What to Cook – As you deck your halls (and the weather can’t make up its mind)

Winter’s here! But slowly this weekend it’ll stop feeling like it. So Sara’s grabbing her new-found Christmas spirit and cooking while decorating.

It’s winter! And boy, hasn’t it felt like it this week? Of course, we all know that the irony is that it’s about to get milder. But in my house that blast of cold has kick-started the Christmas cheer and the holiday season officially begins for us this weekend.

I’m told it’s slightly controversial that I’m decking my halls this Saturday. But, I’m ready. Also, Christmas basically falls on a weekend this year (I count Christmas Eve), so if I want to get the most out of my twinkly lights, then after the hours of untangling (and a bit of bickering) this weekend that only leaves two weekends of basking in the glow of all the adornments before the big one.

Anyway, I better get cracking, because this weekend is slightly schizophrenic. Slow change to something milder is taking place, but Saturday for many will still feel pretty chilly, Sunday is the milder day. If I want to retain my Christmassy feel, I need to get on with it.

The other concern playing large in my head, is that my alpine adventures of last week meant I missed Stir-up Sunday. I miss it most years to be honest.  So I need a last-minute recipe for Christmas cake, and for me, one I can adapt to be nut-free.

Here’s the menu for Dec 2/3rd…

Saturday:

The Weather – Cloudy, mostly dry, with rain in far north and around some western coasts. Still feeling cold for most but milder air slowly sinking south and east. Highs of 5-9C.

Lunch: Baked camembert hedgehog

Dinner: Italian Wedding Soup

For evening tree decorating: Whisky Sours and www.radiochristmas.co.uk

Sunday:

The Weather: Dry for almost all, sunshine slowly filtering south. Milder feel for all, highs of 8-10C.

Lunch: Busy making a Christmas Cake and Pudding (let the others fend for themselves!)

Dinner: Slow-cooked Pork

The plan:

Have you ever seen the camembert hedgehog recipe that went viral on Facebook? We love a baked cheese in our house (or “cheese in a box” as we call it) and this one has a particularly good return on investment in terms of time and effort. You just throw it in the oven and then on the table and everyone digs in. I normally serve it with cold meats and crudites. I’m so busy this Saturday that the less work the better. While it’s baking, I’ll prep what I need for the fantastic Italian Wedding Soup that is dinner. Ina Garten’s is brilliantly easy and you can make it easier still by using good quality pre-made meatballs. I’ve seen so many British people slightly turn their nose up at meatball soup, but every one has ended up a convert. And yes, I always add in pasta. Always.

Let me quickly talk Whisky Sours. I mean, it’s just sugar, whisky and lemon right, how hard can it be? Well, yes and no. I’ve had disastrous ones made with sour mix – ugh, made with lime – no, just no, and attempted with grainy sugar that didn’t dissolve. But what you absolutely cannot and must not miss is the egg white. It makes it frothy and special. It lifts a humble drink up into celestial territory. And since it is the first drink to celebrate the Christmas season, you deserve that. I am, however, not bothered by your whisky choice, Scottish single malt, Irish whiskey, bourbon or rye… go with what your heart (and palette) tells you. But never, ever forget the egg-white shake.

By Sunday we should have the majority of the decorations up but there’s still work to be done. I need to make any Christmas cake/pudding otherwise there won’t be enough booze-soaking time before the 25th. Delia Smith has a last-minute recipe for a Christmas Cake, which I have made (successfully) in the past, but I’m thinking of giving the Hairy Bikers’ version a go this year (recipe below). I’m taking the nuts out though.

But before I get on with any of that, I need to throw my pork shoulder into the oven. I am lucky enough to have a huge Le Creuset Dutch Oven (I asked for Le Creuset for my 18th birthday and my whole set is still going strong – better than a car, more useful than jewellery), and I find that it’s much more successful to do this recipe in a casserole dish in the oven than in a slow-cooker.  MarthaStewart.com’s version calls for ketchup at the end. I think it’s moist enough without the ketchup, and anyway, I’m not a massive lover of the sweetness of ketchup, but it certainly won’t ruin anything to use it. BBQ sauce works better in my opinion. Throw it in, forget about it – I cook it for 4 hours – then serve either with mash and vegetables or in rolls with coleslaw and salad. Because the weather is turning milder I’m definitely doing the latter.

Finally, I’m trying out a new recipe for this Christmas. Every year, I look sadly on while everyone tucks into the recently flambéed pudding. It’s annoying and I’m fed up with being left out just because I can’t eat nuts (although between us, the truth is that I’m often too turkey-full to care). But I’ll be giving this nut-free chocolate version a go, and like a traditional pudding the instructions suggest it needs time to mature so today’s the day to make it.

Let me know if you’re preparing for the holidays already too!


Hairy Bikers’ Christmas Cake:

Serves 8-10

• 200g (7oz) raisins

• 200g (7oz) sultanas

• 100g (3½oz) currants

• 100g (3½oz) glacé cherries, halved

• 100g (3½oz) soft (ready-soaked) dried apricots, chopped

• 50g (1¾oz) candied peel, finely chopped

• Zest and juice of 1 orange

• 5tbsp brandy, rum or whisky

• 150ml (¼pt) beer or strong tea

• 150g (5½oz) butter, softened

• 150g (5½oz) soft dark-brown sugar

• 125g (4½oz) plain flour

• 50g (1¾oz) ground almonds

• 1tsp baking powder

• 2tsp mixed spice

• 4 eggs

To decorate

• 3tbsp apricot glaze (made by heating, then sieving, apricot jam)

• 2tbsp rum, brandy or whisky

• A selection of glacé or candied fruit

• 50g (1¾oz) pecans

Line a deep 20cm (8in) round tin with baking parchment. Tie a double layer of baking parchment around the outside of the tin, making sure it is at least 10cm (4in) higher than the top of the tin. Preheat the oven to 150°C/fan 130°C/gas 2. Put all the fruit and candied peel in a saucepan and add the zest and juice of the orange. 

Pour over the alcohol and beer or strong tea. Bring to the boil and simmer for a few minutes. Remove from the heat, and allow to cool, stirring every so often. You should find that most of the liquid has been absorbed by the fruit by the time you need to use it.

Cream the butter and sugar together until very soft and fluffy. Mix the flour, ground almonds, baking powder and mixed spice together. Fold the eggs into the creamed butter and sugar, one at a time, alternating with tablespoons of the flour mix, until all the eggs have been mixed in. Add the remaining flour mix and stir to make sure everything is thoroughly incorporated. Add the soaked fruit and mix thoroughly again.

Spoon into the prepared tin and smooth the top. Bake in the oven for 2½ hours, then check the cake isn’t browning too much. Cover the top with a double round of greaseproof paper if it is, then bake for up to another half hour. 

Test by inserting a skewer into the centre of the cake – it should come out clean when the cake is done. Leave to cool in the tin for around 10 minutes, then put on a cooling rack. To decorate, warm the apricot glaze with the alcohol until very runny. Brush it over the top of the cake. Arrange the glacé or candied fruit and pecans over the cake, then brush very lightly with more glaze.