Caramel Popcorn

Caramel Popcorn
Wotchers!

Today, my lovelies, after exhaustive testing, resulting in several sacks of delicious popcorn, I have for you the ultimate guide to making your own caramel popcorn.

Back in my day, of course, we called it toffee popcorn, bought it in a shop/cinema and it was made by ButterkistButterkist(rah-rah-rah!).

Well Butterkist are still going strong, and you can still buy their popcorn, but it is more delicious, customisable and cheaper to make it yourself.

This post is, in fact, the first in a two-part popcorn posting, where I plan on covering the basic method and the range of different-yet-equally-delicious tastes you can achieve just with sugar, butter and syrup, to be followed by Part II in which we look at how to customise your popcorn batches even further, with an eye on the upcoming C-word gifting season.

This popcorn is fantastically crunchy, yet dry to the touch, without a hint of stickiness. It is amazing when freshly made, and lasts up to three weeks if kept in an airtight container. It is an easy treat to make at home, yet different enough to give as gifts, especially if you can tailor the flavours to the giftee’s preferences.

So let’s talk ingredients!

Popcorn

Very straightforward to make, just put a little oil into a lidded pan, add in your popping corn kernels, cover and shake gently over medium heat until the sounds of popping stops.

Oil isn’t compulsory. You can absolutely make popcorn by applying heat alone, either in a pan or in the microwave (in a plain paper bag, twisted over at the top) HOWEVER, the oil helps any flavourings, such as salt, stick. Without oil, the salt (or other flavourings) just freefall through the popcorn and gather in the bottom of the bowl. If you want to reduce the fact content of your caramel popcorn, omitting the oil when popping your corn might be an option you choose.

How much to pop?
The recipe I am giving below is quite generous, and could easily be halved, but for the difficulties that would present in accurately measuring the temperature when boiling the sugar mixture. So rather than making life more complicated that way, it is much easier to adjust the quantity of corn you pop, to give a lighter or more dense covering: popping more corn will make for a lighter covering, popping less will lead to a more comprehensive, thicker coating.

The recipe below strikes a balance by calling for 100g of kernels to be popped. Vary this by choosing a quantity between the extremes given below:

  • Reduce to 75g for complete coverage.
  • Increase to up to 200g for progressively lighter coverage, although anything above 150g gets tricky to coat evenly.

Caramel

After trialling numerous combinations, I have settled on the following recipe as the ultimate caramel recipe, not particularly because it is the best (although it is!), but because of how easily it is adapted and customised. For a start, the caramel is a butterscotch, made by mixing sugar and butter and heating it to the ‘hard crack’ temperature of 150°C. Due to the trickiness of working with boiling sugar, adding some of the sugar in liquid form helps keep it from graining and crystallisation.

Butter: Use it. Unless you’re vegan, in which case, coconut oil can be substituted, with the resulting flavour being thusly affected.

Sugar: Here is where the fun begins, because of all the different types and combinations that can be used. The ones I have tried with this recipe include

  • white granulated
  • white caster
  • Demerara
  • Light brown soft/light muscovado
  • Dark brown soft/dark muscovado

The white sugars are fine for a perfectly acceptable, if slightly one-note caramel, but it is in the rich, dark notes of the brown sugars that your caramel can find real depth of flavour. In the picture at the top of this post, the popcorn on the left was made using demerara sugar, the one on the right a 50:50 mixture of dark and light muscovado sugar.

Other options you may like to try, but which I have not (yet!):

  • Coconut sugar
  • jaggery
  • maple sugar
Treacle Popcorn

Treacle popcorn showing light coverage using the base recipe over 150g popcorn kernels

Syrup

Here again is the opportunity to add flavour to your caramel. The syrups I have tried include:

  • golden syrup
  • Dutch schenkstroop
  • treacle
  • maple syrup

If you want the flavours of the sugars to shine, you could go with bland glucose syrup, which would add sweetness and help prevent crystallisation, and no additional flavours. Golden syrup has a rich but mild flavour, very complementary to the brown sugars. The Dutch schenkstroop adds deeper caramel notes, without the bitterness of treacle, and treacle is the ultimate dark, rich-tasting syrup.

Alternatives you might want to experiment with:

  • glucose
  • agave nectar
  • rice syrup
  • date syrup
  • molasses
  • pomegranate molasses

WARNING: I have not tried these other syrups, but if my experiences with maple syrup are anything to go by, some of them might well act differently to regular sugar syrups. I went through countless (ooh, that’s a lie, because I counted every one and it was seven. SEVEN FAILED BATCHES PEOPLE! *cries for the lost maple syrup*) batches before I got it right. See notes on using maple syrup below.

Salt

Even though salted caramel is very much ‘a thing’, even the most buttery butterscotch benefits from adding a little salt, which gives relief from an unremitting sweetness onslaught.

Caramel Popcorn

There are three stages to caramel popcorn: making the popcorn, coating the popcorn and baking the popcorn. This last ensures the caramel sets to a crisp, crackling coating.

The popcorn

100g popcorn kernels
2-3tbs vegetable oil

  • Pour the oil into a large, lidded saucepan and set it on medium high heat.
  • When the oil is shimmering, add the popcorn kernels and cover with a lid.
  • Shake gently back and forth to keep the kernels moving about, and remove from the heat when the sounds of popping ceases.
  • Tip the popped corn into a large bowl and set aside.

The coating

100g unsalted butter
200g/1 cup sugar – all one type or a mixture
125ml/½ cup golden syrup/schenkstroop/treacle – see below for maple syrup
½ tsp salt

½tsp bicarbonate of soda

1tsp vanilla extract, or other flavouring (optional)

  • Preheat the oven to 110°C, 90°C Fan.
  • Line a large baking sheet with parchment or preferably a silpat mat.
  • Have your bicarbonate of soda and flavourings measured out and have a large spatula and a large balloon whisk close to hand.
  • Put the first four ingredients in a large pan. I use my preserving pan.
  • Heat on medium heat, stirring, until the butter and sugars have melted together.
  • Stop stirring and allow the mixture to reach Hard Crack on a sugar thermometer, roughly 150°C.
  • The next stage needs to be done quickly.
  • Remove from the heat and add the flavourings and the bicarbonate of soda.
  • Stir briskly with the balloon whisk until the mixture begins to froth, then tip in the popped corn.
  • Using the spatula, turn the popcorn in the hot caramel until evenly coated, by scooping the caramel from underneath and turning it over the top of the corn. The fizzing bicarbonate of soda will make this easier, but the effect won’t last forever, so work briskly, but be careful as boiling sugar is LAVA!
  • Tip the coated popcorn onto the baking sheet and spread out in an even layer. Don’t worry if the popcorn is looking a bit patchy, the baking stage will help even this out.

The Baking

  • Bake the sheet of popcorn for 45 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes. The caramel will remain quite liquid for the first 20 minutes, so keep stirring to even out the coverage.
  • Remove from the oven and, while still warm, break up any large pieces.
  • Allow to cool on the baking sheet, then pack into an airtight container when cold – a large ziplock bag is ideal. Be sure to exclude as much air as possible before sealing.

Maple Syrup Caramel Popcorn

Maple Syrup Caramel Popcorn

Whilst the ingredients for Maple Syrup Caramel Popcorn are the same as the recipe above (using 125ml/½ a cup of pure maple syrup as the liquid sugar), the method isn’t suitable. The temperature of 150°C is much too high for the delicately flavoured syrup, and results in a grained and crystallised caramel. Using half maple syrup and half golden syrup was kinda OK< but really quite a thick, heavy coating. My daughter still loved the ‘failed’ batches (just as well, considering how many there were), but I was determined to get a glossy and crisp caramel and as the picture above shows, success! (Eventually).

This method is actually easier than the above, with all it’s faffing around with thermometers and the like. It’s also much quicker. Initially, proceed as for the above recipe:

