Monday, December 29, 2008

An ode to Nigella: brine your turkey (...or else)

I've got to hand it to her.
Nigella came up trumps.

I bought her
glossy, shiny Christmas book and loved browsing through the gleaming pages. But I didn't actually think that I'd cook that many things from it. After all, I thought, it is almost more lifestyle magazine than cook book. Don't get me wrong, a huge part of me wanted to be the person who made edible Christmas presents and tied them up with perfect ribbons. I wanted to lay out a 'Welcome Table' for hoards of glamorous guests. I even considered buying a silky red negligée so that I could waft round the kitchen in a similar state of seasonal undress. But in reality, I knew that food-splattered apron and furrowed brow are more my style when catering for the masses.

In all honesty, I also wasn't sure that I liked the sound of that many of the recipes. They were all just a bit too.... Christmassy!

Whilst I'm all for festive kitsch (plastic holly on top of the brandy butter is a MUST), I'm just not sure that I want cranberries with everything. I'm not certain that I want my gravy to be flavoured with festive spices or that a rib of beef really needs Stilton gravy in order to make it more... seasonal. Just call me Scrooge.

But I'm taking it all back. I've made at least six things from this book and I've loved them all. First there were the Christmas tree biscuits. Brilliant. Next up were the mince pies. Or rather the pastry for her mince pies. Perfectly crisp and lovely. Then there were the sprouts with chestnuts and pancetta. Finally, sprouts that I was happy to eat. I even had seconds. Please note: this has never happened before! There was also the superb turkey hash that I cooked up with some of the leftover turkey. A messy medley of turkey, onions, olives, red peppers, almonds and other bits all bound together with a creamy sauce - it sounds a bit... unlikely, but it was a huge hit. We all had seconds.

However, the biggest hit by far was the turkey. I don't think that I'll ever cook turkey another way now that I've discovered brining. In her red-and-green-themed tome, Nigella does insist that this is the very best way to deal with turkey. In fact, she even goes as far to say that she will not rest until she's convinced every last one of us. Consider me one of her little messengers.

I was skeptical as I filled the huge bucket with water, salt and festive spices. I launched the turkey into its colourful sea, popped the lid on and set it outside overnight.

There is one major downside to this brining method as far as I can see and it is this: there is work to do on Christmas morning. I usually like to get the turkey oven-ready on Christmas Eve so that all that needs doing in the morning is pop it in the oven, leaving us time to open stockings, go to church, drink Champagne and open other presents before lunch. You'll note that all those handy time-plans found in food magazines at this time of year leave no time for any festivities other than cooking. In our household (especially with young children around), things simply can't work this way! So, I set the alarm a little early and snuck down to the kitchen with my mother to haul the bird out of its brine, dry it off, stuff it, cover the breast with bacon and lay it on top of a bed of chopped vegetables.

You may think that you don't want this extra hassle on Christmas morning. Now that I've tasted a brined bird, I'm certain that I don't give a hoot. The meat was wonderfully succulent and juicy. My (extremely particular) father even declared it the best he'd ever eaten. Anyone reading who happens to know my father will know what this means. 'Extremely particular'? I'm being polite.

Anyway, not only was our bird tasting good when it had just been cooked, but it was even delicious and moist when cold.

I didn't follow her cooking method post-brining, choosing instead to go with the method that worked well last year. I pushed butter under the skin of the breast and then covered with streaky bacon. I then sat the bird on a bed of chopped onions, carrots and celery and roasted at a high temperature for the first half hour. I then poured half a bottle of white wine into the roasting tray and covered to lot with a foil tent. At the end I removed the tent to brown the skin. The juices, mingled with the wine and vegetables made for an excellent base for the gravy along with giblet stock.

Alongside the bird, we had all the trimmings. Two kinds of stuffing, pigs in blankets, liver wrapped in bacon, bread sauce, cranberry sauce, sprouts with chestnuts and pancetta, roasted parsnips, roast potatoes and peas (a perversion peculiar to me). We all agreed that my mother's lovely plates are too small. It couldn't possibly be that we are just too greedy.

