Sunday, December 31, 2006

This was 2006

I've just come from Charlotte's Web, where she was doing this meme for a review of her blogging year. I liked the idea as it seems to wrap the year up nicely and succinctly, without too much mental exertion on my part, after our New Year's Eve family dinner and the loud and exuberant game of Pit that finished it off. Not to brag... but I unholy, competitive streak revealed!

So here is the first sentence from the first post of each month that I have been blogging this year. Sometimes I included the second one too, as I seem to be a master of the brief first sentence, which isn't always very illuminating.

March: It's supposed to be autumn, season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.

April It's market day tomorrow. Once a month I run a stall at the local market to raise funds for our kindergarten - mostly this means baking fairy cakes, decorating them garishly and selling them along with my surplus jam stocks and second-hand children's clothes.

May: A long time since my last post, due to technical hitches. In the meantime winter has descended upon us here in South Africa, the long awaited rains have started to transform the countryside from brown to green and freezing cold draughts whistle in through unsuspected holes in the eaves.

June: 1 Being able to retire to the loo for 10 minutes with a book, without an invasion of kids needing attention.

Where have I been these last few days? Immersed in a sea of birthday preparation, for my one-more-sleep-till-I'm-six year old.

August: We have finally finished the leftovers from Sunday's feast.

September: Today was officially our first day of spring.

October: Living on a farm as we do, it is easy to allow an excess of animals into our life.

November: Come and have tea at our house today.

It was only when the aunts came up to say goodnight to the children that I realised how much we had packed into today.

It seems from this that my life revolves around the children, animals, seasons and importantly food - a pretty accurate summing up of this year!

Happy New Year to you all. See you in 2007 - may it be a wonderful year bringing peace, prosperity and good health to you.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Christmas Passed

Christmas started early in our house as anticipation and speculation sparked off chirrupings in the children’s bedroom at 5.30. By 6 o’clock we caved in and let them onto our bed to demolish their stockings. The compensation for this was that we had a gentle stroll outside in the early morning sunshine, cup of tea in hand, watching the swallows swooping to catch their breakfast, while the children were watching a DVD and examining their booty.

One of the advantages of a summer Christmas is that we eat the traditional fare cold, with salads, so we were able to do a lot of the preparation beforehand and spend time on the phone to far-flung family without burning the sprouts. Our gammon was already sitting cooked in its cidery stock, ready to be glazed with mustard and treacle sugar. Some of the stock transformed the couscous from plain starch into a flavourful salad that sings in its own right with mango, nuts and herbs. My sister-in-law took charge of the turkey and stuffing, as well as the sausages wrapped in bacon and other sister-in-law is the salad queen, so the food front was divided and conquered. The puddings were ready in the fridge – a succulent summer pudding made with the berries from our farm and these stripey jellies that I love because they are so pretty and jelly is an intrinsic part of the Christmas feast for me, plus some meringues and the de rigueur Christmas pudding (a small bought one for the traditionalists).

The Christmas feasting is now over for another year. Our fridge was groaning with the leftovers, enough turkey and ham, summer pudding and stripey jelly to re-enact Christmas lunch for four days in a row and we still were enjoying it – that ham was soooo good!. The Christmas cake stands proudly aloft bearing its plastic donkey and sparkly angels that were selected to adorn it this year. Despite the enormous lunch on Christmas Day we did manage to sample a sliver of it for a late afternoon tea time. Gastronomic heroism on the grand scale.

The earthquake rumble of new skateboards on wooden floors, the shrieks and giggles as they crash, bright streaks of paint from craft sets on new Christmas outfits, soaking in Biotex in the bathroom, folded wrapping paper rustling, as it is restrewn across the sitting room floor the girls re-playing their best part of Christmas by wrapping then unwrapping their presents once more, the crunch of plastic cracker novelties underfoot, these are the soundtrack of the aftermath of the festivities....those skateboards may well meet an untimely end fairly soon!

