A Sweet Thank You

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Cookies, as far as the eye can see.


I spent a happy evening turning the kitchen into a factory. A biscuit factory to be precise. In the space of a few hours I made eight dozen chocolate crackle cookies and four dozen oatmeal and raisin cookies. When I bake like this I go into a sort of trance of measuring, whisking, beating, sprinkling and rolling, punctuated by the ping of the kitchen timer. I rotate the baking sheets through the oven and put them onto the table in the garden to cool quickly between batches, enjoying the cooling blast of evening air.

Clearly even I can’t eat that many cookies, at least in one session. I parcelled them up in little bags to give to my neighbours and my favourite local shopkeepers. So if you’ve chatted with me over the fence, sold me a book or a bra, a lamb chop or a cat collar, a newspaper or a bunch of flowers, the chances are you’ve already tried the pretty Christmas Crackle Cookies here. If not, they’re fun to make in a mud-pie sort of way. I’ll post the oatmeal cookies in January, when we can all do with a cosy, chewy, pretending-to-be wholesome (they’ve got OATS in – they’re practically health food) cheer up. In the meantime, thank you to all of you who visit my blog and leave such lovely comments, both here and on Twitter. I wish you all a delicious Christmas and a sweetly chewy New Year.

Christmas crackle cookies

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This makes about eight dozen cookies, but you can halve it quite easily if that’s too many for you. The dough also freezes well so you could keep some of the packages in the freezer, ready for when you want to rustle up a quick batch.
I took as my inspiration for this recipe Martha Stewart’s recipe here, though I tinkered with the method quite a bit. My tips for success are these:

  • Chill the dough for at least four hours, or overnight if possible. Take the packages of dough out of the fridge one at a time – you want the batter to be very cold when you work on it.
  • It helps if your hands are really cool. Run them under the cold tap or dip them in chilled water from time to time. You’ll need to wash them quite frequently anyway, as it’s a rather sticky business.
  • Handle the dough as little as possible to turn them into little balls. They don’t have to be perfectly round. Roughly round is fine – the oven will do the rest.
  • It’s quite pleasingly messy, so line your work surface with baking parchment or clingfilm to make cleaning up easy.

225g plain chocolate
about 70%, broken up into small pieces
370g plain flour 
100g cocoa 4tsp baking powder 
½ tsp salt 
225g unsalted butter, room temperature 
400g light muscovado sugar 
4 eggs, lightly beaten 
150ml whole milk 
2 tbsp Kahlua, optional 
2 tsp vanilla extract

Icing sugar and caster sugar for rolling

Place the chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a pan of barely-simmering water (the water should not touch the bottom of the bowl). Melt, stirring from time to time. Cool.

Sift together the flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt. If I’m making this quantity, I sift it twice to make sure it’s well blended.
In a stand mixer, beat the butter until smooth then add the sugar and beat until very light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs about a tablespoon at a time, beating until well combined after each addition. Beat in the vanilla and Kahlua if using, then the cooled chocolate.

With the beater on a low speed, add a third of the sifted flour mixture, then half of the milk, and repeat, ending with the last third of the flour. Mix until just combined – with this large quantity, I finish it off by hand, but with a half batch you should be fine. Be careful not to overmix though or the cookies will be tough – the dough should be soft and cakey, rather mousse-y. Divide the dough into eight flattish discs of about 220g each and wrap them in clingfilm. Refrigerate for at least four hours or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas mark 4. Line baking sheets with non-stick baking parchment. You will need to cook these in batches. Make sure the sheets are cool and the oven back up to temperature before you embark on each batch.

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Ready to roll.

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Ready for the oven.


Place a large sheet of baking parchment or clingfilm on your work surface and set up a bowl of caster sugar and a bowl of icing sugar, ready to roll the cookies. Remove one batch of dough from the fridge and use a teaspoon to scoop out little balls of dough. Roll them quickly into balls roughly the size of a small walnut. Toss them first in the caster sugar then in the icing sugar until they’re well coated, then arrange on the prepared baking sheet about 2cm apart. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until flattened and the sugar coating has split into a crackle pattern. Transfer them to a wire rack to cool completely. They will keep in an airtight container for about 4 days.

