I know what you’re thinking. This blog just doesn’thaveenough brownie recipes. I agree. It’s a serious problem. Don’t worry, I’m here to help. Mulled wine brownies it is.
I was never really a huge fan of mulled wine until they gave us some of the really good stuff at culinary school and it was one of the most delicious things I have ever had to drink. Now I have developed a taste for it and have a highly positive opinion of mulled wine flavoured things. Hence, these brownies.
Because I have a whole cupboard full of cake ingredients, I have edible glitter to hand at all times, but obviously it tastes of nothing and I only added it to these brownies to make them sparkly. Because it’s Christmas (almost). And it feels right and proper to put glitter on everything.
200g good quality 70% dark chocolate
225g golden caster
2 eggs, plus 1 egg yolk
1 tsp almond extract
120ml red wine
zest of 1 orange
110g plain flour
generous grating of whole nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp ginger
1/2 tsp cinnamon
75g dried cherries
Break your chocolate into pieces and chop your butter into rough cubes. Place them both in a glass or metal bowl over a pan of gently simmering water and leave them to melt, stirring occasionally. Preheat your oven to 180C/160C fan/gas 4. Grease and line a 20x20cm square tin.
While your chocolate and butter melt, weigh your sugar, and mix your eggs with your extra yolk and your almond extract. When your chocolate and butter have completely melted, beat in your sugar (I use an electric hand whisk), followed by your eggs. Add your red wine and orange zest. Add your flour and spices to the mixture and beat that in too. Stir through your dried cherries.
Pour the mixture into the tin and smooth the surface. Bake for around 20-25 minutes. The brownies will have risen and started to crack a little round the edges, but still be soft in the middle. They will firm as they cool.
As I said in my recent post about how to host a hassle-free dinner party, the main trick to pulling off a spectacular meal is being organised. Planning ahead. Getting your prep done beforehand. But I admit that this sometimes feels a bit… dull. Even I, although I really do know better, sometimes can’t be bothered to plan things properly and just decide to wing it. And I always regret it.
At culinary school, we had to make a time plan before every single cooking session. Which meant writing one every day. Literally ‘11.30am: Second turn of puff pastry, start making caramel’, kind of thing. It was necessary to handle the hugely complex dishes we were putting together in class, but it’s not something I do in my day-to-day cooking. Even though I definitely plan, I don’t normally give myself a timetable. Except for Christmas dinner. And that’s where HelloFresh‘s cheat sheet comes in.
If you’re the kind of person that sighs and fidgets at the thought of putting together a cooking schedule for yourself on Christmas day, fear not. HelloFresh have literally done it for you. They sent me a copy of their cheat sheet to have a look at, and it’s absolute gold for an organisational nut like me. They’ve worked out what you can make ahead and do the night before. They’ve made you a scheduled timeline for your Christmas Day cooking. And they’ve even included lots of recipes for tasty side dishes, in case you’re struggling with what to do with your parsnips this year.
It will be particularly useful if you’re the person in charge of Christmas dinner this year, but you’ve not done it before. Or if you’re stressed about the thought of cooking all those complicated bits and pieces and getting everything to be ready at the same time.
I cook the Christmas dinner in my family – when you have trained as a chef, you are responsible for the food at every family gathering for the rest of your life. Although some things stay the same every year, I like to mix it up too. We always have a goose, for example, but I like to try different ways of cooking and flavouring it. We always have braised red cabbage, but sometimes I try different ways of cooking other side dishes. There will be a Christmas pudding, but I always include another dessert as well, and that varies depending on my mood. The cheat sheet above has some great simple side dish recipes that you can try if you fancy mixing it up. I tested a few of them before writing this post, and I can guarantee that they are tasty.
Are you in charge of making the Christmas dinner in your family? Do you have any particular traditions? Do you like the exact same meal every year or do you mix it up? I’d love to hear! We never have bread sauce which, I am assured, means it’s we’re failing at Christmas…
Disclaimer: This post was sponsored by HelloFresh, but as always, all opinions are my own.
So, it’s exactly one month until Christmas day. Also, it’s a month minus two days until my birthday, in case you were wondering. You weren’t? You don’t care about my neglected and forgotten ill-timed December birthday? How very dare you and so on.
