Far From the Pudding Crowd

The Christmas countdown has commenced & everything has gathered momentum.  Shops are bulging with baubles & tinsel, snow dredged streets have transformed into Las Vegas-style light displays & peace has been replaced by panic, as everyone realises they have two weeks to get organised, including the food!  As you’ll probably be racing around like a crazy Christmas shopping ninja, jacked up on Java & sugary snacks, desserts for Christmas Day are probably the furthest from your mind, which is why my third Christmas blog is full of sweetness.

Every Christmas it’s always the same – boring boxes of mince pies (or the homemade ones that Queen Thistle* would be proud of), Christmas pudding (flambéed eyebrows anyone?) & fruitcake so boozy, your breath can melt glass!  We’ve all been there & said our polite thank-yous, while discreetly disposing of half-eaten mouthfuls in a napkin. [*Queen Thistle is in Ben & Holly’s Little Kingdom – ask any five year old who made the bricks for Mrs Fig’s school!].

Because I don’t do anything remotely traditional about Christmas desserts, we like to create a few traditions of our own.  Before Christmas arrives, I discuss desserts with my Husband & Son, then we all pick a different one & make them.  It’s that simple & everyone gets what they wanted, because they picked it.  Usually, the guys like a tiramisu or my refreshing lemon cheesecake, scattered with a selection of fresh berries.  If I can get some good lemons, I’ll make a luscious lemon drizzle cake too – splashed with Limoncello, this makes an excellent trifle base (without custard obviously, because that’s just wrong!).

When I was a little girl, my Mum & Grandma would bake all kinds of delicious creations, including beautifully light, crisp choux pastry (pâte à choux).  Mum vigorously beat the paste with such effortless ease, until it was silky smooth (although simple to make, profiteroles need strong arms & plenty of stamina).  Once baked & filled, these piled up plump little pastries would be generously glazed with glossy, rich chocolate sauce & adorned with sparkly spun sugar.  I would watch in amazement as my Mum swiftly whipped a sugar-dipped fork through the air & glittery, golden sugar strands would appear as if by magic!  Although I don’t tend to make spun sugar very often, I do still make proper profiteroles & once you have tried them, you’ll be hooked too.  So, aprons at the ready!

What you need:

4oz Plain Flour
2oz Salted Butter (plus extra for greasing trays)
A quarter of a pint of cold Water
3 large Eggs
600ml fresh Double Cream (for filling)

What to do:

Place the butter in a medium sized saucepan & add the water.  Gently heat until the butter is completely melted, then bring to the boil.

Remove the pan from the heat & add the flour, stirring well.

Put the pan back on the heat, stirring continuously until the mixture comes together into a ball in the pan, then leave to cool.

Beat the eggs in a separate bowl.

Once the mixture has cooled, this is where you need your muscles!  Grab a wooden spoon & gradually add the eggs a bit at a time, while beating them vigorously into the mixture, until everything is combined.  Then you’re ready to pipe!

Pre-heat the oven to 220*C & prepare a couple of baking trays – grease with butter, then run them under cold water & tip off the excess (you need a film of moisture to create steam in the oven to help raise them).

Tip your choux paste into a piping bag with round nozzle attachment (usually about 1cm sized), although I like to use a star nozzle because it gives extra texture.  If you stand your piping bag over a tall mug or jug, folding the edges over the top to hold it in place, you can do this with ease & avoid losing your choux paste.  Once filled, get rid of any excess air from the bag & twist the top to close it (after all that hard work, you don’t want your bag bursting!).

Pipe the mixture into round little dollops about an inch big, leaving an inch or two gap between each of them so they can grow.

Bake for 20 minutes until risen & slightly golden.  Tip onto a wire rack & while they’re still warm, make a little hole in the side of each (gently poke the end of a knife in).  Leave to cool.

Once cooled, your profiteroles are ready!  If you are preparing them in advance, you can freeze them a few at a time in a single layer – they crisp up beautifully after a few minutes in a warm oven.  They can be filled with either savoury or sweet fillings – try filling with a fluffy cream cheese mousse to make a starter, drizzled with a little pesto on top.

Fill your piping bag with whipped cream & pipe into the tiny hole you made in each profiterole, until just full.  Stack them up on your plate or put them in the fridge in a covered dish, but don’t leave them too long as they will go soggy.

