As I was weighing the fruit for our glacé fruit Christmas Cake (or colourful Christmas cake as it has been known for many years in this house) I started thinking about stir up Sunday and various Christmas traditions – some of which have been around for centuries and others are very much our family traditions.
Stir up Sunday has links to the Anglican Church being the Sunday before Advent and has its special prayer dating back to the 1600s to stir up people in their faith but as with many traditions there is modern secular version of stir up Sunday which links to making the Christmas pudding. Probably due to the fact that a Christmas pudding should mature quietly in its pudding basin for around 4 weeks before being eaten.
Well this year the stir up Sunday tradition was broken I didn’t get round to making our Christmas pudding until the 1 December! Making a Christmas pudding ( or as Mum calls it Plum Pudding) is fairly new to me as Mum used to make a pudding for each of us. Bringing back the Christmas pudding from Ireland in my hand luggage often caused discussion at security but fortunately I never had to forfeit my bomb shaped pudding.
Several years ago Mum shared the recipe which originates from a friend’s Mother. But not only did she share the recipe but she came over to Shropshire to teach me how to make it. I think I fairly proficient at it but obviously don’t have the number of puddings under my belt that Mum has – it’s a delicious recipe and it’s always good to make a big one so that it can be enjoyed throughout January .
Sadly the other tradition that will be broken this year is each member of the family stirring the Christmas cake mixture while making a wish. We usually manage been at three of us – last year all four but tomorrow it will just be me and I shall have to wish extra hard. And my wish – well that never changes I wish for a happy, peaceful and healthy Christmas for all our family.
It’s been a week full of many meetings, a growing number of end of year deadlines which are creeping closer as is Christmas and a mind that seems to be getting very busy. That’s why an afternoon outside in the fresh air under the clear blue sky gathering goodies for a creative morning in our local village hall was the best medicine that could be on offer.
I spent the whole afternoon cutting willow, dog wood and ivy as well as trimming branches off our enormous Christmas trees and pulling wild hops out of the hedgerow. The trailer is a treasure trove of goodies ready to be taken up to the village hall in the morning.
The final joy of the day was creating a few example Christmas rings with willow, ivy, and teasels as well as giving the advent ring, created very quickly in the semi dark last Sunday, a bit of a facelift.
Tomorrow’s ‘event’ is something I have never done before but I just wanted people to come together to use their hands and create something natural to take home to start their Christmas and who knows perhaps they will feel as much benefit from the morning as I have gained from preparing for it.
Geranium,nicotiania, marigolds and nasturtiums are still flowering even though we are in mid November but today was one of those days where it never got light and eventually the rain set in. To cheer myself up I thought it was time to make sloe jelly – one of the richest coloured preserves around.
Sloes are the fruit of the blackthorn a common part of traditional hedgerow. The berries are a deep dark shiny purple and cluster round the sharp thorns. Birds love them but don’t be fooled to try to eat them from the bush as they have a dry sharp flesh which makes your tongue shrivel. But use them to make sloe gin to sip at Christmas or sloe jelly for use in winter stews or to accompany game they are delicious
I had picked about 1lb of sloes last weekend and earlier in. the week I had cooked them with cooking apples and strained the pulp overnight but as I hadn’t enough time I froze the strained liquid until today. Gently heating the liquid with sugar and stirring until it came to the boil and enjoying the lovely smell and colour brightened up a wet afternoon.
Testing for ‘set’ before potting up sloe jelly
Now as I write I can smell sausages, chunks of potatoes and red onions gently cooking and once the onions have caramelised I will add the sloe jelly that didn’t fit in the jar and a slug of red wine – should be good!
My first leisurely start to the day for a while so I was enjoying a relaxed breakfast and checking my stocks of dried fruit as it almost time to start the preparations for Christmas – sweet mincemeat and plum pudding are on the list to be made this weekend. The Christmas cake is a mid December job as this household prefers a light glacé fruit cake rather than the traditional rich fruit cake.
As the morning progressed and the sun fought its way through the rain and grey skies I was lured away from the much needed domestic chores to take the dog for a walk. What a beautiful mild sunny day. The grey sky gone just clear blue and many trees still holding their leaves in a multitude of autumnal shades – a good to be alive day!
I haven’t been home much in the daylight recently so hadn’t really had a good look in the polytunnel or veg garden probably for 2 weeks. I expected mildewy tomato and cucumber plants and was amazed to find they are still looking relatively healthy and the tomatoes are still ripening. I picked 6 tomatoes and a cucumber which will add a bit more variety to the cheese on toast I was planning for lunch (food shopping is the final chore for today!). I checked in on the hens who are enjoying a temporary stay in the soft fruit area and there above their heads, and out of reach, were two ripe raspberries which were delicious.
