Itâ€™s extraordinary in these uncertain times to think that itâ€™s only eight weeks to Christmas. Already some of us are storming the shops to find presents for our loved ones or to secure a longed for toy for our little dotes.
Who knows what level of restrictions will be in place by then, impossible to predict. We can just plan for the worst and hope for the best. Meanwhile, letâ€™s get cooking, weâ€™ve already started to make plum puddings, and have early orders on the board. Weâ€™re fortunate to have two really good recipes â€“ one is my Motherâ€™s passed down through several generations and the other is my late Mother-in-lawâ€™s Myrtle Allenâ€™s, both are fruity and delicious and benefit from being made ahead and left to mature. Both are super easy to make, just mix and boil. Mincemeat is even easier .. put all the ingredients into a bowl, add a good slosh of whiskey, then fill it into sterilised jars. Cover and label for presents and Christmas hampers.
Lots of other edible presents can be made during the next few weeks, little jars of Kumquat Marmalade, Cranberry Sauce, Green Tomato Jam.
The best juiciest plum puddings are made with beef suet so go along to your local butcher, ask for the suet from around the beef kidney. Itâ€™s easy to prepare and can be frozen in batches for plum puddings and mincemeat.
Buy the best quality dried fruit and how about making a batch of homemade candied peel. It will hugely enhance the flavour of your Christmas Cake and Puddings and can also made into sweetmeats.
Our seasonal tomato crop is coming to an end but we still have lots of green tomatoes so weâ€™ve been making a delicious green tomato jam and green tomato chutney to add to Christmas hampers.
Try this beetroot and ginger relish too. The remainder of the beets can be left in the ground but they just become woodier as the weeks pass, so best to whip them up, cook and pickle or freeze for Winter meals.
So these are a few suggestionsâ€¦..
This makes a moist cake which keeps very well. It can either be made months ahead or if you are frenetically busy it will still delish even if made just a few days before Christmas â€“ believe me I know! This cake, now a classic, was originally published in 1989 in A Simply Delicious Christmas, itâ€™s still my favourite rich Christmas Cake. Source the best ingredients you can, including moist plump dried fruit.
225g (8oz) butter
225g (8oz) pale, soft-brown sugar or golden castor sugar
6 eggs, preferably free-range and organic
285g (9oz) flour
1 teaspoon mixed spice
65 ml (2 1/2 fl ozs) Irish whiskey
350g (12oz) best-quality sultanas
350g (12oz) best- quality currants
350g (12oz) best-quality raisins
110g (4oz) real glacÃ© cherries
110g (4oz) homemade candied peel (see recipe)
50g (2oz) ground almonds
50g (2oz) whole almonds
rind of 1 organic unwaxed lemon
rind of 1 organic unwaxed orange
1 large or 2 small Bramley Seedling apples, grated
Line the base and sides of a 23cm (9 inch) round, or 20.5cm (8 inch) square tin with a double thickness of silicone paper. 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, rub off the skins and chop them finely. Mix the dried fruit, nuts, ground almonds and grated orange and lemon rind. Add about half of the whiskey and leave for 1 hour to macerate.
Preheat the oven to 160Â°C/315Â°F/Gas Mark 2 1/2.
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 doesnâ€™t curdle. Mix the spice with the flour and stir in gently. Add the grated cooking apple to the fruit and mix in gently but thoroughly (donâ€™t beat the mixture again or you will toughen the cake). You can of course use a food mixer if one is available but the same principle applies.
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.
Lay a double sheet of brown paper on top of the cake to protect the surface from the direct heat. Put into the preheated oven; reduce the heat to 150Â°C/300Â°F/Gas Mark 2 after 1 hour. Bake until cooked; test in the centre with a skewer – it should come out completely clean after a further 2 1/2 hours approximately in total. Pour the rest of the whiskey over the cake and leave to cool in the tin.
Next day remove from the tin. Do not remove the lining paper but wrap in several layers of greaseproof paper and brown paper until required. Store in a cool dry place, the longer the cake is stored the more mature it becomes.
Close to Christmas, ice and decorate as desired.
Ballymaloe Famous Homemade Mincemeat
Here are two delicious options, the first is the classic Ballymaloe Mincemeat recipe passed down in Myrtle Allenâ€™s family for several generations. Of course it contains suet so itâ€™s moist and juicy and best eaten hot in pies and tarts.
