Darina Allen: It really is time to start the Christmas food prep

Darina Allen: It really is time to start the Christmas food prep

Darina Allen in her kitchen at Ballymaloe. Picture Dan Linehan

It’s extraordinary in these uncertain times to think that it’s only eight weeks to Christmas. Already some of us are searching for presents for our loved ones or going to big efforts to secure a longed-for toy for our little dotes.

Who knows what level of restrictions will be in place by then  — it's impossible to predict. We can just plan for the worst and hope for the best.

Meanwhile, let’s get cooking: we’ve already started to make plum puddings, and have early orders on the board.

We’re fortunate to have two really good recipes — one is my mother’s, passed down through several generations; and the other is my late mother-in-law’s Myrtle Allen’s. Both puddings are fruity and delicious and benefit from being made in advance and left to mature. Both are super easy to make, just mix and boil. Mincemeat is even easier .. put all the ingredients into a bowl, add a good slosh of whiskey, then fill it into sterilised jars. Cover and label for presents and Christmas hampers.

Lots of other edible presents can be made during the next few weeks: little jars of kumquat marmalade, cranberry sauce, or green tomato jam.

The best, juiciest plum puddings are made with beef suet so go along to your local butcher and ask for the suet from around the beef kidney. It’s easy to prepare and can be frozen in batches for plum puddings and mincemeat.

Buy the best quality dried fruit — and how about making a batch of homemade candied peel? It will hugely enhance the flavour of your Christmas cake and puddings, and can also be made into sweetmeats.

Our seasonal tomato crop is coming to an end but we still have lots of green tomatoes so we’ve been making a delicious green tomato jam and green tomato chutney to add to Christmas hampers.

Try this beetroot and ginger relish too. The remainder of the beets can be left in the ground but they just become woodier as the weeks pass, so best to whip them up, cook and pickle or freeze for winter meals.

So these are a few suggestions…..

Darina Allen's Christmas Cake

Christmas cake
Christmas cake

  • 225g (8oz) butter
  • 225g (8oz) pale, soft-brown sugar or golden castor sugar
  • 6 eggs, preferably free-range and organic
  • 285g (9oz) flour
  • 1 teaspoon mixed spice
  • 65 ml (2 1/2 fl ozs) Irish whiskey
  • 350g (12oz) best-quality sultanas
  • 350g (12oz) best- quality currants
  • 350g (12oz) best-quality raisins
  • 110g (4oz) real glacé cherries
  • 110g (4oz) homemade candied peel (see recipe)
  • 50g (2oz) ground almonds
  • 50g (2oz) whole almonds
  • rind of 1 organic unwaxed lemon
  • rind of 1 organic unwaxed orange
  • 1 large or 2 small Bramley Seedling apples, grated

This makes a moist cake which keeps very well. It can either be made months ahead or if you are frenetically busy it will still be delish even if made just a few days before Christmas — believe me

I know! This cake, now a classic, was originally published in 1989 in A Simply Delicious Christmas and it’s still my favourite rich Christmas cake. Source the best ingredients you can, including moist plump dried fruit.

Line the base and sides of a 23cm (9 inch) round, or 20.5cm (8 inch) square tin with a double thickness of silicone paper. Tie a double layer of brown paper around the outside of the tin. Have a sheet of brown or silicone paper to lay on top of the tin during cooking.

Wash the cherries and dry them gently. Cut in two or four as desired. Blanch the almonds in boiling water for 1-2 minutes, rub off the skins and chop them finely. Mix the dried fruit, nuts, ground almonds and grated orange and lemon rind. Add about half of the whiskey and leave for 1 hour to macerate.

Preheat the oven to 160°C/315°F/Gas Mark 2 1/2.

Cream the butter until very soft, add the sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Whisk the eggs and add in bit by bit, beating well between each addition so that the mixture doesn’t curdle. Mix the spice with the flour and stir in gently. Add the grated cooking apple to the fruit and mix in gently but thoroughly (don’t beat the mixture again or you will toughen the cake). You can of course use a food mixer if one is available but the same principle applies.

Put the mixture into the prepared cake tin. Make a slight hollow in the centre: dip your hand in water and pat it over the surface of the cake — this will ensure that the top is smooth when cooked.

Lay a double sheet of brown paper on top of the cake to protect the surface from the direct heat. Put into the preheated oven; reduce the heat to 150°C/300°F/Gas Mark 2 after 1 hour. Bake until cooked; test in the centre with a skewer — it should come out completely clean after a further 2 1/2 hours approximately in total. Pour the rest of the whiskey over the cake and leave to cool in the tin.

Remove from the tin the next day. Do not remove the lining paper but wrap in several layers of greaseproof paper and brown paper until required. Store in a cool dry place: the longer the cake is stored the more mature it becomes.

Closer to Christmas, ice and decorate as desired.

Ballymaloe Famous Homemade Mincemeat

Jars of mincemeat
Jars of mincemeat

Here are two delicious options: the first is the classic Ballymaloe Mincemeat recipe passed down in Myrtle Allen’s family for several generations. Of course, it contains suet so it’s moist and juicy and best eaten hot in pies and tarts.

