A modern twist on traditional Christmas recipes: Mince pies, strudel, and chocolate brownies
Taking traditions from the past and adding their own modern twist, these bakers are spicing up Christmas desserts, writes Katy McGuinness
Christmas is the one time of year that even those of us without a modicum of skill in the baking department whip out the aprons and wooden spoons and try our hand at a Christmas cake or pudding.
My own mother wasn’t much of a baker, and used to produce one fruit-rich batter, divide it in two and then steam half and bake half: Christmas pudding and cake in one! I don’t remember being particularly fond of it (and the icing on the cake was really not, in that it could crack a tooth if you weren’t expecting its rock hard consistency), but I do recall that it mouldered on in a tin on the sideboard until sometime around March, when the last of the crumbs would be put in the bin and the festive tin returned to the pantry.
These days, people are more inclined to admit what they’ve been afraid to say for years — that they don’t actually like Christmas cake or suet-heavy pudding, and that they’d prefer to have something else. A new generation of bakers, exploring traditions from the past and from other cultures, may have just the alternative.
Charlotte Leonard-Kane and Shane Palmer met when they studied culinary arts in DIT and worked at some of the best bakeries in San Francisco — the home of modern baking — before returning to Ireland to set up Scéal almost two years ago.
The pair work from the Spade Enterprise Centre in Dublin city centre and are on the hunt for premises in which they can open their own shop and bakery. In the meantime, you’ll find them and their wonderful sourdough breads and gorgeous pastries at the Pender’s Yard market in Stoneybatter on Saturdays. They will be selling their Christmas range of puddings, mince pies, mincemeat and brandy butter, as well as their divine sausage rolls, exclusively at the Christmas Flea in Point Village next month.
“We use a hand-written Christmas pudding recipe that came down through my family,” says Charlotte, “we can’t quite make it out. It’s quite old school but we have changed it a bit. We use our own sourdough breadcrumbs; we had to make 50kg of them! And we use more citrus than the original recipe — adding lemon and orange zest and juice to give it a brighter flavour and cut through the richness. Also, we’ve substituted unsalted butter for suet. My parents are vegetarian, so we had to make it veggie-friendly.”
If you don’t make it to the Flea, you’ll find a few seasonal specials — including the mince pies [see recipe] — at The Fumbally and Proper Order in the last week before Christmas.
Scéal's mince pies
Makes 1 large storage jar; yields approx. 18 mince pies
1 large cooking apple, grated
375g dried vine fruits
1 lemon, zest and juice
1 orange, zest and juice
½ tsp mixed spice
½ tsp ground nutmeg
½ tsp ground ginger
½ tsp ground cinnamon
225g unsalted butter
125g dark muscovado sugar
60g Irish whiskey
Soak the fruit along with the citrus and spices overnight or at least for a few hours if you can. Melt the unsalted butter and dark muscovado sugar and mix well into the soaked dried fruits. Finally add the whiskey before packing into a sterilised jar. Leave for at least two weeks to steep - if you have the patience.
Flaked Almond Frangipine
2 whole eggs
2 egg yolks
75g ground almonds
75g flaked almonds
40g plain flour
2g sea salt
1. Cream together the sugar and butter until pale and light in texture. Slowly add the eggs to the mixture and continue to cream together. This can be done by hand orwith a standing
mixer. The mixture might split but don’t panic — just add some of the flour.
2. Fold in both types of almonds, remaining flour and salt. Resist the temptation to eat the entire batch off the wooden spoon. Set aside until you’re ready to start baking.
The trick to the best flaky pastry is to keep all your ingredients chilled. It involves little ingredients but with spectacular results. If you don’t have the time to make it from scratch buy good-quality ready-to-roll puff pastry.
150g unsalted butter, cold
230g plain flour
½ tsp sea salt
40g iced water
“If you don’t have one of these on the table at Christmas, it’s not really Christmas,” says Tibor Bernscherer, as he takes one of his Hungarian Christmas logs out of the oven at Strudel, the bakery that he and his partner, Ciara Sheehy, opened on Patrick Street in Dun Laoghaire earlier this year.
The soft, yeasted dough is stuffed with a sweet walnut puree, the richness cut through with lemon zest. Closer to Christmas, he’ll be baking another version filled with poppy seeds, mince pies topped with grated marzipan, and an orange, cranberry and walnut loaf. Warm from the oven, the Christmas log smells and tastes delicious.
Tibor used to work in film and as a photographer — one reason why Strudel’s Instagram is so alluring — and Ciara trained as a Montessori teacher. Tibor baked the typical Hungarian crescent-shaped, walnut-filled pastries, marzipan cushions and cinnamon swirls that he had grown up with at home at the weekends, and the pair began to sell them at markets in Kilruddery and CHQ, and supply to cafés. Gradually they expanded their range, and then the opportunity to open in a former butcher’s shop in the centre of Dun Laoghaire presented itself.
