(THE GUARDIAN) - Christmas has always been exciting for Dominique Ansel. Growing up in the small city of Beauvais, an hour north of Paris, he experienced it as period of plenty in an otherwise lean existence. “My family didn’t have much,” he recalls. “My dad used to work in a factory and there wasn’t always a lot of food on the table, but Christmas was the time when we were saving up and having a big feast. It was the time when we were really enjoying ourselves with food.”
His father and grandmother did most of the cooking, although when he started his chef training at 16, Ansel found himself inheriting kitchen duties at home. One year he cooked cassoulet and “everyone was so happy eating it, because it was cold outside and it was such a warm, tasty dish. Every year after that they were asking for it.”
These days, Christmas is important for another reason. At Ansel’s phenomenally successful bakeries in New York, Tokyo and – as of September – London, it’s the busiest time of year. “I don’t spend much time at home during Christmas, unfortunately, because I’m always in the shop. Very long hours, little sleep. While everyone celebrates, we work.”
There are consolations. As a child, Ansel’s favourite seasonal treat was a buche de Noel, or yule log. “It’s a very traditional French classic,” he says. “You must have desserts for Christmas, and you must have a buche de Noel.” That rule still applies. When Ansel and his staff celebrate Christmas in New York, before the craziness kicks in and the clamour for his trademark Cronut tips into hysteria, they round off their staff meal with a yule log – although Ansel’s version is probably superior to the ones his family used to buy .
If his job means he can’t enjoy Christmas like the rest of us, it does allow Ansel to tap into the powerful emotions running through the festive season. The following recipes range far and wide, drawing influences from Central and South America, but according to Ansel they connect back to “memories of warm comfort food and Christmassy flavours – spices, peppermint, orange – that I remember loving as a kid. Because if you ask me what Christmas is, it’s childhood memories. You celebrate it more when you are a kid than when you’re an adult, so it’s very emotional. I wanted to bring some of that nostalgia into these recipes.”
Snowflake beignets with peppermint sugar
This recipe makes four dozen little fritters. If that is too many, you can halve the recipe.
Makes 48 beignets
Soy milk 160ml
Warm water 195ml
Dry yeast 10g
Caster sugar 65g
Egg 1 large
Unsalted butter 55g, softened
Strong or bread flour 440g
Grapeseed or canola oil for deep frying
Icing sugar to serve
Peppermint candies to serve, crushed
In a medium bowl, combine the soy milk, warm water and dry yeast and let sit for 5 minutes (the mixture should look foamy and active).
In a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, combine the sugar, salt, egg, butter and flour. On a low speed, stream in one third of the wet ingredients. Allow the dough to come together completely before adding the next third of the wet mixture. Mix on medium speed for 3 minutes, then slowly add in the last third. Turn the mixer up to medium-high speed and mix for 5-7 minutes, until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl.
Remove the bowl from the stand mixer and cover with clingfilm. Allow the dough to rise at room temperature for 1 hour, until about doubled in size. Punch down the dough, cover the bowl with clingfilm and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, and until ready to use.
Remove the bowl from the fridge and turn out the dough onto a heavily floured work surface. Using a rolling pin, roll out the dough into a rectangle 40cm x 30cm and about 2.5cm thick. Cut the dough into 5cm squares, to give you 48 beignets. Then cut 2.5cm into each corner and side of each square. These can be fried right away or stored in the fridge on a tray and tightly covered in clingfilm for up to 24 hours.
In a deep fryer, heat the oil to 190C. In batches, gently lower the dough squares into the oil, using heatproof tongs or a slotted spoon to turn them regularly as they fry, until golden brown. Remove from the oil, and drain on a rack or paper towels. Dust generously with lots of confectioner’s sugar and crushed peppermint candies, and enjoy while they’re still hot.
Champagne morning rolls
These gooey morning rolls are the perfect way to begin Christmas or New Year’s morning. The dough and cinnamon filling can be made a day ahead, and the recipe uses champagne left over from your party the night before to make a really simple drizzle icing (so try and leave some!). You can use any sparkling wine for this: champagne, cava, prosecco, etc. We love using sparkling rosé, it gives the icing a nice light pink colour.
Makes 9 rolls
For the dough
Plain flour 400g
Caster sugar 55g
Dry yeast 7g
Egg yolk 1
Unsalted butter 240g, cubed and softened
For the cinnamon filling
Dark brown sugar 400g, packed
Lemon 1, zest grated
For the base of the baking dish
Brown sugar 150g
Unsalted butter 56g, cut into 1cm cubes, plus extra for greasing
For the champagne icing
Icing sugar 562g
Lemon 1, for zesting
For the dough, combine the flour, salt, sugar and yeast in a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook attachment. Mix at medium speed until combined. Gradually stream in the milk, and then the eggs and egg yolk. Mix for 6-7 minutes, until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl.
