Twas the Season: The Gingerbread house

I know this is a little late but as christmas is my favourite time of year I can be indulged into stretching out the festive season. I can come up with more excuses. Feel free to take your pick: I’ve been busy as cookery school has just started, I’m feeling grumpy because of the cold weather and I’m rebelling against the usual view of January as the month of abstinence. 

The Gingerbread house my friend and I made might just be the antithesis of abstinence. I believe we covered most of the major food groups: chocolate, toffees, marshmallows, sweets and of course plain old sugar. Even the centre of the house contained a hidden treat of all the sweets leftover, the windows were boiled sweets and the ‘snow’ was marshmallow frosting. Of course this wasn’t so much a cookery session but rather a challenge in architectural design. Using an adhesive icing, similar to the consistency of superglue we gingerly (excuse the pun), tried to join together pieces of gingerbread meticulously measured with rulers and templates – and still then we didn’t get them straight….. -. I’m not sure whether the icing had drunk some of the mulled wine we were enjoying as we put this together but it was definetly touch and go for a bit as we held it together whilst it dry. The chimney was definitely drunk.  However it was all worth it. Other than an excuse to dance around the kitchen to christmas music (hghlights included Buble’s album and ‘Christmas goes Baroque’) whilst consuming excessive amounts of sugar there was actually a more targeted purpose. 

Throwing myself into my short lived career as a babysitter this autumn wasn’t as smooth sailing as I hoped. Babysitting in sixth form had been a doddle. The children were generally old enough to practically take care/amuse themselves or they were asleep in bed and I watched tv. However, try amusing a 3 year old for the whole afternoon and you will begin to understand why nannying is so well paid. There is only a certain amount of ‘lets pretend’ game situations I can enact. So I decided to approach babysitting with ales son plan approach. We made cards, went to see the ducks and of course my personal favourite; cooking. Turns out the three year old is rather keen on it too. Plus she is excellent at washing up. You haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen a three year old, standing on a chair in marigolds singing her own washing up song. So with Christmas approaching we embarked on our most ambitious at; the gingerbread house, along with her older sister. We baked it, she got bored and watched CBeebies while I cut it out and then we all decorated. Out it this way. Some sides were decorated by the 3 year old, some by the 11 year old and some by the 23 year old….but it stuck together and we were rather proud of our efforts are more than a little intoxicated by sugar. The next day I receive a text from the parents of said children asking for a photo. They explained that they had misunderstood the purpose of the house and eaten it… The 11 year old hadn’t spoken to them for a day. All in all I couldn’t have found a more deserving recipient of the house my friend and I made, the kids faces were probably what Christmas is all about. Can’t wait till next year now.


Christmas Eve and Christmas Day – The Highlights

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day – The Highlights
Considering I decided it was a wise idea to make 11 side dishes alongside our christmas Turkey this year, as well as a three course meal on Christmas Eve, I suspect even my most dedicated readers would get a little bored reading all of the recipes so here are some of my Christmas season highlights.

I’ve always wished that I had a brother. Mostly cooking for 3 small women, 2 old people and my dad (who valiantly attempted to eat with the same gusto as a teenage boy, but was eventually overwhelmed) is a bit disappointing when you’ve cooked for the 3 thousand and have over 3 quarters left over, no matter how much they enjoyed the meal. Ot doesn’t help that my Grandma has a fear of whole nuts, peas and alcohol in her food, and my Grandpa and Dad refuse to eat onions, celery, cabbage, spicy food and Brussel sprouts and my Aunt, Dad and Grandpa tend to just fill up on Cheese Footballs (I think it runs on the family, it’s an addiction that only comes round once a year….. (this wasn’t helped on christmas eve that we had drinks while watching Carols from Kings pre dinner, amazing as always, but as it is already an hour and we had the addition of my father pausing the TV to try and spot him and I in the congregation, we managed to get through a lot of cheese footballs)

Only available at Christmas

 I of course took the stance this year that I was going to completely ignore all of this and just make what I wanted to anyway. It went down surprisingly well, although my Moroccan christmas eve meal was viewed with a little suspicion (my grandma enquired as to what ‘quas-quas’ was) and the leeks were left mostly untouched by the male members of the dinner table ( are these onions? was asked), but a good effort was made all round, despite the spice in the Harissa glaze for the mackerel and the whole pistachio nuts in the baklava. The biggest success of the night was the light and delicious lemon and rosewater mousse

