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Archive for November, 2012

I love making choux pastry.  To me its quick and easy and I usually have the ingredients without buying anything in.  Like most things I cook over and over again, I have strong memories attached to choux and it always reminds me of the day I got my grandmother’s adoration.

My grandmother, who lived in Athens, would spend a couple of months every winter with us in England before we joined her in Greece for the summer.  Born in Athens, she was one of nine children.  Her parents were very keen on education and sent her away to a French convent until she was eighteen.  I don’t think they did home economics because she couldn’t even boil an egg but did do the most fabulous embroidery.

She married and set up home in Athens and employed an Arab cook who she let run the kitchen.  She was very interested in food but had no interest whatsoever in cooking.  After the war, life changed and she was left in the house alone with only her maid and housekeeper.  It was only after a nasty burglary that she decided to shut up the house and move into the swishest hotel in central Athens, famous for its roof top restaurant and there she stayed for more than sixteen years until she died.

Whilst she loved good food she also had a rather unfortunate reputation for sending things back to the kitchen, for she had a very keen eye and would know if the vegetables were over cooked, or if they were old, or the meat was tough.  She was known to pay a visit to the kitchen to inspect the catch of the day before choosing the fish she wanted cooked.  God help them if they ruined it.  She was known as a very generous tipper.  Even though her regular waiter was a nervous wreck when she appeared in the restaurant, he insisted on serving her for more than twenty years, being very protective of her custom.  Many years after her death I ate in a restaurant where she was remembered fondly with respect.  We laughed at her strict ways and how nervous her waiter Spiro would be when she arrived.   Praise was something given by my grandmother only when it was earned.

So, many years ago when I returned home from school economics with a Tupperware box full of choux pastry éclairs filled with cream and covered with chocolate – she was impressed, so impressed that when I went into the kitchen to sample my delights I found she had eaten the lot.  From then on, every Tuesday when I returned from school she would be eager to know what I had cooked and would remind me how fabulous my chocolate choux éclairs were.  Sadly, nothing matched the heady delights of those first choux éclairs.  The choux éclairs  may be long gone but her praise is still remembered and cherished.

Gougères make an impressive canape without too much fuss.  I have made them plain with just the cheese folded in and a pinch of cayenne or with the addition of a filling of smoked trout pate.  Sometimes I make double the quantity of choux and split the mixture, with one half I fold in the cheese and with the other I bake plain balls which I then fill with cream and top with caramel and toasted almonds.  Savoury and sweet in one recipe.

Gougères

Choux Pastry

Ingredients

Makes about 24 balls

125 ml of half milk and half water

50 gms unsalted butter

75 gms plain flour

2 whole eggs

pinch of salt

60 gms finely grated cheese (I use gruyere)

large pinch of cayenne pepper

Method

Sift the flour and salt twice onto a plate.

Pre heat the oven to 180c/350f/gas mark 4

Put the water, milk and butter into a saucepan and heat slowly, you don’t want the water to boil before the butter melts.

Once the butter has melted bring the water to a brisk boil, remove from the heat and tip in all the flour and pinch of salt at once.  Using a wooden spoon beat the mixture until it forms a ball and leaves the sides of the pan.  At the beginning it doesn’t look like it will ever thicken up but within seconds there should be a ball of paste.  Return the pan back to the heat and roll the ball around for a minute or two to dry it out.

Remove from heat.  Don’t put your eggs in immediately, as they will scramble.

When the pastry has cooled a little start to add the eggs, one at a time, no prior beating necessary.  At this stage I use an electric mixer, once the egg has been combined add the next one and beat again.

Beat the mixture for a minute or two more, it will slightly thicken and become glossy.

Add the majority of the cheese and cayenne pepper and mix well with the wooden spoon, holding back a little cheese to sprinkle over the top of the balls.

Put into a piping bag and pipe small balls onto a baking tray lined with baking paper.  This can also be done by using two teaspoons – the results will be a little more rustic but they will taste just as good.  If there are little peaks dab them down using a wetted finger.

Cook for 20-25 minutes.  At 20 minutes I check to see how they are colouring, at this point they should have risen and should be firm to the touch.  I leave them in the oven until they have all got an overall golden brown colour. Usually another 5-10 minutes.

Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

Serve either warm or cold but they need to be made and eaten on the same day.  Sometimes I serve them as they are or sometimes I fill them with smoked trout pate using a icing bag and making a small hole in the side of the ball I pipe in some pate.

I sometimes double up the quantity and fill a second piping bag that is left until the oven is free for the next batch.

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Every year I use the same recipe for my Christmas cake.  This is a well tried and tested recipe perfected over many years.  One year I tried five different recipes.  After much debating and tasting we whittled it down to one and then improved on it.  The family like it and that’s good enough for me.

When I was a little girl my mother had high hopes for her Christmas cake.  Cake icing was not a skill she possessed but each year she approached the task of icing the Christmas cake with new hope and vigor, thinking that this year she would create the perfect iced cake.  Each year the cake would be presented with an iced snow scene adorned with small fir trees, an overfed robin, and several patchy reindeer, topped off with the piece de resistance – the shop bought frayed red ribbon.

