Sunday, 30 December 2012

There’s Something About Turkey

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My default setting for dealing with leftovers is to throw them all together and cover them with pastry. Eat and repeat. Until January, when some law about dusting off the juicer and salad spinner comes into play.

Please excuse the less-than-stellar sunshine brightness of these photographs. They were taken in my parents’ kitchen which, like the kitchens in many Victorian houses, is in the far northern corner of the house. In the days before refrigeration, it gave the food a fighting chance of staying fresher for longer. Even now in this kitchen you can happily leave butter out between September and June without any risk of it being easily spreadable on anything other than the hottest of toast. It is the perfect kitchen for making pastry.

Until recently, the kitchen was even more crepuscular. A thicket of trees comes almost up to the house, shading the mossy path to the front door. The house is at the top of a valley and even the gentlest of breezes whips and licks around its walls in the most ferocious fashion. In a storm last spring, a huge tree was whipped and licked right into the kitchen wall.

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My parents, who were in another part of the house at the time, didn’t notice. They were alerted by the postman who came to the back door rather than the front and explained his usual route was barred by several tons of unruly tree. It took my brother and nephew a whole day to clear a path to the house, then a gang of men with proper machinery arrived and, over several days, transformed the tree into neat logs and mountains of chippings.

So I suppose what I’m saying is sorry about the pictures but it could have been a whole lot worse.

Turkey Pot Pie

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Don’t be put off by the long list of ingredients for the pie. At Christmas, I usually have all of this stuff kicking around in the kitchen and I suspect you may do too. If you’re missing anything, don’t worry. Just add a bit more of something else. Essentially, it’s leftovers in a sauce with pastry over the top. Adjust any of these ingredients depending on what you have – if you have any leftover ham, that would certainly be good. The only important thing about making this pie is that you make it without having to go to the shops. That’s the best seasoning of all.

A large knob of butter
1 large onion, diced
1 bay leaf
A couple of sprigs of thyme, plus more for seasoning later
1 large parsnip or 2 small, cut into 1cm dice*
2 carrots, cut into 1cm dice*
1 celery stick, diced (optional)
250g chestnut mushrooms, halved, or quartered if large
2 garlic cloves, diced
1 rounded tbsp plain flour, plus more for dusting
About 700ml chicken or turkey stock, or leftover gravy if you have it, hot
100ml white wine
Leftover cooked turkey, skinned, and cut or shredded into large chunks
1 bunch spring onions, trimmed and cut into 1cm pieces
A couple of handfuls of frozen petits pois
2-3tbsp crème fraîche or double cream
1 tbsp Dijon mustard, wholegrain or plain
500g ready-roll, all-butter puff pastry or shortcrust pastry
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper
1 egg, lightly beaten with a little water

*You can use leftover roasted carrots and/or parsnips if you have them. Leave them whole and add them towards the end with the turkey.

Melt the butter over a low heat and add the onions, a pinch of salt, bay leaf and a couple of sprigs of thyme (on the branch). Sauté gently, stirring from time to time, until the onion is soft and translucent, about 15 minutes. Add the parsnip, carrot (unless using roasted ones, add these later) and celery if using and sauté for a further 5 minutes until slightly softened. Turn the heat up and add the mushrooms and another pinch of salt. Sauté, stirring from time to time, until the mushrooms have given up their moisture and started to brown slightly. Add the garlic and stir for a minute. Sprinkle over the flour and stir for a couple of minutes. Add a ladleful of the hot stock or gravy and stir, scraping up any bits which have stuck to the bottom of the pan, then add the rest of the hot stock or gravy along with the wine. Bring to a simmer and let it all bubble away for 5 minutes until the sauce is thickened slightly.

Add the spring onions, peas and turkey (and roasted veg if using). Remove from the heat. Stir in the crème fraiche and mustard. Stir in about a tablespoonful of fresh thyme leaves, removed from the stalk and roughly chopped. If you have any parsley, chives, tarragon or chervil kicking around, you could also add a sprinkling of these, either alone or in combination. Season with salt and pepper. Cool.

Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas mark 6. Either leave the turkey mixture in the pan you cooked it in, so long as it’s ovenproof, or pour it into an ovenproof dish.

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Dust the work surface with a little flour and roll out the pastry so it’s large enough to cover the surface of the ovenproof casserole or dish with about 5cm to spare. Brush the edge of the dish with a little of the egg wash, drape over the pastry, crimp it to the edges and trim. You want an overhang of about 2cm. Brush the top with egg wash, sprinkle on some salt, pepper and thyme leaves. Place on a baking sheet and cook for about 30-35 minutes, until the filling is bubbling hot and the pastry is golden.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Merry Christmas!

