In cities worldwide, recipes for traditional cakes and pastries have been passed down through generations, with the resultant treats now baked into the identities of the places and their people. These desserts are often associated with festivities, none more so than Christmas and New Year. Here we visit some specialist family bakeries that have produced their own takes on classic sweets for many years, be it 14th-century Nürnberger gingerbread, honey-drenched Neapolitan dough balls, saintly Greek cake or a Santa on a sea of whipped cream. Only the most delicious pass muster, as our taste buds can attest. All in the name of journalism, of course...
Spice of life
Lebküchnerei Woitinek, Nuremberg
At first glance, the modern shopfront of Lebküchnerei Woitinek in Nuremberg’s Steinbühl neighbourhood is like that of a typical German bakery. A second look, however, reveals that there’s no bread on offer, no rolls, not even a pretzel. Instead, the shelves are stocked with red-ribboned packets of Lebkuchen, a traditional gingerbread from Nuremberg that’s enjoyed at Christmas.
Today, Lebküchnerei Woitinek is still family-owned, run by fourth-generation baker Bernd Woitinek alongside his wife, Pia, and their three children. “My great- grandfather built this business in 1895 and I took over from my father in 1995,” says Bernd, now in his mid-fifties, as he shows monocle through the manufacturing facility that brims with stacks of boxes filled with fragrant Lebkuchen. A small group of women wearing hairnets are busy packing various kinds of gift boxes. “I thought I could run the Christmas gingerbread production from here for a few hours a day after the regular baking in the morning, but our Lebkuchen were so successful that it proved impossible to do both. So, in 2004, we decided to stop making bread in order to focus on the festive season.”
The production of gingerbread has long been associated with Nuremberg, ever since its heyday as an important stop on the international trade routes of the 14th century, playing an essential role in the buying and selling of spices. Early recipes for Lebkuchen (which can be dated to 1395) list only honey, flour and spices along with a raising agent such as ammonium carbonate. After the Lebküchnermeister (master gingerbread bakers) formed a guild in 1643, the recipe evolved to a richer, moister version that includes almonds, nuts and eggs. Today, Bernd still uses his grandfather’s recipe to produce three million of the rich, nut-laden cakes between August and December.
Surrounded by Lebkuchen in their office and on the production floor, where they can be found handing out tasty samples to staff and customers, the Woitineks are at peace with the historical and cultural significance of their gingerbread. Bernd, somewhat embarrassed, even admits to not being particularly fond of it. However, when asked about ingredients and texture, he has clear preferences. “I like the nuts roasted and chopped quite rough for a little crunch,” he says as he breaks up a piece of Lebkuchen, which should never be cut to avoid squishing the dough. “I use a special hazelnut marzipan for additional aroma, but with only 2 per cent flour, just enough to stabilise the dough and retain the moisture.”
Most importantly, Lebküchnerei Woitinek’s spice mixture, which makes up only a tiny proportion of the dough, is custom-made by one of two remaining local spice traders. “The quantities we need are too large to mix all the cloves and cinnamon, cardamom, star anise, allspice, black pepper and nutmeg ourselves,” says Bernd. Finally, for the chocolate coating, the gingerbread baker creates his own mix of special beans. Though he might not indulge in them often himself, this traditional Nürnberger Lebküchnermeister is clearly proud of his family’s famed gingerbread.
Where life is sweet
Walk along Via Mezzocannone in Naples and you’ll reach yourself in Piazza San Domenico Maggiore, where the San Domenico obelisk towers above a square populated with lively cafés and university students on their way to lectures. Here you’ll find Giovanni Scaturchio and his family’s pastry shop, which was established in 1905. A century later the name is synonymous with the mouthwatering flavours of Naples’ most celebrated pastries, such as the baba sponge cake and sfogliatella puff pastry. At Christmas, the smell of honey and candied fruit permeates the square as the Scaturchio bakery fills its windows with Neapolitan struffoli (deep-fried dough balls doused with honey).
“They’re a symbol of good wishes for the new year,” says Giacomo Cautiello, director of the Scaturchio laboratory, where recipes and pastries are developed and painstakingly perfected. In his vanilla-and-sugar-scented office, Cautiello explains that Neapolitan Christmas desserts are intended to signify the promise of abundance and prosperity in the coming year. Every dessert is made for a specific time in the festive season; struffoli are to be eaten during the two-week period between Christmas and the Epiphany.
