{11} Almond Jam Cookies

You might have noticed that there has been a glut of almond-flavoured goodies this year, so why stop a good thing? This recipe is based on one I saw for “Italian almond cookies” in a book that suggested filling them with flaked almonds or nuts. However, I thought a nice tweak would be to make them with a jam filling, and to use what I had made during the summer and autumn. And, thankfully, this year I made a lot of jam!

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I would love to be able to say that there was lots and lots of thought that went into the pairing of jams with these almond biscuits, with careful consideration of what would work with their nutty flavour, but the reality is that I just had a good old rummage around inside the store cupboard.

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I ended up using six different types – plum, raspberry, apricot and pear jams, which were all delicious. However, the real stars of the show were Seville orange marmalade, with the bitter citrus acting as a good partner to the sweet, aromatic almond, and the surprising pink grapefruit marmalade, with that little sharp twist providing a nice counter to the sweetness of the biscuits. I also left shreds of orange and grapefruit peel peeking out over the sides.

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All in all – I’ve very happy with how these turned out. The result was a very jaunty and colourful little selection…just in time for tomorrow’s New Year’s Eve dinner!

To make almond and jam cookies (makes around 30):

• 200g ground almonds
• 200g icing sugar
• 2 medium egg whites
• 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
• jam, marmalade or fruit paste (e.g. membrillo)
• icing sugar or flaked almonds, to roll

1. Put the almonds, icing sugar and almond extract in a bowl. Add half the egg white and mix. Add the rest of the egg white, a little at a time, until you have a smooth but fairly firm dough. If the mixture is too sticky, add an equal weight of almonds and sugar to sort it out. Wrap in cling film and chill for an hour or overnight.

2. Preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F), and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper rubbed with a dot of oil or butter.

3. Roll the dough into a sausage shape and cut into pieces (aim for around 25-30 pieces). If you are a bit obsessed, use a ruler to measure out equally-sized pieces!

4. Roll each piece into a ball, roll in icing sugar (or flaked almonds if you prefer) then place on the baking sheet and flatten slightly. Make an indent in the top and add a little jam or marmalade (be careful not to over-fill).

5. Bake the cookies for around 15 minutes until slightly puffed up and they have a golden colour.

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{10} Gingerbread Madeleines

After making lots of complicated bakes in the last few weeks, I wanted to have a go at something seasonal yet simple. So I’ve taken my standard recipe for making madeleines, and adapted it to give them a gingerbread-like flavour. I’ve swapped out the orange zest for clementine zest, and added a whole lot of spices.

I’ve also broken one of my own cardinal rules – I never normally bother with any decoration on madeleines, mainly because their shape is already so pretty. However, I love a good coating of icing on gingerbread, so I’ve given them a light glaze to add some sweetness and highlight the ridges on the shell pattern. Beyond this…they’re just plain and simple madeleines, easy to whip up at short notice and really rather delicious.

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To make gingerbread madeleines (makes 18):

• 85 grams butter
• 2 teaspoons honey
• 2 large eggs
• 40g white caster sugar
• 40g dark muscovado sugar
• Zest of 1 orange or clementine
• 1/2 teaspoon mixed spice
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
• 80g plain flour
• 30g ground almonds
• 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
• Large pinch salt

1. Melt the butter and honey in a saucepan. Put to one side and allow to cool.

2. Put the eggs, sugar and orange zest in a bowl. Whip for 5 minutes until the mixture becomes light and thick.

3. Mix the flour, ground almonds, spices, salt and baking powder and sift. Add the flour mixture to the eggs and stir lightly with a spatula until combined.

4. Add the cooled liquid butter and incorporate using a spatula. Let the batter rest in the fridge for at least an hour.

5. Preheat the oven to 200°C. Place spoonfuls of the batter into madeleine moulds and bake for around 12 minutes (until the tops are golden and the characteristic bumps have appeared).

6. Once cooked, remove from the oven. When the silicone tray is cool enough to work with, press each madeleine out the the tray. Move to a cooling rack, and dust the shell side of each with icing sugar.

7. If you want to glaze the madeleines: put 50g icing sugar in a bow and add warm water, a teaspoon at a time, until you have a thick but flowing consistency. Brush onto the madeleines and leave on a wire tray to dry.

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{9} Italian Anise Cookies

I realised that I’ve been doing a lot of baking that uses very rich, heavy flavours. While I love spices, fruit, nut and chocolate, something a bit lighter can be very welcome. In Italy, they seem to recognise this, with aniseed being a very popular flavour. It’s a little bit invigorating and had a very fresh taste that is very appealing. Very different from all those mince pies!

I saw literally dozens and dozens of recipes for these small, round, glazed aniseed biscuits. Probably every Italian grandmother has passed on her own recipe for these things! They seem to go by the name of both angelonies as well as genetti. From my non-scientific research, it seems angelonies are the round cookies with the brightly-coloured sprinkles, whereas genetti are similar but twisted into more elaborate shaped before being baked and glazed. If there are any Italians out there who would like to enlighten me, please do!

