Chocolate fruit cake for Christmas

chocolate fruit christmas cake3 text

Today is Stir Up Sunday, the last Sunday before Advent and traditionally the day for making Christmas puddings and cakes. We, however, are breaking slightly with tradition here at Chez Bangers. Instead of making our usual Amaretto Christmas cake, this year we’ve gone for something slightly different. Continue reading “Chocolate fruit cake for Christmas”

The Spice Trail: your favourite cinnamon recipes

Cinnamon Collage

Used by the Ancient Greeks and Egyptians and mentioned several times in the Bible, our love of cinnamon dates back many centuries. And judging by the dishes entered into December’s celebration of cinnamon in The Spice Trail, it is clear this spice is as popular as ever.

So let’s see what culinary delights we have waiting for us on The Spice Trail this month, starting with some very tempting savoury dishes…

lamb meatballs

Spicy(ish) Lamb Meatballs from Mamacook

These warming meatballs from Heidi at Mamacook feature cinnamon, coriander and paprika and get an extra spicy kick from a touch of harissa and are sure to be a big hit with all the family. Although Heidi does suggest you might want to up the harissa if there won’t be any little ones joining you for dinner.

cinnamon butternut squash and chicken stew

Cinnamon Butternut Squash and Chicken Stew from Recipes From a Pantry

When this stew is cooking, Bintu from Recipe from a Pantry says it inspires a follow-your-nose-to-the-smell-and-bury-your-face-in-it moment and I totally believe her. This looks like my kind of temple food; a dish that tastes good and does you good. And you just know, one bowlful won’t be enough.

leftover turkey chilli

Leftover Turkey Chilli from Recipes From a Pantry

Perfect for these post-Christmas days, this turkey chilli (a second entry from Bintu at Recipes From a Pantry) is low on calories, tasty, easy and cheap as chips, using leftovers and store cupboard staples like chickpeas and beans. A wonderfully healthy winter warmer as an antidote to all that festive gluttony.


Low Calorie Rogan Josh from London Unattached

This tempting Rogan Josh from Fiona at London Unattached is another timely recipe for those looking to cut down on a few calories in the New Year. Coming in at only 350 calories a portion, this curry would be perfect for a 5:2 diet fast day. Low on calories it might be, but it’s definitely big on flavour.


Jacki’s Moroccan Lamb Tagine from Jacki

Next up is this beautiful lamb tagine from Jacki, with whom you’ll often find me chatting on Twitter about food and Aga cookery. Jacki doesn’t blog herself but I was more than happy to feature her one-pot-wonder of a recipe here on Bangers & Mash.

slow roast lamb

Slow Roast Lamb with Chicory & Winter Vegetables from Bangers & Mash

We have another dish bringing together that perfect partnership of lamb and cinnamon, this time in the form of an Ottolenghi-inspired warm salad with slow roast shoulder of lamb accompanied by roast chicory, swede, carrot and parsnip. The deliciously sweet and sour dressing is created from honey, lemon, cinnamon and pomegranate molasses for a surprisingly sunny winter salad.

And now let us turn our attention to your sweet cinnamon creations…

Parsnip Cake

Low Sugar Parsnip Cake from Mamacook

I adore parsnip cake and it’s a great way to use up the surplus I often find results from veg boxes at this time of year. This recipe from Heidi at Mamacook looks like the perfect one to try out on my children, particularly as it’s fairly low in the sugar stakes and an excellent source of fibre too. Not quite one of your five-a-day perhaps, but not far off…

apple pancakes

Wholemeal Apple Pancakes from Mamacook

We often make drop scones on the Aga for breakfast but I think next time we might be giving these apple pancakes from Mamacook a whirl instead. Apple and cinnamon is of course a match made in heaven, and drizzled with a little honey I reckon these pancakes would be just perfect for a lazy Sunday brunch.

speculoos shortbread

Speculoos Shortbread from Blue Kitchen Bakes

I was thrilled when Jen from Blue Kitchen Bakes’ email dropped into my inbox with her recipe for Speculoos Shortbread, including how to make your own Speculoos spice mix from scratch. I have been addicted to Speculoos since picking up a jar of confiture de speculoos in France last summer, and I’m very pleased to now be able to make my own spice mix. And I think the first thing I’ll be baking with it is a big batch of this scrummy shortbread.


Christmas Trifle from How to Cook Good Food

Christmas just isn’t Christmas for me without a good trifle. And this trifle from Laura at How to Cook Good Food looks like a very good trifle indeed, packed full of gorgeous fruits and spices in the form of dates, apricots, caramel clementines, vanilla and cinnamon. It is also an excellent way to use up leftover Christmas cake.

butternut squash muffins

Butternut Squash Muffins from Recipes From a Pantry

These pretty muffins from Bintu at Recipes From a Pantry are an absolute breeze to bake, and made even easier because you don’t have to peel the squash. Result! A lovely baked treat for breakfast or at teatime and an ideal way to sneak a little vegetable matter into little people.


