Faux Christmas trees

I have been writing, professionally, for 23 years. During that time I have learned that two things are so emotive, I don’t write about them anymore:

Breastfeeding.

Anti-wrinkle creams.

I suspect this will be an equally divisive topic.

Last Christmas, I went to my friend Louise’s house. Louise lives in a beautiful house and she had, in the entrance hall, a beautiful Christmas tree. It was only on closer inspection, that I realised it wasn’t real. “Do you think it looks okay?” she asked. “I think it looks fabulous,” I replied.

I went straight home and bought one, after doing some sums – ours cost £318 last year, before Brexit and before the pound fell, like a snowflake from the sky. That’s not an inconsiderable amount of money to sink into a Christmas tree but given we were spending £40-£50 a year on one, I wish we had bought one ten years ago.

Coincidentally, my other friend Sandra, had bought one the week before – but it hadn’t really sunk in – and she said it had made her “truly happy”. Now, Sandra isn’t the sort of person to find happiness in Christmas foliage, usually. So I knew I was onto a good thing.

My partner took a bit of persuading because, every Christmas, we go somewhere in the Suffolk countryside and choose a tree. I say we, but they all look pretty good to me and he spends AGES choosing one and I find the whole selection process really stressful, and cold. Really bloody cold. I just don’t know why I find it stressful, but I do. Anyway, we bought one, he loves it. My children, after becoming hysterical at the thought (they thought it would be really fake looking) also love it. I grew up with a faux (okay, we called it fake back then) Christmas tree which is still going strong from when it was purchased by my parents – in 1963.

When I told a few people that we were venturing into fake Christmas tree territory, they went nuts. As if we were telling them something awful. “I don’t know who you are anymore,” joked (?) my friend Jo.

Here is the case for a fakey faux Christmas tree:

No more going out to buy one and spending £40 plus on one, or whatever it is they cost. No more jostling with people for the tree that looks great.

No more cutting down live trees.

You can put it up from 1st December and no risk of leaf fall.

No more vacuuming up pine needles.

Okay, no more real tree smell but you know, you can get that in a SPRAY from Jo Malone or The White Company (you can actually get very good pine smelly things which you hang on the branches, I got some from the supermarket which cost a couple of pounds and they were, incredibly, rather good).

We got one which comes with lights IN IT. No more untangling the lights, risking electrocution and finding that none of them work anymore.

It looks good all the way through Christmas, no more sad Christmas tree.

I am not trying to convince you, but if you are thinking of going faux, then take the plunge! We love ours and are putting it up as soon as the clocks chime midnight on November.

I’m mentioning all this now cos we got ours from Balsam Hill – also where my friends got theirs from – and the quality is superb. And there’s a sale on. We got one with a not-too-huge bottom to it (I love that you can choose the width, from a narrow tree if you don’t have much room to a more full-bottomed one). Go for the most realistic ones. I know they’re not cheap, but once you’ve bought one you have it. We got the Vermont White Spruce with ‘candelight’ lights which give a warmer glow.

The pictures were of our tree last year (forgive the scaffolding outside, we were having building works done) – I tried to take a picture of it looking as ‘real’ as possible, not with any funny filters on or anything (not, ha ha, ‘spruced’ up). And here is one of the branches close up:

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You’ll see we go for a white and silver theme…

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Pressure/Slow cooker

Earlier this year, just as we were emerging from the shuck of winter and blinking in the spring sunshine, with thoughts turning to light, easy lunches involving salads and grilled things, I decided to I needed to buy a slow cooker to cook stews in.

A slow cooker is actually a very good idea for someone like me, because I am a natural early riser and I am at my best, my most industrious, early in the morning. It’s all down hill from there. I am often too tired of an evening to cook, or think about cooking. In Italy, at least in my family, it is customary to largely prepare the main meal of the day (whether that be taken at mezzogiorno or a cena) in the morning. This is when people visit and the cook can chat, catch up with the latest gossip and prep a substantial meal. I would watch many such occasions as a child and marvel at how organised and easy it seemed.

(I would also marvel at just how much bitching would go on.)