This is a very simple recipe, and indeed the biscuits are best enjoyed while they are still very fresh, which makes it a good choice for last-minute unexpected visitors. Well, I say that it is simple, but it took me a bit of time to get a recipe that I was happy with. Yes, I perhaps try to convey an air of perfection in the kitchen, but it’s all a veneer! I have to confess that in developing this recipe, I made a complete beginners error in working out the quantities. I had seen a few recipes using milk, and for some reason added about a quarter of a cup to the mixture. Enough to send everything haywire. I first noticed something was up when I added the flour, and the mixture looked more like batter than a biscuit dough. I started adding a bit more flour, convinced that everything would come together, but no – everything stayed rather wet, then became a sticky mess. No choice for me other than to try again!

The second attempt was perfect – I skipped the milk completely, reasoning that if I needed to add some, it was best to add this at the end only if needed, and in fact, I didn’t need to use any. The dough was soft without being too sticky, and it was very easy to handle. Again, a little sticky to roll into balls before baking, but nothing that I could not handle. Worth also saying that you really should add the lemon zest here – lemon and aniseed really do work very well together, I think it is the fresh and aromatic characteristics that they share. Definitely a case of the two being greater than the sum of their parts in terms of flavours!

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These were really easy to make, just a case of mixing up the sugar, olive oil and egg, then adding the flour and rolling into balls. The mixture was fairly sticky, so with my first failure in my mind, I did have a little doubt in my mind as to whether this second attempt was going to work. I had images of everything melting into a hard, dry cake. However, my fretting was needless – they kept their shape, then puffed up obligingly in the oven, and the kitchen was filled with the rich aroma of aniseed. Probably worth mentioning that you really do need to like aniseed if you’re going to have a go at these!

Actually, if you’re not an aniseed fan, then you can swap it out for just lemon zest (or add some orange too), or go for some other spice in place of the aniseed or flavour them with rose water or vanilla. They will have a very different taste, but they should still work, but I would suggest trying to match the decoration to the flavour (slivers of candied lemon peel if you have just used the zest).

Most traditional recipes seem to use coloured sprinkles to finish these cookies, and is that’s your thing, go for it. I prefer something more muted – you could go with simply white sprinkles, but I happened to have a large jar of whole aniseeds in the cupboard, so I added a few of them to the top of each cookie just after icing, which I think looked rather nice, and added an extra hit of aniseed flavour as you bite into them.

I should sound one word of warning – aniseed extract can be very strong, so use it with caution. You might think you’re not adding enough, but after baking, the flavour will be quite noticeable. If you feed you have not got enough flavour in the actual dough itself, you can always add a bit to the icing to enhance it.

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To make Italian Anise Cookies (makes 16):

For the dough

• 160g plain white flour
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
• 1 large egg
• 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon olive oil
• 50g white caster sugar
• 1 teaspoon aniseed extract
1 lemon, zest only

For the glaze

• 100g icing sugar
• 1/4 teaspoon aniseed extract
• whole milk
• whole aniseeds, coloured sprinkles or white sprinkles (to decorate)

1. Preheat the oven to 175°C (345°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper and rub lightly with a dot of olive oil.

2. In a bowl, mix the flour, salt and baking powder. Set aside.

3. In another bowl, beat the egg, olive oil and caster sugar for around 5 minutes until pale and slightly thickened. Add the aniseed extract and lemon zest, and fold in the dry ingredients. Mix well, adding more flour if needed – the dough should be soft, but you should be able to form the dough into balls with dampened hands.

4. Take teaspoons of the mixture and roll into balls. Place on the baking sheet, leaving a little space for them to expand.

5. Bake the cookies for around 12 minutes until puffed and the surface is slightly cracked, but they should not start to colour. Remove from the oven when done, and transfer to a wire tray to cool completely.

6. Finally, make the glaze – mix the icing sugar, aniseed extract and enough milk (a tablespoon at a time) to make a smooth, runny icing. Use to coat the cookies, and finish with a sprinkling of whatever takes your fancy.

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{8} Frangipane Mincemeat Tarts

We’ve done biscuits, we’ve done buns, so now it’s time for tarts! When it comes to Christmas, there is only one tart for me, that that’s a good old mince pie. These are one of the things that really tell you that Christmas is around the corner (even if they are in British supermarkets from about mid-August), and that mixture of dried fruits, citrus and spices, encased on buttery pastry is just irresistible. They’re often served up alongside mulled wine (which I also love), but I think you can get too much sugar and spice in one go. A mince pie and a good cup of tea is just about a marriage made in heaven in my book.

However, I recently saw a bit of a twist in mince pies that I thought would be interesting to try. Rather than topping them with more pastry, and running the gauntlet about whether the filling would make a break for freedom from under the lid (thereby sealing the pies into the tray), the suggestion was to top them with a frangipane mixture and a few flaked almonds. Having enjoyed great success with a frangipane and pear tart a few months ago, this sounded like a great idea. Not only that, but it worked, and it worked beautifully.

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If you’re stuck in a bit of a mince pie rut, then I think these are for you. The pastry is a doodle to make, and the topping is super-simple. Just whisk butter, sugar and an egg until smooth, add some flavours, a bit of flour and some ground almonds, and pipe on top of the mincemeat. In the oven, it transforms into a light, moist almond sponge with a glorious golden colour on top. Dust with a scant dash of icing sugar, and they look beautiful.

