When I look at the mementos I’ve tucked away through the years — gifts from family and friends, or reminders of special occasions — I realize they aren’t the memories themselves. The process of remembering is aided by them, but memories are intangible — and some are clearer than others.
Boxing Day some thirty-odd years ago was one of those occasions that left an imprint on my heart more than my mind — an overall “feeling” rather than total recall. What I do remember is warmth… hospitality… generosity.
After my whirlwind tour of England and Scotland, I was ready to settle down for a long winter’s nap and assimilate everything I’d seen, heard, or done. The guest room was quiet, cozy, and adorned with knickknacks and objects d’art twice as old as America (a fact that still boggles my mind) and it didn’t take long to drift off to dreamland under a layer of quilts with a heater at the foot of the bed.
The next morning, I awoke to the sounds and smells of a bustling kitchen. (Don’t you just love that?) The aroma of potatoes and onions mingling with sausage and bacon prompted me to dress quickly and join the muted conversations below. Coffee, tea, scones, eggs — a veritable repast — awaited.
Boxing Day brunch was a tradition the host family relished. As guests arrived at the front door, they were greeted with a heartfelt “Merry Christmas!” and directed to the dining room to indulge and imbibe at will. Champagne corks began popping and lively conversational banter continued throughout the day. The conviviality of it has stayed with me for life.
I learned that Boxing Day is so named because gifts are “boxed” and dispatched to household staff members on their day off (December 26th), having worked Christmas Day. The very thought of it brings to mind the over-sized turkey Mr. Scrooge took great delight in delivering to Bob Cratchit’s home — a sincere thank you for services well-rendered. Boxing Day is also designated as a day to donate to the needy, a tradition that hearkens back centuries.
Meanwhile back at the brunch… one dish that stood out in my mind (funny how I can always remember food) was a cheese soufflé the hostess described as: “not your classical soufflé, but reliable.” I describe it as: “cheese-flavored air.” Sigh…
In between sips and bites, I fielded queries from guests wondering about “the young American woman in England at Christmastime.” Their candor and humor was refreshing and I had to smile when someone asked: “Are you one of those liberated women?” Traveling alone wasn’t as commonplace then as it is now and I guess my adventurous streak was showing.
Another appetizer I enjoyed tremendously (recipe graciously shared by the hostess and later adapted by me) were Cheese Straws. Perfect with champagne — and Christmas. Sometimes simplicity is the ideal backdrop for festivity.
1 1/3 c. flour
1/4 tsp. salt (or to taste)
1/2 tsp. dry mustard
1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper (or to taste)
3 oz. cold butter*
4 oz. grated cheese**
1 egg yolk, beaten
1/4 c. cold water, divided
*Grate the butter first, followed by the cheese. Easy clean up!
**Per original recipe: “Use a highly flavoured cheese such as aged sharp Cheddar.”
Preheat oven to 450° F. Whisk together dry ingredients in a large bowl.
Rub in butter and cheese with your fingers until evenly distributed.
In a small bowl, mix the egg yolk with two tablespoons cold water. Work the liquid into the flour, then add enough remaining water (as needed) to make a stiff, yet pliable dough. (Best to do this with your hands so you can “feel” the consistency.)
Roll out dough thinly on a lightly floured surface; trim and cut into “straws.”
Bake on ungreased baking sheets until golden brown, about 7 minutes.
Note: I bake the trimmings as a “trial batch” to judge the amount of time. (They make a delicious snack with a glass of wine while you’re baking the rest.)
These can also be made in advance. Bake until just golden, about 5 minutes. Cool completely, then freeze. Reheat 2 to 3 minutes at 450° (watch closely) until browned.
Serve warm. Makes 4 dozen.
Boxing Day continues to be one of my favorite memories, and the lessons I learned about hospitality are ones I’m pleased to share in my own home.
Wishing you many delightful memories and a very Merry Christmas!