A friend of mine’s got a bit of a thing for premium drinkies and, knowing I feel the same, sent me a bottle of this lovely stuff: Snow Leopard vodka. This uber cool super-premium vodka was created by Stephen Sparrow, a passionate conservationist and ex-drinks industry expert, who heard about the plight of the Snow Leopards during a trip to the Himalayas. There are just 5000 of these beautiful big cats left in the wild and Stephen created the Snow Leopard Trust UK with a goal to raise a million dollars a year to save them.
We have very weird wine habits in this house. When Mr English is home we really splash out and try a few nice wines, but when I’m at home on my own when he’s working, I tend to have a glass of a supermarket red on the go and I don’t think there’s any shame in that. I often read my friend Helen’s blog: Knackered Mother’s Wine Club for inspiration as she’ll regularly recommend a good bottle or two.
Our day in Barcelona still rates as one of my very favourite travel experiences. We’ve earmarked it for a return journey very soon, but until then, every time there’s a sunny day, my mind races back to the gorgeous restaurant at the very top of the Arenas shopping centre (the old bullring) where we sat and had enormous buckets of gin and tonic with scoops of sharp lemon sorbet.
So it’s that time again. The pupster woke me up at 7am this morning, and we’re snuggled on the sofa by the twinkling tree (I’ve just put a piece of tinsel back on after she’s nicked it for the fifteenth time), I’ve got a cup of tea in my ‘Happy Christmas’ mug, and a scented candle flickering.
If, like me, your thoughts are turning to your Christmas dinner (whether you’ve cooked it before or not), my best advice to you is just to think of it as a roast dinner on a slightly larger scale.
Rule 1: it’s all in the planning
You’ll have a much calmer Christmas if you spend a little time beforehand planning and preparing, so grab a pen and a piece of paper, and write down a rough plan. Start at the time you want to serve the dinner (or lunch) and work backwards. This means that when Christmas day is in full flow, you can quickly refer to your timings and know exactly what you’re doing.
First things first, weigh your turkey and work out the cooking time. If you’ve gone for a free range turkey it will often look a bit less plump than those ones you see in all the Christmas adverts (check out the pic of my turkey from last year, below). This is because they lead a more active lifestyle though, which is a good thing. They will also be full of flavour and really succulent as they’re allowed to mature slowly (and they’re happier, obviously – happy turkey = yummy turkey). Free range turkeys also take a little less time to took, so check with the retailer for their recommended cooking times. In general though, my lovely chums Lean on Turkey, have both cooking AND defrosting timings on their website). As a general rule:
Turkey under 4kg: 20 minutes per kilo, plus a further 70 minutes
Turkey over 4kg: 20 minutes per kilo, plus a further 90 minutes
Remember, if you’re steaming a Christmas pudding on the day, you’ll need to add this to your timetable.
Rule 2: prepare as much as you can in advance
Potatoes: peel them, cut them into even sized chunks and blanch them for as long as you dare (the softer they are the fluffier the centre will be when you roast them). Drain, leave to sit until cool and then pop them into a bag and store them in the fridge. You can also open freeze them on a tray until solid before popping in a sealable freezer bag and chucking them in the freezer (if you freeze them straight into the bag they all fuse together in one big lump). On the day they can go straight into the hot oil/goose fat from chilled or frozen.
Parsnips: peel, cut into quarters or whatever you like and pop the in the fridge. They don’t need blanching, but DO benefit from a nice little squidge of honey and a sprinkling of thyme before roasting for about half an hour.
Carrots: peel and blanch, cool and pop in the fridge. They can just be warmed up in some butter on the day, or just leave them raw and roast them along with the parsnips.
Sprouts: cut a bit off the bottom and take off any scruffy outer leaves. Blanch until just tender, cool and pop into the fridge. On the day, fry some pancetta or streaky bacon in lots of butter in a large frying pan, then add in the cooked sprouts and stir fry until they’re piping hot. A pack of those shrink-wrapped chestnuts go really well in this dish too.
Stuffing: Again, make this in advance. It will keep happily for a couple of days in the fridge.
Easy apple and red onion stuffing:
(serves 4-6, double up as necessary):
1 tbsp butter
1 red onion, finely chopped
1 dessert apple, grated (don’t bother to peel)
225g pork sausage meat
100g fresh white breadcrumbs
1 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
1 tbsp fresh sage, chopped
Squeeze of lemon juice
Heat the butter in a frying pan, add the onion and fry gently until soft. Add the apple and cook until softened. Remove from the heat, transfer to a bowl and allow to cool.
Stir the sausage meat and breadcrumbs into the onion mixture along with the herbs and lemon juice. Once well combined, squish it into a buttered oven-proof dish, cool and bung in the fridge. On the day, it’ll take about 25 minutes (obviously more if you double up).
Turkey: Again, do this the day before. Don’t bother washing it in the sink – the hot oven will kill any germs and you’ll just cover yourself and your sink in all manner of bacteria. Just unwrap it, take the giblets out (use to make stock or cook for a lucky pet), pluck out any stray feathers (I use fish boning tweezers) and get on with it.
I use one of those massive disposable foil turkey tray things – I know it’s not the most environmentally friendly choice but hey, it’s Christmas. Just recycle it afterwards.
It’s nice to use a few flavours to enhance the turkey so cut up a couple of lemons or oranges, squeeze them over the bird and then stick them into the body cavity along with a halved onion and a nice bunch of bay or rosemary or whatever you have and some salt and pepper, then tie the legs together.
For extra moistness and flavour, you can take about half a pack of butter, and mush it up with some of the stuff you’ve used in the cavity – maybe some lemon zest, pepper and a little chopped rosemary or parsley. Then separate the skin from the breast with your fingertips (you don’t have to be too careful, turkey skin is like leather), then squish the butter all over the breast under the skin. Now smooth the skin back down, drizzle with a little oil and some salt and pepper. You can also criss cross the breast with some lovely (outdoor reared please) streaky bacon.
I don’t stuff the turkey, partly because eating something out of a turkey’s innards puts me off a bit and partly because I think it’s better for the hot air to circulate inside it. I make the stuffing separately and cook it in a terrine in the oven once the turkey’s resting. If you want to, though, by all means stuff the neck end just before cooking.
