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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

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.

What to eat and drink at the Dubai Rugby 7s

November 27, 2014

What to eat and drink at the Dubai Rugby 7s - Dubai Rugby 7s is one of the biggest weekends in the calendar, especially popular among expats. I remember first visiting in 1995 when you could stroll along the open sided main pitch and find your place in the sparsely filled stands. The side pitches were all sand and the teams mainly local and from around the region. These days it’s a huge event with international teams as well as local, women’s tournaments and school teams battling it out. It used to be all about the rugby, the dressing up and the drinking. Food was an afterthought with huge queues for a cheap burger or greasy fish and chips – except for in corporate hospitality where everything is a bit too fancy (although we’d sneak in for the shawarma stand). Now, thank heavens, food has improved a lot even in the cheap seats – OK it’s not Masterchef but there are some reasonable choices and even healthier nosh. I did a good trawl round of the eating and drinking options last time and have snaffled a sneak peek of what’s coming up this year. Whoever is the ultimate tournament winner, 2014 looks like the best yet for grub.

Raise a fork for pork

Sharing the most exciting news first. Regular readers will know the pleasure I derive from eating a sausage in the street when I’m in the UK so ‘The Big Breakfast’, a stand dedicated to pork, is music to my ears. Fancy Irish smoked back bacon, griddled to perfection in a soft white bap? Or ‘The Full Monty’ where said bap contains Irish bacon, British banger and black pudding? They even have a ‘hog burger’ in a Welsh soda roll. Race you there?

Hot for dogs

If your tastes for meat in a bun are more US-driven there are many options. There will be American Hot Dog carts serving Classic American Hotdogs (their capitalisation not mine) with onions, mustard and ketchup. Plus within Bidi Bondi there’s a Champions Hot Dog Menu which offer a South Pacific Island Dog (topped with mango and pineapple slaw), a North American Dog (with onions, mustard, pickles and tomato sauce), a South American Dog (with chimichurri and beef chorizo salsa) and a French Dog (caramelized onions, wholegrain mustard aioli and Gruyère cheese).  As outside the pork zone the dogs are made of chicken. However, I could be converted.

What to eat and drink at the Dubai Rugby 7s -

Fish finger sandwich from Giraffe – 2013

What to eat and drink at the Dubai Rugby 7s -

Giraffe in 2013

Family food

The Rugby 7s is now massively popular with families, with a special stand dedicated to children-friendly, non-drinking fun. No need to resort to the usual junk food offering with Giraffe around – they even have salad on the menu!

This is the kind of thing you can expect: Pasta Margherita (Roasted cherry tomatoes, mozzarella, basil and rocket), Giraffe Deluxe Veggie Burger (broad beans, peas, potato and spinach), Popcorn chicken (chicken fillet bites with skin on fries), Fish Finger Burger (breaded haddock goujons, with tartare sauce, tomato and lettuce in a soft white bap), Tunisian Feta Salad (marinated feta‎, quinoa, green beans, red pepper, cumin roasted squash with mixed leaves and Salsa Verde) and Thai Green Chicken Curry (with roasted butternut squash, green beans, and fragrant rice). I like that they offer two sizes of many dishes so you can cater for little tummies without waste (and at lower cost).

Bidi Bondi has more on the menu than just hot dogs too.

What to eat and drink at the Dubai Rugby 7s -

Left Bank Burgers in 2013

Fast food favourites

Burgers and fish and chips still have a place at the festival. Left Bank, the popular casual eatery and bar at the Madinat, is flipping and frying again this year.

At the Left Bank Fish and Chip Shop, the fish is hand-battered pollack from New Zealand served with chunky chip shop chips (thankfully not fries). Curry sauce and gravy are optional extras.

There’s a choice of three at the Left Bank burger joint. The Cheeseburger is made of New Zealand Angel Bay beef, the chicken burger also comes with cheese, onions and tomatoes and the Veggie Burger is ‘a rustic mix of broad beans, peas, potato and spinach, seasoned with aromatic spices.’ Veggie teen will be delighted.

If you fancy a pie you can get one from the Pie Face Cart.

N_K_D Pizza

Yes, they self-censored when they came to the U.A.E. The chain with the whizzy green bikes and pro-biotic, 10 grain crust is back at the 7s again. Their opening was possibly the first blogger event I was ever invited to!

