Sunday, 4 January 2009

Baking Time

I've written here before about some of the differences between the UK and the USA that I've encountered. How we celebrate Christmas is one of them.

Take baking. Christmas baking was a big deal when I was growing up. I'd bake various cookies and make fudge (because my mother may have shown me where the cookbooks were but she never was too interested in it herself) to give to others, who in turn would do their baking too. My favourite cookies still are Russian Tea Cakes, which are probably called something else in other people's cookbooks. These little balls of flour, butter, sugar and nuts rolled and re-rolled in powdered (icing) sugar send me into sugar heaven. Even when I was working I always managed to make Tollhouse Chocolate Chip Cookies for the staff.

Then I moved to the UK and had loads of time for baking, but was frustrated by the lack of familiar ingredients. How could I make Chocolate Pecan Pie without Karo syrup? What was gingerbread without molasses? And I still can't get the butter conversion right. Also, I discovered, people in the UK do a different kind of baking. They make Christmas cake, a kind of fruit cake you souse with brandy or whiskey for a month, then cover with marzipan and royal icing (this also is known as Wedding Cake and Birthday Cake). They make Christmas pudding, a dried fruit-filled steamed pudding that traditionally is set alight (for it too is brandy-soaked). And they make Mince Pies, pastry filled with -- you got it -- dried fruit soaked in brandy.

My first Christmas here I dutifully made a Christmas cake in November, wrapped it in greaseproof paper and foil and squirted it with brandy every week. Then I wrapped it up in marzipan and royal icing. It wasn't very good, but I'm not really a fan of Christmas cake. I never attempted making Christmas Pudding, though I have bought them. I have made Mince Pies, with varying success.

I also baked peanut butter cookies and made truffles for that first Christmas, to which I'd invited the outlaws. No one else but me ate the cookies and truffles. I gained a lot of weight.

So I quit the Christmas baking. I'd make chutney some years, but that was it. Except for this year. For some reason, this year I wanted the house to be filled with the smells of baking. I made gingerbread with molasses I sourced from a health food store (though I could have used treacle). I made Chocolate Pecan Pie with golden syrup. I made apple and cherry pies, conjuring up my very own pastry. I rolled mincemeat up in puff pastry (I will always do this now -- it was delicious) and baked it. I made Mexican Wedding Cookies (similar to my beloved Russian Tea Cakes) and butter Christmas cookies (too much butter), meringues with chocolate chips inside, my own jam with blackcurrants I froze in the summer, cranberry and pear chutney. The house absolutely buzzed with the smells of Christmas baking, as I know it. I gave out jam and chutney as presents to my friends.

Perhaps all that baking took its toll on my mood on Christmas Day. Perhaps I'd had too much sugar and was coming down. But I enjoyed it. My kitchen was always warm, though the rest of the house was freezing.

I am putting away the Christmas recipes for next year, getting the house clean for 2009. But maybe I'll still do a bit of baking. After all, as the Pillsbury Dough Boy would say, "Nothin says lovin like somethin from the oven."


Annie said...

I could have written this in reverse!

Not that I have any time for Christmas Cake or Christmas Pud (DH loves them though.)

I miss Golden Syrup - for making my Nana's caramel squares.

I miss digestive's too - graham crackers are two sweet.

You learn what works and what doesn't as substitues though - I was just going to say treacle would work instead of molasses.

Fire Byrd said...

No baking for me,except loads of mince pies, but I have got loads of turkey pieces that i stripped and froze ready to make turkey soup, when I want that feel good factor of home made food.
Happy New Year, here's to dreams coming true.

Kaycie said...

I love Russian Tea Cakes, and that's the name on my old handwritten recipe, although we always called them snowballs. Christmas isn't Christmas without them.

I buy Lyle's golden syrup and use it here for some lovely cookies called Anzac Biscuits. I don't think I could get along without molasses (I'm sure it's the Southern thing).

-Ann said...

I despise Christmas Cake and plum pudding. It's really disgusting stuff.

And what annoys me about Christmas cake (in Peter's family at least) is no one eats it on Christmas day. What's the point of spending all that time baking on something people aren't even going to eat?

wakeupandsmellthecoffee said...

Annie: Caramel squares are fantastic. I bet you could find a store that sells golden syrup. A TV program over here featured a shop in Orlando that sells British foods. Have a look online.

Fire Byrd: I hadn't done my baking and Christmas cooking yet when I saw you, otherwise you'd be the proud recipient of jam and chutney. Happy New Year to you too.

Kaycie: Where do you find Lyle's golden syrup because Annie, above, lives in Florida and would love some, I bet.

-ann: That is odd about Christmas Cake. I don't much like it either. I have a recipe for Murrimbidgee cake, which is an Australian version of fruit cake. Much better. And no marzipan.

Aoj and The Lurchers said...

I wish I could find the time to do more baking but I know that even if I did, I would eat it all and get very very fat!

ChrisB said...

I know just what Ann means about no one eating Christmas Cake on the day! But it keeps and this way you can have a bit of festive cheer well into the new year. Not that I make a cake these days. When my girls were young-one liked the icing, the other the marzipan and I just liked the cake so it worked well. Himself liked the lot maybe that's why he's now a diabetic!

Kelly said...

I rediscovered Christmas baking this year, mainly I suspect because the in-laws were coming (first year ever we haven't had to schlep to deepest Norfolk) and I wanted to make a show. I rather enjoyed it. And as I sit waiting for my trainer to arrive with her scales, I'm rather regretting it too ;)

Happy New Year x

laurie said...

oh yum butter cookies. i have to say, all those brandy-soaked fruity cakes do not sound appealing to me. give me spritz and chocolate crinkles and russian tea cakes any day of the week.