Wednesday, 23 December 2015

I love to hear the different ways that people celebrate Christmas. Families and friends around the world develop traditions in their own way, and my family is no different. I'm winding down the blog today for Christmas so I thought it would be fun to share some of the things we do and why we do them and I'd love to hear what you do over the festive season, so please do share in the comments!

Christmas Eve
Christmas actually starts for us on December 24th, which is when we have our traditional turkey dinner. It's a bit of a funny story, really! Until I was 14 years old, we lived abroad or far away from family, so we always spent Christmas day the four of us - my parents, my brother and me. We opened our stockings from Father Christmas at the crack of dawn, ate my mum's Christmas lunch and then when lunch and washing up was finally over, we could finally open our presents! Traditions become so ingrained and I've never been the most flexible this was the way I knew and I knew I liked it. The first year we moved back to London, we spent Christmas Day at my uncle and his family's house. It was lovely, of course, but to me it was just too different - we had to rush through our presents in the morning to make it over to their house, and while my uncle's Christmas lunch is SO good, it wasn't the same as my mum's. So our second year in London we ate my mum's Christmas lunch at home, the four of us, and then in the evening we went to my uncle's and had his meal for dinner! Well...that didn't work so well either - 2 Christmas dinners in one day is kind of the best thing and the worst thing at the same time. And so we came to settle on the arrangement we have been doing for the past 10 years; we cook our Christmas meal and eat as a family of four on Christmas Eve.

Now that my brother and I are older, it's become a lovely tradition to cook with my mum and influence the recipes. My mum and I are quite partial to Jamie Oliver and have found his turkey recipe to be one of the best, as well as his crispy roast potatoes! There's also a ham simmered in coke, sausages, red cabbage, sprouts sautéed with bacon, roasted vegetables, bread sauce and gravy and it's heaven.

Christmas Morning
Father Christmas still visits my brother and me (though this might be the last year, as he's getting married in 2016!), but we're not usually up at the crack of dawn anymore! We open our stockings and then head downstairs - usually to steal some Christmas Eve leftovers from the fridge! The nice thing about having our Christmas meal the day before is that no one has to get up early to start peeling potatoes or sorting out the turkey, and we can enjoy our morning properly. We usually pop open a bottle of Champagne and then sit down together for smoked salmon, scrambled eggs (always this recipe), toast, marmalade and tea. Then it's on to presents! We like to draw out the giving of presents, a bit like a ceremony. We've never been ones to tear all the paper off and be done in 10 minutes and while it might be a bit dorky, we sit around the tree and give our presents out one-by-one. We usually give lots of little presents so it can go on for some hours! By the time we're finished, it's time for a cup of tea and a slice of Christmas cake.

Christmas Evening
In the evening we go to my uncle's house. It's funny how Christmas traditions can be so different from family to family; my uncle, aunt and cousins usually spend much of the day recovering from Christmas Eve spent at the pub and my uncle is often found back down in the pub for a bit of hair of the dog on Christmas morning. It must be his recipe for success though, as he cooks a beautiful Christmas dinner! And of course we follow all of the traditions, finishing with a Christmas pudding, doused with brandy, that never quite seems to set alight properly.

After Christmas
The days after Christmas are some of the best; all the expectations are over and we can relax, enjoy our new gifts and make the best leftovers sandwiches. Either on Boxing Day or the day after, our family friends came over and for the past 4 years I've been making Jamie Oliver's sweet leek and turkey pie (can you see a pattern forming here?) and his Christmas pudding bombe...without fail! Our two families have a longstanding competitive streak and this is when the board games finally come out and things can get a little rowdy!

Do you celebrate Christmas? What are your traditions and the reasons behind them?

As this is my last post before Christmas, I hope you all have a wonderful holiday! I have one post scheduled between Christmas and New Year - a round-up of my favourite posts of 2015, which is perfect for reading in your pjs with a plate of leftovers balanced on your belly - and then I'll be back in 2016! xx


Monday, 21 December 2015
I'm such a natural homebody so December can be quite a shock to the system! Suddenly my diary is stacked up with night after night of plans - this year includes multiple Christmas work parties, dinners, drinks and even a hen-do! I'm planning a very very quiet January, but for now, here are some of the things that have been making me feel festive this year.

