Thursday, 30 December 2010

Evolution with an R?

As it's the last day of this year I thought I'd share something hopeful with you.

It happened with the plough, it happened with the steam engine, now it's happening with the computer:

the unforeseeable consequences of technological innovations.

Happy 2011 to you all, XXX

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Punch and Goosey Show

I'm marking exam papers this week. But by way of distraction, and in an effort to hang on a little longer to that Christmassy sense of comfort and fun, here are a few (more) festive photos:

This years goose was not a disappointment (which is good, because we're still eating it).

Sprouts, chestnuts and bacon.

Flaming Norah!



New holes to make belts and watch fit neatly.

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Blimey it's Christmas Already

Thank you to everyone who said such nice things in the comments of my last post (and please forgive my not replying to you all individually in my usual manner). I expect I shall wear the dress that calls to me the loudest.

It's nearly one o'clock on Christmas morning here and I've only just sat down, I've been buzzing all day. The upshot of this is I'll have bugger all to do after this time of the bed: shove things in oven, open and delight in gifts, eat. That's my kind of day.

After wracking my brains over how to make the house look at least a bit Christmasy without space for a tree I dashed out to Flowers By Fiona, our local florist for inspiration,

and bought some floral things around which to stack the presents.

This didn't seem quite enough so I dragged some holly and ivy in from the garden and generally

scattered baubles

and greenery around.

I even found a spot for our faithful old star.

Still, the lack of a tree bothered. Christmas without a tree feels odd. Then I got an idea and I think this idea came to me because I know you, you've all shared so many ideas over the year, so thank you once more.

The Shields 2010 Christmas tree.

Do hope you all have a marvellous Christmas, XXXXXXX

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Frock, Frock, Whoa

As you can probably tell Christmas in our house centres on food. But we do have some family traditions that don't involve stuffing ourselves senseless: presents (obviously!), stockings (filled with more presents and, gulp, chocolate as well as the ubiquitous orange in the toe), and frocks.

I do like a new Christmas dress, I don't always get one, but I always try. I think this particular tradition goes back to birth. We were poor, but my father was the kind of sartorial that deals with cuff length in fractions, so we had 'best' clothes for things like church and family gatherings. I remember being taken to London for Christmas clothes, as well as to see the lights, from a very young age. And I remember my father's face softening when I tried on something that looked just so. It was all so exciting, glamorous, and happy making. I've never lost the urge to recreate that feeling. Thus, frock shopping is the first stage of Christmas for me.

The Christmas dress has to work very hard. It has to have an air of the festive about it without making it unwearable for the rest of the year; it has to be washable as I will be cooking in it (though I do wear an apron), and I'll wear it to every occasion over the season ; increasingly it has to be elegant (the older one gets...), and it has to flatter my pie eating frame.

For the last few years I haven't been able to find a dress that fits the remit, and have come home sadly empty handed. So when Stevie and I went to Edinburgh last week I didn't hold out much hope. I presumed the shops would be filled with the usual too short, too sparkly, too frou-frou creations. Our first stop, Top Shop, bore me out; in fairness to it I'm not exactly within the bounds of its target audience, so I wasn't surprised.

Our second stop was Jenners, Edinburgh's venerable old department store. Jenners used to be the sort of place Miss Jean Brodie types bought their twinsets and sensible shoes, but since Harvey Nichols opened about eight years ago it's become rather chi-chi. Still, this didn't raise my expectations: my budget didn't run to anything from the posh brands, and as I looked across the ladies floor I was nearly blinded by bling.

After a quick scan I homed in on Biba. Biba was the dream brand of my early teenage years, but by the time I was old enough to go up to London by myself it had closed its doors. Their stuff looks much the same as I remember it from pictures in Vogue during the 70s: all ankle length velvets and silky prints. Ankle length, that is, if you're 6ft 2, which I'm not. For nothing more than old time's sake I wandered around and fingered the satins, wondering about leg extensions, and in the process stumbled on a definite maybe: fluid knee length black jersey, a floppy tie front and, much sought after, long sleeves. I would try it on. As I looked for the changing rooms I spotted what I can only describe as a Parisienne dress. Stevie said he didn't think much of it but by then I was already imagining myself striding across a parquet floor with scarlet lips, so I picked it up. Then I spotted a dress so bizzarre (like a deflated balloon with a doily attached ) that I decided to try it on for the experience. The result of taking three dresses into the changing room with no expectations whatsoever:

The Biba.

The Parisienne.

The Freak.

They all came back to my place. Two of them were less than half their original price, and I feel I've made up for the last several years of coming home empty handed. The only problem I now have is: which one do I wear on the day?

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Oh, the Pie!

For about a week and a half at the end of every year I love mince pies. I start craving them around mid November, but I keep my greed in check until two or three days before Christmas. Shop bought mince pies are almost always disappointing: the pastry is flaccid and the filling is overly sweet. They never have enough booze in, either.

As with everything in the kitchen I've experimented with every aspect of the mince pie over the years. I've used just about every type of alcohol, all sorts of fruit mixtures, varied the size and tried every pastry recipe that's come my way. Today I tried almond pastry for the first time, and it was the best yet: friable, buttery, and crisp (for the recipe see Nigella Lawson's How to be a Domestic Goddess, or How to Eat). For those of you who don't know what a mince pie is, here's the gist:

Into a saucepan I put about 1 cup each of currents, sultanas, raisins and dark muscovado sugar; a cinnamon stick, one star anise, a teaspoon of mixed spice, and a teaspoon of ground cinnamon for good measure;

add to that the juice of an orange and about 100ml of red wine. Bring it to the boil and simmer for about 10 minutes. Your house will smell like a morning stroll in Sienna. Leave to cool.

