Christmas Kitchen

After a few days off work, I’ve felt more relaxed and de-stressed than I have for a looooong time….

This weekend I felt inspired to do some Christmas cooking.  Many years ago I used to bake and decorate a Christmas Cake each year – starting from when I was in Secondary School.  I think it was from the second year upwards(age 12-13ish).  It’s hard to believe we used to make something so seemingly complex in Home Economics lessons.  It was not only fun(and wonderful for the family to eat!) but we also learnt a variety of great cooking skills by doing this.  I only wish I still had the recipe we were provided for the Christmas Cake, as they were superb cakes.  We had to write out the list of ingredients by hand, and it included quantities for different sized cakes.  I went on to do O-level Home Economics(I’m old!) and for much of the time I was taught by Mrs Peters who was a wonderful teacher.  She was a bit strict(!) but so encouraging and helpful, with a ‘can-do’ approach to food and cooking.  Mum sees her around town on occasions and says hello – she still remembers me, ooo-err!!

A few years ago I made a Christmas Cake – for some reason it was burnt when I cooked it, and that put me off making one again, until now.  I thought it time to lay that little episode to rest and have another go.

Boozy fruit

Boozy fruit

There is such a variety of Christmas Cake recipes available – not only in multiple cookery books, but also via the internet.  The choice of recipe is really all about one’s own preference.  Traditional or a modern twist?  Alcohol or no alcohol?  Fancy or plain and simple?  Will the cake be iced?  Candied peel?  Glace cherries?  There’s also the size of the cake to be considered, and how many people it’s being baked for or, alternatively, how many months after Christmas it will last for!  Many people have recipes handed down from family members over the years which they like to use.

My preference is a traditional, old-fashioned, dark and rich fruit cake.  With(plenty of) alcohol.  A few Glace cherries(which I don’t love but can bear if they’re chopped up small).  Traditional fruits of raisins, sultanas and currants.  No pineapple and apricots, thank you very much.  And no rotten candied peel.  With some almonds.  Lovely, gooey and gorgeous black treacle. And soft, dark brown sugar.  I finally chose the fruit cake recipe from ‘Mary Berry’s Complete Cookbook’.

The picture above shows the dried fruits which had been soaked in alcohol overnight.  No matter how much I tried, I just could not stick to the specified amount of brandy!  It didn’t seem sufficient for the fruit to bathe in.  And I thought a little sherry would also be a nice extra flavour.  So before going to bed last night I added 2 tablespoons of Harvey’s Bristol Cream and stirred it in.  This morning I also added some extra brandy…er-hem!  You can never be too sure…  The smell in the kitchen was great.

All-in-one

All-in-one

I had to purchase a new washing-up bowl(bargain at £1.25) as my mixing bowl was nowhere near large enough for stirring the ingredients!  So the boozy fruit above is actually in the grey plastic bowl(which of course was washed in soapy water, and dried before use).  Which leads me to the next point….

Treacly cake mix

Treacly cake mix – pretty!

Making Christmas Cake is not remotely sexy, or romantic or dainty.  I love Mary Berry’s approach – the recipe used an all-in-one method for the cake batter.  Which means you can ‘dump’ all the cake ingredients into the mixing bowl and then just beat/mix up thoroughly.  A great style. I used an electric whisk to beat up the basic mix above.  But once that is done the boozy fruit needs to be hand-stirred in to the mixture.  Oh – with the nuts first.

Chopped almonds

Chopped almonds

Bit by bit, very carefully….

And finally...

And finally…

Until it is all really well mixed in.  It’s hard work!  The amount of fruit is large.  It does take some arm-power to get it all stirred up.

Now….the next lesson to learn:  Read very carefully exactly which size cake-tin you should be using.  Heh!  Guess who didn’t?!!?  So there was enough mixture for a 23cm tin – my tin was 20cm.  It also didn’t help that, because I omitted dried apricots and candied peel, I increased the quantities of currants/raisins/sultanas.  Oh dear.  I packed the cake tin full of mix.  The rest went into a 1lb loaf tin to make a separate cake – more about that in a moment.

Lining and protecting the cake tin is a total faff – but it has to be done, and it has to be done properly.  It just is not worth cutting corners on this.  I think this is where I may have gone wrong with the ‘burnt Christmas Cake’ affair(although that might also have been a wrong oven temperature, or a dodgy oven at the time).  The baking parchment height is double the height of the cake tin – to reduce the risk of the cake top burning.  It will be left on the cake, as a wrapping, once it has cooled and been removed from the tin to keep it moist and protected.  And the brown paper around the outside of the tin will reduce the risk of it burning.

All wrapped up

All wrapped up

The cooking temperature is very low – 120*C in a fan oven.  And the cooking time is very long.  The smell as it is cooking is divine.  You can smell butter and booze and brown sugar with treacle and spices.  A lovely warm, autumnal aroma in the kitchen.

Here’s the additional 1lb loaf I also made, due to an excess of mixture!  I just used a tin liner for this cake and hoped for the best – it worked out okay.

