Articles in Baking
There are so many ways to enjoy chestnuts. A wonderful winter treat, chestnuts are delicious fresh, served either pan- or oven-roasted, or as an out-of-hand snack. They can also be dried, and when reconstituted, have a wonderful toothsome quality. The Italians in the northern region of Piedmont slow cook dried chestnuts in the oven in a mix of honey and wine. They then serve these smoky sweet delights with slices of lardo or salami.
Popular in northern Italy’s Piedmont region is a mound of chocolate-chestnut puree topped with spiked whipped cream — a melt-in-your-mouth delight. It’s called Monte Bianco, White Mountain, because the dessert looks like the snow-capped Alps. Many Italians elaborate on the theme and scatter candied violets and crushed candied chestnuts on the “mountain”to look like flowers and rocks.
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Chestnut flour, made of ground dried chestnuts, makes wonderfully flavorful breads and desserts.
Leave it to the Italians to create a dessert that is not only gluten-free, but also sugar-free. Castagnaccio, a traditional dessert from Tuscany, is made with chestnut flour, which is so naturally sweet it needs no added sweeteners. Like so many traditional Italian recipes, it makes use of locally grown ingredients — chestnuts, olive oil, rosemary and nuts. Savory-sweet, with aromatic hints of rosemary, this cake is made with olive oil, not butter, so it’s ideal for vegans.
This cake is mentioned in a 1553 book by Ortensio Landi that notes it was created in Lucca, a province of Tuscany, so I asked my favorite chef from Lucca, Aurelio Barattini, for his recipe.
Tuscany’s Chestnut Cake (Castagnaccio)
Courtesy: Chef Aurelio Barattini of Antica Locanda di Sesto in Lucca, Italy
Prep time: 5 minutes
Bake time: 40 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Note: The cake stays moist for several days, and is terrific served with a glass of Vin Santo or muscato dessert wine.
1/3 cup raisins
5 1/2 ounces chestnut flour, about 2/3 cup
Pinch of salt
1 cup cold water
6 tablespoons olive oil
2 to 3 tablespoons fresh rosemary leaves
1/3 cup walnuts and/or pine nuts
1. Preheat the oven to 390 F.
2. Put the raisins into a small bowl and moisten them with a few tablespoons of boiling water to plump them. Drain and reserve.
3. Sift the chestnut flour and salt into a large bowl. Slowly whisk in 1 cup of cold water and beat until the mixture is smooth. Stir in the reserved raisins, 2 tablespoons of oil and 1 tablespoon of rosemary leaves.
4. Grease a baking pan with 2 tablespoons of oil. Pour the batter onto the pan. The batter should be less than a 1/2-inch high. Scatter the top with the walnuts and/or pine nuts, if using, remaining rosemary, and drizzle with remaining 2 tablespoons of oil.
5. Bake for 20 minutes, then lower the oven temperature to 350 F and bake for an additional 15 to 20 minutes, until firm and golden brown.
Courtesy: “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 40 minutes
Total time: 55 minutes
Yield: 6 servings
1 pound fresh chestnuts*
2 1/2 cups milk
3/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons fennel seeds
2 ounces best-quality bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon brandy or rum
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup heavy cream
3 to 4 vanilla meringue cookies, coarsely chopped
2 to 3 candied chestnuts, marron glace, chopped, optional
Candied violets, optional
1. Pierce the skin of each chestnut with a knife. Boil them in a large pot with lots of water, until tender, about 20 minutes. Allow to cool only slightly. It’s much easier to peel them while they’re warm.
2. Combine the milk, 1/2 cup of sugar and fennel seeds in a medium saucepan and heat over a low flame to release the fennel’s flavor, about 5 minutes. Strain and return the liquid to the saucepan. Add the chestnuts and simmer for 20 minutes.
3. Put the warm chestnut mixture into a food processor along with the chocolate, 1/4 cup of the brandy and vanilla extract. Pulse to blend and then process until very smooth. Allow to cool to room temperature, then cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least one hour and up to 2 days.
4. To assemble: Put a tall glass upside down into the center of a serving plate. Press the chestnut mixture through a potato ricer into a mountain-shaped cone around the glass. Remove the glass.
5. In a large bowl using an electric mixer whip the cream with 1/4 cup of the remaining sugar until peaks form. Stir in the remaining tablespoon of brandy.
6. Fill the hollow left by the glass with whipped cream and top the chestnut “mountain” with more whipped cream. Sprinkle with the meringues and candied chestnuts, if using. If you like, arrange a few candied violets around the base. Serve immediately.
* Note: You can also make this dessert with ready-roasted chestnuts, available in glass jars in most supermarkets.
Main photo: Castagnaccio, a traditional dessert from Tuscany, is made with chestnut flour, which is so naturally sweet it needs no added sweeteners. Credit: Aurelio Barattini
Perugia is the more important of the two provinces of Umbria and in culinary terms is most famous for its chocolates. Perugina, the chocolate firm founded in 1907, makes chocolate kisses (baci) famous throughout Italy and even in the United States. It’s also the historic home of a novel Christmas cake.
