Monthly Archives: December 2011

Atholl Brose for a Happy Hogmanay!

That’s it! 2011 is coming to a close, measured now not in weeks or days, but hours and minutes.

The excesses of Christmas are over, now replaced with plans for more excess on New Year’s Eve. This year I have the good fortune to have been invited to friends, so no need for me to do much other than pitch up on time and with a few drinks.

I’ve got champagne for sure, but I’ve also got a few fun things to take along. The sloe gin is ready, and I have discovered that it lends itself very well to what has been christened the Sloe Gin Fizz Royale – a dash of sloe gin in the bottom of the glass, and top up with quality sparkling wine (forgive me for being a snob…but I prefer champagne straight up!). It works perfectly as a apéritif.

The other trick up the sleeve is a nod to the very Scottish nature of New Year’s Eve. Try calling it that in Edinburgh’s Royal Mile of Glasgow’s George Square. You might just be met with icy stares, but chances are a local will put their arm around you and explain that “we dinnae call it that here – it’s Hogmanay, laddie!”.

Hogmanay is a big thing in Scotland. There are lots of fireworks, lots of drinking, lots of singing Auld Lang Syne. And the festivities go on to such an extent that the delicate Scottish people need not just one holiday – 2 January is also a public holiday north of the Border, and to this day, I still find the idea of going back to work on 2 January to be something of a liberty.

So, in honour of this very Scottish night, the mystery drink I am making is…Atholl Brose!

Just a wee word of warning – don’t dare call this a cocktail. It has an ancient pedigree (stories claim it originates back in the late 1400s) so those 1920s gin joint pretenders are but mere latecomers to the party.

It you like this, you’ll be in royal company – it is said to have been a favourite tipple of Queen Victoria when she encountered it on one her visits to Scotland. It’s a mixture of oat milk, whisky, cream and honey. Now really…could a drink actually use any more typically Scottish ingredients?

The process for making Atholl Brose is quite easy, and the great thing is that it can be made ahead of time – indeed, many sources recommend making it several days ahead of time and allowing it to sit. However, I’ve come up with a version that can be made a few hours before, and so still have enough time to whip up a batch before the magic hour.

You start with soaking oats in water, then mashing and straining them to make an oat “brose” or broth – something like an oat milk. You could just cheat and buy oat milk if you’re in a hurry, but many Scottish matrons would be aghast at this idea…

Now…the whisky. Note the spelling, and more specifically, lack of an “e” in there. Scots don’t use the “e” and everyone else does. Yes, there are battles about who came up with it, who produces the best whisky/whiskey and how it should be spelled, but let’s just call a truce and say different people produce different drinks, and everyone has their own preferences. But regardless of whether you are using whisky, whiskey or bourbon, I would recommend a decent-ish drink, but not the fine rare malt that someone else was given as a Christmas present. The delicate flavours and aromas can get lost in the cream, oats and honey – the fine drinks should be enjoyed just as they are.

The honey, in my view, should be heather honey. It is a rich, thick honey with lots of flavour rather than just providing sweetness. However, I leave the choice completely up to you as the mixologist, but just be careful not to use something that has an overly-strong flavour (such as chestnut or thyme). These types of honey are lovely, but can overpower everything else.

The traditional ratios when making Atholl Brose are 7-7-5-1 (oat milk, whisky, cream, honey), and then these should be stirred with a silver spoon (if such a things is available). However, I’ve found that using a cocktail shaker or large jar gets a good result, but it’s still nice to pour out and stir each with a small silver teaspoon, more for drama than necessity. But it’s Hogmanay, and it’s all about show!

Once you’d added all this, plus single cream, you get a drink that is a little like Bailey’s, but in my view with more interesting flavours, one which is stronger and also lighter. It’s unusual and rather more-ish.

So, that’s it! I hope you’ve enjoyed the posts of 2011 – the quince, the Ecclefechan Butter Tart, the Chelsea Buns, the Royal Wedding special, the Mallorcan Pomada drink, the rockin’ Rock Buns, the luscious Summer Pudding, the visit to the Royal Gardens at Clarence House, the trip to Helsinki, the Scottish Macaroon Bars, the sloe gin and the sheer madness of Twelve Days of Christmas Baking!

Wishing you a Happy Hogmanay and all the very best for 2012!

To make Atholl Brose (serves 8):

Step 1: the oat milk

• 1 cup oats (rolled, pinhead…your choice!)
• 2 cups lukewarm water

Mix the oats and the water. Leave to sit for at least 30 minutes (longer doesn’t hurt). Put into a blender, pulverise, then pass through a cheesecloth. Towards the end, squeeze to get a much liquid from the mixture as possible.

Step 2: making the Atholl Brose

• 7 parts oat milk
• 7 parts whisky
• 5 parts good single cream
• 1 part honey

Mix the honey with the oat milk. Put everything into a cocktail shaker or large jar. Shake until mixed. Taste the Brose, then adjust according to taste (more honey, more cream, more whisky…). Serve chilled or over ice.

Worth making? For sure! It’s a nice traditional Scottish drink and very well-suited as a post dinner drink on Hogmanay. It’s very easy, and it’s pretty much guaranteed that your guests have never had a drink made from raw oats before!