Other grub

If you manage to snaffle a ticket in hospitality a range of catering awaits you depending on which section you are in.

If you fancy a sandwich see Costa info below…

Soft drinks

All the food stands sell the usual sodas and water. They are harder to obtain at the booze outlet. Do make sure you drink enough water throughout the day as dehydration and sunstroke is not pretty.

Costa Coffee is on hand for your caffeine fix with four main locations and a Costa Ice station. They will also serve fresh food including a festive turkey, cranberry and stuffing sandwich.


My favourite hang out is at the MMI Wine Bar which overlooks pitch 2. Don’t expect fine wine tasting just quaffable wines from Australia which are not overpriced (for a Dubai event). A bottle of Aussie Sauvignon Blanc is AED 120, with the wines on offer predominantly by de Bortoli Wines (from cool climate, Yarra Valley, close to Melbourne). There was a nice rosé that which I sipped as the sun went down last year…

As always there are very popular Heineken bars (which turns into a packed, noisy and very funny party as the night goes on) and Strongbow Cider Garden area.  If you can’t be bothered to go to a bar (or leave your place in the stand) there are mobile Heineken men to pour you a drink from the tank on their backs.

What to eat and drink at the Dubai Rugby 7s -

The view from the BP stand before the final


Other things to know

  • As always, cash should be exchanged for drink tokens on arrival. If you don’t spend them all there is a range of places to spend them after the event including Al Hamra Cellar in Ras Al Khaimah.
  • Fibber Magees is does back of house catering – worth knowing if you are an international player, social player, ref or ball kid!
  • You’ll be able to check out the menus, location, leave pictures and reviews on – I’ll post the link when it’s live.
  • Dress up – or at least have your camera ready – the costumes get wilder every year.

I’m not saying that the Dubai Rugby 7s is a gourmet paradise but the food is definitely moving in the right direction and catering to a broader family audience. What would make it better? A street food village would be awesome with a few more Asian flavours on the menu – where is the curry? Push the boat out more with the classics – I’m thinking about the amazing pickled eggs served by Brisket Belle for instance, wouldn’t they be great with the fish and chips… and some really good herby, fresh, tartare sauce plus some calamari on the menu?  I’m sure there is a market for cocktails at the rugby too.  However, the quality has improved, the choice is better, the huge queues are a thing of the past.

What to eat and drink at the Rugby 7s -

See you at the Rugby 7s? I won’t be the one dressed as a prawn!


How to bake your Christmas cake – take it slow

November 25, 2014

Christmas cake baking - mycustardpie.comImmersing dried fruit in booze so it all plumps up, giving the juicy, sticky mixture a swirl now and again, weighing the ingredients, creaming the butter and sugar, stirring it all up with a wooden spoon in my huge Mason Cash bowl, wearing my favourite pinny and pretending to be a domestic goddess (or even the domestic goddess!). All this I love. But there’s one bit of the Christmas cake making I’m not so enamoured with – in fact positively dread. It’s the baking.

Lining the tin is a faff but I’m fine with that. It’s the other stuff that bothers me. Wrapping some layers of newspaper round the sides with brown string so the tin doesn’t scorch the outside (or buying those expensive cake tin insulators you’ll only use once a year). The inevitable rise and crack of the top and those blackened raisins. Watching it like a hawk so it’s perfectly cooked through. Trying to balance a piece of paper on top to stop it over-browning when the fan blows it away. It’s all nerve-wracking stuff.

The answer is to bake it at a lower temperature and longer time. No need to wrap the outside, the cake stays level and a nice even colour all over. If your oven has a range of internal temperatures (mine does) it won’t make a huge difference. I’ve tried it and it works perfectly. OK there was one hitch – we had to get the taxi to double back as I’d forgotten to take it out of the oven when we went out for the evening. Luckily it was so good-tempered that there was no harm done. Thank you to Ruth Clemens of The Pink Whisk for this tip. In fact I used her quantities for my cake too.

This recipe assumes you’ve been lovingly soaking your fruit in booze for weeks by making Christmas Old Soak. You could do it for a week and then make the cake – you might have to heat the fruit to evaporate any excess liquid first. Or you could make a different recipe and feed religiously (Tamasin Day Lewis from All You Can Eat is a good one and this ‘Make and Mature’ recipe looks good too).

