Tag Archives: british food

Scottish Food: Parlies (after a fashion…)

Hoots! Tonight is Burns Night, the official unofficial celebration of all things Scottish in general, and specifically the life and times of the national poet, Robert (Robbie) Burns. Up and down the land, people will enjoy traditional fare consisting of haggis, neeps and tatties (swede and potatoes). Simple stuff, but usually rounded off with a lot of whisky and followed with a poetry recital and some energetic Scottish folk dancing if you’ve managed to moderate the whisky intake.

I’ve been looking around for an interesting Scottish recipe, and from time to time I’ve seen a reference to biscuits called “parlies”. I must admit that parlies are not something that feature in my knowledge of Scottish baking, and it seems that I’m not alone. Most people think about shortbread and Ecclefechan tarts, perhaps with the occasional empire biscuit thrown in there, but parlies don’t feature much on blogs. So when it came to making these mysterious “parlies” I was pretty much guessing how they would turn out.

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Before I get to the baking, a little history lesson is helpful. The name parlies come from the word “parliament”, and they are also known as Scottish parliament cakes. The story goes that these ginger biscuits were purchased by the members of the original (pre-1707) Scottish Parliament from a tavern on Potterrow behind the University run by a Mrs Flockhart (who was also know as “Luckie Fykie”) , and were enjoyed with a tot of whisky. Parlies themselves were square in shape, and she also sold “snaps” which were round. In fact, you can read more about her in this extract from Traditions of Edinburgh written by Robert Chalmers in 1825. The title pages explain that it concerns itself with “conspicuous characters of the last century” and promises “the old-town ladies of quality”, which I can assume only refers to how they ran their hostelries. But remarkably, this book talks about her, the location of her tavern, and there is even a reference to parlies in there! However, I have not yet found a source that confirms whether these were enjoyed by any particular side of the house or they enjoyed cross-party appeal.

Armed with this knowledge, I knew that I was making some sort of ginger biscuit. I like ginger, so that was a plus. But what I quickly realised is that there is no one single way to make them. Given they seem to be at the very edges of the national baking consciousness, there is no single ideal to bake towards. Eeek! I knew what this meant – I might be facing baking failure, and I might end up in one of those kitchen frenzies when I’m trying recipe after recipe to get something that I deem acceptable. Yes, that happens sometimes!

All recipes I was able to track down used brown sugar, butter, flour, ginger and black treacle in varying quantities. Some used egg, others didn’t. There were also different ways to make them – some involved melting the butter, some involved the creaming method. While I am far from a baking expert, I knew this risked differing results. There was also a dearth of raising agents in the recipes I managed to find, which did make sense as the original parlies first popped up at a time when there was no baking powder, and other raising agents might have been hard to come by.

I bit the bullet and started with a recipe that involved mixing up the dry ingredients, then adding melted butter and an egg to make the dough, but with no raising agent. The dough looked good – it was fairly stiff, and once chilled it could be easily rolled into balls, then flattened and baked. I even added a criss-cross pattern with a fork, which provided a sort of portcullis look on the top of them. While they looked pretty good, and the flavour was decent, the lack of raising agent meant that they were thick and tough – these were not going to melt in the mouth, and I doubt that soaking them in tea or whisky would help soften them. Next!

My second attempt used the creaming method – whipping the butter and sugar, then mixing in the egg before adding the flour, ginger and treacle. This time the mixture seemed lighter and softer, and I assumed that the air I had beaten into it would mean that this batch would come out crisp and light. Well, nope. The spoonful of dough just baked into an unappealling lump of brown. I did try to rescue the dough with a spoonful of golden syrup and a teaspoon of baking soda, but the result looked horrible, and managed to taste worse than it looked. Next!

By my third attempt, I realised that since I had no clue what I was actually aiming for, I should go back to what I know about ginger biscuits. The mixture reminded me of gingernuts, but without any raising agent. I felt that the lack of anything to give them a lift might have been authentic, but it was also grim, and we live in a modern world where we don’t need to eat grim biscuits. I needed something for lift, and decided on baking soda. So my version of parlies are actually gingernuts, but with the sweet golden syrup replaced with the dark, spicy and tangy black treacle, and a bit of chopped cyrstallised ginger for extra spice.

This time, they worked like a dream – just mix all the dry ingredients, work in the butter, then add the treacle. The dough is easy to work and roll into balls, and in the oven, then collapse, take on an attractive random cracked appearance. Once cool, they are light and crisp. Perfect!

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So there you have it – my take on parlies! They might not be authentic, but I like to think that Mrs Flockhart might have approved (she did sell the round ones too, after all!). And I think they make a passable attempt and the black treacle is a definite nod to the original, and it adds an interesting flavour to them. If you’re not a fan of black treacle, you could use sweeter molasses, or if you like things very sugary, just use golden syrup and call them gingernuts. That still sounds rather Scottish, doesn’t it?

To make parlies (makes 20):

• 110g plain flour
• 1 teaspoon baking soda
• 1 teaspoon ground ginger

• 40g soft brown sugar
• 50g butter
• 1 teaspoon candied ginger, finely chopped
• 2 tablespoons (50g) black treacle or molasses

1. Preheat the oven to 190°C and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

2. Put the flour, baking soda and ground ginger in a bowl. Mix in the sugar, then rub in the butter until it resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Mix in the chopped ginger.

