From Dr. Pat: Making Christmas Anew

Six a.m.Christmas morning: My two sons and daughter in law  were off to Long Meadow, Massachusetts, where they would spend the rest of the holiday with my daughter in law’s large and exuberant family on Christmas Eve after our holiday dinner.

The husband and my two stepsons had just left in a mad rush at 5:30am on Christmas Day for the earliest flight to Palm Beach, to begin our brief holiday in the sun. I had negotiated a later afternoon flight as part of my Christmas package and was curled up in my favorite chair in the library, enjoying hot coffee and the company of Asta the Airedale, who was lying on the rug at my feet. It was Christmas morning and I was filled with joy. The night before, I had successfully completed the marathon of Christmas 2008. Maybe I wasn’t the winner mother of America in this marathon, but I know that I was number one in determination.

All the children were home for our Christmas Eve dinner. I have chosen to be flexible about the timing and day of our Christmas celebration so that the adult children can have less stress. As children grow up they naturally feel pulled in different directions with new in-law family obligations and in families altered by divorce, the need to see both parents for some holiday face time. I hope they know that this is one of the gifts I offer that is not wrapped and placed under the tree.

This was our first Christmas in an apartment, not in a large house. This is a place that holds no memories for the children so using the familiar china, silver and linens was important. Setting the table is my favorite part of any meal, and I gave careful thought to the choice of everything on that table. This was another gift that came without wrapping paper. I hope they knew.

When the crowd began to converge in t he very late afternoon on Christmas Eve, the roast was just coming out of the oven. It was covered in crushed peppercorns, and stood on its ribs with almost unseemly majesty. The potatoes and celery root were almost cooked; the broccoli and cocktail tomatoes had been steamed and sautéed, and were now waiting to be pressed into the ring mold that turns these ordinary vegetables into a holiday red and green wreath.

My eldest son had volunteered to prepare the hors d’oeuvres and muscled right into the small kitchen, slicing and toasting and spreading and tasting. “Get the toast points finished before I put the popovers in the oven,” I warned.

I was in the middle of popover batter preparation, always a delicate time for me. I actually write out in block letters the critical times for this process:

Preheat the oven to 450.
Butter the popover pans.
Prepare the batter for the popovers.
While preparing the batter DO NOT FORGET to put the popover pans in the oven to get really hot.
Continue working on the popover batter. Then QUICKLY take the hot popover pans out of the oven and pour the batter into the pans only 2/3 full and put back into the oven.
Set the timer for 20 minutes.
Then lower the temperature to 350 for another 20 minutes.

If any of these steps are not perfectly executed, the popovers will be tiny waffle like creatures, blight upon the Christmas dinner.

At some point there was popover batter on the toaster and certainly on the apron covering my thirty year old floor length Christmas taffeta skirt but the popovers made it into the oven. The broccoli flowers and lightly sautéed tiny red tomatoes were pressed into a Bundt mold. Trust me; there have been Christmas Dinners when the unmolding process does not produce a red and green wreath.

 Deep breath; Moment of Truth: Place the serving tray on top of the mold, turn upside down, place prayful hands on top of the mold and ask for ” just one more time, dear Lord, let the mold become a Christmas wreath”. Answered prayer.

 Next the potatoes and celery root had to be mashed, and then whipped with heavy cream, butter and sour cream. Tension was palpable at this point as I glanced furtively through the window of the oven into the lit interior. The popovers were rising! The timer rang; I changed the oven temperature, only 20 minutes to go.

The medical student son was given the honor of carving the roast. Everyone moved into the living room for a Christmas toast while I cleaned the area that would become the buffet. The popovers still had five minutes to go.

The family was invited into the dining room. for their first holiday meal in our new home. There was a moment of silence while each of us remembered Christmas dinners past and realized that this beautiful table reproduced the memories of those times. Candlelight, goblets, special Christmas linens, china: it was just the same.  Then, “Oh Lord, the popovers!”

The popovers were indeed light and golden and as tall as the Empire State Building, removed from the oven one minute before the last ring of the timer. “Oooh look at the popovers,” the children chimed. Another gift not wrapped under the tree. I hope they knew.

 Each Christmas, John Clancy and I cook the big meal together using his Christmas Cookbook, pages 116 and 117. Those pages are stained; there are notes in the margins.  I love that cooking this holiday meal is about my familiar menu, my old friend, the John Clancy Christmas cookbook, great ingredients, incredible chaos, and endless prayer. It is always a present, not wrapped and under the tree for my children and my dear husband. I hope they know.


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