In the heady rush of frivolous Christmas excess, there are several things that we suddenly, out of some bizarre and frequently misguided notion of 'tradition', decide we absolutely need in our lives, regardless of all restraining logic or common sense. The classic example is, of course, brussels sprouts, those contentious little green globes that, deep down, no one actually likes, regardless of how many innovative recipes you throw at them (although it has to be said that generally the amount of butter, cream and/or bacon used in a brussels sprout dish is directly proportional to how edible it is). There is also Christmas pudding, which alienates many eaters due to its sheer density, yet always features on the Christmas table, ready to languish and congeal for weeks later at the back of the fridge as we realise we'd rather finish our meal with a mince pie or a handful from the Quality Street tin. Even turkey, which we never eat the rest of the year round, complaining about its dry, tasteless nature; we still force it down, year after year, combining it with a sauce made from fruits we otherwise show a complete apathy towards - cranberries.
Another foodstuff on this list is cheese. There was an advert recently, I think it was for a Burger King cheeseburger, that declared something along the lines of 'It isn't Christmas without cheese'. We Brits seem to adopt the same view, rushing out during the festive period to burden ourselves with Brie, smother ourselves with Stilton, choke ourselves on Cheddar and wallow in vast amounts of Wensleydale. We seem to perpetuate the myth that Christmas is the time to get involved in lovingly crafting a delicious cheeseboard, like the ones we see in glossy magazine adverts for Saint Agur. Maybe this is the year we'll finally do it, we think - we'll get the grapes, the fresh figs, the four different types of chutney, the special cheese knives, the slate board - it'll be just what we need to really make Christmas.
Yet I'm sure my family is not alone in never getting round to this cheeseboard creation. The multiple packets of cheese (best purchased from whole wheels at a supermarket deli counter or, better still, an independent artisan cheesemonger - no pre-packaged wedges of sweaty Brie here, please, it's Christmas) languish at the back of the fridge, next to the two soggy roast potatoes, the mealy, curling slices of white turkey and the bowl of greying, uneaten brussels sprouts, slowly developing their 'little furry jackets', as my mother so charmingly calls them.
Because honestly, Christmas is perhaps the most inappropriate time in the world for a cheeseboard. What you need to supplement your diet at this time of year is definitely and emphatically not a slab festooned with multiple manifestations of saturated fat. If you can still want to tuck into an array of molten, fatty, gooey cheese after all the mince pies, Christmas pudding, roast dinners and mulled wine at this time of year, I admire you. But I suspect you might be in the minority.
There's a reason all the recipe magazines pack their January issues chock-full of vivid salads, stir fries and vegetable dishes. While I hate the annual obsession with 'detox' that surfaces after the hangover has faded on New Years Day, I have to admit I often welcome these new, healthy recipe ideas. Christmas leaves me feeling disgusting. I just can't hack the sheer amount of meat and sugar I feel obliged to force down on a yearly basis. Of course it's entirely my own fault - I just had to go back for that last roast potato, or nibble a bit of stollen with my cup of afternoon tea - but that doesn't make it any less uncomfortable.
How anyone, after subsisting almost entirely on dried fruit soaked in alcohol, roast meat, buttered vegetables and various forms of spiced booze for the best part of a month, could actually welcome the idea of indulging in cheese and biscuits is beyond me, and therein lies the fallacy of our national cheeseboard tradition. Like brussels sprouts and turkey, perhaps we should finally admit to ourselves that it's okay to break with tradition at Christmas, that maybe we should listen to our appetites and what we feel like eating rather than what we believe anxiously that we should be eating.
Case in point: this year, after a discussion with my mother in which we both realised no one in our family actually likes turkey very much, we decided to do something totally wild for Christmas dinner. We had roast beef instead. A glorious rib of beef, gigantic and bloody and marbled and smelling emphatically of cow. We had: roast potatoes in beef dripping, mashed swede, broccoli and homemade Yorkshire puddings. We did not have: brussels sprouts, bread sauce, turkey, or cranberry sauce - i.e. most of those festive 'trimmings' that send cooks into a mad frenzy at this time of year as they try to juggle timings and oven space. We also didn't have parsnips, but that is simply because they are the devil's food and should be prohibited by law.
