Saturday, 18 December 2010

Parks and dogs and sausage rolls


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I’ve been to grander parties, it’s true. This is a long way from silver trays of canapés in elegant hotels, premier cru in posh houses fragrant with pine Diptyque candles and money, or carefully constructed cocktails in private members’ clubs.

But this is the party I look forward to as soon as I flip the calendar over to December. Every Christmas, those of us who walk our dogs in Clissold Park assemble in the breath-misting morning chill to swap stories, drink, eat.

Rachel put together her camping stove for the mulled wine and the graffiti’d picnic table quickly disappeared beneath foil-wrapped and plastic-boxed Christmas treats, thermoses of coffee, paper napkins and plastic cups.

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It’s a very Stoke Newington affair. Mince pies and Christmas cake sit alongside Phil’s home-smoked cheese, Riccardo and Alastaire Spanish cinnamon cookies and Cat’s spanakopita.

It was -2ºC, so I perked up a cup of Lee’s hot chocolate with a nip of rum from Alastaire’s hip flask. Dogs barked, sniffed, made covert and not-so-covert attempts to raid the table. Toddlers nibbled chocolate brownies as a few feet above their heads, adults discussed favoured routes to Devon and Denmark, snow warnings and the misery of Oxford Street. People swapped cards and invitations, exchanged hugs, kissed.

By 11am I was at my desk, trying to nudge my rum-warmed brain to focus on my last feature of the year. But what I was really thinking was that it would be a good thing for the happiness of the nation if there were more parties where it was entirely acceptable to wear your gardening shoes.

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Polly looks hopeful.

Chorizo sausage rolls

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There are so many sweet offerings at the dog walkers’ Christmas party, I always try to make something savoury to balance the early morning sugar rush. Sausage rolls filled with River Cottage’s  Tupperware chorizo have a fiery kick, appropriate for a morning when ducks skid across thick ice on the pond and walkers swaddled in Gore-tex and wool tread gingerly on frosty pavements.

The chorizo is easy to make – you just squish it all together – but you need to refrigerate it for at least a day for the flavours to develop.

Makes about 30 small sausage rolls

For the chorizo:

750g pork shoulder, coarsely minced
1 tbsp sweet smoked paprika
2 tsp hot smoked paprika
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 tsp fine sea salt
1½ tsp fennel seeds
¼ tsp cayenne pepper
50ml red wine
Freshly ground black pepper

A little oil for frying

3 sheets of ready-roll all-butter puff pastry, about 35cm x 22cm
An egg beaten with a little water

Put all the chorizo ingredients into a bowl and mix thoroughly with your hands, squishing the mix through your fingers to distribute the seasonings evenly. Heat a little oil in a frying pan, break off a walnut-sized piece of the mixture, shape into a tiny patty and fry for a few minutes on each side, until cooked through. Taste to check the seasoning, remembering that the flavours will develop further as the mixture matures.

Cover the mixture and store in the fridge for at least 24 hours before using; this will allow the flavours time to develop. It will keep for about 2 weeks.

When you’re ready to make the sausage rolls, unroll the pastry and give it a gentle going over with a rolling pin to increase its size slightly. Cut it in half lengthways, make the chorizo into a long snakes about 2cm thick and lay them down the middle of the pastry rectangles. Brush one long edge of the pastry lightly with the egg wash, roll the other edge over the top to join and press the edges together firmly. Trim with a sharp knife so you have an even edge (if you like - wonky sausage rolls are also incredibly delicious). Cut them into 4cm pieces and place them on baking sheets lined with baking parchment, keeping them about 2cm apart as they will expand a bit. Chill for about 30 minutes.

Brush the sausage rolls with the egg wash. I also ground some black pepper and sprinkled a bit more sweet paprika over the top but that’s not essential. Place them in a hot oven, 200ºC/400ºF/Gas Mark 6, for 20-25 minutes until the pastry is golden and the pork cooked through. If you can, eat them warm.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Deck the halls

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Every December, I buy a plain evergreen wreath from Mrs Grover’s stall at Columbia Road. She sells her own beautifully decorated wreaths but I love the slow, scented ritual of creating my own. This year, I raided the kitchen cupboards to make a cook’s wreath finished with some of my favourite flavours of the season: oranges and lemons, cloves, cinnamon and star anise.

