Thursday, 31 December 2009

Christmas leftovers - part 2

What does 31st December mean to you? To me it meant the roast ham was on its use by date! So today I chopped 5 oz of it up to make some tasty pea and ham soup. This is a soup I usually make towards the end of July when I realise I have missed a few peas when picking them and I now have some old, slightly floury peas on the vine that are stopping the production of new pods. These mealy peas (some might call them marrowfat) are pretty horrible if included with the lovely fresh, young ones but they make a splendid soup. Despite the lack of old peas at this time of year I decided soup would be a good way to use up some of the ham and enlisted the help of good old Captain Birdseye for the peas.

Before I could make the soup though I needed to restock on potatoes. We still have quite a few in the ground, which are generally surviving well despite the inevitable slug attacks. However, just before Christmas my stocks in the bucket in my shed ran alarmingly low and with snow on the ground I panicked and resorted to buying a bag of King Edwards to see me through Christmas. It had been 6 months since I last bought potatoes and I was shocked by the difference in quality. OK, I didn't need to scrape a layer of sticky mud of these ones but they tasted dreadful. When I tried making them into chips I was mystified by the weird black/grey patches under the skin as I peeled them. These are not marks I ever find on homegrown potatoes and they do not appear in the gardening book sections under pests and diseases affecting potatoes. Steve reckons they are bruises caused by the general rough handling potatoes receive and this seems likely. Then once cooked they browned more than they should because they have been out of the ground for so long most of the starch has turned to sugar, and they remained limp and soggy instead of crisping up. Fortunately, they fared better roasted in a deep pool of goose fat so they didn't wreck the Christmas dinner.

But now with the snow gone (temporarily at least), it was time to dig up some more spuds. I probably could have eeked out the ones in the bucket for a day or two longer but to be honest my girls were driving me mad and they clearly needed to get out of house and run around a bit. So after several minutes of finding old clothes and pulling on coats, hats, gloves and wellies, we set off for the allotment. As an added incentive I told me youngest that she could practise riding her bike without stabilisers so we pushed her bike round to the allotment too and spend the first twenty minutes running up and down the allotment car park as she wobbled her way to learning to ride her bike. I'm pleased to say she managed it and we got it on video!

Anyway, back to the task in hand. I dug up 4 enormous parsnips first then a row of Charlotte potatoes. A few of them had been turned into bug hotels with a detailed collection of holes and chambers but most were fine. As you can imagine, clay soil at this time of year is terribly heavy and sticky and both the parsnips and the spuds were in need of a wash. Fortunately, I had come prepared with a pair of Marigolds so I tracked down my trug which was conveniently filled with rain (or was it melted snow!). I pulled the rubber gloves on over a pair of thin gardening gloves for extra warmth and rubbed the mud off the vegetables before throwing them into plastic bags to bring home. It was certainly better to leave the mud on the allotment rather than to wash it down my kitchen sink.

By this point my eldest was complaining of numb feet so I grabbed a couple of leeks and we all headed home. We all felt a good deal better for having got some fresh air and exercise, the girls had stopped grumbling at each other and I had some lovely fresh veg.

Then it was time to make the soup using the fresh potatoes, a onion from the shed and, of course, some goose stock.

Pea and Ham Soup (Serves 4-6)

Oil (for frying)
1 onion (small to medium)
1 large garlic clove
13 oz (370 g) potatoes
2 handfuls of celery leaves
1 pint (660ml) stock (or water)
1 lb (450 g) peas
5 oz (145g) cooked ham
Salt and pepper

Heat some oil in the bottom of a large saucepan or preserving pan. Chop the onions and fry until soft. Add coarsely chopped garlic and fry for a further 1 to 2 minutes. Peel and dice the potatoes and add them to the pan with the celery leaves and stock. Simmer for 15-20 minutes. Cut the ham into small pieces and put about half an ounce (15g) to one side. Add the peas and ham to the pan and bring back to the boil. Simmer for 5-10 minutes. Remove the soup from the heat then puree it in a blender in batches until smooth. Pour into a clean saucepan and add water as necessary to thin. Add the reserved ham pieces and season to taste (being cautious not to over salt it). Bring back to the boil then ladle in serving bowls or into hot jars and seal immediately.