Generously drizzle warm, chocolate sauce over them & serve!  You want the recipe for chocolate sauce, don’t you?  It’s really easy to make & one of my favourite “chuck it all in a pan” recipes.  I make jars of this & store it in the fridge or the cold pantry, then warm it up to make it runny enough to pour over cupcakes (it tastes fabulous spread on hot toast too).   Here it is!

What you need:

4oz Butter, cut into small chunks
8oz Plain Chocolate, chopped into chunks (use the food processor)
14oz tin of sweetened Condensed Milk

What to do:

Pour the milk into a dry small saucepan, add the butter & chocolate chunks.

Heat gently on low, slowly stirring with a whisk & making sure everything is combined, for about four or five minutes.  It should be glossy, smooth & silky.

That’s it!  Your sauce is ready, so pour it into a nice serving jug or sauce boat just before the dessert is plated up.  This also makes a fabulous fondue with chunks of pineapple, whole strawberries or fluffy marshmallows dipped in (elasticated waistbands are advisable though).

Ready for more?  Thought so!  As most Christmas food is heavy & starchy (especially fruit-laden puddings), we tend to go for light, fresh or fluffy desserts instead & this one is all three: Strawberry Sponge Square Cake.  It was the result of an impromptu dinner party, where I had to quickly improvise with what was in the fridge at the time & it has become a firm favourite! The sponge cake can be made the day before & kept in an airtight container with greaseproof paper between the slices, then all you need to do is assemble it!

What you need:

2 large Eggs
3oz Self-Raising Flour
3oz Vanilla Caster Sugar (or give normal sugar a whizz in a coffee grinder like I do)
A little melted Butter for preparing your tin
1 heaped tablespoon extra Vanilla Sugar (for laying your sponge on)

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 220*C.  Get a shallow baking tray or Swiss Roll tin & brush the melted butter all over the inside.

Line the tray with a sheet of greaseproof paper that is slightly bigger than the tin, leaving half an inch of paper out of the tin all the way around – you will need this to lift your sponge out at the end.  Push the paper into the corners & making sure it is completely covered with the butter.

Take the greaseproof paper out, turn it over & repeat, leaving it in the tin, with the edge sticking up all the way around.

Crack the eggs carefully into a mixing bowl & give them a whisk to break them up.

Add the sugar & give it a good firm whisking until pale & cream coloured.  I usually use the electric whisk for this (even I have my limits!) & whisk for three minutes on full.

Next, you need to fold in the flour.  Folding is easy, just take your time.  Sift the flour into the bowl, then using a large metal spoon, make a figure of eight & tip the flour over into the liquid.  Repeat until all the flour has been incorporated into a lovely, thick foamy mixture.

Using a spatula, scrape the mixture into your prepared tin.  Make sure you get it into all the corners & level it out with the spatula if necessary.

Bake in the centre of the oven for about 4 minutes, until it is golden & slightly risen.  Give it a gentle pat with a finger & it should spring back – that’s when it’s ready.

Sprinkle the other sugar onto another sheet of greaseproof laid on top of a wire cooling rack.

Remove your sponge from the oven & carefully tip the whole thing over onto the sugared greaseproof paper, using the edge of the cake paper to help you if need be.

Pull off the greaseproof paper from the sponge cake & discard.  It should come away easily (& the smell of baked butter is just heavenly!).  Leave to cool for a few minutes.

Once cooled, take a large knife with a smooth blade (like a French cook’s knife) & trim the edges of your sponge (you can eat these or feed them to the birds).

Cut the sponge into three equal strips & set aside while you make the filling.  The filling can be prepared the day before too, just keep it covered in the fridge.

For the filling:

600ml fresh Double Cream (the real stuff please, it’s Christmas)
1oz Icing Sugar, plus extra for dusting
1 large punnet of Strawberries

What to do:

Wash, trim & hull your strawberries – that’s the tough bit under the leaves in the top of the strawberry.  Just run a little paring knife under the leaves, all the way around & it should come out.  The more ripe the strawberries, the easier it is.

Stand them pointy end up & using the paring knife, slice thinly – keep the trimmed edges to one side for decorating (or munching).  Put to one side in a bowl or large cup.

