Monday, 7 December 2009

Mince pies

As promised, my mince pies recipe, as perfected over the last four weeks....

To make the mincemeat
(from River Cottage Handbook No 2 - Preserves, by Pam Corbin)

1 kg apples
500g firm pears
500g mixed dried fruits (eg raisins, sultanas, currants, etc. I suppose to be extra-Christmassy, you could use cranberries and I may try that next year!)
100g crystallised stem ginger
Finely grated zest and juice of 3 oranges
100g orange marmalade
250g demerara sugar
1/2 tsp ground cloves
2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 nutmeg, grated
50ml ginger wine or cordial (optional, NB I added 50ml syrup from a jar of stem ginger in syrup)
100g chopped walnuts
50ml brandy or sloe gin (NB I added about 80ml....)

Wash the apples, core and dice, then put into a saucepan with the orange juice. Cook gently until tender, about 15 mins. Blend to a puree in a liquidiser if you're sensible or push through a sieve if you've absolutely no common sense and arms of steel. You should end up with about 700 ml of apple puree.

Put the puree into a large bowl and add all the other ingredients, minus the brandy. Mix thoroughly, cover and leave to stand for 12 hours.

Preheat the oven to 130c/gas mark 1/2. Put the mincemeat in a large baking dish and bake, uncovered, for 2-2/1/2 hours. Stir in the brandy or gin then spoon into warm, sterilised jars (see how to sterilise jars here). Seal and store in a dry, dark, cool place until Christmas. Use within 12 months.

So, my mincemeat has been maturing nicely since mid-September and this recipe gave me three 380ml jars of filling.

Now for making the mince pies
(from The Christmas Book, ed., Sherherazade Goldsmith)

225g plain flour
125g chilled unsalted butter, diced
A large pinch of salt
1 large egg yolk
about 100ml hot water
2 tbsp milk
icing sugar to decorate

Mix the flour, butter and salt in a bowl and rub the butter into the flour until it forms consistent crumbs.

Add the egg and a couple of spoonfuls of water. Mix with a knife, making sure you are incorporating all of the flour mixture. Add a little more water as needed until you can squash the mixture together and it sticks. Don't use too much tho! Add a little at a time.

Turn your dough out onto a floured surface and knead until it becomes smooth and slightly elastic. Chill for 10 minutes in the fridge, then roll out to 2mm thick and cut 24 discs with a round pastry cutter.

Preheat the oven to 190c/gas 5. Press each disc into the individual bases of a pie tray. Fill each pastry case with a teaspoon of the mincemeat. Don't be tempted to overfill, even if a spoonful doesn't look enough - it will be!

Top the pies with pretty shapes cut from the remaining pastry. Brush each with a little milk and bake for around 20 minutes, until just starting to colour.

Allow to cool on a wire rack, then sift over with icing sugar.


Sunday, 6 December 2009

Christmas is coming ...

Well, I'm definitely in the holiday spirit now! We ordered our Christmas bird from the local butcher this weekend; we did consider goose this year, but on discovering quite how big they are (and how pricey for free range!) we decided on balance that we'd stick with our usual Christmas bird of choice - duck. We're getting a 5lb bird which should give us two generous portions on Christmas day, a second meal and a couple of sandwiches. Its a free-range and locally-reared (although not organic) Gressingham, but as this will be the first duck we've had from this butcher, it will be a bit of a surprise when it comes to flavour. Hopefully it will live up to their other produce, which is always very good!

Having said that, Christmas for me is always more about the trimmings than the main meat dish, which is why this year I've been perfecting my mince pies recipe before unleashing them on an unsuspecting public (also known as my co-workers). WH has been a willing guinea pig and I hope I have progressed significantly from my first batch (pastry 4/10 - although maybe it's just that WH is a perfectionist). I admit, I've ditched St Delia in favour of a pastry recipe from a book WH gave me as a pre-Christmas present: The Christmas Book, which is full of lovely ideas for homemade decorations, gifts and foodie treats. I made my mincemeat back in September following a recipe from another book I'd highly recommend: The River Cottage Handbook No. 2 - Preserves. This was using the apples from our apple tree, some pears from our Able and Cole delivery and stem ginger. I'll try and post the recipes and some snaps later this week.

Finally, did you know that around 3 million tonnes of waste are generated over the festive season? In our own small way, we're making a slightly different attempt to reduce our own festively-fuelled waste this year, by dispensing with the packaging-heavy branded chocolate advent calendars (plastic wrapper, cardboard shell, plastic inner AND foils?) in favour of a wooden advent calendar which can be used again and again. Isn't it pretty? And you can choose what goes inside ...

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

The Natural Gardener

This autumn, WH and I visited the local horticultural society's annual show and got very excited about the prospect of entering some of our own goodies next year, on the basis that the novice level had very few entrants and we felt sure we could give at least a few of the categories a fair showing. We duly joined-up and last week attended our first event, a very interesting talk by Val Bourne on the principles she outlined in her first book, The Natural Gardener.

