‘tis the season to bake a christmas cake

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About a week ago I was walking through town and passed a shop that was already decked out for Christmas. It was still October, but it got me thinking about how fast this year has gone by, and how quickly the next few weeks will disappear and it really will be Christmas!

I have not given a thought to gifts, Christmas Day plans or written a letter to Santa, but I had put some thought into the Christmas Cake. Last week, on our way back from an overseas trip I made sure I stocked up on booze in the Duty Free store. Purely for the Christmas Cake. Honest!

My mother has always made Christmas Cakes for family and friends but I never liked it as a child and consequently, never gave it another chance until a couple of years ago. Now, I love it. All that heavy fruit. And alcohol… well it is the season to be jolly!

The ingredient list for this cake is long and it’s not exactly cheap to make if you don’t already have most of the ingredients (especially the alcohol) but the result is a dense, moist, rich cake totally unlike its dry counterparts for sale in supermarkets. It makes a large 10” square cake (about 80 – 100 servings as a small piece is sufficient) which will last for weeks or months afterwards when stored in a cool place. Which is a good thing because there is no way in the world one of these cakes will disappear in one sitting!

Also note, traditional fruit cakes such as this one are best made a few weeks in advance as they require at least 2-4 weeksbefore cutting to mature and develop that rich, decadent, christmassy flavour. So get cracking!

Now I would like to introduce the cast of characters.

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I did say there were a lot of ingredients…

In a big pot, mix the following ingredients and bring to the boil, stirring now and then.

250 g butter
1.2 kg mixed fruit
400 g sultanas
1.5 cup water
1.5 cup brown sugar
1 tbsp golden syrup
1 dessertspoon glycerine

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Once the mixture has come to the boil, remove from the heat and leave to cool.

 

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When cool(ish), add …
2 tbsp brandy
½ cup sherry
or you can just make it all brandy (like I did)!

Leave until cold (overnight if necessary), and then add the dry ingredients.

500 g flour
¼ tsp nutmeg
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp mixed spice
2 tsp cinnamon

Stir well, then add the wet ingredients.

1 tsp lemon essence
1 tsp rum essence
1 tsp vanilla essence
¼ tsp almond essence
5 well beaten eggs
1 cup thick custard

 

Decorate with cherries and almonds before baking if cake will be un-iced. Bake in a double lined 10” tin for half an hour at 180 C, then 3.5 hours at 120 C.

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Within half an hour of placing the cake in the oven your house will be filled with the most delicious aroma. Enjoy!

As soon as cake comes out of the oven, liberally sprinkle rum over the top. I used about 1/4 cup. I can guarantee, if you thought the aroma was great while it was cooking, you will be in heaven after pouring over the alcohol.

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Now we come to the most difficult part of the whole process – wait at least 2 weeks before cutting.

Just a few points about some of the ingredients. Firstly the mixed fruit. You can buy fruit mix especially for fruit cakes in the supermarket. It looks like this…

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It is a mixture of sultanas, mixed peel, and cherries but is heavier on the sultanas than the other fruits. As we are also adding another 400g of sultanas anyway, if you want to vary the fruit mix a bit with say, more mixed peel, cranberries or dried apricots, then put those in first and make up the balance of the 1200g with the standard fruit mix.

Then there is this.

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Glycerine. It’s not used a lot these days and although it is used as a baking ingredient (it sweetens, keeps the cake moist and also has preservative properties), some supermarkets do not stock it in the baking aisle. Due to its medicinal properties, it may be found in the first aid/medicines aisle. If you have trouble finding it in the supermarket, visit your friendly pharmacist. Even unfriendly pharmacists may stock it!

As far as the alcohol content is concerned, there are a few different variations you can use. I just used brandy to add to the pot after boiling the first lot of ingredients, but you could use sherry, or a mixture of the two. I actually made a second cake and used Cointreau in the mixture and sprinkled brandy over the cake when it came out of the oven.

For the custard, I used ready made custard from the supermarket chilled foods section, but feel free to make your own if you wish.

Simple! Fruit cakes are more time consuming to make than lighter cakes, but Christmas only happens once a year, although there is no law (as far as I know) about eating it at any other time of the year if you choose!

Enjoy!

(And thanks to my awesome Mum for letting me share this recipe.)

in the pink

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Today I made a cake. You may not think that is unusual for me given past posts on this ‘ole blog of mine, but in recent months I have not ventured into the baking zone very often. Today though, I had the urge to create something pretty. And tasty. There was also the realisation that my mother’s 70th birthday is looming and I needed to test a couple of recipes before I inflict them on her party guests!

