Saturday, November 28, 2009

My Christmas Cake - a variation on a traditional Irish theme

It's the end of November and time to bake the Christmas Cake - in fact it is a bit late and all self-respecting "housewives" have been stressing for weeks already about the Christmas preparations. Not this one - I haven't even made the cake yet nor have I all the ingredients to hand - but that will soon be resolved once I put my mind to it and blitz Lidl or my local supermarket - I don't scrimp on quality for this once-in-a-year cake but I don't equate quality with expensive and I hate feeling I've been ripped off - so I have no problem sourcing quality fruit and nuts at the discount German stores as well as the bargains on offer in the Irish multiples competing with them.

So in the true spirit of all good TV cooks - from the how-to-cheat-at-cooking Delia (who has spent Christmas at Sandy Lane resort in the Caribbean according to some stressed out wannabe-perfect-Christmas-cook on the radio this week who felt this was treachery!) to the uber-sensuous Nigella and Ballymaloe mother-and-daughter-in-law duo Darina and Rachel Allen - here's one I made earlier!

The photos you see here are from the cake I made last Christmas and I have no qualms of conscience putting them up here for you to enjoy as it gives those of you who may wish to try the cake plenty of time to brace yourself for a bakeathon -the preparation and baking will take you over a day including the soaking of the fruit in whatever spirit of Christmas you fancy, be it whisky or whiskey (it's all Uisce Beatha or Water of Life!) brandy, rum or Cointreau.

Be warned - it's not for the faint-hearted, as it is not alone time-consuming but a bit costly. However, it is well worth it and it can last for a year or more! A similar recipe is used for wedding cakes and the top tier is traditionally kept for the Christening of the first child!

You need the following items:

10-inch/26cm round cake tin, preferably Springform (Loose-bottomed!)
Grease the tin, and line with 3 layers of greaseproof paper or baking parchment and wrap brown paper round the outside tied with string - this stops the cake from burning at the edges.
(Tip: Cut circles to fit bottom of tin, then frill the side liners at the edges to keep them neatly tucked under the circles. This is clearly seen in the photo below.
(Imperial with nearest Metric equivale
12oz/350gm raisins
12oz/350gm sultanas
12 oz/350gm currants
6oz/175gm chopped mixed peel
60z/175gm washed halved glacé cherries
3oz/75gm dried apricots - chop and soak in water
6oz/175gm chopped or flaked almonds and/or chopped pecans
Juice and rind of 1 large orange/2 small ones
8 tablespoons/120 ml Cointreau/Whiskey/Brandy/Rum (pick one!)

Mix all the above and soak in the spirits and orange juice for at least 24 hours - covering the bowl in clingfilm.

Other Ingredients:

12 oz/350gm brown sugar
12 oz/350 gm butter - softened at room temp.
6 eggs - free-range preferably
1lb/450gm plain flour
1/2 tsp salt
1tsp cinnamon
1tsp ground nutmeg
1tsp mixed spice
6oz/175gm ground almonds
NEXT DAY: Preheat oven to 170 degrees Centigrade/325 degrees Fahrenheit/ Gas Mark 3.


1. Cream butter and sugar with electric mixer or wooden spoon if you feel like some exercise!
2. Add beaten eggs gradually, still beating mixture.
3. Sieve all dry ingredients (except ground almonds) and add to mix while still beating at slow speed
4. Add soaked fruit mix and stir well with wooden spoon, until thoroughly mixed up.
5. Put dollops of cake mix into prepared tins and smooth surface with your (clean!) fingers dipped in cold water.
6. Bake in preheated oven. After half an hour reduce temp. to 150 degrees C./300 degrees F./Gas Mark 2. Bake for 3 and a half hours or until centre of cake top is firm and a metal skewer/knitting needle stuck into centre of cake comes out clean and dry.
7. Leave cake in tin until completely cool - a day or two.
8. Remove from tin, wrap in several layers of greaseproof paper, tinfoil and clingfilm, and store in a cool dry dark space - ideally for a few weeks.
9 For added flavour and potency, unwrap weekly, pierce base of cake with knitting needle a number of times and pour a capful or preferred spirits - Cointreau, whiskey, rum, brandy, whatever you fancy - over the base. Rewrap and store until ready to Ice.
(you can buy ready-made marzipan or better still make your own)


8oz/225gm icing sugar
8oz/225gm caster sugar
1lb/450gm ground almonds
2 eggs
1 tsp almond essence
1 tablespoon sherry (optional)


Mix all dry ingredients together and add beaten eggs and essence/sherry to make a firm paste.