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A variety of sweets are made around Christmas such as pinoccate, little diamond-shaped sweets made of sugar and pine nuts, hence their name. They usually are made “black” with chocolate or “white” with vanilla. Locals say that the small cakes were made by Benedictine monks as early as the 14th century and are served to end lavish Christmas feasts.
A simple syrup is made until rather dense and then the same weight of pine nuts as the sugar is added and poured onto a marble slab to be shaped as one makes peanut brittle. The diamonds are cut and cooled, with half of each piece being chocolate and half vanilla. They are then wrapped in black and white pairs in festive and colorful Christmas paper.
Another Christmas delight from Perugia that is a bit easier to make is the symbolic eel or snake-shaped torciglione (twisted spiral) Christmas cake. The Perugina say it is shaped like an eel to represent the eels of nearby Lake Trasimeno, while others attribute a more symbolic meaning rooted in pagan times. The Greeks saw snakes as sacred and used them in healing rituals; the snake’s skin shedding was a symbol of rebirth and renewal, an appropriate symbol at the time of the birth of Christ.
Torciglione (Holiday Almond Meringue Snake)
In most of Umbria, but in particular around Lake Trasimeno in the province of Perugia, torciglione is a Christmas and New Year’s Eve sweet. It is also sometimes called a serpentone or biscione and it’s made as a symbol of luck. It is claimed that this sweet was developed in the 19th century by a master pastry cook, Romualdo Nazzani, who opened a cake shop in Reggio Emilia and created some magnificent sweets, such as biscione, which means “snake.”
This Christmas cake is made with an almond base and meringue topping decorated with candied peel to represent the eyes of the snake. In Christian iconography, the snake can represent temptation as it was in the Garden of Eden. Eating the snake is thought to bring luck.
Prep time: 15 to 20 minutes
Baking time: 40 minutes
Yield: 8 servings
1 pound whole blanched almonds, toasted and chopped
3/4 pound (about 1 1/2 cups) sugar
2 tablespoons rum
Zest from 1 lemon
3 large egg whites, beaten until stiff
3 tablespoons pine nuts
2 coffee beans
1 candied cherry
1. Heat the oven to 325 F.
2. In a bowl, mix the almonds, sugar, rum, lemon zest and egg whites until a dense consistency.
3. On a buttered parchment paper-lined baking tray form the mixture into the shape of a snake. Place the pine nuts over its surface. Put the coffee beans in as eyes and the cherry as a tongue. Bake until golden brown, about 40 minutes.
Main photo: Torciglione (Holiday Almond Meringue Snake). Credit: Clifford A. Wright
Many lucky people reach a point in life where the last thing they need is more stuff. That’s why choosing the right kind of Christmas present — or holiday experience — can be the best gift of all.
Food is perfect, of course. Things to create food are handy, too. Then there is the gift of time together, the very point of a holiday and something that can be achieved with just the right kind of party.
Here’s a collection of Zester Daily stories to provide some ideas to brighten everyone’s holiday. The notes are directly from the contributors. Click on the links for each story.
Maple-Nut Fudge: Easy as Pie for Holiday Gifts by Charles Perry: As we slide into the holiday season, my mind turns toward maple: maple syrup, maple frosting — and maple fudge.
United States of Artisans: 51 Edible Holiday Gifts to Send by Emily Grosvenor: You can’t go wrong with edible gifts at the holidays. Edibles send strong messages of sharing, goodwill, pride-of-place and uniqueness, while not cluttering up the recipient’s house for the rest of their lives.
5 DIY Edible Gifts to Impress Everyone on Your List by Sue Style: Christmas is for sharing, and some of the best gifts to share are the ones you’ve made yourself.
Need a thoughtful gift idea? Try These Cookbooks by Clifford A. Wright: Shopping for a great Christmas gift once meant hours of driving and parking, but with today’s Internet shopping, it’s easier.
Turmeric Candy: Give a Gift of Health and Drink to It, Too by R. Eckhardt and D. Hagerman: By now, you’ve probably heard about turmeric: the yellow-orange rhizome native to South Asia recognized for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Mince Pies: Where’s the Beef? by Clarissa Hyman: “Mince around the World” is probably one of the worst names ever for a cookbook, yet it was discussed in all seriousness by an editor of my acquaintance a few years ago.
A Fruitcake Everyone Will Love (Really!) by Julia della Croce: I never understood the aversion to fruitcake until someone sent me one of those clunkers that the humorist Russell Baker said he deplored, dating from a Christmas dinner when a small piece he dropped shattered his right foot.
A Trio of Italian Cookies for the Holidays by Francine Segan: Here are three unusual Italian cookies that you can make ahead for the holidays, each with a special featured ingredient.
Buttercrunch Lets You Slow Down, Enjoy the Moment by Kathy Gunst: The part of the holidays that always makes me feel warm and loved are the traditions my family has established.
Sugar and Spice: Italian Confetti by Francine Segan: Italians sure like to sugarcoat things. They’ve got a sugarcoated something or other for almost every occasion.
Caribbean Black Cake Will Leave You Wanting More by Ramin Ganeshram: It would arrive each year by the first week of December: a brown paper parcel from Tobago.
