Sunday, 23 December 2012

5 Last Minute Christmas Ideas

The online shopping deadline may have long passed and it's probably too late to start that Christmas cake you had planned on making, but there's still time for a little bit of seasonal baking. So here are 5 of my favourites, most of which can be given as presents, to give you some festive inspiration.

Most traditional fudge recipes require accurate heating and the use of a sugar thermometer, but I'm reliably informed that this recipe from self-proclaimed craft queen Kirstie Allsopp is pretty much foolproof. You could add extras like nuts or dried fruit, then cut into squares and package in a nice box to make a brilliant Christmas present for someone.

Cookies in a Jar
This is one of my favourite homemade gift ideas and can be done with any biscuit or cookie recipe you like - even brownies or cupcakes could work! You just layer the dry ingredients in a pretty jar and attach a label with the recipe written or typed (if it's the kind of biscuit that is rolled and cut out then another nice touch is to include a festive cookie cutter). Also great if you're on a budget as flour, sugar etc is relatively cheap.

Cinnamon Rolls
I'm planning on making these for breakfast on Christmas morning. They're not exactly a 5 minute job but I'm hoping to make the dough and let it have it's first rise on Christmas Eve, then pop them in the fridge overnight and get them out about half an hour before baking in the morning to give them chance to rise a little bit more. I might halve the recipe though as I don't think we really need 12 buns between 2 adults and a baby!

Chocolate Bark
This is just a fancy name for melted chocolate spread on a flat surface and sprinkled with anything you like - chocolate chips, nuts, dried fruit, sweets etc. Peppermint bark is my favourite for Christmas, made with white chocolate and crushed candy canes à la Martha Stewart. Break into shards and pop into cellophane bags tied with ribbon for a great last minute gift.

Rocky Road
I fell in love with Nigella's Christmas Rocky Road as soon as I saw it on one of her Christmas specials. It's got more exotic ingredients than the usual recipe but you could easily replace the amaretti biscuits with digestives and the brazil nuts with whatever whole or chopped nuts you have hiding around the cupboards and it would be just as delicious. It's also another no-bake recipe leaving your oven free for Christmas dinner preparations!

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Lazy Mince Pie Stars

Want to bake some homemade mince pies without any of that flour rubbing and dough chilling nonsense that comes with making your own pastry? Then do I have the recipe for you! In fact it probably doesn't even count as a recipe, more of an assembly process. I stole the idea from supermodel-turned-cook (there's a phrase you don't hear very often) Lorraine Pascale - all you need is a pack of shop bought puff pastry (all butter is the best) and a jar of mincemeat. I already had both of these in the house and even managed to get these almost mince pies baked during naptime which shows just how easy they are!

Firstly roll out the puff pastry and cut into smallish squares. I used my cake decorating ruler to cut 10cm  squares because I'm weird like that, but you don't have to be that precise. Take each piece at a time and make a cut into each corner, but don't go all the way into the centre of the square. Drop a spoonful of mincemeat into the middle, then pick up one side of each corner cut and fold it into the middle of the square. Cut out a star from your pastry offcuts and press it into the middle of the pastry. Brush with egg wash and bake until the pastry is puffed and golden (it took about 12-15 minutes at 200C in my oven...). I don't think I explained that very well so here are some photos of the process that hopefully make more sense:

And there you go! The folded over points stuck back up as the pastry puffed on a few of mine, but a dusting of icing sugar hides a multitude of sins. One thing I would recommend is to bake these on a sheet of baking paper to make cleaning up easier. I'd forgotten how mincemeat sets like cement when it's been baked on to anything... Like any pastry these mince pie stars are best eaten while they're still warm, but will keep for a few days in an airtight container - perfect to make over the weekend ready for Christmas!

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Building a Gingerbread House

Gingerbread is one of my favourite Christmas treats, and I've spent the last half an hour using the power of Google to try and find out exactly why it is so closely associated with the festive season. Answers range from gingerbread shapes originally being used as Christmas tree decorations in Germany to 'Jesus was born in a gingerbread manger' (thanks Yahoo! Answers, very helpful...) so I'm not really any the wiser. But no matter what the origin, there's no denying that ginger biscuits baking in the oven makes the house smell like Christmas.

A couple of months ago I picked up a set of Gingerbread House Cutters from Lakeland, thinking that it would be a good project to make nearer to Christmas. Turns out that was a good decision as the set is now no longer available on their website, but plenty of other companies make them (You can also find templates online to print out and cut around like this one from Delicious magazine). It's a bit of an undertaking but if you've got the time it's a really fun way to spend a rainy December afternoon.

I baked the biscuit shapes one evening using the Simple Gingerbread House recipe on BBC Good Food, which pretty much consists of melted butter, golden syrup and brown sugar mixed with flour and ground ginger. A good tip for cutting out the shapes is to roll the dough out on a sheet of greaseproof or baking paper so that you can transfer it straight to a baking sheet, as the larger pieces can stretch and break if you try to pick them up and move them. My only tweak to the shapes was to cut out some heart shaped windows on each side of the house. They were baked for around 10 minutes until the gingerbread was firm but not too browned, then cooled for 10 minutes on the tray until they're firm enough to move to a cooling rack. I always use Lakeland My Kitchen Baking Sheets for biscuits and cookies - even without the baking paper nothing ever sticks to them and they bake really nice and evenly.

Once all of the pieces are baked and cooled the real fun begins - constructing the house! Royal icing makes the best 'cement' as it dries hard enough to hold the structure together, but the raw egg whites in the traditional recipe freak me out a bit so I used some Royal Icing Sugar I found in Sainsbury's. It has dried egg whites already included so all you have to do is add water and beat for a while with an electric mixer - easy peasy! I stuck the four sides to the cake board first and left them propped up with glasses for about half an hour and while they were drying 'tiled' the roof pieces with white chocolate buttons. I really wanted to use those chocolate buttons that are covered in hundreds and thousands (Are they called Jazzies? Or have I made that up?) but I couldn't find them at the supermarket. The trickiest bit was sticking the roof pieces on, they were sliding around all over the place and I ended up sitting holding them in place until the icing started to dry a bit.

When it comes to decorating a gingerbread house less is NEVER more. I used 3 bags of white chocolate buttons, 4 tubes of Smarties, 1 large bag of midget gems and 2 packets of Jelly Tots... well it is Christmas after all. And this is the finished product after a light dusting of icing sugar snow:

One of the things I love about gingerbread houses is that no two will ever look the same, and you can completely let your imagination run wild. I'm pretty pleased with my creation but Mini candy canes would be a great addition to the garden, and maybe even some Lindt chocolate reindeer on the roof! If I'm being totally honest this gingerbread recipe isn't the best I've tried, it could do with a lot more ginger and maybe some other spices, but it is very crisp when baked which is useful for building houses. Now we just need to decide if we're going to eat it or keep it as a decoration!