It was one of the most delicious meals I've had in a long time. I hardly ever eat roast beef - I haven't had it for over a year. Roast beef for me is far more of a treat than roast turkey, which is similar to roast chicken, something I make a lot. I would never buy and cook a rib of beef, nor order it in a restaurant. Yet when I tucked in on Christmas Day, I couldn't believe I'd been missing out on such sheer deliciousness for so long. That's a feeling I never get with turkey. It was liberating, there being so little to do - no faffing around making multiple sauces, just putting a spoon in a jar of horseradish. No bothering to make stuffing or pigs in blankets. No frantically worrying about salmonella or dry meat.
All this said, my mum still went out this year and bought a small glut of cheese. While we may have shaken off the shackles of turkey tradition trauma, we have yet to escape what I shall now term 'British Festive Cheeseboard Syndrome'. A classic symptom of said syndrome? Buying a 'mulled cheese', i.e. Wensleydale with spiced fruits in. Another symptom? Buying exotic-sounding chutneys even when there are about eighty different chutneys slowly dying in the larder, gifts from mis-judged hampers of Christmases past.
However, should you have various bits of cheese lurking in your fridge, making you feel guilty that you can't bear the notion of eating them - and you should if you want to call yourself a proper Brit - here is a great recipe for you. It turns those guilt-inducing bits of cheese into light, fluffy, deeply savoury scones that work very well with all manner of festive leftovers. They're great with cold meats and some chutney, or served with even more cheese - spread with soft Brie or Stilton, or a cream cheese. They're nice simply spread with butter and served warm, maybe with a cup of tea as an afternoon snack, if you like your snacks savoury.
These are a simple scone mixture, jazzed up with some caramelised red onion and some feisty spices - smoked paprika for a delicious moreish tang; black pepper for a little kick of flavour; nutmeg for a seasonal spiced warmth. The combination of the spices, savoury onion and tangy cheese results in a rich, flavoursome scone that pairs well with so many other flavours. You can use most hard cheeses in this recipe - I used the remnants of a Lancashire bomb cheese, a tongue-ticklingly strong cheese that comes in a wax 'bomb' shape - but strong cheddar or goat's cheese would work best, as would something like Wensleydale or Gruyere. You don't get an overly strong cheese flavour, which is why these work well with other ingredients - just a subtle savoury note that makes you want to reach for another.
You may not fancy plying your stomach with huge amounts of oozing cheese at this time of year, but by transforming it into these little scones, you have something that not only provides a vehicle for eating up other Christmas leftovers, but also makes the cheese a lot more palatable. The idea of a ripe wedge of Brie is a tad nauseating right now, but these warm, crispy, fluffy little scones are definitely not. Whip up a batch this week - they take hardly any time to make - and lighten the cheese burden a little.
Cheese and onion scones with pepper, paprika and nutmeg (makes around 12):
- 1 red onion, finely chopped
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 185g self-raising flour
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp smoked paprika
- 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
- 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
- 30g cold butter, cubed
- 60g strong cheese, crumbled or grated (I used a
- Lancashire bomb
- 1 large egg
- 3 tbsp milk, plus extra for brushing
- Parmesan cheese or strong cheddar, for grating on top
First, fry the onion in the olive oil over a medium heat until soft and golden in places. Set aside to cool. Pre-heat the oven to 200C. Sift the flour into a medium bowl then add the salt, paprika, pepper and nutmeg. Rub in the butter until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add the cheese and red onion to the flour mixture.
Make a well in the centre of the flour mixture and crack in the egg. Using a wooden spoon, beat the egg, gradually incorporating a little of the flour as you go, until you have a thick dough. Add the milk and combine using the spoon and then your hands to form a soft but not sticky dough. Tip onto a floured work surface and knead until smooth, then roll out to a circle around one inch thick.
Use small cutters (around 5-7cm diameter) to cut out the scones, then arrange, spaced out, on a piece of baking parchment on an oven tray. Roll any remaining dough out again and cut more scones, until all the dough is used up.
Brush the tops of the scones with milk, then grate over some parmesan or strong cheddar. Bake for around 10-12 minutes until golden on top.