A Fruitcake Recipe That Finishes With a Big Bang by Louisa Kasdon: Like many people, I thought fruitcakes — like Twinkies — came wrapped and packaged and were the kind of food that goes into the fallout shelter with you.
Cantucci: Tuscany’s Classic Cookie by Francine Segan: Cantucci, crunchy almond biscotti, are a Tuscan classic.
Celebrating Christmas — and Fruitcake — in East India by Rinku Bhattacharya: In India, December comes with the spirit of Christmas throughout the country.
How to Throw a Flawless Holiday Dinner Party by Clifford A. Wright: It is joyous to watch people have a good time and set a table for sparkling conversation and good food.
Holiday Menu Makeovers That Flip Ho-Hum to Yum by Francine Segan: Do you have menu monotony? Are you cooking the same recipes over and over again?
Pozole: A Go-To Party Food for Las Posadas by Karen Branch-Brioso: For nine nights leading to Christmas Eve, Mexico celebrates las posadas: singalong parties to reenact Joseph and Mary’s biblical pilgrimage to Bethlehem and their near-fruitless search for shelter before Jesus’ birth.
The Dinner We All Want for the Holidays by Barbara Haber: I am thinking about having an ecumenical holiday party this year to bring together friends of varying religious and ethnic persuasions and am enjoying the challenge of coming up with an inclusive menu.
Main composite image: Zester holiday favorites. Composite credit: Karen Chaderjian
Just in time for holiday gatherings and good any time for parties and special occasions, here are two easy-to-make recipes that yield enough delicious cookies to delight a hungry crowd. Used in tandem, the pound cake and financier cookie recipes also solve the classic baker’s dilemma: When recipes call only for egg yolks, what to do with the whites? And vice versa.
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When they were young, our sons loved pound cake. The recipe I developed called for egg yolks, which meant the whites went to waste. That always bothered me. Recently, I needed to make a large number of cookies for a party. I decided adapting the pound cake recipe would make a unique cookie.
But that left me with my old problem. What to do with the egg whites? No one in our house eats egg white omelets so I looked through a notebook where I keep recipe ideas. In my notes about a Parisian bakery (I neglected to write down the name) was a description of a scrumptious financier. Like a cartoon character, the light blub turned on over my head. Financiers are made with egg whites. The pound cake needs yolks. Voilà! A marriage made in the oven.
Making the cookies in silicone molds adds to the ease of preparation. No need to brush on melted butter and dust with flour because the molds are nonstick. They require a minimum amount of washing before being used again to make another round of delicious cookies.
Silicone molds are available online and in specialty cook stores such as Sur La Table and Williams-Sonoma as well as in the cookware sections of major department stores.
Best served at room temperature, the cookies will stay fresh for a week if refrigerated in airtight containers.
Lemon Zest Pound Cake Cookies
Pound cakes get their name because the classic recipe calls for a pound each of butter, flour, eggs and sugar. Adapting the recipe for use in a small mold transforms the cake into a light-as-air crisp cookie, with many of the qualities of an Italian dipping biscotti. The lemon zest contrasts nicely with the buttery richness of the cookies.
If you want to use larger molds, the yield will be lower and the cookies will need to be baked longer. Because ovens vary, I would suggest starting with a test batch of three or four cookies to determine the baking time.
The dough has a thickened consistency not unlike Play-Doh. Use your fingers to spread the dough into the corners of the individual molds.
Yield: 126 cookies made in molds 1-inch by 1 3/4 inch
Preparation Time: 30 minutes
Baking Time: 20-25 minutes
1 1/2 cups sweet butter
6 egg yolks
2 whole eggs
2 cups white sugar
1 teaspoon finely chopped lemon zest
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
4 cups all-purpose white flour
2 tablespoons powdered sugar
1. Heat oven to 350 F.
2. In a saucepan melt butter over a low flame. Set aside to cool.
3. In a large bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, whole eggs and sugar to a custardy consistency.
4. Add lemon zest to the egg mixture.
5. Slowly whisk in the melted, room temperature sweet butter.
6. Add baking powder and mix well.
7. Sprinkle 1/4 cup flour into the bowl. Whisk to mix well. Continue adding 1/4 cup at a time and blending until all the flour is incorporated into the egg-butter-sugar dough.
8. Into each 1-inch by 1 3/4-inch mold, place 1 1/2 teaspoons of dough. Using your fingers press down to shape the dough into each mold.
9. Put the molds onto a cookie sheet and place in the preheated oven.
10. Rotate the molds every 10 minutes for even browning.
11. The cookies will bake in 20 to 25 minutes. But because ovens vary, begin checking after 10 minutes. If the tops are lightly browned, they are probably done.
12. Remove the molds from the oven and place on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Remove each cookie and place on the wire rack.
13. When cooled to room temperature place the cookies in an airtight container and refrigerate for later use.
14. Just before serving, dust the tops with powdered sugar. Serve by themselves with coffee or tea, or with fresh berries, whipped cream or ice cream.
- Add 1/4 cup finely ground roasted almonds into the batter.
- Add 1/4 cup finely ground chopped dark chocolate or chocolate chips into the batter.
- Blend together 1/4 cup finely ground roasted almonds with 1 teaspoon white sugar. Halfway through baking, dust the tops of the cookies with the almond-sugar mixture.
