Abernethy Biscuits

After my recent little sojourn into traditional baking with Tudor marchpane, I thought that it would be a nice link to today’s recipe – a fairly simple biscuit flavoured with that rather “olde worlde” flavour, caraway seeds. I love that spice – it is delicious in cheeses and sugary sweets alike, and adds a lovely aromatic flavour to biscuits when you bite into them. As the flavour stays in the seeds, you get little bursts of caraway as you munch on the biscuit.

So I set about writing this post thinking that it was another piece of Scottish baking – I assumed, perhaps not unreasonable, that Abernethy biscuits were named after the town of Abernethy in Perthshire (my part of the country, what’s not to love about that?). And according to my mum’s research about our family tree, I think we even have links to the town. Brilliant!

Except…well, it turns out that I could not really have been much more wrong! These biscuits are not named after the town, and they’re not even Scottish. They get their name from their creator, a certain Dr John Abernethy. And from what I’ve been able to find out, he was born in London, and grew up in Wolverhampton, and doesn’t seem to have a particular link to the Perthshire town. While Abernethy biscuits remain popular north of the border, it seems that I’ve been under a misapprehension for many years!

However, If we ignore my incorrect assumption about their origin, these are actually really nice biscuits. They’re not very sweet at all – just a little bit of sugar in them – as they were created as a sort of “digestive” biscuit. And that’s the point of the caraway. The seeds were traditionally regarded as aiding the digestion and settling the stomach, hence their appearance in these biscuits. Given this claimed health benefit, it begins to make a bit more sense that Dr Abernethy is hailed as their creator. We can only assume that they must have enjoyed quite some success as they went on to become quite famous.

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These biscuits are very simple to make – rub butter into flour, add sugar and spice, then a beaten egg and some milk to make the dough. Then roll it out, as thin as you can, and cut into circles and then…well, this is where the fun starts. You can leave them plain, you can spike them with a fork, you can use one of those special things-with-nails-in-them to get perfectly identical biscuits, or you can do what I did – cut the tip off a wooden cocktail stick, then make the holes at random. You need to develop a good press-twist-pull movement, and forget any idea about getting the pattern perfect – aim for random, it’s less likely to drive you mad when you’ve punched holes into the thirty-four biscuit!

Abernethy biscuits are nice on their own, not too sweet at all and with a good caraway flavour. Perhaps the best way to describe them is like a less tender version of shortbread – they’ve got a definite snap to them. They go well as simple accompaniment to a cup of tea, but they are also great to serve with cheese. I found a good, strong cheddar worked particularly well. If you prefer to use them as a sweet biscuit, you can dust the baked biscuits with caster sugar straight from the oven. Or ice them for a sort of mock-Tudor delight (I have not tried this – but if you do give it a go, let me know how that works out).

Now…I just need to see how well I sleep tonight. I’ve wolfed down a few of these biscuits today, so I am fully expecting my stomach to be quite well settled, and that as a result (and thanks to the work of Dr Abernathy) I should sleep like a log!

To make Abernethy biscuits (makes 30-40):

• 240g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
• 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
• 85g butter
• 85g caster sugar
• 1 1/2 teaspoons caraway seeds, lightly crushed
• 1 medium egg, beaten
• 1 tablespoon milk, plus extra if needed

1. Mix the flour and baking powder in a bowl. Rub in the butter until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs. Stir in the sugar and caraway seeds.

2. Add the beaten egg and a tablespoon of milk, and stir to make a soft dough – but it should not feed sticky. Add more flour or milk as needed. Wrap in cling film and chill for 30 minutes.

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

4. Roll the dough thinly on a floured work surface and cut into rounds. If you want, use a cocktail stick to make a pattern on top. Keep going until you have used all the dough.

5. Bake the biscuits in batches so you can control the colour and prevent them from getting too dark. Bake for around 10-15 minutes until golden, turning the tray half-way to get an even colour.

Worth making? I love these biscuits! The caraway is a very unusual flavour, and the lower sugar content makes them seem just that little bit more refined.

 

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Romantic Seed Crackers

OK, so more hearts! Why? Because…love is crackers? But worth it? And love is a good base for other things, just like a good cracker?

Fine, fine, I’ll stop trying to use bad humour to justify another heart-shaped post. Truth be told, I was really just looking for another excuse to use the rather splendid copper biscuit cutter that I was given as a present back in November, and it does seem such a shame to use it only at Christmas. And so I’ve made my seed crackers, but this time with a bit of a romantic twist.

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Of course this is not a new recipe – I first posted this about five years ago (five years ago!), but I think it is worth featuring again as it really is great. These are really double seed crackers – the simple dough (wholemeal and buckwheat flour, plus salt, oil and a dash of honey) is livened up with ground seeds, and then there are more on top for crunch and to give them some visual appeal. You could use whatever you like and/or have to hand, but I’ve used pumpkin, sesame, sunflower and poppy seeds.

If you make these, be prepared for “the alarming bit”. The poppy seeds and buckwheat flour make the dough a rather unappealing grey colour, but when they bake, the crackers take on this gorgeous conker-brown colour, making a handsome addition to a cheeseboard or any selection of dips.

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If you’re feeling creative and really want to work a heart theme, you can also cut out toppings using your cutters – slices of cheese, pieces of vegetable or whatever else you want. Otherwise, just throw them in a bowl, and use them to scoop up obscene amounts of hummus!

