Silk Purse From A Sow’s Ear?

I don;t know whether to write this recipe down or not, but I just thought I’d share another example of taking a derided and downmarket food product and elevating it whilst still on a budget.



Not a bad looking bowl of ramen, is it? Yet the only authentically oriental ingredient in that bowl was the generous splash of soy sauce! This started life as a pack of 20p value noodles (that favourite of students), and yes, I did use the seasoning sachet as the basis for the broth. Also present are frozen peas and canned mackerel, along with some sliced mushrooms.


All these distinctly British and sneered-at-by-food-elitist store cupboard staples, but yet, made a pretty good impression of proper ramen. I followed Nigella’s method from Simply Nigella and just again, used the instructions as my base – for example in lieu of the 500ml dashi she specifies, I just dissolved the seasoning sachet in 500ml hot water etc, etc. I don’t think a recipe is needed, but just wanted to share this example of taking rubbish ingredients, and, with a bit of thought, turn them into something a lot more promising.

Feel free to badger me if you really want the recipe, but honestly, just look up Nigella’s ramen recipe!


Meeting My Hero: When Tom Met Nigella

I’m scarcely believing I’m writing this down, but I shall never forget All Hallow’s Eve 2017.

They say you should never meet your heroes. And that day I met mine.

I’ve gushed shamelessly over Nigella Lawson and how she has been the reason I’ve sustained an interest in cooking and food writing before, but I honestly never thought I would get to meet her, let alone have a small conversation with her without becoming tongue-tied or saying something hideously embarrassing. She was giving a talk about her newest book At My Table, and audience members were invited afterwards to the microphone to ask her questions or simply get a chance to tell her a story.

I don’t want to pontificate too much with the details of my day, such as my poor meal planning resulting in only having time to cook supper but not actually EAT it – incidentally on the menu that night was the Chicken, Leek and Pea Traybake from At My Table, which already seems to be a very popular recipe from that book as it featured in the premiere of the new TV series (I abandoned Bake Off in September after the technicals got too stupid and relied on specialist equipment *cough* waffle cone machines *cough*). And I chose to travel by train as it worked out faster than driving to Ely at that time of night. So a snatched cold cheap mince pasty and a boost bar from the Tesco adjacent to Ely station were all that I was sustaining myself with for a night with Nigella. Not the best start.

I’d promised myself that every meal on that day was to be from At My Table…breakfast was the Turkish Eggs, albeit without the key ingredient of Aleppo pepper (I must order some soon) instead with paprika and chilli flakes; lunch was the pasta with anchovies, tomatoes and mascarpone; and dinner the aforementioned traybake with apple gingerjack for dessert….it almost worked out – I just reheated a large portion of traybake when I arrived home that night and I still have some of the gingerjack left over. But anyway, I digress.

Thankfully I managed to not fall asleep during what was a very engaging talk (I’d worked a night shift Monday night and had stayed up all day owing to a doctors’ appointment at 1:30); though admittedly I was focusing more on the fact that I WAS IN THE SAME ROOM AS NIGELLA at times…and as soon as Nigella announced she wanted to hear from us…I made a beeline to join the small throng of fans.

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This was a surreal moment. In front of me is the aforementioned vintage-attired food writer whose name I’ve forgotten (I’m so sorry!). I was petrified I’d lose my nerve…

I had to really bite my tongue and hold my side-eyes when the first person to speak, an American woman, decided to criticise Nigella for how much salt she uses in her cooking (yes, I know. Some people). Nigella’s response was perfectly gregarious yet meticulously tore apart this ridiculous criticism  – salt is always to taste and most with half a brain should know that. The others, including a very glamorously-vintage-attired food writer, thankfully had much more interesting things to ask and say. I was panicking as the line shrunk – had I thought this through and what the HELL should I ask her? I’m not as well read as I should be….and I really could not think of an original question regarding food….at last…heart racing…I gingerly looked across the ornate cathedral aisle at the lady whom I’ve idolised, been inspired and captivated by since the age of 12; fiercely defended against yawnsome detractors….tweeted frequently…and all in all, the main reason I’m even in this game….and introduced myself as the guy who cooked her late sister Thomasina’s favourite food (hear more about it in this interview and trust me, you should try it. It’s a killer breakfast, especially if you, like me have a severe umami tooth)

