Monday, December 15, 2008

It feels like it's already been a heck of a week and it's only Monday! 

Here's an easy idea for any time this week - possibly the busiest on the social calendar. Jelly. Yes, jelly. Previously the domain of housewives of the 50's and possibly children today (frankly, I wouldn't know what kids these days eat), jelly can take on a whole new meaning if you add a few grown up ingredients. Like alcohol. 

I must sound as if I do a lot of drinking, but actually I don't. In
 cooking though, alcohol can give a dish a whole other dimension and lift the flavours up . Let's face it, if you're cooking anything hot, you're really going after the taste because the alcohol evaporates off pretty quickly, so even teetotallers need not fear. Especially if you're using average proof stuff.

This dessert is an alternative to all the fruitcakes, puddings, gingerbread and chocolate doing the rounds at the moment. I love a lot of that stuff too, but if you need a little rest from the richness that can be Christmas sweets, this one could be for you. It's not that sweet, and if you prefer a bit sweeter, you can just add some sugar to taste and stir in the hot liquid until it's dissolved. Easy.

Grown up cranberry jellies

500ml cranberry juice
200ml sweet white wine
200ml boiling water
8 tsp gelatine
1 cup frozen fresh cranberries
1 cinnamon stick

Put the cranberry juice and water into a pan with the cinnamon stick and bring to the boil. You can do this in the microwave if you prefer. If you like it sweeter, now's the time to stir in some sugar. Don't overdo it though because part of the nice thing about this is that it's slightly tart and fresh. 

Stir in the gelatine until fully dissolved. Let it sit until it's cool - no need to put it in the fridge unless you're in a rush. When cool, pour in the wine and stir.

Take six  jelly cups (you can get a pack of six for around $4 at the supermarket) and place them on a tray or plate. Discard the cinnamon stick. Arrange some frozen cranberries in the bottom. Pour on a little jelly and stick them in the fridge until set. They should set pretty quickly because you're only just covering the berries and they're so cold already. When set, gently pour in more jelly mix until all the moulds are filled equally. Put them in the fridge to set. 

When set, gently turn the mould upside down onto the plate you want to serve it on. Wet a clean cloth with hot water and wrap this around the mould. Leave it for a minute or so. You should then be able to pull the little lid off the bottom and the jelly should slide out pretty easily. If it doesn't try the hot cloth again. Be patient though - it will work!

You can work with any flavours you like too - try adding orange peel to the hot mix or a nice, sweet liqueur, or soak the berries in liqueur for a while beforehand. It's all good. 

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The inevitable

It had to happen. I had to make Christmas cake at some point. 

Fruit cake can be a truly wonderful experience. If the fruit mix is just right and not too overbearing, and there's enough room left in the batter for the cake to rise really well, rather than being weighed down by dense fruit, a fruit cake can be wholesome and comforting, and a real treat. Unfortunately, too many fruit cakes are anything but enjoyable.

For me, the thought of Christmas cake tends to conjure up visions of sultana-laden fruit mixes, containing barely discernible bits of peel and glace cherries, soaked in vast quantities of cheap sherry and plonked into a heavy, uninspiring cake batter. In my opinion, the true nightmare of Christmas involves having to graciously accept the large chunks invariably offered wherever you go, and, after struggling to swallow the horrendous stuff, the requirement that you plaster on a bright smile, convincingly tell the cook that it was wonderful and that yes, you'd love another piece. If this is too much to bear, for goodness sakes, do not go anywhere near any form of retirement community during December! 

I only ever enjoyed the lighter variety of fruit cake, and not much then. In recent years I've experimented with a few mixes, both regular and gluten free, and in the last couple of years I've been fairly successful. This year's effort is a little different - little glace fruit cakes. Another adventure into Woman's Weekly cooking. (Hey, if it works...)

These little morsels are quite sweet, so I'm told. I couldn't actually try since I made them with regular wheat flour, but I may try again with spelt. I think the fact that a dozen disappeared in about two days speaks for itself. What I can tell you is that they smell divine and look pretty  and were easy to make, which is the real cherry on top.

