Everyone goes on about the palaver of the turkey come 25 December, but some of the best festive cooking at this time of year is actually spent in the run up to the big day.
Making the Yule log, baking festive cookies and decorations to hang on the tree, mixing the Christmas cake or pudding – it’s these quiet, thoughtful moments, packed with tradition, that build the warm, cosy, cinnamon-scented aura of Christmas. And arguably, no one captures this better in bakes than the Germans.
Food writer Anja Dunk has collected together a whole slew of festive German bakes in her new cookbook, Advent. We grabbed some gluhwein and put three recipes to the test.
Prudence Wade tested: Jam-filled Lebkuchen hearts
As a lifelong lover of gingerbread, I jumped at the chance to make these jam-filled biscuits – and I’m glad I did, because it was worth it for the smell of the spices wafting through the house alone.
The process was a bit fiddlier than your average biscuit – you have to roll out the dough, cut heart shapes, blob jam in the middle and cover with a slightly bigger heart on top. My efforts weren’t the most finessed – as shown by bits of jam pouring out after baking – but it still tasted delicious.
Baking as a vegan is often pretty hit or miss, but this was a definite win – probably because few of the ingredients had to be changed, it was just subbing out the butter for a dairy-free alternative and using golden syrup instead of honey. The biscuits weren’t soft or crumbly like shortbread or cookie (that’s down to the rye flour) – but tasted more like gingerbread.
The recipe recommends a sharp, smooth jam so I bought some damson jelly to go in the middle, but in all honesty, I’m not sure I could’ve told the difference between that and regular strawberry or raspberry. Best yet, the biscuits tasted even better in the days after baking – good news, because I’m pretty sure I made enough to feed a small army. They might not be the most beautiful of bakes, but they definitely tick all the festive flavour boxes.
Lisa Salmon tested: Christmas spiced shortbread, recipe here
If you’ve got a food processor, making these biscuits would be as easy as buying a packet and opening them – and a much tastier experience.
But if you’re like me and don’t have one, and if you can’t buy some of the (many) ingredients ready-ground, this recipe is rather time-consuming!
I couldn’t find ground hazelnuts, star anise or cloves, so I had to “grind” them myself, and with only a handheld blender to help, it took ages. And then, instead of being able to just bung everything in a processor, there was rubbing the butter into the flour, and kneading (for another age, it seemed) to get the mixture together and pliable.
But I got there in the end, made sure my little sausages of cookie dough were far enough apart on the baking tray so they didn’t spread into each other in the oven, and was pleased with the final result.
The icing sugar glaze on the top was a really nice addition, and despite the huge number of spices in the mixture, the biscuits were subtly spiced and tasted pretty Christmassy. They’re worth making – but only if you’ve got a food processor!
Abi Jackson tested: Chocolate and ginger biscotti, recipe here
I chose this recipe for two reasons. I like biscotti (and the combination of ginger and chocolate) plus I imagined they’d be relatively simple to make.
The first stage is certainly easy. All I need to do is weigh out flour, sugar, chopped almonds and candied ginger (hopefully crystallised ginger counts as the same thing, as that’s all the supermarket had) and bung it all in a mixing bowl, along with a pinch of sea salt, a teaspoon of baking powder and some chopped dark chocolate, which I break into pieces with my fingers. I give it all a good stir before adding in three eggs and mixing into a dough.
Next, I’m meant to spoon it onto a lined tray and create a log shape. My dough is very sloppy though, so my log instantly looks like it’s been through a mangle. I sprinkle demerara sugar on top as instructed then pop it in the oven, wondering whether I’ll end up with a biscotti pancake. The recipe says bake for 25-30 mins until golden, then you let it cool before slicing into individual biscotti and baking for another 25 mins to crisp them up. I sneak a peek halfway through and see my mangled log has already expanded to the edges of the baking tray. Eek!
Once out, I let it cool for half an hour before slicing it up. Thankfully, they hold their shapes nicely and my biscotti are actually looking promising. Back in the oven they go. Then, engrossed in a Netflix movie, I take my eye off the ball – and discover I’ve made a tray of giant burn-scotti. Not impressed.
I try them anyway. They’re certainly crisp! Despite the very scorched edges, there’s hints of ginger and the dashes of chocolate and sea salt are nice. I’ll definitely make them again (and keep a closer eye on the temperature and timings!)
Recipes from ‘Advent: Festive German Bakes to Celebrate the Coming of Christmas’ by Anja Dunk (published by Quadrille, £25; photography by Anja Dunk), available now.
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