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{5} Cavallucci

When I started doing my annual Christmas baking project all those years ago, I tended to focus on what I knew, and with the exception of panettone, pretty much everything was from Northern Europe. Over the years I’ve looked beyond the well-known bakes, which has led me to look more and more at Italian Christmas cookies.

We have all seen those rainbow cookies with a chocolate glaze, but what I find interesting are the traditional regional specialities. Every part of the country seems to have its own unique baked goods, often reflecting the traditions and ingredients of the area the recipe comes from, which makes it rewarding to explore, as well as to make and then eat. Yes, unlike looking at lots of churches and medieval villages, exploring the culinary landscape has the bonus of being delicious. And today’s Christmas treat takes us to the city of Siena. Meet my batch of cavallucci.

cavallucci1
The name cavallucci literally means “little horses”. They are said to date back to the time of Lorenzo de’ Medici (also known rather modestly as Lorenzo the Magnificent and who ruled Florence in the late 1400s). Their name comes either from the fact that the original cookies had an impression of a horse on top, or due to the fact they were eaten by stable hands who worked as part of whatever passed for the postal system of the gentry in those days.

Fortunately the flavour of cavallucci is very far removed from anything horse-like. They contain a lot of walnuts and candied orange peel, as well as traditional spices including coriander and aniseed.

cavallucci2
Luckily, this is a recipe that is fairly simple to make. Once you’re prepared the dry ingredients (flour, nuts, spices, candied and dried fruits), you add a sugar and honey syrup to forma dough. This is left to cool for a moment, then rolled out and sliced into individual cookies for baking. No fancy moulds, no intricate decoration, no gilding and no messing around with icing or tempered chocolate. What a relief! And if you’re looking for a vegan option, swap the honey for your favourite syrup. Or if you’re a honey fan, you can swap some of the sugar and water for more honey.

cavallucci3
These are very rustic-looking little morsels of festive cheer. They look like they have been dipped in sugar, but they’ve actually been rolled in flour before baking. I think it looks rather nice, as it goes them a slightly snowy appearance, and it means the cookies have a more balances level of sweetness.

As I was making these, I was reminded of that other Siena classic, panforte. You prepare the dry ingredients, add lots of spices, nuts and candied peel, then bind it all with a sugar syrup, although the ratios of ingredients are different, and cavallucci include some raising agent. I did wonder if a raising agent was traditional, and I think it probably is not, but most of the classic recipes that I found, including that of the Siena tourist board, suggest using baker’s ammonia. I used this too as I have some in my baking cupboard, and I’m always on the look out for a recipe that uses this most stinky of ingredients. It certainly makes the cavallucci puff up nicely in the oven and you get a lovely light texture, with a crisp outside and slightly soft centre. If you can’t get hold of baker’s ammonia, other recipes suggest using baking soda, so it should be alright to use that instead – if you do give it a go, let me know how you get on.

To make Cavallucci (makes 50)

• 200g shelled walnuts
• 100g candied peel (e.g. orange, lemon, citron)
• 30g icing sugar
• 2 teaspoons baker’s ammonia
• 2 teaspoons ground coriander
• 1 teaspoon mixed spices
• 1/4 teaspoon aniseeds, crushed
• pinch of black pepper
• 650g plain flour
• 300g white sugar
• 150ml water
• 25g honey

1. Preheat the oven to 150°C and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper rubbed lightly with some neutral oil.

2. Roughly chop the walnuts and candied fruits. Put in a large bowl and add the icing sugar, spices, baker’s ammonia (or baking soda) and flour. Mix well.

3. Put the sugar, water and honey into a saucepan. Heat gently until the sugar has dissolved and there are no crystals left (you want the sugar to just dissolve, but do not let it boil). Remove from the heat, allow to cool for a few minutes, then pour the liquid over the dry ingredients. Mix well with a wooden spoon. It should be firm but sticky.

