Twelve days of Swiss Christmas

December 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

On The Twelfth Day of Christmas my true love sent to me:

12 Chocolate Snowmen
11 Christmas Guetzli
10 Grilled Kalbsbratwurst
9 Glasses of Glühwein
8 Rhåtischebahn Engines
7 Rustic Chalets
6 Christmas Trees
5 Singers singing
4 Advent Candles
3 Christmas Stockings
2 Davos Sledges

and an enormous Cinnamon Star!

That’s more or less a summary of our Swiss Christmas,though we didn’t spend any where near 12 days there, and I haven’t even mentioned the skiing.

We have our mince pies and Christmas cake but the Swiss go nuts for their Guetzli – Christmas biscuits which are on offer in every bakery, household and public place throughout Christmas. The good Hausfrau will of course make her own to offer to guests and family. Leafing through my Betty Bossi Christmas baking book I see cosy colour pictures of Orangenschnittli (filled almond orange shortbread), fantastically embossed Tirggel, Orangenschümli (orange mini meringues), Pfeffernüsse (little spiced gingernuts) to name but a few.

Best of all in my opinion are the Zimsternen – cinnamon star biscuits. At their best they’re nutty and spicy, a little bit crunchy, a little bit chewy with a crisp meringue icing. These biscuits aren’t exclusively Swiss but can be found throughout the German-speaking countries.

The biscuit base, a mixture of ground nuts, sugar and egg whites flavoured strongly with cinnamon and lemon zest is half way beween marzipan and a macaroon. I’ve come up with my own version of the classic recipe compiled from 3 sources: (i)the recipe on the back of the special split “profi” star cutter; (ii) Marianne Kaltenbach’s “Aus Schweizer Küchen”; (iii) Thorsten’s recipe on website Food.com. Dry matter per egg white varies from 225g to 275g and the percentage of ground nuts varies from 59% to 77% in the different recipes. This version uses 300g nutsand 200g sugar making 250g dry matter per egg white with 60% of the dry matter made up of nuts.

To make the biscuits using the method shown in my pictures you’ll need to get hold of a special split star cutter which releases the moist iced biscuits without sticking. I found mine in specialist kitchen shop Sibler in Zürich. If you have a standard star cutter then I’d recommend cutting the shapes out, placing them on the baking sheet then brushing with the icing.

Recipe for Cinnamon Stars

Makes about 34 biscuits in two rollings plus 15 small additional shapes with the soft trimmings.

Ingredients

For the biscuit dough

75g whole unblanched almonds
75g halved walnuts
100g golden caster sugar
60g egg white (about 2 medium egg whites)
pinch of salt
approximately 150g ground almonds (more may be needed to make a pliable, workable dough)
further 50g golden caster sugar
50g icing sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

For the icing

30g egg white (1 medium egg white)
small pinch of salt
175g icing sugar, sifted
1 teaspoon lemon juice

Lightly toast the whole nuts. Allow to cool then blitz in a liquidiser with the 100g golden caster sugar until very finely chopped.

Whisk the egg whites with a pinch of salt until they reach the soft peak stage. Mix in the ground nut and sugar mixture, the ground almonds, caster sugar, icing sugar, cinnamon and lemon zest. Add additional ground almonds if necessary to make a workable dough. Wrap the dough in cling film and rest in the fridge for about an hour.

When the resting time is nearly up, make the icing. Whisk the egg white with a pinch of salt until stiff. Whisk in the sifted icing sugar a tablespoon at a time together with the teaspoon of lemon juice. You may not need to add all the icing sugar; stop when you reach a thick spreading consistency.

Preheat the oven to 160 degrees C (fan) and line two or three baking trays with parchment.

Dust a pastry board and rolling pin with plenty of sifted icing sugar then roll out the rested dough to about ½ cm thick. You can roll out the dough between 2 sheets of parchment if you prefer.

If you have a special split star cutter which can be squeezed to release the iced biscuit you can use this method to complete the stars: using a pastry brush, paint the surface of the dough thickly with the meringue icing and cut out the iced stars and carefully place them on a baking sheet a few centimetres apart. This gives a neat and professional finish but the drawback is that the icing is mixed into the dough when the trimmings are combined for rerolling making the dough wetter each time. To counteract this you may need to add more ground almonds each time you reroll. For my third rolling, I simply rolled the soft mixture into a log and cut thick disks. I didn’t ice this third batch but instead topped each with a whole blanched almond for a more macaroon-like biscuit.

If you have an ordinary star cutter, don’t try and pre-ice the biscuits as they will stick and not release from the cutter: simply cut out the star shapes, place them on the baking sheet then brush the biscuits with the meringue icing.

Bake the biscuits for about 15 minutes until baked through but still somewhat moist with crisp and uncoloured white icing. The biscuits will swell a little as they bake to end up 1cm thick. Leave on the baking sheet for a few minutes after removing from the oven before transferring to a rack to cool thoroughly.

You might like to bake any un-iced biscuits at a slightly higher temperature to give a more toasty flavour as there’s no icing to brown.

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An alternative Christmas dinner

December 20, 2012 § 1 Comment

I’ve been teaching some local young people simple cooking skills at our local Parish Centre/Church Hall over the past few months. To celebrate the “end of term” we congregated together for a special pre Christmas meal.

