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Galette des Rois

Yesterday was Twelfth Night, the traditional end of Christmas festivities, and the day by which you’re supposed to have taken down all the decorations. We’re back to normal, but there are a couple of houses in the neighbourhood that are still holding on to the festive vibe.

So is that the end of the excitement? Well, not quite. Today (6 January) if Epiphany, so there is one last change to eat cake before we get to our resolutions to be healthier and more sporty in 2017. On of the cakes eaten on this day is the Galette des Rois (“cake of the kings”) which is popular in France and Belgium. It has a sweet almond filling between two layers of golden puff pastry. Probably best to start that diet on 7 January then…

We actually had one of these at work yesterday. We’d been discussing the phenomenon of “cake culture” and whether we should encourage or discourage the appearance of cakes in the office as part of a commitment to healthy eating. Afterwards, of course, I went to a bakery and rocked up with one of these guys, but we managed to agree it was OK, as this was a cultural cake, rather than a celebration of cake culture, so we were fine with that.

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There is also a bit of fun that goes with this cake. Traditionally a ceramic bead would be added to the filling, and when the cake is cut and served, the person that finds the bead becomes king or queen for the rest of the day. If you buy a galette, you will usually get a golden crown to go with it, which the lucky monarch can wear to impress their subjects.

Now, you might be thinking that hiding a piece of ceramic in a cake is not a great idea if someone is hungrily tucking into it and they, oh, perhaps value their teeth? And you’d be absolutely right. As it turns out, I was the lucky king for a day at work, and it was a bit disconcerting to discover there was a piece of stone lurking in there. If you’re going to make one of these, I think the best way is to keep the tradition of something in the cake, but perhaps add a whole almond instead. All the fun, none of the risk of dental damage.

This is a very simple recipe to make. If you’re the sort of person that makes their own puff pastry, that’s great, but I am not one of those people. I bought mine from the store, and it makes life a lot easier. You just have to make the filling, then put it between two discs of pastry and bake it. But to make up for buying the pastry, I did make my own paper crown!

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To make a Galette des Rois:

• 1 block of sheet of puff pastry
• 1 portion of filling
• 1 teaspoon apricot jam

• 1 egg, beaten
• 1 whole almond or trinket

For the filling:

• 100g butter
• 100g caster sugar
• 1 egg
• 1 teaspoon almond extract
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 100g ground almonds

• 2 tablespoons dark rum

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

2. Make the filling. Cream the butter until soft, then add the sugar and beat well for a minute. Add the egg, almond extract and vanilla extract and mix until light and fluffy. Fold in the ground almonds, then add the rum and mix well.

3. Roll out the puff pastry so that you can cut two discs of at least 20cm, but try to get 25cm if you can. Cut out the two discs, and transfer one to the baking sheet. Use some of the beaten egg to moisten the edge of the pastry disc. Put the apricot jam in the middle and spread evenly, avoiding the egg.

4. Gently spoon the filling onto the pastry disc and spread it evenly – you might not need all the filling, particularly if the pastry disc is on the smaller side. Pop an almond or lucky charm into the mixture.

5. Place the other pastry disc on top, and working from the centre, use your hands to gently pat it down, getting rid of as many air bubbles as you can. Finally press down on the edges where you brushed the beaten egg to get a good seal. Crimp with a fork, then trim with a very sharp knife to get a neat edge.

6. Brush to top of the galette with beaten egg. Make a hole in the centre with a skewer to allow steam to escape, then use the back of a sharp knife to make a pattern on top of the galette.

7. Bake the galette for 25-30 minutes until puffed up and golden. You many need to turn it round half-way to get an even bake.

7. Remove from the oven and leave to cool. Warn your guests about any ceramic or metal lucky charms in the galette before serving!

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{12} Nadalin de Verona

And here we are! The final installment of 2016’s edition of the Twelve Bakes of Christmas!

Today I’ve turned my hand to a very traditional Italian cake, the Nadalin de Verona. This is a rich dough raised with yeast, which should hint that it has a long history, pre-dating our modern raising agents. It is flavoured with butter, vanilla and lemon zest, and topped with pine nuts, chopped almonds and sugar.

