Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Christmas food - desserts

I warn you now - this is going to be a long post as it'll contain my Christmas dessert recipes. I hope you enjoy the recipes and will perhaps make them either sometime soon or next year but I shall certainly be checking back to this post next year instead of scratching my head and wondering where the recipe is for this and that!

The other day I was reading a magazine article where a woman had asked her children what the best bit about Christmas was and she was somewhat disappointed that the only response she could get was "presents". As my two were sat with me at the time I tried the same question on them and sure enough my youngest replied, "presents!". My eldest said that she liked present too but seeing the family was good too. Ahh... what a good girl - just like a model pupil who knows what the correct answer should be. But then she asked me what I thought was the best part about Christmas and after a brief thought I decided it was the food.

That is not to say that I'm a greedy-guts but I really enjoy planning, organising and cooking the food over the Christmas period. In a way, Christmas is like the grand final of some competition - a chance to showcase all the best bits. And it is a chance to cook indulgent food that would be simply over the top on a Wednesday evening sometime in March.

I am known for my organisational skills but even so I'm not generally the sort of person who starts buying Christmas presents in August. However, I do start organising Christmas food during the summer. Not because I'm super-efficient but because I like to preserve food from the allotment ready to bring out at Christmas - chutneys for hampers and cold meat leftovers, mincemeat for pies and cherries in brandy for...

Well, to be honest I was never quite sure what to do with the cherries in brandy. Yes, they are great with ice-cream... or straight out of the jar... But then I came across a recipe for Black Forest trifle that I modified for our Boxing Day dessert.

Black Forest Trifle (serves 4-6)

250ml ready-made custard
50g plain chocolate
2 slices of chocolate or marble sponge cake
385g jar of cherries in brandy (or cherries in kirsch)
150ml double cream
100ml creme fraiche
1 dessert spoon of icing sugar
A little extra chocolate for grating
A few fresh or glace cherries

Put the custard into a pan with the chocolate and heat gentle until the chocolate is melted then stir thoroughly. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool. Place the slices of cake into the bottom of a suitable dish. Drain the cherries from the jar, reserving the liquid. Cut each cherry in half and arrange them over the cake. Spoon 2-3 tablespoons of the reserved liquid over the cake until it is moist. Spoon the custard on top and refrigerate until ready to serve. When ready to serve, mix together the cream and creme fraiche and whip until thick. Spoon over the trifle then grate over a little more chocolate and place fresh or glace cherries on top.

As usual, I had made plum & orange mincemeat, apple & cider mincemeat and figgy pear mincemeat during the summer which I had sold at craft fayres. They had sold well but I had a few jars leftover. So I made two batches of mince pies this year - the first for Steve to take into work and the second for us to enjoy at home. My eldest said that she really wanted to leave a homemade pie out for Father Christmas so he could taste one - which was a nice thought. Anyway, just as I was wondering what to do with the rest of the mincemeat I came across a recipe for making Christmas cake using mincemeat. This is not a new concept to me as I have made fruitcake from my apple and cider mincemeat before but it was a new recipe and one that seemed suitable for using my figgy pear mincemeat instead.

Mincemeat Christmas Cake

150g light muscovado sugar
150g softened butter
3 eggs
200g self-raising flour
450g figgy pear mincemeat
100g dried cranberries
50g glace cherries

Preheat oven to 170°C, gas 3 and line a cake tin. Cream together the sugar and butter then add the eggs. Sift the flour and stir in. Add the mincemeat and fruit and stir well. Spoon into the cake tin and bake for 2 hours or until the middle feel springy. Cool in the tin for 30 minutes then turn out onto a wire rack.

Having made sure my vegan step daughter was provided for with her walnut and mushroom rolls and her vegan chocolate log, I decided this year I would try making normal chocolate yule log. I don't usually get the opportunity to do this because when my mother-in-law comes to stay she brings masses of food with her - sausage rolls, pork pies, ham, cheese, bread, cereal, tea-bags, biscuits, cakes, mince pies, bacon, butter, stuffing, pigs in blankets, chocolate log... This year she got snowed in and wasn't able to get her usual amount of shopping so came without her yule log so there was a vacancy that needed filling. It is a fairly complicated thing to do but satisfying when you get it right.

