Scottish Food: Parlies (after a fashion…)

Hoots! Tonight is Burns Night, the official unofficial celebration of all things Scottish in general, and specifically the life and times of the national poet, Robert (Robbie) Burns. Up and down the land, people will enjoy traditional fare consisting of haggis, neeps and tatties (swede and potatoes). Simple stuff, but usually rounded off with a lot of whisky and followed with a poetry recital and some energetic Scottish folk dancing if you’ve managed to moderate the whisky intake.

I’ve been looking around for an interesting Scottish recipe, and from time to time I’ve seen a reference to biscuits called “parlies”. I must admit that parlies are not something that feature in my knowledge of Scottish baking, and it seems that I’m not alone. Most people think about shortbread and Ecclefechan tarts, perhaps with the occasional empire biscuit thrown in there, but parlies don’t feature much on blogs. So when it came to making these mysterious “parlies” I was pretty much guessing how they would turn out.

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Before I get to the baking, a little history lesson is helpful. The name parlies come from the word “parliament”, and they are also known as Scottish parliament cakes. The story goes that these ginger biscuits were purchased by the members of the original (pre-1707) Scottish Parliament from a tavern on Potterrow behind the University run by a Mrs Flockhart (who was also know as “Luckie Fykie”) , and were enjoyed with a tot of whisky. Parlies themselves were square in shape, and she also sold “snaps” which were round. In fact, you can read more about her in this extract from Traditions of Edinburgh written by Robert Chalmers in 1825. The title pages explain that it concerns itself with “conspicuous characters of the last century” and promises “the old-town ladies of quality”, which I can assume only refers to how they ran their hostelries. But remarkably, this book talks about her, the location of her tavern, and there is even a reference to parlies in there! However, I have not yet found a source that confirms whether these were enjoyed by any particular side of the house or they enjoyed cross-party appeal.

Armed with this knowledge, I knew that I was making some sort of ginger biscuit. I like ginger, so that was a plus. But what I quickly realised is that there is no one single way to make them. Given they seem to be at the very edges of the national baking consciousness, there is no single ideal to bake towards. Eeek! I knew what this meant – I might be facing baking failure, and I might end up in one of those kitchen frenzies when I’m trying recipe after recipe to get something that I deem acceptable. Yes, that happens sometimes!

All recipes I was able to track down used brown sugar, butter, flour, ginger and black treacle in varying quantities. Some used egg, others didn’t. There were also different ways to make them – some involved melting the butter, some involved the creaming method. While I am far from a baking expert, I knew this risked differing results. There was also a dearth of raising agents in the recipes I managed to find, which did make sense as the original parlies first popped up at a time when there was no baking powder, and other raising agents might have been hard to come by.

I bit the bullet and started with a recipe that involved mixing up the dry ingredients, then adding melted butter and an egg to make the dough, but with no raising agent. The dough looked good – it was fairly stiff, and once chilled it could be easily rolled into balls, then flattened and baked. I even added a criss-cross pattern with a fork, which provided a sort of portcullis look on the top of them. While they looked pretty good, and the flavour was decent, the lack of raising agent meant that they were thick and tough – these were not going to melt in the mouth, and I doubt that soaking them in tea or whisky would help soften them. Next!

My second attempt used the creaming method – whipping the butter and sugar, then mixing in the egg before adding the flour, ginger and treacle. This time the mixture seemed lighter and softer, and I assumed that the air I had beaten into it would mean that this batch would come out crisp and light. Well, nope. The spoonful of dough just baked into an unappealling lump of brown. I did try to rescue the dough with a spoonful of golden syrup and a teaspoon of baking soda, but the result looked horrible, and managed to taste worse than it looked. Next!

By my third attempt, I realised that since I had no clue what I was actually aiming for, I should go back to what I know about ginger biscuits. The mixture reminded me of gingernuts, but without any raising agent. I felt that the lack of anything to give them a lift might have been authentic, but it was also grim, and we live in a modern world where we don’t need to eat grim biscuits. I needed something for lift, and decided on baking soda. So my version of parlies are actually gingernuts, but with the sweet golden syrup replaced with the dark, spicy and tangy black treacle, and a bit of chopped cyrstallised ginger for extra spice.

This time, they worked like a dream – just mix all the dry ingredients, work in the butter, then add the treacle. The dough is easy to work and roll into balls, and in the oven, then collapse, take on an attractive random cracked appearance. Once cool, they are light and crisp. Perfect!

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So there you have it – my take on parlies! They might not be authentic, but I like to think that Mrs Flockhart might have approved (she did sell the round ones too, after all!). And I think they make a passable attempt and the black treacle is a definite nod to the original, and it adds an interesting flavour to them. If you’re not a fan of black treacle, you could use sweeter molasses, or if you like things very sugary, just use golden syrup and call them gingernuts. That still sounds rather Scottish, doesn’t it?

To make parlies (makes 20):

• 110g plain flour
• 1 teaspoon baking soda
• 1 teaspoon ground ginger

• 40g soft brown sugar
• 50g butter
• 1 teaspoon candied ginger, finely chopped
• 2 tablespoons (50g) black treacle or molasses

1. Preheat the oven to 190°C and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

2. Put the flour, baking soda and ground ginger in a bowl. Mix in the sugar, then rub in the butter until it resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Mix in the chopped ginger.

3. Add the treacle and mix to a stiff dough.

4. Divide into 20 pieces (roll into a sausage of 20cm, the cut into 1cm pieces). Roll each piece into a ball, then place on the baking sheet and flatten slightly. They will spread out, so leave plenty space between them. It is easier to bake them in batches.