Mince Pies with Spinach Pastry from Veggie Desserts

I have only recently discovered Kate’s blog, Veggie Desserts, and I absolutely love it. Kate freely admits she is obsessed with using vegetables in her desserts, and the veggies aren’t hidden either but instead stand out, loud and proud. As in this sweet little mince pies with their pastry cases in an intriguing shade of green. Yes, the pastry features spinach. Not something that would ever have occurred to me, but certainly something I will be trying very soon.

choc orange brownie

Chocolate Brownies with a Hint of Orange & Cinnamon from Cook Eat Write

Just how temptingly moist and delicious do these brownies from Stacey at Cook Eat Write look? I just want to reach into the screen and grab one. Or two. Oh, go on then, I’ll take the lot…


Cinnamon Raisin Focaccia from The Lass in the Apron

Focaccia is one of my favourite breads but I’ve never made a sweet version before, and this recipe from Alexandra aka The Lass in the Apron makes me want to bake some. Right now. Sugar and spice and all things nice – in a bread. Just heavenly, I say.

festive fruit pies

Festive Fruit Pies from Utterly Scrummy

If you’re not keen on traditional mince pies, these dainty fruit pies from Michelle at Utterly Scrummy are the pies for you. Filled with apples, pears, plums and cranberries and spiced with cinnamon and vanilla, these are a much lighter take on the traditional mince pie but look just as delicious.


Chocolate Gingerbread Christmas Decorations from Eat Your Veg

These edible decorations from Louisa at Eat Your Veg are incredibly cute and would be such a fun activity to do with the kids in the run up to Christmas. And I know just how much my little ones would appreciate the addition of chocolate to the gingerbread too. Sounds scrummy!

cranberry cinnamon swiss roll

Cranberry & Cinnamon Swiss Roll from Blue Kitchen Bakes

Surely nothing sings out Christmas more than cranberries, and this Swiss roll from Jen at Blue Kitchen Bakes provides a lovely lighter alternative to all the chocolate and richness at this time of year. And the sponge also features more of Jen’s Speculoos spice mix – wonderful!

snowflake tear and share iced buns

Snowflake Tear and Share Iced Buns from Bangers & Mash

Another festive bake up next, this time from me. Here’s my very easy to make tear and share iced buns, flavoured with a touch of cinnamon and lemon, shaped into a simple snowflake design, and sprinkled lovingly with a little confectioner’s glitter. A big hit this Christmas with my two daughters.

gingerbread cupcakes

Gingerbread Cupcakes with Golden Syrup Cinnamon Cream Cheese Frosting from The More Than Occasional Baker

Ros at The More Than Occasional Baker brings us these cute gingerbread cupcakes next. Decorated with pretty little Christmas decorations and topped with a yummy cream cheese frosting flavoured with golden syrup and cinnamon, these cakes are guaranteed to be a big hit with little people.

christmas cupcakes

Christmas Cupcakes from Caroline Makes

Next up we have some more lovely Christmas cupcakes, this time from Caroline at Caroline Makes, which she baked for her company’s annual employees’ children party. The cakes are beautifully simple, flavoured with brown sugar and cinnamon and topped with a simple buttercream.

spiced plum and apple eton mess

Spiced Plum & Apple Eton Mess from Bangers & Mash

I made this festive version of an Eton Mess for our family gathering on Boxing Day and it got an all round thumbs up as an alternative to the traditional trifle I’d usually make. The stewed plum and apple is gently flavoured with cinnamon and star anise, and swirled into whipped cream along with crunchy-but-slightly-chewy chunks of meringue.

cinnamon and date cake

Cinnamon and Date Cake from The More Than Occasional Baker

Ros from The More Than Occasional Baker is back with more festive baking – this time a tasty cinnamon and date cake which is extremely simple to make but is guaranteed to impress your guests. The dates give the cake a scrumptious sweet stickiness which, according to Ros, most importantly “does not taste like dates”!

christmas cinnamon shortbread2

Christmas Cinnamon Shortbread from Caroline Makes

Another entry from Caroline at Caroline Makes who brings us a batch of her Christmas cinnamon shortbread. These would make a perfect edible Christmas gift, and are particularly suitable for diabetics as they are very low in sugar.

chocolate cinnamon rolls

Chocolate Cinnamon Rolls from Caroline Makes

Yet more sweet treats from Caroline at Caroline Makes as she shares her third entry – chocolate cinnamon rolls. These lovely sticky, chocolately rolls would make a wonderfully luxurious breakfast or why not try them for a delicious dessert?

chewy oatmeal cran raisin pecan cookies

Chewy Oatmeal Cran-Raisin Pecan Cookies from Elizabeth’s Kitchen Diary

Next we have some irresistible gluten-free cookies from Elizabeth over at Elizabeth’s Kitchen Diary. She baked these beauties for her dance teacher who happens to be gluten intolerant and can never usually eat the cakes brought in to share at her weekly ballroom dance class. They also proved very popular with Elizabeth’s youngest who kept stealing them off the rack while they were cooling. I can see why!


