Blissful bakes from Donal Skehan

Christmas traditions are big in our house and they always begin with a spot of baking, long before the tree has been put up and all the chaos of festive outings begins. It’s a moment of calm before the madness and the perfect antidote to any of that festive anxiety.

If Christmas is all about tradition, a round of joyful baking is one that Sofie and I definitely want our family to grow up with. Despite the inevitable carnage involved in letting our two-year-old loose with a wooden spoon and a bag of flour, I know the memories will be worth it.

My own strongest and fondest Christmas memories surround food – my mum and aunts pulling together the feast, days before the 25th, the latest gossip, cups of tea and sweet treats, while mountains of Brussels sprouts and potatoes grew on the kitchen table.

If you are planning some new traditions this year – or shaking up some old ones – this week’s recipes should put you in good stead. Deck the halls with festive muffins, gingerbread sandwich cookies, and a sticky toffee cake with salted caramel that might just muscle out the Christmas pud for a place at the table this year! Enjoy.

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Gingerbread Sandwich Cookies

Cook time 45 mins + chill time 

Serves 12

Bake up a batch of these moreish ginger cookies and keep them on standby for unexpected guests.

Ingredients

170g butter, softened

50g granulated sugar, plus extra for rolling

50g dark brown sugar

1 large free-range egg

1 tsp vanilla extract

100g treacle or black molasses

1 heaped tsp baking soda

1 heaped tsp ground ginger

A generous pinch of sea salt

250g plain flour, sifted

50g stem ginger, finely chopped

For the filling:

100g butter, softened

150g icing sugar, sifted

½ tsp ground ginger

Method

1. In a mixing bowl, beat together the butter and sugars until light, pale and fluffy. Add in the egg, vanilla extract and treacle, and beat until well combined.

2. Fold through the remaining ingredients until well combined and rough dough forms. Cover the bowl with cling film and leave to rest for at least 30 minutes in the fridge.

3. Preheat the oven to 180˚C (350°F/Gas 4) and line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

4. Roll out balls of the dough approximately 6cm in diameter and toss in granulated sugar before placing on the baking sheets at least 10cm apart.

5. Place in the oven to bake for 8 minutes or until they have spread and cracked slightly. Be careful not to overbake: the edges should be firm but the interior should remain chewy.

6. Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.

7. While the cookies cool, prepare the filling by beating the butter with the icing sugar and ½ tsp ginger until completely smooth.

8. Spread a dollop of the filling onto half the cookies with a small offset spatula and sandwich together with the remaining half of the cookies.

 

Gingerbread Muffins

 

Cook time 45 mins

Serves 12

The smell of these muffins straight out of the oven instantly transforms any Christmas kitchen. The cinnamon cream cheese frosting is an absolute must and works well on cakes, too. The muffins can easily be frozen if you want to bake ahead.

 

Ingredients

For the muffins:

100g butter, melted

200ml buttermilk

Zest of 1 lemon

2 large free-range eggs

100g caster sugar

50g dark brown sugar

250g self-raising flour

1 tsp ground ginger

1 tsp ground cinnamon

For the frosting:

200g cream cheese

450g icing sugar

1 tsp cinnamon

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 175°C (350°F/Gas 4). Line a muffin tray with paper cases. In a bowl, whisk together the melted butter, buttermilk and lemon zest and set aside.

2. In a standalone mixer, beat the eggs with the sugars until light and fluffy. Add in the butter mixture and whisk until combined. Gently fold in the flour and spices until just combined. Be sure not to overmix the batter.

3. Spoon the mixture into the paper cases and place in the oven to cook for 15-20 minutes until brown on top. Remove from the oven and place on a wire rack to cool.

4. While the muffins are baking, beat the cream cheese, icing sugar and cinnamon until smooth and combined. When the muffins are cool, spread the frosting on the top with a knife.

 

Sticky Toffee Cake with Salted Caramel Glaze

Sticky Toffee Cake with Salted Caramel Glaze

 

Cook time 50 mins

Serves 12

In a world of perfect, Instagrammable cakes, I always have room for something that looks a little more homemade and slapdash. This cake keeps extremely well wrapped tightly in cling film for at least 3-5 days in the fridge or can be frozen. The dates can be replaced with figs here to give a different flavour. Don’t overmix the mascarpone or it will become grainy.

 

Ingredients

200g pitted Medjool dates, roughly chopped

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

200g butter

200g light brown muscovado sugar

3 large free-range eggs

1 tsp vanilla extract

200g plain flour

1 tsp baking powder

For the topping:

200g light brown muscovado sugar

225g butter

75ml double cream

450g icing sugar

1 tbsp sea salt

250g mascarpone

2 tsp vanilla bean paste

25g icing sugar, sifted

150g salted caramel glaze

Edible gold stars

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 160°C (325°F/Gas 3).

2. Grease and line 2 x 20cm springform cake tins with parchment paper.

3. Place the dates and 300ml water in a pan and place over a medium-high heat. Bring to the boil and simmer for 20 minutes until the liquid has reduced by half and the dates have softened. Allow to cool slightly. Blitz until smooth and stir through the bicarb of soda.

4. Cream together the butter and sugar in a stand-alone mixer until light and pale. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing after each addition until they’re incorporated, followed by the date mixture and vanilla.

5. Fold the flour and baking powder into the mix. Pour into the prepared tins and bake for 35-40 minutes or until firm and slightly springy to the touch. Allow to cool in tins for 10 minutes, then transfer to a cooling rack to cool completely.

6. For the topping, put the brown sugar and butter in a small saucepan over a medium heat, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from the heat and add the cream, then stir through and allow to cool.

7. Transfer to a standalone mixer with a whisk attachment and add the 450g of icing sugar. Whisk for 6-8 minutes or until smooth. Stir through the sea salt.

8. In a small bowl, mix together the mascarpone, vanilla and 25g of icing sugar until smooth.

9. Once the cakes have cooled, spread the mascarpone mix evenly over one half along with 50g salted caramel. Top with the other sponge. Dollop the salted caramel icing on top, spreading down the sides to create an even coating around the cake. Using the remaining salted caramel, spread it over the top of the cake and decorate with gold stars.

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