{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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{7} Pizzelle

Oooh, that’s a big one!

This is the rather innuendo-laden comment that someone at work made when a large package (snigger) arrived at my office a month ago. Clearly the various items that I order online and then have delivered to work are an endless source of fascination to colleagues, and I think the fact I had bought a pizzelle iron pretty much took the biscuit (yes, a bad, bad pun).

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Pizzelle are Italian cookies, made for both Easter and Christmas. They are similar to wafters or thin, crisp waffels. Their most striking feature is the elaborate pattern on them, which is obtained by cooking the batter on a hot two-sided iron contraption. These are variously described as snowflakes or flowers, and I think mine was certainly more botanical in nature.

While my iron was clearly Italian in origin, I was not initially committed to pizzelle. For a while, it it was a bit of a toss-up whether I was going to make pizzelle or go for Norwegian krumkaker. The latter are more like wafers, often flavoured with that Scandi favourite, cardamom, but I felt that the first outing of this new gadget had to be for its original purpose – the Italian pizzelle biscuits.

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Now, I was wondering what flavour to give these biscuits. At this time of the year, flavours like cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg are pretty much ubiquitous, so I thought it would be nice to try something different. A little research suggested that aniseed might be worth trying. I know it is one of those love-it-or-hate-it flavours, but in moderation it is lovely. It’s like enjoying a glass of raki after a meal. One glass is fine, but you might not want to drink most of a bottle. That said, I have a frankly awesome recipe for a tomato and fennel soup that includes a huge amount of raki, but that will be for another day.

But yes, aniseed it was going to be. In the end, I opted for a milder approach, adding some lemon zest and vanilla as well as aniseed extract. The result was great – it had a touch of aniseed, but did no have that overpowering flavour that you get it you’re in the habit of necking neat Pernod, and I think the three flavours actually complemented each other nicely.

In the interests of full disclosure, I do have to share a little on my experiences in actually using my pizzelle iron. I know you can get those fancy electric non-stick things, but mine was a more traditional version, made from metal, and with two wooden handles.

Everything was also complicated by the fact that, to the extent the iron came with any sort of explanation, it was only in Italian, and even then, it clearly assumed some sort of pre-knowledge on the part of the pizzelle iron buying public. Usually a quick search online would answer any and all questions, but it seems that pizzelle irons and makers are as unique as their owners, and there seemed to be nothing online other than people saying to cook them “following the manufacturer’s instructions”…so here I was, flying blind. I just started to heat it up, turning it over to get something that I hoped might be an even heat. Then I brushed the iron with a little melted butter, and tried my first pizzelle. The iron hissed a little, there was a puff of anise-infused steam, the batter expanded a little, and I waited for about a minute. Then I pulled the iron apart…and the pizzelle divided itself, clinging to every part of the metal pattern. A disaster! I had to cool the thing down, then scrub of the trapped biscuit, and start again. Second time round? Same problem! All my excitement about making pizzelle morphed into upset, blame and anger. Now I didn’t even want to make them! Then, drying the iron for a second time, I managed to break off one of the handles on a tea towel. I have absolutely no idea how a simple cotton cloth managed to inflict this damage, but it did. My frustration kept building, and building, and building…

At this point, I decided it was time to go back to basics. The iron was clean, but it was not non-stick. So what do we do with new pans? We need to season them, so I figured that I had to the same here. I covered both slides of the iron in vegetable oil, then heated it until it was just smoking. Then I turned off the heat, allowed it to cool, and wiped off the excess oil. After this, and once the not very pleasant smell of burning oil had passed, I tried it again. I heated the iron, added a spoonful of batter, closed the iron, put it back on the heat, and then, a minute later, I gingerly opened the iron. The pizzelle was perfect! Perhaps a little too golden, but it looked perfect! My non-stick efforts seemed to have been rewarded. For the next pizzelle, I heated the iron over a flame, but actually took it off the heat while the pizzelle was cooking. This seemed to result in beautifully cooked pizzelle which were golden but not too dark. I was on a roll, and a short while later, had a pile of 20 delicate biscuits in a towering pile.

On balance, I am now back in love with the idea of the pizzelle, as well as the flavour. The better is incredibly easy to make, and the flavour is superb. While these are lovely as biscuits, either on their own or dusted with a little icing sugar to enhance their patterns, you can also shape the warm pizzelle around a cone, or into a tube like cannoli. If you’re not a big Christmas pudding fan, I think you could make a rather tasty dessert by filling one of these with sweet ricotta with some candied orange peel and boozy, spiced sultanas.

