Learning to cook will, for me, always be bound up with two other things: grieving for my mother, and my relationship with Sam. One death, one birth, both preceding my first foray into the kitchen by such a small margin that I struggle to unpick the different strands of my own narrative.
It was around this time of year, and it seems appropriate that, as I celebrate one and remember the other, I cook a dish that connotes limbo. Sadness and joy. Patience, and quiet triumphs. That dish is Shakshuka.
I’m going to keep this short, because if you have flung yourself into the festivities, or simply survived them, and are now sizing up piles of leftovers wearily and warily, the last thing you want to do is read a blog post. If that’s not the case, please feel free to trawl my archives and fill your boots. But it’s important not to waste valuable Quality-Street-eating or telly-gazing time on blog-based mirth. So know this: this Leftovers Pie will save your Boxing Day.
I wish I were someone who was organised and neat, someone who excelled at making organised and neat lists, and then methodically ticking off each item on completion. But that will never be me.
And that is why, despite my best efforts, I found myself in Newcastle on a rainy Northumberland Street on 22nd December trying to decide whether I should spend £15 on a jar of pork scratchings, or just scratch my own eyes out and be done with it.
For the last week I have had acute Christmas anxiety. So I made brownies. Christmas brownies. The best brownies, possibly, that you will ever taste.
When I say ‘Christmas anxiety’, I don’t mean indecision over which cheeses to buy, or what to wear for Christmas Day, or even whether I’ve bought particularly rubbish presents (although, also all of those).
The bits of Christmas I like most are the stolen quiet moments. And in those quiet moments, I make Nutella Snowflake Bread.
Please do not think this is an invective against Christmas. I love Christmas. I love the sparkling lights and bright colours and traditions and organised fun. I do, really.
We never really did festive baking in my house. Mince pies were Marks & Spencer. Yule logs never crossed the threshold. Stollen was an unknown, and Pannetone hadn’t made it to South Shields in 1994. The exception was the Christmas cake.
Sometimes I worry that I’m flighty. And not in a charming, no one can tie me down, I’m-a-free-spirit sort of way. But rather skittish, unreliable, inconstant. When I feel that way, I come home and bake spelt bread.
Spelt bread is grounding. It is quick, physical work that you have to do with hands. It doesn’t require skill or implements or fancy ingredients. I don’t need to set a timer, or panic about precision. It transforms me into someone pragmatic and capable and resilient.
I spend a lot of time evangelising about stews and soups and curries and their particular value during the colder months. And they are important. They swaddle you in warmth, they comfort you with their stodge or depth or nursery-like qualities: they feed you up, and steel you against the outside world.
Bonfire night, for me, conjures up thoughts of food: watching fireworks in a cold, dark field, is synonymous with almost-too-hot-to-hold baked potatoes, thick, steaming soup in gloved hands, and charred sausages. So why do we waste our time with the eternally disappointing toffee apple?
I love autumn, but my immune system does not.
Throughout hot summer months, I long for chill, brisk walks, and occasional torrential rain, and the arrival of the hot chestnut sellers on the approach to St Paul’s. But then they appear, and without fail, I am poorly. If I’m lucky, it’s just a cold, that drags on interminably, slogging its way alongside me through the months.