  • Preheat the oven to 110°C, 90°C Fan. Or not. See below.
  • Line a large baking sheet with parchment or preferably a silpat mat.
  • Have your bicarbonate of soda measured out and have a large spatula and a large balloon whisk close to hand.
  • Put the butter, sugar (I recommend light muscovado), maple syrup and salt in a large pan. I use my preserving pan.
  • Heat on medium heat, stirring, until the butter and sugars have melted together.
  • Then:
  • Stop stirring and when the mixture begins to boil, allow it to boil for just three minutes.
  • Now:
  • Proceed as above, i.e.
  • Remove from the heat and add the bicarbonate of soda.
  • Stir briskly with the balloon whisk until the mixture begins to froth, then tip in the popped corn.
  • Using the spatula, turn the popcorn in the hot caramel until evenly coated, by scooping the caramel from underneath and turning it over the top of the corn. The fizzing bicarbonate of soda will make this easier, but the effect won’t last forever, so work briskly, but be careful as boiling sugar is LAVA!
  • Tip the coated popcorn onto the baking sheet and spread out in an even layer.
  • Bake the sheet of popcorn for no longer than 20 minutes, stirring after 10 minutes.
  • Remove from the oven and, while still warm, break up any large pieces.
  • Allow to cool on the baking sheet, then pack into an airtight container when cold – a large ziplock bag is ideal. Be sure to exclude as much air as possible before sealing.
  • Enjoy.

Tune in next time for Part II, where we get all fancy-schmantzy with our popcorn flavours!


Pickle Pasties

Pickle Pasties
Wotchers!

I’m a big fan of minimalist recipes – three or four ingredients that work perfectly together and need no embellishment. So hot on the heels of the recent three-ingredient recipes, I have another recipe which will surprise and delight in equal measure.

As some of you may recall, my search for the delicious knows no bounds, and I frequently find myself on blogs and message boards in far flung places. Recently, it was Russia, where I found multiple variations on a theme of Tasty Stuff Wrapped In Bread Dough™. Amongst them was a version of the recipe I have for you today, with a filling of onion, potato and pickled gherkins.

No, wait!

Come back!

It’s delicious, I promise!!

The potato provides body, the onion savouriness and the pickles both crunch and zing. Using yeast dough instead of pastry keeps it low in fat, although you absolutely can use rich, buttery, puff pastry to add a level of luxury.

I’ve opted for wholemeal flour, but white is also fine, as are any other favourite yeast doughs.

Perfect for packed lunches and picnics, substantial without being heavy, they are also both vegetarian and vegan (depending on your bread recipe). They are also a proportional recipe – another of my favourites – so you can make as much or as little as you like. Perfect for small test batches.

I do hope you’ll give them a try – you might be pleasantly surprised.

Pickle Pasties

risen bread dough
2 parts cooked baked potato (warm)
1 part pickled gherkins (crisp and whole)
1 part chopped onion

  • Remove the cooked potato from the skins and mash. You can use a ricer, but don’t go too fine and sieve it, as the filling needs the bulk of the potato to avoid collapsing during baking.
  • Weigh the potato, and then portion out half its weight in pickled gherkins and onion. Slice the gherkins in half lengthways and each piece lengthways in half again. Cut into 1cm pieces. Chop the onion into similarly-size pieces as the gherkins.
  • Heat a little oil in a pan and add the chopped onions. Sprinkle with a little salt (the pickles are also salty) and black pepper. Cook just until the onions have softened, without letting them take on any colour. Set aside to cool, then mix with the potatoes and pickles. Taste the mixture and adjust the seasoning if necessary.
  • Roll out the dough and fill as you would pastry for regular pasties. Be sure to seal the edges tightly and fold/crimp if liked. Trim off any excess dough and transfer to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Poke two vent holes in the top of the pasties with the tip of a sharp knife.
  • When the last pasty is ready, set aside to rise for ten minutes and heat the oven to 200°C/180°C Fan. The short rise time will help the baked pasties hold the filling snugly: in the heat of the oven, the outsides of the dough will bake first and harden, leaving the only direction for the dough to expand as inwards, around the filling. A traditional-length rise would mean ending up with gaps between the dough and the filling.
  • For a rich, golden colour to your finished pasties, brush the dough ith beaten egg. For a vegan finish, dust with flour, which will help keep the dough from becoming too crusty.
  • Bake for 20-30 minutes, depending on the size of the pasties (small/large), until well browned on top and starting to brown underneath.
  • Wrap in a clean cloth (if a soft crust is preferred – I do) and allow to cool on a wire rack.

Viking Bread

Viking Bread
Wotchers!

I’ve taken a bit of a liberty with the name of this recipe, because it’s based on nothing more authentic than the loaf of bread I tried in France this summer. Over there, it is a staple of the Banette brand of bakeries and I found it very delicious as well as belying it’s rustic appearance by being very light in texture.

