Posts Tagged ‘Christmas food’

Follow the frankincense trail

Sunday, February 7th, 2010
A Bedouin checks a frankincense tree

A Bedouin checks a frankincense tree

With deft strokes, a Bedouin chips away the grey, papery bark, then smoothes a green patch the size of your hand on the tree; it’s a scrubby, scraggly and unpretentious tree.  As if by magic, milky white tears of gum-resin start welling up in the freshly made green wound.

The Bedouin moves to another tree continuing his harvest.  At some of the trees, the Bedouin man finds trees that he has recently tapped and from these he removes handfuls of precious sap that has now hardened to a golden hue – this is frankincense, one of the world’s most precious substances that is now so rarely used in the developed world.

The trees that the Bedouin would have tapped are Boswellia sacra and we were in an imaginary walk through the fabled frankincense groves of Oman’s desert plateau that borders the green mountains of Dhofar.  This is where the best frankincense is grown as this is where the ideal conditions are – a steady tropical sun, pale limestone soil and an heavy dew from the monsoon.

Omani frankincense has a subtle aroma of balsam that recalls distant shrines or northern pine forests.  The trade in frankincense struggles like many of the ancient spice and ingredients trades as they are hard work for the money that you can make – in the Middle East, young men would rather work in the oil fields rather than the frankincense fields, while in Sri Lanka, young men would rather work in a bank than learn to prepare cinnamon bark.

Chunks of frankincense

Chunks of frankincense

From these chunks of golden resin, a whole economy flourished along the frankincense trail, from ancient Arabia to distant Greece and Rome.  On the back of the camel, this river of incense built up fabled kingdoms with names that have a haunting romantic quality and litter the texts of the Bible – Main, Hadramawt, Nabataea, Saba (of the fabled Queen of Sheba) and Qataban.

These ancient city states had their own languages, their own histories, their own law and religions, their own art and architecture and they created dams and irrigation to develop agriculture to feed their peoples and water systems to provide pure, luscious water for their people.  Then their kingdoms collapsed before slipping into the dust of ancient history, becoming forgotten tales and monuments (like at Petra) for tourists to gawp at.

The Egyptians used the “perfume of the gods” for temple rites and as a base for perfumes; frankincense is first recorded on the tomb of Queen Hatshepsut from the 15th century BC, where it says that she had sent an expedition to the land of Punt (perhaps in Somalia) to go and get some frankincense.  In 450BC, Herodotus, the Greek Father of History, mentioned the aromatics of Arabia – “The whole country is scented with them and exhales an odour marvellously sweet.”  In the Roman world, incense perfumed cremation rites and Nero lavished a whole year’s production of frankincense on the funeral of his consort, Poppaea.

The trade in frankincense nowadays is obscure and a very small niche, but in 100 – 200AD, Southern Arabia sent over 3,000 tons every year along the frankincense trail to Greece and Rome.

The Hadramawat city of Shibam

The Hadramawat city of Shibam

This 2400 mile trail began in Hadramawt in South Yemen around the ancient of Sabota.  Pliny the Elder wrote “Frankincense…is conveyed to Sabota on camels…The Kings have made it a capital offence for camels so laden to turn aside from the high road”.  The camels would have collected the frankincense from the valley of Wadi Hadramawt with its cities, Shibam, Sayun and Tarim.  From Sabota, the camel trains would go to Qana for shipment overseas and trading with India for spices or north to Timna and then through Saba, the ancient kingdom of Sheba.  After Marib, they would travel to Main and then to Mecca, al Medina and finally to Petra, where the ancient Nabatean Kingdom traded incense and spices with the Roman Empire.

Was it from one or more of these ancient frankincense kingdoms, that the magi brought their wisdom and their gifts worthy of a prince.  Along the trail, the caravans would collect myrrh, salt and indigo.  For the Magi, frankincense symbolised divinity, an offering equal in importance to gold and myrrh.

Today, the best frankincense comes from Oman, with Hadramawt long gone as the centre of the trade.  Frankincense is also grown in India, Somalia and the Yemen.

Recipes – Oranges And Lemons For Really Great Homemade Biscuits

Friday, January 8th, 2010

While snowed in in the cold countryside of Northumberland, we enjoyed some warming chai as well as delicious mulled wine using our organic Fairtrade mulling wine spices.  I also concocted a couple of citrus based biscuits, with one of them coming from the Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall’s great cook book for Granny’s.

