(THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The Christmas tree is out of its box or perhaps it is a live one this year, enveloping the house with the heart-gladdening scent of pine?
Baubles and tinsel are glowing gently, carols are playing in the background.
The calendar is marked in every shade of ink, with parties, gatherings and dinners - this is a time, after all, for far-flung (and nearby) family and friends to come together.
And tying it all together, the invisible magic of the scent of good things baking.
There is a special alchemy to the festive baking, the combination of spices, butter and eggs, and heat, time and effort. The last two, especially, mean that breads, cakes and cookies tend to be made with meaning and love.
And so receiving a little baked something, or partaking of it, always has that warm little edge, that feeling of appreciation, given and received. When I am biting into that warm, crusty tart, I am reminded that loving hands kneaded the dough.
So get the cookie-cutters and baking pans out. And think cranberry, orange and candied fruits - once again, the flavours of the month, along with sweet spices and mulled wine. And all things red, green, white, silvery and gold.
In the kitchen, we are going with red, in shades of cranberry, cherry, raspberry, strawberry, red apple and, since we are in the tropics, feel free to add red hibiscus (roselle) and mulberry too.
We hear that you want desserts that are not sugary sweet, so we have curated a lighter selection of Christmas cakes and breads, realised in the pastry kitchen of the French Culinary School in Asia.
In place of rich and toothache-inducing puddings, perhaps a light, summery steamed orange pudding. It has a light and tender crumb, and orange syrup that you can spoon on according to your sweetness tolerance or diet needs.
You can even toss out the cream topping that comes with it - it is nicer with, but both the pudding and the yogurt loaf are good enough to enjoy on their own. The cranberries add pops of tartness that make lips pucker a little - a nice disruption to the sweet festive cakes you are bound to encounter everywhere.
And if it is the first time you are making a yogurt cake, know that it has a slightly wetter, pudding-ish texture than the usual cake.
Add some cloves to the orange pudding if you like spices. Use coconut oil in the cranberry loaf to add a tropical headiness and make mince pies your own by swopping apple for pineapple in the filling. Mince pies are rather sweet, so make them smaller to limit the damage.
A good bake is really the best gift you can give (even to yourself).
MINI MINCE PIES
For the filling
100g pineapple or red apple, diced, cooked until almost dry
75g dark raisins
75g golden raisins
30g candied cherries, halved
30g candied mixed citrus peel
30g chopped walnuts
60g butter, softened
80g brown sugar
½ Tbs allspice
1 Tbs brandy or rum
For the shortcrust pastry
250g all-purpose flour
125g cold butter, diced
25g caster sugar
⅛ tsp salt
1 egg yolk
a pinch of salt
1. Make the filling: Place all the ingredients in a stainless-steel or glass bowl and mix well. Cover with cling wrap and set aside for 48 hours at room temperature.
2. Make the pastry: Place sifted flour, butter and sugar in a food processor or electric mixing bowl and mix, using the flat beater, until crumbly. Add salt, egg yolk and water and mix until dough leaves the side of the bowl. Refrigerate for one hour.
3. Roll out the cold pastry to a 3mm thickness. Cut out rounds to line mini tart molds. Fill the pastry shells with mince pie filling. Roll out remaining pastry and cut into rounds, ribbons or stars to cover the tarts.
4. To bake: Pre-heat over to 180 deg C.
5. Beat egg and salt together lightly. Brush edge of pastry shells with egg wash before putting on the cover; pinch to seal. If tarts are completely covered, puncture a hole in the middle of each tart for steam to escape.
5. Brush top with egg wash and bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until golden.
6. Remove from oven and cool in mold for one minute before turning out onto wire rack to cool completely.
The tarts can be served warm, cold or at room temperature, and also go well with vanilla ice cream. They keep fresh for two to three days, stored in air-tight containers at room temperature. Refrigerate for longer storage.
Makes 12 5cm tartlets
STEAMED ORANGE PUDDING
125g unsalted butter, softened, plus extra to grease mold
125g caster sugar
finely grated zest of 1 orange
120g self-raising flour, sifted together with 1 tsp baking powder
80g almond meal
1 Tbs orange flower water (optional)
For the orange sauce
100ml orange juice
80g orange marmalade
8 orange segments, peeled and seeded
splash of Grand Marnier (optional)
whipped cream, sour cream or creme fraiche to serve
1. Use a dollop of the butter to grease four small or two medium dome-shaped molds - muffin moulds can also work.
2. Beat the butter, sugar and zest in an electric mixer until pale. With mixer on low speed, add the flour and baking powder mixture, then the almond meal.
