Christmas bakes from Val Stones, the cake whisperer

GBBO Contestant 2016 and baking expert for Stannah 

My family Christmas memories

Christmas time brings so many wonderful memories and the best thing is that even though as I get older, I become a little more forgetful, including where I’ve put my car keys or laid my phone down, my childhood festive memories are as clear as ever.

Up to the age of three I lived in my Nana’s house with my parents, two Aunts, two Uncles, and my cousin. When I was three, my parents moved 3 miles away. In those days there were no buses on Christmas Day or Boxing Day. Instead, I would sit on the front of my sister’s pram as my parents pushed us along the road, on our way to celebrate Christmas with my Nana. We would arrive to hugs and kisses and then be bundled out of coats, to be sat by the fire to get warm. The house was full of loved ones. We ate Christmas “tea”, which included cold meats and salad, with trifle to follow. And then, mince pies, jam tarts and Christmas cake!

In the lead up to Christmas I loved to shop at the local outdoor market. It was fascinating to look at the stalls with gas Tilly lamps that hissed and gave off a glowing, yellow light, casting eerie shadows. There were stalls piled with all kinds of delicious Christmas treats. I would buy presents for my family and wrap them up as soon as I got home.

My earliest Christmas baking memory was helping my Nana make mince pies, including eating lots of the juicy raisins and sultanas from the glass jars that were kept on the shelf in the pantry.

By the age of fourteen I was making the mince pies, almond tarts, coconut tarts as well as trifle by myself. I loved baking for my family, especially during the festive season.

When I married, I gained another family and had to share myself, and of course my bakes, between the two. We moved to North Yorkshire but always travelled home for Christmas. We spent Christmas Day with one family and moved on, on Christmas afternoon to the other family. Boxing Day was spent driving between all the great grandparents. At each stop we ate a Christmas dinner or tea, endless mince pies and we loved it.

Life got even more complicated as our children arrived. My son was born 18th December. I was worried that Christmas wouldn’t happen at all that year because it was planned for me to leave the hospital on Christmas Eve. When my husband got us home, I was in for a pleasant surprise as he had gone out and bought a tree and decorated it. His parents were coming up with the turkey, stuffing, gravy, trimmings and Christmas pudding the next day. Everything in hand and it really was an amazing first Christmas with our son and to share it with all the family too.

That year we surprised my parents on Boxing Day. We travelled to see them and the joy in my mum’s face as she opened the door to see me holding her first grandchild, is an expression I will never forget. We travelled back that night knowing that we would always want to share our Christmases with the entire family, both sides.

From then on, my husband called our Christmas travels the “Christmas pilgrimage”. On Christmas Eve we would pack the car with our two children, all of their paraphernalia, presents for all, and my homemade baked goods. Our children loved it as there was Christmas present opening in each home they visited.

We continue to travel to Yorkshire over the Christmas holiday, and this year will be a really special Christmas as we have a family wedding on the 27th.

 

Simple Christmas baking tips 

Quick and easy mincemeat

This quick mincemeat recipe is in my cookbook and on my website. It really is delicious and can be made either in October or just a few days before Christmas. This mincemeat can be used to make mince pies, frangipani tarts, and can be added to a Victoria Sponge recipe to make a light Christmas cake. It is a cooked mincemeat, and it can be eaten from the jar! It can be blitzed and folded into ice cream or cream patisserie for adding to trifle. I developed this recipe for the Christmas Bake Off because of the time constraints, Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith said, “it was the taste of Christmas”.

 

Quick and easy mincemeat

 2 medium sized Bramley apples around 150g when peeled

150g light brown sugar

150ml barley wine or cider

Zest and juice of 1 small orange

Zest and juice of 1 small lemon

30g unsalted butter

100g raisins

25g pre-soaked Californian prunes, chopped

50g dried cherries, chopped

50g dried cranberries, chopped

150g sultanas

1 teaspoon mixed spice

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

3 tablespoons brandy

3 tablespoons of orange liqueur

(if you do not wish to use alcohol you may add 6 tablespoons of freshly squeezed orange juice)

 

To make the Mincemeat

Peal and grate the apples and place in a large pan with the brown sugar, barley wine, zest and juice of the orange and lemon. Stir well and place on a medium heat. Gradually bring to the boil stirring frequently until the apples are soft.

