Tag Archives: Holidays

Very merry mince pies

Bite of Christmas heavenGetting ready for Christmas has never been so much fun! And no, I don’t just mean because there are even more excuses for a tipple of brandy or port, but because writing this blog is making me try things I never have before. The result is that I’m getting into the festive spirit much earlier than usual.

This week, I’m keeping with the traditional theme of the past few posts and making my own mince pies. In England, mince pies are a must at Christmas. In fact, we hold them in such high esteem that we even leave one out for Santa on Christmas Eve, along with small glass of brandy (although in our household it was sherry… my mum never did take to brandy… wink, wink), and a carrot for dear old Rudolph. Funny thing is, the carrot never did get eaten in its entirety, but for some reason Santa always managed to finish off the mince pie, leaving only a few evidentiary crumbs!

Christmas in a pot

Mincemeat is a mixture of chopped dried fruit, spirits, and spices that are cooked together and preserved like a chutney. Mincemeat traditionally included beef suet, and according to Wikipedia, sometimes minced beef or venison, although I’ve never heard of such a thing. To me, mince is sweet and boozy (this is the “very merry” part), and embodies all the tastes and smells of Christmas. Choose to make your own and I can guarantee that the very essence of Christmas – that wonderful quartet of cinnamon, ginger, clove, and brandy – will be wafting around your house in a matter of minutes.

A generous filling!

You can buy very good mincemeat in jars and I’ve seen a number of options in stores around New York. But I wanted to have a go at making my own. I did cheat a little bit by opting to follow the wonderfully simple recipe by Nigella Lawson that comes together in around twenty minutes. I can assure you that you do not lose out on any flavor this way. I also like this recipe because it’s heavy on fruit and light on other ingredients, such as candied peel, that tend to get stuck in your teeth and do a mince pie, or anything else in my opinion, absolutely no favors. And, on a more practical note, it’s vegetarian making it perfect for every guest at your Christmas party.

A light frost

Nigella opts for fresh cranberries which I’m sure would be wonderful, particularly with the orange scented shortcrust. As I could only find dried, I reduced the amount of sugar and balanced out the weight of cranberries to match the other types of dried fruit. It still turned out glorious! If you can get hold of fresh cranberries then Nigella’s original recipe is here.

My advice is to make these immediately and in multitude. They freeze very well, requiring only a quick defrost and warm through in the oven when guests arrive. Serve with a splodge of brandy cream for extra opulence!

Quick Christmas Mincemeat

Adapted from a recipe by Nigella Lawson. Makes 1 pint.

In a large pan, dissolve 1.5 oz soft dark brown sugar in 2 fl oz ruby port over a gentle heat. I found it helped to swirl the pan over the heat a little bit to get the sugar to dissolve without the port evaporating too much.

Add 6 oz dried cranberries, 6 oz raisins, 4 oz currants, 1 tsp ground cinnamon, 1 tsp ground ginger, 1/2 tsp ground clove, and the zest and juice of 1 orange. Stir well until glistening.

Bring to a gentle simmer and cook for about 20 minutes or until the dried fruit has become plump and juicy. Then, remove from the heat and allow to cool a little.

Add 1 fl oz brandy, a few drops almond extract1/2 tsp vanilla extract, and 2 tbsp honey (I used golden syrup as it was what I had to hand). Mix well and mash together a bit with the back of the spoon.

You can then spoon the mixture into sterilized jars and keep in the fridge for about one month. They would also make a great holiday gift. I would, however, strongly recommend you use some to make mince pies, as described below:

Very Merry Mince Pies

Adapted from a recipe by Nigella Lawson. Makes 12 individual mince pies.

Preheat the oven to 220/425/Gas Mark 7.

Sift 8 oz all purpose flour into a bowl and add 2 oz vegetable shortening and 2 oz butter, cut into small cubes. Shake to cover the fat with flour and place in the freezer for 20 mins to chill (to make the pastry tender and flaky).

Juice 1 orange into a small bowl and add a pinch of salt. Pop in the fridge to chill.

Remove the flour and fat mixture from the freezer and rub together lightly to make porridge-like crumbs. Gradually add the chilled salted orange juice, mixing with a knife until the it starts to come together.

Turn out onto a floured surface and knead with your hands for a few seconds until a dough forms. Cover with plastic wrap and rest in the fridge for 20 mins.

Get a 12-mould tart tin ready. Roll the pastry thinly on a floured work surface and cut out circles to line each of the moulds, pressing the pastry down gently.

