THE ISLAND COOK

Notes on a smaller island

  • Candied Appeal

    There are only two things I like about Christmas: carols and cooking, and even those in small doses. The rest is emotional and retail torture. When I reach into the back of the kitchen cupboard to find my mum's old blackened patty tins, it's like reaching out to hold her hand once more. And while I don't engage in her time-honoured two-year Xmas pud rotation (last year's made for this Xmas, this year's made for next), I do uphold some of her festive cooking rituals, namely sausage rolls (always made with super-short shortcrust pastry, not that shattery, flat-laden flaky stuff) and mince pies (always filled with homemade mincemeat – see my interpretation in the recipe archive). But there's one festive staple that I've historically struggled with – citrus peel. I spent my childhood years religiously picking out the 'bits' in my mum's chunky homemade marmalade as if they were nuggets of pure poison, and I was confounded by the craving for Jaffa Cakes. Even now, when it comes to mixing up all the quintessential dark fruity, citrusy, spicy and boozy ingredients that go into mincemeat, I feel they are let down by those uninspiring plastic tubs of mean-looking mixed peel. You can of course source better-quality whole citrus peel, particularly online, but if you're having to make a special effort, why not prepare your own? And the fragrance of warm, caramelizing citrus is guaranteed to deliver that seductive Christmassy sensation, even for festive-deniers like me. Apart from dicing it and adding to mincemeat, try cutting it into strips and dipping it into melted dark chocolate for an after-dinner coffee accompaniment or to package as a gift.

    This recipe is based on one from a 1980s-vintage book on preserves by Mary Norwak, which works best for me, having tried others that either produce a short-lived result or contain enough sugar to outface anybody's pancreas.

    Remove the peel from 3 organic/unwaxed oranges and 2 unwaxed lemons in eighths, stripping off most of the white pith. Cover with water in a saucepan and cook gently, uncovered, for 11/2 hours, topping up with water if necessary. Stir in 225g granulated sugar until dissolved. Bring to the boil, then turn off the heat and leave to sit for 12 hours. Bring to the boil again, then simmer for a few minutes before leaving to sit for another 12 hours. Bring to the boil a final time, then simmer until you have only a little syrup left. Be careful at this stage not to burn the peel; I nearly did as I took my eye off the ball when a neighbour dropped by, although a bit of bronzing won't hurt. Fish out the peel and place on a wire rack lined with baking paper. Add a wee drizzle of syrup to each piece of peel, cover loosely with a second piece of paper and place in the oven on its lowest setting with the door ajar for c. 11/2 hours. Remove and leave to cool and air-dry, uncovered, for a couple of hours or so. Keep between layers of baking paper in an airtight container somewhere cool and dry, where it should last for a few months.

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  • Winter highlights

    Since it's nearly time to send my last posting a happy anniversary message, I think that's my cue to offer up a few more musings on island life - and cooking of course. Things are looking distinctly soggy round here, but mercifully not swamped or battered like a year ago. Jack Frost has paid just one or two fleeting early morning visits, and we've had but a couple of light snowfalls. The first took the regular Cheers gang at the Crab & Lobster by surprise as one of their number stepped in the bar as if from the Antarctic, only for it all to melt into memory in the space of minutes. The second endured for a few hours at least - longer up on the downs, whose distant presence became looming in its powdery grey guise, testament to the characteristic of pale tones to advance visually. Crisp, clear nights remind us of yet another bonus of living here: our own doorstep planetarium show. And we are especially thrilled by the recent warm-up act as dusk creeps in, of dazzling Venus in the west – so bright, pulsating and low that we first mistook the planet for a hovering helicopter on a rescue mission over Culver Down (unfortunately not an unfamiliar sight) except for the absence of its whirring din. The goddess has lately been joined in a dramaticaly close coupling by a rather dim Mars, and tonight they're making it a threesome with the moon in its sveltest of forms.

    Despite such joys, with the all-too-brief relief of Valentine's and Pancake Day behind us, it still seems a helluva long haul to the sunny uplands. My solution: turn a bit of virtuous thrift into a modest baked treat – Apple & (leftover) Mincemeat Frangipane Tarts miraculously devoid of butter, strong on nutritious fruit and nuts and lighter on sugar than most pastries. To make 12 tarts, you'll need:

    50g dried dates (I found some old woody ones lurking in the cupboard)

    150g plain flour

    150g ground almonds

    freshly squeezed satsuma or orange juice to bind

    75g golden caster sugar (preferably vanilla flavoured)

    1 large egg, lightly beaten

    1 small apple

    leftover mincemeat (I used homemade remnants from my Mince & Apple Pies)

    flaked almonds, for sprinkling

    Snip the dates into pieces and leave to soften in a little boiling water. Mix the flour and half the almonds in a bowl, then add enough juice to bring together into a dough with a bit of kneading – you'll need a few tbsp; add a bit of iced water if you run out. Wrap in foil and chill while doing the rest of the prep. Stick the oven on to 190°C/Gas 5. Tip the dates and soaking water into a blender and purée. Transfer to a bowl, add the remaining 75g almonds, the sugar and egg and beat well. Roll out the pastry – elbow grease required as it's pretty firm. Cut out rounds with a fluted cutter to line the holes of a lightly oiled 12-hole patty tin. Prick the bases and whack in the oven for 5 mins while you peel, core and slice the apple. Remove the tin from the oven and lower the temp to 180°C/Gas 4. Spoon a little mincemeat into the bottom of each tart case, top with a few apple slices, then spoon the almond cream on top to cover. Sprinkle with a few flaked almonds and bake for about 20 mins until golden brown. Dust with a little icing sugar/ground cinnamon mix to serve if you like.

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