Knead well on caster sugared worktop to prevent sticking.

Roll out and cover cake - use warmed apricot jam or marmalade to stick almond icing to cake.

Tip: Roll out large enough to cover cake in one go, having placed cake on its final resting place - a nicely foil-covered cakeboard or a large plate.

ROYAL ICING (The real icing on the cake!)


2lbs Icing sugar
4 egg whites
2-3 tsps lemon juice


Whisk egg whites and mix in half icing sugar, beat till glossy. Add remaining icing sugar and beat well. Add lemon juice and beat again.

Cover cake with icing as you fancy - can be smoothed over with knife in hot water or roughly slathered on and peaked with knife edge - looks great either way!

See the photo at the top of the post for the finished look - cheesy Santa figure acceptable or a more sophisticated sprig of holly or some calligraphic lettering if you prefer - anything goes and kitsch is definitely de rigueur at this time of year.

Store the finished cake in a tin or covered in tinfoil once cut to prevent it drying out - and most of all ENJOY with all your family and friends over the Christmas holiday season. Happy Christmas 2009 to everyone and Happy Baking!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

My First Strike - Picket Lines and the Public Sector

Today was a red-letter day for me as I went on strike for the first time in my life. I spent the day on or around the picket lines at Dungarvan Community Hospital which was our designated local workplace for picket duty and it was an absolutely filthy day weather-wise. It was cold and windy and rained from about 11 o'clock onwards.

The strike was the culmination of a joint effort by all the Trade Unions in the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) to galvanise the public sector against the government's unfair targeting and villifying of the civil and public sector workers in the current recession. It was not an impulsive or petulant action - rather it was the result of frustration at the intransigence of the government to listen to or engage with the Union leadership in any serious negotiations on proposals to cut pay again in the coming budget.

We are prepared to do our patriotic duty as Brian Lenihan called it last year in his Budget speech but we are not prepared to be sitting ducks for slash and burn cuts and back-door hatchet jobs on our pay, while the banks are being bailed out and many of the self-same bankers that bankrupted the country (apt word that) are wondering how soon they can bring back their bonus payments and lift the cap the government imposed on their CEOs. €500,000 was the cap set just in case any of you were wondering how heartless it was to expect a bank CEO to survive on a pittance pay cut - now that's down from the €2.9 million that the (former) head of Bank of Ireland was paid last year and his response at being asked whether he was taking a pay cut last year was to say that he too would be earning less than €2 million this year! A joke that spectacularly backfired as the opprobrium of a nation poured down on his hapless head and he slinked out the door - followed by a fat pension. That's falling on your sword Irish business style while the nurses, gardai (police), civil and public servants are getting unilateral levies of approx. 7.5% imposed on their pensions and mileage pay cut by 25% without any consultation last May. So that's the background to today's day of action and strike.

I am the local representative for the INO (Irish Nurses' Organisation) Public Health Nurses and I ended up organising things for our members in the Waterford area. This was mainly communicating and liaising with everyone and ensuring that everyone knew what to do, as well as finalising picket duty rosters. This meant everyone was expected to do a two-hour stint on picket duty and they had to sign in as well, so that the union will know who participated. There is a strong moral obligation on members to fulfil their role as union members by taking an active role in a strike or any industrial action and thankfully most INO members recognise that and showed up and did their patriotic duty today.

There is a real sense of grievance at the treatment and perception of the public sector that is promulgated by the right-wing media and by the government which will lead to further unrest and probably more strike days. There is a real divide and rule approach pitting the public and private sector against each other which is detrimental to both, and yet it is very hard to stay silent in the face of such vilification. Many in the private sector are of the opinion that we should be grateful to have a job and perceived job security and put up or shut up.

As someone who worked in both the private and public sector I can appreciate some of the frustration of those poorly paid private sector workers who are now in very vulnerable situations and at risk of losing their jobs but the country needs solidarity not division right now - the vitriol towards the public sector is unfairly tarring everyone with the same brush - we accept the need for restraint in public spending and that's why we can't understand why there isn't a higher tax band for high earners as proposed last year by Labour, and why the TDs (MPs) are able to draw down their pension after 10 years services while we wait 30-40 years to retire on a half salary, or why the low paid are always being expected to contribute disproportionately. Mary Harney told people to shop around - now when they go to Newry and other Northern Ireland towns to shop they are accused of economic treason by spending their money outside the state!

