What's behind the next candle?
Well and were off! The first window on our Advent Calendar has opened and it is a Sourdough Christmas Cake! I must say that a few years I did not know that that is a thing. I did see a picture of one flicking through the marvellous Yoke Mardewi of Australia's first baking book Wild Sourdough but I wasn't sure as I did like the heavy traditional xmas fruit cake entombed in a marzipan and icing sugar casing, although found it a tad on the heavy side following on from xmas dinner and a chunk of xmas pudding. Lwas talking about Yoke Mardewi's book whilst running a Sourdough Bread course at the Hornbeam Cafe in Walthamstow when one of the participants recommended the xmas cake as it was lighter and more digestible than a normal xmas cake. We always learn from participants during courses and this was a great discovery. The cake is indeed light and moist, though it is a cake which needn't be just for xmas. It could get the marzipan and icing casing, or just the marzipan like a simnel cake or simply brush on a bit of diluted jam (with water or alcohol) and then sprinkled with icing sugar, which gives it a snowy look.
Our version of this cake which we are calling the Sourdough Date and Apricot xmas cake is included in our Festive Bake-Along Booklet which will shortly be available on our products page.
Hot out of the oven! So today's treat is mince pies with a special sourdough pastry. Back as far as the 15th century there are records of people fermenting a mixture of meat and fruit to create the mincemeat filling. There are a lot of ways to go with making your own mincemeat, we have chosen a recipe using different dried fruits such as sultanas, raisins, dried figs, almonds and walnuts with some spicy stem ginger. For the spice we have used mixed spice and whiskey. We also used grated apple which was popular in apple mincemeat that took over from the addition of meat such as venison and beef. Modern mince pies often contain suet from an animal source but butter can be used or omitted. So whilst meat has disappeared from mince pies orangutans have taken a knock as as with many other commercial baked goods most now contain palm oil. They are fun and easy to make and the mincemeat can be made in advance, indeed if it is prepared well it can even last for years.
Pfefferneusse, or Peppernuts in English can be found in Germany, Belgium and Holland, where they are known as pepernoten. In Hollland they are part of the tradition which surrounds the feast of Sinterklaas, which takes place a day earlier than in Germany on the 5th December. Although part of the name is nut most recipes do not contain nuts. They are quite heavily spiced with the more unusual addition of black pepper and are leavened with baking soda or baking powder, giving them a more open structure. They are definitely worth a bake and we will add the recipe shortly.
Little bread figures are baked across many countries for St Nicholas Day, although they have many other names such as Weckmann, Stutenkerl, Grättima, Klausemann or Dambedei.
This recipe which makes 3 – 4 figures is adapted from a recipe by the Swiss baker and teacher Marcell Paa, who makes up a paste to decorate but it’s a lot easier just to use raisins. This dough is very similar to the Swiss enriched bread Zopf.
A less common but very scary bread figure is Krampus, who roams Central European folklore and is half-demon, half goat, who was the punisher of naughty children. Krampus might well be of pre-Christian origin but at some point in some places became co-opted as Saint Nicholas’s bad cop sidekick on St Nicholas Day. A demon figure can be made as scary as you like!
300g strong white flour
30g granulated sugar
120g whole milk, room temperature
6 grams of salt
6g fresh yeast or 3g dry yeast
50g butter, room temperature
40g mature sourdough starter or 4g fresh yeast or 2g dry yeast
Handful of raisins or currants for decoration
For the glaze:
1 pinch of salt
2 pinches of sugar
1. Mix all the ingredients, except for the butter and salt and knead for about 10 minutes. Then add the salt and butter and knead for another 10 minutes until the dough passes the window test.
2. Cover the dough and leave to rest for 90 minutes.
3. Divide into four equal pieces and cut off a small piece of each for decoration.
4. Roll a big piece into a cylinder and then using the side of your hand push down to form a ball-like head and a cylinder below a bit like a bowling pin. Repeat with the other 3 pieces.
