Monday, 23 November 2015

Christmas Cake mmmm...mmmm!

I'm one of those people who believe no Christmas decorations should go up before the 1st of December.  It's crazy how Shopping malls now try to preempt each other, even decorating in early October.    I realise they have commercial interests to feed but, come on, there is nothing worse than seeing tired decorations and dying Christmas trees before Christmas even arrives. In Victorian England Christmas trees were not decorated until Christmas Eve but I think that's holding off the joy just a bit too long..

Also, nowadays, there is a move afoot to "get rid" of Christmas lest non-Christians are upset.  How silly is that?  I greatly enjoy the festivities of other cultures.  They add colour and joy to life and it is not necessary to believe in what they stand for to get great pleasure from them.  For a lot of people Christmas has nothing to do with religion anyway.  Historically it was a pagan festival  later adopted by Christians to celebrate the birth of Christ, whose actual birth date is unknown.  It would be a very sour grinch who didn't enjoy taking part in the giving of gifts, the feeling of goodwill and the joy of children at Christmas time, not to mention the office parties, gifts from bosses etc, etc.

Enough of the moaning, though, I love Christmas.  I love the spirit of goodwill, the family gatherings,  the decorations and the carols.  The whole nine yards.  And I love Christmas cake.  That is one thing that IS best done early.  A rich fruit cake, especially one doused in brandy, improves with age.

Last weekend I  made my Christmas cake,   I was in my happy place, enjoying the delectable aroma filling the house as it baked.  I made this cake for the first time last year and it was popular with everyone who tried it.  Even my daughter-in-law, a professed hater of fruit cakes, asked me for a slab to take home. It is not my original recipe, I got it off the internet, (Channel4-4food) but it is worth repeating here. It is quick, easy and contains apple cider and brandy.  

(It's not mine but that's what the family call it)

900gms dried fruit - I use fruit cake mix
300mls dry apple cider
225gms soft brown sugar
225gms butter
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon and 1 orange
2tbs black treacle
170gms nuts - almonds, hazelnuts, pecans
4 large eggs, beaten
225gms plain flour
1 teaspoon mixed spice
1/2 (half) teaspoon ground nutmeg
6 tablespoons brandy


1. Chop fruit if necessary so it's all about the size of a raisin.  If you use fruit mix this step is unnecessary.  Put the fruit in a pan with the cider and bring to the boil.  Cook for 2 - 3 minutes and leave to cool.  Fruit should absorb all the cider, if not drain it.

2. Cream the butter and sugar with the finely grated zest.  Add the treacle.  Add the beaten eggs and mix well.

3. Sieve the flour with the spices and fold into the mixture with the fruit, the chopped nuts and some juice from the orange to get a dropping consistency.  You may not need to add the juice.

4. Line an 8"/20cm cake tin with two layers of baking paper.  Wrap a thick layer of newspaper around the tin and secure with string.  Place the tin on a baking sheet with a few layers of newspaper between the tin and the sheet.

5. Spoon the mixture into the tin, smooth it down keeping a hollow in the centre so the cake will rise evenly with a flat top.  You can decorate the top with almonds at this stage if you wish.

6. Put it in the oven and bake for 3 to 4 hours at 150c or gas mark 2 checking now and then.  If the top starts to brown too much, cover with a couple of sheets of baking paper.

7. When the cake is cooked prick it all over with a fine skewer and pour over the brandy.  Leave in the tin until cold. Mmmmm-mmmmm!  You can then decorate however you wish - my family prefer the cake unadorned.  If not iced you can "feed" it more brandy once or twice before Christmas.

Step 8 - Clean up - oops, I seem to have used a lot of bowls!

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Strange Goings On at Fountains Abbey, Yorkshire

A naval officer in full uniform is the last person I expect to meet as I pick my way through the ruins of Fountains Abbey early one morning.  Not only is it miles from the sea but I had thought I was alone on this vast estate.  Yet, there he is, standing rigidly to attention and staring fixedly ahead.  He doesn't turn to look at me so I walk on, keeping my distance and feeling more than a little unnerved.