Chocolate Yule Log

5 eggs
140g muscovado sugar
100g self-raising flour
25g cocoa powder

200g soften butter
200g icing sugar
200g dark chocolate

Heat oven to 190°C, gas 5 and grease and line a swiss roll tin. Separate the eggs into two mixing bowls. To the egg yolks add 2 tablespoons water and the muscovado sugar. Use an electric whisk to beat the mixture for about 5 minutes until pale and the blades leave a trail when lifted. Sift the flour and cocoa into this mix and fold in lightly. Clean the whisk and beat the egg whites until stiff then fold these into the chocolate mix in three batches. Pour this into the tin and level out. Bake for 10-12 minutes until the cake is springy to the touch. Turn out onto a greased piece of baking paper and straight away roll the cake up with the paper into a swiss roll shape. Leave it rolled up to cool completely. Next make the butter icing. Melt the chocolate then mix it together with the sugar and butter until smooth. When the cake is cool, carefully unfold it then spread the butter icing onto it and roll it up without the paper this time. Spread more butter icing over the outside of the cake and draw "bark" texture into it.

So that's dessert sorted... what about the main course...?

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Frozen food - but not in a good way!

For the past two or three years we have stored our allotment crops for long term storage on shelves under a car port shelter that Steve erected in our garden. The flat-packed, self-assembly car port kit just happened to fit neatly between the conservatory and our neighbour's outer wall. Not necessary the most attractive outbuilding but certainly very practical - a large mostly weatherproof storage area for garden toys, bikes and produce. In the corner we have a tall cupboard and high up on the wall are shelves where we put boxes of onions, shallots, garlic and apples and bags of potatoes. Ideal really as it is cool and dry yet warmed enough by the adjacent walls to be frost-free.

Or so it was until this week... with nighttime temperatures getting down to -13°C on Saturday, even the potatoes inside the cupboard and double-wrapped in hessian sacks froze solid. So that's that, suddenly no more potatoes, apples or onions in storage.

Fortunately, I happen to have a bag of potatoes in the fridge which was just enough for Sunday's roast dinner but not quite enough for Monday's. Instead, I decided to use the last of these potatoes with some parsnips and a slightly frozen shallot to make potato and parsnip rostis. These turned out to be quite tasty and probably something I shall make on another occasion when it isn't quite such a necessity.

Potato & Parsnip Rostis

Some potatoes
Half the weight in parsnips
1 small onion or shallot
Salt and pepper to taste
A little oil for frying

Place a clean t-towel into a bowl. Peel the potatoes and grate them into the t-towel. Do the same with the parsnips. Peel and finely chop the onions and add to the bowl. Season well then gather the t-towel up around the mixture. Squeeze the t-towel hard to remove the water. Open up the t-towel and scoop out the ingredients in handfuls, squashing them together between your hands. Heat the oil in a pan and fry the rostis gently for 15 minutes in total, turning occasionally.

Later in the week I used a lightly frozen apple in a pork casserole. I imagine that whilst the weather remains bitterly cold I shall be able to use the onions and apples in certain recipes straight from their slightly frozen state but at some point I will have to empty all the boxes and the bags of potatoes into the compost bin before they turn to rotting mush. It is a little disappointing but at least we don't depend on this food for our survival. I now have 4 bags of supermarket potatoes safely stored in our cool front hall so at least we'll have spuds with our Christmas dinner and maybe next year we'll learn our lessons and rethink our storage solution!

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Making hampers for Christmas

From the first year that I started making jams and chutneys I made hampers for friends and family for Christmas. Back then my preserves were bottled in a variety of reused jars and the labels were handwritten but they were still warmly received. This year I have made up 5 hampers for various purposes and I have to admit I think they look great!

I was leafing through a Freecycled copy of Olive magazine from December 2007 the other day and there was a small section on food gifts not to buy for Christmas. This included a wicker hamper of food. What?! But on further reading I understood what they meant. They said that by the time you take the basket etc. into account the food inside it is worth very little. So, all the more reason for making your own hamper. It's probably a bit late to sort out a hamper now if you haven't already been planning one but here is some of my advice should you like to try it next year.

