Thursday, 22 December 2011

Delicately Spiced Christmas Shortbread

If you're not completely ready for Christmas year, but like me, the thought of heading into town at this time of year fills you with dread... why not try out this super easy shortbread recipe to wow your friends and family with a thoughtful, personal and downright delicious gift idea? 

Wrap in cellophane and tie with a pretty ribbon to make it look extra special. This shortbread should keep for about a week in an airtight container, but it can be made ahead and frozen as well.

Delicately Spiced Christmas Shortbread

8oz salted butter, at room temperature (I've tried it with unsalted as well, but it really doen't give the same 'bite')
4oz golden caster sugar
12oz plain flour
1/2 tsp orange essence
1/2 tsp vanilla essence
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ginger

1. Cream the butter and sugar together for about 5 minutes until the consistency is light and creamy

2. Gradually mix in the flour and the spices to make a claggy paste

3. Turn the mixture out onto a lightly floured work surface - you will probably need to squish it together with your hands to do so, but don't worry, this is normal.

4. Roll the mixture out to about 1cm-1.5cm thickness. It may be hard to roll with a pin due to the crumbly consistency, so I usually squash it down with my hands first, then just roll to finish off.

5. Cut into small rectangles (about 2cm x 6cm) and use the end of a chopstick to indent the traditional pattern on the top.

6. Bake on a baking sheet lined with greaseproof paper at 180 degrees Celcius for about 10 minutes, until just turning golden. Keep an eye on them as the high butter content means they are easy to burn if you're not careful.

7. Allow them to cool on a baking rack and they will firm up to the perfect semi-crisp, semi crumbly consistency.


Saturday, 17 December 2011

Oh, crumbs! How to turn cakey leftovers into truffley delights.

Who can beat the enthusiastic Christmas cheer of Michael Buble, Frank Sinatra and the Jacksons at Christmas?

Well, certainly not me. Last weekend saw me really start to feel the countdown to Christmas, with the first Christmas dinner of the season, accompanied by all the best bits you expect from a jolly Christmas soundtrack (and this does not include the ‘festive panpipes’ that have traumatised me since my teenaged waitressing days, when I was subjected to them continuously from mid-November until well after the January sales were in full swing).

Early unpleasant musical memories aside, this weekend was fantastic, and the best way to get in the mood with lashings of Christmas spirit (and wine, port, sherry etc). I was asked to bring the pudding, and instead of risking an overload of fruity Christmas goodness from an early stage, I decided to avoid Christmas pudding and mince pies, and opted to go with a Christmas adaptation of the rich chocolate cake I last made for my mother’s birthday. This time I adapted it with brandy and orange essence, and served it with clotted cream, flavoured with orange juice and zest. But that’s not the exciting part.

The exciting part came after coffee...

When I decorated my Christmas cakes this year, I had to do a little bit of trimming to make them completely flat, leaving me with a small bowl of delicious Christmassy crumbs. Not one to let anything go to waste, this got me thinking of how I could re-use them in another recipe, and I came up with the following Christmas pudding truffles. The basic ganache is one I have shared before, but the outcome is lipsmackingly different...

Christmas Truffles

Basic Chocolate Ganache
200g best quality dark chocolate (I used 90% cocoa solids for these), broken up
200ml double cream
30g unsalted butter

White Chocolate Ganache
100g white chocolate, broken up
100ml double cream
15g unsalted butter
45g ground almonds
3-4 tblsp dessicated coconut

For the Orange liqueur truffles
1 des sp. brandy
Dash of orange essence
1-2 tblsp dessicated coconut

For the Christmas Pudding Truffles
1 des sp. brandy
2-3 tblsp Christmas cake crumbs, soaked in 1 des sp. brandy overnight
25g white chocolate
40g dark chocolate
Red and green writing icing, to decorate


1. Start with the basic chocolate ganache: heat the butter and cream on the hob until they are completely mixed, and bubbling.

2. Remove from the heat, and stir in the chocolate

3. Separate into two batches, and flavour one with the orange liquer ingredients. Flavour the second with a desert spoon of brandy (this batch will turn into Christmas pudding truffles).

4. Pop both batches in the fridge for 3-5 hours.

5. Prepare the white chocolate ganache in the same way as the basic one. However, after you have stirred in your white chocolate you then need to stir in the almond and coconut.

6. Put the white truffle mix in the fridge for 3-5 hours.

7. When the two basic (white and dark) mixtures are nice and chilled, you can get them out and start rolling into truffle-sized balls with your hands (or teaspoons if you’re fancy). Then roll them in your choice of coating – I’m particularly partial to dessicated coconut., but cocoa powder is good too. I tend to avoid icing sugar, as it doesn't always react well to the moisture conent of the truffles. Put them in the fridge, out of temptation’s way.

8. For the Christmas pudding truffles, you will need to mix the crumbs into the ganache, and then start the rolling process. I found it worked perfectly well to just clump a blob of crumbs in with a blob of ganache and smudge it together. When these are formed into balls, pop them in the freezer for five minutes to chill rapidly.

9. Using a bain-marie, melt the plain chocolate to coat them.

10. Dunk the pudding truffles in the melted chocolate so that they are completely covered, then sit them on a plate covered in clingfilm – return them to the fridge for the chocolate to set and to re-cool.

