The simple act of giving can get a little lost amid the tinsel and strewn ribbon of Christmas, and when time is in short supply there is something extra special about receiving the hand- and homemade.
The kitchen comes into its own in the winter. The warmth of the home's heart carries the fragrance of rosemary and bay, simmering in stews overnight or baked into bread to be spread thickly with butter. As the evenings grow long, biscuit cutters will be unearthed from their bottom drawer muddle, tiny silver balls and candy diamonds strewn with icing sugar across the table.
When my restaurant Polpetto opened, I remember my mum driving up to London, her car bristling with swathes of elderflower she'd gathered for me to make an elderflower sorbet. It was very gratefully received as I couldn't lay my hands on enough of it within London, and the sorbet has held a place in my affections as it is accompanied by the image of her abundant floral arrival. With the summer gone and the cold darkness of winter around us, elderflower is not so much on my mind as the comforting flavour and fragrance of ginger, cooked sugar and tough wintery herbs. In short, anything that provides an excuse to be drawn to the home's culinary heart and will hopefully elicit the same sense of happiness as a car-load of elderflower.
These make simple and gratifying gifts, full of warmth and generosity to keep the winter nights festive.
Dipped into warm tea, crumbled over vanilla ice-cream, or served with poached quince and cream, these make the perfect gifts, huddled in clear bags tied with red ribbon or arranged in antique tins. They give a particularly satisfying snap when the crackled surface is broken. The warmth of the ginger makes them a perfectly delectable winter treat.
50g unsalted butter, at room temperature
110g self-raising flour
1 heaped tsp ground ginger
1tsp bicarbonate of soda
40g caster sugar
1 pinch of salt
1tbsp golden syrup
½tsp lemon juice
100g demerara sugar
Preheat the oven to 190C and prepare a baking sheet, preferably with a silicone mat.
Melt the butter slowly over a low heat. Sift the flour, ground ginger and bicarbonate of soda together into a mixing bowl and add the caster sugar. With your fingertips, lightly rub in the melted butter till you have a fine crumble.
Spoon the syrup, honey and lemon into the crumbly butter mixture and mix together until you have a firm paste. It will come together with a small knead, so don't panic and add any liquid.
Weigh the paste into 7g pieces and roll them between your hands into small marbles. Toss them through the demerara sugar, place them on the baking sheet on a silicone mat, leaving plenty of room between them because they spread out quite a bit.
Flatten them very slightly, being careful not to push too hard. Bake for 5 minutes until the surface is cracked and they have spread out flat.
Cool them on the baking tray for 10 minutes or so, then transfer them to a wire rack to finish cooling.
Once completely cooled, place the biscuits into airtight jars for storage and wrapping.
Bay leaf caramel
Makes 250ml, about two small jars
It's always very tempting to taste caramel while it is glossy and lava-like.
Resist its molten deliciousness until it is warm and pours smooth and thick over speckled vanilla ice-cream.
Once bottled, it will keep in the fridge through Christmas in a metal screw-top jar ready to herald the New Year.
5 fresh bay leaves, scrunched
75g caster sugar
75g muscovado sugar
5g flaky sea salt
150g double cream
Wash and dry two kilner jars and place them in a warm oven.
Place the butter in a saucepan over a low heat with the bruised bay leaves to infuse; remove from the heat once fragmented.
Sieve both sugars together into a heavy-bottomed pan and set on a medium heat. The sugar will melt and slowly bubble, turning a deep auburn; keep an eye to make sure it doesn't burn but resist the temptation to stir it and swirl the pan instead.
Remove the pan from the heat and very carefully stir in the cream, salt, and the butter and bay leaves until the mixture is smooth and golden.
Remove the jars from the oven and pour the hot caramel up to the shoulder of each and firmly screw on the lid.
Once completely cool, place the jars in the fridge.
Quince jelly for quince fizz
There is little more satisfying than the winter sunshine glinting off jars filled with the rich hues of homemade jams and jellies. Cooked quince holds an amber rose colour with a warm, sweet honey scent. The quince's naturally high level of pectin has kept it a popular choice for making jam or 'fruit cheese' such as membrillo. Pick through to find the downiest quinces you can as they tend to be the best.
4 approx 1.5kg quince, cleaned but not peeled
4 sprigs of lemon thyme
Roughly chop the quince but don't peel or core them. Place the quince pieces and lemon thyme in a large pan and cover them with water. Bring the pan to the boil for a few minutes, then reduce the heat and slowly simmer until the quinces are soft – about 1 hour.
Gently pour the contents of the pan into a jelly bag or muslin cloth > knotted over a bowl to drip overnight.
In the morning discard the fruit, or make something such as membrillo from it. Weigh the juice, pouring it into a clean, heavy-bottomed pan. Boil it rapidly for 10 minutes to help preserve the beautiful, pinkish hue.
Remove from the heat and for every 600g of juice that you weighed, add 450g sugar, stirring over a low heat until it has all dissolved.
Place a plate in the fridge for testing the set of the jelly. In the meantime, sterilise your preserving jars by running them on a hot dishwasher cycle.
Once all the sugar has dissolved, turn the heat up and boil the mixture for 10-12 minutes, skimming off any scum, until it reaches the setting point of 104.5C on a sugar thermometer. Spoon a little of the hot mixture on to a chilled saucer and after a few minutes push it with your finger; if it wrinkles, it's ready.
Pour straight into your warm, sterilised jars and seal them ready for Christmas.
For each quince fizz, stir 2 teaspoons of quince jelly with 1 teaspoon of lemon juice and 1 tablespoon of your favourite sparkling wine or Champagne. Once the jelly has dissolved a little, top the glasses up so as not to disturb the bubbles.
Rosemary and sea salt popcorn
Makes 4 bowls for the Boxing Day matinée
Popcorn is very simple to make well, providing only that you stay to watch it all happen. Using rosemary gives the popcorn a spring in its step; a fragrant savoury note that makes it all the more moreish. Seasoning is very personal, so add as much as you wish. If you add salt to the oil in the pan before popping, when the popcorn pops, the salt will be well distributed throughout.
40g sunflower oil
6 fresh rosemary sprigs
150g popping corn kernels
2tsp flaky sea salt
Crush the rosemary sprigs in a pestle and mortar. Melt the butter with the rosemary in a small pan on a low heat and cook for a few minutes until the rosemary is fragrant; then set aside.
Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed pan that has a snug-fitting lid. Tip the popcorn kernels into a large bowl and stir through the salt.
Now add the coated kernels to the hot oil and place the lid on. Keep the heat high until the kernels start popping in earnest, gently shake the pan by moving it back and forth over the heat, holding the lid slightly ajar to let the steam from the popcorn release, making the popcorn drier and crisper. Be very careful of the steam at this point.
Reduce the heat, and keep shaking the pan every now and then to ensure it doesn't burn on the bottom. Once the popping slows to seconds between pops and the pan is filled with popcorn, remove the lid and stir through the warm butter and rosemary. Check the seasoning is to taste and cool the popcorn. Once cool, it's ready to bag up or store in air-tight containers until ready to eat.
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