Friday, December 24, 2010

12 Days of Christmas Baking

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas
I undertook to bake . . .

twelve pecan tassies
eleven mincemeat pinwheels
ten cardamom buttons
nine molasses crinkles
eight oatmeal chewies
seven gingerbread trees
six cranberry loaves
five butter stars
four gingerbread houses
three dozen spritz
a double batch of sugar cookies
and a whole lot of Texas fruitcake!

The first day of Christmas doesn't actually start until the 25th,
but when it comes to Christmas baking, I'm pretty much done by that day. 
I might manage one more batch of mince pies, and maybe another batch of English toffee for my mother-in-law, but all of my baking efforts come in the run-up to the Christmas season.
For weeks now, my kitchen has resembled an amateur bakery . . . and feel free to call me crazy, because all of my friends (and my husband) do.

I suppose we all have our favourite Christmas traditions -- the ones that make us feel cosy, and put us into the seasonal spirit -- and for me, it is all about a warm kitchen and the alchemy of flour and sugar.  I'm sure it goes back to my childhood, when I spent many happy hours decorating sugar cookies and cutting out gingerbread men with my mother.  These days, some of my best moments come when I'm in the  company of my own children and we are chatting and laughing and listening to Christmas music -- whilst absorbed in our culinary tasks.  I know that I will treasure the memory of the snowy day when my teenaged daughter's social plans were ruined and so we spent a long afternoon making candy:  peanut brittle, English toffee, and a family favorite called "Oklahoma Brown" candy.

It's not that we don't sample the treats, but when it comes to Christmas baking, I definitely prefer to give . . . rather than to keep it all in the family.  I make cookies platters for friends and teachers, and no one can enter my house without me breaking out the fruitcake and making little gift bags to take home.

This year will go down as the "Fruitcake Christmas."  I dug up an old recipe that my grandparents used to love:  they called it Fort Worth fruitcake, and my mom told me that the recipe was an annual request in the Fort Worth, Texas newspaper.  I've made a few changes in the original recipe . . . you know that saying that necessity is the mother of invention? . . . and so I've called it Texas Fruitcake.  Unlike the English versions of fruitcake, it doesn't have raisins, currants or mixed peel.  Instead you get lots of moist dates and apricots, and plenty of pecans -- which are a major crop in Texas.  I've tested this recipe on ALL sorts of people this Christmas, and everyone seems to love it.  I've become a victim of my own success, though -- and I keep on having to make more of the stuff because I will insist on giving it away.  I've made at least 20 loaves of it, maybe more; I lost track a long time ago. 

Texas Fruitcake

1 pound of stoned and chopped dates
1/2 pound candied cherries
1/2 pound chopped apricots
1 pound of pecans, coarsely chopped
1 cup of sugar
1 cup of flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon vanilla
4 eggs


This recipe will make either one large angel food tube pan, two medium loaves, or four small loaves.  The cooking times are more or less the same for all of them -- two hours, taking away about ten minutes if you use the small loaf pans.  Prepare all of the pans by using a bit of butter or shortening and then lining with parchment paper.

Cut fruit and nuts into small pieces and put into a large bowl.  Note:  If you cut them by hand you will have more quality control, but you may also use the food processor -- except for the cherries which really need to be cut up by hand.  Be careful with the dates, too -- as they can easily turn to mush.
Sift the dry ingredients together and mix with the fruit and nuts -- using a wooden spoon. 
Beat the eggs and vanilla together and pour the liquid mixture over the fruit/four mix.
Mix very well -- with a wooden spoon, or even with your hands.
Pack the mixture into the prepared pans.
Bake at a very low oven -- 250 F/125 C for approximately two hours.
Cool the cake in the pan, and then remove and wrap well in cling film.

Some commentary:  When it is fresh out of the oven, this cake is absolutely delicious.  You may treat it like a traditional fruitcake though, and "feed" it with brandy (sherry, rum, whatever) for several months or weeks before eating.  It will get darker with age, and the flavour and texture will change -- but both versions are great.  Yesterday, we had friends over for mince pies and mulled wine and I cut into a loaf that I've been "steeping" for almost two months now.  (Sadly, there isn't a trace of it left now.) 
If forced to choose, though, I would probably opt for the non-alcoholic version -- which is great for afternoon tea or even breakfast-on-the-run.  At the beginning of the week, I had to catch an early train to London and I brought along several slices to share with a friend for our commuter breakfast.  She was begging me for the recipe . . . really, it's that good.
Although it may seem like it's a bit late for fruitcake season, you might as well treat yourself because we still have wintry January and February to get through.
This is really such an easy-peasy recipe, and did you notice?  No butter or other fat in it. 
Perfect for Christmas -- or the upcoming season of austerity.