I picked up an information leaflet about it which helpfully included, amongst a lot of airy-fairyness about taste journeys and Nordic inspiration, a list of ingredients:

  • wheat flour
  • wheat gluten
  • sunflower seeds
  • barley flour
  • rye products
  • toasted malted barley flour
  • rye and wheat malt
  • yeast
  • salt
  • Decorations:
    • barley flakes
    • sunflower seeds
    • decorticated sesame seeds
    • red millet seeds
    • brown flax seeds

Fantastic, you’d think – specific guidelines for creating a unique blend of flours, grains and seeds. Well, in theory, yes – but practically… not so much. For a while I toyed with the idea of sourcing toasted malted barley flour, rye and wheat malt, and then experimenting with numerous batches to achieve the perfect combination. But when I read the ingredients list on a pack of Granary bread flour, it was a no-brainer.

Decisions, decisions

Me choosing between the task of creating a sword-wielding, nuanced and balanced mix of flours and grains vs grabbing a packet of granary bread flour.

Then there was the mix of seeds. Again, I could have spend time researching and experimenting, and to a certain extent I did. Recently, whilst watching Italian chefs make pizza dough, one of them mentioned adding Cuor di Cereali (Heart of Cereal), a seed mixture available in Italy, which sounded perfect. I sourced it online, however, it is available only in Italy, and whilst it could be ordered internationally, the shipping was going to be a killer. So when I saw the range of seeds available in the supermarket, I was like…

grabbing stuff

Me in the supermarket, carefully making a selection of seeds.

I did, however, take the suggestion from the Mulino Caputo website of adding between 10-20% to your dough mix, so it wasn’t a total bust.

Seed Mix
This is absolutely customisable to what you have available. I make no apology for simply tipping into a large ziplock bag one packet of each of the seeds available at my local supermarket.

My mix comprised the following:

  • 100g golden linseed
  • 100g brown linseed
  • 100g sunflower seeds
  • 100g pumpkin seeds
  • 150g chia seeds
  • 100g sesame seeds
  • 100g poppy seeds

This obviously makes more than is required for the recipe, but I’m confident you’ll be using it all up in no time with batches of these tasty loaves.

Viking Bread

400ml tepid water
1 tsp salt
500g granary bread flour
20g fresh yeast, crumbled or 1 sachet fast-action yeast
100g seed mix

additional seed mix for coating

  • Put all of the ingredients into your bowl (hand or stand mixer) in the above order, and bring together into a soft dough.
  • Knead for 10 minutes – on Low, if you’re using a mixer, followed by 2 minutes on High.
  • Cover the bowl with plastic and leave to rise for 1 hour.
  • When risen, tip out onto a floured surface and pat gently to deflate.
  • Shape into a rectangle, and cut horizontally in two,to give two baton shapes.
  • Roll and tuck the edges underneath – you should be aiming for a short, fat baguette shape.
  • Take an edged baking sheet and sprinkle over a layer of the seed mix. If you slide the sheet back and forth a couple of times,the seeds will arrange themselves in a neat, thin layer.
  • Using a pastry brush dipped in water, dampen the whole of the upper surface of the loaves.
  • Apply the seed coating: one by one, picking up the loaves and roll them over the layer of seeds in the tray. The seeds will stick to the damp top surface of the dough and fall away from the dry underside. Set the seeded loaves on their uncoated bases on a baking sheet lined with parchment. Cover lightly and leave to rise for 30 minutes.
  • Heat the oven to 200°C, 180°C Fan.
  • Bake the loaves for 30-35 minutes until risen and browned, and the base sounds hollow when tapped.
  • Cool on a wire rack.

 


Checkerboard Tarts

Cauliflower and Broccoli Checkerboard Tarts

Wotchers!

This recipe is all about simplicity, and enjoying the delicate flavours of two of my favourite vegetables: beautiful florets of cauliflower and broccoli nestled in crisp shortcrust pastry, delicately seasoned with a light and creamy egg custard.

Underneath the eye-catching exterior, it is a broccoli and cauliflower quiche, but with a slightly different approach and a few minutes devoted to presentation, it can be quite the showstopper.