3. Add the treacle and mix to a stiff dough.

4. Divide into 20 pieces (roll into a sausage of 20cm, the cut into 1cm pieces). Roll each piece into a ball, then place on the baking sheet and flatten slightly. They will spread out, so leave plenty space between them. It is easier to bake them in batches.

5. Bake for 10-15 minutes until the cookies have spread out and have a cracked appearance. They will be soft when they come out of the oven, but will go hard once cooled.

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Filed under Recipe, Scottish Food, Sweet Things

Bara Brith

Hello! After a rather long hiatus, we’re recommencing regular service. Let’s just say that my priorities were elsewhere over the last few months, but when the important moment arrived, everyone said “yes” at the right moment!

Today’s post is a piece of classic British baking. Well, more precisely, a classic from Wales. The name – Bara Brith – translates as “mottled bread” and you can see how it got its name when the loaf is sliced. It is packed with lots of sultanas and raisins, which are plump from having been soaked overnight in sweet tea.

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This is something of a teatime classic, and is probably at its best cut into slices and spread with salted butter. If you like jam or honey, then go for it, but I think simplicity is best. When you’re faced with a platter of very sweet treats, a slice of Bara Brith provides a nice balance. I’ve been taking slices of it when we go out for the day – it’s a great addition to a picnic, and robust enough to handle being carted up hill and down dale without any problems.

And this is definitely one easy recipe. Make your tea, mix it with sugar and dried fruit, and leave overnight to soak so that the flavour of the tea infuses the fruit. The next day, you add an egg, flour and spices, then mix and bake it. Given this, one of the great things about Bara Brith is that you can make it with things that you’re probably already got in the baking cupboard and the fridge, and beyond leaving the fruit to soak overnight, it can be whipped easily, so perfect to make when you’re expecting guests. Or at least, more modern versions allow for this – some recipes still suggest using yeast to make a light loaf, but I find that’s just a bit more work that relying on self-raising flour, and I like to keep things easy.

I’m sure that each Welsh granny has her family recipe which they swear is the best, but I’ve tried a few different versions of this loaf and settled on the one below – it’s got a high ratio of tea to fruit, sugar and flour, meaning that the batter ends up quite wet compared to others that I tried, but I think the secret to getting a soft, moist loaf. I tried a version that used more fruit and flour, and the result was drier and denser. Some might like it that way, but I did not. And as with most things, the more tea, the better.

For the tea, I had a rummage in the cupboard to see what we had. Earl Grey or jasmine would certainly give you a very aromatic loaf, but I went for my all-time favourite, a good, strong brew using Assam. If black tea is not your thing, then you could easily use something like rooisbos, green tea or any other infusion you like, or even just orange juice instead.

Finally, there is the question of whether you add other flavours – some don’t add anything more, while some recipes add orange or lemon zest, and others like to add some spices. I’m a bit spice fan, so I’ve added some Christmas mixed spices and extra cinnamon, but you can go with whatever you like.

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So how authentic is this? Well, I made it and served it to a Welsh friend, Lowri. I asked her to score it out of 10, and waited, secretly hoping for a 9 or even a 10.

Lowri mulled it over, and gave a sensible 7, on the basis that this wasn’t a family recipe that went back at least three generations. Fair enough!

To make Bara Brith (makes 1 loaf)

• 100g raisins
• 150g sultanas
• 150g soft brown sugar (e.g. muscavado)
• 300ml hot black tea (e.g. Assam)
• 1 teaspoon mixed spice
• 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 275g self-raising flour
• 1 large egg, beaten
• 2-3 tablespoons milk or orange juice

1. Put the fruit and sugar into a bowl. Add the tea, mix, cover and leave overnight to soak.

2. The next day, make the loaf. Preheat the oven to 160°C (320°F). Line a 900g/2lb loaf tin with greaseproof paper.

3. Take the fruit mixture. Stir in the spices and the beaten egg, then add the flour and mix well. Add as much milk or orange juice as needed to make a soft batter. Pour into the loaf tin and smooth the top if needed.

4. Bake the loaf for around 50-60 minutes until an inserted skewer comes out clean. If the top looks like it is browning too quickly, cover loosely with tin foil.

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Filed under Afternoon Tea, Recipe, Sweet Things

Abernethy Biscuits

After my recent little sojourn into traditional baking with Tudor marchpane, I thought that it would be a nice link to today’s recipe – a fairly simple biscuit flavoured with that rather “olde worlde” flavour, caraway seeds. I love that spice – it is delicious in cheeses and sugary sweets alike, and adds a lovely aromatic flavour to biscuits when you bite into them. As the flavour stays in the seeds, you get little bursts of caraway as you munch on the biscuit.

So I set about writing this post thinking that it was another piece of Scottish baking – I assumed, perhaps not unreasonable, that Abernethy biscuits were named after the town of Abernethy in Perthshire (my part of the country, what’s not to love about that?). And according to my mum’s research about our family tree, I think we even have links to the town. Brilliant!

Except…well, it turns out that I could not really have been much more wrong! These biscuits are not named after the town, and they’re not even Scottish. They get their name from their creator, a certain Dr John Abernethy. And from what I’ve been able to find out, he was born in London, and grew up in Wolverhampton, and doesn’t seem to have a particular link to the Perthshire town. While Abernethy biscuits remain popular north of the border, it seems that I’ve been under a misapprehension for many years!

