Mixing it up for Christmas
It's Christmas Eve and Cal Furbert is in New Jersey with his family, quite possibly in the kitchen helping prepare tomorrow's feast.
For generations, it's how they have bonded.
The 31-year-old was “quite young” when his father, whose name he shares, and his grandmother, Nelda Cann, began encouraging him to watch as they prepared meals. Formal lessons started sometime around age 10.
“I was always in the kitchen with my dad or my grandma,” he said. “Most of my immediate family here are good cooks. With our family, everyone is in the kitchen, everyone takes part, and so once I was 14 or 15 it became, ‘What are you [making for Christmas], Cal? Think about a dish'.”
He is preparing cheesecake and macaroni and cheese for tomorrow's meal at his parents' house. His wife, Aziza, and their sons Noah, 4, and Caleb, 2, will also join in the feast.
“Whether I serve it to children who are 4 or 90, everybody seems to love it,” he said of his macaroni and cheese.
“I'm told I have to bring it whenever the family gets together. I made it at Thanksgiving when we had 20-plus for dinner; we will have between 12 and 20 at Christmas.”
The recipe is his own, perfected through trial and error. Five cheeses go into it: a white cheddar, a sharp cheddar, gruyere “for a bit of texture” and Parmesan, which gives a “sharp tartness to the back of it”. Finally he throws in Pepper Jack, chosen because it “adds a nice bit of heat”.
“In general, with most things I make, I have an idea for the flavour or the profile I'm looking for,” the assistant manager and reinsurance analyst at Validus Re said.
“I might look at other recipes but, for consistency, for texture, how to liven it up, I take little bits and make it my own. I did choose the noodles based on my [mother Lora's] recipe — which is sharp and extra sharp — and tried it once with regular elbow noodles, and that was a no. I wouldn't have thought to use the cellentani otherwise, but it's a definite selling point of the recipe.”
A food processor takes over the arduous task of grating the roughly 8.25 cups of cheese he pairs with 1,000 grams of cellentani pasta.
“It doesn't take a lot of time,” Mr Furbert said. “Press the button down and in five seconds you're done; maybe a minute.”
The cheesecake is a little more involved.
“My wife used to bring Sara Lee cheesecake home all the time. I hated it and so I started to make my own. I've always had a knack for tasting. I make them using any combination of flavours.
“It's all about balance — so it can be an easy lemon raspberry cheesecake or [a more difficult] maple pecan or eggnog and gingerbread. What I make this Christmas depends on how much time I have.”
A standing rib roast, white sweet potatoes with marshmallows and, of course, macaroni and cheese, are all typically part of his Christmas menu.
The macaroni and cheese is his favourite dish.
“But we also have garlic green beans, stuffing, turkey and cranberry sauce and all that plays together,” he said. “Something I always consider is how each dish plays with everything else. You need to consider how the appetiser works with the main course and how the colour plays, the texture plays, the flavour plays, how it all works together.”
In keeping with that, he is doing his best to foster a similar love in his sons.
“If I can get them away from the TV, my children will take their chairs to the big table and watch me. I'm trying to bring them into the tradition without getting a big mess,” he laughed.
For holiday meals especially, he starts getting the dishes ready in advance to maximise his enjoyment of the big day.
“I always try to prep most of it beforehand even if I don't necessarily finish it all,” Mr Furbert said.
“That way I can make up the rest as we go through the whole gift process. For breakfast, we always have something easy like [ready made] cinnamon rolls, which takes the heat off. It's just about having a schedule for when things need to be done that keeps you on track.”
The unexpected trip to New Jersey brings the opportunity for his sons to see some snow. Mr Furbert is hopeful that they don't wreck his parents' nine-foot Christmas tree.
“The last time we were there at Christmas my son broke an ornament a day,” he said.
“Typically we celebrate here. We have dinner at grandma's or at a cousin's or an aunt's. It's all about family. Usually every other year my parents come here but this year it didn't work out.”
Bermudian dishes such as cassava pie might feature in the meal, depending on who his parents have invited to join them. No matter what's served, Mr Furbert knows that he will leave the table feeling stuffed.
“The whole idea is just to sit around the table with each other,” he said.
“The food is there — it's a delicious meal — but we're there for the company more than anything else That's why preparing is important. If you've been cooking for ten hours by the time you sit down, you can't enjoy it as much because you're exhausted.”