Christmas Brandy Mincemeat

I know Christmas is still ten weeks away, but you owe it to yourself to feast on the best food possible when it does come. The traditional British seasonal delights – Christmas cake (for my recipe see here, it’s time to make it!), Christmas pudding and, of course, mince pies – all benefit from being made well in advance to allow the flavours to deepen, mellow and meld together.

We make the best mince pies in our house – everybody says so, it must be true! The reason is that we make our own, and we use the best recipes, like this one from Nigel Slater. It’s rich, deeply flavoured and extremely moreish – we have to ration them!

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RECIPE makes about 1.5 kg, enough for LOTS of small mince pies

200g shredded vegetable suet

200g dark muscovado sugar

200g sultanas

200g currants

200g prunes, chopped

200g dried apricots, chopped

750g cooking apples, small dice

50g skinned almonds, chopped

the zest and juice of a large lemon

1 heaped tsp cinnamon

1/2 tsp ground cloves (freshly ground from whole)

1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg

100ml cooking brandy


METHOD

First, sterilise your jars and lids: heat the oven to 140C/ gas 1 and wash your jars and lids in hot soapy water, rinse and let them dry out in the warmed oven. When you take them out to use them, keep your grubby fingers away from the insides of the lids and jars or you will undo your good work.

In a large pan, add the suet, muscovado, sultanas, currants, prunes, apricots and apples. Place over a medium heat and slowly bring to a boil – doing it slowly allows the fat and sugar to melt and the fruits to give up their juices.

Add the almonds, lemon zest, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. Cook at a gentle simmer for 15 minutes. Then, leave to cool for about ten minutes before adding the brandy and lemon juice. Stir thoroughly before decanting into your still-hot sterilised jars. Fill the jars to within 5mm of the top, place a wax disc on top and put the lid on. Allow it to cool completely; the warm air in the jar will contract as it cools and provide you with a sterile vacuum which allows the contents to last without spoiling.

This will keep for years in a cool, dark cupboard, but why would you?

Blackberry and Brown Sugar Fingers

I have absolutely no idea where I found this recipe, it most definitely is not one that I created but I have been making it during the blackberry season for several years now. That is probably the only recommendation that you need, any recipe that you find yourself going back to time and time again must be a good one. I like to use a whole jar of jam in this, it results in a gloriously deep flavour.

I was encouraged to put this recipe on the blog by my friend Bridget, who sampled the latest batch last week and fell in love with them.

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RECIPE makes 24 fingers

For the base:

225g soft butter
75g sifted icing sugar
225g plain flour
50g cornflour
pinch salt
400g blackberry jam / bramble jelly

For the topping:

125g soft butter
125g light muscovado sugar
finely grated zest of 1 lemon
2 large free-range eggs, beaten
25g self-raising flour
175g ground almonds
200g blackberries
25g flaked almonds
1 tbsp demerara sugar, plus extra for sprinkling


METHOD

Preheat the oven to 180°C/Gas 4.

Lightly grease a small baking tin (I use one that is 20cm x 30cm) and line with baking parchment.

First make the base: cream the butter and icing sugar together in a bowl until pale and fluffy. Sift over the flour, cornflour and salt and stir into the butter mixture to make a soft, shortbread-like dough.

Roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface almost to the size of the tin, lower into the tin and press out a little to the edges. Prick here and there with a fork and bake for 15-20 minutes until a pale biscuit colour. Remove and leave to go cold, then carefully spread with the jam to within 1cm of the edges.

Now make the topping: cream the butter and muscovado sugar together until light and fluffy. Beat in the lemon zest. Gradually beat in the beaten eggs, then fold in the flour and ground almonds. Dollop small spoonfuls of mixture over the jam and carefully spread it out in an even layer. Scatter over the blackberries, pushing half of them down into the mix.

Sprinkle over the tablespoon of demerara sugar and bake for 10 minutes. Carefully slide out the oven shelf, sprinkle over the flaked almonds and bake for another 30 minutes, or until golden brown and a skewer pushed into the topping comes out clean.

Remove, sprinkle with a little more demerara sugar and leave to cool in the tin before cutting into fingers.

Sour (Dough) Starters

I make bread quite often, in many forms. Flatbreads, pitta, pide, roti, pizza doughs, white loaves, rye and wholemeal loaves… I enjoy making all kinds of bread and love every aspect of the process because it’s hands on and you are dealing with a living thing with its own character. That goes double when dealing with sourdough, which uses a starter of water and flour energised by natural yeast in the atmosphere. A good sourdough loaf has a wide-open texture, with huge pockets of emptiness, a thick, chewy crust and a distinctly tangy flavour.

