Driving Home For Christmas With A Thousand Memories

I actually got the train home for Christmas, but this Chris Rea classic is one of my favourite Christmas songs so there you go. Yes, I've arrived home in my native Yorkshire, bags laden with Christmas Puds and slightly squashed mince-pies.

The Christmas season doesn't start for me until I have seen the pantomime at York Theatre Royal. I've attended this panto for the past twenty-three years and it's the same cast each time (mercifully no ex-soap stars or other d-list celebrities allowed). The show culminates in the flinging of wagon wheels into the audience. Unfortunately I narrowly missed catching one this year because of my sister's superior reach.

Here at home I am without my own kitchen and I can't really upload any photos, but I'm not going to go without a Christmas post (well the Queen doesn't miss a message does she?). For many, the Christmas lunch is probably one of the most stressful meals of the year. With the constant tips and menu planners in magazines and on TV it's all too easy to get overwhelmed. I think it's important to remember that it's just a roast. Yes, there are many variations on the theme, but if you're feeling harassed remember that it's as simple as you want to make it.

Rather than giving you a recipe, I thought I would include a few roast dinner tips that have helped me in the past. Whatever you're doing tomorrow I hope you have a fantastic day and that if you're the one cooking, your efforts are truly appreciated. Merry Christmas!

Roast Potatoes
For perfect roast potatoes make sure that they have been fully drained once parboiled. Put the lid back on the pan and give the potatoes a vigorous shake; really bash them around. These rough edges will give lots of tasty crispy bits once they are cooked. Make sure that the oil is piping hot before you put the potatoes in; they should sizzle on contact. This will give you a lovely crisp shell and a fluffy centre.

If you are worried about the turkey drying out, but you don't want to cook it breast down, layer the top with streaky bacon. Towards the end of the cooking time remove the bacon so that the skin can brown. The bacon can then be crumbled into the gravy.

Be sure to allow the turkey plenty of time to rest before serving. If you cover the bird with a tent of foil it will stay hot and the juices will have chance to settle. You can use this time to turn the oven temperature right up to finish your roast potatoes.

Don't waste the juices from your turkey. Once you have skimmed off any fat, scrape the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to loosen the sticky flavoursome patches. You can add a splash of wine at this stage to help. In a small bowl or mug mix a tablespoon of flour with a little water to make a roux, then add this to the juices. Over a low heat stir the flour mixture and then gradually add the water from your cooked vegetables. Once the gravy has thickened you can add more water or wine to get the desired consistency.

If you are serving your gravy in a boat, fill it with boiling water to heat up before you put your gravy into it. This will help it stay warm for longer.

Washing Up
No way. You've just cooked a delicious meal so go and sit down on the sofa with your drink of choice and make sure you have a portion of the day to rest and reflect.


Buttering Up Father Christmas...

Last week I promised you a recipe for Brandy Butter to enjoy with your Christmas Pudding or, indeed, mince pies. Not wanting to incur the wrath of Father Christmas (I'm still holding out for the "nice" list) I will of course oblige.

You've got to love recipes like this. I mean, someone was sat at home with a pastry cup full of candied fruit and thought this really isn't rich enough, hmmm, perhaps some more butter would help. Hmmm not butter on it's own, that's a bid odd. I know! Butter with sugar and alcohol. Great. Anyway, regardless of its non-health-giving properties, brandy butter is a Christmas staple and you've got to "tox" before you can detox, right?

The butter hardens in the fridge so that when you dollop it on top of your warm Christmas Pudding it provides a cool (and slightly boozy) contrast. Traditionally the butter is made with icing sugar, but I like to use light brown sugar to give it a slight caramel flavour, although it's not quite as smooth. Don't feel constrained by brandy if it's not your thing. Rum and whisky work really well and this year I have also made amaretto butter.
If you get a chance, I think this butter would be very good in different guises. Perhaps sandwiched in biscuits or as the buttercream icing on a fairy cake.
Unfortunately this post is somewhat lacking in photos. As the nights draw in I'm finding it harder and harder to get decent light for pictures so you'll just have to make the recipe to get a proper look.