11. Melt the white chocolate in a bain-marie. Bring the truffles out of the fridge, and, using a teaspoon, pop a blob of white chocolate on the top of each truffle – make sure it’s enough that it will dribble down the sides slightly, without making the entire top half of the truffle white. You can manipulate the white chocolate using a skewer if necessary. When all truffles have been decorated this way, return them to the fridge to set. The final step is to use red and green writing icing to decorate the top of the truffles with a holly pattern.

These truffles have a short shelf life due to the butter and cream content. If you are not planning on tucking straight into them, they can be stored in the freezer for up to three months, but the Christmas pudding truffles should be frozen prior to piping the icing decoration on the top.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Seasons Greetings! Rich fruit cake

Christmas is just around the corner, and if you've left it until to now to make your cake, you may well be starting to panic. Well, fear not. Whilst this fruit cake (like most) does taste richer and fuller over time, there's enough content in there that even if you only make it a couple of weeks in advance, it's still going to taste pretty delicious.

This recipe will make a generously sized Christmas cake (9" across, and 4" deep).

260g currants
250g sultanas
250g raisins
200g glace cherries, rinsed and halved
185g dried apricots, roughly chopped
125g dried figs, roughly chopped
100g mixed peel
75g dried cranberries, rinsed
3 tblsp creme de cacao
2 tblsp brandy
300g plain flour
300g butter
300g dark muscovado sugar
5 eggs
1 tblsp treacle
1/2 tsp cinnamon
pinch ginger
3 or 4 cloves, ground
1/2 tsp nutmeg
60g almonds, roughly chopped
zest of 1 orange
zest of 1 lemon

1. Soak all of the fruit and peel in the alcohol for a minimum of 6 hours, and preferably overnight.

2. Double-line and double-grease a 9" round springform tin.

3. Beat together all of the other ingredients, add the fruit and any liquid and mix in.

4. Turn into the tin, level off the top and cover with baking paper.

5. Bake at 140 degrees celcius, for about 4 hours.

6. Once the cake is cooked, leave to cool in the tin. When cool, prick four or five times with a skewer and 'feed' with 2 tblsp brandy. Once this has soaked in, re-cover and keep in a cool, dry place. Feed the cake periodically, depending on how much time you have left (once every week-fortnight if you have a couple of months, or twice per week if you only have a couple of weeks).

To decorate:

You will need to start this at least 3-4 days before the cake is needed. Firstly, you need to secure your cake to an appropriate cake board, securing it with a good dollop of royal icing.

1. Roll out 500-550g of marzipan, on a surface lightly dusted with sieved icing sugar.

2. Add a dash of boiled water to a tblsp of apricot jam on a medium heat, until it starts to melt. Cover the cake in the melted jam, then use the rolling pin to lift the marzipan over the cake. Smooth down over the cake and trim to fit. Leave the cake for a couple of days so that the marzipan can dry out a little before icing.

3. Roll out 500-550g of ready-to-roll icing on a surface lightly dusted with icing sugar. Make sure you knead it for at least five mintues beforehand, until the texture becomes easily workable, like playdough. If you don't knead it enough, then the final result will crack.

4. Coat the marzipan in a little warm water, then use the rolling pin to lift the icing over the cake. Smooth down over the cake and trim to fit.

5. Pipe around the bottom of the cake with royal icing. Decorate with ready-made decorations, or make your own using more ready-to roll icing, securing with water or with royal icing for a stronger bond. Here are some of my creations:

You can really let your imagination do the talking with your decorations - hopefully some of these ideas will give you inspiration. These delicious cakes make wonderful Christmas gift - to present them, just sit each cake on a large piece of cellophane, gather the cellophane up at the top and secure with a festive ribbon. It will keep your cake covered and airtight until Christmas, and just visible enough to add to the festive vibe in the run up to the big day. I'm sure from these photos you can guess what my family and friends will be receiving as gifts this year.....

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Cavolo Nero and Almond Pesto

Pesto is great - a really versatile ingredient that can transform the simplest ingredients (such as pasta or toasted bread) into something far greater than the sum of their parts. But for vegetarians and vegans, pesto can be a nightmare, since it's normally made using hard cheeses such as grana padano, which tend to made using calf rennet.

This take on pesto is made with cavolo nero, a member of the kale family that has an almost seasidey taste. I didn't have any pine nuts in when I decided to make this, but I did have some almonds left over from a baking marathon, which is why that went in. The whole point of something like pesto is convenience, so there's no point in being too precious about it - just have a go with what you've got and see what happens.

1 bunch cavolo nero (leaves, not stalks)
1 clove garlic
50g almonds, roughly chopped
good glug of olive oil
handful of fresh coriander
pinch salt and pepper

1. Blanche the cavolo nero for a couple of minutes in salted water, then refresh under cold water. Drain, then squeeze out the excess water by hand.

2. Meanwhile, lightly toast the almonds in a hot overn for about 5 minutes, turning a couple of times. Allow to cool, then blitz in a food processor.

3. Add the cavolo nero, coriander and garlic and blitz again.

4. Add olive oil, salt and pepper and gently mix in.

I served mine with pasta and some grilled chestnuts. You could add some grated cheese to the mixture if you wanted, though it does taste delicious as it is. Enjoy!