I had indeed made this two weeks prior and tweeted it to Nigella…who replied that it moved her (and made my entire weekend in the process).  Her spoken response to me couldn’t have been better….I did feel a bit of an idiot though…like I’d used this time to inflate my own ego and get that prized ‘recognition’. I now understand why meeting a public figure means so much to folk…I wanted to tell Nigella without being creepy or cliched just how much she means to me and the sheer impact she has had on my life, and cooking this dish that was deeply personal to her own past was in my mind, the best way of thanking her….much like my fervently making of her chutney recipes in 2013 when the entire world seemed fiercely determined to demonise her. And because this combination of taromasalata, crispy bacon and sharp scallions on a soft doughy pitta bread is KILLER. It may not be gourmet or refined but boy does it taste good. I’d even recommend it as a hangover cure.

Then came the long glacial queue to get my book signed. All the time I was quivering and shying up. I wanted to get in one final chat with her as I may not ever get the chance to again. I was one of the tail end of the line and I was worrying about getting the last train from Ely but I knew if I left too soon, I’d always regret it. It was time. I handed my cracked rose gold iPhone 7 to a very friendly lady who was taking on photography duties for the fans and shuffled over to the radiant Ms Lawson (who incidentally is absolutely exquisite in person and every bit as warm as you think). She thanked me again and I knew that it was time to be the cliche and tell her just how much she means to me; that I first saw her on Bites in 2001 when I was 12…and how she’s the reason I’ve remained so interested in food and cooking. I also dropped what could be seen as a clanger by some and told her I was an aspiring food blogger and should she wish to, she could read it…and gave her the name of this blog.

Her reply?

“The cooking petrolhead? I will never forget that!”

Accompanied by that luminescent smile.

Well Nigella, I will NEVER forget meeting you. My life was made. And should you decide to read this insignificant blog updated with appalling irregularity….thank you. For everything.

T x

Bake Off Technical; Bread Week – Dampfnudel

In the wake of the sad news about #Breadxit (BBC losing the rights to Bake Off to Channel 4, and Mel Giedroyc, Sue Perkins and Mary Berry all stepping down), I figured I’d left it long enough to blog how Bread Week’s technical went for me (though in light of a recent financial blow, writing about superfluous baked goods I’m still trying to make my way through almost 4 days later seems a tad…bad form but that’s another story).

The nation watched with open-mouthed bewilderment as the 10 remaining bakers were instructed to make a curiosity known as ‘dampfnudel’, which, according to the insufferable Paul Hollywood was the toughest technical to date (and he was on smug, Cowell-lite form the entire episode. It’s JUST BREAD MATE. Calm the EFF down.)

Dampfnudel, despite the name, are not some weird form of noodle (Nudeln is German for noodle) but steamed buns, cooked in a lidded pan, and using my ultimate baking nemesis, enriched dough – I cannot get on with the stuff, I hate kneading, it never seems to rise for me but just about comes together upon baking. They should also have distinctly caramelised bottoms.

The particular recipe issued by the blue-eyed demon also instructed the bakers to make a plum sauce and vanilla custard as accompaniments. So this meant a fair bit of shopping to boot – although there’s loads of wild plums around my local area, I had to buy foreign imports for this as he asks for 4 ripe examples. Knowing how long it takes the home ripening billiard balls to do so, I had to splash out on ‘Perfectly Ripe’ versions (you can tell where I shopped), of the Flavor King variety, which admittedly do have a wonderful fragrance and glisten crimson upon cutting.

Like Hollywood himself, the recipe is anal, pernickety and frankly annoying. Here’s a link because I cannot be bothered to list every ingredient here. First I had to make the dough, making sure yeast and sugar were correctly placed, blah blah. It made a heinously sticky mess and was a bitch to knead. Repeated flouring of surface and hands was required and it eventually came together. I grated the zest of a lemon over it, kneaded it in again as barked at by Paul.  It was placed in a greased bowl and dumped in a warm place (my top oven, already warmed thanks to the main one at 120C sterilising jam jars, as I was also making wild plum jam that day. I may publish a recipe but it was too similar to my Cherry Plum jam in method) to rise for an hour.

