Scottish Food: Empire Biscuits

I’ve not done a post on something Scottish for a while, so time to change that. These are Empire Biscuits, which are made from two layers of shortbread, filled with jam and topped with sweet icing and a cherry on top. Well, that’s the story that I know, but they do also go by different names, including Belgian biscuits, but that’s a name I never heard of where I grew up!

They are, in one way, just another variation on Linzer biscuits, but their name is where things get a little interesting. They were known as German biscuits until World War I, at which point they took on a more patriotic name, perhaps taking their lead from the rebranding of the Germanic-sounding House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha over to the much more British-sounding Windsor around the same time?

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These are the sort of biscuits that I can remember from when I was growing up, either behind glass counters in a bakery or as part of a selection of cakes in a tea shop. For me, they have a certain retro charm, the sort of thing that is actually very simple to make, but also utterly delicious when made well, with buttery biscuit and good, fruity jam. Perhaps if I was faced today with the sort of biscuits that I ate as I child I might be a little more picky about them, but in my mind, they are a firm favourite. Certainly my inner child was quite excited with how this little batch of biscuits turned out. They looked just right!

To make the biscuits, you can use whatever recipe you want, but I think a simple shortbread works best (I re-used this Christmas recipe to good effect). It’s also best to go with a recipe that does not contain too much sugar – you’re going to be adding jam and icing to the finished biscuits, so you don’t need to worry about them not being sufficiently sweet. I also cut them out using a scalloped cutter as I think the effect is rather pretty, but you can go for circles, or get creative with stars, squares or stars.

When it comes to the filling, it has to be jam and it has to be something with a good, fruity flavour. It’s got to stand up the biscuit and the icing, so something with only a very delicate flavour will be overshadowed. Robust raspberry or strawberry is traditional, but blackcurrant works well too (in fact, that’s what I used here). I recommend being fairly generous with the jam – probably veer on the side of being a little too generous, because Empire biscuits actually benefit from being left overnight for the icing the set and for the jam to merge into the biscuit.

Empire biscuits are finished off with a simple water icing, and then a cherry on top. You might think that you could add all manner of interesting and exciting flavours to Empire Biscuits, but my own preference is to keep things traditional. Play around with the jam, but beyond that, enjoy the retro feeling you get with these tasty little morsels. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you could replace the cherries with some sort of jelly sweet. Me? Always a glacé cherry!

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To make Empire Biscuits (makes 10):

For the biscuits:

• 85g butter, softened
• 40g icing sugar
• pinch of salt
• 1/8 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1 dessert spoon water
• 125g plain flour

To finish:

• jam (one teaspoon per biscuit)
• 100g icing sugar, to dust
• cold water
• 2 glacé cherries, each cut into 8 pieces

1. Beat the butter until soft. Add the icing sugar, salt, vanilla and water and beat until pale, fluffy and completely combined. Sieve the flour and add to the rest of the ingredients. Mix until you have a smooth dough. Wrap in cling film and chill in the fridge for 30 minutes.

2. Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°C). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper. Roll out the dough to 1/3 cm (1/4 inch) and cut 20 shapes with a round or fluted cutter. Pop into the fridge for 5 minutes, then bake the cookies until just golden at the edges (5-10 minutes depending on size – mine baked in 6).

3. Once the cookies are cooled, it’s time to assemble them. Put the jam in a saucepan. Heat until runny, then pass through a sieve. Allow to cool slightly, then spoon a little jam onto the bases. Smooth with a spoon, then add another biscuit on top.

4. Make the icing – mix the icing sugar with enough cold water to make a thick but spreadable icing (I used 4 teaspoons of water). Spread on top of the biscuits. Don’t add too much or you will get drips down the sides. Add a piece of cherry to the middle of each biscuits and leave for the icing to set.

Worth making? I love these! They are easy, look good and taste great. They work well as part of an afternoon tea, and (keep it a secret) they’re really not much effort to make.

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Badam Barfi (Indian Almond Fudge)

Today I’m posting just about one of the most bling bling things ever to come out of my kitchen! After something of rather long blogging break (so my apologies to loyal readers who as wondering what on earth I’ve been up to, but I can assure you, all is fine is rather busy), I’ve kept the Indian theme going from my last post and have made a batch of badam barfi.

This is an Indian sweet which rather loosely translates (in culinary terms) as almond fudge. But the really, really, really fun and frankly fabulous thing this little sweetmeat is that it is finished off with silver leaf on top. How cool is that? Frankly, it looks completely awesome! Sparkle, sparkle!

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As sensational as this looks, it is actually really rather easy to make, and it is certainly a whole lot simpler than “normal” fudge. To be honest, I’ve actually struggled over the years to make “normal” fudge successfully, often ending up with something a bit too grainy and over-caramelised, rather than the expected silky-smoothness. This recipe is completely different. You start off by boiling sugar and whole milk to make a syrup, then add finely ground almonds and cook until thick. While warm, them mixture is soft, but it sets firm and can be cut into pieces.

You’ve got some freedom with how to flavour the barfi, but from I could see online and in my cookbooks, cardamom is pretty much essential if you’re making the almond version. I added some of it when I added the almonds to the syrup, and the rest just at the end of cooking to keep the aromatic qualities of the spice. I also added a little ghee to the mixture, both to prevent it sticking, but also to add the wonderful nutty flavour and aroma that you get from this browned butter. I also added a few chopped pistachios to add some colour to the barfi. I don’t think these really had an impact on the flavour, but the flecks of green certainly looked pretty against the silver and creamy almond barfi.

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Now, there was one little drama when it came to the flavour. What about the almonds? The nuts I used did not have the sharp almond flavour you would associate with a Bakewell tart or a glass of amaretto liqueur, so should I add some almond extract to the barfi? Well, it looked like the answer ought to be a firm no. A few sources cautioned specifically against using bitter almonds as this would spoil the flavour, and I can see how this would be the case if you went crazy with the almond flavour. However, I always find that almond flavour needs a little boost, so I added a couple of drops (not teaspoons, drops!) which in this case really worked well. Just enough to give the merest hint at the almonds it is made from, without overpowering your sense of taste. However, you don’t need to limit yourself to this flavour combination, delicious as it is. You could skip the cardamom and instead add some saffron for a brilliant colour and exotic flavour, or use rosewater for a floral note. You can also replace the almonds for other nuts, such as pistachio or cashew, or finely-ground coconut.

