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Adventures in wine tasting: discover something new

December 18, 2014

It may seem a bit odd to start making New Year’s resolutions about wine right now – and especially one that involves drinking more of it. Actually it’s the continuation of a constant resolution, a quest to keep learning, exploring and knowing more about the wonderful, endlessly fascinating world of wine…. and this involves tasting as many different and new wines as possible.

I’ve always thought this was a bit difficult here in Dubai. As everything is shipped in and it’s a relatively small market, we tend to get mainstream wines, big brands and very familiar grape varieties. I’d love to join the Wine Century Club which you can join if you’ve tasted 100 grape varieties (see my friend Erin’s account of getting through her century) but considered this pretty impossible in the U.A.E. So I was genuinely pleased to see the new ‘discover’ collection at MMI.

To quote the leaflet:

With wine, make sure you try something new as often as possible….

Hear, hear

…don’t just stick to your favourite wine of brand because it’s safe – your new favourite bottle is out there waiting to be discovered.

So you can guess how intrigued I was opening the sample box of the discover wine selection (for November and December) that MMI sent me.

Exploring wine My Custard Pie

Let’s look at the whites.

  • Are you surprised if I say that the Greek wine was the one I was itching to open first? Forget Retsina or dodgy wines you’ve sipped while on a package holiday. This wine is from beautiful Santorini; the wind whistles up and over the island so the Assyrtiko vines are trained in a basket shape to protect them.  Grown using organic farming methods, with old vines on volcanic soil this is bone dry, citrussy with a tiny hint of green olives. Not an overly complex wine but balanced and superbly drinkable. Domaine Sigalas Asssyrtiko reminded me of a fino sherry without the yeasty notes (if that makes sense) and would be fantastic with olives and salty or fishy nibbles. It’s firmly on my list to buy again.
  • I know the Martín Códaz Albariño well, it’s from the Rias Baixas region of Spain (pronounce it all with your tongue between your teeth) and adore it. Again it’s crisp, dry and very elegant with orchards of lemons, lime and grapefruit with a touch of stone fruit on the nose. It’s the perfect aperitif and is wonderful with seafood. I tasted an Albariño (by Paco & Lola Arousana) with a sea bass crudo and a prawn tartare at Sea Fu the other evening and it was the perfect pairing with these fairly acidic dishes. Definitely one to discover if you haven’t already…
  • …and this also applies to the Laurenz V Singing Grüner Veltliner from Austria (a magnum of this will be making an appearance at our Christmas dinner). Aromatic, refreshing but balanced with a bit of creaminess.
  • If you are struggling to get your tongue round the name Grüner Veltliner, give up and just grab the leaflet and point to the Moncaro Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classica ‘La Vele’ if ordering. When studying Italy for my wine exams it was easily the most difficult country. But I digress – looking forward to tasting this wine and while not expecting it to blow my socks off, the refreshing acidity of the Verdicchio grape means it could be, potentially, my new house wine for pouring to visitors who won’t drink anything other than Sauvignon Blanc. Here’s hoping….
  • I have no idea what to expect from the Nadaria Grecanico (made from a grape variety brought to Sicily by the Greeks centuries ago); bargain basement price so not expecting wonders but who knows….
  • The Freixenet Mia Blanco is made from some of the main grapes that go into Cava and is slightly sweet…. Let’s see. Could be a crowd pleaser (thinking back to the Moscato at a ladies lunch that had everyone swooning).

Exploring wine My Custard Pie

Onto the reds….

  • …and the only one I’ve tasted before is the Zuccardi Serie A Malbec which is great value, full-bodied, bursting with black cherries, with structured tannins and leaves your teeth satisfyingly purple.
  • I’ve longed to taste more Portuguese wine (bucket list wine trip) so the Casa Ferreirinha Papa Figos from the Douro will be the first I’m going to try.
  • As a Southern Rhone lover I’m always attracted to the luscious juicy grenache grape and similarly drawn to its Spanish equivalent garnacha. The Pablo Old vine Garnacha from high altitude vineyards in Calatayud in Spain has the potential to be a fantastic match for your Christmas turkey. Hand harvested from 100-year-old bush vines, I’m hoping this good value red is a juicy, berry explosion. I’d better try it pronto (or should I say rápidamente).
  • And talking of Rhone blends, the Spanish Campo de Borja from Penelope Sanchez is made of both Garnacha and Syrah. Not sure about the look of the label… but this is what ‘discover’ is all about.
  • Tasting wine on a visit to Istanbul this year (read The Hedonista’s account) was a great experience but bringing some home prohibitively expensive so excited to see K of Kapadokia on the list. Drinking it must be easier than pronouncing the grape varieties of Öküzgözü and Boğazkere.
  • Finally if you think wine from China is obscure you might be surprised to hear that it is now the fifth largest producer of wine in the world. This is my first taste so let’s see what I make of the Changyu Cabernet Gernischt…..

If you fancy trying any (or all) of these in Dubai or (RAK) just ask for the discover leaflet in MMI stores.

Bonus tips for obtaining your tipple in Dubai this festive season

  • KP arranges an annual golf game in Al Hamra Ras Al Khaimah a couple of weeks before Christmas which is handy as you pass right past the door of The Cellar. There have to be a few compensations for golf widows – start dropping those hints about 18 holes by the sea now.
  • Seasonal visitors arriving by plane? Call Le Clos, ( 04 220 3633) order and pay for your fine wines, then give the details of the incoming flight. There are some excellent 12 days of Christmas offers right now. Your visitors have a five bottle allowance each that you can make the most of. Otherwise drop big hints about this allowance and the availability of duty free in arrivals.
  • Book your Smart Drive now, as it’s going to be busy.

