Monthly Archives: December 2012

That Cranberry Issue

I’m not quite sure when cranberries became part of a British Christmas. I’m sure they didn’t really feature when I was younger, but the moment when they popped up eludes me. All I know is that these days, they are available almost everywhere – in sauce, frozen and fresh.

Obviously they make a great sauce with the Christmas bird (if that is your thing), but my problem is that I tend to buy several packets of them based on the fact that they are bright red and look like something that belongs with the celebrations. All well and good, but apart from sauce, you quite quickly run out of options. Cranberries are so tart that you can’t eat them fresh, and even in baked goods they can be lip-smackingly sour (yes, there is a reason that lots of sugar is added to dried cranberries!).

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So, if you’ve succumbed to the temptation to buy cranberries, didn’t use them with dinner, and are now looking at them wondering what the heck to do with them, I have a suggestion. You can easily cook them up with that other festive favourite, clementines, and make a bright red, rather tart jam. It’s a little like marmalade (sweet, but with some tang) what can go on bread or scones, or alternatively with strong cheddar. Even if your cranberries are past their best and have been bruised, you can still throw them into the jam pot and transform them into something wonderful. The berries also have enough pectin to ensure that this jam sets easily, and you can be done with everything in less than half an hour if you’re organised. Problem solved!

cranberry_jam

To make cranberry jam:

• 600g cranberries
• 200ml water
• 500g white sugar
• 3 clementines, zest and juice only

1. Start by sterilising some jam jars(*), and put a plate into the freezer – you’ll need this to test when the jam is set.

2. Put the cranberries and water into a pan. Bring to the boil, then simmer for five minutes. Use a masher to make sure all the berries have burst.

3. Add the sugar, clementine juice and clementine zest. Stir well, bring to the boil, the simmer until the jam sets (10-15 minutes)(**).

4. Once the jam is ready, ladle into the prepared jars, seal, label and hide it somewhere.

(*) To sterilise jam jars: wash with hot, soapy water, then rinse well. Place upside-down in a cold oven, and heat to 90°C for 15 minutes. Leave in the oven to cool down while you are making the jam . To sterilise the lids, wash with hot, soapy water, then rinse well, place in a saucepan with boiling water for 5 minutes.

(**) To test for the setting point, put a spoonful of the mixture on the icy-cold saucer. Let it cool, then tilt the saucer – if the jam wrinkles, the setting point has been reached.

Worth making? A nice, if somewhat tart, jam. Good if you like cranberries, and it does make a nice change from very sweet jams at breakfast. The clementine also adds greater depth of flavour and some freshness to the taste.

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The Twelve Days of Christmas

Last Christmas I got terribly ambitious and tried to make twelve different festive bakes as part of a self-imposed “Twelve Days of Baking” challenge. It was one of those things that seemed like a frankly amazing idea at the time, but with the passing of the days, it ended up in a bit of a baking binge in the kitchen, with all manner of treats being turned out at an alarming volume. I was getting through ground nuts at an fearsome rate and the oven was often on until the wee hours.

When I did this challenge last year, I asked myself whether I would be doing it again in 2012. Just for fun, let’s go back and look at what I wrote at the time:

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 read these words now and all those same feeling come back – yes, it was fun, but it was hard to get pictures in daylight, and again my kitchen is groaning with biscuits. Given I now have a much large kitchen, that is saying something. However, there was a silver lining to this glut of cookies – they were a source of incredible delight to the kids at yesterday’s Boxing Day lunch with friends – the Serinakaker were the surprise hit, and have actually been the most consistently popular of everything I made. However, there is also that point where you do wonder whether it is humanly possible to eat anything else sweet.

I’m glad to report that for all my vowing to be more organised if I were to attempt the same challenge this year, 2012 has been just the same. I had all the best intentions in late November, yet still ended up in a rush on Christmas Eve. Heck, it’s like a tradition by now! I kept coming up against the practicalities of normal life – I only own one cooling tray, I kept running out of biscuits tins, the need to do all your pictures are the weekend because you work full-time…and as it turns out even my friends with the sweetest of sweet teeth have a point beyond which they can’t face any more cookies. Yes, I sit here surrounded by those bad boys, which I estimate should all finally be gone by the third week of January.

Anyway, for all my carping on about too many biscuits, this year’s challenge has also been fun. I’ve played a bit more with different raising agents, and this has been much more of a celebration of fruit, nuts and spices (no chocolate anywhere!) and more elaborate shapes – the traditional cookie presses for Springerle, the Sirupsnipper fluted diamonds and the bright jammy Spitzbuben. That, and I finally, finally, mastered using my cookie press. When you see them all together, I think they look like a pretty attractive bunch.

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In case you are wondering, here are the original lyrics from the Twelve Days of Christmas, with each of my recipes next to them. As you can see, there is absolutely no correlation whatsoever.

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

…twelve Drummers Drumming (twelve Mince Pies)…
…eleven Pipers Piping (Gevulde Speculaas)…
…ten Lords-a-Leaping (Panforte)…
…nine Ladies Dancing (Spitzbuben)…
…eight Maids-a-Milking (Kuri-Kinton)…
…seven Swans-a-Swimming (Frankfurter Brenten)…
…six Geese-a-Laying (Springerle)…
…five Gold Rings (Serinakaker)…
…four Colly Birds (Kardamomkipferl)…
…three French Hens (Sirupsnipper)…
…two Turtle Doves (Queen’s Gingerbread)…
…and a Partridge in a Pear Tree (Christmas Spritz Cookies)!