My initial idea for this meal was to showcase the 3 original Christmas gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Having researched their culinary possibilities I decided that whilst it would be straightforward to decorate a dessert with real edible gold leaf, incorporating frankincense and myrrh into savoury dishes might be more challenging and maybe even downright toxic. I sourced high quality frankincense and myrrh resins the origins of which were Oman and the Yemen and decided to incorporate them into the meal by burning them over charcoal.The fragrant smoke is very atmospheric and transports you instantly to the Middle East.

Hence the inspiration for the meal – food inspired by the the Holy Land as reinterpreted by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi in their rather gorgeous new book “Jerusalem” featuring recipes from their respective Jewish and Arabic heritages. The book, hardback and handsomely cloth bound, was an early Christmas present to myself and I couldn’t wait to put it through its paces.

This was the menu for yesterday’s alternative Christmas dinner for 18, largely taken from the pages of “Jerusalem”:

Roasted chicken with Jerusalem artichoke and lemon
Open kibbeh
Root vegetable slaw
Mejadra
Roasted butternut squash and red onion with tahini and za’atar
Roasted sweet potatoes and fresh figs
Basic hummus and hummus with lemon sauce and pinenuts
Pitta
Labneh

Golden clementine cake
Yoghurt, honey and pomegranates

Pomegranate and rose cordial

And here we are enjoying the rather magnificent feast:

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I did quite a bit of prep beforehand at home helped by Laura who made the rather beautiful roasted sweet potato and fresh figs:

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and stunning root vegetable slaw, vibrant in colour and taste, combining crisp raw roots sliced on the mandolin and cut into matchsticks combined with a sharp lemony dressing and Ottolenghi’s trademark abundance of fresh herbs:

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At the Parish Centre kitchen, Laura and Emma prepared the chicken with Jerusalem artichoke and lemon which baked to a toasty gold and was aromatic and delicious with lots of slow-cooked shallot, sweet garlic cloves and of course the nuggets of Jerusalem artichoke. This would be a fantastic dish for an informal dinner party or a very welcome addition to a buffet for family and friends over the holiday period.

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Perhaps the best fun was preparing our own hummus, just as good as the stuff you can buy at Sainsbury’s! I’ve never had much success with homemade hummus before but I’d always started with canned chickpeas. WRONG! You need to start with dried kind, and some bicarb to help remove the skins. In fact the method is not so different from our own homegrown mushy peas. Oh, and a whole jar of tahini paste per batch, and the magic ingredient – ice cold water which turns the mix, after a whole 5 minutes of processor blasting, magically into an elegantly pale and silky smooth emulsion. Jess and Oli did a fantastic job of mixing up the two different batches of hummus, one plain and one garnished.

My simplified version of Mejadra, a spicy, oniony rice and lentil mix, was a more dramatic and interesting alternative to plain boiled rice:

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The finishing touch to our feast was the chocolate ganache iced and gold leaf decorated Golden Clementine cake, sweet and citrussy. This cake, minus the decadent chocolate icing, clearly derives from the many recipes for Sephardic Jewish cakes featuring citrus and ground almonds that the Jews brought with them from Spain hundreds of years ago. Many cookbook authors give recipes for similar cakes – Claudia Roden, Nigella Lawson and of course Delia to name but three. This version is simple to make, deliciously moist with the addition of syrup and very Christmassy with its sharp citrus notes shining through. It reminds you of clementines stuffed in your Christmas stocking and pays a nod to that old British confectionery favourite, the Terry’s chocolate orange. Clemmie and James were the pastry chefs who ably prepared the chocolate icing and painstakingly applied the gold leaf with tweezers.

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I give below the recipes we prepared together in the kitchen last night – maybe some of the young people will cook the dishes at home for their families over the holidays?

For the rest, you’ll need to buy the book – it would make a great late Christmas present for any keen cook.

Recipe for roasted chicken with Jerusalem artichoke and lemon

Adapted from a recipe in “Jerusalem” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi.

Serves 8 as a main course or up to 16 if served as part of a buffet.

Ingredients

900g Jerusalem artichokes, peeled and cut into 6 lengthways wedges, about 1.5cm thick
3 tablespoons lemon juice
16 chicken thighs, bone in, skin on
24 shallots, peeled and halved lengthways
24 large garlic cloves, sliced
2 medium lemons, cut in half lengthways and then into very thin slices
2 teaspoons saffron threads
100ml olive oil
300ml cold water
3 tablespoons pink peppercorns, slightly crushed
8g dried thyme or herbes de Provence mix
40g chopped tarragon leaves
4 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
3 further tablespoons lemon juice
further 40g chopped tarragon

Put the Jerusalem artichokes in a large saucepan, cover with plenty of water and add the 3 tablespoons lemon juice. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 10-20 minutes until tender but not soft. Drain and leave to cool.s

Place the Jerusalem artichokes and all the remaining ingredients except the final 3 tablespoons lemon juice and 40g chopped tarragon into a large mixing bowl and use your hand to mix everything together well. Cover, refrigerate and leave to marinate for at least 2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 240 degrees C/220 degrees C fan/Gas mark 9. Arrange the chicken pieces skin side up in the centre of a roasting tin and spread the remaining ingredients around the chicken. Roast for 30 minutes. Cover the tin with foil and cook for a further 15 minutes by which point the chicken should be completely cooked.

Remove from the oven and add the reserved tarragon and lemon juice. Stir well, taste and add more salt if needed. Serve at once.

Recipe for Mejadra

Adapted from a recipe in “Jerusalem” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi.