Spiced Stollen Tray Bake from How to Cook Good Food

I’ve wanted to make stollen for ages now, and with this next entry I think I might have discovered the perfect recipe to try. This spiced stollen tray bake comes from Laura at How to Cook Good Food. It’s a fantastic last-minute festive bake, much lighter than the traditional Christmas cake, and filled with marzipan and spices it just has Christmas written all over it.

Orange Shortbread

Orange and Cinnamon White Chocolate Shortbread from Chocolate Log Blog

Next we have another festive shortbread recipe, this time from the very creative Choclette at Chocolate Log Blog. She flavours her shortbread with orange, cinnamon and white chocolate for a fabulously zingy, spicy Christmassy treat, although I don’t think I’ll be waiting until next Christmas to give this recipe a whirl.


Poached Pears with White Chocolate Cream from My Golden Pear

Doesn’t this dessert look just divine? I always think poached pears are a very sophisticated sort of pudding, and this entry from Angela at My Golden Pear certainly looks the height of sophistication in my eyes. The pears are poached in red wine, sugar, cinnamon and vanilla and served with a brandy snap tuile filled with white chocolate cream. Dreamy.


Gingerbread, Bramble & Lemon Trifle from Vohn’s Vittles

I really can’t wait to try this trifle recipe from Vohn at Vohn’s Vittles which has homemade gingerbread soaked in brandy at the base – what a marvellous idea. It also features layers of bramble jelly, lemon curd and lashings of whipped cream. This definitely sounds like my kind of trifle.

mulled cider

Mulled Cider from Bangers & Mash

Last up is my recipe for mulled cider, which includes chilli and black peppercorns for a spicy kick. I’m not all that keen on mulled wine but in recent years have developed a real fondness for mulled cider – must be due to having lived in the West Country so long!

And the winner is…

So there you have it – a brilliant collection of sensational cinnamon recipes – sweet, savoury and festive. Thank you all so much for sharing in this month’s Spice Trail. But as ever there can only be one winner. With such a high standard of entries this month it was a tough call, but December’s winner is…


Kate from Veggie Desserts for her amazing Mince Pies with Spinach Pastry, which I’m sure you’ll agree were such an imaginative and original entry.

Kate wins an amazing Tasting for Two voucher from the good people at Buyagift.


With this tasting experience, Kate and her chosen companion will get to discover a whole world of new tastes, textures and exciting flavour combinations. From sweet or savoury, great British grub or international cuisine, there’s a great selection for her to choose from – including refined afternoon teas, olive oil tasting, sushi making, cookery classes, brewery tours and wine tasting experiences. I can’t wait to hear what you go for, Kate!

So congratulations once again to Kate, and thank you to everyone who took part in The Spice Trail this month. Watch this space for news of January’s challenge.

Happy new year everyone and here’s to a super tasty 2014!

spice trail badge long

Your Christmas Day cooking guide – with a little help from Waitrose and Tim Burton

We’re almost there. Only two more sleeps until the big Ho Ho. I don’t know what it’s like in your house, but the excitement here is reaching fever pitch. My daughters are crazy about Christmas and are permanently busy with some preparation or another, be it a festive treasure hunt or their attempt to break the world record for the longest paper chain. By twelfth night, I swear every square inch of floor space in our house will be covered in paper chain…

It can be a bit of a juggling act on Christmas Day to keep the children entertained and occupied while you take care of lunch. The kind people at Waitrose have come up with this ingenious infographic to help you keep on top of your timings, which all very cleverly tie in with key points in the Tim Burton film, The Nightmare Before Christmas. We just happen to be huge fans of Tim Burton here at Chez Bangers, so this couldn’t be more perfect.

So fellow parents, you can now snuggle down to watch a great film with your kids and by keeping an eye on this handy infographic you’ll know exactly when to pop back into the kitchen to baste the turkey and put on the sprouts. And if you’re after useful tips on cooking your Christmas turkey,  you’ll find plenty more on the Waitrose website.


Happy Christmas everyone – eat, drink and be merry!

Disclosure: Waitrose provided me with a complimentary copy of The Nightmare Before Christmas and a selection of festive snacks and treats as thanks for featuring this infographic.

Mulled cider with a spicy chilli kick

mulled cider

This post first appeared in the Wells Journal on Thursday 19 December 2013.

Perhaps it’s a sign my roots are now well and truly planted in the West Country but I much prefer mulled cider these days to mulled wine. Red wine, in my opinion, is best drunk as it is. Cider though is just lovely served warm with festive spices. In my version, I add chilli, peppercorns and star anise for an extra spicy kick.

I encourage you to use a traditional farmhouse cider and not some of that cheap, fizzy stuff, which Julian Temperley of the Somerset Cider Brandy Company recently described to me as “industrial cider”.

According to Temperley, the cider world has become divided between the craft ciders, where up to 20 varieties of local grown apples are pressed and blended, and these ‘industrial’ newcomers, essentially apple-flavoured alcohol, rapidly replacing the gap left by alcopops on the drinks market.

Cider has been pressed on Temperley’s farm at Burrow Hill for the past 150 years, amidst 160 acres of cider apple orchards.

