Monday 19 December 2022

Brightest and Best of the mince pies


Carol singing round the village

Whenever I see a mince pie, I always think of carol singing. Every Christmas Eve, from about the age of twelve or so, I was allowed to go out with our local Church Choir and sing carols around the small mining village in South Yorkshire where we lived. It was magical. Wrapped up in coats, hats, gloves and scarves, we went from street to street and our voices soared in harmony and cut through the cold air.

Our last stop for Grandma’s best mince pies

Our last call was always the Railway Station at around about 10.00 p.m. We lived in the Station House so I was home. Grandma would have warm mince pies which she’d baked earlier in the day in the top warming oven of the cream coal-fired range. The smell of the spices in the mincemeat wafted over you as you came into the house. We always performed Grandma’s favourite carols before we were allowed to tuck into her mince pies. The first was the rather mournful ‘Cradled in a Manger meanly’, a carol much loved by Methodists. The second of her favourites was the more rousing ‘Brightest and Best of the sons of the morning’. The words ‘Dawn on our darkness and lend us thine aid’ no doubt having a strong resonance for many in the village who had lived through the bleakness and deprivation of the twentieth century. Only when we had finished did Grandma lift the mince pies out of the oven and we were treated to hot tea and those mouth-watering marvels.

Why are they called mince pies?

Food such as Mince pies served during the Christmas period often have symbolic meanings. Just as their name, early mince pies were meat based and filled with lamb, with added spices and fruits. They were made in an oval shape to represent Baby Jesus in the manger with the lid representing his swaddling clothes. Although in the 1850s, cookery writer, Eliza Acton’s recipe for mince pies still contained three tablespoons of diced beef, the recipe had already begun to change to something sweeter and reduced in size to a small round shape. Duncan Mcdonald in his ‘The New Family Cook Book (1809) contains an early meatless recipe with apples, lemon, orange and spices. Cooks at this time often made mince pies using puff pastry instead of shortcrust. Here's  Grandma Abson’s recipe for homemade Mince pies

Finishing touches

Grandma would cut out the round shapes for the baking tins, filling the pies with mincemeat before putting traditional lids on top and brushing them with egg wash for a shiny top. Nowadays, I like to decorate my mince pies with shapes –Christmas trees, stars and bells. Whatever you do, put plenty of mincemeat in.  Cook in a warm over (about 190 degrees) for 15 minutes. A final touch, once they are cooked, sprinkle a little icing sugar over the top.

Go with the tradition and eat a dozen

There is a tradition of eating one mince pie each day over the 12 days of Christmas from Christmas Eve to 5 January. This was believed to bring good luck and happiness for the next 12 months. I’ll be baking a batch of mince pies to treat my family and friends and even indulge in a spot of carol singing, remembering the brightest and best of Grandma Abson’s mince pies.

Happy Christmas to you all!🎄⭐

Sunday 13 November 2022

Stir it up with carrots

What is Stir Up Sunday?

‘Stir Up Sunday’ is the day when home cooks ‘stir up’ their Christmas puddings. It falls on a different date each year but always towards the end of November, before Advent begins. This year it’s on Sunday 21 November. The term came from the Anglican church, where the collect for the last Sunday before Advent is as follows : ‘Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded …’  This turned into a  reminder to the congregation to ‘stir up’ their puddings, since most recipes require them to be prepared well before Christmas Day.

WW2 recipes with carrots

During World War 2 many cake recipes included carrots and potatoes since they were an alternative for sugar and reasonably plentiful. The Ministry of Food produced leaflets with recipes. In the case of Christmas Pudding, any spices you might use would have probably been in the kitchen pantry since the outbreak of war, so it might be mixed spice or all spice or any combination of these. Coupons for dried fruits would have to be saved up for several weeks. 

WW2 Christmas Pudding

3 oz (75g) carrots, grated

3½ oz (100g) potatoes, grated

3 oz (75g) plain flour (this would be wholemeal

1 oz (25g) breadcrumbs

1 oz (25g) shredded suet

½ tsp mixed spice

½ tsp nutmeg

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

2 tbsps water

2 tbsps mixed dried fruit

1 tbsp water

1 tbsp rum or brandy (if available)

Prepare the pudding basins for steaming by greasing them thoroughly. Mix together the carrot, potato, flour, breadcrumbs, suet and spices. Dissolve the bicarbonate of soda in the water and add to the mixture. If available soak the dried fruit in the rum or brandy then add it to the mixture. Mix well then place in the basin. Cover with greaseproof paper or foil and place in a saucepan with boiling water. Steam for 4 hours, topping up the water as it cooks.


Where did Christmas Pudding come from?

