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Festive teatime favourite

26 Dec


Christmas baking in glorious technicolour!

Inspired by William Tempest’s photograph on his Facebook page I decided to have a go at his Christmas Battenburg.  As an almond lover Battenburgs are one of my favourite cakes; a light vanilla sponge in bright pink and yellow encased in a cloak of marzipan.  The best history of the Battenburg is given by food historian Ivan Day on his blog, which dispels the myth that the cake was created to celebrate the wedding of Princess Beatrice (youngest daughter of Queen Victoria) to Henry, Prince of Battenburg and has some wonderful images of the most intricate Battenburgs with 25 piece chequerboards from the early 20th century.

Over the past few years there have been a range of variations on the classic Battenburg; Mary Berry’s coffee and walnut Battenburg that was a Great British Bake Off technical challenge and the Union Jack Batternburg produced to celebrate everything from the Royal Wedding of 2011 to this year’s Olympics.

William Tempest’s Christmas version however is unmissable, largely because of its amazing coloured red and green sponge.  Merry Christmas everybody.


The basic vanilla sponge mixture

IMG_3781 Setting up the baking tin to get two colours – the results of frangipani mince pie baking in the background


The baked sponge, ready for assembly


Creating the layers (cinnamon buns in the background).


Rolling out the marzipan; in retrospect I think that I made this a little too thin (see results below).  I went for white marzipan which of course is not as white as fondant icing but definitely more traditional and tastes far better.


The finished cake and its miniature companion created from the off cuts.  I didn’t have a holly cutter so I had to create the leaves by cutting them out with a knife which was particularly easy.  The silver degrees were also difficult to keep in place and all over Christmas I’ve had to endure caustic comments from my mother about the unnatural colouring of the Battenburg sponge but I’m still pleased I gave it a go. 


Florentine factory

19 Dec


The apartment kitchen turned into a Florentine factory

One of my favourite MacCulloch recipies is our Florentine recipe, with it’s medley of flaked almonds, dried fruits and dark chocolate.  There are so many different recipes for making this wonderful sweet treat but I’ve never found one that I enjoy quite as much.  One of it’s great strengths is that you can add pretty much anything to the mix to customise them. Adding crystalised ginger for example gives them a sophisticated feel which works beautifully with the dark chocolate. I’m quite happy to make them time of the year (the heat of summer is probably not a good idea though!) but they work particularly well at Christmas when the addition of some red and green glace cherries give them an especially festive air.

The other element of our version which I love is the fact that it’s so simple, if a little messy.  The element which makes it so straightforward is rice paper, which is used in sheet form for baking the Florentines.  After the baked Florentines have cooled the surplus rice paper can be broken away and the backs covered with chocolate.  However, in the last few years I’ve noticed that rice paper has become more and more difficult to find (I think that there’s a similarity here with the disappearance of angelica) and where it used to be a commonplace on supermarket baking shelves now its place seems to have been usurped by gelatine for all those trendy jelly makers out there (though how much of this is actually sold I’ve no idea).  I live in fear of rice paper disappearing altogether and being unable to make my Florentines but luckily good old Lakeland sells fantastic packs of A4 sheets which I keep buying in industrial quantities.

As I started writing this post I was reminded that I often wonder why Florentines are called Florentines.  Others seem to have the same thought.  Emiko Davies in Honest Cooking has a great article which delves into the history and concludes that they probably have their origins in 17th century French kitchens in honour of Catherine d’Medici.  If anyone has any other thoughts on the history of Florentine I’d love to hear more.

  IMG_3709 The chocolate coating begins!

When Mr Kim asked me to think about a gift for his office which had a few Kim characteristics making the Florentines seemed like an obvious choice, in their miniature, petit four format as a filler for the main gift.  With 24 people in the office I needed quite a few Florentines and so turned our apartment kitchen in something of a Florentine factory.  When they were packaged up four to a cellophane bag and tied with some narrow green ribbon they were just perfect for fitting in the Japanese fish dishes which formed the Mr Kim part of the present.