This year's Harrods Christmas windows are split horizontally in two, with these little mice vignettes appearing as a cross section 'under the floor' of the main window display. They are just at the eye level of small children and they are stuffed with mischievous mice and a charming collection of treasures; you could miss them if you were looking in a hurry, but there were so many children with their faces pressed up against the glass, which was just the sweetest thing.

Afternoon tea at The Palm Court for my friend's hen do - such a treat and a lovely way to catch up before we all wind down for the holidays.

Tea tasting with JING Tea started the festive season off with a lovely (calm!) evening of tea tasting. I've got some ideas up my sleeve for my brother's Chinese tea ceremony as part of his wedding in May.

Our Christmas tree; every year I say it's better and better, but I think this year's really is the best. Just the right proportions, featuring all my favourites from the Christmas Box. Happy Christmas lovely ones!


Friday, 18 December 2015

Of course it's what's inside that counts, but I always like to make a special effort with the wrapping paper too. I usually go down the brown paper route - especially when there's a stash of beautiful velvet ribbons at hand (Tiger is the best. You can't go wrong with £1 a roll!)

This year, I picked out a few rolls of coloured wrapping paper as well - again, from Tiger. Although there are three different types of paper, the gold brings everything together and I think that harlequin turquoise makes for such a great contrast. Hooray for non-Christmas Christmassy colours!

These hand-painted gift tags were just about all the crafting I could muster this year. It was actually really relaxing to get my paper and paints out and spend an evening designing different baubles and despite the minimal effort, I actually think they turned out rather sweet! At the last minute, I also did a few red toadstools inspired by my favourite vintage decorations - they go perfectly with the acorn paper!

Luckily I have a small family so Christmas wrapping doesn't take too long. I like to make an evening of it - I had a glass of mulled wine and Graham Norton on in the background while I wrapped up my presents. This might be a dorky thing to suggest, but wouldn't it be fun to have a wrapping party! You could pool resources with friends, put on some Christmas music and get wrapping. Or, the easiest alternative, just go somewhere where they do it for you - last year I blogged about Kiehl's who offer hands down the best gift wrapping service.


Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Cauliflower cheese is one of my all-time favourite comfort foods. It's a very British dish - big chunks of cauliflower in a creamy sauce, topped with rich, melted cheese - and is often served as a side to a traditional roast dinner, but my family and I have always eaten it as the main event with a sprinkling of crunchy breadcrumbs.

For the past few years I have been using the BBC Good Food version; the roux sauce follows a super-easy all-in-one method that takes all the faff out of it. I usually half the base ingredients and stir through butter-browned onions and sometimes mustard.

To make four(ish) portions
1 large cauliflower
250ml milk
2tbsp plain flour
25g butter
1 onion, finely sliced

Pull apart the cauliflower florets and boil in water until fork-tender. Heat some butter in a pan and cook the onions on a low heat. Meanwhile, put the milk, butter and flour in a saucepan on a medium-heat and whisk continuously until the sauce comes to a near-boil and starts to thicken (about 5 minutes or so).

If you want to make a normal cauliflower cheese, put the cauliflower and onions in an ovenproof dish and stir through the sauce. Cover with grated cheddar and bake for about 20 minutes at 220C, or until the cheese has melted and turned golden brown.

Now you've got the basics, here are two new ways to eat it:

Cauliflower cheese on toast makes a quick supper into a proper hearty meal with one of your five-a-day. Follow the directions as above, pile onto a slice of toast, scatter liberally with cheese and place under the grill for about 5 minutes, or until the cheese starts to bubble and brown.

If you still want traditional cauliflower cheese, but with a twist, chipotle cauliflower cheese is awesome. Wahaca have added it as a side dish on their winter menu and after tasting it a few weeks ago I knew I had to recreate it. It turns out it's ridiculously easy as you can buy the restaurant's own range of sauces in most large supermarkets. Simply follow the directions for regular cauliflower cheese and then stir through a few tablespoons of smoky chipotle sauce. If you can't wait to eat it, you can pop it under the grill instead of baking to melt the cheese. Serve with a big green salad (if you're that way inclined!) and dig in.


