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Galette des Rois

Yesterday was Twelfth Night, the traditional end of Christmas festivities, and the day by which you’re supposed to have taken down all the decorations. We’re back to normal, but there are a couple of houses in the neighbourhood that are still holding on to the festive vibe.

So is that the end of the excitement? Well, not quite. Today (6 January) if Epiphany, so there is one last change to eat cake before we get to our resolutions to be healthier and more sporty in 2017. On of the cakes eaten on this day is the Galette des Rois (“cake of the kings”) which is popular in France and Belgium. It has a sweet almond filling between two layers of golden puff pastry. Probably best to start that diet on 7 January then…

We actually had one of these at work yesterday. We’d been discussing the phenomenon of “cake culture” and whether we should encourage or discourage the appearance of cakes in the office as part of a commitment to healthy eating. Afterwards, of course, I went to a bakery and rocked up with one of these guys, but we managed to agree it was OK, as this was a cultural cake, rather than a celebration of cake culture, so we were fine with that.

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There is also a bit of fun that goes with this cake. Traditionally a ceramic bead would be added to the filling, and when the cake is cut and served, the person that finds the bead becomes king or queen for the rest of the day. If you buy a galette, you will usually get a golden crown to go with it, which the lucky monarch can wear to impress their subjects.

Now, you might be thinking that hiding a piece of ceramic in a cake is not a great idea if someone is hungrily tucking into it and they, oh, perhaps value their teeth? And you’d be absolutely right. As it turns out, I was the lucky king for a day at work, and it was a bit disconcerting to discover there was a piece of stone lurking in there. If you’re going to make one of these, I think the best way is to keep the tradition of something in the cake, but perhaps add a whole almond instead. All the fun, none of the risk of dental damage.

This is a very simple recipe to make. If you’re the sort of person that makes their own puff pastry, that’s great, but I am not one of those people. I bought mine from the store, and it makes life a lot easier. You just have to make the filling, then put it between two discs of pastry and bake it. But to make up for buying the pastry, I did make my own paper crown!

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To make a Galette des Rois:

• 1 block of sheet of puff pastry
• 1 portion of filling
• 1 teaspoon apricot jam

• 1 egg, beaten
• 1 whole almond or trinket

For the filling:

• 100g butter
• 100g caster sugar
• 1 egg
• 1 teaspoon almond extract
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 100g ground almonds

• 2 tablespoons dark rum

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F) and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

2. Make the filling. Cream the butter until soft, then add the sugar and beat well for a minute. Add the egg, almond extract and vanilla extract and mix until light and fluffy. Fold in the ground almonds, then add the rum and mix well.

3. Roll out the puff pastry so that you can cut two discs of at least 20cm, but try to get 25cm if you can. Cut out the two discs, and transfer one to the baking sheet. Use some of the beaten egg to moisten the edge of the pastry disc. Put the apricot jam in the middle and spread evenly, avoiding the egg.

4. Gently spoon the filling onto the pastry disc and spread it evenly – you might not need all the filling, particularly if the pastry disc is on the smaller side. Pop an almond or lucky charm into the mixture.

5. Place the other pastry disc on top, and working from the centre, use your hands to gently pat it down, getting rid of as many air bubbles as you can. Finally press down on the edges where you brushed the beaten egg to get a good seal. Crimp with a fork, then trim with a very sharp knife to get a neat edge.

6. Brush to top of the galette with beaten egg. Make a hole in the centre with a skewer to allow steam to escape, then use the back of a sharp knife to make a pattern on top of the galette.

7. Bake the galette for 25-30 minutes until puffed up and golden. You many need to turn it round half-way to get an even bake.

7. Remove from the oven and leave to cool. Warn your guests about any ceramic or metal lucky charms in the galette before serving!

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{12} Nadalin de Verona

And here we are! The final installment of 2016’s edition of the Twelve Bakes of Christmas!

Today I’ve turned my hand to a very traditional Italian cake, the Nadalin de Verona. This is a rich dough raised with yeast, which should hint that it has a long history, pre-dating our modern raising agents. It is flavoured with butter, vanilla and lemon zest, and topped with pine nuts, chopped almonds and sugar.

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It is fair to say that the big name of the Italian festive cake world is the panettone, closely followed by the pandoro. I make panettone fairly often, as it is easy with a bread machine and it always proves popular. However, I’ve never had a go at pandoro. The name means “golden bread” and it gets this colour from many, many, many egg yolks in the dough. I’m sometimes a very lazy baker and don’t like ending up with lots of spare egg whites. I guess I’ll get round to making a pandoro the next time I have to make a pavlova…

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But back to the star of today. The nadalin (also called the “natalino”) dates back as far as the 13th century, and is suggested as the ancestor of the modern pandoro. It is said to have been created to mark the investiture of the Della Scala family as the Lords of Verona. It is often linked to the most famous tragic romance of all time – the nadalin appears first in 1303, the same time that the events of Romeo and Juliet as said to have taken place. I’m not clear quite what the link is, but this cake may have featured on a medieval banquet table where either of the star-crossed lovers were present.

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Now, in the interests of Christmas, I’ve actually made the nadalin not just once, but twice!

