CHRISTMAS is a time for treating yourself, your friends and family; a time for enjoying little luxuries and sweet treats.
For some people, it’s also a chance to enjoy the holiday and spend a bit more time and effort trying some more challenging or celebratory recipes – especially when it comes to desserts. There can be such a great sense of achievement from stepping out of your comfort zone.
When it comes to the Christmas Day dinner, it’s worth planning your dessert course as carefully as the main event. I sometimes find that it’s the desserts – the last moments of a wonderful meal spent together – that can be the most memorable.
On Christmas Day in our family, we like to enjoy our starter and main meal then wait a while to make sure we have room for, and can really relish, the dessert.
For us, eating as a family is so important and Christmas Day is all about spending time together without the usual busy schedules of the rest of the year. We always try to make Christmas dinner last as long as possible. We sing a few songs, a Swedish tradition introduced by my wife but which has now become a must at our Christmas table. The children love it – the adults too, while enjoying the wee schnapps that comes with it.
There are so many delicious, classic Christmas desserts, from Christmas pudding to Christmas cake and traditional trifle. Trifle always features on our Christmas table. My mum carried on my Nana’s recipe and it’s one that I still use today. It’s the tipple of sherry that adds a special touch, which my Nana used to love. And, to make the trifle a little different, we like to dish it up in individual bowls or glasses, which also makes it really easy to serve to guests and even easier to prepare ahead.
As well as the trifle, we always like to have an alternative and I enjoy creating my own twist on some of the more traditional dishes. For some people, overindulging in the main meal means little room left for pudding so often a lighter dessert can appeal more than some of the classic, richer dishes. One of my favourites is poached pears. For me, it’s such a simple, elegant dessert and my favourite way to serve the pears is bathed in chocolate. You can make them to suit your own taste by adding red wine or liqueurs and flavouring to your preference – you can make them as boozy or as sweet as you like.
The secret to perfect poached pears is cooking them long enough so that when the spoon hits the pear it melts in gently.
Some of the best desserts I’ve enjoyed around the festive period are those that make the most of the seasonal fruits which are at their best at this time of year. Pears are a great ingredient for lots of different desserts. They can also be a slightly healthier option if you’ve over indulged in the run up to Christmas.
Pears come in thousands of different varieties. Only a small fraction of these are sold in the UK but there are some varieties available here, such as Conference or Comice pears, which have a juicy flavour that lends itself well to cooking. Pears tend to be at their best from September to January so Christmas time provides a wonderful opportunity to make the most of them.
Unlike other fruits, pears improve in flavour and taste better after they are picked so they’re perfect if you’re shopping ahead for the festive season. I do recommend, however, that you store them, and prepare them, with care as they are much more delicate than apples.
Choose slightly under-ripe pears for cooking, as they’ll keep their shape better. You can cut pears in several ways, but if I’m serving them poached I will cook them whole. To core them as neatly and as easily as possible, I recommend you use a melon baller. Working from the base, you can press the melon baller into the middle of the pear, turn it and remove to scoop out the core and seeds. They can be incredibly juicy and sweet if you poach them just right and flavour them with your choice of sauce, juice or accompaniment.
Another outstanding winter fruit – and one which is often underrated – is quince. My favourite way to serve it is a twist on a traditional celebratory pavlova. Quince Pavlova is a wonderful dessert to prepare ahead and light enough to enjoy after Christmas dinner. This dessert always impresses friends and family but it’s actually much simpler than it might first seem.
Quince is another member of the same family as apples and pears but its hard, bitter flesh means the fruits lend themselves much better to cooking than eating raw. However, once cooked, quince comes into its own. The fruit is one of those ingredients that appeals to the many senses. It has a sweet perfume rather like a mix of honey and rose. It takes on a delicate, deeper, more distinctive flavour and turns a glorious, glossy amber colour making it as much a feast for the eyes and nose as for the stomach.
Quince tends to be in season only from October to December so it’s worth making the most of them while you can. Not only are they delicious in this pavlova to which they bring a really vibrant contrast to the snowy white peaks of the meringue, but they also work outstandingly well in jams, jellies, chutneys and tarts if you have leftovers on Boxing Day. It’s a rare treat that I really urge you to try. It’s the perfect sweet surprise to make any wonderful Christmas dinner end on a high note.
Seasonal pavlova with quince
Serves six to eight
6 large egg whites
1½ tsp white wine vinegar
250g caster sugar
1 tsp cornflour
250ml whipping cream
50g icing sugar
Quince TO FINISH
1 litre red wine
2 star anise
1 vanilla pod
2 peelings orange skin 1 tbsp chopped pistachios
Heat the oven to 110˚C/gas mark ¼. Line a large baking sheet with baking parchment. To make the meringue, using an electric mixer or electric hand whisk, whisk the egg whites with the wine vinegar until they begin to froth and increase in volume. Now whisk in two-thirds of the sugar, a little at a time. When stiff peaks form, add the remaining sugar and sift in the cornflour. Fold in, using a large metal spoon, until just incorporated.
Spoon the meringue into a mound in the centre of the baking sheet. Using the back of the spoon, flatten the meringue into a large disc, beginning at the centre and working towards the edge. Make the edge of the meringue slightly higher to create a hollow for the filling to sit in. Bake for one and a half to two hours, until crispy on the outside and still soft in the middle. The meringue should be a light golden colour. Set aside to cool completely.
Meanwhile, make the mascarpone cream. Whisk the cream and icing sugar together in a bowl to form soft peaks. Fold the mascarpone into the whipped cream, using a large metal spoon, keeping as much volume as possible. Cover and refrigerate.
For the quince filling, add the sugar, cinnamon and vanilla pod to the red wine and bring to the boil until the liquid forms a syrupy consistency. Meanwhile, peel the quince, cut in half then cut into wedges – the core can be removed carefully with a small knife. Place the quince in the syrup and poach for 12 to 15 minutes until soft. Leave the quince to cool in the syrup. Pour half the syrup off into another saucepan and bring to simmer, reducing the liquid until it thickens – the syrup should coat the back of a spoon.
Once your filling is ready fill the pavlova with the mascarpone cream, place the poached quince on top and drizzle with the syrup. Garnish with star anise and a chopped pistachios.
juice of one lemon
1 vanilla pod
For the poaching liquor, put the water, sugar and lemon juice into a medium heavy based saucepan. Heat gently, stirring occasionally and tasting for sweetness. Simmer for ten minutes.
Meanwhile, carefully peel the pears, keeping their shape and leaving the stems intact. Scoop out the core and seeds from the base. Cut a sliver off the bases so the pears will stand upright.
To poach the pears, gently lower them into the simmering poaching liquid. Cover with a piece of parchment paper and weight down with a heatproof plate that fits inside the pan, to keep them submerged.
Poach gently for 30 to 40 minutes or until the pears are just soft, but retaining their shape.
Using a slotted spoon, lift the cooked pears out of the pan on to a warm plate. Increase the heat to medium and let the poaching liquor bubble steadily until reduced to a syrupy consistency.
Serve the pears with a generous drizzle of the syrupy liquor and a scoop of vanilla ice cream (optional).
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