Saturday, 26 November 2011

Low-fat Christmas pudding and mincemeat

Not really orchard fruit-related, but today I have been making Christmas Pudding and mincemeat. I thought I'd share the recipe, my own which I've developed over the years for various relatives who cannot tolerate excessive saturated fats for medical or health reasons. The feedback has always been very good, even from some who profess not to like christmas pudding, so I thought I'd share.

The most important thing in making any Christmas recipes is the quality of the dried fruit. Don't buy the packs of 'luxury' mixed fruit, regardless of origin. The fruit is often slightly rancid, I don't know why but it must be something to do with the nature of the mix. It always has an acidic, almost pear-drops taste and smell. The mixture is also much too fine. I like a variety of sizes to be able to taste a little of each individual fruit in a pudding, plus it gives it a more open and interesting texture, very different from the denseness of a shop-bought one. Look carefully at the fruit; if it has a whitish coating then it has been in store too long and may taste rancid. Always use freshly-bought fruit, don't be tempted to use up anything left over from last year.

I've never liked adding suet to puddings, it just makes them stodgy and indigestible and highly saturated fat isn't good for any of us. I used to used a little butter to add moistness and help binding, but for a number of years now I've been using dark chocolate as a fat-substitute. The flavour blends well with the spices, and gives a certain darkness of flavour without the burnt flavour. It may sound odd, but it does work well.

This is my usual choice of fruit. You can alter it to your own taste, but this is the mixture I use. When all mixed, I then use half the mixture for mincemeat (makes about 2 1/2 lb) and what is left for the puddings. For puddings alone, half the quantities.

Base Mixture
750g currants
375g pack of Lexia raisins
200g Californian Giant raisins
200g long white sultanas (most Asian/Lebanese shops will have these)
Half a tub of whole candied peel (2 lemon, 2 orange, 2 citron), chopped to about 1-2 cm
About a cupful of crystalised ginger (more or less as liked), chopped
Half a tub of un-coloured glacé cherries (chopped in half)
Rind of one orange, lightly peeled off with minimal pith and chopped
Juice of one orange

Soak this mixture in brandy (or other alcohol of choice) for a few days, stirring occasionally. If the fluid has completely disappeared, add a little more to aid mixing.

Add the following spices to mixture:
2 tablespoons cinnamon
Up to half of a whole nutmeg, grated
1-2 teaspoons of ground cloves (depending on freshness; too much clove flavour will taste rather medicinal)
Couple of shakes of ground ginger

Divid the mixture into two, and set pudding half aside.

Suet-free Mincemeat
Soaked fruit mixture
Juice of 2-3 lemons
2 hard, acid apples (granny smith will do if you don't grown anything suitable), chopped finely
2 large pieces (1/4 bar) of bitter chocolate 70-80% cocoa solids (Lidl's do a very good one), grated
3 tablespoons of Muscovado sugar (or a bit more to taste)

Mix all of the above together, adding a little brandy if it seems to dry. Sterilise several half-pound jars/lids, then fill with the mixture, packing it in quite hard all the way to avoid air bubbles. Fill right up to the top, then pour in a little brandy to fill up any gaps. Best used as soon as possible, though I usually end up using the last of it up months later and haven't died yet...

The chocolate can be omitted for people who cannot tolerate any fats at all, e.g. those with gallstone problems.

For the suet-free pudding

Soaked fruit mixture
3 large slices of good-quality, bread
4 pieces of chocolate (half a bar), grated
Tbsp Marmalade
100g ground almonds
3 tablespoons muscovado sugar
3 tablespoons self-raising flout
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ginger
3 bantam eggs (or 2 hen's)

Put the bread in a cool oven (about 100 degrees) for about 30 minutes, then leave to dry out completely overnight. Crumble into crumbs (either with a mortar and pestle if it's turned to french toast, or in a blender)
Add spices, chocolate and sugar gradually and mix together well. The point of this is that if any of the batter ends up in a lump, it won't taste insipid.

