Monday, 24 November 2008
Of course one needs to begin the process a day in advance as the dried fruits need to be plumped up with a good overnight soaking in rum. I just love the smell that pervades the kitchen during this process, and the way that the fruit swells stickily in its alcoholic bath. But is it wrong to relish the smell of hard liquor first thing in the morning??
I love the way that the fruit makes up such a large proportion of the pudding mixture. Why, there must be at least 2 of your daily portions of fruit in each slice of pudding! Somehow it never feels like a health-food when you're eating it though...
I have to confess that I didn't really know what suet was until I made my first Christmas Pudding. Since I found out I use vegetable suet instead of beef suet because, well, bleugghhh! Beef fat belongs on the edge of a steak, not in a dessert!
My trans-Atlantic readers may be interested to note the English robins pictured on the teatowel. Very different to the larger, orange-breasted bird that shares its name.
Traditionally all the family have to have a stir of the mixture, so Rob and I both had a go with the wooden spoon. Apparently you're meant to make a wish when you're doing it but I didn't know that bit. Rob was on the phone with his brother when I presented him with the bowl and spoon so I don't think he did the wish either. Mind you, at the time he was discussing the huge cost of making a Christmas Pudding (having just gagged in horror when I told him the price of the dried cherries) so he was probably wishing that he had bought that half-price Tesco Finest pudding we saw on offer on Saturday...
I usually pile the mixture into one large bowl and make a huge pudding, but this year I divided it into two, one to be taken to Devon for Christmas Day, and one to be scoffed by the two of us during our pre-Christmas Christmas Dinner.
This is the third year that I have made Christmas Pudding. I have never really been a big fan of it in the past. Added to the fact that it is traditionally eaten at the end of the biggest meal of the year, I have never actually liked the taste much - too dark, too dense, too heavy. However, these homemade puddings have been an absolute revelation to me. They are lighter in colour and in texture (if not in weight!) and the taste is worlds away from your average shop-bought pud. Making your own also gives you the freedom to add more of the ingredients you like the most, so my recipe is freely adapted from Nigella's in How to Be a Domestic Goddess. I prefer the squidge of sultanas and raisins to the traditional but mean-sized currants so that's what I use. I adore the sourness of dried cherries, so add them instead of the dried blueberries Nigella specifies, and whole blanched almonds go in in place of the marrons glaces. I love the crunch they provide. I detest candied peel, so that's definitely forbidden. I don't bother with coins either - a dental emergency is possibly the last thing I would welcome on Christmas Day.
As much for my own reference as yours, this is the recipe I use. I know I'll forget by next year unless I write it down!
200g mixed raisins and sultanas
100g glace cherries, chopped
100g dried cherries
100g dried prunes, chopped
Soak fruit (above) overnight in 170ml rum
Mix soaked fruit together with the following ingredients:
90g self-raising flour
150g shredded suet
150g brown sugar (dark or light, depending on preference)
1 medium cooking apple, roughly grated (to provide 120g)
1/2 tsp mixed spice (I use a pot of 'Pumpkin Pie Spice' bought in Canada)
generous grating of nutmeg
pinch of salt
3 large eggs
zest of an orange (although this year I used 1 tsp Boyajian Orange Oil instead)
60g whole blanched almonds
Butter 1 large, or 2 smaller, pudding basins, spoon in the mixture and press down with the back of a spoon. Cover with a pleated piece of greaseproof paper, and then with a lid (or tie on a foil lid, as I do), and steam for 3 and a half hours.
Rewrap the pudding and store somewhere cool until Christmas. Reheat on the day by steaming for another 3 hours.
Flambe if desired (Nigella recommends using vodka for the best flame).
Serve with brandy or rum butter, or - our favourite - Rum Sauce. Ho ho ho!
Closer inspection revealed it to be a cluster of ladybirds. Having a party? Bring on the mojitos!
What a beautiful group! All those different colours and patterns. As I watched, another one was running along the top of the window to join them. I intercepted it for closer inspection.
Within the next minute there was a noise inside the lampshade and yet another ladybird flew out, coming in to land on my jewellery box - perhaps in a desperate attempt at camouflage? This one seems to be an inversion of the regular colours, having red spots on black wings.
