ArchiveNovember 30, 2013

Countdown to Christmas

Whoops! Christmas has sneaked up on us once again. The shops are brimming with tempting trinkets and baubles and canny shoppers are taking advantage of pre-Christmas bargains, and ticking off their lists.

How good does it feel to be organised, but more and more of challenge for so many who are trying to balance both time and budget.

If you have not already ordered your turkey or goose, do it today. Organic free range turkeys are still in short supply ever since the annual sales of New York dressed turkeys were stopped in 1999.

I like to find an old fashioned bronze turkey but well reared white turkeys can also be good if hung for long enough. I hang them for three weeks plus but that may not be to everyone’s taste. I personally find it greatly enhances the flavour.

A good ham is almost as much of challenge to find nowadays, as the paranoia around fat has forced producers to produce leaner and leaner ham which no longer has the sweetness or succulence of a fine fat ham.

This week’s column is the first of three devoted to a countdown to a traditional Christmas. I’ll include recipes for my favourite Christmas cakes, both a light and a rich version. I’ll also include JR Roberts’s recipe for Dundee cake. These can be made now wrapped and stored or they can be made closer to C – Day.

The Irish cranberry season has just started; we got the first plump berries from Ciara Morris in the Bog of Allen last week. Seek them out in the shops, they freeze perfectly or you can make the cranberry sauce now and also pot some up in small glass jars for presents.

Plum puddings can also be made ahead, again my favourite plum pudding recipe passed down through my grandmother’s family for many generations. Make a large, a medium and several teeny weenies for friends who would love juts a taste of a moist and succulent pudding. A pot of brandy or rum butter completes the gift.

Mincemeat also benefits from being made well ahead; here are two recipes both gluten free. These two can be added to your edible presents. Pickles, relishes, chutneys also benefit from a couple of weeks mellowing. Confiture d’Oignons is a particularly delicious accompaniment to have in the pantry to cheer up cold meats or to add to starter plates of coarse pates or terrines.

Italian Pan Forte is another yummy fruit and nut dense sweet meat that keeps for months – if you don’t fancy making it yourself order it well ahead from Patisserie Regale in West Cork –  (023) 8855344.



JR’s Dundee Cake

JR’s famous Dundee cake makes a lovely light Christmas Cake which can be iced or not as you please.


Makes 1 x 18cm (7 inch) round cake or 900g (2lb) loaf


225g (8oz) softened butter

225g (8oz) caster sugar

grated rind of 1 large orange

4 eggs

225g (8oz) plain flour, sifted

50g (2oz) ground almonds

25g (1oz) mixed candied peel

100g (4oz) currants

100g (4oz) sultanas

100g (4oz) raisins

50g (2oz) glacé cherries, quartered

40-50 split blanched and peeled almonds


Preheat oven to 150°C/300°F/Gas Mark 2 and line an 18cm (7 inch) round tin or a 900g (2lb) loaf tin.


Cream butter and sugar until smooth and light. Beat the eggs. Add in three stages alternating with a tablespoon of the flour between each addition. Beat thoroughly. Mix ground almonds, dried fruit and orange rind before folding into the mixture. Fold in the remaining flour carefully. Turn the mixture into the prepared tin and arrange the split almonds over the entire top.


Bake in the preheated oven for 2 1/2 – 3 hours until a skewer comes out clean. Remove from the oven and allow 10 minutes before turning onto a wire rack to cool.


Darina Allen’s Iced Christmas Cake


This makes a moist 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


110g (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.


Almond Paste and Cake Icing


I ice the Christmas cake above with almond icing and decorate it with heart shapes made from the almond paste. Then I brush it with whisked egg yolk and pop it in the oven – simply delicious!.


Serves about 40

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 (see page 448)


For the Fondant Icing


1 packet fondant (450g/1lb)


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 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.


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 fondant icing.


To fondant ice


Sprinkle a little icing sugar onto the worktop.

Roll out the sheet of fondant to a thickness of a scant 5mm (1⁄4 inch).

Paint the cake with egg white or apricot jam, then gently lift the sheet of icing and lay it over the top of the cake so it drapes evenly over the sides.


Press out any air bubbles with your hands, and then trim the base. Decorate as you wish. We use a little posy of winter leaves and berries including crab apples, elderberries, rosemary, old man’s beard and viburnum.


