Now that the weather has stopped making a liar of me and become properly autumnal, the inevitable torrent of tinsel has begun. It seems to me that the retailocracy have deigned to delay a little longer than in recent years before drowning us in festive bling; perhaps embarrassed by the soaring temperatures that brought the phenomenon of sunburn to October. They haven’t quite managed to quell their enthusiasm long enough to see out All Hallows’ Eve, so we are subjected to the odd juxtaposition of fluffy reindeer and Santa hats upon green face paint and foot-wide furry spiders in the “seasonal goods” aisle at the supermarkets; but let us celebrate their relative restraint, which has at least saved us from having to cope with the vocal-cord popping exploits of Slade before the schools have reopened after the summer holidays.
But despite every day now being a shopping day, we are down to double figures of them before the frenetic tearing of shiny paper heralds the end of many a diet, so the more organised among us (i.e my wife, but not me) are getting out there and ticking off the Christmas list before the hordes turn city centres into seething, claustrophobic throngs of humanity. Regular readers will know I normally enjoy shopping, but December weekends are a vision of Hell itself, to be avoided with only slightly less care than the Bermuda triangle, North Korea, and Middlesborough. Oddly, Christmas Eve itself is something like the eye of a hurricane; it’s become a bit of a tradition for me to acquire one final present in this last chance saloon, and I’ve always found it to be a good-natured, happy, and best of all relatively sparsely-populated time to be out shopping, probably because most people are supporting local hostelries by mid-afternoon, except for the poor blighters supporting retail conglomerate shareholders, who are nevertheless still in fine spirits considering their incarceration.
Shopping for Christmas presents is a bit of a minefield. Some people are very easy to buy for: my wife likes “pretty things”, and I have been well indoctrinated into her aesthetic preferences, so can be reasonably sure that the boots, necklace, lingerie or dress that I’ve procured will meet with a satisfactory level of gratitude. Others are harder; in 31 years I’ve yet to elicit a convincing thanks from my sister, but I guess that’s what siblings are for.
Buying for vegans (like cooking for vegans, or even mere vegetarians) presents something of a challenge at Yuletime. It is a bittersweet time of year for all of us: cheap chocolates and other confections abound throughout Advent, and we feel obliged* to devour them, despite that diet I was talking about earlier supposedly being in play. For vegans in particular it is harder yet; much chocolate being of the milk-laden variety, or filled with fluffy clouds of sweetness also based largely on dairy products. So chocolate is best avoided. The next port of call for easy presents for vegetarians is alcohol, which until a few months ago I considered safe ground. Of all unlikely sources, it was Tesco who disabused me of this notion, sending us a wine brochure which had a green V icon against depressingly few entries: apparently many wines, particularly US and Anzac wines, use an animal product in the filtration process. So I was pleased to present my vegan friend with a hamper of appropriate goodies for her gift last year, although I admit to a level of dissatisfaction with the inevitable lack of variety in it.
Harder yet though than buying presents for vegans is buying for children. Not because of the reaction of the kids of course, but down to the limits of patience of the parents. Before I embarked upon the adventure of daddydom, I had no thought for the passive torture imposed upon the wider family by a plethora of polymer products emanating white notes into the atmosphere. The world is too full of VTECH earscrews, noisy emergency vehicles, incompatible not-Lego and Disney characters issuing imperious directives. We have the unfortunate problem of having both my boys’ birthdays adjacent to Christmas, so they have not had opporunity to achieve boredom with the most recently-acquired plastic estate before finding it added to. So a timely plea to anyone thinking of buying Xmas presents for someone under the age of seven: vouchers for books, clothes, or days out at theme parks; all will be far more gratefully received by the people who are actually your friends and likely to remember past New Year what was bought, for who, by whom.
My very good friend the fat foodie, who appears to have unfortunately run out of steam, has a strong track record in buying Christmas presents for my family, mostly buying books for the kids and making tasty hampers for us. One of his many triumphs is pistachio brittle, which is one of those simple recipes I am terrified of trying; I am poor/inexperienced at baking recipes such as this. I hope you are more adventurous than me; let me know how you get on…
- Nonstick vegetable oil spray
- 1 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup water
- 1/4 cup natural unsalted pistachios
Spray baking sheet with nonstick spray. Stir sugar and water in heavy small saucepan over medium-low heat until sugar dissolves. Increase heat; boil until deep amber color, occasionally brushing down sides of pan with wet pastry brush and swirling pan, about 12 minutes.
Stir nuts into caramel and immediately pour onto prepared sheet. Working quickly and carefully (caramel is very hot and hardens fast), press tip of small knife into edges of caramel and gently stretch in all directions to form very thin sheet, approximately 12 by 10 inches. Cool brittle completely and then smash. Smashing it is fun. Eating it is even more fun.
*”Feel obliged”, as in “no no please release my arm from where you’ve twisted it up behind my back, I will have your accursed chocolate”.