Christmas Macarons

Oh really?! But aren’t they rather difficult to do well?

When one hears this, it’s likely that they have announced they are contemplating making one of the following:

  1. A soufflé 
  2. A chocolat fondant
  3. A batch of macarons

I was contemplating the third option which, by all accounts, was doomed to fail. For this reason I studied a Martin Chiffers recipe forwards, backwards and upside down until I was really sure that I knew what I was supposed to be doing.

I inherited my love of the kitchen gadget from Muv- the owner of the world’s greatest collection of fantastic culinary tat, including a mechanical apple peeler, an electric tin opener and a runner bean de-stringer. I decided some time ago that it was about time I bought a silicone macaron mat. Turns out it was a hugely worthwhile purchase as I’m holding it responsible for my 100% macaron success rate, well, that and Chef Chiffers.


As well as making it ridiculously simple to remove ones cooled macarons, the raised ring shapes mean one can guarantee identically sized bakes.

I did a bit of experimentation with the piping and found that a bigger nozzle was beneficial, and that a smoother shell was achieved by piping into the middle, with strength and confidence, rather than a swirling technique. Lifting the piping bag to finish causes a small ‘nipple’ to develop, as far as I’m aware this is perfectly acceptable in master baker circles, but can be smoothed down with the back of a teaspoon. In fairness I think they look rather sweet.


I didn’t flavour the shells, for fear of ruining the consistency of the mixture, however I did colour them using Wilton’s food colour gel using a combination of brown, red and black. For the filling I made a buttercream which I flavoured with cherry brandy as a nod to one of my favourite Christmas tipples. For the decoration I made a white chocolate ganache, topped with some adorable sugar holly leaves and berries which I picked up in Waitrose.

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Mince Pie Making @JOCookerySchool

It is a fact that my brother William makes the fairest mince pies in the land. Which is surprising as he has exceptionally warm hands- long associated with terrible pastry chefs. Every year it’s a battle to get a batch out of him, and once we’ve eaten them all, a second batch is demanded. It shouldn’t be so difficult to get one’s hands on a mince pie.

As the recipe is kept extremely close to his chest, the solution Muv and I decided, was to attend a mince pie masterclass at Jamie Oliver’s Cookery School then shower the family with millions of pies.

The cookery school is based at London’s Westfield White City shopping centre and is presumably relatively new as everything was gleaming. As we arrived we were presented with a darling apron and talked through the pie concept by our dear cookery teacher/ chef. In conclusion the mincemeat filling can be whatever you want it to be! In this case bulked out with large chunks of sweet, roasted butternut squash.

The process was explained in steps before we were sent off to our cooking station to have a go ourselves. Unfortunately for us, our station was on a kind of galley with several ovens heating at full blast- having been out the night before, the extreme heat didn’t make me feel particularly invigorated.

We were encouraged to cut out pastry stars and the like to stick on top of our pies, but greedy buggers we are, Muv and I decided that a much better use of the pastry was simply to make as many pies as we could. I’m calling our design the sunflower, but call it what you will.

While the pies were steaming in the oven we were given a demonstration of how to make our own mincemeat (the stuff we used had been made up in advance by the team as it takes hours to bubble away), taking it in turns to sniff the delightful smelling fruits and spices. And then, rather unexpected, our dear teacher had to dash off to teach her next class- boy, has Jamie got them working hard! We were left hanging around for a good 10 minutes, until the sous chef came to check on our pies. My advice would have been to release us all out of that roasting hot kitchen, maybe got everyone a drink, and requested that we return in 10 or 15 minutes. I don’t think this is usual procedure thought, as the other class, a hen party perhaps, had tables to sit at and were sipping champagne in a much cooler environment.


Finally our dear little pies were ready. Rather than burn the roofs of our mouths we settled on having the pies boxed up to take away with us, we were even permitted to take a little clingfilmed parcel of our left-over dough which was kind.


We made it as far as Liverpool Street Station before we gave in to temptation and bit into our still-warm pies. Delicious, Christmassy mincemeat, encased in what reminded me of the pastry we used as a kind of modelling clay at Granny’s when we were little- you’d slip the odd bit into your mouth when her back was turned and be extremely disappointed that it tasted of flour, rather that sugar and butter as you’d hoped. It was at that moment I realised that I was never going to be the favourite child. Jamie’s books may line my bookshelves, but sadly his (my) mince pies are no competition for my brother’s. 

Christmas Cake

After last year’s Christmas creation, the pressure was on envision this year’s masterpiece. 

Muv, the dear, had her wooden spoon at the ready on Stir Up Sunday and baked an exquisite fruit cake, stored in the pantry for a month before ‘the handover’.



