Category Archives: recipes

Countdown to Christmas

Yes, time flies, and yes, it’s here again – with just less than 5 weeks to go before the big day is here. As usual there is SO much to do and never enough time to get it all done.

I love Christmas – I seriously love it and all the mayhem and stress that it brings. I also like to think that I do it well. Mainly because I don’t think of Christmas just being that one day. It is the whole experience, pretty much from now, and I enjoy all the fuss even with all the conflicts it brings to our senses – tradition, religion, colour, glitter, tacky, over-the-top, exuberant, fun, loving, friends and family, smells, scents, cold, snow, ….. you get the gist.

It is a great time of the year to just relax, give thanks, and in a sort of “shed-it-all” in weird excess, get rid of the baggage of the year and move fresh into a beautiful New Year.

Yes, you can relax – mainly because you don’t have to do it all. You can instead make a careful plan and decide what it is you will do – and not feel guilty about what you did not get done in time, or what you choose not to do.

You do have a choice – here is my 12 point check-list to the Christmas Countdown – and I want to show you how you can cut the misery, enjoy the stress and make a real effort to have a great Christmas experience.

1. What are you doing for Christmas? 

Are you going away, or are you at home? Where you will be spending Christmas will make some of the points I have listed a bit irrelevant. Whatever your choice, make sure it was what you and your family want to do. It never ceases to amaze me how many people choose to spend Christmas with people/friends or family they KNOW they will not enjoy.

I think a lot of stress around Christmas comes because we are not honest with ourselves – I know there is a family duty often which you or your partner may dread. How can you reach a compromise? I always feel you have to be very disciplined about these things with a strong sense of duty to put up with stressful family Christmas visits. I just never do family Christmas’. Too unpleasant and it is my festive season and a time when I get to relax and chill. I have no guilty feelings about it at all. (Well OK – just a twinge!)

This year I am at home – with 2 guests who will be staying for a couple of weeks. My plans for New Year is less clear, and I cannot make my mind up about that. After Christmas I am planning on doing some writing, creating and designing – my time. I also want to see a panto…. not sure where yet.

2. Make a Planning Schedule and Work Backwards 

Today I have set out a simple plan on a single sheet of paper for the month of December, up an until the 6th January, when I know all the decorations have to come down. (A huge job for me as I put so many decorations up!)  So on my list is Wednesday 6th January – marked out as a day of dismantling. That is my starting point on my plan. I reason out the plans like this:

“I am lucky to be able to determine my own diary, so spending a day mid-week is something I can manage. If that does not work for you, take the decorations down on the weekend BEFORE – and in fact that is what I may do, depending on if I feel I have had enough of Christmas by that stage. “

(Photo courtesy of Rene Maritz Photography) 

All Christmas plans you make, should, I believe be fluid. This is your Christmas, and no-one out there should be grading your attempts. We are sometimes our own worst enemies – if you don’t want to cook Christmas dinner and prefer to eat out, then that’s fine. There is a lot of stuff and nonsense about somehow meeting this level of “I must do -” or “I should do —“. Do Christmas the way you want!

Other key dates are pencilled in as I go – I like to do something different on Christmas Eve, and have yet to make plans for New Year’s Eve.

Don’t forget, if you are travelling all the things you need to plan like – valid passports, tickets, house sitter, pet sitter, and so on. Plan each of these arrangements so you don’t end up running around like a headless chicken in the run-up to your trip.

3. Christmas Decorations & the Tree

It may seem silly, but it is best to plan what decorations, are you going to put up, and when are you going to do it. I like to start on the 1st of December – that way Christmas lasts a good while. If you like doing a particular colour scheme, you need to work out what you will need to buy to get the look you want.

Ideally a fresh tree is the perfect thing – nothing smells as good as the real thing, but I hate the dropping needles which seem to keep appearing many months after the tree is gone. If you do want a fresh tree, then plan when and where you are going to get it.

My home is underfloor heated – instant death to a real tree, so a while ago I decided that a fake tree was best and I have a huge 8ft high tree that looks really good and is very dense. I think if fake trees are your preferred option, make sure you get the best quality one you can find.

