My ‘treize desserts’ Saturday, Nov 11 2017 

A French tradition around Christmas time is that of the 13 desserts, or treize desserts. It originated in Provence and is popular across the south of France, with each dessert representing Jesus Christ and his twelve apostles. They are eaten typically between Christmas Eve and December 27th. As one with a massive sweet tooth I had pictured trays laden with cakes – but this isn’t the reality.

While the exact composition of the thirteen desserts varies between locales, they most festively and usually consist of the following (the majority of the below being named by my French husband as essential):

  • The quatre mendiants, or ‘four beggars’, representing four monastic orders (Dominicans, Franciscans, Augustinians and Carmelites): namely raisins, walnuts/hazelnuts, dried figs, and almonds.
  • Dates, representing the foods of the region where Christ lived and died
  • Two kinds of nougat, symbolising good and evil (one black, one white)
  • Oranges/tangerines, and other fresh fruit (apples, pears, winter melon and grapes included)
  • Câlissons d’Aix – small diamond-shaped cakes made from almonds and marzipan
  • Biscuits made with cumin and fennel seeds
  • Pâte de coing, or quince paste (basically like posh Fruit Pastilles)
  • Candied Provençal fruits
  • Pain d’épices, or gingerbread
  • Pompes à l’huile, a sweet brioche made with orange flower water and olive oil

Other more obscure references include the bugnes and oreillettes (fried pastries in the shape of bow ties) as well as biscotti-type cookies – but as mentioned, these are highly regional and some estimates have the number of variants on the 13 desserts at around 55 varieties. Some Anglophone sources also include the Yule log on this list, but this would not be a very French inclusion in the 13 desserts – although you do see it in pâtisseries in the runup to Christmas.

At any rate, as a general cake-lover it can be a bit of a let-down to have the treize desserts realised as a plateful of dried nuts and fruits. For breakfast? Sure. As a snack? No problem. But for dessert? Not so much.

So my French husband challenged me to name what my 13 desserts would be. As someone holding dual French-British nationality now (yay!), I wouldn’t ditch everything from the French list, but would also include a few seasonal English innovations.

My French list would therefore consist of the following items:

  1. biscotti, known in some French regions as biscotins
  2. câlissons
  3. pâte de fruits
  4. pain d’épices
  5. nougat (both kinds, of course!)
  6. fruits confits
  7. orange or tangerine (for symbolic value and as a refreshing palate cleanser)
  8. dates
  9. raisins
  10. almonds
  11. walnuts/hazelnuts
  12. dried figs (all for their symbolic value – although I am loath to include the figs as I don’t much like them!)
  13. cumin and fennel seed biscuits

My ‘alternative’ list, however, would consist of the following:

  1. orange (also traditional in the UK)
  2. sugar mouse (what you often get in your stocking in England)
  3. chocolate orange or chocolate coin (ditto!)
  4. mini Christmas cake
  5. mini mince pie
  6. Turkish delight (perfectly reminiscent of Narnia’s snowy landscapes, as evoked by CS Lewis)
  7. alcoholic truffle of some kind
  8. mini panettone (for my love of Italy)
  9. mini candy cane (seen often on Anglo Christmas trees)
  10. borstplaat (a close relative of Scottish tablet), to celebrate my recent move to the Netherlands (it’s often eaten at the time of Sinterklaas)
  11. kruidnoten (another Dutch Sinterklaas confection, rather like hard amaretti. They also come covered with chocolate, optionally)
  12. Lebkuchen – spiced German Christmas biscuits. No cultural or sentimental reasons attached to these ones – I just love them!

Have already made and eaten Christmas cake here, and will soon make Christmas pudding once the delivery of suet arrives. How are your Christmas culinary preparations going? Feel free to leave a comment!


Cranberries! Friday, Nov 1 2013 

A punnet of these was a complete impulse buy yesterday. I’d never seen them sold fresh here in France before, and a punnet was not too expensive, so I took the plunge.