This is all well and good, but of course the real fun came with the silver leaf, or vark as it is called in India (great name, fnar fnar!). I looked high and low for this stuff, but in the end I ordered it online. Once my barfi had cooled, I had to tease the sheets of silver from between their protective paper sheets, and carefully arrange them. The silver is so fragile that you can easily tear it if you take a cack-handed approach, and fingers are about the worst possible thing you can use! It took to the surface immediately, even though it did not seem particularly sticky, and then it was a case of lightly pushing it down onto the barfi with a soft brush. Soft is the operative word here, as anything with stiff bristles will damage the silver and cause it to tear. Clearly you don’t have to use silver (or indeed gold) leaf when you make barfi, but it does make the finished result look very special indeed.
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To make badam barfi (makes around 32 pieces):

• 400g white sugar
• 400ml whole milk
• 300g finely ground almonds
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
• 1 tablespoon ghee (*)
• 2 handfuls pistachios, roughly chopped
• silver or gold leaf, 8 sheets

1. Put the milk and sugar into a saucepan. Cook to the thread stage (110°C / 230°F).

2. Add half the cardamom and all the ground almonds. Cook until the mixture is thick and comes away from the sides of the pan – a drop left to cool on a plate should hold its shape and be slightly firm. This can take up to 15 minutes (or longer) so be patient and keep stirring to prevent burning. It will be a good upper arm workout!

3. Add the rest of the cardamom, the ghee and the pistachios. Stir well, then divide between two square trays lined with greaseproof paper (I also rubbed each lightly with a little ghee to help prevent sticking).

4. Use a rubber spatula to smooth the top of the barfi. Take a sharp knife and score lightly (I did squares of 3x3cm, but diamonds also look good). Leave until completely cold.

5. Cover the top of the barfi with silver leaf (you will need around 4 per tray, 8 in total). Press the silver leaf down with a soft brush, then use a sharp knife to cut the barfi into pieces.

(*) To make ghee: melt unsalted butter on a low heat, and watch it like a hawk. It will hiss and spit, then calm down. The solids will turn light brown and the butter will develop a nutty aroma. Remove from the heat, strain and put to one side to cool.

Worth making? This was really easy to make and the results are both delicious and look stunning when presented at the end of a meal.

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Rava Kesari

I’ve always found Indian sweets rather daunting. I put this down to the fact that I really do not eat them that often. When you go for Indian food, by the time you’ve filled up on rice, bread and delicious curry, the last thing you are looking for is something sweet and heavy to finish the meal. Maybe, at a stretch, I could manage a little mango sorbet at most, but certainly not fried milk-rich sweets like gulab jamun or rasmalai.

However, I was keen to have a go at making some Indian sweets as I’ve had a hankering to try them for a while. I’ve done some digging recently, and it seems that a lot of them are actually incredibly easy to make. And so it is with rava kesari. There is a little work to be done in preparing some of the ingredients, but you’re not required to do much more than prepare a sweet, spiced syrup and then add it to a ghee/semolina mixture. You’re essentially making a white sauce, but one that is brightly coloured and sweet, which is then cooked until thick, then left to set and cut into fancy shapes. But doesn’t it look pretty?

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If you were trying to guess the ingredients here, you would probably not guess that this is mostly made from semolina. Forgot the nasty, grainy stuff you might have suffered at school. In this recipe, the result is firm but smooth. And you’re probably already guessed how these sweets get their brilliant yellow colour. They are flavoured with saffron, and I must confess that my pictures don’t really do it justice. The colour is amazingly vibrant. The saffron is balanced with ground cardamom (which seems to be to Indian sweet treats what vanilla is to British baking), and they are finished off with some toasted almonds and sultanas.

One of the other vital ingredients is ghee, and so I had to have a go at making it. I was able to buy it in a local shop, but I was going all-out on this one. Recipes often say you can switch ghee for clarified butter, but a quick peek in a Madhur Jaffrey cookbook confirmed that it is slightly different, but not unfamiliar – in fact, it’s simple browned butter. Just throw butter in a pan, leave over a gentle heat, and then wait until the solids darken and the butter has a delicious toasted aroma and flavour. This is well worth doing, as it adds a subtle nuttiness to whatever you are making. It is also so ubiquitous in Indian cooking that it would be a shame not to use it here.

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Frankly, I could not have been happier with how this turned out. Sure, there is a little faffing about with skinning some almonds, making the ghee, leaving the saffron to infuse the milk and in grinding the cardamom seeds, but nothing is too taxing, and all of these steps could be easily done ahead of time. The actual process of making rava kesari is a doddle – just cook the semolina in the ghee, then add the liquid and sugar, cook until thick and spread in a tray.

My version was not too sweet (which was the first shock, I was expecting something tooth-aching) and the combination of cardamom and saffron was light, fresh and aromatic, a combination of resinous and slightly minty with the warm flavour of saffron. I remember at Christmas being pleasantly surprised by this spice combination in a festive loaf, so it was a welcome reappearance for this duo in these sweets. I also loved how the pieces looked when cut – you can see pieces of sultana and almond, flecks of black cardamom and flashes of orange from the saffron threads.

Before service this, I had kept the rava kesari in the fridge. This had an unexpected but welcome impact on the flavour, and it meant these sweets had a very cooling quality. Served like this, I can see how they would be welcome at the end of a meal. In the interests of culinary exploration, I also tried a piece when it had come to room temperature, and while it was still delicious, on balance, I think the chilled version is better. Now, all I have to hope is that I’ve done justice to this delicious sweet!

