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Classy Christmas Fare | Jacqueline Dyer

“Christmas is coming and the geese are getting fat.”

Well, no,I’m not actually going down that traditional route of a large, stuffed bird, goose or otherwise, but I do have something very special for you this month, to add a touch of class to your Christmas. First up is a classic of French cuisine that is not difficult at all to make, but spectacular to look at and delicious to eat. Second is collection of alcoholic treats that will have your guests begging for more; and third is an irresistible cake (and we all love cake, right!)

Magret de Canard

Duck Breast in Honey & Anise

During the pandemic I wrote a story for online publication that was set in France and featured a number of dishes that might typically be found there. The response to this was an overwhelming interest in the dishes, which led me to start a Food Blog, where I gave the recipes for those dishes, and an account of how I had made them in my own kitchen. Unfortunately, other projects took over and the blog never saw the light of day, but one recipe in particular stands out as a “special” dish that would be perfect for a dinner with family and friends at Christmas time.

When I wrote that story and chose Magret de Canard as a classic French recipe that my character might be offered in a French home, I didn’t imagine that I would be making it myself at any point. For one thing, I’m not a big meat eater, and duck was not something I had ever cooked for myself before. However, when presented with a challenge, I usually try to rise to the occasion!

The first thing was finding a recipe for the particular sauce used, and this is the one I chose Living In France-Magret de Canard Recipe.

My worry was not the sauce, but actually cooking the meat, so, having seen the price of the duck breast and that it would, anyway, be too much for one person, I invited two friends to come and help me cook and eat it.

“Magret de canard”, as the linked article will tell you, is “the breast of a duck or goose that has been fattened for foie gras and is France’s favourite dish. Coated with a thick layer of fat, it has the meatiness of steak, but a deeper character reminiscent of game.”

My local Spanish supermarket sold that exact thing, so the buying part was easy. Deciding how best to cook it and what to serve as an accompaniment was the next thing. In the end I just followed the instructions in the recipe, and it worked out perfectly. I also chose simply to roast the potatoes in the duck fat, exactly as the article suggests, and serve it with a side of baked courgette (zucchini)- although green beans in garlic, steamed broccoli or any other kind of green vegetable would work as well- and a good, not too heavy red wine, like a Pinot Noir, or even a Pinotage.

The recipe is below, but I have added notes to help you navigate

Ingredients

  • 2 duck breasts (magrets de canard)
  • Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 2tbsp chestnut (or any other raw, runny) honey
  • 1tsp Japanese soy sauce
  • 1tsp powdered green anise (or star anise)
  • 1tsp + 2tbsp balsamic vinegar

Method

1. Trim the excess fat from the duck breasts and score the fat in a criss-cross pattern. Season both sides with salt and pepper.

2. Combine the honey with the soy sauce, 1tsp of balsamic vinegar and green anise powder.

3. Heat a non-stick pan over medium heat without any added fat and place the duck breasts, skin side down, in the pan. Turn the heat to medium-low and let the duck cook slowly until the skin is well browned (about ten minutes), spooning off the excess fat into a bowl. Turn the duck breasts over and cook on the other side for about five minutes. The duck should still be pink inside. Set aside, covered, in a warm place.

4. Discard any excess fat from the frying pan and add the honey mixture, over medium heat. Put the duck breasts back in the pan and turn to coat with this mixture. Deglaze* with the 2tbsp of balsamic vinegar.

5. Present the sliced duck on the plates with the accompaniment and drizzle the sauce around the plate.

Notes

1. You need to buy the exact type of duck breast. It will be labelled “Magret de Canard” somewhere on the packaging as well as “Duck breast” in English. The average size is around 320-380g and it will have a thick layer of fat on the back. We found that two medium breasts were perfect for three people (and a little left over). One large one might be enough for two.

2. The recipe says “trim the excess fat”, but the ones I bought had no overhanging fat, so I left it, and scored the fat as indicated in a criss-cross pattern, which worked perfectly.

3. The timing given is also good. After 10 minutes in the pan on the fat side, I flipped them over and did 5 minutes on the other side. When I cut into it there was still a little blood, so I turned off the hob, drained off the fat and left them to rest in the pan, still cooking a little inside. This gave us juicy meat that was perfectly cooked and pink, but not raw inside.