250g green or brown lentils (we used Puy lentils which were fine)
6-8 medium onions (1.4kg before prep)
6 tablespoons light olive oil
3 tsp cumin seeds
2 tablespoons coriander seeds
400g white basmati rice
4 tablespoons light olive oil
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
2 teaspoons ground allspice
3 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons sugar
700ml water
salt and black pepper
Chopped fresh parsley or coriander and pomegranate seeds to garnish (optional)

Place the lentils in a small saucepan, cover with plenty of water, bring to the boil and cook until the lentils have softened but still have a little bite, then drain.

Peel and slice the onions thinly. Fry in 2 large frying pans each with about 3 tablespoons light olive oil over a medium heat for about 20 minutes until the onions are soft and brown but not burnt. The original recipe requires the onions to be dipped in flour and deep-fried but I have simplified this step and the resulting slow-cooked soft brown onions still taste good mixed with the rice, spices and lentils.

Take a large heavy based lidded saucepan and place over a medium high heat. Once hot, add the cumin and coriander seeds and dry-fry to toast the seeds for a minute or two, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. Add the rice, olive oil, turmeric, allspice, cinnamon, sugar, 1 teaspoon salt and plenty of black pepper. Stir to coat the rice with oil and then add the cooked lentils and the water. Bring to the boil, cover with a lid and simmer on a very low heat for 15 minutes.

Remove from the heat, lift off the lid and quickly cover the pan with a clean tea towel. Seal tightly with the lid and set aside for 10 minutes.

Finally, add half the fried onion to the rice and lentils and stir gently with a fork. Pile up in a shallow serving bowl and top with the rest of the onion. If like, garnish with chopped fresh parsley and or coriander leaves and a few pomegranate seeds.

Recipe for basic and garnished hummus

Recipes adapted from those in “Jerusalem” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi.

Serves 12 or more if served as part of a buffer

Ingredients

For the basic hummus

500g dried chickpeas
2 teaspoons bicarbonate of soda
540g light tahini paste
8 tablespoons lemon juice
8 garlic cloves, crushed
200ml ice cold water
salt

To garnish half of the batch

4 tablespoons whole cooked chickpeas reserved from the second batch
2 tablespoons pine nuts lightly toasted in the oven or dry frying pan
2 tablespoons chopped flatleaf parsley

For the lemon sauce

10g flatleaf parsley finely chopped
1 green chilli finely chopped
4 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 garlic cloves, crushed
¼ teaspoon salt

Start a day before by washing the chickpeas well and placing them in a large bowl. Cover them with cold water, at least twice their volume, and leave to soak overnight.

The next day, drain the chickpeas. Place a large saucepan on a high heat and add the drained chickpeas and bicarbonate of soda. Coll for about 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Add 3 litres fresh water and bring to the boil. Cook, skimming off any foam and any skins that float to the surface. The chickpeas will take between 20 and 40 minutes to cook, maybe even longer. Once done, they should be very tender, breaking up easily when pressed between your finger and thumb, almost, but not quite, mushy.

Drain the chickpeas. You should have roughly 1.2kg now. Place half of the the chickpeas in a food processor bowl. Process until you get a stiff paste then, with the machine still running, add the half of the tahini paste, lemon juice, garlic and 1 ½ teaspoons salt. Finally, slowly drizzle in half of the iced water and allow it to mix until you get a very smooth creamy paste, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a bowl, cover with cling film and refrigerate for at least half an hour.

Repeat with the second batch of ingredients (you used only half), but remember to reserve 4 tablespoons cooked chickpeas to garnish.

Shortly before you serve the hummus, combine all the lemon sauce ingredients in a small bowl.

Top the second bowl of hummus with the cooked chickpeas, drizzle generously with the lemon sauce, and garnish with chopped parsley and toasted pine nuts.

Recipe for golden clementine cake

Adapted from a recipe in Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi.

Serves 8 generously or up to 16 if cut into delicate slices.

Ingredients

For the cake

200g unsalted butter
300g golden caster sugar
grated zest of 4 clementines and and 1 lemon
280g ground almonds
5 medium eggs
100g plain four sifted with a pinch of salt

For the syrup

80g golden caster sugar
120ml lemon and clementine juice

For the chocolate icing (optional)

90g unsalted butter, diced
150g good quality dark chocolate broken into pieces (or Valrhona or similar buttons)
¾ tablespoons honey
½ tablespoons cognac

To decorate

Long strips of zest taken from an orange using a zester
or flakes of real gold leaf (available from specialist cake decorating suppliers)

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C/160 degrees C fan/Gas mark 4. Lightly grease a 24cm round cake tin, ideally loose bottomed and line the base and sides with a double layer of parchment.

The cake is best made in a stand mixer such as a Kenwood. Cream together the butter and caster sugar thoroughly. Add approximately half the ground almonds. Beat in the eggs gradually, scraping the bottom and sides of the bowl with a spatula from time to time.

Add the remaining ground almonds, flour and salt and work them into the mix until completely smooth.

Spread the cake batter into the prepared cake tin and level with a palette knife (a small crank-handled one does the job well).

Bake the cake for 50 to 60 minutes, checking to make sure it’s not browning too much. Test in the usual way by seeing if the sides have shrunk just a little and by inserting a skewer which should come out clean.

Towards the end of the cooking time, prepare the syrup by combining the sugar and citrus juices in a small saucepan. Bring to the boil then remove the syrup from the heat.

As soon as the cake comes out of the oven, brush it with the boiling syrup until it has all soaked in. Leave the cake in its tin to cool completely before removing it from its tin.

Either garnish with the orange strips and serve as is or coat with chocolate icing.

