She’s the firm but fair baking queen who isn’t impressed by shop-bought fondant icing or binned Baked Alaska, but Mary Berry insists her loved ones won’t be nervous when they present her with their own home-made offerings this Christmas.
“As a family, we all get together. Usually, I host it, and various members of the family bring a pudding, or they help me on Christmas morning or bring a batch of shortbread – even though I’m a cook, they love to bring their own things to share,” she says in that warm but no-nonsense voice, now so familiar thanks to the mammoth success of The Great British Bake Off.
Aren’t her relatives and friends worried she’ll shoot them that disappointed look if their cooking’s not up to scratch?
“Good friends who I’ve known for a long time, they’re never nervous,” she insists.
Bath-born Mary, who lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband Paul, is well-versed when it comes to avoiding festive hosting headaches.
“I think it’s a good idea to get organised and know what you’re up to,” she says. “The first thing is to rally your family and find out where you are for Christmas, and how many there are. Then you can start to buy some of your heavier things like tinned goods, and order your turkey.”
Talking of which, Mary recommends “the best you can afford”, and she’ll also rustle up different stuffings, mince pies and Christmas pudding – although, she notes: “I nearly always find people nowadays don’t choose to have Christmas pudding; they have the lovely fruit salad with lots of exotic fruits in it, because they’re quite full by the end of the meal.”
The 79-year-old, who at just 21 trained at Le Cordon Bleu Paris, has plenty of little helpers at Christmas, in the form of her five grandchildren: “They really do help, they’re jolly good.”
She insists life is all about balance. Mary makes time to play tennis every week (“not very well”) and gets her nails done every three weeks (“my one treat”), but is incredibly busy day-to-day. On top of Bake Off, public appearances and product ranges, she also released a new book, Mary Berry Cooks The Perfect…, featuring new flavour combinations and modern twists on tried and tested favourites.
Here are three recipes from her book:
DOLCELATTE AND LEEK SOUP WITH PARMESAN CRISPS
- (Serves 4)
- 600ml full-fat or semi-skimmed milk
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 sprigs of fresh thyme
- 1/4tsp grated nutmeg
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 45g butter
- 1 large fluffy potato, such as King Edward (about 300g), peeled and cut into 2.5cm cubes
- 2 large leeks, trimmed and finely sliced
- 400ml vegetable stock or chicken stock
- 85g Dolcelatte cheese, cut into small cubes
For the Parmesan Crisps:
- 50g Parmesan cheese, coarsely grated
- Double cream
Pour the milk into a small pan and add the bay leaves, thyme, nutmeg, and a grinding of pepper. Bring just to the boil, until you see tiny bubbles appear around the edge of the pan. Remove from the heat and set aside to infuse for 20 minutes.
While the milk is infusing, make the Parmesan crisps: preheat the grill on its highest setting. Line a baking sheet with baking parchment. Make eight circles from the grated Parmesan, each about 6cm in diameter, on the baking parchment. Place a cutter over each Parmesan circle and spread out the cheese so it fills the cutter. Place the baking sheet under the grill and cook for about four minutes, or until the cheese is melted and pale golden. Transfer the crisps to a wire rack to cool.
Melt 25g of the butter in a large pan, add the potato cubes, and cook over a very low heat for five minutes, or until starting to soften but not turn brown.
Increase the heat, add the rest of the butter and the leeks, and cook for three to four minutes, stirring often, until almost tender. Pour in the stock and strain the infused milk into the pan. Bring the liquid to the boil, then simmer for eight to 10 minutes to finish cooking the vegetables.
Using a blender or food processor, puree the soup until smooth. Pour it back into the pan.
Reheat the soup and stir in the cubes of Dolcelatte. Remove from the heat and season to taste. Serve topped with a drizzle of cream, with the Parmesan crisps on the side.
GREEK LAMB PILAF WITH ORZO
- (Serves 6)
- 6 lamb neck fillets, about 800-900g in total
- 2-3tbsp olive oil
- 1 large onion, finely chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, crushed
- 1/2tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/2tsp ground allspice
- 400g can chopped tomatoes
- 2tbsp tomato puree
- 300ml dry white wine
- 2tbsp lemon juice
- 2tsp sugar
- 1 chicken stock cube
- 1tbsp chopped fresh thyme
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 250g orzo pasta
- 85g feta cheese
- 1tbsp chopped fresh thyme
- 1tbsp chopped fresh mint
- Finely grated rind of 1 lemon (optional)
Preheat the oven to 160C (fan 140C/325F/Gas 3). Cut each neck fillet in half lengthways, without trimming away any fat, then cut each halved fillet crossways into six to eight bite-sized pieces.
Heat two tablespoons of the oil in a large, non-stick frying pan until hot, and sear the lamb in four batches over a medium-high heat, until browned on all sides. You may need to add another tablespoon of oil. As each batch is seared, transfer the lamb to a large flameproof casserole using a slotted spoon.
Reduce the heat and add the onion to the frying pan. Fry, stirring often, for three minutes until golden brown. Add the garlic, cinnamon, and allspice and fry for one to two minutes, then add the onion mix to the casserole.
Pour the canned tomatoes over the meat and onion. Fill the tomato can twice with water and add to the casserole. Stir, then add the tomato puree, wine, lemon juice, and sugar. Crumble in the stock cube and add the thyme, half teaspoon of salt, and pepper to taste. Bring to the boil, stirring, then cover the pan and transfer to the oven. Cook for two hours, stirring halfway.
Stir in the orzo, cover the pan again, and return to the oven. Cook for a further 20 minutes or until the orzo is plump and tender, stirring halfway. To serve, gently stir the meat and orzo, crumble the feta over the top, and sprinkle with the herbs and lemon rind, if using.
SPICED DORSET APPLE TRAYBAKE
- (Serves 12)
- 225g butter (room temperature), plus extra for greasing
- 550g cooking apples, such as Bramley
- Juice of 1/2 lemon
- 225g light muscovado sugar
- 300g self-raising flour
- 2tsp baking powder
- 1tsp ground cinnamon
- 4 large eggs
- 1tbsp full-fat or semi-skimmed milk
- Icing sugar, to dust
Preheat the oven to 180C (fan 160C/350F/Gas 4). Grease the traybake tin with butter and line with baking parchment. Quarter, peel, core, and thinly slice the apples, and put them in a shallow dish. Pour over the lemon juice and toss gently together.
Put the butter, muscovado sugar, flour, baking powder, half a teaspoon of the cinnamon, the eggs, and milk in a large bowl. Beat thoroughly using an electric hand whisk for about two minutes (or use a wooden spoon for about three minutes) until smooth and light.
Spoon half the mixture into the prepared tin and spread it out evenly. Lay half the apple slices on top and sprinkle over the remaining half-teaspoon of cinnamon. Spoon the remaining cake mixture on top and carefully level the surface. Scatter the rest of the apple slices over the cake mixture and press them lightly into the surface.
Bake for 40 minutes, or until well risen and golden brown on top. The cake will feel spongy but firm, and will be starting to come away slightly from the edges of the tin. Also, the apples should be soft. Leave the cake to cool in the tin for 10 minutes, then loosen the sides with a small palette knife and turn out the cake, peel off the parchment paper, and leave to cool on a wire rack. Sift icing sugar over the top of the cake.