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 http://www.grasmeregingerbread.co.uk/ 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!