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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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?

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?

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?

Christmas Sauce

I hope everyone has had a peaceful Christmastime.  We’ve had a lovely time with the family, and I’ve been so thankful – for loved ones, for all that I have, for how blessed I am compared to those who are suffering, in pain, trying to cope with the weather and its consequences.  It’s so important to count our blessings.

For Christmas Dinner we indulged in…

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Not jars, nor lids, but…

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Cranberry Sauce – with Port.  I used this recipe from Nigella Lawson.  It can be found on her website, but I also have ‘Nigella Christmas’ and have used the recipe from the book for the last couple of years.  It’s great.  Simple to make.  Creates wonderful smells in the kitchen.  Beautiful festive colours.  Works out perfectly every time.  I always make double quantity so there’s plenty for everyone.  One adjustment I make:  I use Port rather than Cherry Brandy.  And it’s always necessary to taste the Port first… 😉

Plain ‘ole cranberries in plastic bags:

P1060863Washed and in the pan:

P1060869With sugar coating, Port and water:

P1060872P1060870All stirred up and bubbling away:

P1060875So easy and satisfying.  The additional step I take is to bottle the Sauce in heat-sterilised jars.  Wash jars and lids in hot, soapy water and rinse with hot water.  Stand the jars on a baking tray(jars upside down) and place in oven(approx 110*C) for 10 minutes.  Remove and pour the Sauce straight into the jars – everything is extremely hot, be very careful.  Place a waxed-paper disc on the Sauce and screw on the lid.  Stand to cool.  Label the jars – except I ran out of labels!  Everyone knew what was in the jars…  Because the jar is sterilised it will keep well if stored in a cool place – once opened keep in the fridge.

Cranberries are naturally very tart, hence the need for the sugar.  The Sauce remains tart, even with the sugar.  It is fruity, a slight taste of Port to it, with lovely fat cranberries.  So good.

Did you know…that fresh cranberries bounce?  They really do!

Christmas Salad

Oh dear….long time no blog  😦

It’s frightening that work can obliterate the creative spirit in me – it saps energy, enthusiasm and the desire to make things.  It’s insidious – just creeps up, slowly, slowly, and bam!  It seems the only time I feel remotely creative is when I’m on leave.  I’m now determined each year to have a week of leave in December – I love the Christmas season, I love making things at this time of year; and I love the cosiness of being at home, reflecting on the Christian meaning of Christmas, indulging in Christmas traditions.  Time off work during this season is a tradition to keep for me.

I’ve also not had a card-reader for my camera/laptop for a while.  I recently taught an aunt how to save photos to a Memory Card on her mobile phone, and then transfer those photos to her PC.  She did it!  You are never, ever too old to learn new things.  I don’t mean that in any derogatory sense – I love helping people to learn, helping people to have the confidence to do new things, to achieve things.  It’s great!

Anyway, I gave her my card-reader so she could continue her new practice, and ordered a new one for me.  Lo and behold a few days ago my Beloved declared ‘You don’t need a card-reader, you can insert the Memory Card straight into your laptop’.  Thanks for telling me one year into this laptop…  I know – I should read instructions.  I don’t.  But I’m delighted this is possible on my laptop – makes things SO much easier!

P1060840Today I wanted a big salad.  A hot Christmas Salad.  This does not contain traditional Christmas foods.  But the bright colours make me think it is festive.  The bold orange, dark green and bright green with dots of white are beautiful.  Bright lights for a cold winter day.

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Does anyone use a Butternut Squash(BNS) within a few days of purchase?  Is it just me who keeps it on the side for weeks…?  I thought it would be great roasted for a salad.  And I am now converted to ‘not peeling a BNS’ before roasting it.  It’s a total nuisance to peel and chop.  But this way is easy.  I’ve seen others say it can be roasted in this way – I didn’t really believe them, I thought it would take forever to roast, I thought it would be tough and chewy.  Wrong on both counts.

P1060844Nip off the stalk at the top. Slice the BNS into four – mind your fingers!  Scrape/slice out the seeds.  Place on a roasting tray, sprinkle with salt and fresh black pepper, splodge with some oil and rub the oil over the flesh(don’t worry about the skin).  Roast in the oven – 180*C(fan) for 45 minutes.  The flesh needs to be tender to a knife.  Done!  So easy!

For the salad base I used spinach, avocado and walnuts.  A drizzle of balsamic.  Some chopped goat cheese – I used Gevrik.  Then chunks of hot BNS over the top.  Enjoy!

P1060847This was sweet and savoury, with the freshness of avocado, the earthiness of the walnuts, sweetness from the BNS, and tanginess from the Balsamic.  Satisfying. Tasty.  Hot and cold together.  The BNS is surprisingly fibrous – not really noticeable when it’s liquidised into soup – but certainly not tough.  Soft and yumptious  🙂

Is Salad in winter right..?