More discerning cider drinkers do care about the provenance and integrity of the product. Andrew Quinlan of Orchard Pig reports a growing demand for cider “that not only tastes good but also tells a story, with strong heritage and character.” Nearly all Orchard Pig’s apples are grown locally, although Quinlan says they do “allow a few foreign ones from Dorset and Devon that make the grade.”

It’s not just us Brits who appreciate a glass of farmhouse cider. “We are truffling out new fans in far off corners of the world,” says Quinlan, “as Orchard Pig plants its trotters in places such as Finland, Australia, Holland and Singapore. All this from making my first barrel in my garden shed as a hobby in 2004!”

The Hecks family have been making farmhouse cider in Street since 1840 and they continue to use the old traditional methods of cider making to this day. This is the local cider sold in our village shop and it was one of their vintage ciders I used for this recipe.

Last week saw the funeral at Pilton Church of Frank Naish, who at 89 was Britain’s oldest cider maker, using what is thought to be the oldest cider press in the country. Temperley describes him as a fine example of a true cider maker and a wonderful ambassador for Somerset cider. Please raise a toast to Naish as you drink a cup of warming mulled cider this Christmas.

mulled cider

Mulled cider

Makes 6 to 8 cups

1 litre Somerset cider
500ml apple juice
2 tbsp honey
3 star anise
4 cloves
A few peppercorns (I used Indonesian long pepper)
1 tsp dried Ancho chilli (or any dried chilli you prefer – I like the smoky flavour of Ancho)
2 cinnamon sticks (I used cinnamon and cassia bark)

Simply place all the ingredients in a large pan and heat gently for about quarter of an hour. Do not let it come to the boil. You may need to strain it through a small sieve as you serve.

Cheers and merry Christmas!

spice trail badge square

Cinnamon is one of the spices used in this mulled cider, and so I’m entering it into December’s Spice Trail challenge.

Spiced plum and apple Eton mess

spiced plum and apple eton mess

I enjoy a little serendipity in the kitchen. Those occasions when an accident turns into a wonderful new creation for example.

This pudding came about by accident a few weeks ago when friends came over for Sunday lunch. I intended to make an impressive pavlova but managed to crack the meringue and I was forced to improvise. The broken pieces of meringue, along with the spiced, stewed fruits, were gently folded into whipped cream for a winter version of an Eton mess.

I’ve made it again since – the second time I took photographs for the blog. Instead of folding the ingredients together, I layered them in cocktail glasses for a slightly prettier and more refined dessert.

spiced plums and apples

I like bold flavours and so the plums and apples are quite heavily spiced with star anise, cinnamon and ginger. If you’re not so fond of strong spices, you may wish to hold back a little.

This mess would provide a fantastic finale to a festive meal, perhaps as an alternative to the traditional trifle.

spiced plum and apple eton mess

Spiced plum and apple Eton mess

Serves 6

For the meringue:

3 egg whites
pinch of salt
175g caster sugar
1tsp corn flour
½tsp vanilla extract

For the spiced, stewed fruit

6 red plums, stoned and quartered
4 cooking apples, peeled, cored and cut into large chunks
2 cinnamon sticks
1 star anise
100ml water
200g caster sugar
1 tsp finely chopped fresh ginger

500ml double cream
80g icing sugar

Start by making the meringue.

If you don’t have an Aga, preheat the oven to 150ºC / gas mark 2.

In a large bowl, beat the egg whites and salt until stiff. Gradually whisk in the caster sugar a teaspoonful at a time, and finally whisk in the corn flour and vanilla. Lay a sheet of silicone paper on a baking tray and onto dollop small evenly-sized rounds of the mixture.

If you have an Aga, put the baking tray on the floor of the roasting oven for three to four minutes, until the meringues are slightly coloured. Then move down to the floor of the simmering oven for about an hour until the meringues are firm on the outside but still a little gooey in the middle.

If you’re using a conventional oven, bake for an hour and then turn the oven off. Open the door halfway and allow the meringues to cool to remove to room temperature before removing.

For the stewed fruits, simply place all the ingredients in a heavy-bottomed saucepan, stir well and bring to a simmer. Cook gently for around 20 minutes, stirring now and again, and skimming off any froth that forms on the surface.

When the fruit is tender and the syrup has thickened, remove from the heat and allow to cool.

Pour the double cream into a large bowl and sift into the icing sugar. Whip until the cream forms soft peaks.

When the fruit and meringue are completely cool, you can assemble your desserts. Break the meringues into bite-size pieces. Spoon some stewed fruit into the bottom of your bowls or glasses. Place some meringue on top and them some whipped cream. Continue until you have filled each bowl/glass. Serve chilled.

spice trail badge square

This dish is spiced with cinnamon sticks and so I am entering it into this month’s Spice Trail challenge, which I just happen to be  hosting.


Party Food is the theme this month at Four Seasons Food, hosted by Delicieux and Eat Your Veg, and so I thought these puds would be good for a festive party.


And lastly as a very British dessert meets a very Oriental spice, I thought I’d also enter this Eton mess into December’s Fabulous Fusion Food challenge hosted by Deena Kakaya.

