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Alternative Christmas Cakes

25 minutes
First broadcast:
Sunday 19 December 2010

Panettone and chocolate logs - Sheila Dillon embraces two of the cakes replacing our "traditional" Christmas cakes on our Christmas tables, and ponders what what we mean by traditional when it comes to Christmas cakes.

Panettone is a traditional Italian Christmas cake. John Dickie, Professor of Italian Studies at University College London and author of "Delizia! A History of the Italians and their Food" traces the history of this highly industrialised product from its Milanese origins, and the manufacturing of this "tradition". Reporter Dany Mitzman visits the Corsini Biscotti panettone factory in Tuscany where panettone is made in the traditional artisan style, using a mother yeast, slow proving, and cooling tipped upside down to allow the dome shape to set naturally, without additives. Their panettone is sold in through the Sainsbury's Taste the Difference range. But you can make your own - Fred Manson returned from an Andrew Whitley breadmaking course clutching a panettone recipe, and has been making his own ever since.

As a teenager Sheila Dillon's Christmas culinary rebellion took the form of baking a bouche de noel, the buttercream sculpted chocolate log believed to originate in France, and still produced by the hundred in smart patisseries today. Yule logs are now a popular range for both patiseries and supermarkets in the UK. This year's BBC Radio 4 Food and Farming Award Food Champion, baker Richard Bertinet, baked Sheila his own take on the classic cake, adorned with gold leaf and powdered cabernet grape, and food historian Ivan Day tells its history in the UK.

Producer: Rebecca Moore.

  • Richard Bertinet's Bûche de Noël (seen above)

    This recipe can be used to make 2 small bûches each to serve 6 to 8 or one large one to serve 12 to 14.

    For the sponge
    6 eggs
    1 egg white
    160g granulated sugar
    pinch of salt
    145g pastry flour (plain flour is fine – not self raising flour)
    35g good quality dark cocoa powder
    60g butter

    For the stock syrup
    200ml water
    100g sugar
    2 capfuls of dark rum or brandy

    For the cocoa crème
    250g full fat milk
    5 egg yolks
    60g caster sugar
    45g flour
    a quarter of a tonka bean (if you can get hold of them – a spice specialist or health food store may stock them) or alternatively a vanilla pod
    25g dark cocoa powder
    250g double cream

    To assemble
    300g undyed marzipan
    400g good quality dark couveture chocolate
    1 sheet gold leaf (optional) or an indoor sparkler
    a teaspoon of loose jasmine tea (optional)
    a pinch or two of cabernet wine powder (optional)

    2x 10 inch / 25cm swiss roll / roulade tins
    flat slate or large plate for serving

    Separate the eggs and set aside what is required.
    Sieve the pastry flour & cocoa powder together.
    Line the swiss roll tins with baking parchment.


    For the sponge: Place the whole eggs, egg white, sugar and salt into a mixing bowl and place over the pan of simmering water, whisking continuously. Remove from the heat and continue whipping at a high speed (in a Kenwood mixer if you wish) until the mixture is cooled, light and fluffy. Fold in the sieved flour and cocoa powder by hand. Melt the butter and fold it in to the mixture. Divide the batter between the lined pans. Bake for about 15 minutes. Remove from the oven, allow to cool and then remove from the pans.

    For the syrup: Place the sugar and water into a pan and bring to the boil. Boil for about 10 minutes until all the sugar has dissolved. Add the alcohol and leave to cool.

    For the crème: Grate the tonka beans (or if you cannot get one, split a vanilla pod lengthways) and place it together with the milk in a pan. Bring the milk to the boil. Mix the sugar and egg yolks together in a bowl and add the flour and cocoa powder. Pour on the boiling milk and whisk. Return the mixture to the pan and bring back to the boil, then cook for 3 to 4 minutes stirring all the time. Remove from the heat and transfer the crème to a cold glass bowl. Cover the top with a piece of greaseproof paper and leave to cool completely. Whisk the double cream until light and fluffy. Whisk the cold crème then mix in the double cream with a wooden spoon.

    To assemble:

    Turn out the sponges onto a sheet of greaseproof paper with the rough top sides facing upwards. Trim the long edges of the sponge so they are neat but set the trimmed pieces aside as you will use them to create the effect of the bark later. Brush or dab the top of the sponge with some of the stock syrup then spread on the crème using a palette leaving a 2 or 3cm gap at one of the short edges. Starting from the other end roll the sponge towards you as tightly as you can. You may find it is easier to do this by lifting the greaseproof paper to stop the sponge from breaking up. Once the sponge is rolled, dab or brush some more stock syrup over the top. Then lay one of the off cuts from the edge of the sponge over the log at an angle to look like a spine or rough bit of bark.

    Roll out the marzipan until it is thin – just a few milimeters thick and almost see though. If you are doing one long log then this is the point to join the two small logs together. Just lay them end to end. If you have a marble chopping board – transfer the log to this now. You may find it useful to place the log on a clean piece of card or cake board to help you move it around. Lay the marzipan over the whole log ensuring it fits snugly. Mould it to the shape of the sponge ridge and tuck it in tightly underneath the edges and at the ends.

