in the end. Everything has its own place and arrangement to make it a successful production and when everything comes together - the food, the setting, atmosphere, music, table setting, candles and conversation - it finishes off the evening with a climatic crescendo.

Here is the rundown of how own Christmas Eve Production goes:

It starts off andante, just like a few notes on a piano, by checking that all the gifts are wrapped and ready. I make sure all the necessary - ok, actually excess - grocery shopping has been done. You then slowly introduce the violins by working down your checklist. Fresh flowers and candles everywhere. Food processors, mixers, frothers, grinders and a whistling kettle chime in and the tempo changes from andante to allegro.

My husband sets the table. It is his self-appointed task and he takes great pride in it. We prefer a more elegant table setting with neutral colours or just one colour, rather than the traditional green, red and white. It creates a much warmer, richer atmosphere. From the forks to the name plates, he chooses everything. He works determined and quick, like the percussion players. While he carefully decorates everything with keepsakes from our travels around the world, from the silver acorn salt and pepper holders, to the crystal glass leave serviette rings - making it so much more special for the both of us - we recall where we bought every item we use, as I start prepping the food. (Do I hear clarinet and oboe joining in already?)

We buy the most beautiful crackers we can find, and then take the cheap trinkets they stuff it with out, and replace it with luxury dark chocolate truffles and a handwritten note, carefully picked like the strings of a harp.

The menu is simple, yet elaborate. Like all the violins - first, second, violas and double bass joining in to play together. For starters I always make a trio of something. (Mainly because I can never make up my mind about whether I should go major or minor on choosing a dish). Last year it was scallops on the shell, a shot glass of chowder and a prawn and cucumber ribbon kebab. The chillie and garlic combinations enhance the flavour of the fish and are the perfect start to a wonderful meal.

For intermezzo I like a lemon sorbet. It is tantalising and refreshing, and always a good conversation starter (especially if you serve it with dry ice). Now let me just start by saying that sorbet looks much easier to make than it is! One mistake and the whole thing sounds off key. To get the perfect consistency and texture, you need a lot of patience, but it so worth it. 

Something retro from my past, which is making a big comeback again, is the "mould-salad". This salad is set in a ring form with jelly. It mainly has pineapple, jelly, olives, cheese and nuts in. It sounds terrifying, but it tastes fantastic! It could actually pass for a pudding!

For the meat, I like a stuffed duck and - drum roll coming in - a Beef Wellington! Everybody loves this old favourite, but it is still unexpectedly surprising and good. I use a mixture of exotic mushrooms, Parma ham, English mustard and the best grain fed beef fillet I can get, to make this Pièce de résistance sing on your tongue.

Since we love celebrating almost anything, no occasion is complete without the sudden sounds of the cymbal. The explosion of a champagne cork is the sound of celebrating! What is more celebratory than dancing bubbles in a glass?

Although we always have the traditional trifle, with the subtle taste of Sherrie and vanilla, I make a few desserts, because my husband and the rest of the family have notorious sweet teeth. It is great for the next day with tea (or in Gary's case, breakfast). On the menu this year is a liqueur chocolate baked cheese cake, as well as homemade halva and pistachio nut ice cream. The beautiful olive green colour of the nuts look like Christmas was sprinkled all over the snowy vanilla-coloured ice cream. I can make all the puddings a day or two in advance to give me some breathing space on Christmas Eve. This brings the whole overture together.

While the smell of wonderful food flavours fill the air, and the guests are about to arrive, it is time to light the candles and put on some classical Christmas music, to perfect that last note of the atmosphere.

After everybody has left, my husband and I reminisce over the evening, the year that passed and the year ahead. Which family members to not invite again :-) and how blessed we are.  We congratulate each other on yet another successfully conducted gathering and conveniently leave out the mishaps. This is as much part of our Christmas tradition as everything else. 

It is no effort for me to conduct a symphony of this scale. It is a labour of love and pleasure, and I will not trade it for the world, even though I am not exactly ready for an encore yet...

When the last candle is blown out, and the only hint left of Christmas is the cinnamon flavour hanging in the air and the dirty dishes, we are left with the warm fuzzy feeling, knowing how blessed we are to have so many great people in our lives.

As the last notes of the symphony fade out, we say good night with the warm comfortable feeling of Christmas in our hearts and in our bellies.

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