Monday, 14 December 2015

I was on such a crafting kick this time last year, but this year I'm not so into it. I've done quite a lot of my Christmas shopping (don't hate me!), but I still love to include a few handmade items, so I thought I would do a little round-up of some craft ideas you might have missed if you haven't been reading my blog for very long - sorry about the repeat for anyone who's stuck around a while ;)

Last year I went on one of Quill London's calligraphy workshops with Imogen Owen and they kindly offered to create a free printable for 91 Magazine. This was one of my favourite features I put together for 91 Magazine because I loved the calligraphy class but it turns out I wasn't quite as talented as I thought I was going to be. Siobhan shot the lovely image above for the feature, which has templates to create a card and a gift tag.

I also got crafty with the printable myself, using the calligraphy motif to create little gift 'medals' and transform everyday paper bags into something a little bit more personal; the super-easy tutorial can be found here.

I actually created these little gift boxes for Valentine's day - and still have them piled up beside my bed because I couldn't bear to give them away! - and they would be perfect for gifting tiny treasures this Christmas too. Little children would love them (they could be gifts from Father Christmas' elves!) and they're perfect to wrapping up stocking fillers or little jewellery gifts.

And last but not least, clay ornaments. These are the easiest (not to mention cheapest!) DIY ever and result in a really thoughtful gift. I sent out plain brown paper Christmas cards with tiny personalised ornaments last year and they went down a treat. This year, I'm using the same tutorial to make larger discs as candle covers to stop my favourite candles getting dusty. On a side note, this DIY also informed my Christmas present from my parents; a new lens for my camera. Up until then, I had been using the kit lens it came with, but I borrowed my friend's lens to take these photos and knew I had to have one! It made a marked difference to my photos and has allowed me to take all of the food photos I'm not so proud of!


Friday, 11 December 2015

The sad reality of blogging about food and working full-time in the winter is that sometimes you're not 100% happy with a post. While I don't think these photos are bad per say, they came out so dark I had to play with the exposure so much, resulting in the cake looking much more orange than it actually is. Nobody did anything wrong; the recipe turned out beautifully but somewhere between taking the cake out of the oven and setting up, the light went and that was that.

If I had the luxury of doing this full-time there would be no issue: the cake would be saved for tomorrow and I would get my perfect pictures. But I have a job and this cake, made on a Sunday, would have had to wait to be sliced and eaten until the following weekend, which is a waste. Yes, I could make it again, but delicious as it is, I don't feel like eating the same cake again just yet! The thing is, I work hard on my blog. I sacrifice weekends, healthy eating, seeing friends to get it to look the way I want it to and of course it's paid off - I've been tagged in people's posts who've made my recipes and I'm working with some amazing brands - so as sad as I am about these pictures of a beautiful cake that I couldn't make look quite as beautiful as it actually was, it's fine because this blog is my passion and my hobby, I love it and the cake is darn delicious, so go make it, okay? (Rant over).

I used Jamie Oliver's polenta cake recipe with a few tasty additions and subtractions.

For the cake
200g butter at room temperature
200g demerara sugar
3 large free-range eggs
200g ground almonds
100g course polenta
Zest of an orange
1tsp baking powder

For the topping
6 plums, halved and stoned
1 stick cinnamon
5 cloves
50ml rum
2tsp demerara sugar
Handful toasted flaked almonds
Juice of an orange

Preheat the oven to 160C. Beat together the sugar and butter until creamy and then beat in add in the eggs one-by-one and stir to combine. In a separate bowl, combine the ground almonds, polenta, orange zest and baking powder. Pour the mixture into a tin lined with greaseproof paper.

In a pan, heat the rum with 1tsp sugar, the cinnamon stick and the cloves. Place the plums flesh side down in the pan and heat until bubbling and the rum has mostly disappeared (about 5 - 10 mins on a medium heat). Press into the top of the cake and sprinkle with the almonds.