More likely than not, I will be doing this challenge again in 2013, but I do wonder if there is a need to change tactics. Maybe I need some savoury ideas in there? It’s a little more tricky, as savoury foods are reserved more for the Christmas Day meal, or involve cheeseboards. I’m not too sure anyone really wants to see a picture of a block of Stilton I picked up from a shop…but we’ll cross that one when we get to it! Or maybe Christmas cocktails are the solution? Hmmm….

So again, I hope that you have enjoyed this baking challenge! Do let me know if you have any comments, thoughts or feedback on what I’ve made. I’m even open to suggestions for next year (gasp)!

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{12} Mince Pies

Christmas Eve and everyone is busy with their last-minute preparations! Just to build a little suspense, I’ve held off with my twelfth and final post of the Christmas season until late on Christmas Eve. And what did you think it would be? I’ve love to know what the candidates were, but there was always a certain inevitability about mince pies. I mean, if I’ve made things from Japan, Norway and Italy, it just wouldn’t be right to ignore the perennial British favourite. And when it comes to mince pies, the home-made look is what it’s all about, so I’m happy that mine look charmingly rustic.

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Mince pies have a long history. They started out as meat pies flavoured with fruits and spices (more likely than not done in the days before refrigeration to mask the taste of meat that was, let us say, less than fresh, rather than for flavour itself). They were banned under Puritanism in the 17th century, and have today morphed into the sweet treats we all know. Many visitors from abroad look at you most curiously when you offer them a mince pie, expecting something savoury, but most tend to like what they find – small pastry tarts filled with a mixture of dried vine fruits, citrus and spices, plus a little brandy to keep everything.

Mincemeat is also not particularly hard to make at home. You just need to gather the ingredients, cook gently in the oven to preserve the fruit (you use applies, and if you don’t cook them, they tend to ferment, with a propensity to make the jars of mincemeat explode in a rather messy way). There is a great recipe from Delia here.

However, this year I’ve been a little bit sneaky. Today is a little bit of a cheat’s recipe as the real hard work – actually making the mincemeat – is skipped ever so artfully by buying it and then just adding a few bits and pieces to customise it and make it a bit fancier. In fact, for this reason I was going to go with the title “Pimp my Mince Pie”. I just went with whatever met my eyes in the kitchen, and as it happened, that involved the zest of a clementine plus the juice, some chopped crystallised ginger and finely diced candied papaya and a spoon of vanilla sugar.

Inspired by the Heston Blumenthal mince pies currently in stores, I also wanted to have a flavoured sugar to dust on top of the finished pies. I toyed with a couple of ideas. Rosemary would be aromatic and sophisticated, but I was not sure it was quite right. Mastic gum would be equally aromatic, but I didn’t go with this one as when you grind it to a powder, it tends to stick to things and get messy. But the third idea was just right – clementine sugar.

I was very make-do-and-mend in my approach to the flavoured sugar. I saved the used peel from the clementine I added to the mincemeat. I trimmed off the pith, shredded the peel and left it overnight in a jar of caster sugar. The next morning – clementine sugar to sprinkle on the mince pies! While this tasted lovely, it had to be dried before use. I sieved the sugar to remove the peel (pop the peel into some mulled wine) then spread it on a plate. Leave to sit in a warm place until dry, then grind to a powder (go as fine as you like). This adds a lovely extra citrus note to the pies, warm or cooled.

For the pastry, I thought I would look to the recipes of master baker Paul Hollywood. His recipe uses lots of butter and some ground almonds, but needs to be chilled for three hours. So long? Yes, as it turns out, so long. The pastry was very soft. Think the texture of peanut butter, more like a paste. It needed to be completely chilled in order to be able to roll it out and cut it. I was dubious that this was going to work, concerned that the pastry would be too fragile to contain the filling during baking or to hold its shape afterwards. However, my fears were baseless. The fragile texture before baking meant that they pastry was wonderfully crumbly and worked perfectly with the filling. So good that it made up for the total pain of working with a pastry that preferred to hang out on the kitchen worktop in a semi-liquid state. Expect frequent trips for this little dough back to the fridge before you’re done!

As for the taste…these were sensational! The mincemeat bursts with citrus and the papaya adds flashes of jewel-bright red. The ginger adds a little warmth, and the brandy and sloe gin are, of course, always welcome.

So there we have it – another series of the Twelve Bakes of Christmas! I hope that you have enjoyed them this year. I’ve probably played fast and loose with the time in the festive season that these things appear on this site (as some people do not feel shy about pointing out!) and made tweaks to recipes that take them away from being truly authentic. However, I’ve tried to make things that are delicious and appealing, and things that I would want to eat and be happy to serve to people who come to my place over the Christmas period. I hope you’re also able to relax and enjoy time with friends and family. wishing everyone a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

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To pimp your mincemeat pies:

Makes 12 pies

The filling

• 1 jar mincemeat (400g)
• 1 small clementine, zest and juice
• 2 pieces candied ginger
• 1 small handful candied papaya
• 1 small handful flaked almonds
• 1 teaspoon vanilla sugar
• 1 tablespoon brandy
• 1 tablespoon sloe gin

The pastry

• 165g plain flour
• 25g ground almonds
• 120g unsalted butter, cold
• 55g caster sugar
• 1 egg, beaten

1. Pimp the mincemeat – throw everything in a bowl. Mix well, cover and leave to sit overnight.

2. Make the clementine sugar – remove the remaining orange peel from the used clementine. Cut into thing strips and put into a jam jar with some caster sugar. Seal, shake well and leave to sit overnight as well.

