Twelve Cakes of Christmas

Welcome to the “Twelve Cakes of Christmas,” written by Michelle Rizzolo of Big Sur Bakery with original illustrations from Wendy MacNaughton and Danielle Murray.

“You will swoon at the aroma,” says the country’s preeminent jam maker June Taylor about her Berkeley-based commercial kitchen The Still Room, which at this time of year is filled with trays of shriveled Muscat, Flame, and Zante grapes being dehydrated for her traditional Christmas cake. She reflects on a freshly dried Zante being made into a currant: “It is an amazing revelation how beautiful dried fruit is when you dry it yourself.” This is just one of many meticulous steps taken throughout the year as she prepares her version of traditional English fruitcake.

At its simplest and best, fruitcake is heaving with dried fruit, candied citrus peels, and nuts, soaked in brandy, and served in slivers. At its worst, it’s the dreaded holiday gift: “There is only one fruitcake in the entire world,” Johnny Carson joked, “and people keep sending it to each other.” June Taylor will have none of that complaining. She is on a mission to restore the cake’s glory, and thanks to her extensive knowledge of fruit and its conservation, has turned the familiar seasonal loaf into a monument to its core ingredient.

The British ex-pat regards her holiday cake as the culmination of twenty-plus years spent tirelessly refining centuries-old cooking traditions and techniques. It “encapsulates the beauty of the entire year,” she says. “It has candied citrus peel from winter, stone fruit dried from summer, grapes dried in autumn, and port wines and brandies that are aged fruit liquors. It’s a celebration of fruit.”

Once a year, towards the end of October, June sets aside the space in her tiny kitchen that’s usually reserved for candying citrus peels, or making syrups and jam, and gives it over to Christmas cake production. She dusts off her baking pans, fills her larder with flour, butter, and eggs, gathers her stores of candied and dried fruits, and starts her yearly baking duties. “I’m a preserve maker, not a baker,” she admits. “But I like baking Christmas cake—my one dabbling in baking all year. It’s just an excuse to eat a solid piece of fruit bound together with cake and boozed with port wine and brandy. It is a very cool cake to make.” Cool, and old: hers is a very traditional recipe, researched from books dating back 100 to 200 years.

She begins, not surprisingly, with the fruit. With the precision of an expert winemaker, she seeks out varietals that can lend new levels of sweetness and tartness, and she often varies the ratios of fruit within each new batch. “I just looked at recipes with fruits that sounded delicious,” she says. “I nixed the ones with pineapple as too ‘New World’—they didn’t sit right with my rather stuffy British perspective—and went from there. I keep exploring variations and might finally like just one combination, or I continue being a vagabond. I cannot just stick to a recipe,” she laughs.

This year she’s chosen candied Seville orange peel (a classic English fruitcake choice that’s distinguished by its tanginess and pleasantly bitter note), and brought in dried Elephant Heart plums, Bing cherries, Royal Benin apricots, Red Cloud apricots, and for extra tartness, Santa Rosa plums. Her dried-grape collection includes Sweet Muscat, Flame, and Thompsons, and the currants are Zanes. Starting with those grapes when they’re fresh, she allows each type of fruit to dehydrate in the oven at very low heat for a week or more, according to size. This extracts moisture and concentrates the produce’s natural sugars to intensify its flavor and sweetness. In the final steps of this long process, she de-stems each piece of fruit by hand (it’s all kept intact to prevent molding).

So many different kinds of grapes!

The next phase involves macerating and rehydrating the dried fruits and candied peel in port; the wine lends yet another layer of complexity to the already deeply concentrated fruit. Her basic but dense cake requires beating the butter and sugar together before incorporating the eggs, then folding in flour. She perfumes the thick foundation with such traditional British spices as cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove, along with molasses and aged Chardonnay brandy.

With a pound of the sodden fruit mixture per loaf pan, there’s room enough for only the smallest amount of batter. A low and slow bake ensures the lovingly prepared fruit doesn’t burn, and once it’s ready, the cake is washed in more aged brandy and enrobed in cheesecloth to guarantee a moist loaf for months to come. The outermost layer is a hand-painted piece of wrapping paper—June applies watercolors to each herself. It’s almost too pretty to eat.

June Taylor paints each piece of wrapping paper, which features a letter-pressed label.

But once that paper has been torn into, it becomes nearly impossible not to dig in. June cautions recipients to practice restraint. “Just cut a very thin slice, one-fourth of an inch,” she warns. “It is plenty rich.”

Why would you ever regift a cake as special as this?

Reflecting on the time and care taken to make her cake, June laments the stigma attached to this venerable holiday delicacy. “It’s amazing to me that things went so far down some technological-industrial tube,” she sighs. The only answer, for her, is to keep doing what she does.

“I have to make Christmas cake,” she concludes. “I embrace it more and become a better baker. It acknowledges we’ve survived the dark days and are honoring the harvest to share with our community. This binds us together—it encapsulates the year in a batter. These recipes have such a deep cultural connection to where we come from and who we are; how we live off the land, how we preserve. We’ve come a long way, but I like to bring these foods back into focus because they are incredible. They are worthy of our constantly refining our ability to make them.”

illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

As the stout, rosy-faced woman patiently explains Lebkuchen in her thick German accent to inquisitive passersby at the Brooklyn Flea, it’s easy to assume she has made the cookies she’s selling; after all, they are perfectly replicated specimens of an exotic delicacy enjoyed in Germany. But these Teutonic treats, packaged in decorative tins, are the work of a young Taiwanese finance professional. She may be the unlikeliest baker ofLebkuchen, but Sandy Lee’s goods capture the essence of traditional flavor and the efficiency of cool modern design.

Although Lebkuchen means “gingerbread,” the treat bearing that label is nothing like the more commonly known crunchy figurine or moist loaf of the same nomenclature. Falling somewhere between a cookie and a cake, the Nuremberg-style Lebkuchen is distinguished by its rich mound of nuts and nut flours, a complex spice blend, and candied citron and orange peel, all sitting atop an edible crisp with roots in the communion wafer (a contribution from the Franconian monks who invented the holy cracker in the Middle Ages).

For the incredibly labor-intensive Lebkuchen, the dry ingredients—mostly almond and hazelnut flours, almonds, a bit of wheat flour, sugar, baking powder, and spices—are mixed with egg whites, honey, and marzipan to create a dense, sticky dough that’s scooped and molded into the Oblaten descended from communion wafers.

The necessary ingredients; photo by Dave Ratzlow

After they’re baked, the cookies are decorated with more almonds, then glazed with powdered sugar or hand-enrobed in dark chocolate. “MakingLebkuchen is pretty time-consuming!” Lee explains. “It’s not an ordinary cookie. The dough is extremely sticky and difficult to work with, and it needs to be scooped, molded, decorated, and glazed while hot—or enrobed when cooled—all by hand. In addition, we use real chocolate, which we temper. That alone takes hours.”

Sugar-glazed or chocolate-enrobed; photo by Alexandra Grablewski

Back when monks were inventing wafers and Germans concocted this “cake,” food preservation was a crucial form of protection against drought, famine, and warfare, and as a result, the honey-, sugar-, and spice-laden Lebkuchenwas built to last. Even now, to maintain the treats’ peak fragrance and flavor well past the season, traditional bakers present them in custom-designed metal canisters that usually depict the Nuremberg cityscape and landmarks. Sandy Lee reimagines the concept through a modern lens: Her tins cleverly portray the New York City skyline as a quaint small village.

“The New York City skyline as a quaint small village.” Photo by Christine Strohl

Burned-out by the not-so-quaint New York City lifestyle in 2008, Lee took a leave of absence from her job and stumbled upon Lebkuchen at a Christmas market in Berlin. The complex flavor profile seemed a key to the culture, and it triggered in Lee an obsession with deciphering the notoriously difficult recipe and its equally tricky language. “It was like nothing I’d ever tasted,” she remembers. “I couldn’t get the combination of flavors out of my head for a while, and from then on I was hooked.” She consumed a shocking amount of Lebkuchen, interviewed bakers, and tracked down related historical texts and trade manuals as she traveled across Germany, doggedly pursuing the cake’s elusive delicateness. “Its mysteriousness and history captured my attention as much as the flavor did,” she says. “I was surprised I’d never even heard of it. I found it odd that I’d never come across something so uniquely delicious in my travels or in New York City, to which most of the world’s specialties make their way. That it was invented by monks in medieval times just added to the mystique!”

Her exhaustive research came into focus when she returned to the States and launched her business, Leckerlee. The made-up name is a play on the Germanlecker, meaning “delicious.” In regional dialects leckerli is a term for “delicious little treat,” and there are specific varieties of Swiss gingerbread called Basler leckerli. The ee added by Lee, a Brooklynite, not only referenced her name playfully, but also lent an air of American pronounceableness and Taiwanese authenticity—all fitting considerations for packaging a contemporary take on an ancient German bread.