I looked at a few recipes before making the nadalin, and settled on the “authentic” version on the website of the City of Verona tourist office. However I am sorry to say it didn’t quite work for me. It is made from eggs, a lot of butter and quite a bit of sugar. My baking instincts said this would be a very rich dough and the yeast might struggle to get a good rise, and it turned out to be so. It was of course perfectly tasty, but it didn’t have the lightness I prefer from sweet breads. This is all personal preference, but what to do?

Well I mentioned that I make panettone quite often, so I looked at my own recipe and adjusted to reflect the flavours of the nadalin – out with the dried fruit, and in with the vanilla and lemon zest. I also added a small handful of crushed sugar cubes to add some additional sweetness to the dough. Entirely optional, but this seemed like a sensible way to get a bit more sugar in the dough without making it too rich to rise well. I’m pleased to say this all worked very well, and the result is a light, sweet and fragrant festive bread.

To finish the nadalin, it is brushed with melted butter and topped with pine nuts and chopped almonds. They were a delicious addition, as they toast during baking to provide some crunch and flavour contrast.

Traditionally the nadalin is baked in a star shape. However I’ve bought so many pieces of baking equipment recently that I had to make do with the round cake tin I already had.  To make up for my cake being the “wrong shape” I made a simple star template and placed it on top of that nadalin before dusting with icing.

The nadalin is traditionally enjoyed with cocoa or a special wine after Christmas Eve mass. I would also quite happily much on a piece of this on a chilly winter evening too!

And with that, my 12 Days of Christmas Baking is over for 2016. I hope you’ve enjoyed it – I’ve enjoyed finding new inspiration, trying new baking techniques and eating the results! See you for the 2017 edition – if you have any suggestions of local specialities that I should try, leave a comment below.

To make a Nadalin de Verona (nom-traditional)

For the dough:

• 2 eggs
• 150ml milk, boiled and cooled
• 75g butter
• 50g sugar
• Zest of 1 lemon
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1 1/2 teaspoons dried yeast

• 400g strong white flour
• small handful of sugar cubes, crushed

To decorate:

• melted butter, to brush
• 50g pine nuts
• 50g chopped almonds
• 20g pearl sugar

To finish:

• 100g icing sugar
• water
• icing sugar, to dust

1. Make the dough – I used a bread machine for all the hard work. Put everything apart from the sugar cubes into the bread machine. Run the dough cycle.

2. Crush the sugar cubes. Work into the finished dough.

3. Line a cake tin (or wide saucepan) with greaseproof paper. Take the dough out of the machine, form into a ball, and press into the tin. Leave in a warm place, loosely covered with clingfilm, until the dough has doubled in size. Traditionally this is for 3 hours, but as my recipe is lighter, this could happen more quickly.

4. Just before you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven at 180°C (350°F).

5. Now prepare the topping. Melt some butter, and mix the pine nuts, flaked almonds and pearl sugar in a bowl.

6. Brush the nadalin generously with the melted butter. Sprinkle over the nut mixture and press down very gently.

7. Bake the nadalin for around 45 minutes to an hour until risen and golden, and it sounds hollow when tapped. If the nuts are browning too quickly, cover loosely with tin foil.

8. When baked, remove the nadalin from the oven. Make a simple icing with 100g icing sugar and 3 tablespoons of boiling water, and drizzle on top of the nadalin – this will form a glaze, and help keep the nuts in place.

9. Leave to cool completely, then dust with icing sugar before serving. I used a star template as a nod to the traditional shape.

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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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{8} Kourabiedes

Kourabiedes are a traditional cookie from Greece. And that should set some alarm bells ringing…

I always approach making traditional cookies with a little bit of trepidation. In this case, I have visions of Greek mothers and grandmothers raising their eyebrows and rolling their eyes. In my head, there is this Greek chorus of collective tutting as an entire people just know that their version is clearly superior to my attempt. And that their recipe is obviously better than everyone else’s attempts as well…

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With that disclaimer out there, I still think that my attempt is pretty decent. I mean, with all that icing sugar on them they look like they are made of snow!

In fact, they are part of a family of similar cookies – polvorones in Spain, Russian tea cakes or Mexican wedding cakes, or Austrian vanilla crescents. What they have in common is a sweet, crumbly pastry with chopped nuts, with the whole cookies dredged in icing sugar to provide even more sweetness.

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This is a very easy recipe to make. You just need to whip up the butter to get it nice and soft, then whip lots of air in as you add the sugar, egg yolk and various flavours. I’ve used vanilla as a background flavour, and combined it with brandy and orange blossom water. It is also important to use toasted nuts in this recipe – the nuts all some crunch to contrast to the soft, crumbly texture of the biscuit, but toasting them means the cookies had a richer flavour.

Shaping them is a doddle too – I found that it was worth chilling the dough slightly before shaping, as it made it a little easier to handle, but otherwise just scoop up spoonfuls of the mixture and roll them in your hands. However, I would not recommend my usual roll-into-a-sausage-and-cut-into-slices approach, as the mixture is a bit too soft for that. Tablespoons all the way!

Once you have baked the kourabiedes, you get another chance to add more flavour. I’ve seen recipes where Greek matriarchs liberally sprinkle ouzo over the hot cookies, which might be the way to go if you like aniseed flavours. I went for a less adventurous option and brushed them with some brandy cut with a little rosewater. There was a little sizzle, a puff of steam and a lovely aroma!

