Apologies for having had such a quiet week or two, blog-wise. As frequently seems to happen at this year, I am a bit low on batteries, and I’m not feeling brilliantly creative. All should be well again in the New Year – I’m off to Morocco tomorrow for the festive season, to enjoy some lovely recharging sunshine, snail soup and shish kebabs. And a lot of things cooked in pointy earthenware pots.

In the meantime, you’re probably after some Christmas recipes. Fortunately, we have plenty of those around here. Here’s the main event – a turkey recipe which is, uncharacteristically for turkey, so good you’ll be tempted to cook it when it’s not even Christmas. It’s brined overnight, leaving it juicy and succulent (the juices will spurt when you prick the thigh to check for doneness), the flesh infused with aromatics from its night-long submersion. If there are too few of you to justify a turkey, try a roast duck with prunes and pancetta, which is just about as Christmasy as it gets with its port and cherry gravy. And here’s a really fine ham for Christmas Eve.

You’ll want some trimmings. Chipolatas wrapped in pancetta and stuffing balls always go down well, alongside some cranberry sauce and bread sauce. Try a maple-mustard glaze on your vegetables, or cook the cabbage/chestnuts side dish that’s mentioned in the duck recipe above. And nobody can say no to a crunchy spiced parsnip.

You’ve probably bought your Christmas pudding, and you already know how to make mince pies. If you want something to drink alongside them, try some hot buttered rum (but beware – you’ll inevitably drink too much, because it’s hopelessly good). This is an especially good drink for those with cold fingers and toes. Mulled wine is another fantastic loosener-upper, and you’ll find present-opening is even more fun with a glass by your side and a little plate of cherry and almond cookies.

Merry Christmas!

Sticky orange and almond cake

This is just great for winter – a great blast of sunny orange flavour, but rather than coming from a delicious healthy glass of juice, it’s mediated through a sugary cake, made amazingly moist and dense with ground almonds. Stodge is a very important mood-lifter in the dark evenings of December.

If you have visitors this Christmas who don’t like Christmas pudding or Christmas cake, this is a very good alternative. It’s rich, heavy and very luxurious in mouth-feel, and while a spoonful of brandy butter or a slug of cream might feel like overkill, it’d be a pretty handsome variety of overkill. If you do plan on making this for Christmas and want to kick it up a level, add three tablespoons of Cointreau or another orange liqueur to the orange juice you pour over at the end, when the cake comes out of the oven. Do not use Blue Curaçao, for obvious reasons.

You’ll need:

250g salted butter, softened
225g caster sugar
4 eggs
50g plain flour
200g ground almonds
1 teaspoon almond essence
Zest and juice of 2 oranges
2 tablespoons icing sugar

Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F). Grease and line a springform tin.

Cream the butter and sugar together until they are pale and fluffy. (You really do need an electric mixer for this recipe, I’m afraid.) Beat the eggs and add them a tablespoon at a time to the butter and sugar mixture along with a tablespoon of flour, whisking as you go and adding more until the last batch is incorporated.

Fold the ground almonds into the batter and add the juice of 1 orange, the zest from both oranges and the almond essence. Stir the liquid ingredients gently and use a spatula to move the cake mixture into the prepared tin.

Bake for 1 hour, checking halfway through to make sure the cake isn’t browning too quickly (if it is, just put a tinfoil hat on it). The cake will leave a toothpick pushed into the centre clean when it’s ready. Remove from the heat, sprinkle over the icing sugar and poke little holes all over the top of the cake. Strain the juice from the remaining orange to get rid of any pulpy bits and spoon it evenly all over the surface of the cake. Cool in the tin for 20 minutes, remove to a rack and when completely cool, wrap carefully for a few hours before serving to allow the flavours to meld and the stickiness to reach a lovely peak.

Refried beans with salsa and chorizo

This photo reminds me that the kitchen really, really needs painting in a colour that doesn’t look like bloodless frogs.

Anyway. About the food. This is my slightly European-ised (and it’s no worse for that) take on Mexican refried beans. You can serve yours in chi-chi little towers like this if you’re feeling all…retentive, or you can just dollop piles of beans, salsa and avocado/crème fraîche on the plate however you fancy. I have a sense that life is probably too short for chi-chi little towers.

This recipe makes more in the way of beans than you’ll eat at one sitting; you’ll probably get two or three meals for four out of the amounts below. (The salsa amounts below are for one meal.) This is because the long simmering of the beans and the making of the sauce that flavours them is quite time-consuming, so it’s worth making plenty and freezing the remainder before you mash them to cook quickly at a later date if you want to save yourself some work. To keep the chorizo crisp, you’ll need to fry some up each time you make this (although you can, of course, leave it out, especially if you have a vegetarian to feed); chopping and frying the sausage is not so much of a hardship, though, given how good it tastes.