From time to time I have made and nurtured traditional sourdough starters – a process which, it has to be said, can be a bit of a faff – then I go away for a month or so, forget about it in the fridge, get engrossed in some other cookery (or DIY) project when I return, only to come back and find it has gone a bit horrible and beyond recovery.

Frustrated by my own inefficiency, I have tried various cheat’s sourdough recipes (all good, but most definitely NOT proper sourdough), and habitually start most of my doughs with a little flour and water and all of the sugar and yeast, and leave it for a couple of hours to allow it to develop a subtle tang that goes someway to replicating the special properties of sourdough. These are all things worth trying and developing as you become comfortable with using them. Lately though – the past six months or so – I have used a couple of halfway house starters that last in the fridge pretty well without turning bad, are dead simple to prepare, and only need occasional topping-up as they get used. The recipes are below, one each for a basic wheat starter and another for a rye starter.

We have homemade pizza every week, and I now always use one of these starters when I make the dough the night before, substituting the starter (which has the consistency of double cream) for around half of the water. It is impossible to give a precise measure of how much starter replaces how much water, it is just something you have to judge for yourself, which means this is a pizza dough that you have to mix by hand so you can judge when it has the correct balance. The same goes for regular loaves; no bread machines here, it’s time to work the dough by hand, and sweat. That’s what making bread is all about though, right?

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RECIPES 

Wheat Sourdough Starter – makes about 1 Litre

Day 1:

200ml lukewarm water

175g plain flour

1 tbsp honey

Day 3:

100ml lukewarm water

100g plain flour

Day 4:

100ml lukewarm water

100g plain flour


Rye Sourdough Starter – makes about 1 Litre

Day 1:

200ml lukewarm water

175g rye flour

1 tbsp honey

Day 3:

100ml lukewarm water

75g rye flour

Day 4:

100ml lukewarm water

75g rye flour


METHOD

To make either of the starters, on day one whisk the flour, honey and water in a large glass jar until it is a smooth mixture. Cover with clingfilm and let it stand at room temperature for two days.

On day 3 add the water and flour, whisk again until it is a smooth mixture and once again cover with clingfilm and let it stand at room temperature for another day.

On day 4 add the water and flour, whisk again until it is a smooth mixture and once again cover with clingfilm and let it stand at room temperature for one more day. After 24 hours you can now store it in the fridge where it seems to last pretty much indefinitely with the occasional stir to bring it all back together again (it will separate slightly over time).

When you have used around 2/3 of the jar, you can top it up by adding the appropriate quantities of the flour and water for whichever starter you are dealing with.

I told you it was dead simple…

Courgette Lemon Cake with Lemon Icing

We made a real effort this year to stock our garden with as many herbs and vegetables as we possibly could. As any gardener will tell you, this can lead to periods of glut, where suddenly you have piles of vegetables and herbs that all need to be used. At this time of year courgettes are threatening to overrun us, so now is the obvious time to make a courgette cake, something I have been intending to make for years but never got around to.

This beauty – courtesy of my fellow-blogger Kate Hackworthy – came out of the oven literally two hours ago, and is already decimated, so I’ve had to make do with the picture I took when it came out of the oven, before I glazed it. It’s delicious; moist, zingy and with its flecks of courgette skin it is absolutely beautiful. I’ve got loads of courgettes, I might make this again tomorrow!

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RECIPE serves 10  

a little butter, to grease the tin

350g courgettes (1 or 2 medium size), washed, skin left on

125ml vegetable oil

2 large eggs

100g golden caster sugar

the zest and juice of a lemon

300g plain flour

1 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda

1/2 tsp fine sea salt

for the lemon drizzle:

85g icing sugar

1 tbsp lemon juice

the grated zest of a lemon


METHOD

Preheat the oven to 180C/ gas 4. I don’t like to use the fan oven for cakes as I find it cooks them too quickly and fiercely.

Grease a 900g loaf tin and line it with baking parchment.

Grate the washed courgettes, with their skins still on, on the coarse side of a box grater into a clean tea towel. Lightly squeeze the towel to drain off excess moisture, then set aside for a moment.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the oil, eggs, sugar, lemon zest and lemon juice until smooth, then stir the grated courgette through it.

Sift the flour, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda into the mixture and gently fold the mixture with a metal spoon until it is just combined.

Pour the batter into the prepared loaf tin and bake for between 60 and 75 minutes, until a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean.

