Sunday, 18 December 2011

T'is the season

My hands are fucked. They seem to go through phases of fragility. At the moment I only need to look at a shard of chicken bone for them to split open in a variety of annoying and painful nooks, hand-picked by judge Sod for their spiteful unpreparedness to heal efficiently. It’s very rare that I cut myself with a knife, but the combination of heat, pig’s blood, grease, water, chicken guts and cleaning products is a trifle dilapidating for my dermis.

I’m supposed to have got out. Working in a restaurant in December is hard work. It might involve special menus designed to keep things simple when catering for large numbers – but not necessarily just one. We used to do two (Bistro and Restaurant) alongside the à la carte and lunch menu. And specials. Plus the odd special menu for some fussy buggers in the Private Dining Room. You might do 100 for lunch (instead of a normal 30-50), 80 for pre-theatre, plus 70 for dinner and 40 in the PDR. This from maybe 15 different menu items, just from my pastry section. It’s a race from the 1st to the 24th*, and then you start preparing for a bumper banquet on New Year’s Eve.
Anyway, I don’t do that anymore. I work a day job. Except that in the evenings I’m making English pastries for a Christmas market. This might not be a wise move. So far though, the French have been decidedly un-bowled-over by the charms of mince pies, parkin and gingerbread men, so I might yet cope...

I’m pretty pleased with my mince pies - something I’ve always disliked. But, perhaps because of having laboriously made the mince meat myself, surprisingly, I find them a delight! The recipe comes from Delia by way of Gary Rhodes; two cooks who annoy me intensely, but who are both undoubtedly very good at cooking and writing recipes.

Here I reproduce the recipe as found in Gary Rhodes’ New British Classics in which he reproduces an entry from old Delia’s original (and best) tome The Complete Cookery Course:

Mince Meat

-          450g/1lb Apples, skin left on, grated. (Bramley, for preference, in which case you need only chop them up a bit)

-          225g/8oz Suet, shredded or grated

-          350g/12oz raisins (I substituted part of this  for a few prunes and dates, cos i like them – do what you want)

-          225g/8oz sultanas

-          225g/8oz currants

-          225g/8oz mixed peel  (from 1 lemon, 2 oranges, 1 grapefruit, candied)

-          350g/12oz muscovado sugar

-          Juice and grated zest of 2 oranges and 2 lemons

-          50g/2oz whole almonds, sliced up by hand for a varied texture

-          4tsp ground mixed spice

-          ½tsp ground cinnamon

-          A generous grating of nutmeg

-          6tbsp brandy (don’t waste the good stuff!)

Put all the ingredients except the brandy in a large bowl or pan, mix and leave somewhere cool overnight or a bit longer. Then put in a low oven (120°) for 3 hours. The suet will render and it will look like it’s swimming in fat. Well, it is swimming in fat, but this is what we need. Give it a mix and leave to cool. Then add the brandy. Seal in sterilised jam jars with wax discs and all that business and it will keep forever, although a  week to mature is plenty.

I made my own candied peel, and I used fresh veal suet (the white, chalky fat surrounding the kidneys) – atora not being an option in French supermarchés. The candied peel is, frankly, a ball-ache**, but it is extremely satisfying, will taste much better and it looks really cool!

Sweet Pastry

Will easily make 40 mince pies. It freezes well if you don’t want that many. Use a food processor for best results.

-          250g unsalted butter, at room temperature

-          150g icing sugar, sifted

-          2 whole eggs

-          500g/1lb1½oz Plain Flour

-          0-2tbsp cold water

Cream the butter and sugar until really very soft. Add eggs, mix. Add flour, pulse. Add a little water if necessary and finish by hand. Stop mixing/kneading as soon as the pastry comes together. Don’t be tempted to play with it so as to mix it more than the minimum. This is important so as to get a nice crumbly texture. The mix will be very sticky, this is fine. Divide it into 2 or 3 and wrap tightly in cling film. For it to be workable, the pastry needs to rest in the fridge overnight or longer (it’ll keep in the fridge for a week, no problem).

Making Mince Pies
Roll out a portion of pastry pretty thin. Cut out some suitable-sized circles. You now have a choice:

-          either press these into a Yorkshire pudding tray, fill with a blob of mince meat and top with another circle of pastry or with your choice of Christmassy shape;

-           if you have no moulds, cut out another circle the same size, put a small blob of mince meat in the middle of the first, dab with milk and press the second circle gently on top, carefully sealing around the edges. Like making raviolis. Snip an air hole with a pair of scissors.

For both methods, leave to rest in the fridge for ten minutes or longer, brush with milk, sprinkle liberally with sugar, and bake in a preheated oven at 170-180° until looking nice and golden! (Probably about 15 mins, but it’ll depend on your oven and how thick you rolled the pastry – keep an eye on them!)

Leave to cool a bit, and then munch! With jolly festive cheer! Yum! ...hic...

* Restaurateurs who open on Christmas day are evil.
** Slice off your citrus peel in pretty petal shapes, put it in a pan of cold water and bring to the boil. Refresh in cold water. Repeat this FIVE (!) times and then add to a syrup made from equal parts water and sugar. Now reduce at a simmer till you have a thick gloopy syrup. Leave to cool in the syrup. It takes ages but the result is cool...


  1. I have always failed to find suet in France.

    Last time I made a steak & kidney pud I went to the butcher and asked him for a big piece of beef fat. I explained to him why I wanted it and he refused to believe it. He gave me the beef fat free.

    I stuck the fat in the deep freeze, and when it was frozen sold, grated it. I used the grated fat in place of suet.

    Worked a treat.

    (Great blog by the way)

  2. aaah! freezing it sounds like a good idea! we don't have a freezer though... haha! i got my suet for free too. the butcher just throws it out otherwise. i think, although it's not as convenient as atora, the taste is even better! great for roasties too!
    mmmmmmmm.... steak and kiney pudding... [slather...]


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