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7 Runs in 7 Days – Christmas Week!

At the beginning of December I was feeling quite unmotivated when it came to running – it’s hard to get out there on a dark, cold and sometimes wet morning/evening. So what better incentive than a virtual challenge set by the inimitable Phoenix Running. I have done this challenge before – you can read about it here – but it was in the summer, when it’s easier to feel that motivation to go out.

But there’s something about signing up and committing yourself to something that’s really highly motivating. Why should that be? Usually I am intrinsically motivated to go out for a run, knowing that I will always feel better for doing it. But sometimes I need a little nudge to keep me going in the right direction. Real in person runs/races are probably the best kind of extrinsic motivation, but it’s not always possible to find a convenient race to enter. So the next best thing is a virtual run or challenge. Here’s a link to an article about motivation that explains a bit more.

So in the week up to Christmas I ran every day (7 days) plus an extra run on Christmas Day itself just for good measure. All the following photos were taken during or at the end of the seven runs.

Winter tree silhouettes
Front door wreath
Early morning mist on the canal

The next photos were taken in Olde Hanwell of the Advent Windows. Local residents decorate their windows for each day of Advent. Last year was impressive and this year did not disappoint!

This is my friends Tim and Elaine – who have a very furry cat!

And then I ran a 5km on Christmas Day just because why not?!

And finally – in case you think it’s all running and no baking – there have been plenty of these Best Ever Mince Pies coming out of the oven!

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The best mince pies ever!

Mince pies are a peculiarly British thing. Traditionally (and by that I mean literally hundreds of years ago) they included meat along with the dried fruit and spices. Post-reformation they were associated with idolatry and Catholicism and fell massively out of favour with the authorities who seemed to think that a humble pie would corrupt the very souls of those who ate them. By Victorian times they were back on the plate, this time without the meat for the most part, and baked as individual pies instead of the larger pie of earlier times. Now they are an integral part of Christmas fare and shops start selling them months before December.

I confess I am not a fan of commercial mince pies on the whole. This year I did buy a box of the Marks and Spencer ‘superior’ ones which were more than acceptable. Others in my family were partial to the Wenzels ones, which were ok but not great in my opinion. But homemade mince pies are another matter.

I didn’t get round to making any until Boxing Day (another British thing – 26th Dec). I usually use a recipe from a 1992 Sainsbury’s cookbook Traditional Christmas Cooking by Glynn Christian. According to this Amazon link it’s worth almost £100! What?! I couldn’t find my copy at the weekend – it is quite a thin book and had got squashed on the bookshelf and I only just found it. Anyway. Faced with no recipe, social media and google are your friends folks (of course by no recipe I don’t actually mean no recipe because I have a lot of cook books…). On Instagram I happened to see a post of some yummy looking mince pies which the author said were from a recipe by Josceline Dimbleby – also in a Sainsbury’s cook book. A few minutes of thorough searching and I found the recipe written on this website/blog. Hurray!

Don’t roll the pastry too thin or it will just shatter and crumble as you get the pies out of the tins

The pastry is made with orange zest and orange juice, and loads of butter, and is really delicious. The addition of a blob of cream cheese on top of the mincemeat is inspired. I didn’t add any more sugar to it, there is plenty already in the pastry and the mincemeat if you ask me. I also found that for my oven 17 minutes at Gas Mark 6 was perfect for a fully baked pie with a nice dark golden colour.

These mince pies went down very well with all who tasted them, and will be definitely added to my Christmas repertoire. In fact I might just have to make some more today as they’ve all gone now.

Just out of the tins
Ready to go!

Recipe for 24 pies. Thanks to Josceline Dimbleby! And also to Antonia for writing it out on her blog.

You will need 1 or 2 shallow 12 hole tart tins, a 3″ (or 8 cm) cutter and a 2″ or (5cm) cutter.

When you start rolling the pastry heat the oven to Mark 6; 400 F or 200 C.

For orange pastry –
500g plain flour
175g icing or caster sugar (I used icing sugar – I think it contributes to a beautiful texture, but maybe that’s in my imagination).
375g butter or equivalent weight of butter and lard or white vegetable fat if you prefer – but make sure that most of it is butter!
finely grated rind and juice of one large orange

For filling –
250g full fat cream cheese
50g caster sugar – I skipped this
500-625g mincemeat
milk, to glaze

And caster sugar or icing sugar to finish

1. Sift flour and sugar into a mixing bowl. Cut the butter into small cubes and rub these into the flour until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.

