The X(mas) Files- Chocolate & Ginger Fudge

Spoiler alert!!!! Friends and family are warned that what you read in this section may well end up under your tree so if you don’t like to know what’s coming, come back here in January. 

Chocolate and ginger always strikes me as a Christmassy combination, from memory rather than any great tradition I think. My mum loves stem ginger and those sticky, decadent little lumps of dark chocolate smothered crystallised ginger pieces were always somewhere in the yuletide sweetie stash. Also in more recent years I’ve taken to sending my grandmother some dark chocolate ginger thins at Christmas as she too is fond of them and they post easily and don’t mess too much with her diabetes. Recent blurb from the beeb has highlighted how much of our festive season traditions are run by the women, maybe this is why I’ve taken on this matriarchal fondness for them. Maybe it’s just a good combo, which is why I decided to try it for a new menu item in my edible gift stash for this year.

Please forgive the mixed measuring units, I’ve cobbled this together from various other recipes.

Chocolate & Ginger Fudge

Sticky chocolate and stickier ginger fudge, an indulgent treat at any time of year

Makes about 45 chunky pieces

200g dark chocolate
397g can of sweetened condensed milk
1 tightly packed cup brown sugar (about 230g)
100g unsalted butter
Preserved stem ginger

Although simple, this is a fast recipe that you can’t afford to hang about on so to start off you need to have everything prepared- so that’s your butter chopped into cubes, your chocolate broken into bits, your tin of condensed milk open, your sugar measured out and your ginger finely sliced. I’m a big fan of ginger as a flavour and use two one inch pieces of stem ginger for this quantity- you may wish to in/decrease this. Also please don’t be tempted to mega cheap chocolate for this, it really is the star flavour. Sainsbury’s Belgian dark chocolate for baking is perfect.

Line a high edged cake or loaf tin with baking parchment and keep it close by! In a medium sized, heavy bottomed pan melt the butter on a low heat. When completely melted, add in the condensed milk and stir to combine before adding the sugar and again mixing thoroughly. If you have a silicon backed spoon I would recommend it for this recipe, try to stir it more or less constantly as the milk is prone to burning if you let it sit for too long. Turn the heat up to dissolve the sugar then let the fudge very gently bubble (you don’t want a full rolling boil) for two minutes, still stirring to avoid the milk burning. No, it doesn’t look or smell very attractive at this stage I’m afraid!
Now take it off the heat and drop in all of the chocolate and continue to stir briskly until the chocolate melts. Once fully melted and mixed in (yes, keep stirring!) return to and turn up the heat enough to simmer then take the pan off the heat immediately. Throw in the chopped ginger, stir well, then dump it all into your lined tin. It will start to set quite quickly so don’t hang about here. Also when you stop stirring at this point the heat will start to turn your fudge to a very hard and not very nice solid toffee on the bottom of the pan- you want it out of there straight away.

This is a soft, squidgy kind of fudge and I’m sorry to say it will need to set over night (an hour on the side to get to room temp then cover and into the fridge). Once it’s a nice solid chocolatey brick, turn out and chop with a sharp knife and transfer to an air tight container. It will keep for longer than you are able to resist eating it, don’t worry!

Variations: Multiple and all good! Heavenly with chopped glacé cherries or bashed up walnuts or pecans instead of the ginger. For a prettier fudge try sprinkling over some dessicated coconut, crushed pistachios or even chocolate chips for the true chocaholic. You can add about half a tablespoon of peppermint essence instead of the ginger for a mint version or just make it plain with chocolate- a nice effect is to line the bottom of the pan with some brightly coloured sugar sprinkles then cover the top also when it has gone in to set.

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Come to The Dark Side, we have cocktails………

This is a teaser of sorts, as I have very little to tell on this particular product other than that I have started it’s preparation.

Following on the theme that bought us my own take on Limoncello, as infused for my father each Christmas, we now have an experimental dark liquor brewing on the theme of liquorice. Vile stuff liquorice as far as I’m concerned, but many of my people seem to like it. I came across this idea when surfing the web for some interesting, sweetie based drink infusions that I might be able to bang out by Christmas. I’d never even heard of foxes dark!