Thanks to MMI for these samples – I had no obligation to write about them and I’ll give you an honest opinion about which ones I liked (or not).

Do you like discovering new wines? If not, what stops you from trying out something different?

Perfect Christmas Cheese board

December 16, 2014

Christmas Cheese board - My Custard PieIf you are thinking that you might not need cheese with the fully laden table which makes up the Christmas feast, you and I have nothing in common. A Christmas cheese board is always welcome as a palate reviver as a foil to the sweet course. It’s the perfect snacking centrepiece and can be moved onto the coffee table to provide post-charades sustenance, or put to work among the cold turkey and ham. While you might not be able to face another mince pie, a sliver of savoury Cheddar, a morsel of salty blue or a slather of tangy goat’s cheese is always welcome. And drinking without food is such a bad idea isn’t it?

How to make the perfect cheese board

1. Go large

Three or four large hunks of different cheeses make a much more impressive festive spread than dozens of little mean-looking pieces which can overwhelm the palate. It’s practical too – large pieces of cheese store better. One magnificent slab of Stilton is a beautiful thing.

2. Contrasts and variety

One easy rule is to choose something hard, something blue and something soft. You could also choose cheeses made from different milk and go for goat, sheep, and cow’s milk varieties. Where possible, I like to choose local cheeses or at least all from the same country.

3. Keep it simple

Let the pure flavour of the cheese shine, so avoid anything with additions or flavourings. Cheese dotted with dried herbs or flavoured with spice is just too confusing for the taste buds.

4. Temperature and storage

If you have a cool larder, this is the best place to store hard cheeses, wrapped in waxed paper. Not being blessed with one of these here in Dubai, mine will be kept in the fridge, but ditch the cling film as soon as you get the cheese home (or buy from a cheesemonger who knows their wrapping). I follow Patricia Michelson‘s advice on keeping cheese and it really does make it taste better and last longer. Line a Tupperware-style container with a dampened J-cloth and add a couple of sugar cubes to create some humidity. Store blue cheese in a separate box, as it can interfere with the tastes of other cheeses. Always remove cheese from the fridge a good hour before serving so they come up to room temperature.

5. Accompaniments

Like the cheese, don’t overwhelm with highly flavoured crackers. Simple water biscuits or Swedish rye crackers are perfect, or even French-style with some bread. Fresh fruit can be stunning with cheese; a slice of juicy pear with blue is absolutely heavenly. Nuts such as walnuts (as fresh as you can get) and almonds are nice to nibble (unsalted).  It’s tempting to have chutney on hand, and cranberry sauce is great with blue cheese and Brie, but leave guests to choose for themselves – never dollop/pour it on the cheese – and avoid if you are drinking something nice as it’ll kill your palate for the wine. Good raw honey is fantastic for drizzling over cheese and don’t forget the best unsalted butter.

6. Drinking

By the time you’re at the end of the Christmas feast, reach for something sweet like a classic port or Sauternes. Salt and tannins are not great partners so abandon your glass of Bordeaux when tucking into the Stilton. A refreshing glass of Champagne at the end of the meal is a good alternative and goes well with cheese. More advice on wine and cheese matching here (and see below).

7. Get help

Avoid going out with a strict shopping list and visit a cheese specialist who can give you advice about what’s good now and will go together. I asked several experts, here and in the UK, for their top tips on choosing cheese for Christmas:

Christmas cheese board

Colston Basset Stilton and Shropshire blue, Quickes Cheddar with Jack High English Cider Spirit

 

Leiths School of Food and Wine

Max Clark, a senior teacher at Leiths and a font of endless cooking knowledge, has put together this cheese board recommendation. Leiths run a range of courses including specialist Christmas cookery and an artisan Christmas cheese-making class (a present for someone for next year?).

A cheese board from the British Isles

This cheese board comprises of soft, hard, creamy, young and mature cheeses; something for everyone, with wonderful accompaniments, such as chutney, compote, wafers and even bruschetta, to form a celebratory array, incomparable to the cheese sputnick, pineapple and grapes of the 70’s.

Cornish Yarg: A semi hard cheese with a creamy centre. Cornish Yarg is wrapped in nettle leaves and is made from cows’ milk; it has a fresh lemony flavour. It is delicious served with pear chutney and English cobnuts.

Ashdown Foresters: Made in Horstead Keynes in Sussex…..home of Winnie the Pooh! A salty, firm cheese; what else to serve with such a cheese but honey! Homemade lemon and honey poppy seed biscuits to accompany.

Caboc: A rich, Scottish cheese, made with pasteurized double cream: perfect for Hogmanay celebrations. Delicious served with warm or cold roast sugar plums and Scottish chilli oatcakes.

Rosary goat cheese: Rind-less, snow-white, creamy and fluffy; the queen of goat cheese. Clean, fresh flavour, lovely with a lightly spiced chutney, such as pineapple, or a crisp biscuit, such as sumac and pomegranate wafers.

Little Black Bomber: A very mature Cheddar from Snowdonia; cheese with attitude. Gorgeous with black fig bruschetta or Morello cherry compote.

