Saturday, 22 December 2012

Bûche de Nöel

Christmas has crept up behind me and kicked me in the baubles and now I find I don’t have the time to bake the usual British classics we all know and love. Just because I’ve left it too late to make and mature a Christmas pudding and cake, it doesn’t mean this year’s table can’t sparkle with the spirit of Christmas cheer.

2012 is the year I’ve decided to go continental, with a Bûche de Nöel taking centre stage. This will, undoubtedly, come as a blessed relief to my nephews, who are yet to warm to the boozy, rich and hearty indulgence of my Victorian Christmas pudding. Once the brandy flame puffs out, all interest is entirely lost and they’re asking if there’s any mint choc chip ice cream instead.

With any luck, this year’s more child-friendly chocolate and chestnut offering will keep their minds off the freezer contents, by diverting their attention to my meringue mushrooms instead.  Mint choc chip might well be delicious, especially when stirred for long enough to make ice cream soup, but festive it ain’t.

Don’t be scared of rolling up the log, if it looks less than neat, you can always mask mistakes by being more liberal with the chocolate ganache coating than originally planned. It’s one of those jobs where a gung-ho attitude will fare you better than any amount of measured caution.

The mushrooms are ever so slightly fiddly, but are cute enough to be worth the effort. And come on, it is Christmas after all, so some boats ought to be pushed out, even if you have left them in the dock until the eleventh hour. As well as the meringue mushrooms, I adorned my Yule log with some washed and dried clippings from the Christmas tree, but sprigs of fresh rosemary will look equally enticing.

Meringue mushrooms

It’s best, though not essential, to make these the night before so they have time to properly dry out.

1 large egg whites
A pinch of salt
2 heaped tbsp. caster sugar
25g dark chocolate
A dusting of cocoa

Preheat the oven to 100°C/ 220°F and line a baking tray with parchment or silicone paper

Whisk the egg whites with the salt until stiff before gradually adding the sugar, a little at a time, whisking between each addition. You should be left with a stiff, glossy and pipeable meringue.

Spoon the meringue into a piping bag fitted with a plain, large nozzle and pipe the mushroom caps – little rounds of about 2-inches wide. Next, pipe the mushroom stalks, by piping little upright peaks. Bake for 1 hour, turn off the oven and leave to cool and dry out – preferably overnight.

Melt the chocolate and paint the underside of each cap with it, using a pastry brush. Glue the stalks on to the caps with a little more melted chocolate (you can, if you need to, create a cone-shaped hole in the caps with a small knife, to make attaching the stalks easier). Leave the mushrooms to set upside down, before lightly dusting their tops with cocoa for a more naturalistic look.

Buche de Noel

Line a 9” x 13” roulade tray with baking parchment and preheat the oven to 180°C (160°C fan)/350°F/Gas Mark 4

200g dark chocolate, melted and cooled
175g caster sugar
6 large eggs, separated
A pinch of salt
40g chestnut flour

Whisk the egg whites and salt until stiff. Using the same beaters,but in a separate bowl, whisk the yolks and sugar until pale, thick and creamy. Whisk the chocolate and chestnut flour into the sugar and yolks before vigorously beating in a couple of tbsp. of whipped egg whites, to slacken the mixture. Gently fold in the remaining whites with a large metal spoon, being careful not to lose any of the air. Pour the batter into your prepared tin and bake for about 20 minutes or until an inserted skewer comes out clean.

Chestnut cream

300ml double/whipping cream
250g tin of sweet chestnut purée

Simply whip the cream and mix in the chestnut purée. Upturn your chocolate and chestnut roulade on to a sheet of baking parchment and spread over a generous layer of the chestnut cream. Roll up the cake, using the parchment to help you. Transfer your roll, seam side down, on to a plate or board and pop in the fridge until ready to ice.

Ganache topping

200g dark chocolate
200ml double cream
75g light muscovado sugar

I like to blitz my chocolate in the food processor for speed, but you can chop you chocolate with a knife if you prefer. Transfer the chopped chocolate to a heatproof bowl. Place the sugar and cream in a saucepan and stir over a gentle heat until the sugar has melted. Increase the heat and bring to the boil before taking off the heat and leaving to stand for 1 minute. Pour the hot cream over the chopped chocolate and mix with a rubber spatula until smooth, thick and glossy. Leave to cool slightly before spreading it all over the roulade. To make it look more like a log, scratch the surface of the ganache with a knife or fork for a bark-y effect. Pop it back in the fridge to set.

Decorate your serving plate/board, if you wish (I painted mine with textured melted chocolate and added a few sprigs of Christmas tree) before carefully transferring the cake into the centre. It’s easiest to employ a large palette knife or fish slice to do this. Drift the whole board with sifted icing sugar and/ or edible snowflake lustre.

Place your meringue mushrooms in clusters on and around your Yule log and serve. Please remember that fresh cream can only be left out of the fridge for up to 4 hours. If you want to leave your Bûche de Nöel out for longer, I would suggest swapping the cream for chestnut buttercream (75g soft, unsalted butter, 150g sifted icing sugar and a few generous spoonfuls of chestnut purée whisked together until soft, light and fluffy).