Christmas cake baking -

Christmas cake (inspired by the Bourke Street Bakery and Ruth Clemens)

  • Servings: 1 x 15cm cake and 3 x 6cm cakes
  • Difficulty: moderate
  • Print


  • 225g butter, softened plus extra for greasing
  • 150g soft, light brown sugar
  • 70g soft, dark brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons of black treacle or molasses
  • 2 teaspoons raw honey
  • 1 heaped teaspoon marmalade
  • 5 eggs, large and free range
  • 285g plain flour, sifted
  • 2 teaspoons mixed spice
  • 50g ground almonds
  • 1 quantity of Christmas old soak

You will also need some of your chosen booze to feed the cake after it is baked. I used Jack Daniels Single Barrel for the soak so I’m using it for feeding too. Ruth reckons you’ll need about 150ml but I’m less measured about it and go by eye.


  1. Preheat the oven to 130 C or 110 C fan oven. Arrange your oven shelf so it is towards the lower part of the oven ( about 1/3rd of the way up from the base).
  2. Grease your tin with butter and line the base and sides with greaseproof paper or baking parchment.
  3. Using a stand mixer or a wooden spoon and bowl, cream the softened butter and both types of sugar together until the mixture is light (in colour) and fluffy. Beat in the treacle or molasses, raw honey and marmalade.
  4. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well between each addition. My mixture always curdles so I add half a tablespoon of flour before the first egg and in between each additional egg.
  5. Fold in the sifted flour, mixed spice and ground almonds.
  6. Add the Christmas old soak fruit and stir well to combine making sure no pockets of flour remain.
  7. Spoon the cake mixture into your tin (or tins) using a spatula to remove every last morsel from the bowl and to level the top. I used a 15 cm round tin this year and also filled 3 giant muffin cups (approx. 6cm each) for mini cakes. The large tin must be at least 7cm deep. Ruth has a handy guide if you want to use a different sized tin.
  8. Put all the cakes into the oven. Remove the small cakes after 1 hour, testing that they are done by inserting a skewer or toothpick into the centre. This should come out clean or with a few crumbs attached. Remove the large cake after 3 hours (start checking half an hour before).
  9. Remove the cake from the oven, put on a cooling rack and allow to cool completely in the tin.
  10. Once the cake has cooled, remove it from the tin. Place the cake on a large piece of baking parchment or greaseproof paper and use a bamboo or metal skewer to make lots of holes all over the surface of the cake without piercing through the base.  Feed the cake with 1-2 teaspoons of booze, dripping it carefully over the top of the cake.
  11. Wrap the paper over the cake (use two pieces at right angles if necessary) and so the same with a piece (or pieces) of foil. Put the wrapped cake in a tin or container with a lid that seals tight so nothing can find its way in (especially in Dubai) and leave in a cool place (not the fridge).
  12. Feed your cake 2-3 teaspoons of booze every 4 days until most of (or all) the alcohol is absorbed (don’t feed if the cake appears wet). Don’t feed the cake for the final week to give the surface a chance to dry before icing.
  13. You can decorate your cake up to a month ahead although mine is usually made during the last two weeks week.

Shall we decorate along together? I’ve got a few easy icing ideas up my sleeve. See you in a few weeks time.

P.S. If I’ve got you feeling festive, head over to Festive Food Friday on Taming Twins for all sorts of Christmassy ideas.

Tips for surviving Christmas – buying gifts (for expats in Dubai)

November 23, 2014

Christmas gift guide - mycustardpie.comHave you been to a party on Christmas eve, come home with a head dancing with Champagne and then had to stay up to do last-minute wrapping while everyone else is asleep?  I broke my own rules last year and found myself wrapping stocking presents after I’d vowed to never be in that position again.  Get organised and you can trip off to all the parties in December without a care in the world. Plus you’ll feel assured that friends and family near and far have all felt just a little bit special.

