I'm beginning to feel that Christmas is just around the corner and I, for one, am excited. I love the food around this time of year. The beautiful clementines that are available are sweet and cool-tasting and if I'm not careful I can eat more than my share of mince pies.
At the restaurant it is dark by 4.30pm and the fairy lights are switched on. Last week we spent a day decorating the room, with large glass baubles suspended from the ceiling, pots of narcissi and paperwhites and groaning bowls of clementines and walnuts. The Christmas trees have gone up and are laden with all things beautiful.
Life feels like it is swathed in a dream-like glow. The mornings are freezing and all around looks full of promise. It's time to overindulge and prepare for the holidays. If you haven't yet started, here are some recipes to get you into the festive mood. '
I enjoy eating ice-creams and sorbets just as much in the winter as I do during the hotter weather. As the icicles slip down the back of your throat, the outside world seems somehow warmer.
20 ripe clementines
150g/5oz caster sugar
1 unwaxed lemon, pips removed but skin left on, chopped into little pieces
Squeeze the juice from the clementines, then put the sugar and lemon pieces into a food processor and pulse until the lemon has formed a rough purée. Pour in the clementine juice, pulse a couple of more times then pour into an ice-cream maker and follow the manufacturer's instructions.
Dates, walnuts and mascarpone
These are essentially little sweetmeats; perfect for this time of year. The intensely rich, caramel flavour of the dates sits beautifully against the nutty crunch of young wet walnuts.
8 good-quality plump sweet dates
8 tsp mascarpone cheese
8 young walnuts
Using a small, sharp knife, slice the dates down the middle in a horizontal movement. Carefully remove the seeds and spoon in a teaspoon of mascarpone. Smooth over the surface a little and gently slip in the walnut. Palate-cleansing mint tea is the perfect accompaniment.
These are perfect served with brandy butter.
Makes 12, with filling for a second batch
For the mincemeat
375g/12oz seedless raisins
500g/1lb mixed peel
4 apples, cored
60g/21/2oz glacé cherries
125g/4oz blanched almonds
500g/1lb soft brown sugar
2 tsp mixed spice
Grated zest and juice of one lemon
Grated zest of one orange
1 tsp grated nutmeg
125g/4oz melted butter
1/2 cup of Armagnac
For the pastry
185g/61/2oz unsalted butter
115g/4oz of sugar
575g/20oz plain flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 egg, beaten
Finely chop the raisins, mixed peel, apples, cherries and almonds. Add the sultanas and currants and stir in the brown sugar, spices, lemon juice and zest, orange zest, nutmeg, butter and brandy. Spoon into a large sterilised jar, cover and chill. Stir every day for a week – the extra mincemeat can be kept for months in the fridge.
To make the pies, heat the oven to 180C/ 350F/Gas4. Combine all the ingredients (except the beaten egg) into a ball of dough, chill briefly and then roll out thinly. Cut into circles to fit small pastry tins. Cut the same number of smaller circles to sit on top of the pies. Line the pastry tins with the larger circles and spoon a heaped teaspoon of mincemeat into each. Top each of the filled pastry cases with the smaller round of pastry and glaze with the beaten egg. Make a small slit in each pastry top, then bake for 20-25 minutes until golden. Cool for a few minutes in the tin before turning out. Cool completely and store in an airtight box. '
It isn't too late to make a Christmas pudding but it is necessary to get a move on; they are best if the flavours have time to marry – so why not make two, as they keep for a year or so?
Makes one pudding
250g/8oz raisins, chopped
60g/21/2oz candied peel
4 tbsp Armagnac
250g/8oz unsalted butter
Grated rind of one lemon and one orange
375g/12oz soft brown sugar
4 eggs, lightly beaten
125g/4oz finely chopped almonds
1/2 tsp each of cinnamon, ginger, salt and bicarbonate of soda
250g/8oz plain flour
2 cups fresh breadcrumbs
Place the raisins, sultanas, currants and peel in a bowl and steep in the Armagnac overnight. The following day, cream the butter along with the lemon and orange rind, add the sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Add the beaten eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Stir in the macerated fruit. Mix well, then stir through the chopped almonds, spices and salt. Sift in the flour and bicarbonate of soda. Finally, add the breadcrumbs. Form into a ball and wrap in pudding cloth (either unbleached calico or layers of muslin) and secure tightly at the top with string.
Steam over a saucepan of boiling water for six hours. Add more water if necessary. Remove from the steamer and allow to cool completely. Cover with fresh cloth and wrap in foil.
On Christmas Day, place the securely wrapped pudding into a saucepan of boiling water and cook for two-and-a-half hours. Serve piping hot alongside the brandy butter (see below).
Or, if you prefer, use a pudding basin – in which case, spoon the mixture into the basin and seal with parchment paper and a pudding cloth before steaming.
One of the best things about this time of year is the eating of brandy butter – nothing in the world tastes better than when this boozy, soft butter hits a steaming hot Christmas pudding. It's one treat that I think should be reserved only for this time of year – otherwise the feel of its absolute indulgence might somehow be diminished.
Enough for one fairly small Christmas pudding
175g/6oz unsalted butter
150g/5oz icing sugar
2 tbsp Armagnac
Dice the butter into small pieces and allow to soften slightly, then place in a food processor along with the icing sugar. Blitz until the butter is very smooth and slightly lightened in colour (or beat by hand with a wooden spoon). Then add the brandy, purée once more, then spoon into a bowl and place in the fridge until ready to use.