Category Archives: Christmas

Pretty fairy lights, battery operated

John Lewis LED finewire snowflake lights, £6

Some years ago, as a present, Tesco sent me some really pretty blue flowery fairy lights that were battery operated. Doesn’t sound like much now, but at the time, they were pretty innovative (the battery part). They cost £5 in the shops and I wish I’d bought more as they’ve proved strangely useful. My children use the in tents, we drape them over any corner that needs a little pretty illumination. I’ve been tempted to go out wearing them (you could, with the battery pack in a pocket. I mean, come on). I don’t know, they just make me feel good. Even though they are, you know, from Tesco’s.

Anyway. These are not like them. They are very very fine and delicate. The wire between them is really fine wire. But they still look nice on my mantelpiece and every evening, as dusk fades and “the clouds turn pink” as my daughter says, I switch them on and they make me go aaah.

I’m easily pleased.

They also come in little green trees, red hearts or blue stars. And the size above is about actual size.

Buy them here.

Torrone

Torrone with dried cherries, almonds and pistachios. Sweets for grown ups

 
Torrone is Italian nougat. It’s usually sold at festas, and at Christmas we always get some. Usually it’s of the rock hard variety (I get the impression this is easier to make as the softer one – which I thought of as the ultimate luxury as a child – is much harder to find and more expensive). Sometimes it’s covered in chocolate and sometimes it’s pantorrone which is torrone with a booze-soaked sponge that runs through it, covered in chocolate.

The only person I know who ever made their own torrone was my uncle Bruno, but he died some years ago, so I couldn’t ask him.  I knew it was fiendishly difficult.

I was not proved wrong.

Actually I don’t want to scare you. It’s not that it’s difficult, difficult. But it’s a lot about technique and temperature and there’s no correcting it if you get it wrong. My heart was beating really fast when I made it and I think I probably shortened my life by six months.

Please do not try to make it if you’re in a rush or you have young children running round the house.

Don’t make it if you haven’t got the right ingredients or utensils. You really need a sugar thermometer for example. 

You heat the mixture up to 130C and you have minutes to make it once it’s at temperature. You really need to have all your equipment near to you (I actually moved my Kenwood Chef out of its specially built cubby hole next to my cooker and I strongly suggest you have your mixer next to your hob, too).

I wouldn’t try to make this without a freestanding mixer.

And as I said, no small children that only you are in charge of; getting 130C sugar solution on skin is not a joke. I know, I’ve done it (when I made toffee apples one year) and the burn was ferocious.

So now that I’ve scared you stupid, here’s the good bit. If you get it right – and you will – it’s glorious. It looks lovely and it’s pretty much all over in half an hour.

I got this recipe from the Donna Hay (I LOVE HER) magazine Dec/Jan2012 magazine, however I can’t find it on line so I can’t link to it. Which is a shame cos the pictures are GORGEOUS. If you have an iPad, do get the app (which is currently free). I’ve adapted it slightly in that I added the nuts and dried fruits I wanted to add. Basically once you’ve got the nougat done (and I wouldn’t mess with that part of it) you can add any nuts/dried fruits you want up to a point. You don’t want to overload the mixture. I’d say 400g total of nuts/dried fruits is probably the limit. I used about 200g and could easily have had more.

You need 2 x sheets of confectionery rice paper (I got mine from Amazon; Lakeland also sells it as does the Jane Asher on line shop. You may be able to get it locally, I couldn’t).

550g caster sugar
350g liquid glucose
115g honey
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
2 eggwhites, at room temperature
100g butter, softened – mine was melted but cooled
then whatever nuts/dried fruits you want. I used about 160g almonds and pistachios and 60g dried cherries. Hazelnuts would also be lovely I think. Toast the nuts gently first.

A word about liquid glucose. You can buy it in small tubes/tubs from the supermarket. Your chemist may be able to sell you culinary grade liquid glucose in bigger quantities. I buy mine from Jayson’s Pharmacy. JM Loveridge also sells it (and in fact the one I got from Jayson’s was marked Loveridge) but I couldn’t work out how to buy it on site and was in a rush.

You need to line the base of a 20cm square tin with the rice paper. My rice paper wasn’t big enough so I overlaid another sheet to fill the gap. Keep the other sheet for the top.

Now, place the sugar, glucose, honey and vanilla in a saucepan with a handle. Very important this, as you’ll need to use just one hand to eventually pour the ingredients into the mixer bowl.

Over a low heat, let it all dissolve. Stir until this happens. Once the mixture starts to boil, put in a sugar thermometer and watch the temperature rise as it heats. You need to watch it. Don’t wander off. Donna Hay says that once it gets to about 110C put the egg whites in the free standing mixer and start whisking until stiff peaks form. I found that by doing this (my mixer was right next to me by the hob, have I mentioned) I had plenty of time.

