Mince Pies and other Festive (sort of) Bakes

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As my housemates and I are all heading home to our families when our university term finishes this Friday, we decided to have our own ‘Christmas Day’ on Sunday, where we swapped Secret Santa presents, watched cheesy festive films like The Holiday, and of course cooked a Christmas Dinner together. It came off really well and was such a lovely way to get even more into the Christmas spirit! It is now only a week away, after all – how does the 25th creep up on us so fast?! With decorations from Poundland adorning the kitchen/lounge, I took advantage of the quiet of the day before the festivities to make these puddings.

You absolutely have to have Mince Pies at Christmas; I think they’re delicious and don’t let myself buy them before the 1st December so I can eat one for every day of Advent in preparation for the strains Christmas Dinner inevitably puts on my poor little stomach. Home-made ones really are far superior to shop-bought (yep, even Mr Kipling!) and are SO easy to make! Unless you make your own mincemeat I suppose – I haven’t before, but if you have spare time and fancy trying your hand at it, the comments on this nice simple recipe suggest that its well worth the effort! http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/13377/traditional-mincemeat When I have my own kitchen…. *sigh* Disclaimer: I love sharing a house with my coursemates – I’ll miss it so much after this year! – but like some people might envisage their dream house, dream car or dream wedding, I cannot wait to have my own dream kitchen in the hopefully not too distant future!

By mutual agreement, we also decided to have cheesecake for dessert, Lemon and Ginger Cheesecake to be precise. I have a small confession to make; I did experiment with recipes a bit for the cheesecake pictured here, and though it tasted delicious…it didn’t set. It was in the fridge for at least 7 or 8 hours and ended up like a Masterchef ‘Deconstructed Cheesecake’ on the plate when I served it. So, in light of that, though it tasted nice, I will give you links to the recipes I mixed and matched (not a great idea, as it turns out, but quite fun anyway) and you can pick and choose your favourite. Definitely decorate it with raspberries though. No exceptions.

***A few notes on Mince Pies: I don’t normally say this, but for the pastry, real butter is the only way to go! Spreads and margarine just melt too quickly and don’t give the pastry any structure, which would be bad news as this pastry is quite crumbly anyway. Normal caster or granulated sugar work fine here though, and the egg, by the way, is for glazing – don’t get confused and throw it in with the pastry as well. This pastry seems like it will never come together to form a dough – persevere, it will do, you just have to keep kneading. Don’t go mad though; pastry doesn’t like being overworked and toughens up if you do that. Though this version is very forgiving as they go. Okay, last thing – I had a block of puff pastry in the freezer which needed using up, so half the batch were shortcrust and half were puff pastry. I like both, but which one’s best? There’s only one way to find out…BAKEEEEE!

Mince Pies – Ingredients

  • 225g cold butter, diced
  • 350g plain flour
  • 100g golden caster sugar (normal caster or granulated sugar also work fine)
  • 1 small egg
  • 280g (approx) mincemeat – jarred or homemade, see above for recipe link

Method

Step 1. Make the shortcrust pastry. Rub the cold butter into the flour to a breadcrumb consistency, then mix in the sugar. Add a pinch of salt if your butter is unsalted. Combine the pastry into a ball – remember my note earlier – and knead. Don’t add any liquid, or if you absolutely must, just wet your hands under the cold tap briefly and continue kneading. The pastry can now be chilled and kept for later if you need it to be.

Step 2. Line the tart tin with about two thirds of your pastry. Press walnut-sized balls of pastry into each hole with your thumb (tip: cutting your nails short makes this a lot easier!). Try and line the base and sides evenly, and not too thickly or the pastry won’t be crisp.

Step 3. Dollop teaspoons of mincemeat into each pie case. Not too much or they overflow and get very sticky and messy in the oven. Now use the remaining third of the pastry to make little lids for the pies. At home my mum has a mini star cutter which looks fab, but here I had to go with my bare hands to press out circular lids. If your lids cover the whole pie and seal the sides, cut a small slit in the middle of the pastry lid to allow steam to escape.

Step 4. Eggwash the pies (beaten egg, brushed on with a pastry brush or your finger) to give them their lovely golden glaze, then pop them in the oven for 20 minutes at 200C/Gas Mark 6. When they’re done, cool them in the tins for 5 minutes before moving them to a wire rack to cool completely before storing. Serve with brandy butter (something else I only ever have at Christmas time and look forward to greatly!) if you like, and dusted with icing sugar.

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All this blogging about mince pies has stirred a craving for one in me (happens at least 5 times a week in December)…off downstairs to nab a leftover pie from the tin!

Okay: cheesecake ideas. Do try lemon and ginger – the lemon juice goes in the topping, zest in the base which is made of crushed gingernut biscuits – its a brilliant combination, and actually quite refreshing after an enormous roast dinner. Especially served and decorated with fresh raspberries; almost a healthy end to the indulgence!