Bake for 40 - 50 minutes, or until a skewer comes out clean from the centre. If the cake starts to brown too much, cover it with foil for the last 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and poke holes in the top using a fork or skewer. Mix together the orange juice and the remaining teaspoon of sugar and pour over the cake.

p.s. the lack of light in my kitchen also explains why most of my food photos are actually taken on a bed...I don't eat all my meals on cosy blankets, btw!


Wednesday, 9 December 2015

I read a lot of magazines, but Red is the only one I religiously save back issues of. In fact, I didn't realise it, but I've been reading it for about 4 years and it has slowly become my weekend morning ritual or my bedtime read when just one article is all I'm after. I know this is starting to sound like a bit of a gush-fest, but their Christmas issues are one of my favourite ways to get into the festive mood so I thought I would share 6 Christmas ideas to steal from the archives.

2013: Host A Mince Pie Night
I'm really bad at having friends over - I always feel like my flat isn't really set up for entertaining and there's too much washing up to do afterwards (a dishwasher for Christmas, please?). This year I still want to have friends over, but with less of the hassle, so I'm hosting a mince pie night! A few bowls of crisps, a plate of cheese and antipasti and lovely hot mince pies - I'm going the easy route with puff pastry and shop-bought mincemeat with little stars on top and a dusting of icing sugar.

2011: Fake A Wreath
I love the look of a wreath, but fresh ones can be expensive. I love this cluster of decorations - the big honeycomb bell adds texture and volume while silver faux foliage is a chic way to do tinsel - and think a few of these would look sweet dotted around the house. If we had a staircase, there would definitely be one of these hanging off the bottom of the banisters.

2011: Make A Ham
Okay, this isn't an idea per say but I am obsessed with ham and this marmalade-glazed one looks amazing. We have a friend moving in with us for a few months - when he lived with us before I introduced him to little cocktail sausages cooked in marmalade and mustard and he gave me a huge jar of marmalade, so now I know just what to do with it! Get a nice big one; everyone appreciates leftover ham.

2012: Christmas Doesn't Have To Be Red And Green
I loved this Italian-inspired spread from a few years ago. I love the cosiness of an English Christmas with open fires and lots of green foliage, but the image above shows that warmer climes can still be festive. You don't have to sacrifice your interiors style for traditional Christmas colours!

2014: You Can't Go Wrong With A Jamie Oliver Christmas
Jamie Oliver's team must test and test and test again all his recipes because they always seem to turn out just right. A few years ago, Jamie's Best Ever Christmas was on TV and that year my mum and I used his turkey method - butter and herbs under the skin - his crispy roast potato method and his sweet leek and turkey pie recipe and Christmas bombe for Boxing Day. I also use his turkey carving method and can vouch for it not just for Christmas turkey, but your average Sunday roast chicken too.

2015: No Room For A Tree?
If you have room for a trolley full of presents, you probably have room for a Christmas tree, but not everyone has one and I think this stack of presents looks very inviting indeed! My family like lots of little presents to open because we draw the whole process out, opening one each at a time and we can be at it for hours. This would also be a really cool idea for an advent calendar; I've seen lots of DIY advent calendar ideas pop up this year...imagine rummaging through this pile to find each day!

HUMBLE PIE: lemon cake w/ rose water + blackberries

Friday, 4 December 2015
If you've been reading my blog for a while you'll have seen this post already as I shared the recipe back when I auditioned for the show. It was actually the dish I brought to my first audition; I've always known it was special so I had no qualms repeating it when I got through. Not only is this lemon cake my dad's favourite, but I used to make it day in, day out for 3 years when I worked in a tearoom. Yes, I could make it with my eyes closed, but that doesn't make it any less special. I stuck to my guns and made something simple but perfect and it paid off; this is my winning recipe and Marco Pierre White himself said 'always keep it simple'.

Cake, cream and jelly are one of life's best combinations (basically trifle, sans custards) and this makes a really lovely, properly British pud that will definitely impress people with a bit of extra technique. It's deceptively easy to pull together and everything can be made in advance, so it's perfect for Sunday lunch or an afternoon tea party.