The finished Florentines (apologies for the dark photograph – the light kept reflecting on the cellophane)

In case anyone is interested in this Florentine version here’s the recipe:

MacCulloch Florentines

3oz butter

4oz icing sugar

6oz dried fruit (I use various mixtures but usually with a base of raisins, currants and mixed peel.  Glace cherries, pistachios and dried cranberries can add colour, crystalised ginger an elegant taste)

4oz flaked almonds

squeeze of lemon juice

sheets of rice paper

4oz dark chocolate (I like using Lindt 70% cocoa)

  1. Melt the butter over a low heat and add the icing sugar.  Stir until well mixed.
  2. Add the dried fruit, almonds and lemon juice. Stir well.
  3. Place in the refrigerator for half an hour to cool
  4. Line two baking sheets with rice paper and spoon piles of the mixture onto the sheets in the desired size.
  5. Bake in a 180/250 degree oven for c.10 minutes (the time will depend on the size so watch carefully!)
  6. Place on a baking rack to cool and when cold break off the surplus rice paper; Rest on sheets of kitchen towel.
  7. Melt the dark chocolate in a bain marie and spoon onto the backs of the Florentines.  Rest on kitchen towel chocolate side up and allow to cool
  8. Eat and enjoy!


messy but very moreish!

The disappearance of Angelica

10 Dec


Over the last couple of days I’ve been investigating a disappearance.  It all started last Sunday when I met Mark at the Fort York real mince pie workshop.  He had been experimenting with trifles and having spoken to his mother was keen to make her one decorated with glace cherries and candied angelica as she used to make herself.  His problem was that he couldn’t find any angelica in Toronto.  No, problem I said, I’ll get Mr Kim to pick some up when he’s next back in the UK.

In my mind’s eye I could see the little tub of glace angelica sitting on the shelf in the supermarket.  The angelica I can remember is the candied stem of the plant Angelica Archangelica.  With its heavenly name and seasonal colour it seems a particularly appropriate baking ingredient for the Christmas season.  Its emerald green strips are a vivid memory from my childhood where appreciation of their jewel-like quality as they decorated cakes in neat diamond forms was always accompanied by a slight disappointment at their lack of flavour.   Glace angelica always seemed to look much better than it tasted.  Nevertheless its intense green was cheerful and eye catching and perfectly suited to forming leaves, stalks and other elements for cake decoration.

It seems however, that candied angelica has not found favour in the modern culinary world and is something of an endangered baking ingredient.  Mr Kim’s supermarket foray this week met with no success.  I told my story to my friend in Florida who took me to a number of grocery stores to try and locate the elusive angelica but with no success.  So I took to the internet.  There I found and read with empathy Vicki Woods’ article from last year about searching for angelica to make her favourite Joseceline Dimbleby cake.  The very best angelica, as Vicki Woods points out, comes from France, where there’s still a small area that grows it specifically for making the candied angelica.

My online investigations led to some particularly frustrating results.  Many of my searches suggested that I had maybe typed in the word wrongly and perhaps I was looking for angels? There are a couple of UK online stores that do seem to sell angelica.  These are Wilton Wholefoods  and The Craft Company.  There’s also a US online store Market Store Foods which some very pale angelica.

However, both Waitrose and Tesco have online pages referring to angelica but are not offering it for sale.  The Tesco page is especially annoying.  It has a picture of the Dr Oetker 40g tub of angelica (though the angelica illustrated on the side of the tub looks suspiciously anaemic) but next to the image in authoritative red letters it reads ‘Sorry, this product is currently unavailable


The BBC recipe website also probably needs a bit of updating.  After informing the reader that locating fresh angelica in case you fancy candying your own is ‘almost impossible’ and that ‘fresh angelica is very difficult to source’ it optimistically tells hopeful cooks ‘candied angelica is widely available’. I would suggest to them that while this statement might have been true ten or even five years back finding angelica is now definitely an exercise in determination.

I find this disappearance of angelica all the more surprising given the recent interest in nostalgic baking.  While pre-1970s cookbooks might have languished for some years, ever since the arrival of the cupcake recipe books, cafes and stores seem to have gone into a retro inspired baking over drive; surely with all this demand for afternoon tea, finger cakes and doyleys there’s a place for angelica?