Also, Mr INTJ’s daughter turns 16 on my mother’s birthday and I have been informed cake will be required for that occasion too. So it’s time to get back in the kitchen.

Today’s efforts have produced this little beauty. Isn’t it gorgeous?

 

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It’s a double layer vanilla cake, sandwiched with Lemon & Passionfruit Patisserie Filling from Barkers and generously coated in Swiss Meringue Buttercream.

 

And then I added some sprinkles.

 

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Because sprinkles make me happy.

And I may, or may not, have sprinkled a little pink sugar on it as well.

It’s almost too pretty to cut!

 

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I said almost!

 

Now, down to the nitty-gritty. Although I have a lot of recipes, I still needed to find a good all-rounder birthday cake that wasn’t chocolate so I decided to try this one from Smitten Kitchen. Now, if you look at recipes from USA they often list ‘cake flour’ as one of the ingredients. I’ve looked in every supermarket I have been to for cake flour and never found it. But not to worry. Joy the Baker comes to the rescue and explains how to make it yourself here.

The Lemon and Passionfruit filling was easy – it’s a store bought one from Barkers that I have been eyeing up for months. When I went to get some yesterday it was on special (yay!) but unfortunately it appears Barkers may be deleting it from their range as the links on their website no longer work. I hope I am wrong as it is delicious and so much easier than making passionfruit curd from scratch.

And the Swiss Meringue Buttercream… ahhhh. It’s soft, and light, and fluffy, and not overly sweet like regular buttercream. I had been avoiding trying to make it for years thinking it was doomed to fail – I had read about people giving up because it just turned into a curdled mess. But apparently the secret it to whip it. Whip it good! And it comes back together beautifully. Mine seemed to just work without the curdled stage. Thank goodness for my Kenwood mixer! Anyway, the recipe is here – again from Smitten Kitchen.

Now that the taste testing has been completed, I can confirm today’s efforts have been a success and I will be making this again. And again.

And again.

dulce de leche

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dulce de leche

Dulce de leche is a sweet caramel which is popular in South America. Literally translated it means “candy of milk” and is prepared by slowly heating and stirring sweetened milk until much of the milk liquid evaporates and the mixture caramelizes. This can be a long process and we all have better things to do than stand at the stove stirring constantly for an hour or more.

But there is an easier way, and you only need one ingredient – sweetened condensed milk.

Actually, there is another ingredient. And that is time. But fear not, you do not have to stand for hours over a hot stove! You can get on with other things while the magic happens.

As this is a slow process I tend to make a few cans at a time. That way, any that are not required immediately can just go back into the pantry until they are required. Or until they are discovered by marauding teenagers.

It’s as easy as this. Place as many cans of sweetened condensed milk as will fit in the base of a large saucepan. Cover with hot water and bring to the boil, then reduce heat so the water is simmering slowly.

Leave for 2.5 to 3 hours, checking regularly to ensure the cans remain completely covered with water as allowing the pot to boil dry could result in the cans overheating and exploding. This has not happened to me but I imagine it would not be a good thing!

The length of time left simmering determines how runny the end product will be. For a runny caramel sauce, one and a half to two hours should be sufficient. For a very thick spread, up to 4 hours. When the desired time has elapsed, take the pot off the heat, carefully pour the water off, dry the cans and place them in secure storage away from marauding teenagers.

It can be used anywhere a sweet caramel sauce is required. Warmed up and poured over ice cream, as the caramel in banoffie pie, as a filling in caramel muffins or just eaten off a spoon… apparently. Not that I would know anything about such behaviour!

pumpkin and bacon soup

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Soup is the epitome of winter comfort food. Quick and easy to make, delicious and nutritious, and versatile…there is always something in the fridge and pantry that can be turned into a flavoursome, soul warming comfort food. While the beauty of soup is the ability to use leftovers and items in the refrigerator and pantry that may otherwise spoil, when you are setting out to make a memorable dish, head to the supermarket and purchase fresh ingredients.

Soup makes a wonderful addition to any meal, or can be a meal in itself with some fresh crusty bread or toast. Once you have made it once or twice, you’ll realise it isn’t really that hard to make. So what are you waiting for?

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Last weekend, with the recent onset of cooler weather, and only half an hour before the arrival of self-invited lunch guests, we took to the kitchen and conjured up a pot of the most delicious pumpkin soup I have ever tasted!