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To make Rava Kesari (makes 24 pieces):

• 80g unsalted butter
• 3 generous pinches saffron strands
• 360ml whole milk
• 360ml water
• 200g white caster sugar
• 1 teaspoon finely ground cardamom seeds
• 160g semolina
• 30g toasted slivered almond
• 35g golden sultanas
• 24 whole almonds, to decorate

1. Put the milk into a saucepan until warm. Add the saffron and leave to sit for at least 30 minutes.

2. Make the ghee: melt the butter on a low heat, and watch it. It will hiss and spit, then calm down. The solids will turn light brown and the butter will develop a nutty aroma. Strain and put to one side.

3. In a pan, combine the milk, water and sugar. Heat until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture is just starting to foam. Add the cardamom, stir and remove from the heat.

4. Prepare a large tray (20 x 30 cm) for the rava kesari. Brush with a little of the melted ghee and set aside. I used a glass tray with no other lining and had no problems with sticking.

5. In a large pan, add five tablespoons of the ghee. Heat until melted, then add the semolina. Cook on a low heat for two minutes, stirring all the time (it should not go brown).

6. Now start to add the liquid mixture to the semolina. This is a bit like making a white sauce, so start with a ladle of liquid, and stir well. Repeat two more times, then finally add all the liquid. At this point, whisk the mixture until smooth and there are no lumps. It should be bright yellow and smell glorious!

7. Cook the mixture on a medium heat until it is very thick and starts to come away from the sides of the pan. You can test whether it is done by dropping a small piece onto a cold plate – it should quickly become firm.

8. When ready, stir in the almond slivers and sultanas, then pour the whole mixture into the tray. Flatten the mixture (a rubber spatula is ideal). Use a knife to score diamond shapes, and place a whole almond in the middle of each piece.

9. Leave the rava kesari to cool, then chill in the fridge. Before serving, use a sharp knife to cut along the score marks to separate into individual pieces.

Worth making? This is a really different and delicious sweet. It’s fairly easy to make, and you get a really good result from ingredients you might have in the cupboard already. Recommended!

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Papas Arrugadas

I’ve had a bit of a blogging hiatus since Christmas, as things have been pretty hectic. Sure, it was a shock to they system to go back to work, but life also has a habit of throwing a few random shocks and surprises too, and the last thing I felt like was getting adventurous in the kitchen.

Anyway, time to change all that! While this is the time of the year that I normally like to feature some Scottish recipes in honour of the celebration of the national poet Robbie Burns, I’m going to break with tradition and have a bash at something I ate rather a lot of on holiday last year on Gran Canaria. This is called papas arrugadas which roughly translates as “small wrinkly potatoes”, of which more later.

Below is a little selection of my pictures giving you a bit of a flavour of what the island is like – mountainous, sunny and warm, even in the early days of winter. The capital, Las Palmas, has a fantastic stretch of beach with strange, black sand and fantastic sunsets, while the days brought trips to inland villages with ancient churches, botanical gardens and, by pure coincidence, a rum distillery in Arucas (selling superb rum and rum/honey liqueur). Yes, this is an island that seems to have pretty much everything. Inland, the terrain gets very hilly very quickly, and you pretty quickly realise that the description of Gran Canaria as a mid-continent is no exaggeration. While the Canary Islands are geographically party of Africa, culturally they are very Spanish, but they also reflect their position as a trade centre with various influences passing through over the years. Oh, and did I mention all that glorious sun in the middle of winter? It made the chilly streets of Britain seem so far away.

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So back to the food…what are these papas arrugadas things? Well, they are about one of the simplest things you could every want to make as a snack with drinks. Take some small potatoes and boil them in very salty water – as a rule of thumb, it should be so salty that the potatoes float! That said, I chickened out and added just one tablespoon of salt to the cooking water for my bowl of spuds – I like savoury, but I’m not a salt fiend. Once cooked, you drain them, pop them back in the pan on a very low heat, and as the remaining water evaporates, you are left with a salty crust on the surface of the potatoes, giving them a frosty and wrinkled appearance. They are then served with a sauce, traditionally mojo rojo, made with peppers and olive oil. That’s it. Really, it’s that simple!

In the interests of full disclosure, it’s probably worth pointing out that you really need to enjoy salt if you’re going to make this – it packs quite a punch, so I think it’s best served with other dishes that are much fresher, like tomatoes, salads or mild cheese. Incidentally, there is also a fantastic local cheese on Gran Canaria calles queso de flor which is made with goat’s milk and milk from the cardoon flower, a thistle-like plant related to the artichoke. This cheese has an unusual smokey flavour which makes a nice partner to the papas. Yes, we’re all about healthy eating at the moment!

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Traditionally this dish was apparently made with sea water, so it was quite easy to get a very salty finish on these spuds. This also makes sense when you understand the geography of the Canary Islands. These are not places where fresh water is in over-abundance. Instead, they rely on rain or passing clouds (in the case of the latter, water collects on trees inland and drips slowly down into the ground). Gran Canaria is not exactly a desert, but it did strike me as the sort of place that you’d prefer not to waste water if you had the choice. I did see my fair share of passing showers during my visit, but they never lasted for more than a few minutes, and being out in the middle of the ocean, the weather changed incredibly quickly.

Now, I have to fess up that I didn’t actually make the sauce to go with these papas, preferring instead to stock up with some in a local deli during my holiday. There were actually loads of foody treats that I was able to pick up, and in addition to the mojo and the cheese (and the quince paste, and the fig paste, and the sugared pine nuts, and the pastels de gloria, and the palm sugar treacle…)  there is a tasty spread called bienmesabe made from egg yolks, sugar, ground almonds, lemon zest and cinnamon. This is originally an Arabic dessert, but if offered all over Gran Canaria as a dessert. Delicious on ice cream or spread thickly on bread at breakfast. Yup, yet more tips for healthy living today!

