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Homemade Christmas 2015 Round-Up

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As we are still (just) within the Twelve Days of Christmas, I want to give you a quick run-through of some of our homemade/foraged decorations and our home baked sweet treats. I still have in mind to make a Twelfth Night cake one year, but have not got around to it yet. Maybe I will do it for Christmas 2016!

I was writing in a recent Members’ Blog post on about harvesting tomatoes by torchlight (a form of writerly procrastination, don’t you know) and I begin this post with our torchlight holly gathering session. We had decorated the tree and had begun to retrieve the Christmas logs (originally made by my dad) when we realised that we had forgotten to pick any holly to go on the mantelpiece. Cue, a nighttime gardening interlude.

We donned our wellies (as the ground was very storm soggy) put on jackets and grabbed a torch, gardening gloves and secateurs. Then we sallied forth to the far reaches of the back garden to find some berry bearing holly branches for our seasonal display. I discovered that it is quite difficult to harvest holly wearing mud-stiffened gardening gloves, even if someone is aiming the torch in roughly the correct snipping spot. Anyway, we did manage to cut a few sprigs, although even with the aid of the torch it was difficult to see the berries. Memo to self, do this in the daylight next year…

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The mantelpiece was duly decorated with holly, off-cuts from the Christmas tree and the painted logs. We also still have the cinnamon sticks that I spray-painted last year to add to the Christmas arrangement in our slightly unconventional boot vase. One of our other natural decorations is a pile of fir cones, some of them sprayed with silver paint, ‘arranged’ in a glass bowl. We have also attached thread to a few painted cones to hang on the tree, but unfortunately didn’t get around to foraging any new ones this year.

While I am on the theme of homemade decorations, I want to give a cheer for the salt dough tree decorations that have survived several years of service (pictures in the gallery). Every December, they benefit from a little spell by the fire to take away the dampness acquired during storage. No matter how well we wrap them, they still end up getting a bit soft during the year. I am not sure how much longer they will survive, but fingers crossed for a few more years. One year, I think we should have a go at making some edible cookies for the tree, maybe that’s another project for 2016.

On the homemade food front, we repeated the fruit and nut Christmas pudding recipe that we wrote about last year, only this year I made the mixture into six small puddings for a change. Another difference was that I cooked them in a bain-marie in a moderate oven, instead of boiling which worked out very well. I took two puddings to my parents and kept the rest. They store very well for a few weeks wrapped in foil, or you could freeze them. So far, we have only eaten one, so we will be munching on Christmas pudding well into January.

This year’s Christmas cake was made from a walnut and cherry loaf recipe (from Cakes and Cake Decorating) which we transformed into a tree shape, after baking it in a small roasting tin. We put a layer of marzipan over it, after brushing on warmed rosehip jam as a change from apricot. With a covering of coloured sugar paste, we created a stylised Christmas tree, which we then decorated with royal icing.

One of my minor seasonal obsessions is to produce varying forms of the ubiquitous mince pie to ring the changes from year to year. I love mince pies, but I only ever make them during December and up to Twelfth Night, then my mincemeat eating ceases forthwith. A couple of years ago, I decided to tweak my usual shortbread recipe to include a layer of mincemeat. Using the recipe here, I divide the paste in half, line the base of the tin and add a layer of mincemeat before rolling out the rest to go on top. I prick the surface with a fork before baking and dredge with castor or icing sugar afterwards. Recently I made a version as a tray bake for a college coffee morning, but for our own Christmas nibbling, I made a half quantity in a seven inch round tin.

That’s about it for Christmas this year, though I am already thinking about things that we didn’t get around to making or that we will try out next year.

Watch this space…and meanwhile, do drop a line with your own suggestions.

Nostalgia: Dad’s Decorative Logs (Christmas de-brief part II)

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My final (honestly) Christmas related post is really an excuse to mention my dad’s seasonal handiwork, examples of which have been a part of my Christmases for as long as I can remember. I’m also going to mention a way in which I plan ahead for making things for next year’s festivities.

Christmas logs

A dressed up fire place

The pictures here show you dad’s Christmas logs, which we have freshened up this year. I think that he must have made these logs for me nearly twenty years ago. As my dad trained as a carpenter (formerly working for Chad Valley Toys), I don’t think that making the Christmas logs taxed his abilities too much.

I have been promising to do this sprucing up job (pun intended) for some time. Last year I even bought the silver spray paint, but this year ‘twas finally done. Memo to self, remember to ventilate the room when next using spray paint; either that or do it outside to avoid creating a miasma of paint. And definitely don’t do it the kitchen. At least I had the sense to cover all surfaces and furniture within spraying range with newspapers.

When I was a child, the Christmas logs were a regular part of our decorations though I can’t remember exactly when dad first made them up. I must have been quite young at the time. The logs used to sit on top of the gas fire and the television. Dad made a couple for nan and granddad too. When I am feeling particularly nostalgic I can call to mind the various decorations that dad fixed onto his logs. There was a friendly looking gnome with a Christmas tree on one, a skier and more Christmas trees on another one. I think dad also used small fir cones, candles and artificial holly. For a long time I used to think the idea of Christmas log decorations was exclusive to us, that nobody else had such things. Thanks to the good old internet, I now know that other folks do it too. Not that it detracts in any way from my childhood memories.

