Twas the day before Christmas

Into the woods

I don’t like queueing in traffic. I don’t like shopping when it’s busy. In the build up to Christmas these are the modest first world problems we must face. My trip to the supermarket was played out in slow motion as the chaos unravelled all around me.

Shoppers teetered on the edges of their patience apart from a delightful calm frail old lady, wide eyed and static amidst the frothing sea of madness as if waiting for somebody to lead her across a busy road. Here’s to her! I wonder what she thought of it all…

Twas the day before Christmas
Last chance to shop
I had bought all the presents
This was no time to stop

The food now needs buying
A list had been made
Now out to the supermarket
In the rain I’m afraid

The traffic was portentous
Never such queues
I suppose it was obvious
This day all would choose

To stock up their larders
With seasonal fare
So I held my breath
And for battle prepared

The cars they went nowhere
So I parked up and walked
Past drivers tight lipped
And passengers fraught

A walk through the car park
Though huge, with no space
And into the foyer
Last basket, worried face

Such scenes I have never
Encountered before
Trolleys were bashing
Like uncut Robot Wars

Gripping my basket
I dodged down the aisle
Weaving staccato
Through chicanes with guile

Couples with trolleys
Piled to the hilt
Are they feeding an army
Or feeding their guilt

Screaming young children
I know how they feel
Dragged here unwilling
You got a raw deal

Bewildered old granny
Waiting in line
With patience unworldly
For sherry and wine

To add to the carnage
A bottle is dropped
And aisle 9 is coned off
Until it is mopped

The air hums with tension
And shoppers are stressed
Perish the thought
If it’s not Sainsburys Best

Staff work like trojans
On endless till lanes
Cliff Richard on loop
How do they stay sane

My wait for self-checkout
Is mercifully short
Unrecognised item in bagging area
That didn’t scan like I thought

I fall through the exit
And rain hits my face
I made it in one piece
Survived the rat race!

Twas the day before Christmas
A tale of our time
When we see friends and family
It’s all going to be fine

My thanks to Clement Clarke Moore whose considerably superior parable Twas the night before Christmas was a source of inspiration.

Merry Christmas!

I’m the Gingerbread Man!

Foodie that I am nothing says Christmas to me like Gingerbread men. At least I can’t remember the last time I didn’t make gingerbread at Christmas, and this year is no different.

This isn’t really a blog about how to make gingerbread as there are a thousand simple recipes out there but it’s more a journal of my happy seasonal routine. The recipe differs each year with the general trend towards more ginger (I love ginger!) but the only essential ingredients are fun and silliness! Oh, and a couple of special tips…

400g plain flour
4 tbsp golden syrup
4 tsp ground ginger
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
150g butter
200g soft brown sugar
1 egg
1 apple
Optional food colouring
Icing sugar (some)
Lemon juice (some)
Fun (lots)
Silliness (lots)

Syrup maketh the man
Syrup maketh the man


Made to a soundtrack of whatever music gets you in the mood…

1) Pour the flour, butter, bicarb, cinnamon and ginger into a mixer.

Trusty old Kenwood
Trusty old Kenwood

2) Whiz until you get a breadcrumby texture

Vaguely festive
Vaguely festive

3) Add the sugar and then, with the mixer turned on, drip the egg and syrup into the mixer

Getting distinctly Christmassy
Getting distinctly Christmassy

4) You’re going to end up with a firmish dough that needs to be wrapped up in clingfilm and refrigerated for a while.

A rare gingerbread flower
A rare gingerbread flower

5) Roll the chilled dough out on a floured board or work surface until it’s around half a centimetre thick

You gotta roll with it
You gotta roll with it

6) Now get to work with your cutters! This is a whole load of fun. Of course there’s no reason why you have to stick to gingerbread men. I have accumulated a great range of cutters including Christmassy ones, animals and gingerdead men.

Im gonna make you a star
Im gonna make you a star

7) Place your shapes onto a baking sheet lined with baking paper.

Baker street
Baker street

8) Throw in the oven until golden brown – around 10+ minutes. If in doubt remove earlier than later and bear in mind that your gingerbread will firm up after it’s removed from the oven. You’ll probably have to bake 2 or 3 rounds of these.