The pastry base is baked completely, for maximum crispness, the creamy egg filling is poured in and the briefly blanched vegetables are then arranged in a delightful checkerboard pattern. Covering the whole with a tight seal of foil allows the vegetables to cook to al-dente perfection while the custard sets, without becoming discoloured from the heat of the oven. The vegetable stalks, nestled in the creamy filling, cook through perfectly, and the florets gently steam in the resulting moisture, retaining their bright colour.

It can be served warm or cold, as an accompaniment or a side dish. It slices beautifully and thus can be enjoyed as an an usual addition to a picnic hamper.

Cross-section of Checkerboard Tart

Best of all, although possibly not for those of you who love the rigid formality of recipes, it can be made in whatever size and shape you like. Originally, I only planned the large size, but in trimming the florets to even sizes, found myself with numerous smaller, but still perfectly-formed florets, and so made smaller tarts, and even tiny individual ones too.

Small Checkerboard Tart
Individual Checkerboard Tarts

The only limit is how prepared you are for the sometimes fiddly process of arranging the florets. My solution for minimising the Faff™ is to, in the first instance, arrange the florets in the empty pastry case, then remove them in rows and lay them neatly in order to one side, add the filling to the tart case, then lift the florets back into position in rows. Should you have a mishap, and one or more of your florets tumble into the filling, take a moment to rinse off the egg mixture otherwise the overall effect will be spoiled.

A mentioned above, the main enjoyment comes from the delicate flavours, but you could also add other ingredients to the filling, if you’d like to turn up the taste volume.

Checkerboard Tarts

The quantities are, to a large extent, dictated by the size and number of tarts you want to make. The unused vegetables can be stored in the fridge for several days and then steamed for a just five minutes before serving as accompaniments to other meals. Be sure to get the freshest, whitest cauliflower and the firmest, crispest broccoli (the florets should not move when you poke them) for maximum colour and visual impact.

1-2 fresh, white cauliflower
2-3 large florets of broccoli
shortcrust pastry – I prefer my cornflour shortcrust.
egg-white for glazing
500ml low-fat crème fraiche
2 large eggs
salt and pepper

  • Cut the vegetables into large florets and steam for five minutes over boiling water.
  • Put a clean cloth on a baking tray and lay the vegetables on top to cool. Set aside until required.
  • Prepare the baking tin. For the large tart I used a deep spring-form tin and laid the pastry only half-way up the sides. The vegetables also sat neatly inside the sides of the tin. For shallower tins, the vegetables will sit a little higher.
  • Preheat the oven to 200°C, 180°C Fan.
  • Roll the pastry out to a thickness of 5mm and line your baking tin. Trim the sides to a height of about 3cm. Poke holes in the bottom to let out the steam, using a fork.
  • Line the tin with parchment and baking beads/rice and bake for 10 minutes.
  • Remove the parchment/beads/rice and return to the oven for another 8-10 minutes until cooked through.
  • Whisk the egg-white until frothy, then use a pastry brush to ‘paint’ the inside of the tart with it thoroughly.
  • Return the tart case to the oven for two minutes to cook the egg-white. Set aside to cool.
  • Reduce the oven heat to 150°C, 130°C Fan.
  • Trim the vegetables to florets of even sizes of about 5cm. The exact size will be dictated by the size/shape of your tin. You want them to fit snugly together, to hold their shape.
  • Once the pastry case has cooled, arrange the florets in a pattern until it is full, to ensure you have sufficient florets prepared. You will probably need to trim the stalks to no longer than 3cm.
  • When your tart is full, carefully remove the florets and set them aside in rows, so they can easily be returned to the tart once the filling is added.
  • Whisk together the crème fraiche and eggs. Season with salt and pepper. If the tart is to be eaten cold, be generous with the seasoning, as flavours will be slightly muted when chilled.
  • Pour the filling into the pastry case to within 5mm of the top of the pastry. Arrange the blanched vegetables back into place.
  • Cover the tin tightly with foil and bake until the filling is set. For a large tin, this will be about 45 minutes, smaller tins around 35 minutes and mini tins 25 minutes.
  • Allow to cool slightly before removing from the tin(s).

 

 


Picnic Loaves

Picnic Loaves
Wotchers!