And it went kinda like this…

Ingredients

1 largish Pumpkin – we used Butternut.
1 large Onion
50 grams butter
1 large handful diced bacon pieces
2 cm piece of fresh Ginger, grated
1 litre vegetable stock
Boiling water
Cream for garnish
Salt & Pepper

Sauté the diced onion and bacon with the butter in a large saucepan or stock pot. When the onion is soft, add the cubed pumpkin and grated ginger. Sauté for another 5 minutes then add the vegetable stock one cup at a time. Depending on how thick you like your soup, add 2-4 cups boiling water, then simmer for 15-20 minutes.

Once pumpkin is very soft, use a stick mixer to blend the soup. If you don’t have a stick mixer, you can use a blender or food processor to blend half or all of the mixture – again depending on whether you prefer smooth slightly chunky soup.

Season to taste.

Serve in warm bowls with a swirl of cream. Add some cracked pepper, croutons or crumbled, crisp, streaky bacon – just in case you didn’t have enough bacon in the soup (you can NEVER have enough bacon!).

The secret ingredient here… well, not such a secret now because I told you… is the ginger. I was unsure when Mr INTJ added it, but it added the ‘WOW’ factor to this soup without overpowering it, as ginger can sometimes do. If you are unsure, just add half the amount of ginger suggested, but don’t skip it. It just wont be the same.

the persimmon tree

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As you would expect of a (nearly) 100 year old house, ours has a history. The last 20 years of that history involves being owned by a government agency and used as a half-way house for the reintegration of psychiatric patients back into the community. During that period, the once award winning gardens have been neglected and in some parts, now resemble a jungle.

A chainsaw, some hard work and many trips to the dump will help to rectify that!

But there are a few specimens that will stay to become the basis of the new garden design as we attempt to bring it back to its former glory. And this is one of them.

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The colours right now are glorious but judging by the rate they are falling, within a week or so the tree will be stripped bare of all those leaves.

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We will also be stripping it of these before the birds decimate the crop.

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They are Persimmon. It’s an old fashioned fruit that you don’t see much of these days. I had not tried one myself until a couple of days ago, but oh my!  They are beautiful. Beneath the very smooth skin is a soft flesh with a very delicate, sweet flavour. Apparently they are very good for making jellies but I have seen a few baking recipes for them too.

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Within a couple of weeks we will be inundated with them. Persimmon cake anyone?

If you know of any recipes for persimmon, please share them in the comments.

 

ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

So, my last blog post was August 25th 2011. It’s now May 2012. That’s almost 9 months! I know. It’s unforgivable. But there is a reason!

It’s because I have been extremely busy I am very lazy.

And there have also been a few changes going on. A lot can happen in 9 months you know? No, I have not had a baby! Heaven forbid! Not that I don’t like babies, I do! It’s just that in the last 10 years I have discovered the joys of being able to sleep for more than 2 hours at a stretch and I sorta like that, you know?

I’m blithering aren’t I?

Anyway… when I last blogged about Brookies I was a single mother of three lanky teenage boys, living in Hamilton and studying full-time towards a business degree. Now I am none of those things… and it’s all to do with a man. (At this point I could tell you how he swept me off my feet, I could quote soppy song lyrics and break into prose worthy of a Mills and Boon ‘novel’, but I will spare you the details. For now anyway.)

So here I am in 2012, living in a huge 100 year old house in Napier with Mr INTJ.

I kinda like him.

He really does bring out my romantic streak. For instance, on Valentines Day, I posted this picture on his Facebook wall.

Valentine

 

And my boys…well they are no longer under the same roof as me. In fact two of them aren’t even in the same country as me which makes it a little awkward when I bake enough goodies to feed an entire suburb of hollow-legged teenage boys for a week and there is nobody around to eat it all.

Except me. And Mr INTJ.

I’ve had to take up running. I know!!! It was either that, or never step foot in the kitchen again, and we know that will never happen!

So maybe that goes some way toward explaining the relative drought of drivel recipes on this blog in recent months. With winter almost upon us, I will be spending more time in the kitchen and oversharing my culinary experiences on the interweb again.

You’re welcome!

brookies

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Sometimes when I am browsing recipes online I see one that just shouts out “MAKE ME NOW!”. And this is one of them. One look at the photo had me drooling and it has occupied my thoughts for a couple of weeks now. Brookies – a brownie base with a cookie topping. The best of both worlds!

So this morning I had the choice of cleaning the downstairs bathroom (the one my boys use), or baking. It was not a hard decision to make. Any decision between housework and something else will usually not go in favour of housework. Unless the alternative is an assignment for university … then all of a sudden the housework becomes really important!

