They say that travel broadens the mind, and in my case, I always like to try local specialities and keep an eye out for new things, so today’s festive baking comes all the way from South Africa. I was there at the end of November, but now that I’m sitting in chilly London, it is hard to believe that just a few short weeks ago, I was basking in the warmth of the early days of the South African summer. Days on the beach, wine tastings on balmy terraces, safaris…ah well, I draw some small crumb of comfort from the fact that I love Christmas in a cold climate, and I’m not sure I’m ready to celebrate on a beach. That’s not to say that I would turn my nose up at going back to Cape Town and the winelands in the near future…
So, the biscuits. They are called soetkoekies, originally an Afrikaans name which translates rather obviously as “sweet biscuits”.
Like a lot of traditional cookies, you find dozens and dozens of traditional recipes. Some are roll-and-cut, other as drop cookies, some are pale and spice-less, like shortbread or sugar cookies, others are richly spiced, some contain nuts and fruit, others don’t. I guess what I’m saying is that this is one version of soetkoekies, but there will be many more out there to explore.
You could just write these off as being simple spiced biscuits, but what really piqued my interest was a specific ingredient. Many recipes that I saw suggest that, in place of milk or water to bind the dough, you use wine. Yes, wine! This could be dessert wine, any sweet write or red wine, port or just a light red wine. As I prefer to keep my dessert wines for more special occasions, I went for a robust red wine, thinking that this would also play with the spices I was using for a mulled wine effect.
I ended up only using around 50ml of wine, and I thought that this would not really be enough to make much of an impact, but it did so from the moment I mixed it in. The dough took on a purple tinge and there was a definite whiff of booze as I was rolling and cutting out the biscuits. During baking, however, the colour deepened to a rich brown. It is hard to say whether there was much flavour from the wine, but if you used a sweeter or very aromatic wine (perhaps a moscato) then this would have a more pronounced impact. Of course, there is nothing to stop you from swapping the wine for something stronger or very aromatic, so ginger wine, Cointreau or Amaretto or even the herbal Dubonnet could provide an interesting flavour dimension.
The big question for me was what this recipe was going to taste like. It turns out, the flavour is quite familiar – very close to Dutch speculaas cookies, which is probably not really much of a surprise given the historic links between the Netherlands and the Western Cape. One little hint – I found that the flavour and texture benefited from being kept in an airtight container for a few days after baking, but of course they are still delicious on the day of baking.
Where these cookies are very different from their Dutch cousins in appearance. While the Dutch use elaborate moulds of windmills, farmers, St Nicholas and animals, it seems that soetkoekies are usually rolled and cut out. Of course, this does open up options for decorating them. The decoration that I’ve chosen to use here is not particularly traditional, but I wanted them to have a unique look on the festive table, so so I glazed the top with egg white and added half an almond, which I think looks rather pretty (and it’s dead easy to get them to look fancy, bonus!). However, I did find some that refer to traditional decoration with red stripes by mixing “rooi bolus” (ferrous oxide) into some of the dough, forming into strips, then rolling them onto the rest of the dough before cutting out the biscuits. I’ve no idea about the health benefits or side effects of ferrous oxide, but if you want to try this with a natural food colouring, I’m sure the effect could be rather dramatic. Alternatively, add some red colouring to icing and use that to finish them – it would certainly be festive, and you’ve got a little story to tell people as they nibble away. If you’re going to go for the red decoration, you might want to swap out the brown sugar for white caster sugar, to get more of a colour contrast.
So as they say in South Africa – Geseënde Kersfees!
To make soetkoekies (makes around 60 depending on size)
• 500 g plain flour
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
• 1 teaspoon powdered ginger
• 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
• 250 g soft brown sugar (or white caster sugar)
• 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
• 200g butter
• 100g ground almonds
• 1 egg
• 50 ml wine, port, brandy or any other alcohol
• 50 g peeled almonds, halved
• 1 egg white
1. In a bowl, mix the flour, salt, spices, sugar and baking soda until well-combined. Rub the butter into the mixture until it looks like breadcrumbs. Add the ground almonds and rub into the mixture with your fingers.
2. Beat the egg mix with the wine. Add to the flour mixture and knead until it forms a dough, adding more wine if needed. Wrap in cling film and chill for 30 minutes or overnight.
3. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.
4. Prepare the glaze – whisk the egg white with a teaspoon of water.
5. Roll out the dough thinly (about 5mm) and cut out whatever shapes you like. Place on baking trays. Glaze the biscuits with the egg white and press half an almond into the centre of each biscuit.
6. Bake for around 8-10 minutes until well-coloured, turning half-way. Transfer to a wire tray to cool completely.