The Christmas tree lights twinkle, the smell of spices perfumes the kitchen from yesterday’s baking, and a Christmas carol provides background. A pre-school breakfast by candlelight in the warmth of the dining room inspires confidences, and they come forth over a bowl of hot chocolate and a fat slice of tender Christmas gingerbread. These are the soft, privileged moments before the day really begins.
It’s a pleasure to meet the crackly chill of the outdoors on these crisp, December days. We follow our morning route which, now that adolescence looms stops well before the front doors of the school. A hurried brush of lips to cheek, and I’m on my way home.
As I walk, the silhouette of the buildings and snaky, naked trees against the faint pink of a winter sky are haunting. I experience a glorious moment, just me and the silhouettes in this ancient spot and realize with some surprise that this is my favorite season. It is, I think, because of the cold, clean crispness that encourages warmth within. The inclination everywhere is for sharing.
Back in the house, I review my menu for the day. It includes making Certosino, one of my favorite Christmas cakes. Originally from a monastery in Bologna, it is dense with honey, scented with fennel, spiked with dark chocolate, candied fruits, and nuts. As only Italian pastries do, it combines refinement with rusticity, earthiness with sophistication. I offer you the recipe here.
Certosino Christmas Cake
1-1/2 cups honey
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
5 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
½ teaspoon cinnamon, preferably Vietnamese
½ pound almonds, skinned
1/3 cup pine nuts
½ cup golden raisins
8 ounces candied fruit
1 cup jam (I often use orange marmalade)
6 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
4 teaspoons anise seed
2-1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 tablespoon warm water
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter and flour a bundt pan.
2. Sift together the flour and the salt onto a piece of parchment or waxed paper.
3. Put the honey and the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat, and heat it, without boiling, until the butter is melted. Remove from the heat and pour the mixture into a large mixing bowl.
4. Slowly mix the flour into the honey and butter mixture. Add the remaining ingredients and mix just until combined. The dough is ultra-stiff.
5. Mix the soda with the warm water, and add it to the batter, mixing until thoroughly combined. Put the batter into the pan.
6. Bake the cake in the center of the oven until a knife inserted in it comes out clean, about 1 hour. Remove from the oven and let cool, then unmold. This cake is delicious the day after it is baked, and it just gets better by the day. Keep it tightly wrapped.
One cake; 10-12 servings