It's that time of year again… I've been in a baking frenzy this week, as I make special, once-a-year treats just to have, and prep things for the big day itself. I always give food gifts at Christmas, we don't give presents between the adults anymore, which I am completely on board with, but I do like to share something from my kitchen. Though this year, I've gone the savoury and preserve route (I can't share now in case any of my family read this), and I'm actually ahead of myself this year, having made them well in advance. However, the recipes I'm sharing here, four in all, are some of my favourites at this time of year, and they were all hits at my pop-up Christmas stall last year. A Christmas cake and mince tarts are non-negotiable for me, and gingerbread and panforte I'm happy to make if I have time. It's too hard to pick favourites really, I adore gingerbread, and I do love the panforte - a dense, spicy Christmas confection from Sienna - it works so well as an afternoon pick-me-up, but also as a make-ahead dessert served with port, Vin Santo or coffee. All of these keep really well too, and so are perfect for making in advance ready for when guests drop in, you need a gift for someone, or simply to have with a cup of tea or coffee while you go about your wrapping and other preparations. I hope you enjoy making and eating them as much as I did! Merry Christmas and peace to all.
Rich Christmas Cake
Adapted from Nigella Lawson's Chocolate Fruit Cake recipe
Makes 1 x 20 cm cake
250 g prunes, pitted
250 g raisins
250 g sultanas
125 g currants
100 g dessert figs, chopped in half
Zest and juice of 1 large orange
140 ml brandy
175 g dark brown sugar
160 ml honey
175 g butter
2 T marmalade
1 t mixed spice
1 t ground cinnamon
¼ t ground cloves
¼ t ground nutmeg
2 T cocoa
3 eggs, beaten
165 g plain flour
75 g almond meal
½ t baking powder
½ t bi-carb soda
1 T brandy, extra
Place fruit, orange zest and juice, brandy, sugar, honey, butter, marmalade, spices and cocoa in a large saucepan.
Stir over a moderate heat until everything has combined. Let it bubble gently for 10min then remove from heat and allow to cool for 30min. In this time, you can prepare your tin and remaining ingredients.
After the fruit mixture has been cooling for about 20min, preheat the oven to 150ºC (300ºF). Prepare a 20cm loose bottomed cake tin by cutting a circle of non-stick baking parchment just slightly smaller than the diameter of the tine (so that it fits easily. Then, cut two longish strips of baking paper, fold up the bottom 2 cm and then cut into this fold at 1.5 cm intervals so that you end up with a fringe. Insert these two strips into the tin with the fringe forming a circle in the base of the tin, overlapping the two strips. Place the circle of parchment over the fringe. The base and sides of the tin should now all be covered with parchment. As the cake has a long cooking time, it needs insulation from the heat of the oven or the top will burn. To do this, fold sheets of newspaper or brown paper until they are about 8-10cm higher than the tin. Wrap a thickish layer around the outside of the tin, securing with kitchen string.
Once the fruit mixture has cooled for 30min, stir in the beaten eggs and sifted dry ingredients. Do this fairy quickly as the mixture will still be warm and you don't want congealed pieces of egg and flour in the batter. Having said that, mix only until combined and do not overheat the batter.
Pour cake batter into prepare tin and bake for 1 3/4 - 2 hours or until a skewer inserted into the cake comes out damp but with no raw batter clinging to it. If you find the cake is getting too dark on top, cover loosely with a piece of foil. This will prevent further browning.
Brush the top with the extra brandy, then let the cake cool the cake in tin for at least 2 hours before turning onto a wire rack to cool completely. Once cool, wrap well in two layers of foil and store in an airtight container for up to a month.
Combine 320g sifted icing sugar and 1 – 1 ½ T boiling water until you have a thick, spreadable icing. Smooth over cake and allow some to drip down the sides.
NB. This icing will only look good for a day or two as the moisture from the cake will eventually start to seep through.
Purchase some quality whole glacé (confit) fruits and pile in the centre of the cake.
Use a paper doily or cut out shapes (stars, a tree, etc.) from a piece of baking paper slightly larger than the cake. Place doily or paper over cake and sift over icing sugar to create a stencilled design. Tie a length of ribbon around cake if desired.
Adapted from a recipe by Matthew Evans
Makes 24 patty pan-sized tarts
2 apples, coarsely grated
200 g currants
200 g sultanas
Zest and juice of 2 lemons
220 g brown sugar
120 ml Calvados
2 t mixed spice
240 g plain flour
160 g unsalted butter
¼ cup water
Milk and raw sugar (optional)
Start with the pastry. Put the flour and salt in a bowl. Roughly chop the butter into smallish pieces and add it to the flour. Rub the butter into the flour with your fingertips until the mixture resemble a coarse crumble. You don't need to go too fine as the larger pieces of unmixed butter will help create more crispness in the pastry as they steam during cooking.
Using a butter knife, mix in the egg and water. Bring the mixture together with your hands, it should mostly clump into one mass. If it is too dry, add a little more water, if it is too sticky and soft, add a little more flour. Tip the pastry onto a lightly floured work surface and bring to together quickly with your hands, bringing the edge that is furthest away from you over into the middle of the pastry, then smearing it away again from you in a rhythmic folding action. Don't overwork the pastry or it will become tough. Only knead until it comes together in a smooth ball. Pat into a thick round, wrap in clingfilm (or alternative) and refrigerate to rest and chill for at least 30min.