Space oddity
Golden brown

9) Once the gingerbread has cooled on a wire rack it’s best to store it for a while in a sealed container. OK, here’s special tip number 1: Add some sliced apple to the container with the cut face not touching any of the goodies. This Tyrolean grandmother inspired step will ensure the biscuits stay soft and take on a festive apple flavour.

Rhinestone cowboy
Rhinestone cowboy

10) If you are icing your creations then I would leave this until nearer the time of consumption. Here’s special tip number 2: Drip a little lemon juice into a bowl and mix in your icing sugar. This tastes infinitely better than water based icing. Now get creative…

Bear faced
Bear faced

11) I used icing modestly because I didn’t want to overpower the gingerbread but you can do what you want. Food colouring presents more possibilities and I was miffed to discover I was out of red, so no nose for Rudolph.

Pigs are for Christmas too
Pigs are for Christmas too

There’s no end to the fun you can have with gingerbread. It’s a seasonal affair in terms of ingredients but also in folklore and makes a great Christmas gift. Perhaps you can compose a festive scene?

Into the woods
Into the woods

Big kid? Me?!

Great Biscotti

What unlikely categorisation of comestible unites the “father of modern Italy” with the city of Florence and the Tuscan town of Prato? Here’s a clue – they go well with a nice cup of tea.

The answer – biscuits – obviously. The proclaimed father of Italy was Garibaldi who aside from his military exploits was a renown baker, inventing the eponymous Garibaldi not to mention wagon wheels. Florence lays claim to the chocolate covered Florentine biscuit while natives of Prato dunk “nooks” or “cantuccini” in their espresso, commonly marketed to Brits under the general term of Biscotti.

Here’s another question. Why do the biscuit obsessed British enjoy so many Italian confections while the rest of Europe steadfastly ignores our tea time treasures? You can’t get custard creams in Catalonia. The Turkish wouldn’t recognise a Tunnocks Teacake. The Italians have never heard of the chocolate bourbon, moorish brainchild of Field Marshall Sir John Peak-Frean who ironically introduced the Garibaldi to Britain – a spoil of war originating from his military service in Italy that ranks alongside the Elgin Marbles.

I can’t answer these questions – I’ll leave them to the biscuit historians and theologians. All I know is that Cantuccini makes a nice festively appropriate Christmas gift, and so for the third year running I decided to bake some for my family…

175g whole blanched almonds
125g unsalted butter
200g granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 orange
1 tbsp orange liqueur (Grand Marnier, Cointrea, etc)
1.5 tsp baking powder
0.5 tsp salt
300g plain white flour
75g polenta
1 tbsp coriander seeds

See if you can spot the mistake below…

This is where it all starts
This is where it all starts

Luckily I noticed just in time that I had got cornflour out rather than baking powder. It would have been an embarrassing mistake because this substitution would have resulted in a perfect Clam Chowder – nice if that’s what you had in mind.


1) A little preparation first. Beat the eggs, crush the coriander seeds lightly with a pestle and mortar or perhaps a harsh remark. Also zest the orange – we aren’t bothered with the orange itself but the insides can be eaten raw or squeezed for a healthy drink.

2) Next lightly toast the almonds in a 160C fan oven for 5 to 10 mins. I set a timer because otherwise I know I will forget about them and they will burn. When the nuts have taken on a David Dickinson pallor remove them from the heat and once they are cool enough to touch roughly chop one third of them

Toast those nuts
Toast those nuts

I’ve made the same recipe for the last 2 years and previously made the mistake of buying marginally cheaper skin-on almonds and blanching them myself. HUGE mistake – it took me an hour and I got RSI.

3) Cream the butter and sugar in a bowl until smoothish and then add the eggs, orange zest, booze, baking powder and salt. Give it a good old stir.

Forget the diet
Forget the diet

4) Add the flour, polenta, almonds and coriander and mix well. If the mixture is sticky add more flour until it forms a dough. You have to use your hands for all of this. It’s just more fun that way.

