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.

Stir-Up Saturday, Sunday, Whenever You Like

Christmas Pudding Ingedients


I know it’s Saturday but I’ve been tinkering with the Christmas pudding recipe and I’ve made a few spicy, fruity additions to the ingredients I posted earlier this week. You may need to add them to your shopping list. Also, you need to leave the batter for a few hours or overnight before you boil it for six hours so some of you may want to start today.

This recipe makes about 2.4kg of batter, enough for three 825g puddings, though you can divide it up as you like. I made one small pudding to give to my best friend and an enormous 2kg one for us on Christmas Day. I’ve always loved a fat, cannonball-shaped pudding so this year I treated myself to a round mould from Silverwood Bakeware. You can use it for ice cream puddings too, so it’s a cake mould for all seasons.

This recipe is based on the traditional plum pudding recipe in Arabella Boxer’s Book of English Food. This book has been a great favourite of mine for many years and Penguin have just released a beautiful new edition, complete with gorgeous spotted end papers (end papers are an obsession of mine, I’ve bought many books on this basis alone).

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I suppose I should write something here about the origins of Stir-Up Sunday, so you can gloss over this bit if you already know the story. This Sunday is the last Sunday before Advent, when the traditional collect from the Book of Common Prayer read out in Anglican churches is:

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.


Though historically many in the congregation would also be familiar with this version too:

Stir up, we beseech thee, the pudding in the pot Stir up, we beseech thee, and keep it all hot.


After church, families went home to make the pudding, each member of the household giving the batter a stir, from East to West, to represent the journey of the Three Wise Men. And they would make a secret wish for the coming year.

Now is the perfect time to make your pudding as it gives it several weeks to mature before Christmas Day, though in the most traditional homes, two puddings would be made: one for this year, one for next. You may not wish to do this. As Arabella Boxer writes: ‘The old houses had cool airy larders in which to store them, however, and anyone who tries to keep a plum pudding for long in a centrally heated flat is in for a nasty surprise, as it is sure to grow a coating of mould.’

And when the pudding making’s over, anyone fancy making a Christmas cake next weekend? I’ve left it a little late this year but I plan to get around that by adding a sailor-on-shore-leave quantity of booze.

Christmas pudding

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Arabella Boxer’s pudding contains no flour and is simply bound together with breadcrumbs and eggs, which makes it lighter than some traditional puddings.

If you’re making your pudding over the weekend and you have any questions, either leave me a message here or tweet me @lickedspoon.

500g dried vine fruits (raisins, currants and sultanas, or you can use just raisins if you prefer)
200g pitted prunes, halved
290ml brandy
340g soft white breadcrumbs
340g shredded suet
120g light muscovado sugar
Finely grated zest of 2 oranges and 2 lemons
1 tsp ground ginger
½ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
¼ tsp ground cloves
½ tsp salt
225g cut mixed peel
200g glacé cherries, halved
120g coarsely chopped blanched almonds
8 eggs, lightly beaten
150ml Guinness

Some softened butter, for greasing the pudding basins
A little more brandy for flaming the puddings on Christmas Day

Put the dried vine fruits in a large, Parfait-type jar and sprinkle over 200ml of the brandy. Give it a shake and let it sit for a few days, turning the jar over from time to time to ensure the fruit is evenly soaked. You can ditch this phase if you don’t have time, but even a couple of hours sitting in the brandy will increase the succulence of the fruit.

In a large bowl, mix the breadcrumbs with the suet, sugar, zests, spices and salt until well combined. Add the vine fruits, prunes, mixed peel, cherries and almonds and mix again. Stir in the eggs, Guinness and remaining brandy. Leave for a few hours or even overnight for the flavours to develop.

When you’re ready to cook the puddings, grease three 825ml pudding basins (or whichever bowls or moulds you are using) with softened butter. Cut small circles of baking parchment and place them in the bottom of each basin. If you’re adding charms or sixpences (or five pence pieces –let’s be modern about it) to the puddings, wrap them in baking parchment and add them to the batter now. Don’t fill the bowls too full – you want about 2.5cm free at the top of the bowls to allow the puddings to expand as they cook.

Cut large circles of greaseproof paper, big enough to cover each basin generously. Butter one side of the paper and fold a pleat in the middle. Cut circles of tin foil the same size as the paper circles and pleat them too. Cover each pudding with paper then foil. Secure with string and trim off excess paper and foil with scissors. Tie loops of string to the string securing the paper and foil lids to make a handle – this will make it easier to lift the puddings out of the pan later.

To simmer the puddings, you will need a large, lidded saucepan or several saucepans. Place an upturned saucer or small cake tin under each pudding basin to act as a trivet which will keep the base of the bowls off the bottom of the pan/s. Fill the pan/s with boiling water from the kettle until it comes halfway up the sides of the basins. Simmer steadily for 6 hours, topping up with boiling water from time to time to ensure it comes halfway up the sides of the bowl/s.

When the puddings are cooked, carefully lift them out by placing a long wooden spoon through the loops of string. Leave to cool then remove the paper and foil coverings. Pierce the tops all over with a fine skewer and feed the puddings with a little brandy. Cover with clean, unbuttered paper and foil and tie securely with string. Store in a cool, dry place until Christmas.

