In Juanita Arthur Augustine’s beautiful home in Glenmarie, Selangor, the Christmas spirit is alive and kicking. In
her living room, a large Christmas tree takes centre stage while holiday wreaths and cute ornaments are sprinkled throughout the house.
And there are people. Lots and lots of people – family and friends who have been invited for a Christmas lunch party of sorts (which will no doubt segue into tea and possibly dinner too).
All look elated to be there to sample Juanita’s famed cookies, cakes and a litany of piping hot savoury meals from the family’s recipe vault, including a famed turkey kurma (which makes an appearance every Christmas).
Among her family and friendly, the warm-hearted Juanita is universally acknowledged to be a fabulous cook, a skill she credits her late mother with imparting to her.
“I learnt mostly from my late mum, I was about 10 when I started cooking. But even then, my mother wouldn’t let people into her kitchen so easily – including her own children. So I waited for my parents to go out and that’s when I started experimenting, ” she says, laughing at the recollection.
Over the years, her recipe repertoire has swelled and in 2017, she even wrote a cookbook titled Treasured Flavours: Homestyle Indian Cuisine, which was a finalist in the Indian category of the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards 2018.
Juanita’s dedication to making things well (and from scratch) means that every year, she tries to do her Christmas baking early, so that she has plenty of time to really enjoy the process and ensure the quality of the final product.
One of her Christmas staples is a brandy-infused boiled fruitcake that she says is faster and easier to make than a baked fruitcake, which typically needs to be made at least a month before being served.
“I have so many fruitcake recipes, but I think the boiled fruitcake recipe is just as good as the baked one. I actually make both versions for Christmas, but the difference is that the baked one needs time to mature, while the boiled one you can make and eat immediately and it still tastes as good, ” she says.
And Juanita’s fruitcake is truly a thing of beauty – moist and decadent, with luscious fruity undertones and a hedonistic richness that will spell the beginning of certifiable addiction.
Another sweet treat that Juanita has made for years is mince pies, a typically British festive affair that she picked up when she was living in Miri, Sarawak with her husband and young sons.
“There was a big expatriate community in Miri so I got this recipe from a Scottish lady who was living there. And in my family, my sons (both now adults) just love this – they must have it for Christmas, ” she says.
And it’s hard not to see why – Juanita’s mince pies are to-die-for – delicious pastry with just the right bite melds fluidly into an interior filled with sweet fruit mince in what can only be described as a marriage made in heaven.
In putting together the mince pies, Juanita wholeheartedly advocates making everything at home, as opposed to getting store-bought fruit mince and pastry.
“The store-bought pastry looks nice and everything but when you make things at home slowly and carefully, you can use better quality ingredients and it comes out tasting better, ” she says.
Over the years, Juanita also figured out that homemade mulled wine makes the perfect accompaniment to her minced pies. So she learnt how to make her own – a citrus-laced, spiked affair that delivers comfort with every sip. “This is actually a winter drink in Europe but it’s rather comforting when you drink it at night. So after attending midnight mass on Christmas Eve, we normally have fruitcake, mulled wine and mince pies, ” says Juanita, laughing. Although making all these sweet treats can be tiring, Juanita says she simply cannot give up doing it, as Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without it.
“I come from a family where we make everything from scratch, so if I were to take shortcuts, I know the taste would be compromised from what I know to be true, ” she says sincerely.
1kg mixed dried fruit (mix of raisins, sultanas, currants, cherries, dried peel)
Grated rind and juice 1 orange
Grated rind and juice 1 lemon
200ml brandy, plus extra for feeding
250g butter, softened
250g soft brown sugar
350g plain flour
50g ground almond
1 tsp baking powder
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cloves
5 eggs, lightly beaten
2 tsp vanilla extract
Put mixed dried fruit, the rind and juice of orange and lemon, brandy, butter and brown sugar in a suitable pan set over medium heat. Bring to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Pour the fruit mixture into a large bowl and cool completely.
Heat oven to 150ºC/ gas 2.
Line an 8 inch cake tin with a double layer of baking paper. Then wrap a double layer of brown paper around the outside.
Once the fruit mixture has cooled, add plain flour, ground almonds, baking powder, ground cinnamon, ground cloves, beaten eggs and vanilla extract to the fruit mixture and stir together thoroughly.
Drop ladlefuls into your prepared tin, level the top and bake in the middle shelf of the oven for about 2 hours 15 minutes. Check the cake at the 2 hour mark to test for doneness.
Remove the cake from the oven and cool completely. Poke holes with a skewer and brush over generously with reserved brandy.
To store, wrap in wax paper lined over aluminium foil.
AUGUSTINE FAMILY MULLED WINE
2 bottles dry red wine
1 litre apple juice
1 litre cranberry juice
2 cups orange juice
1 cup orange liqueur
1 large orange, sliced into rounds
1 large lemon, sliced into rounds
Juice from 1 lemon
1/2 cup sugar
2 to 3 cinnamon sticks
5 to 7 cloves
2 star anise
Put all ingredients in a large pot and set over low heat for about 20 minutes. Give the mixture a stir every now and then.
Keep on consistent low heat, just allowing it to simmer around the edges. When a good aroma develops, it can be served immediately.
Makes 24 medium or 36 small pies
For the homemade fruit mince
250g dried currants
3 cups chopped seedless prunes
2 large green apples, grated
200g soft brown sugar
1/2 cup apricot or plum jam
1 cup brandy or sherry
For the pastry
175g very cold butter, cubed
4 1/2 cups plain flour, sifted with a pinch of salt
1 beaten egg, mixed with 3 to 4 tablespoons cold water
To make the fruit mince
Mix all the ingredients in a large mixing bowl, stirring well to distribute as evenly as possible. Pack the mixture into a large wide topped canister with tight cover and refrigerate for at least 1 week before using.
Stir the mixture at least once a day while it is in the fridge.
To make the pastry
Put the flour in a mixing bowl and cut the cold butter cubes into flour with a fork. Use hands to distribute the butter by rubbing lightly. When it resembles the texture of breadcrumbs, pour over half the egg mixture.
Use a fork to mix until it looks like it is almost forming a dough. Keep adding the egg mixture little by little until you can gather and form the fough into a rough ball.
Divide the ball into 2 flat discs. Wrap in cling film and chill until firm.
Sprinkle work surface with flour and place one disc of dough over it. When soft enough to handle, roll out dough 1/8 inch thick and cut into rounds with a cutter (for the bottom and tops of mince pies).
Pre-heat oven to 175 C.
Place in rounded patty tins. Put a scant teaspoon of fruit mince filling in pastry rounds. Slightly dampen the edges of top pastry rounds with water and place rounds damp side down firmly on the filled pies. Use a small fork to poke the tops of the pies lightly and sprinkle fine sugar over it.
Bake for 25 to 30 minutes until done. Cool completely on wire racks before storing in an airtight tin. Warm briefly in slow oven before serving.
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