The stories behind some of our favourite festive treats from near and far. Scroll down for three easy recipes for gifting, sharing – or keeping for yourself!
From gingerbread men to yule log, Christmas just wouldn't be the same without a baked treat or two.
Many of the cakes and biscuits that feature in the nation's festivities originate from the UK. Mince pies are an obligatory part of the Christmas celebrations, and it's supposed to be good luck to eat a pie every day on each of the 12 days of Christmas.
When mince pies became a regular part of the Christmas celebrations several hundred years ago, they were more of a savoury affair. The mince pies of old contained a fair bit of meat – typically minced, cooked mutton and beef suet – along with spices and dried fruit.
By the 19th century the meat was omitted – although some cooks retained the beef suet, which is still present in some mincemeat recipes today. The sugar content was increased, leading to the more familiar pie we know and love.
Christmas cake is another festive teatime essential – and Stir-up Sunday in November is the traditional time to make Christmas cakes and puddings. Making the cake this far in advance gives the opportunity to add rum or brandy at regular intervals throughout December to improve the texture and flavour. For good luck, each member of the family should take a turn to mix the cake or pudding, making a wish as they stir.
Christmas cakes and puddings originate from two dishes that were historically eaten around the festive period hundreds of years ago.
Plum pottage (or plum porridge) was a rich, stew of meat, bread, dried fruit, sugar and spices, that dates back to the 16th century. It was eaten on Christmas Eve, and is believed to be a precursor of our modern Christmas cake and pudding.
Twelfth Cake is another Christmas delicacy that's been around for centuries – originally a spiced plum cake made with yeast and eaten on Twelfth Night to celebrate the feast of Epiphany.
In the 19th century, the Twelfth Cake became more and more elaborate, decorated with icing and intricate objects such as swans, crowns and feathers crafted out of sugar.
In Victorian times, it became more common to eat this festive cake on Christmas Day – a tradition that is still enjoyed to this day.
There are also plenty of wonderful baked goods from continental Europe – many of which are easy to buy in the UK, or you can try making your own.
Lebkuchen – sweet, chewy gingerbread shapes – are one delicious example. A favourite Christmas market treat, these spicy German cookies are often shaped as stars or hearts and are covered with chocolate or a sugar glaze.
They have been eaten in Germany for centuries – originally called honey cakes, they're particularly associated with Nuremberg. Historically, the Bavarian city's strategic position at the crossroads of international trade routes – and surrounded by a forest where honey bees thrived – ensured that two key ingredients of lebkuchen (honey and spices) were always close at hand.
Moving further south, Italian panettone is a dome-shaped, cake-like loaf that's made with dried fruits and citrus peel.
Believed to have originated in Milan, in the north of Italy, the sweet bread is the source of a number of legends as to how it was first created.
One tale claims that Toni, the young helper of a cook, invented it one Christmas when his boss's dessert went wrong and so wasn't fit to be served. Toni prepared a new dessert, using everything he had available – the result was “pan de Toni” (Toni's bread). As it happens, “pane di tono” also means “luxury bread” in Milanese dialect.
Panettone is still served all over Italy at Christmas, and is often given as a gift when visiting friends or family. It's available in many other parts of the world too, including the UK.
Leftover panettone can be used in place of bread in a bread and butter putting – slice thickly, spread with a little butter and place in an oven-proof dish. Pour over a mixture of two eggs whisked with 100ml double cream and 200ml milk, and bake at 170° for about 30 minutes, until the pudding has set.
It's generally believed that Florentines – those dainty, chocolatey treats laced with nuts and dried fruit – originated from the Italian city of Florence. But, according to a well-known legend, it's actually more likely that they were first created in France.
Florentines are thought to have been invented by a pastry chef at the Palace of Versailles, when King Louis XIV was in residence there between 1682 and 1715. The delicacy was created to mark a visit by the king's in-laws, the Medici family of Florence – hence the biscuit's name.
Florentines can be tricky to create at home – but try our easy-to-make recipe below for a delicious chunky version of the festive treat.
Another European biscuit that's often given as a gift at Christmas is a bag of pastissets. These flower-shaped shortbread cookies from the Balearic island of Menorca have a crumbly texture and are sometimes flavoured with almonds or lemon. They're traditionally prepared during the festive season and for family celebrations such as weddings – although if you visit Menorca for a holiday, the biscuits can be found in bakeries across the island at any time of the year.
Although they're not readily available here in the UK, pastissets are simple to bake at home – and they make a lovely gift.
Makes about 10
100g caster sugar
50g lard or vegetable shortening, such as Trex
2 egg yolks
200g plain flour
Icing sugar, to finish
Cream together the caster sugar, butter and lard. Add the egg yolks and mix thoroughly. Fold in the flour and mix until a soft dough begins to form, then knead it lightly with your hands to form a ball. Turn the dough onto a floured surface and roll out to a thickness of 1cm. Cut out using a flower-shaped biscuit cutter, place on a lined baking tray and bake at 180°C. for 10-12 minutes, until lightly golden at the edges. Douse liberally with sieved icing sugar before serving.
Chunky chocolate Florentines
Makes about 20
100g caster sugar
100g flaked almonds
50g glace cherries, quartered
30g sunflower seeds
200g plain chocolate
Place silicone cupcake cases in a bun tin. Melt the butter in a saucepan over a low heat. Add the sugar and heat gently, stirring, until dissolved, then bring to the boil. Remove from the heat and add the fruit, nuts and seeds. Mix well. Put two teaspoons of mixture into each silicone cupcake case, then bake at 180°C for 10-12 minutes, until the biscuits begin to turn golden brown at the edges.
Allow to cool completely, then carefully ease the biscuits from the cases and put to one side. Wash and dry the cupcake cases. Melt the chocolate and pour a little into the base of each cupcake case. Leave for a couple of minutes to cool slightly, then gently press a biscuit into each case. Allow to cool and set, then remove each one gently from its case. Arrange the Florentines in a pretty box, tin or jar and give as a gift – or enjoy them for yourself!
Cranberry and almond mince pies
For the pastry:
225g plain flour
1 egg yolk
1 dessertspoon caster sugar
2 tablespoons cold water
pinch of salt
For the mincemeat:
Juice and grated rind of 1 large orange
75g dates, chopped
1 eating apple, cored, peeled and finely chopped
50g demerara sugar
1 teaspoon mixed spice
2 tablespoons brandy
50g flaked almonds
1 egg, beaten
To make the mincemeat, put the cranberries in a small pan with the juice from the orange. Bring to the boil and simmer gently for five minutes. Cool, then transfer to a large lidded container and add the orange rind, dried fruit, dates, apple, sugar, spice and brandy. Mix well and set aside for a few hours, or overnight if possible.
To make the pastry, put all the pastry ingredients into a food processor and mix, in short bursts, until the pastry begins to form a ball. Roll out onto a floured surface, cut out circles of pastry, and press them into a greased bun tin.
Stir the almonds into the mincemeat, then spoon into the pastry cases, taking care not to overfill. Top with another, smaller pastry circle or star, brush with beaten egg and bake at 180ºC for 20 minutes, or until golden. Dust with a little icing sugar to serve. Put any remaining mincemeat into sterilized jars and store for up to one month in the fridge.
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Little Green Space December 2021