Friday, 25 December 2009

Christmas Pudding: Part 2

Christmas Pudding is a bit controversial for some. Yes it is dense and quite rich but it's just what you need before you start your health-kick in the New Year! Whether it's Christmas Pudding or pie, it's funny that no matter how much we stuff ourselves during Christmas dinner there is always room for desert. Our Christmas Eve dinner of Seafood Bisque and Sea Bass was rounded off perfectly with the fruity, nutty & boozy flavours of the pudding. 

I think the fact that this year I used stoneware pudding basins (in place of the plastic basins of past years) allowed some of the fats to evaporate during the steam process leaving the pudding with a wonderful lightness that complemented rather then overwhelm the main meal.

E., as one could imagine, loves Christmas Pudding. In fact one Christmas a few years ago we even transported a pudding in my suitcase to Madrid for his family to try. Having forgotten to snip a piece of holly from the bush in our garden in London to top the pudding, I was quick to notice the potted holly bush outside a Madrid hotel one day while we were stopped at a red light. In the end it wasn't difficult to convince E. to alter our usual jogging route to include a cheeky trip past that holly bush...

So in the end my Christmas Pudding did not have to bear the shame of being served naked and even though E.'s father continues to threaten to hand me over to the Policía every time we visit, it was definitely worth it.

Happy Christmas!

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Dreaming of a White Christmas... or at least Gingerbread Snowflakes & Eggnog

This week got off to a start with a particularly festive flavour due to a substantial snow fall in the English capital. I say "substantial" but having been born and raised in he east coast of Canada, most of my family and friends at home would laugh at such an exaggerated description of events. Still in a city like London, which is not accustomed to such weather, anything beyond a light dusting can bring everything to a standstill.

When the snow began to fall I was completing the last bit of shopping in Islington. At first it started as light rain but within a few minutes big fluffy flakes began to fall. In the years I have lived in London I have never seen such a beautiful scene as Upper Street in a blanket of snow. Distinctly Dickensian! How I regret being without a camera or without E. who rarely leaves the house without a camera.

The next morning our neighbourhood was still shrouded in snow. My task for the day was to decorate gingerbread cookies, both for eating and for decorating the tree. While my gingerbread snowflakes are not as beautiful as those that fell from the skies of London, I am still pretty pleased with how they turned out.

Of course gingerbread cookies can be enjoyed with a cup of tea or a simple glass of milk, but in keeping with my frenzy for all things home-made I decided I would make some eggnog. While eggnog is a bit too sweet for my tastes, E. loves it; reminding him of the year he spent in Minnesota when he was a kid. As you can imagine, that experience left E. with a sound understanding of substantial snow fall.

So whether you need a break from shovelling yourself out from your own substantial snowfall or just fancy something sweet, these gingerbread snowflakes & eggnog will warm you from the inside out.

Photos of of our back garden and Alexandra Park by E.

Gingerbread Snowflakes
Adapted from
400 grams plain flour
1/4 teaspoons salt
3/4 teaspoonbaking soda
2 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
120 g unsalted butter
100 g caster sugar
1 large egg
160 ml treacle or molasses

In a large bowl, sift together the flour, salt, baking soda, and spices.

In a separate bowl cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the egg and molasses and beat until smooth. Gradually add the flour mixture beating until incorporated.

Divide the dough in half, and wrap each half in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least two hours or overnight.

Preheat oven to 180 degrees C and place rack in center of oven. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside while you roll out the dough.

On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough to a thickness of about 1/4 inch. Cut out the cookies with a utter of your choice. With a spatula lift the cut out cookies onto the baking sheet, placing the cookies about 2.5 cm apart.

Bake for about 8 - 12 minutes depending on the size of the cookies and your preference of crispiness. Decorate with royal icing once completely cool.

adapted from
475 ml milk
3 whole cloves
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
6 egg yolks
150 g sugar
475 ml light cream
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp grated nutmeg

Combine milk, cloves, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla, and cinnamon in a saucepan, and heat over low setting for about 5 minutes. Slowly bring milk mixture to a boil.

In large bowl, combine egg yolks and sugar beating together until fluffy. Slowly add hot milk mixture to egg yolk/sugar mixture one cup at a time beating with an electric mixer at a low speed after each cup.

Once fully incorporated return to the saucepan and cook over medium/low heat, stirring constantly for 3 minutes, or until thick. Do not allow mixture to boil. Strain to remove cloves, and let cool for about an hour.

Stir in cream, vanilla and grated nutmeg.

While you can add your preferred spirit directly to the eggnog I prefer to add it to the mug just before pouring the eggnog. Top with a bit of grated nutmeg.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Mince Pies

Mince pies are one of those foods that for ages I thought I didn't like. I vaguely remember my mother making mincemeat when I was young but I can't actually remember ever eating it. When I first came to England I found myself constantly refusing mince pies, I imagined them to be heavy and cloying -and admittedly they often are. Eventually, in an effort not to offend someone offering home-made mince pies I tried one and surprisingly found it quite nice. Over the years I have even come to like some of the store bought pies but nothing comes close to home-made.

