Parks and dogs and sausage rolls

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I’ve been to grander parties, it’s true. This is a long way from silver trays of canapés in elegant hotels, premier cru in posh houses fragrant with pine Diptyque candles and money, or carefully constructed cocktails in private members’ clubs.
But this is the party I look forward to as soon as I flip the calendar over to December. Every Christmas, those of us who walk our dogs in Clissold Park assemble in the breath-misting morning chill to swap stories, drink, eat.

Rachel put together her camping stove for the mulled wine and the graffiti’d picnic table quickly disappeared beneath foil-wrapped and plastic-boxed Christmas treats, thermoses of coffee, paper napkins and plastic cups.

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It’s a very Stoke Newington affair. Mince pies and Christmas cake sit alongside Phil’s home-smoked cheese, Riccardo and Alastaire Spanish cinnamon cookies and Cat’s spanakopita.
It was -2ºC, so I perked up a cup of Lee’s hot chocolate with a nip of rum from Alastaire’s hip flask. Dogs barked, sniffed, made covert and not-so-covert attempts to raid the table. Toddlers nibbled chocolate brownies as a few feet above their heads, adults discussed favoured routes to Devon and Denmark, snow warnings and the misery of Oxford Street. People swapped cards and invitations, exchanged hugs, kissed.

By 11am I was at my desk, trying to nudge my rum-warmed brain to focus on my last feature of the year. But what I was really thinking was that it would be a good thing for the happiness of the nation if there were more parties where it was entirely acceptable to wear your gardening shoes.

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Polly looks hopeful.


Chorizo sausage rolls

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There are so many sweet offerings at the dog walkers’ Christmas party, I always try to make something savoury to balance the early morning sugar rush. Sausage rolls filled with River Cottage’s  Tupperware chorizo have a fiery kick, appropriate for a morning when ducks skid across thick ice on the pond and walkers swaddled in Gore-tex and wool tread gingerly on frosty pavements.

The chorizo is easy to make – you just squish it all together – but you need to refrigerate it for at least a day for the flavours to develop.

Makes about 30 small sausage rolls

For the chorizo:
750g pork shoulder, coarsely minced
1 tbsp sweet smoked paprika
2 tsp hot smoked paprika
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 tsp fine sea salt
1½ tsp fennel seeds
¼ tsp cayenne pepper
50ml red wine
Freshly ground black pepper

A little oil for frying
3 sheets of ready-roll all-butter puff pastry, about 35cm x 22cm
An egg beaten with a little water


Put all the chorizo ingredients into a bowl and mix thoroughly with your hands, squishing the mix through your fingers to distribute the seasonings evenly. Heat a little oil in a frying pan, break off a walnut-sized piece of the mixture, shape into a tiny patty and fry for a few minutes on each side, until cooked through. Taste to check the seasoning, remembering that the flavours will develop further as the mixture matures.
Cover the mixture and store in the fridge for at least 24 hours before using; this will allow the flavours time to develop. It will keep for about 2 weeks.

When you’re ready to make the sausage rolls, unroll the pastry and give it a gentle going over with a rolling pin to increase its size slightly. Cut it in half lengthways, make the chorizo into a long snakes about 2cm thick and lay them down the middle of the pastry rectangles. Brush one long edge of the pastry lightly with the egg wash, roll the other edge over the top to join and press the edges together firmly. Trim with a sharp knife so you have an even edge (if you like – wonky sausage rolls are also incredibly delicious). Cut them into 4cm pieces and place them on baking sheets lined with baking parchment, keeping them about 2cm apart as they will expand a bit. Chill for about 30 minutes.

Brush the sausage rolls with the egg wash. I also ground some black pepper and sprinkled a bit more sweet paprika over the top but that’s not essential. Place them in a hot oven, 200ºC/400ºF/Gas Mark 6, for 20-25 minutes until the pastry is golden and the pork cooked through. If you can, eat them warm.

Chocolate and the essential art of sloth

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I love working from home. I take phone calls with the Gilmore Girls temporarily on mute, check emails while singing along enthusiastically if tunelessly to 42nd Street and type with a dog to warm my feet and a pair of kittens snoozing in my in tray. My one shiver of envy for office workers comes when we have so much snow, trains don’t run, offices close and they get the day off. Frustratingly – as my office is a gentle 60 second stroll from my bed – it would take quite the snow storm to make it impossible for me to clock in.

IMG_2406 This picture was taken by my friend Stephen Morallee.

Ty Snow1 Ty tastes his first snow.

Stephen 1 Stephen trying to take pictures. Thwarted.

Jess scarf Jess, all wrapped up.

I was thinking about this as I walked Barney in the park, my boots crunching through the dazzling layer of crisp snow. Our usual dog walking number was swelled by a few office refuseniks, excited at the prospect of a day off. So – in the spirit of solidarity – I declared a snow day myself. No work, just pottering. If I’m honest, to the naked eye this wouldn’t have looked very different to a normal day. Show tunes, yes, messing about in the kitchen, certainly, but deadline stress, tricky emails and scaling of the accounts mountain so large its about to be granted its own postcode, were banned.

I’d been sent a bag of Trish Deseine’s new milk chocolate buttons to try. I needed to cook them – what they’re intended for – before I ate the whole bag. I flipped through the pages of Trish’s Best of Chocolat (in French, just so you know) which I bought when we were in Agde in the summer and decided the milk chocolate, date and almond cake was a suitable fate for my precious and rapidly diminishing bounty.

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I love Trish Deseine’s food. It’s cosy, sexy, sophisticated and her books are shot through with her natural warmth and humour. She is from Northern Ireland and has lived in France for the past twenty years or so, where she has enjoyed un succès fou showing the French how to create simple and delicious meals which require neither a sous chef nor a trust fund. Luckily for us, she has published several books in English. Try them. You will like.

Chocolate by Trish

Trish’s chocolate is available from Selfridges or by mail order in the UK from Chocolatebytrish.com

Rich chocolate cake with dates and almonds

This flourless chocolate cake has an intense, almost wine-y depth of flavour. It’s grown up, rich, fudgy and, yes, intensely chocolate-y. It keeps very well for a few days too, if you’re the sort of person who can sleep while there’s chocolate cake in a tin on your kitchen shelf.

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DSCN3374 Really, how could it not be good?

Serves 8 to 10 people

250g milk chocolate, Trish’s magic buttons are 38%
3 egg yolks
3 eggs
125g light muscovado sugar
175g ground almonds
100g whole almonds, toasted* and finely chopped
175g unsalted butter, plus a little more for greasing
150g Medjool dates, stoned and chopped, if you can’t get hold of Medjool dates, poach ordinary dates for three minutes in a little water and sugar

Lightly grease a 25cm loose-bottomed cake tin, line it with a circle of baking parchment and butter the parchment. Preheat the oven to 170°C/325°F/Gas Mark 3.

Put the chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl and melt in a microwave or over a bowl of barely-simmering water (the bottom of the bowl shouldn’t touch the water). Cool slightly.

DSCN3383 Pretty.

In a large bowl, beat together the eggs, egg yolks and sugar until light and creamy – the beaters should leave a ribbon trail across the surface when you lift them out of the batter. Add the ground and chopped almonds and the dates and stir until well combined. Lightly but thoroughly fold in the melted chocolate and butter with a spatula. Pour into the cake tin and bake for about 50 minutes – the centre should still wobble a bit as it will firm up as it cools. Let it cool in the tin before turning it out.

* Place them in an even layer on a baking sheet and bake them at 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4 for about 6 minutes. Cook them for a minute or two longer if they still look a bit pale but keep checking them as they can burn very easily.

IMG_2434 I took some of the cake to the park the next day – I’m kind like that. This picture was taken by Stephen Morallee.

Sunday best

IMAG0270 Before: Dog as tweed cushion.

However hard I’ve been trying to convince myself – and believe me I have – there’s nothing festive about balls of dog hair blowing silently across the floor. I considered spraying them with glitter or weaving them into a festive wreath, but concluded that there is a limit to all of this wild, free-range, organic and home-grown business. Barney really needed grooming before I looked like a mad lady walking a tweed cushion on a lead along Church Street.

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Groom Dog City recently opened a salon (Is it a salon or a parlour? Parlours make me think of poodles with more pom-poms than the Dallas Cowboy cheerleading squad, so I think we’ll stick to salon) in Ravenscroft Street, just off Columbia Road, so I booked him in for their Drop and Shop service – he gets groomed while I get to raid the market unencumbered by a frisky hound on a search and rescue mission for bits of dropped bacon sandwich. We even managed to fit in lunch at the lovely new restaurant, BrawnColchester oysters, pork belly and a delicious pudding of warm pear compôte, crème fraîche and toasted pain d’épice crumbs, thank you very much.