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If you’re keen to make your own mojo rojo then aim for a spicy, but fairly thick and smooth sauce. I would suggest a few cloves of garlic, a couple of hot chilis, a spoon of paprika, a couple of spoons of vinegar, plus olive oil and salt to taste. If you’re feeling adventurous, you might also want to throw in some other spices like fennel or cumin. Make sure everything is blended to a smooth paste so that it coats to the potatoes when you dip them in. As long as you use plenty of oil, you could make this sort of sauce and store it in the fridge for quite some time, so perfect as a quick snack to impress guests when you’re knocking back some Spanish wine on a warm evening. Now all I need is…a warm evening to enjoy my back garden! The first snowdrops are starting to peek out of the soil, so hopefully we’ll be enjoying warmer days soon.

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And there you have it – a quick little recipe that can be pulled together in less than 20 minutes to impress hungry dinner guests!

To make papas arrugadas (makes one bowl):

• 225g / 8oz very small potatoes
• boiling water
• salt

1. Put the potatoes into a saucepan. Cover with boiling water and add either (1) add enough salt until then potatoes float, or (2) add one tablespoon of salt.

2. Boil the potatoes until soft – around 15 minutes, until you can insert a knife easily.

3. Drain the potatoes, then return to the pan. Place on a low heat, shaking frequently, until all the water has evaporated and the potatoes have a salty crust.

4. Transfer to a bowl and serve hot with dipping sauce.

Worth making? Of course! Who doesn’t love potatoes with sauce?

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The Twelve Days of Christmas

As has become something of a festive tradition, I have just finished my annual Twelve Days of Christmas Baking challenge. It always seems like a good idea, although the first year I did it, I found myself frantically rolling pastry, shaping truffles and cutting out shapes until early in the morning to get everything done by Christmas Day.

That was 2011, and by 2012, I was vowing to be more organised. Clearly the realities of daily life stopped that happening, as they also did this year. But it would not be Christmas without the annual culinary chaos. So let’s have a little peek back at what I wrote when I wrapped up the Twelve Days of Baking in 2012:

…for all my vowing to be more organised if I were to attempt the same challenge this year, 2012 has been just the same. I had all the best intentions in late November, yet still ended up in a rush on Christmas Eve. Heck, it’s like a tradition by now! I kept coming up against the practicalities of normal life – I only own one cooling tray, I kept running out of biscuits tins, the need to do all your pictures are the weekend because you work full-time…and as it turns out even my friends with the sweetest of sweet teeth have a point beyond which they can’t face any more cookies. Yes, I sit here surrounded by those bad boys, which I estimate should all finally be gone by the third week of January.

More likely than not, I will be doing this challenge again in 2013, but I do wonder if there is a need to change tactics. Maybe I need some savoury ideas in there? It’s a little more tricky, as savoury foods are reserved more for the Christmas Day meal, or involve cheeseboards. I’m not too sure anyone really wants to see a picture of a block of Stilton I picked up from a shop…but we’ll cross that one when we get to it! Or maybe Christmas cocktails are the solution? Hmmm….

As I read those words, the various feelings of being slightly barking do come back, but it just would not be Christmas if there were not constant aromas of spice, toasting nuts and baking biscuits coming from the kitchen for the best part of a month.

You might wonder why I do this? Well, I love to use cooking and baking as a way to get to know the culinary traditions of different countries and regions, and Christmas baking provides a fascinating window into local traditions. I find it most interesting that the same or similar ingredients pop up again and again, but they can be mixed up into so many different ways to make a stunning variety of baked goods. Of this series of twelve, the biggest success were the Panellets de Membrillo, which I put down to the fact that they are fairly unusual to British eyes (and tummies), as well as being gluten and lactose-free. My own favourite was the Estonian Kringel made with saffron and cardamom, which looked and tasted sensational. I’ve learned how to use a very elaborate iron to make Pizzelle, mastered making delicious glazed Elisenlebkuchen and discovered that when you make Swedish Pepparkakor, everyone loves the ones in the shape of an elk the most.

In case you’ve missed any of them, or just want to gaze on all the bakes one more time, here are the Twelve Days of Christmas Baking 2013:

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In case you are wondering, here are the original lyrics from the Twelve Days of Christmas, with each of my recipes next to them. As you can see, there is absolutely no correlation whatsoever.

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me:

…twelve Drummers Drumming (twelve Ecclefechan butter tarts)…
…eleven Pipers Piping (Pepparkakor)…
…ten Lords-a-Leaping (Saffron Cardamom Kringel)…
…nine Ladies Dancing (Elisenlebkuchen)…
…eight Maids-a-Milking (Linzer Biscuits)…
…seven Swans-a-Swimming (Pizzelle)…
…six Geese-a-Laying (Ruiskakut)…
…five Gold Rings (Hálfmánar)…
…four Colly Birds (Panellets de Membrillo)…
…three French Hens (Giant Ginger Cookies)…
…two Turtle Doves (Janhagel)…
…and a Partridge in a Pear Tree (Chocolate Hazelnut Crinkles)!

So again, I hope that you have enjoyed this baking challenge! Obviously I will  be having another bash at this next Christmas. If you’ve got ideas, then do feel free to make a suggestion. Bonus points for unusual ingredients, strange shapes or elaborate methods of preparation.

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Filed under Christmas, Sweet Things

{12} Festive Ecclefechan Butter Tarts

Merry Christmas to everyone! Here is the final instalment of my 2013 festive baking marathon. I had intended to get them all done by Christmas Eve, but the social whirl, preparing for Christmas day and need to spend a fair amount of time in the garden tidying up after storm damage meant that I didn’t quite hit that target. However, we are still in the limbo period between Christmas and New Year, so at least this offers an easy little recipe to have a go at when you’ve had your fill of Disney films and chocolates.

Last year I made some mince pies to round of the baking madness, so this year I’ve done a bit of a variation on a theme. However, I understand that mincemeat can be a bit of an acquired taste, so instead I’ve made some miniature versions of a Scottish classic, the Ecclefechan Butter Tart, which also have lots of fruit and nuts in them, but rather than the spices, they are enriched with a thick mixture of butter, brown sugar and egg. This is all mixed together and baked, so it puffs up a little on the surface, while inside it is soft, moist and sticky. Ideal as an easy alternative if you have guests coming who just can’t get into mincemeat tarts.