Brandy Butter
3oz unsalted butter
3oz of soft brown sugar (or icing sugar if you prefer a smoother finish)
Grated rind of 1 small orange
2-3 tablespoons of brandy or your favourite spirit
Cream the butter until it is soft and pale.
  1. Beat in the sugar and the orange rind until smooth.
  2. Gradually add the alcohol and beat into the butter until it is well incorporated.
  3. Put the butter in the fridge for a couple of hours or until it hardens.
  4. The butter will melt on top of your warm pud.

PS Blogger keeps losing the formatting on this post - boooo - apologies!


Don't Make Me Write Another Poem...

This is just a quick reminder to buy a raffle ticket for your favourite Menu for Hope prize by TONIGHT! I am positive you'll be able to find something that takes your fancy and if it's my Afternoon Tea prize, that's even better.

Check out Cook Sister to see the list of sad and lonely prizes with only a few takers. I'm sorry to say my package is on there too, saved only from total rejection by nepotism (thanks Mr Bedmate). Once you have made your choice, take your $10 (come on guys, that's only £5) to the donation site and get bidding. Don't be a lemon!


Christmas Time, Mincepies and Mulled Wine...

If you were to gather your friends in a mock Family Fortunes style event and ask them to name the foods they most associate with Christmas, mince pies would definitely be up there. Christmas just wouldn't be Christmas without Santa Claus's favourite post-chimney snack.

Apparently mince pies have been around since the days of yore and yes they did used to contain real meat. Nowadays the pie filling is made up of spiced fruits with a little alcohol although some tricksters do like to try and make unwitting foreigners believe otherwise (namely the naughty Housemate with her Greek friend).

Last Christmas we had a big Mince Pie Party at our flat, complete with mulled wine and gingerbread. For me, it was an opportunity to have all our friends drop in for a pie and a glass of festive cheer in a glamorous 50s house-wife cocktail party type style. Unfortunately the Housemate and the Bedmate saw it more as an opportunity to get drunk on mulled wine (they thought I didn't see them sucking the alcohol out of the orange segment dregs) so it wasn't quite as sophisticated as I had hoped. Drunken helpers aside, it was a great party.

This year we were getting ready to launch MPPII, but unfortunately we just couldn't find a suitable date. Well, that's the official line, truth is that the thought of spending the whole weekend making, serving and cleaning up pies for 50 was too much for some people (no names, Mr Bedmate) to cope with. Instead, I made a few trays of pies for us and a couple of friends to enjoy.

I love the fact that mince pies are something that people who don't typically bake will make at Christmas. I just wish that more people would take the logical step of making their own mincemeat to go in the little things. If you're going to go through the rigmarole of making your own pastry (surely the hardest step in the process?) it seems such a shame to waste that effort with sub-standard mincemeat. So many beautiful pies are ruined by acidic, preservative-filled fillings. Is it just me or does your average jar of supermarket mincemeat look like paste?

Making your own mincemeat is ridiculously easy. I mean, it's just stirring. In fact, if you are looking for homemade gifts but you can't face the prospect of getting your rolling pin out, a jar of mincemeat would be an excellent idea. This mincemeat recipe does come with one warning though. I finally convinced my Dad to make his own filing for his lovely mince pies last year. The day after making (and eating most of) the mixture he had a doctor's appointment where he was diagnosed with diabetes. Poor Dad. He still blames this news on the mincemeat. I have to say that the preceding 56 years of sweet treats are more likely to be the culprit.

If you're struggling to feel festive, gather the ingredients for these little pies, put your favourite Christmas CD on in the kitchen and get pie-making. These are excellent gifts (they freeze really well) and even if you don't want to give them away, they are perfect for an afternoon on the sofa watching a Christmas film with your favourite people. I should also say that these little fellas are also perfect specimens for Karyn's and Ann's Mini Pie Revolution.

