Monday, December 13, 2010

A British Christmas Table

As a student studying abroad in the Fall Semester, I had the pleasure of experiencing the start of Christmas cheer during my stay.  I absolutely loved walking down Oxford and Regent Streets to gaze upon the Christmas lights overhead, spending hours browsing the Christmas departments in Fortnum and Mason and Liberty, and meandering about the Winter Wonderland Christmas Market in Hyde Park, full of rides, ice skating, shop stalls, and food.  Through my observations, however, I realized that Christmas in London is very different from Christmas in America.  Although the lights and the festive decorations are just as outstanding and celebratory events took place almost every day, it was so much less about buying things, Santa Clause, and the gimmicky stuff.  They got back to what Christmas is all about: giving thanks, taking the time to celebrate and enjoy life, and spending time with family.  And, they seized a hold of the opportunity to make the city beautiful for two months out of the year.  And along with these interesting differences, there were also extreme variations in the Christmas food and I had the absolute pleasure in trying many of these festive treats.

But first, here is what a traditional British Christmas feast may look like:

Prawn cocktail, smoked salmon, or possibly even some roasted chestnuts

A roasted turkey or goose served with homemade cranberry relish and bread sauce
Pigs in a blanket (sausages wrapped in bacon)
Roasted carrots, potatoes, and parsnips
Brussels sprouts
Sage and onion stuffing

A glass of mulled wine with Christmas pudding or mince pies (or both)

Tea or coffee and chocolate truffles

Although I probably won’t be able to experience this feast in its entirety (unless for some reason my entire family decides to have a British Christmas this year) I did try some of the more obscure traditional foods.  Some of these are ones that many have not heard of in the states and have certainly never been on my Christmas dinner table. 

The first are chestnuts which, although mentioned in the Christmas Song as roasting over an open fire, I strangely have never tried them.  They were prevalent at every single one of the Christmas markets I attended (even one in Paris) and I finally had to give in to the wonderful, smoky aroma they created.  Uncooked chestnuts are about 2 inches in diameter, shaped like a fat teardrop, and with a smooth brown shell.  The person roasting them makes and “X” on the top of each with a knife before placing them in a huge dry roasting pan over an enormous wood burning fire.  As they heat, the chestnuts begin to pop and crack, the shells burn and turn black, and where the “X” was made, they pucker open, revealing the beautiful nut inside.  With my little parcel of nuts at hand, I had to find a place to sit to eat them.  Since they have to be peeled, they’re not the best on-the-go snack.  Each chestnut crackles as its picked up and as the shell is torn away, hot steam rises out.  Without its shell, all that left is a beautiful beige nut, about as big as a bouncy ball, warm and soft.  They are very pleasing to eat, a little bit crumbly with a slight mushiness.  The taste is similar to soy nuts, but sweeter.  Although I didn’t have any at the time, they would be wonderful dipped in some honey, making an absolutely delicious and very healthy Christmas snack.

 I had Christmas pudding at the final banquet for the study abroad program and, although very delicious, I can understand why it is a dessert eaten only once a year.  Although most people buy them from the grocery store or department store, few make them from scratch in a process that requires weeks for preparation.  It is comprised of LOTS of dried fruit (usually raisins and dried plums) that are soaked in brandy, then combined with treacle, suet, other dry ingredients, and even more brandy.  It’s cooked in a long, slow, steaming process that makes the most rich, dense and moist pudding possible.  Its served in wedges with a brandy butter or cream (just in case you didn’t already get enough brandy) and is by far the most necessary, and most filling, part of any British dinner. 

But the part of the Christmas dinner that I am most fond of are the mince pies, tiny open-faced pastry pies filled with a dried fruit mixture and baked until warm and bubbling.  Not only do I like them best because they are wonderful tasting, but I also learned how to make them.  As a part of my immense foodie experience in London, I decided to take a cooking class and, from the many delicious items of could choose from to learn to make, I picked one of the festive seasonal classics: the mince pies.

The class took place at a store in Clapham Junction called Recipease, yet another Jamie Oliver creation.  Not only do they offer two cooking clases a day there, but they sell takeaway meals (prepeared by on-site chefs every day) sandwiches, and coffee, and an array of Jamie Oliver’s own range of products from cookware, to food items, to kitchen accessories.  The cooking class took place in a big open kitchen area with 12 stations for each person in the class.  I was a little nervous going on my own, especially when I saw that the class was open for anyone in the store to watch. But, after a very warm welcome from the instructor and a steaming glass of complementary mulled wine, I began to feel much more comfortable around the eleven other ladies joining in. 