IMAG0284 Warm pear compôte, crème fraîche and toasted pain d’épice crumbs at Brawn.

We picked up the dog, transformed* from miniature woolly mammoth to sleek dog about town by friendly, skilled groomers. No pom-poms, but he did get a little green bow on his collar. It looks pretty festive, actually.

IMAG0290 After: Barney transformed –though I think he’s looking a bit put out that he missed the pork belly.

* Hand stripping a border terrier takes about two and a half hours and costs £40.

A little gentle preparation and forty tiny claws

Jars of Mincemeat

When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?

Michel de Montaigne, Essays, 1580

It’s about that time. Lights go up on Stoke Newington High Street for Eid and Christmas, the shops fill with glitzy cards and brightly coloured baubles and otherwise sane souls believe the affection of the ages can be conveyed by hastily wrapped scented candles or cashmere scarves.

I love Christmas. I love the sight of people dragging trees down Church Street, queuing for my turkey at Godfrey’s, midnight mass at St Mary’s and most of all, I love the peace that descends on London for those few short days. In order for me not to careen into the holiday like Wile E. Coyote screeching off a cliff, I try to do a little gentle preparation in the weeks before to make the run up as pleasurable as possible.

And today’s recipe is as gentle a recipe as ever met heat. Making your own mincemeat fulfils that desire for a homemade Christmas without heaping on the stress. It also makes the house smell wonderful, better than any scented candle. Take THAT, Jo Malone.

I’m keen on simple recipes at the moment as they leave me with maximum kitten time. Yes, kittens, life’s greatest deadline-dodging displacement activity. After Oscar died last year and free-spirit Liberty went missing, never to return, in January our house has been sadly lacking in feline presence. Chairs remained unscratched. Roast chickens sat unmolested on the kitchen counter. It was miserable, though Barney might disagree.

Enter Dixie and Prune, slaloming across the marble counter, scaling ten feet of curtain as though it’s nothing, chasing each other’s tails, loving Barney into grumpy submission as they edge their way onto his favourite chair and crowd into his basket. They sit on my shoulders as I type like purring epaulettes, chase the cursor across the screen and generally show disdain for anything as undignified as, oh, earning a living. It’s wonderful.

All 3 together Begrudgingly, Barney shares his favourite chair

Prune It’s hard to know whether Prune’s laughing at you or preparing to eat you. Probably a bit of both.

Prune & Barney ‘You will love me.’

APPLE, PEAR AND GINGER MINCEMEAT

Apple, Pear & Ginger Mincemeat

This mincemeat is intensely fruity and the crystallized ginger adds a dash of sweet heat. It contains no suet, which I think gives it a brighter, fresher flavour. Make some now and it’ll have time to mature for Christmas, though I like to keep a jar back to enjoy next year, too. Use it in mince pies, of course, but it’s also very good as a stuffing for baked apples and delicious in my Mincemeat Crumble Tart.

The recipe comes from River Cottage Handbook No 2, by Pam ‘the jam’ Corbin, queen of all things jarred, bottled and preserved.

Makes approximately 4x450g jars

1kg Bramley apples
Finely grated zest and juice of 2-3 oranges (you need 200ml juice)
500g firm pears, peeled, cored and cut into 1cm cubes
200g currants
200g raisins
200g sultanas
100g orange marmalade
250g demerara sugar
½ tsp ground cloves
2 tsp ground ginger
1-2 tsp ground cinnamon
½ nutmeg, grated
50ml ginger wine or cordial (optional, I had neither so I used the syrup from a jar of stem ginger)
100g chopped walnuts or almonds
50ml brandy or sloe gin

Peel and core the apples and chop them into large chunks. Put them into a saucepan with the orange juice. Cook gently until they are soft and fluffy then blend into a smooth purée.

Put the purée into a large bowl and add all of the other ingredients, except the brandy or gin. Mix thoroughly, then cover and leave to stand for 12 hours.

