Cooking Home

Making trifle (or how to end up with a delicious pudding without getting each stage right!)

We enjoy trifle up to a point. Traditionally it is a Christmas dessert – perfect for an influx of family and friends. This year I decided that Sunday lunch on 5th December would be a good day to have trifle, especially as we are having a ‘pretend Christmas dinner’ ie roast chicken and all the trimmings, so what better than individual trifles to follow. But I was missing two key ingredients, sponge for the base and amaretti biscuits for a layer near the top.

Before I set off to the nearby super-market I made the custard. This consisted of heating half a pint of milk with an ounce or two of sugar, then thickening it slightly with regular custard powder and bringing to the boil resulting in single cream consistency. To thicken further I decided to add two beaten eggs, after removing from the heat. At that stage all was well but further very delicate heating led to a minor disaster – thick on the bottom of the pan (is this scrambled egg? – not quite) and runny on top. However I decided to hope for the best and sieved the custard into a clean bowl expecting it to solidify firmly while I popped to the shops. Alas it didn’t. I should know better as I am a dab hand with baked egg custard but rarely succeed with pan heated egg custard. However the taste was fine – not the traditional custard powder flavour (which Patrick doesn’t like), nor raw egg.

Once back from shopping I broke up the madeleines (sponge for the base) into 6 individual bowls.

And then added sherry.

I pressed the crumbled cake well down so the sherry was thoroughly soaked up from the bottom. Then the custard went onto the top and luckily the quantity was exactly right and it looked as though it would be fairly well absorbed from the top by the madeleines.

A trifle traditionally has several layers often including fruit and/or jam. I decided this was the moment to use up one of the tins of fruit that I had bought pre Brexit when we were threatened with huge shortages of fresh fruit, salad and vegetables. The use-by was 2020 – but I have no concerns about that as tinned produce keeps incredibly well unless the tin is damaged. So I opened a tin of mangoes and chopped them up to make the next layer.

I have not used jelly (neither packet nor made with gelatine) in trifles for decades so wasn’t going to start now even though a traditional trifle is meant to have a good ‘solid’ jelly layer.

Another of my purchases was amaretti.

They went on top of the custard. There were 6 of the mini biscuits for each trifle which is generous (and bumpy) compared with the normal arrangement of crumbled amaretti making a fairly flat layer. Then I whipped about a quarter of a pint of cream for the next layer.

Because of the relatively uneven surface made by the amaretti I decided that roughly smoothing out the cream was the best I could do. But the finished effect, each trifle topped with a glace cherry, looked ok. Other decorations can be far more elaborate for example almonds, split, cut into mini sticks and toasted, are good stuck vertically into the cream, with 1 cm long spines of crystallised angelica adding a touch of colour. In the 1950s silver balls were arranged on top of trifles (must be done at the last minute) and raspberries and strawberries are also good for decoration.

Then into the fridge to wait until lunch tomorrow. By then the layers will have merged a bit more and the amaretti may not be quite as brittle (crunchy) as they are straight out of the packet.

Looking at the photo these trifles look more like Belgian buns than desserts – but I can guarantee they won’t taste like buns!

Cooking Home

Making Christmas cakes at the end of October

Homemade Christmas cakes keep so well that I find the best time to make them has always been half term, at the end of October or the start of November. There’s a bit of a breather then from the usual schedule of activities which is good as the cake making process is surprisingly time consuming.

I have combined two recipes, the ancient one that I found in a newspaper years ago and my mother’s ‘rich fruit cake’. This is so we finish with a cake that cuts into slices that are reasonably firm. The flavour of the cakes made from the ‘ancient’ recipe was delicious but, without the addition of features of my mother’s recipe, the slices fell into a mound of loose crumbs – not really a problem but better to be able to cut pieces that people can eat easily.  

After finding the list of ingredients I review the store cupboard to see whether I have enough dried fruit, eggs, flour, spices etc. I always have to buy brandy as I don’t keep a traditional ‘cooking’ bottle of brandy (with ‘medicinal’ uses on the side). By the end of the previous festive season all the brandy has been used up in Christmas cakes (cooking and adding spoonfuls to soak in during storage), brandy butter, upgrading shop bought mincemeat for mince pies and, if there is any left then Patrick has a glass or so, to save it from ‘going flat’! 

Cooking Christmas cakes has been a tradition of mine for over 40 years and I remember there was a time when I set aside £10 from the family budget to cover the cost of ingredients. Now the cost is higher – but still very reasonable given the finished cakes – rich and fruity with enough booze to ‘make you hesitate about driving after eating a slice’ as a son once said.

