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Bullfrog inspiration aside, a great deal of the fun of Christmas cakes is icing it yourself. It isn’t actually all that hard and there are some good tutorials on the internet (or just ask your mum or gran).

Christmas cake with the top sliced off and levelled, ready to be slathered with Ouse Valley‘s delicious Gooseberry & Elderflower Jam

I heartily recommend Cook UK‘s photo tutorial on how to ice a Christmas cake. It’s in two steps, firstly:

How to marzipan the cake
then
How to ice the cake with rolled icing

They also show you how to do it ‘the traditional way’, i.e. with an icing sugar/water combo, but I can’t say I’ve ever seen a Christmas cake done using that type of icing myself.

Measuring the cake for the two side pieces

I used about 3 Tb of jam, one packet of marzipan (225gm) and one packet of ready roll Royal Icing (450gm) on the cake. The above tutorial uses about twice that amount and you can go thicker, but huge fan of marzipan though I am, I find any thicker to be too sweet for me. With those amounts you get a layer of marzipan aprox 2mm thick and a layer of icing about 2-3mm thick.

A layer of 4-5mm of pure sugar is enough for anyone I think!

The marzipan layer covering the cake

With memories of last time’s wobbly wording, I bought an icing stencil to make the letters this year. I think they turned out pretty well, though I must admit it took me as long to cut the words out and place them as it did to actually ice the cake! About an hour and a quarter I guess.

Getting the letters so they were firm and crisp took a little trial and error. It turned out the best way to do so was roll to the icing out thinly (about 1.5 – 2mm), let it stand for a little while so the ‘dough’ had started to harden a little, and then cut the letters out of it.

The only other decoration (I like my cakes simple) consisted of a plastic sprig of holly. I also bought some rather gorgeous white pearlescent powder and covered the white of the cake with it.
Unfortunately it photographed horribly and came out looking grey, so the last photo shows the cake before being powdered. You just have to imagine it with a beautiful irridescent sheen to it. And yes, it tasted as good as it looked!

Christmas Cake 2008
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I am sitting on the train, watching overcast English skies drizzling rain down – a somewhat depressing view – so I am attempting to cheer myself up with the thought the clouds bring to mind these Greenport oysters I ate during mine and Jenny's birthday celebrations.

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Platters of Greenport Oysters and clams

Although not the largest or plumpest oysters I've ever eaten, nor be singled out as having a particularly unique taste, nonetheless they were rich and some of the freshest I've ever had – a real gulp of the ocean. Clams, I hadn't eaten in years although they rate quite highly in my List of Preferred Seafoods, and these were particularly tasty little morsels. Accompanying these were various sauces, including a delightful shallot & vinegar Mignonette (see here for similar recipe).

It wasn't entirely sunshine for our birthday weekend however, as you can see from this photo across Greenport Harbour to Shelter Island.

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View across Greenport Harbour to Shelter Island

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This past little while my weekends and spare time have mostly been spent on jewellery-making and craft projects, however I have been continuing my bread making. Here's what came out of the oven:

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Scottish Breakfast Rolls: These were light, slightly chewy, soft and milky-tasting. The ideal breakfast food. My best first effort so far.

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Sundried Tomato Italian Bread: This was supposed to be Olive Bread, but I discovered a complete dearth of black olives in my cupboard and wasn't quite ready to toss my precious anchovy- and almond-stuffed green olives into a baking experiment. This turned out delicious nonetheless, although next time I won't use quite as many tomatos as they overpowered the bread a bit. This had a good crust, tasted great and lasted much better than the rolls. I'm going to try and get this one perfected.

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Cheese Rolls: Mmmmm. Who doesn't love cheese bread? Some butter and a slice of Port Salut on top, paired with a glass of cold cider – perfect weekend picnic. These went stale pretty quickly but were good toasted.