However, If we ignore my incorrect assumption about their origin, these are actually really nice biscuits. They’re not very sweet at all – just a little bit of sugar in them – as they were created as a sort of “digestive” biscuit. And that’s the point of the caraway. The seeds were traditionally regarded as aiding the digestion and settling the stomach, hence their appearance in these biscuits. Given this claimed health benefit, it begins to make a bit more sense that Dr Abernethy is hailed as their creator. We can only assume that they must have enjoyed quite some success as they went on to become quite famous.

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These biscuits are very simple to make – rub butter into flour, add sugar and spice, then a beaten egg and some milk to make the dough. Then roll it out, as thin as you can, and cut into circles and then…well, this is where the fun starts. You can leave them plain, you can spike them with a fork, you can use one of those special things-with-nails-in-them to get perfectly identical biscuits, or you can do what I did – cut the tip off a wooden cocktail stick, then make the holes at random. You need to develop a good press-twist-pull movement, and forget any idea about getting the pattern perfect – aim for random, it’s less likely to drive you mad when you’ve punched holes into the thirty-four biscuit!

Abernethy biscuits are nice on their own, not too sweet at all and with a good caraway flavour. Perhaps the best way to describe them is like a less tender version of shortbread – they’ve got a definite snap to them. They go well as simple accompaniment to a cup of tea, but they are also great to serve with cheese. I found a good, strong cheddar worked particularly well. If you prefer to use them as a sweet biscuit, you can dust the baked biscuits with caster sugar straight from the oven. Or ice them for a sort of mock-Tudor delight (I have not tried this – but if you do give it a go, let me know how that works out).

Now…I just need to see how well I sleep tonight. I’ve wolfed down a few of these biscuits today, so I am fully expecting my stomach to be quite well settled, and that as a result (and thanks to the work of Dr Abernathy) I should sleep like a log!

To make Abernethy biscuits (makes 30-40):

• 240g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
• 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
• 85g butter
• 85g caster sugar
• 1 1/2 teaspoons caraway seeds, lightly crushed
• 1 medium egg, beaten
• 1 tablespoon milk, plus extra if needed

1. Mix the flour and baking powder in a bowl. Rub in the butter until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs. Stir in the sugar and caraway seeds.

2. Add the beaten egg and a tablespoon of milk, and stir to make a soft dough – but it should not feed sticky. Add more flour or milk as needed. Wrap in cling film and chill for 30 minutes.

3. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F) and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

4. Roll the dough thinly on a floured work surface and cut into rounds. If you want, use a cocktail stick to make a pattern on top. Keep going until you have used all the dough.

5. Bake the biscuits in batches so you can control the colour and prevent them from getting too dark. Bake for around 10-15 minutes until golden, turning the tray half-way to get an even colour.

Worth making? I love these biscuits! The caraway is a very unusual flavour, and the lower sugar content makes them seem just that little bit more refined.

 

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Filed under Recipe, Savoury, Sweet Things

Blood Orange Marmalade

A great way to bring a bit of sunshine into what can be the very grey last days of winter is to get busy with making marmalade. Seville oranges are a British favourite, as they are too bitter to use for most purposes, but they do provide a good, sharp breakfast marmalade to wake you up in the morning. However, not everyone is a fan, so I’ve turned my hand to using other citrus that gives a milder result (more being shaken aware than being slapped?), and it just so happened that I got a load of blood oranges delivered recently in my veg box.

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I know that jams, preserves and marmalades can seem like a bit of dark art, and that marmalade in particular is often thought of as being rather daunting. I think it’s really just a matter of patience. In fact, marmalade it is the sort of thing that is perfect to make on a quiet weekend when you’re just pottering around at home, as you spend Saturday juicing the fruit and shredding the peel, then boiling everything up and letting it sit. Then on Sunday, you get to do the “fun bit” with the sugar, engaging in what seems like alchemy to turn a pot of watery orange peel into a sweet, tangy and glowing confection.

I always find that there is something rather therapeutic about peeling and slicing all those orange peels, with the wonderful orange aroma filling the kitchen as you prepare and cook the fruit. All that orange oil being spritzed into the air as you handle the peel does leave you feeling rather invigorated!

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As I was using blood oranges, I was expecting this to really impact on the final marmalade – something rich and red was surely going to be my reward, yes? Some of my oranges had quite dark red skin (a good start) and when I cut into them, I was pleased by the bright red flesh and juice. I was expecting that the resulting marmalade would be a jolly red colour…but in the end, it was a deep shade of orange. A nice colour, just not red. So all in all, just a touch disappointing, but not the end of the world! And of course, the flavour was still fantastic – obviously a strong orange flavour, but without some of that bitterness that you get with Seville oranges, but not the sweet jelly you get when using the very fine peel from sweet oranges. As I had used all of the peel, not just the coloured part, it still had enough of a bitter tinge to balance all the sugar in there.

When making marmalade, you should in theory be able to get a good set using just the peel, sugar and water, and rely on the fruit membranes and pips to give you enough pectin. I’ve made marmalade this way in the past with everything from Seville oranges to grapefruit, but my experience is that you can end up boiling everything for absolutely ages. This can concentrate down the sugar, resulting in a very sweet marmalade, and I think the longer you boil everything, the more of an impact this has on the flavour, and I suspect you probably lose some of the delicate aromatic orange oils (or not – I’m a home cook, not a scientist, so just a theory of mine). So I cheat – I want everything to be done more quickly, and I want a reliable set, so I use half normal granulated sugar and half jam sugar (with pectin). Sure, it makes me a massive cheat, but it works.

