🗓 December and 🎄 the advent period for me are synonymous with 🍪 BAKING: that wonderful smell coming from the oven (the MBFF family lives in an open plan abode, so sweet smells do drift . . . ) . . . Such a cosy feeling does baking bring me: the aim being to share a sweet treat with loved ones . . . an activity rendered even more special if it is ❄️ snowing outside and 🎼 Jim Reeves Christmas carols are a-playing . . . because then I am transported back to childhood ❄️ white Christmases in New York . . .
Baking for me makes me remember the 🇲🇽 magical-realism Mexican novel that I read so long ago: Como Agua Para Chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate) by Laura Esquivel: a sprinkling of love, some tears dropped in for memories, sugar for sweetness and a pinch of salt to keep things real . . .
These days I sometimes bake with the boys (mini MBFF boy loves to put on his apron; the bigger one is less keen!), and I always try to bake for their teachers at Christmastime (winter bugs and time permitting!). This year, I think I’ll have to give the teacher treats a miss, because of the pandemic, but that won’t stop me baking for my family . . .
📖 The treasured blue recipe book 📖
There is 📖 one recipe book that I use regularly, and it is my most treasured book (and I LOVE 📚 books!): that is my late mum’s blue recipe book. It is a treasure trove of well-used recipes, repeated and changed to suit different ovens during my childhood years, when we were a nomadic family, traipsing with my journalist father from 🇬🇧 Kent, 🇫🇷 to Paris, back to 🇬🇧 Kent, 🇺🇸 to New York and then back to 🇬🇧 Kent again. The recipe book has been well-leafed, and it is a historical testament to my mother’s life, and also my own: in it, written in my mum’s handwriting, are my 🏴 Scottish grandmother’s recipes, and these bare titles like Mum’s Scottish Pancakes, Mrs Muir’s sponge cake (made with margerine, eek!), and the like . . . and then there are the recipes for cheese soufflé and other dinner party staples from the 1970s!
. . . and then, 📖 the more poignant aspect of the recipe book is the sudden méli-mélo of recipes that were stuck to its pages after my mum died suddenly one Christmas – scrappy bits of paper, photocopies, even the back of a used envelope! And here we can see my dad trying to navigate life as a single parent: my (short!) teenage vegetarian phase (a 🥜 nut-roast recipe donated from a kind church-goer!), my ever pragmatic, tough loving father’s mother’s (my gran: a Lincolnshire farmer, who was so, so pivotal to my adolescence) 🐟 recipes for fish pie, stuffed chine (yuck!) and other staples . . . and then also some recipes from friends of mine, one for a 🇵🇱 Polish apple cake, which I still regularly make!
So precious is this 📖 recipe book, that my younger son asked if I would make him one; and so, on my to do list for 2021 is to make he and his big brother a recipe book! And in it, of course, will be some of my mum’s, my grandma’s and my gran’s special recipes, as well as some of my own.
I love the Chocolate Sauce addition to Jellies, Creams, Ices, etc. here!
🎄🍪 MBFF Christmas Baking 🍪 🎄
I loved baking with my mum, and I have a particular memory of 🎄 making royal-iced cookies one Christmas in New York, but I can’t find this recipe anywhere (it was not stuck in the blue recipe book!) . . .
And so, thirty odd years on, what do I bake at Christmas? There are two staples:
🏴 Scottish Shortbread 🏴
My mum made THE best shortbread! Shortbread is so very simple to make: it contains flour, butter (lots of it!) and sugar (and I like to add a pinch of salt). No egg; and this is why it is so crumbly. The most simple version is baked in a tray, and then cut while still warm. Otherwise, you can chill the batter and cut with biscuit cutters. I sometimes freeze an uncooked batch and then cook this at a later date.
[ recipe for shortbread – I can’t share my grandma’s recipe for shortbread online; it doesn’t seem right! But if you ask me personally, then I might just share it with you! 😉 ]
a brief history of shortbread – the history of shortbread dates back to medieval times: it was originally created from left-over bread dough known as biscuit bread (the left-over bread dough was sometimes sweetened and dried out in the oven to form a hard, dry rusk). Over time, the yeast (leavening) was removed and replaced with butter for a much sweeter taste . . . and this biscuit hence became known as shortbread. The taste for shortbread became more widespread in 16th century Scotland, as Mary Queen of Scots was said to have loved this sweet treat; it is even said that she named the most traditional form of shortbread, petticoat tails (cut into triangles from a round tin)! In bygone days, Scottish shortbread made an appearance only at very special occasions as it was seen as a luxury: weddings, Christmas, and Hogmanay.
At 🎄 Christmastime, I also use the recipe 🥞 Mum’s Scottish Pancakes, to make blinis for smoked salmon on Christmas morning! Again, so easy to make!
and . . .
🍪 Gingerbread 🍪
We’ve all heard of the The Gingerbread Man, right? This childhood tale (also known as The Gingerbread Boy) first appeared in print in the May 1875, in the St. Nicholas Magazine, with other tales, like The Little Red Hen. It is a fairy tale, with repetitious scenes, which recounts the tale of a gingerbread man’s escape from various folk, and his eventual demise in the jaws of 🦊 a fox.