Would you believe that I ate all this and managed to squeeze in seconds?!

After all of this, it is amazing that I had space for Christmas pudding. But, of course, I did. I used
my usual recipe and made it back at the start of November to give it time to mature.

Slight disaster this year in that it was less set than usual and didn't turn out too well - I think that some water might have got in whilst I was steaming. My brother insisted that it was all-the-better for its gooey texture. I wasn't convinced but it did taste fairly good. My brother was in charge of flaming the pudding and did a startlingly good job - something to do with making a well in the top and pouring an alarming quantity of vodka over the already very boozy pud! Needless to say, we were all fairly snoozy in the afternoon.

So there we have it. Our Christmas feast. All over for another year. A successful feast I think. And thoroughly enjoyed by us all. I hope yours was just as sumptuous!

My thanks to the Domestic Goddess herself; Nigella!

I'm still enjoying being home with family on the Isle of Wight. After a couple of days of serious excess, I finally braved the bitterly cold wind for a walk by the sea. Purely to make room for more food, you understand! As the sun started to set soon after setting out we had to turn back and warm ourselves up with cups of steaming tea. And slices of Christmas cake of course!

I hope you are enjoying the final days of 2008. I'm currently plotting and planning exciting kitchen adventures for 2009.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas!

Christmas Eve is here. It has rather taken me by surprise. Despite being frightfully organised earlier in the month, two weeks with barely a night in means that half my presents are unwrapped, two haven't even arrived and I'm feeling rather... unready.

However, fortunately all seems under control on the food front. I'm down on the Isle of Wight with parents and family - as I drove off the ferry it was good to be greeted by Father Christmas. He's there every year, waving people off the ferry.

My journey was slightly disappointing due to the lack of Chris Rea on the radio. 'Driving Home for Christmas' is surely a must.

The turkey is happily sitting outside in Nigella's festive brine. True to her words, it does look rather lovely bobbing around with the spices and oranges. I'm quite excited about this method and will report back on how it turns out! My brother has been busy cracking jokes about how I should be wafting round in red silk nightwear and that my Domestic Goddess impression is just not up to scratch!

We've had our first slice of my mother's fantastic Christmas cake. She's decorated it beautifully, as you can see. A talent that I simply don't posses sadly.

We've made two types of stuffing - 'green' stuffing and a more traditional pork and sage and the potatoes and parsnips are peeled and ready.

We are about to sit down to a festive ham and then Christmas will truly have begun.

I'd like to wish all my kind readers a very Happy Christmas. I hope you have a wonderful and delicious time with plenty of food, glorious food!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Warming carrot and ginger soup

I've been a little quiet of late. Christmas is kind of like that, isn't it? Added to the general busyness that is Christmas shopping, wrapping, partying and card writing, my phone line has been down. No internet. Not amusing.

Anyway, all back up and running now. I'm about to whizz off to a work Christmassy thing but first I thought I'd share this scrumptious soup that I made earlier in the week. This is a recipe that I spotted in a magazine in the doctor's waiting room and tried to memorise it - it was part of a feature on Christmas canapés and the writer suggested serving the soup in little espresso cups, as I've done here.

I have to confess that I wasn't in fact having a party and no sooner had I photographed the soups (in very poor light) when I poured them back into a plastic bottle to take to work the next day for my lunch.

I can't remember the name of the magazine these came from and the quantities are slightly different to the original - my memory isn't that good! The warming ginger and slight kick of chilli is perfect for the time of year and is very good for you too - perfect for staving off those coughs and colds.

Carrot and ginger soup
Enough for tiny espresso cups, or 2-3 servings


300g carrots, roughly chopped*
3 small shallots, peeled and kept whole
2 cloves garlic, skin on
500g weak vegetable stock
2cm piece fresh ginger, peeled and grated

To garnish -
pinch dried chilli flakes (optional)
chopped coriander (optional)

1. Pre-heat oven to 200C. Put carrots, shallots and garlic on baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil. Season (though remember your stock may well be fairly salty. Roast for half and hour, or until carrots and shallots are soft.

