Master confectioner Josef Maršálek shares Czech Christmas baking secrets

Josef Maršálek with vánočka

Josef Maršálek is a master confectioner with star status. Rising to head pastry chef at the world-famous Harrod’s department store in London, he baked for royalty – serving the Queen of England and Emperor of Japan – and a host of celebrities, such as Sir Elton John. After a sabbatical of sorts at a patisserie in India, he returned to Prague a few years ago to host the Czech version of the wildly popular show the Great British Bake Off. I caught up with him ahead of the Christmas break in hopes of learning a few tricks of the trade when it comes to baking for the holidays. But I began by asking the pastry chef about his latest projects.

“Last year, I came out with two books: Modern Czech Pastry [Moderní česká cukrařina] and the other was My Christmas Baking [Moje sváteční pečení], so with Christmas and Advent recipes. And about a month ago, Sexy Cakes [Sexy dorty].

I saw that one in the bookstore, Sexy Cakes, and also Modern Czech Pastry, but I didn’t know you’d done a specific one for Christmas recipes.

“Yes – My Christmas Baking. There is more advice than recipes, although there are many, but also some general rules that you have to learn in order to be a successful baker.”

Could you give our listeners a brief overview of the most important rules for baking Czech Christmas goodies?

“Well, basically, the majority, maybe 97 percent of Czech Christmas is all about shortcrust pastry. The basic, general rule is that if you make a shortcrust pastry, you put all the dry ingredients in a bowl, and you put in cold butter, cut into pieces or into chunks.

Photo: Albatros Media

“And in general, the temperature of all of the ingredients must be as low as possible, so let’s say around 8 to 10 degrees. So, you take all the dry ingredients, the pieces of butter, and you make a crumble – the same way you’d make a raspberry or blackberry crumble.

“So, when you have the crumble and the butter is in tiny pieces and mixed with the dry goods, you add your liquids. That can be eggs, egg whites, yolks, cream, milk, alcohol, coffee or whatever.

“Once you add your liquids, you have to mix it with the crumble as fast as possible because you don’t want the flour and the protein in it, the gluten, to activate, because then it becomes very strong and like sponges.

“And you want it to be shortcrust, so you have to mix it fast. You can’t overmix shortcrust pastry. If you do, you’ll have a problem rolling it out, cutting it into shapes and then baking it.

“You might cut beautiful squares, bake them, and you get ugly (misshapen) triangles out of it because they have shrunk.

“So, that’s 97 percent of Czech Christmas and the 3 percent is the yeasted dough, like vánočka [a plaited sweetbread] – and for this, it’s the exact opposite. For vánočka, you need all warm ingredients, for it to proof beautifully and rise.

“When we do shortcrust, we put the butter in first, and when you do yeasted dough, you put the butter in last – because you don’t want it to come together with the protein from the flour, because then the protein cannot get into the liquid.

“In order for the dough to become very strong and pliable, so you can pull it into very fine strands, you need a lot of time and liquid with the flour first. Butter, oil or any other fat last.”

Josef Maršálek: Moje sváteční pečení

I saw that you did a video series for Czech Radio – is it mainly highlights from the My Christmas Baking book?

“Yes, for the radio it’s not recipes but rather advice so much as how to be a successful baker. Because there are plenty of recipes because there are some general rules you need to apply to be successful with Bundt cakes, sponge cakes, or icings, creams, fillings and so on.

“So, for the radio, it’s free advice, let’s say.”

But the book is not for free…

“Well, the book is not for free, but you can get many recipes online, which are for free – but the thing is that often the most important advice, the general rules, the basics of patisserie and baking are missing.

“So, for example, you get a recipe for a cake with the sponge, the cream, icing, or filling, and some decoration, but not the basics of how to make the sponge. There aren’t a million ways, just are maybe three basic ways, but you have to absorb the rules.

What’s the easiest Czech Christmas cookie to make?

“Well, the little traditional vanilla crescent cookies [vanilkové rohlíčky], which every family has their own recipe for, which may be hundreds and hundreds of years old.

Vanilkové rohlíčky | Photo: Radio Prague International

“It’s the very basics – flour, sugar, butter, some nuts, walnuts or almonds, a bit of salt, vanilla and maybe cinnamon, which is the basic shortcrust.

“Then you roll out little pieces of maybe 10 grams each into the moon, crescent shape, put them on a baking tray with paper, bake them for 12 to 15 minutes at 160 degrees with the vent going, and they’re done.

“Very often, families will coat them in more vanilla icing after baking, just for extra flavour. It also protects them from humidity and extends the shelf life of the cookie, because the sugar also performs as a preserving agent.”

