THERE’S a chill in the air, but Christmas spices can add some warmth and magic to your festive dishes. Pick the right spices, in the right quantities, and you can create the perfect winter warmer whether you’re adding depth and flavour to savoury recipes, or sweetening desserts and Christmas cocktails.
Try cooking with lots of different seasonal spices – not only do they add flavour to your dishes, they also fill your home with an aroma that’s instantly redolent of Christmas. The secret is to measure your spices carefully, and let them infuse slowly, so they don’t overpower your dish.
Cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg, matched with cloves, cardamom and liquorice star anise, blended with seasonal fruits such as citrus, juniper berries and cranberries, combine to bring the taste – and smell – of Christmas to the table. Here are some of my favourites to try out.
One of my favourite winter soups is carrot and star anise. Rich, warm and zesty, the star anise really lifts this dish and gives it a delicate, sweet liquorice flavour. The key is to let it infuse for long enough to really add that depth of flavour.
You can buy star anise ground, or you can buy it whole – a lovely little eight-point star which makes a wonderful finishing touch to garnish your dishes or add to home-made mulled wine.
Ginger is another fiery, winter flavour, but you need to go easy on the fresh ginger as it can be a powerful little root. You can buy ginger ground or dried, but I recommend you try to buy fresh ginger as you’ll get a much more juicy and sweet flavour. When you’re buying it, look out for plump roots, and avoid any that are wrinkled. Once you’ve bought it, you can store it in the fridge to keep it fresh. It’s easy to prepare if you use the back of a teaspoon to peel the skin, and then you can finely chop or grate as you need it.
Ginger works well in seasonal treats like gingerbread and cakes, without being too sugary sweet. Equally it can give a burst of flavour to stews, curries and soups.
Cinnamon can be great all year round but at Christmas, cinnamon sticks in mulled wine, hot chocolate or warm cider really adds a festive twist to your drinks. Try cinnamon as the star of the show in cinnamon buns, cakes and puddings. Cinnamon bark can also lift fruits like plum, pears and apples. Moderation is key, but let cinnamon sticks infuse slowly in your dishes and you won’t be disappointed.
If you’re a real fan of Christmas spices, you can even make your own homemade spiced sugar and salts for adding to stews, baking and drinks over the Christmas holidays. The key is to have fun experimenting and enjoy the wonderful treats the season brings.
Carrot and Star Anise Soup
Serves four to six
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 onion, peeled and sliced
2-3 whole star anise
10 carrots, peeled and sliced
750ml chicken stock
150ml whipping cream
salt and pepper
6 sprigs of chervil
100ml crème fraiche
4-6 star anise
Heat the vegetable oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pan and cook the onion over a medium heat until very soft. Add the star anise and some salt, then sweat gently for three to four minutes. Add the carrots to the onion and sweat gently for two to three minutes. Add the chicken stock and cream to the pan and cook for another 15 to 20 minutes until the carrots are soft. Remove the star anise and blitz the soup in a blender until it is smooth and silky. Check the seasoning.
Pour the soup into bowls. Garnish with a tablespoon of crème fraiche, cracked black pepper, croutons and star anise if you wish, and finish with chopped chervil.
Game Stew with Celeriac, Orange and Juniper Berries
1kg venison, cut into 2–3cm pieces
plain flour for dusting
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
olive oil for cooking
50g bacon lardons
1 onion, peeled and chopped
1 celeriac, peeled and diced
3 carrots, peeled and diced
2 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
8 juniper berries
finely pared zest of 1 orange
juice of 3 oranges
75cl bottle of full-bodied red wine
250ml chicken stock or more
handful of spinach
Heat the oven to 160C/Gas Mark 2-3. Dust the venison lightly with flour and season with salt and pepper. Heat a heavy-based ovenproof sauté pan (or flameproof casserole) over a medium heat and add a good drizzle of olive oil. You will need to brown the venison in two batches. When the oil is hot, add half of the venison pieces with half of the butter. Colour the meat all over for four to five minutes, then remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. Repeat with the second batch.
Return the pan to the heat and drizzle in a little more olive oil. Add the bacon lardons, onion, celeriac, carrots, garlic and juniper berries. Lower the heat slightly and sweat gently for four to five minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the bouquet garni and orange zest and sweat for another two to three minutes. Pour in the orange juice and allow to bubble to reduce by half.
Return the meat to the pan and pour in the red wine to cover. Bring to the boil and skim off any scum from the surface. Pour in the chicken stock and bring to a simmer. Season with salt and pepper, put a lid on the pan and place in the oven. Cook for 1½ hours or until the venison is tender, checking occasionally and topping up with more stock if needed. Scatter a handful of spinach over the stew just before serving.
Plum and Ginger Soufflé
4 soufflé moulds or ramekins
butter to line the ramekins
caster sugar to line the ramekins
For the base
½ tsp fresh ginger – finely chopped
¼ tsp all spice
¼ tsp cinnamon
60g dark brown sugar
170g egg whites
For the plum compote
150g sugar to taste
½ cinnamon stick
For the crumble topping
60g plain flour
pinch sea salt
50g cold unsalted butter, in pieces
50g soft light brown sugar
20g rolled oats (or oatmeal)
Pre-heat your oven to 200C/Gas Mark 6. Brush the soufflé moulds generously with softened butter. Sprinkle the moulds with caster sugar and roll around the mould. Turn upside down to dispose of any excess sugar and set aside.
For the base
In a heavy-bottomed pan, bring the milk to the boil. In a bowl, whisk the eggs, sugar, ginger, all spice, molasses and cinnamon, then add the cornflour and the flour, whisking well. Then add the milk and whisk well. Now pass the mixture through a sieve and return to a clean pan and cook until thick for ten to 12 minutes. Then remove from the heat, add the butter and set aside in cling-filmed bowl.
For the plum compote
Cut the plums in half and remove the stone, then cut into rough dice. Heat a heavy-bottomed pan then add the butter. Add the plums, then add the sugar and cinnamon stick. Cook out until compoted, which should take eight to ten minutes. You can then taste and add more sugar if needed. Cool and set aside.
To make the crumble
Sift the flour and salt into a bowl. Add the butter and rub in with your fingertips until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Stir in the brown sugar and oats. Cover and chill for 20 minutes.
To make the soufflé
Place the soufflé base in to a pan and warm gently. Meanwhile, whisk the egg whites to form peaks. Add the sugar and whisk until stiff. Carefully fold the egg whites in to the base and place the mixture into the moulds to fill half, then add a spoon of the plum compote and then the rest of the mixture. Flatten the moulds with a palette knife and clean the sides. Place the soufflés on a baking tray and cook for eight to ten minutes and serve.
Serve the souffles in the ramekin, and sprinkle crumble over the top. You can serve with a small scoop of stem ginger ice cream, or vanilla ice cream, dusted with icing sugar.