Mark Hix: Fire in your belly

Dark nights, the glow of a bonfire, the crack of fireworks - it's Guy Fawkes weekend, and Mark Hix celebrates with some winter warmers.
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Here in London - and it's probably true in most cities around the UK - not that many people have enough garden space to hold their own Bonfire Night celebrations. They tend to take the kids to the local, communal burning of the Guy, as the firework displays are somewhat more elaborate than they could produce in the average back garden. I, however, am going to be sat in front of our newly built outdoor brick oven with a few friends, where I am going to roast a suckling pig and salt bake a nice, big bass. It may sound a little dull, but the wood-burning oven project started some time ago and now that it's finished, I'm going to make proper use of it.

It began when I bought a secondhand book on building your own brick oven for our esteemed photographer Jason Lowe. He got straight to work on his oven at his house in Tuscany. I dilly-dallied but finally asked my friend Seng to build it. It wasn't as straightforward as I thought it would be (what building project is?), but five weeks later we now have a new outdoor oven, complete with cupboards, new flagstones, lighting - all you need for an alternative Bonfire Night, so thank you Seng!

Anyway back to bonfires and what to eat. There's nothing that's traditionally linked to this festive evening; the burning of the Guy is not really one of those food-related occasions like, say, Burns Night (pardon the pun).

Whether or not you're doing a bonfire at home, here are a few snacks that are easy enough to make and take with you. And they are specially designed to stay intact and hot by the time you get to the celebrations.

Rum and raisin custard tarts

Makes 10-12 mini tarts

These are designed mostly for the grown-ups, although you can make them without the rum by replacing the booze with rum essence. For ages, domestic cooks had to put up with non-butter puff pastry for home cooking, but now you can get proper butter puff pastry from Jus-Rol, frozen from most supermarkets. You could also make one large tart if you want.

250-300g frozen butter puff pastry, rolled to 1/4 cm thick
40g raisins, soaked in 100ml rum overnight

for the custard

250ml single cream
4 egg yolks
50g caster sugar
1&1/2tsp cornflour

Cut diameter circles out of the pastry which are slightly larger than your muffin tin moulds, pushing them into the corners before trimming the tops neatly with a sharp knife. Fill them with discs of greaseproof paper or foil, add baking beans to anchor the paper and rest for 30 minutes in the fridge.

Preheat the oven to 180C/gas mark 5. Bake the tart cases for 10-15 minutes until they begin to colour, then remove from the oven and leave to cool for a few minutes.

Meanwhile put the cream into a saucepan and bring to the boil. In a bowl, mix the egg yolks, sugar and cornflour together, then pour the cream on to the egg mixture, add the raisins and rum and mix well with a whisk. Return to the pan and cook gently over a low heat for a few minutes, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until the custard thickens. Don't let it boil. Remove from the heat, and give it a mix with a whisk.

Pour the custard mix into the tart cases, ensuring the raisins are evenly distributed, and bake for 10-12 minutes until set. Leave to cool a little and remove from the moulds by loosening with a small knife. Serve warm or cold.

Spiced autumn squash, chickpea and chorizo soup

Serves 4-6

Pumpkins and squashes make great soups, either kept chunky like this or blended. There will be lots of squashes and pumpkins to choose from at this time of year, but my favourite for texture and flavour is the butternut. Some squashes and pumpkins look great from the outside but often disappoint when cooked, and are better left as window displays.

Pop this soup into a Thermos to keep warm.

1 medium-sized butternut squash, weighing about 700-800g, peeled, halved and seeded, flesh cut into rough 1cm chunks
1 large onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 small chilli, seeded and finely chopped
200g cooking chorizo, halved and cut into rough 1cm chunks
2tbsp olive oil
2 litres vegetable or chicken stock
1 x 400g can of chickpeas drained and washed
2tbsp chopped parsley

Gently cook the onion, chilli and chorizo in the olive oil with a lid on for 4-5 minutes, stirring every so often. Add the squash and stock, bring to the boil, season to taste and simmer for 30 minutes. Add the chickpeas and continue to simmer for a further 15 minutes. Blend a ladleful of the soup in a liquidiser until smooth, add back to the pot with the parsley and simmer for another couple of minutes before serving.

