Thursday, December 25, 2014

It's Christmas

It's Christmas and the Christmas Food Count down is over. Here in Australia at  my place, the family have just left after a day of excitement and fun .... and Christmas food. It is very quiet and we are relaxing with a cuppa and a repeat TV program. Lunch seemed such a long time ago, but we are still feeling the effects of a non- traditional, mixed cultural Christmas meal. My grandsons requested their favourite Chinese snacks - pork buns, prawn gow gees and dim sims. The adults also indulged in smoked salmon and cream cheese swirls, chicken, pork spare ribs,  ham  and prawns with a Chinese salad and potato, egg and bacon salad. This was followed some hours later with traditional plum pudding cooked in calico, and mangoes and ice cream.  Add in the nibbles like candy canes, fruit cake, and chocolates..... No surprise that everyone has gone home with "take away"  leftovers.
Our Christmas lunch 
Last week, at the Simmons family Christmas gathering, we had an Aussie cold spread with stuffed turkey, ham and pork with many different salads and side dishes.... a Christmas feast fit for a summer's day. 
Simmons Christmas gathering. 
 I know many of my friends will have had a traditional roast turkey with the trimmings and/or a baked ham.... others will have enjoyed a barbecue on the beach or a catered meal at a community Christmas gathering, or  like us at home, a bit of a mixture of favourite foods, depending on their cultural heritage. I do remember one Christmas when all of our family were away and we had an omelette!  Whatever food you enjoy as part of your Christmas celebrations,  it won't really matter  because ....when you look back on all the Christmases in your life, you'll find you've created family traditions and lasting memories. Those memories, good and bad, are really what help to keep a family together over the long haul.- Caroline Kennedy.
Like the Grinch, I think there is "lot more" to Christmas ...  Eat drink and be merry... but don't forget to count your blessings, not your presents. 
Give the gifts of love, joy and your presence.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Countdown 2 : Christmas Cake

Fast coming to an end of the Christmas Countdown... It is Christmas Eve and we do like fruit cake!  The Christmas Cake, traditionally a fruit cake, will be cut tonight so that a piece or two can be left as snack for Santa. 
My mother's Christmas cake 
 I am very lucky  - my mother makes my Christmas cake.  My mother is close to 90 years old -but her cake this year is fantastic. It is now a tradition of the Simmons family Christmas gathering that we have this moist rich cake. We sometimes also have stollen,a German fruit cake which has more of a bread texture. I love it - the mixture of fruit, marzipan and spices! I  am also partial to Panettone, an Italian version of Christmas fruit cake, also more like a many versions of Christmas cake, but 
the earliest recipe  from ancient Rome lists pomegranate seeds, pine nuts, and raisins that were mixed into barley mash. In the Middle Ages, honey, spices, and preserved fruits were added.   Recipes varied greatly in different countries throughout the ages, depending on the available ingredients as well as (in some instances) church regulations forbidding the use of butter, regarding the observance of fast. Pope Innocent VIII (1432–1492) finally granted the use of butter, in a written permission known as the ‘Butter Letter' or Butterbrief in 1490, giving permission to Saxony to use milk and butter in the North German Stollen fruit cakes. . from Wikipedia. 

I am guessing that the original  Christmas fruit cakes were not highly decorated, but in more modern times, cakes  are decorated with icing and have become works of art -  traditional and contemporary designs. 
This snippet of information does not flow, but it seems so ludicrous I need to add it here.... In Japan, when traditionally women married very young, unmarried Japanese girls over the age of 25 were called "Christmas cakes" - past their prime after the age of 25, as a Christmas cake would be after the 25th.( In Japan, a sponge cake with cream is the popular version of a Christmas cake.)  With that bit of trivia and it being too late to bake a cake,  there is nothing left to do but to enjoy a cuppa  ( or something stronger)  and some cake ....

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Christmas Countdown 3 : Gingerbread Men and Houses

 In our family,gingerbread especially in the form of figures, is popular but we didn't know we were following a royal tradition. I had always associated gingerbread men with children, but the tradition of dunking gingerbread men in port wine doesn't quite match the image of the treacle cookies decorated with sweets and icing today.
The first gingerbread men are said to have been created for the amusement of Queen Elizabeth I. They were moulded into the image of her favourite suitors and courtiers, decorated with gold leaf then devoured at royal feasts.
Just like the gingerbread men, the houses have a certain magical quality which appeals to children and the young at  heart. Our grandchildren love a gingerbread house - often made today or tomorrow, Christmas Eve. We don't have a special pattern for our houses but  I do remember a Christmas Eve in 2008 when our Finnish exchange daughter and a her friend from Switzerland, both feeling a bit homesick,  made a gingerbread house with coconut and marshmallow snow.  It was quite an engineering feat, but it stood the test of three small children on Christmas Day. However, in Finland, the gingerbread house is not eaten until 6 January. 
Riikka's Gingerbread House 2008 
My daughter-in-law usually makes the gingerbread house and gingerbread cookies for us, but today I noted on social media an unhappy baker - new gingerbread recipe not successful! Here is one of her previous successes - a large chalet with smaller child size houses 
Kellie's gingerbread houses

