Of Mince Pies & Christmas Crackers

xmas table

As far back as I can remember we have celebrated Christmas in pretty typical Anglo fashion. When we lived in the UK, on Xmas morning, the stockings we put out would be filled not only with smaller gifts, but also oranges and nuts, lunch was roast turkey and pork with all the trimmings (but I recall boiled bacon and pease pudding was served before we adopted the Turkey tradition) and the table wouldn’t have been complete without Christmas Crackers. Of course dessert was always a flaming Xmas pudding served with brandy butter. Other traditions our family subscribed to apart from the Queens speech, included the exotic addition of a fresh pineapple, obligatory bowls of nuts ready to be cracked (only ever Brazils, Hazel and Walnuts) trays of dried dates, crystalised and glace citrus and always, but always, trays and trays of mince pies dusted with a “snow” like layer of icing sugar.

mince pies 5Over the years, many of our family “traditions” like all traditions, have morphed and changed. Once in Australia Xmas stockings became pillow cases, fruit and nuts became lollies, lunch became dinner then dinner became an all day graze (as the turkey and pork took a back seat) and Pavlova joined the pudding table. On the side of the main event, things changed as well, the no longer exotic Pineapple disappeared, thank goodness, the whole cracking nuts thing waned in favour of the ready to eat roasted and salted variety, and sensibly dates and sugared fruits went out in preference to fresh summer fruits like cherries, apricots and mangoes.

But with all these changes, two things have remained constant, Mince Pies and Christmas Crackers. The crackers thing is not surprising, they are as much a symbol of Christmas excess as a present laden tree, but why when everything else has changed did we keep the mince pie tradition? Essentially it was mums “thing”, in fact the more Xmas celebrations changed, the more she embraced her passion for baking and giving away literally thousands of mince pies as Xmas gifts each year for friends and family, and they were universally loved and looked forward to, even by people that had previously professed not to like them.mum - cropped

So what made mum’s pies so popular?, was it the filling, well maybe not, she only ever used “Robertsons” off of the shelf, but she did add copious amounts of brandy, and I mean lots of brandy. Or was it the pastry, no thick, sweet and heavy dough like shop bought long life mutations here, mums pastry was a instead an unsweetened short paste and rolled paper thin. Of course both these elements are important but I think the key ingredient in mums pastry was the love she put into them. I know this is a cliché but I can’t think of another explanation.

The pastry itself though is something mum was famous for amongst family and friends. Passed down by her maternal Nan, it is the only type of pastry she ever made, and it graced everything from blackberry and apple pies through to sausage rolls. Technically it is very similar to an all lard pie crust I like to use, but mum’s recipe differs in two distinct ways, first she used softer self raising flour instead of the plain or bakers I would use and secondly, and critically, the fat she employed (in Australia at least) was “Fairy” pastry margarine.

fruit minceNow this poses a problem for me, I really dislike margarine and prefer to use pure natural fats and for years I tried to make her pastry using only butter, but always without much success. However this year after deciding to honor mum by making her mince pies for the Barossa Farmers Market (albeit with our own fruit mince – see image at right) I decided to give her recipe yet another go with just one amendment and that was to replace margarine with a mixture of butter and lard and hey presto, in a blind tasting I would swear we were eating mum’s pastry.

And I suspect my great grandmother would approve, because by reverting back to butter and lard we have gone full circle, after all margarine was not popularised until the middle of the 20th century and so natural fat would have been the only option when she learnt to make it back in Mrs. Beetons day. So if you feel like getting in the Xmas spirit (or just want a foolproof pastry recipe) why not give the following a try.

 

Mince pies

Pastry (makes 2 doz small pies)

225g                  self raising flour – sifted
35g                    lard
75g                    salted butter – cold in 5mm cubes
35ml                 iced water (approx)

 Method

  • Rub fats into flour gently with fingertips to make a fine crumb
  • Add water and continue to work with fingertips until it starts to come together
  •  Press dough into a flat rectangle, (do not knead)  wrap in plastic film and chill for 20 minutes before using

Mince Pies (to make 2 doz small pies)

1                           recipe pie pastry (above)
350g                    Fruit mince
50ml                    Brandy
2 tablespoons     milk
1ciing sugar to dust