Weigh your turkey (remember if you ARE stuffing, you need to stuff before you weigh) and work out the cooking time. Write it on your timetable then just cover with foil (don’t bother buying that ridiculously expensive turkey foil – just overlap the normal stuff), then leave it somewhere cool until you need it – a plastic box in the garage as it’s nice and cold in there, but if we have a sudden warm snap you’ll need to pack a bit of ice around it (it needs to be less than 4 degrees).
Rule 3: be organised on the day
First thing, fetch the turkey from its hiding place and allow it to come to room temperature. There’s really no point in putting a very cold turkey into a hot oven – it’ll take ten minutes to even start cooking.
Preheat the oven for half an hour before you need it, then when your carefully worked out timetable says so, just slosh a bit of water in the bottom of the roasting pan, and stick the turkey on at 190/gas 5 (180/gas 4 for fan ovens), set your timer and go and have a glass of champers. If you want to, you can baste it every so often, but if you forget, don’t worry at all. Some people recommend cooking the turkey upside down (on its breast) which does result in really juicy breast meat. I guess it depends on how large your turkey is and if you’re prepared to wrestle it up the right way for the last half hour or so to crisp up the breast (likewise if you cover yours with foil, take it off for the last half hour.)
To make sure the turkey is done you should be able to wobble a leg easily, and a quick stab with a knife into the thickest part will allow you to collect nice clear juices on a spoon), drain the juices into a pan for the gravy, then cover with foil and forget it while you cook everything else.
Cooking a turkey crown:
Cream some butter in a bowl until very soft, then add the crushed garlic, orange rind, parsley and thyme. Beat well, until thoroughly blended. Gently loosen the neck flap away from the breast and pack the flavoured butter right under the skin — this is best done wearing disposable gloves. Rub well into the flesh of the turkey, then re-cover the skin and secure with a small skewer or sew with fine twine. Finally, cover the top of the crown with the rashers.
Place the turkey crown in the oven and calculate your time — 20 minutes per 450g (1lb) plus 20 minutes. Cover loosely with foil, which should be removed about 40 minutes before the end of the cooking time. The turkey crown will cook much more quickly than a whole turkey, so make sure to keep basting.
Again, to check if it’s cooked, pierce a fine skewer into the chest part of the crown, the juice should run clear. When cooked, cover with foil to rest and keep warm.
Rule 4: free up your oven before you start on the trimmings
Remember, once covered with foil and maybe a couple of tea towels, the turkey will keep warm for AT LEAST an hour, leaving your oven free for all your other accompaniments:
For great roast potatoes
You really don’t need a lake of fat to make them lovely and crispy. Once you’ve taken the turkey out of the oven, whack the heat up high, then just cover the bottom of the roasting tin completely with oil, goose fat or lard. Make sure the fat is very hot before you add your frozen (or chilled) potatoes. Spoon the fat over all the potatoes then put the in your nice hot oven. The turkey will wait until your potatoes are golden and crispy (40 mins to an hour).
Rule 5: great gravy brings it all together
So that’s it. You’ve got the last half hour to fiddle with all your little extras. Skim off the worst of the fat from the stuff left in the roasting tin, then add a tablespoon or two (depending on the amount) of plain flour to the pan juices in a saucepan and stir well, cooking out that ‘raw’ flour taste, before adding plenty of stock (you can never have enough gravy). Bubble until thick and taste. If it’s at all bitter, a spoonful or two of cranberry sauce will lift it back up.
Get your veg on, stir fry your sprouts (or whatever you’re doing), and don’t forget to pop cranberry sauce on the table (here’s my favourite recipe).
Skip a starter and serve a lovely cocktail: try a Poinsettia – a slug of Cointreau in the bottom of a champagne glass, then up to about half way with cranberry juice, and top up with fizz. Decorate with a little spiral of orange peel if you have time.
If it goes a bit wrong and something gets burned or forgotten, it’s not the end of the world. Enjoy the day, pour yourself a drink and remember: it’s just dinner.
If you want wine advice, look no further than my lovely friend Helen’s 40 festive wines guide, and if you want any extra recipes this Christmas, try my glazed and spiced festive ham, cranberry and port sauce, home made mince pies, maybe a showstopping chocolate bundt cake, or some cute little Christmas tree jaffa cakes.
If you get stuck, drop me an email, but mostly, have a glass of fizz, hug your loved ones, dress up, light a candle, say you love it even if you hate it and please don’t drink and drive. I need you here to keep me company. So I’ll just say merry Christmas, from us lot, to you lot. Have a wonderful, wonderful Christmas. Mwah xx
‘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 and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store? What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more?’
You know me, I pop up all over the interwebs, and at the moment you can find me chatting about Stir Up Sunday on the Yeo Valley website. Funnily enough, my recipe is the same as theirs in that you’ll need to start a little prep the day before, as the fruit benefits from an overnight soak, but if you don’t have time (or you’ve only just read this bit and were all ready to go), don’t worry – just give it as long as you have. Now, if you need information, hints, tips, ingredient notes and a step by step guide to making Christmas pudding, please just click here.
This is my updated recipe for 2013. This year, I’m going back more to how Christmas Pudding used to be, with loads of figs, currants and sultanas, and moving away from the more modern apricot and cherry additions.
I was chatting to our lovely friend (and wine expert) Tom Forrest from Vinopolis on Twitter about what booze to use, and he had some really lovely suggestions. I’m a huge fan of Pedro Ximenez and Tom recommends a Pedro from the English Whisky Company (£18) or an Aussie Brown Brothers Muscat Liqueur (about £12). You can also be more traditional and just use brandy, obviously.
