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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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{11} Vihreitä Kuulia

Today’s recipe is a departure from the world of Christmas cookies. It’s time for some festive sweets!

These are called vihreitä kuulia, which translates as “green marbles”. The idea to make these came from my Finnish colleague, who explained they are an intrinsic part of the festive period in Finland. They are fruit jellies made by the iconic Finnish chocolate company Fazer.


Never one to shy away from a challenge, I looked into them a bit more. They these are essentially pâte de fruit that is made in hemispherical moulds. Two pieces are put together to form a sphere, rolled in sugar and voila we have ourselves some green marbles. They looked pretty cool, so I thought I would have a go. The fact I needed to buy a new mould, glucose, pectin powder and tartaric acid? Pffff, easy!

The traditional flavour is pear, and in fact they used to be known by the name päärynäkuulat (“pear balls”). But…pear?…this presented a bit of a challenge. I wanted to stay authentic, but I didn’t want to use pear flavouring. If you’ve ever had pear drop sweets, you’ll know that really strong overpowering flavour and I wanted to avoid that. So what could I do? I bought a few comice pears, and let them get really, really, really ripe. They ended up really soft and fragrant, which seemed hopeful. In fact, they were so soft that peeling and coring them was a bit tricky, but it meant that they were very easy to purée.


So I got my pear purée, but it quickly started to oxidise and go brown. I cooked it briefly to try and stabilise it, then let it cool. At this point, it was a pale brown colour, which left me thinking this was not going to work. But I persisted – I threw in the other ingredients and added a little green colouring. I would love to say that I’ve used something wonderfully natural, but I didn’t. It was a gel colouring, as I wanted to get a vibrant, intense green colour. I know, I know, a massive contradiction to be obsessed about the natural flavour and then achieve the green with some fakery! But look – no more brown, and we got the green marble look.

I boiled the lot, got to the magic 107°C, and added some tartaric acid to get the mixture to set, and a little spiced pear liqueur for a flavour boost. It was then a simple case of pouring the mixture carefully moulds, and the rest went into a lined pan to set so that I could cut it into squares like classic pate de fruit. I did have to work quickly, as the mixture started to gel really quickly – I just managed to pour 24 hemispheres, and by the time I poured the remainder into a tray, it was properly starting to set. I thought it would take longer for the pectin to start setting, so you really do need to have everything ready. Part of the dubious joy of pâte de fruit is working with pectin and all the science that goes with it, but it does mean these sweets are vegan, so a useful recipe to know if you’re trying to make jelly-type sweets that avoid gelatin.


As you can see, this worked! The pear paste set to a very firm jelly which popped right out of the moulds. I then took two pieces, pressed them together, and rolled them in sugar. The result was a collection of really pretty green spheres. And the flavour? Yes, we got pear. We got natural pear! This worked better than I hoped, and I think part of the secret to success here is that the mixture was not cooked for any longer than was necessary. I probably spent only 5 minutes cooking it on the stove.

Now, I mentioned that this recipe did require me to buy a few specialist items. I had to find pectin powder, tartaric acid, glucose and a special silicone mould. Once I had amassed all these goodies, I was bitten by the pâte de fruit bug and decided to have a go at something else. I also saw that Fazer makes a range of these coloured fruit “marbles”. And I had a bowl of plums on the sideboard, so I decided to used the same technique to make my version of sugarplums, except I chopped the plums and cooked them with a little water until they were soft and pulpy, and added cinnamon and mixed spices to the mixture. I’ve made a traditional version before using a mixture of ground dried fruit and nuts flavoured with spices, but I liked the idea of a spiced plum candy, ruby-red and glittering with sugar crystals. As you can see below, they worked and taste absolutely delicious. Fit for the sugar plum fairy herself!

To make Vihreitä Kuulia / (makes around 50 half-spheres)*

• 250g pear purée (3-4 large and very ripe pears)
• 75g glucose
• 1 heaped tablespoon yellow pectin
• 400g sugar
• green food colour
• 1 teaspoon water
• 1 slightly rounded teaspoon acid crystals
• 1 teaspoon pear liqueur or pear eau de vie

1. Make the purée. Peel and core the pears. Chop and put them in a food processor and blitz to a purée. Pass through a sieve to remove any remaining bits, and tip the purée into a saucepan and cook briefly. Leave to cool to lukewarm.

2. In the meantime, put the sugar and pectin powder in a bowl and mix well – you want to get rid of any lumps of pectin.

3. In a small bowl mix the water and tartaric acid crystals. Add the pear liqueur or eau de vie.

4. Measure 250g of the pear purée and put in a saucepan. Add the glucose and sugar mixture. Stir well – it should turn syrupy. Add the green colouring and mix well.

5. Heat the mixture – it will come to a boil, and keep going until it reaches 107°C (225°F), stirring from time to time to prevent sticking.

6. Pour the cooked mixture into individual moulds or into a lined tray. Leave for several hours until completely cool and set.

7a. If making spheres: take two pieces of the fruit paste and sandwich together to make a ball. Roll in granulated sugar before serving.

7b. If using a tray: cut the set fruit paste into squares, or use cutters to make different shapes. Coat in granulated sugar before serving.

* I filled one tray of 24 hemispheres, and the rest want into a pan of 10cm x 20cm, and I got a block of pâte de fruit about 1cm deep.

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{11} Marquesas de Navidad

I’m all for including a bit of history around Christmas treat, and I assumed that marquesas de navidad had some long historical pedigree – with sugar, lemon and almonds, they share a lot in common with marzipan. Some sort of medieval delicacy? Something enjoyed during the heyday of the Spanish Empire by Queen Isabella? Their name means “marchioness of Christmas” which sounds very noble indeed. And they are made in these unusual square shapes – obviously special, as I had to hunt high and low to find them.

marquesas1
Well…no. Apparently they were created as recently as 1924 by a confectioner in the town of Sonseca in the Spanish region of Toledo. They were a hit, their popularity spread, and the rest is history. Still, it is nice that new Christmas baking appears from time to time – and of course, everything was baked for the first time at some point in the past!

marquesas2
While a comparatively new kid on the block, these marquesas are very straightforward to make – just whip eggs and sugar, then fold in the remaining dry ingredients. The result is a bit like a marzipan cake – they’ve got a fresh note from the lemon zest, and the lovely perfume of almonds, but they are also very light. Simple and delicious. Perfect!

marquesas3

To make Marquesas de Navidad (makes 10)

• 2 large eggs
• zest of a lemon
• 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
• 60g caster sugar
• 60g icing sugar
• 125g ground almonds

• 20g plain flour
• 20g cornflour
• 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
• icing sugar, for dusting

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F). Line a muffin tray with 12 paper cases.

2. Put the eggs, caster sugar, lemon zest and almond extract into a large bowl. Beat with an electric whisk for at least 5 minutes until thick and foamy.

3. Mix the ground almonds, icing sugar, flour, cornflour and baking powder, then fold into the egg mixture in three portions. Try not to knock too much air out of the mixture – you should end up with a thick batter that still flows.

4. Fill the cake cases to three-quarters full. Bake for 12-15 minutes until puffed and golden.

5. Remove the baked marquesas from the oven and leave to cool – the tops will sink and create dimples in the top. Dust with icing sugar before serving.

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{10} Joulutorttu

Christmas treats are often all about cakes or cookies, but today’s recipe is one from that forgotten part of the baking world…Christmas pastries!

I’ve been making joulutorttu, which are traditional star plum pastries from Finland (yes, Finnish baking is getting a double-feature this year). If you think that name is a mouthful, they are also called tähtitorttu, which means star pastries. Those names really are enough to make you give up and reach for more mulled wine…

The traditional way to make these pastries is with plum jam or prune filling. I had a look in my cupboards at home, and while I have plenty of jars of jam, I’m lacking anything made with plums. I went for the next best thing – a jar of blueberry jam, which I reasoned was suitably Nordic to be able to pass off as vaguely authentic. I also made some prune filling as a test – I just chopped up some prunes, then cooked them with water, cinnamon, orange juice and some brandy. In the first picture, I’ve used the jam in the top and bottom rows, and the prune filling in the middle row – you can see the different textures.

joulutorttu4

joulutorttu1
There are actually a few different ways to make these little guys. If you are feeling lazy, or are busy, or have pets/small children, then it is quite acceptable to buy a sheet of puff pastry and use that as the basis for the stars. Just be sure to make good, clean cuts so that you get lots of puffing at the edges.

I, of course, opted for a more challenging version. I’ve used a pastry recipe from the Nordic Bakery cookbook. It suggests using a really rich pastry that is made with a decadent amount of butter plus the same amount of quark to bring it all together. I’ve never worked with a pastry like that, so I wanted to give it a go. However, I didn’t have quark to hand, and being too lazy to make the short walk to the main street, I swapped it for some skyr. This is a high-protein and low-fat type of yoghurt which originates in Iceland (and those Icelanders take it very seriously, swearing that the stuff you get in Britain isn’t anywhere near as good as the real thing…well, I like the stuff here just fine, and it worked in my recipe!).

The dough is very soft, and at first I thought it would not work. But I wanted to believe, so I assumed the flour would soak up some of the moisture, and after chilling it overnight, the pastry was indeed perfectly workable. It rolled out easily, and it was straightforward to cut and form into those classic windmill shapes.

Now, the real magic was in the baking. The pastry? Just wonderful. As it has a high butter content (made with equal weights of butter, skyr and flour), it is rich, soft and has a lovely deep golden colour. It is definitely worth the effort of making it yourself. But I do have to warn you – it is a funny dough too. I made my twelve stars from the first rolling of the dough, and they worked perfectly. I then gathered up the scraps and made some more…and boy did they go haywire! It might have been due to the pastry on the first batches being comparatively cool, whereas the later batch was a bit warmer, but they puffed up extravagantly, almost like puff pastry, but they also struggled to bake properly without getting too dark. To avoid this, I recommend working with the dough in two batches, and in each case roll the dough out as square as you are able, so that you minimise any offcuts and can avoid re-rolling the dough.

joulutorttu3

joulutorttu2
Of my two flavour choices, the spiced prune was nice, but I loved the blueberry. I would happily make that flavour again. If you are making a large batch, you can also use various different flavours – plum is traditional, but apple and cinnamon would work well, and I think something sharp like raspberry would be delicious too.

All in all, these Christmas stars from the north were a great success. They are incredibly more-ish. I think I wolfed down three of them in fairly quick succession. They are also at their most delicious while still fresh. They will keep for a couple of days in a tin, but I don’t think you want to delay eating them, and frankly – they taste so good I don’t think you’ll have many hanging around for long.

joulutorttu5

To make Finnish Christmas Star Pastries (makes 12):

For the dough

• 250g butter
• 250g skyr or quark cheese
• 250g strong white flour
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• pinch of salt

For the filling

• jam or marmalade (or see my prune recipe below)
• 1 egg, beaten
• icing sugar, to finish

1. Make the dough. Mix the butter and quark/skyr. Add the rest of the ingredients and mix until it comes together in a dough – the dough will seem very soft. Wrap in cling film and leave to chill overnight.

2. Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F). Line a few baking sheets with greaseproof paper.

3. Sprinkle a worktop with flour, then roll out the dough thinly – no more than 5mm. Try to get as square a shape as you can. Cut out squares of 10cm x 10cm. Transfer each to the greaseproof paper, leaving some space between the pieces.

4. Make a small diagonal cut about one-third  towards the centre of the square from each corner, but do not go all the way. Add a spoonful of jam in the centre, then starting at the top, bring the top-right piece into the centre. Repeat on each side to build up the windmill effect. Secure the overlapping dough in the centre with some water and pinch together, then push down and add a dab more jam to cover. Repeat until you have a full tray (I baked them in batches of 4).

5. Brush each pastry with the beaten egg, then bake for around 8 minutes until a rich golden colour, turning after 4 minutes to get an even bake.

6. When done, remove from the oven, and leave to cool for a few minutes on the paper. Transfer to a wire rack to cool, then dust with icing sugar before serving.

To make plum filling: finely chop 100g of prunes. Add 150ml water and a large pinch of cinnamon. Bring to the boil then simmer until the mixture seems thick and almost too dry. Add a tablespoon of brandy and a tablespoon of orange juice. Mix well and leave to cool.

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{5} Cavallucci

When I started doing my annual Christmas baking project all those years ago, I tended to focus on what I knew, and with the exception of panettone, pretty much everything was from Northern Europe. Over the years I’ve looked beyond the well-known bakes, which has led me to look more and more at Italian Christmas cookies.

We have all seen those rainbow cookies with a chocolate glaze, but what I find interesting are the traditional regional specialities. Every part of the country seems to have its own unique baked goods, often reflecting the traditions and ingredients of the area the recipe comes from, which makes it rewarding to explore, as well as to make and then eat. Yes, unlike looking at lots of churches and medieval villages, exploring the culinary landscape has the bonus of being delicious. And today’s Christmas treat takes us to the city of Siena. Meet my batch of cavallucci.

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The name cavallucci literally means “little horses”. They are said to date back to the time of Lorenzo de’ Medici (also known rather modestly as Lorenzo the Magnificent and who ruled Florence in the late 1400s). Their name comes either from the fact that the original cookies had an impression of a horse on top, or due to the fact they were eaten by stable hands who worked as part of whatever passed for the postal system of the gentry in those days.

Fortunately the flavour of cavallucci is very far removed from anything horse-like. They contain a lot of walnuts and candied orange peel, as well as traditional spices including coriander and aniseed.

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Luckily, this is a recipe that is fairly simple to make. Once you’re prepared the dry ingredients (flour, nuts, spices, candied and dried fruits), you add a sugar and honey syrup to forma dough. This is left to cool for a moment, then rolled out and sliced into individual cookies for baking. No fancy moulds, no intricate decoration, no gilding and no messing around with icing or tempered chocolate. What a relief! And if you’re looking for a vegan option, swap the honey for your favourite syrup. Or if you’re a honey fan, you can swap some of the sugar and water for more honey.

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These are very rustic-looking little morsels of festive cheer. They look like they have been dipped in sugar, but they’ve actually been rolled in flour before baking. I think it looks rather nice, as it goes them a slightly snowy appearance, and it means the cookies have a more balances level of sweetness.

As I was making these, I was reminded of that other Siena classic, panforte. You prepare the dry ingredients, add lots of spices, nuts and candied peel, then bind it all with a sugar syrup, although the ratios of ingredients are different, and cavallucci include some raising agent. I did wonder if a raising agent was traditional, and I think it probably is not, but most of the classic recipes that I found, including that of the Siena tourist board, suggest using baker’s ammonia. I used this too as I have some in my baking cupboard, and I’m always on the look out for a recipe that uses this most stinky of ingredients. It certainly makes the cavallucci puff up nicely in the oven and you get a lovely light texture, with a crisp outside and slightly soft centre. If you can’t get hold of baker’s ammonia, other recipes suggest using baking soda, so it should be alright to use that instead – if you do give it a go, let me know how you get on.

To make Cavallucci (makes 50)

• 200g shelled walnuts
• 100g candied peel (e.g. orange, lemon, citron)
• 30g icing sugar
• 2 teaspoons baker’s ammonia
• 2 teaspoons ground coriander
• 1 teaspoon mixed spices
• 1/4 teaspoon aniseeds, crushed
• pinch of black pepper
• 650g plain flour
• 300g white sugar
• 150ml water
• 25g honey

1. Preheat the oven to 150°C and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper rubbed lightly with some neutral oil.

2. Roughly chop the walnuts and candied fruits. Put in a large bowl and add the icing sugar, spices, baker’s ammonia (or baking soda) and flour. Mix well.

3. Put the sugar, water and honey into a saucepan. Heat gently until the sugar has dissolved and there are no crystals left (you want the sugar to just dissolve, but do not let it boil). Remove from the heat, allow to cool for a few minutes, then pour the liquid over the dry ingredients. Mix well with a wooden spoon. It should be firm but sticky.

4. When the mixture is still warm but cool enough to handle, take teaspoons of the mixture and drop onto a plate dusted with flour.

5. Roll each piece into a ball (it should be coated lightly with flour), place on the baking sheet and flatten to around 1cm thickness.

6. Bake the cavallucci for around 15 minutes until they are puffed up, but they are still pale (they only get a very slight colour during baking).

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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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{1} Borstplaat

Hello and welcome to 2016’s edition of the 12 Bakes of Christmas! I’ve been looking far and wide for some interesting festive baking, and hopefully you will enjoy what is to come over the next few weeks.

Today (5 December) is Sinterklaas in the Netherlands. This is the day on which St Nicholas (or Sinterklaas, the origin of the name Santa Claus) is said to come from Spain on a boat to distribute gifts and sweets to children, leaving those treats in clogs, or these days, more modern types of shoe. Alongside presents, it is traditional to get a chocoladeletter (your initial in chocolate!) as well as pepernoten and kruidnoten (spicy little biscuits – recipe here). Unless, of course, you are in Belgium, in which case you do all this on 6 December, because you’re Belgian and not the same as your Dutch neighbours.

One of the traditional treats is an incredibly sweet item called borstplaat. This name translates as “breast-plate”, and not “flat-chested” as I originally thought, which upon reflection would be a very peculiar name for a sweet aimed at children! But I can see where the name comes from – the resulting pieces are flat and glossy, and seem hard to the touch, just like pieces of armour.

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The reason that borstplaat is so sweet is that it is mostly sugar that has been cooked up with a little water, milk or cream, and sometimes a little butter, and then flavoured with whatever takes your fancy. Flavours such as chocolate, vanilla and coffee are traditional, but you could go with whatever flavour you like – strawberry, orange, lemon, just go crazy!

Something so sweet is easy to scoff at today (even if we Brits make it a personal challenge to eat our own weight in mince pies during December), but something like borstplaat makes sense when you look at it historically. In times when sweets were a real treat, it would be a really big deal to get a few pieces of something so sweet at Christmas time, and if you’re only getting this once a year, then it was easy for parents to look the other way. In fact, borstplaat does have a old-fashioned quality to it, which reminded me of things like sugar mice, with a texture rather like Scottish tablet. And this stuff is oh so sweet! Did I mention that?

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Borstplaat
is incredibly easy to make. You throw everything in a pan, bring to the boil, add a flavour, mix for a bit to encourage sugar crystallisation to start and then pour it out. You can make it in less than 15 minutes. It is also very simple to make different flavours – I made vanilla, chocolate and peppermint, but you can let your imagination run wild. Just be prepared for the fact that this stuff is very, very, very sweet. Either make just a small batch, or make sure you’ve got dozens and dozens of people coming to eat the stuff!

My recipe is something called roomboter borstplaat, made with butter and cream. You can make it more simply with water or milk, but the key thing is that you want to get the sugar to dissolve during the boiling process. I’ve added a few spoonfuls of water to the mixture. This doesn’t appear in a lot of recipes, but I found it guarantees that the sugar dissolves, and the extra water will evaporate during cooking anyway.

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To shape the borstplaat, you need to work quickly. You need to boil the mixture, then beat it until it becomes a little dull and just starts to go grainy. Then you pour it into a tray, or into prepared moulds, and leave it to set. You know you’ve got it right when the frosted effect appears on the top of the borstplaat.

As  you can see, I went a bit crazy and used lots of metal cookie cutters on a sheet of greaseproof paper as moulds. This definitely made for one my best pictures in a while, bit in the spirit of honesty, it was not the easiest way to make this stuff. Single pieces of borstplaat are fairly robust, but when you’re trying to get it out of these moulds with fiddly corners, it can be irritatingly fragile and I had quite a few breakages. If you want to try making them this way, go for simpler shapes, and make sure they are very, very well buttered so that nothing sticks. The hearts and discs were the easiest to get out of their moulds. It turns out that the Dutch have special moulds for making borstplaat which come apart in pieces! If only I’d known before…

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If you are impatient or prefer to make life easier for yourself, I would recommend that you just make a slab of this stuff, then break it into pieces as needed. Lining a bread tin with greaseproof paper will get you a nice, rectangular block.

If you want to get fancy, then use a silicone mould – I had one for making jelly babies, and made these cute little guys. The silicone mould was the easiest way to make elaborate shapes – they just slipped right out once the borstplaat was cool. Just be sure that your moulds are heat-resistant! The mixture it is pretty hot when you pour it in, and you don’t want a sugary molten plastic disaster!

So there you have it! We’ve kicked off with a tooth-achingly sweet treat, just eleven more bakes to go before Christmas. Simple, right?

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To make borstplaat

• 250g sugar
• 80g double cream
• 50g butter
• 4 tablespoons water

1. Prepare your moulds or pan. If making a slab, line the bottom of a loaf pan with greaseproof paper, rubbed with a tiny amount of unsalted butter to prevent sticking.

2. Put the sugar, cream, butter and water in a saucepan. Place on a low heat and cook until the sugar has dissolved. Bring to the boil and cook until the temperature reaches 115°C (240°F). If you don’t have a sugar thermometer, you’re aiming for the soft ball stage.

3. Remove the mixture from the heat. Add any flavours or colours at this stage. Stir with a wooden spoon until the mixture goes dull you can just feel the crystals of sugar starting to form.

4. Working quickly, pour the mixture into the moulds, or pour into the loaf tin. Leave to set until completely cooled.

Note: if the mixture goes wrong, or sets too quickly as you’re pouring it out, don’t worry. You can just add some water and re-boil per steps 2 and 3.

Flavour variants:

• Chocolate: use golden caster sugar. Add 1 tablespoon of coca powder and a pinch of salt before you start cooking.

• Vanilla: add 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract once the mixture is cooked but before you start mixing.

• Peppermint: add 1/4 teaspoon peppermint extract and some food colouring once the mixture is cooked but before you start mixing.

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