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While I bemoaned the lack of a vibrant crimson colour in the final marmalade, I was able to ensure the colour was on the dark side. I used about 100g of dark muscovado sugar rather than white sugar. I think using all muscovado sugar would be too overwhelming, but using about 10% does make it a shade or two more intense, and adds a little extra something to the finished marmalade.

This recipe makes about 5-6 normal sized pots. It’s excellent on hot toast with melted butter, but it has lots of other uses. Try folding it into fruit cakes or sponge cakes for a robust orange tang, or add it to gingerbread and melt to use as a glaze. Or get very creative…add to the shaker and mix into your cocktail of choice. Try a spoonful mixed with gin and then add your tonic…

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To make Blood Orange Marmalade (makes 6 pots):

• 1kg blood oranges (5-6 oranges)
• 500g jam sugar (with pectin)
• 100g dark muscovado sugar
• 400g white caster sugar
• 100ml lemon juice
• small knob of butter (size of an almond)

Day One

1. Wash the oranges. Cut in half and juice them.

2. Take each of the pieces of peel – trim off the membranes on the inside (keep them!) and cut the peel into fine shreds.

3. Measure the orange juice, and top up to 2 litres with water. Add the shredded peel. Collect that various seeds, membranes, any peel offcuts and anything left in the orange juicer (such as pulp) into a piece of muslin, tied securely, and add to the pot.

4. Put the pot onto a medium heat and cover. Bring to the boil, then simmer for around 2 hours until the peel is very soft. When done, turn off the heat and leave to sit overnight.

Day Two

5. Strain the liquid from the pot (keep the shredded orange peel!). Squeeze as much as you can from the muslin bag – this will extract pectin, and you should notice the liquid coming through the muslin a bit thick. Once you’ve got as much as you can from the bag, discard the mush inside.

6. Measure the liquid – if necessary, top up to 1 litre. If you’ve got more, don’t worry – add it all to the pot.

7. Return the liquid to the pot with the peel and the sugar, and place over a medium heat until the mixture comes to a boil. Add the lemon juice and the knob of butter, then keep on a medium heat until it comes to a rolling boil. Skim off any foam that forms, and start to test regularly for a set(*). It’s hard to say how long this takes – it might be 10 minutes, it might be 40 minutes. Just be sure to keep an eye on the marmalade – burnt marmalade is not nice.

8. When you have a set, remove the marmalade from the heat and leave to sit for 12 minutes (it will thicken slightly – this helps to ensure the strands “float” in the marmalade and don’t sink). Decant the hot marmalade into sterilised jam jars and seal(**).

(*) How to check for a set? Chill a saucer in the fridge. Put a little marmalade on the cool plate, and return to the fridge for a minute. Push with your finger – if the marmalade visibly “wrinkles” when you push it, the marmalade is done. If it stays liquid, then cook longer and check again after a few minutes.

(**) How to sterilise jam jars? Wash in hot, soapy water, and then rinse very well – do not dry them. Now place up-side down on the shelf of a cold oven, and heat to 100°C / 210°F for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven using gloves, allow to cool slightly (they should still be warm) and fill with the hot marmalade. You can leave the jars in the oven with the heat turned off until you need them, as this keeps the glass warm, and warm glass is much less likely to crack when you add warm jam (science, eh?). Remember to sterilise the lids by washing in hot, soapy water, then rinsing well and then boiling them in a pot of hot water for a few minutes.

Worth making?  100% yes! This is easy to make, but the result is delicious, and I think so much better than the manmade that you can buy. You can also customise according to your preferences – you can add spices, fresh ginger or even a dash of whisky or brandy to lend a little extra kick.

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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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Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things

Bonfire Night Flapjacks

If you’re planning to go to a Bonfire Night celebration, then chances are you’ll be looking for something to munch on as you’re looking skywards to take in the fireworks.

With this in mind, I’ve played around with my go-to flapjack recipe to make it a bit more seasonal. In addition to the usual butter, sugar and oats, I’ve also added some spices as well as a rather random selection of things from the store cupboard – pumpkin and sunflower seeds, apricots, dates, sultanas, hazelnuts and spelt flakes. The result is sticky, delicious and has a very autumnal flavour. It also takes about ten minutes to make, so it is incredibly easy to whip up in a hurry. Just to make the point, I’ve got the recipe below – and you’ll see that all the “extras” are measured either by the teaspoon or by the handful.

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If you’re keen to have a go yourself, you really don’t need much more than sugar, butter and rolled oats. Otherwise, just add whatever you want (or more realistically – whatever you have in the cupboard). Dried fruits work very well, as do nuts and seeds. The one unusual thin on the list is spelt flakes – I love using these in flapjacks as they stay very crisp and add some interesting texture. It’s actually taken me a while to track them down – I used to be able to buy then in a shop in Stoke Newington, but have not found them in Clapham. Lucky for me I stumbled upon a new Wholefoods store near Piccadilly Circus, so I’ve now got easy access to all manner of weird and wonderful ingredients. Result!

So there you have it – a quick and fairly healthy idea for Bonfire Night, or just to enjoy during a quiet moment with a cup of tea.

