We can whinge all we like about the state of the economy. We can rant and rave and blame but apart from letting off steam and maybe raising our blood pressure it’s unlikely to get us very far. So let’s count our blessings and try to focus on the positives. If we are still fortunate enough to have good health and energy we can do little things to brighten our day and the day of those about us. Easy enough to say but worry and stress can be hugely debilitating, so when the going is tough one has to dig deeply to find the enthusiasm to even try to be cheerful. Getting together with a few neighbours and friends to have a simple feast or even a few nibbles does wonders for the morale. Why not invite some of the family and even a few neighbours’ kids to do the Christmas baking; this is what memories are made of. It’s definitely not rocket science to make a Christmas cake, plum pudding or a few jars of homemade mincemeat particularly if it becomes a family occasion and you can get help with the chopping and stirring. Invariably there is cake left over after Christmas so this year why not bake a square cake? When it has matured for a couple of days, divide it into 4 small squares and cover it with a bit of simple almond paste: close to Christmas make a batch of royal icing – I promise it’s easy to make and even if you have no plastering skills you can slather the icing generously over the almond iced cakes preferably with a palette knife, dab it here and there to create an impressive snow scene. Desist from adding Santies and snowmen unless they have sentimental value – it’ll look more sophisticated unadorned with maybe a sprig of holly on top. One cute little Christmas cake is plenty for most families and then you’ll have three others to give to friends.
My favourite plum pudding recipe makes 2 large or 3 small puddings. They are rich and succulent so as before a small slice per person is adequate and the remainder will make welcome gifts.
The Ballymaloe Mincemeat recipe makes 7 large jars for using, sharing or selling. It’s also gluten free so its suitable for Coeliacs or those with a wheat intolerance.
Brandy, rum or sherry butter can be made ahead and put into recycled small glass jars. Moscovado cream is best made closer to the time. Both the plum pudding and the mincemeat call for suet, in recent times many people have changed to using butter but believe me suet produces a more succulent result. One can of course buy suet but why not do as our grandmothers did – go along to your local butcher, ask for beef kidney suet. It’ll cost a euro or two or may even be free if you are already a good customer. Trim it well as below, mince or chop by hand or in a food processor and use as directed in the recipe.
To prepare suet, start by asking your butcher for the fat that surrounds beef kidneys.
Remove and discard the papery membrane and any red veins or fragments of meat. If you’re not meticulous about this, these bits will deteriorate and the suet won’t keep properly. The fat will separate into natural divisions. Chop it coarsely and either mince or whizz it in a food-processor for a minute or two until it’s evenly grainy (years ago, people used to grate suet on a simple box grater). Refrigerate and use within a couple of days, but if it has been properly trimmed it will keep for weeks in a fridge.
Beef kidney suet also renders down into dripping in a cool oven. Perfect for cooking roast potatoes or chips in the time honoured way. Readers may be horrified to hear we suggest using it in this way – believe me it is high in vitamin D, calcium and protein and is far superior to much of the cheap cooking oils more commonly used nowadays. The plum pudding calls for bread crumbs, again, these are easily made. Just save stale bread and either liquidise or whizz in a food processor – in a few seconds you have bread crumbs. Failing that if they aren’t needed simply freeze and use later. They have a myriad of uses, stuffings, crispy coatings, buttered crumbs for gratins, homemade sausages or burgers.
The pudding also calls for candied peel, of course you can buy a tub of psychedelic coloured candied peel but if you make your own from left over orange and lemon peel it will taste infinitely better and keep for ages.
Darina Allen’s Iced Christmas Cake
This makes a moist and slightly crumbled cake which keeps very well. It can either be made months ahead or, if you are frenetically busy then it will still be delish even if made just a few days before Christmas – believe me I know!.
Serves about 40
10g (4oz) real glacé cherries
50g (2oz) whole almonds
350g (12oz) best-quality sultanas
350g (12oz) best-quality currants
350g (12oz) best-quality raisins
110g (4oz) homemade candied peel
50g (2oz) ground almonds
zest of 1 organic unwaxed lemon
zest of 1 organic unwaxed orange
60ml (21⁄2 fl oz) Irish whiskey
225g (8oz) butter
225g (8oz) pale, soft-brown sugar or golden caster sugar
6 organic eggs
275g (10oz) flour
1 teaspoon mixed spice
1 large or 2 small Bramley seedling apples, grated
Line the base and sides of a 23cm (9 inch) round, or 20cm (8 inch) square tin with a double thickness of silicone paper. Then tie a double layer of brown paper around the outside of the tin. Have a sheet of brown or silicone paper to lay on top of the tin during cooking.
