Tag Archives: Christmas

Sunday Smiles: Hurrah for science!

Sunday SmilesIt’s December you guys, and you know what that means?  No more bah-humbug, it’s time to get excited about everything Christmas!  The facebook shark fin icon in my sidebar even has its Santa hat on (hey, don’t judge, that took me a long time to draw last year – graphic design is not my forte…).

So, on to this week’s Sunday Smiles:

  • You know what else December means?  It means the end of Movember, which is very popular here in NZ.  And the end of Movember means goodbye to those moustaches, many of which were just plain creepy.  Don’t get me wrong, Movember is a worthy cause, but I’d be significantly more enthusiastic if there had been more Poirot moustaches.  Because those are awesome.  Paedophile-esque moustaches, not so much.
  • You know what really warmed my heart this week?  Reading about the Sesame Collider, which is a science collaboration between several different countries in the Middle East, including …, Iran and Israel.  The project is providing opportunities for academics to work together, even though their respective countries have more or less vowed to obliterate each other.  Definitely a win for science.  And dare I say it, could it be a tiny, tiny, little glimmer of hope for the Middle East?
  • How amazing is this idea of filling balloons with coloured water and freezing them?  I wonder if you could make swirly patterns with the dyes – you’d probably have to flash freeze them in a -80°C for the water to freeze quicker than the dye evens out (if that makes sense).  Anybody ever tried flash freezing a water balloon?  You know what else would be fun?  Adding glitter.  (Image source)

Oh my gosh awesome!  Can we add glitter?!

  • I really enjoyed these photos of ballerinas in NYC – the incongruity of the ballerinas in their surroundings is what makes the photos really interesting.  That said, I think the last one (which is probably the least incongruous) is my favourite, because of its serenity.  Sidenote: I wish I had even half the grace of a ballerina.  Further sidenote: why is there a car parked on the pavement in the sixth photo?
  • So you’re probably all utterly sick of Gangnam Style, but I came across a Dutch version a couple of weeks ago, and since it’ll be Sinterklaas on Wednesday, I think it’s time to share it: Zwarte Pieten Stijl.  By the way, if you’re not familiar with the Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas, I realise that this paragraph probably didn’t make much sense, and the video probably just came across as completely bizarre.  You can read a bit about about Sinterklaas here, if you’re interested.
  • And finally, now that it’s December, it looks like the Sky Tower is all excited about Christmas, too!  Yay!

Sky Tower all dressed up for Christmas!  (At least, I'm assuming that's why it's red and green…)

What made you smile this week?

9 Comments

Filed under Sunday Smiles

Sunday Smiles: Skyfall. That is all. Well, ok, not quite… (but it rhymes)

This hasn’t been the best of weeks – I feel like I’ve spent most of it running into a brick wall.  Actually that more or less covers the last few months, but this week feels like I’ve been sprinting into said brick wall.  Happy days.  Anyway, I don’t really want to go into details – this isn’t meant to be a wallow-in-pity post.

So let’s move right along to this week’s Sunday Smiles:

  • To be honest, this week was more or less single-handedly saved by Skyfall, which was finally released in NZ on Thursday.  I’ve already mentioned how amazing it was, but I just feel the need to re-iterate that.  It’s a serious contender for my favourite Bond film ever.  I could almost stop my Sunday Smiles here – finally seeing Skyfall actually made me week.
  • But I’ll carry on with these adorable photos of baby hedgehogs, or hedgehoglets.  Hedgehogs are actually covered in fleas, which is a little disgusting, but they’re so cute (from a distance further than a flea can jump).  And I’m guessing these adorable little ones haven’t been infested yet, so we can just revel in their cuteness: everybody saw awwwwww!  (Photo source)