With 5 jars of beautiful pea-green soup made there was still a little bit of ham left so I chopped this up finely and decanted it into several freezer bags in small portions. This can be added to pizzas or to stir-fried rice or pasta dishes. So with the leftover dealt with, maybe I can start the new year with some new food!

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Christmas leftovers - part 1

I love Christmas leftovers! All those tasty things and so many possibilities. I don't think I need to go shopping for about a week after Christmas, although of course I do (just to see what Christmas stuff they have reduced to clear). Along with the cold meat there are those nice things you buy before Christmas because they are traditional even though you don't have a clear idea when you will eat them. My mother-in-law always arrives with a bag full of nice food that she feels we ought to have a Christmas too. I'm getting used to what things she might bring so I try not to duplicate but this year we somehow ended up with about 4 packs of ham, 12 pork pies and 5 lots of bacon. Could be worse!

Not only does goose make a tastier bird for Christmas dinner than turkey but it makes better leftover too. Firstly there is the fat that runs into the roasting tin whilst it is cooking. Once cool enough it can be poured into a plastic container and stored in the fridge. Whenever required, a big dollop can be spooned into a tin and potatoes roasted in it. Then there is the carcass itself which can be used to make a tasty stock. This is really easy, just put the carcass - whole of broken up a bit and including the sage and onion still inside the cavity - into a big stock pot, pour on some boiling water and let it simmer away for an hour or so. Just before you are ready to bottle it, place some glass jars in an oven at 80°C. Then remove the carcass from the pan, strain the liquid through a sieve to remove any bits and ladle it into the warmed jars. Put the lids on the jars immediately and as it cools down the stock should become heat sealed in the jars. This is particularly well illustrated when using jars with "safefty buttons" because the safety button gets sucked back down again with a satisfying "pop!" once cooled. I expect these would be safe to store in the food cupboard but to be cautious I store them in the fridge. Then any fat in the stock solidifies at the top, making a protective layer above the stock which can also be easily removed and discarded before using the stock so that the stock is less fatty. The stock can be used to make soups or in casseroles, or to cook rice, noodles etc. or to make gravy.

Cold goose is tasty too so can be eaten with salad, sandwiches or with chips. It can also be broken into small pieces and stir-fried. Very tasty with a Chinese sauce such as oyster sauce and served with stir-fried leftover vegetables and some rice. Cooked goose is fine to freeze too so if by the forth day of Christmas you are growing tired of it you can freeze it for later. My girls love goose but aren't keen on the oyster sauce dish so for them I make goose rolls. I make these on other occasions in the year using duck, which works equally well. Firstly, I shred some of the cooked goose into a bowl and to that I add one large closed cup mushroom, very finely chopped and some grated or finely chopped carrot. I have found that I can get these vegetables in without the children complaining but you could add other things such as shredded leek, peppers or even bean sprouts. Finally, I add a tablespoon of hoi sin sauce and mixed it all up. Then I roll out half a block of ready made fresh puff pastry and cut it in half. Then the goose mixture is dolloped all along it. Using milk to stick it together, I roll the pastry over as if I were making sausage rolls. Finally, more milk is used as a glaze and then they are cut into sausage roll size lengths. This makes about 12 rolls, which will feed my two children 3 times. These can be frozen then cooked from frozen at 200°C for 25 minutes until golden. Monday night I served these with some rice, a few noodles and some carrot and cucumber sticks and they were eaten with enthusiasm whilst Steve and I had goose in oyster sauce. In my pre-Christmas focus I had forgotten to buy prawn crackers but we discovered that Kettle Chips work well too!

Roast ham is another versatile leftover ingredient and goes particularly well with the remains of the cheese board. This year I bought a wedge of pre-cooked roast ham for Boxing Day to save on the cooking. It was very tasty cold on that occasion and we have also eaten it in sandwiches for lunch, along with some leftover pork, sage and onion stuffing. My girls love it with cheese in cheese and ham toasties. Then yesterday Steve cooked some ham up with vegetables and potatoes to make a ham casserole. Today it was my turn to pull a meal out of the fridge so I made one of my yummy quiches. If you have only ever tasted shop made quiche you would be forgiven for thinking you didn't like the stuff. It has a weird flavour but it is nothing like the delicious version you can make at home. I was fortunate enough to be brought up on my mum's home made version so I have always loved quiche. Unfortunately, in recent years I have developed a dairy intolerance which has stopped me eating it. Luckily, my discovery of soya alternative to cream has put quiche back on the menu. It tastes just the same once in a quiche and I figure with a lower saturated fat content, it is healthier too. Better still, I just happened to have some soya cream left in the fridge from the Christmas puddings.

