Tag Archives: blueberries

{10} Joulutorttu

Christmas treats are often all about cakes or cookies, but today’s recipe is one from that forgotten part of the baking world…Christmas pastries!

I’ve been making joulutorttu, which are traditional star plum pastries from Finland (yes, Finnish baking is getting a double-feature this year). If you think that name is a mouthful, they are also called tähtitorttu, which means star pastries. Those names really are enough to make you give up and reach for more mulled wine…

The traditional way to make these pastries is with plum jam or prune filling. I had a look in my cupboards at home, and while I have plenty of jars of jam, I’m lacking anything made with plums. I went for the next best thing – a jar of blueberry jam, which I reasoned was suitably Nordic to be able to pass off as vaguely authentic. I also made some prune filling as a test – I just chopped up some prunes, then cooked them with water, cinnamon, orange juice and some brandy. In the first picture, I’ve used the jam in the top and bottom rows, and the prune filling in the middle row – you can see the different textures.

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There are actually a few different ways to make these little guys. If you are feeling lazy, or are busy, or have pets/small children, then it is quite acceptable to buy a sheet of puff pastry and use that as the basis for the stars. Just be sure to make good, clean cuts so that you get lots of puffing at the edges.

I, of course, opted for a more challenging version. I’ve used a pastry recipe from the Nordic Bakery cookbook. It suggests using a really rich pastry that is made with a decadent amount of butter plus the same amount of quark to bring it all together. I’ve never worked with a pastry like that, so I wanted to give it a go. However, I didn’t have quark to hand, and being too lazy to make the short walk to the main street, I swapped it for some skyr. This is a high-protein and low-fat type of yoghurt which originates in Iceland (and those Icelanders take it very seriously, swearing that the stuff you get in Britain isn’t anywhere near as good as the real thing…well, I like the stuff here just fine, and it worked in my recipe!).

The dough is very soft, and at first I thought it would not work. But I wanted to believe, so I assumed the flour would soak up some of the moisture, and after chilling it overnight, the pastry was indeed perfectly workable. It rolled out easily, and it was straightforward to cut and form into those classic windmill shapes.

Now, the real magic was in the baking. The pastry? Just wonderful. As it has a high butter content (made with equal weights of butter, skyr and flour), it is rich, soft and has a lovely deep golden colour. It is definitely worth the effort of making it yourself. But I do have to warn you – it is a funny dough too. I made my twelve stars from the first rolling of the dough, and they worked perfectly. I then gathered up the scraps and made some more…and boy did they go haywire! It might have been due to the pastry on the first batches being comparatively cool, whereas the later batch was a bit warmer, but they puffed up extravagantly, almost like puff pastry, but they also struggled to bake properly without getting too dark. To avoid this, I recommend working with the dough in two batches, and in each case roll the dough out as square as you are able, so that you minimise any offcuts and can avoid re-rolling the dough.

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Of my two flavour choices, the spiced prune was nice, but I loved the blueberry. I would happily make that flavour again. If you are making a large batch, you can also use various different flavours – plum is traditional, but apple and cinnamon would work well, and I think something sharp like raspberry would be delicious too.

All in all, these Christmas stars from the north were a great success. They are incredibly more-ish. I think I wolfed down three of them in fairly quick succession. They are also at their most delicious while still fresh. They will keep for a couple of days in a tin, but I don’t think you want to delay eating them, and frankly – they taste so good I don’t think you’ll have many hanging around for long.

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To make Finnish Christmas Star Pastries (makes 12):

For the dough

• 250g butter
• 250g skyr or quark cheese
• 250g strong white flour
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• pinch of salt

For the filling

• jam or marmalade (or see my prune recipe below)
• 1 egg, beaten
• icing sugar, to finish

1. Make the dough. Mix the butter and quark/skyr. Add the rest of the ingredients and mix until it comes together in a dough – the dough will seem very soft. Wrap in cling film and leave to chill overnight.

2. Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F). Line a few baking sheets with greaseproof paper.

3. Sprinkle a worktop with flour, then roll out the dough thinly – no more than 5mm. Try to get as square a shape as you can. Cut out squares of 10cm x 10cm. Transfer each to the greaseproof paper, leaving some space between the pieces.

4. Make a small diagonal cut about one-third  towards the centre of the square from each corner, but do not go all the way. Add a spoonful of jam in the centre, then starting at the top, bring the top-right piece into the centre. Repeat on each side to build up the windmill effect. Secure the overlapping dough in the centre with some water and pinch together, then push down and add a dab more jam to cover. Repeat until you have a full tray (I baked them in batches of 4).

5. Brush each pastry with the beaten egg, then bake for around 8 minutes until a rich golden colour, turning after 4 minutes to get an even bake.