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It is fair to say that the big name of the Italian festive cake world is the panettone, closely followed by the pandoro. I make panettone fairly often, as it is easy with a bread machine and it always proves popular. However, I’ve never had a go at pandoro. The name means “golden bread” and it gets this colour from many, many, many egg yolks in the dough. I’m sometimes a very lazy baker and don’t like ending up with lots of spare egg whites. I guess I’ll get round to making a pandoro the next time I have to make a pavlova…

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But back to the star of today. The nadalin (also called the “natalino”) dates back as far as the 13th century, and is suggested as the ancestor of the modern pandoro. It is said to have been created to mark the investiture of the Della Scala family as the Lords of Verona. It is often linked to the most famous tragic romance of all time – the nadalin appears first in 1303, the same time that the events of Romeo and Juliet as said to have taken place. I’m not clear quite what the link is, but this cake may have featured on a medieval banquet table where either of the star-crossed lovers were present.

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Now, in the interests of Christmas, I’ve actually made the nadalin not just once, but twice!

I looked at a few recipes before making the nadalin, and settled on the “authentic” version on the website of the City of Verona tourist office. However I am sorry to say it didn’t quite work for me. It is made from eggs, a lot of butter and quite a bit of sugar. My baking instincts said this would be a very rich dough and the yeast might struggle to get a good rise, and it turned out to be so. It was of course perfectly tasty, but it didn’t have the lightness I prefer from sweet breads. This is all personal preference, but what to do?

Well I mentioned that I make panettone quite often, so I looked at my own recipe and adjusted to reflect the flavours of the nadalin – out with the dried fruit, and in with the vanilla and lemon zest. I also added a small handful of crushed sugar cubes to add some additional sweetness to the dough. Entirely optional, but this seemed like a sensible way to get a bit more sugar in the dough without making it too rich to rise well. I’m pleased to say this all worked very well, and the result is a light, sweet and fragrant festive bread.

To finish the nadalin, it is brushed with melted butter and topped with pine nuts and chopped almonds. They were a delicious addition, as they toast during baking to provide some crunch and flavour contrast.

Traditionally the nadalin is baked in a star shape. However I’ve bought so many pieces of baking equipment recently that I had to make do with the round cake tin I already had.  To make up for my cake being the “wrong shape” I made a simple star template and placed it on top of that nadalin before dusting with icing.

The nadalin is traditionally enjoyed with cocoa or a special wine after Christmas Eve mass. I would also quite happily much on a piece of this on a chilly winter evening too!

And with that, my 12 Days of Christmas Baking is over for 2016. I hope you’ve enjoyed it – I’ve enjoyed finding new inspiration, trying new baking techniques and eating the results! See you for the 2017 edition – if you have any suggestions of local specialities that I should try, leave a comment below.

To make a Nadalin de Verona (nom-traditional)

For the dough:

• 2 eggs
• 150ml milk, boiled and cooled
• 75g butter
• 50g sugar
• Zest of 1 lemon
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1 1/2 teaspoons dried yeast

• 400g strong white flour
• small handful of sugar cubes, crushed

To decorate:

• melted butter, to brush
• 50g pine nuts
• 50g chopped almonds
• 20g pearl sugar

To finish:

• 100g icing sugar
• water
• icing sugar, to dust

1. Make the dough – I used a bread machine for all the hard work. Put everything apart from the sugar cubes into the bread machine. Run the dough cycle.

2. Crush the sugar cubes. Work into the finished dough.

3. Line a cake tin (or wide saucepan) with greaseproof paper. Take the dough out of the machine, form into a ball, and press into the tin. Leave in a warm place, loosely covered with clingfilm, until the dough has doubled in size. Traditionally this is for 3 hours, but as my recipe is lighter, this could happen more quickly.

4. Just before you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven at 180°C (350°F).

5. Now prepare the topping. Melt some butter, and mix the pine nuts, flaked almonds and pearl sugar in a bowl.

6. Brush the nadalin generously with the melted butter. Sprinkle over the nut mixture and press down very gently.

7. Bake the nadalin for around 45 minutes to an hour until risen and golden, and it sounds hollow when tapped. If the nuts are browning too quickly, cover loosely with tin foil.