Refritos, despite the title of this post, doesn’t actually mean ‘refried’, but ‘well-fried’. These are really worth the effort; they’re silky-smooth in the mouth, and intensely savoury: a billion times better than anything you might have had out of a can. Amazingly, they also do not make you fart. To make a large panful of beans for three meals and enough salsa for one meal, you’ll need:

500g pinto beans
3 bay leaves
5 cloves
2 dried chillies
1 large onion
1.5l water
1 can tomatoes
4 banana shallots
6 anchovies (yes, even for anchovy-haters – see below)
1½ tablespoons smoked Spanish paprika
2 tablespoons chipotle chillies in adobo
Bacon fat or chorizo fat to fry
1 dried chorizo

Six medium tomatoes (vine-ripened is your best bet at this time of year)
½ banana shallot
1 small handful (about 15g) coriander
A squeeze of lime juice
1 avocado
crème fraîche

Chop the onion into rough dice and put it in a large saucepan with the rinsed beans, bay leaves, cloves, dried chillies and water. Bring to a simmer, put the lid on and simmer for 2½ hours, until the beans are soft. Check during cooking to make sure there is plenty of water for the beans to swim around in, adding a little more if you think they need it.

When the 2½ hours is up, halve the shallots and cut them into half-moons. In a large frying pan, saute them in two tablespoons of bacon fat or chorizo fat (using these fats does simply astonishing things to the flavour of this dish, but you can use olive oil if they make you nervous or if you are not the sort of person who keeps jars of such artery-clogging things in the fridge) with the anchovies. The anchovies will melt and break down. They will not make the dish taste at all fishy – they just add an unidentifiable and delicious richness and depth to its structure. Keep sauteeing, stirring every now and then, until the shallots are golden. Add the tin of tomatoes to the pan with the chipotles in adobo and Spanish paprika, and simmer until thickened. Using two different kinds of smoked chillies may look like overkill, but they both have very different characters, the chipotles dark and chocolatey in their heat, and the paprika much brighter. Together they’re fantastic here.

Add the thickened mixture to the beans pan with a tablespoon of salt (smoked Maldon salt is good, but isn’t totally necessary) and return it to the heat, this time uncovered. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the liquid in the pan takes on a texture like the sauce in a can of baked beans. You’ll be able to tell when it’s ready; it can take anything from 45 minutes to a couple of hours.

You can serve the beans now as a kind of baked bean. This is also the point at which you should stop to reserve two thirds of the beans for cooking later on. Set the third you are using for refried beans aside until you are nearly ready to eat.

For the salsa, just peel and seed the tomatoes, dice and mix with the diced shallot and chopped coriander, and squeeze over lime juice to taste. Chop a chorizo into coins, quarter each of these coins and dry-fry them until they are crisp and rustling in the pan. Set aside in a small bowl, reserving the fat for another go at the beans.

To fry the beans, eat 2 tablespoons of bacon or chorizo fat in a large saucepan until very hot. Mash the beans in their sauce with a potato masher. They shouldn’t be completely smooth, but work at it until most of the beans are reduced to a paste. Dollop the paste into the hot fat. It will hiss and spit. Use a wooden spoon to stir the beans around in the frying pan, and keep stirring every couple of minutes until all the fat is absorbed and the liquid from the beans has evaporated to leave them thick and dense.

Stir the crispy chorizo into the beans and serve with a hearty spoonful of the salsa, some sliced avocado and a good dollop of crème fraîche. This makes a great meal on its own. If you’re feeling greedy, it’s also a brilliant accompaniment for a steak.

Nokka, Helsinki

I’ve just spent a few days in Helsinki, where the chill and dark at this time of year is easily remedied by a stiff glass of hot grog, a spell in the sauna and a few handsome servings of fish roe. Romantic lunches in the half-light at Kappeli, the cast iron and glass confection on Esplanadi; strolling through the covered market with a smoked lamprey in one hand (many thanks to the friendly Finn who suggested I look out for some; it’s the end of the lamprey season); watching the herring gulls pick fish from the harbour and sneaking them bits of disappointing cake (also from the market). The sun does make an appearance at the end of November, but it’s not a sun you’ll recognise, staying low and watery in the sky. The light does funny things to your body clock – suddenly I understand why the Finns traditionally eat supper so early, especially in the winter.

