With Christmas around the corner it’s all too easy to be blinded by the tinsel and trauma of December. It’s not unusual, come the 25th, to feel as worn out as our credit cards; unable to stomach another gingerbread latte or face another department store floor-plan. Sadly, the subdued beauty of this month is often side lined by commercial frenzy; when we look beyond our own four walls, we find there are crisp, misty mornings and sparkling, cloudless nights awaiting our appreciation. It’s the best time of year for cosy, candlelit gatherings and thoughtful Sunday walks. When time allows, I like to seek out bars of good-quality chocolate and make hot chocolate on the stove with cinnamon sticks and a splash of brandy. I like to find the fattest novel I can lay my hands on and work through it with dedicated intent, or dig out last year’s knitting projects in the hope of finishing that lumpy scarf. It is important, whilst the nights are at their shortest and our consumer mentality is at its highest, to engage with the simple things, be that reading, hugging, making or, my most beloved, baking.
Festive biscuit baking is famous the world over. In Germany they bake gingerbread stars (Zimtsterne), vanilla crescents (Vanillekipferln), macaroons (Nussmakronen) and square chequered cookies (Schwarz-Weiß-Gebäck) to name but a few. In Belgium and the Netherlands, they bake Spekulatius, a type of spiced, festive shortbread. In Sweden it’s unusual to find a household without a well-thumbed copy of the 1945 housewives guide “Sju sorters kakor” which translates to “Seven different kinds of cookie”. Sweets, treats and traditional baked good are a key part of celebrations across almost every culture, holiday and religious festival. The simple act of crafting, baking and sharing these recipes brings us together and, in turn, keeps tradition alive. The memory of baking mince pies with my grandmother instils such calm, cosiness within me; I think of the inky sky outside, the puttering heat of the farmhouse AGA a sense that all is well with the world.
In recent years I’ve found myself ditching the festive gingerbread in favour of baking biscotti. Biscotti are one of my favourite ‘cookies’ to bake due to a simple dough and endless flexibility. They can be baked hard, in the traditional Italian way, or with a little chew. I like to mix up a lightly spiced dough with a little orange zest and divide it into three, sometimes four, pieces before I work different nut, chocolate and fruit combinations. These biscuits call for nothing more demanding than a second bake; no complicated shaping, icing or sandwiching is required but they look beautiful all the same. Stash them, criss-cross, in a pretty tin or in cellophane bags tied with ribbon. I can assure you they will be appreciated by your friends, family, colleagues, neighbours and post-man alike. Just make sure you set aside enough time to make them at a leisurely pace, preferably with mugs of hot chocolate, good company and a few festive jingles in the background.
Cooking time: roughly 1hr 30mins
(makes 60-70 biscuits)
350g plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp cinnamon
zest 1 orange
230g caster sugar
3 beaten eggs
1tsp vanilla extract
A note about variations: The beauty of biscotti is in the creativity. Just about any nut, dried fruit and chocolate combination is possible. You could use candied peel for a traditional Christmas flavour, dried cherries, pistachios, macadamia nuts or even types of confection such as marzipan, marshmallow or honeycomb. I tend to aim for roughly 100g grams of added ‘flavourings’ per 200g piece of dough (the above recipe divided into 3 pieces!)
For the cranberry and white chocolate:
50g dried cranberries
50g roughly chopped white chocolate
For the dark chocolate and hazelnut:
50g roughly chopped, lightly toasted hazelnuts
50g roughly chopped dark chocolate
For the almond and ginger:
50g roughly chopped crystallised ginger
50g roughly chopped almonds
- Preheat the oven to 180°C/160°C fan/gas mark 4 and line a couple of large baking sheets with baking paper.
- Combine the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, zest, salt and sugar.
- Beat the eggs with the vanilla and combine wet ingredients with dry to form a rough dough.
- Turn out onto a well-floured surface and knead briefly into a smooth dough.
- Divide the dough into 3 and work the dry ingredients into each piece accordingly.
- Form each piece into a sausage shape approximately 20cm long.
- Place each piece on a baking sheet well-spaced apart (the dough will spread a lot so if you only have small baking sheets then best to bake each batch separately).
- Bake for 25-30 minutes until the dough has spread, risen and formed a very slight crust. This may take longer if you are rotating trays half-way through.
- Remove from the oven and allow the dough to cool slightly on the tray before cutting.
- Turn the oven down to 140°C/120°C fan/gas mark 1.
- Slice the dough into biscuits firmly, at an angle, using a large, sharp knife (not a bread knife). I find that a ‘sawing’ action causes my biscotti to fall apart.
- Turn each biscuit onto its side and bake for a further 20 minutes before turning the biscuits and baking for a further 20 minutes.
- Allow the biscotti to cool completely before drizzling with chocolate, if desired. They should keep for a few weeks when properly baked and ‘dried’.