Christmas Logs

I managed to fix jolly Santa eventually

The decorated log idea is simple, but effective, using pieces of fallen wood (I don’t think it matters what sort as long as it is dry enough) cut into sections around Swiss Roll length. You could paint them any other metallic colour (I think dad tried some in a gold finish one year) but I do prefer the silvery gleam, which seems to go so well with greenery and berries. You might need to drill small holes to fix in some types of decorations, otherwise use strong glue.

You could try including cake decorations or perhaps recycling damaged Christmas tree ornaments to create something new. It might also be worth keeping an eye out for sale bargains as shops sell off decorations in January. Buy now and get creative later in the year. And don’t forget a smattering of glitter!

During the year, I keep an eye out for fir cones and seed heads etc. that might come in useful for seasonal decorating purposes. Tuck a box in a shed to store your foraged treasures, you never know what might inspire you come Christmas. I have also stashed away several pieces of cinnamon stick after I took a dusty spice hanging apart recently; these will probably be added to our wreath next December. You can create much with natural materials and a little patience (well, sometimes a lot of patience if truth be told!).

I’m thinking of trying out some bronze spray paint next year, so watch this space…

Chocolate Raspberry Brownie Yule Cake (part I of a Christmas de-brief)

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Yule Cake

Just begging to be eaten…

I don’t want to push the Christmas theme for too much longer, but this piece focuses on a recipe that is not really a seasonal one, but one that we adapted to suit our purposes. If you are all seasoned-out, then just skip down to the ingredients section and take it from there. This is a nice, gooey brownie recipe, which uses raspberries and flaked almonds. We decided to create a slightly different cake for New Year this year, instead of making a Yule Log as we usually do and so we looked through the recipe stash for ideas.

The brownie recipe that we use comes courtesy of a Waitrose supermarket leaflet that we picked up in Birmingham last summer. You can get recipes on the website also, though I haven’t checked them out yet. The brownie recipe is a good one (already one for the tried and tested category) despite the fact that we never actually used any Waitrose ingredients! I have to confess to making up the brownies at my parents’ house with products from A. N. Other supermarket so consider this piece my nod of thanks to Waitrose for the recipe. We were thinking of doing a blog post about supermarket recipes at some point, so if you have any favourites or perhaps any comments on the topic, do let us know.Brownies Leaflet

I have made the brownies again since the summer and I have tried freezing half of the batch, sliced and ready for use. They are ideal to just take out and warm up to serve with ice cream or cream for a quick dessert. Since the recipe tested so well, I thought it would make a nice change to use it as the basis for our New Year cake. The only real change we made to the recipe was to leave out the almonds, on the first occasion because we forgot to buy any and on the following times, because we decided we liked the brownies that way. I think it might be interesting to try blueberries instead of raspberries sometime, but anyway for now, on with the Yule idea.

Brownie Sheet

Just cooling in the paper.

After the brownie slab cooled, I just trimmed the edges and then cut it in half. I sandwiched the halves together with a chocolate cream based on the truffle mixture from a previous post (a versatile ganache filling). I covered all over the cake and left a rough finish as you would on a chocolate log. Think of it as a chocolate rough-hewn plank of wood. Or something. I had to adapt the chocolate covering a little because I didn’t allow for the fact that I put in light cream and not my usual whipping cream. This meant that the chocolate mixture was too thin to allow me to beat it up into a cream. I had to add some icing sugar and cocoa to the mix while beating it up to a fluffy consistency. I’ve scanned the recipe in below so just click on it to enlarge.

I had some scraps of paste that I had coloured for the jumper cake so it was just enough to make enough holly leaves and berries to decorate my unconventional Yule Log. The final touch was a shake of pearl decorations in a swirly pattern. It was a very more-ish cake indeed. I can see a good excuse for making an Easter Bonnet brownie cake too…

Brownies Recipe

If you have a tried and tested recipe that you adapt for different occasions, please let us in on your culinary secrets!

Christmas Desserts

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Apart from our pudding, we made a Christmas cake this year and a variation on the mince pie. Although we usually stick to a traditional fruit cake, this year we baked a ginger cake. In fact, this year was quite a year for change, as well as baking a ginger cake, we also cut it in a most unusual shape. Our cake this year was a Christmas jumper! The ginger cake was done in a large oblong tin. Two parts were cut away to form the arms and a small piece where the neck should be. We made it about a week in advance, and we were afraid about it getting dry, actually it was still nice and sticky when we cut it.

Christmas jumper cake

A woolly ginger surprise!

We used our apple butter to anchor a layer of marzipan and then covered it with a layer of white sugar paste. Be warned, those of you who want to make jumper-shaped cake, it is a very tricky shape to roll icing into! We mixed Royal icing, which is made using water, icing sugar and meri-white (dried egg white). We coloured the icing red and green and left some white also. The Christmas tree is sugar paste, the decorations are royal icing. The collar, cuffs and bottom edge are iced in two layers of white, with colour on top. The holly leaves are also sugar paste. We used Christmas red and holly green paste colours, from those little tubs that look so small but take forever to use up.

