Christmas Canapés

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Christmas Canapés

For our early family Christmas dinner, I was responsible for starters and desserts. For starters I decided to do canapés, so people could eat as much/little as they liked, and still leave space for a huge turkey dinner.

Of course, stupidly I decided to make everything from scratch, rather than buying some from M&S!

Whilst each individual canapé was easy to make, it did end up being very time consuming. Most of them had aspects that could be made ahead, leaving just simple assembly on the day, so that helped. And I know that I’m biased, but they were delicious.

Our menu was:

  • Beetroot and goats cheese napoleons
  • Pears with blue cheese and prosciutto
  • Goats cheese and asparagus frittata
  • Scotch quails eggs
  • Caprese bites

In terms of make-ahead, I did the following:

Bake beetroot, Boil and peel quails eggs (fiddly!), Make frittata (but leave whole, and cut up on the day). I also made the scotch eggs the night before, but didn’t bake them until the next day.

All of the recipes are online, and I’ve just given my tips/thoughts below.

Beetroot and goats cheese napoleons

These went down an absolute storm, with adults and children alike. They are so delicious! I made them a little too ahead of time, so the goats cheese filling went a bit pink too. When they are freshly made the white goats cheese contrasts beautifully with the beetroot. I am definitely going to make these again with beetroot from my allotment, where I grow a range of different types of beetroot.

For speed you could make them with those packets of pre-cooked beetroot. I also used whatever vinegar I had in the cupboard as I didn’t have rice vinegar. I also didn’t bother with the dressing. And I put skewers in the stacks to help with eating.

Recipe from Saveur.com – check it out here

Pears with blue cheese and prosciutto

These are very simple, and lovely and fresh. I used dolcelatte cheese, which is quite mild, and I didn’t bother adding in the rocket. I also didn’t bother with the lemon juice because I was serving them straight away.

Recipe from Realsimple.com – you can find it here

Goats cheese and asparagus frittata

Super simple and quick to make. I didn’t have as many eggs as the recipe said, so I just used what I had and made it in a small pan. I added random herbs from my garden. You could add any veg or cheese you like.

Recipe from thecooks pyjamas.com – see here

Scotch quails eggs

No photo for these – I forgot to take one, and they had disappeared by the time I remembered!

It’s nice to have a hot canapé as well as the cold ones. And these are perfect two bite scotch eggs. The recipe is for 12 eggs, but I used a pack of 6 sausages, and managed to make 20 scotch eggs.

I made them up to the point of frying, and then baked them just before we needed them.

A top tip when putting the flour, egg and breadcrumbs onto the sausage covered eggs is to have one hand for wet and one hand for dry. So (for example), with your left hand toss the egg in the flour, then pick it up with your left hand and drop it into the egg. Pick it up and toss it with your right hand, then pick it up with your right and drop it into the breadcrumbs. Toss it with your left hand and then pick it up with your left and drop it into the frying pan.

I used a frying pan and a small amount of fat. I do think it would be better to deep fry them to get a more even colour.

Recipe from Good Housekeeping. Recipe here

Caprese bites

Super simple, super quick and popular! Just thread a cherry tomato, a bocconcini (tiny mozzarella ball) and a basil leaf onto a skewer.

I served them on a large wooden platter, and bought some nice bamboo cocktail sticks from Amazon to make them look a little more special. They disappeared in no time, and I was really pleased with how they looked and tasted.

Tiny Gingerbread Houses

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Tiny Gingerbread Houses

If, like me, you are a Pinterest addict, you will no doubt have seen lots of lovely photos of tiny gingerbread houses beautifully balanced on mugs.

I’ve wanted to make them for ages, so I ordered a set of cutters online from eBay. I think they came from China!

Once they arrived I used the recipe in the Biscuiteers book that I mentioned in the Iced Biscuits (Cookies) post. It’s got treacle, and a range of spices in it, and I added the grated zest of an orange, which was a genius move, because it tasted great. I didn’t want to over mix it so it was a bit streaky when I rolled it out, but it got less so when I gathered up the scraps and re-rolled it.

I used this new rolling pin with the rubber rings round the end to get an even thickness all round – the only disadvantage is that it’s a bit small, so you can’t do a massive piece of dough all at once.

The cutter is a front/back, side and roof. You need two of each per house. If you’re sensible (unlike me), you will cut an equal number of each so you have complete houses. Of course I didn’t and ended up with a few odd pieces, which were the cooks treat, and good for testing the icing before committing to the houses!