2. Remove veg from oven. Squeeze garlic from its skin. Place veg in a blender and blitz. You may need to add a little of the stock to help it along.

3. Scrape the puréed veg into a saucepan, add the stock and ginger and heat, stirring to combine. Taste and season accordingly. You may like to add more ginger. Then again, you may not. At this stage, you may wish to blitz further to create a fully smooth and silky soup. I'm not so fussed here and didn't bother. It was fairly smooth anyway.

4. Pour into cups or bowl and top with a pinch of dried chilli flakes and a sprinkling of coriander.

* I used some large Chanteray carrots that I stumbled upon. They were particularly flavoursome and sweet.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Slutty spaghetti

I'm exceptionally dull when visiting regular Italian restaurants. Generally I don't need to bother looking at the menu. If I'm in the mood for pasta, then I pretty much always order one of three things. All of them are tomato-based. All of them I can make easily at home myself. Yet still I hear them calling.

A particular favourite is pasta puttanesca. Named after the 'ladies of the night' it is packed with punchy, gutsy flavours. Anchovies, capers, olives, chilli, garlic; subtle this is not!

Whilst I frequently order pasta puttanesca, until recently I have never thought to re-create it at home. I don't know why as it is super simple. I was inspired to give it a go having drooled for months over
the dish over at Dinner Diary. It is clearly a favourite for Fred and Ginger!

I followed their advice and headed towards
Delia for inspiration. I followed her recipe fairly closely so don't intend to repeat the recipe here. All that I will say is that I have since made this favourite flavoursome pasta dish three times.

The curious thing about pasta puttanesca is that when made well, it tastes almost meaty. Those anchovies permeate the dish giving a wonderful savoury edge that balances nicely with the sweetness of the tomatoes.

I have twice added finely chopped onions (finely chopped and sweated at the start along with garlic) and I also used fresh oregano once when I ran out of fresh basil. It was different, but still good!

Monday, December 08, 2008

Decorating the tree with Christmas biscuits

I had a thoroughly festive weekend. On Friday evening I travelled down to the beautiful city of Bath to meet my mother. We stayed overnight in a hotel just outside the city centre and on Saturday morning headed into the crowded centre to visit the Christmas market. It was fantastic (..if heaving with other people). The scent of mulled wine was in the air as we moved from stall to stall admiring the wonderful artisan and original gifts. Within an hour, I'd managed to tick seven people off my list and was thrilled with the original presents I'd found.

As the crowds began to get a little too much, we headed to Bath's fantastic shops. Before long we were in need of sustenance and stopped of at The Fine Cheese Company for an excellent lunch of Somerset rarebit and Tunisian orange cake. For my review of this place (along with other reviews I've written), do hop across to
Trusted Places. Though do be sure to hop back again too!

I got back to London with overflowing bags of Christmas goodies. On Sunday morning up was up early(ish) and went to visit a friend who was exhibiting at the Young Designers Christmas Bazaar at Shepherds Bush. Then it was off to choose a Christmas tree.

I'm exceptionally picky about Christmas trees. Firstly, they have to be real. I don't care about the needles or that a fake one costs less when you consider how much you spend each year on a fresh tree. I'm sure it would be better for the environment if I didn't have a fresh tree each year. But for me, an artificial tree just isn't the same. It doesn't have that lovely Christmassy fragrance. There isn't the annual excitement of heading out in the cold to pick the perfect specimen.

And I'm very picky about the shape. I won't buy one that is already in its string bag. Oh no. I have to look at it carefully. Walk round it a few times. I have to fall a little bit in love with it in fact. Is that odd?

I found my little tree this year and took it home. I unravelled the lights. Discovered they still worked (a miracle?) and then started to decorate it. I'm picky here too. Red and silver only.