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For around 50 crackers (depends on size):

• 40g sesame seeds
• 30g pumpkin seeds
• 20g sunflower seeds
• 10g poppy seeds
• 120g wholewheat flour (spelt flour works too)
• 40g buckwheat flour
• 1/2 teaspoon sea salt, finely ground
• 2 teaspoons honey
• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• water, to bind
• egg white, to glaze
• seeds, to decorate

1. Preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F). Line a baking tray with baking parchment.

2. Mix all the seeds together, and blitz in a grinder until you have a fine powder. Don’t go too far, or they will become oily. The poppy seeds might stay whole, which is fine.

3. In a bowl, combine the ground seeds, flours, salt, honey and oil. Mix well.

4. Add enough water to make a dough (around 75-100ml, but it will vary depending on your flour). It should be smooth, but not sticky. Add more flour if needed.

5. Roll out the dough as thin as you can on a floured surface. Cut out the crackers (either use a cutter or cut with a knife or pizza cutter).

6. Brush each cracker with a little beaten egg white, and sprinkle over some seeds.

7. Bake for 15 minutes, or until the crackers become brown. Remove from the oven and transfer to a cooling rack. If you’re doing lots of different shapes and sizes, bake in batches of the same size to ensure they don’t burn.

Worth making? These are excellent! Quick to make, with delicious results.

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Marchpane for Lovers

I’m probably not the world’s greatest romantic, but even I’ve gotten into the Valentine’s mood this year, and made something inspired by the theme of romance. However, if you’re familiar with any of my previous offerings, you’ll know that I’ve tended to shy away from pretty pink cupcakes. I’ve variously made a deep red beetroot risotto, a bittersweet red salad, and most dramatically, a dessert which looks like something has chewed out a heart and abandoned it in the snow.

This year, I’ve eased back on the drama, and instead drawn inspiration from an era in English history with which it seems that everyone (or at least everyone in television working on historical dramas) is obsessed. Yes, we’re off to Merrie Olde Tudor England to sample a sweet delight called marchpane.

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So what is marchpane? It is a very simple confection, which is something of an ancestor to our modern marzipan. It consists of almonds which were finely ground, and then mixed with sugar which had been worked to a powder. Everything would then be mixed with rosewater, and the resulting firm paste could be moulded into intricate shapes, and then coloured or gilded. And those Tudors didn’t do things by halves…there are tales of whole golden swans made from marchpane, covered with gold leaf, and on one occasion, Queen Elizabeth I was presented with a model of Old St Paul’s Cathedral made from marchpane. Apparently, she was impressed.

But don’t just take my word for it. Here’s an original recipe from Robert May’s “The Accomplisht Cook” which dates from 1660:

To Make a Marchpane: Take two pound of almonds blanched and beaten in a stone mortar, till they begin to come to a fine paste, then take a pound of sifted sugar put it in the mortar with the almonds, and make it into a perfect paste, putting to it now and then in the beating of it a spoonfull of rose-water to keep it from oyling; when you have beaten it to a puff-paste, drive it out as big as a charger, and set an edge about it as you do a quodling tart, and the bottom of wafers under it, thus bake it in an oven or baking-pan; when you see it white, and hard, and dry, take it out, and ice it with rosewater and suger, being made as thick as butter for fritters, so spread it on with a wing feather, and put it into the oven again; when you see it rise high, then take it out and garnish it with come pretty conceits made of the same stuff.

It’s fair to say that this is not a “recipe” as we would know it today! This is a bit more of a vague description, and the fact that we’ve got some quantities in there (two pounds of almonds, a pound of sugar) is apparently quite unusual for that time. But otherwise, this seems like a fairly straightforward recipe to modern eyes. Just take two parts ground almonds to one part icing sugar, add rosewater, shape it and bake. Job done!

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Except…it was not that easy for your average Tudor baker, who didn’t have easy access to ground almonds. They would need to make them. And I suspect almonds did not come pre-blanched, so they would have to remove the skins. And all of this would take time. All very easy in our modern kitchens to boil the kettle, then pop a pan of water on the stovetop to skin the almonds, but less straightforward in a mediaeval setting. So once you have your almonds, skinned and dried, you need to grind them down. And no blender of coffee grinder then…more likely than not, it involved either a mortar and pestle or a hammer and a muslin bag!

Having sorted the almonds, we then come to the sugar. Today, we’ve got bags of lovely, fluffy, white icing sugar which you can use right away. So pity the poor Tudor confectioner, who had to take a solid cone of sugar, chip away at it to get manageable pieces, then use even more elbow grease to grind those pieces down to a fine powder to use in marchpane. All in all, a lot of time spent turning things into powders and pastes. And don’t assume it would be some kitchen serf doing all the work – I remember seeing a programme on the Tudor kitchen which claimed that it would often be left to noble ladies in the royal household to work with sugar, as it was still something of an expensive luxury at that time.

You might think that I’m labouring all this a bit, but I just want to point out that while marchpane might look easy to us, it included a couple of fairly expensive ingredients (foreign nuts, imported luxury sugar) and a lot of time, so this was not a sweetmeat to be enjoyed by the masses. Hence the fact it was made into elaborate showstoppers and covered in gold, as one does when trying to impress!

