Tag Archives: anise

{7} Anisplätzchen (Anise Cookies)

Today’s recipe is another German favourite, the incredibly cute looking aniseed cookies that are Anispläzchen. These are tiny cookies that look rather like miniature macarons, but they are made with whole eggs and flour rather than just egg whites and almonds. Apart from that, it’s a similar process – whip the eggs and sugar, add flour and aniseed, then pipe onto a baking sheet.

These cookies have a crisp outside and soft interior, and a delicate aniseed flavour which gets a little stronger if you can keep them in a tin for a couple of days. They’re simple, but I think they look rather pretty.

anisplaetzchen
Now, if you’re taken by these, I do need to warn you that I got about a 55% “hit” rate in getting those little feet under the cookies. The rest…well, they tasted perfectly nice, but the went a little wonky. Perfectly edible, but wonky. So if you need dozens and dozens that need to turn out picture-perfect…you might want to make a couple of batches!

To make Anisplätzchen (makes around 40):

• 100g icing sugar
• 1 medium egg
• 100g plain flour
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1 teaspoon ground aniseeds, crushed

1. In a bowl whisk the eggs until foamy (1 minute). Add the icing sugar and whisk until pale, thick and fluffy (5 minutes). Mix in the vanilla extract and ground aniseed.

2. Remove two tablespoons of flour and put to one side. Add half of the remaining flour and whisk to mixture. Add the other half and whisk again. The mixture should be thick and look a little bit dry and slightly grainy, but when you put a drop of mixture on a tray, it should go smooth on top. If the mixture is too wet, add more of the reserved flour until the texture is right.

3. Spread out 2 sheets of greaseproof paper. Transfer the mixture to a piping bag and pipe small circles of the batter (2cm diameter). Leave in a warm place to dry for an hour. The surface should be dull and matt when ready.

4. Preheat the oven to 150°C. Bake the biscuits for 10-15 minutes until the biscuits have developed “feet” but the tops are still pale.

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{9} Italian Anise Cookies

I realised that I’ve been doing a lot of baking that uses very rich, heavy flavours. While I love spices, fruit, nut and chocolate, something a bit lighter can be very welcome. In Italy, they seem to recognise this, with aniseed being a very popular flavour. It’s a little bit invigorating and had a very fresh taste that is very appealing. Very different from all those mince pies!

I saw literally dozens and dozens of recipes for these small, round, glazed aniseed biscuits. Probably every Italian grandmother has passed on her own recipe for these things! They seem to go by the name of both angelonies as well as genetti. From my non-scientific research, it seems angelonies are the round cookies with the brightly-coloured sprinkles, whereas genetti are similar but twisted into more elaborate shaped before being baked and glazed. If there are any Italians out there who would like to enlighten me, please do!

This is a very simple recipe, and indeed the biscuits are best enjoyed while they are still very fresh, which makes it a good choice for last-minute unexpected visitors. Well, I say that it is simple, but it took me a bit of time to get a recipe that I was happy with. Yes, I perhaps try to convey an air of perfection in the kitchen, but it’s all a veneer! I have to confess that in developing this recipe, I made a complete beginners error in working out the quantities. I had seen a few recipes using milk, and for some reason added about a quarter of a cup to the mixture. Enough to send everything haywire. I first noticed something was up when I added the flour, and the mixture looked more like batter than a biscuit dough. I started adding a bit more flour, convinced that everything would come together, but no – everything stayed rather wet, then became a sticky mess. No choice for me other than to try again!

The second attempt was perfect – I skipped the milk completely, reasoning that if I needed to add some, it was best to add this at the end only if needed, and in fact, I didn’t need to use any. The dough was soft without being too sticky, and it was very easy to handle. Again, a little sticky to roll into balls before baking, but nothing that I could not handle. Worth also saying that you really should add the lemon zest here – lemon and aniseed really do work very well together, I think it is the fresh and aromatic characteristics that they share. Definitely a case of the two being greater than the sum of their parts in terms of flavours!

italiananiseedcookies1
These were really easy to make, just a case of mixing up the sugar, olive oil and egg, then adding the flour and rolling into balls. The mixture was fairly sticky, so with my first failure in my mind, I did have a little doubt in my mind as to whether this second attempt was going to work. I had images of everything melting into a hard, dry cake. However, my fretting was needless – they kept their shape, then puffed up obligingly in the oven, and the kitchen was filled with the rich aroma of aniseed. Probably worth mentioning that you really do need to like aniseed if you’re going to have a go at these!

