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!

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Oh Dear…

…my friends, it’s been too, too long 😦

Life – namely work – has got in the way of blogging again.  Bleurgh!

First things first – Happy 2013 to you all! I hope the year is good for you.  I looked back at this post to reflect on how much I achieved in 2012 over the past year:

* Learn to sew – simple items, with a sewing-machine: Done but not done: I did some hand-sewing shown in this post and was so pleased with the results. Boosted my confidence.

* Have a plant-strong dietary intake: Big, fat success – yay! I love veggies more than ever and am eating far more.  Much more mindful of including them in my diet more frequently, and making them interesting to eat. Fruit – not so much.  I’ve never been a big fruit-lover, and that’s okay with me.

* Maintain the list of books I read each month: Done.

* Read the library I received for Christmas(2011): Not quite done. But much reading achieved.

* Keep taking photos: Ooo-er – this one’s dwindling… 😦

* Work: I remain in the same post and at long, long last it’s starting to feel good. It’s been hard.  I’ve learnt so much. But now there is positive feedback coming from outside of the Team and it’s great! I still love working with people with mental health needs – always have enjoyed it.

* Enjoy life and remain thankful to God: Always.

* Seize each day and opportunity to creat memories: Needs some work!

For 2013 I haven’t really identified any things to achieve.  Not really feeling inspired, which is not a good thing at all.  I keep having some thoughts about a bit of voluntary work but nothing grabs me. I’ve also started doing a bit of drawing and painting – I used to love this when I was little and haven’t done it for ages.  It’s quite nice to dabble.

The Slow Cooker came out today for a party – I’ve been craving beef for a few weeks now and decided to buy some diced stewing steak for a casserole.  I couldn’t decide whether to do a tomatoey-based casserole, which can be very tasty, or a traditional English beef casserole.  The second option won.

Beef Casserole & Dumplings(serves 5)

For the Casserole:

400g Stewing Steak, diced

1 heaped tbsp plain flour

1 tsp dried, mixed herbs

2 tbsp vegetable oil

3 medium onions, sliced

4 cloves garlic, chopped

1 large carrot, sliced

1 small swede, diced

1 Knorr beef Stock Pot

300ml boiling water

1 tbsp mustard

150g peas

For the Dumplings:

100g Atora vegetable suet

200g self-raising flour

1/2 tsp dried, mixed herbs

salt & pepper

10 tbsp cold water

Turn the Slow Cooker to low. In a plastic freezer bag mix the plain flour & 1 tsp mixed herbs, add a good grinding of fresh black pepper. Tip the diced steak into the bag and mix/smush it well to cover the beef with flour. Heat 1 tbsp oil in a non-stick frying pan on a low-medium heat, add the floured beef. Allow it to cook until browned, turn the beef and repeat. Remove to the slow cooker.

Heat the remaining 1 tbsp oil in the frying-pan and add the sliced onions. Cover and allow to sweat – stir occasionally to avoid colouring/burning. Once the onions are soft add the garlic, carrot, swede and a good grinding of fresh black pepper and stir. Cover and allow to heat. Place the beef Stock Pot in a jug and cover with the boiling water.  Stir thoroughly.  Mix in the mustard then pour the liquid over the vegetable mix and turn the heat up high. Once the vegetable and stock mix is boiling transfer to the Slow Cooker and mix well. Cover the Slow Cooker with the lid and leave for 5.5 hours. Add the peas to the casserole and stir well. Cover and leave for 1 hours.

To make the dumplings: Mix the suet, self-raising flour and mixed herbs in a mixing bowl. Add a little salt and plenty of fresh black pepper and stir. Add the cold water and mix with a fork – the mixture will be thick and a little sticky. Roll as many dumplings as you wish. Place on top of the beef casserole mix in the Slow Cooker. Turn the heat to high and leave for 1-2 hours depending on the size of the dumplings. I made 5 large dumplings and they took 2 hours to cook.

Serve and enjoy! 
On the block:

P1060980Freezer bag + flour:P1060981Brown the beef in the pan:P1060982Heat lots of lovely chopped veggies in the pan with stock:P1060987And transfer to the Slow Cooker:P1060988Look at those beauties – plopped on top of the hot casserole!P1060990And……done!P1060991This was a pleasure to tuck into. The herby dumplings were big, fat and fluffy and totally satisfying. The casserole was full of flavour – especially that wonderful swede. It has a strong flavour which some might not like, but I love it and it reminds me of a traditional stew or casserole. Another root vegetable to use might be parsnips. Both of these vegetables add mild sweetness to the flavour.