Financiers are often prepared with ground almonds. Any nut can be used. I prefer roasted hazelnuts.
Using larger sized molds will result in fewer cookies that need to be baked longer.
Unlike the thick pound cake dough, the financiers batter is thin and is best placed into the individual molds using a spouted container like a measuring cup. Because ovens are different, I would suggest making a test batch of three or four cookies to determine the baking time.
Yield: 90 cookies made in molds 1-inch by 1 3/4-inch
Prep time: 30 minutes
Baking time: 30 minutes
3/4 cup sweet butter
1 cup, plus 2 tablespoons whole raw hazelnuts
1/2 cup all-purpose white flour
1 3/4 cups confectioners or powdered sugar
Pinch sea salt
Pinch black pepper
6 egg whites
1/4 cup orange simple syrup (see recipe below)
1. Heat oven to 450 F.
2. Melt butter and set aside to cool.
3. Place hazelnuts on a baking sheet and roast in the oven 2-3 minutes. Remove. Wrap the hot hazelnuts in a damp, cloth kitchen towel. Rub the towel against the hazelnuts to remove the skins. Measure out 2 tablespoons of the roasted hazelnuts. Cut each hazelnut into quarters and reserve.
4. Using a food processor, grind the remaining 1 cup of roasted hazelnuts into a fine meal. Keep an eye on the grind so the hazelnuts don’t over process and become a nut butter.
5. In a large bowl, use a whisk to blend together the hazelnuts, flour, sugar, sea salt and black pepper.
6. Add the egg whites and mix well.
7. Whisk in the cooled, melted butter.
8. Transfer the batter to a spouted measuring cup and fill each mold with batter.
9. In the middle of each financier place a quarter piece of roasted hazelnut on top, cut side up.
10. Clean off any batter that may have spilled onto the outside of the mold.
11. Drizzle 2 to 3 drops of orange simple syrup on top of each financier.
12. Put the mold onto a cookie sheet and place in the preheated oven for 5 minutes. Rotate the cookie sheet for even browning. Reduce the temperature to 400 F and continue baking another 5 minutes.
13. Turn off the oven.
14. Rotate the cookie sheet and leave the financiers in the oven 10 minutes or until they are lightly browned on top and firm to the touch. Making a test batch to determine how long they should remain in the oven at this juncture is helpful. Leaving the financiers in the cooling oven longer will create a crisper cookie.
15. Remove from the oven and place the mold on a wire rack. Do not remove the financiers from their molds until the mold has cooled to the touch. Then carefully remove each cookie and allow them to continue cooling on the wire rack.
The financiers can be stored in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to a week.
Serve at room temperature with coffee or tea, with fresh berries, whipped cream or ice cream.
Orange Simple Syrup
Before making the syrup, the peel is boiled three times to remove the orange’s astringent oils.
Yield: ¼ cup
Time: 30 minutes
1/2 cup orange peel with rind, finely chopped
6 1/4 cups water
1/4 cup white sugar
1. Place the chopped orange peel and two cups of water into a saucepan.
2. Bring to a boil. Remove the pan from the stove top and strain the orange peel pieces in a fine metal strainer. Repeat the process two additional times.
3. Place the orange peel, sugar and 1/4 cup water into the saucepan. Do not stir the mixture. On a low flame, bring the mixture to a low simmer.
4. After the water dissolves the sugar, continue simmering the syrup 10 minutes. To test for doneness, dip a small spoon into the liquid. If the back of the spoon comes out coated, the syrup is done.
5. Use a fine metal strainer to separate the syrup from the candied orange peel. The orange peel can be saved for later use in a refrigerated airtight container.
6. Transfer the syrup into a spouted bottle or use a small espresso-sized spoon to drizzle the orange flavoring onto the financiers.
Main photo: Lemon Zest Pound Cake Cookies. Credit:David Latt
It would arrive each year by the first week of December: a brown paper parcel from Tobago, where my father’s favorite niece lived. Inside was a used butter cookie tin, and inside that was a foil-wrapped cake that revealed itself to be dark as night.
The alcohol fumes that wafted off the cake as it was unwrapped were enough to make our young heads spin — and to preserve it for what was, in those days, a three-week journey by ship from Trinidad & Tobago to New York City. For weeks after the cake arrived, my brother Ramesh and I would scurry into the kitchen and pick at it when my father wasn’t looking.
This Caribbean holiday specialty, which is called Black Cake because of its signature color, Christmas Cake or simply “fruit cake,” is a fruit cake that will actually leave you hankering for more. Plummy, boozy and sweet but not sugary, Black Cake is best described as plum pudding that has gone to heaven.
This cake is so addictive that once you’ve tried it, seeking it come December is an obsession for some. I’ve been bribed with everything from hand-knit scarves, theater tickets, offers of baby-sitting, and even house-cleaning for one.
Black Cake inspired by an Irish Christmas recipe
Most common in English-Caribbean islands like Trinidad, Barbados and Grenada, its origins are in the Irish Christmas Cake, an equally worthy fruitcake cousin. Primarily consisting of raisins, prunes and currants, Black Cake contains only a small amount of the multi-hued candied peel that makes most fruit cakes less than appetizing. To add flavor and moisture, the fruits are soaked in a rum and cherry wine mixture for weeks.