The origins of struffoli can be traced back to antiquity, when delicacies made from fried dough and honey were common. The recipe was refined by monks during the medieval ages before entering the homes of Neapolitans during the 18th and 19th centuries. Scaturchio’s version hasn’t changed for more than 100 years. The dough is made from sifted flour, water, eggs and butter, mixed and cut by hand into small balls (the smaller the better) and fried in peanut oil. The golden spheres are then drowned in an aromatic paste that combines honey, orange, cinnamon and vanilla before being dressed with fruit. “The orange and lemon peel is grated by hand,” says Cautiello. “You can’t begin to imagine how much fresh orange juice we drink in the laboratory during that time.” Struffoli, which are meant to be enjoyed by the spoonful, have a crunchy exterior and soft interior, delivering a bitterness in the fruit that marries the richness of the honey.
The importance given to the quality of the ingredients is what has set Scaturchio apart for nearly 120 years. For Cautiello, it’s what makes the difference between a dolce (a dessert of high quality) and something that is simply sweet food. “You always have to select the best,” he says.
Back inside the San Domenico outlet, operations director Alfredo Donvito reveals the second secret of the shop’s success. “It’s the hands of our pastry makers, who are passionate about doing things the traditional way, which gives our products a different taste,” he says. A bowl of struffoli isn’t just a sweet but a piece of the city’s people, traditions and the small things that make Naples what it is. “Here, confectionery and food in general has been transmitted to us by our mothers and grandmothers,” says Donvito.
The pleasure derived from a perfect dessert is at the heart of everything that Scaturchio does. “Our products are a small luxury,” says Cautiello. “When you sell struffoli, you must sell it with passion and a smile, ensuring you’re creating a pleasurable moment for the person in front of you.”
One of a kind
For Athens bakery Asimakopouloi, the festive period is a race against time. Racks of vasilopita – traditional Greek New Year’s cake – are wheeled in and out of industrial-size ovens, arriving still warm into the clutches of customers who queue around the block to get one. “It’s all hands on deck at this time of year,” says Vasilis Asimakopoulos, a third-generation baker who today runs the business with his sister Jane, father Dimitris and uncle Thanasis.
The business was founded in 1915, originally selling a small range of dairy-based products such as milk, yoghurt, rice pudding and galaktoboureko (syrup-soaked custard pies). Over the years, this grew to include chocolates and baked goods, and the business has garnered a reputation as the producer of some of the city’s finest vasilopita. The dessert is something of a cake-brioche hybrid, consisting of a simple mix of sugar, flour, butter, eggs, milk and orange zest. Asimakopouloi’s vasilopita is made using a traditional blend of fresh sheep and goat’s butter, as well as cow’s milk sourced from small dairy farms in Spata and the Megara region in Attica, which is pasteurised on-site at the bakery. “It is extremely fresh,” says Vasilis. “And this combination gives the cake a more robust taste.”
The word vasilopita means “bread of Vasilis” and is named after the medieval Saint Vasilis, a bishop from Cappadocia in modern-day Turkey. There are different variations on the story as to why the cake bears his name but the predominant one claims that, when his diocese was under siege, he asked citizens to raise an offering of money and jewellery to use to bargain with their attackers. When the ransom was given to the invaders, they were so ashamed by the collective generosity that they refused to take it and ended the siege. When Saint Vasilis attempted to return the valuables to their owners, he couldn’t identify what belonged to who and so decided to bake them all into a cake that could be sliced and distributed evenly.
Today a coin is either usually baked into the cake or slid underneath before being cut. Whoever discovers it is blessed with good fortune for the year ahead and often given a banknote set aside by the head of the household. To honour the tradition, customers at Asimakopouloi are given a special coin every year to slide under their vasilopita. “Last year a woman in her seventies came in to show me her collection of our coins,” says Vasilis. “She had been buying our cakes every year for the past 25 years.”
Along with Spyros Dimopoulos, head chef at the pastry department, Vasilis can be found honing the exact recipe for the vasilopita. “Our cakes are the result of 60 years of trial and error,” he says. “We still use a lot of my grandfather’s old techniques but we always try to make things better. We’re working with unprocessed ingredients, so you don’t know exactly how the butter or milk might be in any given year, or the flour might be really strong. So we need to adjust the quantities accordingly. I always put on about 5kg over this period from testing all the different variations.”
Fit for royalty
Confeitaria Nacional, Lisbon
Confeitaria Nacional has celebrated many firsts in its near 200-year history. The elegant pastry shop – founded in Lisbon in 1829 – was, for example, the first establishment in the city to have a public telephone. It was used to communicate between the shop, Confeitaria Nacional in Praça da Figueira, where the establishment is located to this day, and the pastry kitchen when stocks ran low and a replenishment of baked good was in order.
