A X’mas special! Edible Gifts, made Easy

This is indeed the season to be jolly! My mum and dad have arrived from Italy to spend Christmas with us and I truly feel like I have turned back into a little girl. My parents are not only the best Nonni (grandparents) my boys could hope to have, they allow me to be a daughter again, as they discreetly, but resolutely look after me, Richard and the little ones. There is one other reason my mum is a great presence in the house at this time of the year, she cooks like a goddess! And what could be better than spending time in the kitchen with her as we pickle vegetables, stew strawberries and shape almond cookies, that will be turned into home-made edible gifts for friends and family?

Have a great festive season, share, laugh and, most importantly, love. A lot!

(This post is the collective effort of food and interior photographer Denise Braki, food stylist and interior designer Jon Fleming and myself)

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PICKLED CARROTS, makes enough to fill 3 1 lt (8 cups) jars

INGREDIENTS

1.5 lt (6 cups) white wine vinegar

1.5 lt (6 cups) water

2 tablespoons of mixed peppercorns

2 tablespoons of fennel seeds

1 cup of sugar

2 tablespoons of salt

1 tablespoon of dried tarragon

peel of 1 orange

3 bunches of heirloom or dutch baby carrots

HOW TO

1. Sterilize the jars according to instructions

2. In the meantime, make the pickling liquid, by placing all the ingredients, but the carrots, in a medium saucepan. Bring to a simmer then boil gently for 4-5 minutes or until the sugar has dissolved.

3. Clean and peel the carrots. Place them in the (still hot) sterilized jars and cover them with the hot pickling liquid. Close firmly with the lid, turn the jars upside down to create the vacuum, until the jars are cool. Keep in the fridge.

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MACERATED STRAWBERRY AND VANILLA JAM makes enough for 4 x 250 gr (1 cup) jars. Recipe adapted from here.

INGREDIENTS

1.3 Kg of hulled strawberries

800 gr of sugar

juice of 2 lemons

2 vanilla beans

HOW TO

1. Place the strawberries (whole), sugar, lemon zest in a large ceramic of plastic bowl. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla pods and add them to the strawberries. Cut the pods into smaller pieces and drop them in the bowl too, to further the vanilla flavour.

2. Cover with cling film and refrigerate overnight. The maceration will intensify the strawberry flavour to its maximum.

3. The next day, tip the content of the bowl into a saucepan, bring to a simmer, then turn the heat down and cook gently for 35-40 minutes or until the jam has thickened slightly. You can skim off the foam that appears on the surface with a slotted spoon as the jam cooks. To make sure the jam is cooked, place a small plate in the freezer for 10 minutes. Take it out and spoon a little jam onto it. If it thickens, the jam is ready. Pour the hot jam into the hot sterilized jars, close firmly and tip the jars upside down to create a vacuum. Allow to cool down, then refrigerate.

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COFFEE AND ALMOND AMARETTI COOKIES, makes 20-24 large ones

INGREDIENTS

500 gr (2- 1/2cup)of caster sugar

600 gr (1 lb 5 oz) of almond meal

4 egg whites

1 teaspoon of vanilla essence

1/4 teaspoon of almond extract

1 tablespoon of ground coffee beans

1 cup of flaked almonds

Icing sugar for dusting

HOW TO

1. Place sugar, almond meal, egg whites, vanilla, coffee and almond extract in a standing mixer and beat together for 1-2 minutes or until a sticky dough is formed.

2. With wet hands, roll bits of dough the size of a crescent, coat them with flaked almonds and place them onto an oven tray lined with baking paper.

3. Bake at 180 C, 350 F for 18-20 minutes or until the bottom is firm, but the cookies are still pale in colour

4. Allow to cool on a rack and firm up further at room temperature before serving. Dust with icing sugar, if liked.

5. They will keep for up to 2 weeks in an airtight container

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Chocolate Covered Caramels

My dear choc-addicts, this post is dedicated to you!

