This is my birthday weekend, late enough in December to feel like it's generally overshadowed by Christmas. For a long time I wouldn't put up decorations before this, but as Christmas has steadily been bought forward over the years it's become increasingly futile to hold out against it (you struggle to get a decent tree for a small flat if you leave it until now, and things need to go in the post, and all the rest of it).
A tier 3 birthday in the rain isn't the most social occasion, but it still beats trying to find somewhere to go for dinner which isn't offering a Christmas menu and isn't full of office parties. I am not complaining. I've got a handful of great looking books to browse through, some very good coffee, and a collection of really pretty bracelets that a jeweler friend has made for me with charms we chose on holiday in Shetland back in freer times.
Meanwhile it seems as good a time as any to recommend a short list of Christmas themed books. I have a growing collection of these which sort of surprises me - I don't as a rule think of myself as this Christmassy, but the evidence is all pointing towards the fact that I am. I could have done a reasonable list just of food and drink titles.
Kate Young's 'The Little Library Christmas' is new this year, pocket sized, and covers films and books every bit as much as it does food and drink. It's one to read, maybe make plans for next year from, and generally enjoy as a festive companion. Because books are central to it, reading about the recipes is a different experience to reading cookbooks generally, so even if there's no excuse or opportunity for the big meals, at least you're lead towards some great literary celebrations. It's a s good a way as any I can think of to combat the relative isolation of this year.
Tom Parker Bowles 'Christmas and Other Feasts' for Fortnum and Mason is at the other end of the scale. It's mostly in the realms of a fantasy Christmas from my point of view, but with plenty of practical recipes mixed in. I like the lists of luxury goods that sound like set dressing for a very upmarket period drama. It's very reminiscent of the lovingly written descriptions of food that are such a feature of ration era fiction.
'A Surprise for Christmas and Other Seasonal Mysteries' edited by Martin Edwards is the most recent of the British Library classic crime collections. To be honest they're all good, as are the Christmas themed crime classic novels, but I have a particular love for short story collections and this is a particularly enjoyable collection. Why this time of year feels so right for crime and ghost stories is probably a question best left unexamined.
'Chill Tidings' edited by Tanya Kirk, also from the British Library but this time on the Weird series backs up my enthusiasm for these genres. I reviewed both books recently (here and here) both are vintage collections that would take some beating. Chill Tidings has the added bonus of friendly and funny ghosts and is perfect for atmosphere and mood setting.
Jeanette Winterson's 'Christmas Days' is the book I bought in 2016 and still haven't read beyond the recipes that accompany each chapter. Maybe I'll start it this afternoon, maybe I'll save it for another year. It's a book so full of promise - including the charming illustrations that knowing it's waiting for me has been pleasure enough so far. Sometimes books are about more than reading.
Simon Armitage's 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight' is the book I will read this Christmas. I meant to do it last year and didn't, but after enjoying Beowulf so much recently I'm really up for this, and because things are so much less hectic this year I'm less likely to be distracted. There's something about this sort of epic story telling I find very attractive at the moment too. I remember watching a tv version as a child and being a bit flummoxed by it which is very 2020.
Breakfast Cinnamon Buns.
I made these for my sisters birthday and decided to make them for myself too - and leave some for the neighbours as a thank you. The recipe is a Signe Johanson one, I think from Scandilicious Baking and is very good. Buns are best eaten on the day they're baked.
The night before you want them make the dough. Take 225ml of whole milk and 75g of butter and scaled them in a pan - heat the milk until it's just about boiling whilst the butter melts in it. Set aside to cool slightly whilst gathering the rest of the ingredients. 425g of plain or bread flour, 70g of caster sugar, 1tsp of ground cinnamon - or use cardamom if preferred, 1/2 a teaspoon of finely ground sea salt, 1 packet of instant yeast (or 20g fresh) and 1 medium egg. Add the slightly cooled milk and butter and mix to a dough with a food mixer - it's a very wet sticky dough. Put somewhere cool to rise overnight - either the fridge, or a kitchen as cold as mine currently is.
Make a filling out of 95g of soft butter, 50g of caster sugar, 2tsp of ground cinnamon (or cardamom) and 1/2 a teaspoon of vanilla salt - or just salt. Cover and leave somewhere the butter won't set hard in. Prepare a suitable tin for cooking the buns in - I use a 23cm springform tin lined with baking paper or a square tin which has been buttered.
The next morning about an hour or so before breakfast is wanted roll out the dough into a long rectangle, spread the filling over it, and roll into a long sausage. Cut into equal sized rounds and arrange in the tin. Leave for half an hour or so to rise, heat the oven to gas 6/ 200c /fan 180c, glaze the tops of the buns with an egg and sprinkle with demerara sugar (also optional), and cook for about 25 minutes or until done.
They'll be ready to eat in the time it takes to make a pot of coffee after they've come out of the oven.