Okay, first up, up until about 5 seconds ago I had no idea what I was going to call this bloggy series.

Given that it’s a kitchen diary of sorts I was thinking of “The Nigella Diaries” but figured that could attract readers for a very different reason. Then I thought of “How To Cook How To Eat” because that’s what the challenge is – cooking my way through Nigella’s mammoth How To Eat, but that title is way too much of a mouthful (pun intended). “Nothing Like Nigella” or “Not Even Close To Nigella” also crossed my mind but both of these are too similar to another blog – Not Quite Nigella.

What am I talking about? My Nigella Challenge. Or rather, number 100 in my 101 things to do in 1001 days list – to cook (and blog) my way through Nigella’s How To Eat.

I understand that this is probably a strange thing to see on a list like this, but I was inspired to add it to my list because:

  • I’d re-watched Julie and Julia – the movie where New Yorker Julie Powell embarks on a project to prepare all 524 recipes in Julia Childs’ landmark cookbook, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” – and wondered to myself “how hard could it be?”
  • I reorganised my cookbook shelves and began re-reading my Nigella collection – that’s the thing about a Nigella cookbook, sometimes you get so caught up in the words that you forget it’s a cookbook
  • I’d decided to name the dog in the Christmas novel that I intend to write this year Nigella. The other dog will be named Nigel after my other favourite food writer, Nigel Slater. Hopefully, they’ll never know. I’m toying with naming my character Delia, but that could be too much of a cliche.

So, now it’s on the list I have to do it – and what sounded like a cinch when I was contemplating it has grown into something much bigger. In answer to my “how hard could it be?” question, the answer is “actually, pretty tough.”

The biggest challenge though was how to tackle the, well, challenge.

The book is humungous – and a modern classic. First published back in 2008 there are over 300 listed recipes in the book, but many more wound through the words that are more ideas than prescriptive recipes – and that’s what I love about it.

Another thing I love about this cookbook – there are no pictures. That’s right, not one. Even though Nigella is absolutely one who photographs everything she eats, this book was published before the Instagram revolution. It’s unashamedly home cooking and by virtue of that many of the recipes would be a nightmare to style.

Rather than falling into analysis paralysis, I’ve decided to approach this in a very Nigella way:

  • From the beginning – a very good place to start… The first chapter, appropriately titled Basics is about the foundations. Nigella says that confidence comes from competence and it’s only through mastery of foundations that you can be a tad creative. In this chapter, we’ll learn about custards and pastry, ice cream and sauces. Many of these basics are used in later recipes, so that’s what I’ll do too. Sure, I’m an experienced cook, but believe it or not, I’ve never made things like mayonnaise and hollandaise and bearnaise from scratch. Where it is something that I’ve cooked repeatedly I’ll let you know how I do it too.
  • If I don’t like it I’m not going to cook it. That’s also a Nigella thing – life’s too short to eat something you don’t like. How to Eatis about pleasure – and that, for me, is what cooking should be. If I choose not to cook something, I will, however, tell you why. Like the liver recipes. I won’t be cooking the liver.
  • Some ingredients are tough to get out here. When we get to game birds such as grouse and pheasants you’ll probably read me prattling on about cooking something other than that.
  • If I adjust anything – as I tend to do – I’ll tell you what and why.
  • If it needs equipment I don’t have I won’t cook it. Again, I’ll tell you why.
  • I won’t photograph everything. Some food has, to quote Nigella, “a face that only a mother could love.” Besides, this is a cooking challenge – not a food styling one.
  • I won’t post each week – or I might. I might also stray into other of her cookbooks from time to time – usually to illustrate something from How To Eat.

So, that’s the challenge.

The first recipe in How To Eat is roast chicken. Nigella prefaces it with these words: “You could probably get through life without knowing how to roast a chicken, but the question is, would you want to?”

And that is why this series will be called About Roast Chicken…and why my first post in the series will be about that – roast chicken.

This post also appears on my other website andanyways

We were doing some holiday planning for later in the year and the conversation turned, as it so often does, to memories of other holidays – and specifically, the time we spent in Kamala at Phuket on our way back from the UK a few years ago.

Me: ‘Remember that Tom Kha Gai that I used to have on the beach at lunchtime?’

Hubby: ‘It was nice but had too many bits in it.’