Start first with the contents of the hamper. If this is going to be homemade jams and chutneys then you'll probably be busy making these in the summer and the autumn. If you are stuck for recipes then try getting yourself a copy of my preserves book. You may want to start saving jars from the beginning of the year so that you have plenty to hand. Alternatively, you can buy jars from ironmongers, John Lewis, supermarkets (seasonal), www.lakeland.co.uk or from small holders suppliers such as Ascott or bee keepers supplies such as Thornes. Once you have bottled your preserves, you will need to label them. You can buy blank labels with decorative borders from the same suppliers as the bottles. For a more professional look, I design and print bespoke labels for jams, chutneys or honey.

The next thing you need to source are the baskets for putting the preserves into. A useful alternative are jute gift bags which you can buy online from companies such as the natural bag company or islepac.co.uk. These are handy because you just need to pop the jars inside and the job is done.

You can source baskets from many different places. I often buy mine from ebay and my last lot my mum bought for me whilst she was in a French hypermarket. The only thing I would say is think about buying baskets in the summer and autumn because the closer you get to Christmas the higher the demand for them so the more expensive and harder to get they are. If you are thinking of posting your hamper then consider forgoing the basket altogether as it increases the weight of the parcel quite considerably without really adding value to the gift.

For the presentation of the hamper you will also need some sort of packing material which can be straw (bedding for small pets from pet supply shops/garden centres), or shredded paper. I have bought shredded paper from ebay before and you can get it from craft supply shops too. This year I have been using gold shred from Lakeland. You will also need to buy some cellophane - extra wide is useful if your hampers are large. This I buy from ebay or Hobbycraft.

To put it all together, put some shred into the bottom and sides of the basket. Place the food items inside, tilting them so that the labels can be read and so that they look attractive. Fill the basket so that it looks full but not crammed, adding more shred around the items as necessary to hold them in place. Next wrap the whole thing in cellophane. Wrap the cellophane completely around the basket, ensuring that the ends meet at the back of the basket rather than underneath it. Tape it in place then make cuts in the cellophane on either side of the handles. Push the flap of cellophane through the handle and gather the cellophane together as if wrapping a present and stick it in place.

Hampers can look so attractive at this point that you may not wish to wrap it further in wrapping paper. If you do decide to wrap it so that the contents are hidden then consider wrapping it in a new t-towel. This can look fantastic as well as adding the t-towel as an additional gift. Use a few pins to keep the ends tucked in neatly then hold in place with ribbon.

Job done - a fantastic looking gift that will be well received and for which you can feel proud!

Saturday, 18 December 2010

A week to go - serious preparation for Christmas!

When was the last time you cleaned your fridge? I don't know for sure how long ago I cleaned mine... thorough, deep cleaned that is. It's been a few months I think. Stupid really that we allow ourselves to store food inside a "cupboard" that we clean so infrequently. I wouldn't dream of putting the plates down ready to dish up dinner on a messy work surface yet I put food onto a fridge shelf that I haven't wiped clean for a few days. With the last Christmas food shop planned for a few days time, I decided today would be a good day to tackle the fridge - whilst it was still relatively empty and so that I would have lots of space for my Christmas goodies.

My whole houses needs a good tidy actually. With the hectic rush of the last couple of weeks things have really got cluttered. There are half-finished hampers on the kitchen side, part-done stockings on the living room carpet, toys that need to be put back in their boxes, magazines that need recycling, ironing that needs doing... Mother-in-law is coming in a few days and Santa a couple of days after that so we really need to tidy up and clear some space. But I hate tidying.

It seems to me that there are two main ways to tidy up. There is the proper, sorting out as you go and putting things in their proper place type tidying. And then there is the shove everything in a cupboard and make things look neat on the outside type of tidying. Both have their place but I much prefer the proper type of tidying as it is the only solution in the long term. In our house, I usually start with the proper tidying but then after a few days when I am pooped and fed-up I turn a blind eye to Steve finishing off the last of the tidying with the shoving it in a cupboard method.

