I love London during the holidays and have spent nearly every Christmas here for the past 15 years. The capital becomes a ghost town and businesses shut for days – something that doesn’t happen in the same way in the US, where I grew up. It’s a tradition at our Violet bakery to stay open until about 1pm on Christmas Eve, handing out eggnog to customers who come to collect hampers, mince pies, cakes and puddings at the last minute before the big day. By the time the shop is all closed up, there is just enough time to have dinner with friends and then go home to lay out cookies for Santa Claus.
On Christmas morning, I rise at dawn to make freshly squeezed orange juice, coffee and cinnamon toast to keep the wolf from the door while we open presents. The clean-up of all the pretty paper and ribbons has to be quick, before making breakfast. The breakfast is light but substantial. We like to walk in the park at Christmas, so something with a bit of protein is what I crave. Fresh food and then fresh air. I like to get rosy cheeks and feel the cold so we can come back and get cosy inside again, playing games and working up our appetite for Christmas dinner.
Cardamom pancakes with thyme figs (pictured above)
For those who prefer a sweet start to the day, these are my best ever fluffy American pancakes, enriched with cardamom and cinnamon for Christmas. The dried figs are poached with thyme, but the addition of a splash of chartreuse or another favourite herbaceous liqueur such as fernet transforms them.
For the figs
whole dried figs 300g
fresh thyme 3 sprigs
sweet white wine 300ml, muscat or sauternes (or apple juice)
honey 1 tbsp
chartreuse or fernet a glug (optional)
For the pancakes
plain flour 210g
bicarbonate of soda 1 tsp
baking powder 1½ tsp
salt 1 tsp
ground cardamom 1 tsp
ground cinnamon ½ tsp
eggs 3, separated
caster sugar 3 tbsp
Greek yoghurt to serve
Start with the figs. Place all the ingredients for the figs except the chartreuse in a small saucepan and cook gently, covered, over a low heat for 35-40 minutes. Take off the heat and allow to cool slightly. Stir in the chartreuse and set aside to cool further. Once cool to the touch, trim the stems off the figs and quarter them.
For the pancakes, weigh the flour, bicarbonate of soda, baking powder, salt, cardamom and cinnamon into a large bowl and whisk to combine. Melt the butter in a small saucepan and allow to cool slightly.
In another bowl, weigh out the yoghurt and milk. Separate the eggs, putting the yolks in with the yoghurt and the whites in a large clean bowl and set aside. Whisk the yolk and yoghurt mixture to combine, then add a spoonful to the melted butter to temper it, whisking well. Add the rest of the mixture and whisk until smooth. Whisk this well into the dry ingredients.
Whisk the egg whites with the sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time until medium-stiff peaks form. Fold this into the batter. Heat a heavy frying pan with a little oil. Cook the pancakes and serve warm with the fig compote and Greek yoghurt .
Marinated artichoke frittata
You will need a non-stick or cast-iron frying pan with a lid for this recipe. It requires a big flip like a Spanish tortilla, which is always a little intimidating at first, but you just have to go for it. I like mine served with salad leaves lightly dressed with vinaigrette.
olive oil 4 tbsp
marinated artichokes 2 x 280g jars (320g drained weight)
pecorino romano, parmesan, or vegetarian hard cheese 125g, grated fine, plus extra for sprinkling
parsley 20g, picked and chopped
flaky sea salt 1 tsp
freshly ground black pepper
Heat a 25cm frying pan over a medium-high heat and add the olive oil. Drain the artichokes. In a mixing bowl, crack your eggs and add your grated cheese, chopped parsley, salt and pepper. Whisk well to combine. Stir in the drained artichokes. Pour the contents into your hot pan and cover for 7-8 minutes.
Place a lid over the pan – or a large round pizza plate works well – and hold it tightly against the pan. Quickly and in one motion, invert the pan on to the lid or plate. I do this over the sink to catch any drips. Invert the frying pan again and set down. Slide the frittata into the pan so you are now cooking the other side. Return to the heat for 5 minutes to finish cooking. Remove and slide on to a board or serving plate, sprinkle with extra cheese, and take to the table. Great served warm or at room temperature.