While the kourabiedes are still warm, you also need to get them into a dish full of icing sugar. They will still be fragile, so handle them with care. The icing sugar will combine with the butter in the cookies to form a sweet coating, then move them to a cooling rack and use a sieve to give them another coating of icing sugar. Get into the festive mood by imagining that this is snow. Then leave them to cool, and pile them high on a plate to serve alongside good strong coffee, or perhaps that herbal tea you picked up on holiday in Greece.

Καλά Χριστούγεννα (Kala Hristouyienna, Greek for Merry Christmas)!

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To make Kourabiedes (makes around 30)

For the dough:

• 250g unsalted butter
• 125g icing sugar
• 1 egg yolk
• 1 tablespoon brandy

• 1 tablespoon orange blossom water
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 75g toasted almonds, ground
• 75g toasted almonds, chopped
• 1 tablespoon baking powder
• 300g plain flour
• pinch of salt

To finish:

• 1 tablespoon brandy
• 1/4 teaspoon rosewater
• icing sugar, to cover

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F) and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

2. Put the butter in a bowl and beat well until light and fluffy. Add the icing sugar and egg yolk, and beat for another couple of minutes. Mix in the brandy, orange blossom water and vanilla and give it another good whip, then fold in the ground almonds.

3. In a separate bowl, combine the chopped almonds, flour, baking powder and salt. Fold into the butter mixture and mix until it all comes together. You might need to use your hands at the end. Pop in the fridge to chill for 10 minutes.

4. Take generous spoonfuls of the dough. Roll half of them into balls, transfer to a baking sheet and flatten slightly. Roll the other pieces of dough into balls, then shape them into crescent shapes and transfer a baking sheet.

5. Bake the cookies in batches of 12 for around 15 until just golden, turning them half-way to get an even bake. In the meantime, mix the brandy and rosewater in a dish.

6. Once baked, remove from the oven and brush immediately with the brandy-rosewater mixture. Allow to cool for a moment, then roll them in icing sugar. Transfer to a cooking rack, and dust generously with more icing sugar and leave to cool.

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{7} Florentines

I can never resist a good Florentine. There is something about those golden discs of caramel, studded with cherries, citrus, nuts and ginger and dipped in chocolate that is just magical. They might not strictly be a Christmas treat, but I think they lend themselves very well to this time of year.

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In my younger days, I assumed that Florentines were named after the city of Florence, but it turns out this is only partly true. I should have suspected this to be the case when, years ago, I had a few hours to explore Florence while waiting for a train connection (and hey, it was Florence, I was hardly going to hang out at the station for three hours!). Were there shops groaning under the weight of these biscuits? No. I found one pasticceria selling square Florentines, so I cut my losses and went with one of them. But clearly this was not a biscuit that the citizens of this city were clutching close to their collective bosom.

So what is the truth? Well, this is lost in the mists of time, but the name probably has something to do with the French, and the resemblance of these caramel discs to the gold coins of Florence (incidentally, the British two shilling coin was also known as the florin).

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There are two ways you can make these cookies. If you drop spoonfuls onto a baking sheet lined with greaseproof paper, they will spread out and you get large, crisp and delicate Florentines (there is enough butter in them to prevent sticking). However, you can drop small teaspoons into the bottom of a non-stick muffin tray – they’ll be slightly thicker but perfectly round so good if you’re giving them as a gift and need to travel with them and want them to look fancy. My pictures are of these “neat” Florentines, and I think they look very pretty.

However…if you’re going to use a muffin tray, please make sure that it is sufficiently non-stick! I assumed non-stick means non-stick. Well, I have two pans. One works like a dream, but the other is anything but non-stick. I found myself trying and ultimately failing to remove one batch from the tray, and had to junk the lot. As the mixture does not need to be baked quickly, you can take your time and do a test version to make sure it works. If it doesn’t, just switch to making the bigger versions using a tray with greaseproof paper. You don’t want all that work to go to waste and they will still taste fantastic!

To finish them off, you can leave them as they are (or “naked Florentines” as I’ve seen them called) but I think you really do need to spread one side with chocolate. If you are a milk or white chocolate fiend, then by all means go for it, but I think it really has to be dark chocolate on these little beauties. I think it works so well with the toasted nuts, ginger and citrus in the biscuits, and why mess with a classic? To make them look impressive, use tempered chocolate for a nice shine and snap, and use a fork to make a wave pattern in the chocolate.

Incidentally, if you think you’ll do a lot of dipping things in chocolate, it really is worth getting a food thermometer. They are not expensive and it means you can get your chocolate to the right temperatures. I’ve tried various methods over the years, but using the thermometer is hands down the easiest and most reliable method I’ve every tried. Never have dull chocolate again!

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In terms of the ingredients, you can play around with them to get a mixture that you like. You can use slivered almonds instead of flaked, or swap some of the almonds for pistachios, hazelnuts or even a handful of jumbo rolled oats. You can also adjust the proportions of cherries, peel, ginger and sultanas, or even omit some of them altogether, but try to keep to the same overall weight. You can even go for a retro vibe if you can get your hands on some green candied angelica – I remember those flecks of bright green in Florentines from my childhood, but it seems to have vanished from most supermarket shelves these days. If you find some – it’s a sign that you should make Florentines!