Figgy Christmas Pudding
250g dried figs, finely chopped
50g prunes, finely chopped
100ml black tea
1 cinnamon stick, snapped in half
100ml Pedro Ximenez or other booze
3 eggs, beaten
1 tbsp honey
1 tbsp black treacle
1 Bramley apple, grated
100g self raising flour (or rice flour for gluten free)
100g fresh white breadcrumbs (or again, ground almonds if you need to keep the recipe gluten free)
150g veggie suet
150g dark muscovado sugar
25g almonds, finely chopped
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp ground mixed spice
So on to the recipe then:
1. Weigh out the dried fruit, then have a good pick through and get rid of any stems, they’re yucky if you crunch on them. I let them fall through my fingers into the bowl a handful at a time. With the larger dried fruit, make sure they’re stoneless and snip them into small pieces.
2. Finely grate the lemon zest, then juice it as well. Add the zest and juice to the fruit then brew up the tea (one tea bag is fine for that amount of water) and pour it over the fruit, along with the rum. Add in the cinnamon stick and stir it all up. Cover with a plate and leave the whole shooting match to steep (make sure it’s not a metal bowl) overnight, stirring occasionally if you remember.
3. The next day, weigh out all the dry ingredients and combine them in a huge bowl. Don’t forget the spices! The muscovado sugar can be a bit lumpy so you might need to sift it to break up any lumps.
4. Take the steeped fruit and remove the cinnamon stick pieces. Add the eggs (give them a quick mix with a fork first), honey, treacle and grated apple (leave the peel on).
5. Stir well, then you can add all that into the dry ingredients. Give it a really good stir (get everyone to take a turn to stir and make a wish).
6. Now butter a big basin (3 pint/1.7 litre) or two smaller ones and bung in your mixture, pressing it down well and filling as near to the top as you can.
7. Cut out a circle of greaseproof paper, bigger than the top of the basin/s, then add a layer of foil. Tie the two layers tightly just under the basin rim with string, leaving lots of excess to make a handle. Now there is some weird way to loop the excess string underneath the basin to make a handle, but I’ve never managed it as I didn’t pay attention at Brownies. If you want to be extra sure no liquid gets in, add another layer of foil and tie again. Or you can use a basin with a lid, or tie it in a muslin, or use one of those special circular moulds.
And that’s it, you’ve made a Christmas pudding! Pause here a minute to give yourself a quick round of applause.
To steam it, you can use a steamer if you’re posh, but I haven’t got one so I just use a huge saucepan and balance the basin inside it on a circular metal pastry cutter so it isn’t sitting on the bottom of the pan. This will also stop it burning if you inadvertently let it boil dry. Add boiling water about halfway up the basin and put the lid on the saucepan. Steam for 5 hours, making sure you go back every so often to top up the boiling water.
I rewrap it with fresh greaseproof paper and foil, but you don’t have to. Keep it somewhere cool until Christmas day when it’ll need to steam for about another 2.5 to 3 hours (don’t worry if it gets a bit longer, it won’t ruin it). Or you could *gasp* just microwave it on Christmas day. Much easier, but not really traditional!
On Christmas day, just warm some booze gently, then at the last minute, pour it over the pud and set it alight. A splash of rum or a bit more of that Pedro and a tablespoon of icing sugar in some whipped cream (Yeo Valley Organic of course) would make a welcome addition.
I’ve noticed that I’ve been a bit remiss with the cocktails of late. And well, you know me, it’s not because I’ve not been DRINKING them, oh no, it’s just because I usually drink too many and then forget to take a photo!
This particular Bloody Mary (left) was served to my friend Laura and I at the Cassis American Brassierie in St Pete’s, Florida.
It came on the morning after the night before which featured far too many Lycheetinis, some very bad karaoke and a 3am finish. Followed by a very fuzzy 7am start.
Reader, we were hanging.
Happily, the Cassis came to our aid and medicated us back to reality with this incredible glass of hair of the dog. Plus a big huge durty burger about the size of our heads. They also provided oysters. They didn’t go down quite as well.
The Perfect Blooody Mary
The best Bloody Marys are strong. I”m talking 1/3 vodka to 2/3 tomato juice strong, but if you like, you can tone it down.
Start with a full cup of ice, pour over the vodka (any old vodka will do but if you can find Absolut Peppar it adds a welcome kick), then top up with tomato juice (Waitrose pressed tomato juice is good, so is V8 juice)
Then you want a nice couple of slugs of Worcestershire Sauce, and a few dashes of Tabasco for heat. We go for about half Tabasco to Worcestershire, but adjust to taste.
Some people add horseradish but I HATE the stuff. Feel free, though, if you’re that way inclined.
Now for the accoutrements. You can stick any old stuff in there really: the traditional ones being sticks of celery, but olives are good too. Maybe a wedge of lime.
Finish with a nice sprinkling of celery salt and you’re good to go. If you’re being posh, you can freeze the glasses, then run a lime around the rim and dip them in celery salt. But sprinkling is fine too. Serve, preferably with a huge plate of bacon and eggs, maybe a stack of pancakes too… but that’s just me.
Lemon and mint cocktail
On our amazing trip to Dubai, we were served a refreshing drink made of lemon and mint. I got quite addicted and since coming home have found myself drinking it a lot, with the addition of a slightly less traditional little ‘freshener’ of gin. Oh it makes all the difference. Those little minxes at British Mummy Bloggers challenged me to vlog a summer recipe, so I cheated and did this cocktail instead. Here’s a still from our ‘shoot':
To whip up the cocktail, you’ll need
1 large bunch of mint
1 tablespoon sugar
Large jug of ice
Large slug of gin
So first, squeeze the lemons into the blender. Try to get as much pulp in there as possible. Then add in the mint, removing the stalks so you don’t get any woody bits in there. Add in the sugar and the ice. Whizz for a LONG time. Until your ears are ringing and you can’t bear it any more should just about do it. Finally throw in the gin. Whizz again just to mix. Serve immediately. But hey, just sip okay? This one’s a bit of a killer.