500g greek yoghurt
2 egg whites
75g sugar
1-2 lemons zested
3tbsp lemon juice
2tsp rosewater

Whisk the egg whites and sugar over a pan of boiling water until the sugar is dissolved.
Take off the heat and whisk until you get soft peaks.
In a separate bowl, combine the lemon zest, lemon juice and rosewater.
Fold the mixtures into each other and then place in the fridge for 1-2 hours

TIP This also works as a cheesecake topping, with orange juice or as a side dish for xmas pudding

Christmas day begins with Champagne, scrambled eggs and smoked salmon (see the Ultimate brunch for my recipe). Possibly the only day of the year that you’re allowed to drink before 9am in the morning, but only if it sparkles. Luckily my dad is well supplied with champagne and red wine by pupils from the school giving christmas presents and supplemented by buying cases from the Cellars of his affiliated college so we were unlikely to run out. He even managed to get a special 2003 burgundy which was incredibly smooth when we drunk it for christmas lunch (I am still learning about wine but apparently this was a good harvest and so hence a good vintage).

However my christmas day begins with the turkey. I am assiduous about prepping everything in advance and the kitchen is full of assorted zip lock bags filled with chopped vegetables, seasoned, which luckily means that all I have to do is place the turkey in the oven and set a timer at breakfast time. This year we got a wonderful turkey from – possibly the most juicy turkey we’ve every had (shameless plug here but this and the veg – once scrubbed – was absolutely delicious).

                        THIS                                 TO                       THIS

When we all got back from blaring out christmas carols at the top of our lungs at church, I was relegated to the kitchen to put everything (as I said fully prepped) in the oven while everyone else went off to open stockings (this still goes on despite the fact that at 21, I am the youngest ) and drink champagne and eat more cheese footballs. As I said before 11 side dishes are probably a bit much but the highlights from this year were probably…

No-Sausagemeat but still meaty Stuffing

Impulse created Truffle and Thyme Potatoes
1kg Potatoes
2 tbsp truffle oil
3 tbsp olive oil
good sprig of thyme
1-2tbsp flour
bay leaf

Par Boil (boil until just piercable) in water with salt, peppercorns and a bay leaf – this can be done the day before – . Dust in flour. Heat the oils in a large roasting tin for about 10mins. Toss the potatoes in and cook in the oven at 200OC for 30-40mins until golden

Dijon Braised Brussel Sprouts (somehow even my grandpa ate these – good for unwilling sprout consumers)

Brandy and Clementine Custard (we didn’t tell my grandma about the brandy – yet this was possibly her favourite bit of the meal…. oops)

4 egg yolks
900ml milk
100ml cream
vanilla extract
100g golden caster sugar
2 dried bay leafs
1 clementine
a good slug of fresh brandy (not the stuff left in your cupboard from last christmas…)

Heat the cream and milk in a pan until almost boiling. Add a good swig of vanilla extract, the bay leaves and the clementine, squashed. Leave for at least an hour. Heat again until boiling and set aside. Whisk together the egg yolks and sugar until frothy. Make sure the milk is lukewarm, removing the clementine and bay leaves and pour over the egg yolk mix whisking steadily. Pour back into the pan and place over a low heat whisking slowly. Heat until the mixture has thickened to coat the back of a spoon and take of the heat bearing in mind you should keep whisking until the mixture has cooled slightly as the bottom of the pan will still be hot. Add the brandy and leave to cool. Serve hot or cold

Gin and Juniper Cured Salmon served with creme fraiche and pickled cucumber
Inspired by my sister who discovered this combination while working for the events company Rocket to finance her new extravagant lifestyle in London – she tried one canapé and requested I make ‘as much of this as i could’ – once you’ve tried this you will never go back to smoked salmon – it is so much better! – also dedicated to my aunt who was badgering me for the recipe all through her stay with us

Skinned and boned 1kg Salmon Fillet
3-4tbsp gin (don’t use the good stuff – save that for the Gin and Tonic’s)
1tbsp juniper berries
300g salt (basics will do)
200g sugar
1tbsp peppercorns
1tbsp lemon zest

1 cucumber
150g caster sugar
200ml white wine vinegar
1tsp juniper berries
1tsp peppercorns

