Being sort-of retired – I only bake for customers once a month these days – decisions, like whether to do a Christmas bake, have to be made well in advance starting with can I be arsed/do I have the energy? Christmas breads have lots of (expensive) ingredients and I carry as little stock as possible because I don’t want to see it getting older, along with me, before I need to use it again.
Not sure why but this year I decided to go the whole hog and not only put it out to my loyal, long-standing customers, but to publicise it on the local facebook page.
Christmas breads have to look good so you know you are getting a treat and can offer them as presents if you can bear to part with them. First step in this process is ordering a box of 100 Duc Paninbois baking boxes which not only means you can’t afford to change your mind about the bake but also determines the size of the loaves – 600g dough weight sold as 500g.
I only bake to order usually giving my customers two days notice. But with a job like this my deadline was two weeks before the bake so I can assemble my ingredients. Flours, grains and seeds are OK – bread flour, wholemeal, rye, oats, sesame all in stock. But everything else needs to be bought in mainly over the net with attendant Christmas delivery worries. Dried and preserved fruits – currants, sultanas, raisins, papaya, pineapple, ginger, glace cherries, whole mixed peel. Walnuts and hazelnuts – you wouldn’t want to over-order them at current prices. Spices – cloves, aniseed, cinnamon. Booze – brandy and mead – not too bothered about over-ordering here – it’ll never go past its use-by date. More general but essential groceries – eggs by the dozen, butter, olive oil, honey, sugar, icing sugar, oranges and orange juice, milk. And don’t forget the cling-film, labels and, most important, traditional plastic holly.
I’m doing all three of the Christmas breads I’ve developed over the years: Brioche de Noel; Christopsomo; Torth Nadolig. All use fruit soaked in alcohol so prepping starts a couple of days in advance
Brioche de Noel: Several years ago I put together sweet and savoury brioche doughs that I use in different variations. This is the deluxe version of Brioche de Provence named in honour of the fabulous preserved fruit you see on the market in Nice. It’s a poor imitation of of one made by the baker at Le Temple du Pain at the top end of the market – he bakes it as a loose swirl rather than a formal couronne and sells it by the slice.
In this version the fruit is soaked for a couple of days in brandy and orange juice with added zest.
Christopsomo is the most Christmassy of Christmas breads just loaded with spices, raisins, sultanas and walnuts. The colour of the dough comes just from the amount of spice – the flour is white bread flour.
It started as the family recipe of Klimentini, a long-standing friend and customer. Before Christmas every year her brother would send her loaves over from Greece but the past couple of years they had arrived late and in pieces. She asked if I could recreate it – this was not as easy as you might think. She gave me a hand-written recipe which gave measurements in coffee cups, wine glasses, brandy glasses, grams, kilos. No mention of yeast. And, apart from 3 “glasses” of orange juice (to 7K of flour), the only liquid was olive oil (24 coffee cups) – slightly problematic if you want to convert a recipe to sourdough. But we did it and by the second Christmas, when I treated the recipe a little less reverentially, it was pretty impressive. Most important, it received the seal of approval from Klimentini and her brother when he was over from Greece.
Torth Nadolig simply means Christmas Loaf. It was my attempt to create a festive loaf using ingredients associated with Wales (avoiding cockles, leeks and laverbread!). So it uses oats and rye alongside bread flour, hazelnuts, currants, honey and mead – currants would have been the luxury item and they are soaked in the mead.
All in all a pretty interesting experience. Because we had the luxury of time we could take orders in advance and not panic when the total rose to 64, get in all the ingredients, check everything 17 times – it almost got stressful having time to worry. Prepping out of the way, the mixing was done on Tuesday evening for overnight bulk fermentation in the fridge. Wednesday morning the strange thing was the different rhythm of the scaling and shaping. Instead of working in my usual batches of 10 x 940g doughs, I was able to get 24 x 600g at a time through the ovens. Very odd.
It meant I had space to let the doughs prove for an extra hour – hard work for the starter with these enriched doughs – and they rose beautifully in the oven. 210C for 15 minutes, the 180C for the next 35 minutes.
Wednesday afternoon I had a small order of regular breads – 16 classic sourdoughs to mix, again for overnight fermentation. Which left all day Thursday to bake off the classics and for Sue to wrap everything and arrange the orders using the kitchen work surface – a decent working height instead of the dining room table which is back-breakingly low – with me running around playing the kitchen porter.
Collection was supposed to be 5.00 p.m.-7.00 p.m. but we were ready by 3.00 p.m. so we texted customers and I swear that when I pressed “send” the washing machine flooded the kitchen.
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