You’ll find the temperature goes up in leaps, then seems to stagnate (you may need to gently increase the heat but keep watching it), then jumps up again. Once it’s at 130 you are green for go.

With the mixer beating (I had mine on medium speed), pour the molten sugar mixture very slowly into the egg whites. The idea is that it you cook the egg whites with the sugar mixture. A slow, steady, thin stream is what you’re looking for. Beating continuously all the time. Don’t stop! Once all the sugar mixture is in, continue beating for about a minute, until thick and glossy. But don’t hang around or it will start to set and you won’t get anything else into it. Now add the softened butter, whisking til well incorporated before adding more. It may start to look greasy and slightly separate. Do not panic. Once all the butter is added, keep whisking for another minute until it all looks well combined.

Now, working fast, lift up the mixer and take the bowl out. Stir in the nuts and fruits manually – you need to make sure they’re evenly distributed but as you stir it you’ll feel it setting so be quick – and pour/spoon the mixture into the prepared tin.

Cover with the other rice paper (again, using more than one sheet if yours isn’t big enough) and flatten with another tin or just your  hands. Now leave to set. Donna doesn’t say where, I think a cool kitchen is fine. Leave to set for eight hours (mine was done way before this). Then turn out – it can take some wrestling and cut into strips/cubes.

When I first made it and tasted it, it was really chewy. So chewy that I thought “hmm, my dentist isn’t going to like this” but after a few days it changed to a really lovely, soft consistency that wasn’t remotely filling pulling. Donna Hay says to keep it cold as the humidity will make it melt. In Italy they say to keep it in the fridge, too. But it’s zero degrees here in Suffolk and my nougat has been at room temperature (room temp being about 20C) and it’s absolutely fine. But if you do want to keep it cold, just remember to get it up to room temperature before eating it.

It’s very delicious. Would make – has made – great presents. I wouldn’t make this for every day but once/twice a year, a wonderful treat. And I feel it’s elevated me onto a whole other level of ‘cooking’. I mean, I made torrone and lived!

Salted caramel chocolates

Here it is, cut in half.

I’m very fond of salted caramel chocolates. I know salted caramel is a bit everywhere now, but I am partial.

L’Artisan du Chocolat’s are my favourite. But expensive. I went into the store within Selfridges not so long ago and a box costs £12 million pounds. Or nearly that.

Anyway, whenever I’m on a deadline, which is often, I think about how I can waste time in the kitchen. Because when I am failing at writing I need to achieve at something. Be it ironing or stuffing envelopes. I need a task that has a beginning, middle and end. Unlike writing which seems like all beginning and then huge relief followed by anxiety.

So this is what I did. I got my button chocolate mould, what I bought at Lakeland. This doesn’t make buttons like Cadbury’s buttons, it’s bigger. Each button is about 2cm across at the widest part. (Or something, I haven’t measured it I can if anyone wants me to). I melted some 70% cocoa chocolate, which isn’t really chocolate, it’s health food. I half filled the mould. Then put it in the fridge until set (not long). Then I put in some caramel sauce.

Here they are, chocolate at the bottom already. I actually put a bit more caramel in than is shown because I am very greedy.

Don’t be mean with the caramel sauce. But don’t fill so much that you can’t seal the chocolate up. They key is not to get the chocolate too thick, but to strike the right balance between enough chocolate to hold the caramel in, without making it too thin/thick. Even if you get it wrong the result is totally delicious, so fret not.

I use this caramel toffee sauce, aka dulce de leche. I don’t know how authentic it is but it’s what I use.

You thought I made my own caramel to go in these? You were wrong.

On top of each puddle of caramel, I then put a sprinkle of sea or rock salt. My two year old sometimes helps with this bit and some get enough salt to put you in a coma and I have to go round cleaning up.

You then let it rest for a bit more in the fridge, then top up with more chocolate. I keep my chocolate runny by keeping it over a pan of boiling water (but not on the stove).

Voila. Easy. Let’s just have another look at the finished product:

Pretty nice eh?

 

Addendum, November 2012.

I have now started making my own caramel to make these and it elevates them into something else. It doesn’t take long to make, the caramel, but as it’s my secret ingredient I am, for once, not going to share it. I’ll just post this here to be really annoying.

But you can find a recipe for caramel anywhere…

Chocolate Mulled Wine

I found this recipe, in amongst various things I’d torn out of a magazine one Christmas past. It answered my question: “should I serve hot chocolate or booze (to the grown ups)?” for a Trick or Treating treasure hunt extravaganza that we were staging in our garden (for the children). It came from Delicious magazine and was written by Laura Santini. I really can’t impress on you how very good it is. Even my partner – a wine expert and hater of mulled wine – got all knee-buckly about it.