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Happy Christmas

Apologies for the long absence...I might even get back to posting after Christmas - right now the words section of my brain has been highjacked by the food and present making part - not enough megs to complete all applications without crashing!

Have a wonderful Christmas all my blogging friends - I've really enjoyed meeting you this year and discovering such a wonderful community full of warmth, wit and wisdom.

Here is a virtual mince pie for you -succulent spiced fruit and crumbly pastry.
Lots of love to you all

Thursday, December 14, 2006

How to eat a Mango

Take one ripe juicy mango, smelling of the tropics.

Slice off a large section lengthways just skimming the side of the stone.

Cut a grid through the flesh without going through the skin.

Press upwards on the skin side to turn it inside out.

Voila! A mango hedgehog.

Repeat on the other side and enjoy!

Take turns sucking the stone, then go straight to the kitchen sink for a wash down.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Icing the Christmas Cake

I've hardly been near my computer in days. We are living in a flurry of felt, tissue paper, coloured card, bright scraps of wool, overlayed with a fruity aura of jam-making that has the kitchen at the centre of our life, now it is the holidays. An undercurrent of barely suppressed excitement about the upcoming day of presents occasionally bursts forth into sibling squabbles, giggles and play fights.

The children are a hive of industry making cards and presents to send around the world to friends and family. We rushed the fruits of their labours to the post office today in the optimistic hope of them reaching England in time.

This year though their projects are far more ambitious than last year. Gone are the days of being content with sewing a few sequins onto a circle of felt to hang on the tree. My six year old made herself a cushion at kindergarten from hessian, embroidered with her own design of Christmas tree, stars, flowers and angels. So pleased is she with her new skills, that each Christmas present is a long labour of love.

Youngest needs considerable input from me in her creations but is equally ambitious, the problem being that she loves the end result too much to part with far she has made herself one present and two cards....! My son started off with a prodigious output of intricate little felt decorations but now has decided to tackle a felt angel and occasionally disintegrates into frustration, when the thread knots yet again and the head looks too wobbly.

Meanwhile I try not to burn the jam, huge amounts of plums and apricots having arrived to make up for the meagre strawberry crop. My shelves are finally filling, I'm running out of jars, so we should be in good shape jam-wise for the year. Phew!

Now the Christmas Cake needs its layer of almond paste/marzipan . It is supposed to go on about a week before the royal icing, to give it time to dry a little. Two or three days before has always been fine for me, as we are usually eating it fairly soon after.

Here is my favourite recipe, in case any of you are bravely tackling the Christmas Cake recipe and have been left high and dry by my failure to post the next step.

Marzipan Recipe

(for an 8inch round cake)
335g/12oz ground almonds
165g/6oz icing sugar (powdered sugar) sifted
165g/6oz caster sugar
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1-2 tablespoons brandy or sherry
4 egg yolks
apricot jam

Mix together all the dry ingredients, then stir in the lemon juice, brandy and egg yolks. Knead it into a stiff dough, but don't overdo it with hot hands or it can become slightly oily. Brush the cake top and sides with the apricot jam (warm it a bit if it is too thick). Dust a surface or pastry board with icing sugar and roll out half the almond paste/marzipan till it is just a bit bigger than the top of the cake. Put the cake upside down onto the paste and trim to fit. Roll out the rest of the paste to go on to the sides of the cake. It works best if you aim for an oblong twice the height of the cake and half the circumference and cut it in half to get two strips the height of the cake. Press them firmly onto the sides of the cake and press the joins together. Turn the cake the right way up and trim any ragged bits. Wrap it back up in greaseproof paper and foil for another week before putting on the royal icing. Don't worry if it doesn't look perfect and you can see all the joins, the last layer of royal icing covers it all up anyway.