Jones the Grocer

If you are in Dubai their cheese room is always a lovely place to visit – and they know about correct storage. Their advice from Filipa Almeida:

“When preparing a cheese board for a festive occasion like Christmas colour and quantity are key factors to have into consideration. Try to offer chunks rather than cubes or slices and to include colourful cheeses like Mimolette or Red Leicester. Depending on the amount of people you’ll be serving, a cheese board should feature one of each type of cheese: goat/sheep, washed rind, soft, semi-hard/hard, blue. Having this in mind, for a Christmas cheese board I would recommend:

Pouligny Saint Pierre (goat): beautiful fresh aged goat’s cheese with a bloomy white rind and shaped as a pyramid, great addition to any cheese board.

Reblochon: washed rind cow’s milk cheese from the Savoie region in France, legally produced with milk from only 3 local breeds of cows. Before serving the cheese board try to gently rub the rind of this cheese with a saline solution to bring to life its orange colour.

Vacherin Mont D’Or: seasonal soft cheese made with raw cow’s milk, available only between October and early March. This beautiful creamy cheese is a winner for any cheeseboard.

Quickes Vintage Cheddar: from one of the most renowned cheddar producers in the UK, and is an uncontested crowd pleaser.

Colston Basset Stilton: king of the blues, Stilton is a must have in any Christmas cheese platter, being considered by many the most iconic Christmas cheese.

If you’re hosting a big party and you want to go the extra mile and prepare an even more luxurious platter than I would definitely recommend you add:

Truffle Brie: The interior of this sensational Brie develops from a chalky state to rich and runny when ripe, it has fine layer of black summer truffles through the centre of the pate, making it a truly decadent and indulgent cheese.

Beaufort: King of the mountain cheeses, Beaufort d’Alpage is an elegant hard cheese with character and class, perfect for any premium Christmas cheese board.

Even though all these cheeses are very good on its own, I would suggest that you serve them with some fresh grapes, fresh figs and some walnuts. If you are a fan of fruit pastes then a damson paste or the typical quince paste would also work very well with this cheese board.

Christmas Cheese board - My Custard PieCheese Cellar

Owen Davies of Cheese Cellar, cheese and gourmet food suppliers in the UK, gives this advice:
“Quality is paramount and far more important than quantity. A traditional cheese board needs to appeal to all tastes so we would suggest serving between three and five cheeses. Generally you would look for a blue, a soft bloomy cheese, a hard Cheddar style, a pungent rind-washed and a goats cheese. This style of board covers the variation in taste, texture and maturation strength. Colour and appearance should be taken into consideration – Cornish Yarg is wrapped in nettles and has a beautiful lacy rind. There are some really special flavoured cheeses that are worth considering, such as Occelli al Barolo, which is enriched with DOCG Barolo wine or Barwheys Smoked – this is from Ayrshire in Scotland. This cheese really packs a punch – the wood chips come from the whisky barrels at Grant’s whisky distillery!”

My cheese board

I’m off to buy my cheese this week. A visit to the Jones the Grocer cheese room is de rigueur as they have the best English cheese selection. I will probably go for Quickes although would love to get my hands on some Montgomery, Keens or Westcombe unpasteurised Cheddar. Lafayette Gourmet is the next stop (see pic of one of their cheese boards below) which is an Aladdin’s cave of continental cheeses (they stock over 100). Last weekend, I picked up a hunk of organic Cropwell Bishop Stilton at Organic foods and Cafe and may go back for more – although Waitrose has large pieces of award-winning Colston Basset Stilton at a very reasonable price (Jones sometimes has their beautiful Shropshire Blue). If I can face battling my way into Carrefour, a Mont D’or will be oozing its way onto my table. Markets and Platters is rumoured to have a good cheese selection and the new Farmer’s Garden in Al Wasl Square stocks some delicious Italian ewe’s milk cheese and some gorgeous rye crackers from Sweden. If off to the Northern Emirates, Finer Things is a good source of French cheese.

Christmas Cheese board - My Custard Pie

Cheese from Lafayette Gourmet

 

Presentation

If my cheese board has even a passing resemblance to a painting by Carravaggio, I’ll be happy! While I hate slate plates I like them for cheese and have a big one from Crate and Barrel. Natural wood is good too and I’ve bookmarked Stych Farm studios for ordering this summer (planning ahead!).  Lime Tree in Dubai sells some attractive wooden ones too. Make sure you have enough knives and cheese cutters – at least one per cheese.

Further reading: Cheese board basics by Madame Fromage, Christmas cheese board tips by Ms Marmite Lover and A stylishly presented alternative cheese board on Food and Wine Matching.

Cheese and wine pairing infographic

So what’s your favourite cheese on the Christmas table?

Slow cooker Christmas: braised red cabbage

December 13, 2014

Slow cooker braised red cabbageThe final count is in; there will be sixteen of us round the table on Christmas day… and I’m doing the cooking. There are a few butterflies but mainly I’m excited to spend a day eating drinking and making merry with my family and some friends who go back for eons.  It does mean it’s important to keep ahead on the preparations and I try to tick off something every day. A combined feast means that there are dishes that absolutely have to be on the table for someone. Brussels sprouts and parsnips are non-negotiable for my lot; bread sauce, sage and onion stuffing and bacon wrapped chipolatas for another family; and one friend always asks “we will be having that red cabbage you make, won’t we?”. We will.

