Let’s make Christmas [Chutney]

There are a couple of reasons why I haven’t fully embraced the notion of a homemade, handmade foodie Christmas before. Firstly, I’m rarely organised in time to do the sort of longer term, big batch gifts. You know, the sort of stuff you put in jars. And leave there for at least two months. Secondly, as someone who does all kind of crafty stuff, I’m a little cautious when it comes to making gifts.  I’ve never been as unlucky as a friend of mine (she knits beautiful, intricate sweaters for her family which they put away in cupboards because “They’re not quite me.” Um, well give them back? Give them to someone else?  I’ll stop now…) but suffice to say, I’m wary of putting hours and hours into a gift that might not be suitable or let’s face it, welcome. Or in this case, edible.

Leaving all that aside…this year I was ready early, we’d been to a jam and chutney class at the Make Lounge and I was making the most of a bigger kitchen. Although I no longer had my hoard of saved jars, as I had to recycle them when we moved, I found that the internet will send me a kabillion jars for not very much money …and they have red spotty lids. Anyone who knows me can tell you I’m a sucker for red polka dots. Once you have 72 jars, you feel under pressure to fill at least some of them. Ahem.

I went with a couple of Nigella recipes – by accident, as I was looking for a seasonal pumpkin recipe and then found her Christmas Chutney one and figured that if you’re going to make the entire house stink of boiling vinegar you might as well go for broke. The Christmas one is almost the same as here, though it specified fresh cranberries which I found (frozen) in Sainsbury’s and has dates as you can see here.

After quite a lot of chopping, the ‘cook down into a mush’ method couldn’t be simpler and it makes about a dozen (7oz) jars of red berry goodness. A quick lick of the spoon – after it was finished with, of course – was delicious, though of course it will have changed and mellowed to lose some of its vinegary tang when it’s come to its full maturity after, yes, you’ve guessed it, two months in the cupboard.

I’ll be delivering some of this to Vanessa’s “Let’s Make Christmas” blogger swap on Friday and will provide the actual recipe used, of course. I’d also hoped to have a couple of other things ready, as the deadline is also helpful for getting my own Christmas presents all done and ready, but we’ll have to see!  As well as some sweets and baked goodies nearer the time, I’m also going to be making a very big pot of lovely Tommi Miers‘ fabulous Chipotles en Adobo. This hearty salsa (she tells me it’ll last for years, at least two but it’s too addictive to hang around for long in your fridge) is a fantastic addition to both Mexican dishes and anything stew- or casserole-like that needs a little souping-up. It’s easy to make, just takes an afternoon of pot watching. And chopping.

There’s one other project that is due to mature in mid-December. Homemade vanilla essence is simple to make but again, it’s a question of time. It requires at least eight weeks to mature. To make it, get yourself a 1.5l bottle of vodka and approximately 20-30 best quality vanilla beans. Roll, flatten and split the beans and scrape out the tiny seeds with the tip of a very sharp knife and drop them into the bottle with each and every split pod. Leave for, you guessed it, two months. Sigh. Now to decorate them – Labeley is aimed at beer but I think we can repurpose?

It can work out to be relatively inexpensive to make big batch presents like this, although saving jars rather than buying them obviously helps, as I tend to go for as good quality ingredients as I can afford. It’s perhaps sensible compared to say, stocking up at one of the luxury food halls – and part of the attraction there lays in the beautiful packaging and the tradition of it all. This big-batch approach obviously makes sense if you’ve got a large group of friends and colleagues to buy for. But I don’t necessarily agree with people who say that homemade is a ‘cheap’ option and it certainly doesn’t mean less care or affection than something bought “in a real shop”. Suffice to say that if you see me proferring a jar or bottle of something your way this December, it’s because I think you’re someone with a discerning palate, and someone about whom I cared enough to make something for, from scratch.

Plus if the chutney is terrible, you’ll just chuck it in the bin and we’ll still be friends, right?

Homemade Halloween Part II – Tiny Teeny Halloweeny Pies

I’ve been meaning to contribute to Sarah’s “Forever Nigella” monthly round-up for ages. I’m a Nigella devotee. Somehow I even seem to have a copy of “Summer Bites” and that book did too, to be honest. More notes space than recipes in there.

This month’s challenge is “Halloween Horrors” with the instructions to take a Nigella recipes and ‘halloween it up’, basically.  So let me introduce to you… the Tiny Teeny Halloweeny Pies.

Tiny Teeny Halloweeny Pies

These are a variation on the Star-Topped Mince Pies from Nigella Christmas.  I added a healthy helping of chopped stem ginger in syrup to make these a bit more tangy than your average apple pie and put a little powdered ginger into the pastry.

