jeudi 23 décembre 2010

'Twas the night before Christmas

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Dear readers,

I don't expect many of you will read this tonight and frankly I'd be concerned if you didn't have nicer things to do but I'll post it anyway. Please forgive my absence on this blog, not replying to your comments or reading your posts but I've been swept up in a whirlwind blowing in all different directions. It all started a week ago, waiting for hours at the airport while somewhere above, our plane was waiting to land. Airports are the strangest of places, anonymous and designed to cut you off from all familiar habits, leaving only the desire to eat and spend money. Outside lines of red snowploughs lined up ready for action while the thick white flakes stubbornly continued to fall. When I finally made it, there was the train ride to London, beginning through a landscape thick with frost where the branches of the trees were woven into delicate lace patterns and the fields deeply lined with furrows where you feel your very presence destroys the magic of a fairytale. London never ceases to amaze me, especially at Christmas time the air filled with music and twinkling in the chilly evenings. I enjoyed the Regency elegance of Thomas Lawrence's portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, returning to familiar sights in Canaletto's Venice at the National Gallery and Gauguin's Pont Aven and exotic islands at Tate Modern. On my way to the National Theatre to see Alan Ayckborn's Christmas Greetings, I paused to watch the ice skating at Somerset House underneath a huge tree sparkling with green and white Tiffany decorations. To finish it off, there was the magic of Ernst Lubitsch's Shop Around the Corner with James Stewart at the National Film Theatre (tonight It's A Wonderful Life is lined up) which made me both smile and cry. This is perhaps my favourite moment with all the excitement still to come, the mince pies to bake and the presents to unwrap. My fingers are dyed red from decorating the cake, I'm listening continually to the Carpenters and Nat King Cole and outside, you can still see the snow in the frozen twilight. More is forecast for Boxing Day and secretly, I love the idea of being snowed in with plenty of good food and a pile of old films with Fred Astaire, Cary Grant and Mae West. I'll leave you with some photos from the past few days. Some of you will already be celebrating and exchanging presents but wherever you are and whatever you're doing, I wish you truly wonderful holidays.

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A last look at Berlin decorations

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Icy in London

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Oh, those Penguin notebooks!

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Ice skating at Somerset House

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The Capra season at the BFI

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Baked aubergine with feta and roast vegetables at the National Theatre

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Nice wrapping paper

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Carol singers on the South Bank

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Another visit to the British museum

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The Chinese collection at the British Museum. A crouching cat light.

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Tang figures

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A model doorway from the Ming Dynasty

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An old fashioned pillow - luckily, things have become more comfortable

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In need of refreshment with a blueberry and cheesecake muffin

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Pretty decorations at Covent Garden

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Chestnuts roasting on an open fire

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When I was a little girl I found it hard to go to sleep on Christmas Eve. A plate was put outside my room with a freshly baked mince pie and small glass of brandy for Santa and a carrot for Rudolph, alongside the pillowslips I left to be filled with my presents (I never got into the tradition of stockings for some unknown reason). One night I woke up to find that Santa had already been, leaving a charming note thanking me for the refreshments and a sackful of goodies. Amazingly I managed to resist the temptation to open everything and just settled for one present before going back to sleep. Today the presents lie around the little wooden tree in the living room that we always get down from the loft. For many years, we settled for an ugly tinsel covered one until I picked up the little one a few years back in a place in Nottingham where I used to go for toasted baguette with walnuts and goats' cheese before it got too pricy and finally closed down. Yet the exhileration of waking up on Christmas Day has never left me and I slip my dressing gown and slippers on before bounding downstairs in my impatience to let the gift sharing commence. There are always certain things to be done first though; most importantly the cats to be fed, the living room fire to be lit, the lunch preparations to see to and waiting for my Father to finally come downstairs because it would be unfair to open anything without him. When she was still alive, my grandmother joined us for Christmas lunch before retiring in the living room where the fire was on full to watch the Queen's speech. In true anti-monarchist spirit, I retreated to a room upstairs to watch Top of the Pops featuring all the hit singles from the past 12 months, popping down reluctantly in between to check on my grandmother while my parents were out on one of their long winter walks. When they returned, there would be turkey sandwiches (plus all that week as well!) with an enormous piece of blue stilton to be divided between us and warm mince pies with whipped double cream. On Boxing Day, my brothers were always dropped off, bringing with them a second wave of presents. My heart was always full of nervous anticipation before they arrived and I sat by the window wth dripping wet hair, waiting for the sound of a car pulling up. They would sleep in the room that is now mine on two metal framed beds, one of which sloped down at the end, munching through boxes of Quality Street or Roses chocolates and perhaps watching a cricket video which my brother had given my Dad because he wanted it himself. Things are much quieter these days but I truly enjoy the hours by the fire, engrossed in our new books, the walks out into the winter air which stings your cheeks and reminds you that you're alive when everyone else is inside celebrating or snoozing after a large meal, coming back to hot tea and trifle, scrabble battles, reading aloud to each other from our favourite texts before drawing the curtains on the icy night outside and settling down with a film. I'm already so excited about this special time to come.

