Freezing temperatures are the new norm here in Dublin, so my family and I have spent the last few weeks hibernating…we’ve been eating lots of hearty soups with brown bread, and slow-cooked delights such as lamb shanks in red wine and pulled pork. (We’ve also become COMPLETELY addicted to Masterchef: The Professionals. Best cooking competition on TV, hands down!)
I had to peel myself off the couch, pull out the baking paper, and turn on my Christmas brain though, as the countdown is now well and truly on! Most of my shopping is done now (my husband and I come from small families!), but there is still some gift-making ahead of me – neighbors, teachers, and co-workers are all taken into account as I begin my annual gift-making bonanza. I began with some sugar cookies for my office cookie tray (now conveniently awaiting their fate in the freezer), and had some very special decorators in to help me!
The vast majority of the gifts that I give are food related, but not all involve hours slaving over an oven. One year, I filled gift bags with jars of homemade chutney, Carr’s water biscuits, and a beautifully wrapped wedge of comté cheese. Another year, I filled mugs with a cocoa mix, marshmallows, and candy canes and wrapped them with cellophane and ribbon. Then, about 3 years ago, I discovered a recipe for the most wondrous thing of all: Winter Bark. The first year I gave it as an accompaniment to what I thought was a lovely gift – cashmere scarves for my son’s teachers. They all thanked me for the gifts, but no one actually mentioned the scarves…only these delicious, salty-sweet, totally addictive chocolate treats. The next year, I gave cinema vouchers and more winter bark – same reaction! The thing is, Winter Bark is EMBARRASSINGLY easy to make, and not even particularly costly! The key is to use good dark chocolate (not necessarily expensive stuff though – I buy mine from Aldi) and to make sure you buy salted peanuts. I will be making at least 4 batches of this stuff to give to friends and neighbors over the next week or so. It’s also great to have on hand in case someone pops in with an unexpected gift, or if you’re having a drinks party. It’s also a very good last minute gift if you just stock up on the ingredients.
Speaking of drinks parties, my family and I plan to restart our open house tradition this year. We took a year off last year, as we traveled at Christmastime, but we like to invite friends, neighbors, and colleagues over on the Sunday before Christmas for mulled wine, mince pies, and general merriment. I’ll hold my hands up and say that I just don’t have the patience to fuss with a load of handmade mince pies, so I let Marks and Spencer do the honors, but I do put together a few homemade touches. One of my favorite snacks for a get together (aside from a giant cheese platter…) are these Rosemary Brown Sugar Walnuts from one of the most gorgeous food blogs on the web. Sometimes I substitute dried cranberries for the figs, and occasionally I skip the dried fruit altogether, depending on the state of my pantry. You can also swap the walnuts for pecans.
One of the last things I bake every year is a coffee cake for Christmas morning. My mom has made this for Christmas breakfast as long as I can remember; it’s not Christmas morning without it, in my opinion! Perfect with tea or coffee, its nutty, cinnamon flavour is the essence of the holiday season.