Before you all shout “it’s much too early to think about Christmas”, I agree with you. Except when it comes to cooking. There are things you can prepare to get ahead and things you simply must make weeks, or even months, beforehand.
For me the Christmas/New Year period is not really a time for trying out new recipes. It gets so busy with the house full and lots of comings and goings that I prefer to stick to tried and tested recipes. We all have our traditions and my family is no exception; our Christmas Eve and Christmas Day meals do not vary much from year to year. Then for a few days after that most meals comprise leftovers in some form or other. During the whole Christmas period last year there were never fewer than 5 of us in the house and most days we were 7 or 8 with a maximum of 12 of us sitting round the table for the Christmas turkey. In recent years we’ve also stayed at home on New Year’s Eve instead of going to a party and I’ve cooked a special dinner. One year I splashed out on a whole beef fillet which was so popular it has now become our traditional New Year’s Eve meal.
Last year I told you about my Christmas cake and Christmas pudding and I wrote a post about the Norwegian apple cake we always have on Christmas Eve. In the coming weeks I plan to write up a few more of my Christmas recipes and tell you how I’ve adapted them for Aga cooking. I’m starting with braised red cabbage because it’s a delicious accompaniment to many winter dishes and there’s no reason you shouldn’t cook and enjoy it right now. It also freezes brilliantly: I nearly always do this and then defrost it and zap it in the microwave on the day I plan to serve it. This recipe is based on one by Delia Smith.
Braised Red Cabbage
(Pre-heat conventional oven to 150ºC)
- 1 red cabbage
- 1 cooking apple, peeled, cored and chopped
- 1 onion, chopped
- 1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped
- About ¼ of a whole nutmeg, grated
- About ¼ tsp ground cinnammon (optional)
- About ¼ tsp ground cloves (optional)
- 3 tbsp brown sugar
- 3 tbsp red wine vinegar
- 10 g butter
- Salt and pepper
- Remove the outer leaves from the cabbage, quarter it and remove the hard stalk
- Shred each quarter but not too finely
- Place the cabbage in a casserole and mix in the apple, onion, garlic, sugar, salt, pepper, nutmeg and other spices if using.
- Pour over the wine vinegar and dot with the butter
- Cover with a lid and place it in the simmering oven for at least four hours; as ever though, it will come to no harm in your Aga if left for longer than that. (Conventional oven: 1½ to 2 hours.)
- Take it out and give it a stir every now and then. It is done when it is tender
Take one red cabbage
And a cooking apple, garlic, onion, nutmeg…
Cut in half then quarter
Add spices, seasoning, apple, onion, garlic, sugar, red wine vinegar
Dot with butter
Four hours later…
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. I’m not going to give you one here because you probably all have at least one. And if you don’t, there’s the Internet, which is where I found mine: it’s this one by Bertinet’s in Bath. I hadn’t made it before this year but had bought Bertinet’s puddings in the past which had gone down very well, so I’m confident this one will 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 size 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. Before putting the puddings in the fridge for some hours (as recommended by Mr Bertinet) I placed a circle of greaseproof paper on top of each one.
As for the steaming, it really couldn’t be easier than in the Aga. Cover both puddings in 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 and then simmer on the simmering plate for 30 minutes. Check the water level, put the lid on and place in the simmering oven to “steam” for 12 hours or overnight. I left mine (both of them) while I slept on Sunday night and we came downstairs on Monday morning to a heavenly Christmas-y aroma.
Leave the pudding to cool in its clingfilm. I then wrapped mine in muslin and tied 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.
I hope it’s still correct to say apples are in season, because it’s already a couple of weeks since I made this apple cake with autumn in mind and only now am I getting round to writing about it. On the other hand, it’s not exactly a seasonal cake because we all cook with apples throughout the year and to make this cake I bought Bramley apples from the supermarket.
Regular readers will remember that I like making apple cakes and prefer them to pies and crumbles, partly because they work both as puddings (with whipped cream, say) and as teatime cakes.
You can’t have two many apple cake recipes in your repertoire, in my view, and I’m happy to add this Delia recipe to mine. The lazy baker in me particularly appreciated the fact that peeling the Bramleys is optional. That was a no brainer: I didn’t peel them.
To make the job even simpler I used the all-in-one method to mix all the ingredients together before folding in the apples and orange zest.
