The pudding, that great fruited mound of brandy-soaked gorgeousness, is not to everyone's taste. While some of us cannot imagine Christmas without the grand entrance of the plum pud, aflame and ringed with holly, others give it the cold shoulder. 'Too rich,' they cry, or 'Too fattening', obviously missing the point of The Feast entirely. For them, the pudding haters, I would offer something more gentle, though in keeping with the spirit of the season. It wouldn't seem right for a Christmas kitchen to be without its whiff of grated citrus fruits or ground spices, or to be bereft of the 'all welcome' scent of baking. With this in mind, my offerings would be spiked either with the zest and juice of unwaxed oranges and lemons, or of the dried peel, candied and ready for baking. Here and there would be the faint hint of vanilla or cinnamon, almonds and mixed spice.
A cheesecake is a jolly useful thing to have around at Christmas. It will last for a good few days in the fridge and can appear as a tea-time cake or, with a few slices of orange at its side, as a dessert. I use orange and lemon zest in the recipe and a drizzle of soured cream at the table to take away its tendency to cloy. On the other hand, you may fancy a salad of sliced citrus fruits, oranges, clementines and white grapefruits. A wake-up call after the turkey and sprouts, but few desserts are quite so deliciously refreshing. For some time now, I have been after a decent recipe for a posset, that medieval pudding of cream and citrus juice. Despite the cream and sugar, this simple recipe leaves a clean feel in the mouth and is uplifting rather than heavy. Lastly, I offer again my alternative to the mince pie. Dried orange and lemon peel, mixed spice and amaretti crumbs make for a richly jewelled filling, and the pastry is so crumbly you can barely pick the little tarts up. I include them as a dessert because that is when I feel they are at their most tender, fragile best. I serve them warm, with a little jug of double cream on Boxing Day after the turkey sandwiches.
Orange and lemon cheesecake
I was never entirely happy with the texture of my cheesecakes, until I tried the water-bath method of baking them that Nigella Lawson uses in How to Be a Domestic Goddess. Serve with a jug of soured cream, beaten till runny and slightly sweetened.
250g digestive biscuits
150g cream cheese
150g golden caster sugar
3 large eggs
1 egg yolk
150ml double cream
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
Melt the butter in a saucepan. Crush the digestive biscuits to a fine powder with a plastic bag and rolling pin, or in a food processor. Tip the biscuits into the butter and stir to mix. Set the oven at 140C/Gas mark 1. Press two-thirds of the buttered crumbs into the base of a deep, 22cm loose-bottomed cake tin. Put in a cold place to harden (the freezer is ideal). Put the kettle on to boil. Put the mascarpone, cream cheese, caster sugar, eggs and the extra yolk in a food mixer. (You will need the beater attachment.) Finely grate the orange and lemon zest into the cheese and sugar then beat until thoroughly mixed. Fold the cream, juice of the lemon (not the orange) and vanilla extract into the cheesecake mix. Wrap the tin in tinfoil, covering the bottom and sides with a single piece. I do this twice to ensure the water doesn't seep in. Pour the cheesecake mixture on top of the hard crumbs. Pour the water from the kettle into a roasting tin. It needs to be enough that the water will come halfway up the cake tin. Lower the tin into the roasting tin and very carefully slide into the oven. Bake for 50 minutes, then leave the cake to cool in the oven.
Jill Dupleix's lemon posset
Occasionally you find a cookery book that makes your heart sing, and Jill Dupleix's Very Simple Food (£20, Quadrille) is one of those. This recipe, a version of a medieval one, would make a pleasing Christmas dessert. Serves 4.
450ml double or whipping cream
125g caster sugar
60ml lemon juice
Combine the cream and caster sugar in a saucepan and bring to the boil, stirring. Reduce the heat and bubble for three minutes, stirring constantly, without allowing the cream to boil. Remove from the heat and add the lemon juice, stirring well. Taste, and add a little more lemon juice if you so desire. Leave the posset to cool for 10 minutes, then stir once and pour into four 100ml ramekins, Chinese teacups or espresso coffee cups. Chill in the refrigerator for a few hours before serving, with tiny spoons.
Walnut and candied-peel tartlets
I can't help feeling there is something magical about tartlets - the sort of thing they might cook in a fairy tale. Serve them warm with ice cream such as cinnamon or nutmeg. Makes 24.
For the pastry:
150g cold butter
300g plain flour
For the filling:
200g golden syrup
100g candied orange and lemon peel
a pinch of mixed spice
4 soft amaretti or 4 tbsp cake crumbs
1 large egg, lightly beaten
You will also need 24 jam tart or shallow bun tins 7.5cm in diameter and 1cm deep.
Cut the butter into small pieces and rub into the flour with your fingertips until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. A tiny pinch of salt is optional. Drizzle in a very small amount of water, bringing the mixture together to form a soft, but not sticky, rollable ball. Pat the pastry into a fat sausage the same diameter as your tart tins, cover with clingfilm and chill for 20 minutes, making it less likely to shrink when it's in the oven.
Set the oven at 190C/Gas 5. Warm the syrup over a low heat. Add the walnuts, roughly chopped, the finely diced peel, the spice and the butter, then, when the butter has melted, crumble in the amaretti or cake crumbs. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the beaten egg. Cut the roll of pastry into 24 thin slices, then use them to line the tart tins. Trim the edges with a small knife. Divide the mixture between the tartlet cases (you don't want to overfill them), then bake until golden and bubbling, about 15-20 minutes. As the pastry is rich, the finished tarts are very fragile, so allow them to cool a little before attempting to remove them from their tins. Serve with vanilla ice cream.