Low fat creme fraiche
chopped dill

2-3days before –
Mix the sugar, salt, juniper berries, peppercorns, lemon zest in a bowl. Pour the gin over the salmon fillet, turning to coat both sides. Lay on a cling film covered tray and pat the sugar/salt mix onto the top. Tightly wrap in cling film and place in the fridge with a heavy weight/roast potatoes/ turkey etc on top (you’re looking to weigh it down)
Leave for 2-3days pouring off the liquid every day, until the salmon feels more firm and has turned a deeper shade of orange. Wash and re-wrap, leave till needed.
The night before, use a peeler or mandolin to create strips of cucumber ignoring the seeds as much as possible. Boil the caster sugar, vinegar, berries and peppercorns in a pan until boiling. Pour over the cucumber, cling film the bowl and leave in the fridge
To serve Thinly slice the salmon with a sharp knife. Strain the cucumber and place a little in the centre of the plate. Top with 3 salmon slices and then a quenelle of creme fraiche (use two spoons to shape into a peaked oval, passing it between the two and then softly push off the spoon onto the plate) Sprinkle with chopped dill and serve


Things I learnt this Christmas
1. Always wish while stirring the Christmas pudding and force all members of your family to do it too – I find snapchat is effective to include members of the family who might still be in London when you make the pudding, I’m superstitious and while your wish may not come true, nothing will go right in the kitchen over christmas if you don’t

                                                                                                 Mum stirring the Xmas Pudding

   I made a bit too much….

2. On the christmas pudding front, I tend to not use suet or really any fat, but up the fruit, nut and booze content for the perfect xmas pudding, often it’s better if you have last years this year etc….
3. Always use fresh brandy (thank you Giles Coren 12 drinks of Christmas), normally it won’t light, this year we almost couldn’t get the pudding to stop burning
4. Make everything on christmas day, champagne won’t help your knife work…
5. If your sister brings you port to use in the madeira gravy because she can’t open the madeira it still works just as well if not better
6. On that note leave all alcohol out of the names of dishes no matter how high the booze content, I find it makes for happier grandparents (so this year that was the cranberry sauce, brussel sprouts, salmon, gravy, christmas pudding, custard, mince pies and brandy butter……)

                Mince Pies (Thank you Nigella)
7. Mothers make exceedingly good vegetable scrubbers (aided by Kings College choir on the radio) ….
8. And delegate your sister to decorate the tree and table, she’ll do a better job and you will be far too busy.
9. The cronut (croissant-donut hybrid) fad trend of 2013 actually lives up to the hype, especially if homemade

10. Leftover cabbage makes amazing coleslaw (try it with mayonnaise, horseradish, raisins, pumpkin seeds, 1 tbsp white wine vinegar, salt, pepper and grated apple)
11. Cousins are useful for finishing off the salmon and brie
12. Homemade dry roasted moroccan chickpeas are an addictive drinks accompaniment although cheese footballs are worse (seriously how did we manage 5 boxes in 3 days between 8 people….)
13. chestnuts must be cut with a cross before roasting or they will explode over your oven (our open fire is a bit too gas light blue to consider doing these the proper way)
14. Don’t try and learn a whole new board game post – christmas dinner, mulled sloe gin and present time
15. My family are trying to hint that I should move out – they bought me an entire matching kitchen set (kitchen aid, food processor and blender combo, matching kettle and toaster with heating toast rack) as a combined birthday christmas present – on the other hand my staircase are going to love me next year and my degree is going down the drain.

                                                My Stocking Photo – Christmases past….
                                                        Eggs for the week
                                                         Baba Ganoush Prep
                                                         Pitta Bread
                                           Salting the cucumber (to draw out the excess moisture) for the tzatziki
For the full menu see Octobers Blog
*New year menu to follow

Chocolates: The Christmas Collection

Chocolates: The Christmas Collection

Brazil Nut Brandy Butter A milk chocolate shell with a brazil nut butter ganache filling garnished with gold
Mexican Hot Chocolate Dark chocolate encasing a cinnamon, cayenne pepper, vanilla and salty centre
Orange Meringue Pie Orange and basil ganache surrounded by white chocolate and rolled in meringue
Gingerbread Milk chocolate, studded with biscuits, with a centre infused with the classic flavours of gingerbread
Olive Oil and Strawberry Olive oil ganache, smothered in white chocolate and studded with freeze dried strawberries

Green Tea and Lime A green tea and lime centre with a dark chocolate shell streaked with white chocolate