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The Twelve Days of Christmas

As with every year, Christmas provides a chance to make all manner of things to suit the season. This involves lots of big flavours – spices, honey, chocolate and citrus.

Last year, I got the baking bug early and made rather a lot. This year, I probably got too cocky. It started in a bar, when the gauntlet was thrown down – would I be able to do a “Twelve Days of Christmas” series? My response was a resounding yes. This was back in early November when I had what seemed like lots and lots of time to do it.

Well, if you’ve been a regular reader, you’ll notice that it was only on Christmas Eve, with just hours to spare, that I completed my challenge with my twelfth and final post in the series. I certainly hope you’ve enjoyed them – I’ve tried to have a mixture of flavours and cultures in there, and it certainly has been good fun to try a few new things.

In case you are wondering, here are the original lyrics, with each of my recipes next to them. There were a couple of coincidences, see if you can spot them!

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

…twelve Drummers Drumming (Spiced Chocolate Truffles)…
…eleven Pipers Piping (Mother Monsen’s Cake)…
…ten Lords-a-Leaping (Loftkökur)…
…nine Ladies Dancing (Kerstkransjes)…
…eight Maids-a-Milking (Stollen)…
…seven Swans-a-Swimming (Sugar Plums)…
…six Geese-a-Laying (Honninghjerter)…
…five Gold Rings (Lussekatter)…
…four Colly Birds (Speculaas)…
…three French Hens (Red Peppercorn Pfeffernüsse)…
…two Turtle Doves (Speculaaskruiden)…
…and a Partridge in a Pear Tree (Aachener Printen)!

In case you’re curious, the “little coincidences” were 12 of the spiced truffles (like the drummers), the gold rings were represented by bright yellow saffron buns, and one of the speculaas cookies was in the shape of something that looked not unlike a colly bird. OK, maybe stretching it on that last one just a little bit, but it made me smile…

So will I be doing this again next year?

My first instinct was “no” – I did not quite anticipate the volume of baked goods that would be coming out of the kitchen, and on a less obvious level, it’s rather difficult to take decent photographs in the British winter – I much prefer daylight for taking shots, and that’s a little tricky if you work and it gets dark at four in the afternoon. There is also a limit to just how much dried fruit, nuts and spice that someone can eat in a short period of time. All these pragmatic things that never crossed my mind when I proudly took on the challenge!

However, all these recipes have also been fun – I’ve used this as an excuse to try some new ideas, revisit some old ones, and bake using unusual ingredients or employ techniques that I was unfamiliar with. It might be going a bit far to say that I have “pushed” myself, but I’ve certainly made things that I’m not familiar with, so that has been interesting. And heck – if nothing else, I have finally mastered the art of tempering chocolate! So I leave this project with a “maybe”. We’ll see how I’m feeling in November 2012.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these posts – but if you have any feedback, I’ve love to hear. Questions, suggestions and – gasp – even ideas for next year!

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{12} Spiced Chocolate Truffles

‘Tis the night before Christmas…and we’ve finally reached the twelfth post in my festive bakes series!

It’s been a while coming. It’s also been fun. I didn’t quite appreciate the volume of stuff I would be producing, but I know for next year! I will most likely mull over this project in the gap between Christmas and New Year, but at this stage I can say in confidence that it was great fun to do the series, and it’s great that it’s over. If for no other reason than I can stop buying sugar, marzipan and nuts, and instead focus on savoury dishes again. Whew!

Most of the posts in this series have been about baking, so I wanted to do something a little different. And given that chocolate and Christmas seem to go so well together, what about some truffles to capture the flavours of the season?

I have to admit to a fondness for fancy chocolate shops. When I pass one, I like to duck in, and I’m always impressed not just by the aromas or the flavours of what is on offer, but the work that has clearly gone in to making something look beautiful. And I think you have to appreciate it – good chocolate is an experience for all the senses.

I was also planning to write a little about “my favourite chocolate shop” but, in all honesty, there are several in London and Brussels that I love to go to, and it’s not really fair to have to choose between them. Different people are doing different things so why limit yourself to just one?

That said, one of my favourites is Paul A Young, who runs a shop in Islington. I’ve got his book on all things chocolate (truffles, cakes, tarts, pasta…yes, chocolate pasta!). The book includes some stunning recipes that look very well-suited to the festive season. I would love to try his “Three Kings” bar of dark chocolate made with gold, frankincense and myrrh. In fact, I’d originally planned to make it as my final post, but I ran into a few issues – I could not source essential oils in time (i.e. I spent 10 minutes around Covent Garden and the ones at Neal’s Yard said you should not ingest them) and I rather balked at the idea of buying gold just to eat.

So….instead…I’ve opted to make festive truffles infused with spice.

