Tag Archives: almonds

{12} Speculaasbrokken

I had grand plans to make something from the Netherlands this year – the duivekater, a Christmas loaf which a long history that even appears in famous artwork from the Dutch Golden Age. Well, you can see from the name of this post that it is not what happened. I did manage to make a duivekater for Christmas day, and it was certainly delicious, but I did it all in something of a rush. So much so that it ended up looking like something that would not have been out of place on cakewrecks rather than being the jolly photogenic festive centrepiece I had in mind. Of course I will give it another go, so I’ve already added it to my list for next year’s baking.

But this leaves me with one bake missing. So what to do? Well, something else, obviously! I’ve reflected on all the complex, intricate things I made this year, and have decided to go in the opposite direction this time. I’ve made speculaasbrokken, which are simple, quick and delicious. You might think that I made something a bit fancy and then dropped it by mistake, but this is what they should look like – the name means “pieces” or “chunks” of speculaas, or Dutch spiced biscuits.

Speculaas cookies is a key part of Christmas in the Netherlands, and you can find the famous “windmill cookies” with their intricate designs formed using wooden moulds, and more simple “spiced nuts” which are rolled into little balls and baked. You can make the special speculaas spice mixture yourself if you have the time and inclination, otherwise you can used mixed spice or pumpkin spice for a similar effect. Whatever you do, make sure you’re pretty generous with the spices!

The method here is really easy. You throw everything in a bowl, make a dough, then chill it, roll it and bake it. Either make one mega-cookie or four smaller ones. After baking, you can either break it into pieces and serve it à la manière rustique but I think there is something quite satisfying and a little bit dramatic about brining it whole to the table and then smashing it in front of your guests. 

To make speculaasbrokken:

• 300g plain white flour
150g unsalted butter
160g dark brown sugar
• 6 teaspoons mixed spices
1/2 teaspoon salt (skip if using salted butter)
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
2 tablespoons cold water
whole or flaked almonds, for decoration

1. Put all the ingredients apart from the water and almonds into a bowl, and work with your fingers until it looks like breadcrumbs. Add enough cold water to make a soft dough. Wrap in cling film, flatten, and chill for 30 minutes.

2. Preheat the oven to 170°C (340°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

3. Roll the dough out to 3/4 cm thickness – you can do it in one large pieces, or make 4 separate pieces. Brush with milk and put almonds on top. If you are using whole almonds, you can make some sort of pattern, or you can use flaked almonds, in which case just sprinkle and press them down.

4. Bake the speculaas for around 45 minutes until it is dark looks evenly cooked. Turn half-way for an even colour.

5. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. Then either break it into pieces to store, or keep it whole and smash it when you have guests for maximum impact.


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{11} Brabanzerl

I’ve always assumed there must be lots and lots of delicious biscuits, cakes and sweets in Austria around Christmas and New Year. I think of those beautiful squares, twinkling with lights and lined with markets. But I must have been doing my research in the wrong way, as for such a long time I just kept finding recipes for crescent-shaped Kipferl  or jam-filled Linzer Augen. They are delicious, but surely there was more?

Well, finally I have managed to find some other sources of inspiration! I came across (and swiftly bought) a German book called Weihnachtsplätzchen by Angelika Schwalber. She features a recipe for Brabanzerl. I would love to be able to say that there is some sort of fascinating history behind them, and there may well be, but I was not able to find out anything. But it does seem that people love them.

These are two pieces of hazelnut and chocolate shortbread, filled with fruity redcurrant jelly, and coated in chocolate. They looked a little complex, but I remembered that I had some jars of redcurrant jelly in the jam drawer that I had made from fruit I grew in the garden. Clearly this was a sign I had to make them! For making jam from your own fruit in central London is rather a big deal, since gardens are generally the size of a postage stamp. The little lad and I were very pleased we managed to get five pounds of fruit from a single bush, and we got five decent jars of ruby-red jelly as our reward.

I will be totally honest – these biscuits are a labour of love. You need to make the dough, which is very soft. It is unusually made with melted chocolate, and it then needs to be chilled so you can work with it, so that means lots of getting to know your fridge really well. Once you’ve made the very fragile shortbread, you fill it with jelly, and then you need to coat them in chocolate. And that chocolate needs to be tempered to get a good snap and that appealing sheen. The recipe I was following suggested dipping them in dark chocolate, then using milk chocolate for decoration, so that means two lots of tempering. I can do it, but it is a bit of a palaver in the kitchen, although I do get a thrill when it works out right. As a testament to how much work they are, I styled a picture of the cookies on a fancy gold plate, with some dried thistles and pine cones I collected in holiday this year in Scotland. I don’t normally add props, but Brabanzerl seem like the sort of festive cookie that deserve some special treatment.

If you are going to make these, I would recommend doing it over several days. I did this and the result was great, and it really would be enough to drive most people to distraction to try to do it all in one go. But they really were worth the effort. The shortbread is soft and crumbly, flavoured beautifully with the hazelnuts and chocolate. Then you have the jammy filling, and here you want a good jam or jelly with a strong, tart flavour. I used redcurrant jelly, but you could also use high-fruit raspberry or blackcurrant jam, or even a tangy marmalade. Apricot might also work it you want a nod to the traditional flavours of the famous Austrian Sachertorte. This fruity filling balances the dark chocolate, and the result is sublime. They look elegant, and taste refined.

