Category Archives: Christmas

To make mince pies…

A few posts ago I gave the recipe for Mrs Beeton’s mincemeat, so I thought it only right to give a little instruction in making mince pies. I have to tell you that it is really worth the trouble of making your own mincemeat and mince pies – any bought ones are incomparable and always too sweet. The secret to an excellent mince pie is two-fold: you need homemade mincemeat and you need shortcrust pastry that is made with half butter and half lard. many people recoil in horror these days at thought of using lard, but it isn’t that bad really, at least not in small doses.

A recipe by Roger Twysden from the times of Charles I (c. 1640) says that larger Christmas pies were also made using a mixture made of meat, sugar, dried fruit and spices. He then says: “put them in coffins or pyes, and bake them”. The word coffin was used to describe the pastry-shell of pies. The reason they were called coffins is because, in earlier times, the pastry simply served as a casing intowhich the meat could be cooked; the pastry itself actually being inedible. They weren’t actually coffin-shaped, except for the Christmas Pie as Charles Dickens, writing in 1877, tells us: ‘ The coffin shape…is not now familiar to us. There is good reason to believe that, in old times, the form was symbolic of the manger at Bethlehem; and that Christmas Pie, whether mince or not, had religious as well as a gastronomic association with this particular season.’

 

For more typical mince pies, they are based upon Jane Grigson’s instructions from English Food, and they are excellent.

Roll out your pastry and use cutters to line…tart tins [I actually use muffin tins, cutting a large circle for the base, and a smaller one for the top]. Add…[a dessertspoon] of the mincemeat – not too much though the suet and sugar expands quite alot. Use some beaten egg to glue on lids of pastry, pinching as you go. Lastly brush the top with more egg, make a little cross in the top of the pie so steam can escape and sprinkle with a little sugar.

Bake at 220⁰C (425⁰F) for 15 to 20 minutes. Eat warm or cold. If you are feeling extra-Christmassy and if your stomach can take it, add a blob of brand or rum butter. Personally I go for a blob of lightly whipped cream or even some custard if any is to hand [and I concur!].

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Filed under Christmas, food, history, Nineteenth Century, Puddings, Recipes, Teatime, The Victorians

Decorating the Christmas Cake

Once your Christmas cake is nicely matured and well-fed on brandy, it is time to decorate the bugger. In my opinion it is best to go all-or-nothing; either don’t decorate at all or go crazy. Traditionally, in England at any rate, you need a layer of marzipan and a layer of royal icing. Though I have seen recipes that have a bakeable marzipan and no icing, which I must admit is attractive, but I keep it traditional, even though I am not really bothered about the icing. No, I do it simply for tradition’s sake.

I gave the Christmas cake recipe that I use in the previous post, so if you have made one or have a bought undecorated one that you want to put your own stamp on, I have recipes for marzipan and for royal icing too. Don’t forget to add some festive bits and bobs too.

Marzipan

Marzipan is essentially a paste made of ground almonds and sugar and it found its way in Europe from the Middle East via the Crusades. It was the Italians – specifically the Milanese – that really took to the stuff, refining the techniques to produce a very high quality product that was excellent for making into extravagant sculptures. Leonardo da Vinci was quite despondent after making some amazing and intricate marzipan sculptures for the Milanese court as he ‘observed in pain that [they] gobble up all  the sculptures I give them, right down to the last morsel.’

Aside from being used as a sculpture material, marzipan also became a popular sweetmeat used by chocolatiers and bakers. Some of my favourite cakes use marzipan: Battenburg, stollen and simnel cake. The Christmas cake got its layer of marzipan because the Twelfth Night cake – traditionally covered in it – was banned by the Puritan and Lord Protector of England, Oliver Cromwell as too frivolous, so people added the marzipan they loved so much to their Christmas cake instead.

Here’s the recipe I always use these days. What I like specifically about this recipe is that it is not too sweet, which I think the bought stuff always is. Also, when you make your own marzipan, it has a much better texture as well as flavour. You can add extra things to the mixture if you like, such as the grated zest of an orange, or a couple of teaspoons of orange flower water or rose water.

 

140 g icing sugar

90 g caster sugar

220 g ground almonds

1 beaten egg

1 tbs apricot jam

1 tbs water

Sieve the icing sugar into a large bowl and stir in the caster sugar and almonds. Stir in the beaten egg and lemon juice to form a paste. Knead the marzipan on a surface floured with icing sugar. Easy. Wrap and allow to chill in the fridge for a few hours.

To cover the cake with it, you first need to slice the top of your cake off so that it is a nice, flat surface. I always like that bit because I get to try the cake.

Next, turn it upside down and pop it on a cake base or plate. Warm up the jam and water in a pan and paint the whole cake with the glaze.

 

On a sheet of greaseproof paper, roll out a little over half of the marzipan into a round shape that is just a little larger than the cake itself. The greaseproof paper makes it easier to roll out, but you can use an icing sugar dusted worktop instead. Use the cake tin as a template and cut a circle.

