maandag 13 december 2010

Cider and cheese soup / Mulled cider

This is another double blog- perhaps it reflects my personality quite well- easily side-tracked?
I also had to laugh at this blog, there I was feeling a bit overindulged- and came up with a boozy, creamy soup and some mulled cider- is it the Nigella in me?! Well the two recipes do share a common denominator- CIDER.

If you didn't realise already I love good food and drink- but believe me too much of a good think can be bad. In fact it can be very bad leaving one very worse for wear- and we still have Christmas to look forward to! I have been guilty of overindulging, which has resulted in a (temporary) loss of inspiration and appetite.
Yesterday I didn't quite know what I fancied, and decided to eat absolutely nothing but a few Kettle Balsamic vinegar crisps. We don’t have the real salt n vinegar crisps here sob sob. But a person has to eat 'proper' food so after careful consideration I opted for soup- one I made at school to be exact, must be a sure case of hungering for comfort food. Cheese and cider soup.
The only problem was I didn't actually have a recipe. No worries- with Google everything is possible- isn't it?
I had suggested making this soup several times before, only to let hubby put a dampers on it. He just couldn't see it working- we are talking about a man that used to throw a wobbly at seeing pieces of pinapple on a pizza- what does he know! The sweet and savoury thing was absolute taboo- but gradually he is opening up to the idea. And in any case he wasn't here to talk me out of it this time- and if he is hungry he eats (nearly) anything.
But another reason for waiting so long to make this soup was that cider just wasn't available here in Holland. Sob sob. In fact I was quite excited to see in the shops. First Savanna Dry at the Sligro, Dutch food wholesaler. And then a little over a year ago, Jillz and Strongbow Gold on the shelves of my Albert Heijn supermarket. Thank you Heineken.
Strongbow Gold is slightly different to English cider- I can't quite put my finger on it (I do enjoy this kind of research mind). I checked out the labels and it seems that the English Strongbow contains artificial sweeteners while Strongbow Gold does not. English Strongbow is also a little more alcoholic 5.3% vol opposed to the Gold 5% vol.
Jillz is a fruity cider-beer alcoholic beverage that incidentally does not contain 'hops' (that give beer it's bitter taste) It's aim is obviously to tempt the female beer drinkers amongst us.

Back on track. My Google search was not very yielding so I would have to improvise. Hmm what do I remember of my vintage soup- that it contains cider, cheese, onions, potato and milk/ or cream. Did I really make this at school? Alcohol on school premises seems quite unlikely? Maybe my memory is failing me- everyone knows cider is alcoholic, don't they? Well actually NO- one of my best friends didn't realise and had a very good evening 'cider tasting' (but a very bad morning after) I mention no name.
If anyone has a recipe I would be so pleased to hear.
Here is what I came up with.

Cheese and cider soup:

2 onions, finely chopped
2 medium potatoes, finely diced
3 small cloves of garlic, finely chopped
oil for frying, olive or arachide (peanut) oil that I generally use these days
300gr vegetables (I used a packet of mixed vegetables- leek, carrot, celery leaf, cauliflower)
2 small celery sticks, finely diced
1 liter cider (I suppose you could use apple juice)
1 small carton 200ml cream (I used UHT)
1 tbsp ground coriander
1 tbsp ground cumin
pinch nutmeg
salt and pepper
stock cube (since we are using no liquid stock)
125gr cheddar cheese, grated
large knob of butter
little water

Fry the onions in the oil for a few minutes. Add potato and garlic and cook for several minutes.
Stir in the coriander, cumin, nutmeg. Add the vegetables, stir and add a little water (the potatoes will be sticking slightly.
Braise the vegetables until tender. Add the cider and a stock cube and heat until almost boiling point. DO NOT BOIL- the alcohol will evaporate!
Add cream, salt and pepper and puree if desired ( I usually opt for half as I like a bit of a bite) with an immersion blender.
Add cheese and a knob of butter and stir until melted increasing heat as necessary. Do not boil or this will toughen cheese.
Alternatively you could add cheese in individual soup dish.
I nearly added bread and cheese à la French onion soup style but quickly remembered my hubby detests French onion soup.
BTW he did enjoy his cider and cheese soup!