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Ho ho ho, it's gluten free we go...

Gluten-free needn’t mean fun-free this Christmas. There’s no reason to miss out on any of the festive classics just because wheat’s off your menu. Washed down with a steaming mug of mulled wine, these light and crumbly damson and cobnut mince pies have Christmas all wrapped up.

If you’re catering for gluten dodgers over the holidays, you’ll be pleased to discover that these are simple and quick to make and just as delicious as their wheaty counterparts. My gluten-scoffing friend couldn’t tell the difference when she came over for three one the other day, but you can always stick to wheat with my recipe here, if you’d prefer.

This sweet gluten-free shortcrust is perfect for baking with children, as it has the added bonus of being impossible to overwork. However many times your little darlings scrunch up and re-roll this dough, you’ll never have to suffer another tough or chewy pie again – that’s a little extra Christmas present from me to you, right there.

I made my own damson and cobnut mincemeat last year and still have plenty left, but you’ll have a job finding damsons in December. Try swapping the damsons for plums and the cobnuts for hazelnuts, for delicious and more easily sourced alternatives. If making mincemeat’s not at the top of your festive agenda, by all means buy some in. Just remember, before serving it to any coeliac friends, to check the ingredients. Most mincemeat is made with suet, which has been stored dusted in wheat flour, but you can buy gluten-free vegetarian suet here.

Damson and cobnut mincemeat

425ml apple juice or cider
425g light muscovado sugar
425g cooking apples, peeled, cored and chopped
1 tsp ground mixed spice
1tsp ground cinnamon
Pinch ground cloves
425g currants
425g raisins
300g damsons (or plums), stoned
200g fresh cobnuts roughly chopped (you can use hazelnuts instead)
Grated zest and juice of 1 large orange
250ml brandy

Put the apple and sugar into a large pan and heat gently until the sugar has completely dissolved. Stir in the rest of the ingredients, minus the brandy. Slowly bring to the boil, stirring all the time. Lower the heat, partially cover the pan and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove from the heat and leave to become completely cold. Stir in the brandy or rum and spoon into cold, sterilised jars. Cover with waxed discs and tight fitting lids.

Gluten-free sweet shortcrust 

Makes 12 deep filled pies with lids.

300g rice flour
200g unsalted butter
100g caster sugar
The finely grated zest of 1 orange (optional)
1 egg, beaten
A splash of milk if needed

It’s easiest to blitz the flour, butter and sugar in a food processor until it resembles coarse breadcrumbs, before pulsing in the remaining ingredients. You want the dough to be soft but not sticky. If you’re doing it by hand, simply rub the flour and fat together before adding the sugar and forking through the egg before kneading it together gently to form a ball. Wrap the pastry in cling film and chill in the fridge for about 15 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 180°C (160°C fan) and butter a 12 hole muffin tray.

Roll out the pastry between two sheets of cling film - this is the best way I’ve found for rolling all shortcrust (including wheat), as it doesn’t require any extra flour and keeps the pastry from falling apart. Cut out rounds and line the tray. You can easily patch up any cracks or holes with extra pastry. Fill the pies with mincemeat and top with pastry lids lightly brushed with a little milk. Prick the tops with a fork and bake for 20 minutes.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Christmas is coming... and I haven't done a thing about it yet.

What the hell's happened? Christmas was ages away and all of a sudden it's crept up behind me and bitten a chunk out of my arse. "I can't believe people are already going on about Christmas," I scoffed, while rolling my eyes, "It gets earlier every year!"

Even though the streets of London are shining beneath the glow of fairy lights and Nat King Cole's been crooning through the supermarket speakers since November, I'm only just getting into gear with my Christmas prep. I haven't sent a single Christmas card, our tree still hasn't been bought (we were supposed to get a potted one this year, but failed. Again.) and we still haven't decided whose parents to spend it with or if we're going to bugger off to Iceland and see the northern lights instead. I haven't even got round to making a Christmas cake or pudding, because I've been too busy making everyone else's. This morning, festive cheer turned into festive panic, when I wrote a "to do" list of things to complete before the big day. I've since calmed down and scaled down my plans.

For 2012, I'm going continental. I love traditional, Christmas pudding, set on fire and served with lashings of brandy butter. I love a deliciously rich and boozy Victorian fruitcake, complete with a royal icing snow scene. But this year, I'll be serving Bûche de Noël, panettone bread and butter pudding and lebkuchen. No fuss, no months of maturation and no children moaning about rum-soaked currants looking like rabbit poo.

Although my festive table will be looking more European than usual this year, I can't leave traditional British fare out in the cold entirely. Gluten free mince pies are a must for my gluten-dodging boyfriend. He hasn't had a single one this year so far, which means it's definitely time to crack open the Kilner of damson and cobnut mince meat I made last year, in more organised times.

I'll be posting recipes this week, so keep checking back for festive inspiration for the short of time. What alternative sweet treats will you be serving up for Christmas this year?