Homemade Mincemeat

You can make this in advance and store in clean jars until you are ready to use it (or give it as a gift). Alternatively, you can make it the night before you need it and leave it covered in the fridge.This recipe yields 2kg so you will have plenty of filling left. The pastry should make about 24 pies.

450g apples (I used braeburns) grated or chopped finely
225g currants
225g raisins
225g sultanas
125g candied peel
125g glace cherries
125g dates chopped small
225g soft brown sugar
175g grated suet
Grated rind and juice of one lemon
Chopped stem ginger to taste - I also use about 1 tbsp of the syrup from the ginger.
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp grated nutmeg
5 tbsp rum or any other alcohol you have in the house. I used a mixture of rum and port.

You can add nuts if you fancy them - sometimes I use flaked almonds. You could also use your other favourite dried fruits but you may need to add a little extra liquid; it's not an exact science.

500g plain flour
125g butter
125g lard/shortening
pinch of salt

1 egg to make an egg wash (optional)

  1. Put all the ingredients together in a bowl and stir thoroughly.

  2. Cover the mixture and leave it to mature for at least 24 hours. I kept mine in the fridge for a couple of days before I got round to making the pies. If you are saving some of the mincemeat for gifts or for next year, transfer into sterilized jars and top with a wax circle/lid. Store in a cool, dark place.

  3. When your mincemeat has matured you can make the pastry.

  4. Rub the fats into the flour and salt by hand or by using a food processor.

  5. Add a couple of tablespoons of very cold water and bring the pastry together into a ball.

  6. Chill for an hour or so in the fridge.

  7. Once the pastry is ready to use, roll it out and cut discs for the base of your pies.

  8. Fill the pies with a heaped teaspoon of mincemeat and top with another disk (I used hearts and stars for prettiness sake).

  9. Add a little slit for steam to escape and brush with the beaten egg. I added some cinnamon to the egg wash for extra spice.

  10. Put into a preheated oven (220 degrees) for 20 minutes or until the pies are browned.

  11. Sift with icing-sugar.

  12. Enjoy with mulled wine.*

* The best recipe I've found for mulled wine is from Nigella Lawson's How to be a Domestic Goddess.

Remember to vote for one of the Menu for Hope Prizes!


Menu For Hope

Homemade Spiced Parkin and Loose Tea From Fortnums
Shortbread and Fruitcake from my Home to Your Tums
Beautifully Wrapped-up and Tied Tight With String
I Hope that You will Like my Tea-time Things

I know, I know, the legacy of Rodgers and Hammerstein is still safe. Please excuse my poetic outburst, I'm trying to whet your appetite for my Menu for Hope prize. As I'm sure you are all aware this year's Menu for Hope started on 10th December and I have decided to get involved.

Menu for Hope was created five years ago by Chez Pim; you can get a history of the fund-raising project here. This year Menu for Hope is raising money for the UN Food Programme and more specifically a school lunch programme in Lesotho, Africa. Not only do the children get a nutritious lunch, they are also encouraged to stay in their classes and learn.

We all love to write and read about food; cooking is our hobby. However, I don't expect that many of us truly understand the relationship between food and survival. I know that I have never been truly hungry.

Ok, I'm not going to bang on using words like worthwhile and Christmas Spirit; you know what's right. Not only will you get a warm fuzzy feeling in the depths of your soul, you will also get a big box of treats. Yes, in January, when all that arrives is credit card bills and, if you're lucky, a late-posted Christmas card, you will get a parcel full of fun. Yes, you will get a box of homemade tea-time delights:

  1. The Famous Royal Blend Tea from Fortnum and Mason
  2. Yorkshire Parkin
  3. Moist Fruitcake
  4. Wennsleydale Cheese (to eat with the Fruit Cake - in the Yorkshire style)
  5. Butter Shortbread
I've chosen these treats because, not only are they delicious representatives of my Yorkshire roots, they will travel and keep well. So, (law of the land permitting) I'll send this anywhere in the world. I promise that I will wrap everything up with lots of bows and tissue paper and I'll probably add some other little bits and bobs: it will be a care package sent with love.

