A Christmas-free zone (phew!)

I don’t know about you but I’m beginning to suffer from festive fever. My job has something to do with it (surely I get a turn to blame the media for something too?) but mostly it’s the fact that there’s no escape from all things Christmas. Even my personal account is full of breathless emails announcing ‘LAST MINUTE GIFT IDEAS’ and the like. Bah, humbug.

Anyway, earlier in the week I discovered Jonathan Mann and now I’m completely obsessed with him.

As an antidote to all things Christmas, here he is with (now ex-girlfriend) Ivory, singing about the joys of veganism. Think about this the next time you get an email insisting you have to order your ham NOW or it will be too late…

Actually, he sings about Christmas too…

How are you coping with the Christmas countdown?

Gougeres that will make you talk

One of the things I love about the Boy Wonder is his gregariousness. In his gung-ho reporter days he’d winkle stories out of anyone – if they were bad eggs it was often to their regret – and I used to give him a stern talking-to before we went anywhere so he wouldn’t accidentally-on-purpose interrogate my friends.

“I can’t help it,” he’d say. “People just tell me things.”

If he’s not making people divulge their life story, he’s probably telling them to come over for a drink. At times last summer I felt like we were running a bar and I was a short order canape maker. I came across these photos the other day and remembered churning out lots of these little cheesy puffs. I think I’m just about ready to make them again.


I’ve made these for years in all sorts of places, some better equipped than others. While beating the mixture in a food processor does make it a bit easier, I think the hassle of washing all the parts afterwards is hardly worth it. Equip yourself with a sturdy wooden spoon and go to it. Line the tray with baking paper and you’ll only have one pot to wash. 

Gougeres are orginally from Burgundy and if you’re doing them the proper French way you should use gruyere. But I say, use whatever cheese comes to hand. No one will complain, trust me.

1 cup (250ml) water

50g butter

1/2 tsp salt

1 cup (155g) flour

3 eggs

3/4 cup grated cheese

Heat the oven to 210C and line a tray with nonstick baking paper. 

Put the butter, water and salt in a large pot and bring to the boil. When the butter has melted, tip in the flour and stir well. Turn down the heat and keep stirring until the dough forms a ball. Keep stirring this ball around the pot for about another minute, then remove from the heat and add one of the eggs. Beat like fury until it is all amalgamated, then repeat with the remaining eggs, one at a time. When the mixture is smooth and shiny, beat in the cheese.

Scrape spoonful-sized heaps onto the baking tray. Bake for 10-15 minutes, until the gougeres are golden and puffed up. Eat immediately with a glass of something cold.

Do you have a favourite recipe for what Nigella calls ‘unhappy hour’?

Treat me: Vegan Biscotti

Making edible gifts for people who don’t eat certain things can be a tricky task. This biscotti was a complete experiment, concocted for a dear friend who has recently abandoned the pleasures of the flesh (and its related products) for health reasons. I thought they were pretty good, but I knew I was on to something when she asked me for the recipe. You don’t have to be a vegan to enjoy these, but people who prefer not to eat dairy products or eggs will be especially fond of them.

Venetia’s Vegan Biscotti
These are a good Christmas present to make with little helpers. Vary the dried fruit and nuts to suit your tastes and storecupboard. Other good combinations are the ever-festive white chocolate, cranberry and pistachios, or go troppo with dark chocolate, dried pineapple and Brazil nuts.

1 1/2 very ripe bananas, mashed to a puree
1 tsp vanilla essence or rum
155g (1 cup) plain flour
100g (1/2 cup) brown sugar
1 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
75g (about 1/2 cup) whole almonds, roughly chopped
75g (about 1/2 cup) crystallised ginger, roughly chopped
100g dark chocolate (good quality stuff is usually dairy-free), roughly chopped

Heat the oven to 180C and line a baking tray with baking paper.
Put the bananas and vanilla or rum in a large bowl and mash to a smooth puree. Sift in the dry ingredients and stir briefly, then tip in the almonds, ginger and chocolate. Mix to a dough, then shape into a log and place on the prepared baking tray.
Bake for 25 minutes, then take out of the oven and leave to cool for 10 minutes. Turn the oven to 150C.
Using a sharp, serrated knife, cut the log into 1cm slices. Put the slices on the baking tray and bake for another 15 minutes. Turn them over halfway through. They should feel dry to touch when they are done, but not completely dried out.
Let them cool on a rack before storing in an airtight jar. Very good dunked into a glass of dessert wine.

Have a great weekend, everyone. How’s the Christmas shopping going? x

The Christmas menu conundrum

It will not, I am sure, have escaped your notice that it is just 19 more sleeps until Christmas. By this time last year I had made our cake and a whole batch of my usual Christmas chutney, fitting both in before we moved house and I lost the will to do anything remotely festive. I’ve yet to do either of those things yet, though I have written one Christmas card (though I’m not sure where I put it).