1. Christmas cards

I love receiving post from friends and family abroad. The best way to receive is to give and my Christmas card list has a core of friends I’d like to keep in touch with. The round Robin letter is abhorred by some but I rather like reading them – unless of the ‘thinly veiled boast ‘our children are so high achieving’ type. There are online options if you want to save a few trees. Get round the expensive postage by picking up a large amount of stamp books next time you are home. The ones in the UK say ‘1st class’ or ‘2nd class’ so leftovers will last indefinitely. Get your cards written early (I’m doing mine this weekend) and have them ready addressed and stamped then look out for friends traveling home. A quick call out on Facebook works wonders. If they have a stamp on them most people don’t mind shoving them in a letterbox at the airport.

Bonus tip: Postcode finder on Royal Mail

2. Stocking fillers

When DO your children stop wanting a stocking? Start really early with these as they are always the most time-consuming. Jolly’s in Bath is where I usually buy ones for the teens … in August. Overkill? Not at all. Inside Out in Tavistock yielded many treasures this year. Wrap them immediately and keep a list to know what you have bought.

Bonus tip: Inside Out delivers within the UK and EU

3. Hotel Chocolat

I’ve been using Hotel Chocolat for donkey’s years and every person that has received a box of their chocolates has been delighted. They do a ‘sleekster’ which fits through the letter box (not for people with dogs!) and have a handy reminder service so you can add people’s birthdays. You can add a personalised message and ordering is easy. The Champagne truffles are to die for. Elder teen, in her first term at University, was thrilled with one of their Advent calendars.

4. The Secret Adventures of Rolo

Anyone can order a book from Amazon but how about a signed copy direct from the author? My dear friend Debi Evans writes and self-publishes hugely popular fantasy adventure stories about Rolo the dog with historical themes interwoven. They are aimed predominantly at 7-11 year olds but adults with a sense of humour, particularly dog lovers, enjoy them too. The charming illustrations are by Chantal Bourgonje. Signed and dedicated books can be ordered via Debi’s website and posted within UK for £8.50 each (including postage).

5. Book a course

When KP booked me on a fish course I was sceptical; but I loved it. Here are a few on my wish list:

Manna from Devon – I’d love to do another of their courses down in beautiful Dartmouth in Devon. With 39 different course there’s a lot to choose from including cooking in a wood-fired oven and classes for teens. And how about ‘world of curry’?

Virtuous Bread – “Give someone a voucher for a bread class and they will bake bread for you forever after that” so says Jane Mason who runs also empowers people in prison by teaching them bread baking skills .  Their vouchers are available to buy and redeem on line and they have trainers are all over the UK.

River Cottage – Personally, I’d love to do sour dough or ‘pig in a day’ at this cookery school based in rural Dorset.

6. Calendars and photo books

Older people often don’t really want any more possessions but adore looking at pictures of their family. If I don’t make one of these for certain people each year I get complaints. I’ve used Boots and Kodak online with success. Someone is now doing it in the UAE too but I haven’t tried them out.

7. Edible presents

If you are thinking of making edible gifts, now’s the time to start – nearer the day you may not have time and some things improve with age. Preserved lemons need at least one month to mature. Lemon or other fruit curds are universally loved and so is gingerbread. Homemade vanilla essence or wine vinegar are simple to make. Wash and save nice jars with lids for pickles and preserves. Scour Daiso for interesting vessels.

Bonus tip: Jones the Grocer in Dubai has an edible foodie gift making class on 25th November

8. Artistic

With town centres and shopping malls selling identikit items wherever you are in the world, something handmade and individual is so thoughtful and unique as a present”

Majlis market – the lovely Majlis Gallery has its Christmas market on Saturday 29th November and at the same time launches a beautiful new exhibition by Louis Jansen Van Vuuren. The gallery, situated in a beautiful traditional house in the Al Fahidi heritage district, celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. Read about a previous visit to the Christmas market here.

Arte is packed full of home-made items and quirky gifts by artists and crafters. I’ve bought sock monkeys, knitted jewellery and lovely fudge from Toffee Princess among other things. Find them at the Arabian Centre, Dubai on 20th. December. More details here.

Art House – you may drive past on the Al Wasl road and think that it’s just for picture framing. Stop and go inside – I’ve bought some of the nicest presents there in the past from money boxes in the shape of wind towers to beautiful jewellery and cards. The best place to get things framed too.

