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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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.

Happy Easter!

Hot cross buns & butter

On Wednesday, I put in my last shift as acting food editor at Waitrose Kitchen (née Food Illustrated). These darling, brilliant and generous people have given me a desk to call my own (when William wasn’t trying to colonise it with his flashy second computer, laundry, proofs, books, bicycle helmet, adoring fan mail) two days a week for the past six months. It’s kept me off the streets and out of trouble during one of the coldest winters on record and for that I’m grateful. But more than that, they made me laugh twenty times a day, encircled me in their breathtakingly talented, enchantingly co-dependent, enormously cheerful embrace and taught me vocabulary that I may find difficult to transfer to any other workplace. I loved every second.

This is a big thing for me. I like my life of walking the dog then coming home to cook a bit, write a bit, my routine only disrupted by having to pitch up at the odd photo shoot to fiddle with a reluctant radish or coax a pig’s trotter into close-up ready deliciousness. I don’t really like offices, but I grew to love the pod and its inhabitants.

The kitchen fireplace

So Thursday was a bit funny really. It felt good to have my life back but a little sad too. Nothing banishes melancholy like baking, so I lit the fire in the kitchen and busied myself with a batch of hot cross buns. Outside, thunder rumbled and lightening crackled across the north London sky. Inside, I mixed and kneaded and shaped the dough into fat little buns as the rain ran in rivulets down the kitchen’s glass roof. I piped wobbly flour-and-water crosses on their tops. The house filled with the smell of spices and sugar and orange zest and I felt happy.

Dan’s hot cross buns

Dan's hot cross buns

This recipe comes from my lovely, floury friend, Daniel Stevens. Until recently, he was the baker at River Cottage and his book, River Cottage Handbook No.3 Bread, is my favourite go-to guide to all things doughy. Dan’s recipe makes eight, which seemed a little modest to me (believe me, I can pretty much eat that many myself) so I doubled the quantities.

Well, I should have listened to Dan, as always. The dough bulged and undulated over the top of my KitchenAid, struggling for freedom. So I took it out and kneaded it by hand. I’m giving you Dan’s recipe for eight here. It doubles up brilliantly, but be prepared to hand-knead it if you do. Or to spend your Easter weekend picking gunk out of the head of your mixer.

Mixer ambition  Annoying over ambition, in dough form.

250g strong white bread flour, plus extra for kneading
250g plain white flour
125ml warm water
125ml warm milk
5g powdered dried yeast (easy blend type)
10g salt
1- 1 1/2 tsp ground, mixed spice
50g caster sugar
1 medium free-range egg
50g butter, softened
100g raisins, currants or sultanas, or a mixture including some candied peel
Finely grated zest of half an orange

For the crosses:
60g plain white flour
100ml water

To finish:
1 tbsp apricot or other jam
1 tbsp water

If you have a food mixer, combine the flours, water, milk, yeast, salt, mixed spice and sugar in h bowl ad fit the dough hook. Add the egg and butter and mix to a sticky dough. Now add the dried fruit and orange zest and knead on a slow speed until silky and smooth. You can do this by hand, but the dough will be sticky to handle. Put the dough in a warm, lightly oiled bowl, cover and leave to rise in a warm place until doubled in size.

Dough

Knock back the risen dough and divide into eight equal pieces (they’ll weigh about 120g each). Shape into rounds and dust with flour. Place on a floured board, cover with plastic or linen and leave to prove for half an hour or until doubled in size.

Ready for the oven

All crossed...

While they’re rising, preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas mark 6. To make the crosses, whisk together the flour and water until smooth, then transfer to a plastic food bag and snip off the corner. Transfer the risen buns to a baking sheet and pipe a cross on top of each one. Bake for 15-20 minutes.

Meanwhile, melt the jam with the water in the pan. Sieve, then brush over the buns to glaze as soon as you take them from the oven. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Serve warm, cold or toasted, but always with lots of butter.

Chestnut chocolate cake: Nailed

Chestnut and chocolate cake
I spent most of February in a clatter of pans and a blizzard of chopping, stirring and whisking as I devised recipes for my friend Mark’s new book, A Taste of the Unexpected. Actually, that’s not strictly true. Mark and I did seem to spend a lot of time on the phone gossiping about important stuff like 80s music, biscuits and football. We both support red teams, though not the same ones, so it made for lively, deadline-diverting, conversations.

One of our recipes is for a chestnut jam. It’s bloody good. It better be. It requires the peeling of 2kg of chestnuts. (Mark, don’t think I’ve forgotten. I am invoicing you for a manicure.) It was worth it though as the result is a fudgy, creamy, seductive combination of nuts, muscovado sugar, vanilla and a splash of apple cider brandy at the end because, well, how can that ever be a bad thing? I wish I could share it with you here, but I can’t. Not quite yet. You’ll have to wait until its publication in September. Just in time for chestnut season, in fact.