Scents of Christmas

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The sight of the tree glittering in the dining room window, twinkling fairy lights twining up the banisters and streams of cards dangling from ribbons stapled into the top of the sitting room doors lifts my heart at Christmas. But more than that, more than that, I love the way the house smells.

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The wreath on the front door, covered in oranges and lemons studded with cloves, sprigs of bay, bundles of cinnamon and dried orange slices, smells as good as it looks. The oven, with some assistance from me, churns out cookies and cakes, hams and sausage rolls, filling the house with delicious aromas. Pots of hyacinths and jasmine, vases of eucalyptus and off-cut pine branches from the tree, are crammed on every mantel, side table and desk.

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Along the sitting room mantel, I place candles stuck into old terracotta pots filled with damp sand (you could also use florists’ oasis). I cram them with clippings of myrtle, rosemary, Christmas box and bay from the garden. It takes minutes and smells wonderful. On Christmas Day, I’ll steal the candles from the sitting room and use them to decorate the dining table.

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Candle pots, decorated with myrtle, Christmas box, rosemary and bay from the garden.


I dry dozens of orange slices in December (see method, below). It’s easy and cheap and I use them in so many different ways – on the wreath, tied in bundles on the tree and in quick Christmas pot pourri.

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As well as making ooh-la-la pot pourri, I also just fling leftover citrus peels into the fireplace, where they dry and turn into very good, sweet-smelling firelighters.


For this, I mix the orange slices in a bowl with whatever I can grab from my spice drawer: cinnamon sticks, star anise, cloves, cardamom pods and cassia bark (available very cheaply in big bags from Indian supermarkets). To this base mixture, I add fresh bay leaves and rosemary from the garden so I can enjoy their sweet, spicy, piney scents as they dry. I also stud a few oranges and lemons with cloves and toss these in the bowl too. The base mixture, with perhaps just a few drops of essential oil (sweet orange, frankincense, cedar, scotch pine and clove are all good, alone or in combination) to intensify the scent, bagged up and tied with a pretty ribbon, make a very good, inexpensive present.
What scents say ‘Christmas’ to you?

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Use a darning needle to make a hole in the peel before pressing in the clove – it’s a lot easier on your hands.

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Christmas pot pourri.

How to Dry Orange Slices:

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Preheat the oven to 130C/250F/Gas mark ½ .

Trim the ends off the orange and then slice thinly, about 3mm thick, with a sharp knife. Place sheets of baking parchment on metal cake cooling racks and arrange the orange slices on top. Place them in the oven. After 15 minutes, turn the temperature down to 110C/225F/Gas mark ¼ . After an hour or so, turn the slices over and return them to the oven. Keep an eye on them, turning from time to time. When they’re almost dry, turn the oven off and leave the orange slices in the oven until cold. The idea is to get them thoroughly dry but not to over ‘cook’ them as you want to keep the colour as vibrant as possible, so keep an eye on them and adjust the timings to suit your oven.

Cheap and Easy Bit of Skirt

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Since the dog chewed our felt Christmas  tree skirt, or wee’d on it, or did something or other to make it unusable, each time December rolls around I think I really should make a new one. But then of course this is the busiest of months and I don’t have time to run up a decorative bit of tree couture to camouflage the ugly green plastic tree stand.

Yesterday I fished out a couple of metres of rough hessian left over from a shoot and thought I’d just drape it around the bottom of the tree. This would have looked fine. But I was in the craft shop and spied some cans of spray paint. I LOVE spraying things. Instant gratification plus the gentle high of the paint fumes, that’s my kind of crafting.

This is so quick and cheap to make. It looks pretty. I’m enjoying it in its naked state, though soon, with any luck , it will vanish under a mountain of presents.

No-Sew 40-Minute Christmas Tree Skirt

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You’ll need:
Some cardboard
A craft knife
About 2-3m hessian or other plain fabric
2 cans acrylic spray paint in different colours
Newspaper


Either draw some star templates or print them out – varying sizes look best. I used these.