To make the chocolate icing, put the butter, chocolate and honey in a heatproof bowl and set OVER (not in) a pan of simmering water making sure the bowl does not touch the water.

Stir until everything is melted, remove from the heat straightaway and fold in the cognac.

Pour the icing over the cool cake allowing it to dribble naturally over the sides without covering the cake completely.

Let the icing set then decorate either with strips of orange zest of flakes of gold leaf in the centre of the cake.

Christmas recipes: turkey and some of the trimmings

December 20, 2010 § Leave a comment

In 2009 I wrote down my pudding, cake and mincemeat recipes. This year I’ve decided to write about turkey, stuffings and cranberry sauce. Sometimes we have a goose at Christmas, sometimes turkey. A number of people have told me recently that goose is more traditional than turkey, but it is an enormous turkey which features in the closing scenes of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and you can’t get more traditional than that in my book.

I’ve done terrible things to turkeys over the years tending to over- rather than undercook them. Worst of all was when I took someone’s advice to put the turkey into the Aga simmering oven and leave it to cook overnight for 12 + hours. The turkey was cooked alright but swimming in a bath of caramel brown juice that should have been retained within the bird – the most wasteful turkey stock ever…

Since I discovered the slightly odd method suggested in “Leith’s Cookery Bible” of draping over the stuffed bird before it goes into the oven a folded piece of muslin soaked in an unfeasible quantity of melted butter, I’ve never looked back. Doing this and investing in a decent meat thermometer, I really don’t think you can go wrong.

This method produces a moist, perfectly cooked turkey with a deep burnished gold skin:

Family Christmases when I was growing up always involved a turkey with two different stuffings – sage and onion and chestnut and sausagemeat. When we have turkey now, that’s how it still has to be. Preparing the stuffings on Christmas eve was a family affair (although when I say family I mean the women in the family…) Tiny Auntie Em would always boil and chop the onions for the sage and onion stuffing but my mother would take charge of the chestnut and sausagemeat one. My mother was a fantastic but instinctive cook so never wrote her recipes down. I learned by watching and tasting. I have made the sage and onion stuffing recipe my own over time preferring now to fry rather than boil the onions and adding a handful of
oatmeal really lifts the texture of the stuffing and stops it being too stodgy.

Just 4 days to go now…

I found my cranberry sauce recipe in a pre Christmas newspaper article written by Simon Hopkinson. The brown sugar, port and orange zest add fantastic flavour and fill the kitchen with wonderful scents as the sauce cooks. I treasure this recipe and am now very happy to have set it down in writing as it currently exists as a single brown stained piece of newsprint. I got very, very twitchy one year when I couldn’t find it.

Recipe for perfect roast turkey

Adapted from a recipe in “Leith’s Cookery Bible”. Serves 12

Ingredients

1 turkey unstuffed weight 10-13lb/5-6kg
1 recipe sage and onion stuffing
1 recipe chestnut and sausagemeat stuffing
1 large square fine muslin about 4 times the size of the turkey
6 oz butter

Stuff the cavity of the turkey with some of the sage and onion stuffing. Stuff the neck end of the turkey with the chestnut and sausagemeat stuffing. Draw the skin flap down to cover the stuffing and secure with a skewer. Weigh the stuffed turkey and calculate the cooking time. Put any leftover stuffing into a shallow greased baking dish and bake at 180 degrees C for 45 minutes or so until cooked through and crusty on top.

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C/350 degrees F/gas mark 4. Melt the butter and in it soak the piece of muslin until all the butter has been absorbed.

Completely cover the bird with the doubled butter muslin and roast in the preheated oven for the calculated time – a 12lb/5.35kg turkey should take 3 to 3 and 3/4 hours.

I roast my turkey in the roasting oven of a two oven Aga on the lowest set of runners. The oven has quite a high temperature, 200 degrees C at the bottom, higher at the top, so the bird cooks a little more quickly. I turn it round after an hour or so to ensure it cooks evenly.

Other than this, there’s no need to turn, baste change the temperature, just leave it to do its thing in the oven.

I use a meat thermometer to make sure the turkey is cooked through, removing it from the oven when the internal temperature is 10 degrees C below the temperature I’m looking for (ie I take it out at 72 degrees C) degrees C). As the bird rests, the internal temperature rises to the required 82 degrees C.

A long resting time (at least 1 hour, in fact up to 2 hours for a good sized turkey) will ensure the bird is easy to carve and gives you time to prepare the gravy, finish the vegetables, and generally have a more relaxing time.

Recipe for sage and onion stuffing

Ingredients

2 oz butter
3 medium onions, finely chopped
15-20 fresh medium sized sage leaves, finely shredded
12 oz fresh white breadcrumbs
4 oz medium oatmeal
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Melt the butter in a large frying pan. Fry the onion until translucent but not browned. Stir in the breadcrumbs, sage and seasoning to taste.

Recipe for chestnut and sausagemeat stuffing

Ingredients

2 medium onions, finely chopped
1 tablespoon light olive oil
1 and 1/2 lb of your favourite sausagemeat
1 lb cooked peeled chestnuts (I like Merchant Gourmet vacuum packed chestnuts)
1 beaten egg
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Fry the onions in the oil in a small frying pan until tranlucent. Cool. Roughly mash the chestnuts with a fork. Combine the cooled cooked onions, sausagemeat, mashed chestnuts, a teaspoon of salt and a couple of twists of black pepper in a large bowl. Add the beaten egg and go in with your hands to mix and combine all the ingredients. Don’t try and taste this to check seasoning as it contains raw sausagemeat.

