It is that time of the year — if you get busy with some cooking and baking, you can save yourself a lot of time when Christmas arrives, and that is always faster than you think.

You can bake beautiful treats, such as these frangipane mince pies, that make lovely gifts if you are out visiting. This is a good pastry recipe — the mince pies can be made ahead and frozen; I really think it is worth the effort. Siobhan Lawless at The Foods of Athenry makes very good mincemeat. Instead of brandy butter you could serve the pies with custard or ice cream.

The key to a good Christmas cake is to get the best fruit you can and to make it as early as possible to allow the flavours to mature. Feed with a tablespoon of whiskey every few days. You can store it in an airtight container wrapped in parchment paper and tinfoil.

Meanwhile, this yule log is a good alternative to Christmas cake and is a very tasty dessert with coffee. Known as a bûche de Noël, it is a traditional dessert at Christmas time in France and many other European countries. This recipe also happens to be gluten-free if you use gluten-free chocolate.

Happy Cooking,


MacNean Frangipane Mince Pies with Brandy Butter

Makes 18

For the brandy butter:

150g (5oz) icing sugar, sifted

100g (4oz) butter, softened

3 tbsp brandy

For the pastry:

175g (6oz) plain flour, plus extra

for dusting

100g (4oz) cold butter, diced

50g (2oz) caster sugar

1 egg yolk, plus beaten egg to glaze

½ tbsp cream

½ tsp lemon juice

For the frangipane:

100g (4oz) butter

100g (4oz) caster sugar

2 large eggs

100g (4oz) ground almonds

1 tbsp plain flour

1 tbsp dark rum

1 vanilla pod, split in half lengthways and seeds scraped out

For the filling and topping:

1 x 400g (14oz) jar of mincemeat

25g (1oz) flaked almonds

apricot jam, to glaze

icing sugar, for dusting

1 To make the brandy butter, cream together the icing sugar and butter. Beat in one tablespoon of boiling water and the brandy until smooth. Put in a dish, cover and chill until needed.

2 To make the pastry, put the flour, butter and caster sugar in a food processor and blend for 20 seconds. Add the egg yolk, cream and lemon juice and blend just until the pastry comes together. Wrap in cling film and chill for one hour.

3 Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F/gas mark 6).

4 To make the frangipane, put the butter and caster sugar in a large bowl. Using a hand-held mixer, beat until soft and creamy. Scrape down the sides, then add the eggs and continue to beat. Add the ground almonds, flour, rum and vanilla seeds and mix briefly.

5 Roll the pastry out thinly on a lightly floured work surface and cut into 18 x 6.5cm (2½in) circles. Use these to line the bun tins. Spoon a teaspoon of mincemeat into each tartlet and top with the frangipane. There is no need to spread the mixture flat, as it will level out in the oven (but don’t overfill the tins). Sprinkle a few flaked almonds on top of each one. Bake in the oven for 15–17 minutes, until cooked through and light golden, watching carefully. Remove the mince pies from the tins and allow to cool a little on a wire rack.

6 Dilute the apricot jam with a little water and bring to the boil, then brush the top of each warm tartlet with this glaze. These are best served warm with a light dusting of icing sugar.

Christmas Cake

Makes one 20cm (8in) cake

225g (8oz) plain flour

500g (18oz) dried fruits, such as sultanas, raisins, currants, mixed peel and

ready-to-eat dried apricots or prunes

Finely grated rind and juice of 1 lemon

175g (6oz) butter, softened,

plus extra for greasing

175g (6oz) light brown sugar

4 eggs, beaten

1 tsp ground cinnamon

½ tsp freshly grated nutmeg

100g (4oz) toasted flaked almonds

1 x 250g (9oz) packet of golden marzipan

2–4 tbsp whiskey or brandy

450g (1lb) ready-to-roll fondant icing

Cornflour, for dusting

1 Preheat the oven to 160°C (325°F/gas mark 3). Line the base and sides of a 20cm (8in) loose-bottomed cake tin with nonstick baking paper.

2 Sift the flour into a bowl and set aside. Chop up the dried fruit so that everything is the same size and nothing is too large. Toss with the lemon rind and juice and set aside.

3 Cream the butter and sugar together in a food mixer (or with a hand-held whisk) until pale and creamy. Add the eggs bit by bit with a little of the flour each time, beating after each addition. Add the remaining flour with the spices and fold through to combine. Add the dried fruit and lemon mixture with the flaked almonds, stirring well to combine. Finally, cut half of the marzipan into small cubes and gently fold it into the batter.

4 Using a spatula, transfer the batter to the prepared tin and smooth down the top. Bake in the oven for about two hours, until a skewer comes out clean when inserted into the centre.

5 Leave to cool in the tin, then carefully remove and place on a flat plate. Prick the surface with a fine skewer and spoon over the whiskey or brandy. Leave for one hour to allow the alcohol to soak in.

6 When completely cold, wrap in greaseproof paper and overwrap in foil. Leave in a cool, dry place to mature for at least two weeks or up to two months before applying the icing.

7 About a week before the cake is required, cover the top with the remaining marzipan. Roll out the ready-to-roll icing on a clean work surface dusted with cornflour to a circle slightly larger than the top of the cake. Position on top of the marzipan, then smooth and neaten the edges.

8 Secure a strip of foil around the exposed sides of the cake. Put the cake on a serving plate or cake stand and decorate with ribbons around the edge, if liked. Serve straight to the table.

Yule Log

Serves 8-10

Butter, for greasing

100g (4oz) plain chocolate (at least 70% cocoa solids), broken into squares

4 large eggs, separated

100g (4oz) caster sugar, plus extra

for dusting

For the icing:

225g (8oz) butter, softened

200g (7oz) icing sugar, sifted,

plus extra to decorate

2 tbsp good-quality cocoa powder, sifted

1 tbsp vanilla extract

1 Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F/gas mark 5). Butter a 33cm x 23cm (13in x 9in) Swiss roll tin, line with non-stick baking paper and butter the paper.

2 Melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water, making sure the water doesn’t touch the bottom of the bowl.

3 Whisk the egg yolks with the caster sugar until very thick and pale in colour. Beat in the egg whites until stiff, then fold into the melted chocolate. Transfer into the prepared tin and spread out evenly. Bake in the oven for 20–25 minutes, until risen and firm to the touch.

4 Turn the sponge out onto a sheet of greaseproof paper generously sprinkled with caster sugar. Carefully peel off the lining paper. Cover the roulade with a warm damp tea towel and leave to cool.

5 To make the icing, use an electric hand-held mixer to whisk the butter and icing sugar in a large bowl until light and fluffy. Add the cocoa powder and vanilla and whisk until you have a smooth icing. Spread one-third of the icing over the cold roulade. Using the paper to help, roll up the roulade to enclose the filling.

6 Put the filled roulade on a long plate or board and trim down the edges at an angle, then use these pieces to make a ‘branch’ coming off to the side. Spread the yule log with the rest of the icing, covering the whole thing completely so that it looks like a big log with a branch coming off the side. Using a skewer, create a wood-like texture on the icing.

7 To serve, transfer the roulade onto a serving plate and dust generously with icing sugar, then cut into slices.

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