Had these been any other insects (flies, ants, etc) I probably would have embarked on a brief but violent killing-spree, but there's something quite charming about ladybirds and I could never bring myself to squish one. So, with the aid of a handy bookmark, I gently removed them one by one and flicked them out of the window to fly off and congregate elsewhere.
I had a vague recollection from a few years back that British ladybirds were being threatened by an aggressive and invasive species, and I have just done some brief research... it seems that the Harlequin Ladybird is the culprit, an invader from Asia which is causing untold damage to many native insects, and indeed plants. This news story is from 2005. I have now done my duty and reported my sightings to the 'Harlequin Ladybird Survey', complete with photos for identification... but now I'm wondering whether I should have squished them after all?!
Thursday, 20 November 2008
However, in my explorations of my newly-local area I recently happened upon a wonderful shop in Wendover called 'Cornelli'. It's a small shop on the High Street, and it is filled from floor to ceiling with excitements of the cake-decorating kind. Much is aimed at the professional (I can't quite envisage the day when I'm purchasing specialised cutters to create sugarpaste carnations), but there is much to delight the amateur cake decorator too. Anything that can be thrown at a cake in a haphazard manner works for me! Having heard much about the famous edible 'Disco Glitter' I was highly excited to find pots of this in many different colours. As a primary school teacher I'm sure that I must have ingested much non-edible glitter over the years, particularly at Christmas time, but it is nice to be able to find some that is actually meant to be eaten. I went for the gold. I also chose some fabulous gold swirly cake candles to match the glitter.
And so in recent weeks I have utilised my new purchases on two occasions, baking birthday cakes for my two sisters-in-law. The first cake was Nigella's Honey Chocolate Cake (from Feast). Buoyed up with Disco-Glitter-Fever I ignored the idea of decorating it with bees and went for the altogether more sparkly option. I found the chocolate stars in Tescos - a Dr Oetker/Supercook brand.
Sadly - as you can see - the cake sank rather dramatically (I'll blame the fact that I had to cook it in a holiday cottage, and was therefore unfamiliar with the oven). However, this just meant that it was dense and fudgy rather than light and cakey, which made it a delicious pudding served with raspberries and creme fraiche. Happy Birthday Anne!
The next birthday cake was a Coffee Walnut sponge. I used Nigel Slater's recipe, a recipe that has often been called into service for my husband's birthday cake.
I was a bit concerned that the glitter wouldn't show up so well on a paler icing, but this didn't prove to be a problem. Sparkles obviously work on any cake! I used the curly gold candles on this cake too, but didn't manage to get a photo - we were too busy cutting slices of the cake to go with our coffee. Happy Birthday Anthea!
Although the pots of glitter are small, the glitter is so fine that I think the pot will last for ages. I think that 2008 might just have to be the year when I make my first ever Christmas cake... and guess what will be on the top?
Friday, 7 November 2008
Three years on I feel like I'm part of an amazing community, almost like a family. In recent months we have shared the excitements of travels (often mine) and births (not mine!), and lots of laughter - as well as plenty of recipes and food photos over which we drool. I have met several people in person, both in Canada and the UK - something I always find quite funny because we know so much about eachother that when we meet for the first time we're already old friends! Much of my cooking is inspired by members of the forum, both by food discussed on the forum boards, and the blogs that several people write.
As with any family however, there are ups and downs, and the last few weeks have been one of those downs. The saying that 'things happen in threes' seemed to come true, as 3 members of the forum found themselves in hospital undergoing surgery. Thankfully 2 of them are now recovering well, but tragically Lorraine - more usually known online as Pistachio, or Pi - passed away earlier this week.
Pi was someone I've known for a long time. She was one of the first people to welcome me onto the Nigella forum, and someone who had often taken an active role in 'running the show' online, always ready with answers to questions, technical or foodie. She was clearly a strong character whose opinions were stated clearly - her no-nonsense attitude could sometimes offend - but ultimately she said what she thought, stood up for what was right and didn't suffer fools gladly. I often thought she should be a bit more tactful, but once I had got to know her a little better I found that hers was a voice I could appreciate - if not always agree with - and I generally respected her opinions (though I'm not budging on the gingham question!). Looking back at some of her posts, I found myself smiling, particularly when she replied to a query of mine with a brusque "Get a grip Norm, love"..! Still, sometimes we all need telling that!