To make Florentines (makes around 24)

Dry ingredients

• 90g flaked or slivered almonds
• 90g glacé cherries
• 60g candied peel, chopped
• 20g glace ginger
• 30g sultanas
• 15g plain flour

For the caramel

• 45g butter
• 30g soft brown sugar
• 30g white sugar
• 1 tablespoon double cream
• large pinch of salt

To finish

• 150g dark chocolate

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F). For large Florentines, line two large baking trays with greaseproof paper rubbed with a little butter. For small Florentines, get a non-stick muffin tray and rub lightly with butter.

2. Prepare the dry ingredients – chop the cherries, peel and ginger as you prefer, then add the almonds, sultanas and flour. Toss so that everything is coated and well-mixed.

3. Make the caramel – in a small saucepan, heat the butter and sugars. Bring to the boil, then take off the heat, add the cream and salt, and stir well. Pour onto the dry ingredients and mix well.

4. Put generous teaspoonfuls of the mixture onto a baking sheet or into a muffin tray. If using a baking sheet, flatten them as much as you can, but leave enough space for them to expand as they bake.

5. Bake the Florentines for 8 minutes, turning around half-way to get an even bake. They will be soft at first, but will harden as they cool.

6. To finish the Florentines, melt the chocolate (for a professional finish, you want to temper it – find out here). Using a teaspoon, spread some chocolate on the underside of each Florentine, then using a fork to make a wave pattern in the chocolate. It might not be obvious at first, but you’ll see it once the chocolate sets.

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{9} Brunkager

We are three-quarters of the way through this year’s insane bake-a-thon, so we’re heading north to experience a classic Danish cookie. I love crisp gingerbread biscuits at this time of year, especially when they are packed with spice, and rich with butter and brown sugar. These little morsels are from Denmark and are called brunkager, which literally means “brown cakes” or “brown biscuits”.

Just about every source I have looked at calls them a Danish “classic” and that they are the real “aroma of Christmas”. However, I have not been able to find much about their origin – no interesting story, no quirky history. It must be there somewhere, but I guess I’ve not just found it yet. If anyone has any information on this, please leave a comment!

The flavour is superb – spicy, buttery, nutty and hints of orange. They are wonderful with coffee or tea, and while it is a cliché, they do taste like Christmas. I think these cookies have a real air of class about them – but their secret is that they are a complete breeze to make.

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Normally I tend to just have pictures of the final result. However, today I’ve decided to do something different, and provide a few “action” shots so that you can see he various stages in making brunkager.

The reason that brunkager are so easy is that you melt down your butter and sugar into the most delicious caramel-like syrup, then mix it with spices, candied orange peel and whole almonds. At this stage, it is actually very tasty and no-one would blame you for sneaking a spoonful or two. Of course this is just to test that the balance of spices is right…

Once you’ve got the basic mixture, you add flour, then pour it into a tin to set. Then just let it cool, and it can be cut into slices and baked. One curious thing is that the warm mixture starts off the most luxurious shade of chestnut brown, but it fades to a duller, more grey shade when cold. I though this was a bit disappointing, but it is just a result of the butter setting, and the rich colour comes back during baking. Making the mixture and leaving it to set only takes around 20 minutes, so it can easily be done in the evening, and you can do the baking the next day. So pick your perfect moment to fill the house with their wonderful aroma.

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Once the mixture is set, there is no messing around with cutters or rolling pins. Just remove the slab of dough from the tin and the cut it into four strips. Then cut each of those into thin slices.

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The trick here is to get a very big, very sharp knife. Then sharpen it some more. Then use some force to get it to cut cleanly through the dough. What you want are nice clean slices of almonds in the cookies, so you should avoid serrated knifes and sawing motions. It can take a bit of practice, but I found the best way was to make sure the dough is cold, and push downwards with some force. There will be a few duff ones that don’t look good – you can gather the scraps, roll them up and bake as  them anyway and they will taste just as good.

Once you’ve done the careful slicing, arrange them on the baking sheet, and as you can see, they really do expand. The raising agent here is potaske (potassium carbonate) which makes them expand outwards, but they don’t rise up, resulting in very crisp cookies with a lovely dark brown colour. Potaske is the traditional ingredient, but you could skip this and use baking soda instead. I haven’t tested this, but a few recipes suggest this, in which case just mix it with the flour before mixing everything together. However, if you do manage to get your hands on a packet of potaske (check online), you can also make Danish honninghjerter (honey hearts) or German Aachner Printen in the authentic way.

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I’ve seen recipes that use whole nuts, and recipes that use flaked almonds. I like the look of the whole nuts – this does make it a little harder to cut into perfect slices, but I think the contrast of the larger pieces looks nicer. If you fancy more variation, you can use a combination of almonds and pistachios, or just pistachios.

Now, do be prepared for just how much this recipe makes. Each log will make around 30-40 cookies if you slice it thinly, so could end up with around 150 cookies! They’re very light and easy to eat, but don’t be surprised if you end up running out of space on the kitchen worktop!