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For those of us who have a black-cake-making heritage, this fruit cake is serious business. Those who are really old school start soaking the fruits a full year ahead of time, although I have developed a “fast-soak” method, which means you can have your cake and eat it, too, all in time for the holiday season.
Every family has its own recipe with either a unique mixture of fruits, ratio of liquors or even combination of liquors. Lately, I’ve been using Manischewitz Cherry Wine because I find it has the same sweetness as Caribbean versions of cherry wine but with a lot more color and body.
If you hate fruitcake but love cakes that are densely rich, complex in flavor without being too sweet and ideal with a cup of tea, give Black Cake a try. You might find yourself breaking it out not just at Christmastime, but as we do — for weddings and special occasions of all sorts — because any excuse to eat this fruitcake will do.
This video gives a demonstration for making this cake, with the recipe below.
This recipe is adapted from “Sweet Hands: Island Cooking from Trinidad & Tobago” by Ramin Ganeshram. It features a “fast-soak” method that uses heat to start the maceration process for the dried fruits that make up the cake.
For the fruit mixture:
1 pound raisins
1 pound currants
1 pound prunes
1/2 pound candied cherries
1/4 pound mixed fruit peel
4 cups cherry brandy or cherry wine, divided
4 cups dark rum
1 cinnamon stick
2 star anise pods
1/2 vanilla bean
For the cake:
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
1 cup dark brown sugar
2 sticks (1 cup) butter, softened
1/2 teaspoon mixed essence (available in Caribbean markets)
1 tablespoon burnt sugar syrup (see note)
For the basting:
1/4 cup dark rum
1/4 cup cherry brandy
2 tablespoons sherry
1 dash Angostura bitters
For the fruit mixture:
1. For the fruit mixture, mix together all the dried fruits then place half the mixture in a food processor along with 1/2 cup of the cherry brandy. Pulse until the mixture is a rough paste, then place it in a large, deep saucepan or stockpot. Pulse the remaining fruits with another 1/2 cup of cherry brandy to form a rough paste, then add that to the pot as well.
2. Pour the remaining cherry brandy and rum into the pot with the pureed fruit. Add the cinnamon stick and star anise pods. Split the vanilla bean, scrape out the seeds and add both the seeds and the bean to the pan.
3. Place the pan over medium-low heat and mix well until just under a boil. Stir often so it does not scorch on the bottom.
4. Remove the pan from heat, cover it and allow the mixture to sit for one or two hours or as long as overnight. Alternatively, place fruit and spices in an airtight gallon jar and store unrefrigerated in a cool, dark place for at least three weeks or as long as a year.
For the cake:
1. Preheat the oven to 250 F and grease two 8-by-3-inch cake pans, then set them aside.
2. Sift together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice.
3. Place the sugar and butter in a bowl and cream with an electric mixer until fluffy (about 4 minutes).
4. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.
5. Add the mixed essence.
6. Using a slotted spoon, remove 3 cups of the fruit from its storage jar and beat well into the butter mixture.
7. Add the flour mixture 1/2 cup at a time, beating well after each addition, then add the burnt sugar syrup and mix well.
8. Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans and bake for 90 minutes or until a cake tester inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. Remove cakes from the oven and cool in their pans for 20 minutes.
9. Combine the rum, brand, sherry and bitters for basting and brush evenly over the cakes. Allow the cakes to cool completely, then remove them from the pans and wrap tightly in plastic wrap or in a zip-top bag.
10. Store in a cool, dry place for at least three days before eating. The recipe makes two cakes, which can be refrigerated for up to three months. If doing so, re-baste with the rum mixture once a week.
Note: Burnt sugar syrup or “browning” is found in Caribbean markets or online. You can also make it by combining 2 tablespoons of dark brown sugar and 1 tablespoon of water in a dry frying pan over medium-low heat. Heat slowly, stirring the sugar until it starts to caramelize. Continue stirring until the sugar syrup turns very dark brown or almost black. Add to batter as called for in a recipe.
Main photo: Black Cake is often simply called “fruit cake” or Christmas Cake in the English-speaking Caribbean. Credit: Ramin Ganeshram
“Mince around the World” is probably one of the worst names ever for a cookbook, yet it was discussed in all seriousness by an editor of my acquaintance a few years ago. For non-British readers, let me explain: Mince is what you folks the other side of the pond call “ground.” Not that “Grind around the World” would be much better.
Christmas mince pies would, of course, would be a feature in such a volume, although the beef that was once an essential component of the pastry has long been jettisoned from the ingredients list. In Britain, “mince” means ground meat, and “mincemeat” refers to dried fruit, nuts, candied peel, sugar, spices, suet and brandy or rum, chopped into a mixture that is used as a filling for small, round covered pies.
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The latter word did originally mean finely shredded beef — indeed they commonly “made mincemeat” of unlucky knaves back in the 17th century — and it was general practice from the Middle Ages onward to add spice and fruit to meat. In her brilliantly researched “Great British Bakes,” Mary-Anne Boermans notes that Esther Copley in 1838 included five different recipes for mincemeat in her cookbook, the main ingredients being beef, tripe, neat’s tongue, eggs and oranges.