But this year, I felt it needed a little something extra. Inspired by Nigella's Christmas, I decided to bake and decorate some edible tree biscuits. What fun it was! The flat filled with a wonderfully spicy, festive aroma and I really enjoyed piping the decoration on the biscuits (...even if I am clumsy...).

I'm so pleased with how they look, dangling from their silver ribbons, that I thought I'd share them with you. Nigella's recipe makes around 40 biscuits, so I halved it (my tree is only wee). I also altered the spices slightly to suit what I had knocking around.

Spicy Christmas Tree Biscuits
Makes approx 20


150g plain flour (plus extra for dusting)
pinch of salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
50g soft butter
50g soft dark muscovado sugar
1 large egg
2 tbsp runny honey
royal icing

1. Pre-heat oven to 170C. Line two baking sheets with greaseproof paper.

2. Whizz together flour and spices in a food processor. Add butter and sugar and whizz until you have fine breadcrumb consistency.

3. Beat together the egg with the honey. With the motor running, slowly add the egg mixture. Go carefully as you may not need to add it all - stop when a dough is just formed.

4. You could chill the mixture for 10 minutes or so. Alternatively, if you are impatient like me, you can get started straight away. Liberally dust the work surface with flour and roll out the dough. Cut out your favourite festive shapes (I had snowflakes, starts, Christmas trees, hearts, gingerbread men and, that wonderfully festive of creatures, the butterfly). Work quite quickly and set the biscuits on the cookie sheet.

5. Using a skewer, cut a small hole just below the top of each biscuit so that you'll be able to tie ribbon through later for hanging on the tree. Bake for around 20 minutes, or until the biscuits are no longer dough-ey in the middle.

6. Transfer biscuits to a wire rack and allow to cool. Mix up the royal icing according to the packed instructions. Spoon into a piping bag and decorate the biscuits once cool.

7. Be patient and leave the icing to set. Don't be like me and get all impatient and try to thread the ribbon through before the icing has set as it will smudge (of course). Once set, wait another ten minutes or so (just to be sure) and carefully thread pretty ribbon through the holes. You may need a cocktail stick to re-pierce the holes slightly. Whilst doing this be sure to 'accidentally-on-purpose' break a couple so that you have to eat them. Marvel at how they actually taste rather good!

8. Hang on the tree and admire. Invite everyone to ooh and ahh at your artistic talent!

I'm entering my edible tree decorations into the December edition of 'No Croutons Required', a monthly event hosted by the lovely Holler of Tinned Tomatoes. She is inviting people to submit a Christmassy picture - I hope that these will evoke the festive spirit for her!

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Delicious nibbles and a dreamy parsnip gratin

Often, I think how useful it would be if I could just hurry up and find 'the man of my dreams'. Nothing to do with the joy and wonder to be had in finding the person with whom to share ones life. Oh no. I'm far more practical than that (...though that part would be nice too). No, mainly, I think it would be handy to have 'another half' so that they could pour the drinks. And maybe take the coats. And possibly even hang those coats up somewhere. Or hide them in my bedroom so that people didn't have to venture in there themselves and discover that is where I've hidden the entire contents of the dining room to make it suitable for guests.


Last weekend I had seven friends over for lunch and it was lovely. But it would have been lovelier still had there been someone else who could have poured the drinks. And perhaps laid the table. What happened instead was this...
I spent all morning preparing a delicious feast and thought that I had it all under control. The kitchen was tidy, things were in the oven, the table was laid and I was changed. All was calm and perfect. I felt so organised that I even poured myself a pre-lunch gin and tonic. Then the first guest arrived. I took her coat and poured her a drink. I then explained that I had to just prepare the pudding - would she mind chatting in the kitchen with me, whilst I finished off?

then realised that I'd run out of milk. I gave her back her coat, took her drink from her and sent her back into the cold to the corner shop.

Fortunately, I know her well.

