Tag Archives: british food

{8} Queen’s Cinnamon Stars

Today’s festive delight is a right royal treat, quite literally.

I came across a recipe for Cinnamon Stars from the royal kitchens of Buckingham Palace (original here, including a video of how they do it). So, of course, I just had to have a go at making them.


These may be familiar to you as German Zimtsterne, or cinnamon stars. You start off making a dough with ground nuts and cinnamon, then finish them with a meringue topping. I’ve made cinnamon stars before, but they were a bit more basic.

The Queen’s version includes candied orange peel, a lot of cinnamon, and a dash of cloves. They are also topped with snow-white icing and feature a bit of elaborate piping. Very fancy, but you’d expect that if you’re ever popping round for a festive cuppa at the Palace.


When I read the recipe, I was convinced by the idea. However, I had a couple of quibbles with the method. The suggestion was to make a meringue, and use two-thirds of it to make the dough. Then you roll out the dough, cover it with the reserved meringue, and then cut out shapes. I think the idea is that the cookies are then pre-iced? Hmmm. This struck me as quite wasteful, as you would not be able to re-roll the offcuts since the meringue would make it all too sticky. Also I knew that smearing something with meringue was likely to be a messy affair with a child in the house who is enjoying touching everything within reach.

So I adapted the method. I adjusted the amounts of the meringue to start with – I made two-thirds of the amount to go in the dough, and would make the “missing” meringue later for the icing. Then I made and rolled the dough, cut out the shapes without the icing, and then I could happily gather the scraps and keep re-rolling until I was done. We did stars and moons (using a circular cutter and overlapping the cuts to get the right shape). Diamond shapes would also be good – easy with a knife, and I think rather fitting.

Once they were baked, I finished them off with the meringue royal icing suggested by the Palace. This looks like a bit of a pain to make, as you are essentially making thick icing and then thinning it down, and it would be easier just to make thinner royal icing to start with. However, the Palace’s approach results in a very light icing rather than one which cracks when you bite into it. You just need to be very, very patient as you sit down to finely ice all the cookies. Maybe that’s what the Palace’s all-in-one method is seeking to get round?

My split approach also had some extra benefits – the cookies looked very neat and the icing stayed perfectly white. I know that this all sounds terribly fiddly, but once you get into the swing of things, it’s the perfect sort of activity to do with a film or a radio play on in the background. And the final result is a tray of perfect-looking regal cookies.


In the Buckingham Palace version they are finished off with some sort of red jam in the centre and there is lots of intricate icing piped all over them. Piping icing is not one of my skills, and I don’t have the equipment to do it properly. I managed to find a small nozzle to give it a go, but I gave up around half-way. It looks kind of nice, but I don’t think it really adds that much to them overall unless this is something you are really good at. Of course, that might just be my frustration talking!

So all in all, were they worth making? Yes, I think so. They are up a level from my own take on cinnamon stars from a few years ago. The different technique to make the dough gives a far neater result, and I like the addition of the citrus peel and the hint of cloves. I would definitely make these again, but I’d perhaps use 50/50 ground hazelnuts and ground almonds. Then, my friends, I truly would have the ultimate cinnamon stars. I just won’t be piping decorations on top.

To make Queen’s Cinnamon Stars (my adapted, less wasteful approach)

For the dough

• 115g candied orange and lemon peel
• 240g icing sugar

• 55g egg whites (2 medium egg whites)
• 1 tablespoon lemon juice
• 300g ground almonds
• zest of 1/2 lemon or orange
• 5 teaspoons ground cinnamon
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

For the icing

• 1 medium egg white (30g)
• 225g icing sugar
• 1 teaspoon lemon juice
• water

1. Put the candied peel into a food processor. Blitz to a paste – you will need to scrape down the sides a few times to get it perfectly smooth.

2. In a very clean bowl, whisk the egg whites to soft peaks. Add half the icing sugar and whisk until it is well-combined. Add the lemon juice and the rest of the icing sugar. It will start off quite soft and wet, but keep beating until you have a soft meringue (more like the texture of floppy whipped cream). It might seem a bit wet at the start, but keep going and it will happen.

