Women’s Christmas Nollaig na Mban


On the sixth of January, the feast of the Epiphany, the French enjoy 50 million Galette des Rois to celebrate the Festival of Kings. The flaky pastry cake has a soft filling of delicious frangipane – inside is hidden a Feve, originally it was a broad bean but nowadays it is more likely to be a tiny porcelain or hard plastic figure.
The ‘Kings’ being celebrated to are Balthazar, Gaspar and Melchior who came on the Epiphany- to the manger to shower baby Jesus with gifts. But what is the significance of the broad bean – well apparently this legume is similar in shape to the human embryo and is the first to emerge from the ground after winter. It represents the gift of the earth, fertility and new life.
The ceremony of the Galette des Rois dates back to the middle ages but I first came across the tradition when I au-paired in France in the 1960s. Madame asked me to pop around to the local Boulangerie to collect a special galette. It resembled a gateau pithivier but was accompanied by a gold paper crown.
The children couldn’t wait for dinner to be over that evening. The flaky pastry cake was cut into neat slices. Then right on cue the youngest child climbed under the table and hid beneath the tablecloth. Madame then pointed at a portion and asked ‘Who is this piece for?’ The child called out the name of each in turn. The lucky person who finds the Feve in his or her slice is the king and has the crown ceremoniously placed on his or her head. Then a consort is chosen and as the king puts the glass to ‘his’ lips, everyone choruses ‘the king drinks, the king drinks’
Galette des Rois is one of my favourite cakes of the year, it’s easy to make at home and I’m sure some of the children can produce a golden crown.
In Ireland On 6th January – the 12th day of Christmas – we celebrate Women’s Christmas or Nollaig na Mban. This was the day when women made ‘little dainties’ and enjoyed some time off after pampering the men during the busy festive season. The tradition still lives on but nowadays many get together with friends to go out for dinner or kick up their heels in a club. If that’s not an option how about a gorgeous afternoon tea? Here are a few of my favourites.

Galette des Rois

Serves 8

1 lb Puff Pastry


3ozs (75g) ground hazelnuts toasted, freshly ground
1oz (25g) ground almonds
4 ozs (110g) castor sugar
1½ ozs (45g) melted butter
2 egg yolks, preferably free range
2 tablesp.  double cream
1 dessertsp. rum (optional)
egg wash made with 1 beaten egg and a tiny pinch of salt
icing sugar

Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F/regulo 6.
Put the hazelnuts onto a baking tray.  Bake until the skins loosen.
Remove nuts from oven and place in a tea towel.  Rub off the loose papery skins.  Let cool.  Grind the nuts in a nut grinder or chop in a food processor.

Increase oven temperature to 230°C/450°F/regulo 8.

Divide the pastry in half, roll out just less than ¼ inch thick, and cut into 2 circles approx. 10 inch (25.5cm) in diameter.  Put one onto a damp baking sheet, chill and chill the other piece also.
Mix all the ingredients for the filling together in a bowl until smooth. Put the filling onto the pastry base, leaving a rim of about 1 inch (2.5mm) free around the edge. Wrap a broad bean in a piece of silicone paper and tuck into the filling. Brush the rim with beaten egg or water and put on the lid of puff pastry, press it down well around the edges.
Make a small hole in the centre brush with egg wash and leave for 5 minutes in the refrigerator. With the back of a knife, nick the edge of the pastry 12 times at regular intervals to form a scalloped edge with a rose petal effect. Mark long curving lines from the central hole outwards to designate formal petals. Be careful not to cut through the pastry just score it.

Bake for 20 minutes in the preheated oven, then lower the heat to 200C/400F/regulo 6 and bake for 30 minutes approx. While still hot dredge heavily with icing sugar and return to a very hot oven or pop under a grill (Do Not Leave the Grill) – the sugar will melt and caramelize to a dark brown glaze. Serve warm or cold with a bowl of softly whipped cream.
Note: Galette des Rois is best eaten warm, but it also keeps well and may be reheated

Little Pecan Puffs

Makes 48

110g (4oz) pecan nuts
110g (4oz) butter, softened
50g (2oz) castor sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
110g (4oz) plain flour
25g (1oz) icing sugar sifted onto shallow bowl or plate

Preheat the oven to 150ºC/300ºF/gas mark 2.

Place the pecan nuts in a food processor and grind until quite fine.

In a bowl cream the butter, then add the sugar and vanilla and beat until light and fluffy.  Add the ground pecan nuts and flour and bring together to form a dough.  Roll into small marble size balls of dough between the palms of your hands, then flatten slightly using the palm of your hand and place on a baking tray.  Bake for 40 minutes.
Allow to cool for 2 minutes, then carefully remove from the tray and while they are still hot roll them in the sifted icing sugar.  Cool on a wire rack, and when cooled sift with icing sugar again.

Coconut Macaroons

Makes 30 approx

2 egg whites
4 1/2ozs (125g) vanilla castor sugar
3ozs (75g) desiccated coconut

Preheat the oven to 150°C/300°F/regulo 2.

Cover 2 or 3 baking sheets with silicone paper.  Whisk the egg whites with the vanilla sugar until very stiff and fold in the desiccated coconut gently.  Drop teaspoons of the mixture onto the baking sheets and bake in the preheated oven for 40 minutes approx.

Cool on a wire rack.

These biscuits may be stored in an airtight tin for 3-4 weeks.

This mixture also makes two 7inches (18cm) meringue discs which can be sandwiched together with chunks of fresh pineapple and cream.

Moroccan Orange and Almond Cake

Serves 8

Claudia Roden gave us this recipe when she taught at the school in October 1985.

2 large organic oranges
6 free range eggs
250g (8oz) ground almonds
250g (8oz) sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder

9 ” springform tin round tin, buttered and floured

Preheat oven to 190°C/375°F /Gas Mark 5.

Wash and boil the oranges (unpeeled) in a little water for nearly 2 hours (or 1/2 hour in a pressure cooker).  Let them cool, then cut them open and remove the pips.  Turn the oranges into a pulp by putting them in a food processor or an electric blender.

Whisk the eggs in a large bowl.  Add all the other ingredients, mix thoroughly and pour into a buttered and floured cake tin with a removable base if possible.  Bake in a preheated oven at 190°C/375°F/Gas Mark 5 for about 1 hour.  If it is still very wet, leave it in the oven for a little longer.  Cool in the tin before turning out. Dredge with icing sugar.

This is a very moist cake that may be served as a dessert.

Almond, Hazelnut or Praline Cake

Serves 10 approx.

6 ozs (175g) flour
6 ozs (175g) sugar
3 eggs
5 ozs (150g) butter
1 tablespoon milk
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 tablespoons praline powder (see below)

6 ozs (175g) sugar
6 ozs (175g) skinned hazelnuts or unskinned almonds

Praline Butter Icing

7 tablespoons water
9 tablespoons sugar
5 egg yolks
1/2 lb (225g) unsalted butter (softened and creamed)
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

4 tablespoons praline powder (sieved praline)

2 x 7 (18cm) inch cake tins

First make the praline.
Combine the sugar and nuts in a heavy saucepan. Put over a low heat until the sugar turns caramel colour. Do not stir, carefully rotate the pan until the nuts are covered with caramel. When the nuts go “pop” pour the mixture on to an oiled marble slab, cool. Crush to a gritty powder.

Brush the cake tins with melted butter and line the base of each with a round of greaseproof paper. Brush the paper with melted butter also and dust the base and edges with flour.

Cream the sugar and butter and add in the eggs one by one.  Beat well between each addition.  Sieve the flour and baking powder and stir in gradually. Add two tablespoons of praline powder. Mix lightly adding milk to moisten if the mixture is a little stiff.

Divide equally between two prepared tins.  Bake for 25 minutes at 190°C/350°F/regulo 5. Allow to cool in the tin for a few minutes before turning out and cooling on a wire rack. Reinvert after a few moments so as not to mark the top of the cake.

Meanwhile make the butter cream.
Bring the water and sugar to the boil stirring only until the sugar dissolves. Let the syrup boil to the thread stage (115°C/238°F). Beat the yolks for one minute with an electric beater, add hot syrup very gradually. Continue beating until the syrup has all been added and the mixture is cool.  The mousse should be stiff and hold a “figure of 8”.  Still whisking, add butter in small batches. Add pure vanilla extract. Stir in 4 tablespoons (4 American tablespoons + 4 teaspoons) powdered praline.

To Assemble
Split each cake in half. Spread with praline butter icing. Sandwich together.
Ice the top and sides with the remaining icing. Sprinkle crushed praline all over the top surface of the cake.

Coffee Cake

This is a splendid recipe for an old-fashioned coffee cake – the sort Mummy made – and we still make it regularly. Everyone loves it. I’m a real purist about using extract rather than essence in the case of vanilla, but in this cake, I prefer coffee essence (which is actually mostly chicory) to real coffee.

Serves 10–12

225g (8oz) soft butter
225g (8oz) caster sugar
4 organic eggs
225g (8oz) plain white flour, preferably unbleached
1 teaspoon baking powder
scant 2 tablespoons Irel or Camp coffee essence

Coffee Butter Cream
50g (2oz) butter
110g (4oz) icing sugar, sieved
1–2 teaspoons Irel or Camp coffee essence

Coffee Icing

450g (1lb) icing sugar
scant 2 tablespoons Irel or Camp coffee essence
about 4 tablespoons boiling water

To Decorate

toasted hazelnuts or chocolate-covered coffee beans

2 x 20cm (8in) round sandwich tins

Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/ gas mark 4.

Line the base of the tins with circles of greaseproof or silicone paper. Brush the bottom and sides with melted butter and dust lightly with flour.

Beat the soft butter with a wooden spoon, add the caster sugar and whisk until pale in colour and light in texture. Whisk the eggs. Add to the mixture, bit by bit, whisking well between each addition.

Sieve the flour with the baking powder and stir gently into the cake mixture. Finally, add in the coffee essence and mix thoroughly.

Divide the mixture evenly between the prepared sandwich tins and bake for 30 minutes. When the cakes are cooked, the centre will be firm and springy and the edges will have shrunk from the sides of the tins. Leave to rest in the tins for a few minutes before turning out onto a wire rack. Remove the greaseproof paper from the base, then flip over so the top of the cakes don’t get marked by the wire rack. Leave the cakes to cool on the wire rack.

To make the coffee butter cream, whisk the butter with the sieved icing sugar and add the coffee essence. Continue to whisk until light and fluffy.

To make the coffee icing, sieve the icing sugar and put into a bowl. Add coffee essence and enough boiling water to make it the consistency of a thick cream.

When cold, sandwich together the bases of the cakes with the coffee butter cream and ice the top with the coffee icing. Decorate with the toasted hazelnuts or chocolate-covered coffee beans.

Thrifty Tip

Make lots of comforting soups which are economical and filling for this time of year with store cupboard ingredients, potatoes, leeks, carrots, onions…

Hot Tips

Resolve to start growing your own by subscribing to Irish Seed Savers
. When you pay for a year’s subscription you get five free packets of organic heritage vegetable seeds, including three varieties of heritage potatoes (when available) and a 10% discount on organic heritage apple trees and workshops that run almost every weekend. Creating a Native Fruiting Hedge is on Saturday 6th February. Contact Irish Seed Savers on 061 921866 or email info@irishseedsavers.ie or www.irishseedsavers.ie

Allclad and Demeyere stainless steel saucepans last a life time and are on sale at the Ballymaloe Cookery School Farm Shop with a 20% reduction on the price. 021 4646785.

Sassy’s on Northmain Street in Youghal East Cork
, sell old fashioned boiled sweets displayed in big glass jars, weighed out into stripy paper bags for a taste of the past. Telephone 024 91643.

About the author

Darina Allen
By Darina Allen


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