A quick check of the pantry (and the new hiding place where I have to stash chocolate chips so they don’t get eaten by chocolate chip monsters – aka teenage boys) revealed I had all the ingredients. My freshly cleaned oven was also begging to be used, so out came the mixer.

I found the original recipe on Tasty Kitchen but you can also see it on the contributors own blog, Shugary Sweets. The only change I made to the recipe was to use real butter instead of shortening. It’s not so common to use shortening here in New Zealand. We make the best butter in the world so why compromise? Apart from that the recipe is unchanged.

So here we go!

Brownie Layer Ingredients

1-½ cup Sugar
¾ cups Flour
¾ cups Unsweetened Cocoa Powder
3 whole Eggs
¾ cups Melted Butter
1 cup Chocolate Chips.Morsels

For the Cookie Layer

¾ cups Butter
1-¼ cup Brown Sugar
1 Tablespoon Vanilla Extract
2 Tablespoons Milk
1 whole Egg
1-¾ cup Flour
1 teaspoon Salt
¾ teaspoons Baking Soda
½ teaspoons Cinnamon
1-½ cup Chocolate Chips/Morsels

Preheat oven to 375F or 180C.

Line a 13 x 9 inch baking pan with baking paper. Use baking paper – not greaseproof – there is a difference!

Mix all the brownie layer ingredients until just combined and spread over the base of the lined pan.

Place softened butter and brown sugar in the mixer and beat until smooth and creamy. Add the vanilla, egg and milk.

Mix in the combined dry ingredients and finally the chocolate chips.  Drop spoonfuls over the brownie base and smooth over.

It should then look something like this.

Brookie before baking

©Kate Watson 2011

Bake for 25-30 minutes while you lick the beaters your children lick the spoons and beaters and you put a load of washing on. Or not…

Now the original recipe said to leave this to cool completely, but seriously folks, that ain’t ever gonna happen in my house! I have known entire (double) batches of cookies to disappear before they are fully cooled down. That is one of the pitfalls of having teenage boys. Their legs are hollow and take a lot of filling. On the upside though … hmmm I am struggling to think of an upside to teenage boys …

Anyway. Back to the brookies. This is what they look like when they come out of the oven…

Cooked Brookies

©Kate Watson 2011

And this is what they look like cut up on a plate…

©Kate Watson 2011

And finally, this is what the plate looked like 10 seconds after the previous photo was taken…

Brookies empty plate

©Kate Watson 2011

Kids… who’d have ‘em?

Seriously though, this recipe lived up to expectation. It was very quick, very easy and most importantly,very tasty! Try it yourself this weekend and let me know what you think in the comments.

make your own vanilla extract

I’m willing to bet if you are reading this, that you love baking. And chances are you have vanilla extract in your pantry. Am I right?

Of course I am. Unless you have run out.

So is it real vanilla extract, or the imitation stuff in your pantry? I’ll wait here while you check…

Not all vanilla essence/extract is created equal. You certainly get what you pay for. While many home pantries contain imitation vanilla essence, this is not a true vanilla and the flavours often come from wood byproducts and chemicals. I know, right!

Pure Vanilla extract however, is made pure and simply from Vanilla beans, and alcohol. There is no sugar added and it can last forever, aging and improving in flavour. The difference in taste is remarkable. Once you try it, you will not want go back to the imitation product. But it is expensive ($10 for 50mls) and for the average home baker, cost is a factor. Will little Sophie and Jason notice the difference in their lunchbox goodies? Probably not. But considering you can make pure vanilla extract yourself, and much cheaper than it costs in the shops, why would you ever go back to the cheap nasty product?

You only need two ingredients.

  • High proof booze … either Bourbon or Vodka, although I have heard you can also use Rum. Each one would produce a different final flavour, but all will be superior in Vanilla taste than commercially produced imitation vanilla essence.
  • Vanilla beans/pods. Yes. They are expensive. But we are talking quality here! Use three of these per 250 mls of alcohol. Split them open along the length of the pod starting about an inch from the top.
  • Actually there is a third ingredient. Time. Two to three months of it actually. Just give it a shake every week or so while it hibernates in a cool, dark place.
All you do is plonk 3 vanilla pods per 250 mls of alcohol in a jar or bottle and leave it for a couple of months in a cool dark place. Not that difficult really. It’s up to you whether you make a small quantity or make a litre at a time plonking 12 pods straight into the one litre bottle straight from the liquor store (like I do).  Remember… it wont go off. It actually improves with age so it makes sense to make it in larger quantities especially if you bake a lot.
Now is the time to make some so you have plenty on hand for your Christmas baking. It also makes a lovely gift. Remember… it’s only 150 days til Christmas!
You’re welcome ;)

topping that pizza

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Photo from inmagine

Now that I have given you the recipe for the perfect pizza dough, what do you put on top? Well the answer is limited only by your imagination. Maybe that is the reason pizza is such a popular food… there are toppings for everyone’s taste buds.

