A seaside village. A cosy bakery. It’s like something you’d see in a Hallmark Christmas film.
Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coastal Route winds through idyllic towns and dramatic ocean scenery. As you enter the town of Ballycastle, Co Antrim – which hugs the rugged coastline – you’ll find a small, artisan bakery with big heart: Ursa Minor Bakehouse.
Here, owner and baker Ciara O’hArtghaile believes in the power of slow food. Her sourdoughs are hand-moulded and cold-proved. Everything is made from scratch. She and her husband Dara, along with their bakery team, have built an award-winning, locavore-driven food community within their seaside home.
For Ciara, the holidays are about spending time and sharing food with family and friends, bundling up and enjoying the wild outdoors and making the most of their beautiful home in Northern Ireland. She celebrates the winter solstice and welcomes the darker nights as an excuse to cozy up with her three children. Most of all, she loves to bake comforting, satisfying recipes for the season and ensuing festivities.
I feel a fruit cake can be divisive. The rich, traditional Christmas cakes aren’t as popular today, but using the natural sweetness of dried fruits gives a depth of flavour which complements dark, nutty flours - like wholemeal spelt. I’ve never been a fan of an overly spiced cake and shy away from using too much cinnamon, but I love the aromatic warmth cardamom and ginger add to this cake.
I like this cake still warm from the oven, but also sliced with butter, as my mum and granny would have it! When you crave something sweet on a dull winter day after a walk in the woods, this is the recipe. Better yet – bring it outside with you and eat it with warm custard from a thermos flask. Unbeatable!
2 tbsp whiskey
220g softened butter
170g light brown sugar
Zest from one orange
100g wholemeal spelt (we use Oak Forest Mills flour for this)
80g plain flour
50g ground hazelnuts
1 tsp powdered ginger
1/2 tsp powdered cardamom
10g malt (this is optional - we use Super Milled Grains from BiaSol)
2 tsp baking powder
Pinch of salt
100g natural yoghurt
1 Prepare a 9in cake tin. Grease and line with baking parchment, then set aside. Preheat the oven to 170°C/340°F/Gas Mark 3.
2 In a small pan, place the raisins, orange zest and whiskey and bring to a boil, then remove from the heat and set aside.
3 Using a stand mixer, cream the butter and sugar together until pale and fluffy. Add the eggs one by one, ensuring they are well incorporated.
4 Mix all of the dry ingredients in a separate bowl, then add them to the egg mixture and mix briefly. Fold in the yoghurt and the raisin/whiskey mixture.
5 Pour the batter into the prepared cake tin and bake for 40 minutes. Allow to cool completely in tin.
Makes 16 choux buns
For the choux pastry:
60g plain flour
60g wholemeal flour
3-4 eggs, beaten
For the craquelin:
100g plain flour
100g light brown sugar
For the filling:
200ml double cream
40g caster sugar
One recipe of crème patissiere (see mince pies for this recipe. Substitute vanilla for some mixed spice for added Christmas flavour).
1 Preheat oven to 160°C/325°F/Gas Mark 3.
2 Make the craquelin: add the flour, butter and light brown sugar to the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a regular bowl to mix by hand) and mix until it starts to come together.
3 Scoop the mixture out on to your worktop. Lay it between two sheets of greaseproof paper and roll it out to the thickness of a one pound/euro coin.
4 While still sandwiched between the two pieces of greaseproof paper, lay it out flat in the freezer until ready to use.
5 Make the choux pastry: add the butter, salt, milk and water to a medium-sized saucepan over a medium heat. When the mixture starts to simmer, immediately whisk in the flour, remove it from the heat and whisk until it comes together.
6 Put the pan back on the medium heat and beat with a wooden spoon for two minutes. Transfer the dough to a stand mixer (with the paddle attachment) and start to beat.
7 Add a little of the egg mixture at a time, mixing well between each addition, until you have a ‘dropping’ consistency (when you lift the paddle out of the dough, it should hang down in a “V” shape). Take your time here and be careful not to add too much egg. You should be able to pipe the finished dough and have it keep its shape.