In my quest to find tasty recipes for you, I often find myself poking round some odd corners of the internet. Recently, this has taken me to some delightful Russian blogs, where I found this week’s deliciousness.

It is for a flavour-filled picnic loaf, or snack loaf, seen on the left above and is one of the speediest mixings I’ve ever found – you can mix and bake this in about an hour. Additionally, many of it’s components are regular storecupboard or fridge dwellers, making it a snip to bake at short notice. I’ve called it a Picnic Loaf because I suspect the Russian title (Snack Cupcake) lost something in the Google-Translation. I’ve also made it a little healthier by substituting the original sour cream for low fat creme fraiche.

The texture is unusual in that it is incredibly light and tender, even with all the added flavourings, and when toasted, the crunchy outsides contrast deliciously with the soft interior of the slice. It is packed with regular protein – diced cheese and sausage – and texture and even more protein is achieved with the addition of cooked kidney beans, which are a real delight to bite into as well as eye-catching with their red skins and pale interiors.

Initially I was just going to post the one recipe, but then realised it would exclude all the non-meat eaters. Then I thought I could crack a joke by saying “Look, it’ a loaf for everyone: there’s sausage for the meat eaters, cheese for the vegetarians and beans for the vegans” but realised that would be in poor (yet still delicious) taste. So I decided to create a second, vegetarian version. Alas, with the dairy and eggs, making it vegan is a stretch too far, but that said, I’m really pleased with what I came up with, because I think it’s actually more delicious than the original.

Inspired by the addition of the kidney beans, and having a tin to hand, I set about creating something chick-pea based. After much metaphorical pencil-chewing, I was really struggling to come up with replacements for the cheese and the sausage, so I gave up that idea entirely and decided to make hummus bread: not to dip into, but a bread that tastes like hummus. With a little parsley for colour and a couple of trials tweaking proportions, it came out better than I had imagined. And toasted – it’s fantastic.

Sausage and Cheese Picnic Loaf

sausage cheese picnic loaf

You don’t need to be heading out on a picnic to make this, my daughter has been enjoying a couple of slices toasted as an after-school snack.

1 x 400g tin kidney beans, drained & rinsed
1 x 200g smoked u-shaped sausage – diced
200g sharp cheese – I used vintage cheddar – diced

3 large eggs
200g low fat creme fraiche
200g mayonnaise
1tsp salt
250g self-raising flour
1tsp bicarbonate of soda

  • Preheat the oven to 180°C, 160°C Fan.
  • Grease a large loaf tin. I used this one (IKEA), to give a squarer slice, but a regular large loaf tin is also fine.
  • Whisk together the eggs, creme fraiche and the mayonnaise.
  • Sift together the salt, flour and bicarbonate of soda, then add to the bowl and stir to combine.
  • Add the cheese, sausage and beans and stir briefly to combine.
  • Pour the mixture into the prepared loaf tin and smooth over the top.
  • Bake for 30 minutes, then turn the tin around and bake for another 20 minutes for a total of 50 minutes.
  • Run a knife around the edges and gently tip the loaf out onto a wire rack to cool. The sides will be browned but not crusty, so handle it carefully whilst hot.

Hummus Loaf

The method is practically the same as the loaf above, but I’ll write it out here as well, to save you from scrolling up and down.

1 x 400g tin chick peas, drained and rinsed.
handful of roughly chopped flatleaf parsley

3 large eggs
100g tahini
50g olive oil
200g reduced fat creme fraiche
50g mayonnaise
1tsp garlic paste
2tbs lemon juice
1 tsp salt
1 rounded tsp ground cumin
250g self-raising flour
1tsp bicarbonate of soda

  • Preheat the oven to 180°C, 160°C Fan.
  • Grease a large loaf tin. I used this one (IKEA), to give a squarer slice, but a regular large loaf tin is also fine.
  • Whisk together the wet ingredients: eggs, tahini, olive oil, creme fraiche, mayonnaise, garlic paste and lemon juice.
  • Sift together the salt, cumin, flour and bicarbonate of soda, then add to the bowl and stir to combine.
  • Add the parsley and chick peas and stir briefly to combine.
  • Pour the mixture into the prepared loaf tin and smooth over the top.
  • Bake for 30 minutes, then turn the tin around and bake for another 20 minutes for a total of 50 minutes.
  • Run a knife around the edges and gently tip the loaf out onto a wire rack to cool. The sides will be browned but not crusty, so handle it carefully whilst hot.