So we booked a nice early table at Nokka (Kanavaranta 7, 00160 Helsinki), a restaurant that came heavily recommended by a friend. Behind the Russian Orthodox cathedral (and very close to Bellevue, which I visited last year), the restaurant is housed in an old warehouse looking out onto the sea, all orchids, vaulted red brick and giant wooden beams. The ten freezing minutes of huddling under umbrellas that we spent getting there were erased by a punchbowl full of wintertime grog and a great view into the open kitchen, where casually blond chefs swished around efficiently. More blondes, speaking perfect English, Finnish, Swedish, German and plenty of other languages besides, provide some of the best-trained service I’ve come across in this country. This room is slick, it’s stylish, and the food matches up to it.

Nokka’s menu is built around impeccable local sourcing. There’s a page at the front of the menu about the various fishermen, farms, herb-growers, mushroom foragers and so forth that they use; the lamb, apparently, is from somewhere called Snappertuna, which has to be one of the best place names ever. We ordered the four-course Helsinki menu at €59 – a six-course version is available for €69 for the very hungry. Everything on the plate is seasonal – a real challenge in a Baltic November, but extremely well-conceived, with root vegetables and squashes where you might look for greener things in summer.

We opened with a little cup of wild mushroom soup as an amuse. Mushrooms and other foragables like berries have a very special place in Finnish food culture, and really do pop up all over the place; I found a clump of chanterelles growing on the pathway up to the Orthodox cathedral. As is traditional in Finnish soups, our little cups were heavily dosed with cream – on the edge of being rich, but very well-judged in a portion this size, where you’re only eating a mouthful but want it to be a memorable one.

Fish, especially herring, is what Helsinki’s all about. This little fillet (picture at the top of the page) had been marinaded in a tart preserving mixture, then gently grilled to lift its flavour even more. The process had given it a wonderful texture – soft and a little crisp around the edges. Tiny dollops of pureed potatoes (the Finns are justly proud of their potatoes, which have exceptional flavour thanks to those long summer days of sunshine) were topped with a little fish roe – a surprisingly good combination, rich and gorgeously balanced between the nutty, salty roe and smooth, creamy purée, which I’m going to try to do something with myself when the Jersey Royals come in next year. Add a little fresh beet salad, some sweet, gently pickled slices of raw carrot and red onion and a handful of dill and chervil, and you’ve got one of the best starters I’ve eaten all year. It’s refreshing to find a plate full of garnish where the garnish is actually meaningful – nothing on this plate would have been as good on its own as the glorious whole was.

Alhopakka duck breast next, with a cardamom sauce and straw-smoked, puréed parsnips. The duck’s leg, confited and shredded, was pressed into the timbale you can see at the side of the plate. Again, everything on the plate was part of a well-conceived whole – the smoked parsnip purée marrying so well with the cardamom, which paired so well with the fatty duck, which worked so well with the turtle beans and apricots tucked beneath it. And this was a big portion – as the meal progressed, we noticed that some who had ordered the six-course menu at other tables were struggling to finish everything.

Cheeses arrived, just a brie and a comte, served with no bread, but with some toasted nuts and seeds and fruit jellies. (No picture. I was getting funny looks from an adjacent table.) Not as exciting or unusual as the evening’s other dishes, but a nice opportunity to get our ducks in a row, as it were, before attacking dessert.

So many places do a warm chocolate cake with a melty middle that it’s become a bit of a cliche. A very jolly one, though, which is made considerably more interesting by the addition of pumpkin (more puree!), some chocolate rubble and a handsome dollop of very dark, malt ice cream. It’s been a few days and I still can’t work out whether or not I actually liked that pumpkin, a little bland in texture against the richness of all the other ingredients, but it certainly worked to tamp down the sweetness of the dish.

I’ve one issue with our meal, and it’s not really Nokka’s fault. Duty on alcohol is so high in Finland that ordering a bottle of wine with dinner is a considerable expense, and you’re not going to find anything you’ll enjoy drinking for under €60 a bottle – more than we paid for all four courses. This also has a lot to do with the current exchange rate, of course, which is particularly horrible if you’re travelling from the UK or US. (The pound and the euro are nearly equivalent at the moment, which in a city which starts out as pricey as Helsinki means you are basically precluded from doing any shopping at all.) So I drank a single glass of cava with this meal, where it really deserved a nice fat bottle of Burgundy.

Try Helsinki in November. It’s quiet, the room rates are fantastic (I finally scored a room at the Kamp, the city’s only five-star hotel, which came in at about €150 less per night than I was quoted back in April), and there’s a strangely intense romance to the dying light. And lord, the food’s fun.