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Twelfth Night Approacheth…

When did you put the decorations up in 2020? A lot of our neighbours started early. I think I saw the first lights going up in late October, and there were definitely a few trees that stood proudly in bay windows, drowning in ornaments, from the first few weeks of November.

We actually decided to wait, and our decorations only went up around mid-December. This was also a very deliberate choice. 2020’s “Lockdown Christmas” needed all the help it could get to feel special, and I reasoned that if we waited as long as we could, we would have the thrill of anticipation, and it would all still feel quite special when Christmas Day rolled around. And I think it worked.

Then of course there is the question about when to take everything down again. Traditionally decorations are kept up until Twelfth Night, which can be either 5 or 6 January depending on whether you count the Twelve Days of Christmas as starting on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. In our house we side-step any bickering by taking them down on New Year’s Day. Maybe it is a sign of getting older that we are now up and about, with clear heads, early on 1 January. But it does also mean we start the New Year with a clean slate, the tree comes down, and suddenly the sitting room feels much bigger. I reckon that this year we also timed it just right – the tree still looked good, but another day or so and the needles would have been dropping all over the place.

In the midst of the lockdowns and social distancing (and the fact we in London are now going into our third lockdown in ten months…), I also overlooked the fact that this is the tenth instalment of my Twelve Days of Festive Baking. Number 10! That means that I’ve made a grand total of 120 recipes from various corners of the world. Goodness knows how much that must be in kilos of butter and sugar, or how many eggs were involved. And by now I’ve made a lot of the more well-known recipes, so each year gets more challenging and obscure. But then, that is a big part of the fun – trying new things and not really knowing how they will turn out or what they will (or should) taste like. It’s also fun hunting down some obscure ingredients. I know you can get a lot of them online, but I’m still analogue and like to find them in shops.

So a toast to my 2020 edition – a year we’re not madly keen on,  but at least if gave me the time to be at home and tackle some complex baking. I think we came up with a pretty wild and eclectic selection.

Finally, as I have done in previous years, I’ve matched the bakes to the original lyrics to the Twelve Days of Christmas to see if there is any sort of random correlation. So how did I compare to the carol?

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

…twelve Drummers Drumming (Greek Vasilopita)…
…eleven Pipers Piping (American Italian Rainbow Cookies)…
…ten Lords-a-Leaping (Norwegian Brune Pinner)…
…nine Ladies Dancing (Slovakian Oriešky)…
…eight Maids-a-Milking (Queen’s Cinnamon Stars)…
…seven Swans-a-Swimming (French Calissons)…
…six Geese-a-Laying (German Pulsnitzer Pfefferkuchen)…
…five Gold Rings (German Gebrannte Mandeln)…
…four Colly Birds (Norwegian Kakemenn)…
…three French Hens (Philippine Paciencias)…
…two Turtle Doves (Argentinean Alfajores)…
…and a Partridge in a Pear Tree (Italian Spongata di Natale)!

At a pinch, you could say that calissons recall elegant white swans, and that the gebrannte Mandeln are a rich, golden colour like the five rings, but that’s all a bit of a stretch. Overall though my favourites were the “Italian” Rainbow Cookies. Not as hard as I thought, and they tasted wonderful as well as looking utterly crazy. I’ll definitely make them again.

Now…time to think about recipes for 2021. Should I go for an “all-stars” edition (and reinterpret the most popular cookies from previous years), focus on cookies that are all about decoration and looks rather than traditional recipes, or hunt out another set of Twelve Festive Delights? Let me know what you think!


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{8} Queen’s Cinnamon Stars

Today’s festive delight is a right royal treat, quite literally.

I came across a recipe for Cinnamon Stars from the royal kitchens of Buckingham Palace (original here, including a video of how they do it). So, of course, I just had to have a go at making them.

These may be familiar to you as German Zimtsterne, or cinnamon stars. You start off making a dough with ground nuts and cinnamon, then finish them with a meringue topping. I’ve made cinnamon stars before, but they were a bit more basic.

The Queen’s version includes candied orange peel, a lot of cinnamon, and a dash of cloves. They are also topped with snow-white icing and feature a bit of elaborate piping. Very fancy, but you’d expect that if you’re ever popping round for a festive cuppa at the Palace.

When I read the recipe, I was convinced by the idea. However, I had a couple of quibbles with the method. The suggestion was to make a meringue, and use two-thirds of it to make the dough. Then you roll out the dough, cover it with the reserved meringue, and then cut out shapes. I think the idea is that the cookies are then pre-iced? Hmmm. This struck me as quite wasteful, as you would not be able to re-roll the offcuts since the meringue would make it all too sticky. Also I knew that smearing something with meringue was likely to be a messy affair with a child in the house who is enjoying touching everything within reach.

So I adapted the method. I adjusted the amounts of the meringue to start with – I made two-thirds of the amount to go in the dough, and would make the “missing” meringue later for the icing. Then I made and rolled the dough, cut out the shapes without the icing, and then I could happily gather the scraps and keep re-rolling until I was done. We did stars and moons (using a circular cutter and overlapping the cuts to get the right shape). Diamond shapes would also be good – easy with a knife, and I think rather fitting.

Once they were baked, I finished them off with the meringue royal icing suggested by the Palace. This looks like a bit of a pain to make, as you are essentially making thick icing and then thinning it down, and it would be easier just to make thinner royal icing to start with. However, the Palace’s approach results in a very light icing rather than one which cracks when you bite into it. You just need to be very, very patient as you sit down to finely ice all the cookies. Maybe that’s what the Palace’s all-in-one method is seeking to get round?

My split approach also had some extra benefits – the cookies looked very neat and the icing stayed perfectly white. I know that this all sounds terribly fiddly, but once you get into the swing of things, it’s the perfect sort of activity to do with a film or a radio play on in the background. And the final result is a tray of perfect-looking regal cookies.

In the Buckingham Palace version they are finished off with some sort of red jam in the centre and there is lots of intricate icing piped all over them. Piping icing is not one of my skills, and I don’t have the equipment to do it properly. I managed to find a small nozzle to give it a go, but I gave up around half-way. It looks kind of nice, but I don’t think it really adds that much to them overall unless this is something you are really good at. Of course, that might just be my frustration talking!

So all in all, were they worth making? Yes, I think so. They are up a level from my own take on cinnamon stars from a few years ago. The different technique to make the dough gives a far neater result, and I like the addition of the citrus peel and the hint of cloves. I would definitely make these again, but I’d perhaps use 50/50 ground hazelnuts and ground almonds. Then, my friends, I truly would have the ultimate cinnamon stars. I just won’t be piping decorations on top.

To make Queen’s Cinnamon Stars (my adapted, less wasteful approach)

For the dough

• 115g candied orange and lemon peel
• 240g icing sugar

• 55g egg whites (2 medium egg whites)
• 1 tablespoon lemon juice
• 300g ground almonds
• zest of 1/2 lemon or orange
• 5 teaspoons ground cinnamon
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

For the icing

• 1 medium egg white (30g)
• 225g icing sugar
• 1 teaspoon lemon juice
• water

1. Put the candied peel into a food processor. Blitz to a paste – you will need to scrape down the sides a few times to get it perfectly smooth.

2. In a very clean bowl, whisk the egg whites to soft peaks. Add half the icing sugar and whisk until it is well-combined. Add the lemon juice and the rest of the icing sugar. It will start off quite soft and wet, but keep beating until you have a soft meringue (more like the texture of floppy whipped cream). It might seem a bit wet at the start, but keep going and it will happen.

3. Add the candied peel paste and the rest of the ingredients to the meringue bowl. Mix well until it forms a dough. Don’t worry about being delicate with the dough, and towards the end you will have to use your hands. If it seems a bit sticky, add a few tablespoons of ground almonds. Wrap the dough in cling film and chill for an hour, or overnight.

4. Time to bake and shape. Preheat the oven to 160°C (320°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

5. Place the dough on a separate piece of greaseproof paper. Roll it out to 1cm thickness. Cut out shapes (stars, moons, diamonds…) and transfer to the baking sheet. Your cutters will get sticky, so keep a clean damp cloth to hand to wipe the edges often.

6. Bake the cookies for around 12 minutes, turning half-way to get an even bake. They will puff up slightly and darken a little on the edges. Remove from the oven and allow to cool on the tray for a couple of minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. They might seem quite hard at this stage, but they will soften.

7. Time to ice the cookies. Put the egg white into a bowl and whisk to soft peaks. Add the icing sugar and lemon juice, and beat well for several minutes until the mixture is thick and smooth – like the appetising texture of toothpaste. Now thin it down with water, a few drops at a time, until it is a flowing consistency. You want to be able to leave a trail on a plate that stays in place and does not run and spread. Put the icing into a piping bag with a small nozzle, and with a lot of patience, use to cover the tops of the cookies. Use a clean cocktail stick to manipulate the icing to cover any gaps. Leave in a dry place, away from children and pets, for the icing to dry.

Note: I found it easiest to ice the cookies one at a time – pipe on the icing to cover most of the top, then go in with the cocktail stick to tease the icing to cover any bald patches and burst any air bubbles. If you ice a few, then go in to clean up, the icing will be starting to set when you go back.


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Cake of the Week: Lemon Drizzle

You’ve had cookie of the week, so here is our first cake of the week! I’ve actually been quite blown away from the feedback on the first part of my lockdown baking, and one reader has even made the Fryske Dúmkes and confirms they are easy and delicious. The next cookie is coming tomorrow…

In the last few days it has started getting much warmer in London, and we’ve just had some glorious sunny days. It seems so strange to imagine a parallel world in which we’re off out in parks, walking by the river, thinking about a trip to Kew Gardens to see blossom and daffodils and planning Easter trips to beauty spots. But as temping as any of that might seem, it is all off limits as part of our efforts to support the greater good. Just peek out the windows and you will see rainbows painted by children reminding you to #StayHomeSaveLives. There has been some debate in the UK about exactly what the rules mean and how far people can interpret them. Personally I think it’s pretty obvious that we need to say at home, only shop for food once per week, and while we’re allowed out for exercise once per day. And in doing this, we need to avoid other people. Yes, it’s a pain, but if we all play our part, we can only hope that our corona lockdown will pass sooner.

What this period has enabled me to do is to fish out some craft ideas from deep in my memory for entertaining my son. The big hits this week were colour chromatography (separating the colours in ink using filter paper) and drawing out a map of the London Underground. He managed to do pretty much the whole thing from memory! Next week is the two-week Easter Holiday, so home school is shut and we’ll have holiday club based around “theme of the day”. Today was “France”, Tuesday is “London Transport”, Wednesday is “Plants” and the rest of the week is still under development. Ideas welcome!

Anyway, back to cake, as that’s what you’re here for. As spring creeps upon us, I decided to make a cake which has a little sunshine in in, and opted for lemon. This is one of the iconic British classics – it is a sponge loaf cake and while it is still warm you pour over a syrup of granulated sugar and lemon juice. Then you leave it to cool, and the glaze forms a crunchy, tangy glaze on top and makes sure that they cake is very moist. We’ve enjoyed it over the last week each afternoon. This is definitely one to have with a cup of tea (Earl Grey, pinkie raised) rather than coffee, and the bright, zesty flavour is a much needed pick-me-up as the afternoon air feels warm and pleasant.

If you want to play around with the flavour (or you need to make do with what you have at home) then you can use whatever citrus fruit you like. You could make it with just orange zest, go for a St Clements cake (orange and lemon, like the famous song) or make it even more tropical with lime. Grapefruit might even be interesting – but a caveat that I have not tried it, but if you do, let me know if it worked!

To make a Lemon Drizzle Cake (makes one 1lb loaf)

For the batter:

• 175g white caster sugar
• 175g softened butter
• zest of 1 lemon
• 3 medium eggs
• 175g self-raising flour
• 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
• 1 tablespoon milk

For the glaze:

• 100g granulated sugar
• juice of 1 lemon

1. Preheat the oven to 170ºC (340ºF). Line a loaf tin with greaseproof paper.

2.Put the eggs, sugar and lemon zest in a large bowl. Beat until pale, light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the flour and baking powder, and mix well. Finally add the milk and beat to a smooth batter.

3. Pour the batter into the prepared tin. Bake the cake for around 40 minutes. An inserted skewer should come out clean and the surface should be springy when lightly pushed. If it looks like it is getting too dark, cover it loosely with tin foil. When done, remove from the own and place on a wire rack. Do not remove from the tin.

4. Immediately make the glaze. In a bowl, mix the lemon juice and granulated sugar. Pour evenly over the warm cake, then leave to cool completely.

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{12} Sugar Cookie Fantasy

This is not the recipe that I planned for my final instalment of the 12 Bakes of Christmas, but for one reason that was very clear to me and will become obvious, it certainly felt like the right one to do.

We spent Christmas this year with family in Scotland, enjoying a frosted landscape, a crystal-clear Christmas day, good times and lots of lots of food. On Christmas Eve, I was in the kitchen with my son making cookies as we’d decided that asking a four-year-old to focus on an activity the night before getting presents was a really great idea! We also got a suggestion from school that this would be a great activity to try together over the holidays, so here we were. As we worked through the process of weighing out the ingredients, making the dough (after ensuring that hands were scrubbed and scrupulously clean!) and then rolling and shaping them, it occurred to me that this was what I should use to finish off this year’s serious. Maybe they’re not the most glamorous, the most sophisticated or the most unusual cookies in the world. But they are a first for me as I don’t think I’ve ever done a joint festive bake with someone else before, and definitely not with someone who is four-and-a-half.

Now, I’ll level with you. There was a high degree of oversight going on here. The making of the dough was messy fun and I was pretty related about that. It took less than 5 minutes so it was suited to the attention span of someone who was very, very excited.

But the cutting out of the cookies…aargh, that was a bit more of a battle of wills. The wee lad was enjoying himself with the same small bit of dough that was becoming mankier and mankier as it was worked repeatedly and got too soft as the butter in it melted. Sticky fingers went into his nose at least twice (and how do those hands get sticky right after being washed?). He managed to roll the dough out wafer-thin and cut in a manner that I’ll generously describe as creative. But never mind – he was having great fun with it. I was on the other side of the table, diligently rolling (clean) chilled dough out between sheets of parchment so that the cookies would hold their shape and bake properly. My assistant then happily came round and pressed down the various cutters, but wandered off to look at something to do with toy trains when it was time to transfer them to the baking sheet and deal with things like timers and making sure they were properly baked.

The dough recipe is very simple – it’s a basic shortbread-type cookie which I’ve flavoured with vanilla. However you can vary it a little bit too – add a few drops of almond extract instead, or flavour with grated lemon or orange zest. You can even swap some of the white caster sugar for soft brown sugar and add some mixed spices if you don’t feel you’ve yet had enough of ginger, cinnamon and cloves for the year.

If you’ve ever found yourself wanting to make one of those plates filled with many different types of cookie, this is a great recipe. The only limit is your imagination. I made this at my parents’ house where my mum had a set of circular and scalloped cutters. So here’s how we improvised:

To make moons: use a larger circle cutter, then take a smaller circle, offset it, and voila – you’ve got a moon shape.

To make wreaths or rings: use a circular or scalloped cutter to cut a shape, then use something small and circular to form the hole – be creative, it could be a large piping nozzle, an apple corer or the tube your vanilla pods come in!

To make hexagons: trace around a hexagonal jam jar.

To make squares: freestyle them with a good sharp knife.

To make triangles: again, freestyle!

For decoration, again you are only limited by your ingenuity. Here are a couple of ideas you can use before the cookies go in the oven:

For the almonds wreaths: I just brushed them with a little milk so the surface was tacky (actually I used my index finger). Then I sprinkled some with crushed flakes almonds.

For the sugar rings: brush them with some milk, then sprinkle with granulated sugar (the bigger crystals give a bit more sparkle and crunch).

For the nut stars: brush them with milk, then sprinkle with some finely chopped pecans in the centre, and cover with more granulated sugar. I also drizzled them with some white icing once they had baked and cooled.

Once you’ve baked your cookies, there is another quick trick that makes simple cookies seem more fancy. Use dark or milk chocolate, as I did on some other stars, and drizzle it in stripes. I think it makes them seem quite sophisticated. Before the chocolate sets you can also sprinkle over some nuts – flaked almonds, chopped hazelnuts of pieces of pistachio.

Buuuuuuut…of course the main show is cookies covered in a sweet coating of icing. I think tis is what springs to mind for many people when they think of sugar cookies. I’ve seen those little films on YouTube where someone using little piping bags to create amazing intricate designs, and while I can definitely recognize the skill that goes into that, it is not really my thing. If you want to do that, you need to use royal icing. I prefer the lazier route, which means mixing up a simple thick water icing, and just applying it carefully using a spoon or a table knife as neatly as I can. It’s fairly easy – you want it to be thick and only just settle back and go smooth when you stop touching it. The key here is to add less water than you think you need – if the stuff is flowing easily from your spoon, you’ve got too much liquid in there. Once the consistency is right, add some sprinkles and you’re done.

And that’s how I made this impressive platter of shapes and cookie types from a single batch of dough and with a bit of ingenuity in the kitchen. The one thing I have not mentioned is where that bright pink came from. I kid ye not, this was made from the skin of about 10 black grapes. I peeled them, mixed them with a bit of water, blitzed them in the microwave for a minute, then pulverized them with a spoon. I mixed the resulting liquid with the icing sugar and a few drops of lemon juice, and I got that lovely deep shade of fuchsia.

Now that that we’ve got white icing and pink icing, you might be able to guess how I did those marbled cookies – I just covered one half with the white icing, the other with the pink, then used the back of a spoon to roughly mix the two of them to end up with the duotone effect.

And with that, it’s time for me to sign off from the 2019 edition of the 12 Bakes of Christmas! As in previous years, I’ve had great fun making these recipes, and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about them and seeing the pictures of the fruits of my efforts. I’ll be hanging up the apron for a little while, and will take the chance to reflect on what I’ve managed to learn this time around!

To make sugar cookies (makes around 30-35 cookies depending on size)

For the dough

• 115g unsalted butter
• 100g white caster sugar
• 1 medium egg
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• pinch of salt
• 240g plain flour (plus more if needed)
• 1 teaspoon baking powder

To decorate

• 100g icing sugar
• water
• colouring (optional)
• sprinkles

1. Put the butter, sugar and salt in a bowl. Beat until light and fluffy.

2. Add the egg and whisk well until the mixture of smooth and light. Beat in the vanilla (or other flavourings if using).

3. Combine in the flour and baking powder, then add to the bowl. Mix with a spoon, then finish with your hands. Add more flour if necessary to get a soft dough that is not sticky, and comes away from the bowl. Wrap in cling film and chill for at least an hour, or overnight.

4. When you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F) and line two baking sheets with greaseproof paper.

5. Roll the dough to around 1/2 cm thickness, and cut out whatever shapes take your fancy. Transfer them to the baking sheet, the pop the sheet in the fridge for 2 minutes. I recommend baking cookies of a similar size on the same sheet – if you bake small and large together, the smaller ones can burn before the big ones are ready.

6. Bake the cookies for around 12 minutes, turning half-way to get an even colour. They are done when they are lightly browned around the edges, so go by eye and keep a close watch. Remove from the oven and transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

7. To make the icing, put the icing sugar in a bowl. Add some colour and then water, a few drops at a time, until you get a smooth but very thick paste. When you stop stirring, it should slowly fall back and the surface should be smooth. If it is at all runny, it is too thin – add more icing sugar. Put some in the middle of the cookie, then use a spoon to spread it evenly. When you’re happy with it, add sprinkles before starting the next cookie. Alternatively, you can put some icing in a small piping bag or drizzle it from the back of a spoon to make lines across the cookie.


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{10} Navettes de Marseille

My tenth recipe in this year’s Twelve Days of Baking is one I had not originally planned to feature. This was supposed to have been something very different indeed. I had planned to make an Icelandic shortbread and prune cake called Vínarterta. The idea is to make between five and eight layers of thin shortbread, then between each add some prune jam, to get an attractive layered effect. Well, I made it, I tasted it, and it was awful. It was the sensation can best be described as an excess of butter combined with thrill of prunes. I think I’d managed to get the whole concept of the Vínarterta very wrong. Plenty of people have made it and seem to like it, so perhaps I’ll have a go at it another time, but this year it just didn’t make the cut. After all the effort that went into the one that didn’t work, I just could not face the idea of going through it all again. So if you every wonder if I try making something and fail at it – yes, it does happen, and those recipes don’t appear on here.

So…what do we have instead of the Icelandic cake of terror? We’ve headed back instead to the loving embrace of la douce France, and I’ve made navettes de Marseille which I came across when I was researching the pompe a l’huile. I had originally made a note that they might be one for next year, so here they are! The word navette might be familiar today as the term for a shuttle bus, but it used to have a nautical connection, which makes sense as Marseille is port town.

Navettes are cookies that can appear as part of the Thirteen Desserts in the Provençal Christmas tradition. They are simple light sweet biscuits made with olive oil and orange blossom water. The texture is rather like biscotti, as they are made with egg as the binding agent, but perhaps less hard and crisp. The good news is that they are an absolute doddle to make (which was also a sweet relief for me – that Icelandic thing had 15 layers in it between the cake and the prunes!). While orange blossom water is traditional, there are other flavours emerging, with one of the more popular being aniseeed. I could imagine they would look very striking if you used saffron, and you could get festive and add seasonal spices, but you’re probably straying rather far from the originals if you get too wacky. Personally I quite like orange blossom so I wasn’t in the mood for any experimentation here.

For me the fun bit was in the shaping. You just roll them into a sausage, pinch the ends, then slice along them. You can open this a little bit, and it opens up a further during baking. They end up looking live a cross between little loaves of bread, a boat, and a pea pod! Now I have seen different sizes of navettes ranging from big to bite-sized. I went for ones on the larger size in part because I’ve got small cookies galore in the kitchen at the moment, and in part because I was too lazy to make them smaller. I think the larger size also avoids them looking too much like doggie treats!

My navettes reminded me of Middle Eastern pastries and would be excellent with coffee or green or mint tea. While my navettes were very hard after baking, they did seem to soften when left out overnight. I sorted this by letting them dry in a very low oven (maybe 70°C) to get that very dry, crisp texture.

To make navettes de Marseilles (makes 10)

• 100g sugar
• 1 medium egg
• pinch of salt
• 250g plain flour
• 3 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 tablespoon orange blossom water
• zest of 1 orange

1. In a bowl, mix the sugar, egg and pinch of salt until the mixture is pale and fluffy (about 2 minutes). Stir in the orange blossom water and orange zest, then gently fold in the olive oil.

2. Gradually add the flour. Start with a spatula, then you will have to finish off with your hands to make sure the dough is properly mixed! If it is too moist, add a bit more flour but it will still have a very slight stickiness. Cover with a clean tea towel and leave to rest for an hour at room temperature.

3. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

4. Roll the dough into a long sausage, then cut into 10 equal pieces (or weigh the dough and form 10 equal pieces). Roll each piece into a ball, then form into a sausage about 10cm long. Transfer to the baking sheet, then pinch the ends and use a sharp knife to cut along the length of the navette. Gently push the sides slightly open – it should look like a set of lips! Keep going until all 10 are done.

5. Brush the navettes with milk, then put the tray in the oven.

6. Bake for 20 minutes, turning half-way to get an even colour. When done, remove from the oven and cool on a wire rack.

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{6} Schwarz-Weiß-Gebäck

Today’s post is one that I’ve been in a bit of a muddle as to what to call it, as it seems to span borders. In German these cookies are called Schwarz-Weiß-Gebäck (black-white-cookies) but they also pop up in the Czech  tradition of vánoční cukrovi (Christmas sweets), which involves making lots and lots of cookies on the off chance you get visitors. And those Czechs have a name that just trips off the tongue…the very simple linecké dvoubarevné těsto, which as far as I can make out means Linzer two-coloured dough.

On the one hand, these cookies are easy – it is a simple rich butter dough which is quick to prepare. You just make one big batch, split in two, and colour one portion with some cocoa powder. So far, so easy. But the fun bit is when you have to combine the two doughs into all manner of different shapes and patterns. If we’re staying with the Czech terminology, you’ve got the choice of chessboards (šachovnice), pinwheels, (závitky) or salami (salam) – this last one is for those that don’t have a lot of time, or a good way to use up the scraps after you’ve made the intricate shapes!

I have something of a soft spot for these cookies, and I remember making them when I was very young. Or perhaps I just remember them being made while I watched? I’ll admit my memories of being a young child are not exactly crystal-sharp these days. But they do have a definite retro charm to them – they look striking and intricate, but this is nothing to do with layers of icing or complicated decorative techniques. And they also taste delicious – slightly sweet and buttery with vanilla and chocolate. Getting them looking good is just down to someone taking the time and having the patience to prepare everything very, very precisely.

While these might look complex, don’t be intimidated. The dough is done in about 5 minutes, and the design just needs time. Put the radio on and list to carols, a play or one of those overviews of the year that we’re about to finish, and it’s a great little job to take your mind off things. The chess pattern takes the longest, but all you are really doing is cutting strips of each dough which have the same width and height, and then building an alternating pattern. It’s not unlike playing with those number blocks we used to have in school for counting! The spiral is the easier option, as you just need to get two pieces of dough on top of each other and then roll it up like a small carpet.

Another approach which I’ve seen but not tried is to roll the dough as for plain cookies, then use smaller cutters to cut out shapes – so you can cut out a large dark star and a large plain star, then use a small circle cutter to swap the centres of each to get the contrast. And of course, when you have all the scraps left over, you just gather then up and make a marbled salami cookie – tastes as good as the rest, and an easy one to do with small children.

I was also very pleased with how these cookies turned out. They are cut just half a centimeter thick, and as there is no baking powder in them, they don’t spread or change their shape. So they are very thin, very crisp and I think really quite elegant. I think they look a little bit like the sorts of fancy cookies you see in a chocolatier or a patisserie wrapped in film with a little golden bow. And who knew that all you need to achieve the same thing at home is just patience, patience and more patience?

To make Schwarz-Weiß cookies (makes around 40-50)

For the plain dough

• 175g butter
• 110g caster sugar
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 1 egg yolk (reserve the egg white to assemble the cookies)
• 250g plain flour
• cold water

For the dark dough

• 10g cocoa powder

1. Put the butter, sugar, vanilla and salt in a bowl and beat until well combined. Add the egg yolk and mix well (keep the egg white for assembling the cookies). Add the flour until the mixture forms a crumbly dough. Add just enough cold water to get it to come together to make a firm dough (be careful with the water – add just half a teaspoon at a time – you really don’t need much).

2. Once you have your dough, divide it in two (ideally weigh it to be precise). Wrap one part in cling film and put in the fridge. Put the other half in a bowl, add the cocoa powder, and mix well until you have an even colour. Wrap the dark dough in cling film and put in the fridge. Leave both doughs to chill for at least an hour.

3. Time to make some patterns! Remove the dough from the fridge, and work it briefly so that it becomes malleable.

3a. Checked cookies – the time-consuming method. Roll out each piece of dough to 1 cm thickness (keep them separate). Now use a sharp knife to slice them into 1 cm strips. Once you have done the dark and light dough, start to build up the pattern. Take the first colour, the other, and alternate to make the first layer, brushing the pieces of dough with some beaten egg white to ensure they stick properly. Now build the second layer, being sure to alternate the colour (so if you started layer one with the light dough, start layer two with the dark). Repeat for the third later. Press everything to ensure you’ve got straight sides (or as straight as possible without squeezing too hard and ruining the pattern you’ve made!). Wrap the log in cling film and chill for at least 30 minutes, or overnight.

3b. Spiral cookies – the easier method. Roll the light dough to a rectangle of 20cm x 15cm and 1/2 cm thick. Do the same with the dark dough. Brush the light rectangle with lightly beaten egg white, and place the dark on top. Press gently. Brush the top with more lightly beaten egg white. Now roll it up from the long side like a Swiss roll. The dough might look like it is cracking initially, but don’t worry – just keep rolling it up tightly, then when you are done, roll it back and forward on the worktop to get as good a perfect cylinder as you can. Wrap it in cling film and chill for at least 30 minutes, or overnight.

3c. Marble cookies – the easiest method. Break the light and dark dough into chunks, mix them up and press together to create a marbled effect. You can fold and roll it as much as you want, but the more you play with the dough, the less pronounced the different colours will be. Form it into a fat sausage shape, wrap in cling film and chill for at least 30 minutes, or overnight.

4. Baking time. Preheat the oven to 170C (340F) and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

5. Take your cookie log from the fridge. Make 1/2 cm marks along it, then use a very sharp knife to cut clean slices. Like magic, your pattern should appear! Lay them on the baking sheet, and when the sheet is full, pop it in the fridge for 2 minutes.

6. Take the baking sheet from the fridge and put straight into the oven. Bake for around 10 minutes, but watch them as they will burn easily. I found the best way is to bake them for 5 minutes, then turn the tray round to get even colouring. Set the timer for 5 minutes, and keep a close eye on them – as the cookies are thin, those at the edges may bake more quickly than those in the centre. If they need more baking, leave them in for another minute, then check again – remove any which have a slight golden colour, then pop the rest back in for another miniute. I know this sounds fussy, but when you think of all the work that went into making them, you really don’t want to burn them!


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Wrapping Up the Festive Fun

With the excitement of New Year behind us, we’re already taken down the last of the decorations. The tradition is to keep them up until Epiphany on 6 January. But we usually put them back in the loft on 1 January – I just like the feeling of order and calm that comes with putting everything away for another year and giving everything a good clean.

I wrote last year that we organised a festive bake-off at work, and we did the same again this year. We did well last year, but the standard really increased this time. I kind of left it to the last minute, and found myself at midnight putting the finishing touches to a batch of saffron buns. They went down well, but they could not hold a candle to the elaborate gingerbread house that one of my colleagues agonised over for the best part of a week. A worthy winner. The judges even suggested that next year’s even should allow only gingerbread houses, and perhaps the bakers’ takes on London landmarks. We’ll see how people feel about that nearer the time, eh?

Back home, this year has seen the eighth installment of the Twelve Days of Festive Baking. This means that I have made 96 separate recipes from around the world. If you are curious, can see the previous recipes from 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017. Each year is a bit of a rush but it is always fun. And as I lamented last year, what I am finding is that it is becoming more challenging to find new recipes which are linked to the festive season and which are also interesting to make and taste good. And over the years, I’ve also made a few things which did not make the final cut, so if you are sitting on an idea and want to share it, then please do! But the fact I’ve done the more obvious things does mean I’m getting more creative and have been willing to try things that in the past I might have skipped over. So the hunt is on for next year. For the GBBO fans out there, I’m still trying to decide if I should try making Laufabrauð, that elaborate Icelandic leaf bread.

So here’s to my 2018 edition – and next time we get to hit and pass the magic hundred!

Finally, as has become a tradition, I’ve set out the original lyrics to the Twelve Days of Christmas against each of the recipes to see if there is any sort of correlation. As in the past, there seems to be none. But did you know that each year the people at PNC Wealth Management put together the Christmas Price Index? They work out the “true cost of Christmas” if you really were to get all the gifts in the song for your beloved. You would end up with 364 separate “gifts”, but the index does make some adjustments – for example, they assume the people are being paid for their drumming or dancing services for the day, rather than being actually sold (!). This year, they reckon you would be shelling out $39,094.93, not including shipping or travel costs. Given the choice between a menagerie and a house full of dancers and musicians, I’m quite keen to have a house full of festive cookies!

So how did I compare to the song?

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

…twelve Drummers Drumming (Dutch Speculaasbrokken)…
…eleven Pipers Piping (Austrian Brabanzerl)…
…ten Lords-a-Leaping (Norwegian Krumkaker)…
…nine Ladies Dancing (Italian Parrozzo)…
…eight Maids-a-Milking (Portuguese Broas Castelares)…
…seven Swans-a-Swimming (Spanish Cordiales de Murcia)…
…six Geese-a-Laying (Italian Canstrelli)…
…five Gold Rings (Belgian Cougnou)…
…four Colly Birds (Sugared Almonds)…
…three French Hens (German Berliner Brot)…
…two Turtle Doves (Swedish Finska Pinnar)…
…and a Partridge in a Pear Tree (Swiss Chräbeli)!

So 2018 is over. And I think this has been a fun selection. My favourites were the Berliner Brot, the Chräbeli and the Brabanzerl. They all seemed truly and properly festive.

Now…time to think about what might appear in 2019’s edition!


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{1} Chräbeli

Feel like you’ve been missing out on the annual festive cheer? Well, don’t worry, I’m back with this years installation of the Twelve Days of Festive Baking. It does seem like Im becoming a Christmas-only blog, but thats something to tackle next year. In the meantime I hope you enjoy what Ive had a go at this year!

To kick things off, we’re taking a culinary trip to the Alps. Switzerland has lots of traditional festive goodies, and I’ve made a few things from there in previous years (including this favourite of mine). This time Ive made these funny little cookies called Chräbeli which are flavoured with aniseed.

In a world of intricately-shaped and elaborately iced cookies, Chräbeli stand out. They look a little bit like branches from a twisted tree in winter. A tree that has had a heavy fall of snow overnight.

Im someone that loves a cookie that gets its shape from how you make it. This is mainly because I am a bit lazy and dont have the patience to carefully ice a tray of sugar cookies to get them all identical. I wish I did, and find watching that very thing on YouTube fascinating, but I’m just not able to sit still for that long. Maybe something to practice for next year?

In spite of their unusual appearance, this is a very simple recipe – whisk eggs, sugar and aniseeds, then fold in the flour. The resulting dough is soft, and you need to develop the knack to form it into ropes, then cut and shape it. Then you do “the odd bit”. You leave them, uncovered, for a whole day. This is nothing about letting them rise, but it means that the outside of the cookies will dry and turn white. But the base doesn’t dry, and so when you pop them in the oven, you get culinary lift-off!

This really is the cool bit about making these cookies. The interiors of the Chräbeli expand and they develop little “feet” (Füsschen) underneath, a little like you expect if you make macarons. They were very crisp just after baking, but I let them sit in the open for a day, and they softened and I think were even more delicious. The aniseed flavour was definitely more pronounced a few days later, so letting them sit is worth it.

I loved just how aromatic these cookies are, with that distinctive liquorice-like aroma from the aniseed. I had planned to add some anise extract to boost the flavour, but found I had run out and just used seeds on their own. I need not have worried, as the flavour is very definitely there. If aniseed isn’t your thing, you could just use vanilla or lemon zest instead. However I think aniseed is delicious and a nice change from more common flavours at this time of year. They remind me of Springerle, albeit they lack the intricate patterns and are a lot easier to make. But we’ve got tree branches here people, and for that we can be grateful. If you wanted to get all whimsical, you could always attach a little icing squirrel or bird to keep the twig theme going.

If you want to try something that is easy, looks interesting and really, really tastes of aniseed, then have a go at Chräbeli. I’m just a little bit addicted to them at the moment.

So as they say in Switzerland’s four (!) official languagesSchöni Wiehnachte, Joyeux Noël, Buon Natale and Bellas festas da Nadal! 

To make Chrabeli (makes around 40)

• 2 large eggs
• 225g icing sugar
• pinch of salt
• 1 tablespoon aniseeds
• 1 tablespoon Kirsch or plum Schnapps
• 300g plain flour (plus extra for rolling)

1. Prepare 3 sheets of greaseproof paper and rub each lightly with a little vegetable oil.

2. Put the eggs, icing sugar, salt, aniseed and Kirsch/Schnapps in a large bowl. Beat with an electric whisk until thick and creamy, around 5 minutes.

3. Mix in enough flour to make a dough (I added 275g first, then the rest) – it will be soft but hold its shape and not be wet.

4. Divide the dough into four pieces. On a lightly floured surface, roll each piece into a long rope, around 1.5cm thick. Cut into pieces of around 6 cm. Make 3 slashes in the dough (either straight or at an angle), and form into a slight crescent shape. Transfer to a baking sheet and leave somewhere cool (away from a draught) to dry for 24 hours.

5. The next day, check on your Chräbeli. They should be dry and look pale. Preheat the oven to 140°C (285°F). Bake the Chräbeli for around 25 minutes, turning the baking sheet half-way to get an even bake (note the Chräbeli should colour only very slightly – you want them to stay pale).

6. Remove from the oven and leave to cool. Allow to stand for a day on a wire tray so that the Chräbeli get slightly soft, then store in an airtight container.


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And the decorations come down…

We’re into the New Year, and have reached Twelfth Night. It’s time to take down the decorations and pack them away (apparently it is bad luck to keep them up longer). We always do this in our house on New Year’s Day, and it leaves the place feeling big and empty as all the red and gold decorations suddenly vanish. Of course it also symbolises the fresh start of a new year and all that is to come. And it is is just over ten months before it all comes out again…

We even decorated our office this year too for the first time, and it had an equally sombre look to it this week after it was shorn of the red-and-silver candy cane fantasy we had achieved with tinsel and baubles. The tasteful décor was intended to create a festive atmosphere for our Christmas bake-off. We got a mighty twelve entries, including me, but in the end I didn’t win. I made my Nadalin de Verona which gathered a lot of praise (and it all got eaten) but it lost out to a batch of traditional Swiss cinnamon star cookies. Such is life, but I tried those cookies, and my colleague was a worthy winner!

I also enjoyed the “proper” Festive Bake-Off on TV this year. Good challenges, but I do think asking the bakers to make sugar glass domes was a bit too much! I’m all for playing around and bringing a bit of science and funky ingredients to my baking, but I don’t think that was a challenge I would have enjoyed. I watched it cringing, feeling every breakage with them. But seeing Sandy, Noel, Prue and Paul do their take on East 17’s Stay Another Day made up for it!

Back to my baking. This year I finished my seventh instalment of what has become something of a Christmas tradition. I reckon I must have made more than 2,000 cookies over the course of this series! I’ve had a look back at what I wrote after my festive baking in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016 and I recognise all the usual pledges that I made. To be more organised. To be more realistic about my ability to do complex baking against the clock. The avoid spending money on single-function kitchen gadgets. Well this year, I’m going to say I just don’t care. It is fun, I love doing it. I’ll do it again (just not immediately, obviously).

So here’s to my 2017 edition of the Twelve Bakes of Christmas! I have to admit that with each passing year, I have to hunt more and more for different traditional recipes as I think I’ve covered off a lot of the more obvious and familiar Christmas bakes. However that is half the fun. It is still surprising to me each year that there are new things I’ve never heard of before, and the sheer variety you can get from combinations of butter, sugar, eggs, spices and nuts or chocolate in varying quantities.

Just as a final bit of fun, here are the original lyrics to the Twelve Days of Christmas with each of my recipes next to them. As has been the case in past years, there is absolutely no correlation. Not a jot. But did you know that if you were to receive the original gifts listed in the song from your beloved, you would end up with 184 birds, 140 people, 40 gold rings and 12 pear trees cluttering up your home? Given that, I don’t feel so bad with lots and lots of tins of cookies and sweets lining the kitchen shelves.

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

…twelve Drummers Drumming (Italian Torrone di Natale)…
…eleven Pipers Piping (Finnish Vihreitä Kuulia)…
…ten Lords-a-Leaping (Eastern European Kolachky)…
…nine Ladies Dancing (American Snickerdoodles)…
…eight Maids-a-Milking (Swedish Knäck)…
…seven Swans-a-Swimming (American Bizcochitos)…
…six Geese-a-Laying (Italian Panpepato)…
…five Gold Rings (Swiss Biberle)…
…four Colly Birds (Swiss Magenbrot)…
…three French Hens (Norwegian Berlinerkranser)…
…two Turtle Doves (Maltese Biskuttini tal-Lewz)…
…and a Partridge in a Pear Tree (Danish Fedtebrød)!

So that is it for 2017. I hope you’ve enjoyed this selection. Judging by what people on Instagram think, the favourites are Torrone di Natale, the Finnish green marble sweets and Swiss marzipan-filled Biberle. My personal favourite was the Panpepato which tasted beautiful – rich, spicy and properly festive.

There will be more Christmas baking in 2018. If fact, I’ve tracked down a few recipes which might be making an appearance. So if you have any traditional recipes that you would like to see on here then please get in touch! Bonus points it they have quirky stories or an interesting story behind them.


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{12} Torrone di Natale

We’ve reached the end of another installment of the Twelve Bakes of Christmas!

I normally aim to finish this all before Christmas Day, but this year a combination of factors (toddler, lack of sufficient daylight for decent pictures, toddler) has pushed me beyond the big day. It has been fun to try a few new techniques, and of course I’m more than a little relieved that I can ease off the baking for a while now that I’m done for this year. Life will also be easier now that I’m not trying to hide tins of cookies and sweets from said toddler. Inevitably, he has taken to tucking into my Christmas baking…

I’m wrapping up this year’s series with another sweet rather than a bake. This is Italian torrone di natale. It includes lots of my favourite things – toasted almonds and hazelnuts, pistachios, honey and candied peel – which means it has a wonderful festive flavour.

If torrone looks familiar, you are right – this is a type of white nougat. Similar honey-and-nut confections (made with or without egg whites) appear across the south of Europe, including Spanish turrón and French nougat de Montélimar.

The flavours vary depending on the region, so I have kept things Italian with candied orange peel and pistachios. I did toy with the idea of adding some glacé cherries, so there would be a red-white-green effect similar to the Italian flag, but I decided not to – I did not want to add more sweetness without it also adding flavour, and I did not have time to get hold of cherries that had a decent flavour for making my torrone.

As with all good Italian sweets, there is a legend about how it came to be. It is reputed to have been created in the northern Italian city of Cremona in 1441, to celebrate the marriage of Francesco Sforza (founder of the Sforza dynasty and later Duke of Milan) and Bianca Maria Visconti. The torrone served at the nuptials was said to have been shaped into the form of the Torrazzo (the city of Cremona’s bell tower) and this is what gave torrone its name. Such is the love for torrone in its home town that Cremona celebrates it every year with (you guessed it) la festa del torrone.

While somewhat romantic (we’ll ignore the 24-year age gap between Francesco and the 16-year old Bianca…), this tale overlooks two little facts. The first written record of torrone in Cremona comes over a hundred years later, in 1543. And second, the name is more likely to have a Latin origin from the word torrere (to toast), referencing the nuts used in making this confection.

I’ve always imagined that nougat-style sweets are really hard to make. However, making this torrone was surprisingly easy. You just have to get everything prepared before you start. This is not my natural state of affairs, as I often just get going, and grab things from the store cupboard as needed (and on occasions, find I have run out of what I need). But for this recipe, you do need to prepare all the ingredients properly.

Oh, and have the right equipment! Making torrone will be much easier if you have digital scales to precisely measure the ingredients, a sugar thermometer to cook the honey and syrup to the right temperature, and an electric whisk to do all the hard beating for you. Just how this was made hundreds of years ago in a manual world is actually something of a marvel. The Italian confectioners of history must have developed good instincts for when things were done, as well as strong arm muscles!

When it comes to making torrone, you can play around with the flavours as much as you want. Include your favourite nuts, change around the candied peel, and add other dried fruits according to what you like – mango, papaya, sultanas or cherries. If you go very tropical and find yourself with candied pineapple and macadamia nuts, it might be a little far from the original, but I’m sure it will still be delicious.

To make Torrone di Natale (makes around 50 pieces)

• 200g blanched almonds
• 100g skinned hazelnuts
• 50g pistachios
• 220g granulated sugar
• 20g liquid glucose
• 80ml water
• 140g honey (I used 50/50 orange blossom and wildflower)
• 30g egg white
• 20g white caster sugar
• 60g candied orange peel, chopped
• 2 sheets rice paper (A4 size)

1. Rub a piece of greaseproof paper with a little vegetable oil. Use to line a large baking tray. Line again with one sheet of rice paper. Rub some neutral oil onto a rubber spatula.

2. Toast the nuts. Heat the oven to 150°C (300°F). Put the nuts on three trays and toast until fragrant but not dark. Use separate trays as the different nuts can be ready at different times. When all the nuts are ready, turn off the heat, open the door for a moment and let some of the heat out. Put all the nuts into one tray, and put it back in the oven so they stay warm.

3. Make a sugar syrup. Put the 220g granulated sugar, glucose and water into a small pan. Place over a medium heat. As the syrup is warming, put the honey in a separate small saucepan.

4. In the meantime, put the egg white in a bowl. Whisk to soft peaks, then add the caster sugar, and whisk to stiff peaks.

5. Now the fun starts – working with hot syrup!

5a: heat the sugar syrup until it reaches 116°C (240°F), then start to heat the honey.

5b: when the honey reaches 125°C (257°F), pour it to the whisked egg whites in a thin stream, beating all the time. The egg whites will increase in volume and have a beige colour.

5c: now check the sugar syrup. Once it reaches 150°C (302°F), pour it into the whisked egg whites in a thin stream, beating all the time. The mixture will become white, voluminous and thick. Beat well so everything is properly combined.

6. Add the warm nuts from the oven and any candied fruit to the mixture. Mix quickly with a wooden spoon, then transfer to the pan lined with rice paper.

7. Flatten the mixture with the prepared oiled spatula – it will be very sticky, so do the best you can. Add another layer of rice paper in to of the torrone and use something flat such as a baking tray to press it flat and get an even surface.

8. Leave to cool, then cut into pieces with a very sharp lightly oiled knife. I cut mine into pieces 2 x 4cm.

If storing, you can keep the torrone in a block, or cut into pieces and roll each piece in a 50:50 mixture of cornflour and icing sugar.

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