Actually, if you’re not an aniseed fan, then you can swap it out for just lemon zest (or add some orange too), or go for some other spice in place of the aniseed or flavour them with rose water or vanilla. They will have a very different taste, but they should still work, but I would suggest trying to match the decoration to the flavour (slivers of candied lemon peel if you have just used the zest).

Most traditional recipes seem to use coloured sprinkles to finish these cookies, and is that’s your thing, go for it. I prefer something more muted – you could go with simply white sprinkles, but I happened to have a large jar of whole aniseeds in the cupboard, so I added a few of them to the top of each cookie just after icing, which I think looked rather nice, and added an extra hit of aniseed flavour as you bite into them.

I should sound one word of warning – aniseed extract can be very strong, so use it with caution. You might think you’re not adding enough, but after baking, the flavour will be quite noticeable. If you feed you have not got enough flavour in the actual dough itself, you can always add a bit to the icing to enhance it.

italiananiseedcookies2

To make Italian Anise Cookies (makes 16):

For the dough

• 160g plain white flour
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
• 1 large egg
• 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon olive oil
• 50g white caster sugar
• 1 teaspoon aniseed extract
1 lemon, zest only

For the glaze

• 100g icing sugar
• 1/4 teaspoon aniseed extract
• whole milk
• whole aniseeds, coloured sprinkles or white sprinkles (to decorate)

1. Preheat the oven to 175°C (345°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper and rub lightly with a dot of olive oil.

2. In a bowl, mix the flour, salt and baking powder. Set aside.

3. In another bowl, beat the egg, olive oil and caster sugar for around 5 minutes until pale and slightly thickened. Add the aniseed extract and lemon zest, and fold in the dry ingredients. Mix well, adding more flour if needed – the dough should be soft, but you should be able to form the dough into balls with dampened hands.

4. Take teaspoons of the mixture and roll into balls. Place on the baking sheet, leaving a little space for them to expand.

5. Bake the cookies for around 12 minutes until puffed and the surface is slightly cracked, but they should not start to colour. Remove from the oven when done, and transfer to a wire tray to cool completely.

6. Finally, make the glaze – mix the icing sugar, aniseed extract and enough milk (a tablespoon at a time) to make a smooth, runny icing. Use to coat the cookies, and finish with a sprinkling of whatever takes your fancy.

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{7} Pizzelle

Oooh, that’s a big one!

This is the rather innuendo-laden comment that someone at work made when a large package (snigger) arrived at my office a month ago. Clearly the various items that I order online and then have delivered to work are an endless source of fascination to colleagues, and I think the fact I had bought a pizzelle iron pretty much took the biscuit (yes, a bad, bad pun).

pizzelle2

Pizzelle are Italian cookies, made for both Easter and Christmas. They are similar to wafters or thin, crisp waffels. Their most striking feature is the elaborate pattern on them, which is obtained by cooking the batter on a hot two-sided iron contraption. These are variously described as snowflakes or flowers, and I think mine was certainly more botanical in nature.

While my iron was clearly Italian in origin, I was not initially committed to pizzelle. For a while, it it was a bit of a toss-up whether I was going to make pizzelle or go for Norwegian krumkaker. The latter are more like wafers, often flavoured with that Scandi favourite, cardamom, but I felt that the first outing of this new gadget had to be for its original purpose – the Italian pizzelle biscuits.

pizzelle1

Now, I was wondering what flavour to give these biscuits. At this time of the year, flavours like cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg are pretty much ubiquitous, so I thought it would be nice to try something different. A little research suggested that aniseed might be worth trying. I know it is one of those love-it-or-hate-it flavours, but in moderation it is lovely. It’s like enjoying a glass of raki after a meal. One glass is fine, but you might not want to drink most of a bottle. That said, I have a frankly awesome recipe for a tomato and fennel soup that includes a huge amount of raki, but that will be for another day.

