CHRISTMAS is one festive season that both Helen Read and Abby Leong look forward to.
The ladies have been friends since their Ipoh schooldays at SK Marian Convent and Main Convent. They met at age 11 and now, five decades later, they are in and out of each other’s lives, they work together … they have become family, basically.
Read is the founder of the Ms Read fashion house, while Abby Leong heads research and development at The BIG Group, the F&B company founded by Read’s son Benjamin Yong.
Read and Leong have also written a book together – Helen & Abby Home Favourites, The “It’s All Possible” Cookbook.
According to Leong, the eight-foot Christmas tree goes up on the first week of December where each and every bauble and décor on the tree tells a story.
“Just putting up the tree together makes the whole house feel like Christmas already.
“Christmas means lots of presents, both for children and adults alike. Helen remembers her mother placing all their gifts in pillow cases, and placed at the foot of their beds on Christmas Eve. I guess they didn’t make big stockings those days!
“Cooking and feasting throughout the few days of Christmas in Helen’s home in Taman Seputeh brings the family even closer together. We normally cook for different groups on different days as Helen will always plan parties for her staff, her church group and also her husband’s family,” says Leong.
According to her, the celebration starts on Christmas Eve for close family members.
“Of course, ‘Ms Efficient’ Helen would have brined the turkey the day before and made the fruit cake way in advance. Her husband, Edmund will always put on a Christmas CD to set the mood. The children, siblings and their spouses normally come over early to help, or just to spend time nattering with the rest of the family. Family Christmas dinner is usually for a dozen adults and two or three kids, but the number of children seems to be growing as the years pass by,” she says.
Christmas Day starts bright and early the next morning with breakfast for the family.
“The house begins smelling of grilled bacon, enough to draw anyone into the kitchen to pick at those crispy bacon strips. Of course, no breakfast is complete without sausages, scrambled eggs, grilled tomatoes, mushrooms, baked beans, toast and pancakes or waffles with golden syrup.
“Turkey is the highlight for dinner as this is the only time of the year that we get to enjoy it, served with cranberry sauce, and our favourite Branston Pickles. We learned to appreciate Branston Pickles from our days living in England. It goes very well with cheese, so Cheese and Branston Pickles Sandwich was one of our favourite fast food. We use to buy Branston from England, but now, thank goodness, it is easily available here, too,” says Leong.
Cooking for an extended family is no easy task. It involves a lot of preparation, precise timing and even some delegation. Having a large family with lots of hands to help out in the kitchen is a boon.
Leong offers this tip to families preparing a Christmas meal:
“Cooking a Christmas meal for the family does take a bit of planning. Always remember that frozen turkeys will take at least 24-36 hours to thaw so never leave that to the last minute. Besides fruit cake and mince pies, everything should be cooked on the day itself. So we suggest a to-do list for those few days and follow that list closely.
“Taste is indeed very important when we cook. But that does not mean that we eat unhealthily. Fat gives food a lot of flavour but if turkey is brined in salt water overnight, it is just as flavourful and juicy. We hardly use any processed food in our cooking but for Christmas, we just have to pick up a couple of cans of baked beans and cranberry sauce. Though it is the season to be jolly, alcohol is hardly used in our cooking. Even our Dundee fruit cake is alcohol-free.
“When we cook together, it is a shared effort so we find it quite enjoyable as we chat throughout the whole cooking session. We check on our to-do list often, so as long as we are on track, we are usually quite relaxed.
“The most important ingredient to a successful Christmas celebration is family love. Eating, chatting, opening presents, maybe some singing and just enjoying each other’s company,” quips Leong.
Read and Leong share two of their favourite Christmas recipes:
Helen & Abby Home Favourites, The “It’s All Possible” Cookbook is available at http://helenandabby.com/ for RM69.