This is Mary Berry’s recipe, from which I plagiarised the idea of lemon curd in the topping: http://www.bakingmad.com/lemon-cheesecake-on-a-ginger-crust-recipe/

This Classic cheesecake recipe is a great staple and probably the least, and quickest, work of any I’ve seen: http://uktv.co.uk/food/recipe/aid/514277

Mine included icing sugar, lemon curd, lemon juice, double cream and, obviously, cream cheese. The biscuit base was a definite success, actually, that’s just melted butter, lemon zest and crushed ginger biscuits pressed into the dish and chilled. Experimentation is fun and educational, but you have to be prepared to get back up on the horse if things don’t go to plan!

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Deceptively sturdy looking whilst still in its dish…

Enjoy all your Christmas baking; I should be posting again soon with (very last-minute I know) edible gift ideas for the holiday season 🙂

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Sweetly Spiced Puff Pastry Pear Tart

I watch a lot of cooking shows. I mean A LOT a lot. I don’t know what it is really, they’re just such a chilled way to relax – I don’t watch much TV, but when I do its because I want something entertaining that really doesn’t require much/any input on my part. Probably a knee-jerk reaction to so much reading in my day-to-day life! Anyway, cookery shows often provide great inspiration, and an incentive to go a little bit further and make your food a little bit fancier than you might otherwise. Hence this patisserie delicacy I’m serving up to you today! (Its actually very easy, just looks pleasingly posh and effortful – is that a word? opposite of effortless?)

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Ta da! How pretty is this?! In retrospect I think I underbaked it, but we live and learn 🙂

The pears are sliced nice and thinly so they soften up during baking, and the cinnamon sugar sprinkled over the top glazes the whole thing beautifully and sweetens the flavour. I also added a grating of nutmeg to finish my version; the inside of a nutmeg is so aesthetically pleasing, not to mention the aroma, that I take a fine grater to this lovely spice at any opportunity. Puff pastry is supposed to be the most finicky pastry to make yourself – I have it on good authority (cooking shows) that even the best chefs buy it from the supermarket. So don’t worry your little heads about that 🙂 Equipment wise, all you need is a baking tray and if you don’t have one of those you must live in a cave, so you’re ready to rock and roll out that pastry…see what I did there?…

Ingredients:

  • Ready-rolled puff pastry (or roll out one quarter of a block of Jus-Rol Puff Pastry – I always freeze the rest and it lasts for ever)
  • Two ripe, but firm pears
  • Brown sugar and caster sugar, combined (I didn’t measure this; do it according to your personal sweet tooth)
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • About a quarter of a teaspoon ground nutmeg

Method:

1. Roll out your puff pastry into a nice even rectangle, or cut out a piece of ready-rolled to fit your baking tray. The tray should be lined with greaseproof paper or you’ll never get the tart out. Mine was approximately 30 x 20 cm (12 x 8 inches). Gently, very gently, take a sharp knife and score a rectangle inside your pastry rectangle, about 2 cm in from each edge. This creates a border which will puff up nicely around your pears and look oh-so profesh. DON’T cut all the way through the pastry. Or your border will be detached from the tart. Obviously 🙂

2. Slice your pears on a board nice and thin – I mean thin like less than half a centimeter, or they won’t cook enough. To do this neatly, top and tail the pear, stand it up on its flat bottom and slice it in half longways all the way down. Core each half, then put it flat side down on your board and work from right to left, or left to right if that’s easier, slicing thinly all the way across.

3. Arrange the pears on the pastry, starting at one end of the rectangle and working down the length of it. The slices should all be half on top of each other, like roof tiles. Basically, use your wonderful artistry to make it look pretty and elegant and inviting. Go crazy-paving style if you like, make crop circles, play pear Tetris. Its quite good fun if you’re in a patient mood with time on your hands.

4. Sprinkle your combined sugars and spices (you could use ground ginger as well or instead of nutmeg and/or cinnamon, possibly even cardamom if you’re feeling exotic…the choice is yours!) over the pears and pastry, getting even coverage so its all sweet and caramelised. Chill in the fridge for 20 minutes minimum to allow the pastry to firm up again.

5. Pop the pear tart, on its lined baking tray, into a preheated oven at 200C (Gas Mark 6) and bake for 15-20 minutes. Then turn the oven down to 180C (Gas Mark 4) and bake for another 10-15 minutes, until the pastry is golden brown and risen on the edges, and the fruit is soft. Serving suggestions; ice cream, ice cream or ice cream. Or dark chocolate sauce. Mmmm.

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I had mine with Ben & Jerry’s – nom nom nom nom nom. 

Source: ‘Puff Pastry Tart with Pear’ (I like my highly alliterative name better) from Grand Central Bakery.com <http://grandcentralbakery.com/recipes/u-bake-recipes/made-with-gcb-puff-pastry/puff-pastry-tart-with-pears/> Thanks for reading! 🙂

Mum’s Lemon Meringue Pie

Last post today, I promise – and this one is really really short because you already have the recipe in a previous post! Thanks for sticking with me throughout this baking marathon. So, after I made the first pie – that’s lemon meringue attempt #2 – I had almost half the recipe quantity of sweet pastry, lemon curd, and egg whites for meringue left in the fridge – this stuff just will not let me be! A third instalment in the lemon meringue saga was thus on the cards, and I think it was possibly the best one of all, though not without a few flaws of course.

