Tag Archives: brandy

{8} Kourabiedes

Kourabiedes are a traditional cookie from Greece. And that should set some alarm bells ringing…

I always approach making traditional cookies with a little bit of trepidation. In this case, I have visions of Greek mothers and grandmothers raising their eyebrows and rolling their eyes. In my head, there is this Greek chorus of collective tutting as an entire people just know that their version is clearly superior to my attempt. And that their recipe is obviously better than everyone else’s attempts as well…

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With that disclaimer out there, I still think that my attempt is pretty decent. I mean, with all that icing sugar on them they look like they are made of snow!

In fact, they are part of a family of similar cookies – polvorones in Spain, Russian tea cakes or Mexican wedding cakes, or Austrian vanilla crescents. What they have in common is a sweet, crumbly pastry with chopped nuts, with the whole cookies dredged in icing sugar to provide even more sweetness.

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This is a very easy recipe to make. You just need to whip up the butter to get it nice and soft, then whip lots of air in as you add the sugar, egg yolk and various flavours. I’ve used vanilla as a background flavour, and combined it with brandy and orange blossom water. It is also important to use toasted nuts in this recipe – the nuts all some crunch to contrast to the soft, crumbly texture of the biscuit, but toasting them means the cookies had a richer flavour.

Shaping them is a doddle too – I found that it was worth chilling the dough slightly before shaping, as it made it a little easier to handle, but otherwise just scoop up spoonfuls of the mixture and roll them in your hands. However, I would not recommend my usual roll-into-a-sausage-and-cut-into-slices approach, as the mixture is a bit too soft for that. Tablespoons all the way!

Once you have baked the kourabiedes, you get another chance to add more flavour. I’ve seen recipes where Greek matriarchs liberally sprinkle ouzo over the hot cookies, which might be the way to go if you like aniseed flavours. I went for a less adventurous option and brushed them with some brandy cut with a little rosewater. There was a little sizzle, a puff of steam and a lovely aroma!

While the kourabiedes are still warm, you also need to get them into a dish full of icing sugar. They will still be fragile, so handle them with care. The icing sugar will combine with the butter in the cookies to form a sweet coating, then move them to a cooling rack and use a sieve to give them another coating of icing sugar. Get into the festive mood by imagining that this is snow. Then leave them to cool, and pile them high on a plate to serve alongside good strong coffee, or perhaps that herbal tea you picked up on holiday in Greece.

Καλά Χριστούγεννα (Kala Hristouyienna, Greek for Merry Christmas)!

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To make Kourabiedes (makes around 30)

For the dough:

• 250g unsalted butter
• 125g icing sugar
• 1 egg yolk
• 1 tablespoon brandy

• 1 tablespoon orange blossom water
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 75g toasted almonds, ground
• 75g toasted almonds, chopped
• 1 tablespoon baking powder
• 300g plain flour
• pinch of salt

To finish:

• 1 tablespoon brandy
• 1/4 teaspoon rosewater
• icing sugar, to cover

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F) and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

2. Put the butter in a bowl and beat well until light and fluffy. Add the icing sugar and egg yolk, and beat for another couple of minutes. Mix in the brandy, orange blossom water and vanilla and give it another good whip, then fold in the ground almonds.

3. In a separate bowl, combine the chopped almonds, flour, baking powder and salt. Fold into the butter mixture and mix until it all comes together. You might need to use your hands at the end. Pop in the fridge to chill for 10 minutes.

4. Take generous spoonfuls of the dough. Roll half of them into balls, transfer to a baking sheet and flatten slightly. Roll the other pieces of dough into balls, then shape them into crescent shapes and transfer a baking sheet.

5. Bake the cookies in batches of 12 for around 15 until just golden, turning them half-way to get an even bake. In the meantime, mix the brandy and rosewater in a dish.

6. Once baked, remove from the oven and brush immediately with the brandy-rosewater mixture. Allow to cool for a moment, then roll them in icing sugar. Transfer to a cooking rack, and dust generously with more icing sugar and leave to cool.