I thought this would be perfect for making in the slow cooker and it is. There’s no real difference in effort between making like this or in a cast iron casserole in the oven, but it’s much more economical as it just needs to braise away for a few hours – and the slow cooker uses the same energy as a light bulb.

As all my Christmas food, I think that less in more when opening the spice cupboard and advise you once again to leave that cinnamon stick and cloves alone. A crisp, fresh red cabbage plucked from the ground near Dubai, bought at the farmers’ market and chopped within hours of getting home, needs very little added to it – although one of those things is red wine. Quelle surprise.

Braised red cabbage - slow cooker

  • Servings: 4 (or 16 as part of the Christmas feast)
  • Difficulty: easy
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Ingredients

  • 1 small red cabbage (about 1 kg)
  • 100g butter plus a drizzle of olive oil or 100g ghee
  • 1 small red onion, chopped to medium dice
  • 1 dessert apple, peeled, cored and chopped coarsely
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 60ml red wine
  • Sea salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Parsley (see note below)

Method

1. Remove any limp or discoloured leaves from the outside of the cabbage and cut into quarters. Cut out the thick white core from each quarter and then cut into fine shreds (you could do this in the food processor). Rinse well and drain.

2. Heat the butter and oil, or the ghee (clarified butter) in a very large frying pan. Add half the cabbage and cook for about a minute until it starts to wilt. Remove to the slow cooker pot with a slotted spoon and repeat with the remaining cabbage. Add the onion and apple and cook for another couple of minutes, stirring often. Add the red wine vinegar and the red wine and season. Pour the whole lot into the slow cooker.

3. Cook in the slow cooker on the auto setting until tender to the bite but not too mushy. Start checking after 2 and half  hours – you can leave it slightly firmer if you are freezing and reheating. Taste before serving and add seasoning and a dash more red wine vinegar if required.

Note: As this is for the Christmas table I have garnished it with flat-leaved parsley – and jolly festive it looks too. This is in spite of my usual strict adherence to Prue Leith’s advice not to garnish with anything that has not been used in the dish. Dill would work really well here too.

Linking up to Ren Behan’s wonderful Simple and in Season round up event.

What absolutely, categorically, HAS to be on your Christmas or celebration table?

The best, exotic marigolds

December 11, 2014

We picked our way through stems of marigolds with their puff-ball flowers of tangerine, ochre and vermillion. The air was alive with the wings of butterflies which fluttered leisurely from bloom to bloom. A lady wrapped in a dappled fuschia sari darted away from seiving grain from chaff and took refuge in a hut made of sticks. A young Mother and her daughter strolled, not so casually, through the flowers knowing full well how photogenic they were. Adil caught a little black bee by the wings to show to the group. Rashed pulled the seeds from a dried flower head and displayed the spiky treasure in the palm of his hand.

In rural Rajasthan we saw many marigolds; they are used in abundance in religious ceremonies, but here they were planted as a companion crop to deter pests.

Calendula Officianalis or ‘pot marigold’ attracts beneficial insects and has natural antimicrobial properties.

It’s not a practice used widely by the visiting U.A.E. organic farmers at present, but Rashed explained that when he uses the petals in his chicken feed they lay eggs with yolks as golden as the marigolds. This small trade of knowledge between an Emirati farmer who has decades of experience with an Indian farmer who is drawing on a legacy of centuries of toil, trial and error on the land, encapsulates what this whole trip was about.

The sun warmed our backs and we wandered back past cows, haystacks, down a lane which looked like it could have been plucked from the English countryside, to drink tea with the farmer and his family.

Marigolds in Rajasthan-mycustardpie

Marigolds in Rajasthan-mycustardpie

Marigolds in Rajasthan-mycustardpie

I traveled from the U.A.E. to Rajasthan, India in November 2014 with four organic farmers on a knowledge-exchange trip with Indian organic farmers, organised by Baker and Spice and Down to Earth.  This is the first in a series of short stories about a weekend full of fascinating experiences.

Homemade chocolate truffles – meltingly good

December 6, 2014

Chocolate truffles - MyCustardPieJust in time to wish you a Happy St Nicholas day. My Polish Aunt and Uncle would appear every 6th December bearing sweets for us children; in fact even while I was temping at jewellers one Christmas during my late teens, my Aunt appeared holding a bag and uttered the familiar phrase “A strange man stopped me in the street and said give this to Sally,” – the strange man being, of course, St Nicholas (or Santa Claus). So today has to be about something sweet.

I was given a box of shop bought truffles the other day. Fair enough they were from a supermarket not a specialist chocolate shop but one bite into the waxy, sweet, cloying ball of confectionery was enough and I threw the whole lot in the bin. Such a shame as really good chocolate truffles are divine, and this is from someone who doesn’t worship at the altar of chocolate very often.

The party season is just kicking in and unless you’ve bought costly, scented candles in bulk, you may be scrabbling round in the next few weeks to find the perfect little something for the hosts along with the obligatory bottle of plonk. Fresh cream, butter, chocolate and alcohol combined with love and care into moreish morsels. Who could resist that? You’ll be welcomed with open arms.

Cradled in tissue paper, housed in a pretty box, they make luxurious gifts. Also good dotted about the Christmas dinner table prior to the entrance of the pudding (for pudding haters or just to go with coffee).