But that is enough history. In terms of actually making the marchpane, I was able to skip all the hard work, so I found making marchpane a doddle. Just mix the ground almonds and the icing sugar, then add rosewater to bind it. This is really the only tricky bit that you will face these days – if you over-work the marchpane mixture, or do it when things are too warm, the almonds will release their oil and the mixture will seem to “split”. I tested this on a small piece, and it does happen quite easily, so once you’re happy with the texture, try to handle it as little as possible and keep it cool, as there is no way to fix the marchpane (but you can still use it for something else). Once you’ve got the right texture, just roll it out and start shaping it as you fancy.

As you can see, I went for a round tablet, inspired by the way that petticoat tails are made, to be decorated with red beading and golden hearts, which I thought ended up looking a little bit like a Tudor rose. I made the hearts separately from thinly-rolled marchpane, so I’m happy to report that if you wanted to make these are individual sweets or wedding favours, then this is entirely possible. Alternatively, you can decorate the top with candied fruit and citrus peel, and sugared almonds and “comfits” (sugar coated seeds like aniseed and caraway). As you can see below, I also made a few marchpane hearts as separate sweets – and I couldn’t resist making one golden broken heart…

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It is worth saying a couple of things to note about flavours here. First, make sure you’ve got the right sort of rosewater. It should be the dilute stuff which has a mild flavour, not the very concentrated rose extract. You want a hint of rose, not something that tastes of soap! If you’ve got the strong stuff, just dilute it with water and use that to bind the marchpane. Second, there is actually something that I did not include in this recipe – almond extract. This is often used to boost the flavour of sweet almonds in baked goods, but I decided to leave it out here. This was quite deliberate – none of the traditional recipes suggested this, and I wanted the marchpane to have a more subtle flavour.

And finally…how did it all taste? Well, actually really nice. Slightly sweet, nutty with a slightly toasted flavour, and a hint of rosewater. Maybe those Tudors knew a thing or two about sweets after all.

To make Marchpane:

For the marchpane:

• 200g ground almonds
• 100g icing sugar
• rosewater

For decoration:

• 100g icing sugar
• rosewater
• natural food colours
• gold or silver leaf
• gold or silver dusting powder

To make the marchpane:

1. Put the ground almonds and icing sugar in a large bowl. Mix with a whisk to combine (trust me – this works!).

2. Add rosewater, a teaspoon at a time, until you have a smooth paste. You’ll need around 6 teaspoons for this quantity but go with what you feel is right.  You can start with a spoon to mix everything, but you need to finish with (clean) hands to make a fairly stiff dough. It should not be sticky, and don’t over-work or it will turn oily.

3. Dust a worktop with icing sugar. Put the marchpane mixture on top, and roll out to about 1cm thickness. Use a plate as a template and cut into a circle. Transfer to baking tray lined with greaseproof paper. Decorate the marchpane as you wish.

4. Roll up any scraps and use to make decorations – for example, roll thinly thin, then cut out heart shapes etc.

5. Bake the marchpane disc at 150°C (300°F) for around 25-30 minutes until it is just starting to brown. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.

6. Bake any other pieces of marchpane until just starting to brown – they will take anything from 10-20 minutes, depending on size.

To decorate the marchpane:

7. Make the icing – mix the icing sugar with enough rosewater to make a fairly thick but flowing icing. Use this to ice the top of the marchpane disc. Try to give it three coats, allowing it to dry in between.

8. Ice the decorations – I made the hearts white, and then dusted them with gold powder when dry, and tinted some of the icing red to decorate the studs. Leave to dry.

9. Finally, assemble the marchpane – use any remaining icing to glue the various pieces onto the disc.

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Blood Orange Marmalade

A great way to bring a bit of sunshine into what can be the very grey last days of winter is to get busy with making marmalade. Seville oranges are a British favourite, as they are too bitter to use for most purposes, but they do provide a good, sharp breakfast marmalade to wake you up in the morning. However, not everyone is a fan, so I’ve turned my hand to using other citrus that gives a milder result (more being shaken aware than being slapped?), and it just so happened that I got a load of blood oranges delivered recently in my veg box.

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I know that jams, preserves and marmalades can seem like a bit of dark art, and that marmalade in particular is often thought of as being rather daunting. I think it’s really just a matter of patience. In fact, marmalade it is the sort of thing that is perfect to make on a quiet weekend when you’re just pottering around at home, as you spend Saturday juicing the fruit and shredding the peel, then boiling everything up and letting it sit. Then on Sunday, you get to do the “fun bit” with the sugar, engaging in what seems like alchemy to turn a pot of watery orange peel into a sweet, tangy and glowing confection.

I always find that there is something rather therapeutic about peeling and slicing all those orange peels, with the wonderful orange aroma filling the kitchen as you prepare and cook the fruit. All that orange oil being spritzed into the air as you handle the peel does leave you feeling rather invigorated!

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As I was using blood oranges, I was expecting this to really impact on the final marmalade – something rich and red was surely going to be my reward, yes? Some of my oranges had quite dark red skin (a good start) and when I cut into them, I was pleased by the bright red flesh and juice. I was expecting that the resulting marmalade would be a jolly red colour…but in the end, it was a deep shade of orange. A nice colour, just not red. So all in all, just a touch disappointing, but not the end of the world! And of course, the flavour was still fantastic – obviously a strong orange flavour, but without some of that bitterness that you get with Seville oranges, but not the sweet jelly you get when using the very fine peel from sweet oranges. As I had used all of the peel, not just the coloured part, it still had enough of a bitter tinge to balance all the sugar in there.

