I’m suffering from a touch of self-sufficiency envy. In fact, I’m typing this with Giles and Sue Live the Good Life on in the background. I might live in a tiny studio flat in N1, where the waiting list for an allotment is so long (about ten years) that they’re not even taking names anymore, but I still harbour wistful dreams of pottering about on a vegetable patch of a weekend. Oh to have a glut of something to deal with! I long to preserve, can, and bottle things because it’s the only way to get through the hungry gap; it’s just not the same when you have to go to the farmers’ market to buy a lorryload of quinces.

Anyway, come Christmas time, I let my inner Barbara Good out and allow her to make chutneys, jellies, and jams to foist on my nearest and dearest. Hopefully they find this endearing, rather than irritatingly cheapskate. To jazz it all up a bit, I’ve also made some sweet treats in the past; chocolate truffles and chocolate and peanut butter cups have both gone down well.

This year, I’ve splashed out on a preserving pan, having learnt from my last couple of tries that there are few things hotter or more stubbornly sticky than chilli jam that’s escaped from your too-small saucepan all over the top of the hob. Yesterday was the pan’s first outing, as I made clementine and whisky marmalade (from The Preserving Book) followed by spiced pumpkin chutney (from Kitchen).

The marmalade is pretty straightforward; you can painstakingly shred 900g organic clementines by hand, or blitz them in a food processor until finely chopped (not to a pulp). After simmering in your preserving pan or suitably large saucepan in 900ml water to soften the rind, add 900g caster sugar and the juice of two large lemons (to help the set, as apparently clementines are not particularly high in pectin), stir over a low heat to dissolve the sugar, then bring to the boil and simmer for around 30 minutes until the setting point is reached. Stir in a wee dram (or 1–2 tbsp) of whisky before spooning into warm sterilised jars, topping with waxed paper disks, sealing and labelling. I was pretty smug by this point, I can tell you. This recipe fills four 80z/250ml jars.

Paddington would be proud

Since I was on a roll, spiced pumpkin chutney was next on the list. My initial optimism was rapidly cooled by the fine-dicing of an enormous butternut squash. Damn you, Nigella. Once slung into the preserving pan with a chopped cooking apple, two chopped onions, sugar, spices, and vinegar, it’s just a case of leaving it to simmer for about an hour until it thickens and the squash is tender. Then it’s the usual sterilise/spoon/label/congratulate self routine. Chutney needs at least a month, and two if at all possible, to sit in its jar becoming delicious before you tuck in – don’t get greedy and dig in beforehand, or it’ll just be horrible and the most vinegary thing you’ve ever eaten.

The major drawback of chutney making in particular is the acrid, all-pervading stench of vinegar. There really is no getting rid of it for a few days afterwards, so it’s a good idea to try to make all your vinegar-based condiments in one go. Next on the list for me: red onion marmalade and chilli jam.

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Making your own breakfast cereal might seem insufferably smug, but I’ve just made my first batch of granola and am basking in the autumnal glow of cinnamon-scented toastiness that’s emanating from my kitchen. I don’t know what came over me: one minute I was idly flicking through Nigella’s Feast; the next I was in Mother Earth, splashing my hard-earned cash on organic nuts and seeds.

Nigella’s recipe is pretty straightforward and makes 2.5 litres. All you need to do is mix together rolled oats, almonds, sesame seeds, and sunflower seeds, along with apple compote (I used Clearspring’s version, which you can buy in 100g tubs), ground cinnamon, ground ginger, a little Maldon salt, sunflower oil, and a lot of sweet things: golden syrup, honey, and light brown sugar. Give it a good mix to coat everything in sticky goodness, then bake it in two large baking tins for anything from 40 minutes to an hour, giving it a stir at regular intervals to toast it evenly. Once it’s all golden, leave it to cool and mix in a load of raisins.

I might live in a studio flat with an overflowing kitchen and a tonne of clutter stashed under the sofa, but knowing that I’ve got a huge Tupperware box full of this in the kitchen makes me feel all wholesome and capable. I’m sure it won’t last.

I’m not much of a biscuit maker – cakes are more my thing – and every time I’ve tried to make cookies and the like they’ve always been a disappointment. Determined to conquer my biscuit demons (if only all demons could be tackled with the application of a hot cup of tea), I decided to have a go at making the custard cream hearts from Nigella’s Feast.

Custard is one of my favourite things in the world, which would explain why I was immediately drawn to this particular recipe – custard powder features both in the biscuit mixture and in the cream filling. The method for the biscuits is very much like that for making pastry and, as with pastry, would have been much easier if I had a large food processor (and the space to store it). As it is, I rubbed the butter into the flour and custard powder by hand; I should also have rubbed in some vegetable shortening at this point, but found it impossible to get hold of any at the weekend – has it fallen out of favour in Islington, perhaps? Anyway, I just replaced it with an equal quantity of butter, and that seemed to work pretty well.