Now, in making these, I had an aim – to make silky-smooth truffle. What I have noticed with spiced truffles is that when someone has just tipped ground spices into the mixture, this can make an otherwise smooth ganache a little “gritty”. Not inedible, but not as smooth as you would like. What I’ve done to address that is to make a spice-infused syrup, which is strained, and thus has all the flavour but none of the bits. I brought a pan of water to the boil, added some sugar and two teaspoons of spice, cooked for a minute, then left to sit overnight. The next morning – very spicy syrup! By leaving the mixture to sit, you also allow the spice powder to settle, so when you come to strain it, you have very little by way of “bits”. So there is a little trick here – if you’re making a mixture that needs 200ml of liquid, boil up 250 or 300ml, so that you get mostly liquid, and don’t need to tip the wet spice powder into the strainer. This keeps the bits out, and keeps things “clear” (ha ha!).

You could use any sort of spices you like in these truffles, but I kept to the festive theme and used a spoonful of my speculaaskruiden mixture and an extra teaspoon of cinnamon. I felt the cinnamon was needed to add some sweetness as well as to balance the stronger flavours of cloves and anise, which are fine in a biscuit but can become too much in a truffle. If you want to try something else, you can use cinnamon on its own, or something more unusual such as star anise, black pepper and cardamom. Intrigued?

The ganache part is actually very easy. Just chop up the chocolate into fine pieces, then pour over the warm (not too hot) liquid, and stir gently. You’ll hopefully end up with a thick, glossy mixture that sets to a firm but workable consistency. At this stage you’ve got two choices – either use as a sweet fondue and dip pieces of fruit and cake into it for a messy pudding, or allow the mixture to set and then form into truffles.

If you’re making truffles, you’ve also got two choices – either keep it simple by shaping them then rolling in cocoa or icing sugar, or adopt the complicated approach by coating them in tempered chocolate. I went to the latter option, and while it is fiddly, it does give you a lovely crisp shell to contrast with the smooth filling. I rolled them in a mixture of cocoa, sugar and cinnamon.

I took some of these as a gift, and if I do say so myself, they looked stunning. I lined the box with purple tissue paper, and I think the overall effect is really rather regal. What do you think?

So that’s it – we’ve done the Twelve Cookies of Christmas (if you’ll let me off with the speculaaskruiden). Things will be quiet for a while as I down tools and enjoy the next couple of weeks. I hope you’re able to spend this time of year with friends and loved ones – wishing everyone Happy Holidays, a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

To make spiced chocolate truffles (makes around 35-40):

For the spiced syrup:

• 250ml water
• 2 heaped teaspoons ground spice
• 50g dark brown sugar

Put everything in a saucepan. Stir, bring the boil, simmer for a minute, then leave to sit for several hours or overnight.

Strain the cooled mixture through a fine sieve or cheesecloth. Leave the remains of the wet spices at the bottom of the pan – you want the syrup to be as clear as possible.

For the truffles:

• 200ml spiced syrup
• 50g dark brown sugar
• large pinch of salt
• 300g dark chocolate, finely chopped

In a saucepan, bring the syrup, sugar and salt to the boil and simmer for 30 seconds. Turn off the heat.

Put the chocolate in a heatproof bowl. Pour the warm liquid over the chocolate, and use a balloon to gently stir the mixture until it is smooth and glossy. Leave to cool to room temperature, then transfer to the fridge until set.

To form the truffles, take teaspoons of the mixture and either use two teaspoons or your hands to form into spheres. Either roll in cocoa or icing sugar, or dip in tempered chocolate (see here or here how to temper chocolate).

Worth making? Making truffles can be a bit fiddly, but it’s actually quite fun and the results are always impressive. I think this way of infusing the mixture with the flavour of spices works really well – a mild, delicate flavour and the resulting ganache is wonderfully smooth. The only problem is stopping at just one.

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{11} Mor Monsens Kake

I was looking over my recent festive posts and I noticed that the “Twelve Cookies of Christmas” posts have been a bit of a gastronomic tour around Europe – we’ve covered Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden and Britain. So where next?

Well, I feel we need to show some solidarity with the good people of Norway, who are in the middle of a butter crisis. Some blame a recent craze for low-carb (and thus high butter) diets. Some blame a poor summer, which resulted in lower dairy yields. But whatever the reason, this is having a major, major impact on Christmas baking. People are bringing butter back from trips aboard. People are getting into frenzied online bidding wars. I mean – people are getting arrested for butter smuggling. Arrested! All for butter! 

So, let’s show the burghers of Oslo, Bergen, Lillehammer and Tromsø that we’re thinking about them. Today’s post completes the Scandinavian family (we’ve done Sweden and Denmark) with Norway’s  (apparently) famous Mor Monsens Kake (Mother Monsen’s Cake). And yes – this majors on the butter!

Now, the obvious question – who is Mother Monsen? If I’m going to make her cake, it seems only polite to make at least an attempt to find out.

Well, it seems the answer is…eh…no-one really knows. The Norwegians love her cake, but it’s not clear who she was. I’ve found out that the recipe is over 160 years old, and it seems to be famous after being name-checked in a famous cookbook written by Norway’s first female novelist, Hanna Winsnes, back in 1845. If anyone knows more, do leave a comment!