When making marmalade, you should in theory be able to get a good set using just the peel, sugar and water, and rely on the fruit membranes and pips to give you enough pectin. I’ve made marmalade this way in the past with everything from Seville oranges to grapefruit, but my experience is that you can end up boiling everything for absolutely ages. This can concentrate down the sugar, resulting in a very sweet marmalade, and I think the longer you boil everything, the more of an impact this has on the flavour, and I suspect you probably lose some of the delicate aromatic orange oils (or not – I’m a home cook, not a scientist, so just a theory of mine). So I cheat – I want everything to be done more quickly, and I want a reliable set, so I use half normal granulated sugar and half jam sugar (with pectin). Sure, it makes me a massive cheat, but it works.

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While I bemoaned the lack of a vibrant crimson colour in the final marmalade, I was able to ensure the colour was on the dark side. I used about 100g of dark muscovado sugar rather than white sugar. I think using all muscovado sugar would be too overwhelming, but using about 10% does make it a shade or two more intense, and adds a little extra something to the finished marmalade.

This recipe makes about 5-6 normal sized pots. It’s excellent on hot toast with melted butter, but it has lots of other uses. Try folding it into fruit cakes or sponge cakes for a robust orange tang, or add it to gingerbread and melt to use as a glaze. Or get very creative…add to the shaker and mix into your cocktail of choice. Try a spoonful mixed with gin and then add your tonic…

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To make Blood Orange Marmalade (makes 6 pots):

• 1kg blood oranges (5-6 oranges)
• 500g jam sugar (with pectin)
• 100g dark muscovado sugar
• 400g white caster sugar
• 100ml lemon juice
• small knob of butter (size of an almond)

Day One

1. Wash the oranges. Cut in half and juice them.

2. Take each of the pieces of peel – trim off the membranes on the inside (keep them!) and cut the peel into fine shreds.

3. Measure the orange juice, and top up to 2 litres with water. Add the shredded peel. Collect that various seeds, membranes, any peel offcuts and anything left in the orange juicer (such as pulp) into a piece of muslin, tied securely, and add to the pot.

4. Put the pot onto a medium heat and cover. Bring to the boil, then simmer for around 2 hours until the peel is very soft. When done, turn off the heat and leave to sit overnight.

Day Two

5. Strain the liquid from the pot (keep the shredded orange peel!). Squeeze as much as you can from the muslin bag – this will extract pectin, and you should notice the liquid coming through the muslin a bit thick. Once you’ve got as much as you can from the bag, discard the mush inside.

6. Measure the liquid – if necessary, top up to 1 litre. If you’ve got more, don’t worry – add it all to the pot.

7. Return the liquid to the pot with the peel and the sugar, and place over a medium heat until the mixture comes to a boil. Add the lemon juice and the knob of butter, then keep on a medium heat until it comes to a rolling boil. Skim off any foam that forms, and start to test regularly for a set(*). It’s hard to say how long this takes – it might be 10 minutes, it might be 40 minutes. Just be sure to keep an eye on the marmalade – burnt marmalade is not nice.

8. When you have a set, remove the marmalade from the heat and leave to sit for 12 minutes (it will thicken slightly – this helps to ensure the strands “float” in the marmalade and don’t sink). Decant the hot marmalade into sterilised jam jars and seal(**).

(*) How to check for a set? Chill a saucer in the fridge. Put a little marmalade on the cool plate, and return to the fridge for a minute. Push with your finger – if the marmalade visibly “wrinkles” when you push it, the marmalade is done. If it stays liquid, then cook longer and check again after a few minutes.

(**) How to sterilise jam jars? Wash in hot, soapy water, and then rinse very well – do not dry them. Now place up-side down on the shelf of a cold oven, and heat to 100°C / 210°F for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven using gloves, allow to cool slightly (they should still be warm) and fill with the hot marmalade. You can leave the jars in the oven with the heat turned off until you need them, as this keeps the glass warm, and warm glass is much less likely to crack when you add warm jam (science, eh?). Remember to sterilise the lids by washing in hot, soapy water, then rinsing well and then boiling them in a pot of hot water for a few minutes.

Worth making?  100% yes! This is easy to make, but the result is delicious, and I think so much better than the manmade that you can buy. You can also customise according to your preferences – you can add spices, fresh ginger or even a dash of whisky or brandy to lend a little extra kick.

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Scottish Food: Skirlie

Burns Night might have passed, but I’ve got one last Scottish recipe that I would like to share. This one is great, as it is both incredibly tasty, very simple to make and really rather healthy given that the main ingredients is the wonderfood that is oats.

This dish is called skirlie, and I’ve been making it rather a lot recently. You can more or less make it from cupboard and fridge staples, and the taste is definitely a lot more than the sum of its parts.

Skirlie is made from onions that have been browned in butter or olive oil, and then you add some pinhead oatmeal and leave the lot to cook until the oats are slightly toasted. Season to taste. Voila! If you’re trying to imagine the taste, it is something like an onion stuffing (or at least, how a vegetarian might imagine stuffing to taste…). If you’re wondering what pinhead oatmeal is, it is the stuff that looks like little grains of oats, rather than the big, fat flakes. I don’t think there is any reason you could not use rolled oats, but don’t try to use oatmeal or oat flour, as they are too fine.