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Faced with my mountain of brunkager, even I was not able to eat all of them over a couple of days. I noticed that they start to get a bit soft, but this is easily sorted. You can get the crispness back by popping them in a low oven for about 4-5 minutes. This won’t bake them, but it will dry them out to get the snap back.

If you have a go at these, I also recommend that you bake a test cookie before putting a whole tray in the oven. As they are thin, they can easily burn – they don’t take long to bake, so try with one and it should be done when it has an even, appealing brown colour. Keep in mind that they will be very soft when they come out of the oven, but will harden when cold, so colour rather than texture is what to look out for.

To make Brunkager (makes around 150)

250g butter
125g golden syrup
• 125g soft brown sugar
• 125g muscovado sugar
• 3 teaspoons ground cinnamon
• 2 teaspoons ground ginger
• 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
• 1 teaspoon ground cloves
• 150g almonds
• 10g candied orange peel, very finely chopped
• zest of one orange
• 2 teaspoons potaske (potassium carbonate)
• 1 1/2 tablespoons lukewarm water
• 500g plain flour

1. Put the butter, syrup and sugar into a saucepan. Heat gently until everything has melted and the mixture is smooth, but do not let it boil.

2. Pour the sugar/butter mixture into a bowl and add the spices, almonds, candied peel and orange zest. Leave to cool until lukewarm.

3. In a small bowl, dissolve the potash in the water – add a little more water if needed (be careful – it will discolour wooden worktops if spilled!). Mix into the sugar/butter mixture. Finally stir in the flour and mix until smooth (it will still be liquid, not solid).

4. Pour the mixture into a tray lined with greaseproof paper and even out the top. Leave to cool, then chill overnight in the fridge. The mixture will change form a glossy chestnut colour to a dull dark grey-brown colour.

5. When ready to bake, pre-heat the oven to 175°C (350°F) and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

6. Remove the mixture from the tin – it should come out in one slab. Slice into 4 pieces, then use a sharp knife to cut into slices (3-4mm). Arrange them on the baking sheet, leaving some space for them to expand. Bake for 5-8 minutes, turning the tray half-way to get an even colour.

7. Leave the baked brunkager on the baking tray for a minute to harden, then transfer to wire rack to cool completely.

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{4} Basler Brunsli

The fourth instalment of our festive baking tour takes us to the northern Swiss city of Basel. This year I seem to have delved rather deeply into Swiss Christmas traditions. I’d love to say that this was because I had been doing lots of detailed research, but in reality, I asked my Swiss friend for some Christmas tips, and one of them was a family recipe for these tasty little spiced chocolate-and-nut creations.

Basler Brunsli are a very easy cookie to make – made with ground nuts and sugar, flavoured with cocoa and chocolate and spiced with cinnamon and cloves. And basically…wow! So good that they really should not be so easy to make. These are simply amazing! They are sometimes referred to as “traditional Swiss brownies” but I think they are so much more interesting than that. This is not just a brownie…this is a luxuriously warm and spicy hug of Alpine wintery cheer. They have a chewy, slightly macaroon-like quality, with a delicious note of dark chocolate enhanced by the spices. They taste rich, but are also incredibly more-ish. I think these would definitely be a big hit at any party, and they also look very striking.

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In the original recipe that I got, you only need to add cocoa powder, but I saw a lot of recipes that also had grated dark chocolate. I figured that when it comes to all things chocolate, more is more, so I added some chocolate in addition to the cocoa. My thinking went that the cocoa would give them a nice colour, and the chocolate would melt during cooking to really ramp up the flavour. I’m happy to report that this seemed to work like a charm.

Now, there is was one thing with the recipe that did niggle with me just a little – it calls for a Messerspitze of ground cloves, as does pretty much every other recipe that I saw. I take this to mean as much as goes on the point of a knife. I mean…really…how is that a measurement that you can work with? I’m exasperated enough when it comes to using American cups, so this just annoys me! It never seems like enough to add a real flavour if it really is just enough to fit on the tip of a knife. Maybe in German-speaking places it actually means a fixed amount, like half a teaspoon? Anyway, I experimented here and went with a quarter of a teaspoon of ground cloves. I tend to like things very heavily spiced, so this is something that you should just trust to your own tastes. It is not a spice that everyone loves, but I feel that clove is a flavour that is under-appreciated and which is really delicious with chocolate. My view? A Messerspitze would not be enough!

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I love that these cookies are so quick and easy to make. There is no need to leave the mixture to sit overnight as with so many Germanic spiced bakes, and when you roll them out then keep their shape nicely during baking. They also have the benefit in being gluten-free, so a great cookie to have in the repertoire. If you wanted to play around with the flavour, it might be nice to use hazelnuts instead of some or all of the almonds, and perhaps sandwich two of them together with Nutella. You could also play with the spices, or add orange zest or switch the Kirsch for flavoured liqueur such as Grand Marnier or Amaretto, if you can accept that you’re probably starting to get rather far from the authentic Swiss recipe.

After I made my version of Basler Brunsli, I asked my Swiss friend for her verdict. She tried one, and confirmed they were good. Not as good as my mother’s, obviously. And you know what? I’ll take that complement. Only fair that my first attempt were not be as good as her mother’s. It’s only natural! And she clarified that I’d gotten the sugar decoration wrong. You should dip the cutters in the sugar, and then cut out the shapes to add some sparkle at the edges, rather than covering the tops. She didn’t thing it looked bad or tasted strange. Just not like mum makes them. Fair enough!