To the relief of many, I’m sure you’ll be happy to know that this recipe does not involve any weird or wonderful ingredients (potassium carbonate and salt of hartshorn – I mean you!). No leaving dough to sit for hours, days or weeks (as is the case with Aachener Printen!). No elaborate preparations involved (Honninghjerter spring to mind…). Nope, this is a simple if somewhat buttery cake with currants, almonds and pearl sugar. It’s actually quite a nice contrast to all those rich, sweet, spicy biscuits  and mince pies at this time of year, so great in the morning with a cup of coffee before or after a bracing walk.

One thing about this cake that was a little unclear was what I should add to flavour the batter. Leave it plain? Add vanilla? lemon zest? Cardamom even? Different recipes do things differently. After a not-very-representative poll via Twitter, I got some views and settled on both lemon zest and a hint of vanilla extract. I actually really like lemon and vanilla, so that pairing suits me down to the ground, but go with what you prefer.

There are a lot of versions out there, but I’ve worked out one that has a texture akin to that of the Dutch boterkoek – dense but crumbly, and very, very buttery. Light and fluffy this ain’t! You spread the cake mixture in a large tray, then sprinkle over the currants, almonds and pearl sugar. During baking, it will puff up a little, and some of the fruit and nuts will sink down into the batter (like magic – no mixing involved!). Once golden, remove from the oven and cut into pieces – diamonds or triangles are the traditional shapes.

This can be stored for a few days in an airtight container, but also freezes very well for those times you fancy a bit of cake at short notice.

So as they say in Norway – Gledelig Jul! And let’s hope the butter crisis comes to an end soon. Norway – we’re thinking of you!

To make Mor Monsens Kake:

• 225g butter (yes…precious butter!)
• 225g caster sugar
• 2 eggs
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• zest of 1/2 lemon
• 130g plain flour
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 25g blanched almonds, cut into slivers
• 40g currants
• 20g pearl or granulated sugar

Preheat the oven to 180°C. Grease and line a deep baking pan (30 x 20 cm / 12 x 8 inches).

In a bowl, mix the flour and baking powder and set aside.

Put the butter and sugar into a large bowl. Beat until the mixture is light and fluffy. At this stage, and electric mixer or hand blender will be your friend – you want fluffy, fluffy, fluffy!

Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Stir in the vanilla extra and lemon zest, then fold in the flour.

Spoon the batter into the baking tray and spread level. Sprinkle over the currants, almonds and pearl/granulated sugar. Bake for 20-25 minutes until the top is golden brown. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.

Cut the cooled cake into diamonds or triangles to serve.

Worth making? This is a quick and easy recipe to make, using mostly store cupboard and fridge ingredients. While it’s a traditional Christmas bake, it’s also a lovely rich cake  that goes fantastically well with a cup of coffee.

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{10} Loftkökur (Icelandic Air Cookies)

Sometimes,  just do something random. And it doesn’t come much more random than Icelandic cookies.

I have no connection to Iceland, and have never been. However, it does intrigue me. I would dearly love to visit the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa at some point in the near future and spend some time walking across the lunar-like landscapes. I was also vaguely affected when the Eyjafjallajökull volcano that brought European air travel to a standstill last year. But…that’s it. Being honest, I’m not sure I’ve ever even eaten anything Icelandic.

Nevertheless I read about these air cookies and it struck me as a bit of fun. So here we go – my tenth Christmas bakes post!

The point of these cookies is exactly as their name suggests – they should be light, light, light. They are a doddle to make – icing sugar, cocoa powder and egg. But the magic is the raising agent – ammonium carbonate – which means they puff up spectacularly. As you can see – a six-fold increase in volume!

You can see above the traditional way to make them – use a biscuit press with a ridged attachment, then cut into individual pieces about 5cm (2 inches) long. 

Then I put them in the oven…and boy did they rise! What was less exciting and, frankly, rather alarming was the fact once they were done, I almost managed to gas myself on ammonia fumes.

OK, somewhat of an exaggeration, but there was certainly a pong that filled the house, and I am very, very glad I attempted this on a sunny but breezy winter morning. The doors could be opened, and the stink was dispersed relatively quickly. I knew this stink-fest was on the way from when I made Swedish drömmar biscuits but even when you know it is coming, the sheer impact of the smell never fails to surprise.

Anyway, with the drama of the mystery smell overcome, and the house once again fresh-smelling (i.e. not of ammonia), the cookies were ready. They look good and, given the earlier smelly experience, they don’t stink. That’s what I want in a biscuit – one that doesn’t make the eyes water! The cookies are crisp and like a little like dry meringue, but not quite the same texture. But fun. They are also hollow in the middle, so they are indeed light as a feather!

The “ridged” look is traditional, but if you don’t have a biscuit press to hand, then fret not! A little online research revealed that you can also make other shapes, and I was very taken with this idea of straws – I tried it, and the result was great – I still got “lift off” and the resulting straws were light and crisp

I’ve written a little bit about the history of ammonium carbonate before (here). It’s funny stuff, but if possible it’s worth getting hold of it – in fact, if you want to make these air cookies, you must have ammonium carbonate to make them work. Nothing, but nothing, will work in its place!

So try them – and good luck! Or gangi þér vel as they (apparently) say in Reykjavik. But of course, I’ll need to visit to be sure!