A word of warning though: Do not UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES be tempted to make them (or anything in fact) with cooking chocolate. You might as well make them with lard they’ll taste so bad and you’ll never gain entry to a party ever again.

Homemade chocolate truffles - two ways of lacing them, with options

  • Servings: makes 40-50
  • Difficulty: easy
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Ingredients

  • 1 vanilla pod
  • 300ml fresh, extra thick double cream (or the heaviest thickest cream you can buy)
  • 300g dark (plain) chocolate minimum 58% cocoa solids*
  • 300g good quality milk chocolate*
  • 50g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 2 tablespoons brandy
  • 2-3 tablespoons Frangelico (hazelnut liqueur)
  • 25g cocoa powder or cacao

Method

  1. Pour the fresh cream into a small saucepan. Split the vanilla bean in half lengthways, scrape the seeds into the pan with the tip of a sharp knife, then add the whole pod too. Bring just to the boil then turn off the heat and leave to cool for about 20 minutes.
  2. Break 200g of the dark chocolate into small pieces and put in a heatproof bowl. Melt the chocolate. I find this easiest by microwaving on medium power for 4 minutes. Alternatively sit the bowl over a pan of gently simmering water making sure the base does not touch the surface of the water. As soon as the chocolate has melted, take off the heat and beat in 25g of the butter with a wooden spoon until smooth. Repeat with 300g of milk chocolate (check after 3 minutes in the microwave) and the remaining butter.
  3. Remove the vanilla pod from the cream (you can rinse, dry and add this to caster sugar for homemade vanilla sugar). Measure half the cream into each bowl of chocolate mixture and stir in thoroughly. Add brandy to the dark chocolate mix and Frangelico to the milk chocolate.
  4. Pour each bowl into a separate shallow tray lined with greaseproof paper or baking parchment (a square cake tin is ideal). Leave to chill in the fridge overnight. Alternatively you can pour each mixture into freezer proof containers and freeze for a month or two.
  5. Put the cocoa or cacao powder in a shallow dish. If you are in a warm climate, like Dubai, whack your air conditioning up high. Shape the dark chocolate mixture into balls and roll in the cocoa. Chop or grate the remaining dark chocolate into small fragments. Shape the milk chocolate mixture as before and roll in the grated chocolate. Place them on greaseproof lined trays and chill for about 8 hours (or overnight). If you are in a cold climate, remove from the fridge for an hour before serving so they soften slightly. If giving as a gift in Dubai, I would put the finished truffles in the freezer and transport in a cool box to the recipient.

Variation: Replace the brandy with Disarrono and roll the truffles in ground almonds. You could also leave out the alcohol and add a few drops of real almond essence (don’t overdo it).

*Good quality chocolate is expensive but don’t be tempted to skimp. Read the labels for the cocoa solid content (the higher the figure the better it is). Go for 85% Lindt (or more) if you like a really rich, dark taste. Good quality supermarket own brands can be cost effective – I use Carrefour or Waitrose when needing a lot of chocolate. Lindt is not very much more in price and far superior – especially for the milk chocolate. And I repeat – cooking chocolate is an aberration and never to be used….never, ever.

Pretty jars from Bonne Maman on My Custard Pie

You could put your truffles in jars like this pretty idea from Bonne Maman

For more sweet inspiration to give as gifts or serve up as Christmas treats try Neapolitan Marzipan Chocolates (on Fab Food 4 All), Chocolate Hazelnut and Raspberry fondants (Franglais Kitchen), Cardamom-flavoured Cranberry Christmas cookies (Fuss Free Cooking) and White Christmas fudge (The Hedonista). Chef and Steward has a great idea for an edible present here too.

Is there a festive ritual from your childhood that you remember?

Slow cooker Christmas: Christmas pudding

December 4, 2014

Slow cooker Christmas pudding on My Custard PieEven if you’ve already made your Christmas pud, don’t stop reading. Cook or reheat it on Christmas day without the need to constantly check the boiling water level, no rattling pan taking up a ring space and without your kitchen turning into a steam room.

My slow cooker is the best purchase I’ve made in years; why on earth did it take me so long to get one (a head-scratching rhetorical question for sure). With Christmas coming up I’ve found so many ways it’ll make festive cooking a lot easier. It’ll have a permanent place on my counter well into the New Year.

My pudding received its first steaming on the day after Stir Up Sunday this year but, regular readers may not faint at this news, the fruit had been soaking in alcohol for two weeks beforehand. I used Nigella’s recipe as I love dousing it in sweet, rich, coffee-like Pedro Ximénes sherry (PX). I couldn’t get hold of a cooking apple so used a carrot instead and I buy bags of mixed vine fruit from Waitrose to minimise odd leftovers, plus I added some mixed spice.

I usually grease traditional pudding basins and do all the greaseproof paper and string malarkey, but I was in such a rush this year that I turned to the infinitely simpler but less photogenic plastic ones with snap on lids (from Lakeland). Nigella’s mixture filled 1 x 2 pint (1.2 litre) basin and 1 x 1 pint (600 ml) basin (why they still use Imperial as we’ve been going metric in the UK since the early 1970’s I can’t fathom). The size was important as a 1.7 litre one (OK, OK, 3 pint) won’t fit in my slow cooker.

