The X(mas) Files: Grow Your Own Christmas Spirit!

xmas pudI assure you that I am not your irritating facebook friend constantly posting about how many weeks/Saturdays/nanoseconds are left to pass until we can crack open our advent calendars. However, there are certain activities of yuletide prep which really need to begin in this the final quarter of the year and if you’ve got a decent pear crop, my Christmas Spirit is one of them.

Like pretty much everything this summer, the pears in my garden have matured early and thanks to several weeks of classic British summer washout they are of good size but still, as last year, harder than a concrete cage fighter. I did three things with them last year. Firstly, after a minor brush with fame getting read out on Saturday Kitchen tweets, I took on some telly chef advice and pickled the best part of three kilos of my rockhard green babies and put them up for Christmas. I mostly followed this recipe from Saint Delia of Smith but put in about three times too much pepper by happy accident. They were pokey and sweet and went wonderfully on the boxing day cheese board, so it’s worth a look if you have your own crop to process.

The rest of them got made into an unsuccessful puree and the bulk of my Step Father’s Christmas bottle. He’s an awkward sod to buy for, because he generally doesn’t know what he wants and the Mothership gets fed up of asking him so on gifting occasions I tend to steer unguided towards obscure sci fi books and lesser contemplated consumables around themes of coffee, booze or marmite. I often remember him enjoying a sneaky tip of Benedictine back in the halycon days of us all living in the same house, and got into my head that I was going to make him some kind of sweet, spiced vodka for his stocking last year. What I made was absolutely NOTHING like Benedictine, mostly as I am not a monk with a secret recipe, but I did come up with a pretty winning and distinctly Christmassy home brew that will warm many a cockle of a cold winter’s eve. So if you’ve got a spare pear, so to speak, you might want to give this a go but get it started in the next 2 weeks for maximum infusion time.

Boomboom Christmas Spirit

1 bottle mid-range vodka
2 large conference pears
1 teaspoon of orange or lemon zest
1 vanilla pod
2 cinammon sticks (one now, one later)
6 cloves
4-6 tbspns Golden granulated sugar depending how sweet you take your tipples.
5 Cardamom pods
A 1l mason jar
Decorative bottle to decant

pears

Pear infused Christmas Spirit in process

Start by thoroughly cleaning and drying the mason jar- the combination of vodka and sugar will keep most microbial growth at bay but it still pays to give the glassware a really good clean and a very hot water rinse before you get started. Same goes for the decanting bottle in December.
Start to fill the jar with the spices and sugar (you can add more later if you don’t love the first taste test so less is more at this point).  Split the vanilla pod, crack the cinnamon stick in half and gently press the cardamom pods to crack the outer skins and allow as much surface area as possible for all those aromatics to seep into the vodka. The cloves can go in whole.
Wash the pears gently but thoroughly in cold water and cut off the very ends. With a sharp knife, score through the skin from top to bottom three times around the pear, then add to the jar. Chuck in the zest then fill the jar up with vodka. As always, don’t fall into the trap of budget cooking vodka use something you could stand to drink! Russian Standard or Smirnoff at a minimum please. Seal the jar, give it a very gentle jiggle then put it somewhere cool and dark to contemplate its destiny for a couple of months.

Continue to jiggle the bottle daily for a week, then once a week until early December, when you should take a little taste test and add more sugar if required. It will start to darken over time and should be a golden yellow after about 8 weeks. Don’t be put off by the pears starting to look a bit manky by this point and do not be tempted to open the jar or taste it before this- you really want to minimise oxygen exposure. If you want to sweeten add a table spoon more of sugar, shake, then leave for another 24 hours to taste. If this is not required, strain the liquid through muslin or a very fine metal mesh sieve and decant into a clean bottle with another, intact cinnamon stick for some pretty factor. Put a ribbon around it and give it away to be served over ice or in a martini. Merry Christmas!

Variations- you could try this with gin  using a very plain dry London gin like Gordon’s however I would leave out the cloves and vanilla. 

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The X-mas Files: Why I Hate Christmas Food

xmas pudLast night, for reasons un-discussable, my Step Father sent me a video of three lovely middle aged, tinsel adorned ladies singing a comically sweary festive ditty urging one not to be unpleasant over the Christmas Period. It’s never a bed of roses for any one over the age of 12, is it?

I think I’ve been the boss of Christmas  twice in my life*. If you are like me, with masses of family and step family and now out in-laws to boot there is always somewhere to be at Christmas which puts you on guest duty at the mercy of the locally recognised Lord of the Roast. It is generally socially accepted that said Lord of the Roast makes the decisions, selects the bird and reserves the right to sob in the kitchen after too many sherrys if so much as a single sprout is not cooked according to the desperately optimistic post-it schedule stuck to the fridge door. There is always a boss of Christmas my friends, and it can’t always be you and as much as we all offer to chip in and help out what we really mean is “How can I fix something so it is how I like it whilst under the guise of doing the washing up?”
*perhaps only one and a half times if you count the year that the older male sibling went on so much about the Nigella method of turkey (which I wasn’t doing) that I could feel her booby judgement hanging over me all day.