To make Loftkökur:

• 300g icing sugar
• 1 teaspoon baker’s ammonia (ammonium carbonate)
• 2 1/2 tablespoons (30g) cocoa powder
• 1 egg, beaten

Preheat the oven to 150°C. Lightly grease a non-stick baking tray.

Mix the icing sugar, baker’s ammonia and cocoa powder in a bowl. Add the egg and mix well. Use a spoon at first, but you’ll need to use your hands to get the dough to come together. It will be quite stiff.

To shape the cookies, you have two choices: (1) put the mixture into a cookie press and press. Hey presto, the dough comes out. Cut the resulting strip into pieces – aim for cookies about 5cm (2 inches) long; or (2) roll into very long, thin “sticks” of dough.

Bake the loftkökur for 10 minutes – watch them puff up, but be careful of the fumes when you open the oven door.

To get ammonium carbonate in London, you can buy this from Scandinavian Kitchen in the city centre (61 Great Titchfield Street, London W1W 7PP), tel: 020 7580 7161. Tube: Oxford Circus.

Worth making? Loftkökur are worth trying for the novelty factor alone! Normal chocolate meringue is a bit easier on the nose, but if you’re looking for something quick and easy to do with kids (who will screech with delight when the pong makes itself known), then this might just do the trick. Just make sure it’s a nice day, and there is plenty of wind outside so you can air the kitchen out as necessary

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{9} Kerstkransjes

Oh my…I remember when I embarked on my endeavour to do 12 festive goodies. It was the middle of November, I had loads of time and dozens of ideas. And, of course, I now realise that I didn’t know quite what I was undertaking. The result? I’ve been very busy and pretty much up to my eyes in baked goods.

Needless to say, colleagues and friends have been frankly pretty delighted at the seemingly never-ending flow of treats. This little challenge has also led to a reawakening of my competitive side – I’ve got a new-found determination to finish the project before Christmas Day!

By now, there are Christmas trees everywhere and the city is decked in lights. And while I know it’s rather twee, I do like edible decorations on trees. Chocolate decorations? Check! Biscuits? check! Even candy canes (even if that’s too much sugar for me).

So why not try making them myself? Well, no reason no to, so I revisited the old Dutch cookbook I used recently to make speculaas, and that’s how I hit upon the idea of making today’s recipe: kerstkransjes.

Kerstkransjes are a Dutch treat which means “little Christmas wreaths”. They are simple crisp butter biscuits, which are cut into the ring shape, then finished in whatever way the cook of the day feels like. You can leave them plain, glaze with milk or egg wash, get smart and match with your tree decor (red? metallic?) or simply apply different toppings (such as pearl sugar, icing, chocolate). Personally, I think almonds are best. I love the rich flavour and intense savouriness they have when they have been toasted in the oven.

The shape of these cookies is traditional, and while it might look rather elaborate, there’s a simple trick to it – remember that the Dutch are one of the few peoples able to rival the Scots for thriftiness (we, of course, win). Use a fluted scone cutter for the outside ring, transfer to the baking sheet, and then use a smaller cutter to remove the centre. Simple!

Now, you may be one of those people that worries about the inherent flaw in edible decorations – they get eaten! You go to all that effort to create some sort of festive arrangement on the tree, only to find that your efforts have been munched away, leaving the tree stripped.

Well, just follow the example of smart Dutch bakers and make more than you need to put on the tree, so that you can replenish regularly. A whole lot tastier than walking in to find someone munching on a glass bauble, eh?

If you’re not so keen to pop them on the tree, kerstkransjes also make an attractive addition to a platter of festive cookies just as they are. However, I think that they do look rather fetching on the tree. What do you think?

To make kerstkransjes (adapted from Het Haagse Kookboek)

For the dough:

• 100g light brown sugar, sieved
• 200g plain flour
• 150g cold butter, finely chopped
• 1 egg white, lightly whisked
• 3-4 drops vanilla extract
• 1/4 teaspoon salt, finely ground

To finish the cookies:

• Milk
• caster sugar
• flaked almonds

Preheat the oven to 160°C. Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

Put the sugar, flour, butter, egg white, vanilla and salt into a bowl. Use your hands to quickly knead to a smooth dough. If you have time, wrap the dough in cling film and chill for 30 minutes. You can skip this, but it’s just a bit easier to work with chilled dough.

Roll out the dough on a floured surface until just less than 1/2 cm thick. Use a large fluted cutter to make the biscuits and transfer to the baking sheet. Use a smaller round cutter to remove a disc from the middle of each biscuit.

Brush the biscuits with milk and sprinkle with flaked almonds and sugar.

Bake the cookies for around 20 minutes until lightly golden, turning half-way to make sure they colour evenly.

Worth making? Yes! This is a very easy recipe, and although made with store cupboard ingredients, they look very pretty and taste great. The dough is also an excellent standby all year when you want to make simple thin, crisp biscuits.

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{8} Stollen

Today we’ve hit upon that rarest of Christmas goodies…something that contains no spice! That’s right – no cinnamon! Nutmeg is absent. Mace is but a stranger. Cloves are no-where to be seen. Cardamom-who?

Yes, it’s Stollen time, and frankly, this tasty treat has just so many other good things in there that you don’t miss the spices.