But yes, aniseed it was going to be. In the end, I opted for a milder approach, adding some lemon zest and vanilla as well as aniseed extract. The result was great – it had a touch of aniseed, but did no have that overpowering flavour that you get it you’re in the habit of necking neat Pernod, and I think the three flavours actually complemented each other nicely.

In the interests of full disclosure, I do have to share a little on my experiences in actually using my pizzelle iron. I know you can get those fancy electric non-stick things, but mine was a more traditional version, made from metal, and with two wooden handles.

Everything was also complicated by the fact that, to the extent the iron came with any sort of explanation, it was only in Italian, and even then, it clearly assumed some sort of pre-knowledge on the part of the pizzelle iron buying public. Usually a quick search online would answer any and all questions, but it seems that pizzelle irons and makers are as unique as their owners, and there seemed to be nothing online other than people saying to cook them “following the manufacturer’s instructions”…so here I was, flying blind. I just started to heat it up, turning it over to get something that I hoped might be an even heat. Then I brushed the iron with a little melted butter, and tried my first pizzelle. The iron hissed a little, there was a puff of anise-infused steam, the batter expanded a little, and I waited for about a minute. Then I pulled the iron apart…and the pizzelle divided itself, clinging to every part of the metal pattern. A disaster! I had to cool the thing down, then scrub of the trapped biscuit, and start again. Second time round? Same problem! All my excitement about making pizzelle morphed into upset, blame and anger. Now I didn’t even want to make them! Then, drying the iron for a second time, I managed to break off one of the handles on a tea towel. I have absolutely no idea how a simple cotton cloth managed to inflict this damage, but it did. My frustration kept building, and building, and building…

At this point, I decided it was time to go back to basics. The iron was clean, but it was not non-stick. So what do we do with new pans? We need to season them, so I figured that I had to the same here. I covered both slides of the iron in vegetable oil, then heated it until it was just smoking. Then I turned off the heat, allowed it to cool, and wiped off the excess oil. After this, and once the not very pleasant smell of burning oil had passed, I tried it again. I heated the iron, added a spoonful of batter, closed the iron, put it back on the heat, and then, a minute later, I gingerly opened the iron. The pizzelle was perfect! Perhaps a little too golden, but it looked perfect! My non-stick efforts seemed to have been rewarded. For the next pizzelle, I heated the iron over a flame, but actually took it off the heat while the pizzelle was cooking. This seemed to result in beautifully cooked pizzelle which were golden but not too dark. I was on a roll, and a short while later, had a pile of 20 delicate biscuits in a towering pile.

On balance, I am now back in love with the idea of the pizzelle, as well as the flavour. The better is incredibly easy to make, and the flavour is superb. While these are lovely as biscuits, either on their own or dusted with a little icing sugar to enhance their patterns, you can also shape the warm pizzelle around a cone, or into a tube like cannoli. If you’re not a big Christmas pudding fan, I think you could make a rather tasty dessert by filling one of these with sweet ricotta with some candied orange peel and boozy, spiced sultanas.

So after all that work, a successful result! Viva Italia!

To make pizzelle (makes around 20)

• 3 eggs
• 170g caster sugar
• 115g unsalted butter, melted and cooled
• ½ teaspoon aniseeed extract
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• zest of one lemon
• 220g plain flour
• 1 tsp baking powder

1. In a large bowl, beat the eggs and sugar until thick (around 5 minutes). Beat in the anise, vanilla and lemon zest.

2. Whisk in the cooled melted butter.

3. Whisk in the flour mixture until just combined, but be careful not to over-beat. The mixture should be soft, and have a consistency of thick double cream.

4. Make the pizzelles by following the manufacturer’s instructions (yes, I’m whimping out, but you can read about my experience above!).

5. When cooked, remove the pizzelle from the iron and allow to cool. Lay flat on a wire try for flat pizzelles, or wrap around bowls or tubes for fancy shapes. They will be hard after around a minutes.

Worth making? If you don’t have the necessary iron, then you’ll have to forget about making pizzelle. However, if you can get hold of one, they are a quick, easy and very delicious holiday treat. The light flavours will also make them popular with those who prefer less rich biscuits and baking.

