Friday, 21 December 2012

Cranberry Christmas

Cranberries – a unique super fruit

I’ve had a love affair with cranberries for the longest time, not just because they taste delicious, but because they are so good for us, as well. And when I was fortunate enough to go and see an Ocean Spray cranberry harvest in North America a few years ago, this just made me even more passionate about these crimson-coloured berries. With their refreshing sweet-tart flavour and unique, proven health benefits, I know cranberries are a good thing to be addicted to.

Native to North America, you can buy cranberries in New Zealand (and around the world) in a variety of preserved forms. Look for Ocean Spray Craisins (dried cranberries), Cranberry Classic juice, Cranberry Jelly, or Whole Cranberry Sauce (which is a bit like jam). There’s even a great ‘trail mix’ studded with Craisins  and this is something I love to nibble on, as a healthy snack.

Seeing an Ocean Spray cranberry harvest first-hand was a remarkable experience.

For many years now, I have been using cranberry products in the recipes I create for my cookbooks and magazine columns, and in my own home kitchen. I find cranberries are super versatile and can be used for cooking both sweet and savoury meals, baking, and for making different drinks. Cranberry Classic juice makes a delicious base for cocktails, mocktails, and fruit smoothies. Plus, Craisins are a great ingredient for creating foodie gifts too – think cranberry cakes, Craisin truffles, festive fudge, and jars of relish.

As far as the ‘good for you’ claims go: I have talked to the experts and cranberries truly are a nutrient dense super-fruit. They are full of polyphenols, which are antioxidants that provide many health benefits and may help protect our bodies against heart disease and other diseases. Cranberries are fat-free and cholesterol-free, preservative-free, and a good source of fibre and vitamins. Plus, for good measure, they simply taste great!

And here’s another bonus: clinical research shows that cranberries contain unique properties that help prevent certain bad bacterial from attaching to cells in the body and causing infections. Regular intake of cranberry juice (a 240ml glass or more per day) can maintain urinary tract health and help to prevent urinary tract infection and inflammation. Sorry to mention this here, but it is important – and this is soothing news for those in need.

Ocean Spray Craisins contain double the antioxidants and the same amount of sugar as leading brands of raisins. A third of a cup of Craisins is equal to a serving of fruit, so I find eating Craisins is a great way to increase my daily fruit intake. I sprinkle them on my muesli or porridge in the morning for breakfast, which is a delightfully tasty way to start the day.

Many fruits lose some of their health benefits when cooked. But it’s interesting to note that the important healthy properties of cranberries survive the cooking process. This makes the cranberry a stand-out ingredient and great for use in all sorts of different recipes.

I love to add Craisins to everything from breakfast cereals and baking to salads and stews. Apart from being a tasty addition to cakes, scones, brownies, and cookies, they’re great in chicken stuffing, burger patties, chutney, and salsas, too, to name but a few suggestions. Cranberries are a very versatile ingredient that can punctuate any dish with a deliciously healthy twist. I know you’ll love experimenting with your own cranberry creations. Here are some tips and a favourite recipe of mine to help get you started.

Some festive ideas using cranberries:
·      Serve Cranberry Sauce beside roast turkey or ham.
·      Add some brandy to Cranberry Sauce and use to glaze ham on the bone.
·      Add dried cranberries to traditional turkey stuffing. Or to nut roast (for a vegetarian option).
·      Add Craisins to fruit mince to make Christmas mince pies.
·      Include dried cranberries in your favourite Christmas cake recipe for a change. Simply substitute Craisins, measure for measure, for a portion of other dried fruit, such as raisins, sultanas, or currants.

Little Chocolate, Carrot, Craisin Cakes

Little Chocolate, Carrot, Craisin Cakes
Makes 12
2 large eggs
3/4 cup caster sugar
3/4 cup grape seed oil
2 1/2 cup firmly packed grated carrot (3-4 medium carrots)
1/2 cup Ocean Spray® Craisins® Blueberry flavoured dried cranberries
2/3 cup all purpose flour
1/3 cup cocoa powder
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda (bicarbonate of soda)
Extra 1/2 cup Ocean Spray® Craisins® blueberry flavoured, to decorate
Chocolate Cream Cheese Topping:
2 tbsp cocoa powder 
2 tbsp Ocean Spray® Cranberry Blueberry juice, boiling hot
250g cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 cup icing sugar (confectioners sugar), sifted
1 Heat oven to 180°C (160°C fan bake) or 350°F. Spray 12 standard muffin tins or 150ml-capacity cake tins with oil. Place eggs, sugar and oil in a bowl and beat for 1 minute until creamy. Stir in grated carrot and Craisins.
2 Sift flour, cocoa, cinnamon, baking powder and soda over the carrot mixture and stir to combine.
3 Spoon mixture into prepared tins, dividing evenly. Bake for 30 minutes or until a skewer inserted in the centre of one cake comes out clean. Remove to cool in tins then turn out.
4 To make Chocolate Cream Cheese Topping, first combine cocoa and juice and stir to form a smooth paste. Beat cream cheese until smooth then beat in icing sugar and cocoa mixture. Spread or pipe topping over cooled cakes and top each with a few Craisins, to decorate.
Recipe and photographs ©copyright Julie Le Clerc 2012

