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Christmas comes but twice a year

My Polish Grandparents (Babcia and Dzadzio) came to England after the Second World War and settled in Cambridge, where my Dad was born. The rest, as they say, is history. I love being half Polish, especially when it means that I get two Christmases a year! We celebrate our Polish Christmas (Wigilia) on Christmas eve and then have a full traditional English Christmas on Christmas day…the best of both worlds! Wigilia is traditionally a 12 course meal but thankfully for our waistlines we only have 5, which is still more than enough. Babcia used to do most of the preparation and cooking for our special meal and make it look easy. She gradually handed over the pearls of her wisdom and we have learnt how to prepare the dishes ourselves. She sadly passed away a couple of years ago but we are very proud to be able to carry on the traditions as she would have wanted. The main dish that has become my responsibility is the uszka (which actually means ‘little ears’ in Polish). Uszka are mushroom filled dumplings a bit like tortellini or ravioli. We serve them in barszcz (beetroot soup) as the first course of our Wigilia feast. They are quite time consuming to make but freeze very well so can be made in advance and are definitely worth the effort. Uszka are very popular with my family and so I have to make a LOT! This year I’ve made about 50 and there are only 5 of us eating them!

To start with I make the filling so that it has time to cool…

80g (ish) of dried porcini mushrooms

1/2 packet fresh chestnut mushrooms (approx 10), chopped finely

1 small onion, chopped very finely

2 tbsp butter

2 tbsp fresh white breadcrumbs

1 egg, beaten

salt and pepper

My measurements may seem a bit vague but you can have a bit of artistic licence with the filling. Some people only use dried mushrooms, some use only fresh ones but I, maybe controversially, mix it up a bit and use both as I think they each add texture and taste to the filling.

Cover the dried mushrooms in boiling water and leave to soak until hydrated and pliable. When they’re ready carefully lift them out of water, so as not to disturb any grit that may have settled at the bottom. The liquid is great to use for the barszcz or a yummy mushroom risotto. Chop the mushrooms finely and set aside for the time being.

Melt the butter in a large frying pan and fry the onion until translucent, then add both the rehydrated and fresh mushrooms and cook for about 10 minutes until the fresh mushrooms have cooked down, any liquid has evaporated and the mixture has started to sizzle a bit.

Transfer the mushroom mixture to a bowl and add the breadcrumbs and egg to make a firm paste. Now’s the time to season your filling, add salt and pepper to your taste and leave to cool.

To make the dough…

2 cups plain flour

1/2 tsp salt

1 large egg, beaten

3 tbsp water (you might need more so add as necessary)

Put the flour in a large bowl with the salt. Make a well in the centre and add the liquid ingredients. Knead until a smooth dough forms, don’t panic if it doesn’t look like it’s going to come together just add more water and keep kneading…trust me, it will become smooth before long! Wrap the ball of dough in clingfilm and let it rest for 20 minutes.

Roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface until it’s very thin (1-2mm). Cut it into 2 inch squares and put a small pile of the filling in the middle of each one…

Using your finger or a small pastry brush, moisten two sides of each square with water and fold in half diagonally to make a triangle, pressing out any air from around the filling…

Dab one corner with water and loop around to overlap the other corner, then press them together like this…

Once you’ve mastered this, repeat over and over and over…you’ll soon be a pro…

Put a large saucepan of salted water to boil. Drop a few uszka at a time into the water and cook at a simmer for about 10 minutes or until the dough is tender (like al dente pasta). Drain them well… 

If you are making them in advance, let them cool before layering them up with greaseproof paper in a plastic container ready for freezing. 

On Christmas eve I’ll have defrosted my uszka, my Dad will have made his own secret recipe barszcz and I’ll just warm the uszka through by simmering them for a few minutes, until they float to the top of the pan and are warmed through. We serve about 10 uszka in each bowl of barszcz but that’s because we’re incorrigible gluttons 🙂 

It all may sound a bit weird and wonderful to those unaccustomed to Polish food but all I can say is…don’t knock it until you’ve tried it…

Writing this post has made me even more excited about Christmas now…I can’t wait!

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A bit of respite…

I haven’t done any baking for 3 whole weeks and have been getting severe withdrawal symptoms. Friday and Saturday night were spent in whirl of birthday and Christmas revelry so by the time Sunday rolled around I was well and truly ready for a bit of respite and some good old baking and recuperation. 

I decided to experiment with some recipes from The Cupcake Deck, which I was given for my Birthday but haven’t had a chance to use yet. I couldn’t decide on one, or two so eventually selected three cupcake recipes to make…

The recipes used US measurements, which meant that I had the pleasure of christening my new Matryoshka Measuring Cups I love them!…

First up, some very topical White Christmas Cupcakes

Snow white, moist, vanilla cupcakes topped with creamy, white chocolate frosting and white chocolate curls…

For the cupcakes – 

1 1/4 cups plain flour

3/4 tsp baking powder

1/8 tsp salt

3/4 cup milk

1 tsp vanilla extract

1/4 tsp almond extract

85g unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 cup sugar

3 egg whites, at room temperature

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees and line a 12 hole cupcake tin with paper cases.

Sift the flour, baking powder and salt into a bowl and set aside. In another bowl mix the milk with the vanilla and almond extract.

In a large bowl, using an electric mixer beat the butter and sugar until light in colour. The mixture will look grainy and lumpy but don’t panic. Turn the mixer down to a low speed and alternately add a bit of the flour mixture, then a bit of the milk until it is all incorporated and smooth.