Glacier mints? Definitely, love them. Glacier fruits? Also good sweets to my mind but what is this, this purple, grown up, slightly sordid looking thing? Foxes Glacier Dark, aniseed and liquorice flavoured boiled sweets in the classic foxes brick shape. Small, sweet, and according to my sources, highly soluble in Russia’s finest export.

Sweet shop themed vodka is on the cool kids list at the moment, we’ve all seen the stories about skittles vodka and how the green ones will ruin it right? It makes sense that most sweets would work to soften up some vodka. I fully intend to try out some old favourites in the coming months- namely rhubarb and custards, peppermint balls and maybe even some werthers original. But back to the C Word- I know a couple of liquorice lovers who will hopefully be happy to receive some blackened, sweet dark booze from Santa this year.

The method is pretty simple, put one pack of glacier darks (unwrapped of course, don’t be silly) into a preserving bottle, fill up with vodka, shake periodically. Wait. The little pastilles should be gone within a fortnight, dissolving to give a sweet, sticky infused vodka with a pleasant aniseedy kick. We shall see, we shall see. Stay tuned for updates, I have high hopes for this one. Odd as I have very little intention of drinking very much of it. Merry Christmas!

The elusive Foxes Glacier Dark sweets, not desperately common unfortunately.

Update: One Week On: I have to correct this to say that it took less than three days for all the sweets to melt, without too much shaking at all. I also have to correct the suggestion that I don’t really want to drink it because it is lovely! Yes, me, who doesn’t like anise or liquorice that much just tried a half shot to see if the sugar levels were high enough and am now sorely tempted to knock up another bottle for myself. Yes, Co-taster, and another one for you too!
It’s sweet, it’s mysteriously smoky looking and it’s dangerously drinkable, and I implore you to give it a go if you like a naughty tipple once in a while. 

The X(mas) Files- Limoncello

No need for a spoiler alert on this one as we all know I’ll be taking the old man a bottle of this zesty knock out juice for Christmas. To be quite honest I might fear for my own safety if I didn’t.
But while we’re here, let’s talk about dads. What the damn hell do you buy your Dad for Christmas? I mean, he’s got most of the stuff he needs and even more that he doesn’t, right? He has more than enough smelly things, and plenty of jumpers and ties and scarves he doesn’t wear. He has enough wine. There will be plenty of sweets over the festive period, he doesn’t really want those. He has a bazillion DVDs he doesn’t watch in the cupboard and twice as many CDs. And if he doesn’t have it on CD, chances are that he has a stealth copy on his iTunes waiting to usurp your gift buying efforts in all of it’s smug digital glory. Bugger.
I always struggle, but I don’t feel bad about it because he does’t know either as every year we ask him what he would like and he mumbles a bit, says he doesn’t know and directs you to question his good lady wife on the subject instead. It’s not that he’s difficult, no-one is really if you know them, you just have to think. What do they like? What do they really, consistently enjoy? It might be painfully simple but the older I get, the better results I find this gift buying philosophy yields. My brother and his annual Christmas toblerone mountain will tell you that maybe I do this little theory to death, but he can shut up because he still likes toblerone, right????? Anyway I digress. My Dad, among other things, likes a limoncello. A sweet sticky sour shot of impossibly lemony booze, served always ice cold and usually in the after dinner hours. Loves it. Some time ago, when I first started making the edible Christmas gifts it occurred to me that in the bundles of biscuits and jams and boiled sweets, there probably wasn’t that much in there he actually went for, and next time, I was going to make him some lemony home brew. What could go wrong? Very little, my culinary kittens, very little. The below recipe, though technically a vodka infusion rather than a proper home brew, is both simple and effective. It’s been a hit at our last few family Christmas feasts- infact I’m not sure it’s ever lasted more than two hours after Christmas dinner.

OK so not every family knocks back a litre of fruity shots after dinner but if you’re from a more wimpy restrained eating party this will still work, a sneaky tipple, a naughty drizzle over your ice cream, a fab addition to your champagne cocktail. And if that’s still no good, you can give it away. With the simple purchase of some pretty presentation bottles you have a bright, fun and original gift, made from your own fair hand. People love that! And if they don’t they’d never have the heart to tell you………

I thoroughly encourage you to make some, but if you want it for Christmas get to it immediately as it needs a good month to infuse. Saluté!