I suppose I am also a bit of a mince pie traditionalist as I only like them made with shortcrust pastry. Puff pastry or crumble topping somehow seems wrong to me but you can use them if that's your preference -no judgement... I promise.

In previous years, believing that making mincemeat was complicated or a little too labour intensive, I would make my own shortcrust and buy the mincemeat filling. It is actually a good cheat; if you add some citrus zest and a little grated nutmeg you could probably fool most people- as long as the pastry is from scratch. I am one of those people that never buys shortcrust- I know that people are sometimes intimidated by making pastry but it really does take less than 10 minutes (plus extra for chilling) to make. The key is just to keep everything as cold as possible and try to handle the dough as little as possible.

So this year I decided to make my mincemeat from scratch. I searched through so many recipes and eventually came up with my own based on the dozen or so that I looked at. It really is as simple as throwing everything in a pot and cooking until everything is plump and soft. Like Christmas Pudding you can adjust the spices and alcohol to suit your tastes. Mincemeat can be made up to six months in advance so you can make it whenever you have a bit of time. The additional benefit to making mincemeat is that it makes the house smell lovely and festive.

I won't bore you with the detailed history of mince pies except to mention that mince pies have not actually contained meat since the 19th century and most are made with vegetable suet so are vegetarian friendly. You can have them with brandy cream or as they are.

1 large Bramley apple, peeled, cored and finely chopped
400 g mixed dried fruit
100 g dried cranberries
125 g mixed chopped peel
50g pecans, toasted and finely chopped
125 ml brandy
zest of 1 orange, plus the juice of 2
zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 tbsp orange blossom water
2 tsp mixed spice
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
175 g muscovado sugar
100 g shredded vegetable suet

Combine all the ingredients except the muscovado sugar and suet in a large saucepan. Simmer over a low heat for 30 minutes or until the fruit has plumped up and most of the liquid has evaporated but not dry. Remove from heat, once cooled stir in the muscovado sugar and suet.

This recipe makes about twice as much as you need for the pastry but you can store it in steralised jars in a cool place for up to 6 months or give the rest away as gifts.

Shortcrust Pastry
300 g of plain flour
1/2 tsp salt
90 g of cold unsalted butter (cut into small pieces)
60 g of vegetable shortening (I use Trex but Crisco is fine)
3 or 4 tsp ice water

In a food processor blend the flour and with the butter and shortening until its combined to a sandy crumbly texture with no large pieces of butter. Add water one spoon at a time until it is just starting to come together. Place mixture in a bowl and form into a flattened ball, divide in two wrap it in pastry and put in the fridge to rest for a minimum of 30 minutes.

Once the dough has rested, transfer to a floured work surface and roll out until about 1/8 of and inch thick. I have recently discovered that if you place a sheet of clingfilm over the dough as you roll it it resists breakage and sticking. Cut out with round pastry cutters (enough for top and bottom) and place in bun tins, spoon the prepared mincemeat into the individual pies and and then top with pastry cut outs.I used these cute little snowflake to top my pies but stars or plain rounds are good too. Just be careful not to overfill or they will stick and make removing the pies difficult. Bake at 200°C for about 20 minutes or until slightly golden.


Santa Claus apparently has a weakness for mince pies, so if you have any left...

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Pistachio & Cranberry Biscotti... and a declaration of love

A few weeks ago, having some well deserved time off, E. and I decided that we would finally go to Ottolenghi for lunch. It is something we had been saying we should do for ages and either due to being busy or more accurately lazy we had just not got round to it.

You see, I love Yotam Ottolenghi! I have been a fan for quite some time, regularly following his column The New Vegetarian in The Guardian, drooling over the wonderful recipes both sweet and savoury on an almost weekly basis. So last year for my birthday E. got me the Ottolenghi cookbook -and I didn't even have to drop any hints. The recipes are beautiful and I have to say that the hazelnut cupcakes have made me very popular at work and of course with E.

I have often passed by the Ottolenghi café in Islington, barely able to resist pressing my face against the windows. Cakes and meringues piled high take centre stage against the minimalist backdrop of the white walls and blackboard menus.

I don't know how it had taken us so long to visit but it was certainly worth the wait. The lunch menu, mainly a selection of interesting salads with a choice of main dishes, was fantastic. E. had seared beef with a broccoli & chilli salad. I stuck with the selection of salads and although I loved the roast beetroot with quince, my favourite was the wild rice with pistachio and cranberries. We both felt so fulfilled with our lunches that we decided to give the desserts a miss -we'll save them for another trip.