In the meantime, in the middle of whisking eggs, the doorbell rang again. Two more guests. Two more drinks to make (one involving a trip to the basement to get ice), two more coats to deal with and eggs half-whisked. More door-bell ringing, plus the timer going off as the beef was done and that the Yorkshire puddings needed to go in.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, within half an hour, my calm controlled, clean and tidy kitchen had become a scene of total destruction. Tonic bottles, corks, half-sliced lemons, dirty pans and a half made pudding all jostled for space with my seven lovely friends who were kindly trying to assist by getting their own drinks/whisking more eggs/putting coats in the black hole of my bedroom.

What joy it would have been to have a handy man around to entertain them all for ten minutes in the sitting room, fix their drinks and hand round the rather delicious nibbles that I had made in advance. My friends would then perhaps have thought me to be the height of effortless entertaining. (Actually, I think they know me better than that).

Fortunately, the chaos was salvaged when we sat down to eat and I realised that beyond the mountains of mess in the kitchen, I'd managed to produce a reasonably good lunch. What a relief! Next time though, I'll be serving a dessert that I can make in advance. And perhaps I'll employ the services of a butler. And also, in my next house, I'll have one of those kitchens where people can sit and chat and nibble while I potter behind the safety of an island which hides all the mess and chaos.

Anyway, onto the food. These great nibbles came from the queen of relaxed entertaining, Nigella. They are in
her Christmas book and elsewhere too, I think. The combination of parma ham, mild goats cheese and dried fig is a winner. These are super simple to make and can even be made up a couple of hours in advance and popped in the fridge until needed. I'd suggest taking them out around 30 mins before you want to eat them to take the chill off which tends to numb the flavours.

Parma ham, fig and goats cheese rolls
Makes approx 24


12 slices of parma ham (2 supermarket packets)
125g mild, creamy goats cheese
6 dried figs

1. Carefully cut each slice of parma ham into strips - mine went fairly neatly into two strips, but you may find you can get three. Lay the strips out on to a chopping board.

2. Snip the figs into quarters (I used scissors).

3. Smear a small teaspoon-or-so of goats cheese onto the cut side of a fig quarter. Place cheese side-down at the end of one of the strips of parma ham and roll tightly together.

4. You're done. That's it.

With the rib of beef, I served Yorkshire puddings, roast potatoes, glazed carrots, peas and this dreamy parsnip gratin. If you love parsnips and you love cream, then this you HAVE to make. I really do insist. It is seriously good. And particularly good with beef, I think.

The recipe for this came from the great BBC Good Food and so I won't repeat it here. It is made in much the same as pommes dauphinoise though with the addition of grain mustard. I made no amendments to the recipe. All that I will say is that I used Parmesan cheese instead of the Twineham Grange suggested. I also found it quite hard slicing the parsnips thin enough so I used the slicer of the food processor. I suggest you do the same.

So, here is the recipe. Please go away and cook it now. You won't regret it.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Melt-in-the-middle chocolate truffles

What could be better than a homemade chocolate truffle?

A homemade chocolate truffle that looks like this in the middle...

These completely and utterly divine truffles have a wonderful 'melting middle' of chocolate caramel. Eat one and weep.

You'll have to patient however. I'm not about to divulge the recipe just yet. You see generally speaking, I'm not a fan of small, dainty, fiddly cooking. Whilst I enjoy a canapé, they are not my favourite things to prepare. Whilst I love a beautifully presented individual tart, you're much more likely to find me serving up a giant one, willing everyone to help themselves to as much (or as little) as they desire.

Occasionally though, I give in to the cute and mini-portioned. In fact the past few weeks has seen my clumsy, oaf-ish fingers preparing several micro-treats. And whilst perfection they have not been (the truffles were the largest you've ever seen), they have been fun to make and rather endearing.

Firstly, I had a hand in the preparation of a staggering number of mini mince pies. I was visiting a friend for the weekend, staying with her parents. Her mother enlisted our help in making an impressive 250 mince pies for a village party she was organising.

