Christmas baking for me has always been epic and I’ve been getting messy in the sweet kitchen for as long as I can remember.  One of my annual traditions with my cousins used to be baking and building the gingerbread house.  We made a gingerbread cabin, a replica of a spa where I worked and even the Acropolis.  I know, a gingerbread acropolis is crazy even for us Greeks and that’s why now, we keep our sanity with cookies and sweet breads or cakes.   Here’s a list of my all time favourite Christmas recipes that I’ve enjoyed making over the years as well as some bit of advice on what works best.  

Ingredients

Flour

I always use unbleached flour for obvious reasons and all my recipes work best with unbleached flour. Baking is very precise and even changing the type of flour you use can alter a recipe. For best results chose unbleached flour if possible. Always sift your flour to aerate it and break up any lumps.   

Yeast

This is the ingredient that gives novice bakers the most trouble and there’s so much to know about yeast. The synopsis is that yeast are living organisms that munch on the sugar/starch in a recipe and as a byproduct produce gas that has a leavening effect. I always mix my yeast in a warm liquid before adding to the dry to make sure it is still active. If you make the mistake of using instant yeast and adding it directly to the dry ingredients, you don’t know if it’s still active until after you’ve wasted all the ingredients and time standing around waiting for it to rise.  Always check the date on your yeast and store it in the fridge.

Butter

Always use unsalted butter for baking.  First it won’t add salt to your sweet creations and secondly salt acts as a preservative for butter so unsalted butter has to be fresher.  I use unsalted butter for everything. 

Eggs

All recipes with eggs call for large size eggs and you want to keep them refrigerated until ready to use. Eggs at room temperature blend more readily with butter and liquids. To get the most volume out of egg whites, ensure that the bowl is spotless and never use plastic.  Egg whites also will hold the most air when whipped at room temperature. If you accidentally over whip your egg whites and they get grainy, do not fret, just pour in a little egg white and gently beat to bring back those glossy smooth egg whites.  

Stained Glass cookies

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I started making these beautiful jam filled cookies a few years ago and I’ve made them ever since.  You can freeze the dough or the finished cookies for up to 3 months.   I always make the dough in advance and refrigerate or freeze the dough then take on the baking and decorating on a separate day. It’s much easier.   

This cookie just says … it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas!

3 cups all-purpose flour (750 ml)
1 tsp baking powder (5 ml)
1/2 tsp salt (2 ml)
3/4 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature (175 ml)
1 1/4 cups sugar (300 ml)
2 large eggs
2 tsp pure vanilla extract (10 ml)
½ cup coarse sugar, optional  (125 ml)
1/2 cup raspberry  jam, for filling (125 ml)
½ cup icing sugar, for dusting baked cookies, optional (125 ml)

Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. In a separate bowl, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, preferably with a paddle attachment. Add the eggs, one at a time, and beat until smooth. Beat in vanilla. Beat in the dry ingredients just until dough holds together. Form the dough into two flat rectangles. Cover tightly with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Line baking sheets with parchment paper.

On a lightly floured surface, roll one rectangle of dough to 1/4-inch thickness. Do not use too much flour or your cookies will crumble. Using 2 to 3-inch cookie cutters cut out as many cookies as you can. Place on parchment-lined baking sheets, at least 1-inch apart.

Cut out tops using same cookie cutters from rolling the second rectangle of dough, again to ¼-inch thickness. Then cutting out a window in each of these cookies with a smaller cutter or tip of knife. Place on separate parchment lined baking sheets, at least 1-inch apart. Re-roll the dough left over from cutting out the windows for additional cookies, ensuring that you have an equal amount of cookie tops and bottoms. Sprinkle top cookies with coarse sugar, if desired.
Bake cookie tops and bottoms until firm and as they just turn golden around edges, about 8 to 12 minutes. 

Let cookies cool on the baking sheet for 5 minutes (this will help them crisp up and make them less fragile when transferring the cooling rack). Using a metal spatula, transfer the cookies onto a rack to cool completely.

Spread jam in center of bottom cookies and sandwich with top (window) cookies. Dust with icing sugar, if desired.

Makes 40 sandwich cookies.

Christine’s Kourabiedes ( Greek shortbread )

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These are the official Greek holiday cookies that are loaded with icing sugar and can be found in every Greek bakery window.  They are simply melt-in-your mouth perfect.  I tend to go easy on the icing sugar for the top. I have to show some form of decorum.

You can easily make them in advance, freeze them and dust with icing sugar at the end. 

*easy recipe

1 cup soft butter (250 ml)
1/2 cup icing sugar, for the cookie dough (125 ml)
1 tsp. vanilla (5 ml)
2 1/4 cups cake and pastry flour (560 ml)
½ tsp. salt (2 ml)
1 cup ground almonds (250 ml)
Flour, for rolling if needed
1 cup icing sugar, for sprinkling the tops (250 ml)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

In  a stand mixer or electric hand mixer, cream together the butter and ½ cup icing sugar well, until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla and beat until blended. 