Cranberries could be considered a bit of a superfood. As well as containing vitamin C, manganese and polyphenols, they have also been rumoured to offer a host of health benefits, including being anti-cancer, inhibiting the formation of plaque and kidney stones, and may even prevent and cure urinary tract infections. They are luckily very tasty, too, although they do need to be sweetened as they are naturally tart.

So what are some of my fave ways to consume cranberries? Well…

Pic not ours as you can see. However, ours *basically* looked like this.

1. Cranberry and apple crumble. We made this today, flavouring it with orange, star anise and vanilla. Serving with custard is advisable to cut through the sourness of the cranberries.

2. Cranberry juice. Cranberry juice is never 100% cranberry – they are far too sour for that. However, when mixed with water and other fruit juices they make an excellently refreshing drink.

3. Lamb, port and cranberry hotpot. Get a tough cut of meat, throw it into a slow cooker while you’re at work, and what do you get? DELICIOUSNESS. This’ll be one way in which we’ll be using up our cranberry punnet this week (Wednesday night’s dinner).

4. Cranberry and brie bruschetta. Another savoury option here, joining the ranks of pork and apple sausages and Hawaiian pizza in the harmony between main course and dessert. We’ll be using a Waitrose recipe that combines the cranberries not just with brie but also rosemary focaccia, thyme, and balsamic vinegar.

5. Christmas pudding. But of course! Even though Stir-up Sunday is technically not for another three weeks or so, we just couldn’t wait any longer (particularly since we’ll be having our first ‘Christmas dinner’ early, on December 14th or 15th): we caved, and made our Christmas pudding today. According to Lesley Waters’ recipe, we were invited to be free and easy with the fruit and nuts and to throw in pretty much whatever we liked. We eventually plumped for a combination of currants, sultanas, prunes, apricots, mixed peel and (at Lesley’s suggestion) – you guessed it – CRANBERRIES. Steaming the pudding for four hours today has made the whole kitchen smell thoroughly festive, and naturally we are looking forward to feeding the pudding with alcohol (responsibly!) in the run-up to December 14th before ceremoniously flaming it. DELISH.

Got any favourite cranberry recipes of your own? Feel free to share them here 🙂

Ferret Food Monthly (November 2012) Friday, Nov 30 2012 

Feeling hot?

We love a good curry here at the Ferret homestead (even to the point of contemplating a pheasant korma for our Christmas meal this year) and it would seem we’re in good company: a new survey conducted by MU and Mumsnet has found that 57% of children are partial to a curry whilst 66% even enjoy the spicy dish from below the age of three, with the biggest fans being in the Midlands, Scotland, and North East. In some ways this doesn’t surprise me, as I was a lover of Bombay mix when I was not even two years old. Long live the spice! (Oh, and PS: we’ll be in London this March, so if you have an Indian restaurant in the capital that you love, let us know.)

Getting kids in the kitchen this Christmas

If you need a few tiny minions to help you in the run-up to your Christmas meal, children’s cookery school Splat Cooking could help you to train your little ones thanks to their Christ cooking workshops. With courses taking place in Princes Risborough and Silverstone, adults can even join in the fun too, with courses ranging from gingerbread chalet workshops to edible Christmas presents. I’m glad to see them making one of my seasonal gift favourites: lavender cookies, which I make with cooking lavender and lavender syrup. Happy tasting!

Sweets for the sweet

I already wrote about Swizzels Matlow’s Halloween collection of candies (even though they refused to send me some on account of my living in the land of the surly – boo hiss!), and now that Christmas is nearly here they’ve pulled out all the stops yet again, putting their iconic brands into 750g tins. Their Sweet Shop Favourites tin (£5) is fab for the whole family, and exclusive to Tesco is the Superstars tin (also £5). Their 324g Selection Pack is even more affordable at £3 and includes such classics as Love Hearts, Drumstick lollies and Refresher bars. The 108g tubes of Mini Love Hearts, Refreshers and Drumsticks are also set to be excellent stocking fillers at the great value price of £1.49. Here’s hoping that Santa will slip a few under my tree!