Making a quiche from scratch is fairly time consuming but the pastry is much better if home made. Of course, like pizza, there are any number of different versions depending on what ingredients you add to it but here's my favourite recipe.

Ham & Mushroom Quiche (serves 4)

4 oz (110g) plain flour
4 oz (110g) wholemeal flour
4 oz (110g) butter or margarine
3 oz (85g) roast ham or 4 rashers of smoked bacon, finely chopped
2 oz (55g) mushrooms, chopped
2 oz (55g) tinned sweetcorn
Grated cheese (whatever is leftover from the cheeseboard)
250ml soya or single cream
2 eggs
Black pepper

Sift the flours into a bowl and mix in the butter/margarine until it has the consistency of breadcrumbs. Splash in a little cold water until it is wet enough to bind the mixture into dough. Wrap in Clingfilm and refrigerate for half an hour. Preheat an oven to 190°C and grease a suitable tin or pie dish. Roll out the pastry on a floured surface and line the tin with the pastry, trimming to fit. Cover the pastry with greaseproof or baking paper and weight it down with baking beans. Blind bake the pastry for 15 minutes.Put the ham, mushroom and sweetcorn into the pastry case and grate in some cheese. Beat the eggs with the cream and season then pour this into the pastry case. Level out the filling and grate a little more cheese over the top. Bake for 30 minutes until the filling has set. Serve hot or allow to cool, cut into portions and freeze. Thaw and reheat in the oven or microwave.

Saturday, 26 December 2009


Phew, Christmas dinner is a big meal, isn't it? I switched the oven on just before half past 2 yesterday afternoon and we sat down to eat just after half past six. It started, of course, with stuffing the goose. Just coarsely chopped onions, sage, rosemary and celery for inside the bird and some of my apricot stuffing (defrosted from the freezer) for the crop. Fortunately, nothing more needed to be done for a couple of hours after placing the goose in the oven so I had chance to sit down and open a few more presents.

Later, it was time to get the roast potatoes on, along with roast parsnips. There was the added complication of the vegan meal for my step-daughter so I had to cook her some roast potatoes separately in sunflower oil. Also for her I did some roasted butternut squash. For that I retrieved a nice little one from storage, peeled it, deseeded it and chopped into into chunks. Then I tossed it in salt and pepper, crushed garlic and a little olive oil before spreading it out in the tin with her potatoes. They smelt so delicious when cooking that I decided to have some too and it was lovely.

Once the goose was cooked, it came out of the oven to rest for 20 minutes, allowing time to move the potatoes and parsnips up a bit in the oven to crisp and to cook the "trimmings" - stuffing balls and pigs in blankets, as well as the mushroom and walnut rolls. It also gave time to boil some carrots and to cook the Brussel sprouts. What beauties these were this year, I felt like a proud mother dishing up those homegrown baubles.
"Awesome", was the word used by my step-son to describe the meal, "lovely", said my mother-in-law, and all the plates were cleared. And after that I was glad I had put in the preparation to have a multitude of different desserts on hand to suit everyone's tastes. My mother-in-law wanted a mince pie so I asked her which type she wanted - plum & orange, apple & cider or figgy pear. And do you know what she said? "Can I just have a plain one?" You have to laugh! In the end she had Christmas pudding but I didn't mention it contained pumpkin!

I have to admit, though, I went to bed feeling totally pooped!

Boxing Day was a chance to catch my breath. I started the day with a lazy lay-in and did little more with my day than playing with my girls, although we did spend a little time making snowmen shaped bread rolls out of a packet of bread mix ready for a cold buffet for tea. There was chance for a family bike ride in the afternoon to burn off a few calories and to build our appetite. So all the cooking that was needed was to boil some beetroot and to cook some sausage rolls, using up some sausagemeat stuffing that wasn't needed for the Christmas Day meal. After that, the most complicated dish was some seasonal coleslaw made from red cabbage, beetroot and red onion. Still, with lots of serving dishes, bowls and plates the dish washer was still as stuffed as the rest of us by the end of the evening!

