Monthly Archives: December 2010

White Pfeffernüsse

Oh dear. It’s been a busy couple of weeks and I’ve gotten rather behind on my posts. I know the moment for Christmas cookies is sort of past, but this is a recipe that I made a few weeks ago and so I’m sharing it in time for…eh…next year!

I recently posted a recipe for Pfeffernüsse using my festive German spice mixture. Great if you like all those spices (which I do!) but this version is different, with much lighter aromas, just using a little cinnamon and a pinch of pepper, and some lemon zest for a fresher note.

The method is also different – rather than a classic gingerbread-style recipe involving boiling up sugar and honey to make a basis for the dough, you whip eggs and sugar, then add the rest of the ingredients. The resulting cookies are lighter (in texture, I make no promises about the calorific value), and if you’re entertaining kids, this is also the messier – and therefore more fun – option. The resulting cookies are lighter in colour (as they don’t contain treacle) and so once iced, they take on a brilliant white colour.

I also replace some of the flour with ground almonds, to add to the flavour and keep the cookies softer. However, once made, these biscuits can have a tendency to become hard. In which case, just pop into a box with a slice of apple (don’t let it touch the biscuits), and after a day or so, they will be soft and aromatic.

To make White Pfeffernüsse (makes around 20):

• 1 egg
• 100g white caster sugar
• 20g ground almonds
• 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
• generous pinch white pepper
• zest of 1/2 lemon
• 130g plain flour
• 1/4 teaspoon baking powder

Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper and rub with butter or non-stick spray.

Whisk the egg and the sugar until light and creamy (about 2 minutes). Add the cinnamon, white pepper and lemon zest to the bowl, and mix well.

Combine the flour, ground almonds and baking powder, and fold into the egg mixture until you have a sticky dough.

Using damp hands, form the mixture into balls of 2-3cm, and place of greased baking sheet. Bake the cookies for 12-15 minutes until puffed up, but not browned. Remove from the oven, and after a minute, transfer to a cooling rack.

Cover the cookies with the icing (you might want to dip them, and do this twice to get a thick but even coating) and allow to dry overnight.

For the icing: 80g icing sugar and 4 tablespoons water (or non-sweet kirsch). Combine and stir well until smooth.

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Merry Christmas!

To each and every one of you, wishing you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! I hope regular readers have enjoyed my posts over the last twelve months, and that you are all with your friends and family at this time of year.

And if you are wondering why I made gingerbread cookies but without gingerbread men…well, I did and here they are!

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Gingerbread Cookies

Ah, what would Christmas be without gingerbread cookies?

Much as I wish it were the case, the recipe I use is not something scribbled on a notepad from a dear relative. Instead, it’s one that I have adapted from the ever-reliable Joy of Baking website. I cannot rave about how good that resource is – everything I’ve made from that site has worked like a dream, and there is a treasure trove of seasonal and international goodies.

So what have I changed? Well, mainly made it to my taste and used ingredients that are easier to find here in the UK. Firstly, I played with the spices. I use more ground ginger, mace in place of nutmeg, and I added a good dash of my German spice mixture. I also replaced the molasses with a mixture of black treacle, golden syrup and honey. In part, this is because we don’t have such easy access to molasses in Britain. Black treacle looks the same, but it has a very strong peppery flavour which is best balanced with a lot of other lighter syrups, hence our much-loved golden syrup and a couple of spoons of good heather honey.

A nifty thing about this recipe is that it allows you to make a range of shapes successfully, so it’s a good one if you like to make cookies with a little hole at one end so you can tie them to the Christmas tree with a ribbon. They puff up a little, but keep their firm, allowing you to make all manner of nifty cookies. Gingerbread men? Check. Stars and crescents? Check. Iittala shapes. Check.

Yes, I have an Iittala cookie cutter! It’s possible. This is one of my most treasured kitchen possessions, based on the classic shape designed by Alvar Aalto. How did I come by this? I was on a night ferry from Helsinki to Stockholm, and saw it in the duty free shop. I umm-ed and aaaah-ed for a while, but didn’t buy it. Then, I found 20 cents in a corner. Beckoning along the deck were slot machines. Coin popped into slot, lever pulled, and I won four euro. Which, magically, was the price of the cookie cutter. I took this as a sign, bought it, and it now enjoys its special place in my kitchen, all the more so since it ceased production.

