Category Archives: Christmas

Modernist cuckoo clock

A few Christmases ago, my partner and I decided that, instead of buying each other presents, we would pool our money and buy something fabulous, luxurious, indulgent and beautiful for the house. The first year we bought each other half a cuckoo clock.

In southern Italy, where my mother is from, my maternal grandmother had a proper Swiss cuckoo clock. As we lay in bed I could hear it sing in the room below mine. To this day the sound of a cuckoo signalling the hour makes me feel safe, happy, nostalgic and hopeful all at the same time. Could our first present, I ventured, be a cuckoo clock? My partner, he say yes. But, however sentimental, I didn’t want a cuckoo clock like my Nonna’s; it would not look right in our home. Did such a thing as a modernist cuckoo clock exist?

It did. And it was made by Diamantini and Domeniconi.

The one we decided on was the Cucu, because it HAD to have a cuckoo coming out (the Cucu Low Cost doesn’t). Cucu comes in various finishes, but we wanted it in oak, so I ordered it from My Marca. It was one of those transactions where it all seemed so unreal, I had to make a real leap of faith and convince myself the money was not just going to disappear into an offshore bank account never to be seen again. Communication was not great. But lo! Just before Christmas – on something ridiculous like Christmas Eve – our Cucu arrived, beautifully packaged. And it’s been hanging in our house ever since.

I think we paid about £250 for ours to be specially made in oak (as in, it was as special order at the time and not available off the peg as I think it is now) and delivery from Italy.

The cuckoo’s song can be switched to low, high or off. And it has a light sensor, so it doesn’t sing at night. It is beautiful and is a real conversation piece. We adore it. It makes me happy every time I see it or hear it.

When the clocks went forwards, I couldn’t remember how to change the time so that the cuckoo still sings at the right time. I emailed the company and didn’t hear anything for a while. Then, in (what I find is) typical Italian style, the reply came: late but utterly charming. And direct from Dan Domeniconi himself.

 

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Big beautiful bags that are brilliant for tidying up, storage, and car travel.

Years ago, I worked, briefly, in the Evening Standard fashion department. When we weren’t ordering champagne off the stationery list (really), and drinking it on a Friday night, we were working hard. I used to write features about Chrissie Hynde’s fringe and we would look out over the atrium at who was coming and going. Late into the afternoon, as the sun was starting to set over Kensington, the fashion editors and stylists would come back from their shoots with tales of who had done what and the shots they had got (or not). And they would be wielding these enormous chequered laundry bags stuffed with clothes that, for some reason, held some fascination for me (the bags not the clothes, I was utterly sick of them by that time).

Earlier this year, as I struggled to fit our duvets (Brinkhaus silk and wool filled brilliant), sheets and pillows (Ringsted Dun, excellent) into a suitable receptacle for going camping (we camp in luxurious style), I thought of those bags again. Weren’t they huge? Couldn’t they accommodate everything? And so I looked them up.

They are really cheap and if you travel by car, I honestly can’t think of a much better way to transport clothes and the like. But, don’t buy too cheap. The really cheap chequered ones of yore can mark the stuff you put in them (the dye is not stable). Then I found these utterly brilliant Jumbo bags from Dot Com Gift Shop. I know it’s slightly mad to rave about a bag but there you go – they are just great: reasonably priced at five Black Jacks under a fiver, good quality, I love the designs (check out the Christmas one which I intend to fill with Christmas presents and not attempt to hide, at all) which are jolly and sweet. You can use them to temporarily tidy stuff away, for storage (although only in safe, stable environment, if you want long term storage that resists damp, wet and all but the  most resistant rodent, you need these Ultimate boxes from Lakeland, which are superb for storing things in the garage/shed, but are not cheap.

And, best of all, and not like boxes, when you’re done with these bags, they fold up really small to be put away.

Sorry about the picture. I’m in the middle of building work and I really can’t be bothered to find mine and stuff them full of stuff to photograph them, so I just nicked it off the DGGS website, I’m reckoning they won’t mind. Plus it tells you that they are made out of recycled plastic bottles!

 

White chocolate and berry cheesecake

I’m mindful, at this time of year, of having lots of people to cater for at once, and also the value of being able to Do Things In Advance.

I made this at the weekend, for a lunch party at a friend’s house where I was asked to bring pudding. The value of this is that it feeds lots – easily 12*. It not only can, but has to be made in advance. It looks good, but can also be brought out after a meal, to sit on the table for many hours without spoiling and be picked at (‘I’ll just tidy it up’) as guests get drunker and drunker.

I didn’t have a tin big enough, so I made this in one large rectangular Mermaid tin and a smaller tart tin. But this cheesecake is so good that I think it’s worth buying the right size tin for it as I will be making it again.