So shopping for ingredients complete, the next stage is to skin and chop almonds, weigh out all the fruit, flour and spices, butter and sugar and check the number of eggs needed. I usually make a huge quantity of cake mix, enough for several cakes. The photo below shows three bowls of ingredients and also the tins that I greased, lined and wrapped in brown paper (to ensure that, during the long slow cooking stage the cakes did not burn at the edges). This year I prepared all this the day before I planned to bake the cakes.

So on day two I beat the 12 eggs for the four cakes I was making. Then I went on to beat together the sugar and butter – you can see that in the photo below, with the beaten eggs in the bowl nearest the egg rack.

The quantities were so huge that I needed a very large bowl to stir them all together. So I scrubbed out the washing up bowl and used that as you can see below. First to go into the washing up bowl was the fruit with flour etc stirred in to avoid the fruit sinking. In fact for Christmas cakes it is a case of ‘cake mixture sticking loads of fruit together’ rather than ‘some fruit in a cake mixture’.  The wet ingredients went in second and then it was a case of mixing it all together.

Patrick helped out this year. You can see he is stirring away gallantly so the mixture is fully combined and ready for the last stage, adding brandy.

I forgot to take any pictures of adding the brandy, then filling the tins, but in the photo below the cakes are safely in the oven. Even though cooking takes place at a fairly low temperature, there is still a risk that the top of each cake will dry out and become too dark so this year I covered each one with a sheet of greaseproof paper with a hole in the middle.

During the baking stage I checked the cakes a few times and after several hours they were ready – a skewer came out clean when I stuck it into the centre of each cake. And here they are, below, straight out of the oven.

Once the cakes had cooled slightly I took them out of their tins and unwrapped the greaseproof paper. They were then ready to cool on the wire racks where they sat for a couple of hours to reach room temperature.

I will probably feed the cakes with more brandy over the next 4 or 5 weeks. Then I will cover them with marzipan and icing in December. For the moment they are well wrapped up and stored in airtight tins.

Cooking Home

How to make Hot Cross Buns

First find the recipe – last used a year ago and very old.

It involves making bun dough first and at that point the spices go in (which I forgot one year and had to add later).

Assemble ingredients and weigh out the flour, adding dried yeast (unlike the recipe which says fresh yeast), salt and spices. I can’t remember whether I put the sugar in at this stage or added it when the butter went in; it wouldn’t make a difference.

Weigh flour       add butter   rub in the butter to form…..a breadcrumb texture

Add warm water/milk mixture and stir in a circular way to start the kneading process

Knead by hand for 7-10 minutes until the dough pulls away from the bowl and is springy. Put in a warm place to rise, covered in cling film. After about an hour or so it should have doubled or trebled its size.

Making the crosses

Flour and butter to make pastry. Only a small amount. Roll out and cut into strips.

Now for assembling the buns

Break down risen dough and add fruit, then knead together. Divide into buns and space out on greased baking trays.

Paint beaten egg on the top of each bun then stick on pastry strips to form crosses

Put buns in a warm place to rise again; as you can see they have risen and will get even bigger once in the oven.  While they cook boil up sugar + water = bun wash.

Here they are out of the oven with bun wash brushed on. And finally – cooling on a wire rack.

Tempting to try one at this stage as they are always best straight out of the oven!                                                                         

These buns do not keep well so eat on the day and freeze spares once cool. When defrosted they are as good as the day they were made.

Cooking Home

Making Mince Pies

Mince pies are wonderful in November. We often start making and eating them then as the weeks around Christmas are overloaded with other traditional (and substantial) food.

This year Christmas has started really early with lights in people’s gardens, prolific online present buying and other jolly activities which are all part of cheering things up in the middle of the second English lockdown. It is not clear that we will be doing much with family and friends over Christmas as travel restrictions are in place at present. No-one knows if it will be wise (even if it is allowed) to hob nob with all and sundry. Forecasts of another peak after Christmas make a nonsense of anything that allows us to share germs more easily, although people who believe they are immune wouldn’t agree.

Back to mince pies….

The ingredients are so simple – mincemeat from a jar and shortcrust pastry. I make the pastry using these proportions. Fat (butter or marg) 2 : caster sugar 1 : self-raising flour 3. Stir flour and sugar together; rub fat into the dry mix until it resembles breadcrumbs. Mix with small amounts of cold water until it forms a firm ball. Then dust a flat surface with flour and roll out quite thinly. Stamp out large circles of pastry to line the bottom of the pie containers.

