Saturday 6 December 2008

Preparing for Christmas

Last Sunday was the traditional stir-up Sunday when everyone is supposed to bake their Christmas puddings and Christmas cake. My Christmas pudding recipe is special to us, using carrots instead of eggs. It was my Grandmother’s recipe born out of wartime rationing (we think) or in her case, because eggs were a source of income at a time of desperate poverty; they were for sale, not for consumption. Her three children were only allowed one egg a week on Sundays as a treat.

The beauty of this recipe is that it is suitable for vegans.

Nanna’s Christmas pudding

1/2lb flour,

1/2lb breadcrumbs

1lb chopped suet (vegetable)

1lb sultanas

1lb currants

1lb raisins

8oz candied peel

1 ½ lbs brown sugar

Juice and rind of 2 lemons

1 carrot (or 4 eggs)

Milk to mix (or orange juice)

½ grated nutmeg

Mix everything together with milk until of a stiff consistency. Place in 2x 3pint pudding basins with close-fitting lids inside a large saucepan filled 2/3rds full of water. Boil for 4 hours. When cooking for eating, boil for a further 3-4 hours. This pudding will keep in a cool, dark place for several years. It will become dried up after 3 years, but can be steamed in a steamer to moisten. Serve with cream, custard, brandy sauce or brandy cream according to your preferences.

If you still have any cooking apples stored, here is a German recipe for apple cake which needs no eggs or milk.

Ischi’s Apple Cake

12oz flour (1/2 plain, ½ wholemeal)

1tsp bicarbonate of soda and a pinch of salt

6oz margarine

6oz dark brown sugar

2oz walnuts (or mixed ground nuts)

10oz dates (or mixed dried fruit)

½ pint stewed apples (If you fill a pint measure with apple segments, it will make ½ pint of stewed apples after cooking with the minimum of water and no sugar.)

Add bicarbonate of soda and salt to flour. Rub in flour and margarine until it resembles breadcrumbs. Mix in sugar, nuts and mixed fruit. Add stewed apple and place in greased 8” cake tin. Put into oven as quickly as possible. Cook Gas Mark 5 for 1-1 ½ hours.

At the November meeting of Solihull Writers Group we were talking about our Christmas "party" on 10 December. Most of the meeting is spent on the adjudication of the short story competition before we break for nibbles. In past years I've brought bottles of Spiced Berry Cordial to use as a mulled wine since we're not allowed to bring alcohol onto Methodist Church premises. Last year Tesco's didn't have any Spiced Berry Cordial, so we had to make do with cold soft drinks. I decided to be adventurous and create my own Spiced Hedgerow cordial. It was very simple to make, so I thought I'd share the recipe.

Spiced Hedgerow Cordial
1-2lbs of blackberries
1/2lb rosehips
1 large orange (sliced)
1 and a half inches of root ginger (grated)
1 nutmeg (grated)
2 large quills of cinnamon
6 cloves
3 lbs honey

Place everything in a large pan and cover with cold water (I used about 5 pints). Bring to the boil and simmer with the lid on for about an hour. Strain the liquid and push any juicy bits you can through the sieve. Discard the debris and wash the saucepan. Measure the liquid and put on a low heat to evaporate for an hour or so, depending on how thick you want your cordial to be. I had 4 3/4 pints liquid, so I evaporated it down to around 3 pints. A film will form on the top of the liquid, mix this back into the cordial before you add the honey. Heat very gently until the honey is dissolved. Sterilise bottles in the oven for ten minutes, then pour cordial into bottles, seal, label and date. To make the drink, add 1 tablespoon of cordial to a small cup/goblet of boiling water. Sip and enjoy.

You could use half elderberries and half blackberries and more rosehips. I had a box of blackberries I'd picked several weeks ago in the freezer and used a mixture of fresh rosehips which had been in the fridge for a while and dried rosehips from last year. I gave the cordial to some residents of an “extra-care” residential home yesterday and they thoroughly enjoyed it.

Another beverage to be enjoyed is hawthorn berry liqueur, but if you make it now, you will need to have the patience to put it away to mature for about two years or more.

Hawthorn Liqueur

To a jar full of infused hawthorn berry brandy, add 1 grated nutmeg, one cinnamon stick (crumbled), the chopped peel of one orange, 4 cloves and ½-1 cup full of sugar or honey. Seal the jar with a screw top lid, place in a warm, dark place for 8 weeks shaking regularly, then strain and pour into a sterile bottle. Seal the bottle with a screw top lid or cork and leave in a cold dark place to mature for as long as possible (at least two years). It really is worth the wait!

I’ve also been thinking about herbal gifts to make for various relatives or just to have as nibbles during the festive season. I was delighted to see Non Shaw and Christopher Hedley’s recipes for syrup of figs and crystallised ginger on the latest Herbmonger page on the Herb Society website.

I haven’t made the syrup of figs yet, but I have made two different kinds of crystallised ginger with interesting results.

I made the syrup by heating a cup of sugar in 4 cups of water, then added ginger root cut up into small segments. (I couldn’t work out how to cut cubes!). It seemed to take about two hours to simmer the root until it was soft and the syrup had reduced quite a lot, so I left it overnight in the saucepan and then lifted out all the ginger, hoping it might dry. It tasted wonderful, sweet and not so powerfully ginger.

I then cut up and diced another large root of ginger, using the peelings to make ginger tea. This time I reconstituted the syrup with a large chunk of brown sugar and another 1/2pint of water to try and make it back up to the original volume. Once the sugar had dissolved into the syrup, I added a handful of frozen elderberries, a quill of cinnamon, 4 cloves and half a grated nutmeg. I stirred it well as I added the diced ginger and left it to simmer for another two hours.

If I had thought about the logistics, I would have cooked the syrup for half an hour and then strained it before adding the ginger, but I didn’t, so when I came to remove the ginger pieces, I had to pick it all out carefully, discard the bits of cinnamon stick and elderberries and then wash the ginger pieces before putting them into a sterile glass jar. The spiced elderberry ginger was much hotter than the plain crystallised ginger, so I left it in the strained syrup and will use it for tasting during workshops or to cook with.

Finally, if you’re looking for a really nice aperitif to serve before your festive meal, try Rebecca Hartman’s Grapefruit Bitter Liqueur.

Slice up some grapefruit peel and remove most of the white pith. Put the slices of peel in a pot with enough water to cover them by about an inch. Add a pinch of salt. Bring the mixture to a boil and simmer it for 15 minutes or so. Drain the peels and set aside the cooking water to make liqueur. Return the peels to the pot, add fresh water, bring it to a boil, and simmer it for another 15 minutes. Drain again (don’t forget to reserve the cooking water).

Bring all the reserved cooking water to a boil and reduce it by about a third. Now add 2/3 cup sugar per cup of water. Stir to dissolve. Let it cool and then add 1 cup of vodka per cup of liquid.

You need to allow plenty of time both for the reserved cooking water to reduce and for the sugar water mixture to cool. Pour finished bitter into a glass jar with a screw top lid, label and date.

When using, take about a shot glass full or less and add fresh grapefruit juice. It tastes wonderful!