Two things - the health food shop wasn't open when I shopped, so I didn't get the natural looking strips of pineapple. I settled for the chunky stuff from the supermarket and nobody noticed. Second, I used only red glace cherries. Nothing untoward happened because of that either. 

Glace fruit cakes
Woman's Weekly, Christmas, p 32

3/4 cup slivered almonds
90g butter, softened
2 tsp finely grated lemon rind
3/4 cup caster sugar
2 eggs
3/4 cup plain flour
1/2 cup self raising flour
1/3 cup milk
4 slices glace pineapple chopped coarsely
1/3 cup red glace cherries, halved
1/3 cup green  glace cherries, halved
1/3 cup coarsely chopped glace ginger
1/2 cup slivered almonds, extra

Preheat oven to 170ºC/150ºC fan forced. Grease 12 hole muffin pan, line bases with baking paper. (I cut the bottoms out of muffin papers rather than mess about outlining, etc)

Sprinkle nuts into pan holes

Beat butter, rind and sugar in small bowl with electric mixer until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs, one at a time.

Transfer mixture to medium bowl; stir in sifted flours, milk, fruit and extra nuts. Spread mixture into pan holes. Bake for about 25 minutes.

Now the recipe also offers a ginger syrup which you can pour over the cakes while they're still in the tin. I didn't do this, but here's how:

Take 3/4 cup water, 3/4 cup caster sugar and a 2cm piece of fresh ginger, grated. Stir ingredients in small saucepan over heat, without boiling, until sugar dissolves; bring to the boil. Reduce heat; simmer, uncovered without stirring, about 5 minutes or until syrup thickens slightly. Serve hot or cold. 

Monday, December 8, 2008

Thinking about tarts...

At this time of year, a lot of people have been thinking about fruit mince tarts for a while already. I know Tim has. Probably more than a few have had a mince mix on the go for weeks. My mum's best friend used to have it made about three months in advance, stored in a giant jar in the pantry that she turned over every few days. I didn't get it then. I do now.

I have to say that I didn't get quite that organised, particularly because the old fruit mince tart has never been my favourite Christmas treat. I think it has something to do with the stodgy, heavy, this doesn't bear any resemblance to fruit (or pastry for that matter), lame excuse for a tart that you can get cheaply at most supermarkets and that was thrust upon me as a child. Am I being harsh? Yes. But fair. If you can manage it, you are so much better off making your own. 

Determined not to buy any, but faced with people asking me for a recipe and Tim pining for a nice spot of tart, I decided to come up with my own recipe. I'm happy with it. The fruit mix will make oodles and last ages. I made 18 tarts to start with, but there's enough fruit left over for several dozen more. Unless Tim doesn't stop eating the stuff, in which case we'll either go without or I'll have to start from scratch. Oh yes - apparently it's great on porridge too.  

What I like about this mix is that it's not so sickly sweet and the different fruits are discernable. It's not just one dark, sludgy mass, encased in heavily shortened, much too sweet pastry. Some people may like to put in some more grog, or perhaps some jam, but I like this consistency. The orange juice and fresh apple really lighten the flavour up.  Even if some of the fruits may sound a bit odd in this mix, give it a go because there's a pretty good chance you'll wind up enjoying it a lot more than you thought you would. Just make sure you cut all the ingredients around the same size to avoid massive chunks of one thing against the smaller currants and craisins.

Use any pastry mix that you're comfortable with, but I'll put down my spelt flour recipe. As usual, you can swap the spelt for wheat flour if you like. It's all good.

For the mince:
1 cup dried cranberries
1 cup chopped dried apple
1 cup currants
1 cup sultanas
1 cup chopped dried fig
1/3 cup mixed peel
1/3 cup chopped apricot
1/3 cup chopped glace cherries
1/4 cup chopped crystalised ginger
1 tbsp mixed spice
1/2 tbsp ground cloves
1 tbsp cinnamon
1 cinnamon stick
1/2 tsp cardamom
1/2 cup brown sugar (firmly packed)
juice of two oranges
2 small peeled and grated apples
1 cup sherry

Stick this all in a large bowl, stir, cover and refrigerate for as long as it takes to use it. You can stir it every so often if you've got if for a few weeks.