Back to the cookies. To finish them off, there are two ways to go. Either go traditional, with a thicker icing that you can pipe for finishing off gingerbread men, or you can achieve the “frosty” look by brushing them when they are hot with some runny icing. The cookies will be shiny and, as the icing cools, it will develop a festive “frosty” appearance, just like my star cookies. Ho ho ho!

And just in case you are wondering what happened to all of the cookies I have been making recently, they were all served up at Christmas drinks at my place. Something like this…

To make gingerbread cookies (adapted from Joy of Baking’s recipe):

• 390g plain flour
• 1/4 teaspoons salt
• 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
• 2 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
• 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
• 1/4 teaspoon Lebkuchengewürz (optional)
• 115g unsalted butter, room temperature
• 100g soft brown sugar
• 1 egg
• 70g black treacle
• 145g golden syrup
• 10g honey

Mix the flour, salt, baking soda and spices in a bowl, and sift well.

In another bowl, cream the butter and sugar until fluffy (if the sugar has lumps, best to pass through a sieve first). Add the egg, treacle, syrup and honey and beat well until creamy. Finally, add the flour mixture a third at a time until everything is combined.

Wrap the dough in cling film and leave in the fridge to chill for two hours (or overnight). It makes life easier to freeze in portions, so that you can work with portions of the dough when baking cookies.

To bake, preheat the oven to 175°C (345°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper, and grease with butter or non-stick spray.

Sprinkle the worktop with flour and roll out portions of chilled dough until just more than 1/2 cm, and use a cookie cutter to cut out the desired shapes.

Lift the cut cookies to the baking sheet, leaving sufficient space between each.

Bake for 8-12 minutes, according to the size of your cookies. They are ready when the edges are just turning brown.

Leave the cookies to cool slightly on the tray, then place on a rack and leave until cold.

To make a “frosty” glaze: combine 60g icing sugar with 3 tablespoons of kirsch (non-sweet) or water. Brush over the hot cookies as soon as they come out of the oven. As it dries, it will take on the flecked “frosty” look.

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Festive Chocolate Clusters

On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love made for me… festive chocolate clusters! Try singing it – it sort of works. Just.

This is just about as simple as baking can get, Pop Tarts excluded. I was attending a friend’s Christmas drinks at the weekend, and had promised to take something. As I have my own drinks event next week, I was a little but protective of my cookies, so I thought about making a little chocolate treat which is packed with all sorts of festive goodies in it. Think a grown-up version of the rice crispie cake.

This was the same crowd that had been wowed by my chocolate tiffin several weeks previously, so it was not a major leap to change from a tray (non-)bake to mini-clusters of seasonal cheer. But I needed a recipe, as I had to get the combination of dry stuff-nuts-fruit-chocolate right. I could wing it, but I did a little research, and saw Chocolate & Zucchini recommended two cups of other ingredients to 250g of melted chocolate. Armed with this rule of thumb, I went forth and immediately started to play around with it. Live dangerously…

Now…drum roll…while I usually work by weight, this time I went with cups. One cup of “dry” stuff, one-and-a-half cups of dried fruit and nuts (I couldn’t resist adding a but more), and then 250g of chocolate. Simple!

For the “dry” stuff, I used spelt flakes. These have a nice nutty flavour and stay super-crisp even when you’ve added them to something, so that adds a welcome bit of texture. I bulked this out with speculoos biscuits I had in the cupboard. If you don’t know these, they are crisp biscuits that you find all over Belgium and the Netherlands. They have a spicy, gingerbread flavour and because they are made with dark sugar, have a caramel-like flavour and sharp snap. Be on the lookout next time you’re in Rotterdam or Antwerp! So I took my treasured speculoos, smashed up a few and threw them in. This would add some festive spiciness, but provide a bit of variety from the usual cinnamon.

For the “fruit and nuts”, I raided the cupboard and went for broke. Whatever I could find. Toasted flaked almonds, chopped glacé cherries, chopped apricots and juicy sultanas. This provided a few different textures, flavours and colours to brighten up my clusters.

