A Very British Thanksgiving

December 1, 2009 § Leave a comment

We are a thoroughly English family living in Manchester but nevertheless have celebrated Thanksgiving for the last four years.  This is down to my friend Lorilee who comes from West Coast of the US but now lives over here.  Sitting in her kitchen as she was preparing for her annual family celebration there was a wonderful bronze turkey on the table ready for stuffing, and delicious smells of cranberries and pumpkin pie spice wafting through the house.  I was seduced and we’ve been doing our own Thanksgiving ever since.

It’s a great way to celebrate the beginning of advent and to get together with family and friends that you won’t see on Christmas Day itself.  For us, it’s free of the weight of expectation and tradition that comes with Christmas, a blank canvas which we’ve made our own.

This year, we invited in-laws Monica and Lawrie over, plus son Arthur’s schoolfriend Rahin.  We made a bit of an effort to smarten up the house and even went so far as to hang corncobs from the door to welcome guests:

The main event was of course a wonderful bronze turkey from local supplier the Cheshire Smokehouse together with cranberry and cornbread stuffing. The stuffing is a pleasure to make, wonderful colours and smells from both the cranberries gently cooked with orange:

and from the golden cornbread:

Here is the stuffed turkey being ritually weighed on my trusty Avery Berkel scales.  This set of scales has a bit of history behind it having been sold to me some years ago by the Hon Rupert Soames, grandson of Winston Churchill.  Rupert was running a division of the the Avery business in Smethwick and I was visiting from head office and bought some of his old stock.

The scales have since become part of the family – both my two boys as babies were regularly weighed in them and they are now used for weighing ceremonial roasts.

And here is the finished turkey:

I used to have terrible trouble with turkey but have since discovered the method recommended by Leith’s Cookery Bible which is to drape over the turkey before it goes into the oven an enormous square of folded muslin soaked in an unfeasible quantity of melted butter.  This combined with a digital meat thermometer inserted into the thigh of the bird seems to do the trick.  My thermometer tells me turkey is cooked when its internal temperature reaches 82 degrees C; I find that I need to remove the bird from the oven when it reaches just 73 degrees C as the heat carries on transferring through the meat for a good 20 to 30 minutes afterwards.

With the turkey I served, as well as the aforementioned stuffing, cranberry sauce, gravy, roast winter vegetables and a dish of sweet potatoes topped with toasted marshmallows – improbably sweet and weird but nevertheless good.

Afterwards, instead of the more usual pumpkin or pecan pies, I served crema catalana, the Spanish orange and cinnamon scented version of crème brûlée together with a dish of sliced oranges in orange juice flavoured with grated lemon peel.  I know this Spanish element is from the wrong continent entirely but somehow the colours of the crema catalanas, burnished gold in their  terracotta cazuelas and the cinnamon and citrus flavours seem just right for a winter celebration which is a precursor to Christmas.

Here is a single perfect crema catalana in the tiniest of authentic cazuelas:

And here are the sliced oranges displayed in my favourite midnight blue and yellow serving bowl.  I had a pomegranate and a couple of passionfruit lurking in my fruitbowl so added these to the oranges for a pleasingly  jewelled effect:

I’ll conclude now with recipes for both the stuffing and the crema catalana.

Recipe for cornbread, cranberry and orange stuffing

This recipe comes from Nigella Lawson’s book “Feast” with just a few small modifications of my own.

Ingredients for the cornbread

175g cornmeal (I use instant polenta)
125g plain flour
45g caster sugar
pinch salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
250 ml milk
1 egg
45g butter, melted and cooled slightly

Ingredients for the stuffing

1 large orange
340g cranberries, fresh or frozen
2 tablespoons runny honey
125g butter
500g cornbread crumbs
2 eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
salt and pepper

First make the cornbread.  Preheat the oven to gas mark 6/200 degrees C then prepare  a square 23 cm tin (5cm deep) either by greasing with butter or lining with baking paper.    Mix the cornmeal, flour, sugar, salt and baking powder in a large bowl.  In a measuring jug beat together the milk, egg and melted and cooled butter.  Then pour the wet ingredients into the dry, stirring with a wooden spoon until just combined but no more – the odd lump is desirable at this stage.  Pour into the prepared tin and bake for 15-20 minutes.  When ready, the cornbread should just be shrinking from the sides.  Most of the cornbread is needed for the stuffing but there should be just enough for one slice for the cook to eat, still warm from the oven and spread with butter.

Now complete the stuffing.  Zest and juice the orange.  Put the cranberries into a heavy based saucepan along with the zest and juice of the orange.  Bring to simmering point on a moderately high heat on the stove top, then add the honey then cover the pan and turn down the heat and simmer for 5 minutes.  Add the butter to the pan allowing it to melt then add the cornbread crumbs.  I simply break up the warm cornbread with a fork to give desirably rough-textured uneven crumbs.  Beat in the eggs along with the ground cinnamon plus a little salt and pepper.

