The time before Christmas, for me, really revolves around food. It's my favourite time of year, and I adore all the different treats that we make. I can track the progression towards Christmas by the divine array of aromas that fill our house. There's the sweet and boozy smell of Christmas pudding, as I make sure each family member has a stir and makes a wish. There's the spicy smell of freshly baked stollen, the sweet Christmas bread that is full of fruits and spices - I always make it to my German brother-in-law's recipe.
The smell of mincemeat fills the kitchen as I stir everything together, good and fruity, with an uncompromising amount of whiskey. After a couple of weeks, it will find its way into a legion of mince pies, as well as more unusual desserts such as cakes or this mincemeat crumble tart, opposite.
Each year I will root around in a drawer somewhere to bring out my Christmas cookie cutters. There are stars, angels, snowmen, Christmas trees and more. Over the years, I've amassed quite a collection. The cookie cutters are useful, however they're not strictly necessary. You can draw any shape (Christmas or otherwise) that you would like on to parchment paper in pencil, then cut the shape out with scissors. Place the shape on top of the dough, then cut it out using a sharp knife. That way you can make biscuits of any shape or size that you'd like, and you won't have to fill a drawer with cookie cutters you only use once a year.
I love eating these biscuits as they are, but if you like, you can decorate them. Just mix together a few drops of food colouring with a simple icing made of icing sugar and a few drops of water. Then cut the very end off the corner of a freezer bag, fill the bag and use it to draw on Christmas-tree decorations or snowmen's clothing!
Makes 2.7kg (6lb)
You will need:
2 large cooking apples, peeled, cored and cut into large chunks
1 teaspoon water
Finely grated zest and juice of 2 oranges and 2 lemons
250g (9oz) shredded suet, or butter, chilled and grated
275g (10oz) raisins
275g (10oz) sultanas
275g (10oz) currants
125g (4½oz) candied peel, chopped
650g (1lb 7oz) soft dark-brown sugar
50g (2oz) nibbed (chopped) almonds
2 teaspoons mixed spice
75ml (2½fl oz) Irish whiskey or brandy
Put the apple chunks in a small saucepan with one teaspoon of water, cover the saucepan and cook it over a low heat for about 8-10 minutes until the apple chunks are cooked down to a pulp. Allow to cool.
In a large bowl, mix together the orange zest, the lemon zest, the orange juice and the lemon juice, the shredded suet or grated butter, whichever you're using, the raisins, the sultanas, the currants, the chopped candied peel, the soft dark-brown sugar, the chopped almonds, the mixed spice and the Irish whiskey or the brandy, whichever you're using, and the pulped apple. Place the mincemeat in sterilised jars; it will keep for up to a year.
For the pastry, you will need:
200g (7oz) flour
100g (3½oz) butter
1 tablespoon sugar
½-1 egg, beaten
For the crumble, you will need:
75g (2½oz) butter
100g (3½oz) flour
75g (2½oz) caster sugar
25g (1oz) flaked almonds
400g (14oz) mincemeat (see recipe above)
You will need a 23cm (9in) cake tin with a removable base, or a rectangular cake tin. First, make the pastry. Place the flour, the butter and the sugar in a food processor and whizz briefly.
Add half the beaten egg and continue to whizz. You might need to add a little more egg - but not too much, as the mixture should be just moist enough to come together. If you're making the pastry by hand, rub the butter into the flour and sugar until it resembles breadcrumbs, then using your hands, add enough beaten egg to bring it together.
With your hands, flatten out the ball of dough until it is about 2cm thick, then wrap it in cling film or place it in a sealable plastic bag and leave it in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.
Next, make the crumble topping. Use your fingers to rub the butter into the flour and the caster sugar until the mixture is the texture of coarse breadcrumbs, then stir in the flaked almonds.
Preheat oven to 180°C, 350°F, Gas 4.
Take the pastry out of the fridge and roll it out until it is quite thin.
Line the base and the sides of the tin with the pastry.
Spread an even layer of mincemeat on to the pastry.
Scatter over the crumble topping and spread it out to make another even layer on top of the mincemeat.
Place the tart in the oven and cook it for 40-45 minutes until the top is nicely browned.
Makes about 20, depending on size.
You will need:
115g (4oz) butter
55g (2oz) caster sugar
55g (2oz) brown sugar
½ egg, beaten
2 tablespoons black treacle
240g (9oz) plain flour, and a little for dusting
2 teaspoons ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
Pinch of ground cloves
1 teaspoon baking soda
Pinch of salt
75g (3oz) icing sugar
Preheat the oven to 180°C, 350°F, Gas 4. Line two baking trays with baking parchment.
Put the butter, the caster sugar and the brown sugar in a bowl and cream them together using a wooden spoon - or the paddle attachment of a stand mixer - until the mixture is light and fluffy.
Add the beaten egg and the black treacle and continue to mix until they are combined. Sift in the plain flour, the ground ginger, the ground nutmeg, the ground cinnamon, the pinch of ground cloves, the baking soda, the pinch of salt and the icing sugar and stir together to form a dough. Dust your worktop with flour, then knead the dough for a few seconds until it comes together. Roll the dough out, dusting with more flour as necessary, to a thickness of about ½cm (less than ¼in).
Next, cut the dough into whatever Christmas shapes you like. Transfer the biscuits on to the baking trays and cook in the oven for about 12-15 minutes, until they are slightly firm, a little darker at the edges and slightly drier on top. Allow the shapes to firm up for a few minutes, then place them on a wire rack to cool. When they have cooled, they can be iced if you wish, though they are still delicious if they are left plain.
A Simply Delicious Christmas, written by Darina Allen, my mother-in-law, has been the go-to Christmas book for Irish cooks, both home and professional alike, ever since it was published. It first appeared on our shelves in 1989. Of course, this means there are more than a few tattered copies around. Thankfully though, Darina has just published a 25th-anniversary edition, which updates and revises not just the style, but the recipes too. It’s a wonderful balance between keeping the culinary Christmas traditions alive and bringing the book forward to suit today’s tastes. The Plum Pudding Ice Cream is divine!
A Simply Delicious Christmas by Darina Allen is published by Gill & Macmillan, RRP €27.99
Mincemeat will taste great if you have to use it and eat it the day you make it — however, the flavour really benefits from at least two weeks in the jar, and it’s even better the following year. So make a bit extra so you’ll have some for your mince pies next year!