Happy New Year

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My New Year wishes are, I trust, better late than never.  So that’s it for another year and we can get back to normal, whatever “normal” is.  The tree has been taken down and is currently awaiting collection in our front garden; all the decorations have been stored away in the spare room cupboard; and Sons 1 and 2 have returned to work, in Cambridge and London respectively.  It was so lovely to have them at home, sometimes with and sometimes without the girlfriend of one and  the fiancée of the other, and although I should be used to it, I always feel a little sad when they’ve gone; not too sad, mind, because, as my mother says, if your children are happy to leave home, then you have probably done a good job as a parent.  Son 3 stayed on for an extra couple of days which softened the blow, as much for his younger brother as for their parents.  We all love films but Son 3 is the proper film buff of the family and at his suggestion we sat down on Monday evening to watch Singin’ in the Rain.   I hadn’t seen it for years and had forgotten just how marvellous it is and what a wonderful actress the late Debbie Reynolds was: RIP.  He returned to London with his dad yesterday, leaving youngest son and me, and Granny in her flat downstairs, in a very quiet house until the weekend.

Before he left I borrowed one of his Christmas presents to make supper: the book Fresh India by Meera Sodha, which is on the bestseller lists.  Having eaten so much meat over Christmas we were all craving meat-free dishes and the aubergine and pea curry fitted the bill.  The last thing I need is another cookbook but if this recipe is anything to go by, I might be adding this book to my birthday wish list.

Aubergine and Pea Curry

  • 5 tbps rapeseed oil
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 2 large onions finely chopped
  • 6 cloves of garlic, crushed
  • 4 large ripe tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 1/2 tbsps tomato purée
  • 1 1/2 level tsps salt
  • 1 1/4 tsps chilli powder (unless like mine, yours is very hot, in which case use less)
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 4 medium aubergines 1.2kg, chopped into 3cms cubes
  • 100g (I used 200g) peas (fresh or defrosted)
  • Put the oil in a wide-bottomed lidded pan on the simmering plate (conventional hob: medium heat).  Once hot, add the cumin seeds and stir for 30 seconds.  Add the onions and stir to coat in the oil.  Cook (in the simmering oven) for 15-30 minutes until translucent but not brown.  Add the garlic and stir-fry for a couple of minutes
  • Add the tomatoes and purée and cover with a lid.  Leave to cook for 5 minutes (or longer in the simmering oven), then add the salt, chilli powder, turmeric and sugar and cook for a further couple of minutes
  • Now add the aubergines, coating the pieces with the masala, pop the lid back on the pan and cook for around 10 minutes (or longer in the simmering oven).  You want the aubergines to be tender and soft with little or no water running from them.  If they’re watery or not yet tender, they may need another few minutes’ cooking
  • When they’re cooked, add the peas and cook for a couple of minutes.
  • Serve with hot chapattis or plain boiled Basmati rice

NB:

  • I used one of those large round aubergines from Natoora.  It weighed 620g and I was worried it would not be enough but it was plenty.  Am therefore a little baffled by the aubergine quantity recommended in the book. Would it not have led to a very dry curry?
  • Also: I only used 5 cloves of garlic and 1 large onion.

 

Apologies that I don’t have a photo of this dish (but then nor does the book!).  Instead here are a few photos of our Christmas.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mince Pies

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.

 

Aga Christmas Cake

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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)

Ingredients

  • 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

Method

  • 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)

Feeding

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.

Icing

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’ve made a little slideshow of the different stages.

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And finally the finished cake, which we first sliced into on 28 December:

 

 

Spinach Soup

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Just a quick post today to tell you about my scrumptious spinach soup.  I have an autumnal cold and while I’m not feeling particularly unwell, it is nevertheless uncomfortable and annoying.  At 1 o’clock yesterday afternoon I realised I was hungry but had not planned anything for lunch.  Some hot, soothing soup was all I could think about but did not have any in the house.  Anyway, I really don’t like shop-bought soups: I find they’re over-flavoured, mainly of onion, and that this flavour lingers at the back of the mouth for hours afterwards.

So I made spinach soup.  First, I took a medium-sized potato, peeled and diced it and sweated it in butter for about 15 minutes (simmering oven).  Then I added 450g frozen spinach (I didn’t happen to have any fresh spinach in the house; this soup was not planned) and lots of salt and pepper and let this cook for another 10 minutes or so before adding 500ml of chicken stock.  It was fortuitous that I’d made lots of stock the previous day, but I expect a stock cube or some Marigold Swiss vegetable bouillon powder would have done the job too.  I grated in some nutmeg, brought it all to simmering point and let it cook (in the simmering oven) for another 15 minutes.  I took it out and let it cool for a few minutes before blending it in the pan using my handheld blender.  I then checked the seasoning and temperature and ladled some into a mug, drizzled on a little cream and voilà.

One of the reasons I haven’t blogged much lately is that I’m unhappy with the photos I’ve taken of what I’ve cooked.  I read so many beautiful blogs and food websites that I’m sometimes embarrassed to include my pathetic iPhone camera efforts.  Since I’m not particularly interested in photography (unless someone else is taking the photos), I might just have to overcome the shame and carry on regardless.

