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Category: For fun

Sweet Treats for Christmas

In my last blog I promised you a few Christmas sweet-treat recipes, so here they are. I make these every year to give to people as small gifts. I don’t dare keep them in the house too long or else I’d eat them myself! 

1. Christmas Crack

This recipe was given to me years ago by my friend Violeta, who is a superlative cook, and I make it every year. And if I don’t, I get reminded!! I parcel it up in cellophane bags as a small gift. Warning: it’s called Christmas Crack for a reason — a salty-sweet-crunchy-toffee-chocolatey-nutty delight, it’s deliciously addictive. 

Ingredients
1)  4 ounces salada biscuits (saltine crackers or plain non-sweet salted dry biscuits — enough to line your baking tin (or biscuit sheet or jelly roll pan). Mine is approx 9.5 x 14 inches (24 cm x 35 cm, but the size of the tin doesn’t matter much — as long as you can line it completely with the crackers. Depending on the tin size, the resulting toffee mix will be slightly thicker or thinner.)
2)   250 g butter  (1 cup or 1 stick)
3)   250 g brown sugar (1 cup) (but white sugar is okay or a mix of both)
4)   2 cups chocolate chips or a slab of good cooking chocolate broken up.
5)  3/4 cup chopped nuts — I use lightly toasted flaked (sliced) or slivered almonds, but any nuts will do, or use sprinkles if you’re allergic to nuts.

Directions
1  Preheat oven to 205 degrees Celsius (400 degrees Fahrenheit)
2  Line baking tin with foil, then line it with salada/saltine crackers in single layer.
3  In a saucepan combine the sugar and the butter. Bring to a boil then boil without stirring for 4 minutes. Immediately pour over saltine crackers and spread to cover crackers completely.
4  Bake for about 6 minutes. Remove from oven and sprinkle chocolate chips over the top. Let sit for 5 minutes while the chocolate melts. (see pic)  Spread melted chocolate and top with chopped nuts. Cool completely and break into pieces.

People generally eat it as a sweet treat, but you can also use the crumbs (or crumble it lightly) as sprinkles to top ice-cream. You can google other recipes for this. There are dozens. Here’s one.

Easy “cheats” nougat

No candy thermometer needed for this one, it was passed on by my friend Anne L. and uses marshmallows from the supermarket.

I use a square lamington tin (approx 9inches or 24 cms square) but it’s a very forgiving recipe and a variety of tins can be used. I’ve also tried to make the quantities useful for a range of countries, but they are also slightly flexible, so don’t worry too much about getting them ultra-exact. And once you’ve made one batch, you’ll want to experiment, I’m sure.

Ingredients:
1)  several of sheets of rice paper  (enough to line the tin top and bottom)
2)  80 gms (5.5 tabsp or 1/3 cup) butter
3)  500 gms (approx 1 lb) white marshmallows (from the supermarket)
4)  375 gms (approx 13 ozs or 1.5 cups) white chocolate melts (buttons)
5)  4 cups toasted almonds, (I often add dried cranberries and pistachios for some Christmas color.) 

Directions
1) Line the tray with baking paper then with rice paper.
2) Toast almonds (on foil under griller or in oven) until golden
3) Melt butter gently and add marshmallows. Allow to melt, then add white chocolate melts, stir to combine.
4) Take off heat and add roast nuts and berries. Mix well.
5) Pour mix into lined tray, spread evenly, cover with rice paper and baking paper again and smooth with bread board (to make flat and firm.)
6) Refrigerate for 4 hours.
7) Slice as fancy as you like. They look pretty cut into bars and wrapped in clear cellophane. Or cling-wrap.

They can also be made with dark chocolate (see pic above). One year I couldn’t find packets of white marshmallows anywhere, only white and pink marshmallows packed together. So I bought double quantities and made my usual white nougat. I didn’t want to waste the pink ones but I don’t eat marshmallows, so I decided to try the recipe using milk/dark chocolate. It turned out beautifully and was very yummy.

Mendiants 

I often make mendiants as a gift and present them in a small, pretty box.  They are quick and simple to make, yet yummy, so they also make an excellent make-at-the-last-minute gift. 

On a sheet of foil, I place small blobs of melted chocolate (half a dozen blobs at a time) and working quickly before the chocolate sets, I arrange on each a collection of nuts and dried fruit.

For toppings I use spiced cocoa almonds, macadamia nuts, pistachios, candied ginger and dried figs, and the chocolate I generally use is Lindt dark chocolate. But you can use whatever you like. I usually print off this label to go with them because a traditional French confection with monkish connections sounds so much better than a blob of chocolate with nuts and dried fruit on it, doesn’t it?

Mendiants are traditional French confections composed of  chocolate disks studded with nuts and died fruits. Traditionally, the nuts and dried fruits used refer to the color of monastic robes — raisins for the Dominicans, hazelnut for the Augustins, dried fig for Franciscans and almond for Carmelites. Now a Christmas tradition,  recipes for this confection have embraced other combinations of toppings.

If you try these recipes, let me know how you go. They really are quite yummy and straightforward, and my friends are always very happy to receive them.

Making Ornaments

At this time of year I get very distractible, and trawl through the web finding Christmas ornaments to make. I have no shortage of ornaments — I just like making stuff — and I save patterns and possibilities on my computer, so I thought I’d share some here, starting with paper ornaments.

All the ornaments in this photo are made of paper, except the holly wreath, which is polyclay. I’m not terribly patient so most of these are very easy, even though they don’t immediately look it. Three of them are “german bells” — the red and white pointy one, the green one and the small red and gold one) and they can look really beautiful, especially if you use gorgeous paper. (I love the red and white paper which was wrapping paper I got in a shop.)  If you want to make some yourself, here’s a link. You can also hang them the other way up and they look lovely that way as well.