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{8} Frangipane Mincemeat Tarts

We’ve done biscuits, we’ve done buns, so now it’s time for tarts! When it comes to Christmas, there is only one tart for me, that that’s a good old mince pie. These are one of the things that really tell you that Christmas is around the corner (even if they are in British supermarkets from about mid-August), and that mixture of dried fruits, citrus and spices, encased on buttery pastry is just irresistible. They’re often served up alongside mulled wine (which I also love), but I think you can get too much sugar and spice in one go. A mince pie and a good cup of tea is just about a marriage made in heaven in my book.

However, I recently saw a bit of a twist in mince pies that I thought would be interesting to try. Rather than topping them with more pastry, and running the gauntlet about whether the filling would make a break for freedom from under the lid (thereby sealing the pies into the tray), the suggestion was to top them with a frangipane mixture and a few flaked almonds. Having enjoyed great success with a frangipane and pear tart a few months ago, this sounded like a great idea. Not only that, but it worked, and it worked beautifully.

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If you’re stuck in a bit of a mince pie rut, then I think these are for you. The pastry is a doodle to make, and the topping is super-simple. Just whisk butter, sugar and an egg until smooth, add some flavours, a bit of flour and some ground almonds, and pipe on top of the mincemeat. In the oven, it transforms into a light, moist almond sponge with a glorious golden colour on top. Dust with a scant dash of icing sugar, and they look beautiful.

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Now, I must confess that I’m not the sort of domestic perfectionist that makes there own mincemeat. Some people do, and that’s great, but I had a go once and it was a disaster. And you know what? You can buy amazing mincemeat, so I’m sticking with that route. Of course, I can never resist the urge to tweak, and mincemeat does accept additional ingredients rather well. I added a handful of crushed flaked almonds to mine, as well as a couple of tablespoons of brandy and the zest of a clementine to add a little more oompf. The additional citrus in particular really does help with getting a good flavour.

I also gave the frangipane a little extra helping hand – in addition to some almond extract, they have two spoonfuls of my home-made spiced pear liqueur and a spoonful of brandy, but you could add whatever you fancy – some Amaretto, Cointreau or dark rum perhaps? Again, I was not looking for a smack-you-in-the-lips flavour, just a subtle extra something.

If you’re not a mincemeat fan (and I gather, shockingly, that there are people who are not keen) then you could just replace it with jam. Something like spiced apple, plum or cherry would still be very seasonal!

And so…how were they? Well, I have to say that these are really, really good. This recipe makes quite a small amount of pastry, so the cases are thin and crisp, and the rich but light almond frangipane is a nice complement to the mincemeat. This is also a great option if you like the flavour of mincemeat but don’t want to use lots of it (or, alternatively, you’ve got to make a lot of pies and ran out of mincemeat!). This one is a keeper!

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To make Frangipane Mince Pies (makes 12):

For the pastry

• 150g plain flour
• 60g butter
• 50g icing sugar
• 1 medium egg

For the filling

• 200g mincemeat

For the frangipane

• 100g white caster sugar
• 100g unsalted butter
• 100g ground almonds
• 1 large egg
• 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
• 20g plain flour
• 3 tablespoons brandy (or other alcohol)

To finish

• flaked almonds
• icing sugar, to dust

1. Start with the pastry – rub the flour and butter until it resembles breadcrumbs. Mix in the icing sugar. Add the beaten egg and work to a soft dough (add a bit more flour if needed – the pastry will be very soft but not sticky). Wrap in cling film and chill in the fridge for at least an hour (or overnight).

2. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F). Lightly butter a 12-hole non-stick muffin tray.

3. Make the frangipane. Beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the other ingredients and beat until smooth and well-combined. You can do this manually, but it is much easier with an electric beater!

4. Assemble the tarts. On a floured worktop, roll the pastry thinly. Cut out circles and use to line the muffin moulds (if the pastry gets soft and is difficult to work, pop it back in the fridge). Put the tray of tart shells into the fridge for 10 minutes to chill, and then add a generous teaspoon of mincemeat to each tart. Spoon or pipe the frangipane filling into the tarts (fill to just below the pastry, as it will puff up slightly).

5. Sprinkle each tart with a few flaked almonds, and bake for around 20-25 minutes until the tarts are golden (you may need to turn half way to get an even colour).