Happy Christmas baking!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

bûche de nöel or how to look good this christmas

last year, about this time, i made a reference to nigella's fabulous bûche de nöel, without sharing the recipe with you. since i spent my morning making a double one to take to sabin's school play this evening and had a chance to photograph the process, i thought i'd share it with you now...just in time for you to look positively heroic this christmas. because this cake is a veritable masterpiece when it's done and it's dead easy. plus it doesn't contain any flour, so even those who live the gluten free life can partake.

as usual, i couldn't leave even the goddess-like perfection of nigella alone and i have made a teency weency adjustment to the recipe.

nigella's bûche de nöel a la julie

the cake:
6 eggs, separated
150g sugar
50g cocoa powder
1 tsp. vanilla extract
3-5 teaspoons of powdered sugar to decorate

the icing:
175g good quality dark chocolate, chopped
250g powered sugar
225g butter
1 T vanilla extract

the extra julie touch:
1/2 liter of cream, whipped

preheat your oven to 180°C/375°F.

whisk the egg whites until they are thick and and beginning to peak, then add 50g of the sugar and keep whisking 'til stiff peaks form. if you're like me, you let your kitchenaid do this bit while you're working on the next part.

whisk the egg yolks and the rest of the sugar until they are a creamy pale yellow, add the vanilla, whisk a bit more, then sieve the cocoa powder in and mix it well.

put a big dollop of the egg white mixture into your chocolatey egg yolks, mixing well, then fold the chocolate mixture carefully into the rest of your egg whites, taking care not to lose too much air.

pour the mixture into a swiss roll tin lined with baking paper. a little trick to keep the baking parchment from rolling up on you while you're trying to pour (seriously, why isn't part of pregnancy the growing of a 3rd arm - wouldn't that be handy?), you can put a little dab of butter in each corner and stick the baking paper to it.

bake for about 20 minutes until it looks done. i realize this sounds vague, but trust me, you'll be able to see when it's done.  remove it from the oven and let it cool very briefly (and i do mean very briefly) before turning it onto a new piece of baking paper and peeling off the baking paper backing.

don't let it get too cool before you do this, or you'll have trouble getting the paper off without taking quite a lot of cake with it. trust me, i've made the mistake so you don't have to.

while it's cooling. melt your chocolate in a double boiler (or in a metal bowl over a pan of boiling water, like i do).

put the powdered sugar down in your food processor and whip it up to get rid of any lumps. then add your softened butter and let the food processor do the work for you. add the vanilla once the butter and sugar are well-mixed.  once the chocolate is melted and cooled down a little bit (so it doesn't melt your butter), add it to the butter/sugar mixture and again, let the food processor do the work for you.

while it's doing the work, let your kitchenaid whip up some cream for you - but do keep an eye on it, you're not making butter here (again, i've made the mistake so you don't have to).

put the cake on a good work surface and spread a thin layer of the chocolate icing on top. on top of that, spread a good layer of whipped cream. it hit me today, when i was a little concerned about not having enough of the chocolate icing (i was making two cakes and doubled the icing recipe, but it didn't look like enough), that you could use the hazelnut goodness of nutella here on the inside, just to add another note to the cake. i did, however, have plenty of icing, so i needn't have worried.

i found the cake too heavy and dense the first time i made it, without the whipped cream, tho' nigella's original recipe doesn't call for it. i find it makes it lighter and more sort of dreamy and delicious.

let the baking paper help you carefully roll the cake up. then carefully cut each end at an angle (strangely, i failed to photograph this bit), so you can place it beside your main "branch" as smaller "branches."

place the cut ends at angles against the main cake - my cake here is actually two cakes, so yours will be half the size of this. spread the remainder of the chocolate icing over the cake, covering and using extra bits to stick your branches on. use a spatula and a toothpick to make it look like the bark of a tree.

dust it with powdered sugar so it looks like new fallen snow and decorate around it with greens and pinecones gathered outdoors.

it may sound a bit fussy, but you'll be amazed how easy it really is.  and your friends and family will never know (unless you tell them). so you can act like you slaved all day and get people to fetch you glasses of wine while you relax.

