This post is not about telling you how to make mince pies. To be perfectly honest, as I may have mentioned before, I don’t rate my pastry-making skills and would not presume to pass on any tips, because you are probably all much better at it than me.
That is not to say that I don’t enjoy having a go. What is more, there’s nothing like making mince pies for getting into the festive spirit and family and friends do appreciate homemade ones. One of the reasons I’ve made a few in the last week is that I found a big jar of Waitrose mincemeat in my cupboard with a “best before” date of December 2016. You see? I don’t even make my own mincemeat!
For the pastry I use this excellent Xanthe Clay recipe. Sometimes I make “closed” pies (see above) and sometimes I cut out pastry stars to place on top (see below). I always brush with egg and sprinkle with caster sugar. I fancy making some with an almond crumble topping one day. I bought some like that at Bristol’s wonderful Hart’s Bakery yesterday and would love to try to emulate them. But that’s for another day.
In the Aga
Mince pies bake very quickly in the Aga roasting oven. Place your tray of pies on the grid shelf on the fourth rung of the oven. They will be done in 15 minutes at the most. The oven is hotter at the back and on the side nearest the centre, so I turn the tray round halfway through the cooking time.
Cut out stars to place on top
Brush with beaten egg and sprinkle with caster sugar
Bake until golden brown
As I confessed in my recent Christmas Cake post here I don’t always do a homemade Christmas pudding. After writing that, it struck me that this was really very lazy of me. “Call yourself a cook?” I asked myself, and resolved there and then to make one this year and every year. Honestly, it’s so incredibly easy and quick to make and doesn’t involve sophisticated baking skills.
The first thing you need to do is find a recipe. The one I recommend is this one by Bertinet’s in Bath. I’ve also bought Bertinet’s puddings in the past so when I found this recipe I was confident it would be delicious. I’ve also made Delia’s pudding (pretty sure you’ll find it online if you haven’t got her wonderful, and in my case much used, Christmas book) and one by the great Nigel Slater. My preference will always be not to mess about with the recipe and to stick to traditional ingredients, but if you fancy trying something a bit different, there are plenty of suggestions out there. For me, part of the beauty of preparing the Christmas meal is that it is the same (more or less) every year. With all that’s going on at that time of year, and the many tasks that need to be done, it takes the pressure off if you are not having to think up a new, imaginative menu on top of everything else.
So back to my pudding. You will see from the photos that I could not fit all my mixture in the recommended 2 pint basin and ended up with an additional small pudding; I intend to give this as a gift to the hostess of a party we’ve been invited to.
You will need a 2 pint pudding basin (and maybe an additional small basin – see above)
- 100g currants
- 200g seedless raisins
- 200g sultanas
- 60g glacé cherries
- 60g chopped candied peel
- 90g blanched almonds, sliced into slivers
- ½ cooking apple, peeled, cored and coarsely chopped
- ½ carrot, peeled and grated
- Zest and juice of half an orange
- Zest and juice of half a lemon
- 115g finely chopped suet
- 115g plain flour
- 60g white bread or brioche crumbs
- 115 soft brown sugar
- ½ tsp mixed spice
- ½ tsp ground cinnamon
- ¼ nutmeg, grated
- ½ tsp salt
- 3 eggs
- ½ can Guinness
- 2 tbsps brandy
- Put all the ingredients, apart from the orange and lemon juices, brandy, Guinness and eggs, into a large bowl and mix thoroughly
- In a separate bowl beat the eggs until frothy and add the orange and lemon juices, Guinness and brandy
- Add to the mixture in the other bowl and mix thoroughly until all incorporated
- Fill your basin with the mixture and place a circle of greaseproof paper on top
- Place in the fridge for at least 12 hours but up to 48 hours
Steaming: one way
- Cover the pudding with clingfilm and then take a saucepan which holds the pudding basin and make sure you can fit the lid on
- Place the pudding in it and pour in water about half way up the basin
- Bring this to the boil on the boiling plate
- Check the water level, put the lid on or cover with foil and place in the simmering oven to “steam” for at least 12 hours. Do it overnight and you will wake up to a heavenly Christmas-y aroma
Steaming: another (even easier) way
- I recently discovered that even this initial steaming can be done in the Aga simmering oven without using any water at all. This is thanks to Sarah Whitaker, the all round Aga guru. All you do is cover the basin in foil or clingfilm and place it at the back of the simmering oven for 12 hours or overnight
- Leave the pudding to cool in its clingfilm
- You could then wrap it in muslin and tie it with string as you can see in the photo above. Foil or extra clingfilm would be fine; I just think it looks pretty (and traditional) in the muslin
- On Christmas Day all you have to do is put the basin, wrapped in foil, in the simmering oven for four hours. How easy is that?