I always worry about Christmas presents. I am slightly uneasy with the consumerist mindset of buying loads of people loads of stuff that they don’t necessarily want in an arbitrary way. I know there are dozens of local charities that need my money more than my uncle needs a new sweater. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I buy things and I like giving gifts: I think Christmas can be a great opportunity to treat someone to something they have been really wanting or needing. But the fact is that you don’t necessarily know everyone in your ‘gift circle’ well enough to get them that perfect, meaningful, useful, lusted after Thing. And you feel rude showing up to someone’s house empty handed, especially when you know that they will have bought you a present. So you panic (or I do, at least) and end up buying them some perfume, or a book, or a gift voucher. And it’s well-meant, and I’m sure it’s appreciated. But it’s not necessarily something they really needed or wanted. And don’t we all just have too much stuff anyway?
I am also, to put it mildly, not exactly burdened by the weight of huge wads of cash. I simply can’t afford to go buying glamourous and exotic presents for every person who I’d like to show I care about at this time of year. The obvious solution is to do what I did last year and make a load of food instead. Yes, you are correct: this is my solution to all problems. But it made sense. I spent days making lots of gift food and packaging it all up in hampers for friends and family. It was less expensive than buying everyone proper presents, and while you don’t know if people are going to have already read that book you bought them, you can be confident that at some point they would probably like to eat some food.
This year, though, I’m doubting myself. Don’t home-made presents stop being desirable and adorable once the giver is past the age of six? What if everyone already has far too much food at this time of year and they’re gritting their teeth and smiling politely while inwardly groaning at having even more to get through? Will I look like a cheapskate giving people this stuff when they’ve actually spent proper money on gifts for my husband and I? Surely people are sick of me giving them food when I literally do that all the time?
I don’t know. I don’t have the answers. There isn’t a proper conclusion to this post.
Except this recipe for white chocolate, cranberry, and pistachio fudge. This is the sort of thing that would make a charming and thoughtful gift for people around the festive season. Or would it? I don’t know. Help me.
It’s really tasty though. I can attest to that because I ate a lot of it this week. Well, I did before I had my wisdom tooth taken out. Now I can’t really eat anything.
Notes: Obviously you can add any fruit, nuts, or chocolate you like. But this, believe me, is a winning combination.
I have a thermometer for testing the temperature of meat and sugar and things like that. I’m not pretending it’s not useful here – they are not expensive and if you do any cooking on a regular basis they are a good investment – but you can most definitely make this fudge without a sugar thermometer if you don’t have one to hand.
This is actually an incredibly simple and easy recipe, but it does require your fairly undivided attention for around twenty minutes. Listen to a podcast or something while you stir.
500g double cream
500g golden caster sugar (gives it a better colour and flavour, I think, but white caster will work if that’s all you have)
3 tbsp liquid glucose (this sounds like a frightening ingredient but Dr Oetker do tubes of it you can get from Sainsburys)
1 tsp salt
100g good white chocolate (I like Green & Black’s)
75 shelled pistachios
100g dried cranberries
Put your cream, sugar, and liquid glucose into a big (this is important, a small one will not work), non-stick saucepan. Stir it all together and pop the pan on a low-medium heat so that the sugar can melt. Stir it occasionally (I find a silicone spatula works best for this) and make sure it’s not catching on the bottom. Meanwhile, grease and line a 20cm square tin with baking parchment. Chop your chocolate into big chunks. Chop your pistachios coarsely. Have your cranberries ready to go. Get a spoon and a glass of cold water and keep it by your pan, or get a sugar thermometer ready.
When the sugar has melted and the mixture no longer seems grainy, whack that heat up and boil your fudge mixture hard. Now you have to keep stirring all the time. This is why a big pan is needed, because it’s a lot of mixture and it will be bubbling and splashing around and you don’t want it all over everything (especially your hands, because it will burn you – wear an oven glove if you are nervous). You need to keep bubbling it away until it reaches soft ball stage, or around 118C. To test for soft ball stage, spoon a little mixture into your glass of water and it should form a soft ball you can squidge between your fingers. It will take a good ten or fifteen minutes – depending on your heat and pan – to get to this stage, so make sure you have reached it or your fudge won’t set.
When you’re there, take it off the heat. Stir in your cranberries, pistachios, and salt, and keep stirring for five minutes to let the mixture cool and thicken. Scatter in your white chocolate, stir roughly once, and immediately tip your fudge mixture into your lined tin and smooth it out – your white chocolate will melt and marble slightly, but if you over-stir it then it will just melt entirely into the mix (which will still taste good but look less pretty).