    Melt the chocolate in a ban marie and little by little pour it over the log. Do this gradually so that it sets a bit at a time as this will allow you to build up a rough uneven surface to look like bark. You may need to use a palette knife to encourage the chocolate to cover the log completely. Do not worry that much of the chocolate will run our over the marble. You are going to use it to form a base for the log on your presentation plate and to make curls of bark.

    Lift up the largest piece of chocolate from the marble and place it on your flat serving plate. Carefully lift the log and place it on top. Using a sharp knife and holding the tip of the knife in one hand and the handle in the other, drag the blade across the surface of some of the chocolate stuck to the marble to form long shards and curls. Decorate the log with leaves of jasmine tea (to look like moss), the chocolate bits of bark and if you wish a little symbolic wine powder and gold leaf.

  • Panettone recipe

    Fred made panettone adapted from a recipe from Andrew Whitley's book 'Bread Matters'. Sainsbury's Taste The Difference Corsini Panettone can also be bought in store or online for £8.99 for 500g.

    This recipe uses an overnight sponge, partly to enable the yeast to build up vigour before being mixed with ingredients like sugar and egg that it cannot metabolise, partly to improve natural flavour and keeping quality and partly to ensure, as prolonged fermentation does so well, that the bread is not just delicious but digestible and nutritious too.

    The quantities below are enough to fill one normal size pannetone case. If you don’t have or can’t get old of such a thing, you can use a 5” (12.5 cm) cake hoop. Make a ring of stiff brown paper or thin corrugated cardboard about 6” (15 cm) high and stand this up inside the cake hoop. Line the stiff paper with a similar ring of baking parchment or silicone paper.

    Flour: use the tastiest breadmaking flour you can find, preferably organic stoneground and not old. The egg and butter in the recipe help to produce good volume even with wholemeal.

    12-24 hours before you want to make the Panettone dough, make a Sponge and soak a Fruit and Nut mixture:

    90 g Flour (strong bread flour, your favourite)
    2 g Dried yeast (or 4 g of fresh)
    65 g Water (at about 25°C, i.e. not very warm)
    157 g Total
    Dissolve the yeast in the water. Mix in the flour until it is all moistened and the dough is reasonably smooth. No need to knead. Cover with a polythene bag or similar and leave to ferment at normal kitchen temperature.

    Fruit and Nut Mix
    50 g Ginger (crystallised)
    100 g Raisins or sultanas
    25 g Lemon or orange zest
    25 g Cranberries (dried)
    50 g Flaked almonds
    25 g Rum, brandy, other spirit or fruit juice
    275 g Total
    If you can’t get hold of all these ingredients (or don’t like some of them) improvise with what you have to hand. Chop any large fruits or nuts into slightly smaller chunks, put everything into a strong polythene bag, tie its neck and swirl it around a bit so that the liquid comes into contact with all the dry ingredients. Do this a couple of times over the soaking period if possible.

    Then, in the morning...

    The Main Dough
    150 g Sponge (from above)
    110 g Flour (strong bread flour)
    50 g Butter (or olive oil)
    35 g Raw cane sugar
    50 g Egg (i.e. 1 medium egg)
    275 g Fruit & Nut Mix (from above)
    670 g Total

    Add the flour, egg, sugar and butter to the sponge and mix until everything is combined well. Knead (or mix in a machine) for as long as it takes to develop a soft, silky dough in which the butter (or margarine) shows as a glossy sheen on the surface. This could take up to 20 minutes by hand, so take it slowly. If the dough feels stiff and unforgiving, add a little water as you go along. The end result should be a dough that is markedly softer than an ordinary bread dough.

    Put the dough in a bowl, cover well and allow it to ferment. It will take some time for the yeast to start working again, so allow two hours in a fairly warm place. By this time, the dough should have increased in size considerably. If it hasn’t, leave it for longer. If it suits your schedule, you may at this point ‘knock it back’, i.e. press all the accumulated gas out of it and allow it another hour or two to rise again.

    Using a light dusting of flour on work surfaces and hands, tip the dough out on to the table. Stretch it gently out into a rectangle about 25 cm (10”) x 20 cm (8”). Spread the soaked fruit and nut mix over almost all the surface. Roll the dough up carefully, turn it through 90 degrees and roll it gently up again, taking care not to force the fruit through the surface. The aim is even distribution, but it is better to leave the dough a bit lumpy than to work it so much that you end up with a mess.

    Shape the loaf into a round whose top has as few piece of fruit protruding as possible and place it in your panettone case or lined cake hoop. Cover (without letting the covering touch the dough) and allow to rise until the dough, when pressed gently with a finger, feels delicate and unlikely to spring back very quickly.

    Bake in a moderate oven (about 180°C/350°F) for 30-40 minutes depending on your oven. The loaf will take colour on the surface on account of the sugar and butter in the dough, so make sure that it is baked through before removing it from the oven. This is best done by pushing a skewer into the loaf as you would to test a cake: it should come out clean. For the technically equipped, the temperature at the centre of the loaf should reach about 95°C by the time it is done.

    Let your Panettone cool before slicing. Serve it with a cup of tea or coffee. It doesn’t need extra butter, but it’s best enjoyed with good company.

    If everyone who makes or shares this loaf joins the Real Bread Campaign, we’ll be on our way to a new era in British bread – which would be something well worth celebrating.


  • Books featured on the programme

    Delizia: A history of Italians and their food by John Dickie

    Bread Matters by Andrew Whitley


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