Christmas has sneaked up on us once again.
The shops are brimming with tempting trinkets and baubles and canny shoppers are taking advantage of pre-Christmas bargains, and ticking off their lists.
How good it feels to be organised, but more and more it’s a challenge for so many who are trying to balance both time and budget.
With just under four weeks to go, here’s my foodie countdown. If you have not already ordered your turkey or goose, do it today. Organic free range turkeys are still in short supply ever since the annual sales of New York dressed turkeys were stopped in 1999.
I like to find an old fashioned bronze turkey but well reared white turkeys can also be good if hung for long enough. I hang them for three weeks plus, but that may not be to everyone’s taste. I personally find it greatly enhances the flavour.
A good ham is almost as much of challenge to find nowadays, as the paranoia around fat has forced producers to produce leaner and leaner ham which no longer has the sweetness or succulence of a fine fat ham.
This week’s column is the first of three devoted to a countdown to a traditional Christmas. I’ll include recipes for my favourite Christmas cakes, both a light and a rich version. I’ll also include JR Roberts’s recipe for Dundee cake. These can be made now wrapped and stored or they can be made closer to Christmas Day.
The Irish cranberry season has just started; we got the first plump berries from Ciara Morris in the Bog of Allen last week. Seek them out in the shops, they freeze perfectly; or you can make the cranberry sauce now and also pot some up in small glass jars for presents.
Italian Pan Forte is another yummy fruit and nut dense sweet meat that keeps for months. If you don’t fancy making it yourself order it well ahead from Patisserie Regale in West Cork — (023) 8855344.
Almond Paste and Cake Icing
I ice the Christmas cake with almond icing and decorate it with heart shapes made from the almond paste. Then I brush it with whisked egg yolk and pop it in the oven — simply delicious!. Serves about 40
450g (1lb) golden caster sugar
450g (1lb) ground almonds
2 small organic eggs
2 tbsp Irish whiskey
A drop of pure almond extractFor Brushing on the Cake: 1 organic egg white, lightly whisked, or sieved apricot jam For the Fondant Icing: 1 packet fondant (450g/1lb) Sieve the caster sugar and mix with the ground almonds. Whisk the eggs, add the whiskey and 1 drop of almond extract, then add to the other ingredients and mix to a stiff paste. (You may not need all of the egg.) Sprinkle the worktop with icing sugar, turn out the almond paste and work lightly until smooth. Remove the paper from the cake. To make life easier for yourself, put a sheet of greaseproof paper onto the worktop and dust with some icing sugar. Take about half the almond paste and roll it out on the paper: it should be a little less than 1cm (1/2 inch) thick.
Paint the top of the cake with the egg white or apricot jam and put the cake, sticky-side down, onto the almond paste. Give the cake a thump to ensure it sticks and then cut around the edge. If the cake is a little round-shouldered, cut the almond paste a little larger; pull away the extra bits and keep for later to make hearts or holly leaves. Use a palette knife to press the extra almond paste in against the top of the cake and fill any gaps. Then slide a knife underneath the cake or, better still, underneath the paper and turn the cake the right way up. Peel off the greaseproof paper.Then roll out 2 long strips of almond paste: trim an edge to the height of the cake with a palette knife. Paint both the cake and the almond paste lightly with egg white or apricot jam. Then press the strip against the sides of the cake: do not overlap or there will be a bulge with the uneven edge upwards. Trim the excess almond paste with a long-bladed knife and keep for decoration and to make almond biscuits. Use a straight-sided water glass to even the edges and smooth the join. Then rub the cake well with your hand to ensure a nice flat surface. Leave in a cool, dry place for a few days to allow the almond paste to dry out; otherwise the oil in the almonds will seep through the fondant icing. To fondant ice Sprinkle a little icing sugar onto the worktop.
Roll out the sheet of fondant to a thickness of a scant 5mm (1/4 inch).
Paint the cake with egg white or apricot jam, then gently lift the sheet of icing and lay it over the top of the cake so it drapes evenly over the sides.Press out any air bubbles with your hands, and then trim the base. Decorate as you wish. We use a little posy of winter leaves and berries, including crab apples, elderberries, rosemary, old man’s beard and viburnum.