After last week’s mulled wine, and with cider on my mind (I think I am recovered) I decided to make some mulled cider or hot cider punch- whatever you care to call it.
My friend Breda made this for us at a Halloween gathering a couple of years ago and boy was it good! It warms the cockles of your heart and makes your whole house smell delicious.

This was roughly the recipe- she is, like me a cook that tweaks everything.

Mulled Cider

1 liter cider
sugar brown/ white or honey whatever you prefer, start with 3 - 4 tbsp.
2 Clementine’s, sliced
1 tsp all spice berries
1 piece cinnamon
pinch nutmeg
1 tsp cloves
100ml whisky (or spirit of your choice- rum, brandy)
marmalade, 1 tbsp approx (optional)

You could also use other ingredients like fresh ginger, star anise, even whole peppercorns!

In a large pan add everything except the whisky and heat, stir until the sugar has dissolved. When steam is rising turn it down. DO NOT BOIL.
Turn off heat and allow to 'mull' for a minimum of an hour so all the flavours of the spices can infuse in the liquid.
Reheat just before serving. Add whisky, Serve with a slice of orange.
For anyone living locally, Tucker Box, Leiden offers a wide selection of ciders and other drinks.

zaterdag 11 december 2010

A box of groceries

Yes it's that time of year again. Visualise four people crowding around and excitedly packing out a box of groceries. Hamper time has arrived!
Funny how all year round nobody shows interest in doing the weekly shopping- let alone helping to pack it out!
The recession is evident, if the faces around me are anything to go by- everyone is slightly less enthusiastic than normal.
So what goodies does the Albert Heijn Christmas hamper 2010 contain?
Well yes lots of fillers. There are plenty of snacks in stock that's for sure:
Savoury: crisps, savoury nibbles, tapenade (looks more like salsa) and nuts with caramalised red onion.
Sweet: chocolate-hazelnut cookies, meringue, Christmas shaped cookies and sweets, chocolate 'coffee beans'.
Drinks: Fair-trade tea- rooibos and spices, organic coffee (who still uses coffee these days? I thought everyone uses Senseo pads or Nespresso cups)
Amé, an elderberry and lemon soft drink.
Other items: A packet of soup, shower gel, body lotion.
A game similar to Jenga, with mini glasses instead of bricks. (Yes we couldn't resist to have a game)

Where have all the luxury items disappeared to? Mustn't sound ungrateful mind. Setting aside the fact that it is all free- there is a lot of work and effort gone into putting together these items. Someone has had to create an interesting box of groceries on a budget, someone else had to do all the packing.
We certainly enjoyed packing it out and I guess someone will enjoy eating it. Thank you Albert Heijn.
And now time for me to go away, have a good think about coming up with creative ways to get family members as enthusiastic about the weekly shopping…!

donderdag 9 december 2010

Getting into the festive spirit- Mulled Wine.

