Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Christmas baking

This really was a Christmas spent in the kitchen and what fun I had. We hosted a couple of family events and so I spent a long time cooking the Christmas turkey dinner, which was a joy and a pleasure, but the real fun was the Christmas baking. The fridge was well stocked.

Of course, I made a few batches of mince pies. Some with traditional mincemeat filling and some with a port and cranberry mince that had a wonderful fruity tang. I stuck to my usual recipe and made sure there was plenty of cream to hand for those who preferred a mince pie after dinner.

I chose a couple of other recipes to bake including old favourites and some new experiments. My husband is a chocoholic and when I bake chocolate treats I do like to try and use recipes that incorporate 'healthier' ingredients. I made these itsy bitsy chocolate chip cookies from my favourite cooking blog, 101 cookbooks.

These use rolled oats, molasses, walnuts and natural cane sugar so that I don't feel too guilty about the children eating them but they are also incredibly good with morning coffee.

I have to confess that whilst the recipe purports to make enough cookie dough for twelve dozen of these little gems, I only made about 60. They are described as 'bite size' and maybe my re-sizing says a lot about what I consider a proper amuse-bouche!

The chocolate theme continued to the fridge cake. A recipe I first made about 5 years ago and that is now a firm favourite when family are in town.

This is the easiest thing to throw together although there is a fair amount of time spent chopping and crushing. Break up 150g digestive biscuits, chop 300g dried dates, 200g pecan nuts and 100g hazelnuts and mix the whole lot together with 300g condensed milk. Melt 200g plain chocolate with 100g unsalted butter and add to the biscuit, fruit and nut mix. When all the ingredients are combined, empty the lot into a greased baking tray and put it in the fridge to set. Slice into bite size pieces and this makes another great accompaniment to morning coffee (or afternoon tea!!)

And from an old favourite to something new...

Cinnamon buns are definitely a treat on mornings when cereal hasn't really done the trick at breakfast. I've enjoyed them with my Canadian family and they are a national dish in Denmark (my soon to be adopted home country). I had been thinking about looking for a recipe when 101 cookbooks dropped one in my lap last week. I was so excited that I set about making a batch of buns on the day my guests were due to arrive and managed to follow Heidi's very clear instructions about freezing so that we have enjoyed them fresh and I also have a freezer stocked with uncooked dough rolls!!!

Finally, I made a mincemeat cheesecake, courtesy of a recipe from the Christmas cooking special from Nigel Slater (OFM, December 2010). This too proved to be a success and even my toddler son enjoyed the contrasting flavours of baked cheese marbled with port and cranberry mince. Unfortunately, the busy-ness of the day didn't permit any photos but I strongly recommend this wonderful alternative to the Christmas pudding.

Well, with all this baking behind me, the new year and new beginnings beckon. Back to the challenges of the move to the Denmark and, first, finding somewhere to live...

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Stewed fruit compote

This has been a tough week; I've been doing something very unusual for me - I've been out partying. For numerous noble causes (saying goodbye to friends, celebrating the festive season and making the most of my last few weeks in London), I've been staying out late wining and dining (and even dancing!) with the best of them. The problem is that I've had to add this hectic socialising onto the end of an already pretty chaotic timetable of long walks to nursery, waking during the night to attend to sick/teething baby and generally running around chasing my tail.

The result: I've caught the children's bug and now we're all feeling pretty sorry for ourselves; coughing and sniffing. Needless to say, progress on our imminent move to Copenhagen has been slow and then, as if there wasn't enough on our plates, this week we found out that the landlord of the flat we are supposed to be moving into in January has reneged. A little bit disappointing.

But I was determined to find something beautiful and delicious to celebrate amidst all this ugliness and it came upon me quite unexpectedly; as I was cooking up a batch of stewed fruit compote and had left the pan simmering on the stove. I went to get the children dressed and came back to the kitchen to the glorious aroma of stewed apples and pears, prunes and dried apricots. The steam from the simmering pot wafted through the air and the comforting smell gave me a moment of sublimity. I felt revived.

This is a recipe I make from time to time when immunities are low and I need something super healthy to add to the children's breakfasts in the morning. I simply peel, core and chop a couple of apples and pears, pop them in a pan and cover with water. I add five each of prunes and dried apricots and bring the pan to the boil then let it simmer for a while.

When the fruit is soft, I drain it and blend it up to a puree (using a bit of the drained water). This time I couldn't resist drinking the cupful of warm juice left in the pan. It was an instant tonic, lubricating my sore throat and warming my insides. Hopefully the vitamin boost will put us all on the road to recovery.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Gingerbread angels

This weekend we hosted a Christmas/goodbye party and I was looking for a cookie recipe that was festive, healthy and tempting enough for children. I didn't have to look far and came across this recipe for gingerbread men on my favourite food blog 101 Cookbooks. I love Heidi Swanson's writing and her culinary creations. I've discovered so many wonderful recipes for healthy and appetising dishes and she often features her own variations of the recipes I have in my own collection of cookery books.

