Sunday, 20 December 2009

Aww crap

Five days before Christmas, loads of stuff still to do (though not the Christmas dinner, thank God) and what happens? That's right, some kind of lurgy. Sore throat, headache, sniffly. Marvellous. Throw in a hearty dose of overtired and PMT and you have one very stressed wife who is looking forward to Christmas, only because then it'll be over and I can relax. I officially hate this. Next year I start preparing for Xmas after my birthday (in March).

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Decorating the cake, pt 1

So today I got the Christmas cake out of storage - you may joke, but I actually made it last Christmas, doused it well with brandy, then triple wrapped it in baking paper and foil. A few months ago I took it out again, 'fed' it with another tot of brandy and re-wrapped it, all in anticipation of today.

I peeled off the foil and paper and turned the cake upside down. You're aiming to get the flattest, smoothest surface for your icing, so it makes sense to trim the top so it makes a stable base and invert it. Right, now the cake is ready, assemble your tools. You will need:-
- A quantity of marzipan (aka almond paste). I use Katie Stewart's recipe, but choose your favourite.
- a rolling pin
- caster sugar
- a small, sharp knife
- a cake board, one of the foil covered kinds, or the base of a cake tin
- a sturdy board or tray
- a sheet of baking or greaseproof paper
- apricot jam
- pastry brush
- tea strainer or sieve

Right, first thing's first - a disclaimer. I am going to post some photographs of my cake below, but before I do you need to understand the point of marzipan on a Christmas cake. Its purpose is actually two-fold. Firstly to prevent the dark fruit in the cake from leaking through and staining the pristine white icing. Secondly it is the foundation on which the icing is laid. Think of it like magic underwear, if you will. It may be ugly and you wouldn't really want anyone to see it, but it is essential to make your body look its best under the dress. So excuse the patches and fill-ins - they're just structural to make sure the icing has a lovely, even base.

OK, now, put a couple of large spoonfuls of the apricot jam into the tea strainer and squish it through into a small bowl. All you're aiming to do it create a smooth 'glue' for the marzipan. When you're done, use the pastry brush to paint some of the strained jam onto the top of the cake (and by top, I actually mean bottom, because you inverted it. Confused yet? I do hope not.)

Now take the marzipan and mark it into thirds. Chop one third off and set the remainder to one side. Sprinkle your work surface with caster sugar and roll out the marzipan so it is an even thickness just a little larger than the surface of the cake. Now lay the sheet of baking paper down on the tray or board and carefully place this rolled out piece of marzipan on top of it. (If you're using a board rather than a tray, then you may even be able to roll it out in situ, if that's easier).

Now gently lift the cake and, making sure it's not overhanging the edge of the marzipan anywhere, lay it top down on the rolled out marzipan. Press down lightly and leave.

Now, take the remaining icing.

If your cake is circular you'll need to take a piece of string, measure the circumference of the cake and roll the marzipan into a long sausage, roughly the same length as the piece of string. flatten it down, roll it out, trim one side and the bottom so they're neat, straight lines. Paint the sides of the cake with the apricot jam to stick down any loose crumbs and make sure the marzipan has something to stick to. Roll the marzipan up on your rolling pin and lay it carefully along the side of the cake, trimmed side down so that it sits on the marzipan top. Wrap the icing around the cake until it meets itself, then neatly trim the end off, so the two ends butt up against each other. Trim any excess off the height of the marzipan.

If, like me, you have a square cake, you'll find life is much easier. Divide the remaining icing into four equal pieces. Roll each of these pieces out so that it's very slightly longer and taller than one side of the cake. Paint the side of the cake you're about to marzipan with the apricot jam to stick down any loose crumbs and make sure the marzipan has something to stick to. Trim one side and the bottom, then lay the marzipan gently against the side of the cake, trimmed bottom resting on the marzipan overhang, the trimmed edge lined up with one edge of the cake. Trim off the excess marzipan at the top and side, making sure the edges line up, then repeat for the other three sides.

Now very carefully use your sharp knife to trim the overhang of the top marzipan. Use any offcuts to make up gaps along the edge of the cake.

Place the cake board on the bare 'top' of the cake, making sure to centre the cake carefully.

Slide the tray carefully off the surface and place the flat of your hand under it. Now place your other hand flat on the top of the board and, maintaining a reasonable amount of pressure, invert the cake again. Place the board back on the surface and remove the tray and the sheet of paper. Ta dah! A marzipanned cake. Any slight inconsistencies in the eveness can be made up now with the offcuts of marzipan, as you can see, there is often a gap around the bottom, as with mine, but that's easily remedied and the royal icing will cover up the unsightliness.