5. Bake for 10-15 minutes until the cookies have spread out and have a cracked appearance. They will be soft when they come out of the oven, but will go hard once cooled.

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Roasted White Chocolate

I’m really not one for following food trends. This nothing to do with me seeking to take some sort of stand about my intellectual and culinary independence and trying to set myself up as some sort of anti-trend baker – I mean, have you actually seen my annual festive baking bonanza? No, it is just the case that trends tend to very easily pass me by. It’s not that I don’t enjoy new things, but the various commitments of daily life mean I’m picking up on things as they are lukewarm, rather than fresh-from-the-oven hot. The result? I come to a lot of things rather late in the day. So I appreciate that roasted white chocolate has been around for a while, but it sounds interesting, so I thought I would give it a whirl.

There were two things that really appealed to me about trying roasted white chocolate. First, you only need one ingredient – a bar of decent white chocolate. Chop it, put it on a tray, heat in a low oven and move it about from time to time until it is of the desired colour. Dead easy! Second, I have very fond childhood memories of the Caramac bar (don’t judge!). It seemed like caramel chocolate to me back then, even if the wrapper carefully avoided the word “chocolate”, so I expected this little experiment to have a similar flavour, albeit one that was perhaps just a hint more sophisticated!

Making this roasted chocolate was an absolute breeze – I took a bar, chopped it into small-ish pieces, tried to artfully arrange it on the tray for a picture, and then put in my (fan) oven at 120°C. I did this on greaseproof paper as I didn’t want to scorch the chocolate on the metal baking sheet, and to make it easier to work it once melted.

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Now, this is the point at which you’ll find out whether your oven is accurate, or is running hot. The chocolate should melt, then after 10 minutes, you can spread it out with a spatula. Then keep cooking for 10 minutes, mix and spread, and repeat until the chocolate gets to the right deep nutty colour.

The first bake melted the chocolate, but not in the way you would see with milk or dark chocolate – the pieces held their shape but looked slumped. Try to imagine saggy chocolate chunks! It was almost as if the whole pile of chocolate looked a little bit sad. But working with a spatula turned the whole lot silky-smooth in an instance. Then it went back in the oven.

Now, after this second baking I suspected that my oven was indeed a little warmer than it should be if the various dials and knobs are to be trusted. This was the step where I saw the biggest single colour change – it had gone from pure ivory white to a light golden colour. The chocolate also had a rather grainy look, but this was easy to fix – again, just scrape the chocolate into the middle, work with the spatula, and spread out again.

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After adjusting the heat down a little, it was a case of baking the chocolate for 10 minutes, removing from the oven, scraping into the middle, working it with the spatula, spreading it out again and putting it back in the oven over and over until the colour gets deeper and deeper, ending up like a delicious caramel.

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All in all, this took about 2 hours from start to finish, but it really needs next to no culinary skills at all. I have no idea if you could just put the chocolate in the oven and leave it there, but it does not demand too much work to work the chocolate from time to time. You just need to be at home tidying up the kitchen cupboards, writing a novel or doing your tax return (or whatever else you do when pottering at home in January).

The flavour is, as you would expect, like white chocolate with a caramel flavour. I thought it was utterly delicious, probably more delicious than it should taste given how easy it was to do. But what can you do with roasted white chocolate beyond eating it with a spoon behind a locked door? This stuff will set – I spread it out thinly, left it to set, and then cut it into triangles to nibble on from time to time. I also lightly sprinkled powdered salt onto the still-melted chocolate to enhance the flavour, which gave it something of a salted caramel flavour.

You could also use this stuff for dipping things, spreading on top of traybakes or as a filling for biscuits, and it could also be used to make icing or ganache if you add a little bit of double cream. The only thing that you need to know is that the texture does seem to be affected by the process – the chocolate triangles I made didn’t have a snap to them – so I don’t know if you could temper this stuff to get a decent snap and shine. Maybe you can, but chances are that it probably won’t survive long enough for anyone to find out – it’s too good to resist for long!

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This time…no recipe! It’s just a bar of chocolate, you, your oven and a spatula!

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Twelfth Night

Christmas Day has passed, and all the presents have been opened. The cats have played with the paper, and now retired back to their favourite sleeping spots. In our house, everything comes down on 1 January. I know you can keep the decorations up until Twelfth Night (the evening before Epiphany, commemorating the day that the Three Wise Men finally reached the manger) but I like the feeling of packing everything away on New Year’s Day. Perhaps that speaks to my moderation when it came to champagne this year?

While I love all the baking at Christmas, in some ways, I’m also really quite happy to be away from my kitchen. Yes, you’ve probably realised that I’ve just finished my fifth annual Christmas Baking Challenge. I’ve had a look at what I wrote in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014, and I recognise all the usual pledges that I made. I’ll be more organised. I’ll plan. I’ll be realistic about how difficult the recipes can be and how many cookies my friends can eat. And then I recognise that I just love the challenge, with the thrill of trying to do it all before 25 December. I mean…how do I even find the time to get all that baking done at the time of year that is packed with things to do and various social events?

