Lucy’s guide to festive baking

Last week I got a press release about Valentine’s Day. Seriously. It happened the day after I’d walked through Auckland Airport, mentally shaking my fist at the large Christmas tree in the arrivals hall. I anticipate Easter eggs popping up on Pinterest any minute now. Shall we just fast forward to Christmas 2014 and be done with it?

Christmas Mazurka – a hot favourite in 2012 (hence the baker’s twine)

This week, I feel differently. That’s because yesterday I realised there are just 29 more sleeps until The Big Day. Now I understand why Christmas things are appearing on blogs and on Instagram (I don’t count magazines, because everyone knows they operate in a kind of hyper-reality). Now I understand why a friend was so keen to seek my counsel (not to mention my copy of Nigella Christmas and my 20cm square cake tin) in order to make her first-ever Christmas cake.

This week, I am in no position to do anything Christmassy. I have a new job (which is consuming all my mental energy) and we’re in the start-up phase of a house makeover (which is consuming mental energy, time and money). And the Small Girl is rehearsing for a ballet recital, so if I hear Baby Love by the Supremes ONE more time before breakfast, I may go insane.

But next weekend, when these other life events are a little more under control (well, at least the first two), I am going to start baking and making in earnest. I’m going to start by buying a bottle of brandy and the best dried fruit I can lay my hands on. Then I’m going to see what happens…

In the meantime, here’s a handy checklist of festive things to make and bake. By next week, I may not be able to find any of these recipes, so this list is as much for me as it is for you. It’s better to give than receive, don’t you know?

Lucy’s Christmas Cheatsheet

Haven’t made your Christmas cake yet? Don’t fret. This one – studded with prunes, apricots and nearly a kilo of dark chocolate – doesn’t need time to mature. Nor does this one, which mixes the wisdom of Alison Holst with a bottle of green ginger wine. Neither need icing, but you could give the second one a pretty glazed topping (instructions found here).

I made so much Christmas mince last year that I’m going to be able to pull the jar out of the cupboard and say, ‘look, here’s one I prepared earlier’. I use this recipe – dead easy, includes caramelised banana – and the pastry is fab too.

Now we head into the ‘things to give away’ territory. My best tip here is to Think Big – making industrial-sized quantities of a couple of things is much easier than a bespoke biscuit here and a steeped vinegar there.

This chutney is always popular and very easy – last year some non-cooking friends requested the recipe so they could make it for Hannukah presents and it went down a treat. 

Beginners will also have fun making vegan biscotti and this chocolate body scrub (also suitable for vegans).

You’ll need a few more skills for my all-time best-ever brownies, but they’re not difficult to whip up and the recipe makes a huge amount. The same goes for these gingerbread Christmas decoration cookies, which taste as good as they look.

If you want to go a little off-piste, try my totally addictive white chocolate rocky road (the hardest thing about making this is not eating it all on the spot) or these luscious apple blondies, with added cranberries for extra festive-ness.

Have you started your Christmas prep yet? Go on, make me feel inadequate. Even better, share your favourite recipe links in the comments below…

The night before Christmas…

Actually, it’s the afternoon before Christmas but that doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. I’m sorry to boast to readers in the northern hemisphere, but it’s a glorious day here – blue skies, red pohutukawa, all those Antipodean festive cliches coming true.

In usual fashion I am doing a lot of things at once: gardening, parenting, making panettone to this recipe for breakfast tomorrow, making Summer Pudding for dinner tomorrow night and glazing the ham. I hope your preparations are going well, or that whoever is doing the preparing for you is bearing up. Be a darling and pour them a glass of champagne, will you?

The annual Christmas (cheese) cake-making shot

And if things aren’t going so well, console yourself with the fact that I burned our Christmas cake yesterday. That’ll teach me for leaving it until the last minute, won’t it? Then again, maybe it won’t.

In any case, a very Merry Christmas to you and yours from me and mine,

Lucy x

Treat me: Candy cane truffles

I have developed a terrible habit over the last couple of weeks. I’ve been up to my eyes in work (hence a little less action here) and find myself spending far too much time hunched over the keyboard instead of dispensing (and enjoying) Christmas cheer. Instead, for relaxation, I find myself looking at shoes on the internet. More specifically, I find myself looking at a couple of amazing Australian websites that deliver free, practically overnight. It’s addictive, even if you don’t buy anything.

The other thing I have become addicted to is these truffles. The idea came to me, fully formed, a couple of weeks ago and I have become rather partial to a late-night one to get me through the last paragraphs of whatever I’m working on.