Recipe for crema catalana

I found this recipe on the web after returning from an inspirational trip to Barcelona in October 2005.  It came from a US site with the unpromising sounding name of Cook’n Grill’n but claimed to originate from Barcelona landmark restaurant Set Portes which I visited on my trip.  The recipe works and tastes authentic.  The recipe I found required no less than 7 egg yolks and stated that it served 4 people.  My cut-down version requires 5 yolks and makes approximately 8 tiny pots.  The four people envisaged in the original recipe must have been very greedy indeed…


12 fl oz milk (whole or semi skimmed)
6 fl oz double cream
2 one inch pieces cinnamon stick
2 strips lemon zest and 2 strips orange zest (each 2 inches by 1/2 inch removed with a vegetable peeler)
2 and 1/2 oz golden caster sugar
5 egg yolks from large eggs
1 and 3/4 tablespoons plain flour

more golden caster sugar for caramelising surface of the creams

Combine the milk, cream, orange and lemon zests and cinnamon sticks in a medium sized heavy based saucepan and bring almost up to a simmer on a low heat.  Let the mixture cook for about 10 minutes so that the milk and cream become infused with the cinnamon and citrus but do not let it boil.  Remove from the heat, cover to prevent a skin forming and allow to cool a little.

Whisk together the sugar and egg yolks in a medium sized bowl.  Whisk in the flour.  Strain the infused milk and cream mixture into the yolk mixture in a thin stream and whisk to mix.  Return this mixture to the saucepan and bring gradually to simmering point over a low heat, whisking steadily.  The mixture must be allowed to thicken and cook otherwise it will not set.  Do not allow to boil rapidly or overcook or the custard will curdle.

Once the mixture has thickened, divide it between 8 small gratin dishes.  Individual terracotta cazuelas are authentic if you have them – this is how the crema is served in Barcelona.    I bought mine online back in the UK from http://www.delicioso.co.uk/spanish-food/Kitchenware/

Cover the creams with clingfilm and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

When you are ready to serve, remove the creams from the fridge and sprinkle the surface of each one with 2 teaspoons golden caster sugar.  Quickly caramelise using a kitchen blowtorch.

Preparing for Christmas: recipes for cake, pudding and mincemeat

November 23, 2009 § 6 Comments

We are home for Christmas this year for the first time in ages so I made our Christmas cake and mincemeat this weekend, Stir-up Sunday itself.  This is a little later than planned but nevertheless in reasonable time.   Even had I all the time in the world, I wouldn’t make them before mid-October as I think a Christmas cake in particular can dry out if made too soon.   I already have a Christmas pudding maturing in the cellar from last year so that’s one less thing to do.

In this post, I’ve compiled all three recipes.  None of them are difficult – it’s mainly an assembly job getting all the dried fruit together.

Making preparations for Christmas is a satisfying thing to do on a cold and wet November weekend.  The weighing, mixing and chopping are soothing and even fun if you share them round the family and there is a great sense of linking to family tradition as the evocative Christmassy smells waft around the house. Here’s my Christmas cake dried fruit soaking in brandy complete with gaudy glacé cherries.

OK, enough of the domestic goddess stuff and onto the recipes themselves:

As various members of family and friends will testify, this is the  reliable recipe I use for wedding and Christmas cakes.  It comes from Delia Smith, the old-fashioned cookery course book, before she became a media person and the books and recipes became jazzed up with exotic ingredients and soft-focus photography.  It’s dark and moist without being soggy and slices well into neat pieces – essential when you have 100 or so wedding guests to feed!

We like Christmas cake so much that I generally make two.  One gets the full Christmas treatment and is white-iced and decorated with help from the children in whatever direction our imagination takes us.  We excelled ourselves last year with a family of white plastic polar bears gathered round an improbably turquoise fishing hole (fashioned from hard-boiled sugar syrup) in a snowy white arctic scene twinkling with silver balls.  The other gets a more workaday coat of icing on the top only.   It lasts right through till spring and is a great snack for ski-touring trips and days out walking.

Here are the cakes before baking:

And here they are again some 6 hours later (that’s how long they take in the lower Aga oven).  The stab mark in the centre is just that. I tested the centre with  a sharp knife blade to make sure there was no uncooked mixture left.  You can see the slight shrinkage away from the sides of the tin especially on the left hand one.

The smell as they come out of the oven is divine, especially when the small post-cooking glass of brandy is poured over.

My Christmas pudding recipe also comes from Delia Smith’s “Complete Cookery Course” 1982 Omnibus edition.  It’s clear, reliable and produces a dark, moist traditional Christmas pudding.  If you leave it for a full 12 months or so it becomes a wonderful black colour.

