Despite having lived in Hong Kong for nearly three years now, my Cantonese is, shamefully, terrible. I can’t do much more than direct a taxi driver, and order Dim Sum. My priorities in life are clear! Since working in a pre-school however, my Mandarin, is coming along quite nicely. Each class, beginning with the playgroup children at a teeny 18 months old,. have 15 minutes of Mandarin time per session. The children learn new vocabulary and sing songs in Mandarin. They pick it up much faster than I do, but I’m getting there!
My language skills are fairly appalling, words fall out of my head faster than I can cram them back in. I struggle with pronunciation, how I hear a word, and how it comes out of my mouth, are completely different, and I just can’t work out how to make them sound the same. With this in mind, I am quite proud to say this year, I picked up a little bit of Christmas vocabulary in another language.
I can, for example, wish you a Merry Christmas in Mandarin – shèng dàn kuài lè. At one point in the final weeks of term, I managed to sing the entirety of We Wish you a Merry Christmas, however I don’t think I couldn’t manage that again without a prompt sheet and help from my Chinese colleague!
Father Christmas is called shèng dàn lǎo rén. It literally translates to Christmas Old Man, which I love. Finally, I learnt that Christmas Tree is shèng dàn shù. Today’s treats are baked to decorate your shèng dàn shù. They’re delicious spiced, peppery, gingerbready biscuits. They look gorgeous hanging on ribbon or string from the branches of your tree, and the smell of gingerbread mixed with pine is just so warm and homely.
If, like me, you need a little bit of help with your Chinese pronunciation, you can get help here.
shèng dàn kuài lè!
Gingerbread Christmas Tree Cookies
(adapted from Nigella Lawson)
Makes about 20 biscuits
150g plain flour
small pinch of salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
pinch of ground cloves
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
50g soft butter, cubed
50g soft dark brown sugar
1 large egg, beaten
2 tablespoons runny honey
In a large bowl, combine your flour, salt, baking powder, ground cinnamon, ground cloves, ground ginger and freshly ground black pepper. Stir in the brown sugar. Add your cubed butter to the bowl, and rub it into the dry ingredients with your finger tips.
In a small bowl, lightly beat the egg with the honey. Slowly add to your biscuit mixture, bringing the dough together as you do. Stop adding the wet ingredients as soon as the dough comes together. You may not need all the liquid.
Wrap the dough in cling film and chill in the fridge for at least half an hour. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 170°C/gas mark 3/350ºF.
Roll out on a floured surface to about 5mm thickness. Cut out the biscuits using whatever Christmas shapes you have, stars, trees, snowflakes etc
Place onto baking sheets lined with greaseproof paper. Bake for about 15 minutes, until the biscuits no longer look or feel doughy.
As soon as you get them out of the oven, use a plastic straw to make a hole into the top of each biscuit. You can simply cut the end off the straw as you go along rather than try to clear out the biscuit. It’s important to do this while the biscuits are still warm, or you won’t be able to make the holes.
Cool completely on a wire rack. Decorate however you fancy. I cut out some shapes of ready roll icing left over from the Christmas cake. You could also pipe on icing in pretty designs, or simply dust with icing sugar.
Thread string or ribbon through you holes and hang on the Christmas tree, or wrap up as last minute Christmas gifts!