Add to soaked fruit mixture, and mix well, adding marmalade if liked. Depending on how wet or dry it seems, add almonds (more if too wet, less if too dry). It should be very crumbly at this stage.

Whisk the 2 eggs, and stir gradually into the mixture. Again assess how wet or dry, and sift in flour to adjust texture. It shouldn't be either too stiff, too crumbly, or too soggy.

Spoon into greased enamel basins, either one big and one small or 3 small ones (I've just filled one 12 cm and one 16 cm from my mixture). Cover the tops with foil, and place in individual saucepans, or both in a pressure cooker if you have one. Boil for 2-3 hours depending on size, topping up boiling water every half-hour or so (or about 1 hour in a pressure cooker). I don't like the taste of over-caramelised puddings, with a burnt flavour, boiled for 5 or 6 hours, for me it spoils the essential fruitiness of the pudding. Avoid distractions, as it will be a disaster if you forget and let them boil dry. Never be tempted to cook a Christmas pudding in a microwave, the high-sugar content will mean it will overheat in the middle and may catch fire ( I know as my husband tried this once and it did. I've heard other people confess to the same).

On removing, you can top up the basins with brandy if required. I use enamel basins because we have lots, and I like them, but also because the aluminium ones tend to oxidise after a while, which puts me off using them. Glass and ceramic aren't so good as the heat exchange is poor, so they take longer to cook.

For a 100% fat-free pudding, you can omit the chocolate and nuts. For a gluten free Christmas pudding, perhaps use something like Chestnut Flour in place of the breadcrumbs/flour, something I might try myself next year just as an experiment.

Unidentified 'wrong' variety

Well the day arrived when the mystery apples finally started to turn a little yellow and less bullet-hard than they had been. They came from graft wood sold to me as Ard Cairn Russet, a very sweet, slightly dry russet. Clearly the striped red fruit are just about as different a variety as you could get.

The flavour was pure bitterness. We peeled the second one, in case the bitterness was mainly in the skin (as can happen with a lot of red apples, esp. if poorly ripened) but the taste was equally disgusting. The only explanation for this is that it must be some sort of cider variety, probably a bitter-sweet, as there was very little acid in the flavour. The nearest for appearance is Foxwhelp, although this is a bitter-sharp. I suppose we will never know, especially as the dreadful Deacon's Nursery who supplied the wood have refused all communication on the matter of all these wrongly-supplied varieties.

Meanwhile, my in-laws now have a sizeable, heavily bearing tree of entirely inedible apples. If it's not biennial bearing, I'll try making cider from them next year.

Looking for identification guides for ciders reminded me to go to the excellent Gloucestershire Orchard Group, which has an excellent directory of cultivars local to the area, as well as a lot of other information.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Wolvercote Wonder

I counted the number of this fruit on a metre of cordon, it came to 30, all medium-to large and unblemished. I've picked the reddest and shiniest, leaving about 10 that look less ripe.

Tried one which had ripened prematurely due to squirrel damage. Flavour and texture pretty much a generic red summer apple, soft sweet with a slight perfume. I think these will need to be used quickly, will be best on the cusp of ripeness while there is still some crispness and a little more acidity.


Medlar tree has gone butter yellow and looks lovely. Medlars still firmly attached and hard, will leave them a while longer before turning into jelly.

Winter Nellis, evaluation

The very good crop Winter Nellis have all ripened quite rapidly, it's been hard work keeping up with them. The first couple tasted horrid for some reason, bitter and slightly tannic. I don't know why as the rest have been very good. They need peeling as it is one of those varieties inclined to bitterness of the skin, but the flesh is soft, sweet and juicy with a musky flavour; there is usually some tinge of bitterness but just enough to add compexity. What I'd describe as a 'fondante' variety, soft and sweet, when you almost forget you are eating pear and not a sugared sweet.

