Christmas food special: Sweetness and light

The New Festive Spirit: A Christmas food special

IN KONDITOR & COOK'S mauve-fronted shop, on the fashionable Battersea- Southwark axis of south London, the frivolity is almost overwhelming. Henrietta's Drunken Chocolate Cake jostles with Jolly Rich Fruit Cake (which contains no butter or added fat) and the little square fancies known as Magic Cakes are piped with words like "Sexy"and "Gorgeous". Banoffee Pie is described as a "prescription- free antidepressant", Raspberry Chocolate Fudge Tart as "simply orgasmic".

"The English have a great sense of humour," says Gerhard Jenne, the German pastry chef who launched Konditor & Cook in 1993. "The double entendre is unknown in Germany, but here customers take to some fairly rude things very quickly."

The British also eat a lot of cake. Back home in Germany, to Gerhard's grave disappointment, the cake-eating tradition is in decline. They have even stopped eating their traditional Christmas stollen, a kind of fruit- laden brioche. "It's a dietary thing," he says. "People think it's unhealthy." His theory is that cakes and cookies are the perfect remedy when winter draws in. "The run up to Christmas is when we get Seasonal Affective Disorder and feel depressed. One way to combat that is with things that make you feel good: sugary, starchy food."

In his cafe at the Old Vic theatre, Gerhard has installed special lightbulbs to reduce the effect of SAD. For most pre-Christmas depressives, however, cakes and cookies will have to do. At Konditor & Cook (konditor means pastry chef in German), there are some tempting remedies. "Our Christmas cakes are very English, very traditional," says Gerhard, showing me a rich fruit cake topped with old-fashioned royal icing, "but we give them a modern twist. This year, we've discovered a supplier of a crystallised sugar that looks like sparkling granules, like glitter. Isn't it lovely?"

His other, highly-decorated cake was inspired by the jewellery designer Andrew Logan, a cakeaholic and regular visitor. "I went to a sale of his," says Gerhard, "and a couple of days later I saw a few fragments of gold- covered marzipan lying around in boxes which gave me the idea of making stars that looked like his jewellery. They give the cake a more contemporary look than, say, a robin."

Away from the bustling shop, in the tranquil white void of Gerhard's architect-designed house nearby, he tells me about his true passion - Christmas cookies. "I'm not sure how far the tradition goes back in Germany," he says, "but in Britain it was started by the Victorians. They became particularly popular after the war, because they could be made very cheaply. The pastry is always the same, but you give it a different look."

Under the watchful, mascara'd eye of Boy George, whose portrait, by the artist Stefan Biesenbach, hangs in the kitchen, Gerhard talks me through his recipes. "This one is a Cinnamon Star," he says, "which you just wouldn't bake at any other time of year. It's quite traditional, but the actual composition of the recipe is very "now" because it's made without flour, and wheat allergies seem to be particularly fashionable at the moment." The result, chewy cookies with a texture like macaroons, are bursting with almond and cinnamon flavours - the perfect accompaniment to mulled wine.

The most forward-looking of his creations, is the much publicised Millennium Dome Cake - a crudely executed replica. Such is its kitsch appeal, the Millennium Dome Cake has been a runaway success, even in America. "We sold one to someone in Hollywood," says Gerhard, "but we had to declare it as an architectural model because you're not allowed to sell food to the States." Reaching up to a high shelf, he plucks down his latest prototype. It's a box of Millennium Magic Cakes, tiny square sponges iced with, among others, images of a firework, a Champagne cork, a green alien. The last is a black cake, on which Gerhard announces "The End". Recipes overleaf

CINNAMON STARS

Gluten-free cookies.

Makes 50-60 cookies

400g/14oz icing sugar, sifted

3 medium size egg whites

juice of half a lemon

300g/11oz ground almonds

100g/4oz mixed peel, finely chopped

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon lemon zest of unwaxed lemon

Make meringue with the egg whites, icing sugar and lemon juice. Start off with all the egg whites in a mixing bowl and, using an electric hand- mixer, gradually add all the icing sugar and lemon juice to form a stiff creamy meringue. Set aside 200g (7oz) of the meringue mixture (this is for brushing the top of the cookies). To the remaining meringue add almonds, finely chopped peel, cinnamon and lemon zest to form a paste. Refrigerate for one hour, then roll into a 1cm (12in) thick sheet. If it is very sticky use a sprinkling of ground almonds to roll the paste on. Cut out shapes with star or other Christmas cookie cutter. Brush the top with the remaining meringue using a fine pastry brush. Set all the cookies on to a tray lined with baking parchment and leave to dry for at least one hour.

During this time pre-heat your oven to 350F/180C/Gas 4. Place the cookies in the oven on a low shelf until the bases are just turning brown (eight to 10 minutes). The top should remain nice and white. Ideally do not use a fan assisted oven. The baking is crucial. The centres should still be a little moist, and if baked for too long the cookies will go very hard. It may take a few attempts to get to know your oven and ideal temperature etc. If the first batch of cookies goes a little hard, cover a damp tea towel with a sheet of baking parchment and place the cookies on them overnight. You may find that by the morning they will have softened enough to be palatable. The cookies will keep in a well-sealed jar for up to four weeks.

