Christmas in the Croft Kitchen

Apricot Couronne

Back to Basics and a Masterclass.

It is Christmas eve, the wind is rising to storm force, the surf is pounding the beach and there are squalls of sleet hurtling past the window. Strangely the croft kitchen is quiet, the larder overflowing and even if we could squeeze in another culinary delight more baking would be a risky enterprise, as there is a high probability of yet another power cut. So far this month we have only managed two gardening days, otherwise it has been too wet and windy to venture farther than the shed to fetch logs or raid the vegetable and preserves store. Four big storms with winds gusting above 80 mph in 3 weeks is extreme even for the Outer Isles.

Filling the days is not a problem, but there are afternoons when we gaze longingly out of the window and sigh for a walk on the beach or session hard labour in the garden. As an alternative there is hard graft in the kitchen, although improving my baking skills is more of an indulgence, even if at times there are both blood and tears.

As usual the croft kitchen has been full of spicy aromas with dark undertones of dried fruit and molasses sugar and the heady fumes of Christmas spirit. There were also some demons to slay as I had vowed there would not be a repeat of last years extravaganzas. First the gingerbread men – with ruthless determination I blew the dust off the old recipe and assembled the ingredients, I was ready. In the shake of a snow globe, there were 36 perfect gingerbread biscuits. Self-esteem restored was I confident enough to try some patisserie or would hubris be humbling? Not for me the basic Bakewell, but tarte amandine aux pruneaux!

I was taught to make pastry by my mother, very basic, very simple and in times of austerity there were no fancy additions and certainly nothing as extravagant as butter and eggs. You rubbed the fat into the flour (usually a mixture of lard and margarine) to the fine breadcrumbs stage, by hand of course, added the required amount of water to make a dough, rolled it out and that was it. This method produced perfectly mediocre edible and rather grey pastry. With affluence and experience I moved onto to more complex  recipes including what my mother refers to as “the posh fancy bits” but I must confess that it is often made in a food processor and “resting” tends to be minimal. So I was probably in need of a “back to basics refresher course” with a chef pâtissier.

My style of cooking tends to be more Prue Leith than Roux brothers, rustic with no frills. However, when it comes to bread and pastry techniques, it could only be Richard Bertinet who could sort out a lifetime’s bad habits. So in a clean apron, ingredients assembled and the kitchen surgically scrubbed, book in hand and a steely glint in the eye, I was ready. Two days later, I had produced 8 prune and almond tarts and not a soggy bottom amongst them. With a combination of almond paste and prunes soaked in brandy the filling had to be delicious. As for the pastry, it was crisp and buttery, but perhaps a little too sweet for me. Certainly worth the time and effort for something special, it is just a case of being sufficiently organised to allow time for the resting. There is also something very satisfying about making pastry by hand.

Almond tart
Almond tart

Now for the Kringle. I decided to rest on my laurels and let my own personal chef give me a masterclass. From panettonne to stollen, there are a number of enriched breads which are a traditional part of European Christmas cooking. So I didn’t get a kringle but a couronne, which is the French version. The magic combination of dried fruit, muscovado sugar and almonds is sublime and wrapped in a light buttery case is gourmande heaven. Not sure if I’m ready for this level of technical baking yet, so I’ll stick to perfecting the perfect pastry.

This year my sister declared that civilisation was coming to an end when I confessed I’d not made a Christmas cake, pudding or mincemeat. I have been experimenting with slightly lighter cakes and puddings, still involving the traditional mixtures of Christmas spices and fruit but more prima ballerina than sumo wrestler. Tarte amandine aux pruneaux is delicious, but it can’t really compete with an old-fashioned mince pie.

Slice apricot couronne
A slice of apricot couronne

12 thoughts on “Christmas in the Croft Kitchen

  1. It sounds delicious Christine… I have mince pies in the oven right now, but I just used bought mincemeat (with a bit of extra brandy 😉 Have a lovely Christmas, and I do hope the storms let off a bit for the New Year.

    • Thank you – we’ve survived again and are fortunate, so today will be extra special and we will think about those whose Christmas will be not so happy.

  2. Two days to make 8 prune and almond tarts ?! I trust you weren’t on piece work, Christine? They do look lovely, admittedly, and what a good idea to treat the baking bonanza like a masterclass, particularly when with your enforced stay inside.The couronne has been made famous by being one of the challenges on the Great British Bake off this year – not something had come across before but I am sure it was delicious. I have made numerous stollens for presents this year and could make them with my eyes shut now, I think! I hear you have greedily kept the strongest winds for yourself this time round, but hope they don’t do any structural damage or prevent you from enjoying the wider world for too much longer. Have a Happy Christmas, both of you – and don’t eat all those tarts in one sitting!

    • Patience is required for the good things in life and steeping prunes in brandy can’t be rushed, especially when you discover that you had to remove the stones due to a shopping mishap. I’m impressed by the multiple stollens.
      We are indeed selfless in offering to take the worst of the weather again, but severe gales are part of life here and we seem to survive in reasonably good shape.. Fortunately we have survived unscathed again and miraculously still have electricity, but we still intend to sit by the fire with tea and cake.
      Enjoy your festivities and I hope you kept a stollen for the the Golfer.

      • We had about half a stollen to share – Mark 7, I think, and possibly the best, although unless people say I have no idea what the other ones will have turned out like! I treated myself to a cherry stoner after the Golfer had picked several pounds from the golf course – very effective, but I don’t suppose it would work on prunes. I wonder if you have been able to venture outside yet…

        • We actually had some sunshine yesterday so I did a tour of the estate to inspect the re-arranged coastline, unfortunately not a splinter of driftwood or anything interesting.

          • No doubt there will be more wind and waves to come and hopefully bring you some driftwood 😉

          • Thank you for that gem of comfort – what a little ray of sunshine you are in my life. Weather forecast for January is wet and windy so you may look forward with great excitement to more of my “not gardening posts”. 😐

          • Wet and windy? That’s unusual…. but think of the creativity that will be unleashed…. 😉

  3. This time of year I miss the client who always ordered my black cake with fresh lemon curd and my ginger/pumpkin pudding. The black cake is reputed to be from Emily Dickenson, and it is indeed rich, moist, and dark, dark, dark. Addictive!
    Few Americans relish the truly traditional desserts these days and oh, what they are missing!

    • Ginger and pumpkin pudding sounds great – we rarely use pumpkin in deserts, it is obviously more versatile than I realised. I’m all for traditional puddings even if I stray from Bakewell tart into the French version!

      • Mine is a steamed pudding, and although labor intensive, rave reviews. Super soaked in black rum and lit on New Years. Cheers!

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