I’ve been working on several pieces for the Brixton Blog over the last few weeks about what different cultures and nationalities do for Christmas and my attention was particularly drawn to pastelles from Trinidad as these parcels of filled cornmeal steamed in a banana leaf sounded like the perfect way to try out my new electric steamer-slow cooker in style. I’ve also always wanted to use banana leaves and I’d never seen them until now to buy. If you can’t get them, then wrap your pastelles in greaseproof paper instead. These are traditionally eaten on Christmas Day but I think they’d be a great way to use leftovers in style so I’m publishing the recipe today so you can buy cornmeal alongside your Big Shop you’ll be doing later…
Like many Irish people, I more associate biscuits with Jacob’s than McVities. This is a brand so Irish, it was even one of the places taken over in the 1916 Easter Rising as Ireland tried to break away from Britain and declare independence. Biscuits matter back home.
Jacob’s made all kinds of sweet treats when I was wee (it is now no longer an Irish company and cases are fought in court over the name.) Mister North and I could recite the Kimberley, Mikado and Coconut Cream jingle in our sleep, but most of all Jacob’s was associated with Fig Rolls.
They came in an orange packet in those days and our mum was rather fond of them so we always had some in the biscuit tin. I loved them because no one ever commits the disgusting depraved act of dunking a biscuit when they eat a Fig Roll. I have always wondered like the advert asked ‘how they get the figs in the fig rolls?’ and decided the time had come to find out.
Partly inspired by a Greek Fig Pie our dad sent me recently with its spiced fig filling and sesame seed outer and partly by this recipe on the fabulous Food 52, I decided to try baking my own and see if I could have a fig renaissance in my life. The one drawback of a Fig Roll is that they are teeth-itchingly sweet so I added some frozen raspberries to the fig mix to add a little tang.
And to prove I’m a grown up instead of a biscuit tin raiding child, I added a little tarragon to the raspberries as they are perfect bedfellows. In fact the most memorable cocktail I’ve ever drunk involved fresh raspberries and tarragon and gin and I’ve been borderline obsessed with this combo ever since. Told you I was a grown up now…
Fig, Raspberry and Tarragon Rolls: adapted from Food 52 (makes about 40)
For the dough:
- 75g room temperature butter
- 100g brown sugar
- 225g plain flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 large egg
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
For the filling:
- 250g dried figs
- 300ml boiling water
- 200g fresh or frozen raspberries
- 5g fresh tarragon
The dough is best used after chilling overnight so prepare it in advance. It will keep for about 10 days in the fridge if you get sidetracked mid recipe like I did.
Beat the butter and the sugar together with an electric whisk until they are very light and fluffy. This will take about 5 minutes. Add the egg and the vanilla extract and beat until loose and smooth.
Stir the flour and baking powder into this mixture until just combined. It’s a soft almost loose biscuit dough so handle it carefully. Roll into a ball, flatten into a disc and wrap in clingfilm. Chill for at least 6 hours or overnight.
About an hour before you want to make the fig rolls, chop your dried figs into small pieces. I cut each one into six. Put them in a pan with the boiling water and bring to the boil. Simmer until they are soft and plumped up. They should have absorbed all the water. Keep an eye on them as they are thirsty wee things and you might need to top the pan up again.
When they look like they have absorbed as much water as they can without falling apart, take them off the heat and blend well with a stick blender. You will end up with a very smooth pale purple paste. Set aside to cool.
If you are using frozen raspberries, allow them to drain well into a bowl at this stage. If you are using fresh ones, squash them lightly with the stick blender. Chop the tarragon roughly, add to the berries and set aside until the figs are cool.
Combine the figs and the raspberries and then spoon the fruit into a icing bag. They are ferociously sticky so don’t overfill it.
Take the dough out of the fridge and cut the disc into four. Keep one out and return the rest to the fridge. Flour your surface and roll the dough out into a long rectangle about 4 inches by 10. Knock the sides into an even shape with the rolling pin. The dough is fragile and might crack. I sacrificed the very ends rather than push my luck.
Using the icing bag, squeeze four stripes of fig and raspberry paste onto your dough and then fold the sides over. Wet it slightly to allow the top the layer to stick. Cut this fig filled sausage into 1.5 inch pieces and set on a lined baking tray. Repeat with the other three pieces.
Bake the fig rolls in a 175℃ oven for 14-16 minutes. The dough should be golden on the edges but not the top. Take them out of the oven and immediately put the piping hot biscuits in a large Ziploc bag and seal it up. This steams them and keeps them soft like a proper fig roll. I often do this with soda bread too and it works a treat to keep the crust smooth and soft.
When the fig rolls are steamed and cooled, serve with a cup of tea. The remaining biscuits will keep up to 10 days in a tin. The filling in them is lovely. Much more generous than Jacob’s ever was and not as sweet. The dough tastes exactly like the bought ones and they are even easier inhale alongside your cuppa with their soft texture. Much more fun than just opening a packet!
I am not religious, but I do enjoy all the major Christian holidays, chiefly because they are all held together with copious amounts of marzipan. I love marzipan. I’m that person that will eat the spare almond paste off your Royal icing when you’re defeated by Christmas cake or buy a block of it to eat slices off. And don’t get me started about those exquisite little fruits modelled from the stuff you get in posh grocers and Fortnums. I am definitely in the pro-camp.