Making mincemeat was not one of the Christmas traditions I grew up with though my mother did make wonderful mince pies.  They would have been even better had she done so.  I find home-made mincemeat to be head and shoulders above the bought kind, better behaved as it’s drier and not to syrupy and you can tweak the spicing so it’s just the way you like it.  I have a weakness for cardamom which I like to indulge.

I discovered this à la carte mincemeat recipe in Frances Bissell’s inspiring book “Entertaining”.  What you do is make a base mixture without adding any ingredients which suffer if stored.  So no chopped fresh apple which can make mincemeat ferment if stored for any length of time, and no nuts which become soggy and lose their crunch..  This means you can safely store your mincemeat for ages – certainly 15 months.  When you come to use it, you add your chosen fruit and nuts and if required a further slug of alcohol to a small jar of the base mix and away you go.

Here is the completed mincemeat which needs to macerate for three days or so before potting.  I fetched up the pudding from the cellar too so all three Christmas items appear in a picture.

I can now sit back and enjoy the pleasant feeling of satisfaction that only a well-stocked neatly labelled storecupboard shelf can bring.  I imagine squirrels feel this way when they bury their caches of nuts…

One final thought is that my wondrously sharp Microplane grater makes light work of grating all the lemon and orange peel that these recipes involve.  I have a lot to thank the woodworking Grace brothers from Russellville Arkansas for.

Recipe for Christmas cake

1 lb (450g) currants
6 oz (175g) sultanas
6 oz (175g) raisins
2 oz (50g) glacé cherries rinsed and halved
2 oz (50g) mixed peel finely chopped

(Or instead of all the above, 2 lb (900g) luxury mixed fruit)

3tbsp brandy
8 oz (225g) plain flour¼ tsp nutmeg
½  tsp mixed spice (or ¼ tsp ground cloves and ¼ tsp allspice)
½ tsp ground cinnamon
2 oz (50g) chopped almonds – skin can be left on
8 oz (225g) soft brown sugar
1 dsp black treacle
8 oz (225g) butter
4 eggs
Grated rind of 1 lemon
Grated rind 1 orange

The night before you make the cake, place all the dried fruit in a bowl and mix in the brandy.  Cover the bowl and leave to macerate for at least 12 hours.

Line an 8 inch (20 cm) round cake tin lined with a double thickness of baking paper in the usual way.

Leave the treacle in a warm place to make measuring a dessertspoon easier.

Sieve the flour, salt and spices into a mixing bowl.  In a separate large mixing bowl big enough to hold the completed cake batter cream the butter, sugar and grated lemon and orange rinds together until the mixture is really light and fluffy.  Next beat the eggs and – a tablespoon at a time – add them to the creamed mixture, beating thoroughly after each addition.  Add a little flour after each addition of egg if it looks as though the mixture might curdle.

When all the egg has been added, fold in the flour and spices with your largest metal spoon.  Now stir in the macerated dried fruit, chopped nuts and treacle.

Spoon the mixture into the prepared cake tin and spread it out evenly with the back of a spoon.

If baking in a conventional electric, fan or gas oven, tie a double band of brown paper around the cake tin and cover the top of the cake with a double square of greaseproof or baking paper in the centre of which you should cut a large-coin sized hole to allow steam to escape.

If you’re not ready to bake the cake straightaway, you can delay baking it for several hours or overnight if that’s more practical.  Just leave it, covered, in a cool place until you are ready to bake.

Bake the cake in an oven preheated to 140 degrees Centigrade, 275 degrees Fahrenheit, gas mark 1 for 4-5 hours.  If in doubt about your oven temperature, err on the side of caution and turn it down.  Long slow cooking is best for a fruit cake.  I think baking at too high a temperature is the mistake most commonly made when making Christmas cake (I have done it myself a few times).  This results in the currants getting burnt making swollen little blackened lumps on the surface and the cake itself becomes dry and crumbly and very difficult to slice.

Wait until 4 hours have passed before checking the cake.  When it is ready, the cake will have shrunk back just a little from the side of tin, it will be firm when pressed lightly in the centre with a finger tip and, final test, a skewer inserted into the centre will show no traces of uncooked cake batter.

I bake mine in the lower oven of our 2 oven Aga.  The temperature is only 110-120 degrees C so the cooking time is rather longer.  If I bake two cakes at the same time which I often do, it may take 8 hours in the bottom oven until both cakes are ready – long and slow really is best.

I like to pour a generous glass of brandy over the hot cake as soon as it comes out of the oven.

Leave until the cake is completely cold before folding over the wrappings, wrapping in foil and storing in an airtight tin or plastic box until you are ready to marzipan and ice the cake.  You can feed the cake with a little brandy if you like – prick some holes in the top with a fine skewer or large darning needle and pour over a couple of tablespoons of brandy.  Do not overdo this as it is possible to turn the centre of your cake into an alcohol sodden mush.  If you’ve soaked the dried fruit properly and baked it at the right low temperature, the cake should be pretty moist already.