Hopefully you will now be inspired to by a raffle ticket and bid for item UK38. Here are the full details of how to do it:

1. Choose the prize or prizes of your choice from the main Menu for Hope site. (This is the global list of all prizes donated this year. Alternatively, you can see only the UK prizes on Cooksister.) You must make sure to check the terms and conditions for the individual prizes BEFORE you bid, as some will come with restrictions regarding where they ship to or how long the prize is valid for.

2. Go to the donation site and make a donation. The hosts do not handle the cash at all - it goes directly to Justgiving to be passed on to the World Food Programme.

3. Please specify the prize code of the prize you'd like in the 'Personal Message' section in the donation form when confirming your donation. Each $10 you donate will give you one raffle ticket toward a prize of your choice. If you are buying more than one ticket, please indicate how you would like the tickets to be allocated. For example, a donation of $50 can be 2 tickets for EU01 and 3 tickets for EU02. Please write 2xEU01, 3xEU02.

4. If your company matches your charity donation, please check the box and fill in the information so we could claim the corporate match.

5. Please check the box to allow us to see your email address so that we could contact you in case you win. Your email address will not be shared with anyone. Remember to check back on Chez Pim on Wednesday January 9 for the results of the raffle.


Now Bring Us Some Figgy Pudding

One of my favourite things about the Christmas season is Advent Calendars. There is something so special about counting down, door by door, to the much anticipated Christmas Day. In this world of instant gratification, where the pleasure of saving up is lost and instead we have the drugery of paying back the credit card long after the excitement of the purchase has worn off, there is something beautiful about the anticipation of 24 little doors made of card.

In the middle of last week my little advent calendar reminded me that I hadn't yet made my Christmas puddings. Unfortunately, I didn't have time to do them until yesterday, eight doors late. Officially, Christmas puddings should be made on "Stir-up Sunday" (the final Sunday before Advent begins. By making your puds this early in the month it gives the flavours chance to mature and deepen (much like a good fruit cake) but I like to think a homemade pudding, made even a week or so late, is still preferable to a the shop bought one. Seriously, if you look at your average supermarket pudding they look like canon balls. Heavy, un-naturally black and always in those red-plastic pots - what's that about? Making one yourself is really simple and if you are looking for home-made gift ideas who wouldn't be happy to receive a little muslin-wrapped bundle of fruity delight?

This recipe makes enough for two 2 litre puddings. I was trying to make lots of little ones to give as presents but after my newly-purchased set of molds met an unfortunate end (note to self: stop swinging your shopping bags when walking on tarmac) I made four 0.5 litre puds instead. I was going to use my slow cooker to steam them, but with a stereotyped lack of spacial awareness, I underestimated how much room the puddings would need so I ended up doing them in batches in my largest saucepan.

One of the traditions of pudding cooking is making a wish when you stir the mixture (anti-clockwise). So, if you don't make a pudding yourself then you miss out on your chance for a wish. What could be better than having a homemade pudding and winning the lottery/meeting your dream partner/world peace?

Traditonal Christmas Pudding
175g plain flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp mixed spice
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp grated nutmeg
125g fresh wholemeal or white breadcrumbs
125g shredded suet
75g demerara sugar
125g raisins
225g currants
225g sultanas
50g chopped candied peel
50g glace cherries
100g chopped dates
25g stem ginger (optional)
1 medium sized apple (grated)
1 medium carrot (grated)
Juice and grated rind of 1 orange and 1 lemon
1 level tablespoon of treacle
2 beaten eggs
200ml stout (I used Guinness)
You will have to leave the mixture to mature overnight so bear this in mind!
  1. Seive the flour, salt and spices into a large bowl.
  2. Add breadcrumbs, suet, sugar and fruit - mix well.
  3. Add grated apple, carrot, rind and juice of the lemon and orange , treacle, eggs and spout. Mix very well together.
  4. Make a wish!
  5. Leave for several hours or overnight.
  6. When you are ready to make the puds, stir the mixture again and put it in your greased basins. Cover the top with two layers of greased proof paper. Make a pleat in the paper so that there is room for the pudding to expand. Add a layer of foil and secure tightly.
  7. Stand the pudding on an upturned saucer, I used a cookie cutter, in a pan and pour boiling water into the pan so it is half way up the side of the pudding basin.
  8. Steam as follows: 1l basin - 8 hours, 600ml - 6 hours, 300ml - 4 hours.
  9. Do not let the puddings boil dry - top up the water as necessary. The puddings are done when a knife inserted into the centre comes out clean.
  10. Remove the grease proof paper and the foil and leave them to cool. Once they are cool add a circle of grease proof paper and re-wrap with foil. Store the puds in a cool place until you are ready to eat them.
  11. When it comes to Christmas day, re-steam the puddings. 3 hours for the large puds, 2 hours for the smaller puds and 1.5 hours for the micro puddings.
  12. Set aflame (vodka produces the best flame) and serve with brandy butter (recipe will follow).


