The X(mas) Files- A Late Cucumber Gin

headerThis is almost a post script for the edible/quaffable gifts I’ve been going on about previously in these pages. I would have posted it sooner, as it has a fairly long infusion period but frankly the recipient could not be trusted to avoid reading about it here and I wanted it to be something of a surprise.

Mother’s Ruin or as it is less sinisterly known, Gin, is a marvellous spirit though it seems that many don’t grow to appreciate it until they get a little bit older. It does sound like a fogey refreshment I suppose, a Gin & Tonic please barkeep! I like it though and a fine G&T is an art form, it’s all about proportions and fresh mixer and plenty of ice and LIME!!!!!!!!!!! Not lemon. Please not lemon. Yeesh. I’ve always been happy on Gordon’s London Gin, pleased with a Bombay Sapphire and out and our thrilled with a Tanqueray but in recent years Hendricks keeps popping up. Yes, Hendriks, a herbally infused gin. We all know I’m not opposed to meddling with some vodka but to flavour your gin, sacrilege, no? Actually, no. Sloe gin has been about forever and Dad was pleasantly surprised by some Raspberry Edinburgh Gin that made it to his birthday table so why the hell not. And cucumber makes sense- it’s cool and refreshingly savoury and surprisingly aromatic in sufficient quantity. The more you think about it, the more sense is found, in theory at least.
ingredientsSo to trusty Google I went and found a simple enough method to prepare this infusion. By simple enough, I mean ridiculously easy. You need a bottle, gin, and cucumber.
Yup that’s it. An organic cucumber if you can manage it and reasonable quality gin (Gordons or better please). I went with two thirds of a large cucumber, peeled and de-seeded then chopped into fine chunks. These go into a clean brewing bottle or kilner type jar, top up with just under half a litre of gin. Seal, shake, then stick in a cupboard and forget about it for 2-3 weeks. When it comes time to give, strain into a presentation bottle and add several very thinly sliced cucumber rounds- thin enough to curl them and pop through the bottle neck.

A good old G n T

A good old G n T

The gin takes on a lovely fresh aroma and an ever so subtle green tint and it changes the flavour enough to notice but not annihilate. It is yet to be confirmed but I suspect it would be lovely added to a summer pimms cocktail or incorporated into some kind of tossy chilli martini. Or if that’s all too exotic or unseasonal for you, just poured over ice with a wedge of fresh cucumber and some Fevertree Mediterranean style tonic. Give it a go.

 

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New Year, New You?

Yeah, Christmas is done. The turkey is finished, the two remaining bits of flapjack are going stale and the unlucky among us are back at work for the hellishly slow Christmas-New Year interim period of playing solitaire and tidying the stationery cupboard all day.

Time then to reflect, to review and in extreme cases even repent until we can get to the concluding spate of unrealistic but oh so exemplary new years resolutions. Hurrah for that. I have a couple lined up, and they are probably a bit too personal and convoluted to share in these pages, but there is one that just about stretches to be at least semi relevant. New things. Must try new things. Do new things. Eat new stuff. Maybe break some of my big foodie rules, like never mixing fish and cheese or consuming anything that ever came within three feet of a coconut. Ok so having a tuna melt for lunch isn’t going to change the world too much for me but like most new years resolutions, it’s about improving attitude. I need to move away from the tried and tested back to a world where things might fail and more importantly, a word that doesn’t end when things go a bit wrong. I even had a little trial earlier on when I forgot to go to Sainsbury’s and had to stop in the Polish Supermarket on the way home for a couple of essentials. The Utterly Butterly type low fat spreads were a small fortune in this fine establishment, so I instead put fewer of my hard earned pennies into a non descript Euro-marg. Interesting. Potentially disastrous.

Some kind of non domestic vegetable fat based spread. Mmmmm.

Some kind of non domestic vegetable fat based spread. Mmmmm.

It was OK, bit heavy but passable in tight spot. I’m still not sure about a tuna melt yet though.

So there is it, the challenge for 2013 is new stuff. Interesting stuff. Stuff that has not been before, at least not for me. Only forget what I said about the coconut. Never going to happen.