This will go on - but for now I am stopping. We may be back on the pickets on December 3rd if the Union-Government talks are stonewalled.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

November Rain - Floods in Cork and Lismore

This week has seen the worst flooding in years and possibly living memory in some parts of Ireland. I took some photos of the local flooding in Lismore and the overflowing River Blackwater. You can even see some daring Kayakers paddling about on the flooded Inches on the river floodplain.

There is more bad weather forecast for the weekend and storms later today and tomorrow. Whether this is down to climate change or not is moot, I don't think November Rain was a misnomer whether it's the song or the normal weather in Northern European countries. I always associate November with rain and wind and storms, as I do January. So we shouldn't get carried away by climate change alone, though I am sure that the increased flooding is due to man-made factors totally removed from environmental causes. Towns in Ireland like Clonmel have seen terrible flooding in recent years and it is solely attributable to building on floodplains leaving nowhere for the run-off that would normally result from the River Suir overflowing or bursting its banks - when there are houses and concrete all over what should be a floodplain that's the result.

I was in Cork on the day the flooding began - two days ago. Jany had her first booking ante-natal visit at the wonderful new Cork University Maternity Hospital and we drove up in filthy weather through lashing rain and gale-force winds. Walking from the car park to the hospital after dropping the parents-in-waiting off at the main door was a major challenge and one cheap tattered umbrella later I joined them soaked to the skin with drenched jeans and leaky shoes.

After three hours reading a book in the waiting area as the hospital banned partners due to swine flu fears we went across the road to Wilton Shopping Centre for lunch and hit Penneys, where I got fluffy socks and fake Uggs (Fuggs?) for a fiver and felt like a teenager but they were deliciously furry and warm and I am now sharing ownership with my 13 year old daughter who has already borrowed them! We then went to visit a friend in a suburb near the River Lee and found a number of access roads closed off due to flooding. We finally parked the car and splashed the last 200 metres to her house, and left within a half-hour as her daughter rang to say she was leaving the city centre as the Iniscarra Dam was being opened -controversially - to relieve the flooding upstream on the River Lee and Cork would be inundated when the tide peaked in about two hours. We were glad to get home safely as the M8 to Fermoy had awful cross-winds and surface water, and Fermoy is one of the worst towns in the country for flooding. The road from Fermoy was OK but the River Bride at Tallow had burst its banks and the floodplain was like a lake.

Lismore Canal after the deluge

Yesterday Lismore was cut off to the east - the N72 to Cappoquin was closed and I had to drive up the Vee Road towards the mountains to get to work - a major detour that doubled my 14 mile journey. I had the same detour home last night even though there was no rain yesterday, but the river rose all day as the tides came back and there were more roads flooded. Tallow, 5 miles west of Lismore, was closed off and kids couldn't get to school.

Today the weather was dry and tonight has already had a flash hailstorm which flooded our patio. The rest of the country is in bad shape with Cork's water supply cut off to 18,000 households due to possible contamination. The city has practically shut down - no tap water means the army have been drafted in to supply tankers of water for household needs and bottled water for drinking and cooking.

The River Blackwater in flood today

I went down to the river (unintended homage to Bruce there!) today with Jany to take some photos of the floods around Lismore and you can see some of the results here and a few video clips. The rest of the country is in much worse shape - Ballinasloe in Co. Galway has been hammered with the overflowing of the River Suck, and many other towns have been affected adversely.

So I guess we are just lucky here that we escaped the worst of the floods and the ensuing havoc - being delayed and diverted en route to work is a small price to pay compared to what many others are enduring and the misery they will have up to and beyond Christmas. We are very lucky - we have our family all safe and well and we will all be together for Christmas again this year, with the joyful prospect of out first grandchild in February - a real cause for celebration!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

From the Personal to the Political - in a Winter of Discontent

I haven't blogged for weeks now and wondering why, I guess it's that I've been very busy as it's been a time of flux in a lot of ways. Swine flu vaccination has started at work and I am on the first designated team, which has been active for the past week. It is very busy and a new experience for most of us as Mass Vaccination Clinics are a rare enough occurence in Ireland. I would have encountered them overseas particularly in developing countries where they are a staple of UNICEF programmes, and are very effective public health initiatives. I may come back to this in another post.

Meanwhile, back to more personal issues. Our oldest son Shayne and his partner Jany have moved to Ireland from Spain where he has lived for the past seven and a half years. They are together for the past year and a half and are expecting their first child and our first grandchild in February!