3. Make the pastry – put all the ingredients apart from the egg into a bowl. Work with your fingers until you have a mixture that looks like large breadcrumbs. Add the egg and mix to a soft dough. Cover in cling film and chill for two hours minimum.

4. To make the tarts, preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F). Grease a muffin tray with butter. Roll out two-thirds of the pastry and cut out large circles with a cutter. Use to line the muffin tray. Add around two generous teaspoons of the mincemeat mixture. Use the rest of the dough to cut out lids for the pies. Star shapes are easiest and look great!

5. Brush the tops of the pies with milk, then bake for 20 minutes until golden. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.

6. In the meantime, prepare the clementine sugar. Put the sugar into a sieve and shake – you’ll be left with the peel in the sieve. Spread the sugar onto a plate and leave in a warm place to dry. Once dry, grind until fine and use to dust the mince pies.

Worth making? I love these pies! It’s a great way to add more of what you like to the filling – I adore the extra shot of citrus, and there’s nothing quite the same as home-made mince pies.

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{11} Gevulde Speculaas

When I lived in Belgium, Christmas was marked by the presence of speculoos biscuits. Actually, pretty much every day was marked with speculoos, but at Christmas, they went from being delicious small additions to a cup of coffee to something altogether grander, culminating the two or three foot biscuits that were shaped into the image of Saint Nicholas in December. They are also a feature of Christmas in the Netherlands, where their name is tweaked to speculaas, and they gain more spice than their Belgian cousins. If you want to make the biscuits, I turned my hand to them last year. They can be made either by rolling out the dough and cutting or using the chill/roll/slice technique, but ideally you would use traditional wooden moulds to shape into windmills, chickens, men and women.

There is also a more elaborate version of speculaas, which is called gevulde speculaas, or “filled speculaas”. This is made with a layer of dough, similar to that used to make speculaas cookies, then filled with almond paste, and topped with more dough. The whole is then baked, and finally cut into smaller pieces.

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The dough is a rather straightforward affair, but the filling was more interesting. I always just assumed this was made from marzipan, but this is something that the Dutch call amandelspijs. This is a paste made from almond, sugar and eggs, and in some cases flavoured with a little lemon zest. This was traditionally a high-quality ingredient in baked goods, and using it considered a sign of quality.

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However, it was also an expensive item, and the temptation was inevitably there to use cheaper versions. This resulted in the development of something called banketbakkerspijs (“bakery spijs”) which was made from a combination of weird and wonderful ingredients such as bitter apricot kernels and white beans. I can see why the alternative name developed – croissant aux amandes sounds nice, white bean and ground kernel croissant less so!

Anyway, back to today’s recipe. I made my amandelspijs the posh way (I’ll leave my bean-based confectionery to the Japanese, thanks). However, I felt that the mixture of just ground almonds, sugar and egg lacked sufficient almond flavour (I’ve probably been raised on things flavoured with apricot kernels and have thus had my sense of taste destroyed…). I corrected with a few drops of almond extract. You could also use a spoon or two of amaretto liqueur. I also added some lemon zest, which appeared in a few of the sources I looked at. This is entirely up to you, but it does add a little extra flavour and a certain “freshness” to the filling.

When it comes to the spices, there is traditional Dutch mixture called speculaaskruiden (“speculaas spices”) that can be made from things you probably have in the store cupboard. I find the key flavours in there are the generous use of cloves relative to other spice mixes. However, you could use any spice mixture you like, such as pumpkin pie spices, or even just good old allspice.

The resulting cake is very rich, as the speculaas does not turn crisp like a biscuits, but instead you get a spiced pastry encasing the rich filling. You can really use as little or as much filling as you like (I’ve seen everything from a small sliver to a very thick slab of filling!) but I think a ratio of equal parts pastry and filling seems to work pretty well.

To make Gevulde Speculaas

Makes 16-25 pieces

Filling

• 150g ground almonds
• 150g caster sugar
• 1 egg, beaten
• 1/4 lemon, zest only
• 1/4 teaspoon almond extract

Pastry

• 250g self-raising flour
• 125g dark brown sugar
• 2 teaspoons mixed spice or speculaaskruiden
• 150g butter, cold
• 1 egg

To finish: whole almonds

1. Make the filling – mix all the ingredients to a smooth paste (if too stiff, add a little water). Cover the dish and refrigerate overnight.

2. The next day, make the pastry – put everything apart from the egg into a bowl and work with your fingers until it resembles breadcrumbs. Add 2/3 of the egg (reserve the rest) and work to a smooth, soft dough. Wrap in cling film and chill for one hour.

3. Now prepare the speculaas. Preheat the oven to 170°C (340°F) and line a square tin with greaseproof paper.

4. Take half the dough. Roll out to a size a few centimetres larger than the base of the tin. Transfer into the tin – press the base down, and leave the edges. Add the filling, smooth down, then fol the edges onto the filling – you want a seam of around one centimetre (half an inch), so you might need to trim the excess.

