Call me old-fashioned, but there is something deeply comforting about traditional Christmas baking. As I reach for those certain cake tins that only come out once a year and stock up on those particular ingredients that can only mean December festivities are soon to begin, I get a familiar warm feeling deep inside. It’s time to turn to the trusted recipes for the customary cakes, biscuits, breads and desserts of the season, with all their substance, soul and strong sense of time-honoured tradition. It’s time to shut out the modern world (except the fabulous oven and amazing mixer it has provided), roll up the sleeves, put on a good apron and begin some serious baking.
I also love to embrace the international nature of our Christmas baking traditions, starting with the spices. Divinely aromatic cinnamon, ginger, allspice, cardamom and black pepper have a beautifully grounding effect, along with the nuts and dried fruits that were introduced into Europe during the Middle Ages and quickly became the cornerstone of so many festive baked goods. Gutsy and earthy and wickedly sweet all at once, the dense fruit bread that is German stollen is the centrepiece of so many Christmases. The combined richness of the dried fruit, mixed peel and almonds, spiced with exotic cinnamon and cardamom, all leads to the heavenly marzipan centre, and a sensation that the time for feasting and rejoicing is here.
Likewise, the glorious gift of the season from Italy – panettone. This enriched sweet bread, dotted perfectly with its candied citrus rind and raisins, is enjoyed throughout the Christmas and New Year period and loved worldwide, from Spain to Chile, Switzerland to Brazil. Its story is one of welcoming, giving and sharing, and millions of people’s Christmases are incomplete without it.
Another seasonal essential, British mince pies were created as a Christmas staple after crusaders brought back recipes based on meat, spices and fruit from the Middle East. Originally made with savoury mince, along with dried fruit, suet and spices, mince pies were considered a status symbol during the 15th and 16th centuries. Mince pies on the table represented impressive wealth, as those who served them were able to employ the best pastry chefs of the time. Nowadays, however, the savoury element is gone and sweetest of treats, encased in a buttery pastry, are easy enough to make yourself – and pop into your mouth at frequent intervals.
It’s also high time for tins to be filled with traditional Christmas biscuits. Europe inspires us with so many versions around the theme of spicy and nutty. Two of my favourites are the highly spiced and hearty little Scandinavian gingerbread-like ‘pepper cakes’ – known as pepperkaker and pepparkakor, depending on where they hail from – and the delicious Austrian vanillekipferl – melt-in-the-mouth almond crescents scented with vanilla and providing a little bit of heaven in every mouthful.
France also delivers with a Christmas classic that embodies a symbolic ritual. Bûche de Noël – a sponge roulade shaped to look like a log and often decorated with buttercream textured to resemble bark and meringue mushrooms to complete the forest scene – is inspired by the Yule log itself that was traditionally burned as part of the Christmas celebrations. Bûche de Noël is a relative newcomer to the Christmas table, having replaced the custom of actually burning the Yule log when it fell out of favour during the first half of the 1900s.
Whatever their background, ethnicity or beliefs, ask anyone what absolutely must be baked at this time of year in their household, and their recipes will often start with copious amounts of butter, tradition and love. Wishing you lots of all three and very happy baking!
Christmas baking recipes
Anneka's mission is to connect home cooks with the magic of baking, and through this, with those they love. Read our interview with her or for hands-on baking classes and baking tips, visit her at BakeClub. Don't miss what's coming out of her oven via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.
Photography by Alan Benson. Styling by Sarah O'Brien. Food preparation by Tina McLeish.
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