Pick up the marzipan still stuck to the paper, place it on top of the cake and peel off the paper.

Next, take the remaining third of the paste and roll that out into strips the same height as the cake and secure them to the cake. Press the edges together as you go as well as any cracks that may appear.

You need to leave the cake for a couple of days to dry a little before adding the icing (should you want to).

Royal Icing

Royal icing is the classic icing for the Christmas cake – it is ‘royal’ because it was the British Royal Family that used in for their wedding cakes, and naturally if the Royals did it, then we copied it. Icing had been around since the eighteenth century; before that, there wasn’t the technology to refine the sugar appropriately. The first icing was similar to royal icing, it was spread over the top of the cake but then the cake was returned to the oven to set hard. The final result was a nice flat, shiny surface like that of a frozen lake, hence we call the stuff icing. Elizabeth Raffald mentions it in The Experienced English Housekeeper (1769) – the first written recording of the word.

Royal icing is the most popular icing because it can be piped and coloured easily. Plus it is easy to make , which a bonus. Here’s how:

2 medium egg whites

2 tsp lemon juice

500g icing sugar, sieved

Whisk the egg whites until frothy but not yet stiff and then stir in the lemon juice. Add icing sugar to the egg white bit by bit, mixing as you go – an electric beater comes in very handy here, but you can use a wooden spoon if your forearms are up to the job. The icing can be used straight away.

 

Spread the mixture all over the cake using a palette knife to smooth it out. Dipping the knife in very hot water is a good way of getting the icing super-smooth, but I like it a bit more rough-and-ready. You can reserve some of the icing for piping of course, but that has never really been my thing – I should have a go one time though!

A simple and effective way of decorating the cake is to use the side of a knife to make a nice spiky snow effect. When decorated, leave it for two or three days to set hard.

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Filed under cake, Christmas, Eighteenth Century, food, General, history, Recipes, Teatime, Uncategorized

Christmas Cake

 

Christmas cake, Christmas pudding, mince pies – if you don’t like dried fruit you are in trouble at Christmastime!

The Christmas cake as we know it comes from two Christian feast days: Twelfth Night and Easter.

When families in the sixteenth century made their Christmas puddings for the big day, they would often use some of the mixture, with the addition of flour and eggs, to bake and eat for Eastertime. These were obviously rather rich families. It was liked so much that the rich fruitcake was made for Christmas too. We also dropped it from the Easter menu for some reason.

The addition of the marzipan and royal icing (see here for recipes) came much later when a cake was banned from Christmas. The last day of Christmas is Twelfth Night (the 5th of January) and it used to be traditional to make a Twelfth Night cake that contained almonds and was covered in marzipan. Oliver Crowell, the Lord Protector of England, and the other Puritans banned the feasting on that special day in the 1640s (he also banned mince pies as well) complaining that there was too much excess. Christmas Day remained a public holiday and some feasting was allowed, so people simply made their Christmas cake and covered that in marzipan instead, and so the Christmas cake was born.

Britain’s biggest ever party-pooper: Oliver Cromwell

You don’t have to cover it with the marzipan and royal icing though, in Yorkshire (my home county) it is popular to eat the Christmas cake with some nice cheese such as Wensleydale or Cheddar instead.

I love Christmas cake, so I thought I would give you the recipe I always use – it is adapted from Jane Grigson’s English Food (click here to see my other pet project) – and it has never failed on me. As I said a couple of posts ago, if you want to eat top-quality food at Christmas, you need to make your own, or spend a fortune at Harrod’s. Plus the cake is made well in advance – I usually make mine 6 weeks before Christmas so it can mature. Once you’ve cooked it, you only have to feed it with a little brandy to make it nice and moist.

This recipe is of course for an English-style Christmas cake; the Scottish, Welsh and Irish have their own versions, all in a similar vein, but with a few differences. I’ll blog about them at some point.

I have realised that I don’t have any decent photographs of my Christmas cake (I had a hard-drive die on me and I lost lots of photos), but I shall take some next year when I shall be making this cake again…

Ingredients:

1 ½ lb mixed dried fruit

4 oz of whole roasted almonds

4 oz chopped candied citrus peel

4 oz rinsed glacé cherries quartered or left whole

10 oz plain flour

1 tsp ground cinnamon

1 tsp grated nutmeg

the grated rind of a lemon

8 oz salted butter

8 oz soft dark brown sugar

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 tbs black treacle (or molasses)

4 eggs

1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda

1 tbs warmed milk

brandy

Preheat your oven to 140⁰C (275⁰F).

Begin by mixing all the dried fruit, almonds, candied peel and cherries in a large bowl. Next, sift in the flour, turning in and coating the fruit, then mix in the spices and fresh lemon rind.

Now cream the butter sugar in a separate bowl, then mix in the vanilla and black treacle. Beat in four eggs one by one until incorporated, and the mix in the fruit and the flour. For the final stage, dissolve the bicarbonate of soda in the warmed milk, stir it in, and then add enough brandy to slacken the mixture slightly, so that it achieves a dropping consistency – you don’t want a dry cake, now do you?