The second, Emer Fitzgerald’s Mincemeat is vegetarian — it doesn’t include suet or butter and is also gluten-free.

  • Makes 3.2 kilos approx.
  • Makes 8-9 pots.
  • 2 cooking apples, eg. Bramley Seedling
  • 2 organic lemons
  • 450g (1lb) finely-minced beef suet
  • pinch of salt
  • 110g (4oz) candied citrus peel (preferably homemade)
  • 2 tablespoons Seville orange marmalade
  • 225g (8oz) currants
  • 450g (1lb) sultanas
  • 790g (1lb 12oz) Barbados sugar (moist, soft, dark-brown)
  • 62ml (2 1/2fl oz) Irish whiskey

Core and bake the whole apples in a moderate oven, 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4, for 30 minutes approx. Allow to cool. When they are soft, remove the skin and pips and mash the flesh into pulp. Grate the rind from the lemons on the finest part of a stainless steel grater and squeeze out the juice and stir into the pulp. Add the other ingredients one by one, and as they are added, mix everything thoroughly. Put into sterilized jars, cover and leave to mature for 2 weeks before using. This mincemeat will keep for a year in a cool, airy place.

Emer Fitzgerald’s Mincemeat (Vegetarian)

This delicious mincemeat is suet free and suitable for vegetarians.

Makes 6 pots

  • 700g (1½lb) cooking apples, peeled and chopped
  • 1 orange, rind and juice
  • 1 lemon, rind and juice
  • 330ml (11fl.oz) cider or apple juice
  • 500g (18 oz) Barbados sugar
  • 500g (18 oz) sultanas
  • 250g (9oz) currants
  • 125g (4½ oz) mixed candied peel
  • 100ml (3½ fl.oz) Irish whiskey
  • 1 teaspoon mixed spice

Place the apples, orange and lemon juice and rind and cider in a large saucepan. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 10-15 minutes until the apple has cooked. Stir in the sugar, mixed spice, mincemeat, sultanas, currants and candied peel. Stir until the sugar is dissolved, then simmer for a further 15 minutes. Remove from the heat, allow to cool. Stir in the whiskey and pot into sterilised jars.

Elizabeth O'Connell's Plum Pudding

Christmas Plum Pudding
Christmas Plum Pudding

It has always been the tradition in our house to eat the first plum pudding on the evening it is made. As children we could hardly contain ourselves with excitement — somehow that plum pudding seemed all the more delicious because it was our first taste of Christmas. The plum pudding was usually made about mid-November and everyone in the family had to stir it so we could make a wish — I now know that it helped to mix it properly. This is quite simply the best plum pudding I’ve ever tasted and everyone who tastes it seems to agree wholeheartedly.

It’s fun to put silver plum pudding charms in the pudding destined to be eaten on Christmas Day.

This recipe makes 2 large or 3 medium puddings.

The large size will serve 10-12 people, the medium 6-8.

  • 350g (12oz) raisins
  • 350g (12 ozs) sultanas
  • 350g (12 ozs) currants
  • 350g (12 ozs) brown sugar
  • 350g (12 ozs) good quality white breadcrumbs (non GM)
  • 350g (12 ozs) finely-chopped suet
  • 110g (4 ozs) candied peel (preferably home-made)
  • 2 Bramley cooking apples, coarsely grated
  • rind of 1 unwaxed lemon
  • 3 whole cloves pounded (not ground cloves)
  • a pinch of salt
  • 6 organic eggs
  • 62ml (2 1/2 fl ozs) dark Jamaica rum (not Bacardi)
  • 110g (4oz) chopped, peeled almonds (finer than nibbed)

Mix all the ingredients together very thoroughly and leave overnight. Don't forget, everyone in the family must stir and make a wish! Stir again for good measure the next day. Fill into pudding bowls; cover with a double thickness of greaseproof paper which has been pleated in the centre, and tie it tightly under the rim with cotton twine, making a twine handle also for ease of lifting.

Steam in a covered saucepan of boiling water for 6 hours. The water should come halfway up the side of the bowl. Check every hour or so and top up with boiling water if necessary. After 6 hours, remove the pudding. Allow to get cold and re-cover with fresh greaseproof paper. Store in a cool dry place until required.

On Christmas Day or whenever you wish to serve the plum pudding, you will need to steam for a further 2 hours. Turn the plum pudding out of the bowl onto a very hot serving plate. Pour over some whiskey or brandy and ignite. Serve immediately on very hot plates with brandy butter.

Myrtle Allen's Plum Pudding

Serves 8-10

Making the Christmas Puddings (from The Ballymaloe Cook Book by Myrtle Allen)

The tradition that every member of the household could have a wish which was likely (note, never a firm promise) to come true, was, of course, a ruse to get all the children to help with heavy work of stirring the pudding. I only discovered this after I was married and had to do the job myself. This recipe, multiplied many times, was made all at once. In a machineless age, mixing all those expensive ingredients properly was a formidable task. Our puddings were mixed in an enormous china crock which held the bread for the household for the rest of the year. My mother, nanny and the cook took it in turns to stir, falling back with much panting and laughing after a few minutes' work. I don't think I was really much help to them.

Christmas puddings should be given at least 6 weeks to mature. They will keep for a year. They become richer and firmer with age, but one loses the lightness of the fruit flavour. We always eat our last plum pudding at Easter.

If possible, prepare your own fresh beef suet — it is better than the pre-packed product.

  • 6ozs (175g) shredded beef suet
  • 6 ozs (175g) sugar
  • 7ozs (200g) soft breadcrumbs
  • 8ozs (225g) currants
  • 8 ozs (225g) raisins
  • 4 ozs (110g) candied peel
  • 1-2 teaspoons mixed spice
  • a pinch of salt
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 2 fl ozs (50ml) flesh of a baked apple
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 fl ozs (50ml) Irish whiskey
  • 1 x 3 pints (1.75 L) capacity pudding bowl

Mix the ingredients thoroughly. Whisk the eggs and add them to the apple and whiskey. Stir very well indeed. Fill into the greased pudding bowl. Cover with a round of greaseproof paper or a butter-wrapped pressed down on top of the pudding. Put a large round of greaseproof or brown paper over the top of the bowl, tying it firmly under the rim.

Place in a saucepan one-third full of boiling water and simmer for 10 hours, we now do six. Do not allow the water to boil over the top and do not let it boil dry either. Store in a cool place until needed.

Boil for 1 1/2 - 2 hours before serving. Left-over pudding may be fried in butter.

Serve with whiskey cream or brandy butter.

Homemade Candied Peel

Fruit should be organic if possible, otherwise scrub the peel well.

  • 5 organic unwaxed oranges
  • 5 organic unwaxed lemons
  • 5 organic unwaxed grapefruit (or all of one fruit)
  • water
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 1/2lbs (1.1kg) sugar

 Darina Allen at Ballymaloe. Picture: Dan Linehan
Darina Allen at Ballymaloe. Picture: Dan Linehan

Cut the fruit in half and squeeze out the juice. Reserve the juice for another use, perhaps homemade lemonade. Put the peel into a large bowl (not aluminium), add salt and cover with cold water. Leave to soak for 24 hours. Next day throw away the soaking water, put the peel in a saucepan and cover with fresh cold water. Bring to the boil cover and simmer very gently until the peel is soft, 3 hours approx. Remove the peel and discard the water. Scrape out any remaining flesh and membranes from inside the cut fruit, leaving the white pith and rind intact. (You could do the next step next day if that is more convenient).

Slice the peel into nice long strips. Alternatively, cut each half in half.

Dissolve the sugar in 1 1/4 pints (750ml/generous 3 cups) water, bring it to the boil, add the peel and simmer gently until it looks translucent, 30 – 60 minutes and the syrup forms a thread when the last drop falls off a metal spoon. Remove the peel with a slotted spoon, fill the candied peel into sterilised glass jars and pour the syrup over, cover and store in a cold place or in a fridge. It should keep for 6-8 weeks or longer under refrigeration.

Alternatively, spread on a baking tray or trays and allow to sit for 30 minutes to 1 hour to cool. Toss in caster sugar and store in covered glass jars until needed.

Janie’s Green Tomato Jam

A recipe given to me by Janie Suthering. We always have masses of green tomatoes when it becomes colder in the Autumn and the tomatoes ripen more slowly. This is delicious with cold meats and pâté. We use the green fruit for predictable things such as fried green tomatoes and chutneys.

Makes 2 small jars

  • 500g (18oz) green tomatoes
  • 450ml (16fl oz) water
  • 300g (10oz) granulated sugar
  • finely grated zest and juice of 1 lemon

Wash and slice the tomatoes (no need to peel), and place in a large pan with the water. Bring to the boil then simmer covered for 50-60 minutes until tender. Add remaining ingredients and dissolve the sugar over gentle heat, stirring occasionally.

Boil rapidly for 10 –12 minutes or until setting point is reached.

Beetroot and Ginger Relish

A delicious combination, this relish complements goat’s cheese, pâte de campagne and lots of other meats.

Beetroot and ginger relish
Beetroot and ginger relish

Makes 4 jars (yields 500ml (18fl oz) approximately

Serves 8 – 20 depending on how it’s served

  • 225g (8oz) onion, chopped
  • 45g (1 1/2oz) butter
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 450g (1lb) raw beetroot, peeled and grated
  • 2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
  • 25ml (1fl oz) sherry vinegar
  • 120ml (4 1/2fl oz) red wine
  • sea salt and freshly-ground black pepper

Sweat the onions slowly in the butter for 5-6 minutes until very soft. Add the remaining ingredients and cook gently for 30 minutes. Serve cold.

This relish is best eaten within 6 months.


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