Wash the cherries and dry them gently. Cut in two or four as desired. Blanch the almonds in boiling water for 1–2 minutes, then rub off the skins and chop them finely. Mix the dried fruit, nuts, ground almonds and grated orange and lemon zest. Add about half of the whiskey and leave for 1 hour to macerate.
Preheat the oven to 160°C/ 325°F/gas mark 3.
Cream the butter until very soft. Add the sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Whisk the eggs and add in bit by bit, beating well between each addition so that the mixture doesn’t curdle. Mix the mixed spice with the flour and stir gently into the butter mixture. Add the grated cooking apple to the plumped up fruit and stir into the butter mixture gently but thoroughly (don’t beat the mixture again or you will toughen the cake).
Put the mixture into the prepared cake tin. Make a slight hollow in the centre, dip your hand in water and pat it over the surface of the cake – this will ensure that the top is smooth when cooked.
Now lay a double sheet of brown paper on top of the cake to protect the surface from the direct heat. Bake for 1 hour. Then reduce the heat to 150°C/300°F/gas mark 2 and bake for a further 21⁄2 hours, until cooked; test in the centre with a skewer – it should come out completely clean. Pour the remainder of the whiskey over the cake and leave it to cool in the tin.
Next day, remove the cake from the tin. Do not remove the lining paper but wrap the cake in some extra greaseproof paper and tin foil until required.
Store in a cool, dry place; the longer the cake is stored the more mature it will be.
Homemade Almond Paste
450g (1lb) golden caster sugar
450g (1lb) ground almonds
2 small organic eggs
2 tablespoons Irish whiskey
a drop of pure almond extract
For Brushing on the Cake
1 organic egg white, lightly whisked, or sieved apricot jam
1lb (450g) icing sugar
2 egg whites
2 teaspoons strained lemon juice
Sieve the caster sugar and mix with the ground almonds. Whisk the eggs, add the whiskey and 1 drop of almond extract, then add to the other ingredients and mix to a stiff paste. (You may not need all of the egg).
Sprinkle the worktop with icing sugar, turn out the almond paste and work lightly until smooth.
Remove the paper from the cake. To make life easier for yourself, put a sheet of greaseproof paper onto the worktop and dust with some icing sugar. Take about half the almond paste and roll it out on the paper: it should be a little less than 1cm (1⁄2 inch) thick.
Paint the top of the cake with the slightly beaten egg white or apricot jam and put the cake, sticky-side down, onto the almond paste. Give the cake a thump to ensure it sticks and then cut around the edge. If the cake is a little round-shouldered, cut the almond paste a little larger; pull away the extra bits and keep for later to make hearts or holly leaves. Use a palette knife to press the extra almond paste in against the top of the cake and fill any gaps. Then slide a knife underneath the cake or, better still, underneath the paper and turn the cake the right way up. Peel off the greaseproof paper.
Then roll out 2 long strips of almond paste: trim an edge to the height of the cake with a palette knife. Paint both the cake and the almond paste lightly with egg white or apricot jam. Then press the strip against the sides of the cake: do not overlap or there will be a bulge with the uneven edge upwards. Trim the excess almond paste with a long-bladed knife and keep for decoration and to make almond biscuits. Use a straight-sided water glass to even the edges and smooth the join. Then rub the cake well with your hand to ensure a nice flat surface.
Transfer onto a cake board
Leave in a cool, dry place for a few days to allow the almond paste to dry out; otherwise the oil in the almonds will seep through the icing.
When the cake is ready, make the Royal Icing.
Whisk the egg whites in a large bowl just until they begin to froth; then add the sieved icing sugar by the tablespoonful, beating well between each addition. If you are making the icing in a electric mixer, use the lowest speed. When all the icing sugar has been incorporated, add the lemon juice, and if you would like a slightly soft icing, add a few drops of glycerine. Beat until the icing reaches stiff peaks; scrape down the sides of the bowl. Cover the bowl with a damp cloth for 1 hour or until you are ready to use the icing.
With a flexible palette knife, smear the icing over the top of each cake. To achieve a snow-scene effect dab the palette knife onto the cake at irregular intervals so the icing comes up in little peaks. While the icing is still wet, stick on some Christmas Cake decorations, eg Santa’s, Christmas trees and robins or if you prefer use some frosted fruits or flowers.
