Only 31 sleeps left until Christmas!
So yes, I think it is officially time to start getting excited :-) And the one thing we get most excited about here at Bistro Gerard, is Christmas as the perfect excuse to do lots of baking.
When you live in a small household, there is, generally speaking, a limit to the amount of baking one can do before running the risk of sending their family members and work colleagues on the verge of diabetic coma. But close to Christmas time, this rule always changes, as you can package all sorts of sweet and cute looking goodies into lovely Christmas presents to share with those around you. It may be rather old fashioned, but we find that home-made gifts are always a good choice for those people notoriously hard to buy presents for. Besides, edible treats are (almost) always welcome at the Christmas table or under the tree, so the recipient is less likely to worry about what to do with an unwanted gift.
Treats don’t always have to be naughty either. While it’s quite natural for (nearly) everyone to want to indulge in one – or several – of their all time holiday season favourites, there is no reason why you shouldn’t experiment a little to make these more wholesome.
Take for instance sugar, that notoriously unhealthy culprit – some recipes simply call for too much of it: we have recently come across one for a standard-size carrot cake which called for 3 cups of the white stuff!!!! We have found that reducing the amount of sugar in many recipes has no detrimental effect on the finished product. Quite the contrary, in some cases it will even allow for other flavours or spices to come through better.
If you’re a very experienced baker – or even a novice one who enjoys living dangerously in the kitchen – it’s a great idea to experiment with different types of flour. You may end up with a few disasters along the way, but the successful attempts are definitely worth the effort. Most importantly though, using the best quality ingredients you can get (preferably organic/sustainably farmed eggs and dairy, avoiding artificial colours, preservatives or anything else which sounds like it should belong in a chemical lab rather than in your kitchen) will result in excellent treats that you will not hesitate offering your loved ones.
Now that we have rationalised the desire to bake – and eat – lots of Christmas goodies, we can pick up that bowl, measuring jug and spatula and have some fun
Orange and Berries Shortbread
250 g good quality salted butter, at room temperature
150 g all-purpose flour, plus 2 tbsp for dusting
160 g brown rice flour
125 g icing sugar
150 g mixed dried berries (we used a mix of dried cranberries, goji berries, blueberries and cherries), chopped into small pieces
Grated zest of 2 large organic oranges
1 tsp vanilla essence
Sift together the all-purpose and brown rice flour in a bowl and set aside.
Cut butter into cubes and place in a mixer bowl together with sugar and vanilla essence. Bringing butter to room temperature is very important here as soft butter will be much easier to mix with the other ingredients and give the dough a lovely smooth texture. Mix for several minutes – we found that using a medium speed setting works best – until pale and fluffy. We strongly recommend using icing sugar instead of caster in this recipe, as this will dissolve better and give the shortbread a finer texture.
Turn the mixer to minimum speed, then slowly incorporate the orange zest and chopped berries.
With the motor still running on low, add the flours and mix briefly until the flour has just been incorporated. It’s important not to overmix at this stage, as this would encourage too much gluten to develop, which would give your shortbread a hard and unpleasant texture.
Place a large piece of non-stick baking paper on your benchtop or working surface and dust with about 1 -2 tbsp of flour. Turn the shortbread mixture onto the baking paper, shape into a log and roll very tightly in the paper. Using the paper – the dough will be too soft and sticky to work with your bare hands – elongate the log to your desired size. It’s worth bearing in mind that the cookies will expand a little during baking, so a longer and narrower shape is preferable. Ours was about 40cm long by about 5cm wide. If you are finding the dough too hard to work with, you can divide the whole roll in half and create two shorter logs.
Fold the paper ends to ensure the log is fully enclosed, then place on a flat tray and refrigerate for approximately 1 ½ – 2 hours, until firm.
In the mean time, pre-heat the oven to 170 degrees Celsius and line two baking sheets with paper.
Remove the log(s) from the fridge, discard the paper and cut into 1 cm slices using a serrated knife. You may need to run the blade under cold water between slices to ensure a clean cut and to prevent the knife from sticking to the dough or the berries. Lay the cookies on the prepared baking sheets, leaving a 1 ½ cm gap between them.
Bake for approximately 15 minutes, rotating the sheets half way. If you’re a shortbread perfectionist and would like to achieve that lovely pale look for your cookies, you will want to watch them very closely and remove them from the oven as soon as they have started turning brown around the edges. Slightly overbaked cookies will have a golden “tan” all over, however we can assure you that they will still taste delicious. Once you have removed them from the oven, let them rest on the baking sheets for a few minutes (when hot these are very soft, so resist the temptation to handle them too soon), then transfer to a cooling rack until they have cooled completely. Makes about 40 cookies (depending on the size of your log), which will keep for about two weeks if stored in an airtight container.