Prague Diary/Xmas Treat
Ginger and spice and all that's nice span>
By Tabinda J. Burney
Spices form an integral part of Indian food. As a dear friend of mine used to say ‘‘spice is the variety of life’’! We dislike bland foods and this is more or less true across the length and breadth of the country. A lot of people equate spiciness with hotness or the fiery taste of chillies but they are very different things. Spices enhance the flavour of food and with their aroma and unique taste and bring out the best in the simplest of dishes.
While traditional foods including rich curries and ceremonial feasts call for a long list and complex mixtures of these many different spices, most kitchens stock the basic few that are essential for everyday meals. The colour, size, shape and usage of these spices may vary from region to region, but we can not contemplate a life devoid of spices. Moreover, many scientific studies have suggested that these spices may have significant health benefits.
Many of these spices have been thought to prevent and even help find cures for various serious diseases. Turmeric, cinnamon and ginger in particular come to mind. But enough said about spices in savoury foods.
A little bit now about the use of spices in sweet preparations, more importantly and topically, in traditional Christmas treats.
I recently visited Prague, the magical and beautiful capital city of the Czech Republic and famous not only for its magnificent architecture but also for its Christmas markets.
The Christmas markets usually run from the start of December till about mid-January and are an integral part of the festive period, bringing together not just tourists but local communities as well. The main markets are at the Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square and are a treasure trove of exquisite local handicrafts and the most amazing and delectable of traditional Christmas treats. A gigantic, beautifully decorated Christmas tree, lit up against the stunning Gothic buildings that make up Prague’s skyline looks completely magical.
The markets mainly comprise of numerous make-shift stalls, richly decorated with yuletide trimmings and bursting with seasonal fare such as gingerbread cookies, roasted chestnuts and a special sweet pastry called trdelnik. Gingerbread makes its appearance at not just numerous stalls as various decorative shapes of cookies , colourfully frosted or more traditionally with delicate white icing but is also used imaginatively and to stunning effect to make a small nativity scene. Apart from some freshly baked gingerbread cookies, I also bought some special roasted sweet nuts (vanilla almonds and cocoa - cinnamon hazelnuts) as presents, which were greatly appreciated by the recipients, if I may add!
The air was redolent with the warm smell of spices and I was struck by how festive, uplifting and tantalizing the aromas were. It did indeed smell of Christmas and captured the essence of the seasonal spirit.
Spice, how dreary, drab and devoid of pleasure our lives would be without you…..
Gingerbread Cookies – GINGERBREAD MEN
Yes, that favourite character of nursery rhymes and evocative of childhood, whimsical nostalgia and sheer joy. I make these often and especially around Christmas with my children and not only do they taste delicious, they fill the house with a zingy and amazingly uplifting aroma. It is a very simple recipe and I hope lots of children (and grown-ups too!) enjoy making and sharing these.
You will need the following:
350g plain flour
100g light soft brown sugar
100 gm caster sugar
100g unsalted butter
4 tablespoons of golden syrup or honey
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1 teaspoon of ground ginger
You will need a cookie cutter shaped like a gingerbread man (or you can simply make cookies of any other shape)
Pre-heat the oven to 180°C / 350°F / Gas Mark 4
Take the butter out from the refrigerator 30 minutes before use to soften it. Put the flour, butter, ground ginger and bicarbonate of soda in a mixing bowl. Mix it all together with fingertips until crumbly. Add sugar, syrup/honey and egg and mix until it forms a firm mixture. Your child can, using the rolling pin, roll out the pastry to about 5mm thick. Make sure the surface and the rolling pin are well dusted with flour. Cut out the shapes with a cookie cutter. Place the cut out shapes on a greased or non-stick baking tray.
You can then put the baking trays in the pre-heated oven. Remove after 15 minutes (check after 10 minutes).
Once the cookies are out and cooled down, your child can decorate them with icing pens, or just make little dots of icing by mixing icing sugar with a little warmed lemon juice to a smooth paste. If you like, add food colouring to decorate with colourful icing.
Makes 25-30 (depending on the cutter size and shape).
Tabinda J Burney is the author of How to feed your child (and enjoy it!) and the recipe is from a section of this book.The book is about cooking simple, wholesome and tasty food for children.