On Christmas Day, the puddings should be boiled again in the same way for 4-6 hours. To serve, turn out onto a flat dish and stick a sprig of holly in the centre. Gently warm some brandy in a small saucepan, set it alight with a long match and pour it over the pudding just as you’re about to bring it to the table. Each of these puddings will serve 6-8 people; but 2 larger ones – or one giant – can be made if preferred.

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Spices

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Juicy fruit

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Mixing it up


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Covering the pudding basins


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Heaped into the mould

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Marvellous new cannonball mould. It looks like it might go into orbit at any second.

It’s beginning to smell a lot like Christmas

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Oranges and lemons,
Say the bells of St. Clement’s.
You owe me five farthings,
Say the bells of St. Martin’s.
When will you pay me?
Say the bells of Old Bailey.

When I grow rich,
Say the bells of Shoreditch.


I wanted to make some crystallised peel for my Christmas pudding. The bought stuff often looks so impossibly tragic, the sad remains of citrus long past and barely lamented. Making your own takes a little time but it’s very easy and fills the house with the most deliciously uplifting smell as it bubbles away in the sugar syrup. A Dyptique Oranger candle costs £38. The ingredients for your crystallised peel cost about £4. This ensures money left over for Christmas cocktails. You’re welcome.

As we’re peeling and slicing and simmering anyway, I thought I’d make more than I need for the pudding to transform into orangettes – little slices of candied peel dipped in melted dark chocolate. They make a great little treat to go with coffee after dinner. They’re also a good Christmas present if you can bear to give them away.

Crystallised citrus and orangettes

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About 450g of peel, this will give you enough for the pudding and some left over to dip in chocolate, I used:
1 pink grapefruit
4 oranges
3 lemons
900g caster sugar
Granulated sugar for dredging

For orangettes:
About 200g dark chocolate, 70% works well with the orange

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Trim the top and bottom off the fruits with a sharp paring knife then go around the fruit cutting six incisions through the peel without piercing the flesh. Remove the segments of peel with your fingers. Cut away some of the pith – you still want a little cushion of the bitter white stuff so don’t cut all the way to the zest. Trim into strips about 5mm wide.

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Slicing the peel into strips.


Put the strips into a non-reactive pan and cover generously with cold water. Bring to the boil, boil for a minute, then drain in a colander. Repeat twice – this will help to remove some of the bitterness and will make it easier for the strips to absorb the sugar later.

Rinse out the pan, add the caster sugar and 1.2l water. Warm gently, stirring, until the syrup is clear and the sugar has completely dissolved. Bring to the boil then add the citrus strips. Lower the heat a bit and simmer until they’re very soft and the pith is translucent – this will take about an hour or so. Remove from the heat and cool the strips in the pan. If you want a break at this point, cover and refrigerate before going onto the next stage. You can keep them in the fridge for several days until you’re ready to proceed.

With a slotted spoon, scoop out the strips and put them on a wire rack on a tray and let the excess syrup drip off. Pat with kitchen paper to make sure they’re not too sticky. At this point, reserve the 225g crystallised peel for the Christmas pudding – chop it quite coarsely. It will keep for a couple of weeks in an airtight container.

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Draining the fruit.

Heap a layer of granulated sugar on a plate and use two forks to toss the remaining slices a few at a time in the sugar. Make sure they’re coated all over. Arrange on a clean wire rack and leave to dry out for three or four hours.

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Orangettes

You can eat them as they are or dip them in melted dark chocolate. Break up the chocolate into pieces and place in a heatproof bowl over a pan of barely-simmering water (you can also melt chocolate easily in a microwave, but I don’t have one so you’ll have to look elsewhere for instructions for that). Dip the slices of peel in the chocolate so it covers half of each slice. Shake gently to remove the excess chocolate and place on a piece of baking parchment to dry completely. Once dry, store in an airtight container in single layers divided by sheets of baking parchment. They will keep for a couple of weeks, though the chocolate will lose its gloss after a few days.

Christmas is coming , the fruit is getting fat

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This is a public service announcement. Next Sunday is the last Sunday before Advent. You know what that means.

If you don’t, it’s the day with the most cheering of titles: Stir-up Sunday, the day we traditionally make Christmas puddings to give them plenty of time to mature before the big day. I’ll be stirring up next weekend but I want to soak my dried fruit in booze first to make the pudding especially delicious.

If you want to make your pudding along with me, here’s how to get started. 

Mix together 200g pitted, halved prunes with 500g dried vine fruits (a combination of raisins, currants and sultanas. You could just use raisins if you prefer. You could also use 700g of raisins and ditch the prunes). 

Tip them into a Parfait-type glass jar which will hold them with some space to spare. Pour over 200ml brandy and seal. Store in a cool, dark place, shaking the jar from time to time so that all of the fruit gets evenly soaked.

Here’s the rest of the shopping list for next week:
225g chopped mixed peel (I’ll give you a recipe this week if you want to make your own)
225g glace cherries
120g blanched almonds
340g shredded suet
340g soft white breadcrumbs
8 eggs
150ml Guinness
Brandy

These quantities make enough for three 825ml puddings; each one serves 6-8 people. You can divide the pudding into two larger puddings or a single, enormous one if you prefer.