Spoon a generous amount of Christmas Mincemeat into each of the moulds (about 2 tsp) and then top with a smaller circle of pastry, pressing down gently on the filling. Using the tip of a knife, pierce the center of the top pastry circle and then brush lightly with milk to help the pastry turn nice and golden.

Bake for 15-20 minutes until the pastry is golden. Turn out immediately onto a wire cooling rack.

When still slightly warm, dust with a light sprinkling of confectioners sugar, and serve.

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Thanksgiving, with a Yorkshire twist

This is the first time I’ve been back in the UK for Thanksgiving since I started to celebrate it and so I brought the festivities with me across the pond. In addition to dinner with friends and family tonight, I could not let today pass without jumping on the opportunity to make one of my favorite desserts of all time: a Pecan Tart.

This is pecan pie with a Yorkshire twist. Once again I reach for the Lyle’s golden syrup, with its complex, almost honey-like flavor, as my trusty secret ingredient. I’m proud to say that this recipe was met with great enthusiasm when presented at an authentic American Thanksgiving dinner last year. “Just how did I get the filling to taste like that?!” guests demanded. Well, ladies and gentlemen, now you know.

I was a relative latecomer to pecan pie. My mother swears that I was fed pecan pie from the grocery store freezer department as a child, but I really don’t remember (perhaps for the best…). No, I first recall eating a slim slice of pecan tart, slightly warmed from the oven and served with a large dollop of clotted cream, at the Queen’s Lane Coffee House in Oxford. It was literally a “Where have you been all my life?” kind of moment. From then on I often sat in that little historic cafe, reading over a scientific paper, drinking their ridiculously strong coffee, and indulging in this rich and delicious treat.

The pecan pies I make are as close to the Oxford version as I can get. More of a tart than a pie, with pecans elegantly arranged in a relatively shallow crust before the filling is carefully poured in. They then magically rise to the surface in the oven and remain there once the filling has cooled and come to rest. It is just perfect served with very thick cream (use whipped heavy cream if you can’t find clotted) and a bitter espresso to balance out the sweetness.

Pecan Tart 

Adapted from a recipe by BBC Food

First make the shortcrust pastry. Put 6 oz all purpose flour, a pinch of salt, and a pinch of sugar in a large bowl. Add 3 oz butter that has been brought to room temperature and cut into cubes.

Rub the butter into the flour using your fingertips until you have a mixture that resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Don’t overwork it as you don’t want it to become greasy.

Using a knife, stir in just enough ice cold water to bind the dough together (I used around 3 tbsp). Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and place in the fridge for 10-15 mins before using.

While the pastry is in the fridge, preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas Mark 4 and grease a 9-inch tart tin with butter.

Place 4 oz unsalted butter, 4 oz golden syrup, 1 tsp vanilla extract, and 8 oz soft brown sugar into a heavy-based saucepan over a low heat. When melted, remove the pan from the heat and leave to cool for 10-15 mins.

While the mixture is cooling, roll out the chilled shortcrust pastry and line the tart tin. Leave a little pastry hanging over the edge as it is likely to shrink slightly when baked.

Press pecans into the base of the tart, making a star pattern radiating from the center outwards (or any pattern that takes your fancy). Fill in as many gaps as you can with shards of pecans.

Beat together 3 eggs and stir well into the butter and sugar mixture when it is cool enough. I find it best to add a little egg at a time, stirring well between each addition.

Pour the syrup mixture gradually over the pecans in the tart base. Carefully transfer the tart to the oven and bake for 40-50 mins (although 35 mins was enough in my mum’s fan oven). The pie should be golden brown – and a little more so if using dark soft brown sugar – and the filling should be slightly soft.

Allow to cool for 20 mins in the tin and then transfer to a wire rack so the bottom of the tart doesn’t get soggy. In my opinion, this tart is best served slightly warm but is also excellent cold if that’s what you prefer or if you are making ahead. Dollop with cream and serve.

Wishing you all a very Happy Thanksgiving!

TYT.

The most wonderful time of the year

Since moving to the US I generally don’t allow myself to get excited about Christmas until after Thanksgiving (although I’ll admit I did experience a certain childish thrill when I realized Starbucks had started using their Christmas-themed cups, even though it was still October!). There is one very necessary exception however, because now is the perfect time to make a traditional English Christmas cake. So this weekend all rules were broken, the brandy came out, and Sinatra’s holiday tunes were blasted unashamedly around the house!