Slow cooker Christmas pudding

  • Servings: 8-10
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

  1. Turn your slow cooker onto high.
  2. Stir up all the ingredients from your favourite Christmas pudding recipe.
  3. Grease 1 x 2 pint (1.2 litre) basin and 1 x 1 pint (600 ml) basin with butter and snap on the lid (if plastic). If using conventional pudding basins, grease the insides with butter and line the base with a circle of greaseproof paper. Fill with the mixture and top with another circle of greaseproof. Cut out two generous circles of greaseproof paper per basin, pleat in the middle and secure tightly with kitchen string tied under the lip of the pudding basin, looping the ends over the top to make a handle.
  4. Place the basin into the slow cooker and fill the slow cooker with water so the level is three- quarters of the way up the side of the pudding.
  5. Replace the lid of the slow cooker and cook on high as follows: 600ml (1 pint) for 8 hours; 1.2 litre (2 pint) for 10 hours; 1.7 litre (3 pint) for 12 hours
  6. Leave to cool and store in a cool, dark place.

To reheat on the day: Preheat the slow cooker for 20 minutes, put the pudding in and pour enough water to come to three-quarters of the way up the sides of the pudding basin. Cook on low for 8 hours or on high for 4 hours (subtract 1 hour for the smaller pudding and add 1 hour for the larger pudding – you will smell the scent of delicious Christmas pudding when it is ready).

To set light to the pudding: Warm about 125 ml of alcohol (brandy or vodka) in a small saucepan (but do not boil). Dim the lights in the dining room and bring the pudding to the table. Pour the warm alcohol over the pud and set light to it (a barbecue lighter is ideal). Walking in with a flaming pud looks dramatic but you are courting danger.

Don’t worry if you haven’t made your pudding yet – it’s not too late. If you really can’t face making your own, don’t beat yourself up over buying a good shop bought one. If you are in Dubai, and want one with alcohol, I spotted some tiny puds laced with 10-year-old The Macallan whisky in MMI;  if you search the forums a few home bakers are making them; and you can feed a store-bought one with brandy for a few weeks just as you would for a Christmas cake.

Watch out for more slow cooker festive recipes over the coming weeks. Have you made your Christmas pud and what will you be serving it with?

 

Diverse Dubai and enjoying action-packed Autumn

December 2, 2014
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The wonderful, energizing, exciting thing about life in Dubai is its diversity. One morning, you could be sitting on the floor of a wooden boat, sharing black tea with a group of sailors, their faces gnarly from their oceans travels, missing teeth due to their habit of sucking sugar cubes with their tea. In the evening your eyes could be dazzled by a beautiful Emirati bride, who arrives completely alone and enters a vast ballroom the size of several football pitches. This did happen to me on one single day in October – and I also fitted in a dinner of miniature canapé of British classics with some lovely friends and a baby shower/book club meeting within the same 12 hours.

When did life get so crazy? It sort of crept up on me as I wondered why, halfway through October, I was a little tired. Our 20th wedding anniversary, a fine wine tasting, an encyclopedic gin masterclass, discovering the best and most challenging yoga ever. I dipped my toe into celebrity culture for a fleeting moment or two, made enjoyable by having a laugh with old friends; and was invited on radio to talk about my visit to Georgia and food festivals in Britain.

I went to India with four farmers from the U.A.E. Back in Dubai, I met Polish apple growers. There were visitors from the UK, Autumn weather cooling for the first barbecue of the season, meeting the man with the most expensive tongue in the world, making my Christmas cake, eating a feast cooked over a fire by a German lady camel breeder in the desert. Honestly, I’m not making this up. Contrary to popular belief, I do not blog for a living, so this was around work and family demands. I am not complaining though….and here are the highlights:

Places to drink

Mint Leaf of London The guys at Mint Leaf really know their stuff and guided our all female group of spirit lovers (contact me if you are interested in joining) through a mind-bogglingly interesting gin tasting with some superb cocktails to match.

Hakkasan Every wine is tasted with a range of dishes by a panel (which I joined for one session) before it makes to to the wine list at Hakkasan. Impressive quality control.*

Cave I got together with wine-loving friends to investigate Grenache – coincidently Rhone wines were the theme in October and I also tasted some beautiful Burgundy at Cave, Conrad Dubai courtesy of Le Clos (if you are a regular customer you’ll make it to their invite list).

Places to eat

La Petite Maison KP and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary dinner at La Petite Maison. The service is impeccable. The really knowledgeable female sommelier guided us from an extensive list of wine available by the glass (rare for Dubai). Every dish was simply cooked, beautifully presented and absolutely delicious. My only regret is that I ordered the rabbit as I subsequently read this. Very pricey but top of my list for special occasions.

La Serre Ex-LPM chef Izu Ani has made waves at La Serre and I was invited to sit at the Chef’s Table for an evening organised by Restronaut and Badoit water. Chef Izu delves into different cultures and tries unexpected ingredients – I’d never had cassava on a fine dining menu –  and really gets to understand the defining notes of the cuisine and translates them in his kitchen. The whole turbot in a salt crust was a highlight and the 50 hour braised beef short-ribs.  His interaction with his team of chefs (from all corners of the globe) was also fascinating to see and their mutual respect was evident. A real pleasure to witness. Chef and Steward’s interview with Chef Izu is well worth a read. The next Badoit dinner is on 16th December at Traiteur, Park Hyatt.*

Rivington Grill We sat on the terrace with our guests from the UK overlooking the coastline right down to The Palm and beyond …

Baker & Spice, Souk Al Bahar …all visitors love the combination of sitting on the terrace, gazing up at the Burj Khalifa and eating the best shakshouka in town for breakfast…

Ravis …but they had one request we couldn’t refuse. The infamous Ravis in Satwa.

