Suleika Jaouad’s The Isolation Journals
After reading Suleika Jaouad’s incredible book ‘Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted’ earlier this year I discovered her project that was born during Covid Lockdown times – The Isolation Journals. This platform is an artist led community that cultivates creativity and fosters connectivity in challenging times. You can choose to be a free subscriber to receive a weekly creative prompt in your email Inbox, or you can have a paid subscription of $6 a month. As a paid subscriber you unlock more content – interviews that Suleika does with other artists and writers, as well as a recently added advice column from her. There are also virtual meet ups where you sit at your computer and write together, and I happily recall sitting at our kitchen island in our Ghana kitchen in one of those sessions, working on a blog post. It was there that I discovered you get ‘background sounds’ of a Coffee shop with baristas making coffee, chatter amongst customers that simulate being in an actual coffee shop! A novel idea indeed for those who prefer some noise while working.
Before I digress too much, today I’ve decided to blog about this week’s prompt from the Isolation Journals which is actually Prompt 175 for the project by Annie Campbell on transportive food memories: ‘What food evokes a transporting moment of time and place? Taste the moment and write down everything you can remember’
Christmas 2021 in a new country
What better week than the Christmas one to mull over such things. What I’ve loved about this year’s festive season has been the deep sense of nostalgia it has evoked in me (as you know from this post about my kids I can tend to be rather sentimental). Hearing the carol ‘Oh Holy Night’ sung so tenderly during the virtual mass we watched in our lounge, and shedding a few tears remembering a Christmas after a grief stricken year where I sobbed through that song – my favourite carol.
The memories held in Christmas tree decorations that I had not seen for over 5 years when they were in storage in Durban. Being reminded of places we have visited where we bought some of these special ornaments. Thinking of how little our children were at the time. The friends who have gifted us some of them. Decorating the tree and admiring it this month has felt like an act of gratitude for all the memories and positive experiences it holds. In a life where busy days seem to pass by so quickly, I’m thankful to be reminded of so many of our life’s little moments that seem wonderfully stored in those dangling bits of beauty on the branches of our first real American Fraser fir. It is comforting to think too, how they will always be there, like the forever water in the glass of snow globes.
Back to the prompt of food – isn’t it wonderful that through food we have one of the most comforting and enduring ways to connect with people and places far away. Bites of flavour can immediately give you that deep feeling of ‘home’. I enjoyed hearing from two people recently how they celebrate their Italian and Polish roots by eating traditional food from those countries at Christmas time. As it is only our second ever Christmas away from family we welcomed foods that would give us a sense of connection to those we hold dear to our hearts back home. This season we have felt a sense of being transported home through three food items we made – fruit mince pies, sugar cookies and trifle.
Homemade mince pies (with the best mince pie pastry recipe)
In South Africa we usually happily start eating mince pies at the beginning of December and as it was approaching the third week of December with no mince pies in sight in New Jersey, we were positively craving the spicy notes of fruit mince enrobed in buttery crumbling pastry! We used a mince pie pastry recipe that originally came from my aunt, and one that my mom uses annually when she bakes dozens of her mince pies to give as gifts, (I’ve included it below if anyone wants to try make them next year) and I found bottles of fruit mince at Walmart. We haven’t been able to find castor sugar yet, so we have been using our trusty food processor to grind the regular granulated sugar to a finer consistency. As my hands gently pressed small circles of rolled out pastry into muffin tins they reminded me of my mom’s doing the same and when my kids brushed milk on the tops of them I thought of them helping her a year ago in my parents kitchen, and the laughter that filled the air. That first bite of a mince pie really had us all grinning – Christmas was now upon us.
Sugar cookies that take me back to my childhood
On Christmas Eve we made sugar cookie dough using Nigella Lawson’s recipe here, and on Boxing day when we baked them, the kitchen filled with a warm vanilla aroma that will always make me think of Saturday mornings spent with my two cousins Sam and Justin. Growing up, come the beginning of the weekend, my brother and I would walk a short distance down the street to my aunt and uncle’s house to spend the morning playing TV games like Mario and Islander on those basic consoles you used to get in the chinese shops in the middle of Durban town. When one of the players ‘died’ we would watch while one of the others tried to better our game, and happily munch on my aunt’s weekly batch of sugar cookies cut into pretty shapes and topped with ‘hundreds and thousands’ or cherries.
It isn’t Christmas without a trifle
For dessert on Christmas day we had intended to make a Trifle, another Christmas must have in this house. My mom makes a delicious one and Dave’s gran Eve used to make an amazing one too! But we realised on Christmas Eve that we had forgotten to buy the needed ingredients. So yesterday on the 27th we got round to making the desired dessert. Custard powder or ready made custard are not easily found on American shop shelves so custard from scratch it was. As lady finger biscuits and a Swiss roll were also not where we hoped they would be at, we took advantage of a vanilla box cake from Target. We had not thought to make jelly (or jello to our American friends) earlier in the day to give it time to set, we found some ready made Kool Aid gel snack cups but scrapped the cherry flavour ones due to their extreme artificial taste. Thankfully the green ones were milder and more what we are used to.
I consulted a few trifle recipes in some of our books and discovered decadent sounding ones using sparkling wine for the jelly, sliced panettone, orange blossom water and mangoes. I also chuckled at the name of a recipe I saw online ‘Granny’s heavy handed trifle’. However what we were craving was good old simple Trifle that has stood the test of South African time so I decided to just wing this simple pudding. I spread raspberry jam on the vanilla cake and cut squares of it into the base of the dish. The cake layer was then doused in velvety smooth light yellow custard and that was left to cool and set for a while in the fridge. As I don’t really like the taste of sherry in the cake we left that out. Then I made a layer of chopped up bright green jelly (I don’t want to know about the colourants used) and orange tinned peaches, and the final topping was whipped cream with classy raspberries and crazy rainbow sprinkles. Once assembled it reminded me of an outlandishly decorated tree with its eclectic mix of colours and shapes.
While watching an episode of the hilarious Marvelous Mrs Maisel that evening we smiled at that first taste of trifle meeting our lips. I do very much like the fun and quirk of this pudding – those crazy bright colours together, the strange combination of rather basic ingredients, the memories of Christmas with our familes in years gone by when all of the deserts are arranged on a Christmas cloth covered table on Christmas day and you can take your pick from bowls of deliciousness while exclaiming how full you already are from the previous course!
Dave and I agreed this morning, while happily tucking into bowls of trifle for breakfast that this was the final nostalgic ‘now it’s Christmas’ feeling and that felt good.
I hope you have all had a blessed 2021 Christmas, and if you couldn’t be with family I hope you too had delicious food that felt just like ‘home’. x
The best mince pie pastry recipe (my Aunty Avril’s)
Mince pie pastry recipe
1/2 cup castor sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
3 cups flour
Beat butter and sugar. Add eggs. SIft dry ingredients and add to mixture. Refrigerate for about 15 minutes (if you do this for longer leave it to thaw a while until it softens). Roll out thinly and use cutters to fit your muffin tray.
Bake at 180 degrees celcius for 15-20 mins. When you start to see the edges browning they are ready.
Allow to cool on a cooling rack and give them a dusting of ‘snow’ with icing/powdered sugar. Enjoy!