This traditional Norwegian celebration cake (translation: soft cake) is part of my childhood in a way that no other food is. My grandmother, aunts, and mother all baked it regularly when I was growing up and then my mother passed the recipe on to me. Nowadays when we go on holiday to Norway, it’s my cousins who make the bløtkake and no doubt they have passed the recipe down to their children as I will to mine.
My mother is a great cook and loved introducing her British friends to Norwegian specialities, but when she was first married to my (English) father she also learnt to do an excellent Sunday roast and many other British recipes. She would make a bløtkake for our birthdays and if friends were coming round. For a few years she ran a small catering firm specialising in parties and weddings, and this cake was probably what her customers requested the most. I can remember helping her with deliveries sometimes which involved me sitting in the passenger seat of her car with the cake in a container on my lap, hoping we didn’t have to brake suddenly.
The cake is not complicated or difficult to make. It uses a fatless sponge so you needn’t feel guilty about the amount of cream required to make this cake delicious and special. I made it recently for my youngest son’s 18th birthday.
You will need an 8″ or 9″ springform cake tin, very lightly greased and base-lined.
- 5 large eggs
- 125g caster sugar
- 125g self-raising flour
- 300ml (or more) double or whipping cream
- Fruit: strawberries, raspberries, blueberries or banana or combinations of these. I’m sure you will come up with other wonderful fruit ideas, depending on the season. The one above was a mixture of raspberries and blueberries. I also can’t give you quantities but I’m sure you’ll manage
- Juice or milk for moistening the sponge
- Pre-heat a conventional oven to 150ºC
- Whisk the eggs and sugar (ideally in a mixer or using an electric hand whisk) for 8-10 minutes (depending on the power of your whisk) until thick and very pale in colour. When you lift the whisk the mixture will leave a trail like a ribbon
- Then fold in the flour; do this gently to keep in as much air as possible
- Pour the mixture into your prepared tin and bake in the baking oven (see above for conventional oven temp) for about 25-30 minutes. Check it at 20 minutes and maybe turn it round so the other “side” is nearer to the back. If using a conventional oven, don’t even think about opening the door until it’s been in for 20 minutes. It is done if it springs back when pressed down gently with your finger
- Cool on a rack for at least 10 minutes before turning it out of the tin. Leave it to cool upside down
- When the cake is cold slice through the middle horizontally so you have two pieces. Even better, slice it into three layers. In fact, I wish I’d done this for my son’s cake and will definitely do it next time. It makes a more impressive, moist and luscious cake. You may need more cream but given it’s a cake based on having lashings of cream, who’s going to quibble about that?
- You need to moisten the sponge layers before filling the cake. You can use juice from the fruit (I had frozen raspberries which released a lot of juice after defrosting); or a little diluted elderflower cordial; or milk. We’re only talking about a couple of dessert spoonfuls
- Whip the cream
- Sandwich the cake together with the cream and fruit. Be generous with both
- Finally, spread the rest of the whipped cream thickly over the whole cake and decorate with a little more fruit
- It is customary to cut a circle in the middle of the cake and slice it from there. If it’s a birthday cake, the round piece can be saved for the birthday boy or girl
One more thing: if you don’t eat the whole cake at first sitting, and it is definitely best when fresh, make sure you store it in the fridge.