Candy cane truffles
These would be a great last-minute gift for someone, but they’re almost too good to give away. Smashing the candy canes to bits is great therapy at this time of year (possibly better for you than shoe porn). I used Hansell’s Peppermint Essence – you could use peppermint oil (in tiny amounts) or even creme de menthe. Just add a little at a time, because you can’t take it out afterwards. And don’t measure it out over the bowl, because in that way lies disaster…

250g dark chocolate, roughly chopped (I use Whittaker’s 72% Dark Ghana)
125ml cream
1 egg yolk
2-3 tsp peppermint essence
12 candy canes

Put the cream into a saucepan and bring to boiling point. Remove from the heat and add the chocolate and butter. Leave for a couple of minutes, then stir well until it’s smooth and glossy. Stir in the egg yolk and peppermint essence until well mixed. Let cool for 10 minutes, then chill
in the fridge until set (about an hour).
While you’re waiting, smash up the candy canes. Put them in a strong plastic bag (like a ziplock bag) then put this inside another one. Using the end of a rolling pin or pestle, bash them to little gritty bits. Don’t go overboard, you want some texture.
Roll teaspoonfuls of the mixture
into balls, then roll these balls in the smashed candy canes. Keep in the fridge until serving. Makes at least 20, depending on how much mixture you eat in the process.

Have a great weekend, everyone. I’ve got two more commissions to finish and then it’s the holidays. Hurrah! x

My Christmas message

Do you want to know what I was doing at 6am yesterday morning? I was ironing a tablecloth. Actually, I was ironing two tablecloths, after discovering the first one was sporting red wine stains. Then I ironed an apron and a shirt. Actually, I ironed two shirts, after having a ‘what to wear’ crisis. Then I cleaned the kitchen, swiped away a few cobwebs, took the Small Girl to nursery and made a mad dash through the supermarket.

The reason for all this housewifeliness was that I was getting ready for a video shoot at our place – a spur-of-the-moment ‘let’s make a Christmas food video for work’ sort of thing. You can see the results here. Please pay special attention to the tablecloth.

As a disclaimer, I have to explain that the reason I look panicked in the intro is that the videographer had just got a call to a press conference across town and we had to film it in about two minutes. It was fun though. Sort of. At least now I can understand why the Queen always looks a bit frosty in her Christmas message. She’s probably been up early ironing…

Treat me: Christmas Mazurka

Don’t worry, I’ve recovered from my bout of Christmas-itis. The pohutukawas are coming out, the sun is shining and the realisation that there’s only a week more of work (that is, the work I get paid for) before December 25 has improved my outlook remarkably.

The other thing that’s cheered me up is nibbling on this Christmas mazurka. I’ve got no idea why it’s named after a Polish folk dance, but it does put a spring in your step. If you’ve yet to get any festive baking underway, this could be your saviour. One batch yields about 10-12 long bars, which you can wrap appropriately and give out as the mood strikes you. Or you can just stash it in a tin and eat it all yourself, which is what we’ve been doing.

Christmas Mazurka
This is a slightly fiddled-with version of something from an advertising supplement. If you haven’t made your Christmas cake yet (there is absolutely NO shame in that, it’s very hip this year), then you could always make this instead. Just a thought…

1 cup raisins
1 cup chopped dates
1/2 cup chopped crystallised ginger
1/2 cup mixed peel
1 cup chopped dried papaya or pineapple (or dried apricots)
1 1/2 cups roasted almonds, roughly chopped
200g dark chocolate, roughly chopped
1 cup flour
1/2 cup cocoa
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup (125ml) runny honey (if you don’t have liquid honey, warm it over gentle heat)

Heat the oven to 150C. Grease and line a brownie tin with baking paper.
Put all the fruit, nuts and chocolate into a large bowl. Sift in the dry ingredients and stir well to combine.
Mix the eggs and honey together as best you can, then pour this mixture over the fruit and nuts. Mix well – it’s easiest to do this with clean hands – then press into the prepared tin.
Bake for 45 minutes, until the slice is firm in the middle. Let cool completely before turning out of the tin. Slice into bars or squares and store in an airtight tin. Keeps well.

The other great thing about this slice is that it fits neatly with the theme for December’s We Should Cocoa, which mixes cinnamon with chocolate. Be sure to visit Choclette’s blog at the end of the month (if not before) for more cinnamon-infused chocolate goodness.

Have a great weekend everyone. Hope your Christmas plans are under control… x