Your fudge should start setting pretty much immediately. I left mine on the counter for half an hour, then froze it for half an hour, and it set completely in the hour. When you’re happy, cut it into squares. It will keep for a couple of months (as long as you don’t let me anywhere near it), but don’t leave it in the fridge because it will go soft.
Hey, remember when I had a semi-proper food blog on which I often posted recipes, instead of moaning about how busy and exhausted I was and listing all my new burns? No? I don’t. I had to plough back through the archives to find the last recipe I posted, and it was only for what is essentially a fridge cake. A delicious fridge cake with an exciting name, but still.
My first term at Leiths finished a couples of weeks ago, and I am metaphorically (and sometimes literally) spinning round in a circle going ‘wait, whoa, wow, what just happened to me?’ I’ve been ambushed by term. I’ve been completely immersed for ten weeks and I haven’t thought about anything else. I’ve been muttering choux pastry recipes to myself and having nightmares about underproved bread. Term ended, and as soon as I got home and relaxed for the first time in months, I immediately got ill, and spent a few days wrapped in duvets on the sofa, holding the cat hostage, slipping in and out of sleep while watching box-sets.
It’s time for me to start cooking for fun again.
Macarons are fun. I mean, they’re a complete pain in the arse, but they’re beautiful, and delicious, and fancy. These chocolate orange macarons are decorated with nuts, and I think they look pretty enough to be rather nice gifts for Christmas. I mean, for someone you really actually like.
I do not claim to be a macaron expert at all. They’re notoriously tricky, and there are dozens of very good, comprehensive, and knowledgeable articles and blog posts floating about that will give you dozens of tips about how to make them perfect. BraveTart‘s writing on this is a fantastic resource that I would recommend you reading if you’re interested. I’ve found a method that works for me now and I am sticking with it, but it’s certainly not inherently better than any other method. Much to my own surprise, I’ve found the Italian meringue route actually easier than the French one here – which is odd because any recipe which involves heating sugar syrup to precise temperatures usually freaks me out a bit – as it tends to give me more consistent results. And it’s not as scary as I thought it was.
For this, you will need at least three baking sheets (I sometimes go onto a fourth) and parchment to line them, a sugar thermometer, a food processor, an electric hand whisk or a stand mixer, and a piping bag fitted with a plain nozzle, as well as the normal bowls and scales and stuff. Sorry, lots of kit I know, but that’s just how it is for these.
This recipe makes around 50 shells, or 25 paired macarons, although this obviously depends on how big you pipe them.
I don’t personally think you need to bother ageing your egg whites unless they are stupendously fresh to start with – perhaps you have your own chickens or something, who knows – but I do always make sure mine are room temperature.
I am not awesome at piping, and so my personal preference is to line my baking sheets with disposable parchment and, using a cookie cutter, draw circles onto it in black Sharpie as a guide, then flip it over ready to be piped on to. You can also buy templates that are already on silicone mats (which I should do but I am cheap) or print them off the internet, or just pipe freestyle if you are confident. You want to end up with something like this.
I could go on and on about macarons but I have been quite brief in the recipe below. If anything needs clarifying or you have specific questions, do ask. I am also happy to add step by step pictures if they are needed.
for the shells
200g white caster sugar
75ml hot water (from a hot tap is fine, but boil a kettle if you like)
200g icing sugar
200g ground almonds
25g cocoa powder (this obviously makes the chocolate shells, but leave it out if you want plain ones)
160g egg whites (divided into two bowls of 80g each)
Pinch of salt
for the ganache filling
100g good quality dark chocolate
100g double cream
2 tsp orange extract
zest of 1 orange (you can skip this if you want a totally smooth ganache but I like the flavour)
1/2 tsp good sea salt (or more to taste)
50g good quality dark chocolate
a mixture of nuts and dried fruit of your choice – whatever you’ve got in the cupboard
Get out three baking sheets and line them with parchment (or silicone), and create a template if you need one. Pop your water and caster sugar in a saucepan, stir it gently together with a wooden spoon, and put the pan on a low heat to dissolve the sugar (starting with hot water speeds this up). While that’s happening, pop your almonds, icing sugar, and cocoa in a food processor and blitz for 1 minute. Scrape the sides down, then blitz for an additional minute. Pass the sugar and nut powder through a sieve into a large bowl. You will be left with some chunkier almond mixture in the sieve. Chuck this away, don’t force it through – you want smooth macarons.
