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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Divine

A couple of weeks ago I made blueberry pancakes but didn’t take pictures for the blog – duh!  So I went to the fridge to get a punnet of blueberries out as I fancied them for brunch today – they were mouldy… 😦

What to use instead?

Mmm-mmm… Dark chocolate chunk pancakes – wonderful!  I had a half pack left, and chopped it roughly with a sharp knife.

American Pancakes(Serves 2)

100g plain flour

1 tsp baking powder

1 tsp caster sugar

150ml milk

Butter(for cooking)

Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl, then whisk in the milk.  Whisk it well, to prevent any flour-lumps.  Leave to stand for 5 minutes.

If you are adding mix-ins, stir those in now.

In a frying pan melt dots of butter until sizzling, on a moderate heat.  Drop a serving spoon of batter into the melted butter and repeat, leaving space between each pancake.  Allow the pancakes to cook for approx 1 minute – they will be ready to turn when you see tiny holes appearing in the batter.  Flip the pancakes, cook for approx one minute.  They should be golden brown on each side with no doughiness on the outside.

Slide on to a plate, make more pancakes with the remaining batter.  Serve and enjoy!

I used wholemeal flour as that’s what was in the cupboard.

Four pancakes squeezed into the pan, side-by-side.  I made the first four plain, and then mixed in the chopped chocolate for the remaining batter.

See those tiny holes appearing?  I didn’t poke them with a skewer…  It happens naturally during cooking, and means they’re just about ready to be flipped.

Brunch is served m’lady…Hot and tasty – the cooked chocolate is so good.  It’s bitter and melty in the middle, and smells a little bit burnt although it didn’t taste burnt.  Burnt dark chocolate is not pleasant.

I’m no expert at American Pancakes by any means, but I always cook the pancakes with a lid on the pan – it means a gentler heat can be used which reduces the risk of the pancakes(and the butter)burning, and I think the pancakes cook more evenly all the way through.  The mix-ins can be surprisingly hot, so be careful when eating!  I noticed this with the blueberries, and this time with the chocolate.

This recipe can be halved to serve one – I did that last time, and it worked perfectly.  I like to leave the batter to stand for at least five minutes after whisking, to allow the starch cells in the flour to ‘pop’ so the end result is not too floury.  Leftover pancakes can be eaten later – I’ve never reheated them; but I’ve eaten cold blueberry pancakes, and cold chocolate chunk pancakes – totally acceptable for a snack!  These are handy for travelling.

Adding chocolate creates a terribly messy pan to clean!  But it’s well worth the effort…  Just cook any chocolate ones last.

Other mix-ins?  Anything you fancy, I guess!  I think tinned peaches could be good…blueberries…milk chocolate…cherries…coconut…strawberries…maybe some nuts?

I wonder what savoury pancakes might be like…?  With extra mature Cheddar grated in?  Or some goat’s cheese?  Oh my word – that may be an experiment for next weekend.

Toppings can be endless.  I like plain pancakes with a drizzle of maple syrup and a chopped banana.  Nutella…peanut/almond butter…fresh fruit and a dollop of Greek yogurt…  For something really special, maybe some dried fruit soaked in brandy…?  Such as sultanas or raisins?  Whoa!  Serve those to your guests with a dollop of thick cream and you’ll be so popular!

Oh dear…my mind is working overtime…