So after all that work, a successful result! Viva Italia!

To make pizzelle (makes around 20)

• 3 eggs
• 170g caster sugar
• 115g unsalted butter, melted and cooled
• ½ teaspoon aniseeed extract
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• zest of one lemon
• 220g plain flour
• 1 tsp baking powder

1. In a large bowl, beat the eggs and sugar until thick (around 5 minutes). Beat in the anise, vanilla and lemon zest.

2. Whisk in the cooled melted butter.

3. Whisk in the flour mixture until just combined, but be careful not to over-beat. The mixture should be soft, and have a consistency of thick double cream.

4. Make the pizzelles by following the manufacturer’s instructions (yes, I’m whimping out, but you can read about my experience above!).

5. When cooked, remove the pizzelle from the iron and allow to cool. Lay flat on a wire try for flat pizzelles, or wrap around bowls or tubes for fancy shapes. They will be hard after around a minutes.

Worth making? If you don’t have the necessary iron, then you’ll have to forget about making pizzelle. However, if you can get hold of one, they are a quick, easy and very delicious holiday treat. The light flavours will also make them popular with those who prefer less rich biscuits and baking.

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{6} Ruiskakut (Finnish Rye Biscuits)

Are you someone who isn’t too keen on all those rich flavours like citrus, chocolate and spices in Christmas fayre? Then maybe these simple little Finnish rye biscuits are the thing for you!

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I, of course, am not one of those people that shuns spicy, fruity, nutty goodness at this time of year, but I’m still keen to try new things, and all the more so when they involve slightly more unusual ingredients. OK, rye is not exactly outré in the kitchen, but I’ve never come across it in sweet biscuits. So when I saw this idea, I really had to give it a bash.

While the name is a bit of a mouthful, this is a fairly straightforward biscuit, made with just butter, sugar, flour and rye. They are not particularly sweet, but the generous use of butter still makes them very rich. The rye flour adds some flavour, and also a little extra texture (or at least it did in my case – the flour I used still had some of the rye bran in the flour). Mine were probably a little sweeter than the traditional version, as I sprinkled them lightly with caster sugar. This isn’t necessary, and I would skip this if you want a less-sweet biscuit.

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The fun bit, of course, is how you shape them. You roll out the dough thinly and then cut into circles. Then use a fork to make little holes in the surface, and then cut out the middle. And voila! You have biscuits that bear more than a passing resemblance to Nordic rye crispbread.

Now, a little tip. I tried cutting out some circles, then removing the centres, and then piercing the holes with a fork. Doing it in this order made the edges a little messier, so I would recommend cut, pierce then cut out the centre if you want them to look as good as you can. Of course, nothing to stop you going a bit mad and cutting out stars, squares, angels or elks. Yes, I am the owner of an elk-shaped cutter. It might even feature in the near future…

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In Finland, these biscuits are tied to the Christmas tree and visitors invited to take one when they call. As you can see below, they look pretty attractive, in a rustic sort of way. However, I can tell you from experience that you might want to keep them above the height that little hands can reach for (that, or make sure that not too many of them are on offer at any one time…).

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If you are in the mood for some tree decorating fun, it’s worth knowing that these biscuits will get softer over time if left out. You can store them in an airtight container and hang on the tree as needed, but if the biscuits do get too soft, you can simply pop them back into a low oven for a couple of minutes to return them to perfect crispness.

While simplicity is sort of key to these, you could go for a more luxurious version by dipping them in dark chocolate. I haven’t had a go at that yet, but I think the nuttiness of the rye would work rather well.

To make Ruiskakut (makes 24):

• 50g soft brown sugar
• 115g unsalted butter
• 80g plain flour
• 60g rye flour
1 tablespoon cold water
• rye flour, for dusting
• caster sugar, for sprinkling

1. Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the plain flour, rye flour and cold water to make a smooth dough. Wrap in cling film and chill in the fridge for an hour.

2. Preheat the oven to 175°C (350°F) and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

3. Dust the worktop with rye flour. Roll out the dough to 1/4 cm thickness. Cut 8cm circles and transfer to the baking sheet. Spike with a fork and use a small cutter to make a hole in the middle of each biscuit. Sprinkle each biscuit lightly with caster sugar.

4. Bake the biscuits for around 10 minutes until golden. If necessary, turn the tray during baking to get an even colour. Remove from the oven, allow to sit for a moment (they come out very soft but soon harden) the leave to cool on a wire tray.

Worth making? Yes! The dough is easy to make, and the flavour simple but delicious. Very buttery with a nice crunch from the rye.