To make Basler Brunsli (makes around 50 cookies):

• 200g ground almonds, plus extra for rolling
• 200g icing sugar
• 40g finely grated dark chocolate
• 40g cocoa powder
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
• 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 2 large egg whites
• 2-3 teaspoons Kirsch or rum
• granulated sugar, for cutting out shapes

1. Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F) and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

2. Put the ground almonds, icing sugar, grated chocolate, cocoa powder and spices in a bowl and mix well.

3. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg white until foamy. We’re not trying to get whipped egg whites, so go easy!

4. Add all the egg white and the Kirsch or rum (a teaspoon at a time), to the dry ingredients. Mix well until it comes together to a soft dough that forms a ball. If the mixture is dry then add more Kirsch or rum, a teaspoon at a time, until it comes together. If the mix is too wet, add more ground almonds and icing sugar.

5. Sprinkle some more ground almonds on the worktop, and roll out the dough to 1cm thickness. Dip the edges of your cookie cutters in granulated sugar before you cut each cookie (of course, it won’t stick for cutting the first cookie). Cut out cookies in whatever shape you like.

6. Transfer the cut out cookies to the baking sheet. Bake for around 6 minutes. When done, remove from the oven and leave to cool.

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Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things

Autumn Plum Cake

When I started this blog, I boldly vowed to myself that it would be a place for my culinary triumphs as well as those times when it all goes awry. I’d write about things that went wrong, and provide photographic evidence too! Well, I think it took me about a day-and-a-half to realise that actually no-one really wants to see pictures of cake gone wrong (for that, of course, we have the amazing Cake Wrecks).

I’m telling you all this because I had just such a cake disaster at the weekend. I had a glut of pears in my kitchen which had been sitting on the windowsill for a while, and had therefore reached a state of perfect ripeness. Now, what I should have done was to just eat them and enjoy them. But no, I decided to make a cake. Spiced pear and ginger struck me as a good combination, so I set off on my merry way. Ripe pears, mace, preserved ginger and a dash of cinnamon and allspice seemed good in theory, but something went wrong. It might have been my decision to use less sugar than I would normally use in cake, or it might have been that I used far more chopped pear than I ought to have done (three large, juicy pears in one loaf cake). Whatever it was, the cake seemed to start baking just fine, but then it developed a big dip, and when it came out and cooled down, it was worryingly soft. Okay, so not the end of the world, but then I sliced into it, and I was faced with the full reality of my failure – the pear pieces had sunk (and yes, I had tried coating the pieces in flour before baking!) and the lower part of the loaf was not fully baked. It was a small crumb of comfort that at least this problem affected the whole loaf – at least I’m consistent!

So…back to the drawing board. All the pears were gone, but I also had a big tray of purple plums. This time, I was not going to get too creative – I used a more traditional cake batter (not playing around with the sugar!) and rather than chopping the plums, I just cut them into quarters. They would be artfully arranged on top, and – so the theory goes – the cake batter would puff up between the plums.

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And as you can see, the resulting cake looks pretty good! It is actually a complete doddle to make – it is just a simple sponge mixture that you spread in a pan, then add chopped fruit and bake. To flavour the cake, I added a little vanilla and almond extract to the sponge, which I think works nicely with the tartness of the fruit. The plums became lovely and soft during baking, and their sweet-sharp flavour pairs very well with the sweetness of the cake. I finished it off with a simple glaze of apricot jam, which adds a golden glow to the cake and helps to keep everything moist. If you want something more spicy (or nut-free), then skip the almonds in the cake and the almond extract, and add a bit of cinnamon or allspice, and sprinkle the top of the cake with a sugar-cinnamon mixture before baking.

This would be a perfect cake to make if you’ve got surprise visitors on the way, as it really looks like it took a lot more work than it actually does (but keep that part to yourself). I think the could also be easily adapted to use apples or cherries, or perhaps – if I ended up with another glut – a few ripe pears!

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To make Autumn Plum Cake:

• 140g butter
• 70g white caster sugar
• 70g soft brown sugar
• 1/4 teaspoon almond extract
• 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 2 large eggs
• 165g self-raising flour
• 25g ground almonds
• 1 tablespoon milk
• 5-6 large plums
• 2 tablespoons apricot jam

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F) and line a 22cm cake tin with greaseproof paper.

2. Cut the plums into quarters, and discard the stones.

3. Make the cake batter. Beat the butter and sugars until creamy. Mix in the almond and vanilla extract. Beat in the eggs, then fold in the flour and ground almonds and mix well. Finally, stir in the milk and beat well until the mixture is smooth and soft.

4. Pour the batter into the prepared tin. Level the top and then arrange the plums on top. Make sure to leave some gaps between the plums for the cake mixture to puff up during baking, but don’t worry about leaving big gaps – the fruit will shrink and sink a bit during baking, so be generous!

5. Bake the cake for around 45 minutes until golden. If the top is browning too quickly, cover loosely with tin foil. When done, remove from the oven and leave to cool.

6. Finish the cake with the glaze – heat the apricot jam with 2 tablespoons of water until runny, then pass through a sieve. Brush the sieved jam all over the top of the cake. You’re done!