I am a little crazy as I used 4 trees last year, but I may do 5 this year! Seriously crazy.

Perhaps, but I love it. My big tree goes in the hallway – it is the only space big enough to take it, and then I have a smaller less impressive tree in the hallway upstairs opposite a window so that the lights shine into the night. I put a garish pink little tree with all my vintage ornaments on the table in my living room – also near the window and it glows.  Very tacky and over the top and I adore it. I even have a little tree on the kitchen island and I think I should rethink the decorations on this tree this time around.

Each year too I have loads of lights that are used in all the front windows of the house, and all my Nativity sets and other ornaments have to be set up in various locations throughout the house, including the cloakroom, the guest bedrooms. (It takes me forever to hunt down all the bits when I dismantle.)

I also buy a few new special decorations each year to add to my already beautiful collection. I love putting it all together – unpacking all my precious ornaments and recalling the memories of Christmas’ past is special. I also love the entirely eclectic look I manage to get throughout the house. I get all excited just thinking about it.

4. Clothes

Strange thing to put on the list – but if you are going to be going out to parties and function, have you got the outfits you need and is everything in good order, especially if you have not worn it for some time. I also like to wear something special on Christmas Day, so have to make time to shop for that.

Check to see that you have all the accessories too for the parties – if you are a regular party-goer then this probably does not apply, but in the run up to Christmas the last thing you want to be doing is running around at the last minute getting new heels on your shoes, or searching in vain for the perfect little evening bag you absolutely know you have got, but haven’t seen for a year.

If you are going to be away over the season plan what you need. For instance, if you have been invited to a house in the country there may well be walking activities planned – do you have a decent pair of walking boots or wellies?

Of course all of this applies to partners and kids too.

(Photo courtesy of Rene Maritz Photography)

5. The Food

It is no secret that I am a foodie nut so today I have planned my menu for Christmas lunch as well as the menus for the week preceding Christmas. I am not fussed about what happens after Christmas, as I will wing it, and I still am not sure if I will have friends over for New Year, so I can figure all that out later.

Here is my menu from 21st to 26th December:

 21st  – Special Meal – 
Goats cheese and beetroot salad starter
Steak with duxelles sauce, creamed spinach, filled baked potatoes (Wooden plates) 
Pavlova with fruit
22nd Share and Talk 
Cheese fondue with baguettes, pickles and ham. (white plates – eat in kitchen) 
Ice cream and chocolate sauce
23rd  – Special Meal but simple – 
Salmon Wellington, fine beans, new potatoes, roasted beetroot. (Good plates) 
Crème caramel. 
24th  – Finger food buffet – set out at 5pm – (blue plates)
Mulled Wine 
Gravalax, koftas, dips, crudités, sausage rolls, filled choux,  parmesan biscuits,  etc. 
Hot camembert
Mince pies and cream (Vintage gold) 
25th – Christmas Day 
Peri -peri Prawn starter (Green glass)
Roast turkey Crown, stuffing, roast potatoes, Brussels baked in cheese sauce, caramelised carrots, cranberry sauce, gravy, onion salad. 
Christmas pudding & cream 
Cheese board (if needed)
26th – Boxing Day 
Stilton & Cauliflower soup with fresh baked bread. 
Leftovers. 

Things may change, but there is “The Plan”. From that I can list my ingredients and decide what I am going to a) make in advance or b) buy instead of make. For instance  I will make my own mince pies, but I will use ready made mince. (I cheat – I add a bit of rum, and more fruit to a ready made version to give it more richness.) I may make my own cranberry sauce. I have never made Gravalax before, but I am going to have a go this year.

Because I am having guests I have also made a list of breakfast and lunch items to have on hand. I am certainly not going to cook each lunchtime. It is pretty easy to make a quick breakfast, but lunch takes more effort. So I will bake a ham in advance, find some delicious savoury bits and pieces, and then everyone can help themselves each day.