Now place the sheet of baking paper on the top, weight it down with something light (I used a roll of sellotape which was to hand!) and place in a warm, airy place for at least a few days, if not a week. You're just aiming to dry the marzipan off so it hardens slightly, making it easier to ice, the paper is just to keep the dust off whilst it dries.

And there you have it!

Monday, 14 December 2009

Mixing it up

So, although I got married well over a year ago, we had to keep many of our presents in storage in my parents' shed for a year, as our previous flat was too small to contain them. Once we'd moved house we unpacked them all - wow, it was like Christmas morning.

All sorts of goodies were in there, but the one I want to tell you about is very simple and classic. An old school, traditional mixing bowl. Ceramic, white glaze on the inside, biscuit-brown glaze on the outside. Enormous.

It was given to me by a very close friend who totally gets my obsession with baking, so I'm going to send her a link to this post and let her know that in the last fortnight alone that bowl has been the receptacle for two Christmas puddings, homemade ginger beer, ginger bread biscuit dough and marzipan for the Christmas cake. I love using it. It's absolutely massive and just like the one my mum has which I always used to love using (though mine is bigger!). I'm looking forward to all the other tasty things it's going to help me make.

All hail the mixing bowl of greatness!

Friday, 11 December 2009

Christmas Cookies

So, I felt the sudden urge to make some Christmas cookies the day before yesterday, but very surprisingly my guru, Katie Stewart, had nothing to say on the matter. Not a ginger biscuit to bless myself with.

I now have a new queen. Her Highness, Peggy Porschen. I have a beautiful copy of Peggy's Party Cakes book. Now, whilst her decorative strategies are a little too high falutin for day to day cooking, but at the beginning of her book she has a whole bunch of 'basics' recipes. A basic sponge (yeah, cos I haven't memorised the ingredients proportions for that one), basic sugar cookies, and -thank you god - basic gingerbread cookies! Hurrah!

So I made a huge batch and it's chilling in the 'fridge, just waiting for me to roll it out and bake it. Apparently the cookies can last for up to a month if kept in a foil package or an airtight container. Well that's a winning formula if you ask me. Unfortunately I have no Christmas cookie shapes, just a 'plane, a helicopter, a rocket and a heart... Oh well, I'll start out with those and buy a star, a snowflake, a Christmas tree, etc, at a later date. I'm sure nobody really minds what shape they are as long as they taste good, right? :-D

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Experimental Knitting

Right - I just jumped off-piste - my first non-square knitting project without a pattern. The lovely ladies at my Knit Wits group have given me some pointers, so I'll follow their advice and see how it works out...

Monday, 7 December 2009


This is a fairly convoluted story, but we'll get there in the end... allow me to explain further...

I have a long-time passion for heritage: things passed on from generation to generation. This passion applies particularly to my maternal line of which I am immensely proud. My mum tells wonderful stories of her childhood and the strong, independent women who brought her up and in her boxes of treasures is a family tree and set of papers written by her grandmother about the family history. My dad hardly ever talks about his family, I don't believe he knows much and what he does know makes him uncomfortable, because he comes from a line of Polish Jews and I imagine that many of them were lost in the second world war. Instead I was brought up in the reflected light of my maternal ancestry and have come to revere the artifacts and history of that family.

One of my most treasured possessions is a beautiful long string of bright orange amber beads, with matching earrings on gold drops. Each of these beads is a beautiful, polished lozenge, roughly grape-shaped and ranging in size from grape to peanut. The necklace and earrings belonged to my great-grandmother and I wear them all the time, because they feel like an embodiment of my past and because, for various reasons, orange is a significant colour to me. I love the way the amber looks and sounds, and the way they are so chill at first, but soon warm up on skin contact until they seem to be throbbing with life and give off more heat than you could possibly have released to them. A silly, superstitious part of me wonders if they hold memories of the women who have worn them. Judging by the style and the fact they belonged to my great-grandmother indicates that they're probably from the 1920s and I love to imagine them adorning a gorgeous flapper dress at some glamorous party, dancing the Charleston.