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I think I did mention this in my second lemon meringue post, but let me reiterate the importance of cooking the curd right through til its thickened considerably. I didn’t do this enough, hence the soggy bottom. My mum said that when she makes it the curd almost forms a soft ball that can be dropped, rather than poured, onto the pastry after a certain amount of heating, and also that its best to assemble the pie all at once and get it straight into the oven so the layers don’t start to meld into one another. She did say my meringue was perfect (smug face) but some time in the distant future there will be a Lemon Meringue Pie Take #4, and #5, and so on until its FAULTLESS! Perfectionist, me? Not at all. 

And that was the end of the baking fest. But not for long! (to be read in the manner of Bob Hale, for any Horrible Histories fans out there) Keep a weather eye on this patch ‘o blog and the final delicious treat made on that fateful Friday shall be revealed to ye…

Lemon Meringue: Take #2

Speaking of inspiration (picking up from where I left off at my last post), I often have ideas for my next bakes from films or TV programs I’ve recently watched. The Great British Bake Off naturally springs to mind – I’ve learnt a lot about baking techniques and where things can go wrong from avidly following this brilliant show since the second series. I love it. It makes me happy. Everyone should watch it. The other night I watched the 2007 film Waitress; mainly about a woman escaping from her extremely controlling husband, but also about the wonderful pies she creates every day. It’s a great film, but it also made me want to make and eat pies, so that is partly (the other part was a fortunate coincidence of having nearly all the necessary ingredients to hand or finding them in the reduced aisle) why this post features…Lemon Meringue Pie! Here’s a lovely picture to show you that it did turn out a success!

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And without further ado, here is the recipe I used, from Mary Berry herself – I hope I did it some kind of justice!

For the pastry

  • 225g plain flour
  • 175g butter
  • 45g icing sugar
  • 1 large free-range egg, beaten

For the lemon filling

  • 6 lemons, zest and juice
  • 65g cornflour
  • 250g caster sugar
  • 6 free-range egg yolks

For the meringue topping

  • 4 free-range egg whites
  • 225g caster sugar
  • 2 tsp cornflour

Step 1: Make the pastry. Rub the butter and flour together between your fingers until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs, without any big lumps. Add the icing sugar and beaten egg, combine with your hands, using a tablespoon or so of water if needed, to bring the pastry together into a soft ball. Turn out onto a very lightly floured surface (if you can, use greaseproof paper or similar to stop the dough drying out with the added flour) and roll out. Mary recommends a 3mm thickness. Line your flan dish, cover with clingfilm and leave to chill in the fridge for half an hour.

Step 2: Bake the pastry case. Put greaseproof paper over the pastry-lined flan dish and weigh it down with ceramic baking beans (these are pretty pricey so I usually use dried pulses or rice – you can’t eat them afterwards but they can always be reused for blind-baking things like this). Bake for 15 minutes with the greaseproof paper, then 5 minutes without, at 180C/Gas Mark 4.

Step 3: If you’re a time management whizz you can do this one whilst Step 2 is happening. Make the lemon curd. Zest all 6 lemons, and squeeze out the juice through a sieve to catch all the pulp and pips you don’t want. Stir in the cornflour, then bring 450ml water to the boil in a pan on the hob. Once boiling, add the lemon and cornflour mix and stir til thickened. Thoroughly mix egg yolks and caster sugar in the bowl, then whisk into the hot lemony sauce in the pan. Make sure everything is combined with no lumps, stirring for at least 5 minutes over a medium heat to cook and thicken. (My curd was slightly runny and wouldn’t set firm when baked – I think this was because I didn’t cook it for long enough here so take your time on this step!)

Step 4: Pour your cooked curd into the pastry base after leaving for a few minutes so its not so hot. Leave the half-finished pie to cool before adding the meringue topping. Make the meringue. Whisk egg whites until your arm drops off. You need to get to the stage where they pull up into soft peaks with the whisk, then you’re ready to add the sugar BIT BY BIT – don’t deflate the air in the egg whites by whacking it all in and ruining your poor arm’s hard work. Whisk after every addition of sugar, making sure the bottom of the bowl doesn’t feel grainy, then finally whisk in the cornflour and your meringue should be glossy and stiff.

Step 5: Assemble and bake the pie. Scoop the meringue evenly on top of the lemon curd layer and swirl around a bit so it gets pretty peaks in the oven. Bake for around 15-20 minutes at 170C/Gas Mark 3 1/2 until your meringue is browned (but only lightly) on top and sounds crisp when you tap it. The filling should be set, and the pastry bottom shouldn’t be soggy but goodness knows how as I’ve never managed that one so far. Sorry, Mary.

So there it is. My lemon meringue saga ended happily, and deliciously. You can eat this warm or cold (I tried both today, just to be sure) and keep it in the fridge for a few days – the meringue probably will deflate a little and get watery though. Best to have people around to eat it all on the day!

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Recipe Source: BBC Food, by Mary Berry (from the Great Comic Relief Bake Off)

With thanks to my boyfriend who got very into helping me take the pictures with the proper lighting, and for trying the pie even though he doesn’t really like tart things and the lemon curd in this is about as sharp as they come!