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!
  

Afternoon Tea @BelgravesLondon

 I was going to start by saying “America doesn’t do tea property” but then I realised I am actually writing about an American hotel so I will retract that statement.

We had just spent the last 10 days in an extremely Americanised Mexican hotel. Jet lag had us ordering pots of tea and sweet pastries at “six thirdy” AM, or half past six as we say. Rumours were flying round that the previous week the hotel had run out of English Breakfast tea bags- needless to say, things were rather tense. No, I did not want a “cawfee” instead.

As a safety measure and a treat (who doesn’t need a treat the moment they get back from vacation- oh crumbs! They’ve got me at it now! Holiday) I booked us afternoon tea in Pont Street Restaurant at the Belgraves Hotel. 

After a very welcoming arrival we were seated in a very sweet alcove surrounded by windows. Glasses of champagne arrives with our choice of rose or raspberry pearls in the bottom.  
 And unfortunately that was the best of the service, because we seemed to be rather neglected after that. Some minutes later we were asked something along the lines of “Well what tea are you having?” despite not yet having received the tea menu. One of our servers cheerfully explained that she had been rather late for work- we were unsure how to respond to this. Later on when my green tea had become too strong, I attempted to request some fresh hot water, but in a near empty restaurant staff were buzzing around, paying us no attention. I’m not the type to shout “Garçon!”, but it was impossible to make eye contact with anyone. Eventually my request was fulfilled, no questions asked.
Enough about the service, because the food made up for it. 

 Other than the unusual option of grated cheese and pickle, which seemed rather rustic along side the traditional fillings, the sandwiches with good- moist, fresh and thick. But the pièce de résistance had to be the Marie Antoinette themed cake stand.

  
 I cannot give enough praise to the pastry chefs for the sheer variety on the stack. One usually finds that after the sandwiches one is faced with an overwhelming pile of sweet cakes, but here there was a perfect balance of sweet and savoury- the foie gras and the hollandaise quail’s egg were favourites. Our server was happy to give us a little box to take away, so my playing card biscuit was saved for later and was an absolute delight.
I did find the price quite shocking, not because I didn’t value the effort with the food, but because I don’t think Pont Street yet has the reputation to charge at this rate. I hope the service was a one-off because I would be inclined to visit again in the future.

And yes, Americans can do tea properly.

Botanical Tea Party

Muv was off galavanting last weekend, which, rather awkwardly, left me without a Mother to wait on on Mother’s Day.

Thankfully I managed to get myself pencilled in this weekend and we celebrated as family tradition dictates- with a tea party.

Planning is imperative. A good tea party takes at least a week to plan. There is always a shopping list, a drawing, hours of research and vivid cake-related dreams.

Some of my favourite books for inspiration:

 


I’m a bit of a Pinterest addict and have many boards dedicated to tea, cake and all things vintage. You can follow me here.

Usually, I am rather traditional in my tea fare, but inspired by the likes of Kerstin Rodgers of MsMarmiteLover, Angel Adoree of The Vintage Patisserie and Christabel Beeson of Christabel’s, I’ve tried to do something a little more experimental.

I fancied a bit of botanical theme, with my sweet, miniature greenhouse taking centre-stage. On a normal day I keep seedlings and carnivorous plants in there, but for one day only chocolate strawberries and tomato, basil and mozzarella flowers bloomed.

I have always stuck to the finger-sandwich format, varying the fillings slightly, however I had seen a few examples of the classic Swedish smörgåstårta and rather fancied giving it a try. In essence it’s a cake made from a loaf of bread with savoury fillings. I envisioned some sort of elaborate miniature vegetable plot styling to continue my botanical theme. I intend to jumble together some sort of instructions later. But to give one an idea this was my smoked salmon creation:

Smoked salmon smorgastarta

Smoked salmon smorgastarta

As much as we all enjoyed these rather unconventional sarnies, I found them rather labour intensive. They also required an electric bread knife to be plugged in at the table to enable them to be served- not appropriate for a tea party at all.

Chocolate  brownies

Chocolate brownies

 

Chorizo & apple sausage rolls

Chorizo & apple sausage rolls

These sausage rolls are a firm family favourite, it is often requested that make a batch on a weekend.

Fairy bite shortbread

Fairy bite shortbread

 

Tomato, mozzerella & red onion pizza

Tomato, mozzerella & red onion pizza

This simple pizza was for my darling youngest brother, inspired by our recent skiing trip to the Alps. With all the heavy meats, cheeses and breads, a simple tomato and mozzerella drizzled with pesto was a joy and I’m sure will bring back fond memories forever more.

Heart-shaped scones

Heart-shaped scones

 

Menu:

Chicken smörgåstårta

Salmon smörgåstårta 

Tomato, mozzarella and red onion pizza

Goats cheese, prosciutto and roasted red pepper filo cups

Heart-shaped scones (made by my beautiful sister in law to be) served with clotted cream and strawberry jam

Chocolate brownies with Cadbury’s Pebbles

Fairy bite shortbread

Raspberry macaroons 

Served with Twinnings English Breakfast tea

Jelly snakes (to decorate the table)

You can find instructions for my lotus napkin origami here.

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!