Filled with seasonal good will, I tried to be kind for this year’s We Should Cocoa Christmas challenge. It seems to have been appreciated as we had 36 participants this month. Chocolate and orange truly struck a chord, but I did have one (who shall remain nameless) raising their hands in horror at this hated combination!
Unfortunately this little book, 200 Christmas recipes in the Hamlyn All Colour Cookbook series, didn’t arrive in time to be really useful for Christmas. There must have been some sort of glitch in the despatch system as I didn’t receive the book, sent by Octopus Publishing for review, until a couple of days before Christmas. I did, however, manage to squeeze in one recipe – another one for my second batch of hampers – mulled wine biscuits or as I have named my adapted version, chocolate, almond and cranberry bites.
At only £4.99 I’d say this book is good value for money. It’s quite compact, measuring only 16.5 cm by 14 cm but this is quite a nice size to be easily portable and won’t take up a lot of room on the bookshelf. As you’d expect from the title, it is stuffed full of Christmas recipes and covers everything you would expect plus quite a bit more. There aren’t actually two hundred different recipes but most of the hundred or so recipes there are has a variation which bumps the number up. For example, no self respecting Christmas book would be complete without a recipe for red cabbage and this one does not disappoint: a really interesting recipe for braised red cabbage makes an appearance, using beetroot and red wine amongst other ingredients; the variation printed at the bottom of the page is for crunchy red cabbage.
Each recipe has its own double page spread, the recipe on one side and the much sought after full colour picture on the other, which makes it particularly useful for flicking through when you’re in a panic for ideas. The recipes are clear and easy to follow, although perhaps not detailed enough for a complete novice.
The book starts off with an eight page introduction giving tips on such necessities as carving the Christmas bird and making giblet stock for the gravy. As a vegetarian, I didn’t really find either of these particularly useful, but the recipe for a Madeira cake to be used as a base for several of the recipes and how to sterilise jars was more my thing. A big chapter on Christmas fare followed this which included various meat dishes but also plenty to keep vegetarians such as myself happy. Lots of ideas for puddings were also in this section with two Christmas pudding recipes, a traditional one and a last minute one to help out the less organised amongst us. Ricotta and candied fruit slice particularly grabbed my attention.
Other chapters covered: centrepiece cakes, small cakes and cookies, edible gifts and leftover turkey ideas. Plenty there to inspire me for next year and plenty to keep the, errr, chocoholics happy. There is even a recipe for fruit & nut discs which is very similar to my glitzy mendiants. A recipe for ginger nightlights particularly caught my eye – a lovely idea using gingerbread with boiled sweet panes for the tea lights to glow through. With lots of choice and not much time, I was torn between panforte de Siena and the mulled wine biscuits which I eventually went for – only I used sherry rather than red wine. Port and cherry cookies were the alternative version offered and if I’d had any dried cherries to hand I might well have used those instead.
This is how I made them:
- Warmed 120g raisins and 75g dried cranberries in 50ml orange juice, 50ml sherry and 1 tbsp of apple jelly in a pan to not quite simmering.
- Covered and left to soak for an hour.
- Melted 50g unsalted butter in a pan and left to cool a little.
- Sifted 3oz flour (half wholemeal, half white) into a bowl with 1/2 tsp baking powder, 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper, 1 tsp cinnamon and 1/8 tsp ground cloves.
- Mixed in 100g chopped blanched almonds, 100g chopped dark chocolate (G&B Maya gold) and the grated zest of 1 orange.
- Made a well in the centre and broke in an egg then added the fruit and butter.
- Mixed this all together.
- Spooned 28 teaspoonfuls onto a lined baking sheet placing slightly apart.
- Baked at 180C for 15 minutes or so.
- Transferred to a wire rack to cool.
- Dusted with icing sugar.
When I received these glamourous little shoes, I knew immediately they would have to adorn a cake. And adorn the cake that I made for last week’s tea party they did.
This could well have been my entry for this month’s We Should Cocoa challenge, but delicious as these were, I have something I hope is a bit more exciting for that. Then again, these were possibly the nicest mince pies I’ve ever eaten. They were the only mince pies CT has eaten and liked! One of our Cornish friends introduced us to this “traditional” way of putting clotted cream inside the pie rather than on top – what a brilliant idea. The photographs are rubbish I’m afraid as I made these and served them up at last week’s tea party and after a couple of glasses of mulled wine, taking photographs was not top of my list of priorities. I made pastry using orange juice and zest and filled the pies with the chocolate mincemeat I made last month.
