Basil, rosemary, lemon thyme and sage. They’re not what you usually associate with Christmas baking, where rich ingredients and sweet spices traditionally abound, but introducing these fresh and fragrant savoury herbs with care and flair can result in unexpected and uniquely delicious flavour combinations.
Such herbs introduce a subtle and interesting dimension to sweet Christmas baking – delicate flavours that are hard to identify until you know what they are. But when you really think about it, basil, rosemary, lemon thyme and sage are a logical match with so many of the typical flavours of Christmas.
Aromatic lemon thyme, with its citrusy and slightly bittersweet undertones, pairs easily with lemon and orange, but can also be easily matched with chocolate and cinnamon, or even glacé fruits, such as in my bishop’s cakes with lemon thyme.
Earthy, bold and slightly sweet rosemary works well with sharp flavours such as orange and lemon (like in these rosemary and lemon sables), and with the fuller flavours of dried figs, almonds and chocolate.
With its strong and slightly bitter lemony nature, sage teams remarkably well with the smoothness of butter, the freshness of apple and pineapple, and with the sweetness of prunes and other dried fruits, like in my fruit mince tart with sage pastry.
Fragrant, sweet and fresh basil has the definite notes of spice – cloves, cinnamon, anise – that also feature in traditional Christmas baking. Rich and creamy custards (and most other egg and cream-based dishes), walnuts and coconut go well with the brightness of basil. It also heightens the fresh flavours of tangy citrus, such as lemon and lime; sweet berries, such as strawberries and raspberries; and luscious stone fruit, such as peaches and apricots. My strawberry, basil and lemon trifle captures such a perfectly harmonious combo in a less traditional Christmas recipe.
When using fresh herbs in this way, keep in mind that sweetness, like salt, will bring out the flavour, and very little can have a major impact. So opt for an air of mystery when baking with fresh ‘savoury’ herbs, and leave people wondering with every sweet mouthful just what that secret ingredient is.
Bake Anneka's festive recipes
The use of sage, with its slightly bitter lemony nature, in the traditional pastry brings a new twist to this old favourite.
Also known as Cathedral or stain glass window cake, due to its exquisite appearance once sliced, this cake is dense with glacé fruit and nuts.
With a basil-infused custard plus a basil lemon syrup, this is summer in a bowl.
Along with lemon, these melt-in-the-mouth biscuits are scented with rosemary’s distinct, yet subtle, earthy and slightly sweet flavour.
Photography by Alan Benson. Styling by Sarah O'Brien. Food preparation by Kerrie Ray. Creative concept by Belinda So.
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