Tip into a bowl, add chopped candied peel (no quantities, I just put in as much as I can be bothered to chop), a handful or so of dried cranberries, a glug each of brandy and Amaretto and some (didn't bother to measure) suet. Stir it all together and fill your pastry cases.

I like to make marzipan stars to top the tarts as marzipan kind of melts a little into the fruit but goes nice and crisp on top, too.

Ready for the oven: gas mark 6, 15 minutes. Because these are best fresh I make only a few at a time, keeping the rest of the pastry and fruit mix in the fridge at the ready.

Result: three or four light, sticky, melty bites to each one.

Tomorrow: A pie eater's frock dilemma.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Citrus Skinny

Ye gads, I hated candied peel when I was a child. I used to beg my mother to keep it out of the fruit cakes she made, but she put it in anyway. I remember once spending hours removing all the horrid, bitter little cubes from my piece of Christmas cake and piling them up on the side of my plate. Unfortunately, before I could get them to the bin my father saw and made me eat them, muttering something about wastefulness.

I was in my thirties before I discovered that candied peel didn't have to be vile. It didn't have to come pre-chopped in plastic tubs, and when it didn't it was delicious. It was also expensive, and required a trip to the city to procure. When we were earning I happily made the trip, but my second peel revelation was that it is easy to make. Not only that, it makes you house smell like luxury-end scented candles. The sort with names like Citrus Noir.
So, as Christmas isn't itself without mince pies, and mince pies aren't themselves without candied peel, today I made some:

First, peel your fruits: I used two oranges, a satsuma, a lemon and a lime.

De-pith: a scalpel is perfect for this, so much easier than a kitchen knife.

And it allows you to get them really thin.

Put your now skinny rinds in a pan of cold water, bring to the boil, drain, cover in more cold water, bring to the boil and drain again. The recipe I have recommends you do this three times, but I get bored and haven't noticed cutting it down to twice makes any difference whatsoever.

Place in a saucepan in which you have heated 1 1/2 cups of sugar together with 1 cup of water. Bring to the boil, turn down to a simmer, and leave to cook for about 45 minutes. Don't be tempted to stir.

Arrange on waxed paper to dry.

I was hoping that they'd have dried out enough to make the pie filling today, too, but no. I think I may have used too much water in the syrup. As for the syrup, don't chuck it: faintly citrusy, it's wonderful for Christmas cocktails.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Christmas Conversion

We always used to have turkey for Christmas lunch. This tradition came from both Stevie's and my families, altered only slightly from the huge, frozen affairs our mothers favoured, to a Kelly Bronze or a Norfolk Black. Then, about six or seven years ago, we were too late to order either, but we could get a goose. It was organic, free-range, and extremely expensive, but we took it. I'd never cooked a goose before so I turned, as I always do in such circumstances, to Nigella Lawson for advice. What a palaver: it had to be dried out over night, by an open window before being placed in a very hot oven for three or four hours. Her recipe called for it to be stuffed with mashed potato, so this is what I did, and it was delicious.

We've never looked back. Hot, it is crisp on the outside like Chinese roast duck, and moistly tender within. Cold, it's fantastic with crusty bread, salad and pickles and just seems to get better day by day. From then on goose was our Christmas bird of choice. I've messed with the recipe since then, I no longer stuff it at all, and I dry it out in the fridge. We have it with the usual festive trimmings: sprouts with chestnuts and bacon, Bob's favourite sausage balls flavoured with sage and garlic, roast spuds, and goosey gravy made in the roasting pan with Marsala.

Two years ago Stevie was made redundant, as most of you know, and the price of an organic, free-range bird became beyond our new means. Enter Lidl. Whilst browsing for bargains one day I saw they had frozen geese for twenty quid. This was about a quarter the price of the fresh ones we'd been accustomed to. I had my reservations but needs must, I set them aside, and hawked one to the till. Squeezing it into our modest freezer was challenge enough, then I had to remember to take it out almost a week before Christmas to ensure it was properly defrosted. That done, I treated it exactly as I did a fresh one.

And here it is. I have no idea whether my mind was playing tricks on me, or if my standards had slipped, but this goose was the best we'd had so far: crisper, moister, and tastier. This year's goose will be moved from the freezer to the fridge this evening. Fingers crossed it doesn't disappoint.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Seasonal Snippets

As I've been a little lapse with the whole blog thing recently I thought I'd make up for it with a Christmas post a day in the run up to the great eat off.

One of the things that makes Christmas Christmas is the music. The Little Drummer Boy is beyond a shadow of a doubt my favourite Christmas song, and these are my (current) favourite versions, in order of preference.

Bright Eyes: this is from the album that is Christmas in our house, which, one family get together, made my brother-in-law, Paul, leave the room it pained him so.

The Dandy Warhols: this is a new discovery but I do like the Dandies and this video is hilarious.

I'm only just beginning to get into the Christmas way. As I think of things I need for the festive larder I write them on the kitchen wall:

Next week I will be mostly baking, wrapping and decorating. As this house has become more like a suite of offices than a residence, with only the kitchen as a communal room we don't have space for a tree, so I'll have to be a little creative.