I love to cook, but I am not going to work my fingers to the bone. I have included a cheese fondue this time – so easy to do, and easy to clean up afterwards – also good for sharing and talking. The Salmon Wellington too is a fail-safe recipe and so little work. Variety is important – although the meal on Christmas eve is light, it is actually more work than all the other days combined, so that will require more planning and working in advance.

Once you are satisfied with your menu plan, knock one dish off each meal. Be ambitious, but don’t go an add a tricky thing that you have never made one before – that is a guaranteed disaster. There is already enough stress around Christmas, so don’t add to it by having too much food or complicated dishes.

Then there are the special bits and pieces – I buy my Pannetone, but make my own fruit cake (I am so rubbish at icing!) and a job for this weekend. I also make my grandmother’s Zoetkoekies (biscuits) – gazillions of them, and I will be sharing the recipe here in a few days time.

I am not a fan of the British pudding, but have a family recipe for steam fruit pudding that I make on Christmas day. If however you are making your own, you need to get a wiggle on if you want it to mature on time – but the fail-safe is that you can simply buy one – or make it on the day.

Be practical – get your ingredients as far in advance as you can. I once had a turkey ripped out of my hands by a very determined shopper – I was only looking…..and it was 2 weeks till Christmas. You also need to be savvy. Supermarkets are under pressure to compete for our business and from now until the “Big Day” there will be loads of specials. Armed with your menu you can start watching for the best deals.

Each supermarket tends to bring out a fancy brochure/magazine at this time of the year with loads of inspiration, recipes and special offers. I know where and when to get the turkey crown and I have been hunting down different recipes – this one from BBC Food looks good. Of course if you are ordering a turkey, do it now.

“I thought about doing a turkey this year – but you know what – no.
 I simply don’t know how to turn the left overs into super dishes afterwards and begin to worry that I may poison my guests – too much, too big – so just the crown this year.” 


(From bbcgoodfood recipes 1788639)

The key message, I think I am trying to get across is – figure out what you want to do for food, do it special, buy what you can, but keep it simple.

6. Christmas Cards &  Messages 

Always a good time of the year to get in touch with friends, or family that you have not heard from in sometime. Whatever your choice of communication, now is the time to get the address book out and make a list.

Times are changing, and I know that I no longer send so many cards – the price of postage, for one, is so much 40 cards will cost £24 in postage – before you buy the cards. Take a good look at the list from last year – you did keep it didn’t you? (I can’t find mine and now not too sure that I made one. So much for being organised.)

Who should you really send to? Who must you send to? And who is the mystery person that keeps sending you a card with the unrecognisable signature? (I get one of these every year and have no clue who sends it.)

Posting dates are available here for the UK. Overseas posting dates are even earlier.

Perhaps sending an e-card? I get them sometimes, but never open them as I fear they may be a virus, but I am not the most tech savvy person. I do like to write to a few people who I have remained friends with for many years, so I will be doing that over the next few weeks.

7. Budget

I mentioned money in my last point – and this where the real discipline comes in. Budget sensibly. Write your gift list and set a target amount for each person. Budget for food and drink, travel, evenings out, decorations and cards, batteries (for the toys that never seem to come with them) and so on. Think about everything.

I don’t think I am mean at Christmas – especially when it comes to food, but I do less and less with the gift thing, so I tend to “save” quite a lot, because I am just not spending it in the first place. I don’t do gift shopping far in advance because my ideas change and I tend to forget what I have already bought and end up spending way too much.

Most important with a budget is that you stick as close as possible to it.

8. Gifts

(Photo courtesy of Rene Maritz Photography)

My golden rule at Christmas is to find the perfect gift. If I am visiting anyone at Christmas I always take a house gift – normally a special Christmas decoration. If I am staying over for a few days then I take something more substantial for the home.

Gifts should also not be too practical – I can think of nothing worse than getting something like a kettle as a present. Personal is way best. I also don’t think you have to spend a fortune.

The Internet is an efficient way to shop and you can find some really unusual things on certain sites like Etsy. Be careful not to leave it too late as the goods have to reach you on time, and if you have to post it, make sure you know when the last posting dates are for parcels.