Leave it in the tin on a cooling rack, to completely cool.

To make the lemon drizzle, mix the icing sugar and lemon juice together until smooth, then spoon, spatter or drizzle it over the cake. Sprinkle the lemon zest over the top and watch it disappear!

Hazelnut and Orange Biscuits

Biscuits are always a great thing to make with children, and are quick and easy enough to whip up for a quick teatime treat or to add interest to an ice cream – these go particularly well with burnt orange ice cream to make an elegant dessert.

Once you have made the biscuit dough, you can keep it wrapped up like a fat sausage in greaseproof paper in the fridge, slicing off rounds to cook as necessary. I’m sure they keep well, but they never last long enough to find out!

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RECIPE  

200g unsalted butter, softened

150g golden caster sugar

1 large egg

225g self-raising flour

the finely grated zest of an unwaxed orange

the juice of an orange

100g very fresh, whole roasted hazelnuts


METHOD

If your hazelnuts are not roasted, put them into a broad-bottomed pan over a medium heat and cook for around five minutes until they are lightly browned and aromatic. Be careful not to scorch them.

Zest the orange and set the zest aside for now, then juice the orange and boil the juice down over a high heat until you are left with a tablespoon of thick reduced syrup. Leave to cool for a few minutes.

Bash the hazelnuts in a mortar until they are reduced to small lumps, don’t go too far and leave yourself with dust, these biscuits are best with a bit of texture. Children love doing this bit.

Cream the butter and sugar together in a stand mixer, or by hand. Add the egg and whisk it in, then sieve in the flour, add the zest and nuts and combine well, then beat in the orange syrup.

On a lightly floured piece of baking parchment or greaseproof paper, divide the biscuit dough in two and shape into two fat sausages about 2 inches (5cm) in diameter. Wrap in parchment or greaseproof paper, and refrigerate for at least two hours, they are even better left overnight.

Heat the oven to 190C/ gas 5.

Slice the dough into as many round biscuits as you wish to cook, about as thick as your little finger. Place them on a greased baking tray, ensuring there is plenty of space between them, and bake in the middle of the oven for around 8 minutes. They should not have coloured significantly, keep an eye on them because they go from perfect to burnt in a flash.

Using a pallet knife, remove the biscuits to a wire rack immediately. At this stage they are very soft and bendy, but they crisp up very quickly. They will be crisp, nutty and scented with orange.

They are delicious served warm with burnt orange ice cream, which should be removed from the freezer 30 mins before serving.

Spiced Madeleines

If you have made the Burnt Orange Ice Cream I put up here last week, you may be wondering what to do with all the egg whites that were left over. By a stroke of serendipity these gorgeously crispy and chewy spiced Madeleines not only go perfectly with the ice cream, they will also provide a use for your egg whites.

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RECIPE makes 24

225g ground almonds

125g plain flour

200g golden caster sugar

350g unsalted butter, softened

150g runny honey

300g egg whites

1/4 tsp Chinese 5-Spice

1/4 tsp cinnamon

1/4 tsp nutmeg

1/4 tsp ground star anise

the finely grated zest of a large orange

the finely grated zest of a large lemon


METHOD

Mix the ground almonds, flour, sugar and spices in a large bowl, mix together thoroughly, then add the honey, butter and citrus zest and beat together well.

In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites until fully aerated and at least doubled in size.

Take a large spoonful of the whisked egg white and fold through the batter, to loosen it. Now add the remainder of the egg white and carefully fold it through the loosened batter, taking care not to lose all the air in the egg. Put in the fridge for 20 minutes while you heat the oven to 180C/ gas 4 (if you can avoid it, don’t use a fan oven as it cooks too quickly).

If you have them, lightly grease some Madeleine moulds, then scatter a light dusting of plain flour over them. If you don’t have Madeleine moulds then just use small bun trays.

Carefully pour the mixture into your moulds, not too much in each as they will spread out and rise.

Bake for around 15 minutes, when the tops will be golden and a skewer inserted will come out clean. Leave to cool in the tray for five minutes then turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely.

These freeze particularly well, so if 24 seems a few too many then save some for a picnic.

Easy-Peasy Chocolate Brownies

I look after one of my grandsons before school, and one of the things that he loves to do is baking. I therefore have a stock of easy recipes that he can follow, without too much risk of disaster! It keeps him occupied, gives him a huge sense of achievement, and is also a valuable learning experience as he learns the role and function of the various ingredients.

