Once you’ve got your basic Christmas baking sorted (I’m talking mince pies, truffles, Swedish Pepparkakor gingerbread, German Lebkuchen Biscuits…) you’re going to need a showstopping pudding for the big day. The obvious choice is the traditional Christmas fruit cake covered in marzipan and white icing or a boozy Christmas pudding. With a nut-allergy, both of these choices are usually off the table. In fact, even nut-free fruit cake has never been something I find particularly tasty. So I wanted to come up with a really special nut-free celebration cake. This Christmas Gingerbread Forest Cake is the final product!
The two layers are a dense gingerbread cake stuffed with treacle and spices, which is really simple to make and tastes better as it ages. Both essential for stress-free Christmas baking! It tastes rich and decadent, and is balanced by the tang of the cream-cheese frosting. The top layer is decorated with a gingerbread village, with chocolate trees on the lower layer. The whole thing is dusted with edible glitter and heaped with pearl sugar snow. I hoped to recreate the look of a hilltop village surrounded by snowy woods, and I’m so pleased with the results!
When you’re decorating the biscuit houses you can go all out with any theme you like. I went for tall waterfront buildings, inspired by trips in the last few years to Amsterdam and Gdansk. You could go for alpine chalets, or for more traditional house-styles. There’s lot’s of inspiration on my Christmas Pinterest board if you need some ideas!
Icing the biscuits with this level of detail does take a bit of time, but if you have the radio on and a pot of tea to hand it can give you some time to yourself. My favourite additions are snowy roofs, Christmas trees and little rows of sprinkle fairy lights. I used tweezers to make sure they didn’t end up everywhere.
Another brilliant thing about this recipe is that it naturally multi tasks. The gingerbread biscuit dough makes enough for a tin full of biscuits or a small gingerbread house alongside the cake decorations. If you are already full to the rafters with biscuits, go ahead and halve the recipe, but I’d recommend making the full batch. One of my favourite things at Christmas is decorating biscuits with friends and family, and the icing keeps for a few days if you seal up the icing bag. You could also give the biscuit as really cute Christmas presents alongside a little bottle of booze. In fact, keep a small parcel of them handy and you’re covered for the inevitable panic when you’ve forgotten to buy a present for your neighbour/distant cousin/friend’s boyfriend.
The one thing I’d improve on next time is the trees – I did them all freehand and they’re a bit too big. I’d recommend measuring the height of your cake and drawing guidelines so the trunks are an appropriate height.
I’m so pleased with the look of this cake. I’ve been developing the idea in my head for a while, inspired by a BBC Good Food recipe and some images on Pinterest, and it took a while to get the type of cake right. I’d love to know what you’re baking for Christmas, and if you make your own version of this cake please send me pictures!
Recipe: Christmas Gingerbread Forest Cake
For the cake (Adapted from Leith’s Baking Bible)
6″ and 9″ tall cake tins
345g unsalted butter
345g dark brown sugar
450g black treacle (approximately 1 small tin)
225g golden syrup
675g plain flour
8 heaped tsp ground ginger
3 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground cardamon
1 tsp ground star anise
1 tsp ground cloves
2 tsp salt
6 medium eggs, beaten
160g stem ginger from a jar with syrup, plus 2 tsbp of the syrup
1 1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
For the biscuits (adapted from a Mary Berry recipe on BBC Good food)
375g unsalted butter
300g dark brown sugar
150g golden syrup
900g plain flour
1 tbsp bicarbonate of soda
4 tbsp ground ginger
2 tbsp ground cinnamon
1 tbsp ground mixed spice
For the icing
2 egg whites
For the frosting (adapted from the Hummingbird Bakery)
150g unsalted butter, soft
900 icing sugar, plus approximately 200g
375g cream cheese
1 tsp salt
For the chocolate trees
100g dark chocolate
100g milk chocolate (or use entirely milk or dark if you prefer)
Make the cake
- Prepare your tins! Grease and line with a circle of greaseproof paper.
- Preheat the oven to 170C.
- Put butter, sugar, treacle and golden syrup in a pan and heat over a low heat until melted together. Don’t let it boil. Once it’s done set to one side to cool slightly.
- Chop the stem ginger finely, add to a bowl with the currant and add the ginger syrup. Leave to one side.
- Add flour, spices and salt to a large bowl and whisk together to combine.
- Pour the treacle mix into the flour and use to whisk to mix to a batter.
- Add the beaten eggs and currants and stir to combine.
- Heat the milk to blood temperature, add the bicarb and stir into the mixture quickly.
- Fill the tins to 3/4 full.
- Bake both on the centre shelf. The small cake will take 50-60 minutes and the larger one could take up to 90. Insert a cocktail stick and when it comes out clean, they’re done. If they start to brown to quickly add some tinfoil over the top.
- Leave to cool then take out of the tins. At this point you can keep them for up to a week before decorating.
Make the biscuits
- Put the butter, syrup and sugar in a pan and melt over a low heat until the sugar is dissolve. Don’t let it boil.
- In a large bowl put the flour, spices, salt and bicarb. Whisk to combine.
- Pour the wet mixture into the dry, start mixing with a spoon. Soon it’ll be cool enough to finish mixing with your hands to make it come together into a dough. Split into two pieces, shape into fat discs, wrap in clingfilm and put in the fridge until its firmed up, about 30 mins. If you leave it in for a few hours or overnight, you’ll need to leave it out a room temperature for a hour or so to be able to roll it out.
- When you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 200C. Line all of you big trays with baking paper.
- Roll our your dough between two pieces of greaseproof paper to the thickness of a pound coin.
- Cut out your house shapes! Either use a cookie cutter, or draw your own on paper and cut around them.
- Bake one tray at a time for about 12 minutes, until just browned around the edges.
- If they have spread out, re-trim to the right shape while still hot. Let cool on racks.
Decorate your biscuits
- Make the icing. Whisk together the egg whites and a tablespoon or so of water until frothy. Add icing sugar until it gets to a consistency that is thick but still pipable.
- Lay out any sprinkle you want to use in low dishes so you can reach them easily. Put the icing in a bag and snip the end to leave a small hole.
- Start piping your decorations. You can use pictures as inspiration or just use your imagination.
- Leave to set. It’ll take a few hours.
Make your frosting
- Put 900g icing sugar and butter into a stand mixer and beat on a low speed until you can’t see lumps of butter (with the guard on to minimise sugar snow).
- Add the cream cheese and beat for about 5 minutes.
- Slowly add more icing sugar until it’s a thick but spreadable consistency.
Make your chocolate trees
- Break the dark chocolate up into pieces and but in a heatproof bowl over simmering water until melted.
- Meanwhile, whop the milk chocolate into small shards.
- Take the melted chocolate off the heat and add the chopped chocolate, stirring until totally combined and melted. Pout into a piping bag and leave to col for a while so your trees won’t spread.
- Spread out greaseproof paper on a flat surface. Draw guidelines on the back of the paper so you can work to the right height.
- Pipe out the trees. Pipe the trunk first then add the branches. You’ll need to move fast – don’t overthink it!
- As they dry, sprinkle over edible glitter.
Assemble the cake
- Get your cake board and place the larger cake in the centre with the small cake on top. Apply a thin layer of frosting all over the cake (crumb coat) with an offset spatula and put in the fridge to set (about 30 mins).
- Fully frost the cake, getting a fairly smooth finish. Don’t worry to much though, as snow is not fully even!
- Add the houses around the top layer and trees around the bottom.
- Sprinkle pearl sugar over the top to cover, and use a spoon to fill the edges with pearl sugar.
- Use a small paint brush to apply edible glitter wherever you like.