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Now, I must confess that I’m not the sort of domestic perfectionist that makes there own mincemeat. Some people do, and that’s great, but I had a go once and it was a disaster. And you know what? You can buy amazing mincemeat, so I’m sticking with that route. Of course, I can never resist the urge to tweak, and mincemeat does accept additional ingredients rather well. I added a handful of crushed flaked almonds to mine, as well as a couple of tablespoons of brandy and the zest of a clementine to add a little more oompf. The additional citrus in particular really does help with getting a good flavour.

I also gave the frangipane a little extra helping hand – in addition to some almond extract, they have two spoonfuls of my home-made spiced pear liqueur and a spoonful of brandy, but you could add whatever you fancy – some Amaretto, Cointreau or dark rum perhaps? Again, I was not looking for a smack-you-in-the-lips flavour, just a subtle extra something.

If you’re not a mincemeat fan (and I gather, shockingly, that there are people who are not keen) then you could just replace it with jam. Something like spiced apple, plum or cherry would still be very seasonal!

And so…how were they? Well, I have to say that these are really, really good. This recipe makes quite a small amount of pastry, so the cases are thin and crisp, and the rich but light almond frangipane is a nice complement to the mincemeat. This is also a great option if you like the flavour of mincemeat but don’t want to use lots of it (or, alternatively, you’ve got to make a lot of pies and ran out of mincemeat!). This one is a keeper!

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To make Frangipane Mince Pies (makes 12):

For the pastry

• 150g plain flour
• 60g butter
• 50g icing sugar
• 1 medium egg

For the filling

• 200g mincemeat

For the frangipane

• 100g white caster sugar
• 100g unsalted butter
• 100g ground almonds
• 1 large egg
• 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
• 20g plain flour
• 3 tablespoons brandy (or other alcohol)

To finish

• flaked almonds
• icing sugar, to dust

1. Start with the pastry – rub the flour and butter until it resembles breadcrumbs. Mix in the icing sugar. Add the beaten egg and work to a soft dough (add a bit more flour if needed – the pastry will be very soft but not sticky). Wrap in cling film and chill in the fridge for at least an hour (or overnight).

2. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F). Lightly butter a 12-hole non-stick muffin tray.

3. Make the frangipane. Beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the other ingredients and beat until smooth and well-combined. You can do this manually, but it is much easier with an electric beater!

4. Assemble the tarts. On a floured worktop, roll the pastry thinly. Cut out circles and use to line the muffin moulds (if the pastry gets soft and is difficult to work, pop it back in the fridge). Put the tray of tart shells into the fridge for 10 minutes to chill, and then add a generous teaspoon of mincemeat to each tart. Spoon or pipe the frangipane filling into the tarts (fill to just below the pastry, as it will puff up slightly).

5. Sprinkle each tart with a few flaked almonds, and bake for around 20-25 minutes until the tarts are golden (you may need to turn half way to get an even colour).

6. When done, remove the tarts from the oven and allow to cool. Dust with a little icing sugar just before serving.

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{7} Saffron and Almond Buns

Right, enough with the biscuits! I think it’s time to broaden the festive fare, and move over the buns, and what buns they are! I’ve decided to make a “twist” on traditional Swedish lussebullar, the famous saffron buns served around St Lucia on 13 December, but I’ve made them in a spiral rather than the usual scroll shape. If you want to know more about this, I recommend this article on Foodie Underground by Anna Brones and Johanna Kindvall (who also did the fabulous illustrations) for some history on the buns and the Scandinavian traditions around the celebration of St Lucia.

This is actually an adaptation of my cinnamon bun recipe, but without the usual spices. Instead, the dough contains saffron, so it turns the most glorious shade of golden yellow when you’re making it. Really, it is almost worth doing just to see that bright, glowing colour. It will make you happy, honestly! Not only is it a treat for the eyes, but the aroma of the saffron is also quite intoxicating (if you happen to like saffron, of course).

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You could just make these without any filling (usually there is none in authentic lussebullar), but I got a tip from a reader, suggesting using grated almond paste and sultanas per a family recipe. In all honesty, I was  sold on this idea the moment I read about it, but could not resist a peek into my copy of The Flavour Thesaurus to check whether saffron and almonds are a “thing”.

Well, it turns out they are, the book confirming that almonds and saffron are a good combination. Apparently, it’s the bitter notes in saffron that marry well with the sweet-bitter flavours in almonds. I also happened to have half a bar of almond paste from making Bethmännchen a few days ago, so a perfect way to make sure it didn’t go to waste. In a nod to the original recipe, I skipped the sultanas in favour of currants, and I think they worked well – their smaller size suited these buns, and the contrast of the yellow and black looks really quite jolly.

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Of course, the important thing here is the taste test, and I am happy to report that my fake Scandinavia festive saffron buns are utterly, ridiculously delicious!

The saffron and almonds are fragrant, and they were amazing while fresh and still warm (or cheat – 10 seconds in the microwave if you’re a little late to the party). They also don’t need much by way of decoration – nothing more than a quick glaze when they come out of the oven to give them a lovely shine, but otherwise, they look stunning as they are. Bright and sunny, such a contrast to the grey chill outside. These would be a perfect addition to a festive brunch!