5. Roll out the other half of the dough, and trim to the size of the tin. With a little water, moisten the seam you’ve left on the base, then add the topping to the tin. Press the edges lightly, then use a blunt knife to score lines to mark the edge of each piece. You can do 4 x 4 (for 16 pieces) or 5 x 5 (for 25 pieces).

6. Take the reserved 1/3 egg. Mix with two tablespoons of cold water and brush to top. Place an almond in the centre of each piece.

7. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove from the oven, allow to cool, then remove from the tin. You can either cut into individual pieces now, or keep whole and cut pieces as needed.

Worth making? This is straightforward recipe if you’ve got the time, and a nice idea if you want something that is almond-based by want to steer clear of using a lot of marzipan. The flavour works wonderfully with the spices in the pastry too.

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{10} Panforte

As we get close and close to the big day, the Christmas baking gets grander and grander. I’m not going the whole hog and making a Christmas cake, but the Italian panforte gets pretty close. This is a real step up from small biscuits, and looks, smells and tastes amazing!

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Panforte, Italian for “strong bread”, is not much more than lots of toasted almonds and hazelnuts paired with candied citrus peel and fruit, flavoured with spices and then bound together by a sugar and honey syrup. The result is rich, incredibly rich, but it really does have a flavour that can be described as the essence of Christmas. It’s also the sort of thing that you can have sitting somewhere, so you or guests can cut off the occasional sliver to enjoy with coffee or as an evening treat with a glass of liqueur.

This cake is a tradition from the Italian city of Siena. There are two versions, essentially white (as I’ve made here) and black, which is made with more dried fruits (such as figs and sultanas) and cocoa. It’s just a matter of personal choice which you prefer, but I like the former.

I’ve seen some recipes that say panforte should contain seventeen ingredients. This is said to link back to the number of districts within the city walls of Siena, and I quite liked the idea of trying to do this. It means you’re forced to add a bit of variety in terms of the ingredients. In my recipe, if you ignore the water in the syrup, but count the mixed peel (orange, lemon and citron) as three different ingredients, I did indeed get to the magic number. What does matter, however, is that if you’re going to make one of these, you need to go with the right ingredients, and try to use good nuts and candied peel. Almonds and hazelnuts are traditional, but I’m sure good pecans or walnuts would do the trick, but I’d  perhaps draw the line at putting peanuts in there! The candied peel is a must though – I used part candied peel and part papaya for the fruit, and while you could skip the papaya and instead use pineapple, apricots or even preserved pear, you should not miss out the citrus entirely. It’s such a fundamental part of the flavour.

You’ll see a lot of versions of panforte, from thick and even cakes in stores to my more “rustic” version. The rougher look is due to using whole nuts, rather than chopping then. You can chop the almonds and hazelnuts, but if you do, you don’t get the amazing look when you cut the slices. In addition, as the cake is so rich, I’ve kept it thin. When you taste how rich it is, you won’t feel the need to make a deeper panforte, as a little really does go a long way!

So there you have it – an Italian option in place of Christmas cake, and it’s not too late to make this – 20 minutes to prepare, and 30 minutes to bake. You’ve still got time!

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To make Panforte:

• 100g almonds, skinned
• 100g hazelnuts, skinned
• 100g candied citrus peel (I used orange, lemon and citron)
• 135g candied fruit (such as papaya or melon)
• 50g plain flour
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
• 1/4 teaspoon ground mace
• 1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
• pinch black pepper
• 50g honey (I used orange blossom)
• 150g white sugar
• 25g butter
• cold water

1. Preheat the oven to 160°C. Grease a 20cm (8 inch) loose-bottomed tin with butter. Line with rice paper (if using).

2. Put the hazelnuts and almonds onto another baking tray and toast in the oven until just starting to colour. Remove from the oven and put into a large bowl.

3. As the nuts are cooling, cut the peel and papaya/mango into chunks (aim for pea-sized pieces). Add to the nuts.

4. Mix the flour and spices in a bowl. Sieve into the nut/fruit mixture, then stir briefly.

5. Make the syrup – put the honey, sugar and butter into a saucepan with some water. Warm on a medium heat until the mixture reaches the soft ball stage (113°C/235°F). If you don’t have a candy thermometer, then drop a little of the syrup into a bowl of very cold water – it should form a soft ball!

6. Pour the hot syrup onto the other ingredients and stir with a spoon until combined. Transfer to the prepared tin. Flatten the mixture with a buttered spoon (or if you have asbestos hands, but butter on your palms and pat the mixture into shape).

7. Bake the panforte for around 30 minutes until the syrup is bubbling. The mixture will firm up when the cake cools. Remove from the oven, allow to cool, then transfer to a plate to cool completely(*).

8. When the panforte is cool, dust with icing sugar, and rub lightly with your fingers so a bit of the fruit and nut details are clear. Serve in small slices with coffee or liquer after dinner. Or any time!

(*) If the panforte is difficult to remove from the tin, put it in a warm oven to soften slightly.

Worth making? This is a superb cake, and unbelievably easy compared to just how good the final result tastes.

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{9} Spitzbuben

Hopefully you had a chance to check out our festive cookie art project, and if so, you might have spotted a little Swiss delight on there called Spitzbuben. The name translates roughly as scoundrels, but I think “cheeky rascals” is probably more fitting given how they look.

These are one of those great recipes that is easy to make but looks sensational. They are made from two butter shortbread biscuits sandwiched together with jam. You cut shapes from the top layer so you can see the jam, dust with icing sugar, and that’s basically it. Swiss efficiency!