Pink Coleslaw

4 oz (110g) red cabbage

2oz (55g) raw beetroot

1 oz (25g) red onion

2 tablespoons cider vinegar

2 tablespoons sunflower oil

1 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon celery salt

2 1/2 oz (70g) mayonnaise

Shred the red cabbage and place in a bowl. Peel the beetroot then grate into the bowl then finely chop the onion and add that too. Mix the vinegar, oil, sugar and celery salt together in a jug then pour into the bowl. Finally, add the mayonnaise and stir until well combined and evenly pink. Serve immediately or store in a fridge for up to 3 days.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Catering for everyone

I love watching food programmes on TV and thumbing through foodie magazines. It is particularly fun at Christmas time when there are so many delightful foods on offer and the perfect excuse to make them. I find myself thinking I'd like to make this or give that a go and then I have to rein in my enthusiasm as I remember what Christmas is really like and how I have to cater for everyone's needs. And what a mix of needs I have to cater for.

Firstly, there is the minor issue of my dairy intolerance. I say minor because I can have some dairy and also because there is such a huge range of non-dairy alternatives on the market that it is bearly a problem... apart from cheese, which I love and for which there is no decent alternative. I do find myself squirming uncomfortably about half way through a Delia recipe, when just as I was thinking it was going to be nice she tips half a pint of cream into the dish!

My girls have their own finicky likes and dislikes. My youngest would be quite happy with a plate of vegetables at Christmas and is very enthusiastic about Brussel sprouts. My eldest has a more restricted range of favourites when it comes to fruit and vegetables but will eat raw carrots and frozen peas (still frozen). But this is easy to arrange as long as I remember to leave a portion of carrots uncooked.

Then there is my mother-in-law who, when once faced with 150 flavours of ice-cream, chose vanilla. She likes her food traditional, simple and bland. No spice, no garlic and nothing with mayonnaise. She also lifts the salt pot before her fork! And while I'm on the in-laws, there is my sister-in-law who is diabetic so can't have too much sugar. She also happens to not care for potatoes. No, I'm not making this up!

But all this pales into insignificance when my step-daughter arrives, for she is a vegan. On the surface of it Christmas and veganism seem completely incompatible with the central bird, the sausagemeat and the streaky bacon. Then there are the puddings, pies and cakes containing butter, eggs and drowned in custard and cream. Actually, it is worse then you might imagine. I remember the first Christmas after her conversion when her puzzled gran asked her whether she could eat things like oranges. Of course she can, I thought to myself only to hear her reply "It depends whether they have a coating of beeswax on them." Oh, that put me in my place... better whip the orange out of the stocking then! But I'm not one to panic and with some thought and preparation it is no bigger an inconvenience than anyone else's needs.

I saved the walnuts harvested from the autumn for my step-daughter's Christmas main dish - Mushroom and walnut rolls. These can be made well in advance, frozen raw and cooked from frozen on the day - as easy as cooking sausage rolls. Surprisingly, because readymade puff pastry is made with vegetable oil it is vegan-friendly, as long as you avoid the "all butter" ones of course. I serve the rolls with the same vegetables as everyone else, potatoes roasted in a separate dish (in sunflower oil rather than goose fat), sage and onion stuffing and gravy made using a vegetable stock cube. I have to say that when served it looks like a decent meal rather than a poor vegetarian option after thought. It must be OK because she has had this dish for 4 Christmas's in a row and takes home the uncooked spare ones.

Mushroom and Walnut Rolls (makes 12)
1 small onion or shallot
1 cloves of garlic (optional)
2 oz (55g) mushrooms
1/2 oz (15g) walnut pieces
A little oil
1/2 oz wholemeal breadcrumbs
1 dessert spoon cornflour, mixed with water
A little fresh parsley, finely chopped
Salt & pepper
8 oz (225g) fresh puff pastry

Place the onion, garlic (if using), mushroom and walnuts in the food processor and blitz. Heat the oil in a frying plan and gently cook this mixture for about five minutes until soft. Tip the mixture into a bowl and mix in the breadcrumbs, parsley, seasoning and cornflour. Roll out the pastry into a rectangle and cut into two long strips. Place the filling along the strips and brush the edge of the pastry with soya milk before rolling the pastry over the filling. Glaze with more soya milk then cut into suitable lengths. Freeze. Cook on a baking tray at 220°C, gas 7 for 10 minutes from thawed or 25 minutes from frozen.

