Category Archives: Recipe

{3} Biscotti di Regina

Biscotti di Regina originate from Sicily, and the name means “queen’s cookies”. I’m not sure if they are named for or after a particular queen, but with a name like that, they are promising a lot!

These delightful little morsels are sweet and buttery, with a coating of sesame seeds the pop slightly when you bite into them. They also look very pretty, as the seeds form a neat pattern on the outside of the dough. I think they are a nice addition to the festive table, providing a contrast to all that chocolate, ginger, citrus and dried fruit. Yes, I know, shocking to believe that those flavours can all get a bit much, but sometimes you want something simple to enjoy with a cup of tea.

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I think these cookies have something of a Middle Eastern flavour, what with the sesame seeds and orange blossom water. Hardly surprising when you think about the history of trade across the Mediterranean.

However, if you want to play around with the flavours, you could swap the vanilla and orange blossom water for something else – aniseed is a typically Italian choice, and orange or lemon zest would add a stronger citrus note than the orange blossom water. If you’re feeling particularly creative, you could really depart from Italian flavours, and add things  like cardamom or even rose water. There are even versions that use saffron, if you want cookies with a spectacular golden glow.

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These biscotti are very straightforward to make – just rub the butter into the dry ingredients, then add egg and flavourings to get a soft dough that is just very slightly sticky. You’re rolling these guys in seeds, so you want it to be a bit sticky. If it is clinging to your fingers in great lumps, you’ve probably got too much liquid, so just add a bit more flour.

I shaped the biscotti by rolling into balls, then flattening into a squat sausage shape, so when they baked they formed an oval shape. If you prefer, roll them into very long, thin fingers for a more elegant shape to dip in coffee or vin santo, and adjust the baking time accordingly. For finishing, I used hulled white sesame seeds, which I think makes them look quite festive, almost like they’re coated in snowflakes. If you’re feeling adventurous, add a few black sesame seeds for some contrast, or go the whole hog and roll them in only black sesame seeds for a dramatic look.

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To make Biscotti di Regina (makes 30)

For the dough:

• 375g plain flour
• 225g butter
• 150g caster sugar
• 1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder
• 1/2 teaspoon of salt
• 1 egg
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1 teaspoon orange blossom water
• cold milk, to bind

To decorate:

• 100g sesame seeds

1. Preheat the oven to 175°C (350°F) and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

2. In a bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Add the butter and work until it resembles breadcrumbs.

3. Beat the egg with the vanilla and orange blossom water. Add to the main bowl, and work to a smooth dough. If necessary, add cold milk, a tablespoon at a time, to bring the mixture together. It should be firm, but slightly sticky.

4. Divide the dough into three batches. Roll each piece into a long sausage about 30cm long, and cut into 10 pieces (3cm each).

5. Roll each piece into a ball, then form into a sausage shape between your hands. Roll in the sesame seeds to coat completely, then transfer to a baking sheet (leave enough space between each piece to expand).

6. Bake for around 25 minutes until golden, turning after 15 minutes to get an even bake.

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{2} Sandkaker

Sandkaker are a Norwegian Christmas cookie. Their name means literally “sand cookies” and reflects their golden colour and crisp-yet-crumbly texture. They often form part of the Norwegian tradition of syv slags kaker (seven sorts of cookie) whereby home bakers get themselves in a frenzy of flour, butter, sugar and festive flavours to produce an impressive selection of sweet treats. There isn’t a fixed list of what comprises the magic seven, so I like to imagine Norwegians quietly judging each other’s efforts after a few glasses of warm, boozy gløgg. If you’re keen to make some other Norwegian treats, I’ve made serinakaker and sirupsnipper and mor monsens kake in the past (so that’s four down, three to go to…).

So what are sandkaker? Well, they’re certainly, ahm, unusual. They are made with a buttery almond dough that is pressed into intricate tartlet moulds, and they look like…well…empty upside-down tartlets! I’ve come across all sorts of weird and wonderful Christmas baking in previous years, but this one might just take the biscuit (ha – bad pun!). For I have made cookies that have to be cut out with special cutters, or pressed into shape, or shaped in intricate ways, or decorated in a particular (i.e. time-consuming) way. But cookies that look like unfilled tarts? Well, you have to admit that this really is just a little bit odd!