- 225g self-raising flour
- 1 rounded teaspoon baking powder
- 1 tsp mixed spice
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- 3 Bramley apples
- 175g soft light brown sugar
- 2 large eggs
- 75g butter, softened
- Grated zest of an orange
- 1 tbsp milk (if needed)
- A little icing sugar
- Conventional oven: pre-heat to 180ºC
- Grease and base-line a 20cm loose bottomed cake tin
- Sift the flour, baking powder and spices into your mixing bowl and add the butter, sugar and eggs
- Beat until thoroughly blended. I used my KitchenAid. You could use an electric hand whisk
- Chop the apples into small dice (with or without peel, remember) and fold into the mixture with the orange zest. Add a little milk if the mixture seems dry
- Spoon the mixture into your prepared tin
- Bake in the baking oven of your Aga (or in the centre of a conventional oven at 180ºC) for about 1 hour, but do check on it every 10 minutes or so after the first half hour. I put a piece of greaseproof paper loosely on top at this point because my cake was looking a little dark
- The cake is done when it feels springy to touch and is starting to shrink away from the sides of the tin
- Cool in the tin for 10 minutes or so before turning out onto a rack
- Sprinkle with icing sugar to serve
Why not make this delicious fruit cake for Easter? As you probably know, simnel cake was originally baked for Mothering Sunday in the middle of Lent; girls in service would make one to take home to their mothers. I love it because it’s a fruit cake and lends itself to being baked slowly in the Aga, which makes for a very moist cake. Then there’s the marzipan which I adore almost as much as chocolate, and that’s saying something.
Last year my son’s lovely girlfriend made us a simnel cake, so we had two. No-one was complaining. The only problem for me was that she raised the bar and made her own marzipan, and now my youngest son says he doesn’t like shop-bought marzipan at all and suggested I make mine too. It really isn’t difficult and actually doesn’t take very long if you have a food processor.
This will make more than you need for the cake but I adore marzipan and was happy to have some left over. Disclosure: marzipan quantities given here are approximate. The balls on top can be as big or small as you like. The top circle can be as thick as you like. If you don’t want to make your own, I suggest you buy a 450g packet of marzipan.
- 450g icing sugar
- 450g ground almonds
- 2 eggs
- 1 1/2 tsps brandy
- Juice of a lemon
- 1/2 tsp almond extract
- Simply blitz all the ingredients in a food processor until it’s come together nicely
- Tip this out onto a dusting of icing sugar on your worktop and knead it for a bit
- Flatten it slightly, wrap it in clingfilm and put it in the fridge until you’re ready to use it
I used a Mary Berry recipe except that instead of placing a circle of marzipan in the middle of the cake, I folded small pieces of it into the mixture, à la Delia’s recipe.
- 100g natural glacé cherries
- 225g softened butter
- 225g light muscovado sugar
- 4 large eggs
- 225g self-raising flour
- 225g sultanas
- 100g currants
- 50g chopped candied peel
- Zest of a lemon (MB says 2 lemons, but I didn’t want it too lemony)
- 2 level tsps mixed spice
- 200g marzipan, cut into small squares or rolled into balls and tossed in a little flour
- 225g marzipan
- 2 tablespoons of apricot jam
- 1 large egg, beaten, to glaze
- Pre-heat a conventional oven to150ºC/Fan 130ºC/Gas 2
- Grease a 20cm deep round cake tin, then line the base and sides with baking parchment or bake-o-glide
- Put the cherries in a sieve, rinse under running water, drain and dry on kitchen paper. Cut into quarters
- Measure all the cake ingredients into a large mixing bowl, except for the fruit and marzipan, and beat well until thoroughly blended. (I used my KitchenAid.) Fold the fruit into this mixture and then finally the pieces of marzipan.
- Spoon the mixture into your prepared tin and level the surface.
- Bake in a conventional oven for about 2.5 hours or the Aga simmering oven for 4-5 hours. This really depends on your Aga. The important thing is the cake is coming away from the sides a little, is well risen, evenly brown and firm to the touch.
- Leave to cool in the tin for 15-30 minutes. When the cake is completely cool, brush the top with a little warmed apricot jam and roll out marzipan to make a circle to fit the top. Press firmly on the top and crimp the edges to decorate. (You will see from my photos I made a bad job of this. You will do better.) Mark a criss-cross pattern on the marzipan with a sharp knife. Form the remaining marzipan into 11 balls (representing the apostles minus Judas).
- Brush the almond paste with beaten egg and arrange the balls around the edge of the cake. Brush the tops of the balls with beaten egg and then place the cake in the roasting oven (or under the grill) for 3 or 4 minutes, near the top, to turn the marzipan golden.
Spring was definitely in the air last weekend. It was still chilly, especially in the early morning and evening, but when the sun was shining one could actually feel the heat from it. Early Spring blossom has started to appear on the trees in Bristol and the daffodils are very much in flower. So it might seem odd that I chose to cook rather wintry, comfort food dishes, but I thought I’d better get them in before temperatures really do rise.
My husband says I can’t possibly write a post about this meal because we didn’t take a photo of it, but, with apologies for the lack of illustration, I’ve decided to do it anyway. It was a success and the ideal thing to cook last Saturday when I had plenty of time in the morning but wanted to watch England play Wales in a crucial Six Nations rugby match in the afternoon. Honestly, as you will see, this hotpot is more or less just an assembly job. While I was preparing it I managed to keep an eye on the Italy v Ireland match.