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{6} Springerle

I’ve done a few posts recently that involve the magic powder of the kitchen, baker’s ammonia. It’s fun to use as it gives off a blast of ammonia fumes during baking (OK, not fun, but quite dramatic), and produces amazingly light baked goods.

Once I managed to track in down in London (hint – it’s in Scandinavian Kitchen near Great Portland Street), I looked around to see what I could use it in, and quickly came across one of the most fancy biscuits I’ve ever seen, German SpringerleThese are made from an aniseed-flavoured dough, and the biscuits are formed into intricate designs using presses, resulting in some very fancy shapes indeed. They are then left to cure until to surface is dry, and then baked to get the baker’s ammonia going. At this point, the cookies expand dramatically, jumping four to five times in height.

I’m not going to write too much more about Springerle here, as I’ve written all about them in a guest post at All The Live Long Day, so I’ll let you read that at your leisure. It also has some links to where you can get hold of the special biscuit presses that you need to make Springerle as well as some ideas of how to make patterns with things you may have at home if you lack the patience to track down the specialist tools.

However, I will share some of my experiences for making these cookies if the mood should take you. The recipe I used (set out below) is easy to make, and rolling out the dough presents no challenges. However, I found it tricky to get the moulds properly covered in flour to make sure that the imprint was sharp and, eh, the mould was not covered in the dough. A few attempts ended fruitlessly, with me scrubbing the mould out with a toothbrush, then waiting for it to dry before I could have another attempt. So had I wasted my time and money? Well, no. A simple trick solved this problem – it wasn’t necessary to get the flour into the mould, as long as you had a barrier between it and the dough. So I dusted the top of the rolled dough with flour, and voila – perfect impressions of flowers, cocoa pods, houses, harps and abstract designs.

Springerle_2

Another tip that makes life easier is to cut the dough into pieces once it has been rolled, and then press with the moulds. When you press down, the dough at the edges gets pressed out slightly, so if you just use one giant piece of rolled dough, you can get some distortions. Use individual pieces – no problems! Then all you need to do is trim the edges, and re-use the scraps to make more cookies.

Springerle_1

Springerle_4

Once all the cookies has been pressed, they need to sit out for around 24 hours until the surface is dry and they look pale. I tried experimenting with a few different sizes – some very small biscuits (the side of a two pence coin) and some very large ones the sizes of playing cards. Against my expectations, when the Springerle are too small, they warp in the oven and go lop-sided. In contrast, the larger ones puff up evenly. I had expected the larger ones to be prone to cracking, but this proved not to be a problem. So it seems to me that going for large, intricate designs if the way forward.

As you can see below, after baking, the Springerle keep their shape remarkably well. There is a bit if puffing up at the edges, but the designs themselves are almost unchanged. The only thing you need to watch during baking is that they should remain pale. Watch them carefully to make sure that they don’t brown.

Springerle_5

springerle_6

Once baked and cooled, I tentatively tried one of my Springerle. I’m happy to report that for all the hard work involved (and let’s be honest, there is a lot of hard work involved in these things), they taste delicious. Light, slightly chewy and aromatic from aniseed. There’s a tiny hint of lemon in there too, just to enhance the aniseed, but not so much as to over-power it. They really make an unusual addition to the festive table.

Springerle are also noted as a biscuit that gets better if left to cure after baking. They should be stored in an airtight tin, but if they seem too dry, just add a piece of apple or a slide of bread to the tin (be careful to check in from time to time – no-one is a fan of mouldy apple…). This seems to be a common trait among biscuits made with baker’s ammonia – they all seem to get better it allowed to sit for a while.

And finally, just in case you are curious about the various patterns that you can find, in addition to the big tray above, I also got hold of this rather jolly pine cone pattern. They were also left to dry for 24 hours, and the baked versions retained the pattern with pin-like sharpness.

springerle_cones

To make Springerle (recipe adapted from House on the Hill):

Makes around 50 pieces

• 1/4 teaspoon baker’s ammonia (or baking powder)
• 1 tablespoon water
• 3 eggs
• 300g icing sugar
• 55g unsalted butter, softened
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 1 teaspoon aniseed extract(*)
• 450g plain flour
• grated rind of 1/2 lemon

1. Dissolve the baker’s ammonia in the water, and leave to one side.

2. In a large bowl, beat the eggs until pace and fluffy, around 10 minutes. Add the icing sugar in thirds, beating well after each addition, then add the softened butter and beat until combined. Add the baker’s ammonia mixture, the salt, aniseed extract and lemon rind. Mix well.