  • One of the main purposes of the internet is to provide us with cute baby animals (right?) and it came up trumps twice this week, because there’s also a hilarious baby red panda that is even cuter when it gets taken by surprise.
  • Ok, enough cute baby animals, let’s move onto some killer whales that made an appearance in Mathesons Bay near Leigh.  One of them came right up close to the beach and seemed to be seriously considering snacking on the dog that was paddling around in the shallows.  By the way, this isn’t in Sunday Smiles because of the poor dog (which displays a fabulous doggy version of the “oh shit! face), but rather because it’s rather awesome to see them so close to the beach, and the free-diver’s not-so-elegant clamber onto the rocks.  I did actually think the whale was going to beach itself to try and catch the dog.  A couple of my labmates went free-diving in the same area a week or so later but didn’t see the whales.
  • Mt Tongariro had a little eruption this week (this is the same volcano that erupted back in August).  It seems that it wasn’t really that big of a deal, just venting off some steam – kind of like the volcanic version of a burp from what I can gather.  Rather awkwardly, apparently the scientists thought that Mt Ruapehu was likely to go off in the next two weeks, rather than Tongariro (lucky we’re not in Italy then…).  Anyway, since nobody died or anything, we’re allowed to laugh and what with The Hobbit premiere next week, the NZ Herald’s cartoon made me laugh. (Cartoon source)

  • Time for some low-brow now, courtesy of Susan Boyle’s PR company.  Apparently she’s releasing/has released a new album, so they decided to come up with a hashtag for it and settled on… #susanalbumparty.  Uhm, woops?  How unfortunate, but it did keep me amused for a whole day (it’s been a bad week… and my immaturity always wins out).
  • Public safety videos are usually either all school-marmy or overly graphic and shocking.  Here’s one that’s fun, clever and animated (so it won’t put you off your lunch): Dumb ways to die.  My favourite one is “use your private parts as piranha bait” just because it’s such an idiotic idea.
  • And finally, apparently Christmas is officially here because today was the Farmers’ Santa Parade, an Auckland institution which consists of lots of floats on a parade around the centre of town.  (Farmers is a department store here by the way, not farmers as in agriculture.)  I’m usually a total scrooge about Christmas until the 1st of December, but I made an exception today.  Anyway, it was slightly surreal to see children dressed as snowmen when it’s 20°C outside, but my favourite surreal part was the floats that were shooting out fake snow.  A lot of it wasn’t particularly Christmas-themed (a haunted house float (?), Chinese dragons, cheerleading squads, etc.) which was somewhat perplexing but it was still fun to watch.  And of course, there was Santa, and all the kids in the crowd got totally excited, which was lovely to see.  I was minorly disappointed that Santa’s sleigh isn’t pulled by kiwis here – how amazing would that be?  But no, he has reindeer here, too.  Oh well.

What made you smile this week?

Leave a comment

Filed under Sunday Smiles

Wunderbar stollen, natürlich ja, genau

Over the last 12 years or so and across three different postings, I’ve somehow managed to amass a small collection of German friends.  During my last three years in St Andrews, my flatmate was even German.  Since I’ve been periodically surrounded by Germans speaking German to each other for quite a few years now, it would be logical to assume that I’ve have picked up a fair amount of German and can hold a basic conversation.  If you have a vague grasp of German, you’ve probably already guessed from the title of this post that this really isn’t the case.  Aside from being able to swear in German (because that’s always the first thing you learn in any language), declare my love to people and throw out a few random words, my ability to speak German is more or less limited to “Achtung!  Ich bin eine Kartoffel!”  Which translates to “Warning!  I am a potato!”  Really useful stuff, right there.  If I ever get hopelessly lost in Germany and have to ask somebody for directions, I’ll have to choose between declaring my love to them, telling them I’m a potato or swearing at them.  Luckily I can read maps quite well, so hopefully that particular situation will never arise…

Whilst my friends may have failed miserably at teaching me any useful German, they have successfully introduced me to some rather delicious foods, including stollen.  I’ve been a big fan of this Christmas bread-like fruitcake for quite a long time now, and I always look forward to it in December.  It was a treat that I’d only get if I was round at a German friend’s house, which made it that little bit more special.  Now of course, it’s quite easy to find stollen in the UK, which makes it a little less special, but I still love it.  I considered trying to make some last year but realised that it involves yeast, which scares me a little – I’ve attempted to bake with yeast a few times, but it never seems to turn out how it should.