Royal icing

525g / 1 1/4 lb icing sugar
3-4 egg whites
1 tsp lemon juice

Put the egg whites into a large mixing bowl. Stir in the sugar a few spoons at a time. Add the lemon juice. When it is all mixed in, beat with an electric beater until the icing is thick enough to stand up in peaks. I like a rough finish to my Christmas Cake so just slap on the icing with a palette knife in one layer and rough it up a bit more to look like choppy seas, but you can also do a glassy smooth finish. This icing can set rock hard in hot weather, so if you want to make sure of not losing any teeth, you can add 2 teaspoons of glycerine to the icing. In England the icing used to stay soft for ages, in the nice cool damp climate, but my first Christmas here in South Africa the cake needed a pick-axe to access it!

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Apricot Ambrosia

A bowlful of glowing, ripe sun-filled apricots,

Sliced unmercifully into succulent chunks.

Submerged in sugar, till their juices weep.
Simmered into jam, all year to keep.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Christmas Cake Recipe

Our Christmas cake is baked at last. The dried fruit had been soaking in brandy for a whole week in the fridge, but seemed none the worse for it luckily. Not huge amounts of brandy I hasten to add – three tablespoons and the alcohol content long ago evaporated away. So yesterday the kitchen exuded a gentle spicy aroma as the cake cooked extremely slowly for four and a half hours. Just one whiff is enough to conjure up Christmas.

It is just the sort of rich, damp, heavy fruit cake that Captain Hook put out to poison the Lost Boys in the original Peter Pan story. That detail seems to have been omitted in the updated versions, maybe these days it seems too old-fashioned to believe that rich cake is death to young stomachs! My kids aren’t really into the cake itself anyway, but they love the marzipan and icing, so will nibble meagrely at the cake in order to justify feasting on their icing and that of the adults as well, who Jack Sprat-like tend to prefer the cake and leave the excess sweet icing to the children.

At Christmas time I usually get out the reliable old Delia Smith cook book to check out the cake recipe and quantities for the marzipan. Her recipes almost always work and are accurate if not always inspired. I almost remember when she was the hot young TV chef and her ‘One is Fun’ was the latest innovative bestseller in the food book arena. Now she is long supplanted by the younger, sexier Nigella, but her books are still at the back of my shelf for when I need to check details of some ordinary but useful dish.

Rich Fruit Cake recipe

450g/1lb currants
175g/6oz sultanas
175g/6oz raisins
50g/2oz glace cherries(optional)
50g/2oz mixed candied peel chopped
3 tablespoons brandy
225g/8oz plain flour
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon grated nutmeg
½ teaspoon mixed spice
225g/8oz unsalted butter
225g/8oz soft brown sugar
4 large eggs
50g/2oz chopped almonds
1 dessertspoon treacle
grated rind of 1 lemon
grated rind of 1 orange

The night before you want to make the cake, soak all the dried fruit and peel with the brandy. Leave it in a covered bowl over night or at least twelve hours.

Grease and line a 20cm/8 inch round cake tin or a 18cm/ 7 inch square one.

Sift together the flour, salt and spices. Cream the butter and sugar together in a large mixing bowl until light and fluffy (make sure you do this thoroughly). Beat eggs and add them a little at a time to the creamed mixture, beating well each time. Next fold in the flour and spices gently. Stir in the dried fruit and peel, treacle and the grated lemon and orange rind. Spoon the mixture into the prepared cake tin and spread it out evenly.

Tie a band of brown paper round the outside of the tin and cover the top of the cake with a double layer of greasproof paper (with a hole cut in the middle of it) Bake the cake at 140C/275F on the lower shelf of the oven for 4 ¼ - 4 ¾ hours. Don’t open the door to check until at least 4 hours have passed. Once the cake has cooled wrap it in a layer of greaseproof paper then foil.

Delia recommends feeding it with brandy every week or so, by poking a couple of holes with a skewer then letting a few teaspoons of brandy soak in. It depends on your own tastes, whether you want it very rich and decadent. I don’t usually do that myself, I like it as it is.