I decorated them by doing a series of lines in milk chocolate. For variation, I also tried some swirls which I think looked fine, but the lines definitely look more polished. It was quite an effort. A lot of effort. But these little morsels of festive deliciousness could well have become one of my new festive favourites. Way to go Austria!

To make Brabenzerl (makes around 25)

For the dough

• 50g dark chocolate
• 150g flour
• 50g icing sugar
• salt
• 50g ground hazelnuts
• 150g butter
• 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the filling

• 150g redcurrant jelly, or another tangy jelly or jam*

For the decoration

• 300g dark chocolate
• around 25 blanched almonds
100g milk chocolate

1. Make the dough. Gently melt the chocolate (use a double boiler or the microwave), then put in a bowl with the other ingredients and quickly knead to a soft dough. It will be very soft and slightly sticky. Wrap in cling film and leave to rest overnight in the fridge.

2. The next day, preheat the oven to 170°C (335°F). Line two baking trays with greaseproof paper.

3. Roll out the dough between two sheets of greaseproof paper to around 3-4mm. Form the cookies using a scalloped cutter (around 4cm diameter), and transfer to the baking sheets. The will spread slightly, so leave enough space between them. Gather the scraps and chill again in the fridge. Put the cookie trays in the fridge or freezer for a few minutes before baking.

4. Bake the cookies for 8 minutes, turning half-way to get even bake. Remove from the oven and allow to cool before transferring to a wire rack – they are very fragile when warm, but will firm up as they cool.

5. Now it is time to fill the Brabanzerl! Melt the redcurrant jelly (or jam) in a saucepan – if using something with seeds, then strain to remove them. Leave to cool slightly so it starts to thicken, then coat half of the biscuits. Sandwich together.

6. Dipping time! Melt and temper the dark chocolate. Dip the top and sides of the Brabanzerl in the chocolate. Transfer to a sheet of greaseproof paper. Press a whole almond into the centre. Next (if you want to and have time) melt and temper the milk chocolate and use this to pipe decorative lines or swirls on the edges of the cookies.

(*) If you are using jam or marmalade rather than jelly, you need 150g after you have removed any seeds and skins. Just melt the jam in a saucepan, then pass through a sieve.


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{9} Parrozzo

A couple of years ago, I made Marquesas de Navidad, some little Spanish Christmas cakes which at first I thought had some ancient pedigree, but which were actually created in the early part of the 20th century. Traditional recipes and classic bakes are great, but I also think it is nice that new things still appear from time to time.

And today is another fairly new kid on the block. This cake is called a Parrozzo. It was created in 1920 by an Italian gentlemen called Luigi d’Amico, who ran a pastry shop in Pescara in the Abruzzo region of Italy.

However Luigi’s idea was actually a modern take on a traditional local recipe called pane rozzo which means “rough bread”. This loaf had a domed shape and a dark colour due to being baked in a hot wood-fired oven. So his sweet Parrozzo kept the domed shape in homage to the source of his inspiration, and the chocolate glaze imitated the dark colour the bread would have gained during baking.

The Parrozzo is actually an almond sponge. It is traditionally flavoured by the judicious use of a few bitter almonds to provide the distinctive flavour. I’ve written already this year about how these can be risky if eaten in quantity, but I’ve taken the lazier route of using normal (sweet) almonds and added some almond extract. Some recipes also use lemon zest, which I’ve opted to use as I think it works very well with almonds, and lifts the flavour of the cake. You could miss out the lemon, or swap it for orange zest if you fancy something a little punchier.

The cake is finished with a simple chocolate glaze, but fret not – you don’t need to worry about tempering chocolate to get a nice sheet, you just melt chocolate with butter, and forget about the science of tempering and getting the right sort of chocolate crystals for a set. It’s Christmas and we’ve all got too many things to get done! You just melt, add butter, stir and pour. Job done!

This makes a fairly large cake, and it looks quite impressive as a centrepiece. I think it benefits from being made a couple of days in advance. The texture is light but not too fluffy, cuts well, and stays moist thanks to the butter, eggs and almonds in the batter. We really enjoyed this one – it tastes festive, but is very different to the fruit and spices of a British Christmas cake.

And as if a chocolate-covered dome cake that is impersonating a loaf of peasant bread is not exciting enough, this cake even has its own song: La Canzone del Parrozzo (the Song of the Parrozzo) written by poet and politician Gabriele D’Annunzio. It is a tango, and reminds me a little of the Italian socialist classic Ciao Bella.

To make a Parrozzo:

For the cake:

• 150g plain flour
• 150g ground almonds (skin on)
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 6 large eggs
• 50g butter, melted and cooled
• 250g caster sugar
• 2 teaspoons almond extract
• 1 teaspoon vanilla
• 1 tablespoon lemon juice
• zest of 1/2 lemon

For the glaze

• 200g dark chocolate
• 50g unsalted butter

1. Preheat the oven to 170°C (340°F). Prepare the cake mould (I used  20cm /8 inch hemispherical tin). Rub the inside really well with butter then dust liberally with flour. Shake out the excess.