Recipe for cranberry sauce

Ingredients

8oz (200g) brown sugar (demerara or light soft brown or even golden granulated)
1/2 pint (1/4 litre) port – ruby or LBV is fine, don’t use your best stuff for cooking
12 oz (340g) cranberries, rinsed and drained
grated zest of 2 oranges

Put the sugar and port into a medium non-reactive (stainless steel or enamelled cast iron) saucepan. Mix well and bring to the boil over a gentle heat, stirring from time to time until the sugar is dissolved. Add the cranberries and orange zest and simmer until the skins of the cranberries have burst. Be careful not to overcook at this stage as otherwise you’ll get a rubber set.

‘Twas the night before Christmas

December 25, 2009 § 3 Comments

Which means it’s time to bake mince pies and finish decorating the Christmas cake.

With a bit of arm twisting, making mince pies becomes a family affair.    It’s certainly more fun with three helpers in the kitchen and don’t let anyone tell you children don’t like mince pies. You can watch us by following the link below:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9a0uywaI6Hs

I always plan to have my Christmas cake finished by mid December, but it ends up inevitably a last minute job on Christmas Eve.  To be fair, the marzipan went on a couple of days ago.  I give below my recipes for apricot glaze, marzipan and royal icing.  I used to buy both marzipan and roll-out icing as they do give a perfectly smooth surface but the taste (I make a point of adding no flavouring whether almond or vanilla to the marzipan to let the taste of the almonds speak for itself) and texture of home-made are far superior even if the decorated cake looks a little home-spun.

I make the marzipan then divide it into two.  Half is for the top of the cake and the other half for the sides. (In fact accurately and greedily because we have two cakes, I make one and a half times the marzipan recipe and divide it into three as one cake is fully decorated whereas just the top but not the sides of the second cake are decorated.  I begin with the top of the cake, coating it with apricot glaze (not the sides yet as otherwise you will get sticky fingers when you pick the cake up).  I roll out a piece of marzipan to a rough circle shape approximately the same size as the cake and invert the cake onto it.  I then trim the edges neatly whilst the cake is still upside down.  Keep the trimmings to mould into marzipan fruit if you’re feeling creative or to stuff Medjool dates with if you’re not.

Next, I turn the cake over and place it in final position on its board.  I then prepare a template out of greaseproof paper, a strip to go round the outside of the cake.  I cut the strip in half as the cake sides will be covered in two pieces of marzipan.  I roll out the second piece of marzipan to a rough rectangle the same shape as my template pieces stacked on top of each other and cut 2 pieces of marzipan using the template as a guide.

Now it’s time to coat the sides of the cake with apricot glaze.  Once this is done, I stick the two side pieces neatly to the cake, trimming and smoothing the seams. I then use my (clean) hands to pat and smooth the marzipan over the cake.  This is what the end result looks like.  Good enough for a wedding cake rather than the rough snow I plan to plaster over it.  Also pictured are my last minute decorations – the sugar pearls I picked up in Paris earlier in the year and some white chocolate snowmen, reflecting the snowy weather conditions outside – it’s all set to be the first White Christmas in ages.

I made the royal icing following my usual recipe.  This is what the starting sugar and egg white mixture looks like before whisking.  The recipe advises that you should add icing sugar to the egg whites “until the mixture falls thickly from a spoon”.

And here is the same icing after 10 minutes’ whisking.  It now holds its shape and forms little peaks.  My long serving Kenwood mixer makes light work of this job.  I think you do need electrical assistance here, whether a hand-held whisk or free standing mixer with whisk attachment.  The icing dries to a deliciously powdery and crisp texture thanks to the air it contains.  Don’t forget the teaspoon of glycerine to avoid the icing setting to a tooth-breaking plaster consistency.

Here’s the finished cake taking pride of place on the Christmas dining table with the white chocolate snowmen gazing out onto the snowy scene outside.

Time to get on with the Christmas dinner preparations now and finally enjoy a little time off.  I’ve concentrated on Christmas baking on the blog this year so you’ll just have to imagine the goose roasted to mahogany crispness appearing out of our oven on Christmas day…

Merry Christmas!

Recipe for apricot glaze

This recipe (which is hardly long enough to deserve the name!) is my own.  It makes enough to cover an eight inch cake, top and sides with some leftover.  Spread what’s leftover on some toasted panettone for a Christmas breakfast or mid-morning treat.

Ingredients

Half standard jar of apricot jam (look for conserve or extra jam with a high fruit content)
2 tablespoons apricot brandy (or your favourite spirit)
2 teaspoons lemon juice

Melt the apricot jam and apricot brandy together in a small saucepan.  Add the lemon juice and stir well.  Rub the mixture through a sieve using a wooden spoon, pressing hard so that as much fruit pulp as possible goes through.

Reheat in a small saucepan boiling until the right consistency is achieved if the cooled glaze looks too runny.

Recipe for cooked marzipan

This comes from Leith’s Cookery Bible, and as the book says, it gives a softer, easier to handle paste than the more usual uncooked marzipan.  A hand held electric whisk is I think essential before you embark on this recipe.  I have removed the suggested almond and vanilla extracts from the list of ingredients in the original recipe as I like the natural taste of the almonds themselves to shine through unadorned.

I have found that the texture of the finished paste is variable.  Sometimes it comes out just right, sometimes a little too soft for rolling.  Presumably this is because of variations in the size of the eggs and the age of the ground almonds.  If this happens, simply add more ground almonds, caster sugar and sifted icing sugar in a 50:25:25 ratio (as per recipe) until the paste is the right texture for rolling out.