 Method

  • Roll out half the pastry on a floured surface until almost paper thin, using a small (6.5cm) crimped cookie cutter, cut out 24 tops, cover and refrigerate and reserve trimmings separately
  • Roll out remaining pastry to the same thickness as before and using a larger (8cm) plain cutter, cut out 24 bases (you will need to rest and reroll trimmings to achieve the full quantity)
  • Place bases  into small round based patty pan trays pressing into place firmly
  • Mix Brandy and fruit mince and place a heaped teaspoon into the centre of each pie, do not flatten out or push to edges the top will do this for you

mince pies 4

  • Brush lightly the inside of each lid with milk and press milk side down onto the top of each pie sealing around the edges
  • When all pies are filled and covered, brush lightly with remaining milk, prick or cut a small slit in the top of each pie and bake at 170c until golden brownmince pies 3v

Remove from the oven and dust immediately with icing sugar. Enjoy while still warm or cool and store in an airtight container for up to a week if you have strong will power and please don’t refrigerate!

mince pies

I Love a Bit of Crumpet!

crumpet

A few days ago we hosted a little afternoon tea, nothing exciting in that I hear you say, maybe some simple tea cakes or scones and jam, even a sandwich or two but you would be wrong, what we served brought back memories of something very special because more years ago than I would care to admit, (ok, 30 to be precise) we launched into our first food business, a partnership between my brother Jeremy, my wife Jo-Ann and I.

We set about creating a very unique little tea rooms in one of Adelaide’s leafier suburbs called Thomas & Drury. Looking back it was all very Downton Abbey though at the time we aspired it to be more Fortnum & Mason. The backbone of our offering was a terribly British range of cakes and pastries, the recipes for which had been handed down from our business’s  namesake, our great aunt (Phyllis Thomas) and our grandmother (Kathleen Drury). Both of these redoubtable ladies had worked “below stairs” in private houses of Edwardian Britain and looking back, clearly they greatly influenced how we saw food.

T&D (2)

Their recipes were for the type of baked goods that you only normally see done well in a “home” setting. They included a very time consuming Battenberg , a rich Dundee cake, miniature éclairs, featherlight Madeira cake, yeasted pikelets, Cornish splits, shortbread tails, Sally Lunns (a kind of English brioche) and very much to the point of today’s blog, homemade crumpets.

In keeping with the whole theme, we brought into Adelaide a range of single origin teas and coffees from a small independent importer in Sydney, which we blended and packed to order (no Twinnings or Robert Timms for us, which was the norm back then), and of course these were all served from, and into, fine Wedgewood and Royal Doulton bone china (we almost needed a separate mortgage just for the breakages). If that wasn’t enough we also manufactured a range of some 15 or so condiments, sauces and relishes.

shop (2)

But the centre piece of the business was our afternoon tea, served on very elegant tiered, china cake stands and loaded with all kinds of tea time goodies. It was a decent spread, sweet and savory, hot and cold, all freshly made and all very, very proper. Suffice to say it was a bold venture, some would have called it ambitious but today tea boutiques and ethical barista coffee are common place, the great British/Aussie bakeoff and other cooking shows regularly feature many of the classic sweet things that were our stock in trade and fine bone china is  again quite fashionable now, clearly in terms of being “on trend” we were well ahead of the what was to come.

tea (2)

But back to the crumpets, and with a few exceptions during my time at Appellation, I have hardly had cause to make a crumpet in the past 28 years, but for this event it seemed to be the perfect time to revisit the past and so we decided to serve real English style currant muffins, hot off the griddle (not those obese cup cakes Americans call muffins ), a rich, moist bitter chocolate cake with rum fondant icing, flaky, little savoury pies of local ham, cheese and potatoes, a silky smooth potted mushroom pate and of course home made crumpets, all washed down with Barossa Sparkling Shiraz rather than Darjeeling …. My how times have changed and welcome to the Barossa!.

sparkling shiraz (3)

For those that have never tried making crumpets from scratch, they really are very simple (if you can make pancakes you can make crumpets!) and believe me it is worth it. They really are so different from the supermarket variety that have been sitting quietly sweating in their plastic wrappings for lord knows how long.

Firstly, they are much, much lighter, of course they are still full of those little holes designed to soak up all that butter, but they lack the stodginess of the shop bought item. Secondly, and really importantly when you toast them they actually get crisp on the outside, yet staying soft and moist in the center. And thirdly, they are all natural, lacking the long life additives, chemicals (and weird sourness) that plague the shop bought item.

Try them next weekend when you have a little more spare time, the batter will take a couple of hours to be ready to cook, but the great thing is they can (and should) be made ahead, sure you can eat them straight off the grill but the second cooking or toasting actually improves the eating quality. And most importantly, please don’t stint on the butter and never, ever, under any circumstances use margarine, that’s just plain wrong!

