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This is what happened when we put Donna Hay's Christmas cookbook to the test

Three writers took on festive baking recipes from Australian food writer Donna Hay's latest cookbook. This is how we fared....

Australian baker and food writer Donna Hay, author of Christmas Feasts and Treats
This is what happened when we put Donna Hay's Christmas cookbook to the test

THERE'S something about Christmas that can leave you craving a spot of baking. Clouds of icing sugar and flour, star cutters and caramel, trays and trays of mince pies – it's practically inevitable.

So, feeling in the festive mood, we set three writers the yuletide challenge to recreate three recipes from Australian food writer Donna Hay's latest cookbook, Christmas Feasts And Treats.

Here's how they got on...

:: Claire Spreadbury tested: Vanilla star wreaths

Attempting to make anything look as good a Donna Hay recipe book is always going to be a challenge. So, when I tried to create her vanilla star wreath, I knew it wouldn't be easy, especially when I decided to let the kids help. My daughters – Rosie, 10, and seven-year-old Poppy – were very excited about their wreath-making project, eager to hang it on their door ready for Christmas Day.

I made the biscuit dough, which is wonderfully easy, and popped it in the fridge to firm up. Then it was over to them to cut out stars, re-rolling the dough until we had seven for each wreath. It's at this point you overlap them in a circle to create the wreath shape and then bake (at a low temperature) in the oven.

The rounds of stars worked pretty well but we found the wreath held its form better if you really push the overlapping corners into each other – light pressing probably won't cut it.

The other trick is to leave the wreath to cool completely before touching it. Poppy wanted to pick it up and sniff it the second she saw it. Alas... every star broke and we were left with a stack of biscuits.

Once it's cooled, it's just a case of sprinkling with icing sugar and attaching a ribbon. The girls wanted to hang theirs on their bedroom doors, so we had to shake off a fair bit of the icing sugar to avoid dustings on the carpet every time they opened them.

:: Ella Walker tested: Chewy caramels with salted peanuts

I'm a cake baker – sugar work and whipping up confectionery is not really me, mainly because it sounds like a guaranteed route to third-degree burns and lost teeth. However, I do have a mild obsession with salted peanuts so combining them with caramel – and solving a few Christmas presents in the process – seemed worth a go.

Hay's one-pan recipe is a doddle to follow, but as it all melts, you do end up with risotto-level repetitive strain injury during the required 20-25 minutes of stirring. Also, these caramels are absolutely not suitable for making with children – I kept accidentally splattering myself with the molten mixture of sugar, cream, syrup and butter. It tastes great, but is hot, hot, hot.

The sugary concoction bubbles from the yellow of road markings, to lemon curd, to a dusky bronze – and then comes the easiest bit of all, tipping the lot into a tray and sprinkling with peanuts to cool for a few hours. The whole kitchen smells gloriously of salted caramel popcorn; it clings to my hair.

Hours later the resulting caramels are still quite gooey and I can't cut the slab into chunks, even after a stint in the fridge (did I not stir it long enough? Hay doesn't specify a consistency to look for), so I shift them to the freezer.

Still, despite their formlessness, they taste smooth and milky, and the peanuts provide crunch and saltiness.

: Prudence Wade tested: Gingerbread advent calendar stars

As an Australian with a keen cook for a mother, I grew up on a steady diet of Donna Hay. I've made a fair amount of her recipes in the past, but I tend to stick with simple slices and cakes; nothing you have to fuss over decoration-wise.

Unfortunately, this meant I was woefully unprepared when tackling the gingerbread recipe, not owning star-shaped cutters or a proper piping set. Luckily, I managed to borrow a star cutter, but only in one size.

Powering on, I first tackled the dough, which was simple to make. I then enlisted the help of my sisters and mulled wine to make an event of it, which was handy when it came to pressing out the stars – there really is a lot of dough.

