Thursday, 26 December 2013

The Ghost of Christrmas Past

My memory contains huge holes. I know why. It's protection, it's what brains do in the face of trauma, they edit out stuff. Sadly as well as the painful, the sad and the difficult, they sometimes erase the good as well.

Christmas in Australia is so different to here. Here Christmas marks the start of winter and is the last good thing to happen until Easter. In Australia Christmas marks the start of summer and is just the beginning of a long summer of holidays, trips to the beach, swimming and fun.

The smell of Christmas is what I remember the most. Eucalyptus, dust, the sunshine emphasising the scents of summer. I would look forward to the food, groaning tables of cold meat and salad, new potatoes, fresh fruit, my aunt's icecream bombe.

And Nana. Always Nana. I know one or two of my early Christmases would have been spent at the farm. My grandparents had a sheep farm in Lilydale northern Tasmania, not far from Launceston where I chose to do my degree.

When  first started counselling late last year my counsellor would ask me for a safe place to go if it got hard. I chose my grandmother's kitchen  at the farm. Strangely though I remember her every day cooking I don't remember Christmas at the farm at all. I remember vague anxiety that father Christmas may not be able to find us there, though he certainly did.

I remember Nana's gifts. I have some of them now, sadly not all. One of the things my first husband used to do was destroy things close to me, and her books to me were often a target. I still have A Child's Garden of Verses and read them to Joseph. She often bought me the Children's Book of the Year, my favourite author was Colin Thiele, and my favourite book of his was The Valley Between, which was just so funny.

Nana sometimes bought us jewellery, often she'd have something extra for me. We were extraordinarily close. She used to take us to the movies, I have fond memories of her taking us to the Star Wars sagas and removing her hearing aids!

When I was seven they sold the farm, moving to Hobart, not just to be closer to her family, both my mum and my uncle lived in Hobart, some 200 kiometres away from Lilydale. Christmases now are clearer. Usually we would go to either my aunt and uncles or have to at ours, alternating. In the morning we'd whizz over to Mornington to swap presents with the grandparents, then go back in the evening for a meal. My nana would set up a buffet table in the back bedroom with sandwiches, sweets and cake. 

I remember Nana as a small, kind old lady, yet she was only 79 when she died. I was just 19. I was living in a lovely sharehouse with two amazing girls, Christina and Jodie. They wrapped me in love and kindness and cared for me dearly. I loved that house, there we were all safe. Then everything changed. Christina got married, Jodie dropped out of university, and later sadly died. That house on Mangan street could well have been the safe place in my memory, with its rotary clothesline, funny little laundry room with the bright yellow floor and a dated kitchen that now would be considered charmingly retro.

Now the Christmases I have with my son are so different. Yesterday there was no family to visit. A fleeting FaceTime with his grandparents and cousins in Germany. No whizzing around trying to fit everyone in.

After my grandfather died my Nana moved in with us and became an integral part of our every day lives. Our bond grew even closer. She taught me about faith, love, embroidery, cooking. I looked up to her so much. She was truly an amazing woman. When she died the house was filled with cards, letters and flowers.

She touched the life of everyone who crossed her path, she was amazing.

She's my ghost of Christmas past.

And I miss her. 

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Seven Top Tips to the Perfect Christmas Pavlova

Once upon a time when I wanted inspiration for what to cook I would open one of my cookbooks and look inside. Now I tend to turn to Pinterest where I found this amazing looking object and pinned it. I am, like many others I suppose, somewhat guilty of pinning and never making but this time I was committed to giving this a try.

Now where I'm from Pavlova is a traditional thing, usually made in a disk, I've never seen it with a hole in the middle. In our family one of our Christmas traditions is to have a small pudding, often a Legacy one, or from the local CWA shop (equivalent to the WI). Australian puddings are different a little to here, cooked in a calico cloth, and boiled rather than steamed. Alongside this we serve a cold dessert.