Making a wreath is incredibly easy and – a bonus - it gives me the chance to get my glue gun out (£2 at a church jumble sale, thank you very much). In my enthusiasm, I always forget how bloody hot the glue gets. Still, and I’m sure Martha would agree, nothing says ‘Happy Christmas’ like a new set of fingerprints.

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003Not helping…

You need…

  • A plain wreath
  • Glue - a glue gun works brilliantly, particularly if you are on the run, but any strong, clear-setting glue is fine
  • Green florist’s wire from garden centres or DIY shops
  • Raffia or ribbon
  • A selection from the decorative bits and pieces below

Dried orange slices

Preheat the oven to 130°C/250°F/Gas Mark 1. Slice the oranges about 4mm thick. Lay them out on a tea towel and press out some of their moisture with another tea towel or kitchen paper. Lay them on an ovenproof rack and place it on top of a baking tray. Place in the oven and after the first 15 minutes, turn the oven down to its lowest setting and leave the oranges to dry out for about 5-6 hours, turning them halfway through and opening the door from time to time to let out the steam. Turn off the oven and leave them to continue to dry out in the cooling oven. You can dry apple slices in the same way.

Once the orange slices are completely dry, glue them together in piles of three or four. Poke two holes in the stack of slices with a dowel and thread enough green florists’ wire through the holes to hold them together and to tie them around the wreath. Hide the wire by sticking a star anise over the top.

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Cinnamon bundles

You can buy packs of cinnamon for crafting quite cheaply on Ebay – I bought mine, £2.50 for 40x8cm sticks, from www.floristrywarehouse.com. Stick them together in bundles, tie some floristry wire around them with enough excess to tie them around the wreath. Hide the wire with a raffia or ribbon bow.

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Oranges and lemons

Whole fruits look great and smell wonderful tied to your wreath. Poke a hole through the fruit with a skewer, thread some wire through the hole, leaving enough excess to tie around the wreath. If you like, you can stud the fruit with cloves.

Other things you can tie or stick onto your wreath if you like…

  • Pine cones
  • Bundles of woody herbs such as rosemary or thyme
  • Bits of holly or ivy
  • Nuts
  • Sprigs of eucalyptus or laurel

To assemble your wreath…

Simply tie all of your orange slices, lemons and bundles of cinnamon to your wreath, twisting the wire several times at the back of the wreath to secure them firmly. Trim off the ends of the wire with secateurs. Lighter things, such as apple slices and nuts can be glued directly onto the wreath.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Chocolate and the essential art of sloth

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I love working from home. I take phone calls with the Gilmore Girls temporarily on mute, check emails while singing along enthusiastically if tunelessly to 42nd Street and type with a dog to warm my feet and a pair of kittens snoozing in my in tray. My one shiver of envy for office workers comes when we have so much snow, trains don’t run, offices close and they get the day off. Frustratingly - as my office is a gentle 60 second stroll from my bed - it would take quite the snow storm to make it impossible for me to clock in.

IMG_2406 This picture was taken by my friend Stephen Morallee.

Ty Snow1 Ty tastes his first snow.

Stephen 1 Stephen trying to take pictures. Thwarted.

Jess scarf Jess, all wrapped up.

I was thinking about this as I walked Barney in the park, my boots crunching through the dazzling layer of crisp snow. Our usual dog walking number was swelled by a few office refuseniks, excited at the prospect of a day off. So - in the spirit of solidarity - I declared a snow day myself. No work, just pottering. If I’m honest, to the naked eye this wouldn’t have looked very different to a normal day. Show tunes, yes, messing about in the kitchen, certainly, but deadline stress, tricky emails and scaling of the accounts mountain so large its about to be granted its own postcode, were banned.