4. The sauce calls for green anise, but we didn’t have that, so I used 4 star anise in whole pieces, which was perfect.

5. For the potatoes, use large, red-skinned ones, peel, cut into medium chunks and par boil for about 5-7 minutes before tipping them into a roasting pan with some of the duck fat, enough to coat, but not drown them. You could also, as I did, add a layer of sliced onions which will caramelise in the oven and give a lovely depth of flavour to the potatoes. Roast for 20-25 minutes on a high heat (220o C), checking every 10 minutes and turning as appropriate.

6.* Deglaze: this means that after taking the breasts out of the pan, return the pan to the heat with the rest of the balsamic vinegar, swirl it around so that it picks up the residues of the sauce, then drizzle it all over the duck.

The sauce was excellent-, but for 2 breasts I would be tempted next time to increase the quantities of the sauce by a half.

So, if you’re a meat eater and duck is on your list, do try this, it makes a great dinner party dish as I hope the photos show.

Clyde’s Christmas Spirit

“Christmas in a bottle”

My good friend, Clyde, in Thailand, runs a very successful vegetarian food blog called “Copy My Dinner”. A few years ago, he posted a wonderful recipe for Christmas vodka, which I used for a Christmas event and have been using ever since. I tried it out on my Capetonian friends last year and they liked it, but ….. I realise that many South Africans have quite a sweet tooth, so I’ve trawled Clyde’s blog for the different variations he’s used over the years. Also, vodka is not everyone’s favourite spirit, so here are some different options to try out.

Vodka Christmas Classic

Use a good quality vodka such as Absolut or Finlandia. I love vanilla vodka so I often use half vanilla, half plain.

This can also work with rum- white rum, such as Bacardi, for a cleaner taste, or dark rum for a heavier, sweeter flavour.

Ingredients

  • 4 heaped tbsp. of thick cut/dark orange marmalade
  • 1 bottle of vodka (750ml or 1 L)
  • 4 sticks cinnamon
  • 1 tsp whole cloves
  • Optional:
  • 1 or 2 star anise (if liked)
  • Small piece of nutmeg
  • Cava/Prosecco/Sparkling wine for the “bubbles” if used

Method

In a pan warm the marmalade for about 5 minutes to make it runny. Then using a funnel, pour it either into an empty sterilized litre bottle, or a new litre bottle of vodka after removing about 100ml to make space for the additions. Add the Christmas spices. Depending on what you like you can add a small piece of nutmeg and or a star anise to  the cinnamon and cloves. Then fill the bottle up with vodka. Leave it for a couple of weeks shaking occasionally and you will see the colours develop as the spices infuse with the vodka.  Put in the freezer a day or two before serving and serve in shot glasses, or make ‘Christmas bubbles’ -put a shot of Christmas Spirit in a champagne flute and top it up with Cava, Prosecco or any kind of Sparkling wine.

MARS BAR VODKA

This will be very much to the taste of the sweet-tooth brigade and you’ll find them begging for more!

In a glass bowl above a pan of boiling water melt about 250g of Mars bars,

stirring occasionally after they have stated to melt. Once they have melted, pour some vodka, about 100ml out of a litre bottle, into the bowl and continued to heat it until it becomes smooth and runny. Then pour about 100 ml of vodka into an empty litre bottle, this will help to stop the chocolate mixture sticking to the bottom. Pour in the chocolate mix through a funnel, and put the cap on and shake the bottle to mix the vodka with the chocolate mixture. Then top up the bottle again with vodka until almost full and give it a good shake. Once the mixture is combined you can fill the bottle. Leave it for a couple of days, giving it a shake occasionally. Then put it in the freezer until you want to serve it.

This also works well with Terry’s Chocolate Orange (milk or dark).

ROSELLE GIN CHRISTMAS COOLER

Roselle (Hibiscus) is increasingly recognised as a plant that, when drunk in a tea or other liquid, has a number of health benefits. It grows abundantly in Africa as well as Asia, and should be easy to obtain. It makes a beautiful, refreshing pink drink, with a subtle flavour, when mixed with soda or tonic and ice, and served with a slice of lime. It’s also good on the rocks with a slice of lime.

