Christmas Cake 2020

This year’s Christmas cake is in the oven – an annual half term job. More than ever this year I feel the need to prepare for a truly memorable Christmas. Nothing fancy – just the simple pleasures of family walks, log fires, books, board games and comfort food. I am a Celtic mother after all.

I used Mary Berry’s Christmas cake recipe this year but substituted honey for treacle, cut out the nuts as some of the family don’t care for them and used my own special mix of dried fruits. The fruit was liberally soaked in brandy for four days prior to cooking (obviously) and will be fed once a week with more brandy until Christmas – if I remember. Sometimes I don’t- but the cake is all the better for getting slowly sozzled.

I enjoy October Half Term more than any other holiday with its colourful Autumn walks, bulb planting and tidying up the garden, store cupboard cooking for Christmas, bonfires and domestic chores. The gutters have been cleared and cleaned, the firewood chopped and stacked, the quince tree mostly harvested, the dresser cleaned and polished with beeswax and the tree surgeon and oven cleaning guru are booked to do their magic over the next few weeks. The latter, I admit is a bit of an indulgence but I treated myself and my still-broken arm. Full time teaching in a new school during a pandemic, all the while without proper use of one arm needs rewarding somehow. A professional oven clean and a vastly expensive bottle of elderberry tincture to ward off the usual school lergi should be just the job.

More about elderberry tincture to follow.

The Importance of Rituals


Ritual plays a big part in our home. October Half Term is THE time for making the Christmas cake. Recipes come and go but the ritual of buying ingredients, soaking the fruit and mixing the cake two months before Christmas remains the same. Mary Berry’s version (above) with the odd twist from me is this year’s cake of choice. (I used homemade cherry brandy and a slightly different combination of dried fruit.)

There was a time when I had three little helpers in the kitchen. This year I have one away preparing for a university cycling competition, one upstairs doing his A Level coursework and one relaxing with friends before the next spurt of GCSE mock revision. They’ve all ‘checked in’ that the Christmas cake is in hand.

Being a Celt and a mother it’s not surprising that food plays a big part in our family life and that I share kitchen rituals from my own mother and grandmother with my own children and, one day perhaps, they’ll share the same ones with their own children. Of course they’ll change some; they’ll adapt some; they may even abandon some but that connection and routine is important to our well-being and sense of identity. If you want to read more about the importance of ritual and routine try this as a starting point.


Creativity, Community and Crab Apple Jelly

Schools are frantically busy places in the Autumn. Much of the teaching takes place in the Michaelmas Term at my current school where we teach on Saturdays and finish at the end of June. Consequently there is little time to do much else between the end of August and half term in October. Frantic bursts of work followed by short periods of creativity and slow living work for me.

October Half Term is a golden time of Autumn walks, putting the garden to bed for the winter, planting bulbs, and finding sheltered places for the tender plants, preserving our harvest bounty, baking the Christmas cake and spending time with my own family beside a log fire with a steaming cup of something good in my hand. Spicy apple cake, squash and sage risotto and ginger Parkin will feature In the kitchen. I guess I have a deep-rooted urge to be creative away from the classroom.

This year I am the happy recipient of one of my teaching colleague’s crab apple largesse. There’s quite a creative kitchen community among the staff – I’ll be sharing round the quince after the holidays. After Wales narrow rugby victory yesterday I celebrated by boiling up the 1kg stash of beauties with 1200ml water, a couple of cinnamon sticks and a small handful of whole cloves until they were mushy; then left the whole lot to drip through a jelly bag overnight. This morning I added preserving sugar to the luscious ruby red liquid after I’d boiled it up, stirred to dissolve and then put it on a rolling boil for 9-10 minutes, until it reached setting point. Poured into small sterilised jars,  I have another beautiful item for the Christmas hampers.


Half Term


To misquote the late, great George Michael ‘Last Christmas I gave you my recipe for scented firelighters’ and, frankly not a lot since then. This blog, along with the taming of my overgrown allotment and baking has been one of the casualties of my return (virtually full-time) to the classroom. And before you ask, no I don’t regret it but yes, I do wish that there were more hours in the day.

Any teacher will tell you that when the school holidays arrive they are virtually on their knees and their own children may well have forgotten what they look like. School holidays are essential times for getting to bed at a reasonable time, heading out for a large dose of fresh air, baking, giving the house a thorough clean, ticking a few things off the seasonal jobs list and sitting leisurely at the kitchen table drinking coffee and catching up with own children, your husband and your non-teaching friends. Oh – and preparing your lessons for next half term, obviously.