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I’ve tried to find out more about skirlie, but this seems to be one of those traditional Scottish dishes that doesn’t really have a lot to say for itself. No links to the Jacobites, no links to Robert the Bruce, and not (as far as I’ve seen) a favourite of Queen Victoria during her visits to Balmoral. This just seems to be a good, honest, traditional recipe, and that’s that! If you’ve got any secret knowledge, please do share! What I was able to find out is that skirlie is traditionally made with beef dripping as the fat to brown the onions, so if that’s your thing, you might want to have a go for a more “authentic” flavour. I think butter works well instead, but of course you can go for a completely vegan option by using olive oil.

This really does have the flavour of a very traditional dish, but for its simplicity, it really packs a flavour punch. To make this well, I think there are a few secrets: first, get the onions really cook down slowly until they are nicely browned, which can mean taking the time to get them cook for as long as you can on a very gentle heat. Next, let the oatmeal cook for quite a while, so that you develop some “nuttiness” in there. Finally, get a little creative with the flavours. You’ll need to add some salt, but this also benefits from some black pepper and aromatic herbs. One version I’ve seen uses generous amounts of fresh thyme and lemon zest, which makes this into a very aromatic, fresh-tasting dish.

There is, however, one way in which my version of skirlie really veers away from more traditional recipes. All the versions I was able to find told me to add the oats to the onions, and cook the lot, job done. However, I tried this and found the resulting skirlie to be a bit too dry for my liking. This would be fine if you’re serving it alongside something with a lot of sauce, or plan to mix it into mashed potato for some added flavour and crunch, but on its own, I was not convinced. The answer was simple – just add some water at the end of the cooking time, then keep cooking. It will initially boil up and thicken, looking a bit like porridge (at which point you think “oh no, porridge for dinner!”), but keep cooking and it will dry out a bit, but it will turn fluffy and the oats will be slightly tender. The end result is something with a texture a bit like brown rice.

To serve this, I think it really is best as a side dish, to provide a bit of variety from rice or mashed potato (or as I say – mix it into the potato!). You can also add other vegetables, such as mashed carrot or swede, or even some pan-fried spinach or kale for a properly healthy dish. Yes, it contains butter, but all those oats have to be doing you some good!

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To make Skirlie (serves 4 as a side disk):

• 2 large onions or 6 shallots
• 40g butter
• 3 tablespoons olive oil
• 150g pinhead oatmeal
• 1 lemon, zest only
• aromatic herbs (thyme works well here)
• salt
• freshly ground black pepper
• water

1. Peel the onions/shallots, and roughly chop. As the oats are fairly fine, you want the onions to add some texture.

2. Put the butter and olive oil in a frying pan. Heat until the butter melts, then add the onions/shallots and fry over a medium heat until they have a good brown colour.

3. Add the pinhead oatmeal and lemon zest, plus herbs, salt and pepper to taste. Cook for around 5 minutes, stirring frequently – the oats should start to brown, but should not burn!

4. Optional. Add some water to the mixture – it will thicken initially, but keep cooking until it starts to look try. Try the oatmeal – if you prefer it to be softer, add more water and keep cooking until you get the desired consistency.

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Scottish Food: Petticoat Tails

This evening is Burns Night, so time to celebrate all things Scottish! However, things like haggis can be a bit of an acquired taste, so I’ve gone for one of those perennial favourites, shortbread. Or more specifically, the rather pretty looking Petticoat Tails, a large disc of shortbread with a decorated edge and cut into elegant triangles.

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The actual origin of this rather curious name is lost, but there are a few suggestions. One is that the shortbread disc was said to resemble the stitches sections of cloth that formed the petticoats of ladies when them were laid out on the floor. Other ideas are less romantic, noting that the name could derive from petits cotés, a type of pointed biscuit, or the old French term for little biscuits, petites gastelles. Whatever the real source of the name, they are a perennial favourite and Mary, Queen of Scots was reputed to have been particularly fond of these sweet, buttery biscuits.

Petticoat Tails are very easy to make. You just need three ingredients (sugar, salted butter and flour), then roll out the dough, trim it and shape it, so it is perfect if you want to make in small batches. I think it is vital to use salted butter – that salt adds a little extra something, and takes biscuits from being a bit sweet but bland and into being rich and buttery with a tiny hint of caramel. The only other  tricks are to make sure that once you’re cut and shaped the dough, it should be chilled for about half an hour, then put into a fairly low oven and left to turn a golden colour.

When you make Petticoat Tails, you will have some offcuts when you cut out the giant disc. However, don’t throw them away! Collect them up, roll into a sausage and leave to chill in the fridge. You can then cut into thin slices and bake them until golden to enjoy with a cup of tea. Two bakes for the price of one!

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To make Petticoat Tails:

• 100g caster sugar
• 225g salted butter
• 300g plain flour
• 50g cornflour (not cornmeal)

1. Cream the butter until soft, then add the sugar and beat until light and fluffy.

2. Add the plain flour and cornflour, and mix to a soft dough. It might be easiest to use your hands, particularly if you’re working in a cold room.