This is how I did it:
- Made shortcrust pastry using butter, an egg yolk, orange juice & zest, a little icing sugar and half wholemeal / half white flour (can no longer remember quantities).
- Rolled out pastry with extreme difficulty (due to hard butter from very cold kitchen).
- Cut into 12 bottoms and 12 tops
- Filled with homemade chocolate mincemeat.
- Brushed tops with milk then scattered over some flaked almonds.
- Baked for 20 minutes at 180C
- Ate warm with copious amounts of clotted cream.
For my christmas hampers I was looking to make some sort of spiced biscuits that I could cut into stars and possibly decorate. There were several contenders, but I eventually plumped for Polish Spiced Cookies otherwise known as Pierniczki taken from Ren’s aptly named blog Fabulicious Food. These cookies made their way to Vanessa’s Lets Make Christmas event at Fortnum and Mason’s and were most beautifully decorated. I particularly liked this recipe as it used cocoa powder and lots of honey which sounded just right for ChocLogBlog Christmas biscuits. Ren also suggested using rye flour. Although I’m very familiar with rye flour in sourdough bread, I had never used it in sweet baked goods until I recently made Dan Lepard’s rye apple cake. I was completely won over by the wonderful texture this grain gives and was keen to try it again.
- Melted 110g unsalted butter in a small pan with 110g soft brown sugar and 8 tbsp honey (Beech Forest HoneyDew).
- Stirred until combined, then left to cool a little.
- Sieved 225g rye flour and 225g white flour into a bowl with 2 tsp baking powder 2 tbsp cocoa, 2 heaped tsp homemade mixed spice, 1 heaped tsp cinnamon, 1 heaped tsp ginger and 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper.
- Made a well in the centre and poured in the butter mixture then broke in a large egg.
- Stirred the mixture together starting from the middle until all incorporated.
- Brought it all together with my hands to form a ball.
- Cut this in two then rolled out (one at a time) to the thickness of about 1/4 cm.
- Cut out about 80 stars and hearts by re-rolling the leftover bits several times.
- Placed them on lined baking trays about a cm apart and baked the first batch for 8 minutes at 200C.
- Sadly, these burnt, so I reduced the temperature to 180C and baked the rest for 7 minutes only.
Chocolate for Christmas gifts is of course a necessity. Last year I made ginger chocolates and orange sticks, but what to do this year? A while ago, Susan of A little bit of Heaven on a Plate very kindly sent me a couple of pots of edible gold dust / glitter and I was itching to use them. As soon as I saw White Chocolate Mendiants in Eric Lanlard’s Cox Cookies & Cake, I knew a variation of these would make their way into this year’s hampers. Although I set myself the task to learn chocolate tempering this year, I haven’t actually managed it. I thus continue to be hesitant about making chocolates; although bloom doesn’t really change the taste of chocolate it most certainly makes it look unappealing. Anyway, this is how I gave it a go.
- Drew lots of circles about a couple of centimetres apart on a sheet of greaseproof paper using a pencil and plastic milk bottle top.
- Turned this over so I could see the circles but had no worries about pencil poisoning!
- Into separate bowls put some shelled unsalted pistachios, dried cranberries, dried mango pieces (cut into small strips), dried physalis, blanched almonds split in half, strips of candied orange and lemon peel.
- Melted 150g white cook’s chocolate (Chocolate by Trish) slowly in a bowl suspended over a pan of hot but not yet simmering water.
- Spooned teaspoonfuls of the chocolate into the circles spreading it out to fill the entire circle (made 30).
- Working fast placed a cranberry, pistachio and a piece of mango or phsyalis on each chocolate circle before it set.
- Dusted on some Disco Gold using a small paint brush.
- As soon as set (didn’t take very long in my cold kitchen), peeled the mendiants off with a palette knife.
- Melted 150g 38% milk cook’s chocolate (Chocolate by Trish) using the same method as above, but reserving about 30g which I added after the chocolate was melted. This was an attempt at the seed method of tempering, but without a thermometer it was a bit hit and miss.
- Spooned the melted chocolate into the circles as before (made 30).
- Topped these with cranberries, mango pieces and almonds and left to set.
- Dusted with Disco Gold.
- Melted 150g 72% dark cook’s chocolate (Green & Black’s) using the same method as the milk chocolate (made 32).
- Topped with pieces of candied orange or lemon peel.
- Dusted with Antique Gold.
These mendiants were a huge success and although I made them well over a week ago now, they still look good and my worries about the chocolate blooming has not materialised ….. yet!
Four bags of these have already disappeared into hampers and have now long departed this house.
