Merry Christmas!

I'd like to wish all my readers a very merry Christmas. Naturally, I hope your Christmas is full of delicious things to eat as well as happy times with friends and family. I for one have started my day with a delicious bowl of pear and cranberry baked oatmeal and a cup of spiced Christmas tea. There's a huge, majestic rib of beef sitting proudly on the worktop waiting to come to room temperate before it goes into a searing oven; there's smoked salmon in the fridge, to be eaten with butter, horseradish and soda bread; there are mini sausage rolls waiting to puff up and go gloriously golden in the oven, mulled wine to sip around the fire, and - of course - a huge array of vegetables waiting to be peeled. I'd better go and get back to the kitchen.

I leave you with a festive picture of my cat in the snow. It's not snowing here, just doing that standard British grey drizzle thing, so I thought I'd bring a little feline-based snowy joy into your lives.

Merry Christmas!

Ham braised in apple juice

Traditionally, we have a ham at Christmas. Usually cooked on Christmas Eve or Boxing Day, it furnishes us with lots of lovely cold sliced meat to accompany the myriad pickles and preserves we receive over the festive period. I am no exception: this Christmas I have personally received five different chutneys. Last Christmas I received seven different chutneys. Needless to say, there is a lot of chutney in my fridge demanding my consumption. A large ham is a good thing to have. We normally roast the ham - last year we did it with a lovely marmalade and five-spice glaze - but this year I thought I'd try braising it, to see if it resulted in a more moist, juicy ham. It did - it was a pleasure to eat all on its own, though even better with leftover braised red cabbage from the Christmas roast and - needless to say - chutney.

Braising the ham in apple juice leaves it lovely and moist. Pork and apple are a classic combination, and work just as well here; the appley flavour infuses the meat but not too strongly. Plus, you end up with a lovely sauce for the ham which you can pour over any leftovers so that they don't languish and dry out in the fridge, but stay wonderfully moist with a hint of sweetness from the juice.

The recipe is simple: put the ham in a pan with some roughly chopped celery, carrots and leeks (two of each). Add a cinnamon stick, a bunch of parsley stalks, ten black peppercorns, and ten juniper berries, crushed with a knife. Add a couple of bay leaves, then pour in enough apple juice to cover the ham (or top up with water if the juice doesn't quite cover it). Bring to the boil and simmer, partially covered, for a couple of hours (this was for a 1.5kg ham). 

Then remove the ham to a chopping board, use a slotted spoon to take all the solid bits out of the pan (the leftover veg, etc) and put a bit of the sauce in a separate saucepan. Discard the rest. Vigorously boil the sauce until it has reduced. Use some arrowroot or cornflour to thicken it, and you should have a lovely, flavoursome apple gravy to accompany the ham. Drizzle it over, and tuck in. Good accompaniments are red cabbage, leftover stuffing (though this is perhaps a rather pork-heavy combination for Boxing Day), pickles, baby jacket potatoes, mashed potato, apple sauce, or parsnip puree. Or just eat it on its own, in all its glory.

Cranberry stollen

I've tried baking my own stollen for the last couple of years, and it's never come close to the bought stuff. I don't necessarily mean this in a bad way - the recipe I use is more of a bread than a cake, a bit like a giant hot cross bun with marzipan in the middle (which, as I'm sure you'll agree, is no bad thing). It's nice toasted once it's gone a bit stale, and it's not as sickly as some bought versions. My mum actually prefers it to the version made by Betty's of Harrogate, which is quite an accolade. However, in an attempt to get mine closer to the delicious cakeyness of some versions (in particular, the one made by a German chef I used to work for), I decided to try a new recipe. Clearly there is no one better to turn to than my favourite baker, Dan Lepard, and I have a feeling he may have proved himself yet again.

The added bonus of this recipe is that it requires no kneading, proving or rising. Normally when I make stollen it takes an entire day of various bread-tending activities; it needs supervising like a naughty child and often disappoints you like one, rising strangely and never looking as neat as it did when you rolled it up into a lovely tidy shape on the baking tray. This recipe involves stirring some things together in a bowl, rolling the dough out, adding the marzipan and baking. Done in under an hour - excellent. I used dried cranberries instead of the sour cherries Lepard suggests, for a more festive touch.

An even better part of this recipe is it involves brushing the stollen, while warm, with copious amounts of rum and melted butter before "dredging" it in icing sugar. Surely this can only be an improvement - alcohol, saturated fat, and sugar? It's practically Christmas in cake form. I'm pretty pleased with the way it looks, too - it's less sprawling than my normal bread-dough stollen. Lepard suggests I wrap it up tightly and let it mature for a week. No chance - I'm going to leave it until Christmas Eve Eve, and then my willpower, I can quite clearly predict, will shatter. 

In fact, I've already nibbled a bit off the end. I could argue that this was for aesthetic purposes, so that my photos show a glimpse of the delicious, fruit-flecked interior with its gorgeous marzipan artery...but in fact, I was just eager to sample my hard work. It does indeed have a denser, more cakey texture, and the cardamom comes through quite strongly. I can't wait to eat it once it has "matured". 

A study in cranberry

It was actually an accident that both courses of last night's meal ended up containing cranberries. A realisation over the weekend that I still haven't eaten any pheasant this season, combined with the freezing cold weather and a need for something warming and substantial resulted in a trip to the butchers and a brace of pheasant in the shopping bag. I normally pot-roast pheasant with bacon, cider and apples, but thought I'd try a recipe involving red wine and sour cherries. Unable to find any dried sour cherries, I used dried cranberries instead. Dessert, a clementine and cranberry sorbet, arose for more practical reasons: fresh cranberries are half price in the supermarkets at the moment. You can't really get more festive than a sorbet combining two of Christmas's signature ingredients.

To accompany the pheasant, I made a sort of butternut squash crumble. Steamed pieces of squash, baked under a blanket of breadcrumbs toasted in olive oil with garlic, rosemary and orange zest. The colours are beautiful, and it tastes great too: the crunchy crumbs provide a nice contrast in texture to the soft, sweet squash. 

The pheasant is easy: brown the bird in butter in a casserole dish, remove and saute onions and garlic in the pan. Put the bird back in, pour in some red wine and stock, add the dried fruit, a cinnamon stick, a bay leaf and some fresh thyme, season, put the lid on and cook in the oven for about 40 minutes. You end up with a wonderfully aromatic sauce, and a truly beautiful tangle of soft, sweet onions with a sharpness from the wine they have steeped in. The combination of dense, gamey meat and sweet onions is superb, and the squash works with it better than I had anticipated. Its sweetness is a good foil for the acidity of the wine, and the crumbs on top give a nice crunch. Even better when the dark sauce from the casserole has soaked into the crumbs and made everything rich and delicious.

The sorbet recipe is from this food blog, Pastry Studio. It is the reason my degree is suffering at the moment; I am obsessed with the recipes and the photography is absolutely beautiful. It's more of a sherbet than a sorbet, really, because it includes milk. Orange zest and sugar are blitzed in a blender before you mix them with orange juice (I used clementine juice), milk, vanilla and a bit of lemon juice. The cranberry compote is just fresh cranberries stewed with lemon juice, brown sugar and water. I churned the sherbet in the ice cream maker and then layered it with the compote before putting it in the freezer. The colours are lovely, though it does look rather like someone has just mixed jam and custard in an ice cream tub! I'd quite like to serve this alongside something warm and sticky, like a Christmas pudding. I think the contrast in flavour and temperature would be rather nice.