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I’ve come to the conclusion cake just tastes better with banana in it – more moist, texturally more interesting, fuller bodied and with a greater depth of taste. Unfortunately Mark is allergic to bananas, so rather than sending my housemate into anaphylactic shock (an action not conducive to smooth relations at home – quite aside from the fact he hasn’t signed that Life Insurance Policy for Tanya yet), half the cupcakes I usually now make at the weekend are not banana offerings. Tanya and I just get more of those for ourselves. We aren’t really complaining! Here’s the recipe I use:
 




Banana Cupcakes with Almond Cream Cheese Icing & Silver Dragees


Banana & Stuff Cupcakes
Makes 10 – 12 cupcakes

1 cup self-raising flour, sifted
½ cup caster sugar
½ cup (or 4 Tb) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 tsp vanilla essence
½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp ground cinnamon
2 eggs
2 old soft bananas, mashed
½ cup coconut or chopped walnuts or other nuts


  1. Preheat the oven 175C/350F/GM4 & place 10 paper cases in cupcake/muffin tins.
  2. Combine all ingredients except the bananas & coconut/nuts together in a bowl.
    Note: the coconut/nuts add necessary texture to the recipe.
  3. Beat until smooth.
  4. Mix in the mashed banana, with as few strokes as necessary.
  5. Mix in the coconut/nuts, with as few strokes as necessary.
  6. Spoon the batter into the cases. I find filling them to 2/3 is best.
  7. Bake for 20 minutes.
  8. Remove and check. A toothpick should come out cleanish from the centre. If there are lots of crumbs sticking, put the cupcakes back in the oven for another 3 minutes. Repeat until cupcakes are cooked.
  9. Remove cases/tins from the oven and let cool for 5 minutes.
  10. Remove the cupcakes from the cases/tins and cool on a rack.
  11. Ice if you wish (and if something goes wrong with the almond icing, it’s even more aptly named)


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In my ongoing campaign to teach myself to bake (or rather, to bake well), one of my prime goals has been to learn to bake bread. Sourdough has long been one of my favourite types of bread and I was fortunate a couple of months ago to receive some sourdough starters (one rye, one wholemeal) from Johanna of The Passionate Cook (thank you very much Johanna!).

Below are the results of my first attempt which, whilst not an unqualified success, was certainly a great deal better than I was expecting. I used a very basic recipe by S. John Ross, from here and used a mix of rye and wholemeal.

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Rye Sourdough Loaf


The bread took a long long time to rise – in fact due to its sluggishness I turned the oven onto ‘Warm’ and left the dough on the bench overnight, and the next morning it had risen. This actually works out better for me for future sourdough making, as the ‘whole day bread making’ shtick is logistically awkward for me, as I’m sure it is for anyone else who spends 12 – 13 hours a day away from home during the week.


During baking, the bottom didn’t seem to want to harden, so I baked the loaf on its back for the last five minutes – which, although it probably isn’t recommended, did the trick.


The resulting loaf was quite dense and heavy with a good rye flavour and sour taste. I ate mine with a skimming of butter and thick slices of Red Leceister cheese, and it was very yummy (in addition to the warm glow of self-satisfaction). I gave half to Tanya (tatanatanya), who as a native of East Europe was brought up on the stuff, and she said it was a bit too dry, but the taste and texture were really good.


I came to the same conclusion. When I was kneading the dough (which was a lot more fun than I expected, except for the part where my mother rang me up right in the middle) I thought it wasn’t elastic enough, but lack of experience made me unsure – and cookbook photos and You-Tube can only be useful to a certain point. So next time, definitely more liquid.


I think I’ll also try with a lighter flour/s (I didn’t have any strong flour other than rye and wholemeal at the time) and use a lesser portion of rye if included. On the whole however, I think I can definitely rack this one up as a step in the right direction.



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Cut Rye Sourdough Loaf

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Sakuranbo (Cherry Jelly)

I
went to a rather splendid RA exhibition of Cranach the Elder's work
last month and having time (and money) to kill, indulged myself by visiting
state-of-the-art Japanese confectioners, Minomoto Kitchoan,
down the road. There I bought myself (and tatanatanya)
several seasonal wagashi.

Tanya ate
the Iwamura (Plum Jelly) wagashi, which she thoroughly enjoyed. Somewhat
unsurprisingly, my first choice of treat was the Sakuranbo, or Cherry
Jelly (photo above). This was almost too beautiful to eat, however when I did it
was delicious. The jelly & cherry were light, sweet and delicately flavoured
and scented. I loved the dissolving sensation of the jelly in my mouth.