So here’s to my 2015 edition of the Twelve Bakes of Christmas! I feel that this year I’ve been able to go back to more traditional recipes from European baking traditions (compared to my 2014 series), and I’ve really enjoyed digging around in some of the very location baking that goes in, particular in Italy and Switzerland. I loved making the mendiants and I’m so happy I’ve finally managed to crack the secret of tempering chocolate properly. The spicy Danish brunkager were a real hit, and the Italian cuccidati fig rolls were a pleasant surprise –  quite a few folk remarked that they were like a fancy version of a mince pie, with all that dried fruit and spice in them. But for me, there were two clear breakout stars this year – the dark, chocolately Basler Brunsli and the orange-perfumed ricciarelli, both of which flew off the serving plates, and were so simple to bake.

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As I’ve done in past years, here are the original lyrics from the Twelve Days of Christmas (which was my original inspiration for the Twelve Days of Baking Challenge) with each of my recipes next to them. Again, you can see there is absolutely no correlation. Not a jot. None whatsoever! Well, other than the Pfeffernüsse might look like goose eggs if your eyesight is not good…

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

…twelve Drummers Drumming (Austrian Vanillekipferl)…
…eleven Pipers Piping (Italian Cuccidati)…
…ten Lords-a-Leaping (Italian Ricciarelli)…
…nine Ladies Dancing (Danish Brunkager)…
…eight Maids-a-Milking (Italian Mostaccioli Napoletani)…
…seven Swans-a-Swimming (German Anisplätzchen)…
…six Geese-a-Laying (German Citrus Pfeffernüsse)…
…five Gold Rings (Spanish Truchas de Navidad)…
…four Colly Birds (Swiss Basler Brunsli)…
…three French Hens (French Mendiants)…
…two Turtle Doves (Swiss Mailänderli)…
…and a Partridge in a Pear Tree (Dutch Taaitaai)!

So that is that for another year! But fret not, there will be plenty of posts during 2016, and I’ll be starting with the Twelve Bakes of Christmas all over again next December. If you’ve got ideas, hints, tips or suggestions, please let me know! Any recipes with strange ingredients or requiring some funny mould or tool are particularly welcome. And if they come with an interesting or amusing story behind them, so much the better!

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{12} Vanillekipferl

The tree is decorated. The presents are wrapped. There is far too much food in the kitchen. The fridge is groaning, but we’ve still had panic moments that we’ve forgotten something. Bearing in mind that we live in the middle of a major city, and the shops are only closed for one day, the chances of anything serious happening due to a lack of chestnuts, crisps or cheese are fairly remote, but that last-minute rush always happens. And to really big up the excitement, I decided at 2pm that we didn’t have enough decorations, so back into the loft we went and there are now baubles and figurines dangling from just about every possible place. We’ve just achieved peak Christmas cheer!

Christmas Eve also means that we’ve reached the end of the 2015 edition of the 12 Bakes of Christmas. To round off this year’s festive baking extravaganza, I’ve  turned to a real classic of central European baking – the simple but utterly delicious vanilla crescents that appear in (at least) German, Austrian, Hungarian, Czech and Slovak baking. These are buttery little pastries, rather like shortbread, enriched with nuts and perfumed with vanilla, which are rolled in icing sugar while warm. This might sound simple, but pile them up on a plate and pass them round, and they will be gone in a flash!

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The crescent shape of these biscuits is suggested to have come from the crescent on the Turkish flag, and they were created to celebrate a victory by the Austro-Hungarian army during one of many battles between them and the Ottoman Empire.

Unlike so many spicy biscuits at this time of year that need to rest for the flavours to develop, I think these really are best when they are still fresh, so a good thing to make when you need them the next day. Just try to keep everything as cold as possible – it makes it much easier to handle the dough, to shape it, and they will keep their shape in the oven if the dough has been chilled. And if you don’t keep things cool…well, good luck! You’ll need it!

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There is not too much scope for variation here, as you don’t want to play around with the dough so much that the texture changes. Vanilla is pretty much essential, and I would not dream of making them with anything other than butter. Most recipes call for unsalted, but I used salted – I think it actually works really well in these sorts of recipes as it balances the sugar in the recipe (I use salted butter in shortbread too). You could also add spices such as cinnamon or nutmeg, but I think it’s worth adding just a dash if you really have to.

Where there is real scope to play around is with the nuts that you use. Almonds or walnuts are traditional, with the latter lending a nice extra flavour. I think hazelnuts would also work, or you could even try finely ground pistachios for a hint of pale green to the pastry. The only thing you need to make sure is that the nuts really are finely ground – if you’re using whole nuts, I suggest chopping them as finely as you can with a knife, then putting them in a grinder with some of the sugar. This will get them to a fine powder, but prevent them from going oily. If you’re going to all the effort of making them, you want them to be the best they can be!

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So that’s it – the final installment in our festival of Christmas baking. I hope you’ve enjoyed it, I hope you’ve had some inspiration, and I hope you’re wise enough not to try to make this many cookies against the clock. But as always, it’s been fun and I’ve loved trying out some new techniques and flavours.

And now, time to crack open the champagne and enjoy a cheese fondue to bring Christmas Eve to a close. The newest addition to the family will be up first thing, ready for presents!

To make Vanillekipferl (makes around 40):

For the dough

• 100g salted butter, cold
• 145g plain flour
• 50g ground walnuts or hazelnuts
• 35g icing sugar

• 1 large egg yolk
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• seeds of 1 vanilla pod (optional)
• 1 teaspoon cream (or milk)

For the vanilla coating

• 100g vanilla sugar
• 100g icing sugar

1. Make sure everything is cold, cold, cold! Mix the flour, icing sugar and ground nuts in a bowl. Cut the butter into small pieces then rub into the flour mixture.

