Kate Young undoubtedly loves Christmas. Loves, loves, loves it. So much so that the Australian-born food writer has put together a collection of Yuletide recipes – 30 new, 20 swiped from her previous Little Library cookbooks – all cloth-bound in festive red, like a Dickensian classic, and interwoven with Christmas themed essays.
Drawing on food from fiction – like the Turkish delight Edmund gorges on in The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe; roasted nuts inspired by The Mill On The Floss, and Moomin-style eggnog – as well as her own Christmases, including many a Swedish Christmas Eve feast, The Little Library Christmas is full of festive cheer. It’s also very sensitive to the fact not all Christmases are equal, let alone easy.
“I really love Christmas, but I totally appreciate that for a lot of people, it’s incredibly stressful,” says Young, noting the annual flux in complicated family dynamics and at the other extreme, loneliness during a season where togetherness is seemingly mandatory. “It’s never as simple as ‘Christmas is always great’.”
And whether it’s great or not, it’s certainly going to be different this year. “I’m trying not to assume what Christmas Day is going to look like but the reality of the situation, I think we’re all painfully aware, is that we might all be restricted,” says Young on the pandemic, which is set to outstrip even Scrooge in its disdain for Christmas wishes. “I think it’s going to be a weird one. I’ve talked to friends who are making a decision like, ‘We’re just gonna pretend it’s not happening’. But I love it, and I can’t pretend it’s not happening. So I’m going to find ways to make it good.”
Food is one such way – an excellent one at that.
Young’s split the recipes in her book into five sections, covering food as gifts; festive party fare; Christmas Eve goodness; all the December 25 trimmings; and edible ways to see in the new year.
“I wanted to write a book that gives you ideas for that day, but also covers all the time around it,” she explains, noting that yes, you may want to roast a whole goose, eschew turkey for chicken this year (“Cook a chicken, chickens are great!”), or go Swedish and make Jansson’s temptation (a potato and sprat bake). But it is also “completely fine, as we did a couple of years ago, to get a bunch of last-minute canapes for the freezer and just put them in the oven at various points throughout the day and eat that”, she says.
“There is joy to be had in making an incredible Christmas dinner, but if that is not something you’re going to find joyful, it does feel quite intense to have that pushed upon you. There’s always a chance to do it another way; there’s no right way for Christmas to look.”
Same goes for New Year’s Eve. It’s easy to feel pressurised into thinking you have to drink all the champagne and dance until your tights wear through, but Young says there’s magic in a low-key New Year. Especially when it involves making her cheesy orzo using the nubbly odds and ends of your Christmas cheeseboard.
Now based in the UK, Young is rather used to Christmas shifting shape and form. Growing up in the Nineties in Australia, Christmas Day was “monstrously hot” and sunny, and spent largely in the pool.
“Generally, we ate cold meat and potato salads, so we’d have a ham, but we’d have it cold,” Young recalls. “December is a beautiful time of year for food in Australia – all the tropical fruit is out, so you’d have mangoes; it would be extraordinary. But we would still have plum pudding because my great-grandma made Christmas puddings every year. I still use her recipe, which is in the book, and we would still have that to finish, but not until the sun had set and it was slightly cooler.”
Sprouts were not really on the menu… “I didn’t eat them a lot until I came here and by then I was in my 20s,” says Young. “I loved them instantly because they are slightly bitter and savoury and good, and if you know how to cook them, they’re delicious. I didn’t have any of that school dinners association, where they’ve been boiled to oblivion.”
She even pickles them. “They’ve become a thing that’s cool again,” she says. “At Christmas, they sometimes receive a worse rap than they should.”
Christmas may be wrought (and sometimes fraught) with tradition, ritual and routine, but Young hopes The Little Library Christmas offers space and ideas, not festive mandates. “I don’t want it to feel like I’m presenting a utopian version of Christmas,” she says. “I want the book to very much feel like a usable practical friend in the kitchen, but also a memory of the really good parts of Christmas, and an acknowledgement of the parts where it’s tricky as well.
“I want it to be a Christmas book for people who don’t necessarily have to have completely uncomplicated feelings about Christmas,” she adds. And in a complicated year, there’s comfort to be found in that.
The Little Library Christmas by Kate Young is published by Head of Zeus. Photography by Lean Timms.
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