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In all honesty, I have to say that this is a bit of  cheat’s version of proper lussebullar. They are normally shaped into intricate scrolls or other shapes, and my roll-and-slice approach just skips all that. However, if you’re busy around Christmas and want something a little different, I really cannot recommend these highly enough.

To make Saffron Buns (makes 12):

For the dough:

• 2 teaspoons instant yeast
• 50g white caster sugar
• 60g butter
• 150ml milk, scalded and cooled
• 0.5g saffron threads (a teaspoon)
• 2 eggs
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 325g strong white flour

For the filling:

• 100g currants
• 120g almond paste

For the glaze:

• 50g white sugar
• 50ml water

1. Put the milk in a saucepan. Bring the boil, remove from the heat, crush the saffron strands, add to the milk and leave the lot until lukewarm.

2a. If using a bread machine: put one of the eggs, the saffron milk and the rest of the dough ingredients into the mixing bowl. Run the “dough” cycle. Simples!

2b. If making by hand: put the flour and butter into a bowl, and rub with your fingers until the butter has been incorporated. Fold in the salt, sugar and yeast. In a separate bowl, combine the milk mixture and one egg, then pour into the dry ingredients. Stir with a spoon, then work with your hands until you have a smooth, stretchy, silky dough (at least 5 minutes). 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.

3. Once the dough is ready, turn it onto a floured surface. Roll into the largest rectangle you can. Sprinkle over the currants, and grate the almond paste directly onto the dough. Roll up into a sausage. Use a sharp knife to cut into 12 slices.

3. Lay each slice, cut face up, on a bun case. Cover with cling film or a damp cloth and leave to rise for at least an hour until doubled in size.

4. Preheat the oven to 200°C. Beat the remaining egg, and use to brush on the buns.  Bake for 10-12 minutes until golden, turning half way if necessary. If they are browning too quickly, cover loosely with tin foil.

5. In the meantime, make the sugar glaze. Put the sugar and water into a saucepan, bring to the boil and cook for 1 minutes.

6. When the buns are done, remove from the oven and brush them while still warm with the hot sugar glaze.

Worth making? Just one word – sensational!

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{6} Clementine and Clove Sablés

I’ve done a lot of traditional baking this year, so today I’ve had a go at an original creation (although no doubt there is some corner of Europe where this is the seasonal biscuits and has been for 900 years…). These are actually just some simple butter biscuits that don’t have much sugar, and where the key thing is the flavours.

They are livened up with a combination of clementine zest and cloves. I know that cloves are a very strong spice and that not everyone is a fan, but trust me, they really work so, so well with the citrus zest. If you think this is not the combination for you, then I’m afraid tradition is against you – this is the classic combination used in an aromatic pomander, with whole cloves pressed into a fresh orange. They do smell delicious and were used historically by wealthy and powerful gentlemen and ladies to make the air around them smell just a little bit sweeter (at least those that were not rich enough to afford a solid silver pomander filled with all manner of exotic spices).

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This recipe does seem a bit funny when you’re making it. The dough is fairly soft, so you might think that there is not enough flour in the recipe. Don’t fret! The key thing is to pop the dough into the freezer for a bit, then cut off pieces as you’re making the biscuits. The chilled dough is easy to work with. And before baking the biscuits, I put the whole tray in the freezer for 3 minutes. This made sure everything was firm, and keeps a nice clean edge when baking. This might all sound like a bit of a faff, but it ensures that you have a higher amount of butter in the finished biscuit.

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As you can see, I’ve decorated the basic biscuits in two ways, so they are ideal if you’re in a rush and want to give the impression that you’ve been in the kitchen for ages turning out biscuits.

First off, the stars, which I brushed with a simple orange icing while they were still warm from the oven. This results in a rather pretty frosted effect on the stars, which seems somehow fitting at this time of year.

The rest of the biscuits were made with a scalloped cutter, and I just drizzled some dark chocolate on them. Not enough to coat them, but just enough for the dark lines to provide a nice contrast to the pale biscuit, and just a hint of cocoa. If you want some other contrasts, you can mix in some chocolate chips, dried fruit or chopped candied peel too. Just keep the fact you’ve done it all with one recipe can be our little secret.

And there we have it…we’ve reached the half-way point in this year’s Twelve Days of Christmas Baking (or Baking Madness, if you prefer). I hope you’ve enjoyed it so far!

To make Clementine and Clove Sablés (makes 50 small-ish biscuits*)

• 25g ground almonds
• 230g plain flour
• 100g salted butter, cold
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 85g icing sugar
• 2 clementines, zest only
• 1 teaspoon mixed spice
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
• 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1 large egg, beaten

(*) My biscuits were two-bite efforts – if you make them smaller, you’ll have loads more!)

1. Put the almonds, flour and butter into a bowl. Work with your fingers until it resembles breadcrumbs,

2. Add the baking power, icing sugar, zest and spices. Mix well, then add the egg and vanilla extract and work quickly to a smooth dough (it should be soft but not too sticky). Wrap in cling film and chill in the freezer for 30 minutes.

3. Preheat the oven to 175°C (350°F). Line a couple of baking trays with greaseproof paper.

4. Take chunks of the chilled dough and roll out thinly on a worktop. Cut out whatever shapes you like! If the dough gets too soft and sticky, just pop back in the freezer to firm up.