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Wagashi in
their wrappers, in front of the accompanying green tea
Back row, L-R: Yuka
(Citron Jelly), Iwamura (Plum Jelly), Sakuranbo (Cherry Jelly).
Front row,
L-R: Ayaichigo (Strawberry Jelly), Kurizutsumi (Bean Cake).

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~Yuka (Citron Jelly)

Yuzu (japanese lemon) has a
distinctive taste that is wonderful in both sauces and sweets. And with the aid
of a little colouring, was the most amazing vibrant shade of greenish yellow as
you can see (although admittedly I Photoshopped the shadows in a sudden fit of
artsiness). There were little curls of yuzu rind in this very tasty wagashi and
it smelt divine.

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~Kurizutsumi (Bean
Cake)

This was an Azuki (Red) Bean & Chestnut
Paste-filled pastry, topped with Sesame Seeds. The Japanese do such fantastic
things with chestnuts – one memorable dish being chestnut icecream at Toku, the Japan Centre restaurant, last
year. Slightly more filling and solid than the other wagashi but just as
yummy.

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~ Ayaichigo
(Strawberry Jelly)

OK, it may look like some type of Gelatinous
Monster from Star Trek, but it's actually another kanten/agar agar sweet (yes, I am inordinately fond
of those). This proved to be my favorite offering. The innards were a stawberry
paste that managed the oft-difficult trick of combining a distinctive but
delicate scent, a fresh strawberry flavour and a pleasurably smooth paste
texture into one highly enjoyable combination.

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I rather enjoy cooking magazines – as long as I’ve eaten beforehand. They have a very visual appeal that goes straight to my stomach and tends to make me very, very hungry. Anyway, I bought an absolutely gorgeous eggplant the other week – firm and shiny and glowing white and the most beautiful shades of purple. It was almost a crime to eat it, but it had to be done. Something extra special was called for however, and I fortuitously remembered a recipe from Delicious‘s annual Italian issue which had caught my interest.

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It’s my adaption rather than their exact recipe (I must admit to seldom following the recipes, merely using them as a starting point) but is largely based on it. I recommend you buy two eggplants rather than my one.

Sadly I forgot to photograph the first meal I got out of this recipe, and the second time round it reheated well, but didn’t exactly look very pretty (plus I *cough*singed the edges a little through inattention*cough*), so you will just have to take my word for it that it did indeed look exactly like the photo in the magazine below. And it was indeed quite delicious.

Involtini di carne e malanzane (Meat and eggplant roulade)
Adapted from "Delicious" magazine’s Regional Italian articles translation of a recipe from "La Cucina Salentina" by Lazaria Lucia. To serve two.

2 large eggplants
1 tsp sea salt
1 garlic clove
200 gm organic beef mince
60 gm breadcrumbs
70 gm grated Parmesan
2 organic eggs, beaten together
A good handful chopped flatleaf parsley
Salt & Pepper
Virgin Olive Oil
Toothpicks

  1. Slice the aubergine lenthways into 1 – 1.5 cm thick strips.
  2. Put in a colander or on a cakerack and salt with the seasalt.
  3. Wait two hours. Any less and you aren’t really going to get rid of the excess moisture.
  4. The original recipe tells you to rub the inside of non-plastic bowl thoroughly with the clove and then discard. Personally, I don’t think it made any impact whatsoever, so I’d either ditch the garlic altogether or crush it and chop it finely.
  5. In a bowl, combine the (optional) garlic, breadcrumbs, Parmesan, eggs and parsley.
  6. Season and then mix well.
  7. Pat the eggplant slice dry with kitchen towel.
  8. Make small balls of the meat mixture.
  9. Place a ball in the center of the eggplant slice and roll up. Secure with toothpicks.
  10. Put the eggplant rolls in a baking dish and drizzle with virgin olive oil.
  11. Bake for 30 minutes at 180ºC/GM4/350ºF.
  12. Serve immediately.

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