This month’s Breakfast Challenge is hosted by Krithi’s Kitchen and she’s chosen “Bread” as the theme, so I decided to give baking with yeast another go.  I’m not sure whether stollen is technically classed as bread, but it’s very bread-like and involves yeast, kneading and a bunch of waiting around, so I think it makes a suitably bread-like entry, right?  I’m going with yes.  I don’t actually know if stollen is considered a breakfast food in Germany.  I rather suspect that it isn’t – based on the Germans that I know and have had breakfast with, breakfast seems to be more of a savoury affair (edit: it’s been kindly pointed out to me on Twitter that, as with any country, breakfast foods vary widely across Germany and that some families do eat sweet things for breakfast, including stollen at Christmastime.  I clearly just managed to make friends with those that eat ham and cheese!).  But I love stollen, so when it comes up to Christmastime I’d happily eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner if I thought that was a remotely balanced diet.

So, did I manage to conquer the yeast?  You may have guessed from the photos that I did!  I decided to make the stollens with marzipan down the middle, and they worked perfectly.  Kat, Craig and I reunited in St Andrews last weekend, so I took one of the loaves up with me and tested it on them, just like old times, and they gave it their seal of approval (“über-wunderbar, ja!” “Genau!” – which may or may not be real German…).  Although rather time-consuming, the recipe that I used turned out to be really quite straightforward, and after such delicious results, I’m less scared of baking with yeast.  I wouldn’t exactly say I’m confident yet, but I won’t automatically disregard recipes that involve yeast, which is quite a step forward…

Stollen

Makes 2 large loaves
Stollen recipe slightly adapted from The Daring Kitchen
Marzipan recipe from Je Sais Cuisiner
Crème d’amandes recipe adapted from delicious. (Dec 2011)

I know this looks like the world’s longest recipe, but it’s worth it, I promise!!  The marzipan is optional – just leave it out when rolling the pastry up to make the loaf – but I’d leave the crème d’amandes (unless you’re allergic to almonds or something, obviously!) in, as it subtly moistens the loaf a little bit.  The dough for the stollen can be made up to the end of step 8 and kept in the fridge for up to a week, then baked on the day required (or the day before).  The finished stollen also keeps very well for several days, wrapped tightly in tin foil and stored at room temperature.

Ingredients

For the stollen:
170g raisins
Dark rum to cover the raisins
770g all-purpose flour
115g caster sugar
¾ tsp salt
2 tsp ground cinnamon
Zest of 1 lemon
Zest of 1 orange
60 ml lukewarm water (around 43°C)
14g dried active yeast
240 ml milk
140g unsalted butter
3 large eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp lemon extract
135g mixed candied peel
100g flaked almonds

For the marzipan:
200g ground almonds
200g caster sugar
1 egg white

For the crème d’amandes:
75g unsalted butter
75g caster sugar
75g ground almonds
20g plain flour
1 tbsp ground cinnamon
1 egg
5 tsp dark rum (use the rum that the raisins were soaked in)

For the glaze:
50g unsalted butter
2 tbsp dark rum
About 15 tbsp icing sugar

Directions

To make the stollen:
1.  Place the raisins in a small bowl, and just cover with dark rum.  Cover with foil and leave to soak for about 12 hours, stirring regularly (you can also soak them in a sealed jar and shake it regularly).

2.  In a large mixing bowl (use the largest you’ve got), sift together the flour, sugar, salt and cinnamon.  Stir in the lemon and orange zests.

3.  Pour the lukewarm water into a small bowl (I didn’t bother faffing with a thermometer to get the exact temperature, I just used water that felt warm against the inside of my wrist) and gently pour the yeast over the top of it.  Allow to sit for about 5 mins before stirring to dissolve the yeast completely.