8 Transfer the dough into a piping bag with a plain nozzle. Use a circular pastry cutter dipped in flour to create stencil guides on your baking sheet, then pipe little mounds of your choux pastry into each.
9 Take the craquelin out of the freezer and, using your pastry cutter, stamp out discs of craquelin and top each mound of pastry.
10 Bake for 35-45 minutes until golden brown. You want the inside to be dry and soft – not soggy. Leave to cool on a rack until ready to fill.
11 Make the filling: whisk the cream and sugar until you have soft peaks, then whisk the crème patissiere in gently.
12 Assemble: slice the top off of each choux bun. Fill a piping bag with the luscious cream filling and pipe it into the cavity - be generous. You could also add some compote or poached fruit. Decorate the tops with more piped cream, if you like.
“I love mince pies throughout the festive season and enjoy sampling the different varieties on offer – it’s an excuse to try one at every opportunity. Our classic mince pies are the traditional size – a shallow base of delicate sweet pastry, filled with our very special mince and topped with buttery frangipane and flaked almonds. However, I created this deeper version using beautiful flaky pastry paired with luscious crème patissiere. It’s so delicious and will convert any mince pie hater.”
For the pastry:
150g Einkorn flour (or substitute with plain flour)
190g plain flour
A pinch of salt
220g cold unsalted butter
125ml ice cold water
For the crème patissiere:
500ml whole milk
120g caster sugar
6 egg yolks
Vanilla pod-split in the middle and seeds scraped
For the pies:
Homemade or store-bought mincemeat (We make our own every year in huge batches. I find the shop bought mince to be far too sweet, but you could easily lighten it up with some cooked apples and fresh cranberries.)
Demerara sugar, for sprinkling
1 egg, whisked with a tablespoon of water, for egg wash
1 In a large bowl, rub the flours, salt and butter together until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Make a well in the centre and add the ice cold water. Use a butter knife or dough scraper to quickly bring it together in the bowl, then turn it out onto your table and finish bringing together (by hand) into a rectangle. Wrap in greaseproof or clingfilm and then refrigerate for an hour.
2 Make the crème patissiere: place the milk, vanilla seeds and pod and half the sugar in a medium saucepan over a medium heat. In a large bowl, add the remaining sugar along with the cornflour and yolks. Whisk until pale.
3 When you see the milk starting to bubble, pour half of it over your yolk mixture, whisking all the time, then pour the mix into the saucepan and add back on to the heat, whisking constantly until it comes to the boil.
4 Whisk for a further minute then transfer to a container and immediately cover with clingfilm. Leave to cool until ready to use.
5 Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4. Lightly grease a 12-piece muffin tin and set aside.
6 Roll out the pastry until about 3-5mm thick. Use a pastry cutter to cut large discs for the muffin mould. Tease each disc carefully into each hollow, making sure the pastry is right down to the bottom.
7 Add two tablespoons of crème patissiere and then a heaped tsp of mincemeat. Top with another smaller disc of pastry and gently press the edges to connect to the rim of the pastry case.
8 Brush the top with egg wash and a sprinkling of demerara sugar.
9 Bake for 30-35 minutes, until the pies are golden brown. Let them cool in the tin for 15 minutes, then carefully ease out of the tin (you may need to run a sharp knife around the edge).
Winter solstice is an important date in the Celtic calendar, and marking the shortest day of the year is always a special day in our house. Sometimes we keep the café space open into the early evening to gather with our regulars and their families, drink wassail (a hot, mulled yuletide drink) and eat yule logs.
For the sponge:
6 eggs, separated
100g soft light brown sugar
50g caster sugar
20g ground hazelnut
For the cream filling:
250ml double cream
25g caster sugar
For the chocolate ganache:
100g dark chocolate
100ml double cream
15g soft brown sugar
1 Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
2 In a bowl, whisk the egg yolks with the brown sugar until pale and creamy. In a separate bowl, whisk the whites with the caster sugar until the mixture holds peaks.
