Joanne Nunis’ three children – Ryan, Luke and Leann Ng – are bent over the dinner table, hard at work.
All three hold piping bags in their hands and can be seen carefully applying colours and lines on an assortment of gingerbread men that Nunis has just pulled out of the oven.
The children’s father Shawn Ng watches his brood with pride while Nunis supervises the proceedings.
“That’s so nice, dear. Are those glasses you’ve iced on your gingerbread man?” she asks her eight-year-old daughter, Leann.
“Yes, I did it myself, ” says Leann, all dimples and smiles.
Nunis’ children’s predilection for icing gingerbread men is not so far removed from her own childhood, which was spent helping her mother bake.
“I learnt from my mum and she learnt from her mother-in-law so it’s been passed down. When we were young, we always loved to bake cookies and cakes. So I remember when I was like 11, I started this passion for baking and making cookies and typically every Christmas, we would also do Christmas cookies together, ” she says.
Now that she has grown up and has children of her own, she has continued this tradition of baking together every Christmas, a task she juggles while also maintaining a home baking business (Jo’s Bake & Bites).
The gingerbread men for instance, are a classic treat that she started making after having her own children.
“I just let them do the icing lah, so they can express their creativity – they seem to enjoy it a lot, ” she says.
Nunis’ gingerbread man cookie is delicious – each perfectly formed cookie has a firm crunch and nuanced gingery undertones.
But ultimately it is the family’s heirloom pineapple tart recipe that really holds a special place in her heart. The recipe for the tarts was passed down from Nunis’ grandmother Mary Nunis, who earned such a reputation for her tarts that she used to sell them.
“I’m the only one who loves to bake, so I still make the pineapple jam (using about 20 ripe pineapples) from scratch, and then I will call all my cousins and their kids to come over sometime in December and we will all assemble the tarts together.
“Everyone has their own role – I have to roll the dough and do the mould, someone will put the jam in the pastry, someone else will pinch the sides of the dough and brush egg wash along the sides of the pastry – it’s like a production line!” says Nunis
Nunis estimates that the family makes about 500 pineapple tarts every Christmas, which then gets distributed to various people in the family. As the tarts hold such tantalising appeal, she also has to keep an eye out for her children and their wandering hands.
“Actually I have to hide the tarts to make it last before Christmas, because they will just go and take it, and it’s supposed to be eaten on Christmas day, ” she says, laughing.
And it’s not hard to see why Nunis’ kids love the tarts so much – each piece is filled with the fruity notes of pineapple, which melds into a delightfully crumbly, buttery pastry.
To get the perfect pineapple tarts, Nunis acknowledges that patience plays a pivotal role.
“You really have to cook the jam for a long time – sometimes I will cook it for more than an hour or so, because that will way it will last longer, ” she says.
Because the tarts are so integral to Nunis’ Christmas, she says it is only when the family gets together to make these delicious sweet treats that it truly starts to feel like Christmas.
“This is what we did as children and I feel that the tradition has to continue, like the tarts which have been passed down from my grandmother. And because we get everyone to come and do it together, I find that it brings the family closer and it feels very Christmassy, ” she says.
Makes about 50 medium-sized cookies
For the cookies
560g plain flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp bicarbonate soda
1 1/2 tbsp ground ginger
1 tsp cinnamon powder
1 tsp nutmeg powder
200g unsalted butter (softened)
200g soft brown sugar
130g golden syrup
2 egg yolks
For the royal icing
1 cup sifted icing sugar (or slightly more)
1 egg white (room temperature)
1/2 tsp lemon juice
To make cookies
In a large bowl, sift together plain flour, salt, bicarbonate soda, ground ginger, cinnamon powder and nutmeg powder and set aside.
In a stand mixer (or large bowl) add butter, brown sugar and golden syrup. Mix on low speed and gradually increase to medium speed for about 1 to 2 minutes. Add the eggs into the butter mixture. Beat for another minute.
Lastly, add the dry (flour) ingredients into the batter and mix until it becomes a dough. You may want to use a spatula to mix.
Wrap the dough with cling wrap and let it chill for 30 minutes for easy rolling.
Heat oven at 140ºC while waiting for the dough to chill.
Using 2 plastic sheets, place some of the cookie dough on one sheet and cover using the other plastic sheet and roll dough until it is approximately 1cm thick. Using the cookie cutter, press into the dough and transfer to a baking tray.
Bake the cookies until the sides are brown and middle slightly soft when touched, about 15 to 20 minutes. Let cool and store in an air-tight container before piping with royal icing.To make icing
In a bowl, whisk the egg white and icing sugar then add the lemon juice.
Separate the icing mixture into a few bowls and add your favourate colouring
Add the icing into a piping bag, cut a tiny hole at the tip and have fun piping the gingerbread men.
For the homemade pineapple jam
4 ripe pineapples, peeled
2 cinnamon sticks
5 star anise
For the pastry
250g salted butter, slightly chilled and cubed
500g plain flour, sifted
1 egg, whisked
1 tsp vanilla essence
1/8 cup cold water
For the egg wash (mix together)
1 egg yolk
1 tsp milk
To make the jam
Cut the pineapples (including pineapple core) and blend with some water. Using a muslin cloth, wash the blended pineapples and squeeze out the excess juice. Once all the blended pineapples have been washed, transfer to a non-stick pot.
Add the spices and 1 cup of water. Bring to the boil for about 20 minutes. Add sugar and cook the jam until it is almost thick. You can add more sugar depending on how sweet you want the jam to be.
Once cooked, let the jam cool down and store in a container.
To make and assemble the tarts
In a large mixing bowl, add the butter and flour. Using your fingers, rub everything together. Add the egg and vanilla essence. Mix and knead slightly with your hands.
Add the cold water and knead again until it becomes a ball. Don’t over-knead the dough. Roll the dough out and start making the tarts using a tart mould.
Pre-heat oven to 140ºC.
Fill the pineapple jam in the centre. Cut a flower shape from remaining dough and place on top of the jam.
Brush the sides of the dough and flower with the egg wash. Bake until tart is medium brown, about 25 minutes.