Crumpets

250g                                       plain flour
pinch                                     salt
15g                                         dried yeast
350ml                                    milk – blood temperature
1                                              egg
1 teaspoon                            caster sugar

Melted butter for grilling

Method

  • Combine all ingredients in a large mixing bowl (except butter) and mix well to a smooth batter.
  • Cover bowl with plastic wrap and leave at room temperature to “prove” for 1-2 hours
  • When proved, batter should be thick and foamy (see image)

batter2

  • Preheat a non stick pan or griddle over a low heat, grease some egg rings or metal cookie cutters well with non stick spray or melted butter.
  • Brush or wipe pan lightly with melted butter and place spoonfuls of batter into rings to about the depth of 7mm

in rings 2

  • Cook until crumpet clearly forms holes on top and base is a nice golden colour.
  • Remove ring and turn crumpet over and cook until lightly golden

on griddle2

  • Transfer to a cooling rack and reheat in a toaster when ready to eat and butter generously!

ready to toast2

One a penny, Two a penny…..

ready to eat

Yesterday our local supermarket was bereft of bread with the usual pre Easter panic shopping but there was a surfeit of those horrible chemical laden, artificial smelling, long life Hot Cross Buns, the ones that started appearing on the shelves the very day the Valentines day chocolate displays were out of the way…. You have to love our “Hallmark Events” culture.

Seeing these sad commercial things sweating it out in their plastic bags, I got to thinking about their origins. I seemed to remember that though they have been associated in our Anglo culture with the event that occurred on a Friday almost 2000 years ago (since at least the late middle ages), but their origin and design actually goes back much further.

Thankfully my trusty old go to pastry text “The New International Confectioner” a book that I have relied on and referred back to for almost 40 years, has a full half  page devoted to the history and mythology of Hot Cross Buns. Steeped in pagan rites, it cites ancient Babylonian fire symbols of a circle with a cross inside and notes that cakes and breads were routinely decorated thus, that the Ancient Greeks did a similar thing with the cross symbolizing the four phases of the moon and in fact many basic breads are still scored in much the same way as would have been the case two thousand years ago.

For example below are images of petrified bread from Pompeii, loaves created following ancient roman texts, modern day Khobz from Morocco, Irish Soda bread and German Easter Bread just to illustrate the form, style and cultural /ethnic traditions that pre-date the commercialization of todays Easter celebration but which all look remarkably familar.

breads

Of course the other misnomer with hot cross buns is the spicing, today, allspice and mixed spice make up the predominant blend, as well as commercial bun spice which is so strong it cant be natural. Interestingly though these spice mixtures are almost certainly Arabic or Levantine in origin, bought back by western Europe by the crusaders, or infused into Europe via the  Caliphate that occupied Spain and the Mediterranean for several centuries.

These sweet spices make up many of the most savoury seasonings in the Arab world and have become greatly used in French cuisine particularly through their incorporation into Quatre Epices. Of course the English adopted the French tradition and used these particular spices in their (originally savoury) mince pies, a fetid beef, suet and dried fruit concoction that was made palatable and sweet smelling by the use of these exotic spices. Clearly they developed a tasting or a liking for these relatively expensive ingredients as they went on to be used almost exclusively in luxury goods like cakes and pastries.

But getting back to where I started, my family all love a good hot cross bun, but I can’t abide the type one buys in the supermarket. So this being Good Friday, and with a little time to spare, I decided to step up and make some for the family. Personally, I like mine a little lighter in spice and not as sickly sweet,  and certainly without the awful mixed peel that tastes like citrus cleaning product, rather in its place Sukkade, a Dutch candied citron that is oh so delicate.

As for the  recipe, it’s pretty straight forward, we made ours in about 3 hours start to finish and the family loves them, I hope you do too.

Hot Cross Buns

500g                       plain flour
300ml                    water – luke warm
15g                          dry yeast
30g                         sugar
Pinch                     nutmeg – ground/grated
¼ teaspoon          clove – ground
½ teaspoon          cinnamon
30g                         butter
1 teaspoon            salt

20g                         Succade (Dutch candied citron peel)
30g                         currants
30g                         sultanas

1                              egg – beaten for glazing buns

Cross Paste
25g                        flour
30g                        water
1 ½ teaspoons    vegetable  oil

Bun Glaze
2 tablespoons    sugar
1 tablespoon      water
pinch of             cinnamon – ground
pinch of             clove – ground

Method – Makes 12:

  • Sift flour, then prepare a starter “sponge” by mixing a quarter of the flour with the sugar and yeast, stir in the water to form a smooth light batter, cover and leave to ferment until foaming and frothy.

bun dough

  • To this “sponge” add the remaining flour, spices, salt and butter and knead well until silky smooth, soft and elastic.