6. When done, remove the tarts from the oven and allow to cool. Dust with a little icing sugar just before serving.

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Blackcurrants in Brandy

If you’re a regular reader, you may have seen my summer pudding two years ago. This is a classic British dessert made from ripe summer fruit encased in white bread. You leave everything to sit in the fridge overnight, and in the meantime the fruit juices will spill out into the bread, leaving everything a deep purple-red colour. A fruity slice, covered in cream, is hard to beat.

Well, I claim that this was my summer pudding but in fact the honour really has to go to my mum. The fruit was all grown by her own fair hands in her garden in Scotland, and the recipe was hers too. Whereas she has a garden with Victoria plums, redcurrants, strawberries, blaeberries, brambles…I’m scraping in with some never-quite-ripe figs and one stubbornly green tomato. I guess I’ll just have to work on my green fingers!

I was up in Scotland a few weeks for the Commonwealth Games, and it turned out to be the two-year anniversary of the previous summer pudding triumph. However, my plans to have another go were trounced by the inconvenient reality that my mum’s fruit crop had not done quite so well this year. There were a few raspberries, some lone strawberries and a scrap of redcurrants. Not quite the bounty I was hoping for, but there was one star amount then – my mum’s two blackcurrant bushes were positively groaning with fruit! A combination of lots of warm and sunny weather and the fact they were near a south-facing wall meant that they were dark, juiced and perfectly ripe. My mum was happy for me to take some, so I seized my chance and picked a generous punnet. In fact, I waited until my last day in Scotland, and picked them in the morning with the hope that they would survive six hours in the train back to London. The good news – they did.

So back in London, with the glow of the Commonwealth Games a fading memory, I had to think what to do with these blackcurrants. Jam would have been quick and easy, but I had been on what can only be described as a preserving binge earlier in the summer. Strawberry, peach, kumquat and passion fruit, raspberry and grapefruit all line my shelves, so another jar of jam was about the last think I needed. No, the clear choice was to bottle them and preserve them in brandy. This had been my mum’s suggestion back in Scotland, so a lesson to always listen!

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There are various ways to preserve fruit. The most complex version I’ve seen involves making a sugar syrup, cooking the fruit gently, and finishing off by heating everything in a hot water bath. My approach is far simpler – just pick the berries from the stalks, rinse them, then cover in brandy and add a little sugar. No spices, no cooking, no making a simple sugar syrup. The booze does all the hard work of preserving the fruit, and all you have to do is wait until Christmas to enjoy them. This technique is very similar to making a German Rumtopf but rather than adding different fruits as they come into season, you just throw the berries into a jar and let nature take its course. As you can see from my pictures, after a few weeks, the brandy has taken on an intense black colour from the berries. It’s also worth noting that you can adjust the sugar to taste – if you want, add less than I’ve suggested, and if you need to add more later, you can add a few more spoonfuls to balance the flavour. If you’re planning to eat these berries on their own, more sugar is probably good, whereas you could get away with less if serving with meringue or sweetened cream or ice cream.

One little tip that I did see when I was still in Scotland was to add a few blackcurrant leaves to the jar. They apparently contain more of the fragrant oils that give blackcurrants their flavour, so adding a few to the jar should provide a little boost while everything is steeping. That, and they do look rather pretty in the jar. I think if you were to add a little of the syrup to a glass of fizz, one of the leaves curled around the inside of your champagne flute would look rather pretty.

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Oh…and did I mention that in addition to boozy fruit, you’ll get a delicious home-made cassis liqueur? Perfect to add to champagne, cocktails or just have as a little post-dinner digestif.

To make blackcurrants in brandy:

• blackcurrants
• blackcurrant leaves (a handful)
• brandy
• white sugar

1. Clean a large jar with hot, soapy water and rinse well (we don’t want soapy berries!).

2. Remove the blackcurrants from the stalks. Rinse and add to the jar along with the blackcurrant leaves.

3. Now add the brandy and sugar until the fruit is covered. For every 100ml of brandy, add 30g of sugar (or less if you prefer).

4. Leave the jar in a cool, dark place for several months. Every couple of weeks, shake the jar to make sure the sugar dissolves.