2. Add the egg yolk, vanilla extract, vanilla seeds and enough cream (if needed) so that the mixture just comes together. We’re talking seconds rather than minutes – you don’t want your hands to warm up the mixture! However if the mixture seems very sticky, add more flour, a spoonful at a time, until it forms a soft dough.

3. Wrap the dough in cling film, press into a slab (rather than a ball) and leave to chill in the fridge for a couple of hours or overnight. If you’re in a hurry, pop it into the freezer.

4. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 170°C (335°F) and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

5. Make the coating – mix the icing sugar and vanilla sugar and spread on a plate.

6. To shape the biscuits, cut the dough in half. Roll each piece into a long, thin sausage, then cut each into 20 equally sized pieces. If you want to be precise…I rolled out to 30cm, and using a metal ruler cut out 1.5cm pieces of dough! Nerdy, but precise. Roll each piece of dough into a ball, put on a plate, and put the plate in the fridge for 30 minutes.

7. Shape each piece of dough into a sausage. Shape to a crescent/horseshoe shape and place on the baking sheet. Pop the tray in the fridge for 5 minutes before baking. Aim to bake in batches of 10-15 so you can cover the hot cookies in the vanilla coating when they come out of the oven.

8. Bake for around 10 minutes until slightly coloured – the tips will colour more quickly than the rest of the cookie.

9. When baked, let the biscuits cool for 1 minute, then roll them gently in the vanilla coating. Be gentle – they will be very fragile. However, if they break, then it’s a cook’s perk! I found it works best to put the cookie on top of a pile of the sugar, then cover with more of the sugar mixture. Carefully shake off any excess and transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

10. Repeat the baking and coating process in small batches until all the dough is used up.

11. Store the cookies in an airtight tin – add any remaining coating sugar to the tin, so that your Kipferl keep their lovely white colour. They will soften over time, becoming soft, crumbly and melt-in-the-mouth.

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{11} Cuccidati (Sicilian Fig Rolls)

We’ve nearly reached the end of this year’s baking, but as Italy has already provide so much inspiration, we’re staying in that beautiful country and heading down to the island of Sicily where they make little fig rolls called cuccidati (or buccellati) at Christmas.

If you grew up in Britain, you might be familiar with fig rolls as those small, dry biscuits that were (at least from my point of view) the absolutely last choice in the biscuit barrel. I would go so far as to say that they put me off fresh figs when I was younger – I mean, why would such a thing exist? Anyway, I have long since gotten over my issues with figs, and love the things, and the good news is that these cookies are about as far away from my childhood memories as you can get. A fruity, lightly spiced filling with tender buttery pastry and a glaze of sweet, white icing. Mmmmm…

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You’ll see that there are a few different shapes in there – the crosses above, and the crescent shapes below. This is all made using the same mixture, so it just adds a little more interest on the serving dish of they look different. If you wanted to get creative and have different shapes for different fillings, you could do that too. Apparently some bakers in Sicily even fashion cookies into the shapes of animals, but I could not work out how to roll out a long sausage of dough into the shape of a dog, cat or donkey. Perhaps it could have just passed for a sausage dog?

The pastry is rich and buttery, leavened with a little baking powder to make it light when baked. They came our of the oven rather crisp, but after resting overnight, the pastry had softened and was a little crumbly. Just the perfect texture! The filling is the real star – stuffed with chopped figs and sultanas, as well as pine nuts, walnuts and pistachios. There is sweetness from orange blossom honey and marmalade, and a little spice in there too.

For the marmalade, I skipped a sweet orange version, and instead went for a mixture of sharp Seville oranges and tangerines for a bit of Christmas cheer. While the marmalade on its own was tangy with a hint of bitterness, in the final baked version, it melts into the background and provides a more rounded citrus flavour, so it was definitely the right choice.

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In addition to the more elaborate shapes, I also made my own version of those funny little fig rolls that I remembered as a child. I added some of the traditional coloured sprinkles to these, and I think they look really rather sweet. You might even persuade a child to try one, but my experience is that children will usually make a bee-line for anything with chocolate, and have an aversion of dried fruit when given anything that might pass for a choice on the matter! Still…I like them!

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If you like mince pies but want to find an alternative, then these might be the thing for you. You can also play around with the ingredients – swap the figs for dates, use different nuts and dried fruits, use a stronger honey or different marmalade or jam, and play around with the spices, or even add a little chopped chocolate in there. Of course, if you rock up with a tray of cuccidati made with candied melon, macadamia nuts, thyme honey and strawberry jam, topped off with a sprinkling of cardamom and saffron, you might win top marks for creativity, but I’m not sure you’d obtain the approval of a Sicilian granny. I’d keep things simple, and close to the traditional flavours of Sicily. Think of the historic trade routes and commerce with North Africa and the Middle East, and you’ll be on the right track.

Of everything I have made this year, this is one of the recipes that took the most time. Making the pastry and filling is easy, but it takes some patience to make the long rolls of filling covered in pastry, and then to shape them. However, it is also very enjoyable, and the aroma of the spiced figs really is delicious. That, and they look pretty darned impressive on the plate!

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To make Cuccidati (makes around 20-30, depending on size)
(adapted from the recipe on Food52.com)

For the pastry

• 300g plain flour
• 100g icing sugar
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• pinch of salt
• 200g butter
• 1 large egg
• cold water

For the filling

• 250g soft dried figs
• 75g sultanas
• 30g shelled unsalted pistachios
• 20g pine nuts
• 60g walnuts
• 60g honey
• 100g orange marmalade
• zest of an orange
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon mixed spice

For the glaze

• 100g icing sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon white food colouring
• cold water
• sprinkles and chopped nuts

1. Make the pastry. Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl. Rub in the butter. Add the egg and mix to a smooth dough. If the pastry is dry, add cold water – a few drops at a time – until it comes together. Wrap the dough in cling film and leave to rest overnight in the fridge.