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{5} Hálfmánar (Half-Moons)

Today’s recipe hails from Iceland, which in previous years has provided some unusual and delicious ideas for Christmas. These things are called hálfmánar, or half-moons (far easier to type). I got this recipe from The Great Scandinavian Baking Book by Beatrice Ojakangas.

If you’re a bit of a fan of Nordic baking, then I highly recommend this book. It’s fair to say that this is a rather traditional tome, with lots of recipes and a few illustrations (sadly no pictures), but it is an absolute gem when it comes to pies, breads, crispbread, cakes and buns. It is packed with ideas from Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Finland, so it’s a great source of inspiration and lots of tidbits about baking history and culture.

These little delights are made from a rich, buttery pastry flavoured with cardamom, and filled with prunes. While Beatrice’s orignal recipe uses just prunes, I added a dash of cinnamon while they were cooking, and then a spoon of brandy at the end. Not so much of the stuff to leave your head spinning, but enough to add a little flavour to the prunes. Thanks to a little baking powder in the pastry, they are soft and slightly crumbly, encasing the right prune filling.

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These half-moons look quite fancy, but they are actually a doddle to make. You just need to roll out the pastry, then cut circles of dough to fill with whatever you want. A plummy filling is traditional, but you could really use any type of jam or marmalade, as long as you go for something that is fairly solid and won’t melt and leak out of the pastry during baking. I happened to have some quince paste that worked really well, and I filled a couple of them with damson jam. The flavour of damson was super, but the jam was a little runny, so I wasn’t able to add enough of it to the biscuits. The result looked like I had been mean and tried to skimp on the filling. In case of doubt, this is the time to use the jam you’ve got lurking in the cupboard that’s probably a little too solid to spread on toast!

If you’re feeling a little bit festive, you could even add some mincemeat, or chopped sultanas soaked in liqueur with some spice and orange zest. Indeed, nothing to stop you getting a little creative and making one batch with different flavourings to inject a little surprise into your biscuit selection.

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Now, one little thing that I think I have to talk about. You may have noticed the rather bright blue background here…I was keen to do something on a red-white-blue theme (the Icelandic flag) and I had some art paper in a brilliant blue colour that I thought would do the trick. I assure you, this isn’t a trick, it really is this incredibly intense blue colour. Think those blue paintings by Yves Klein and you’ll get the idea. When sunlight shines on it, it positively glows with a bright, intense colour. Possibly a little bright for everyday use, but I think it makes quite a nice contrast to all that gold, silver, red and green that you see everywhere at the moment.

To make Hálfmánar (makes 20-24):

For the pastry:

• 180g plain flour
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
• 110g unsalted butter
• 65g caster sugar
• 1/2 egg
• 1 teaspoon lemon juice
• ice water

For the filling:

• 120g pitted prunes
• 120ml water
• 2 generous pinches cinnamon
• 1 tablespoon brandy

1. First make the pastry. Combine the flour, baking powder and ground cardamom. Work in the butter until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Mix in the sugar. Add the egg, lemon juice and a tablespoon of ice water. Work until just combined, adding more flour or ice water as needed. Wrap in cling film and chill for at least 2 hours or overnight.

2. Make the filling. Chop the prunes, and put into a saucepan with the water and cinnamon. Cook for around 15 minutes until the mixture is fairly thick and seems a little too dry. Remove from the heat and stir in the brandy. Puree the mixture and leave until completely cooled.

3. Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

4. Make the biscuits. Roll out the pastry to 1/4 cm thickness, then cut out 8cm diameter discs of pastry. Put a scant teaspoon of the prune mixture in the middle of each. Moisten the edges of the pastry disc, them fold in half. Press lightly to seal and put on the baking tray. I tried crimping the edges, but as the pastry puffs up slightly during baking, the detail was lost on most of the cookies.

5. Bake the half-moons for 10-15 minutes until golden. Remove from the oven and cool on a wire tray.

Worth making? A clear yes! These have a night, fresh flavour from the cardamom in the pastry, and make a nice companion to morning coffee. The flavour can also be easily adjusted to cater for all tastes.

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{4} Panellets de Membrillo

You may (or, more likely, may not) wonder how I come up with my ideas for festive baking. In some cases, I’ve featured recipes from my travels. In other cases, it’s a simply case of typing something into Google, and seeing what comes up. I took the latter route to find today’s little treats. I’m just kicking myself it took me so long to find these little gems!