The meat content gradually died out over the centuries, especially with the advent of refrigeration, which took away the need to preserve meat by other means. The tradition survived longest in the sheep-rearing districts of northern England, where lamb or mutton was preferred to beef. The last vestige is the use of beef suet, although today’s mincemeat is increasingly vegetarian-friendly. Not that this is entirely new either — Hannah Glasse (1747) gives a recipe for Lenten mincemeat that has neither sugar nor suet, although it does include hard-boiled eggs.
Christmas tradition of mince pies
The atavistic impulse to make mince pies is still strong in British homes from the first rendition of “White Christmas” until you break your January diet. In 1662, Samuel Pepys celebrated “Twelfth Night“ with a dish of 18 “mince pies” (aka “Christmas pies”).
It is still common practice to have a standby tin of pies ready to offer passing mailmen, window cleaners and garbage disposal executives. In Yorkshire, they used to say if you didn’t accept a mince pie when offered, you risked a run of bad luck. There was also an old country belief there that the original mincemeat consisted of 13 ingredients representing the 12 apostles and Christ himself. Another old Yorkshire tradition, quoted in “The Oxford Companion to Food,” was that it is incorrect to eat mince pies before Christmas, but to eat one in a different house if possible on each of the 12 days of the season of Christmas — in order to bring 12 happy months.
Alas, I have to break it to you that unless you have been frightfully well-organized and have remembered to make your mincemeat far enough in advance for the flavor to mature, it is now too late for homemade. Still, there are good ready-made brands in the shops — but hurry, because you won’t be the only one who has just thought about it. Likewise with the pastry. There are various schools of thought as to whether this should be shortcrust, puff or flaky. The choice is yours, as is the decision whether to make your own or use ready-rolled.
For many families, Christmas simply isn’t Christmas without a plate of mince pies on hand. Even if you hate them or no one ever eats them, you’ve simply got to have them. It’s the law. Santa says so.
Classic Mince Pies
When using ready-made mincemeat, you can always perk it up with a splash of rum or brandy and/or some extra citrus zest. This recipe is based on one by Annie Bell in her triple-tested “Baking Bible.”
Prep time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes
Total time: 2 hours
Yield: About 24 servings
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup butter, chilled and diced
1/2 cup lard, chilled and diced
1 cup sifted confectioners’ sugar
1 egg yolk
A little milk
Superfine sugar, for dusting
About 2 cups mincemeat
1. Briefly process the flour, butter and lard so it becomes crumb-like.
2. Add the confectioners’ sugar and pulse again.
3. Add the egg yolk and enough milk to bring the dough together in a ball.
4. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill for at least one hour.
5. Preheat the oven to about 375 F (190 C).
6. Grease two 12-hole shallow tart tins (or use nonstick).
7. Thinly roll out two-thirds of the pastry on a lightly floured work surface. Use a 3-inch fluted pastry cutter to cut circles. Place in the trays and fill with a generous spoonful of mincemeat.
8. Roll out the trimmings and remaining pastry and cut circles with a 2 ½-inch fluted cutter. Brush the rim of the pies lightly with milk, lay the lids on the tops and gently press the edges together.
9. Dust with the superfine sugar and bake for 15 to 20 minutes. Keep an eye on them so they don’t go much beyond the pale gold stage or the rims will start to harden and burn.
Tip: They can be stored in an airtight container for up to a week. They can also be frozen.
Main photo: The atavistic impulse to make mince pies is strong in British homes. Credit: Clarissa Hyman
In India, December comes with the spirit of Christmas throughout the country, and, in Kolkata in eastern India, the city finds ways to regale in its deep-rooted colonial past.
Streets are decorated with rows of illuminated garlands and stars as the malls begin to make commercial hay. As a young girl — one raised Hindu while attending Catholic school — December festivals meant year-end concerts, carols and Christmas cards. And, my father’s own childhood tradition of a winter fruitcake.
I loved the simplicity of our small Christmas tree.While in most cases, the Christmas trees were faux, festivities were warm and very real.
There is something magical about walking through historic old churches, most notably the Basilica of the Holy Rosary in Bandel or St. Paul’s Cathedral to see worshipers — both Christian and otherwise — gathering to celebrate.
My first Christmas in the United States was two decades ago on a lonely college campus. When I declined my aunt’s generous invitation to join them for Christmas, I had no idea that the entire small college campus would be emptied out with little sign of life.
A query that made me question myself
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Finally, I did encounter someone, who asked me if I celebrated the holiday. This came to me as a very curious question. I nodded and then pondered my answer, unsure whether it was correct. Our household did not observe the holiday religiously, although my parochial schooling had made me quite familiar with the religious aspects of the festivities.
Christmas, to me, was about the spirit of giving and cheer. It was about cookies and tinsel. So, how could I not celebrate the holiday?
I had grown up in the colonially influenced, secular and fairly cosmopolitan city of Kolkata, where most holidays are celebrated. But, until asked, it had not occurred to me that there were strings attached to celebrating Christmas. A visit to Park Street in the heart of Kolkata would prove otherwise.