In many households we are all conditioned to expect the same festive traumas until we begin to crave them without logical reason. It might start with midnight mass, then smoked salmon for breakfast. Watching the Queen’s Speech. Having the lights on all day, watching a James Bond film even if it is that crap one with the Chinese bloke in it and going for a drudgey, muddy walk whilst weighed down with a week’s worth of calories and having nothing to say other than notes on the dinner and how unseasonably warm it has been.  It is a Stockholm Syndrome of the soul that makes us unnecessarily precious about the most ridiculous peccadilloes of a single day in the year and leaves us genuinely traumatised if they are not either performed correctly or removed with a democratically justified excuse.

It may not shock you to hear that my immediate concern and association for Christmas is presents dinner. The all day kind of dinner that starts with something posh on toast and ends shivering through your meat sweats at half eleven with a final G&T to wash down that stubborn lump of chocolate orange that you can’t quite swallow. Yes, I’m greedy, but I was also raised in a family where dinner is important. Where you make the effort to turn out a nice spread for the people you love because that’s what you all agree on and one of the things you can be confident that you are good at. I love my parents for teaching me how to cook and letting me get in the way in their kitchens- then and now. I grudgingly idolise the older male sibling for being a constant challenge in the life long pursuit of dessert and teaching me to turn the other cheek when my other half goes on about how much nicer everything is when my brother does it. I cherish the memory of the younger male sibling being found with a tomato smeared face after being left for roughly 2 minutes alone in the kitchen to sieve the soup, which he absolutely had not been taste testing. In the dire times when we need solace and companionship in a dark room watching bad horror films to blot out reality, my bestie puts hot dogs on the pizza. Food is not love, but it is often found in the same places.

So with all this companionship and all this love and days off work for feasting, I must be awash with all the joys of the traditional Christmas food, right?

No.

Not bloody right.

Christmas is not just about eating and whether you are rejoicing in the birth of Christ or enjoying a free day off work getting brandy-drunk with your Nan that is no bloody reason to put orange peel in everything.

Here opens the rant.

Peel

clems

Use your citrus responsibly this christmas, please.

Why I hate it: You know how you eat oranges, yeah? You extract the plump little juicy segments from the inner sanctum and you DISCARD THE PEEL! WTF it’s December all of a sudden it’s ok to put waxy strips of bitter ming in EVERYTHING??? Do you chuck the onion skins into your soup over advent? No.  Enjoy chowing down on walnut shells with your Christmas Eve brandy? No. So keep peel in its proper place please. As in, the bin.
Exceptions: Some zest in the cranberry sauce. Just zest. Not peel.

Marzipan
Why I hate it: It sticks to your teeth and tastes like one of the most effective lethal poisons known to man.
Who wants that in their life?
See also: Anything involving amaretto.

pickle‘Christmas’ Special Edition Anything
Why I hate them: See previous peel or marzipan rants and chuck in cloves on top. If your hot apple chutney doesn’t need to be full of peel to well compliment an April cheeseboard, why does it now? Shortbread biscuits are quite excellent without being studded with raisins and if you can taste cloves, you can taste the dentist. Horrors.
Exceptions: M&S christmas coffee, Tiptree Christmas Jam.

 

Turkey Crown
Why I hate it:

m575_1_poultry-boneless-turkey-crown

It is turkey without the good bits, you just can’t dress it up. Image from Ian Chatfields, a fine Tonbridge butchers.

Seriously, a crown? Just the dry bit in the middle that you have to put the least thought into? Shame on you turkey crown buyers!!! FFS, it is bloody Christmas, just make the effort and buy a bloody turkey. Preferably from your real life butcher. Grease it, season it, and chuck it in the oven on Christmas morning and get over yourself! I’ll even let you stuff an orange in it if means you will cook a proper one. Or if you really don’t need a whole bird, get a smaller one. A goose, a duck, a really expensive corn fed chicken that had aromatherapy massages before being painlessly euthanised in an organic relaxation spa. It is a feast, and you put a bird on the table. You do not have beef for Christmas Dinner.

Bread Sauce
Why I hate it: Wet. Bread. Sometimes with cloves in it.

Nut Roast
Why I hate it: It is undeniable now, the vegans are amoung us and they must be accounted for. Hey, why not give them a pile of thoughtlessly seasoned and over dried nuts?? Mmmm. Believe it or not as a sensitive child I didn’t eat meat for some years and suffered many an ‘orrible nut cutlet or sicky fake cheese based breaded non-burger thing. Some people’s brains are inexplicably flushed of all the delicious and meat free foods there are in this world the second you suggest that dead flesh aint your thing. The times they are a changing and you can make the effort for your meat shunners without spending all year on your own organic cashew crop- there is so much good meat free food out there. Don’t buy some cruddy supermarket nut roast, no matter how extra special they tell you it is. If you are blessed with a pescetarian try a salmon coubillac or some stupidly easy to cook sea bass. Make a turbo potato dauphinoise or mousakka; stuff some mushrooms with spinach and pine nuts and breadcrumbs; get serious with a fat dish of truffled cauliflower cheese. Or if your guest is fully loaded on the animal produce shunning get to google or a decent book shop and find a nice, well rounded recipe that wont give the general impression that you hate that guest almost as much as you hate the oil soaked cardboard shreddings you are feeding them. Come up with your own take on the failsafe roasted butternut with plenty of spices if nothing else, it’s ridiculously easy.
Exceptions: Raw eaters. Make them sit outside with a spoon and a jar of coconut oil. They don’t want to be happy.