Creekside … the new ‘must do’ spot for visitors and residents. Serving Emirati classics with a twist which you can eat while watching the abras dart by.

Bystro Since its recent makeover, it’s my favourite new place in Umm Suqeim 2 for meeting people. Decent casual food, nice staff, reasonably priced.

The Hamptons Cafe Booking essential for this cafe that looks like it’s been transplanted from a Ralph Lauren interiors catalogue onto Jumeirah Beach Road. Need to consult my personal shopper before I go next time, but I loved it. Don’t judge me.

Sumo Sushi options are abundant in Dubai but when I get a craving for maki I have my favourite places. The newly refurbished Sumo Sushi and Bento in Town Centre Mall is worth a visit for a relaxing sushi lunch (and I made an origami crane at the opening).*

Lafayette Gourmet catering British classics in bite-sized nibbles beautifully executed by Russell Impiazzi and his team from Lafayette Gourmet. The ‘go-to’ place for event catering – Their new event manager has hot-footed it from the Admirable Crichton in London. The occasion was another Food Photography workshop by Meeta; I’ve hung up hat from being involved but it was a pleasure to be toasting another succesful event –  with 24 carat gold suffused, sparkling, non-alcoholic white wine!

Asia Asia Pier 7 has to be the perfect venue for Winter dining in Dubai as all the restaurants have huge outdoor terraces with stunning views across the Marina. KP tested Simon Rimmer’s The Scene and enjoyed the traditional comfort food menu, Fume got my thumbs up for its down to earth menu, casual vibe and well-priced wine list. A bit flummoxed about Asia Asia and largely agree with this review (giving it another try tonight).

Bussola It was difficult NOT to eat Italian during two weeks in November as the Italian Cuisine World Summit hit Dubai. A bevy of Michelin starred chefs cooked at a variety of restaurants and events and I was invited to dinner at Bussola. I’d forgotten how just lovely it is to sit on their terrace overlooking the sea; we had 2 star Michelin Chef Lionello Cera to thank for our set menu of various fishy delights – Chef Lionello’s father was a fisherman and he never cooks meat. For more about the summit visit my friend Dima Sharif who did an amazing job as ambassador for the event.*

Unforgettable experiences

Sitting with sailors Clambering on board a trading dhow moored on the Dubai Creek and sharing tea with a group of sailors was an experience so removed from my everyday life. And then twelve hours later I was doing this …

Guest at an Emirati wedding Her image is projected in grainy black and white onto huge screens showing her slow deliberate progress along a curved catwalk to a raised platform, her lacy, white train rearranged at intervals by a team of ladies dedicated to her appearance, while the rest of the all-female audience, coated in jewels and the most immaculate make up and gowns, gazes in appreciation. While a romantic, orchestral theme booms around the room, it takes this beautiful bride about 15 minutes to reach a dias where she elegantly seats herself on an ornate banquette. We join the queue to have our photograph taken with her. Her impeccably groomed close friends join her first, taking selfies on their phones although sharing them is forbidden in case men see them unveiled.  This was my first experience of an Emirati wedding and invited by one of the first members of our Fooderati Arabia group of UAE food bloggers. I was wide-eyed as I sat at one of well-over a hundred round tables bedecked with magnificent floral decorations. The guests all looked as though they had spent a whole day in the salon with immaculate hair, make-up, eyebrows, nails and stunning gowns. A lavish buffet, some dancing and then veils went on as a male delegation arrived including the bride’s father, the bridegroom and her father-in-law. More photos with the bride who donned a discreet lacy white veil. An evening I will never forget.

A feast over fire I can’t wait to tell you all about sitting under the stars in the desert eating a traditional Emirati feast cooked over an open fire by a German lady camel breeder…

Pushing my boundaries

Moonwater and Terrasol Yoga I’ve tried several yoga classes but they were either too boring or too fast (like yoga aerobics… all those sun salutations!). Cate’s wonderful sessions of Vinyasa flow yoga are challenging but so rewarding. I not only feel fitter, stronger and more flexible but my energy levels and breathing has improved (I’m mildly asthmatic), my concentration and focus is better and it helps with mindfulness – which I’m trying to practice after reading Ruby Wax’s Sane New World. The icing on the cake is that while practising in a candle-lit room you can glimpse the Burj Al Arab’s lit-up antics through the window.  Highly recommended – join her at the Surf House – more info here.

