Christmas food with Darina Allen

MORE edible presents this week.

Several readers described making their Christmas cake; one complained that the top of her cake burned.

With a fan-assisted oven, the heat is more intense. Reduce the temperature by 10% or 20%.

Otherwise, cook the cakes and biscuits in a conventional oven.

A fan oven is good for meringues. We’ve been experimenting with flavours of meringue — the super-size ones our friends at Ottolegnhi in London made famous.

A cellophane bag of these with a big bow would be impressive. Add in a jar of Glenilen clotted cream, for a delicious gift. Panforte di Siena is a dense Italian cake, solid with nuts and toasted fruit, a gorgeous gift.

Nougat is easy to make: wrap the homemade bars in cellophane and embellish with hand-written labels.

Homemade marshmallow and honeycomb are fun to make; they fluff up.! A jar of Green & Black organic chocolate powder with a bag of marshmallows is an inexpensive yet indulgent pressie. Dip some of the honeycomb in chocolate. Include a recipe for honeycomb ice-cream.

Use egg yolks left over from meringues to make a few little pots of white chocolate mousse.

They will keep covered in the fridge for five or six days. In summer, I love them with raspberry coulis.

Homemade mustard is serious one-upmanship but easier to make than biscuits, cakes or cookies.

Add it to a little hamper with a few jars of relish, pickles and chutney. Perfect for livening up cold meats after Christmas.

Goats cheese preserved in oil and honey with walnuts are a doddle to make.

Add a packet of Gubbeen or Sheridan’s homemade cheese biscuits and a bottle of Albert i Noya organic wine to the hamper.

The honey would be delicious drizzled over some blue cheese — Fermoy Farmhouse Cheese have a feisty blue called Ballyhooly.

NEXT WEEK: Darina’s traditional Christmas dinner.

There are good recipes in Gifts from the Kitchen by Annie Rigg published by Kyle Cathie. I have chosen a few for you to try.

Panforte

Makes 2 Cakes

Chock full of nuts, dried fruit and spices — panforte is delicious dusted with icing sugar, cut into small wedges or squares and served after dinner with coffee.

Originally from Sienna and, although not specifically a festive treat, it would certainly make an ideal Christmas present.

Annie has suggested making it into two smaller cakes so that you can make two gifts at once.

Sunflower oil, for greasing

100g (3½ oz) blanched almonds

100g (3½ oz) blanched hazelnuts

75g (3oz) unsalted shelled pistachios

300g (10½ oz) mixed dried fruits, including apricots, candied peel, raisins, figs and medjool dates, roughly chopped

1 tsp ground cinnamon

½ tsp ground ginger

½ tsp ground cloves

½ tsp ground nutmeg

½ tsp freshly ground black pepper

90g (3 ¾ oz) plain flour

1 rounded tbsp cocoa

Pinch of salt

175g (6oz) clear honey

175g (6oz) caster sugar

Icing sugar, to serve

Grease 2 x 18cm round tins and line the base of each with a disc of rice paper.

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Spread the almonds and hazelnuts on a baking tray and toast in the preheated oven for about 5–7minutes until lightly golden. Cool slightly, then roughly chop with the pistachios and tip into a large bowl. Add the chopped dried fruit and mix well. In another small bowl mix together the spices, flour, cocoa and salt. Add to the dried fruit and nuts and mix until thoroughly combined. Lower the oven temperature to 150C/300F/gas mark 2.

Combine the honey and sugar in a medium-sized pan and stir over a low heat until the sugar has dissolved.

Bring to the boil and continue to cook until the mixture reaches 115C/240F on a sugar thermometer.

Remove from the heat, pour into the fruit and nut mixture and mix well. Spoon into the prepared tin and spread level.

Bake on the middle shelf of the preheated oven for 45–60 minutes, until firm. Remove from the oven and cool in the tin.

Run a palette knife around the edge of the tin and carefully ease out the panforte. Dust with icing sugar to serve.

* Stored in an airtight container, panforte will keep for weeks.

Nougat with Cherries and Toasted Marcona Almonds

Makes about 20 squares

You could swap the almonds for blanched, toasted hazelnuts and dried figs and cranberries for the cherries and apricots. Make the nougat the day before you plan on eating it so that it has plenty of time to harden and set.

2 large sheets of rice paper

100g (3½ oz) blanched Marcona almonds

50g (2oz) shelled, unsalted pistachios

100g (3½ oz) natural coloured glacé cherries

50g (2oz) dried apricots

175g (6oz) clear orange blossom honey

300g (10½ oz) caster sugar

2 tbsp water

1 large egg white

Pinch of salt

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4.

Lightly grease a 15cm square tin with a depth of 5cm, and line the base and sides with a sheet of rice paper.

Lightly toast the almonds and pistachios in a baking tray in the oven until pale golden brown.

Remove from the oven, allow to cool, then roughly chop. Cut the cherries in half, tip them into a sieve and rinse under cold running water.

Dry well on kitchen paper. Roughly chop the dried apricots.

Place the honey, caster sugar and water in a medium pan. Set the pan over a medium heat, stirring occasionally until the sugar has dissolved.

Increase the heat, bring the mixture to the boil, and continue to cook for about 10 minutes, until it reaches 164C/327F on a sugar thermometer.

Remove the pan from the heat.

Whisk the egg white with a pinch of salt in a large heatproof bowl until it holds soft peaks.

I recommend a free-standing mixer as it will make the process a lot easier.

Continue to whisk while adding the hot honey caramel mixture in a steady stream. Keep whisking until the mixture stiffens, thickens and turns pale cream-coloured. Add the nuts and dried fruit and stir to combine. Spoon into the prepared tin and spread level. Press another sheet of rice paper on top and set aside to cool.

Once cold, tip the nougat out on to a board and cut into pieces.

Package in small quantities in transparent cellophane bags.

Stored in an airtight container, the nougat will keep for 4–5 days.

Honeycomb

Makes about 20 pieces

Honeycomb and chocolate is the perfect little stocking filler!

300g (10½ oz) caster sugar

150g (5oz) golden syrup

pinch of cream of tartar

1 tsp white wine vinegar

1½ tsp bicarbonate of soda

150g (5oz) dark or milk chocolate

Line a 20cm square baking tin with lightly oiled foil.

Half fill the sink with cold water and have ready a whisk and the bicarbonate of soda.

Tip the sugar, syrup, cream of tartar and vinegar into a medium-sized, solid-based pan.

Add five tablespoons water and set the pan over a medium heat.

Stir until the sugar has dissolved, then bring the mixture to the boil. C

ontinue to cook until the mixture turns amber-coloured and reaches ‘hard crack’ stage, or 154C/300F on a sugar thermometer.

As soon as the caramel reaches the right temperature, remove the pan from the heat and plunge into the sink of cold water to speed up the cooling process. Working quickly, tip the bicarbonate into the caramel and whisk to combine evenly; the mixture will foam up like a mini volcano. Pour into the prepared tin in an even layer and leave to cool.

Melt the chocolate in a bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water and stir until smooth.

Remove from the heat and cool slightly. Turn the honeycomb out of the tin, peel off the foil and break into chunks.

Half dip each piece into the melted chocolate. Leave to harden before packaging.

Stored in an airtight container, it will keep for 2–3 days.

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