This quantity of paste is just enough to cover an 8 inch cake, top and sides.

Ingredients

2 medium eggs
170g/6oz caster sugar (I use the golden variety)
170g/6oz icing sugar, sifted
(if you find, as I did, that there is nothing except granulated sugar in your cupboard and the shops are closed, fear not! I ground the sugar into a coarse powder in my electric liquidiser and used this rather than a mixture of caster and icing sugar.  The end result was good – perhaps even better than using different sugars)
340g/12 oz ground almonds
1 teaspoon lemon juice

Beat the eggs lightly in a heatproof bowl.  Sift the sugars together and mix with the eggs.  Stand the bowl in a saucepan of simmering water and whisk until light and creamy or until the mixture just leaves a trail when the whisk is lifted.  Remove from the heat and whisk until the bowl is cold.

Add the ground almonds and lemon juice.  Check consistency and adjust if necessary as described above.  Lightly dust a board or scrupulously clean work surface with sifted icing sugar.  Carefully need the paste until just smooth.  Do not overwork as the oils will be drawn out resulting in a greasy paste.  Wrap in cling film and keep at a cool room temperature until you a ready to use.

Recipe for royal icing

This recipe comes, like the fruit cake it covers, from Delia Smith’s “Complete Cookery Course”.  The addition of  a little lemon juice which cuts the sweetness of the icing ever so slightly is my own.  I wouldn’t attempt this without an electric mixer of some kind.  Don’t be tempted to add more glycerine than suggested as otherwise your icing may not set.

Ingredients

3 egg whites
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Approximately 1 lb 2 oz  (500g) icing sugar, sifted
1 teaspoon glycerine

Place the egg whites in a perfectly clean grease-free bowl.  Stir in the icing sugar, a spoonful at a time, until the icing falls thickly from the spoon (see picture above).  You will probably not use all the icing sugar you have sifted – just spoon it carefully back into its box.

At that point, stop adding any more sugar and whisk with an electric mixer for 10 minutes or until the icing stands up in peaks.  Then stir in the glycerine.  Spooned into a jar, the icing will keep happily in the fridge for several days.

Exotic fruits in winter: medlars and kumquats

December 24, 2009 § Leave a comment

The first proper frost arrived earlier this month which meant it was finally time to gather the first tiny crop of medlars from the tree we planted the summer before last.   Jane Grigson writes about the medlar in her “Fruit Book” as follows.  “The medlar makes a charming tree in the garden.  It grows and droops over to make a sheltered house for children to play in.  In spring, the flowers are white spreading cups. In autumn the leaves turn a deep yet brilliant red, and fall to show the greenish brown medlars displaying their ancient name.  Pick them when they begin to turn soft and darker brown, and do not despise the windfalls.  The best can be eaten as they are.  Turn the others into medlar jelly.”  She is quite right – the medlar has so far proved to be an excellent small tree though not yet large enough to droop into the sheltered house for children she refers to.

Amusingly, the ancient descriptive English name for the medlar is openarse (similarly cul de chien in French)  You will understand why we politely refer to it as the medlar now (nèfle in French).

Here are my medlars, silhouetted against a palest blue wintry sky.

As the crop was so tiny and as I’ve never eaten them before, I decided the only thing to do was to eat the medlars, now yieldingly soft (the proper term is bletted) au naturel with a teaspoon.  I arranged them artfully on a plate with some other seasonal items to form a cut-down version of the 13 desserts of Provence (for an explanation see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thirteen_desserts)

I took my first mouthful rather nervously but needn’t have worried as they tasted rather good – like stewed apple with a fudgy texture and pleasant acidity.  A small glass of tawny port and a few walnuts were the perfect accompaniment.  The 5 or so large seeds each fruit contains were unexpected but easily dealt with.

Other ideas for medlars are the jelly recipe which Jane Grigson gives and stewed medlars/compote of medlars which is the only suggestion given in Larousse Gastronomique.

I lazily popped one of the kumquats on the above platter into my mouth expecting an aromatic little sweetmeat.  I nearly spat the thing out.  Aromatic it certainly was but sour and bitter too in equal measure.  Referring back to my trusty Jane Grigson Fruit Book I discovered that she recommends coating them in fondant to make a tart, sweet and crisp petit four. She also gives a recipe for pickled kumquats with orange slices which I though might go well with the wild duck I was planning to roast for Sunday dinner.  Here are the duck (plus two brace of partridge) which my hunter gatherer husband Tim brought back from  a day’s shooting at Carlton Towers in Yorkshire in the autumn.  He cleaned and plucked them too and they have been waiting in my freezer for their moment to shine ever since.

I made the pickle and we ate it the same day with the duck notwithstanding that it is meant to mature for at least a month before you eat it.  The recipe is given below.

Unsurprisingly, the pickle was rather sharp!  The flavour of the kumquats was definitely right with the wild duck but it was too sweet and sharp in this pickle.  The pickle would however be very good with Christmas ham.

If anyone has any kumquat or medlar recipes I would love to hear them.

As a final postscript, peeking into my Christmas stocking I see that my sister-in-law Angela who lives in Bristol has given me, quite by coincidence, a jar of stewed medlars. I would guess that these were sourced from her local farmer’s market – I’m looking forward to trying them.

Recipe for pickled kumquats with orange slices

From Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book

My own suggestion is that fragrant clementine slices can be substituted for orange slices very successfully.

For each 250g (8oz) kumquats, provide one large orange (or 3 small clementines) which has been well scrubbed.  The kumquats only need rinsing.

