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Christmas baking to share

December 17, 2002

How often do we hear the refrain at Christmas - "I don't know what to get my mother/mother-in-law/aunt/sister/neighbour/brother. She/he has everything.‚"

By then it's usually about December 22 and the nerves are getting a little frazzled. Now there's something rather therapeutic about a baking session in the kitchen, and therein lies your answer. Make them something. Something they can hand around with drinks or coffee when friends drop in over the holidays.

As I am returning to the land of the employed this week, I had an unexpected burst of pre-Christmas motivation last Friday, fired up the oven and got baking while I had some idle time.

First I made the Christmas mincemeat pies. I took the lazy option and bought a packet of pre-rolled sweet short pastry instead of making my own and I have to say those are the easiest mince pies I've made in an age. While I rattled through the various kitchen storage areas searching for my pie tins - and indeed wondering if I might have thrown them out in one of my pre-shifting cleaning fits - the pastry defrosted. I duly located some tins that were sufficient for the task at hand though I never did find the ones I was looking for.

I gave the recipe for my Christmas mince last week. I used to make pies with full tops but they are fiddly to crimp. Far easier to make a star or Christmas tree cutout and use that instead (1). Just stamp out the bottoms with a cookie cutter, ease into the mould, fill with a spoonful of mincemeat and place a cutout on top. Bake according to the directions on the pastry packet. A dozen of these make a nice gift (2) for someone who is unlikely to make their own but would like to offer a visitor a little homemade Christmas cheer.

While these were baking I decided to make some cheese nibblies. These go well with a glass of wine. They have a nice bite and flavour. I seasoned these with ajowan seeds. I bought mine from a New Zealand firm, Spice Wise - http://www.spicewise.co.nz. These pungent little seeds have a high level of the volatile oil thymol and they lend a herby, spicy note. Buy a good mature cheddar to add to the flavour.

Cheese Nibblies

125g butter, cut into cubes
250g plain flour sifted with 1 teaspoon baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon salt
200g tasty cheese, grated
50g Romano cheese, grated
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon ajowan seeds
1 large egg

Place the flour mix and butter in the food processor and process until like breadcrumbs then add the cheese and spices and process a further 10 seconds until well blended. Break in the egg and process again. The mixture will clump and form a ball after a few seconds Don't over-mix.

Remove the dough and knead briefly then form into an oblong and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Cut into four and roll a piece out at a time, a little less than 1cm thick. Stamp out shapes with cookie cutter and place on a baking sheet. The trimmings can be re-rolled. Bake at 180C for 12-15 minutes until golden. Cool on racks and store in an airtight container.

Hazelnut and cardamom biscuits have a nice short texture, a little like shortbread. The hazelnuts add crunch and the cardamom gives a good spicy flavour. You could also add a little grated orange zest if you wish. Orange and cardamom seem to complement each other. I ground my cardamom seeds with a pestle in a mortar, but you can process them in a coffee grinder or use ready ground cardamom.

A trick to remove the skin from hazelnuts - after the nuts have cooled a little, rub a handful between your palms and the skins will flake off easily.

Hazelnut and Cardamom Biscuits

125g butter
1/2 cup icing sugar
3/4 cup flour
1/2 cup cornflour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cardamom
1/2 cup finely chopped toasted hazelnuts - bake them in a shallow tray in a 180C oven for 10 minutes

Cream together the softened butter and icing sugar in a food processor then add the remaining dry ingredients and the spice and process again. Remove the dough onto a floured work surface and knead gently. If the mixture is a little soft, add in some more flour.

Roll out to just under 1cm thickness and stamp out with a round cookie cutter, dipping the cutter into flour from time to time for ease of removal. Place on a baking sheet and bake at 160C for 20 minutes. Cool on a rack. Store in an airtight container.

There is a double baking process involved in making biscotti. The mixture is formed into flattish loaves and baked then it is cooled a little, sliced and baked again. I used toasted blanched almonds. They took seven minutes to toast in a 180C oven. A mix of chopped crystallised ginger and ground ginger give a good flavour. Biscotti are nice with a coffee - it's OK to dunk!

A word about spices - put the date on them when you buy them, and don't keep them too long or they lose their flavour. It's better to buy a small quantity and keep it in a dark, airtight container. Check before using that it still smells nice and spicy,

Ginger Biscotti

70g toasted blanched almonds (see above) roughly chopped
1/2 cup finely chopped crystallised ginger
1 teaspoon ground ginger
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 eggs

Place the dry ingredients in a food processor. Lightly beat together the eggs and vanilla extract. Add to the dry ingredients and process. Add the almonds and chopped ginger and process briefly to mix. Place the dough on a floured surface, knead briefly and cut into two and form into flattish loaves - about 3cm high.

Place on a baking sheet and bake at 180C for 35 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly then cut into diagonal slices about 1cm thick. Place on a baking sheet and turn the oven back to 150C. Bake a further 10 minutes. Cool on a rack and store in an airtight container.

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| ©2000-2013 Pat Churchill