Tag Archives: brandy

{7} Bizcochitos

If you are a regular follower of my Christmas baking endeavours, you’ll know that most of the delights I post about come from random corners of Europe. I think the only exceptions so far are  South African soetkoekies and Japanese-inspired chestnut sweets.

Well today we’ve got another addition to this exclusive set, as we’re heading all the way over to the Southwest of the USA – to New Mexico to be exact.


Bizcochitos are crisp-yet-crumbly biscuits dipped in sugar, and flavoured with aniseed and cinnamon. So far, so festive. However, bizcochitos are much more than just a festive cookie. It turns out that they are nothing less than the official state cookie of New Mexico.

Bizcochitos have a long history that can be traced back to the first Spanish residents of a region then called Santa Fe de Nuevo México, which would go on to become the state of New Mexico. Confusingly, the country of Mexico had not become independent of Spain at this time, so this name doesn’t seem to be as an alternative to the national of Mexico.

Anyway, over time, bizcochitos become associated with weddings and Christmas. Those original cookies were flavoured with the spices available at the time, either those that grew there or those that arrived via trade routes. And I think the use of lard in some versions can be traced back to this too – lard features in quite a few Spanish cookie recipes today. It is certainly the first time I have seen a recipe in which cinnamon and aniseed are the two prominent flavours. It’s an unusual but delicious pairing.


A key part of making bizcochitos is coating them in sugar while still warm from the oven. And you might wonder if you really need to add this layer of sweetness? In a word, yes!

First off, it is traditional, so if you don’t dip them in cinnamon sugar, you’ve just got some aniseed cookies. Oh, and it’s quite fun to dip them as you juggle them, hot from the oven, between your fingers to get them properly coated. Second, it is the sugar that adds the intense cinnamon flavour. I’ve added a little ground cinnamon to the dough in this recipe, but I think you’d be missing out if you didn’t do the dip. Finally, the dough itself is not that sweet – these little guys assume they’ll be rolling in sugar, so just go with it.

This is also a cookie that I discovered in a different way to most of my festive baking. I usually go on the hunt for ideas, trawling the web and looking in cookbooks. But I found out about bizcochitos as I was given a bag of them by our friend Jess when she visited from the US. They were addictive, so I looked them up, made them myself, and I was hooked. I can only hope that I’ve done them justice.


This is a great dough if you want to cut out fancy shapes and have the cookies keep their shape – I’ve gone a bit crazy with the cutters here. Some sources suggest stars and crescent moons are traditional, so I’ve gone with stars as well as hearts and scalloped cookies.

I’ve also done some smaller bite-sized cookies in the shape of a five-petal flower. These have a bit of a story about them. Yes guys, this is a post peppered with asides and memories! The shape is typical of a Japanese cookie called soba-boro which is made from buckwheat flour. I had originally intended to include soba-boro as one of my twelve bakes this year, and I made them twice. Sadly, I just didn’t like them. It turned out that they are known for a specific flavour which comes from using baking soda as the raising agent, and it just was not a flavour that I enjoyed. I thought I had made a mistake in my first attempt, so I was rather deflated when I realised on my second attempt that they tasted the same. Given they are a big hit in their culinary home of Kyoto, it may just be my personal preference. However I was quite taken with the shape, so I decided to try it one these cookies, and I think the result is really great. There is not fancy cutter involved – just cut out the flower, then find something round to cut out the centre (I used the tip of a large metal piping nozzle).


In terms of making these cookies, the process is fairly easy. The only advice I would offer is that once you’ve cut out the cookies and put them on the baking sheet, it is worth chilling them again so that they keep their shape as they bake. I put the whole tray in the freezer for 2 minutes, and it seems to do the trick. Other than that – get baking and think of the dramatic scenery of New Mexico as you enjoy the unusual flavour of bizcochitos.

To make Bizcochitos (makes 40-50, depending on size)

For the dough:

• 225g unsalted butter
• 150g caster sugar
• 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/4 teaspoon aniseed extract

• 2 teaspoons aniseeds, crushed
• 1 tablespoon brandy
• 1 large egg
• 350g plain flour, plus more if needed
• 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
• 1/2 teaspoon salt

To finish:

• 150g caster sugar
• 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1. In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar. Add the cinnamon, aniseed, aniseed extract, brandy and egg, and beat well until light and fluffy.

2. In a separate bowl, mix the flour, baking powder and salt. Add the flour to the butter mixture and mix with a wooden spoon and then your hands until it comes together to a soft dough.

3. Wrap the dough in cling film and chill it in the fridge for 30 minutes, or overnight.

4. Preheat the oven to 175°C (350°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

5. Make the cinnamon sugar – put the sugar and cinnamon in a bowl and mix well.

6. Roll the dough out to around 4mm thickness and cut out cookies. Place them on a baking sheet (don’t mix shapes and sized on the same tray – some will burn before others are baked). Pop the tray and cookies in the fridge or freezer for 2 minutes.

7. Bake for 8-12 minutes until golden (the time will depend on the size – the flowers were 8 minutes, the scalloped cookies took 12), and turn the tray around during baking to get an even colour. Let the cookies cool for a brief moment, then fully dip each one into the cinnamon sugar, shake off the excess and transfer to a wire tray to cool completely.

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{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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