5. Place the figures on a baking tray lined with baking paper.
6. Using a dough scraper make a cut at the bottom of the cylinder and pull the legs astride. Then cut arms with a scraper and pull out and stick the hands back on the hips.
7. Roll out each small ball thinly, cut a circle to use as a hat and wrap around a head making sure to push in at the back. Other pieces of dough can be used as noses, belts, scarves etc. Raisins can be used as eyes and buttons.
8. Beat an egg and mix in a pinch of salt and a couple of pinches of sugar, and paint the glaze over the figures.
9. The figures can be left to rise for an hour but can also be put into the refrigerator overnight.
10. Brush once more with the glaze and bake at 190C with fan, after a couple of minutes add a bowl of hot water for steam. Bake for 20 minutes, then leave to cool for 20 minutes.
Today we have gone crackers, covering a selection of Sourdough versions which are a great way of using up discard starter. Dry flat crackers come down to us from the ancient flatbreads via the naval sea biscuits. In the booklet there are 3 different recipes, but here we have one of those Spicy and Herby Thins:
Discard starter, 100-200g (use GF starter for gluten-free option)
Seeds and herbs of your choice
1. In a bowl, mix the starter with a glug of olive oil to thin the mixture out. Add water if necessary.
2. Mix in seeds and some sea salt.
3. Spread the mixture onto a flat tray lined with greaseproof paper, and bake at 180 C for 18-20 minutes until the crackers turn golden.
Today's festive bake is a regional Christmas bread that originated in Cumbria but all but disappeared. The bread was re-invented by Andrew Whitley, the baker and author of Bread Matters and was published in the Real Bread Campaign's Slow Dough Real Bread book. Andrew had based the recipe on one written about by Elizabeth David in her book English Yeast Bread and Cooking. The name is from the old Cumbrian dialect which means roughly an animal lying on its back and can't get up cake. This version uses a long ferment with a small amount of yeast which is kept in the fridge overnight. The trickiest bit is incorporating the fruit and nuts into the dough and getting it back up on its legs.
Kletzenbrot originates from the Austrian state of Tyrol, where farmers baked a sustaining bread to keep them going through the cold Winter months. It is a spiced fruit bread filled with Kletzen, which is a name for dried pears. Newer versions contain other fruit and nuts such as dried apples, raisins, currants, figs, prunes and hazelnuts. Some versions use half rye flour and half wheat flour, while others just use wholemeal wheat. The fruit has to be soaked overnight and so it makes for a moist loaf which is supposed to get moister as it ages, I guess from the liquid in the fruit spreading back into the crumb.
Our version uses half dark rye and half wholemeal spelt and was lucky to still have some Galician smoked prunes which made up the fruit bill.
Like many others I struggled with the chunk of heavy English fruitcake which appeared on Christmas Day afternoon shielded in a thick layer of marzipan and icing so it was a revelation to discover something lighter in volume but punchy in flavour like stollen. I first found it hitching to England from West Berlin in transit at an Intershop in East Germany. I had not heard of Dresdner Stollen and invested in two for presents, well one of them did make it.
Stollen is an enriched bread rather than a cake and the best examples, like this one, employ sourdough for leavening. There are many versions of the Stollen but the Dresdner one has a cylinder of marzipan running through the middle and a thick layer of icing sugar on top, which rather than representing snow is supposed to represent the blanket of baby Jesus and the coloured fruits such as candied citrus peel and glace cherries are to symbolise the gifts of the Three Wise Men. Candied fruit came from Arabs in the Middle East in the Medieval period. If you have time it really does make sense to make your own as it is far tastier than the supermarket stuff.
Bejgli are the traditonal festive cake of Hungary. The two original and most common fillings are crushed poppy seeds and walnut. The dough is enriched and a two stage glaze is used to give a cracked marble effect. In Britain poppy seeds might be scattered on an odd roll but alas there is no tradition of poppy seed cake. Similar cakes appear in neighbouring countries such as the Makowiec of Poland.