A few notes:

I put in 300g of frozen mixed berries as that’s the packet I had, and didn’t see the point of keeping back a handful of berries.

Yes you do put the berries in frozen.

Do build the crust up to a good height at the sides, although this mixture didn’t (for me) rise up, there is a lot of it and if your sides aren’t high enough, you’ll be at a dam-bust situation.

It may be an idea to put the tin on a baking sheet to catch any drips – I didn’t have any but see my point just above.

It definitely took an hour in my oven, maybe a few minutes more.

That’s it. This is a good one to keep up your sleeve for party season and the other great thing about it is that * you can cut the slices as thin or thick as you want, so it could feasibly feed may, many more than the predicted dozen.

Here is the recipe.

A last minute Christmas present idea: Kumquat chocolate slab

 

This is a really easy, delicious thing to make. Yes you do need a) chocolate and b) kumquats in the house to make this exact one, but the idea is that with a bit of imagination, you have a really easy, original gift to make for someone at the last minute. Perhaps you’ve been invited round to someone’s house and want to take a little gift.

I used kumquats, because that’s what I saw in Martha Stewart Living. This decision also resulted in perhaps my most middle class quest of the year: going in search of them (Sainsbury’s had them). It was worth it because kumquats lend themselves really beautifully to this idea and weren’t madly expensive. A packet that would have made this twice over cost £1.50. Plus they look festive, colourful and this was absolutely delicious: like a grown up, not too sickly, Terry’s Chocolate Orange.

But if you don’t have kumquats, or don’t like them you can put anything on top of the chocolate: slices of stem ginger, roasted hazelnuts, sliced pistachios, what ever takes your fancy, you get the idea.

For this I used a mixture of Green and Black’s milk chocolate and Waitrose Continental 70% cocoa chocolate, because I wanted it to be quite creamy. You want the slab to ‘snap’ when you serve it so don’t go too milky chocolatey, even if you want to serve it to children. To make it really grown up and ‘snappy’, make it out of all 70% cocoa chocolate. I used about 250g of chocolate in total to make this slab, which fed sixteen at after lunch coffee.

Melt in a bowl, over boiling water, then pour onto baking parchment on a baking tray. Scatter over your topping of choice. Put in fridge to set. If giving as a present – and not serving at your own dinner party – then break it up and put it in cellophane bag or if you have food-grade cellophane wrap (naturally, ahem, I do) then you can wrap the whole thing in one piece.

That’s it. So easy and looks so impressive.

Stollen

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Stollen was, like panettone and panforte, one of those things that appeared at Christmas that really wasn’t very nice. Of course, that was back in the days before I realised you could make, almost, anything yourself (I’ve still not been brave enough to try panettone, because to make it properly takes three days and involves hanging it upside down).

My friend Lisa Durbin, posted some pictures of the stollen she was making and they looked so delicious, I asked and she passed on her recipe. And yesterday, really quite late in the day, I decided to give it a go.

I have a few notes to add, which is that the marzipan stipulated seemed a bit mean to me to begin with, so for one of the loaves I doubled the amount from 50g for each loaf to 100g. As I was doing this, my partner walked into the kitchen and he reminded me that, actually, with marzipan in cooking more is not necessarily a good thing. So, suitably chastened, I went back to Lisa’s recommendation of 50g for each loaf for the others. I haven’t tasted the turbo marzipan one yet but the one with ‘just’ 50g held out his theory and Lisa’s recipe.

After making this stollen, ahem, a couple of times, I’ve settled on 75g per stollen as perfect for me.

I found 45mins too long in my oven. I cooked mine for 25 mins.

This stollen really doesn’t keep. If you don’t freeze it EAT IT on day of purchase. It won’t be so good again after that.

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I also didn’t roll mine out on a floured surface, instead rolling out between two sheets of Magic Carpet type stuff (reusable baking parchment). It’s up to you if you make your  loaves more stout and thick or long and thin. Experiment.  As per picture above, you’ll see mine are quite flat.

I ate half of one, about 20mins out of the oven, whilst watching Masters of Sex. So the two things are now, indelibly, etched in my mind. At that temperature, just warm, the stollen are frangible and seriously delicious. If you can eat it at this temperature, at least once, do so.

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Otherwise they are really not difficult to make (although if I give you one as a present then, yes, of course they are really difficult) and you get four loaves so it’s a good result vs effort. You could easily freeze some Lisa tells me (before you add the icing sugar) for another day. Or just eat them all in a stollen frenzy. You can also leave them for the final prove (the one that takes 45 mins in Lisa’s recipe) overnight in the oven, waking up to freshly cooked stollen (well, for YOU to wake up to freshly baked stollen, someone else had to get up first to bake it, but the idea is there, yes?)