Ms T: ‘It’s like that soup they pour out of a teapot at Spirit House.’ We all paused as we remembered the refined yet zesty soup poured over tiny little pieces of salmon in the base of tiny little cups. ‘If we’re having Thai can you make that?’

Sure. How hard can it be?

At its heart, the soup we all remembered with reverence at The Spirit House – a fabulous Thai style restaurant in Yandina, here on the Sunshine Coast – is a poshed up version of Tom Kha Gai or Chicken Galangal Soup.

This creamy coconut soup is full of flavours like galangal, lemongrass and kaffir lime that take me right back to that beach in Kamala, but has had, what my husband calls, the bits removed to make it smooth and silky.

Instead of chicken, I got some hot-smoked salmon from one of the stalls at our local Farmer’s Market. She sells the offcuts – the pieces that don’t square off nicely – in little bags. It’s much more cost effective than buying a large fillet when all you need is a few small pieces flaked off into the bottom of the bowl. The salmon I got was hot smoked with Thai flavours, but this would work with plain smoked salmon as well.

This recipe serves 4 and we had some leftover soup which we poured over noodles the following day. Yum!

Oh, a note on the photos – each of these were taken in Phuket…

What you need…

  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 2 stalks lemongrass – chopped roughly, the tough outer leaves removed
  • 6 pairs kaffir lime leaves
  • A thumb sized piece of galangal, roughly sliced
  • A thumb sized piece of ginger, roughly sliced
  • 2 cups coconut milk
  • 2 tablespoons chilli paste – I used sambal oelek which isn’t strictly traditional but works and gives the final result a lovely colour that you otherwise wouldn’t get
  • 2 tablespoons palm sugar
  • 3 tablespoons fish sauce
  • ¼ cup lime juice
  • about 150g smoked salmon flaked into small pieces

What you do with it

Put stock, lemongrass, ginger, galangal and kaffir lime leaves into a large saucepan. Bring it to the boil, reduce the heat and allow it to simmer for about 5 minutes.

Add the coconut milk, chilli paste, palm sugar, fish sauce and lime juice and simmer for a further minute or so. Have a taste and adjust seasoning ie chilli paste, fish sauce, palm sugar or lime juice as required.

Place the salmon pieces at the base of your soup bowls.

Strain the soup into a jug and pour over the salmon and serve. If you want you can garnish with a few coriander leaves or a few drops of chilli oil.

To make a more traditional style Tom Kha Gai…

You’ll need to take a little more care with the chopping and slicing of your lemongrass, galangal and ginger, but you don’t need to bother straining the soup. Instead, add 300g thinly sliced chicken meat and 12g sliced mushrooms and simmer again until the chicken is cooked – about 5 minutes.

Ladle into bowls and garnish with coriander and a couple of seeded and sliced red chillies. This soup is often served with halved cherry tomatoes as well.

 

 

We’ve been having a few Bali cravings of late so decided to channel the barbecued fish in Jimbaran, Tanah Lot and some of those other beachside seafood warungs. Sure, they’re touristy, but there’s really something about sitting on the beach with your feet in the sand watching a Balinese sunset and smelling the fragrance of Bali wafting out from the grill.

Naturally, it’s not quite the same in South-East Queensland, although at this time of the year the humidity is definitely similar to that of a Bali night. The taste of this, though, took us back. As an added bonus, it’s really quite healthy.

The key to the Balinese flavour is in the spice mix or Base genep. This one is an excellent all-purpose paste and, despite the list of ingredients, is actually quite therapeutic to make – especially if you do so with a wine glass close by.

In a mortar and pestle grind 5 candlenuts, 1 teaspoon black peppercorns, 2 teaspoons coriander seeds, 2 cloves and ½ teaspoon sesame seeds into a powder.

At this point you can either transfer the spice powder into a food processor – I use the nutribullet – along with:

  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 5 red shallots, roughly chopped
  • 3 small red chillies, roughly chopped
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh turmeric
  • 2 stalks lemongrass – the white part only
  • 5 tablespoons chopped galangal
  • 2 tablespoons chopped ginger
  • ½ teaspoon belacan or shrimp paste
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

Alternatively, add it all to the mortar and continue to pound it all into a smooth paste. (If you go with the food processor option you might need to add a splash of water to get it all moving about.)

Pour it into a jar until you’re ready to use it.