Last year, I visited the historical St Paul’s Cathedral and in the spirit of Christmases that I remembered, there were worshipers of all kinds offering homage to Baby Jesus. And there is always room for celebration in this food-obsessed city.
This is probably why it is easier for us to make our annual visit to India during Christmas. I find it so much easier to celebrate and be a part of a holiday where there are not religious obligations on our part. Mostly, it is about being a part of the festive atmosphere, which is still not completely commercialized, and where people still feel comfortable actually wishing each other Merry Christmas without anyone feeling offended.
Christmas also brings to mind the lines of a Bengali Christmas carol, something my grandmother taught me as a child, without any fuss or fanfare. In today’s politically correct world, I realize how simply my family had instilled the spirit of equality and religious acceptance in me.
Helping to carry on my father’s fruitcake tradition
We had our Christmas traditions. Nothing formal or locked in stone, except for our traditional family fruitcake that I first created for my father years ago, mostly because I wanted to ensure there was a homemade version of his family winter cake – a tradition for him.
All around the city, bakery shelves were filled with moist and dark brown fruitcakes, something my grandmother liked to call Plum Cake, possibly a throwback to the English plum puddings. These fruitcakes did not have any of the negative connotations commonly associated with fruitcakes in the United States. They were moist, soft and delightfully balanced – not even remotely related to their hardened cousins.
My father’s fruitcake tradition harked back to his childhood. As a boy growing up in a fairly conventional Brahman family, the other Christmas traditions eluded him. However, he remembered his father always coming home on Christmas Eve with a handful of goodies and three or four of those delight golden-brown plum cakes.
For my father, it was never Christmas without them.
Over the years, I finally settled for a fruitcake recipe that is featured in the Bengali Five Spice chronicles. It is a close cousin of the varieties that Dad spoke of, obtained from a friend’s Anglo-Indian family. The fruitcake has become my Christmas traditions.
A recipe that is now being savored by the second generation of fruitcake lovers might be just what your Christmas table desires. With notes of rum and dense molasses, it is rich and moist and perfect for any occasion. If you are persuaded to give this cake a try, start by soaking your fruit right now, so that you have them plump and flavorful in time for Christmas baking.
My personal tradition is to savor pieces of this fruitcake with tea, especially on the last remaining weeks of the year as I send out my holiday cards and pack for our annual visit to India.
(adapted from “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles”)
Prep time: 20 minutes (plus a week to a month for soaking the fruit)
Cook time: 45 minutes
Yield: 10 servings
I shy away from calling this recipe “plum cake.” That dark moist fruit cake is a Christmas regular in the multiple cake shops that dot Kolkata. This recipe is close, but something about it falls just a little short of the taste I remember, possibly because nostalgia cannot be bottled and infused in a cake batter to complete the flavors as the mind recalls them.
1 cup of large mixed raisins
1/2 cup chopped, candied citrus peel
1/4 cup chopped cherries or cranberries
1/2 cups of rum
2 cups all-purpose white flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup loosely packed light brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup robust molasses
4 eggs, well-beaten
1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup shredded coconut
1. Place all the fruits in a non-reactive bowl. Add the rum and cover and set aside for at least a week, or, for best flavor, for a month.
2. Grease an 8-inch to 10-inch loaf pan and pre-heat the oven to 350 F.
3. Drain the fruit when you are ready to use and reserve the soaking liquor, if any.
4. Sift together the flour and salt. Sprinkle about a ¼ cup of the flour mixture over the drained fruit and toss to coat.
5. Cream together the butter, brown sugar, and granulated sugar. Stir in the molasses. Add the beaten eggs to the mixture and beat to combine.
6. Add the baking powder to the remaining flour mixture and add to the batter in batches, alternating with the milk, and beat until well combined.
7. Beat in the vanilla and almond extracts. Stir in the shredded coconut. Stir in the floured fruit. Pour batter into prepared pan.
8. Bake the cake for 40 to 45 minutes until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool slightly.
9. Invert the cake onto a plate and pour the reserved soaking liquor over it. Allow it to sit to absorb the liquor. This cake can be served warm or alternately wrapped and stored and served when needed.
Main photo: In Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta, families of all religious backgrounds embrace Christmas traditions, including a far more moist and softer version of fruitcake than the traditional kind found in the United States. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya
Like many people, I thought fruitcakes — like Twinkies — came wrapped and packaged and were the kind of food that goes into the fallout shelter with you. It never occurred to me that real people made fruitcakes and consumed them in real time.
My mother had a stack of untouched fruitcakes in tins from long-gone retailers like S.S. Pierce. I found a few in the cupboard last month as I was cleaning out her house. Still virginal, and probably still safe to eat in the case of a nuclear attack.
Then I married into my husband’s Irish family.
Family’s fruitcake recipe holds dear memories
Michael comes from a long line of professional bakers who make fruitcakes for holiday giving with their own little floury hands. (Family lore is that his grandfather actually was the inventor of Marshmallow Fluff and was robbed of the glory.)