I make a lot of things – crochet for instance, but not everyone appreciates it. So just because I like to make it, doesn’t mean someone will like it. Vintage too can be risky – my vintage may be second-hand junk to someone else. Not everyone likes books, either.

Wrapping too is important. I love making the parcels pretty, and making just that little bit of effort to making it special. Oh – I so love a boxed gift!

My key message here is think about it. Take risks, don’t just give something for the sake of it, keep to your budget and try to enjoy the shopping experience.

9. Traditions – Plan the Activities

You are having guests – what to do with them to keep them occupied. When I go to my friends they treat me so well and I get to go to Christmas markets, hot baths, shopping excursions, mountain hikes in the snow…..

Think about what special things you can do with your guests, or what about creating new traditions for your family.

Board games are good fun too, especially at it can involve everyone old and young. The classics are the best – Risk, Monopoly and Scrabble are among my favourites.

Get some Christmas music for the house, watch those classics on chilly afternoons – Love Actually, The Holiday, The Family Stone and Mama Mia are among my favourites and I simply HAVE. to watch these at Christmastime.

10. Get the House Ready

Not talking about Christmas decorations, but about doing any cleaning. Plan it now. The last thing you want to be doing the day before a guest arrival is to be deep cleaning the house. No chores over Christmas – that is a strong rule for me. I want all of the mundane stuff done at least a week before Christmas. That way I get a real break. During the two weeks I do the most basic housework.

Clean the oven, clear the fridge out so that there is space for all the food. Organise the deep freeze. Deep clean the bathrooms. Wash the tablecloths, bedlinen and tea towels.

Tidy up outside, wash outside light fittings, sweep up leaves and paths.

(Photo courtesy of Rene Maritz Photography)

11. Acts of Kindness & Other Special Days

With all the chaos and busy’ness of Christmas it is too easy to forget about those less fortunate and who may be lonely, struggling or cold. Cast around in your community to see what needs to be done. Even if you just sacrifice just a few hours in the run up to Christmas to help a charity who is working with the homeless or the elderly. (I am busy making little Innocent hats at the moment. 200 and counting (a bit of bragging!))

Loneliness at Christmas is always a particular concern for me. How doing something special, for instance; making up a pretty little hamper of some special treats – not the practical stuff – but nice stuff, and give it to someone who you know will be spending Christmas alone.  Just a little act of kindness.

Other special days to remember as any of those people who are celebrating birthdays at this time of year. I have an aunt who was born on Christmas Eve and I always attempt to speak to her on her special day to make sure she is not just snowballed into the “Oh, here is your Birthday and Christmas present all in one.”

12. Be Your Best, Have Fun and Relax

I think that heading says it all. If it all goes haywire – so what. Make the best of it. Have a fun time and try to chill and relax with families. Enjoy the season, create new traditions, love your friends and family. xx

(Photo courtesy of Rene Maritz Photography)

With a huge thanks to my friend Rene Maritz for very kindly allowing me to use some of her Christmas images.

Share This:

How to Make the Perfect Country Apple Pie

At this time of year there are apples everywhere you look. Roadside stalls groan under the weight of the fruit and the prices are simply silly. The area where I live has acres and acres of apple trees so it almost seems pointless growing them in your own garden, although I have to admit that I do have a small apple tree and there is an enormous basket of fruit waiting for cooking. There is something really pleasing about picking your own.

I bought 2 bags of apples from a stall along the road while out walking – I know, I know – I have apples, but these looked divine. One bag held the classic Bramley, the other bag had apples that were slightly pink fleshed – I think Albert Etter type – but not sure – my pie filling is a lovely colour.

Here is my recipe which in my mind is absolutely perfection. I don’t add any sugar to the pie filling – so the finished result is very homely and tart.

Country Apple Pie

The Filling 

Preparing the fruit for my apple pie means cooking it first. Bramley’s have a tendency to foam to nothing if cooked for too long, while the other apples were a mystery, but they were extraordinarily pink inside – probably really an eating apple

  • You will need no more than 1.8kg of fresh apples, although the quantity you use will vary because of the core size, water content and so on.
  • Peel, core and cut into large chunks.
  • Steam the apples gently for about 10 minutes or until a fork just goes through them – I use a double steamer and do a small amount of fruit at a time else the fruit at the bottom dissolves while the fruit on the top is still firm.
  • Set aside to cool while you make the pastry.

