Don we now our gay apparel. Or not.

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My nephew Angus with Barney Candy Striper.

Last Thursday was one of my favourite days of the year: Stoke Newington dog walkers’ Christmas party. The morning when a few dozen people and dogs gather by the ponds in Clissold Park at our normal dog-walking hour of nine-ish, and – for one day only – our paper cups are filled with mulled wine rather than coffee. Christmas cake and mince pies and biscuits and brownies are scattered across the picnic table in a haphazard selection of foil and Tupperware. I always bring my chorizo sausage rolls. I get up early to make them so they’re still warm. I reckon that should stand me in good stead with Santa and the Baby Jesus.

Barney even had a special outfit. I made it for our Church Street Christmas carols and mulled wine evening last week. There was a Most Festive Dog competition and I hoped dressing him up as a parcel would distract from his eternally-serious terrier face. It didn’t. He was trounced by his pal Roxie, a smiley Staffie who in the summer won Most Regal Dog (headscarf, pearls, tiara) at our Jubilee street party. We now call her Roxie Two Time and she may be the most famous dog in Stoke Newington, possibly the world.

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Roxie and Willie, in Jubilee finery.

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Roxie, Most Festive Dog.

So being a thrifty sort who believes firmly in cost per wear, I thought Barney could don his splendid bit of doggy couture for the dog walkers’ party. (Aside: More correctly, haute glueture as it is, I believe, a fine example of all the good things that can happen when you bring together felt, ribbon and glue gun.) He wore it for approximately 30 seconds before I had to admit that given the dripping, sloshing, gushing rain it would only weigh him down in the inevitable flood and he would be swept away to Finsbury Park and beyond. So he went nude, which is his favourite state.

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Pah! Rain.

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Stoicism, N16.

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Dorie and Taz.

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Karen’s homemade chocolates

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I always take a batch of Doggie Breath Bones too.

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Intrepid Lexie.

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Barney, nude.

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Barney, with Nero, a slightly larger dog.

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Composition: Damp leaves, damp dog.

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.