If you like you could tie a ribbon or cake frill around the edges of the cakes.
Pile the icing onto the cakes or divide it between the cakes with a palette knife. Slather it over the top and sides and then dab the icing with the palette knife to create peaks to give a snow effect.
Mummy’s Plum Pudding with Pedro Ximenez Butter
It has always been the tradition in our house to eat the first plum pudding on the evening it is made. The grandchildren can hardly contain themselves with excitement – somehow that plum pudding seems the most delicious, it’s our first taste of Christmas. The plum pudding can be made from about mid-November onwards but there is still time yet. Everyone in the family helps to stir so they can all make a wish.
Its fun to put silver plum pudding charms in the pudding destined to be eaten on Christmas Day. Wrap them individually in silicone paper so they are bulky and clearly visible.
This recipe makes 2 large or 3 medium puddings. The large size will serve 10-12 people, the medium 6-8 but I also like to make teeny weeny ones.
12 ozs (350g) raisins
12 ozs (350g) sultanas
12 ozs (350g) currants
12 ozs (350g) brown sugar
12 ozs (350g) white breadcrumbs (non GM)
12 ozs (350g) finely-chopped beef suet
4 ozs (110g) diced candied peel (preferably home-made)
2 Bramley cooking apples, coarsely grated
4 ozs (110g) chopped almonds
rind of 1 lemon
3 pounded whole cloves or ¼ teaspoon
a pinch of sea salt
2 1/2 fl ozs (62ml) Jamaica Rum
Pudding bowls – 2 pint or ¼ pint – Delph bowls give more protection than plastic
Mix all the ingredients together very thoroughly and leave overnight; don’t forget, everyone in the family must stir and make a wish! Next day stir again for good measure. Fill into pudding bowls; if plastic wet the lids, cover with a double thickness of greaseproof paper which has been pleated in the centre, and tie it tightly under the rim with cotton twine, making a twine handle also for ease of lifting.
Steam in a covered saucepan of boiling water for 6 hours or less depending on size. The water should come half way up the side of the bowl. Check every hour or so and top up with boiling water if necessary. After 5 hours, 3 hours, 2 hours depending on the size, remove the pudding. Allow to get cold and re-cover with fresh greaseproof paper. Store in a cool dry place until required.
On Christmas Day or whenever you wish to serve the plum pudding, steam for a further 2 hours. Turn the plum pudding out of the bowl onto a very hot serving plate, pour over some whiskey or brandy and ignite. Serve immediately on very hot plates with
Pedro Ximinez butter or the more traditional brandy butter if you prefer.
You might like to decorate the plum pudding with a sprig of holly; but take care not to set the holly on fire – as well as the pudding!
Pedro Ximenez Butter
Pedro Ximenez is sweet, rich and deeply concentrated; I use it to drizzle over vanilla ice-cream, soak raisins until they are fat and plump or just to sip. Serve with plum pudding or minced pies.
3ozs (75g) butter
3ozs (75g) icing sugar
2-6 tablespoons Pedro Ximenez Sherry (I use the Lustau brand)
Cream the butter until very light, add the icing sugar and beat again. Then beat in the sherry, drop by drop. If you have a food processor, use it: you will get a wonderfully light and fluffy Pedro Ximenez Butter.
Midleton Farmers Market will be open on Wednesday 22nd December as well as Saturdays from 9:00 to 1:00pm – Casey O’Conaill 0861046075.
Mahon Point Farmers Market opens on Wednesday 22nd December as well as their usual Thursday for you to pick up a last minute Christmas tree or wreath and last minute treats for Christmas day www.mahonpointfarmersmarket.com
Christmas in Cork Festival on Grand Parade is on every Friday, Saturday and Sunday until Christmas. There are over 45 food and craft stalls. Munch on a delicious burger from Dexter Organic Beef stall while you do your Christmas shopping. Also open on Wednesday 22nd December. Contact John Collery for details 086 6055023
Buy a local Christmas tree and support a local farmer. I’ve ordered a fine specimen to showcase my Christmas tree cookies, (see edible presents next week) from David and Siobhan Barry near Carrigtwohill – 021 4883034 – 086 8238187 also available from Midleton, Mahon, Cobh, and Kinsale Farmers Markets.