I like winter, and especially when it’s as beautiful as it was yesterday morning, when everything was crisp and calm and sparkling cold, delineated in frost. One of my favourite food writers, Diana Henry, is very good on winter. I read her book Roast Figs Sugar Snow a few weeks ago, and it’s become one of my favourite cookbooks for its lovely photos, writing and recipes. I was also struck by the atmosphere of the book: it celebrates the ‘North’ in many senses of the word: Northern Europe (Italian ski food; Scandinavian sour cream and dill), North America (sugar snow; mile-high pancakes) and, most subtly, but most familiarly, Northern Ireland, where Henry – and all my own family – is from.
Henry spent five years travelling around snowy climates, looking for wintry recipes for Roast Figs Sugar Snow , and I read somewhere that she stays at ski resorts for the winter to walk and eat wintry food, rather than to ski, all of which sounds pretty great to me, as someone whose bucket list consists solely of “stay in a log cabin in a snowy forest for a few weeks”.
It’s a wintery book, but it’s not remotely Christmassy, which is what you need at this time of year when spring is not yet on the mind but Christmas feels like quite a long time ago, and suddenly a little flippant. This is the time for stews and baked puddings and strong flavours, and this is exactly what this book delivers. It also offers some lovely quotes; including some from Little House in the Big Woods, which was my favourite book when I was growing up and was probably my first exposure to any sort of food writing, or to be more accurate, writing that makes you want to eat the food you’re reading about.
One of the chapters in Roast Figs Sugar Snow has stayed in my mind in particular – a section on zakuski; that is, Russian small bites or morsels to be eaten with friends, with shots of vodka or schnapps, or anything else that is strong and cold and served in small quantities. I think this style of eating would be great for New Year’s Eve, a night that’s greatly in need of a theme. The flavours – which could be seen as Russian, Baltic, or even slightly Scandinavian, depending on how rigid or loose your interpretation is of the concept is – celebrate winter for all its lovely, raw, ragged plainness, rather than the glitzy version of it that we choose to see at Christmas.
With this idea of winter in mind, I have two ideas for your New Year’s Eve table – ‘pot cheese’, a lovely herb and garlic flavoured feta dip based on Diana Henry’s recipe; and, secondly, my mum’s amazing buttermilk cracker recipe, which comes from Nancy Silverton of La Brea bakery fame. I should add that these crackers were also very, very good with a rather more luxurious smoked salmon pâté if you do want to put on the ritz this December 31st. Whatever way you celebrate, Happy New Year.
3&1/2 cups plain flour
2tbsp granulated sugar
3/4tsp baking powder
1/2 a cup of butter, plus two tablespoons, chilled and cut into cubes
1&1/4 cups buttermilk, plus a little more if necessary
Fennel, cumin, sesame, dill, caraway seeds (optional)
Using a food processor or mixer, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and pulse a few times to incorporate. Add the butter and pulse until it’s the consistency of breadcrumbs. Add the buttermilk and using a wooden spoon, draw in the dry ingredients, mixing until just combined. The mixture should be a little sticky. Preheat the oven to 180°c. Dust your hands with flour and knead the dough for a little while on a well-floured surface, until it’s smooth and quite uniform. Split the dough into smaller sections, and roll out the dough as thin as you possibly can. You should be just about able to see the colour of the working top. Cut into crackers and transfer to a non-greased baking sheet. (If you’re adding seeds, brush the crackers lightly with water and sprinkle the seeds on). Bake for 10 minutes, or until golden and crisp. Rotate the trays if necessary halfway through baking, and when finished transfer to a cooling rack. Make sure the crackers are completely cool before transferring to boxes.
RUSSIAN-STYLE POT CHEESE
Ideal for making in advance, as it just gets better over the course of the day. I love the rosemary in this as it tastes sort of coniferous and very definitely wintery. Serves around 6 as a starter; 8 as a dip.
200g feta cheese
2.5 tablespoons sour cream
1 small clove of garlic, finely diced
Some lemon zest
1.5 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon finely diced rosemary
2 tablespoons finely diced parsley, coriander, dill, oregano, thyme, mint…
Drizzle of olive oil
Pinch of caraway seeds (very optional – some people hate them!)
Beat the ingredients together with a wooden spoon until smooth. Cover and refrigerate until needed; serve with a generous glug of olive oil on top.