These brownies are particularly delicious; we made them the first time yesterday morning, and they were so good we decided that it would be a nice gesture to make another batch for his class and teachers. We did that this morning, and they are cooling on a rack as I write this.

I have specified spreadable Lurpak here, just because Delia Smith has tested every brand of spreadable butter and Lurpak is what she recommends. I have however baked using all kinds of spreads and there isn’t so much difference that you need to worry about it. Use whatever spread you have to hand and you will still be delighted with the results.

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RECIPE makes 18

175g spreadable Lurpak (unsalted)

350g golden caster sugar

1 tsp vanilla extract

3 large eggs

125g plain flour

1 level tsp baking powder

50g cocoa powder

a couple of good handfuls of cacao nibs


METHOD

You will need a small ovenproof dish – I use one that is 10 inches by 8 inches.

Preheat the oven to 180C/ gas 4 – don’t use the fan if you can avoid it, it cooks too quickly.

Cut a sheet of baking parchment to fit the bottom of the dish. Grease the bottom and sides of the tin with a little of the Lurpak, lay the parchment in the bottom of the tin and grease the parchment as well.

Melt the Lurpak over a low heat, put the sugar into a large mixing bowl. When melted, pour the Lurpak over the sugar, add the vanilla extract and stir well until completely incorporated.

Sift the flour, cocoa powder and baking powder into the mixture and stir well until completely incorporated. Add the cacao nibs and stir again.

Break the eggs into another mixing bowl and whisk (preferably with an electric whisk) until the eggs are foamy and their volume has tripled. Pour a little of the whisked egg into the mixture, stir well to loosen the consistency, then carefully add the rest of the egg and gently fold through the mixture. The idea is to keep as much air as possible, so this is a job that I normally do. Children tend to have two speeds: dead stop and sprint!

When the eggs are completely incorporated, pour the mixture into the baking dish, gently pushing into the edges and corners.

Bake for around 25 minutes, until a thin crust has formed but the mixture is still slightly sticky inside, you want a fudgy interior so use a skewer to give you an idea when it has reached the correct consistency.

Leave to cool in the dish for ten minutes, then turn out onto a cooling rack and leave to cool completely before cutting into the desired number of brownies.

Yorkshire Puddings

They are big, they are ugly, and they are light and delicious!

Yorkshire puddings are one of those things that people tend to struggle with. They either don’t rise, or they collapse, or they’re greasy and chewy, or all three. It doesn’t need to be that way, you just need three things: a good batter recipe; well-developed gluten, and heat.

The key is time. If you are going to be cooking a roast dinner at, say, 5pm, then make your Yorkshire pudding batter at lunchtime. If you give your batter a good long beating and then plenty of time to sit, then the gluten in the flour will develop, giving the puddings lots of strength. You also need plenty of heat; heat when you add the batter to the tin, and lots of heat in the oven. The batter will spring up, and as the heat hardens the mixture the strong gluten will enable them to hold up and they won’t collapse. There is no need to use self-raising flour, or any raising agent at all. If you get plenty of air into the batter then that will do the trick.

The result will be great big puddings that literally leap out of the tin. They will have lots of air in them so they will be light, and not at all stodgy. Try it, you’ll never look back!

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RECIPE makes 12

115g plain flour, sifted

a pinch of fine sea salt

2 large eggs

140ml whole milk


METHOD

Several hours before cooking (or the night before, just leave the batter in the fridge) sift the flour into a mixing bowl with a pinch of fine sea salt. Lightly beat the eggs together, and start to whisk the flour and salt gently before you add anything else.

While whisking, gradually add the eggs, with a little of the milk, to make a smooth paste. When all the eggs have been incorporated, gradually add the rest of the milk, increasing the whisking speed. Obviously this is much easier if you are using a stand mixer. When everything has been added then whisk the mixture at high speed for three minutes or so, this will get air into the mixture and also work the gluten in the flour. Now just leave the batter to stand, and go and do something else with the rest of your day.

When the time comes to cook, get your oven up to 220C/ 200C fan/ gas 7. This might not be possible, or advisable if you are cooking something else in there at the same time, but get it as hot as you dare. In a 12 hole metal muffin tray, pour a little vegetable oil into each hole and put it into the oven for a few minutes to get hot.

Go back to your batter and give it a final whisk for a minute or so, to wake it up and ensure that everything is evenly distributed.

Take the muffin tray out of the oven and put it on the stovetop, with a burner underneath it on a high heat. This will keep the oil very hot while you work.