The naval officer in the abbey (sorry about the poor quality photo...I was trying not to be intrusive)

Fountains Abbey is part of the 760 acre estate which comprises Yorkshires first World Heritage site.  This much sought after status conferred for its wide variety of buildings and gardens spanning different eras of English history.  It is a privilege to be strolling around alone, or so I thought, so early in the day.  The gates don't open to the public until 10 but my son and daughter-in-law have treated me to a short break in a National Trust apartment in Fountains Hall, the magnificent Elizabethan manor house within the estate.  While they sleep I have wandered off to explore the ruins and ponder on nearly 900 years of history. It is a fresh spring morning. Swathes of golden daffodils and crisp white snowdrops line the River Skell which runs beside the Abbey.  My only company, whirling flocks of doves which make their nests high in the crumbling walls, hooting pheasants and the rabbits and squirrels which caper about in the early morning dew.  It is quite magical and I relish the opportunity to explore alone.
Our accommodation - Fountains Hall
It is hard now to imagine what it must have been like when a group of dissident monks made their way here in 1132.  They had broken away from their fellow monks in York, believing they had become too liberal and worldly.  In what was a bleak and desolate valley they formed a new community in order to return to their basic ideals.  Having survived failed harvests, the plague, Scots raids and, ironically, increasingly liberal attitudes, Fountains Abbey eventually became famous for the quality of its wool and grew wealthy and powerful.  This led to its ultimate downfall and life at the abbey came to a sudden harsh end when Henry V111 dissolved it in 1539 taking control of its wealth and plundering the roof for its valuable lead.
Fountains Abbey

So, here I am five centuries later, wandering through this vast crumbling ruin, thinking of the lives lived here. The cellarium, or dining room, oozes atmosphere and retains its glorious vaulted ceiling.  The bell tower soars defiantly to the sky and the massive church, with its lush, green carpet of grass is a peaceful meditative place.  I move through the cloisters, chapter house, guest houses, and even the toilet blocks which hang out over the river so that the waste could drop straight in.  No eco-warriors amongst those monks!  I linger in the warming room where huge fires were lit from November until Easter and which was the only place the monks could warm themselves against the bitter winter.  As a self contained town the abbey would once have hummed to the sound of bells and prayers, chants and industry but this morning it dozes quietly by the gentle murmur of the river, its mute, ivy clad walls standing testimony to the awesome skills of medieval builders and masons.
I could wander happily here all day but now I am feeling peckish and it is past breakfast time.  I retrace my steps through the abbey and, to my surprise, he is still there, my naval man, standing to attention and staring straight ahead.  How strange.  I stare at him but he ignores me.  I walk by and then, curiosity getting the better of me, I decide to circle around behind him for a closer look.  I approach nervously through the stone work but there is no sign of him.  He has disappeared into thin air.  I am bemused and wander around for a while trying to decide where he has gone.  It is then that I realise he was an illusion, his image created by the play of light on the crumbling ruins.  Early the next morning I take my family back to show them.  They spot him instantly.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

The Beauty of Clouds

Life has been pretty topsy turvy around chez Miriam the last couple of weeks - I have had builders in to do bathroom renovations and overseas visitors to stay, hence no time to blog and not a lot to blog about either.

But something interesting happened as I drove home from the city today - the sky above Auckland was filled with dramatic and unusual cloud formations. I just had to stop the car at various points to take a few photos.  My cell phone camera hasn't really done justice to nature's celestial art work, however, here are a few shots.  Beautiful as they are, I think they mean a storm is brewing! 

I've always loved clouds and, yes, I love a clear blue sky as much as the next person but clouds add character to the sky and give us clues to the coming weather.  When I was a child I used to lie on my back on the lawn with my younger brothers and make pictures in the clouds, it was a competition to see who could find the most.  Even now I will, often unwittingly, see a face or a ship or a giant sleeping in them.

Rows and floes of angels hair
and ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
                         I've looked at clouds that way  (Joni Mitchell)

As a pretty optimistic person I like to believe the saying that 'every cloud has a silver lining'.
                                         I hope all your clouds have silver linings too.