The Spice of Christmas Past…

So we’re full on into the busiest time of the culinary year! Days away from Christmas and we’re going food and drink crazy. This year has been a bumper time of frantic festive foodie prep for me! Over the last few years, I’ve gradually increased the amount of home cooking I’m doing at Christmastime and this year, it’s been non-stop.

In our youth, we have a bit of a love/hate relationship with the flavours of the season. I don’t believe that it’s until we’re older that we truly appreciate the warming spicy flavours of yuletide. What kid looks forward to Christmas pudding? Or would choose Christmas cake over a Quality Street? And what are mince pies all about?!

imageOnce mid thirties hit I decided to man up and make my own Christmas cake, rather than relying on others to do it for me – Whether a member of the family or a much loved supermarket! This was 4 years ago and I am still amazed that I can do something as grown up as making a cake that forms the centrepiece of family Christmas traditions. This year, I decided with the move to our new pad that I needed to embrace our country kitchen.

imageWhile dusting off our Christmas cookbooks, I came across our Mary Berry one and it occurred to me that Mary always gives Aga instructions for her recipes. There’s even a sentence telling me that she actually bakes her cake in the Aga every year, so that’s exactly what I decided to do. Using the cool simmering oven, I baked the mixture which I made following Mary’s recipe gram for gram. I’ve always been very ‘suck it and see’ about my cookery, not necessarily following strict instructions. So when the recipe said to leave the cake in the oven for anything between 5 and 15 hours, it made me smile. To be honest, if you stick a skewer in and it comes out clean – The cakes good to go! Keep your eye on it so it doesn’t burn and you’re probably on to a winner. To this day, it looks good, it smells good, and I’ve been feeding it with a blend of Cognac and Cointreau so in a few days time I hope it tastes good! Watch this space to see how it goes down!

imageWhile waiting for my cake to mature, I decided to make my own mince pies for the first time. I’ve always loved my Mum’s home made mince pies and I’m rather partial to a decent quality shop bought one too, so why not give it a go? Mary’s got a nice, simple looking mincemeat recipe using butter instead of suet (and those all important Aga instructions) so I thought I’d give it a whirl. The house smelt amazingly festive when the mincemeat was cooking. I just wanted it to be Christmas day, imagethere and then! I made a basic shortcrust pastry with butter, flour and a pinch of salt, I added the zest of a clementine for a little yuletide hit and my first batch wasn’t bad at all! I think I may have overworked the pastry a little but for my next batch, I will try not to over think the pastry process and may revert to a more traditional method…. Leave it with me and we’ll see how they turn out. Luckily the mincemat still smells great in the pantry!

But Christmas isn’t all spiced fruit. The one thing that I associate with Christmas as much of any of these sweet treats is piccalilli. I have never really understood this unusual pickle. The memories of my stinging eyes as Dad peeled a thousand pickling onions and the vapourous smell of hot vinegar and spices didn’t do anything to endear me to this unusual pickle. I just knew that it was my Dad’s speciality and everyone LOVED it!… And they still do!

imageAfter decades of piccalilli production and many successful orders for family and friends, my Dad, now in his mid 80’s has let me in on the family secret. Last year, we cooked a batch together which was met with approval by our nearest and dearest (Phew)! So this year, the baton was passed to me to go it alone at the hob! (Gulp) So armed with an email recipe from my Mum (dictated by Dad who doesn’t tend to go near her I-pad) I was ready to go.

imageAfter buying the biggest sack of onions I’d ever seen and after two entire evenings of onion peeling, I prepped the rest of the ingredients (cauliflower, cucumber and tomatoes – Although I couldn’t get any green ones L) with fingers that contained the aroma of onions for a week. My eyes were glassy and the kitchen filled with that all-important hot spicy vinegar aroma. It was also a challenge doing it all on the Aga which isn’t as easy to control as easy to the gas I was used to. However, it has been jarred up and is now ready for the Christmas Day buffet! Jars are being distributed as we speak so let’s hope they all like it!