Greetings of the season to each and every one of you! Yes, it’s that time of year again when we’re back with another edition of the Twelve Days of Festive Baking!
Did you miss me? I’ve missed you. But blogging has not felt like a priority this year. Work, home schooling, lockdowns and the like have left us all frazzled, and I was frankly a bit baked-out from last year. Even as a keen baker there is a limit to how many cakes and cookies you can or should consume when not really going far from the house.
As we head into the final weeks of 2021, we can look back on what has been one heck of a year. When we finished 2020, we reflected on a year which turned so many lives upside-down. We got used to new ways of living, we wondered what changes were here to say, and we shared the losses of so many. And I think many of us imagined that 2021 was somehow going to be a lot better; we invested emotionally in the promise of New Year’s Eve, only for those of us here in London to go right back into a lockdown and another round of trying to coax recalcitrant children to do their schoolwork. But the year did get brighter. We travelled. We reconnected. We even got to be spontaneous. But now many parts of Europe are going back into various levels of restrictions. It’s not easy, and we need to seek comfort and reassurance in whatever ways we can.
So having said that, let’s embark on our annual festive frolic with our tempting dozen delights from around the world. We can still visit lots of places via their culinary heritage, in the anticipation of actually being able to physically travel again at some point in 2022…
Our first festive treat comes from the country of Georgia. If you love honey and nuts, then this little taste from the Caucus mountains is just the thing for you.
I just happened across the recipe, and it proved to be the trigger for doing the 2021 series. I was in two minds about whether to do it this year with all that is going on, but in the end I was drawn to the comfort of tradition and familiarity. Having decided to do it, I would love to say that there are lots and lots of recipe out there that I still need to try and that I’m loving exploring them. The reality is I’m now into the 11th cycle of my Twelve Days of Festive Baking (which means 132 separate festive recipes!).
As a consequence I’ve already made lots of the more familiar recipes, so I need to look harder and harder to find inspiration. I’ve got a few criteria: things need to look interesting; they need to be somehow distinctive; and I like them to come from a specific place. Bonus points if they feature a novelty ingredient or need a special culinary tool. This means each year there is an ever-increasing need for detective work to get ideas, but it also means I get to explore food cultures I’m less familiar with. That is always a good thing. Actually I find it curious that thanks to pure happenstance one recipe is very well known, while another – which might be even more delicious – remains tucked away and known only in its home territory.
So I was frankly delighted when I was leafing through my copy of a Dorie Greenspan cookie book, and found this recipe. An interesting approach, great flavours, and from a new country for our Christmas baking list. It just had to feature.
The ingredient list for gozinaki is short – walnuts, honey, sugar – and you probably have these things in the cupboard already. Essentially this is like making praline or nut brittle, but the texture should be a little softer. They remind me very much of those little sesame brittle bars you get in health food stores, and which I remember consuming as a child on the basis they were a “healthy snack”. Were they really healthy? I’m not sure that lots of sugar counts, but they sure were tasty.
Given there are so few ingredients here, you want to make them shine. Toasting the walnuts lightly will bring out their flavour. And you also want a decent honey. Don’t use the expensive stuff that you bought on holiday (holidays – remember those?), as you’re going to boil it, but something that has a bit of flavour will serve you well. I used a decent runny honey and added a couple of teaspoons of Scottish heather honey for flavour while not overpowering the recipe.
Walnuts are traditional and feature in most Georgian recipe websites, and are also favoured by Dorie. But you can easily use other nuts if you prefer – hazelnuts, almonds or pecans would all be good, albeit less authentic. However, you can also avoid nuts completely. Sunflower and pumpkin seeds also feature in some websites, and will also develop a rich, nutty flavour when lightly toasted. One tip here is that you are best to start off with more nuts (or seeds) than you need, and chop by hand to get pieces about the size of a grain of puffed rice. Next, sieve the nuts to remove any power. This is actually just ground nuts and can be used in another recipe, but the sieving will help you avoid them mixture getting claggy when you mix in the caramel.
And so to the baking. I’ve stuck with Dorie’s version on the basis “who am I to question?” but with one small tweak. I’ve added a dash of sea salt, which was ground to a fine powder. I thought this would help provide just the slightest balance to the sweetness of the honey and sugar and makes for a more complex flavour profile. This really is about a tiny enhancement, and I was not aiming for a salty-sweet taste.
The method is fairly simple. Just make sure that you take the usual sensible precautions when you are working with very hot sugar (keep children and pets in another room), have everything ready so you can move quickly once the honey-nut mixture is up to temperature, and remember that greaseproof paper and silicone spatulas will serve you well here. You’re basically in a race against time to transfer the mixture to a tray, flatten it out, and then score it so that you’ll be able to get pretty diamond shapes rather than a tray of something that looks like shattered glass. Even if you struggle with the shapes it will still taste wonderful, but if you can get looks and flavour, then so much the better.
The big question: how do they taste? I thought they would be really sweet, but as you are using a lot of nuts in this recipe, they were surprisingly balanced. Very nutty, then sweet from the honey, so much so that they did seem to be more like a cookie than a piece of candy. And the salt was a smart addition too. But labels don’t matter, suffice to say they taste great and make a superb addition to a holiday cookie platter when arranged to form a dazzling golden star.
To make Gozinaki (makes around 30 pieces)
• 300g chopped walnuts (weight after sieving)
• 170g honey
• 100g white sugar
• 1/8 teaspoon flaky salt, finely ground
• neural oil, for greasing
1. Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper and rub lightly with neutral oil. Get a silicone spatula and keep it to hand.
2. Toast the nuts. Put them into a clean frying pan. On the lowest heat, gently toast until lightly golden. It is important to stir them constantly and watch like a hawk – they go from toasted to burnt very fast. When done, pour onto a plate (do not leave in the pan – they will keep cooking and burn). Set the warm walnuts to one side.
3. Make the syrup. Put the honey and sugar into a medium saucepan. Heat until the sugar has dissolved, then bring to a rolling boil. You can either use the scientific method and cook it to 120°C/250°F on a candy thermometer, or drop a little of the mixture into a glass of cold water. It first it should form a stringy-looking mass, but when it starts to form clear flattened balls, you’re good.
4. Remove the pan from the heat. Immediately add the warm nuts and salt, and stir vigorously. Quickly transfer to the baking sheet. Use a silicone spatula to press and shape the mass into a large rectangle, around 1cm deep. You can use a silicone rolling pin to get it smooth, or you can use a normal rolling pin and place a sheet of oiled greaseproof paper on top before rolling.
5. While still warm and pliable, cut the gozinaki. Get a very sharp knife, and rub lightly with oil. Cut the rectangle into whatever shapes you like. You may need to clean and re-oil the knife several times. Diamond shapes are traditional, but you can also cut squares or triangles.
6. Leave to cool completely. Store in an airtight container (if it is not airtight, the gozinaki will go soft and sticky).