Anyway, now I've hopefully given you some idea about how passionate I am about things passed on (don't get me started on the jade jewellery set that needs re-setting, or the amethyst and turquoise tiara that I would love to have an excuse to borrow, or the string of my great-grandmother's pearls I wore for my wedding... hrm, funny how it's all jewellery! Probably because the clothes don't fit me. Diet starts tomorrow - I swear.) from woman to woman I will now tell you about the great Christmas Pudding challenge of 2009.

This year hubby and I are going to spend Christmas day with my family: mother, father, younger sister, uncle (mum's brother), possibly my cousin (that uncle's son) and my great-uncles (father's uncle and civil partner). I am excited as hell and can't wait - this will be the first time I've spent the whole Christmas period and Christmas day with my family and husband. Next year we'll have to spend with my in-laws, but let's focus on this Christmas for now!

I love Christmas, and so do my mum and sister - it's always been a big family thing and, breaking with stereotypes, I can't ever remember a big family argument. Mummy is doing the majority of the cooking - good thing, since she has the most amazing kitchen and oven whilst I have a galley kitchen and tiny, very slow oven. In return for her doing the turkey and trimmings, I was making the Christmas pudding - my first pudding ever. Over the years I have helped make pudding after pudding, but that was always under Mummy's direction and I never saw the recipe. If I had I would have paid more attention to the method.

It was Grannie Moxon's recipe, my great grandmother, and Christmas just isn't Christmas without it. Mummy suggested that I try a new recipe this year, but if you've read the above post you'll understand why I stuck to Grannie Moxon's recipe. Well, more fool me. Mummy copied out the recipe, I tucked it inside my Katie Stewart book and thought no more about it until this weekend. I pulled out the recipe, checked I had all the ingredients, then turned over the paper for the method. Um... slight problem - the list of ingredients and an instruction to 'steam for 4 hours, then 2 hours on the day' was all I had.

Panicking I picked up the phone to call Mummy and demand an explanation, but she was out of the country - at a wedding in Italy and there was no way I could contact her to ask about a bloody pudding. Using Katie Stewart's recipe and the thick dredgings of my memory, combined with my own, slightly faulty, intuition, I cobbled together the pudding as best I could - dry ingredients first, then wet, put in buttered basin, press down, cover, steam... it was all a bit of guesswork and I am really unsure, now, whether I did it right. I am most concerned over the fact I pressed the mixture down into the basin, is that going to make the (already heavy) pudding even more stodgy? I would have left the construction of these puddings until a later date, but I wanted to make it with Hubby and only get one day a week of being domestic with him, so it had to be yesterday, or wait a week, which would clash with my other plans.

Oh well, the jury's out - Mummy is back from Italy now and when she calls me back I can quiz her about the pudding. When we spoke earlier she did volunteer that she only got an ingredient list and I had no less information than did she, but she has made it a few more times than me, and I would prefer that I don't make a royal fuck-up in front of 8 family members if at all possible. I think I might volunteer to make some bread sauce and cranberry sauce and see if she needs any stuffing made. They freeze well and it'll be one less thing for her to worry about if she hasn't made them already.

STOP PRESS: news just in - me pressing the mix in is probably not too detrimental... oh well, the proof, as they say, is in the pudding!

Saturday, 5 December 2009


So I'm aware my posting average has been down somewhat over the last week. I blame this confounded weather, which has had it's usual dark and dismal effect upon me and turned me into some kind of massively oversized dormouse, tortoise or other cute, hibernatory creature.

I swear to God, my sleep patterns are so messed up at the moment that even when I'm awake i'm not certain if up is down. I'm dreaming strange and vivid dreams, far too few of which are sexual in content and experiencing mood swings worse then even my hormone fuelled ravages once a month. I can't go on like this - fitful sleep one night, insomnia the next, eleven hours in a row followed by zombie-like inability to wake up on others. It's absurd.

Look at me now! I went to bed at nine pm, yet here I am at nearly one am, wide awake and grouchy that I'm the only one up... well, sort of, the cats are keeping me company thank god, but they fell asleep again instantly damn them.

Am I the only one who suffers this? I tired combating it with prolonged exposure to daylight and walked to the library to extend my book loans instead of calling them. The brisk exercise and the minimum of fifteen minutes outdoors should have been enough to kick my body back into the realms of normality I thought, but apparently not, because here I am. If there was anything decent on TV I'd put that on and knit as I watched, but there isn't, so I'm going to sit on my laptop and fume instead, waiting for the valerian and glass of milk to have the desired effect.

Bah. Humbug. And it isn;t even Christmas yet.