The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave

I am, much to the amusement of those who know me well, a huge Yankophile. I think my passion began aged ten when I first discovered the stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Growing up, I lived in small village and one of my first acts of independence was going on the only bus of the day to the market town of Thirsk to be met by my (much missed) Gran. Before going to her bungalow for lunch we would visit the small bookshop with the basket of secondhand books outside the front door. It was here that I purchased my first 'Little House' book. Over the summer holidays and using my meagre pocket money I was able to collect the whole series. These books became my comfort blanket. Whenever I felt lost I was able to escape to the plains and be part of a world where Pa kept danger outside the cabin and even in times of hardship Ma put food on the table.

I know that these books are an institution in America but most people here are only familiar with them through the (not so great) TV series. At the time, I pledged that if I had a family I would raise them the Ingalls way and now, when life gets too complicated, I reaffirm that pledge to myself.

Since my first taste of the Prairie, my love for the great US of A has only grown. The housemate thinks this is hilarious and yells at me to stand every time 'The Star Spangled Banner' is played. The Bedmate finds it a little less amusing, but this could be due to the fact that I might have (once or twice) mentioned that I would quite like to marry a Senator.

Anyway, I was at my American History evening class (I know, I know) in September and I decided that it would be a great idea to have a Thanksgiving Dinner for a few friends. Due to scheduling problems we had it, a week and 2 days late, on Saturday night. Wow. After the initial embarrassment of explaining to the Housemate's invitees that, no I don't have any American relatives and yes, I do know that it is slightly odd to celebrate Thanksgiving considering I was born and raised this side of the Atlantic, the evening was a huge success.

We started with Shrimp Cocktail (anyone calling it prawn cocktail was quickly corrected - prawn cocktail is a slightly naf 1970s dinner party staple whereas shrimp cocktail is an acceptably American sounding starter) with Autumn leaf Melba toast (ha ha - what fun!).

For the main course we went all out:

Roast Turkey
Mashed Potatoes
Cranberry Sauce
Giblet Stock Gravy
Sausage and Cranberry Stuffing
Biscuits ( a few sceptical looks here - why was I serving scones with the main course?)
Sweet Potatoes with Marshmallows (again, general bemusement but the cynics quietened on tasting)

It was a struggle for me to cook a roast dinner without Yorkshire pudding and roast potatoes but I was striving for authenticity so they just didn't make the cut. For pudding it was Pumpkin Pie (how could it not be?) and Chocolate Pecan Pie.

Unfortunately I still haven't told people that I am writing this blog so it was difficult for me to take many photos of the food. It's bad enough being the America-obsessive for the evening without being the crazy girl who photographs her food too. Sadly I didn't get any photos of the table either although I did have a lot of fun decorating it with my munchkin gourds and Indian Corn (smuggled through customs on the way back from New York).

It seems slightly redundant posting Thanksgiving recipes when there are so many excellent American food blogs available. So rather than take coals to Newcastle I will leave you with the picture round quiz we created for people to complete while waiting for the main course to be served. First person to send all the correct answers gets my final can of pureed pumpkin.