Continue to mix on medium speed and gradually add in the cubed butter. Mix until it is fully incorporated and the dough looks smooth and shiny.
Remove the dough from the mixer and form into a ball. Place in a bowl, cover with clingfilm and leave at room temperature for 1 hour. The dough will expand approximately 1.5 times in size.
Punch down the dough, re-cover with clingfilm and refrigerate for 3-4 hours, or overnight.
To make the cinnamon filling, melt the butter in a medium saucepan over low heat. Stir in the dark brown sugar, molasses, lemon zest and cinnamon until smooth. Set the filling aside to cool.
To assemble the rolls, lightly grease a 23cm x 23cm baking dish or cake pan with a little extra butter, then sprinkle generously with the dark brown sugar and cubes of unsalted butter.
Roll out the chilled dough on a lightly floured surface into a rectangle about 1.2cm thick, with the longer sides on the top and bottom measuring about 60cm. Spread the cinnamon filling evenly across the dough, leaving a 2.5cm border at the top edge. Roll the dough from the bottom up into a long log. Slice into 9 equal pieces, they should be 6.5cm wide. Place the rolls into the baking dish cut-side up, cover gently with plastic wrap and let stand for 2 hours at room temperature.
When you’re ready to bake the rolls, preheat the oven to 180C/gas mark 4. Bake for 25-30 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through, until the tops are golden brown. To check if they’re done, gently press the centre of the rolls – they should spring back. Remove from the oven. Let cool for 15 minutes.
While the rolls are cooling, make the icing by combining the icing sugar and champagne in a medium bowl and whisking until smooth. Invert the rolls onto a serving platter and drizzle them with icing, then finish with a grating of lemon zest. Serve while the rolls are still warm.
Jam and butter croissant pudding
Turn leftover croissants into a Christmas morning breakfast or a dessert. The recipe works best when the croissants are slightly stale, so they soak up the custard and stay moist after baking.
Day-old croissants, 6
Strawberry or raspberry jam 165g
Butter for spreading, softened
Double cream 250ml
Rum or bourbon 30ml
Maple syrup 2 tbsp
Salt ¼ tsp
Vanilla bean 1, seeds scraped
Berries and icing sugar to serve
Preheat the oven to 180C/gas mark 4. Split the croissants, then spread one half with jam, the other with butter. Sandwich the halves back together and cut the croissants into large chunks. Lightly butter a baking dish big enough to accommodate the croissants in a slightly overlapping layer.
In a mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, cream, rum or bourbon, maple syrup, salt and vanilla seeds. Pour half of the custard over the croissants in the baking dish. Let the liquid soak in completely, then pour in the remaining custard. Bake until the edges are golden brown, about 35-45 minutes. Serve warm with fresh berries and a dusting of icing sugar.
Gingerbread alfajores with dulce de leche
As both the gingerbread dough and the dulce de leche need chilling, you can begin this recipe a day ahead.
Makes about 24 sandwich biscuits
For the dulce de leche
Sweetened condensed milk 2 x 397g tins
For the gingerbread shortbread
Unsalted butter 695g
Caster sugar 355g
Plain flour 930g, plus extra for dusting
Salt 1½ tsp
Ground nutmeg ¾ tsp
Orange zest ½ tsp
Ground cinnamon 3 tsp
Ground ginger ¾ tsp
Icing sugar to finish
First, start the dulce de leche. Remove the labels from the condensed milk tins. In a heavy-bottomed pot, bring 2-3 litres of water to a boil. Gently and carefully lower the tins into the boiling water, making sure they are fully submerged. Reduce to a low simmer.
Let the tins simmer for 4-5 hours, checking the water level periodically to ensure the tins remain fully submerged at all times.
Using tongs, carefully remove the condensed milk tins from the water and leave to cool on a rack, before chilling completely in the fridge. Never open the tins when they are still hot or warm, as the hot caramel inside may explode.
Once fully cooled, open the tins and transfer the dulce de leche to a piping bag fitted with a large plain round tip.
While the dulce de leche is cooking and cooling, make the gingerbread shortbread. Add the butter and sugar to the bowl of a stand mixer, and on a medium speed cream together until fluffy, about 4-5 minutes.
In a bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, nutmeg, orange zest, cinnamon and ginger. With the mixer still on medium speed, add the dry ingredients in three batches, stopping the mixer to scrape down the sides of the bowl after each addition. Mix until just incorporated.
Remove the dough from the bowl, form into a flat square (about 2.5cm thick) and wrap in clingfilm. Chill in the fridge for at least 2 hours, and then until ready to use.