5. Bake for 10-12 minutes (depending on size) until golden.

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{5} Bethmännchen

Some people love marzipan and almond-based sweets, and I should confess I’m one of them. I always think of marzipan as something with an air of the old world about it, no doubt as a mixture of ground almonds and powdered sugar mixed with rose water was a popular mediaeval confection is you had the substantial means necessary to buy the ingredients. Anyway, I was really happy to find out about Bethmännchen. These are little marzipan-based treats that originate from Frankfurt, and like all the best sweets, there is a bit of history about their creation.

Bethmännchen (meaning “little Bethmann”) are said to have been created in the 1830s for Simon Moritz von Bethmann, a prominent Frankfurt banker and city councillor, and were originally decorated with four almond halves to represent his four sons. When one of the sons died a few years later, the sweets were made with only three almonds as a mark of respect. Of course, like all the best myths, there are those that disagree – some suggest that Herr von Bethmann died well before the 1830s, others suggest Bethmännchen were around before him. Well, we’ll have to leave that one to the historians to sort out.

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Today, Bethmännchen are hugely popular in Frankfurt, particularly at the Christmas market. And I think they also look rather jolly – while they look like the might contain saffron, they are actually glazed with an egg yolk wash before baking, so they emerge from the oven with a glorious golden colour that really stands out among all the other biscuits and bakes at this time of year. Some versions even have a dash of rosewater, which I’ve added to my recipe below.

Making these sweets is actually very easy. You just need to prepare the ingredients, mix it all to a smooth paste, then roll into balls, add the almonds and bake. Indeed, the only tricky bit is splitting the almonds into halves – I found the best way was to blanch whole almonds in hot water, then peel them and use a sharp knife to split them while still soft. Whether you obsess about getting equally-sized pieces of the dough is up to you, but I weighed mine out (each piece was 14g).

One thing that is worth knowing is that you must get the right sort of marzipan, and sadly, the stuff you buy in most British stores has a high sugar to almonds ratio. For this recipe, you want something that is really 50/50 (also called almond paste) otherwise the resulting Bethmännchen will be too sweet, and you’ll have something that it a bit dry and brittle. I ended up using Odense Marzipan from Denmark (60% almonds), which I was able to pick up in Scandinavian Kitchen in central London. If you’re struggling, you can easily make your own marzipan at home with equal weights of icing sugar and almonds, and use a dash of rosewater, honey or glucose syrup plus a few drops of almond extract to bring it all together.

And the taste? I loved them. They are really not that sweet, but have an intense almond flavour and subtle hint of rose, more exotic than simply floral. The outside is firmer (indeed slightly crisp when freshly baked) and the interior is soft and marzipan-like. Very much an adult sweet!

To make Bethmännchen (makes around 30)

• 1 large egg, separated
• 60g plain flour
• 50g icing sugar

• 50g ground almonds
• 250g almond paste / raw marzipan(*)
• few drops of almond extract (optional) (**)
• few drop of rose water (optional) (**)
• 75g whole blanched almonds, split

(*) You need to get the right stuff – at least 50% almonds. If you use one with 20-25% almonds, the resulting Bethmännchen will be way, way too sweet. I used raw marzipan that was 60% almonds.

(**) The almond extract and rosewater are entirely optional. I find a few drops of almond helps bring out the flavour, and the rosewater adds a subtle extra fragrance, and makes for a very different bake to most festive fare. Just be sure to use both with caution – they are strong!

1. Preheat the oven to 160°C (320°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper and rub lightly with a dot of unsalted butter to prevent sticking.

2. Separate the egg. Reserve the yolk, and in a separate bowl, lightly whisk the egg white.

3. In a large bowl, mix the flour, ground almonds and icing sugar. Break the marzipan into chunks and add to the bowl. Add the egg white. Work everything to a smooth dough (it should be firm but will still be sticky). Add a little more flour or ground almonds as needed.

4. Divide the dough into 30 pieces (if you have more or less, not the end of the world). Press 3 almond halves into the sides of each ball. Transfer the Bethmännchen to the baking sheet. You may want to bake them in two batches so they cook evenly.

5. Make the glaze – mix the egg yolk with one tablespoon of water, and glaze the Bethmännchen.

6. Bake for around 15 minutes until the cookies look golden and slightly puffed.

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{4} Soetkoekies

They say that travel broadens the mind, and in my case, I always like to try local specialities and keep an eye out for new things, so today’s festive baking comes all the way from South Africa. I was there at the end of November, but now that I’m sitting in chilly London, it is hard to believe that just a few short weeks ago, I was basking in the warmth of the early days of the South African summer. Days on the beach, wine tastings on balmy terraces, safaris…ah well, I draw some small crumb of comfort from the fact that I love Christmas in a cold climate, and I’m not sure I’m ready to celebrate on a beach. That’s not to say that I would turn my nose up at going back to Cape Town and the winelands in the near future…

So, the biscuits. They are called soetkoekies, originally an Afrikaans name which translates rather obviously as “sweet biscuits”.

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Like a lot of traditional cookies, you find dozens and dozens of traditional recipes. Some are roll-and-cut, other as drop cookies, some are pale and spice-less, like shortbread or sugar cookies, others are richly spiced, some contain nuts and fruit, others don’t. I guess what I’m saying is that this is one version of soetkoekies, but there will be many more out there to explore.

You could just write these off as being simple spiced biscuits, but what really piqued my interest was a specific ingredient. Many recipes that I saw suggest that, in place of milk or water to bind the dough, you use wine. Yes, wine! This could be dessert wine, any sweet write or red wine, port or just a light red wine. As I prefer to keep my dessert wines for more special occasions, I went for a robust red wine, thinking that this would also play with the spices I was using for a mulled wine effect.

I ended up only using around 50ml of wine, and I thought that this would not really be enough to make much of an impact, but it did so from the moment I mixed it in. The dough took on a purple tinge and there was a definite whiff of booze as I was rolling and cutting out the biscuits. During baking, however, the colour deepened to a rich brown. It is hard to say whether there was much flavour from the wine, but if you used a sweeter or very aromatic wine (perhaps a moscato) then this would have a more pronounced impact. Of course, there is nothing to stop you from swapping the wine for something stronger or very aromatic, so ginger wine, Cointreau or Amaretto or even the herbal Dubonnet could provide an interesting flavour dimension.

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The big question for me was what this recipe was going to taste like. It turns out, the flavour is quite familiar – very close to Dutch speculaas cookies, which is probably not really much of a surprise given the historic links between  the Netherlands and the Western Cape. One little hint – I found that the flavour and texture benefited from being kept in an airtight container for a few days after baking, but of course they are still delicious on the day of baking.

Where these cookies are very different from their Dutch cousins in appearance. While the Dutch use elaborate moulds of windmills, farmers, St Nicholas and animals, it seems that soetkoekies are usually rolled and cut out. Of course, this does open up options for decorating them. The decoration that I’ve chosen to use here is not particularly traditional, but I wanted them to have a unique look on the festive table, so so I glazed the top with egg white and added half an almond, which I think looks rather pretty (and it’s dead easy to get them to look fancy, bonus!). However, I did find some that refer to traditional decoration with red stripes by mixing “rooi bolus” (ferrous oxide) into some of the dough, forming into strips, then rolling them onto the rest of the dough before cutting out the biscuits. I’ve no idea about the health benefits or side effects of ferrous oxide, but if you want to try this with a natural food colouring, I’m sure the effect could be rather dramatic. Alternatively, add some red colouring to icing and use that to finish them – it would certainly be festive, and you’ve got a little story to tell people as they nibble away. If you’re going to go for the red decoration, you might want to swap out the brown sugar for white caster sugar, to get more of a colour contrast.

So as they say in South Africa – Geseënde Kersfees!

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To make soetkoekies (makes around 60 depending on size)

• 500 g plain flour
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
• 1 teaspoon powdered ginger
• 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
• 250 g soft brown sugar (or white caster sugar)
• 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
• 200g butter
• 100g ground almonds
• 1 egg
• 50 ml wine, port, brandy or any other alcohol
• 50 g peeled almonds, halved
• 1 egg white

1. In a bowl, mix the flour, salt, spices, sugar and baking soda until well-combined. Rub the butter into the mixture until it looks like breadcrumbs. Add the ground almonds and rub into the mixture with your fingers.

2. Beat the egg mix with the wine. Add to the flour mixture and knead until it forms a dough, adding more wine if needed. Wrap in cling film and chill for 30 minutes or overnight.

3. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

4. Prepare the glaze – whisk the egg white with a teaspoon of water.

5. Roll out the dough thinly (about 5mm) and cut out whatever shapes you like. Place on baking trays. Glaze the biscuits with the egg white and press half an almond into the centre of each biscuit.

6. Bake for around 8-10 minutes until well-coloured, turning half-way. Transfer to a wire tray to cool completely.

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{3} Kruidnootjes

Christmas would not be Christmas with lots of little spiced biscuits, and this is one that fits the bill perfectly. These are kruidnoten (“spice nuts”) or kruidnootjes (“little spice nuts”) from the Netherlands.

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Kruidnoten are small, crunchy biscuits made with brown sugar and loaded with Christmas spices. They are also incredibly cute – they are actually tiny (less than a small cherry!) and are often given to children in bags, or poured into bowls to munch on while you’re enjoying the festivities.

The good news is they are also incredibly easy to make, great if you’re in a hurry, don’t fancy tackling something too complex or need a quick home-made gift. You just have to whip up butter, sugar and a dash of syrup, then work in some spices and flour. The fun bit was shaping the kruidnoten. I cut the dough into four pieces, and rolled each into a long snake shape. Then (like the geek I am…) I used a ruler and a knife to cut equally-sized pieces, then rolled them into balls. That probably sounds like an unnecessary degree of obsession, but  you know what? All the cookies ended up exactly the same size when they were baked, so I was left feeling rather pleased.

Another real boon is that this is a good cookie choice to make with younger children as there are no complicated steps to follow and, critically, no raw eggs are involved. That means that if little fingers start to stuff the raw dough in their mouths, it will still be perfectly safe (even if the baking powder might not be the tastiest thing they’ve ever eaten). Cutting and rolling the dough into little balls is good fun, and the kruidnoten will cool quickly after baking. This means that little helpers can then eat the fruits of their labour quite quickly, preserving festive kitchen harmony.