A baker friend recommended using meringue powder to make the icing, so I bought a tub from The Vanilla Valley. It’s known as Meri White. It means you don’t need egg whites, so don’t get loads of left over egg yolks. It was really easy, and once I had followed her recipe (1kg icing sugar, 10tbsp meringue powder, 180ml water) I then added orange juice to water it down to the right consistency – so it enhanced the orange in the biscuit. Note this makes a lot of icing – but you can freeze it, and it works just as well when you’ve defrosted it as it does fresh. Some people use less meringue powder, but my friend recommends the recipe from Sweet Ambs, who says it gives more stability, and stops the icing crusting over so quickly before you use it.

We iced the individual pieces first, and left them to dry before building the houses. My 8 year old particularly enjoyed this bit – not sure how much arrives on the biscuit, and how much in her mouth! I think I cut the hole in the icing bag a bit big, but pretty pleased with the results.

She went off to bed once we had done this bit, and I stuck them together later on.

I just piped thick lines of icing on the joins and stuck them together.

I left them to dry for a while before adding the roof.

And then added extra icing as snow along the ridge and edges.

Here they are decorating the table at my Sister’s before they got rapidly consumed by a load of kids.

And of course the obligatory shot of one on a mug! They were a bit big for that – so check the size of your cookie cutter before you buy it, but they made great table decorations.

Cherry and Amaretto Pavlova

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Cherry and Amaretto Pavlova

I made this for an early Christmas dinner that we had recently. My Sister in Law is gluten free, and I wanted to make something she could eat. It’s also pretty easy, looks great, and tastes amazing. There is alcohol in it, but not so much that anyone is going to get drunk, (our kids ate it), but you can leave it out or replace it with almond essence if you prefer.

Cherry and almond is one of my favourite flavour combinations, in fact anything with cherries is good in my book. Though if we’re being strictly truthful, amaretto is actually made with peach kernels not almonds.

You could replace the almond with chocolate if you want something more Black Forest gateau flavoured.

On top of the eggs and sugar for the meringue, you need almond extract, amaretto, a large pot of double cream (600ml), 400g fresh cherries (pitted), 200g fresh raspberries (you can use just cherries if you prefer, but I like the freshness of the raspberries too) and a jar of Cherries in kirsch. I used these from Lakeland. Sainsbury’s also do some as do Waitrose and probably loads of other places. Drain them and cut them in half. Beware it’s a sticky job.

I used my trusty meringue recipe, which you can find here, added a teaspoon of almond extract at the very end. I use the Sainsbury’s French Almond one, which I think is great – make sure you use extract not essence as essence is not a natural product. I then divided it into three circles of about 20cm – I drew round a small plate onto the underside of some parchment paper. If you want it to be taller – make four smaller circles.

To add a lovely flavour I made a purée by blending a handful of the fresh (pitted) cherries (about a handful) and a handful of the raspberries, sieving them to get rid of the seeds, and boiling to reduce it down a bit.

I then splodged it onto the meringue circles and swirled it around with a wooden kebab stick.

I try and bake meringue on as low a heat as possible. My own only goes to 80 degrees centigrade, so I use that. It takes several hours to dry out the meringue. The cream will soften up the meringue, so I wanted it to be quite crisp and baked for around 3 hours.

Once the meringue disks are cold it’s time to start layering up. If you want the meringue to stay crisp, leave this till just before you serve. I made mine several hours before we ate, and the meringue went very soft (and still very delicious!).

Add a couple of tablespoons of icing sugar to the cream. Whip the cream to soft peaks and add some amaretto to taste. Beware – it tastes amazing!

Put a little bit of cream on the plate you are going to use and stick the worst looking meringue to the cream. This will stop it sliding around. Add some cream and spread it around to the edge of the disk.

I placed a row of kirsch cherries around the edge, and filled in the middle with the fresh cherries and raspberries- push them down a little into the cream the put more cream on the top so the layer is quite smooth.

For the other layer I placed fresh cherries around the edge and kirsch cherries and raspberries in the middle.

Add the final layer on top, add some cream in the middle of the layer (to help the fruit to stick) and make a lovely pile of the remainder of the fruit.

Don’t worry if any of the layers crack (mine did), just stick them back together with a bit of cream. It’s very forgiving!

Refrigerate until you’re ready to eat. I left mine a little long, and it travelled in a car, so became a little soft and squishy. But it still tasted amazing!

I will most definitely be making it again when I have some of my home grown cherries and raspberries next summer.

Chocolate and Blackberry Fraisier

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Chocolate and Blackberry Fraisier

We had an early Christmas dinner in our family this year, as some of us are not going to be around on Christmas day.

I was responsible for starters and desserts, and I came across this blackberry fraisier recipe in a Christmas pull-out in Good Housekeeping recipe, which can be found here.

I’ve wanted to make a fraisier since I saw it in bake-off one year.

