Gingerbread spice and all things nice….

For the second post in my Christmas series I take inspiration from Medieval flavourings to show how you can add a little sweetness and spice to your Christmas hosting. In addition to the wonderful gingerbread alluded to in the title I have tagged on a tasty alternative to your eggnog this year.

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I have picked gingerbread as it was one of my first introductions to the medieval era and inspired one of my favourite edible gifts for Christmas. Early gingerbread delicacies were made from breadcrumbs (hence the name), honey and some spices, though not necessarily ginger. The ingredients would be boiled and then poured/pressed into elaborate moulds dusted with even more spices as a demonstration of wealth. These moulds were often carved in the image of the monarch of the time – and so the gingerbread man was born. By the early 1600’s chefs had also added red wine, brandy and of course, sugar. This in turn evolved into the cakes, biscuits and shortbread eaten today, though the strength of flavourings have become rather subdued over the centuries. Here I combine some of the original spice mixes of early Medieval cookery with the easier baking techniques of the 21st century to produce this mouth puckering gingerbread man for the child in all of us.

Giant Gingerbread Man

  • 300g self raising flour
  • 3 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 tsp white pepper
  • half tsp cinnamon
  • 75g caster sugar
  • 50g butter
  • 3 tbsp golden syrup
  • 4 tbsp milk

 

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Directions

  • Preheat the oven to 160C
  • Using baking parchment, draw a template of a large gingerbread man. He wants to be about 31cm high.
  • Warm the sugar, syrup and fat in a pan. Weigh out the flour, add the spices and pour in the melted ingredients. Add the milk.
  • Bring together into a soft dough and knead gently. Roll out to about an inch thick.
  • Using your template and a knife, draw the outline of a giant gingerbread man onto the dough. Make sure he is cut out properly and place on a non stick baking tray.
  • Bake for around 15 minutes or until lightly browned. Leave to cool slightly before placing on the cooling rack.
  • Decorate and wrap how you please!

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After writing cards and wrapping presents nothing beats sitting in front of the fire, festive music on the stereo and warm drink in hand. My next offering is a delicious alternative to mulled wine and makes just enough to share with someone else whilst you squirrel up on the sofa. Again, the spices are typical of the period and would be utilised to great strength in order to demonstrate wealth and status. This recipe is adapted from one mentioned on website Medieval Cookery.

Buttered Beere

  • 1 bottle of real ale
  • 2 egg yolks
  • brown sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon each of ground nutmeg and ginger
  • 2 cloves
  • 4 tbsp of butter

Directions

In a medium sized pan whisk together the eggs and sugar. Pour on the ale and warm gently, whisking all the time. After 5 minutes add the spices and continue on a low simmer for 5 – 10 minutes more. Remove from the heat and whisk in the butter. Pour into mugs and serve hot.

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Culinary Pleasures – A book review

Culinary Pleasures

Cookbooks and the Transformation of British Food

Nicola Humble

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After the positive reception to my first book review; A History of Food in 100 Recipes I decided to share a very different, but equally enjoyable piece of work by author Nicola Humble. Nicola is an experienced lecturer at Roehampton University and quite obviously holds a passion for food literature.

Unlike ‘A History of Food’ this book was purchased by myself on a whim. Occasionally I develop an overriding desire to find something new and this urge is so overwhelming that, despite there being no more room in our home for more culinary literature, I can focus on nothing else until I have fulfilled the craving. I picked up the beautifully covered Culinary Pleasures on one such foraging trip. Sadly though, I then seem to have placed the book on my shelf without actually reading it, and it became one of those books I would glance at guiltily thinking, ‘when I have time, I really must pick you up.’

A recent retreat to a log fired, countryside cottage became such an opportunity and I did not regret choosing Nicola Humble as my companion for a week of reading and eating. The book introduces you to a variety of food writers beginning with the infamous Mrs Beeton and the food of Victorian England, and ending with the phenomenon of the celebrity chef and the food trends seen at the time the book was written, 2005. If nothing else it serves as an excellent reference  for budding foodies wishing to explore influential writers of the last 100 years. This is the least of it’s achievements however. Culinary Pleasures has the academic confidence that you might expect from an university lecturer but this is carefully tempered with an open, honest style which allows the reader to feel that they are standing in a room with Nicola, the cookbooks wide open on a table in front of them. In the process you are also guided through the development of the British diet and how, from two World Wars to Salmonella and B.S.E, the food we eat is irrevocably tied to the social and political issues of our time.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and, whilst the topic of food writing is one I am bound to be attracted to, feel that it is Ms Humble’s skill as an author which really makes this book stand out to me. It is a shame that she doesn’t seem to have published any more work since ‘Culinary Pleasures’ was released in 2005 as she seems to have a real flair for relating to the reader in a clear, but amusing manner.

Stir it up Sunday

Stir up, we beseech thee, the pudding in the pot

and when we get home we’ll eat the lot!

Here we are at the end of November and believe it or not, stir it up Sunday is upon us. As some one obsessed with food and social history Christmas is a dream. There is a wealth of ritual and culinary superstition to choose from and my favourite tradition has to be making my own cake and pudding.