Countdown to Christmas: 2 days to go

Countdown to Christmas: 2 days to go

Now the struggle is no longer against an empty fridge, but instead against a choco-blok full fridge of ingredients I am not allowed to use (according to myself…) This is quite a challenge as I am tempted by delicious looking smoked salmon, home made hummus, a huge log of stuffing and copious amounts of mince pies and brandy butter. But instead I turn once again to the freezer (it’s always these moments that I miss having a freezer at uni, surely a freezer would be most useful to a student who is very poor and can is only cooking for one? Cambridge take note…) I was also keen to make a fairly healthy meal tho prepare us for the excesses of christmas (see above) I’m also not allowed to go too exotic with my Dad and Grandpa (and hide the onions – they have quite similar tastebuds) So in the end I pull up a twist on an old recipe of mine (pea pesto) to serve with a french classic, chicken in white wine sauce, with a healthier slant.

Coq au Vin (blanc) with pea mash (serves 5)

2 medium onions
5 chicken breasts
glass of white wine
handful of thyme
5-6 cloves garlic
chicken stock
lemon juice
1tbsp flour
2tsp groundnut oil

500g frozen peas
handful mint
2 cloves garlic
lemon juice
1tsp truffle oil

Chop onion into small squares, smash garlic with a crusher or bang the flat side of a knife hard against garlic halves to flatten. (NB to peel garlic easily, chop each clove in half and push from skin side to pop clove out of its shell)
Heat oil in a large pan and add onion and garlic and a good sprinkling of salt (to draw out the water from the onion and aid sweating)
When soft, add the wine and thyme, pepper and lemon juice. Add the chicken breasts and top with chicken stock, and simmer for 15mins. Remove chicken from the pan, add the flour and whisk to avoid lumps, reducing till you get a slightly thickened sauce, place the chicken back in the pan to serve
Meanwhile for the pea puree, bring the peas to the boil and immediately drain. Place into a food processor with all the other ingredients and blitz till smooth


It’s the most wonderful time of the year

It’s the most wonderful time of the year

It’s that time of year, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, the goose is getting fat, santa is all over the shops…..oh no wait it’s October! However that doesn’t seem to stop Ocado from reminding me it’s time to book the christmas food shop. Well if I must spend my day planning christmas food rather than reading up on Prokofiev, I must. I am also feeling the creative juices flowing after U8 has told me that she is going to Midsummer house this evening and we have spent the morning looking at the menu and pictures of food.

Over the years I have built up a number of traditions in our house for christmas I’m sure everyone has their own opinions

1. 3 course dinner on christmas eve before heading over to sing in Midnight mass followed by the first champagne of christmas day (usually involves fish main course)
2. Smoked Salmon and Scrambled egg champagne breakfast
3. Some sort of cured fish lunch starter
4. Traditional turkey but no rules as to the trimmings!
5. Christmas pudding is homemade, no suet and made at least a month in advance, everyone in the house has to stir it
6. Only mum and I will eat the bread sauce but that still means we need at least 3 times what Nigella suggests for a dinner for 6
7. LEFTOVERS (for what feels like the rest of your life)

I’ve decided that this year I have sufficiently introduced my parents to enough new flavours to actually make something with a little spice this year, although piri-piri turkey may be a little far. So for christmas eve I thought we could have a Moroccan theme. Mostly my cooking is french inspired but given the opportunity it would be great to experiment with different cuisines. Although realistically it’s like learning a language, to actually be able to do it right you need to live in the country for a while. Anyway. I started with mackerel with orange and Harissa glaze, usually sweetness and spice are good with oily fish as they cut through the oiliness. What to serve with it is tricky. Too much spice or sugar won’t match the glaze as it already has both. So after trawling the internet for what feels like 3 hours (but what is more realistically 1) I decide on giant couscous (if you haven’t discovered this yet do so soon) AND roasted butternut squash with texture of crunchy almonds and saltiness of olives YUM. At the moment the plate feels a little too orange…. I need some green veg but have no idea what to add to the dish – green beans?? sauteed cabbage? Buttered Leeks….
Starter. I know mezze would make sense but i’m not sure because christmas is such a busy time for cooking and I am morally obliged to make everything from scratch, plus the rest of the meal is now a little on the heavy side and it will be christmas the next day…. So second idea is a simple trio of dips (lemon and coriander hummus, smokey baba ganoush and tzatziki) with melba toast, sorry did I say simple…
Now I know Baklava isn’t technically Moroccan BUT they do eat versions of it in Morocco (or at least according to wikipedia they do) ‘baklava snake’. So for dessert I want to have a go at making a sort of deconstructed baklava consisting of a rolled baklava slice, topped with ground pistachios, with a rosewater and orange yoghurt mousse and orange coulis.

