Thanksgiving slides rambunctiously into Christmas, a bumpy sleigh ride, and comes knocking on our door, her arms brimming with a cornucopia of delightful seasonal treats: pies and sweet breads of apple and pumpkin redolent of cinnamon and maple, cranberry delights in the form of relish and sweet meats, elegant chestnut and chocolate confections galore. Those worldly delicacies like Figgy Pudding, Bûche de Nöel, fruitcakes and Panettone are whipped up in kitchens everywhere and Christmas cookies come tumbling out of the oven batch after batch, butter and spice, gingerbread and chocolate, decorated with frosting and glaze and all kinds of colored sugary things, all filling the house with that warm, homey, inviting scent of the holidays.
Although I don't celebrate Christmas, I revel in the everyday contemporary rituals, the glorious food, the lights and decorations adorning every shop window, street lamp and front door, the cheerful music that swirls around me everywhere I go and the goodwill that fills us all. Look out your window or stroll down the street and feel the excitement in the air, that special holiday electricity that zips through each of us, experience the smells and the sounds, the childlike wonder and we believe in Santa Claus once again. I often wonder why we can't keep the lights and decorations up all year 'round, always fill the streets with heart-warming, uplifting music and keep this wonderful seasonal spirit in us always.
As soon as the last flicker of candlelight fades away and Hanukkah comes to an end, I start looking towards Christmas. The snow hasn't yet reached our corner of the world, so the days jog from rain to bright winter sunshine, the chill wind whipping through our hair and nipping at our cheeks, and the evenings inside are cozy and romantic while outside the night air is thick with mist, giving the season a frosty, angelic, magical look and feel. I often take refuge in the warmth of the kitchen and bake and there is certainly something about the holiday season that inspires. I surround myself with the fragrant melody of cinnamon and yeast, chocolate and nutmeg and all the scents that remind me of Christmas. I bake Italian biscotti festively studded with red cranberries and green pistachios, spicy gingerbread or richly flavored macarons, which are then carried by one proud husband into work, a platter placed next to the coffee machine adding a festive touch to the office pre-holiday Christmas cheer. Or I bake brownies warmed with a touch of Amaretto or marbled with a rich mascarpone swirl and carry a plateful into the back room where the young men work of a Sunday. I bake Stollen and cranberry-orange bread for the neighbors, cinnamony apple cake for us. The holidays mean edible gifts for friends and loved ones and my oven is doing overtime.
Christmas and New Year's Eve also mean baking for company. The house is filled with guests more now than at any other time of the year, and I bake even more. And here is my chance to share some of my favorite festive recipes with you, from the homey treats that bring smiles to the faces of co-workers to the traditional holiday specialties to the spectacular mealtime showstoppers. Spiced and flavored with the best of the holiday season, rich and elegant, each creation will surely become a treasured favorite in your home as well. And here is the first from my notebook:
As others are puréeing pumpkin or peeling apples, I want nothing more on my holiday table than chocolate: rich and decadent, spiced with a little Christmas spirit in the form of mixed holiday spices: cinnamon and nutmeg, star anise, ginger and cloves, a dash of lemon and orange zest, and it smells as if I am living in a white-icing edged, candy cane and gumdrop-trimmed gingerbread house. Drizzle on an orange-infused chocolate ganache for a truly spectacular finish, and nothing says Christmas more than this Decadent Chocolate Spice Cake. Wedges of this moist, dense confection can be served as is or simply with a dollop of freshly whipped, gently sweetened cream.
CHOCOLATE SPICE CAKE
To flavor as you please...