Of course, if you serve it in one of these luscious Urban Bar glasses, it’ll taste much better:
Quick and easy home made hummus
Obviously to complement your zingy cocktail, you’ll need yummy nibbles. Hummus is quick and easy and served everywhere in Dubai. You can keep a tin of chickpeas in the cupboard for when you want to whip up a quick bowl of dippy doo. Add in a handful of chopped mint or coriander for freshness:
1 tin chickpeas, drained
1 clove garlic (I sometimes cut out the garlic and just use a good quality garlic oil instead)
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Pinch of salt
2-3 tbsp olive oil or rapeseed oil
Handful of chopped mint or coriander
Paprika to garnish
So just whizz the chickpeas, garlic, lemon juice and salt up with a stick blender, glugging in enough oil to loosen the mixture. If you like it a bit runnier, feel free to add a couple of tbsp water. Stir in the herbs and serve sprinkled with paprika and maybe a swirl of oil, with crispy toasted pitta breads, breadsticks or some crunchy veg for dipping.
On our trip, we visited the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding for a talk and lunch. Our food was amazing:
For an easy main course, look no further than this Arabic staple, Machboos. It’s made everywhere in the UAE and is very similar to a chicken biryani or paella (most people think this dish originates from India, but our generous hosts in Dubai claimed it as their own!). The original is made with chicken pieces and dried limes, or loomi, which are difficult to get here so I’ve left them out (if you find them, add two and make sure you pierce them first – apparently they explode). Here they are at the spice market (front right):
Arabic Chicken Machboos (or biryani)*
2 tbsp rapeseed oil
1 onion, finely chopped
Generous couple of pinches of salt
1 squeeze (say 2 tsp) tomato purée
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 or 2 bay leaves
4 chicken breasts,sliced into thin slivers, or leftover roast chicken, shredded
1 litre chicken stock
400g Basmati rice, well rinsed
Pinch of saffron
To garnish: fried onions, handful cashew nuts, handful sultanas and a handful of fresh coriander
So heat your oil in a heavy-based pan and gently fry the onion until translucent, adding in the salt at this stage. Add in the spices (not the saffron) and cook gently until they give off their lovely aromas. Throw in the chicken and fry gently (you might have to add a bit more oil here) until it begins to brown.
Take out the bay leaves and add in the chicken stock, rice, saffron and dried limes (if using). Stir well and cover. Turn the heat right down and leave to cook for about 20 minutes or until all the water has been absorbed and the rice is tender. Try not to keep lifting the lid as you want to keep all the steam inside. I know it sounds funny but you can tell when the rice is done as it starts to make a kind of ‘crackling’ noise! Fork it through and then keep it covered until you’re ready to serve.
In Dubai, our gorgeous biryani was served with a garnish of onions, fried to the point where they were almost crispy, cooked with some cashew nuts and a handful of raisins. Delicious. We also ate from enormous platters of grilled fish called Safi, a really memorable meal. To the right is the Machboos and to the left is a really interesting spicy chicken ‘mousse’ called Madrouba :
I’m currently lusting after Denby’s newest collaboration with Monsoon: ‘Cosmic’ – a paisley print in ‘deep blue, teal, mauve and lime’. I want it all. I keep smashing my Denby Reflex, so I’m trying to persuade the hubster into a new collection. This is classic Denby quality with beautiful embellishment. What’s not to love? This teapot would be perfect for serving some refreshing mint tea in the garden after your deliciously scented Arabic meal:
And finally, for your entertainment, here’s me getting into the spirit of things and trying on the national dress (I’m on the right *cough*). Yeah, go on, laugh it up.
*Thanks to Nick Coffer for help with this recipe adaptation.
A Londres encore! This time we headed to Hammersmith to visit the wonderful chaps at Sipsmith. I first met James at the Real Food Festival (incidentally, you can win tickets to this year’s festival over at My Daddy Cooks), and was enchanted by the fantastic aromas of their bespoke London Dry Gin (you know I love a gin). At the time he said ‘oh you must come and see us’, but then we headed back to Ireland and I’d all but put it out of my head, until our visit home this week and a chance ‘tweetup’ with lovely Sipsmith Sam.
Anyhoo, the first surprise was the actual distillery. I’m not quite sure what I was expecting – a factory? a warehouse? – but I don’t think it was a plain blue door tucked down a quiet little London side street:
We were met by a very friendly Sam (sadly, his partner Fairfax had already headed off for the Easter weekend) and the lovely James. I’m keen to hear about their history and Sam doesn’t disappoint. Sam and Fairfax were childhood friends. Both worked at large drinks companies, and both had a hankering to form a distillery that was small, bespoke and original. The thing I most admire about the Sipsmiths is their sheer enthusiasm. The next hour was full of effusive chat, about everything from gin’s pretty awful reputation (historically – mother’s ruin and all that), to a bit about the science as to how the gorgeous Prudence, their beautiful copper still (handmade in Bavaria) , actually changes the ‘raw’ alcohol into the gorgeously fragrant London Gin and Barley Vodka that is Sipsmith’s end product.
Sam was so generous with his time – and his expertise – letting us see, taste and touch the raw materials that go into making Sipsmith’s gin so amazing. He fielded all my mental questions (‘do you have to clean Prudence?’ – they do, and it’s a gargantuan task – she’s becoming redder and more fiery looking as she ages) and his eyes practically glittered as he told us how Sipsmith’s first batch was ‘born’ on the same day as Fairfax’s daughter, Emily. To this day, you can log on to their website and see what amazing thing happened on the day your batch was ‘born’.
Sam introduced us to the botanicals that make the gin smell so divine and give it its unique flavours… we crushed coriander seeds in our hands and smelled them – have you ever done it? The scent is amazingly floral – you can actually smell lavender and fresh grass! Likewise juniper – the smell is heady and gorgeous when you crush the little brown seeds in your fingers. We buried our noses in a huge jar of the marzipan-scented bitter almond and chewed Chinese cassia bark. The experience was amazing: sight, touch, taste… a little glimpse into the magic that Fairfax and Sam create in their flame-haired Bavarian beauty.
We also talked about Sipsmith’s Barley Vodka: don’t think vodka tastes of anything? Wait ’til you taste Sipsmith’s – your mouth is filled with the flavour – and it’s not harsh and burny.. it’s almost, well, rich-tasting – does that sound weird?
I ask Sam how he likes to drink his own creations: ‘well you can’t beat a Vesper’ (remember the drink that James Bond names after Vesper in Casino Royale?’):
Bond: ‘Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?”
