Despite the supermarkets' insistence that we gear up for the festive season immediately the summer holidays are over, I refuse to even consider it until December. So, one week in and I'm beginning to think about Christmas baking.
I started with a rummage through the big red baker's tub that is home to my flour collection. I found a motley assortment including Italian '00' for pasta-making, French cake flour, gram flour for Indian pancakes, purple corn flour for chilli bread, as well as the usual plain white, strong white, wholemeal and self-raising flours. There were also mysterious, and as yet unopened, packets of Swiss dark flour, organic emmer flour and khorosan flour.
This side-tracked me into thinking about the importance of flour in the kitchen. Without it there would be no pizza or pasta, no cakes, tarts or biscuits, no Yorkshire pudding or pancakes, and no bread. Given this major role, flour is surprisingly unappreciated (though I sense this is beginning to change), yet, like rare breed meat, the differences in flavour and texture are remarkable. Fortunately, our national passion for baking has made it easier to buy high-quality flours, stone-ground in the traditional way. Farm shops, delis and the better supermarkets are good hunting grounds, as is the internet.
It's also becoming easier to find flours made from unusual grains, as well as grasses and nuts, that open up interesting possibilities for baking enthusiasts. For example, Sharpham Park in Devon has brought spelt flour into the limelight, while Shipton Mill in Gloucestershire is pushing khorosan flour (otherwise known by the brand name 'Kamut') as well as an exciting range of naturally gluten-free flours – think buckwheat, chestnut and chick-pea. Also worth seeking out is oak-smoked flour from Bacheldre Watermill in Powys, Wales. Bread made with it tastes and smells divine, reminiscent of bread baked in a wood-fired oven.
But back to Christmas baking. This year I'm saying goodbye to traditional Christmas cake and pudding. Instead I'll be making lighter, spicier cakes and sweetmeats from Italy, including panettone, panforte and panone – so much easier on the digestion. I'll also knock up a batch of crunchy Cantuccini with Black Pepper, Fennel and Orange Zest, perfect for dunking in a festive glass of sherry or sweet vin santo. Wrapped in a ribbon-tied cellophane bag, they make excellent Christmas presents.
Happy Christmas Baking!
© Christine McFadden, December 2015