My next post will probably be about Christmas cake.  Too early, you might say, but you’d be wrong.

Cardamom and Lemon Cookies

I know it’s not very modern but I had a quiet couple of days this week.  Yes, that’s right, I wasn’t rushing around like a mad thing; I pottered about, mainly at home, and it was lovely.  Such days are rare, although admittedly a little less rare now only one of my sons lives here permanently.

That’s not to say I was idle.  My activities included the following; cleaning bathrooms; laundry; ironing shirts; meeting a friend for coffee (one of my favourite pursuits); having a friend over for coffee (different friend, different day); tweeting (Twitter was rather compelling on Wednesday, following Mr Cameron’s “bunch of migrants” remark); walking the dog; vacuuming my mother-in-law’s flat (despite being nearly 91 she insists on doing housework but I help out occasionally); cooking (Middle Eastern lentils and rice was delicious); watching the celebrity Great British Bake-Off (I thought Samantha Cameron was lovely and – spoiler alert – a deserving winner); baking cookies.  I fear it all sounds terribly dull to you, but I enjoy days like that: they are a chance to catch one’s breath.

The cookies I baked were these:

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Cardamom and Lemon Cookies

The recipe is on the BBC website * and is by the Hairy Bikers, but it was my mother who drew it to my attention.  She is Norwegian and always makes Norwegian biscuits in the run-up to Christmas, which she then brings to us when she comes on Christmas Eve.  Some recipes she inherited from my grandmother (or “Mommo” as I called her) and have been around for many years, so the Hairy Bikers should be flattered that their recipe met with my mother’s approval.  She enjoyed watching the programmes they made in Northern Europe (I must admit I only caught one or two of them).  There is something special about baking things from recipes that have been passed down the generations.  My eldest son adores his great grandmother’s Lebkuchen (a Christmas treat originally from Germany) recipe and he and his girlfriend make them together.  In fact, they made a batch while they were with us over Christmas but I’m not ready to write about them yet because it was difficult to work out which Aga oven(s) to use and how long to bake them for.

You might be surprised to learn that cardamom is not just a spice for curries but is widely used in Scandinavian baking.  On the other hand, with the huge interest nowadays in all things Nordic, whether it be food or Noir TV series, you might not be in the least surprised!

As you can see from my Instagram photo above, I did not use a cookie stamp as described in the recipe; I simply pressed a fork onto the balls of dough to flatten them slightly before they went in the oven.

Hairy Bikers’ Cardamom and Lemon Cookies

Ingredients

  • 225g butter, softened
  • 150g caster sugar
  • 1 lemon, zest only
  • 250g plain flour
  • 100g ground almonds
  • 3 tsp ground cardamom or 1 heaped tsp cardamom seeds, ground in a pestle and mortar

Method

  • Preheat conventional oven to 190ºC
  • Line 2 baking trays with bake-o-glide** or baking parchment
  • Using an electric hand-whisk or food mixer (I used my KitchenAid), beat the butter, sugar and lemon zest together until pale and fluffy
  • Beat in the flour, almonds and cardamom until the mixture is well combined and comes together to form a stiff dough
  • Roll the dough into 24 balls and place 12 on each baking tray, making sure you leave space between each one
  • Press a fork onto the balls of dough to flatten them slightly
  • Bake, one tray at a time, in the middle of the Aga baking oven, for 14 minutes until the cookies are pale and golden.
  • Leave them to cool on the tray for a few minutes before transferring to a wire rack

* I updated this post today, 17 May 2016, following the news that the BBC was going to close its food website.  It’s therefore likely that the above link will soon no longer work.

**I always use bake-o-glide on my baking trays.  It’s brilliant stuff: non-stick and can go in the dishwasher.  I buy it via the Aga Cookshop website.

When my youngest son returned from his run yesterday afternoon he was very pleased to find something home-baked and sweet to aid his recovery.

 

Christmas Day Gravy

Isn’t it typical that something that hardly ever happens occurs on Christmas Day at a moment of high stress when you’re doing all those last minute turkey-related things.  And I can’t pretend that the last hour or so before a roast dinner is served isn’t especially tricky with an Aga.

On Christmas Day a few weeks ago, when my turkey was ready and resting, the table was laid and the potatoes were roasting, I set about making the gravy.  I poured all those delicious juices and bits from the roasting tin into a saucepan, added wine and giblet stock and waited for it to start simmering.  And this is where I went wrong: having moved the pan to the boiling plate because it simply wasn’t coming to the boil quickly enough for my liking, I allowed myself to be distracted by some other task like finding a suitable bowl for the cranberry relish.  The next thing I knew, the gravy was boiling over and covering the boiling plate and beyond.  The kitchen filled with with smoke and a pungent smell of burning gravy.  By this time I’d moved the pan to the simmering plate and it settled down quickly to a gentle simmer, but there was a lot of mopping up to do and the smell lingered well into Boxing Day.  Lest I hadn’t noticed this, my husband, who has a very strong sense of smell, kept reminding me of it!

So let that be a lesson to you.  That boiling plate is hotter than you think, even on Christmas Day when the Aga has lost heat after roasting a huge turkey and mountains of potatoes.