I spend a lot of time wanting to increase the ways I can get marzipan into my life, so Easter and its siren song of Simnel cake pleases me hugely. I toyed with these mini ones from Nutmegs Seven which look light as a feather, but I’ve also been fiddling around with trying a marzipan ice cream for ages and suddenly it came together and I realised my world needed Simnel cake ice cream immediately.
You could of course bake a Simnel Cake and break it up into homemade ice cream and bob’s your uncle, but I have a deep shuddering hatred of wet cake. Things like trifle and tiramisu make me feel funny inside. So I needed something more deconstructed, but simple and I think, with this recipe, I’ve cracked it:
As if autumn wasn’t good enough with its abundance of harvest items, sunny days that don’t actually require SPF and mellow fruitfulness, it also has Halloween. This is the perfect excuse to get dressed up and indulge in some seasonal treats that taste of my Irish childhood. One of those is the gorgeous spiced yeasted fruit bread known as barmbrack.
We loved it so much in our house, we ate it all year round, usually with lashings of butter and often a smidgeon of cheese, but it is traditionally associated with Halloween in Ireland according to those who know. It was studded with items such as coins and a ring to foretell your future luck. So as the days grow shorter, it seemed like the perfect time to try my hand at making it.
It was surprisingly hard to find a recipe. Barmbrack isn’t as well known over here as bara brith and a lot of the ones I across were really just fruit soda, lacking the yeast. I used a combination of these two recipes, adapting to create the closest memory of childhood tastes I could.
Start the night before and soak 350g of mixed dried fruit in tea. I wanted something to remind me of bonfires and being able to see my breath on dark nights and used lapsang souchong with a splash of rum, but you could use regular tea or even just water. Don’t skip the soaking stage. It really helps give the bread moistness.
Next day you’ll need:
350g plain flour
60g butter (chilled)
50g caster sugar
1 tsp ground mixed spice or I used a mix of nutmeg, ginger, mace and cinnamon
7g fast-action Dried Yeast or 15g if using fresh
½ tsp salt
150ml milk, lukewarm
1 large egg, beaten
Sift the flour and rub the butter into as you would for scones to create fine breadcrumbs. Then stir in the sugar, yeast and spices. Beat the milk and egg together and add to the dry ingredients, bringing together to form a dough. Add a bit more flour if it seems too sticky to knead.
Flour your surface well and begin the knead the dough on it. Keep this up for 8-10 minutes or until the dough is smooth and elastic. Start adding the soaked fruit to the dough. This is slightly fiddly as about half the fruit you add each time will fly off the counter if you don’t go slowly and carefully. Fold the dough over itself each time to minimise that. I also added some leftover chopped cobnuts or you could use hazelnuts. Stop kneading as soon as the fruit is combined, you don’t want to make it mushy.
Pop the dough back in the bowl, cover with a teatowel or clingfilm and allow the dough to rise for an hour or so in a warm place. It should double in size in this time. Flour a baking tray and place on it. Barmbrack should be cooked without a tin for a freehand feel. Cook in a preheated oven at 200C or Gas Mark 6 for 45 to 50 minutes or until golden on top. Don’t let the fruit burn or it’ll be bitter.
When the barmbrack comes out of the oven, anoint it liberally with a wash of butter and cinnamon to give it a most appealing glossy top. Barmbrack is a joy in its own right, but it’s also a vehicle for butter. Don’t skip this simple but effective stage. Serve slices of still warm bread with a good slathering of butter, slices of seriously good cheddar (try Greens of Glastonbury at Brixton Farmers’ Market) and a good strong mug of tea.
Despite my loaf not rising as much I had hoped and an uncooked seam at the bottom of my loaf (I think my milk wasn’t warm enough to get the yeast going*) the barmbrack tasted brilliant. Properly warm with spices, it was very moist with tonnes of lovely smoky sticky fruit and a teeny bit of crunch from the cobnuts. I wanted more than one piece, but it’s surprisingly filling. Perfect for taking on a long walk in the remaining sun or just being lazy and toasting it in front of a fire. Apparently it also makes excellent bread and butter pudding when it goes stale. As long as you butter it with gusto, I don’t need tell you any more!
*if you have similar problems, it’s probably my recipe and I apologise.
I have been cooking with chestnuts a lot this winter and while telling my mother about my triumphant puree de marron filled doughnuts, we got onto the subject of a frozen chestnut pudding she used to make for Christmas back when we were kids. Lighter than the traditional pudding, it was studded with marinaded dried fruit, sweetened with chestnut puree, it was a real family favourite. She used a clipping from (quite possibly the Radio Times) with the recipe on and it was a sad day when that precious piece of paper got lost and we stopped making the nameless pudding. Buoyed by nostalgia and Google, we looked up frozen chestnut pudding in the vain hope of finding something similar and were thrilled to discover that we had been making a dish called Nesselrode Pudding and that our festive dessert was sorted for this year.
This is a Victorian era pudding named for a MittelEuropean Count and was fabulously popular in those days, showing off expensive luxury items to full effect on Christmas Day while keeping some of the tastes of a British Christmas such a dried fruit and brandy. It relies on the flavours of sweet chestnuts and brandy to end the feast in style and we were delighted to have the chance to re-visit this classic family favourite!