In another bowl, whisk the egg whites until they are shiny and smooth and form soft peaks when you lift the whisk out of the bowl. Stir a third of the egg whites into the cupcake mixture and then add the remaining whites and fold in gently.

Fill each paper case to about 1/4 inch below the rim and bake for about 20 minutes until a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean and the top feels firm.

Leave to cool whilst you make the frosting…

85g white chocolate, chopped

56.5g unsalted butter, at room temperature

112g cream cheese, at room temperature

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 1/2 cups icing sugar

Melt the white chocolate in a bowl over a saucepan of simmering water, stirring until completely lump free. Put in a large bowl with the butter, cream cheese and vanilla extract and beat with an electric mixer until smooth. Add the icing sugar and beat for a further minute or so. Spread the frosting on top of the cooled cupcakes, mounding it slightly in the centre. It doesn’t need to look too neat as you’ll be covering it with gorgeous white chocolate curls…

To make the chocolate curls…

Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper. Warm a bar of white chocolate between you hands and use a vegetable peeler to scrape curls from the block onto the prepared baking sheet. I actually put the chocolate bar in the microwave for 10 seconds bursts until I was able to create good curls that didn’t break up. Once you have about 2 cups of curls, put them in the fridge or freezer to set.

Finally sprinkle the curls onto your finished white Christmas cupcakes and there you have it…

Next up orange-glazed cranberry spiced  mini cupcakes

I’ve never baked with fresh cranberries before and had a moment of doubt after sampling a raw cranberry…it was horribly sour! However I decided to put my trust in the recipe and just go for it…

For the cupcakes…

1 1/4 cups plain flour

1/2 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp bicarbonate of soda

1/4 tsp salt

1 tsp ground cinnamon

1/8 tsp ground nutmeg

2 eggs

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup oil (I used sunflower but the recipe said canola or corn oil)

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 tsp grated orange zest

1/2 cup sour cream

1 cup fresh or defrosted frozen cranberries, finely chopped

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees and prepare 36 mini cupcake cases on a tray.

Sift the flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg into a bowl and set aside. Beat the eggs and sugar in an electric mixer until thicker and lighter in colour. On a low speed mix in the oil, vanilla extract and orange zest until blended. Mix in the sour cream , then the flour and finally the cranberries.

Fill each paper case to just below the rim. I managed to fill 36 little bite size mini cupcake cases but still had enough mixture to fill another 7 fairy cake cases as well. The small ones only took about 11 minutes  and the larger ones about 16 minutes but just bake until the top feels firm and a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean.

Let the cupcakes cool for a few minutes, whilst making the glaze…

1 cup icing sugar

3 tbsp unsalted butter, melted

4-5 tbsp milk

1 tsp grated orange zest

1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Whisk the icing sugar, melted butter and 4 tbsp milk with the orange zest and the vanilla extract until smooth and syrupy. Add another tbsp of milk if needed to get the right consistency.

Turn the cakes out of their tins and prick each one 4-5 times with a toothpick or skewer. Spoon the glaze over whilst both the cakes and glaze are still warm so that the gooey glaze soaks right into the cake and forms a see through shiny layer. Let them cool completely until the glaze becomes firm.

The recipe tells you that you can arrange quartered fresh cranberries on top of each cake but bearing in mind how sour my cranberries had been I decided not to. 

The mini cakes might not look stunning but they were so moist and spicy and the cranberries proved me wrong and cooked down beautifully so that they weren’t at all sour. The only problem with these little wonders is that they are soooo moreish and too easy to pop in your mouth whole…yum…

Lastly, I decided to revisit an old fave, the hummingbird cake, in cupcake form topped with a yummy swirl of cream cheese frosting

1 1/4 cups plain flour

1/2 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp bicarbonate of soda

1/4 tsp salt

1 egg

1 egg yolk

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup oil (as before I used sunflower but the recipe said canola or corn oil)

1 tsp vanilla extract

1/2 cup sour cream

3/4 tsp ground cinnamon

1 banana, mashed

1/2 cup chopped tinned pineapple, in it’s own juice, drained

1/2 cup pecans, finely chopped

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees and line a 12 hole cupcake tin with paper cases.

Sift the flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and salt into a bowl and set aside.

Beat the egg, egg yolk and sugar in an electric mixer until thick and light in colour. Mix in the oil and vanilla on a slow speed until blended. Mix in the sour cream and then flour until totally incorporated and smooth.

Finally add the cinnamon, banana, pineapple and pecans to the mixture and fill each case to 1/4 inch below its rim. Bake for about 25 minutes until they are firm to the touch and a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Leave to cool.

For the frosting…

113g unsalted butter, at room temperature

168g cream cheese, at room temperature

1 tsp vanilla extract

3 cups icing sugar

Beat the butter, cream cheese and vanilla in an electric mixer until smooth. Add the icing sugar and beat until completely smooth. I used the frosting straight away but found it to be a bit runny so I would recommend chilling it for a few minutes prior to icing your cakes.  When you’re ready put the frosting into a piping bag with a large star shaped nozzle and using a circular motion pipe a swirl onto each cake…and tadaa…

I took my array of cakes into work today and they went down a storm. They were all so moist and flavourful. The frosting wasn’t thick and claggy as you find with some cupcakes and the glazed cranberry spiced mini cakes were very festive but were a great alternative to a standard iced cupcake.

Now, all of this recipe typing and baking porn photo reviewing has made me decidedly peckish. I think it’s definitely time for a cupcake…the only problem is deciding which one to have! 

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