Christmas pudding was reputed to have originated in the 14th century when a dish called frumenty, made with oats, milk and seasoned with cinnamon and saffron was served. Later, traditional Christmas dishes, such as mincemeat, were normally made with meat until the 1700s, when Georgian cooks started to experiment with meat less versions, flavouring the mixture with lemon juice and zest, alongside the dried fruit and spices. Here's a traditional Plum Pudding, including instructions for cooking in a microwave.


Stir it up and make a wish!   

In some families, ‘stirring up’ the Christmas pudding became a tradition where everyone took a turn in stirring the mixture and making a wish for the year ahead. The pudding should be stirred from east to west, in honour of the Magi (Wise Men) who came from the east to visit the baby Jesus. Some cooks also added silver coins to the mixture to bring good luck to whoever finds one in their portion.

Tuesday 18 October 2022

Autumn Squash Soup


In many ways, I love this time of year with the rich colours of Autumn and it’s the start of getting out the comforting recipes to keep us warm.  The dark, cooler evenings and misty mornings also mean it’s soon time for the change of clocks. So, herald the Autumn and ‘fall’ back on this warm and comforting soup!

1 kg/2lbs squash (peeled, seeded  & chopped)

1 onion (sliced)

1 stalk celery (chopped)

2 carrots (chopped)

2 cloves garlic (thinly sliced)

4 tbsps vegetable oil

2 sprigs sage, thyme & parsley

(or a pinch if dried)

1 tsp ginger

¼ tsp nutmeg

Pinch of cumin

1 tbsp lemon juice

1 litre/1¾ pt chicken stock

Freshly ground black pepper

Heat the oven to 200C/180C Fan/Gas 6. Place the squash in a roasting tin and drizzle with oil. Roast for 30 minutes until soft. Fry the onion, celery, carrots and garlic on a gentle heat in the remaining oil in a large pan for 15 minutes until soft. Add the squash, black pepper, herbs, spices, lemon juice and stock to cover the vegetables. Bring to the boil. Cover the pan and simmer for 45 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender. Whizz the soup in a blender until smooth. Return to the pan and heat gently. Season to taste.

Meryl’s tip :  You can use any type of squash for this recipe. Spice it up as much as you wish.  Serve with crusty bread and a dash of crème fraiche or yoghurt.

Friday 23 September 2022

Best of British is … Apple Pie

 Best of British is … Apple Pie 

Autumn beckons with cooler and darker evenings but alongside glorious harvests of fruits and vegetables to store for future use in the even darker depths of the winter.  

What’s so special about Apple Pie?

If I had to pick one quintessentially British food, it would have to be Apple Pie. It’s one of the best and most popular winter desserts and a reminder of the comfort and warmth of Grandma’s kitchen range. Its origins are thought to come from England in the 14th century with influences from Europe, in particular the Netherlands, with its fabulous Dutch Apple Pie.


Grandma Abson’s Apple Pie

Carl Sagan, the famous American astronomer is alleged to have said "If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe." Fortunately, Grandma Abson left us a simpler version.Bottom of Form She regularly baked fruit pies, cakes and biscuits in her own village community, where people would bring along something to share for an event such as a harvest supper. They cooked baked potatoes with homemade meat pies followed by blackberry and apple pies. Everyone wanted a slice of Grandma’s Apple Pie, so they could taste her melt in the mouth pastry.  She always said you needed cool hands to make pastry but you can use a food mixer. Sometimes she varied her recipe by using half quantities of plain and self-raising flour to achieve a softer texture.  When you put a lid of pastry on your pie, her final tip is to brush it with milk and sprinkle with sugar before putting in the oven. This will give a crisp golden topping.

Shortcrust pastry

4 oz(110g) butter

8 oz (225g) plain flour

1 egg

A little water (or a little milk and water)

Rub the butter into the flour. When the mixture is like breadcrumbs, make a well and add the egg. Add the water to make a dough. Let it stand for ½ hour in a cool place before rolling out. 


1 lb (500g) apples (peeled, cored and sliced)

Lemon juice

Line a pie dish or plate with pastry. Stew the apples in a pan with a little lemon juice (to stop them going brown). When the apples have fallen and cooled a little, spread them over the pastry in the pie dish. 

Roll out the pastry for the lid to cover the apples. Make a pattern round the edge of the dish with end of spoon. Brush the top of the pastry with a little milk and sprinkle sugar on top. Bake in a fairly hot oven for 25 minutes. 400F, Mark 6, 200C (Fan 180C) Serve with custard or cream, crème fraiche or ice cream.

