Saturday, 13 December 2014

Vicar's Kitchen - The Ultimate Christmas Cake

There seems to be something in my personality that isn't satisfied to just make a nice version of something but rather I frequently embark on quests to make the 'Ultimate'. This can result in quite long winded and length journeys of experimentation. First it was fluffy b├ęchamel for moussaka (result: outside Greece you can't get the right cheese, two eggs mixed in is the best 'fluff' level this side of Europe), the perfect courgette fritter (result: you need halloumi) and now the ultimate Christmas fruit cake.

If you are a purist this might not be the cake for you but I love it and I put that down to a few things: prunes, cocoa, orange and a big slug of booze. The prunes, along with some dark muscovado sugar and honey, make the cake really dark and moist. The little bit of cocoa and the oranges laced with brandy, or any other liqueur really, make the cake taste like a big boozy chocolate orange in fruit cake form. How good does that sound?!

The recipe is based on one from Nigella's Christmas book but adjusted slightly because she goes for a coffee flavour by used coffee liqueur and has a slightly different fruit and spice mix.  
The Ultimate Christmas Fruit Cake
250g ready to eat prunes, chopped
350g mixed fruit (if there is some orange in there then bonus!)
175g butter cut into cubes
175g dark muscovado sugar
200g honey
60ml brandy (or other liqueur of choice, I've used cherry brandy and orange brandy before)
1/2 tsp of cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger (so 1 and a half tsps. in total)
Juice and zest of two oranges
3 eggs, beaten.
150g plain flour
75g ground almonds
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
- Line a 20cm cake tin with baking paper. Two layers works well.
- Melt together the butter, fruit, sugar, honey, orange juice and zest, spices and brandy in a big saucepan.
- Heat to boiling and simmer for ten minutes. Turn off the heat and leave the mix to cool. I leave it for about an hour.
- Preheat the oven to about 150 degrees C or Gas Mark 2.
- Mix into the fruit mix the eggs, flour, almonds, baking power and bicarb.
- Pour into the tin and bake for 1 hour and three quarters to two hours. The cake should still be a bit gooey in the middle.
- Leave to cool in the tin and deal with your kitchen which probably now looks like this...
- Eat and enjoy!
The cake also keeps for a good while so it is the perfect thing to have about the house should anyone pop by or if you just want to eat fruit cake every day because, well, you can!

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Vicar's Sofa – Waiting

On the whole I'm not very good at waiting. I'm a product of my generation and I am thoroughly used to doing it now, having it now and working my behind off to get where I need to be. Being driven has its uses but, quite frankly, it is also pretty exhausting. I find myself, particularly at this time of the year, limping towards Christmas with my tank on empty.

It was a pleasant change of pace this week, then, when I found myself with a spare hour. Rather than stuff in yet another hour of seemingly unending Christmas shopping I wandered into a church in the centre of Oxford and just sat for a while. Being Oxford there were loads of tourists and I must have cut quite a strange figure sat up in the middle of the balcony all alone with my eyes shut and no apparent purpose. There will likely be a number of tourists puzzling at that random person who ruined their snap of that stained glass window but as it is Advent, a time of waiting and wondering, that was exactly what I was doing. Waiting, thinking, mulling things over.

This week marks a special anniversary for me. It is ten years since I became a Christian one chilly night as a student in Bristol. The story sounds more than a little strange in the retelling. There I was, an outspoken atheist when I went into the pub and a couple of hours and half a bottle of red wine later I emerged into that frosty night well and truly on the way to becoming a committed Christian. Out of nowhere I had a faith and a hope and a brand new future that I could never, in a million years, have predicted.

What I realised as I sat in that church this week was that this life changing night ten years ago came to me on the basis of me doing absolutely nothing at all. It remains the best day of my entire life and the point from which my whole adult life has emerged. It has been the source of my joy, my coming into myself, my everything. And I did nothing to bring that about. I didn't work for it. I didn't strive. I had no idea it was coming. It was pure gift. Now as I stare down many challenges, when I have so many prayers and petitions floating before the throne of God that I can hardly count them, I am glad to be reminded of that.

So this season of Advent, I am waiting. Waiting for the heart and strength to let some things go, waiting for the confidence to pick some things up, waiting for a taste of something that I know only God can give like he did that night ten years ago. And though, being the controlling menace that I am, waiting isn't the most comfortable thing in the world, it still feels refreshing and freeing. To not have to be the answer to my own questions, to remember that in a single magical moment God can do everything for you that you could never even dream up for yourself.

That is what Christmas is about, waiting for the miraculous. For all the things you never even knew you needed. Just waiting, with wide open hands and no idea what you will receive.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Vicar's Craft Corner: the Festive Crafting Begins!

Advent is finally here! It is therefore, to my mind, the perfect time to crack out the Christmas crafts and get ready for what is my favourite time of year. When else can you legitimately put up a four foot sparkly pink reindeer in your living room? When else is eating a cake a day practically mandatory? When else is crafting more fun than when it involves gold and glitter? Ah, it really is the most wonderful time of the year!

This year I have started off the preparations with some card making. This was greatly enhanced by the purchase of a craft knife and cutting board. It turns out that using a knife is a whole lot easier to manage than trying to wield scissors to useful effect when making, well, basically anything. It only cost me a tenner which is making me wonder why I spent quite so much time last year messing about with the kitchen scissors....Live and learn....!

I have also recently purchased a set of alphabet printing blocks to go with the red, brown and black inks that I picked up for a reason I can't really remember a few years ago. Combined with some trusty PVA and some old scraps of paper and we have the recipe for card making success for very little money at all.

If you are on my Christmas list then I am afraid you are going to get a bit of a spoiler in this post. The design took me all of five minutes to sketch out but I quite like it. I wanted something that was detailed enough to make full use of the craft knife but not so that I was there sculpting the front of each card into the small hours. I do have a life you know.

I also wanted something that celebrates 'the reason for the season' and captures something of why Christmas is my favourite time of year. Something of the magic of God coming down to us, tiny and vulnerable, as a little baby and of the joy brought to the world in a setting that is so humble and ordinary.

I made the stable by making a template on a piece of card which I cut out with the craft knife. I used the template to draw the stable image onto the inside of the Christmas card. I then cut out the template and pushed out the shapes. I then cut a tiny piece of gold paper for the star which I stuck onto the inside of the card and then covered the whole cut out area with a square of black sparkly card.

So there we have it. Some very simple little Christmas cards that will hopefully bring some Christmas joy and have been great fun to make.

What are you crafting this Advent?