Its the detail of her recipes that I particularly like and it was thanks to her exacting instructions in this gingerbread recipe that my angels came out just right. They are chewy but hold together well. The quantities were perfect and I managed to make enough for our party with about a dozen left over to take to the nursery Christmas party too.

I didn't limit my cookie cutting to the celestial but also used the Christmas tree shape to make a gingerbread forest! The children loved them and although the recipe was heavy on ginger and used a couple of cups of molasses(!), the cookies tasted intense but not overbearing and were enjoyed by all.

If the cookies look darker than traditional gingerbread cookies that one sees in the shops, that's because they're made with wholemeal flour. Yes, they really are healthy cookies. Thanks Heidi!

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Letter to my pre-school son

This weekend we took another trip to Copenhagen to find a place to live and to visit what I hope will be your new nursery. Whilst we dragged you from airport to airport, from house to house and along the snowy streets, you hardly complained but instead found excitement in the novelty of it all; new buses, different taxis - the points of reference that provided you with some measure of familiarity. Seeing you bravely take it all in made me proud and your father and I have gone to great lengths to explain to you that we are moving to a new house and a new country, 'far far away'. You seem to understand and to embrace the adventure. But the excitement on your face when we finally came back to London and you went back to your room to play with your toys told a different story: it was all okay because it had only been temporary. We didn't stay in Copenhagen this time, we came home. Did it confuse you to take you on a reconnaissance trip?

Today it was back to business as usual; nursery and back to your 'best friends', the other little 3 year old boys whose toys you share and fight over and whose worlds are so intensely entwined with your own.

What are we doing to your world to take you away from all this familiarity? From this 'social network' that you have built up for yourself at such a tender age and with such fragile social skills? Everyone we speak to says that the timing is perfect and its best to relocate abroad with a young family when the children are pre-school. Whilst you're still a pre-schooler, there is no formal 'education' to be interfered with and you don't have to be taken out of 'the system' and to fit into another with all the challenges that that can bring.

I know in my heart of hearts that three years living abroad will enrich your life and give you an education that doesn't come from reading books or listening to someone tell you about far away places.

It might feel as though we are plunging you into the unknown without any regard for what is important to you. Believe me when I say that this is not so. We are doing this for you too. You are robust and you will find friends in new places. You will grow to love some of the things that will at first seem so alien and unfamiliar. Don't be scared. One day Copenhagen will feel like home. One day I hope you will know that we are taking you out of your comfort zone in order to broaden it so that as you grow up you will yearn to explore and discover new cultures of your own. The time it will take you (us) to settle into our new Danish environment and to find our groove is an episode we will look back upon as a mere blip.

Please know that I lie awake in bed at night and I wonder if we are doing the right thing for you. However hard you will find it to say goodbye to your friends when the time comes, it will be harder for me to look on.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

First mince pies....

Growing up, I hated mince pies. Every Christmas my mother would bake batch after batch of mince pies and although I loved the pastry, I couldn't bring my underdeveloped taste buds to appreciate the spicy taste of dried fruit, candied peel and spirit. My mother was kind enough to make miniature apple pies for me.

How my taste buds have matured. These days I look forward to a mince pie with a cup of coffee on a cold winter morning in the run up to Christmas. I also look forward to making my own and this week I made my first mince pies of the season.

Once upon a time BC (before children) I even made my own cranberry mincemeat. Alas, nowadays I am satisfied with simply baking the pastry and assembling the pies!! My favourite pastry recipe is from a baking supplement that was published with the Guardian newspaper in 2007 and gives an optional twist of adding ground almonds.

Shortcrust pastry has to be the easiest and tastiest kind out there. For this recipe, simply sift 250g of plain flour together with 50g of icing sugar and a pinch of salt. If you are adding ground almond too then this is the time to do it (75g). Rub 150g of butter into the flour until it resembles breadcrumbs. Beat 2 egg yolks with 2 tbsp of cold water and stir this into the flour mixture to make a smooth dough. Wrap in cling film and chill for at least 30 minutes.

Of course, traditionally mince pies are made from two circles of the rolled out pastry, one larger one to line a muffin tin and a smaller one on top (covering the filling) with a hole snipped into it to allow the steam to escape. I prefer to use a star on top. Its more seasonal and it means that mince pies are never confused for apple ones! This style tip isn't my own but adopted Nigella Lawson's How to be a Domestic Goddess.

Dab a drop of water on the tips of the stars so they stick to the bases and then brush the tops with milk and sprinkle with caster sugar. Bake at 180 degrees C (fan assisted oven) for about 20-25 mins.

What could be easier? Well, if your experience of rolling shortcrust pastry has left you with a sticky worktop and pie bases that collapse when lifting them into a tin, then let me pass on a tip I saw when watching Raymond Blanc bake his Apple tart 'Maman Blanc'. When you take the pastry dough (wrapped in cling film) out of the fridge, roll it out between two sheets of cling film. The dough can be easily peeled off the cling film and it stops it from sticking to everything else!