In the background, the Christmas tree softly glows. The dog is snoring at my feet, and the smell of freshly cooked mincemeat and lemon curd cooling – awaiting their tart shells – is gently pulling me back to the Christmas Eves’ at my grandmother’s house. Poppins had just moved into a two-bedroom uptown apartment on Charlotte St., next door to Trinity Church, and began the tradition of hosting a Christmas Eve spread for the family.
(Not quite this. Sweaters, yes. Turkey curry and awkward matchmaking, no.)
The church bells would chime in the background every quarter hour. We had already been to the family service, having heard the cold stone archways swell once again with joyous carols. The apartment, with low yet warm light, accommodated everyone into the tiny living room and around the buffet table that showed no cloth for the amount of dishes laid out before us: chocolate cheesecake, mincemeat tarts topped with pastry embellishments and dusted with icing sugar, lemon tarts, a Christmas cake covered in marzipan and topped with wooden figurines in some sort of a scene, cookies with those silver balls, sausage rolls, cheese and crackers of every variety. I know I’ve forgotten a few.
Everyone dressed up, everyone laughing, and all just a tiny bit excited for the next morning.
Those nights only happened for a few years. People moved provinces away. People divorced. People remarried. Change happens and traditions shift, taking on new colour and shape. And while I’ve always liked Christmas Day, I love Christmas Eve, mainly because of these few nights in particular.
Today I went to see Poppins, as she leaves in a few days for Ontario and the Christmas festivities awaiting her there. Even though I know she’ll have these waiting for her up there, we brought her a little selection box of treats to get her prepared.
After consulting a few recipes, and using this one by Nigella as a base, I made my own recipe up this year.
- Dissolve 1 c brown sugar in 120 ml of port on low heat in a large pot.
- Add 1 1/2 c of diced apples (Pink Lady) and stir for a few minutes.
- Add dried fruit (20 oz raisins, 12 oz currants, 8 oz cranberries), spices (2t cinnamon, 1.5t ginger, 0.5t allspice, and 0.5t ground cloves), the juice and zest from two oranges, and 1 c mulled apple cider.
- Bring to a boil then turn down heat on low to simmer for about 40 minutes, mashing up the fruit as it absorbs the liquid and gets softer.
- Take off the heat and add 2t of vanilla and 50ml brandy. Fill pies, tarts or sterilized jars.
Lemon curd is easy to make, and this recipe by Ina Garten does a good job of giving a sweet yet tart filling.
For both sets of tarts – I don’t own a tart pan, so I used store-bought pastry. Hard to come by, as it always sells out this time of year.
Poppins’ own recipe with three ingredients: 1 c butter, 1/2 c icing sugar, 2 c flour. She would always cut them into playing card symbols and top with a fat dot of icing and a red or green cherry. Roll to about 1/4 in think, poke holes with a fork to keep from puffing up, and bake for 8-10 minutes or until browned around the edges at 375C.