In The Netherlands the festive season begins when a rather tall gentleman enters the country, his name-
I know I'm a little late - (it's the story of my life) Sinterklaas is traditionally celebrated on 5th December, but none the less let me share with you my Sinterklaas evening and a delve a little into the background as to who/ what Sinterklaas is and exactly why he is so dear in the hearts of the Dutch. I won’t get into the history- google ‘St Nicholas’- it’s an interesting story.
I have been in The Netherlands for some time and Sinterklaas (St Nicholas) and his Zwarte Pieten (helpers) have really won me over. At first I couldn't quite understand it all, why were the Dutch stubbornly insisting on celebrating at the beginning of December while everyone celebrated at the end! I wrongly assumed Sinterklaas and Santa Claus were one and the same! Much to my husband / his family’s annoyance I insisted my Christmas tree was ready on time for Sinterklaas! To this day so does my mother- she always makes sure my Christmas card arrives 'on time'- (despite explaining year after year) the other day she asked me if my tree was up!
Almost immediately I was swept along by the festivities, and I became equally fond of this tall white haired man with a beard, especially when I had children of my own- it is a very children orientated celebration. But adults alike just can't help getting carried away - I too was guilty of enthusiastically waving and shouting at a passing Sinterklaas, and his Pieten! Hubby burst my bubble by saying "Vanessa- he isn't real". On another occasion one of the blackened faced Piets shouted greetings at my husband and I looked wide eyed in awe at him: "WOW you actually know one of the Zwarte Pieten?...."- haha!
We were just talking the other day about what an impact he actually has on everyone, young and old alike, even visitors from abroad are intrigued by him and his black face Peters. Everyone in Holland can sing a Sinterklaas song- even someone suffering with memory loss can often find joy and recognition upon hearing an all so familiar Sinterklaas melody.
I just mentioned foreigners- initially they may raise their eyebrows at the Zwarte Pieten but honestly no harm is meant and no one should be offended. Even the newspaper salesmen at the our local supermarkets like to dress up and sing along.
Sinterklaas is a Saint that arrives in Holland by steam boat from Spain, at the end of November to be welcomed by no-less the mayor, and warmly greeted by scores of children. Each year he arrives at a different port of entry. This year it was Harderwijk.
His presence will be evident in shop displays and in music playing at many locations. In nearly every town and village there will be a welcoming parade though the streets, children waiting along the route, braving all weather conditions, for a glimpse and perhaps a handful of cookies/ sweets. In the days leading up to 5th December (and the celebration of his birthday) he will visit many children, at school, at home, (sports)clubs, in shopping centers but even in the local supermarket. He will bring sweets, cookies and sometimes small presents (low budget). In the evenings just before bedtime, chilren often sing and leave their shoes by fireplaces or more often the backdoor with perhaps a carrot for the white horse of Sinterklaas. In return the next morning, they will find a treat (candy/ toy) in their shoes.
5th December
All this excitement leads up to a really special family celebration held on pakjesavond (parcelevening). Sinterklaas and his helpers have a very busy schedule visiting families across Holland in one evening delivering goods to all the well-behaved children. If the children are lucky they will get a personal visit, if not they will get a loud banging on the window and lo and behold a sack of goodies will appear as if by magic, dropped off on the doorstep to wide eyed, excited, and sometimes frightened children.
As the children get a little older and wiser, things change slightly and gifts come in the form of 'surprises' this is a well thought out 'package' with gift(s) inside and (usually ) a poem, which has relation to the person and the gift. This can be quite hilarious (Sinterklaas knows everything- he has ears and eyes everywhere). It is a way of having a bit of harmless fun with your loved ones.

Just after Sinterklaas arrives in the country the names of all participating persons are drawn out of a hat like a lottery and a budget is set. Everyone is responsible for making one 'surprise' and is the reciever of one 'surprise'.
Dutch Treats
With the Sinterklaas celebration comes a lot of delicious food related sweet goodies:

Pepernoten or kruidnoten are tiny round spiced cookies. Sometimes coated in chocolate.

Taai Taai are soft aniseed flavoured gingerbread.
Speculaas (spiced cookie). Gevulde Speculaas ( filled speculaas) is a spiced cake filled with almond filling (amandelspijs).

Further there are various treats in the form of letters. Large chocolate letters ( a-z ) are available in white/ plain / milk chocolate or Banketletters, a sweet pastry with almond filling in the shape of a I, M or S.
Also candy plays an important role often mixed with kruidnoten/pepernoten generously handed out by the Zwarte Pieten, as well as mandarin oranges.
Marsepein (marzipan) is widely available in all shapes/ colurs and forms.