2. Make the filling. Chop the figs, sultanas and nuts finely. I did this by hand to get some variation in texture and to avoid turning the nuts to dust. Put in a bowl and mix with the marmalade, honey and spices. Cover and leave to rest overnight in a bowl on the kitchen counter.

3. The next day, assemble the cookies. Start by preheating the oven to 180°C (350°F) and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper. There is no need to use oil or butter on the sheet, as the cookies contain enough butter.

4. Now shape the cookies. Divide the pastry into four, and work with one piece at a time, keeping the rest in the fridge. On a lightly floured worktop, roll a piece of pastry into a long sausage, around 30cm, then flatten using a rolling pin. It should be around 6cm wide and 50cm long. Now take one-quarter of the filling. Dust a worktop liberally with icing sugar, and roll into a long sausage the same length as your pastry. Then lightly moisten the pastry with a little water (really – the tiniest amount!) and put the filling on top of the pastry. Bring the pastry round the filling, and seal the edge. Roll the whole thing lightly to smooth out any lumps and bumps.

5. Cut the long sausage into pieces – either 7cm for the crosses or crescents, or smaller pieces for the bite-sized cookies. To make the crosses – take each piece, cut into the bottom and the top, leaving the middle intact. Bend the “legs” outwards. To make the crescents, make 4-5 cuts into one side of the strip, then bend into an arc. Transfer the cookies to the baking sheet, pop in the fridge for 5 minutes to firm up, and then bake for around 15-20 minutes until golden. Larger cookies might need longer, and smaller cookies might be done in less time. Make sure to turn half-way to get an even colour. If using cookies of different sizes, I recommend baking batches of the same size to get an even bake.

6. Leave the cookies to cool completely, then glaze them. Make the icing by mixing the icing sugar, white food colouring (if using) and enough cold water to make a thick icing. You want it to dribble slightly, but most should stay on the cookies, so err on the side of caution and make it thicker – you can always add more water if needed. Finish by covering the cookies with sprinkles, edible pearls or pieces of chopped nuts. Leave on a wire rack for the icing to set, then store in an airtight tin.

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{10} Ricciarelli

All this Christmas baking is vaguely nuts, so it makes sense to make something that is, actually, nuts. Or almonds to be more precise.

Ricciarelli are an Italian cookie originating in the city of Siena. They are said to date back to the 14th century, when they were introduced by a knight called Ricciardetto della Gherardesca on his return from the Crusades. This sounds rather plausible, given the main ingredients – orange and almonds – are typical in Middle Eastern sweets. Indeed, given their fancy ingredients, I imagine that these were the sort of thing that were once reserved for the great and good of the city, but today we’re all able to enjoy them. So they’ve got a rather longer and nobler lineage than stained glass cookies!

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Ricciarelli
are made from almonds, sugar and egg whites, so they are a sort of macaroon, but flavoured with vanilla, orange zest and almond extract. When you make the mixture, the aroma is absolutely divine! It is like a very rich, sophisticated orange blossom scent, which hints that something very delicious is coming out of the oven. I’ve used two teaspoons of almond extract, but you can add more if you want a really strong bitter almond flavour. All this means that they really taste rather luxurious. Italy is so proud of these little sweetmeats that they have “protected geographical indication” legal protection, so if you are anywhere outside the city of Siena, your luck is out – you can’t call them Ricciarelli di Siena without getting into hot water.

Making them is very straightforward – make the dough, cut into pieces, shape and cover in icing sugar. When they go into the oven, they puff up and develop their cracked surface, which reveals those little seams of golden marzipan. The outside goes slightly crisp, while they remain soft inside.

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I think these make a lovely addition to the festive spread. They have all the flavour of marzipan, but might lighter, and the orange zest, vanilla and almond extracts all make for a very aromatic cookie that makes for a nice alternative to spices and chocolate. Once you taste them, they provide a pretty good incentive to get over to Siena and try the real deal!

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To make Ricciarelli (makes 20)

• 250g ground almonds
• 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
• zest of an orange
• 250g caster sugar
• 2 large egg whites
• 2 teaspoons almond extract
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• icing sugar, for dusting

1. Put the ground almonds, orange zest and baking power in a bowl. Mix well.

2. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites until very stiff. Add the sugar and keep beating until you have a stiff meringue mixture. Mix in the almond and vanilla extracts, then fold in the ground almond mixture. The batter will seem heavy and rather sticky. Cover the mixture and leave overnight in the fridge.

3. Preheat the oven to 160°C (320°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper and rub lightly with butter or oil.

4. Cover a worktop in lots of icing sugar. Take the dough and roll out into a long sausage – don’t worry about getting the dough covering in icing sugar, this is the point! Cut the log into 20 pieces.

5. Take each piece of dough. Make sure the exposed dough gets a coating of icing sugar, then use your hands to shape into a slightly pointed oval shape. Cover each piece in more icing sugar (it should be really, really well coated). Arrange a few centimetres apart on the baking tray. I did mine in two batches, so 10 per tray.

6. Bake the ricciarelli for around 20 minutes until they are slightly puffed, cracked and the inside looks just golden. Turn half-way to get an even colour. Remove from the oven and allow to stand for a minute, then transfer to a rack to cool completely.