Win Christmas treats with Visit South Devon

From December 1st until Christmas Eve, you can win a whole host of festive treasures thanks to Visit South Devon. Follow their Twitter and Facebook pages for your chance to win sumptuous Christmas hampers and Mitch Tonks’ book Fish Easy, and benefit from seasonal promotions, such as free mulled wine when you dine at Lyme Bay House Hotel in Dorset. I love Devon thanks to my special university years there and envy anyone who manages to make it there for the county’s traditional Christmas fairs (trust me when I say the French offerings on this front are pitiful). a glass

Alcohol is often a popular Christmas gift, but you can go one step further with Alchemist Dreams, which allow you to design your own signature flavour of liqueur and give it to everyone you know. You can even tailor each bottle to suit the recipient – and with prices starting at just £15, there is no excuse to not bestow this on the foodie in your life. They can be enjoyed neat (*responsibly!) or lengthened with soda or champagne. House blends can also be ordered if you don’t know where to start – and with names like Jade Dragon and Winter Warmer, what’s not to like? All bottles are topped off by a red ribbon and handwritten message. I’ll definitely know where to order from the next time I don’t know what to buy my dad.

Be mine (and Tesco’s)

You wouldn’t believe that the shops are already thinking ahead to’s Day, but they are. Tesco’s offerings in particular are extremely affordable and wide-ranging, with their milk chocolate rose costing £1 and gingerbread hearts costing 90p each. For those who like to get passionate in the kitchen, there’s also their heart-shaped cookie cutters and frying pans, which are also priced from just £1 – so it couldn’t be easier to treat your loved one.

Everybody look left

As possibly the world’s biggest Simpsons fan, I’ve often marvelled at the sheer range of products available in Flanders’ Leftorium. Anything Left-Handed is possibly the next best thing, existing in real life online, and now selling the Left-Handers Kitchen Essentials Set, which contains left-handed kitchen shears, a swivel blade peeler, tin opener, corkscrew, and bread knife.  At £41.95, this promises to be a gift for life, not just for Christmas.

Shoddy train food may now be forever a thing of the past aboard the Eurostar thanks to the new appointment of Raymond Blanc as culinary director. Aiming to share seasonal and sustainable food with the train company’s Business Premier passengers, the Michelin-star chef wants to transform travellers’ perceptions of on-board catering. Several Blanc family recipes will feature, including mackerel salad, and chocolate delice with praline custard. I’d hit it…not least because it might be the least expensive way for Mr Blanc to feed me.

The trouble with pies is… Sunday, Dec 11 2011 

I made mince pies the other day. Between myself and my husband they have been demolished in all of a few days. So we cheated and bought ourselves a box of these to get us through this week (well, who am I kidding? There are only 6 in the box and two of those have already gone…):

And I even bought those KNOWING I still have half a jar of mincemeat in the fridge to be used up. I know, I’m a bad pig.

But back to my troubles with mince pies (apart from eating too many of them). I already don’t make full ‘lids’ for them as a calorie-cutting measure, swapping them for festive shapes such as stars.

HOWEVER. On eating an M&S mince pie earlier, my husband and I noted (arrogant much?) that we couldn’t really see much difference taste-wise between them and my home-made pies…the only real visual difference, apart from the full lids, is that the pastry on commercial mince pies tends to be much thinner than anything I ever manage to achieve at home. Not having a pasta maker or anything similar to roll out the pastry to epically thin proportions, it always seems to come out far thicker than I would like.

Chilling the pastry for half an hour beforehand does seem to make it easier to roll out, but naturally halfway through the mince-pie-making process the pastry does warm up again. Find me one person on earth who can be bothered with constant stopping and starting just so that the pastry can be cold enough. You’d be taking hours to make one batch if you were constantly stopping to pop the pastry back in the fridge, drink mulled wine for half an hour and then restart.

A quick look around the interwebs suggests I need to a) work faster and/or b) roll out the dough in batches, leaving the rest in the fridge until I actually need it. I’ll have to see if round two goes any better. Until then: lebkuchen!