2. Mix the flour, almonds and baking powder. Set aside.

3. Separate the eggs.

4. Beat the egg yolks, sugar, melted butter, almond extract, lemon zest and lemon juice for about 5 minutes until pale, thick and creamy.

5. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites to stiff peaks, around 4-5 minutes.

6. Folk the yolk mixture into the egg whites.

7. Fold in the flour mixture in 3 batches, as gently as you can until just combined.

8. Carefully pour the batter into a cake tin and bake for around an hour until an inserted skewer comes out clean. If the top looks like it is getting too dark cover it loosely with tin foil. When it is ready, remove from the oven and allow to rest for 10 minutes, then turn the cake onto a wire rack to cool completely.

9. Finish with the chocolate glaze. Melt the chocolate in a microwave (or use a bowl over a pan of barely-simmering water) then add the chocolate butter and stir until completely smooth. Pour the glaze over the cold cake, and either try to get it as smooth as possible, or make life easy and aim for generous swirls.


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{8} Broas Castelares

I’ve looked for quite a long time for a Christmas recipe for Portugal. I’ve found ideas galore from Spain and Italy, but for some reason I wasn’t seeing anything from the Lusophere. That is, until now.

I’ve made little sweet potato cakes called broas castelares. The name means “Castile corn breads” and they are named after their creators, the Castelar brothers who ran a bakery called the Confeitaria Francesa, or French Patisserie, in Lisbon. It was founded in 1860 and stood in the Rua do Ouro, or “Street of Gold”, which I think is rather fitting given the colour of these cakes.

Now I say “cakes” but this recipe is a very different way of baking to the festive recipes I have tried before. This is based on sweet potato puree, which I made by roasting some sweet potatoes and scooping out the tender flesh. I thought this would give a better flavour than boiling as it would keep (and perhaps even concentrate) their flavour. Then you mix this with sugar, and the whole lot turns from sort-of-fluffy mash into a gloopy, soupy mass – I’ve seen this before making a Scottish potato-based sweet, and it seems odd that you can add dry sugar to something and it seems to get wetter!

I saw a few different versions of this recipe with different amounts of sugar. These seemed to split into Portuguese recipes and then those from everyone else. The home of Fado makes extremely liberal use of sugar, so I figured that it was safe to assume these little guys were going to be on the sweet side. This expectation was further supported by lots of non-Portuguese bakers trying to cut down the amount of sugar. Choices, choices. In the end, I decided to plump for a more authentic Portuguese version. This is a Christmas sweet after all! The version I went with came from the website of Lisbon City Council. Surely these guys would get it right?

The actual recipe is fascinating – the base is sweet potato (the orange ones, not the white ones) that you turn into a basic jammy paste. Then you mix in eggs, and add a veritable cornucopia of other nice things – ground almonds, cornmeal, coconut and orange zest. Some of the recipes suggested adding cinnamon to taste – I skipped this, but I think this could be a nice addition. You then end up with one of the stickiest doughs I’ve worked with. You leave it to chill overnight, and I thought the dry ingredients would have soaked up some of the liquid and made a thicker dough. I was wrong. The next day, it was slightly thicker but still seemed to be as sticky! But the way to deal with this is to have a plate with some neutral oil on it, and keep your hands well-coated. Any by coated, I mean pressing your palm into it, pretty often as it turned out. Then nothing sticks!

Shaping the broas was easy, provided you are making liberal use of that oil. Take a tablespoon of the mixture, roll to a ball, then form into an oval shape – I noticed that longer, slimmer ovals kept their shape better than shorter, fatter ones. The skinny ones set and keep their shape, the more squat ones seemed to spread more. Then make (or try to make) a little dent in the middle so they look like golden giant coffee beans. They are then finished with an egg yolk glaze, and baked in a hot oven.

And how do they taste? Amazing! I expected something more cake-life and reminiscent of cornbread, albeit sweet, but in fact they are more like marzipan, so I would call them a type of candy rather than a bread or a cake. As I expected, they are extremely sweet – sweet, sweet, sweet! Delicious, but for me this is something you want to eat with strong coffee or tea, rather than with mulled wine unless you’re the sort of person that wants to embrace hyperglycemia. The good thing is you can serve a tray of these and be confident that people will self-police and no-one will scoff the lot.

I hope you like this. I wasn’t sure I would and I am completely convinced. Obrigado e feliz natal!

To make Broas Castelares (makes around 40-45)

For the dough

• 1 large or 2 medium sweet potatoes (at least 500g), to yield 400g cooked flesh
• 700g soft brown sugar
• 125g ground almonds
• 50g desiccated coconut
• 125g cornmeal (fine polenta, not corn starch)
• 75g plain flour
• 3 medium eggs
• Zest of 1 orange

To finish

• vegetable oil, for your hands to work the dough
• 2 beaten egg yolks, to glaze
• tablespoon of water

1. Heat the oven to 200°C (400°F). Prick the sweet potato, then put in the oven and bake until it is soft. You should be easily insert a knife. This will take 45-60 minutes. When done, remove from the oven, cut the potato in half and scoop out the flesh – you want 400g of cooked sweet potato.