This year, for the first time in ages, we are having Christmas at home. I am so happy about this – as nice as it is to be welcomed by others, Christmas at home is best of all – but I do wish I could work out what to eat. Last year there was no menu-planning to worry about as we spent it with my in-laws, though it was slightly nervewracking cooking them their first-ever turkey and I did have to hide how much cream went into the custard for the trifle.

The Christmas menu from Anna del Conte’s Entertaining all’Italiana. Who’s for some ham mousse?

I’ve come to the conclusion that people who celebrate Christmas in the northern hemisphere – or even somewhere where the weather is guaranteed to be hot – have it easier. In the northern hemisphere you can use your back doorstep as a makeshift fridge; in hot places you can be confident about eating something cold. Here, anything could happen. So far our Christmas menu is being devised by a process of elimination. No turkey (so 2011); no salmon (the Boy Wonder isn’t keen on it); no vegetarian nut roast (are you mad?); no chicken (too ordinary). Nothing on the barbecue (it might rain); nothing too hearty (it might be hot).

Can you help? I have been searching my cookbooks but to no avail. So far we’re going to have a lateish brunch – hopefully champagne and tiny whitebait fritters – then have the big deal Christmas feast about 4.30pm. There will be four adults and one child, unless we pick up any more strays. I’m thinking summer pudding for pudding but unless I get a move on that’s all we will be having.

What are you having for your Christmas feast? Come on, inspire me…

Chocolate Orange Wreath

Most people have leftovers to cope with after Christmas; I have leftover blogging events. Well, they’re not leftovers as such, more that I couldn’t quite squeeze them in before December 25. But in the spirit of caring and sharing, let me present you with the We Should Cocoa/Fresh From The Oven mash-up: a Chocolate Orange Wreath.

The We Should Cocoa guest ingredient for December is orange and I have cunningly worked it and chocolate into the festive wreath recipe set by Michelle of Utterly Scrummy for this month’s Fresh From The Oven challenge. You can omit the chocolate of course, but it does add a suitably OTT dimension. I made this the weekend before Christmas and it was just what we needed to keep us going. I had thought about making it again for Boxing Day breakfast but with litres of cream and sherry flowing through my veins from the day before I decided discretion was the better part of valour. You could, however, make it on December 31 and it will be perfect for a late New Year’s Day brunch (and any leftovers will be great toast the day after that).

Chocolate Orange Wreath

Don’t be put off by the lengthy instructions, this is really quite simple to make. Anyway, it’s the holidays – what else would you be doing but playing in the kitchen? Use whatever fruit/nut/chocolate combo you like in the filling, but keep more or less to the amounts specified.


3tsp dried yeast

315ml lukewarm milk
1Tbsp sugar
1 1/2 tsp salt
50g soft, but not melted, butter
1tsp mixed spice
420g plain flour


50g soft, but not melted, butter
2Tbsp brown sugar
45g plain flour
1tsp almond essence
1/2 -3/4 cup mixed peel

1/2 cup white or dark chocolate bits (just smash up a block)

1/2 cup slivered almonds

To finish:

1 egg beaten with 1tsp milk

Vanilla icing: 1 cup icing sugar, 2tsp vanilla extract and 1 – 1 1/2 Tblsp hot water

Pour the milk into a large bowl (or the bowl of a freestanding mixer with a dough hook) and sprinkle over the yeast. Leave in a warm place to start acting for five minutes, then add the other ingredients and mix well with a wooden spoon. Knead by hand for 10 minutes, or with the dough hook for three or four, until you have a soft, springy, satiny dough. Grease the bowl and return the dough to it. Cover with plastic and leave in a warm place until doubled (about an hour).

While the bread is proving, make the filling by beating together the softened butter, sugar, essence/extract and flour to make a paste and then fold in the fruit and nuts. Now is also a good time to line a baking tray with nonstick baking paper so you don’t have to rush later.

When the dough is ready, turn it out onto a well-floured surface and punch down. Knead for a minute or two, then roll it out into a large rectangle shape. Spread the filling over the dough and then roll it up, starting from the longest side. 

Now comes the fun bit. Using a sharp knife slice the roll in half lengthwise. Put the dough onto the lined baking sheet. Twist the two halves lightly together, cut sides out, and form into a circle, pinching the ends together. Leave to prove again for about 45 minutes – 1 hour or until the dough has doubled in size and then brush with the lightly beaten egg and milk.

Bake at 200C for 20 – 30 minutes or until lightly browned and cooked through.

Transfer to a rack to cool. Drizzle with vanilla icing if the mood takes you and serve. If you’re making this a day in advance and would like to reheat it, skip the icing stage. Wrap it well in foil when cool and reheat in a moderate oven for 10-15 minutes. You can work your magic with the icing just before serving.