Here they are with Migo the dog (who is in Spain until he can come here next year)

We are delighted they are going to be living in Ireland as we miss our kids when they are away even if they can drive us mad when they are around all the time. That's the dilemma of parenthood, isn't it? We spend years waiting for them to grow up so we can reclaim our exhausted suspended lives and then when they leave for college we miss them more than we imagine. The empty nest syndrome is pretty real and I suppose we won't have it for another five or six years as our daughter is only 13 - it'll be some time yet before we can go on holidays in low season to avail of cheap flights, hotels and everything.

That's if we can afford holidays in the gloom and doom that's predicted with the global recession and depression that Ireland seems headed for with the deflation that's happening - no-one is spending as everyone is terrified of what the budget will bring next month - so there is a greater problem here than in other countries.

The country's headed for a winter of discontent - the public sector is becoming increasingly militant as the government seems determined to exact its pound of flesh inequitably from the public servants who are deemed sitting ducks with secure jobs. It is true that we have better job security than in the private sector where profit drives everything, unlike services that are more nebulous to quantify financially, but it is thanks to strong trade unions that this situation prevails.

We have a government who has already hit the public sector with a pension levy averaging 7.5% since April which I wrote about here, and mileage has been cut by 25% for those of us - like me - who use our cars for our jobs. My petrol bill is increasing as the price at the pumps increases and also my service bill is enormous as I do such high mileage that my costs are no longer covered, and the wear and tear on the car is huge.

There was an Irish Congress of Trade Unions-led protest march held in a number of cities and towns yesterday - the one in Waterford attracted about 8000 from different unions whose members were off duty and could go. I was working so only there in spirit. On the 11th November there is a protest by the 24/7 Frontline Alliance to the Dáil in Dublin. This is all part of the ICTU campaign in the run-up to the Budget next month.

Frontline Services Alliance from DCTV on Vimeo.

They comprise the public sector union members who work shifts and whose premium payments are under threat of being cut or abolished as recommended by the McCarthy report, also known as the Bord Snip Nua report) which I referred to in another post. Most nurses, gardai (police), prison officers and army depend on premium payments for unsocial hours and shift allowances to bring up their generally poor basic pay. If these are cut they will be severely affected, as many have mortgages that factored in their premium and shift payments, and they are effectively considered core pay. Even though I don't qualify for these allowances as my job is 9-5, Mon-Fri, we are all showing solidarity with our hospital colleagues, as are most union members.

There is a strong perception that government and the employers bodies are trying to drive a wedge between the public and private sectors but the thing is everyone is angry that the bailouts for the banks seems to be no problem and yet people are being told they need to sacrifice and that €4.2billion must be shaved from the public pay bill and social welfare payments. We are being told to tighten our belts - even though no one is using that phrase as it has too much baggage, harking back to the Haughey days when he was enjoying a lavish lifestyle at public expense while enjoining us all to make sacrifices. That and the recent ex-Ceann Comhairle (Speaker) John O'Donoghue expenses scandal has only added fuel to that whole fire - one law for the rich and another for the proletariat - the rest of the world according to the elites .

Implementing the recommendations of the Bord Snip Nua report would be political suicide for any government and I can't see even the current Fianna Fáil/Green coalition having the stomach for it, especially since it was dissed by none other than the Tánaiste Mary Coughlan TD who seems to open her mouth only to change feet, so frequent are her gaffes; the best being the reference (in a speech to the IDA) Einstein's theory of evolution.

The next protest is the strike action planned for 24th November,; the unions are currently balloting members and we will know in the INO by midweek as our ballot closes on Monday. Most of the other unions have voted for industrial action and we will probably follow suit. No one wants to strike but we want to be fairly treated and not have to undergo further cuts in the budget while NAMA - the National Asset Management Agency - will provide safety nets for the banks which will have us indebted for years to come. Maybe we are trying hard to keep the IMF wolf from our door but there is no guarantee this will work in the long-term with the current measures. I hope that the Lisbon Treaty's ratification by the Czech Republic last week will boost European unity and enhance mutual support and cooperation - we are not like Iceland cut adrift outside the Eurozone and the EU and thankfully our recent ratification of Lisbon will ensure our place at the European table into the future.

Meanwhile, I look forward to the birth of our grandchild in 2010 and it will certainly be a light on our horizon and shorten what otherwise promises to be a winter of discontent. It will remind me to keep things in perspective and that family and friends are what matter. Although it helps to have financial security and stability, we'll get through this recession like we did before, by showing solidarity and resilience in the face of adversity.