This is the first time I have used paper cases – it solves the problem of getting the mince pies out of the tin (especially if they have boiled over slightly and stuck). Each pie needs a decent dollop of mincemeat. The jar I used had ‘booted up’ written on the outside which means I had added more dried fruit and some brandy a while back, to upgrade it.

I normally stamp out slightly smaller circles for the lids. In theory they should be sealed by damping the rim of each lid. I just plonked them onto the mincemeat and gently pressed down round the rim of each mince pie to seal.

They go into a fairly hot oven. You can see the dimples round the edge of each pie where I had sealed it.

While they were cooking I did the washing up! This included the mincemeat jam jar and its lid – I have a huge collection of them waiting for the next lot of home-made jam, jelly or marmalade.

After 15 minutes or so the pies were getting slightly beige/brown on top which means they are done.

The pastry cools quickly but the sticky mincemeat stays very hot for quite a long time – warning for anyone who wants to tuck into one straight out of the oven!

Once I could handle the tins I put the mince pies on a wire rack to cool properly.

At this stage it’s a good idea to give them a dusting of sieved icing sugar, especially if they are going out on a plate to offer to friends and family. Ours were destined to go into a tin ready for us to eat over the next week or so, and icing sugar loses its good looks then.

We both tried them with a cup of tea in front of the fire. The paper cases are doubly convenient – ‘look no plate’!

Mince pies make a good seasonal pudding too.  Patrick and I both like them warmed and served with brandy butter (there’s a new batch in the fridge which we have already tasted).


Making Bread

I have made bread since I was a teenager. It has always been by hand following the same basic method.

Grease tins, weigh ingredients, mix, knead for 10 minutes, rise for an hour or so, knock down and put in tins, prove for 15-20 minutes, bake until the loaf sounds hollow when you tap it.

I always remember being given advice, especially about kneading, by the daughters of a family in Apperley who sold us eggs and chickens. They were very good at this sort of thing and always won prizes at local shows for jams, cakes and of course bread.

These tins have come from a variety of sources – I don’t think I have ever had to buy bread tins, but I did buy new clay flower pots when there was a fashion for flower pot bread and chicken bricks. I line the tins with greaseproof paper to help when it comes to tipping out the loaves.

The mixing stage below shows what the flour and dried yeast (plus a small amount of salt) look like once I add warm water and some oil. At the stage in the photo the flour etc combines with the liquid to produce a creamy mixture and as you can see, the yeast has already started the fermentation process. In the background there are some scones that I had made earlier – a baking bonanza that day.

The next photo shows the dough set to rise in a warm place protected by cling film. I stopped kneading when the dough started to pull away from the side of the bowl. I won’t say that it was no longer sticky – in theory that is the case but in practice I have always found it sticks to my fingers and has to be scraped off.

The next photo shows the dough after it has risen and I had knocked it down. It goes into the tins in fairly lumpy pieces that smooth out surprisingly well in the proving and baking stages.

Proving in the tins, prior to baking, happens in a warm place, again covered in cling film.

And once the dough has risen again it goes into the hot oven. As I had quite a lot of different things cooking I used the top oven as well as the lower one.

I don’t time the baking but make sure I notice what the smells from the oven(s) tell me and from time to time I have a look at how brown the loaves are. On this occasion they were slightly too brown!

This was the collection from the day’s baking, two Dundee cakes, scones and bread.



We have an ancient redcurrant bush on the allotment, distorted branches and often short of leaves. So every year we wonder if it will have any fruit and every year it has a good crop, as long as we net it well in advance of berries ripening. Birds seem keen on very sour unripe redcurrants that are still white not even pink!

Here is the bush this year – taken on the 18th June.

And this is the crop as I started picking into punnets.

When I got home I weighed the three punnets – 1 kilogram. It’s clear here just how I pick, ‘milking’ the bushes so the sprigs of berries come away intact. This means that there are sometimes white berries alongside the red ones, and often a few leaves.

I washed the berries and ‘strigged’ them, ie took them off their stalks. This isn’t necessary if the next step is making jelly. The berries can be stewed on their stalks because it is only the juice that goes to make jelly and everything else is thrown away. But I always freeze my crop ready to use later in the year especially for summer pudding or similar, so it needs to be just berries.

I put them in freezer boxes and that’s it for this year’s crop.

Last year’s berries have not all been used for puddings etc so I dug them out of the bottom of the freezer and emptied them into a large saucepan. In order to add the right amount of water I weighed them first and, unsurprisingly, they were approximately the same weight as this year’s crop. I stewed them until they were soft, then I mashed them and this is pretty much what those lovely bright berries turn into – a mushy pulp. It seems such a pity until you see the jelly.