He HADN’T stopped Christmas from coming! IT CAME!
Somehow or other, it came just the same!
And the Grinch, with his grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow,
Stood puzzling and puzzling: “How could it be so?”
“It came without ribbons! It came without tags!”
“It came without packages, boxes or bags!”
And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!
“Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.”
“Maybe Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!”
And what happened then? Well…in Whoville they say,
That the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day!

From How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr Seuss

Monday, 24 December 2012

A Sweet Thank You


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Cookies, as far as the eye can see.

I spent a happy evening turning the kitchen into a factory. A biscuit factory to be precise. In the space of a few hours I made eight dozen chocolate crackle cookies and four dozen oatmeal and raisin cookies. When I bake like this I go into a sort of trance of measuring, whisking, beating, sprinkling and rolling, punctuated by the ping of the kitchen timer. I rotate the baking sheets through the oven and put them onto the table in the garden to cool quickly between batches, enjoying the cooling blast of evening air.

Clearly even I can’t eat that many cookies, at least in one session. I parcelled them up in little bags to give to my neighbours and my favourite local shopkeepers. So if you’ve chatted with me over the fence, sold me a book or a bra, a lamb chop or a cat collar, a newspaper or a bunch of flowers, the chances are you’ve already tried the pretty Christmas Crackle Cookies here. If not, they’re fun to make in a mud-pie sort of way. I’ll post the oatmeal cookies in January, when we can all do with a cosy, chewy, pretending-to-be wholesome (they’ve got OATS in - they’re practically health food) cheer up. In the meantime, thank you to all of you who visit my blog and leave such lovely comments, both here and on Twitter. I wish you all a delicious Christmas and a sweetly chewy New Year.

Christmas crackle cookies

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This makes about eight dozen cookies, but you can halve it quite easily if that’s too many for you. The dough also freezes well so you could keep some of the packages in the freezer, ready for when you want to rustle up a quick batch.

I took as my inspiration for this recipe Martha Stewart’s recipe here, though I tinkered with the method quite a bit. My tips for success are these:

· Chill the dough for at least four hours, or overnight if possible. Take the packages of dough out of the fridge one at a time – you want the batter to be very cold when you work on it.

· It helps if your hands are really cool. Run them under the cold tap or dip them in chilled water from time to time. You’ll need to wash them quite frequently anyway, as it’s a rather sticky business.

· Handle the dough as little as possible to turn them into little balls. They don’t have to be perfectly round. Roughly round is fine – the oven will do the rest.

· It’s quite pleasingly messy, so line your work surface with baking parchment or clingfilm to make cleaning up easy.

225g plain chocolate, about 70%, broken up into small pieces370g plain flour
100g cocoa
4tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
225g unsalted butter, room temperature
400g light muscovado sugar
4 eggs, lightly beaten
150ml whole milk
2 tbsp Kahlua, optional
2 tsp vanilla extract

Icing sugar and caster sugar for rolling

Place the chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a pan of barely-simmering water (the water should not touch the bottom of the bowl). Melt, stirring from time to time. Cool.

Sift together the flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt. If I’m making this quantity, I sift it twice to make sure it’s well blended.

In a stand mixer, beat the butter until smooth then add the sugar and beat until very light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs about a tablespoon at a time, beating until well combined after each addition. Beat in the vanilla and Kahlua if using, then the cooled chocolate.

With the beater on a low speed, add a third of the sifted flour mixture, then half of the milk, and repeat, ending with the last third of the flour. Mix until just combined – with this large quantity, I finish it off by hand, but with a half batch you should be fine. Be careful not to overmix though or the cookies will be tough – the dough should be soft and cakey, rather mousse-y. Divide the dough into eight flattish discs of about 220g each and wrap them in clingfilm. Refrigerate for at least four hours or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas mark 4. Line baking sheets with non-stick baking parchment. You will need to cook these in batches. Make sure the sheets are cool and the oven back up to temperature before you embark on each batch.

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Ready to roll.


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Ready for the oven.

Place a large sheet of baking parchment or clingfilm on your work surface and set up a bowl of caster sugar and a bowl of icing sugar, ready to roll the cookies. Remove one batch of dough from the fridge and use a teaspoon to scoop out little balls of dough. Roll them quickly into balls roughly the size of a small walnut. Toss them first in the caster sugar then in the icing sugar until they’re well coated, then arrange on the prepared baking sheet about 2cm apart. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until flattened and the sugar coating has split into a crackle pattern. Transfer them to a wire rack to cool completely. They will keep in an airtight container for about 4 days.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Scents of Christmas

 

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The sight of the tree glittering in the dining room window, twinkling fairy lights twining up the banisters and streams of cards dangling from ribbons stapled into the top of the sitting room doors lifts my heart at Christmas. But more than that, more than that, I love the way the house smells.