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While it is tradition to use dried fruits like currants and sultanas, plus glacé cherries, walnuts and citrus peel, you can play around quite a bit with the filling. For example, brown sugar is traditional in the filling (giving a slight toffee note), you can easily use white sugar if you want a lighter filling so that other ingredients are not overpowered. Rather than lots of currants and sultanas, you could opt instead for mostly candied orange peel for a more citrussy affair (perhaps a little like that other Scottish delight, the Edinburgh Tart). By that stage, you’re probably getting rather far from a true Ecclefechan tart (and it would be a shame to have to forgo the highly amusing name when presenting to guests), but go with what you like.

I think it is important to get the pastry as thin as you can. I rolled it out, then pressed it in a buttered muffin tray to get it very thin. When you make them with these proportions, you might think there is not that much filling and feel they look a bit mean. All well and good, but the filling is very rich, so if you make them too big, you’ll probably struggle to eat even one of them. Just keep this in mind if you are tempted to double the quantities!

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When serving these tarts, they are great at room temperature, but I’m sure you could warm them slightly. I’ve left mine plan, but you can finish with a little water icing, or a sprinkling of icing sugar for a more festive look.

You might also recognise this tart from a previous post. Yes, I’ve made this before as a large tart to be served by the slice, so if you want something grander for a party, then that’s also an option.

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So…there we have it! The Twelve Festive Bakes of Christmas for 2013! I hope you’re enjoyed these recipes and they’ve given you a little bit of inspiration.

To make miniature Ecclefechan Butter Tarts (makes 12):

For the pastry:

• 150g plain flour
• 50g butter, cold, cut into cubes
• 25g icing sugar
• 1 egg yolk
• cold water

1. In a bowl, rub the butter into the flour. Once the mixture resembles breadcrumbs, add the sugar and mix well.

2. Add the egg yolk and just enough cold water so the mixture comes together (1-2 tablespoons of water is probably enough). Cover the pastry in cling film and leave to rest in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.

3. Grease a non-stick muffin tray with butter. Roll out the pastry very thinly and use a circular cutter to make discs to put in the tray holes. Use your fingers to press down the pastry, pushing it up the sides to make it as thin as possible. Spike the bottoms with a fork, and pop the tray into the fridge to chill while you make the filling.

For the filling:

• 65g butter, melted and cooled
• 100g soft brown sugar
• 1 egg, beaten
• 1/2 tablespoon white wine vinegar
• 25g walnuts, chopped
• 100g dried mixed fruit (currants and sultanas)
• 25g chopped candied peel
• 25g glacé cherries, chopped

1. Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F).

2. In a bowl, combine the sugar, butter and eggs. Stir in the vinegar, walnuts, dried fruit and cherries. Divide among the 12 pastry cases.

3. Bake the tarts for 12-15 minutes until the pastry is golden and the filling is slightly puffy and lightly browned in the centre (turn the tarts during baking).

Worth making? Absolutely. This is a very simple, yet rich, alternative to mincemeat pies at this time of year, so idea for those that don’t like (or want a change from) all that spice.

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Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things

{11} Pepparkakor

Many years ago, when I arrived in Stockholm to study there for a year, I discovered pepperkakor, Swedish spicy gingerbread biscuits. Admittedly, I arrived there in August, and it was not really until December that we got into the Christmas mood, but you get my drift.

Unlike the slabs of soft, squidgy gingerbread we know in Britain, these are rolled out thinly, cut into just about any shape you can imagine, and then baked until crisp. They can be finished with royal icing and jazzed up with silver balls, drizzled with melted chocolate, or left au naturel. Or served in the shape of an elk. To each his own…

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I love pepparkakor for the very simple reason that they are among the least fussy of Christmas biscuits. They don’t need masses of decoration, and given they are rarely drowning in icing, jam or chocolate, you can happily nibble on them on an almost constant basis. Their spiciness also goes well with tea, coffee or the ubiquitous mulled wine.

As you can see, I’ve got a little crazy when it comes to cutting out shapes. Sure, I’ve got loads of the traditional stars, hearts, and circles, but I’ve also got a whole gingerbread forest going on here – trees, elks, foxes and squirrels. The elk, in particular, looks nothing short of amazing.

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While the woodland fantasy was purchased in Ikea (where else?), for the hearts and stars, it was an altogether classier affair. I received two copper cutters from my friend Anne, which not only cut the dough easily, but they look really lovely. They’ve already acquired a prime spot in the kitchen on the knick-knack shelf. These things are too pretty to hide away in a drawer.

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For the recipe, I’ve used the version from Signe Johansen’s excellent Scandilicious Baking, albeit with a few tweaks. The main changes I have made is to play around a little with the spices. While Signe added a dash of black pepper as a nod to the origin of the name of these treats, I quite like the heat from pepper, adding half a teaspoon of black pepper. I don’t find this to be too much – it is actually very rich, warming and aromatic – but if you’re a little less keep, feed free to go easy on the pepper. I’ve also thrown in some coriander and allspice, and toned down the cinnamon. I like cinnamon, but I do like to get the flavours of the other spices I am using. I’ve also added the zest of a clementine for an added dash of festive goodness. The flavour is not

I’ve also used dark brown sugar to provide the colour for these biscuits, and in place of Signe’s almost equal weights of treacle and golden syrup, I’ve used just two tablespoons of treacle here. I’m just not made keen on treacle, but if you’re a treacle (or molasses) fiend, then by all means, knock yourself out.

Now, while I’ve banged on about how amazing pepparkakor are just as they are, they also serve as the perfect foil to go totally nuts in the decoration department. Whip up some royal icing and get going – silver balls look particularly good, and if you want to do something a little different, try studding them with a few red peppercorns. Not only do these look really pretty and festive, but when you bit into them, you get the warm, rich hit of spice. If you want to use them the way I’ve used the silver balls here, then feel free, but do taste one before serving to your guests. They’ll thank you for that, believe me!