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Christmas cheer

As I drove up Auckland’s Franklin Road the other night, I experienced my first real buzz of Christmas cheer. This road’s now famous displays of twinkling Christmas lights illuminating the houses attracts pedestrian onlookers in droves and slows traffic to a snail’s pace. The bedazzling ribbons of lights depicting Santa, reindeers, Christmas trees, stars, icicles and snowmen bring smiles of delight to the face of every spectator.

For me, the other thrill of this time of year is the speciality baking associated with Christmas. My absolute favourite things include anything containing dried fruit or fruit mincemeat. I adore Christmas cake, plum pudd, and fruit-mince tarts. While old wisdom advises the preparation of such treats well ahead of time, this is not always easy when these days time seems to be in short supply.

Consequently, I gravitate to simple recipes that can be made at the last minute, if necessary, and yet still produce something that tastes spectacular. That’s why I love this particular Christmas cake recipe. It’s stress-free to make and produces a result that is distinctly special and celebratory. 

Amazing Christmas cake
Celebrating with a cake is a very old custom, perhaps as old as the joy derived from baking a beautiful cake and sharing it with loved ones. This cake’s history started during World War II when eggs where hard to come by, so it is interestingly egg-free. I’ve been making this version of fruitcake for 20 years now and I go back to this cake time and time again because it has such amazing flavour and texture.
Makes 1 x 20cm round cake
225 g (8 oz) butter, melted
1 cup hot water
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon mixed spice (pumpkin pie spice)
1 kg (2.2 pounds) dried fruit (I like to use ( an even mix of currants, raisins and sultanas)
395 g (14 oz) can sweetened condensed milk
1 teaspoon baking soda (bicarbonate of soda)
1/3 cup dry sherry or brandy
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 1/4 cups self-raising flour, sifted
Brandy, to douse
Vanilla Buttercream Frosting (see below), if desired
1 Place butter, hot water, vinegar, cinnamon, mixed spice and dried fruit into a large saucepan and bring to the boil, stirring regularly.
2 Remove from the heat and stir in condensed milk and baking soda (expect the mixture to foam). Set aside to cool to room temperature.
3 Preheat oven to 150°C (300°F). Line the base and sides of a deep-sided 20cm round cake tin with 2 layers of non-stick baking paper.
4 Add sherry or chosen spirit and vanilla to cooled fruit mixture and stir in sifted flour. Spread mixture into prepared cake tin.
5 Bake for 2 hours 30 minutes or until a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean. Cool completely before removing from cake tin.
6 This cake tastes amazing as is but if you want to go all the way then spread of pipe the cake with Vanilla Buttercream Frosting.
This recipe is from my cookbook, Julie Le Clerc’s Favourite Cakes ©2011

Nifty trick: To store any un-iced fruitcake, wrap tightly in a double layer of greaseproof paper and store in a cool place. ‘Feed’ the cake with brandy at intervals (say once a week) by poking the cake all over with a skewer, then dousing with brandy so that it soaks in through the holes and permeates the cake with flavour. Don’t wrap in plastic wrap, as this makes the cake sweat, which can attract mould.

Vanilla Buttercream Frosting
Makes a large amount – enough to cover 1 cake and decorate with rosettes
250g (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened but not melted
1 kg (2.2 pounds) icing sugar (confectioners’ sugar)
1 tbsp vanilla extract
2-3 tbsp hot milk
1 Beat butter until creamy. Add sugar and vanilla and beat to combine. Add 2 tbsp hot milk and beat until the mixture is creamy and fluffy, adding a little more milk, if necessary, to bring the mixture to the right consistency.
2 Spread a light coating of the frosting over the cake, to cover. Place remaining frosting in a piping bag fitted with a large star nozzel.
3 Pipe large rosettes all over the cake, to cover.

Nifty trick: To quickly make cute bite-sized Christmas cakes, divide any traditional fruitcake mixture between the holes of mini muffin tins and bake for 30 minutes or until a skewer inserted comes out clean. Cool. Douse with a little brandy or decorate with icing, if desired.