3. Lay a sheet of greaseproof paper on a baking tray, put the dough on top and roll it out. Use a plate, a tin or some sort of circle as a template and cut out a disc (mine was 24cm diameter). Trim away the excess.

4. Decorate the shortbread – use a knife to divide the disc into eight, cutting about half-way into the dough. Use your fingers, a fork or whatever utensil you like the crimp or decorate the edge. Use a cocktail stick to make random holes on each piece. Put the whole tray into the fridge for 30 minutes.

5. Preheat the oven to 160°C (320°F). Put the tray into the oven, and bake for around 40 minutes until golden. You might need to turn the tray round half-way, and adjust the time as needed – thinner shortbread will cook more quickly than thicker pieces.

6. When the shortbread is ready, remove from the oven and sprinkle lightly with caster sugar and leave to cool completely.

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Scottish Food: Dundee Cake

We might be in the New Year, with all manner of good resolutions, but this is a recipe that I really could not resist posting. We’re about to hit Burns Night, when there are celebrations of Scotland’s most famous poet up and down the land. And yes, that’s him on my header, along with a few lines from one of his most famous poems Tam O’Shanter, a cautionary tale about drinking too much and the ghouls and spirits that a man might see in the wee hours.

As part of this celebration of Scottishness, I thought I would have a go at making something that comes from near to where I grew up, the Dundee Cake. This is a rich fruit cake that is most notable for how it is decorated – concentric circles of whole almonds are arranged on top of the cake before baking, which will toast gently as the cake bakes.

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As with all good cakes, there are various stories about who created it and the right way to make it.

Some stories say that Mary, Queen of Scots did not care for cherries, and Dundee Cake was created as a version of fruitcake that did not contain them. This may or may not be true, but I think this is a bit boring, and besides, I quite like cherries in cakes, so I’m not convinced.

The version of the story that I subscribe to is that this was created by the Keiller family in Dundee in the late 1700s. They are famous as the founders of the first commercial brand of marmalade, said to have been the result of a flash of inspiration when a boatload of Seville oranges arrived in the port and they were perhaps a little past their best. In a flash of inspiration, Janet Keiller turned the lot into marmalade, and a legend was born. The Keillers are also famous as bakers of the Dundee Cake, and in this version, I’ve added orange zest as well as a generous amount of marmalade as a nod to their orange endeavours, so I think this story could well be true (or perhaps have some elements of truth to it). Indeed, so much is marmalade tied up in the history of Dundee that it is famous as the home of the three “Js” – jam (marmalade), jute (from textile mills, weaving hessian from the East) and journalism.

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Now, I have to admit that I am no expert in making Dundee Cake (even if I grew up not that far from the city itself), so if you’re sitting there quietly fuming, thinking we dinnae make it like that, laddie! then I suggest you calm down!

I’ve made the sort of cake that I prefer – I’m not a massive fan of cake which is too dark and heavy, so I’ve made a fairly light version. There is also no spice in here, but if you want to play around and add things like treacle or dark muscovado sugar, or even mixed spice or crystallised ginger, then be my guest. The only thing you cannot miss out on are those rings of almonds on top of the cake!

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A couple of little tips to finish – this is not a cake that needs to be fired for hours and hours and hours. In fact, when you bake it, you really only want it to be just done. When you test with a skewer towards the end of the baking time, it is fine to turn off the oven if you only have a few little crumbs sticking to the skewer, as this will help make sure the cake remains soft and moist. This is also a cake that keeps well, so it’s probably best to make it a few days before you need it, so that it can rest for a while.

How you finish this cake off is up to you, but I used a glaze made from sieved apricot jam mixed with marmalade. I brushed this over the warm cake, then covered the lot loosely with tin foil and left the cake in the (switched off!) oven until it was cool. The glaze will dry a bit, and the cake will have a glorious rich brown colour. Nae bad as they might say in Dundee!

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To make a Dundee Cake:

For the cake

• 100g whole almonds
• 160g butter

• 160g light muscovado sugar
• zest 1 orange
• zest 1 lemon
• 3 tablespoons marmalade (approx 100g)
• 225g plain flour
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 3 large eggs, beaten
• 75g ground almonds
• 2 tablespoons milk
• 100g glacé cherries, rinsed, dried and halved
• 250g sultanas
• 100g raisins
• 50g currants
• 50g candied peel, finely chopped

For the glaze

• 2 tablespoons apricot jam
• 1 tablespoon marmalade
• 2 tablespoons water

1. Start by skinning the almonds – put them in a pan of boiling water. Simmer for 5 minutes. Drain, allow to cool for a moment, then remove the skins (they should slip off). Leave the blanched almonds to dry.

2. Preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F). Grease a loose-bottomed 20-23cm cake tin and line the bottom and sides with greaseproof paper.

3. In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the orange zest, lemon zest and marmalade and mix well.

4. In a separate bowl, sieve the flour and the baking powder and fold in the ground almonds.

5. Add one of the eggs plus a tablespoon of flour to the butter/sugar mixture. Beat well. Repeat with the other two eggs, adding a spoonful of flour with each, until you have a light, fluffy mixture.

6. Add the rest of the flour, mix well and then fold in the milk. The mixture should be soft and drop slowly from a spoon, but definitely not runny.