Eager to try the wild rice, pistachio & cranberry salad at home I started searching the Ottolenghi cookbook to see if the recipe had been included. Sadly it was not but I did come across a recipe for Pistachio & Ginger Biscotti, which I thought could easily be adjusted to include cranberries. 

This recipe is quite different from most biscotti recipes that I have tried in that the dough is quite soft and you need to scoop in onto the baking sheet.  A bit more difficult to work with but absolutely delicious. These are perfect for dipping in coffee -or tea in the case of E. He finished off the entire batch in record time.

Pistachio & Cranberry Biscotti
adapted from
80 g unsalted butter
110 g caster sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp brandy
grated zest of 2 oranges
200 g plain flour
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp salt
80 g pistachio nuts, shelled
70 g dried cranberries

In a bowl cream butter and sugar together until fluffy and pale. Add eggs one by one and then add brandy and orange zest.

Sift flour, ginger and salt in to the butter/egg mixture and mix until fully incorporated. Add pistachios and cranberries and knead into the dough. The dough will be a bit stickier than most biscotti recipes but this is because they are slightly softer than most. If you want a firmer dough add more flour bit by bit .

Scoop the dough onto a parchment lined baking tray forming a log shape, sprinkling extra flour if the dough is too sticky to work with. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Now bake in a preheated oven at 170
°C for 20 minutes and then remove from oven to cool. Increase your oven temperature to 130°C. One cool slice slice the log across into 1 cm slices with a serrated knife. Lay the slices on their side and return to the oven and bake for another 40 minutes. They should be golden in colour.


I am pleased to report that this story has a double happy ending because not only did I find a delicious recipe to kick off the Christmas baking season, but also I tracked down my wild rice salad with pistachio recipe (just replace dried apricots for dried cranberries).

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Overnight Waffles with Caramelised Cinnamon Apples

This seemed like the perfect weekend for waffles, rainy & grey. There is something very comforting about having warm delicious food when the weather is foul. Now usually I opt for healthy breakfasts, most days its porridge with either banana & maple syrup or a bit of chopped apple & cinnamon, and always a sprinkling of flax seed. Sometimes for a change at weekends E. and I will have egg & soldiers. I am amused how E. so enthusiastically dips his toast soldiers into the yolks.

But for ages I felt like something was missing from our breakfast routine; admittedly we do occasionally have pancakes but what I really wanted was waffles. Although pancakes were popular in my family growing up we never had a waffle iron. Occasionally my mom would buy some frozen waffles but those were just not he same. E. was opposed to having another kitchen appliance, despite my advertising campaigns asserting that our quality of life would improve if we only had golden crispy-on-the-outside-fluffy-on-the-inside waffles on a Sunday morning. Then, just as I thought all was lost my girls came through; Roz somehow convinced E. that a waffle iron would make the perfect gift for my birthday.

So these rainy Sunday morning waffles are dedicated to Eimear, Sue, Anna & Rozzy, who presented me with my very own waffle iron for my birthday last year.

These yeast waffles appealed to my senses as I like the softness I imagined they would bring. I do like traditional crispy waffles but I especially love the texture of Belgian waffles and these seemed to be a close match. As for the apple topping, what can I say..., apples are in season and so yummy right now. Sprinkled with cinnamon and a pinch of nutmeg an everyday staple like apples become almost ambrosial.

Overnight Yeast Waffles
Adapted from Cookography
440 g plain flour
1/2 tsp salt
2 tbsp sugar
1 tsp yeast (active dry or instant)
Pinch of nutmeg
400 ml milk
60 ml water
3 eggs
55 g butter, melted and cooled

Combine flour, yeast, sugar and salt in a large bowl, mix to combine.

In a separate bowl, beat eggs and then stir in the milk, water and butter.
Add the liquid ingredients to the dry ingredients and mix until well combined.
Cover and refrigerate overnight.

In the morning take the batter out of the fridge and let the batter warm to room temperature if possible. Pour the batter onto pre-heated waffle iron.

These only took a couple of minutes to cook, once the waffle iron stops steaming they are done. This recipe made 12 waffles so I froze half.

Caramelised Apples
1 tbsp. unsalted butter
5 apples, peeled, cored and sliced
1/3 cup sugar (depending on how sweet the apples are to start)
1 tsp cornflour (dissolved in 3 tbsp of warm water)
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg

Put apples in a sauce pan over medium-high heat with 1 tbsp of water. Once a bit softened add the sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg and corn starch mixture. When the apples are nearly cooked add butter and cook for another few minutes. The apples should be golden and syrupy. Add to waffles.

Somewhat miraculously the rain ceased and we soon saw one of the sunniest days we have had in ages. So while the rain was useful to set the scene for the waffle experience I must say I was thrilled to get some sunshine- a rare treat for London in December.