Perhaps the gingerbread house challenge on Masterchef Australia 2011 has set a benchmark....something to aspire to.... next Christmas?  
Masterchef Australia from
Gingerbread   is known by many names and varies in texture in different countries - for example, In the Netherlands and Belgium, a soft and crumbly gingerbread called Peperkoek, Kruidkoek or Ontbijtkoek is popularly served at breakfast time or during the day, thickly sliced and often with butter on top.In Germany gingerbread is made in two forms: a soft form called Lebkuchen and a harder form, particularly associated with carnivals and street markets such as the Christmas markets that occur in many German towns. Parkin is a form of soft gingerbread cake made with oatmeal and treacle which is popular in northern England.

Gingerbread has a long history in Europe. It is likely to have been  brought to Europe in 992 by the Armenian monk Gregory of Nicopolis. He left Nicopolis Pompeii, to live in GingBondaroy (France), near the town of Pithiviers. He stayed there for seven years, and taught gingerbread baking to French Christians. During the 13th century, gingerbread was brought to Sweden by German immigrants. In 15th century Germany, a gingerbread guild controlled production. Early references from the Vadstena Abbey show how the Swedish nuns were baking gingerbread to ease indigestion in 1444. 
The first documented trade of gingerbread biscuits dates to the 17th century,  where they were sold in monasteries, pharmacies and town square farmers' markets. In Medieval England gingerbread was thought to have medicinal properties. 

If you recognise this Golden book cover, I guess you are already a fan of gingerbread and have your own favourite recipe.  If you haven't, here is a link to an easy gingerbread recipe 

Monday, December 22, 2014

Christmas Countdown 4: Turducken

I had always thought that 'turducken' was a very modern dish  - a deboned chicken inside a deboned duck, inside a deboned turkey.  The birds are stuffed inside the gastric cavities and spaces are filled with poultry stuffing. There appear to be a few different earlier versions of this dish .

In his 1807 Almanach des Gourmands, gastronomist Grimod de La Reynière presents his rôti sans pareil ("roast without equal")—a bustard stuffed with a turkey, a goose, a pheasant, a chicken, a duck, a guinea fowl, a teal, a woodcock, a partridge, a plover, a lapwing, a quail, a thrush, a lark, an ortolan bunting and a garden warbler—although he states that, since similar roasts were produced by ancient Romans, the rôti sans pareil was not entirely novel. The final bird is very small but large enough to just hold an olive; it also suggests that, unlike modern multi-bird roasts, there was no stuffing or other packing placed in between the birds.
Gooducken is a goose stuffed with a duck, which is in turn stuffed with a chicken.An early form of the recipe was Pandora's cushion, a goose stuffed with a chicken stuffed with a quail. Another version of the dish is credited to French diplomat and gourmand Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord. The 1891 newspaper article French Legends Of The Table offers Quail a la Talleyrand: quail, chicken, turkey.  And  even more fanciful .... The book Passion India: The Story of the Spanish Princess of Kapurthula  features a section that recounts a similar dish in India in the late 1800s: "Invited by Maharajah Ganga Singh to the most extraordinary of dinners, in the palace at Bikaner, when Anita asks her host for the recipe of such a succulent dish, he answers her seriously, "Prepare a whole camel, skinned and cleaned, put a goat inside it, and inside the goat a turkey and inside the turkey a chicken. Stuff the chicken with a grouse and inside that put a quail and finally inside that a sparrow. Then season it all well, place the camel in a hole in the ground and roast it.
from Wikipedia

There are many recipes for turducken as it has become so popular, especially on  a Thanksgiving menu, so rather than try to choose one recipe over another for this post, here are some video instructions, from someone who can prepare a turducken in 15 minutes - note he only uses the duck breasts and not the whole bird. This video clip takes about 6 minutes.... 

I don't want to discourage anyone from trying this for Christmas dinner, but I did see one recipe which claims the preparation and cooking time to be approximately 13 hours! 

