Shelves already groaning under the weight of expertly made Christmas cookies
AS THE summer holidays begin to loom, nothing feels more festive than the aromas of spiced cookies and biscuits wafting through the house.
It’s a good idea to bake now, so that when the festive season frenzy hits in earnest, your cookie tins will already be full – that is, if you can keep greedy fingers out of them!
The buildup to Christmas is a time when many people feel the inexplicable urge to bake. German treats are always a favourite in our household.
My homeopath grandfather, who hailed from the medieval German city of Magdeburg on the Elbe River, was also a master baker who always slightly burnt a batch of biscuits especially for him and for me, since we both shared a peculiar preference for gently burnt biscuits!
For me Christmas is not Christmas without the likes of stollen and lebkuchen and – thanks to Hanover-born Ralph Gottschalk, of The Pastryworks in Port Elizabeth, we have a lovely recipe for these today, along with one for the Dutch festive treat of speculaas.
Ralph and his students at the Fernglenbased South African Academy of Culinary Arts (Saaca), which he founded in 2002, have been baking up a storm these past weeks as his eager charges perfect the arts of cooking, baking and pastrymaking. The shelves at Ralph’s Pastryworks premises nearby are already groaning under the weight of gingerbread houses and gingerbread men, intricate lebkuchen hearts, fruitcakes, Christmas cookies and truffles of every description.
“We have used more than 550kg of honey for our lebkuchen and gingerbread houses over the past two weeks,” Ralph chuckled. Saaca is now handling 2016 enrolments for their diploma in culinary and/or pastry arts, accredited by City & Guilds UK.
A big part of these courses’ appeal is that Ralph not only has extensive culinary experience from four continents (including at some of the best hotels and resorts in the world) but offers international internships with five-star establishments as part of students’ training.
Several past students are now working for the likes of UK superchef Gordon Ramsay, at the esteemed Shangri-La in London, at the JW Marriott in Dubai and at the Ritz-Carlton in Oman.
“Several of our current students are also leaving for internships in the Maldives, Dubai and Abu Dhabi from next week,” Ralph adds.
“Our classes are small and we have well-equipped kitchens and industrial equipment – even a professional chocolate room.”
Ralph says the lebkuchen recipe he is sharing today is very versatile. “You can use the dough for biscuits as well as for bigger lebkuchen and gingerbread men.”
220g unsalted butter, softened
2 teaspoons vanilla
220g white sugar
275g dark brown sugar
2 large eggs
460g cake flour
2 teaspoons bicarbonate of soda
2 1/2 tablespoons speculaas spice*
1 teaspoon salt
8 parts cinnamon
2 parts nutmeg
2 parts ground cloves
1 part white pepper
1 part ground ginger
1 part cardamom
Preheat oven to 170C. Cream butter, vanilla, and both kinds of sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs and blend. Whisk all of the dry ingredients together and slowly add to the butter mixture, combining until the dough pulls from the side of the bowl.
Divide the dough in half. Wrap each half in plastic wrap and refrigerate for several hours or overnight. Roll out dough until 5mm thick and cut with cookie cutters. Bake at 170C for 10-12 minutes.
Let the biscuits cool, then store in a tin.
TRADITIONAL GERMAN LEBKUCHEN
90g white sugar
400g bread flour
1 egg yolk
10g lebkuchen spice (made up of 2g
each of ground cloves, cardamom,
nutmeg, cinnamon, aniseeds)
6g baking soda (bicarb)
2.5g potash (available from a chemist)
8g milk to brush the cookies before
Bring the sugar with the water to a boil. Add then the honey and put aside to cool to 30°C. In the meantime, dissolve the baking
soda with the first amount of milk and dissolve the potash with the second amount. Sift the flour and place into mixing bowl.
Mix the ground spices with the yolk until well combined. Add the water-honey mixture to the flour and, if you have a machine, knead using a dough hook until a dough has formed. Otherwise do by hand. Then add the yolk spice mix and the baking soda and potash milk mixture. Knead in your machine for about four minutes on medium, or tackle by hand. Place the warm dough into a plastic container with a lid, dusted with some flour. The dough should rest for at least 24 hours – and up to four months in the
fridge. Ralph says: “In Germany we already make our lebkuchen dough in August. The longer the dough rests, the better the final result.” When ready to make cookies, pin the dough out until 6mm thick. Cut out desired shapes and place onto a baking sheet lined with baking paper. Brush all cookies with little milk and bake then at 170°C for 12-15 minutes, until well browned. Let the cookies cool, then decorate with sugar glaze, royal icing or just leave them plain. It is best to store these cookies in a tin. They will become even softer after about two to three weeks.