3. Add the candied peel paste and the rest of the ingredients to the meringue bowl. Mix well until it forms a dough. Don’t worry about being delicate with the dough, and towards the end you will have to use your hands. If it seems a bit sticky, add a few tablespoons of ground almonds. Wrap the dough in cling film and chill for an hour, or overnight.

4. Time to bake and shape. Preheat the oven to 160°C (320°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

5. Place the dough on a separate piece of greaseproof paper. Roll it out to 1cm thickness. Cut out shapes (stars, moons, diamonds…) and transfer to the baking sheet. Your cutters will get sticky, so keep a clean damp cloth to hand to wipe the edges often.

6. Bake the cookies for around 12 minutes, turning half-way to get an even bake. They will puff up slightly and darken a little on the edges. Remove from the oven and allow to cool on the tray for a couple of minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. They might seem quite hard at this stage, but they will soften.

7. Time to ice the cookies. Put the egg white into a bowl and whisk to soft peaks. Add the icing sugar and lemon juice, and beat well for several minutes until the mixture is thick and smooth – like the appetising texture of toothpaste. Now thin it down with water, a few drops at a time, until it is a flowing consistency. You want to be able to leave a trail on a plate that stays in place and does not run and spread. Put the icing into a piping bag with a small nozzle, and with a lot of patience, use to cover the tops of the cookies. Use a clean cocktail stick to manipulate the icing to cover any gaps. Leave in a dry place, away from children and pets, for the icing to dry.

Note: I found it easiest to ice the cookies one at a time – pipe on the icing to cover most of the top, then go in with the cocktail stick to tease the icing to cover any bald patches and burst any air bubbles. If you ice a few, then go in to clean up, the icing will be starting to set when you go back.

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Cake of the Week: Tiger Cake

I realised that so much of my lockdown baking has featured almonds and nuts, so today I’ve opted for something different. Good old marble cake, or as I’ve also seen it called, the more exciting-sounding tiger cake. Since this cake is being made with the assistance of a five year-old, we’re going with tiger. Raaaaaar!


I have always think that a tiger cake is a very German sort of cake, something that you have with afternoon coffee when you’re not able to get hold of something richer and laiden with cream from a Konditorei. Or perhaps for when you’ve had too much whipped cream and want something simpler. I don’t know that it is particularly German, but that’s just the way I think of it. However a quick check on Wikipedia suggests that this is indeed where it hails from, originating in the 19th century.

What I love about this cake is that there is an element of magic to it – you mix up the batter, then there is a little bit of creativity in how you put it into the pan. Once it has baked, you have to hope that you have a nice marbled pattern inside and that you didn’t mix the two colours too much before it went into the oven.


The trick to master is getting the right sort of patter inside. I do this using two spoons of the plain mixture, and then a spoonful of the chocolate batter, and keep going until you’ve put everything in the pan. Then I take a clean knife, insert it gently into the batter, and drag it carefully to get a bit more definition without mixing it up too much. But you can equally dump it all in and mix it up a bit with a spoon, or get super-fussy and put the batter into piping bags, and then squeeze out thin ribbons to get really detailed patterns. My son definitely enjoyed the spooning of the batter most, apart from the eventual eating of the cake…

When I make this, I always add vanilla, but sometimes I add a tiny amount of almond extract. Not so much that it is a dominant flavour, but it can add a little extra something to a cake that will be otherwise unadorned.

This is also a great cake to make ahead of time, and I think it tastes better the day after making. If you wanted to make it fancier, by all means add some sort of glaze, but I think it is fine as is, or with a simple dusting of icing sugar.


There you have it – tiger cake! This recipe is adapted from recipe of the fabulous Nordic Bakery in central London, albeit I’ve reduced the quantities so you don’t end up with a massive cake. There are just three of us in the house during lockdown, so there is a limit on just how much cake is safe to eat!