With the main meal sorted I spent today organising the desserts. I started with raspberry trifle - not in the least bit vegan or diabetic but just plain yummy! This I made with 8 oz of raspberries from the freezer following my usual trifle recipe. Next I set about making mince pies. I already had 3 different flavours of mincemeat in my cupboard, made as the fruit was available - plum and orange mincemeat made in August, apple and cider mincemeat made in September, and figgy pear mincemeat made in November. So my daughter and I made 12 pies, 4 each of each flavour, adding a different shaped piece of pastry on top of each pie to indicate the flavour. As it happens by using Trex as the fat in the pastry and soya milk to glaze these are vegan too, not that that matters as my step-daughter to top it all doesn't like raisins! Still, the apple and cider mincepies are suitable for diabetics if the sugar is left out of the pastry.
Figgy Pear Mincemeat
My personal favourite and something you can’t buy in the shops so even if everyone has already eaten lots of mince pies this Christmas they will enjoy these for their different flavour.

Makes 4-5 jars
1½ to 2 lb (680 – 900g) pears
2 lb 4 oz (1 kg) mixed dried fruit
9 oz (250g) dried figs
1 lb (454g) Demerara sugar
1 lemon, zest and juice
2 teaspoons mixed spice
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
5 fl oz (150ml) sherry

Put the mixed fruit in a non-metallic bowl, grate in the pear and use scissors to snip in the figs. Add the remaining ingredients, stir well, cover and leave overnight. Heat in a preserving pan until boiling then simmer for 10 minutes. Transfer into warmed jars and seal immediately.

Plum & Orange Mincemeat

Makes 5 jars
3 lb (1350g) plums
2 large oranges
8 oz (225g) sultanas
8 oz (225g) raisins
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon mixed spice
1½ lb (680g) granulated sugar
2 tablespoons brandy

Wash, stone and finely chop the plums and place in a non-metallic bowl. Grate the rind off the oranges then peel the orange and chop the flesh. Add the dried fruit, spices, sugar and brandy to the bowl. Stir well, cover and refrigerate overnight. Tip the mix into a preserving pan and heat gently, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Bring to the boil and simmer for about half an hour until thick. Pour into warmed jars and seal.

2 lb (900g) mixed dried fruit
1 lb (454g) apples
2 teaspoons ground mixed spice
1 pint (660ml) cider
2 tablespoons brandy

Peel and grate the apples and place them in a preserving pan with the mixed dried fruit. Add the spice and cider and cook for 10 minutes until the apple is soft and the liquid has evaporated. Stir in the brandy and pack into warmed jars and seal immediately.

For the Mince pies:
7 oz (200g) of plain flour
1 oz (25g) wholemeal flour (or a total of 8 oz, 225g plain flour)
4 oz (110g) margarine or butter
2 oz (55g) caster sugar (adjust this quantity according to taste preference)
A little milk

To make the pastry, sift the flour into a bowl and add the margarine (or butter). Rub the two together until it looks and feels like breadcrumbs. Add the sugar and mix in. Add a little bit of cold water at a time and start to bind the pastry. The pastry should form a ball that is not too sticky or likely to crack. Wrap in Clingfilm and refrigerate for about half an hour.

Preheat an oven to 220°C (gas 7). Roll out the pastry on a floured surface until about 5 mm thick. Use two pastry cutters to cut out bases and lids to fit your tin/cases. Place the base pieces in the tin/case then fill three quarters full with mincemeat (do not overfill or it will leak out when cooking). Use a pastry brush to brush milk around the rim of the base then press the lid on top. Make air holes in the lid then glaze with milk. Bake in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes until golden. Allow to cool for 5 minutes in the tin then transfer onto a cooling rack to cool completely.

After all that my daughter was still keen to keep on baking so we made some gingerbread stars, also vegan with the use of vegan margarine, and a vegan chocolate log, using vinegar instead of egg. Then after a break for lunch we made popcorn. Believe it or not we grew the popcorn too! And what's more it was pink! I have grown a variety of sweetcorn for a few years now with the intention of making popcorn. It is a variety called "Strawberry" and it grows large, strawberry shaped cobs of hard red kernels. It is a bit tedious pushing the kernels from the cob but once done it can be popped like any other pop corn. It is nice, however, that once popped it retains some of its red colour. Once again, totally vegan and diabetic friendly.