Surplus cake

Surplus cake

The cooking time for this small loaf was 2 hours.  I prefer a moist cake so always cook for a shorter rather than longer time – tested by inserting a thin knife blade to check whether it comes out clean.  Depending on how clean or messy the blade is determines how much longer to let it cook for.

The main reason for making a Christmas Cake so long before 25th December is so it can be matured and nurtured…with more alcohol!  Once it has cooled, tiny holes are made in the top of the cake with, for example, a cocktail stick – then drizzle small amounts of brandy(my preference) over the top to let it soak in.  This is called ‘feeding the cake’ and can be done a few times to help the cake mature.  The end result is a wonderfully flavoured, rich cake.  The cake is wrapped in its cooking paper and some tin foil and stored in a tin in a cool, dark cupboard.  Feed it as desired and then eventually I will marzipan and ice the cake ready for Boxing Day.

I won’t be making fresh marzipan – that’s a step too far!  But I will make Royal Icing to decorate the cake.  Some people like to decorate the top of the cake with a pattern of whole blanched almonds prior to baking the cake, which gives the appearance of a Dundee Cake.  Others like to use Glace fruits to decorate the top.

I haven’t posted a recipe for this cake.  There are so many available, and I’ve already said it depends on personal preference.  You can also see – I messed my recipe up and had too much mixture!  But I just thought it would be nice to share this.  Perhaps it might help someone.  It really is fairly simple to do and the end result is so rewarding in many ways.

End result(5 hours cooking time!)

End result(5 hours cooking time!)

Next up – homemade mincemeat  :-)

p.s. I think I will find it difficult to resist the temptation of the extra cake.  It won’t be ‘fed’ and iced – I’ll share some with the family as a taste of what’s to come.

p.p.s.  Please be assured – I don’t have problems with excess/alcohol consumption, really!

Simple Supper 5

This ‘Simple Supper’ was actually lunch today!  But it would be easy to prepare for a simple supper after coming home from work, and I think eggs and cheese are wonderful comfort foods after a hard day at work.  This meal was also a good option to use up some leftovers.  Two leeks were sat in the fridge, after I’d made some leek & potato soup last week.  Over the weekend we purchased small amounts of different cheeses and this was a good way to use some of it up.  Eggs were a day out-of-date and I really didn’t want to waste them.

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Leek & Cheese Frittata(for 1-2)

Leeks

Butter

Eggs

Cheese

Put a frying pan over a moderate heat with the lid on, to start to heat.  Wash and chop the leeks into small/thin slices.  Add to the hot pan, keep the lid on. Add the desired amount of butter to the pan, to sauté the leeks until they are soft.  Turn the heat down slightly to prevent the leeks from burning. Turn the grill to high.

In a jug, whisk up the eggs with a little salt and plenty of fresh black pepper.  When leeks are soft, pour the egg mix over the leeks in the pan and swirly around the pan so it is fairly even.  Replace the lid, and leave to cook until the edges start to look set, not runny.  Leave for another 1 minute then remove the lid.

Place the uncovered pan under the grill and allow to cook until the egg is firm, not runny.  Scatter the cheese over the frittata then place the pan – uncovered – under the grill and allow the cheese to melt.  Slide the frittata from the pan onto a plate, and enjoy!

P1070557This ‘recipe’ is very versatile.  I haven’t specified quantities.  Use any vegetables you think will taste good fried off in some butter to go in an omelette – onions, tomatoes, peppers, peas, potatoes(will need to be pre-cooked).  Use as much/as little as you wish, and mix vegetables together if you wish.  In this dish I used 2 medium leeks.

For a large frying-pan you will need at least three eggs, to be able to coat the vegetables and bottom of the pan.  I used four in this dish as I didn’t want to throw any away.  If I tried using only two eggs it would probably be necessary to make the vegetables into a mound in the middle of the pan, pour the eggs over and try to keep it all together with the mound in the middle – good luck!

The cheese option could be anything!  I used some Applewood Cheddar – smoked cheese with a pungent flavour, which was absolutely delicious.  And a little Aged Red Leicester(the orange blobs!) – again, that was a tasty option.  I really wanted to include a little Stilton but it was off :-(  After I had finished cooking I wondered whether some small dabs of cream cheese poked into the mix could be good, to give a mild creaminess.  I dotted over small slices of cheese – saves time not having to grate(and wash the grater afterwards).

P1070563If served with a salad and some crusty bread this would serve two people.  I had no crusty bread to hand, and served the whole thing with some beautiful cherry tomatoes fresh from the garden – a delight!  This frittata could also be left to go cold and served as a cold/pack-up lunch the following day, or take on a picnic.

Which vegetables would you use?

Simple Supper 4

I’ve developed a series – wahey!  Simple Suppers.  But please don’t feel restricted – these ideas could also serve as lunch or brunch too.

Simple Supper

Simple Supper 2

Simple Supper 3

I goat’s cheese, if you didn’t already know!  And it goes very well with caramelised onions, like so.