So, I’m putting out an SOS call for angelica.  If anyone has had any recent sightings of angelica, whether as lurking on the shelf of secret treasure trove of a baking store or hiding amongst other candied fruits in a fruit or sponge cake I’d love to hear from you.  Help me to find out if angelica has been truly consigned to the culinary scrapheap or if somewhere this Christmas there’s a small twinkle of emerald gracing a seasonal sweetmeat.

Mincemeat in the Officers’ Mess

3 Dec


peeling applies for the mincemeat; the mess kitchen was lit only by the fire and candles, and as soon as we entered the years seemed to roll away

It’s been a grey, gloomy day all day in Toronto (the top of the CN tower was shrouded in mist) but I’ve been happily employed in the Fort York Officers’ Mess kitchen learning about 18th century mince pies.  In fact it’s been pretty much the perfect day; what better way to get into the Christmas spirit than in a room lit only by the wood fire and candles, with a medley of mace, cloves and nutmeg filling the air and a reading of Hannah Glasse’s 1747 mince pie recipe, which brought the world of the 18th century Christmas kitchen to life?

The workshop was led by Mya Sangster, part of the indefatigable and dedicated Fort York historic cookery team, whose extensive knowledge and research of historic mince pie recipes includes some thirty or more recipes from the mid 16th century to the start of the 19th century.  Mya guided us through the changing content of the mince pie, as its original format of meat with some dried fruits altered so that the fruit and sugar element began to dominate in the 1790s.  She pointed out that many of the stories associated with mince pies (the three spices used in the mixture represented the three kings) may well have been wonderful Victorian inventions of tradition but what was clear is that these finely shredded minced meat pies have always been associated with Christmas.  A fabulous bill of fare for December from The Whole Duty of a Woman (1739 ed.) includes both ‘minc’d pyes’ and ‘a turkey larded’.  But Mya also explained that there were many versions of Lent mince pies, where the meat was replaced by eggs.


our mincemeat with some of Mya’s homemade preserved orange peel; this was cut into fine strips and added to the mincemeat for our small mince pies

Our Hannah Glasse recipe called for many ingredients that would have been familiar to all 18th century makers of mince pies.  The meat element was a ‘neat’s tongue’, boiled over the fire of the mess kitchen until it was ready for me to peel.  Mya had made her own preserved orange and citron peel.  The real beef suet (I didn’t realise that suet was specifically the fat around the kidneys) had been purchased specially from the slaughter house so we had to break it up by hand before finely chopping it.  Hannah’s recipe calls for half a hundred pippins but we were only making half quantities so we only had half this number of apples.  Then there were raisins, currants, sugar (but not a lot, only 4oz for all of this) and a fair quantity of alcohol to bind it all together.

Alex and tongue


peeling and chopping the neat’s tongue

In the dim light of mess kitchen Mya and her wonderful assistants Rosemary, Kathryn and Elizabeth set us to work peeling, chopping and pounding.  We made the mince pies in two formats.  One large mince pie, following Hannah’s instructions for what she described as a ‘little Dish, something bigger then a Soop-plate’ and then some small mince pies, made in what Hannah might have known as ‘little Patties’.  For the large mince pie which was baked in the kitchen’s wood fired bake oven, the contents were layered – meat, citron, mincemeat, orange peel and one layer of meat.  For the smaller patties which were baked in the prep kitchen’s larger ovens, all the filling was mixed together.

IMG_3351 layering the large pie in its dish a little larger than a ‘soop plate’




Kathryn puts the pie in the bake oven


the baked and finished pie

Our work was fuelled by delicious pound cake, made by the historic cookery team, and a fabulous lunch of Mya’s Skeet root vegetable soup (accompanied by Elizabeth’s freshly made rolls and a wonderful selection of cheeses.  Once the large mince pie was cooked we were able to try it with creamy ginger ice cream which Mya had made to a Nott recipe (author of The Cooks and Confectioners Dictionary, Or, The Accomplish’d Housewifes Companion).   The rich, buttery pastry (also a Hannah recipe) was beautifully flaky and the spices and preserved peels really came through in the flavour of the filling.