But, I never managed this level of organisation and I thought the slow cooker would help. As these things go, I started looking at entry level slow cookers and before I knew what I was doing, I had ordered a top of the range slow cooker and pressure cooker combined – a huge hulk of a stainless steel beast, the Fast Slow Pro by Heston for Sage (before anyone thinks I am on a salary from them, I am not, this is literally only one of two Sage appliances I own, the other one being an insanely priced waffle maker which is brilliant but I don’t recommend anyone buy because no-one can like waffles that much.)

It is an electric model, so you can use it anywhere there is a plug (no need for a stove top).

Of course, the purchase of lots of books on slow cooking and pressure cooking followed and I realised that most people were either evangelical about one type of cooking, or another. But you can be a fan of both and this lets you be.

Slow cooking, in case you don’t know, is just like cooking something on a stove top or in an oven at a very low temperature for a very long time. The difference is, because the slow cooker is sealed, no moisture gets out so things stay very moist. I have done the best ‘roast’ chicken in this ever, you then reduce down the gravy, in the same slow cooker pot, using the reduce function which is the equivalent of a pan on the hob simmering away.

Moist is not a bad word.

Pressure cooking cooks things under, er, very high pressure so it cooks things very very fast. It is particularly good for cooking dried pulses etc.

The beauty with either is that you just put it in the pot, turn the lid and leave it. I can’t comment on other appliances but mine is all digital and you set a timer and it does it all for you.

I mostly use mine for making stock and bolognese, which is brilliant cos I chuck everything in and do it on a slow cooker 12 hour timer overnight. I use the pressure cooker for things like ribs (does them in an hour * they are literally falling off the bone when they come out which may not be to everyone’s liking) and pulses.  But you can cook loads and loads of things in it, I am only just starting.

*The pressure cooker takes time to come up to pressure and also to release the pressure so if it says it does it in an hour remember to factor in these things.

It’s also brilliant at reducing (you leave the lid up) as you can reduce, say, a stock on a timer and leave it whilst you do other stuff. Obvs you can do this with an ordinary sauce pan, on the hob, but you don’t have to worry about going back and switching it off.

It has a ‘keep warm’ function so once it has finished its main cooking, it will keep things warm for two hours. Great if you are a bit nebulous about a coming home time.

In short this is a brilliant bit of kit – huge so think about where you’re going to put it – and I’ve had it for several months now and I really rate it.

Chicken, pesto, pasta with courgettes and peppers.

The idea for this came from the Waitrose Weekend newspaper they produce each week. I’ve said before that whomever writes the recipes for Waitrose is really rather good.

Because I wanted to get more veg in there, I changed it slightly and upped the quantities on most things, as the original was for two people. I used the pesto in this recipe, and this was also the meal, mentioned in the pesto recipe, that my youngest ate four portions of. It is really, really tasty and quick and easy, especially if you prep the veg five minutes before you need it, unlike I did.

300g fusilli. I used Napolina’s half regular, half wholemeal

2 tablespoons of olive oil

About 350g of chicken breast – use more if you want or less etc – cut into thin strips

2 red peppers, diced or cut into strips

100g frozen sweetcorn

2 courgettes – I use a Julienne cutter to cut mine into strips, but you can spiralise yours if you want, or cut it into half coins or use a vegetable peeler.

4 tablespoons of pesto

200g creme fraiche

Put a pan of salted, boiling water on and at the same time heat the olive oil in a frying pan.

Put the pasta into the water to cook for the recommended time. Fry the chicken and peppers in the oil, for about five minutes; add the sweetcorn, courgette and cook for a couple of minutes. Now add the pesto and creme fraiche and cook through for 1-2 minutes. Check the chicken is cooked. Drain the pasta and add it, give it a stir through. Put in a bowl, eat with a fork and be happy.

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Besto pesto

Pesto is not something I have ever made particularly successfully. Lord knows why. It is not difficult or complicated. My eldest can make it before she takes her coat off (but has washed her hands) after school. But the pesto I make never makes me shut my eyes, momentarily transported, and go ‘mmm’.