Confession: I don’t like boiled carrots! Why are they in the casserole?  Because they’re good for you! And thinly sliced, they lose their flavour and can be mashed in the gravy.  So I eat health without the taste of it – win!

The floured beef helps to thicken the casserole juices. Adding the herbs to the bag helps to distribute them throughout the dish.

I used the basic dumpling recipe found on the side of the Atora packet but doubled it.  The last few times I have made dumplings I have followed the recipe exactly and they turned out to be hard little lumps.  This is not how dumplings should be!  So this time I doubled the recipe and made 5 large dumplings – they turned out just great!  They rise and swell when they’re cooking.  The finished texture should be sort of spongy.

As with so many of my dishes the quantities of ingredients can be varied.  Adding plenty of vegetables makes the dish go much further.  Seasonings and vegetables can be altered to suit one’s taste.  I didn’t add potatoes as I was making the dumplings.  If I didn’t do the dumplings then I would add potato for carbohydrate.  Another option would be to serve with bread & butter – those were the days of heavy manual labour and people being able to get away with eating such food!

I’m going to try freezing the casserole and dumplings.  I don’t think frozen dumplings should be a problem but I’ll let you know.

Have you ever made dumplings?

Autumn Vegetables

This is a recipe for the vegetable soup which we ate on Bonfire Night last year, with my sister and the family.  It’s thick, comforting and very tasty.  It’s great for a hearty meal, with crusty bread and some cheese.  It’s very nutritious.  And it will serve many – or freeze portions if desired.  Further discussion is below.

In the pot for Hearty Vegetable Soup(serves many!)

1 large onion, peeled and sliced

1 large leek, peeled, thoroughly washed and sliced

2 large carrots, peeled and sliced

1 medium swede, peeled and diced

1 large potato, peeled and diced

Chicken or vegetable stock – approx 500ml

Dried herbs – parsley, sage, thyme; or mixed herbs

Freshly ground black pepper

1 can chopped tomatoes

Optional – 1 can beans e.g. butter beans, haricot beans – drained and rinsed

Add the prepared vegetables to the pot, from the onion through to the potato.  Pour over sufficient stock to come level with the vegetables in the pot(this is usually approx 500ml).  Add plenty of fresh ground black pepper, and dried herbs to taste.  If using mixed herbs, use 1 teaspoon.  If using a mix use 1/2 teaspoon parsley, 1/4 teaspoon each of sage and thyme.  Mix through and bring the pot to the boil over a high heat, then reduce to a rapid simmer for approx 30 minutes until the vegetables are soft, and remove from the heat.

Add the can of tomatoes to the pot and whizz using a hand-blender, to achieve the desired consistency.  Add the rinsed beans and return to the heat – heat for 2-3 minutes over a moderate heat to allow the beans to heat.  Serve and enjoy!

I used several carrots which came from Dad’s garden – thanks Dad!  And small onions rather than one large.  The beauty of this soup is that any veg can be added – it would have been good with the addition of parsnip, peeled and sliced.  And veg can be omitted – especially for those with particular dislikes.  The potato adds thickness to the soup; and the canned tomatoes add a tanginess, and extra nutritional value.

As with most soups an extra flavour boost can be provided by sauteing the onions in a small amount of butter/oil before adding the rest of the veg to boil, etc.  It’s not essential to do this, and I didn’t on this occasion, but I think it provides a greater depth of flavour.

Use herbs which you like – dried mixed herbs are great for a balanced flavour but I had run out on this occasion, so used the mix I described.

I didn’t add the beans to this batch, but adding the beans increases the nutritional value of the soup, with protein and the extra vitamins and minerals found in beans.  The soup also becomes more substantial, and will satisfy for longer.  Beans add texture; and extra texture can be had by removing some of the veg before blending, and then  adding to the soup afterwards for chunkiness.

A good grinding of fresh black pepper is great on this soup, as it is full of warm flavours and the black pepper adds to that.

A bowl of the soup alone can be quite sufficient; but it can be extra special with a slice of cheese on toast, or cheesy French stick croutons on top; or simple fresh French stick with butter, and/or served with a strong Cheddar.