Add the butter, dried fruits and spices to the pan stir well and simmer until thickened for about 30 to 40 minutes.

Remove from the heat and allow to cool completely. Once cool stir in the brandy and the orange liqueur, or the orange juice.

The mincemeat can be packed into jars or into fridge containers until needed.

If you are really short of time, buy a good quality mincemeat, empty it into a bowl and add a good slug of brandy and some glace cherries to put your homemade touch on the filling mix. Then put it back into the jar until you’re ready to use it.

 

All Pastry

I always advise, if you can, to make things that can be frozen ahead of Christmas to reduce stress in the lead up to the festivities, I make both sweet and savoury pastry, and freeze them, so I have ready-made, homemade pastry.

 

Mince Pies

 

We love mince pies in our family! Traditionally I make them on Christmas Eve as I did with my mum as a teenager.

Make your mince pies, open freeze them and then pack them carefully in a freezer container so that you can get them out when you‘re ready for them. Place the pastry cups back into baking tins and let them defrost at room temperature before baking in the usual way.

To make the best mince pies (that always come out of the tins easily), buy proper mince pie trays, and grease each pie hole with a little butter or oil so they won’t stick.

Time short? Then again, use good quality ready-made pastry.

 

Christmas Cake

I used to spend hours preparing my Christmas cake starting in about mid-October, feeding it lovingly each week until it was time to decorate it. I have developed a simple Christmas Cake recipe that you can also do a week or two before Christmas, and no one would know because it is moist, rich and fruity.

In my recipe book I have an easy-to-make fruit cake with just two changes transforming it into a Christmas cake. First soak all the fruits in half a bottle of port the night before and then follow the recipe, when the cake comes out of the oven, and whilst it’s warm, I brush it with 4 tablespoons of brandy. The brandy disappears into the cake and you don’t need to go through the “feeding“ process. My children always decorated our cake and now their children do it. I never care that it isn’t perfect.

 

Christmas Pudding

There are no shortcuts to this as part of the pleasure is the making. Stirring in love and letting family and friends stir the mixture, and all who participate must make a wish.

When I steam the puddings the kitchen smells of Christmas. There is no better smell! I used my husband’s grandma’s recipe, and then developed it for it to be my own rich dark pudding that is so loved by family I have to make a dozen.

The pudding recipe is on my website. We serve it with rum sauce and brandy cream.

 

Herby Sausage Rolls

It isn’t Christmas without homemade sausage rolls, and these too can be made ahead of time if you like. Either baked and then frozen, or frozen unbaked, works.

I make ruff-puff pastry as this is quicker and easier than puff pastry. Use good quality sausage meat, or if you are vegetarian you can buy a vegetarian version in health shops or online.

Make up 50g of sage and onion stuffing mixed with a teaspoon of mixed dried herbs, a scant teaspoon of fine salt and a few twists of black pepper.  Allow the stuffing to absorb the water – about a cupful will do, add a little more water if you need to make a soft mixture, before stirring into the sausage meat.

Place the sausage mixture in a disposable piping bag and snip off about 3cm from the end so you can pipe it directly onto the rolled-out pastry. It saves so much messy handling of the mixture.

In my last article I gave the tip about pre-heating baking sheets. You need to do this for sausage rolls too as once they placed on the heated tray, they immediately start to rise, keeping the layers of light pastry crisp.

 

Keeping Sauces and Gravies Warm

There’s always a last-minute rush when you prepare Christmas dinner so here is a tip to help keep your yummy meal warm.

I have a selection of small insulated flasks for hot drinks and soups. I serve rum sauce with our pudding and so fill a flask with boiling water and let it stand whilst I make the sauce, I do this usually about mid Christmas morning. When the sauce is made, I empty the water from the flask and pour in the sauce. I add a tablespoon of boiling water to prevent a skin forming and place the lid on.

When you need the sauce, decant it into a sauce boat or jug. This works well with custard, gravies, cheese sauces and bread sauce too!

 

Hope your year has been a good one, wishing you all peace, health and contentment.

Val

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