 


No-Bake Christmas Cake

No-Bake Christmas Cake

Wotchers!

A rich, fruited cake at Christmas is traditional: crammed with dried fruits, candied peel and spices, and liberally doused with alcohol, before being encased in the equally traditional marzipan and white icing.

Delicious.

But there’s a huge elephant in the room when it comes to Christmas Cake recipes which no-one ever seems to mention – and that is the lengthy, fretful and agonisingly nerve-wracking extended baking time. And it IS just as stressful as it sounds, because the cake ingredients are not cheap, and so any mishap is going to prove expensive. If the oven is too hot, the outsides of the cake will burn and any exposed fruit will char to bitterness. If the oven is too cool, there’s a real risk of the inside of the cake ending up anything from gummy underdone-ness to out and out raw – and this is only likely to be discovered when the first slice is cut. And even if it is baked properly, failure to maintain sufficient moisture in the form of soaking it in alcohol between baking and consuming will result in an overly dry cake of sawdust texture. Not to mention the expense of having the oven on for so long.

So here I am, not just mentioning the elephant in the room, but naming/shaming/kicking it out.

Because this recipe requires no baking at all, and will only take maybe 15 minutes of your time.

Essentially, this is a fridge cake, with the wonderfully festive mix of fruit, spices and alcohol held together with biscuit crumbs and a little butter. It certainly looks the part and, as the photo demonstrates, it cuts beautifully – I do so love a clean, sharp slice! The biscuits should be Rich Tea – the rest of the ingredients need their dryness and plainness in order their flavours to shine. Sidebar: how much of a misnomer is Rich Tea? They’re the un-richest biscuit out there, just one step up from a water biscuit, and no hint of the taste of tea at all. Nevertheless, when you need a plain ‘canvas’ on which to display your more exotic ingredients, they can’t be beaten. NB Although breaking the biscuits into pieces is fine for recipes such as Chocolate Salami, the biscuits here should be blitzed to fineness in a food processor. This fineness is key in ensuring your cake holds together well with no unsightly air pockets, so please take the time over this one detail. Be more Edna.

Edna says: No Lumps!

ANYHOO…

Back to the cake. The texture is actually very close indeed to that of a well-moistened traditional cake, but the taste is extraordinary. In bypassing the hours and hours in the oven, the flavours of the fruit, peel and nuts are bright and fresh with no hint of dryness or burn. The alcohol is also more prominent, so if you’re planning on it being offered to children, perhaps reduce the quantity and substitute apple or pear juice to make up the overall amount of liquid.

There is also the freedom to make the mix of fruit, peel and nuts just to your liking. I don’t like angelica – or at least, the lurid dyed-green angelica found in the shops, so I don’t add it in. Glace cherries might be your absolute bête noir, in which case leave ’em out. As long as the overall weight is observed, the proportions can be made up of whatever you like. The mix below gives a ‘traditional’ flavour, but you could also choose a mix of, for example, dried mango, pineapple, papaya, coconut ribbons and white rum for a tropical flavour. The same goes for the spices. You might like them to be a little more robust that the quantities given. You’re only limited by your imagination. Go wild.

No Bake Christmas Cake

These quantities make a small, round, family-sized cake of diameter 15cm and a depth of around 5cm. A tin of larger diameter will result in a shallower cake. If you’re catering for only a few, consider halving the recipe and perhaps using a square or loaf tin for easier slicing, or even pressing the mix into cupcake or deep tart tins for mini individual portions.

For a Gluten-Free version, substitute GF Rich Tea biscuits.

For Vegans: Substitute the butter for the fat you prefer. It should be one that is solid at room temperature.

60g prunes – chopped
60g mixed, candied peel – chopped
75g raisins
75g sultanas
75g glace cherries – halved or quartered
1/2 nutmeg – grated
½ tsp mixed spice
½ tsp cinnamon
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 rounded tbs liquid sugar[1]
80g unsalted butter
75ml alcohol – a mix of cream sherry and brandy is nice, or 25ml each of these plus dark rum. Substitute fruit juice if preferred.