Preheat the oven to 130°C/Gas Mark 1/2. Put the mincemeat into a large baking dish or roasting tin and bake, uncovered, for 2-2 ½ hours. Stir in the brandy or gin, then spoon into warm, sterilized jars, making sure there aren’t any air pockets. Seal and store in a dry, dark, cool place until Christmas. Use within 12 months.

Taking the lead

Carrot Cake

A dog gives you a great excuse to play truant while appearing to be busy. At 3pm, the sky cleared, looked blue for the first time in days. I grabbed the lead and took Barney for a walk in the cemetery. For his benefit, right? Not to get away from teetering piles of paper on my desk, books that defy shelving, the list of phone calls, the conked out dryer, the leaking washing machine and the problem of what to do about the vanished accountant.

Through the Egyptian gates, the air is heavy, damp. Barney weaves his own eightsome reel through the dripping nettles and worn tombstones. There is a sweet smell of rotting leaves, faintly spicy like gingerbread.

I have never seen a hound look quite as pathetic as mine does when wet. Fur sticks out in uneven clumps. His legs look spindly, his eyes huge, pleading. He could head up a Dogs’ Trust campaign. The hardest of hearts would read in his soft brown eyes a life tied to a lamppost, abandoned, not one of tweed-lined baskets, woollen blankets and organic dog food.

Barney

We get home and he runs along the hallway rubbing his head and body against the skirting as if possessed, a foxy little dervish drying himself on the carefully chosen Farrow & Ball (can it be long before Dirty Dog nestles on the paint chart between Mouse’s Back, Cat’s Paw, Dead Salmon and Pigeon?).

I make a cake. Barney sits on his favourite chair, the one that’s so tatty my friend’s eight-year-old daughter asked, worried, ‘What’s wrong with it?’. It’s been a busy afternoon.

CARROT AND WALNUT CAKE

Carrot & Walnut Cake

I created this recipe a couple of years ago for my friend Mark Diacono’s book, River Cottage Handbook No4 Veg . It’s not very refined, in the manner of grandly iced carrot cakes, but nor is it tiresomely worthy like those annoying confections whose highest ambition is to form one of you five a day. It’s spicy and rich and keeps very well for up to a week in a tin. Serve it warm as a pudding with a generous spoonful of crème fraiche, or cold anytime.

Either make your own apple sauce by simmering peeled, cored Bramley apples with a little water until light and fluffy or use good-quality ready made.

Makes 12 squares

80g sultanas
A slug of apple brandy or cognac (optional)
Knob of butter, softened, for greasing the tin
220g wholemeal self-raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground ginger
½ tsp salt
Good pinch of ground cloves
Pinch of ground cardamom (optional)
220g light muscovado sugar, plus an extra 3 tbsps for the syrup
120ml sunflower oil
Finely grated zest and juice of a large orange
2 eggs, lightly beaten
225g apple sauce
270g carrots, peeled and coarsely grated
80g walnuts, roughly chopped
1 tbsp lemon juice

Preheat the oven to 170C/Gas mark 3. Put the sultanas in a small bowl, pour on hot water to cover and leave to soak for 20 minutes or so. You can add a slug of apple brandy or cognac at this point if you like.

Lightly grease a loose-bottomed 20-22cm square cake tin, about 8cm deep. Line the base with greaseproof paper and butter the paper. Sift together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, salt, cloves and cardamom if using.

In a large bowl, whisk together the 220g of light muscovado sugar, oil and orange zest until well combined, then whisk in the eggs until the mixture is creamy. Fold in the apple sauce, followed by the flour mixture until just combined. Next fold in the grated carrots and walnuts. Finally, drain the sultanas and fold these in.

Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin and smooth the surface with a spatula. Bake for about 1 ¼ hours, until a fine skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean, without any crumbs clinging to it. If the cake appears to be overbrowning before it is done, cover the top loosely with foil.

While the cake is in the oven, make the syrup. Put the orange juice into a small pan with the 3tbsps of light muscovado sugar and 1 tbsp lemon juice. Warm over a low heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves, then increase the heat and simmer until slightly syrupy, about 4-5 minutes.

As you remove the cake from the oven, run a knife around the edge and pierce the top a few times with a fine skewer. Now pour over the syrup, trying to make sure that you cover the surface fairly evenly. Stand the cake tin on a wire rack and leave to cool for a while before cutting into squares.