Years ago my Vietnamese students showed me how to make fat little stars out of the strips you used to pull off the sides of computer paper. (That’s how long ago it was *g* ) We made heaps and strung them on a line all over the classroom and staffroom.  I spray painted some gold and some silver and left most of them white, and they looked so pretty.

And one year I made a heap of these kirigami stars  —kirigami is like origami except you cut the paper as well as fold it. These are made out of the inside of envelopes. I was recycling, but also I kept finding more patterns inside envelopes and so kept making more stars. Until then I never realized that there even were patterns inside envelopes. There are made from 8 small rectangles. You can glue them together at the end, but I didn’t and they stayed together remarkably well.

I really liked the ones here made from old music sheets, but I didn’t have any music sheets, and if I did I probably wouldn’t have wanted to cut them up anyway. This site shows you how to make them. Believe me, they’re very simple — a bit fiddly the first time, but after that — well, I made heaps while watching TV.

And there’s a slightly harder version here that looks very spiffy. You can see how the choice of paper makes such a difference. Her stars are olive green and silver and look so lovely.

This is one of the easiest of all — a pinecone, from a Canadian site.  It’s just a matter of cutting out the pattern and threading the pieces with a bead between them to keep them separate. I don’t know how much like a pinecone they are, but they do look lovely and graceful once hung up, when they catch the slightest breeze. 

And this one is even easier — it’s just strips of paper glued or stapled together. Really easy but quite elegant, and would look lovely in silver or gold paper. I love the way paper ornaments twirl and move in even the faintest breeze.

I have lots more, but I don’t want to bore you so that’ll do for today. Do you like to decorate your home for the festive season? Do you make any ornaments yourself?

A book recommendation

I just noticed that on Kindle at the moment, you can buy all the Mapp and Lucia books by EF Benson for something ridiculous, like Aust. $2.42  ($1.99 in the USA)  It’s a bargain.

I love the Mapp and Lucia books. They’re about a small group of people in English villages in the 1930’s,  a closed social group, most of whom don’t work for a living, “who vie for social prestige and one-upmanship in an atmosphere of extreme cultural snobbery.” (From the amazon blurb)  It’s not romance,  it’s slightly satirical social comedy.

The first book in the series is pleasant with a few smiles — Lucia is beautifully pretentious, and queens it over her subjects in the most delightfully ruthless and hypocritical way. The next book gets better — more pretension, more smiles — and then, when Lucia and her gallant cicisbeo, Georgie, decide to take a holiday in the picturesque seaside village of Tilling (aka Rye) and Lucia comes up against Miss Mapp, the current “queen” of Tilling society, the sparks (and the laughs) really start to happen.

I was introduced to the books many years ago, when I was travelling, and staying at a B&B in Rye, a pretty seaside village in the south of England. (That’s Rye in the photo below) The only other guest was a young American woman my own age, and at breakfast we started talking, and realized we were both big readers (it was just before I started seriously writing) and, comparing favorite books, as book-lovers do, we realized we had quite similar tastes.


So then she said, “Of course you came to Rye because of EF Benson.”
And I said, “No. Who’s EF Benson?”
“He wrote the Mapp and Lucia books.”
“Never heard of them,” sez me.

She was deeeeeply shocked at such ignorance, <g> and after breakfast marched me up the hill to the local bookshop, and stood over me until I bought the first book in the Mapp & Lucia series. The bookshop had masses of copies of all the books — apparently Rye (and the bookshop) was a bit of a place of pilgrimage for fans of the books. EF Benson actually lived for some years in Rye, in Lamb House, the very house in the books that first Mapp owns, and then, eventually, Lucia gets her mitts on.

I read Queen Lucia (the first book) that night, and at breakfast the next day, my American friend said, “Well? Did you read it? What did you think?”
I had to admit that while I’d enjoyed it, I didn’t really see what the fuss was about.  Which of course disappointed her.

So we headed our separate ways and I didn’t give her or the books another thought until several months later, when I was on the island of Corfu (Greek, Kerkyra) and as usual, had run out of books to read. (By this time I’d started writing.) Then one day I spotted a bookshop that had books in English! And there, amazingly, were all the other books in the Mapp and Lucia series. (There are six.) So I bought the next one, and a day or two later I walked back into town (I was staying in a little hut well out of town, near Paleokastritsa if anyone knows it) and bought the next one — and then I was hooked. 

I bought them all, and brought them home with me — and since I was backpacking and had months to go of carrying them around places on my back, you can see how much I valued them. I wasn’t sure they would even be available in Australia and I didn’t want to risk not being able to reread them when I got home. I still have those copies with the Greek price stickers on them. And now I’m buying them again in kindle, so I’ll never be without them.

They’ve made two separate TV series out of the books, but neither one quite got it right IMO.

My fave was the first series, where they had Geraldine McEwan (later Miss Marple) as Lucia, Prunella Scales (who was Sybil in Fawlty Towers) as Mapp, and  Nigel Hawthorne (who was Humphrey in Yes Minister) as Georgie. (In the photo, that’s Lucia and Georgie in front and Mapp waving from behind)

But it was a bit slow for non-fans, and the later series didn’t work as well for me, either. But then, for real book-lovers, rare is the film or TV series that ever compares well to the books.

If you do buy the books and find you enjoy them, you might want to look for Tom Holt’s “Lucia books” especially Lucia In Wartime, which has some very funny scenes about rationing and hoarding. He wrote them to entertain his mother and her friends, who were all Lucia fans. So were Noel Coward and Gertie Lawrence, by the way, so if you do enjoy them, you’re in good company.