Worth making? So far, so good. Check back at Christmas!

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{5} Hálfmánar (Half-Moons)

Today’s recipe hails from Iceland, which in previous years has provided some unusual and delicious ideas for Christmas. These things are called hálfmánar, or half-moons (far easier to type). I got this recipe from The Great Scandinavian Baking Book by Beatrice Ojakangas.

If you’re a bit of a fan of Nordic baking, then I highly recommend this book. It’s fair to say that this is a rather traditional tome, with lots of recipes and a few illustrations (sadly no pictures), but it is an absolute gem when it comes to pies, breads, crispbread, cakes and buns. It is packed with ideas from Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Finland, so it’s a great source of inspiration and lots of tidbits about baking history and culture.

These little delights are made from a rich, buttery pastry flavoured with cardamom, and filled with prunes. While Beatrice’s orignal recipe uses just prunes, I added a dash of cinnamon while they were cooking, and then a spoon of brandy at the end. Not so much of the stuff to leave your head spinning, but enough to add a little flavour to the prunes. Thanks to a little baking powder in the pastry, they are soft and slightly crumbly, encasing the right prune filling.

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These half-moons look quite fancy, but they are actually a doddle to make. You just need to roll out the pastry, then cut circles of dough to fill with whatever you want. A plummy filling is traditional, but you could really use any type of jam or marmalade, as long as you go for something that is fairly solid and won’t melt and leak out of the pastry during baking. I happened to have some quince paste that worked really well, and I filled a couple of them with damson jam. The flavour of damson was super, but the jam was a little runny, so I wasn’t able to add enough of it to the biscuits. The result looked like I had been mean and tried to skimp on the filling. In case of doubt, this is the time to use the jam you’ve got lurking in the cupboard that’s probably a little too solid to spread on toast!

If you’re feeling a little bit festive, you could even add some mincemeat, or chopped sultanas soaked in liqueur with some spice and orange zest. Indeed, nothing to stop you getting a little creative and making one batch with different flavourings to inject a little surprise into your biscuit selection.

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Now, one little thing that I think I have to talk about. You may have noticed the rather bright blue background here…I was keen to do something on a red-white-blue theme (the Icelandic flag) and I had some art paper in a brilliant blue colour that I thought would do the trick. I assure you, this isn’t a trick, it really is this incredibly intense blue colour. Think those blue paintings by Yves Klein and you’ll get the idea. When sunlight shines on it, it positively glows with a bright, intense colour. Possibly a little bright for everyday use, but I think it makes quite a nice contrast to all that gold, silver, red and green that you see everywhere at the moment.

To make Hálfmánar (makes 20-24):

For the pastry:

• 180g plain flour
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
• 110g unsalted butter
• 65g caster sugar
• 1/2 egg
• 1 teaspoon lemon juice
• ice water

For the filling:

• 120g pitted prunes
• 120ml water
• 2 generous pinches cinnamon
• 1 tablespoon brandy

1. First make the pastry. Combine the flour, baking powder and ground cardamom. Work in the butter until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Mix in the sugar. Add the egg, lemon juice and a tablespoon of ice water. Work until just combined, adding more flour or ice water as needed. Wrap in cling film and chill for at least 2 hours or overnight.

2. Make the filling. Chop the prunes, and put into a saucepan with the water and cinnamon. Cook for around 15 minutes until the mixture is fairly thick and seems a little too dry. Remove from the heat and stir in the brandy. Puree the mixture and leave until completely cooled.

3. Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

4. Make the biscuits. Roll out the pastry to 1/4 cm thickness, then cut out 8cm diameter discs of pastry. Put a scant teaspoon of the prune mixture in the middle of each. Moisten the edges of the pastry disc, them fold in half. Press lightly to seal and put on the baking tray. I tried crimping the edges, but as the pastry puffs up slightly during baking, the detail was lost on most of the cookies.

5. Bake the half-moons for 10-15 minutes until golden. Remove from the oven and cool on a wire tray.

Worth making? A clear yes! These have a night, fresh flavour from the cardamom in the pastry, and make a nice companion to morning coffee. The flavour can also be easily adjusted to cater for all tastes.

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