Slice away and discard the peel ends of the orange, then cut the rest into slices and put them in a wide pan with the kumquats and enough water to cover generously.  Bring to simmering point, and leave until the orange slices are tender.  If the kumquats show signs of over-cooking and collapse, remove them.

Meanwhile dissolve 300g (10 oz) sugar in 250 ml (8 fl oz) wine vinegar.  Add a 5 cm (2 inch) cinnamon stick, 8 whole cloves and 2 blades of mace.  Once the liquid is clear and reaches boiling point, stop stirring.

Drain the cooking liquor from the oranges and kumquats into a bowl.  Pour the syrup onto them, adding enough cooking liquor to cover the fruit.  Simmer until the orange slices look transparent and slightly candied, adding extra cooking liquor as required.

Arrange the fruit in a wide glass jar, rinsed and dried upside down in a low oven.  Cut the slices in two, three, four if you like.  Pour on the boiling vinegar syrup, making sure that the fruit is covered.  Fasten the lid tightly and leave in a cool dark place for at least a month to mature.

Pre Christmas literary lunch

December 9, 2009 § Leave a comment

There are 7 of us in the book group to which I’ve belonged for a few years now.  We meet every month to discuss our chosen book but in December we put the books aside and just get together for a meal and conversation.  Following on from last year’s very successful cheese fondue at Gwyneth’s I offered to host lunch on a Friday in early December.

December is a busy time.  At work everyone wants the job done before Christmas.  At school there are fairs to be organised and costumes to be prepared for christmas plays and concerts.  At home there are cards, presents and food to be taken care of as well as all the usual routines.  Inevitably the washing machine or fridge will pack up in December (as mine just has) and to round things off nicely, the workmen who’ve been promising to turn up all year will finally make an appearance just when they’re no longer wanted.  I decided that what we all needed was a Superfoods Lunch.  The ideas was to boost our energy levels and immune systems before the rigours of Christmas preparations.  And of course the food had to taste good and look inviting.

There seems to be no standard definition of what a Superfood is.  This BBC article is a helpful and quick summary of the status of superfoods  – really a marketing tag more than anything.  http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/food_matters/superfoods.shtml.  Nevertheless, running through the lists of superfoods that various celebrity nutrionists have put together (take you pick from what’s available on the web), I soon had inspiration for a lunch.  We would have a spicy butternut squash soup to start, packed with sage, chilli and garlic for extra flavour. Next, there would be two salads, one based on quinoa and roast vegetables (beetroot and red onion as well as yet more squash) together with cranberries and seeds, the other a more green leafy one featuring watercress and spinach, avocado, pistachio nuts and pomegranate seeds.  I managed to find a red quinoa for the roast vegetable salad which both looked more appetising than the regular white kind and retained a bit more bite.

I neither followed nor wrote down a proper recipe for the salads, it was more a question of tasting and adding as I went along but resisting the urge to throw in too many ingredients.  For the quinoa salad, I cooked the red quinoa according the packet instructions and dressed it with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and lemon juice while it was still warm.  I then stirred in chopped parsley and chives, lightly cooked cranberries, and salt and pepper.  I tipped the dressed quinoa into a salad bowl lined with crisp red radicchio leaves then topped the salad with chunks of roast beetroot, squash and red onion.  I then blobbed on pieces of mild goats cheese and sprinkled everything with linseeds and roast sesame and sunflower seeds.  Finally I snipped some extra chives over for colour.

The other salad was an assembly of different salad leaves and chopped avocado in a lemony vinaigrette with pomegranate seeds and pistachios sprinkled over the top.

My guests brought either bread for the soup (special mention to Gwyneth’s tomato bread fresh baked that morning) or something for pudding.  Alison made a stunning dish of apple pancakes from windfalls in her garden (thanks for the extras Alison – I’ve used them variously in soup, as and addition to braised red cabbage and finally in an Eve’s Pudding).  Pictured below are Marian’s muesli slices and Nadia’s chocolate cake – both absolutely delicious.

Lunch concluded with an exchange of Secret Santa gifts, which were of course books.  I received “The Secret Scripture” by Sebastian Barry which will be my reading over the Christmas holidays.  Can’t wait to get started on it.

Recipe for butternut squash soup with garlic and chilli

This recipe is the pumpkin soup recipe from from Lindsey Bareham’s book “A Celebration of Soup”.  A decent cooking pumpkin is hard to find at the best of times but butternut squash, its close relation, is readily available. Lindsey Bareham tells us that this recipe is chef Sally Clarke’s version from the book “Women Chefs of Britain”.  The ingredients given below serve 6.

Ingredients

1 large butternut squash (original recipe specifies 1 medium pumpkin, preferably a green-skinned variety)
75 ml (scant 3 fl oz olive oil)
6 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage leaves
1 large onion, roughly chopped
1 leek, roughly chopped
2 sticks celery, roughly chopped
1/2 fennel bulb, roughly chopped
2 small red chilli peppers chopped very fine
1.75 litres (3 pints) – maybe a little less if your pumpkin/squash is on the small side
salt to taste (recipe suggests 2 teaspoons)

to garnish – any or all of the following:

roast pumpkin seeds sprinkled with a little salt, either seeds from the pumpkin you used to make the soup or a packet of pumpkin seeds which you roast yourself (see below)
chopped parsley
extra virgin olive oil or chilli flavoured oil

Prepare the pumpkin or squash by peeling, seeding and cutting into 2.5 cm/ 1 inch cubes. Reserve the seeds for roasting if you like.

