Brain Food best-of: All your Christmas baking questions, answered

Gingerbread, made with dried bread, honey and spices, has its roots in medieval cookery.
Gingerbread, made with dried bread, honey and spices, has its roots in medieval cookery. Photo: Marcel Aucar

Whether you only bake once a year at Christmas, or are a total baking queen or king, here are some top tips to make you a better Christmas baker. 

Plum pud advice

I am baking my first Christmas cake. Do you have any tips for a beginner? K. Elliot

When making Christmas cake, use cold and firm butter and don't use very fresh eggs.
When making Christmas cake, use cold and firm butter and don't use very fresh eggs.  Photo: Anu Kumar

Sorry, no. I am a pudding man. So instead we are going to paraphrase the late, great Dorothy Floate's Secret of Success. Do not butter the tin but line it with three layers of lightweight paper. Do not use newspaper as the newsprint leaches into the batter. Butter must be cold and firm. Do not use very fresh eggs. You don't have to use brandy or other spirits; you can use the juice from stewed fruit such as apple or rhubarb. To quote Mrs Floate, "I am repeatedly asked by worried housewives and many young girls . . . why their fruit cakes go down in the centre." This is caused by the evil of overbeating the butter and sugar as the extra air trapped in the batter expands and rises. Importantly, she suggests using the very best ingredients. Although there is no mention of immigrants in her book, I personally recommend buying dried fruit and nuts from busy Middle Eastern grocers who have a high turnover of stock, or buy from fruit growers at farmers markets.

How do I stop fruit from sinking in my fruit cake? P. Findlayson

As the judges at one Country Women's Association cake competition cruelly said to one entrant with a layer of sultanas at the bottom of her Dundee cake, "Good for home, not for show". With fruit cakes, be careful not to beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, otherwise the batter will be too full of air to hold up the fruit. The butter and sugar should be just creamed. Some cooks dust their dried fruit in a little flour, which seems to keep them suspended in the batter.

Glace cherries: Can be substituted for fresh cherries, with caution.
Glace cherries: Can be substituted for fresh cherries, with caution. Photo: Marina Oliphant

Can I use real cherries instead of fake glace cherries? B. Clendinnen

I think the glace cherry makers of this world would be deeply offended if they heard you referring to their cherries as being fakes. Glace cherries start off being real cherries (see, now you have me doing it as well) - "fresh" cherries, rather - that are blanched and soaked in a sugar syrup. The moisture inside the cherries is drawn out by the sugar solution and in turn the cells of the cherry are filled with the sugar solution. Think of it as embalming for fruit. Glace cherries are so full of sugar almost nothing can live in or on them. So if you're decorating a cake that will be eaten fresh, you can substitute glace for fresh cherries. Do not, however, use fresh cherries in a recipe that calls for glace cherries if the end product will sit around for days or weeks, such as a Christmas cake, as the fresh cherries will go off.

Is there an advantage in creaming the butter and sugar when making Christmas cakes as opposed to "all in together" recipes? S. Robb


For the past 20 years or so my sister-in-law has baked the Christmas cake. She lives in Los Angeles now and they don't celebrate Christmas there. It's too fattening. They have Happy Holidays instead, which is Christmas stripped of any offensive religion and only the shopping frenzy left. I do miss her cakes. As discussed before, creaming butter and sugar dissolves the sugar and slightly leavens the cake but overbeating can lead to a batter that won't suspend the fruit. So some recipes are developed to have an all-in-together method that uses melted butter. The trick with Christmas cakes is to keep the fruit plump and intact. This means that no matter which stage the dried fruit is added, one has to be gentle with it so as to not break the skins, which leads to an overly moist and dense cake without any succulent fruity morsels.

Why do gingerbread recipes call for ground ginger, not fresh ginger? N. Cooke

There's a line in Leonard Cohen's Suzanne that goes, "And she feeds you tea and oranges / that come all the way from China". Those words, for me, always exemplified the special, precious nature we impart to goods that arrive on the waves, but also the great value we place on them when passed on by someone significant. Gingerbread, made with dried bread, honey and spices, has its roots in medieval cookery. Fresh ginger would never have lasted the journey all the way from India. It arrived preserved in sugar or dried and powdered. Carried on the backs of pack animals by foreigners with different languages, cultures and even skin colour, the exotic narrative of the origin formed part of the spice's allure, like an early form of marketing. Over the centuries the recipes have changed but the taste for ground ginger has remained.