To prepare the fish pat dry and then slash it quite deeply with a sharp knife diagonally on both sides. Rub the spice paste over each side, making sure that you get into the slashes, and pop it back in the fridge for an hour.

I used that hour to make spicy tomato sambal that we tossed through some blanched green beans – that’s it in the pic above – and a sambal matah, a freshly chopped sambal…the recipes are below.

As for cooking the fish? We did it on the barbecue in one of those things made for barbecuing fish – just take care to oil it well or the yummy crunchy skin will stick to it. How long you cook it for depends on your barbecue, the weight of the fish and so many other variables. We had a medium sized snapper and grilled it for about 5 minutes on each side.

Just before it’s done, you can brush it with a glaze of ¼ cup (60 ml) kecap manis (sweet soy sauce), 2 tbsp vegetable or canola oil, and a squeeze of lime juice. This is, however, optional.

Serve with steamed rice, some green veggies – we used green beans – sambal and fresh lime.

As for the rest of the spice paste? We had used some during the week as a base for nasi goreng, and we’ll be using the rest in a chicken curry this week.

Tomato Sambal (Sambal tomat)

This recipe comes from Janet De Neefe’s Bali – “The Food Of My Island Home” – and can be used on beans, in green veggies, on boiled eggs (so yummy), stirred into mayonnaise, or spooned over other meats (hello, sausages) or seafood.

It’s also super easy in that it just gets blitzed in a food processor or blender. Speaking of which, toss in 4 long red chillies (seeded), 3 small red chillies (with seeds – less if you don’t like it spicy), 3 red shallots, 6 garlic cloves, 3 chopped tomatoes, 1tsp belacan (or shrimp paste), 4 candlenuts, sea salt to taste.

When it looks like a chunky tomato soup, heat about 80ml vegetable oil in a wok over medium heat and fry the tomato mix until it reduces by almost half. The oil should rise to the surface.

Pop it into a jar – it will keep for a few weeks in the fridge.

Fresh Sambal (Sambal matah)

Another from De Neefe’s “Bali”, this sambal is served with pretty much everything over there. You’ll definitely find it on the plate beside your seafood in Jimbaran.

This one needs a lot of chopping, but again, a glass of wine will help the time fly.

Mix 5 finely sliced red shallots with 1 tsp of sea salt and set in a colander for an hour. This mellows the flavours of the shallots.

Rince and drain the shallots. Mix together a slice (equivalent to about 1/2 tsp of chopped belacan (shrimp paste) and 1/2 tsp sea salt until it looks like brown (smelly) sand. Add the shallots and the following ingredients:

  • 1 long red chilli – seeded and finely sliced
  • 3-4 small red chillies, finely sliced
  • 1/2 tsp grated ginger
  • 2 tsp finely chopped lemongrass (the white part only)
  • 4 kaffir lime leaves – rolled into a tight bundle and finely shredded
  • 3 tbsp coconut oil

Mix it all together and add extra seasoning, if required.

We first came across Speculoos (or Speculaas, Spekulatius) when we were in Northern France and Belgium earlier this year. Not only were they addictive, but the crumb was used in plenty of other dishes – from cheesecakes to Carbonnade – the Belgian meat stew. In the supermarkets, you can even buy a Speculoos spread. No, I didn’t try it. Apparently, it’s available here now too – and in the US. Cookie butter, it seems, is a thing.

The biscuits are thin, crunchy, and usually flavoured with spices like cloves, cinnamon, cardamon, nutmeg, ginger and anise – all exotics that were available in the 17th and 18th century due to the Dutch East Indies trade.

They were traditionally baked in Belgium and the Netherlands for St Nicholas’ Day (December 5), and in Germany and Austria around Christmas, but you can buy them all year round these days.

Being Christmas we decorated ours with icing and little silver balls, but traditionally these are made using fabulously intricate folk arty moulds – most likely one that would have an image or a story about St Nicholas – that has probably been handed down for generations. I wish now that I’d brought some of those wooden moulds home.

