Monthly Archives: December 2015

{12} Vanillekipferl

The tree is decorated. The presents are wrapped. There is far too much food in the kitchen. The fridge is groaning, but we’ve still had panic moments that we’ve forgotten something. Bearing in mind that we live in the middle of a major city, and the shops are only closed for one day, the chances of anything serious happening due to a lack of chestnuts, crisps or cheese are fairly remote, but that last-minute rush always happens. And to really big up the excitement, I decided at 2pm that we didn’t have enough decorations, so back into the loft we went and there are now baubles and figurines dangling from just about every possible place. We’ve just achieved peak Christmas cheer!

Christmas Eve also means that we’ve reached the end of the 2015 edition of the 12 Bakes of Christmas. To round off this year’s festive baking extravaganza, I’ve  turned to a real classic of central European baking – the simple but utterly delicious vanilla crescents that appear in (at least) German, Austrian, Hungarian, Czech and Slovak baking. These are buttery little pastries, rather like shortbread, enriched with nuts and perfumed with vanilla, which are rolled in icing sugar while warm. This might sound simple, but pile them up on a plate and pass them round, and they will be gone in a flash!

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The crescent shape of these biscuits is suggested to have come from the crescent on the Turkish flag, and they were created to celebrate a victory by the Austro-Hungarian army during one of many battles between them and the Ottoman Empire.

Unlike so many spicy biscuits at this time of year that need to rest for the flavours to develop, I think these really are best when they are still fresh, so a good thing to make when you need them the next day. Just try to keep everything as cold as possible – it makes it much easier to handle the dough, to shape it, and they will keep their shape in the oven if the dough has been chilled. And if you don’t keep things cool…well, good luck! You’ll need it!

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There is not too much scope for variation here, as you don’t want to play around with the dough so much that the texture changes. Vanilla is pretty much essential, and I would not dream of making them with anything other than butter. Most recipes call for unsalted, but I used salted – I think it actually works really well in these sorts of recipes as it balances the sugar in the recipe (I use salted butter in shortbread too). You could also add spices such as cinnamon or nutmeg, but I think it’s worth adding just a dash if you really have to.

Where there is real scope to play around is with the nuts that you use. Almonds or walnuts are traditional, with the latter lending a nice extra flavour. I think hazelnuts would also work, or you could even try finely ground pistachios for a hint of pale green to the pastry. The only thing you need to make sure is that the nuts really are finely ground – if you’re using whole nuts, I suggest chopping them as finely as you can with a knife, then putting them in a grinder with some of the sugar. This will get them to a fine powder, but prevent them from going oily. If you’re going to all the effort of making them, you want them to be the best they can be!

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So that’s it – the final installment in our festival of Christmas baking. I hope you’ve enjoyed it, I hope you’ve had some inspiration, and I hope you’re wise enough not to try to make this many cookies against the clock. But as always, it’s been fun and I’ve loved trying out some new techniques and flavours.

And now, time to crack open the champagne and enjoy a cheese fondue to bring Christmas Eve to a close. The newest addition to the family will be up first thing, ready for presents!

To make Vanillekipferl (makes around 40):

For the dough

• 100g salted butter, cold
• 145g plain flour
• 50g ground walnuts or hazelnuts
• 35g icing sugar

• 1 large egg yolk
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• seeds of 1 vanilla pod (optional)
• 1 teaspoon cream (or milk)

For the vanilla coating

• 100g vanilla sugar
• 100g icing sugar

1. Make sure everything is cold, cold, cold! Mix the flour, icing sugar and ground nuts in a bowl. Cut the butter into small pieces then rub into the flour mixture.

2. Add the egg yolk, vanilla extract, vanilla seeds and enough cream (if needed) so that the mixture just comes together. We’re talking seconds rather than minutes – you don’t want your hands to warm up the mixture! However if the mixture seems very sticky, add more flour, a spoonful at a time, until it forms a soft dough.

3. Wrap the dough in cling film, press into a slab (rather than a ball) and leave to chill in the fridge for a couple of hours or overnight. If you’re in a hurry, pop it into the freezer.

4. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 170°C (335°F) and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

5. Make the coating – mix the icing sugar and vanilla sugar and spread on a plate.

6. To shape the biscuits, cut the dough in half. Roll each piece into a long, thin sausage, then cut each into 20 equally sized pieces. If you want to be precise…I rolled out to 30cm, and using a metal ruler cut out 1.5cm pieces of dough! Nerdy, but precise. Roll each piece of dough into a ball, put on a plate, and put the plate in the fridge for 30 minutes.

7. Shape each piece of dough into a sausage. Shape to a crescent/horseshoe shape and place on the baking sheet. Pop the tray in the fridge for 5 minutes before baking. Aim to bake in batches of 10-15 so you can cover the hot cookies in the vanilla coating when they come out of the oven.

