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
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)
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
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
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
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.