I wrapped a gingerbread star and some popcorn in cellophane bags, tied them with some red and silver curling ribbon and popped them into her stocking. Better than an orange any day.

A final job was to put the remaining walnuts in a star shaped container that I saved from last year, along with some other nuts and dried fruits. Surely everyone should find something they like in there.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

A package to American

I posted a parcel to my brother-in-law and his wife in the USA yesterday. Yeah, yeah, I know I missed the last posting date but what can you do?! It is always tricky to know what to post to them for two reasons. Firstly, we don't see them much (for obvious reasons) so don't know them particularly well (I don't even know their shoe size so slippers are out!). Secondly, when buying for abroad you have to take the cost of postage into account so you need to think about both cost and weight. My brother-in-law came from England originally and quite likes to receive quintessentially English gifts so food items are often a hit.

A few of years ago we sent them a hamper from the Grasmere Gingerbread Company which was decidedly convenient because they post direct to the specified address - job done. However, having done this for two years in a row, last year we decided to look round for other hampers to send. But after a few days of searching the web it struck me as a bit daft as we were paying for 1) someone else's time, 2) a basket we didn't need and 3) a selection of food and drink that wasn't a perfect choice, as well as the postage on top, making it an expensive gift of low value. This year we decided instead to put together our own "hamper", only without a basket. After all, I have boxes and boxes full of jam and chutney and I'm more than capable of making a batch of shortbread or two.

Last year, with a bucket of enthusiasm I put together a selection of homemade preserves, biscuits, and cake and Steve added a couple of bottles of real ale to complete the gift. But then came the tricky bit - posting it! When we weighed the box it came to 4 kg which proved to be the first obstacle because the Royal Mail has a 2kg limit on parcels abroad. Not defeated, I looked around for other couriers but soon discovered that they would ship pretty much anything except food and drink. I think it might have been easier to have sent fireworks through the post! So, back with the Royal Mail, I split the items and repackaged them into two boxes, each roughly 2kg each. Then I filled out the obligatory customs declaration and stood in a very long queue at the post office in order to buy the necessary airmail stamps. These cost me roughly £40!

Well, you learn from experience, don't you. This year we decided to downscale the whole thing. 3 jars of preserves, two mini Christmas cakes and a bag of homemade fudge. All in one box, weighing 1.5kg and costing just over £17 to post. Much more like it!

My brother-in-law's favourite spread on his breakfast toast is marmalade so along with a couple of jars of jam I included some of my All Hallows Marmalade. Why "All Hallows", I hear you ask? Because it contains pumpkin! Yeah, I could have called it Pumpkin Marmalade but I suspect it wouldn't sell as well under that name. It is yet another sneaky way to use up some of my pumpkins. Did I mention I had grown 19 of them this year...? Yeah, I think I might have! But more than that, it adds a lovely smooth texture of the spread without compromising the flavour.

All Hallows Marmalade

Makes 4-5 jars

3lb 5oz (1500g) pumpkin
1¾ pints (900ml) water
1½ lb (680g) oranges
1½ lb (680g) lemons
3 oz (85g) root ginger
3 lb (1350g) granulated sugar

NB: Every pound of pumpkin requires ½ pint (300ml) water, 8 oz (225g) oranges, 8 oz (225g) lemons, 1 oz (25g) root ginger and 14½ oz (390g) sugar.

Peel and remove the seeds and fibre from the pumpkin and dice. Thinly slice the oranges and lemons to give the size of bits that you want in your finished marmalade. Peel and grate the root ginger. Place the pumpkin, citrus fruit and ginger in a preserving pan with the water and bring to the boil. Simmer for 45 minutes to 1 hour until the citrus peel is soft. Warm the sugar then when the fruit is soft add the sugar and stir thoroughly until it has completely dissolved. Return to the boil then simmer until the marmalade has reduced to a thick liquid. Ladle into warmed jars and seal immediately.

Next into the box went two individual Christmas cakes. These make lovely little gifts. When I first started making these a few years ago I saved small baked bean tins for a few months beforehand so that I could use them as mini cake tins, perfect for little Christmas cakes. Since then my girls have got bigger and eat larger portions of baked beans and we have moved up to full sized baked bean tins as a family. I thought that marked an end to my mini Christmas cakes but then it occurred to me that I could bake one large rectangular cake and cut it into small square cakes. In a way the circular ones are a little more special but the square ones are still very effective and less fiddly to make. Once cut to size, I iced them with ready made RegalIce icing (no marzipan as they don't like it), and decorated the top with a icing star and silver balls. To finish, I made little silver cake board out of squares of cardboard coated in aluminium foil, and finally wrapped each cake in cellophane.

