Twas the night before Christmas…

Now I am essentially what they call a ‘working gal’, I was in the cafe right up to the hilt. This meant, unfortunately, that I was unable to indulge in my usual 3 day cooking marathon in the run up to Christmas, and SHOCK HORROR, had nothing prepared for Christmas lunch before the big day itself. This is unheard of from the girl who usually has everything chopped, prepped and cooked the day before, save the Turkey. I had luckily still found time to create the, now infamous, Christmas spreadsheet and book the grocery delivery slot. -my mother still doesn’t actually know the password, her grocery shops are so infrequent- Credit where credit is due however; I arrived home to a stocked and catalogued kitchen. Mother had received the food delivery and processed it in the only way a lawyer knows how to. This meant that once I breezed in off the dreaded 3 ½ hour coach journey from Cambridge at around lunch time, waving to the grandparents as I walked past them, I could set straight down to work on the Christmas Eve dinner.

I would say it is a tradition in our household to have a three course dinner on Christmas Eve, but considering I instigated it a few years ago when I took over proceedings, it is more of an indulgence of a personal whim. What is more of a family tradition is negotiating the short time frame in which to eat dinner between watching ‘Carols from Kings’ between 5.25pm and 7pm with a glass of bubbly and finishing before the 9.15pm rehearsal for Midnight Mass. The time constraint is combined with the limitations of: my grandmother’s aversion to peas and nuts, my father and his father’s aversion to visible celery, cabbage (I ignored this one) and onions and everyone’s fear of fish bones and remotely undercooked meat. Catering for everyone’s request whilst still gratifying my experimental mindset is a challenge every year.

This year we began with a starter inspired by The Organist’s New Years Eve extravaganza last year, crab mayonnaise. Made by simply mixing crab meat ( I chose brown crabmeat but next time I will go for white, more expensive but a better texture) with lemon juice, mayonnaise, black pepper and salt. I served this with an avocado cream made by blending 3 avocados with Crème fraiche, a small pinch of salt and lemon juice. The combination of the salty crab with the smoother avocado made for a pleasing blend.

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I followed this with a venison and chestnut stew, herb crumble, winter slaw and roasted squash purée.
For 6:
Brown 600g Cubed venison dusted with flour,pepper and salt in a little olive oil. Remove from the pan and set aside. Add 2 onions, cubed and 6 rashes of unsmoked, thick bacon and sauté with a pinch of salt until the onions are translucent. Deglaze the pan with a glass of port. Add thyme, a bay leaf and a spoonful of juniper berries. Finally return the venison to the pan with a beef stock cube, enough water to fill the pan. Place in the oven with a lid or covered in foil for 1 ½ hours at 180oC. Remove from the oven and add 250g cooked and peeled chestnuts, simmer on the stove top for 20mins until thickened.
For the crumble: Mix 300g breadcrumbs with salt, pepper, chopped parsley and chopped sage. Toast in the oven at 180oC until browned, mixing occasionally.
For the purée: Roast 500g cubed butternut squash with 1 chopped red onion, 3 chopped garlic cloves, a drizzle of olive oil, a drizzle of white wine vinegar, a drizzle of truffle oil and chopped sage at 180oC for 30mins, until soft. Blend.
For the slaw: Chop 1 red cabbage and mix with 1 grated apple, 1 tbsp of mustard, a handful of raisins and 2 tbsp mayonnaise. Season to taste.

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The day before Christmas Day I suppose one does not want anything too heavy in order to preserve one’s appetite for the main event. So for dessert I decided on a dish that was small and sweet. A champagne sabayon with popping candy, served with dark chocolate matchsticks. I kid you not, the matchsticks were a revelation. The intense bitterness provided by a lychee vinegar based ganache matched the overwhelmingly sweet sabayon well, adding richness and texture to the dish. NB you would not want too much of the sabayon as it is so sweet, in this case a cocktail glass full was ample.
For the sabayon: Whisk 6 egg yolks with 250g sugar, dash of vanilla extract, 200ml sparkling wine and a pinch of salt over a pan of boiling water for 8mins until it has doubled in size and thickened. Immediately remove to whisk over a bowl of iced water for 10-15mins until light and increased in volume again. Pour into glasses and chill. Sprinkle with popping candy just before serving.
For the matchsticks: Melt 200g milk chocolate and 200g dark chocolate together. Meanwhile bring 25ml cream and 50ml lychee (or other fruit flavoured) vinegar with a large pinch of salt to the boil. Immediately pour over the melted chocolate, leave for 1 min and then combine to a thickened ganache. Spoon into a piping bag, pipe into shapes and chill. When set, dust in cocoa powder.