You might be surprised to know that in Italy, the home of pizza, the toppings are very simple unlike the myriad on offer in the American style chains like Pizza Hut and Dominos. The Pizza Margherita for instance has only tomato sauce, chopped basil leaves and mozzerella cheese. Simple, but delicious – especially with a lovely, soft crust.

Photo from inmagine

Taking a look at the websites for takeaway pizza will give you ideas for how to recreate the Supreme or Meatlovers you already know, but there are so many other options to explore. You can let your imagination run wild. Some kind of sauce, and cheese, will feature on virtually every pizza.

For the sauce you don’t need to limit yourself  to tomato paste. Try crushed tomatoes, BBQ sauce or a pre-made pasta sauce. Stretch your imagination. How about the little bit of leftover butter chicken or alfredo sauce in the jar in the fridge? I have a selection of sauces from Wild Appetite that I am dying to try, including a Melanesian Mango sauce that I think would be amazing on a chicken pizza (I will let you know!).

When it comes to cheese you really need the good stuff to get the taste and stringyness that is so vital for a good pizza. Plain cheddar, even “Tasty” just doesn’t cut it I’m afraid. A mixture of parmesan and mozzerella will give you the flavour and texture you need. But don’t forget all the other options, either on their own or in combination with the parmesan and mozzerella.   Ricotta or cream cheese dolloped or spread over the base. How about blue cheese crumbled over beef. Traditional feta tastes so good on vegetarian pizzas or try creamy feta with bacon and prawns. And then of course some camembert or brie on a chicken pizza.

Photo from inmagine

Look to your favourite flavour combinations and re-create them on a pizza but keep it simple 2-4 toppings in addition to the sauce and cheese is usually plenty. Too many ingredients can confuse the palate, and also overload the base making it soggy.

So now it’s your turn. Share with us in the comments, what are your favourite pizza toppings?

best ever pizza dough

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Pizza. The perfect food…according to my kids. Whenever I suggest pizza for dinner there are never any arguments (except for who is going to do the dishes, but hey, you can’t win them all!). We have always preferred homemade pizza but until recently would buy pre-made bases to cover with our own toppings. And then I discovered the joys of making my own dough. I love flouring my hands and kneading the dough. I find it tactile and relaxing. It is definitely more time consuming, but the result is worth it!

You could also make this in a stand mixer, however you need to make sure it is a robust one such as a Kenwood or KitchenAid as many of the smaller cheaper mixers just do not have the wattage to handle such a heavy mix.

Ingredients

½ cup warm water
1 sachet (8g) Edmonds instant dry yeast
1 ¾ cups water, at room temperature
3 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
5 cups (22 oz.) bread flour, plus more for dusting
2 tsp. salt
olive oil or non-stick cooking spray for greasing the bowl

Measure the warm water a large (3-4 cup) measuring jug. Sprinkle in the yeast. After about 5 minutes the yeast would have dissolved and swollen. At this point add the room temperature water then oil and stir to combine.

Place the flour and salt in a large bowl. Combine the dry ingredients and then slowly add the liquid and mix until it forms a cohesive mass. At this point turn the dough out onto a floured bench and knead with floured hands for approximately 10 minutes until it is smooth and elastic. You may need to add flour a few times as the dough can get sticky.

Form the dough into a ball, put it in a bowl that has been oiled with the extra olive oil. Cover with plastic wrap and a clean tea towel and leave in a warm place to rise until doubled in size. This may take anywhere from ½ an hour to 2 hours.

Punch the dough to deflate it then divide into individual pizza portions. I find this amount of dough makes 4-5 round pizzas approximately 32 cm diameter.

With a rolling pin, roll each ball of dough to the pizza pan size, place on the pan and leave to rise a second time while preparing the toppings.

Add your choice of toppings and bake in a hot oven for 10-12 minutes.

If you only want to make a couple of pizzas you can put the remaining dough covered in the fridge to use within a couple of days however I usually bake all the pizzas as the leftovers are great in lunchboxes the next day. You could also use leftover dough to make pizza bites or pinwheel pizzas.

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