Getting a Christmas hamper of goodies together has been my task this month. Among the components I wanted to include were some miniature Christmas cakes. On browsing the wonderful blog Lavender and Lovage one day, I was inspired by Karen’s recipe for Wee Whisky Doused Hogmanay Dundee Cakes. Well mine are even weeer. I used a different method and some different ingredients – like chocolate 😉
This is what I did:
- Placed 300g of mixed fruit into a bowl – mostly vine, but a few chopped dates, pineapple, papaya and cranberries.
- Added grated zest and juice of 1 very juicy orange.
- Stirred in 50ml of Scotch Whisky and two tsp of orange syrup (left over from making candied peel).
- Covered and placed on top of our storage heater for a couple of hours (a low oven would be fine or could just be left somewhere overnight).
- Creamed 100g unsalted butter with 100g light brown raw cane sugar.
- Beat in 2 small eggs.
- Sieved in 150g self-raising flour, 50g wholemeal spelt, 1/4 tsp bicarbonate of soda.
- Stirred in 25g ground almonds.
- Added 50g chopped 70% G&B dark chocolate and the fruit mixture.
- Mixed well and spooned into two 6 hole muffin moulds.
- Pressed 6 whole blanched almonds onto each one.
- Baked for 35 minutes at 150C.
- Left to cool for half an hour then turned out onto a wire rack to cool completely.
- Wrapped them in greaseproof paper and packed them away in a tin.
I haven’t tried them yet, but am expecting good things of them. I have bought some nice Christmassy ribbon to border the edges when the time comes for presenting them – see if you can guess which one it will be?
I am submitting these to English Mum’s Big Christmas Bakeoff.
For more ideas of edible gifts check out Vanessa’s Lets Make Christmas.
As some of you know, I have a particular weakness for milk chocolate, so when find me a gift offered some chocolates from Martin’s Chocolatier to review, I chose the Milky Moody Selection. The website looked promising, stating “handcrafted luxury chocolate collections”, sourcing “only the finest luxury chocolates from around the world”.
There was a bit of a delay in delivery, so to assuage my chocolate deficiency, I was very kindly sent these delightful little shoes. I fell in love with them on the spot and could not bring myself to spoil their perfection by tucking into them. They are currently decorating my sitting room, but I have plans for them to top a forthcoming cake – just perfect for creating a wow factor, or so I’m hoping. They would make a great stocking filler for a sweet toothed shoe lover.
The chocolates eventually arrived. At first glance, they looked to be quite interesting and I was looking forward to trying them – who am I kidding, when do I not look forward to chocolate? There was a good range of flavours and fillings and they weren’t all the usual suspects. The names were unusual too: Beethoven, Moulin Rouge & Edwina to name but a few. But there was no explanation as to why they were so called. On the box, these are described as “Finest quality chocolates. Ultimate taste experience”. Sadly, I did not find either of these statements to be the case.
I should have been warned by the lack of information provided; in my experience good chocolate comes with a story. Not only was there no explanation of the unusual names the chocolates had, but there was nothing about the producers or where the cocoa had come from – in fact there wasn’t much more than a list of ingredients and an address. The milk chocolate (30%) tasted cheap and left a greasy feel in the mouth long after the chocolate was eaten – the result perhaps of the vegetable fats listed in the ingredients. Finest quality chocolate? I don’t think so. With a few exceptions, I found the fillings bland and insipid. No, I was not enthused at all and unusually for me, had no problem putting the box aside.
To be fair I have a cold, so my taste buds are not on top form. This being the case, I am willing to be convinced that the fillings are better than I’ve stated, but the chocolate I can find no excuse for.
On the plus side, these chocolates were not sickly sweet nor were the flavours artificial – in taste and actuality.
Overall though, these are disappointing. I have eaten some good chocolate in my time but these were not of that ilk. At £25 for 30 chocolates (360g), I do not believe these to be good value for money. A better quality milk chocolate is needed and that would go a long way to improve the “luxury” status of these chocolates.
Rhapsody – creamy raspberry flavour with a layer of jam. This was the first one I tried and I was very willing to be rhapsodic, but alas, the jam was the only flavour I detected.
Christina – soft smooth belgian caramel filling. The caramel had a nice flavour and a good consistency, neither too runny nor too firm.
Melissa – smooth orange parfait. This had a good zesty orange flavour to it and the ganache was nicely smooth.
Mary – smooth Irish cream. This was quite enjoyable, but only tasted very faintly of Irish cream and I could detect no presence of alcohol.
Captain Cook – dark rum ganache. Rather cloying and a bit too sweet, this had a hint of rum about it but without the heady notes you’d expect in a proper rum truffle.