Boom Boom Limoncello

Makes about 1 Litre

One bottle of vodka
150ml water
Six unwaxed lemons
200g sugar
1L bottle or preserving jar
Presentation bottles
Metal funnel with strainer attachment

To get things rolling, you need some vodka. Some halfway decent vodka. Please. You don’t have to go crazy, something in the middle like Smirnoff Red or Russian Standard (which is on the cheap in Sainsbury’s this week) will be fine- just don’t go with a no name brand, £7.50 a gallon bog cleaner standard voddie. You get what you pay for, so go at least halfway upmarket.
My other demand with this recipe is cleanliness. Everything needs to be spotlessly clean. And I do mean spotless, no smudges, no smears, no lingering ghost of fairy liquid, clean! The slightest spot has the potential to taint your sugar syrup or your juice so don’t risk it. Wash it all properly, then rinse it even more properly. Ok. We can now begin.

Start off by making a stock syrup by combining the water and sugar and boiling for a couple of minutes until the sugar has dissolved and the liquid starts to visibly thicken to syrupy bubbles. Set aside to cool.
In another, scrupulously clean bowl, zest and juice your lemons. Don’t worry too much about pips and feel free to gauge out some flesh and drop that in there as it will all be filtered later on but avoid getting any of the pith in there. You will need to use unwaxed lemons unless you are aiming for an aperitif that tastes like a citronella candle.
Pour the lemony bits into the syrup and stir to combine, then transfer this mixture to your brewing vessel- try a kilner type jar or John Lewis preserving bottle or even a demi john if you’re making serious quantities, just make sure it is super clean (sterilise on a hot wash in the dishwasher before use) and has an air tight seal. Now simply top up with the vodka and seal.
Store somewhere cool and dark (or at least well out of direct sunlight) and for the first ten days give it a gentle shake every day. A gentle shake, you’re not auditioning for the Cocktail sequel. From day eleven, you can leave it to improve undisturbed  and it will only improve. I’d recommend leaving it for about five weeks, certainly no less than three.

When your time is up, you need to strain this and decant into your gifting/serving bottles. A metal funnel with a little straining insert is the easiest tool for this, otherwise you could use a very fine mesh sieve or even some cheesecloth. Again, everything needs to be clean please!
And with that, we’re done. Give it away with a smile and a little bit of ribbon round the top. Or keep it for yourself, stored in the freezer and ready to serve in a thick, gloopy and surprisingly refreshing shot. A merry Christmas indeed!

The middle stage product, ready to go into storage to improve.

Eat Britain! Eat Tiptree Jam!


I’d be beyond remiss not to give a little shout out to Wilkin & Sons Tiptree Jam as we’re talking about local food marvels. Tiptree jam is manufactured at the Wilkin and Sons factory roughly ten miles from the spot I am typing this from, and it’s pretty famous in these parts. Now a trust run business, Wilkin & Sons have been banging out jams, sauces, preserves and marmalades since 1885 from the village of Tiptree in sunny Essex. Still under the eye of the original founder’s great grandson, this is a Great British Business thriving at home when other classic homegrown products are either scaling down or being sold to international companies such as the now Japanese owned Branston Pickle. So why are Wilkin & Sons still doing so well?

Simple.

Jam.

Who doesn’t like jam? Oh, yes you do you big fibber, and if you visit either the on site shop at the factory or their lovely website, I challenge you to go through their sticky repertoire and not find something you want. Ok so pedants may point out it’s not ALL jam, but this adds to the beauty of it. There’s jams, marmalades, lemon curd, ice creams, jellies, honey, savoury table sauces and chutneys, even a simply labelled jar of ‘Christmas’, it’s never ending! Ok, not quite never ending but it’s a fantastic selection and I am yet to meet a Tiptree product I didn’t like. I am still working my way through the entire list but favour in particular their lime marmalade and hot mango sauce. Their plain and simple strawberry jam is second to none, so wonderfully sticky and fruity, without being sickly, that I’ve never felt the need to upgrade to their champagne version. But never say never.

My latest Tiptree haul, all for less than a fiver. Bargain.

Ok fine, I hear you say, but it’s just jam! And sauce and marmalade and that. Why them? Well don’t take my word for it, ask HRH The Queen of England if you get the chance. The Royal table has had a standing order from Wilkin & Sons since 1911 and if it’s good enough for them, well.