Breakfast Christmas day is technically already set but I still think there’s room for experimentation. This year I’m going to serve the scrambled eggs (beaten eggs, salt, pepper, dash of cream and herb of choice poured into an already hot pan with a knob of butter, already melted and cook over a medium heat stirring till consistency is not too solid -remember it still keeps cooking off the heat-) with thyme, smoked salmon, squeeze of lemon on a bagel with toasted pumpkin seeds (thank you very much for the idea Bills eggs royale breakfast).

For starter on christmas day I’m looking for a cured fish. Since U8 has told me about her recent midsummer house experience (yes this blog post is taking me two days) i am quite keen to try combining salmon and apple, which apparently they have on their menu. Searching for a recipe I’m afraid I didn’t find a good version – that recipe will have to wait for a few months (thinking apple puree, apple crisps, confit salmon…), plus I figure cured salmon and apple might be too strong a flavour, confit is better. But I did find a really interesting idea, if I cure the salmon and combine fennel, beetroot and dill I could make a sort of salad with dill mayonnaise dressing, the beetroot just sweet enough to cut through the oiliness of the salmon (plus U8 was also talking about an amazing beetroot dish…)

Someone once told me that all good meals start with the sides but of course here we already know what the main is. When cooking potatoes there are a couple of rules: fat must be hot before you put the potatoes in, you need a little acidity (maybe vinegar), a herb/spice, pepper and lots of salt. This year I’m thinking, bay leaves, thyme, and truffle oil (my new love). Since christmas is a time for overindulgence the other sides this year will consist of creamed spinach, two types of stuffing (chestnut and cherry/pistachio), cranberry red cabbage, garlic and cumin roasted carrots, parmesan roasted parsnips and dijon braised brussel sprouts. For the piece de resistance as it were I could go really outlandish and go crazy with flavours but to be honest I think the side dishes speak for themselves so a simple
clementine and sage gravy with madeira gravy is all it’s going to be, the real trick is butter under the skin for extra crispy skin! Now I am a big fan of gin (nothing better than a gin and tonic) so in order to incorporate this into the menu I’m thinking sloe gin cranberry sauce with cloves and juniper berries…. Bread sauce has to be a bit more traditional, so turn to Nigella with extra nutmeg grated on top – some things never change.
The pudding is always special – we tend to go heavy on the fruit and less on the suet. Now I wouldnt normally do this but it’s getting late and the pudding last year was particularly good soooo I’m going to use the same one as last year – in fact this one has no suet, just raisins sultanas, apple, prunes, cranberries and more… I am probably just creating unnecessary extra work for myself but I really want to make grand marnier and clementine custard to serve with the christmas pudding as well as brandy butter – it is just soooo good. Plus christmas always needs more booze! Still haven’t got very far on the turkey but found a great recipe for cranberry and white chocolate panettone which will be great for boxing day brunch (and to be honest any time we get peckish) and of course Nigella’s mince pies which are the only mince pies you should ever really make.

So final menu

Christmas eve

Lunch – Roasted Tomato and Basil Quiche

Dinner – crunchy chickpeas
           – lemon and coriander hummus, smokey baba ganoush, tzatziki and melba toast
           – mackerel with orange and harissa glaze, giant couscous with roasted butternut squash
          – baklava cigar, rosewater and orange yoghurt mousse and orange coulis

Christmas Day

Breakfast – Smoked Salmon, thyme and truffle scrambled eggs on bagels with toasted pumpkin seeds

Lunch – Cured Salmon and beetroot
           – clementine and sage turkey with madeira gravy
           – creamed spinach, chestnut stuffing roll, cranberry red cabbage, cherry and pistachio stuffing, cumin and garlic carrots, parmesan baked parsnips, truffle and thyme roasties, dijon braised brussel sprouts, bread sauce, sloe gin cranberry sauce (somehow I think we’re going to have leftovers)
           – fruity christmas pudding
          – clementine and grand mariner custard, brandy butter