75g walnuts – chopped
250g fine Rich Tea biscuit crumbs

  • Put everything except the nuts and the crumbs into a pan.
  • Heat, gently stirring, until the butter has melted and the fruit is warmed through.
  • Remove from the heat, cover, and set aside to allow the fruit to plump up (30 minutes-1 hour).
  • Put the nuts and crumbs into a bowl.
  • Add the cooled fruit mixture and toss to combine. The mixture should now resemble damp sand, and stick together when pressed. Adjust spices if necessary, and add more crumbs/alcohol/juice if required.
  • Line your tin with plastic film.
  • Pour in the mixture and press flat. I find the base of a glass tumbler is excellent at achieving a smooth surface.
  • Cover the top with plastic film and chill thoroughly, preferably overnight.
  • Decorate with almond paste and icing as per a traditional cake.

 

[1] Ooh, a footnote! Haven’t done one of these in ages! The liquid sugar can be whatever you have to hand: honey, golden syrup, agave nectar, maple syrup, treacle or molasses if you’d like a dark cake, glucose if you don’t want to add another flavour to the mix.


Leek and Potato Soup

Leek & Potato Soup
Wotchers!

Who doesn’t love soup? Especially during the colder months. Sure, some of them, thick and hearty after hours of gentle simmering, can be a meal in a bowl.

But not all of them need take such extended preparation. Leek and potato soup is wonderfully comforting on a cold day, and only takes about 30 minutes to make from scratch, using simple ingredients that take little time to prepare. This one recipe can also be served in a variety of ways depending on whether you want a quick warming mug for lunch, or serve a striking and surprisingly economical special occasion starter.

Variations

Texture: Use of floury potatoes means this soup will puree to a wonderfully smooth and velvety texture. Nevertheless, I do like to have a little texture for visual as well as gustatory variety, so I hold back some of the cooked, cubed potato to add as a garnish.

Flavour: The soup is only simmered for a brief 20 minutes and this mellows the flavour of the leek. To lift the flavour, I like to briefly cook a little chopped leek in some butter and then either stir into the whole just before serving, or just spoon over the top of the cubed potatoes.

Visual Appeal: The photographs don’t really reflect it, but this soup is a beautifully pale green colour. It really makes the buttered leeks (if you’re using them) pop. If you aren’t inclined to ‘faff’ buttering some leeks, you could always snip a few dark green chives into the bowls to serve.

Garnish: Grated cheese and/or bacon bits are especially fine.

My daughter recently declared this her favourite soup, even ahead of tomato soup. She likes it best with a melty cheese toastie cut into fingers to dip in. This is her helpfully holding a spoonful of delicious soup garnished with potato cubes and buttered leeks. Unfortunately, what she’s not so keen on is any of the things I thought added so much to the presentation, i.e. the aforementioned buttered leeks and potato cubes. So after this picture was taken, I just put everything back into the blender and whizzed it smooth and she was happy. The buttered leeks still add their pop of flavour, just with none of that pesky texture.

Leek and Potato Soup

2 tbs butter
1 large leek or 2 medium
450g potatoes – floury type (Maris Piper or similar)
350ml milk
350ml water
4 level tsp vegetable bouillon powder
salt and ground white pepper to taste

2tbs butter for buttered leeks, if using

  • Peel and dice potatoes into cubes – about 1.5cm.
  • Remove the outer leaves of the leek and shred finely using a mandolin or with a sharp knife. If you’re going to butter some of the leeeks, set aside 4-5 spoonfuls.
  • Melt the first lot of butter in saucepan and add the potato cubes and leek.
  • Stir over medium heat until the until leeks soften.
  • Add the milk, water and bouillon.
  • Cover and simmer gently until the potatoes are cooked (20 mins-ish).
  • While the soup is cooking, melt the remaining butter in a pan and cook the remaining leeks.
  • When the potatoes are cooked, remove about a cupful and keep warm. Puree the remainder, either using a stick blender or liquidiser.
  • Return to the pan and taste. Season using ground white pepper and salt.
  • Heat well before serving, but don’t let it boil.
  • NB You may need to thin the pureed soup if the potatoes are especially starchy. It should have the consistency of double cream/custard.
  • Add the potato cubes and buttered leeks to serve.