Now, you could just leave them as they are and end there. Or…there is one alternative. Dip ’em in dark chocolate. This is definitely not traditional, but I can promise you that this is utterly delicious. The dark chocolate works beautifully with the sweet, crunchy, spicy biscuit, and if they if you add salt to the cookies, this contrasts with the sweetness of the chocolate too. If you have tempered the chocolate properly, they also look really rather stunning when served alongside tea, coffee or hot chocolate.

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One final tip – I’ve had shop-bought kruidnoten in the past, and they stay crisp for a while, but the home-made version can go soft after a day or so if you leave them out. This makes it essential to keep them in an airtight container, but if you don’t do that, you can easily re-crisp them by baking them for a few minutes in a low oven (remember you’re drying out, not baking them). Of course, if they are dipped in chocolate, you don’t need to worry about that…just sayin’…

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To make kruidnoten (makes around 64):

• 125g plain flour
• 2 teaspoons mixed spice
• pinch of ground black pepper
 • 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 1/8 teaspoon salt
• 50g butter

• 30g soft brown sugar
• 35g muscavado sugar
• 1 teaspoon syrup (golden, treacle or honey)
• milk, to combine
• 250g dark chocolate, for dipping (optional)

1. Mix the flour, spice, pepper, baking powder and salt in a bowl. Put to one side.

2. In a separate bowl, cream the butter, sugar and syrup until soft and fluffy. Add the dry ingredients and mix well. Add enough milk until the mixture comes together (a tablespoon at a time – the dough should be soft, but not sticky). Wrap in cling film and chill for an hour or overnight.

3. Preheat the oven to 170°C (340°F). Double-line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

4. Divide the dough into four pieces (mine weighed 271g, so I had 4 x 67g…I’m rather nerdy when it comes to measuring). Roll each piece into a long sausage and cut into 16 pieces (again…I rolled mine out until it was 32cm long, then put a ruler next to it and cut equal pieces of 2cm…).

5. Roll each piece of dough into a ball and place them on the baking sheet with a little space between them. You might have to bake them in two batches.

6. Bake the kruidnoten for around 14-16 minutes (turning the tray half-way) until slightly puffed and a spicy aroma comes from the oven. Remove the tray and put the  kruidnoten on a rack. They should harden as they cool.

7. If you want to, dip the cooled kruidnoten in dark chocolate for a more indulgent festive treat.

Worth making? A definate yes – very easy to make, and utterly delicious and more-ish. A true Dutch delight!

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{2} Sparkling Quince Candy

In all the years that I’ve been tackling various Christmas delights, what has struck me is how few of them are actually suitable for vegans. Sure, a lot of them could be adjusted to make them suitable, but few of them are, from the out, completely plant-based. Perhaps the nearest traditional recipe I’ve tried has been sugarplums, albeit it you would need to swap out the honey for some other syrup. My festive sweet chestnut wagashi from 2012 were indeed completely vegan, but as they were more the sort of thing you might expect in Japan than from a German Christmas market, I’m not entirely sure that they would really count.

Well, it’s time to change that. The hero of the hour is that most frustrating of fruits, the quince, which appears in various countries as part of their festive fare. They always look so enticing, large, smooth and golden. Indeed, they are reputed to be the real “golden apples” that Hercules was challenged to steal from the Garden of the Hesperides (although others suggest they were actually oranges), and quinces were also thought to be sacred to the goddess Venus, making them a symbol of love and fertility.

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All well and good, but if you’ve every tried to cook with quince (at least the ones that grow in chillier Northern climes), you’ll appreciate that they don’t ripen into sweet, juicy fruit, but remain hard and rather astringent while raw. They might look tempting, but bite into one and you’ll soon wish you hadn’t!

This was very clear to me during autumn – two streets from my house, someone has a large quince tree in front of their house. Every few days, a quince would appear on the ground with some teeth marks. One by one, each of the quinces met the same fate. Clearly several passing opportunists had tried their luck, each being disappointed in turn. No, in this country, we need to cook quinces to change them into something fragrant and delicious.

Indeed, it is the cooking that makes the magic happen. This is not like cooking apples or pears (to which quinces bear similar appearance). Cooking quince down with some sugar and lemon juice transforms the hard pale yellow flesh into something completely different. Rich in colour, ranging from soft pink to deep garnet red, a delicious sweet with a rich pear-and-honey flavour!

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In reality, today’s post is really just a jazzed-up version of simple quince paste, with the sparkling element coming from being rolled in granulated sugar. All in all, it’s similar to Spanish membrillo served alongside manchego cheese. Of course, quince paste is not something that is limited to Spain. Similar things pop up all over the place, such as British quince cheese, France’s pâte de coing (which features as one of the Thirteen Desserts of Christmas (Les Treize Desserts de Noël) traditionally enjoyed after a festive meal in Provence) or Croatian kotonjata that is enjoyed at this time of year.