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I could wax lyrically about the beautiful shapes and delicate flavours, but it is just plain strange that you would serve guests what looks like a tray of pastries without a nice filling. I mean…surely the filling is the whole point of a tart? And I’m not even that fussy when it comes to sweet treats – I’ll go for fruit, cream or chocolate, they will all do me just fine!

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But…having said all that…sandkaker are really rather nice. What you need to get your head around is that these are not pastry shells waiting to be filled, but cookies in their own right. The dough is rich – buttery and sweet – and I’ve flavoured it with vanilla and almond extract (or you can use ground cardamom, which is also a popular flavour).

The dough would make great cookies just rolled out and cut into shape, so shaping the dough by pressing it into intricate moulds is really just a way of making them look fancier than roll-and-cut cookies. And as you can see, they do look very pretty indeed on the plate!

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After making these, I don’t have too many insights to share as they are fairly easy to make. I did think that it might be easier to roll out the dough and lay it into the tartlet shells like pastry, but this is dough, not pastry, and it was too fragile to roll out successfully. As long as you keep the dough chilled, it is very easy to push into the moulds (which in fairness is what every other recipe suggests doing, so lesson learned there!). Try to keep the cookies thin, and prick the base with a cocktail stick – I found that the bottoms puffed up a little and stayed pale, but pricking a few holes let any steam escape, ensuring the base (or top!) would become golden. If you don’t have fluted tartlet moulds, you can still make them with a non-stick muffin tray (except you won’t have the fancy fluted finish).

The real fun comes with getting the sandkaker out of their moulds. They did seem to stick a little, and I did panic at first. I tried prising them out with a knife, but it turned out for me that the easiest way to get them out was to let them cool for a few minutes after baking, then to drop them onto a wooden worktop. After a couple of drops, they would just pop out of the tin. Simple!

If you do make them, just be ready for your guests to ask where the filling is, and snap back (tartly – ha!) that they’re supposed to be like that. Or if you are feeling generous, use them like tartlet cases, fill with some whipped cream and add a little jam with a Scandinavian flavour like cloudberry or blueberry.

To make Sandkaker (makes around 40)

• 170g unsalted butter
• 150g caster sugar
• 120g ground almonds
• 1 teaspoon almond extract
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1 large egg
• 250g plain flour

1. In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the ground almonds, almond extract, vanilla and the egg and mix well.

2. Add the flour and mix to a smooth dough – it should come together but will be fairly soft. Wrap in cling film and chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.

3. Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F).

4. Very lightly butter some small fluted tartlet cases. Pinch off pieces of the chilled dough, and use your fingers to press into the tins until you have an even, thin layer. Trim off any excess dough from the edges, and use a cocktail stick to prick a few small holes in the bottom.

5. Bake in batches – put 10-15 filled tartlet cases on a baking sheet. Bake for 10-12 minutes until golden, turning half-way to ensure an even bake. Remove from the oven and leave to cool for a few minutes, then remove the sandkaker from the moulds. Leave on a wire rack to cool completely.

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Just Jammin’

Yes, I’m finally back! Not quite 10 months since my last past, but that is still one looooong blogging hiatus. And it is all down to me trying to get to grips with parenthood. I’ve discovered that I’m better at this whole lark than I ever thought I would be. But what happened to my time? I somewhat naively imagined that I would have at least some time to indulge my hobbies in between trips to the playground, making wholesome baby food, and becoming an expert of the best children’s programming that Cbeebies has to offer. Well, that was just pie in the sky! In fact, I don’t think I’ve even managed to read a whole novel in the last six months. And no, reading That’s not my bunny/reindeer/cow/dinosaur twice each day doesn’t count.

That said, things are now finally getting back to something that looks a bit more like normal, even if I have had to completely accept that our lives have also changed completely and forever, and that we’re really adjusting to the “new normal”. This also means that I am sometimes able to get back into the kitchen and cook and bake for pleasure, rather than to meet the demands of a hungry little mouth who wants meatballs right now. Of course there is always the threat that a little someone will wake up, so I won’t be tackling projects that require a good four or five hours to complete, so that’s most of the Great British Bake-Off technical challenges off limits for the next couple of years. Hey ho…

Today I thought I would ease back in with something simple and delicious – some lovely raspberry jam that I recently made. It would be wonderful to tell you that the fruit was picked just moments before making the jam from a row of plants at the end of my garden, but I am not that fortunate. The garden revamp is on the cards for next year, and I will be putting in some fruit bushes and trees. In the meantime I did the next best thing for use city folk. We headed to a pick-our-own farm outside London (Crockford Bridge Farm if you’re keen to do the same). And yes, you’ve spotted that I combined fruit picking with a kid-friendly day out.