To make Bonfire Night Flapjacks (makes 16):

• 175g butter
• 175g soft brown sugar
• 40g (2 tbsp) golden syrup
• pinch of salt
• 200g rolled oats
• 45g (3 handfuls) sultanas
• 35g (3 teaspoons) candied ginger
• 20g (2 handfuls) pumpkin seeds
• 15g (1 handful) sunflower seeds
• 20g (2 handfuls) spelt flakes
• 40g (1 handful) apricots, chopped
• 25g (1 handful) hazelnuts, chopped
• 25g (1 handful) dates, chopped
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
• 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1. Pre-heat the oven to 190°C (375°F). Line a 20cm (8 inch) square baking tray or cake tin with non-stick paper.

2. Put the butter, sugar, syrup and salt (if using) in a pan. Heat gently until the butter is melted, and then boil for one minute. Add the candied ginger and mix well.

3. In a large bowl, mix all the other ingredients. Add the butter/sugar mixture and stir well. Put into a tray, spread the mixture evenly, press down and bake for 20 minutes. It should have a rich brown colour when done.

4. Once the mega-flapjack is cooked, let it cool completely, then turn onto a chopping board and cut into pieces.

Worth making? Absolutely! This reicpe is incredbily easy to make, tastes delicious, and can be

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Give it a whirl…

Okay, I realise that there has been a bit of an unexpected blogging hiatus. I was getting so good at posting with something that could be said to approach regularity. Then I went and mucked it all up by taking some time off and going to explore the lovely scenery of the Peak District national park. Long and bracing outdoor walks, charming country pubs, pretty villages and spectacular stately homes. Great to escape the big smoke and disconnect (and I mean really disconnect – almost no mobile phone coverage during the day, so no surfing the internet on an iPhone in the middle of a forest or on top of a hill…and that’s a good thing!). Of course, also less great for regular posts, so time to resume normal service.

Anyway, just as I’m back in town, I’m delighted to find that the Great British Bake-Off is back on our screens. We can experience the week by week baking trials and tribulations of an intrepid group of bakers as they take on breads, pies, biscuits and cakes, all the while seeking to deliver a “good bake” while avoiding the dreaded soggy bottom.

In honour of what is frankly my favourite TV show, today I’m going to get a little bit retro with a classic British biscuit. These are called Viennese Whirls, and are made from two very buttery shortbread biscuits filled with raspberry jam and vanilla buttercream. While these little babies look very fancy, I’m not too sure that they would make it as a technical challenge – they are fairly easy to do well, so the judges might be faced with tray after tray of perfect cookies.

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If you are British and of a certain age, you’ll be quite familiar with Viennese whirls, most likely the Mr Kipling variety. If so, I really recommend having a go at making them – they taste, on the one hand, just like you remember them, but as you’ve made them yourself, they also taste so much better than what you can buy. They are also fun to serve guests – you can fully expect to get gasps of excitement when you present them alongside a cup of tea.

Now…I think I have to burst the bubble here. In spite of the name of these fancy biscuits, I’m not too sure that they have anything to do with either Vienna or Austria more generally. A quick search on the web does not make even a vague attempt to explain their origin. The only theory I can put forward is that when these biscuits were created, they were seen as sufficiently fancy to be biscuits fit to serve in the smart grand cafés of Vienna. Maybe the swirling of the biscuits recalls gentlemen and ladies whirling around at those famous Viennese Balls?

These are quite a fun biscuit to make – yes, it involves piping the mixture, but it’s quite easy to have a few practice shots (just scrape any less than perfect biscuits back into the piping bag and keep going), and the effect looks really good. They also taste quite decadent – the biscuits are very buttery, and using cornflour in the mixture makes them extra-short and crumbly, which goes fantastically well with the rich buttercream filling and fruity raspberry jam.

I liked the look of these Viennese whirls as they are, but it is traditional to dust them with icing sugar – this will help to highlight the shape of the biscuits and showcase your piping skills to maximum effect. But dusted or au naturel they look very elegant on a plate served with tea, and perfect for a quite moment on the sofa with a good book.

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To make Viennese Whirls (makes around 20):

For the biscuits:

• 250g salted butter
• 50g icing sugar
• 250g plain flour
• 50g cornflour
• 1-2 teaspoons milk (if needed)

For the filling

 • 100g butter
• 200g icing sugar
• ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
• 100g raspberry jam
• icing sugar, to dust (optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 170°C (340°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

2. In a large bowl, mix the butter, icing sugar, flour and cornflour until smooth. You should have a very soft dough – if need be, add a teaspoon or two of milk.

3. Transfer the dough to a piping bag fitted with a large star-shaped nozzle. Pipe out rosettes, leaving a decent gap between them, aiming for around 40.

4. Bake the biscuits for 12-15 minutes until they are a light golden colour (you may need to turn the baking tray half-way through to get an even colour). Remove from the oven and leave to cool.

5. Next, prepare the jam. Warm it in a saucepan until just boiling, then pass through a sieve to remove the seeds. Discard the seeds, and leave the sieved jam to cool until thick.

6. Make the filling – beat the butter, icing sugar and vanilla until smooth and pale. Transfer to a piping bag fitted with a large star-shaped nozzle.

7. Assemble the Viennese whirls – take one biscuit as a base, add some jam, then pipe a generous amount of filling. Top with another biscuit. Do the same until all the biscuits have been used (you might have some jam and buttercream left over).

8. Arrange on a plate to serve, dusting with icing sugar if desired.

Worth making? These are actually very easy to make and the result looks super. The flavour is also excellent – but be sure the use salted butter for the biscuits themselves, as this provides a better flavour. And don’t skimp on the filling – it should squish out as you bite into them!