Whilst the dough was rising, it was an ideal time to make the two sauces (I chose to not bake the dampfnudel for work because it required too much paraphernalia (serving buns from a pan – a saute one especially bought for this, and because it was reduced to clear at Sainsburys – great timing! – and two jugs of sauces to serve with.). Thankfully, these were easy enough to make; I’ve had experience of making ‘real’ egg yolk custard before and that came together pretty nicely (though I had such buyers remorse at having to get vanilla bean paste for this, especially as I HAD extract and would only need a half teaspoon – but again, I had to stick to doing exactly as the bakers did on the show). The plum sauce also thankfully came out OK, I didn’t overboil them and make it too thick, and it blended to a velvety, glossy, claret goo, heavily scented with fruity aromas.

Plum sauce – glossy, tart and fragrant.
Vanilla sauce AKA custard. Probably the best custard I’ve ever made.

Slight delay to proceedings owing to the wild plum jam taking ages to set, it was time to shape the buns. Quelle-surprise, the dough, despite having over an hour’s proving, stayed obstinately the same size. Rolling my eyes, I shaped it into 12 balls, which cracked a little (too much flour, no doubt because I’m shit at kneading) and left them aside whilst I got on with the poaching liquid, which is milk with a bit of butter and sweetened with caster sugar. Dickhead (sorry but it’s shorter than writing Paul Hollywood every time) instructs that you place the dough balls in the warm liquid and leave them for a second prove for 15 minutes. JESUS. These things had better taste amazing. I was getting irritable.

Here goes nothing….the dampfnudel start steaming after showing barely any rise.

Surprise, suprise, they stayed the same size. Had I murdered my yeast? Would I have wallpaper paste after the cooking time. And it was now time to cook supper. Bugger. They’d have to be served cold after dinner because I wasn’t going to stop now – thankfully my understanding better half stepped in to help with supper so I could FINALLY cook these wretched dampfnudel.

I placed the pan on the hob over a low heat and let cook, remembering to leave the lid ON at all times for 25 minutes. And FINALLY, it looked like things were going right. They began to swell like lemon scented Adipose (yes a Dr Who reference) in their sweet milky bath and when the buzzer pinged, only a scant splash of poaching liquor remained. I lifted off the lid and let them cook a further 5 minutes. YES. The bottoms had caramelised without burning, and the tops did not feel raw.

Success. Thankfully they cooked through in the allotted times…

Supper eaten (chicken enchiladas, all made from scratch FYI) and allowed to go down…It was time to finally try the bloody dampfnudel and see if an afternoon’s slaving was worth it. Turning them out, they didn’t stick to the pan but did come out as one, like a challah loaf, but were easy enough to separate. And the caramelised bits off the pan….WOW. Burnt toffee in the best possible way. They should be served as a snack by themselves.

The buns out the pan. Those caramelised bits are definitely a cook’s treat..

I reheated the sauces and served us one bun apiece, drizzling them artfully with a rough St George’s flag of custard and tangy plum, and then dived in.

Attempting and failing artful presentation

Dense, somewhat tightly structured within, with a subtle lemon flavour, but one thing was for sure, they definitely needed the sauces to finish the job. I was chuffed with the custard (but I usually use skimmed milk and no cream if I ever make it, this was a total splash out) and will keep the recipe for that for the future, the plum sauce was nice and tangy as a contrast. However, the buns themselves were a tad underwhelming. It’s Wednesday as I write this and I still have 4 buns remaining, no custard left. Myself and the better half have been gamely trying to eat them to avoid needless wastage (I will not throw any food away unless it’s unsafe to eat). Microwaving them doesn’t soften them, but dries the crumb inside out to almost inedible levels. Best served warm on day of making, I think.

I can already hear Hollywood criticising the crumb structure.

However, tonight I split a couple and toasted them under the grill, spreading them with a little butter and leftover raspberry jam from the Viennese Whirls. This is highly recommended if you, like me, have dampfnudel haunting you for the following days. They toast brilliantly and their lemony flavour stands up well to sweet jam on top.

If like me, they haunt you for days after making, splitting and toasting breathes new life into the stale dampfnudel, especially with home made jam atop them.

Verdict: Yep, the technicals are getting tougher, and I am doggedly still doing every single one to test my baking skills to the limit. Would I make dampfnudel again? NO. Not unless I was feeding a crowd of Bake Off fans and had enough time beforehand to do so. But I;m glad I did because learning about other countries’ traditional foods is one of my favourite things about being a ‘foodie’ and I got to make something I never would have before.