The second, Emer Fitzgeraldâ€™s Mincemeat is vegetarian, it doesnâ€™t include suet or butter and is also gluten-free.
Makes 3.2 kilos approx.
Makes 8-9 pots.
2 cooking apples, eg. Bramley Seedling
2 organic lemons
450g (1lb) finely minced beef suet
pinch of salt
110g (4oz) candied citrus peel (preferably homemade)
2 tablespoons Seville orange marmalade
225g (8oz) currants
450g (1lb) sultanas
790g (1lb 12oz) Barbados sugar (moist, soft, dark-brown)
62ml (2 1/2fl oz) Irish whiskey
Core and bake the whole apples in a moderate oven, 180Â°C/350Â°F/Gas Mark 4, for 30 minutes approx. Allow to cool. When they are soft, remove the skin and pips and mash the flesh into pulp. Grate the rind from the lemons on the finest part of a stainless steel grater and squeeze out the juice and stir into the pulp. Add the other ingredients one by one, and as they are added, mix everything thoroughly. Put into sterilized jars, cover and leave to mature for 2 weeks before using. This mincemeat will keep for a year in a cool, airy place.
Emer Fitzgeraldâ€™s Mincemeat (Vegetarian)
This delicious mincemeat is suet free and suitable for vegetarians.
Makes 6 pots
700g (1Â½lb) cooking apples, peeled and chopped
1 orange, rind and juice
1 lemon, rind and juice
330ml (11fl.oz) cider or apple juice
500g (18 oz) Barbados sugar
500g (18 oz) sultanas
250g (9oz) currants
125g (4Â½ oz) mixed candied peel
100ml (3Â½ fl.oz) Irish whiskey
1 teaspoon mixed spice
Place the apples, orange and lemon juice and rind and cider in a large saucepan. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 10-15 minutes until the apple has cooked. Stir in the sugar, mixed spice, mincemeat, sultanas, currants and candied peel. Stir until the sugar is dissolved, then simmer for a further 15 minutes. Remove from the heat, allow to cool. Stir in the whiskey and pot into sterilized jars.
Elizabeth O’Connell’s Plum Pudding
It has always been the tradition in our house to eat the first plum pudding on the evening it is made. As children we could hardly contain ourselves with excitement – somehow that plum pudding seemed all the more delicious because it was our first taste of Christmas. The plum pudding was usually made about mid-November and everyone in the family had to stir so we could make a wish – I now know that it helped to mix it properly. This is quite simply the best plum pudding Iâ€™ve ever tasted and everyone who tastes it seems to agree wholeheartedly.
Itâ€™s fun to put silver plum pudding charms in the pudding destined to be eaten on Christmas Day.
This recipe makes 2 large or 3 medium puddings.
The large size will serve 10-12 people, the medium 6-8.
350g (12oz) raisins
350g (12 ozs) sultanas
350g (12 ozs) currants
350g (12 ozs) brown sugar
350g (12 ozs) good quality white breadcrumbs (non GM)
350g (12 ozs) finely-chopped suet
110g (4 ozs) candied peel (preferably home-made)
2 Bramley cooking apples, coarsely grated
rind of 1 unwaxed lemon
3 whole cloves pounded (not ground cloves)
a pinch of salt
6 organic eggs
62ml (2 1/2 fl ozs) dark Jamaica Rum (not Bacardi)
110g (4oz) chopped peeled almonds (finer than nibbed)
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 6 hours, 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, you will need to 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.
Myrtle Allen’s Plum Pudding
Making the Christmas Puddings (from The Ballymaloe Cook Book by Myrtle Allen)
The tradition that every member of the household could have a wish which was likely (note, never a firm promise) to come true, was, of course, a ruse to get all the children to help with heavy work of stirring the pudding. I only discovered this after I was married and had to do job myself. This recipe, multiplied many times, was made all at once. In a machineless age, mixing all those expensive ingredients properly was a formidable task. Our puddings were mixed in an enormous china crock which held the bread for the house hold for the rest of the year. My mother, nanny and the cook took it in turns to stir, falling back with much panting and laughing after a few minutes’ work. I don’t think I was really much help to them.