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Christmas Countdown 5 : Mince pies

"Christmas Pie" by William Henry Hunt ...
My friends know all my weaknesses....  at one of the Christmas parties recently, a friend gave me twelve mince pies because she knows how much I love them. In Australia, mince  more often refers to meat and I wondered why these sweet pies were called "mince". What did we do before Wikipedia?
...A mince pie is a small  fruit-based mincemeat sweet pie traditionally served during the Christmas season. Its ingredients are traceable to the 13th century, when returning European  crusaders brought with them Middle Eastern recipes containing meats, fruits and spices.
The early mince pie was known by several names, including  mutton pie, shrid pie and Christmas pie. Typically its ingredients were a mixture of minced meat, suet, a range of fruits, and spices such as cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. Served around Christmas, the savoury Christmas pie (as it became known) was associated with supposed Catholic "idolatry" and during the  English Civil War was frowned on by the Puritan authorities. Nevertheless, the tradition of eating Christmas pie in December continued through to the Victorian era although by then its recipe had become sweeter and its size reduced markedly from the large oblong shape once observed. ... 
Today at a family Christmas gathering, we enjoyed mince pies,with the traditional filling of dried fruit and spices, but for the first time, a variation appeared - ginger and apple Christmas pies! No one commented, but I think a few wondered what happened to tradition... (that didn't stop us from eating and enjoying them very much!)  

My sister-in-law always cooked  fruit mince pies for the family gathering in the past but since she is not living in Australia, we sadly have resorted to shop made pies. I am not sure of the recipe but know that the fruit is soaked overnight in  the warmed butter, sugar and brandy mixture and the pastry is prepared with little kneading and rested so that it retains a biscuity, short  texture.
Here is a list of ingredients and the link to the recipe
Serves: 12 
·         250g raisins
·         250g sultanas
·         250g currants
·         65g mixed peel
·         125g butter, softened
·         250g peeled and finely chopped granny smith apples
·         250g brown sugar
·         grated rind of 1/2 lemon
·         grated rind of 1/2 orange
·         1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
·         pinch each of nutmeg and allspice
·         1 cup (250ml) brandy
·         For the Pastry
·         125g self raising flour
·         125g plain flour
·         125g butter
·         2 tablespoons icing sugar
·         1 egg yolk

·         3 tablespoons cold water

from Huffington Post
  ..... You can enjoy these mince pies cold, but I love mine warm, with custard ( or ice cream!) 

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Christmas Countdown 6: Rocky Road

Hardly a traditional Christmas food, but somehow rocky road is one of those indulgent sweet treats I associate with Christmas.  It is definitely one recipe always included in a list of edible Christmas gifts. Rocky Road apparently got its name when William Dreyer cut up marshmallows and nuts and swirled them into chocolate ice cream in 1929, resembling his partner's chocolate bar invention. The company then gave it its name, something to smile about during the Great Depression. Rocky Road  = Hard Times. If the alleged story is true, I think William Dreyer was travelling on a "rocky road" as it is said he used his wife's dressmaking scissors to cut up the ingredients for his rocky road treat.  

I like rocky road just cut into bite sized pieces ( please use the kitchen scissors!), but at Christmas, rocky road in the shape of trees, wreaths, little houses and stars have become very popular.

Christmas Rocky Road variations make this sweet treat look even more festive  and take it to gourmet status with the addition of turkish delight, pistachio nuts  or macadamia  nuts and dried cranberries or raisins.  Sometimes white chocolate is used instead of milk chocolate, and rocky road takes on a "white" Christmas look.  It can be a little sickly sweet, but making rocky road into a slice by adding plain biscuits or pretzels seems to tone down its sweetness. My best friend always makes me some rocky road slice for Christmas and I admit that I don't make it myself because it is just special to have it gifted to me.  Here is a basic recipe for a quick and easy rocky road slice ...  add your own Christmas ingredients to make it special... 

500 g milk cooking chocolate, ( melted)
250 g of plain biscuits like Milk Coffee  ( roughly chopped into small pieces)
100 g marshmallows ( chopped )
100 g red glace cherries ( halved)

 Melt the chocolate and add the other ingredients. Mix thoroughly and spread in a flat pan. Refrigerate for at least 3 hours to set, and slice into pieces.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Christmas Countdown 7 : Joulutortut

Everyone knows that Santa Claus lives in the north of Finland, so it would be remiss not to include a Finnish Christmas treat during the Christmas Countdown. I discovered these  rich and delicious pin wheel shaped, jam filled  pastries fairly late in life - I think it was Christmas 2000, a few months before I first went to Finland. They not only taste good, they look beautiful - the golden pastry star pinwheels with a rich, dark coloured prune jam filling.  