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Christmas Dinner: Round 1

I will not call our Christmas dinner at the house the ‘practice round’, despite it being nearly a week early since all three housemates are leaving to spend the actual day with their parents. It was rather impressive in its own right, especially as it only took us around 2 hours to make. Despite Mark Francis’ pleas we did not get a turkey for the three of us; impractical considering 2/3 of us were leaving a day later. Instead I picked up a chicken on the way home from work. I turned up to discover a beautifully laid table with champagne, wine and dessert wine glasses, place mats and candles. The house had been decorated top to toe in tinsel and some wonderfully garish red fairy lights (Santa’s grotto in our home). We even had a mini wooden tree, Aldi’s finest crackers, (I’ve always wanted a fortune telling fish), and numerous Christmas cards. As I pootled around the cupboards preparing the main course, I even found unnecessary christmas bargains picked up from Aldi – a gift set containing stollen bites and rum, more mince pies (we have a never ending supply), and star-shaped biscuits (which turned out to be great in coffee cocktails).
So with St John’s College Choir’s carol CD blaring from the speakers (interspersed with snippets from the Gospel Messiah Claire Balding had found on YouTube), I set down to work, over-catering as always.
After some craftily-posed cracker-pulling selfies, it was time to actually eat. The starter was pulled out of the fridge, made ahead and stylishly plated up in cocktail glasses. The lovely Claire Balding’s take on the traditional prawn cocktail used horseradish and tomato and chilli relish for a less synthetically tasting Marie Rose sauce, and was delicious.

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Gradually I began loading the table with dishes for the main course. I decided this year just to make up the recipes as I went along; sometimes it’s more fun to live life on the edge. I think at this point even Mark Francis was pretty pleased we hadn’t gone for the turkey. We had a roast chicken. Over the years I have tried and failed many times to roast a chicken perfectly – the results have usually been either too dry or undercooked. After some years perfecting it, my fail safe method is to rub the chicken liberally with sea salt and pepper, adding a tbsp of butter massaged under the skin (a bizarrely satisfying thing to do), stuff the cavity with various fresh herbs (I used bay leaves, thyme, sage, rosemary), and then put in the oven for 1 hour at 180ºc with a 1 inch level of water (or white wine?) in the bottom of the roasting tin. After 1 hour, uncover and cook for a further 20-30mins until the juices run clear. Leave to rest for 20mins and you have a ready-made gravy base!

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Next up were the roast potatoes. I have tried so many times to make these healthy, but I’m afraid while using olive oil produces fairly crunchy and tasty potatoes, nothing can beat goose fat for top-notch roasties. I peeled and cut some King Edward potatoes into uneven knobbly lumps (very important as the more edges, the better the roast potatoes will be). I boiled them for 7-8mins, adding salt, garlic, bay leaves, peppercorns, rosemary and thyme to the water. Meanwhile I heated 1 large tbsp goose fat in the oven until melted. To this, I added the drained potatoes and herbs and roasted at 180ºC for 30-40mins. Even Mark Francis broke his usual 3 potato limit for these. In my opinion though, the Chef’s treat has to be the virtually deep-fried crunchy herbs you are left with at the end.
No Christmas dinner would be complete without parsnips. These are again something I rarely have except at Christmas. But that may be because I am snobby enough only to like my roasted parsnips. I positively turn my nose up at those barely-cooked chunks of parsnips that are usually served up at mass-produced roast dinners. For me a perfect roast parsnip should be thin and slightly caramelised: chewy and crunchy at the same time. So this year I sliced some carrots and parsnips into batons, tossing them in salt, pepper, thyme, truffle oil, olive oil, a splash of red wine vinegar, and a drizzle of honey. I roasted these at 180ºC for 30-40mins until caramelised, stirring every so often.
I am a fan of creamed spinach. I understand it is not everybody’s cup of tea, but since I was forgoing the most delicious part of the Christmas spread (the bread sauce), this was the nearest substitute I could manage at short notice. Simply melt 2 tbsp butter and whisk in 1 tbsp flour, add milk, whisking at small intervals until you get a white sauce. Add salt, pepper and nutmeg. When ready to serve, pour boiling water over a colander of spinach to wilt. Stir the spinach into the white sauce, add cream if desired.
The cranberry sauce is another thing people rarely seem to want to make, which for me makes absolutely no sense. It’s so easy and always sooo much nicer than the stuff from a jar. All you do is put 300g sugar and 300g cranberries in a pan with a splash of vanilla extract, port and water. Add 1 tsp cinnamon and 1 tsp ground cloves. Bring to the boil and stir for 2-3mins, and hey presto! Cranberry sauce that will keep for ages.