So a morning that started off with wintery, grey and full of Christmas planning has developed into an autumnal day and I’m off to eat my cheese on toast topped with tomato and cucumber in the sunshine in the greenhouse!
I had been keeping an eye on my courgette plants and picking the young tender courgettes either to chop finely and mix with dressing as a salad or cooking as a vegetable. All was going so well until I had to work away from home for a few days and when I returned to my horror lurking beneath the giant leaves were some marrow sized courgettes…
The large and the small!
So a little earlier in the season than planned we ate our first meal of stuffed courgette.
I cut the courgette into horizontal rings and remove the inner seeds and pithy flesh. Setting the rings on a baking tray (top tip line the tray with foil or baking parchment as it makes the washing up so much easier). Then prepare a tasty filling – I usually use minced beef as a base but nuts or lentils can be used. The most important thing is make your filling really tasty so with a classic mince, onion, garlic and tomato mix you can add cinnamon and dried fruit for a middle eastern taste or go heavy on the marjoram and basil for a Mediterranean flavour. Put the filling in the centre of the sliced courgette and then cover with a generous amount of strong cheese and roast in the oven ( about 180 degrees C) until the courgette is cooked which is usually around 45 mins. Serve with a tasty chutney and a crusty bread and enjoy. Any surplus slices can be frozen and come out as a surprise long after the courgette season is over!
The next giant courgette will sneak up on me soon despite my best efforts to keep them in check. That one will be peeled, chopped and cooked very gently in butter to form the base of the delicious recipe in Delia Smiths Complete Cookery Book for Eliza Acton’s Mulligatawny. But more about that later when there is a glut of tomatoes and onions and the temperature is dropping and we begin to think of winter soup. For now I am happy with tender young courgettes sliced in my salad for lunch.
Setting off in shorts and flip-flops to pick elderflowers seemed like a good idea until I realised that the recent hot weather had taken its toll on the elderflowers and the few remaining flowers were in the shadiest, nettliest places so it was with stung legs that I returned home with the requisite number of flower heads.
No not elderflower cordial or champagne ( I knew I was too late to make either of these) but elderflower and gooseberry jam. The main task of the day was to pick this year’s gooseberries, but I knew in my heart of hearts that there was a big bag of last year’s crop lurking in the freezer which just hadn’t made the preserving pan.
So I set to and weighed the frozen gooseberries (just over 3lb) popped them in the preserving pan with just enough water to cover them and put the elderflowers in a jelly bag (much simpler than cutting squares of muslin and the jelly bag can be washed and reused over and over again). I suspended the jelly bag from the handle of preserving pan so that the flowers were in the water and set the pan over a gentle heat on the stove. My wonderful Mary Ford Jams, Chutneys and Pickles book gives a detailed description involving pieces of wood and hacksaws to mark the starting level of your jam and therefore work out what level the contents should be when it is reduced by a third. Always looking for an easy solution my top tip is to take a wooden spoon and put it handle first into the preserving pan, note the level of the contents and mark with a pencil – you can then use a ruler and pencil to mark it into thirds and you have an instant measure which can be washed off when finished ready for another day!
So with the gooseberries, elderflower and water very gently simmering out I went into the beautiful sunshine to pick the crop from one of our two gooseberry bushes. The poor wee bush its branches were touching the ground with the weight of the fruit so when I had finished it looked quite happy and upright again. But what a crop…
I sat in the sun ‘topping and tailing’ as last year’s fruit cooked. When it had reduced by a third I added the sugar (just over 3lb) and stirred until the sugar had dissolved and Left it to boil. I returned to my topping and tailing! After a lot more topping and tailing I thought it was time to look for recipes that did not involved topping and tailing and was pleased to find a recipe for gooseberry sauce which sounds rather tasty so 2lb of the smaller untopped and tailed gooseberries were washed, bagged and popped in the freezer ready for making into sauce some time in the future.
By this stage the jam had reached setting point and was ready for potting up. Seven jars are standing proudly on the kitchen bench. The scrapings from the preserving pan were served on a scone for our afternoon tea and the verdict was ‘very good’! It has the lovely tang of gooseberries with just a hint of the heady flavour of the elderflower.
And this year’s crop? The final weigh in from the first gooseberry bush is 11lb! Next job is to make a gooseberry cake to take round to a friend’s house this evening and to stew some ready for a gooseberry fool tomorrow. The rest have gone into the freezer BUT will be used before July net year.