This is another of those traditional German festive bakes. It just affirms my belief that Germans are just very, very good at this stuff. Visit a German city at this time of year and there are biscuits galore, stalls selling piping hot Glühwein with a shot of rum, decorations, oom-pah music and a good measure of festive cheer. When I lived in Brussels, the trek over to Cologne or Aachen became an annual tradition.

As for the Stollen, this is a rich, yeasted loaf enriched with fruit, cherries, nuts and citrus peel. When it comes out of the oven, the whole thing is brushed with melted butter, then covered in icing sugar. Some recipes even call for the whole thing to be dipped in butter! However, there is also a little surprise. There is a big old seam of marzipan running through the loaf. I have a little theory that the way you eat Stollen says a little about you. I am a picker, nibbling bits of the bread, then ending up with the marzipan at the end. I also tend to dissect bourbon biscuits and custard creams in the same way…

This recipe also has a lot of symbolism and history. There are records and recipes in Germany as far back as the 1300s, and the marzipan wrapped in the dough symbolises the infant swaddled in cloth. I really like this idea of symbolism, and it is nice that these traditions are still with us, all these years later!

To make Stollen:

To make the dough:

• 150ml milk
• 1 egg, beaten
• 1 tablespoon rum or water
• 50g sugar
• 115g butter
• 400g strong white flour

• 2 teaspoons instant yeast

Mix the milk, beaten egg and rum/water, and pour into the bread machine tin. Add the sugar and butter. Spoon in the flour and add the yeast. Run the dough cycle.

To shape and make the Stollen:

• Stollen dough
• 150g mixed dried fruit (sultanas, currant, raisins…)
• 75g glacé cherries, chopped
• 75g candied peel, chopped
• 50g slivered almonds
• 200g marzipan(*)

Knock back the dough, and turn onto a lightly floured worktop. Roll out to a large square. Spread the sultanas, cherries, candied peel and slivered almonds over the dough. Fold it in half, and then fold in half again. You should have all the “nice bits” safely in the dough, and a nice smooth outside.

Roll the dough again out to approx 25 x 15 cm (9 x 6 in). Form the marzipan into a long sausage and place in the middle of the dough(**). Fold the dough over the marzipan, tuck the ends, then flip over and put onto a greased baking tray lined with greaseproof paper. The seam should be on the bottom.

Leave in a warm place, covered with a damp teatowel, until doubled in size. In the meantime, preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F). When ready, bake for around 30 minutes until golden (turn half way through if needed).

To finish the Stollen:

• 25g butter
• 50g icing sugar

Once the Stollen is ready, remove form the oven. Melt the butter, and use it to brush the warm Stollen. Cover with the icing sugar, and add another dusing of icing sugar just before serving.

(*) If you like soft, squidgy marzipan, mix it to a thick paste with a spoon or two of rum or water.

(**) You can form the marzipan into a round sausage (as I did) to get a disc of marzipan when you slice the loaf, or you can flatten it so you have a strip in each slice of Stollen.

Worth making? I have a long-held soft spot for Stollen, and I was impressed with just how easy it is to make. It tastes great, and makes a lovely lighter alternative to heavy Christmas cake. The lack of spice makes it good for those that prefer things a little milder, but you can of course still add a teaspoon or two if you’re really hooked on cinnamon, allspice or nutmeg.

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{7} Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy

It is so easy at Christmas to get obsessed with food. But it also has a fabulous cultural heritage which really makes the season special. This time of year has some of the most wonderful music, and one of my favourites if the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite.

It’s light, sparkling music that makes you think of flickering candles and glittering frost. It’s also a special, secret sort of music, very careful and measured, not in a hurry – lending itself to the idea of magical things happening when no-one is looking. That hint of sneaking downstairs to look at presents when everyone else is asleep.

While we all know the melody, one question remains: what exactly are sugar plums?

I have to admit, even here in jolly old Britain where we usually go crazy for just about any twee Victorian treat at this time of the year, they are not very common these days. I had a look in town, and while they could be found in the food hall of Fortnum & Mason (or online here) you don’t really see them anywhere else. Now…just compare that to the ubiquity of the mincemeat pie or mulled wine!

I find this quite puzzling. And the reason I find it puzzling is because the idea of the sugar plum is actually still very much a part of Christmas folklore, at least in the English speaking world – in the famous poem The Night Before Christmas the children are asleep “…while visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads…” and of course we know of the fairy and her famous dance. So does this mean that sugar plums are destined to be something that lives on only in stories and turns of phrase?

Well, a little more sleuthing also revealed something else to me – there are, in fact, two candidates masquerading for the title of sugar plums!

First, there are whole plums that have been preserved in syrup, dried and coated in layers and layers of crysallised sugar. A very time-consuming method which sounds just like the sort of thing people might prepare as a special festive treat.

The other is a mixture of chopped fruit and nuts, mixed with citrus zest and spices, rolled together into “plums”. This might sound like a healthy Christmas alternative to the richness of chocolates and cream puddings, but we should not just think with our modern minds. What would this have meant to people but 150 years ago? Dates, prunes, apricots, almonds, exotic spices, oranges – this was the stuff of sheer luxury, that would suggest the flavours of the Orient and other far away lands. In context, this latter version starts to sound like the more luxurious treat.