But why settle with a jar of jam by mail order (or by hand from most grocers, country wide) when you can go to the factory yourself for the full experience! Sadly a factory tour isn’t available these days but as well as a gorgeous little shop full of reasonably priced (no, really) jams and jellies and spreads plus some artisan bakery products and other local wonder produce there is a delightful jam museum and the all important tea rooms. You can get refreshed with a selection of rather good teas or out and out stuffed with grub, right on the main site where all the products are made. Standard tea room fare is available in the form of sandwiches and baked potatoes but really, when in this particular Rome you need to be going for a full on afternoon tea of sandwiches and scones and butter and yes, you guessed it, JAM! All served in their signature mini jars, it’s just such a simple treat. I went there recently for a friend’s birthday lunch and am still deliriously happy to have been introduced to their Hot Gooseberry Chutney which makes the difference between a cheese sandwich and the best bloody cheese sandwich you ever laid tastebuds on. Heavenly.

You can read more about them by clicking here, including their farming, recipes, products and illustrious history. They are a great British success story, and don’t fight the sampling temptation, if nothing else grab yourself a jar of their strawberry or raspberry jam. Or the cherry one. Or the tawny marmalade. And some mango sauce. And you’re done. Once you’ve got some icecream too. Maybe some more jam.

The X(mas) Files- Peanut Butter Fudge

Spoiler alert!!!! Friends and family are warned that what you read in this section may well end up under your tree so if you don’t like to know what’s coming, come back here in January. 

Now I’m not one for early Christmas celebrations, I don’t believe in tinsel on the shelves before Halloween decorations or Cliff Richard playing in the shops before the end of November. If ever. But If you like to gift foodie bits as much as you like to nosh them, then one needs to be prepared. Some things it’s only time to start thinking about or practising, other things need to be well on the way now in order to be ready for Yuletide. So let’s go.

Ladies and Gentlemen, here marks the beginning of my Christmas grub projects. You don’t of course have to limit them to December 25th, but they do make wonderful additions to the festive season. Expect in coming weeks some sweets, some booze, my thoughts on the great Christmas dinner and whatever else occurs to me in the times between.

I’ve not made fudge before. I have witnessed others go through very intense sessions of boiling and drop tests and the like only to wail some time later when they were awarded with an intensely thick syrup which wasn’t going to set for anything. I don’t have a sugar thermometer, so I didn’t go there. That made this recipe all the more curious to me as it seemed so simple and so quick. Sceptical, I researched the interweb for reviews or alternative versions and was comforted to find many people touting the same simple method and promising a melt in the mouth luxury treat. They weren’t wrong.

Peanut Butter Fudge
Makes about 45 large pieces

125g unsalted butter
500g dark brown sugar
120ml full fat milk
250g crunchy peanut butter
1/2 tbsp vanilla extract
275g icing sugar

Start off with a large, heavy based pan- you will need plenty of room for the mixture to bubble up. Melt the butter over a gentle heat (careful not to boil) then add the milk and brown sugar. As always, I recommend using organic milk and butter if you can. Stir to combine only then turn up the heat until boiling. When you have a rolling boil, stop stirring and let it bubble away for three minutes. No more, no less. It will look like a lake of bubbling evil and smell like bad treacle at this point, don’t panic.Take it off the heat now and stir in the peanut butter and vanilla. I would suggest using a quite creamy peanut butter where you can and avoid the whole food types as they wont give such a smooth finish. Sunpat crunchy will be ideal. Do this step quickly as the fudge will start to solidify as soon as it is off the heat. Once combined, pour this in over the icing sugar which you should have in a separate bowl. Beat this quickly to combine- you’ll need a strong arm as it’s very stiff! The mixture may begin to look a bit dry and frankly unappealing at this point. Keep the faith. It will work. Pour out into a suitable tin lined with greaseproof paper- I use a high sided 8″ cake tin but if you can’t have curves in your fudge go with a loaf tin or even a higher sided baking tray.
Pat it into the tray and smooth the top, set aside to cool for a good twenty minutes before transferring to the fridge to set properly for two to three hours- if you have a silicon type mixing spoon I’d recommend using this for the whole process.
Now if you’re tempted to have a little nibble at this point, and who wouldn’t be, it might not be that impressive and seem a little dry. I was less impressed than I had hoped to be but that was the price I paid for being hasty.
Turn out your set fudge, if it’s not a huge brick of solid sugariness it’s not finished- straight from this fridge it would make a handy weapon. Using a very sharp knife, cut it up and transfer to an air tight container. Once back to room temperature, this stuff is fantastic. And I mean fantastic. I mean sugar headache at ten o clock in the morning because you couldn’t resist two chunks of it before breakfast fantastic.