Panellets are almond confections that originate from Catalonia in Spain, the name meaning “little breads” in Catalan. They are incredibly easy to make – you just mix sugar, ground almonds and egg to make a simple marzipan, and then you can pretty much let your imagination run wild. They can be made with a range of flavours – rolled in nuts, made with chocolate or coffee, or filled with some sort of jam. One very popular and attractive version involves rolling balls of marzipan in egg white, rolling in pine nuts, and then brushing with egg white. The result looks superb, very much like Italian pignoli.

In the spirit of keeping this recipe very Spanish, I’ve flavoured these biscuits with membrillo, the classic quince paste eaten with Manchego cheese. It has a good, aromatic, fruity flavour, which is strong enough to balance the almond flavour of the biscuit. From what I have been able to work out, the traditional way to make these panellets de membrillo is to encase strips of membrillo in marzipan, then cut into slices. I just, well, didn’t bother, and went with a much simpler idea. This is the same technique for making thumbprint cookies, except you fill the dips with jam and bake it.

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These biscuits are absolutely delicious, and I’m only sorry that I never saw them when I was in Barcelona last year! The next time I’m in that part of the world, I will definitely look out for a shop selling the full range!

The flavour is good, and the membrillo in the middle looks great and balances the nuttiness beautifully. If you’re not a quince fan, then go with something else equally bold – tangy marmalade, damson jam or candied cherries on top. Oh, but one little word of warning – paneletts have legal protection about how they are made and the ingredients they use. So if you’re making these for a bring-and-buy or flogging them in a cafe, be careful what you call them – imagine the shame of being arrested over a Christmas biscuit!

To make Panellets de Membrillo (makes 12):

• 170g ground almonds
• 130g icing sugar, plus extra to bind
• 1 medium egg, beaten
• 1/4 teaspoon almond extract, to taste
• caster sugar, to roll
• membrillo (quince paste)

1. Make the almond paste. Mix the almonds and icing sugar. Grind in a food processor to get the mixture as fine as possible. Mix with the beaten egg and almond extract, working to a smooth dough (you might need to add a few more tablespoons of icing sugar). Cover and leave to rest overnight.

2. Preheat the oven to 220°C (420°F) and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

3. Roll out the almond mixture into a long sausage. Cut into twelve equal pieces. Form each one into a ball, then roll in the caster sugar.  Arrange on the baking tray and flatten slightly. Use the end of a wooden spoon to make a dip in the centre of each biscuits.

4. Mash the membrillo into a paste, then fill the dips in each biscuits. Bake the panellets for 8-10 minutes until they are golden around the edges but not dark. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.

Worth making? These biscuits are super-easy to make and the results are delicious! You can also adapt them really easily with different fillings on top, so a nice way to provide lots of flavours for minimal effort. The perfect cookie for the harassed Christmas cook!

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{3} Giant Ginger Cookies

For the third day of Christmas baking, we’re going to continue with the crinkle theme I featured earlier in the week, but instead leave the richness of chocolate for the warm spicy flavour of ginger. Unlike most of my festive posts, these are not some traditional recipe from another country. At a push, I would say they are like giant, chewy versions of British ginger nuts biscuits. Almost the flavour of Christmas in baked form!

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Not that I want to sound big-headed, but I think that these are pretty much perfect ginger biscuits. Yes, they are pretty massive, but they are packed with spice and heat from lots of ground ginger as well as the candied stuff. If you make them, be prepared for that taste-tingling ginger flavour as you munch away on them.

I really loved how these looked, with a good series of random cracks on the surface. However, what makes them particularly special is how they have been finished off. I rolled them on demerara sugar (you can use any coarse-grained sugar) which makes them look rather sparkly, and adds some welcome crunch to offset the chewy biscuits themselves. These really are the perfect treat to enjoy with a mug of coffee when you’ve just come in from a long walk in the forest or park where the last of the leaves are falling. Yes, that’s what it’s like here in London at the moment, and there is a bit of a feeling in the air that we’re in for a cold, hard winter. So clearly time to big up the ginger!

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To make giant ginger and spice cookies (makes 16):

• 340g plain flour
• 1 teaspoon baking soda
• 2 teaspoons ground ginger
• 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

• 3/4 teaspoons ground cloves
• 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg or mace
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 180g dark brown sugar
• 60g butter, melted
• 120g treacle (or half treacle, half golden syrup)
• 1 egg, at room temperature
• 100g chopped candied ginger
• granulated demerara sugar, for rolling

1. In a large bowl, mix and sieve the flour, baking soda, ground ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg/mace and salt. Set aside.