Snowflake tear and share iced buns

snowflake Collage

These snowflake iced buns would make a fun teatime centre piece when friends and family are gathered together over Christmas, particularly if there are children in the equation. They are very easy to make as well, and the children will love to get involved in the baking as much as the eating.

Flavoured with cinnamon and lemon and sprinkled with a tiny touch of confectioner’s glitter, the buns are sticky, sweet and wonderfully festive but without the rich heaviness of many of the cakes and puddings around at this time of year. Perfect with a cup of afternoon tea.

snowflake iced buns

This recipe is based on one I found on the Delicious website.

Snowflake tear and share iced buns

250g strong white bread flour
250g plain flour
1 sachet (7g) dried yeast
2 tsp salt
50g soft butter
2 tbsp caster sugar
½ tsp cinnamon
100ml semi-skimmed milk, warmed
1 egg
200ml tepid water
400g icing sugar
3-4 tbsp lemon juice
confectioner’s glitter

Sift the flours into a mixing bowl along with the yeast and salt. Make a well in the middle, and add the soft butter, sugar, cinnamon milk and egg. Bring all the ingredients together using a wooden spoon, adding the tepid water just a little at a time until you have a wet dough.

Dust your work surface with flour, and then knead your dough for a good 10 minutes until smooth and stretchy. Place in a lightly oiled bowl and cover with a clean tea towel. Leave in a warm place for an hour or so, until the dough has roughly doubled in size.

Knock back the dough by giving it a decent punch. Pull off small pieces of dough, approximately palm-sized and roll into the various components of your snowflake shape. You’ll need eight longish buns for the main ‘spokes’ of the snowflake and eight slightly shorter ones for the V-shapes at the end of each spoke. Don’t make them too fat; remember they will rise again. Arrange the buns, almost touching on a lined baking tray. I had extra dough left over, so I made a further six traditional shaped buns and placed these on a separate tray.

Preheat the oven to 200°C / gas mark 6.

Cover the buns with a tea towel and leave in a warm place for another hour to double in size.

Bake in the oven for about 10 minutes until risen and a beautiful golden colour. Carefully lift the snowflake onto a wire rack to cool. Don’t worry though if it does break apart. It’s easy to put it all back together on a plate before icing.

To make the lemon icing, simply sieve the icing sugar into a large bowl and mix in enough lemon juice until you get a thick but slightly runny icing. Using a tablespoon, drizzle a generous amount of icing over each bun and sprinkle over a little confectioner’s glitter for some festive sparkle. Leave for a minute or so to set, then place on a serving plate. And off you go – tear and share!

snowflake iced buns

My Spice Trail challenge for December has cinnamon as its theme, so of course I have to enter these sticky iced buns.

spice trail badge square

The buns are great to bake with and for kids, making them ideal candidates for December’s Family Foodies hosted by Eat Your Veg, where the theme is Kids Christmas.

family-foodiesAnd as the chosen letter is X over at the Alpha Bakes challenge, hosted by The More Than Occasional Baker and Caroline Makes, I think these buns would be a good entry as they are perfect for your Xmas parties.

AlphaBakes Logo

Thumbs up for…


With only nine sleeps until the big day, it’s feeling ever so Christmassy here at Banger Heights. The decorations are up, I’ve shed a tear watching my youngest in the school nativity play and I’m enjoying choir rehearsals for the staff carol service in Wells Cathedral later this week – although I might need to mime the bit when I’m supposed to hit a high G.

And so, this month’s Thumbs Up brings you some top recommendations for last-minute festive foodie gifts, nibbles, treats and ingredients…

Hotel Chocolat Collage

Hotel Chocolat – The Signature Christmas Collection

When you receive a box of chocolates from Hotel Chocolat you expect something special and this luxury Christmas collection did not disappoint. As well as looking visually stunning, the flavour combinations are surprising and masterful; flavours that mustn’t be rushed but savoured slowly. If it takes a few days for my husband and me to consume a box of chocolates, that’s a good sign. We can only stuff our faces with cheap chocolate! And at £25 this is a fairly expensive box of chocolates, but if you’ve got the budget I’d say it’s well worth it.

My personal favourites were the dark chocolate Christmas Stars with rich marzipan infused with orange liqueur, the Nutmeg and Almond Pralines, the Mulled Ports bringing together port, bitter orange and spices, and the delicately perfumey Pistachio Praline Crunch with its hint of rose. Just beautiful. More please!

heston blumenthall chocolate box

Heston from Waitrose – Chocolate Box

More delicious chocolates, this time from Heston Blumenthal’s range for Waitrose. Heston’s Chocolate Box is also full of exciting and unusual flavour combinations, but at £10 is a little more affordable. I adored the Thyme and Rosemary chocolates and the BFGs were rather fun too – transforming the classic 1970s gateaux into chocolate form.