They all follow a similar recipe, but vary the amount of sugar, which results in different levels of sweetness and textures that range from firm and chewy to soft and melting. They are also suitable as a vegan treat, as they contain nothing more than quince, sugar and lemon juice, plus a little water to get things going, relying on the naturally high pectin levels in quince to get a good set (no gelatine here). The only thing you are asked to give to make quince candy is time, time and more time!

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I would describe this sweet as similar to Turkish Delight, so if you love that, then you’ll enjoy this. It has that same sweet, slightly chewy texture, albeit it has the graininess of quince rather than the smoothness of Turkish Delight. It’s worth noting that as you puree the quince, rather than just using the juice, you don’t get a completely smooth jelly. However, the main difference from Turkish Delight is that it is a lot, lot easier to make. There is no messing around with cornflour mixtures until everything turns to gloopy goo…just cook the quince until soft, puree it, then add sugar and cook the lot until done. Basta!

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I actually made this over two evenings, which is probably the easiest way to do it given how busy we all are at this time of year. The first evening, let the prepared quince cook down. This is the easy bit, and you can leave it on the hob to simmer while you’re doing something else (making cookies or watching a film…). This is the point where you’re also delighted that the quince flesh has turned to a soft pink colour, and you imagine that this will be the colour of the finished candy.

The second evening is a bit more involved. Once the sugar and lemon juice are in the mixture, the lot needs to reduce. Initially this is fine, and you don’t need to stir it very often at all, but as it cooks down, you’ve got a much higher sugar ratio in there, and towards the end, you have the sheer delight of stirring the boiling, bubbling mixture over a very hot stove. Lucky that it is so chilly outside! At this stage, I was amazed by the colour change – gone was the soft, gentle pink, and instead I had an intensely deep, dark red colour. Really quite amazing – this was just the result of the cooking process, where the heat of cooking causes a red pigment called anthocyanin to appear (or maybe it was there all along – I’m no scientist!). The final shade and its intensity is a result of the quince variety and where it was grown. If you make this, you could get the same garnet colour, or it might look quite different. So I guess what I’m saying is that there are no guarantees, so live a little and see what colour you end up with.

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A few final little tips – once you’ve made the giant block of quince candy and you have cut it up, you are advised to leave it uncovered in a warm and dry place. This will help the candy dry out slightly. What you want is a surface that is sticky but not wet, so you can coat it in sugar, but the sugar won’t then dissolve and form a syrup that ends up clinging to everything (your worktop, your hair, your Rudolph jumper…).

It is also worth making sure you use the lowest heat possible for this recipe. It is very easy to burn, and the flavour of caramel might be delightful with salt, but it can ruin the fruity flavour of quince. Taking the slow approach will also allow you to control the final texture. My candy had a very firm but chewy texture, which I like, but you may prefer something softer.

So…after all that work…how was it? Frankly, I was terribly impressed with myself. This looked really great – each piece was very regular – and the flavour was  fantastic. It has that familiar honey-pear flavour and aromatic quality that you associate with quince, but as the mixture has been cooked for a long, long time, it is much more intense than membrillo you might have with cheese. I think getting a few of these after dinner or as a gift would be very much in keeping with the festive season. If you’re feeling creative, you could try to put the hot quince paste into small silicone moulds, or even just use a cutter to get different shapes before rolling in sugar.

Finally, I should just add that this recipe does make a lot of pieces of candy. I had about 80, all around the size of a walnut, so you might want to try a smaller batch unless you’re a real quince lover!

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 To make Quince Candy (around 80 pieces, depending on size)

• 4 large quinces
• juice of one lemon
• 300ml water
• granulated white sugar (plus extra for rolling)

Step 1: Prepare the quince pulp

1. Peel and de-core the quinces. Cut the flesh into chunks (I ended up with about 1.145kg of quince flesh from my four large quinces), discarding the peel and pips. Add the water and lemon juice, cover the pot and simmer until the quince is very tender and has a pink colour (at least 1 hour).

2. Mash the quince mixture so it looks like pulp and then pass through a sieve to remove any “stringy bits”. This might take a while, but keep at it and almost everything should go through the sieve. Discard anything that remains in the sieve, and you’ve got your quince puree!

Step 2: Make the Quince Candy

3. Measure the quince pulp by volume and put into a saucepan. For every 500ml of pulp, add 400ml of granulated sugar (i.e. 4:5 ratio of sugar to quince).

4. Prepare a non-stick baking tray ( at least 20 x 20cm/8 x 8 inches). Rub very lightly with a few dots of a neutral oil to prevent sticking.

5. Heat the mixture until the sugar dissolves. Cook over a gentle heat until the mixture darkens in colour and you can scrape the bottom of the pan – it should leave a trail for a few moments and not fall off a spoon. You can also test a few drops of the mixture on a cold plate – if it sets firmly, it’s ready. Initially, you can stir the mixture only every 15-20 minutes, but as the mixture reduces, you will need to stand over the pot and stir continuously (i.e. non-stop, otherwise it will burn!).

6. Once the quince mixture is ready, pour into the prepared tray and shake lightly to even the surface. Cover loosely with greaseproof paper and leave overnight to set and cool.

7. The next day, turn the quince candy slab out of the tin. Cut into pieces, and spread on a sheet of greaseproof paper and leave in a warm, dry place to dry out slightly. After a couple of days, roll each piece in more granulated sugar to finish.

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Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things