I put the pulp into a jelly bag. We have an assortment of old pieces of cloth for this. The effect of straining redcurrants, blackcurrants, apples etc through a bag is to stain it irrevocably so it all looks remarkably primitive, which I suppose it is! In this case I chose the largest ‘bag’ and tied it under a chair so the juice could drip through into a bowl. I took some photos of the cloth after straining, with the relatively dry pulp ready to be thrown away but the pictures looked rather gruesome. So below is the folded cloth and pieces of string that I’ve used year after year. I took this picture after I’d washed the cloth, dried it outside then folded it up ready for next time.

It’s important to measure the volume of juice in order to weigh out the correct amount of sugar.

And here we are – a mere three-quarters of a pint! Patrick keeps his lovely teapot in his study next to a glass in a tea holder. Both are used every day to make Russian tea which is why the teapot is in the photo, next to the kettle.

The book I use for all jam, jelly and marmalade recipes was given to me in 1984 by Patrick’s father. It is absolutely fool proof. I weighed the sugar into a saucepan and poured the juice in on top. The jam jars are ready to be sterilised.

Here are the jars, sterilising in a low oven for 20-30 minutes (or more, depending on how long it takes for the jelly to reach setting point).

I stirred the juice and sugar over a low flame until the sugar dissolved, then raised the temperature so it came to the boil.  

Once the boiling mixture has reached setting point (which I always identify with the flake test and also checking wrinkling on the surface of a small quantity cooled on a plate) it is ready to go in the jars. So they came out of the oven and I used a funnel to pour the juice into each jar. Even on a low heat the jars are hot enough to make the juice boil.

These are the finished jars of redcurrant jelly – one full ‘1 lb’ jar, one three-quarters full jar and one miniature jar.


Decorating Simnel Cakes


  1. Make cake(s) following a simnel cake recipe, and including a layer of almond paste (marzipan) through the middle.
  2. Make sure you have enough marzipan – it’s surprising how much you need for the top of the cake plus the balls.
  3. Brush the cake with apricot jam (or home-made jelly in my case) so the marzipan will stick to it.
  4. Use half the marzipan for the top (and possibly sides) of the cake and the other half for the eleven balls (12 disciples minus Judas = 11)
  5. Roll out the marzipan to cover the top (and possibly sides) of the cake
  6. Divide the rest of the marzipan into 11 and roll into balls to go round the edge of the top of the cake
  7. If you like, gently grill the marzipanned cake so the marzipan browns but beware – it burns very quickly so needs watching all the time
  8. Add ‘frill’, eggs, Easter chicks etc.

I made four cakes, for us in Cambridge, to send to Will and Jenny, for Elin and for John P. who always likes a good fruit cake. The two that look like puddings or pies (!!) are for us and W+J.

Preparing the balls for the two larger cakes. Dividing pieces of marzipan into 11 equal sized pieces is slightly less easy than it seems. I have never resorted to using scales even though that would make it more precise. Icing sugar is great for stopping the marzipan from sticking, including as I roll the balls in my palm. It’s surprising how it gets absorbed so there are no puffs or smears of white sugar left on the marzipan.

This is one of the bigger cakes under the grill. I watched each cake carefully and turned them round so the tops of the balls toasted evenly. That’s why there is foil under the cake, to slide it round on the grill pan.

This is what happens under the grill – not actually burnt but well toasted. The foil in the middle of the cake on the right is to stop that one toasting in the middle.

The next thing was to add ‘frills’ made of a plain ribbon (gold or dark blue) with a narrower check yellow ribbon stitched on top to give a spring feel rather than Christmas. It was a bit of a fiddle and the rough and ready cake sides have not allowed the ribbons to lie nice and flat. But never mind!

And here they are pretty much finished. Will and Jenny’s (top left) will have a separate packet of mini eggs in the parcel and ours will get its mini eggs and a small fluffy chick at Easter. I stuck the mini eggs on with small blobs of icing. Intriguingly the sugar shells of the mini eggs on the cake on the right (for John) split soon after I put them on the cake whereas the ones on the bottom middle cake (Elin’s) have not. I’m unenthusiastic about the shocking green ribbon on our cake and we’ll take it off as soon as we start to eat it – the ribbon is easy to handle as it has wire edges (as with florists’ ribbon) which may have swung the decision to use it.

These cakes keep well although the marzipan can get a bit crispy if kept out of a tin for too long.