This recipe is one that I’ve adapted from The Sugarologist…

What you need…

  • 250g unsalted butter (at room temperature)
  • 300g brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 450g plain flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • zest of one orange (finely grated)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon salt flakes
  • 5 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
  • 2 teaspoons ground cardamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground anise (if you can get it…if not, don’t worry)
  • pinch of white pepper

What you do with it…

  • Using a stand mixer, cream the butter and sugar.
  • Add the eggs one at a time, mixing well in between. Add the vanilla extract.
  • In a separate bowl combine the flour, baking powder, orange zest, salt and spices and fork through to mix
  • Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture and mix on low until it’s all well combined and a ball of dough has formed. Take care though not to overmix.
  • Turn the dough out onto a board and divide it into 4 balls, wrapping each in cling film and putting in the fridge to rest for an hour or so. This allows the dough to settle, but also the spices to permeate.
  • While the dough is doing its thing in the fridge, preheat the oven to 180C (160C if fan-forced) and line 2 baking trays with baking paper.
  • Once the dough is rested, dust your surface with flour and roll the dough out thinly – to a few mm – and cut into the desired shapes. As long as everything is well floured the shapes shouldn’t stick to your bench. I find it easy to cut them out and place them on the baking tray as I go.
  • Chill the biscuits on their trays in the fridge for another 15 minutes or so and then place into the oven and cook for 15 minutes – or until just coloured.
  • Let them sit on the tray for a few minutes before transferring to a wire rack with a spatula.
  • Once cool go to town with the icing and silver balls!

Although I’m rarely tempted by sweets (despite the amount of baking that I do), I have difficulty resisting cheese and biscuits. These days, however, cheese doesn’t like me as much as I like it – although that’s getting a tad into too much information territory.

It stands to reason then, that I’d have difficulty resisting these parmesan shortbreads. They have all the buttery yumminess of a proper shortbread, but with the sharpness of parmesan cheese. Cheese and biscuits in a biscuit. Now, that’s my idea of multi-tasking.

I first came across these little morsels in a Scottish recipe book some years ago. The recipe was super easy: 75g parmesan, 75g butter, 75g plain flour and a little salt to taste. Over the years I’ve found other versions that use extra butter and extra flour that, not only makes these go a little further but makes them shorter in texture. Nigella goes one step further and adds a single egg yolk. It adds a layer of richness that I think makes a good biscuit taste even better.

It’s, therefore, her recipe – from Nigellissima that I’ve made my own.

What you need…

  • 150 grams plain flour
  • 75 grams grated parmesan
  • 100 grams soft unsalted butter
  • 1 large egg yolk

What you do with it…

  • Throw it all into a food processor and blitz until it forms a dough clump.
  • Knead the dough until smooth – this will only take about 30 seconds – and then divide into two.
  • Roll each section into a cylinder with the diameter about as round as you want the biscuits to be. Try and keep the ends flat. Wrap it tightly in cling film and pop into the fridge for about 45 minutes. (You can do this a few days ahead and just slice the biscuits for baking when you’re ready.)
  • Use your fridge time to heat the oven to 180C and line a tray with baking paper.
  • When you’re ready to cook, slice the dough into thick-ish rounds – about 1cm thick – and pop onto the tray and into the oven for 15-20 minutes, or until light gold.
  • Cool on a wire tray.

These biscuits go really well with drinks. Santa likes to nibble on them with a decent whisky in his hand…coincidentally, so do I. I’m also rather partial to them with champagne…or without champagne…

Back in 2015, we spent the leadup to Christmas in the UK. It changed our idea of Christmas forever. Sure, Christmas in Australia is great. It’s the beginning of our summer holidays and there’s a real carefree feeling in the air. It feels right to be drinking beer and eating (some of the best) seafood (in the world) outside by the pool on Christmas Day – although we also do switch on the air-conditioning and enjoy a traditional turkey roast as well.

That year in England, though, showed us the possibility of a different Christmas: one that was full of markets you rugged up for, of mulled wine, of the smell of spices hanging in the cold air.

The first time I made this cake our daughter walked in, smelling the air and said, ‘it smells like England at Christmas.’

It did – smell like England at Christmas, that is. It also tastes like it.

Nigella says in her lead-in to this recipe that she used to call it a gingerbread cake, but it’s much lighter than that – and less gingery. I do, however, amp up the ginger. Last year I made it with a brewed ginger beer rather than cider and this year I grated additional ginger – maybe an extra teaspoon or so – and squeezed the juice straight into the cake.

Buderim Ginger do a ginger and pear beer – which is, incidentally, pretty good with vodka – so I got to thinking that next year I might try using pear cider instead of apple…for a change.

