Cinnamon Stars [Zimtsterne]

Cinnamon is a common theme among these Christmas cookies. And just as well as its probably our favourite spice. Hell, is there anyone who doesn’t like cinnamon? But these next cookies don’t just have cinnamon, they are all about the cinnamon.

Zimtsterne are a German cookie and very popular around Christmas time. Traditionally served by German Jews at the meal after Yom Kippur, the star shape of the cookies represent the nightfall that signifies the end of the fast. It can vary in ingredients but these are cinnamon stars at their most basic. 4 ingredients, minimal prep and did I mention you don’t even have to decorate them? Yeah, that icing goes on before the biscuits even bake.

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Speculaas

Today’s festive cookie is one that has more memories associated with my fiance than me. He has a great number of memories from the Dutch side of his family, particularly his grandparents, feeding him all sorts of treats. Of all the ones he’s asked me to make, speculaas are certainly one of the most requested. And what better excuse to make them than for Christmas.

Traditionally these cookies are baked for St Nicholas Day or for Christmas. As such they are also traditionally stamped with an image depicting St. Nicholas and the stories around him. I didn’t have any springerle moulds so I settled with a simple Christmas star instead.

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Koeksisters

Perhaps I’m stretching the biscuit theme a little here, but when making Klejne I couldn’t help but be reminded of another treat which is similar in method, similar in flour profile, but quite different in result. Koeksisters are a South African treat which is essentially a friend, plaited dough drenched in syrup. Another treat enjoyed year-round particularly in their native home, but often reserved for important celebrations.

Once you make them you might realise why. This is not a treat that favours the waistline. The luxuriously soft donutty dough is lathered generously in a thick, sugary syrup; and its not exactly easy to stop and just one!

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Klejne

Growing up around the northern suburbs of Melbourne meant growing up in a very multicultural area. Almost none of my friends were from white Aussie backgrounds and this meant I was incredibly lucky to grow up surrounded by a rich array of different cultures. One of the ways many of those cultures expressed themselves was through food. Every visit to friends’ houses after school introduced me to a world very unlike my own, and this was especially so at Christmas time. I remember so often being presented with platters full of Christmas cookies to take home of varying shapes and flavours I’d never seen before. Christmas at my house meant roast meats and salads and barbecues and pavlova and chocolate ripple cakes. But baking cookies was never one of our traditions. 

This year I wanted to spend some time visiting those memories and cuisines from around the world. This year I want to send people home with giant platters of traditional Christmas cookies.

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Candy Cane Cookies

Christmas is coming! And already my kitchen has been pumping out all the Christmas-themed desserts. My family had an early Christmas get together last weekend and obviously I volunteered to make desserts. My house smells mostly of cinnamon, the tree is covered in baubles, my house is covered in lights and my dogs are covered in reindeer hats. (Spoiler alert: one of dog is happier about this than the other one!)

One might say its beginning it look a lot like Christmas. 

One thing I am doing a lot this year is cookie baking. So this week is going to be dedicated solely to Christmas cookies! Starting off super simple first off, this is a way to transform any of your favourite sugar cookie doughs.

I had a lot of sugar cookie dough to use up, but this would be great with chocolate, gingerbread or any other kind of cookie dough you’re looking to make a little Christmassy with the least amount of effort possible. 

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Homemade Pizza Pockets

Was there any day more exciting in primary school than lunch order day? Everyone would turn up in the morning with their order scrawled on a brown paper bag, the couple of coins required to pay for it taped to the front. And if you were the chosen one that week you would get to be the hero who carried the shopping basket full of your classmates brown paper dreams down to the canteen. Later in the day you’d carry those same bags back packed to the brim with everyone’s favourite steaming hot junk food. Meat pies, chicken nuggets and sausage rolls were always common picks. But another one of my favourites was the good old pizza pocket. What was yours?

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The thing about childhood memories is that they glisten so wonderfully in our minds, but attempts to relive them as adults usually end in disappointment. Every time we’ve bought pizza pockets as an adult it’s usually followed by a, “These used to be so much nicer,” comment. More likely, they were never quite amazing but we were much more easily impressed as children. So when the pizza pocket craving hit recently rather than re-living that disappointment again I decided to make my own!

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Lolly Bag Cake

I often get told from friends and family, and sometimes even people I don’t know, that I should go on MasterChef. I kind of imagine that this is how people with voices like tortured cats end up on Australian Idol or X-Factor and end up embarrassing the hell out of themselves: well meaning people want you to follow your hobby to wonderful goals, but it takes more than a passion for singing or food to make the grade. I’m okay at baking, but I don’t have the skills in a lot of mediums necessary to avoid total annihilation. I’m also insanely indecisive, slow, messy and I always think I know better than the recipe. Knowing me, I’d be an hour into the challenge and still standing in the pantry trying to work out what to cook.

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But there is one thing that makes me entertain the idea for a moment: pressure tests. These contestants get to not only meet, but be mentored by the most accomplished pastry chefs in the world. They then get to attempt these wonderful recipes with every ingredient and tool right there at their disposal in a professional kitchen. I always watch those episodes with the deepest sense of longing. I’d jump at the chance to get to create all those stunning desserts that are practically impossible to make at home.

This year, one of the first such pressure tests was provided by Bernard Chu, an accomplished Melbournian pastry chef of LuxBite. It was Kids Week on MasterChef, and he bought in a cake that perfectly fit this bill: his Lolly Bag cake. This layered beauty was the perfect nostalgia trip of many of the lollies we grew up with as kids. As soon as I saw it, I knew I just had to make it.

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I’ve had moments like this after many Pressure Tests or other dessert challenges. The recipe goes up on the MasterChef website, I go to look at it and quickly become dismayed by the ingredient list. Or the required equipment. Or the cost. Or all three at once. I almost had that same moment while reading through this recipe and doing the maths. But no, I finally decided, I was not going to be defeated by it. I was going to save it up for a special occasion and tackle this beast of sugary goodness.

I don’t know if I wanted to bake it or taste it more. Mostly I was skeptical that all those flavours could go together and not confuse the palatte, so I had to try it. I suppose I could have made the trip to LuxBite and just paid $7.50 for a slice, but that’s just not my style.

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The post that is going to follow is going to be enormous, I should warn you. As you may have guessed from all those layers, it’s a long and involved multi-step process. It will look intimidating, but when you break it down you’ll find it’s really quite easy. It’s a relatively technical cake, though not the worst. Having experience with things like making sugar syrups, whipping meringue to perfect soft peak, making ganache and baking sponges will help a lot. If you’ve never done any of these things you may want to have a play around with individual components in easier desserts before taking on the whole lolly bag cake.

I made a number of changes to the recipe to make it home-kitchen friendly, as well as a few other preference changes. This is as specialty-equipment free as possible, but you will want a candy thermometer and a stick blender at the very least. You will also need enough freezer space to freeze at least one layer at a time, preferably enough for the whole cake to sit in later. I’ve documented every step along the way to give you a visual guide of what bits and pieces are supposed to look like and will be providing plenty of anecdotes in the hope of guiding even the most beginner of bakers through this challenge. So hit the jump to read all about it!

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