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I chose to make my Spitzbuben with three different types of jam – apricot, raspberry and blaeberry. You can, of course, use pretty much any type of jam you want, but it’s worth thinking about the colour – you want a bit of contrast and bright colours if you can get them. Redcurrant jelly is probably the best of all for this!

I think part of the genius of these cookies is that from the same basic dough, you can make a variety of shapes, and with the different types of jam, you get a nifty selection of jewel-bright cookies that look super on the plate. As you can see below, most of my Spitzbuben were made from small fluted cutters with a circle cut out, but I tried a few other looks as well. The stars and multi-dot versions also looked great.

In terms of baking tips, I think there are two to keep in mind. First, the dough should not be too warm. I found that the first batch baked perfectly, but the next puffed up slightly in the oven. Keeping the dough cool helped, as the last batch were again perfect. If you cut the dough and think it’s too warm, just pop into the fridge for a few minutes before baking.

My second tip – be generous with the jam, and try to have slightly more in the middle than at the edges (do this by smoothing with then back of a spoon, and then swirling it and lifting the spoon from the middle of the cookie – you’d get a jammy “bump”). Then just rest the top on the base, and push gently so the jam is only just forced to the edges. If you skimp on the jam, you’ll kick yourself!

And with that, we’ve reach the three-quarters point of the Twelve Days of Christmas Baking series! Hope you’re enjoying it so far.

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To make Spitzbuben:

Makes around 40

• 175g butter, softened
• 80g icing sugar
• pinch of salt
• 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 2 dessert spoons water
• 250g plain flour
• 6 large tablespoons jam (one type or several)
• icing sugar, to dust

1. Beat the butter until soft. Add the icing sugar, salt, vanilla and water and beat until pale, fluffy and completely combined. Sieve the flour and add to the rest of the ingredients. Mix until you have a smooth dough. Wrap in cling film and chill in the fridge for 30 minutes.

2. Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°C). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper. Roll out the dough to 1/3 cm (1/4 inch) and cut shapes with a round or fluted cutter. Bake half the cookies until just golden at the edges (5-10 minutes depending on size – mine baked in 6). In the meantime, remove the centres from the other half of the cookies with a cutter, then bake. Repeat until all the dough has been used.

3. Once the cookies are cooled, it’s time to assemble them. Put the jam in a saucepan. Heat until runny, then pass through a sieve. Allow to cool until thickened, then spoon a little jam onto the basis. Smooth with a spoon, then at a top. When all the cookies are done, dust lightly with icing sugar – any sugar that lands on the jam will dissolve.

Worth making?These cookies are great! No fancy ingredients, easy recipe and they look stunning.

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The Cookie Print Art Project

Today, we’re taking a little pause from all the frantic baking activity, and I thought I would share something that I’ve been working on with my London-based designer friend Ursula. You might already have seen some of here work at Seagull’s Eye or perhaps from my Instagram pictures (yup, that’s her stuff on my walls).

Over endless cups of coffee and the occasional mulled wine, we noticed the interesting shapes of a variety of traditional Christmas biscuits, cakes and cookies from around Europe. The diversity of how each country celebrates at this time of year reflected in cake form. This triggered an idea – what if we used this as the basis for some illustration? – and we’ve been working away on an art print which I think shows these off to really great effect.

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This print features twelve different festive treats from around the Continent – Vanillekipferl (Austria), Speculoos (Belgium), Honninghjerter (Denmark), Joulutorttu (Finland), Zimtsterne (Germany), Beigli (Hungary), Kerstkransjes (Netherlands), Mor Monsens Kake (Norway), Coscorões (Portugal), Lussekatter (Sweden), Spitzbueb (Switzerland) and last but certainly not least, our very own British Gingerbread Man.

We’ve tried to cover off cakes, biscuits, spicy, sugary, colourful, fruity and nutty, and I think the nibbled Danish heart and the cheeky Gingerbread Man add a little extra charm too.

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If you’re tempted by this design, move quickly – we’ve done a limited run, but you can pick on up from the online store here.

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I hope you like this! If you want to try making some of these recipes, you can find them on my recipe index. I’ve made most things on here, but you’ll need to be patient if you want to enjoy poppy-seed Beigli, jammy Joulutorttu or fried Coscorões as these three are still on my to-do list. Enjoy!

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{8} Kuri Kinton

I’ve been trying to include some rather more unusual ideas in my Twelve Days series this year, so with that in mind, today’s recipe looks East, to Japan, for some inspiration. I came across a recipe for simple wagashi sweets made from fresh chestnuts called kuri kinton, and which are also pure whimsy, looking like little chestnuts!

Chestnuts have a strong association with Anglo-Saxon Christmas traditions, from roasted chestnuts sold in the street, to turkey stuffing, and of course the romantic idea of toasting them on the fire in your own home. I figured that kuri kinton would be a great idea for the festive season, with all the flavour of chestnuts but without all the heaviness that usually goes with how they are served.

This recipe is very simple – fresh chestnuts are steamed, them lightly sweetened with sugar and formed into a chestnut shape. Very simple but very clever. As there is only some sugar in this recipe, and no oil or fat, the flavour is light and you get the real intense flavour of chestnuts. This means, of course, that you should try to use the best chestnuts that you can get hold of. I have no idea if you could use tinned or vacuum-sealed chestnuts for this recipe, but I suspect that if you make these, freshness will also be your ally here. The use of canned chestnuts would also seem to run counter to the idea of making wagashi where freshness is important, and seasonality of the ingredients highly prized.