And what’s next for the talented Sipsmiths? Well, there’s a move to bigger premises planned, and there’s a batch of Sloe Gin (we tasted it, it’s incredible – not gloopy and thick, but light and citrussy) and a new product: Damson Vodka, gently steeping, ‘ready for rolling out on the glorious 12th’
I can’t wait!
Massive thanks to Sam and James for their time (and for the bottle of gin that we clutched happily on the tube all the way home!) xx
You can find Sipsmiths stockists here.
This month I’m delighted to have been invited to join in the Irish Foodies Cookalong. Basically, a whole bunch of Irish foodies and bloggers get together the first Friday of every month to cook their interpretation of a theme, then post their results on the Facebook page.
This month’s theme is autumn fruit, so I thought it was time to unearth all those blackberries I picked in September, now nestling in the bottom of the freezer.
There are few rules to making liqueurs – let’s face it, bung some fruit in with some alcohol and a ton of sugar and it’s never going to taste bad, but bear in mind the following:
* Store your liqueur in the dark – the beautiful colour of your blackberries will soon be destroyed if exposed to sunlight
*Don’t store in the fridge. The delicate aroma and taste won’t truly come out if the liqueur is cold.
*Dissolve your sugar thoroughly. Whether you’re using my recipe, or steeping fruit in alcohol and then adding a sugar syrup, make sure all the sugar crystals are completely dissolved or they’ll ruin your finished liqueur by appearing in an unpleasant and crunchy fashion in the glass.
400g fresh (or frozen) blackberries
250g cooking apples (weight is after peeling and coring)
600g caster sugar
700ml bottle vodka
Put the blackberries and apple pieces into a saucepan. Pour in 300ml water and bring to the boil. Add the caster sugar, turn it down low and stir just until all the sugar is dissolved and the apples are mushed (technical term).
It may seem like jam making at this point – but think about it – you need the slightly thick stickiness that all good liqueurs have, plus you want the apple to break down.
Leave to cool slightly, then stir through the vodka. Bottle up (make sure your bottles are spotless, either from a hot dishwasher cycle, or a good wash in hot, soapy water and then a final rinse of boiling water), then leave for a couple of weeks in a dark place.
Then all you need to do is strain and rebottle and you have the perfect autumn liqueur. As you can see, it makes enough for three bottles and I only had two, but while it’s steeping, it can live in a jam jar.
Imagine pouring a little of this into a flute and topping up with champagne for a perfect ‘Hedgerow Kir Royale’ this Christmas too!
Oh and can I just say if you’re looking for preserving jars, I highly recommend Patteson’s Glass (http://www.jarsandbottles-store.co.uk/). They sell all sorts of kilners and bottles for home preserving, and they deliver to Ireland – yay! Sadly I discovered them too late for this recipe, but I’ll be using their lovely bottles to make some sloe gin very soon.
So the other night, we were talking about cocktails. Well, that’s a lie actually, I was regaling Hubby with tales of Disney – how me and my fellow Disneyers spent many a happy evening in the bar, downing mojitos, being loud and taking the piss out of the lady behind the bar who looked disturbingly like Matt Lucas (I luv you more than…lollipops!).
Anyhoo, digressing. I happened to remember that I had one of those packs of frozen mango chunks from Tesco in the freezer, so we cracked out the disturbingly expensive blender and had a bash at a few cocktails. First up, then, came these little beauties:
Frozen Mango Daiquiri
You will need:
Frozen mango chunks
1/2 lime, juiced
1 measure Bacardi
Slug Cointreau (that’s not Cointreau made of slugs, BTW)
Apple juice or Club soda
Chuck a couple of handfuls of frozen mango chunks into the blender jug, then add the juice of half a fresh lime, 1 measure of Bacardi (I use a shot glass as 1 measure, which is probably a bit much but then I’m an alcoholic), a big slug of Cointreau and whiz until slushy. You might need an extra splosh of something if your blender gets clogged up (apple juice, or more alcohol if you’re feeling all carefree and what-the-hell, which you certainly will be after a couple of these little babies). Pile into posh glasses. By the way, if you use pineapple instead of Mango and Malibu instead of Bacardi, you get a really nice tropical taste. A little unethical maybe – I’d never make it as a Mixologist – but by jove I throw a good party.
Next up, then was the classic Mojito:
Handful mint leaves
1 lime, cut into wedges
2 tsp sugar
2 measures Bacardi
For this one, you need to bung the mint leaves, lime wedges and sugar into a tall glass and bash them with the handle of a wooden spoon (this is called ‘muddling’, which suddenly becomes hilariously funny after a few of these). Next bung loads of ice cubes into the glass, splosh in the rum and top up with the club soda. Or, if you use golden rum and apple juice, you can make an Apple-soaked Mojito, which is rather yum as well.
Lastly, I’m a big fan of the White Lady – this one has a kick like a mule and is best reserved for delicate sipping whilst preparing a delicious dinner for your guests.
1 measure Gin (Tanqueray makes it extra spesh)
1 measure Cointreau
1 measure lemon juice
Pour the lot into your shaker with loads of ice – strain into posh glasses, decorating with a little lemon twist if you like, and sip in a genteel manner. Start knocking this one back and the next morning your head will feel like it’s been used as the match ball at Anfield of a Saturday. Trust me, I’m a mixologist
And talking of cocktails, I happen to know (‘cos I’m chums with the lovely Diana) that the gang at AllRecipes are running a cocktail competition… And you can win a blender and cocktail set of your very own. And if you win, remember your friends, eh?
So being a bit of an Ebay-addicted household, lovely Ciaran the postie is well used to being mugged at the door of English Towers by eager parcel recipients. Friday was no exception, then, when my copy of Merry Kitschmas, The Ultimate Holiday Handbook by Michael D Conway finally arrived. I’ve been looking for it for ages after glimpsing it on the shelf behind someone on some tv programme or other (it might even have been a Nigella programme – I can’t remember now).
This treasure trove of the cheap and tacky is exactly what Christmas should be about. I mean, how did people survive Christmas before Michael Conway taught them how to make a Frosty the Chocoholic Snowman cocktail (above left) or a Santa’s Little Helper (above right). The one in the middle, in case you’re interested, is a Chocolate Candy Cane (1 part grenadine, one part peppermint vodka and one part Godiva White Chocolate Liqueur – garnished with a chocolate-dipped candy cane).