2. Put the cooked sweet potato flesh in a saucepan, and mash it. Do this manually – if you use a blender it may affect the texture. Add half the sugar and mix – it will look a bit transparent and become wetter. Cook over a medium heat for around 5 minutes, stirring constantly. It is done when you pull a wooden spoon across the base and leaves a clean trail that holds for a few seconds. Remove from the head and leave to cool to lukewarm.

3. Put the potato mixture in a large bowl. Add the eggs, and mix well. Stir in the remaining sugar, ground almonds, coconut, orange zest, flour and cornmeal. Mix to a smooth batter – it will be thick but sticky. Cover and chill overnight.

4. The next day, preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F). Prepare a few sheets of greaseproof paper and rub each with some vegetable oil.

5. Get your hands covered with vegetable oil, and keep some extra within easy reach to re-coat your hands as needed. Take a tablespoon of the mixture and roll it into a ball. Now shape into a long oval between your palms. Place on the greaseproof paper, then flatten and make a dent in the centre so they look a bit like coffee beans. Repeat until the sheet is covered – they will spread slightly so leave at least 5cm between them.

6. Make the glaze – mix the two egg yolks with a tablespoon of cold water, and mix well.

7. Slide the tray under the paper, then glaze the broas. I found it best to do this just before baking, and really get in around the sides and base as this seems to help them keep their shape. Bake for 15 minutes – the top might look mottled and very dark in some places, but this is normal. Leave for a moment to cool and set, then transfer to a wire tray.

Note: the broas are a little crisper on the outside when they are fresh, but will soften if you store them overnight in an airtight container.


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{7} Cordiales de Murcia

I am a big fan of marzipan, so Cordiales de Murcia really caught my eye. They are traditional sweets that originate in the town of Pacheco in Murcia, Spain. Their filling is also a little unusual – cabello de ángel, a sort of pumpkin jam.

The name cabello de ángel means “angel’s hair” and comes from the texture of the pumpkin. When cooked, the flesh of the pumpkin separates into lots and lots of strands. It is turned into jam and flavoured with citrus and sometimes a dash of cinnamon, but the pumpkin keeps quite a bit of its texture, so think of it as being candied more than turning into a jam. I find it tastes a bit like apple jam, maybe with a hint of apricot. I’d had this in pastries on visits to Spain, and it took me a while to work out what the filling was, since it seemed to be apple but wasn’t quite.

Anyway, I had a jar of this stuff in my store cupboard for ages from a trip to Spain last year. I had planned to use then, got everything ready to make these cordiales and then remembered that at the end of summer I had used it all in the based of a quick apple tart. If I was going to make them, I would have to hunt high and low for a pretty niche ingredient, for it turns out that unlike membrillo, manchego or chorizo, you quite quickly find that cabello de ángel is not really stocked anywhere easy.

The Spanish supermarket near Ladbroke Grove was reporting on their website that they had sold out, so I had to trawl a number of websites to find one that, firstly, sold the stuff, and secondly, would be able to deliver it quite quickly. The good news is I managed (even if it meant paying a lot more than I would have had to do if I had been organised!). But if you don’t have cabello de ángel then you could use Spanish sweet potato paste or quince paste, or in fact any sort of very firm jam or fruit paste. You just want to avoid something too liquid, which could melt and pour out of the sweets during baking.

The actual baking process is quite easy – you make marzipan, then work out how to stuff it. The dough is quite soft, so I found the easiest way was to put a piece on some greaseproof paper or cling film, then cover and squash it flat. Then you can add some jam to the middle, and gather the edges up without everything sticking to your fingers. My first few attempts were cake-wrecks, so just do a bit of trial and error and find a method that works for you.

Once you’ve stuffed your cordiales, you need to shape them and it is traditional to place them on a circle of wafer. I normally don’t do this as the brand of greaseproof paper I use never ever sticks to whatever I am baking, and there is enough oil from the almonds to prevent sticking, but I wanted to go traditional here.

Now, I’ve mentioned the effort I went to in order to get that pumpkin jam? Well there were some recipes that suggested using discs of communion wafer, but by this point my commitment to authenticity had fallen asleep by the roadside, so I got hold of some rice paper and cut out circles of that. In fact, this actually worked really well, as you are able to shape them really easily and move them around on their pieces of rice paper (or wafers).

The most important question is, of course, how did they taste? Absolutely delicious. The marzipan has that lovely flavour of almonds and lemon from the zest, and the filling keeps the filling soft and is a little like apricot or even a gentle marmalade. They are slightly crisp when you’ve just baked them, and if you like them softer, just keep them overnight in a sealed container, and they will soften right up. All in all, a lovely addition to the festive table, provided that you’re willing to track down the right sort of filling, and you’ve got the patience for lots of shaping and stuffing!

To make Cordiales de Murcia (makes around 25-30):

• 250g ground almonds
• 1 teaspoon almond extract
• 200g caster sugar
• 2 medium eggs, beaten
• zest of 1/2 lemon
• 200g cabello de ángel jam

1. Make the marzipan mixture. Combine the ground almonds, almond extract, sugar and lemon zest. Mix well, then add one beaten egg. Mix, and then add enough of the second beaten egg to make a marzipan. It should be soft enough to work with, but not wet or sticky. I used just over half of the second egg. If you add to much egg, just add equal amounts of almonds and sugar to get a texture you can work with.