For the ingredients, I more or less followed Felicity Cloake again and make no apologies for that. Here is what I did.
- 6 lamb cutlets
- 400g diced lamb shoulder
- Flour, salt and pepper
- 3-4 large, floury potatoes
- 2 sprigs thyme
- 2 onions, sliced
- 1 bay leaf
- 300ml stock (Felicity says lamb stock, but I used a homemade chicken one because that’s what I had in the fridge, and it was fine.)
- 20g melted butter, plus extra to grease.
- Dust the meat with the flour and seasoning. Peel and slice the potatoes thinly.
- Butter a casserole which has a lid.
- Put a layer of overlapping potato slices in the bottom of the casserole, season them and sprinkle with a little thyme.
- Put the meat and bay leaf on top, followed by the onions and some more seasoning.
- Top with the remaining potatoes, overlapping them again. Season these and pour on the stock, which should not come above the topping.
- Brush the potatoes with the melted butter.
- Put the lid on and place the casserole in the simmering oven. Cook for 4-6 hours.
- Thirty minutes before serving, remove the lid and transfer to the roasting oven to brown the potatoes.
I placed it in the oven at about 2pm and then all I had to do when we were ready to eat was steam some carrots (in the simmering oven of course) and cook some cabbage.
By the way, for afternoon tea on the sofa, in front of the England v Wales match, we had buttered slices of this delicious “hot cross” fruit loaf which I’d bought in the morning from the Bordeaux Quay stall at Whiteladies Road Market.
This beef stroganoff, based on Delia Smith’s recipe, has the flavours of “proper” stroganoff but the advantage that it can be made ahead instead of at the last minute; it’s ideally suited to Aga cooking.
(Serves 4 people)
- 700g fairly lean braising beef
- 2 onions, sliced
- 50g butter
- 275 ml dry white wine
- 250g mushrooms, sliced if large
- 250ml sour cream
- Freshly grated nutmeg
- Salt and freshly milled black pepper
- Cut the meat into thin strips, about 5mm wide and no more than 6cm long.
- Melt the butter in a casserole and soften the onion in it in the simmering oven for about 15 minutes. Remove to a plate with a slotted spoon.
- Place the casserole on the boiling plate and brown the beef in batches.
- Once the meat is browned, move the casserole to the simmering plate and return the beef and onion to it. Season and pour in the wine.
- Bring to simmering point, put on the lid and let it cook in the simmering oven for 3-4 hours.
- An hour before you want to eat, stir in the mushrooms, cover and return it to the oven.
- Taste to check seasoning, stir in the sour cream with a good grating of nutmeg. Don’t let the cream boil.
- Serve with plain boiled rice and perhaps some broccoli or a green salad.
I could have used a smaller casserole.
This wine was a good accompaniment.
Chopped fresh parsley makes a nice garnish.
Depending on the weather, perhaps my next posts will move on to lighter, fresher dishes.
Strictly speaking, this post should be entitled Leek, Onion and Potato Soup, but there can’t be many soups which DON’T have onion as an ingredient, surely? One of the reasons I’m writing about soup is that I bought supermarket soup for lunch on Friday; it was just me and I wanted something quick, but I wish I hadn’t bothered. I don’t know about you, but I find shop-bought soup, with the possible exception of Heinz tinned cream of tomato, however delicious it might taste at the time of eating (drinking?), tends to leave an oniony aftertaste.
So, with a plan to make soup in mind, I paid my usual Saturday visit to Whiteladies Road Market yesterday morning to buy crusty bread. A rummage in the fridge then produced some ageing leeks, an onion and potatoes, which made the decision about what soup to make very easy. I always use Delia’s recipe for this; it’s in her original “Complete Cookery Course” but if you haven’t got that book (you haven’t?) it’s on her website here. It’s very easy to make, and delicious and warming. It can be chilled and eaten cold (and renamed Vichyssoise) but I prefer it steaming hot. Take care not to let it boil though.
Incidentally, ever since my mother gave me a handheld stick blender, just two or three years ago, I’ve been making soup a lot more often. I have no idea how I came to this wonderful gadget so late in life, but thank goodness I did.
For Aga owners: I started the vegetables off on the simmering plate before putting the lid on and sweating them for about half an hour in the simmering oven. Once the stock/water/milk had been added and it had been brought up to simmering point on the hotplate, it was returned to the simmering oven for 30-40 minutes until the vegetables were soft, left to cool for 10 minutes or so, and then blended. The addition of a little cream to each serving is entirely optional.
Give it a stir to coat everything in the butter.
After sweating the vegetables, add stock and/or water and milk.
When cooked, blend.
Garnish with chopped parsley and a little cream.