6. When done, remove from the oven, and leave to cool for a few minutes on the paper. Transfer to a wire rack to cool, then dust with icing sugar before serving.

To make plum filling: finely chop 100g of prunes. Add 150ml water and a large pinch of cinnamon. Bring to the boil then simmer until the mixture seems thick and almost too dry. Add a tablespoon of brandy and a tablespoon of orange juice. Mix well and leave to cool.

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Kardemummainen Rahka-Mustikkapiiras (Finnish Blueberry Tart)

Now be honest – have you ever made a recipe from a tea towel? Well, today that is what served as my inspiration for this post. Sometimes it is travel, sometimes it is a mystery ingredient I bought on impulse, but today, it is a tea towel.

In fairness, this is not just any random tea towel. I got them as a gift from my friend Anne who was on holiday in Helsinki and St Petersburg over the summer. The theme is blueberries – one featuring two big black bears who have come across a woody glade filled with fruit, and the other has a rather full bear (complete with a blue tongue) and a recipe for a blueberry and sour cream tart – the Rahka-Mustikkapiiras in the title of this post.

These tea towels are from a Finnish company called Finlayson, a textile maker founded by a Scottish engineer called James Finlayson in 1820, who decided to set up a cotton mill in Tampere on Finland’s west coast. I like the idea of a brave pioneer decided to set out and live in one of the few places that is colder and darker than his native Scotland…but I’ve experienced the mosquitoes in Finland, so I’m sure they served as a reminder of the Scottish midges to cure any homesickness.

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Now, before I could even dream of using these cloths to dry things, I just had to try this recipe. The problem was that it is in Finnish, a language that I have no real idea about. A few trips to Finland have left me with the most limited of limited vocabulary extending as far as (and I am not making this up): yksi (one), kaksi (two), moi (hi), tervetuloa (welcome), kipis (cheers), glöggi (mulled wine), kiitos (thank you) and joulupukki (literally “Christmas Goat” but now closer to Father Christmas). So if I met two festive boks in the street, I would be able to count them, welcome them, toast with a glass of mulled wine and say thanks, which is clearly a very useful life skill indeed.

So…I had a recipe in a language I had not a hope of understanding. I could have looked online for a similar recipe and made that instead, but that felt a bit like cheating. Instead, I typed each and every strange word into a translation website, and got a rough approximation of a recipe. At least I knew what the ingredients were, how much I needed, and roughly what I should be doing with them. I say “roughly” because the method was a bit rough and ready. But still, this felt like quite an achievement!

So what is this mysterious tart? It is rather like a simple blueberry cheesecake with a cardamom-flavoured biscuit crust. During baking, the berries release some of their juice, and the surface of the tart takes on a lovely mottled purple pattern. The whole thing probably took me about 20 minutes to make, so it really is a very, very easy recipe to have a go at.

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Traditionally this tart is made with a thick yoghurt-like fermented milk called viili. Lacking easy access to Finnish produce in London, I just swapped it out for some tangy cream cheese, but I think you could equally easily use yoghurt, or crème fraîche.

So – how was the recipe? I had to admit, I had a couple of wobbles and made a few changes to the flavours. First off, my translation of the recipe suggested that I melt the butter, then pour into the rest of the pastry ingredients. My head was telling me that this would produce an oily pastry, and I was right. However, it was fairly easy to press into place and the end result was fine. However, if I was making this again, I would use softened butter (rather than melted) and cream everything together, which would also make the dough easier to work with. The recipe also calls for a teaspoon of ground cardamom, but I found that this was a bit too much when the tart was at room temperature. I would go for half a teaspoon for a milder flavour, but bizarrely, the flavour was less intense when the tart was chilled. I’ve suggested half a teaspoon below, but if you love the flavour of cardamom, then go crazy. In terms of the filling, I added more berries than the recipe called for (who doesn’t love more berries?), and used only half of the suggested teaspoon of vanilla extract. This final change was a good call, so that there was a hint of flavour rather than anything too overpowering.

All in all – this was a success. The tart is easy, looks great and it does plug into those fashionable Nordic flavours of blueberries and cardamom. This is lovely with a cup of coffee as the days of autumn get increasingly nippy. Maybe we should all be using tea towels to inspire our baking once in a while?

To make Finnish Blueberry Tart

Pastry

• 100g butter, softened
• 50ml sugar
• 1 egg, beaten
• 200g plain flour
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 1/2
teaspoon ground cardamom

Filling

• 400g blueberries (fresh or frozen)
• 50ml milk
• 200ml sour cream or 200g cream cheese (full fat versions!)
• 50g sugar
• 1 egg
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F).

2. Make the pastry – cream everything into a smooth dough. Press over the bottom and sides of pie dish – don’t worry about it being a little rough, the rustic look is part of the charm.