Pakjesavond doesn't actually center around a traditional meal although gourmet has become quite popular making it a little more special.
As far as drinks are concerned hot chocolatemilk is popular for the children and mulled wine for the adults.
It is a tradition at our house to celebrate with cheese fondue. This is an ideal meal, very social, easy to prepare and little cleaning up work afterwards paving the way ready for an evening of entertainment as well as present opening. The 'surprises' are opened one for one, first the 'tongue in cheek' poem is read aloud, and then the package is opened to reveal the gift(s). The exchange of regular presents is equally commonplace. The presents are not generally extravagant but this does not in any way detract from the occasion. On the contrary my husband has been shocked to see the way Christmas presents are opened in England. In just minutes flat parcels are ripped open with increasing frenzy, the contents, carelessly tossed aside without a glance. He was also astonished to find out that a visit to Santa Claus (if he could be found) was relatively expensive. Actually he was quite disillusioned with 'Christmas'.
Once I understood the essence of Sinterklaas I couldn't help but want to participate. In the beginning, not being able to rhyme in Dutch, I actually wrote poems to my husband and children in English! My family also love Sinterklaas, and from the moment we each know who our 'culprit' is there is a positive air of excitement. In utmost secrecy everyone is busy with making their ‘surprises’. We have had some pretty spectacular 'surprises'- each year it is a challenge to come up with new ideas and creations. The standard of poems is exceptional- obviously everyone is equally enthusiastic.
We actually celebrated Sinterklaas on the 6th this year- and broke the rule. On the morning of 6th Dec Sinterklaas retreats back to Spain and all signs are erased only to be replaced by everything Christmas related including de kerstman (Santa Claus).
Here is a summary of the fun we had:

The 'bottom' had to have been the topper of the evening. It doesn't really need explaining but the present (or part of) was hidden inside an edible cake. It was made by a colleague of Martin. Here is the website. The cake didn't just look fantastic, with its beautiful intricate detail, it tasted absolutely delicious, light and sweet but well balanced with chocolate butter icing.

Mulled wine
You could of course buy a bottle but believe me it's just as easy to make your own- and the smell of freshly made Mulled wine is heavenly. The heady aroma really sets the atmosphere.
Drinking warm spiced wine is like having all the festive spices in one glass. You are free to add all your favourites. I actually also have some mulled wine sachets (like teabags) which are ideal if you like 'clear' wine. Start with 1/4 tsp of your chosen spices. You could wrap your spices in a bit of muslin or use a tea infuser or just strain before serving. I don't mind pieces floating in my mulled wine.

I use a liter bottle of red wine. Doesn't have to be expensive- you will be heating it (so shame to spoil an expensive wine), the spices and sweetness will lift a less good wine- so as long as it is of good colour and full bodied it should be ok.
Recipe for Mulled wine:
1 ltr of red wine
Sugar to taste, a good few tablespoons. Use white or light brown sugar, dark sugar tends to spoil the colour. Honey is also possible.
approx 200ml of water
Orange, lemon or lime, halved, spiked with a few cloves (4-6)
1-2 cinnamon stick
Optional extras: a piece of fresh/ ground ginger, a vanilla pod, star anise, cardomon pods, allspice, nutmeg (pinch) The choice is yours, try not to use everything though.
approx 125ml alcohol of choice- rum, brandy, whiskey.

Heat the wine and water in a large pan with a few tbsp. sugar, the fruit, and spices until the sugar is dissolved and steam is rising. DO NOT BOIL. We don't want the alcohol to evaporate!
Turn off the heat and let it 'sit' for at least 10 minutes preferably longer but up to about 30 minutes.
Remove the fruit and spices. Or leave if you like a pronounced taste.
Give the mulled wine its 'punch' by adding the alcohol of choice and reheat- DO NOT BOIL. Check and adjust the sweetness level and serve steaming hot. Enjoy.