Cauldron of goodies
Cauldron of goodies

5) Divide the dough into 4 and roll each portion out into 5cm by 2cm strips on a floured board. Place the strips onto a greased baking sheet leaving a little distance between them for expansion. Note: I made double quantity which is why there are 8 strips in my photo.

Oven ready
Oven ready

6) Bake for 35 minutes until it looks like this…

After the first bake
After the first bake

7) Leave to cool for a few minutes – but wait, we haven’t finished yet – Cantuccini is baked twice. Cut each strip diagonally into 1cm slices

We're not done yet..
We’re not done yet..

8 ) Return the slices to the baking sheet and return to the oven for another 10 minutes before cooling again on a wire rack.

The finished article
The finished article

What we have is a sophisticated, nutty, orangey biscuit that goes remarkably well with coffee or ice cream and lasts for a good week, if you don’t scoff it in the meantime.

Merry Xmas as they say in Perugia!

Walking in a winter wonderland

Joining my parents for a walk on Christmas morning has become something of a tradition for me and this year there were perfect conditions with crisp snow on the ground and a clear blue sky overhead. The circular walk started from Ambergate, headed uphill via Alderwasley and then veered towards Crich until the A6 where we took in a pub and returned along the frozen canal.

Here’s the proof…

It’s beginning to feel a lot like heartburn

Christmas. That much used and abused date in everyones calendar that means what you want it to mean. A gluttony of commercialised excess for the consumer age spawned by coca cola? The picture postcard snapshot of Victoriana forged of Dickensian imagination? A celebration of the birth of a religious VIP according to a book selectively composed of bits of scripture dug up in a desert and reinterpreted centuries later by canonised warmongerers in funny hats? A pagan festival to celebrate the winter solstice? Or maybe an excuse to take a few days off work, see friends & family while reminding oneself just how bad Dick van Dyke’s cockney accent was.

Shiny things
Shiny things

Take your pick (I’m firmly in the latter camp) but unless you are mentally unstable there is something every year waiting to test your nerves. This year it’s Simon Cowell – a man frantically burying choice fragments of his autobiography in the hope he may be “rediscovered” as the messiah in 2000 years – again trying to steal the Christmas number one slot with his latest formula dirge. At least Joe Public is fighting back by getting RATM to the top slot. I struggle to think of a more potent statement of public opinion in recent years, a combined hatred for SC and everything he stands for that would drive millions of people to pay to download a track they weren’t even going to listed to. It is utterly futile of course. These people are just lining Sony’s corporate coffers and rewarding SC’s faceless business buddies, but that’s not the point.


The point is that despite all of the despair people presently feel about our world – unsanctioned wars and the victims on all sides, the corruption of our elected (and unelected) politicians, the threat of global warming and our clueless approach to tackling it, the loss of jobs as employers go to the wall while morally/financially bankrupt bankers are allowed to take tax payers money in one hand and bonuses in the other – the RATM episode proves that there is hope. It proves that while the voice of a man in the street cannot be heard (or is not listened to) when lots of men in lots of streets shout together then they have the unstoppable power to swing the balance. Today’s “victory” is a trivial one. Perhaps next time the common voice will speak decisively about politics, the environment or conflict. Maybe we are learning that the silent majority do hold the power after all if they just know how to collectively mobilise themselves.

Under the tree
Under the tree

Sorry for allowing my blog to slip knee deep into the murky depths of serious social commentary but it feels appropriate to look to signs of hope at this time of year and this might be as good as it gets.

I’ve just finished decorating the artificial tree and proven to myself that you can always eak out one more year from a threadbare wire frame with enough bling and sufficiently dim lighting. Most of the presents are accounted for and wrapped so next on my tick-list is the business of enjoying myself for the next couple of weeks. For me this will mean seeing family/friends, getting busy in the kitchen and attempting to smile more than I frown. Nothing I shouldn’t be doing every week of the year really.

The tree
The tree

Here are a few seasonal related things that have made me smile this week

Mr Christmas isn’t

Sir Cliff’s sleazy Christmas

You think WE find Christmas confusing?

Finally – I’m donating to charity this year rather than sending out many of the cards I would normally write so the photos in this blog are my alternative offering to you.
Merry whatever!

Mr Moocow - just for Archie
Mr Moocow – just for Archie