Biscuit Pastry 

This recipe is derived from a family recipe. It is a soft, fall apart type of pastry that is light and a little bit spongy – almost cake like.

Ingredients 
240 g Flour
100 g Sugar
1 1/2 teaspoon Baking Powder
1/2 teaspoon Salt
100 g Butter, chilled and cut into chunks
2 Eggs

  • Preheat the oven to 220 deg C.
  • Mix the dry ingredients together.
  • Rub the butter into the dry ingredients until you have small flakes.
  • Lightly beat the 2 eggs in a separate bowl and add to the mixture, mixing quickly and smoothly working the dough gently until it is smooth and even. It should be fairly soft and light. Do not over knead. Let the dough rest for about 10 minutes before using.

Making The Pie

  • Place the dough onto a lightly floured board and roll out gently until about 4 – 5 mm thick. Don’t worry if it breaks, you can patch it easily.
  • Grease a deep pie dish 200 mm (8″) wide and about 40 mm (1 1/2″) deep with butter. Cover the dish almost entirely with the pastry, patching any breaks and holes – the pastry will want to fall apart. .
  • Poke some holes, with a fork, in the base of the pastry and bake at 220 deg C  for 10 minutes. Turn the oven down to 200 deg C.
  • Let the base rest for a few minutes before adding the filling. Cover the top of the pie with the remaining pastry and then stab with a fork until you have a rough chunky appearance. Crimp the edges of the pie.
  • Bake in the oven for 15 minutes or until browned. Cover the pie with tin foil, turn the oven down to 170 deg C and bake for another 10 minutes.
  • Let it cool slightly before serving with ice-cream or cream, or both! Enjoy.

 

Share This:

Foodie Views – Classic Lobster Thermidor

A few months ago I was treated to a divine lunch at Palmers Restaurant, in Downham Market, and for the first time I had a seafood thermidor. Always the foodie, I had to find out more about this dish as I was intrigued by the delicate flavours that the dish had. I did not think to take a photograph of the dish, but it’s taste is imprinted on my mind.

The version I had at Palmers was made with prawns, monkfish, minced smoked salmon, and dill. Beautifully creamy and with a bit if a bite – mustard.

Traditionally, it should be made with Lobster and it is often served in the body or just in the tails. I have trawled around the internet and found several recipes including the one from Delicious Magazine from where this  photo was found.

It almost always has mustard, and will either have Parmesan or Gruyere cheese, and wine or brandy. I see some American recipes add mushrooms. Not sure about that. It was a very popular dish many years ago, but fell out of favour.

The Ivy was famous for it’s lobster thermidor and I have found a recipe from the BBC Archives which apparently came from the Ivy and there are some techniques on how to mix the sauce, and also how to cut up a lobster.

Essentially it is easy to make, but there is a difference of opinion about how the sauce is made – some use the cream, others make a roux from it. I have not tested the different techniques yet – but I will. I love learning about food.

Fishforthought also have a very similar recipe including a video.

Lobsters are, of course, fairly expensive, but there should be no reason why alternative fish cannot be used – years ago monkfish was often used instead of shellfish because it was much cheaper. Not the case anymore, and I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with monkfish – I am never really sure if I like the density of the meat – although, as I said, the dish I had at Palmers was lovely.

This recipe, from the US is also a mix of fish and I think is worth a try – doesn’t it look great. (Photo from www.justapinch.com)

So if anyone does try to make one of these recipes, please share.

Share This:

Curried (Pickled) Fish

So I haven’t made this in a while – but it one of my favourite things to have in the fridge. I call it curried fish, but really it is a pickled fish. Quite unusual, it is a popular South African dish and when I was growing up, something we ate regularly. Some people may find it a rather unusual dish – but hey until you try it….