And for your festive food, how about a Weener Tree? It’s perfect for your Kitschmas cocktail party. Or why not decorate the table with an enormous styrofoam snowman (completely covered in white mini marshmallows) and on Christmas night, hang the Manipulative Parent’s Reversible Stocking on the mantelpiece: on one side it says ‘nice’ and on the other it says ‘naughty’. Threaten to hang it ‘naughty’ side out unless they do everything you say this Christmas.
And let’s face it: any recipe that starts with ‘3 x 3oz boxes sparkling white grape-flavoured gelatin’ gets my vote. So come on, spray that fake aerosol snow on your windows, crank up the wattage on the flashing Rudolph on your front lawn and be lavish with the tinsel. Celebrate your inner trailer trash. What? It’s Christmas.
Righty ho, then. Here we go with the promised Limoncello recipe. Firstly a little note about the alcohol. Seeing as we’re cheating (see title), there are no rules. I know that some people make this Limoncello with Grappa, or Schnapps, or one of those colourless fruity brandy-type drinks called Eau de Vie. Any of these is fine.
Anyhoo, it’s dead easy. I’ve even enlisted José Mourinho Hubby to photograph a little step by step guide (note how much better the photos are than my usual ham-fisted efforts). Firstly, you’ll need:
6 beautiful, fat fresh lemons, unwaxed or scrubbed in hot soapy water then rinsed well
200g caster sugar
70cl bottle of Vodka or your alcohol of choice
Some sort of glass container with lid (I used one of those Kilner jars)
Step 1: peel the zest off the lemons with a peeler. Try not to push the peeler too hard otherwise you’ll get too much of the bitter pith with your peel.
Step 2: juice them all, and set aside with the zest.
Step 3: put the sugar and water in a saucepan and bring to the boil, then bubble away for a few minutes until it looks thicker and a bit syrupy. Notice that I cleaned my hob especially for you. Flattered?
Step 4: bung in the juice and zest, give it a stir, then slosh in the entire bottle of Vodka.
Step 5: pour the whole shooting match into some kind of bottle or even jars, as long as they’re sterilised, put on the lid and leave somewhere cool and dark until Chrimbo, when all you have to do is strain it, put it into a bottle and shove it in the freezer ready to play ‘Truth or Dare’ or some other juvenile party game that involves the winner taking a shot. All photographic evidence gratefully received. Erm… or you could be all civilised and Italianish Italianate Italiany Italianesque do like Italians do, and drink it with biscotti – the recipe for which I shall produce for you, as if by magic, shortly.
Ahhh, Hubby and I love the boat road down to the lough. This time of year it’s filled with the most beautiful sights and smells: the baby burgers and all growing up into potential rump steaks, their mamas still snorting protectively as we pass, the brook gurgles and bubbles, hidden amongst a hundred different wild flowers, butterflies flutter by (sorry) and recently a beautiful, and surprisingly large Pine Marten dashed out in front of us, a teeny baby swinging alarmingly from its mouth.
This time of year, the Elders are in full bloom too. The beautiful smell makes us both nostalgic – me for the cricket meadow back home, and Hubby for getting up to no good near some trees, probably. So I happened to mention to Hubby that I’d seen a recipe for them deep fried in a kind of tempura batter. I’d also squirreled away a recipe for Elderflower Champagne from the River Cottage website (which I obviously then fiddled with) and we resolved to gather a load the next day and give it a go.
Well, it’s not a particularly hard process, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll be left with anything remotely drinkable at the end, but if you’d got some Elderflowers blooming near you, give this a go. It’s a bit of a laugh:
Elderflowers (you’ll probably need 20 to 30 flower heads)
2 kg sugar
4 litres hot water plus another 2 litres cold
2 limes, juiced and zested
2 lemons, juiced and zested
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
So gather your flower heads and give them a quick rinse to get any bugs out. You’ll need something to make your champagne in – I used a new bucket from Woodies – make sure it’s very clean, obviously. Pour in the hot water and add your sugar, stirring until it dissolves, then top up to 6 litres with cold water. Stir in the lime and lemon juice and zest, the vinegar and the flowers. Now cover the top of the bucket with a clean tea towel or a baby muslin or something (not clingfilm, it needs to breathe), and peg the edges so no flies or icky things can get in. Leave it somewhere like a utility room – not too hot and stuffy and nice and airy – for a few days then add a couple of pinches of dried yeast, stirring well. Re-cover and leave for another four days, then strain well (through muslin or a clean cotton cloth) and bottle.
We used screw-top wine bottles that had been sterilised by washing in hot soapy water, rinsing, then baking in the oven. I’m not sure if this is safe, but nothing exploded so hey ho. Now you can leave your champagne anywhere from a couple of weeks to six months to mature (in the garage, in case of explosions) before chilling and cracking it open. Apparently the end result is very mildly alcoholic but makes a lovely mixer with gin too. I’ll let you know. Cheers!
So there’s nothing nicer than spending a warm, early summer’s evening surrounded by the sound of chinking glasses and laughter. And last night was exactly one of those nights. Loads of people came (Hubby had invited more people when he was down the pub last night) and we had buckets full of ice dotted around to keep all the drinks cold, tons of food (the kebabs went down particularly well) and sweeties galore for the tiddlers. Talking of smalls, I think at one stage we had upwards of seventeen kids between 4 and 15 running around like loonies. Happily, they had loads of space as they had the run of D, Little C and Lou’s garden too, and spent a happy evening playing 40/40 (no idea – a bit like ‘kick the can’), having running gun battles, playing football and generally wallying about. Us adults, meanwhile, nabbed every available chair in the place and parked ourselves outside on the patio where we continued to drink, eat and talk crap long into the night (kept warm by a very knackered, but startlingly hot patio heater we’ve had for years). Several kids stayed over, others eventually collapsed in front of the TV and as people started to drift off, we were eventually left with just D and his sister A (her hubby J had taken little E home). We carried on drinking and talking shite (oh yes, the Morgan’s Spiced came out) well into the wee hours until we decided to finally call it a night (morning?) and leave all the clearing up until we could stand up straight.