We had our extended famiy from my husband's side over this weekend and I decided to cook this amazing confection for dessert. Here are the step by step pictures.

Here are my additional tips for the perfect pavlova.

1. Know your oven. Pavlovas like a steady low heat, there are several methods my preferred one is the overnight method, heat your oven to 250 degrees whilst you make your pavlova, turn the oven off then leave it overnight.

2. Go electric. I am fortunate to have a Kitchenaid stand mixer, I used to have a Kenwood which was just as good. You can use a hand held electric beater with good effect, as long as you have a nice big bowl. Don't be tempted to try a handwhisk. I am sure it can be done, but its probably best to make something else!

3. Allow plenty of time. Whatever oven method you use the pavlova must cool in the oven, you will stress it out and make it cry if you move it when hot (seriously it will weep). If you need a dessert in a hurry, make something else.

4. Beat well after addition of sugar. You must add the sugar slowly and beat well after each addition. If you don't the crystals of sugar will remain large and will contribute to weeping, as they will melt as the pavlova cools.

5. Cracking is normal Some cracking is inevitable. That's why pavlovas are covered in cream and fruit!

6. Pavlovas are soft and marshmallowey in the middle A lot of cooks cook the pavlova so its like a French Meringue, but a soft squidgy interior is, in my opinion, the desired result.

7. Don't add flavouring to the pavlova mix With many things I experiment with Pavlova I am a purist. No greated chocolate, no nuts, no nothing in the actual meringue mix. Go crazy with toppings and the cream filling if you wish.

As its included in the original recipe I didn't include it as a tip, but it is essential your eggs are at room temperature. Fridge cold eggs will not get enough volume and your pavlova won't be successful. 

The pavlova following this recipe came out perfectly. I think the wreath formation encouraged more even cooking, and I was very impressed with the result, as were the guests. And everyone cleared their plates.

I hope this has encouraged you to try something different this Christmas. 

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

On Coming Out

I was 19. I was busy with boys, after not having a boyfriend up until the age of 18 I was starting to date and explore the world. A good friend of mine who I had known for three years asked me out one day. We had a lovely date, and he held my hand. We went for a walk in the evening light to the park and he kissed me. It was weird. There was no real chemistry between us, our friendship was a good one but there was nothing else there, I thought.

As we sat on a park bench he started talking about his hopes for us. Marriage, good jobs, having children, growing old together, I was like "woah woah woah". This was totally strange, 0-60 in 20 seconds, he'd never really shown interest in me romantically. Anyway, he kissed me goodnight and went home. A couple of days later he came around to my parents house.

"I have something I need to tell you", he said. "It's not you, it's me". I looked at him, his face red, tears in his eyes. "I do really like you, but um....." He paused, "I like boys more".

I smiled and hugged him. I wished him well, I asked about what was happening. He had met a boy but wanted to see if he could make himself be straight. Thankfully he was quick in realising that he had to follow his heart, it could have been a lot worse.

This occasion was the second time this had happened to me, there were was one more occasion too. Young men in Tasmania felt pressured to be something other than who they were. 

You see in the early 1990's in Tasmania being gay was illegal. I remember the rhetoric well. "It isn't illegal to be gay, just anal sex is illegal". "You can be gay, just don't sleep with anyone".

Fortunately law reform happened after much blood, sweat and tears.

When the news about Tom Daley was released yesterday I felt overwhelming sadness that sexual preference is still seen by many as a very. big. deal. I was heartened that a lot of people said "who cares as long as he's happy".

I wish we lived in a world where "coming out" wasn't necessary, that everyone was free to discover their sexuality. Where sports stars felt free to just be themselves. I fear the reaction from the press in this country will impede others from living their lives true to themselves. We are yet to see a Premiership footballer "come out", stigma still looms.

This post from Simon Blake of Brook Charity is a brilliant one and I suggest you read it. 

I hope social media continues to help enable all of us to express ourselves and tell the world about our true selves. And I hope we are ready to support one another and make this easier.