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When it comes to actually making these biscuits, I’ve got a few practical tips. First, it really is important to keep the dough chilled. It makes it much easier to roll out and cut (the colder dough comes out of the cutters). Second, if you want to cut out very fussy shapes, you’re best to roll the dough onto a sheet of greaseproof paper, then cut out the shapes and remove the excess. I tried cutting the elks on the worktop, and they all fell apart as I tried to move them onto the tray. Finally, it is worth putting the tray with the cut dough into the fridge for a few minutes before baking – this will help to keep the edges of the shapes in place. If you’ve gone to all the effort of cutting out pepparkakor to look like elks, you want them to look like elks!

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It’s worth knowing that this recipe does make masses of cookies. You can either make half the amount, or bake it in batches as you need to whip up new batches (or if you’re going to leave it a while between bakes, freeze the dough in batches). If you make these cookies and find that they get a bit soft after a few days, just pop into a low oven and allow to dry out for a few minutes. They will come out soft, but will crisp up when cool, getting back their ginger snappiness in no time.

So…what’s your favourite spicy biscuit at this time of the year?

To make pepparkakor, adapted from Scandilicious Baking (make 50-80, depending on size):

• 75g light brown sugar
• 75g dark brown sugar
• 150g butter
• 1 clementine, zest only
• 50ml milk
• 120ml golden syrup (add 2 tablespoons of treacle if you want)
• 2 egg yolks
• 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
• 1 teaspoon ground ginger
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
• 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
• 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
• 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
• 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
• 450g plain flour

1. Put the two types of brown sugar and the butter into a bowl. Beat until light and fluffy. Add the clementine zest, milk, syrup, egg yolks and spices and beat well for another minute.

2. Add the flour and bicarbonate of soda and mix to a soft dough. Wrap in cling film and chill in the fridge overnight.

3. Preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

4. Take pieces of the chilled dough. Roll out very thinly on a well-floured worktop and cut out whatever shapes your heart desires.

5. Bake the cookies for around 10 minutes until browned but not too dark. They might need more or less time, depending on their size. When done, remove from the oven, the leave to sit for a moment then transfer to a wire tray to cool completely.

Worth making? These biscuits are highly recommended – very spicy, very crisp and very, very more-ish.

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{10} Kringel (Estonian Christmas Ring)

Today’s bake moves away from the world of biscuits and into traditional yeasted celebration loaves. This is something called Kringel and (from the limited amount that Google was able to tell me) it originates in Estonia. This is an enriched dough flavoured with cardamom and saffron, and enlivened with cardamom butter and sultanas. Brilliant gold in appearance, and wonderfully aromatic. Oh, and it looks spectacular!

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Yes, today is my tenth Christmas baking post, and I always feel a little sense of relief come over me when I get into double digits in my festive bake-a-thon. I can see the end, and it means I’m 80% of the way there. In case you’re wondering, I’m not one of those people that plans everything in the middle of June, with posted timed to ping out with clockwork regulatory ahead of Christmas Day.

Nope, my world is one of baking chaos, with ideas on top of ideas, changes of heart, new inspiration and abandonment of things that are either over-exposed or no longer tempting. What this all means in a more practical sense is that I’ve been off work for Christmas since Friday, and I’ve been in the kitchen pretty much non-stop to prepare food for Christmas Day but also to make sure I deliver on my Twelve Days of Baking challenge. It’s all real-time action. When I say it’s freezing outside, I don’t mean it was a chilly October day when I made something – I mean there is a December rainstorm outside! This is probably one of the reasons I will never forge a career as a food journalist – I don’t think I would be terrible good at working on a food shoot when it is warm and sunny outside (although I would like a lot more natural light to come streaming in through the kitchen windows than I get at the moment…yesterday it seemed to get dark at quarter to three!).

Today’s recipe is one that sort of evolved in my kitchen. A few weeks ago, I decided to look for some festive ideas from countries that I’m not so familiar with, and once of them was the Estonian Kringel. Oddly, I was not actually able to find out that much about it beyond the shape. Most of the versions I saw online seemed to involve cinnamon, and while this is normally my absolutely favourite spice, I wondered if that was all there was to it. A little more digging suggested that the traditional flavour was not in fact cinnamon, but could involve saffron or cardamom. Cardamom made sense, given the frequency with which it appears in the baking of neighbouring Sweden and Finland. And saffron suggested some sort of link to Swedish luciabullar, those brilliant golden swirls. This did get me thinking…what about using the two of them? I have to admit that this was a strange combination that I would not have thought of putting together myself, so I checked it out in my trusty Flavour Thesaurus. Helpfully, this combination had an entry, and was recommended as a combination. It looked like aromatic, rich saffron and zesty, fresh cardamom would be a winner, and I was sold.

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For the dough, I’ve just adapted my recipe for Swedish cinnamon buns which worked out just fine. The dough contains a decent amount of butter, but not too much sugar. Most of the sweetness comes from the sweet cardamom butter used in the filling in any event, and I knew already that this was a dough that could cope with being rolled out and sliced up.

The fun bit here is how you shape the kringel. You roll out the dough, spread with the filling and the sultanas, the roll it into a long sausage. Next, slice it lengthways, and then you twist the two halves so that the cut side is exposed. This gives you the pretty ridged effect when the kringel is baked. In fact, the only tricky part here is getting a neat join when you form the whole thing into a ring. I’ve now made two of these things, and in each case, the joint was, eh, less than perfect. However, one tip I can share is that the loaf looks better if you keep the twists fairly tight (if they are not tight, then loaf is loose and does not get as much height as you want).

So there you have it – a loaf that looks fabulous and really does not take that much work to make. And trust me on the saffron and cardamom combination – it might seem odd, but it really is wonderful. It’s a nice contrast to some of the other flavours about at this time of year, but it still makes this taste like a very special treat indeed.

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So now, dear reader, a little request from me – does anyone know more about this bread? If you’re Estonian or just a fan of their baking, please do get in touch and let me know!