Get the electric whisk out again & whisk the double cream in a large mixing bowl, adding the icing sugar as you do so, until it is in soft peaks – the icing sugar gives the cream body & will hold it’s shape when piped.   You can whisk it by hand if you need to release some stress, but it’s really important that you don’t over-whip the cream, otherwise you’ll end up with butter (yes, really – I’ll cover that in another blog when we’ve all got more time).

Now you’re ready to assemble your sponge cake!  Take your first layer of sponge & lay it on a serving plate.

Scoop the cream into a piping bag with a star nozzle (or a smooth round one).  Pipe a layer of cream in a decorative swirly pattern around the edge.  Take your time over this, there’s no rush.

Lay strawberry slices all over the cream, leaving the pointy tips over the edge slightly.

Take the next layer of sponge & squeeze a little splodge of cream on the underneath side, then lay it gently on top of the strawberries.

Repeat with the next layer in exactly the same way, leaving a layer of sponge cake on the top.

When you’ve finished, you should have a beautiful strawberry sponge square cake (yes, I’m aware it’s not square, just go with it).  Dust lightly with icing sugar all over the top (use a tea strainer for this & you only need about a teaspoonful of icing sugar to do the whole thing) & serve immediately.

Use any remaining strawberries & cream to decorate each person’s plate, maybe dusting with a bit more icing sugar if you like.  Or you could just hide the rest in the fridge for nibbling on later (I think you’ve earned it!).  If you don’t like strawberries, use blueberries or even your favourite jam.  One of my favourite variations is to make a tiramisu filling instead of using cream, then mix some Sherry or Brandy with an equal amount of espresso coffee to drizzle over the sponge & replace the icing sugar on top with finely grated dark chocolate.  Decorate with a few coffee beans & a sprig of fresh mint.

So that’s dessert done & dusted (with icing sugar)!  Hopefully, I’ve given you some ideas for lighter & brighter alternatives to the usual stodgy puds, something to bring a little freshness to your Christmas table.  Now you know the drill – get yourself a lovely cuppa, put your feet up for a bit & relax, we’ve got this covered.  Stay hungry 😉 x

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Give Sultanas A Swirl!

There are some things that just don’t do it for me & that includes anything with really over-dried fruit in it – shop bought mince pies, heavily laden fruit cakes that are more fruit than cake (that’s just plain wrong), & anything with shrivelled up sultanas in it.  Scones, buns, cakes or fruit bread should all be graced with sweet, sumptuous fruits & nothing dried of any description.

Sultanas have always intrigued me since I was a child.  In those days, those wrinkly, chewy chunks were picked & flicked from whatever pastry they had dared to adorn!  I wasn’t quite sure what to make of them & always found them to be hard, chewy & just not very nice!  In the history books, a Sultana is depicted as a beautiful bejewelled Queen, so it’s hard to associate such a regal sovereign with this dried delicacy.

My Mum & Grandma taught me to show the sultana some respect & give these fabulous fruits a bit of a pre-bake pampering.   Before I bake anything with sultanas in, I give them a good soak in a fragrant warm tea bath, sometimes with a splash of Brandy or Sherry in it.  One of my favourite teas for doing this is Chai, especially at this time of year because of it’s heady, spicy scent.  The sultanas soak up all this luscious liquid to make them plump & pretty again.

There are a variety of treats you can rustle up with these little beauties & on a Sunday morning, if my Husband isn’t making croissants (his speciality), I will make my Sultana Swirlies.  They’re pretty much twirls of enriched dough with squishy sultanas in a swirl of sugar, butter & cinnamon.  If you don’t have the time to make the dough, use pre-made all butter puff pastry (the good stuff) instead.  So get your apron on & here’s the recipe!

What you need:

1lb 4oz Strong White Bread Flour (plus extra for dusting)
Half an ounce of Fresh Yeast (or dried equivalent)
Half a pint lukewarm water
1 large Egg
A quarter of a teaspoon of ground Sea Salt
2oz Vanilla Sugar (plus another ounce for sprinkling)
1oz melted Butter (salted)
Ground Cinnamon for dusting (only a tiny bit – a little goes a very long way!)
2-3 tablespoons Milk (for brushing on at the end)
1 Chai Teabag
Quarter of a pint of boiling water
1 handful of Sultanas (about 2 or 3oz should be sufficient)

What to do:

Firstly, soak your fruit: put the sultanas in a small bowl or a large coffee cup along with the tea bag, pour on the boiling water & stir well.  Put a lid on it (a saucer or small plate will do) & leave to one side for a couple of hours at least.  If you want them to really plump up, do this just before bedtime the night before & leave them until you’re ready to use them (I’ve left them for 24 hours before, so they will be fine).