There were so many elements of the day which really impressed me;

The team’s commitment to researching every element of historic cookery and using only authentic techniques, implements and ingredients.  Of course the 21st century world means there were elements that were more challenging than others but whether it was waiting for Whole Foods to get a fresh supply of citron or only using a three-pronged fork to prick the tops of the pies because 18th century forks were three-pronged, it gave us a real sense of the whole experience of 18th century cooking.  Nor would Mya make any alterations to the recipe, choosing one that it was possible to make with the ingredients available.


pastry for the small ‘patties’

The mess kitchen in which the workshop was held is part of the visitor’s tour at Fort York so and far from being shut off while we working visitors were encouraged to come in and learn more about what we were doing, while munching on a slice of pound cake.  It was a great way of animating the kitchen and providing a natural springboard for interaction and questions.


a chance to sample our work; the large mince pie with Mya’s Nott’s ginger ice cream

The small group size of eight people was perfect.  We could all contribute to the making of the mincemeat, with knives and pestle in hand, while there was more than enough room in the prep kitchen’s ovens for eight trays of mince pies.  It was great to meet a group of fellow historic food lovers who came from diverse backgrounds but were united by their fascination in the food and cooking of the past.


the mince pie filling; the layers of meat, mincemeat and candied fruit can’t easily be seen but could be easily tasted

I came home to our new, ultra modern apartment with the fruits of my 18th century labour for Mr Kim to sample.  While they were still on the sweet side for his savoury palate I think that he was impressed by the use of real tongue and beef suet.  With the tongue to boil up and the citron to locate it’s perhaps not a recipe I’d try regularly (although I’m very keen to make the pastry again) but as I look out over Toronto’s 21st century skyline I’m very pleased to have started off my advent season with the chance to come a little closer to the Christmas of the 18th century and to have been a part of such a great example of historic food interpretation.

Stir-up Tuesday

21 Nov

Industrial quantities of suet imported from England by Mr Kim – well maybe not quite industrial (though there was the year one of my friends thought that I said I’d made 45lbs of mincemeat when I’d actually only made 4-5lbs!) but enough to keep me going for a couple of years.

I know that I should technically be concentrating my Christmas mincemeat preparations on a Sunday but giving the imminent move I’m happy to grab any evening available.  Traditionally Stir-up Sunday is the last Sunday before advent (which is great because it means I’m actually ahead of time!) and is so called not because of mixing up dried fruit in readiness for Christmas puddings but because it was the Sunday on which the following collect was read from the Book of Common Prayer:

Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Not a bad reminder in the run up to advent and a holiday meant to be more about giving than received. Since Christmas pudding fruit needs to soak up alcohol, citrus juices etc for some weeks the day has long since been associated with the making of the Christmas pudding.   Since I don’t make my own Christmas pudding the Kim stirring up centres around the making of my mincemeat and since I’m a big fan of both apricots and almonds I’ve spent the last few years adopting various recipes to include both.

Apricot and almond mincemeat, a lot lighter than traditional mincemeats and delicious combined with frangipane topping.

This year I’ve taken the BBC online mincemeat recipe and tweaked it a bit so that my mincemeat includes:

  • 8oz suet
  • 12oz apricots
  • 4oz candied peel
  • 8oz sultanas
  • 8oz raisins
  • 4 oz flaked almonds
  • 6oz Demerara sugar
  • 1tsp mixed cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg
  • juice and zest of 1 orange plus an extra dash of orange juice
  • 150ml brandy (a considerable increase on the recipe’s suggestion of 60ml but it seemed wrong to stint on this bit!)

Adding the brandy to the mixture – quantities considerably increased from the original recipe

Since I’m still without weighing scales I’ve been relying on the north American cup system and online conversions charts. The mixture’s going to sit in its mixing bowl for a couple of days until the move later this week and then I’ll put it in to preserving jars all ready for December and frangipane mince pies.

After all that stirring up I’ve just spent a happy hour or so enjoying the wonderful historic Christmas cards on the Canadian archives database (I particularly like the frog dancing with a beetle – a perfect example of the sometimes frankly bizarre Christmas themes of 19th century cards) and came across a postcard recipe for an Empire pudding, which lists all the Empire countries from which the ingredients came.  How many housewives across Britain thought about the provenance of their ingredients as they stirred up their pudding I’m not sure, but for countless Britons across the globe the Christmas pudding no doubt formed a very welcome reminder of home at Christmas time.