P1060961Goat’s Cheese & Caramelised Onion Tortilla (for 1)

3 medium onions, peeled and sliced

1 tbsp oil

1 tortilla wrap

salt & fresh black pepper

1 slice goat’s cheese, chopped/crumbled

salad to serve

Heat the oil in a frying pan over a low-medium heat, add the sliced onions and cover the pan with a lid.  Allow the onions to soften, keeping covered with the lid to prevent the onions caramelising(burning!) too early – they need to be soft first.  Once softened, remove the lid, add a little salt and fresh black pepper, increase the heat to medium and stir the onions until they have caramelised.  So they will be browned/starting to look a little crispy.  Set the onions aside in a bowl.

With the heat turned off:  Place the tortilla in the hot pan, place the onions on top of the tortilla and sprinkle the goat’s cheese over the onions.  Cover the pan with the lid again and turn the heat to ‘low’ to allow the tortilla and goat’s cheese to heat.  Once the goat’s cheese is warm, fold the tortilla in half and slide onto a plate to serve with the salad.  Enjoy!
P1060960There’s wonderful melty goat’s cheese poking out of the tortilla, and you can just see dark, caramelised onions which are slightly sweet and very good for you  :-)

This makes for a hot, tasty, satisfying and quick meal with a good dose of vitamins and minerals all round.  The large amount of onions makes it a big fat tortilla to slice into.

What is your favourite simple supper?

Another Salad

With a sweet edge.

Cored and sliced juicy pear.

P1060939Mixed with walnut pieces and some crumbled Stilton. P1060940‘Dumped’ on a bed of greens – spinach or lamb’s lettuce, rocket would be too strong for this salad combination.  Not pictured – sorry!  But sweet and savoury, crunchy and most enjoyable.  Very flavoursome.

Why aren’t there more lovely salad mixes for eating out…?

Whippy

Oh my!  We went to a local Farm Shop for lunch last weekend – the Cafe at the Allington Farm Shop.

P1070091Look how whippy and creamy the froth was on top of this cappuccino – it looked like dessert!

P1070092Trifle topping, or tiramisu perhaps…?!!  Nope.  Just good ole coffee.

Your favourite coffee shop and drink?

Grilled

My passionate love affair with Goat’s Cheese continues  :-)

Heat the grill to high.  Prepare one bright, cheery salad base:

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Take a slice of goat’s cheese, thickness of slice as desired. Place on a piece of tin foil, which is placed on top of the grill-pan rack.  Pop under the grill – it will take approx 2 minutes to grill to a toasted, golden colour:

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It will be bubbling, and golden, and smell wonderfully toasted. Take care lifting the cheese slice – the middle may slide out of the crust where it has become so melty and good! Arrange on top of the salad, and drizzle over a little sweet chilli dipping sauce.  Enjoy!

P1070111P1070113 P1070118This is an official ‘lick the screen’ moment…  I don’t know what made me prepare this for lunch.  I just fancied it.  Sweet, savoury, salty, slightly tangy, spicy and earthy.  All on one plate, all balancing beautifully with the freshness of the vegetables.  Melty, soft cheese which is gooey in the middle, and the lovely toasted crust.

The rocket shown in the picture was a little too much flavour – next time I would use spinach or lamb’s lettuce.  Really, I only wanted the wonderful flavour of the goat’s cheese and sauce, with no other flavours to interfere.

Restaurant food @ Chez Pam’s  :-)

Have you fallen for goat’s cheese?

Easter Birthday Cake

This is a week+ late, but I wanted to share this.  I so enjoyed making it!  The purpose was for a family celebration of Mum’s birthday which fell on Easter Sunday.  One cake for two celebrations.

The batter was very runny but the cake worked out perfectly.

P1070035P1070037P1070040The icing was made in the food processor – a doddle!P1070042Iced, with Maltesers plopped on top!P1070043P1070045This was a Maltesers Cake from Nigella’s cookery book ‘Feast’.  The secret ingredient – in the cake batter and in the icing – was…Horlicks!  Nigella promises the flavour is subtle, but I was worried it might overpower, depending on whether one actually likes Horlicks.

I cannot bear the smell of the stuff, so have never tasted the drink.  Many years ago as a child, after Church each Sunday evening we would go visit an Aunt and I used to prepare a hot Horlicks drink for her at each visit.  Bleugh…!  A colleague who I worked with some years ago used to suck/chew on Horlicks tablets(sort of sweets) – vile!  But she loved them.

It smells – and I presume tastes – of the malted part of Maltesers.  Maltesers are great!  Horlicks is not.  Anyway, I digress…

I bravely taste-tested the icing – the Horlicks flavour was indeed subtle, and I added some extra cocoa powder for a slightly stronger chocolate flavour.

The overall result was sticky but light.  The sponge cake is fairly low-fat which makes it moist.  I wouldn’t have attempted a slice without one of my beloved cake forks.  It most certainly went down well with the family  :-)

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And it was so easy to make – it’s renewed my enthusiasm for cooking and baking, to get some variety rather than preparing the same dishes repeatedly.

Do you have a favourite cake?