Snow covered Northumberland - New Year's Day 2010

Snow covered Northumberland - New Year's Day 2010

Here they are:

Classic lemon biscuits

Carefully measure out your biscuit ingredients

Carefully measure out your biscuit ingredients

75g/ 3oz softened butter
75g/ 3oz Fairtrade caster sugar
150g/ 6oz Sunflours plain flour
¼ tsp sea salt
Grated peel from 1 unwaxed lemon
1 egg yolk from a free range hen
Some cold water (this may be needed)
1 tbsp Fairtrade icing sugar

Pre-heat the oven to  165oC/ 330oF and lightly oil 2 – 3 baking trays.

Cream butter and sugar together, then add the rest of the ingredients to the bowl and stir together with a wooden spoon.  It will be slightly crumbly, but with a bit of kneading and perhaps a teaspoon or two of cold water, you will get a light paste.

Rolling out the biscuit pastry

Rolling out the biscuit pastry

Lightly flour a surface and roll out to about ½ cm thick and cut into shapes.  We used all sorts of shapes including using some oval shapes from my great grandmother.

Cutting out Christmassy biscuit shapes

Cutting out Christmassy biscuit shapes

Put the shapes on the baking trays and bake for 7 – 10 minutes, but watch them carefully as they will suddenly be cooked.  We used an Aga and found that the back of the tray cooked very quickly and some got burnt the first time around.

Remove from oven when just turning golden, then leave to cool a bit before carefully transferring to a wire cooking rack.  Sprinkle with icing sugar in a tea strainer.

Snowy lemon biscuits

Snowy lemon biscuits

Orange biscuits

Grating an orange

Grating an orange

115g/ 4oz  sliced almonds
115g/ 4oz Fairtrade caster sugar
85g/ 3oz softened butter
55g/ 2oz self-raising flour
Grated peel and juice from 2 oranges (you may only need 1½ of these)

Pre-heat the oven to 165oC/ 330oF and lightly oil 2 – 3 baking trays.

Mix all the ingredients together except the orange juice.  Now add juice from 1½ oranges and stir together.  Check the consistency which should be like a sticky batter.

Drop a teaspoon dollop onto the baking trays and set them apart as they will spread out very thinly.

Cook for 7 – 10 minutes and remove when just turning golden brown at the edges. Then leave to cool a bit before carefully transferring to a wire cooking rack.

Orange jumbles

Orange jumbles

The lemon biscuits are classic firm biscuits like a harder shortbread, while the orange biscuits are wonderfully chewy and moreish.  All-in-all they lasted about 20 minutes.

Christmas Eve And It’s Still Snowing

Thursday, December 24th, 2009
Let it snow

Let it snow

It’s slightly eery at work today.  No-one else is here as we have completed the stock-take and all the Christmas orders have been dispatched.  Also, the snowy weather and the fact that it’s Christmas Eve means that the business park is almost deserted.  Other than Wolseley Centers (which never closes), Nidd Transport and Masham Sausages who are busy trying to get their last Christmas deliveries out, I think I am the only person on this estate.

It started snowing again in the night and we have had at least 3 inches since about 4am and it’s still snowing away.  There’s a muffled, silencing quality to the snow which meant that as I drove in this morning – with the odd skid for excitement – I felt as if I was cocooned in my own little space, a warmed personal ecosystem stolidly driving through a wintry landscape.

As I drove into Ripon, I pondered on the fact that the elements have been reminding us of who is in control, really; we have had floods and now snow in the last 3 months, which is quite something for the temperate British climate.

We have done a pretty good job in getting all the many Internet orders out into the delivery networks, but unfortunately the weather has played havoc with some of the parts of the country.

Parcels to Aberdeen and Cumbria have been hit especially badly, as has Aylesbury.  Checking with Fedex today, no trucks have got through to Kendal since last week so a couple of parcels have got delayed but it looks as though the trucks have now got to Aberdeen and some of the parcels are now out for delivery.

All the other missing parcels with Fedex are out for delivery again today as quite a few have been delayed by weather problems, but then again they have been out for delivery 2 or 3 times this week already, but fingers crossed and many apologies to those few people who may not get their packages prior to Christmas due to the weather.

I will sign off now for a few days to enjoy a turkey Christmas dinner, my homemade Christmas pudding and some Christmas cheer.

God bless you all, Merry Christmas and I hope Santa Claus / Saint Nicholas brings you all the things that your hearts’ desires.