I’d decided to double Nigella’s recipe, which meant an hour of shifting baking sheets around the kitchen as I dealt with three batches of heart-shaped biscuits. This was faff enough, and left me with very little patience for stabbing around the border of each biscuit with a toothpick as Nigella does – they were still very pretty without all that messing around. Actually, she says you should use a ‘corn-on-the-cob’ holder, whatever that may be. It’s not something that lives in my kitchen.

The custard cream filling was one thing I could do in my little food processor, whizzing up custard powder, icing sugar, butter, and a little boiling water (I misread ‘teaspoon’ for ‘tablespoon’ in my haste, but it didn’t seem to matter in the end). Then you just need to pair up the biscuits, sandwich them together, cart them into the office, sit back and wait for the adoration. Good stuff.

My last attempt to make chilli jam was not the most comfortable of experiences. Nigella’s recipe is very straightforward, but I’d failed to take into account just how sensitive my hands could be when cutting up fifteen red chillies. Eight hours later, attempting to sleep with my still-burning left hand in a bowl of cold water to ease the agony, no tasty condiment seemed worth the bother. However, I can report with relief that whatever urban myths you may have heard about sleeping with your hand in water are indeed false.

But maybe it’s the same sort of thing described by women who’ve given birth – you forget the pain afterwards, when you’ve got the product of your not-inconsiderable labours to show for it. This is why, on a hungover Sunday afternoon and armed with some of those gloves that make you feel like a forensic investigator, I found myself hacking up chillies yet again. Once roughly chopped, they are whizzed up in the food processor along with an equal quantity of red peppers, before being added to jam sugar dissolved in cider vinegar. Next comes a good ten minutes’ boiling, during which time the mixture creeps dangerously close to the top of the pan, then forty minutes’ cooling before ladling into sterilised jars and handing out to your nearest and dearest if you can bear to.

Cross your fingers now

My one problem with Nigella’s recipe is that she tells you to use jam sugar, an easy-to-use mixture of sugar and pectin. She says that this saves you the trouble of boiling up pectin-rich fruit and straining them to extract the setting agent for your jelly, but I find that the jam sugar gives a consistency much more akin to chilli sauce than a jelly. An effective middle way is to buy sachets of pectin (Tate & Lyle sell them in packs of three) – it’s simple enough to mix this with normal granulated sugar and the juice of a lemon and use this in the recipe for a much better set.

Chilli jam (adapted from Nigella Christmas) – makes around 1.5 litres, or 6 x 250ml jars

150g long fresh red chillies, deseeded and roughly chopped
150g red pepper, deseeded and roughly chopped
1kg jam sugar (or 1kg granulated sugar, mixed with a sachet of pectin and the juice of a lemon)
600ml cider vinegar

  1. Sterilise your jars by washing in very hot soapy water, rinsing clean and drying in a
    140°C oven.
  2. Put the cut-up chillies into a food processor and pulse until finely chopped. Add the chunks of red pepper, and pulse again until finely chopped into flecks of red.
  3. Dissolve the sugar in the vinegar in a large, wide pan, without stirring.
  4. Add the chilli and pepper mixture. Bring to the boil, then leave at a boil for ten minutes.
  5. Take the pan off the heat and leave to cool for around 40 minutes, until the flecks of chilli and pepper are evenly distributed in the mixture rather than sitting on the top. Spoon into the sterilised jars, and seal tightly.

I’m definitely more of a baker than a cake decorator (although fingers crossed that will all change after the cupcake decorating workshop I’m going to at The Make Lounge this Saturday), so I had to enlist some help when making moustache-themed cupcakes for this year’s Movember appeal. With the lovely Vicky to make stencils and provide inspiration (the name, which I’ve borrowed as the title of this post, was her particular stroke of genius), and Paul’s infinite patience and steady hand to cut out icing shapes, I was free to make some plain but hopefully tasty sponges and go a bit crazy with my new collection of food colouring pastes.

 

'Tachetastic

 

If you fancy making a donation to a very worthy and hirsute cause, all proceeds go to The Prostate Cancer Charity, and the cowboy in the picture below has a fundraising page at: http://uk.movember.com/mospace/26607/

If you’re wavering, just gaze in awe at my colleagues and their moustache-growing prowess:

 

 

Celebrating a friend’s last day in the office seems like the wrong thing to do, somehow; sometimes a good wallow is needed before the drinking can begin. Since we all needed to line our stomachs and indulge ourselves a bit, Nigella’s chocolate fudge cake seemed the perfect solution for Bryn’s leaving cake. A fitting farewell, because I know he has a bit of a soft spot for the lady herself, and suitably greedy for someone who’s been an enthusiastic consumer of pretty much anything I’ve baked for the office over the past couple of years.

As well as being packed full of Nigella’s usual indulgences (plenty of butter and decent chocolate), I can honestly say that this is the first sponge I’ve ever baked that contains sour cream and corn oil. Maybe those are the secret ingredients that kept the sponge moist and light, even after an hour in the oven and still by the end of the following day. I couldn’t smother the finished cake in the chocolate fudge icing as much as one would have hoped (Nigella recommends spreading the icing round the sides of the cake too – impossible when you have to put it back in the tin and cart it across London, I’m afraid), but I think I’m right in saying that it went down pretty well nonetheless…

 

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