add fruit

 

  • Cover and allow to double, roll out and sprinkle currants, sultanas and Zuckader over, work in lightly, divide into 12 equal portions and shape into small rolls.

bun portion

  • Grease baking dish and place rolls in dish leaving about 1cm all around edges and between rolls to allow for expansion
  • Mix ingredients for “cross paste” and fill into a small piping bag with a fine nozzle and reserve.
  • Cover and allow to double again, buns are ready when they do not spring back when pressed.

egg wash

  • Brush with beaten egg, pipe cross over to decorate and bake in an oven preheated to 200C for 12-15 minutes.

crosses

  • While baking prepare the bun glaze by bringing spices, sugar and water to the boil

baked

  • Remove buns when golden brown on top and bottom, brush with bun glaze while still hot and leave to cool thoroughly (if you can!)

 

 

 

What’s Hiding In The Pantry

serve

While most of my posts celebrate seasonality, just occasionally something comes up that has nothing to do with my obsession that “fresh is best” and this is one such occasion. In fact for more than one reason this will probably give those that know me reasonably well, cause for a good old chuckle. Firstly because, I seem to have garnered a reputation over the years of being somewhat obstinate about accommodating dietary requests, even to one year being presented a “I don’t do dietaries” t-shirt by one of my team (thank you Cassaly) But to be honest I feel a little hard done by, I have always tried to ensure that the people I cook for have plenty of delicious options. For example many of what may have been considered my “Signature” dishes during my restaurants days were Vegan or Vegetarian, we just never made a lot of noise about that. 

dietaries3

In fact I am pretty sure we were well out in front 10 years ago when we started asking guests on booking, if they had any food allergies and intolerances so that we could make sure they had a special dining “experience”. But take my word for it, in recent years the pendulum has swung, and now it is more common for someone to have special requirements than not. In fact trying to balance a menu to allow for the inevitable has become a nightmare, take designing deserts that are gluten, dairy, nut and egg free …. yet we chefs have stuck with trying to make it work for everyone.

But sometimes in the press of a busy service, when someone presented with extreme or downright odd dietaries I may have channeled Gordon Ramsay because:  

A) Some notice would have been nice.

B) There’s only so much that can be done when your docket board is full.

C) Your Mise en Place is well, in place and that’s what you have to work with.

D) The entire team is fully engaged doing the business for all of the other paying guests and cant drop the ball to create that sulphur, fructose and nightshade free, low fibre, low sodium dish of ancient grains and kale because that’s all you can eat…..

 Ok, so maybe I don’t do dietaries!

But why is this relevant? Well today’s recipe is for a Gluten Free Mango, Lime and Coconut Cake, not only is it dietary friendly (if you can eat eggs and nuts that is) but its neither seasonal nor local, but as I hinted above sometimes you have to be able to crank something out from simply what is in the cupboard. You see a good friend was joining us this evening, someone that genuinely can’t tolerate gluten, and we needed a simple dessert to share, and to be honest she has probably had her fill of figs at our place over the last month.

To cut a long story short for many years I have been preparing a gluten free cake based on Claudia Roden’s famous boiled orange and almond cake,  sometimes I substitute a specific quantity of fruit puree for the oranges, but today this recipe was nowhere to be found. However determined to make it work, we set about chopping another recipe apart and well, the result was this delectable little cake, beautiful with our local Jersey cream and dare I say it, ripe figs.

But the genius was we had everything in our pantry and with 15 minutes prep it was in the oven. Seriously it will be my new go too, definitely not as syrupy as my previous recipe, and if I didn’t know it was gluten free, there is no way I would ever be able to pick it.

Gluten Free, Mango, Coconut and Lime Cake

270g Tinned mango cheeks* (drained weight)
1 lime- zest of pinch citric acid
165g caster sugar
1/2 teaspoon of vanilla paste/extract
3 eggs
100g polenta
100g almond meal
45g desiccated coconut
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
Method

Blend mango with lime zest and citric acid to a smooth puree blending mango Whisk eggs with sugar and vanilla paste until very thick and foamy (like shaving foam) , then fold in mango puree sabayon Combine remaining dry ingredients and mix well then fold into mango and egg foam fold dry Fill into a greased spring form pan (20cm/8inch) lined with non stick baking paper for easy removal ready to bake Bake at 170c for 35 minutes or until lightly golden and a skewer comes out clean when inserted cake Allow to cool for 15 minutes before removing from tin, dust with icing sugar and serve with Jersey cream.   Note: *other well drained tinned fruits like apricots and peaches should work well as would frozen or fresh mango cheeks.