Eggs, potatoes and aioli
My perfect meal for any time of day. A version of petit aioli, this is all about making mayonnaise and then preparing lovely things to dip into it. Great to set on the table for everyone to pick at while they are busy getting ready for Christmas dinner. Making mayonnaise is one of those tasks that, when accomplished, gives you the quiet triumph of being a good cook. There is a simple alchemy that needs to take place, but it is achievable when you add the oil as slowly as possible.
For the aioli
garlic 1 clove
salt a pinch
egg yolks 3
olive oil 300ml
lemon juice 1 tsp
For the table
small waxy potatoes 12, washed clean but not peeled
radishes a bunch
anchovies 1 tin
For the aioli, I prefer to use a mortar and pestle, but it does take a long time and you need a large one. Otherwise, use a balloon whisk or an electric mixer. Crush the garlic clove into a smooth paste with the salt. If not using a mortar, use a garlic crusher or the back of a fork. Whisk in the egg yolks. Now start to add your oil 1 teaspoonful at a time down the inside of your mortar or bowl. After each addition it is imperative to emulsify the mixture. Keep going until all the oil is added. A good aioli should be very thick. Add a teaspoon of fresh lemon juice at the end and whisk well. Chill until ready to use.
Place a large pot of salted water over a high heat and bring to the boil. Once boiling, add your clean potatoes, skins on, and cook completely. Drain and return to the pot (off the heat) with the lid to allow them to steam and dry out a little – this will take about 10 minutes. Remove the lid and, once cool enough to handle, use a paring knife or your fingers to peel the papery skins off. Set aside.
Place the eggs into a saucepan large enough to hold them in one layer. Cover with water and place on a high heat. As soon as the pot comes to the boil (keep a close eye) turn the heat down slightly to a rolling boil rather than a rapid one. Set the timer for 6 minutes. As soon as the timer goes off, drain the water and refresh in cold water. Leave to cool while you prepare the vegetables.
Trim the radishes and cauliflower and cut into manageable pieces. Peel the carrots and leave whole. Arrange the vegetables and potatoes on nice plates or a platter on your table. Set out a large bowl of the aioli. Peel and halve the eggs and place on a pretty plate.
Drain any oil from the anchovies and place on a small plate. Drizzle with good fresh olive oil and add this to the table alongside a bowl of olives.
Hot smoked salmon toasts with pears and pickles
These quick pickles can be made a week before or just a couple of hours before. They will improve over the week and can be added to so many Christmas leftover dishes. Hot smoked salmon is the dry, flaky one, which I prefer. It can be quite salty, so be sure to taste the salmon before adding more salt. The smooth sweet flavour of pear is the perfect foil for this salty open breakfast sandwich.
You will need to start 2 hours before serving but the active preparation time is only about 30 minutes.
For the pickles
apple cider vinegar 240ml
caster sugar 3 tbsp
fine sea salt ½ tsp
For the toasts
white cabbage ½
sourdough bread a loaf – you want 6 large slices
garlic 2 cloves
cream cheese 200g
hot smoked salmon 400g
Greek-style yoghurt 100g
pears 3 (I like comice), sliced
lemons juice of 2
flaky sea salt and pepper
First, make the pickles. Peel and slice the shallots and pack them snuggly into a jar. Add the remaining ingredients to a small saucepan and bring to the boil. Pour over the shallots and close the jar. Leave to do their thing for at least 2 hours, or up to a week. Keep them in the fridge.
Slice the cabbage as thinly as you can and place in a bowl of cold water for about 20 minutes. The cabbage should really perk up nicely. Drain the cabbage and shake off any excess water. Wrap in a clean tea towel and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
When ready to serve, cut your sourdough into 2cm-thick slices, toast in toaster until golden, then rub each piece on one side with the garlic. Place on a large serving platter or individual plates, garlic side up, and spread with some cream cheese. Flake the salmon evenly over the toasts.
