New Year’s Eve: The Sherbet Lemon

Hope everyone had a fantastic (and food-filled) Christmas! I could have posted a Christmas leftovers recipe but obviously everyone will have had different things leftover (last year I remember making a decadent mac and cheese to use up the dog-ends of the festive cheeseboard. It was glorious and sinful.)

Today is New Year’s Eve and I bet many of you are preparing for a night on the tiles, or just having a couple of friends over.

I am very partial to a cocktail. We have a stacked cabinet at home, and although my preferred mixed drinks are the old-school classics (Old Fashioneds, Negronis, Brazen Hussies, Whiskey Sours etc) sometimes I get inventive and have a go at my own – I have one I called the Montreal which will appear once I get some more maple syrup.

This one arose from a chat with a Twitter follower (@jakeychampion #Shoutout) describing something he’d been served on a night out – Absolut Citron, Cointreau, sweet and sour mix and sugar syrup, and tasting like lemon sherbet. I didn’t have Absolut Citron but I did have Limoncello (lemon liqueur from the Amalfi coast)…, along with simple/gomme syrup, triple sec (essentially Cointreau) and a rather sorry-for-itself-looking lemon in the fruit bowl so I got to work as one does.

I’ve listed the recipe in ratios rather than measurements so should you wish, you can make a pitcher if you’re throwing a party. Also feel free to garnish with a lemon twist if you’re a bit less clumsy with a knife than me.

The resultant drink was christened the Sherbet Lemon – sweet, tangy and tastes just like the old-fashioned boiled sweet it was named after. Not quite as vivid in hue – it’s a muted pale yellow yet it is dangerously drinkable.  Cin-cin.

Sherbet Lemon

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1.5 parts vodka

1 part limoncello (or any lemon liqueur)

0.5 parts triple sec

1 part gomme or simple syrup

Juice 1 fresh lemon (or to taste. If using plastic bottled stuff, I’d say 1 part but again it’s to taste)

  1. Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker filled 2/3rds with ice.
  2. Shake and strain into a (preferably chilled) martini glass. Knock back thinking of idyllic childhoods or the Amalfi coast overlooking endless lemon groves.
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Culinary Chatter: My Christmas

Well it’s December the 24th, and here we are. A few hours to go.

Cynics may carp, to borrow from Nigella, but I wallow in all the sparkle of the season, as you probably can tell. When I’m not working, sleeping, or working out, I’m in the kitchen knocking up various festive staples. Christmas is as much as about ritual and tradition as it is celebration and excess, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. It’s about food, fun and family.

Obviously, you’re going to get the naysayers, the nutritionists’ columns in the press urging us all to be healthy this Christmas – because the average person consumes 7000 calories on Christmas Day alone – and find some way of pouring haterade on the season of joy and goodwill. Last year, my newly-found culinary nemesis, Calgary Avansino (yes you can probably tell I really dislike this invasive American food fascist enormously) published this piece of dross, targeting the insecure and those who may have suffered eating disorders to forgo the warmth and tradition and eat clean over Christmas because after all, having one or two days where you just shed your dietary hangups and enjoy yourself just cannot happen under any circumstances. I won’t spoil the festive joy by way of another anti-clean-eating rant, but all I have to say to Ms ‘bye bye roasties’ Avansino – take your sanctimonious preaching and anally retentive puritanism and shove it where the sun doesn’t shine. The one thing I can’t stand is the annual influx of ‘oh my god I’m gonna get so fat’ whingers. Don’t try and make me feel bad for a bit of annual indulgence, nobody’s making you eat it – load up on the vegetables instead of the pigs in blankets, pipe down and take several seats. Or just get a freaking life and stop seasoning your Christmas dinner with so much guilt.

Now let’s get back to what matters.

In connection with my earlier post on seasonal storecupboard staples, I also have my set dishes that I cook year-in, year out. I have to confess that my Christmas is very much a Nigella one. Her Christmas book is a bible, never off the shelf throughout December, and many staples have result – her enchanting lamb and date tagine, decadent yet gratifyingly low-effort quickly-scaled mont blancs; her wonderfully evocatively-scented mulled cider; her scarlet and fiery chilli jelly (de rigeur for any leftover cooked meat or cheese),  the celestially-fragranced yet lethal lycheeni cocktail and her tangily crimson cranberry-studded mincemeat are all compulsory in my kitchen and made with gusto every year.