RICH FRUIT CAKE

Mature this cake over several weeks by "feeding" it occasionally with brandy. 250g/9oz sultanas

250g/9oz currants

125g/4oz raisins

30g/1oz flaked almonds

75g/3oz glace cherries, chopped

1 desert apple, peeled, cored and grated

2 tablespoon marmalade

2 shots of brandy

2 pinches mixed spice

1 pinch nutmeg

1 pinch cinnamon

zest and juice of 1 unwaxed lemon

125g/4oz salted butter

125g/4oz soft brown sugar

60g/2oz black treacle

3 medium size eggs

125g/4oz plain flour, sifted

This cake requires a little bit of forward planning. The day before baking, grate the lemon and apple, and place in a large bowl, along with the lemon juice, brandy, all the fruit, almonds and spices. Cover with clingfilm and leave at room temperature overnight. When ready to bake, grease a 20cm (8in) round cake tin and line the base with a double layer of baking parchment. Cream the softened butter with the sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in one egg at a time, then beat in two to three tablespoons of flour. Repeat until all the eggs have been added, then fold in the remaining flour. Finally add the infused fruit. Spoon all the mixture into the lined cake tin. Smooth the top and bake on the middle rack of a preheated oven 300F/150C/Gas2 for two hours. Put an ovenproof bowl full of water on the bottom rack of the oven to ensure that the cake stays moist. Check after one hour, adjusting the height of the rack or covering the top of the cake if you feel it is already quite dark and yet still wet in the centre. Check after another 30 minutes. When cooked, remove and allow to cool in the tin, then turn it out but leave it wrapped. Wrap well in baking parchment and foil and store for at least two weeks to let cake mature.

To decorate:

60g/2oz apricot jam

600g/1lb 4oz marzipan

900g/2lb royal icing (see below)

edible disco glitter (available, priced pounds 1.80 (plus p&p), mail order from Edable Art, 01388 816 309 or specialist cake shops)

ribbon

Remove the fruit cake from its wrapping and brush top and sides with apricot jam. Roll the marzipan into a 5mm (14in) thick sheet, large enough to cover the entire cake. Drape the marzipan over the cake, level the top and sides, then trim excess from the base.

Secure the cake to a cake drum or plate with a little royal icing. Two layers of royal icing are necessary for a perfect finish. First put a large quantity of the icing on the top of the cake. Using a palette knife, spread it over the top and sides, rotating the cake. Run a straight edged scraper around the sides of the cake and level the top with the palette knife, scraping any excess icing back in the bowl. Repeat until the entire edge is sharp and defined. Set aside to dry for four hours. Add a second layer of royal icing. Pat the edge with a palette knife, lifting slightly to create a frilly edge, and use the tip of the palette knife on the top of the cake to lift the icing into peaks. When the cake is dry, use the tip of a knife to sprinkle silver glitter over the surface. Finally finish the cake with a decorative ribbon.

ROYAL ICING

Makes 900g/2lb

3 medium egg whites

juice of half a lemon

750-850g/approximately 2lb icing sugar

2 teaspoons glycerine

Put the egg whites, lemon juice and half the sifted icing sugar into a large bowl. Stir (do not beat) with a wooden spoon until creamy. Gradually stir in the remaining icing sugar until the mixture is white and smooth. To test the consistency lift the spoon out of the bowl. The icing should be glossy and form soft peaks. Add the glycerine

CHRISTMAS STARS

These can be used as baked, Christmas tree decorations or attached to presents as unusual gift tags.

Makes about 30 cookies

125g/4oz icing sugar, sifted

12 teaspoon vanilla essence

1 medium egg yolk

250g/9oz salted butter, diced

375g/13oz plain flour

To decorate:

450g/1lb royal icing

1 medium egg, lightly beaten

50cm/20ins ribbon, 7mm/ 14in wide

silver-coated sugar balls

Put the icing sugar, vanilla essence, egg yolk and butter in a bowl and mix together quickly with your fingers or a wooden spoon. Add the flour and mix to a firm dough, working as fast as possible, especially in hot temperatures - if it becomes oily the finished cookies will shrink and harden. Shape the dough into a flat slab, wrap and chill for one hour (or up to one week).

Briefly knead the chilled dough to soften, then roll out on to a lightly floured work surface to about 4mm (14in) thick. Cut out stars using an 8cm (3in) star-shaped biscuit cutter or freehand using a sharp knife. Place them on baking sheets lined with baking parchment. Using a skewer, make a small hole in some cookies about 1cm (12in) from the top edge. (The holes should be the same width as your ribbon.) Brush the cookies lightly with beaten egg and then bake the stars in a preheated oven at 350F/180C/Gas 4 for 12 to 15 minutes, until just golden. Remove from the oven and cool on a wire rack. To decorate the cookies, fill a paper piping bag with royal icing. Pipe swirls, dots and outlines, and while the icing is still wet press on the silver balls. Let dry for at least one hour. Cut the ribbon into short lengths and tie through the holes in the cookies.

Gerhard Jenne's `Decorating Cakes and Cookies' is published by Ryland Peters & Small, price pounds 12.99. Konditor & Cook is at 22 Cornwall Road, London, SE1. Tel 0171 261 0456

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