Pi was a keen blogger, and her blog, Pistachio en la Cocina, is a celebration of her life and her love of food. I'm sure that many of us will be returning to it time and again, both to read about her life in Ibiza, and to refer to the large bank of recipes that she had taken the time to post.
Earlier this week I had caught an episode of Jamie at Home on TV, and was inspired by watching him make a delicious recipe from his book - Grilled Lamb Kofta Kebabs with Pistachios. I decided to have a go at making them for supper the following night. Searching for a suitable side-dish I found in my Lebanese Cookbook a recipe for Rice and Pistachio Salad - perfect I thought, as I would be buying pistachios anyway.
I was at that point in my planning when I heard the news that Pi had passed away. Suddenly my menu seemed entirely appropriate - how better to remember someone who loved food than with a meal cooked whilst thinking of them?
The kebabs were delicious, infused with the middle eastern flavour of Za'atar, which I used instead of the sumac (za'atar is a spice blend which often includes sumac), and with the interest in texture provided by the pistachio nuts. I couldn't find shelled pistachios, so shelled my own (unsalted) nuts - which is a tedious but simple job.
The salad was divine! The pistachios and the pomegranate seeds were like jewels in the rice, and the lemon juice and olive oil dressing gave it just the right 'tang' to complement the richness of the meat.
The dessert choice was simple. Pistachio Macaroons, from my favourite Nigella book, How to be a Domestic Goddess. Several bloggers have written about this recipe - an example here - so the recipe is easily available if you don't have the book. I have made these several times and have always loved them. I often pipe them, but was certain that Pi wouldn't be offended if I went for the 'blobbing' method with a spoon! Who cares though? They tasted divine, no matter what they looked like.
So this was a meal made with Pi in mind, but also all my other forum friends. You don't know how much you have inspired me, amused me, informed me and supported me, over the last few years. Your friendships mean more to me than I could ever say.
Tuesday, 14 October 2008
But actually I don't think this is a problem. You see, it seems that anyone with an apple tree can't seem to give away enough apples! Everywhere we drive or cycle in the local area, we see boxes, buckets, wheelbarrows of apples sitting on people's driveways, with handwritten notices imploring passers by to 'Please take some apples!' And I don't need telling twice.
We have one particularly great supplier, a lady in nearby Wendover who has 20 - yes TWENTY - Bramley trees. It takes me ten minutes to cycle out to her house... but rather long to cycle back, my handlebar-bag bulging with fruit, so heavy that it's scraping on the front wheel. Here's just some of our latest haul:
I love to eat seaonally, and part of this is the challenge of making the very most of whatever is ripe and ready - a glut of produce is so often the result. Although there are times when I think that I will never want to eat another apple dish again, I know that many apple-free months will follow, and I will appreciate the fact that I made the very most of the apples when they were so plentiful.
Our favourite savoury apple dish is one from Delia Smith's classic 'Complete Cookery Course' entitled 'Pork with Apples and Cider' (p197-8 for those of you with the same attractively brown-covered edition that I have. These pages arae well-spattered in my book, attesting to the number of times that we have made this dish). It involves the long, slow cooking of pork chops, bacon, onions, apples and garlic. They are cooked in dry cider, with a topping of sliced potatoes. It's not something that I have ever taken a photo of, but at we are currently eating this once a week, so perhaps I should?
Last weekend's roast dinner was a leg of pork. We did eat pork in Canada, but rarely (if ever?) managed to buy a joint with the skin still on, thereby depriving us of the best part of the meal - crackling. This was reason enough to roast the pork last Saturday, but it had the added bonus of using up three large apples for a pan of apple sauce to accompany the meat - and make some amazing sandwiches with pork, apple sauce and sage & onion stuffing during the following week!
Still on the savoury theme, I have stocked our cupboards with two types of apple chutney - perfect with cheese sandwiches - and apple and mint jelly - perfect with roast lamb.
I know many people dislike using fruit in savoury dishes. This is fortunately not a problem in our household (I love it!), but it is in sweet dishes that I find it easiest to use up the apples. In recent weeks I have experimented with some new recipes involving apples - not all of them meant to be involving apples, but...
Many of my friends rave about a recipe for Plum Torte, published in the New York Times (you can find it here). I had long intended to make this, but when I managed to pick up a large bowl of deliciously ripe plums at a local market I had no excuse. I added 2 finely chopped apples to the batter, which made it much more of a pudding than a cake, beautifully moist and squidgy.
