Whether it’s a batch of crunchy, gingerbread cookies or a tray of mince pies, nothing puts me in a festive mood quite like baking. The December kitchen is filled with the scents of cinnamon, nutmeg and orange, leaving me jumping at any opportunity to bake something sweet and spicy. It’s an evocative time of year; I have cosy memories of listening to Christmas carols on the radio with my Grandmother whilst we made mince-pie pastry and whipped up rum butter. Those cosy memories of festive home-industry have me back at the stove, this time a little more co-ordinated, starting my own baking traditions.
The ‘giving’ element of Christmas does, sadly, tend to focus on the bright lights and ‘mega deals’ of the high street, but I still believe the homemade gift reigns supreme. I love to receive wobbly, hand knitted socks and hand crafted cards. I particularly love to receive gifts I can eat and this year, armed with a wooden spoon and a lot of ribbon, I have embraced the art of giving. This mentality goes beyond expensive presents and piles of torn wrapping paper, focusing instead on time. Your time is at a premium over the festive period and is therefore the most valuable gift you can give. Making presents myself is not only cost-effective, it can add heartfelt meaning to a simple exchange. A box of truffles or a batch of cookies are not just wonderful items to receive, but they say, “I care” in the cosiest and kindest of ways.
This year I’ll be handing out premixed Spiced Hot Chocolate powder, jars of aromatic Vanilla Sugar, bottles of Cinnamon-infused Maple Syrup and bags of Sweet Spiced Almonds. If you enjoy being in the kitchen then this is a wonderful way to indulge in the magic of this time of year; simply put the radio on, make a cup of tea and absorb the scents and sounds of Christmas baking. You will benefit from the good-feeling-glow of giving and your loved ones will be delighted with their unique treats.
Cinnamon-infused Maple Syrup (makes 4 125ml bottles)
500g Maple Syrup
4 cinnamon sticks
4 x 125ml glass bottles
- Clean the bottles with hot, soapy water and rinse thoroughly.
- Place into a hot oven (140°C/120°C Fan/Gas Mark1) on a baking tray to dry completely.
- Meanwhile pour the maple syrup into the pan along with the cinnamon sticks.
- Heat gently but do not allow to boil.
- Once the bottles are dry remove them from the oven and allow to cool slightly.
- Extract the cinnamon sticks and place one in each bottle.
- Divide the syrup between the bottles and leave to cool.
- Once cool screw the lid/cap on.
- Store in the fridge and use within a couple of months.
Homemade Vanilla Sugar (makes 1kg)
This is the simplest and the sweetest of all my Christmas-gift recipes. If you have the right intentions, but barely the time to spare, then this is the answer. This sugar possesses the most heavenly vanilla scent and can be dusted over cakes and biscuits, sprinkled on crumbles and pancakes or simply added to sweet bakes.
1 vanilla pod
1kg caster sugar
jars, bottles or bags for packing
- Pour the sugar into the food processor (you may need to do this in several batches if using a ‘smoothie blender’).
- Add the vanilla pod and blend to a fine consistency (no large pieces of vanilla pod)
- Sieve the sugar over a large bowl and discard any material too big to fit through the sieve.
- Portion the sugar into jars, bags or bottles and label with serving suggestions.
Festive Spiced Almonds (makes 400g)
These are highly addictive. Sweet, salty and crunchy with a background of aromatic, festive spice. This time I used a little homemade chai spice mix but feel free to play with your spice cupboard. You’ll need a couple of teaspoonfuls of your chosen spices but the flavour combination is really down to how creative you are. Cumin can be an interesting addition, as can dried rosemary, or citrus notes from grated orange zest. Here in Germany it’s also possible to purchase ground orange powder for intense flavour. You could also add a little chilli or cayenne pepper for heat.
400g Almonds (skin on)
1-2 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp ground cumin OR ½ tsp chai spice mix (Homemade chai spice mix: 2 tsp ground cinnamon, 1 tsp ground cardamom, 3 tsp ground ginger, 1 tsp ground cloves)
1 tsp ground cinnamon
50g soft brown sugar
20g demerara sugar
1 tbsp. water
1 tsp vanilla extract
Cellophane bags or jars
- Pre-prepare a baking sheet with baking paper and set to one side.2
- Toast the nuts in a dry, heavy based pan for 4-5minutes. Use a medium heat and as soon as they begin to hiss make sure to stir them to prevent them catching and burning.
- Meanwhile combine the spices, salt and sugars in a small bowl.
- Add the butter to the pan and stir gently until melted.
- Add the sugar-spice mix and stir to combine.
- Add the water and vanilla extract and stir on a low-medium heat until the mixture begins to thicken (3-5 minutes). The sugar should begin to clump together and cling to the nuts.
- Spoon the nuts onto the pre-prepared baking sheet.
- Allow to cool completely as the spiced ‘caramel’ needs time to harden.
- Once cool break up the now caramelised clumps of nuts, distribute into bags/jars for gifting or store in a cookie tin.