My ‘day’ job is a night time shelf stacker and I visit the gym three times a week, but I always make time for the kitchen. It’s so easy to get frazzled at this time of year, thinking that you’re a slave to the stove, feeding family and friends around the clock and trying to make that never-reached ‘perfect Christmas’, but for me, part of the sheer joy of Christmas is digging out these annual dishes and wallowing in the traditions.

People ask me ‘how do you have time?’

Admittedly, I don’t have children or demanding-out-of-working-hours commitments bar sleeping, so I’m lucky in that respect. But I also feel that although you can buy really pretty good Christmas cakes, puddings and mince pies off the supermarket shelves these days, nothing is like making your own and the warm feeling of seeing people dive into something you spent time over.

Like my Christmas cake – same recipe, which I shared with you on Stir-Up Sunday, it’s all fairly uncomplicated, and most of all – you KNOW what went in. And this will be the second year running I will be making my own marzipan and fondant icing, which after years of buying premade, I found that with my vintage 1970s Kenwood Chef, are uncannily easy to make. And actually, having made Nigella’s Easy Chocolate Fruit Cake for a works buffet, I may have to reconsider next year’s…..we shall see. And to be quite honest, I am fond of a proper old-fashioned fruit cake as anyone who’s witnessed the number of tea loaves I produce over an average year will testify – so whilst we’re still in the winter period…watch this space.

Mince pies  – my mother has always made her own, and I did even in my student days, albeit with jarred mincemeat (nothing wrong with that). But once I realised just how simple mincemeat is to make, I now do totally home-made mince pies too. Mincemeat is literally bunging ingredients together and stashing it laced in alcohol somewhere cool and dark. I tend to go old-school for mine – 2014’s effort came from a 1940s Ministry Of Food leaflet seen online, and this years, which will see me into 2016 and maybe even 2017, came from a cookbook from 1934.

The Christmas pud is an altogether more contentious issue – it’s the hours of steaming that put many (including me) off. But in 2013/early 2014 I had some vodka-soused fruit to use up so I had a go. The resultant pudding is still in storage, fed reasonably regularly since then and hopefully will be tested tomorrow. If it’s a success, I may branch out and make my own pud more regularly. Again, it’s just a bit of mixing and then steaming – all you need to is check the water doesn’t simmer away and you know you made it all yourself.

Finally, the main event – the Dinner. So much fear and anticipation for one meal. I’ve not yet gone the whole hog alone on the day, but I’ve made ‘mock’ Christmas dinners on the last weekend before Christmas as training camp and found it no more laborious than cooking a Sunday roast. So just think of it as a Sunday roast but just allow for more components.

Part of the sheer fear is that of not being able to obtain the vital components. If that happens, don’t break down and cry.

A couple of tips if time hasn’t been kind to the Christmas dinner cook:

The turkey. If you are that person who throws the 5pm-Christmas-Eve-supermarket-tantrum when they sell out of the big birds, or just have not had time to order one honestly, just dish up a large chicken. I honestly cannot detect a difference in taste between the two once they’re smothered in gravy, vegetables, cranberry and bread sauce and you may also have saved a fair bit of money in the process. You can still augment the humble workaday chook with sausagemeat and all your preferred accoutrements. Which brings me to…

the sausagemeat stuffing. Don’t fret if they’ve sold out of the fancy sausagemeat stuffings. Save a few more pennies by purchasing a packet of sausages (even better as you can get some pretty damn good sausages nowadays) and squeeze the meat out the casings. May take a few more minutes but a little mixing (and plus you can add your own extras such as apple, onion, herbs and spices to really make it your own) will bring it together and nobody will know you forgot to buy sausagemeat – after all, the clue is in the name. And it’;s cheaper per kg/100g than the non-cased stuff.