8. Bake for around 10 minutes until slightly coloured – the tips will colour more quickly than the rest of the cookie.

9. When baked, let the biscuits cool for 1 minute, then roll them gently in the vanilla coating. Be gentle – they will be very fragile. However, if they break, then it’s a cook’s perk! I found it works best to put the cookie on top of a pile of the sugar, then cover with more of the sugar mixture. Carefully shake off any excess and transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

10. Repeat the baking and coating process in small batches until all the dough is used up.

11. Store the cookies in an airtight tin – add any remaining coating sugar to the tin, so that your Kipferl keep their lovely white colour. They will soften over time, becoming soft, crumbly and melt-in-the-mouth.

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{11} Cuccidati (Sicilian Fig Rolls)

We’ve nearly reached the end of this year’s baking, but as Italy has already provide so much inspiration, we’re staying in that beautiful country and heading down to the island of Sicily where they make little fig rolls called cuccidati (or buccellati) at Christmas.

If you grew up in Britain, you might be familiar with fig rolls as those small, dry biscuits that were (at least from my point of view) the absolutely last choice in the biscuit barrel. I would go so far as to say that they put me off fresh figs when I was younger – I mean, why would such a thing exist? Anyway, I have long since gotten over my issues with figs, and love the things, and the good news is that these cookies are about as far away from my childhood memories as you can get. A fruity, lightly spiced filling with tender buttery pastry and a glaze of sweet, white icing. Mmmmm…

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You’ll see that there are a few different shapes in there – the crosses above, and the crescent shapes below. This is all made using the same mixture, so it just adds a little more interest on the serving dish of they look different. If you wanted to get creative and have different shapes for different fillings, you could do that too. Apparently some bakers in Sicily even fashion cookies into the shapes of animals, but I could not work out how to roll out a long sausage of dough into the shape of a dog, cat or donkey. Perhaps it could have just passed for a sausage dog?

The pastry is rich and buttery, leavened with a little baking powder to make it light when baked. They came our of the oven rather crisp, but after resting overnight, the pastry had softened and was a little crumbly. Just the perfect texture! The filling is the real star – stuffed with chopped figs and sultanas, as well as pine nuts, walnuts and pistachios. There is sweetness from orange blossom honey and marmalade, and a little spice in there too.

For the marmalade, I skipped a sweet orange version, and instead went for a mixture of sharp Seville oranges and tangerines for a bit of Christmas cheer. While the marmalade on its own was tangy with a hint of bitterness, in the final baked version, it melts into the background and provides a more rounded citrus flavour, so it was definitely the right choice.

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In addition to the more elaborate shapes, I also made my own version of those funny little fig rolls that I remembered as a child. I added some of the traditional coloured sprinkles to these, and I think they look really rather sweet. You might even persuade a child to try one, but my experience is that children will usually make a bee-line for anything with chocolate, and have an aversion of dried fruit when given anything that might pass for a choice on the matter! Still…I like them!

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If you like mince pies but want to find an alternative, then these might be the thing for you. You can also play around with the ingredients – swap the figs for dates, use different nuts and dried fruits, use a stronger honey or different marmalade or jam, and play around with the spices, or even add a little chopped chocolate in there. Of course, if you rock up with a tray of cuccidati made with candied melon, macadamia nuts, thyme honey and strawberry jam, topped off with a sprinkling of cardamom and saffron, you might win top marks for creativity, but I’m not sure you’d obtain the approval of a Sicilian granny. I’d keep things simple, and close to the traditional flavours of Sicily. Think of the historic trade routes and commerce with North Africa and the Middle East, and you’ll be on the right track.

Of everything I have made this year, this is one of the recipes that took the most time. Making the pastry and filling is easy, but it takes some patience to make the long rolls of filling covered in pastry, and then to shape them. However, it is also very enjoyable, and the aroma of the spiced figs really is delicious. That, and they look pretty darned impressive on the plate!

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To make Cuccidati (makes around 20-30, depending on size)
(adapted from the recipe on Food52.com)

For the pastry

• 300g plain flour
• 100g icing sugar
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• pinch of salt
• 200g butter
• 1 large egg
• cold water

For the filling

• 250g soft dried figs
• 75g sultanas
• 30g shelled unsalted pistachios
• 20g pine nuts
• 60g walnuts
• 60g honey
• 100g orange marmalade
• zest of an orange
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon mixed spice

For the glaze

• 100g icing sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon white food colouring
• cold water
• sprinkles and chopped nuts

1. Make the pastry. Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl. Rub in the butter. Add the egg and mix to a smooth dough. If the pastry is dry, add cold water – a few drops at a time – until it comes together. Wrap the dough in cling film and leave to rest overnight in the fridge.

2. Make the filling. Chop the figs, sultanas and nuts finely. I did this by hand to get some variation in texture and to avoid turning the nuts to dust. Put in a bowl and mix with the marmalade, honey and spices. Cover and leave to rest overnight in a bowl on the kitchen counter.

3. The next day, assemble the cookies. Start by preheating the oven to 180°C (350°F) and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper. There is no need to use oil or butter on the sheet, as the cookies contain enough butter.

4. Now shape the cookies. Divide the pastry into four, and work with one piece at a time, keeping the rest in the fridge. On a lightly floured worktop, roll a piece of pastry into a long sausage, around 30cm, then flatten using a rolling pin. It should be around 6cm wide and 50cm long. Now take one-quarter of the filling. Dust a worktop liberally with icing sugar, and roll into a long sausage the same length as your pastry. Then lightly moisten the pastry with a little water (really – the tiniest amount!) and put the filling on top of the pastry. Bring the pastry round the filling, and seal the edge. Roll the whole thing lightly to smooth out any lumps and bumps.

5. Cut the long sausage into pieces – either 7cm for the crosses or crescents, or smaller pieces for the bite-sized cookies. To make the crosses – take each piece, cut into the bottom and the top, leaving the middle intact. Bend the “legs” outwards. To make the crescents, make 4-5 cuts into one side of the strip, then bend into an arc. Transfer the cookies to the baking sheet, pop in the fridge for 5 minutes to firm up, and then bake for around 15-20 minutes until golden. Larger cookies might need longer, and smaller cookies might be done in less time. Make sure to turn half-way to get an even colour. If using cookies of different sizes, I recommend baking batches of the same size to get an even bake.

6. Leave the cookies to cool completely, then glaze them. Make the icing by mixing the icing sugar, white food colouring (if using) and enough cold water to make a thick icing. You want it to dribble slightly, but most should stay on the cookies, so err on the side of caution and make it thicker – you can always add more water if needed. Finish by covering the cookies with sprinkles, edible pearls or pieces of chopped nuts. Leave on a wire rack for the icing to set, then store in an airtight tin.

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{10} Ricciarelli

All this Christmas baking is vaguely nuts, so it makes sense to make something that is, actually, nuts. Or almonds to be more precise.

Ricciarelli are an Italian cookie originating in the city of Siena. They are said to date back to the 14th century, when they were introduced by a knight called Ricciardetto della Gherardesca on his return from the Crusades. This sounds rather plausible, given the main ingredients – orange and almonds – are typical in Middle Eastern sweets. Indeed, given their fancy ingredients, I imagine that these were the sort of thing that were once reserved for the great and good of the city, but today we’re all able to enjoy them. So they’ve got a rather longer and nobler lineage than stained glass cookies!

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Ricciarelli
are made from almonds, sugar and egg whites, so they are a sort of macaroon, but flavoured with vanilla, orange zest and almond extract. When you make the mixture, the aroma is absolutely divine! It is like a very rich, sophisticated orange blossom scent, which hints that something very delicious is coming out of the oven. I’ve used two teaspoons of almond extract, but you can add more if you want a really strong bitter almond flavour. All this means that they really taste rather luxurious. Italy is so proud of these little sweetmeats that they have “protected geographical indication” legal protection, so if you are anywhere outside the city of Siena, your luck is out – you can’t call them Ricciarelli di Siena without getting into hot water.

Making them is very straightforward – make the dough, cut into pieces, shape and cover in icing sugar. When they go into the oven, they puff up and develop their cracked surface, which reveals those little seams of golden marzipan. The outside goes slightly crisp, while they remain soft inside.

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I think these make a lovely addition to the festive spread. They have all the flavour of marzipan, but might lighter, and the orange zest, vanilla and almond extracts all make for a very aromatic cookie that makes for a nice alternative to spices and chocolate. Once you taste them, they provide a pretty good incentive to get over to Siena and try the real deal!

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To make Ricciarelli (makes 20)

• 250g ground almonds
• 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
• zest of an orange
• 250g caster sugar
• 2 large egg whites
• 2 teaspoons almond extract
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• icing sugar, for dusting

1. Put the ground almonds, orange zest and baking power in a bowl. Mix well.

2. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites until very stiff. Add the sugar and keep beating until you have a stiff meringue mixture. Mix in the almond and vanilla extracts, then fold in the ground almond mixture. The batter will seem heavy and rather sticky. Cover the mixture and leave overnight in the fridge.

3. Preheat the oven to 160°C (320°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper and rub lightly with butter or oil.

4. Cover a worktop in lots of icing sugar. Take the dough and roll out into a long sausage – don’t worry about getting the dough covering in icing sugar, this is the point! Cut the log into 20 pieces.

5. Take each piece of dough. Make sure the exposed dough gets a coating of icing sugar, then use your hands to shape into a slightly pointed oval shape. Cover each piece in more icing sugar (it should be really, really well coated). Arrange a few centimetres apart on the baking tray. I did mine in two batches, so 10 per tray.

6. Bake the ricciarelli for around 20 minutes until they are slightly puffed, cracked and the inside looks just golden. Turn half-way to get an even colour. Remove from the oven and allow to stand for a minute, then transfer to a rack to cool completely.

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{9} Brunkager

We are three-quarters of the way through this year’s insane bake-a-thon, so we’re heading north to experience a classic Danish cookie. I love crisp gingerbread biscuits at this time of year, especially when they are packed with spice, and rich with butter and brown sugar. These little morsels are from Denmark and are called brunkager, which literally means “brown cakes” or “brown biscuits”.

Just about every source I have looked at calls them a Danish “classic” and that they are the real “aroma of Christmas”. However, I have not been able to find much about their origin – no interesting story, no quirky history. It must be there somewhere, but I guess I’ve not just found it yet. If anyone has any information on this, please leave a comment!

The flavour is superb – spicy, buttery, nutty and hints of orange. They are wonderful with coffee or tea, and while it is a cliché, they do taste like Christmas. I think these cookies have a real air of class about them – but their secret is that they are a complete breeze to make.

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Normally I tend to just have pictures of the final result. However, today I’ve decided to do something different, and provide a few “action” shots so that you can see he various stages in making brunkager.

The reason that brunkager are so easy is that you melt down your butter and sugar into the most delicious caramel-like syrup, then mix it with spices, candied orange peel and whole almonds. At this stage, it is actually very tasty and no-one would blame you for sneaking a spoonful or two. Of course this is just to test that the balance of spices is right…

Once you’ve got the basic mixture, you add flour, then pour it into a tin to set. Then just let it cool, and it can be cut into slices and baked. One curious thing is that the warm mixture starts off the most luxurious shade of chestnut brown, but it fades to a duller, more grey shade when cold. I though this was a bit disappointing, but it is just a result of the butter setting, and the rich colour comes back during baking. Making the mixture and leaving it to set only takes around 20 minutes, so it can easily be done in the evening, and you can do the baking the next day. So pick your perfect moment to fill the house with their wonderful aroma.

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Once the mixture is set, there is no messing around with cutters or rolling pins. Just remove the slab of dough from the tin and the cut it into four strips. Then cut each of those into thin slices.

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The trick here is to get a very big, very sharp knife. Then sharpen it some more. Then use some force to get it to cut cleanly through the dough. What you want are nice clean slices of almonds in the cookies, so you should avoid serrated knifes and sawing motions. It can take a bit of practice, but I found the best way was to make sure the dough is cold, and push downwards with some force. There will be a few duff ones that don’t look good – you can gather the scraps, roll them up and bake as  them anyway and they will taste just as good.

Once you’ve done the careful slicing, arrange them on the baking sheet, and as you can see, they really do expand. The raising agent here is potaske (potassium carbonate) which makes them expand outwards, but they don’t rise up, resulting in very crisp cookies with a lovely dark brown colour. Potaske is the traditional ingredient, but you could skip this and use baking soda instead. I haven’t tested this, but a few recipes suggest this, in which case just mix it with the flour before mixing everything together. However, if you do manage to get your hands on a packet of potaske (check online), you can also make Danish honninghjerter (honey hearts) or German Aachner Printen in the authentic way.

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I’ve seen recipes that use whole nuts, and recipes that use flaked almonds. I like the look of the whole nuts – this does make it a little harder to cut into perfect slices, but I think the contrast of the larger pieces looks nicer. If you fancy more variation, you can use a combination of almonds and pistachios, or just pistachios.

Now, do be prepared for just how much this recipe makes. Each log will make around 30-40 cookies if you slice it thinly, so could end up with around 150 cookies! They’re very light and easy to eat, but don’t be surprised if you end up running out of space on the kitchen worktop!

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Faced with my mountain of brunkager, even I was not able to eat all of them over a couple of days. I noticed that they start to get a bit soft, but this is easily sorted. You can get the crispness back by popping them in a low oven for about 4-5 minutes. This won’t bake them, but it will dry them out to get the snap back.

If you have a go at these, I also recommend that you bake a test cookie before putting a whole tray in the oven. As they are thin, they can easily burn – they don’t take long to bake, so try with one and it should be done when it has an even, appealing brown colour. Keep in mind that they will be very soft when they come out of the oven, but will harden when cold, so colour rather than texture is what to look out for.

To make Brunkager (makes around 150)

250g butter
125g golden syrup
• 125g soft brown sugar
• 125g muscovado sugar
• 3 teaspoons ground cinnamon
• 2 teaspoons ground ginger
• 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
• 1 teaspoon ground cloves
• 150g almonds
• 10g candied orange peel, very finely chopped
• zest of one orange
• 2 teaspoons potaske (potassium carbonate)
• 1 1/2 tablespoons lukewarm water
• 500g plain flour

1. Put the butter, syrup and sugar into a saucepan. Heat gently until everything has melted and the mixture is smooth, but do not let it boil.

2. Pour the sugar/butter mixture into a bowl and add the spices, almonds, candied peel and orange zest. Leave to cool until lukewarm.

3. In a small bowl, dissolve the potash in the water – add a little more water if needed (be careful – it will discolour wooden worktops if spilled!). Mix into the sugar/butter mixture. Finally stir in the flour and mix until smooth (it will still be liquid, not solid).

4. Pour the mixture into a tray lined with greaseproof paper and even out the top. Leave to cool, then chill overnight in the fridge. The mixture will change form a glossy chestnut colour to a dull dark grey-brown colour.

5. When ready to bake, pre-heat the oven to 175°C (350°F) and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

6. Remove the mixture from the tin – it should come out in one slab. Slice into 4 pieces, then use a sharp knife to cut into slices (3-4mm). Arrange them on the baking sheet, leaving some space for them to expand. Bake for 5-8 minutes, turning the tray half-way to get an even colour.

7. Leave the baked brunkager on the baking tray for a minute to harden, then transfer to wire rack to cool completely.

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{8} Mostaccioli Napoletani

When it comes to Christmas baking, there needs to be chocolate, and we’ve reached the eighth recipe with only two appearance of the food of the gods. Well, there was a lot in those mendiants, but only a sprinkling in the Basler Brunsli, so in fact chocolate has really only popped up one-and-a-half times. Well, time to change that!

Today’s recipe is the mouthful that is mostaccioli napoletani. Try saying that quickly after three eggnogs, two mulled wines and glass of champagne! They are spicy little cookies that originate in the city of Naples. They are traditionally cut into diamond shapes before baking, and then dipped in chocolate. I was surprised to find something like this in Italian baking – they seem closer to German Lebkuchen, or spicy Aachner Printen.

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These don’t seem to have made a big splash (yet?) in the English-language web, so I was doing my best to research them in Italy, and it is fair to say that a lot of Italians are making these things – lots of different spices, different techniques, some with candied peel, some with chocolate glaze rather than chocolate coating, but the diamond shape is ubiquitous.

I also found that pretty much all recipes use baker’s ammonia as the raising agent. I haven’t tried making them with baking powder or baking soda, so cannot be sure that the results are the same. However, you want the resulting cookies to be very light, and baker’s ammonia is certainly the only thing that can give you a really good lift. Just watch out for that puff of ammonia that comes out of the oven when you open the door. Harmless, but it will certainly wake you up!

Now, apparently the truly authentic recipes do not use any oil or fat, so that means olive oil is nowhere to be seen, and it’s out with all that lovely butter. This probably makes for a more authentic result, but it does mean that these sorts of biscuits can be on the dry side as the lack of fat means they don’t dry out and become crisp. They just go dry. Oops!

Now, if you’ve got lovely, soft cookies, since they will be dipped in chocolate, they won’t dry out, but it also means that they won’t get soft if they are too dry when you dip them. To avoid the risk that all your hard work results in a mouthful of chocolate-coated dust, we need to avoid them drying out before dipping. First, don’t (as I did) leave them out overnight. As soon as they are cool, pop them in an airtight tin with some soft bread. The cookies will soften and the bread will dry out. Repeat as needed, and this time will also allow the flavours of the spices to develop. I noticed that the clove flavour was much stronger after two days than straight after baking, so it might be worth being a little light-handed with some of the more robust spices. Once you have cookies that are sufficiently soft, you can dip them in the chocolate. If they are not softening fast enough, pop them on a wire race, and wave gently over a steam kettle or a pan of boiling water – the steam will help soften them, then allow to cool and pop back in the tin.

When I was making these, I chilled the dough to make it easier to roll out. The first 20 that I made were great and baked well, but I used a little flour on the worktop, which seemed to affect the second batch – they were lighter in colour and bit tougher. I would recommend just trying to keep the dough as cold as possible, and roll it out between two sheets of greaseproof paper to avoid working more flour into the dough. Normally I don’t worry about this and I’ve never had a problem, but I guess there is a first time for everything.

Now, if you like the idea of these cookies but think this all seems like far too much work, you can of course take a shortcut. Just take your favourite soft gingerbread recipe, bake a tray of the stuff, then cut that into diamonds. Then dip those in chocolate and smile sweetly when your guests ask you about them…ahm…

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To make Mostaccioli Napoletani (makes around 25-30):

• 250g plain flour
• 150g caster sugar
• 1 teaspoon cinnamon
• 1 teaspoon ground coriander
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
• 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
• 50g of cocoa powder
• 75g ground almonds
• grated zest of 1 orange
• 50g honey
• 50g water
• 30g brown rum
• 1 teaspoon baker’s ammonia
• 300g dark chocolate, to dip

1. Put all the dry ingredients and orange zest in a bowl and mix. Put the honey, water and rum into a bowl, mix well, then add to the dry ingredients and combine – it should seem a bit dry. Dissolve the baker’s ammonia in an extra tablespoon of water, then add to the main mix. Work quickly to a soft dough – if too wet, add more cocoa powder and flour, if too dry, add more water or rum. Cover and leave to sit overnight in the fridge.

2. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 180°C and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper. Rub lightly with a dot of butter to prevent sticking.

3. Roll out the dough to 2/3 cm thick, and use a sharp knife to cut into diamonds. Transfer the diamonds to the baking sheet, leaving space for them to expand.

4. Bake the cookies for 8-10 minutes until puffed. Transfer the cookies to a rack and leave to cool completely. If needed, leave in an airtight tin with slices of bread to soften the cookies and allow the spice flavours to develop.

5. Dip cookies in tempered chocolate and leave to set. The best way to do this – chop your chocolate. Melt half in a double boiler above a pan of just-simmering water. When it gets to 55°C, remove from the heat. Add half of the remaining chocolate, and stir until melted. Add the rest of the chocolate, and stir again until melted. Allow the chocolate to cool to 28-29°C, then bring the temperature up to 31-32°C (either over a pan of warm water, or with 5-second blasts in the microwave). Use a thermometer, and while it takes a bit of time, it’s also dead simple!

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{7} Anisplätzchen (Anise Cookies)

Today’s recipe is another German favourite, the incredibly cute looking aniseed cookies that are Anispläzchen. These are tiny cookies that look rather like miniature macarons, but they are made with whole eggs and flour rather than just egg whites and almonds. Apart from that, it’s a similar process – whip the eggs and sugar, add flour and aniseed, then pipe onto a baking sheet.

These cookies have a crisp outside and soft interior, and a delicate aniseed flavour which gets a little stronger if you can keep them in a tin for a couple of days. They’re simple, but I think they look rather pretty.

anisplaetzchen
Now, if you’re taken by these, I do need to warn you that I got about a 55% “hit” rate in getting those little feet under the cookies. The rest…well, they tasted perfectly nice, but the went a little wonky. Perfectly edible, but wonky. So if you need dozens and dozens that need to turn out picture-perfect…you might want to make a couple of batches!

To make Anisplätzchen (makes around 40):

• 100g icing sugar
• 1 medium egg
• 100g plain flour
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1 teaspoon ground aniseeds, crushed

1. In a bowl whisk the eggs until foamy (1 minute). Add the icing sugar and whisk until pale, thick and fluffy (5 minutes). Mix in the vanilla extract and ground aniseed.

2. Remove two tablespoons of flour and put to one side. Add half of the remaining flour and whisk to mixture. Add the other half and whisk again. The mixture should be thick and look a little bit dry and slightly grainy, but when you put a drop of mixture on a tray, it should go smooth on top. If the mixture is too wet, add more of the reserved flour until the texture is right.

3. Spread out 2 sheets of greaseproof paper. Transfer the mixture to a piping bag and pipe small circles of the batter (2cm diameter). Leave in a warm place to dry for an hour. The surface should be dull and matt when ready.

4. Preheat the oven to 150°C. Bake the biscuits for 10-15 minutes until the biscuits have developed “feet” but the tops are still pale.

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{6} Citrus Pfeffernüsse

We’ve reached the half-way point in this year’s 12 Bakes of Christmas, so I thought it would be nice to return to a bit of a festive classic. I’ve made a batch of Pfeffernüsse, but have added a but of a citrus twist to them.

Pfeffernüsse are one of my favourites, and I can much through a whole pile of these. Pretty miraculous for something that doesn’t even contain chocolate!

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This is a comparatively “easy” Pfeffernüsse recipe. Many recipes tell you to make various syrups, then let it cool, work in the flour and let it sit overnight or even for days to let the flavours develop. Not here. You can make them and bake them right away, with no need to leave it resting over night occupying valuable space in your fridge that could be chilling eggnog or champagne instead.

There is only one “fiddly” bit here, which is making sure that the Pfeffernüsse are soft. This is worth doing, as it ensures that they have a good, rich flavour when you bite into them. You’ve got two choice here – add some pieces of soft bread to a tin with the baked but unglazed cookies, replacing the bread as it gets hard, until the cookies are soft, which can take a few days. Or use my cheat’s express method – I put the Pfeffernüsse on a wire tray, and then hold that tray above steam from a pan of water or a boiling kettle for a few seconds. Do this twice, then pop them back in an airtight tin. Repeat this the next day, and you should find that they have softened up nicely.

To finish, I have dipped my Pfeffernüsse in icing, as they remind me of the ones you buy with their crisp, brittle icing. I used a couple of spoonfuls of Acqua de Cedro, a liqueur made with citron and like a posh version of limoncello with a sharp, citrus flavour, but you can equally use Grand Marnier or Cointreau. Now, you might be looking at these pictures and notice how amazingly white my icing looks – and it does seem just like snow! Well, the reason that it looks so brilliant is that I cheated (gasp!). I use a small dash of white food colour with the icing, so that it had that bright, snowy appearance. It doesn’t change the flavour and you can happily skip it, but in the interests of full disclosure I feel I should say that I’ve used it in case someone makes these and is surprised that they don’t look quite as white!

How you flavour them is up to you – I’ve used a mixture of spices, plus candied orange peel. You can make these extra-citrussy with the addition of some orange zest, or get creative and go for something completely different – cardamom and lemon anyone? Or convert to the dark side…cinnamon and cloves for flavour, and then dipped in dark chocolate? Now that would be pretty sensational!

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To make Citrus Pfeffernüsse (makes 20):

For the Pfeffernüsse

• 125g caster sugar
• 1 large egg
• 20g candied orange peel, finely chopped
• 50g ground almonds
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon mixed spice
• 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• pinch white pepper
• 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
• 125g plain flour

For the glaze

• 100g icing sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon white food colouring (optional)
• orange liqueur or water
• cubes of candied peel

1. Put the egg and sugar in a bowl. Mix well until thick and creamy (around 5 minutes).

2. Fold in the chopped orange peel, ground almonds and spices and mix well.

3. Combine the flour and baking powder, then mix into the wet ingredients until you have a smooth dough – it will slightly sticky, but you should be able to roll pieces into balls. If too dry, add a few drops of water; if too wet, add a tiny sprinkle more flour.

4. Pinch off small walnut-sized pieces of the dough. This is best done with damp hands to prevent the dough sticking. If you’ve very precise, weigh the dough, divide by 20, then make sure each piece is the same weight (mine were 17g each…)

5. Bake the Pfeffernüsse at 180°C for 15 minutes until golden and puffed, turning the tray half-way. When baked, remove and leave to cool on a wire rack. Transfer the cold cookies to an airtight tin and add a slice of bread – this will soften the Pfeffernüsse. Replace the bread when dry.

6. To glaze, mix the icing sugar with white colouring (if using) and enough water or liqueur to get a thick but smooth icing – think really thick double cream. Dip each cookie in the icing, shake off the excess, put some pieces of candied peel on top and leave to set.

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{5} Truchas de Navidad

One of my favourite Christmas songs is Feliz Navidad by José Feliciano (which you can listen to here, complete with a warming log fire video). I love a bit of Latin flair at this time of year, and Spain definitely has a fantastic selection of sweet treats, from nutty turrón and aniseed biscuits to marzipan cookies, but one of the most unusual that I have come across are truchas de navidad – or Christmas trouts – from the Canary Islands.

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The surprise here is the filling…these little pastries are filled with sweet potato! This is flavoured with cinnamon, lemon and aniseed, but you’re basically eating potato pasties. Mmmmm…

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I like sweet potatoes, but oddly I don’t tend to actually cook or bake with them that often. I was not sure exactly what to expect when I was making the filling, but the cooked sweet potato flesh is gloriously orange, and when you add sugar, ground almonds, aniseed, cinnamon and lemon zest, the flavour is rich and reminded me a little of marzipan. You might think that comes from the almonds, but ground almonds lack that characteristic “bitter almond” flavour, which leads me to think that it much be the combination of aniseed, cinnamon and lemon zest which is tricking the tastebuds. This might also be the point – a quick and easy local substitute on the Canary Islands back in the good old days. Maybe this is true, maybe I’m just making it up, so don’t quote me on that!

I made these truchas using a shortcrust pastry with a little bit of baking powder to provide some lift, and then baked them in the oven. This is certainly the easiest way to make them, but if you prefer, you can also cook them empanada-style by frying them in hot oil. And if puff pastry is your thing, then use that instead of shortcrust for even lighter pastries (and…you can just buy it and skip the whole “make your own pastry” business!). I suspect that these would be really rather tasty in their fried incarnation, and probably closer to the treats enjoyed in Spain.

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Finally, if you’re all tired out of those mega-recipes that make many, many more cakes, cookies or pastries than you realistically need, you can of course just skip the whole detailed recipe and make just a couple of these truchas “inspired” by it. If you’ve got some spare pastry, just mash a little sweet potato, add sugar and almond plus spices to taste, and make just a few of them. Quick, easy, and no-one needs to know that you didn’t make a huge batch! All the more time to enjoy the soothing lyrics of Feliz Navidad!

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To make Truchas de Navidad (makes 20-25)

For the pastry

• 500g plain flour
• 100g butter
• 50g icing sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
• cold water

For the filling

• 400g sweet potatoes (the orange type)
• 100g ground almonds
• 1 egg yolk
• 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon aniseed extract
• 1/2 teaspoon ground aniseeds
• zest of a lemon
• 125g sugar

To finish

• 1 egg white, beaten

1. Make the pastry. Mix the flour and the baking powder. Add the butter and work with your hands until it looks like breadcrumbs. Add enough cold water to make a dough – it should be soft but not stick. Wrap in cling film and leave to chill in the fridge for an hour or overnight.

2. Make the filling. Either bake the potatoes whole until soft and then scoop out the flesh, or peel, chop and steam until tender. Leave to cool and weigh out 400g of sweet potato. Transfer to a bowl and mash manually (don’t use a food processor – it will become gloopy!). Add the rest of the filling ingredients and mix well.

3. Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

4. Roll out the pastry to 1/4 cm thickness, then cut out 8cm diameter discs of pastry (the pastry is much easier to work with when cold, so try to keep it as cool as possible). Put a scant teaspoon of the potato mixture in the middle of each. Moisten the edges of the pastry disc, them fold in half. Press the edge lightly to seal, crimp the edges with a fork, and put on the baking tray.

5. Beat the reserved egg white with a teaspoon of water and use to glaze the top of each trucha.

6. Bake the truchas for around 10-15 minutes until lightly golden. When done, remove from the oven and dust liberally with icing sugar. Enjoy them warm – from the oven, or reheat quickly in the microwave before serving.

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{4} Basler Brunsli

The fourth instalment of our festive baking tour takes us to the northern Swiss city of Basel. This year I seem to have delved rather deeply into Swiss Christmas traditions. I’d love to say that this was because I had been doing lots of detailed research, but in reality, I asked my Swiss friend for some Christmas tips, and one of them was a family recipe for these tasty little spiced chocolate-and-nut creations.

Basler Brunsli are a very easy cookie to make – made with ground nuts and sugar, flavoured with cocoa and chocolate and spiced with cinnamon and cloves. And basically…wow! So good that they really should not be so easy to make. These are simply amazing! They are sometimes referred to as “traditional Swiss brownies” but I think they are so much more interesting than that. This is not just a brownie…this is a luxuriously warm and spicy hug of Alpine wintery cheer. They have a chewy, slightly macaroon-like quality, with a delicious note of dark chocolate enhanced by the spices. They taste rich, but are also incredibly more-ish. I think these would definitely be a big hit at any party, and they also look very striking.

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In the original recipe that I got, you only need to add cocoa powder, but I saw a lot of recipes that also had grated dark chocolate. I figured that when it comes to all things chocolate, more is more, so I added some chocolate in addition to the cocoa. My thinking went that the cocoa would give them a nice colour, and the chocolate would melt during cooking to really ramp up the flavour. I’m happy to report that this seemed to work like a charm.

Now, there is was one thing with the recipe that did niggle with me just a little – it calls for a Messerspitze of ground cloves, as does pretty much every other recipe that I saw. I take this to mean as much as goes on the point of a knife. I mean…really…how is that a measurement that you can work with? I’m exasperated enough when it comes to using American cups, so this just annoys me! It never seems like enough to add a real flavour if it really is just enough to fit on the tip of a knife. Maybe in German-speaking places it actually means a fixed amount, like half a teaspoon? Anyway, I experimented here and went with a quarter of a teaspoon of ground cloves. I tend to like things very heavily spiced, so this is something that you should just trust to your own tastes. It is not a spice that everyone loves, but I feel that clove is a flavour that is under-appreciated and which is really delicious with chocolate. My view? A Messerspitze would not be enough!

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I love that these cookies are so quick and easy to make. There is no need to leave the mixture to sit overnight as with so many Germanic spiced bakes, and when you roll them out then keep their shape nicely during baking. They also have the benefit in being gluten-free, so a great cookie to have in the repertoire. If you wanted to play around with the flavour, it might be nice to use hazelnuts instead of some or all of the almonds, and perhaps sandwich two of them together with Nutella. You could also play with the spices, or add orange zest or switch the Kirsch for flavoured liqueur such as Grand Marnier or Amaretto, if you can accept that you’re probably starting to get rather far from the authentic Swiss recipe.

After I made my version of Basler Brunsli, I asked my Swiss friend for her verdict. She tried one, and confirmed they were good. Not as good as my mother’s, obviously. And you know what? I’ll take that complement. Only fair that my first attempt were not be as good as her mother’s. It’s only natural! And she clarified that I’d gotten the sugar decoration wrong. You should dip the cutters in the sugar, and then cut out the shapes to add some sparkle at the edges, rather than covering the tops. She didn’t thing it looked bad or tasted strange. Just not like mum makes them. Fair enough!

To make Basler Brunsli (makes around 50 cookies):

• 200g ground almonds, plus extra for rolling
• 200g icing sugar
• 40g finely grated dark chocolate
• 40g cocoa powder
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
• 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 2 large egg whites
• 2-3 teaspoons Kirsch or rum
• granulated sugar, for cutting out shapes

1. Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F) and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

2. Put the ground almonds, icing sugar, grated chocolate, cocoa powder and spices in a bowl and mix well.

3. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg white until foamy. We’re not trying to get whipped egg whites, so go easy!

4. Add all the egg white and the Kirsch or rum (a teaspoon at a time), to the dry ingredients. Mix well until it comes together to a soft dough that forms a ball. If the mixture is dry then add more Kirsch or rum, a teaspoon at a time, until it comes together. If the mix is too wet, add more ground almonds and icing sugar.

5. Sprinkle some more ground almonds on the worktop, and roll out the dough to 1cm thickness. Dip the edges of your cookie cutters in granulated sugar before you cut each cookie (of course, it won’t stick for cutting the first cookie). Cut out cookies in whatever shape you like.

6. Transfer the cut out cookies to the baking sheet. Bake for around 6 minutes. When done, remove from the oven and leave to cool.

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{3} Mendiants

If my last post about those buttery Swiss Mailänderli with a hint of lemon was a bit simple for your festive palates, today we are going just about as far from that as is possible. It’s a short hop across the border from Switzerland to France for mendiants, little discs of chocolate studded with all manner of delicious flavours.

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You probably know what these things are if you’ve ever pressed your face against the window of a high-end chocolate shop and then been shocked at just how much they are asking for what seem to be little more than chocolate discs covered in “stuff”. I could make those at home, you think. Then you buy them anyway, and usually guzzle them in fairly short order. Or at least we do in our house…

Alright, so my basic description of mendiants not really do them justice, as they really one of those sweets that is so simple but the overall result is so much more than the individual parts. And after that Mailänderli business, this time we’ve got a pretty decent idea about where the name comes from too! Continue reading

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