There are a lot of different steps and layers to get ready so you can layer it all together at once – it needs to chill for at least 4 hours, and preferably overnight, so make sure you plan ahead.

The cake is a genoise sponge where you whisk the eggs and sugar to within an inch of their lives, and then fold the rest of the ingredients in. You do lose a little volume when you do this, as it takes a while to get them properly combined, but it still makes a lovely airy cake.

The next step as creme patisserie (ore creme pat as you always hear it referred to on bake off). I’ve never made it before, and it wasn’t overly difficult, though quite hard work on the arm with all the beating!

I did find that when I left it to cool it became overly heavy and solid, so I emptied out of the piping bag, added some milk – gave it a good beating, sieved it, and it turned out perfect! So I would say that you could reduce the amount of corn flour that the recipe recommends, and it would be just fine.

You have to make a liquid to soak the cake – the recipe has lemon juice, sugar and cassis in it, I skipped the lemon juice, added a bit of water, and used creme de mures (blackberry liqueur) instead – it worked fine!

The second to last layer is marzipan – I used bought, and I recommend using more than the recipe suggests. I found it quite hard to roll the amount recommended out to the right size – so use more, and then trim it off!

The glaze is the final thing – it was a bit lumpy when it cooled (I think it was the cocoa that hadn’t dissolved properly), so I sieved it. I probably use my sieve just as much for smoothing our lumpy mixtures as I do for sifting flour! It ran a little over the edges, so if you want a super professional finish, maybe add an extra sheet of gelatine, which will help it be more set.

It’s fun to stack it all together. You do it in the tin (without the bottom), and then remove it after chilling. I forgot to take a photo of each layer, so here is the beginning and end!

I love how it looks, and it tastes absolutely delicious!

I would definitely recommend it as a Christmas Day or dinner party centrepiece, and you could use a different fruit if you can’t get hold of blackberries (which are not in season in December, so harder to get hold of).

Making Leaf Mould

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Making Leaf Mould

I’ve had a couple of tries making leafmould in black plastic bags, but with little success. They just seem to become dried out leaves, so I thought I would read up on, and try and do it properly.

There are loads of trees around the edge of the allotment site, so I just pootled around for an hour or so, raking them into big piles, and taking them by the wheelbarrow-full to my plot. Look at the colour of these beauties!

I built a huge pile – it was about 6ft in diameter and 4ft high. I tried to get a mix of leaves from different types of tree, and some were definitely wetter than others.

I was going to build myself a leafmould cage, but for only a little bit more than the raw materials, I picked up this one from Primrose. It’s 90cmx90cmx90cm, which apparently makes it 792 litres volume. It was a doddle to put together, with pre-drilled holes for 3 screws on each corner join.

I then put it in place down the side of the shed, and started to fill it up. I picked up the leaves using this handy set which I bought from the Wisley plant shop. It’s a bit like a dustpan and brush, but with a rake instead of a brush. You can pick up loads – much more than if you are using your hands. It’s made by Burgon and Ball, who I have to confess I am a huge fan of – their stuff is always great quality (and no, this isn’t a sponsored post!)

I scooped the leaves into a couple of large garden bags, and dumped them in the cage – which was a few metres from the pile of leaves – bad planning on my part – should have put the pile next to where I was going to put the cage!

After each bagful, I gave the leaves a good strim to break them up (apparently it helps them to compost quicker if you do that), and then soaked them with water. I used the dirty water from the metal bath/container thingy that sits under the tap at the allotment. Not sure if it will help speed things up, but I don’t suppose it will do any harm.

This is how the massive pile compacted down, just with strimming and water.

And you can see they have compacted again when I pushed them down a little to put the cardoboard on top. I plan to top it up with more leaves when I get chance, but I’m pretty pleased with what I’ve got so far. Not bad for a couple of hours work.

Now I just have to keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn’t dry out, and I may add some coffee grounds, as I hear that also helps.

Would love to hear your top leafmould tips…

Two weeks later update – I acquired a load of coffee grounds from Starbucks, and thought I would add them and top up the cage at the same time.

Interesting to see how much it had gone down just in two weeks. We’ve had a lot of rain, so they are nice and damp.

And here it is nice and full again – I added four barrowloads to get it up to this point.

Let’s see how it gets on with the coffee added. I’m also curious to know how heat has an impact as apparently it’s a fungal breakdown that happens to the leaves, and I would have thought that heat would help. I’m considering putting a layer of bubble wrap around it for the winter (if I have any spare from doing the greenhouse).

Iced Biscuits (Cookies)

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Iced Biscuits (Cookies)

I have long been impressed by those immaculately iced biscuits (cookies to our American friends) that you see on Pinterest and in fancy stores, so I thought I’d have a go and see if I could make some.