Ingredients

  • petals from 10 roselle flowers (hibiscus)
  • 150g of sugar
  • Bottle of gin

Method

Put the hibiscus flowers and sugar in a sterilised litre bottle, then fill it with gin. Alternatively, pour out some of the gin from a new bottle, add the roselle and sugar and top it up again, then you won’t need to sterilize the bottle! Give it a few shakes to help the sugar dissolve. Store for a couple of weeks before Christmas, until the bottle is infused with the pink colour of the petals, then refrigerate before serving.

WHAT ELSE CAN I DO WITH VODKA?

Get a giant bag of Haribo jellies or wine gums, and soak them in vodka overnight in a sealed tub. Then when your friends arrive, offer them a vodka-soaked jelly. Or wait till later when you’re doing shots of Christmas vodka. Cheers!

AND FINALLY…

GINGER AND WALNUT CARROT CAKE

Everyone loves a carrot cake, but this version, by Nigella Lawson, is a classy and richly flavoured, ginger-infused version that is extremely satisfying without being overpoweringly sweet.

It is also easy to make and does not require any special techniques or equipment.

Find the full recipe and extra notes here.

Ingredients

  • Yields: 8-12 slices
  • For the cake:
  • 200g plain flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
  • 2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • ¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 175 g soft light brown sugar
  • 2 large eggs (at room temperature)
  • 200 ml vegetable oil (plus more for greasing)
  • 200 g carrots (peeled and coarsely grated)
  • 100 g walnut pieces (roughly chopped or crumbled)
  • 75 g crystallised ginger (finely chopped)
  • For the icing:
  • 100 g unsalted butter (soft)
  • 100 g icing sugar (sieved if lumpy)
  • 1 teaspoon cornflour
  • 100 g full-fat cream cheese (fridge-cold)
  • 1 x 15ml tablespoon fresh ginger (coarsely grated)
  • To decorate:
  • 25 g walnut pieces (roughly chopped or crumbled)
  • 25 g crystallised ginger (chopped)

Method

You will need 1 x 20cm/8 inch springform cake tin.

  1. Preheat the oven to 170°C/150°C Fan/325°F and grease the sides and line the base of your springform cake tin with baking parchment.
  2. Put the flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, ground ginger and salt into a bowl and fork well to mix thoroughly.
  3. Beat the sugar, eggs and oil in another large bowl until they are completely mixed together, then gradually add the flour mixture, scraping the bowl you’re beating them in to rescue and incorporate any flour clinging to the edges. At this stage the mixture may seem alarmingly stiff, but the carrots will loosen it up. So, beat in the carrots and then fold in the 100g / 1 cup of prepared walnuts and 75g / 4½ tablespoons of crystallised ginger, until everything is evenly combined.
  4. Spoon and scrape into the prepared tin. Don’t worry if it looks as if you haven’t got nearly enough batter, as the cake will rise well as it bakes. Smooth the top and pop in the oven for 45–55 minutes. When it’s ready, the cake will be set and golden brown on top, beginning to shrink away from the edges of the tin and a cake tester will come out with just a few crumbs stuck to it. Transfer to a wire rack and leave to cool in its tin.
  5. As soon as the cake’s in the oven, get on with the icing. Beat the butter and icing sugar together and when creamily combined, beat in the cornflour, followed by half the cream cheese. Once that’s incorporated, beat in the remaining half. Be careful at all times not to over-beat or the icing will get too runny. Starting with the grated ginger on a plate, get out a piece of kitchen roll and, moving quickly, spoon the grated ginger into the centre, bring up the edges of the paper, holding them together to form a little swag bag, and press on it over the bowl to squeeze out the intense ginger juice. Beat this into the frosting in its bowl. Cover with cling film and refrigerate.
  6. When the cake is completely cold, take the icing out of the fridge for about 20 minutes, by which time it will have softened to a still thick but spreadable consistency. Beat briefly to help this along, and make sure it’s smooth. Unclip and release the cake from its tin, unmoulding it, and sit it on a cake stand or plate. Spread the frosting on top, swirling it a little, then sprinkle the chopped walnuts and ginger on top.

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas full of fabulous food and joy!

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