South Pacific Christmas Mince Pies

This post is for all you tardy types who haven’t made your Christmas mince yet. Welcome, friends! In fact, I am so slack that in the six years that this recipe has been in my possession I think I’ve only made it three times. The good news is though that it makes such a lot that you can store some for the following year and feel all smug and worthy. Even better news is that it’s suet-free, which will soothe those who feel a little queasy about such things.

South Pacific Christmas Mince
The caramelised banana gives this a slightly tropical island touch. I guess you could equally call it Caribbean, but since I’ve never been there I’m sticking to what I know. Anyway, this is a recipe from New Zealand foodwriter Lois Daish, who used to be a household name but seems to have stepped down from the spotlight. Her original was a bit fussy – I have made it super-streamlined and much simpler.

225g seedless raisins
200g currants
150g mixed peel
30g almonds, roughly chopped
grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
grated zest and juice of 1 orange
1/2 cup brandy (or a mixture of brandy and sherry, or rum, or gin, or whatever your drinks cabinet holds)
1tsp cinnamon
1/2tsp ground allspice
1tsp ground ginger
75g butter
150g brown sugar
2 ripe bananas, mashed

Melt the butter in a large, heavy pot over medium heat and add the sugar. Stir well, then add the mashed banana. Cook for several minutes, until the mixture is thick and smooth. Remove from heat and let cool for a few minutes. Add all remaining ingredients to the banana mixture and stir well until combined. Cover and leave at room temperature overnight, then stir well and put into a suitable jar or jars. Store in the fridge.

Almond Pastry
Once you feel up to making the actual pies, try this foolproof almond pastry. Honestly, pastry is not my forte but this is really easy. I make this in a freestanding mixer (my beloved KitchenAid), but it would be just as easy and quick in a food processor. It’s still doable by hand, but if you’ve got the tools, use ’em!

250g plain flour
50g ground almonds
100g icing sugar
190g fridge-cold butter, diced
1 egg yolk
1Tbsp ice-cold water

Put the flour, almonds, sugar and butter into the mixer or processor. Beat or whiz until you get a breadcrumb-y texture. Combine the egg yolk and water in a cup, then add to the bowl and beat or pulse until the mixture clumps. Press the mixture together into a flat disc with your hands and leave in a cool place for at least 20 minutes.
When you’re ready to roll, so to speak, get two large pieces of greaseproof paper or cling film and place the pastry disc between them. This makes everything much, much easier and you don’t have to scrape pastry bits off the worktop or your rolling pin.
Bake the filled tarts in a hot oven – around 210C – for about 12 minutes. Cool on a rack, then store in an airtight tin. Makes enough pastry for two dozen little mince tarts.

My creative space: Counting down

Not only is the Boy Wonder an identical twin (all superheroes need a sidekick, though his would probably argue that he was the hero), but his birthday is on December 25. He has plenty of woeful tales of neglect as a result, like the year he got a pyjama top for Christmas and pyjama bottoms for his birthday.

Since we’ve been together I’ve instigated a scheme that makes December a kind of birthday month, with a series of advent-style calendars filled with various treats. One year I strung film canisters along a ribbon, the next I made little scrolls woven into a piece of scarlet fabric. The year after that I think the treats were hidden around the house.

Then I found this little red house, which has tiny drawers that are just the right size for a chocolate or a note. I think the BW likes it, or at least he’s amused by the pleasure I get from doing it. Of course, there are days when I am really struggling for ideas but I’ve been newly inspired by reading about Sonia’s ‘activity’ calendars – I think they’ll be great when the Small Girl is a bit bigger.

I’m sure there are lots of other clever ones here. How are your Christmas plans coming along? And do you have any ideas for things that can fit in the drawers of a tiny red house?

Chocolate Fig Christmas Cake

After much prevaricating, my Christmas preparations are finally underway. I’ve yet to buy any presents or make any decorations, but I’ve finally made the cake, with help from the Small Girl and the Boy Wonder. We have a tradition in our house that the Christmas cake must be stirred by all parties in the house – and they have to make a wish while they do it. I’m not sure the Small Girl understood the wishing concept, but she really loved stirring!

Teddy got to try the mixture too – he’s having a liedown to cope with the sugar

What are they wishing for?