Mini Christmas Cakes (makes 8)

7 oz (200g) plain flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons mixed spice
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
3 tablespoons sherry or brandy
6 oz (170g) butter (or margarine)
7 oz (200g) dark brown sugar
3 oz (85g) golden syrup
1 tablespoon black treacle
14 oz (400g) mixed dried fruit
2 oz (55g) glacé cherries
2 eggs, beaten

You will need for this 8 small, clean baked bean tins. If they had a pull off lid there will be an internal rim. You will need to use a tin opener to take the bottom off the tin then turn the tin upside down and drop the removed base inside the tin so that it rests on the internal rim to make a mini cake tin with a removable base. To line each tin, use the removed base as a template to draw a circle on greaseproof paper. Then cut out a strip of greaseproof paper the same width as the circle. Cut out the circle then cut short incisions along the whole length of the paper strip to make flaps. Insert the paper strip into the tin to line the edge of the tin, allowing the flaps to fold into the base. Then place the paper circle on top of the flaps to cover the base. Place all the lined tins on a baking tray for easy handling. Preheat oven to 150°C, gas mark 2.
Sift the flour, raising agent and spices into a bowl and set aside. In a large pan, melt together the butter (or margarine), sugar, syrup, treacle and 1 tablespoon of sherry. Add the mixed dried fruit and simmer for 10 minutes. Set aside and allow to cool. Add the cherries and remaining sherry to the mix then pour the mix onto the dry ingredients and stir well. Stir in the egg then pour into the cake tins, filling each about three quarters full. Cook for one and a half hours. Test with a skewer and cool in the tin.

The last thing into the box was a bag of homemade fudge that I helped my girls make at the weekend. I tried making fudge about 8 years ago for the first time and again was brimming with enthusiasm so decided to make several different flavours. I then optimistically put the sloppy trays of fudge mix into the fridge to set only to discover the next day that they were still sloppy. Puzzled by this I looked for an answer on the Internet only to discover whole websites dedicated to "fudge disasters", explaining why your fudge hadn't set. Well, at least I'm not alone but sadly there was no remedy and it was suggested to pour it onto to ice-cream as a fudge sauce. Hmm... I really don't eat that much ice-cream. But it was enough for me to vow never to attempt to make fudge again and to fully appreciate the ubiquitous fudge stalls at craft fayres. Hey, I make jam, other people make fudge... I can live with that.

Well, finally this weekend I decided it was time to face this particular demon and to overcome it, after all, eight years on I have learn a lot about making food. I have to admit I was a bit nervous but I thought if I followed the recipes to the letter I would be fine. And that is was I did. When making jam there are certain rules that have to be followed and certain signs to look for before moving on to the next step and if you follow them then your jam will set and it is the same with fudge. I shan't include fudge recipes here because the Internet is awash with them but the main thing to remember is to check that it forms a soft ball when dropped into ice cold water before removing it from the heat. Anyway, by the end of Saturday we had a batch of white chocolate and cranberry fudge, chocolate fudge and vanilla fudge then on Sunday we made up mixed cellophane bags of fudge and tied them with curling ribbon. On Monday morning my girls took bags into school to give to their teachers, leaving 3 bags at home for various hampers for relatives. Another simple and attractive gift, once you have mastered the basic technique.

I know my brother-in-law was thrilled with last year's hamper and let's hope he is happy with this smaller offering this year. So what, you may wonder, does he give us for Christmas? Facing the same problems he opts for the simple solution and sticks a few dollar bills in with his Christmas card. Thankfully, one has never gone astray in the post. And once we have converted them into Stirling, it is usually just about enough to cover the cost of postage on his present!

Friday, 11 December 2009

It may be nearly Christmas but there are still pumpkins to cook!