Heat the 75ml/3 fl oz olive oil and stir fry the garlic and sage until aromatic but don’t let it burn.  Add the onion, leek, celery, fennel, pumpkin/squash and chillis, and increase the heat slightly, stirring around until the vegetables begin to soften.  Cover with the water (the recipe suggests 3 pints but I’ve found through trial and error that this can be a bit too much – try 2 pints and add more during cooking if required) and bring to the boil, then simmer gently, half-covered, until all the vegetables are soft.  Purée to a smooth consistency.  If you like your soup very smooth, pass through a medium sieve into a clean pan.  I use a stick blender directly in the soup pan and don’t bother with a sieve. Check for consistency. Boil to reduce if too thin, add more water if too thick.  Check seasoning.

If you are roasting the seeds you extracted earlier from the pumpkin, wash them under cold running water then lay the cleaned seeds on a baking tray, drizzle them with a little vegetable oil and sprinkle with a little salt.  Bake for 10-15 minutes at 375 degrees F, 190 degrees C, gas mark 5, turning with a spoon occasionally, until they are golden brown and crisp to the bite.  If you are using a packet of seeds, proceed in the same way (but no need to rinse them under cold water first) but they will need less time in the oven as they are drier.  Watch them like a hawk as they will turn from golden to burnt in a matter of moments.

Serve garnished with the roast pumpkin seeds plus a drizzle of olive oil or chilli flavoured oil and chopped parsley if you like.

Performance anxiety at the school Christmas fair

December 8, 2009 § 2 Comments

Attending the school Christmas fair has become one of the landmark events leading up to Christmas in our social calendar.  It has become a badge of honour to bring in a batch of freshly baked home-made cakes to sell on the cake stall (rather than produce something plastic wrapped from Costco as I am afraid, Dear Reader, some parents do…)  I can’t be alone in worrying about whether my cakes will sell.  Fear not, follow my top tips below and cake stall success is virtually guaranteed.

This year, in consultation with son Arthur whose opinion was sought as to what would appeal to his classmates, I decided to bake a batch of chocolate muffins.  These ticked all the right boxes – quick, easy and cheap to make, easy to transport and, with their sprinkling of chocolate chips on top, all-important visual appeal.  The recipe, which I give below, comes from a little book “Alison Holst’s Marvellous Muffins” which my mother-in-law Monica brought back for me after a trip to New Zealand.  Baked goods including both muffins and the curiously named friands are big in the Antipodes.

The muffin mixture is gloriously mud-like and improbably runny and lumpy but this means it is just right. Here it is, in double quantity, in my trusty stainless steel All-Clad mixing bowl:

The muffin mixture is spooned into cases and each is topped with a sprinkling of chocolate chips.  I chose a pleasingly contrasted mixture of both white and dark chips.  The chocolate chips are I think essential to the success of these muffins as without them both the texture and flavour of the muffins are a bit dull.

Fresh out of the oven they look like this:

As soon as the muffins had cooled, off to school we went bearing our cake box proudly.

I had planned to position the muffins artfully in pole position at the front of the stall (it is mortifying if your cakes don’t sell) and then head for the dining room for a well-deserved cup of coffee.  It was not to be. The cake stall was short-staffed so I ducked under the trestle table and got stuck-in.  After initial panic, we soon had the stall under control.  The art of origami was mastered and several dozen cardboard cake boxes were swiftly assembled; cakes were unpacked and displayed as prettily as we could manage, items were priced, the money was managed and we were soon operating like a well oiled machine.  We managed to sell the lot without resorting to heavy discounting.  After all, as the old Yorkshire saying goes “any fool can give away t’cake”.

After my morning’s experience my 5 top tips for bakers are:

1) Appearance is everything – people buy with their eyes
2) A single large cake is easy to make and is much in demand
3) Slabs of neatly sliced rocky road and attractively decorated cupcakes also sell well
4) Sending in cakes decorated with wet icing is just unkind to the poor souls manning the stall
5) If you choose to decorate your cakes with blue and black icing, they will appeal only to a niche market of small boys under the age of 4…

Does anyone out there have their own top tips for cake stalls, whether recipes or practical ideas?

Recipe for double chocolate muffins

This recipe comes from a little New Zealand book “Alison Holst’s Marvellous Muffins”.  I give below both the cup measurements from the original recipe and metric weight equivalents.  if you choose to use the cup measurements, please remember that Australian/New Zealand cup sizes are, annoyingly not the same as US ones.  You have been warned!

The recipe makes 12 standard-sized muffins.

Ingredients

1 and 3/4 cups (245g) plain flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup (225g) caster sugar
1/4 cup (35g) cocoa powder
100g butter
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 cup (250ml) natural yoghurt
1/2 cup (125ml) milk
1 teaspoon natural vanilla extract
1/4-1/2 cup (25-50g) chocolate chips, a mixture of dark and white if you like

Sift the dry ingredients (excluding the chocolate chips) into a large mixing bowl.

Melt the butter and add it to the other wet ingredients and mix until smooth.

Add the combined liquids to the dry ingredients and fold together but do not overmix so that the mixture is smooth.  Lumps are desirable at this stage.

Divide the mixture evenly between 12 muffin tins lined with muffin cases.  Sprinkle with chocolate chips.

Bake at 200 degrees C for 10-12 minutes.  Cool on a wire rack.  The muffins freeze well.  Take them out of the freezer and warm them through in a low oven for 10-15 minutes when you’re ready to eat them.

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