“Christmas is a time for foodies”. Of course, this would be coming from a foodie – well-known blogger and self-taught food photographer CJ Niles.
“Christmas for me is a time for family, food, celebration, a lot of love and a lot of eating!”
The 20-something year old behind Dine with Your Eyes has for the last two and a half years been documenting her food experiences, honing her skills in food photography along the way, to be shared with her online readers. Today, Cooking Sense finds her in her kitchen, pouring sorrel and tastefully decorating a traditional great cake.
As her luck would have it, the bubbly Bajan with British roots is expecting to double this year’s culinary festivities with two separate Christmas celebrations. Since most of her immediate family migrated to the UK, her mother’s birthplace, she began a yearly local Christmas tradition with her grandmother. However, this year she plans to surprise her mother by showing up on Christmas Eve.
“This will be my first big Christmas with my family since I was a teenager. So, before I leave, my grandmother and I will do our ham and a big spread. So we’ll have our Bajan Christmas before Christmas Day, then I’ll go and have my English Christmas on the actual day.
Growing up with a “fusion of Bajan and British traditions”, plus being around a family who loves trying different takes of traditional meals, has had an impact on how CJ imagines an ideal Christmas spread. For example, in her version of a Christmas fantasy feast, she’d swap out the traditional rice and peas for rice and kidney beans with coconut milk. She would keep the tossed salad and coleslaw (due to her “no beige plates” rule), but also include her mother’s potato salad with boiled egg. Flying fish is a must-have, but so are British Yorkshire puddings, a savoury bread dish topped with gravy or meat. The main event, however, is her Granny’s perfectly baked ham.
“Granny’s ham throughout the family is famous,” CJ declares, but, true to family practice, CJ’s grandmother still puts her own spin on things, or – in this case – leaves them out.
“My Granny is very particular. She doesn’t like cloves in ham, she doesn’t even like it to be glazed, although I’m a pineapple glaze person. So, she’ll make some sacrifices, like putting pineapple glaze at the side instead of all over. But still, there’s something about the way a grandmother cooks that is unexplainable but it tastes so good. There are certain things I wouldn’t even ask about because I don’t want to know too much! I just know it would be glorious and I won’t be able to replicate it.”
Then, once the main course is cleared and dessert plates come out, that’s when we see what CJ brings to the table.
The self-declared dessert aficionado has always had a knack for dishing up sweet things, and even rates restaurants based on the quality of their desserts. Her favourite yuletide treat is her speciality pineapple crumble.
“Pineapple crumble on a whole is somewhat unexpected because most people do apple crumble, which I also do sometimes. Whenever I do, I always use green Granny Smith apples, because those give the right amount of tart. I might cube the apples and put them on the stove to stew down or I might slice the apples, put them into the baking dish with the sugar and cinnamon, top it with crumble and let everything cook in the oven.
“But if I’m making pineapple crumble – my sister’s favourite – then I’d definitely put it on the stove with the cinnamon and sugar and let it stew down almost to a jam, then I put it in the pan, top it with crumble and so then the oven will just be to let the crumble crisp up and harden.”
In listing the final dishes of her Christmas fantasy spread, the cherry on top is a traditional great cake (with or without cherries on top). In true Bajan style, her fruits for her 2021 Christmas great cake have been soaking in local rum since last year.
According to CJ, “following the traditional great cake recipe is how you get it perfect– just following the recipe that’s been passed down and passed down.”
The size of the fruits, however, is what she advises makes or breaks a good dessert.
“For me, if the fruits are too coarse and chunky, the texture is off. It needs to be fruitcake and not fruit in cake. I personally do a mixture of buying candied fruit peel so they’re chopped up fine and then adding some cherries which could be slightly bigger. Then you also need the right amount of alcohol so it’s not overpowering, but not too subtle either. So it’s not like “this got rum in it?”
One thing she can attest to is, when it comes to fruitcake, CJ has inherited from her Grandmother a no-frills approach. Don’t mind the looks– how does it taste? She opts for minimal decoration, and during this interview, she’s added just a couple of plump stemmed cherries and an oven-dried orange slice to the centre of the cake.
“I can’t tell you how long this will last,” she admits, “Just don’t come next week and expect to find it here!”
Leading up to Christmas she’ll continue to plan the delicacies that she’ll be eating or preparing, including a special spiked sorrel for Christmas gatherings, another family tradition.
“Food for me is at the forefront of my Christmas traditions; food is like a unifier. Everyone comes together to eat and you cherish the memories of sitting around the table, surrounded by people you love, laughing, joking and sharing a Christmas meal – food is what makes it special.”