8. When baked, remove the nadalin from the oven. Make a simple icing with 100g icing sugar and 3 tablespoons of boiling water, and drizzle on top of the nadalin – this will form a glaze, and help keep the nuts in place.

9. Leave to cool completely, then dust with icing sugar before serving. I used a star template as a nod to the traditional shape.

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{10} Joulutorttu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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To make Finnish Christmas Star Pastries (makes 12):

For the dough

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

For the filling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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{9} Hallongrottor

I’ve made some rather elaborate things in the last couple of weeks, so today I’ve turned my hand to something easy. If you’re looking to amuse some small kitchen helpers with limited attention spans, then this might be one to try.

These little biscuits are called hallongrottor, a Swedish bake which means “raspberry cave”. I guess they are a type of thumbprint cookie, but with just about the cutest name possible. I realised that I’ve ticked off Norway, Denmark and Finland already this year, so it only seems fair to make something from Sweden.

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Making these little guys is a complete breeze. You just need to work with some very soft butter, and whip it until it is super-soft. Add icing sugar and beat some more, then add your flavourings and beat some more. You could make this by hand with a whisk and lots of elbow grease, but your arms will thank you for using an electric beater. One for the Christmas list if you don’t already have one!

Finally, you work in the flour, then roll the dough into balls. To get them more or less the same size, I rolled this out on a worktop into a long sausage, then cut into equally sized pieces. How equal? I used my precision Japanese steel ruler. Every piece was two centimetres exactly. Sounds nerdy, but it will get you pretty good even sizes without the faff of weighing each piece.

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To finish them off, you then roll them into balls, then make a dent for the jam. I tried various kitchen implements, but by far the easiest way was to bend my index finger, and poke the middle “bony bit” into the top. You may want to use clean hands for that part…and then just pop your jam of choice into the dent. I tried using a small teaspoon and it was a complete mess. Use a piping bag, and beat the jam until soft before trying to pipe it in. I didn’t do this at first, and so the nozzle of my piping bag got blocked, then lots squirted out when I squeezed hard, so be careful!

I actually made two versions of these – one using just plain flour, and one using a about one-fifth cornflour. It is definitely worth using the cornflour – the texture is lighter and more crumbly – so that’s the recipe I have included below.

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To make Hallongrottor (makes 15)

• 100g butter
• 50g icing sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon (optional)
• 100g plain flour
• 25g cornflour
• jam (I used seedless raspberry)

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F). Put 15 mini cupcake cases on a baking sheet.

2. Put the butter in a bowl and beat until very soft. Add the icing sugar, baking powder, vanilla and cinnamon, and beat well until fluffy. Add the flour and cornflour, and mix well. Put the bowl in the fridge for 10 minutes.

3. Remove the dough from the bowl, roll into a long sausage and cut into 15 pieces. I roll it out to 30 cm long, and cut into 2cm chunks – this gets roughly equal sizes.

4. Roll each piece into a ball, then put into a paper case. Make an indentation in the top, and fill with a little jam.

5. Bake for 10 minutes until golden, turning half way to get an even bake.

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{8} Kourabiedes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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To make Kourabiedes (makes around 30)

For the dough:

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

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

To finish:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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{7} Florentines

I can never resist a good Florentine. There is something about those golden discs of caramel, studded with cherries, citrus, nuts and ginger and dipped in chocolate that is just magical. They might not strictly be a Christmas treat, but I think they lend themselves very well to this time of year.

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In my younger days, I assumed that Florentines were named after the city of Florence, but it turns out this is only partly true. I should have suspected this to be the case when, years ago, I had a few hours to explore Florence while waiting for a train connection (and hey, it was Florence, I was hardly going to hang out at the station for three hours!). Were there shops groaning under the weight of these biscuits? No. I found one pasticceria selling square Florentines, so I cut my losses and went with one of them. But clearly this was not a biscuit that the citizens of this city were clutching close to their collective bosom.

So what is the truth? Well, this is lost in the mists of time, but the name probably has something to do with the French, and the resemblance of these caramel discs to the gold coins of Florence (incidentally, the British two shilling coin was also known as the florin).

