It’s true, I admit it, towards the end of 2014 I fell off the writing wagon.  It’s not that I didn’t have anything to write about, it’s just that I stopped having the (or rather – making the) time to write.  I know you aren’t all out there waiting with bated breath, but I feel like I let myself down.  Still though that was last year.  This year will be different, I can feel it.

So, how was everyone’s – to borrow an Americanism – ‘Holiday Season’?

Mine was wonderful.  It was the perfect mix of chaos and serenity with good food and crazy friends and family thrown in.  All the small details that spell Christmas and New Year for me were checked off the mental list.

It all started off with a fabulous Thanksgiving meal at our friends  A & C’s house.  As a general rule, we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving here.  We aren’t after all American, and so being thankful for the harvest back in the day doesn’t generally apply to us.  However, since it appears we are now apparently not above stabbing each other in ASDA for a cheap TV the day after Thanksgiving, then I suppose a Turkey dinner doesn’t feel so out of place.  Anyway,  there we were, 16 people sitting extremely close to each other around a table groaning with food, I don’t know how long afterwards they were eating leftovers, but if I was a betting woman I’d wager about 2 weeks.  It was a lovely afternoon and a great way to kick off the festivities.

After that most people start Christmas shopping in earnest.  I actually have done most of my shopping by then, not because I am particularly organised as everyone seems to think, but because I am extremely nervous – nay – terrified in crowds.  If I do go out shopping in December, it is at the crack of dawn when even the hardiest of shoppers are still asleep and the only people about are people like me with phobias and extremely old people who were awake anyway and are (justifiably) afraid of being trampled when it gets busier.  It won’t be long now before I qualify for both groups, but a quiet M&S is a thing of beauty, and anyone who says differently is a liar.

So Christmas shopping done, what is there to do in December?  Well for a start, there’s wrapping to do.  If you have a large circle of family and friends with whom you exchange gifts, then there are a lot of presents to buy.  Each present then has to be wrapped and put into its pile, either by the door for delivery or somewhere in the house where it is out of the reach of inquisitive young fingers while waiting for the tree to be put up so it can wait underneath it.  In my case, these presents were in a big pile in my room covered in a blanket and disguised as furniture.  This worked for about one visit from my nieces until they decided they needed the blanket to cover one of their dolls and then –  “Oh Look!  Mimi has presents here!”

This year to add to the build up to Christmas, my sister and I got ill.  It started out as regular flu, end of November, fever, runny nose and general tiredness.  This then morphed into runny nose and tightness in the chest which within a few days had morphed into the kind of cough that you associate with old men who have enjoyed a lifetime of smoking.  Both of us were completely powerless when this cough struck, and we would have to just ride it out getting redder and redder in the face whilst those around us yelled abuse about going to the doctor.  And the thing is, I don’t object to doctors.  I mean, I object to doctors when there is nothing really wrong, and I am Greek, which means that I obviously know a lot about medicine.  Here is something you may not know.  Greeks believe that simply by being the same nationality as Hippocrates, this makes them a qualified GP.  They may not claim to be experts on specialised medicine (although many of them are of course an expert in whatever their neighbour’s third cousin once removed thought he had but in the end it was piles).  As a Greek therefore, I made the executive decision not to go to the doctor.  I was worried about D though, because her voice was coming and going and she was really turning a deep shade of purple when she was coughing.  The chemist near my house thought I was opening a pharmacy because she and I went through a bottle of cough syrup a day.

After three weeks we threw in the towel.  I made an appointment and we went and saw the doctor.  She told us we were ill.  Thank goodness we had that right.  She told us we had coughs and flu-like symptoms.  She gave us 5 days worth of antibiotics and me an inhaler and D some syrup to help with the coughing.  And like good Greek patients, we came home, took the antibiotics, I ignored the inhaler and she ignored the syrup because it didn’t taste as nice as Benylin.  Seriously, if they served Benylin with a mixer in bars, I might be tempted to take up drinking again, but they don’t so it’s still sobriety for me.  The long and the short of it is that we were both well by Christmas, and so hurray for us.  Only 5 weeks of hacking up stuff that surely must have started developing in our infancy and 24 bottles of Benylin later, we are fully recovered.

The thing about being ill when you don’t work is that you never have a measure of how ill you are.  D took 4 days off work because she was ill which were two days either side of a weekend.  (Just her luck she had booked the Monday and Friday off anyway, poor thing)  This made her 6 days at home unable to work which meant she was very ill.  I had no such measure.  I was ill, sure, but I don’t go to work so didn’t have to call in sick.  I cancelled one thing and the rest of the time I was at home doing what I normally do in the build up to Christmas.  Wrapping gifts, shopping online, sorting out personalised calendars for all my family members, moving furniture, decorating the house and most of all baking.  Every year, I make these Greek Christmas cookies called kourambiedes.  The kids call them snow cookies or snowflakes because they are covered in a blanket of icing sugar.  I send a batch out to many of my family members at the beginning of December as a matter of course.  In fact my aunt starts making kourambiedes noises at the end of November but I always make her wait as it means they still have some left towards the end of the month and I don’t have to make another batch for them right before Christmas when I am already busy enough.  The thing about these cookies is that they don’t actually contain a lot of sugar.  They just have a lot of sugar on top.  After baking them, you have to sit them on a bed of icing sugar for several hours, and the butter drains out of them.  My Grandmother K, learned the hard way that a kourambie right out of the oven tastes disgusting. She told me to throw the whole batch out even though I tried to explain they would improve with time.