I used a batch of plump, shiny Italian chestnuts for this recipe, and they were easy to prepare using a steamer. However, I also had some slightly older chestnuts which I added to the steamer. After cooking, it was immediately apparent which were which – the fresh chestnuts were tender and easy to remove from their shells. They also had a texture like cooked potatoes and a sweet, rich aroma. The older chestnuts were rock hard and useful. So be sure to go for fresh.

If you wanted to, I’m sure you could jazz these up with a hint of spice or chocolate or some other flavour, but I think they are best enjoyed on their own, so that you can just appreciate the delicate flavour and silky-smooth chestnut that makes up these wagashi. This also seems to be to be truer to the concept of wagashi. And as a Christmas treat, they are unusual, and rather sophisticated.

kurikinton

The original recipe for making these kuri kinton suggested using around 70g of white sugar to 550g of chestnut. However, my naughty Western sweet tooth did not think this was sufficient, so I ended up using nearer 200g. Yes, rather a lot, but I think it is necessary. My advice would be to add as much sugar as you think you need, but remember you don’t want to overwhelm the delicate chestnut flavour with too much sweetness.

It is also recommended to pass the chestnuts through a sieve to ensure a smoother result. However, as I prepared the chestnut mixture to form the wagashi I found the mixture to be too coarse. So…I threw the chestnuts into a food processor and blitzed it until completely, perfectly, utterly smooth. Then the whole lot went back into a saucepan and I cooked it until the mixture was very thick. The result? Perfectly smooth sweet chestnut paste that could be moulded into the shapes you see below. Maybe not authentic, but I liked the result.

Now, the big question – what are they like? If you’re a fan of chestnuts, this is a nice recipe to try, and they look very unusual and attractive as part of the festive selection. I think they would also be fun if made as smaller sweets, and used to decorate the top a chestnut gateaux.

Just one final word of warning – these kuri kinton need to be fresh to be enjoyed. I made the chestnut mixture the night before, and then shaped them the next day. I think they were at their best on that day, and I’d be cautious about storing them for any length of time. They will dry out if left to stand for too long, and if you keep them in the fridge, the delicate flavour of the chestnut will be dulled.

So, if you can cope with the complexity, the quirks and all the fiddly work with the chestnuts, enjoy making these little chestnut sweets!

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To make Kuri Kinton (original recipe here):

Makes around 30 pieces (a lot – you might want to try a smaller batch!):

• 1kg fresh chestnuts
• 200g white caster sugar
• still mineral water

1. Place the chestnuts in a steamer (I used a colander placed above a large pan). Steam for 30 minutes.

2. Turn off the steamer. Take three or four chestnuts at a time (leave the rest in the steamer to keep warm). Cut each chestnut in half and scoop out the inside. Watch out for any bad chestnuts – you’ll know them if you see them, and they should be thrown away. If in doubt, don’t use! If you find the nuts get hard to scoop out, warm them again by steaming for a minute or two.

3. Once all the chestnuts have been scooped out, put the pieces into a sieve and press through with a spoon. This will break up the flesh, and remove any bits of skin or lumps.

4. Once all the chestnuts have been done, weigh the amount of chestnut (I got 550g from 1kg of chestnuts).

5. Put the chestnuts into a blender with the sugar (I used 2/5 the amount of sugar to chestnuts – 200g of white sugar for 550g of chestnut flesh). However, go with what you think tastes good, so if you like less sugar, use less sugar. Add as much water as is needed to make a perfectly smooth puree (if should be smooth but thick, not runny).

6. Pour the chestnut mixture into a saucepan, and cook on a medium heat until the sugar has dissolved. Keep cooking on a low heat until you have a very thick mixture. You should be able to take a piece and roll it into a firm ball. If too soft, keep cooking. If the ball cracks easily or seems dry, add some water and cook for a moment before re-testing. Cover the mixture with cling film and leave to cool overnight.

7. Time to make a chestnut! Take a ball of the paste (around 30g, or the size of a large chestnut) and place in the middle of a damp piece of muslin cloth. Gather the cloth on top, pinch the ball lightly and twist the top of the cloth. Carefully unwrap the sweet, and you should see a chestnut shape. Remove from the cloth and press lightly onto a plate (this will flatten the base and allow the chestnut to stand up). Serve at room temperature with Japanese green tea.

Worth making?If you like chestnuts, this is a great recipe, and very unusual at Christmas time.

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{7} Frankfurter Brenten

I realised that this year, I’ve done quite a lot of posts that require some strange/odd/niche ingredient, which is of course not great if you want to try something at home and don’t have all manner of strange powders in the house with which to perform culinary magic.

Today’s recipe is one that looks very fancy, but is actually made with rather more humble ingredients (or as humble as I get in the kitchen). But just to make sure that these biscuits still look very jolly, I’ve made them using biscuit presses, and finished them with a dusting of edible gold lustre, of which more later. Rather fetching, aren’t they?

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These cookies are called Frankfurter Brenten. They are made from a soft dough made that contains marzipan, sugar and egg whites, plus a dash of orange blossom water. This gives you a dough that is finer and easier to mould than plain marzipan, allowing you to get some very fine details. I made these using an oak leaf motif, and I think it looks fantastic. There is something about the shape that seems very fitting for Christmas.