Bonus tip: The popular Jess Night Market is on November 28th

9. For dog lovers

Higher end of the budget but imagine their faces when you present a replica of their dog that’s this cute! They do gift vouchers too.

10. Spa pampering

SENSASIA_XMAS GIFT VOUCHERThis may be obvious but is there anyone who doesn’t like a spa voucher? Hint, hint!

My favourite SensAsia has some great ideas on their website offering ‘steal’ and ‘splurge’ ideas depending on budget. How about a ‘Cinnamon spice and all things nice’ body polish so you smell like Christmas? Still the best place for a hot stone massage in Dubai IMO.

Top for luxurious pampering is the Amara Spa at the Park Hyatt – each treatment room has its own tiny garden and shower amid the foliage. Gift certificates and packages available.

The treat of an indulgent Hammam treatment is also immensely appealing – a list of some hammams in Dubai I’d like to try here.

Bonus tip: If you act quickly, SensAsia’s Early Bird Christmas Gift Voucher Sale in on until today – Sunday November 23, offering 20% OFF every purchase.

11. VAT-free Christmas fashion

If things are sent to Dubai from the UK you don’t have to pay the 20% Value Added Tax. This is particularly brilliant when you order from Boden as there is a flat delivery fee of £12. What you save on the VAT more than covers the postage. If you subscribe by email they are always having discount offers too. No brainer for that Christmas outfit and gifts for him.

unravelling the souk

12. Christmas spice

My friend Arva has done it again. Not only did she come up with the idea of down-to-earth foodie tours of old Dubai (a Frying Pan adventure would make a great gift or office night out) but her guide to all the spices in the Spice Souk is encyclopedic. I am ordering ‘Unraveling the Souk” for so many people this Christmas.

Finally, don’t forget to have some little gifts bought and wrapped for last-minute, unexpected guests and occasions. January sales are very good for picking up nice items for gifting – but hey, I’m now planning ahead for next year and we’ve still got this Christmas to go.Tips for surviving Christmas - mycustardpie

Do you have any favourite ideas to add to this list? Go-to websites? Handy tips?

My kind of shopping – organic, local farmers market in Dubai

November 21, 2014

Farmers Market Dubai - mycustardpie.comA week today I’ll be setting my alarm, checking my purse for change, jumping in the car with my jute bags, and driving down the deserted Sheikh Zayed Road. I know this route so well; I’ve followed it for countless Friday mornings only to take a break during the fallow summer season. I’ll turn right into Emirates Towers rear entrance and right into ballroom parking which will already be dotted with farmers’ vans. Ibrahim from The Farmhouse will wave as he crushes fresh pomegranates in an old-fashioned press for juice. The aroma of freshly baked bread mingled with the scent of herbs, spices from Down to Earth Organic and Ethiopian coffee beans will welcome me. A flat white will appear without asking from the Coffee Planet stall – they know my order.

The palm trees create dappled shade over the stalls and I’ll scan the tables, greeting each farmer as they proudly display the organic bounty from their fields. My brain is whirring as I visualise what I’ll cook throughout the coming week. At the start of the season they’ll be round squash in vivid yellow and stripy green – perfect for stuffing – green peppers, perfect shiny aubergines, crisp cucumbers, courgettes, sweetcorn wrapped in their husks, okra, radishes, kale, beetroot, green beans, chillies, pumpkin, coriander, mint, fenugreek and more. I try to share my purchases between the farmers and buy my free range eggs from a different one each week.

Shopping in season means that some things are missing but eagerly anticipated. Tomatoes when they ripen will be so much the sweeter for the wait. Bulging bags stacked in the car, I’ll return to sample something from the chef’s demo – the first week will be Chef Gabi Kurtz from Talise Nutrition who will transform produce from the market into healthy dishes. I may join the yoga or Thai Chi that’s starting up too, run by the Talise Wellness people.

A market breakfast from Baker and Spice is essential and I’ll sit at the recycled wooden benches with a runny egg dripping out of my chicken sausage roll – there is no way to eat this delicately.

Reading this back for editing, it sounds too glowing, too gushing. I just can’t help it. The market, where I buy direct from the people who grow my food, has transformed the way I shop and cook (and our household food bill reduces dramatically). The produce is so fresh that it easily lasts the week. Amazing raw Yemeni honey, beautiful olive oil from Astraea, and organic pantry items from Down to Earth means that I only have to shop elsewhere for meat, dairy and a bit of fruit.

