Christmas baking (+ recipes)
In years gone by, when I had a consultancy business and cooking school down in the Axis building in Parnell, the annual creation of Christmas gifts for our clients was legendary.
Each year we would select a special treat to make - one year it was little cakes, another we painted beautiful boxes in a kaleidoscope of colours and filled them with delectable homemade chocolate truffles, another year it was Christmas mince pies. And then there was the panforte year, when it all came to a horrible end.
Panforte is a traditional Italian Christmas cake that hails from Siena, laden with nuts and with a consistency that's more like nougat than cake. To my mind it is possibly one of the nicest of homemade Christmas treats (nougat would be the other but it's much harder to get right).
Panforte is expensive to make and you need a bit of practice to make it successfully. Mixing hot toffee into large amounts of fruit and nuts, chocolate and spices can be tricky as you have to get the toffee at the right temperature to ensure the panfortes are toothsome and not tooth-breaking - and take care not to get burnt in the process.
But the end result transcends almost anything in the way of Christmas sweet treats, worth every inch of the cost and the effort.
Anyway, the wheels for the panforte production were set in motion. The ingredients for 400 of these beautiful cakes were purchased and mixed up in huge containers. In between cooking classes and recipe testing, our panfortes were cooked off in small batches and then, once cooled, hand-wrapped with cellophane and pretty ribbon. They looked amazing and briefly, all too briefly, we were brimming with pride.
Panforte was not new to us, but unfortunately the person doing the measuring was. And for some reason no one realised there was a problem until at the very end of our labours when all the panfortes were wrapped and ribboned, and looking utterly gorgeous piled up on our giant boardroom table (400 panfortes is a lot!).
We all sat down to a glass of wine and a little slice of our hard work. But our delicious panforte was not delicious - it was inedible. The measurer had measured salt, not sugar. We had to turn around and start again. My accountant mutinied, my husband mutinied. After that it was decided that no matter how nice our clients were they would be perfectly happy with a nice bottle of wine.
It's a good idea to use clean heavy plastic gloves to mix this dense Italian festive fruitcake so you don't burn your hands. You can use different types of fruit and nuts, as long as you keep the quantities constant.
They do tend to spread a little when they cook, so just round them up into tight circles with a flat knife after they come out of the oven then leave to set and cool fully before you take them off the baking paper and store them. Panforte is very rich, so serve it in very thin slices. Get the recipe
Super crispy and richly spiced, these traditional Dutch biscuits were originally made to celebrate Saint Nicholas' Day on December 5. When you buy these biscuits they are often moulded in the shape of windmills or other decorative stamps. I just roll them out thinly and use a cutter to make shapes. To ensure that they cook evenly, make them a similar size and thickness. Get the recipe
This special recipe was shared with me many years ago by a friend, Jennifer Duncan. It's a Christmas baking tradition from her Eastern European family heritage. Tender and buttery, these lovely cookies, with their tangy cherry filling, are now always part of my Christmas baking repertoire.
You could use other fruit, such as chopped dried figs or cranberries. If you can't find ground walnuts, whizz up some whole walnuts in the food processor - just be sure to check that they are fresh first. Get the recipe
For more great Annabel Langbein recipes see her new winter annual Annabel Langbein A Free Range Life: Share the Love (Annabel Langbein Media, $24.95) or visit annabel-langbein.com