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The wreath on the front door, covered in oranges and lemons studded with cloves, sprigs of bay, bundles of cinnamon and dried orange slices, smells as good as it looks. The oven, with some assistance from me, churns out cookies and cakes, hams and sausage rolls, filling the house with delicious aromas. Pots of hyacinths and jasmine, vases of eucalyptus and off-cut pine branches from the tree, are crammed on every mantel, side table and desk.

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Along the sitting room mantel, I place candles stuck into old terracotta pots filled with damp sand (you could also use florists’ oasis). I cram them with clippings of myrtle, rosemary, Christmas box and bay from the garden. It takes minutes and smells wonderful. On Christmas Day, I’ll steal the candles from the sitting room and use them to decorate the dining table.

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Candle pots, decorated with myrtle, Christmas box, rosemary and bay from the garden.

I dry dozens of orange slices in December (see method, below). It’s easy and cheap and I use them in so many different ways - on the wreath, tied in bundles on the tree and in quick Christmas pot pourri.

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As well as making ooh-la-la pot pourri, I also just fling leftover citrus peels into the fireplace, where they dry and turn into very good, sweet-smelling firelighters.

For this, I mix the orange slices in a bowl with whatever I can grab from my spice drawer: cinnamon sticks, star anise, cloves, cardamom pods and cassia bark (available very cheaply in big bags from Indian supermarkets). To this base mixture, I add fresh bay leaves and rosemary from the garden so I can enjoy their sweet, spicy, piney scents as they dry. I also stud a few oranges and lemons with cloves and toss these in the bowl too. The base mixture, with perhaps just a few drops of essential oil (sweet orange, frankincense, cedar, scotch pine and clove are all good, alone or in combination) to intensify the scent, bagged up and tied with a pretty ribbon, make a very good, inexpensive present.

What scents say ‘Christmas’ to you?

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Use a darning needle to make a hole in the peel before pressing in the clove – it’s a lot easier on your hands.

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Christmas pot pourri.

How to Dry Orange Slices:

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Preheat the oven to 130C/250F/Gas mark ½ .

Trim the ends off the orange and then slice thinly, about 3mm thick, with a sharp knife. Place sheets of baking parchment on metal cake cooling racks and arrange the orange slices on top. Place them in the oven. After 15 minutes, turn the temperature down to 110C/225F/Gas mark ¼ . After an hour or so, turn the slices over and return them to the oven. Keep an eye on them, turning from time to time. When they’re almost dry, turn the oven off and leave the orange slices in the oven until cold. The idea is to get them thoroughly dry but not to over ‘cook’ them as you want to keep the colour as vibrant as possible, so keep an eye on them and adjust the timings to suit your oven.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Don we now our gay apparel. Or not.

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My nephew Angus with Barney Candy Striper.


Last Thursday was one of my favourite days of the year: Stoke Newington dog walkers’ Christmas party. The morning when a few dozen people and dogs gather by the ponds in Clissold Park at our normal dog-walking hour of nine-ish, and - for one day only - our paper cups are filled with mulled wine rather than coffee. Christmas cake and mince pies and biscuits and brownies are scattered across the picnic table in a haphazard selection of foil and Tupperware. I always bring my chorizo sausage rolls. I get up early to make them so they’re still warm. I reckon that should stand me in good stead with Santa and the Baby Jesus.

Barney even had a special outfit. I made it for our Church Street Christmas carols and mulled wine evening last week. There was a Most Festive Dog competition and I hoped dressing him up as a parcel would distract from his eternally-serious terrier face. It didn’t. He was trounced by his pal Roxie, a smiley Staffie who in the summer won Most Regal Dog (headscarf, pearls, tiara) at our Jubilee street party. We now call her Roxie Two Time and she may be the most famous dog in Stoke Newington, possibly the world.

Roxy & Willie

Roxie and Willie, in Jubilee finery.

Roxy 2

Roxie, Most Festive Dog.

So being a thrifty sort who believes firmly in cost per wear, I thought Barney could don his splendid bit of doggy couture for the dog walkers’ party. (Aside: More correctly, haute glueture as it is, I believe, a fine example of all the good things that can happen when you bring together felt, ribbon and glue gun.) He wore it for approximately 30 seconds before I had to admit that given the dripping, sloshing, gushing rain it would only weigh him down in the inevitable flood and he would be swept away to Finsbury Park and beyond. So he went nude, which is his favourite state.