Monday, December 13, 2010

lucia bread

december 13 is st. lucia day in sweden- that means beautiful blonde girls wearing angelic white robes and crowns of live candles and it also means the most lovely, golden, saffron and cardamon-scented buns. i made them for the first time this year (despite more than a decade married to an actual (half) swede.  the recipe comes from danish t.v. cook camilla plum's christmas cookbook - jul.

luciaboller (that's the danish version of it)

25 g yeast
4 dl warm milk
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. saffron
1 tsp. ground cardamon
1/3 C sugar
2 and a half C white flour (preferably organic)
100 g melted butter

1 egg, beaten, to brush on before baking.
mix the yeast and milk together while you grind the saffron with a spoon of sugar in a pestle and mortar, add the cardamon to the saffron mixture. add the remainder of the sugar to the milk and yeast mixture, then add the spices and begin to slowly add the flour. mix in the melted butter (taking care not to add it while it's too hot or you'll kill the yeast. the dough should be a bit sticky, so take care not to add too much flour.

allow it to rise for several hours in a warm place or overnight in a cooler place. form into rather pagan curly swirls, allow them to rise, brush them with the beaten egg and bake at 180°C/375°F for 20 or so minutes (my oven may be a bit fast, but let them get browned and lovely).  serve them with a pot of fresh tea. 

makes 18-24 buns (depending on how creative you get with your shapes/how much you let your 9-year-old help).

happy st. lucia day!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

nordic wintry goodness

i recently got my soul back from the devil and it has caused me to return to my (still horrible calamine-lotion-pink) kitchen. we've been buried in a glorious blanket of snow for several weeks already, tho' rain came overnight and most of it has disappeared and turned everything to a muddy muck outdoors. however, the mud hasn't dampened my spirits and i cooked up a warming winter dinner for us this evening.  a nordic tagine--of all things--combining sweetness and meat a la morocco, but with the nordic note of elderflower. it was a recipe inspired by earthy danish t.v. cook camilla plum's jul - a christmas cookbook. to accompany it, a hearty, simple brown rice and a wintry salad of red cabbage and pomegranate.

nordic tagine

1 beef roast - you can do with a cheaper cut, because you're going to slow cook it 'til it's falling apart
4-5 small red onions, sliced into small boats
1 head of garlic, peeled
1 whole red chili
juice and zest of one lemon
a moroccan-inspired rub for the meat consisting of coriander, cumin, cardamon, salt, pepper (you can buy them ready-made or throw things together in your mortar and pestle yourself)
1 750ml bottle of elderflower cordial.
1 generous splash of balsamic vinegar
4-5 T of olive oil

sauté the onions and garlic in olive oil, then brown the roast (into which you've rubbed the spice mixture). toss in the chili and then pour over the elderflower cordial, lemon juice and balsamic vinegar. if it doesn't cover the roast, fill the remainder up with water, so the roast is covered, then put it into an oven-proof pot with a lid (my red le cruset was perfect) and pop it into a 150°C (325°F) oven to slow-simmer for 3 hours.

when there's about an hour to go, cook the brown rice in double the liquid to the amount of rice. i throw in a beef bouillon cube for flavor. it takes 30 or so minutes to cook. when it's nearly done, i throw in a generous hunk of butter. 

like most tagines, the meat dish is sweeter than our northern palates are accustomed to, but the aromatic richness is balanced by the heartiness of the rice and it seems just right on these cold, wintery days.

red cabbage & pomegranate salad

1 small red cabbage, shredded
1 tart apple, grated
1 pomegranate
3 T vanilla olive oil (worth searching for in high end grocery stores)
2 T balsamic vinegar

toss the cabbage and apple into a food processor.  cut the pomegranate in half and wack it over the bowl with a wooden spoon to spill all of the ruby gorgeousness of the pomegranate seeds over the cabbage and apple. if you can find the vanilla olive oil, it's definitely worth it. otherwise, throw a vanilla pod into a bottle of good quality olive oil and make your's fantastic with winter salads.

the crunch and sharpness of the cabbage salad is the perfect counterbalance to the fragrant sweetness of the tagine. 

* * *
coming lucia bread, just in time for the swedish celebration.

and it feels very good to be back.


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