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If you want to make these cookies without using a press, then I’ve got a few suggestions. First, have a look for something in the house with a pattern – think dominoes or printing blocks. If you are at a vintage market, a Victorian block with a festive pattern would look superb (just make sure they are not made from lead, and that they don’t still have ink in them!). Alternatively, look for things with a texture that you can press onto the rolled dough, then cut out shapes using normal cutters. The only limit I found is that very tiny biscuits will puff up too much in the oven, one side will expand faster than another, and they won’t look too pretty. I think you could remedy this by baking at a very, very low temperature or just stick to making larger Brenten.

Once baked, you could leave the Brenten plain, but I wanted to decorate them in gold. I though the design I had used had the look of medieval carvings, like the bosses you might see in the vaulted roofs of old cathedrals. They also reminded me of the Elizabethan marzipan tradition, and I wanted a nod back to that too. In Tudor times, a confection known as marchpane would be prepared from almonds and sugar. This mixture was bound with a little rose water, and the resulting paste could be fashioned into elaborate and intricate shapes. Think figures, pictures, fruit, swans, portraits. An essential part of the confectioner’s repertoire in those times, and essential to get right, as essentially whatever Good Queen Bess wanted in marzipan form, she more likely than not had to get, lest you wanted to risk being sent to the Tower of London. Given the ingredients, marchpane was a luxury (containing exotic almonds and sugar, out of the reach of all but the very wealthiest), and it was finished accordingly, often with real gold leaf. This was confectionery as art, and art that was intended to impress the great and the good.

Now, to be clear, I have not been so needlessly extravagant as to cover these biscuits with actual gold (we’ll leave that for another day when we’re feeling a little more flush with cash, which after holidays we are most certainly not) but to get a similar effect, I finished them off with a light glaze made with edible gold lustre dust, and then brushed some more of the dust of the details to produce almond confections that glow warmly under the Christmas lights. On a black plate next to the Christmas tree, they looked stunning, and almost too good to eat. So…feeling a little festive now?

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Now, for all of this splendour, how to they taste? The flavour is clearly strongly of almonds. I used quality (high almond) marzipan, but the result of the mixing and the baking is that the almond flavour seemed even more intense, which I loved. They are also incredibly rich, even ignoring that they are covered in what looks like gold, and they have a read wow factor. I look at them, and think wow! They’re a good biscuit to keep nibbling over a long period of time, not one to be wolfed down in seconds.

The texture was a little surprising. I thought they would be soft and slightly chewy, but I could not have been more wrong. They are dry-ish and firm, but have a slight crumble while eating. I think this texture is due to their size, shape and the fact I left them overnight to cure so that the surface would be dry and the details sharp. If you were to make smaller Brenten that were more cube or sphere-like, then I expect the texture would be different. But then, they would not look as truly awesome as these golden delights!

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To make Frankfurter Brenten (recipe from House on the Hill)

Makes 15-20, depending on size

• 55g plain flour
• 175g icing sugar
• 225g marzipan
• 1 teaspoon orange flower or rose water(*)
• 1 egg white, gently beaten

1. Mix the flour and icing sugar in a bowl. Grate the marzipan coarsely into the icing sugar. Mix briefly then rub the mixture with your fingers until it resembles coarse breadcrumbs.

2. Add the orange blossom/rose water and the egg white. Mix with your hands until you have a smooth dough. Wrap the dough in cling film and chill for one hour.

3. Now shape the cookies. Dust a work surface with icing sugar, and roll out the dough to 1cm (1/2 inch) thickness. If using a cookie press, dust the top of the dough with icing sugar, then press away(**). If using a cutter, just cut out shapes. Trim the edges of the cookies, and transfer to a baking sheet lined with greaseproof paper.

4. Leave the cookies to dry, uncovered, for at least 3 hours, or as long as 24 hours.

5. To bake the Brenten, preheat the oven to 135°C (275°F). Bake the Brenten for 15-20 minutes until the “peaks” of the details are slightly browned. If you want to keep them white, place an empty baking tray on the shelf above during baking.

6. If you want to gild the Brenten, mix 50g of icing sugar with 2 teaspoons of water. Add some gold luster dust, and paint the surface of the cold Brenten. Leave to dry, then dust with the gold dust again. Job done!

(*) This means the water with a mild flavour. If you’ve got very intensely flavoured extracts, then dilute them one part flavour to three parts water. Otherwise the flavour is too strong, and it will be like eating perfume!

(**) Remember that as you press, the dough will be pushed out. It might be easier to cut the dough into pieces to match the press, then do the pressing, so that you don’t distort the images as you go.

Worth making? This is the sort of Christmas bake that you will adore if you are a fan of Marzipan. It’s also super-easy to make and the ingredients easy to get hold of. You can also make life easier by just shaping the dough by hand and making patters with forks that would look equally good. Pop the baked cookies under a very hot grill for 10 seconds or blast with a blowtorch for some extra browning on top!

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{6} Springerle

I’ve done a few posts recently that involve the magic powder of the kitchen, baker’s ammonia. It’s fun to use as it gives off a blast of ammonia fumes during baking (OK, not fun, but quite dramatic), and produces amazingly light baked goods.