Arabica – roasted coffee praline. With CT not around to do the coffee tasting for me, I gamely gave this one a go. Surprisingly, I enjoyed this one more than most and I think it’s because I could actually taste something distinctive.
Edwina – almond royal marzipan. I’m not sure I’ve ever eaten marzipan that I haven’t enjoyed and this was no exception. A nice generous chunk of chewy marzipan covered in only a thin layer of the chocolate – which was a good thing in this instance.
Moulin Rouge – white chocolate ganache with forest berries. One of the better flavours where the berry taste came through clearly, but was muddied by the chocolate.
Eve – soft centred cream of green apple. This was the one I was most looking forward to trying, but it turned out to be the most disappointing. The filling had dried out and shrunk and the chocolate beneath it had collapsed. The only flavour I tasted (apart from the not particularly chocolatey chocolate) was from the coconut decorating the top.
Beethoven – soft butter cream with gingerbread. This one sounded so good and warming and just right for Christmas. I liked the texture of this, very smooth, but with tiny bits of gingerbread which made it slightly chewy. This left a nice warming taste in the mouth, though I would have preferred a slightly stronger flavour.
When it comes to bananas, CT and I are not fans. Strange, therefore, that I ended up buying a whole bunch of cheap bananas the other day. My eye for a bargain has let me down on numerous occasions, as a box full of ready made pasta sauces languishing at the back of a cupboard will testify. I worked my way through the apples and then the pumpkins and now it looks as though it’s the turn of bananas. This may be the first of many posts on the subject!
If I’m going to eat bananas, baked in cakes is one of the best ways, so I dutifully leafed through my baking books. Being in the mood for something sweet and comforting, Dan’s banana blondies taken from Short & Sweet sounded just the ticket – lots of sugar, white chocolate and caramel – you couldn’t get much sweeter than that!
This is how I made them:
- Placed a large pan on a low heat and poured in 75g vanilla sugar followed by 2 tbsp of water.
- Allowed the sugar to dissolve then upped the heat until the sugar was boiling. Let it boil for about 5 minutes when the colour started to darken and a drop plopped into a glass of cold water set hard. Getting this bit right is always tricky as you want a hard caramel but you don;t want a burnt one.
- Stirred in 75g chopped Brazil nuts then quickly poured out onto a piece of baking parchment to cool and set.
- Broke into pieces.
- Melted 100g unsalted butter and 200g vanilla flavoured white chocolate in the same pan (I’m a great believer in saving on washing up).
- Removed from heat and stirred in 225g vanilla sugar.
- Beat in 1 egg and 2 bananas – peeled and finely chopped.
- Sifted in 225g flour (half wholemeal, half white) and 1/2 tsp baking powder.
- Added the broken nuts and mixed until just combined.
- Spooned into a 9″ sq cake mould and baked at 180C for 20 mins.
- Left to cool, then cut into little squares.
I am so behind with my posts at the moment; there are some I’ve drafted from nearly a year ago which I still haven’t published and other things I haven’t even started writing. Hey ho, better late than never, I hope. Here’s a brief account of my upcountry adventures of over two weeks ago, meeting up with other food bloggers.
To say I don’t get out of Cornwall much is not quite true, as I cross the border into Devon several days a week to go to work. But I love my home county and find more than enough to do and see here, so I don’t feel the need to leave it very often. Sometimes though, an unmissable event drags even a home bird like me out of her nest.
A food blogging conference to be held in Birmingham was the lure – the first in the UK to be held outside of London, Bite n Write organised by Annie Ko. As well as several presentations I hoped I’d find useful, I was also keen to meet up with food blogging friends Kath of The Ordinary Cook and Jac of Tinned Tomatoes. Having finally committed to this, it just so happened that Vanessa Kimbell of Goddess on a Budget invited me to attend her Lets Make Christmas event at Fortnum & Mason in London, the very day before Bite n Write. Well that was just too fortuitous to turn down, so I didn’t.