Anyways, here’s the recipe. It’s seriously easy: you combine the wet ingredients and the ginger together, you sift the dry ingredients together, you combine the two and pour it into the bundt tin. Job done.

What you need…

  • 250 ml cider (I used a fairly dry apple cider)
  • 175 ml sunflower oil
  • 100 g soft dark brown sugar
  • 300 g black treacle (or 1 x 250ml cup – oil it first so the treacle slides out)
  • 3 large eggs
  • 3cm piece fresh root ginger (peeled and finely grated to give 2 teaspoons)
  • 300 g plain flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • ¼ tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • ½ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
  • 2½ tsp Chinese 5 spice powder – check that there’s no garlic in the mix
  • 1½ tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 x 10-cup (2.5 litre capacity) bundt tin/pan or 1 x 20cm/8-inch square cake tin approx. 5.5cm/2 ¼-inches deep

What you do with it…

  • First up, oil your bundt tin well – I use one of those oil sprays – and leave it to stand upside down for any excess to drip away
  • Preheat the oven to 170C (150C if you’re using the fan option)
  • Open the cider so it loses its fizz.
  • Beat together the oil, treacle, ginger, cider, sugar and eggs in a bowl. I use the mixer, but you can do it by hand.
  • In another bowl, combine all the dry ingredients ie flour, spices, baking powder, bicarb soda. I sift it, but that’s probably not necessary.
  • Add the dry ingredients to the treacly mix, beating as you go. I do this spoon by spoon to make sure there are no pockets of flour anywhere.
  • Pour the runny batter into your tin and cook for 45-50 minutes (50-55 minutes if you’re using a square tin), testing after 40. It will be cooked when it’s starting to come away from the sides and a cake tester comes out clean.
  • Leave it to cook in the tin for about 30 mins before attempting to tip it out – it might need some persuasion to part from the bundt tin.
  • Once it’s completely cooled, wrap in foil – Nigella says it’s best eaten the next day & up to a week after, but it tastes pretty good on day 1 too…just saying.
  • We dust with icing sugar to serve, but hubby loves it with pouring cream as well.

Christmas in a cake.

 

Potatoes Anna. It doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, does it?

As you probably will have guessed by now, this dish is a classical French one – dating back (probably) to the reign of Napoleon III – and is remarkably and, possibly surprisingly, uncomplicated. At its heart, it’s simply layers of thinly sliced and well-seasoned potatoes sandwiched together by lashings of butter and baked to form a potato cake of sorts. I had you at butter and potato cake, didn’t I?

My version – based on one from Jamie Oliver’s Christmas Cookbook – is a little different to the norm in that some earthy herbs and grated horseradish are also used. It makes the end result more fragrant, a little more rustic, and absolutely perfect with a good steak and a glass (or two) of red wine.

As for Anna? She was probably one of the grandes cocottes of the time – a great and notorious beauty, but also a professional ummm mistress…for want of a better term.

Notes on the recipe

The classic French recipe calls for clarified butter – and I’m sure that it probably gives a better result – but sometimes life is too short. I used normal melted butter. Besides, by brushing the potato with the butter as you do, you are by default getting the clarified butter anyway – at least that’s what I tell myself.

The potatoes should be starchy – or floury – like a Maris Piper, King Edward, Russet or Desiree. These will absorb all that yummy butter much better than a waxy spud will.

Fresh horseradish can be really hard to come by in South East Queensland in the middle of summer. Purists look away now, but if you can’t get the fresh stuff mix a tablespoon of the bottled variety into your butter and paint it onto the potato slices. Naturally, do this after you’ve buttered your pan.

This dish is usually served inverted so don’t even think about skipping the step about putting your pan on the hob to brown the base – unless you have no desire to tip it upside down, that is. Because it’s served upside down, time spent in arranging your circles of potato will be rewarded.

Re the pan? If you’re a classical French cook you might have a copper double baking dish designed expressly for the purpose – a la cocotte à pommes Anna. You don’t have one? Seriously? Yeah, me neither. A non-stick 26cm ovenproof frying pan will do the job nicely.

