Why does this post start with a number?
Well, it has reached that time of year again…Christmas is around the corner, and this year I’ve decided to take on the challenge of making the “12 goodies of Christmas”. I’ve veered away from just doing cookies as there is a lot more festive fare out there. I’ll leave it at that, but there are a few interesting things in the offing in the coming weeks!
That said, for the first post, I am actually revisiting something that I made last year, the famous Aachener Printen.
Printen are traditional German biscuits which originate from the town of Aachen, near the border with the Netherlands. They are made from honey, citrus, spices and flour, but no egg or milk (so good if you don’t/can’t eat dairy, and you can substitute the honey for beet or other syrup if you want a vegan cookie). Traditionally, all those spices made them expensive and they were considered to be health-giving, so they were sold in pharmacies. Mercifully, spices are now available to all of us, and while I make no health claims, but I can confirm they are really very tasty.
This is not, however, a carbon copy of last year’s attempt. I’ve made one seemingly small but fundamental change. The secret is the raising agent. Last time, I used baking powder. This year, I have been pounding London’s pavements in search of a magic ingredient. After much searching, I managed to track down the thing that the Germans traditionally use – Pottasche, or potassium carbonate. This both gives the dough a “lift” but also causes it to keep absorbing moisture after baking, so the biscuits will become softer with time. As the Printen have sugar crystals in them, this makes for a nice texture contrast too.
That’s the theory. But does it work and was it worth it?
Well, the difference using the potassium carbonate was clear almost right away. The biscuits puffed up much more than last time, and they are softer from the out. Last year, I was left with some rather hard cookies that took a long, long time to soften. No need to wait this time. But if you can leave them, they do get better with time. In short – if you are able, I really, really recommend trying to get your hands on this magic powder!
Another quite nifty little thing about making Printen is that they lend themselves to being made when you have a spare few minutes. You make the dough ahead of time, let it sit for a few days so that the aroma of the spices can develop, then shape and bake them a few days later.
If you’re feeling fancy, you can also dip them in dark chocolate. The soft, spicy gingerbread, crunch sugar crystals and smooth, dark chocolate is quite a revelation. Enjoy!
To get potassium carbonate in London, you can buy this from the German Deli at Borough Market (3 Park Street, London SE1 9AB), tel: 020 7378 0000. Tube: London Bridge.
To make the Printen (makes around 20 large or 40 small biscuits):
• 250g honey(*)
• 25g sugar
• 250g plain flour
• pinch of salt
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon ground aniseed or star anise
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
• 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 50g candied orange peel
• 1 teaspoon potassium carbonate (“Pottasche”)
• 1 tablespoon water or orange blossom water
• 50g candy sugar (the large crystals for coffee)
Stage 1: The dough
Chop the orange peel very finely. Either do this by hand, or pulverise in a food processor.
Put the honey and sugar in a saucepan and heat gently until the sugar dissolves. Turn off the heat and put the pan to one side.
Add the flour to a bowl with the salt, cinnamon, aniseed/star anise, cloves and nutmeg.
Add the orange peel and the warm honey to the flour. Mix until the ingredients are well combined. The dough will be soft initially, but will start to become very firm as it cools.
Place the dough in a plastic container, seal, and leave at room temperature for at least two days. I’ve left it for up to two weeks with no ill effects.
Stage 2: baking the cookies
Pre-heat the oven to 200°C (400°F). Lightly grease a sheet of greaseproof paper.
Mix the Pottasche and the water (or orange blossom water) in a cup until the powder dissolves. Add to the dough and mix until smooth. It doesn’t seem like much, but it turns from being very stiff to quite pliable.
On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough to 1/2 or 3/4 cm thickness. Sprinkle with the candy sugar(**) and pass the rolling pin lightly over to press the sugar crystals into the dough.
Cut the dough into pieces of 4 x 8 cm (large cookies) or 4 x 4cm (smaller cookies). Place on the baking sheet, and bake for around 12 minutes until risen and brown. Turn the baking sheet half way through.
If you like your cookies to have a nice shine, when they come out of the oven, brush with a simple sugar syrup made with 100g white sugar dissolved in 100ml water (heat in a pan until the sugar dissolves). Store the cookies in an airtight tin – they will keep for several months.
(*) If you want to make a vegan version of Printen, replace the honey with the syrup of your choice, such as beet syrup or dark corn syrup. Aim for something that has the consistency of thick runny honey.
(**) You might have to crush the sugar crystals to make them smaller. The ones I bought were about 1cm long, so I used a mortar and pestle to break them down into pieces of 2-3mm.
Worth making? The ones I made with baking powder last year tasted nice, but these are sensational. If you can get hold of the Pottasche, then these are straightforward and delicious, with the real “taste of Christmas”.