I’m sitting here in blissful anticipation with a huge smile on my face. I was lucky enough to meet some of the farmers this week and take home a bag of produce. It’s a taste of things to come.

This is the sixth season of this wonderful market. I was there from the beginning for the first farmers’ market in Dubai and it’s a jewel in any terms that the city should be proud of. It’s sparked a whole movement so we have a range of choices now which back then seem impossible and unfeasible. There is only one farmers’ market though – and that’s where you’ll find me on Friday 28th November at 8am and every Friday until around the end of May.

Stuffed round squash (or courgettes) recipe

To stuff 13 squash I used 800g minced lamb, 340g short grain rice, a large bunch of fresh coriander leaves, a small bunch of fresh mint leaves, 3 cloves of garlic finely minced, 4 tablespoons of tomato puree and about 4 level tablespoons of Emirati B’zar spice mix (a type of local garam masala). The sauce used 4 cloves of whole garlic, 4 tablespoons tomato puree, 2 tins chopped tomatoes and water to come half-way up the sides of the squash. Season well. Cook the stuffed squash in the sauce for 45 minutes.  Full recipe for stuffed courgettes here.

The Farmers’ Market on the Terrace

Where: Jumeirah Emirates Towers, Ballroom parking (plentiful, adjacent and free)

When: 8am – 12 noon. New season starts 28th November 2014 and runs until end of May.

About: A market for cooks and food lovers. Ten organic farm stalls (manned by farmers); Baker & Spice;
The Farm house; Slow food Dubai (including a plant swap); Coffee Planet; Balqees Raw Yemeni Honey; Boon Coffee and Sweet Connection (the gluten-free kitchen). Healthy cooking demos by chefs. Yoga and Thai Chi. Keep in touch by Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

Other organic, local market options in Dubai:

Blue Planet, Green People

Where: Jumeirah Lakes Towers (plus one in Al Ain)

When: 10am – 1pm every Friday (JLT Park) and Saturday (Cluster U)

About: A good option for fresh, local organic veg if you especially if you live in JLT. Buy direct from farmers.

Greenheart Pop Up Market

Where: Comptoir 101, Jumeirah Beach Road

When: 11am and 1pm every Saturday (from 22nd November 2014)

About: Organic, local produce from Greenheart’s farm managed by Elena Kinane plus organic Lebanese fruit.

Ripe Food and Craft Markets

Where: Zaabeel Park (plus others in Sharjah and Abu Dhabi)

When: 9am – 2pm every Friday

About: Organic imported and local veg sold (and imported fruit) by Ripe is part of a bigger market with many food and craft stalls.

Let me know if I’ve missed any…

Weekly veg photo

The other thing I’ll be returning to next week is unpacking my haul onto some sacking and photographing it before putting it all away (see examples above). It’s part of my ritual. I usually share on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter but I’m thinking of including it as a short, weekly post on My Custard Pie. What do you think? Would you like to see my purchases and a few thoughts about what I’m going to do with it? Would love your comments…

Disclosure: This has been bothering me so I thought I ought to mention that I now do some (paid) work for Baker and Spice who are the market organisers. However I was a patron of the market long before I knew them, I visit the market and pay for my produce like every other shopper, my blog is an independent space for my thoughts, unconnected with my professional work and in fact they will only know about this post when I publish it. No one but me dictates my editorial calendar and content.  All opinions most definitely my own.

Do Ahead Christmas by James Ramsden: cookbook review

November 20, 2014

Do-ahead Christmas cookbook review - mycustardpieEver recognised yourself in a book?

instead of being in the stereotypical panicked and mucky-aproned host when your friends arrive clutching bottles, you are in a state of complete control and composure.

It was the latter part of this promise (and frequently being the person described in the former) that motivated me to buy James Ramsden’s first book Do-ahead Dinners. James is an unassuming looking young man with a homely face who looks like he’d be comfortable wearing a Christmas jumper all year round. Homely is apposite as he regularly invites hordes of people into his own dwelling and cooks supper for them. This persuaded me that he might have some wisdom to impart when cooking for numbers. There’s no patented secret; it’s all about getting as much done ahead as possible. I road-tested a few dishes and the results were excellent (especially the chicken Plov and zaatar carrots) so was eager to get my hands on Do-ahead Christmas when I got wind of its release.

