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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.

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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{11} Cuccidati (Sicilian Fig Rolls)

We’ve nearly reached the end of this year’s baking, but as Italy has already provide so much inspiration, we’re staying in that beautiful country and heading down to the island of Sicily where they make little fig rolls called cuccidati (or buccellati) at Christmas.

If you grew up in Britain, you might be familiar with fig rolls as those small, dry biscuits that were (at least from my point of view) the absolutely last choice in the biscuit barrel. I would go so far as to say that they put me off fresh figs when I was younger – I mean, why would such a thing exist? Anyway, I have long since gotten over my issues with figs, and love the things, and the good news is that these cookies are about as far away from my childhood memories as you can get. A fruity, lightly spiced filling with tender buttery pastry and a glaze of sweet, white icing. Mmmmm…

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You’ll see that there are a few different shapes in there – the crosses above, and the crescent shapes below. This is all made using the same mixture, so it just adds a little more interest on the serving dish of they look different. If you wanted to get creative and have different shapes for different fillings, you could do that too. Apparently some bakers in Sicily even fashion cookies into the shapes of animals, but I could not work out how to roll out a long sausage of dough into the shape of a dog, cat or donkey. Perhaps it could have just passed for a sausage dog?

The pastry is rich and buttery, leavened with a little baking powder to make it light when baked. They came our of the oven rather crisp, but after resting overnight, the pastry had softened and was a little crumbly. Just the perfect texture! The filling is the real star – stuffed with chopped figs and sultanas, as well as pine nuts, walnuts and pistachios. There is sweetness from orange blossom honey and marmalade, and a little spice in there too.

For the marmalade, I skipped a sweet orange version, and instead went for a mixture of sharp Seville oranges and tangerines for a bit of Christmas cheer. While the marmalade on its own was tangy with a hint of bitterness, in the final baked version, it melts into the background and provides a more rounded citrus flavour, so it was definitely the right choice.

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In addition to the more elaborate shapes, I also made my own version of those funny little fig rolls that I remembered as a child. I added some of the traditional coloured sprinkles to these, and I think they look really rather sweet. You might even persuade a child to try one, but my experience is that children will usually make a bee-line for anything with chocolate, and have an aversion of dried fruit when given anything that might pass for a choice on the matter! Still…I like them!

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If you like mince pies but want to find an alternative, then these might be the thing for you. You can also play around with the ingredients – swap the figs for dates, use different nuts and dried fruits, use a stronger honey or different marmalade or jam, and play around with the spices, or even add a little chopped chocolate in there. Of course, if you rock up with a tray of cuccidati made with candied melon, macadamia nuts, thyme honey and strawberry jam, topped off with a sprinkling of cardamom and saffron, you might win top marks for creativity, but I’m not sure you’d obtain the approval of a Sicilian granny. I’d keep things simple, and close to the traditional flavours of Sicily. Think of the historic trade routes and commerce with North Africa and the Middle East, and you’ll be on the right track.

Of everything I have made this year, this is one of the recipes that took the most time. Making the pastry and filling is easy, but it takes some patience to make the long rolls of filling covered in pastry, and then to shape them. However, it is also very enjoyable, and the aroma of the spiced figs really is delicious. That, and they look pretty darned impressive on the plate!

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To make Cuccidati (makes around 20-30, depending on size)
(adapted from the recipe on Food52.com)

For the pastry

• 300g plain flour
• 100g icing sugar
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• pinch of salt
• 200g butter
• 1 large egg
• cold water

For the filling

• 250g soft dried figs
• 75g sultanas
• 30g shelled unsalted pistachios
• 20g pine nuts
• 60g walnuts
• 60g honey
• 100g orange marmalade
• zest of an orange
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon mixed spice

For the glaze

• 100g icing sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon white food colouring
• cold water
• sprinkles and chopped nuts

1. Make the pastry. Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl. Rub in the butter. Add the egg and mix to a smooth dough. If the pastry is dry, add cold water – a few drops at a time – until it comes together. Wrap the dough in cling film and leave to rest overnight in the fridge.

2. Make the filling. Chop the figs, sultanas and nuts finely. I did this by hand to get some variation in texture and to avoid turning the nuts to dust. Put in a bowl and mix with the marmalade, honey and spices. Cover and leave to rest overnight in a bowl on the kitchen counter.

3. The next day, assemble the cookies. Start by preheating the oven to 180°C (350°F) and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper. There is no need to use oil or butter on the sheet, as the cookies contain enough butter.