Dubai Eye Feeling the fear and doing it anyway – why do you think I’m a blogger hiding behind my screen?! Actually managed to take a deep breath and enjoy being on the Travel Show on Dubai Eye. Thanks to Mark Lloyd and Lucy Taylor for making me feel at ease while reliving the delights of Georgia and British Food Festivals. Listen here…

Celebrity culture

Cle Probably the most anticipated restaurant opening of the year, headed up by Greg Malouf. Having tasted his food before, I was eager to go. The black interior (more like a nightclub) and celebrity presence (Kloe Kardashian, Paris Hilton, Hrithik Roshan, Irina Shayk, Alessandra Ambrosio and Akon) overshadowed the food which had some glitches (hard to avoid with a brand new operation and for this number of people). High points included an amazing salad, Dom Pérignon all night and lovely Greg who, unlike the crowd, is low-key, gentle and kind. With a terrace overlooking DIFC, and some weeks to iron out the kinks, now is the time to visit.*

Nobu The chance to taste dishes from Nobu chefs around the world all in the Asateer tent at Atlantis was too good an opportunity to miss. Nobu himself obliged with poses to camera – he seems quiet but I think he enjoys the limelight. The yuzu martinis were actually the stand out taste for me – perhaps this sort of subtle, carefully created food needs a calmer environment (like Nobu’s garden). I spoke to Millie Mackintosh at the request of elder teen and she seemed very nice. Thoroughly enjoyable evening with good friends.*

Real culture

Majlis Gallery When the Majlis Gallery asked me to host one of the forty artists descending on Dubai for their 25th anniversary celebrations I was happy to say yes. June Bartlett was that artist, both talented and charming, and strolling around the beautiful space of the gallery and chatting to so many amazingly creative (and often rather eccentric and humourous) people was completely energizing. I bought a Khaled Al Saai calligraphy which will hang on my wall close to a beautiful drawing of Oman from June. It’s the first place I recommend to visitors but residents often forget about this treasure of a place.

International Writers Centre Further along the creek, all sorts of exciting cultural things are happening. The neglected Shingdaga area is having a restorative shot in the arm and the Dubai International Writers Centre is just one project. A beautiful evening with traditional Emirati cooking, a film, some speeches and poetry readings including one by Ben Okri – all in an open air space amid traditional buildings.

Al Serkal Avenue “Come and see Tony’s chair” was the subject of a friend’s email, inviting me to visit a piece of furniture her husband had designed. I’m so glad she did as the open day at this collection of art galleries and studios within the warehouse district of Al Quoz was enervating and very cool. There was a small collection of street food vendors too. And the good news is it is doubling in size (opening in 2015).

Book club I need to give a shout out to my fantastic book club – a wonderful group of ten ladies of four different decades in age and seven nationalities. Since September we’ve discussed Tanamera by Noel Barber (a vivid account of war-time in Singapore although I had issues with the author’s portrayal of women), The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty (a page-turner with not much depth), A girl is a half-formed thing by Eimear McBride (challenging, Joyce-like and harrowingly depressing). We threw a baby shower orchestrated by the American member of our group – believe me, the baby bottle drinking and nappy (diaper) games were an eye opener.

You couldn’t make this up

“Please come and meet the man with the world’s most expensive tongue – at the only 7 star hotel in the world”. So I sat in the ballroom of the Burj Al Arab and met Costa’s Master of Coffee, Gennaro Pelliccia. Gennaro had worked his way up through the ranks of Costa Coffee (which started as a small business run by the Costa family in the same area of London) from a temporary job while at University to chief taster. He talked us through the art of cupping which is used to taste every batch of coffee beans that arrive at Costa for quality control. Gennaro’s tastebuds are honed to detect potential faults and his decision could lead to a batch being rejected. We all had a go at cupping and a few people were guided through the process of making a cup of coffee – much harder than it looks. Gennaro had been a gentle speaker, very modest, gentlemanly and with a slight reserve. I assumed that he’d be a super-taster (a genetic predisposition to having a heightened sense of taste which affects about 15% of men and 35% of women) but he said not. His tasting ability was learned from constant practice. Out of all the journalists and media in the room who was the person to request that he pose with his tongue out? Ahem, some food blogger. There was a media storm as Gennaro transformed into the coffee-tasting equivalent of the lead singer of KISS with a bean on his tongue.

Changing seasons

As the ‘Autumn’ comes to a close, wonderful Dubai winter temperatures have finally arrived and with them, the first abundant harvest of local vegetables. The first of the new season of the Farmers’ Market was truly a joy and I returned with my bags full to KP’s eye rolling (which is interpreted as ‘how on earth are we going to eat all that veg?’). Ten farms have stalls this season including one that’s reaping its first crops, called Organic Oasis, and run by the first female farmer owner at the market, Shaikha. It was fantastic to meet her (we had a big chat about parsnips). Astraea produces beautiful olive oil from their family olive grove on a Greek island called Samothrace. Anastasia, the owner of the grove was at the market this week to help Costa her son who lives in the UAE. She brought along some dried wild herbs from the island which had been gathered by a woman’s cooperative. Baker and Spice treated a group of bloggers (including me) to a market breakfast showcasing the menu that comes off the grill. My favourite is the English muffin made with spinach, stuffed with wilted spinach (from the farmers) and a fried egg. This is my kind of food shopping.

Food E Mag I almost forgot to mention this fantastic online food magazine created by some Fooderati Arabia chums. Proud to announce that I’m the ‘food sourcing’ contributor. December issue out soon but in the meantime please browse Autumn…

With beautiful temperatures, a few clouds in the sky and a hint of some rain, and months of outdoor living ahead, Dubai is a marvellous place to be right now. A good time to wish everyone in the United Arab Emirates a very happy 43rd National Day.

Burj Al Arab National day fireworks

Walked down to the beach last night to watch National Day fireworks

 

*I was an invited guest to events marked with a star – but with no obligation to write anything and all opinions are my own.

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