This creamy potato & leek gratin is full of flavour and makes a wonderful accompaniment to any roast meat. It can take a little time to thinly slice the potatoes, but once sliced the gratin only takes minutes to assemble. If making for Christmas dinner, as a time-saving measure on Christmas Eve prepare and cook the gratin until it is just about ready, but leave the potatoes a little on the hard side. Allow it to cool, then cover and refrigerate. The next day place it back in a hot oven and continue to cook the dish through, which will take about 20 minutes.  




Creamy Potato & Leek Gratin

Ingredients
knob of butter
1 kg potatoes, peeled and very thinly sliced
150g / 1 leek, white part only, peeled and thinly sliced
250ml full-fat milk
250ml cream
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
100g white cheddar cheese, finely grated

Method
1. Preheat the oven to 200 ̊C /fan 180 ̊C/gas mark 6.
2. Grease a large casserole dish with the knob of butter.
3. Place the thinly sliced potatoes and leeks in a large saucepan. Add the milk and cream and season with a little salt and pepper. On a low heat gently bring to the boil and then simmer gently for 5 minutes.
4. Spoon the creamy potato and leek mixture into the casserole dish. Sprinkle over the fresh thyme and then cover with an even layer of the cheese.
5. Bake in the oven for 30-35 minutes, when the potatoes and leeks will be cooked through and the top will be golden brown. Serve and enjoy.
Children will love to make these magical stained-glass cookies. They are the perfect cookies to hang on the Christmas tree, however, I would advise you to simply hang them just before eating, as if left for too long the cookies will begin to soften and the centre will begin to melt. You can use any hard candies you please, but the apple drops make the perfect centre, as their flavour marries perfectly with the cinnamon in the cookie.



Stained-Glass Cookies

Ingredients
Makes approx 15
300g plain flour
100g caster sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
200g butter
1 egg
25ml milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
A handful of apple drops


Method
  1. Preheat the oven to 200°C/fan 180°C/Gas 6. Prepare two baking trays with sheets of parchment paper.
  2. Using a food processor blitz the flour, sugar, cinnamon, and butter until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. In a cup combine the egg, milk and vanilla extract, and with the processor on a low speed gently drizzle into the mixture.
  3. Once the dough is together, turn out onto a floured board and knead it lightly. Place in the fridge for 30 minutes to harden slightly.
  4. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough to the thickness of a euro coin. Cut into shapes using festive cutters. Place on the baking, then carefully cut out a smaller shape in the middle of each cookie. Keep re-rolling the cut-offs into shapes until all the dough is used up.
  5. Place the apple drops into a freezer bag and carefully bash with a rolling pin until they are well crushed. Pour about half a teaspoon of the crushed sweets into the center of each cookie.
  6. Using a skewer make a hole at the top of each biscuit. Place in the oven and bake until golden or pale brown for 12–15 minutes, depending on their thickness. Place the ‘inner’ cookie shapes on a separate baking tray and bake for about 6-8 minutes, depending on their size.
  7. Remove from the oven. Check with a skewer that the hole at the top of each biscuit hasn’t covered over. Cool on a wire rack.
  8. When completely cooled thread with a thin ribbon and dust with some icing sugar.
  9. The cookies are now ready to hang on the Christmas tree, but they are best enjoyed on the day they are made.

If you are in search of something easy to make with the children, chocolate apples are a great choice. I find forks make the decorating and eating of the apples a lot easier than the traditional lollipop sticks. Pop the apples into the fridge the night before decorating them. The cooled apples allow the chocolate to stick to it with more ease.


Chocolate Apples


Ingredients
4 apples, rinsed and dried 4 forks 200g milk chocolate 50g white chocolate Toppings: sugar sprinkles


Method

  1. Refrigerate the apples for several hours or overnight.
  2. Dry any condensation from the apples with some kitchen paper. Insert a fork into each apple. Place some greaseproof paper on a plate. 
  3. In a heat-proof bowl over some simmering water melt the milk chocolate.
  4. Let the chocolate cool slightly for 2 minutes. Dip each apple into the milk chocolate, covering each apple completely. Allow excess to drain. Place on the greaseproof paper and leave to set, which will only take a few minutes.
  5. In a clean bowl, over some simmering water, melt the white chocolate.
  6. Once the chocolate on the apples has set, drizzle over the white chocolate.
  7. Sprinkle with toppings of your choice. Place the apples back on the paper and leave in a cool place until the chocolate hardens.

This is a regular chocolate truffle mixture, which I would normally scoop into balls and dip into chopped nut, however, since it is the spooky season, I’ve moulded the mixture into mouse-like shapes. With the addition of little eyes, ears and a tail, these tasty little creatures would make a welcome addition at any Halloween party.


Chocolate Mice

Ingredients
Makes 20 mice
200g chocolate, good quality, approx 46% cocoa
100ml cream
25g butter
40 flaked almonds
A strip of liquorice rope, cut into 20 1-inch pieces
40 white chocolate drops or white candy coated mini sweets

Method

  1. Melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl, over a saucepan of just-boiled water. In a separate saucepan, melt the cream and butter together. Just before it comes to the boil, remove from heat. Very gradually stir into the melted chocolate. Stir gently, for about 5 minutes, until smooth and thick. Cover the bowl with cling film and chill for about 2hrs.
  2. Place a sheet of greaseproof paper on a baking tray. Scoop up a teaspoonful of truffle mix and using two spoons quickly mould into a ball, before gently moulding one side a little pointy to create a ‘mouse’ shape. The chocolate mix will melt with the heat of your hands so you must work quickly. Place on the tray. 
  3. Add two almond silvers, to each mouse, for their ears. Repeat with remaining mix, and then chill for another hour.
  4. Take from the fridge and with the assistance of a toothpick, guide the liquorice tail into place, and stick the white chocolate drops/white candy coated sweets on for the eyes.
  5. Pop back into the fridge to set. These Chocolate Mice can then be stored in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 7 days.

Happy Halloween!


Young children love to make these spooky cookies. The biscuit base is a simple shortbread, but any round biscuits, such as digestives or rich tea, could take their place if time wasn't on your side for baking a batch. The shortbread dough is perfect for little hands to manipulate, and they tend to always turn out rather well, even if the ‘cook’ hasn’t the lightest touch. The cooled cookies can be easily decorated with a little icing and a few sweets to fit in perfectly at any Halloween buffet.



Halloween Cookies
Ingredients
Makes about 25 cookies
100g icing sugar
200g butter, softened
1 tsp vanilla extract
300g plain flour

Icing
250g icing sugar
2 tbsp water
15-25 liquorice allsorts circular sweets
1 tsp red food colouring, placed in a small bowl
1 tsp black food colouring, placed in a small bowl

Method
  1. Preheat the oven to 190°C/fan 170°C/gas mark 5.
  2. Using an electric mixture, beat the icing sugar and butter until soft and well combined, which should take about 5 minutes.
  3. Add the vanilla extract and with the mixer on a low speed gradually add the flour. Don’t overbeat and once combined bring the dough together into a ball. Place it on a sheet of greaseproof paper, cover with cling film and place in the fridge for 30 minutes, to harden slightly.
  4. Sprinkle a little flour onto a work surface and roll out the dough to your desired thickness. Using a cookie cutter, or a glass, make circular shapes out of the dough.
  5. Prepare two baking trays with a sheet of greaseproof paper on each. Transfer the raw cookies to the trays and place in the preheated oven for 8-12 minutes, depending on their thickness.
  6. While the cookies are cooking prepare the icing. In a medium sized bowl combine the icing sugar with the water. Add a few more drops of water if required.
  7. Take the cookies from the oven and place them on a wire rack to cool, which will only take a few minutes.
  8. Top each cookie with a teaspoon full of icing and smooth the top using the back of a knife. Place a circular liquorice allsorts into the centre and using a toothpick and the red food colouring draw a few lines to represent veins. For the ‘Jack Skeleton’ cookies simply use the black food colouring and another toothpick to draw the face. Allow the icing to set before serving. The cookies will keep in an airtight tin for up to 3 days.


The traditional Halloween barmbrack was a fun way to tell someone's fortune for the coming year. As a child, I remember inside each brack would be a pea, a stick, a piece of cloth, a small coin and a ring. Each item was individually wrapped in greaseproof paper, as each would carry a meaning; the pea, the person would not marry. The stick, the person would have a year of disputes. The cloth, the person would be poor. The coin, the person would be rich. The ring, the person would be wed before the following Halloween. Most shop-bought bracks still come with a ring inside, but if you're baking your own this Halloween, just for fun, add the extra 'fortunes' but ensure each one is well wrapped with greaseproof paper and to avoid any chipped teeth always let the brack-eater know of these additions.

Barmbrack

Ingredients
200g sultanas
150g raisins
25g mixed peel
300ml tea, cold
250g self-raising flour
125g caster sugar
1 tsp mixed spice
1 egg, lightly beaten

Method
  1. Place the dried fruit into a bowl. Pour over the cold tea. Cover with cling film and leave to soak overnight.
  2. Preheat the oven to 180°C/ fan 160°C/gas mark 4. Line the base of a 2 lb loaf tin with parchment paper and grease the sides with a little butter.
  3. Sieve the flour into the bowl with the soaked fruit. Add the sugar, spice and lightly beaten egg. Using a wooden spoon, stir well to combine.
  4. If using the 'fortune teller' items, tightly wrap each one in greaseproof paper and carefully add to the mixture.
  5. Transfer to the loaf tin, and place in the preheated oven for 1 1/2 – 1 3/4 hours, or until the brack has risen well and is cooked through.
  6. Cool on a wire rack. When cold, cut into slices and spread each with a thin layer of butter.

No matter how many children we have, whether we leave the house to work or are tied to the school-time runs, I think most parents have a similar approach to weekday family meals. Dinner needs to be nutritious enough to sustain the busy lifestyle a modern life dictates. They must be filling enough to carry us, and especially energetic little ones, to the next meal. But, rather important for the designated cook, it's paramount that the family meals we make can be rustled up with ease using as few pots and pans as possible. Stews, casseroles and any one-pot dish fit best into this category, simply served with a big pot of creamy mash, pasta or rice. This tasty fish dish will be prepared and on the table in just over half an hour. I like to serve it with some brown rice, but creamy mashed potato would also be delicious. I've listed cod in the ingredient list, but feel free to use your favourite fish of choice. 



Cod in a Rich Tomato Sauce

Ingredients
1 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, finely diced
1 red pepper, finely diced
1/2 tsp smoked paprika
Sea salt and pepper
1 tin chopped tomatoes
1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
4 cod pieces, approx. 200g each
100g mature cheddar cheese, grated
A handful of fresh basil leaves

Method
  1. Preheat the oven to 200°C/fan 180°C /Gas mark 6. Drizzle the oil into a frying pan and place over a medium heat. Add the onion and pepper. Turn the heat to low and sauté for 5 minutes, until the veg is soft.
  2. Sprinkle over the smoked paprika, season with salt and pepper, and stir to combine. Add the tomatoes and Worcestershire sauce. Simmer over a low heat for 10 minutes.
  3. Place half of the sauce at the base of a medium-sized, oven-proof dish. Place the cod pieces on top, and add the remaining sauce over. Place in the preheated oven for 20 minutes.
  4. After this time, take form the oven and sprinkle over the grated cheese. Return to the oven for a further 5 minutes.
  5. To serve, tear the basil leaves and sprinkle over the fish. Serve with boiled brown rice or mashed potato and steamed peas.