It is very easy to make and is a perfect summer dish when you want something light. Also perfect for picnics and so on. 
Pickled Curried Fish

Ingredients: 

500g Raw firm fleshed fish (such as cod – but cheaper fish works as well) 
100g Plain Flour 
Pinch of salt
1 – 2 eggs 
Oil for frying 

The Pickle 
250g Onions 
800ml Malt vinegar 
1Tbs Oil 
1 Tbs Hot Curry Powder 
2 Tbs Brown Sugar 
2 Tbs Chutney 
Pinch of cayenne pepper 
Pinch of salt


Method
Pat the fish dry with paper towel. Cut into palm sized pieces. 
In a shallow bowl mix the flour with the salt. 
Beat one egg with a fork in a small bowl. 
Heat the oil in a frying pan.
Dip a piece of fish into the egg mixture and then into the flour. (It is best to use the one hand method for this to prevent your hands becoming sticky – i.e. dip the fish into the egg mixture with one hand and then place the fish into the flour bowl. With the other hand cover the fish with the flour mixture and then into the frying pan.) 
Fry the fish gently for about 4 – 5 minutes on each side until the batter is browned. Drain the fish on paper towel. 

Slice the onions into rings. 
In a pan heat the oil and gently saute the onions for about 5 minutes until they are transparent and soft. Add the curry powder and stir to mix well. Add the vinegar and bring to the boil for about 10 minutes or until the onions are fully soft. Add the brown sugar, chutney and seasoning. Mix well and simmer for another 5 minutes. 

Spread some of the sauce mixture over the bottom of a bowl, add a layer of fish and spoon some of the sauce over, spreading the onions around. Add more layers of fish and sauce. Place a lid on it and when quite cool place in the fridge. 

You can eat it immediately, but it is better left for 3 to 4 days before eating. It will last in the fridge for weeks if kept covered. (It does not get a chance to last too long in my house.)  

Eat at room temperature with salad, eggs and buttered bread, or with anything you prefer. Delish. 

Share This:

Lamb on the Barbeque

It’s that time of year again. I love it when it begins to warm up and Spring really gets underway. Somehow this year it all seems to have taken much longer for the weather to warm up properly – enough for me to either cook or dine Alfresco. 

This weekend was not the first time I have barbecued this season, but it was the first of my favourite menus – Leg of Lamb. 

Barbequed Lamb


Many people are really quite afraid of doing something like this on a BBQ, but really it is quite easy. (My neighbour insists that it cannot be done…. makes me laugh!)

The trick is to build the fire properly. I always start the fire with charcoal and newspaper. I dislike firelighters, although I do often use them. Make a small mound of charcoal with scrunched up newspaper in the centre of the BBQ. For lamb I use a kettle type BBQ and open the vents underneath so as much air gets to the centre fire. Once the fire is well started add more charcoal. 

Build a Fire


At this stage the fire will be really smoky and I add the leg for a short while to take advantage of the smokiness. Firstly I cut it along the bone, deep down, and I stuff a few bits of rosemary into the slit. Some people advocate removing the bone, but I never do. On the other side of the lamb I make a few small slits and stuff a few bits of rosemary into them. Don’t overdo the rosemary. Lamb has a very distinctive flavour, and I really cannot see the point of over-flavouring something that already tastes brilliant. I do however rub salt all over the meat. 

IMG_4911


Next I add several sticks of rosemary straight on top of the coals. I then pop in the leg of lamb, away from the coals and  close the lid of the BBQ with the vents nearly closed.  I leave the meat for about 20 minutes, and then remove it. 

I then shuffle the coals around so that they all burn and when they have cooled quite a bit – they no longer glow bright red until you blow on them – then it is time to add the meat back. Close the lid again for a good hour, turning it often. 

I don’t like lamb rare, but also not over-done. Test it with a metal spike. When the liquid runs clear it’s done. Allow the meat to rest for about 15 minutes before serving. 

I served this with two salads – a tabbouleh and a three-bean salad. For hot sides I made Brussels sprouts in a cheese sauce (browned in the oven) and corn-on-the-cob also from the BBQ and bathed in butter. 

Smacking delicious.  


Share This: