Monthly Archives: January 2016

Scottish Food: Parlies (after a fashion…)

Hoots! Tonight is Burns Night, the official unofficial celebration of all things Scottish in general, and specifically the life and times of the national poet, Robert (Robbie) Burns. Up and down the land, people will enjoy traditional fare consisting of haggis, neeps and tatties (swede and potatoes). Simple stuff, but usually rounded off with a lot of whisky and followed with a poetry recital and some energetic Scottish folk dancing if you’ve managed to moderate the whisky intake.

I’ve been looking around for an interesting Scottish recipe, and from time to time I’ve seen a reference to biscuits called “parlies”. I must admit that parlies are not something that feature in my knowledge of Scottish baking, and it seems that I’m not alone. Most people think about shortbread and Ecclefechan tarts, perhaps with the occasional empire biscuit thrown in there, but parlies don’t feature much on blogs. So when it came to making these mysterious “parlies” I was pretty much guessing how they would turn out.

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Before I get to the baking, a little history lesson is helpful. The name parlies come from the word “parliament”, and they are also known as Scottish parliament cakes. The story goes that these ginger biscuits were purchased by the members of the original (pre-1707) Scottish Parliament from a tavern on Potterrow behind the University run by a Mrs Flockhart (who was also know as “Luckie Fykie”) , and were enjoyed with a tot of whisky. Parlies themselves were square in shape, and she also sold “snaps” which were round. In fact, you can read more about her in this extract from Traditions of Edinburgh written by Robert Chalmers in 1825. The title pages explain that it concerns itself with “conspicuous characters of the last century” and promises “the old-town ladies of quality”, which I can assume only refers to how they ran their hostelries. But remarkably, this book talks about her, the location of her tavern, and there is even a reference to parlies in there! However, I have not yet found a source that confirms whether these were enjoyed by any particular side of the house or they enjoyed cross-party appeal.

Armed with this knowledge, I knew that I was making some sort of ginger biscuit. I like ginger, so that was a plus. But what I quickly realised is that there is no one single way to make them. Given they seem to be at the very edges of the national baking consciousness, there is no single ideal to bake towards. Eeek! I knew what this meant – I might be facing baking failure, and I might end up in one of those kitchen frenzies when I’m trying recipe after recipe to get something that I deem acceptable. Yes, that happens sometimes!

All recipes I was able to track down used brown sugar, butter, flour, ginger and black treacle in varying quantities. Some used egg, others didn’t. There were also different ways to make them – some involved melting the butter, some involved the creaming method. While I am far from a baking expert, I knew this risked differing results. There was also a dearth of raising agents in the recipes I managed to find, which did make sense as the original parlies first popped up at a time when there was no baking powder, and other raising agents might have been hard to come by.

I bit the bullet and started with a recipe that involved mixing up the dry ingredients, then adding melted butter and an egg to make the dough, but with no raising agent. The dough looked good – it was fairly stiff, and once chilled it could be easily rolled into balls, then flattened and baked. I even added a criss-cross pattern with a fork, which provided a sort of portcullis look on the top of them. While they looked pretty good, and the flavour was decent, the lack of raising agent meant that they were thick and tough – these were not going to melt in the mouth, and I doubt that soaking them in tea or whisky would help soften them. Next!

My second attempt used the creaming method – whipping the butter and sugar, then mixing in the egg before adding the flour, ginger and treacle. This time the mixture seemed lighter and softer, and I assumed that the air I had beaten into it would mean that this batch would come out crisp and light. Well, nope. The spoonful of dough just baked into an unappealling lump of brown. I did try to rescue the dough with a spoonful of golden syrup and a teaspoon of baking soda, but the result looked horrible, and managed to taste worse than it looked. Next!

By my third attempt, I realised that since I had no clue what I was actually aiming for, I should go back to what I know about ginger biscuits. The mixture reminded me of gingernuts, but without any raising agent. I felt that the lack of anything to give them a lift might have been authentic, but it was also grim, and we live in a modern world where we don’t need to eat grim biscuits. I needed something for lift, and decided on baking soda. So my version of parlies are actually gingernuts, but with the sweet golden syrup replaced with the dark, spicy and tangy black treacle, and a bit of chopped cyrstallised ginger for extra spice.

This time, they worked like a dream – just mix all the dry ingredients, work in the butter, then add the treacle. The dough is easy to work and roll into balls, and in the oven, then collapse, take on an attractive random cracked appearance. Once cool, they are light and crisp. Perfect!

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So there you have it – my take on parlies! They might not be authentic, but I like to think that Mrs Flockhart might have approved (she did sell the round ones too, after all!). And I think they make a passable attempt and the black treacle is a definite nod to the original, and it adds an interesting flavour to them. If you’re not a fan of black treacle, you could use sweeter molasses, or if you like things very sugary, just use golden syrup and call them gingernuts. That still sounds rather Scottish, doesn’t it?

To make parlies (makes 20):

• 110g plain flour
• 1 teaspoon baking soda
• 1 teaspoon ground ginger

• 40g soft brown sugar
• 50g butter
• 1 teaspoon candied ginger, finely chopped
• 2 tablespoons (50g) black treacle or molasses

1. Preheat the oven to 190°C and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

2. Put the flour, baking soda and ground ginger in a bowl. Mix in the sugar, then rub in the butter until it resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Mix in the chopped ginger.

3. Add the treacle and mix to a stiff dough.

4. Divide into 20 pieces (roll into a sausage of 20cm, the cut into 1cm pieces). Roll each piece into a ball, then place on the baking sheet and flatten slightly. They will spread out, so leave plenty space between them. It is easier to bake them in batches.

5. Bake for 10-15 minutes until the cookies have spread out and have a cracked appearance. They will be soft when they come out of the oven, but will go hard once cooled.

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Roasted White Chocolate

I’m really not one for following food trends. This nothing to do with me seeking to take some sort of stand about my intellectual and culinary independence and trying to set myself up as some sort of anti-trend baker – I mean, have you actually seen my annual festive baking bonanza? No, it is just the case that trends tend to very easily pass me by. It’s not that I don’t enjoy new things, but the various commitments of daily life mean I’m picking up on things as they are lukewarm, rather than fresh-from-the-oven hot. The result? I come to a lot of things rather late in the day. So I appreciate that roasted white chocolate has been around for a while, but it sounds interesting, so I thought I would give it a whirl.

There were two things that really appealed to me about trying roasted white chocolate. First, you only need one ingredient – a bar of decent white chocolate. Chop it, put it on a tray, heat in a low oven and move it about from time to time until it is of the desired colour. Dead easy! Second, I have very fond childhood memories of the Caramac bar (don’t judge!). It seemed like caramel chocolate to me back then, even if the wrapper carefully avoided the word “chocolate”, so I expected this little experiment to have a similar flavour, albeit one that was perhaps just a hint more sophisticated!

Making this roasted chocolate was an absolute breeze – I took a bar, chopped it into small-ish pieces, tried to artfully arrange it on the tray for a picture, and then put in my (fan) oven at 120°C. I did this on greaseproof paper as I didn’t want to scorch the chocolate on the metal baking sheet, and to make it easier to work it once melted.

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Now, this is the point at which you’ll find out whether your oven is accurate, or is running hot. The chocolate should melt, then after 10 minutes, you can spread it out with a spatula. Then keep cooking for 10 minutes, mix and spread, and repeat until the chocolate gets to the right deep nutty colour.

The first bake melted the chocolate, but not in the way you would see with milk or dark chocolate – the pieces held their shape but looked slumped. Try to imagine saggy chocolate chunks! It was almost as if the whole pile of chocolate looked a little bit sad. But working with a spatula turned the whole lot silky-smooth in an instance. Then it went back in the oven.

Now, after this second baking I suspected that my oven was indeed a little warmer than it should be if the various dials and knobs are to be trusted. This was the step where I saw the biggest single colour change – it had gone from pure ivory white to a light golden colour. The chocolate also had a rather grainy look, but this was easy to fix – again, just scrape the chocolate into the middle, work with the spatula, and spread out again.

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After adjusting the heat down a little, it was a case of baking the chocolate for 10 minutes, removing from the oven, scraping into the middle, working it with the spatula, spreading it out again and putting it back in the oven over and over until the colour gets deeper and deeper, ending up like a delicious caramel.

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All in all, this took about 2 hours from start to finish, but it really needs next to no culinary skills at all. I have no idea if you could just put the chocolate in the oven and leave it there, but it does not demand too much work to work the chocolate from time to time. You just need to be at home tidying up the kitchen cupboards, writing a novel or doing your tax return (or whatever else you do when pottering at home in January).

The flavour is, as you would expect, like white chocolate with a caramel flavour. I thought it was utterly delicious, probably more delicious than it should taste given how easy it was to do. But what can you do with roasted white chocolate beyond eating it with a spoon behind a locked door? This stuff will set – I spread it out thinly, left it to set, and then cut it into triangles to nibble on from time to time. I also lightly sprinkled powdered salt onto the still-melted chocolate to enhance the flavour, which gave it something of a salted caramel flavour.

You could also use this stuff for dipping things, spreading on top of traybakes or as a filling for biscuits, and it could also be used to make icing or ganache if you add a little bit of double cream. The only thing that you need to know is that the texture does seem to be affected by the process – the chocolate triangles I made didn’t have a snap to them – so I don’t know if you could temper this stuff to get a decent snap and shine. Maybe you can, but chances are that it probably won’t survive long enough for anyone to find out – it’s too good to resist for long!

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This time…no recipe! It’s just a bar of chocolate, you, your oven and a spatula!

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Twelfth Night

Christmas Day has passed, and all the presents have been opened. The cats have played with the paper, and now retired back to their favourite sleeping spots. In our house, everything comes down on 1 January. I know you can keep the decorations up until Twelfth Night (the evening before Epiphany, commemorating the day that the Three Wise Men finally reached the manger) but I like the feeling of packing everything away on New Year’s Day. Perhaps that speaks to my moderation when it came to champagne this year?

While I love all the baking at Christmas, in some ways, I’m also really quite happy to be away from my kitchen. Yes, you’ve probably realised that I’ve just finished my fifth annual Christmas Baking Challenge. I’ve had a look at what I wrote in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014, and I recognise all the usual pledges that I made. I’ll be more organised. I’ll plan. I’ll be realistic about how difficult the recipes can be and how many cookies my friends can eat. And then I recognise that I just love the challenge, with the thrill of trying to do it all before 25 December. I mean…how do I even find the time to get all that baking done at the time of year that is packed with things to do and various social events?

So here’s to my 2015 edition of the Twelve Bakes of Christmas! I feel that this year I’ve been able to go back to more traditional recipes from European baking traditions (compared to my 2014 series), and I’ve really enjoyed digging around in some of the very location baking that goes in, particular in Italy and Switzerland. I loved making the mendiants and I’m so happy I’ve finally managed to crack the secret of tempering chocolate properly. The spicy Danish brunkager were a real hit, and the Italian cuccidati fig rolls were a pleasant surprise –  quite a few folk remarked that they were like a fancy version of a mince pie, with all that dried fruit and spice in them. But for me, there were two clear breakout stars this year – the dark, chocolately Basler Brunsli and the orange-perfumed ricciarelli, both of which flew off the serving plates, and were so simple to bake.

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As I’ve done in past years, here are the original lyrics from the Twelve Days of Christmas (which was my original inspiration for the Twelve Days of Baking Challenge) with each of my recipes next to them. Again, you can see there is absolutely no correlation. Not a jot. None whatsoever! Well, other than the Pfeffernüsse might look like goose eggs if your eyesight is not good…

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

…twelve Drummers Drumming (Austrian Vanillekipferl)…
…eleven Pipers Piping (Italian Cuccidati)…
…ten Lords-a-Leaping (Italian Ricciarelli)…
…nine Ladies Dancing (Danish Brunkager)…
…eight Maids-a-Milking (Italian Mostaccioli Napoletani)…
…seven Swans-a-Swimming (German Anisplätzchen)…
…six Geese-a-Laying (German Citrus Pfeffernüsse)…
…five Gold Rings (Spanish Truchas de Navidad)…
…four Colly Birds (Swiss Basler Brunsli)…
…three French Hens (French Mendiants)…
…two Turtle Doves (Swiss Mailänderli)…
…and a Partridge in a Pear Tree (Dutch Taaitaai)!

So that is that for another year! But fret not, there will be plenty of posts during 2016, and I’ll be starting with the Twelve Bakes of Christmas all over again next December. If you’ve got ideas, hints, tips or suggestions, please let me know! Any recipes with strange ingredients or requiring some funny mould or tool are particularly welcome. And if they come with an interesting or amusing story behind them, so much the better!

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