Technical Challenge gate is proving to be a twisted love affair. The recipes are gruelling, but they are interesting additions to my repertoire, push my abilities and plus, ya know, it’s Bake Off, and I’ve had some awesome responses on my social medias about doing them. However, it seems that ‘Technical Bake Along’ is the trend after a quick Instagram trawl…still, at least I now know I’m not alone in this mission and hopefully, I can reach out to other bloggers trying their GBBO hand.

Stay tuned to see how I fare with Batter Week’s technical, which I understand to be ‘lace pancakes’. Oh. Dear. I’m already predicting a hot mess…..


Bake Off Technical; Biscuit Week – Viennese Whirls

So here we go, the second week’s Technical Challenge is upon me (this week’s is actually Bread Week, which won’t be for work, so I shall be attempting the fiendish dampfnudel this weekend!), and my work colleagues will once more be subject to my ham-fisted, woeful-no-doubt attempts at the buttery classic sandwich creation with jam and buttercream.


Despite their name, they are an entirely British creation, said to be inspired by the pastries of the Austrian capital (a country well known for its patisserie – its most famous being the upmarket chocolate and apricot sponge cake known as the Sachertorte) but are entirely unrelated – they are more closely related to the Empire biscuit, another British bake (interestingly also called ‘german biscuits’, ‘Deutsch Biscuits’ and ‘Linzer Biscuits’ – you can see the resemblance).

The Viennese whirl as we know it, was popularised by Mr Kipling and is two shortbread rounds, piped using the star nozzle and sandwiched with buttercream and raspberry jam. Fairly easy, no?

This is how most of us have eaten one of these…by the way, they’ve been nowhere near Austria.

However, the shortbread dough needs to be stiff enough to hold its shape, but not so stiff that it is impossible to squeeze out of the icing bag (I tried to avoid the double entendres but it’s unavoidable isn’t it?).

Ingredients list once more short and straightforward. Though you are instructed to make the jam from scratch too. OK. Cool. I’ve just blogged a jam recipe.

Mary asks for 250g unsalted butter, 50g icing sugar, 225g plain flour and 25g cornstarch for the biscuits, whilst the jam asks for 200g raspberries and 250g jam sugar. The buttercream filling called for 100g unsalted butter, 200g icing sugar and 1/2 tsp vanilla. All basic stuff that any supermarket or even corner shop would sell. Perhaps not the jam sugar.

Off I went to make sure I had the correct things in….though I did try and be cheap by using salted butter (Waitrose sell it in 500g blocks which worked out cheaper than buying 2 x 250g unsalted as I’d need a good 400g for the recipe in total), which is a choice I make with all bakes as I think the small percentage of salt just cuts the relentless sweetness slightly and enhances the flavours – it was a tip I picked up from a colleague whose shortbread is the best I’ve ever tasted and can never hope to match.

I also opted for frozen raspberries (£2.20 for 400g instead of £2 for a 180g punnet fresh berries) as they were far cheaper. Good job too, as I found out…

… because my Viennese expedition didn’t get off to a flying start, having chosen a crappy light-bottomed saucepan to make the jam in…. predictably, it burned and caught on the bottom of the pan and I had to start over again. Yippee. Thank God for my penny pinching as I had another 200g of berries ready to go. Using a better pan, I had the jam made. Phew. I poured it into an oblong dish to allow it to set quickly. And set it did. Hard. I could flip it out as one square jam panel – a problem with the jam sugar is that it has a tendency to set jams a bit too hard. However, with a few moments work with a spoon, the jam loosened up a bit and was able to be spread.

A sheet of raspberry jam. Being a cheapskate paid off as the first batch of jam burned owing to bad choice of saucepan. Thankfully as I chose to use frozen berries, I had enough left to start again.

Next came the tedious task of drawing 24 4-cm circles on 3 sheets of baking parchment. I only had 2 baking sheets, so it would have to be done in 2 batches. And neither of my pastry cutters were small enough. I used a small Old Fashioned glass which was more like 4.5 cm but let’s not split hairs here (or perhaps we should, ya know, being the TECHNICAL challenge.). I

When I made the biscuit dough (I had to check the recipe on the BBC and Bake Off sites that the 50g icing sugar wasn’t a typo) I had a flash of horror…WHY did I think I knew better than Mary Berry and use SALTED butter  – initial tasting of the biscuit dough proved a horror – it wasn’t sweet at all! However it was easy enough to pipe, not too stiff and soon, I just about had 24 piped rounds in varying degrees of uniformity (informal, as Mary would say). Unlike the jaffa cakes, I only just had sufficient biscuit dough to make the 24…looks that 0.5cm cost me a bit then.