2. Preheat the oven to 170°C (340°F). Line two baking sheets with greaseproof paper.

3. Pinch off walnut-sized pieces of the marzipan. Flatten between two pieces of greaseproof paper. Add a small teaspoon of the angel hair jam (the size of a small grape). Fold the marzipan around the jam, seal, and roll into a ball.

3. Place the ball on a piece of rice paper, and shape to a slight cone with your fingers. Repeat until all the marzipan has been used up.

4. Bake the cookies for around 20-25 minutes until golden but not dark. Turn the tray half-way to get an even colour. Remove from the oven and leave to cool

5. To serve, dust lightly with icing sugar. Go easy, as these things are sweet, so you’re dusting for effect more than anything.


Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things

{4} Sugared Almonds

I spent yesterday watching The Nutcracker Prince to get into the Christmas spirit. If you want to know what Kiefer Sutherland did before 24 and just how Phyllis Diller would bring her vocal talents to the voice of the Mouse Queen, then do check it out. It also got me thinking about making some sweets rather than baking something.

I’ve always associated sugared almonds with Christmas, even if most people think of them as wedding favours. So I thought I would give them a go. I knew that it would be difficult to make something that was perfectly smooth and coated in crisp sugar, but then I stumbled on a French recipe that looked promising. They have a sweet called pralines roses which are best described as rustic-looking sugared almonds with a vibrant pink colour. I had found my inspiration.

Before I made these, I did a little digging. First the name: when I think of pralines, I think of chocolates.

Well, it turns out there are few different types of praline – French pralines are made from almonds and sugar, Belgian has its chocolate pralines, and American pralines which are made with cream and have more of a fudge-like consistency. The name apparently comes from the magnificently-named César, Duke of Choiseul and Count of Plessis-Praslin, and the French variety were the creation of a chef in his household some time in the 1600s. I’m familiar with nuts coated in caramel and often sold around tourist hotspots, but in the case of pralines roses they come in a vibrant shade of pink. These little treats are a speciality of the city of Lyon, and while they are eye-catching, the reason for the distinctive colour is a bit of a mystery.

So I had a go at making sugared almonds! While pralines roses are made with almonds and hazelnuts, I went with just almonds, and toasted them lightly in the oven. This is not essential, and you can skip it if you want, but I like the nuttier flavour that balances out the sugar. The recipe itself looks complex, but it is actually fairly simple. You’re making a syrup, pouring it over the nuts, then agitating the mixture by stirring until the sugar crystallises. You just repeat this a few times until the coating is thick enough. The end result has a slightly knobbly appearance – they look a bit like mulberries. And if you want to make different colours, at the very end you can add a few drops of colour to a little syrup to coat the sugared almonds, as I did for the pink and pale green almonds. I also tried to make some gold almonds – coated in a golden-yellow sugar syrup, then dusted with gold lustre. They look lovely, even if the pictures don’t show it. Trust me!

Overall these were fun to make – you don’t need that much time to make them, and they do look pretty cool. Something I did find was that this works best if you use smaller amounts of syrup and aim for more thin coats than pouring all the sugar syrup over the nuts in one go. The latter approach leads to everything getting stuck together in a big sugary lump (because that absolutely did not happen to me when I got over-confident…). But follow the recipe and it does work. And with those pastel colours, you can sort of imagine them dancing around to the melody of the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

To make sugared almonds:

• 250g whole almonds, either blanched or skin left on
225g sugar
food colouring

1. Set the oven to 150°C (300°F) degrees. Lightly toast the almonds until they are fragrant, about 10-15 minutes – watch them carefully as you can quickly go from golden to burnt. Remove from the oven and put to one side.

2. Get a large non-stick frying pan. Add 75g sugar and a little water. Heat the mixture and bring to the boil. Once you see large bubbles, add the nuts and stir well. At first it will seem like a glossy sticky syrup, but keep heating and stirring until it turns grainy. The nuts will be roughly coated in sugar, with some sugar dust in the bottom of the pan.

3. Tip the lot onto a baking sheet lined with greaseproof paper. Separate out the nuts and put them back in the frying pan. Do not heat it.

4. Put the sugar dust that did not stick to the almonds into a small saucepan, add another 75g sugar and some water . Bring to the boil, and let it reach 124 degrees. As the syrup is reaching the right temperature put the frying pan with the nuts on a medium heat. When the syrup is ready, pour this over the nuts, and quickly stir to coat the nuts. Keep stirring until it becomes grainy (just like the first time…). Keep gently warming the frying pan for a minute or so until the nuts are separated, and again there is some sugar dust on the bottom of the frying pan.

5. Repeat steps 3 and 4, so you end up with the nuts coated with three layers of sugar. If you want coloured almonds, add a few drops of colouring to the last batch of syrup.

6. Transfer the sugared almonds to a sheet lined with greaseproof paper, and leave to dry in a low oven for about an hour (around 80°C/170°F). They will seem soft when you take them from the oven, but will go hard as they cool.