Another dessert we made over Christmas was a mincemeat crumble tart. The recipe came from the same newspaper as the truffle recipe. It is what it says it is, a pastry case, with mincemeat filling and a crumble topping. The pastry is a sweet shortcrust pastry, made with icing sugar. It uses a lot of mincemeat, almost a whole jar. The crumble is quite dark, made with light muscavado sugar. We had this on Christmas eve, it was delicious with cream, and also very tasty with toffee yoghurt. Unfortunately, it was so scrumptious that we ate it all before I remembered to take a picture!

It was our first time making the mincemeat tart and the first step on the road to trying out all of the recipes we have stashed away in a kitchen drawer. If I have anything to do with it, it will definitely be making a reappearance next December. Baking a ginger cake for Christmas was also very successful.

Tell us what baking you did for the festive season. Did you dig out any buried recipes to shake up the old traditions?

Tried and tested: Christmas Pudding

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We’ve used this fruit-and-nut pudding recipe for a few years now. It came out of a newspaper but I can’t remember which! We used apricots, sultanas, raisins, almonds, glacé cherries and a little mixed peel. We soaked the fruit in lemon and orange juices. The recipe makes a 3lb pudding, but we halve the quantities because our pudding basin isn’t large enough. Unfortunately, it’s a bit tricky to halve an egg!

Fruit mix

Christmas pudding fruit mix

As for the method, butter and sugar are beaten together until light and fluffy. After that, you add the eggs and then combine  flour, breadcrumbs, spices and fruit. We had to make our pudding over two days because it wasn’t until the flour was sifted in readiness, that we realised we didn’t have any eggs!

Flour and spices

Flour and spice, and all things nice.

The pudding took longer to boil than it was supposed to and was still a bit sticky when we decided to take it off. We boiled it in a saucepan of hot water, with the basin standing on a metal biscuit cutter, to stop it touching the bottom.

To serve, we pour brandy on the pudding and set it alight, in the best time-honoured tradition. Do you have any recipes that you come back to time and time again? Or are you making anything for Christmas? We’d love to hear from you…

Christmas pudding

The finished article…

Creative Christmas: Chocolate Truffles

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As you might imagine, the Curiously, Creatively team has been busy embracing the crafty possibilities of the festive season. We’re going to give you a quick run through over the next few posts of some of our activities, to give an idea of what we’ve been up to lately. I hope that if you are stuck for ideas for gifts and treats we might be able to give you a little inspiration.

I think that we really have to begin with food since Christmas is just not Christmas without a few traditional edibles on hand. Our first very more-ish eatables are chocolate truffles based on a recipe culled from the Sunday Independent ‘Life’ magazine in 2005. It is a very simple and straightforward recipe and is well worth having a go at making (and tweaking a little should you so desire).

The ingredients are as follows:

150ml cream (I usually use whipping cream though double would be richer)
225g chopped dark chocolate (variety unspecified, but I go for about 70% cocoa solids)
(Opt) One TBS whiskey, Cointreau or rum (I’ve also used vanilla essence or coffee)

The method is simple:

Put the cream into a saucepan and bring to the boil. Then add the chocolate and whatever flavour you are using. The recipe does not tell you to remove the pan from the heat at this stage, but I always do, as it is easy to burn chocolate. Stir until the chocolate has melted and you have a smooth mixture. Then pour it into a tin lined with cling film or greaseproof paper and leave to set. We often leave it in the fridge overnight until it is very firm and chilled to make it easier to handle. It is also handy to do this if you are dividing Christmas prep into a busy routine. You can really just leave the chocolate mix in a block until you are ready to use it.

When you start to cut up the chilled mixture, it is much easier if you have a jug of hot water on hand to dip your knife into as you go along for a clean cut. You can then either simply leave the truffle mix in squares or roll into balls. You have to handle the mixture as little as possible as it will quickly become sticky. The instructions say to use wet hands to mould, but I would suggest that damp (and cool) rather than wet hands would be better. Then work as quickly as possible to shape the truffles as you wish.

Chocolate Truffles

Scrummy treats…

Much as I love round truffles, I think that square ones look rather elegant. The recipe is supposed to make around forty truffles but we usually end up with about thirty-six, which is near enough I suppose (and no, we didn’t eat the other four!). We usually roll the truffles in cocoa or a blend of cocoa and icing sugar, although the recipe does give instructions to make a praline coating to roll the truffles (with castor sugar and almonds) if you prefer. We have also tried dipping them in melted chocolate on previous occasions (it was a good excuse to try out my swanky new dipping fork). You could even leave them uncoated…it’s up to you.

In short, there are endless variations that you can try out, including playing around with the chocolate used. We often blend milk and plain chocolate and we will probably try white chocolate at some point. You could add chopped nuts, grated orange rind or almost anything you fancy as an experiment. Once you’ve made (and sampled) your truffles then why not package a few up as a Christmas gift? We will be working on a couple of different variations for giving away as presents this year, as well as keeping a batch to accompany post-Christmas lunch coffee.

What will you be making?


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