To make the lemon cake:
3 eggs (150g)
150g self-raising flour
150g softened butter
150g caster sugar

To make the lemon drizzle:

Zest and juice of 2 lemons
50 - 100g caster sugar

The formula for a simple sponge goes: equal quantities of eggs, flour, butter and sugar. Three medium eggs should weigh about 150g, but if they weigh more or less, adjust your other ingredients to match; for example, if your eggs weigh 170g, then use 170g each of self-raising flour, butter and sugar.

Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Mix together the butter and sugar until smooth, then beat the eggs and add to the mixing bowl along with the flour and the grated zest of one lemon. Beat together until you have a creamy batter. Be careful not to over beat, though, or you'll knock out all the air and be left with a dense sponge. If you have a couple of lumps, they are likely to be butter and should melt when cooked anyway.

To make these little individual cakes, I used empty baked bean tins (I saw the idea here ages ago) that I thoroughly cleaned and removed the paper from the outside. To be honest, I don't recommend it - I cut myself pretty badly twice. On the show, they gave me a set of fondant pudding moulds and these worked much better and I liked the shape better too. 

Fill the tins about halfway full and then bake in the oven for 10 - 20 minutes or until a skewer poked through the centre comes out clean. If you are using a loaf tin instead, the cake will need around 30 - 35 minutes.

While the cakes are still in the tin, mix together the juice of two lemons with the caster sugar. It really depends how sweet you want the cake; if you are serving it with something like ice cream, you might want the syrup to be a bit more tart. Poke holes in the top of the cake with a skewer,  making sure to go all the way through to the bottom, and pour over the syrup. 

For the rose water cream:
300ml whipping cream

A few drops of rose water

Rose water is a lovely fresh flavour, but be careful not to overdo it as things can get a little overpowering. For the cream, simply add a few drops of rose water and whisk until thick and fluffy. It's best to go slowly with the rose water - you can always add more but you won't be able to subdue the flavour unless you have some extra cream to dilute it. You can fold in some crushed blackberries for a little bit of colour if you like, but they might alter the texture a little bit as the juice is quite acidic.

For the jellied elderflower blackberries:
75ml elderflower cordial mixed with 325ml of water
1 sachet of gelatine

The sachet of gelatine that I used is intended to set 570ml of liquid, but to make the jellies stand on their own, you need to use less liquid than the packet suggests for a more sturdy consistency.

Pour a few tablespoons of boiling water into a glass bowl and add the gelatine to the bowl (always add the gelatine second, never pour boiling water straight onto it). Gently stir until the gelatine dissolves. If the gelatine clumps, place the bowl on top of a saucepan of simmering water, add some of the elderflower liquid and stir until the lumps disappear, but never allow the mixture to boil. Then add the warm, gelatine-infused liquid to the rest of your elderflower mixture.

To create mini jellies, fill an ice cube tray about half full with the mixture and place in the fridge to chill. After about half an hour, test the jelly with your finger and if it has set, or at least started to set, you can press a blackberry into it and then top up with more elderflower. You can also use this jelly in a mould or small bowl and it will set in the fridge in a few hours. To turn out the jellies, put half an inch of warm water in a baking tray and then place the ice cube tray in the pan for a few minutes so that the jelly softens slightly. Then using the the end of a teaspoon, gently push out the jellies and they should pop out in shape. Don't worry if some break - it just gives a more rustic finish ;)

The last round of the competition, when I went head to head with the other finalist, Carine, was really tough. Up until that point we were kind of on equal footing - you can find my Vietnamese beef recipe here - and our puddings both turned out well without any major disasters. It really was such a mind game in that final round, with the producers egging us on to criticise each other's desserts. It still hasn't quite sunk in that a Michelin-starred chef said that my cake was perfectly cooked; at that point, the producers were behind the camera telling us 'who was Marco talking about? Tell her you think yours was perfectly cooked!' In my heart I knew I'd nailed the sponge, but it would have been heart-wrenching to say mine was perfect and then not have won! 

In the end, neither of us eliminated ourselves. I think it was just too close and we both felt that the risk of eliminating yourself and then finding out that Marco Pierre White would have sent the other person home would have been so much worse than missing out on the cash you'd get for bowing out. I was also confident in my special little pudding and now, every time I eat lemon drizzle I will think of this amazing experience.