Line an eight inch cake tin with greaseproof paper and pour the mixture in, hollowing the top a little to compensate for it rising in the oven.

Cover with a layer of brown paper to prevent scorching and bake for 3 to 3 ½ hours. Test it after 3 hours with a skewer. When done, leave to cool in its tin overnight. Wrap in greaseproof paper or foil and keep in an airtight container.

 

Ideally, the cake should sit for at least a month to mature, but 2 or 3 weeks is also fine. Whilst it sits, you need to feed it with a sprinkle of 2 or 3 tablespoons of brandy, turning the cake each time it is fed.

The cake is ready to eat when sufficiently fed and matured, however, you might want to add a layer of marzipan and royal icing.

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Filed under baking, cake, Christmas, food, history, Puddings, Recipes, Seventeenth Century, Teatime, Uncategorized

Christmas is coming…

Tomorrow is the first day of Advent, and so the real run-up to Christmas begins. Around this time I usually begin making the Christmas food: baking and feeding the cake and jarring the mincemeat ready for a little nearer the time. Unfortunately, I haven’t done this for a couple of years; living in America and then going to the UK for Christmas means I am not around to make the stuff. So this year, I thought I would give you some of the traditional recipes tried-and-tested by Yours Truely.

Christmas really is the time where people like to go really traditional – even those that don’t like turkey seem to feel it necessary for the big day. If you don’t like them, don’t have them – there are others to choose from. Turkeys have regularly been eaten in Britain on the big day since the sixteenth century, they only became really popular in the Victorian era; before that, the goose was the popular choice. This changes from region to region however, for example in the North of England, beef was  most popular. Our family usually has beef as well as turkey even now.

The Victorians essentially invented the Christmas we know today: Queen Victoria loved the Christmas Tree that Prince Albert got for her – the craze caught on and we all started doing it. During this time the Christmas card and the Christmas cracker was invented too.

The very first Christmas card by John Callcott Horsely, 1843

I’m here for the food of course, and I’ll save the history of the Christmas fayre for their separate posts. However, for any non-Brits out there I’ll go through the basics:

The Meat: sorry vegetarians, but Christmas dinner is all about the meat. A nut roast or a tofurkey will simply not do. To be traditionally British you can go for a surprising selection of species: turkey, goose, ham, beef, pheasant, even peacock and wild boar if you go as far back as Medieval times. Along with the main roast, you need to have stuffing and pigs in blankets. Do not forget the gravy.

The Veg: the ultimate Christmas vegetable is the brussels sprout whether you love ’em or hate ’em. I love them – especially when tossed in bacon and prunes. Other attendees should always be mashed potatoes as well as roast potatoes. In fact plenty of roast vegetables: in my opinion there has to be roast parsnip and sweet potato (which was much more than regular spuds for quite a while), but celeriac and beetroot are also good. Also you need some typical boiled vegetables: carrots, or swede and carrot mash, cabbage or kale. One big error I think people make is that they think every item has to be extra-rich; I remember seeing glazed carrots with vanilla one time. With all the rich meat and roasted veg, you need some good old basic boiled vegetables.

The Sauces: this all depends on the meat you are cooking, redcurrant or cranberry jelly and bread sauce with goose, turkey or game, horseradish with beef, &c.

Afters: for some people the most important bit – the more pudding the better. The obvious one is the Christmas pudding, also known as plum pudding or figgy pudding. I love it, but many people don’t and I can understand why: pure dried fruit and stodge. I have never found a good recipe for one though. Along with the pudding, you also need to add the brandy butter and custard. Just as important is the trifle, it can be boozy or it can e fruity, either way can be excellent as long as it is done well. The third necessary dessert is the Yule-log; a very long history has this one.

The Extras: naturally one doesn’t want to spend a single minute not eating for the entire Christmas period so there are many additional extras, and they are not optional, no siree. The Christmas cake, well-fed with brandy, mince pies -made with a good mincemeat – and a good pâté with a selection of good cheeses. Raised pies are very popular from the simple like a Melton Mowbray pork pie to the unbelievably crazy Yorkshire Christmas Pie, that contained at least eight game species. Plus, people will be thirsty, so don’t forget the mulled wine, cider or ale. Don’t forget some simple roasted chesnuts to eat before the fire. I could go on with the optional extras, but I will not.

Of course not everyone cooks everything from scratch on the day, I certainly don’t. However, it is best to make as many things as possible because they will be much better than the equivalent bought at the supermarket. I have never looked back after making Mrs Beeton’s mincemeat and Jane Grigson’s Christmas cake. The only way you are going to get top-quality foods like these without making them yourself is if you go to the high-end of the market and that can set you back some.

For me, the absolute must-makes are: mince pies, Christmas cake, stuffing and trifle. Oh, and the meat of course!

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Filed under Christmas, food, history, The Victorians