4.  Gently heat the milk and butter together in a small saucepan until the butter has melted.  Set aside to cool for about 5 mins until lukewarm.

5.  In a small bowl, lightly beat the eggs with the vanilla and lemon extracts with a fork.

6.  Pour the yeast mixture, eggs and milk and butter mixture into the flour mixture and stir together (I used a spatula in order to be able to scrape the bowl better) until the dough comes together.  This should take about 3 mins, and the dough should form a soft, but not sticky, ball.  Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and allow to sit for 10 mins.

7.  Add the mixed peel, flaked almonds and drained raisins to the dough and mix them in using your hands.  Dust the counter with flour and turn the dough out onto the counter.  Knead for about 8 mins to distribute the dried fruit throughout the dough (add more flour if necessary).  The dough has been kneaded enough when a few raisins start falling off the outside of the dough ball – the dough should be tacky, not sticky.

8.  Lightly oil a large bowl and add the dough ball, rolling it around to coat it in the oil (I used organic rapeseed oil since I find that it’s flavourless).  Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.  The dough will harden, but it will rise.

9.  Remove the dough from the fridge and allow to rest for about 2h in order to warm and soften.  Whilst waiting for the dough to warm, line a large baking sheet (or two small ones) with baking paper and prepare the marzipan and crème d’amandes.

To make the marzipan:
10.  Add all the marzipan ingredients to a mixing bowl, and mix with your hands until it comes together (it will be dry at first, but it will get stickier as you work the ingredients together).  Set aside.

To make the crème d’amandes:
11.  Lightly beat the egg in a small bowl, using a fork and set aside.

12.  In a medium-sized bowl, beat the butter using an electric whisk, until soft (it helps if the butter is already at room temperature, but this isn’t necessary).  Add the sugar and mix with the electric whisk.  Once fully mixed, add the ground almonds and mix.  Once fully incorporated, add the flour and cinnamon and beat together until fully mixed.  Add the egg and mix again until fully incorporated. Finally, add the alcohol and mix until smooth.  Chill the crème d’amandes in the fridge for about 15 mins until required.

To put together:
13.  Punch the dough down (no really, give it some serious punches.  But don’t hurt yourself).  Turn the dough out onto the counter (it shouldn’t need to be floured), and punch it into a vague rectangle.  Roll the dough out into a rectangle of about 40 x 60 cm.  It should be about 5mm thick.  Cut the rectangle in half along its width (so you should have two rectangles of about 40 x 30 cm each).

14.  Evenly spread half of the crème d’amandes over one of the rectangles of dough, leaving a 2cm border all the way around.  Take half of the marzipan and carefully work it into a cylinder of about 27 cm long (the marzipan will crumble if you try to roll it, so it’s easiest to gently squeeze it into a cylinder).  Lay the marzipan roll at one of the short ends of the dough (it should be just shorter than the dough), and roll the dough up tightly around the marzipan.  Pinch the ends to close them a little.  Transfer the stollen to the prepared baking sheet, with the seam sitting underneath.

15.  Repeat for the second half of the dough, using the remaining crème d’amandes and marzipan, and transfer it to the baking sheet (make sure there is space between them for them to increase in size, both before and during baking).

16.  Allow the stollens to prove for about 2h at room temperature, until about 1½ times their original size.

17.  Pre-heat the oven to 180°C.  Bake the stollens for 20 mins, rotate the baking sheet so that they bake evenly (separate them if they’ve joined a little in the middle) and bake a further 20-30 mins until a dark mahogany colour.  The loaves should sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.  Remove to a wire rack.

18.  Whilst the loaves are baking, melt the butter for the glaze in a small saucepan.  Once melted, remove from the heat and stir in the rum.  As soon as the loaves have been transferred to the wire racks, brush their tops with the melted butter, and sift a layer of icing sugar over the top, followed by a second layer 1 minute later.  A few minutes later, brush more melted rum butter over the top of the icing sugar (this looks totally messy and unpresentable and icing sugar will go everywhere, but don’t worry), and sift another layer of icing sugar over the top.  A few minutes later, brush the remaining melted rum butter over the top of the icing sugar and immediately sift another layer of icing sugar over the top, followed 1 minute later by a final layer.  Allow the stollens to cool completely before serving or wrapping tightly in tin foil to store.