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On to the stuffing. Mark Francis couldn’t quite believe I was willing to squeeze the meat out of sausage skins in order to make this, but agreed that the end result was worth it. I believe the line CB used to describe them was ‘cakes of fun’, although I think the revised version ‘balls of fun’ has a better ring to it. To make the stuffing I simply mixed the meat of 8 sausages with a handful of cranberries, 1 egg, salt, pepper, a handful of chopped sage leaves, a sprinkling of parsley, 200g chopped chestnuts and 3 tbsp golden breadcrumbs. I shaped this mix into little balls and roasted in the oven at 180ºC for 30 mins.
My final addition to the table was the gravy. This really needs no recipe as thanks to the method of roasting the chicken above, the juices had already collected in the bottom of the pan. I simply whisked in 1 tbsp sifted cornflour to thicken, and added a stock cube to flavour.
Mark Francis’ main contribution were the ‘Ancient Roman style’ brussels sprouts, using an old family recipe. Unfortunately Mark Francis’ mother works along the same lines as me when it comes to cooking, providing him only a list of ingredients with no specific cooking times of amounts. This could have all gone so wrong. But in fact they went down so well I am planning using the recipe for my own Christmas dinner tomorrow. Simply take Brussels sprouts, raisins and olives, braise them in stock for 4-5mins until reduced, and then stir through some pine nuts. When in Rome or indeed Cambridge…

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After sitting and groaning at our stomachs for a bit, we decided we would play some games before dessert. While ‘Pass the bomb’ using the Great British Bake Off music instead of a timer was great fun, I’m not sure ‘Twister’ was the wisest idea given the quantity of food consumed… Luckily Claire Balding had made a delightful light dessert of baked pears, which she had stuffed with ricotta and sprinkled with amaretti biscuits. We served it with a discovery of Mark Francis – Aldi’s Finest: a box set of sparkling Asti dessert wine and Cantucci biscuits. While at first we were unsure what “Aldi’s Finest” would entail, it was a wonderful dessert wine, only 5%, sweet but not cloying. Shame you can only buy it in the box set.

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Altogether, a fine warm-up for the big day. I will let you know if I manage to persuade the 90 year old grandparents to play Twister!

Feastin

The benefits of singing in a choir may not be immediately obvious to those who don’t. There are the weekly hours you have to put in, the pressure of daily performance, the taking care of your voice. But for those in the know, it is all about the free food and drink: in this case, a decadent 6 course meal with rather nice wine in return for providing some musical entertainment. This is a once-in-a-term occurrence, but when the opportunity comes along we grab it with both hands.
So there we are, all dolled-up to the nines, the Fellows in gowns with red ribbons (for no apparent reason) – classic Cambridge madness. Following the champagne reception, and many photos, we traipsed into Hall. Caius’ food doesn’t usually wow me, but in this case it was rather different…

We started with a smoked chicken salad, mango purée and mango pieces. Whilst not a classic combination, it is certainly a modern favourite and was executed well. The chicken was tender, and the mango was not too sweet. Full marks for presentation to a college that normally serves their Formal Hall meals with a selection of sauce sachets on the table.