But what about pigs in blankets? No problem, just buy some chipolatas/cocktail sausages and streaky bacon and make them yourself. There’s always a way around the seasonal sell-outs. It’s what I’ve taught myself so when I’m finally handed the baton and responsibility for main event duty, I won’t have a festive meltdown and know there’s always a plan B. A roasted turkey looks no different to a roasted chicken in my opinion, nobody will tell if the stuffing is actual ‘stuffing’ or just improvised from squeezed-out-bangers. And also, if you’re not feeding a huge crowd on the day, you won’t be chased towards 12th night with recurring leftover turkey…

Sprouts? Honestly, ask yourself (and whomever is partaking in dinner with you) who likes them, and who doesn’t? Is it worth putting an extra pan on for something nobody’s going to eat only for them to go cold and unwanted? Obviously every family has their own preferred vegetable combo, so I cannot advise anyone on that. Sprouts are seen as the traditional compulsory veg player but honestly, if the haters outnumber the lovers, just forego them and serve a different green instead. Nobody will hate you!

Bread sauce….this gloriously medievally-scented condiment is THE scent of Christmas day for me, wafting through the house and I will never be without it. Even if I’m the only one who likes it! If you miss out on the plastic chiller tubs, well, it’s not difficult to make. You’ll have bread and milk in the house (between you and me, its fine to use plastic white if it’s all you have!) and most likely onions, cloves, bay leaves, pepper and nutmeg/mace in the store cupboard. It’s just a case of infusing the milk with these aromatics like tea, tossing in the bread roughly hacked up and then let it drink up the spiced milk.until you have a foggily-fragranced mush.

So this tangented and random post sums up how I do Christmas.

From me to you, have a fantastic one, eat and drink and be freaking merry!

Seasons Greetings,

T x

 

Restaurant Review: River Bar Steakhouse & Grill

Address: Quayside, Cambridge CB5 8AQ

Date of visit: 08 December 2015, 19:30pm

Should have put this up much earlier but, it’s Christmas and busy time of the year.

For my 27th birthday, I was taken somewhere I’ve been wanting to visit for a long time, one of the finest eateries in the city, the River Bar Steakhouse and Grill.

Being the festive party season, the place was busy with visiting work Christmas parties but it wasn’t hellish or intrusive (apart from when a cork from an exuberant table flew in our direction but that’s no fault of the restaurant). The steakhouse itself is a converted former quayside warehouse, and the decor is exposed beams and brick walls with some leather couches. Classy and upmarket yet charmingly rustic is how I’d describe the ambience here. It isn’t an intimidating place. The wait staff were all glamourous and young, clad in black, and we were greeted by the front of house lady and led to our table without delay.  There were two floors worth of seating plus a roof terrace offering views of the city’s most beautiful and oldest buildings.

Sadly I couldn’t sample their pretty inviting-looking cocktail menu (the downside of working nights during the week) but will be back again on a non working night to do so – they claim “Should you prefer to choose a sophisticated beverage efficiently, matching your taste exactly, for the benefit of our guests we are delighted to provide a cocktail flavour map.”, not something I’ve seen in other cocktail bars so that was a nice twist. They offer all the classic old-school drinks plus a few of the modern favourites and more, including one or two house specials. I love a cocktail but often get a bit turned off by some of the new-fangled ones (I think it’s because I can’t make it at home as many use special liqueurs that you wouldn’t have any other use for bar that one drink) but this entire menu appealed. I settled for a mocktail instead.

A mocktail - afraid I cannot remember its name..
A mocktail – afraid I cannot remember its name..

As for the food menu, it doesn’t re-invent the wheel but is good, classic steakhouse fare. Most of the menu is devoted to the steak offerings, with burgers, vegetarian and fish options in smaller print further down. Well, obviously, being a steakhouse, I wasn’t going to have anything else.

For starter, we settled upon sharing a baked camembert, something which despite its easiness to cook at home, I have never cooked because it to me is such an indulgence – a big bubbling lava lake of fat and sin (and before you think I’ve gone all Calgary Avansino on you, did you hear me say that it was a bad thing?). It was my birthday, it’s the Christmas season…I was going in!

