Wednesday, November 14, 2007
A month of Christmas baking
It might feel too early to be getting into the Christmas spirit, but Christmas decorations are being put up all around the city and boxes of shiny tinsel and fat mince pies have been in the supermarkets since October. I feel like we've barely packed up the decorations from last year and it's time to get them out again.
But I don't really mind because Christmas is my favourite time of the year. I love the preparations, particularly planning the Christmas Day menu and the food treats that I'll make as gifts.
Regardless of the weather, we've always had a traditional Christmas lunch in our house, with ham, roast turkey, roast vegetables, peas with mint sauce and tomatoes topped with breadcrumbs, followed by plum pudding with brandy sauce and thick custard. It's a menu more suited to the snowy English season than to a hot Australian summer but it's our tradition and we love it, despite the fact that seafood is now becoming a much more popular (and well-suited) choice. As my mum's birthday is on Christmas Eve, we usually have seafood or a BBQ that night (and Santa and his reindeer were always guaranteed a big slice of birthday cake to keep them going!)
November is the time to make plum pudding and Christmas cakes and to get organised for other baking. I've been stockpiling my supplies of butter, flour, sugar, dried fruit and nuts in preparation and have already picked up frozen suet from my butcher. I'm the designated pudding maker in my family and I'm also the custodian of my grandmother's recipes for shortbread and fruit mince tarts. To these old favourites, I've added new ones over the years, including a chocolate panforte, panettone, assorted gingerbread and spice cookies, and sweet treats for gifts, such as pistachio and cranberry nougat and chocolate fudge.
I wish I could say that I use an old family recipe for our Christmas pudding but that's not the case. My dad has fond memories of the rich plum pudding his mother made each year, with a penny hidden inside. It hung in its cloth wrapper in a cool dark place for at least six weeks before Christmas. Alas, the recipe appears to have died with her. The recipe I do use is an old one and it is from Stephanie Alexander's grandmother. It was first published in The Age many years ago and also appears in her book The Cook's Companion. I've been making it for many years now and it's always eagerly received. I make it in two old pudding tins that belonged to my great-aunt, rather than in cloth, as I've never had any luck using cloth. The pudding is extremely easy to make and the only drawback is that you need to set aside a day to make it, as it requires six hours boiling time (plus at least an hour's boiling time on Christmas Day to reheat it). But the end result is well worth it.
Here is my grandmother's recipe for shortbread. My grandmother and mother have made this every year for Christmas that I can remember and it makes a lovely gift. You can make this at any time of the year but it is a nice festive treat, particularly if you use a Christmas tree-shaped cutter.
270g plain flour
60g rice flour
90g caster sugar
a few drops of vanilla extract
Beat the butter until as white as possible. Add vanilla extract and then slowly add sugar. Continue beating until soft and fluffy. Sift flours, add to mixture and stir to a fairly dry dough.
Press dough out to approximately 2-3cms thick. Cut out with a Christmas tree cutter (or other shapes). Place on baking trays lined with baking paper and cook at 180 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes. Do not allow to brown. Gently lift with a spatula and cool on a wire rack.