As the Melbourne weather ducks and weaves its way around the enigmatic summer sunshine, I find myself confused by the tricksy grey skies that remind me of Germany this time last year. In what has been my least favourite year of pre-Christmas shenanigans, I strangely find myself longing to be huddling with carollers and cradling a Glühwein at the Cologne Christmas markets as I was last year. It’s not Melbourne’s fault that it struggles with weather identity. I’m not even sure if it’s really weather that determines Christmas spirit. Even in the sweltering and predominantly Buddhist South-East Asian countries that I recently returned from, gaudy tinsel and Christmas lights were hung from many a ramshackle abode. The spirit of festivity and giving and smiles seemed to be ubiquitous. On returning to Melbourne, I have struggled with the hype around the usual battling of the crowds at large shopping centres where hundreds (and sometimes thousands) are spent on gifts that are often expected and/or specifically requested. On seeing the poverty only weeks ago that has shaken me to my core, this approach to Christmas has almost rendered me an anti-Christmas hermit.
There is a tiny flicker of Christmas spirit in there, I promise! I’ve caught myself humming along to ‘O holy night’ (NOT the Mariah Carey version). I’ve smelt the pine of trees outside the local florist and enquired about prices. I’ve bought little gifts for dear ones that are a bit left of centre, but with the very best of intentions. I joined a group of dear friends for morning tea yesterday where plates of food were shared, KK gifts (a brilliant idea, that one!) were swapped, and the highs and lows of our lives were revealed, which were met with hugs and words of encouragement and validation. And I’ve been inundated with beautiful words on Christmas cards, and homemade gingerbread men, mince tarts and little chocolates made with so much care and incredible flavour (Renee!).
I have now decided that in time for Christmas next year, I shall seek the advice of my most Christmas-obsessed friend, Daniela, whose love of this time of year rivals my sister’s, a Christmas junkie! Daniela is dedicated to the Christmas cause, in every beautiful way. It has been this way since we met in 2005 – her inner child much exposed at Christmas time for all of us to see. She bakes her way to December 24 (even if due to sleep deprivation she orders 21 packets of Marie biscuits instead of 2!). The tree is up nice and early in all its glory. Buble’s carols are played. And she shares her love of Christmas with her husband and two children … who really have no choice but to exist in Daniela’s winter wonderland. But really, Daniela’s spirit, creativity and generosity I can only admire. She is also a brilliant writer … I have no doubt there are children’s Christmas stories in the works. So, you see, being adopted by Daniela is quite an aspiration … or at least to hang out in her wonderland long enough to feel more of this Christmas spirit is!
I have discovered that if I am to be accepted into Daniela’s family, it will involve my showing up at the front door with food. It will then need to be approved by her nearly 3-year-old son, Ollie. Now, I will say this for myself – kids usually like me. I pull funny faces, sing, dance, cover my face with my hair and pretend to eat it, whatever it takes, in an effort to make a little one laugh. The first time Ollie and I met, it was not so pleasant – for either of us. Having a child scream at you like you’re a devil woman and then run and hide is a little soul-crushing (sorry Daniela!). I had nothing to offer him and, worst of all, I was direct competition for Daniela-time, which I couldn’t blame him for in the slightest.
When I went back to visit a few months ago, I knew I had to be smart about it. Showing up with just some dance moves and double-jointed thumb tricks wasn’t going to cut it with this kid. It would take food – good, hearty, soothing food. I cooked up my chicken and mushroom pie that morning, carefully making it with love and happy-Ollie vibes. On arriving at the house with the pie in hand, I was met with a cautious but smiling Ollie, and his gorgeous little sister Matilda. After inspecting and okaying the pie, Ollie and I chatted, made shapes out of play dough, ate, put a puzzle together and chatted some more. I won’t let the pie take all the credit, but I think being not just a strange lady but a strange lady with pie, helped somewhat. Perhaps they’ll adopt me now.
1 kg chicken thigh fillets
extra virgin olive oil
2–3 tablespoons fresh or dried thyme
1 teaspoon fresh or dried tarragon
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
400 g mushrooms
50 g butter
1 onion, roughly diced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
150 ml cream
2 tablespoons fresh parsley
1 cup dry white wine (of a decent quality … it makes a difference!)
3 tablespoons flour
3 sheets puff pastry
1 tablespoon milk
Preheat your oven to 180°C. Prepare the chicken by trimming the fillets of fat and dicing them into 1.5 cm squares. It’s laborious and I absolutely hate the feel of cutting raw chicken (not to mention its smell and the sight of the fat), but it is worth using this cut, as breast fillets will be far too dry. A little fat on these pieces is ok, by the way. Warm a large, heavy-based pot (again, I like my ceramic one for this) and fry the chicken in about a tablespoon of oil. Keep the heat to medium so as not to burn the chicken. After a couple of minutes, add a tablespoon each of thyme and tarragon and season well. Cook until the chicken is just sealed. It should be white in colour and not golden. Set the chicken aside in a bowl, with all of its juices.
Prepare the mushrooms by washing and thoroughly drying them, then roughly chop them into thick slices or chunks. Give the pot a wipe and on a medium heat, add butter, the mushrooms and onion to the pot. The mushrooms will very quickly absorb all of the fat, so add a little oil if necessary to help the softening process. After a couple of minutes add the garlic. Cook for about 5–8 minutes or until the mushrooms are well-cooked (I like them quite dark for more flavour) and the onion is translucent, stirring constantly so as not to burn the mixture.
Add the flour, stirring well with a wooden spoon so that the mixture becomes thick and the flour cooks through without burning. Add the wine and, after a dramatique sizzle, this should quickly reduce. Mix for a couple of minutes then return the chicken and juices to the pot. Once combined and heated through, add the cream and remaining thyme. Mix well so that the cream heats through and then check for seasoning.
Once you are happy with the flavour, throw in the parsley and turn off the heat. Allow the mixture to cool — completely, if you have time. Place a sheet of pastry onto a greased pie dish, ensuring it is pushed into the edges of the dish. Mine is a round, 34 cm dish, but any dish of similar proportions is fine. You can also use shortcrust pastry for the base. I like to blind bake the base for about 10 minutes to ensure it doesn’t become soggy. Make sure you poke some holes into the pastry beforehand and that you have some overhang, as the pastry will shrink.
Pour the filling over the cooled pastry base and smooth out. Place another sheet of pastry over the top of the filling and use a third sheet of pastry to cut odds and ends from, in order to cover the filling. Join the top and bottom edges of the pastry together and press together. Feel free to get a little creative here, or just be über rustic as I have (puff pastry has a remarkable way of looking wunderbar once cooked). Make a little cross in the centre of the pastry to let the steam escape. Mix the egg and milk together to make the egg wash, then paste this over the pastry. Bake for about 25-30 minutes or until golden brown. Serve to dubious children, loved ones for Christmas or on a cool and confusing ‘Melbourne’ kind of day.
Have a wonderful festive season all!