4. Now shape the cookies. Divide the pastry into four, and work with one piece at a time, keeping the rest in the fridge. On a lightly floured worktop, roll a piece of pastry into a long sausage, around 30cm, then flatten using a rolling pin. It should be around 6cm wide and 50cm long. Now take one-quarter of the filling. Dust a worktop liberally with icing sugar, and roll into a long sausage the same length as your pastry. Then lightly moisten the pastry with a little water (really – the tiniest amount!) and put the filling on top of the pastry. Bring the pastry round the filling, and seal the edge. Roll the whole thing lightly to smooth out any lumps and bumps.

5. Cut the long sausage into pieces – either 7cm for the crosses or crescents, or smaller pieces for the bite-sized cookies. To make the crosses – take each piece, cut into the bottom and the top, leaving the middle intact. Bend the “legs” outwards. To make the crescents, make 4-5 cuts into one side of the strip, then bend into an arc. Transfer the cookies to the baking sheet, pop in the fridge for 5 minutes to firm up, and then bake for around 15-20 minutes until golden. Larger cookies might need longer, and smaller cookies might be done in less time. Make sure to turn half-way to get an even colour. If using cookies of different sizes, I recommend baking batches of the same size to get an even bake.

6. Leave the cookies to cool completely, then glaze them. Make the icing by mixing the icing sugar, white food colouring (if using) and enough cold water to make a thick icing. You want it to dribble slightly, but most should stay on the cookies, so err on the side of caution and make it thicker – you can always add more water if needed. Finish by covering the cookies with sprinkles, edible pearls or pieces of chopped nuts. Leave on a wire rack for the icing to set, then store in an airtight tin.

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{10} Ricciarelli

All this Christmas baking is vaguely nuts, so it makes sense to make something that is, actually, nuts. Or almonds to be more precise.

Ricciarelli are an Italian cookie originating in the city of Siena. They are said to date back to the 14th century, when they were introduced by a knight called Ricciardetto della Gherardesca on his return from the Crusades. This sounds rather plausible, given the main ingredients – orange and almonds – are typical in Middle Eastern sweets. Indeed, given their fancy ingredients, I imagine that these were the sort of thing that were once reserved for the great and good of the city, but today we’re all able to enjoy them. So they’ve got a rather longer and nobler lineage than stained glass cookies!

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Ricciarelli
are made from almonds, sugar and egg whites, so they are a sort of macaroon, but flavoured with vanilla, orange zest and almond extract. When you make the mixture, the aroma is absolutely divine! It is like a very rich, sophisticated orange blossom scent, which hints that something very delicious is coming out of the oven. I’ve used two teaspoons of almond extract, but you can add more if you want a really strong bitter almond flavour. All this means that they really taste rather luxurious. Italy is so proud of these little sweetmeats that they have “protected geographical indication” legal protection, so if you are anywhere outside the city of Siena, your luck is out – you can’t call them Ricciarelli di Siena without getting into hot water.

Making them is very straightforward – make the dough, cut into pieces, shape and cover in icing sugar. When they go into the oven, they puff up and develop their cracked surface, which reveals those little seams of golden marzipan. The outside goes slightly crisp, while they remain soft inside.

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I think these make a lovely addition to the festive spread. They have all the flavour of marzipan, but might lighter, and the orange zest, vanilla and almond extracts all make for a very aromatic cookie that makes for a nice alternative to spices and chocolate. Once you taste them, they provide a pretty good incentive to get over to Siena and try the real deal!

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To make Ricciarelli (makes 20)

• 250g ground almonds
• 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
• zest of an orange
• 250g caster sugar
• 2 large egg whites
• 2 teaspoons almond extract
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• icing sugar, for dusting

1. Put the ground almonds, orange zest and baking power in a bowl. Mix well.

2. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites until very stiff. Add the sugar and keep beating until you have a stiff meringue mixture. Mix in the almond and vanilla extracts, then fold in the ground almond mixture. The batter will seem heavy and rather sticky. Cover the mixture and leave overnight in the fridge.

3. Preheat the oven to 160°C (320°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper and rub lightly with butter or oil.

4. Cover a worktop in lots of icing sugar. Take the dough and roll out into a long sausage – don’t worry about getting the dough covering in icing sugar, this is the point! Cut the log into 20 pieces.

5. Take each piece of dough. Make sure the exposed dough gets a coating of icing sugar, then use your hands to shape into a slightly pointed oval shape. Cover each piece in more icing sugar (it should be really, really well coated). Arrange a few centimetres apart on the baking tray. I did mine in two batches, so 10 per tray.

6. Bake the ricciarelli for around 20 minutes until they are slightly puffed, cracked and the inside looks just golden. Turn half-way to get an even colour. Remove from the oven and allow to stand for a minute, then transfer to a rack to cool completely.

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{8} Mostaccioli Napoletani

When it comes to Christmas baking, there needs to be chocolate, and we’ve reached the eighth recipe with only two appearance of the food of the gods. Well, there was a lot in those mendiants, but only a sprinkling in the Basler Brunsli, so in fact chocolate has really only popped up one-and-a-half times. Well, time to change that!

Today’s recipe is the mouthful that is mostaccioli napoletani. Try saying that quickly after three eggnogs, two mulled wines and glass of champagne! They are spicy little cookies that originate in the city of Naples. They are traditionally cut into diamond shapes before baking, and then dipped in chocolate. I was surprised to find something like this in Italian baking – they seem closer to German Lebkuchen, or spicy Aachner Printen.

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These don’t seem to have made a big splash (yet?) in the English-language web, so I was doing my best to research them in Italy, and it is fair to say that a lot of Italians are making these things – lots of different spices, different techniques, some with candied peel, some with chocolate glaze rather than chocolate coating, but the diamond shape is ubiquitous.

I also found that pretty much all recipes use baker’s ammonia as the raising agent. I haven’t tried making them with baking powder or baking soda, so cannot be sure that the results are the same. However, you want the resulting cookies to be very light, and baker’s ammonia is certainly the only thing that can give you a really good lift. Just watch out for that puff of ammonia that comes out of the oven when you open the door. Harmless, but it will certainly wake you up!

Now, apparently the truly authentic recipes do not use any oil or fat, so that means olive oil is nowhere to be seen, and it’s out with all that lovely butter. This probably makes for a more authentic result, but it does mean that these sorts of biscuits can be on the dry side as the lack of fat means they don’t dry out and become crisp. They just go dry. Oops!

Now, if you’ve got lovely, soft cookies, since they will be dipped in chocolate, they won’t dry out, but it also means that they won’t get soft if they are too dry when you dip them. To avoid the risk that all your hard work results in a mouthful of chocolate-coated dust, we need to avoid them drying out before dipping. First, don’t (as I did) leave them out overnight. As soon as they are cool, pop them in an airtight tin with some soft bread. The cookies will soften and the bread will dry out. Repeat as needed, and this time will also allow the flavours of the spices to develop. I noticed that the clove flavour was much stronger after two days than straight after baking, so it might be worth being a little light-handed with some of the more robust spices. Once you have cookies that are sufficiently soft, you can dip them in the chocolate. If they are not softening fast enough, pop them on a wire race, and wave gently over a steam kettle or a pan of boiling water – the steam will help soften them, then allow to cool and pop back in the tin.

When I was making these, I chilled the dough to make it easier to roll out. The first 20 that I made were great and baked well, but I used a little flour on the worktop, which seemed to affect the second batch – they were lighter in colour and bit tougher. I would recommend just trying to keep the dough as cold as possible, and roll it out between two sheets of greaseproof paper to avoid working more flour into the dough. Normally I don’t worry about this and I’ve never had a problem, but I guess there is a first time for everything.

Now, if you like the idea of these cookies but think this all seems like far too much work, you can of course take a shortcut. Just take your favourite soft gingerbread recipe, bake a tray of the stuff, then cut that into diamonds. Then dip those in chocolate and smile sweetly when your guests ask you about them…ahm…

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To make Mostaccioli Napoletani (makes around 25-30):

• 250g plain flour
• 150g caster sugar
• 1 teaspoon cinnamon
• 1 teaspoon ground coriander
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
• 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
• 50g of cocoa powder
• 75g ground almonds
• grated zest of 1 orange
• 50g honey
• 50g water
• 30g brown rum
• 1 teaspoon baker’s ammonia
• 300g dark chocolate, to dip

1. Put all the dry ingredients and orange zest in a bowl and mix. Put the honey, water and rum into a bowl, mix well, then add to the dry ingredients and combine – it should seem a bit dry. Dissolve the baker’s ammonia in an extra tablespoon of water, then add to the main mix. Work quickly to a soft dough – if too wet, add more cocoa powder and flour, if too dry, add more water or rum. Cover and leave to sit overnight in the fridge.

2. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 180°C and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper. Rub lightly with a dot of butter to prevent sticking.

3. Roll out the dough to 2/3 cm thick, and use a sharp knife to cut into diamonds. Transfer the diamonds to the baking sheet, leaving space for them to expand.

4. Bake the cookies for 8-10 minutes until puffed. Transfer the cookies to a rack and leave to cool completely. If needed, leave in an airtight tin with slices of bread to soften the cookies and allow the spice flavours to develop.

5. Dip cookies in tempered chocolate and leave to set. The best way to do this – chop your chocolate. Melt half in a double boiler above a pan of just-simmering water. When it gets to 55°C, remove from the heat. Add half of the remaining chocolate, and stir until melted. Add the rest of the chocolate, and stir again until melted. Allow the chocolate to cool to 28-29°C, then bring the temperature up to 31-32°C (either over a pan of warm water, or with 5-second blasts in the microwave). Use a thermometer, and while it takes a bit of time, it’s also dead simple!

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{6} Citrus Pfeffernüsse

We’ve reached the half-way point in this year’s 12 Bakes of Christmas, so I thought it would be nice to return to a bit of a festive classic. I’ve made a batch of Pfeffernüsse, but have added a but of a citrus twist to them.

Pfeffernüsse are one of my favourites, and I can much through a whole pile of these. Pretty miraculous for something that doesn’t even contain chocolate!

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This is a comparatively “easy” Pfeffernüsse recipe. Many recipes tell you to make various syrups, then let it cool, work in the flour and let it sit overnight or even for days to let the flavours develop. Not here. You can make them and bake them right away, with no need to leave it resting over night occupying valuable space in your fridge that could be chilling eggnog or champagne instead.

There is only one “fiddly” bit here, which is making sure that the Pfeffernüsse are soft. This is worth doing, as it ensures that they have a good, rich flavour when you bite into them. You’ve got two choice here – add some pieces of soft bread to a tin with the baked but unglazed cookies, replacing the bread as it gets hard, until the cookies are soft, which can take a few days. Or use my cheat’s express method – I put the Pfeffernüsse on a wire tray, and then hold that tray above steam from a pan of water or a boiling kettle for a few seconds. Do this twice, then pop them back in an airtight tin. Repeat this the next day, and you should find that they have softened up nicely.

To finish, I have dipped my Pfeffernüsse in icing, as they remind me of the ones you buy with their crisp, brittle icing. I used a couple of spoonfuls of Acqua de Cedro, a liqueur made with citron and like a posh version of limoncello with a sharp, citrus flavour, but you can equally use Grand Marnier or Cointreau. Now, you might be looking at these pictures and notice how amazingly white my icing looks – and it does seem just like snow! Well, the reason that it looks so brilliant is that I cheated (gasp!). I use a small dash of white food colour with the icing, so that it had that bright, snowy appearance. It doesn’t change the flavour and you can happily skip it, but in the interests of full disclosure I feel I should say that I’ve used it in case someone makes these and is surprised that they don’t look quite as white!

How you flavour them is up to you – I’ve used a mixture of spices, plus candied orange peel. You can make these extra-citrussy with the addition of some orange zest, or get creative and go for something completely different – cardamom and lemon anyone? Or convert to the dark side…cinnamon and cloves for flavour, and then dipped in dark chocolate? Now that would be pretty sensational!

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To make Citrus Pfeffernüsse (makes 20):

For the Pfeffernüsse

• 125g caster sugar
• 1 large egg
• 20g candied orange peel, finely chopped
• 50g ground almonds
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon mixed spice
• 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• pinch white pepper
• 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
• 125g plain flour

For the glaze

• 100g icing sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon white food colouring (optional)
• orange liqueur or water
• cubes of candied peel

1. Put the egg and sugar in a bowl. Mix well until thick and creamy (around 5 minutes).

2. Fold in the chopped orange peel, ground almonds and spices and mix well.

3. Combine the flour and baking powder, then mix into the wet ingredients until you have a smooth dough – it will slightly sticky, but you should be able to roll pieces into balls. If too dry, add a few drops of water; if too wet, add a tiny sprinkle more flour.

4. Pinch off small walnut-sized pieces of the dough. This is best done with damp hands to prevent the dough sticking. If you’ve very precise, weigh the dough, divide by 20, then make sure each piece is the same weight (mine were 17g each…)

5. Bake the Pfeffernüsse at 180°C for 15 minutes until golden and puffed, turning the tray half-way. When baked, remove and leave to cool on a wire rack. Transfer the cold cookies to an airtight tin and add a slice of bread – this will soften the Pfeffernüsse. Replace the bread when dry.

6. To glaze, mix the icing sugar with white colouring (if using) and enough water or liqueur to get a thick but smooth icing – think really thick double cream. Dip each cookie in the icing, shake off the excess, put some pieces of candied peel on top and leave to set.

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Tortas de Aceite

If you enjoyed my last post on Spanish picos then chances are you’ll also like today’s treat – tortas de aciete, or olive oil cakes. I say cakes, but they are more like crackers. Or biscuits? Actually, it’s hard to work out quite what to call them – the best I can come up with is “sweet crispbread with aniseed” to give you a hint about what these are like.

Like picos this is another delight from the southern Spanish region of Andalusia. The most famous brand is Ines Rosales, which I’ve seen in Spanish stores in the past – they come in quite a retro blue and white wrapping promising that they are las legítimas y acreditadas. When we were in Seville recently, I finally got round to buying a packet, and when I finally tried them back home, I really was smitten.

I expected them to be savoury, so was surprised to find they are actually sweet. They are thin and crisp, sprinkled with sugar that has lightly caramelised during baking, and flavoured lightly with aniseed. And they’re really quite annoyingly more-ish. They’re great smashed into shards and enjoyed with tea or a cup of coffee.

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Their exact origins are unknown, but they date back to the 16th century where they are referred to in literature. Seen in context, these must have been a luxurious treat – they don’t have much sugar in them, so these seem to me a clever way of making what would have been an expensive ingredient go a long way.

There are, inevitable, lots of recipes to make these tortas. There is, of course, the secret version belonging to Ines Rosales. However, their recipe is safe, as you can make a decent version yourself at home – you just need white bread dough made with olive oil, or just take some pizza dough and work in some oil and aniseed.

Actually, I write that and make it sound so simple. Well, when it came to making these delights, I had to admit that I really, really struggled with them. Really struggled. The dough was soft and a bit sticky, so they were a complete and utter pain to roll out. They stuck to my hands. They stuck to my rolling pin. They stuck to my worktop! All in all, very frustrating! I tried chilling the dough, I tried using flour to dust, I tried using no flour and a drop of oil, but it was all to no avail. I was left facing that most awful of situations…I might have to chuck everything in the bin and admit defeat.

Before giving up, I thought I would give it one more try to make my tortas. I normally put greaseproof paper on my baking tray, but I tried adding the dough directly to the tray. As the dough contained olive oil, I reckoned the baked tortas would not stick, and I would be able to drop the dough on there and just press it out thinly into a circle.

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And…as you can see from those pictures, this worked like a dream! The dough went into a hot oven, and the tortas cooked quickly, browning on the edges and puffing up in places, leaving the typical mottled appearance. Success!

Would I make these again? Absolutely! They are actually quite easy to make, and offer lots of scope to adapt them – you could add other aromatic seeds such as fennel, or spices such as cardamom or cinnamon. Citrus zest would also work well, or you could go completely different – don’t sprinkle any sugar on top before baking, and make them into savoury crackers instead.

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To make tortas de aciete (makes around 25-30):

• 80ml extra-virgin olive oil
• 1 heaped teaspoon aniseed
• 100 ml water
• 1 teaspoon instant yeast
• 50g white sugar
• 250g strong white flour
• pinch of salt
• 1 egg white, beaten
• caster sugar, for sprinkling
1a. If using a bread machine: put everything except the egg white into the mixing bowl. Run the “dough” cycle. Simples!

1b. If making by hand: put the flour, salt, sugar and yeast into a bowl. Add the water and mix well. Knead for around 5 minutes until elastic, and then work in the olive oil and aniseed. Leave the dough a warm place for an hour until the dough has doubled in size. Knock back and knead again for 2-3 minutes.

2. Once the dough is ready, turn it onto a floured surface. Divide into equal pieces.

3. Preheat the oven to 210°C (420°F).

4. Roll each piece of the dough into a ball. Put onto a lightly oiled baking tray and press flat into a large, thin circle (12-15cm). I managed to fit 3 tortas onto a large baking sheet. Brush each torta lightly with beaten egg white and sprinkle with some caster sugar.

5. Bake the tortas for around 5-8 minutes until they are golden and browned at the edges. You might want to go easy on the first few to make sure you’re getting the temperature and baking time correct – it will depend on the size and thickness of the tortas.

6. Keep going until all the dough is used up. Once the baked tortas are cooled, store in an airtight container to keep the crisp.

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