Enjoy!  (Natürlich ja, genau…)

6 Comments

Filed under Ramblings, Recipes, Sweet Foods

Getting into the festive spirit with pear, date, walnut & Stilton muffins

It’s December now, which means one thing…  Well, two things.  Firstly, uhm, how is it already the last month of 2011?!  Seriously, when did that happen?  Let’s ignore it and move on swiftly (and with style) to the next thing: December means getting all festive!!  Now, leading up to December, I am a complete and utter scrooge and I detest everything to do with Christmas.  In any month other than December, I could probably give Scrooge a run for his money.  Possibly even Scrooge and the Grinch combined.  Then, as soon as it’s December, you could flick a switch and suddenly I get all enthusiastic about it.  Well, about the festive spirit.  Not the overly-commercialised you-must-buy-as-many-hideous-and-useless-presents-as-possible aspect to it (which is a rant for another day.  I’m sure you’re looking forward to it already…).  But let’s all give a huzzah for the festive spirit!  And for mulled wine!  (Although that’s acceptable from Bonfire Night.  Or as soon as it starts getting cold really.)  And mince pies – I love mince pies!

You know what else makes me think of Christmas?  Dates.  Of the edible variety (as opposed to the going-for-dinner variety).  Every year my mum makes dates stuffed with home-made marzipan, and I could easily hoover up enough of them to feed a small army in approximately ten seconds.  I have a recipe for pear, date, walnut and Stilton muffins which to me just sounds like such a Christmassy combination, and that I’ve been meaning to try out for over a year, but I completely forgot about it at Christmastime last year.  When I eventually remembered about it in April it was neither Christmas nor pear season.  So I bookmarked the recipe with a giant hot pink post-it note so that when Christmas rolled around again, I would be more likely to remember.  And guess what?  I did!  (Which is an achievement in itself.)

I should probably add the caveat that if you really detest blue cheese, these probably aren’t the muffins for you, but if you’re a bit on the fence about blue cheese, maybe give them a try – the Stilton really doesn’t come through as much as you might expect so it really doesn’t over-power the muffin, and the sweetness of the dates combined with the subtle pear flavour counter-balance it really well.  Even though they’ve got both sweet and savoury elements, I’ve categorised these muffins as savoury because they work really well as a light lunch or snack.  They could possibly even work as an informal alternative to a cheese board.  However you decide to eat them, they’re definitely deliciously seasonal!  Here’s to getting into the festive spirit!

Pear, date, walnut & Stilton muffins

Makes 13 muffins
Adapted from Mad About Muffins

The pear is quite a subtle flavour, so I made sure not to mash it up completely so that there were still a few chunks to give little explosions of flavour.  I used Stilton, but I’m sure that most blue cheeses would work.  The Stilton doesn’t come through as much as you might expect it to, so don’t worry if you’re not too keen on blue cheese.  As with most muffins, these won’t keep all that long, but they will store well in an air-tight container for a couple of days.  These are delicious both warm out of the oven or fully cooled.

Ingredients

355g all-pupose flour
160g caster sugar
1 tbsp baking powder
Pinch of salt
250g pears (just use the weight as a rough guideline)
100g organic rapeseed oil
2 eggs
60g pitted ready-to-eat dates
100g Stilton
100g walnut halves

Directions

1.  Pre-heat the oven to 200°C/fan oven 180°C.  Butter or line 13 muffins pan sections or set out 13 silicon muffin moulds on a baking sheet.

2.  Roughly chop the walnut halves.  Chop the dates and crumble the Stilton (don’t crumble it too finely – little chunks are good).  Set aside.