Mince Pies
Why I hate them: Pastry is something of a false idol in my wicked heart and there is little you can do to spoil it more than adorning it in the age old evil that is Mincemeat. I mean festive mincemeat, that weird sticky mass of suety yuk that leaks its insipid brown trails over everything rather than actual minced meat. Which in my mind is exactly what you want in a pie. Mince pies can sod off with their over soaked raisins and their gritty seeds and random gelatinous finds that could be fruit or nuts or steeped spiders, who knows! Plus, more peel. No.

Christmas Cake
Why I hate it: Christmas cake is a massive jip. Because it looks beautiful, all white and virginal with the big red ribbon and the rotund sugar snowman. Yet when you get your slice and bite in through that crunchy layer of heavenly icing you realise that the cake was made weeks ago and said icing tastes of dust and firesmoke and potpourri and everything else that lives on the sideboard or, if you’re really lucky, nothing.
Next up after the icing, see above marzipan rant.
Then when you get to the actual cake, it’s a fruit cake. Which is hardly a cake at all. It is more gritty raisins and nondescript dark sticky stuff and in most cases, peel. Pass the chocolate log please.

Roses
Why I hate them:
cadbury-rosesIt is not the 80s any more people. For the last thirty years Cadbury’s have been systematically stripping the Roses phenomenon down to a low cocoa-solid barrel of shiny wrapped bullshit. The Strawberry Dream (gag). The Orange Cream (heave). The Golden Barrel which we all know is a bloody caramel keg and the only thing we like in the whole stupid box and there’s only ever three of them that you have to share with your stupid brother and you can’t even get the name right any more!!!! Roses. We all open the lid in naive hope against hope for our favourite big purple one then realise in the ultimate betrayal of our own minds that we thought they were Quality Street.
Just get Quality Street.

Christmas Pudding
Why I hate it: Because it is in no way like the accepted graphic representation of a jolly, perfectly round pudding with spiffing white sauce crest and jaunty holly ornaments. I think you are up to speed with my thoughts on peel, raisins and nondescript sticky brown substances that taste like clovey darkness but in addition to this, add in the fact that somewhere, somehow, I am always sitting at a table where The Boss of Christmas has made or provided the hallowed and expected Christmas pudding and I have to sit there and squeak my non compliance from the shame shrouded end of the table. Because I really, really don’t like it. And no one gets it. Because it’s Christmas and they are offering me Christmas pudding and I will not take it. What is wrong with me? Arguably, the same thing that is wrong with those people who don’t have a turkey.

Baileys
Why I hate it:
Does anyone have Baileys in July? Maybe. But it is another substance I feel is cruelly marketed with all the luscious creamy waves and open fires and suspiciously attractive and thin people imbibing to make us buy it in for Christmas then remember we hate it. It is the cocktail additive for the teenage girl. It is kid’s booze, designed to taste nothing like booze until about two seconds after you swallow it then shudder through the bitter after-sting in the throat. It is a layer of sugary dairy on top of all those roast potatoes that we really don’t need. Or worse, it gets added to all kind of other evil stuff like amaretto to make glaringly vile festive cocktails that you will still be tasting at breakfast. Your stomach hates it, and so should you.
Exceptions: It is there for Uncle Jes alone, and we all openly judge him for it.

 

Of course it isn’t all bad and the annual 25/12 feast is far from painful for me due to the salvation of the baby Jesus, whole turkeys, chestnuts, stuffing, brussels sprouts, bacon wrapped everything, chocolate orange, brandy, cinnamon, brazil nuts, clementines and chocolate coins. Do I speak in jest? Only partially. I love Christmas as a chance to hang out in the warm with the people I like most and genuinely reflect on the areas of life where I am fortunate: there are many of these. Sometimes I am at a table that says grace, sometimes not and I am not one to debate the religious vs pagan origins of Christmas when there is so much more to argue about with the whole family slightly pissed and in the same house. Here comes the philosophical bit: Christmas is an evolving beast, much like life, and it can’t always be exactly the same and under your complete control (if it is, everyone hates you). So I wish you a Merry Christmas, and a happy new year and all that sentimental crap. I wish you a fine dinner of stuff you enjoy, either on the day or after work or next week when you can all be together at the same time. I hope you enjoy your gifts, however decadent or home made and crappy they are. I hope you enjoy a brief moment of drum banging and whistle blowing before all the toys are assembled and you have to hand them over to the kids who don’t really appreciate how much you had to drink last night. I hope you find five minutes to donate time or money to a charitable cause because if you are reading this on your personal media device of choice, then you clearly have a little bit of both to spare.

I really, really hope that you have have a turkey.

Merry Christmas.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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 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!