Friday, December 24, 2010


So as if my baking arms hadn't had enough of a workout this week, the Christmas baking frenzy has continued; this round includes a double batch of panforte.  If you thought after the Christmas cake I'd opt for something a little lighter, a littler easier, think again - this panforte was such a formidable creation it broke my favourite wooden spoon in the stirring.

I decided to make panforte for three reasons.  One, I wanted something that keeps and is a little more special than, say, potato salad, to give to people like my step-mother Anne's family, and Leith's family.  Two, I wanted to have something sweet in the house as we are having a casual lunch with some Christmas orphans, at least one of whom is vegan, so I needed something involving no diary and no eggs.  Three, it's super yummy and in my mind at least, a little Christmassy.

At first I thought I'd make four - one for Dad and Anne, one for the Thomas's, one to take to Mum's and one for us here at home.  Then I quickly realised I couldn't be bothered, and it is such a rich cake, and eaten in such small quantities, that I could probably get away with making two and presenting half each to various people.  So the recipe I've provided below is for a single cake, but the quantities shown in my pics are double that which you'd normally make.  I did my usual food-obsessive ritual of scouring the internet for recipes until I found one I liked the look of, and then changing that one a bit anyway.  This recipe is adapted from trusted website

  • Melted butter, to grease
  • 100g whole blanched almonds
  • 100g whole hazelnuts
  • 80g coarsely chopped dessert figs
  • 40g coarsely chopped dried apricots
  • 40g coarsely chopped dried cranberries
  • 40g mixed peel
  • 100g (2/3 cup) plain flour
  • 2 tbs cocoa powder
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp ground cardamom
  • 1/4 tsp ground cloves
  • shake of chilli powder
  • 75g good-quality dark cooking chocolate
  • 125ml (1/2 cup) honey
  • 55g (1/4 cup) caster sugar
  • Icing sugar, to dust

Set the oven to 180 C then prepare a 20cm pan by lining it with baking paper, then brushing it with melted butter.  

Then place all your nuts in baking trays, and roast them in the hot oven for 8 minutes.  Once they're in the oven, chop your fruits and put them in a large mixing bowl.  Remove the nuts from the oven and place the hazlenuts on a clean teatowel, then rub them vigorously to remove as much of the skins as you can (this may take a few minutes).  Add them to the fruit mix and mix thoroughly.  At this point, turn the oven down to 170 C.

Sift the flour, spices and cocoa over the fruit and nut mixture and mix through evenly.

Roughly hew at your cooking chocolate and put it in a smallish saucepan with the sugar and honey*.  Place them over heat, stirring constantly, until the sugar is dissolved and chocolate all melted.  Then turn the heat to high and bring to the boil.  Once boiling, turn the heat down low and leave to simmer for two minutes without stirring. 

Then pour over the dry mix and stir it through.  The recipe told me to work as quickly as possible, and I was all "yeah yeah, how long can it take", but this instruction should be taken seriously indeed! Within seconds of removing from the heat the mixture will begin to harden to a spoon breaking consistency, and all you will be able to do is grab a second, sturdier spoon, and continue to mix.  Pouring it into the baking pan also proved to involve a lot of grunting and thrusting.  The best tip I can relay is to have a clean, largish square of baking paper to hand to press the mix down into the pan evenly with - without this advice I would have struggled to get it to even touch the sides.  Then lick the large globules stuck to your spoon, and place in the oven for 30 minutes.
Remove from the oven and allow to cool for several hours before you attempt to remove it from the pan.  Serve dusted in icing sugar, in thin wedges with coffee or tea, or maybe a cognac. 

*I firmly believe that using good quality chocolate and cocoa will make a noticeable difference to the final richness and smoothness of a cake such as this.  I used Henry Langdon Dutch process cocoa, and Coco Black cooking chocolate (that I bought in a one kilo slab a while investment. ever)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Traditional Sri Lankan Christmas Cake

If Christmas means anything at all to me, it means food. Rich food. And the same rich food every year, as made by my family members who are, assuredly, excellent cooks.

This year my mother bestowed a great honour/responsibility on me: she requested that I make The Christmas Cake.  My mum makes this cake every year, from my Sri Lankan grandmother's recipe.  And since she's working all this week and I'm not she decided it was time to pass the baton.  This baton comes with a fair degree of pressure - I do not want to be the one who fucks up the Christmas cake. 

The cake itself is a masterpiece of decadence, and it's not for the faint of heart or weak of forearm.  It involves finely chopping kilos of fruit, multiple essences that you measure by the tablespoons, a dozen eggs and unholy amounts of butter - you'll need two days to make it and an incredibly large bowl.  No flour in this puppy, it's all semolina and fruit.  It's similar to a standard fruit cake, but more exotic elements include additional spice, rose water and cashews.  The recipe itself is in Charmaine Solomon's The Complete Asian Cookbook, known amongst my family as The Bible, but my own (utterly gorgeous) Sri Lankan grandmother made her own adaptations to the recipe and her version is the one I've followed.

So I received some helpful instruction from mum, who was herself instructed by Gran, and set about caking.