3. Start to add the flour to the egg mixture. Once the mixer gives up, add the rest of the flour, and use your hands to combine everything until you have a stiff dough.

4. Take portions of the dough and roll out on a well-floured worksurface. Aim for 1/2 cm or 1/4 inch. Sprinkle the top lightly with flour (a tea strainer is the ideal way to sprinkle the flour), then use your press to make the pattern. Trim the edges of the cookies, then transfer to a baking tray lined with greaseproof paper.

5. Leave the cookies to dry, uncovered, for 24 hours.

6. Preheat the oven – at this stage, it’s an art rather than a science, so it’s best to test with one cookie to make sure they don’t burn. The temperature should be 120° to 160°C (255° to 325°F) – the test cookie should puff up from the base. The bottom should be barely coloured, and the top should not be starting to brown. Allow 10-20 minutes, depending on the size of the cookie.

(*) Be careful what you use – my aniseed extract had the strength of aniseed liqueur. If you’ve got something stronger, such as pure oil, you may need less – a lot less!

Worth making? I’m really glad that I finally got the chance to make Springerle. Sure, they are fussy, tricky and take a lot of time, but they taste great and have a wonderful traditional flavour. Worth trying if you’ve got the time, patience and inclination.

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Diamond Jubilee: Regal Cola

You might have noticed that I’ve got yet another new header. It’s all about HM The Queen, and the regal theme is a not-very-subtle hint that the next few posts are all going to be about the Diamond Jubilee! And it’s not just me that’s going for it – shops are brimming over with Union Flag bunting, crown-themes cakes and treats and the nation is getting giddy about the prospect of four days of festivities next month.

So how to kick off this series? I thought about this for a while, and decided to start with this recipe for home-made cola. Now, I realise that “regal cola” is not perhaps one of the most obvious things to begin with, but I can assure you that there it a little method to my madness. Allow me to explain.

First of all, home-made drinks suggest summer and fun. This is all the most important as the weather has been lousy. London has been in a technical drought. I say technical because we have had below-average rainfall for around two years. However, you should never underestimate the capacity for the Great British Weather to surprise, and we’ve just emerged from three months of pouring rain and soggy feet. Today, for the first time in a while, it has been proper summer weather. The air is warm, the skies a crystal-clear blue and we’ve had lots and lots of sunshine!

Anyway, while we were in the dark, cold, days of the phoney summer, I decided to make some retro summer drinks to bring a little sunshine into our lives. Last year I made a lot of lemonade and this time I have decided to turn my hand to cola. I’m not a frequent cola drinker, as we tended not to drink soft drinks when I was younger. I’m pretty sure that as kids we used to ask for them, but they were rarely in the house and as such I’ve never really developed a taste for them. Pleasant on a warm day, but I just don’t get those folk that drink eight to ten cans per day. Having said that, when I do drink certain well-known brands of cola, I have tried – like many others have done – to  identify the flavours in there. I appreciate that this is at trade secret, and I don’t think that anyone in Atlanta will be losing much sleep, but I think that I’ve variously picked up hints of cinnamon, citrus and vanilla in there. There were obviously others, but I wasn’t really able to identify them.

So imagine my surprise when I finally stumbled upon this recipe for home-made cola. It’s essentially a combination of citrus, spices, sugar, vanilla and (for some reason) dried lavender. As I looked through the list, each of the flavours set of a little bell in my head – yes, there could be nutmeg in cola. Ginger notes, for sure. Lemon, lime, orange? All possible. Given that I had most of the ingredients lurking in the spice cabinet or my fruit bowl, I decided to cast caution to the wind and mix up a batch. I also though that it would be a fun addition to the local street party that is being held in the ‘hood for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. It’s home-made, so has that pleasing retro touch, and I think appearing with a batch of syrup I made myself will go down very well in free-thinking Stoke Newington, where many folk will be keen to cock a snook at The Real Thing. Me? I’m just very curious.

What I do love is the sheer range of things that go into this mixture. Each ingredient on its own is aromatic and something that I like, so I was intrigued how they would affect each other. Indeed, some of these flavours were very strong, and often overpower other flavours, so it was interesting to know just what they would taste like together, and whether the total would be greater than the sum of its parts.

And this all brings me to the second reason that I think makes this a fitting recipe to begin with. Yes, home-made drinks suggest summer street parties, but this particular recipe involves a lot of ingredients that recall many of the Queen’s realms. For HM The Queen is not just monarch of the UK, but also 15 other realms (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica, Barbados, the Bahamas, Grenada, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Antigua and Barbuda, Belize, and Saint Kitts and Nevis). I reckon that the various ingredients in this recipe cover off rather a few of her realms, so it’s actually something of a celebration of the flavours of the world. The aromas you have while making it from scratch (anise, vanilla, ginger, cinnamon, citrus) are so much more rewarding that just pulling the tab on a can.

In making this recipe, I did make a couple of tweaks. Firstly, I did not have any caramel colouring, so I used 50/50 white and light brown sugar, and used some of the white sugar to make a little caramel. It provided a reddish-brown shade to the syrup, but I think the colouring is essential if want the resulting drink to be dark brown. Otherwise, make do with a pale yellow. The taste is still there, but I guess it depends how much you like to eat (or drink) with your eyes.

I also skipped the citric acid. I’m not entirely sure what this does (but I suspect it helps preserve the syrup), so I just used lemon juice. It’s easy, it’s natural and it saves trekking round the shops looking for a novelty ingredient.

With the syrup made and cooled, it was time to take the taste test. First, I made it up using still water and served it on ice. It was a pleasant enough drink, but there was something missing. It was a sweet spiced-citrus drink, but I had a vague niggle in the back of my mind. I think it was the fact that it tasted like cola, and it seemed to have gone flat. No fizz. So to remedy that, taste test number two involved soda water. Now this was where the flavour magic happened. It was a cola. It tasted like cola. Amazing! So it was literally the fizz that gave this drink its fizz!

And finally…to give it that proper Jubilee look, I served up the first soda-based batch in souvenir ERII glasses that I picked up in a Brussels vintage shop. Look pretty good, don’t they?

All in all, I spent about an hour minutes making this syrup, but really, it was just prep work, let it simmer, strain and let the sugar dissolve, so very much a taste that you can dip in and out of. I have ended up with about a pint (500ml) of syrup, which should make for about five pints (2.5 litres) of cola…which is probably just about enough for a street part over the Jubilee weekend! And now…I’ve made up a jug and I’m sneaking to sit in the sunshine and read the day’s papers. Cheers!

To make cola syrup:

• 500ml water
• Zest of 2 oranges
• Zest of 1 lime
• Zest of 1 lemon
• 1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/8 teaspoon freshly-grated nutmeg
• 1 section star anise, crushed
• 1/2 teaspoon dried lavender flowers
• 2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
• 4cm piece vanilla pod, split
• 1/4 teaspoon citric acid or 1 tablespoon lemon juice
• 250g white sugar
• 200g brown sugar

Put the water and all ingredients except the sugars into a saucepan. Bring to the boil, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes.

In the meantime, make some caramel to add a bit of colour – put three tablespoons of the white sugar in a small saucepan. Heat gently until the caramel is a deep golden colour (but does not smell acrid!). Pour onto the rest of the sugar – this will stop the caramel cooking any more, and it will also set to make it easy to handle.

Once the spice mixture is done, remove from the heat, and pour the liquid through a cheesecloth into the sugar mixture. You can give the cloth a good squeeze to get all the flavour out, but you might want to hang it from a cupboard handle to drip into the sugar and allow the spice mixture to cool.

Stir the sugar from time to time, until it has all dissolved. It might take a while for the hardened caramel to properly dissolve, but it will happen.

The syrup can be stored for 2-3 days in the fridge in a clean jar.

