A trip down memory lane this Christmas I’ve been racking my brains to think of ways to add extra meaning to what for many, may be a long, lonely, cheerless Christmas. Pick up a pen, let our minds drift, dredge up memories of Christmas’s past, happy or perhaps tinged with sadness, anticipation, longing, disappointment…. Don’t worry if the memories seem disjointed. Snippets of family get-togethers. Raw, funny, poignant… – just get it down on paper.
The lets sit by the fire, share and while away a few nostalgic hours recounting memories that may have been un-consciously buried for many years.
Memories come flooding back. Christmas baking started in November in our house too. This took two whole afternoons – we would look forward to it for weeks. Mum would specially wait until we came home from the village school so we could all get involved – washing the glacé cherries, deseeding muscatel raisins, chopping and peeling – everything had to be done from scratch then, and of course it was an advantage to have a few more hands around to help to cream the butter, line the cake tin and stir the plum pudding. That was super exciting because we each had to make a wish, eyes tightly shut, before the fruity mixture flecked with suet was packed into white Delph bowls and covered with greaseproof paper, “don’t forget to overlap it in the centre to allow the pudding to expand”. Little fingers held the knot to secure the twine handle tightly. Best of all the tradition in our house was to eat the first plum pudding on the night it was made. The Christmas season had begun and without doubt my mother’s plum pudding recipe (inherited from my grandmother and great-grandmother) is the best any of us have ever tasted and I’m not just being nostalgic. If you don’t believe me, try it this year and I’ll be expecting a flood of cards and emails after Christmas.
And then there was the trifle, Mum’s trifle was legendary – when I was little it was made with dried rusk like trifle sponges that appeared in the village shop before Christmas every year. Mum had a generous hand with the Bristol cream – we split them in half, then sandwiched them with homemade raspberry jam, we layered them up with homemade custard (no not Birds) in two special cut glass trifle bowls retrieved from the top shelf of the pantry where they sat from one festive season to the next. I have to share this recipe with you I can confidently say that it’ll be the best trifle you’ll ever, ever taste. But there was ‘trifle drama’ in our house every year… Everyone loved the trifle. So Mummy had to hide the trifles every year because my crafty brothers would search the house to find it when they arrived home from midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Once they found it in the oven of the gas cooker, eventually she resorted to hiding the trifle under her bed to save them for Christmas Day…
I’ve also included a recipe for Mum’s Chapel Window Cake and Myrtle Allen’s Spiced Beef, perennial favourites in both our families.
Mum’s Traditional Irish Sherry Trifle
450g (1lb) approx. homemade sponge cake or trifle sponges (see recipe)
(trifle sponges are lighter so you will need less)
225g (8oz) homemade raspberry jam (see recipe)
600ml (1 pint) custard made with:
5 eggs, organic and free-range if possible
1 1/4 tablespoons castor sugar
1/2teaspoon pure vanilla extract
750ml (1¼ pint) rich milk
150-175ml 5-6 fl.oz) best quality sweet or medium sherry
– don’t spare the sherry and don’t waste your time with cooking sherry.
600ml (1 pint) whipped cream
8 cherries or crystallised violets
8 diamonds of angelica
a few toasted flaked almonds
1 x 1.7 litre (3 pint) capacity glass bowl
Sandwich the rounds of sponge cake together with homemade raspberry jam. If you use trifle sponges, sandwich them in pairs.
Next make the egg custard.
Whisk the eggs with the sugar and vanilla extract. Heat the milk to the ‘shivery’ stage and add it to the egg mixture whisking all the time. Put into a heavy saucepan and stir over a gentle heat until the custard coats the back of the wooden spoon lightly. Don’t let it boil or it will curdle.
Cut the sponge into 2cm slices and use these to line the bottom of a 1.7 litre (3 pint) glass bowl, sprinkling generously with sherry as you go along. Pour in some homemade egg custard and then add another layer of sponge. Sprinkle with the remainder of the sherry. Spread the rest of the custard over the top. Cover and leave for 5 or 6 hours, or preferably overnight in a cold larder or fridge to mature.
Before serving, spread softly whipped cream over the top, pipe rosettes if you like and decorate with cherries or crystallised violets and large diamonds of angelica. Scatter with a few toasted flaked almonds.
For a posher version, line the glass bowl with slices of swiss roll.
Great Grandmother’s Victoria Sponge
Who doesn’t love a buttery Victoria sponge – this recipe keeps really well for at least 5 or 6 days but omit the cream if you plan to keep for a few days.
175g (6oz) flour
175g (6oz) castor sugar
3 eggs, organic and free-range
125g (4½ oz) butter
1 tablespoon milk
5g (1 teaspoon) baking powder
110g (4oz) homemade raspberry jam (see recipe)
300ml (10 fl.oz) whipped cream
caster sugar to sprinkle
2 x 18cm (7 inch) sponge cake tins
Preheat the oven to 190C/375F/Gas Mark 5.
Grease the tine with melted butter, dust with flour and line the base of each with a round of greaseproof paper. Cream the butter and gradually add the castor sugar, beat until soft and light and quite pale in colour. Add the eggs one at a time and beat well between each addition. (If the butter and sugar are not creamed properly and if you add the eggs too fast, the mixture will curdle, resulting in a cake with a heavier texture). Sieve the flour and baking powder and stir in gradually. Mix all together lightly and add 1 tablespoon of milk to moisten.