This cake is intrinsically linked with celebration. My mother and I made it together one Boxing Day for our wedding cake, giggling like teenagers; my dear friend and mentor Denise kindly emailed me the recipe when we were living in the UK for our first Christmas abroad and earlier this year I made a vast version for Ann and Steve’s wedding cake. The recipe originally came from Peta Mathias, a chef and bonne vivante par excellence. Peta, with her lust for life and flaming red hair, is always described as “irrepressible” and that’s exactly the same way I’d describe this cake. It’s full of bold flavours and not for the faint-hearted. Make this and you’ll never look at a traditional fruit cake in the same way again. When it’s being a wedding cake it needs a coating of chocolate ganache, but at Christmas I think it’s best plain (even if it looks a little bare). Tumble a few decorations on top if you want it to look more festive.

Peta Mathias’ Aunt Edna’s Fig and Chocolate Fruitcake
This is Peta’s recipe, with a few tweaks here and there. She uses all figs – I use a mixture of figs and prunes; she adds slivered almonds, I leave them out because I used to make this for nut-allergic Sophie and discovered that they don’t actually add anything. I use orange zest instead of lemon and have reduced the amount of chocolate a tiny bit because you can have too much of a good thing.

400g dried figs, cut in quarters
300g prunes, cut in quarters
200g raisins
brandy and orange juice for soaking fruit
300g butter
300g brown sugar
1Tbsp black treacle
grated zest of two oranges
5 large eggs
2Tbsp brandy or rum
350g flour
1tsp salt
2tsp baking powder
1tsp mixed spice
1tsp ground cinnamon
600g dark chocolate smashed into little bits

Soak the fruit in a bowl, covered in a mixture of brandy and orange juice for 24 hours (I’ve left it for up to 48 hours with no ill-effects).
When you want to make the cake, preheat the oven to 160C and grease and line a 24cm cake tin. Don’t worry about the brown paper treatment – lining the tin with baking paper is enough.
Cream the butter, sugar and treacle, then add the lemon rind. Whisk the eggs and brandy or rum together and stir into the butter mixture. Stir in the sieved dry ingredients. Drain the prepared fruit (save the extra liquid for a little cook’s tipple when the cake is done!) and stir that into the mixture, then mix in the chocolate.
Pour into the tin, smooth the top and bake for 90 minutes, then turn it down to 150C and cook for at least another 60-90 minutes. Test by plunging a skewer into the middle in the usual fashion. Keep an eye on it – it may be done sooner. Cover the top with a piece of baking paper or foil if it looks to be getting too dark.
Let it cool completely in the tin, then turn out and wrap in greaseproof paper and store somewhere cool and dark until the big day. You can feed it with more booze if you like.

Musical Monday: Hang With Me

It’s hot, proper flip-flops and sunscreen and ice cream weather, which means we’ve been dancing around the house to this bouncy pop song by a Swedish girl with great hair and an amazing wardrobe. (I imagine this tune is just as catchy if you’re in the northern hemisphere… just think of those twinkling lights and ice skating and party dresses in shop windows…

My creative space: the countdown is on

She’s making a list, she’s checking it twice… only, she’s not. Dear readers, it is A MONTH until Christmas and I have done nothing. Nada. Zilch. I’ve never been this unprepared before. Actually, that’s a lie. I’m probably this unprepared every year. And, actually, as long as there are a few presents under the tree and something reasonably festive to eat, I am coming to realise that the sky is not going to fall on my head if we don’t have a Martha Stewart Christmas. (That doesn’t stop me wanting one just a little bit, but I’m trying to be realistic.)

In the meantime, I’m planning to at least get my Christmas cake underway in the next week and spend far too much time than is necessary looking at lovely blogs and books full of festive inspiration.
Top of my list is Meg’s inspiring holiday list, not least because she is “making (and doing) much less this year” and that seems like a good place to start. But I’m definitely hoping to attempt making my own panettone after reading Michele’s post (and drooling over the photos of her finished product) – though I might follow Victoria’s lead and make them in individual tins (recycling is very chic, don’t you know!). I’ve loved Hannah’s week of inexpensive festive food gift ideas too. As for presents, well, I could show you some of the things that I’m sneakily planning, but that would be giving the game away. But Melissa has lots of lovely things here and I’m sure there are lots of other clever creative elves working on things here.

How are your Christmas plans coming along? And please spare a thought for the friends and families of the Pike River coalminers on New Zealand’s West Coast, who yesterday learned that there will be no Christmas miracle and their partners, fathers, brothers, sons and mates will not be coming home. My heart goes out to you all.