Worth making? This is an amazingly easy recipe, and it really is surprising how you get a genuine cola flavour from a bunch of very un-cola like ingredients.

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{2} Speculaaskruiden

If you’re going to make festive biscuits, you need to get spicy!

Hence the second part of the “Twelve Goodies of Christmas” is a traditional spice mixture from the Netherlands.

Last year, I made a batch of German Lebkuchengewürz. Rather than trying more of the same, this year I’ve taken some inspiration from further west, and made a batch of Dutch speculaaskruiden (speck-oo-lass-krau-den).

My last mixture served me well over the past year, in everything from biscuits to fruit pies and compotes. So if you’re a little apprehensive about making a batch of mixed spice on the basis you won’t use it all, don’t worry. A little pinch of these sort of mixtures will add a lovely gingerbread flavour in place of plain old cinnamon.

I know that you would not normally arrange spices on neat little paper squares, but I found it quite interesting to see how the colours of each spice vary, and as you work with each, the different aromas will fill your kitchen with the most wonderful warm, woody smells. The warmth of cinnamon and ginger, pungent cloves, fresh cardamom and coriander and aromatic nutmeg, star anise and mace.

In making this, I used ground spices for a number of the ingredients – I’ve tried to grind cloves before, but they are tough little fellows, so you end up using a coffee grinder, and frankly – you’ll never get rid of the smell! Fine if you happen to like spiced coffee, but I don’t. So for the really tough ones, I buy pre-ground. However, I did grind some of them myself – the cardamom seeds were tackled with a mortar and pestle, while the nutmeg and star anise got the grater treatment. Just be sure to pass them through a very fine sieve, so you get rid of any woody bits of spice.

What you will notice when you compare the Dutch and German recipes is that they use many of the same basic spices – cinnamon, cloves, ginger and nutmeg – but in different proportions. And just as with so many spice mixtures, there are dozens of recipes and many people have their own ways of making them. So treat the list below as a guide, and adjust the amounts as per your preferences. For the authentic flavour, you need to add the cinnamon, cloves, mace and ginger, but add or omit anything else that takes your fancy.

Now, the big question – what to make with this mixture?

Well, speculaaskruiden is the typical flavour in a number of biscuits – speculaas in the Netherlands, speculoos in Belgium and Spekulatius in Germany. As the names suggest, these are similar types of biscuit – they’re crisp, buttery, sometimes with almonds, and with lots of spice. While they are eaten all year round, they do tasty particularly festive.

That, or add it to cakes, muffins, carrot cakes, crumbles, compotes…whatever your imagination can come up with!

To make speculaaskruiden:

• 7 teaspoons ground cinnamon(*)
• 2 teaspoons ground cloves(*)
• 2 teaspoons ground mace(*)
• 2 teaspoons ground ginger(*)
• 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
• 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
• 1/2 teaspoon ground anise seeds or star anise

(*) These are essential. The other spices are entirely optional

Put everything in a bowl. Mix well – that’s it! Store in an airtight jar in a cool, dark place.

Worth making? This mixture is fantastic – different notes come out from the different spices, and adds a pleasant spicy note to many recipes. If you’ve got this to hand, it makes for an easy way to add a rounded spiced flavour to just about anything. Really recommended.

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Filed under Christmas, Recipe

Phở Chay (Vietnamese Vegetable Soup)

I’m not a great shopper. In all the New Year sales, there was little that I was focussed on buying, other than a set of very large bowls. Dull!

Or is it? Like millions of others, New Year for me (aside for sparklers, streamers and champagne at midnight) means that it’s time to try being a little healthier, and so I figured that I could use these larger bowls to start making healthy noodle soups, something that would be filling without meaning lots of oil or lots of pasta. With that in mind, here is one of my first attempts. I am calling this phở chay (Vietnamese vegetable soup). Or maybe faux-chay? OK, bad joke…

Now, I use the term calling quite on purpose.  I cannot make any promises about how authentic this recipe, but I can at least say that it is made from things that you stand a sporting chance of finding in a well-stocked kitchen and it is pretty darn tasty. Perhaps the only thing I don’t usually have in the house is lemongrass, which I just added as I found it skulking in the back of the fridge, the victim of a well-intentioned but never-attempted citrus and  lemongrass posset.