4. When the mixture is still warm but cool enough to handle, take teaspoons of the mixture and drop onto a plate dusted with flour.

5. Roll each piece into a ball (it should be coated lightly with flour), place on the baking sheet and flatten to around 1cm thickness.

6. Bake the cavallucci for around 15 minutes until they are puffed up, but they are still pale (they only get a very slight colour during baking).

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{10} Loftkökur (Icelandic Air Cookies)

Sometimes,  just do something random. And it doesn’t come much more random than Icelandic cookies.

I have no connection to Iceland, and have never been. However, it does intrigue me. I would dearly love to visit the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa at some point in the near future and spend some time walking across the lunar-like landscapes. I was also vaguely affected when the Eyjafjallajökull volcano that brought European air travel to a standstill last year. But…that’s it. Being honest, I’m not sure I’ve ever even eaten anything Icelandic.

Nevertheless I read about these air cookies and it struck me as a bit of fun. So here we go – my tenth Christmas bakes post!

The point of these cookies is exactly as their name suggests – they should be light, light, light. They are a doddle to make – icing sugar, cocoa powder and egg. But the magic is the raising agent – ammonium carbonate – which means they puff up spectacularly. As you can see – a six-fold increase in volume!

You can see above the traditional way to make them – use a biscuit press with a ridged attachment, then cut into individual pieces about 5cm (2 inches) long. 

Then I put them in the oven…and boy did they rise! What was less exciting and, frankly, rather alarming was the fact once they were done, I almost managed to gas myself on ammonia fumes.

OK, somewhat of an exaggeration, but there was certainly a pong that filled the house, and I am very, very glad I attempted this on a sunny but breezy winter morning. The doors could be opened, and the stink was dispersed relatively quickly. I knew this stink-fest was on the way from when I made Swedish drömmar biscuits but even when you know it is coming, the sheer impact of the smell never fails to surprise.

Anyway, with the drama of the mystery smell overcome, and the house once again fresh-smelling (i.e. not of ammonia), the cookies were ready. They look good and, given the earlier smelly experience, they don’t stink. That’s what I want in a biscuit – one that doesn’t make the eyes water! The cookies are crisp and like a little like dry meringue, but not quite the same texture. But fun. They are also hollow in the middle, so they are indeed light as a feather!

The “ridged” look is traditional, but if you don’t have a biscuit press to hand, then fret not! A little online research revealed that you can also make other shapes, and I was very taken with this idea of straws – I tried it, and the result was great – I still got “lift off” and the resulting straws were light and crisp

I’ve written a little bit about the history of ammonium carbonate before (here). It’s funny stuff, but if possible it’s worth getting hold of it – in fact, if you want to make these air cookies, you must have ammonium carbonate to make them work. Nothing, but nothing, will work in its place!

So try them – and good luck! Or gangi þér vel as they (apparently) say in Reykjavik. But of course, I’ll need to visit to be sure!

To make Loftkökur:

• 300g icing sugar
• 1 teaspoon baker’s ammonia (ammonium carbonate)
• 2 1/2 tablespoons (30g) cocoa powder
• 1 egg, beaten

Preheat the oven to 150°C. Lightly grease a non-stick baking tray.

Mix the icing sugar, baker’s ammonia and cocoa powder in a bowl. Add the egg and mix well. Use a spoon at first, but you’ll need to use your hands to get the dough to come together. It will be quite stiff.

To shape the cookies, you have two choices: (1) put the mixture into a cookie press and press. Hey presto, the dough comes out. Cut the resulting strip into pieces – aim for cookies about 5cm (2 inches) long; or (2) roll into very long, thin “sticks” of dough.

Bake the loftkökur for 10 minutes – watch them puff up, but be careful of the fumes when you open the oven door.

To get ammonium carbonate in London, you can buy this from Scandinavian Kitchen in the city centre (61 Great Titchfield Street, London W1W 7PP), tel: 020 7580 7161. Tube: Oxford Circus.

Worth making? Loftkökur are worth trying for the novelty factor alone! Normal chocolate meringue is a bit easier on the nose, but if you’re looking for something quick and easy to do with kids (who will screech with delight when the pong makes itself known), then this might just do the trick. Just make sure it’s a nice day, and there is plenty of wind outside so you can air the kitchen out as necessary

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{3} Pfeffernüsse

For the third part of the “Twelve Goodies of Christmas” I’ve made another of the festive classics – German Pfeffernüsse.

This is a classic version of the recipe, which contains a lot of spice and good amount of freshly ground black pepper. These pack a bit of a punch, but that is the way I like them – you often eat them with a glass of mulled wine, so they need to be able to hold their own and provide some contrast to the sweetness of the wine.

I’ve also jazzed up the decoration of these cookies – rather than just simple white icing, I added a sprinkling of crushed red peppercorns. This makes for a jaunty little festive touch and a little extra bit of extra peppery punch. It’s warm and aromatic, but without being too hot.

I made these last year, but as I recently did with my Aachener Printen, I’ve put a bit of effort in to getting the right ingredients, specifically the raising agent. In this case, it’s ammonium bicarbonate. Read more about it here, but essentially it gives more “lift” to biscuits, but it comes at a price – it stinks during the baking process! The strange aroma does vanish once the cookies have cooled, but it certainly livens up the process.

On balance, I think that it does make a difference – the texture is lighter, the resulting cookies are softer. Baking powder works, but ammonium bicarbonate is better if you can get hold of it. Look online, or I’ve put a source in London at the bottom of the recipe.

Now, you may ask, is it not a little early to make these things? Well, like a lot of spicy cookies, they get better if you store them for a while. So with them iced and decorated, these little fellows are tucked away in a box, waiting for Christmas.

To make Pfeffernüsse (makes around 20-25):

• 125g honey
• 50g brown sugar
• 25g butter
• 225g plain flour
• 50g ground almonds
• 1/2 teaspoon ammonium carbonate(*)
• 1 egg
• 2 heaped teaspoons Lebkuchengewürz or mixed spice
• 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Making the cookies:

Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper and grease lightly.

Put the honey, sugar and butter in a small saucepan and heat gently until the sugar has melted. Leave for a couple of minutes to cool slightly.

In the meantime, in a large bowl combine the flour, ground almonds, ammonium carbonate, spices and pepper. Stir in the honey mixture and mix well. Add the egg and keep mixing until you have a smooth but sticky dough.

Using damp hands, divide the dough into around 20-25 portions – each should be the size of a small walnut. Roll each cookie into a ball between your hands (keep them moistened with water) and place on the baking sheet. Bake for around 10-12 minutes until puffed and just starting to brown.

Icing the cookies:

• 200g icing sugar
• 4-5 tablespoons kirsch, rum or water
• crushed red peppercorns

Put the icing sugar and kirsch/rum/water in a bowl. Mix well until you have a smooth, thick paste. It should just flow. Dip each cookie in the icing, then transfer to a wire rack to dry. Sprinkle some crushed peppercorns over the iced biscuits.

To get ammonium carbonate in London, you can buy this from Scandinavian Kitchen in the city centre (61 Great Titchfield Street, London W1W 7PP), tel: 020 7580 7161. Tube: Oxford Circus.

Worth making? I love these cookies. Sweet, spicy and very festive looking. Perfect with a glass of mulled wine after a bracing walk in the cold!

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Dream a little dream…

As you may have worked out by now, I have a bit of a thing for Scandinavian food, so I have turned my hand to making a Swedish specialty called drömmar (droo-mar).

The name translates as “dreams”. As you would expect from something with that sort of name, they are very light, melting little morsels. You’ve probably got a little bit of Mama Cass going around you head by now…

Now, the lightness really is their star quality.

These are really quite simple biscuits – just butter, sugar, flour and a dash of vanilla. The magic comes from what you add to make them rise. Not normal baking powder, but ammonium carbonate. This difference matters – it doesn’t just give baked goods a little lift, it releases a lot of gas so things get very puffy indeed. It was a bit of a saga to find this stuff, so I was quite excited to finally try making a cookie that I associate with my time living in Stockholm.

However, this magic powder has a downside. It stinks to high heaven!

I found this our pretty quickly. I made the dough – a breeze, took no more than five minutes (helpfully no need to bother chilling the dough) – shaped the biscuits, and put them into the oven. Boy did they rise!

Then…when I opened the oven to remove them, as expected, there was a horrid pong of, well, ammonia fumes that filled the kitchen for a moment. All I can say is that I am very, very glad I attempted this on a bright, breezy summer day, as all the windows were open and so the stink was quickly dispersed.

Having experienced the stink issue, but with the house once again fresh-smelling (i.e. not of ammonia), the cookies were ready.

They look good and strangely (given the earlier experience) they actually have a pleasant butter-with-a-hint-of-vanilla aroma. And they taste very good. Like shortbread, but with a very airy texture. You can see from the picture below that there are massive air pockets in the cookies, so they really are light as a feather – when you pick them us, they just don’t weigh anything. Most odd. Quite dreamy indeed.

When just baked, drömmar are crisp and light, but left overnight, they become a little softer. Either way is delicious, but which you prefer is up to you. Every Swedish mormor or farmor (grandmother) will have their own recipe, so this is just one version. There are others out there, and I make no claims that this is the only way to make them!!!

Biscuits made, I did a little research on this stinky but effective raising agent. Ammonium carbonate was originally known by the more poetic name salt of hartshorn, and was apparently derived from the horns of the male red deer (!). If you’re worried this might be cruel, I’m happy to note the antlers appear in the spring and are naturally shed each year, and in any event, these days you buy the chemical powder in stores. It inevitably features in German and Nordic baking, given that these are the areas in which the red deer might be found wandering in the forest, and in a lot of recipes, nothing else will really do if you want the requisite lightness. If you’re a curious Londoner, and don’t have deer roaming in the back garden, then you can buy it here.

The only limit on using this raising agent is that you need the stinky stuff to be expelled from the biscuits during baking – so it’s fine for small cookies, but you wouldn’t want to use it for a large cake. And just a couple of wise words to conclude – don’t eat the raw dough, as it tastes nasty until you bake it, and in case you are wondering – all the chemical stuff turns to gas, so there is nothing left in the cookies once they have been baked, and they are just sweet-smelling and tasty. And don’t we all like a bit of culinary alchemy?

If you’re still not happy using ammonium carbonate or just can’t find the stuff, use baking powder. You’ll get some lift, not as much as with the real thing, but still tasty.

So…relax, stick on a bit of Mama Cass, make a cup of tea and enjoy a couple of drömmar. Happy baking!

To make drömmar (makes 30-35):

• 200g unsalted butter
• 170g caster sugar
• 2 teaspoons vanilla sugar or 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1 teaspoon ammonium carbonate
• 250g plain flour

Preheat the oven to 150°C (300°C). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

Cream the butter and sugar in a bowl until light and fluffy. Fold in the vanilla and ammonium carbonate.

Work the flour into the mixture until you have a soft dough.

Take tablespoons of the mixture and roll into balls. Place on the baking sheet (don’t flatten them), leaving at least 5cm (2 inches) between them.

Put the cookies into the oven and bake for 15 minutes. The balls will flatten down and then puff up, but will stay very pale.

Worth making? I was dubious about using ammonium carbonate in baking, but actually the outcome was great. The biscuits are lighter than anything I have ever made before, and there is of course the novelty factor of the stinky baking process. The mixture is ready in about 5 minutes, and can be made in less than 30 minutes from start to finish. As they say in Sweden – lycka till!

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