7. Add the cherries, dried fruit and candied peel and fold gently to distribute the fruit.

8. Carefully spoon the mixture into the tin and level with the back of a spoon.

9. Arrange the blanched almonds in concentric circles on top of the cake, pressing lightly into the cake mixture. Put in the oven and bake for 45 minutes at 150°C (300°F). In the meantime, make the glaze – heat the apricot jam and marmalade in a saucepan with two tablespoons of water, and sieve to make a smooth glaze.

10. After 45 minutes, lower the oven temperature to 130°C (265°F) and bake for another 40-60 minutes, checking the cake after 40 minutes using a skewer – it should be just clean, or even come out with a few crumbs (so the centre remains slightly soft). If the cake looks like it is browning too quickly during baking, cover loosely with tin foil.

11. When the cake is done, remove from the oven, and brush generously with the apricot-marmalade glaze. Cover loosely with tin foil and pop back into the (switched off) oven to cool completely. When cold, wrap in foil and store for a few days before cutting.

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Shredded Sprout Salad

Ooof, still feeling the effects of Christmas and New Year? Even if you’re not into celebrating in a big way, January often comes as a relief when there is just generally less food, drink and sweets on offer. I kind of feel that I don’t really want to go near a spiced cookie for quite some time! At home we’re not doing anything too radical, other than an “eat less rubbish” drive. Everything in moderation and such like.

Well, this salad is a bit of an antidote to all that rich food. It’s actually my preferred way of serving Brussels sprouts, and is really very simple. Rather than trying to boil them, then cooking them too long and ending up with grey mush, you just leave them raw. Then it’s simply a case of shredding them finely, adding some nuts and soft cheese or thick yoghurt, dressing the lot and you’re done.

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If you’re thinking that raw sprouts aren’t really your thing, try one – they’ve actually slightly sweet, with a mild flavour. Not a hint of cabbage!  I’ve matched them with some tangy goat’s cheese, and then a selection of nuts and seeds. I use whatever nuts I have to hand, usually hazelnuts, but here I’ve used sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and almonds, all of them toasted to bring out their flavour. And finally, the dressing is a simply mixture of extra-virgin olive oil, lemon zest and lemon juice, which makes the whole dish taste really fresh.

There really is not much mystery to making this salad, other than making sure you shred the sprouts finely. This means that you can sort of fluff the greens up, so that everything mixes well. If the sprouts are too large, the nuts, cheese and dressing will stay separate. Other than that, it’s a case of having as much or as little of each part as you see fit. Personally, I would major on the toasted nuts and goat’s cheese, but that’s just my preference.

To serve this, I think it looks best on a flat plate piled up high rather than in a bowl. Given that you’ve got that wonderful green-yellow colour of the sprouts, a dark plate is best for dramatic effect (even it I’ve used a white one for my pictures!).

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So there we have it – a bit of a healthy start to 2015!

To make Shredded Sprout Salad:

For the salad

• Brussels sprouts
• nuts and seeds (I used almonds, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds)
• soft goat’s cheese

For the dressing

• 1 lemon, zest and juice
• 6 tablespoons olive oil
• salt, to taste
• freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1. Toast the nuts in the oven. Allow to cool and chop roughly.

2. Trim the sprouts and remove any bad leaves from the outside. Finely shred them.

3. Make the dressing – add the lemon zest, lemon juice, olive oil, black pepper and salt to a jam jar and shake vigorously.

4. Make the salad – sprinkle half the sprouts on a plate, then half the chopped nuts and seeds. Drizzle over a little of the dressing. Add the rest of the sprouts, the rest of the nuts and seeds, then scatter chunks of the goat’s cheese on top with half an eye on coming up with something that looks a bit artistic. Finish with the rest of the dressing.

 

 

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Twelfth Night

Ah, Twelfth Night! If you haven’t already stripped the tree, this is the last day to do it, lest you suffer bad luck for the rest of the year (or so this suspiciously modern superstitious would have you believe). In our case, everything was taken down on New Year’s Day. It felt like the right time, bringing a bit of order to the house after the chaotic fun of the festive season. The cats, of course, were more displeased, as they had grown rather fond of drinking from the water under the Christmas tree.

Today was my first day back at work after the best part of two weeks spent watching films, meeting friends, enjoying culture (ballet, theatre and pantomime!) as well as playing for hours at a time with my cats. All in all, a great break, and today inevitably came as a bit of a shock to the system. I’m now firmly of the opinion that the best way to deal with it is to go headlong back into the daily whirl, and forget any notions of easing gently back into things.

However, in some ways, I’m really quite happy to be away from my kitchen. Yes, you’ve probably realised that I’ve just finished my fourth annual Christmas Baking Challenge. I’ve had a look at what I wrote in 2011, 2012 and 2013, and there are all sorts of vows to be more organised, to plan, to be more realistic in how I choose to challenge myself.

Well, let’s take a moment to be honest. This year, I didn’t get everything done by Christmas Eve, when I like to have posted all my recipes. No, life kind of got in the way, with lots of things diverting me. Then the baking had to keep going, past Christmas and towards New Year. The reality is that my cooking and my baking can be quite chaotic, very last-minute with choices made on the spur of the moment. And all too often, it has to fit around something else I have to do right this minute. I do this blog because I enjoy it and it is my hobby, a distraction from whatever else is going on, and I’m not quite obsessed enough at the moment to drop other things to perfect pictures of cookies.