To bulk up the broth, I have also used the ingredients that I like in this sort of soup – marinated tofu chunks and green beans, and soba noodles as I much prefer them to rice noodles. Soba has the rich, earthyness of buckwheat, and I very much appreciate that it is more substantial and chewy than rice noodles.

Now, when you look at making a phở, it can look like one of those “bit of a faff” recipes, but in fact I have managed to do the whole thing in just over an hour. Just think of it as a simple two-step process:

Part the First: make the broth. I have omitted any attempts at frying anything to start with, and just throw it all in a large pot with lots of water. Onions and other vegetables, plus stock, soy sauce and rice wine vinegar, to serve as the basis, and then a range of aromatics and spices. Star anise and cinnamon seem pretty much essential, and ginger is very much a “nice to have” (I’ve made it without ginger; it’s good, but with ginger it’s better). A teaspoon of sambal olek provides a little more heat, and a heroic amount of garlic tops the whole thing off. But I digress: put everything in a pot, boil then leave to simmer for an hour. One of the very useful things about this soup is that the broth will be strained to remove the vegetables and spices, so there is no need to waste time trimming things so that they look pretty on the table, unless that is your bag. But when you do come to strain the broth, keep the garlic cloves: they are transformed into soft lumps of sheer deliciousness, which are absolutely sublime added to mash or spread onto slices of very crisp bread.

Part the Second: adding “stuff” to the broth. I just go with whatever is to hand. Some sort of noodle is clearly essential, and while rice noodles are traditional, soba noodles really do work a treat here and I much prefer them. Visually not as much of an impact as white rice noodles, but the taste and texture really is great. I also like to add tofu, which I bake, then add to the broth to boil for 10 minutes before serving. This means that it has the chance to soften in the broth and the flavours mix. Then…top it all off with vegetables of your choice. Quick-cooking items such as mushrooms can be sliced and left raw, beansprouts can be thrown in as they are, while string beans or asparagus can be quickly boiled before serving.

Then, assemble it all! Put noodles and vegetables into your serving dishes, then ladle over the broth. Top with spring onions and a sprig of basil, and you’re done! Nothing more to do than get chopsticks and say: Chúc ngon miệng! (*)

For the stock:

• 10 cups water
• 1 large onion, peeled and quartered
• 2 stock cubes
• 2 sticks cinnamon
• 2 star anise
• 1 clove
• 1 cardamom pod
• 3 tablespoons low-salt soy sauce
• 1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
• 1/2 stick lemongrass
• 1 teaspoon brown sugar
• 6-8 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
• 1 inch piece of ginger, peeled and sliced
• 1/2 teaspoon sambal olek / chilli paste

To put in the soup:

• marinated tofu chunks
• 75g rice noodles / soba noodles per person, cooked, drained and rinsed
• 2 handfuls bean sprouts
• 2 handfuls mushrooms, sliced
• other vegetables (string beans, shredded lettuce, shredded spinach, shredded carrot), briefly boiled if necessary
• Thai or regular basil, mint leaves and/or lime wedges to garnish

To make the broth: Place all the stock ingredients in a large pan. Bring to the boil, cover, and simmer for at least an hour (can easily be made the night before and allowed to sit so the flavours are able to infuse the broth with their aromas and flavours). Once ready, strain to remove the solids and the broth is ready. You may have to add more water at the end, according to taste.

To prepare the soup: measure the “soup stuff” into bowl, and add enough piping hot broth to cover. Top with sprigs of Thai basil, mint and/or a wedge of lime.

Worth making? I was a little daunted by this at first, given that there are a lot of ingredients, but it was actually very simply to make. The only thing you need is time to allow the broth to simmer, so you get the maximum amount of flavour out of the spices – and I am afraid there is no shortcut for that. I would recommend trying to be light handed with the stock and soy sauce – you can always add more later, and we want the flavours of the anise, ginger, garlic et al to shine in this soup.

(*) Google tells me that this means bon appetit in Vietnamese! – I hope it does!

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Filed under Recipe, Savoury