The X(mas) Files- Really Easy Rocky Road

rr headerThere are many things that mark Christmas, and many points of argument about what is essential and merely nice to have. Turkey, mince pies, even a Christmas pudding can all come under dispute but I’m prepared to bet all the money in my pockets (about 97p FYI) that no one would argue that Christmas just isn’t Christmas without chocolate. Preferably far too much chocolate and the younger you are, the earlier in the morning you can get away with it. I always had a bag of chocolate coins in the toe of my stocking along with the mystery clementine that Santa seemed to have stolen from our living room fruit bowl. You have chocolate in your advent calendar, tree chocolates, big tins of Roses and Quality Street and of course the great gift for anyone (without a tree nut allergy) Toblerone! I remember the younger male sibling being oddly sluggish one Christmas morning when he was six or seven only for my Dad to discover about twenty celebrations wrappers in the wee man’s bed. I’ve mentioned before that foodie runs in the family I think.

So as my final edible gift for this year, I rustled up a fits-all-ages chocolate treat to take along this afternoon to kick of the festive tummy aches. Rich, decadent chocolate base with crunch and squidge all mixed in. Stupidly easy to make, even easier to eat, and you’ve still got time to rustle one up before the big day! So happy chocmas to all of my readers, I hope you get everything you asked for and if only for a few days, a little bit fatter too.

Really Easy Rocky Road

sweets

125g unsalted butter
300g good dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa solids)
3 tbspns golden syrup
1tsp vanilla essence
1 bag of maltesers
150g marshmallows

Start off lining a 7 inch tin with baking paper then put in your maltesers and marshmallows- if you’re using mini marshmallows keep them whole but if you’re using the larger ones snip into small pieces with some clean kitchen scissors.
Put the butter, chocolate, syrup and vanilla into a heavy bottomed pan and heat gently until all the chocolate and butter are completely melted and mixed. Leave to cool for a couple of minutes then pour this into your tin, giving it a good shake to distribute the filling bits evenly. Transfer to the fridge to set for a good four hours, ideally over night, then slice in to bars and serve.

Merry Christmas!

rr finish

The X(mas) Files- Cran-Mac Flapjack

xmas pudOne Christmas, in a period of my life which now seems a millennia ago but is probably more like a decade, I decided to make some biscuits for the coming festivities. I had no sweet cook books, if I had any at all back then, and I didn’t really know what to do. I’d always cooked from my mother’s books (official and hand noted), only I didn’t live with my mother any more. Where to begin.

Rather obviously, I rang my mum. After some nominal chit chat and hasty scribbling she gave me three recipes, all easily adapted and all biscuity. One was for coconut and oat cookies. I don’t like coconut. I don’t merely dislike coconut. I out and out hate coconut. It’s vile, perfumed waxy constitution makes my skin crawl, I had a nice shiver there just typing the word. It’s greasy and has an unpleasant, insectile texture and you always end up with little lumps of that grim, hairy husk in the fresh stuff. It’s disgusting, it’s a total pain to get into as well. If I’m going to spend half an hour smashing into something for my dinner it had better be a lobster, not some weird fruit-pulse-vegetable-nut whatever the hell that thing is. Bounty Bars, snowballs, chicken kormas, No. Thank. You. Ick.
So I made the coconut and oat cookies, leaving out the masses of dessicated coconut in the instructions. Well, apart from ruining the flavour that coconut was also there for structural purposes it seems as all of my cookies swiftly merged into one massive, oaty slab on the baking tray. And it wasn’t half bad, let me tell you.
Over the years I’ve worked on the constituent parts, trying many times to find a suitable coconut sub to give the mix the solidity to stay as individual cookies in the oven. I eventually gave up and accepted that it was going to end up as one great big oaty slab, and after some extensive taste testing, settled on the cranberry and macadamia nut version coming up here. I really like it and tend to bang one out at Christmas where possible. As the older male sibling and No.1 flapjack eater has said, it’s not the end of the world if you can’t make the flapjack. But you know, you will have ruined Christmas.

Right then.  Merry Christmas!

Boom Boom Cran-Mac Flapjack

mix

5oz unsalted butter
4oz caster sugar
1 heaped tbspn golden syrup
3oz porridge oats/rolled oats
4oz plain flour
One large pack of mixed dried cranberries and madacamia nuts (about 300g)
2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1/2 tbspn cinnamon