Here is some  information from  "arousing appetites " blog. 
What is Joulutortut?

While the name for the Finnish joulutortut now translates into English as “Christmas tart”, many of the traditions the Finnish have pre-date Christianity’s influence and come from a rather older Viking heritage. In the pre-Christian times, the Vikings in Nordic countries observed hjul, or “sun wheel,” a celebration of the winter solstice that brought back the sunlight to the darkened region. During hjul, the Vikings would have a three-day festival for eating and drinking, playing games, and exchanging gifts. Needless to say their tradition weren’t too far off from Christmas as we celebrate today.

When Christianity did come to the region in around the 12th century, rather than replace the old Viking ways, the two traditions began to assimilate. For example, the adopted Finnish word for Christmas, joulu, is an evolution from the Viking hjul.

In Finnish homes nowadays, joulutortut and other Christmas specialties are made and served for the first time at a celebration called pikkujoulu. The pikkujoulu, or “little Christmas,” are gatherings and parties held for friends, family, and even the local community. And while the timing of the pikkujoulu lines up conveniently with the first advent of the Christian calendar, these parties are much more free-form and are hardly religious. Really, they’re just a great reason to get together to eat, drink, be merry, and yes… enjoy some joulutortut.

My Finnish friends tell me that quark is an essential ingredient, a soft white cheese made by warming sour milk until coagulated and strained - ricotta cheese is a substitute. ... and of course the prune jam must be homemade! However, the recipe below uses cream, and works well.
{ Joulutortut  :: Finnish Christmas Stars } Recipe by Beatrice Ojakangas from The Great Scandinavian Baking Book  
* Ingredients *
2 cups pitted prunes
Water to cover
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup sugar
3 cups plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 cups heavy cream, whipped
1 cup softened butter
Beaten egg, for glaze
* Directions *
Cover the prunes with water and simmer slowly until very soft.  Puree and add the lemon juice and sugar.  Cool.
For the pastry, mix the flour and baking powder. Stir into the whipped cream and knead in the softened butter.  Shape dough into a ball and chill overnight.
On a floured board, roll out pastry to 1/4 inch or 6mm thickness. Fold dough into third, folding first one third over the centre, then the opposite third over the centre.  Roll out to seal the layers.  Turn dough and fold again into thirds, making the dough into a perfect square.  Roll out, retaining the square shape, to make an 18 inch or 45 cm square.  Cut into 3 inch or 7.5 cm squares.  With a sharp knife, make cuts from the corners towards the centre of the squares about half way along.  Place a spoonful of the prune filling onto the centre of each square. Shape into pinwheel stars by lifting every other split corner towards the centre onto the filling.  Cover baking sheets with parchment paper and preheat the oven to 400F / 200C.  Place filled stars onto the baking sheets, and brush with the glaze. Bake for 7-10 minutes or until lightly browned.
Makes 36
Here is another recipe with step by step photosbecause the hard bit is shaping the pastries! 
Hyvaa Joulua ( Merry Christmas) 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Christmas Countdown 8 : Chicken

For the last few days I have been sleeping in a bedroom decorated with prints of the Eiffel Tower, so  in the Christmas Countdown, I just had to include the three French hens - hence the delightful vintage print. There was a time, at least in my memory, when roast chicken was a dish for special occasions and the only poultry served for Christmas dinner.

I still love roast chicken with roast vegetables, with stuffing and gravy and am happy with it for Christmas even though my husband makes the best stuffed turkey! I think that in more recent times, roast chicken has become less festive and more a family dinner favourite.  What is your favourite poultry for Christmas?
roast turkey from
roast goose from 
These days, the humble "chook" has been overshadowed by Christmas turkey or even duck or goose. However, in Japan, chicken remains the top Christmas choice, but alas,  the Japanese have made KFC chicken their Christmas treat. It is so popular that at Christmas time in Japan, you often have to place your order for the fast food chicken about a fortnight ahead! Hard to believe, because to me nothing about KFC chicken reminds me of Christmas - sorry! I will still be roasting my chicken in my own oven at home, but I have added a recipe for a really delicious stuffing which will make the everyday roast chicken  the "hero" of the Christmas menu. 