8. Allow the nuts to cool, and store them in an airtight container.

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{3} Berliner Brot

I’ve teased you with aniseed and shortbread so far this year, but of course it wouldn’t be Christmas baking without chocolate and spice. So today we’re doing just that and having a go at Berliner Brot.

The name means “Berlin Bread” but this is a spiced cake that comes not from Berlin but from the Bergisches Land region in north-west Germany. It is rather like a brownie, with a cake-like texture rather than being soft and fudgy. It contains lots of nuts, dark chocolate and cocoa, and it relies on a surprise ingredient to obtain a unique flavour. You know me and baking with odd ingredients!

Berliner Brot is made with Apfelkraut. This is a type of apple butter, which originated in the border area between German, Belgium and the Netherlands. It was developed in medieval monasteries to preserve fruit from their orchards. Of course it is hard to find in Britain, so I had to trek off to the specialist German supermarket to see if they had any. Luckily they did!

Apfelkraut is a really odd ingredient, and I am not sure there really is any sort of substitute for it beyond apple butter if you can get hold of that. It looks how apple sauce might look like if you cooked it for a long, long, long time until it turns very dark and thick. This stuff looks like treacle or molasses, and the flavour is sweet and tangy. The texture is a bit like a very firm jam rather than just a thick syrup, which I think must be due to using apple puree and the pectin causing it to set.

This is an easy recipe to make, provided you’ve got the Apfelkraut. I’ve seen some recipes suggesting that you could swap it for molasses or honey, but I am not sure that would actually work. Being completely honest, this is a very rich and very sweet recipe. It contains sugar, and then there is more sweetness from the Apfelkraut. In fact, as I was making this, I really did start to wonder if this would be edible in the end, or if this would just end up being a sugar-fest.

In fact, it was delicious. But the reason it works is the reason I think you can’t swap out the Apfelkraut. It brings not only sweetness, but also sharpness and a fruity tang which balances the overall flavour. Honey or syrup would just be too sweet in this recipe. So if you’re tempted to have a go, like me, you’re going to have to go on the hunt for Apfelkraut!

If you do, best of luck!

To make Berliner Brot (makes 35 pieces):

For the dough:

• 2 large eggs
• 150g sugar
• 200g Apfelkraut
• 1 tablespoon dark rum
• 2 tablespoons water
• 250g flour

• 100g dark chocolate, finely chopped
• 2 teaspoons mixed spice
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 15g cocoa powder
• 200g whole hazelnuts and/or almonds

For the glaze:

100g icing sugar
2-3 tablespoons water

1. Preheat the oven to 170°C (340°F). Line a 9 x 13 inch tray with greaseproof paper.

2. Put the eggs and sugar in a large bowl. Whisk until pale and thick.

3. Mix the Apfelkraut, water and rum, and pour into the egg mixture. Add all the remaining ingredients except the nuts and mix to a smooth, thick batter. Finally fold in the nuts.

4. Pour the mixture onto the baking sheet. Smooth as best you can using the back of a metal spoon, and bake for 30 minutes (turn half-way to get an even bake).

5. In the meantime, make the glaze – mix the icing sugar with enough water to make a thick paste which just flows. When the dough is baked, remove from the oven and brush with the glaze. The glaze should set on the warm bread, and develop a “frosty” appearance.

6. Leave to cool completely. Trim the edges, and cut into 4 x 4cm pieces.

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{2} Finska Pinnar

As much as I love mince pies and things coated in chocolate, I also like more simple cookies, so that’s what we’ve got today.

These are Swedish butter biscuits called finska pinnar. The name translates cryptically as “Finnish pins”. I’ve tried to find out why they are called this but with no success. I did find an article on the website of the august Swedish Newspaper Svenska Dagbladet and even they don’t know the origin of the name. A mystery for the ages.

These are very quick and easy cookies to make – there is no elaborate rolling and shaping of cookies. You just roll it out, flatten with your hands, and cut into pieces, so this is a good one to make with children where you want to keep it easy. There is also no need to leave the dough to chill before you shape it, which is good when willing but impatient elves are keen to get going!

The dough itself is not that sweet, so you are relying a generous topping of chopped almonds and pearl sugar. You need an egg yolk for the dough, and then you use the egg white to glaze the tops. The art is then to get as much chopped almonds and pearl sugar on top, so you’ve got extra sweetness and some crunch to contrast with the buttery shortbread.

Of course, it would not by my Christmas basking selection if there was not some sort of random ingredient in here. Many recipes I looked at call for a bitter almonds to give finska pinnar their almond flavour. That’s the way to go if you’re keen on a bit of drama and some danger in your life, as apparently you need to be careful just how many you use. They contain cyanide and can be toxic if you eat too much! In the end I went for the easier option and just added a dash of almond extract to get all the flavour without the danger. Okay, so I might be exaggerating just a touch for dramatic effect…

To make Finska Pinnar (makes around 40)

For the dough

• 375g plain flour
• 250g unsalted butter
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 125g caster sugar
• 1 teaspoon almond extract
• 1 egg yolk

To decorate

1 egg white
40g whole almonds, roughly chopped
pearl sugar or granulated sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 200°C. Prepare three sheets of greaseproof paper.

