As much as I love Christmas and believe me I really do love it, I think I love it every bit as much now as a grown-up as I did as a child – but probably in a different way. I know that the shops are a necessity, but they are not where I want to spend my December days; instead I want our Christmas celebrations to be more about the joy of the season and less about the shopping. I want to spend any spare time making foods with those distinctive seasonal spicy aromas; I want to take walks in crisp winter air and decorate the house bit by bit, together as a family, taking our time; this is my remedy to the modern seasonal madness.
Pausing to look out of the kitchen window my thoughts slowly drift away; the scene is far more autumnal than wintery, but that doesn’t mean to say that cold weather and the last season of the year isn’t standing in the wings, ready to make a grand entrance at any moment.
Already the house has taken on a cosy feel; the fire in the kitchen gently burns all day, radiating it’s warmth throughout the rooms downstairs. Candles highlight every evening meal and the last few roses we can scrounge from the garden sit proudly in the centre of the table.
The countdown is about to begin with the arrival of Advent Sunday in just a few days.
Last year we abandoned for good the shop-bought calendars and made our own from an old white shutter and lots of empty glass yoghurt pots.
Bringing it in from the barn last night and watching the children fill it with goodies ready for the 1st December felt like another family tradition, albeit a new one, but one we have started together and one that I hope will now continue into future generations of our family.
I’m also turning my attention towards festive food. We’ve harvested our lemons, (probably far too grand a term for our two small trees), but they produce a decent crop each year and growing lemons in western France always seems something of a luxury and as a result we treat them as if they were made of gold!
Although cooking is an integral part of the festive season, what we don’t want to do is find ourselves chained to the stove with a never ending list of things that have to be made, there is nothing more soul destroying. Make what you enjoy and what you can prepare in advance; concentrate on the little things that fill the kitchen with the smells that say Christmas and if you’re cooking in the evening, have a glass of wine on the side; relax and really enjoy using fresh ingredients and creating homemade dishes.
And it is never too early to start making mince pies. I feel very safe and secure knowing I have a tin full of them for whenever anyone pops in for tea (even for a slightly decadent moment myself!). Half of the fun here is tempting new friends to try our British seasonal foods and watching old friends return for more of our traditions that they have found they rather like in years gone by.
Of course you can buy them quite readily in the UK and I believe in many shops in other countries too, although there aren’t many in France! But it is so gratifying to make your own and they really are so simple and it is another way that everyone can get involved. A plain pastry is all you need, they really don’t need anything sweet or rich. Roll it out and cut into rounds and place inside cupcake tins.
The fun part is making the mincemeat, a delicacy with origins going back to medieval times when it included meat and beef suet! Nowadays mincemeat is mainly made from just fruit, although some bought varieties (and many recipes) still use suet,; happily I find the trend is turning slowly away from this altogether and I prefer to use butter nowadays.
You will need:
200g/7ozs/1 1/3rd cups currants
200g/7ozs/1 1/3rd cups raisins
200g/7ozs/1 1/3rd cups sultanas
45g/1.6ozs/1/3rd cup finely sliced or chopped almonds
125g/4ozs/1/2 cup butter chopped
1 apple, peeled, sliced, cored and chopped into small pieces
150g brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ginger
juice and grated rind of 1 large lemon
juice and grated rind of 1 large orange
100ml cognac, rum or brandy (if you don’t want to add alcohol you can substitute orange juice)
I normally like to add a good handful of fresh cranberries because it adds to the festive colour, but alas, this is France, and the grocery stalls are not yet stocked with seasonal produce and there are no fresh cranberries yet to be had. I am sure they are on offer in the larger cities, but in these more rural parts we have to wait! But there are no hard and fast rules to my recipe, add some dried ones if you wish or go without all together; you really can make this to suit yourself.
Place all the ingredients except for the alcohol in a large heavy based saucepan and very gently bring to the boil, stirring all the time. Then turn the heat down as low as possible and simmer slowly for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. This is the fun part, the aromas that fill the kitchen will draw everyone in, wherever they may be in the house, you don’t need to worry about scented candles, this is a far more powerful festive smell and as each person arrives encourage them to take a turn in stirring, it’s all part of the Christmas tradition, doing things together.
After the fifteen minutes or so, take off the heat and allow to cool a little before adding the alcohol and mixing well.
You can either cook with this straight away or you can store in clean sterilised jars in the fridge for several weeks, just remember to bring to room temperature before you want to cook with it.
Now back to the actual pies. Fill each uncooked pastry base with a good teaspoon of mincemeat, cover with a pastry hat, squeeze the edges tight and cook at 220C/425F for about 12 to 15 minutes. Remove, allow to cool, sprinkle with a little icing sugar and try and restrain yourself from eating too many all in one go, they will keep in a tin for a couple of weeks, but ours never do, they seem to disappear almost as fast as we can churn them out!
Now when it comes to the Christmas meal itself, this is often the least problematical meal to consider, most of us know the routine off by pat and it’s a little bit like not being able to teach old dogs new tricks. But every now and then it is worth reminding ourselves we need to have fun too, so often we run around making sure that everything is perfect for everyone else and that very quest for perfection leaves us feeling run ragged and too exhausted to enjoy it at all.
Every year we have a yule log for dessert for our main Christmas day feast. The British tradition is a pudding made of dried fruit steeped in alcohol and steamed, but since none of us like it we have all opted for the French Bûche de Noël to take its place, and again it is something that looks complicated but is oh so easy and can be made a day in advance. Better still have a trial run and play with different fillings, that way you can make it as individual as you wish and add your own touch.
The actual bûche itself is terribly simple, what’s more it has a fabulously light and airy texture which is exactly what you want after a big meal. You will need:
85g caster sugar
85g plain flour
2 tbsp cocoa powder
½ tsp baking powder
Heat oven to 200C/fan 180C. Line a 23 x 32cm Swiss roll tin with baking parchment. Beat the eggs and sugar together with an electric whisk for about 8 mins until thick and creamy, this is the secret and they should end up looking like this.
Mix the flour, cocoa and baking powder together, then sift onto the egg mixture. Fold in very carefully, then pour into the tin. Now tip the tin from side to side to spread the mixture into the corners and bake for 10 mins.
Remove from the oven and tip it onto another sheet of parchment paper, peel off the lining paper, then roll the cake up from its longest edge with the paper inside and leave until completely cool.
Then comes the fun part, what to fill it with! One of our favourites is to simply whip some cream until it is stiff and holds shape and then fold in 100g (or one bar) of good quality melted milk chocolate. As a side note this makes a wonderful summer dessert when filled with either this chocolate cream or plain cream with plenty of fresh raspberries or strawberries. But we are talking about Christmas, a time when food is rich and decadent and we didn’t want our bûche to be found wanting. We made our regular chocolate cream version the other night, a trial run which was received extremely well by the children!
But the jury is still out, half want it just like this, the other half want something a little more substantial in the middle. I suggested a chocolate butter cream and there was a mumbling of agreement but not a definite “yes” which I rather suspect translates into, “make another one we can sample!”
So I am guessing that is what I will do and this is the filling I will spread over the middle before rolling it up once more and icing it with the cream and melted chocolate which for the ‘outside’ icing won a unanimous vote of approval.
Mix together 250g butter and 250g icing sugar and then add 175g dark melted chocolate (I like to use a minimum of 70g cocoa variety, but the choice is optional), add 1 tablespoon vanilla essence and mix until smooth.
Assemble the bûche, grate an ample amount of chocolate on top, add some simple decorations and put it into the fridge. It will happily keep for 24 to 48 hours and you don’t have to worry about a thing. Another part of the big meal ticked off.