Baked camembert....everything the clean eaters despise - dairy, gluten, carbs, fat and LOTS of it. GLorious and felt like a real treat. Well aware I can bake one at home but that's not a a habit to get into...
Baked camembert….everything the clean eaters despise – dairy, gluten, carbs, fat and LOTS of it. GLorious and felt like a real treat. Well aware I can bake one at home but that’s not a a habit to get into…

The camembert was pretty decently sized, and it arrived fairly promptly, accompanied by sweet onion jam and home-made bread, topped with a fir-tree sprig of rosemary which infused its sweet woodsiness into the savoury, cloying cheesy pond.  Which we devoured like two trick-or-treaters over their stash of candy on Halloween night.  You don’t get the chance to eat a whole wheel of rich French cheese between two very often after all..

I can cook steak. Reasonably well, but I have never had fillet, which I see as one of the more luxurious cuts, so this what I opted for – 8oz medium rare. The OH went for the rump which comes marinated in beer and spices. THe menu stated that all steaks come served with hand cut wedges or chips, roasted tomato and watercress with a choice of béarnaise, green peppercorn or bourbon & barbeque sauce. I opted for hand cut wedges based on the OH’s recommendation (he had a works night out here previously) and bearnaise.

Fillet steak, with hand cut wedges, béarnaise, roasted tomato and watercress. I just know I’d muck up trying to cook one at home, though I have to say the béarnaise left me a bit cold..

I definitely think I will only order fillet when eating out because it was absolutely to die for – festooned with black lattice griddle marks to add its appeal and meltingly soft and tender meet, almost sweet. I definitely took my time with this one! The wedges came in crunchy fat semi-circles and were definitely NOT out of a big Birds’ Eye bag! They looked and tasted like they’d been made properly and the roasted tomato was rich and savoury  – so for once I ate the veggie garnish as I feel it partnered well with the meal. THe only part I wasn’t sold on was béarnaise sauce – I’d never had this classic sauce before but to me it just tasted like slightly fancy mayonnaise and didn;t add anything – the steak had enough flavour to carry the meal alone.

I certainly wouldn’t attempt to match this at home – fillet is a prime cut and in my opinion, best left to professionals. I’m a home cook and know my abilities and limits. I can do a decent ribeye but that’s where I’m leaving it – I know you can buy fillet off the supermarket shelf, but then why bother treating yourself to going out to eat? Sometimes I like to let someone else do the work and if you bugger up a fillet steak, that’s a lot of money wasted. The simplest dishes can also be the easiest to mess up.

Well it was my birthday, so of course there was room for dessert, even in the checked shirt that until recently wouldn’t fit me…..the dessert menu again didn’t break new ground but had some pretty appealing offerings. I’m very particular with desserts in restuarants. Girdle-busting chocolate sin-fests are too heavy for me so the brownie was out..I decided to move beyond my usual cheesecake option (I know hardly the light option but they usually come in manageable portions!), the bread-and-butter pudding sounded glorious but I had work later and my fitted attire to consider…in the end, my choice was the Chocolate Bourbon Pot with Italian Meringue, laced with Jack Daniels. A decadent sweet mouthful or several.

Chocolate Bourbon Pot with Italian Meringue, laced with Jack Daniels. Just the right way to end a pretty bloody good meal.

Italian meringue is the crispier, airier variety and worked well with the cool, rounded-spiciness from the bourbon and classy darkness of the chocolate (no crude great hits of overly-sweet milk chocolate here), and the portion size wasn’t too Man Vs Food but just right.  Toby had the cheesecake, which interestingly came in a glass rather than the usual wedge on a saucer with an artsy squirt of coulis.

I can’t provide the price as it was a birthday dinner (I didn’t pay!) but I’ll put a link to the food menu at the end of this post.

Overall, if you’re in Cambridge, come to River Bar. It’s in one of the best locations in the city, offers views of the most historical city colleges, Magdalene, and the food, whilst nothing groundbreaking is more than worth the somewhat steep (but about right for Cambridge which isn’t the cheapest of cities) price tags. We actually asked the front-of-house lady to tell our waiter how excellent he was – he was so attentive, always on hand to refill our water glasses, and we didn’t ask for any of it. Small things like this make the difference.