Her customers’ love of Lebkuchen love fuels her eighteen-hour workdays. Relatively rare in the States, the cookie-cake hybrid evokes a strong nostalgia for those in the know: Last season, a twenty-tin order came in from a Mexican businessman missing the Lebkuchen once baked for him by his recently deceased German grandmother. For serious (and emotional) bakers like Lee, such stories motivate the recreation of lost tastes and sentiments.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

There’s no shortage of fascinating details to entrance young readers in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The story is told and the landscape viewed through the eyes of a Southern child, making it easy to buy into the provincial purity she depicts, no matter how old we are. When Scout describes rural parties, we find ourselves relishing—if vicariously—the same crackling bread, fried chicken, and biscuits and butter that she does. We can almost taste and smell them. We want the light-as-a-feather divinity candy and dewberry tarts, and to curse whatever lesser options we have on hand—canned lemonade concentrate and boxed “homemade” cake instead of fresh-squeezed juice and a just-baked from-scratch confection. If only we could have a slice of that Lane cake.

Unlike To Kill a Mockingbird, the Lane is no work of fiction. It’s a white cake that relies on egg whites for its fluffy texture, and it’s layered with a yolk-based stove-top cream full of pecans, coconut, and raisins, and heavily doused with bourbon. The original recipe, by Emma Rylander Lane of Clayton, Alabama, requires one to three cups of bourbon for a single cake!

Immortalized in a famous work of fiction, the Lane might seem like a one-off phenomenon, captured by chance, but it’s one of many traditional Southern cakes. On any special occasion below the Mason-Dixon line, there’s sure to be a towering, frosted darling mounted on a stand, waiting to be cut. Christmas is no exception; in fact, that’s when things get most intense.

Come Yuletide down South, coconut, red velvet, and caramel cakes grace tables alongside more humble pound cakes and pecan fruitcakes. Charming like Southern accents, dreamy, and inviting, these layer cakes are grand, over-the-top concoctions, sweet and glamorous, with points awarded for height; in Alabama they can get up to fifteen tiers. From the coconut cake’s billowy white icing flecked with freshly grated, sweet coconut to the striking crimson red-velvet cake juxtaposed with tangy ivory cream-cheese frosting, there’s no shortage of drama on display—and we haven’t even arrived at the main attraction. Enter the caramel cake, its richly yolked, buttery layers glazed in a slightly grainy pralinelike caramel-fudge icing.

According to Virginia Willis, the phrase “Southern hospitality” could have been coined because “a layer cake waiting on a sideboard under a glass dome is both celebration and welcome; they’re delicious, impractical, and just enough trouble—but not too much.” And Willis would know. A third-generation Georgia native, she spent her childhood at the apron strings of her grandma and grew up to become a professional cook, author, blogger, and culinary-TV producer. She combines French techniques with Southern heritage and proudly promotes her region’s cooking as authentic American cuisine. “Cakes have always been part of our holiday tradition,” she says. “A few days before Christmas, my aunt often makes coconut cake, Mama will make pound cake and pecan pies, and I make a caramel cake. We have ambrosia as well. It’s family tradition to have a selection of desserts. I love eating them, but I think my favorite part is being together in the kitchen with my mama.”

As exemplified by Willis’s version, a great Southern caramel cake is moist, tight, and sturdy from a good amount of butter. Butter cake recipes are straightforward and subject to slightly different interpretations; the more experienced the baker, the better the crumb. There are fine points to even the simplest recipes, but all must start with the best available butter, at room temperature. Cream it light with sugar, dissolving the granules and aerating the mixture; this process lightens the cake and creates the desired crumb. Then, slowly add room-temperature eggs, one at a time, making sure the ingredients emulsify. Fold in sifted flour, your leavening agent, and salt in parts, alternating those dry components with the addition of milk. This is where gentle hands are useful: mix it all together until a smooth batter is formed, but not a moment longer. Finally, bake the cake until it just sets.

The thinnest layer of caramel in the center allows for a perfect ratio of cake to icing, which, when set, must be a warm brown hue, and shiny like candy. Although the formula for the springy baked cushions is easy enough, eyes have welled up over that chalky boiled tawny glaze. Even Willis describes hers as a bear, the secrets to which include “holding your tongue right and practice.” And a strong arm—her grandma employed her gigantic grandpa to beat this icing by hand.

Burned-caramel frosting requires a cast-iron skillet: First, a caramel is made by liquefying sugar over a high heat until it becomes a dark syrup; it is then added to a separate mixture of (more) sugar, butter, and cream and left boiling on the stove until it thickens slightly. Vanilla and salt are brought in and the sweet, sticky lava is allowed to cool. That’s when you call in Grandpa’s strong arms or an electric mixer; the icing is beaten vigorously in a machine for ten minutes (fifteen if by hand) until creamy. Willis says she’s willing to shed tears and sweat to complete the job, and to stay with it, she really has to love someone, “because it is not an easy cake. It’s the perfect balance of butter and sugar. If the humidity and temperature aren’t just right, you end up with a lump of candy.”

She believes traditional cakes should be treasured. “They’re part of the history of Southern cooking,” she says, “a last vestige of home baking that is still homemade. Have you ever noticed in the grocery store that it’s not the Flour and Sugar aisle? It’s the Cake Mix and Sugar aisle? When I first saw that, a piece of me was very sad. I grew up with homemade cakes and intend to share them and pass them on so that future generations will as well.

“Caramel cakes are an act of love and should be made lovingly for those who will feel the intent in every bite,” Willis concludes. “It makes me remember my grandparents’ kitchen with the heart-of-Georgia-pine-paneled walls; my grandfather would let me lick the spoon. Caramel cake is a special and time-honored thing. It wouldn’t be Christmas without it. It’s as important as the mistletoe or the tree!”

Illustration by Danielle Murray; above, photo by Helene Dujardin © 2011

Dede’s Burnt Caramel Cake

(Reprinted with permission from Basic to Brilliant, Y’all: 150 Refined Southern Recipes and Ways to Dress Them Up for Company by Virginia Willis, copyright © 2011. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.)

Makes 3 (9-inch) round layers

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for the pans

3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for the pans

1 teaspoon baking powder

2 cups sugar

4 large eggs, at room temperature, well beaten

1 cup whole milk

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Burnt Caramel Icing (recipe follows)

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter and flour three 9-inch round cake pans and line the bottoms with waxed or parchment paper. Butter and flour the paper. Sift together the flour and the baking powder.

In the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the flour mixture to the butter-sugar mixture, alternating between the dry and wet ingredients in three portions, starting and ending with the dry ingredients. Pour into the prepared pans.

Bake until a cake tester inserted into the center of each cake comes out clean and the cakes start pulling away from the sides of the pans, about 25 minutes. Remove to a rack to cool slightly. Invert onto the rack to cool completely.

To assemble the cake, place one cake layer on a cardboard cake round. Spread with the still-warm frosting. Repeat with remaining layers, placing the final layer bottom side up. Working quickly, use a small offset spatula to spread the icing gently around the cake. Let stand for 2 hours to allow the icing to set before serving. Store in an airtight container for up to 1 week.

Burnt Caramel Icing

Makes about 2 cups

21/2 cups sugar

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

1 cup heavy cream, plus more if needed to loosen

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt

In a heavy cast-iron skillet, heat 1/2 cup of the sugar over medium-high heat. Stir until dissolved, then do not stir again; simply shake the pan occasionally until the mixture reaches the caramel stage 320°F to 335°F on a candy thermometer.

Meanwhile, in a heavy saucepan, combine the remaining 2 cups sugar, the butter, and the cream Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally.

When the sugar reaches the caramel stage, immediately pour it into the cream mixture and stir to combine. Cook over medium heat, stirring once or twice, until the mixture reaches the soft-ball stage, 232°F to 240°F. Remove from the heat; add the vanilla and salt and stir to combine. Place on a rack and set aside until just cool enough to touch, 10 to 15 minutes.

Transfer the mixture to the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat on high speed until creamy, 5 to 7 minutes.

A couple of helpful hints: when you are ready to frost the cake, place the bowl of icing in a bowl of warm water to keep it loose and fluid. Also, if it starts to set too firmly, you may need to add warm heavy cream to loosen it.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

“I love the feeling Christmas gives me,” says Belinda Leong, whose B. Patisserie in San Francisco creates acclaimed bûches de Noël patterned on the holiday cake she discovered during a 2008 stint in Paris with legendary pâtissier Pierre Hermé. A master of French pastry technique, Leong immediately fell in love with the beautiful intricacies of this revered dessert. “I knew I had to make them,” she recalls of her first encounter with the cakes—all three thousand of them, sitting in stacks. “They were so beautiful and so different from the traditional bûches de Noël. The finishing was simple, yet modern and elegant.”

Known in English as the Yule log—not to be confused with the quaint televised fireplace, familiar to millions of chimneyless-apartment dwellers, that goes by the same name—the ubiquitous bûche is to French Christmas what turkey is to American Thanksgiving: a family tradition. A log-shaped sponge cake, it’s filled with chocolate buttercream, iced so the exterior resembles tree bark, and then decorated with tiny meringue mushrooms and holly leaves made from marzipan, spun sugar, and chocolate. Thousands exist, from cheesy homespun iterations with tiny snowmen figurines to haute modern articles released by French patisseries each year as part of their latest winter collections.