Set your oven to 170 C and line a high sided baking tray or swiss roll tin with baking parchment. In a large bowl combine the flour, oats, cinnamon, cranberries and macadamia nuts and set aside. Then in a small saucepan put your butter, syrup and sugar and warm over a low heat until the butter is completely melted and mixed with the sugar and syrup.
syrupSpeaking of syrup, I must insist on Lyle’s Golden syrup. It’s the best, and we all know it. Nothing else will do.
Pour your melty butter mix into the dry ingredients and stir well to combine. Take a big whiff of that cinnamon aroma too and look forwards to Christmas a bit more. Set it aside.
Rather swiftly, boil your kettle and put the bicarbonate of soda into a clean mug or glass. When the kettle permits, pour on a tablespoon of freshly boiled water- it will all fizz up rather violently for a a moment then settle down. Pour this over your mix and give it a really thorough stir.
Dump the mixture out onto the baking tray, giving it a shake to spread out if desired. It will spread out nicely while cooking so you don’t need to sorry too much about evening it out at this point. Put it straight into the oven for twelve to fifteen minutes until the top is a uniformly dark brown and it’s starting to look a bit sticky.
Leave on the side to cool then turn out, remove baking parchment and cut into handy snack sized pieces with a very sharp knife. If you try to cut it while warm, it will disintegrate. It will still taste great, but look a total mess so best let it cook completely.
This will keep in an air tight container for at least a week. Maybe more but it’s never lasted that long in my house!

done

Variations- this works with most dried fruit or berries and has been successful in the past with any or all of of walnuts, sultanas, dried blueberries, pecans etc. 

The Perfect Fish Finger Sandwich Hunt- River Lodge Colchester.

Tis the season and all that but all the festive cheer in the world wasn’t going to avert this disaster. I’m not even sure I can bring myself to review it properly.

ffs riverlodgeThe scene was The River Lodge Pub, early on a Wednesday night in December where pre-entertainment sustenance was in order. It’s a pub, I wasn’t expecting miracles. I wasn’t quite expecting this either.

The chips were passable. The fishfingers were of a frozen standard variety, could have fitted another one in there though to my mind. The bread, oh, the bread. It was just bread, white sliced. No salad, no seasoning, no smear of low fat butter substitute. Just bread. It was a crime against sandwiches, I did not enjoy it and based on the experiences of my co-diners I probably wont eat there again. A shame! But good reason to find the next fish finger sandwich as soon as possible and erase this from my memory.

Overall, 2 out of 10. It would have been a three but I’m also outraged by paying four quid for a pint of lager so they lost one for that too.

 

The X(mas) Files- Candy Cane Vodka

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. 

xmas pudLike so many various sweet shop themed shots, I read about candy cane vodka on the interweb quite a bit this year while researching some potential new additions to the Christmas gifting. I’ve always had a soft spot for candy canes or as we here in the Isles of Britian call it- rock. I used to love Easter holidays when I was a kid and we would end up in Norfolk or Cornwall or somewhere equally close and seasonally rainy and visits to various tourist trap visitor centres always had an inevitable end- the gift shop! And in the gift shop oh, dozens of tubs of weirdly coloured twisted sticks of exotically flavoured stretched boiled sugar. Rock. Or candy canes. I loved them. My brother and I used to spin them quickly in our curled tongues to see who could hone the most impressive point. You don’t ever, ever crunch your rock, it would all be over too quickly! Unless it’s your traditional Blackpool rock with softer rocky innards which can only be chomped as it will not give you any kind of sculpting pleasure. Trust me on that.
But besides the obvious sugar reward, there is a certain romanticism about the traditional candy cane. Pink and white and curled at the top like a walking stick- all the better to hang from the Christmas tree or poke from the top of the stocking in a perfect tease of sweets to come. It’s just, nice I suppose. Innocent and child like somehow. Though whoever first put them into a bottle of Smirnoff must have had other memories.

The Dark Side and the Candy Cane brews, almost ready for a mid winter tasting.

The Dark Side and the Candy Cane brews, almost ready for a mid winter tasting.

So far my candy cane brew is going well and a sneak taste last week showed that this particular beam of moonshine is a lot stronger than my Dark Side efforts. As in, politely try to disguise a raw booze cough strong. As in, this Listerine tastes a bit strange strong. Yowzers. The first batch is indeed remisiscent of an oddly enticing mouthwash. Not that I’m calling it a failure, we’re simply adding more candy canes as I’m confident that once I can smother that rough Russian finish with some more sugary overtones, this stuff will be knock out (and not just in a drunken collapse fashion). It also looks absolutely incredible, a startling bright baby pink, again giving the initial sense of fun and innocence, only to deliver a thick, warming and oh so grown up punch. I intend for it to put a bit of pretty pep into a Martini, or even be enjoyed over ice by the fire before bed. Right before bed. You wont be walking the dog or staying up opening presents very long on this one.