There's no better time to bake than Christmas.
There's no better time to bake than Christmas.  Photo: Supplied

My shortbreads spread when I bake them. J. Tumnell

When one creams butter and sugar one has to be careful not to work the mixture too much. For biscuits that need to remain quite solid, such as shortbread, the sugar needs to dissolve in the water present in the butter until the mixture is pale and creamy. If you continue to beat the mixture further it will begin to incorporate air and become light and fluffy. This is fine if you want the air to expand when the mixture is baked, as in a cake. When you make shortbread though, there is not enough liquid free in the mixture for the proteins in the flour to form elastic bonds. If there was, the protein would trap the expanding gas and you would have little cakes. Instead, the butter melts and there is not enough strength in the shortbread to hold its own shape, so it spreads like a compromising video of a celebrity on the internet.

Can I make a Christmas pudding without suet? F. Mallin

You can still use suet in a Christmas pudding but its becoming less and less popular.
You can still use suet in a Christmas pudding but its becoming less and less popular.  Photo: Mark Gillow

Goodness gracious me! You're still making pudding with suet? Where do you get it? The pale fat surrounding beef kidneys makes incredibly good puddings but many people can't stomach the idea. You can use vegetarian suet, made in Herefordshire, Britain, called Atora. You'll find it online. Unsalted but not cultured butter is my preference. Make sure it is ultrafresh because the cooking and storing of the pud will exacerbate rancid odours in tainted butter. Suet is pure fat. Butter is 85 per cent fat. So add an extra tablespoon or so of flour to absorb the extra water you're adding from the butter.

A recipe for Italian panforte calls for citron. What is it and where can I buy it? M. Davison

Panforte recipes often call for candied citron, a fragrant citrus fruit (Citrus medica) with quite thick but very aromatic peel. If you planned to candy the peel using fresh fruit, you may find it quite difficult to find at this time of year. And if candied or glace citron is unavailable where you normally buy dried fruit, use another good quality candied citrus peel, such as lemon, orange or grapefruit. 

I am making Christmas puddings. A friend told me to remove the greaseproof paper and replace it with fresh greaseproof paper before storing in the fridge. G. Cullen

You could do that. And you could wish everyone "happy holidays" while you're at it. Making Christmas pudding with the family is one of thelast festive rituals left to us. The aroma of fruit soaking in brandy, the house filled with fragrant spices, the nuggety little bowl sequestered in the linen cupboard for months to let it age. Leave the double layer of greaseproof paper on the pudding as it forms a seal against air. Also – make a small disc of greaseproof paper on the inside bottom of the pudding bowl as this stops the pudding sticking to the bowl. I simmer the pudding with the bowl sitting on an enamel saucer to avoid the bottom of the bowl getting too hot and the pudding getting too dark.

I used a supermarket-brand ground cinnamon to make my Christmas pudding this year and it tasted different. Why? B. Gillham

One of my bugbears is the substitution of true cinnamon, made from the bark of the Sri Lankan cinnamon tree Cinnamomum verum, with the bark of a cheaper close relative, the cassia tree, Cinnamomum cassia. Cassia bark is thicker, coarser and the ensuing ground spice, known as Dutch cinnamon, baker's cinnamon and even bastard cinnamon, has a bitter aftertaste. Ask the store manager for a refund.

Can I boil coins in my Christmas pudding? T. Trewin

In the months leading to Christmas 1966 the nation was thrown into turmoil. For generations, Australians had steamed their Christmas puddings with sixpence and thruppence embedded. But with the change of currency to decimal in February that year, Australians were worried about poisoning their families with the new-fangled coins. That year, the Copper and Brass Information Centre announced "another age-old custom is being threatened!" It went on to state that the new five and 10-cent coins could "be inserted into Christmas pudding just prior to serving but they must not be cooked with the pudding", or they would turn green thanks to the copper and nickel in them. The CBIC was far more concerned, however, with the larger size of the new five-cent piece: "The throats or stomachs of small children may not be large enough to accept the five cent coins." So if you want coins in pudding, insert pre-decimal currency. And boil it first, my grandmother would say. "You don't know who has been touching it." You can buy pudding packs of sixpence, shillings and tuppence from coin dealers. Try the Perth Mint

I have made an old family traditional Christmas pudding in a rag and am not sure how to dry it properly. L. Jones

I would hazard a bet and say you are from Queensland, as many east coast Australians refer to the fabric around a pudding as a "pudding cloth" but Banana Benders use the term "rag". I once ruined a Christmas dinner with a mouldy boiled-in-the-cloth pudding because I didn't let it dry properly. Since that day, I have returned to the family tradition of using a ceramic bowl. Michael Jameson, of Pudding Lane in Newcastle, says the trick to drying the puddings is to hang them as soon as they leave the pot. While an 800-gram pudding might take just 24 hours to dry, a larger pudding can require a week or so. Jameson says it is important that the atmosphere where you dry the pudding is not moist, so avoid areas such as kitchens, bathrooms and laundries. "Many people hang them under the eaves of the verandah," he says. "Then there are those who cheat and dry them with a hair dryer." The most important part of a pudding in a cloth to get dry is the neck where they cloth is gathered, as this is quite thick and can remain moist. After that, store it in a cool, dry place or, if you're in the tropics, try the fridge.

I don't want my children to have alcohol. Does all the alcohol burn off during cooking? J. Patten

No. If you pour brandy into a pan and let the evaporating alcohol ignite from the gas burner you'd be surprised to find that up to 75 per cent of the alcohol can remain in the food. Add alcohol to the end of the cooking process and you're going to evaporate just 10-50 per cent of the wine off. Even the long, slow simmering of an alcohol-laced dish will leave you with about 5 per cent of the original amount of alcohol remaining in the dish.

I'm going to use my mother's Christmas pudding recipe, but it calls for suet. Is there an alternative I can use without compromising the texture or flavour? K. Keane

You could try fresh unsalted butter that has been frozen then grated - but this leaves a slight greasiness that suet doesn't give. You could try vegetable suet, an ingredient that gained popularity with the British during the mad cow disease crisis, and is made from vegetable oil, wheat starch, sunflower oil and pectin. Buy it online at Suet is the fat that surrounds a cow's kidneys. There is nothing that comes close to the rich succulence, ethereal lightness and delicate hint of renal aromas that suet gives to a dish. Remember that recipes such as your mother's evolved with suet, its particular melting point and the way its fat works with the starch and sugar. By substituting suet for another ingredient you are changing the character of the end product – a bit like watching Hamlet with the lead played by Kenneth Williams instead of Kenneth Branagh.

I had to buy my suet for my Christmas pudding in a 1 kilogram lot. I now have 750g left over. What can I do with it? S. Christoe

You are a very lucky person. There are people who dream of having so much animal fat in their possession. In our brave new, risk and fat-averse world, however, having that much fat in the home could render you a pariah in some nicer suburbs. Suet – the fat surrounding beef kidneys - creates a lovely texture in baked goods and puddings. Firstly, don't eat it all at once. Secondly, if you're not going to use it soon, cut it into three, wrap in plastic film and freeze. Grate chilled suet and use as one would butter in shortcrust pastry. You will need to add a little water, as suet does not contain water like butter does. Or perhaps chop the suet into rough cubes, place in a saucepan with a little water over a low heat and slowly melt the fat out of the suet to make the most pure dripping in which to fry potatoes. Consider, however, making a Sussex Pond, in which a lemon and sugar are encased in a suet pastry and steamed in a bowl for several hours. During this time the lemon peel candies and the sugar caramelises, creating a rich, sweet sauce that oozes from the pudding to form a pond in the bowl when opened. A few currants inside the pudding before steaming will transform it into a Kentish Puddle Pudding.