Once I managed to track in down in London (hint – it’s in Scandinavian Kitchen near Great Portland Street), I looked around to see what I could use it in, and quickly came across one of the most fancy biscuits I’ve ever seen, German SpringerleThese are made from an aniseed-flavoured dough, and the biscuits are formed into intricate designs using presses, resulting in some very fancy shapes indeed. They are then left to cure until to surface is dry, and then baked to get the baker’s ammonia going. At this point, the cookies expand dramatically, jumping four to five times in height.

I’m not going to write too much more about Springerle here, as I’ve written all about them in a guest post at All The Live Long Day, so I’ll let you read that at your leisure. It also has some links to where you can get hold of the special biscuit presses that you need to make Springerle as well as some ideas of how to make patterns with things you may have at home if you lack the patience to track down the specialist tools.

However, I will share some of my experiences for making these cookies if the mood should take you. The recipe I used (set out below) is easy to make, and rolling out the dough presents no challenges. However, I found it tricky to get the moulds properly covered in flour to make sure that the imprint was sharp and, eh, the mould was not covered in the dough. A few attempts ended fruitlessly, with me scrubbing the mould out with a toothbrush, then waiting for it to dry before I could have another attempt. So had I wasted my time and money? Well, no. A simple trick solved this problem – it wasn’t necessary to get the flour into the mould, as long as you had a barrier between it and the dough. So I dusted the top of the rolled dough with flour, and voila – perfect impressions of flowers, cocoa pods, houses, harps and abstract designs.

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Another tip that makes life easier is to cut the dough into pieces once it has been rolled, and then press with the moulds. When you press down, the dough at the edges gets pressed out slightly, so if you just use one giant piece of rolled dough, you can get some distortions. Use individual pieces – no problems! Then all you need to do is trim the edges, and re-use the scraps to make more cookies.

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Once all the cookies has been pressed, they need to sit out for around 24 hours until the surface is dry and they look pale. I tried experimenting with a few different sizes – some very small biscuits (the side of a two pence coin) and some very large ones the sizes of playing cards. Against my expectations, when the Springerle are too small, they warp in the oven and go lop-sided. In contrast, the larger ones puff up evenly. I had expected the larger ones to be prone to cracking, but this proved not to be a problem. So it seems to me that going for large, intricate designs if the way forward.

As you can see below, after baking, the Springerle keep their shape remarkably well. There is a bit if puffing up at the edges, but the designs themselves are almost unchanged. The only thing you need to watch during baking is that they should remain pale. Watch them carefully to make sure that they don’t brown.

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Once baked and cooled, I tentatively tried one of my Springerle. I’m happy to report that for all the hard work involved (and let’s be honest, there is a lot of hard work involved in these things), they taste delicious. Light, slightly chewy and aromatic from aniseed. There’s a tiny hint of lemon in there too, just to enhance the aniseed, but not so much as to over-power it. They really make an unusual addition to the festive table.

Springerle are also noted as a biscuit that gets better if left to cure after baking. They should be stored in an airtight tin, but if they seem too dry, just add a piece of apple or a slide of bread to the tin (be careful to check in from time to time – no-one is a fan of mouldy apple…). This seems to be a common trait among biscuits made with baker’s ammonia – they all seem to get better it allowed to sit for a while.

And finally, just in case you are curious about the various patterns that you can find, in addition to the big tray above, I also got hold of this rather jolly pine cone pattern. They were also left to dry for 24 hours, and the baked versions retained the pattern with pin-like sharpness.

springerle_cones

To make Springerle (recipe adapted from House on the Hill):

Makes around 50 pieces

• 1/4 teaspoon baker’s ammonia (or baking powder)
• 1 tablespoon water
• 3 eggs
• 300g icing sugar
• 55g unsalted butter, softened
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 1 teaspoon aniseed extract(*)
• 450g plain flour
• grated rind of 1/2 lemon

1. Dissolve the baker’s ammonia in the water, and leave to one side.

2. In a large bowl, beat the eggs until pace and fluffy, around 10 minutes. Add the icing sugar in thirds, beating well after each addition, then add the softened butter and beat until combined. Add the baker’s ammonia mixture, the salt, aniseed extract and lemon rind. Mix well.

3. Start to add the flour to the egg mixture. Once the mixer gives up, add the rest of the flour, and use your hands to combine everything until you have a stiff dough.

4. Take portions of the dough and roll out on a well-floured worksurface. Aim for 1/2 cm or 1/4 inch. Sprinkle the top lightly with flour (a tea strainer is the ideal way to sprinkle the flour), then use your press to make the pattern. Trim the edges of the cookies, then transfer to a baking tray lined with greaseproof paper.

5. Leave the cookies to dry, uncovered, for 24 hours.

6. Preheat the oven – at this stage, it’s an art rather than a science, so it’s best to test with one cookie to make sure they don’t burn. The temperature should be 120° to 160°C (255° to 325°F) – the test cookie should puff up from the base. The bottom should be barely coloured, and the top should not be starting to brown. Allow 10-20 minutes, depending on the size of the cookie.

(*) Be careful what you use – my aniseed extract had the strength of aniseed liqueur. If you’ve got something stronger, such as pure oil, you may need less – a lot less!

Worth making? I’m really glad that I finally got the chance to make Springerle. Sure, they are fussy, tricky and take a lot of time, but they taste great and have a wonderful traditional flavour. Worth trying if you’ve got the time, patience and inclination.

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Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things