Recipe For Snowy White Mince Pies

Sunday, December 20th, 2009
Winter time 2009

Winter time 2009

It did not snow last night in spite of predictions, but it was so, so very cold.  The snow outside is now crunchy under foot as the top has frozen solid; as you potter along, there’s that lovely crunchy sound.  Our windows were all covered with those beautiful fern-like frost patterns as if Jack Frost himself had painted the windows with his paint brush.

A day to hunker down and enjoy some mince pies.  We made the mincemeat back in our 29 October blog, but you can use any recipe or a good shop-bought mincemeat.  If you use another recipe, Mrs Beeton’s is a classic but I find it a little too sweet for my tooth.  But I implore you to make your own pastry.

Here’s a classic recipe:

350g/ 12 oz organic plain flour (we use Sunflours flour)
75g/ 3oz lard, chopped into cubes (lard makes the pastry softer, but you could replace this with more butter)
75g/ 3oz organic butter, chopped into cubes
Pinch of sea salt
A little milk
Organic icing sugar

Making pastry: rubbing fats into flour

Making pastry: rubbing fats into flour

To make the pastry, sift the plain flour and sea salt into a mixing bowl.  Rub the fats into the plain flour until it starts to resemble fine breadcrumbs.  Add just a smidgeon of cold water in small amounts until the dough just leaves the mixing bowl clean.  Leave the pastry to rest in a poly bag in refrigerator for half an hour (30 minutes).

After it’s settling time, put the oven on to 200oC/400oF.  Cover a board with a small amount of flour and roll out half of the pastry as thin as possible and cut into 7½ cm (3 inch) circles; afterwards, roll out the other half a thin as possible and make smaller rounds of 6cm (2½ inch) in diameter.

Lightly butter or oil a tray of 6cm (2½ inch) moulds.  Line the moulds with the larger rounds and then fill these with mincemeat to the level of the edges of the pastry.   With a little bit of cold water, gently dampen the edges of the pastry and cover them with the smaller pastry rounds and press them together with your fingers to seal the pies shut.  Brush the tops lightly with the milk and cut 2 or 3 holes into the tops with the end of a sharp knife.

Bake in the oven for 25 – 30 minutes until lightly brown.  Cool slightly in a tray and sprinkle with icing sugar.  I love eating them straight from the cooling tin.

Homemade mince pies

Homemade mince pies

Supposedly my grandfather would take the tops off and put in some more whisky to liven them up a bit more, while Sophie loves to eat hers with brandy butter.

White Snow… White Icing – A Recipe For Royal Icing

Saturday, December 19th, 2009
Christmas time in snowy North Yorkshire

Christmas time in snowy North Yorkshire

It’s freezing outside, never getting much above -2oC outside and the roads are all icy and mean. 

But it does get you into the Christmas spirit – we’ve got a wreath on the front door (complete with its cassia sticks), the tree has been decorated, Christmas cards are on every available space and are being hung now from strings hanging along wooden beams in the sitting room (not sure how many of the people who’ve sent us cards I actually remember) and the children have broken up from school.  And we’re on the way with wrapping Christmas presents; we’ll work out the gaps in our list this weekend.

So with white outside, it seems very fitting to be icing the Christmas cake.  We’re never that neat at the icing of cakes, but the end result tastes the same.  I’ve never been one for presentation; basically I’m rubbish at the finickity side of cooking, so I leave that to others.

The recipe I use is one from Claire Macdonald of Macdonald, which is very similar to our traditional family recipe.  The only difference being that she uses glycerine and our traditional one just uses the egg whites, so it’s a bit more gloopy and a little less stiff.


750g/ 1½ lb icing sugar, sieved
4 large free-range egg whites, beaten to a froth
2tsp glycerine
1tbsp lemon juice

Sieving the icing sugar

Sieving the icing sugar

Beat the egg whites to a froth, then add the glycerine and the lemon juice and whisk a bit more to get it all throughly mixed through.  Mix in the sieved icing sugar.  Beat it together really well, then cover the bowl with a damp tea towel and leave the icing for an hour or two.

Covering the Christmas cake with icing

Covering the Christmas cake with icing

Then simply dollop some icing onto the marzipanned cake and start spreading it over.  Leave for a few days to set…well until Christmas, I suppose.

Now it’s time for Strictly Come Dancing Finals…Ricky Whittle is the best dancer but does he have the public support; we shall find out very shortly.