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The origins of stir it up Sunday and indeed, the children’s rhyme above, relate to a reading in The Book of Common Prayer written in 1549. Still used in church today this piece is read out on the last Sunday before Advent and just 4 Sundays before Christmas. At some point it became popular for the family to return home from church after the reading and begin this first step towards the festivities.

This time around I shall concentrate on the making of Christmas cake. I am keen to share my family recipe with you and if I tried to include pudding too I could still be writing this as we head into December. But if you would like to have a go you can’t go far wrong using the Be-Ro Rich Christmas Pudding as your mother ship. Have a go, play around with the ingredients and make it your own.

The Cake

The indulgent combination of dried fruit, butter and eggs can be found as far back as the middle ages. These ‘cakes’ were actually a fruit bread risen with ale-balm, so called as it was scooped from the top of the current batch of brewing ale. I once had the good fortune of recreating a ‘Plumb Cake’ from the 18th Century ‘Kidder’s Receipts’ with a pound of flour, six pounds of currants and a quart of ale-balm from local microbrewery Treboom. It had a pretty good rise and was a monster of a cake!

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Packed full of dried fruits, spice and sugar,the fruitcake has always been a cake for times of celebration and wealth. Despite attempts by Oliver Cromwell and the puritans to ban it just a century before, as we reach the Georgian Era it can be found eaten as part of the Twelfth Night celebrations and covered with icing. It is then, as with many of our modern Christmas celebrations, the influence of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria which brings us the tradition of our rich fruitcake eaten today.

The recipe I share with you today started life with a Mrs Holman, neighbour to my Nan Beryl Reed. Mrs Holman provided celebration cakes for people in the village and passed on her fruitcake recipe to my Mum. It was used for both my Christening and Wedding cakes and has it’s foundations in that good old stalwart mentioned earlier, the Be-Ro baking book. In the hands of my Mum, Aunt and myself we have all scribbled our own little alterations on ingredients, method and cooking times. This is mine.

The Perfect Christmas Cake

  1. 10 oz softened butter
  2. 10 oz brown sugar
  3. 5 medium eggs, beaten
  4. 1 tbsp black treacle
  5. 1 tsp mixed spice
  6. 1/2 tsp white pepper
  7. 10 oz plain flour
  8. 2 oz ground almonds
  9. 2 1/2 lbs of dried fruit – currant, sultanas, raisins, glace cherries, dates
  10. Madeira wine for feeding

Directions

  1. Line and grease a 28cm (11 inch) round cake tin. Preheat your oven to 150C.
  2. Place all the dried fruit in a bowl and mix with a tablespoon or so of the flour to coat all the fruit. Set aside for later.

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  1. Cream the butter and sugar in a large bowl. Spoon in the treacle before mixing in the eggs, a bit at a time. if the mixture starts to curdle add in a spoonful of flour and mix again.
  2. Fold in the rest of the flour, ground almonds and spices, then the dried fruit to finish. Don’t forget to make a wish!

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  1. Bake for three and half to four hours or until firm on the top and a skewer comes out clean. Cover the top of the cake with a disk of greaseproof half way through to prevent burning.
  2. Feed twice a week with the Madeira until ready to eat.

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Cheese please!

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My passion for food history originates with an interest in traditional culinary techniques and, in particular, how to make the best of what the season has to offer.  It is for this reason that I have always wanted to have a go at making cheese.

There are many tips on line as to producing cheese from the comfort of your own kitchen stove. As a first try I plumped for the easiest technique requiring little specialist equipment. This is how I made a light, crumbly fresh cheese for the first time. It is a great introduction to a large field of expertise that you may, or not, choose to explore further.

Lemon-y cheese

(a little like caerphilly)



Equipment needed 

Sugar thermometer

Large pan

Muslin cloth and sieve

For the cheese

1 litre unhomogenised full fat milk

Juice of 2 – 3 large lemons

salt flakes

herbs or spices for flavouring

  • Warm the milk gently in the large pan. You want to reach 74F without boiling. Stir regularly to prevent the milk from scalding on the bottom of the pan.
  • When at 74F take the pan off the heat. Pour in the juice of 2 lemons and stir well. You will see the milk start to curdle. Leave to stand for 20 minutes whilst you have a cup of tea.
  • Check what should now be curds and whey in your pan. If the whey (liquid) is clear and the curd (solids) are obviously seperated then you are ready to move onto the next stage. If not you could add the juice of the 3rd lemon and leave to stand again.
  • Line the sieve with muslin and stand over a jug or bowl. Pour the curds and whey into the sieve, collecting the liquid in your jug. Bring the edges of the muslin up and round to create a bag shape. Leave to drain completely for an hour or so.

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  • Return to your cheese and squeeze the top a little to get rid of the last of the whey. Tip it out into a bowl. Using a fork mix in salt, fresh herbs etc to taste. Press the cheese down into the base of your bowl and cover.
  • The cheese should last 1 -2 weeks in the fridge.