What you need

  • 1.6kg potatoes – peeled, patiently and carefully sliced super thin. Use a mandolin if you have one, but watch those fingers!
  • 100g unsalted butter – melted
  • About 15g fresh rosemary – say about 4 or 5 sprigs – leaves picked and chopped finely
  • About 15g fresh thyme – leaves picked and chopped finely
  • 1 fresh horseradish root – for grating – or around a tablespoon of the jarred variety
  • sea salt and black pepper – to season

What you do with it

Preheat the oven to 180C.

Generously brush the inside of your pan with melted butter.

Arrange the slices of potato to cover the base, overlapping each a little as you go.

Carefully brush the potato slices with butter taking care not to ruin your pattern. Season with salt and pepper, sprinkle with herbs, and finely grate over some horseradish.

Repeat until you’ve used up all the potatoes, with the last coating just being butter.

Place on the hob over a medium heat for about 10 minutes to start crisping up the base. A little jiggle of the pan every now and then will ensure that it doesn’t stick.

Transfer it to the oven and roast for 30 minutes. You can, if you’re so inclined, use the flat part of another pan to compact it all down, although I really couldn’t be faffed this time. Return it to the oven for another 20-30 minutes – by which time it should be golden and cooked through.

When it’s done, invert it onto a board or a plate and slice into wedges.

 

Although we live in South East Queensland, when I think of Christmas cooking and Christmas tables my mind turns to the northern hemisphere.

It stands to reason then, that the food I read about and the recipes I want to cook are also from that part of the world – although on Christmas Day itself we have a mix of traditional roasts and fabulous Queensland seafood.

As for my favourite Christmas cookbooks? These are the ones I turn to – and a few new books that I’m suspecting will become favourites too.

Delia Smith’s Christmas

This book was first published in 1990, and I bought my copy not many years after that. To say that it’s a classic would be a massive understatement.

The Christmas cake that I make year after year comes from this book – as does the savoury pinwheels we have every Christmas morning and the little sausage rolls. I also particularly like the chapter on chutneys, preserves and pickles – although the piccalilli I made this year didn’t come from this book.

In a way, it’s like a Christmas handbook – full of Delia practicality and lists – that takes you from prep beginning in October all the way through to Boxing Day leftovers.

Jamie Oliver’s Christmas Cookbook

I’ve bookmarked a couple of new recipes to try over the next few weeks, but I turn to this book when I’m after ideas for veggies, sides, canapes and ideas of things to do with leftovers. Jamie can turn a parsnip or a sprout into an event.

This is a massive book full of Jamie’s trademark rustic styled food pics and plenty of variations on the base recipes. That’s probably the thing I love most about a Jamie book – the way he provides an idea plus gives you potential jumping off points to amp it up even more.

An absolute must for your Christmas bookshelf.

Nigella Christmas

The sub-title says it all – Food, Family, Friends, Festivities.

Given that Nigella has included a Christmas chapter in most of her books I have to admit that I assumed that this book would be simply an amalgamation of all of those recipes in one place. I assumed wrong. This book is huge and the recipes are all new.

Of course, given that Nigella generously shares so many recipes on her webpage you could just as easily grab many of these from there, but to do so would be to miss out on the experience of this book – and Nigella cookbooks are more than recipes.

From think-ahead Christmas preserves to casual suppers, seasonal baking, Christmas parties, the day itself and leftovers, Nigella has you beautifully and ever so gloriously covered.

Don’t, however, overlook the Christmassy chapters in her other books. If you do you’ll miss out on treats such as snow-flecked brownies (Feast), parmesan shortbreads (Nigellissima) and cider and 5 spice bundt cake (Simply Nigella).

As an aside, I have Nigella’s How To Eat on my Christmas list. I’ve been reading Nigella since she used to write for British Vogue and yet somehow I’ve never bought myself this book – or seen it in second-hand shops. That situation needs to be rectified.

Fortnum and Mason – Christmas and other Feasts, by Tom Parker Bowles

Okay, this is one of two newbies to my shelf and I have to admit that I haven’t yet made anything from it. It’s an accidental iBooks purchase that found its way into my digital trolley when I wasn’t looking – okay when I was drooling over the Christmas windows in F&M’s Instagram feed.

To a large extent, this is a tad how the other half lives, but that’s true to their brand. To read this is to be immersed in an almost dream-like fantasy of the perfect English Christmas. It’s an England of grouse, goose and game; of potted stilton, Bramley apples and clementines. It’s also an England of sage toad in the hole with pigs in blankets and onion gravy or marmalade and almond tart.