2. Put the brown sugar, melted butter and treacle in another bowl and beat until smooth. Add the egg and beat until smooth. Fold in the candied ginger, then add the flour and mix until you have a smooth dough. Cover the bowl and leave in the fridge to chill for an hour.

3. Preheat the oven to 175°C (350°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

4. Divide the dough into 18 pieces (around 50g each). Roll each into a ball, then flatten slightly. Put the demerara sugar in a bowl, and press both sides and the edge into the sugar. Place on the baking tray, leaving sufficient space for the biscuits to spread (they expand a lot). Repeat until all the dough has been used. You may find it easier to bake them in two batches.

5. Bake the cookies for 12-14 minutes – they should have spread out, cracked and look browned, but the edges should not be too dark. Remove from the oven, allow to sit for a moment, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Worth making? Definitely! Easy to make, look impressive and the last well in a sealed biscuit tin.

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{2} Janhagel

Today’s festive offering comes courtesy of the Netherlands, which is usually a pretty good bet when it comes to Christmas goodies, such as speculaas (spiced biscuits) and kerstkransjes (almond Christmas wreaths). These are the mysteriously-named Janhagel which are a buttery, cinnamon-flavoured base topped with toasted almonds and pearl sugar.

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I’ve picked this one as tomorrow is Sinterklaas in the Netherlands (although, while the Dutch do it on 5 December, their Belgian neighbours confusingly celebrate it on 6 December. As these cookies are Dutch, we’ll go with the earlier date). This is the day on which St Nicholas (or Sinterklaas, the origin of the name Santa Claus) is said to come from Turkey to distribute gifts and sweets to children by leaving them in clogs, or these days, more modern types of shoe. Alongside presents, it is traditional to get a chocoladeletter (your initial in chocolate!) as well as pepernoten and kruidnoten (spicy little biscuits).

So…these biscuits. They are super-easy to make. Just mix a whole lot of stuff together, sprinkle on the almonds and sugar, and you’re pretty much there. Unlike so many Christmas goodies, you can make these from things in the cupboard and fridge, which is good if you need to whip them up in a hurry. The flavour is fairly simple, just the goodness of butter, sugar, cinnamon and toasted almonds, which does make a nice difference from some of the spice-heavy biscuits and cakes you encounter at this time of the year. However, the name is a bit more of a mystery. They are sometimes spelled as Janhagel, other times as Jan Hagel, which suggests it might have been named after some guy named Jan, with the hagel referring the sugar on top (called hagelsuiker in Dutch). However, this sugary link  is more likely than not a bit of retrofitting a theory to the name. If you’re an expert in Dutch biscuits and you know where the name comes from, do tell!

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Now, a few tips for making this. You make these biscuits as one large sheet, then cut into fingers when it is baked. It is worth letting the sheet cool a little, as cutting too soon will mean they fall apart. You should also use a sharp, serrated knife and gentle pressure so that you can get a sharp cut. I tried a straight knife, and it just pressed down on the almonds, leaving messy edges. And…you can get a bit too fussy by using a metal ruler to line everything up, but it would take a special kind of neurotic to get that obsessed…right?

To make Janhagel (makes 18):

• 225g plain flour
• 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 150g unsalted butter
• 100g soft brown sugar
• 1 egg, beaten
• 50g pearl sugar
• 75g flaked almonds

1. In a large bowl, mix and sieve the flour, baking powder, salt and cinnamon. Set aside.

2. Put the butter and sugar in another bowl and beat until light and fluffy. Add the flour mixture and half of the egg, then mix until you have a smooth dough. Try to do this with a wooden spoon rather than your hands (they will melt the butter and make the mixture greasy). Cover the bowl and leave in the fridge to chill for an hour.

3. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

4. Place the dough onto the tray. Shape into a rough square, then cover with another sheet of greaseproof paper and use a rolling pin to roll out to around 1/2 cm thickness. The size of the square should be just over 25 x 25 cm (10 x 10 inches). Remove the top layer of paper.

5. Brush the dough with the remaining egg. Sprinkle over half of the pearl sugar, then the flaked almonds, and finish with the rest of the pearl sugar. Run the rolling pin lightly over the top to ensure everything sticks.

6. Bake for 20 minutes until puffed and the nuts are golden. Remove from the oven, allow to cool for a moment. Gently trim the edges, then cut into bars using a sharp serrated knife. Aim for around 4 x 8 cm.

Worth making? This is a very quick and easy recipe, and doesn’t need anything too fancy to produce great cookies. You could also make them with different spices according to taste.

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