To make the fruit mince, combine all ingredients in a saucepan and stir over moderate heat for 10-15min. Allow to cool.
When ready to make the tarts, preheat oven to 180ºC (360ºF) and remove pastry from the fridge. Dust a work surface lightly with flour and roll out the pastry to approximately 3mm thick. Using a 6cm scone or cookie cutter, cut rounds of pastry and place in the patty pan holes. Press each disc a little so that it takes the shape of the hole. With remaining pastry, cut out stars, hearts, or other shapes to top each tart.
Place a heated teaspoonful of fruit mince in each pastry case, top with a pastry shape and brush each with a little milk and sprinkle over a little raw sugar, if desired. Bake for 20min or until golden and cooked to your liking. Allow the tarts to cool in the tin for 5min before removing to a wire rack to cool completely (if you leave them in the tin too long, any fruit syrup that has bubbled over will harden, making it difficult to remove the tarts). Once cool, store in an airtight container in a cool place for up to a week.
Note: You can make the fruit mince up to a few months ahead. Just make sure you store it in sterilised jars and keep in the fridge to be on the safe side.
Makes approximately 30 biscuits, depending on size
170 g unsalted butter
180 g dark brown sugar
150 g golden syrup
2 egg yolks
470 g plain flour
½ t salt
1 t bi-carb soda
2 t ground ginger
1 ½ t ground cinnamon
½ t ground cloves
½ t white pepper
½ t ground allspice
6 egg whites
480 g pure icing sugar
½ t lemon juice
Cream butter, sugar and golden syrup on medium speed in an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Mix in the egg yolks. Sift all dry ingredients together and incorporate into mixture on low speed. Spoon dough onto a piece of plastic film and press to form a 16 cm long rectangle. Wrap and chill at least one hour (overnight is also fine).
If your dough has been in the fridge more than an hour, allow it to sit for 30-60min until it is pliable. Place a sheet of non-stick baking parchment on the work surface, place dough in top. Lightly flour a rolling pin and roll out dough to a thickness of 3mm.
Using various cutters, cut out shapes and place on a baking tray lined with non-stick baking parchment. Place the tray in the fridge for 15min to chill before baking, this will help the biscuits to keep their shape. Gather together the scraps of dough and re-roll on the sheet of baking parchment. Transfer to the fridge to firm up again before cutting more biscuits.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 170ºC (340ºF). Bake gingerbread for 10-12min or until firm to the touch and a rich golden brown. Keep re-rolling, chilling, and cutting the dough until it is all used up. It is best to bake on tray at a time as this ensures even cooking. So while one tray is baking, you can prepare the next, making a production line!
To make the royal icing, combine egg whites, icing sugar and lemon juice in an electric mixer on low speed. Increase speed and beat until glossy and holding stiff peaks. Keep bowl covered with a damp cloth until icing is required (it will form a crust when exposed to air).
You can ice the biscuits any way you wish, using a piping bag with a small nozzle, or simply drizzling it over with a teaspoon. Feel free to add sprinkles, silver cachous or other decorations as you desire.
NB. You can freeze the leftover egg whites for several months. Use to make a pavlova or meringues.
Makes one 20cm cake
Equipment: candy thermometer
100 g hazelnuts
100 g macadamias
90 g dessert figs
55 g crystallised ginger
100 g plain flour
3 T cocoa
1 t cinnamon
½ t mixed spice
¼ t black pepper
75 g dark chocolate
125 ml honey
55 g caster sugar
icing sugar, extra
Preheat the oven to 160ºC.
Spray a 15cm springform pan with nonstick spray. Dust the inside with cocoa powder, making sure to get it up the sides. Line the bottom with a round of parchment paper.
In a large bowl, mix together the nuts, figs, ginger, flour, cocoa and spices. Use your fingers to separate any fruit that is clumping together.
Melt the chocolate in a small bowl set over a pan of simmering water. Set aside.
In a pan fitted with a candy thermometer, heat the sugar and honey until the temperature reads 115ºC (240ºF). This is the soft ball stage. Alternatively, after the mixture has cooked for about 5min, test it by dropping a small amount of the honey syrup into a glass of cold water. If it sets into a soft, pliable ball, it is ready.
Pour the hot honey syrup over the nut mixture, add the melted chocolate, and stir well, working quickly as it starts to firm up as it cools. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and spread it out with a spatula. Using damp fingers, press the surface to make it mostly smooth, but don't worry about a few lumps.
Bake for 20 minutes or until your finger comes away clean from the surface when you lightly press it. The panforte will firm up more as it cools. Leave it in the tin for 15min, then gently ease it out, using a knife if necessary and leaving the panforte on the bottom of the tin, and allow to cool completely on a wire rack.
Once cool, remove the bottom of the springform pan and peel away the parchment paper. Dust the panforte with icing sugar and rub it in with your hands.
To store, wrap the panforte in two layers of foil and store in an airtight container for up to six months.