To make a Tiger Cake:

For the batter

• 180g butter
• 150g white caster sugar
• 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
• 3 large eggs

• 180g plain flour
• 2 teaspoons baking powder
• 2 tablespoons milk

For the chocolate mixture

• 2 tablespoons cocoa powder
• 1 1/2 tablespoons milk

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F). Prepare a ring pan or bundt tin (mine was 20cm diameter, 10cm deep) – grease liberally with butter, then dust with plain flour, shake to get everything coated, and tip out any excess flour. Pop the pan into the fridge until you’re ready to use it.

2. Weigh your empty mixing bowl. Write down how much it weighs.

3. Make the batter. Beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla, and mix well. Next one egg, beat well, plus a tablespoon of the flour. Repeat with the rest of the eggs. Finally, combine the remaining flour and the baking powder, then fold it into the batter. Finally add the milk and mix well. It should be smooth and soft, not firm.

4. Now you need to put one-third of the batter into a separate bowl. Weigh the main bowl again, and then subtract the weight of the empty bowl. Divide that number by three, and then take that amount of batter and put it into a separate bowl. Congratulations – you’re done this far more accurately than if you were doing it by eye with spoons!

5. Add the cocoa powder and milk to the separate bowl, and mix well.

6. Get the ring pan from the fridge. Add spoonfuls of the two mixtures – two of the plain, then one of the chocolate – and keep going until it is all in the pan. Try to get as much variation as you can so that the cake has lots of marbling / tiger pattern when you cut it later. Finish by dragging a clean knife gently through the batter for even more swirling.

7. Bake the cakes for around 40-50 minutes or until and inserted skewer comes out cleanly. Remove from the oven and leave to cool until lukewarm. Finally place a cooling rack or plate on top, then flip the cake over and it should come out cleanly. Wrap in cling film and leave to rest overnight.

8. Serve the cake as is, dust with icing sugar, or drizzle with chocolate or icing.

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Cake of the Week: Battenberg

Oh, but I have been so lax when it comes to keeping up with my lockdown posts! Not that I have skimped on the baking – we’ve kept the cakes and cookies coming throughout – but work and home school leave very little time for other pursuits. I have been diligently taking pictures too, so you can expect a fair few things to pop on here in the coming days…this also means we’ve acquired what the Germans are calling Coronaspeck, or “corona bacon” referring excess weight carried during the lockdown. Can’t wait for the gym to open up again!

I don’t know about your lockdown experience, but all I can surmise from Zoom quizzes, FaceTime chats and work conversations is that everyone, everyone, everyone is finding it tough. And every set of circumstances presents its own unique challenges. My son is five, so he needs a lot of attention, but equally he can be great fun and say some really profound things. Younger children still nap (gosh how I miss that!) but their capacity to understand what is happening is more limited, so how do you handle that? Older children can really understand what is going on, but perhaps they are worrying more, and trying to bottle things up so as not to upset their families? If you’re on your own or a couple, you might have time to do all those things you always wants to turn your hand to, but equally does all that time leave you anxious or lonely?

I think the only conclusion I can really draw at this time is that it is hard for us all, we we just want this to be over as soon as possible, to see our friends and loved ones while balancing the public health risk.

With that, let’s turn to cake. I love a Battenberg cake – I’ve made one before, and you can read all about its regal history here.


Whenever I see a slice of Battenberg it is a piece of complete whimsy – pink and yellow sponge squares, wrapped in marzipan. It looks sweet and crazy, and it is absolutely part of a British childhood. This is one of the key elements of a visit to granny’s house, when a tray of tea, juice and cakes would appear. When I was young it always seemed so fancy. And it is also good in a lockdown to get small children to count to four…

I will level with you – this is not as easy to make as a loaf cake or a sponge cake. However, it’s also not as tricky as it might look. I used Claire Ptak’s recipe (she of the Harry and Megan wedding cake fame), and I liked the result. You just make one batter, split it, colour some of it pink and some yellow. The only tricky bit is baking it – either you can acquire a special tray that has four equal compartments for baking the cake into perfect bars to form the distinctive pattern, or you can use a square tin and improvise with a home-made tin foil barrier to act as a separator. I had to make do the latter, which involved being very precise with scissors and a ruler, but we got there.

