It’s beginning to feel like Christmas – at last! The miniature tree is up, along with a few baubles and subtle decorations (I’m an under-stated decorator). Christmas parties and catch-up drinks have mostly been had. Hoards of shoppers have been fought. Presents have been paid for and are sitting there, wrapped, labelled and be-ribboned. All is cheery and bright.
To be honest though, it’s been a tough year for many people close to me, and on a broader scale, world events have been especially tumultuous. News headlines dish out the bizarre and horrific on a daily basis and I find myself swinging from shock and disbelief to overloaded indifference. It feels like there is nothing of great significance that can be done. At times like this you stick together and care for your people because what else can you do?
Homemade baking is absolutely and utterly insignificant. Yet despite this, I’ll never forget my second day at a new job in a new country, sitting there feeling completely overwhelmed and wondering when they were going to figure out that I wasn’t all that I said I was. The woman at the desk next to me offered me two small cookies wrapped in plastic – a sample from the batch she had baked the night before. She had observed me eating a muesli bar on my first day, she said, and she just knew that I would like her healthy cookies made with whole grains and honey. Two cookies is all it took and just like that I was no longer alone, freaking out at my desk.
Last year I made homemade cookies as Christmas gifts for the first time. The baking marathon nearly killed me, and thanks to the freshness of that memory, I sensibly scaled it back this year. I made one thing only and that thing was Nadine Abensur’s divine Cantuccini. Cantuccini is like a rustic biscotti, only it remains a little softer and won’t chip your teeth. It can be eaten alone or, like biscotti, dunked into coffee or hot chocolate. Nadine’s recipe makes a huge quantity of biscuits, so it’s perfect for Christmas baking. This year I flavoured mine with orange zest and paired it with figs, dates and hazelnuts, creating a rich, Christmas-cakey flavour. I also love a fresher version, using lemon zest, dried apricots and pistachios.
This year half of my little red sacks of homemade cantuccini have been given to a few friends and relatives who have been stand out supports this year (and if I haven’t given you any, it doesn’t mean that I don’t love you! See comment above re: “baking marathon”). The other half have gone to people who have brightened my days in unexpected ways – the busker at the train station who cheekily asks, every now and then, if my husband is treating me right, and the neighbour, a few doors down, who lets me pick herbs from the pots by his door. If I can find him, a sack will also go to my Big Issue vendor, who is always keen for a chat whether I buy a copy or not. Homemade baking is insignificant, yes, but not wholly without significance. Have a wonderful, safe and happy Christmas everyone.
Fig & Hazelnut Cantuccini
500g plain flour
500g castor sugar
1 Tbsp baking powder
5 small eggs, lightly beaten with a pinch of salt
150g figs (or dried apricots)
150g blanched almonds
150g hazelnuts (or pistachio)
Finely grated zest of 2 oranges (or lemon)
Preheat the oven to 180°C / 360°F. Weigh the dried fruit and slice into small pieces. Place into a medium bowl along with the nuts (you don’t need to bother with chopping the nuts). Grate the orange zest into the bowl and mix together with the fruit. Set aside.
Sieve the flour, sugar and baking powder together into a large, wide bowl. Whisk to ensure that the dry ingredients are well incorporated. Add half of the lightly beaten egg and work through using a metal spoon. Add another half of the remaining egg and mix again, then begin to work the moisture into the flour using your fingertips. You want the dough to stick together without being too wet, and the mixture can be deceiving. Resist adding more egg yet. Add the fruit to the bowl and, still using your fingers, mix thoroughly into the dough. The moisture from the fruit will help to bring the dough together, but if your fruit is on the dry side, you may need a little more egg. Push the dough together into a ball. If most of it sticks together, then it is wet enough. If you’ve gone too far and the dough is too sticky, add small amounts of flour until it becomes manageable.
Tip the dough out onto a board and form into a sausage shape. Cut into six even pieces. Roll each piece into a log approximately two and a half centimetres wide. Place the logs onto two oven trays lined with baking parchment (if you only have one tray, like me, you will need to bake the cantuccini in two batches). Slightly flatten each log and slide the trays into the oven. Bake until brown for 25-30 minutes.
Remove the tray and lift the loaves of cantuccini onto a rack to cool slightly. Leave for 10 minutes then slice into pieces, about 1cm wide. Lay the pieces flat on the oven tray/s and then return to the oven for 10-15 minutes until deep golden brown. Cool on a rack until crisp then store in an airtight container.