And what is possibly the most difficult one to make – would that be vánočka, the Christmas sweet bread?

“Well, the vánočka is very different because it’s a yeast dough, and you need a lot of time to make that.

“You have to make the dough, then it has to proof, then you have to knock it down, then you have to shape it, proof again, then egg wash it add some almonds before you bake it.

“I would say also the very traditional ones, which are the gingerbread. Often you should make the dough many weeks, sometimes even months in advance before Christmas.

“The dough has to rest because there are a lot of spices, a lot of honey. Very often there is bicarbonate of soda in the recipe too. And it’s a very rich dough, very sticky.

“The dough loses thickness over time. So, you cannot make the dough, roll it out and then cut the cookies because the cookies would not come out beautifully.

Photo: Albatros Media

“The dough has to rest, and when it does, it gets very hard and it’s difficult to roll it out perfectly. So, you have to have a lot of skill.

“Once you roll it out, cut the shapes, egg wash them, bake them, then the tricky part comes – the decorating with icing.

“A lot of chefs concentrate on this – they don’t make cakes but are incredible in making gingerbread cookies.

“And I think the Czechs are masters of gingerbread. If you go to a worldwide competition, you will find Czechs who’ve been doing it for decades.

Is there a uniquely Czech Christmas cookie?

“All the ones that you have to buy the special metal moulds for – in the shape of a nut, a little bear, a butterfly or whatever you can think of.

“These are very traditional ones made from very short, dry dough with sugar, flour, a lot of nuts, cocoa, some spices, a bit of raising agent...

“Very often they are coated in sugar and spices after baking – the ones that are long-lasting.

“And then another one is made from dry ginger, which are very white or pale in colour.

“I got a cookbook from my grandma, who got it from her grandma, and it was by [Magdalena Dobromila] Rettigová, one of the most-famous Czech

Photo: Kristýna Maková,  Radio Prague International

“In it was a very specific recipe for ginger cookies – just eggs, flour, sugar and dry ginger. And my great-grandma wrote a little note in pencil by the recipe saying ‘they last very long because nobody eats them.

“They have a very strong ginger flavour, and Czechs of this generation are not used to it.

It was a very common spice once, a hundred years ago, but then during communism, ginger was not here, and we forgot how it tastes and how to use it.

“So, this is one of the recipes that I published in my Christmas cookbook. And I think they are truly amazing because they combine just a few ingredients but bake well together and taste incredible.

Are there other recipes that come to mind, maybe specifically of your grandmother or great-grandmother that you included in the book?

“Well, there are many. When people ask me where I get my ideas, I always say the same thing.

“I’ve travelled the world and baked on three different continents with local people – and you find that all the recipes have the same basics.

“The difference comes with a few local ingredients or flavours. But the base is always flour, sugar, butter, eggs. Then you start enriching it.

“I remember my grandma – I told you about the metal moulds used to make nut or butterfly shapes – well, once she made them but instead of with butter used pork cracklings.

Photo: Štěpánka Budková,  Radio Prague International

“When you make lard, there are the leftovers, which are very crunchy, very beautiful, very tasty – and very unhealthy, apparently, though now they are ‘healthy’ these days.

“And you can mince them down to create a paste with a very strong flavour. She mixed them with some flour, walnuts, cinnamon, sugar.

“We pressed them into the moulds and baked them and they tasted incredible. Because once all the flavours combine, they are extreme.

“So, I put this recipe into my book but updated it with some extra milk chocolate and ginger. They came out beautifully, and people love them.

“They have these pork cracklings, which nobody is using in sweets, but once you find out how to use it, add a little salt, it makes your brain think about the flavour because it’s very complex.

I guess my last question would be: what’s your favourite Christmas goodie of all time?

“That’s a very easy answer. I will never say no to a good vánočka!

“It’s such an underestimated product. If you go to France, you will find brioche every day in every shop, and vánočka is basically the same.

Photo: Albatros Media

“I always say that vánočka is the ‘poor sister’ of brioche. It’s not as rich – there’s not as much butter and eggs – but it’s equivalent. For me, it’s one of the top three things I must have at Christmas.

I have a much greater appreciation for my mother-in-law now. She always sends us kilos of homemade cookies – very good ones.

“Of course. It’s very Czech. I’ve travelled a lot and it’s something so Czech, this Christmas cookie baking. It’s similar in the States, but it’s not as vibrant when it comes to selection and shapes.

“Americans use a much stronger colour palate – so they have the green, red, gold and silver.

“We don’t put too much colour because I guess there’s a lot of colour on the Christmas tree, in the Christmas dinner. But our Christmas cookie selection is all about chocolate and browns.”