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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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{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.

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!

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!


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.


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.


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.


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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