It’s just a shame I couldn’t try the cocktails to provide a well-rounded review but rest assure I will return, like Bill’s, it’s been earmarked on the returns list. The decor and ambience are very inviting – you feel like you’re eating somewhere special yet without being intimidated by snootiness; the menu just the right size (the bigger the menu, the more likely you’ll be eating a ready meal in my view) and the steaks cooked perfectly. Portion sizes generous yet not belly-busting.

Food: 10/10
Service: 10/10
Price: 7/10
Ambience: 9/10

I liked:
-Wonderful food – simple menu but cooked very well.
-Superb waiting service
-Interesting cocktail menu
-Classy yet approachable ambience
-Fantastic location
-Promotion of local produce on the menu

I didn’t like:
– Some tables a bit too close together; I like a bit of personal space in a restaurant especially in the season of works Christmas dos.
-Stairs to enter the restaurant cramped, so you may have to wait if a large party of people are leaving! But it’s a renovated building so that’s part of its character.

 

 

On The Rocks: Crystal Cakes

The run up to Christmas  is often just as joyous as the big event itself (although lets not call it that as it just cranks up the stress on that unreachable ‘perfect Christmas’ in the movies, usually involving fake snow), and I bathe in festive cheer and food for the entirety of December.

I said in my ‘5 Seasonal Staples’ post that I always keep coloured candied cherries on hand to add sparkle to bakes (and for my American fruitcake) and here is one of those, zhuzhed up for Christmas.

When’s the last time you had or saw a rock cake? I find it so odd that something so simple to make and yet tastes so good has been rendered obsolete by the new wave of fashionable high tea (which is all about the scone and cucumber sarnie) and the plague of all fur coat-no-knickers cupcakes which place style several tiers above substance.

Sorry  about that statement, but I have never quite ‘got’ the cupcake movement. A cake is a treat and should taste like one, not just act as an edible ornament. I’d sooner take a slice of pockmarked and unfashionable tea loaf than a larded-on, dyed-vegetable-fat-frosted-atop-dry-sponge cupcake for £3 a go any time with my afternoon brew.

Dismounting my high horse; back to the rock cake. In the Harry Potter series, they are a favourite of Hagrid and he always offered Harry, Ron and Hermione ones he’d made despite their polite refusals. I’m amazed they never had a comeback thanks to Ms Rowling’s phenomenon and the subsequent tidal wave of merchandise and products enabling fans to eat what the Hogwarts kids ate – most wizarding sweets but never Hagrid’s humble rock cakes. So in my suburban Cambridge kitchen, I’m on a one-man crusade to make it thus.

The rock cake is a rubbed-in cake, using self-raising flour and named so for its craggy appearance. They’re snack-sized and usually contain dried fruit or desiccated coconut but can be made plain. They’re not too dissimilar to scones in concept and method and are very easy to make – I remember making them in Year 7 Food Techonology (coconut because I was still a fruit-in-baked-things phobe back then). No creaming, sifting or folding (two of my most loathed kitchen tasks) required. Just a bowl, your hands, and a spoon. And they need a very short baking time compared to regular sponge cakes so can made in a short space of time.

These are a combination of rock cakes and American fruitcake. I’ve named them ‘crystal cakes’ due to the vivid and sparkling jewels of candied cherries within, much like crystals forming in a rock, and I’ve also gone for added texture and crunch with some chopped pecans, in keeping with the US element.

Again I insist (I’m clearly a slave to Christmas kitsch) on the glowing artificially-hued multi-coloured specimens, but you could use the ‘natural’ ones if you want to – they will still glisten like garnets within and they are more easily available. Of course, if you’re lucky enough to have other assorted glacé fruits to hand, feel free to use those instead, chopped evenly – angelica would be good too. Obviously there won;t be an even distribution of fruit, again much like crystal formations within rock, hence the name. So every cake is a surprise.

You can use regular glacé cherries but for maximum impact, I call upon my faithful friends the day-glow multi-coloured cherries!
You can use regular glacé cherries and they’ll still be good, if a touch monochrome, but for maximum impact, I call upon my faithful friends the day-glow multi-coloured cherries!