Candy Cane Vodka

Makes 500ml
70cl bottle of Vodka
30 mini or 20 normal sized peppermint candy canes
A kilner jar or similar for brewing
Presentation bottles

canes

It’s pretty simple really, get your (very very clean and sterile) mixing jar and put in the candy canes, slightly broken up. You must have only pink and white candy canes- if you get the ones with a green stripe you’ll get a sludgy coloured result nowhere near as appetising as the fluffy pink hangover juice you want. Fill up the jar with vodka, seal and leave. In fact the candy canes dissolve so well you can do this straight in your presentation bottle if you wish as it shouldn’t need straining, just be warned this can be tricky if like me you decide you need to add more sweets to counteract the fire breathing finish. As with the Limoncello and Dark Side home infusions- pleeeeease use halfway decent vodka. Russian Standard or Smirnoff at least. The canes should only take a day or two to dissolve completely, give the container a gentle shake once in a while to help it along. Also give it a good shake before serving as the white sugar component can settle a bit, giving you a gluey looking layer at the bottom of the bottle which is harmless, but doesn’t look great.

That’s it, bottle it up, chuck on some curled ribbon and you’re done. Merry Christmas!

The X(mas) Files- Turkey, or not tur-key?

Is there any question? Apparently so. Not every one goes for the traditional bird at their Christmas table, it has been a hot topic of debate around my yuletide on more than one occasion. I mean, do we have to have turkey? What does it have to do with the birth of Christ or the midwinter solstice or whatever other point of religious significance you assign to the now almost world and faith spanning late December holiday? Are we really going to have turkey again?

Go Turkey!

Eat the bird. Look in his eyes, he'd eat you given half a chance.....

Eat the bird. Look in his eyes, he’d eat you given half a chance…..

We’ll start with the case For the turkey and for the sake of clarity I am well and truly ‘For’ on this debate. I love turkey, but I wont bore you with all the goodness related nutritional info about how it’s low fat and high in b vitamins and other healthy boosting bits, you can read about that by clicking here. What I will say is that if you are one of those carnivores that says oh, I don’t really like turkey, I am 99.9% sure that you do like it, you’re just doing it wrong. An over cooked, dried out, tough old lump of turkey breast is a sin against all things edible. And to double the insult of that sin, it’s really not hard to cook a turkey properly. You know, slowly at a reasonable heat to yield a wonderful, succulent bird that makes a stunning centrepiece for your roast and fantastic sandwiches the next day. You just need to keep the moisture in, by one or many of the following options: pushing plenty of butter under the skin, covering with foil for most of the cooking time, roasting breast-side-down for the majority of the cooking period or covering the entire body in streaky bacon. I go for the bacon method myself, it puts a beautiful saltiness into the bird, keeps the perfect level of succulence in the breast meat and is wonderfully crisped at the end of cooking to be smashed up and thrown in with the sprouts. De-lish. I digress- the one thing you have to remember however you do your turkey is that you need to baste. Frequently and thoroughly. Go crazy and treat yourself to a proper turkey baster and set the oven timer to call out to you every 20 minutes at most for this. I’d use foil too just to be sure until the last 30 minutes or so of cooking, and I promise you that you will get the result you want.
But it’s not all about the boob you know, dark turkey meat (legs, wings, the more active muscles) is fantastically tasty in a slightly heavier, more hearty way than the breast meat. Yup, I’m a leg girl if I’m lucky enough to get to it on Christmas day. Like those people who think they don’t like turkey, those who just buy a crown in really irritate me. You’re skipping the best bit!!!!!! Though due to being a bit fattier your dark meat tends to be nicer hot than the white meat but it will still make you a passable boxing day sandwich with plenty of chutney or pickles to cut through the extra grease.

Edward VII, number one Windsor and turkey eater.

Edward VII, number one Windsor and turkey eater.