So far, so good... until we got to the baking. Hay says to cook 'until golden and dry to the touch'. Unfortunately, my gingerbread didn't change colour at all and still felt tacky to touch. I left them in the oven a little longer, and this turned out to be a fatal mistake – one batch turned out dry and chewy, and the thinner biscuits were way too hard and crunchy. Even when I pulled them out they still didn't look golden – unfortunately, they were way over-baked.

Decorating was a disaster too. I improvised a sandwich bag with the corner cut off to do the icing, but this was messy and imprecise.

Sorry, Donna, it's far too much faff – especially when there's mulled wine to be drunk.

:: Christmas Feasts And Treats by Donna Hay, photography by Chris Court, William Meppem and Hugh Stewart, is published by Fourth Estate, priced £20. Below are two recipes from the book for you to try.

CHEWY CARAMELS WITH SALTED PEANUTS

(Makes 50)

3 cups (420g) salted peanuts

1.1kg white (granulated) sugar

1.125 litres single (pouring) cream

1 cup (350g) golden syrup

100g unsalted butter, chopped

Method:

Line a 20cm x 30cm slice tin with non-stick baking paper. Sprinkle the base with half the peanuts and set aside.

Place the sugar, cream, golden syrup and butter in a large saucepan over high heat and stir with a metal spoon until the butter and sugar have melted. Reduce the heat to medium and cook, stirring, for 20-25 minutes or until the temperature reaches 122C on a sugar (candy) thermometer.

Working quickly, pour the caramel into the tin and carefully sprinkle with the remaining 11/2 cups (210g) of peanuts. Allow to cool completely at room temperature for 3-4 hours. Refrigerate for 25-30 minutes or until firm.

Turn the caramel out onto a board and, using a large sharp knife, cut into piecesWrap each caramel in brown wax paper, twisting the ends to seal. Keep refrigerated and bring to room temperature to serve. If the caramel becomes too soft to cut, simply return it to the refrigerator for 5 minutes.

GINGERBREAD ADVENT CALENDAR STARS

(Makes 25)

1 x quantity basic gingerbread dough (see basic recipe below)

11/2 cups (240g) icing (confectioner's) sugar, sifted

1 eggwhite

For the basic gingerbread cookie dough:

125g unsalted butter, softened

90g light brown sugar

230g golden syrup

375g plain (all-purpose) flour, sifted

1 teaspoon bicarbonate of (baking) soda, sifted

2 teaspoons ground ginger

1 teaspoon mixed spice

Method:

Make the cookie dough: Place the butter and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer and beat for 10-12 minutes or until pale and creamy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, add the golden syrup, flour, bicarbonate of soda, ginger and mixed spice. Beat until a smooth dough forms. Makes 1 quantity.

Tips: See the recipe that follows for how to roll out, cut and bake gingerbread treats. If the dough feels too soft at any stage, you can refrigerate it for a few minutes before continuing. Freeze any leftover dough, wrapped in plastic wrap, for up to 2 months.

Roll the dough out between 2 sheets of non-stick baking paper to 5mm thick. Refrigerate for 30 minutes or until firm.

Preheat oven to 140C. Line 2 large baking trays with non-stick baking paper. Using star-shaped cutters, cut 8 x 5.5cm stars, 8 x 6.5cm stars, 4 x 7.5cm stars and 5 x 9.5cm stars from the dough+. Use the tip of a 6mm round piping nozzle to cut a hole in the top of each star. Place the stars on the trays and bake for 18-20 minutes or until golden and dry to the touch. Allow to cool completely on the trays.

Place the sugar and eggwhite in a medium bowl and mix to combine. Spoon into a piping bag fitted with a 2mm round nozzle. Pipe borders on the stars. Number them from 1 to 25. Allow to set and thread onto ribbon or string to hang. Makes 25.

There's enough gingerbread dough to make 40 cookies. Freeze the leftover dough or use it to cut and bake extra gingerbread cookies.

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