Happy Times

the plain kitchen food blog
Festive season essentials: these, and Berocca every day…

I have had the longest period of time away from the blog: a purposeful move, and one which certainly did me the world of good. I have learned, over the last five years of running my own business, that it doesn’t work to attempt to do everything, all of the time. Of course, Christmas is a busy time for Hector and Haddock, and I conduct Christmas Linocut Workshops too at this time. Cooking is constant, as the holiday season, is, for us, all about friends, food and fun. I thought I’d write a little about what we’ve been up to here on The Plain- particularly in the kitchen.

the plain kitchen christmas cake
Easter Chicks or Penguins?

Our Christmas Cake ended up being a fairly rushed affair, and I relied on Delia’s Mincemeat Christmas Cake (for “busy, harassed cooks”, I think she writes). Decorations were tenuously linked to Christmas: pale grey penguins adorned the cake, and in fact, yes, on closer inspection the penguins may just be Easter Chicks. Note to self: invest in proper Christmas cutters for next year, or at least find the ones I already have which are probably lurking in Barnaby’s toybox.

The Plain Kitchen
Christmas light: it’s been gorgeous, hasn’t it?

Christmas Eve was quite the most wonderful affair. Friends invited us over for a Babette’s Feast celebration, inspired of course by the film. It’s one of my favourites from my youth, and certainly inspired me to pursue a life immersed in food, cooking and entertaining. I made little smoked salmon blinis which we had with fizz- I know it’s not the usual way, but I like adding chopped chives into the batter, which I did for both the gluten-free and “normal” versions of the blinis. Gina, who was hosting the evening, made the most heavenly Mussel soup (made, she told me, with a stock made from sprats- I am pinching this idea of hers, and shall be making sprat stock for a multitude of things: it was glorious). Gina’s father Chris had chosen the wines for each course, and each was pitch perfect. Gina followed the soup with Confit of Duck- again- just perfection. Our friend Helen had been entrusted with making the Rum Baba, and I have not seen such an utter triumph in a long time: we all agreed that Helen (who was slightly nervous about the creation) was in fact a secret star baker. I have ordered a tin online already, and am going to be making the exact same one that Helen made…

Simon, Gina’s husband, had cleverly devised a little Pantomime for all of us to take part in between courses- great fun for everyone, including of course the children who really threw themselves into it. I’m not very good at providing entertainment for people at dinner parties and the like- and am definitely going to be improving on this come 2017!

Of course, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without children waking at ungodly hours. Barnaby woke at 530, and so our day began- tea and mince pies, followed a little later by more smoked salmon blinis, and a little later by Buck’s Fizz (Christmas Day is the only day of the year when drinking at 11 o clock is completely acceptable, and of course I throw myself into this with my usual excitement). We had turkey this year- which I brined according to Nigella Lawson’s instructions. As a small family, we usually have duck, but Barnaby was leafing through Good Housekeeping magazine a few weeks ago (the child is obsessed with baking and food) and declared he’d like a turkey this year- so of course, we obliged. Dear God, I don’t think I will ever cook turkey by any other method- it was unbelievably good, and the turkey, a bird sourced from our wonderful butcher R Douse & Sons in Market Lavington, was gamey, spiced, and one of the most succulent roasts we have ever had. The usual accompanied the turkey: goose fat roast potatoes, chestnut & bacon sprouts, parmesan parsnips and carrots, homemade pigs in blankets (I make sausages from pork mince, apricots, walnuts and sage) and slow braised red cabbage. I don’t stuff our turkey, or any Christmas bird for that matter, in the usual way- I pop the cavity full of aromatics and vegetables, and then use these to flavour the gravy later with- the gravy being made, of course, with the roasted neck and giblets of the bird in question.

The day was happily interspersed with phone calls to South Africa, and FaceTime calls to family in far-flung parts of the world. When you live in one country, and all of your family live in others, you do need to make your own rituals, routines and happiness, probably more so than if you lived in the country of your birth: of course, we have built up our own rituals over the 19 years of living in England- they are hugely important and necessary tools for happiness, and, I dare say it, survival. However, as wonderful as these newly formed routines are,  nothing quite matches hearing those family voices you love on Christmas Day.

Trifle followed our Christmas turkey; again a Barnaby instruction- somehow he has trifle linked with Christmas, and I adore how his rituals have already begun. I make a simple gluten free sponge, and I layer everything in an old fashioned cut glass bowl- slowly stewed raspberries and clementine juice, the sponge, custard, raspberry jelly and of course whipped cream and toasted flaked almonds. We veer away from the booze at this point- it’s one ritual that Barnaby hasn’t got into- yet, that is!