So, faced with this choice, which one should I make?

Well, lacking of a jar of plums in syrup made the first option rather difficult, and I quite liked the idea of the nutty, fruity version. My sleuthing also suggested to me that the version commonly referred to in poems is the fruit-nut confection, and therefore I will pay homage to that version.

Sugar plums are actually ridiculously easy to make. You just need some honey, spices, citrus zest and dried fruit. Work out what you want in there, chop things up finely, and start mixing. You can use pretty much anything – I used toasted almonds, but you could go for walnuts, hazelnuts or pistachios. For the fruit, I plumped for juicy dates, prunes and apricots, but you can also add dried figs (whose seeds add a lovely “pop”), dried cherries, cranberries, sultanas, candied peel or preserved ginger. And the spice is up to you – I like the traditional cinnamon and allspice, but you could add cardamom, mace, ginger, aniseed, fennel or coriander. The honey can also be replaced by whatever type of syrup you like. All up to you! But once you’ve chopped and stirred, that’s it – no baking, and nothing more elaborate is needed to finish them off than to roll the mixture into balls and covering in icing sugar for a snowy look, or with caster sugar for a sparkling frosty appearance.

For all my gushing about how decadent, luxurious and delicious these sugar plums are, it’s also worth recognising that at this time of year, these “plums” actually make quite a welcome change from the heavy, buttery dishes we all get served. In fact, they are not a million miles away from those energy balls that have started to appear in health food stores. Surprising? Well, not really, when you think what they are made from – nuts, dried fruit, honey and spices. However, I’ll be bold, stick my neck out, and suggest that mine might, just might, be a little bit nicer. Maybe even enough to tempt the fairy to take a little break and indulge herself. It is nearly Christmas, after all!

To make sugar plums (makes around 35):

• 85g honey
• 1 teaspoon orange zest
• 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon mace
• 1/2 teaspoons nutmeg
• 1/2 teaspoon mixed spice
• 2 cups nuts almonds, finely chopped
• 1/4 cup dried apricots, finely chopped
• 1/4 cup prunes, finely chopped
• 1 cup pitted dates, finely chopped

Put the honey, orange zest and spices in a bowl and mix well. Add the chopped dates, nuts, prunes and apricots and mix well. If the mixture is too wet, add more almonds. If too dry, add extra honey or chopped fruit (if the fruit is moist).

Break off pieces of the dough and form into balls between your hands. The easiest way is to do this roughly first, then wash your hands, and while your hands are damp, re-roll the balls so you end up with perfect spheres.

Dust the sugar plums very lightly with icing sugar. Store in an airtight container, and re-dust just before serving.

Worth making? These are bursting with the flavours of winter – sweet, rich, nutty, spicy and citrussy. I’ll definitely make these again, using them as…eh…a healthy treat. Festive energy balls, you might say.

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{6} Honninghjerter (Danish Gingerbread Hearts)

For the sixth day, we’re heading towards the north of Europe, to enjoy these tasty Danish honninghjerter. These are delicious little gingerbread hearts made with honey and spice, and coated in dark chocolate. From Copenhagen, with love!

This recipe is similar to Aachener Printen that I made recently – you make a syrup with honey and some brown sugar, pour into a flour/spice mixture, and leave it to sit for a few days so that the aromas can develop. Then add a little egg yolk and potash, roll out, cut, bake and – whoosh! – they puff up in the oven.

They honey is a key part of this recipe (more so than with the Printen), so what you use has a direct effect on the flavour. If you use something very light (such as acacia honey) the delicate flavour can get lost amidst the spices. However, if you go for something with a very pronounced aroma and flavour (such as thyme or chestnut honey) this will carry through to the cookies too. On balance, I would recommend a mixed floral honey that has a balanced flavour.

It is also traditional to let the mixture sit for at least seven days (or possibly longer!) at room temperature before baking. This allows the aroma and flavour of the spices to develop, so even if you’re in a hurry, it’s worth leaving it to sit for at least a couple of days. It is also said that this allows the enzymes in the honey to do something funky to the flour, but I’m not too sure that this actually means (!). But if you’re worried about leaving dough sitting on the kitchen worktop, don’t be – honey is antibacterial, so it won’t go bad, and in any event – we’re going to be baking these cookies in a hot oven.

Traditionally, these are glazed with icing or sugar syrup. However, I think the flavour goes stunningly well with dark chocolate to give what I think is one of the classic flavours of Christmas. The complexity of the spices and bitter chocolate works well with a glass of mulled wine fortified with rum.

To make honningjherter (makes around 30):

Stage 1: The dough

• 225g honey
• 25g brown sugar
• 225g plain flour
• 10g mixed spices

In a bowl, mix the flour and spices. Put the honey and sugar in a saucepan. Heat gently until the sugar dissolves.

Carefully add the warm honey to the flour. Mix well with a spoon until smooth. The dough will be soft initially, but will start to become firmer as it cools.

Place the dough in a plastic container, cover, and leave at room temperature for at least two days. Seven is traditional!