In the days immediately after my return from Derbyshire, Berlin seemed cold and desolate for the first time since I've lived here. Perhaps it was simply because of frozen pipes which left me with a cold flat for nearly a week, or the frustration at the transport system paralysed by snow or just a case of post holiday blues. I threw myself into baking sessions which heated the kitchen and filled everywhere with the smell of spices and melted chocolate and had film marathons with screwball comedies. Things picked up again as the thaw came and I realised once more how much the city means to be, even when the temperature is well below zero. Last Friday I walked in the silence of the Bürgerpark, a place that is filled with memories. I remember going there on New Year's Day of 2008 with just the lightest dusting of snowflakes on the ground as the children made the most of it with snowmen and sledgerides down the little hill. I drank mulled wine while a cruel wind blew icy circles around me and last October enjoyed the final sunrays of an Indian summer, reading my book in the rose garden. Today the benches are thick with snow and the roses have been pruned for warmer times yet I felt no nostagia for those sun filled days in the winter wonderland around me.

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Caught in a snowstorm on my way back from work

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Icicles outside my window last week

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Later on that evening, I joined Chrissi and a couple of other girlfriends for the Lucia Market the the Kulturbrauerei in Prenzlauer Berg. Even thouh it was more crowded that last year, I still found it charming and authentic in a way that some other ones are not and in spite of the freezing night, a glass of mulled wine and some Kartoffelpuffer with apple sauce lifted my spirits as we wandered from stall to stall. I even bought myself a charming little lantern which lights up my kitchen window next to the little poinsettia (see below) in its red pot covered in glitter.

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Some photos from our lovely evening out at the market

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To finish, a bumper set of recipes to get you into the Christmas spirit if you're not already there yet and to enjoy with others.

Moominmamma's Cold Comfort

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Last Thursday I made another trip to Iittala and was lucky enough to grab this last Moomin limited edition winter mug. I took this as a sign to make another recipe from their wonderful cookbook and I spotted one called cold comfort which seemed appropriate since I'm so enjoying Stella Gibbon's Cold Comfort Farm. It's a strong Scandinavian drink, designed to be enjoyed in small quantities to revive you even on the coldest of days.


650g blackcurrants
240g granulated sugar
1 piece fresh ginger
1 cinnamon stick
600ml water
2 tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp cardomom seeds

Measure all the ingredients into a saucepan and place over a gentle heat for about half an hour. Strain and serve while hot.

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Lemon crumble biscuits

Loukoum made these using Jane Pettigrew's recipe from her book Tea time. They're amazingly simple and so delicious. The only thing I did was to addd little lemon juice since my dough turned out a little dry. Thanks Loukoum!

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For around 50 biscuits

450g flour
200g butter
350g fine sugar
4 egg yolks
the zest of 4 unsprayed lemons, finely grated
2-3 tbsp lemon juice

1. Mix the flour and butter until you have a crumbly mixture. Add the sugar, egg yolks, lemon zest and enough lemon juice to mix the dough enough until it forms a ball. Divide it into two parts, wrap in clingfilm and place in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.
2. Pre-heat the oven to 170°C. Remove the dough from of the fridge and take a small walnut sized piece, roll it in between your hands so you have a smooth, round shape. Place on a baking sheet lined with piece of greaseproof paper, leaving a little space between them and press the tops of the biscuits gently with the back of a fork.
3. Bake for 12-15 minutes; the bicuits should just be a little golden. Leave to cool on the baking sheet before transferring them to a wire rack.

Spekulatius biscuits - no Christmas would be complete without them

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Ingredients (makes about 65)

250g soft butter
250g butter
2 eggs
500g flour
1 tsp baking powder
250g ground almonds
1 sachet spekulatius spice mixture or you can make your own combining cinnamon, aniseed, coriander, ground cloves and cardamom

1. Mix the butter, eggs and sugar until creamy. Sift in the flour along with baking powder and spice mixture and blend together. Finish with the ground almonds and knead the dough with your hands until smooth. Wrap in clingfilm and leave to rest in the fridge for 30 minutes.
2. Roll the pastry out until it's roughly 3mm thick and cut out shapes with the cutters of your choice. I mixed the Christmassy ones my Mum gave me last Christmas with the Ikea animal ones. Place your shapes on a baking sheet lined with greaseproof paper and leave them to rest for another 15 minutes before popping them into a hot oven at 180°C for around 8-10 minutes.

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Snow topped spice cake from Nigella Lawson's How to be a Domestic Goddess

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I made this cake for the first time yesterday as an easier and fruit free alternative to the traditional British Christmas cake. Apologies for the somewhat dark photos but between last night and this morning, good light was rare. I'm hoping it goes down well my German students tomorrow.

4 large eggs, separated, plus 2 extra large egg whites
125ml vegetable oil
125ml water
2 tbsp runny honey
200g dark muscovado sugar
75g ground almonds
150g plain flour
2 tsps baking powder
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
pinch of salt
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp all-spice
1/4 tsp ground cloves
zest of 1/2 an orange
100g caster sugar

Preheat the oven to 180c.
Whisk together the yolks and oil, then add the water, honey and dark muscovado sugar. Add the almonds, flour, baking powder, bicarb, salt, spices and zest, folding in gently. In another bowl, beat the egg whites until soft peaks form and then gradually add the caster sugar. Fold the whites into the cake mixture, and pour into a well buttered Springform tin. Cook for 45 minutes, or until the cake is springy on top and beginning to shrink away from the edges. Let the cake cool in its tin on a rack for 25 minutes before turning it out.

When it's completely cold, you can make up the icing. Beat the egg white with the lemon juice. Add the sifted icing sugar and beat on a low speed until well combined and smooth. The icing needs to be used immediately or transferred to an airtight container, as it hardens when exposed to air.

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