  • 250 g seedless raisins
  • 375 g sultanas
  • 250 g preserved ginger
  • 2 small cans chow chow preserves
  • 125 g mixed peel
  • 250 g glace cherries
  • 250 raw chashews
  • 1/4 cup brandy (on the large side)
  • 375 g butter
  • 500g caster sugar
  • 12 egg yolks
  • 2 teaspoons lemon rind
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons ground cardamom
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoons grated fresh nutmeg
  • 2 tablespoons vanilla essence
  • 2 tablespoons almond essence
  • 1 large wine glass full of rose water
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 250 g fine semolina
  • 10 egg whites
Day 1
Take all your glace fruit, raisins, sultanas, mixed peel and cashews, and chop finely.  Drain the syrup from the preserves and ginger and chop these finely as well. 

Chow Chow preserves can be found in a decent Asian grocers, I get them at Minh Phat by the Vic markets.

Once these have all been finely chopped, sprinkle the brandy over the top and mix it through.  The recipe calls for one quarter of a cup, but my hand may have slipped a little... it is Christmas after all.  Then cover the fruit mixture and leave it to soak overnight.

Day 2

Set the oven to 130 degrees Celcius.  Using the biggest bowl you have, cream the gargantuan quantities of butter and sugar, then add the egg yolks one at a time, remembering to keep 10 of the whites aside in a clean, dry bowl (any contaminants will prevent the whites from stiffening when you mix them later).  Grate your lemon rind and add this to the mixture with spices, essences and honey and mix them through.  The mix will turn into a sticky sweet gloop at this point.  Then add the semolina and mix well.

Now tip the huge bowl of fruit and nuts into the batter and mix thoroughly with a sturdy wooden spoon.  Beat the egg whites until they are so stiff as to hold their shape when you remove the beaters.  Then fold the egg white mixture into the batter gently, so as to keep as much fluffiness in the mix as possible.

Prepare your baking pan.  I used a low wide baking dish most often used for roasting potatoes.  Line the bottom with six pages of newspaper - this prevents the bottom of the cake from burning.  Then line the pan with baking paper across the bottom and up the sides and brush this liberally with melted butter.  Then pour in the cake mix and set in the oven. 

Bake at the slow heat for at least one and a half hours.  Check the mix at this point, and once the middle is set firm, remove from the oven.  You can continue to bake longer if you want a firmer, drier cake, but traditionally we have it moist and soft.  Once it's finished baking cool for several hours, preferably overnight.  Wrapped in foil the cake can be kept for a year or longer, if you have the willpower! Serve cut into small pieces.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Gingerbread Biscuits Frenzy

It is well and truly the baking season.  Amongst such festive treats as Christmas Cake and Panforte, cresting my baking list this year is gingerbread.  First I had to find the right recipe.  You see, I didn't want just any gingerbread.  I wanted thin, brittle, spicy gingerbread biscuits. Not big, spongey soft gingerbread.  So, I ruled out any recipes with baking soda, and favoured one with lots of golden syrup, and lots of flour.  I ultimately adapted this recipe from one I found on (one of my more trusted recipe websites). Then, due to a sudden realisation I'd lost my cookie cutters, I also decided to refrigerate the dough over night, which also helped the chill the butter and enhance the crispiness (and allowed me to go out and buy all new adorable cutters).  And finally, due to concerns (voiced by someone who lives here who isn't me) about the quantity of baked goods produced in this house for ostensibly two mere people, I decided to go and double the original recipe to make enough gingerbread for us both to take to work to share.

  • 250g unsalted butter
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 cup golden syrup
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 5 cups plain flour
  • 3 tablespoons ginger
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • Icing sugar and butter to decorate

In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter, sugar and golden syrup until it's pale and fluffy.  Add the egg yolks and mix these through.   You can keep the egg whites in the fridge and use them for something else later.

Then, add the five cups of flour and spices.  If it seems like shitloads of flour, that's because it is.  Don't worry, it will mix in easily enough.  Use a big wooden spoon to mix the dry ingredients in until it forms a crumbly mixture.  Then tip this out onto a clean surface, and mash it all together with your hands until it forms a smooth glossy ball.

Break the dough into about three pieces and wrap them tightly with glad wrap, and pop them in the fridge overnight, or for at least one hour.

When you're ready to bake the gingerbread, heat your oven to 180 Celcius.  I've worked out that my oven is quite fast so I set mine to 175.  Adjust your own oven as appropriate.  Then roll out your dough on a floured surface with a heavy rolling pin until it's thin and even (2-3 mm).  Cut into biscuits with your cutters and place on a tray lined with baking paper.  Re-roll any scraps of dough until there's only tiny bits left.  Eat these tiny bits, because waste is shameful and also it's delicious.

Bake for 8 minutes or until golden brown (keep check on your first batch, as depending on your oven they may need a few minutes more or less).  Allow to cool on the tray for a minute and then move them to a cooling rack.  The gingerbread will harden as it cools.

The cutting and baking production line may go on for about an hour, so it's a good idea to have a glass of wine handy while you're working.  After all, it is the gorging and gurgling season.

Then ice your biscuits and impress your workmates!