Seasonally spiced with nutmeg, these are great to make with your permanently-excited children to keep them entertained (in which case you could even just use red cherries and hold the nutmeg for younger fussier tastebuds to make ‘Rudolph’s Nose cakes’ as yet another variation), or maybe for a bake sale or just to have on the side, ready to swipe with a brew between present wrapping.

You can make these as big or small as you wish, depending on the size of your baking trays, but be aware they will expand as they cook and they do not need long in the oven at all. So try not to walk away.

 

Crystal Cakes

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Makes 10-15 depending on size.

8oz self-raising flour

4oz butter or margarine

4oz caster sugar (granulated would be fine)

6oz multicoloured glacé cherries, halved or chopped.

2 eggs, beaten with 1 tsp vanilla extract and 1 tsp milk

2oz pecan nuts, blitzed in a processor or bashed with a rolling pin. Or chopped with a knife if you’re less clumsy than me

1 tsp ground nutmeg

 

  1. Preheat oven to 200 degrees Celsius/180 fan. Line two baking sheets
  2. Rub margarine/butter into flour until you get fine breadcrumbs.
  3. Add sugar, cherries, pecans and nutmeg and combine evenly.
  4. Mix in the beaten eggs and stir to combine. You don’t want to overmix, this is a stiff and lumpy batter, more like cookie dough. Don’t be tempted to add more liquid.
  5. Put rough lumps (a dessert spoon is ideal for this), keeping them fairly evenly sized but let’s not get too worked up about it – they are meant to look like craggy stones – on the baking trays.
  6. Bake in oven, for about 10-15 minutes (ovens vary) until golden brown and a tester comes out clean.
  7. Let cool on tins and transfer to a wire rack.

 

Panforte di Siena: Chestnuts and Truffles TV

Cooked this today. Cooling in the tin, hoping I’ve gotten it right and won’t have all the Siena region cooks reeling back in horror..

Chestnuts and Truffles

For Tuscans, panforte means Christmas. A centuries-old tradition from the province of Siena, panforte is a rich cake made of almonds, candied peel, and honey peppered with winter spices, with a unique flavour and texture. There are several variations on the recipe for panforte, but to create this one, I went back to the official requirements of the Italian Ministry of Agriculture for Panforte di Siena IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta). The only requirement I could not fulfil was to make it in the province of Siena, as I live in the neighbouring provice of Arezzo.

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Culinary Chatter: Five Seasonal Storecupboard Staples

Well as we’re now 4 days into December, the festive season is well and truly upon us now. Christmas is generally for most of us, a time of rituals and traditions, and none more so than in the kitchen. At least for me. Apart from the Christmas cake and mince pies, I have a whole list of things that I make. I welcome the repetition evangelically and wallow in tradition – for example this week is when I always make cranberry mincemeat on top of my regular stuff. You can never have too much!

There are certain ingredients that only interest us at this time of year. Some are just fruit and veg that happen to be IN season, such as sprouts, so I’m not counting those. These things for me, are mostly available perenially but they’re only to be found on my shelf come December and would rarely be seen afterward.

A couple of honourable mentions:

Marrons glacé – Not the cheapest but certainly one of my festive indulgences. Candied chestnuts basically. Rich, flaky and sweet, only one is enough but I have to have them. Plus their high sugar content means they’ll keep.

Homemade chutneys and pickles – I appreciate that not all of us are this domestically inclined, but honestly, cold cuts and cheese post-Christmas are nothing without some spiky, fruity home-made chutney or chilli jelly on hand to perk them up.

Now to the top 5:

5. Waitrose signature spice

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No promotion intended. This is a new thing launched by Waitrose for Christmas 2015, a blend of spices that encapsulates Yuletide warmth. Essentially it’s just mixed spice but with some tangerine oil and black pepper added to be honest, but they’ve suckered me in to buy two tubs! They’ve actually developed a whole line of products featuring this spice blend (I’ve also bought the Signature Spice hot chocolate which is to die for – it’s taste is lebkuchen in a mug with gold shimmer), some of which I think are a bit gimmicky but can see the appeal. So far, any recipe I have cooked that calls for mixed spice, I’ve replaced with Signature Spice (the parkin and gingerbread and Christmas cake recipes have all had this done) just for an extra special touch but I personally can’t tell the difference but then my palate has been unfortunately muted by tobacco.