I like turkey throughout the year, due to it being reasonably cheap, diet friendly and nutritious, not to mention quick to cook when purchased in handy portions from the supermarket, plus it’s a widely available British farmed product which we all know I like to support. But why do we have it for Christmas? Although tasty, is it really that special? Does it deserve to take centre stage in the major festival dinner of the year? Turkey first came in as a feast bird during the Victorian era, when we all started living a bit longer and having slightly bigger households that just wouldn’t be fed by a mere goose- the previously traditional yule bird. However it wasn’t until King Edward VII got a liking for a turkey dinner at Christmas that it became widely popular, somewhere around the turn of the 20th Century. Ok so it wasn’t so long ago, but he was the first Windsor on England’s fair throne and as we still have Windsors there so why not stick with the turkey too? Turkey was also a preferred morsel on the table of King Henry VIII- my personal favourite in the history books for many reasons other than his love of a ridiculously big dinner. Don’t dig the monarchy so much? Fine, though fit for Kings, turkeys originate most humbly from Mexico, from whence they travelled to the US before being brought to the UK by a travelling Yorkshireman (true story). So thanks for that America, but this little gift does not excuse you for tobacco or Justin Bieber.
All this considered, maybe the biggest reason to eat turkey on Christmas is also my final one, It’s Christmas. That’s why you eat turkey. Because you do. The same way you give presents and lie to children about where they came from, the same reason you attend mass or light advent candles. The same reason you wear bad jumpers and watch Bond movies and eat Quality Street and play board games. It’s Christmas for heaven’s sakes!!!!

No Turkey

You're average Swedish Smorgasboard spread. Tuck in.

Your average Swedish Smorgasbord spread. Tuck in.

Fine, there is more to Christmas than turkey and there is more to the world than Great Britain so it is fair to say that your options for Christmas lunch are more than open. In many areas of Northern Europe it’s actually the Christmas Eve dinner that is the main player in the culinary order of things and it’s fish and root vegetables that take centre stage. Nigerians don’t fuss too much about their Christmas meat, so long as it is meat and there is plenty of it. Filipinos opt for plenty of cheese and pasta alongside their poultry roast, followed by a fruit salad. A seafood starter followed up with Lamb is flavour of the Saviour’s Day in Spain and in Sweden you get the obvious smorgasbord of cured meats and fish. The possibilities aren’t quite endless, but they are certainly plentiful and as with any meal or infact any day you have the right to damn the traditions all to hell and eat whatever you want. Assuming that you are cooking it, that is.
My family would be large enough if my parents hadn’t separated when I was a wee one, but they did, and this event blessed me with an enormous extended first degree and step family which is increasing every year with added in laws, cousins and offspring. Safe to say it’s a very rare event that I eat Christmas dinner in the same place two years in a row. Infact despite all of my lofty opinions on Christmas dinner, I have only ever cooked it myself twice. The majority of my thirty two Christmas day dinners have indeed been turkey, my father has often mused about having a goose or one of those crazy multi-bird pile up things that starts in a pigeon and ends in a monkfish but this has never happened. My stepmother is in charge at Christmas, and as such my father is served turkey and he can bloody well like it.

Boy vs goose. Boy won.

Boy vs goose. Boy won.

However just last year the norm was strayed from, in the exotic depths of a second floor flat in Twickenham where the elder sibling was in charge and, horrors, did not want to cook a turkey. I was somewhat distraught by the concept, despite the relatively minor diversion of tradition to goose which is technically more traditional than turkey but see my previous argument about that. Said goose was cooked as instructed by Raymond Blanc with confit legs and a roasted crown with two stuffings, fat rendered directly for potato roasting. It was bloody marvellous and I would certainly have it again and recommend it heartily to adventurous cooks looking for a new roast to try out. The meat is much richer (and fattier) than it’s gobbling avian cousin giving an overall more decadent eating experience. And having fresh rendered fat for the potatoes gives the crunchiest, tastiest roast spuds you ever did see.
Another No Turkey Year went down when I was accompanied by the then Pescetarian Parental unit of my mum and step father. It was just the three of us, and even I couldn’t justify an entire turkey just for myself. Not that I wouldn’t have had a damned good go at it mind you. So after some research, I opted for a Salmon Coulibiac a la Hairy Bikers which was a success in two halves. A success in that it was very tasty but in two halves because the ends cooked through about twenty minutes before the middle did so I served my parents then waited for my own while   the middle section had to go back in the oven to finish off! It was fantastic and a rare occasion when I have seriously enjoyed cooked salmon which I usually find the most over rated fish dinner going. The extensive preparation and visually pleasing layers of pastry, spinach, rice and fish also made it a suitably special meal to grace the Christmas table.

And there is the key word. Special. Christmas dinner should be special. Like Christmas. How often do we all have a free day off work when the order of events is to eat, drink and be merry with our loved ones? There is the other key word. Love. You might not be into the religion, the tradition, the Santas, the gifts or the Queen’s Speech, but I really do hope there are people that you love, and that love you and being around them should be what Christmas is really about. That’s what makes Christmas special, and why you should make the effort. The effort, and a really good dinner.

Merry Christmas!