Glue the templates to some pieces of card. Leave plenty of space around the shapes so that the card shields the fabric from stray paint spray. Protect the table with a spare bit of card and cut out the templates with a craft knife.

Cover a table with several layers of newspaper and lay the fabric on top of that.

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Open a window (health and safety announcement) and give the cans a really good shake. Use the templates to spray stars over the surface of the fabric, varying the sizes and colours to make an attractive pattern. Remember to give the cans a lively shake from time to time to ensure an even flow of paint. Don’t worry about getting a dense layer of colour – I think it looks better if some of them are a bit soft and uneven.
Drape around the base of the tree. Try to stop the dog weeing on it. That’s it.

Christmas at Columbia Road Market

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Yvonne Harnett and her trees.

A lovely thing about Christmas is that it’s compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together.”
from Leaving Home: A Collection of Lake Wobegon Stories by Garrison Keillor

Yesterday we got up very early to go to Columbia Road Flower Market. We go every Sunday, but this week we were under strict instructions from stallholder Yvonne Harnett not to slope up at our usual, slothful 10ish if we wanted a really big Christmas tree. And we always want a really big Christmas tree. Yvonne’s husband Shane is a fourth generation nurseryman and his family have sold Christmas trees on this corner of Columbia Road and Ravenscroft Street for over a hundred years, so I’m inclined to do as she says.

We reported for tree-purchasing duty at an eye-blinkingly early 8.30am, fortified ourselves with coffee and excellent sausage rolls from the Lily Vanilli Bakery and picked out a fine 10-foot Nordman Fir from Yvonne and Shane’s stall. Then we loaded ourselves up with other Christmas essentials: some scarlet poinsettias, a tray of miniature cyclamen, a bag of fir cones and a couple of Turkish fruit wreaths which I’ll use to decorate our table with the addition of some fat church candles. Next week, I’ll stock up on holly, ivy and mistletoe to drape along mantles and banisters and hang from chandeliers. I am a maximalist.

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Urban forest.

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Stuart with his poinsettias. Every week he makes me laugh with his cheeky sales pitches.

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Mick and Sylvia Grover. During the summer, they sell all kinds of culinary and medicinal herbs but at this time of year, their stall is piled high with wreaths and garlands which they make themselves. They give our dog Barney a Christmas present every year and are two of the kindest people you could ever meet. It shows in their faces, don’t you think?


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Mick and Sylvia’s wreaths.


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Turkish fruit and berry wreaths. I bought two of these for the Christmas table, so pretty with a fat church candle in the middle.


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Sean, whose bric-a-brac and book stall is a great favourite of mine. I think he would make a very good Father Christmas.


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Fortifying sausage roll from Lily Vanilli Bakery


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Festive decorations around the door of this café.

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Jones the Baker gets into the Christmas spirit.

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Dazzling proteas.

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Sparkly branches.

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Ilex berries.

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Fat amaryllis buds, one of my favourite winter flowers.

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Mountains of holly and mistletoe.

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Birdfeed baskets.

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Christmas planters.

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Crates of pine cones.

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Pots of hyacinths. Do what I do – transplant these into pretty bowls and pretend you’ve grown them yourself.

Are we there yet?

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Here we are on Day 800 of our Christmas preparations and I feel like I’m on first name terms with every single piece of dried fruit in my larder. But this mincemeat really is worth the tiny bit of effort involved in making it. It will see you through an Office Hero quantity of mince pies and if you have any left, you could try this Mincemeat Crumble Tart which makes a nice alternative to a traditional pudding on Christmas Day for those of you who don’t care for it. I know you’re out there.

While we’re on the subject of puddings and fruity things, I’m a bit furious at Morrisons for their Christmas advert which features a little boy sneaking some Christmas pud to his dog under the table. Unless you want this Christmas to live on in family memory as the one where Timmy accidentally killed Rover, this is a really bad idea. Raisins, currants and sultanas can be highly toxic to dogs and ingesting them can lead to renal failure and death. Not very festive.