The main things I've taken away from the talk are:
  • that you shouldn't overfeed your crops, as this leads to too much soft green growth which is Mecca for aphids and other pests;
  • that pests and predators need each other - if you use chemicals to get rid of all of your aphids, you will also get rid of your ladybirds, meaning that when the next generation of aphids arrive you'll have to spray again. Equally if you kill all of the aphids another way, the ladybirds and other predators won't have any food and will leave your garden, so condemning you to an endless cycle of otherwise pleasant summers evenings spent squashing bugs;
  • that WH spent much of last summer unknowingly brushing ladybird eggs off our tomatoes, when if he'd let them hatch they'd have eaten all of our aphids (for those of you who are wary of making the same mistake, ladybirds lay little piles of small, yellow eggs, around thirty at a time, in clumps where they'll be likely to have aphids to feed on when they hatch);
  • that the parasitic wasp is the grossest and yet the most magnificent predator ever and that ants farming aphids for the honeydew they excrete isn't as funny as it sounds;
  • that it is a strange feeling to be the youngest person in the room by at least a single decade when you're pushing thirty.

Using green paints

So, if you read my last post, you'll know that when we moved into our new house, absolutely everything you could paint (walls, coving, ceiling, mouldings) was an unpleasant shade of dirty peach. One of the very first jobs we did was to redecorate the majority of the rooms, starting with:
  1. our bedroom
  2. living room/dining room
  3. the hall (as the stairs are open to the living room, we then had to do up the stairs wall and the whole upstairs landing.

Fortunately, we were able to get all of this done (thanks Mum and Dad and the in-laws!) before we moved in, which made things much easier, although it still took the best part of a week (including three days with 4-6 people working on it).

Our living/dining room after the repaint

I was very keen that we use VOC-free paints and found this article by Katherine Sorrell in the Guardian a very useful starting point. Having looked around at a few forums for DIY-ers (who knew?!) most of the feedback seemed to be pretty good, along with the useful info that you really should get the recommended ranges for use in bathrooms/kitchens as water-based paints don't cope so well with steamy conditions. The only negatives seemed to be complaints about the range of colours on offer in eco ranges, and the fact that these paints don't resist marks very well.

The positives for using eco paints are:
  • they only use naturally-occurring ingredients. Note, however, that this doesn't mean that they are chemical free as is sometimes claimed, as many natural pigments and thickeners are chemicals. However, they are all non-toxic, which means that you aren't surrounded by things that can be harmful leaching in to your air, food and water;
  • they also don't include any of the things you find in normal paints, like solvents, heavy metals, formaldehyde, or phthalates.
    • The solvents in paint are what cause it to smell, so eco paints have practically no odour at all, meaning that you can use them without risk of a headache, even with the windows closed!
    • Formaldehyde is a Volatile Organic Compound (VOC). VOCs in the air in our homes can cause allergies and asthmatic symptoms.
    • Phthalates are a bugger for leaching into your general environment and there have been a range of studies showing that people have some phthalate residues in their urine and they can also turn up in breastmilk. Phthalates are quite difficult to avoid now, as they're in everything from deodorant to soft furnishings, but there is worrying evidence that they cause hormone disruption (endocrine problems) and birth defects - pretty nasty stuff.
  • one other positive for eco paints is that they allow your walls to breathe, to expand and contract with the weather without cracking the paint, and also allowing moisture in and out without giving rise to damp. This is particularly useful in older houses built with materials fashioned in a more traditional way;
  • Finally, because they don't contain any VOCs, eco paints help reduce air pollution and greenhouse gases.
One word of warning, if you are thinking about using eco paints (and if you're going to go VOC-free, you might as well go the whole hog and cut out the solvents and the toxic elements too), then do be careful to read the back of the tin if you're buying paint from a generic DIY store, or to look at the company literature if you're buying online. Many companies claim to have 'organic' or low-VOC paints, but the product might not be as pure as you think it is, either because it still contains solvents, or toxic colourings, or because 'low-VOC' means, 'lower than average' rather than 'negligible'.

In the end we plumped for ecos paints, which with 108 different colours to choose from (as well as a bespoke colour-match service which we didn't use), still gave us a difficult decision for choosing our final shades. We went for four main shades, which we've used throughout the house: maple (quite a deep red), white lily (what it says on the tin); amaretto (a very light biscuit colour) and sorrento (a mid-yellow). We bought them all as matt paints to paint straight on to the wall as-was (paint on paper) and the only shade we had a problem with was the maple, which was difficult to apply evenly. The other three shades were very easy to use and all four required only basic preparation (washing the walls and allowing them to dry) followed by two coats of paint, applied mainly with a foam roller. Our rooky mistake was in the ordering - the Ecos paint calculator took into account that we'd need to apply two coats but we didn't realise it was that clever and doubled our numbers. We've since painted the bathroom and the study as well and we still haven't had to order any more of the normal matt paint - in fact, we've enough to do the second bedroom too and still have some to give away (any takers?) We have just ordered some white lily in their eggshell range, which is specially created for kitchens and bathrooms, as we've found that, as predicted, the normal matt paint hasn't coped well with the steamy conditions in our bathroom.

Our bedroom - maple and white lily

So, the answer to the bottom line question is, yes, it did cost us significantly more than normal paint. For a 5L tin of a dark colour we paid £31.85 rather than £17.99 for a DIY centre own-brand. But, we know exactly what we've put on our walls, we know it isn't harmful to us or the planet and, most importantly, we think it looks good!