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Bath Buns

A few months ago I turned my hand to Sally Lunn buns, a rich bread associated with the English city of Bath. When I made them, I promised to have a go at another bun that hails from the same place. Today I present the “other” buns, the unsurprisingly named Bath Buns.

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Bath Buns are large, sweet yeasted buns with…well, at this point, it all goes a bit haywire. There are lots of recipes for finishing off these buns – using currants, sultanas or candied peel (or some combination of all three), and flavoured variously with nutmeg, caraway or rosewater. Crushed sugar tends to feature on top of the buns, and often in the buns during baking. So what’s the real deal and how close could I get at home?

Their origins are said to lie with a certain Dr William Oliver who lived in Bath in the 18th century. He developed these buns as a way of providing sustenance to his patients, but discovered that when you feed people warm buns with lots of butter, sugar and spices, they tend to consume them in volume. A a result, patients who had come to Bath to take the waters and obtain relief from rheumatism (and perhaps obtain a slimmer figure?) would end up waddling their way back to London. He soon switched his rich buns for rather less appealing dry biscuits. And the Bath Oliver biscuits is still made today!

If you would like to get an idea of how appealing the Doctor’s famous buns (ooh-err!) were at the time, here is a contemporary description from “Chambers Journal” published by W. Chambers in 1855:

The Bath-bun is a sturdy and gorgeous usurper—a new potentate, whose blandishments have won away a great many children, we regret to say, from their lawful allegiance to the plum-bun. The Bath-bun is not only a toothsome dainty, but showy and alluring withal. It was easier for ancient mariners to resist the temptations of the Sirens, than it is for a modern child to turn away from a Bath-bun. This bun is rich and handsome, yellow with the golden yolk of eggs that mingles with its flour, wealthy in butter and sugar, adorned with milk – white sugar – plums, curiously coloured comfits, and snowy almonds. Large, solid, and imposing, it challenges attention, and fascinates its little purchasers. Take a child into a confectioner’s shop, ask it what it prefers, and, ten to one, its tiny finger will point to where, among tartlets and sausage-rolls, nestles the Bath-bun.

All sounds rather delicious, yes? So when I was making these buns, I needed to start with a rich brioche dough. I livened this up with a good dash of freshly grated nutmeg, lemon zest and – crucially – some lightly crushed caraway seeds. Caraway? Yes. Rather surprising in baking (but delicious in these biscuits), but this is a nod to the comfits that were used in the past. Comfits were simply sugared seeds (various things like aniseed, caraway or fennel) rather like sugared almonds, that would impart sweetness and flavour. As you can see, I also finished the buns with more caraway seeds and some crushed sugar given the, eh, lack of easy access to medieval comfits in the modern city.

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These buns also have a little secret. It is traditional to add crushed sugar and put this inside the bun. During baking, this will disappear and leave lovely patches of sticky goodness inside the bun. In addition to the sugar, I also added a handful of currants to vary things a little.

The results are fantastic – the buns are soft and fluffy, the richness coming from rather a lot of eggs, butter and milk, while the sweetness comes only from the crushed sugar (there’s little sugar in the dough itself). Keeping the caraway seeds whole means the flavour of the buns gets little spicy punches as you nibble on them. They certainly make a most pleasing medicine, and you will rather quickly understand why those genteel lords and ladies found it hard to stop at just one.

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However…all is perhaps not so rosy with the reputation of the Bath Bun.  Their name apparently took a bit of a battering as a result of the Great Exhibition of 1851. This was the grand fair in London which gave us the now sadly-gone Crystal Palace but also featured Bath Buns. These proved very popular with visitors (like those 18th century visitors to Bath…) with nearly one million of them consumed over five months. However, the inevitable the dash for cash led to cheaper and cheaper ingredients being used to make the buns (for example, the butter was replaced with lard). These less-luxurious buns got the moniker “London Bath Buns” or “London Buns” and today have evolved (minus the lard, and with the butter back in) into simple buns leavened with baking powder, similar to rock buns.

If you’re in the need for some restorative baking, these buns are excellent. I think they are at their best when very fresh – serve while still just warm, or at a push, make the night before and serve the following morning. My recipe includes a sugar glaze – it’s important not to skip this, as it helps to keep the surface of the buns soft and prevents them drying out. Now – try to stop at just one of these tasty treats!

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To make Bath Buns (makes 12):

For the dough:

• 150ml milk, scalded and cooled
• 3 large eggs
• 1 teaspoon instant yeast
• 400g strong white flour
• 100g unsalted butter
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 45g caster sugar
• 1 lemon, zest only
• 1 teaspoon caraway seeds, crushed
• ½ teaspoon grated nutmeg

For the filling:

• 100g caster sugar
• cold water
• 50g currants

1. Make the dough.

If using a bread machine: throw 2 1/2 eggs and the rest of the ingredients into the bowl and run the dough cycle. Reserve the rest of the egg.

If making by hand: throw 2 1/2 eggs and the rest of the ingredients apart from the butter into a large bowl. Reserve the rest of the egg. Mix until you have a soft, elastic dough (around 5 minutes), then work in the softened butter. Cover and leave in a warm place until doubled in size.

2. While the dough is proving, prepare the filling for the buns. Put the sugar and some water into a small saucepan. Boil gently, stirring all the time, until the sugar crystallizes (it should be white, not caramelised). Acting quickly, turn the mass onto a greased baking sheet and spread out using a metal spoon. Leave to cool. Break into pieces, taking 12 pieces the size of a sugar cube (or 3-4 pieces that would add up to a sugar cube) and put to one side. Crush the rest of the sugar roughly, then put into a sieve – you should be left with coarse pearl sugar lumps for the tops of the buns.

3. Next, shape the buns. Divide the dough into twelve equal pieces. Put the lumps of sugar and a small handful of currants into each bun, then seal the base and place seam-side down onto a baking sheet lined with greaseproof paper.

4. Leave the buns to rise again, until doubled in size. Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F).

5. Take the reserved egg and mix with two tablespoons of water. Brush the buns with the egg glaze, then sprinkle immediately with caraway seed and crushed sugar (do them one bun at a time, so the glaze does not dry out – otherwise the sugar and caraway won’t stick). Bake the buns for 15-20 minutes until golden – the should sound hollow when tapped.

6. While the buns are baking, make the sugar syrup – take all the remaining sugar that you didn’t use to make the sugar lumps/pearl sugar (I had 50g), and add three tablespoons water. Heat until all the sugar has dissolved (add a drop more water if needed), then boil for one minute. Brush the buns with the warm sugar syrup while still warm.

Worth making? Definitely. The above recipe can take a while if you’re going to do the sugar yourself, but you can take a short-cut if you buy rough-style sugar cubes and pearl sugar to save time. But cutting down on the butter…don’t you dare!

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Filed under Afternoon Tea, Recipe, Sweet Things

Keepin’ it Cool

It feels a little like the tail end of summer at the moment. The heatwave has gone (even it if did hint at a comeback this weekend), but I feel that we are slipping slowly but inexorably towards autumn. Ripe blackberries are starting to appear, and the days seem to be getting just a little shorter.

However, I’m being optimistic. I’m hopeful we’ll have another hot spell in the next few weeks, so my various strategies to keep cool should stand me in good stead. Lots of water, beer, chilled white wine and icy glasses of Pimm’s (filled with strawberries, mint and cooling cucumber) are perennial favourites. And warm weather also allows the mind to wander to what may well be one of the most curious of English foods, the cucumber sandwich. This is a staple of afternoon tea and garden parties, and it is quite frankly amazing how much divergence of opinion there is about something that is fundamentally sliced gourd on soft white bread.

These sandwiches are very curious. They contain very little by way of nutrition, and even if you were to scoff a whole plate of them, they’re hardly going to fill you up. But, of course, they had their heyday back in the Victoria era, when the rich could afford to sit around, take tea and nibble on curious items like this. They feature as a motif for the upper classes in literature, and even today, they’re hardly the go-to item when you’re starving. They’re a bit of fun, and served really for their novelty value than anything else.

There are actually lots and lots of different ways to make these sandwiches, from the type of bread, whether to use butter or something else, and how to prepare the cucumber. Here’s my take on them, which make a rather fun and frivolous addition if you’re serving cake and scones for afternoon tea. I’m sure Downton Abbey’s Dowager wouldn’t attend tea if these sandwiches weren’t on offer!

First things first…the bread. People sometimes get rather sniffy about using the a good old British sliced white loaf, but it traditional in making these sandwiches. If you can’t quite bring yourself to use white, you could opt for brown. Whichever you go for, try to get thin slices. Doorstep loaves are not synonymous with elegance! However, using malted, wholegrain or rustic sourdough is probably going a little bit too far – cucumber doesn’t have the sort of flavour that stands up to a really robust bread flavour. You’ve got to think about this bread being used for making elegant finger sandwiches, and crusty and rustic don’t really fit the bill for our purposes. If you still can’t bring yourself to use sliced white bread, then you could try to get posh and refined by using brioche, but I’ve never tried it and have absolutely no idea how that would work. If you try it, do leave a comment and let know.

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Having decided on the bread, next thing to sort out it the filling. There are two parts to this – the cucumber itself, and any sort of spread you might want to use (butter or cream cheese – this is essential to stop the water from the cucumber making the bread soggy).

First, the cucumber. You can either leave on the skin (more cucumber flavour) or peel it, and leave the seeds in or take them out (a point to note – the original domestic goddess Mrs Beeton recommends peeling, but not de-seeding). Leaving on the peel will give you more dark green in the finished sandwiches. However, where you will want to have a view on to salt or not to salt. If you just slice the cucumber, it can get rather wet and make the bread soggy (not good). The trick to solve this is very simple – pop the cucumber slices into a colander, then sprinkle with salt and toss lightly. Leave to drain for about half an hour, and you should find that most of the moisture has been drawn out of the cucumber. Then simply dry with kitchen paper, and you’ve managed to avoid soggie sarnies. By using the salt technique, you also add a little flavour enhancement to the cucumber, which also means that you can avoid using salted butter.

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Next, should you use butter or cream cheese? I prefer to use softened butter (unsalted), but you can also use cream cheese, which can be jazzed up with fresh chopped herbs and mint. Butter is the traditionally British approach, with cream cheese more American. What you use is up to you, but the key is to get an even spread, so that you coat the bread and prevent the cucumber turning the bread soggy.