4. Creme de marrons/sweetened chestnut spread (Clément Faugier is the most commonly seen brand)

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This isn’t the ‘chestnut purée’ you may see down the canned veg aisle  – that stuff is just blitzed nuts, ideal for a quick soup. You find this in the baking aisle in these lovely ornate small cans. It’s a dark brown, shiny and thick paste, made from cooked chestnuts, marrons glacé (candied chestnuts) sugar and vanilla, and I always keep it on hand purely to make a speedy version, courtesy of my culinary queen Nigella, of the obsolete mont blanc, a favourite seasonal dessert of mine. But quite frankly I could eat it straight from the can – it’s like crack cocaine. You’ll not taste anything quite like it and it’s not hideously expensive. And there many, many other uses for it if a mont blanc isn’t your thing (though in my opinion, how a glorious combo of whipped cream, meringue, dark chocolate and chestnuts couldn’t appeal to everyone is a mystery).

3. Port, Brandy and sherry

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Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without these propping up my drinks cabinet.  Some people like rum as their alcoholic muse whereas I go for the brandy every time. I’m not a brandy drinker but it’s imperative for keeping my mincemeat going and feeding my Christmas cake, same for sherry. You can see as well my zero tolerance for kitchen snobbishness in the picture – the brandy is value brand and the sherry is a British made imitation. Both do the same job for a few pounds less than their more authentic superiors.

Thrifty intentions notwithstanding; if you can stretch your budget, please do invest in a bottle of Pedro Ximinez sherry. It’s nothing like the dry stuff your great aunt knocks back – it’s dark, viscous and tooth-killingly sweet – great for feeding the pud or the cake, or even mixed up in a cocktail. Ruby port (it’s the cheapest) is usually mainly purchased for the aforementioned cranberry mincemeat and then subsequently enjoyed with stilton (which I’m mildly allergic to so it really is a seasonal splurge for me), but I also keep it on hand during the year after Christmas as a good substitute for red wine in cooking as it saves buying/opening a bottle of red especially.

2. Vaccuum-packed or canned, cooked chestnuts

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Chestnuts roasted on the open fire are one of those fiercely evocative images of the season, and indeed the fresh nuts can be obtained in any supermarket, or for free if you’re lucky enough to live near a tree you can scrump from. But they can be a mare to prepare, with throat-tickling papery skins and potential to burst int the embers.

But they make an unctuously comforting soup which keeps the bitter December cold out (I have a fantastic recipe for it which is due to be posted here very soon) and are a fabulous addition to stuffings, so the vac-pack, often on offer come December is a god-send for the banana-fingered and impatient amongst us. Plus they keep for far longer than the fresh nuts.

1. Red, gold and green candied cherries

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These are only available in autumn and winter but if you see some, I highly recommend you pick them up. They’re also available online, as mentioned in the American fruitcake recipe (for which they are compulsory. Naturally-hued ones will not be the same there but if you do make an American fruitcake with naturally coloured ones, don’t tell me about it.). They add an instant festive frisson of colour to whatever you bake, without any variation in flavour, so can inject a bright sparkle into your Christmas cake or pud, or simply transform plain cherry scones or marzipan and cherry cakes into a joyous kaleidoscope of holly wreath-themed hues. I will be posting a simple recipe shortly that makes use of these.

 

Sugar, Spice, All Things Nice: Gingerbread

I thought this would be a great way to start December….the flavours of Christmas.

I adore gingerbread. It promises so little in its uninspired fifty shades of plain brown but always delivers hugely on taste. I’m convinced that the ancient maxim which I’ve pinched for the title was about gingerbread, not what girls are made from.