Those not familiar with English Christmas cakes may think it unusual that I am baking one over in a month in advance of the big event. But these rich fruit-laden cakes need time to mature. To be lovingly fed with brandy each week and then wrapped up tight again for the fruit to absorb the liquor and for the flavors of the cake to develop. Preserving sweet treats in alcohol is something that we English have done well for centuries. Be it Christmas cake, Christmas pudding, or the sweet mincemeat for mince pies – to me, these are the quintessential flavors of the holiday season.

It’s come to my attention that many Americans, my partner included, hold a vague suspicion of fruit cakes – and particularly any baked good that you have to leave for a good few weeks before eating. But I must emphasize that this cake doesn’t end up resembling a hard crumbling brick that would be better suited to self defense. By the time Christmas comes around these cakes are incredibly moist and have a pleasing brandy perfume. Served in thin slices, it’s wonderful on its own but also makes a particularly delicious accompaniment to a good cave-aged cheddar (Union Market in Park Slope sells a very good English one).

This is a fourth generation family recipe. It differs from others I’ve seen as it doesn’t include treacle and uses self-raising flour, meaning it makes a slightly lighter cake on eating. Also we never ice our cake, which is definitely unusual as most cake-makers take the opportunity to drape with marzipan and royal icing, and then adorn with little plastic trees and reindeers to recreate little snow scenes. You can certainly do this here if that is your preference.

Nuts and candied peel are also omitted mainly due to the fact that the children in the family (including myself a few years ago) viewed such things as essentially evil. Similarly, candied cherries were added because everyone loves them to this day. You can’t tell me that you wouldn’t be secretly hoping to receive a slice with a cherry in it!

You need to start this recipe the night before by soaking the fruit in brandy overnight and then, the next day, the cake needs about four hours in the oven. So this is the perfect activity for a cold, lazy November weekend when you can look forward to the smells of Christmas wafting throughout the house. And what a wonderful excuse for sneaking a pre-Christmas tipple from the brandy bottle!

TYT’s Traditional English Christmas Cake

Makes one 8-inch round cake or one 7-inch square cake (better for slicing in my opinion).

The night before you plan to bake the cake, place 8 oz currants, 8 oz raisins, 8 oz golden raisins, and 4 oz candied cherries in a large bowl. Add 4 tbsp brandy and mix well so all the fruit is glistening. Cover with plastic wrap and leave overnight for the fruit to become plump.

When you are ready to make the cake, preheat the oven to 275F/140C/Gas Mark 1.

Grease and line your tin with baking parchment. The paper should stand up about 2 inches higher than the side of the tin. You will also need to a cover the top of the cake with a double layer of parchment. Cut out the right size shape and then cut a hole in the middle about the size of a quarter to allow the steam to escape. Finally, wrap the outside of the tin with brown paper and secure with string. This again should stand about 2 inches above the height of the tin. All of this work will help prevent the cake from scorching during the long hours in the oven.

Cream 8 oz butter and 8 oz soft brown sugar together in a bowl. When pale and fluffy add all the soaked fruit and mix well.

In another bowl, mix 8 oz all-purpose flour, 3 tsp baking powder, a pinch of salt (all this makes self-raising flour), 4 oz ground almonds, 1 tsp nutmeg, and 1 tsp of pumpkin spice (or mixed spice, if you can get it).

In a jug, beat 4 eggs with 1 tsp almond essence and 3 tbsp brandy.

Add the egg mixture and the flour mixture alternately to the butter and sugar mixture and mix between each addition. This will ensure the mixture doesn’t curdle. The cake mixture does get quite stiff towards the end and so if you are not using a stand mixer you might find it easier to just use your hands.

Spoon the mixture into your prepared cake tin and smooth the surface using the back of the spoon.

Place the double thickness of baking parchment on top of the cake and make sure all other paper is secure.

Place on the bottom shelf of the oven for 3 1/2 to 4 hours. Do not open the oven until 3 1/2 hours have passed. To check if it is done, pierce with a skewer. If it comes out clean then the cake is done.

Leave the cake to cool in the tin for 20 mins and then turn out onto a wire rack. Don’t worry if it looks a little well done around the edges despite your best cake-wrapping efforts – I can tell you from experience that these will soften up with the subsequent additions of brandy.