I stuck to the fan oven temperature listed as biscuits are way too easy to overbake and gave them the minimum 13 minutes (13-15 in the recipe). I did 2 trays of 8, and then once they were cool enough to free up a tray, 1 more tray of 8. Thankfully, they came out nicely gold…..and most importantly they kept their definition! YAAAAS.


Now it was time to let them cool – I gave them a timed 5 minutes on the trays before transferring to a rack to finish cooling off. They felt short and likely to break if handled too enthusiastically. Time to be delicate I think…something I am not.

Finally, once the dreaded washing up was completed, it was time to make the buttercream (like with the biscuit dough, my stand mixer was put to more use. Aint nobody got time for doing it by hand, soz Mary.) which was pretty easy. Piping bag filled, it was time to turn these dull (and no doubt salty AF) biscuits into 12 Viennese whirls. The jam, thankfully spread without breaking the biscuit bases, but was still perhaps too thick to be technically perfect. Piping on the buttercream was also easy enough, and once the ‘tops’ were added…..this uneven bunch of biscuits, too-thick jam and buttercream came together and actually didn’t look half bad! I’d done it…12 Viennese whirls.



I’d happily score myself 6/10, at least going by appearance as there is no total uniformity…

…however the acid test was in the eating, and when the time finally came at work to try them…and just maybe, I DID know better than Berry as the fear of salty, bland biscuits was unfounded. The jam was intensely flavoured with raspberry and the buttercream unctuous, rich, sweet and thick with the nursery aroma of vanilla…so they more than balanced with their light butteriness, resulting in a pretty damn delicious whirl. 3 colleagues took seconds…as did I.

So I have to say, Biscuit week’s technical, despite starting stressfully, was just about managed with a small amount of patience, though I’m sure I’d lose marks for them not ALL being exactly the same in looks. The flavour more than made up for it I think, and obviously, there’s plenty of scope for being creative and changing the kind of jam used, though the flavours of raspberry and vanilla I think work best with the rich shortbread biscuits.

Next…..the evil-looking dampfnudel from Bread Week get the treatment. Have I bitten off more than I can chew this time? And can I bring myself to work to the arrogant, overbearing Paul Hollywood’s pernickety standard? After all, I don’t want wallpaper paste that people will refuse to eat…and bread is not a strong point of mine. Especially enriched dough…….watch this space (if I don’t have a dampfnudel-induced-nervous breakdown first)


Bake Off Technical; Cake Week – Jaffa Cakes

Well we’ve reached the end of another Great British Summer, and we all know what that means? Yes. A tent is erected somewhere in rural Berkshire and 12 diverse, previously-unknown British people from all walks of life, become the most A-list celebrities in the country for the following 8 weeks.

Welcome, to the Great British Bake Off.

Many food bloggers will no doubt be cashing in on this epicly-successful baking competition, it is one of the most-watched programmes on the BBC and reinvigorated the career of Mary Berry. But rather than tell people what they already know about GBBO, I’m going to try something.

For those who’ve been living under a large rock the past few years, Bake Off is a contest – one elimination each week until a final 3 bakers remain. Each week has a theme – cakes, enriched doughs, bread, biscuits, gluten free etc, and the bakers have to tackle a signature challenge, where they produce their own spin on an established classic, a technical challenge where they must test their skills from a minimally-written recipe, and a show stopper where they can push themselves to the limit with presentation.

I thought that this series, I am going to take on EVERY technical challenge. No matter how tough they are, or how much I dislike Berry and Hollywood (sorry! Mrs Berry once made some shady remarks about Nigella Lawson’s weight and I find her rather twee tbh. Hollywood I think is just too arrogant. It’s just bread, mate.), I am going to attempt them. Though unlike the bakers, I will have access to the ‘full recipes’. People tell me I should apply, but my answer is always no – I’d fail the first technical!

So without further ado, let’s get into week one, which is always cake week (and tbh, the week I’d get eliminated) – I only started watching the series in 2013 (Ruby Tandoh’s series). This year’s cake technical broke the internet – as the bakers were instructed to bake 12 jaffa cakes – and Instagram got flooded with people’s own attempts at them. Recipe by Mary.