All of these tasty good things were going to be lovingly enrobed in melted dark chocolate, and then lovingly spooned into little mini-cupcake cases. The chocolate was also lovingly mixed with a large pinch of finely ground sea salt to enhance the flavour, and a tablespoon of good old British golden syrup, to provide a little rich sweetness, and the make the chocolate a little softer in the finished clusters. I wanted them to set, but not to be rock hard.

Once I had prepared the mixture, I had grand plans to be über-efficient, and put the mixture into a piping bag to fill my cases, but the mixture was clearly setting too quickly on what was one of the coldest nights of the year. So back to basics, just me and a couple of teaspoons. And as you can see, the results are actually pleasingly irregular. Sometimes a sultana perched on top, sometimes flaked almonds peeking out side.

These clusters are delicious. Rich, crisp, juicy and nutty by turns, and – dare I say it – a complete success. They are also endlessly customisable, so just throw in whatever you want, although I am rather taken with flaked almonds and apricots.

For 30 chocolate clusters:

• 1 cup dry ingredients (*)
• 1 1/2 cups nuts and dried fruit, pressed down (**)
• 250g dark chocolate
• Large pinch sea salt, finely ground
• Tablespoon golden syrup (optional)

Place the chocolate, salt and syrup (if using) in a double boiler and allow the chocolate to melt. Stir well.

In the meantime, combine the dry ingredients and the nuts/fruit in a bowl. Combine well, ideally using your hands to break up sticky bits of fruit.

Pour over the melted chocolate, and mix until combined. Use teaspoons to transfer the mixture into mini-muffin cases. Sprinkle with any toppings (tiny flakes of salt, gold leaf, chopped pistachio…or leave au natural) and allow to cool.

Best served at room temperature so that the chocolate is softer and the flavours more intense.

(*) I used 1/3 cup (20g) spelt flakes and 2/3 cup (60g) crushed speculoos biscuits.

(**) I used 35g sultanas, 45g glacé cherries, 45g toasted flaked almonds and 80g dried apricots. And I mean pressed down in the measuring cup, to get the most fruit you can fit into these little treats!

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Usagi Wagashi

Today’s post is very brief, but I wanted to share a gift I received at the weekend. As the perfect alternative to the season’s chocolate, nuts and spices, I was given a box of usagi wagashi, little Japanese sweets in the shape of rabbits. I’ve blogged before about Japanese sweets, wagashi, from London’s Minamoto Kitchoan (see here), and so this was indeed a most welcome and thoughtful gift.

But before we get to the sweets, let’s appreciate the box:

Cute, yes?

And this is what the little rabbits look like:

These sweets are a perfect little indulgent treat. I would not eat more than one at a time, but only for the reason that I would run out too quickly. They are made with white bean paste, and have a perfectly silky-smooth texture, vaguely reminiscent of moist marzipan, lightly sweetend and with just a little whisper of citrus, not unlike French calissons. Tasty, decadent, whimsical. I loved them.

Tempted? You can get hold of them in Minamoto Kitchoan on London’s Piccadilly. I’ll be heading there shortly.

Minamoto Kitchoan, 44 Piccadilly, London W1J ODS. Tel: 0207 437 3135. Tube: Piccadilly Circus or Green Park.

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Zimtsterne (Cinnamon Stars)

My “twelve cookies of Christmas” series continues with one of my favourites, and again, there is a bit of a German theme going on here.

Today, we are making Zimtsterne (German cinnamon stars). I absolutely adore these ones, and they always prove very, very popular. How do I know this? I gave a box of them as a gift to a friend a couple of years ago, and her house-guest found and ate most of them. But hey, I can’t blame her, they are incredibly more-ish.

While they undoubtedly look impressive, they are relatively straightforward to make, with the only really tricky bit being perfecting the rolling of the dough, cutting the cookies and glazing them. The dough has lots of fresh ground almonds and sugar, flavoured with cinnamon, orange zest and just a touch of honey. The resulting cookies are crisp at the edges, but soft and chewy in the middle, and topped with a crisp sugary icing, which turns a gentle light golden colour in the oven. If you leave them out for a couple of days, they will get softer and even more chewy.

I like to make my Zimtsterne using whole almonds that I grind at home, as I think the flavour is better than using pre-ground nuts, and the brown speckling from the skin looks quite nice in the finished product. The nut mixture can also be tweaked a little, with a 50/50 mix of almonds and hazelnuts, or even all hazelnuts if that’s what floats your boat. You can also miss out the orange if you want, but I think this adds a pleasant extra aromatic note.