  • Ingredients

Pistachio & cranberry stuffing


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Christmas Countdown 9 : Seafood

It can't really be only 10 days to Christmas. although today I witnessed queues of children and their parents waiting to chat and be photographed with Santa in a shopping centre. The scene seemed a little incongruous. There was a traditionally dressed Santa,  woolly red suit and  heavy boots and fur trimmed hat sitting in a beach hut, in a tropical resort setting with palm trees decorated with Christmas baubles. I thought that this summed up perfectly how Christmas is celebrated in Australia - some tradition with adaptions  and changes for the climate.  Probably the most popular change to accommodate the summer heat has been the inclusion of seafood for Christmas dinner. 
Why seafood for Christmas? I think the original reason was it was too hot  to light the oven in the kitchen to cook a roast meat and vegetables dinner  ( Christmas temperatures can be up to 40 degrees C) and it was just too hot to eat it. It now can be argued with most houses having air conditioning that this reason is no longer valid? I guess the other reason is that beautiful fresh seafood is available here in summer . Besides it tastes good, and somehow seafood seems to suit the summer lifestyle of most Australian families. 

There is not much point in offering a seafood recipe as the most popular Christmas dish is lots of fresh seafood served  as a cold seafood platter. However, accompanying sauces and dressings  vary, for example, tomato based seafood sauces, aioli, avocado. lime and lemon based dressings. I think the ultimate accompaniment for fresh prawns is mango salsa. Mangoes are also a summer fruit in season at Christmas time, so the combination seems to be quite compatible. Here is  Chef Luke Mangan's recipe from 
Mango Salsa

Now all that's left to do is "slip another shrimp on the barbie" for Christmas lunch.... 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Christmas Countdown 10 : Day of Sadness

If you hadn't heard of Lindt before today, it will be a brand name forever in the memories of Australians. This blog is not the place to retell the tragic events which unfolded in the last 24 hours in the Lindt Chocolate Cafe in Martin Place, Sydney. I had never intended to include the Lindt chocolate in my Christmas Countdown about food,  but it is a way of expressing my deep sadness  that the siege's outcome was so tragic and to convey condolences to all those directly and personally affected. This blog post is also a way of reminding us the actions of one person cannot be attributed to a group, and also encouraging us all to love just a little bit more  and think and act peacefully especially this Christmas. Perhaps the hope for peace will become synonymous with the Lindt chocolate...

Monday, December 15, 2014

Christmas Countdown 11 : Shortbread

Mary, Queen of Scots loved shortbread petticoat tails -from
I know you are all too familiar with the tartan decorated packets and boxes of shortbread which  seem to multiply to take over the biscuit and cookie displays at this time of the year. This crumbly, buttery biscuit was once so expensive, and considered such a luxury that it was only seen at Christmas and Hogmanay ( Scottish New Year) . Shortbread originated in Scotland, but it is no less popular in the rest of the United Kingdom and the rest of the world with British connections. I first learnt to bake shortbread because my late father-in- law, from Birmingham, UK, loved rich , buttery homemade shortbread at Christmas, and at any other time with a strong cup of tea. ( His favourite commercially made treat was a Scotch Finger - a shortbread  biscuit which can be broken into two finger and is still one of the most popular of Arnott's Biscuits classics) 
1. fingers

2. small rounds 

3. petticoat tails

There are three traditional shapes of shortbread - 1) finger /small rectangle; 2) small round : 3) large around segmented into triangular, wedge shapes, called petticoat tails. it is thought these were names  named after the French biscuits, "petits cotes", triangular biscuits eaten with wine . However, there is another story far more regal  ...Queen Mary’s favourite shortbread was cut into triangular “Petticoat Tails,” so named because the triangle wedges cut from the circle of dough were the same shape as the pieces of fabric used to make an Elizabethan petticoat, and the name for a pattern back then was ‘tally.’ Queen Mary’s preferred ‘petticote tallis‘ was flavoured with caraway seeds 
While I have noticed an amazing array of recipes for variations of the classic shortbread, for example, chocolate, caramel, macadamia, cranberry, honey and cinnamon, traditional Scottish shortbread remains the most well known. Walkers Shortbread is Scotland's largest food exporter.  
A good shortbread needs to have a crumbly texture and is traditionally made from one part sugar, two parts butter and three parts flour . I think a really good shortbread needs the inclusion of one part  rice flour or corn flour in its three parts flour, but that is my preference to achieve the "short" texture. I also like my shortbread patterned with a fork before baking and sprinkled with caster sugar when still hot from the oven - another personal preference because it just looks home-made  I also own a type of wooden "springerie" mould with a pattern of a Scottish thistle which is pressed onto the rolled shortbread dough and creates a lovely decorative surface. These moulds are most commonly patterned with thistles - what could be more Scottish ?