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Pah! Rain.

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Stoicism, N16.

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Dorie and Taz.

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Karen’s homemade chocolates

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I always take a batch of Doggie Breath Bones too.

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Intrepid Lexie.

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Barney, nude.

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Barney, with Nero, a slightly larger dog.

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Composition: Damp leaves, damp dog.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Cheap and Easy Bit of Skirt

 

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Since the dog chewed our felt Christmas  tree skirt, or wee’d on it, or did something or other to make it unusable, each time December rolls around I think I really should make a new one. But then of course this is the busiest of months and I don’t have time to run up a decorative bit of tree couture to camouflage the ugly green plastic tree stand.

Yesterday I fished out a couple of metres of rough hessian left over from a shoot and thought I’d just drape it around the bottom of the tree. This would have looked fine. But I was in the craft shop and spied some cans of spray paint. I LOVE spraying things. Instant gratification plus the gentle high of the paint fumes, that’s my kind of crafting.

This is so quick and cheap to make. It looks pretty. I’m enjoying it in its naked state, though soon, with any luck , it will vanish under a mountain of presents.

No-Sew 40-Minute Christmas Tree Skirt

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You’ll need:

Some cardboard
A craft knife
About 2-3m hessian or other plain fabric
2 cans acrylic spray paint in different colours
Newspaper

Either draw some star templates or print them out – varying sizes look best. I used these.

Glue the templates to some pieces of card. Leave plenty of space around the shapes so that the card shields the fabric from stray paint spray. Protect the table with a spare bit of card and cut out the templates with a craft knife.

Cover a table with several layers of newspaper and lay the fabric on top of that.

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Open a window (health and safety announcement) and give the cans a really good shake. Use the templates to spray stars over the surface of the fabric, varying the sizes and colours to make an attractive pattern. Remember to give the cans a lively shake from time to time to ensure an even flow of paint. Don’t worry about getting a dense layer of colour – I think it looks better if some of them are a bit soft and uneven.

Drape around the base of the tree. Try to stop the dog weeing on it. That’s it.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Christmas at Columbia Road Market



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Yvonne Harnett and her trees.

"A lovely thing about Christmas is that it's compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together."
from Leaving Home: A Collection of Lake Wobegon Stories by Garrison Keillor

Yesterday we got up very early to go to Columbia Road Flower Market. We go every Sunday, but this week we were under strict instructions from stallholder Yvonne Harnett not to slope up at our usual, slothful 10ish if we wanted a really big Christmas tree. And we always want a really big Christmas tree. Yvonne’s husband Shane is a fourth generation nurseryman and his family have sold Christmas trees on this corner of Columbia Road and Ravenscroft Street for over a hundred years, so I’m inclined to do as she says.
We reported for tree-purchasing duty at an eye-blinkingly early 8.30am, fortified ourselves with coffee and excellent sausage rolls from the Lily Vanilli Bakery and picked out a fine 10-foot Nordman Fir from Yvonne and Shane’s stall. Then we loaded ourselves up with other Christmas essentials: some scarlet poinsettias, a tray of miniature cyclamen, a bag of fir cones and a couple of Turkish fruit wreaths which I’ll use to decorate our table with the addition of some fat church candles. Next week, I’ll stock up on holly, ivy and mistletoe to drape along mantles and banisters and hang from chandeliers. I am a maximalist.

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Urban forest.
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Stuart with his poinsettias. Every week he makes me laugh with his cheeky sales pitches.
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Mick and Sylvia Grover. During the summer, they sell all kinds of culinary and medicinal herbs but at this time of year, their stall is piled high with wreaths and garlands which they make themselves. They give our dog Barney a Christmas present every year and are two of the kindest people you could ever meet. It shows in their faces, don’t you think?

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Mick and Sylvia’s wreaths.

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Turkish fruit and berry wreaths. I bought two of these for the Christmas table, so pretty with a fat church candle in the middle.

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Sean, whose bric-a-brac and book stall is a great favourite of mine. I think he would make a very good Father Christmas.

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Fortifying sausage roll from Lily Vanilli Bakery

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Festive decorations around the door of this café.

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Jones the Baker gets into the Christmas spirit.

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Dazzling proteas.

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Sparkly branches.

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Ilex berries.

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Fat amaryllis buds, one of my favourite winter flowers.

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Mountains of holly and mistletoe.

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Birdfeed baskets.

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Christmas planters.

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Crates of pine cones.

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Pots of hyacinths. Do what I do - transplant these into pretty bowls and pretend you’ve grown them yourself.
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