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!

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..?

Christmas is Coming…

…the goose is getting fat – but there’s no goose in this house!  Instead, there’s plenty of wonderful cranberry sauce.

The Americans celebrate Thanksgiving next week, but in the UK we don’t have that to share.  But…I can celebrate Christmas early with cranberry sauce!  I love it.  And why should anyone need an excuse to indulge in a ‘traditional’ food at a different time of year, anyway?  😉  Home-prepared is far better, but there are no cranberries in the shops at the moment – unless somebody knows something that I don’t?

So using that beautifully seeded panini pictured above, I made a Brie & Cranberry Panini – it was fabulous.  I’m convinced foods taste so much better when you don’t partake of them very often – oh my!  This was good.

Just look at that big fat spoonful of ruby jewels deliciousness!

Sandwiched with dear little slabs of tasty Brie, and toasted – the George Forman is packed away, so the grill had to suffice.

The seeds started popping while the panini was toasting – this appealed to all five senses!  And then they tasted so good – toasted seedy, nutty flavour to go alongside the sweet-and-tartness of the cranberry sauce, and the earthy flavour of the Brie.  And it was warm, and toasty, and comforting.

Plain and simple and quick, but oh-so-good.

Has anyone seen cranberries in the shops yet?  Please don’t keep it a secret!