Stage 2: baking the cookies

• Basic honey dough (above)
• 5g potash (1 teaspoon)
• 1 tablespoon water
• 1 egg yolk

Pre-heat the oven to 180°C (355°F). Lightly grease a sheet of greaseproof paper.

Dissolve the potash in the water. Combine with the egg yolk (if it gets dry, add a little more water). Add to the dough and mix until smooth. It doesn’t seem like much, but it turns from being very stiff to quite pliable. This is easiest if you use your hands.

On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough to 1/2 cm thickness. Use a heart-shaped cutter to form the biscuits. Place on the baking sheet, and bake for around 10 minutes until risen and brown. Turn the baking sheet half way through if needed. The cookies should be light brown, but not get dark at the edges.

The cookies will be quite hard just after baking, but will soften if left for a few days in an open tin (you can also cheat – place on a rack, and wave them over a pan of boiling water – the steam will help them soften).

During baking, the hearts will expand a lot. If you’ve used a smaller cookie cutter, you may want to trim them slightly with a sharp knife to get a better shape.

Stage 3: dipping the cookies in chocolate

• 450g dark chocolate

Melt the chocolate in a bowl. If you want to temper the chocolate for a glossy, shiny coating, see here or here.

Dip the hearts in the chocolate. Shake lightly to remove any excess, then leave in a rack or sheet of greaseproof paper to set.

Store the cookies in an airtight container.

To get Pottasche (potassium carbonate) in London, you can buy this from: (1) the German Deli at Borough Market (3 Park Street, London SE1 9AB), tel: 020 7378 0000. Tube: London Bridge; and (2) Scandinavian Kitchen in the city centre (61 Great Titchfield Street, London W1W 7PP), tel: 020 7580 7161. Tube: Oxford Circus.

Worth making? I think these cookies are great. They take a little time just because you need to leave the mixture to sit for a few days, but the method is very simple and the taste is sensational. You can play around with the spices too according to your preferences.

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{5} Lussekatter

On the fifth day of Christmas…this cook began to make…Swedish saffron buns! (Sing it to the theme of the Twelve Days of Christmas – it works!)

Lussekatter are typically eaten in Sweden for St Lucia on 13 December. This is a celebration of light in the middle of winter, with processions and candles. The dubious highlight (to an outsider at least) is the rather alarming scene of a culture that sends a  girl out in public with lit candles in her hair, but I guess there’s enough snow out there in case you detect the aroma of singed hair…

Pyrotechnics to one side, these saffron buns, however, are great.

In fact, it’s fair to say that they engage all the senses. First of all, they do look pretty – attractive shape, and the amazing colour, bright yellow tinged with golden brown. When you break the bread, you are struck by the vivid yellow colour of the dough, practically neon – it really is daffodil bright. As they bake, the kitchen is filled with the sweet aroma of saffron and yeast. Once they are baked, the buns are light and soft, and they have a lovely rich, buttery flavour highlighting the aroma of saffron. And as for sound…I guess you hear people making mmmmm noise as they eat them? So…all five senses duly engaged!

While I have not basis for saying this, I can see how lussekatter became so popular at this time of the year – they promise sunshine and the coming of spring. I mean, look just how yellow the dough is! But in the meantime, they make for a tasty snack to enjoy while it’s warm indoors and chilly outside.

To make lussekatter (makes 12):

• 1/2 teaspoon saffron threats (0.5g)
• 80g sugar
• 250ml milk

• 2 eggs (1 1/2 for the dough, 1/2 for glazing)
• 85g butter
• 1 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
• 450g flour

• 1/2 teaspoon salt

To make the dough:

Start with the saffron – place on a plate and bake in a warm over for 1-2 minutes until the strands are dry. Mix the saffron with a tablespoon of the sugar, and grind until fine.

Next, bring the milk to the boil, then turn off the heat. Add the saffron sugar mixture, stir, and leave to sit until the milk is lukewarm – it will will take on a glorious sunny yellow colour.

[If using a bread machine] Put 1 1/2 of the eggs and the rest of the ingredients (apart from the sultanas) into the bread machine, add the milk mixture, and run the dough cycle.

[If making by hand] In a large bowl, rub the butter into the flour. Add the sugar, yeast and salt and mix well. Add the milk and 1 1/2 of the eggs, and knead well (around 10 minutes) until the dough is smooth and elastic. Cover and leave to prove in a warm place until doubled in size.

To shape and bake the buns:

Knock back the dough and divide into 12 portions. Roll each into a long thin sausage, and then form into a reverse “S” shape. Place the buns onto a greased baking sheet, cover with a damp teatowel and leave in a warm place until doubled in size. In the meantime, heat the oven to 200°C (400°F).

When the buns are risen, brush with the reserved beaten egg, and place a sultana or raisin in the middle of the swirls. Bake for around 15 minutes – the buns should just be developing golden-brown patches, but the yellow colour should still dominate.

Worth making? This recipe might look a little complex, but it’s actually a breeze – just think of an enriched bread with saffron added! The flavour and aroma really make it worth the effort – the lussekatter are fantastic if eaten while still warm with a cup of tea or a glass of mulled wine.

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