Finally, assemble the sandwiches! I find the best way is the spread two slices of bread with either soft butter or cream cheese. Spread over the salted, drained and dried cucumber, then add the top slice of bread. Now, at this stage, you’ll come to the one things that is pretty much non-negotiable with cucumber sandwiches – trim off all the crusts to deliver dainty finger sandwiches that suggest the hight of refinement. Use a serrated knife, and press lightly and let the knife do the work. If you press too hard, you’ll squash the bread, and we want it all to look soft and light. I find the best way is to trim off all the crusts, then cut the trimmed bread into three of four fingers (depending on bread size).

So there we have it – how to make classic British cucumber sandwiches. Goes perfectly with scones and jam, cakes and lots of tea in the afternoon.

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Filed under Afternoon Tea, Recipe, Savoury

Royal Baby: Gingerbread Acorn Biscuits

More on the theme of the royal baby, I’m afraid! Normal summer food will resume next week, but for the moment, we’ll still share in the national joy of the arrival of HRH Prince George of Cambridge.

Clearly a lot of people have decided to mark the event in various forms of cute cakes (myself included). So what else could I come up with that was interesting but not too twee or obvious. Cupcakes? Done. Cake pops? Not a fan. Macarons? Hmmm….

Then it came to me – what about gingerbread? Very traditional biscuits, with their rich spiciness said to have medicinal and healing properties. During the reign of England’s Queen Elizabeth I, gingerbread figures covered in gold leaf would be presented to court visitors, so these biscuits also have royal pedigree. I also tweaked my spices by adding some aniseed, given its traditional association with new births. I also happened to have a rather nifty acorn cookie press, symbolising both new life (from little acorns mighty oaks do grow…) as well as the family crest of the Duchess of Cambridge’s family. With that, a perfect idea was born!

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Never one to do things by halves, I’ve had a go at two different sorts of gingerbread biscuits (and no, this time there was no pink version just in case…). First is one darker gingerbread, which is vegan. Cocoa and treacle give them a rich, deep colour.

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The lighter gingerbread is made in the more traditional way – lots of butter and syrup, as well as generous amounts of ground ginger. Both recipes are below so you can choose the one that you prefer.

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While these look very different from what you might usually associate with a new baby (being neither pale pink nor baby blue), I think they are rather striking. The flavour is also superb – they have a real depth of flavour from the spices and treacle but not too sweet.

Some tips for baking – the darker gingerbread uses oil, so it’s important to make sure it is very fresh and light-tasting. If it’s been lurking in the cupboard for a while, you’ll find that it affects the flavour of the finished gingerbread (or play it safe and use melted butter). I also found that the biscuits kept their shape better if they were put into the freezer for 10 minutes before baking. It’s not vital, but it seems to help make the details a little sharper. Finally, you can give these gingerbreads a nifty scalloped edge using a fluted cutter – I think the finished effect looks something like medallions.

If you’re keen to have a go at these biscuits and want to get presses of your own, you can buy them online from House on the Hill here.

To make light gingerbread medallions:

• 500g plain flour
• 4 teaspoons ground ginger
• 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cloves
• 2 teaspoons cinnamon
• 1 teaspoon salt
• ½ teaspoons baking soda
• 225g butter
• 170g soft brown sugar
• 1 large egg
• 120ml golden syrup
• 2 tablespoons black treacle

1. Sift the flour, spices, salt and baking soda into a large bowl.

2. In a separate bowl, beat the butter until creamy. Add the sugar and beat until soft and fluffy. Add the egg and mix well, then the syrup and treacle.

3. Add the flour mixture to the butter and mix to a soft dough. Wrap the dough in cling film and refrigerate overnight.

4. The next day, preheat the oven to 175°C (350°F) and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

5. Take slices of the chilled dough and place on a lightly floured worktop. Roll out to around 1 1/2cm thick, then dust the top lightly with flour and press the mould into the dough. Use a fluted cutter to give the gingerbread a fluted edge. Transfer each to the baking sheet as you go.

6. Bake the biscuits in batches of 12 – they will take around 10-12 minutes to bake, until they are just golden at the edges (you may need more or less time depending on size so you might want to experiment with the first couple of biscuits).

7. When baked, allow the gingerbreads to cool for a minute, then transfer to a wire tray to cool completely.

To make dark gingerbread medallions (from House on the Hill):

• 325 cups plain flour
• 50g cocoa powder
• 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
• 100g soft brown sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon ground aniseed
• 1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
• 2 teaspoons ground ginger
• 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 120ml vegetable oil

• 120ml treacle
• 120ml golden syrup
• 2 tablespoons water

1. Mix the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, spices and salt in a large bowl. Sift to ensure everything is properly combined.

2. In a bowl, stir the treacle, golden syrup, oil and water until smooth. It doesn’t look it, but it will come together and turn smooth.

3. Combine the wet and dry ingredients, mixing well until you have a solid dough. Add a few drops of water if necessary. Wrap in cling film and refrigerate overnight.

4. The next day, preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F) and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

5. Take slices of the chilled dough and place on a lightly floured worktop. Roll out to around 1 1/2cm thick, then dust the top lightly with flour and press the mould into the dough. Use a fluted cutter to give the gingerbread a fluted edge. Transfer each to the baking sheet as you go.

6. Bake the biscuits in batches of 12 – they will take around 10-12 minutes to bake, until they are slightly puffed (you may need more or less time depending on size so you might want to experiment with the first couple of biscuits).

7. When baked, allow the gingerbreads to cool for a minute, then transfer to a wire tray to cool completely.

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