Fortnum & Mason’s marmalade was warmed and liberally applied to the cake as a glue and a crumb coat.

I made up a batch of marzipan, which is unbelievably easy to do and tastes nothing like the shop-bought variety. This was then rolled out and neatly wrapped around the cake. She then went back into the pantry for 3 days to allow the marzipan to dry out.

Meanwhile-

After reading Mima Sinclair’s Gingerbread Wonderland cover to cover, I set my heart on a gingerbread house cake.


Unfortunately, as my brother has stealthily worked his way though the vast majority of the golden syrup (I dread to think what he’d been doing with the stuff!) the gingerbread was to be a hybrid of light and dark- I hope Mima doesn’t mind such things!


Using a set of Lakeland gingerbread house cutters (cheat!) I set to work on my building blocks. When cutting out shaped biscuits, it’s always advisable to refrigerate them first to help them retain definition during cooking. Although I followed this advice to the letter, I was concerned that the shapes had spread slightly in the oven, so I used the cutters again after baking to make sure they were right. Potentially, the ‘building blocks’ may not have fitted together neatly had I not re-cut, so the open edges and a small amount of cracking from pressing down on the cutter were a small sacrifice.

To avoid any messy disasters, I built my house over several days. Farv frequently reminds me that I could never win Bake Off working at this pace, but now the dream team have split up I’m not sure it even matters!

Day 1: Baked gingerbread
Day 2: Iced design on to flat panels using royal icing
Day 3: Glued walls together using royal icing, supported by many cans of beans

Day 4: Glued cereal squares to roof panels, glued chimney to roof
Day 5: Glued roof panels to house, waited several hours then iced snow detail on to roof

Day 6: Iced cake with royal icing, added toadstools
Day 7: Christmas Eve- crumbs! It’s going to be close! Set house on cake, lit, added forest floor make from chocolate truffles, chocolate swiss rolls and ground almonds.
Day 8: Merry Christmas! Phew!

Below: My second cousin Ethan caught in the act of stealing my window frames- such a cutie!

Oreo Cake

  

My dear friend Petula is rather partial to an Oreo biscuit (or cookie, as I believe they are actually called) so with her birthday approaching I set myself the challenge of creating her an Oreo cake.

I sketched out some ideas and decided upon chocolate sponge cakes sandwiched together by a crushed Oreo buttercream. Knowing the biscuits themselves are a very dark brown/black colour I realised that the brown of the cacao powder was never going to be dark enough so a dark chocolate ganache was required to cover it.

  
Experimental baker that I am, I created some sort of chocolate-caramel ganache, and then, because I like to make my life difficult, I covered the sponges individually so the buttercream would be neatly exposed.

  
I made a vanilla buttercream then crushed a whole packet of Oreos into it- terrible!

  
Once sandwiched I topped with a lovely, shiny dark chocolate ganache.

And this is where I made things really difficult for myself-

   
 I spent two hours cutting out a template for the Oreo design. Time well spent though I believe, as the finished cake did look rather spectacular.

   
  

Never one for a huge fuss, there were no candle or a horrific rendition of Happy Birthday, just a slice of cake and a cup of tea. It went down rather well I thought!
  

Christmas

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There is nothing like wearing a fantastic headpiece, and sat at the dining table on Christmas Day seemed like the perfect occasion. One’s family tend to find one’s dress sense rather odd, but we are only here to please ourselves.
I find the best presents are usually those purchased by oneself. Or at least selected by oneself then purchased by others. I consider myself very easy to buy for- vintage, kitch, novelty… If it’s unusual I’m bound to love it. Therefore it saddens me to receive a huge volume of gift vouchers each year. I’m by no means ungrateful, darling, one is rather looking forward to spending a substantial amount in John Lewis, yet I feel it rather unjust to have been so thoughtful with their presents.
We had one of those “I’ve bought my own Christmas present, would you like to give me the cash?” situations this year. In fact, I bought several presents on behalf of one family member for another family member. Perhaps my reputation for picking lovely gifts is more trouble than it’s worth.
I digress. I excitedly bought myself a Ciaté Geltox lamp in order to improve the quality and longevity of my manis.

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Definitely not as easy as first thought, but I was quite pleased with the results of my first attempt. My intention was to trap as much as I could under the gel, just to see how well it worked, hence a large volume of glitter and caviar. I possibly went a bit heavy on the gel which caused a bit of a lift at the edges. One can only learn from one’s mistakes.
A great idea from Ciaté though- as the owner of many hundreds of nail polishes it seems a madness to invest in gel polishes and limit ones creativity. This system allows one to use ordinary polishes and then simple brush on a gel topcoat and voila!
Definitely more experimentation required, but it will be rather exciting to see what happens.