If your sugar has dissolved into your water (the liquid shouldn’t feel gritty), turn up the heat on your syrup, stick your thermometer in it, and start to bubble it up to 115 degrees celsius (which is your target). Meanwhile, mix 80g of egg white into your sieved almond mixture with a spatula to make a thick, stiff paste. It will look like there isn’t enough liquid, but keep working it and it will come together. Pop the other 80g of egg white into a clean glass bowl with the pinch of salt and whisk to stiff peaks.
When the sugar syrup hits 115 degrees, pour it into the egg whites in a thin stream while still whisking them on high speed. The mixture will become shiny. Once all the sugar syrup is in the whites, keep whisking for five minutes or so while the bowl cools until you have your stiff meringue mix. Whack 1/3 of the meringue mix into the almond paste and beat it in any old how to loosen it.
Now gently fold the remaining meringue into your macaron batter with a spatula. You need to make sure it’s well incorporated and there are no streaks, but the more you mix it the more air will be knocked out, and the looser the batter becomes. If you don’t mix enough, there will be unincorporated meringue and the batter won’t smooth out when piped. If you go too far, it will run everywhere when piped. You want to be able to lift the spatula up and draw a trail of batter across the surface of the bowl and leave a line which stays there for around 10 seconds, but then gradually disappears back into the body of the mixture. People say it is supposed to look like lava but that’s totally unhelpful to me as I don’t know what lava looks like. Go slowly, one fold at a time, and keep checking it. If in doubt, go for under rather than over mixing, as the process of piping the batter will knock more air out too.
When you are happy with your batter, put half of it into your piping bag and begin to pipe out your rounds. I find it easier to only use half the mix at once or the weight of it makes it come out of the bag very fast, which is tricky to pipe. Piping these just takes practice. Give yourself space, pipe directly down rather than at an angle, move quickly and get into a rhythm. Your batter will spread a little so aim for batter circles slightly smaller than your template circles. Once you have finished piping, pick up each tray, lift it a good few inches off the surface, and drop it straight down. Do this a couple of times. You need to knock out any air bubbles that have accumulated. After this is done, leave your macarons to rest for around half an hour. Once rested, they should have a slight skin. Leaving them for longer – up to a couple of hours – shouldn’t hurt them.
While they are resting, make ganache. Break your chocolate into small pieces and pop it in a bowl. Heat your cream in a pan until it’s just steaming and little bubbles are appearing at the edges. Pour it onto the chocolate and leave it alone to sit for a couple of minutes. Beat the mixture until smooth, then beat in the butter, then add your salt and orange extract/ zest to taste. Leave to set in the fridge.
Heat your oven to 160C/140C fan/gas 3. Bake your macaron shells for around 20 minutes. This is obviously dependent on your oven and the size of your macarons, so keep an eye on them. Check after 17 minutes. When your shells are cooked, they should lift off your baking parchment without leaving much residue behind. If they are leaving lots of very sticky mixture, give them more time. If they are completely dry and hollow then they are over-baked (but will still be yummy when filled). When they are done, get them on a cooling rack and once they are cool enough to touch, take them off the parchment.
Get your ganache out the fridge – it might need a couple of minutes at room temperature to become pipeable, depending on how long it’s been in there. Match the shells of your macarons into pairs of similar sizes. Pipe a circle of ganache onto the base shell of each pair and gently sandwich on the top shell.
You are now free to decorate. Here, I dipped a (clean) paintbrush into melted chocolate, brushed the top of each macaron, and then sprinkled cranberries, pistachios, and toasted chopped hazelnuts on top. But go wild – or don’t. They will be lovely plain or with a simple dusting of cocoa powder.
And there you have it. What an incredibly long recipe. It will all be worth it in the end. Really, you should store macarons in the fridge in an air-tight container for 24 hours before eating them to let the shells soften into the filling but my willpower isn’t always up to this. Regardless, they keep very well.
I came into this week feeling oddly buoyant and energised, the exhaustion of the last couple of weeks behind me. There was no logical reason for this, since I did a non-stop eight hour shift at Taste of London on the weekend on top of everything else, so I can only assume that I am like one of those hypothermia victims who think that they are really hot so they get confused and take all their clothes off just before they die of cold.