It has been a packed year so far  beginning with selling the parents’ house ten years after my mother’s death and bringing to an end  a decade of family holidays in Pembrokeshire. The main highlights are…….

snatching an hour to explore local gardens



finally making it to the Scilly Isles


playing the Nurse in ‘Romeo and Juliet’



memories of a Cornish family holiday

I rediscovered my passion for teaching English literature and milestones have been reached by the children – eldest starting his A levels and driving lessons; middlest heading towards GCSEs this summer and about to start his amateur football league refereeing career; youngest now playing Rugby for Wiltshire and Dorset Under 15s girls along with lots of trips for all three to Holt to ring church bells, visit friends and play netball. Why did we ever leave that village?

Meanwhile the allotment was set aside for a year disappointing the badger.  A few cutting flowers, pumpkins, leeks, runner beans, soft fruit and rhubarb was all I had time for but, with the help of my mate Tim and his expertise at chainsaw gardening the council and golf course hedges have been ‘tamed’. I have a box of Peter Nyssen bulbs to plant over the next few weeks but have finally got the biennials I sowed in August in the ground. One batch of rhubarb and ginger chutney is stashed away in the pantry and the Christmas cake fruit is soaking up a liberal amount of rum. I might even finish another batch of chutney before heading back to school to enlighten teenagers about Steinbeck, Shakespeare, Dickens, Priestley and the use of the gerundive in Book IV of the Cambridge Latin course. And a stroll around Stourhead in the October sunshine is also on the To Do list.

If I manage to do more than fly by the seat of my pants there will be another installment before too long.

Autumn colour_5
Crunchy autumn leaves – perfect for kicking up your heels


Apple Days, chutney and a small homage to Downton Abbey

Our kitchen has been the site of an enormous apple mountain over the last week or so – which is all very appropriate considering that October 21st was Apple Day, when communities up and down the country celebrate the humble apple.

We have but one apple tree of our own at the moment –   a highly fruitful Downton Pippin In fact, I love this tree so much I have included it in several orchard planting projects in the last few years. And we are never short of a box or bag of stray apples looking for a good home at this time of year to add to our own harvest.

I do love a spot of chutney making and now is the perfect time to be making jewelled pots of deliciousness to squirrel away for the Winter. This year we have expanded our repertoire to include pumpkin and apple chutney, apple,blackberry and cinammon chutney as well as our usual family apple chutney recipe. And thanks to a chance remark and a recipe from my Twittermate Karen Thorne of Hopton House I’ve a few jars of delicious spiced apple butter to grace the pantry shelves as well.

There’s something therapeutic and wholesome about chopping seasonal fruit and veg, mixing it with spices and storing it up for the future. What’s more,  it’s a great way to spend a few hours in the kitchen with children. It’s one of our October half term rituals along with Christmas cake making and pumpkin carving – inevitably. And it’s not lost on me that I can now share the love by distributing a whole lot of homemade, delicious Christmas gifts to teachers, friends and neighbours come December. Result!

 Of course our Downton Pippin  has absolutely no connection to a fictional Abbey of the same name (Sundays 9pm ITV). I must say I am a little bemused at the number of people who are convinced that there must be one.  Nevertheless I feel I should indulge devotees and pay homage of sorts to Downton and Mrs Patmore by making a traditional Apple Charlotte with the few apples that remain. Here’s the ‘receipt’.

175g / 6oz butter
750g / 1 ½ lb apples (half Bramley and half Downton Pippins or similar)
caster sugar
2 egg yolks
half a loaf of good white bread

Preheat the oven to 200C / 400F.
Look out a deep cake tin or other baking tin of a 1 litre capacity.
Peel, core and slice the apples. Put in a pan with a knob of butter, a very little water and 2-4 tablespoons caster sugar, according to the sweetness of your apples. Cook gently until the juices run, then over a higher heat, until the apple is soft and can easily be beaten to a pulp. Taste for sweetness and add more sugar if necessary. Beat in the egg yolks off the heat and leave to cool while you prepare the tin.

Melt the butter.
Cut the bread into 1cm thick slices and remove the crusts. Dip the slices of bread into the melted butter briefly on each side and line the tin tightly with them so that there are no gaps. You can use some beaten egg white to brush over any joins to seal them if you like.

Pour the apple pulp into the lined tin and top with a last slice of bread, also dipped in butter. Cover the top with an ovenproof plate. Bake at 200C / 400F for 20 minutes then reduce the heat to 190C / 375F, remove the plate and bake for another 40 minutes until golden.

Give it at least 10 minutes to cool slightly before serving, then slide a knife around the inside edge to release the pudding and invert it onto a serving plate.

Perfect for munching on Sunday evenings in front of the telebox, I’d say!

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