|Photos by Steve Shanahan|
First published Canberra Times 14 December2011
It’s believed the tradition of exchanging gifts at Christmas time began with the story of the Three Magi who offered the Christ child frankincense, gold and myrrh. Since then, giving has worked its way into many stories. Across Europe St Nicholas and his friends were known for their charity and gift giving and the tradition of giving gifts started in their honour in the thirteenth century when French nuns gave presents to the poor children. The day for giving was December 6 and pronounced as feast day. This day is still celebrated in Europe but the traditions of gift exchanging and feasting are more likely to occur on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.
It sounds like a good story to me. So to celebrate Christmas and the tradition of feasting, I usually make gifts of food and start on this couple of weeks before Christmas. This year, I included traditional Dutch Speculaas in my collection of cooked gifts, which keep well or get better with age. All you will need is an airtight container to store the Speculaas in to keep them from going too soft in the summer humidity. Apart from them being delicious with coffee or tea, these crispy and spicy biscuits can also be used as wafers to sandwich ice cream together as an easy summer dessert. Some preparation is needed when making the dough, which needs to be chilled for 3 hours.
To end a meal or to accompany coffee, I also made Italian Biscotti. These are always gratefully received as gifts, and again, keep for a long time in an airtight container and work well with ice cream as wafers. However, their perfect match is alongside a strong coffee. They take about half an hour to bake and if sliced very thinly you will get about 30 pieces out of the recipe.
If Christmas cheer is more your thing, the French Cherries in Vanilla Brandy could be your special gift. You still have time to put down a couple of bottles to cure before Christmas. We are fortunate living in Canberra, with access to such quality fresh cherries. When I was making these cherries in brandy, the smell floated right through the house and I was sorely tempted to keep a bottle aside for myself. Because they need a few weeks to develop their flavours, if you are giving them as a gift, hand write a little note to go with them indicating when they will be at their best. The quantities in the recipe fill about a 1 litre jar or divided the quantity between smaller jars.
Lastly, as a tribute to an Aussie Christmas, I made Lemon and Cumquat curd. This is great to spread on bread or toast, but it is also really lovely when added to whipped cream or mascarpone to have with desserts or fruit. Recipes are on the following pages.
Cherries in Vanilla Brandy
750g fresh cherries
1½ cups of sugar
½ cup water
½ cup brandy
1 vanilla bean per bottle
Prick the skins of the cherries with a fine skewer and heat the sugar with the brandy and water in a pan, stirring until all of the sugar has dissolved.
Add the cherries and a vanilla bean and heat until boiling. Place the cherries and syrup in a heatproof, warm, sterilised jar, seal while hot and turn upside down for 2 minutes. (you can sterilise the jars by either boiling them in a large pan of water or pouring boiling water over the jars and lids and allowing to dry turned upside down on a rack.).
Store the filled jars in a cool place for 6 weeks, turning every couple of days for the first 2 weeks. Serve the cherries in the liqueur. Refrigerate after opening.