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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Stew & No Dumplings

I watched a Nigel Slater cooking programme recently and he made a really good winter vegetable stew.  It’s likely the recipe is in one of his cook-books somewhere, although I don’t know where.  But for credit I have linked to his website above.

His – very helpful – view was that for a vegetable stew there needs to be plenty of base and background flavours to go with the vegetables, which will result in an interesting and flavoursome sauce.  He also has the great approach of ‘adding whichever veg you like or have hanging around’ – suits me perfectly!  This is the recipe I made on this occasion.

Winter Vegetable Stew(servings depends on your portion size!)

1 large onion, peeled and diced

2 Tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil

6 Juniper Berries, crushed in a pestle & mortar

1 swede, peeled and diced

2 parsnips, peeled and diced

2 potatoes, peeled and diced

2 carrots, peeled and sliced

2 leeks, cleaned and sliced

100ml Sherry

Vegetable stock – to cover the vegetables, and top up if needed

Fresh black pepper

2 Tablespoons Cranberry Sauce

2 Tablespoons whole grain mustard

1 pack cooked chestnuts

Heat the olive oil in a large pan and gently saute the onion until soft and translucent.  Add the crushed Juniper Berries, stir and cook for 2 minutes.  Add the swede through leeks, stir well and cook for 2 minutes to heat and coat in juniper flavour.  Grind in some fresh black pepper to taste.  Pour in the sherry and sufficient stock to cover the vegetables + 1″ extra.  Cover the pan with a lid, and bring to the boil.  Reduce the heat but maintain at a rapid simmer for approx 25 minutes, until the vegetables are just tender.

Stir in the mustard, cranberry sauce and pack of chestnuts.  Taste for seasoning, and allow to heat for a further 5 minutes.

Serve and enjoy!

This dish was so tasty, and I concur – the additional flavours really are a bonus.  I had made a similar vegetable stew years ago, using the vegetable stew-packs which could be purchased in Supermarkets for 80p(ish) – I think they’re more like £1 – £1.20 per pack now.  But I only relied on the flavour from stock and black pepper at that time.  It was ok, but bland in comparison to this version.

Nigel Slater added flour to thicken his sauce – I prefer potatoes for thickness:

Colour and goodness in the pan.

Bump up the flava!The chestnuts added some texture with a good bite.

End result – a bowl of delicious, warming goodness.

I had some leftover cooked broccoli which I stirred in towards the end.  I also wish I had added some peas, as I love those in stews and casseroles.  Another good addition would be some Butter Beans, for chunky texture and protein.

I have used Juniper Berries in a dish before – they are a strong flavour and are used in producing gin.  A berry to chew on provides that distinctive gin flavour – wahoo!  But I also found it to be overpowering – and now I’m wondering whether it was because they were added whole to the previous dish, or whether it was due to the large quantity added.  Nigel recommended one teaspoon of berries for this stew – I was too scared!  And added only 6 crushed berries – there was some flavour of juniper, but not a lot.  I’ll try a teaspoonful next time, but will crush them so I don’t end up chewing on whole berries.  I think that’s where the secret lies.

A bowl of this was substantial and satisfying.  It would be good served with warm, crusty bread to dip into the sauce.  And I wonder what it would be like transformed into soup, with the chestnuts left whole…?

Have Juniper Berries featured in your food?