Both events were really well worth attending and I enjoyed them for different reasons. Really annoyingly, I was so taken up by events at both venues that I hardly took any photos. I’m not going to write too much of an account of either, as both have been well documented by other attendees over the blogosphere – and they all seem to have taken photographs too! But here are a few highlights:
Let’s Make Christmas
This was a very glamourous affair for a country bumpkin ;-), but it was also very warm and friendly with lots of familiar blogging names to meet and have a chat with. As well as this, the aim was to make a Christmas gift or gifts, blog about it, then bring it along to be judged by Dan Lepard – some fabulous prizes were up for grabs. Ultimately they were swapped for another blogger’s gift, so we all ended up being winners in the end. The tables laden with gifts were awe inspiring and many had put huge amounts of effort into their creations. My rather humble offering was some of these Spicy Pumpkin Biscotti. In return, I was thrilled to receive a jar of candied pecans from Jaynerly and most delicious they are too. I will definitely be making some Christmas nuts to this recipe. My biscotti got carried off in the hands of The Botanical Baker. It was fun to meet so many lovely food bloggers and a delight to finally meet Dan and his partner David after the aborted attempt back in October. It was also really good to meet Vanessa who put a lot of effort into organising this event and deserves our thanks. She was just as warm and lovely in person as she comes across on the radio and her blog. You can see her write up of the event including pictures, a list of the winners and links to all of the participants’ blogs here. As it was an afternoon event, it was quite appropriate for us to drink tea and eat F&M’s delicious mince pies and even more delicious chocolate mousse mini logs, so I knuckled down and did my duty. It was good to meet bloggers I hadn’t come across before but I was particularly pleased to put faces to names I knew so well and especially the following – We Should Cocoa (ers) all!
- Dom of Belleau Kitchen
- Hannah of Corner Cottage Bakery
- Helen of Fuss Free Flavours
- Jude of A Trifle Rushed
- Karen of Lavender and Lovage
- Kate of What Kate Baked
- Laura of How to Cook Good Food
- Sarah of Maison Cupcake
- Working London Mummy
Not having been to Fortnum & Mason for over 20 years (how scary is that?), I took the opportunity to have a bit of a mooch. Gracious, there were some fabulous goodies on offer and it all looked so tempting. It was, of course, rather on the pricey side, so I was very pleased that we were all given a pack of White Chocolate & Cranberry Florentines to take home with us.
Bite n Write
The next day was much more industrious and more concerned with paying attention and writing down tips than it was about chatting, although there was of course some opportunity to network. As well as meeting Kath and Jac, which was a delight, I managed to have a brief catch-up with a number of others including:
- Beth of Jam and Clotted Cream – fellow Cornish food blogger
- Dormouse and the Teapot
- Jules of Butcher, Baker
- Charlotte of Go Free Foods – who I hadn’t managed to spot at Lets Make Christmas the day before.
The conference was held in the colourful Custard Factory, a suitably named venue for a food bloggers event. A photography workshop by Craig Fraser of FraserShot started the day. This was really interesting, but the tips I’d been hoping for had only just started, when time ran out and it was on to the next topic. I try not to be too envious of Judith Lewis of Mostly About Chocolate, but she does get to try a lot of very nice chocolate for her blog reviews. She is also an expert on SEOs and it was this that was the subject of her talk. I only had a vague awareness of what SEOs were up to this point and Judith imparted some highly useful information – none of which I’ve yet acted upon!
My chocolate envy was soon assuaged by the workshop I was was most looking forward to. It was not only all about chocolate but more to the point was all about tasting chocolate. Artisan du Chocolat gave us quite a feast of flavours both new and old. Starting with a 100% cocoa bar and working down the spectrum, we sampled one bar after another. Flavoured bars came next with a 40% milk chocolate Masala Chai generally being voted everyone’s favourite followed by Chilli Mole. Then it was on to the truffles which included lemon & thyme, tobacco (!) and salted caramel. Some appealed more than others, but there wasn’t one I wouldn’t have had a second taste of given the opportunity – not even the coffee! This was not the case for everyone as I did see some grimacing going on and even some chocolate being, not so surreptitiously, spat out.
Our enthusiasm for chocolate led to the programme running behind schedule so Jeanne Horak of Cooksister gave a rather rushed but really useful talk about promoting your blog and finding your own writing style. Michelle of Go Free Foods gave an even more rushed presentation about developing recipes, specifically with food allergies in mind. By this point, I had rather lost the plot and when James Bolton from Derezzed Media held a workshop about WordPress, I switched off. I didn’t manage to regain my attentiveness even for Ben Frazer of Cupcake Artisan and slipped off to catch my train home during his talk on video blogging.
For further info, Catherine Moran of Word Stew has made some useful notes on her Bite n Write post highlighting the key points made by most of the speakers.
In addition to the chocolate, we had some very tasty and attractive cupcakes during the day, lunch (which very nearly didn’t materialise for the vegetarians) and a goody bag to take away with us which included a delicious fresh methi masala curry paste from Bipins and a tin of Steenbergs Christmas Tea.
Turns out this post wasn’t quite as brief as I was intending, but there was so much going on at both events and so many bloggers attending, this only scratches the surface.