I know this because a couple of years ago, I had a box filled with Christmas puddings sitting in the corner of my dining room ready to do a taste test for a magazine feature. Our dog Barney got into the box, into one of the puds and was halfway through it before I discovered the crummy little buggar. Cue a trip to the vet’s, charcoal tablets, three days on a drip and a bill of ‘nice little holiday somewhere warm’ proportions. So don’t be as silly as Morrisons and do keep all of the pud, cake and pies for yourself.

Plum and apple mincemeat

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This recipe comes from River Cottage Handbook No. 2 Preserves, by Pam ‘The Jam’ Corbin. Pam’s recipe is unusual as it contains no suet. I like this as I think it gives the mincemeat a fresher, cleaner more lively flavour. Pam uses Russet apples but I didn’t have any of these kicking about so used Blenheim Orange instead. This is one of my favourite apples, great for eating and cooking, so grab some if you can find them.

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Makes 4 x 450g jars

1kg plums 
Finely-grated zest and juice of 2-3 oranges (200ml juice)
500g russet apples, peeled, cored and chopped into 1cm cubes 
200g each currants, raisins and sultanas 
100g orange marmalade 
250g Demerara sugar 
½ tsp ground cloves 
2tsp ground ginger 
½ nutmeg, grated 
50ml ginger cordial or wine (optional) 
100g chopped walnuts 
50ml brandy or sloe gin

Wash the plums, halve them and remove the stones. Put them into a saucepan with the orange juice and cook gently until tender. This could take as little as 15 minutes but may take longer if your plums are not very ripe. Blend into a purée in a blender or liquidiser, or press through a sieve. You should have about 700ml plum purée.

Put the purée into a large bowl with the rest of the ingredients, apart from the brandy or gin. Mix thoroughly, cover and leave for 12 hours.

Preheat the oven to 130˚C/250˚F/Gas mark ½. Put the mincemeat in a large baking dish and bake, uncovered for 2 – 2 ½ hours until thickened. Stir in the brandy or gin (it will bubble up and steam quite a bit), then spoon into warm, sterilised jars, making sure there aren’t any air pockets. Seal and store in a dry, dark, cool place until ready to use. It will keep for up to 12 months.

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Christmas cake: Part II (the really good bit)

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So you’ve been watching that fruit getting wonderfully fat and juicy in the booze for three days and now you’re ready to embark on the cake itself. This is essentially the Rich Plum Cake from The Constance Spry Cookery Book, but like lots of cookbooks from that era, the instructions are a little light on detail, presupposing you’ve made many a plum cake in your time. I’ve fleshed it out a bit as we’re not all Mrs Patmore. For cooking times and other great tips, such as covering the top with a double layer of baking parchment so it doesn’t brown too quickly, I referred to Saint Delia

Measure everything out before you start, ticking everything off as you go so you don’t forget anything, and it’s pretty plain sailing from there.  This is slightly lighter than some Christmas cakes, but in my opinion all the more delicious for that.

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Measuring bowls.

If you have any queries, leave a message here or tweet me @lickedspoon. Tweet LOUDLY as I’ll be at the football between about 2.30 and 5.30 and I’ll need to be able to hear you over the roar of the crowd.

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Mixing in the fruit.

1 lot of fruit soaked in booze for 3 days
300g plain flour
½ tsp salt
½ tsp each of ground cinnamon, ground ginger, ground cloves and mixed spice (if you want to make your own mixed spice, and it’s delicious and easy to do, check out my friend Thane Prince’s excellent blog.)
225g unsalted butter, softened, plus a little more for greasing the tin
225g light muscovado sugar
6 eggs, separated, yolks lightly beaten
140ml black treacle
Juice of a lemon
260ml cider, apple juice or milk (I used cider, obviously)
70ml dark rum, plus a few more tablespoons of rum or brandy for feeding the thirsty little cake until Christmas
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

Butter a 22.5cm/9” spring-form tin and line the bottom and sides with baking parchment. Cut a double strip of baking parchment that will come about 2.5cm/1” above the top of the tin and tie it tightly around the outside of the tin with kitchen string. Cut another couple of circles of baking parchment the same diameter as the tin and cut a small hole in the top of them. This is to cover the top of the cake while it cooks, to protect the top from browning too quickly.