That’s just one option. You could also add simple shapes stamped out of the remaining fondant icing – stars, holly leaves, Santa’s – to produce an impressive result. Or you could use gold ribbon wrapped around the cake, tied in an ornate bow on the top.


White Christmas Cake


This White Christmas Cake with its layer of crisp frosting is a delicious alternative for those who do not like the traditional fruit cake.  It is best made not more than a week before Christmas.


150g (5oz) butter

200g (7oz) flour

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

a pinch of salt

1 teaspoon Irish whiskey

1 teaspoon lemon juice

75g (3oz) ground almonds

6 egg whites

225g (8oz) castor sugar

75-110g (3-4oz) green or yellow cherries

50g (2oz) finely-chopped home-made candied peel



White Frosting


1 egg white

225g (8oz) granulated sugar

4 tablespoons water


18 cm (1 x 7 inches) round tin with a 7.5 cm (3 inches) sides


Preheat the oven to 160C/325F/Gas Mark 3.


Line the tin with greaseproof paper.  Cream the butter until very soft, sieve in the flour, salt and baking powder, then add the lemon juice, whiskey and ground almonds.  Whisk the egg whites until quite stiff; add the castor sugar gradually and whisk again until stiff and smooth.  Stir some of the egg white into the butter mixture and then carefully fold in the rest.  Lastly, add the chopped peel and the halved cherries.  Pour into the prepared tin and bake for 1 1/2 hours approx.  Allow to cool, cover and ice the next day.


To make the white frosting:  This delicious icing is just a little tricky to make, so follow the instructions exactly.  Quick and accurate decisions are necessary in judging when the icing is ready and then it must be used immediately.  Dissolve the sugar carefully in water and boil for 1 1/2 minutes approx. until the syrup reaches the ‘thread stage’, 106-113C/223-236F.  It will look thick and syrupy; when a metal spoon is dipped in, the last drops of syrup will form a thin thread.  Pour this boiling syrup over the stiffly-beaten egg white, whisking all the time.  Put the bowl in a saucepan over simmering water.


Continue to whisk over the water until white and very thick. (This can take up to 10 minutes).  Spread quickly over the cake with a palette knife.  It sets very quickly at this stage, so speed is essential.


Decorate with Christmas decorations or crystallised violets or rose petals and angelica.


Mummy’s Plum Pudding


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/6 cups) white breadcrumbs (non GM)

12 ozs (350g/3 cups) finely-chopped beef suet

4 ozs (110g/2 cup) diced candied peel (preferably home-made)

2 Bramley cooking apples, coarsely grated

4 ozs (110g) chopped almonds

rind of 1 lemon

3 pounded cloves (1/2 teaspoon)

a pinch of salt

6 eggs

2 1/2 fl ozs (62ml) Jamaica Rum


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; 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.  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

Brandy Butter.


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!




Order your Christmas organic free-range bronze turkeys from Dan and Anne Ahern near Midleton Co Cork 021 4631058 or 086 1659258. Free-range bronze and white turkeys, geese, ducks and large chickens from Robbie Fitzsimmons of East Ferry Poultry – 086 8548574 and Tom Clancy in Ballycotton supplies free-range bronze turkeys, geese and ducks -086 3089431.

Super hams from Martin and Noreen Conroy – Woodside Farm 0872767206, TJ Crowe in Co Tipperary 062 71137 and Gubbeen Smoke House in West Cork 028 27824…to mention just a few.

Organic Irish Cranberries – Ciara Morris and Michael Camon of Slievebloom Farmhouse Foods have been growing four acres of organic cranberries on the only Irish cranberry farm since 2007. Their fresh berries are included on the menu in Michelin Star Restaurant Chapter One in Dublin and are available widely in supermarkets during the Christmas season. Their Cranberry & Mulled Wine Sauce and Cranberry Chutney won the Best Emerging Products Award at Listowel Food Festival in 2009 -

Raw Honey is the term loosely used to describe honey that has not been heated above 105 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius) during extraction. Raw honey solidifies after extraction to a creamy slightly crystallised texture which I love. Consequently this honey has all the nutritional goodness, high antioxidant levels and healing properties. I recently tried a local honey Terry’s Raw Honey from Cloyne, East Cork. Available from the Ballymaloe Cookery School Shop. 021 4646785.


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