Finally, these are also wheat/gluten-free and contain no milk products. Not something that is usually top of my worry list, but it proved to be very helpful at the weekend – I had Christmas drinks where two guest were, in turn, gluten intolerant and dairy intolerant. Lucky I had these to serve. That, and the Germans in the room also seemed to be suitably impressed. Whew!

To make Zimtsterne (makes around 50)*

For the dough:

• 2 egg whites
• 500g unskinned almonds, finely ground(**)
• 300g icing sugar
• 2 tablespoons acacia honey
• 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
• zest of 1 orange

For the glaze:

• 1 egg white
• 100g icing sugar

Preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F). Line a metal tray with baking paper and grease with non-stick spray.

In a large bowl, lightly whip the egg whites until just frothy. Add the rest of the ingredients and mix well. The mixture might seem dry at first, but keep going (eventually using your hands) and it will come together into a soft dough.

Sprinkle the kitchen worktop generously with more icing sugar, and roll out portions of the dough to 1cm thickness. Cut out star shapes with a cutter and place the baking sheet. Make sure there is sufficient icing sugar under the dough to stop it sticking to the worktop (this I know from experience!).

Next make the glaze: whisk the egg white until just frothy, then add the icing sugar and mix until it is thick and syrupy. Spread thinly on the top of the stars (using the back of a teaspoon or a brush). Aim just to cover the tops, you will need a thinner layer than you think. If you add too much, it will bubble and blister, rather than forming a smooth surface.

Bake the stars for 10-15 minutes until the edges of icing are just starting to colour.

Once ready, remove from the oven and allow to sit for a minute before transferring to a rack to cool completely.

(*) Recipe can be easily halved, results are equally good.

(**) If you are grinding almonds, ideally use a coffee grinder to reduce them to a fine meal. If the almonds/nuts are too coarse, the stars will be too moist and lose their shape in the oven. If the dough seems very sticky, add most ground nuts and icing sugar.

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Panettone

You see panettone in all the Italian shops at Christmas time…in huge boxes, or wrapped in brightly-coloured film. They are entirely impractical to carry, therefore immediately mark themselves out as a luxury. I love the soft, fluffy cake, the icing sugar on top and the fruit and citrus, which is so different from a dense, dark British Christmas cake. Thing is…for years, making them properly has eluded me, so they have always seemed like a “too hard to make yourself” cake.

I tried making panettone again last year, and while I had managed to get the taste spot on, the dough did not really rise, so I had a rather heavy fruit bread rather than the light fluffy panettone that you would buy. So did this mean I should give in and go to a shop? Well, determined to give it one final attempt, I took the lazy man’s option: I would be sure that the dough would get a good kneading by putting everything in a bread machine. I would then sit on the sofa while someone (something) else does all the hard work, while I hope for the best.

Dough made, I though I would get clever with this, and remarkably, it worked! I put six small balls of dough into a canelé mould, and hoped to get six mini-panettone to eat in the coming days for breakfast. The remaining two-thirds of the dough went towards making one large panettone. Happily, this all went swimmingly, and you can see my handywork below, complete with a liberal dusting of icing sugar, with a star shape on top to keep the festive theme going.

Finally, I am happy that I have nailed the panettone. It was clear that the bread machine had ensured that the dough had been properly worked, and the result was soft and stretchy, and when I put it into moulds, it puffed up brilliantly. Once in the oven, it kept going, forming lovely golden domes of bready goodness, studded with sultanas and cubes of citrus peel.

I have been enjoying slices of this bread with breakfast over the last few days, and am seriously thinking of making another one for this weekend’s Christmas drinks at my house. It is as light and fluffy as a nutmeg-infused citrus and sultana cloud. Was this like mama would make back in the village in Italy? Maybe not. But I think it’s pretty darn good, and everyone so far seems to like it. Plus, no awkward boxes to carry back home.

And if there is any left on Sunday, this is going into a panettone bread and butter pudding. Mmmmmmmh!