Now they sell a range of naturally levained sourdough breads, along with a dozen or more different sweet and savoury pastries. Tibor gets up in the middle of the night to bake everything fresh each day, and Ciara sometimes has to close the shop early when they run out of stock.
“The other day we had a whole tray of apple strudel at 10 in the morning,” she says, “but by 11 it was all gone. We make what we think we’ll sell, but sometimes we don’t make enough. It’s better to sell out than throw out.”
Tibor imports all the flour that he uses from Hungary, as it has a higher protein (gluten) content than the flour he can get in Ireland. “It means that it makes a stretchier dough,” he explains, “so I can get the pastry paper-thin.”
Although only open since February, Strudel already has a loyal local clientèle, who are getting more adventurous as time goes by. At the beginning, the cherry-filled pastries were a hard sell, now they fly out the door. And the demand for Tibor’s sourdough bread is growing.
“People are more aware of what they are eating these days,” says Ciara. “They want bread that isn’t full of the additives and preservatives that you get in a loaf from the supermarket.”
Orange cake with cranberry & walnut
Prep: 15min, Bake: 50min
Yields 12 slices
250g plain flour
150g caster sugar
¾ tsp salt
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 ½ tsp baking powder
100g chopped cranberries
50g chopped walnuts (or mix of nuts)
26ml vegetable oil
180g fresh orange juice
1 tbsp grated orange zest
1. Preheat oven to 1800C. Grease a 23x12cm (9x5in) loaf tin.
2. Combine the flour, sugar, salt, bicarbonate of soda and baking powder.
3. Add the cranberries and walnuts (or mix of nuts), and stir to coat with flour.
4. Mix together the egg, oil, orange juice and orange zest in a separate bowl.
5. Pour the egg mixture into the flour mixture, and stir until just blended.
6. Spoon the cake mixture into the prepared loaf tin. Bake for 50 minutes, or until a skewer inserted near the centre comes out clean. Cool in tin for 10 minutes, then remove to a wire rack to cool down completely. Serve with a dust of icing sugar.
Sarah Richards operates the Seagull Bakery in Tramore, where she is exploring the use of Irish-grown heritage and alternative grains in a range of different sourdough and other breads. “I find that heritage grains and stoneground flours have more flavour,” she says.
Sarah is particularly excited by a collaboration with Paul Cramp, a local friend who grew a particular type of wheat so that he could re-roof his cottage with Irish thatch, and because he used old-fashioned methods to harvest and thresh, found that the grain — a by-product — was preserved in beautiful condition. Sarah is milling it herself and using it to make a hyper-local Wexford heritage loaf that’s both sustainable and delicious.
“The usual argument is that Irish grain doesn’t have enough gluten in it to make sourdough and other breads that require strong flour,” she says, “but this proves otherwise.”
For Christmas, Sarah’s making over a hundred sourdough stollen breads — she says it is her twist on the German classic, thought to represent a blanket wrapped around the baby Jesus. “It lasts for ages — unless, like me, you just can’t stop eating it,” she says. “Then it doesn’t last long at all.”
There will also be rye brownies using Green & Black’s rich organic Mayan Gold dark chocolate, her ever-popular seaweed bread, and salted caramel squares with dillisk seaweed, that have more than a hint of umami about them.
Dark chocolate Rye brownies with orange, cinnamon, nutmeg & vanilla
This is a super luxurious chocolate brownie. Ideal for making a few days before the Christmas celebrations, as they keep very well. Serve warm or cold with soft whipped cream or good quality ice-cream. In Seagull Bakery our focus is on using heritage and Irish flours where possible, like in this recipe where we use Irish rye flour.
Makes 16 portions.
You will need a standard roasting tin ( 9” x 11” approx) lined with silicone paper.
450g best quality 70pc dark chocolate
450g softened butter
375g caster sugar
4 free-range eggs
2 free-range egg yolks
90g fine rye flour
90g good-quality cocoa powder
1 level tsp of baking powder
Zest of 2 large oranges
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp of nutmeg
1 tsp of vanilla extract
1. Preheat oven to 1800C or gas mark 4.
2. Melt dark chocolate gently in a bowl over a saucepan of simmering water.
3. Cream softened butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. (I use a hand-held mixer or a small stand mixer with a whisk attachment).
4. Whisk in the eggs one at a time, and the egg yolks until light and fluffy.
5. With a spatula fold in melted chocolate, trying not to knock the air out of the mixture.
6. Sieve the rye flour, cocoa and baking powder into the mixing bowl and fold into the mixture until fully incorporated.
7. Gently stir in the orange zest, cinnamon, nutmeg & vanilla.
8. Put the mixture into a lined roasting tray. Bake in the oven for 18 to 25 mins. There should be a wobble in the centre and slightly set around the edges when cooked. (If there is no wobble in the centre they are over-done).
9. Allow to cool and cut into portions.