This just about makes 24 Tiny Pies with their scary faces. It also meant I could use the set of miniature Aspic Cutters I bought about ten years ago in Dean & Deluca. On a cost per use basis – well they were still kind of expensive, but still!

special Equipment

  • 2 x 12-cup mini pie baking tins
  • 1 x 4 or 5 cm round biscuit cutter
  • Aspic cutters or a sharp knife and lots of patience
  • rolling pin (this is v handy)

Ingredients

  • 160g plain flour
  • ½ tsp ground ginger
  • 40g of Trex (vegetable shortening)
  • 40ml of orange juice (without bits!)
  • pinch of salt
  • 2 cooking apples, to yield about 3oog once peeled and cored
  • 2 tbsp of soft brown sugar
  • 35g of stem ginger, finely chopped 

Method 

  1. Sieve the flour and powdered ginger into a shallow bowl. Add the shortening in small lumps and the diced cold butter, toss gently and put it into the freezer for 20 minutes. At the same time, add the salt to the orange juice and chill that in the fridge.  Prep the fruit for later.
  2. Blitz the flour mixture in the food processor until the breadcrumb stage. Add as much of the orange juice as you need to make it almost come together (you might have surplus juice which is fine; if you run out use iced water to finish up).
  3. On your work surface, work the mixture into a soft dough. Divide into two batches, roughly one third and two thirds of the mix, and wrap in clingfilm to chill for another 20 minutes while you preheat the oven to 220c or Gas Mark 7.


  4. While the dough is chilling, make your filling. Put the apple, ginger and sugar in a pan with 1tbsp of water and cook down slowly (chop up the apples smaller that I did!) Leave to cool a little while you make the faces and prep the dough cases.
  5. Use the larger piece of dough for the cases. When rolling out the dough, go as thin as possible – 2mm was what I aimed for. You can patch it up, this dough is pretty forgiving. If you re-roll the scraps enough you will have plenty of dough for 24 mini pies.
  6. Cut out the cases with the round cutter and lay into the tin holes.
  7. For the ‘faces’ I had an egg shaped cutter but using a round one, then pulling the face out of shape would be fine. The egg shape worked better sideways too. Use aspic cutters or a knife for the features. Then the leftover triangles you remove can double up as pumpkin stalks.
  8. Put a half tsp of filling in each one – they bubble over quite a bit.
  9. Put in the oven and check after 8 minutes.  Mine were almost done then – and two more minutes meant they were on the rather well-done side, dammit.
  10. Decorate with suitable jelly sweets – like the Natural Confectionary Company’s worms, as above.

In hindsight putting some green colouring into the filling would have worked too…if you’re making them for kids you might want to tone down the ginger or add either a dusting of icing sugar or some icing on top.

Looking forward to seeing the rest of the Horrors in the round up! For a slightly healthier treat – well, it does involve more fruit but probably also more sugar – what about Caramel Apples?

PS I notice that Lakeland have something similar to aspic cutters in their Christmas range – Tree Trinket Cutters with mini inserts to stamp out shapes in the interior of the cookie. Melt some boiled sweets in there and you’ve got stained glass cookies!

Macaroni Cheese

I’m not making resolutions this year – why people make themselves miserable with denial, then miserable with the guilt when they tumble off the wagon is beyond me. So, unsurprisingly, no January dieting either in this household.  Yay!

The hunt for a decent macaroni cheese recipe started some time ago (good restaurant options include the main at Canteen and the side dish in Byron) and then heated up somewhat – all down to EatLikeAGirl tweeting about The Cheeselover’s competition.  I figured this would send us in the right direction, and sure enough… yes I’d heard of Simon Hopkinson but had never actually cooked any of his dishes.  Happily a little Googling pitched up this fairly classic mac ‘n’ cheese recipe (found via What’s For Dinner Darling).

We went with the suggestions of using 200g of pasta, made small store-cupboard substitutions like [lots of] black pepper, specifically whole milk, and 100g of mature cheddar along with 40g of Red Leicester in the sauce: essential for colour. The sauce was indeed stirred for fifteen minutes – what chemical reaction that effects I don’t know.  It was the right decision.

Almost an entire packet of sliced vine tomatoes topped it, sliced about 2mm thick. Good for umami, along with the parmesan, apparently. And another shaving of Red Leicester, more pepper.

Stars *****

The result? An instant classic. Ok, not one I’d cook too regularly because of its stupendous carboliciousness (no dieting does not equate ‘try to be size of a house for 2011’), but velvety cheese sauce coating perfectly cooked pasta and, surprisingly satisfying tomatoes, is a total winner. Perfect to chase away snowy day grumblings.  As a rather accomplished home cook told me recently: “I only cook for love”.  Share the mac and cheese affection.