To make panettone (one medium plus six mini loaves, or one large loaf):

• 2 eggs
• 150ml milk
• 75g butter
• 50g sugar
• Large pinch freshly ground nutmeg
• Pinch of salt
• Zest of 1 lemon
• Zest of 1 orange
• 1 1/2 teaspoons dried yeast
• 400g strong white flour
• 150g dried fruit (raisins, sultanas)
• 75g candied peel, diced

Put the eggs and milk into a bowl, and mix well with a whisk.

Pour the milk/egg mixture into the bread machine tin, and add the butter, sugar, nutmeg, salt and zest. Add the flour, and sprinkle the yeast on top.

Put the tin into the bread machine, and switch on the dough cycle. Place the dried fruit and chopped citrus peel in the raisin dispenser, or add at the right moment in the cycle.

Once the dough is ready, prepare a deep cake tin (or saucepan) by greasing lightly with butter, and line with greaseproof paper(*). Take the dough out of the machine, form into a ball, and press into the tin. Leave in a warm place, covered with a damp teacloth or clingfilm, for about one hour until the dough has reached to top of the tin.

In the meantime, preheat the oven at 180°C (350°F). Once the panettone has risen, bake for 45 minutes until risen and golden, and sounds hollow when tapped (20-25 minutes for smaller loaves). If the top is browning too quickly, cover loosely with tin foil.

(*) If you are making mini-panettone, use a silicone mould, and grease well with butter or non-stick spray.

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Vegetable Broth

In the words of Frank Loesser, “baby, it’s cold outside”. Yes, a little light snow and the south of England has come to a shuddering halt. We’re now being bombarded with headlines about “Frozen Britain” (yawn), but as yet, there is no news about how this affects that other news staple, the Royal Wedding.

What is beyond doubt it that it is very chilly, and that calls for proper winter soups. This one is a veggie version of Scotch Broth, so – obviously – lots of vegetables, plus potato and barley to add a bit of substance. I like my soups to be thick and hearty, something filling when you get in from the cold, or to prepare you to venture outside. I just don’t get clear soups, or basic bouillon. Filling, and mopped up with lots of brown, crusty bread. Mmmm!

I also like soups that have a bit of character – smooth “posh” soups are all well and good, but if you’re looking for something to serve as a meal, lots of chunky carrot, turnip, celeriac and barley will do the trick. This is also a super-easy recipe. Just chop up the vegetables, fry in a little oil, add stock and let it simmer for a few hours until the barley is soft. Job done. I’ve posted before about my love for barley, and I am going to go on about it again. I think it really brings something to a soup, a bit of chewiness and texture combined with the tender vegetables.

It’s also a good one as it is cheap as chips to make (read the ingredients – it’s all basic stuff, and quelle horreur very healthy) and can be quite easily made from the sort of thing that skulks around in the bottom of the fridge or, with these winter days, arrives in your weekly organic veg box. I know, that makes me sound so Stoke Newington la-di-da!

If you are making this soup, I’ve put a recipe below, but to be honest, the trick is just to get roughly similar amounts of autumn or winter vegetables, add some potato and barley, then sit back and let the lot simmer until the vegetables are tender. It can also be quite happily made with whatever you have to hand – leeks, celery etc. I like to aim for some vegetables that will turn soft and break down (making the soup thick and satisfying), while others hold their shape. I finished this one off with a couple of spoons of soy sauce, and added a scant handful of fresh thyme leaves to the soup 10 minutes before serving.

As an aside, normally I don’t use celeriac in soup (I use celery), but I decided to give it a try. And, rather marvellously, it cooks wonderfully, becoming very soft, then breaking down and adding to the thickness of the soup. I like to make little culinary discoveries like this!


To make Vegetable Broth (serves 4):

• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 2 large carrot carrots, peeled and diced
• 1 small swede, peeled and diced
• 1 small turnip, peeled and diced
• 3 small onions, peeled and diced 
• 2 scant handfuls barley
• 2 medium potatoes, peeled and diced

• 3 litres vegetable stock

• salt and pepper, to taste
• small handful fresh thyme

Heat the oil in a large pot. Add the carrots, swede, celeriac, onions, barley and potato, and cook for 2 minutes on a medium heat, stirring from time to time.

Add the stock and stir well. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer until the barley is tender (about 30 minutes). Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Towards the end of the cooking time, add the thyme (if using). Once ready, add more water if the soup is too thick, and serve with lots of crusty brown bread.

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