Recipe For Egg Free Marzipan And Baking For Christmas Fairs

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

It’s the time of the School Christmas Fairs, Nativity Plays and Carol Concerts and we are always being tapped for products or being asked to do some baking. 

But one of the problems we have always had is that, firstly, Christmas is our busiest part of the year for Steenbergs Organic in terms of order volume, and secondly, the fairs etc seem always to be mid-week.  But as both Sophie and I are working baking mid-week is almost impossible beyond the odd cake or biscuit.

As I discussed in an earlier blog, I have been experimenting with sweet making instead of baking.  Sweets last longer and can be made at the weekend and children (and adults) possibly prefer sweets to baked goods!

I have devised my own egg-free marzipan which we have coated in delicious dark El Rey 61% chocolate from Venezuela, as well as moulding chocolate into santa shapes, snowmen shapes and christmas bauble shapes; we used El Rey chocolate for all these – the dark one, a milk one and a white chocolate.  We have dipped brazil nuts in dark chocolate and milk chocolate.  We have also made milk chocolate circles and sprinkled them with mixed chop nuts and some sultanas.

These have then been bagged up into some polythene bags and then put into some nice Christmassy small bags for sale.  As always, the amount of effort, cost of materials and packaging never quite add up to the sales price, but you cannot be an accountant about everything in life.

Christmas sweets and shortbread snowman

Christmas sweets and shortbread snowman

This morning I have also started my token bit of baking – some shortbread snowmen, using a mould that we got at Lakeland.

So I’ve done my duty and I can go and listen to the school carol concert today in Ripon Cathedral with a clear conscience.

For those who are interested, the marzipan I made is a variation on something I found on the web.  I am going to keep my recipe a secret but heres the one from the Internet: 

350g/ ½lb organic ground almonds
350g/ ½lb organic icing sugar
4tbsp water
2tsp Steenbergs natural almond extract

Mix all the ingredients together in a mixing bowl and knead dough until smooth.  Sprinkle some icing sugar on a baking board, roll flat and then cut into shapes – I made round balls and simple rectangles.

Recipe For Sweets At Christmas Fairs

Sunday, December 6th, 2009

Inspired by marzipanning the Christmas cake yesterday and acutely aware of the looming Christmas Fair after the Carol Concert at our children’s school, I decided to experiment with some sweet making this morning.  Also, chidhood memories of Niederegger marzipan may have played on my psyche.

I think we’ll look at making fudge and peppermint mice – I’ve already talked about the recipes for these on a previous blog: see

We used a slightly different marzipan recipe to the one from yesterday as I wanted something less rich and a bit drier.  I also beefed up the almond flavour with some of our very own Steenbergs natural almond extract.


350g/12oz   Ground almonds, delumped using your fingers
175g /6oz   Icing sugar, sieved
175g/6oz   Caster sugar
1½tsp  Lemon juice
¼tsp Steenbergs natural almond extract
1 Free range egg, lightly beaten

Put the ground almonds and sugars together in a mixing bowl, then make a hole in the centre.  Add the lemon juice, natural almond extract and beaten eggs into the hole.  Mix it all together – I use my hands for this, massaging it all together into a smooth paste.   When it has all mixed into a ball, put it onto a lightly iced board.

Now, you can do as you wish.  For this experimentation, I simply rolled small amounts into smooth balls; it’s probably about 1tsp for each ball, but you just need to break it off the main ball with the tips of your fingers.  We then dropped some of the balls into cocoa which is nice and easy, but the children were not sure about the mix of the bitterness of the cocoa and the sweetness of the marzipan; I actually quite liked it.

Coating marzipan in dark chocolate

Coating marzipan in dark chocolate

For the remainder, I melted two 150g bars of dark Green & Black’s chocolate in a bowl over a pan of boiling water.  We then dipped the balls into the melted chocolate and using a toothpick scooped them out and left them to dry on some baking parchment.

You probably only need 200g of chocolate as we had some left over and poured this into some chocolate moulds that we have to make some chocolates.  The dark chocolate worked really well against the sweetness of the marzipan, but milk chocolate would work better for individual chocolates.  I think we will also look at getting some brazil nuts and coat those in chocolate, as well as some white chocolate to play with the colours a bit.  This could really be quite fun; really messy fun.

A selection of homemade sweets

A selection of homemade sweets

We also experimented using the marzipan with trying to make mice shapes.  We shaped the marzipan into a thick oval, teased out the end to make a nose and pinched up two small bits to make the ears.  Then we stuck on some pink coloured balls for the eyes.  We will either use string or find some edible shoelace to make the tails when we use the peppermint cream mix to make the actual ones.