If you’re making this to gift, it should keep for a couple of weeks but I would make this one later rather than sooner maybe a day or so before giving.  But by all means have a practice round beforehand, just to be sure it’s as good as I have told you. Have it with your coffee or crumbled over some vanilla icecream. Or even before breakfast. Merry Christmas!

This is not just any sycophantic rant……

For the sake of balance, I wish to start this entry by sharing a little story with you. Once upon a time on a Friday night in October, between work and the bus stop, a young woman stopped into her local M&S to get a thank you gift for her dinner hosts for that night and some wine for her own selfish and unapologetic consumption. After doing battle with the self check out which, as usual, failed on every other scanned object, she took her newly purchased consumables and made to leave. Only her 10p bag for life decided it didn’t like life at all any more and split open, discarding it’s contents on the cold hard floor. One of two bottles of moderately priced Spanish white joined in the suicide bid and smashed itself open in a cringey final salute to this world. The young woman was heard to swear, but was witnessed by staff who saw the bag was hell bent on self destruction and supplied her with a replacement bottle of wine, free of charge. How sporting of them! Will madam need another bag? Yes please, thank you. That will be 10p. Sorry, what? Large shopping bag, 10p. So, I get free replacement wine that smashed due to your faulty bag, but I have to pay again for a bag? Yes, 10p. REALLY?!?!?!?!?!?!?! The young woman was in a hurry, so she paid and left and swore a bit more. She swore further when said wine bottles proved to be wrongly assembled with lids that just spun and spun and would not open due to having no threads and only yielded up their grapey contents after much brute force and the blunting of some kitchen knives. As wine goes, it wasn’t very nice either. Grand fail, Marks & Spencer, grand fail.

I tout for M&S products a lot and felt a need to add this less than positive review of both their ridiculous pay for a broken bag policy and products so I don’t appear biased. I am not blinded by St Michaels lights.

Now, for the good news, it was Dine in for £10 this weekend just gone, a regular loss leading promotion from M&S where you can get a main dinner, side dish, dessert item and bottle of wine for a mere £10. If you don’t shop there, trust me, this is an amazing price for M&S food. Of course it’s not universal and the products in the offer are limited but never to a point where one feels a total lack of choice and when the wine typically retails at about £6 a bottle, you really can’t sniff at this offer. And don’t panic haters and naysayers, I know they aren’t a charity and this is indeed a ploy to get you in the store and be so impressed at how little you have spent that you pick up a few full priced items too. Or even come back next week to repurchase those yummy new things you tried in the special offer at full price. I get it. It’s what one might call a win win. I always have a look when the offer is in town, but don’t miss it terribly when it isn’t. M&S is treat food for me, completely non-essential, but this week every single constituent piece of my dinner for two for a tenner was incredible. Incredible. I’m salivating thinking of it again. Here comes the glowing review of stuff I want to eat every day and can’t wait to buy again.

The Main: Ready to Roast Honey Glazed Ham:
I feel not one pang of human emotion for the death of that pig, or the efforts of those bees or anything else involved in this little package other than my own intense enjoyment. Just open it, pour on the sauce, cook for just under an hour with the odd baste. Perfect, beautifully moist ham with the right salt and sweet battle of the flesh and the honey glaze. Succulent and yummy. Serves two to three? Not in my house!

The Side: Fresh Chips.
As I may have asked before, who doesn’t like chips? Crazy people. Good chips, fresh maris piper chips pre prepped to be thrown in the oven. Crispy and fluffy and easy. Perfect.

A lovely drop of red.