Waitrose have hidden a special ticket in five of Heston’s Chocolate Boxes, and five lucky winners and their guests will be invited to join him for an unforgettable food experience. A sixth ticket is also up for grabs on the Waitrose Facebook page.

meaningful chocolate tree decorations

Meaningful Chocolate Tree Decorations

My children were rather taken with these chocolate tree decorations from the Meaningful Chocolate Company. The box contains five Fairtrade chocolates onto which you place five illustrated stickers, as well as a copy of the Christmas story. The idea is you read the story as you hang your decorations on the tree. A donation from every sale goes to the charity Traidcraft. A lovely concept and the chocolate is good too.

Wonderful Pisachios Almonds

Wonderful Pistachios and Wonderful Almonds

These Wonderful Pistachios and Wonderful Almonds are extremely good and perfect nibbles for festive get-togethers. In a range of delicious flavours, they are very, very moreish and pretty healthy too, as they are dry roasted without any extra oil. The salted almonds were just divine, while my husband and I practically inhaled the sweet chilli pistachios in a single sitting!

heston blumenthall mince pie

Heston from Waitrose – Spiced Shortcrust Mince Pies

There’s only one word for these bad boys – yum! I know we should really be making our own mince pies this Christmas, as they are stupidly easy, but if you want to spoil yourself, these pies from Heston Blumenthal’s range for Waitrose are very good. The pastry is deliciously light, short and crisp and the mincemeat is rich and beautifully spiced but not overly sweet like so many other shop-bought mince pies.

hellmans colmans Collage

Hellman’s Mayonnaise and Colman’s Sauces

Unilever Kitchen sent me a range of products to try – perfect accompaniments to the Christmas meal itself and for the best bits, the leftovers. I’m rather partial to Hellman’s mayonnaise, but I’ve never tried any of their other flavoured mayonnaises. To be honest, they’ve never really appealed but I’ve been pleasantly surprised with what I’ve tried so far.

The other day my children had their Christmas lunch at school, and so that my husband and I weren’t left out, I made us turkey sandwiches at home. I squeezed lots of the mayo with a ‘hint of lemon’ on mine (as well as a good dollop of Colman’s cranberry sauce), and it was absolutely scrummy. My husband tried the garlic mayonnaise on his sandwich, and devoured it in seconds. We also tried the garlic mayonnaise in jacket potatoes later that evening, which were very tasty, and I imagine it would be perfect with chips too. Since my first trip to Amsterdam as a kid I’ve had a thing for chips with garlic mayo.

As well as making a classic mint sauce, I can also recommend the Colman’s mint concentrate as a cooking ingredient. I rubbed it all over a shoulder of lamb before slow roasting it for an Ottolenghi-inspired dish at the weekend (recipe coming soon), which worked very well. I imagine the mint concentrate would be perfect in a dressing for a Greek salad too.

port and cheese

Aldi cheese and wine pairing

Aldi has recently teamed up with Master of Wine Sarah Jane Evans to create some Christmas drinks and cheese matches, perfect for entertaining this festive season. They sent me this Fletcher’s Fine Ruby Port NV to sample, along with a truckle of Wensleydale cheese. Sarah Jane Evans says: “Ruby Port is a great partner for Wensleydale with cranberries: the Port matches the colour of the fruit, and brings a round softness to the creamy crumbly cheese.”

Fletcher’s Fine Ruby Port is a fairly light, easy drinking port, which I’d say is perfect for dinner parties when you don’t want to end on anything too heavy. The Wensleydale has a soft, creamy tanginess with lovely fruity bursts. So each get a thumbs up from me individually. But in my opinion, I don’t think they actually go all that well together. I’d say the port would work much better with a mature Cheddar or a good salty blue cheese. And the Wensleydale needs a dry, crisp white wine. But that’s only me, and I’m no wine expert!

thai green Collage

Kent’s Kitchen – Thai Green Stir In Flavor Shots

Finally, if you’re looking for quick and easy ways to transform turkey leftovers, I recommend you have some of these Thai Green Flavour Shots in your store cupboard. Containing all natural ingredients, these little gel concentrates add an authentic flavour kick to your meat and vegetables; I’ve used them in a butternut squash and spinach curry, as well as a chicken Thai green curry. They can also be used with rice, salad, couscous, jacket potatoes or in wrap.

The Flavour Shots are available exclusively from Ocado. Other flavours are available, although I haven’t tried these out yet: BBQ, Hot & Spicy, Fajita, and Garlic & Coriander. If you’ve tried any of the others, do let me know what you think.

Disclosure: I was sent complimentary samples of Hotel Chocolat’s Signature Christmas Collection, Heston from Waitrose’s  Chocolate Box and Spiced Shortcrust Mince Pies, Wonderful Almonds, Wonderful Pistachios, Hellman’s mayonnaise and Colman’s sauces and the Aldi cheese and wine pairing for review purposes. No money exchanged hands and all opinions expressed are my own.

White chocolate, cardamom and cranberry cookies

This post originally featured in the Wells Journal on Thursday 12 December 2013.

This can be a very expensive time of year. Like most people I am looking for ways to stretch my budget that little bit further. But I have been thinking a lot about why we put so much pressure on ourselves each year to create the ‘perfect’ Christmas. Why does perfect need to equate to expensive?