1 cup boiling water *
3 oz (90 g) unsweetened chocolate (I used Lindt Excellence 99%)
8 Tbs (115 g) unsalted butter, softened and cubed
1 tsp vanilla
2 cups (400 g) sugar
2 large eggs, separated
1 tsp baking soda
½ cup (125 ml) sour cream (I used creamy 0% fat fromage frais/quark)
2 cups less 2 Tbs (235 g) flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp mixed Christmas Spice **
* What I love about cakes that add water is that all or part of the water can be replaced with other liquids to change the flavor of the cake; you can replace part of the water with strong coffee, orange juice or even the juice from jarred fruit such as cherries or blueberries. Just taste before using more than half a cup of flavored liquid. And make sure if you choose to replace some of the water with another liquid it goes well with whatever spice you decide to add. Or leave out the spice completely. A splash of Amaretto or rum would work the charm as well.
** I used a mixed Christmas Spice from Germany called Pflaumenmus Gewürz (Plum Jam Spices), containing cinnamon, nutmeg, star anise, ginger and cloves, a dash of lemon and orange zest. Feel free to use up to one teaspoon of ground cinnamon or a blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and clove. Not more than one teaspoon combined, less if you desire a subtler flavor. You could also add the zest of half or one whole orange. This cake is delicious even without added spices.
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Grease and flour a 10-inch (25-cm) tube pan. I then lined mine with ovenproof parchment paper as I was afraid that the batter would leak out the bottom of the pan.
Chop the chocolate, cube the butter and place them both together in a large heat-safe (Pyrex) mixing bowl. Bring one cup of water* to the boil then pour over the chocolate and the butter, allowing it to stand and stirring until completely melted and smooth. Stir in the vanilla and the sugar, then whisk in the egg yolks, one at a time, until well blended.
Stir the baking soda into the sour cream (the baking powder will cause the sour cream to foam). In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and ground spices together. First whisk the sour cream into the chocolate batter, then the flour, whisking until smooth and homogenous.
Using an electric mixer, beat the egg whites until stiff peaks hold. Fold about a third of the whipped whites into the chocolate batter until most of the white has disappeared, then fold in the rest of the whites in one or two additions. Try not to overwork the batter as you will beat out the air incorporated with the egg whites, but don't be afraid to really fold and make sure no white lumps of any size remain or your finished cake, gorgeously dark, will have white spots in it.
Carefully pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 40 - 50 minutes (depending on your pan and your oven), until the cake is just set and a tester stuck down into the cake comes out clean. When I touched and gently pressed the surface of my cake at 40 and then 45 minutes I felt liquid or unset batter under the surface. After another couple of minutes, I touched and gently pressed the surface again and felt some resistance and knew that it was time to stick a tester (I use a long metal brochette/kabob spear) in. Done! Watch the cake carefully at the end as you neither want this cake underdone nor overdone and dry.
Remove the cake from the oven and onto a cooling rack. Allow the cake to cool completely before loosening the cake from the sides of the pan (and the inner tube) with a sharp knife and carefully lifting it out of the pan. If you have lined the pan with parchment, you can grip the edges of the paper and lift it off of the tube. Then place a rack on the top of the cake, flip it over, peel off the parchment from the bottom of the cake, place your serving platter onto the upturned bottom of the cake then flip upright.
Prepare the Chocolate Ganache:
Chop ¾ cup (100 g) dark chocolate *** and place in a medium-sized pyrex bowl.
Bring ½ cup (125 ml) heavy cream to a boil. Pour it over the chopped chocolate and allow to sit, stirring, until the chocolate is completely melted and the ganache is perfectly smooth.
Allow to sit at room temperature until it the desired consistency: to drizzle over the cake, it should retain its pouring consistency yet be just thick enough that it doesn't all run off of the cake and puddle around the cake on the plate.
* I usually use Lindt dessert 70% or Lindt Excellence 70% (which is less bitter than the Lindt Dessert). I have also made ganache with one of the Lindt Excellence dark chocolates flavored with either orange, grilled almonds or mint. This Christmas Spice Cake is especially delicious topped with Chocolate Ganache with the hint of Orange.
Jamie Schler lives, eats and writes in France. To read more of her work visit Life's a Feast.