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I was suitably impressed with the ease of this recipe. You can also use vinegar or rennet instead of the lemon juice if you wish, but you MUST use unhomogenised milk. Once you’ve tracked that down it is plain sailing!

Teff: An ancient grain for a modern recipe

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I have recently been lucky enough to write a guest blog for my favourite local wholefoods shop. It is going to be a good while before the piece appears but I couldn’t wait to share a new recipe with you guys in the meantime. If you have seen any of my demonstrations you are probably aware of my scepticism when it comes to the hype surrounding ‘new’ food trends. Food history has taught me that just about everything has been done before and in fact, many of these ingredients or recipes originate from a peasant background of necessity. Teff couldn’t be a better example of this.

Teff is a traditional Ethiopian grain, playing a quiet but crucial role in providing essential minerals, protein and carbohydrate to the region for centuries. It is the main ingredient in the national bread Injera, a fermented, unleavened pancake of a bread made from a sourdough starter. Recently western health food markets have picked up on its gluten free, nutrition packed qualities and are touting it as the next superfood. It has a light toasty flavour reminiscent of cocoa and hazelnuts that works wonderfully well with a cup of tea. So, in recognition of this ancient grain, I have developed a super easy gluten free treat which allows the taste of the Teff to shine. These melt in the mouth biscuits are wonderfully short and not so sweet.

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Hazelnut and Teff gluten free biscuits

Makes at least 12 biscuits

175g Teff flour
1 1/2 tablespoon baking powder
Pinch of salt
50g ground roasted hazelnuts
50g light brown sugar
150g butter or margarine

Preheat oven to 180C.

Mix dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Rub in the butter to the texture of fine breadcrumbs before bringing together into a ball of dough. If the mixture is too dry add a drop of water.

Cover your work surface with a large sheet of greaseproof paper. Place the dough on the paper and roll out thinly. Cut out small biscuit shapes and place on a non stick baking tray.

Bake for 15 minutes. Leave on the baking tray to cool as they are very fragile when hot.

Pumpion Pie from Robert May.

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With the passing of Halloween and the coming of Thanksgiving, it seems almost inevitable that I offer a recipe for pumpkin pie. It is a relatively new addition to my baking reportoire and has a longer history here in Britain than you might imagine. The spice combination of cinnamon, nutmeg and clove hark back to the Medieval origins of the dish when spiced, stewed ‘pumpion’ was encased in a so called coffin of pastry before baking. The filling would be eaten and the pastry discarded, used to thicken stews or taken for food by poorer members of the household.

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The recipe I have adapted for today’s blog was published by Robert May, author of The Accomplisht Cook in 1685. This restoration period receipt sees many familiar ingredients as well as a combination of fresh thyme, marjoram and rosemary. He also fries his filling like a pancake before layering with apples and dried fruit in the casing. I loved the idea of including a sharp burst of apple as a contrast to the sweet, aromatic filling. It just happens that I acquired some heritage cookers at the same festival where I picked up my pumpkin, so after a little experimenting and lots of tasting I present you with my version of this 17th century recipe.

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Pumpion Pie another way

For the pastry

  • 110g plain flour
  • 115g wholemeal plain flour
  • pinch of salt
  • 50g salted butter
  • 1 egg

For the filling

  • 500g peeled, chopped pumpkin
  • 75g caster sugar with more if needed
  • 20g salted butter
  • 2 whole eggs and 2 egg yolks
  • 70ml single cream
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon each ground mace and white pepper
  • pinch of ground clove
  • one sprig each of fresh rosemary, thyme and greek basil
  • 1 large cooking apple peeled, cored and sliced
  • small handful sultanas

Preheat oven to 170C. Grease a deep, loose bottomed 27″ cake tin.

First make the pastry. Combine flours and salt before rubbing in the butter to fine breadcrumb texture. Using a cold knife mix in the egg and enough cold water to make a firm pastry dough. Wrap in cling film and refrigerate for 20 minutes.

Place the chopped pumpkin in a large pan with just enough water to cover. Bring to the boil and simmer until just tender. Strain and set aside.

Whilst the pumpkin is cooking prepare the herbs. Strip and finely chop the leaves and discard the stems. Pour 75g of sugar and the herbs into a mortar and combine the two with your pestle. Add the spices and stir.

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Return the cooked pumpkin to the pan and mash well. Stir in the butter, sugar/herb/spice combination and taste. Add more sugar if required and leave to cool.

While the filling is cooling roll out the pastry and line your cake tin. Prick the base with a fork and blind bake 25 minutes. Increase the temperature to 180C and bake 5 minutes more until lightly coloured.

Place your apple slices in the bottom of your cooked pastry case and scatter the sultanas on top. Set aside.

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Once the pumpkin filling has reached room temperature beat in the eggs and cream with a wooden spoon. Place the pan back on a low heat and gently warm through, stirring all time. The mixture should thicken slightly, this may take 10 – 15 minutes but you must be patient or the eggs will scramble. Pour the hot filling on top of the apples and tap the tin on the counter to remove air bubbles. Bake for 50 minutes until slightly puffed up and firm to the touch. Cool in the tin before serving as desired!

 

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