Every country has its own take on this warming treat. Ginger was considered a digestive aid once upon a time so it was popular to be made into baked goods. From the lebkuchen and pfeffernusse of German Christmases, to the Polish pierniczki, Dutch ontbijtkoek, French pain d’epices to our own gingerbread men and parkin, spiced bakes have been a tradition in Europe at least, for centuries. I won’t give a potted history of gingerbread but you get the idea.

I went through a phase a couple of months back whereby I made a point of trying to cook every gingerbread recipe in every cookbook I own (and still missed out two after forgetting about them – Nigella’s Christmas recipe and her Guinness one, which I have made before). Even though the recipes were broadly similar in their methods, the differences in taste and ingredients were startling – some were based on golden syrup, others treacle…some both…some added fruit (candied citron peel was in one, sultanas in another, whilst yet another called for marmalade). Some turned out dry and tasteless, whilst others turned out dark, sticky and headily aromatic.

Some gingerbreads are like biscuits, whilst others take the form of a cake. I tend to prefer the cakey ones as I now associate the biscuit one being used solely as a building material and style over substance (blame Bake Off and the influx of gingerbread house ‘kits’ on the shelves for that one).

This is my own recipe for gingerbread, which in turn was spun off both from my Yorkshire Parkin, and from those within my cookbook collection which I tested on willing work colleagues. The thumbs up votes mostly went to the gingerbreads using black treacle and didn’t hold back on the spice. My goal was to create a home-made spin on the one store-bought cake I have no qualms about purchasing – McVities Jamaica Ginger Cake. It’s everything I like about gingerbread – sticky, tar-hued, and gloriously warming.

Although I’ve yet to make one with honey as the syrup base as they do on the continent, I’m sure I will in time.

Be warned, this is not subtle. This one packs heat. German bakes call for the fruity fire of black pepper, so I added some of Saxa’s finest ‘school pepper’ (ie ready-ground stuff. Like I’ve said previously, snobbishness plays no part in my cooking) in addition to three, yes, three, teaspoons of ginger. For aromatic background muzak, I added a bit of that British wintry classic, mixed spice (though technically, once more, it was Waitrose’s ‘signature spice’ but that’s by-the-by).

I can’t get enough of the liquorice intensity of black treacle but am also fond of the teeth-achingly flapjack sweetness of golden syrup so I settled on equal measures of each.

Finally, you’ll note the type of flour used – I liked the chewiness oatmeal lends to parkin, and, because I was desperate to use up an ageing bag of it, I’ve chosen self-raising wholemeal flour which I feel works beautifully without the panic of possible bicarb-induced soapiness and also it adds more texture than regular white flour without, I think, making it heavy.

You can eat this the day you make it, but honestly, if you can make it in advance, do. It, like many of its ilk, simply get even better with age, and it becomes squidgier and mellower but still like a wee hot toddy in cake form.  Dark brown sugar is essential in my opinion, muscovado even better as there’s something about the molasses in these that makes them taste spicy anyway. The two-dimensional flat sweetness of the white stuff just won’t cut it here.

Gingerbread

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5oz margarine

5oz dark brown soft sugar

2.5 oz black treacle or molasses

2.5oz golden syrup

6oz wholemeal self-raising flour

1 large egg, beaten

3tsp ground ginger

1tsp mixed spice

1/2 tsp ground black pepper

  1. Preheat oven to 150 degrees C. Grease an 8×8 brownie pan or any medium-sized deepish square baking tin of your choice and line with a sheet of baking parchment hanging over the sides for easy lifting out.
  2. Place flour and spices into a bowl and whisk briskly to combine evenly. I loathe un-necessary sifting but feel free to do so if you want. Set aside.
  3. Heat margarine, sugar, treacle and golden syrup gently in a pan until they melt and become one gloriously tar-like mass. Remove from heat and mix into dry ingredients. Add the beaten egg. Be careful to combine well but do not over-mix.
  4. Pour this aromatic batter into the tin and bake for 35-45 minutes (ovens vary) until risen and a tester comes out clean. Allow to cool completely in the tin on a wire rack.
  5. When cooled, cut into squares or, much preferably, wrap in cling film and stash in a cool, dry place for a few days-1 week and allow to get gloriously soft and squadgy before cutting.