Things tend to get a bit manic at this time of year. On top of preparing for my own Christmas, I always arrange to do a few craft fairs in order to sell my jams and chutneys. Last weekend I had one on Saturday 10 till 2 and one all day Sunday. I don't know if it is something to do with the "current economic climate" but the number of people attending was down on last year and the number of sales was down too. Funny really because most of the time people are quite keen to buy jam and chutney. It is one of those universal presents, right up there with slippers, that you can buy for that relative you hardly know - you don't even need to know their shoe size! And, people usually like to buy something a bit different to go on the Christmas table too. Not this year! I didn't sell one jar of cranberry sauce. Still, I shouldn't grumble, I came home with a pocketful of cash that will help to pay for my Christmas.

Cranberry Sauce

Should you need to buy cranberries for this recipe, it is worth knowing that they tend to appear in the supermarkets from about the third week in November.

Makes 2-3 jars
2 Oranges
12 oz (275g) granulated sugar
5 fl oz (150ml) port
1lb 5 oz (600g) cranberries
2 eating apples
Grate the zest from the oranges and squeeze out the juice. Put the juice, sugar and port in a pan and heat gently, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Stir in the cranberries, orange zest and grated apples. Cook, uncovered, for 10-12 minutes until the fruit is soft and the juices are thick. Ladle into warmed jars and seal immediately.

And what a relief to get the craft fairs out of the way so now I can concentrate on my Christmas. I'm intending to spend the whole weekend being festive. I may even have another go at making fudge, something that has alluded me in the past. Then there are hampers to make up for relatives, a wreath for the front door to fashion from trimmings from the herb garden, and plans for the last gardening club of the year to sort out.

Still, I am going to need to spend a little bit of time in the garden too. I spotted in the gloom as I went to get some more potatoes from their sack earlier this week that some of the stored marrows and pumpkins have gone mouldy. Pretty spectacular stuff - all runny and sloppy. So I'll have to transport the remains to the compost bin. I managed to catch one pumpkin just as the top started to turn furry so I've been forced to find yet more new and inventive ways to use pumpkin this week. I started with some pumpkin achar - spiced Indian pickle, using the River Cottage recipe

Then I made another pumpkin ginger teabread for Steve. We have been eating thin slices of pumpkin all week too, fried with mushrooms, onions, garlic, ginger and a splash of Balsamic vinegar. Then yesterday I made a pumpkin lemon meringue pie. All the glory of a normal lemon meringue pie but healthy! Despite all that I still have some of the pumpkin in the fridge and more in storage. Hmm... what next? Someone suggested pumpkin on toast but I'll have to give that more thought.

Pumpkin lemon meringue pie

For the pie crust:
3 oz (85g) plain flour
3 oz (85g) wholemeal flour
3 oz (85g) margarine

For the lemon filling:
1 lb (454g) pumpkin
2-3 lemons (depending on size)
1 oz (25g) cornflour
2 oz (55g) caster sugar
3 egg yolks

For the meringue:
3 egg whites
1 oz (25g) caster sugar

Preheat oven to 190°C (gas 5) and grease a flan case. To make the pastry, sieve the flours into a bowl and add the margarine. Use finger tips to rub the margarine into the flour until it forms a breadcrumb consistency. Use a little cold water to bind it into a dough. Roll the dough out on a floured surface and then transfer it into the flan case and trim the edges. Place a piece of greaseproof paper in the pie crust and weight it down with something like rice or baking beads. Bind bake the pie crust for 10-15 minutes until partially cooked. Then turn the oven down to 150°C (gas 1).

In the meantime prepare the lemon filling as follows. Remove the skin and seeds from the pumpkin and dice. Steam for about 20 minutes until very soft. Mash, or better still, blend the pumpkin until smooth. Tip it into a measuring jug. You will need about half a pint. Grate the rind off the lemons and squeeze out the juice. Use a little lemon juice to mix with the cornflour. Heat the remaining lemon juice, pumpkin puree and lemon peel in a saucepan until just boiling. Remove from the heat and stir in the cornflour. Return to the heat and stir constantly for about 2 minutes until thick and smooth. Turn off the heat and allow the mixture to cool a little. Add the caster sugar to the lemon filling, stir in and taste, adding more sugar if required. Separate the eggs and beat the yolks into the lemon mix.

Next prepare the meringue. Whisk the egg yolks vigorously until very stiff – an electric whisk is best for this. Then carefully fold in the sugar.

Pour the lemon filling into the pie crust and even out. Top with the egg white mix and sculpt into an attractive shape. Bake the pie for about 45 minutes until the meringue is brown and crisp to the touch. Cool in the tin. Serve hot or cold.