As I write this, I am in Paris. It's not quite snowing but out on the street everyone is rugged up to the nines, and all the Christmas decorations are jangling in the wind. They look so glittery and bright against the dull, flat light of late autumn.
The big department stores have their special Christmas windows up, vying for attention with their displays and creating a wonderful sense of anticipation around the year's biggest celebration. This year the glossy department store Le Bon Marche has a big window with a dancing puppet show, and the puppets are wearing special Christmas jerseys that you can buy inside (full-size) and see being made. It's so extravagant and fun, and while I know it's based around getting us all to buy stuff, in that way of traditions, it warms the heart.
The Northern Hemisphere does Christmas so well, and I'm sure it's all because of the weather. For us sweating in the heat of summer down at the other end of the Earth, it all feels wrong, this idea of heavy food and fires and being indoors. I find I need to get into the kitchen and start baking some traditional treats before I actually feel like it's Christmas.
When I smell the spice of the Christmas cake mixture I'm back in my nan's kitchen, watching her mix up a giant cake batter with her hands. Getting to lick the bowl afterwards cemented that particular taste in my mind as being Christmas.
When our kids were little we often had Swedish au pairs living with us, and they would always prepare their favourite Swedish treats at Christmas – yummy chocolate balls, delicious cookies and incredible gingerbread houses. I know they did this not just to share with us, but as a way of bringing a sense of Christmas to life where it was hot and sunny and all so different.
Every year in mid-December I dust off my mother's wonderful old recipe file and put her special Christmas recipes through their paces. Having the cupboards stocked ready and waiting with homemade treats makes me feel like I'm at least a little bit organised in the run-up to Christmas. If friends call in, I can pop some Christmas baking into a little cellophane bag with a ribbon and send them home with a happy Christmas wish.
Zaletti Christmas Biscuits
Ready in 45 mins + macerating
Makes 40 biscuits
½ cup currants or sultanas
2 Tbsp brandy or rum
150g soft butter
½ cup caster sugar
3 egg yolks
½ tsp vanilla extract
1 cup fine cornmeal
1¼ cups plain flour
½ tsp baking powder
Zest of 1 lemon, finely grated
½ cup pine nuts
Preheat oven to 170C fanbake. Line 2 oven trays with baking paper. Soak currants or sultanas in brandy or rum for 30 minutes. Beat together butter and sugar until creamy. Beat in egg yolks one at a time and then vanilla. Combine cornmeal, flour and baking powder and add to wet mix with soaked fruit, zest and nuts. Mix to form a soft dough. To test, take a little of the dough in your hand and squeeze into a ball. If it won't hold its shape, add a little more butter to soften the mix.
Roll out the dough between 2 sheets of baking paper to 1cm thickness. Remove top sheet and cut dough into star shapes with a cookie cutter. Place on trays and bake for 12 to 15 minutes until lightly golden. Cool before storing in an airtight container for up to a week.
Annabel says: These little biscuits are lovely served with a glass of bubbly as you open your presents on Christmas morning, or after lunch with coffee.
Swedish Chocolate Balls
Ready in 30 mins
200g butter, at room temperature
1 cup caster sugar
4 Tbsp dark cocoa, sifted
3 cups rolled oats
2 tsp vanilla extract
4 Tbsp cold strong coffee or water
Hundreds and thousands, to coat
Cream butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Mix in cocoa, rolled oats, vanilla and coffee or water. Make walnut-sized balls, roll them in hundreds and thousands and refrigerate to set. Store in a sealed container in the fridge for up to a week.
Annabel says: The addition of rolled oats gives these chocolate bites a delicious chewiness.
Annabel's Christmas Kisses
Ready in 20 mins
Makes about 40 kisses
1 cup walnuts
1 cup dates
1 cup raisins
¼ cup crystallised ginger
5-8 dried figs
1½ cups sweetened condensed milk
1 cup desiccated coconut, plus extra for coating
Preheat oven to 160C fanbake and line an oven tray with baking paper. Place the nuts, fruits and ginger in a food processor and whizz to chop finely. Stir in condensed milk and coconut. Shape into small balls or pyramids and roll in extra coconut. Place on prepared tray and bake until lightly golden (about 20-25 minutes). Stored in an airtight container, they will keep for weeks.
Annabel says: My first item of Christmas baking each year is usually a double batch of my mother's famous fig and ginger kisses. I love the fact that my kids now consider these a special Christmas treat to look forward to.