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Filed under Afternoon Tea, Recipe, Sweet Things

Marchpane for Lovers

I’m probably not the world’s greatest romantic, but even I’ve gotten into the Valentine’s mood this year, and made something inspired by the theme of romance. However, if you’re familiar with any of my previous offerings, you’ll know that I’ve tended to shy away from pretty pink cupcakes. I’ve variously made a deep red beetroot risotto, a bittersweet red salad, and most dramatically, a dessert which looks like something has chewed out a heart and abandoned it in the snow.

This year, I’ve eased back on the drama, and instead drawn inspiration from an era in English history with which it seems that everyone (or at least everyone in television working on historical dramas) is obsessed. Yes, we’re off to Merrie Olde Tudor England to sample a sweet delight called marchpane.

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So what is marchpane? It is a very simple confection, which is something of an ancestor to our modern marzipan. It consists of almonds which were finely ground, and then mixed with sugar which had been worked to a powder. Everything would then be mixed with rosewater, and the resulting firm paste could be moulded into intricate shapes, and then coloured or gilded. And those Tudors didn’t do things by halves…there are tales of whole golden swans made from marchpane, covered with gold leaf, and on one occasion, Queen Elizabeth I was presented with a model of Old St Paul’s Cathedral made from marchpane. Apparently, she was impressed.

But don’t just take my word for it. Here’s an original recipe from Robert May’s “The Accomplisht Cook” which dates from 1660:

To Make a Marchpane: Take two pound of almonds blanched and beaten in a stone mortar, till they begin to come to a fine paste, then take a pound of sifted sugar put it in the mortar with the almonds, and make it into a perfect paste, putting to it now and then in the beating of it a spoonfull of rose-water to keep it from oyling; when you have beaten it to a puff-paste, drive it out as big as a charger, and set an edge about it as you do a quodling tart, and the bottom of wafers under it, thus bake it in an oven or baking-pan; when you see it white, and hard, and dry, take it out, and ice it with rosewater and suger, being made as thick as butter for fritters, so spread it on with a wing feather, and put it into the oven again; when you see it rise high, then take it out and garnish it with come pretty conceits made of the same stuff.

It’s fair to say that this is not a “recipe” as we would know it today! This is a bit more of a vague description, and the fact that we’ve got some quantities in there (two pounds of almonds, a pound of sugar) is apparently quite unusual for that time. But otherwise, this seems like a fairly straightforward recipe to modern eyes. Just take two parts ground almonds to one part icing sugar, add rosewater, shape it and bake. Job done!

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Except…it was not that easy for your average Tudor baker, who didn’t have easy access to ground almonds. They would need to make them. And I suspect almonds did not come pre-blanched, so they would have to remove the skins. And all of this would take time. All very easy in our modern kitchens to boil the kettle, then pop a pan of water on the stovetop to skin the almonds, but less straightforward in a mediaeval setting. So once you have your almonds, skinned and dried, you need to grind them down. And no blender of coffee grinder then…more likely than not, it involved either a mortar and pestle or a hammer and a muslin bag!

Having sorted the almonds, we then come to the sugar. Today, we’ve got bags of lovely, fluffy, white icing sugar which you can use right away. So pity the poor Tudor confectioner, who had to take a solid cone of sugar, chip away at it to get manageable pieces, then use even more elbow grease to grind those pieces down to a fine powder to use in marchpane. All in all, a lot of time spent turning things into powders and pastes. And don’t assume it would be some kitchen serf doing all the work – I remember seeing a programme on the Tudor kitchen which claimed that it would often be left to noble ladies in the royal household to work with sugar, as it was still something of an expensive luxury at that time.

You might think that I’m labouring all this a bit, but I just want to point out that while marchpane might look easy to us, it included a couple of fairly expensive ingredients (foreign nuts, imported luxury sugar) and a lot of time, so this was not a sweetmeat to be enjoyed by the masses. Hence the fact it was made into elaborate showstoppers and covered in gold, as one does when trying to impress!

But that is enough history. In terms of actually making the marchpane, I was able to skip all the hard work, so I found making marchpane a doddle. Just mix the ground almonds and the icing sugar, then add rosewater to bind it. This is really the only tricky bit that you will face these days – if you over-work the marchpane mixture, or do it when things are too warm, the almonds will release their oil and the mixture will seem to “split”. I tested this on a small piece, and it does happen quite easily, so once you’re happy with the texture, try to handle it as little as possible and keep it cool, as there is no way to fix the marchpane (but you can still use it for something else). Once you’ve got the right texture, just roll it out and start shaping it as you fancy.

As you can see, I went for a round tablet, inspired by the way that petticoat tails are made, to be decorated with red beading and golden hearts, which I thought ended up looking a little bit like a Tudor rose. I made the hearts separately from thinly-rolled marchpane, so I’m happy to report that if you wanted to make these are individual sweets or wedding favours, then this is entirely possible. Alternatively, you can decorate the top with candied fruit and citrus peel, and sugared almonds and “comfits” (sugar coated seeds like aniseed and caraway). As you can see below, I also made a few marchpane hearts as separate sweets – and I couldn’t resist making one golden broken heart…

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It is worth saying a couple of things to note about flavours here. First, make sure you’ve got the right sort of rosewater. It should be the dilute stuff which has a mild flavour, not the very concentrated rose extract. You want a hint of rose, not something that tastes of soap! If you’ve got the strong stuff, just dilute it with water and use that to bind the marchpane. Second, there is actually something that I did not include in this recipe – almond extract. This is often used to boost the flavour of sweet almonds in baked goods, but I decided to leave it out here. This was quite deliberate – none of the traditional recipes suggested this, and I wanted the marchpane to have a more subtle flavour.