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Next we were treated to a delicious pan-fried white fish. I am not entirely sure which type of fish, as for some reason only known to Cauis they insist upon putting the menu in French, for those of us who aren’t multi-lingual – this means guesswork). Unfortunately the fish was served with a vanilla and orange cream. This was just too sweet for the delicate fish and resulted in the whole dish tasting rather like a Terry’s Chocolate Orange.

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Surprisingly my favourite course was the palate cleanser of Mojito sorbet. While admittedly it possibly would have been better as a dessert, it was minty and sweet and refreshing. There wasn’t much of an alcohol kick to it, but I’m not sure we necessarily needed it by that point…

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For the main course, what else but a nice cut of beef. Sadly this was a little over-cooked: not awful, but I’m afraid not great. However the potatoes, classic new potato roasties, were delicious.

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Following this I believe we did a bit of singing, but that wasn’t really what I was there for. It was a shame that the dessert wasn’t anywhere near as good as previous feast desserts, which have mostly been some sort of variation on a Black Forest gateau. This was just a thick and overly-sweet fig jam in a pastry case with sugary cream on top. I was not the only one not to finish it. (There comes a point where even I can’t eat much more!)

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You would have thought that would be the end of the meal, however it wouldn’t be a feast if there weren’t more courses than sense. Following some cheerful Wood madrigals, (Charles Wood, GCC 1889-1924), we launched into the cheese course, accompanied by claret, muscat and port. Luckily this is always my least favourite course, as I did not really want to eat much more by this point. Not only am I not a big fan of cheese – Sacre Bleu! – but also I find dessert wines just too cloying and sweet. A glass of port is alright, but any more than that is too much for me. This is why I have learnt to like whisky: my new after-dinner drink of choice.

So that was us quite literally singing for our supper. I think the overall message is that when every course has a sweet component, culminating in a sickly dessert, I would prescribe a low-sugar diet!

Everything stops for tea…

I’m sure I will feel wrath from foodies around the world when I admit that I have never had an afternoon tea. However considering that Mark Francis has started introducing me to ‘fancy’ teas such as Darjeeling, it seemed the natural next step. (Not that the other residents on my staircase last year didn’t try their hardest to convert me from coffee to tea: between U7, U8 and U4 we could have probably started running a tea room). So when I was tasked with finding somewhere in London to see my family, between the hours of 5pm and 7pm, I thought why not try out the ridiculously decadent idea of afternoon tea. Personally I would never say no to cakes for dinner. Our destination of choice was The Marylebone Hotel, 108 brasserie. All in all a pretty classy place, although the low table and sofas made it a little hard to eat.

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108 also caters for the health-conscious, offering a low sugar, gluten free version alongside their traditional cream tea (which was decidedly full of both sugar and flour): for research purposes we decided to try both.

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The selection of teas was a little underwhelming. We were offered only 6 varieties, with no green or mint teas. I went for Darjeeling, feeling Mark Francis would have been proud. It was served in beautiful blue-patterned china teacups with individual strainers.

IMG_0384The food was the kind that looks almost too pretty to eat: little tartlets filled with passionfruit curd which melted in the mouth, pannacotta that was milky and smooth… However my personal favourite was a chocolate mousse cake on a chocolate sponge, garnished with a brandy snap and fresh raspberries: I could have eaten two. Another luxury that you don’t get with any other meal is sandwiches cut into fingers. I feel there is something oddly decadent about eating bread with the crusts cut off for you.

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In fact the only part of the tea which I didn’t love were the scones. While these were perfectly passable, they didn’t wow, which seemed a bit of shame when served alongside some beautifully crafted desserts. The gluten free and sugar free also impressed. As readers of this blog will know I have a slight obsession with macaroons –  those served up here were delicate and flavoursome. They were accompanied by a date flapjack (which I thought was an innovative way to keep the tea healthy), a lemon tart and a chocolate brownie. None of which (I was informed) tasted as if they were in any way healthy!

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Whilst I’m certain this meal will not be replacing a three course dinner for me anytime soon, High Tea could well become a weekend staple. I’m imagining the ultimate foodie Sunday: consisting of brunch and tea. Watch this space… IMG_0387