I’m keeping up Grandma’s tradition of mouth-watering apple pies. A few years ago, with much trepidation, I entered the annual competition in the fruit pie category for our local Gardeners' Association. I baked an Apple Pie, from Grandma’s tried and trusted recipe. I was over the moon to win gold first prize and collect my winning certificate - not quite #GBBO but I hope Grandma would have been proud of me!

Tuesday 16 August 2022

Rhubarb and Ginger Cake hits the top notes

Rhubarb and Ginger Cake

Just occasionally, someone will give me a jar of something to try and I cast around to create something. This is exactly what happened when Mary gave me a pot of Rhubarb and Ginger Jam. Her neighbour had gluts of Rhubarb and had given her several jars she had made. Many cakes and desserts are made with jam. Just think of Bakewell Tart and the wonderful Gateau Basque. I had Grandma’s recipe for Plum and Ginger Cake  and Lemon and Ginger Loaf so it was easy to use them as a basis for a new recipe.

What you need

175g (6oz) golden caster sugar

175g (6oz) butter (softened)

3 eggs (beaten)

1 tsp vanilla extract

200g (7oz) self raising flour

1 tsp baking powder

1 ½ tsps ginger

1 tsp cinnamon

2 tbsps milk

6 tbsps Rhubarb and Ginger Jam*

75g crystallised ginger (chopped)

How to Bake

Preheat the oven to 190 (170 fan). Grease and line a 20 cms square cake tin (or you can use a 1kg/approx. 2lb loaf tin). Cream the butter and sugar. Add the eggs gradually, together with the vanilla extract. Sift the flour and spices and add to the mixture with enough milk to make a dropping consistency. Pour the mixture into the tin. Then swirl 5 tbsps of the Rhubarb and Ginger Jam into the mixture. Bake for about 40 minutes or until an inserted cake stewer comes out clean. Leave to cool for 10 minutes then remove the cake from the tin. When cool, spread more jam on the top. Score the top into squares and decorate with a small piece of chopped crystallised ginger.    

*To make Rhubarb and Ginger Jam

1 kg rhubarb (trimmed and washed)

1 kg preserving (jam) sugar

1 lemon, zest and juice

50g crystallised ginger (chopped)

5cm fresh ginger (peeled and grated)

Mix the chopped rhubarb, sugar and lemon juice in a large bowl with the crystallised and fresh ginger and cover with a cloth or cling film. Leave for 2-3 hours, stirring occasionally. Place the mixture in a large pan on a medium heat and stir until the sugar is completely dissolved. Bring to the boil and cook for about 15 minutes, until the rhubarb is tender and the jam reaches setting point. To test this, drop a tspful of jam onto a cold saucer and drag along the saucer. If the jam wrinkles, the setting point has been reached. If not, continue to cook for a couple of minutes more and test again. Remove from the heat and allow to cool for 5 minutes before pouring into sterilised jars. 

Meryl says : Rhubarb and Ginger Cake is a fabulously moist and spicy cake. It hit the top notes at the Choral Society tea break rehearsals. 

Thursday 14 July 2022

The Cabinet of all Puddings

Will it be forever etched in your brain ‘Where was I when Boris Johnson made his resignation speech’? If truth be known, I was sharing a sandwich outdoors with my friend Pam, when she propped her phoned up on the table to hear his message. ‘What could I possibly bake to celebrate this long-awaited event?’ I mused.  In an instant, she replied ‘Cabinet pudding!’.

So here I am researching all my old cook books for this long-forgotten dessert and its origins. Also known as ‘Chancellor’s Pudding’, Cabinet Pudding appears to have originated in the early part of the 19th century. The recipes vary but they are generally made from a combination of sponge fingers or cake, soaked in custard, often with Ratafia or Amaretti biscuits, cooked in a buttered basin with a combination of dried fruit such as raisins, cherries and apricots and served with a sweet sauce or custard. They range between a rich tipsy version with fruit soaked in rum or brandy and plainer varieties with less fruit and bread (even stale bread is considered), making it a close relative of Bread and Butter Pudding.

A quick check of Mrs Beeton’s ‘Everyday Cookery’ from the Victorian era shows her preference for candied peel, currants and sultanas alongside sponge cake, whilst ‘Meyer’s Practical Dictionary of Cookery’, published in 1898, gives two options, a plain version and a richer one with raisins, sultanas, glace apricots, angelica and brandy.

Grandma Abson’s copy of ‘The Best Way’ 1907, boasting 850 Practical and tried recipes and household hints, was most likely her ‘go to’ manual when she was ‘in service’. It favours a plainer version with ‘a quarter pound of bread crusts’ and relies on ‘twelve drops of vanilla essence’ to add flavour. This version is baked in a ‘slow oven for one and half-hours’ unlike others which are steamed.