This apparently serves six but there was four of us and we managed quite nicely…

750ml red wine
1 cinnamon stick
1 large dried red chilli (I didn’t have one so I used some chilli flakes)
1tsp ground spice
5 whole cloves
100g caster sugar
50g Venezuelan Black chocolate, 100% cocoa – grated*

*if you’ve never grated 100% cocoa chocolate, be warned: it’s very brittle/dry and it goes EVERYWHERE. I wouldn’t personally recommend grating it, but instead, scraping it off with a sharp knife.

This is what you do:

Put the wine and spices in a saucepan and warm slowly, over a very low heat. Then, add the sugar and stir until dissolved.

Add the chocolate and warm through. I used one of those Aerolatte whizzer things to homogenize it as it had a tendency to go a bit ‘speckedly’ with the chocolate. You can either then strain and serve, or strain and chill until you need it (it says it’ll keep for two days), then warm it up again and serve.

I really don’t plan to make mulled wine any other way now. And look: 100% cocoa is terrifically good for you, so this is practically a health drink.

 

One giant after dinner mint

I got this recipe from last month’s Delicious magazine.

After dinner mint chocolate: make it, smash it, eat it

I used a long tin of about 8cm by 30cm, cos I wanted that sort of shape. I lined it in baking parchment (tip: scrunch up the paper first, then flatten it out so it lays flat more easily, this also gives the After Eight an authentic looking side to it, all crinkly).

I melted some dark chocolate. I used about 100g for the bottom and 100g for the top (I’ll put the whole recipe, as I used it, below) I used 70% but actually you could easily go higher – and definitely no lower. It’s important to get the chocolate spread thinly. Thick sounds good but in reality this means you end up with chocolate that’s hard to crack and you want it thin. Don’t sweat it though because unless you’re an idiot you still end up with a great end product.

Pour/spread the chocolate for the bottom (so, 100g) on the bottom of the tin – refrigerate. Chocolate takes almost no time at all to set. Mine took what seemed like 10 mins. It should be hard and crisp.

Make the fondant bit. I used one egg white and 220g icing sugar plus of course the all important peppermint essence. Just in case your fondant is really stiff add a tiny bit of water. Go easy as you don’t want to add too much.

This is a suitable juncture to point out that this product contains raw egg whites so you know, don’t eat if you’re old/young/pregnant/prone to hysteria.

Mix the egg white and icing sugar together (sieve the icing sugar in) until you have a consistency that you like. Add a teaspoon of peppermint extract. Note that refrigerating it doesn’t really thicken it up much so aim for what you want the finished filling to be like, not what you hope it will turn into. To this end you may wish to add the egg white bit by bit. (I never have to as my eggs are laid by my chickens, so not giant).

I end up with really thick fondant that’s a great consistency for what it needs to do.

IMG_1130

When ready, spread over the base layer of chocolate and refrigerate for an hour or two.

Now melt more chocolate and spread it gently over the top – don’t drag it or you’ll end up with a mess.

Refrigerate and when ready to eat bring it out and smash it up with a hammer (but so you get big pieces, not lots of little ones) and let people help themselves. The circles on mine (if you look closely) are from the meat tenderizer I used. I’m sure finer folk have a toffee hammer or some such. DON’T bash it with a large thing like a rolling pin, you want to shatter it into shards, not smash it into a mess of tiny pieces.

You can cut this into squares, but they won’t be really neat. Or at least, mine weren’t. And I do think it’s fun to break it up yourself and eat shards of it.

Scoff after your meal with a strong espresso.

IMG_1136

In summary you need:

about 200g very dark chocolate
220g icing sugar
1 egg white
one teaspoon of peppermint extract (I used the Star Kay White one from Waitrose)

A greedy disposition.

Save

Cranberry sauce

Cranberries, orange zest and juice and sugar, all you need to make a delicious cranberry sauce

Cranberry sauce isn’t something that is served in Italian households. In fact any sauces, save for those you put on pasta, are rather alien to us. Growing up, we were made to be highly suspicious of sauces, especially opaque ones. “Whatta area dey trying to cover upaa?” my mother would say with, probably, hands on hips. Subsequently, I didn’t try Indian food til I was very grown up and my best friend’s husband, Mark (half Indian) introduced me to it. Accompaniment sauces, such as ketchup, mayonnaise, chutney etc are never on the table, either, in the Italian households I visit. Although in recent years, younger relatives have started using them.

I’ve had this recipe for cranberry sauce for ages. Torn out of a long ago published magazine. I have no idea what attracted me to it, given that cranberry sauce, have I mentioned, didn’t feature on my radar. It may well have been on the same page as a recipe for chocolate biscuits or something. Who knows. What I do know is that when I got me an English husband (almost) and I started moving away from always having Christmases at my parents’ house (sob!), I also started making cranberry sauce.