We used two sizes of star cutter for the mince pies and I rather liked the result. Usually, I just use a star for the top and stick to a round cutter for the base. But the star cutter for the bottom made a rather pleasing claw to fill with mincemeat and the whole lot looked rather festive. You'll spot that we didn't bother to brush them all with egg (life's too short when you are baking 250 pies). Dusted with plenty of icing sugar, they'll look just perfect.

But it is ok. I'm now coming on to the aforementioned truffles. Years ago I used to make chocolate truffles for Christmas. It was my 'contribution' to the Christmas feast, along with the brandy butter when I was too young to do much else. I remember that the recipe was a Delia Smith one and that it involved Greek yoghurt. It was very good, though extraordinarily messy in the preparation.

On Sunday, I had friends over for Sunday lunch and, as I had a bit of time to prepare on the Saturday, I decided it would be nice to make some chocolates to go with coffee. Whilst flicking through my folder of recipe clippings, I found
this tempting recipe for melting middle truffles from BBC Good Food magazine. Once I spotted Dulche de Leche in the list of ingredients, I knew for certain that I had to make them!

These truffles are simpler than they might sound. Better still, they can be frozen so you can make them ahead of Christmas and defrost on Christmas Eve. They would also make a great gift for a chocolate lover, perhaps with a bottle of chocolate-friendly wine (a

Malmsey Madeira or a PX Sherry, for example).

I had a couple of problems with the recipe. Firstly, the quantities seemed a little off. I used just a third of the caramel filling - the recipe makes far too much. I'd suggest either halving the quantity of the filling, or doubling the quantity of the truffle mixture. I've amended the recipe below to make it a little more even. Secondly, I had a problem with the caramel. The recipe makes it sound simple. You freeze the caramel mixture and then snip it into small pieces before pushing into the centre of the truffles. Only problem was that my caramel didn't freeze. At all! I think this is because I used a squeezy bottle of Dulche de Leche caramel, rather than a jar (I couldn't find one). I think perhaps they add something to the caramel to make it more runny and that this prevents it from freezing solid. Next time (and there will certainly be a next time), I'll hunt out the jar. As it was, I did manage. However, it was a very sticky and mucky business. It also meant that I had to mould my truffles right around the middle, rather than just pushing the firm caramel into the truffle balls. The result? Enormous truffles. Not too much of a problem, although I couldn't manage more than two as they were very rich.

Without further ado, here is my version of the recipe. For the original,
click here.

Melt-in-the-middle chocolate truffles
Makes approx 30


1/4 420g jar of
dulche de leche caramel toffee
50g good quality dark chocolate
400g good quality milk chocolate (I used Green and Blacks)
142ml pot double cream
1 tsp vanilla essence
Lots of cocoa powder for dusting

1. Chop the dark chocolate into small pieces. Heat the dulche de leche in a milk pan until runny and then add the dark chocolate. Stir until melted and evenly combined.

2. Place a large bit of cling film over a dinner plate and oil all over. Pour the chocolate caramel over the cling film and then (once cool) place in freezer for 2 hours, or until very firm.

3. Whilst the middle mixture is freezing, make the truffle mix. This could hardly be simpler. Chop the milk chocolate and place in a bowl. Bring cream to the boil in a pan and then pour over the chocolate. Leave for 2 minutes and then add the vanilla. Stir until smooth and fully combined. Chill in the fridge until quite firm/solid.

4. Once the middle mixture is firm and the truffle mixture is set, you can start making the truffles. With wet scissors, cut the caramel mixture into small pieces (about the size of fingernail). Dust a baking sheet with cocoa powder and also dust your hands. Then take a teaspoon of the truffle mixture, poke in a caramel chunk and then shape the truffle mixture around the filling. Roll into a ball shape and roll in cocoa on the baking sheet.

5. Repeat until you've used up all the truffle mixture. You'll need to keep dusting your hands with cocoa as it is quite a messy business! Chill or freeze until required.

Note - when serving, I recommend taking these from the fridge a good hour before you want to eat them. If not, they are a little too firm and middles not sufficiently melty.