My mother has read this post and passed on a tip which finishes the cake off nicely: keep back a little cream for piping round the bottom. As you can see from the photos, mine has a bit of a gap and would have been improved hugely if I had done this. What can I say, except I clearly haven’t inherited my mother’s knack for presentation.
It’s that time of year again. I always resist the commercial pressure to start Christmas shopping in September. It infuriates me that Christmas cards and decorations start appearing in the shops in August, throwing everyone into panic, and the more I’m urged to prepare, the less inclined I am to do so. Oh, and no mince pies are allowed in my house until December. But there are some things which it has always been necessary to do a few weeks or months ahead of the event and one of those is baking the Christmas cake. The same goes for the pudding but I must be honest and say I do not always make my own pudding. I’ve found there are excellent ones you can buy. For the last two years I’ve bought a pudding from Bertinet’s in Bath and they’ve gone down well with my family. I haven’t yet decided what I’m going to do about pudding this year; I might try Richard Bertinet’s recipe which is to be found online here. But the Christmas cake has to be homemade and I am always happy to set aside the time to make it.
Since owning my Aga I’ve used the Mary Berry Christmas cake recipe in The Aga Book. It’s delicious and I see no reason to change. She gives quantities for many different cake sizes, square and round. My usual size is the 10″/25cm round cake and that is what I have made this year. As with all fruit cakes, it is best when baked slowly in the simmering oven. I made mine in the afternoon and it was happy to wait in the tin and be placed in the oven at bedtime. This year it took nine hours and last year ten. Am not sure why the timings were different but it’s nothing to worry about.
Here’s the recipe for those of you who haven’t got The Aga Book.
Mary Berry’s Aga Christmas Cake (with a few modifications by me)
You will need a 10″/25cm loose bottomed or springform sturdy cake tin, greased and the base and sides lined (I used bake-o-glide)
- 675g currants
- 450g sultanas
- 225g raisins
- 450g glacé cherries
- Grated zest of 2 oranges
- 300ml sherry (I used Harvey’s Bristol Cream)
- 350g butter, softened
- 350g dark brown sugar
- 6 eggs
- 100g self-raising flour
- 225 plain flour
- 100g blanched, chopped almonds
- 2 tbsp black treacle
- 2 tsp ground mixed spice
- Rinse, dry and quarter the cherries
- Put all the fruit and orange zest in a container, pour over the sherry and give it a stir
- Cover with a lid or a couple of layers of tightly sealed clingfilm and leave to soak for 3 days, stirring daily
- Measure the butter, sugar, eggs, treacle and chopped almonds into a mixing bowl (I used my KitchenAid) and beat well
- Add the flours and spice and mix thoroughly until blended
- Stir in the soaked fruit and sherry
- Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin and level out evenly
- Bake in the simmering oven for about 9 hours, but keep an eye on it at the 8 hour point. It is done when a warm skewer comes out clean
- Leave to cool in the tin then turn it out, feed it (see below) and wrap it. I like using parchment lined foil for this (from Lakeland)
On a weekly basis from now on you are going to need to feed your cake: take a darning needle and pierce the cake all over, top and bottom; drizzle over a couple of teaspoons of sherry, let it sink in and then turn the cake over and do the same on the other side. Then wrap the cake and place it inside a (large!) airtight container.
About a week before Christmas I ice my cake with marzipan. I usually buy it but have been known to make my own; homemade is definitely better but sometimes I go for the quicker option. Once the almond icing has dried out, after a few days, I place the final layer of icing on my cake; invariably on Christmas Eve. For this I use ready-to-roll fondant icing. I do not make my own.
My husband took photos and I added captions to some to indicate the different stages.
First soak your fruit for three days
Grease and line your tin
In your bowl put butter…
Add flours, mixed spice and mix
and black treacle
until it looks like this
Fold in the fruit…
Turn mixture into your prepared tin
It’s done. Leave to cool
Turn it out and place on foil like this
Pierce all over
Feed then wrap
And finally the finished cake, which we first sliced into on 28 December: