I just love that the tradition of celebrating Little Christmas or Nollaig na mBan, as it was known, has once again become super cool. Why wouldn’t it? The 12th day of Christmas is the special day when all the hardworking Mammies, Grannies and Aunties who have lovingly laboured to create a fun, delicious and hopefully carefree Christmas for all the family get to enjoy time off, kick up their heels and get out to celebrate and feast and have fun together.
The tradition is particularly strong in Cork, Kerry, the West of Ireland and the Gaeltacht areas but the custom is enjoying a popular revival all around the country, a welcome excuse for us girls to get together. The tradition where the men and women swopped roles and the men did the chores was passed on orally from one generation to another.
Originally, several women from around the parish would gather around the fire in each other’s houses drinking tea, with currant cake or spotted dog and sharing little dainties. On some of the islands there was a custom of lighting candles in every room in the house on the twelfth night, the night of the Epiphany. Nowadays we don’t necessarily stick to drinking tea! Originally the custom was little known in urban areas but nowadays some Dublin friends meet for breakfast, others lunch, a leisurely chatty afternoon tea is also a favourite way to celebrate and of course a get together dinner.
Hotels, restaurants, pubs and cafés have recognised the opportunity so it could be worth watching this space – see how Halloween has gathered momentum.
Women of all ages who get together to celebrate Nollaig na mBan or Women’s Christmas say there’s a different quality about the get together, almost a celebration of sisterhood – an Irish version of International Women’s Day.
In France, they celebrate the Feast of the Kings with the traditional Galette du Rois. Every boulangerie has its own version of this recipe but this one is hard to beat and is easy to make, so one can start the tradition in your home.
So how about organising a Nollaig na mBan celebration with all your friends? It could always be afternoon fizz, I do love a nice cup of tea though.
Galette du Roi
Puff Pastry made with:
225g (8ozs) flour
225g (8ozs) butter
pinch of salt
water, 150ml (¼ pint) approx.
75g (3ozs) ground hazelnuts toasted, freshly ground
25g (1oz) ground almonds
110g (4ozs) castor sugar
45g (1½ozs) melted butter
2 egg yolks, preferably free range
2 tablespoons double cream
1 dessertspoon rum (optional)
Egg wash made with 1 beaten egg and a tiny pinch of salt
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, 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. 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 du Roi is best eaten warm, but it also keeps well and may be reheated
Curnie Cake (Currant Cake)
Makes 1 loaf
450g (1lb) plain white flour, preferably unbleached
1 level teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1 level teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons sugar
75g (3oz) sultanas (or more if you’d like)
1 organic egg
about 350 – 425ml (12-14fl oz) buttermilk
Preheat the oven to 220°C/425°F/gas mark 7.
In a large mixing bowl, sieve in the flour and bicarbonate of soda; then add the salt, sugar and sultanas. Mix well by lifting the flour and fruit up in to your hands and then letting them fall back into the bowl through your fingers. This adds more air and therefore more lightness to your finished bread. Now make a well in the centre of the flour mixture. Break the egg into the base of a measuring jug and add the buttermilk to the 425ml (14fl oz) line (the egg is part of the liquid measurement). Pour most of this milk and egg mixture into the flour.
Using one hand with the fingers open and stiff, mix in a full circle drawing in the flour mixture from the sides of the bowl, adding more milk if necessary. The dough should be softish, but not too wet and sticky.
The trick with currant cake like all soda breads, is not to over mix the dough. Mix it as quickly and gently as possible, thus keeping it light and airy. When the dough all comes together, turn it out onto a well-floured work surface. Wash and dry your hands. With floured fingers, roll the dough lightly for a few seconds – just enough to tidy it up. Then pat the dough into a round, about 6cm (2½ inches) deep. Transfer to a baking tray dusted lightly with flour. Use a sharp knife to cut a deep cross on it, letting the cuts go over the sides of the bread. Prick with knife at the four triangles. Put into the oven and immediately reduce the temperature to 200°C/400°F/Gas Mark 6. Cook for 35-40 minutes. If you are in doubt about the bread being cooked, tap the bottom: if it is cooked it will sound hollow. This bread is cooked at a lower temperature than soda bread because the egg browns faster at a higher heat.
Serve freshly baked, cut into thick slices and smeared with butter and jam. Currant Cake is also really good eaten with Cheddar cheese.
Chocolate Brownie with Pistachio and Rose Petals
This version is based on a delicious spelt brownie recipe created by super baker Claire Ptak of Violet Cakes in London. We’ve gilded the lily by adding a drizzle of ganache and by sprinkling some coarsely chopped pistachio and some rose petals on top.
Makes 10 brownies
175g (6oz) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
350g (12oz) dark chocolate, broken into pieces (60-70%) (we use Valrhona)
50g (2oz) cocoa powder
225g (8oz) white spelt flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt (3/4 teaspoon if using Sea salt)
400g (14oz) caster sugar
4 medium eggs (about 200g)
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
110g (4oz) dark chocolate
125ml (4 floz) cream
50g (2oz) Pistachios, chopped
3 teaspoons dried rose petals
Preheat the oven to 180°C/Gas Mark 4.
Butter and line a 20 x 30cm baking dish with parchment paper.
In a heatproof bowl, melt the butter and chocolate over water that has been brought to the boil and then taken off the heat. Allow the mixture to rest, stirring occasionally as it melts.
In another bowl, sift together the cocoa, spelt flour and baking powder. Sprinkle over the salt.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, whisk together the sugar, eggs and vanilla until light and fluffy. Slowly add the melted chocolate mixture followed by the dry ingredients and pour into the prepared baking dish.
Baked in the preheated oven for 25 minutes. The brownies should be set but with a slight wobble.
Meanwhile, make the ganache
Put the cream in a heavy bottomed stainless steel saucepan and bring it almost to the boil. Remove from the heat and add the chopped chocolate. With a wooden spoon, stir the chocolate into the cream until it is completely melted. Transfer the chocolate cream to the bowl of a food mixer and allow it to cool to room temperature.
Slather a little chocolate ganache on top. Sprinkle with chopped pistachios and rose petals. Cut the brownies into squares and enjoy.
Lemon Curd Meringue Cake
This cake would not necessarily win prizes in a beauty contest but is one of the most delicious confections you’ll ever eat.
Serves 8 – 10
150g (5ozs) butter
225g (8ozs) flour
225g (8ozs) caster sugar
4 eggs, organic and free-range
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon milk
50g (2 ozs) butter
100g (3½ ozs) caster sugar
grated zest and juice of 2 lemons
2 organic eggs and 1 organic egg yolk whisked (keep white aside for meringue)
2 egg whites
110g (4 ozs) caster sugar
2 x 25cm (2 x 10 inch) sponge cake tins
First make the cake. Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas Mark 4.
Grease the tins with melted butter, dust with flour and line the base of each with a round of greaseproof paper.
Cream the butter and gradually add the castor sugar, beat until soft and light and quite pale in colour. Add the eggs one at a time and beat well between each addition. (If the butter and sugar are not creamed properly and if you add the eggs too fast, the mixture will curdle, resulting in a cake with a heavier texture). Sieve the flour and baking powder and stir in gradually. Mix all together lightly and add 1 tablespoon of milk to moisten if necessary.
Meanwhile mix all the caster sugar together with the egg whites in a spotlessly clean bowl and whisk until the mixture forms stiff dry peaks.
Divide the cake mixture evenly between the 2 tins, spread a layer of meringue evenly over the top of each. Bake in the preheated oven for 20-25 minutes or until cooked.
Next make the lemon curd, melt the butter on a very low heat. Add the caster sugar, lemon zest and juice and then add the whisked eggs. Stir carefully over a gentle heat with a straight ended wooden spatula until the mixture coats the back it. Remove from the heat and pour into a bowl (it will thicken further as it cools.)
When the cake is cooked, allow to cook for a few minutes, run a knife around the edge of the tin, then slide onto a wire rack.
When completely cold, sandwich together with a layer of lemon curd.
For extra oomph make double the lemon curd and put another lay on the top.
Serve with softly whipped cream or crème fraîche.
Makes about 24
135g (4 3/4oz) butter, plus extra for greasing tray
2 tablespoons floral honey
1 tablespoon orange flower water
125g (4 1/2oz/) caster sugar
135g (4 3/4oz/) self-raising flour or 135g (4 3/4oz) plain flour and 1 teaspoon baking powder, sifted
plus extra flour for dusting
Melt the butter with the honey, then pour in the orange flower water and set aside to cool. Whisk the eggs and sugar in an electric mixer for 10 minutes or so, until they are really fluffy and double in size. Fold in the flour, then the butter and honey mixture.
Pour into a container and leave the batter to rest for at least 3 hours in the fridge, or overnight is fine too.
Preheat the oven to 190°C/375°F/Gas Mark 5.
Butter a madeleine tray (you can also do this in a small muffin tray), then dust with flour and shake off the excess. Fill the moulds two-thirds full, then bake for 10 minutes or so until golden brown and firm to the touch.
Easy peasy to make, can be tiny bites or adapted to make a delectable pudding. This recipe also makes two 18cm (7 inch) meringue discs which can be sandwiched together with chunks of fresh mango or pineapple and cream.
Makes 30 approximately
2 egg whites
125g (4 1/2oz) vanilla castor sugar
75g (3oz) desiccated coconut
Preheat the oven to 150°C/300°F/Gas Mark 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.