The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries: The Big Festive Breakfast

I have always been a great supporter of the ‘Full English Breakfast’. It is one of the few meals that can be almost entirely locally sourced, at any time of the year. A legacy of the great Country House breakfasts which were at their height in the 19th and early 20th century, these were full meals, sustaining enough to take family and guests though a full days hunting with only a picnic type luncheon. The emphasis on breakfast was hearty English food, whilst dinner followed the more fashionable French style of cuisine.

Breakfast was a buffet style meal, buffets laden with everything from Devilled Kidneys, Kippers and Kedgeree through to game, meat and of course breads and cheeses. It was served between 9 am and 11 am, sound familiar? The American Brunch follows this pattern quite neatly, more substantial food than mere toast and cereal, and served later in the morning. So, could you say that the Victorians invented Brunch? Perhaps, but with a little controversy.

The festive period is a great time to go all-out for Breakfast, many of us are out and about during the day, nibbling a mince pie or sausage roll here and there, not really having time for a sit-down lunch so a decent breakfast hits the spot perfectly, also there is a wonderful ritual to Breakfast, a time to chat, sit around the table, light some candles and enjoy the present. Many people are off work between Christmas and New Year and these precious holidays, unlike others in the year, are almost always spent at home, surrounded by friends and family –  and with time on your hands.

Breakfast is also a good meal to get the children to help with, laying the table, easy recipes…perhaps Christmas muffins or homemade bread. Aside from the usual ‘Bacon and Eggs’ there are thousands of recipes suitable for a substantial breakfast, how about waffles with lots of different toppings, pancakes or Spanish Tortilla, baked ham and egg cups, roasted avocado with a little chilli on toasted sourdough, Turkish Shakshouka (spicy baked eggs often served with Merguez sausages) or Mexican Huervos Rancheros  (ranch style eggs) served with soft tortillas?  Or what about designating a different country to each breakfast and tour the world?

I have written about the classic British breakfast before, I have extolled the virtues of locally produced bacon and sausages, decent bread and free-range eggs, personally this combination never bores me, but with a little baking and a few festive touches any breakfast can be made an extra special and memorable experience.


The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries: Variations on the Mince Pie

Every year, I do my utmost to avoid Mince Pies until, at least, the second week of December.  The description ‘warm mince pie’ always sounds far better than the factory produced supermarket offerings which frequent gatherings, events and parties at Christmas.

I believe that making your own is simple, far more satisfying and, it will certainly impress guests. Taking a pretty box tied up with ribbon to a friend’s house always proves successful. Which brings me onto the subject of making time for baking. Christmas is one of the socially busiest times of the year, and there are hundreds of recipes out there for homemade pasties, tried and tested – however I’m going to suggest using shop bought pastry – it’s time saving and perfectly good. The ideas below are based on shop-bought shortcrust, puff and filo – all include little upgrades to insure a perfect pie anytime. Mincemeat is something else which can be made at home, but it needs maturing, and unless you’ve made a batch in the summer (which I always forget to do) you come a little unstuck at Christmas. I often buy a really good quality ready made mincemeat and add to it, a couple of ‘twists’ here and there and you’re good to go. I have put together four very simple, but effective ideas – ensuring that the house will be filled with delicious Christmas scents, and you’ll still have time for that last minute shopping!

Fruity Mince Meat Crackers

Using Filo Pastry makes a crisp, lighter pie. I mix a jar of mincemeat with some chopped pear and chopped apple, this firms the mincemeat up nicely and provides more substance per bite. Take six slices of filo pastry, brush each piece with melted butted and layer three together, repeat with the next three slices, then cut in four rectangles (making 8). Place a spoon of mincemeat horizontally across each one (allowing a couple of centimetres clear either end), then roll into a sausage shape. Pinch in the ends to make little cracker shapes. Brush with melted butter.  Bake until golden brown (on a non-stick baking sheet) and serve with a good sprinkle of icing sugar mixed with a little cinnamon.

Marzipan and Mincemeat Swirls

Take one ready rolled sheet of puff pastry (or shortcrust) and unroll onto a floured board. Spread 1 400g jar of good mincemeat over the pastry. Grate 80g of marzipan onto the mincemeat. Roll the pastry horizontally until you have a ‘Swiss roll’ then pop into the freezer until well chilled – it will keep very well in the freezer until needed – simply take out and slice into disks of 1cm, place on a greased, non-stick baking sheet, brush on some beaten egg yolk, then scatter with silvered almonds and a little shake of  icing sugar. Bake at 180 degrees c until golden brown and serve warm

Pimped Up Pies

I’ve taken a little Italian inspiration for my Pimped Up Pies. One of my bugbears, when it comes to Mince Pies is avoiding a ‘soggy bottom’ – I have tried several methods to help prevent this, this is one of the most successful. Line a patty tin with ready rolled shortcrust pastry. Scatter 1/2 tsp of polenta into each pie then follow with 1/2 tsp of ground almonds, this forms a ‘pillow’ for the mincemeat. Mix one 400g jar of mincemeat with 1 tablespoon of Limoncello, add three of four chopped dates, and finally, the zest of one medium lemon. Fill the pies and top with pastry lids brushed with beaten egg,  bake until golden brown and served scattered with icing sugar and grated lemon zest.

Little Bakers Pies

Making Mince Pies with children is one of the family friendly aspects of the festive season which makes memories – we all remember helping our parents or grandparents in the kitchen; very clean hands, far-too-big apron. So why not get out the pastry cutters and top your pies with festive cut-outs, they can be decorated afterwards with silver balls, coloured icing or other treats. All you need to do is line a patty tin with pastry, put in a little mincemeat and let the little ones create. These also make great presents for family members too!


Any other recipebookaphiles?

And so it begins….
  
I create recipes, some days they are harder to compile than others. My main problem is my addiction to random, unwanted cookery books. I cannot pass a secondhand bookshop without undertaking a thorough investigation. 

I can spend hours amongst the well thumbed, kitchen-stained volumes; it is almost a religious experience. My first choice are the ones with notes in the margin, a small neat hand which adds or removes ingredients, suggests accompaniments or rates a recipe out of ten. Sometimes, and it is rare, one discovers a handwritten sheet inserted between the pages, the title led by some long lost relative…Aunt Maisie’s Christmas Pudding, Jean’s Chicken Surprise or Mother’s Sponge. Occasionally a cutting from a yellowed newspaper or magazine falls from the book, marking the page with another culinary delight. For me, this is the gold at the end of the rainbow. The very smell of old books is magical, the rustle and dedications, ‘Christmas ’39’ or ‘For Lousia’s 18th’ or those ‘in’ quips involving newlyweds or students.

All these enhance my recipes and….unfortunately….divert me, and with a computer screen in front of me bearing the words ‘Burn’s Night Recipe’ and a blank space underneath, I am forced to delve into my library only to emerge hours later wondering what I was supposed to be doing. 

My ultimate dream would be to discover an old farmhouse notebook, handwritten in pencil and stained by years of use, full of tips and recipes handed down from generation to generation….but these are things of the past…another beautiful tradition destroyed by progress and technology.