2. Stir in the grated orange rind and finally the juice, a little at a time, until the mixture sticks together and you can form a ball.

3. Divide into 2, and pat into a flattish discs, wrap in cling film and chill for at least 30 minutes. It’s much easier to handle half the quantity at a time.

4. Mix together cream cheese and sugar. (I didn’t bother with the sugar). Set to one side.

5. On a lightly floured surface, and roll out to about 3-5mm.

6. Cut out rounds with a 3 inch pastry cutter and line greased mince pie tins with these discs.

7. Fill to half depth with mincemeat and then top with a teaspoonful of cream cheese.

8. Roll out the remaining pastry and cut out tops with a 2-inch cutter. Moisten the edges with water and place on top of filled bases, pressing lightly to seal.

9. Brush tops with milk and bake for 15-20 minutes until lightly golden.

10. As the pastry is so crumbly, allow these to cool in the tin before very gently easing from the tin with a rounded knife.

11. Serve warmed in the oven and sprinkled with icing sugar.

And for more inspiration for mince pies take a look at Stuart Heritage’s article about modern takes on the traditional mince pie.

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Bara brith and some sparkly windows!

I made this loaf of bara brith after a particularly tiresome day at work, when I just wanted something sweet and tasty and easy to make. Bara brith is Welsh for speckled bread and was traditionally a yeasted bread. This is a quick version with baking powder as the raising agent.

The recipe comes from the recipe book that accompanied the very first series of the Great British Bake Off in 2010. I bought a second hand copy recently and it is full of classic recipes like this. It’s not just sweet baking either, there are recipes for raised pies and savoury tarts.

Bara brith is very good sliced and spread with some butter, and maybe a nice chunk of English cheese. It was so good a couple of weeks ago that this morning I made another loaf. It has to be the quickest bake ever to mix up. The night before I soaked the fruit in hot black tea, and weighed out the flour. I also prepared the tin with baking parchment. In the morning it took literally 5 minutes to stir it up and get it in the oven.

Recipe for Welsh Bara Brith

Ingredients:

250g mixed dried fruit

100g dark brown muscovado sugar

225ml strong hot tea (no milk!)

A good pinch of salt

1/4 tsp cinnamon

1/4 tsp nutmeg

1 large egg, beaten

250g self raising flour (or plain with 3 level tsp baking powder)

Method

Put the dried fruit and sugar in a large heatproof bowl and pour over the hot tea. Stir well. Cover the bowl with a clean dry tea towel and leave to soak for at least 6 hours, or overnight.

When ready to bake heat the oven to 160 deg C / 325deg F / Gas Mark 3. Add the salt, spices and beaten egg to the dried fruit mixture and stir well. Then add the flour and mix well. Transfer the mixture to the prepared tin and bake for about an hour until a skewer or cake tester comes out clean. Leave to stand on a wire rack for 15 minutes to firm up before turning out. Leave to cool completely before slicing.

My modifications! I used mixed spice instead of just cinnamon, and increased the amount to half a teaspoon. The second time around I used a mixture of flours: half white, quarter white rye and quarter spelt. The second loaf was even better than the first. I think this maybe because I soaked the fruit overnight rather than for just an hour or so the first time.

I think bara brith makes a very good substitute for Christmas cake – and it’s much easier to make!

And now for the Christmas sparkle! A local neighbourhood has organised a Christmas advent window display and around 200 households joined in. So one evening I went for a little run round what is known (by the estate agents!) as ‘Olde Hanwell’ and looked at the lights. I really need to go again as there will be more now!

This was so clever – the sleigh moved to and fro across the window!
This window was full of seasonal jokes!
The photo does not do justice to this really pretty display
And finally … this house never disappoints! A 5k run took a very long time – so many beautiful windows and gardens!

There seem to be a lot more lights everywhere this year. I think people have felt that we all need cheering up. I certainly had a lovely time looking at these beautiful window and garden displays. My next running plan is Christmas morning – a quick 5k perhaps round the park. And another evening run to see all the lights again at the weekend!

I hope your Christmas is happy as it can be, given the circumstances we all find ourselves in.