Over a month ago I posted a photo of  Chocolate Caramels on my Facebook page announcing that the recipe for it would shortly follow… As it often is, life got in the way and a good 5 weeks later…here it is!

I’m sorry I let you down, but I promise you, the wait will be worth it…

For the Caramel layer

1 cup of unsalted butter

1 can of sweetened condensed milk

1 cup of firmly packed brown sugar

pinch of salt

For the chocolate layer

250 gr (8 oz)of dark chocolate)

2 tablespoons butter

How to

Put butter, brown sugar and sweetened condensed milk in a pot over medium heat.

Stirring continuously, melt the sugar and the butter with the milk and bring to a simmer. Turn the heat to low and keep stirring with a wooden spoon for about 7-10 minutes, or until the caramel appears thicker and golden brown and its intoxicating scent has you in convulsions…

Add a pinch of salt and, off the heat, whisk the caramel vigorously for 2 minutes.

(Please, be very mindful never to leave to the stove whist the caramel is on. Keep stirring, sing your favorite song twice and the job will be done without casualties. Leave the stove to chase your baby who has decided to take his first crawl today, and you will end up with burnt caramel and a burnt pot… Ask me how I know!)

Pour the caramel in a container lined with baking paper and allow to set in the fridge for 1 hour.

In the meantime, make your chocolate topping,

Melt the dark chocolate with 2 tablespoons of unsalted butter in a double boiler.

Once melted, stir for a couple of minutes with a rubber spoon to bring down the temperature slightly. If you are feeling adventurous and you wish to temper your chocolate, proceed like so.

Take the caramel out of the fridge, pour the chocolate over it and spread it into one smooth layer. Add toasted almond flakes if you wish to add a crunchy texture.

Allow to set in the fridge before slicing.

Cut into large chunks and individually wrapped in baking paper, they make a lovely edible gift.

I like to serve them cut into small squares with a hot espresso coffee.

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Italian Spiced X’Mas Slice, with figs, cranberries and roasted hazelnut

I had a pretty disastrous couple of days in the kitchen.

First, I charcoaled the left-over potato bake, then I dropped-and shattered-the just-bought, very extravagant jar of designer-worthy vanilla paste.

On the same day, as I was unstacking the dishwasher, I managed to snap the stem off two-two!– champagne flutes.

And so it was only  a natural course of event that I should burn the caramel (once again!) for my chocolate-covered caramel bites!

I didn’t even cry when it happened.  There were no more cook’s tears left in me…

But somehow I had to turn the week around and start fresh again.

And I had all that amazing 70% chocolate waiting to be used and, hopefully, not burnt…

A no-bake something or another was the safest way to go…

And, well, it looks like I may have just redeemed myself!

This easy-peasy chocolate slice makes the perfect Xmas edible gift, so make sure you have enough for yourself as well as your lucky recipients.

INGREDIENTS

200 gr (7 oz)of 70% dark chocolate, melted with 1 tablespoon of butter (in a double boiler or in the microwave, whichever suits you)

a handful of whole roasted hazelnuts, skin removed (roast your nuts for 10 minutes in a medium oven then rub them in a kitchen towel to ease the skin off)

2 tablespoons of ground hazelnut (hazelnut meal)

a handful of dried cranberries (or sour cherries)

three table-spoons of chopped up semi-dried figs

1 scant table-spoon of cocoa powder

1/4 teaspoon of ground cloves

1/2 teaspoon of ground cinnamon

a pinch of nutmeg

In a large bowl, mix together the nuts with the dried fruits, the spices, the cocoa and the ground hazelnut.

Add the melted chocolate white still hot and combine well.

Pour the decadent paste into an oven dish lined with baking paper.

Flatten with the back of a spoon and allow to set in the fridge for 1 hour before cutting it into rustic chuncks.

Serve with Grappa or Rum, or simply with espresso coffee, if you want to feel very Italiano!

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