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby has been vocal on this subject recently. Whether or not you’re religious, there is a lot of sense in his comments and we should heed his reminder that being generous at Christmas should be in a way that demonstrates our love and affection, rather than by trying to buy that love and affection.

So this year, please don’t break the bank simply to let people know what they mean to you. In my eyes, a homemade gift, particularly if it is something you can eat, is so much more special and meaningful than a hastily bought piece of tat.

white chocolate cardamom cranberry cookies

These simple cookies are a perfect Christmas present. They are easy to make and beautifully festive, featuring that tried and tested combination of cranberries and white chocolate. While cardamom might make you think of Asian cookery, it is also very popular in Norwegian baking and so the Scandinavian theme I started last week with my baked ham and Finnish mustard continues…

White chocolate, cardamom and cranberry cookies

100g soft butter
200g caster sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 large egg
150g plain flour
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
100g ground almonds
2 tsp ground cardamom (or 1 tsp cardamom seeds crushed in a pestle and mortar)
125g dried cranberries
125g white chocolate chopped

Preheat the oven to 180°C/gas mark 4.

In a mixing bowl, cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla and egg and beat again, before mixing in the flour, bicarbonate of soda, ground almonds and cardamom.

When the dough is smooth and thick, stir in the cranberries and chocolate.

Roll pieces of the dough into walnut-sized balls and place onto baking trays lined with baking parchment. Make sure they are well spaced out.

Bake for around 10 minutes until they are a pale golden colour.

Leave to cool on the tray for a few minutes and then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

white chocolate cardamom cranberry cookies

As these cookies are super easy to make, they’re ideal for baking with children to give as gifts at Christmas, I’m entering them into December’s Family Foodies challenge at Eat Your Veg, where the theme is Kids Christmas.

family-foodies I’m also entering them into Victoria at A Kick At The Pantry Door‘s Feel Good Food challenge, hosted by JibberJabberUK. The theme this month is Cranberries.

feel good food

December’s theme at Tea Time Treats is Festive Gifts and Treats, so I’ve got to enter these cookies there too. This is Kate from What Kate Baked‘s last month hosting this brilliant challenge, and Karen from Lavender & Lovage will be announcing her new co-host in the new year.


Deena Kakaya is running a new challenge called Fabulous Fusion Foods and so I thought these cookies might make a good entry, as they bring together a spice I associate with Asia, cardamom, with white chocolate and cranberries, which I connect with a very Western Christmas.


And finally, I’m entering these cookies into the AlphaBakes challenge hosted by  The More than Occasional Baker and Caroline Makes, where the theme for December is the letter X – perfect for all things Xmas…

AlphaBakes Logo

After Eight ice cream sundaes

Sundae CollageIn the words of Perry and Bing and may other crooners, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Our tree went up at the weekend and suddenly the house feels transformed into a magical, sparkly wonderland. It’s the earliest  we’ve ever put it up. My husband doesn’t think we should have a tree until Christmas Eve, but I’ve been working on him over the years and, having been to the children’s school Christmas fair the day before, it just felt right for it to go up last Saturday.

We also made these After Eight ice cream sundaes at the weekend, which got us into the festive feasting spirit. Wow – they were good. Indulgent, rich and decadent, just like a proper sundae should be. Not of course, something you should eat every day though. But for a Christmas treat, these are just the ticket.

after eight sundae

I must admit, I haven’t eaten After Eight Mints for some years. I associate them with Christmas as a child back in the eighties. I can clearly remember being at my grandparents’ house in Lancashire for Christmas and having them at the end of a meal. As the grown ups were chatting, I pretty much worked my way through the box, and I couldn’t deny how many I’d eaten as the evidence was there in front of me in the form of a pile of those little black envelopes. I’d forgotten how much I like them. And my children seem rather partial to them to. It was a battle keeping the grubby little mitts off them so that I had enough to make this dessert.

The good people at After Eight sent me some of their goodies to experiment with: a box of After Eight Mints and their After Eight Collection, a selection of dark and white mint chocolates. The challenge was to come up with a dessert featuring their chocolate mints. As my children adore mint choc chip ice cream, an ice cream sundae was the obvious choice. 

These sundaes are very simple to make; more of an assembly job really. There are chocolate brownies at the bottom. Feel free to bake your own, but I made things easy on myself by buying some. Next comes a layer of forest fruits, which bring a touch of tartness to the proceedings. You need it to cut through all that rich sweetness. Then there’s the After Eight ice cream. Even if you don’t fancy making the whole sundae, do try making the ice cream – it’s a lovely take on the classic mint choc chip and really couldn’t be easier to create.

after eight ice cream

Melted After Eight Mints combined with a little cream conjure up a wonderful chocolate sauce, which is loving drizzled over the ice cream before topping with whipped cream for that extra level of indulgence.

after eight chocolate sauce

So there you have it – my simple After Eight ice cream sundaes. You’re welcome!

After Eight ice cream sundaes

Makes 4 large sundaes

Half a litre vanilla ice cream
300g box of After Eight Mints
4 chocolate brownies, cut into bite-size chunks
300ml double cream
250g forest fruits (fresh or frozen)
After Eight Collection chocolates for decoration

Place the ice cream in a bowl and allow to soften at room temperature for about 10 minutes.