I have four jars of this heavenly concoction in the cupboard and I was dying to use some in a recipe. The obvious candidate was the flourless chestnut and chocolate cake in Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s The River Cottage Year. I’ve made it dozens of times, every time I want an easy, delicious slightly grown up chocolate cake in fact. It has a wonderfully light texture – it’s like a rich, silky mousse in cake form – perfect for afternoon tea or a divinely seductive ending to a great dinner. And another bonus? If you’re the self-controlled sort, it last really well in an airtight tin for four or five days.

I used 400g of our jam in the recipe. Until I’m allowed to share, you could use 400g of bought chestnut jam or just follow the instructions for making the chestnut puree below, perhaps adding half a teaspoon of vanilla extract and a teaspoon of brandy too if you like. At least you’ll get to enjoy the cake without pursuing Mark to sort out your tab at the nail bar. You’d have to explain what a nail bar was to him first anyway, and that could get tiresome.

River Cottage chestnut and chocolate cake

250g dark chocolate
250g unsalted butter
250g peeled and cooked chestnuts (I like Merchant Gourmet)
250ml milk
4 eggs
125g caster sugar

Preheat the oven to 170C/325F/Gas mark 3. Butter a 25cm cake tin and line with baking parchment.

Break the chocolate into pieces and place them in a heatproof bowl with the butter, cut into chunks. Place the bowl over a pan of barely simmering water until melted and stir until smooth. Cool slightly.

In another pan, heat the chestnuts with the milk until just boiling, then mash thoroughly with a potato masher or puree in a blender.

Separate the eggs and put the yolks in a bowl with the sugar. Mix until well combined then stir in the chocolate and the chestnut puree until you have a smooth, blended batter.

In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites until stiff and then fold them into the chocolate mixture, starting by mixing in a third of the whites to loosen the batter and then gently folding in the rest of the whites. Pour and scrape into the cake tin then bake for 25-30 minutes, until it is just set but still has a slight wobble.

If you want to serve the cake warm, leave it to cool a little, then release the tin and slice carefully – it will be very soft and moussey. Or leave it to go cold, when it will have set firm. Serve with a trickle of double cream, especially when warm, but it also delicious unadulterated.

When life gives you lemons (and butter)…

Bramley Lemon Curd

After the wedding, I had lots of lemons and some lovely French butter left over so I decided to make a few jars of lemon curd. Is there anything more delicious, spread onto hot toast or spooned under a pillow of meringue in a pie? Is there anything more cheerful than a line of golden jars stacked up on a shelf? And I’ll be honest, I was in need of a bit of cheering up.

Oscar (Admilbu Meridian Dancer) in the Garden.Oscar
3rd January 2000 – 14th September 2009

Our little cat Oscar died. He’d been ill for quite a while, his sturdy frame diminished so he was light and bony as a bird, his once-plush fur rough and dull. A few weeks ago, he jumped down from his chair and his back legs gave out. He sprawled across the floor. I stayed up all night with him cradled in my arms, his head damp with my tears. In the morning, Séan nestled him into a carrying basket, lined with his Arsenal towel, for his final trip to the vet. I busied myself with mindless tasks, loading the dishwasher, folding the laundry, sweeping the floor, my skin prickly with grief.

An hour later, Séan called to say ‘We’re coming home’. So, despite having said goodbye to him, there he was back in the kitchen, walking like a slightly drunken sailor but happily tucking into his breakfast. He’d had some kind of stroke but the vet said he was in no pain and would adjust, could improve. We treasured the bonus of his final few weeks. He nudged up beside us on the sofa, licking our hands with his sandpaper tongue. On bright days he would find a patch of sunshine on the terrace and stretch out his skinny frame on the warm slate.

Colette wrote ‘There are no ordinary cats’. Oscar wasn’t the least bit ordinary. He was beguilingly handsome, with cashmere-soft fur in the richest shade of chocolate brown and bewitching jade green eyes. He had a profound sense of his own importance and would call nosily if he felt that his court (Séan and I) weren’t sufficiently attentive.

Oscar & Liberty With Liberty.

Delphi, Liberty & Oscar With Delphi and Liberty. Another day, another sofa…

When we first brought him home, a tiny kitten you could fit into one hand, we already had two cats, Delphi and Liberty. They weren’t too thrilled with this interloper. He was desperate to play with them, edging towards them unabashed by their hissing hostility. So I was delighted one morning when, as he tumbled about on our bed, Liberty jumped up and gave him a tentative lick. Did he stretch out with pleasure? Give her an affectionate nudge? No, he jabbed her clean across the nose with his paw. In later life, his favourite game was to lurk on the stairs when we had visitors, seducing them with his glorious good looks so that they would ruffle his fur through the banisters. He would purr, his whole body vibrating with pleasure, until the moment when he had drawn them in sufficiently so that they would press their faces against the wooden rails. At this point, invariably, he would give them a quick swipe with his paw and, on one notable occasion, bite them on the nose.

In his final weeks, Oscar was too frail to climb the stairs and spent his time on the ground floor. One evening, as I was making dinner, I couldn’t find him. I searched the dining room and sitting room. Séan looked upstairs. He discovered him three flights up at the top of the house. He had scaled his personal Everest and died on our bed. And that was Oscar. Get where you need to be or die trying.