I then stumbled across a book by the biscuit geniuses at Biscuiteers in Nymans National Trust second hand bookshop. And it seemed like fate.

So one Saturday, my daughter and I donned our aprons and made the vanilla biscuit recipe from the biscuiteers book (it’s also online here). Except we replaced most of the syrup with honey because we didn’t have much syrup. Not sure it made any difference – you couldn’t taste the honey, and the texture was great.

We split it in two, and rolled it out between two pieces of parchment paper. To about 5mm thick.

We used a random assortment of cutters (obviously mini-me insisted we had to include a unicorn!)

This batch came out just right. The second batch were a little darker. Just as tasty, but a slightly different flavour.

They didn’t take long to cool, and we popped them in a Tupperware container overnight, ready to ice the following day.

We used the biscuiteers royal icing recipe (see here), made with fresh egg whites. My trusty KitchenAid made short work of whipping up a batch, which we then watered down slightly and added a variety of Wilton food colouring gels. We also added some gold lustre dust to some golden yellow icing, which gave it a lovely subtle sheen.

To make the black icing we added cocoa powder to the icing to darken it, before adding black food colouring. It worked really well.

A top tip is to stick some clingfilm directly on top of your icing to keep it from drying whilst you aren’t using it.

There are two main types of icing when you are making biscuits. Line icing and flooding icing. Basically you make a border with the line icing, and flood it (fill the border) with the flooding icing. Line icing is also used for making patterns/detail on top after you have flooded the biscuit. The line icing is stiffer than the flooding one, but some people use the same icing to both outline and flood.

I tried making a mix of line icing, flooding icing, and something in between that could be used for both.

We popped the colours in icing bags, and some white flooding icing in a squeezy bottle, which I had bought online. It works really well, and I’d definitely recommend getting a couple.

You can see in the picture below the outline (which you leave for a few minutes to dry before flooding), and the flooding which hasn’t quite made it to the edge on the head.

Toothpicks are great for helping it spread a little. As is banging it gently on the table, or jiggling it quickly from side to side (yes really!). Though we did lose a few unicorn horns that way!

Leave the flooded biscuit for about 20 minutes to dry before adding decoration on top. Unless you’re doing some marbling, in which case do it straight away. I piped lines on it and then zigzagged through them to create the marble. Be careful not to add too many colours or overmix, otherwise you end up with a sludge colour (see the dress!).

And here are our results. Far from perfect, but I learnt a lot, and I’ve already got some ideas about what I would do differently next time.

I think this is my favourite…

The texture of the icing is absolutely key, and I’m a bit lazy, so am drawn to the idea of having the same texture icing for both outlining and flooding. A bit more experimenting required to get it just right. The teal and gold ones were the closest to this. The orange was too stiff to flood properly. I think if you wanted to do really fine decorating then you would need the line icing texture.

The size of hole I cut in the piping bag was also crucial. Some of them were a bit big.

And you really have to plan ahead in terms of which bits to outline in what colour, what to flood, what to add on top. We traced round the cutters and drew out designs to help us plan things out.

And my final top tip – we spread oilcloth on the table, and it was a great idea. Food colouring is a nightmare to remove!

I loved it, and I think I have developed a new obsession. I can’t wait to try again!

Harvest Festival Cupcakes

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Harvest Festival Cupcakes

When my daughter has a bake sale at school, we like to make our bakes match the theme (if it’s for the school fete) or the time of year.

In October she had a harvest festival assembly the day before the bake sale, so was insistent that our bake had to be harvest festival themed.

I’m obviously a keen gardener, so a vegetable theme ticked a lot of boxes.

For the decorations I cheated and bought some ready made white fondant, which we coloured with my favourite Wilton gel colouring. Just add a bit at a time to get the colour you want, and the the great thing is that they don’t make icing runny or fondant soft and sticky. Once coloured we had a happy evening in front of the fire making as many vegetables we could think of. I think my favourites are the cauliflower (which I made from rolling small balls of white fondant, squishing them together and then wrapping in green fondant), and the peas.

We then made some chocolate cupcakes and iced them with dark chocolate ganache. To make them extra tasty we dug a little home in each cupcake and put some ganache in the hole, before covering the top in ganache.

Finally we put the fondant veggies on the top. And I have to say, I am thrilled with how they turned out. I took the spare ones to work, and my colleague genuinely asked why I had put peas on a cake. He thought they were real!

The ganache meant they weren’t too sweet – I think a buttercream topping and fondant would have been too much. However, the next day the vegetables had slipped a little on the ganache – they had become a little wet – so definitely one for eating the same day (no hardship).