ImageChristmas 2014. I made these mini this year, just cutting bits of the dough off, and rolling it with my fingers around some marzipan. Worked really well and I got about 20 mini loaves out of it. I cooked the mini ones for 15 minutes.

IMG_0388(You’ll note one is missing, it’s very important to test the merchandise before selling.)

 

Best panettone and chocolate mulled wine

I wasn’t much of a fan of panettone, growing up, despite my father coming from a region where the panettone is famous. All those raisins and candied fruit. I much preferred pandoro (‘bread of gold’) which was, to me, like panettone but without any of the bits in and you’d dust it with glorious vanilla sugar as soon as it was out of the box.

It didn’t help that the panettone you can usually buy in this country – at least until it seemed fairly recently – was pretty grim. Heavy and dry. Mine used to stay on the top of the fridge, in their cardboard box, going stale until such time as I had an idea to resuscitate them in a panettone bread and butter pudding.

This seems sacrilegious now. A few years ago, my parents got given a proper panettone. They gave it to me and I almost put it on the top of the fridge, in time honoured fashion. But something made me open it. I’m going to use words like ‘billowy’ now, so prepare yourselves because this panettone was indeed billowy. Soft, fresh….billowy. It tasted delicious and, as I remember, we ate it in one sitting. I subsequently discovered it was a very expensive panettone and it showed.

At Christmas, I usually make my Colomba in the shape of panettone. It’s not the same thing (proper panettone needs to be hung up side down when made and takes three days from start to finish) but it’s good enough. Last Christmas however, I heard, through one of my editors, Kate, at the Guardian about a panettone taste test she was doing. On her recommendation I bought the Nudo one. It was superb. Not cheap though at £15 a kilo (I’ve realised you need to spend about that much for a panettone to be any good). This year, in a fit of organisation, I went to order one on 1st November. Sold out. This annoyed me beyond explanation.

So I went to the number two one last year, Valentina and bought two. I decided to open it last weekend. Partly because I didn’t want to be disappointed if it wasn’t very good, partly because I am greedy and partly because I have decided to spread out the joys of Christmas fayre this year starting in, cough cough, late November. Anyway. It’s fantastic: everything you want a panettone to be. Really fresh, really light, tasty, glorious. You could easily eat one in a single sitting. The service was amazing and I thoroughly recommend you buy one. My children loved it too, and the sell by date is April 2014. Not that it will get that far.

It’s £12.95 for 750g and you can buy it mail order (the p&p is a bit steep at £5.95 so double up with some friends if you can) or if you can, visit one of the stores, there are five, but not sure all sell the panettone so check before going.

[Just to avoid any doubt, I paid full price for the panettone, no freebies.]

The pic above is my first slice, served with a glass of my chocolate mulled wine. Which, if you haven’t tried yet, I thoroughly recommend you, also, do.

Alternative Christmas ‘pudding’ ideas

Jamie’s Winter Pudding Bombe
My actual bombe

I don’t mean as a direct alternative to that dried fruit pudding English people have after Christmas dinner (which I now love, I actually made my own two years ago for the first time and make them a year in advance now). But I mean, something to eat for pudding on or around Christmas Day.

Chocolate Chestnut Rum Roulade

Every Christmas I make this amazing Chocolate Chestnut Rum Roulade. It’s an Icelandic recipe that I got from the Waitrose magazine twelve years ago. It is so good. I make it every Christmas and my eldest asked for it for her birthday this year. It’s really not that difficult, can be made ahead and put in the fridge.

Another thing I make is Jamie’s Winter Pudding Bombe. This is superb made in advance and stuck in the freezer. I do make some changes to this as the clementine he asks for just freezes solid (obviously) and I don’t find it very nice to eat. So I do his recipe but instead of the bits he asks for  I add some dark glace cherries, some candied fruits, some sour cherries soaked in marsala (I use marsala instead of vin santo throughout) and then some toasted pistachios and hazelnuts. I think you could easily customize this bit.

I also use home made vanilla ice cream because it’s tastier and cheaper.  The quantity in that recipe I’ve linked to make the perfect, perfect amount for this recipe.

Need I point out that you don’t use expensive panettone for this.

You can make it in advance, as I said, and then just turn it out when you want to serve it, and pour the chocolate over the top.

Annie Bell’s Blackout cake, as near to chocolate cake perfection as possible.

Lastly, for something that doesn’t look as festive but is really, really delicious. Annie Bell’s Brooklyn Blackout cake which is as close to chocolate cake perfection as I can take you. I guess you could make it more festive with gold leaf or something. I don’t know, up to you. It’s sensational however and once people start eating it they won’t care if it looks festive or not.

Do feel free to share your Christmas pudding alternatives.

update: mid January 2013. We just at the last of the bombe, which had been nestling in the freezer since I made it on 21st December. I thought you might like to see inside. It was still really really good.