Spitzbuben aka Linzer cookies (aka Jammy Dodgers)

My Christmas cookie baking continued last weekend with these classic Swiss/Austrian/German cookies. They are essentially a buttery shortbread type biscuit sandwiched together with raspberry jam. The recipe came from one of my baking magazines, but there’s a link here. The basic biscuit/cookie is a shortbread recipe, made by rubbing in the butter to the flour. I have also seen recipe where the fat was creamed with the sugar first. I think you could use any plain cookie recipe that you roll out, and just follow the principles of a sandwich biscuit. There are chocolate versions out there too, but I don’t think that they are very traditional!

The word Spitzbuben means little rascal or bratty little boy, and originally the top biscuits had 3 little holes that represented eyes and mouth and must be the origins of the the Jammy Dodger or Smily Face biscuit with a face.

Next time I would make these smaller. The recipe said it made 30 – my version made about 18. That was because my smallest cutter was not actually that small. There will be a next time because I have got myself some teeny cutters now!

The big version went down well at work though, and even more importantly with my chief taster Charlotte!

I think Charlotte likes them!

This has been a short write up because it’s taken me a week and I’ve just been so busy! Oh yes – Christmas is round the corner!

Latvian Gingerbread

I found this recipe in the comments section of an article in the Guardian of Christmas baking recipes. It’s by someone called Karlis Streips and I have only slightly adjusted the recipe. Gingerbread has traditionally been associated with Christmas in many countries. Maybe it’s the spices, like ginger itself, that are warming and linked with warding off colds and coughs.

There is a very good short history of the origins of gingerbread here written by Tori Avey. Across Europe in medieval times decorated gingerbread in different shapes was sold at big fairs. Some fairs became known as Gingerbread Fairs, and the gingerbread was known as “fairings”. The fairings were cut in many different shapes according to the time of year of the fair; traditional shapes often included animals, kings and queens, flowers and birds.

And of course there’s the Gingerbread Man, who ran away from the Little Old Woman and the Little Old Man, only to end up eaten by a wily fox.

I have quite an extensive collection of cutters although I tend to use the same old few favourites.

This is honestly only a third of the collection…

So – the recipe:

Ingredients and Method:

Melt together the following:

1/3 cup molasses

1/3 cup honey

1 cup brown sugar (I used dark)

1/2 cup butter

3 tbsp oil ( the original recipe said lard, but I wanted to keep it vegetarian)

Then add:

2.5 cups of flour

1 tsp each cinnamon and ginger (I would add more next time)

1/2 tsp each black pepper, cardamom, coriander, nutmeg and cloves – ground of course, and again you could add more to taste

Cool this mixture until lukewarm.

Then add 2 lightly beaten eggs, 2.5 cups of flour, 1/2 tsp baking soda, 1.5 tsp baking powder. Stir this mixture like crazy. Then place on the counter and knead like crazy. The original recipe said well floured – I floured my granite top lightly and found that was fine. The dough should be dark, shiny and feel heavy.

Put the dough in a greased bowl, cover with a damp towel and rest for an hour. I forgot to grease the bowl, but it came out fine. Also I left mine overnight in the fridge covered in clingfilm and it was also fine.

Shiny brown dough after kneading well.

Preheat the oven to 190 deg C or Mark 5. The original recipe said 200 deg (Mark 6) but I think that’s a bit hot, and next time I would even consider slightly cooler at Mark 4.

Flour the work top (I didn’t bother and the dough didn’t really stick, you might find it easier to roll if you do…) Roll out pieces of dough quite thin – about 4mm. How thin depends on how thick and chewy you like your gingerbread. Bear in mind that the thicker the biscuits the longer they will take to bake. Cut out shapes. If you use different cutters try and make each trayful roughly the same size shapes for more uniform baking. I rolled out a quarter of the dough at a time which was a reasonable amount to work with. You could keep some back in the fridge and bake it another day. Allow time out of the fridge for the dough to soften.

Bake for about 9-12 minutes depending on your oven and how thick/big your biscuits are. They should be just beginning to darken round the edges.

Leave on the baking sheet for a a couple of minutes before transferring to a rack to cool. When they are cool you could decorate them with royal icing.

This makes plenty of gingerbread biscuits. I took some to work and there were still lots at home!

If you are baking for Christmas/ the holidays I hope you are having fun!

(PS. sorry for the very variable picture quality – all photos are taken on my phone, and it’s usually poor lighting situations..)