The first time I met Curtis, I politely declined his offer to help with an awkward load I was carrying. Something about my reply delighted him, so he invited me to dinner at his home with Albert and others with whom I was to became close. At the dinner, he was so cheeky, goading me with pretend ignorance about South Africa (“Can you ride water buffaloes?”). In mid-sparring, we fell in love. For a girl far away from home, he became my soulmate, older brother, playmate and, when the occasion called for it, my guardian.
His partner of many years, Albert, to whom you’ve been briefly introduced in my first post, is the gentlest soul you’ll ever meet. He has a rule that one is never allowed to talk badly of another person, and even when I get petulant and whine, “Bu-ut, I have to! Please!” He replies, “No way, no how.”
Both have impeccable taste, each slightly different. Curtis has a classical romantic style, and Albert has a more vibrant but elegant island flair. Together, they live life fabulously and with warm abundance. They suck the marrow — no, wait, first, they invite friends over, arrange it beautifully, perfect the ambient lighting, pair it with the right wine — and then they suck marrow out of life.
Over the last 12 years, they have taught me many things, one of them being how to get stuff done and beautifully. And they really get beautiful stuff done. (You should see them get the dishes done after an opulent dinner party, while I position myself, purposefully useless, as I loathe doing dishes, with the occasional, “Um, where should I put this? Uh, want me to dry?” to which Curtis’ replies in a melt-butter tone, “Darling, why ruin a perfect record?”)
The aunt whom I have spoken about told me that the people who really know how to be gemütlich are the best sort, and Curtis and Al are those such people. As well as being splendiferous chefs, they have entertaining down to an art. With gorgeous settings and food, one always ends up feeling like one of the Danes at Babette’s Feast, wanting to join hands and dance in the moonlight with sheer bliss. And they love Christmas just like I do. So what better time to introduce them than now?
Christmas edition of Earth Beings®: I present to you, Curtis & Albert.
“Christmas is a wonderful holiday. It was my Mom’s favorite holiday, so much so that she and my Dad were married two days before Christmas. Growing up, we all knew Mom would just go nuts at Christmas. The decorating, baking, cooking, shopping. We lived in a lovely Swiss style chalet on a lake, usually lots of snow. My folks would decorate lamp posts, every windowsill had bows and boughs and a huge garland on the balcony. Baking would start in October and didn’t end until New Years Day. It was in every way Currier & Ives. I have a favorite memory of being a boy and finding just a small wrapped box under the tree, in it was a little riddle, which led me to my present, snow skies outside, stuck in the snow on the roof next to the chimney. OK, good chat. Gotta go back to the kitchen.”
“Christmas for me (in my mind) is spent going to the beach. A warm and sunny day with family and friends. A large potluck picnic that never ends. Santa in shorts. Palm trees that are decorated. Another wonderful reason to acknowledge the many terrific people in our lives and how fortunate I’ve been.” (Ed note: Sigh, he’s so lovely.)
For me, growing up in Subtropical South Africa with my Bostonian mother and I spray-painting aerosol snow on our beach cottage and Indian Ocean-facing windows, while my traditional Russian father gingerly stringing strands of tinsel (one-by-one, branch-by-branch), Christmas holds a strong visual memory for me. So I was in a thrall to find that Albert and Curtis did Christmas with the same overflowing flourish as I. This year is no different. Let’s take a look around (and imagine getting a waft of the delicious food being prepared in the kitchen).
This is their invitation for Christmas Eve.
While we admire the tree, which they acquired on a completely “Last Christmas” video weekend in Utah, running around the hills adorably attired (sans frosted tips) until they found their dream tree, we can nibble on grilled shrimp canapé, pears with pancetta, goat cheese and honey, radish bruschetta, and Brie with almonds and fig jam.
This glorious hibiscus painting, by South African artist Hettie Saaiman, the oil is applied with such purposefully thick juicy abandon, it takes your breath away, while the colour almost hurts. The three of us had spied it in a gallery in Hout Bay, Cape Town, three years ago. Thinking it was unpractical to ship back to California, we let it go but couldn’t stop thinking about it, especially Curtis, who through a local art director and designer friend of mine, Penny Waterkeyn, tracked it down. He managed to do all of this undetected and successfully gave Albert a glorious surprise when he walked into their home! Oh, I love romantics.
I call them chefs, as they surpass the cooks category. They are constantly exploring new, exotic and exciting (read: challenging) recipes. This recent discovery will be on the main menu: whiskey crab soup along with Thai curry meatballs, rainbow kale salad and the traditional honey-baked ham.
For dessert, they and their other Antipodean friend, neighbour Caroline from Zimbabwe, make mince pies from scratch. Curtis excels in the dessert category and has made a very complicated Chocolate espresso dacquoise, below, left. (Luckily, eating it requires no exceptional skills.) As well as spicy pumpkin bundt cake and raspberry lemon coconut cake, Curtis makes his mother’s fruitcake, below right.
He defends it with:
“Fruitcake in the U.S. has a very bad rep. Years ago, The Late Show with Johnny Carson used to joke there was only one fruitcake and it just keep getting sent around to everyone. Given, I’ve had some pretty awful stuff. Nonetheless, my mother’s fruitcake was wonderful. Growing up on this in Connecticut, I remember waiting all fall for her to bring out the fruitcakes. She made them the previous winter and had them wrapped up in a soaked cheesecloth with plastic wrap. Of course, the cheesecloth was soaked in brandy and we stored them in the basement where it was cool all year round.”
Curtis has acquired yet another skill, macaron-making:
“The blog Not So Humble Pie was my jumping-off point for the macarons. I think my best one to date has been the Matcha Tea macaron with a passion fruit butter-cream filling. A close runnerup is a raspberry lychee macaron with a rose butter cream. For the truly sadistic, this is the recipe for this macaron, and yes I’ve made it twice and love them, not only me, everyone who ate one. They are heaven.”
For those interested in attempting this at home, Curtis adds:
“While in Paris this spring, I took a class on macarons and the chef showed me a technique to gauge the temperature of the water without the pesky thermometer: Ice your hand in ice water and quickly stick it in the boiling sugar, then dunk your hand back into the ice water. Very frightening the first few times but it worked. If you can roll the sugar into a ball, it’s ready; if it falls apart, you need to keep cooking. The “softball stage.” It works every time.”
So Happy Holidays to all! Whatever it may be for you this year, in the words of Albert:
“May it be another wonderful reason to acknowledge the many terrific people in our lives.”
Thank you for reading. Here’s to a marvelous 2013!