Recipe for Christmas pudding

Makes 2 puddings in 2 pint (1 litre) basins or 4 in 1 pint (570 ml) basin

8 oz (225g) shredded suet
1 heaped tsp mixed spice
½ tsp grated nutmeg
½ tsp ground cinnamon
4 oz (110g) self-raising flour
1 lb (450g) soft brown sugar
8 oz (225g) fresh white breadcrumbs
8 oz (225g) sultanas
8 oz (225g) raisins
1 ¼ lb (500g) currants
2 oz (50g) almonds, roughly chopped (skin can be left on if you like)
2 oz (50g) finely chopped mixed peel
The grated rind of 1 orange and 1 lemon
1 apple, peeled, cored and finely chopped (either cooking or eating apple)
4 medium eggs
10 fl oz dark beer (Guinness or your favourite Christmas ale)
4 tbsp brandy

Put the suet, flour, breadcrumbs, spices and sugar in a large bowl big enough to hold all the pudding mixture, mixing in each ingredient thoroughly before adding the next.  Then gradually mix in all the fruit, peel and nuts and follow these with the apple and grated orange and lemon rind.

In a different bowl beat the eggs and mix the brandy and beer into them.  Empty all this over the dry ingredients and stir vigorously until well combined.  Make your wishes now.  You may need to add a little more beer to give a soft dropping consistency.  Cover the bowl and leave overnight to allow all the flavours to combine and to ensure there are no pockets of unmixed flour or breadcrumbs remaining.

The next day, pack the mixture into greased pudding basins filling them right to the top.  Insert your preferred number of clean foil-wrapped £1 coins or (whatever coin or charm you like to use).  Cover each basin with a square of greaseproof paper and tie a piece of foil over the top, securing tightly with string around the rim of the basin.  Rig up a string handle over the basin, anchoring this to the string around the rim.  This will make your life easier when you come to retrieve the puddings from the pan(s) of simmering water in which you will steam them.

Steam the puddings for 8 hours making sure the water in the pan does not all boil away.  You can do this on the hob or inside a 140 degree Centigrade oven.  I use the lower oven of a 2 oven Aga to do this which minimises steam in the kitchen and practically eliminates the risk of the water boiling dry.  When cooked and cooled, replace foil and greaseproof paper with fresh.  Store in a cool dry place for up to 15 months.  They may keep longer but I’ve never gone longer than this.  So you can make puddings now both for this Christmas and the year after.  When ready to eat, steam for a further 2 hours.  Before serving, warm (to a little more than blood temperature) three or four tablespoons of brandy in a small saucepan, carefully ignite shielding your hands, face and hair from the flames and pour the flaming brandy over the pudding in its serving bowl before taking it to the table where you will have dimmed the lights for the most theatrical effect.

Recipe for à la carte mincemeat

Makes about 4 lb (2 kg)

8 oz (250g) dried apricots or stoned prunes or combination of the two
8 oz (250g) raisins
8 oz (250g) dates
8 oz (250g) sultanas
8 oz (250g) currants
8 oz (250g) shredded beef suet or vegetarian suet or grated coconut cream or 8 tbsp flavourless vegetable oil
4 oz (125g) demerara sugar
4 oz (125g) chopped mixed peel
Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon and 1 orange
1 tsp ground mixed spice (or your own combination of cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg and mace)
½ tsp ground cardamom
¼ pint (150ml) rum or brandy
¼ pint (150 ml) oloroso or cream sherry or port

Chop or mince the dried fruit (I do this carefully in the food processor), then, in a large bowl, mix with all the other ingredients and leave, covered, for 2-3 days before potting and labeling.

When you wish to use the mincemeat, spoon out about 8 oz (250g) into a bowl.  That, together with one of the following, will fill 12-18 mince pies: 1 Bramley or russet apple,peeled,cored and grated and mixed with 3 oz (75g) flaked almonds; 1-2 Cnference pears,peeled,cored and grated, and mixed with a little fresh, grated ginger or stem ginger and handful of pinenuts; 3 oz (75g) dried cranberries, cherries or blueberries; ½ medium pineapple, peeled, cored and chopped and mixed with a handful of pine nuts or flaked coconut; 3-4 oz (100g) dried mango, chopped and mixed with a handful of chopped cashew nuts; 3-4 oz (100g) fresh cranberries cooked in a little orange juice until they pop, and mixed with chopped mandarin segments and grated mandarin zest or chopped kumquats.  To date, I have stuck with the apple and almond and pear, ginger and pine-nut combinations – both worked very well.  Feel free to try your own.

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