Perhaps it’s because we’re planning Christmas in The Cotswolds next year or perhaps I’m in the early stages of imagining a Christmas novel, but the illustrations and the words really set my imagination flying. Come the new year I’ll be scouring Booktopia to see if I can get a hard copy of this one – purely for research, of course.

The Christmas Chronicles, by Nigel Slater

This is a book of words, stories, and notes. And that’s what I love about a Nigel Slater kitchen diary – which is, essentially, what this is – I get so tied up in the reading that the cooking comes secondary. Of course, it doesn’t have to, but this is the kind of book where you’re in the middle of something else and think “why don’t I make that ricotta and filo cheesecakey thing? The one where the pastry shatters everywhere?”…or something like that.

It hasn’t been out for long and I could only get a digital copy to read on my laptop, but it’s one that I’ll be putting an order in for the hardback version of – again, it’s for research purposes. In fact, I think the dogs in my Christmas novel might just be named Nigel and Nigella. Too much?

A Paris Christmas, by John Baxter

This isn’t a cookbook, but it is a book about Christmas food.

I bought this one in the second-hand section of Shakespeare & Co in Paris. After browsing in the shop we’d sat outside in the sun and had a coffee and watch the crowds across in Notre Dame. It was when I was coming out of the poky little toilet afterwards that I saw it and, at 5 euros, snapped it up immediately. I think I read somewhere that John Baxter – an Australian who married a Parisian – lives somewhere around the Left Bank not far from Shakespeare & Co…although that’s by the by.

Essentially this book follows the author as he plans and sources the ultimate Christmas feast for his extremely fussy French family. Along the way he tells a story of tradition, produce, with a few non-recipes woven into the words. Just beautiful.

The books I’d like to see under my tree on Christmas Day…

The cookbooks on my Santa list this year are:

  • Cellar Bar, Guy Grossi
  • How to Eat A Peach, Diana Henry
  • Simple, Ottolenghi
  • How To Eat, Nigella
  • Time, Gill Meller
  • First, Catch, Thom Eagle
  • Completely Perfect, Felicity Cloake

 

I don’t particularly like chocolate crackles – I think it’s the copha that I’m not keen on – but have always made them at Christmas. My father has always liked them, in fact, one year we even made a chocolate crackle tower that we christened the “cracklebouche” – like a croquembouche but with chocolate crackles. We decorated it with cherries and icing sugar so it looked vaguely winter wonderland-ish.

I don’t think I’ve made chocolate crackles since, but when I saw this recipe on The Annoyed Thyroid I knew immediately that I had to make it. A heap of them have made their way to my daughter’s workplace, the charity that my husband volunteers for, and the recipe has even made it into the newsletter that I write for my day job.

There’s no copha in them instead, it’s pretty much just melted mars bars, rice bubbles and a little bit of cream and extra cocoa. Then you drizzle white chocolate over the top.

You can make yours look prettier than mine – and more like a chocolate pudding – by allowing them to set completely and colling the white chocolate for longer, but we actually love the way the chocolate drizzles into all the little gaps.

Also, if you want them to look like perfect little domes you can use an egg cup (lined with cling film) to shape them – although I couldn’t be bothered and did the freeform thing.

As for the Mars bars, they come in a really inconvenient size – 52g – so you’ll need 4 full sized bars and then be forced to chop the very end off the last bar and (shock horror) eat it.

Anyways, with thanks and all credit to Sammie at The Annoyed Thyroid, here’s how you do it…

What you need

  • 200g Mars Bars, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons thickened cream
  • 3 cups rice bubbles
  • 2 teaspoons cocoa
  • 100g white chocolate broken into chunks
  • 24 M&Ms…preferably red…or green
  • 24 mini cupcake papers
  • A mini muffin tin

What you do with it

Line 24 holes of a mini muffin tin with paper cases.

Melt together the Mars bars, cream and cocoa in a large, heatproof bowl over a saucepan half-filled with simmering water, making sure that the bowl doesn’t touch the water.

Stir with a metal spoon until the Mars bars have melted and the mixture is smooth.

In a separate bowl, place the rice bubbles, add the chocolate mixture and stir until all the rice bubbles are coated with the gooey chocolatey sticky mix.