To make a Kringle:

For the dough:

• 3 generous pinches saffron
• 2 tablespoons boiling water
• 2 teaspoons instant yeast
• 50g sugar
• 60g butter
• 150ml milk, scalded and cooled
• 1 egg
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 1/2 generous teaspoon freshly ground cardamom
• 350g strong white flour
• cardamom filling (see below)
• 150g sultanas
• milk, to brush before baking

1. Crush the saffron and mix with the boiling water. Allow to sit for at least 10 minutes for the colour to develop.

2a. If using a bread machine: Throw everything into the mixing bowl (apart from the cardamom filling and sultanas). Run the “dough” cycle. Simples!

2b. If making by hand: put the flour and butter into a bowl, and rub with your fingers until the butter has been incorporated. Fold in the salt, sugar, cardamom and yeast. In a separate bowl, combine the saffron, milk and egg, then pour into the dry ingredients. Stir with a spoon, then work with your hands until you have a smooth, stretchy, silky dough (at least 5 minutes). Leave the dough a warm place for an hour until the dough has doubled in size. Knock back and knead again for 2-3 minutes.

3. Once the dough is ready, turn it onto a floured surface. Roll into a large rectangle of around 30 x 60cm  (my  rolling pin is 30 cm long, so use that as a rule of thumb). Spread with around four-fifths of the filling, sprinkle with the sultanas and then roll up into a sausage.

4. Use a sharp knife to cut the sausage lengthways. Arrange the two strips, cut side up. Starting at one end, twist the pieces around each other, keeping the cut sides face-up at all times. Form into a wreath, then join the ends, tucking them into each other as tightly as you can. Place on a baking sheet lined with greasproof paper. Cover loosely with cling film or place in a large plastic bag, and leave to rise for at least an hour until doubled in size.

5. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F). Brush the loaf with the milk and bake for around 25 minutes until puffed up and golden but not too dark.

6. To finish the loaf, take the reserved cardamom butter. Melt in a saucepan, and add two tablespoons of milk. Bush the hot glaze over the warm kringle.

For the filling:

• 60g butter, soft
• 60g caster sugar
• 3 teaspoons ground cinnamon

Mix all the ingredients in a bowl until smooth.

Worth making? This loaf looks amazing, but is actually incredibly straightforward to make. If you’ve got a bread machine to do all the heavy lifting, then it really takes very little work at all! It makes a spectacular centrepiece for a breakfast or coffee morning, and can be easily customised according to taste (for example, make it with cinnamon and/or other types of dried fruits).

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{9} Elisenlebkuchen

One of my favourite Christmas treats is the German Elisenlebkuchen, packed with nuts, citrus peel and spice, and the base coated in dark chocolate and finished with a sugar glaze that takes on a frosty appearance. They are pretty much Christmas in a biscuit.

Now, if I’m going to dare to call these things Elisenlebkuchen, then I need to be careful what goes into them. I earn some credit for the hazelnuts, walnuts, almonds, various spices and lemon and orange peel I’ve used, but I would have scored a great big fat zero if I had let just one dash of flour get anywhere near them. As a mark of quality, these things are made wheat-free. As a result, they have a fairly flat shape, but the flavour is rich and the texture soft and dense.

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My fondness for these is in part due to what goes into them – nuts, spices and candied peel. However, it is also due to the fact that they are one of the first biscuits I got to know. Unlike today, when we’ve got easy access to foreign Christmas goodies, it used to take a bit of work. Panettone, marrons glacés and Lebkuchen had to be searched out, found only in places familiar to those in the know. So it was with these biscuits. The specific brand I loved were Bahlsen Contessa, and they were sold in a branch of Spar where my grandmother lived. The German woman who ran the shop had a few of them in at the end of the year, so no visit was complete without a trip to pick up a box of Lebkuchen. I liked to pick off the chocolate and then eat the soft cake bit.

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While there are rules about what you can use, you still have some scope to play around. Various recipes seemed to suggest using just almonds, but I wanted to add a bit more depth to my attempt, so I used equal parts of hazelnuts, walnuts and almonds. For the candied peel, I changed the common 50/50 mixture of orange and lemon, using mostly orange, and relying on fresh lemon zest to provide the zing.

And finally, the spices. The traditional approach is to use Lebkuchengewürz (Lebkuchen spices). However, I had run out of this so I let my creativity run wild. Cinnamon, cloves, mace, ginger, cardamom, star anise and a dash of white pepper went in there. You can go with whatever you like, but I would aim for mostly cinnamon with just a dash of the more powerful spices. Also keep in mind that the flavour will mature as they are stored, getting stronger with time, so if you go with lots of really forceful spices such as cloves or black pepper, you might send your guests running to the kitchen for water. Going heavy on nutmeg, coriander or cardamom, in contrast, probably invokes less of a risk!

When it comes to finishing these Lebkuchen, you’ve also got a few options. They often feature whole almonds arranged either individually or in a circle on top. They can be left as they are, or coated with a simple glaze of icing sugar and hot water. This has a magical effect when you leave it overnight, taking on a white, frosted appearance. Alternatively, you can coat them entirely in dark chocolate, which works wonderfully well with the citrus and spices. I went from something that combined the two – the glaze on top, with a layer of chocolate on the bottom.

If you buy these, they tend to be on the large side, around palm-sized. I made them more bite-sized. Which…arguably means…you can enjoy twice as many. I think all in all, they take a fair bit of time to make (you need to allow for overnight drying of the icing, and then fiddling about with tempering chocolate and so on) but nothing is particularly difficult and the result is really delicious.

To make Elisenlebkuchen (makes 32):

For the biscuits:

• 3 eggs
• 150g soft light brown sugar
• 75g white caster sugar
• 200g ground nuts (walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts)
• 25g flaked almonds, crushed
• 100g candied peel, very finely chopped
• 1 lemon, zest only
• 1 1/2 teaspoons mixed spice
• pinch of salt
• 1/2 teaspoon baker’s ammonia

For the glaze:

• 100g icing sugar
• 2 tablespoons boiling water

 To finish:

 • 250g dark chocolate

1. Preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F). Line four baking trays with greaseproof paper, and rub each very lightly with oil.

