A QUALIFIED baking expert and seasoned Queensland Country Womens' Association baker have shared their tips to the perfect Christmas treat, their favourite baking and even revealed some secret recipes in time for the festive season.

Matt Brown and Val Shelton each have their own tricks of the trade but share a similar opinion on margarine; it's banned.

A pinch of ginger, a dash of brandy and good knob of butter, definitely not margarine, are among the secrets to the best Christmas baking.

Old Fernvale Bakery baker Matt Brown is an expert at whipping up Christmas treats.
Old Fernvale Bakery baker Matt Brown is an expert at whipping up Christmas treats. Emma Clarke

Cake and pastry baking expert Matt Brown has dedicated a carer to the art of sweet baking and his mixers get a good workout in the months leading up to Christmas; soaking fruit, creaming butter and sugar and mixing dough.

At home with his family, Matt is a fan of traditional roast pork and apple sauce but he says he's particularly impartial to classic Christmas cake and trifle.

"Roast pork and apple sauce is an absolute Christmas essential, although I make sweet things I am a savory person," he said.

"When it comes to eating I like eating savoury. When it comes to sweets though I love Christmas cake and trifle with plenty of brandy and cherries and plenty of brandy custard."

The Old Fernvale Bakery baker said classics like gingerbread and fruit mince pies had been the most popular for Christmas this year.

"Ginger bread and mince tarts have been walking out the door this year and obviously cakes and puddings which we started about three weeks ago," he said.

"My favourite this year is the brownie Christmas tree, something I haven't tried before. I made a slab or brownie, cut out a Christmas tree and gave it a stem with a candy cane and a few baubles with Smarties."

Matt's secret shortbread recipe

Old Fernvale Bakery baker Matt Brown is an expert at whipping up Christmas treats.
Old Fernvale Bakery baker Matt Brown is an expert at whipping up Christmas treats. Emma Clarke

The ingredients are one part butter, two parts sugar and three parts flour.

"The shortbread is the easiest, it's a one, two, three recipe. One part sugar, two parts butter, not margarine and three parts flour. Once the butter and sugar is combined with no crystals in the sugar, add a little bit of egg for liquid because it is softer eating and tastes nicer, add the flour and make sure the dough is clear so it's nice and smooth," he said.

"With shortbread it is better to make it a bit thicker and bake it at a lower temperature for longer."

Matt's tips for festive baking

"The secret to perfect ginger bread is making sure the golden syrup and butter is mixed together really well and do put a bit of baking powder in it," he said.

"When you add the last lot of flour make sure the dough is clear otherwise it will be all bubbly and crinkly.

"If you're baking Christmas puddings and you are using a boiler, make sure you take them straight out of the water, don't leave them in there. Make sure they get to 91 degrees in the centre because that stops the fruit from going mouldy." 

Val's secret to the perfect rum ball, and it's not rum 

Val Shelton
Val Shelton Rob Williams

IT ISN'T Christmas without rum balls in Val Shelton's family.

While the rum might be optional, the art of Christmas baking is a fine-tuned art Val, a long-time member of the Lowood Country Womens' Association, has been a master of for much of her life.

She loves a rum ball or two (with the rum) and is a particular fan of shortbread, as long as there is no margarine in sight.

"Butter is far better than margarine. Any cooking competition judge can taste it and they know if butter has been used. They know what's in it and so does my husband, Ian. I could never bring margarine into the house," she said.

"When we first came to Lowood we were dairying and I even made my own butter. It was a way of economising with six children. We used to bring a jug full of cream up from the dairy and make a batch of butter so we have all been used to that.

"You can definitely taste the difference and it baking will also last a lot longer and stay fresher by having butter."

Val's festive treats have gained quite the reputation in her family, with her six children putting in their order for baking every December.

She can recall making recipes from cookbooks which called for the oven to be "warm to touch" or "hot to touch".

Baking is a skill Val has passed onto Lowood high school students at a weekly Tuesday afternoon cooking class. Their baking has been packaged and will be delivered to Meals on Wheels in time for Christmas.

"We usually do a shortbread and apricot and rum balls, those Christmassy type things. I haven't done a Christmas cake for a couple of years as they are a challenge to mix but I used to love doing those," she said.

"I have always been involved in organisations that would have street stalls as fundraisers so I was always baking and I also had six children so there was always plenty of baking at home too."

Val's secret Rum Ball recipe

9.5-10 Weet Bix (depending on size)

1 cup sultanas

1 cup coconut

1 tin condensed milk

3 tablespoons cocoa

Crush the Weet Bix finely and mix with the other ingredients, then roll into balls and roll in coconut.

"At the end you can put in rum to taste, but it's optional and it depends if you want to go through an RBT on the way home," Val said.

"Rum does give it a nice flavour, and without it they are called fruit balls.

"Some people crumb cake but I use Weet Bix because it's cheaper and healthier.

"Those or shortbread are my Christmas favourites."



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