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Grandfather Hynes’ fruitcake recipe for 40 loaves was part of the bounty of our marriage. We had our friend the pastry chef adapt the recipe for our wedding cake, doing the math to make it come out as three-tiered edible greatness. Everyone went home with a healthy chunk. My mother kept one whole layer of the cake for herself in her fridge, and for the next 10 years she had a slice of it for dinner with a healthy shot of Maker’s Mark.
Weddings were just fine, I learned, but the real fruitcake moment was Christmas. According to my sister-in-law Maryellen, making Grandfather Hynes’ fruitcakes was the most special and sacred childhood holiday ritual in their Worcester, Mass., household.
Every year, the children and their father would grate, mix and steep the fruit, then bake and wrap dozens of cakes to give to family and friends and other fruitcake-poor households. And the weekend to do it was the weekend immediately after Thanksgiving. Fruitcakes, Maryellen explained to me, “need time for the fruitcake to mature.”
So she came up to our house for Thanksgiving with a plan to use the rest of the weekend to re-create the treasured memory of fruitcakes past with her brother. She had it all planned. (She is a very organized person). The two would bond over their reminiscences and perhaps a healthy shot or two of Jamesons.
She went to the store and bought 48 small stainless loaf pans along with several bottles of spirits, sacks of aromatic spices, flour, and sugar, bags and bags of dried fruit and nuts, and two enormous cans of Crisco. I was surprised Crisco was even still available – and shocked to see that the label proclaimed it both “Transfats Free” and Kosher. Who knew? She needed to buy a lot since this was going to be an annual tradition in my house, I was informed. I vetoed the Crisco and opted for butter.
I had some problems with this idea. Specifically, that weekend we were doing a big neighborhood Sunday brunch to celebrate my daughter’s recent engagement. Industrial-scale fruitcake making tends to take over the kitchen for a number of days and makes putting together an elegant brunch for 30 a bit of a challenge. Secondly, her brother (my husband, remember) had absolutely no interest in the project. He’d long ago moved on from baking to tinkering with robots and software. And my daughters just thought it was plain weird. That left me as the designated helper, and a tad grumpy about the whole enterprise.
We got out my bathtub-scaled mixing bowls and began to mix the batter. We began with our spatulas and spoons, but by the end we were up to our elbows in the batter. Fruitcake batter is a turgid proposition and as a result a very good upper-arm workout.
By early Sunday morning, the batter was ready. The kitchen began to smell like a pub. We were a little woozy just from the waft of the alcohol, but I assumed that was a bonus. Maybe we’d been just a little overgenerous with the Jameson’s?
Once all the tins were filled to perfection, we loaded them in neat rows in my heavy duty, professional-quality Viking range. The kind with the door that closes so firmly it takes two hands to open. I cleaned up the kitchen and went in to glare at my husband sitting in front of his computer.
Suddenly, a huge boom! Kids rolling out of bed. Windows rattling. A terrorist attack? A plane falling out of the sky? Should we call 911? I ran into the kitchen — the direction of the bomb. What I saw was the doors blown open on my two ovens and the kitchen window with a spider web of cracks and a sweet mist of spirits. The fruitcakes were still innocently baking in their tiny tins. The Jameson’s and port had evaporated with a bang. I closed the oven doors, took an extra nip of Jameson’s for my nerves and decided never again.
But the fruitcakes were delicious. And every single person who received one raved about it as the first and only fruitcake they’d ever eaten and enjoyed. And we still have the tins, right? And so here we are again, making the fruitcakes, and I share Grandfather Hynes’ special Irish fruitcake recipe with you all.
Grandfather Hynes’ Fruitcake
You can use this recipe to make 40 loaves by scaling up the ingredients by 10. You’ll need a lot more whiskey!
Yield: Makes 1 (4-pound) cake or four loaves
2 pounds dried fruit (currants, some dark raisins and some candied citron)
1 bottle or more of good quality port, Irish whiskey etc. You’ll need enough to cover the currants and raisins as they soak overnight
8 ounces (1/2 pound by weight) white sugar
Approximately 8 eggs (1/2 pound by weight)
1/2 pound butter (If Crisco speaks to you, go with it!)
2 tablespoons grated nutmeg (It’s best if grated fresh.)
1 tablespoon salt
1/2 tablespoon ground mace
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
8 ounces (1/2 pound by weight) all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 pound candied cherries
1. Preheat oven to 250 F.
2. Let the dried currants, raisin and citron steep overnight in the port or whiskey.
3. Cream the sugar, eggs and butter (or shortening).
4. Add the salt, nutmeg, mace, cinnamon and cloves and mix well.
5. Add the flour and baking soda and mix well.
6. Add the steeped dry fruits and mix until well incorporated.
7. Pour the batter into greased pans.
8. Place the cherries in the loaf pans by hand. Bury a row of cherries, evenly spaced, in the batter so each slice has a cherry for color and flavor.
9. Bake for 2 hours, checking for doneness by inserting a toothpick into the center.
10. Cool the fruitcakes in pans placed on a rack.
Note: Tipple on any remaining whiskey — especially if its Jameson’s. It will make the fruitcake much more delicious.
Main photo: A holiday fruitcake. Credit: Shutterstock/Hurst Photo