The Plain Kitchen Stanley
Stanley, my trusty kitchen companion

Boxing Day was a quiet affair- and more food prep was underway, as we had been invited to our dear friends Alison and Frank on the 27th. We see them every year, along with their family, and this has become a sort of ritual too. I have mentioned them before in my blog- the family are an inspiration in the kitchen-we always come away feeling loved, and happy, and very content after being in their company. We had gorgeous turkey scratchings with fizz on arrival, smoked salmon (which Frank had smoked himself) and celeriac remoulade to start, followed by platters of beautiful ham and turkey, pigs in blankets and my absolute favourite, Alison’s Dauphinoise- I am quite sure she thinks I go on about it far too much, but I can never, ever get mine like hers. I quiz her on every aspect of it, determined to extract her secret, but, I fear I will never be able to make it quite like she does. I had made two salads- one a grilled chicory salad with toasted pecans, Cropwell Bishop Stilton, and an orange and mustard dressing: I had reduced orange juice down into a syrup with some brown sugar, which made a great difference to the depth of the dressing. Steamed green beans dressed in sautéed red onions and garlic followed salad-wise, liberally sprinkled with a cobbled together dukkah of mine: hazelnuts, chilli, za’atar, garlic, lemon zest, all toasted in lots of olive oil. I will definitely be making both salads again- and I promise I shall post the recipes for you!

Pud followed, of course: Alison’s Prune & Almond tart, a great wheel of golden toasted loveliness (again, I admired/envied Alison again, this time for the size of tart tin and perfect pastry) and I contributed with Delia’s Chocolate Rum Torte- which was ok- it needed to be of a softer consistency I felt, perhaps I needed to bring it up to room temperature a little more- and it was, as Delia does say, incredibly rich. What did work a little better- I have to say- is the double cream mix I made to go with the torte: I reduced clementine juice, rum and soft brown sugar to a syrup, and then folded this through the cream: I couldn’t believe how it changed the consistency of the cream so instantly; perhaps, like with a posset, it’s the citrus which alters the cream and thickens it. I will be making this wonderful creamy concoction again, I can tell you- and of course, the recipe will follow- but it is truly the most simple thing, and as long as you reduce the juice, rum and sugar down to the consistency of maple syrup- I am sure it will work for you, whatever proportions you use.

Branksome Beach
Utter heaven on Branksome Beach

A day of rest followed our Putman Thoma gathering, in preparation for a lovely visit to friends in Poole the next day: walks with the dogs on Branksome Beach, followed by more delicious smoked salmon and pink fizz, and Venison Stew: our friends had very kindly made me my own little version of flash fried venison as I couldn’t have the stew (silly bloody gluten thing that gets in the way and is an absolute embarrassment sometimes) and, in my usual fashion, I am now all about the venison: their dish has inspired me and I can’t wait to cook more of it. I shan’t have to wait much longer, because I have the most wonderful joint in the freezer, given to us by friends who shoot regularly- I have great plans ahead! Barnaby and I had made Florentines from his new Mary Berry cookbook, which we had with coffee after, of course, more cheese had been consumed.

The Guardian Reader Recipe swap
Mincemeat pebble Tart in The Guardian

I was also thrilled to have another recipe featured in The Guardian Reader Recipe Swap last Saturday- on the theme, appropriately, for Christmas Leftovers. It was for Mincemeat Pebble Tart- the recipe is on the site here.

As I write, I have a ham simmering slowly on the Stanley, deep in its aromatic cider liquor. I shall glaze and brown the ham briefly tonight, and will be, in my usual fashion, attempting to make Alison’s bloody Dauphinoise just how she makes it, but I’m not holding out much hope for its success. Vegetables will be steamed spring cabbage (“It’s squeaky, mummy, like halloumi, and I like that”) leeks and peas, with a glass or two of something white and cold. Barnaby has been up to his usual tricks today- we didn’t emerge from our dressing gowns until 11 o clock, not, as you may think being lazy- we simply began to bake at 830, and couldn’t quite leave the kitchen to shower and change. He decided more Florentines were on the cards, followed by Chocolate Eclairs, and Mary Berry’s “Best ever” Chocolate Cake, made in preparation for tomorrow evening. The happiness on this little boy’s face as he wandered off to walk James on The Plain, cream-filled, chocolate drizzled eclair in one hand and (I know, I know) a crispy rasher of Frank’s homemade bacon in the other was a sight to behold: well, if it works for you, Barnaby, why on earth should I stop you?

Mary Berry Chocolate eclairs
Mary’s Eclairs, off for a walk on The Plain with Frank’s Bacon…

On that note, everyone: I wish you a very happy 2017. A massive, all encompassing South African style hug to you all (we tend to kiss A LOT and hold on longer than most people do…)

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