Patrick here, for a post close to my heart about one of my family traditions. You see, my family celebrates Christmas in early December…
Christmas is a big deal for us, and always has been. Like many other families in the UK and Ireland, it’s the biggest holiday in our calendar year. It fuels us all; being together, breaking bread as a large unit, we toast to the coming year ahead and reflect on the one gone by. These days, now us ‘kids’ (myself, my sisters and all my cousins) are mostly all adults, it’s often the sole time we get to see each other – the one time all year we’re all in the same room together to catch up and spend time together.
Growing up, my sisters and I were always really close with our cousins, even some times inseparable. We were always at each others’ birthday parties or running amok during family festivities. Since we’ve flown the coup and all spread out, it’s so special to come together even just that quick few hours a year. It’s what makes Christmas still really so magical.
I have a large enough family, probably not massive by some standards, but we’ve grown to a group of about 35-40 now. Because my Dad’s four siblings all have fast-growing families of their own (each spread the length and breadth of Ireland) it’s not possible to commit to Christmas Day together anymore like we used to in the Nineties and Noughties. There’s a new group of infant toddler cousins and second cousins growing up, with a network of families-in-law vying to spend the holidays with them too.
Because of this, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to rip up the calendar and dictate our own date for the feast of St. Nick. Everyone descends upon our house in Drogheda, usually during the first weekend of December, for one night and one big knee’s up; bellies full and catch-ups completed. Our house twinkles in bright decoration as day turns to dusk.
The excitement then peaks at nightfall as, drip by drip, family members ring the doorbell and leave the cold and frost outside before re-connecting with everyone in front of the blazing sitting room fire. Welcome drinks are served, alongside trays and trays of nibbles, the combination of which is the infrastructure that fuels and flows the hectic and eclectic atmosphere.
The main meal is not your usual bird with all the trimmings, as to feed our number (which has seemingly doubled over the past 10 years) would require an industrial-sized oven and ten hands on deck. Instead, what’s served is a huge all-in-one oven traybake, large pot of stroganoff with rice or some other hearty main that’s kind on the washing, plating and prep.
My mother is forever testing, tweaking and trialling canapé ideas in order to find the most satisfying but simple mix – though there’s never been complaints and every recipe has been heralded a joy. Over the past year or two, she’s effectively shaved her head, swapper her slender frames for chunky, dark ones and donned her crisp whites in a bid to out-do previous years’ efforts as a veritable Heston Hanlon!
‘Little Christmas’, an ironic name we have dubbed this night since it’s four times the size of our Christmas Day, is my real Christmas celebration. December 25th and 26th is a massively smaller affair for us. It’s a true feat of year-long organisation, coordination and collaboration to pull it all off.
Every second is worth it.
If you felt encouraged by this post or wanted some tips for your own festive family celebration, we’ve gotten five top tips from Heston Hanlon herself!
1. Each year for our celebrations, there’s about six canapés to cover all bases, and about 30 of each, so that makes 180 in total. Plenty for a group of 30. A finger food rule of thumb should be at least three canapés per person.
2. Always have a vegetarian option in the mix. Veggie hors d’oeuvres are crowd-pleasing, accessible and a safe bet.
3. Something on a skewer is always a winner, whether that be chicken or prawns. For ‘Little Christmas’, there is always some form of meatball, which is tweaked differently each year. This year it’s going to have oriental flavours to provide variety from the other canapés.
4. Keep nibbles to a size that only dictates using one hand to eat it with. Often there will be lots of bodies, most of which will be standing and all holding a drink in the other hand. Having to use a spoon can get unnecessarily messy.
5. Sometimes the cheapest, smallest and easiest canapés are the most universally loved. There’s lots of little frozen delights that are perfect. It’s nice to adapt something frozen too, we almost always have a caramelised onion and strong cheese tart, made with frozen puff pastry.
In honour of ‘Little Christmas’, here’s a few of our favourite finger food and nibble ideas…
Slices of slow-roasted pork belly
or battered, deep fried tails-on prawns with a selection of sauces. This has been a staple of lots of our family parties for the past decade. Every supermarket has their own brands that come frozen or chilled.
Squares of a tart
Made using frozen or chilled, store-bought puff pastry. My mam’s signature caramelised onion tart is beloved of our family, and sometimes features goat’s cheese or a similar strong-tasting cheese. Our Gastrogays version has half of the onions pan-cooked with garlic and the other half roasted with fennel seeds before baking in the oven on top of the raw pastry.
Blinis topped with smoked salmon and creme fraiche
(or beetroot and goat’s cheese); a very obvious nibble but always open to interpretation and individual flair or taste. Salmon has a long-lived association with Christmas so these are seasonal and look great. Finish with a sprig of dill, or if you’re feeling really posh, some lumpfish roe or trout caviar.
This is a pretty recent addition to Little Christmas and is loved by some and not-so-loved by others. It’s earthy, creamy and so simple to make. My version is simply served with a dollop of creme fraiche and thyme on top. For a little measure for each guest, remember – two hands should not be needed for canapés – simply serve these in double measure shot glasses or egg cups.
Just like the prawns above, every single supermarket at this stage has their own variation on little quiches, mini muffins or bite-sized vol-au-vents. They always get gobbled up and go down a treat. We change it up the whole time and buy from different supermarkets. Some are better than others, but it’s worth the trial and error.
White chocolate snowflake truffles
Served with tea & coffee. This is my new tradition that I am bringing to the table, beginning this year. We sometimes have a cheese board to finish festivities instead of a dessert. There’s lots of savoury stuff on offer and it’s always washed down with tea and coffee. To offer a little sweetness to end the feast, these little snowballs are festive and fun. I wanted a truffle which wasn’t heavy and decadent like many are, so I made these with cream cheese, white chocolate, coconut and cashew nuts, they are a cinch to make and I can’t wait to get the feedback from everyone this year.