Proper tidying up is deathly time consuming and usually results in an intermediate state that is messier than when you started. I also find that doing it solidly for days at a time makes me thoroughly miserable and grumpy. I have decided this time to tidy up in small bursts, interspersed with nice activities that I want to do. So this morning I started by making a batch of mince pies but whilst the pastry was chilling for half and hour I cleaned the oven. Then at lunch time I lazily flicked through food magazines, cutting out recipes I wanted to keep so that I could stick the remaining pages in the recycling. Then I cleared Friday's Christmas shopping off the work surface by wrapping it and putting the parcels into the incomplete stockings. And then I tackled the fridge.

The best way to go about this is to remove everything from the top shelf then remove the shelf from the fridge and clean it in soapy water. Then clean the sides of the fridge that surround that shelf, ideally with an antibacterial spray. I usually wipe the shelf and the fridge sides dry with kitchen towel too before putting the shelf back. Then, put the food back onto the shelf, throwing away anything that is out of date or otherwise spoiled. Personally I hate food waste but sometimes you just have to admit defeat and throw it away! Then continue down the fridge, a shelf at a time, until every shelf is clean, the whole inside of the fridge is cleaned and all the old food is in the bin. Next tackle the door, removing anything that can be detached to clean. Don't forget to wipe clean the inside of the door, the edges of the door and the bits in between the folds of the rubber seal. Finally, clean the outside of the fridge - this is a lot easier to do and maintain if you don't have lots of fridge magnets stuck all over it!

Now that your fridge is nice and clean and all your old food has gone you are far less likely to give yourself or your guests food poisoning over the Christmas period. However, it is important that when you stack your food with Christmas food you do so in a way that minimises the risk of contamination. Try to avoid pushing food to the back of the fridge as fridges work best when air can flow down the back - you know you have done something wrong if food starts to freeze. Always store food in sealed containers or wrapped in clingfilm, foil or bags. Keep cooked food away from raw food and place raw foods towards the bottom of the fridge so that if they drip they will not drip onto cooked foods. Don't forget to wipe the shelf space clean after removing raw food from the fridge. Never place warm food in the fridge as it will cause the fridge to heat up and cause condensation which can drip onto foods, causing contamination. You may like to check that your fridge is at the correct temperate too which is ideally 4 °C but certainly not over that.

With that done, stand back and admire your gleaming fridge! Then go and make a shopping list of all the things you thought about whilst you were doing it. It is rare thing to precisely know the entire contents of your fridge so make the most of it!

Tomorrow the cleaning and tidying will continue... although I expect I shall spare some time to go and play in the snow with my girls and maybe finishing putting those hampers together.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Priceless inheritance

Last week whilst making fudge, I found myself thinking about homemade honeycomb. Fudge... honeycomb... they somehow seem to go together. So I thought, maybe I should find a recipe and give it a go. Actually, I have at least one memory of making honeycomb before; with my grandma and she was definitely the one in charge on that occasion as I think I was probably about 12 at the time. But having dredged up that memory it struck me that rather than googling for a recipe I decided to pull my grandma's recipe book out of the cupboard and see if I could find that very same recipe.

When my grandma had died 17 years ago I had inherited her recipe books. Back then I liked cooking just enough to appreciate these books and to take them into my care. I'm glad I did - they seem to have become more valuable to me with time as I have grown to appreciate them even more. Mostly, the recipe books are ancient published books, including 2 volumes of Delia recipe books from the early 1970s when "The Delia Effect" was slightly less impressive than it is these days. But amongst them is my grandma's handwritten recipe book. This she started as a school exercise book back in her cooking classes, aged about 14. The handwriting was neat and the layout followed strict instructions. The first page has been marked by a now long-dead teacher in red pencil and dated 15/10/1936.

Then, about half way through the book, the now adult version of my grandma continues adding recipes to her old school book but now in her loose, untidy handwriting with little attention to the layout. These are her own recipes for her own use, not to be approved and marked by a teacher. I just love to see her handwriting and the occasional comments such as "lovely" next to a recipe cutting from a magazine pasted onto a page.

