I sleep with a nightlight. Not for comfort. I'm a big boy now. I use a nightlight because I like the shadows it casts and the filtered, flickering light it brings into the room. It lasts through till morning, until my alarm wakes me and tells me what the temperature is and whether I will need an umbrella today. It also tells me the date.
The first of December always makes my heart beat a little faster. The day it all starts. The festival that is Christmas has begun. Over the next few days I will plan the recipes and the food that will be on the table over Christmas. Which bird will be sizzling and spitting in the oven, what the "other" pudding will be, and who will, or will not, be breaking bread with me over those few, special days. Planning, rarely part of my kitchen life, is essential. December is when I try out new recipes I am thinking of serving at Christmas.
The traditional cake, freckled with nuts and dried fruits, has its fans, though they are fewer than you might imagine. I could eat it at any time of year, but the magic for me is the cake and its almond paste, not the icing. One of the curious things about Christmas cake is that almost everyone likes at least one layer of it but few, I find, like them all.
The modern thing is to find, if not a replacement, an alternative offering. The bûche de Noël, has recently made a comeback, but it is not something I have ever been able to take seriously. The components however – a decently made chocolate sponge and some soft buttercream – are, if nicely made, worth rearranging. With this in mind, I have made a nutty sponge, crunchy with praline, and a buttercream topping flavoured with chocolate hazelnut spread. It is rich, and needs serving in small slices or squares. With its crown of glistening, caramel-coated hazelnuts there is something festive about it, but though this will grace my Christmas table, it is a cake for any autumn or winter's day.
Chocolate hazelnut slice
Makes 9 squares
For the praline
skinned hazelnuts 250g
caster sugar 6 tbsp
For the cake
dark chocolate (80% cocoa solids) 200g
caster sugar 90g
eggs 2, lightly beaten
self-raising flour 120g
cocoa powder 2 tbsp
For the hazelnut buttercream
icing sugar 150g
soured cream or double cream 2 tbsp
Nutella or similar hazelnut chocolate spread 200g
Set the oven at 160C/gas mark 3. Line an 18cm square cake tin with baking parchment on the base and up the sides. Lightly oil a non-stick baking sheet.
Make the hazelnut praline. Put the skinned hazelnuts into a non-stick frying pan and toast over a moderate heat until deep gold. Add the caster sugar and, watching carefully, allow it to melt.
Shake the pan occasionally or mix the nuts and melting sugar lightly with a spoon, but take care not to stir too much. As soon as the caramel is dark-honey coloured, tip the mixture on to the lightly oiled tray. Once it is cool, blitz half to coarse crumbs in a food processor.
Make the cake. Break the chocolate into pieces and melt in a bowl set over a pan of gently simmering water. Add the butter in small lumps and leave to melt without stirring. Remove from the heat and gently stir in the sugar and the crushed praline, followed by the lightly beaten eggs. Take care not to over mix. Fold in the self-raising flour and the cocoa powder. The mixture will thicken and appear a little grainy.
Scrape the cake mixture into the prepared tin and smooth the top lightly. Bake for 35-45 minutes, till the cake is lightly firm at the edges but still quite soft in the centre. Remove from the oven and leave to cool in the tin. Don't attempt to take it out of the tin before it is cool.
Make the hazelnut buttercream. Put the butter into an electric mixer and beat till soft and pale. Add the icing sugar and mix till you have smooth buttercream. Mix in the cream, then add the Nutella or hazelnut chocolate spread and continue beating till smooth – a matter of seconds.
Spread the hazelnut frosting on to the cake. Cut the cake into nine equal squares and top each one with a piece of the reserved praline.
A carefully stored terrine will keep for a week or more. I bring it out for lunch or for when I feel I should offer a "starter" but haven't made one.
A coarse pork and fruit terrine
medium onion 1
garlic 2 large cloves
butter a thick slice, about 30g
minced fatty pork, such as belly 400g
pig's liver 100g
thyme the leaves from a bushy sprig, finely chopped
ground mace ½ tsp
dried prunes, pluots or figs 100g
brandy 2 tbsp
medium vine leaves pickled or fresh, 8
Set the oven at 180C/gas mark 4. Peel and finely chop the onion and garlic. Melt the butter in a shallow pan and cook the onion and garlic until soft and translucent. Transfer to a mixing bowl. Put the minced pork into the bowl. Finely chop the liver and add it to the pork with the thyme and mace. Season generously with salt and black pepper – a good half teaspoon of each. Roughly chop the hazelnuts and the dried fruits. Stir in together with the brandy.
Line a 1.5 litre terrine with vine leaves. If you are using fresh ones, pour boiling water from the kettle over them first, both to cleanse them and to make them supple enough to bend round the inside of the tin. Remove their tough stalks. Fill with the mixture, pushing it down into the corners. Cover with a lid of greaseproof paper and foil, then place in a deep roasting tin and pour enough water into the tin to come halfway up the side of the terrine. Put into the oven and cook for 1½ hours. Test with a skewer for doneness; it is cooked when the skewer comes out hot rather than just warm. Remove carefully from the oven (the hot water is easy to tip over). Cool overnight, then refrigerate to firm up the texture.
Extracted from The Kitchen Diaries II by Nigel Slater, Fourth Estate, RRP £30. To order a copy for £19.99, with free UK p&p, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop