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{12} Pignoli

We’ve made it to the end of another instalment of the 12 Days of Baking! This cycle has gone on a little longer than I planned and well into the New Year, but I’d rather that than pile on the stress of trying to do everything by Christmas Eve. Also, spreading things out gives friends and family a sporting chance of being able to enjoy what I bake, rather than turning it into an endurance event whereby cookies need to be eaten as fast as they are made…

To bring things to a conclusion, we’re finishing with a classic Italian cookie: pignoli.

These morsels are delicious almond cookies, crisp and lightly golden on the outside and with a soft and chewy centre. They are generously coated in pine nuts which toast lightly in the oven. They are simultaneously simple and luxurious. I love their festive appearance which will look good on any cookie tray, but they are equally at home any time of the year with a cup of good coffee for a quiet moment of reflection.


Pignoli originate from the island of Sicily in Southern Italy, where both almonds and pine nuts feature in local cookies. They’ve also made their way to the US, where there are also a favourite in Italian-American families at Christmas.

While my festive baking this year has included some complex bakes, pignoli are (comparatively) easy. One bowl, no resting, no chilling, just roll, coat in nuts and bake. And this is a delightful recipe as it gives you a lot of deliciousness for minimal effort.

When it comes to pignoli recipes, many are based on almond paste, which is mixed with sugar and egg whites. Almond paste is a 50/50 mixture of almonds and sugar, and not the same thing as marzipan here in Britain (marzipan here is typically 25/75 almonds to sugar). However, almond paste is not an ingredient that is easily available in stores here, so I’ve come up with an easy recipe that just uses ground almonds and sugar. It gets us to the same place, and I think it is easier – there is no need to break down a lump of almond paste into a smooth mixture.  Essentially I’m offering a route that involves less work, getting you more quickly to delicious pignoli.


However, even if there is less work involved, we need to be honest. These are clearly luxury cookies. A good amount of almonds, and then lots and lots of pine nuts. This is not a cheap recipe, but hey, they are called pignoli and so pine nuts should be used generously. And you want them to taste of something. I tipped two large bags of pine nuts into a bowl for coating the cookies and assumed I had over-calculated. The rest could be toasted and sprinkled into a salad perhaps? But no. I think I ended up with about a dozen pine nuts left in the bowl at the end. So just a word of warning – get those nuts in, and don’t think you’ll be able to wing it with that half-used bag lurking in the baking cupboard.

If you want to play around with the flavours you can add lemon or orange zest, and they would still be pignoli. Or you could skip the pine nuts and use other nuts to coat the cookies – flaked almonds, or chopped hazelnuts, pistachios or cashews would all work – except that you’re then not making pignoli. They’ll still taste great, but they will be something else. This is, of course, a good way to make a batch of visually different cookies using one basic recipe (or if you ignored my warning and ran short of pine nuts…).

One final point worth knowing – there is no flour, butter or milk in pignoli so these little guys just happen to be naturally gluten and lactose-free. This makes them a great choice if you want to impress and you know someone who needs to avoid either in their diet.

To make Pignoli (makes around 20):

For the dough

• 2 large egg whites
• 175g ground almonds
• 100g icing sugar
• 100g granulated sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon almond extract

To decorate

• 200g pine nuts
• icing sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 175°C (345°F) and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

2. In a large bowl, briefly whisk the egg whites until foamy. Add the rest of the dough ingredients and mix to a smooth dough. It should be sticky but you should be able to form it into balls. If too dry, add a little water. If too sticky, add a teaspoon each of ground almonds, granulated sugar and icing sugar and mix well.

3. Take a teaspoon of the dough (around 25g) and form into a ball. Roll in the pine nuts. Transfer to the baking sheet. Leave around 5cm between each cookie, and keep going until all the dough is used up.

4. Lightly press each cookie to flatten slightly, then bake for 15 minutes (turn the tray around half-way to get an even colour). When baked, remove from the oven, allow to cool on the tray. Lightly dust with icing sugar before serving.

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{11} Bauernbrötchen

We’ve already had one culinary jaunt to Austria this year with our pumpkin seed crescent cookies, and we’re going back for our penultimate recipe: Bauernbrötchen which translates as “farmers rolls”. But plain and rustic little breads these certainly are not!


At first glance, these seem to be chocolate crinkle cookies. They look like they contain chocolate, they are white and have that distinctive cracked appearance. Have I just made some of those and called them Austrian?

Of course not! But maybe these are their ancestors from the old country? I did look to see if I could find out more about how these cookies got their name, but drew a blank. My first guess was that it is something to do with the fact they use a lot of nuts, and that nuts were prevalent on farms. Of course this theory fall down quickly – the recipe uses a lot of chocolate, which is historically a luxury ingredient. My second guess, which seems more likely, is that they have more than a passing resemblance to large loaves of Austrian rye bread which is coated in flour with decorative cuts. Which theory do you think is right? It’s got the be the second, right?

Anyway, the method and ingredients  for making these is very different from crinkle cookies. They are made mostly with ground nuts and grated dark chocolate, with just a little flour to hold everything together. So in my book, that makes them even better than crinkle cookies. They are rich but also substantial and taste very, very festive. They also skip spices or citrus flavours, so provide something different on a holiday cookie plate too. I also really like the random cracked appearance which is a real contrast to perfectly identical cookies.


For the nuts, I have used walnuts. These seem to be common in many recipes, and in my mind this is also a very Austrian ingredient. It features in Austrian baking, but there is also a giant walnut tree growing in the garden of the parents of an Austrian friend down near the Slovenian border. So in my head, they make a lot of stuff with walnuts there, and that was what I would do.

However, you can make some adjustments if you want (or depending on what you have to hand). Almonds, hazelnuts, cashews or pecans would all make fine substitutes, either on their own or in combination. I would steer clear of pistachios and pine nuts simply because their flavour would vanish in these cookies and they are are at the pricier end of the nut world.

There are also recipes (including on the Dr Oetker website) which use coconut. If you’re a coconut fan then I am sure this would work, but you may wish to use a mixture of coconut flour and coconut flakes as I can see the recipe remaining too moist otherwise. I’ve had past experience using using coconut flakes when I should have been using coconut flour. So take this with a warning that I have not tested this – if you want to have a go with coconut, do let me know how it works out.

You will see that some of the cookies have a lovely white appearance, while others are more mottled. This was due to oil from the nuts and chocolate coming to the surface during baking. It does not affect the taste in any way, but the easy way to fix this is double rolling. When you shape the cookies, you roll them into a ball, then roll them in icing sugar. Fill the whole tray, then roll each one again in icing sugar. This created a slightly thicker coating, and gives you that picture-perfect crinkle look.


I was pleased with how these turned out – they are pretty easy to make, and the only pain was grating the dark chocolate. With hindsight I might have done this in a food processor. I did it by hand, and chocolate on a grater goes crazy. It creates lots of static, with small pieces of chocolate flying everywhere. I’m not sure there is really anything you can to prevent this, but it is just useful to know so that you’re not wearing your best white clothes as you do this, and at least you are prepared for the mess. Good luck!

And finally, the taste test. The flavour is really good – in spite of containing a fair amount of sugar and chocolate, they are not particularly sweet. The flavour is delicious, rich and nutty. The combination of lots of walnuts with chocolate gives them what I think of as a very “central European flavour”. They also keep very well when stored in a tin. Indeed, I think they actually improve over a couple of days, which is helpful when the recipe makes 50!

To make Bauernbrötchen (makes around 50)

For the dough

• 3 medium eggs, separated
• 1 teaspoon vanilla
• 150g white caster sugar
• 250g ground nuts (traditionally walnuts)
• 160g grated dark chocolate
• 60g plain flour

To decorate

• icing sugar

1. Put the egg yolks, sugar and vanilla into a large bowl. Whisk until light and thick (around 3-4 minutes).

2. Fold in the ground nuts and grated chocolate. The mixture will seem very thick and dry.

3. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until you reach soft peaks. Vigorously mix the egg whites into the main mixture until evenly combined. Finally stir in the flour – the mixture should be soft and slightly sticky. Cover and leave to rest overnight.

4. The next day, preheat the oven to 175°C (345°F) and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

5. Take generous teaspoons of the mixture (around 25g) and form into a ball. Roll in the icing sugar, then transfer to the baking sheet. Repeat until the tray is filled, leaving 5cm between each cookie to allow for spreading. At this point, you can re-roll each ball in icing sugar to get a good, even, thick coating.

6. Bake the cookies for 14 minutes, turning the tray half-way to get an even bake. Remove from the oven, allow to cool for a moment (they are very soft when hot), then transfer to a cooking rack.

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{7} Hausfreunde

It is nearly Christmas, so we really need to have something with chocolate. On today’s cookie platter we have Hausfreunde, which are little German cookies made of shortbread, filled with apricot jam and marzipan, and topped with dark chocolate and walnuts.


I also find the name to be is utterly charming. Or I did. I translated it as “friend of the house” or “family friend”, but thought it might be good to double-check in case my German is rusty. According to the website of the Langenscheidt dictionary (which I spent hours leafing through in paper form when learning German all those years ago, and hence now have no need for Google Translate) it can also mean “lover”. So I was sitting there thinking that these were adorable, and the name reflected that they are wholesome and traditional and familiar at the most magical time of the year. Certainly I found the flavour to be very traditional, if anything on the less sweet side, and that felt like a nod back to times past. But now I am left wondering if they are a nod to forbidden fruit, and a platter of these little guys is more about irresistible temptation? I may, perhaps, be over-thinking this.

They certainly look impressive, and you might think they are difficult to make. Certainly there are a number of steps, but each is individually fairly easy and the recipe lends itself to being made over a couple of days.

But, of course, I did decide to make life a little harder than it has to be. This is mainly because in London we’re kind of not really going anywhere indoors at the moment, and I’ve had my fill of multiple trips to the local funfair in the freezing cold. Yes, once again socialising means lots of standing outside in the cold, or being harassed to hold yet another online game of bingo for a bunch of 6 year olds on Zoom. You can see why pottering (hiding?) in the kitchen is so appealing.

So what did I do? It was the marzipan. I could have used the perfectly good and high-quality marzipan I already had in the baking cupboard. But no, I decided to have a go at making it myself. I’d already done it with my Goan Marzipan sweets, so when on a roll keep rolling.

For these cookies, I used this recipe from Anna Olsen, and it is pretty straightforward. You make a syrup of white sugar and acacia honey, then pour the hot mixture onto almonds and mix it well. The flavour is good, so it is nice to know that it is very easy if you want to make marzipan with other nuts: pistachio, hazelnut and walnut are all options to explore. I get the creeping feeling we’ll get a lot of time to practice things in the kitchen come the new year…


The flavour of these cookies really is excellent. The combination of shortbread, apricot, marzipan and chocolate really is a winner. They have that “central European Christmas” flavour vibe and I’m here for it. I started out wondering whether such a labour of love was worth the effort, but I was pleased to discover that it was. They are surprisingly not particularly sweet and seem all the more sophisticated for it.

Now, are there any tips I can share with avid bakers keen to embark on a grand project? Really, it is just about the chocolate. It is best if you temper the chocolate so that it looks shiny and has a pleasing crack when you bite into the cookies. The easiest way I have found is to put chocolate in a bowl, and microwave for 30 seconds. Stir. Another 30 seconds. Stir. Another 30 seconds. Now the chocolate should be starting to melt. Now microwave in 10 second bursts, stirring after each. The key is you want to just melt it but to keep the temperature as low as possible. Basically chocolate in bars has been tempered, and it will return to that state if you melt it only slightly. But if you’re keen to get more scientific, then BBC Good Food will explain all!

Speaking of chocolate, I’ve suggested melting 300g (about two bars) of dark chocolate for dipping. This seems (and is) a lot, and you won’t use anywhere near all of it. But it makes it much easier for the dipping stage. Once I’m done, I just spread it onto a sheet of greaseproof paper and let it set. Then just break it up and use it in another recipe (unless someone else in the house finds it first and eats it).

So, Liebe Leute – we’ve passed the half-way mark in the 2021 edition of the Twelve Bakes of Christmas. I hope you’re enjoying them, and that they may even have provided a little inspiration. And I promise there is more chocolate to come!

To make Hausfreunde (makes 24)

For the dough

• 225g flour
• 25g cornflour
• 75g icing sugar
• 165g butter
• zest of 1/2 lemon

• 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extraxt
• 1 medium egg, beaten

For the marzipan

• 125g ground almonds
• 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
• 100g caster sugar
• 45g acacia honey
• 1 tablespoon water

To assemble

• 200g apricot jam

To finish

• 300g dark chocolate
• 24 walnut halves, lightly toasted

Make the cookies

1. Put the flour, cornflour and icing sugar in a bowl. Mix well and set aside.

2. In another large bowl, beat the butter until light and fluffy. Stir in the lemon zest and vanilla. Add in the dry ingredients. Stir in the beaten egg until you have a soft dough – if it is sticky add a little more flour.

3. Wrap the dough and chill for an hour, or overnight.

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

5. Roll the dough out to around 1/2 cm (1/4 inch) and cut out circles (5m diameter). Keep going until you have 48 discs. You will need to bake them in batches.

6. Transfer the cookies the baking sheet. Bake for around 10-12 minutes, turning half-way for an even colour. The cookies should be lightly golden when done. Leave to cool.

Make the marzipan

7. In a heatproof bowl, mix the ground almonds and almond extract.

8. Put the sugar, honey and water into a pan, and heat until the sugar dissolves. As soon as it comes to a rolling boil, pour the syrup onto the almonds and work to a paste with a silicone spatula. When smooth, wrap in greaseproof paper and leave to cool at room temperature.

Assemble the cookies.

9. Match the cookies in pairs by size (there is always some variation in size no matter how careful you are).

10. Warm the jam in a saucepan. Sieve if you want (you don’t have to), then add a teaspoon of apricot jam to each base (keep some jam back for the tops of the cookies). Gently place the partner cookie on top, and leave for a moment so the jam can set.

11. Marzipan time! Knead your marzipan (if it is very stiff, you can add a few drops of water to soften it). Sprinkle a worktop with icing sugar, and roll the marzipan out to around 4mm. Cut out marzipan circles using the same cutter as you did for the cookies (5cm diameter). Brush the top of each cookie with the remaining jam, then place a disc of marzipan on top. Press down gently.

Time to dip in chocolate!

12. Melt and temper your chocolate (BBC Good Food will explain all).

13. Dip the top of each cookie into the chocolate so that the marzipan is covered, but the sides of the cookies are left exposed. Let any excess drip off, then flip back the right way up. Immediately place a walnut half on top of the cookie. Repeat until all cookies are done. Leave to set.

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{4} Goan Marzipan

I love a bit of marzipan. So can you imagine just how excited I got when I found that there is a tradition of making Christmas marzipan in the Indian coastal city of Goa? Than answer is very. And it is not just marzipan, but marzipan that is brightly coloured and fashioned into intricate shapes to create a truly dazzling display for all the senses.


The tradition of making marzipan came to Goa with the Portuguese. Over time it has been adapted by replacing imported almonds with the local cashew nuts which grow plentifully around Goa. If you prefer, you could use almonds. Indeed, I saw lots of people using them, but I really wanted to have a go with the cashew nuts.

The overall flavour is really pleasant – the texture was very smooth as I had blitzed the nuts to a powder using a spice grinder. The rose flavour is noticeable but still subtle, with the almond extract very much playing second fiddle. This addition of rose is apparently a hallmark of Goan Marzipan, so I think you would want to make sure that you include that, regardless of the nuts that you use. Just be sure that you’re not over-doing it. I used rose water, so a tablespoon was right. If you’re using the more concentrated rose extract, then be careful to use just a few drops as you can easily go from lightly perfumed to overpowering in a moment.


This recipe uses egg whites, and is a cooked marzipan – helpful if you’re nervous about uncooked eggs in a recipe. You essentially mix everything up, then cook it on a very, very gentle heat in a non-stick pan. The mixture starts off looking dry, and initially appears to melt as the sugar dissolves into the egg white and rose water, then as it cooks it will start to firm up. It only takes 10-15 minutes, but you really do need to watch it carefully, all the while stirring with a silicone spatula to cook it evenly and prevent any burning. This is the time to put on music or a radio play, and enjoy a mindful moment when you’re not being disturbed.

I must, however, sound a word of caution. I actually ended up making this twice. I tried one approach involving soaking the nuts, and then grinding them down to a paste. I think somehow too much water got into my mixture, because after a long cooking time the marzipan was still too moist and soft to set. I remedied that by adding a lot of extra icing sugar, and while that did work it meant the marzipan was very sweet. I noticed that lots of recipes caution not to add any extra water when making marzipan, and I think this is why. But hey, it means you can learn from my mistake. I tried this a second time with unsoaked ground cashew nuts, icing sugar, egg white and flavourings. It ended up being much easier and quicker and yielded a great result. It also meant that the mixture was 1:1 of nuts and sugar, so it is sweet but not sickly.


Of course, the really fun bit was shaping the marzipan. I used silicone moulds, which worked really well. I made a selection of abstract shapes and flowers in muted tones of pale green, pink and yellow. Pretty classy. It is also fun to take bits of different colours, roll them into balls, then press them into moulds to get a marbled effect. If you don’t have moulds, you can simply roll it out an cut small shapes. If you’ve got something with texture, you can also use this to emboss the top of the marzipan. Indeed, get playful – place cling film on top, and press down things like star anise or pasta shapes for some really interesting effects.

After the tasteful marzipan shapes, it was time to get fruity. Literally. This turned into a riot of bright colours and whimsy. Again, I used moulds for this. I left the marzipan uncoloured , and then decorated them freestyle with a paintbrush and food colours. Overall I’m happy with how they turned out. If you prefer to colour the marzipan first, that will work too. But again, you do not need to use moulds and can make very effective marzipan fruits by shaping them by hand and letting your creativity run riot.


Finally, in addition to various tropical fruits, I could not resist making a few little marzipan potatoes. These are really common in Germany, and have the benefit of being incredibly easy to prepare. You don’t need moulds and they look really convincing. Just form pieces of marzipan into irregular rounded oblong shapes, poke some holes to represent the eyes, then roll or dust in a little cocoa power. They really do look like miniature potatoes and are always a hit with kids!

To make Goan Marzipan (makes around 50 pieces)

• 200g cashew nuts
• 200g icing sugar
• 1 tablespoon rose water
• 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
• 1 medium egg white
• food colours, to decorate

1. Grind the cashew nuts with the icing sugar until you have a fine, smooth powder.

2. Put the egg white in a bowl and beat until frothy. Add the rose water and almond extract and mix well. Finally, fold in the cashew/icing sugar mixture and stir. It will seem very dry.

3. Transfer the mixture to a heavy-bottomed non-stick frying pan. Cook over a low heat for around 10-15 minutes until the mixture is smooth and thick, stirring and moving the mixture constantly with a silicone spatula. When you first start cooking, it will become more liquid and smooth; it will get firmer with cooking. It is ready when a small piece dropped into cold water forms a firm ball.

4. Put the cooked marzipan onto a sheet of greaseproof paper and allow to cool until it can be handled. While still warm, divide the marzipan into 3-4 balls, and use food colouring to make different colours.

5. Pinch off pieces of warm marzipan and press into moulds. Allow to set for a moment, then remove from the moulds. Place of a sheet of greaseproof paper, and allow to cool completely. Store in an airtight container.

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{12} Vasilopita Cake

Happy New Year! We’ve made it out of 2020, and we’ve also reached the last instalment of our 12 Festive Bakes for the year. Or more accurately last year.

I normally try to finish everything before Christmas Day so that all the goodies are on offer over the festive holiday, ready to hand to all those guests who will be popping in. Except that imperative was not there this year, and we’re working our way through the various baked goods. Another thing that is different this year is that I’ve run a little later, and as the final bake was due to coincide with New Year, I decided to make something that celebrates this time of year. Well, I found out that in Greece it is traditional to eat a vasilopita. So I made one.

The name vasilopita means “St Basil’s pie”. It can be no coincidence that the Feast of St Basil is on 1 January, and he happens to be the patron saint of wishes and blessings. Very fitting for the time of renewal, new hopes and good intentions. The vasilopita can come in one of two forms. It can either be an enriched yeasted bread, or a cake. As I was making this late on New Year’s Eve, I decided to go the cake version as I thought it would be quicker to make. Truth be told, on that day I had already spent many, many hours outside in the park, and all that fresh air and very cold temperatures left me ready for bed quite early. Those New Year’s Eve celebrations where we partied until the wee hours seem but a distant memory these days…


There is also a lovely ritual that goes with these cakes. A coin is hidden in the bread or included in the cake when it is baked. When the vasilopita is served, it is cut into pieces and offered to guests in turn, from the oldest to the youngest. The one that gets the coin will enjoy good luck in the year to come. This is presumably on the basis that they’ve already enjoyed some good luck by neither ingesting the coin nor breaking a tooth on it? Anyway, I think this is a fun thing to do, but make sure you have a clean coin, wash it thoroughly in hot, soapy water, and wrap it tightly in tin foil. Safety first.

Vasilopita cakes are usually smooth, and decorated with a dusting of icing sugar. Often the year will be written in numebrs on top, either using a stencil, in icing, or perhaps using nuts. However, I decided that I would just dust with icing, as this was a good chance to use my intricate Dutch cake mould, which is shaped like a Zeeuwse Knoop. This is traditional symbol from the Zeeland region. It has twelve points on it rather like a clock, and that felt like enough of a link to New Year’s Eve to justify using it.


The traditional flavour in a vasilopita cake is orange zest, which I’ve used here. Note that I was quite heavy-handed and used the zest of two whole oranges, plus a bit of lemon zest. I loved the result, but I love citrus and this cake did pack a punch. If you want a more delicate flavour, use just one orange.

I also saw a couple of recipes that suggested using mahleb (the ground pits of the St Lucie cherry, which has a bitter-almond flavour) and ground mastic resin which is popular in Greek sweets and baking. The flavour and aroma of mastic are hard to describe, but I think it’s reminiscent of something light, fresh and resinous, with a touch of pine about it. So I added both of those since I happened to have them in the spice drawer. Neither dominates, but they add to the overall result – an aromatic, zesty cake.

After all those rich spices and chocolate over the last couple of weeks, this made a very pleasant change. We enjoyed it with breakfast on New Year’s Day, then set about taking down the decorations. We always do this on New Year’s Day, and it feels right. The festive period is drawing to a close, the house returns to a calmer state, and we get to marvel at how spacious and airy our home suddenly feels. Yes, in lockdown times it feels a little sad to be putting away all the sparkle and wrap all the tree ornaments in their protective paper, but I’m hopeful that we will be unwrapping them again in December 2021 surrounded by our nearest and dearest.

I mentioned that the vasilopita can be both a bread and cake. I think I’ll also have a go at the bread version. I’ve seen a couple of recipes, and it seems similar to an Italian panettone, but without the dried fruit and the inclusion of orange zest and mastic. If it’s good, perhaps it will make the 2021 edition of the Twelve Bakes of Christmas?

To make a Vasilopita Cake:

For the cake

• 150g butter
• 250g white caster sugar
• zest of 1 or 2 oranges
• zest of 1/2 lemon
• 1 teaspoon mahleb (optional)
• 1/2 teaspoon ground mastic resin (optional)
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 3 large eggs
• 225g self-raising flour
• 1/2 teaspoon baking powder

• 50ml whole milk
• 75ml yoghurt
• 2 tablespoons orange juice
• 25g ground almonds
• 25g flaked almonds, roughly crushed

For the glaze

• 100g icing sugar
• 2 tablespoons orange juice

To finish

• icing sugar, to dust

1. Prepare a 20cm (8 inch) diameter cake pan. Either line one with greaseproof paper, or if using a fancy mould, grease it generously with butter, then dust it with plain flour.

2. Put the butter in a large bowl, and beat until fluffy. Add the sugar and beat until smooth, then add the flavourings (orange zest, lemon zest, mahleb, mastica and vanilla extract). Mix well.

3. Add the eggs, one at a time, and beat until smooth. Add a spoonful of flour with each egg to prevent the mixture from splitting.

4. Mix the remaining flour and the baking powder in a separate bowl. Combine the milk and the yoghurt in another bowl. Add one-third of the remaining flour, and mix; then half the milk mixture; then next third of the flour; the rest of the milk mixture; then the last of the flour. Finally fold in the orange juice, ground almonds and flaked almonds

5. Transfer the mixture to the prepared baking tin. If you’re using a fancy mould, spoon it gently so that you do not disturb the flour layer lining the mould.

6. Bake the cake for 1-1 1/2 hours until an inserted skewer comes out clean. Cover with tin foil after 45 minutes to prevent the cake from getting too dark. Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely.

7. Make the glaze. Mix the icing sugar and orange juice until smooth, then cover the top and sides of the cake. Leave to dry.

8. Just before serving, dust the cake with icing sugar.

 

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{11} Italian Rainbow Cookies

My previous festive baking post offered simplicity, so it was only inevitable that today we’d go back to complexity. And as it is New Year’s Eve, albeit the low-cal and less exciting version, it is only fitting that we do something that is colourful and has a bit of panache to it.

Earlier in this year’s baking extravaganza I posted some cookies from the Philippines and mused that I had not made many recipes from outside of the gingerbread-spice world of Western Europe. Then I got a suggestion from a helpful reader, Jamie, who suggested I have a go at Italian Rainbow Cookies. In spite of the name, they are a staple of American Christmas baking, particularly amoung the Italian-American community, so would tick the box of stepping beyond Europe for holiday inspiration. So…I did just that. I did actually have another recipe in mind for the No 11 slot this year, but for better or worse it has been bumped. Maybe it will make the cut for the 2021 edition?

Truth be told, I’ve seen these before, but I’ve been put off from making them as they look complicated. However what with lockdowns and the like, I’ve got plenty of time on my hands (i.e. my excuse has gone), so we were all set for some lurid rainbow cookies. All fabulous seven layers of them. And here is what I made!


I’m beyond thrilled with how they worked out. Seeing them all laid out neatly like this I have the vague feeling that I’ve made some sort of edible interactive Tetris set. I originally arranged them in neat lines all in the same way but it looked too orderly. Hence the more random arrangement. It’s chaos within order.

These little guys are also called Seven-Layer Cookies, and it’s easy to see why. There are three layers of almond-flavoured sponge, sandwiched together with jam, and then the top and bottom have a layer of dark chocolate. They are made as one giant sheet, then cut into individual bite-sized cubes.

I find them both cute and oddly extravagant. But are they Italian? Are they a rainbow? And are they really cookies? The last two are easy. You could go with any colour you wanted, but the red/white/green tricolore seems to be pretty ubiquitous. The tricky thing is to get more of a rainbow, you need more layers, which makes them more complex, and the size would become impractical. I also think it is wise to go with colours that could be natural as opposed to blues and purples. So they’re not a real rainbow, but I think the three colours do work well together.

Are they cookies? Well, not in the sense of something that is made from dough that has been rolled out and shaped or cut. But neither are they cookies made from balls of dough, or drops of batter. While the term “cookie” is pretty flexible, these guys are really are more like little cakes. The closest I can think of are petit fours, those fancy little bite-sized French cakes you might get with afternoon tea or after a special dinner.

So, they’re at least Italian, right? This is where things get more mixed. Some think they’re not Italian at all, while others think they must have at least a tenuous link to the old country. Other sources suggest the recipe was developed within the Jewish community that lived alongside Italians in American cities. Whatever the true origin, they have acquired the “Italian” moniker and they seem to be a key part of an Italian nonna’s festive baking repertoire, and given that it’s probably best not to argue.

But where to start with baking them? Jaime pointed me in the direction of the Smitten Kitchen recipe from Deb Perelman. I’ve followed some of Deb’s recipes in the past, and been pleased with the results. In a pretty crowded online recipe world, and with what seem like dozens of YouTube videos of those nonnas making these things, I decided to go with a recipe that I was pretty confident would work. She also writes with candour about how she found the process and offers tips for getting it right, which is something I always like to see. A tricky recipe being described as “easy” or “a breeze” does no service to the reader and it underplays the work of the baker too.

I planned to do this over two days, as they baked cake part needs to chill for at least 8 hours with a weight on it. I think the idea is that this helps to ensure the cookies are perfectly flat, the layers bond to each other, and I think it helps with the texture too. I figured I could do all the baking and assembly one day, then do the chocolate and the chopping the next. I recommend doing it in this way as it helps keep you sane. The kitchen does end up covered in a fair few bowls coated in many different colours.

But was the whole process a breeze? I did have one major wobble. Once I’d done the baking, assembling and chilling, I removed the tray from the fridge to start doing the chocolate layers. I trimmed the sides, partly to neaten it all up, and partly to have some offcuts to eat. With a nice sharp knife it was a dream to cut. Then I was frankly horrified upon doing a sneaky taste – the cakes seems dry and hard. I panicked. Had they been over-baked? Had I wasted my time? In fact, they were just cold. As they came up to temperature, they softened and that delicious jammy almond flavour emerged. So yeah, just note that this happens!

The chocolate layer was the bit that worried me. You need to do the top and the bottom. Now, I can temper chocolate, but it takes time and patience. Plus it is about 1 degree (centigrade) outside, so our old London brick house is freezing which makes it all the more tricky to get chocolate to a precise temperature – not too hot, not too cold. This was a problem that the Smitten Kitchen recipe had too. Well, it turns out the answer was actually mercifully simple – you just add a little unsalted butter to the melted chocolate. No tempering, and this also means the chocolate has a bit of “give” so that it becomes easier to cut.


And what’s the verdict? Well this comes in two parts. How much work were they, and how do they taste.

In terms of effort, they are a lot less work than I thought. I probably spent one hour doing all the baking, and that was alongside keeping an eye on my son, who also tried to help (and promptly made a mess). Then maybe 20 minutes assembling it all before leaving to chill overnight. The chocolate was the job for the second day. Splitting it up in this way makes it quite easy. Manageable mess, and you don’t end up going doolally from it all. Italian Rainbow Cookies are also quite fun to make them if you’re slightly obsessive about precision in your baking. For indeed, my much-treasured Japanese steel metal ruler helped get those sharp lines and equal cuts.

In terms of how they taste, I love them. They have an intense almond flavour and lovely fruitiness from the jam (which I boosted with a little amaretto and some cherry liqueur). This is all balanced by the dark chocolate. I’d even go so far as to say that they taste much better than they look. While I’m all up for a bit of whimsy in the baking, the red/white/green colour scheme is a touch lurid for my tastes. But then, it is iconic, and I wonder if anything else really would do? Plus, where else are you going to find cookies that can symbolise the flags of Italy, Hungary, Ghana and Mali depending on how you place them? They are certainly some of the most striking things I’ve ever made in terms of the looks department.

So there we have it – my efforts in accepting one reader’s challenge. I’ll wrap up by sharing a tip of my own for recipes like this one where you have to divide the batter and the jam into equal portions. Get some electric scales, and weigh your bowls before using them. This makes it really easy to work out by weight how much batter or jam should be in each portion. I happen to know my main mixing bowl is 580g. Believe me, it saves a lot of guessing, eyeballing and general culinary angst. And it does help get even layers when making something like Italian Rainbow Cookies where you want to be precise to show off just how fancy you can get with your baking.

To make Italian Rainbow Cookies (recipe from Smitten Kitchen, with some tweaks)

For the batter

• 4 large eggs, separated
• 200g white caster sugar
• 200g almond paste (see note)
• 285g unsalted butter
• 1 teaspoon almond extract
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 260g plain flour
• 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• red food colouring
• green food colouring

To fill

• 1 x 340g jar apricot jam
• 4 tablespoons water or amaretto and cherry liqueur (I used Luxardo Maraschino)

To finish

• 200g dark chocolate
• 20g unsalted butter

1. Preheat the oven to 175°C (350°F). Prepare 3 sheets of greaseproof paper to fit a 33 x 23cm (13 x 9 inch) baking pan.

2. Put the egg whites into a large bowl. Beat until you have soft peaks, then add 50g of caster sugar, a tablespoon at a time, until it forms stiff peaks – it should look like a meringue.

3. In a separate bowl, grate the almond paste. Work with your hands so that it gets soft, then add the remaining 150g caster sugar and the butter. Beat until pale, fluffy and everything is combined. Add the yolks, almond extract and vanilla extract, and keep beating on high speed. If you can still see a lot of flecks of almond paste, keep beating to get it super-smooth. When done, fold in the flour, baking powder and salt and mix well.

4. Add half the meringue mixture to the other bowl, and fold in to lighten the batter. Then add the rest of the meringue mixture and fold that in.

5. Split the batter between 3 bowls. Add red food colouring to one, and green food colouring to another. Put the green batter into the fridge, and put the white batter to one side. Pour the red batter into the prepared baking tray, and spread as evenly as you can. Don’t worry if the batter does not seem very deep – it is supposed to be just under 1/2 cm (1/4 inch) deep.

6. Bake the red layer for around 10 minutes. It will still look a bit wet on top, but a cocktail stick should come out clean. You don’t want more than the lightest of browning at the edges. Remove from the oven, allow to cool for a couple of minutes, then transfer to a wire cooling rack.

7. Remove the green batter from the fridge to bring it up to temperature. Set aside. Now prepare the baking tray again, and bake the white layer. When that’s done, repeat for the green later.

8. While the cakes are cooling, prepare the jam. Put it into a saucepan, add 4 tablespoons or water or a mixture of amaretto and cherry liqueur, and bring to the boil. Pass through a sieve, and set aside to cool.

9. Once all the layers are completely cool, prepare a shopping board or tray by lining with a sheet of greaseproof paper. Flip the green layer onto the paper. Spread with half the cooled jam mixture, getting it as even as you can. Then flip the white layer onto the green layer, and spread with the rest of the jam. Finally, flip the red layer and place on top. Wrap the whole lot in cling film, place in the fridge, then put a heaving baking tray on top and add a few jars to weigh it all down. Leave to chill overnight.

10. Time to finish it off. Remove the tray from the fridge. Use a clean straight knife to trim the edges. You’ll notice that they seem quite firm and dry – this is normal.

11. Prepare the chocolate. Put 100g chocolate in a bowl, and microwave in 30 second bursts until it is melted. Add 10g of unsalted butter, and mix well. Spread evenly on the red layer, getting it as smooth as you can. Place in the fridge for a few minutes to set.

12. Remove the tray from the fridge, and flip it onto another tray (so now the chocolate is at the bottom, and you have a green sheet of cookie facing you. Melt the rest of the chocolate, then add the rest of the butter. Spread on top, and put it back to the fridge for 5 minutes to set.

13. Use a serrated knife to score lines on top of the chocolate, marking first vertical, then horizontal Go back over the vertical lines to cut through the layer of chocolate. Then switch to a clean straight-edged knife to cut through the cake layers, and swap back to the serrated knife to cut through the bottom lawyer of the chocolate. You should have long strips of rainbow cookies.

14. Take each strip and place on its side do you can see the pattern facing you. Use a small sharp knife to cut into individual pieces in a swift downwards motion. Keep going until all the cookies have been done. Store in an airtight container in the fridge, but allow to come to room temperature before serving.

Note: this recipe calls for almond paste (which is 50/50 almonds and sugar). The brand I used was Odense Mandelmassa that I panic-bought earlier in the year. The stuff you find in British supermarkets called marzipan is usually 75% sugar, 25% almonds. It’s great for decorating, but it’s not right for this as the sugar content is too high.

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{10} Brune Pinner

For this year’s tenth festive bake, we’ve gone back to Norway. Land of mountains, forest, fjords and a seemly endless supply of cookie recipes. These ones are called brune pinner or “brown sticks”. There was lots of imagination at play when someone came up with that name. Perhaps it’s a nod to those forests?

This year I’ve done a few recipes which are complex, take a lot of time, or need specialist equipment. Today’s recipe is the complete opposite of that.

These cookies are very easy to make, and they might just be about to become your new favourite accompaniment to morning coffee. They are thin, crisp, and by turns buttery, caramelised and lightly spiced. Christmas might be drawing to an end for this year, but we’re still in the middle of winter, and we need those little moments of comfort to keep us going, especially this winter. Everyone is facing the next wave of coronavirus in their own way; in London everything except essential retail is closed, hospitality is take-out only, and we’re limited to meeting one friend outside in the park. It is looking like the New Year will see us heading to Lockdown III and the closure of schools. So I’d wager this is not quite the ideal time to start resolving to give up cookies in 2021…


So. Brune pinner. These are part of the Norwegian tradition of syv slags kaker. Busy Norwegians try to do out-do each other by making seven different type of cookies to offer their guests over the festive period. I’ve made a few different ones over the years – serinakaker, krumkaker, berlinerkranser, sirupsnipper – but there are still plenty more to try. Among the “plenty more” are mainly the ones that need to be fried rather than baked, and I’ve still not managed to overcome my aversion to deep-frying things at home. Who knows – perhaps I’ll get round to them in 2021?

In my research for this recipe, I did find something that made me chuckle (which, to keep banging the same drum, we do need right now!). The Norwegian Christmas diet apparently involves quite a lot of butter, but back in 2011 and 2012 those hardy Nordic folk lived through the smør-panik (“butter panic”). Butter shortages were triggered due to heavy rains affecting grazing pastures earlier in the year, leading to a nightmare world of illicit butter smuggling, Swedish stores along the border jacking up butter prices, and a Danish TV show running a butter emergency telethon to get 4,000 packs of butter to desperate Norwegians. Clearly getting that syv slags kaker spread ready for guests is a serious business to the good burghers of Oslo, Bergen and Trondheim!

The method for making these is really very simple. Cream butter and sugar and add in the rest of the ingredients. You divide the dough into six sausages, then shape each just be pressing them down with your fingers. Easy! No oddly-named Norwegian cake devices needed, no cutters, no piping, no chilling overnight, and no layering of icing or jam. You then brush what looks like mega-cookies with beaten egg and sprinkle with sugar and chopped nuts, and bake. The raising agent is good ol’ baking soda, so they puff up, expand, and then collapse, which is a process that makes for very crisp cookies. Once you’ve baked the dough portions, you whip them out of the oven, and while the dough is still soft you immediately cut them into thin strips – either with a pizza cutter or a good sharp knife. Within a minute or two, they are cool, crisp and a bit more like sticks. There’s a helpful video from Norwegian butter producer Tine here (and yes, they were caught up in that butter crisis a few years ago).


For the topping, I have used pearl sugar, also called nibbed sugar, and some chopped almonds. If you can’t get hold of pearl sugar or don’t want another item cluttering up the baking cupboard, you could use coffee sugar crystals (give them a good crushing first) or large-crystalled demerara sugar. For the nuts, these would work equally well with chopped hazelnuts, pistachios or pecans. A good tip is to mix all the sugar and nuts together before you start, then divide it into six portions to use on the dough. This avoids ending up with the first batch being lavishly decked in sugar and nuts, and the final batch looking a bit spartan. I think you could skip the topping completely if you wanted to, but I liked the extra crunch and flavour, especially from the almonds, so I’d recommend sticking with it.

One note of advice: I found that these cookies are crisp when they are fresh, but if left out overnight they will soften quite quickly. You can easily fix this by popping them back in a low oven (120°C/250°F) for a few minutes to dry them out. Otherwise get them into an airtight container as soon as you can after baking, and they will stay crisp and delicious for your morning coffee as you start to contemplate the fact that you’re about to start another cycle of working at home. But at least you’re cookie game will be on point!

To make Brune Pinner (makes around 70), adapted from Tine

For the dough

200g butter
• 100g white caster sugar
• 100g soft brown sugar
• 1 egg yolk
• 1 tablespoon syrup (see note)
• 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 1 teaspoon baking soda
• 300g plain flour

To finish

• 40g pearl sugar
• 50g almonds, skin on
• 1 egg, beaten

1. Preheat the oven to 175°C (350°F). Prepare three sheets of greaseproof paper.

2. Prepare the topping – chop the almonds, and mix with the pearl sugar. In a separate bowl beat the egg. Set it all to one side.

3. Make the dough. Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the egg yolk, syrup, cinnamon, vanilla and salt, and mix well. Combine the flour with the baking soda, then add to the bowl and work to a soft dough. Pop into the fridge for 5 minutes to firm slightly.

4. Divide the dough into six pieces. Take a piece of dough, form into a thin sausage about 24cm long. Next press it down with your fingers until it is 1/2 cm thick – it will get a lot wider too. It should look like a long, flat pitta bread. Repeat so that you have 2 pieces of dough on each sheet of greaseproof paper.

5. Bake the sheets one at a time. Take the first sheet, and brush the two pieces of dough with the beaten egg. Sprinkle each with the mixture of pearl sugar and chopped almonds.

6. Bake for 10 minutes – the dough will have expanded and have a rich brown colour. Remove from the oven, and immediately cut into diagonal strips, around 2cm thick, using a pizza cutter or a sharp knife. Let the cookies cool on the baking sheet, then when they are firm, transfer to a wire tray to cool completely. Repeat for the rest of the dough. Stoare in an airtight container.

Note: many of the recipes I found called for “light syrup” which is a particularly Nordic thing. You can buy it online. I happened to have a bottle of Swedish “dark syrup” which I used – this is very sweet and like dark caramel, not molasses. The closest substitute I can think of otherwise would be golden syrup or maple syrup.

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{8} Queen’s Cinnamon Stars

Today’s festive delight is a right royal treat, quite literally.

I came across a recipe for Cinnamon Stars from the royal kitchens of Buckingham Palace (original here, including a video of how they do it). So, of course, I just had to have a go at making them.


These may be familiar to you as German Zimtsterne, or cinnamon stars. You start off making a dough with ground nuts and cinnamon, then finish them with a meringue topping. I’ve made cinnamon stars before, but they were a bit more basic.

The Queen’s version includes candied orange peel, a lot of cinnamon, and a dash of cloves. They are also topped with snow-white icing and feature a bit of elaborate piping. Very fancy, but you’d expect that if you’re ever popping round for a festive cuppa at the Palace.


When I read the recipe, I was convinced by the idea. However, I had a couple of quibbles with the method. The suggestion was to make a meringue, and use two-thirds of it to make the dough. Then you roll out the dough, cover it with the reserved meringue, and then cut out shapes. I think the idea is that the cookies are then pre-iced? Hmmm. This struck me as quite wasteful, as you would not be able to re-roll the offcuts since the meringue would make it all too sticky. Also I knew that smearing something with meringue was likely to be a messy affair with a child in the house who is enjoying touching everything within reach.

So I adapted the method. I adjusted the amounts of the meringue to start with – I made two-thirds of the amount to go in the dough, and would make the “missing” meringue later for the icing. Then I made and rolled the dough, cut out the shapes without the icing, and then I could happily gather the scraps and keep re-rolling until I was done. We did stars and moons (using a circular cutter and overlapping the cuts to get the right shape). Diamond shapes would also be good – easy with a knife, and I think rather fitting.

Once they were baked, I finished them off with the meringue royal icing suggested by the Palace. This looks like a bit of a pain to make, as you are essentially making thick icing and then thinning it down, and it would be easier just to make thinner royal icing to start with. However, the Palace’s approach results in a very light icing rather than one which cracks when you bite into it. You just need to be very, very patient as you sit down to finely ice all the cookies. Maybe that’s what the Palace’s all-in-one method is seeking to get round?

My split approach also had some extra benefits – the cookies looked very neat and the icing stayed perfectly white. I know that this all sounds terribly fiddly, but once you get into the swing of things, it’s the perfect sort of activity to do with a film or a radio play on in the background. And the final result is a tray of perfect-looking regal cookies.


In the Buckingham Palace version they are finished off with some sort of red jam in the centre and there is lots of intricate icing piped all over them. Piping icing is not one of my skills, and I don’t have the equipment to do it properly. I managed to find a small nozzle to give it a go, but I gave up around half-way. It looks kind of nice, but I don’t think it really adds that much to them overall unless this is something you are really good at. Of course, that might just be my frustration talking!

So all in all, were they worth making? Yes, I think so. They are up a level from my own take on cinnamon stars from a few years ago. The different technique to make the dough gives a far neater result, and I like the addition of the citrus peel and the hint of cloves. I would definitely make these again, but I’d perhaps use 50/50 ground hazelnuts and ground almonds. Then, my friends, I truly would have the ultimate cinnamon stars. I just won’t be piping decorations on top.

To make Queen’s Cinnamon Stars (my adapted, less wasteful approach)

For the dough

• 115g candied orange and lemon peel
• 240g icing sugar

• 55g egg whites (2 medium egg whites)
• 1 tablespoon lemon juice
• 300g ground almonds
• zest of 1/2 lemon or orange
• 5 teaspoons ground cinnamon
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

For the icing

• 1 medium egg white (30g)
• 225g icing sugar
• 1 teaspoon lemon juice
• water

1. Put the candied peel into a food processor. Blitz to a paste – you will need to scrape down the sides a few times to get it perfectly smooth.

2. In a very clean bowl, whisk the egg whites to soft peaks. Add half the icing sugar and whisk until it is well-combined. Add the lemon juice and the rest of the icing sugar. It will start off quite soft and wet, but keep beating until you have a soft meringue (more like the texture of floppy whipped cream). It might seem a bit wet at the start, but keep going and it will happen.

3. Add the candied peel paste and the rest of the ingredients to the meringue bowl. Mix well until it forms a dough. Don’t worry about being delicate with the dough, and towards the end you will have to use your hands. If it seems a bit sticky, add a few tablespoons of ground almonds. Wrap the dough in cling film and chill for an hour, or overnight.

4. Time to bake and shape. Preheat the oven to 160°C (320°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

5. Place the dough on a separate piece of greaseproof paper. Roll it out to 1cm thickness. Cut out shapes (stars, moons, diamonds…) and transfer to the baking sheet. Your cutters will get sticky, so keep a clean damp cloth to hand to wipe the edges often.

6. Bake the cookies for around 12 minutes, turning half-way to get an even bake. They will puff up slightly and darken a little on the edges. Remove from the oven and allow to cool on the tray for a couple of minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. They might seem quite hard at this stage, but they will soften.

7. Time to ice the cookies. Put the egg white into a bowl and whisk to soft peaks. Add the icing sugar and lemon juice, and beat well for several minutes until the mixture is thick and smooth – like the appetising texture of toothpaste. Now thin it down with water, a few drops at a time, until it is a flowing consistency. You want to be able to leave a trail on a plate that stays in place and does not run and spread. Put the icing into a piping bag with a small nozzle, and with a lot of patience, use to cover the tops of the cookies. Use a clean cocktail stick to manipulate the icing to cover any gaps. Leave in a dry place, away from children and pets, for the icing to dry.

Note: I found it easiest to ice the cookies one at a time – pipe on the icing to cover most of the top, then go in with the cocktail stick to tease the icing to cover any bald patches and burst any air bubbles. If you ice a few, then go in to clean up, the icing will be starting to set when you go back.

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{7} Calissons d’Aix

Do you like the idea of a grand total of thirteen desserts for your Christmas dinner? Then let’s take a jaunt to Provence in France where they do just that.

But first I will have to disappoint you. If you have visions of a seasonal table just groaning with thirteen separate cakes, it is not that. Not is it a selection of other puddings. Rather it is a selection of festive treats ranging from nuts and dried fruit to festive breads and small traditional sweets, including nougat. But hey, you still get thirteen things in total, and after lots of rich food, some vaguely heathy nuts and dried fruit might be just the little health kick you need as you promise not to over-indulge ever again. And, of course, you know it will happen again next year!

One of the traditional sweets is the calisson. They originate from the town of Aix-en-Provence and are made with several typical products of the area – candied melon, orange peel, orange blossom water and almonds. Everything is ground down to a smooth paste – with a texture similar to marzipan but somewhat fruitier – which is then shaped into almond-like lozenges and glazed with brilliant white royal icing. If you wanted to veganise these, you could even make your icing using aquafaba (update: I tried this and it works. I’ve added a note to the recipe below).


And as with all good Christmas sweets, they have both a bit of history and a disputed origin story.

One school of thought is that they trace their history back to medieval Italy, being mentioned in Martino di Canale’s Chronicle of the Venetians in 1275, and there are other references during the Middle Ages to “calisone” cakes being made from almonds.

The other version involved a bit more drama, and is therefore immediately more interesting. The tale goes that calissons were created after the marriage of René, Duke of Anjou and Count of Provence, to Jeanne de Laval in 1454. He was 45, she was 21. Before and after the marriage, the bride was reported to be in a dour mood, what with being basically told to enter into a marriage by her father. After three years of marriage the couple moved to Aix-en-Provence and the duke’s chef was charged with creating something to bring a smile to her lips so that the couple would impress their subjects. He created these sweets from melon and almonds, and upon tasting this new delicacy, she declared “di calin soun” which is “they are hugs” in the Provencal language. Alternatively, the assembled crowd said that the sight of the smiling Jeanne won their hearts and felt as if she was giving them all little hugs. Could one of these be true? It’s certainly a charming tale, and we can only hope the rest of their union was happy.

I’ve had an eye on making calissons for a while, but was always a bit dubious how much work it would take to make. The do look like it will be a lot of effort. Well it turns out that it actually…really easy. You let your food processor do all the hard work, which will blitz everything to a paste. Throw in the candied fruit, blitz to a smooth paste, then add the almonds and it all comes together like magic.


While making the fruit-nut base was easy, I’ll admit the shaping was a bit tricky. You roll out the dough, then place rice paper on top and cut out shapes. I thought this would leave you with a lot of waste, but you can pick off the rice paper and re-roll the scraps. No, the problem is they are supposed to have an almond shape, and I didn’t have that exact cutter. Time for a workaround…

My very practical solution was to use a circular cutter (mine was about 5cm diameter), then offset it to create that almond shape. Place the rice paper on the dough, then press down hard and fast. That means you get a clean cut through the rice paper, and the dough doesn’t get a chance to move position. It’s also marvellously therapeutic after the year we’ve had. Then remove the cut circle, flip it over so the rice paper is on the bottom (if you have the rice paper on the top for the second cut, it doesn’t work as well). Offset the cutter so you can cut an almond shape (this way you will get two from each circle). I found it best to press down, then flip over the cutter and gently run a knife over the rice paper to cut if cleanly. It is a little tricky to start with, but you get the hang of it. It is also important to have a clean cutter – keep a damp piece of kitchen roll nearby, and wipe it often.

The classic fruit in calissons is candied melon. This is something I’ve rarely seen, and it strikes me as something that must be tricky to make given how much water is in a melon. But I managed to order some candied cantaloup melon online, and even then it’s not exactly easy to find. It’s definitely an interesting flavour, aromatic, and it has an attractive orange-pink colour. Many recipes also use a little bit of candied citrus peel, and if you wanted to go for orange overload, you could just use that. Alternatively, any candied fruit will work well, In fact, I’ve made a little selection of different flavours for over Christmas, and the same recipe works as long as you hold to the same weight of candied fruit, candied citrus peel, ground almonds and icing sugar.

I got the idea to experiment because I came across a few websites that have given calissons the full macaron treatment, presenting them in a dazzling rainbow of colours and flavours. I don’t know how traditional this is (and can imagine some French purists throwing their hands in the air with a gasp of quelle horreur!) but I have to admit they do look quite fun. I think you need to be judicious with the flavours, and veer towards the natural. I made some using candied pear, and some with candied peach, both of which were delicious. You could also use different nuts – hazelnuts and pistachios seem like fairly safe bets. I could even see a festive version using dates and gingerbread spices. However, I would steer clear of some flavours like peppermint extract or lavender or rose essence, especially if they are artificial. You could rapidly end up with a tray of sweets that is more reminiscent of soap than the sunshine of Provence. That said, if you’re now fixated on the concept of a calisson that tastes like a candy cane with a red-and-white striped top, knock yourself out!

To make Calissons d’Aix (makes around 40-45)

For the dough

• 150g candied melon (or other candied fruit)
• 30g candied orange peel
• 20g candied lemon peel
• 1 tablespoon orange blossom water (or other flavour) – see note below
• few drops of almond extract
• 170g ground almonds
• 100g icing sugar

To shape

• edible rice paper

To ice

• 1 egg white (30g)
• 150g icing sugar
• colouring (optional)
• flavouring (optional)

1. Put the melon, orange and lemon into a food processor and blitz to a paste. Scrape down the sides, add the orange blossom water and almond extract, and blitz again. Scrape down the sides again, and blitz again until the paste is smooth.

2. Add the ground almonds and icing sugar to the food processor. Blitz until it looks like crumbs. Scrape down the sides and base, then blitz again. It should come together to form a marzipan-like dough. If it stays crumbly, pour into a bowl, knead briefly, and it will come together. If the dough is very sticky, add more ground almonds. Wrap in cling film and leave to chill in the fridge for at least an hour or overnight.

3. Time to shape the calissons. On a piece of greaseproof paper, roll out the dough to 1cm thickness. Place a sheet of rice paper on top, smooth side up. Start to cut out the calisson shapes. For the scraps, peel off the rice paper and re-roll until it is all used up. Check all the calissons – you might need to tidy up the edges or trim some stray bits of rice paper. When you’re happy, turn them all so the rice paper is at the bottom.

4. Time to ice. Make the icing by lightly beating the egg white, then sifting in the icing sugar. Stir until the mixture is smooth – it needs to flow, but a drop on a worktop should hold its shape and not run. Add in any colours or flavours. Use a spoon or a piping bag to top each calisson with a thin layer of icing. Leave uncovered overnight to set.

Note 1: check exactly what sort of orange blossom water you are using. You can get anything from very dilute to highly concentrated, and when it’s pure it is extremely powerful. I used a fairly light and dilute version from a local Middle Eastern grocery. If you have a concentrated version, you will need just a drop or two unless you want something that tastes like soap!

Note 2: to make a vegan icing (and thus make the whole recipe vegan), use 150g icing sugar and 30g aquafaba (water from a can of chickpeas). Make sure the chickpeas are unsalted, and pass the liquid through a fine mesh strainer before using, and use 30g of that strained liquid. Then just mix up the icing until smooth, and use to glaze the calissons. If you’re worried about a “beany” flavour, don’t be – you would never know the icing is made with aquafaba!

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{6} Pulsnitzer Pfefferkuchen

If it’s Christmas, there has to be gingerbread. Given my penchant for finding obscure recipes, clearly I had to come up with something that comes from a specific place and has a backstory. Today, it’s all about German Pulsnitzer Pfefferkuchen (pepper cake from Pulsnitz).


These gingerbread slices hail, unsurprisingly, from the town of Pulsnitz near Dresden in eastern Germany. They have been baking their Pfefferkuchen there since 1558. Indeed they love their gingerbread so strong that they even have a museum on the main square devoted to its history, complete with machines, moulds, tins and cutters. If you’re lucky (and in a post-pandemic world) you can even try your hand at making them there in a baking class. If I’m ever passing, I’ll be sure to drop in. But for 2020, I’ve had to be content with making my own at home.

In my research I read that this is considered by some to be a more “basic” type of gingerbread. Having made it, it isn’t exactly easy, and it takes quite some time. However, it does not contain all the richness of some other types of German Christmas cookies. Things like Nürnberger Lebkuchen need to contain a high level of nuts and no flour to pass quality standards and legally be sold as such. In contrast, Pfefferkuchen starts off as a mixture of flour (wheat and rye) and honey, which is then enriched with spices. It’s the spices that give it the Pfeffer (pepper) in its name – whereas we now think of black pepper, this was formerly a term for all sorts of spices.

When I read this description, I thought calling it “simple” was rather unfair, as the resulting gingerbread is really delicious. I thought about it and my guess is that the gingerbread you find in a given area depends on what is typical of the area. So a city that was a medieval trading hub would be likely to have more by way of nuts, spices and citrus fruits, whereas a more agricultural area is going to use wheat and honey for its treats. I think it is also easy to forget just how special a lot of what we now see as standard Christmas fare would have seemed to normal folk hundreds of years ago. Cookies, sweets, honey. Those were true luxuries. So eating a piece of spiced honey cake, possibly glazed with sugar, would really have been quite something.


Anyway, I decided to make this thing. And I’m clearly not posting this recipe today in any expectation that it will be made for Christmas this year! The reason is it takes time.

A typical feature of the dough is that it should rest a lot to allow it to mature before it is baked. In the recipe I used, the suggestion was that this should be for at least two weeks. In the end mine sat undisturbed in a cool corner of our kitchen for about three weeks. If I were being scientific, I would have made detailed observations and perhaps filmed the mixture to check the texture before and after. But I did not do that. From my fairly basic analysis (I looked at it and tried to remember what it had looked like three weeks before) it seemed to me that the dough had become softer and smoother during the resting period. I remember reading that there are enzymes in honey that will break down some of the proteins in flour, affecting flavour and taste. And hey, we’re stuck indoors for most the day at the moment, so it’s not as if I’ve been short of time to plan these bakes this year!

Once the dough has rested, you add in spices, cocoa powder and raising agents. This is the bit where it gets fiddly. I used two “authentic” (i.e. obscure) raising agents – pottasche and baker’s ammonia. Originally, one would have been extracted from wood ash, the other from ground-up deer antler. Mercifully today you can buy them online and avoid harming any animals or picking over a bonfire. The reason to use them is that they give a great raise and very light texture, much more than you will get with baking soda or baking powder. Note that I have not tested this recipe with traditional raising agents, so I can’t vouch for your results. If you give it a go, let me know and best of luck!

My dough ended up being pretty soft, but I was still able to work with it. I did this deliberately in the hope of keeping the resulting gingerbread as moist as possible. The good thing is that there is no elaborate shaping involved. You really just form a long strip, bake it, then cut it while warm in a similar way to biscotti.

Once you’ve started cutting, you can finally taste the dough (you can’t eat it raw due the pottasche and the baker’s ammonia). I thought I’d actually made a failure as it was not very sweet. Darn. But there was magic to come…the glazes ended up making all the difference.


I used three different ways to finish the cookies. The first was a simple sugar glaze. It starts off white, then it sets and slowly you get frost-like patterns appearing on it. It will darken due to the gingerbread, so if you want a sparkling white finish, you can add some white colouring to the icing, but it tastes just fine as it is.

The second was a spiced chocolate glaze. This was the same one I used a couple of years ago when making Swiss Magenbrot. This one starts of looking dark and shiny, and stays that way, so I think it wins for the combination of being easy to do, tasting great and looking good.

The third way was to dip pieces into dark chocolate. I was a little dubious as this was not going to add any additional moisture to the gingerbread, but I did not have to worry. It was utterly delicious. It’s a morsel of Christmas between your fingers. If you’re lazy, busy, or occupied with pets and small children, you can just melt and dip. But as you’ve come all this way, you might as well get it perfect and ensure the chocolate has been tempered. It’s fairly easy to do with a microwave and a food thermometer, plus your friends (remember them?) will be impressed you made something look so professional.

Of the three finishes, the dark chocolate was my favourite. The chocolate melts in your mouth, and the flavour is sublime. I’ve given all three below, but remember I divided my batch into 3. If you want to do them all the same, you need to make more glaze.

Now, a confession. I’m not massively confident that the recipe I’ve used is totally authentic. The traditional makers of Pulsnitzer Pfefferkuchen guard their recipes closely, so there were very few recipes out there and those that exist have no pictures. So I was forced to just muddle through. The result is delicious (if a bit of a faff) and I think the fact it is mostly rye-and-wheat flour bound with honey and some spices makes me think I’m somewhere in the right area. But 100% authentic? Not so sure. I might just keep my head down if I do ever make it to that gingerbread museum near Dresden.

So there you have it! My sort-of-Pulsnitzer Pfefferkuchen. Now I’ll just have to sit here and wait to be contacted by people who make the real thing to tell me I got it wrong…

To make Pulznitzer Pfefferkuchen (makes around 100 pieces):

For the basic dough

• 500g strong honey
• 400g plain flour
• 200g light rye flour
• 125ml water

Additional dough ingredients

• 75g ground almonds
• 30g cocoa powder
• 3 teaspoons mixed gingerbread spices
• 2 teaspoons baker’s ammonia
• 1 teaspoon potash

Chocolate glaze (to cover 30-35 pieces)

• 40g dark chocolate
• 10g butter
• 50ml water
• 200g icing sugar
• 1 pinch ground cinnamon
• 1 pinch ground cloves
• 1 pinch ground nutmeg

Sugar glaze (to cover 30-35 pieces)

• 300g icing sugar
• 6 tablespoons boiling water
• White food colour (titanium dioxide powder), optional

Chocolate coating (to cover 30-35 pieces)

• 300g dark chocolate

1. Start by making the basic dough. Put the honey and water in a saucepan. Bring to a simmer, then let it cool to lukewarm. Mix with the plain flour and rye flour until you have a sticky dough. Cover with cling film and leave to rest at room temperature – two weeks is recommended, but you can leave it overnight.

2. Time to finish the dough. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

3. Take pieces of the honey dough and knead briefly to make them soft (this will fix any drier bits that are near to surface). Be warned – it’s a workout for your hands.

4. Put the baker’s ammonia and potash into two separate dishes. Add just enough warm water to get them to dissolve. Then add them to the main bowl, plus the ground almonds, cocoa powder and spices. Knead until everything is well-combined and you have an even colour. Note the dough will be quite sticky, but if you find it too soft and sticky, add a bit more plain flour.

5. Sprinkle the worktop with flour. Roll/press the dough to 1cm thick and 20cm wide (the length does not matter, but it should be around 50cm). Cut the dough into strips of around 5cm. Place 3-4 on the baking sheet at a time, leaving plenty of space for them to expand. Bake for around 15 minutes until the logs are puffed and slightly firm when lightly pressed. Remove from the oven and immediately brush them with cold water to help keep them soft. Transfer to a wire rack and allow to cool slightly. Repeat until all the dough is baked.

6. Use a serrated knife to cut the logs diagonally into slices.

7. Coat the individual pieces in either sugar glaze, chocolate glaze or melted dark chocolate. Leave to set.

To coat with sugar glaze:

a. Sift the icing sugar and put in a bowl.

b. Add the boiling water and mix to a smooth icing – it should flow but not be watery. If too thin, add more icing sugar.

c. Dip each piece into the glaze, shake off any excess, then transfer to a wire rack to dry.

If you want a perfectly white finish, mix in some white food colour (titanium dioxide powder). Mix this with water first to get a smooth paste for a more even colour.

To coat with chocolate glaze

a. Put the butter, chocolate and water in a saucepan and heat very gently until everything is just melted. Stir to combine, then add the icing sugar and spices. It should flow easily but not be watery. If too thin, add more icing sugar.

b. Dip each piece into the glaze, shake off any excess, then transfer to a wire rack to dry.

To coat with dark chocolate

a. Prepare the chocolate – eithe just melt it, or temper the chocolate.

b. Dip each piece into the chocolate, shake off any excess, then transfer to a wire rack to set.

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