Monday, 24 November 2008

Stirring it Up

Yesterday dawned crisp and snowy, but our excitement was dimmed within minutes as it fast became wet and sleety. Bummer. Still, this was no time to grumble because there were things to be done in the kitchen... yesterday was 'Stir-Up Sunday'. The Sunday before Advent is one of those days when the religious and culinary worlds meet in perfect harmony: 'Stir up, we beseech thee O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded.' So reads the collect of the day; and the injunction to 'stir up' has been adopted in the kitchen too, as this is the traditional day for preparing the Christmas pudding. A plenteous reward indeed!

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!

Christmas Pudding

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!


We seem to be in the middle of a house-invasion. Whilst on my way to bed the other night I noticed something strange near the top of the bedroom curtains...

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

Sparkly Cakes

I've always loved making cakes, but have never really done much cake decorating - I'm not sure that the infamous Funfetti cake counts really... Oh yes, and how could I forget the beautiful cake that I made for my niece last year? The cake was great, but perhaps asking my great-niece and nephew (then aged 4 and 3) to help with the icing and sprinkles was a slight mistake?!

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

A Tribute

I count myself fortunate to have many good friends. Friends from school, from university, from various workplaces, from choirs, family that I think of as friends too. I also have lots of friends online, a fact that I know some people still consider a little strange. My first foray into an internet forum was when I was just becoming a fan of the great Nigella, and stumbled upon the 'chat forum' on her website. I remember posting a question about muffins - and was amazed and delighted when several people replied to me! The more I popped into the forum, the more questions I asked, the more help I received, and gradually I realised that friendships were developing as we discussed everything from fashion to families. Things moved on, Nigella's forum closed down, and many of us moved to other fora, but the friendships remained.

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.