I also made a wonderful Apple Cake, the recipe for which was posted by the aptly named 'Mary Apple'! I think it originated from Patricia Wells, but to me it will always be Mary Apple's Cake. Sadly I can't produce a picture for this one. This cake was fabulous - again rather more of a pudding, with a batter-like cake barely enveloping the sliced apples. It was devoured by the two of us in an embarrassingly short time - half went with our afternoon cuppa, and the other half warmed for a post-supper pudding. I daren't make it again... If you feel like risking it, here's the simple recipe:
Mary Apple's Cake
In a pie pan (I used a 20cm springform) peel and slice 4 apples.
In a bowl mix 1/2 cup plain flour, 1/3 cup sugar, 2 tbsp milk (or cream), 1 tsp vanilla, a pinch of salt, 1 tbsp baking powder, 2 eggs.
Mix and pour over apples.
Bake at 350F/180C for about. 20-25 min till light brown.
Take out and top with 3 Tablespoons softened butter, 1/3 c. sugar, 1 egg.
Put back in the oven till browned - about 10-15 minutes.
And finally, last week I wanted to bake cupcakes. I don't do this often, but I had been given a wonderful box of 'Heavenly Cakes' mix (bought almost entirely for the beautiful packaging!) which I had been meaning to make for months. This is no ordinary cake-mix, it's produced by Rose Levy Berenbaum, author of The Cake Bible. It included Green & Blacks cocoa, and Madagascan vanilla -all top-quality ingredients. I also added two finely chopped apples to the mix (because did I mention we have lots of apples to use up?!), and the combination of chocolate cake and the tartness of the cooked apple pieces worked incredibly well.
I topped the cupcakes with a Swiss Buttercream icing (which I had been dying to try since reading about Project Wedding Cake in the Smitten Kitchen!), and scattered with milk-chocolate chips, for that 'kids'-birthday-party' feel. Cake, apples, buttercream, chocolate chips = perfection in a cupcake case.
Monday, 6 October 2008
My first pie of Autumn was sampled in Oxford last week. As my friend and I browsed through the Covered Market, mid-morning, we were assailed by the incredible smell emanating from this shop - Pieminister. It was only 10.30 am, perhaps a little premature for lunch..? Reluctantly we walked on by, but returned a couple of hours later, now with a fierce hunger from some serious shopping and a speedy half in the Turf Tavern to whet our appetites still further.
Do check out the Pieminister website for detailed descriptions of their wares - and see if you can resist the online shopping feature... I have just spent a happy few minutes filling the box with virtual pies, and it's only my ever-weakening willpower that's stopped me clicking on the 'confirm order' button.
My dining companion went for the 'Chicken of Aragon' pie and proclaimed it to be the best pie she'd ever eaten. I had the 'Matador Pie' - beef, chorizo, butterbeans, olives and sherry. Quite an unusual flavour combination, but the gamble paid off. It was right up there, jostling for first place with, um, I don't know. Maybe it was the best pie I've ever eaten too? The fillings were delicious, but the pastry, often to hard to perfect, was perfection itself; crisp and crumbly. And I love a business with a sense of humour - check out 'Pie Minister's Question Time' on their website!
Here's the Matador pie. We resisted the option to add mash and mushy peas, these pies were big. (Ignore the spatula, it's just a private joke between me and 50 of my closest friends...)
I am very fortunate to have married someone who loves food and loves cooking. However, during our 4 years of marriage we've learnt the hard way that the kitchen - any kitchen - is only big enough for one chef. On Saturday we were both in a bad mood after a morning of shopping - me because I'd much rather go to Tescos on my own, and him because he wanted a roast dinner and I'm not a mind reader... So, I left him alone in the kitchen to make the pie that he had grudgingly agreed to have for supper. Unable to find beef kidney for the planned S&K pie, we had settled on beef and mushroom as a filling. Despite the fact that I should know to keep well clear, I couldn't resist suggesting the addition of blue cheese. It was a good call. That's just about the only credit I can take for this though - it was a fabulous pie, emerging triumphantly from the oven, and banishing all hints of our previous bad moods.