Achieving the snow scene was a torturous journey for both my mother and me.  It would start with the mixing of the royal icing. I would sit silently at the kitchen table watching.   This phase usually passed in a fairly upbeat mood, then the palette knife would make an appearance and my mother would attempt her foray into cake icing nirvana, kidding herself that the icing would just glide on and be perfect.   As each layer went on, the more uneven the cake became.  My initial encouragement of how good it was looking would soon dry up and a murderous tension could be felt in the air, at this stage I readied myself to flee.

In a last ditch attempt of redeeming things my mother would then move onto the icing syringe which was filled to the brim with royal icing, again she would struggle and labour over trying to squeeze out perfect shapes as demonstrated on the cover of the box but to no avail.  When eventually my mother realised she had been beaten, the palate knife re-appeared and with a few swift hand movements we were back to plan B; the snow scene.    Having stuck by my mother during her icing ordeal I would be rewarded with the task of pushing the aged but much loved cake ornaments into the deep waves of royal icing before it was finished off with a red ruff and, put on a raised dish and placed in the dining room, ready for Christmas.

My mother’s Christmas snow scene may not have been perfect but it has become a fond memory I hold with great affection along with those worn Christmas cake ornaments.

I have said it before and I will say it again recipes evolve because people change them.  If I don’t like currants, I leave them out and add the same weight in raisins.  If I don’t like cinnamon I don’t add it.  I am a big fan of cherries but I sometimes swap them for more apricots.  There are no hard and fast rules.

Christmas Cake

or

Rich Fruit Cake Recipe

Ingredients

Stage One

Ingredients

225g/8 oz currants

225g/8 0z raisins

225g/8 oz sultanas

50g/2 oz dried apricots chopped small

175g/6 oz glace cherries cut into quarters or halves depending on how I am feeling.

100ml/4 floz brandy

Method

Pick over the fruit for any stalks this might not seem important at this stage but I hate eating a piece of cake and getting a bit of stalk stuck in my teeth. 

Put all the fruit into an airtight dish and add the brandy.  Stir well to blend, seal and leave. 

I tend to leave mine in a dark cupboard for two weeks or more, stirring the fruit every week or so.  The smell is fantastic and after two weeks the fruit has plumped up beautifully.

Ingredients

Stage Two

50g/2 oz blanched almonds chopped roughly but small

50g/2 oz brazil nuts chopped roughly but small

225g/8 oz butter

225g/8 oz soft dark brown sugar

4 eggs

225g/8 oz white plain flour

5ml/1 level tsp ground mixed spice

 ½ level tsp ground cinnamon

Greaseproof paper

string

brown paper or an old large envelope

Method

Draw around the bottom of your 8″ cake tin on top of a double layer of greaseproof paper, cut out the circles and line the bottom of the cake tin with these.

Cut a length of greaseproof paper this is going to line the inside of the tin, this needs to be folded in half and placed inside the tin it should be raised above the height of the tin.  Then cut a length of brown paper folded over to go around the outside of the tin again raised above the height of the tin.  This is to help the cake from burning.  A little like a sun shield.

The oven needs to be set at 150C/300F/Gas Mark 2.

Soften the butter and beat until soft and pale, now add the sugar and beat well until it is all blended.

In a measuring jug beat the four eggs and begin to pour them into the mixture a little at a time, beating constantly.  If the mixture begins to curdle add a tablespoon of flour and keep beating until it goes back to a smooth consistency.

Add the flour, mixed spice and cinnamon, and using a metal spoon gently fold into the mixture.  Add the fruit and the chopped nuts.  Using the metal spoon continue to fold in gently.  If the mixture for some reason seems dry or heavy, add 2 tbsp milk.

Spoon the mixture into the cake tin and smooth the top with the back of the spoon making a slight dome in the centre.  This will help the cake to bake level.

Bake in the centre of the oven 150C/300F/Gas Mark 2 for 3 ½  hours.  I either write down the time I put the cake in or use the timer.  It’s important to get the timing right.  After 3 1/2 hours check the cake with a skewer.  If it comes out clean then it’s done, there is a lot of brandy-laden fruit in the cake so I look closely that it’s not fruit sticking to the skewer.

When the cake is done do not remove from the tin but allow it to sit until it is completely cold and then unwrap.  The cake will keep for three months but it needs to be wrapped in greaseproof paper and then foil and tightly sealed.  I then place the cake in a plastic bag, which is tied, and then into an airtight container.

I prefer to bake my cake in the middle of November to give it some time to mature.  I do not feed the cake with brandy after I have baked it.  I prefer to use the brandy to pump up the fruit.   I then cover the cake with marzipan and fondant icing.

I have also made this without marzipan and icing and instead have decorated the top with whole almonds and cherries, which I put on just before putting the cake in the oven.