3. Add eggs one at a time, beating well between each addition. Add milk and orange flower water (if using), then beat for one to two minutes, until the mixture is light. Divide mixture among the greased molds.
4. Cover the molds well with cling film and place in a large, roomy saucepan. Pour in enough boiling water to come halfway up the sides of the molds. Cover the pan and boil for 40 minutes or until the puddings are firm. (If using small molds, boil for 30 to 35 minutes.)
5. For the sauce: Place juice, marmalade and orange segments in a pan. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, to a thin syrup. Add Grand Marnier, if using.
6. To serve: Allow the puddings to stand in the molds for five minutes, then invert onto plates and let cool slightly. Pour the sauce over, or serve it at the table with whipped cream, sour cream or creme fraiche. Best enjoyed on the same day it is made.
Serves four to six
ORANGE CRANBERRY YOGURT LOAF
150g cranberries, fresh or frozen, thawed, rinsed and drained well
1 Tbs all-purpose flour
190g all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
220g plain whole milk yogurt
3 large eggs
2 tsp grated orange zest
2 Tbs chopped candied orange peel
½ vanilla bean or ½ tsp extract
120ml light vegetable oil
For the orange syrup
80ml freshly squeezed orange juice
1 Tbs caster sugar or to taste
For the orange glaze (optional)
125g icing sugar, sifted
2-3 Tbs fresh orange juice
1. Pre-heat the oven to 180 deg C. Grease bottom and sides of a 23x13cm loaf pan; dust with flour, tapping out excess.
2. In a bowl, mix the cranberries with 1 Tbs flour. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt.
3. In a large mixing bowl, whisk the yogurt, sugar, eggs, orange zest, orange peel, vanilla and oil. Slowly add the flour mixture in, whisking to a smooth batter. Fold in the flour-dusted cranberries.
4. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 50 to 55 minutes, or until an inserted skewer comes out with a few moist crumbs attached.
5. Let cool in the pan for 10 minutes before removing loaf to a wire rack to cool over a drip pan.
6. For the syrup: Cook the orange juice and sugar over medium heat for about three minutes, to dissolve the sugar.
7. Poke holes in the top and sides of the warm loaf. Brush with the orange syrup. Let the syrup soak into the cake and brush again. Alternatively, serve the syrup at the table.
8. To glaze: Whisk together the icing sugar and orange juice to form a thick, pourable glaze - add another tablespoon of juice if the mixture is too stiff. Pour the orange glaze over the top of the loaf and let it drip down the sides. Let the glaze harden, about 15 minutes, before serving.
Makes one loaf
CHRISTMAS STAR FANCY SWEET BREAD
1 sachet active dry yeast
60ml warm water
180ml warm milk
1 large egg
60g butter, softened
50g caster sugar
1 tsp salt
400g all-purpose flour
¾ cup jam
2 Tbs butter, melted
1. To make the dough: Dissolve yeast in warm water and set aside until foamy.
2. In an electric mixing bowl, combine the milk, egg, butter, sugar and salt. Pour in the yeast mixture and add the flour. Using the dough hook, mix on medium speed to form a soft dough, about one minute, adding more flour if necessary.
3. Turn the mixture out onto a floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, for about five minutes. Place in a greased bowl, turning once to grease the top. Cover and set aside to rise in a warm place until doubled, for about 45 minutes.
4. To assemble: Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Divide dough into four portions. Roll each into a 30cm circle, dusting with flour as necessary. Spread one dough circle with ⅓ of the jam, leaving 1cm from edge jam-free. Place another dough circle on the jam and cover with jam in the same way. Repeat for a third layer. Cover with the last piece of dough.
5. To shape: Place a 5cm round cookie cutter (or any round device) in the centre of the dough circle without pressing down (you are using it as a marker only). With a sharp knife, make 16 evenly spaced cuts from the round cutter to edge of dough, forming a starburst. Remove cookie cutter.
6. Working in pairs, take the right strip and twist it three times to the right. Now take the left strip and twist it three times to the left. Pinch the two ends together. Repeat with remaining pair of strips.
7. Cover the shaped dough and set aside to rise until almost doubled, for about 30 minutes.
8. To bake: Pre-heat oven to 180 deg C. Bake until golden brown, for about 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and brush with melted butter. Cool completely on a wire rack. Dust with icing sugar if desired.
Makes one loaf (16 servings)