And finally…how did it all taste? Well, actually really nice. Slightly sweet, nutty with a slightly toasted flavour, and a hint of rosewater. Maybe those Tudors knew a thing or two about sweets after all.

To make Marchpane:

For the marchpane:

• 200g ground almonds
• 100g icing sugar
• rosewater

For decoration:

• 100g icing sugar
• rosewater
• natural food colours
• gold or silver leaf
• gold or silver dusting powder

To make the marchpane:

1. Put the ground almonds and icing sugar in a large bowl. Mix with a whisk to combine (trust me – this works!).

2. Add rosewater, a teaspoon at a time, until you have a smooth paste. You’ll need around 6 teaspoons for this quantity but go with what you feel is right.  You can start with a spoon to mix everything, but you need to finish with (clean) hands to make a fairly stiff dough. It should not be sticky, and don’t over-work or it will turn oily.

3. Dust a worktop with icing sugar. Put the marchpane mixture on top, and roll out to about 1cm thickness. Use a plate as a template and cut into a circle. Transfer to baking tray lined with greaseproof paper. Decorate the marchpane as you wish.

4. Roll up any scraps and use to make decorations – for example, roll thinly thin, then cut out heart shapes etc.

5. Bake the marchpane disc at 150°C (300°F) for around 25-30 minutes until it is just starting to brown. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.

6. Bake any other pieces of marchpane until just starting to brown – they will take anything from 10-20 minutes, depending on size.

To decorate the marchpane:

7. Make the icing – mix the icing sugar with enough rosewater to make a fairly thick but flowing icing. Use this to ice the top of the marchpane disc. Try to give it three coats, allowing it to dry in between.

8. Ice the decorations – I made the hearts white, and then dusted them with gold powder when dry, and tinted some of the icing red to decorate the studs. Leave to dry.

9. Finally, assemble the marchpane – use any remaining icing to glue the various pieces onto the disc.

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Filed under Recipe, Sweet Things

Shredded Sprout Salad

Ooof, still feeling the effects of Christmas and New Year? Even if you’re not into celebrating in a big way, January often comes as a relief when there is just generally less food, drink and sweets on offer. I kind of feel that I don’t really want to go near a spiced cookie for quite some time! At home we’re not doing anything too radical, other than an “eat less rubbish” drive. Everything in moderation and such like.

Well, this salad is a bit of an antidote to all that rich food. It’s actually my preferred way of serving Brussels sprouts, and is really very simple. Rather than trying to boil them, then cooking them too long and ending up with grey mush, you just leave them raw. Then it’s simply a case of shredding them finely, adding some nuts and soft cheese or thick yoghurt, dressing the lot and you’re done.

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If you’re thinking that raw sprouts aren’t really your thing, try one – they’ve actually slightly sweet, with a mild flavour. Not a hint of cabbage!  I’ve matched them with some tangy goat’s cheese, and then a selection of nuts and seeds. I use whatever nuts I have to hand, usually hazelnuts, but here I’ve used sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and almonds, all of them toasted to bring out their flavour. And finally, the dressing is a simply mixture of extra-virgin olive oil, lemon zest and lemon juice, which makes the whole dish taste really fresh.

There really is not much mystery to making this salad, other than making sure you shred the sprouts finely. This means that you can sort of fluff the greens up, so that everything mixes well. If the sprouts are too large, the nuts, cheese and dressing will stay separate. Other than that, it’s a case of having as much or as little of each part as you see fit. Personally, I would major on the toasted nuts and goat’s cheese, but that’s just my preference.

To serve this, I think it looks best on a flat plate piled up high rather than in a bowl. Given that you’ve got that wonderful green-yellow colour of the sprouts, a dark plate is best for dramatic effect (even it I’ve used a white one for my pictures!).

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So there we have it – a bit of a healthy start to 2015!

To make Shredded Sprout Salad:

For the salad

• Brussels sprouts
• nuts and seeds (I used almonds, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds)
• soft goat’s cheese

For the dressing

• 1 lemon, zest and juice
• 6 tablespoons olive oil
• salt, to taste
• freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1. Toast the nuts in the oven. Allow to cool and chop roughly.

2. Trim the sprouts and remove any bad leaves from the outside. Finely shred them.

3. Make the dressing – add the lemon zest, lemon juice, olive oil, black pepper and salt to a jam jar and shake vigorously.

4. Make the salad – sprinkle half the sprouts on a plate, then half the chopped nuts and seeds. Drizzle over a little of the dressing. Add the rest of the sprouts, the rest of the nuts and seeds, then scatter chunks of the goat’s cheese on top with half an eye on coming up with something that looks a bit artistic. Finish with the rest of the dressing.

 

 

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Filed under Recipe, Savoury, Uncategorized