3. Sprinkle the blueberries into the pie dish. Mix the milk, sour cream/cream cheese, sugar, egg and vanilla until smooth. Pour slowly over the berries.

4. Bake for 30 minutes or until the filling is set (it should wobble, but not look runny). Remove from the oven and allow to cool. Serve cold.

Worth making? Yes! Who knew a tea towel recipe could be so good?

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Highland Jam

I’ve just spent a few days up in Scotland. Lots of fresh air, scenic landscapes and – gasp – sunshine. Well, to be fair, the days were peppered with a few fleeting light showers, just to keep everyone on their toes, but it was mostly a case of blue skies with fluffy white clouds.

The first stop was Inverness, the capital of the Highlands. It’s a compact city on the banks of the River Ness, and was a good place for a few pints of local beer before venturing off inland.

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The main draw was a weekend in the small town of Muir of Ord on the Black Isle (actually a peninsula, not an island). The origin of this dramatic name is unknown, but there are suggestions that it can be traced back to the thick, dense forests that once covered this land, or the dark, fertile soil which grows the barley used in whisky making.

No trip to the Highlands is complete without a long walk, ideally up a large hill. The local focal point is Ord Hill, which took me past fields of cows, through pine forests and up onto the hill itself. Up on top, you could see the imposing Grampian Mountains to the south and, to the east, three firths (a Scots term which roughly means where a river meets the sea) – the Cromarty, Beauly and Moray Firths. I know this because, as our little group was sitting at the top, a man ran past, stopped, gave us the tourist low-down, then carries on running. Good timing indeed!

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When you look at much of the Scottish landscape, it is often called “bleak” or “rugged”, and people think it’s heather and not much else. Well, that’s not really true. Large parts of the country are covered in forests of pine, beech or birch, and in the middle of all these woodlands, you can find all manner of fruits ripe for the picking. Well, ripe when they are in season – Scotland is not, generally, that warm, so you do need to be patient!

One of my favourites is the blaeberry, the European cousin of the blueberry. While the American berries are large and grow in little bunches that make then fairly easy to pick, blaeberries are tiny – less than the size of a small pea! This means that if you’re lucky enough to find them, you’ll easily find yourself down on the ground rummaging around in bushes looking for your precious treasure. The plant grows very close to the ground, so you really need to be willing to crouch down, or, in my case, to reach up into awkward places along a footpath. As a result of my efforts while walking up Ord Hill, I managed to come away with a small bag of berries, as well as an elbow that had been sliced open as I tried to reach a good patch of berries, only for my foot to give way on the soft earth (luckily – superficial damage only!).

Now, I was faced with a bit of a quandary. I had easily picked more blaeberries than I had ever managed to collect in my life, but not quite enough to make something. Was it going to be a case of just eating them on muesli and yoghurt for breakfast? Well, of course not. Luckily, a bit further down the hill there were lots of wild raspberries, so I was presented with a perfect opportunity to gather some of these jaunty little red fellows.

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Now, wild raspberries are also smaller than their cultivated relatives, but they are also about six times the size of blaeberries, as well as growing on bushes. Much easier to pick! If you’ve never tried them, wild raspberries are sharper and more tart than normal raspberries, and absolutely delicious. Adding the raspberries to my blaeberry haul meant that I ended up with a large bag of free, fresh and organic berries.

I’m telling you all this because I have, for many years, harboured a fantasy that I would one day gather enough blaeberries to make jam. That way, I would be able to enjoy their flavour and bright purple colour all year round, and not just for those few months in autumn. While my little hike up Ord Hill did not quite allow this to come true, I was able to combine the blaeberries with the wild raspberries. And as it turns out, this combination is a popular flavour in Scandinavia, known in Sweden as Drottningsylt (“Queen’s Jam”). If this combination is fit for a queen, then who am I are to argue?

The recipe itself is very simple – equal parts of raspberries and blueberries, and then almost the same again of sugar (I aim for about 80% of sugar to berries by weight).

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At this point, you may wonder where I made the jam. In some kitchen up north while on holiday? Nope. I did it the hard way – transporting the berries back from Scotland to London. I was, of course, completely paranoid that they would leak juice all over my luggage, so these things were packed in multiple plastic bags, just in case. Luckily, there was no juice incident, and the fruit arrived intact, ready for a jam session.

If you’re making this with foraged blaeberries and raspberries, then chances are this is a jam you would only every be able to make in small batches. However, if you’re keen to make bigger batches, or just don’t fancy all that crouching over small shrubs, you can buy blueberries and raspberries for a similar effect. You’ll still end up with a fruity, deep red jam that is delicious on toast, croissants or stirred through yoghurt. Of course, made with berries you picked yourself…then you know it’s going to taste just that much better!