2. Put the flour, butter, salt, sugar and almond extract into a bowl. Rub together until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Add the egg yolk and quickly mix to a soft dough.

3. Divide the dough into 4 pieces. Roll each into a long rope, about finger thickness. Press them lightly to around 1/2 cm thickness. Cut into 4cm slices.

4. Transfer the cookies to the greaseproof paper. Brush lightly with the beaten egg white, then sprinkle generously with chopped almonds and pearl sugar. Put on a tray, and chill in the fridge for a few minutes.

5. Bake for 8-10 minutes until golden, turning half-way to get an even colour. Remove from the oven, allow to rest for a moment, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

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{8} Knäck

Had enough cookies yet? Then you’ll like today’s festive goodness – knäck, a traditional Swedish Christmas sweet. They are delicious caramels that are easy to make, and while the mixture simmers on the stove, you’ve got a kitchen that smells delicious.

To make knäck you only need to put cream, sugar and syrup in a pan. You cook it to the right temperature, then pour it into your preferred shapes. It is traditional to use little paper cups, and I’ve also made some paper cones from greaseproof paper. To stop the cones unravelling, I used some gold-polka-dot washi tape, and secured them with red and white baker’s twine. I’ve always had a bit of an aversion to piles of cookies tied with twine (seriously – who does that apart from in pictures?), but I feel pretty pleased with myself that it is entirely functional here. To note, I did not oil or grease the cups. The caramel did stick to the cups, but by the next day the caramel had absorbed a bit of moisture from the air, and the paper cups could be peeled off easily. The greaseproof paper was true to its name, and the caramel cones/spikes came right out.

The only “tricky bit” here is getting the caramel to the right temperature. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Get a candy thermometer. I’ve got a fairly basic electronic one, and it’s defiantly a great investment. Any time you are working with a sugar syrup (or doing things like tempering chocolate or making jam) it makes life a lot easier. I’ve tried testing whether something has reached the hard ball stage by dropping teaspoons of boiling sugar into cold water, and it’s far easier to push a button and check we’ve hit 130°C. If you don’t have one, perhaps you could ask Santa for a last-minute stocking filler?

If pouring the caramel into individual moulds is not your thing, you could just pour the caramel mixture into a single large sheet (called knäckbräck) and then break it into pieces later. This would be a good idea if you want to present it at a party and smash it up theatrically. Come to think of it, I remember that being a “thing” many years ago – you could buy a block of toffee, and it came with its own little hammer to break it up. Anyway, the single sheet approach is probably the best way to make knäck if you have kids and animals running around and not a lot of time to carefully pour hot syrup into fiddly containers.

One thing to watch is that you don’t end up with pieces of caramel you can’t eat. I recommend you opt for a “less is more” approach. If you fill the little cups too much, or your knäckbräck is too thick, you’re setting up yourself and any guests for dental problems. If the layer is thinner, you’ll actually be able to eat them.

The actual texture of this recipe is a hard caramel at room temperature, but they soften as you eat them. I recommend a little patience as you eat them, just to avoid cracking teeth and fillings being pulled out. I know I’m making the same point over and over, but I really don’t want people having dental issues over the festive period.

A good thing about knäck is that you have lots of scope to play around with flavours. I opted for simple toasted flaked almonds. I’ve also added some salt as I think this improves the taste and takes them away from simple sweetness to something more complex. Get creative! Play around with flavours – just before pouring, you can add citrus zest, or peppermint oil, or cocoa powder (or a combination of these) – or switch out the almonds for other nuts or dried fruit, or sprinkle the finished knäck with seeds, coconut, or even crushed candy canes for a properly festive twist. If you’ve got some helper elves in the kitchen, you could get a little production line going with different toppings.

To make Knäck (makes around 50 pieces)

• 200ml double cream
• 200ml golden syrup or Swedish light syrup (“ljus sirap”)
• 200g white caster sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 20g butter
• 50g chopped or flaked almonds, toasted

1. Heat the oven to 160°C. Spread the almonds on a tray and bake until they are lightly golden and fragrant. When they are ready, just turn off the heat but leave them in the oven so they stay warm.

2. While the almonds are toasting, make the caramel. Put the cream, sugar, syrup and salt in a large saucepan. Heat and bring to the boil.

3. Keep the mixture on a gentle rolling boil until it reaches 130°C on a sugar thermometer. It took about 20 minutes for me, but focus on the temperature rather than the time.

4. In the meantime, line a baking tray with 50 small paper cups. If you are using paper cones, find a way to keep them upright – I pushed them through a cooling rack balances above a saucepan to hold them.

5. When the caramel is ready, remove from heat. Add the butter and warm almonds, and mix quickly until combined.

6. Acting quickly but carefully, pour the mixture into the paper cups and leave to cool. If the caramel gets too thick as you are pouring it out, reheat it gently until it flows easily again.