Luckily for us (if not the local children) most of the schools had gone back after the summer holiday when we got there, so we were able to enjoy bucolic scenes of fields and blue skies all to ourselves. We worked our way through plump blackberries, the last strawberries of summer, more courgettes than I’ve ever seen and rows of enticing ruby raspberries.

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All of this took me back to childhood summers spent picking raspberries in rural Perthshire. And the irony was not lost on me that I was now paying for the privilege of picking fruit, rather than being paid to pick it!

But it was still a glorious day out, and our two little helpers even managed to resist eating more than one or two berries before we got them weighed and coughed up the cash. And the fact that my lad and his little friend fell fast asleep almost instantly on the way home thanks to all that fresh air? Priceless!

So once I was home with this fruit, I had to think about what I was going to do with it. Some got eaten straight away, but for most of the raspberries, they just had to go into some jam. I had been thinking about this all along, as I had made sure to include a few slightly under-ripe berries to get enough pectin in the jam to ensure a good set.

Raspberry jam is one of my absolute favourites. The flavour is sweet and tart, fruity and fragrant. It is also really so simple to make, so great for a preserving novice, and easy to get a good set without too much trouble. When you get into jams and marmalades, you will obsess about the setting point – is it ready? Do I need to boil it for longer? Did I make a mistake using normal sugar rather than jam sugar? But these are usually non-issues if you are using raspberries!

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Some recipes suggest mashing up the fruit and letting it sit overnight, but I find that you don’t need to wait that long. Throw the fruit and sugar in a pan, mash it up and let it sit for 20 minutes or so. The sugar will start to dissolve in the fruit and draw out the juice. Then it is a simple case of bringing the lot to a boil, adding some lemon juice at the right moment, and that’s more or less it. Then in no time you can be enjoying colourful, fragrant and deliciously tart raspberry jam on scones, toast or even swirled through natural yoghurt.

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To make raspberry jam (makes 3 x 450g jars)

• 750g raspberries
• 750g granulated white sugar
small knob of unsalted butter, size of a hazelnut (optional)
• juice of 1 lemon

1. Pick through the berries to make sure there is no spoiled fruit or insects lurking in there. Put the raspberries and sugar in a heavy saucepan. Roughly mash until the fruit and sugar are mixed, then cover and leave to sit for 20 minutes.

 2. Place the pan over a medium heat until it comes to a boil. Add the lemon juice and butter if using(*), and cook on a rolling boil for 5 minutes. After this, start to check for a set (**).

3. When you have a set, remove the jam from the heat and leave to sit for 10 minutes (it will thicken slightly – this helps to ensure the pips are evenly distributed in the jam and don’t sink). Decant the hot jam into sterilised jam jars(***), seal and leave to cool.

(*) Butter in jam? I find this helps to reduce the amount of scum that forms on top of the jam during cooking – and sometimes the scum will vanish completely when the jam is left to cool before being put into jars!

(**) How to check for a set? Use a thermometer and check the jam has reached 106°C (223°F). Or drop some jam on a chilled plate – allow to cool for a moment. Push with your finger – it should wrinkle. If you don’t get a wrinkle, boil the jam for 2 more minutes then test again. I actually do both tests – I use the electronic thermometer, then drop some jam on a plate, because this is what my mum did and I like doing it!

(***) How to sterilise jam jars? Wash in hot, soapy water, and then rinse very well – do not dry them. Now place up-side down on the shelf of a cold oven, and heat to 100°C / 210°F for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven using gloves, allow to cool slightly (they should still be warm) and fill with the hot jam. You can leave the jars in the oven with the heat turned off until you need them, as this keeps the glass warm, and warm glass is much less likely to crack when you add warm jam (science, eh?). Remember to sterilise the lids by washing in hot, soapy water, then rinsing well and then boiling them in a pot of hot water for a few minutes

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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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{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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{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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{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.

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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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{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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