Tuesday, 20 December 2011

candied and vanilla-salted pecans and walnuts

candied pecans 2

I'm surprising myself here. Two blogposts within a fortnight. Good grief.

Anyway. It's THAT time of year again. Time for a bit of ho ho ho and goodwill to all men. Or something.

Over the past few Christmases, I've been ditching the shop-bought snackage and making more and more festive titbits at home. Frankly, they taste so much better, and usually cost a fraction of the price.

These here nuts are now part of our household's newer Christmas traditions. Every year, I try to find a spare few minutes to have some sticky, nutty fun.

candied pecans

Once they're made, I break them up into manageable bite-sized clusters, and bag them up, ready for tucking into stockings for Christmas morning.

candied pecans 3

Like most of the recipes on this blog, these candied nuts are quick and easy to make, and ridiculously tasty. And, happily, they give a yielding, crumbly, not tooth-shattering crunch, so even Granny can have some. It's also a highly adaptable recipe, so you can add whatever you fancy by way of spices and the like. But I have to say, I like them just as they are. The secret, I think, is good vanilla salt - I use Halen Mon's.

To make them, you'll need (adapted slightly from here):

125g pecans or walnuts, or a mixture
115g unrefined caster sugar
0.25 tsp vanilla salt

First, roast the nuts for 5 minutes or so at 180C/350F/Gas 4, until they're just starting to toast. Keep a close eye on them, because you don't want them to start catching. Once they're done, take them out of the oven and set them aside.

In a heavy-based saucepan, melt the sugar over a gentle heat. Once it's turned liquid, throw in the pecans, and stir quickly to ensure the nuts are covered thoroughly.

Tip the nutty-sugary combo out onto a baking sheet covered with parchment paper or a silicone mat. Working as quickly as you can, spread the nuts out - I use a couple of forks. While the sugary syrup is still warm, scatter the vanilla salt over.

Leave the nuts to cool. Once they're completely cold, break into bite-sized clusters and keep in an airtight container or bag them up for presents.

* Want savoury snackage for Christmas as well? Some equally simple-to-make and super-tasty cheese biscuits are over on my other blog, here.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Merry mincemeat morsels

mincemeat squares 1

As aged and commensurately cynical as I am, I do love a spot of Christmas. But preferably not starting until about, oh, Christmas Eve.

However, there is one festive frippery I'll happily indulge in before the Christmas holiday period, and that's mince pies. Mmmmm, mince pies. There's something so very right about them at this time of year.

I've never really been one to make my own, not least because when I lived in London, our nearest deli - all of 30 yards down the road - supplied some exceedingly good ones from 1 December through to the end of January. By which time, I was pretty much mince-pied out for another season.

And... *whispers this quietly* .... I was also partial to the odd Crimble Crumble from a well-known takeout store.

But now, living out in the rural wilds of Kent as I have done for the past few months, the above options are, sadly, no longer open to me.

What to do?

Embracing the spirit of self-sufficiency (the damson voddie is rather nice, thank you), I've taken it upon myself this year to make my own mincemeat thingies. And, since tasting the results, I'm confident in declaring that I'll be doing so from hereon in for a very long time to come. They are, if I may say so, rather wonderful. And I can say that, because the recipe's not mine.

Really, they're dead quick and easy to make (oh, and cheap - about £3 max), and a fantastic alternative to mince pies and those Pret versions... They're also utterly addictive, so don't bake them unless you have company.

And, because it's Christmas, they're obviously best served with a glass of something appropriately boozy. Failing that, a good ol' cuppa.

mincemeat squares 2

The recipe is taken from the excellent Joy of Baking, and is very slightly edited/adapted here.

260 g plain flour
20 g corn flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
225 g unsalted butter, room temperature
70 g light brown sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
400 g good quality mincemeat

Preheat oven to 375F/190 C and place the wire oven rack in the centre of the oven.

Grease a 20 cm x 20 cm square baking tin.

In a separate bowl whisk the flour, cornflour, and the salt. Set aside.

In the bowl of your electric mixer (or with a hand mixer), beat the butter until smooth (about 1 minute). Add the sugar and beat until smooth (about 2 minutes). Beat in the vanilla extract. Gently stir in the flour mixture just until incorporated.

Evenly press two-thirds of the shortbread into the bottom of the prepared pan. Then evenly spread the mincemeat over the shortbread base, leaving a 1/4 inch border.

With the remaining shortbread dough, using your fingers, crumble it over the top of the mincemeat. Then lightly press the dough into the mincemeat.

Bake in the preheated oven for about 30 minutes, or until golden brown on top. Remove from oven, place on a wire rack, and while still hot, cut into 16 squares. Allow to cool completely in pan.

Makes about 16 bars.

My tips:

  • I mixed in the flour using my hands. I simply find it easier to make the dough come together that way.

  • pastry and shortbread bakes better from cold. I therefore put the shortbread base in the freezer for 5 mins (once pressed into the baking tin), and put the remaining crumble mix in the fridge while I was waiting.

  • I found the crumble mix just a little on the claggy side, so I added some icing sugar (about a tablespoon) to the mix to make it lighter and more crumbly.

  • as you can see from the photos, I finished the squares with a light dusting of icing sugar, too. Well, it is Christmas.

  • for my next batch, I'll be substituting some darker sugar and a pinch of cinnamon to the pastry.