December 2014 1620

Snow cookies draining on trays and in the background two of the (plastic) plates full and ready to be delivered.

So I bake the cookies which are made to a recipe I got from P, a lady I have actually learned most of my Greek recipes from.  The recipe is as vague as you would expect from a Greek recipe.  It calls for as much flour as it takes, and 2 or 3 spoonfuls of this and that.  Cooking in Greece is done a lot ‘with the eye’ as we say, and so writing stuff down specifically is very difficult.  To this day when people ask me for the recipe for kourambiedes, I am hesitant to give it out because it is never the same amount of things, and I never know what to tell people without sounding like a) I am trying to sabotage their cookies, b) I am being deliberately vague about it to sound like an expert, or c) I am a bit ditsy and baking is something that I do because I like to play with wet and dry things in the kitchen and it keeps me quiet so they let me do it.  The truth is, I would much rather make a batch with company and talk them through it as we do it so they know what to look for.  That is how I learned and as a result,  some of my cookery notes are downright hilarious.  For example, I looked over my recipe for green beans ‘yiachni’ the other day which tells me to fry the green beans until they go ‘green’.  That’s the whole note.  Why ‘green’ is different from green I cannot explain exactly, but I will say that when you toss them in hot oil, the beans go a deeper shade of green and you know you’re ready to add the tomato sauce when all the beans achieve ‘greenness’.

Anyway, back to the kourambiedes.  The kitchen smells delicious when we make kourambiedes.  The cookies smell great, and then there is a faint smell of Ouzo in the air because you sprinkle ouzo over the biscuits as soon as they come out of the oven.  The smell and accompanying sizzle bring Christmas to the forefront of my mind every year.  It’s not the Coca-Cola  or John Lewis ads, it’s that smell and sound for me.  The kitchen also is covered in a fine layer of icing sugar making every surface a little sticky and the atmosphere a little misty.  This year we had the added impediment of not being able to cough in the kitchen without causing a mini tornado of white powder which could lead to more coughing and our eventual deaths if we ruined batches of cookies that were intended for my aunt.

So by December 20th, when my parents arrived from Greece, the cookies had been baked, sent all around London on plastic plates (more on that later) and the kitchen had been wiped down thoroughly at least three times to remove the stickiness and powder.  The presents were wrapped, the tree had arrived and been decorated and the house was bedecked with all things Christmassy.

This year's tree complete with gifts.

This year’s tree complete with gifts.

More on the actual Holidays in a later post, but I will explain about the plastic plates.  Every year I send out these cookies on plates.  They are a bit too fragile to put in tins and the plate means that they are carried more carefully ensuring that the pyramid of snow cookies arrives intact and not looking like a messy drug den’s ceiling caved in.  The plates however,  lead to all of us driving around London with plates in plastic bags trying to juggle them with all of the Christmas presents etc.  I have broken many plates this way, not to mention the plates which don’t come back.  I am always very specific when the plate is a gift.  I say:

“Please keep the plate, it is part of your Christmas gift.”

When it is not a gift, I say:

“Please return the plate when you have finished, no rush, but I will need it back eventually. “

I think you will agree that this is fairly clear.

This year to avoid this, I found these plastic plates that looked silver.  I thought they were perfect.  It was obvious that they would not need to be returned, the kourambiedes would still be presentable and I wouldn’t  have crockery in a bag until February.  I sent a huge plate over to my brother’s and I got a text as soon as they got home and opened them.

“What’s this?  Plastic plates?  Are these austerity kourambiedes?”

It’s a good thing he lives in Barnes really, I could have popped right over and taken them back.

No, I said, I just thought it would be easier than carting all of our plates around etc..”

My sister-in-law joins in:

“But you always give us such lovely Christmas plates which we keep and use year after year!”

And there’s the rub.  I only recall ever having given them one plate with kourambiedes on it as a gift.  The reason I no longer have any ‘Christmas Plates’ is because my brother and sister-in-law have been keeping them every year thinking I am super generous and/or have a never-ending supply of Christmas crockery.

No more, people.  Luxury kourambiedes are out and austerity kourambiedes are in.

Next year, maybe I’ll make them ‘leggera kourambiedes’ and put half the amount of cookies and a salad in the middle of the plate.  I’ll show them austerity…