Sift the flour and salt into a bowl. Add the ground nuts and stir. Add the flour-nut mixture to the butter. Beat on medium speed until smooth.  Chill the dough before shaping for 30 minutes to 1 hour so easier to work with.

Roll into 1½-inch balls and form into crescent shape. If the dough is too soft, dust with a little bit of flour. Place on baking sheet lined with parchment paper.

Bake until lightly golden, about 18-22 minutes. Cool cookies and sprinkle with icing sugar.

Makes 30 crescent cookies

Ginger Snowflake Cookies

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1/2 cup butter (125 ml) soft
1/3 cup firmly packed light brown sugar (80 ml)
1/3 cup molasses (80 ml)
1 1/4 tsp. baking soda (6 ml)
1 Tbsp. water (15 ml)
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour (375 ml)
1 Tsp. ground ginger (5 ml)
1/4 tsp. cinnamon (2 ml)
1/8 tsp. allspice (1 ml)
pinch salt

Sift together the spices with the salt and the flour.  Set aside.

Beat butter with brown sugar until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes.  Scrape down sides of bowl frequently.  Meanwhile in a small bowl combine the molasses, baking soda and the water and stir until blended. Add the molasses mixture to the butter and beat on medium speed until smooth. 

Add the flour mixture and beat again until smooth. Remove batter and cover with plastic wrap and chill for about 40 minutes. 

Roll dough on floured surface to about 1/8 “ thickness.  Cut out desired shapes with cookies cutters  and bake in 350 D.  oven for about 10 - 12 minutes or until golden and firm. Cool on wire rack . 

Chocolate Roulade

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Roulade is a French word for jelly roll and like I always say, it sounds so much better in French. I sometimes turn this baby into a Christmas Yule log by adding a chocolate ganache icing. You have to make the chocolate cream a day in advance of filling the roulade or it will not whip.

*advanced recipe

¾ cup sugar (175 ml)
4 large eggs, separated
¾ cup cake flour, sifted (175 ml)
1 tsp. baking powder (5 ml)
¼ tsp salt (1 ml)
¼ cup milk (60 ml)
2 tbsp. unsalted butter (25 ml)

Chocolate Filling

1 ½  cups whipping (35 % cream) (375ml)
½ vanilla bean, scraped
¼  cup sugar (50 ml)
4-ounces bittersweet  chocolate, chopped into small pieces (120 g)
2 tbsp. Baileys cream or other liqueur  (25 ml)

In a medium saucepan, combine the cream vanilla bean scrapings and sugar. Stir well and bring to a boil over medium heat and remove from heat. Stir in the chopped chocolate until completely melted off heat.  Stir in the Bailey’s or favourite liqueur.  Let cool to room temperature. Chill in refrigerator for 12 hours prior to whipping. The chocolate and cream need to set up in order to whip. Store for up to 3 days refrigerated.

When ready to assemble roll, whip the chilled set chocolate whipped cream in a bowl fitted with a whip attachment (or alternatively with electric beaters) on high speed until whipped, about 1 to 2 minutes.  Mixture should be thick but not grainy. Refrigerate covered until ready to use.   

Sponge Cake

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Line a medium size baking sheet with parchment paper (should be medium size because batter should be about 1-inch thick before it bakes.) 

In a medium mixing bowl combine sugar and egg yolks and whisk over double boiler until warm. Beat with an electric mixer (preferably fitted with a whip attachment) until pale and doubled in bulk and cooled.

Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, heat milk and butter. Reserve.
Sift together the flour and baking powder and salt onto a piece of parchment paper.

Whip egg whites in another clean bowl (preferably stainless steel or copper) until light peaks hold. 

Add egg whites alternately with flour into egg mixture, gently folding until well blended. Fold in warm milk mixture, again, gently until just blended.

Pour and scrape batter to prepared baking sheet. Gently smooth with spatula until batter is evenly spread across baking sheet, especially into the corners.  

Bake 6 to 9 minutes until golden and cake has just set. Remove and immediately run a knife around pan to loosen cake. Dust a clean smooth tea towel generously with icing sugar and flip warm cake immediately onto surface of towel. Carefully peel back the parchment paper. Roll cake with long side horizontal, into a tight roll, leaving towel in place. Set aside to cool completely until ready to fill.

To finish the cake, unroll cake and spread about ¾ of the whipped chocolate whipping cream evenly over the cake, spreading it 1-inch from the edge. Roll cake, long side horizontal. Dust with cocoa powder. Slice cake and serve with more of the chocolate whipping cream. 

Serves 10

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