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bulging with baubles & tinsel, snow dredged streets have transformed into Las Vegas-style light displays & peace has been replaced by panic, as everyone realises they have two weeks to get organised, including the food!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