So here’s to my 2014 edition of the Twelve Bakes of Christmas, in all its chaotic and crazy glory! I’ve particularly enjoyed this series, which I think have been a bit more unusual compared to some of the more traditional recipes in previous years, and I particularly loved getting some feedback from a reader about how to make more authentic Hálfmánar. The Dutch Kruidnootjes dipped in dark chocolate were utterly delicious and proved to be a massive hit with children (apparently they go particularly well with hot chocolate and an afternoon watching Frozen on a projector, I was later informed!). The Almond Jam Cookies  were gorgeous to look at, and it was lovely to play around with the different fillings. And my favourite was the blazing golden glory that were my Saffron and Almond Buns – easy to make, and utterly delicious.

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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 bright yellow Bethmännchen standing in for the five gold rings….

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

…twelve Drummers Drumming (Icelandic Rhubarb Hálfmánar)…
…eleven Pipers Piping (Almond Jam Cookies)…
…ten Lords-a-Leaping (Gingerbread Madeleines)…
…nine Ladies Dancing (Italian Anise Cookies)…
…eight Maids-a-Milking (Frangipane Mincemeat Tarts)…
…seven Swans-a-Swimming (Saffron and Almond Buns)…
…six Geese-a-Laying (Clementine and Clove Sableés)…
…five Gold Rings (German Bethmännchen)…
…four Colly Birds (South African Soetkoekies)…
…three French Hens (Dutch Kruidnootjes)…
…two Turtle Doves (Sparkling Quince Candy)…
…and a Partridge in a Pear Tree (Danish Vanilla Wreaths)!

So that is that for another year. Time to take down those decorations and pack them carefully into boxes for another year.

But fret not, I’ll be starting with the Twelve Bakes of Christmas again in December 2015, so 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} Rhubarb Half-Moon Cookies

That’s the end of 2014! Hope you had a blast! I spent the evening in central London to see the fireworks, which is something I haven’t done for about ten years. It might have been chilly, but we were all wrapped up and there was enough champagne and fireworks so that we didn’t really notice how cold it was. Today all the decorations came down and it was back to normal with a bit of a bump. Hey ho…

Today is also the final instalment of the 12 Bakes of Christmas. I usually aim to get them all done before Christmas, or at least before New Year’s Eve, but this year, things went slightly awry. I would love to imagine that I am an organised person, and I had all the best intentions about the bakes I was going to do. Everything would be done in good time. Festive baking would be stress-free. For my final bake, I had something quite impressive in mind too. I hunted around for the ingredients. I even bought a special mould! And then I made them…and they were really awful. Unperturbed, I put it down to a mistake I must have made, and had another go. Also dreadful. It turns out that my baking skills were spot on…it was just that my chosen recipe (which you may notice I’ve avoided naming) simply was not actually that nice! So, I had to abandon my original plan, and go on the hunt for something else to round off this year’s baking. But what?

Well, as fortune would have it, someone read last year’s post about hálfmánar, or Icelandic half-moon cookies. I had used prune filling, but my Icelandic reader told me that apparently this is not really authentic (based on a straw pole of some Icelandic people, which I am willing to accept as 100% scientific). So I was given his mum’s recipe for making them, using rhubarb jam (which I love) as well as baker’s ammonia (which is my all-time favourite novelty baking ingredient). And so it was settled – I would just have another go at one of my favourite recipes from last year, just a more authentic version of it.

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As with so many things, nothing beats an authentic recipe – the pastry is great (that baker’s ammonia makes they very light and airy) and the rhubarb jam really is nice in these things, a nice combination of tart and sweet. And yes – better than the prune fulling I used last time! I also took a little more time this year with the finishing – I used a scalloped rather than round cutter on the pastry, used a fork to get good, deep crimping on the edges, and brushed them with a little beaten egg to get a good colour and shine. They also provide a nice alternative to all those rich, spiced goodies at this time of year – lighter and a little unusual.

One final confession – this is not 100% my reader’s mum’s recipe. The recipe I got looked like it would make quite a lot of biscuits, so I divided it by three, which still yielded 25 little rhubarb pastries. Have some pity – when you do twelve recipes in rapid succession, you do get rather a glut of baked goods, and there are limits to how much my friends are willing to eat!

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Finally, I hope you’ve enjoyed the 12 Festive Bakes of Christmas series for this year. I’m sure we’ll be kicking off again in about 11 months’ time!

 To make Rhubarb Hálfmánar (makes 25):

• 165g flour
• 80g sugar
• 80g butter
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
• 1 medium egg

• 1/2 teaspoon baker’s ammonia
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• rhubarb jam
• milk, to seal
• beaten egg, to glaze

1. Start with the pastry: in a bowl, rub the butter into the flour. Mix in the sugar, spices and baker’s ammonia. Mix in the egg and work to a soft dough (add a dash more flour if needed). Chill in the fridge overnight (the dough will be quite soft, but will firm up in the fridge).

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

3. Make the biscuits. Roll out the pastry, then cut out 8cm diameter discs of pastry (use a round or scalloped cutter – I used scalloped). Put about a quarter of a teaspoon of rhubarb jam in the middle of each piece. Moisten the edges of the pastry disc with milk, them fold in half. Use a fork to seal and crimp the edges.

4. Beat an egg and brush the top of each bookie.

5. Bake the cookies for around 10-12 minutes until golden.

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