You’re probably spending your days like I’m spending my days.
Away from people. Away from all people.
Unless you’re in a vital job where you still need to go out every day. Worrying what this means for you and your family.
We’re socially distancing, crossing roads to avoid people when we go out (if you’re even allowed to leave your front door, and we’re limited to once per day for exercise in the UK at present). We’re on endless Zoom calls. We’re spending a lot more time talking to people that are far from us. We’re juggling full-time work with having kids at home because school is shut. We’re rediscovering the joys of arts and crafts at home, those things we did in school as children, because we suddenly have the time, and what is happening out there, beyond our streets, is just so awful.
At the moment I’m fine with the days – work and home school keep us busy (mainly activities involving lots and lots of mess!!!). But everything can start to get to me in the evenings. Sitting at home, things can feel mundane and pointless when there is a battle to fight. At those moments I cling to the thought that by staying in and being away from our friends and family, we are helping to slow the spread of the coronavirus, and while many of us might feel powerless, this itself is helping to save others by giving our health workers more chance to save more lives, and reducing the risk that other essential workers have no choice but to face (including those in education, grocery stores, pharmacies, public transport, telecoms, power generation…sobering to think of all the people we need in order to live our lives). We’re all part of one team, so let’s all be a team players! It might mean missing trips, family events, birthdays, but all of these I will happily forgo if it helps people stay safe.
So you’re home. What do you do with these seemingly endless, endless days and evenings? I’ve decided to make a small attempt to lighten the mood, by baking cakes and cookies. It might seem trivial, but it provides a little ray of normality and makes staying home that little bit more bearable. I’ll be posting one cake and one cookie each every week, and might even share some (but probably note all) of how we’re coping with it all. Maybe you’ll see something new and want to have a go, and if you’re at home baking, you’re not out and about, and that’s what we all need to do right now.
Let’s get going. Now that going out is not possible beyond a single brief stroll on deserted streets, I’ve been looking back at what we were doing around this time in years gone by. Two years ago we were in the Netherlands, and I remember that trip well. I was assured that early spring is just lovely in the Low Countries, and the pitch was heady stuff – I conjured up visions of brightly-coloured tulips basking in spring sunshine as windmills turned in the distance. Nice in theory, but it will come as no surprise that it was less the first warm kiss of sunshine and more a fearsome wind blasting off the North Sea. The sort of thing we in Scotland would refer to politely as “bracing” or “invigorating”. In the end, we spent a fair amount of time indoors and I got some time to mooch around bakeries and shops. I had to bring something back for my colleagues so I picked up a bag of interesting biscuits called Fryske Dúmkes, or “Frisian Thumbs” in the Frisian language (a relative of Dutch). They also came in a bag swathed in the Frisian flag, which is pretty darned cool. It’s got blue and white stripes with a series of 8 red love hearts on it (correction: turns out they are called “pompeblêden” and are stylised water lily leaves). So heck yeah, let’s make Frisian Thumbs!
These little treats were traditionally made by the baker pressing their thumb into the dough before baking. This does not seem to happen so much these days, but if you like to make them look authentic the give it a try. I actually thought about it but decide not to, as I’m the sort of slightly neurotic baker that likes to make things that all look even, which probably says more about me than the recipe. In fact, to get an even size, I just used a ruler and cut along it to get straight lines – one width horizontally, and two widths vertically. Again, maybe it sounds fussy, but a good (clean) metal ruler takes the effort out of trying to get things the same size and shape.
The traditional flavouring here is aniseed, which is very popular in Dutch baking, and hazelnuts, plus a dash of cinnamon. You can also use almonds, or a mixture of the two, but I love me a good hazelnut so I just used them. It’s also a very easy method – just make a buttery dough then mix in the nuts, then chill, roll it out then slice and bake. I made it a little more complex for myself by rolling the dough out between two sheets of greaseproof paper. It’s a bit more fiddly than using a floured worktop, but I’m a recent convert to this way of working. It means you’re not adding more flour to the dough, so you don’t get a batch where the first lot look OK, but the cookies made with re-rolled scraps start to look increasingly different due to more flour being worked into the dough. Maybe you’re the sort of person that is not bothered by that, but I’ve already mentioned my liking for an identical batch…
If you want to fancy them up…well actually I would not bother. Stick with the classic. The key flavours here – toasted hazelnuts, cinnamon and anise – complement each other wonderfully. I even thought I could detect a subtle hint of marzipan from the combination. They are undeniably delicious with a cup or tea or coffee. They definitely stand on their own, unadorned yet adorable. Skip any thoughts of icing or glaze, and let these little guys win you over with their rustic charm.
To make Fryske Dúmkes (makes around 30)
• 75g skinned hazelnuts (or almonds)
• 110g butter
• 120g soft brown sugar
• 1 1/2 teaspoons ground aniseed or star anise
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 25ml milk
• 200g plain flour
• 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1. Start by roughly chopping the nuts – you want them in small pieces, not a fine powder. Set aside.
2. Put the butter and sugar in a large bowl. Beat until well-combined and fluffy. Add the spices, salt and milk, and mix again.
3. Combine the flour and baking powder, and add to the mixture. Work it with a spoon, and then your hands, until the dough comes together – it should come away from the bowl. Finally add the nuts and mix well. Wrap in cling film and chill for at least an hour (I left it overnight).
4. Time to bake! Preheat the oven to 170°C (340°F) and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.
5. Break the chilled dough into chunks, and work briefly with your hands so that it becomes softer and can be rolled out. Lay it on a sheet of greaseproof paper, and press it with your hands. Lay another sheet on top, and roll the dough to 1cm (1/3 inch) thickness. Using a very sharp knife, cut into strips of 2.5cm (1 inch) and then cut every 5cm (2 inches) to form rectangles. Transfer the cut cookies to the baking sheet, leaving space for them to expand during baking. You’ll have to bake in two batches. You can re-roll and scraps and keep going until all the dough has been used up.
6. Bake the cookies for around 20-25 minutes, turning after 10 minutes to get an even bake. They should have a deep golden colour when ready. When done, transfer to a wire rack to cool.