28 November 2009

Advent Approaches

Tomorrow is the first Sunday of Advent, and I mean to celebrate it. Not just for the sake of the children but because it marks an important part of the year for all of us: waiting for Christmas, days getting darker and shorter, reaching the end of another year; a new beginning. Temperatures drop, the icy outside offsets the cosiness of one's home to its best advantage.

Easily my favourite time of the year, although from a parental perspective all "Gem├╝tlichkeit" is rather hard earned. I started my preparations very last minute; life with small children does that to you, however well-organised you were before. I bought an Advent Crown with four red candles, to be lit one by one every Sunday. Dug out my Christmas table linen, a little worn with age but hand-embroidered by my great-grandmother. Spent the afternoon crafting stars and snowflakes, as well as baking enormous amounts of biscuits to be consumed in style tomorrow. In my book, every Advent Sunday should include a church service - whatever your beliefs this is the time for the most inspiring and moving church music - and an afternoon tea time with home made biscuits - many special types are dedicated to this period only - or cake(s), preferably shared with friends. And I will listen to Christmas music and read an Advent poem or short story to the children. This is the run-up to Christmas, and Advent Sundays should be little havens of peace, there to counter balance all the rushing and organising for the festivities.

I will certainly bake more biscuits, four weeks is a long time! I like to give them to my friends, and this year, I will send some online to Serena's Cookie Exchange, too. Today, I limited myself to a few types. With all this energy spent on baking, it seemed natural to do a simple supper, preferably using the oven and and left-over eggs. We therefore had little puff pastries filled with cooked ham and mozzarella, liberally brushed with my remaining egg yolks. If I had had a large intersting cutter, I might have been tempted to produce a fancy shape, as it was I settled for round pastries.

As for the biscuits, my selection must start with the Ovis Mollis from Amelia's Z Tasty Life. I urge you, try it, these little sheep are indeed soft (heaven!). I followed her recipe, using potato flour and orange zest. I tried a different version the other day, replacing the ordinary flour with ground almonds, and using cranberry jam; more brittle than the original but just as tasty. I cannot show you a picture as they are all gone, they went down very well with a friend on a gluten free diet.

Almond Macaroons
When I was little, my mother would sometimes let me choose a pastry at our local bakery. This was one of my top three choices, the other being a 'Hanseatic' cookie or an almond-marzipan pastry. For twleve large biscuits you need:

6 glace cherries, halved
150 g icing sugar
200 g ground almonds
2 egg whites
12 wafers

Miy the icing sugar, almonds and egg white into a dough, spoon onto the wafers and garnish with hald a glace cherry. Bake at 150 C for 10-15 minutes.

Chocolate Marzipan Angles
200 g marzipan paste
icing sugar
cocoa powder

Work the marzipan paste with cocoa and icing sugar until you have a smooth, not very sticky brown paste. Press into an angel-shaped silicon mould to form little angels. Place on a lined baking tray and scorch in a very hot oven (250C) for 1-2 minutes.

Plain Biscuits
180 g butter (soft)
180 g sugar
4 g vanilla sugar
1 egg
280 g flour
1 teaspoon baking powder

Mix sugar and butter until frothy. Add the vanilla sugar and egg, then flour and baking powder (if you like, you can colour and flavour part of the dough with cocoa). Let the dough rest in the fridge for ca. 30 minutes. Roll out and cut out Christmas shapes. Bake for 10-12 minutes at 180 C. When cold, adorn with anything that comes to hand, or leave plain. I used a little bit of coloured icing, and used a mixture of jam and honey to paint other biscuits or sandwich two together.

As I had most of the ingredients at hand, I also started on my Christmas Cake (more later), and made a jar of mince meat for mince pies. The recipe I have used for years comes from Nigella Lawson's How to be a Domestic Goddess. I never saw the need to change it, yet today I did not have all the 'right' ingredients so used what I did have, and the result is certainly a winner. It's a vegetarian version since having grown up suet free, I feel no inclination to introduce it into my diet at this stage in life. This makes about two kilos, enough for several batches of mince pies. And believe me, they will be called for.

Mince Meat
250 ml cranberry juice
250 g muscovado sugar
400 g cooking apples
600 g cooking pears
125 g dried cranberries
100 g almonds
250 g raisins
150 g currants
rind of one orange
juice of half an orange
1/2 teaspoon Christmas mixed spices
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
optional: 6 tablespoons rum, brandy or similar

Stir the sugar into the juice and heat up in a pan large enough to take the remaining ingredients on board. Peal, core and cut apples and pears into small pieces, add to the sweetened juice with all of the other ingredients. Cook for roughly thirty minutes, until soft. If you like, add some alcohol - if you are catering for children you may want to leave it out or add it early to let the alcohol cook out. Keep in a sterilized jar until you want to use it. I'll keep you posted when I make mine!

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