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 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.

P1070560

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?

Granny…

…Square.

This…

Grew to this!

As I said in the original post, I haven’t crocheted for so many years.  So this was a first attempt and not bad!  I used a video from YouTube to learn how to start the crochet off, and how to work the rounds, and how to join in different colours.  I’m pleased with this as when I learned to crochet I never understood how to join rows to build the crochet up.  But the videos I used were very clear and I found them easy to follow.

One thing I would say is I’m now a bit confused between American and English crochet…so I’ve resorted to Mum to explain which is which when I’m following patterns.  The two countries use the same terminology for stitches, but use different techniques.  I guess that’s one of the problems with obtaining a wealth of patterns and information from the Internet, rather than using a local shop.  But it can be overcome.

Now I’ve moved on to a different project which will feature in future  🙂  It’s a shame that having to work gets in the way of doing these things, so progress is slow…

Beloved – work harder!

What is your favourite pastime?

Vegetables Galore

This woman is on a mission…!  What I’ve been finding is that I’m enjoying prepared plant-heavy meals much more than a few veggies in a dish.  And there are so many good ways of inhaling those veggies for a plant-heavy diet!

I used to make this dish almost weekly a few years ago…I don’t know why I haven’t made it for so long because it is so good.  I love the red vegetable-based sauce – it can be used in so many different ways, and is great for using up odds-and-ends in the fridge i.e. bits that will be thrown out to rubbish if not used.

Vegetable Lasagne(serves 4)

3 tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1 large onion, peeled and finely chopped

6 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

1 each of large green, red and yellow pepper, deseeded and chopped

1 large courgette, finely chopped

700g jar of Passata

150ml red wine

1 teaspoon Italian Herb mix(dried)

Freshly ground salt & black pepper

6 lasagne sheets(dried)

650g Cottage Cheese

50g Parmesan, grated

75g Strong Cheddar, grated

Tomato slices to decorate

Oven: 180*C(fan)

7″ square dish(approx)

Gently heat the olive oil in a large pan, and saute the onion until it is translucent and soft(with the pan covered).  Add the minced garlic and stir, heat for 30 seconds.  Add the chopped peppers and courgette.  Stir well, and heat for 3 minutes(with the pan covered).  Pour in the jar of Passata and red wine; add the Italian mixed herbs and season with grindings of salt & pepper.  Stir well and bring to the boil.  Once the mixture is boiling, remove the pan cover and turn the heat down to maintain a rapid simmer for 45 – 60 minutes.  This is to make sure the vegetables are soft, and also allows the liquid to reduce so the result will be a thick sauce.  Once the sauce is of the desired consistency, remove from the heat.

Empty the Cottage Cheese into a medium bowl, stir in the grated Parmesan and some fresh black pepper to taste.

To assemble the lasagne, spread half of the vegetable sauce in the bottom of the dish.  Dot some Cottage Cheese mix(approx 1/4 of the mix) over the sauce but do not mix in.  Use 3 sheets of lasagne to create a layer on top of the vegetable sauce and Cottage Cheese layers – break the pieces to fit if necessary.

Spread the remaining vegetable sauce over the lasagne layer.  Create a lasagne layer with the remaining 3 sheets.  Spread the remaining Cottage Cheese mix over the lasagne layer, and cover to the edges to create a seal.  Sprinkle with the grated Cheddar and decorate with tomato slices.

If you are making this in advance, cover the dish with cling-film and refrigerate until required – I would suggest for 48hrs maximum.

When you are ready to cook the lasagne for serving, remove the cling-film and place the dish on a baking tray(to avoid horrible messes on the oven floor!) and pop into the hot oven for 25 minutes.  Check the middle is piping hot.

Serve and enjoy!

This dish is so full of colour, nutrients and flavour – even He Who Is Allergic to Vegetables & Health declared this lasagne to be superb.  It has no meat!  He said it was good and he would eat it in a restaurant!  Wahoo – there is hope!

The wonderful rainbow of colours with the pop of garlic on the side:

This ‘ole thing was lurking in the back of the fridge so I put it to good use(aka a courgette!)

Plenty of flavourings added to the pan for super-taste:

And vegetable sauce bubbling away in the pot(apologies – not the best pic in the world):

Start to assemble like so – but please don’t crunch on lasagne at this stage unless you want broken teeth?

And once cooked in the oven, serve and inhale enjoy!

Ok, it over-cooked…but my word, the cheese is so tasty alongside the vegetable sauce.

This dish is versatile.  Use any veg you wish to make the vegetable sauce.  I suspect a lot of people would use aubergines – I just can’t like them.  Grated carrot, broccoli, mushrooms, a can of sweetcorn would be good as would some peas.  Dice the veg so it is small to make a sauce; and reduce the sauce so it is not liquid and runny – unless you prefer runny, thin sauces.  But I don’t.  It’s likely that if the sauce is too thin, there will be an excess of liquid floating in the dish at the end of the baking period, which I’m not terribly keen on.

I took a risk with this lasagne.  I used low-fat Cottage Cheese, and was a bit worried that liquid would seep from it during baking and leave a watery result – it didn’t!  It was absolutely perfect.

I must confess I have become lazy in my old age, and avoid making white sauce(as in roux sauce) whenever possible.  Using the Cottage Cheese is my ‘cheat’.  Mixed with the Parmesan it gives wonderful flavour, and a lovely chew to the dish.  It’s good for calcium and this one was lower fat.  And it’s quick and easy.

A large green salad was good with this; and to make the meal go further, a side of garlic bread would be a good, traditional addition.

Are you brave enough to eat vegetables in a bowl this way?!!