When the cake is completely cool, wrap well in a double layer of greaseproof paper and store in an airtight cake tin. I really don’t think you can wrap the cake too well at this point, so I often follow the greaseproof paper with a layer of aluminum foil and then place the cake in a plastic bag secured with elastic bands.

Approximately once a week until Christmas, unwrap the cake and pierce all over with a darning needle. Trickle teaspoons of brandy into the cake (no hard and fast rules here on how much), then wrap the cake back up again very tightly.

When ready to eat, slice into thin wedges (if you baked a round cake) or slices (if square) and serve with a tipple of brandy or dry sherry, and slivers of a very mature, cave-aged cheddar. Christmas bliss!

TYT.

Remember, remember

Remember, remember the fifth of November; Gunpowder, treason and plot;

I see no reason for gunpowder treason; To ever be forgot!

Today is my favorite holiday. It didn’t used to be, but it has been ever since I’ve lived in the US. When I first moved here, I rather naively thought everyone celebrated the thwarting of Guy Fawkes’ famous attempt to blow up Parliament, intending to assassinate King James in the process, and restore Catholic rule in England. You can imagine my disappointment when November 5th rolled around and I realized that this was, in fact, a very English event.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate the holidays I’ve gained since moving here. Indeed, there are enough fireworks on July 4th to hold someone over for the entire year, and who wouldn’t want an extra feast a mere month before Christmas?

But there’s something wonderfully sinister about “Guy Fawkes Night” (also simply referred to as ”Bonfire Night”). I have to admit that I’d never really thought about how sinister until an American friend exclaimed, “But don’t you guys burn effigies?!” To which I could only reply, “Well, yes…in fact we do.”

But it’s just so much fun! I’ll always remember the week leading up to Bonfire Night at school: the emergence of the Horrible Histories books and the ensuing arguments about what being hung, drawn and quartered really entails. The prizes for the best class “Guy”, eternally fated to a fiery death on the bonfire come nightfall. The wildlife officers reminding us to check our wood-piles for unfortunate hedgehogs before setting them alight.

And then there are the fireworks, intended to signify what Parliament would have looked like if Mr Fawkes had succeeded. Fizzers! Bangers! Whoppers! Spinners (known as Catherine wheels which is also a rather morbid reference)! There are often rivalries as to who can bring the biggest, the loudest, the screechiest. Those requiring a safe distance of 40 ft are regularly set off in tiny English back gardens, to the sound of joyful “Oooos” and “Aaaas” of friends and family, gathering around the bonfire for warmth, munching on pie ‘n’ mushy peas, toffee apples, and parkin. All the while, kids excitedly write their names in the air with sparklers.

The food associated with Bonfire Night is hearty and warming, designed to keep you going for a good few hours out in the cold. One particular speciality is associated directly with Yorkshire, and my hometown of Leeds in particular: the aforementioned parkin. Imagine gingerbread, but made with oatmeal, black treacle and the burnt sugary undertones of golden syrup, wrapped tightly for a few days before being eaten so as to allow the flavors to develop and mature. No one would dream of eating fresh parkin.

Parkin is guaranteed to sustain you through even the coldest Bonfire Night celebrations (like the ones I remember in my grandparent’s garden, pictured below). Even better, any leftovers last for ages!

Yorkshire Parkin

Adapted from a recipe by BBC GoodFood

Preheat the oven to 140°C/280°F/Gas Mark 1. Grease and line a 8 inch square cake tin.

In a pan, melt 4 oz butter with 4 oz soft dark brown sugar, 2 oz black treacle, and 7 oz golden syrup. Use a gentle heat and don’t let the mixture get too hot or bubble.

Once melted, remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly.

In a large mixing bowl, sift 4 oz all purpose flour, 1/2 tsp baking powder, and a pinch of salt. Add 8 oz medium oatmeal, 2 tsp ground ginger, and 1 tsp pumpkin spice.

Make a well in the center and gradually pour in the melted butter mixture and fold together.

Beat two eggs with 1 tbsp milk and add to the mixture. Stir to combine.

Pour into the baking tin and bake for 1 hour. Parkin can become dry easily so keep an eye on it. I baked mine for 1 hour 15 mins and I think it was a little too long.

Remove from the oven and let sit for 20 mins. Then turn out onto a cooling rack.

When cool, wrap tightly in parchment paper and leave in a cake tin for at least one day (and up to a week!) so the flavors become richer and deeper, and so it develops a moist, sticky texture. Yum!

TYT.