No cookie symbolises for me the holidays quite like gingerbread: the smell of mixed spices (fresh and powdered ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, mixed spice) wafting from the oven . . . and then being able 🎄 to hang gingerbread cookies from the tree! But this is a new tradition, one that I have started myself, as I have no memory of my family every baking gingerbread!
Gingerbread comes in so many different shapes, sizes and consistencies: from edible gingerbread houses, to softer spiced cake-like bread, to chewy or hard biscuits decorated with royal icing . . .
My boys actually prefer the Alsace variety of chewy and slightly soft pain d’épices. I enjoy this too, but I prefer a slightly harder gingerbread cookie, like a shop-bought gingernut biscuit, but a bit chewier inside. Here they are decorating their own pain d’épices in Munster, Alsace last year!
a brief history of gingerbread – first of all, that protagonist of an ingredient: ginger – root ginger was first cultivated in 🇨🇳ancient China, and was often used as a medical treatment. From Asia, it spread to Europe via the Silk Road . . . and in the Middle Ages, it was used as a spice that was favoured to disguise the taste of less good preserved meats. In medieval England, the term gingerbread simply meant preserved ginger, and it was not a term applied to the cookies we are familiar with today until the 15th century; then, the hard ginger cookie was to be found at medieval fairs across Europe, and the habit of decorating the tasty cookie became fashionable. Gingerbread houses originated in Germany during the 16th century and quickly became associated with Christmas traditions. Their popularity rose when the Brothers Grimm wrote the story of Hansel and Gretel, in which the young protagonists stumble upon a house made entirely of sweet treats deep in the forest.
🗓 Last year’s MBFF advent calendar – gingerbread!
🗓 This year’s MBFF advent calendar . . . (more gingerbread!)
A couple of Christmases ago, I found a super recipe for gingerbread cookies: Felicity Cloake from The Guardian writes a column called How to make the perfect . . . and she takes you through the recipe step by step. I tweak her recipe and add real grated ginger instead of the suggested crystallised ginger and dried apricot. Once the cookies are baked (super quick, especially if you make small ones!), I make a hole in them and thread them, to be able to hang them on the tree! And then we 🎁 gift them (or eat them!).
Last year’s baking yield (I’ve not got around to baking yet this year; it is on the list for next week’s activities!):
NEW baking traditions . . .
🇦🇹 Vanillakipferl 🇦🇹
Daddy MBFF is from 🇦🇹 Austrian – 🇩🇪 German stock (with a dusting of 🇸🇮 Slovenian in there too!), and so it is inevitable that some new Christmas customs have entered our household.
🇦🇹 Austrians love to bake, and his huge Austrian family is no exception! The Advent period yields huge quantities of cookies! And every year, Oma MBFF sends us a box of freshly baked Vanillekipferl ! These small crescent shaped cookies are DELICIOUS, they literally melt in your mouth and you just can’t help eating another, and another, and another . . . (Don’t tell anyone, but last year I consumed the whole yield within a few days!). This year, we are still awaiting our delivery, but perhaps I shall bake my own (I doubt mine will taste anywhere near as good as the originals, mind you!). This special Christmas cookie is traditionally made from walnuts, almonds or hazelnuts, and they get their typical flavour from a heavy dusting of vanilla sugar! They are difficult to bake, as they are fragile and it takes applied skill to create the kipferl (the horse–shoe shape) without breaking the biscuit.
a brief history of Vanillekipferl: these cookies are – wait for it – ” Austrian, German, Czech, Slovak, Polish and Hungarian small, crescent shaped biscuits ” (Wikipedia). [ note: remember that the Austro-Hungarian empire was HUGE! ] “ Vanillekipferl originate from Vienna in Austria and are a specialty of the Bavarian town of Nördlingen. They are said to have been created in the shape of the Turkish crescent moon symbolizing the celebration of the victory of the Hungarian army over the Turkish in one of the many wars between the nations. ” (Wikipedia)
Sally’s Baking Addiction – Christmas recipes
For some more baking inspiration for Christmas, have a look at the website Sally’s Baking Addiction – she gives lots of tutorials and her recipes are fabulous!
I rather like the look of this Christmas log (recipe here), and she also has a gingerbread house recipe and plenty of cookie recipes!
She also has plentiful 🍪 Christmas cookie recipes, and can show you how to make royal icing for decorating!
Buy locally-produced Bûches de Noël and other delicacies
If 🧁 baking is just not your thing, or you are lacking time, fear not – you will find all sorts of 🎄 Christmas delights at your local boulangeries and pâtisseries: Bûches de Noël, chocolate creations, perhaps some Alsace-inspired gingerbread . . .
I am not a big fan of Christmas pudding, nor mince pies, so I love the tradition of Bûches de Noël and gingerbread here in 🇫🇷 France!
Sérac Gourmet‘s (Saint-Gervais-les-Bains) famous Les Merveilleux are also a delight!