The Yule log’s origin is premedieval, and it was at first associated with the winter solstice and a related pagan celebration of the lengthening days that followed. The practice involved decorating a large (real) log with holly and pinecones, which was then anointed with wine and salt and burned. The ashes were collected to treat medical afflictions and ward off evil. Fast-forward hundreds of years to the nineteenth-century and the arrival of small wood stoves: In this new context, the sacrificial log was stripped of its original symbolism and reemerged as the bûche de Noël we know today.

What began as a simple expression of holiday cheer has gradually transformed into the most complex cake you might encounter all year. Today, every Parisian bakery makes a version of it: Some, adhering closely to tradition, humbly recreate the classic cut log; others edge into high-concept design. In a city populated by some of the world’s best pastry chefs, this dessert inspires intense competition and creativity. Patisseries have been known to hire a famous fashion designer, such as Karl Lagerfeld, who collaborated with Lenôtre, or to feature rare single-origin strains of chocolate, 22-carat-gold leaf, and nimbly pulled sugar on their cakes. No expense is spared to achieve the best new concept and flavor of the season.

Making even the simplest bûche all but requires a French dictionary, a degree in baking and pastry arts, and a skilled, steady hand to execute its many component mousses, cakes, creams, and cookies; some Yule logs involve as many as thirteen different recipes to create the parts for one cake! Leong’s introduction to the process began in early October and lasted nearly three months; like Santa’s elves, bakers worked around the clock until Christmas Day to make sure no log was left behind. “There are so many orders for bûchethat there is a designated tent with a refrigerated truck just for their pickup,” she explains. While the traditional log consists primarily of a spongelike genoise—the oldest-known cake—spread with a thin layer of mousse and coiled like a jelly roll, this modern version relies on the mousse to create the shape and the structure; the cake serves as a thin base on the bottom.

Belinda Leong’s bûche relies “on the mousse to create the shape and the structure; the cake serves as a thin base on the bottom.”

Manipulating mousse—which is aerated with whipped cream and meringue to become light as a cloud—requires speed and a cold room. A production line was necessary to ensure efficiency and maintain momentum during assembly.

The real work lay in following all of the many constituent recipes and first portioning them to size before construction could begin. With all the components in hand, the team worked to pipe the mousse into trough-shaped metal molds. Spread smooth with a spatula, the mousse formed a half-inch layer that would become the bûche’s smooth outer surface once the sleek, finished cake was unmolded. The additional texturally contrasting components that fill the log’s interior were sealed in with more piped mousse. A final layer of genoise was added to support the mousse, and the entire thing went to the refrigerator to set for several hours. Once removed from its mold, the chilled, solid log was glazed, cut, and decorated by a devoted team that spent hours on this final task.

After her European pastry immersion, Leong eventually returned to the Bay Area and took over as the pastry chef at David Kinch’s Michelin-starred restaurant Manresa. She applied the techniques she’d learned abroad to the abundant local bounty and has continued to do so at her own storefront.

The season’s fleet of bûches de noël at B. Patisserie in San Francisco.

B. Patisserie’s bûches de Noël are imbued with flavors that speak of its owner’s current home. The caramel roasted pear variation has gingerbread croutons encased in a cream-cheese mousse; it’s studded with cheesecake morsels perched atop a Speculoos sablé (an Alsatian crispy ginger cookie), and the entire log is sprayed with a white-chocolate coating that looks like freshly fallen snow.

“I tend to use more components than in the ones I learned at Pierre Hermé,” she says. She borrows the standard architecture, a mousse entremet—a mousse-based layered cake with myriad flavor and textural contrasts—but takes innovative liberties with her building blocks. “There are many ways to create the crunchy or creamy textures,” she explains, “and even within that there are subtleties to be considered when designing a new version. For example, there’s rich creamy, fluffy creamy, milky creamy; then there’s crispy crunchy, crackly crunchy, pop-in-your-mouth crunchy. So it’s a party of textures. And the flavors need to balance: the sweetness and bitterness, the saltiness, and the true natural flavor of an ingredient. Then you need acidity that is needed to help all these flavors ‘pop.’ ”

That “popping” is what you’ll find inside her chocolate and salted-caramel Yule log, which contains a milk-chocolate mousse that’s layered with a locally roasted Four Barrel coffee Chantilly cream, studded with salted-caramel crème brûlée and toffee bits that rest on a base of flourless chocolate cake, and garnished with a coffee glaçage. Remarkably, these are all crafted as elements of one tiny bûche.

Chocolate hazelnut bûche de noël at B. Patisserie; photo by Lexi Marine

Paying this much attention to detail requires an unbelievable amount of time and focus. But the expenditure hasn’t diminished Leong’s holiday joy one bit: In fact, the payoff for the effort more than compensates for the overtime. “You taste and feel it and you can feel that the flavors are not one-dimensional and flat,” she says of the finished dessert. “Christmas is always the hardest time of the year, workloadwise, but after you take a look at what you have done, the sleepless nights are always worth it. All the macaron trees and ornaments together are beautiful; seeing all the bûches decorated and lined up—it makes me so happy.”

illustration by Wendy Mac

The best source for information about the modern mince pie is Tamasin Day-Lewis, who has been dubbed the British Queen of Tarts. Her food memoirs and cookbooks describe every possible kind of pie, as well as what its place is at the Christmas table in the UK, and in her family customs specifically. As she notes in The Art of the Tart: Savory and Sweet, she considers the standard holiday mince to be as “traditional as roast turkey with stuffing, cranberry sauce, roast potatoes and Brussels sprouts or roast goose and apple sauce with all the trimmings.” At her house, she says, “We have Christmas pudding served with brandy butter and mince pies served similarly, or with cream…and unlike our European neighbors, we have our Christmas dinner on Christmas Day.”

The Queen and all of her many tarts photo by Robert Fairer

Meat and fruit pies like these date back to medieval times. The type known as mincemeat—an amalgam of finely ground meat, sugar, fruit, and spices—was an eighteenth- or early-nineteenth-century addition to our culinary vocabulary. Combining various cuts of beef (or later suet) with those other ingredients was a convenient way to prepare a rich pie filling that would keep a long time, which was necessary before the advent of canning or refrigeration.

The dried fruit, sugar, and aromatics were imported luxuries, and beef was always prized, so the preparation was reserved for special occasions. We’ve long since removed the vast quantities of meat from the pie, but what remains of the mince carries a fragrant trace of its heritage. Most contemporary recipes include red and golden raisins, currants, dark brown sugar, chopped almonds, mixed citrus peels, cognac, and dark rum, along with such winter spices as cloves, cinnamon, rum, ginger, and nutmeg. After grated apple and lemon juice and peel have been incorporated, the blend is left to ferment and its flavors to marry before it’s baked into a double-crusted pie.

“Each year I vow to get more organized,” Day-Lewis discloses in her travel memoir Where Shall We Go for Dinner?, “To make the Christmas puddings, as I tell readers of my cookbooks they should make them, at least six weeks before Christmas. Likewise with the homemade mincemeat, which should be turned regularly like an egg timer to flood and plump and macerate the dried fruit at the top of the jar once the liquor has sunk to the bottom.”

Tamasin experiments in the kitchen with the no-fuss attitude of an experienced baker. “Everyone cooks in their own way and adds or subtracts the ingredients they choose,” she explains. “Almonds or orange zest in the pastry, dried figs or apricots, grated Bramley apple, different sugars, light or dark muscovado or molasses sugar to flavor, different booze, according to what I have: cognac, Armagnac, Irish whiskey, dark rum.” The filling components may change at the whim of the baker, but there are two nonnegotiable constants: The mixture must sit in the fridge in its glass jar for weeks in advance, “like a good wine or stew,” and the pies must be baked in tins designated for small, individually-serving-size rounds called jam tarts.

photo by Robert Fairer

Her golden rule for working with dough is that “your butter must be cold, your hands cold, and if you have a cold marble slab to roll it out on, so much the better.” Freezing the butter after it is cubed and icing the water are her proven methods to maintain the low temperature throughout the process, which is crucial. “Warmth and overworking are the enemies of the good, buttery-crisp pastry crust,” she cautions. To make the dough by hand, she instructs you to “sift the flour into a large bowl with salt, add chopped butter, and work as briskly as you can to rub the fat into the flour with the tips of your fingers only, rather like running grains of hot sand through your fingers.” Then, “add the water bit by bit,” just until the dough comes together.

Once the dough has been chilled, roll it thin; Tamasin suggests allowing any children present to do the rest, as they’ll delight in “punching out the pastry circles, stars, moons, and Christmas-tree shapes for the mince pies and plopping laden teaspoons of the boozy fruit and nut mixture into the pastry shells.” Finally, cover the piecrust shells with a decorative top, encasing the mixed fruit in dough, and bake each tart until it’s golden brown.

In her cookbook Smart Tart: Observations from My Cooking Life, Day-Lewis rhapsodizes as much over mince pies as she does about the magic of Christmas. “It’s all about expectation,” she writes. “It is almost a disappointment to the child when the day actually dawns and there is no longer anything to look forward to.” She always allows her three children to start the maceration in the months leading up to Christmas. “The less of a ritual buildup to the day, the less you will stir the magic into being; the repetition and rhythm setting up the expectation, the aliveness, the sense that we must dwell in the ‘now’ and pluck the day. It is the very repetition of the word now that we try to recreate each year anyway, the memory of Christmas past becoming present and, in turn, future, as successive generations reinterpret their family tradition and make it their own.”Write your story

illustration by Danielle Murray

Recipes (olde & new)

1588: Minst Pyes

From The good hous-wiues treasurie Beeing a verye necessarie booke instructing to the dressing of meates; Anon. 1588.

To make minst Pyes.

Take your Veale and perboyle it a little, or mutton, then set it a cooling; and when it is colde, take three pound of suit [suet] to a leg of mutton, or fower [four] pound to a fillet of Veale, and then mince them small by themselves, or together whether you will, then take to season them halfe an once [ounce] of Nutmegs, half an once of cloves and Mace, halfe an once of Sinamon, a little Pepper, as much Salt as you think will season them, either to the mutton or to the Veale, take viii [8] yolkes of Egges when they be hard, half a pinte of rosewater full measure, halfe an pund of Suger, then straine the Yolkes with the rosewayer and the Suger and mingle it with your meate, if ye have any Orenges or Lemmans you must take two of them, and take the pilles [peels] very thin and mince them very smalle, and put them in a pound of currans, six dates, half a pound of prunes laye Currans and Dates upon the top of your meate, you must taek tow or three Pomewaters or Wardens and mince with your meate, you maye make them woorsse if you will, if you will make good crust put in three or foure yolkes of egges a litle Rosewater, and a good deale of suger.

1847: Mince Pie

From The Improved Housewife, by A. L. Webster, A married lady; 1847.

Parboil a beef’s heart, or tongue, or a fresh piece of beef. When cold, chop very tine two pounds of the lean; chop as fine as possible, two pounds of the inside of beef’s suet, and mix the meat and the suet together, adding a teaspoonful of salt. Take four pounds of pippin apples, pared, cored and chopped fine, two pounds of raisins stoned and chopped, and two pounds of currants, picked, washed and dried, and mix the fruit with the suet and meat.

Add two pounds of powdered sugar, two grated nutmegs, half an ounce of powdered cinnamon, a quarter of an ounce of cloves, a quarter of an ounce of mace, and the grated peel and juice of two large oranges; and wet the whole with a quart of white wine, a quart of brandy, and a wineglass of rose-water, mixing them well together.

Make a paste, allowing for each pie eight ounces of butter and twelve ounces of sifted flour. Lay a sheet of paste all over a soup plate; fill it with mince meat, laying slips of citron on the top, in the proportion of half a pound for the entire mixture. Roll out a sheet of paste for the lid of the pie; put it on, and crimp the edges with a knife ; prick holes in the lid, and bake half an hour in a brisk oven.

Meat will keep good for pies, several months, if kept in a cool dry place, and prepared as follows. To a pound of meat chopped fine, and four ounces of suet, put an ounce of cinnamon, an ounce of mace, a quarter of an ounce of cloves, and two teaspoonfuls of salt, add, if liked, eight ounces of currants, eight of raisins, and four of citron. Add too, a tumbler of brandy or wine, three spoonfuls of molasses, and sugar enough to make it quite sweet. Put all in a stone pot, and cover it with a paper wet in brandy. In using it, take equal weights of meat and apples pared and chopped fine. If not seasoned enough, add to the taste. If the apples are not tart, put in lemon juice or cider.

2009: Mincemeat & Pie

by Tamasin Day-Lewis for Daily Mail December 18, 2009
(makes six small jars)
340g each sultanas, raisins and currants
170g flaked almonds
3 eating apples, coarsely grated, skin on
400g dark muscovado sugar
150g mixed peel
1 tsp grated nutmeg
1⁄2 tsp each ground cloves, mace, ginger and cinnamon
150g beef or vegetarian suet
Grated zest and juice of 11⁄2 organic lemons
Zest of an organic orange
120 ml of whatever alcohol you like; I used Jameson’s whiskey and Cognac

Method: Mix everything together in a large bowl and pot. Turn the jar every few weeks, for the alcohol to permeate, for a long-life.

Mince Pies
(makes 12-15, depending on size of tart tins)
225g plain flour
120g unsalted butter
1 beaten egg

Method: Preheat oven to 180C/Gas 4.
Sift the flour directly into the food processor and add the cubed, fridge-cold butter. Pulse for about 20 seconds to crumb, then add 1 tbsp cold water and blitz until the mixture coheres into a ball.
Remove and flatten with the heel of your hand on a sheet of cling-film.
Wrap and refrigerate for an hour.
Roll out on a floured board and cut with cutters.
Grease the little tart tins and fit the pastry in.
Add the mincemeat with a teaspoon.
Brush the edges of the pastry with cold water and seal the top deck of pastry on before brushing the tops with beaten egg.
Bake for 12-15 minutes. Check the pastry is browned and the filling hot. Cool on racks.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

The room is abuzz with tiny and not-so-tiny Christmas helpers—they’d be bona fide elves if not for the toques, kitchen clogs, and chef coats in place of floppy hats, pointy boots, and fur jackets. Treading gingerly amid a small city of gingerbread houses at various stages of construction—a fondant roof here, peppermint walls there—they touch up edible edifices fashioned from buckets of royal icing and holiday candy. Christmas music blares loudly in the background to inspire these happy and not-so-happy helpers throughout the hundreds of hours it takes to create this little town and its life-sized gingerbread carousel.

But there’s a catch to the fairly tale, a lump in the icing: it’s the dead of summer and far from the North Pole. This improbable fantasyland is a hotel pastry shop in Las Vegas, where it’s 110 ℉.

Towering over the delicious tiny village is the biggest “kid” of all, a six-foot-four baby-faced Midwesterner named Dave Laufer, whose salt-of-the-earth warmth and youthful enthusiasm never waver—until you bring up the subject of the holiday itself. “We play this music to try to get in the spirit,” he says, surrounded by the intoxicating aromas of cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, and clove. “We’re building Christmas stuff in the desert in August, so we have to manufacture the feeling. In those beginning weeks, you enjoy the smell; it touches sensory areas in the brain that unlock great memories of Christmas past. But it eventually becomes nauseating, and instead of happy memories, it reminds me of hard work and very long days. The music backfires because by the time the rest of the world catches up with you in December, you do not want to listen to it.”

Over the years, this sweltering sweet spot in Las Vegas has trumped the North Pole as the gingerbread capital. Who doesn’t love gumdrops and gambling? As soon as the last of the Thanksgiving turkey leftovers has been eaten, hotels premiere the holiday-themed shows and garish displays that fill what’s become a surprisingly busy season. The Bellagio hosts a life-size reindeer made of pure chocolate and a fondant Grinch statue made from 112 pounds of sugar-rolling fondant and more than fifty pounds of chocolate; the hotel has also made room for a sixteen-foot gingerbread candy house.

Over at the Four Seasons hotel, for the last six years—first as a humble elf, and most recently as chief —Laufer has designed and executed the massive annual display of gingerbread. Fortunately, he has risen to the seasonal challenges of fabricating fun on a schedule. To conjure structures of cookies and candy out of familiar holiday smells and tastes, he melds childlike imagination with saintly patience and exceptional skill. He becomes so engrossed in the process that the line between reality and the magical world he creates can start to blur. Calculating the hours devoted to his average gingerbread house, he wagers it’s “probably ten thousand—okay, maybe that’s a little off; maybe two thousand… and probably two thousand pounds of gingerbread, and another two thousand pounds of royal icing. And we mix the gingerbread in a batch that consists of a hundred pounds of ingredients—I swear, that part I’m sure of.”

As a child, Laufer spent even more time studying the illustration of the gingerbread cottage in “Hansel and Gretel.” As he weighed out the benefits of eating versus being eaten, he marveled at the house made of confections, decorated with sweets, and dripping with icicles of icing. While back then he might have opted to gorge on a house made of sweets, his current line of work has taught him otherwise. “You can’t help snacking,” he admits. “A cookie here, a candy there; but after months and months of fussing with the tiny houses and nibbling at the scraps, you just get so sick of it!”

Invented circa 900 AD by Germans, the precursor to gingerbread,pfefferkuchen—“pepperbread,” with ginger added to aid digestion—made its way to Sweden and Denmark, and was later produced commercially in a small English town. The Germans built gingerbread houses as holiday window decorations. Centuries later, as an eight-year-old Boy Scout in Redbud, IL, Laufer would carry on the tradition in home economics class; eventually, he won a countywide gingerbread competition. “I was only sixteen,” he recalls. “It was my first time working with fondant, and it made me like Christmas. I felt like I was part of creating the cheer, and I realized I wanted to be a pastry chef.”

Recipes from the fifteenth century describe a cake made from a dense dough of breadcrumbs or ground almonds mixed with honey or spices, often pressed into molds of intricate design. Modern versions contain molasses, honey, and a variety of spices (ginger being the most prominent), including nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, clove, and black pepper. These flavors and smells may embody the spirit of Christmas, but they don’t tell the whole gingerbread story. Anyone can mix the simple recipe; the skill is in the final construction. “You have to be the architect, the engineer, and the designer,” Laufer explains. He is, in fact, the confection’s contractor—the supervisor of sugar, the foreman of fondant.

The architecture starts out as a pen-drawn sketch of the house. Templates are created for the walls and roofs, cut to size, and placed on top of the gingerbread dough, which is rolled a half-inch thick for small houses and up to several inches thicker for very large surfaces; the larger the house, the thicker the dough must be to support the weight of the roof. An X-ACTO knife is then employed to cut out the doors and windows. To connect the four walls, nails and cement are less handy (or tasty) than royal icing, a paste-like mixture of confectioner’s sugar and egg whites. “It’s like building a house of cards!” laughs Laufer. “If someone breathes too hard, the whole thing falls down. And you have to work in stages. Most times, you will have several houses going at once, each in a different phase of construction. It takes up to several days for royal icing to harden enough to add on the roof. And once you have the house constructed, the real work and fun begins.”

Decorating takes hours. Each ornamental flourish calls for a particular set of ingredients and method of application. One façade alone may include fondant, gumpaste, marzipan, and pastillage—a claylike dough that’s made of powdered sugar, gelatin, and water, and that solidifies when dry. “It isn’t just a matter of making the houses, though,” Laufer notes. “Even before the houses are placed down, we need to coat the twenty-foot table with tons of royal icing to create the snow. There’d be pulled-sugar trees, giant Willy Wonka marzipan mushrooms, skis, and benches made from pastillage; fondant people and animals, snowmen—you name it.”

“This is the first year I won’t be working on a gingerbread village,” he adds with a faint hint of melancholy, alluding to a new hotel job with less focus on holiday pomp. “But I’m starting to dabble with the idea of getting involved with Christmas again. I’ve unpacked the ornaments, am considering getting a tree, and even find myself humming along to Rudolph. Not being immersed in it for months has me remembering why I enjoyed it so much in the first place. I spent the afternoon going to all the hotels on the Strip and marveling at their gingerbread creations. They really are amazing to look at… just don’t ask me to make one.”

Welcome to the “Twelve Cakes of Christmas,” written by Michelle Rizzolo of Big Sur Bakery with original illustrations from Wendy MacNaughton and Danielle Murray

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

It’s impossible to talk to the monks of New Carmaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur about baking without getting an earful about prayer; both, they believe, are woven into the same sacred cloth. “The association with nature and creation is always part of who we are,” says Superior Father Reynero, who’s in charge of development at the monastery. When they’re not praying, the sixteen monks spend their days as country folk do: tending the garden, cutting firewood, and maintaining the water system and generator. Meanwhile, running the retreat requires cleaning rooms, registering guests, and attending to the bookstore’s customers. Craftsmanship is deemed equally important. “Our monastery follows the rules of St. Benedict, which provide for the sustaining of our lives through a long history of working as artisans: glassmakers, musicians, composers, writers of manuscripts, and especially through the use of the land—growing food and making honey, jams, jellies and breads.”

And are they ever determined to make bread. In the early ’70s, looking for a way to supplement income, the community of monks strove to develop a cottage industry powered by fruitcake sales. Four decades later, that enterprise has evolved into a year-round baking business that provides income for the brotherhood’s off-the-grid retreat center, which sits on nine hundred acres of the most secluded, beautiful land on earth.

The monks are known for their two signature loaves. The more traditional offering, the Hermitage, is made with candied cherries, pineapples, raisins, walnuts, dates, and pecans, while their date-nut varietal is an edible shout-out to California: it contains local dates and walnuts soaked in white wine from the nearby vineyards. Both spiced cakes are moist, dark; in keeping with the tradition of fruitcakes, they are dipped in brandy before being aged for three to six months.

Father Zacceaus, who’s baked since he was ten, joined the monastery with a culinary arts degree under his cincture. He meets with fellow monks four times a day and, when not studying or meditating, relishes his duties as a baker. “Baking is very meditative,” he says. “To finish and see something beautiful is great for my heart, because most of the time we don’t see the fruits of our prayers; we don’t have a parish with marriages and baptisms and such. Everything we do, we do on faith. For me, trying to keep in contact with God comes about from watching bread grow, and if I don’t do some sort of meditation during it, I’m wasting my time.”

The monks use antiquated ovens that operate like Ferris wheels, with rotating decks holding ten large sheet pans at a time. For the date-nut cake, they rely on a floor-style mixer filled to the brim with sugar, oil, butter, eggs, flour, spices, and the wine-soaked dates and walnuts. According to Zacceaus, “We’re able to make an average of fifty cakes in one shift. We bake them in bread pans and cool and dip them in brandy for five to seven seconds—they absorb a healthy amount. Then we place them upside down on wooden shelves in our cooler, where they remain until we ship them to our customers.”

“We have a great responsibility to a world that is so hustle-bustle,” Father Zaccaeus says. “The last four Popes encouraged the care and upkeep of the natural wonders of the world, the trees and the waters,” he continues. “We pray for that, and are reminded of it each time we look out our windows—and as we eat our Holy Granola and wash it down with our date-nut spiced cake.”

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

With Italian factories producing millions of panettones a year, the dome-shaped bread has become that country’s leading Christmas treat and a heavily trafficked export. It makes its annual migration across Europe, South America, and the States in tall stacks of glossy decorative boxes. Beneath all those layers of packaging and the plastic shrink-wrap lies a manufactured facsimile of a humble bread that dates back to Roman times. Its origin story is the stuff of lore and sounds best when told the way only Italians can tell such a tale: A nobleman named Toni posed as a baker to win the forbidden love of the daughter of an unsuccessful baker. Toni wooed her by spiking her bread with rich ingredients—first butter, then sugar, eggs, candied citron, and finally, raisins. Panettone was such a hit with the unsuccessful baker’s customers that his family business prospered, and the prize—his daughter—was won by Toni.

Made from a dense, yeasted dough dotted with fruit, panettone is shaped like a cupola with a cylindrical base; its proportions are based on those of an Italian cathedral. These miniature, vaulted “churches” are as light as air; their interiors possess an airy interior structure that pulls like cotton-candy strands.

A California girl, Amy Brown, of San Francisco’s Marla Bakery, learned this ancient recipe in the tiny Italian town of Vieste (population: five hundred) after tracking down some very distant relatives who helped her secure an internship at a bakery there. Since returning from Italy thirteen years ago, she has made it a point to bake panettone each Christmas season. “I have baked it every year—first, at a café upon my return; then at Citizen Cake; another year, I made it at home (never again!); then at Nopa; and last year, at the debut of Marla Bakery.” Her sacred loaves have attracted devotees near and far.

Last month, she opened a pop-up window at her commercial kitchen where locals can buy her scones and pains au chocolat for breakfast or sandwiches and savory pies for lunch; a proper retail storefront will follow next spring. In the meantime, there are panettone orders to fill.

After college, she arrived in Italy with what she soon realized was a useless foundation in Spanish; she remembers joining the bakery staff and being “reduced to smiling a lot, nodding, and saying ‘I’m sorry.’ ” A few weeks in, her landlord’s daughter explained that Amy’s American habit of running water while washing dishes was wasteful and that her shower after the late-night baking shift woke up everyone their entire apartment complex.

That was one thing to be sorry for. Another was her miscalculation of Southern Italian weather. She’d planned for her winter clothing to be shipped over in mid-December only to suffer through the autumn chill in lightweight wear. Given the cost of water and gas, she didn’t dare turn on her heater in her apartment—one could only imagine what complaints that would draw. Instead, she shivered in silence. The glares from her neighbors left her feeling like a “bumbling idiot”; it was humbling, at best.

Though baking in Italy tends to be a male-dominated profession, Amy worked through the nights alongside three seasoned pros who spoke in dialect and sang Italian love songs from the 1950s to lighten the mood and to communicate. She found solace (and heat) in the bakeshop’s familiar smells, warm oven, and clockworklike routine. By the time the holiday season hit and her winter clothes had turned up, she’d gotten her bearings and, thanks to her colleagues, been schooled in the methods behind the “real” panettone, not the packaged, preservative-filled product cranked out by factories as early as August for the Christmas rush.

Baking hundreds upon hundreds of loaves of the special bread, she deciphered its secrets and, when it was time to come home, carried them back to the States.

The goal is to create an unusually light bread, proofed to the max, that can withstand the addition of fruit. Amy continues to use the same recipe she was taught by those serenading bakers in Vieste. She has made some slight modifications to reflect her Bay Area surroundings. She candies her own readily available Buddha’s-hand, orange, lemon, and Meyer lemon peels, and adds marsala-soaked raisins. And she eschews the typically long, overnight dough fermentations for a biga—a dry pre-ferment with the strong acidic flavor of sourdough, a San Francisco staple. The base starts with a creaming of the butter and sugar. When that achieves a light color, she slowly adds flour and a large quantity of eggs, and mixes it all together vigorously to attain a shiny elasticity. This yields a dough that’s wet and sticky and has long gluten strands, which allow it to be stretched clear across the room.

When this elastic strength is achieved, the dough is ready to encase the candied citrus and raisins. Just as important as the mixing, the long leavening period requires the dough to go through three rises in the course of a daylong fermentation; this adds depth of flavor, strength for baking, ensures the dough is light, and preserves the bread. At least twenty-four hours later (forty, maximum), the dough is ready for shaping, preferably on a marble slab, to prevent the mass from getting too hot. Butter is applied to keep the dough from sticking. The loaves are formed into rounds, proofed on the table, shaped again, placed in paper molds, and proofed again to more than double the original size. They’re then scored with an X, egg washed, and finished with very large crystals of baker’s sugar. The final rise creates a billowing dome that sets during the bake.

The legendary cooling process ensures that the cylindrical base of this extra-aerated bread doesn’t fall back onto itself: The loaves are clasped into racks and hung upside down.

Amy’s understanding of Christmas developed in a country where nativity scenes are far more common than wreaths; where the spirit of the season emanates from domed fresh breads baked tightly into traditional paper wrappers. “They signified the holidays more than the songs, the string lights, and decorated trees,” she recalls. Despite all the hard work, the light and warmth of the bakery cemented her fondness for the season and nurtured a love for baking that has only grown. “I get excited when the days get shorter,” she says. “Alone in the warm kitchen in the middle of the night, when everyone is asleep, with the smells keeping my senses aroused and my mind awake—especially when surrounded by hundreds of hanging panettones—there is no better feeling.”

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

A treasured traditional Christmas gift in the English-speaking Caribbean, black cake is a warmly spiced, fragrant loaf suffused with rum-soaked prunes and raisins. In those countries, these dried black fruits are more expensive and harder to come by than their tropical counterparts. That’s one reason the cake is considered special; another is the time and effort required to make it.

Collaborating on this cake, Felicia Gordon and Imani Razat, both American-born New Yorkers with West Indian backgrounds, revive their childhood holiday memories and explore a deep spiritual connection to their heritage.

Felicia, a lawyer by day and the founder of a Harlem-based art collective, has very little baking experience and approaches the project creatively. Imani, a designer, explains her motivation: She believes, she says, “It’s important to bake with girlfriends; it brings people together. We both love challenges, especially creative ones. We’re also very spiritual and understand that a lot of love goes into baking, an especially intricate process. It’s almost ritualistic.” Adds Felicia, “Anything Imani and I touch together pretty much turns to gold. I never turn down an opportunity to participate in a project with her. Also, in a world of Internet shopping and increasingly cold social interactions, I thought it was time to bring the love back. Who doesn’t love getting a homemade gift? Moreover, the fruit in the cake seemed more nourishing than the average sweet. As an adult, I respect that.”

Meant to be eaten in thin slices over the course of many days, the aptly named black cake has a color darker than the darkest chocolate and a flavor much deeper than that of an American-style fruitcake. “It seems to last forever,” says Imani. “The older it gets, the more delicious. Most people don’t eat theirs right away. The longer it cures, the better—and it’s super rich!”

Felicia agrees. “The point is to treasure and savor it,” she says. “It comes around once a year and a lot of work is put into each loaf. Plus, the alcohol content is no joke.”

Densely packed but light in texture, the slices fill your mouth with caramel notes enlivened by the rum’s heat. A lingering aftertaste brings on visions of sugar plantations and distilleries, inspiring curiosity about the colonization of these isles and the interplay of culinary cultures that led to such a delectable being developed. “This cake is rich in flavor and in tradition,” notes Imani. “It’s a magical tribute to those who came before us and worked the plantations. We share that blood, that history. It’s a lot of work, not something you sign up for every day…. You need a strong arm for stirring, and you must give the cake love during every step, from the soaking on through.”

No two bakers’ black cakes are alike. Recipes vary from island to island, and each home cook has his or her own approach and makes subtle modifications accordingly. Some use rum, others port, red wines, or even bitters. The one ingredient everyone agrees on is homemade burned-sugar syrup.

Putting its own stamp on a Trinidadian recipe, this dynamic duo adds figs and dark dried cherries to the traditional grouping of prunes, raisins, and assorted citrus peels. They soak the mixture in rum for a month, stirring it every couple of days. “Felicia added figs to the recipe,” Imani explains, “and she uses dried cherries instead of maraschinos. It’s a departure, but it made the cake even better—she made it our own. Some traditionalists would never do that, but Felicia is always looking to remix things and make them modern.”

Though named for its signature black fruits, the loaf derives its hue and depth of flavor from its tarlike caramel. This is created by bringing sugar to the brink of burning before stopping the cooking by adding a tiny bit of water. The dried fruit and rum are pureed before being shot through with such spices as clove, nutmeg, cinnamon, and allspice. This concentrated, smooth pulp is folded into a cake batter perfumed with grated lime zest, poured into bread pans, and baked in a water bath until the moment it sets. It then cools for twenty-four hours. ”And when the cake is cool, you drown it in rum!” enthuses Felicia. “I used Haitian rum—Barbancourt, my favorite in mixed drinks! You wrap each loaf first in foil or rum-drenched cloth, then brown paper, and decorate it with ribbon and pinecones.” One heady, luxurious bite transports you to the Caribbean.

Illustration by Danielle Murray

“When I came back to Big Sur, I rediscovered a lifelong love of harvesting the bounty of a good fruit tree. That showed me the direction life would take,” says Heather Lanier of her decision to plant Hill of the Hawk farm on the 500-acre ranch where she grew up. “Summers were spent climbing in their branches or picnicking in their shade. With adult eyes schooled in permaculture, I saw the wisdom of the old-timers in planting these trees inside a wide bowl surrounded by hillsides, sheltered from harsh winds of the ocean, catching the heat of the sun and the flow of the ground water. No wonder the trees were so big and abundant!”

Set in yellow hills speckled with bunches of redwoods and surrounded by views of Mount Manual and the even taller stark white peaks of the Ventana cones, the ranch is breathtaking. To the west, the cliffs fall into the Pacific.

In addition to the hundred-plus trees she’s cultivated over the past decade, Lanier’s orchard contains a dozen of those planted in 1945—quince, apple, pear, plum, and several Hachiya persimmons. There’s no farmer’s name on the original drawing that marks the birth of those twelve remaining trees, but we know that Lanier’s mother, Claire Chappellet, was devoted to their care from 1965 until her passing, when her daughter returned and took over. “Whoever planted them did the hard work of ground-opening, tending the young saplings, and pruning them wisely,” Lanier explains. “Though I’ve never met them, their work has given me delight, and delicious food.”

Every November, mother and daughter’s dedication is evident in the persimmons that emerge on many of the still-active sixty-eight-year-old trees. “The beauty of the persimmon tree is its variegated oblate leaves, as large as a hand, displaying brilliant greens, yellows, oranges and reds,” Lanier says. “And when those leaves fall, the thin, bare branches are hung with the first Christmas ornaments in December.”

But long before Christmas, she has the fruit on her mind: “In spring, I jealously count the small green buttons with their frilly rosette of leaves as they appear, and watch as they grow, turning from cold green to warm, pale orange. I exult as autumn comes and the leaves display all my favorite colors at once.”

Harvested when bright orange and firm to the touch, the persimmons are set out on every counter of Lanier’s kitchen and shuffled around as they ripen, getting steadily darker and softer while she waits for their jellied insides to form.

She has prepared many dishes to show off this abundance: persimmon spiced cake and cookies, dried persimmons, and a Thanksgiving salad of persimmon, grapefruit, and yogurt. But nothing captures her heart like the revered persimmon pudding with hard sauce that graced the Thanksgiving and Christmas tables of Lanier’s youth. “It was always baked and served in deep casserole-type dishes,” she recalls, “with a giant spoon for serving, accompanied by hard sauce for the adults and whipped cream for the children.” Somewhere between the moistest cake you’ve ever eaten and a custard, intensely spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger, the dessert gets its sticky, sweet character from the persimmons’ pulp.

Lanier still makes the dessert and cherishes her mother’s food-spattered, annotated 1953 copy of Irma S. Rombauer’s The Joy of Cooking where the original recipe is printed. In her sun-filled kitchen on the ranch, she points to a group of persimmons so ripe that their thin exteriors can barely hold their gelatinous innards. “Scoop the soft flesh from the skin and into the batter bowl,” she begins. “Combine the fruit with aromatic spices, dried fruits, flour, eggs, milk, and melted butter, then bake until just set.” And several times a year, this is precisely what she does, with the lightness and pretense-free mien of a baker who’s stuck to the same recipe for so long it’s become second nature; she’s too busy tending the orchard, milking goats, collecting eggs, and grinding her own flour to mention the obvious details.

Her grandparents bought the ranch in 1964 as a site for a vacation residence. The following year, in a dream, her mother saw a huge walnut dining table; upon waking, she drew and then built it. She then designed what would be Hill of the Hawk—the house constructed in 1966, when Lanier was born—around that table. A modern home perched precipitously on a cliff, the structure has weathered brutal winter storms and basked in summer suns, and remains a natural extension of Claire’s creative passions: cooking, painting, poetry, and teaching.

At a time when entertaining was done in lavishly set dining rooms and kitchens were a place where recipes were followed and guests forbidden, Claire encouraged visitors to participate in the preparations. Recipe cards were sacrificed for interpretation and experimentation. “My mother taught so many people how to cook and always encouraged me to join in,” Lanier remembers. “I helped scoop all that soft flesh from the persimmons; I stood on a stool, swathed in an apron, her 1964 GE speed-control electric beater in my hand. I’ve used that beater to cream together the soft ingredients of her persimmon pudding all of my life.”

Lanier effuses about her mother’s annual Christmas party that included the bohemian community of Big Sur artists in the 1960s. “Festive attire, engaging conversation, bright laughter, ukulele, washtub bass and guitar, everyone dancing with everyone,” she laughs. “Poems, prose, and songs filled the house along with gorgeous dessert. Everything was made at home, from scratch, utilizing our bountiful fruit trees. It always featured my mother’s persimmon pudding in large bowls with hard sauce.”

Apart from swapping the whipped cream for whipped crème fraîche and halving the amount of sugar added, Lanier has remained studiously faithful to Rombauer’s recipe, and as she dips a large antique serving spoon into her mother’s trusty casserole dish, she is flooded with memories of Claire’s generosity, teaching, entertaining, and creativity. “Friends and family count on the fact that, after the harvest, there will be steaming bowls of persimmon pudding at my holiday parties,” she promises. “And one scoop takes me back to all the others.”

Heather’s mother’s 1953 version of the Joy of Cooking Photo by Jaime Arze

Persimmon Pudding

(Adapted from Irma S. Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking, Bobbs Merrill Co., 1953)

8 Servings

1 quart native persimmons put through a colander (there should be about 2 cupfuls of pulp)

Beat in:

3 eggs

1 1/4 cups sugar

1 1/4 cups sugar

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon any baking powder

1 teaspoon soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup melted butter

2 1/2 cups rich milk

2 teaspoons cinnamon

1 teaspoon ginger

1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

One cupful raisins or nut meats may be added to the batter.

Bake the pudding in a greased 9 x 9 inch baking dish in a moderate oven 325 degrees until it is firm, about 1 hour.

Serve it with hard sauce or cream.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

Ask Jamie Stachowski about his legendary giant fruitcake of thirty years ago—the one baked in a wine crate and which had to be carried into the oven by multiple chefs—and he’ll tell you that the story begins further back, when he first learned to make fruits confits. “I would start at the beginning of the year,” he says, describing his passion for a painstaking process he discovered by accident—one that involves candying whole fruits for a week, regardless of size, convenience, or kitchen space. “Cherries, plums, berries, peaches, Pluots, apricots—I’d slit them a bit and eke out the stone beforehand to keep it from imparting a bitter flavor, but keep the fruit intact. Early in the winter, I’d get whole oranges of different types, whole grapefruit, pineapples, bananas, pears, large pumpkin wedges, little lady apples, prickly pears, figs, and whole melons. I’ve candied cases and cases of fruit and used hundreds of pounds of sugar.”

Today, he is settled at Stachowski Market, his lauded Georgetown charcuterie in Washington, DC. And though Christmas cake and ham might seem to have little in common on the plate, making bacon and sausage does involve the same monomaniacal precision as preparing the fruits confits that set his fruitcake apart from the competition. It takes years to develop the expertise needed to produce artisanal goods like these.

Stachowski was first exposed to these time-honored crafts as a trainee in French restaurant kitchens across the United States. When he left high school early, his parents sent him to work in a restaurant, hoping the harsh realities of the working world would send him scurrying back to the classroom. “I don’t know if I was lucky, but it was just the way things fell,” he recalls. “I was a kid looking for work, went into a French restaurant, and fell in love with it. Back then kitchens were loaded with trained chefs: a saucier, a certified boucher, a certified pâtissier, a garde-manger. All the people were highly skilled. The scale of restaurants was different; you could afford such talent.” He trained under Georges Auguste Escoffier’s centuries-old brigade system, which places a restaurant’s most adept chefs in the positions best suited to their strengths.

He began at a time when galleys were regimented and were filled with cooks, not laborers. Opulence and fine dining were the rage, caviar and truffles showed up on every menu, and the farther an ingredient had traveled to reach the larder in the United States, the more coveted it was. Stachowski jumped from one haute restaurant to another every few years, learning a little more with each leap. “The funny thing is, I moved about like any young man, or chef,” he recalls. “You want to stay at a place for about a year and head to the next. Once I got in with some pretty renowned French chefs, they’d ship me around: I went to work with Joachim Splichal, Claude Segal, Wolfgang Puck, Jean-Louis Palladin, Michel Richard, and so on and so forth. But along the way, you learn how to run a kitchen.”

During his time with Chef Palladin, he was introduced to pâte de fruit—geléed fruit coated in sugar. This inspired a crash course in sweets made from fresh-fruit purees. Another life-altering revelation soon arrived in the form of fruits confits, or candied whole fruit. The process associated with this specialty entails replacing the water in a fruit’s cells with a supersaturated sugar solution; the jellied result is uniformly translucent and the fruit completely intact. While not a technically difficult procedure, it takes time and patience; each fruit’s candying requires a different length of time—the firmer and more structurally defined the raw material, the easier it is to work with.

“The guy explained it and showed me how to do it and I just got smitten,” explains Stachowski, who began routinely candying every fruit he encountered, just as it came into season. He’d start with a solution of equal parts sugar and water, brought up to between 180°F and 190°F. He submerged the fruit in the liquid, then immediately removed it from the heat to cool in the syrup. To increase the syrup’s viscosity, he added more sugar to it daily for a week, at a rate sufficient to keep the fruit from fermenting and, at the same time, to allow its structure to be penetrated so its interior would candy. “It requires patience,” Stachowski warns. “It can take three weeks or longer, because the slower you go, the better the fruit retains its structure. I use all fruits, though cantaloupe benefits the most from the process, which really enriches, condenses, and captures the flavor.”

Inevitably, the serial candier “ended up with buckets and buckets of fruit.” One autumn, surveying the stockpile lined up in five-gallon buckets in his kitchen’s basement storeroom, he remembered the fruitcakes of his youth and suddenly discovered a connection. “I’ve always loved fruitcake,” he continues. “I know a lot of people aren’t fans, but my grandmothers made it—unfortunately, with store-bought candied fruits. As I got older, what stood out was how much I enjoyed the cake and how this new skill could improve it. It was the fruit that needed fixing.”

He could think of no better destination for his overwhelming inventory of candied fruit than fruitcake, although no conventional iteration of the leaden underdog of the pastry world could contain the stash. Calling into service a spare twelve-bottle wine crate, he set out to bake the king of all fruitcakes.

Preparations for the “superfruitcake” got underway months in advance: The syrup was drained from the fruits in September; the fruits would gradually become drier and denser. He’d use the drained syrup in the restaurant’s mixed drinks or donate them to the pastry department to be added into crème Chantilly.

Moving right along, Stachowski readied a raft of macerated nuts, dried fruit, toasted pistachio meats, and huge chunks of white and milk chocolate. It takes a thick, concentrated batter to hold all of those solids and the requisite buckets of booze. After folding the nutmeats, dried fruit and smaller glazed fruits into his sturdy liquid base, he poured it into the wine crate, leaving space at the top for the larger elements. “I love the cake, but it’s mostly about the fruit,” he notes. “So I would make the batter and just coat the smaller fruit a bit, then place in the larger fruit.” Whole grapefruits, pears, and peaches, along with chunks of chocolate, were plopped into the batter, layered, and stuffed up to the brim of the container until the mixture almost flowed over. Finally, the crate was carefully carried by several chefs into the oven to bake at 300°F for over twenty-four hours.

The fun began the next day, when the cake was removed and the bar opened: “You pull out the booze and start pouring bottles of Armagnac, cognac, whiskey, Grand Marnier, house-made Angelica, and more,” he laughs. “I would pour on as much booze as the hot cake would take.” The King was so huge and dense that it seemed to guzzle everything up and demand more. As with any good fruitcake, more booze was added for days, even weeks, leading up to the royal unveiling.

A table was cleared in the dining room and decorated in gold, a throne worthy of its monarch. Here the royal cake could lie in wait, surrounded by its salivating loyal subjects. Wearing crisp white toques that grazed the ceiling, a procession of chefs carried the King out on a huge serving tray to the delight of the guests. “When it was unmolded, it was a beautiful mosaic; it was spectacular and colorful,” Stachowski remembers, smiling regally. “I served it with Grand Marnier crème anglaise, sabayon, and whipped cream. I’d go out to the dining room and go through the theatrics with a huge knife, shaving off servings for the customers. It was a spectacle, but it was great.” He laughs. “Everybody thought I was fucking nuts, but I did it for the craft.”

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

I’ve been baking professionally since I was a teenager. I’ve mixed and rolled out countless cakes, pastries, and candies; sculpted melted chocolate into art; pulled sugar into ornate coiled ribbons; stacked wedding cakes taller than I am; scooped a mountain’s worth of cookie dough; shaped loaves of bread by the millions; grown my own sourdough starter, and vanquished a beast of a wood-fired oven. And although not a year has passed without my making stollen, I have remained bewitched by Germany’s answer to fruitcake.

In fact, no baking memory stands out in such vivid detail as the one in which, already exhausted from clocking hours of overtime, I assisted in making 120 stollen to be left in hotel guest rooms on Christmas Eve. Fresh from culinary school, I had taken a job as the lowest-ranking cook at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons. Though I wasn’t entirely sure what stollen was, I wanted the opportunity to work side by side with the resident pastry chef Donald Wressel and understand what inspired the excited look in his eyes as he described the loaves’ complex preparation.

Soon, I would learn stollen is a cake and bread hybrid whose production is at every step laborious and difficult. I would smell raisins that had been soaking in rum since November. I would discover Chef Wressel had collected vanilla beans to perfume his sugar using a process that takes months. There would be butter to clarify, almond paste to roll, and fruit to candy. My curious young mind fixated on each intricacy of this massive project.

During the holidays, only those with seniority were given time off, and I was missing my family terribly. Huge parties at home centered on my grandparents’ traditional Sicilian cardoon soup, rum cake, and Italian cookies. My grandmother insisted that everyone celebrate together, and as she got older she made her daughters promise to keep that tradition alive. On the morning I was supposed to start the stollen, my mother called with news that Grandma Rizzolo had passed away. Heartbroken, I thought of calling in sick, but it was too late; I’d already committed. I ventured silently into the bakeshop where Donald put me straight to work gathering ingredients, and I became immersed.

It commences with the candying of citrus—kumquats, orange rind, and Buddha’s hand, preferably. The zest simmers slowly in a sugar syrup that must be completely absorbed into the rind, turning it translucent. Executed correctly, this candied citrus will last indefinitely. Then there is the rest of the fruit: currants, golden raisins, and dried cherries must be soaked in rum for months before they’re sufficiently drunk and plump.

“Mixing begins with the vanilla-perfumed butter and freshly ground nutmeg”

Mixing begins with the vanilla-perfumed butter and freshly ground nutmeg, cinnamon, and allspice. Once these ingredients are creamed together with the tiniest amount of sugar and a couple of egg yolks, and some flour is added, a shortbread-like base is created. Next, a bit of yeast and a pre-fermented dough are thrown in, along with extracts of vanilla and almond. During a second mixing, the machine’s paddle is exchanged for a dough hook to work the crumbly mass at a very high speed. This leaves you with a very smooth, shiny, and stretchy dough that can hold together without being torn by the pounds of rummed raisins and candied fruit soon to be folded in.

Once it attains this optimal appearance and texture, the dough is rolled out thin and the raisins and citrus are worked in through more rolling, followed by folding. The bundle is then left to ferment. But there’s no rest for the chef during this time. Butter for dipping the breads must be clarified by simmering and skimming until all its milk solids are removed, which ensures the butter will not turn rancid. Marzipan must be rolled into dowels the length of the bread. After fermentation, the dough is shaped into an oval, rolled thin in the center—where it’s stuffed with one of those dowel-shaped pieces of almond paste—and folded and creased to create its unique three-ribbed form; the shape is supposed to represent Baby Jesus swaddled in a blanket. The bread is then proofed, baked, and upon being removed from the oven, immediately bathed in the clarified butter, tossed in sugar, and covered in a thick layer of powdered sugar.

The sugar, candied fruit, inebriated raisins, and clarified butter preserve the bread’s interior by acting as a natural seal. The loaf will only improve with age as its flavors intermingle and build on each other.

The stollen’s a cake that ages gracefully.

A calm came over me that first day of making stollen, those hours spent cutting, shaping, and rolling, side by side with my mentor in monk-like silence. The repetitive actions and comforting fragrances pulled me out of my grief and gave me a sense of purpose; they quietly confirmed that every step done correctly would lead to a beautiful bread to be gift-wrapped and delivered to our unsuspecting guests. As we finished cleaning the bakeshop, I told my boss about my grandmother’s passing. He chided me for coming to work, but I assured him that focusing on this project was the only conceivable way I could have mourned. I still remember every moment.

I’ve missed family Christmas practically every year since. Some say my passion for improving my recipe borders on obsession; I continue to add new candied fruits, grind all my own spices, and relentlessly re-tweak the process. I extend my already overbooked days, always believing that these loaves deserve it. Every holiday season, stollen is my gift to my friends and the patrons of Big Sur Bakery.

You have arrived at your final Christmas cake desitination

While I wonder if my grandmother would be disappointed, it’s in this fanatical holiday baking ritual that I offer a slightly strange homage to a tiny Sicilian woman who wouldn’t know a stollen from a stromboli.

Swaddled bundle of joy

Dresden Stollen

(From The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook: A Year in the Life of a Restaurant, William Morrow An Imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, 2009)

For the sponge:

3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons lukewarm milk

1 tablespoon instant yeast

1 cup bread flour

For the stollen:

1 1/4 cup unsalted butter plus extra for coating the bowl

1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom

1/4 teaspoon ground clove

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

2 teaspoon ground cinnamom

1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1/2 cup sugar

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 vanilla bean

2 egg yolks

2 teaspoons almond extract

1/2 cup raw unbalanced almonds

1 1/4 cups candied fruits or candied zest (preferably homemade)

2 cups currants, golden raisins or raisins (soaked in 3 cups of dark rum overnight or longer)

3 cups bread flour

24 one-inch cubes quince paste (see page XXX)

For the almond paste center:

10 ounces almond paste

For finishing:

1 cup melted butter

1 cup sugar

1 1/2 cups powdered sugar

Start with the sponge. In the electric mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment combine the milk, 1 cup of flour and yeast until a dough is formed, about 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a buttered bowl big enough for the sponge to double in size. Cover with plastic film, place in a warm part of the kitchen and let it rise until it doubles in size, 30 to 60 minutes.

Meanwhile, cream the butter, spices, sugar and salt until light and fluffy. Split the vanilla bean lengthwise with a pairing knife, scrape out the pulp with the back of the pairing knife, and put the pulp to the butter mixture. Add the yolks and almond extract and mix to combine.

Drain the currants and reserve the rum. Drain the candied fruit from the candied syrup. Scatter the almonds on a cookie sheet and toast until very light brown, about 10 minutes. Cool completely and rough chop. Toss together the currants, candied fruit and toasted almonds and reserve until ready to use.

In the electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the sponge and the remaining flour with the butter mixture. Mix on medium until the dough is shiny and pulls away from the sides of the bowl, this could take anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes.

Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface. Press it to flatten and then roll into a 1/2-inch thick rectangle. Add 2/3 of the currant-nut mixture and fold the dough over it. Add more of the currant mixture and roll into a ball, keeping a smooth skin of dough over the top that contains the currant-nut mixture inside the dough. Place the dough in a buttered bowl large enough to let it double in size and cover it with plastic film. Let it rise until double in a warm part of the kitchen, about 1to 1 1/2 hours.

Transfer the dough to a floured surface and cut into 4 pieces. Shape each piece into a football, keeping the smooth skin on top and tucking in the fruit underneath. Let the breads rest for 7 minutes covered with plastic film. Working with a piece of dough at a time, flip it over on your work surface. Punch it to get rid of any air bubbles and tuck the dough over and in to form a tight football shape. Repeat with the other 3 pieces of dough. Let them rest on the table covered with a plastic bag for 15 minutes.

While they’re resting, cut the almond paste into four pieces and roll them into 4 logs, about 6 inches long.

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Adjust the oven rack to the middle position.

Take your first loaf and flip it on a floured surface. Roll the center of the loaf until it’s 1/2-inch thick with a rolling pin to create a cradle about 4 inches wide while keeping the edges thick. Place the log in the center and fold the top half over. Press with the side of your hand to create a crease between the log and the 2 thick pieces of dough. Put the shaped loaves on 2 sheet pans lined with parchment paper, apart from each other so they can rise until doubled in size. Place the trays in plastic garbage bags and place in a warm part of the kitchen for 1 to 1 1/2 hours until the dough is spongy to the touch.

Bake the stollen for 35 to 45 minutes until deep golden brown. Remove from the oven and let cool for 15 minutes. Once the bread is cool enough to handle it, brush it generously with the reserved rum and melted butter. Sprinkle with the sugar and dust heavily with powdered sugar. Eat right away or stored wrap in plastic film.