Chop half the After Eight Mints into small pieces. Fold the mint pieces into the ice cream, spoon into a plastic carton, cover and place in the freezer until it has re-frozen.

To make the sauce, place the remaining After Eight Mints and 100ml of the cream in a saucepan over a gentle heat. Stir until the chocolate mints have completely melted and the sauce has formed. Leave to cool.

Whip the remaining cream in a large bowl until stiff.

Place the brownie pieces at the bottom of four sundae glasses and top with a couple of spoonfuls of the frozen fruits. On top of the fruits place a couple of scoops of the chocolate mint ice cream and drizzle with a generous smothering of chocolate mint sauce. Finally, spoon whipped cream on top of each sundae and decorate with a pretty chocolate from the After Eight Collection. 

Dig in and enjoy to your heart’s content!

Disclosure: this post is sponsored by After Eight who paid me to develop this recipe and provided me with complimentary boxes of After Eight Mints and the After Eight Collection.

As this pudding definitely fits the description of a Festive Treat, I’m entering it into December’s Teatime Treats hosted by What Kate Baked and Lavender & Lovage.


And these sundaes would be great for parties, so I’m also entering them into Four Seasons Food hosted by  Delicieux and Eat Your Veg.


My children adored the sundaes, so I reckon they would also make a good entry for December’s Family Foodies challenge over at Eat Your Veg, where the theme is Kids Christmas.


Amaretto Christmas cake for Stir Up Sunday


Tomorrow is Stir Up Sunday and this is the Christmas cake recipe I will be baking. I made it last year and, even though I’m not generally the biggest fan of rich fruit cakes, I thought it was absolutely delicious and so it has to be made again.

It’s essentially Guardian columnist Felicity Cloake’s recipe from her How to cook the perfect… series, but instead of using whisky I flavour my cake with amaretto, that deliciously perfumed, sweet-tasting almond-flavoured liqueur. It’s the drink I most associate with Christmas. My husband and I buy a bottle for the festive season every year, and we just about make it last until twelfth night.

Stir up Sunday traditionally falls on the last Sunday before Advent, which this year is 24 November. The name is thought to come from a prayer in the Book of Common Prayer, which is always read in church this Sunday:

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.

Since the prayer readies Christians for the start of Advent, this day has also become synonymous with the start of other Christmas preparations, including the mixing of the Christmas pudding. With just over four weeks to go until the big day, it’s also the perfect time to bake the Christmas cake, giving sufficient time for ‘feeding’ with your alcohol of choice – be it rum, brandy, whisky or, in my case, amaretto.

Last year I let the children help me decorate the top of the cake with figures made from coloured icing sugar. We ended up with a penguin and a snowman but I have absolutely no recollection as to what the third character was meant to be! I didn’t have the heart to leave it off the cake as my youngest was just so proud of it.

decorations Collage

Amaretto Christmas cake

250g currants
250g sultanas
100g dried figs, chopped
100g glacé cherries, halved
100g mixed peel
125ml amaretto, plus extra to feed
125g soft butter
125g demerara sugar
4 eggs, beaten
130g plain flour
½ tsp baking powder
1 tsp mixed spice
pinch of salt
50g ground almonds
grated zest of 1 lemon
50g blanched almonds, roughly chopped
25g crystallised ginger, chopped

Start by soaking the fruit in the alcohol. Place the dried fruit and mixed peel in a bowl, cover with the amaretto, and leave to soak overnight.

Preheat the oven to 140C / gas mark 1. Grease and line a 20cm cake tin with baking parchment.

In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar together until pale and fluffy. Gradually add the eggs, beating well after each addition.

Sift the flour and baking powder into another bowl and then stir in the mixed spice, ground almonds and salt. Fold this into the butter and sugar mixture. Give the soaked fruits a good stir and add these, along with any remaining amaretto, the lemon zest, chopped almonds and ginger. Stir well.

Pour the mixture into the tin and smooth the surface. I appreciated Felicity’s tip of scooping out a small hollow in the middle of the mixture to prevent it doming during baking.

Bake for about an hour, before covering with foil and baking for another half an hour or so. The cake is ready when a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean. Leave to cool in the tin.

With a skewer, poke some holes deep into the cake, and generously brush the surface with more amaretto. Remove the cake from the tin and with the baking parchment still in place, wrap in greaseproof paper and store in an airtight tin.

Feed again with amaretto every week  until it’s time to ice the cake just before Christmas. I cheat at this stage and use a layer of shop-bought marzipan, followed by a layer of shop-bought royal icing. But if you’d like to make your own icing, I can recommend Delia Smith’s recipe. Sorry – I’ve never made my own marzipan, so wouldn’t know where to point you for that!

amaretto christmas cake

This cake has become one of our family Christmas traditions. What are yours?


I’m entering this cake into Tea Time Treats, hosted by Karen at Lavender & Lovage and Kate at What Kate Baked as it contains heaps of dried fruit which just happens to be this month’s theme.