We’ve been making this soup for years in our family – it’s the one soup that my niece & nephew will eat.  That’s a great way to get veg into children!

Steaming hot soup for a cold Autumn day…

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?

Peachy

A satisfying breakfast – fresh, fruity, special.  American pancakes with peaches and Greek yogurt.  American pancakes can be as stodgy or as light as you wish – the last time I featured them they were more heavy, with dark chocolate and served with banana.

Simple American Pancakes(Serves 1 – makes 3 pancakes)

50g plain flour

1 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp caster sugar

75ml milk

1tsp butter

Toppings of choice – peaches, Greek yogurt, maple syrup

Sieve the flour into a small mixing bowl.  Add the baking powder and caster sugar.  Pour in the milk and whisk until the batter is smooth with no flour-lumps.  In a hot frying pan, dab 3 dots of butter.  Melt and swirl around the pan.  Spoon the batter into the pan to make 3 pancakes.  Cover with a lid on a low-moderate heat.  Cook for approx 1 minute.  Tiny holes will appear in the batter and the very edges will start to look a little denser.  At this stage, flip the pancakes and cook for 1 minute.  Serve, add toppings and enjoy!

I used tinned peaches – no shame in those.  I also drizzled a little maple syrup over for sweetness.  This pancake mix is so easy.  I don’t know if it’s traditional, but I do know that it’s easy to make when the cupboards are nearly bare.  No eggs required 🙂  The Greek yogurt makes the plate seem decadent.  For true decadence, have peaches and cream instead.  I’m not keen on cream…

What is your decadence?

Autumn is Here

And the kitchen was hot last weekend!  The weather has become chilly, there is dampness in the air, laundry stays damp if it’s hanging on the washing-line after 4pm, there’s a smell of smokey bonfires on the air in the evenings(love!), it’s just not the season for regular salads anymore.  Something warming is needed.

Soups.

This little(big) beauty was on hand to be peeled, de-seeded and chopped.

I hate preparing Butternut Squash….it’s so tough.  But let’s be grateful for the food we can purchase and have on the table.  And for patterns in nature.

Chopped and ready to go.  With 2 onions – peeled and sliced – and 2 garlic cloves to be crushed.

Add everything to the pan and cover with approx 400ml stock(veg or chicken) and a good grinding of fresh black pepper.  Bring to the boil over a hot hob and then simmer rapidly(cover the pan with a lid) for approx 30mins, until the butternut squash is soft.  Blend/liquidise – I used a hand-blender – until smooth, and enjoy with more fresh black pepper over the top.

It looks poop-ey but it’s tasty.  Sweet, garlicky, savoury, satisfying and wholesome for the body and soul.  Add more stock for a more liquid soup.  I portioned this into 4 containers, and put several in the freezer.  Grind more fresh black pepper over the top before serving, for a wonderful pepperiness.

Enjoy  🙂

Glorious Pizza

Oh it’s been a glorious day in Wiltshire again – sun shining, 13*C temp, dry and autumnal.  It lifts the spirits!

I decided to do home-made pizza for supper tonight – something I haven’t had for a while, and I much prefer home-made.  I can add extra veggies to it…I can have a really thin crust…and it’s smaller than a delivered pizza, meaning I don’t eat as much!  Also, I can’t get a delivered pizza with goat’s cheese on it, and that’s what I love best of all.

So…out with the veggies, which were 2 aged peppers and an onion to roast in some olive oil, with grindings of salt and fresh black pepper – one of my favourite go-to’s.  I roasted these for an hour(at 200*C fan) in total, stirring three times throughout, as I didn’t want any juiciness to ruin the pizza base.

My Beloved prepared pizza dough in the bread-maker, and then shaped it and left it to rise.  Ready-prepared pizza bases are another option, rather than making fresh if you don’t feel so inclined.

I used a jar of pizza topping sauce on the dough base, then added the roasted veg on top, and finally slices of goat’s cheese. Cooked in the oven – 200*C(fan) for 12 mins.  The goat’s cheese was golden, and the roasted veg bubbled.

A scattering of fresh torn basil leaves on top – divine!

A glass of red would have been good with this, but I’m saving myself for a glass of sherry, because that’s what I fancy!  The flavour was purely Italian – pungent fresh basil flavour and aroma, warm tomatoey tartness, and roasted pepper and onion sweetness – mmm…

How have you ended this glorious day?