Spelt pastry:
1 2/3 cup plain spelt flour
1/3 cup caster sugar
150g chopped butter, room temp
1 egg yolk
1 tsp ground cinnamon

I used my mixer, starting with the butter and flour until crumbly and then adding the rest. If you're finding it too dry, put in a few drops of water or milk. You could also make this by hand, or whack the lot in a food processor. Knead it lightly on a floured surface but don't overwork it. Wrap it in cling film and refrigerate for half an hour.

Roll cooled dough out on a floured surface and then cut rounds to the size of your muffin or tart tins. Don't worry if the rounds look to small and don't reach to the top - they're not meant to be the size of muffins! Grease the tins and press the pastry inside, pricking each one with a fork. Refrigerate for half an hour, then cook for 5 minutes in a hot oven - 200ºC/180ºC fan forced. 

Let the tart shells cool a little bit, then fill each one with fruit and press it in a bit. You can either cut more rounds for the tops, or cut shapes out of the leftover pastry or rolled marzipan. The marzipan tastes brilliant cooked. Brush the lot with lightly beaten egg yolk - doesn't matter if a bit gets into the fruit.

Bake for about 10 minutes, or until lightly browned. 

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Sugar & Spice & all things nice

Wow! After an unprecedented delay since my last post, I'm back! Sorry about that. It's good to know that people care, judging by the emails I've gotten, wondering where I am, and where the Christmas stuff is. I could pretend that I've been kept far too busy to blog by a series of glamourous and fun Christmas parties, but sadly, I was temporarily laid out earlier this week by some kind of very un-fun, unseasonal, and completely without Christmas (or any other) cheer, tummy bug. YUCK! 

Anyhow, it's now the 4th day of Christmas so I have some catching up to do. I've done almost all my Christmas shopping, except for one friend who has perfect taste, gives magnificent gifts, and  I find incredibly difficult to buy for. This Saturday, mum is dragging me out to the DFO because she's heard they have good bargains out there and wouldn't mind a look. I'm really just the driver on this expedition, having no interest in the DFO experience at all. In fact, I personally hate any kind of shopping (except for food) with a passion. I really do. (Men have offered to marry me on this basis). I'm going to have to take some kind of sedative to get through it. I can imagine it now - the hyped up, Saturday morning, pre-Christmas crowd, on a mission with high spirits and full credit cards, striding through with purpose and in the hopes that they truly have discovered some kind of super-saving-shopping-mecca that will bring peace and goodwill to all men. Or at least get them some serious bargains. (Deep intake of breath) On the cooking front, I have plenty of that to do too, if I make it out of the shops alive. 

The first tasty treat on this year's Christmas list is a recipe I found in a Woman's Weekly recipe book. Actually it's a really nice little book, full of gorgeous pictures and Christmas recipes. It's simply called 'Christmas'. I've only used this one recipe so far but I hope to do more and we'll see how we go.

Sugar and spice snaps look so invitingly delicious on the page. I recall be able to buy honey snap biscuits as a kid. I don't think they make them any more, but these cookies reminded me of those. Full of Christmas spices like ginger and clove and lots of dark sugar, they're just right to kick the season off.

One thing - I sprinkled the first lot with regular raw sugar, suspecting that it would in fact get lost in the biscuit when cooked. It did. I then turned to the trusty coarse, coffee crystal sugar. It's basically just larger grounds of raw sugar and worked a lot better. 

Sugar & Spice Snaps
Women's Weekly, Christmas, p 11

1 1/2 cups (225g) plain flour
3/4 cup (165g) firmly packed dark muscovado sugar
2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp mixed spice
1/4 tsp ground clove
150g butter, chopped coarsely
1 egg yolk
1/4 cup (55g) raw sugar

Process flour, muscovado sugar, spices and butter until crumbly. Add egg yolk; process until combined. Knead dough on floured surface until smooth. Cover; refrigerate 30 minutes.

Divide dough in half, roll each half between sheets of baking paper to 3mm thickness. Refrigerate 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 180ºC/ 160ºC fan forced. Line three oven trays with baking paper.

Cut thirty 7cm rounds from the dough. Place rounds on trays; sprinkle with raw/coffee sugar.

Bake snaps about 10 minutes; cool on trays.