Christmas puddings should be given at least 6 weeks to mature. They will keep for a year. They become richer and firmer with age, but one loses the lightness of the fruit flavour. We always eat our last plum pudding at Easter.
If possible, prepare your own fresh beef suet – it is better than the pre-packed product.
6ozs (175g) shredded beef suet
6 ozs (175g) sugar
7ozs (200g) soft breadcrumbs
8ozs (225g) currants
8 ozs (225g) raisins
4 ozs (110g) candied peel
1-2 teaspoons mixed spice
a pinch of salt
2 tablespoons flour
2 fl ozs (50ml) flesh of a baked apple
2 fl ozs (50ml) Irish whiskey
1 x 3 pints (1.75 L) capacity pudding bowl
Mix the ingredients thoroughly. Whisk the eggs and add them, with the apple and whiskey. Stir very well indeed. Fill into the greased pudding bowl. Cover with a round of greaseproof paper or a butter-wrapped pressed down on top of the pudding. Put a large round of greaseproof or brown paper over the top of the bowl, tying it firmly under the rim.
Place in a saucepan one-third full of boiling water and simmer for 10 hours, we now do six. Do not allow the water to boil over the top and do not let it boil dry either. Store in a cool place until needed.
Boil for 1 1/2 – 2 hours before serving. Left-over pudding may be fried in butter.
Serve with Whiskey Cream or Brandy butter.
Homemade Candied Peel
Fruit should be organic if possible, otherwise scrub the peel well.
5 organic unwaxed oranges
5 organic unwaxed lemons
5 organic unwaxed grapefruit (or all of one fruit)
1 teaspoon salt
2 1/2lbs (1.1kg) sugar
Cut the fruit in half and squeeze out the juice. Reserve the juice for another use, perhaps homemade lemonade. Put the peel into a large bowl (not aluminium), add salt and cover with cold water. Leave to soak for 24 hours. Next day throw away the soaking water, put the peel in a saucepan and cover with fresh cold water. Bring to the boil cover and simmer very gently until the peel is soft, 3 hours approx. Remove the peel and discard the water. Scrape out any remaining flesh and membranes from inside the cut fruit, leaving the white pith and rind intact. (You could do the next step next day if that was more convenient).
Slice the peel into nice long strips. Alternatively cut each half in half.
Dissolve the sugar in 1 1/4 pints (750ml/generous 3 cups) water, bring it to the boil, add the peel and simmer gently until it looks translucent, 30 â€“ 60 minutes and the syrup forms a thread when the last drop falls off a metal spoon. Remove the peel with a slotted spoon, fill the candied peel into sterilised glass jars and pour the syrup over, cover and store in a cold place or in a fridge. It should keep for 6-8 weeks or longer under refrigeration.
Alternatively spread on a baking tray or trays and allow to sit for 30 minutes to 1 hour to cool. Toss in castor sugar and store in covered glass jars until needed.
Janieâ€™s Green Tomato Jam
A recipe given to me by Janie Suthering. We always have masses of green tomatoes when it becomes colder in the Autumn and the tomatoes ripen more slowly. Delicious with cold meats and pÃ¢tÃ©. We use the green fruit for chutneys for predictable things like fried green tomatoes and chutneys.
Makes 2 small jars
500g (18oz) green tomatoes
450ml (16fl oz) water
300g (10oz) granulated sugar
finely grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
Wash and slice the tomatoes (no need to peel), and place in a large pan with the water. Bring to the boil then simmer covered for 50-60 minutes until tender. Add remaining ingredients and dissolve sugar over gentle heat, stirring occasionally.
Boil rapidly for 10 â€“12 minutes or until setting point is reached.
Beetroot and Ginger Relish
A delicious combination, this relish complements goatâ€™s cheese, pÃ¢te de campagne and lots of other meats.
Makes 4 jars (yields 500ml (18fl oz) approximately
Serves 8 â€“ 20 depending on how itâ€™s served
225g (8oz) onion, chopped
45g (1 1/2oz) butter
3 tablespoons sugar
450g (1lb) raw beetroot, peeled and grated
2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
25ml (1fl oz) sherry vinegar
120ml (4 1/2fl oz) red wine
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Sweat the onions slowly in the butter for 5-6 minutes until very soft. Add the remaining ingredients and cook gently for 30 minutes. Serve cold.
This relish is best eaten within 6 months.