3.  Sift the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt into a large mixing bowl and mix together.

4.  Peel and core the pear and add to a clean bowl.  Mash roughly with a potato masher (make sure there are still some little rough chunks left).  Add the oil and eggs and gently beat together with a fork.

5.  Fold the pear mixture into the dry ingredients with a large metal spoon, until just combined (it’s fine if there’s still a little bit of flour visible).  Carefully fold the dates, Stilton and half of the walnuts into the mixture before spooning into the prepared muffin pans or moulds.  Sprinkle the remaining walnuts evenly over the tops of the muffins.

6.  Bake for 22-25 mins, until the muffins are golden and well risen.  The tops should spring back when lightly prodded.  Transfer to a wire rack to cool a little before eating.

Enjoy!

6 Comments

Filed under Recipes, Savoury Foods

It’s nearly Christmas… Time for mince pies!

I have to admit, I’m very picky about my mince pies.  In my book, the less pastry, the better – the filling is my favourite bit.  The vast majority of shop-bought pies just aren’t quite up to my standard – snobbish, I know, but the home-made ones are so much better…

Yummy...!

Despite this being my 4th Christmas whilst actually living in the UK, I still get a little bit excited about being able to just buy mincemeat in the supermarket instead of having to track it down in some special expat shop or asking people going to the UK to bring some back if they can.  Outside the UK, mince pies tend to be few and far between.  Depending on where we lived, mincemeat (which, by the way, doesn’t have any meat in it whatsoever) ranged from wallet-shatteringly expensive to non-existent, so we generally only got mince pies if were in Scotland for Christmas.

Having said that, my Scottish grandparents spent Christmas with us once in Norway and brought about half a suitcase of mincemeat with them.  My grandma, mum and I must have spent the whole day in the kitchen, and that’s the first time I’d ever help make mince pies before (for the record, mine were a disaster).  I’ve had my grandma’s recipe ever since and, after a lot of practice, I’ve somehow ended up as the unofficial family mince pie-baker…

Tempting, aren't they?

Mince pies

Makes about 36 small mince pies (with lids)
Adapted from my grandma’s recipe.

The drizzle is completely optional – once cool, you can just sprinkle them with a bit of sugar instead or just leave them as they are.

Ingredients

250g all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
125g unsalted butter
60g caster sugar
¾ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground nutmeg
1 egg
2 jars mincemeat

For the drizzle (optional):
100g icing sugar
7-8 tsp Cointreau

Directions

To make the pastry:
1.  Rub the flour, baking powder and butter together to make fine breadcrumbs.  Stir in the sugar and the spices.

2.  Add the egg and knead together to form a dough.

3.  Split the pastry and roll out thinly (splitting it makes it a lot easier to roll out, and the thickness of the pastry depends on personal preferences – I like lots of filling so I tend to roll the pastry out as thinly as I can get away with).

To make the mince pies:
4.  Preheat the oven to 200°C/fan oven 180°C.  Butter some muffin/cupcake/pie tins.

5.  Using a round cutter (I use one with a crimped edge, just because it looks prettier) cut out circles of an appropriate diameter to fit the muffin tins, and use a star cutter (or a smaller round cutter if you want proper lids – I like using stars because they look a bit different) to cut out an equal number of lids.

6.  Line the tins with the pastry circles and prick with a fork.

7.  Spoon in some mincemeat, but not right up to the top (it will bubble over).

8.  Lay the stars over the top and press the ends down to the edge of the pastry casings.  (If you’re using circles as lids, brush with a little milk so that the lids stick, and cut three slits in the top to prevent the pies exploding).

9.  Bake for about 12 mins and cool on a wire rack.

To make the drizzle (optional):
10.  Sift the icing sugar into a small bowl, add the Cointreau and whisk together to form a smooth paste.

11.  Once the pies have fully cooled, spoon the icing into a piping bag with a small nozzle and pipe the icing across the tops of the mince pies in a squiggle.  Leave to set for about 10 mins.

I told you they were better than the shop-bought ones, didn’t I?

1 Comment

Filed under Recipes, Sweet Foods