A friend called Vonetta first made me pesto, with farfalle shaped pasta, when I was in my 20s. Incredibly, I had never had it before. It does not feature highly in the cuisine of my father’s province: Parma, nor my mother’s: Avellino.  Italian cuisine is incredibly regional you see – there is very little cross fertilisation; each region fiercely proud of everything they do and determined it can’t be bettered. They rarely invite in new dishes, however old.

I made this pesto in a great rush, after tearing the recipe out of a magazine (the superb Donna Hay’s) as an afterthought. As I orchestrated dinner, and everything came together a bit too fast, a bit too suddenly, I didn’t have time to taste anything until I was sat at the table, and then I was blown away.

This pesto was the basis for another dinner, which I will post another day, which was so successful, that my youngest, who likes almost nothing savoury that I make aside from my sourdough bread, ate four helpings.

For now, here is the pesto recipe, ever so slightly adapted:

Ingredients

80g baby spinach leaves

25g basil leaves

150g roasted cashew nuts – these are absolutely key, and they must be roasted. I gave mine about 4 mins at 190C, watch them carefully.

1 clove of garlic

1 teaspoon of salt (I used pink Himalayan salt just because I had that in)

The juice of half a lemon

The zest of one small lemon

2 tablespoons of olive oil

2 tablespoons of water

Method

(Note: no parmesan, that is correct!)

Put the spinach, basil, cashew nuts, garlic, salt, lemon juice and rind in a food processor until everything is well chopped and blended. While the motor is running slowly add the oil and water. Scrap down the sides of the processor if need be so everything is finely, and uniformly, chopped. That’s it. Use it there and then, keep it for a few days in the fridge or freeze it for another day. It’s superb in pasta, of course, but also spread as an extra layer in sandwiches, in salad dressings or used on cauliflower pizza.

Sliced sourdough from Waitrose. The best sliced white ever.

I have been making sourdough bread for about seven years now (shout out to Emily for the starter). Thanks to following Dan Lepard’s recipes from his bread book, and a bit of occasional hand holding from him via the medium of technology, I feel I can bake a really quite good loaf of sourdough. Shaped as baguettes, rolls or one big boulder loaf of bread.

But sometimes I don’t want to. I’m just too lazy. And sometimes I crave uniform slices of bread, toasted.

Commercially available bread usually doesn’t interest me. (I have no chi-chi artisan bakers near me, which is why I started baking my own bread in the first place.)  I find the long list of ingredients terrifying. And yet, sometimes, I want a white bread sandwich or toast, all neat slices and not made from ‘home made bread’. I search in vein on the shelves for something that isn’t full of things I’ve never heard of and if I do ever give in and buy white sliced, it’s like eating nothing – completely unsatisfying.

A few months ago,  I read that Waitrose was going to introduce sliced sourdough which contained nothing but flour, water and salt. And lo, it did.

Bertinet sliced sourdough comes in white or wholemeal (not tried the latter as it’s always sold out). The white is glorious. I’ve only ever had it toasted so far but it makes the best toast. I would go as far as to say it is the best sliced white bread I’ve ever tasted. It’s quite sour – I like that – and it’s really satisfying. I can never, quite, eat two slices. With normal sliced-white I could keep eating it and just get hungrier (sourdough is supremely satisfying bread, with a lower G.I than commercially yeasted bread).

It’s no substitute for when you want a hunk of delicious home made bread dipped in olive oil or soup. And it’s not cheap compared to many white sliced loaves: but then, good bread shouldn’t be. It costs £3.50 a loaf. But you can stick it in the freezer and toast it when you fancy ‘hospital toast’ without the trip to hospital, but also want something more substantial than the usual pitiful offerings of white sliced.

(I know the photo I took isn’t up to, ahem, my usual standard, but I just wanted to show the packaging and it was 6am..)

A healthier waffle recipe

When I bought my waffle maker, I diligently followed the recipes that came with it and they were very good. But I wanted something un peu healthier. There are thousands of waffle recipes on the internet and in books. I personally like to add my sugar, if I add any at all, afterwards in the form of fruit or maple syrup. I found one on an American site which looked good and had a tweak around and now this is pretty much the waffles I make.

