Dark days dishes. The time has come round again. The West-country word ‘dimpse’ is so onomatopoeically apt at this time of year, when the light leaks away so early, so abruptly, and all we can do to counter light-lustrelessness is cook hearty, gutsy, bright, light citrussy dishes and pretend. Pretend that we are in the scented orange grove that fills the kitchen when we make Seville orange marmalade or a steamed pudding dripping with an ointment of lemon, orange or lime-curd. And pretend good intention after the excesses and overkill of Christmas despite the fact that we tend to fail resolutions well before we admit we are defeated, that we have cheated.
I won’t eat puddings in January, I’ll give up drink, I won’t eat cream. Except in other people’s houses or if I’m invited out. But how not to? January is the cruellest month, or perhaps February, forget what T.S. Elliot said about April. We need fat, we need butter, we crave cream, we want bolster and pillow and duvet, dumpling and suet-crust and pie. Lardy crusts and dripping, pork fat and belly, oxtail and cheek. We feel hungry, but it is the hungry gap, the least interesting time in the kitchen garden for vegetables or fruit; we are tiring of roots and longing for shoots, the game is over. Or nearly over. Fruit stores are depleted and we’re down to dried and bottled, so we look to the exotic, to mangoes, papayas and passion-fruit, pineapples and pomegranates, Medjool dates and oranges, tangerines, clementines, anything that says sunshine on the skin.
We all know that diets never work, that they are, like dogs, not just for Christmas, and that the moment we deprive ourselves of something and it becomes the forbidden thing, we want it all the more. We succumb, at least, over Christmas, which I think of as a marathon: I know I must pace myself, though sometimes I’ll lag behind, leaving the children to attack the turkey and make assaults on triple-decker sandwiches layered with meat, stuffing, cranberry sauce; other times I’ll feel less virtuous and fry the Christmas pudding in hot buttery slices to drop melting brandy butter over.
The sprint to Christmas from November is over all too soon as we prepare or procrastinate, ignore or get ahead, depending on our head-count over the feasting period, our love or loathing of cooking for the crowds, our innate organisational skills and just how much time we have to do it all in. There are planners who write menus and shop and freeze like professionals. I am not one of them. I have never yet made my Christmas puds on stir-up Sunday. Sometimes it’s been as close a run thing as a week before Christmas, but, since I make a batch of three, the following year’s pud is at least a year old and fed in the meantime on a liquid diet of Julian Temperley’s best cider brandy. And the third is usually given as a present to a poor soul whose wife doesn’t subscribe to the proof is in the pudding theory, so he gets his own small liquor-laden, black, fruit-sozzled pudding from me.
To diminish the sense of excess, if just for a nano-second, I always make a citrus jelly for those of us too turkeyed-out to get to the pudding and pies on the day. Clementine and Muscat, Buck’s Fizz or pink grapefruit, a home made jelly is sharp, simple, slips down with ease and is really only fruit juice, which one can always find an empty corner for.
My other more exotic offering which is great for a New Year’s party or in the dog days that succeed it when one truly needs to be wafted to Paradise, – the edible if not the real version – is a citrus fruit salad made with an orange, bay leaf and pomegranate syrup.
You can use oranges sliced without their pith into circles alongside grapefruits sliced in pegs, the odd lime adds colour and flavour. Squeeze a few oranges for your syrup and a pomegranate too, bar a few seeds to decorate, the colour and scent is divine. Add the juice of a lemon and some demerara sugar, a couple of bay leaves and bring to the boil. Simmer to a syrup and cool with the bay, which gets glazed with a syrupy gloss. Pour warm over the fruit, add a few pitted Medjool dates and a few pink jewels of pomegranate and you have the sun on your plate. And that breath of warmth from the bay that is almost like ginger.
My latest and most luscious cake which should see you all through this darkness and out into the light at the other end of the winter tunnel, and which is in my new book, Irresistible to be published in May, is a new take on the drizzle-drenched lemon cake. I make it with a passion-fruit drizzle, though more sticky-topped than drenched right through.
Cream the 170g each of softened, unsalted butter and light muscovado sugar until fluffy and then beat 2 large or 3 small eggs into it one by one. Grate the zest of an organic lemon in and sift in 170g self-raising flour and a teaspoon of baking powder, folding them in lightly. Add enough lemon juice for a soft, dropping consistency and bake in a greased, lined loaf or cake tin (15-18 cm) at 180° C/Gas 4 for 40-50 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean. Cool in the tin on a rack and when warm, spike holes all over down to the base of the cake with the skewer. Scoop out the pulp from 4 large passion fruit, keeping a dessert spoon of seeds in the mixture and heat with a heaped dessert spoon of demerara sugar. Once the mixture reaches bubbling point it thickens quickly. Remove and pour over the cake. It will set stickily and prettily the colour of a Spring crocus and will make winter seem less dreary immediately.