Preheat the oven to 160C/gas mark 3. Transfer the chilled dough to a lightly floured surface. Roll out the dough to 3mm thick. Cut out 7.5cm-round discs using a biscuit cutter. You’ll need 48 biscuits, so cut carefully, re-rolling dough scraps as necessary. Arrange the biscuits 5cm apart on a baking parchment-lined baking sheet.
Bake the biscuits, in batches as required, until golden brown, about 10-12 minutes depending on your oven; the edges should be crisp and centres should be slightly soft. Remove from the oven, transfer the biscuits to a cooling rack and allow to cool completely.
To assemble the alfajores, pipe the dulce de leche onto half of the biscuits (about a teaspoonful for each one), then sandwich with the other half of the biscuits. Using festive stencils, dust icing sugar patterns onto the top of each alfajor to finish.
Chocolate tres leches cake
A French buche de Noel is a traditional Christmas dessert, but this chocolate cake nods to two other classics – the US American devil’s food and Latin American tres leches cakes. Here, the “three milks” take the form of three winter drinks.
For the devil’s food cake
Vegetable oil 220ml
Whole milk 400ml
Plain flour 390g
Granulated sugar 525g
Cocoa powder 80g
Baking powder 1 tsp
Baking soda 1 tsp
Salt ½ tsp
Hot coffee 235ml
Shaved dark chocolate to serve
For the hot chocolate milk
Dark chocolate 160g, broken (get the best chocolate you can, 60% or higher in cocoa content)
Whole milk 950ml
Caster sugar 1 tbsp
For the egg nog
Light brown sugar 45g
Caster sugar 65g
Cinnamon ¾ tsp
Ground ginger ⅓ tsp
Vanilla bean 1, seeds scraped
Ground nutmeg ¾ tsp
Egg yolks 5
Double cream 250ml
Dark rum 70ml
For the coffee milk
Brewed coffee 235ml
Caster sugar 2 tsp
For the dark chocolate ganache
Unsweetened cocoa powder 15g
66% cocoa dark chocolate 250g, finely chopped
Double cream 170ml
Whole milk 85ml
Egg yolks 5
Caster sugar 80g
To make the devil’s food cake, preheat the oven to 180C/gas mark 4. In a bowl, combine the eggs, vegetable oil and milk. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Add the wet ingredients to the dry in three additions, mixing in between until evenly combined. Whisk in the hot coffee last.
Lightly grease three 20cm-round cake tins and divide the batter between them until they are three-quarters full. Bake for 30-40 minutes, until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Remove from the oven and let cool completely before removing the cakes from the pans.
Trim the surfaces of each cake layer so they are flat. Pierce each layer several times with a fork.
While the cakes are baking, start your tres leches. For the hot chocolate milk, bring the milk to a simmer over medium heat. Combine the broken chocolate and sugar in a medium pot. Pour in half of the hot milk and whisk until smooth. Pour in the rest of the hot milk and continue whisking until smooth. Set aside until ready to use.
For the eggnog, combine the milk, sugars and all spices in a medium pan and bring to a boil. In a mixing bowl, whisk the egg yolks and slowly stream in half of the hot spiced milk. Return the egg mixture to the pan with the remaining spiced milk. Cook, stirring, until 85C. Remove from the heat and pour into a heatproof container to cool. When cool, add the cream, followed by rum, and stir until combined.
To make the coffee milk, combine the hot coffee and milk, then whisk in the sugar until dissolved.
To make the ganache, whisk the water and cocoa in a small bowl to make a smooth paste. Set aside.
Place the dark chocolate in a heatproof bowl and set aside. Combine the cream and milk in a small pan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Remove from the heat. Whisk the egg yolks and sugar in a small bowl until fully blended. (Do this just before you need it as, over time, the sugar will “cook” the egg yolks, creating lumps.) Stream a third of the hot cream into the egg yolks, whisking constantly until fully blended. Whisk the egg mixture back into the remaining hot cream, return the pot to medium heat.
Continue to cook the custard over medium heat, whisking continuously, until it reaches 85C. The custard will thicken to coat the back of a spoon. Remove from the heat, add the cocoa paste, and whisk until fully blended.
Strain the custard through a small sieve over the reserved dark chocolate. Let it stand for 30 seconds, then whisk until smooth. When finished, the ganache will have the consistency of pancake batter and be pourable. Refrigerate and chill until ready to use.
When you’re ready to soak the cakes, drizzle a generous amount of chocolate milk onto the first cake layer, allowing it to fully absorb. Repeat with eggnog milk on the second layer, and with coffee milk on the third. Place all the cake layers in the fridge to chill.
To assemble, place a cake layer on a cake plate and spread evenly with ganache. Place the next cake on top and spread with ganache. Repeat the process with the final cake layer. Using a straight spatula, evenly ice the sides and top of the cake with ganache. Finish with chocolate shavings. Chill in the fridge until ready to serve.