Getting as much done ahead for Christmas makes sense. There is a pressure of the ‘best-ever’ food that people look forward to year after year, and James acknowledges this. For me though, there is nothing so off-putting as the military lists of planning that may have you freezing the whole feast six weeks ahead and strangling the joy out of festive cooking. I do like to start early with little tasks such as fruit marination in booze for cake, pudding and mincemeat under my belt in October and November.

This book doesn’t hector. There is gentle advice among the pages and in the introduction James says he’s reticent to dictate. He does suggest five of menus for a range of occasions (including the big day itself); I would actually like more of these suggestions.

Layout and look

I adore the styling with old-fashioned block printed wrapping paper and traditional, unblingy decorations forming the frontispiece and chapter intros. It takes me straight back to my childhood when things were less sophisticated and very much about a homemade celebration. It’s beautifully produced and would make a great Christmas gift. The first chapter dives straight into drinks, which is exactly how it is at my Christmas gatherings, and while many of the ideas would suit cooler climates than where I live, tangerine whisky sour and apple, ginger and cranberry virgin cocktail recipes are already bookmarked.

Advice and content

Freezing is given as an option for many main courses but not all recipes freeze ahead. Each recipe is structured into stages. Do ahead (this can be days or hours and gives a minimum) which can be several tasks spread out with guidelines of when to do them and finishing off.  For instance the structure for preparing Gravlax on rye crispbread: up to one week ahead (min. 48 hours) make the gravlax; up to one week ahead (min. 4 hours) make the crispbread; up to a day ahead (min. 10 minutes) make the sour cream and horseradish dressing; to serve.  There is also advice about scaling up for a crowd overall in the introduction and on some individual recipes. A Christmas day time plan is included as you’d expect – it’s not the most exhaustive I’ve ever seen – and again James exhorts you to adapt it to your own menu.

Do-ahead Christmas cookbook review - mycustardpie

Recipes to make (or not)

Like all cookbooks, the appeal often rides on whether you share the same taste in food as the writer. James likes strong tastes and anchovies appear in four recipes. Dips and nuts all appear again with a different riff, but there is a more festive and luxurious slant to them. Coffee-roasted beetroot? Interesting…

The aforementioned gravlax on homemade crispbread is firmly on my Christmas planning list. Mini hassleback potatoes as a nibble for parties is a magnificent idea as are the cute little Christmas koftas (who can resist a meatball and these have creamy dip and festive red pomegranate seeds with green coriander leaves). Venison Wellington will be made if I can get my hands on some deer meat and the chocolate orange and hazelnut tart is currently vying for place with the Yule log recipe as the dried fruit haters alternative pudding. And thank you James – I was wondering whether you could actually roast sprouts!  Left overs make an appearance and there is a lovely chapter on edible gifts.

However, I can never, ever envisage that I would serve cauliflower soup as a starter for Christmas day (although KP’s request for egg and lemon soup might sound very odd to most people). I would never contemplate making a homemade Eccles cake at any time of the year, let alone eating it with cheese after a Christmas feast.

Quite a few of the recipes are not something I’d include on or around Christmas as they just don’t coincide with my own traditions – but this is quite refreshing. There are no chipolatas or bacon rolls. One thing I cannot forgive James for though. There isn’t a single mention of a parsnip. Seasonal sacrilege!

Staying on my shelf?

My current Christmas culinary inspiration is taken from among the pages of Nigella’s Christmas, the chapter from Annie Bell’s In My Kitchen, recipes from Tamasin Day Lewis’s All you can Eat and a pile of old BBC Good Food, Good Housekeeping and Delicious magazines. Do-ahead Christmas combines some really fresh ideas with a backbone of celebration and tradition and some very good practical advice (without being dull or patronising). James includes his email address and Twitter so you can ask him questions direct which shows an openess and lack of pretence that’s apparent in the whole tone and style of the book. This is a definite keeper.

Thanks to Pavilion who published this book and sent me a review copy. All views my own.

How do you cope with Christmas cooking and are there any ‘go-to’ recipes or books you turn to?



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