As Christmas approaches, festive food starts to make its way into our offices. Someone always brings supermarket-bought Christmas cake and mince pies in for morning tea, and although these treats are welcomed (usually), there’s nothing like homemade Christmas goodies!
Christmas baking can be a delight. It symbolises ‘getting ready’ for Christmas. Every year when I worked in an office (before going freelance), I would bring in a box of homemade Christmas treats for my colleagues to enjoy; not a completely selfless act, I might add – for giving my baking away meant that I could actually fit into my clothes after the New Year!
The problem, for many, is that the lead-up to Christmas gets very busy. Suddenly, there aren’t enough hours in the day. With this in mind, I have come up with two Festive sweets that are impressive but ridiculously easy to make: Orange and Cardamom Shortbread, and Panpepato di Norcia.
These recipes are inspired by New Zealand and Italy. Why have I selected them? I come from Dunedin (known as ‘the Edinburgh of the South’), in New Zealand’s South Island – where Scottish favourites such as fruitcake and shortbread are popular – and now live in Italy, where panettone, pandoro, panforte and panpepato have pride of place.
Orange and Cardamom Shortbread
This is a Scottish recipe from Dunedin with my twist: orange zest and freshly crushed cardamom pods – which lift these biscuits to another level! If you use cornflour the shortbread will have a delicate, ‘melt in the mouth’ texture, while rice flour will make the shortbread crunchier – your choice!
Ingredients (makes around 60 biscuits)
500g softened, salted butter
200g caster sugar (plus some extra for sprinkling on top)
500g plain flour
250g cornflour or rice flour
Zest of one orange
½ tsp of freshly ground cardamom seeds
Preheat oven to 160C/340F.
- Cream butter and sugar together. Mix in the orange zest and cardamom.
- Sift in the flour and cornflour/rice flour gradually and mix until it binds together. Turn out onto a lightly floured board and knead until just smooth (do not over work).
- Wrap in cling-film and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
- Roll out on a floured board until it’s about 5mm thick. You can either cut it into fingers using a knife, or with a shaped cutter. Lay the cut shortbread onto a piece of baking paper on a tray, and prick with a fork. Bake for 15-20 minutes until just golden. Remove from oven, sprinkle with a little caster sugar – and carefully transfer the shortbread to a wire rack to cool. Delicious!
Panpepato di Norcia
Most of us have tried panforte, the tooth-breaking sweet from Siena, made with nuts and candied fruits, but panpepato (its peppery, chocolaty cousin) is lesser known outside Italy. This version of panpepato has a fudgy consistency and comes from Norcia; a small town, famous for its cheeses and hams, nestled high in the Italian Apennines. Traditionally, the Norcians use grape must (the pulp from winemaking) but as this is not readily available, you can substitute grape must with chopped figs or prunes. Spicy, fruity and packed with roasted nuts and chocolate – Panpepato di Norcia is Christmas in a bite, and very easy to make. Serve it on a board with a sharp knife, like cheese, so your colleagues can help themselves.
lngredients (for approximately 8 small cakes or 4 medium-sized ones)
250g chopped dried figs
¼ cup candied orange peel or the zest of one orange
150g craisins or dried cranberries
¾ cup almonds
¾ cup hazel nuts
100g caster sugar
4 Tbsp liquid honey
4 Tbsp cocoa powder
½ tsp ground nutmeg
2 tsp ground black pepper
¼ tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ground cinnamon
¾ cup plain flour
- Soak craisins overnight in a little brandy. Bake nuts on a tray at 180C for 12-15 minutes till golden. Cool the nuts and roughly chop. Turn the oven down to 150C.
- In a bowl, mix flour, spices, cocoa, figs, drained craisins and diced, candied orange peel.
- Melt the butter, honey and sugar together in a saucepan and gently heat till dissolved. Bring to the boil before stirring into the dry ingredients. Using damp hands, mould into little flattened rounds and place on a baking tray lined with greaseproof paper. Bake for 1 hour.
- Remove from the oven and leave to firm up on the baking tray. Dust with icing sugar. When cold wrap in cellophane and tie with a ribbon. Like Christmas cake or fruit mince, these are best made ahead of time and left to ‘age’ in an airtight container.