The Wine: 2011 Bellota Tempranillo.
I would usually go white with pork but The Boy likes his red and I had half a Chardonnay in the fridge that needed finishing so we picked this up. I know a bit about wine but I know a lot more about what I like, and this was intensely likeable. Fruity, light and gloriously tangy, this is Danger Wine. This is the kind of wine that goes down like ribena and makes you wake up the next morning fully clothed in an empty bathtub with a banging headache. Fan. Tastic.

The Dessert: Hot Caramel and Hazlenut blondies.


I’m not a fan of buying cakes. I make cakes, it’s easy and they tend to taste better than something in a supermarket chiller section. But you can’t go wrong with blondies, right? Unless you incorrectly assume, like many, that a blondie is a brownie made with white chocolate instead of dark. Negative. A blondie  is a rich, stodgy cake bar containing a lot of brown sugar. These were served in little round trays with a puddle of sticky sweet caramel in the middle and a scattering of hazlenuts throughout. Ten minutes in the oven and ready to go. Beautifully balanced sweet and soft and crunch and sauce, I could have eaten two. Before I ate another one. What made it extra special in a really childishly excitable fashion was the thoughtful inclusion in the box of a little star stencil and some icing sugar so you could affect your own little picture on the top. Yay! It’s dinner and crafts. And if you’re male and not sold on this alone, they apparently also look a bit like boobs.  These little beauties will be on the table again in no time and I encourage you to try some, offer or not.

Five stars, M&S, without a doubt. Simple to prepare, gorgeous to consume and easy on the income. You are forgiven for the wine-bag debacle.

Blondie, hot from the oven with added star stencil sugary decoration! Om nom nom.

 

Keep an eye on the press or the M&S website for news of the next Dine in for Two for £10 offer. 

Cookshelf- James Martin’s Desserts

Desserts, by the lovely James Martin. Nice shirt, too.

I could do bad things to James Martin. And not in a thinly veiled innuendo kind of way. He has stolen my Saturday mornings and made me obsessed with cake. He made me give up any concept of cooking with margarine. I hold him personally responsible for at least four and a quarter excess pounds of flub on frame. Bastard!

In other news, I love James Martin! And not just because he’s tall and Northern and makes good cakes. Yes he’s classically trained and all that and yes he can make some very fluffy and complex food but he’s honest about it. And he makes good cakes. No Saturday morning feels quite right to me unless it starts with a huge mug of coffee and Saturday Kitchen on the beeb for some weekend cookery inspiration. He’s amusing, and likeable and not pretentious. Did I mention the cake?

Yes cake, desserts of all kinds in fact to be found in his book, the not desperately imaginatively titled ‘Desserts’. I have to thank an unknown well wisher who bought this for a friend of mine some handful of Christmases ago. She ‘doesn’t really make desserts’ and offered me a secondary gift of this tome of puddingy goodness. I took it. It is without doubt in the top five favourites of my over stuffed cook book shelves and the undisputed champion of the ‘most frequently opened’ title. It is such a user friendly book with plenty of bare basics covered for those of us who don’t have a normal sponge recipe or aren’t that confident at just knocking out some spun sugar spirals. It’s all there, and it’s easy to follow. From shortcrust pastry to a ridiculously beautiful Fire & Ice Cake Mr Martin guides you through with some wonderfully chatty asides and introductions to generally easy to follow recipes. Puddings, tarts, pastries, pavlova. There really is something for everyone in fact I out and out defy you to buy this book and fail to find at least five desserts you want to make regularly. They aren’t all ten minute blender jobs by any means but even triple thumbed cooks such as myself can happily attempt anything in this book and if my efforts are anything to go by, make a pretty decent job of it.

Immediate favourites from ‘Desserts’ are a painfully simple ginger cheesecake which my Mr and I ran up as a last minute option for late notice dinner guests not long ago and utterly fantastic chocolate brownies which have never lasted more than 24 hours after baking- even when I didn’t have anyone to share them with! But my number one, flagship recipe for this book can be found on page 159- the Chocolate Cola Cake (way before that dodgy bint Nigella made the concept popular). This page in my book is now missing various lumps of text due to such heavy usage and the resulting splats of molten butter and beaten egg which have made the text run and in a couple of places stuck the pages together. No matter, I’ve made it enough times to bluff through now. It’s fantastic. The whole book is fantastic,  a one stop shop for afters of all sorts. If you cook, you should own this. Even if you ‘don’t really do desserts’.