And there on page 68 I find the recipe for honeycomb - that very one from my memory. As is so often the case, the recipe is somewhat on the vague side but clear enough for me so I decide to give it a go. It all seems very straight forward but my friends warn me that making honeycomb can be tricky and can result in failures. Nonetheless, with my newfound fudge expertise, I get on with it, following my grandma's written instructions (although wishing she were there to guide me through it as I go).

But then disaster... it turned brown and I took it off the heat but whilst I was fiddling around measuring bicarbonate of soda the caramel continued to cook and as I stirred in the bicarb I could see that it had burnt. Yuk! On cooling it tasted like burnt coffee beans! Ho hum... we learn from our mistakes so I tried again, this time removing it from the heat at an earlier stage, adding the bicarb in a rush and getting it out of the pan as quickly as I could. Aha! Second time lucky!

When it was cooled, we broke it into bits, melted some chocolate and dipped each piece into it. Later, when the chocolate had set we wrapped a few pieces individually in cellophane, doing the same with the pieces of fudge we had made. Then my daughters filled old coffee jars with our homemade sweets and we designs some labels on the computer. Job done, 4 beautiful Christmas gifts for 4 very lucky teachers.

I have to admit that I'm pleased with the result. The jars of sweets look fantastic and the sweets inside taste great too. I am also pleased that I managed to make honeycomb and that I had done so from my grandma's book. My eldest spotted the date in the recipe books and said "Wow, you should take that to the Antiques Roadshow!" I smile, looking at the tatty, heavily stained book and wonder what value an antiques expert would place on it. Well, to me, it is priceless!

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Homegrown sweets

I'm busy next weekend at a couple of craft fayres so I decided this weekend I needed to make my annual batches of fudge, in preparation for providing my girls' teachers with Christmas presents before the end of term. Last year I finally cracked the technique and conquered fudge-making so this year I dug out the same 3 recipes I had before. As it happens, on the same page of my recipe clippings scrapbook there was a recipe for blackcurrant pastilles that I'd intended to make last year. I stared at it again and wondered why I hadn't done it last year... probably something to do with it requiring liquid pectin. I don't have any in my cupboard this year either... do you?

What I did have in my cupboard (maybe you don't) was a pack of gelatine and a pack of vege-gel. So I dug out my recipe for Turkish Delight and wondered whether I could adapt that recipe to make blackcurrant jellies instead. So I went to my freezer and pulled out a bag that happened to contain 310g of frozen blackcurrants. These I emptied into a pan with a little bit of water. I cooked these for about 10 minutes until they were breaking up then forced them through a sieve to squeeze out their juice.

Next I scattered a sachet of gelatine over a couple of tablespoons of water and set it aside whilst heated 135ml of water with 225g granulated sugar. Once the sugar was dissolved I added the gelatine and stirred until that was melted. Then I brought the mixture to the boil and stirred it on a simmer for about 15 minutes until it was thick. When I removed it from the heat I realised that I couldn't substitute the usual tablespoon of rose water (for Turkish Delight) with the juice from the blackcurrants without messing up the liquid content and probably stopping the whole thing from setting properly. So instead, I sprinkled a sachet of vege-gel over some of the blackcurrant juice before adding that and the rest of the blackcurrant juice to the gelatine mix. I brought the whole thing back to the boil briefly before pouring it into a plastic food box to cool. It didn't immediately set - like vege-gel does - so I was a bit nervous about the whole thing.

When it was cool enough, I put it into the fridge and left it alone overnight. I was pleased to see the next day that it had set so I cut it into little cubes and rolled each one in granulated sugar to finish the sweets off. I fed one to each of my children and to Steve and they all were impressed by the strong blackcurrant flavour and I'm pleased to say that I had got the sweetness right too. What I wasn't sure about was what would happen if I left them out of the fridge - would they stay set or melt back into a pool of liquid. Not feeling too confident, I put them into a container in the fridge and left one out to see what would happen.

By tea time the lone jelly was still a jelly! I shall now leave it there and see if anything else horrible happens to it at room temperature. In the meantime, I think I may just purchase some liquid pectin - if it hasn't been removed from the supermarket shelves to make way for Christmas cake and mincemeat! And I think I may experiment with raspberry and orange flavours.