The jellies were a huge hit. #2 made little cranberry and raspberry shots, #1 made raspberry and lemonade ones, and I made Absolut Kurant and Blackcurrant ones for the adults. Basically you just make the jelly up as you normally would with half a pint of boiling water, then with the kids ones you just make it up to a pint with cold water and whatever else you fancy, and with the adults you add a big glug of whatever booze takes your fancy. Apparently, once you’ve melted the jelly in the ½ pint of boiling water, you can add up to ¾ of the rest in alcohol (depending on how strong it is) and it will still set, although I didn’t put in more than 4fl oz as I didn’t want them to be too potent and have people falling all over the place.
Anyhoo, I’m off to the carnage that was once my kitchen. Having been the hostess with the mostest, I’m now reverting back to my primary role in household management: chief cook and bottle washer, all with a crashing headache. Happy days.
So okay, I know at this exact precise moment it’s still Thursday but I’ll be FAR too busy tomorrow to post anything so you’ll have to indulge me. What’s that you say? Why will I be busy? Well, dear reader, I’m having a PARTAY!!
You see, people, in Ireland you definitely have to go with the flow a bit. A party can often start for the most inane reason. For example, last Friday we popped over to D Next Door’s sister A’s house to pick up #2 who was round there playing with little K, and ended up staggering home some time after 2am, sans child (he stayed over having lost the hope of ever dragging us home somewhere around 11) and last night turned into a bit of a sesh round D’s (Hubby popped in for a chat, cracked a beer with D, then other people popped in and suddenly there was a houseful and, well, it’d be rude to leave), so we ended up staying until 11pm (headaches all round again this morning). And this, apparently, is only the beginning of the summer barbecue season. Now you know why the kids here have such bloody long school holidays, it’s because the parents are planning on being so hungover they can’t possibly do the school run for three whole months.
Anyhoo, so we thought we’d get in there quick and invite all the lovely people we’ve met here for a little gathering: D and the kids, obviously, C and his lovely wife C (the ones with the boat) and D’s sister A and her Hubby J and their kids, and T & L who live next door to A & J, T who fixes the cars and his wife G, and probably a few other stragglers from GAA (that’s Gaelic Football to you foreigners, heh).
We got the usual burgers and sausages, etc, and I thought I’d marinate some chicken in different stuff like honey, mustard and soy, and Thai green curry paste, etc and do kebabs with various dips, plus those minced lamb kebab things and then just round it all off with an enormous plate of pistachio brownies and ice lollies for the kids. Drinks-wise, I thought as well as wine and beer, we could whizz up a big blender-full of Frozen Strawberry Daquiris just to get things going, plus various non-alcoholic fruity smoothies for the children (no, don’t worry, I won’t mix them up and get the kids drunk).
So Hubby and I went up north again today (the £ being terrifically bad against the Euro, it’s cheaper for us to do our shopping there) and came back with a car load of food, beer, wine, champers and….er…jelly. Yes, jelly. Well I’ve always wanted to make jelly shots and… oh dear, this could be another late one.
So J, C and little C finally came up for their long-awaited visit. Hubby and I made a special trip to Flood’s the butchers in Oldcastle to get a joint of their fantastic beef. It’s a very busy place which is always a good sign in my book, and they have all the details about where their meet comes from (even the abbatoir if you’re that interested) up on a blackboard in the shop. The chap brought out a whole bloody great wodge of cow so we could choose a nice cut for our roast dinner. Small distractions like me dropping the entire tray of Yorkshire puddings mid-pour, and leaving the potatoes so long that they turned into mash and I had to do some more for the roasties did nothing to dampen our spirits. J & C came armed with so many pressies you could hardly see J for the piles of boxes. I got the most AMAZING Le Creuset bean pot in the same blue as my Denby Jetty that I shall be salivating over for years to come (Hubby and C just didn’t get it).
Bertie went mental as soon as he saw C, his favourite person in the whole world. A quick check-up indicated that we’re doing well – lovely coat, just the right weight, but claws a bit too long (uh oh, I hate doing those), and Bert even got to show J & C his favourite route past the cows and sheep down the boat road. He was a happy boy. Later, when C was lying on the sofa, Bertie gingerly climbed up on top of C and perched, happily if a little guiltily, until told to get down. It’s love, pure and simple.
Later we made cocktails, which descended into throwing everything you could possibly imagine into the blender and seeing what the result was. J’s masterpiece was this, a slightly spicy strawberry number that, quite frankly, will blow your hat off. Woohoo!
Death By Strawberry
Tin of strawberries
Morgan’s Spiced Rum
So add a few spoonfuls of the tinned strawberries, along with a splosh of juice. Add a shot glass full of Morgan’s and another of Absolut. Squeeze in the juice of half a lime and a handful of ice. Blend until smooth. Drink until giggly.
So J’s on nights at the moment. We love this as it gives us the opportunity to have random nocturnal chats about all sorts of things while she’s on her break in the bowels of wherever it is she works (she does something incredibly clever and technical which I don’t honestly understand). Hubby came in last night very late to find us gabbing away about the kitsch retro food of Fanny Cradock. Remember her?
This brought me neatly along to the subject of Boxing Day (St Stephen’s Day over here) at Grandma Maudie and Grandad Sam’s house, when four hundred or so of our closest family members squished together in Grandma’s ‘parlour’ to be treated to a Boxing Day feast of epic proportions. I was one of the youngest and therefore was allowed to sit in front of the evil electric fire, which would strip the skin off a bare young calf in a matter of seconds, but she had this fab furry rug, so it was plum position, third degree burns or no. Grandad Sam would have been put to work peeling several hundredweight of new potatoes, ready to be turned into potato salad (with salad cream, not mayo – and covered in snipped chives). When not rushing up and down getting drinks, taking coats, giving cuddles, mending broken toys, playing snap, or any other of millions of uses that every good Grandad has, he used to have a swift swig of whisky in a very comical Monty Python type way while Grandma was in the kitchen, giving us a conspiratorial wink as he hid the bottle again. We laughed like drains.