I’d been sent a bag of Trish Deseine’s new milk chocolate buttons to try. I needed to cook them - what they’re intended for - before I ate the whole bag. I flipped through the pages of Trish’s Best of Chocolat (in French, just so you know) which I bought when we were in Agde in the summer and decided the milk chocolate, date and almond cake was a suitable fate for my precious and rapidly diminishing bounty.

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I love Trish Deseine’s food. It’s cosy, sexy, sophisticated and her books are shot through with her natural warmth and humour. She is from Northern Ireland and has lived in France for the past twenty years or so, where she has enjoyed un succès fou showing the French how to create simple and delicious meals which require neither a sous chef nor a trust fund. Luckily for us, she has published several books in English. Try them. You will like.

Chocolate by Trish

Trish’s chocolate is available from Selfridges or by mail order in the UK from Chocolatebytrish.com

Rich chocolate cake with dates and almonds

This flourless chocolate cake has an intense, almost wine-y depth of flavour. It’s grown up, rich, fudgy and, yes, intensely chocolate-y. It keeps very well for a few days too, if you’re the sort of person who can sleep while there’s chocolate cake in a tin on your kitchen shelf.

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DSCN3374 Really, how could it not be good?

Serves 8 to 10 people

250g milk chocolate, Trish’s magic buttons are 38%
3 egg yolks
3 eggs
125g light muscovado sugar
175g ground almonds
100g whole almonds, toasted* and finely chopped
175g unsalted butter, plus a little more for greasing
150g Medjool dates, stoned and chopped, if you can’t get hold of Medjool dates, poach ordinary dates for three minutes in a little water and sugar

Lightly grease a 25cm loose-bottomed cake tin, line it with a circle of baking parchment and butter the parchment. Preheat the oven to 170°C/325°F/Gas Mark 3.

Put the chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl and melt in a microwave or over a bowl of barely-simmering water (the bottom of the bowl shouldn’t touch the water). Cool slightly.

DSCN3383 Pretty.

In a large bowl, beat together the eggs, egg yolks and sugar until light and creamy – the beaters should leave a ribbon trail across the surface when you lift them out of the batter. Add the ground and chopped almonds and the dates and stir until well combined. Lightly but thoroughly fold in the melted chocolate and butter with a spatula. Pour into the cake tin and bake for about 50 minutes – the centre should still wobble a bit as it will firm up as it cools. Let it cool in the tin before turning it out.

* Place them in an even layer on a baking sheet and bake them at 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4 for about 6 minutes. Cook them for a minute or two longer if they still look a bit pale but keep checking them as they can burn very easily.

IMG_2434 I took some of the cake to the park the next day – I’m kind like that. This picture was taken by Stephen Morallee.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Sunday best

IMAG0270 Before: Dog as tweed cushion.

However hard I’ve been trying to convince myself - and believe me I have - there’s nothing festive about balls of dog hair blowing silently across the floor. I considered spraying them with glitter or weaving them into a festive wreath, but concluded that there is a limit to all of this wild, free-range, organic and home-grown business. Barney really needed grooming before I looked like a mad lady walking a tweed cushion on a lead along Church Street.

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Groom Dog City recently opened a salon (Is it a salon or a parlour? Parlours make me think of poodles with more pom-poms than the Dallas Cowboy cheerleading squad, so I think we’ll stick to salon) in Ravenscroft Street, just off Columbia Road, so I booked him in for their Drop and Shop service – he gets groomed while I get to raid the market unencumbered by a frisky hound on a search and rescue mission for bits of dropped bacon sandwich. We even managed to fit in lunch at the lovely new restaurant, Brawn - Colchester oysters, pork belly and a delicious pudding of warm pear compôte, crème fraîche and toasted pain d’épice crumbs, thank you very much.

IMAG0284 Warm pear compôte, crème fraîche and toasted pain d’épice crumbs at Brawn.

We picked up the dog, transformed* from miniature woolly mammoth to sleek dog about town by friendly, skilled groomers. No pom-poms, but he did get a little green bow on his collar. It looks pretty festive, actually.

IMAG0290 After: Barney transformed –though I think he’s looking a bit put out that he missed the pork belly.

* Hand stripping a border terrier takes about two and a half hours and costs £40.

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