Potica is a rolled cake filled with walnut paste, unlike similar cakes which are baked as a cylinder this one is baked in a circular mould. This recipe has been adapted from the marvellous Slovenian sourdough baker Anita Sumner. Her sweet stiff starter works a treat and can be used for other enriched breads.
This is a Greek Christmas bread, the name literally means Christ bread, psomo being the word for bread. The top is decorated with a Byzantine cross made out of unleavened dough which keeps its colour pallid and bone-like. Walnuts are used to fill the circles created by the splayed ends of the cross. The bread is flavoured with walnut and usually anise seeds, but didn't have any to hand. It turns out that star anise are from a different continent, a different plant and don't make a good substitute as the flavour is in the pithy shell which can't leave in the bread. So instead used fennel seeds which work well. An unusual ingredient which appears is mahlab, a powder made from the seeds of the St. Lucy's cherry, found in different parts of the Mediterranean, and not found around here although it is obtainable online, so maybe next time.
Česnica, pronounced chess-neet-sah, is a round bread baked at Christmas in Serbia as well as some neighbouring countries, this is adapted from a recipe from Montenegro. It is customary to bake a coin in the bread and considered good luck if you find the coin. It is also rather good luck if you happen to have a silver or gold coin to hand to bake into a loaf. If you decide to risk your teeth and only have base metal coins to hand you could always wrap one in silver foil.
This traditional Jewish bread is typically eaten during major Jewish holidays and so thought we would add it in for Hannukah, and enriched with lots of olive oil and eggs - lighter and still just as fluffy as brioche. This sourdough version is adapted from All You Knead is Bread. Replace the eggs with aquafaba for a vegan option. I was out of olive oil so used rapeseed oil, but is a bit harsh.
Julakake, AKA yule cake. The word cake comes from the Old Norse. This recipe based on one from the great Norwegian Baker @gryhammer It only uses a very small amount of sourdough starter and is more of a bread than a cake but is wonderfully moist and fruity.
This is a rich Scottish cake which is baked in a pastry crust. It has changed over the centuries and it is now a popular treat for the old Hogmanay custom of ‘First footing’ when people would visit their neighbours shortly after midnight, to give wishes for New Year. Most contemporary versions are rectangular but according to Elizabeth David they were round so happy to go with that. It requires a long bake at 180C, handy to have a thermometer with a probe to take a reading from the centre, once it gets to 98C it is done. I have to say that this is something truly wonderful, the spice bill hits the mark and it is rich but as it is leavened with sourdough only it is also light and not just the hard wedge of fruit cake. The dough used to make the pastry casing is simply a third of the dough, the other major part is mixed with the spices and dried fruits.
Gingerbread is a popular traditional Polish cake which delivers on the spice side. It is often done in two layers separated by a layer of reduced plum sauce, called powidla. It is made by heating whole plums in a pan until they break down and lose a lot of liquid creating a thick puree consistency, no sugar is added. Make the dough at least a month in advance and leave to mature in your fridge until ready to eat. It used to be a tradition that when a child was born the father would make an alcoholic spirit and the mother would make a piernik dough and they would be both served at the wedding of the child. I was not able to keep the dough for a week so would have failed on that one.
Cozanoc is the Romanian name for this sweet braided bread filled with ground walnuts, which appears not only at Christmas but at Easter and other holidays. It is also popular in Bulgaria where it is known as Kozunak. Each braid is first rolled flat and covered in walnut paste and then rolled up longways.
Roscon de Reyes is a traditional Spanish enriched bread.
Joulutorttu are a windmill shaped pastry from Finland. They are usually filled with a plum preserve but any rich jam will work.
Lussekatter (St Lucy's cats) are a Swedish holiday classic, served around the 13th of December to accompany a slew of wreath-wearing and candle-lighting traditions to celebrate light on one of the darkest days of the year. The lovely yellow buns are made with saffron and enriched with butter and eggs for a wonderfully rich dough, gently cut through by the tanginess from the sourdough.
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