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{9} Brunkager

We are three-quarters of the way through this year’s insane bake-a-thon, so we’re heading north to experience a classic Danish cookie. I love crisp gingerbread biscuits at this time of year, especially when they are packed with spice, and rich with butter and brown sugar. These little morsels are from Denmark and are called brunkager, which literally means “brown cakes” or “brown biscuits”.

Just about every source I have looked at calls them a Danish “classic” and that they are the real “aroma of Christmas”. However, I have not been able to find much about their origin – no interesting story, no quirky history. It must be there somewhere, but I guess I’ve not just found it yet. If anyone has any information on this, please leave a comment!

The flavour is superb – spicy, buttery, nutty and hints of orange. They are wonderful with coffee or tea, and while it is a cliché, they do taste like Christmas. I think these cookies have a real air of class about them – but their secret is that they are a complete breeze to make.

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Normally I tend to just have pictures of the final result. However, today I’ve decided to do something different, and provide a few “action” shots so that you can see he various stages in making brunkager.

The reason that brunkager are so easy is that you melt down your butter and sugar into the most delicious caramel-like syrup, then mix it with spices, candied orange peel and whole almonds. At this stage, it is actually very tasty and no-one would blame you for sneaking a spoonful or two. Of course this is just to test that the balance of spices is right…

Once you’ve got the basic mixture, you add flour, then pour it into a tin to set. Then just let it cool, and it can be cut into slices and baked. One curious thing is that the warm mixture starts off the most luxurious shade of chestnut brown, but it fades to a duller, more grey shade when cold. I though this was a bit disappointing, but it is just a result of the butter setting, and the rich colour comes back during baking. Making the mixture and leaving it to set only takes around 20 minutes, so it can easily be done in the evening, and you can do the baking the next day. So pick your perfect moment to fill the house with their wonderful aroma.

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Once the mixture is set, there is no messing around with cutters or rolling pins. Just remove the slab of dough from the tin and the cut it into four strips. Then cut each of those into thin slices.

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The trick here is to get a very big, very sharp knife. Then sharpen it some more. Then use some force to get it to cut cleanly through the dough. What you want are nice clean slices of almonds in the cookies, so you should avoid serrated knifes and sawing motions. It can take a bit of practice, but I found the best way was to make sure the dough is cold, and push downwards with some force. There will be a few duff ones that don’t look good – you can gather the scraps, roll them up and bake as  them anyway and they will taste just as good.

Once you’ve done the careful slicing, arrange them on the baking sheet, and as you can see, they really do expand. The raising agent here is potaske (potassium carbonate) which makes them expand outwards, but they don’t rise up, resulting in very crisp cookies with a lovely dark brown colour. Potaske is the traditional ingredient, but you could skip this and use baking soda instead. I haven’t tested this, but a few recipes suggest this, in which case just mix it with the flour before mixing everything together. However, if you do manage to get your hands on a packet of potaske (check online), you can also make Danish honninghjerter (honey hearts) or German Aachner Printen in the authentic way.

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I’ve seen recipes that use whole nuts, and recipes that use flaked almonds. I like the look of the whole nuts – this does make it a little harder to cut into perfect slices, but I think the contrast of the larger pieces looks nicer. If you fancy more variation, you can use a combination of almonds and pistachios, or just pistachios.

Now, do be prepared for just how much this recipe makes. Each log will make around 30-40 cookies if you slice it thinly, so could end up with around 150 cookies! They’re very light and easy to eat, but don’t be surprised if you end up running out of space on the kitchen worktop!

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Faced with my mountain of brunkager, even I was not able to eat all of them over a couple of days. I noticed that they start to get a bit soft, but this is easily sorted. You can get the crispness back by popping them in a low oven for about 4-5 minutes. This won’t bake them, but it will dry them out to get the snap back.

If you have a go at these, I also recommend that you bake a test cookie before putting a whole tray in the oven. As they are thin, they can easily burn – they don’t take long to bake, so try with one and it should be done when it has an even, appealing brown colour. Keep in mind that they will be very soft when they come out of the oven, but will harden when cold, so colour rather than texture is what to look out for.

To make Brunkager (makes around 150)

250g butter
125g golden syrup
• 125g soft brown sugar
• 125g muscovado sugar
• 3 teaspoons ground cinnamon
• 2 teaspoons ground ginger
• 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
• 1 teaspoon ground cloves
• 150g almonds
• 10g candied orange peel, very finely chopped
• zest of one orange
• 2 teaspoons potaske (potassium carbonate)
• 1 1/2 tablespoons lukewarm water
• 500g plain flour

1. Put the butter, syrup and sugar into a saucepan. Heat gently until everything has melted and the mixture is smooth, but do not let it boil.

2. Pour the sugar/butter mixture into a bowl and add the spices, almonds, candied peel and orange zest. Leave to cool until lukewarm.

3. In a small bowl, dissolve the potash in the water – add a little more water if needed (be careful – it will discolour wooden worktops if spilled!). Mix into the sugar/butter mixture. Finally stir in the flour and mix until smooth (it will still be liquid, not solid).

4. Pour the mixture into a tray lined with greaseproof paper and even out the top. Leave to cool, then chill overnight in the fridge. The mixture will change form a glossy chestnut colour to a dull dark grey-brown colour.

5. When ready to bake, pre-heat the oven to 175°C (350°F) and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

6. Remove the mixture from the tin – it should come out in one slab. Slice into 4 pieces, then use a sharp knife to cut into slices (3-4mm). Arrange them on the baking sheet, leaving some space for them to expand. Bake for 5-8 minutes, turning the tray half-way to get an even colour.