Monday was pheasant plucking and drawing day. Again, no reason for me to be particularly happy about this – lots of people were rather dreading it – but having grown up in a house furnished with a ridiculous amount of taxidermy by an eccentric artist, the dead pheasants didn’t bother me at all. I’ve also got a fairly high threshold for things that people seem to find disgusting, so I was perfectly happy to pluck the pheasant bare-handed and (ready?) draw out its entrails by cutting a hole in the vent to enter the body’s cavity and hooking my fingers around its organs to extract them. We were then roasting our pheasant and preparing traditional game accompaniments to keep it company, which in this case consisted of game chips, fried crumb, savoy cabbage with pancetta, and gravy. We worked in pairs: my partner, Laura, and I were an excellent team and breezed through everything. We were one of the first teams to finish, and when we served our food the comments were positive, so all in all, a happy afternoon. Not for the pheasants though.
On Tuesday we were fed so much that I started to suspect Leiths is secretly out to permanently incapacitate us all. It was awesome. We started the day with a gift cooking dem delivered by Ansobe and Jane, by the end of which the weakest amongst the herd were saying things like ‘I cannot handle any more sugar’, and ‘I’m so full, I can’t taste any more.’ You’ll be pleased (and unsurprised) to hear that I did my bit by tasting all the food – oatcakes, relish, chutney, cheese, pate, cranberry bars, chocolate salami, mince meat biscuits, honeycomb, ice cream with salted caramel sauce, biscotti… I don’t want to brag, but I’m just really dedicated, you know? By the way, everyone who knows me is getting hand-made food-related Christmas gifts this year, because I am at culinary school and I have no income.
The afternoon was another lovely session, during which we got a sugar top up, just in case we were flagging after the morning’s diabetes-inducing fun. We made coffee éclairs and covered our Christmas cakes in fondant icing. The Christmas cake project is an ongoing one – more on that in a moment – but the little éclairs were a bit trickier than I was expecting them to be. Éclairs are one of those things I have made for years, only to get to Leiths and be told I have been making them wrong, and I haven’t quite gotten my head around the proper method yet. Still, éclairs are éclairs, and I ate three. To check the technique was definitely wrong on the whole batch. It was.
On Wednesday, we got to cook as teams of four to make an feast of Indian food for our lunches. We made chana dal, lamb rogan josh, methi poori, alu gobi, cucumber raita, and date chutney, and ate until we could physically eat no more, before going down for our Christmas dem with Phil and Sue in the afternoon and tasting a full Christmas dinner. Somehow, you just end up making room.
Thursday saw our last kitchen session of the term, which meant the last session with the students who are only at Leiths for the Foundation term. After spending nine weeks getting to know everyone in our class, it’s very sad to say goodbye to three out of the sixteen, and it’s going to seem odd to have three brand new students taking their places next term. Even though it was still technically November, we were listening to Christmas songs and eating Quality Street (for me, Quality Street are one of the true signs that Christmas is coming – I traditionally sit on my parents’ living room floor, tip a huge tub of Quality Street onto the rug, and put them in rainbow order, but I think I would get judged pretty hard for doing that in the school kitchens) and so it was all suitably festive.
Now, I like to bake, but I am not an artist in any sense at all, so while most people sculpted elaborate nativity scenes from fondant and piped intricate designs in a rainbow of colours, I simply baked some snowman-shaped macarons at home, popped them on my cake on top of some coconut snow, piped Merry Christmas on it in a wonky fashion, and called it a day. It took me about fifteen minutes out of our allotted two hours, and I spent the rest of the time wandering around hassling everyone else and eating all the chocolate. At the end of the day, we had a canapé party and got to sample amazing treats cooked by the teachers and mosey around to have a look at everyone else’s Christmas cake creations.
Finally, Friday morning saw us all trooping into school nervously to sit our theory exam. Many people have been incredulous and/or confused when I have mentioned that we have to sit theory exams as well as being assessed practically. I don’t think they believe me when I explain that there is a fair amount of technique and science behind classical cooking training – they look at me very sceptically as if I say ‘I am sure really all you are doing is floating about and icing buns all day’ – but I promise there is a lot of base knowledge to cover. We could be asked about why a pastry has become tough, the technique for making a perfect choux, temperature conversions from Celsius to Fahrenheit, locations of specific cuts of beef on a cow, the ratios of egg to oil in mayonnaise, and about a thousand other things. After it was over I ate a whole jumbo bag of Maltesers and then went to the pub with everyone else at 11.30am, which should give you an indication of the stress levels.
We also found out what we’ll be cooking for our practical exams next week. My assessment slot is on Wednesday, so while you’re all going about your business, please think of me getting up at 5am to drive to London and be critically examined on my pastry making and chicken jointing skills, while trying not to set anyone on fire or accidentally stab myself with a boning knife. It’s not all about swanning about and eating canapés. Unfortunately.