The filling had been slow-cooked for 2 hours before the pie was assembled, and the steak was meltingly tender. The blue cheese was a strong flavour, but not overpowering, just giving the sauce a slight salty sharpness.
I could criticize Rob for ignoring my suggestion that he use the larger pie dish, but as he remembered, unprompted, to put it on a baking tray in the oven I'll let that one slide. I quite like the look of the overflowing sauce actually.
So, as you can see there's another portion of perfect pie waiting to be called into service as a warming Autumnal supper this week. When there's food like this to look forward to, I find myself actually enjoying the fact that the days are getting colder.
It has occured to me that this might be a good time to mention another famous pie-producer in this part of the world... M. Newitt and Sons is a butcher's shop in nearby Thame, Oxfordshire. Michael Newitt is my uncle, and his sons James and Tom are my cousins. This is one famiy business that it's no hardship to support! Their wares are also sold in Budgens supermarkets, my local one being about a mile from home. Perhaps my love of pies is inherited?
Monday, 29 September 2008
A trip to meet some foodie friends in London's Borough Market provided an opportunity to smap up a tub of real Clotted Cream... Can you guess where this post is going?!
There was nothing for it, a clotted cream tea just had to be made. As an added bonus, we were visited at teatime on Saturday by two good friends, so we pretended to ourselves that we were making the tea for them, but we were fooling no one. We would have made it just for us. And eaten 2 scones each.
Amazingly, this was I think my first attempt at making scones. I suppose that I may have done so during 'Home Economics' at school once, but as I can't remember it they can't have been too good. My husband has always made the scones in our house, using the recipe from Delia's Complete Cookery Course, but this time I wanted to try my luck. I used a recipe taken from a 2004 Waitrose magazine, and was seriously impressed with the lightness of the resulting scones, which also rose impressively. The recipe can also be found here.
Just the sight of clotted cream brings back so many memories for me. At the end of every childhood holiday in Devon, we would stop at the village shop to buy a tub of local clotted cream to take home. My memory fails me at this point, I'm not quite sure how we ate it once home, but whether it was melting atop some hot fruit crumble, or sitting proudly upon a scone, I know that I have always loved it. Just looking at it is enough to make me salivate - the buttery colour is spectacular, and I love the way that it is so thick that it's quite hard work to lick it off the spoon. (To reassure you, I waited until our friends had left before I tried!)
Somehow the well-worn debate about whether the cream or the jam should be first onto the scone took up little of our afternoon. This was no time for talk. There was the serious business of reacquainting ourselves with the culinary traditions of our native land to be getting on with.
Tuesday, 23 September 2008
but now home is a little more permanent - beautiful England. The experience of moving from country to country is a strange one. If I am feeling negative about it I find myself homesick for Canada, just as I sometimes felt homesickness for England while I was on the other side of the Atlantic. It can feel as though it's hard to settle properly in either place when you are yearning for the one that is 3000 miles away. However, in a more positive mood I just feel fortunate that I love both countries and had the opportunity to experience living abroad for 2 years.
of blackberries in the hedgerows,
and where picnics are made up of delicious treats from my Uncle Michael's butchers shop in nearby Thame,
I think we're going to be very happy.
Tuesday, 5 August 2008
It's not our native land, but we have called Canada our home for the past 2 years - and it has been a privilege to do so. I have sung the anthem above every morning in school with the same pride as any Canadian. This is a truly wonderful country.
We felt it was out pleasurable duty to try to see as much of the country (and indeed the whole continent) as we could while we were here, and I am pleased to say that I think we succeeded. I have managed to visit 7 Canadian provinces, missing only the praries and the Arctic north - not too bad for 24 months!
I have constantly been struck by the friendliness and pleasantness of the Canadians I have met every day, and I know that some of the people that I have been fortunate enough to meet here will now be lifelong friends.
As much as I love England, and am looking forward to our return, a piece of my heart will forever now be in Canada, and I will look back on this 2 year period in my life with much fondness.