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To make blaeberry and wild raspberry jam (makes 2 small pots):

• 200g mixed blaeberries and raspberries
• 180g white sugar
• 3 tablespoons water

• 1/2 teaspoon pectin

1. First, the boring bit. sterilise some jam jars(*), and put a plate into the freezer – you’ll need this to test when the jam is set.

2. Rinse the fruit, removing any bad berries. Mix the sugar and pectin, and throw into a saucepan with the berries and water.

3. Place the pan on a medium heat. Bring to the boil, and use the back of a spoon to burst the blaeberries are they cook (the raspberries will break up on their own). Keep the jam on a slow rolling boil for around 10 minutes. Start to check for a set every minute or so – put some jam on the cold plate, leave for a moment to cool, and if it wrinkles when you push with your finger, it’s done.

4. Once the jam is ready, ladle into the prepared jars, seal, label and hide it somewhere to enjoy later.

(*) To sterilise jam jars: wash with hot, soapy water, then rinse well. Place upside-down in a cold oven, and heat to 90°C for 15 minutes. Leave in the oven to cool down while you are making the jam . To sterilise the lids, wash with hot, soapy water, then rinse well, place in a saucepan with boiling water for 5 minutes.

Worth making? Yes – it’s perfect!

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Blueberry Cinnamon Muffins

We’ve summer, and it was great. I found myself free to enjoy the warm days that we were fortunate enough to have, but now, the sunny days have passed and there is a noticeable chill in the morning and evening air. We are being treated to some amazing sunsets at the moment in the early evening, and while occasionally you feel the sun on your face and enjoy the warmth, there is no doubt about it – autumn is here. There are apples on the trees in the park, and we’ve got a couple of months of falling leaves ahead of us, before we find ourselves huddled around real log fires and eating our own weight in festive biscuits.

At this time of year, I like to start cooking with warmer flavours like late season fruits and spices – Think plums, brambles, blueberries(*), and cloves, nutmeg, and my favourite, cinnamon. . Enjoy all of this, because you know that your organic vegetable box will soon lose all the summer goodies, to be replaced with week after week after week of root vegetables…I’m seeing more than a few root vegetable-cheese sauce oven bakes over the next months.

Today’s recipe is a classic, which combines two of my very favourite ingredients. I like to use lots of blueberries in these muffins, and just a little dash of cinnamon. I want a whisper, a suggestion of the spice. These are dreamy little cakes – not as crumbly as cupcakes or Victoria sponge, as the dough has a very slight chewiness to it, which is what you want from a muffin. Also not too sweet, so you do taste the blueberries, and the cinnamon dances across your tongue. In short: they taste great and I love them. I’ve been taking one to work each day as my mid-afternoon snack, attracting some envy from colleagues.

Fortunately, this is also a very easy recipe, using the simple three-step muffin process. Step one: mix the dry ingredients. Step two: mix all the wet ingredients. Step three: mix wet ingredients into the dry ingredients until just combined, and stir in the blueberries. In the oven, they  puff up in a very pleasing way. Of my sixteen muffins, fourteen formed perfect voluminous domed tops, and the other two went a little bit squint. They also cracked on top in quite a pretty way, revealing a saucy little peek of the deep purple inside. Such a vivid but natural purple. I was very pleased with how these turned out.

For the fruit, you can, in my experience, use fresh or frozen with equal ease. Fresh berries will not colour the mixture before cooking, if that worries you, but other than that, I’ve made this successful with both types. I mean, these are blueberry muffins. Warm from the oven, you just know they will taste fantastic whichever way you make them.

To make 16 blueberry cinnamon muffins:

• 350g plain flour
• 2 generous teaspoons baking powder
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 115g soft brown sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 2 eggs
• 300ml milk
• 115g butter, melted or 120 ml corn/grapeseed oil
• 1 teaspoon vanilla essence
• 180g fresh or frozen blueberries

Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F). Line a muffin tin with paper cups.

In a bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, salt, sugar and cinnamon. Sieve well, and put to one side.

Place the eggs, butter/oil, milk and vanilla essence in another bowl, and whisk until well combined.

Add the egg mixture to the dry ingredients, and combine with a metal spoon until just combined. Some small lumps are fine. Fold in the blueberries.

Spoon the mixture into the muffin tin. Fill until just below the top. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until risen and golden.

Worth making? These muffins are utterly delicious. Be sure to use lots of blueberries, so that you get lots of fruit in each cake, as well as the amazing deep purple colour from the juice. I’ve tried different versions – sultanas, raspberries, cranberries – but this recipe, in my view, stands out.

(*) Or blaeberries as I called as I grew up. I still instinctively think of fruits and vegetables by the names we called them in Scotland when I was a child, hence to me blackberries are brambles, and blueberries are blaeberries. And what my English friends call swede, I call turnip, and what they call turnip, I call white turnip. Food and culture, eh?

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