I’ve also tweaked the method slightly – Claire’s approach is to split the batter before adding the eggs. I just made the batter, then divided it at the end before adding the colourings. I happen to know my mixing bowl is 580g, so I weigh it again, and subtract that amount, then divide by two to split the batter equally. By all means go by eye, but I prefer to take the danger factor our of it. I mean, just imagine if you ended up with three pink squares and one of yellow?

Once the cake is baked, make sure you are using a straight and very sharp knife. You want impeccably neat lines. I will admit, I got that ruler back out, and was a little obsessed about getting it as scrupulously tidy as I could. Once all the cutting is done, you glue it all together with warm apricot jam, then enrobe it in marzipan. The genius trick that Claire suggests is rather than trying to coat the cake in jam and making an absolute mess (which is what I’ve done in the past), you brush the jam on the marzipan, and then put the cake on top. Then brush then next bit of marzipan, then roll the cake onto that, and keep going until the whole cake is cocooned in marzipan.


There you have it – a classic British cake that is fit for a queen!

To make a Battenberg Cake:

For the batter

• 215g butter
• 215g caster sugar
• 1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
• ½ teaspoon almond extract
• 3 large eggs

• 215g plain flour
• 2 teaspoons baking powder
• pink and yellow food colouring (ideally gel)

To decorate

• 150g apricot jam
• 500g marzipan (golden or white)
• icing sugar, for rolling

1. Preheat the oven to 170°C (335°F). Prepare a tin – either use a Battenberg tin (20 x 15cm) or use whatever square tin you can find, and mark out two rectangles of 20 x 7½ cm using little walls of tin foil. Line with greaseproof paper.

2. Weigh your empty bowl. Write down how much it weighs.

3. Make the batter. Beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla and almond extract, and mix well. Add the eggs, one at a time, and combine well after each addition. Finally, combine the flour and baking powder, then fold it into the batter.

4. Weigh the bowl again, and then subtract the weight of the bowl alone. Divide that number by two, and then split the batter equally. Congratulations – you’re done this far more accurately than if you were doing it by eye with spoons!

5. Add some pink colour to one of the bowls, a little at a time, until you get the desired intensity. You can always add more, so start carefully. Or go crazy and add a lot to get a nice hot pink colour. Repeat with the yellow, going for delicate or neon as you prefer.

6. Pour the batter into the prepared tin. If you’re using a Battenberg tin, you make two rows of yellow batter, and two rows of pink. If you’re using the make-do-tin-foil method, you’re making one yellow and one pink rectangle.

7. Bake the cakes for 40-50 minutes or until and inserted skewer comes out cleanly. Remove from the oven and leave to cool completely

8. Take the cooled cakes out of their tins. If you used a Battenberg tin, congratulations, just remove them and trim them if needed. If you used the other method, use the sharpest knife you have to cut each cake in half lengthways, then trim to make four neat bars of cake. It looks best it you cut off any browned parts of the cake. Just eat those.

9. Time to assemble the cake. Heat the apricot jam in a saucepan. Brush the jam along the sides of the bars of cake to for a 2×2 pattern of alternating colours.

10. Time for the marzipan. Dust the kitchen worktop with icing sugar, and roll out your marzipan to a large rectangle, around 20 x 30 cm.

11. Brush an area on the left side of the marzipan with the melted jam. Place the cake on top, and press gently. Now trim the marzipan on the left edge of the cake with a knife for a clean edge. Now brush the area to the right side of the cake with more jam, then gently tip the cake over so it lands on top. Keep going until all four sides of the cake are covered. Trim the excess marzipan.

12. Let the cake sit for 30 minutes so the jam can set and keep everything together. Tidy up the cake – trim both ends so it looks neat, and if you want to be fancy, you can crimp the edges of the marzipan along the cake.

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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.

parlies2
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!

parlies1
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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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.

barabrith1
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.

barabrith2
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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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.

abernethybiscuits

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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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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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.

bonfire_flapjack

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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