Now, quickly – but carefully – ladle the batter into the muffin holes, filling each approximately half-full.

Quickly again, put the muffin tin back in the oven, close the door and DO NOT OPEN IT FOR 20 MINUTES.

After twenty minutes, you will be greeted with the best Yorkshire puddings you have ever eaten. I promise.

Potato Pastry

This idea is pure genius.

I saw it in a Hairy Bikers’ diet book, but a quick internet search told me that it’s not a new idea at all. I must have been walking around with my eyes shut…

It is simply a development of potato gnocchi, kneading some flour into dry mashed potato to make a dough. It is amazing though, I made a chicken pie last week and didn’t tell anybody that the dough wasn’t regular shortcrust – nobody knew. The edges catch and crisp just like shortcrust, and the ‘mouth feel’ is almost exactly the same, it’s just lower in calories. You can use it pretty much anywhere you would normally use a savoury shortcrust pastry.

The only thing it has against it is that it doesn’t reheat very well, it tends to go soggy, so if you make a pie with it be sure to eat the whole thing! The recipe quantity below easily makes enough to cover a standard pie-dish.

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RECIPE

275g floury potatoes (e.g. Maris Piper, Roosters)

40g fridge-cold butter, diced

80g plain flour

1 or 2 tbsp semi-skimmed milk

a pinch of salt


METHOD

Peel and cut the potatoes into large pieces, so they don’t absorb too much water, then put into cold water and bring to the boil. Just as the water comes to the boil, turn the heat right down and let the potatoes slowly poach. This will ensure that they cook through and is another way to ensure they don’t absorb water. When tender, drain the potatoes and space them out on a wire rack to dry thoroughly.

When completely dry, mash them without adding any butter or moisture.

Put the diced butter and flour in a food processor and pulse until it forms crumbs. Add the flour and butter to the mash with a tablespoon of the milk and a pinch of salt and gently bring it all together into a dough, if it is a little dry and not holding together then add a little more milk – a tiny bit at a time. Handle it as lightly as possible, and when it holds together, shape it into a ball, wrap it in cling film and chill it for at least 30 minutes before rolling it out, as you would for shortcrust pastry.

When rolling, be sure to turn it around on a floured surface regularly to ensure that it doesn’t stick. Don’t try to roll it too thinly, it needs to be slightly thicker than normal pastry in order to hold together when you pick it up to drape over your pie.

Glaze with a beaten egg and cook it as usual. You can use this in any situation that normally requires shortcrust – it makes a great pie lid, can be used to make pasties and hand-pies, even sausage rolls.

Baked Bramley Apples and Custard

A curious thing happened at our dining table yesterday evening…

We had eaten and we were all feeling pretty full by the time I pulled these baked apples out of the oven. We very rarely have any kind of dessert, none of us has a particularly sweet tooth; I only cooked this because it looked interesting and, for a dessert, it’s low-calorie (around 270 kCal per serving).

I didn’t much fancy it, thinking I would have a couple of bites to test it. Another at the table was extremely dubious about the entire concept, and the third flat-out refused to eat it as he hates mushy things.

Anyway, there we were, chatting away, politely nibbling away from our bowls. Some little time later I realised that my bowl was empty. It wasn’t only mine, so were the other two. That tells you all you need to know about this incredibly simple, incredibly moreish winter dessert.

The original recipe is by Tom Kerridge. Sir, I salute you.

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RECIPE serves 4 

75g sachet of low-fat instant custard

400ml skimmed milk

4 medium Bramley apples

40g amaretti biscuits, crushed

the zest of an orange

30g raisins

1 tsp ground allspice

1/2 tsp ground ginger

1/2 tsp ground cardamom seeds

1tbsp soft light brown sugar

a scattering of flaked almonds


METHOD

Heat the oven to 180C/ 160C fan/ gas3.

Pour the custard powder into a large heatproof jug. Heat the milk on the stove-top until it reaches scalding point (just below the boil) then pour it , while whisking continuously, onto the custard powder. When it is smooth and free of any lumps, set it aside for now.

Remove the cores from the apples, leaving a good-sized hole so you can fit the filling into it.

In a small bowl, mix together the crushed amaretti biscuits, orange zest, raisins and spices.

Pour the custard into a small roasting tin, then place the apples on top of the custard. Spoon the filling into the core-holes. Bake for 20 minutes, then remove from the oven and sprinkle with the brown sugar and scatter over the flaked almonds. Bake for a further 15-20 minutes until the apples are soft all the way through.

Serve each baked apple with a portion of the hot custard.