This recipe makes about 18 but they freeze well (freeze them flat on a tray then bag up together) and cook splendidly from not quite frozen, but ten minutes out of the freezer. If you toast them straight from the freezer by the time the toaster has defrosted them the waffles have got quite dry. Far better to take a waffle out of the freezer when you first get up, let it defrost at room temperature for ten minutes (who wants to eat when they very first get up anyway?) and then pop it into the toaster for a minute or two.

I eat mine with live yoghurt and berries and maple syrup and, incredibly, this breakfast keeps me going til lunchtime.

I’m sure you could up the wholemeal flour even more if you wanted to.

120g plain wholemeal flour

225g plain white flour

50g porridge oats

110g rice flour

2 teaspoons of bicarbonate of soda

2 teaspoons of baking powder

2 teaspoons of fine sea salt

1 litre of full fat milk (or use a combination of milk and yoghurt for an even lighter waffle)

4 eggs, separated

115g melted butter (or coconut oil)

 

Combine all the dry ingredients – the flours, oats, bicarb, baking powder and salt – in a bowl. In a separate bowl combine the milk, egg yolks and melted butter or coconut oil.

In a third bowl, whisk the egg whites until they are stiff. Make a well in the dry ingredients, pour in the butter/milk/egg yolk mixture. Mix everything together until nice blended. Now dollops the egg whites on top and gently fold in.

In my waffle maker I cook these for about 2m45s on the buttermilk setting, but you’ll have to experiment with yours.

 

Waffle maker

Some years ago, there was  a rival to Argos and that rival was called Shopper’s World. It was, I think, something to do with Woolworth’s because all the Shopper’s Worlds were in Woolworth stores.

It was from there that my sister and I purchased our first waffle maker as teenagers. We went home, gorged on undercooked waffles, felt sick, cleaned it up and returned it for a refund, figuring we’d never want to eat waffles ever again.

And, largely, I didn’t. Until now.

My eldest always begs me for a waffle when we are in London, where you can get them covered in cream and chocolate sauce and sweets. And I have never been a fan of hot cake – which is what waffles seem to me.

Let me make it clear that I think waffle makers are pretty much up there for unessential gadgets in the kitchen. You can only make one thing with them and they don’t really earn their keep. So it’s pretty stupid, I think, to buy a waffle maker.

So I bought the most expensive one I could find: The Smart Waffle Maker by Sage.

I actually saw this waffle maker a while ago in Selfridges or John Lewis (the only London stores I ever go into) and thought “what nutter would spend THAT MUCH on a waffle maker?” And, it later transpired, that would be me.

I did lots of research, of course. The thing with cheaper waffle makers is that they don’t heat up hot enough to give you really crispy waffles – hence the undercooked waffles of yore which made us feel sick. Also the ones with removable plates – which seem so sensible – can’t heat up hot enough for really crispy waffles because of the way the heating element is placed (or something).

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There are two waffle makers in the Sage range: the No-Mess and the Smart Waffle. Have a look and see which one you think would work best for you. The No-Mess is significantly cheaper, has less features and make different shaped waffles but is, I’ll bet, still a brilliant machine. The Smart does all sorts of fancy pants stuff which you probably will never use.

I haven’t had one single failure in this machine. The moat is brilliant (why why why do all waffle makers not have this??). You can experiment with all sorts of waffles in the safety of your own home: gluten free, wheat free, fun free – if that’s your bag. Me, I just tried to make waffles as healthy as possible whilst still retaining their waffley-ness. (Recipes to follow.)

My eldest has, of course, completely gone off waffles since I bought this. But I can make a batch and freeze them, take one out about ten minutes before I want to eat it and then pop it in the toaster. Thus there are always waffles to eat under piles of yoghurt and berries and a dash of maple syrup. I now eat lots of waffles.

Pros of this machine:

Fool-proof. I think even if you put wallpaper paste in there you’d get amazing waffles.

The moat is brilliant

Wonderfully crisp waffles

Really good (but few) recipes come with the instruction book

Solidly built

It looks great

The non-stick is really non-stick

Cons

Eye-wateringly expensive

You will try to waffle everything for the first week you get it

You will get fat