Nearly everyone in Britain knows the jaffa cake. The name comes from the ‘Jaffa’ orange variety, which of course is also the flavour. Though they also come in other fruit flavours.

Jaffa cakes are a British national institution. Is it a cake or a biscuit? The debate actually went to court in the 1980s. Most British folk will know what one is (and I’ve not met anyone who DOESN’T like them. Or indeed anyone who can have just 1 out of a packet. It’s one of those ‘seal breaker’ bad snacks. Like Pringles.). It is essentially a flat disc of genoise (fatless, whisked) sponge cake, just like that used for trifle sponge fingers, topped with a disc of orange jelly and a layer of dark chocolate.

“So you’re just blogging Mary and Paul’s recipes? Why?” I hear you ask.

Not quite – I’m merely blogging how each challenge went for me.

Ingredients list seemed straightforward enough – 3 large eggs, 50g castor sugar, 50g self raising flour (just 50g?!! WHAT?!), plus orange jelly cubes, dissolved in 150ml hot water, zest 1 orange and 180g dark chocolate.

Fortunately I own a stand mixer and am familiar with a genoise sponge, so the making of the cake itself shouldn’t be too tough. I beat the eggs…having to make the 3rd one a Medium egg as I’d run out of large – never mind….the folding, a kitchen job I LOATHE as much as sifting, was a bit of a mare (I’m one of those who is scared of eggs and egg whites when it comes to the Fear Of Knocking Out Precious Air) but was easy enough with my trusty rubber spatula (my preferred folding utensil). It actually made too much cake batter for the 12-hole-bun tin so I had 2 tartlet tins filled as well to make 2 roided-up jaffas. Baking took a good few minutes longer than the 7-9 minutes stated on the recipe, but for safety I did use the ‘fan’ temperature – I think fan ovens these days (ours is about 3 years old) are a closer match to electric than a few years ago perhaps? However, the sponges were baked…but were a bit of a struggle to get out at first. Yes I had greased all tins. Once out, the bases were left to cool. However, I noted how soft they stayed as opposed to crisp on the outside like a bought jaffa. Useless for dipping in tea, but as Miss Prim..sorry, Mary said…’we don’t do that in the South’, with a huge side order of (acted?) lemon-mouthed disapproval.

I decided to do the jelly in advance (I know, cheating but I work nights and was suffering a 24hr fever at the time), which thankfully set, but I used the wrong size dish and it came out a mite too thick, as well as being a struggle to turn out later on. So I painstakingly sliced each jelly round in half. Not perfection, but I figured they were going to be covered in chocolate anyway.

Varying shapes of ‘smashing orangey bits’. No matter, they will soon be shrouded in chocolate.

Now for the chocolate. Other people on my social medias seemed to have had a problem with this part – melting the jelly or not spreading. The recipe requests you melt it in advance so it cools and thickens, so being the paranoid mess I am, I had it melted whilst the cakes were still cooling in their tins. Luckily this seemed to do the trick and I managed to keep the tops reasonably level. Albeit messily.  Managed somewhat of a criss cross on the tops with a fork. Now it was a case of waiting for them to set hard so I can taste them….

I took all 12 of them into work, and came back with none (though I did eat 2 of them). Taste verdict – just like the McVitie’s original. Though the soft bases took a little from the experience in my opinion as it meant they weren’t dunkable!

Final verdict: Worth a go, for sure, however you can purchase supermarket own-brands (which don’t have much taste difference from the real McVitie’s ones) for as little as 50p a pack, so can this somewhat fiddly effort be jusitified? However, the cake bases are just 3 ingredients instead of the massive list of them usually seen on bought cake, and plus you get that smug feeling of ‘yeah I made jaffa cakes!’. The jelly though, is still out of a packet (personally I think the orange zest adds nothing but un-necessary stringiness as the flavour of the jelly is already highly concentrated without, so I would dispense with it next time), but the good thing is, you can get creative and change the jelly flavour if you want (The Polish are fans of cherry jaffa cakes for example). I suppose, you could also make proper orange jelly using juice and zest with gelatine sheets but personally, I think this is just extra effort for a minimal gain.

Watch this space when I take on Biscuit Week’s technical, Viennese Whirls! Stay tuned.

T x

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


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


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.