Don’t worry if you haven’t thought about Christmas yet, you won’t be alone. But the months can whizz by so fast that, before you know it, it’s January and you’re regretting not doing enough preparation. Time to put things right and make it the most successful month ever.
The key to good trade for bakeries in December lies in realising that the nature of your business has subtly changed for this month. While most high street bakeries straddle a position between snack shop and provisions for most of the year, come Christmas it’s all about food gift retailing. Think trays of warm mince pies, spiced rich Christmas puddings, boxes of shortbread and loaves of almond stollen all destined to be shared as gifts, rather than eaten as snacks or forgettable meals.
Packaging becomes much more important and helps to make the shopping experience convenient and easy for the customer. If you spend the next few months collecting a store of affordable glass, ceramic or cardboard packaging in plain simple colours, ready to be dazzled with ribbons and bows, then come December you can concentrate on what you do best - great baking.
Consider reusable packaging, such as half gallon preserving jars (available from spinkscompak.com, 0113 235 0662) or fingers of shortbread wrapped with natural rafia ties and leaves. Jam jars (available from jamjarshop.com) can be filled with freshly made mini almond macaroons. Often, you’ll find containers in unlikely places Ikea sometimes clears out old stock at reduced prices. I found very cheap plastic pet feed dishes, perfect for making baked dog biscuits a very popular line with bakeries in the USA.
Flower pots and small tin buckets, stuffed with crepe paper and overflowing with squares of Brazil nut brownies or mince pies, and tied up with cellophane make easy thank you gifts for customers rushing in at the last minute. Make big family-sized versions of sweet breads, such as an enormous stem ginger bun in the style of a panettone that can be wrapped and hung from the ceiling, like the bakers do in Italy.
l With thanks to Graham Dunton at Unifine Food & Bake Ingredients for the use of its test bakery.
Although it’s really simple to make and bake, this shortbread absolutely benefits from being left overnight in the refrigerator before baking. While it sits, the semolina will absorb some of the liquid from the butter, resulting in a slightly crisper shortbread. Because of the high butter content, it does spread slightly during baking, so it’s best-suited to thick chunky fingers rather than delicate shapes.
Plain or heat-treated cake flour425g
Semolina or ground rice25g
Unsalted butter, softened300g
Salt2g (3/4 tsp)
1. Place the ingredients in the mixer bowl and work with the paddle until a smooth soft dough forms. Wrap and refrigerate overnight.
2. To use, pack it about 2cm thick into the base of a cake tin, lined with clingfilm, while the mixture is soft, then chill it firm before releasing and cutting into long thick fingers. Place these on a tray lined with non-stick baking paper, spaced about 1cm apart. They spread slightly during baking, but are clear enough to be snapped apart when cool.
3. Bake at 160°C fan/140°C/320°F for about 40 minutes until golden, or less if the dough is rolled thinner. Leave until cold on the tray before packaging.
Brazil nut brownies
Brandy gives the brownie flavour a strong kick, coffee lends a subtle mocha flavour, while milk tones it down. For an intense bitter chocolate flavour, replace 25g flour with cocoa. This recipe makes one 25cm square tray. For a 60cm x 40cm tray, multiply the mix by 4. For a 30in x 18in tray, multiply the mix by 5½.
Light soft brown sugar350g
Brandy, black coffee or milk75g
Heat-treated cake flour, or plain flour250g
Baking powder2g (1 tsp)
Brazil nuts, lightly roasted and chopped200g
1. Line the base of the tray with non-stick baking paper, and set the oven to 180°C fan/ 160°C/350°F.
2. Melt the butter with the chocolate and keep warm.
3. Beat the egg and sugar on high speed for 2-3 minutes until light in colour, with the sugar almost dissolved. Then beat in the chocolate mixture, brandy (coffee or milk) and vanilla. Sift in the flour and baking powder and beat this through lightly, then stir in the Brazil nuts.
4. Spoon into the tray, smooth the top and bake for about 25 minutes or until the crumb is barely set, when tested with a skewer. Leave to cool overnight before slicing.
Christmas stem ginger bun
Here’s a challenging recipe for you, but one to use as the base for all sorts of flavours. It’s essentially a panettone, and the dough is made extremely soft like a batter and scooped into the paper moulds (available from Cotswold Packaging, 01793 610880). Then, after baking the buns are pierced with skewers and inverted to cool so that they hold their shape, otherwise they collapse back down.
You can make the dough firmer to avoid this, but they will lack the authentic texture. Most imported panettone I’ve tasted appears to use clean-label improvers to give an extra-soft crumb, so use a small amount if you like. Without it, the crumb will be slightly firm a week after baking, but if the customer reheats the bun at home for 20 minutes in a low oven, the softness returns.
For the most traditional texture, use a slightly strengthened Italian 00 flour, such as Molino Alimonte’s Rinforzato Ciclamino (available from Eurostar Commodities eurostarfoods.co.uk), but you can use a regular strong bread flour if that’s easier.
Ingredients for the base mixture
Unsalted butter, softened125g
White sourdough @1:1200g(or a pinch of yeast with 100ml warm water and 100g strong flour, left overnight)
Italian 00 flour625g
Beat all the ingredients together, then cover at 22C-24C for about 12 hours. The following morning, have the following ingredients measured and in separate containers.
1. The egg and flavouring mixture beat together:
Thick pastry cream100g
Finely grated zest 2 lemons and 2 oranges
2. The dry ingredients stir together:
Strong white flour100g
3. The butter:
Cocoa butter, white choc or lard, melted50g
Unsalted butter, melted100g
4 The fruit:
Stem ginger, coarsely chopped400g
Put the base mixture into the mixer, and beat in the egg and flavouring mixture (1) until smooth and almost evenly combined, then beat in the dry ingredients (2) and mix for 5 minutes until smooth. Pour the butter (3) into the dough and beat until the oiliness disappears. Last of all add the ginger (4) and mix until combined.
Leave the dough for 45 minutes so that it starts to rise again, then divide between two paper panettone moulds. Leave the dough for about 4 hours to rise at around 24C-28C.
Bake on trays at 220°C fan/200°C/425°F for 10 minutes, then open the oven door and cut a cross in the top. Return to the oven and bake for a further 15 minutes then reduce the heat to 190°C fan/170°C/375°F and bake for a further 15 minutes.
Remove from the oven, and immediately plunge two long skewers through the base. Quickly and carefully invert the panettone and leave it hanging upside-down on a trolley until cool, then immediately wrap well in cellophane to keep it moist.
For a few of the recipes here I’ve used a curious ingredient Ascot cake flour from FWP Matthews (fwpmatthews.co.uk; 01993 830 342). Heat-treated cake flour is best used on recipes with a high sugar and fat content, and cakes made with it sustain their volume better. It’s simply treated with a high heat during milling, so nothing scary about it, but it will improve your sweet cake-baking immeasurably.