I started turning over other possibilities in my mind. What if I asked a few friends around for a Christmassy meal? That way I'd be able to tick off Christmas pudding and a few other things as well. Lauren, Tom and Leah all accepted my invitation, and I found myself with a dinner for four to plan.
The pudding has to steam for several hours, so I made that on Thursday night. You start by mixing together the usual Christmas fruit and nuts - sultanas, raisins, currants, mixed peel, almonds - then stir through some suet. The next step is to sift in flour, baking powder and spices, mix that through, then add some soft breadcrumbs as well.
Finally, you beat egg with brown sugar, milk and lemon rind, and stir it through the fruit mixture. You're supposed to add a little brandy at this point, but I forgot. With the mixture made, you spoon it into a greased pudding basin, cover and steam. The full recipe uses an eight-to-ten-cup-capacity basin and steams for five hours. That would be a massive pudding and far more than I needed to feed the four of us. I made a half-recipe, used my normal pudding basin and halved the steaming time.
While my pudding was steaming away, I turned to the next item on my list. I'd decided to do some vol au vents (p84) for a starter, utilising puff pastry (p80). I figured I could get these done in advance. I made up the pastry dough with flour, salt and a small amount of water. I used as little water as possible, but it still took twice as much as it said in the recipe to get the dough to stick together.
I rolled out the dough and began 'spotting' butter over two-thirds of the pastry. Actually, I utilised my grater instead of 'spotting'. When I had the butter on, I folded in first one side, then the other, and rolled it out again. Puff pastry is a variation of the flaky pastry recipe - it just uses more butter and you fold it more times.
It was quite warm in the kitchen, so I had to chill the pastry and butter between each rolling and folding. It didn't make much difference though: there was still butter oozing out from the pastry at every turn by the time I'd finished. I held it together as best I could and chilled it for a bit longer before I rolled it out to make my vol au vents.
These are, on the face of it, quite easy to make. You roll the pastry to 1.5cm thickness, and cut rounds from it, then use a smaller cutter to cut halfway through the pastry in the centre of each round. Once they're puffed up and cooked, you cut off the 'lid' formed by the ring in the centre, and you have a nice hollow centre for your filling.
It didn't really turn out like that, to be honest. my first rolling produced six rounds, but I wanted at least eight. I tried to patch the pastry scraps together in such a way as not to upset the layers, and cut a couple more. I kept a close eye on how they were doing while they were cooking, but the puff pastry never lived up to its name. They came out like little rocks. Sighing, I set them aside and decided to get some bought pastry and have another go.
After work yesterday, I came home and went immediately into the kitchen. Rolling and cutting the bought pastry into vol au vents was a piece of ease, and they puffed up beautifully in the oven. I'm glad I never have to make a puff or flaky pastry again. Why would I, when there's a quicker and far more reliable option available?
I set the vol au vents aside to cool while I mixed up the ingredients for my sausagemeat stuffing. I was roasting a chicken, but had decided to do the stuffing separately. This stuffing is based on the basic stuffing recipe - you make a half-mix of that, then add some sausagemeat. So basically, it's breadcrumbs, onion, sage and sausagemeat, with butter, egg and a bit of seasoning. Mix it up in a bowl and it's ready to go. I rolled it into a tidy little tinfoil package and set it aside in the fridge.
The next half hour or so was filled with other preparations - preparing new potatoes and making a salad. I went off on a slight tangent when I realised I had some leftover pastry, a spare egg white from making the egg wash, and a hot oven currently not in use. It took me ten minutes to throw together some coconut macaroons - totally unconnected to the task at hand, and admittedly not the best ones I've ever made, but at least the pastry and egg whites didn't go to waste.
Leah arrived while I was cutting the lids off the vol au vents. These didn't come off as well as I'd hoped, in fact they sort of fell to bits. You also have to scrape out the doughy bits in the middle, which can be a tricky to do without letting the whole thing fall apart.
I started preparing the filling once that was done - its pretty much a simple white sauce, with onions and whatever else you choose to put in. I'd selected mushrooms and cheese from the various options listed. The vol au vents are quite small though, so the sauce recipe makes more than you really need to fill them.
When Lauren and Tom turned up, the vol au vents were nearly ready. I couldn't put the 'lids' back on, but they looked alright the way they were. They didn't taste too bad either - I felt they needed more seasoning, but that's easily added at the table.
It turned out I'd timed my chicken roasting badly and we had to wait 40 minutes or so until it was ready. When the timer finally went, I pottered around getting potatoes and salad on the table, carving the chicken and slicing up the stuffing. I even managed to throw together a passable gravy from the roasting juices.
There was quite a bit of food there once I'd got it all on the table - and surprisingly, only one item was actually an Edmonds recipe. The sausagemeat stuffing was quite successful - it holds together much better than ordinary stuffing, and has a nice savoury flavour. On the other hand, you don't really feel like you need a big slice of what is essentially sausage, when you've already got a serving of chicken on your plate.
We were getting pretty full by this stage, but I wasn't done yet. I'd been steaming my pudding for a final hour while we were eating. It was warmed through and ready to go - I just had to make a brandy custard (p189) to go with it.
I mixed custard powder and sugar in a saucepan with a small amount of milk. When all the lumps were gone, I added the rest of the milk and stood stirring until it boiled and thickened slightly. I couldn't get it to thicken beyond a sort of sauce consistency, though that could have been impatience at work.
I mixed in a bit of butter and some nutmeg, then set some of the custard aside as a non-brandy option before stirring a couple of tablespoons of brandy into the rest. I turned out the pudding onto a plate - sadly, some of the pudding stuck to the bottom of the bowl, but I scooped it out and pressed it into place. It might not look as good, but it tastes the same.
Because we'd eaten so much already, I didn't want to force anyone to eat more than they wanted. I set out the pudding, custard, and some ice cream on the side bench and let everyone serve themselves. I was quite pleased with the pudding: I'd worried it would be stodgy or dry, but actually it was fruity, moist and very tasty - what little I could eat of it!
We rounded off the evening by opening presents and playing a few rounds of a word game Lauren and Tom had given me. All in all, we had a pretty good evening - entirely thanks to the fact that I needed an excuse to make Christmas pudding!