And this one is fantastic. And so easy.

The beauty is that you use the same amount of sugar as you have cranberries. I’d say from about 250-500g of cranberries, one orange zest/juice is fine. If you start to go above those quantities then you might want to use more orange zest/juice. The packets of cranberries that Waitrose sell come in about 325g, so I use those, and of course 325g of sugar. This makes more than enough for about six people. I’d say 500g cranberries/sugar would make enough for about ten. Obviously it depends on how much you put on your plate. Anyway it’s nice to make extra and have some left over to use for cold cuts over the next few days and weeks – it keeps for months.

So. You take:

The same amount of cranberries as you have sugar, so say 250g cranberries, 250g caster sugar
Grated zest and juice of one orange.

Preheat oven to 170C/gas 3. It’s hard to say how big your dish should be, but about 1 litre for 500g of cranberries?

Put the cranberries in the baking dish, scatter over the sugar, zest and juice. Stir around gently so that the berries are coated. That’s it. Now cover with foil (although I have cooked without foil and it’s been fine!) and cook for 35-40 mins until the berries are tender and bubbling. (What I do is set the timer for 20 mins and then give the berries a gentle stir and check how they’re doing.)

Cool and store in a jar in the fridge. Keeps for weeks if not months.

Here it is finished in the jam jar, ready to go into the fridge.

A good panforte for Christmas

A slice of panforte ready to be eaten, heavy with nuts and dusted with icing sugar

I’m no stranger to panforte (which means “strong bread”). We had it in the house, at Christmas, when we were children. Unlike almost every other food stuff in our house (save for panettone), it was always shop bought, and awful. Dense and way too clove-y with dusty tasting nuts, it was like something someone had made from what was left in the cupboard after all the good Christmas things had been produced.

When Zia Nigella brought out her Nigella’s Christmas, two years ago, it was, weirdly, the recipe for panforte which intrigued me. I say weirdly because it’s a mystery why I would want to try to make it after my experiences.

But I did.

Well, it was a revelation. It is easy to make, although the ingredient list is not short (or cheap, what with the price of nuts these days). It is delicious, but not in that “I must eat more and more and more until I’m sick” way. A thin slice with a glass of something small, and pert, is perfect. It keeps – so it can be made before Christmas (I’m not going to say “ahead of” since I HATE THAT PHRASE. What happened to ‘before’? It is being outsted). And a thick wedge, wrapped in cellophane would make for a really original little present for a host.

Zia Nigella’s recipe is perfect, and in my opinion, cannot be bettered. Actually that’s not entirely true. But the only change I make is that I make my own candied peel , which isn’t hard, a few days before the panforte. I think it really makes it.

Here it is:

125g almonds with skins on
100g blanched almonds
125g whole hazelnuts (with skins on is fine)
75g soft figs, scissored into 2cm x 1cm pieces
200g candied peel , scissored as above.
half a teaspoon of ground cloves
1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
A good grating of fresh nutmeg
50g plain flour
a pinch of white pepper
1 x 15ml tablespoon of cocoa powder
150g caster sugar
150g honey (runny or solid is fine as it all melts down)
30g butter

icing sugar for dusting

Preheat your oven to 170C/gas mark 3. Line the bottom and sides of a 20cm cake tin. I use a cake liner cos I’m extremely lazy.

Take a heat proof bowl. It doesn’t need to be heat proof in the sense you’re going to have to cook with it, you don’t, but you will be pouring hot stuff into it in a minute, so don’t use something that’s, you know, papier mache or something.

In this bowl, mix together the nuts, dried fruits, candied peel. Into this add the cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, flour, white pepper and cocoa powder.

Put the sugar, honey and butter into a saucepan and gently melt. When done, take off the heat and pour over the dry ingredients. Now mix together. “Stir slowly and patiently” says Nigella and I agree. Think about what Christmas really means (presents and someone, undoubtedly, being ill).

Everything needs to be well coated. Tip the lot into the tin and try to press down as much as you can so you get a flattish surface. You WON’T get a level surface, so don’t panic, but do your best. Anyway when the panforte is out of the oven, and still warm (and has been out for a bit, don’t do it when it first comes out), you can press it down some more. I do this when it comes out of the oven with the end of my rolling pin (which is flat).

Bake for 40 mins. It’s ‘done’ when it’s bubbling. Do not panic when you take it out if it looks all soft. You shouldn’t anyway, be touching it (leave it ALONE). Don’t be tempted to cut a slice and think ‘it’s all soft still’. As it cools it will harden.

This is the panforte just before it went into the oven

When completely cold, lift out of tin and dust prettily with icing sugar. What you’ll have is a lovely chewy, nutty thing that tastes wonderfully of Christmas.