2. Separate the eggs. In a bowl over a pan of barely simmering water, beat the yolks with the brown sugar until pale and fluffy (around 3 minutes).

3. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites until you have soft peaks. Add the caster sugar, and whisk on a high speed until you have a stiff meringue.

4. Fold the meringue into the egg yolk mixture in three batches. Stir in the ground nuts, crushed flaked almonds, candied peel, lemon zest, spice, salt and baker’s ammonia.

5. Transfer the mixture to a piping bag, and pipe out rounds onto the trays (I did eight per sheet – each one around 4cm diameter).

6. Bake the biscuits for 20 minutes, turning the tray mid-way through, until they are puffed up and browned. When done, remove from the oven, allow to cool and remove from the paper and cool on a wire tray.

7. Once all the biscuits are baked, make the glaze by mixing the icing sugar with the boiling water. Brush the glaze onto the domed side of the biscuits, and leave overnight to dry (the glaze should dry fairly quickly, and take on a “frosted” appearance by the next morning).

8. Finally, melt the chocolate and use to coat the flat side of the Lebkuchen.

Worth making? Definitely. These taste pretty much like the pure essence of Christmas, and well worth the time they take.

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{8} Linzer Biscuits

Linzer biscuits are just about the most festive thing that you can make at this time of the year. Spiced, nutty pastry filled with bright red raspberry jam, and with snow-like icing sugar. And they are shaped like stars. Sort of like screaming good cheer at the top of your voice, isn’t it?

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Actually, Linzers have a rather ancient pedigree. They are closely based on the famous Linzertorte from the Austrian city of Linz, which is said to be one of the oldest (or indeed, the oldest) cakes in the world, with recipes found from as far back as the 1600s. It is made from a rich, nut pastry and then filled with a dark fruity jam, often blackcurrant, and then finished with a lattice top. These biscuits are essentially a variation on that theme, but with the lattice top replaced with some nifty cookie-cutter action. I’ve gone with concentric stars, but you could quite happily cut out circles and then cut out angels, Christmas trees or simple geometric shapes. If you go for a round version with a circle inside for the jam, they become known as Linzer Augen (“Linzer Eyes”).

I made these with quite a few tasty ingredients to get a really festive flavour, but not all of them quite traditional. While you can use almonds, I preferred to go with hazelnuts, as they add a great flavour to biscuit dough when baked. If you keep the skin on them before grinding, then you’ll get the typical brown flecks in the finished biscuits.  I also used brown sugar to get a slight caramel flavour, and then flavoured everything with cinnamon, ground cloves, vanilla and orange zest. While it is usual to add just cinnamon and vanilla, I think the cloves and orange really do make the flavour very special. The clove flavour lingers on the tongue, while the zest perks everything up.

If there is something annoying about making Linzers, it is that the dough is on the soft side. This can be easily addressed by making sure it is properly chilled before getting into the rolling and cutting, so ideally you want to make the dough the night before, rather than doing it in the morning and clock-watching in anticipation of turning the oven on. You will, however, find that you are constantly taking pieces of dough from the fridge, and then returning scraps to the fridge to re-chill. However, don’t be tempted to skip this – the heat from you hands alone will soften the dough, and can turn it oily and unworkable. It is also worth doing a test bake before committing a whole tray of biscuits to the oven – if the test does not keep its shape, then pop the tray into the freezer to chill – and when you bake them, they should stay pretty much razor-sharp at the edges.

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If you make these biscuits, it is worth knowing that they start of as very crisp. After a day or so, they will get softer and more cake-like in texture, so keep this in mind depending on how you like you bakes to turn out when you serve them. If you want to make them ahead of time, I recommend keeping them – without the jam – in an airtight container, and then baking them again briefly when you need them to get them back to their crispy best.

If you’re after a bit of variety, you can use different types of jam (like I did last year when making Swiss Spitzbuben). With the spices I used, I think plum jam (Victoria or damson) would be delicious, as would marmalade, or the traditional blackcurrant. The only think that you need to worry about is using jam that is sufficiently sharp and has a bit of a tang, to balance the sweetness of the biscuits.

So here we are at the two-thirds mark in this year’s Twelve Days of Baking (or Baking Madness, if you prefer). I hope you’ve enjoyed it so far.

To make Linzer Biscuits (makes around 40):

140g hazelnuts (skin on)
• 280g plain flour
• 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 225g unsalted butter
• 140g soft brown sugar
• 1 large egg
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• zest of one small orange
• 150g raspberry jam
• icing sugar, to dust

1. Grind the hazelnuts until fine. Mix with the flour, salt, cinnamon and cloves and set aside.

2. In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the egg, vanilla and orange zest and mix well. Fold in the dry ingredients and mix well (the dough will be very soft). Wrap the dough in cling film and leave to chill for a couple of hours, or overnight.

3. Preheat the oven to 175°C (350°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper. Take chunks of the chilled dough. Work briefly to soften it, then roll out the dough to 1/4 inch and cut shapes with a star or fluted cutter. Bake half the cookies until just lightly browned at the edges (10-12 minutes depending on size). In the meantime, remove the centres from the other half of the cookies with a smaller cutter, then bake those (they will need a little less time in the oven). Repeat until all the dough has been used, remembering that for every base, you need a top cookie.

4. Once the cookies are cooled, it’s time to assemble them. Put the jam in a saucepan. Heat until runny, then pass through a sieve (or use seedless jam). Allow to cool until thickened, then spoon a little jam onto the basis. Smooth with a spoon, then add the top layer. When all the cookies are done, dust lightly with icing sugar – any sugar that lands on the jam will dissolve, leaving perfect festive shapes.

Worth making? Yes! These are rich, delicious, and while they take a little time, they are fairly easy to make. You also get a large batch for little effort, and they store well in case of unexpected guests.

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