Take the cabbage from the fridge and place in a bowl with the yoghurt and toss to coat. Top the toast with cabbage, and sprinkle some pickled shallots over the top. Arrange the sliced pears alongside the toasts, then drizzle fresh lemon juice over the pears.
Drizzle with good olive oil, and season with a little flaky sea salt and pepper. Serve at once.
Apple pistachio breakfast galette
Like having an apple turnover or almond croissant for breakfast, this galette meets you somewhere in between. I love using pistachio here both for flavour and that gorgeous Christmassy colour. This tart is so fast to prepare and the pistachio frangipane can be made a day or two in advance. The smell that fills your home while it’s baking is intoxicating, appley and warm.
pistachios 125g, shelled
caster sugar 125g, plus more for sprinkling
unsalted butter 125g, softened
egg whites 3
almond extract ½ tsp
kirsch 1 tbsp (optional)
puff pastry 325g, frozen, pre-rolled or a block
apples 6 medium
creme fraiche to serve
Heat the oven to 160C fan/gas mark 4 and line a 25cm x 40cm baking tray with parchment. If you have a food processor, the pistachio paste can be made entirely in its bowl. First, grind the nuts to a fine powder but not for so long they turn oily and clump together. Add the caster sugar and soft butter and process until smooth and creamy. While the motor is running, slowly add the egg whites. Mix well. Finally, add the almond extract and kirsch (if you’re using it). This stage can be done up to three days before and kept covered, in the fridge. If you don’t have a food processor, chop the nuts fine and beat in the remaining ingredients with a wooden spoon or an electric mixer.
Remove the pastry from the freezer and allow it to defrost while you prepare the apples. Peel, quarter and core them. Place each quarter on one of its flat edges and cut 3mm-thick slices, keeping the quarters as much intact as possible, as this will make arranging them on the galette easier. Continue until you have sliced all your apples.
When the pastry is defrosted enough to unroll, or roll out, arrange it in the prepared baking tray and smooth the pistachio paste over the top, leaving a 1cm edge of pastry exposed on all sides. Arrange the apples in tidy rows. Sprinkle with a few tablespoons of caster sugar and bake for 35-40 minutes until puffed and golden. Remove from oven and allow to cool for 15 minutes before slicing and serving with creme fraiche.
Fried puffs with hot chocolate and brandy cream
These fried puffs are made from choux dough, which is the same batter used to make eclairs and profiteroles. It makes the lightest, fluffiest doughnuts I know and is so easy to make. Perfect for dipping into hot chocolate. Even more perfect when the hot chocolate is spiked with brandy for the grownups.
For the puffs
butter 115g, cut into pieces
fine sea salt ½ tsp
caster sugar 1 tsp
plain flour 175g
oil for frying
For the hot chocolate
dark chocolate 200g
full-fat milk 1 litre
salt a pinch
double cream 200ml
sugar 1 tbsp
In a heavy-based saucepan, melt the butter, water, salt and sugar together. Whisk in the flour, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. After 5 minutes, the mixture should come together and a film should form on the bottom of the pan.
Transfer the mixture to a bowl and set it aside to cool for a few minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, stirring thoroughly after each addition. Tightly cover the bowl with clingfilm and allow to cool for 10 minutes.
Heat a pot of vegetable oil or your deep fryer to 180C. Use soup spoons to scoop golf ball-sized blobs of the dough into the hot oil to fry until golden and puffed out – they should almost double in size. Have ready a tray with paper towels and rest the puffs on it for a few minutes to allow some of the oil to drain.
Break the chocolate into small pieces and put into a heatproof bowl. Heat the milk with the salt until just foamy but not boiling, as you don’t want to scald the milk. Pour the hot milk over the broken chocolate and leave it to melt for a couple of minutes. Whisk the chocolate with the milk until smooth. If the chocolate does not all melt, add it to the pot again and heat gently for a few minutes.
Finally, whisk the cream with the brandy and sugar to soft peaks. Serve the hot chocolate with a dollop of brandy cream alongside plenty of fried puffs.
Claire Ptak is the owner of Violet bakery, London E8