The grand opening of this gargantuan spread would always be prawn cocktails: forever an eye-watering shade of Barbie pink (J fears that the dreaded crushed beetle may have come into play here) with added chopped tomato on a bed of lettuce, served in Grandma’s best posh glass bowls. I hate prawns but somehow could woof down several of these delights. Other wonders on the heaving table would be sausage rolls, glistening slices of ham, pickled onions, pickled walnuts (ew), Piccalilli (double ew), thinly sliced circles of cucumber (no skin: Grandma Maudie would rather have impaled herself on a sharp implement than served cucumber with skin on), and half of a mystery fruit (melon?) covered in foil and then randomly stabbed with cocktail sticks containing tiny sausages, squares of cheese and baby silverskin onions, or cheese and pineapple, or cheese and cheese. All were the height of yumminess. I also loved the hard-boiled eggs which she used to halve, remove the yolk, mix with salad cream and pipe back into the whites. Fantastic. Ooh and what about the celery sticks cut into 2 inch lengths and piped with cream cheese before being sprinkled with something pink (paprika??). I must talk to me Mam about this because she’s bound to remember loads of other bits.
Puddings were wobbly jellies containing floating fruit pieces, (and squirty cream!!) and, oh…the rabbit mould containing CrÃ¨me Caramel which was turned out with a flourish to provide a glistening brown edible bunny. Wrong on so many different levels, but oddly nice. There were cakes and chocolate swiss rolls and ice cream floaters, meringue nests filled with cream and topped with enough (tinned) fruit to make Carmen Miranda feel slightly bare, and then while we could still just about waddle to the kitchen, we’d be allowed to make Snowballs.
I’m misty eyed and nostalgic about Snowballs. So much so that Hubby bought me a bottle of Advocaat on our recent trip to the North and I’m going to get the kids to make them. Snowballs, if you didn’t know, are in my family the only form of alcohol widely accepted to contain no actual alcohol and therefore permissible for small children on that one night of the year. They’re actually very simple (slosh some Advocaat in a glass, top up with lemonade), but with Grandma Maudie at the helm they took several wonderful hours of careful mixing and blending with her handheld plastic whisk to get just the right level of frothy topping, then to choose the perfect complementary colour of plastic cocktail stick, and the roundest, pinkest cocktail cherry to nestle in the top. No wonder I have a serious cocktail addiction. Ahhh, all our Christmas yesterdays, eh?
So it’s been a while, but last night we had another little dabble with the Cocktail Bible (Hamlyn £14.99 – beats the real one hands down, sorry Ma). I was especially interested in recipes containing watermelon as my delightful second child insisted that he ‘loved watermelon’ and waited while I spent ages cutting up a baby one (no pips!) into bitesize chunks before daintily nibbling one tiny corner and deciding that he’d changed his mind. I bagged it up and shoved it in the freezer, and blimey, I’m jolly glad I did.
Here goes with the recipe then:
First, take your frozen watermelon chunks, then plonk them into the blender (no, I still haven’t saved up enough for a KitchenAid one yet) along with a large measure of vodka (officially one measure is 25ml, but I use a shot glass), half a measure of strawberry liqueur (it should have been passion fruit liqueur, but I don’t have any), a large glug of cranberry juice and a squeeze of lime. Whiz it up into the most delightful salmon pink slush and serve in your incredibly expensive Urban Bar glasses.
We also used the carton of frozen tropical fruit we got on a bogof offer at Tesco to make Tropical Daiquiris and they were bloody nice too:
Half fill your blender jug with the frozen fruit, then add Â½ measure of fresh lime juice, 1 measure of Bacardi, a slug of Cointreau and whiz until slushy. You might need an extra splosh of fruit juice if your blender gets clogged up. Drink whilst curled happily on the sofa going ‘eurgh’ at CSI:Miami (that last bit’s optional). The first one was my favourite though, although I could have been influenced by the colour.
Oh, and while we’re on the subject of pink stuff, I’ve finally managed to persuade Hubby to allow a touch of pink into the bedroom. Here’s our new watermelon martini-pink bedlinen complete with a delighted Bertie (he’s in touch with his feminine side). Bless.
Oh yes, last night we were mostly drinking Frozen Strawberry Daiquiris. I know, I know…STB again, but actually I don’t feel as bad as I did last time, which is always a bonus. I was in a cocktail type of mood because of two things:
Firstly, we took twiglet dog to the beach and had a mighty fine time. We met some very friendly people who had a little girl who loved dogs. B took to her instantly, enjoyed lots of cuddles and gave her a jolly good wash (we were very impressed that she was still laughing at the end of that). She also did lots of barking at seagulls and sniffing of very interesting things in the sand while we skimmed stones and walked and talked, and basically got our fix of sea air. Having never lived by the sea before, this is a revelation. The first of many visits methinks.
Secondly, I’m delighted to report that the aforementioned girly weekend has been booked – wehay! After a flurry of emails, the flights are booked and C&R are coming for a visit from the good old UK! My responsibility is now to find a fab spa for us to spend a day being pampered. I’m also already thinking about doing a bit of a cocktail night when we get home from the spa, so I had to try out my new recipe (that’s my excuse and I’m not budging). I thought maybe we could have a couple of the abovementioned daiquiris:
Frozen Strawberry Daiquiri
This is slightly different from the peach one because instead of crushed ice and fruit, you just use frozen fruit. There’s a fab farm shop where I used to live in the UK that sold frozen fruit of all different descriptions from open freezers, and you just scooped what you needed and paid by weight, but obviously now I’m reliant on my new fave, Dunnes, which has a fairly decent selection in the freezers. If you used mixed summer berries you might have to sieve the pips out. So (sorry, digressing again):
Put frozen fruit in the fancy blender attachment of your stainless steel beast of a food processor (I know, been there before but please be careful your blender is man enough or you’ll have a frozen strawberry kitchen to clean up), then add:
Juice of one fresh lime
4 measures Bacardi
1 measure Cointreau
Whizz up and pour into chilled glasses. Repeat liberally until giggly.
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