Comment: Festive feast is no simple equation

The key to good Christmas cake is freshly ground allspice, with ground almonds and grated orange.
The key to good Christmas cake is freshly ground allspice, with ground almonds and grated orange.
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I SEEM to have two completely contradictory approaches to Christmas food.

Part of me tries hard to source every ingredient with great care from suppliers that I trust and then hand make things using traditional methods. The rest of me wants to grab the first items that come to hand from the supermarket shelves, take a large swig of alcohol, and see what I can cobble together with the eccentric mix of products I’ve brought home.

This year it’s looking like there might be rather more of the second approach than the first. We have, I am pleased to report, ordered a free range ham that actually contains enough fat to make sure that it tastes of something and I’m reasonably confident that it will be cooked to perfection.

The same excellent butcher on Keighley Market is supplying us with a free range turkey which I am intending to cook with all the trimmings. In the past this has included a serious attempt to home make an authentic bread sauce. I carefully poached an onion in milk, put together a really nice mix of cloves and nutmeg and worked out the best way to incorporate the right amount of home-made breadcrumbs. It took time and care but I thought it was worth it. The rest of the family very tactfully asked whether we could go back to the ready mix next year.

Whilst I was searching for a packet I came across vacuum packed pre-cooked chestnuts. For years I’ve battled with chestnuts. I look at them loose in the shop and they look fantastic in their shiny brown shells. Then I get them home and realise just how labour intensive it is to produce enough of them to serve on a Christmas table.

If you prick and then roast them then they need peeling quickly. The outer shell comes off with ease but the inner skin is dreadfully difficult to move and you tend to find your fingers are getting hot and sore before you’ve got more than a couple done. There’s an old Russian saying: “You should pull your own chestnuts out of the fire.” I entirely agree.

Even when you boil the chestnuts the problem doesn’t seem to get much better. All that happens is that you get bits of boiled chestnut peelings underneath your fingernails and your chestnuts take on a distinctly watery and insipid look. So I’ve gone with the vacuum packs.

When it comes to making the cake I think the effort of doing your own is more than worth the reward. In my opinion the key to good Christmas cake is freshly ground allspice, replacing some of the flour with ground almonds, grated orange and luck.

The luck comes in whether or not I get distracted at about the time it should come out of the oven. Leave it a touch too long and you have wasted an awful lot of time and ingredients. Pull it out too soon and you’re left trying to apologise for a failed Bake-Off style soggy bottom.

With pudding, however, I’ve always taken the opposite view. I know that I should grate my own suet, acquire an extraordinarily large steamer, tie cloth round a pudding bowl filled with a delightful mixture of my own design and then wait for hours whilst it all steams. I confess I find it easier to bung the best version I can find in the shops into a microwave and trust I can pour enough brandy on it to cover up the difference.

I will be serving it with my very own home made brandy butter. This really does seem to be so much better than what you buy in the shops. My version consists of getting warm unsalted butter and then working about the same quantity of soft brown sugar into it before seeing how much brandy I can beat into the mixture without it separating. I then add a bit of lemon zest. After all, it’s important to use your home made products to make sure your family gets their five-a-day, even at Christmas.