3 Stir the cocoa and hazelnuts thoroughly, but carefully, into the yolk mixture and then fold the whites in, gently, in two batches.
4 Tip mixture into your prepared tin and smooth gently with a palette knife. Bake for 15 minutes then let cool.
5 Make the cream filling: whisk the cream and sugar together until the cream holds soft peaks. If you like, you could fold in some chopped nuts or chopped dark chocolate at this stage.
6 Make the ganache: in a saucepan, heat the cream, butter and sugar until just starting to simmer. Immediately pour over the chopped chocolate. Wait for a few minutes (don’t be tempted to stir!) and then stir from the inside to the outside, gradually, in small increasing circles.
7 Assemble the yule log: flip the sponge out on to a piece of parchment or clean tea towel, then carefully peel off the parchment on the bottom of the sponge and discard.
8 Spread a little of the chocolate ganache over the sponge, followed by a thick layer of cream.
9 Using the parchment paper or the tea towel to help you, begin to roll the sponge and gently keep rolling until you have achieved a log shape.
10 Decorate the outside with more chocolate ganache and whatever else you like. I love using cocoa nibs, candied nuts and lovely winter foliage.
Makes 2-4 sandwiches
When I became vegetarian, without doubt, the thing I missed the most was the Boxing Day (or St Stephen’s Day) sandwich. As I became more experimental in my vegetable cooking, I found alternatives. At the bakery, every day in December we slow roast whole celeriac with a deep, umami marinade. We baste them throughout the cooking process and then thinly slice for our sandwiches – along with cranberry sauce, stuffing, sautéed sprouts and horseradish mayo. This is the ultimate veggie sandwich. It makes a great main course for veggies at Christmas lunch.
For the roasted celeriac:
1 celeriac, skin removed
2 tbsp dark miso
2 tbsp olive oil or melted butter
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 tsp honey or maple syrup
1 tsp soy or tamari sauce
A generous sprinkling of salt and pepper
For the sandwich:
2-4 thick slices of homemade sourdough or batch loaf
1 tbsp prepared horseradish mixed with 60g mayonnaise
Leftover cranberry sauce
Leftover brussels sprouts
Any other leftover vegetables
1 Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4. Mix the dark miso, olive oil, garlic, honey, soy, salt and pepper in a bowl in a bowl and rub all over the celeriac. Bake for around 90 minutes, basting throughout with the cooking juices.
2 Cool the celeriac and, when ready to serve, slice thinly with a sharp knife or mandolin.
3 Assemble the Christmas sandwich: have all of your leftovers ready. Get two pieces of sourdough bread, spread generously with the horseradish mayo on one side and cranberry sauce on the other. Top with thinly sliced celeriac, stuffing, sprouts and roasted veggies.
4 If you feel inclined, you could fry the sandwich in butter in a hot pan (flipping over to do both sides) or wrap in foil and heat gently in the oven.
Makes two dozen
I make little bags of these festive biscuits every year – always with a good intention to make more, or box them up prettily, but December rolls around in a flash. Before you know it, it’s Christmas week and time has defeated you. Happily, these biscuits are quick and easy to make. Ricciarielli are sweet, chewy mouthfuls of almondy delight – an Italian festive treat from Sienna. I like to add a bit of Irish whiskey to the mix.
250g ground almonds
240g icing sugar, plus 40g for rolling
1/2 tsp baking powder
2 egg whites
1 tsp Irish whiskey
Zest of one orange
1 Preheat your oven to 160°C/325°F/Gas Mark 3 and line two baking sheets with parchment. Set aside.
2 Mix the dry ingredients in a large bowl.
3 Whisk the egg whites until firm, then fold them into the dry ingredients, along with the whiskey and orange zest.
4 Shape the dough mixture into walnut-sized balls. Roll in icing sugar, then pinch the sides to make a rough diamond shape.
5 Bake for 15 minutes.
6 Cool completely on a wire rack.