7. Leave the baked brunkager on the baking tray for a minute to harden, then transfer to wire rack to cool completely.

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{8} Mostaccioli Napoletani

When it comes to Christmas baking, there needs to be chocolate, and we’ve reached the eighth recipe with only two appearance of the food of the gods. Well, there was a lot in those mendiants, but only a sprinkling in the Basler Brunsli, so in fact chocolate has really only popped up one-and-a-half times. Well, time to change that!

Today’s recipe is the mouthful that is mostaccioli napoletani. Try saying that quickly after three eggnogs, two mulled wines and glass of champagne! They are spicy little cookies that originate in the city of Naples. They are traditionally cut into diamond shapes before baking, and then dipped in chocolate. I was surprised to find something like this in Italian baking – they seem closer to German Lebkuchen, or spicy Aachner Printen.

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These don’t seem to have made a big splash (yet?) in the English-language web, so I was doing my best to research them in Italy, and it is fair to say that a lot of Italians are making these things – lots of different spices, different techniques, some with candied peel, some with chocolate glaze rather than chocolate coating, but the diamond shape is ubiquitous.

I also found that pretty much all recipes use baker’s ammonia as the raising agent. I haven’t tried making them with baking powder or baking soda, so cannot be sure that the results are the same. However, you want the resulting cookies to be very light, and baker’s ammonia is certainly the only thing that can give you a really good lift. Just watch out for that puff of ammonia that comes out of the oven when you open the door. Harmless, but it will certainly wake you up!

Now, apparently the truly authentic recipes do not use any oil or fat, so that means olive oil is nowhere to be seen, and it’s out with all that lovely butter. This probably makes for a more authentic result, but it does mean that these sorts of biscuits can be on the dry side as the lack of fat means they don’t dry out and become crisp. They just go dry. Oops!

Now, if you’ve got lovely, soft cookies, since they will be dipped in chocolate, they won’t dry out, but it also means that they won’t get soft if they are too dry when you dip them. To avoid the risk that all your hard work results in a mouthful of chocolate-coated dust, we need to avoid them drying out before dipping. First, don’t (as I did) leave them out overnight. As soon as they are cool, pop them in an airtight tin with some soft bread. The cookies will soften and the bread will dry out. Repeat as needed, and this time will also allow the flavours of the spices to develop. I noticed that the clove flavour was much stronger after two days than straight after baking, so it might be worth being a little light-handed with some of the more robust spices. Once you have cookies that are sufficiently soft, you can dip them in the chocolate. If they are not softening fast enough, pop them on a wire race, and wave gently over a steam kettle or a pan of boiling water – the steam will help soften them, then allow to cool and pop back in the tin.

When I was making these, I chilled the dough to make it easier to roll out. The first 20 that I made were great and baked well, but I used a little flour on the worktop, which seemed to affect the second batch – they were lighter in colour and bit tougher. I would recommend just trying to keep the dough as cold as possible, and roll it out between two sheets of greaseproof paper to avoid working more flour into the dough. Normally I don’t worry about this and I’ve never had a problem, but I guess there is a first time for everything.

Now, if you like the idea of these cookies but think this all seems like far too much work, you can of course take a shortcut. Just take your favourite soft gingerbread recipe, bake a tray of the stuff, then cut that into diamonds. Then dip those in chocolate and smile sweetly when your guests ask you about them…ahm…

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To make Mostaccioli Napoletani (makes around 25-30):

• 250g plain flour
• 150g caster sugar
• 1 teaspoon cinnamon
• 1 teaspoon ground coriander
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
• 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
• 50g of cocoa powder
• 75g ground almonds
• grated zest of 1 orange
• 50g honey
• 50g water
• 30g brown rum
• 1 teaspoon baker’s ammonia
• 300g dark chocolate, to dip

1. Put all the dry ingredients and orange zest in a bowl and mix. Put the honey, water and rum into a bowl, mix well, then add to the dry ingredients and combine – it should seem a bit dry. Dissolve the baker’s ammonia in an extra tablespoon of water, then add to the main mix. Work quickly to a soft dough – if too wet, add more cocoa powder and flour, if too dry, add more water or rum. Cover and leave to sit overnight in the fridge.

2. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 180°C and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper. Rub lightly with a dot of butter to prevent sticking.

3. Roll out the dough to 2/3 cm thick, and use a sharp knife to cut into diamonds. Transfer the diamonds to the baking sheet, leaving space for them to expand.

4. Bake the cookies for 8-10 minutes until puffed. Transfer the cookies to a rack and leave to cool completely. If needed, leave in an airtight tin with slices of bread to soften the cookies and allow the spice flavours to develop.

5. Dip cookies in tempered chocolate and leave to set. The best way to do this – chop your chocolate. Melt half in a double boiler above a pan of just-simmering water. When it gets to 55°C, remove from the heat. Add half of the remaining chocolate, and stir until melted. Add the rest of the chocolate, and stir again until melted. Allow the chocolate to cool to 28-29°C, then bring the temperature up to 31-32°C (either over a pan of warm water, or with 5-second blasts in the microwave). Use a thermometer, and while it takes a bit of time, it’s also dead simple!

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{7} Anisplätzchen (Anise Cookies)

Today’s recipe is another German favourite, the incredibly cute looking aniseed cookies that are Anispläzchen. These are tiny cookies that look rather like miniature macarons, but they are made with whole eggs and flour rather than just egg whites and almonds. Apart from that, it’s a similar process – whip the eggs and sugar, add flour and aniseed, then pipe onto a baking sheet.

