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.
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.