Another disappointing element of the festive season was the severe lack of time off work. Criminal I might add- a flapper should never go to work. There is a wonderful scene in Downton Abbey where the Dowager asks in all ignorance “what is a weekend?” It would have been a novelty at the time, a new-fangled idea, as prior to the introduction of working standard laws and statutory holiday for the working classes one day would have been much the same as any other.
Anyway, Christmas Day and Boxing Day were my only days of freedom, so preparation for the big event was rather rushed and rather difficult. I would have loved to have made a great effort with everything, but somehow it all just slipped right passed me. I can’t complain too much, by my reckoning I believe I was involved in some degree of socialisation every night for at least a week before the 25th. This left me bereft of sleep and in need of a decent lay in by the time I got to Christmas!

The thing I really missed was being able to do some baking. It is all too easy these days to pop to [insert name of supermarket here] and pick up some mass-produced slab of carbohydrate to stuff in one’s mouth. It’s so wonderful that British and homemade are back on trend; items lovingly made by people who care. As the popularity of websites such as notonthehighstreet grow, so do the unique companies they support.
I happened upon Bad Brownie on Twitter and within minutes had ordered a selection of divine sounding bites.

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I intended to give them away as gifts wrapping in cellophane (suggesting they might be homemade…) but I must confess I have eaten a large percentage of these myself.
As a member of a farming family I was really keen to make some sort of game pâté, but failing this I found my new heroes Farmison & Co who delivered fine, fine pork and game terrine. Absolutely gorgeous!

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I did achieve one master feat, if nothing else- I managed to drag myself outside and pluck four pheasants. Game shooting is rather a family tradition, although I don’t involve myself in it personally. It is a historic countryside pursuit and I love that this has survived in modern times. I wouldn’t like to kill an animal myself, but I do eat meat and it surprises me that I’m ok with plucking and gutting! I suppose if I want to eat it it’s only fair I play a part.

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Aaaaaand that’s enough waffling for now I think!

Stir Up Sunday

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Friday night, wrapped in a blanket I watched a film called Snow Valley on TV. Very much a straight to TV movie, starring no one you’ve ever heard of and a pretty cliche story line. The thing that really got me was all the lovely Christmas traditions the family had. They very much had a programme of Christmassy events all the way through December, from decorating the tree and wrapping up presents for less fortunate children to icing gingerbread houses and indulging in the grand-sounding Feast of the Seven Fishes.
With no children in the family we are currently in that awkward limbo phase where we’re too old for the Christmas ‘magic’ ourselves, but too young (I say too young- I’m 27! Rather we’ve not in the position) to have our own children.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to celebrate to the extreme. I’ve got a few ideas but I’m definitely going to come up with some more.
I refuse to even talk about Christmas until after my birthday in November so it’s literally just starting to cross my mind. The starting point has to be Stir Up Sunday, which this year was Sunday 23rd November.
My mum and I are huge Christmas cake and Christmas pudding fans. In fact we eat Christmas pudding throughout the year, smothered in custard. We usually make a cake but had never really got involved in SUS, mostly because we’d never heard of it. We are both great believers in lovely family traditions so here we are. We got Nana involved too, reading out the ingredients as I got them out of the cupboard in a way that only a nan can!

Brandy, cherry brandy…
Brandy, cherry brandy, port…
Brandy, cherry brandy, port, bitters…

Nan! Stop repeating yourself!
Bless her.
I did have quite a hangover on Sunday so measuring out volumes of alcohol was a bit gagworthy! Once I’d got over that I mixed in the various dried fruits, heated for 15 minutes on a low flame then left to cool.
It’s now going to sit in the fridge sorting itself out for a week before we make a start on phase two.
I read on the internet earlier that it’s good luck for everyone in the family to have a stir of the cake mix so that’s what we’ll be doing!

Hummingbird Bakery

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The Hummingbird Bakery is oft spoken of in my office. A couple of the lads managed to get their hands on some cupcakes on Friday, but were unwilling to share. Quite vexing considering not long ago a box of chocolates from a client, headed in my direction, never quite made it to me… (my colleague blamed the heat!)

On Saturday I was determined to get myself some and took myself along to the (Harry Potter-esque) Frying Pan Alley bakery in Shoreditch.

One of everything, please.

I found myself saying to the lovely girl in the shop. Whoops! £30 worth of cupcakes later…

Obviously I did share mine, generous soul that I am. And of course, they were as wonderful as one would expect them to be.