Spoon the mixture into dome shapes in the paper cases. Each case will take about 1 tablespoon of mix, but I found it easier to work using 2 spoons – until I got impatient and began rolling it into balls. Of course, you could always line an egg cup with plastic wrap and do it that way.

Set them in the fridge for a couple of hours or until firm.

Melt the white chocolate in a bowl in the microwave. Do this in a series of 30-second bursts, stirring well in between. Allow the chocolate to stand for a few minutes for it to thicken slightly.

Spoon the melted white chocolate over the puddings and decorate with an M&M. Set aside until set.

Mr T is Scottish- well, he was born in a place called Falkirk; it’s near Stirling – but he can’t even fake an “auch aye” these days. Nor does he like whisky. I know…it’s tough to imagine such a thing. Thankfully I’m happy to contribute to the profits of Scotland’s distilleries on his behalf.

There are some things from his heritage that remain constant – one of these is potato or tattie scones. (In Ireland, they’re known as “fadge” or “farls”.)

To refer to these as “scones” is, however, a misnomer. They don’t look anything like what you’d have at tea with jam and cream. For a start, they’re flat. They’re a little like a pikelet or a blini but rather than the batter being dropped into the pan, the dough is rolled flat – like a flatbread – and cut into “bannocks” (round plate-sized circle) and then “farls” (triangle-like segments). The farls are then cooked on a griddle – or “girdle” – or a pan.

Traditionally these would have been made with leftover potato. In her book Recipes from Scotland (1947), F. Marian McNeill explains: “In cottage homes, these scones are usually made just after the midday meal when the left-over potatoes are still warm.”

It’s actually important that the potato is still warm but not too hot – hot potatoes can absorb too much flour. Warm potatoes give you a light and floppy scone. Yesterday’s cold leftover potato results in an entirely different texture to the end result – something more like the ones that you buy in the supermarkets in England and Scotland. Still good, but different.

The type of potato you use is important too – the more floury the better. A waxy potato can result in a gluey, sticky dough.

If you’re cooking your potatoes from scratch, after they’re cooked and drained, let them sit in the pan for a little while to steam so they’re as dry as it’s possible for them to be before you start working with them.

So, how do you eat them?

I can only imagine how much a treat these must have been on a cold Scottish afternoon – spread with butter and jam and eaten with a cup of strong tea by a fireplace…preferably a fireplace that had a dog lying in front of it. We eat them like that – minus the cold Scottish afternoon and the fireplace, of course.

In Scotland they’re commonly served as an essential part of a proper cooked brekky – they fold beautifully to mop up runny egg and bacon fat.  Yes, that came out loud. Unfortunately, they tend not to last long enough for cooked breakfasts in our house – despite our best intentions.

They’re a Christmas tradition for us and making them is hubby’s Christmas Eve ritual. We have them with smoked salmon, sour cream and a little dill or red onion for breakfast while we’re unwrapping presents – accompanied by champagne, of course.img_5819Oh, and for those of you who’ve read Wish You Were Here, I lent Max the recipe – she prepares some of these in Chapter 2.

With apologies to gluten-free readers, here’s how it’s done.

What you need…

Just 3 things:

About 250g of well-mashed potato – hubby puts them through a potato ricer, but this isn’t essential.

1 tablespoon butter, about 25g I suppose

about ½ cup of plain flour

…oh, and some salt and pepper…

What you do with it…

While the spuds are slightly cooled (really hot potatoes will absorb too much flour and give you a doughy result), stir in the butter, and the seasoning.

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Work in as much flour as the potato will take to become a pliable dough. I do this with my hands, but hubby doesn’t like getting his dirty… It’s best to start with half the flour and then add a little more until you get the right consistency. Too little flour and they won’t roll, and too much and you’ll get a raw, floury taste rather than a light potatoey taste.

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Divide the dough into smaller balls and roll each out thinly. If you want to, use a plate to cut into a round bannock. As you can see from the pic below, we tend to take a more free-form approach. Cut into farls and prick the surface with a fork.

Heat a heavy-based frying pan, brush the surface with a little oil – although traditionally you wouldn’t have needed any fat on the girdle. Is it just me or does that sound very wrong? They should take about 3-4 minutes on each side – or until golden.

Once cooked, cool in a clean tea-towel…

or eat immediately with lots of butter…