These cookies have a crisp outside and soft interior, and a delicate aniseed flavour which gets a little stronger if you can keep them in a tin for a couple of days. They’re simple, but I think they look rather pretty.

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Now, if you’re taken by these, I do need to warn you that I got about a 55% “hit” rate in getting those little feet under the cookies. The rest…well, they tasted perfectly nice, but the went a little wonky. Perfectly edible, but wonky. So if you need dozens and dozens that need to turn out picture-perfect…you might want to make a couple of batches!

To make Anisplätzchen (makes around 40):

• 100g icing sugar
• 1 medium egg
• 100g plain flour
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1 teaspoon ground aniseeds, crushed

1. In a bowl whisk the eggs until foamy (1 minute). Add the icing sugar and whisk until pale, thick and fluffy (5 minutes). Mix in the vanilla extract and ground aniseed.

2. Remove two tablespoons of flour and put to one side. Add half of the remaining flour and whisk to mixture. Add the other half and whisk again. The mixture should be thick and look a little bit dry and slightly grainy, but when you put a drop of mixture on a tray, it should go smooth on top. If the mixture is too wet, add more of the reserved flour until the texture is right.

3. Spread out 2 sheets of greaseproof paper. Transfer the mixture to a piping bag and pipe small circles of the batter (2cm diameter). Leave in a warm place to dry for an hour. The surface should be dull and matt when ready.

4. Preheat the oven to 150°C. Bake the biscuits for 10-15 minutes until the biscuits have developed “feet” but the tops are still pale.

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{6} Citrus Pfeffernüsse

We’ve reached the half-way point in this year’s 12 Bakes of Christmas, so I thought it would be nice to return to a bit of a festive classic. I’ve made a batch of Pfeffernüsse, but have added a but of a citrus twist to them.

Pfeffernüsse are one of my favourites, and I can much through a whole pile of these. Pretty miraculous for something that doesn’t even contain chocolate!

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This is a comparatively “easy” Pfeffernüsse recipe. Many recipes tell you to make various syrups, then let it cool, work in the flour and let it sit overnight or even for days to let the flavours develop. Not here. You can make them and bake them right away, with no need to leave it resting over night occupying valuable space in your fridge that could be chilling eggnog or champagne instead.

There is only one “fiddly” bit here, which is making sure that the Pfeffernüsse are soft. This is worth doing, as it ensures that they have a good, rich flavour when you bite into them. You’ve got two choice here – add some pieces of soft bread to a tin with the baked but unglazed cookies, replacing the bread as it gets hard, until the cookies are soft, which can take a few days. Or use my cheat’s express method – I put the Pfeffernüsse on a wire tray, and then hold that tray above steam from a pan of water or a boiling kettle for a few seconds. Do this twice, then pop them back in an airtight tin. Repeat this the next day, and you should find that they have softened up nicely.

To finish, I have dipped my Pfeffernüsse in icing, as they remind me of the ones you buy with their crisp, brittle icing. I used a couple of spoonfuls of Acqua de Cedro, a liqueur made with citron and like a posh version of limoncello with a sharp, citrus flavour, but you can equally use Grand Marnier or Cointreau. Now, you might be looking at these pictures and notice how amazingly white my icing looks – and it does seem just like snow! Well, the reason that it looks so brilliant is that I cheated (gasp!). I use a small dash of white food colour with the icing, so that it had that bright, snowy appearance. It doesn’t change the flavour and you can happily skip it, but in the interests of full disclosure I feel I should say that I’ve used it in case someone makes these and is surprised that they don’t look quite as white!

How you flavour them is up to you – I’ve used a mixture of spices, plus candied orange peel. You can make these extra-citrussy with the addition of some orange zest, or get creative and go for something completely different – cardamom and lemon anyone? Or convert to the dark side…cinnamon and cloves for flavour, and then dipped in dark chocolate? Now that would be pretty sensational!

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To make Citrus Pfeffernüsse (makes 20):

For the Pfeffernüsse

• 125g caster sugar
• 1 large egg
• 20g candied orange peel, finely chopped
• 50g ground almonds
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon mixed spice
• 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• pinch white pepper
• 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
• 125g plain flour

For the glaze

• 100g icing sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon white food colouring (optional)
• orange liqueur or water
• cubes of candied peel

1. Put the egg and sugar in a bowl. Mix well until thick and creamy (around 5 minutes).

2. Fold in the chopped orange peel, ground almonds and spices and mix well.

3. Combine the flour and baking powder, then mix into the wet ingredients until you have a smooth dough – it will slightly sticky, but you should be able to roll pieces into balls. If too dry, add a few drops of water; if too wet, add a tiny sprinkle more flour.

4. Pinch off small walnut-sized pieces of the dough. This is best done with damp hands to prevent the dough sticking. If you’ve very precise, weigh the dough, divide by 20, then make sure each piece is the same weight (mine were 17g each…)

5. Bake the Pfeffernüsse at 180°C for 15 minutes until golden and puffed, turning the tray half-way. When baked, remove and leave to cool on a wire rack. Transfer the cold cookies to an airtight tin and add a slice of bread – this will soften the Pfeffernüsse. Replace the bread when dry.

6. To glaze, mix the icing sugar with white colouring (if using) and enough water or liqueur to get a thick but smooth icing – think really thick double cream. Dip each cookie in the icing, shake off the excess, put some pieces of candied peel on top and leave to set.

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