Divide the mixture evenly between the 2 tins, hollowing it slightly in the centre. Bake in the preheated oven for 20-25 minutes or until cooked – the cake will shrink-in slightly from the edge of the tin when it is cooked, the centre should feel exactly the same texture as the edge. Alternatively a skewer should come out clean when put into the centre of the cake. Turn out onto a wire tray and allow to cool.
Sandwich the two bases together with homemade raspberry jam and whipped cream. Sprinkle with sieved castor sugar. Serve on an old fashioned plate with a doyley.
Chapel Window Cake
When we were little this was part of the Christmas baking tradition in our house. We gathered round the kitchen table like little birds in a nest to watch Mummy assemble it, waiting for titbits and trimmings. It’s called a Chapel Window Cake because the different colours in the cake resemble stained glass. It’s definitely a bit of a fiddle to make but the end result is worth the effort.
175g (6oz) butter
175g (6oz) caster sugar
4 organic eggs
225g (8oz) plain white flour
1⁄2 teaspoon baking powder
zest of 1⁄2 organic lemon
1⁄4 teaspoon pink colouring and drop of pure almond extract
25g (1oz) drinking chocolate powder
A little milk (optional)
225g (8oz) Almond Paste or Marzipan
3⁄4 pot homemade Raspberry Jam
three 19 x 11cm (71⁄2 x 41⁄2 in) tins, lined on the base and sides with greaseproof paper
Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/ gas mark 4.
Cream the butter well, add the caster sugar and whisk until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one by one, whisking well between each addition. Then stir in the sieved flour and baking powder.
Divide the cake mixture into 3 equal parts. Flavour one part with the lemon zest, the next with almond extract and pink colouring. Stir the drinking chocolate into the last portion and add a few drops of milk if it becomes too thick.
Spoon into the prepared tins and bake for 15–20 minutes. Turn out and leave to cool on a wire rack. Remove the paper.
Meanwhile, make the almond paste and wrap in silicone paper until needed.
To assemble, trim the edges of the cakes and cut each one lengthways into three equal strips. Spread a little jam over all of the sides of each strip, a sticky business… Assemble the strips into a 3 x 3 block so that the colours are mixed up. Press all the pieces firmly together and trim the edges if necessary to ensure a uniform shape.
Sprinkle a little caster sugar on the worktop. Roll out the almond paste to a thickness of a scant 5mm (1⁄4in). Brush the base of the cake with a little more jam. Lay it on top of the almond paste. Brush the sides of the cake with a little more jam. Wrap the paste around the cake. Press the edges together to seal. Smooth the surface with a palette knife if necessary. Score the top into a diamond pattern, pinch the edges and dredge with caster sugar.
Note: if you follow the instructions above, the two ends of the cake are left un-iced, so you can see the ‘chapel window’. However, if you want to seal the cake entirely so it will keep for longer, roll out thinly an extra 110g (4oz) of almond paste and seal the ends. If you can resist, it keeps perfectly for 4–5 weeks.
Ballymaloe Spiced Beef
There are lots of recipes for spiced beef, traditionally eaten at Christmas, and many of them ‘corn’ or brine the beef first. This recipe, which has been handed down in Myrtle Allen’s family, is for dry-spiced beef. Initially, the recipe called for silverside, but I prefer to use flap (also known as flank) a less expensive cut with a little more fat. The recipe also includes saltpetre, which should only be used in moderation. If you can’t find it, just leave it out (ask your local pharmacist). The meat will be slightly greyer in colour rather than the rosy pink that comes from the saltpetre cure. The recipe below makes enough spice to cure five flanks of beef, about 1.8kg (4lb) each in size. Spiced beef keeps for immeasurably longer than ordinary cooked or roast beef. Store the spice mix in a screw-top jar. It will keep for months, so make the full quantity even if it is more than you need at a particular time. To serve, cut it into thin slices and serve in sandwiches or with freshly made salads and homemade chutneys.
Top tip: Tom Durcan in the English Market in Cork is famous for his spiced beef – also available sliced on tomdurcanmeats.ie or call 021 4279141.
1.8kg (4lb) lean flank of beef
Ballymaloe Spice for Beef
225g (8oz/1 cup) Demerara sugar
350g (12oz) salt
10g (1⁄2 oz) saltpetre (potassium nitrate)
75g (3oz) whole black pepper
75g (3oz) whole allspice (pimento, Jamaica pepper)
75g (3oz) whole juniper berries
Grind all the spice ingredients (preferably in a food-processor) until fairly fine.
Remove the bones from the flank and trim away any unnecessary fat. Rub a little spice well over the surface of the beef and into every crevice. Put into an earthenware dish and leave in a fridge or cold larder for 3–7 days, turning occasionally. (This is a dry spice, but after a day or two some liquid will come out of the meat.) The longer the meat is left in the spice, the more spicy the flavour and the longer it will last.
Just before cooking, remove the spiced beef from the earthenware dish. The salt and sugar will have extracted some liquid. Discard this spice mixture. Roll and tie the joint neatly with cotton string into a compact shape. Put it into a deep saucepan, cover generously with cold water, bring to the boil and simmer for 3–4 hours or until soft and fully cooked. If it is not to be eaten hot, then press the meat by putting it on a flat tin or into an appropriate sized bread tin and covering with a board and weight. Leave it for 12 hours in a fridge or cold larder. Spiced beef will keep for 3–4 weeks in a fridge. Serve thinly sliced with Ballymaloe Relish, Horseradish Cream or slices of ripe avocado, hazelnuts and fresh watercress leaves.