While the sultanas are soaking in their bath, get the dough made!  Put the yeast into a measuring jug, pour over the lukewarm water & stir with a fork until the yeast has dissolved.  Crack in the egg & give it a quick whisk with the fork until fully combined.

Tip the flour into a large mixing bowl, add the salt & mix in with your hands, making a well in the centre of the flour.

Pour in the liquid & using the fork, draw the flour into the liquid centre, stirring well.  Then get your hands in & bring it all together to form a dough, leaving the bowl almost clean.  Tip the dough onto a flour dusted worktop & sprinkle a little flour in the bottom of the bowl you just used (you’ll need it again in a few minutes).

Knead the dough for ten minutes by hand (free mini-workout! Yay!).  If you’ve never kneaded dough before, simply push it firmly away from you with the heel of your hand then pull it back over, turn it to the side a quarter turn & repeat.  Be careful not to tear the dough, you just want to stretch it so that it will rise later.  Once you’ve finished kneading, the dough will be noticeably smoother & more elastic.  The more effort you put in now, the more risen your dough will be when you bake it, plus you’ll have lovely toned arms.  Pop it into the floured bowl, cover with a bit of oiled clingfilm (use a pastry brush, it’s easier) & place on a tray in the airing cupboard to prove for an hour.

While the dough is proving & your sultanas are soaking, relax.  There’s not much you can do here, so put the oven on to 220*C, put the kettle on & make yourself a cuppa.  Prepare your baking trays – brush with butter & flour them, or line them with greaseproof paper.  I’ve used pizza tins for this & they work quite well.

Once the dough is ready, your sultanas will be too.  Your dough will have almost doubled in size & have a domed top (your hard work will have paid off!).  Scrape it out of the bowl & onto the worktop, then knock it back – give it a quick knead & throw it onto the worktop a couple of times.  This knocks out any large air bubbles.

Strain your sultanas thoroughly using a sieve, giving them a good shake to remove any excess moisture.  Leave them to sit in the sieve & put this over the bowl they were in (to catch any drips).

On a lightly floured worktop, stretch your dough into a rectangular shape, dust with a little flour & roll out to about a quarter inch thickness.  The dough will snap back, just be patient & if it needs a little more flour underneath, dust some sparingly just to prevent it sticking to the worktop.

Next, brush on the melted butter all over from edge to edge using a pastry brush.  Sprinkle the sugar evenly all over the buttered dough, followed by the sultanas.

Then comes the fun part – rolling it up to form a big spiral, sultana-filled sausage.  It doesn’t really matter which way you roll it, towards you or away from you, but it just needs to be rolled carefully so you don’t lose your fruit.  Gently roll the filled dough, until you have a long, sultana-filled sausage.

Using a sharp knife, cut the sausage in half, then cut each half in half again.  You should be left with about 16 slices, each one about an inch thick.  Lay them in a circle on a prepared baking tray to make a flower shape, leaving about an inch gap between them.  Press them down slightly to flatten them a bit.

Cover loosely with greased clingfilm to protect them, then leave them on a draught-free worktop to prove again for about half an hour.  They will have doubled in size again & filled the tins completely.

Bake them in the centre of the oven for about 12-15 minutes until golden brown & risen.  When they are ready, gently ease them out of the tin onto a wire cooling rack – to test if dough is cooked, give it a tap on the bottom & it should sound hollow.

While they are still hot, brush with cold milk & dust sparingly with ground Cinnamon, plus another sprinkling of vanilla sugar, before leaving to cool.

These fragrant, fluffy swirls taste great as they are, but I like to make some glacé icing & drizzle it over the top, filling the curves like a little icing path to the centre.  You can use freshly squeezed lemon or orange juice to make your icing instead of water & give it a zesty zap.  They make lovely lazy breakfasts (you’ll burn off all the sugar by lunchtime), or a gorgeous snack with coffee.  However you have them, just remember to treat your sultanas like a Queen.  Stay hungry 😉 A x