If covered in the marzipan and icing it will stand being left on display which I do once it has had it final decoration but once its been cut I store it in an airtight container.  It will keep for ages like this.

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I can’t remember a Christmas Day meal when there hasn’t been a Christmas pudding served.  As a child I would always feel the pudding was the anti-climax of the whole day, as it was my least favorite of the Christmas fare, not being a big fan of anything that contained dried fruit.  The only reason I eagerly agreed to a slice, was the hope of winning the hidden gold coin.  My mother would always put a gold sovereign in the pudding.  Over the years it dawned on me that this task was always done in the kitchen, followed by the warm brandy being poured over with my mother carrying it to the table before setting light to it.  The concentration my mother exerted over this task was not the fear of dropping the said pudding but to keep a vigilant eye on where the sovereign was embedded.    It has taken many years to realise the whole thing was fixed and my chances of ever winning the much sought after coin were nil.  My mother like a magician had full control of where the coin was and who would win it.  Trusted family members and my father were high on the list.  Needless to say, after the meal, the coin would be whisked away, and no doubt put in a safe place until the following year.

My tastes have changed and matured over the years and I have perfected my own recipe, without suet.   This makes the pudding much lighter.  Instead of the traditional brandy butter I prefer a large  helping of clotted cream  Gold sovereigns are not so plentiful these days so I have replaced it with silver sixpences which I have no idea where in the pudding it is and who ever wins them gets to keep them.  I wrap each one is silver foil for hygiene and push them into the pudding just before serving, and each year there is a fresh batch of coins.

Christmas pudding

I usually make this around September to give it time to mature but I have also left it the week before Christmas.

Ingredients

50 gm/2 oz blanched almonds

50 gm/2 oz walnuts

50 gm/2 oz brazil nuts

75 gm/3 oz carrots

75 gm/3 oz pitted no soak prunes

125 gm/4 oz butter

1 lemon

125 gm/4oz soft dark brown sugar

2 eggs beaten

350 gm/12 oz mixture of seedless raisins, currants and sultanas (I don’t always put 125 gm/4 oz of each in I sometimes put more of one fruit depending what I have in the cupboard, as long as the total weight is 350 gm).

25 gm/ 1 oz chopped glace cherries

50 gm/ 2 oz fresh brown breadcrumbs

125 gm/ 4 oz wholemeal plain flour

50 gm/ 2 oz white plain flour

15ml/ 1 level tablespoon mixed ground spice

200 ml/ 7 floz Guinness

30 ml/ 2 tbs brandy

30 ml/ 2 level tbs black treacle (leave a tablespoon in a cup of boiling water before measuring out, the treacle will slip off the spoon).

Method

  1. Roughly chop all the nuts, either in a food processor or by hand.  Coarsely grate the carrots and cut the prunes into small pieces, this is much easier to do if you use scissors.
  2. Beat the butter and lemon rind until soft then gradually beat in the sugar followed by the beaten eggs.  Mix in all the remaining ingredients and stir well.  At this point our family tradition is that each person comes and gives the pudding a stir and makes a wish.  When the stirring is complete cover and leave in a cool place overnight – NOT the fridge.
  3. The following day grease a 2 ½ – 2 ¾ pint (1.4-1.6 litre) heatproof pudding basin this is to make it easier for the pudding to come out after cooking.  Beat the pudding mixture again and spoon it into the basin.  To cover, cut a piece of grease proof paper and a piece of foil, place these on top of each other and fold a central pleat down the centre, place this over the top of the pudding and tie securely. After years of struggling with bits of string slipping, I like to use a strong elastic band.
  4. Steam the pudding for about 6 hours in a large saucepan filled with enough boiling water to come halfway up the sides of the basin.  Do not stand the basin directly in the pan put it on top of an upturned plate, – cover and boil for about 4 hours, checking that the water has not boiled dry and if needed top up with boiling water from the kettle (as I like to make several pudding I use my fish kettle).  When done cool the pudding completely and re-cover the basin with fresh greaseproof paper and foil securing with a fresh elastic band and refrigerate for up to 2 months.  Some say that left in a cool place the pudding will last from one year to the next.  Although its not essential (but it adds to the whole Christmas traditional theme) I cover the cooked pudding when cooled with a square of muslin tied with a handle so its easy on Christmas day to put into the steamer and lift out but this is optional.
  5. On the day of eating, steam the pudding for about 3 hours, then turn out onto a warm serving plate.  Warm about 60 ml/ 4 tbs brandy in a small saucepan and pour over the pudding and set alight. The warming helps the brandy to light.  Depending on the year I sometimes dispense with the flaming brandy and replace it with sparklers or an indoor fountain firework.  These last a little bit longer.  The pudding can be served with either brandy butter, brandy cream or my choice of clotted cream.

If there is any pudding left over, I wrap it up in silver foil and put it in the fridge until Boxing day when we slice it up and  warm it through by putting a generous amount of butter into a frying pan and frying it.  Again served with some clotted cream.

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