I’m not a big fan of Christmas, but ever since I was a very small girl, I’ve loved cooking for Christmas – cakes, puddings and mincemeat: those things that have to be done well ahead, and squirreled away in some cool dark spot to mature and develop complex sweet rich flavours.
First there’s the shopping and preparation. All the vine fruits in their cellophane packages; bright crystallised cherries; whole candied peel with crunchy sugary crusts; packets of ivory coloured almonds, and smaller quantities of other fruits to add interest – warming crystallised ginger, emerald green angelica, pale rounds of candied pineapple. Spices too – whole nutmegs and cloves, powdered cinnamon, allspice, mace and mixed spice. Fresh butter, lemons, eggs and flour. Make sure that there’s enough dark and light muscovado sugar in the house. Line the cake tins and grease the pudding basins. Hunt out clean jars for mincemeat.
This year, I’ve rediscovered the pleasure in all this Christmas cooking by seeing it through the eyes of those French friends who’ve come and shared the job of making all these Christmas treats.
Sitting round the kitchen table with our pinnies on, we discussed the less familiar ingredients. Suet, muscovado sugar, treacle aren’t unknown here, but they’re not on every kitchen shelf. Cakes and puddings that need to be made well ahead, and fed with spoonsful of brandy in the weeks before Christmas – now that’s very different. I made my friends weigh everything out in pounds and ounces too – well, it’s what I do, and here are the pictures of how we all got on.
Sadly, they weren’t any longer in the house when the cakes, cooking at low temperatures over several hours, started to give off their warming Christmassy aromas. Which is a pity, because it’s the best bit of all.
This is one of the mincemeats we made. It’s one my mother taught me, and our favourite, with its bright lemon flavour.
6 large lemons
450g (1 lb.) sultanas
¼ pint brandy
225 g (8 oz.) mixed crystallised fruits – I always use crystallised lemons and oranges, perhaps limes too (all bought in large pieces and hand cut), and often cherries, ginger, pineapple, angelica – but it’s up to you.
75 g (2oz.) blanched almonds
800g (1 ½ lb.) golden caster sugar
225g (8oz.) suet
½ level tsp. each ground mace, cloves, nutmeg
Peel the lemons extremely thinly, so that you have the zest, rather than the pith.
Place the lemon peels in pan & cover with cold water, bring to boil.
Drain, re-cover with cold water, & repeat twice more.
Halve & squeeze juice from lemons.
Chop blanched lemon peel finely, and mix with the other finely chopped fruits.
And mince pies in our house always go down best when they’re made with the recipe my sister-in-law Fenella shared with me.
Pastry for mince pies
230 g (8 oz.) plain flour
40 g (1 ½ oz.) ground almonds
85 g. (3 oz.) icing sugar
170 g. (6 0z.) butter
1 medium egg yolk (you might need 2).
Sift the flour, almonds and icing sugar into a warmed bowl, and rub in the butter. Stir in the egg yolk and work gently to form a soft dough. Knead lightly, cover and chill for 30 minutes.
You’ll need 230 – 340 g (8 – 12 oz.) mincemeat to make this pastry into about 12 tarts. Bake at Gas mark 4, 180 degrees C. for 15 – 20 minutes