Bedfordshire Clanger

This would have been a rather heavy steamed suet pudding back in the old days, but nowadays it's likely to be found in a slightly lighter baked incarnation. It isn't really seen much these days, unlike its cousin the Cornish pasty - which is available everywhere from Land's End to John O'Groats. The word "clanger" probably comes from the Northants dialect word "clang", meaning to eat voraciously, and this working man's pie - sweet at one end and savoury at the other - was made by women for their menfolk to take to the fields while they were working.

Rather like the Cornish pasty, the filling would vary according to what was in season and what the available funds would stretch to - it would sometimes consist of just vegetables and leftover bacon trimmings.

2tbsp vegetable oil
2 onions, finely chopped
500g rump or rib steak, trimmed of fat and chopped into 5mm pieces
250ml beef stock boiled and reduced to 1-2tbsp (or half good-quality beef stock cube dissolved in that amount of hot water) and allowed to cool
1tbsp Worcestershire sauce
2-3 ripe pears, peeled, cored and roughly chopped

For the pastry

300g-350g self raising flour
1tsp salt
85g shredded beef suet
60g butter, chilled and coarsely grated
1 medium egg, beaten

First make the meaty bit of the filling: heat half the vegetable oil in a large heavy-based frying pan and gently cook the onions for 2-3 minutes until soft. Remove from the pan and put to one side. Heat the pan again over a high heat, add the rest of the vegetable oil, season and add the chopped meat. Cook over a high heat for 3-4 minutes, turning, until evenly browned. Remove the meat from the pan and mix with the onions.

Add the stock to the pan together with the Worcestershire sauce, and boil until you have only 2-3 tablespoons left, then add the meat and onions back to the pan and cook over a high heat until the sauce has reduced until it is just coating the meat. Remove from the heat and leave to cool.

Preheat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Meanwhile, make the pastry: mix the flour, salt, suet and grated butter with your fingers into a fine breadcrumb-like consistency. Mix in about 150-160ml water and the beaten egg to form a smooth dough and knead it for a minute. Roll the pastry on a floured table to about 1/2cm thick and cut into rectangles about 12-14cm long by 8cm wide, then brush the edge of the long end with beaten egg. Retain any of the pastry cut-offs.

Next, spoon the meat filling in one half and the pear into the other, using a little piece of moulded spare pastry to separate the two in the centre. Roll the pastry over into a large sausage roll shape, place on a lightly greased or non-stick baking tray and brush with the beaten egg. You can mark one end at this stage so you don't get mixed up between sweet and savoury. Bake for 45 minutes, or until the pastry is golden.

Southern fried chicken

Serves 4-6

This is a surefire Bonfire Night winner for the kids - and grown-ups love it, too. You could joint a whole chicken or use good quality chicken drumsticks, which are much easier to eat while you're standing round and chatting.

10-12 chicken drumsticks
1tbsp salt
2tbsp dried herbes de provence
1tbsp garlic powder
1tbsp cayenne pepper
2 beaten eggs mixed with 300ml milk
450g plain flour
Vegetable oil for frying

Mix the salt, herbs and spices together and rub onto the pieces of chicken and leave at room temperature for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 180C/gas mark 5. Then pre-heat about 8cm of oil to 140-150C in a large thick-bottomed saucepan or electric deep fat fryer. Dip the chicken pieces one by one in the egg mixture, then roll in the flour, shaking off any excess. Fry the pieces of chicken in two batches for about 6-7 minutes or until lightly coloured, then drain on some kitchen paper and finish them in the oven on a baking tray lined with greaseproof paper for 15-20 minutes.

Mulled wine

Makes 4-6 glasses

Mulled wine is one of those drinks that you can adapt to suit your taste. On Bonfire Night you may well feel the need to add a little extra spice, but it's up to you. There's no harm in adding a little sherry, rum or port, and it might help to make more room in your drinks cupboard.

1 bottle red wine
A glass of port or sherry, or both
The peel of 1 orange
1 bay leaf
12 cloves
6 juniper berries
1 stick of cinnamon
A few blades of mace

Put all of the ingredients into a pan and gently bring to a simmer, turn the heat to as low as it will go and leave to infuse for 5 minutes. You can tie the flavourings into a little muslin bag in advance or, if loose, strain and keep warm.

Mark Hix's new book, 'British Regional Food', is published by Quadrille, priced £25. To order the book at a special price, including free p& p, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798897