Preheat the oven to 140C/275F/Gas mark 1.

Sift together the flour, spices and salt into a large bowl, raising the sieve high above the bowl so that you incorporate as much air as possible.

In a stand mixer, beat the butter until light and creamy then add the sugar and continue to beat on a medium-high speed for about 10 minutes, scraping down the bowl and spatula a couple of times, until very light and fluffy. Add the egg yolks a couple of tablespoon or so at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the treacle and lemon juice. Reduce the speed of the mixer to low and gently beat in half of the soaked fruit, half of the flour mixture and about half of the cider, juice or milk.

At this point, I use a spatula to scrape all of the batter into a large mixing bowl as it gets too unwieldy to combine properly in my mixer. It also means I can wash the mixer bowl so that it’s scrupulously clean, change the beater to a whisk and beat the egg whites until quite stiff – you want them to hold soft peaks but be careful not to mix them too much or they will become grainy.

Tip the rest of the fruit into the bowl with the batter and sift the remaining flour and bicarbonate of soda over it. Use a spatula or large metal spoon to gently fold the mixture together, incorporating as much air as possible as you go, until almost mixed. Pour in the rest of the cider, juice or milk and rum. Fold a couple of times then add the beaten egg whites. Fold them in gently – you want the batter to be smooth and well combined, but stop exactly at this point. Don’t overmix. Gently does it.

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In the tin. Oh you pretty thing…

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All wrapped up. Peekaboo…

Spoon the batter into the prepared tin, smooth the top and bake for between 3 3/4  hours and 4 hours. It can take a little more or a little less time, depending on your oven, but don’t check until the 3 1/2  hour point. A skewer inserted in the middle should come out clean with no damp batter clinging to it – the little hole in the middle of the baking parchment makes it really easy to check the cake. If it isn’t done, return it to the oven and check every 10 minutes.

Cool the cake for 30 minutes in the tin then turn it out onto a wire rack to cool completely. When it’s cold, use a fine skewer or cocktail stick to pierce it all over the top and trickle over a few tablespoons of brandy or rum. Let it soak in then turn the cake over and do the same to the base. Wrap in clean baking parchment secured with string or a rubber band, then wrap it in foil and store in an airtight container. Feed it with a little more booze every 4-5 days until you’re ready to cover it in marzipan and ice it.

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Fin.

Christmas cake

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Last Sunday, quite a few of you stirred up your Christmas pudding along with me. I wondered if you might also like to make a Christmas cake this weekend? I’ve left it a little late this year, but I plan to overcome that terrible oversight by soaking the fruit in booze for a few days and then being very diligent about feeding the cake with yet more booze between now and Christmas.

The cake I’m making is based on one in The Constance Spry Cookery Book. I often turn to it when something very trad is required, and nothing’s quite so trad as Christmas. In my house, at least.

To start, assemble your fruit:
If you’ve already made a Christmas pudding, you’ve probably got quite a few of these ingredients kicking about already.

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225g raisins
225g sultanas
170g currants
170g glace cherries, washed, patted dry and halved
170g crystallised, chopped, mixed peel
200ml sherry
50ml brandy
Finely grated zests of 2 oranges and 1 lemon
Mix the fruit together in a bowl with 200ml sherry (I used Solera Jerezana Rich Cream, Lustau) and 50ml brandy. If you prefer, you could use all brandy, or stout or port. Add the finely grated zest of two oranges and a lemon and stir again. Cover tightly with cling film and leave in a cool, dark place for three days, giving it a good stir every day to make sure the fruit is evenly soaked.

The rest of the shopping list for the cake:
225g unsalted butter
225g light muscovado sugar
6 eggs
1 lemon
Cinnamon, ground cloves, mixed spice, ground nutmeg
Small tin black treacle
Plain flour
250ml apple juice, cider or milk
Bicarbonate of soda
125ml rum or brandy

Got it? Great. See you at the weekend.