Everyone’s got involved in some capacity, particularly scoffing the sweets down!

I have ordered some little gold truffle boxes to put them and they have Merry Christmas printed on them.

Recipe For Marzipan For Christmas Cake

Saturday, December 5th, 2009

I love marzipan, which is often called in a highly industrial way almond paste (an honest but bland name). 


It reminds me of the childhood magic of Christmas time.  It was especially magical as my mother’s family – she’s German – would send over the most beautiful Christmas treats.  However, much of that mysterious magic has gone as relatively cheap versions of lebkuchen, stollen and spekulatius are available in every supermarket, baker or discount store. 

And marzipan treats were part of that magic – siz inch bars of marzipan from Niederegger covered in chocolate.  I don’t know whether my tastes have got more refined now that I cook myself or whether the recipes have been cheapened over the years, but the marzipan and chocolate seems much more artificial now than they used to be.

We always made extra marzipan to make marzipan kugeln or marzipan balls, plus I would always love to lick my fingers clean.

Nostalgia; you can’t beat it, so keep on those rose tinted glasses.

600g/ 1¼lb ground almonds, sieved
275g/ 10oz caster sugar
275g/10oz icing sugar, sieved
4tsp lemon juice
2tbsp orange flower water or sherry (Steenbergs do the best organic orange flower water, but I am not biased of course)
4 large egg yolks
Apricot jam (the best you can find)

Mix all the ingredients together well.  Use your hands if you want, but make sure that they are very clean first. 

Put 4 tablespoons of apricot jam into a small pan and gently heat until runny.  Spread this over the cake.  You probably don’t need the apricot to make it stick the Christmas cake and marzipan together, but I love the additional subtle flavour; layering of flavours is one of my cooking principles especially when they are thin, almost ghostlike hints.

DSC_0758_edited-1Halve the marzipan and using a rolling pin, flatten it out and then place on top of the cake.  With the palm of your hands and fingers, smooth it all over the top of the cake. 

Using the second half of the marzipan, smooth this out using a rolling pin and slice in half lengthways.  Using the top half of marzipan,  curve it around part of the side of the cake.  Now take the rest of the marzipan and curve this around the rest of the cake.  Now using your hands and fingers, smooth the marzipan around the edges of the cake, making the join between the pieces, and trimming where necessary.

If you have any excess marzipan, eat and enjoy.

Cover and leave to dry.  In a couple of weeks time, the cake will be ready for icing.

Time to check your Christmas cake etc

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009

It’s been so wet and miserable over the last few weeks and we’ve had a tsunami of orders at Steenbergs so I’ve had no time to think about my blog, but it’s 6 in the morning and I’m up and awake. 

The River Ure broke its banks by Ripon Race Course, so we had to drive through a ford where the two flooded fields overflowed into each other.  The Ure also flooded by the bridge at Boroughbridge and their sandbags were still out last night, and someone said the bridge may have moved, but I saw no-one looking at it so I guess it has been checked.

The beginning of December is the time when I take a peak at my Christmas cake and mincemeat.  You can also do the same with your Christmas pudding if you wish but I tend to leave that alone.

Carefully unwrap the Christmas cake and when open drizzle perhaps 2 or 3 tablespoons of brandy or whisky (depending on what you used when you made your cake).  Give it a few minutes to ooze into the cake and then carefully wrap the cake up again and put it back somewhere cool.

Then I have a look at the mincemeat, which you can give a stir and check the ingredients are well mixed.  If you feel it’s looking a bit dry, you can add maybe a tablespoon of pure orange juice, but it should be okay. 

Our mincemeat is dryer and less sweet than most of the recipes you find as we don’t add dark sugar to it, but I do not have a sweet tooth; the moistness really comes later as the suet adds the fat when you cook it, but even so it is still less fatty than most mixtures.  So apologies to anyone who prefers the classic style like Delia Smith’s recipe.

We’ll be marzipanning the cake this weekend, so be prepared.

We’re In The Telegraph Christmas Guide

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

Steenbergs was featured in The Daily Telegraph’s Christmas Gift Guide last Saturday (21 November 2009).  Our Fairtrade Sugar & Spice Gift Box of 9 products was featured alongside some very illustrious others, including a Fortnum & Mason Hamper and a set of Divertimenti Kitchen Scales and a really fun looking Gingerbread House Kit from Lidl.