So, what will I miss...? In no particular order: A perfect climate - hot Summers, dramatic snowy winters, epic thunderstorms - skiing, the snowblower, vast skies, long straight roads, our big car, Tim Hortons (especially the Breakfast Sandwiches and Iced Capps), the laid-back atmosphere in schools (compared to the too-often stressed one in the UK), our giant beer-fridge (and our tax-free alcohol-allowance to fill it!), everything being bilingual (my French has really improved while I've been here), the native wildlife - the thrill of seeing hummingbirds in the garden, porcupines, skunks and raccoons in the street, and coyotes and beavers on the Base - Dollarama, fresh Ontario produce on roadside stalls (especially the squash in Autumn), maple syrup being tapped in the Spring, maple trees in Autumn, campsites with firepits, the crystal-clear water in the Great Lakes, the Mounties Musical Ride.....
I'm quite certain that I will think of many many more during the day, but I fear that our internet is about to be cut off as we move out of the house tomorrow. This blog will continue when I am no longer a Brit abroad...
So long Canada, and thanks for everything.
Tuesday, 15 July 2008
Anyway, this means that I am no longer able to justify buying any more ingredients, not even for baking. However, I do still have some diminishing stocks of flour, butter and sugar, and I was delighted to find the perfect use for them this week, in the form of a simple shortbread cookie... with a twist. On a visit to my friend Sarah's house a few days ago I was admiring her garden when I remembered that I have long been keen to use lavender in my baking, inspired both by Paola and Welshie. I had also found a recipe in Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's excellent 'River Cottage Year', which had caught my eye in the past. Having gathered a small handful of lavender flowers, I wanted to try the very simplest of recipes with the lavender, so eschewed the chocolate version in favour of the plain, using a combination of Hugh's and Welshie's recipes. I liked the small quantity produced by Welshie's recipe (being a little unsure about how they would turn out) but I used the plain flour plus cornflour suggested by Hugh. I'd like to pretend that was a purely culinary decision, but as usual at the moment, it was all down to what was in the cupboard...
It pleased me greatly to be able to use my lavender-coloured mixing bowl to stir all the ingredients together. It looked beautiful. Now in full domestic-goddess mode, I fell upon my ever-growing but all-too-rarely-used collection of cookie cutters. What better shape to use than a teapot? The dough was fairly friable, but I managed to cut out the cookies, trying to make some thicker and some thinner, to see which I preferred. I dredged them with caster sugar before baking them in order to get that just-crispy crust on the top.
Despite chilling the dough well, some of the cookies 'bubbled' very slightly - not quite the smooth look I was after - but all were attractively flecked with lavender flowers. The thinner cookies were predictably a little crisper, but the thicker ones were far from problematic. I was very pleasantly surprised with the taste - not a hint of the 'soapiness' I was dreading, but a delicate floral flavour that is the perfect compliment to a cup of afternoon tea. Bliss!
Saturday, 5 July 2008
I can't help thinking that Canada enjoys what is - for me - the 'perfect climate'. It has wonderful Summers and wonderful Winters too. I'll concede that I have missed the beautiful English Springtime - Canada seems to lurch quickly from Winter to Summer, with a short period of dullness in between - but I'm really going to miss the 'proper' snowy Winters here (particularly when we're in the middle of a grey January in the UK) and the 'proper' sunny Summers where you can mindlessly throw on a pair of shorts and a t-shirt every day for months without worrying about the weather forecast.
At its most extreme we have experienced a nearly 80 degree centigrade range in temperature here. It can reach minus 40 degrees (although this is rare in Ontario, more common on the Praries) and the Summer heat can peak at plus 40 degrees (again rare, but all too possible).
Last Winter was a loooong one here. Our last snowfall was on April 13th (the first one having been last November!), but here we are, 3 months later, wearing shorts and sunglasses.
I've been enjoying looking back through some photos this week, and have been particularly fascinated by remembering back to certain places in different seasons. Here are just a few:
Chez nous, last Summer (late Summer I'd guess, looking at the maple tree next door!)
The house in Winter. Note the great walls of snow... I shovelled that there. Well, until we mastered the petrol-driven snowblower, which brought yet more excitements!
Me, cycling down the Trillium Trail last week, enjoying the lingering warmth of the evening sun.
The same trail in January. I XC-skiied down it then.
Just as beautiful, Wasaga Beach in Winter. We both skiied on Georgian Bay, and clambered over the frozen waves.
Yes, the Winter can bring its problems (driving in freezing rainstorms or white-out blizzards was none too fun...) but by and large the country is well-equipped to deal with it and life goes on. I like that about it. All part of the typically laid-back Canadian attitude.
Canadian weather, eh? I love it!