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{5} Biberle

I’m sticking with the Swiss theme for this next bake. These little cookies are called Biberle, or gingerbread almond nuggets if you’re after a clunky translation. I tried to find out what the name means – Biber is German for beaver, so they could mean “little beavers” which I like. If someone knows for sure, let me know. Their shape sort of looks like a beaver’s tail, so maybe I’m right after all?

Biberle hail from the St Gallen area and they are the thing you want when you fancy something that is a bit like gingerbread and a bit like marzipan. There are two types – round cookies filled with marzipan and the tops elaborately decorated using moulds, and these versions which are the less fancy roll-and-slice cousins.

Biberle might look like a bit of a faff to make, but they are actually fairly straightforward. You make a simple spiced honey and flour dough, and leave it to sit for a few days so that the spice flavour gets a chance to develop. Then when you’ve got a moment in your busy week, you just need to roll it out, add a long thin log of marzipan, and wrap it in the gingerbread dough. Then slice into funky little trapezoid shapes, bake and you’re done.

I was a little wary of making these at first as the dough is not much more than flour, spices and honey. I’ve made something similar in the past – couques de Dinant but they were rock-hard, and it turned out the idea was you just gnawed at them slowly. I wasn’t too keen to have something similarly tough here. However, the recipe is made with some baking soda, which had a bit of an unexpected effect. When I added it, it reacted a little as the honey was still slightly warm. I left the dough to rest for four days and when I came back it had puffed up. Perhaps the dough was otherwise a little acidic or the soda reacted with the honey? I don’t know, but it did mean the dough was workable. I did wonder if that meant that any lift that the soda was going to give had gone, but there was no need to worry – the baking soda did its thing a third time in the oven, and the gingerbread element was pleasingly puffed up.

For the filling, you are looking for proper marzipan – the stuff that is mostly almonds. Check a packet next time you’re in a store – very often the stuff called “marzipan” might only have 25% nuts in it. This can be easily fixed – either buy a high-nut marzipan/almond paste (i.e. more than 50% almonds) or just make it yourself! All you need are ground almonds, icing sugar and something to bind the lot together. I used a couple of spoons of glucose and a little water, plus almond extract and a dash of rosewater as flavourings. You really could go crazy when you’re making the filling – rum, orange zest, lemon zest, amaretto…the only thing to be a little wary of is that I don’t think you want a filling that is too moist, as it will probably go runny and leak out during baking. Not sure the Swiss would approve of that.

The final thing that is really, really weird in this recipe is the glaze you use to give the Biberle a shiny finish. You toast a tablespoon of cornflour in a pan until it goes brown (well, it goes from white to a very pale brown), then cool it, and mix with water and boil it to make a glaze. Whatever was going on, it seemed to work. Just go with it – if nothing else, you’ve learned a new cooking technique – the cornflour glaze!

When I baked these, the dough was a little hard at first, but that was very easy to sort out. Pop them all in an airtight container with a slice of bread. Leave overnight, and the next day, the bread will be dry and the cookies soft and full of spicy delight. Because if you go to all the effort of making Biberle, you want them to taste their best!

To make Biberle (makes 25) (adapted from here)

For the dough:

• 125g runny floral honey
• 25g soft brown sugar
• 75g plain flour
• 50g light rye flour (or just use more plain flour)
• pinch of salt
• 1 1/2 teaspoons Lebkuchen or pumpkin pie spices
• 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon baking soda

For the marzipan filling:

• 125g ground almonds
• 75g icing sugar
• 2 tablespoons liquid glucose
• almond extract, to taste
• rose water, to taste

For the glaze:

• 1 tablespoon cornflour
• 100ml water

1. Make the dough. Put the honey and sugar in a small saucepan, and heat gently until the sugar has dissolved. Don’t let it boil. Remove from the heat and allow to cool until just warm.

2. Sieve the plain flour, rye flour, salt, spices and baking soda into a large bowl. Add the lukewarm honey mixture and stir until to forms a dough. Cover with cling film and leave to rest (at least overnight, but I left mine for four days).

3. Next, make the marzipan filling. Grind the almonds and icing sugar. Tip into a bowl, add the glucose, and almond extract and rose water to taste. Add a little at a time – you can always add more! Add water if needed to bring everything together to a firm dough. Wrap in cling film and chill for at least an hour.

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

5. On a floured worktop, form the dough into a ball, then roll into a sausage about 45cm in length. Now flatten the dough and use a rolling pin to get a strip that is 10cm wide.

6. Take the marzipan, and form into a long log, also 45cm. Brush the dough lightly with water, then place the marzipan on one edge of the dough, and roll it up so that the marzipan is tightly wrapped. Trim the dough if needed, and seal the join.

7. Use a sharp knife to cut the roll into 20-25 pieces. You need to alternate the angle so that the Biberle have a triangular shape, but make sure the dough is connected all the way around.

8. Transfer the cookies to the baking sheet, leaving space between them to expand. Bake for around 12 minutes, turning the tray half-way to get an even colour.

9. While the Biberle are baking, prepare the glaze. Put the cornflour in a saucepan and heat until it turns a pale golden colour. Remove from the heat and cool. Mix with the cold water, the heat and bring to the boil – it should thicken and become less cloudy. Once the Biberle are baked, remove from the oven and brush each one while hot with the glaze. Leave to cool.


Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things