We came back from Myanmar 2 weeks ago and stepping into a full blow Christmassy London right back from the beach slightly startled me! It’s only this weekend when we travelled to Alsace, the French border region with Germany, that the true Christmas spirit hit us. I came back home with lots of baking ideas, and in particular I was keen to improve my “pain d’épice” recipe. (scroll down for the ultimate recipe)
Alsace is a culturaly quite peculiar French region. First, it benefits from a central European position and Strasbourg, its capital, currently host the European parliament. But also because during centuries of history, Alsace has bounced back between several national allegiances; most recently in the 20th century, Alsace moved from French to German and back again a couple of times between the 3 main pan European wars. As a result maybe, the local culture is very strong, with French, German, Austrian, Swiss influences (but not only), that can be witnessed today in the architecture, literature, and the cuisine of course!
The Christmas markets (“Christkindelsmärik”) are traditional in the region and if big cities like Strasbourg offer large markets, we were expertly guided toward smaller but super cute villages. In particular, village of Riquewihr, nested in the vineyards, hosts a seasonal market where we sampled (very) large quantities of regional food in random order until we could not walk anymore. Ohhh you need to try some choucroute! oh and my dear you can’t leave without trying this kouglof, surely.. how about that Munster super smelly cheese? a piece of Flàmmeküeche maybe? oh and the smell of roasted chesnuts…
The “pain d’épice” is a cake that was introduced in Eastern France in 1596 according to the legend but I personally doubt that spices like cinnamon, ginger or vanilla could have been available at that time so I guess it was more like a strongly honey flavoured cake.
Last year I used Anne-Sophie’s recipe from her amazing Fashion Cooking blog, which was really good. But with all that extensive tasting this weekend, and talking to local producers, I wanted to step up the game, revisit my proportions, add candied orange peel and maybe ginger too.
One obvious but important note is that up to 40% of the pain d’épice is made of honey, depending on the baker and the recipe. The quality of the input is crucial as it’s what gives most of the taste. So off I was to A.Gold, my favourite honey provider in London. Especially because those guys sell the postcode urban honey which is not only delicious but also helps our city’s green life. One day I’ll have my own hive I promise, but this will be for another post 😉
The base of any of those cakes should be made of flour (about 40-45%), a mix of honey and sugar (same, 40-45%) and the rest made of the “liquids” (milk or water and eggs). Butter is optional but adds softness. And then the complements, nuts, candied oranges, spices etc.
– 175gr honey (choose one with a strong taste you like)
– 250gr flour: mixed 50/50 white flour and wholemeal or rye
– 25gr full fat milk
– 2 eggs
– 50gr butter
– 75gr brown sugar
– 10gr baker’s yeast + 1 ts baking powder
– spices: 2 ts of cinnamon, 1 star anise, 1 ts ginger, a few cloves, cardamom, grated nutmeg, a vanilla pod (or vanilla extract)
– a grated orange peel
– 75gr candied orange / lemon peels and / or candied ginger
– pearl sugar for topping
Heat gently the milk, sugar, butter and spices, cast aside for a while. The longer it will infuse the stronger the spice taste will be (30min minimum recommended). Add the honey and stir on the hob at minimum heat (we’re not making caramel here!). Take off the star anis, cloves, cardamon seeds and vanilla pod if needed. Make sure it’s not too hot and stir the yeast in.
Pre-heat the oven at 180.
In a large pot, add the flour in a little well shape and pour the liquid and start mixing in. Incorporate the dried fruits and the eggs and mix well again.
Pour in a cake tin and sprinkle with pearl sugar. Bake for 1h at 175 degrees.
I wanted to complement my Christmas hampers so had to use individual paper cups (I recycled the individual panettone ones that I had never used). On the market a baker recommended to serve it slightly warm, with a scoop of home-made vanilla ice-cream….got us mouthwatering.
Note that for individual tins I had to reduce the cooking time to 40min.
Next year I will try to steal my friend’s Kouglof / Gugelhupf recipe and try this little beauty at home. It’s a sort of fruity brioche baked in a hollow ceramic mould…yuummm