Golden Russet

I have a new favourite apple. This is the first year that this cordon has fruited, but it has been worth the wait. Superb flavour; crisp, juicy sweet, with a light Egremont flavour. Fruit size is larger, quality good. I imagine they will be good keepers, if we can stop ourselves eating them all. The only problem is that this variety spurs very, very sparsely, and not at all on upward facing branches. Basically, it isn't simply isn't happy as a cordon, it needs to be grown as a bush or standard to accommodate enough of the sparse wood to produce a decent crop. And basically, I need to find more land to grow varieties like this in greater quantity, and to ensure a supply of home-grown apples through until March/April.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

History of pears

Interesting few paragraphs on the history of pears:

About 1730, pear breeding, for which Belgian religious establishments and curés were to become famous, started with the work of Fr Nicolas Hardenport, priest of his native town of Mons. In that year he made an extensive sowing of pear seeds, with the hope of raising better varieties. Now, patience is a prime requisite for those who would raise fruit from the seeds; especially does one who works with pears have to be patient. The old jingle runs: He who plants pears Plants for his heirs.
 The worthy curé possessed this virtue to a superlative degree—he waited thirty years before he was satisfied with the varieties that came from his seed bed. From that time on, for a dozen years, he introduced each year one new kind. Among those attributed to him are Glou Morceau and Passe Colmar—two types still grown to-day. His new pears were a genuine contribution to the world's fine fruits; but even greater was Fr Hardenport's contribution, in that it stimulated the raising of pears in Belgium.
Thereafter, quite a number of the Belgian clergy took up the same pursuit. When the order of Urbanistes was suppressed, in 1783, their garden was abandoned. In it were found several new pears, results of their hybridizations. One that is still grown is called the Urbaniste, in their memory. In 1809, Abbé Dequesne of Mons launched the pear Marie Louise, a variety still grown; and about 1830, Mons. Deschamps, Abbé of the Orphan Hospital at Enghien, raised the famous pear, Beurre d'Arenberg.
 In time these new varieties found their way into the propagating beds of nurserymen, and thence into public and private gardens. Some of them travelled a rather fortuitous route. In England is grown a pear called "Vicar of Winkfield." This was first discovered at Vithers-en-Breune, in 1760, by a French curate who was blessed with an eye for good fruit. Later, it was introduced from this parish into England by another clergyman, the Rev. William Rahm, vicar of Winkfield in Berkshire. 
from The Winter Diversions of a Gardener 
by Richardson Wright

'Wolvercote Wonder' Apple

Today I noticed a bird had pecked a hole in one of the apples on the wild-sown variety I've been trialling (referred to as the 'Wolvercote Wonder' by my other half, in homage to the Borsetshire Beauty). When the birds think fruit is edible, generally that's a sign that even if not ripe to human standards, the fruit needs picking.

I decided to trial this variety on the basis of a few over-ripe, but wonderfully colourful, large apples I found near the railway track about 3 or 4 years ago, a chance seedling from a core thrown from a train, as the land has been scrubby pasture as long as anyone can remember. My memory is that they were very promising, but memory can play tricks of course. This was the first year that my scion was large enough to flower, and the crop was profuse. I thinned them a little, but the fruit size seemed good, and they have all reached large-medium size, about the size of a Gala, and a wonderful deep pink with blue-ish bloom. The bloom started fading about 10 days ago, now they are a wonderful, glossy mid red, one of the most attractive apples I've seen. On a length of cordon of just over metre, there are 25+ fruits, all of good size.

The fruit isn't quite at peak ripeness, the non-blushed side is still green. First bite very crisp, almost to Granny Smith standards, with a densely fruity flavour like Gala. No complexity of aftertaste. Skin a little tough, better peeled, flesh a little chewy once the initial flavour rush has faded possibly just because they aren't fully ripe, but very promising so far. And perfect timing for us, as we have just about run out of other apples, the Rosemary Russet is not quite ready and can be kept until March anyway; November-December apples are just what we need.