I decide to try out Cabinet Pudding from the Woman’s Own ‘Complete Cookery Book’ compiled in the 1930s, since the ‘straightforward and easy to follow’ recipe seems to be a good option for someone who has never made this before. 

Cabinet Pudding

5oz (150g) sponge fingers or cakes

3oz (75g) sugar

4 oz (110g) sultanas

2oz (50g) glace cherries

(I also added 2oz (50g) dried apricots)

1 pint (575 ml) milk

Rum or Maderia (I used brandy)

3 eggs

Put the sultanas and cherries (and apricots) in a bowl with a little rum or madeira (or brandy) and let them soak stirring them well with a fork. Butter a pudding basin and sugar it. Then line the bowl with sponge fingers cut up in pieces; arrange the remainder in alternate layers with the cherries and sultanas and sugar. Make a custard with the milk and eggs and pour in slowly, so that the fingers are well soaked. Steam for 30 minutes and serve with custard or any sweet sauce.

My neighbour, Iona happens to pop round between calls just as I was turning it. She does the honours with a taste testing session with her elevenses. Verdict ‘It’s a little bit bread and butter pudding with the custard and fruit and super boozy!’ 

Meryl says :  

Puddings like this are completely out of fashion these days but even if you don’t fancy it steaming hot, we found out later that it is tempting when cold and served with ice cream. If you’re going to be ‘ambushed by a cake’, make sure it’s this one. It’s also a perfect way to recycle any booze left over in a suitcase or the new fridge!

Saturday 4 June 2022

Queen Cakes fit for a Queen

Platinum Jubilee Queen Cakes 

 ‘What are you baking for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee?’ Maybe the  Platinum Jubilee Pudding if you fancy a trifle? Queen Victoria obviously loved the Victoria Sandwich and in 1953 Coronation Chicken was created to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. It hardly seems 2 minutes since we were ringing out the bells for the  Queen's Diamond Jubilee in 2012!

I’ve always been intrigued by Queen Cakes which are small fairly dense small cakes or buns (as we call them in Yorkshire), which have currants and a citrus flavour. They are said to originate from the time of the Stuarts, Queen Mary (1689 to 1694) or Queen Anne (1702-1714) and could be considered the forerunner of the ubiquitous cupcakes we enjoy today.

Early versions of Queen Cakes

The earliest known recipe is said to feature in ‘Court Cookery’ by Robert Smith, published in 1725. This recipe isn’t too dissimilar to Yorkshire cook, Elizabeth Moxon’s Portugal Cakes with butter, sugar, flour, sugar, eggs and currants as common ingredients. For her ‘Queen Cakes’ recipe, she suggests in English Housewifry (1764) that “…you may ice them if you please, but do not let the iceing be thicker than you may lie on with a little brush.” 


Over the centuries other creative cooks added other flavours to these little cakes with rose water, mace, orange water and nutmeg being popular additions. Early Queen Cakes were probably made in small tin or stoneware patty pans like those we use for mince pies, but by the mid-18th century, specific Queen Cake pans were available in a variety of shapes such as hearts or diamonds.


Eliza Acton in her book ‘Modern Cookery for private families (1845) suggests making a mixture as for a pound cake then putting it into small well buttered tins and baking in a brisk oven. Mrs Beeton in her widely reproduced ‘Book of Household Management’ (1861) gives a recipe for 2 or 3 dozen cakes with the addition of cream and essence of almonds or lemon to give us a richer version.


Here's my Grandma’s recipe which she made from time to time as a weekend treat. Her preference was for a lemon flavour.


Grandma Abson’s recipe for Queen Cakes

4 oz (110g) butter

4 oz (110g) sugar

2 eggs

6 oz (175g) self-raising flour

Pinch of salt

4 oz (110g) currants

a few drops of lemon extract

2 tbsps milk

Arrange 16-20 baking cases on a baking tray. Beat the butter until soft. Add the sugar and cream together until the mixture is pale and fluffy. Add the eggs (well beaten) gradually. Fold in the flour and salt. Then, stir in the fruit and lemon extract. Add the milk. Put the mixture into the baking cases and half fill them. Bake for 15-20 minutes in a fairly hot oven. (375F, Mark 5, 190C) You can brush over the top with egg and place a small piece of lump sugar over each one.

After 70 years of her historic reign, Queen Elizabeth II is the first British Monarch to celebrate a Platinum Jubilee. Enjoy the Jubilee Bank Holiday weekend from 2 to 5 June. I’ll be baking a batch of Queen Cakes for our Jubilee Street Party and following Elizabeth Moxon’s suggestion for icing so I can top them with a rice paper Jubilee Crown – a 21th century version.