Darina Allen’s Iced Christmas Cake
This makes a moist cake which keeps very well. It can either be made months ahead or, if you are frenetically busy, then it will still be delish even if made just a few days before Christmas — believe me I know!
Serves about 40
110g (4oz) real glacé cherries
50g (2oz) whole almonds
350g (12oz) best-quality sultanas
350g (12oz) best-quality currants
350g (12oz) best-quality raisins
110g (4oz) homemade candied peel
50g (2oz) ground almonds
Zest of 1 organic unwaxed lemon
Zest of 1 organic unwaxed orange
60ml (21/2 fl oz) Irish whiskey
225g (8oz) butter
225g (8oz) pale, soft-brown sugar or golden caster sugar
6 organic eggs
275g (10oz) flour
1 tsp mixed spice
1 large or 2 small Bramley seedling apples, grated
Line the base and sides of a 23cm (9 inch) round, or 20cm (8 inch) square tin with a double thickness of silicone paper. Then 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, then rub off the skins and chop them finely. Mix the dried fruit, nuts, ground almonds and grated orange and lemon zest. Add about half of the whiskey and leave for 1 hour to macerate.
Preheat the oven to 160C/ 325F/gas mark 3.
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 mixed spice with the flour and stir gently into the butter mixture. Add the grated cooking apple to the plumped up fruit and stir into the butter mixture gently but thoroughly (don’t beat the mixture again or you will toughen the cake).
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.
Now lay a double sheet of brown paper on top of the cake to protect the surface from the direct heat. Bake for 1 hour. Then reduce the heat to 150°C/300°F/gas mark 2 and bake for a further 21/2 hours, until cooked; test in the centre with a skewer — it should come out completely clean. Pour the remainder of the whiskey over the cake and leave it to cool in the tin.
Next day, remove the cake from the tin. Do not remove the lining paper but wrap the cake in some extra greaseproof paper and tin foil until required.
Store in a cool, dry place; the longer the cake is stored the more mature it will be.
JR’s Dundee Cake
Makes 1 x 18cm (7 inch) round cake or 900g (2lb) loaf
JR’s famous Dundee cake makes a lovely light Christmas Cake which can be iced or not as you please.
225g (8oz) softened butter
225g (8oz) caster sugar
Grated rind of 1 large orange
225g (8oz) plain flour, sifted
50g (2oz) ground almonds
25g (1oz) mixed candied peel
100g (4oz) currants
100g (4oz) sultanas
100g (4oz) raisins
50g (2oz) glacé cherries, quartered
40-50 split blanched and peeled almonds
Preheat oven to 150C/300F/Gas Mark 2 and line an 18cm (7 inch) round tin or a 900g (2lb) loaf tin.
Cream butter and sugar until smooth and light. Beat the eggs. Add in three stages alternating with a tablespoon of the flour between each addition. Beat thoroughly. Mix ground almonds, dried fruit and orange rind before folding into the mixture. Fold in the remaining flour carefully. Turn the mixture into the prepared tin and arrange the split almonds over the entire top.
Bake in the preheated oven for 2½ — 3 hours until a skewer comes out clean. Remove from the oven and allow 10 minutes before turning onto a wire rack to cool.
Order your Christmas organic free-range bronze turkeys from: Dan and Anne Ahern near Midleton, Co Cork, tel 021-4631058 or 086-1659258; free-range bronze and white turkeys, geese, ducks and large chickens, Robbie Fitzsimmons of East Ferry Poultry, 086-8548574 and Tom Clancy, Ballycotton, supplies free-range bronze turkeys, geese and ducks, 086-3089431.
There are super hams available from Martin and Noreen Conroy of Woodside Farm, 087 2767206, and TJ Crowe in Co Tipperary, 062 71137.
Organic Irish Cranberries — Ciara Morris and Michael Camon of Slievebloom Farmhouse Foods’ fresh berries are available widely in supermarkets during the Christmas season. www.slievebloomfarmhousefoods.com
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