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!

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?

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  🙂

P1070052

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?

Autumnal Glory

We made our first ever visit to Westonbirt Arboretum which can be found in Gloucestershire near to Tetbury.  We had threatened to visit for a couple of years but never made it.  And I’ve always been keen to visit at the right time for the autumn colours.  We arrived later in the day due to a crash on the M4, and managed to walk only half of the Arboretum.  We were not disappointed.  Stunning.

Here follows photo overload.  No apologies.

Shade.  Light.  Shadow.  Colour beyond colour.  Height.  Shapes.  Texture.  Smells.  Sounds.  Glorious fresh air.  Autumn.  Total pleasure.  Healing for the soul.

A great place for bark rubbings.

Managed by the Forestry Commission – my Grandad worked for them  🙂  Many of the trees are labelled to assist learning.  We visited prior to the breaking news of the ash disease and subsequent legislation to help control the problem – so sad to hear of this.

Many places to eat and take afternoon tea – which we did.  A fabulous way to spend a day.

How is Autumn looking near you?

It’s Our…

…Birthday!  We are ONE today!

One year ago today I posted my first blog post, having decided to ‘have a go’.  There was no picture in it!  I didn’t know where I was going, or what I would really achieve by doing it.  But I did know I wanted the opportunity to write and post some of the pictures I take.  That’s exactly what I’ve been doing.

It’s so easy to be taken in by what others say about blogs – know your target audience…know your subject…have a plan…publicise your blog for maximum traffic…spend lots of time writing top quality posts…  Much of that is hard when one has little time.  When I started to write and post I wrote and posted what I would like to read, and posted pictures I would like to look at.  That is still my focus now.  And in this one year, only once have I read my mantra – write for yourself.  For me, that’s the most important bit.  Writing for others means there are many who will be excluded, and it’s really hard trying to be someone that I am not to please others!  That’s just not my thing.

I’ve added in some book reviews as I’ve gone along – because I love reading and thought others might like to know what I’ve found.  I’ve featured all kinds of meals and snacks, which I didn’t think I would originally.  I haven’t really featured much about afternoon tea at all, but I still love the ritual of afternoon tea.  I don’t have much traffic through the blog – but that doesn’t matter to me.  I just enjoy looking at something I’ve created which I never thought I would have the opportunity to do, nor which I thought I would have the confidence to do.

I would like to say A GREAT BIG THANK YOU to all those who follow my blog, who have contributed with comments and likes, and who take a look to see what’s going on here.  Your support is very much appreciated.

All there is left to say is:  Here’s to the next year, and…

Cheers!

Cherries

Leftovers after my little niece and nephew slept over.  They adore them.  And admittedly this is because a slightly revolting technique was used to encourage them to try cherries for the first time(a few years ago) – spitting cherry stones!  They think it’s wonderful!  It’s now an annual competition – but the ultimate rule is whoever spits clears up the stone…  Yes it’s gross.  It’s also fun, and even funnier when they giggle!  But they tried a new fruit, and they now love something healthful for their little bodies 🙂

Food can be fun.