The set-up of the class was very fun too and allowed for each of us to take our time, relax, and have fun, without worrying about doing things perfectly.  The instructor would show us one part of the mince-pie-making process at a time, and between each step, we would have a go at the step at our own station.  At the end of the last step, I was left with a muffin tray (which I got to keep) of 12 uncooked little mince pies ready to take home and bake.  And the best part is, while were assembling our pies, our instructor had put her demonstration ones in the oven so that, by the time we were all finished, we each got to sample a cooked mince pie. They are the absolute epitome of comforting and the flavors combine to make something that just screams Christmas.  When warm, they are chewy, crumbly, crispy, and oozing with flavor so, I cannot resist from sharing with you the recipe I learned. 

The cooking class was a really great experience, not only because I learned a new recipe, but I also learned other great cooking and baking tips and got to have a new cultural experience in London, amongst Londoners.   I hope you will make them for your family this year, as I will be doing, to bring a little British spin to the table.  Cheers and Happy Christmas!

Mince Pies

(Sorry, but the recipe I was given uses the metric system, so making these will require a little extra conversion work but, believe me, it’s worth it.)

Sweet Shortcrust Pastry
500 g all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
100 g icing sugar, sifted
250 g ice cold butter, cut into cubes
zest of one lemon (you can substitute the zest of an orange if you’d like)
2 medium free range eggs, beaten in a bowl
a splash of milk, if needed

Sift the flour and the icing sugar in a large bowl together.  Place the cubes of butter overtop.  Using your hands, work the cubes of butter into the flour and sugar by rubbing your thumbs against your fingers until you end up with a fine crumbly mixture.  Before doing this, however, run your hands under cold water because the heat from you hands can melt the butter and you want it to stay as cold as possible.  Also, try to do this step as quickly but efficiently as possible.  After the butter is worked in, only use a knife or fork to mix the ingredients to keep them cold.  Add the zest and mix it in.  Then, add the egg a little at a time, mixing it in with the utensil, until everything comes nicely together in a ball.  Because the weather can affect how much moisture the flour needs, you may not need all of the egg or, if you use it all and the mixture is still too dry, add a little milk until the dough comes together.  Using your hands, quickly form the dough into a ball, place it on a floured surface, and pat it into a flat round.  Wrap it in clingfilm and let it rest for at least a half hour in the refrigerator.  Now, it’s time to make the mince filling

Mince Pie Filling
200 g peeled, cored cooking apples
100 g chopped unsalted butter
450 g dried mixed fruit (sultanas, currants, cranberries, candied orange peel)
50 g chopped walnuts
25 g chopped dried sour cherries
1 tsp. mixed spice (nutmeg, clove, allspice, cardamom)
1 tsp. cinnamon
4 Tbs. brandy, whisky, or rum

Place the dried fruit, walnuts, and cherries into a large saucepan.  Grate the apples overtop the fruit and add the spices and the butter.  Place the pot onto the stove on a low to medium low heat and heat the mixture for about 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the butter is melted and the fruit starts soaking in the moisture.  After the time is up, remove the pot from the stove, transfer the filling to a bowl, and allow to cool.  Once cool, stir in the alcohol of choice.  You can then place the filling in airtight jars and refrigerate for up to a week, or you can go ahead and make the mince pies.

To prepare the pies, first remove the shortcrust pastry from the refrigerator and roll it out to a 1/8-inch thickness.  It is actually easiest to place the dough between two pieces of nonstick parchment or wax paper and use the rolling pin on top of the paper so that nothing sticks to the counter and no extra flour needs to be added.  Once rolled out, use a drinking glass with rim about 1.5 to 2 times larger than the diameter of the bottom of each compartment in a muffin tin, to use as a cookie cutter and punch out circles to make the base of the pies.  Once you have the circles, place them inside the muffin tin cups, pressing them into the corners and against the edges to make sure is stays up.  Then, spoon the filling into each cup, letting it come slightly higher that the edge of the pastry.  Finally, roll out the leftover dough and, using a decorative cookie cutter, make shapes and place them over each pie.  Bake at 185 degrees Celsius for about 20-25 minutes or until the pastry is golden brown and the filling is bubbling.  Let them cool for a minute before prying them out with a fork, giving them a dusting of icing sugar, and devouring.

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