Try a handmade gift this Christmas - Derval O'Rourke's spiced Christmas almonds

I love this time of year and this week I’m sharing some of my favourite ways to spend my downtime in December. For my recipe, it’s my gingerbread cookies and spiced almonds, both great edible gift options, writes Derval O'Rourke.

Pictures: Leah Barbour

With so much to do in the run-up to Christmas it’s really important to schedule in time with family and friends.

We can often focus so much on spending our money we forget to spend our time with those we love. Here are my top picks for family days out this Christmas.

1) A visit to Santa

This is something I’m really looking forward to doing with Dafne this year now that she is a little bit older. Last year she was petrified of Santa but this year she seems much more excited about him. If you are looking for something a little bit different my top picks would be Seek at Fota (www.fotaseek.ie), the new ‘Elves in Training’ Santa Experience at the GAA Museum in Croke Park (www.crokepark.ie/santa) and the Ailwee Caves in Ballyvaughan in Kerry (www.aillweecave.ie/santas-workshop).

2) Rock around the Christmas markets

There’s no better time than December for mixing mince pies, fairy lights and shopping. Ireland’s Christmas markets always have such a magical atmosphere and I love the opportunity to chat to all the local producers and pick up some beautiful handmade gifts. My top picks would be Eyre Square in Galway which transforms into a winter wonderland for the Galway Continental Christmas Market and my local farmers market in Douglas Shopping Centre on a Saturday afternoon.

3) The GOAL Mile

Heading into its 36th year, the Goal mile is one of my favourite Christmas events. Since it started in 1982, over 275,000 people all over Ireland have taken part.

It’s a great way to get the family moving on Christmas Day and raise funds for the amazing work that GOAL do in developing countries. All you have to do is turn up and run, jog or walk a mile. It couldn’t be easier! I promise your turkey will taste even better after doing this. To find one near you check out their website: goalglobal.org/events/event/goal-mile.

4) Get out for a walk this Christmas season

I love to wrap up and get out for a walk over the Christmas holidays. My top pick here in Cork would be a stroll along Garrestown beach with a visit to Jo’s café for O’Connaills hot chocolate and home- baked goodies afterwards.

There are beautiful scenic walks all over Ireland and this time of year is perfect to embrace the beautiful country we live in.

5) Christmas swims

These are held up and down the country for charities. They are growing in popularity each year with hundreds if not thousands of people jumping off piers and rocks or running into the cold water on beaches around Ireland every Christmas Day. A great place to join the crowd is at the Forty Foot South of Dun Laoghaire in Dublin or at the annual COPE swim in Salt Hill Galway.

My local will be either Myrtleville or Fountainstown beach, I may not be brave enough to jump in but I love to watch all the swimmers on Christmas Day.

6) Glow Experience Cork

This much-loved festival is back and will run every weekend in the build-up to Christmas, and also Christmas week. As part of GLOW, you can get fantastic views of Cork City on the Ferris Wheel, sample delicious food at the Christmas Market, listen to beautiful music by Cork choirs and bands on the Grand Parade and visit the Bishop Lucey Park which is magically transformed into a historic Christmas wonderland based on the theme of The Night Before Christmas in Old Cork.

7) Get your skates on

With temporary rinks popping up all over the country, this has turned in to a Christmas tradition for many families to usher in the winter season and kick off the Christmas celebrations.

Cork on Ice has returned for its third year in the grounds of Mahon Point shopping centre and they are hosting a variety of festive activities including the Penguin Club for young skaters, a chance to skate with Santa, student nights, ice hockey and more.

Other venues include Blanchardstown, Galway and Mullingar.

Visit www.iceskating.ie to book your tickets.

8) On your bikes

A post-Christmas cycle is a great way to blow away the cobwebs. You can check out www.coillteoutdoors.ie for cycling trails to suit all abilities from leisurely bike rides including Curraghchase Forest Park in Co Limerick and Portman Forest Park in Co Galway or tougher routes like Ticknock in Dublin and Ballinastoe, Co Wicklow. The Greenway cycle from Dungarvan to Waterford is on my wish- list with a pit stop in The Coach House Coffee in Kilmacthomas to refuel afterwards. You can hire bikes for about €10 to €20 euro from companies such as www.waterfordgreenwaybikehire.com and they even have a shuttle bus to bring you and your bike back if you decide the full route trip is too much.

Fitspiration

An Post Letters to Santa

This is a lovely idea for your little ones. Choose one of the templates, write your letter including your name and address and post it to Santa Claus, North Pole using a €1 stamp from An Post. Santa’s helpers will make sure your letters are received and that you get a personal reply from the great man himself, just before Christmas. Check out: www.anpost.ie

Gingerbread cookies

This is a healthier and slightly different version on the traditional gingerbread cookie. The recipe is from Sarah Britton, an author and renowned chef. Be warned this recipe is divisive, some people love the distinct flavour and some people don’t! I personally like them for a change and to give me a different version of a Christmas cookie.

Prep time: 15 minutes plus time to chill

Cook time: 7-10 minutes

Makes: 15-20 cookies

Nutritional Information per cookie:

Protein – 3g

Fats – 4g

Carbohydrates – 23g

Calories - 128

350g whole spelt flour

¼ tsp. sea salt

½ tsp. baking powder

1 tbsp ground ginger

1 ½ tsp ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon ground cloves

½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

70g coconut sugar

5 tbsp coconut oil, melted

125ml blackstrap molasses

3 tbsp unsweetened applesauce

1 tsp vanilla extract

In a large mixing bowl, sift all the dry ingredients together and set aside. In a small saucepan, melt the coconut oil, then whisk in the molasses, applesauce, and vanilla.

Pour the wet ingredients over the dry, and fold to combine – be careful not to overwork the dough. Turn dough out onto a piece of cling film, make a ball, then flatten into a large disc. Wrap and place in the fridge for at least one hour.

Preheat the oven to 180°C. Remove the dough from the fridge, place it between two pieces of baking paper and roll out.

Remove the top half of the paper and cut out desired shapes with a cookie cutter or a knife. Place on a lined baking sheet.

Ball up the scraps of dough, roll it out between the parchment and start again. Once the dough becomes too warm, return it to the fridge and repeat the entire process again once chilled.

Place cookie sheet in the oven and bake for 7-10 minutes.

Remove from oven and let cool on pan. Enjoy!

Spiced Christmas almonds

These almonds are super simple to make and leave your house smelling amazing. They make a lovely gift, simply pop them in a Kilner jar and tie up with some festive ribbon.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes

Makes: 1 jar of nuts

Nutritional Information for the full recipe:

Protein – 53g

Fats – 126g

Carbohydrates – 87g

Calories – 1,579

1 and a half tbsp of maple syrup

1 and a half tsp of cinnamon

1 tsp of nutmeg

Quarter tsp of ginger

250g of almonds

Heat the oven to 180C. Line a baking tray with parchment paper. Place the maple syrup, nutmeg, ginger and cinnamon in a small pan and gently warm through until mixed together and runny.

Take off the heat and stir in the almonds. Tip onto a baking tray and spread out evenly so that they aren’t overlapping. Cook in the oven for 30 minutes. Make sure you stir the nuts so that they cook evenly.

Once the nuts are crunchy, remove from the oven and allow to cool before tucking in.

Any leftovers can be stored in an airtight container.

www.derval.ie


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