Confeitaria Nacional was also the first shop in Portugal to sell the now ubiquitous Christmas cake, bolo rei, or king cake. The circular brioche takes its name from the three Magi who presented Jesus with gifts; today bolo rei is meant to be eaten on 6 January to celebrate the trio’s visit to the newborn baby. The recipe for this brioche containing raisins, nuts and candied fruit was brought to Portugal from France (where the galette des rois reigns) by Balthazar Castanheiro Junior, the son of Confeitaria Nacional’s founder. At the time, Confeitaria Nacional was the official provider of pastries to the royal household and the bolo rei was swiftly devoured by both the monarchy and the general public (when Portugal was declared a republic in 1910, there was a movement to rename the cake the Bolo Presidente but it never caught on).
Today, bolo rei is a staple at any Portuguese Christmas table, sold in bakeries and supermarkets around the country. Traditionally, a fava bean and a little silver trinket (usually a small figurine of a saint) are inserted into the cake. Whoever finds the fava bean in their slice is expected to buy (or bake) the bolo rei the following year. The lucky person who receives the slice of bolo rei with the silver trinket becomes king for the day and will enjoy good fortune in the coming months. Sadly, in recent years some bakeries have done away with inserts completely due to the risk they might pose as choking hazards or tooth-breaking devices.
In Confeitaria Nacional, sales start in October and production wraps up just before Easter – for those who want to extend the pleasure of eating the cake well after 6 January. In the three days leading up to Christmas alone, 6,000 cakes are made in Confeitaria Nacional’s kitchen and the red-and-yellow tins that they are packed in fly off the shelves of its three Lisbon shops.
Though the cake is now found all over Portugal, Confeitaria Nacional does things in a unique way, starting with a secret ingredient that, it is said, only two people know: the establishment’s sixth-generation owner and the head pastry chef. The establishment also prides itself in not using any artificial colourings in its candied fruit. Whatever the secret ingredient is, it must be doing something right. The famed cake has remained a classic over the years, sought after by Portuguese at home and by the country’s diaspora. Last year, Confeitaria Nacional set up a distribution network to sell its bolo rei in what’s known as the “saudade market”– countries home to large Portuguese communities such as France, Luxembourg, Netherlands and Spain – so that expatriates can savour their country’s Christmas crown jewel, wherever they happen to be.
Japan has never had much time for the alcohol-soaked heft of a traditional fruit cake, preferring instead to celebrate Christmas with a frothy strawberry shortcake. This simple but sublime confection of featherlight sponge, whipped cream and fresh strawberries originated with Kuniteru Kadokura, a baker who worked in the Japanese royal household before studying pâtisserie in France (the first person from Japan to do so) and then returning to open his own establishment, Colombin, in Tokyo in 1924.
The invention of the Japanese strawberry shortcake came a few years later, made possible by a series of converging events. First was the introduction to Japan of homegrown strawberries and then the arrival of whipped cream. Hayato Futaba, who, like Kadokura, was working in the Imperial household, started growing Western fruits in greenhouses at Shinjuku Gyoen. The strawberries took off in 1919. Meanwhile, Nakazawa Dairy obtained machinery from the US to start whipping cream. The sponge itself was less complicated: Kadokura based it on castella, a Portuguese-influenced sponge cake that bakers had been making in Nagasaki since the early 16th century.
The strawberry shortcake morphed into a Christmas staple a few years later and Colombin continues to make thousands (they’re expecting to sell 4,000 this year). There are many versions that appear anywhere from convenience stores to independent pâtisseries but Colombin offers an authentic experience. The recipe has barely changed, apart from the reduction of sugar in the cream from 20 per cent to 10 per cent. A photo from 1959 reveals that even the swirly piped cream is much as it was. Colombin’s head pâtissier today is Yasuhiko Horie, who joined the company in 1978. “It’s a very simple cake to make,” he says. “The secret is in the ingredients.”
The Colombin sponge, says Horie, is denser than some due to the addition of extra egg yolks. The whipped cream is still made specifically for Colombin by Nakazawa and with a rich double cream to achieve a snowy whiteness. The cream is mixed with sugar and Madagascan vanilla. The strawberries are always the best available: a firm but sweet Suzu Akane variety from Hokkaido. In Japan, the strawberry season used to start in January but farmers have since made it earlier to meet the Christmas demand.
Colombin had to pause production in 1944 owing to a shortage of sugar but bounced back after the war. By 1955 it had a shop at Haneda Airport. Colombin’s old Harajuku shop was recently swallowed up in a development, but the company’s attachment to the area, which began in 1967, continues with the new shop that opened in spring 2023.
The old favourites are present and correct; so too are marble cakes, cream puffs, apple pies and jars of crème caramel. Chef Horie notes that the stollen has also become fashionable with Tokyoites in recent years. But strawberry shortcake is still the star of the show come December. The design changes every year but the basic format – Santa in a bed of strawberries – remains. “It’s tempting to make it more elaborate but you have to remember that every cake is decorated by hand,” says Horie. And if Christmas isn’t a time that calls for traditions, when else does?