Now the cake is well wrapped in grease-proof paper and foil and stored on a shelf in the larder to steep in its own flavours. A week before Christmas I’ll make the marzipan to go on it. I’ll have a lot of help with that as the children vie to gather up any scraps that fall or are trimmed off. We’ve even converted marzipan haters in the family to our variety of almond paste, just by leaving out the almond essence, which gives the strong almost metallic taste to shop marzipan. Without it the real almond flavour gets a chance to shine through, more mellow and delicately nutty.

On top of the marzipan goes the top layer of royal icing, made with icing sugar and egg white, put on rough to resemble a snowy scene. When I was growing up we had a set of figures for a Nativity scene that always decorated the cake and it was my favourite job to arrange them with a few tiny pine trees for added effect. Nowadays I try to get an African feel by borrowing the children’s little plastic zebra, giraffe and elephant and have them cavorting through the snowy icing – totally incongruous, but then I don’t think the Nativity scene played out among snowdrifts either!

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

After the NaBloPoMo

I couldn't help myself. I didn't do NaBloPoMo for the promise of prizes. More as a challenge to myself...but yes I have been checking Fussy's blog to see if I won anything and no I didn't. But she did do this badge to download that says it all!

I think I've been suffering from blog fatigue after all, with no inspiration on the weekend to post. I'm getting back in gear again now, will be posting my Christmas cake recipe soon..

Friday, December 01, 2006

End of Term Exuberance

It was only when the aunts came up to say goodnight to the children that I realised how much we had packed into today. The clamour of voices vying to tell their important news rose in a voluble crescendo.

Youngest was first to show off her proud purchase – the first thing she has ever bought with her very own pocket money. She had saved her three rands for several weeks since her birthday, following her brother and sister’s example but today she couldn’t bear it any longer. We went to do the food shopping in Spar and she brought her money along. She had in mind the delights of the cheap plastic toys in the supermarket and with the dizzy sum of R23 in her purse was sure to be able to buy a hideous pink concoction guaranteed to break in a day. First we went to the bank though and on the way from there to Spar passed the enticing windows of Sheet Street - garish duvet covers and knick knacks in the window have often had us lingering, so on impulse we went in there. Youngest went from one possibility to another – a mug with a soft toy in, a cushion, a small teddy, a little painted box with a drawer and a butterfly in – all within her price range. Only when she’d checked out everything and considered the possibility that Spar might have something even better, did she make her decision. She would invest her funds in the butterfly box to keep her special things in. We went to the till and I counted out the cash for her. She solemnly took possession of the bag and put the receipt carefully into her purse. We even made it round Spar and past the toy aisle without her changing her mind and regretting her purchase. The joy of her new possession is just about equalled by the grown upness of the purchase.Sshe has been proudly informing everyone that she has a Receipt!

Once the aunts had admired the box sufficiently, my six year old was in line to show off her mouth, now devoid of front teeth as the tooth fairy is expected to visit again tonight. Those grown up teeth are coming through slowly so nothing but gaps make up her smile.

My son next to show off his glowing school report, written with such depth and understanding that it had our hearts melting with pride. He was completely quiet after we read it to him, but you could see gleams of satisfaction and self-worth emanating from him as he walked off with it carefully in its envelope.

The beautiful advent calendars that Granny brought from England were finally paraded for all to appreciate – the Twelve Days of Christmas for my son, The Journey to Bethlehem for my six year old fresh from playing Mary in the Nativity play and a lovely snowy town scene with animals in the stable for Youngest. Granny did a fine job choosing just the right one for each child and they are all pleased as punch!

The accounts of the school assembly then had to be listened to, and of the concert last night, as well as plans made for the holidays, including a proposed first ever sleepover at one of the aunt’s houses. Eventually all the important things had been communicated and bathtime ensued, hopefully to lead on quickly to an early night after all the excitements of the day.

P.S. After all I said yesterday about being relieved NaBloPoMo is over, here I am posting again already. I found myself composing in my head as I was cooking supper and had to write it all down to free up some head space..this looks like a pernicious blogging habit - I've got hooked!