I still look for him in the house, wait for him to swirl his way around my ankles when I come in the door, jump onto my desk and head butt me as I type. But his chair is empty. Kiddo, I miss you, you furry little fury. Living with you was a ten-year seminar in the fierce pursuit of pleasure, in hunting down the sunniest spot, the cosiest blanket, the tastiest morsel and the highest branch. It was an honour to be your devoted friend and servant.

I'm ready for my close up...

Our lovely vet Caroline sent us a card following Oscar’s death: ‘It was a real pleasure and privilege to treat Oscar over the years. He was a real character and was always so stoical …’

Bramley lemon curd

Lemons

This recipe is from River Cottage Handbook No.2: Preserves. It’s been my great pleasure to meet the book’s author, Pam Corbin, a couple of times. She teaches wonderful preserving classes down at River Cottage, where she’s known affectionately as ‘Pam the Jam’. She says of this wonderful curd ‘It’s like eating apples and custard: softly sweet, tangy and quite, quite delicious’. She is quite, quite right. I hope you’ll enjoy it too.

Makes 5 x 225g jars.

450g Bramley apples, peeled, cored and chopped
Finely grated zest and juice of 2 unwaxed lemons (you need 100ml strained juice)
125g unsalted butter
450g granulated sugar
4-5 large eggs, well beaten (you need 200ml beaten egg)

Put the chopped apples into a pan with 100ml water and the lemon zest. Cook gently until soft and fluffy, then either beat to a purée with a wooden spoon or rub through a nylon sieve.

Put the butter, sugar, lemon juice and apple purée into a double boiler or heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water. As soon as the butter has melted and the mixture is hot and glossy, pour in the eggs through a sieve, and whisk with a balloon whisk. If the fruit puree is too hot when the beaten egg is added, the egg will ‘split’. One way to guard against this is to check the temperature of the puree with a sugar thermometer – it should be no higher than 55-60 ̊C when the egg is added.If your curd does split, take the pan off the heat and whisk vigorously until smooth.

Stir the mixture over a gentle heat, scraping down the sides of the bowl every few minutes, until thick and creamy. This will take 9-10 minutes; the temperature should reach 82-84 ̊C on a sugar thermometer. Immediately pour into warm, sterilised jars and seal. Use within four weeks. Once opened, keep in the fridge.

Postcards from the edge: Part II

Herbs Herbs from the garden, ready to go into the
pork and chestnut stuffing.

In the countdown to Paula’s wedding on Saturday, I’m going to be cooking at all hours, fuelled by caffeine and panic, stirring as I scribble down essentials needed on our voyage to the country. So there’ll be little time for pretty pictures taken in natural light. But I do hope you’ll keep me company as I chop and sauté late into the night, trying to remember to breathe and wondering when I’ll have time to have my roots done so I don’t look like the oldest caterer in town.

The centrepiece of Paula and Jack’s wedding feast is a lamb and pork roast. Even 130 greedy guests can’t devour a whole sheep and a whole pig in one sitting, so our brilliant bride had the inspired idea to serve hefty sandwiches made up of the leftovers at 10.30pm to fuel enthusiastic dancers, steady the drunk and keep the band on top doh. Of course, Lady de B and I want to make these the best late-night treat any of the guests have ever tasted. We’ve already made a mountain of apple sauce to go with the pork and jars of sparkling mint jelly to accompany the lamb. For the very hungry, we’re making stuffing too, to create sandwiches so generously proportioned, they would make Homer Simpson proud.

This recipe for pork, apple and chestnut stuffing is a Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall one. In the interests of full disclosure, I have to confess I work down at River Cottage sometimes, but it is a bloody good multi-purpose stuffing – herby, with a lovely zing from the lemon zest – so I feel no obligation to apologise for my bias. It’s great with Sunday roasts, for Thanksgiving celebrations or Christmas feasts. And weddings, don’t forget weddings.

Pork, apple and chestnut stuffing

All Packed up

50g butter
1 large onion, finely chopped
3 stems celery, plus leaves if possible, finely chopped
500g pork shoulder, coarsely minced
The liver of the bird you are stuffing (optional), finely chopped
200g peeled, cooked chestnuts, roughly chopped
1 large dessert apple, peeled and finely chopped
The finely grated zest of 1 large lemon
150g soft white breadcrumbs
2 tsp each thyme, sage and rosemary, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Pork, apple and chestnut stuffing Ready for the oven

Melt the butter in a frying pan, add the onion and celery, season and sweat gently for about 15 minutes, stirring from time to time, until soft and translucent. Leave to cool, then combine with the other ingredients for the stuffing. Season well with salt and pepper. Break off a bit and fry it off to taste for seasoning, add a bit more if necessary.

Bake the stuffing in a shallow, lightly buttered dish, or roll it into balls. Cook at 190C/375F/gas mark 5 for 35-45 minutes, depending on thickness, until cooked through.