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There are two ways you can make these cookies. If you drop spoonfuls onto a baking sheet lined with greaseproof paper, they will spread out and you get large, crisp and delicate Florentines (there is enough butter in them to prevent sticking). However, you can drop small teaspoons into the bottom of a non-stick muffin tray – they’ll be slightly thicker but perfectly round so good if you’re giving them as a gift and need to travel with them and want them to look fancy. My pictures are of these “neat” Florentines, and I think they look very pretty.

However…if you’re going to use a muffin tray, please make sure that it is sufficiently non-stick! I assumed non-stick means non-stick. Well, I have two pans. One works like a dream, but the other is anything but non-stick. I found myself trying and ultimately failing to remove one batch from the tray, and had to junk the lot. As the mixture does not need to be baked quickly, you can take your time and do a test version to make sure it works. If it doesn’t, just switch to making the bigger versions using a tray with greaseproof paper. You don’t want all that work to go to waste and they will still taste fantastic!

To finish them off, you can leave them as they are (or “naked Florentines” as I’ve seen them called) but I think you really do need to spread one side with chocolate. If you are a milk or white chocolate fiend, then by all means go for it, but I think it really has to be dark chocolate on these little beauties. I think it works so well with the toasted nuts, ginger and citrus in the biscuits, and why mess with a classic? To make them look impressive, use tempered chocolate for a nice shine and snap, and use a fork to make a wave pattern in the chocolate.

Incidentally, if you think you’ll do a lot of dipping things in chocolate, it really is worth getting a food thermometer. They are not expensive and it means you can get your chocolate to the right temperatures. I’ve tried various methods over the years, but using the thermometer is hands down the easiest and most reliable method I’ve every tried. Never have dull chocolate again!

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In terms of the ingredients, you can play around with them to get a mixture that you like. You can use slivered almonds instead of flaked, or swap some of the almonds for pistachios, hazelnuts or even a handful of jumbo rolled oats. You can also adjust the proportions of cherries, peel, ginger and sultanas, or even omit some of them altogether, but try to keep to the same overall weight. You can even go for a retro vibe if you can get your hands on some green candied angelica – I remember those flecks of bright green in Florentines from my childhood, but it seems to have vanished from most supermarket shelves these days. If you find some – it’s a sign that you should make Florentines!

To make Florentines (makes around 24)

Dry ingredients

• 90g flaked or slivered almonds
• 90g glacé cherries
• 60g candied peel, chopped
• 20g glace ginger
• 30g sultanas
• 15g plain flour

For the caramel

• 45g butter
• 30g soft brown sugar
• 30g white sugar
• 1 tablespoon double cream
• large pinch of salt

To finish

• 150g dark chocolate

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F). For large Florentines, line two large baking trays with greaseproof paper rubbed with a little butter. For small Florentines, get a non-stick muffin tray and rub lightly with butter.

2. Prepare the dry ingredients – chop the cherries, peel and ginger as you prefer, then add the almonds, sultanas and flour. Toss so that everything is coated and well-mixed.

3. Make the caramel – in a small saucepan, heat the butter and sugars. Bring to the boil, then take off the heat, add the cream and salt, and stir well. Pour onto the dry ingredients and mix well.

4. Put generous teaspoonfuls of the mixture onto a baking sheet or into a muffin tray. If using a baking sheet, flatten them as much as you can, but leave enough space for them to expand as they bake.

5. Bake the Florentines for 8 minutes, turning around half-way to get an even bake. They will be soft at first, but will harden as they cool.

6. To finish the Florentines, melt the chocolate (for a professional finish, you want to temper it – find out here). Using a teaspoon, spread some chocolate on the underside of each Florentine, then using a fork to make a wave pattern in the chocolate. It might not be obvious at first, but you’ll see it once the chocolate sets.

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{4} Piparkakut

Gingerbread biscuits are found across the Nordic countries around Christmas time. There are some different shapes, different spices and some might have nuts or fruit added, but they share a spicy flavour and crisp texture. The Finnish version are piparkakut. I won’t even try to work out if that is the singular or plural name, as the Finnish is fiendishly complex! Instead I will distract you with my “elk in a snowy forest with squirrels under the stars” gingerbread fantasy. Hands down these are my favourite cookie cutters from what is probably an unnecessary large collection to being with!

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These cookies are incredibly more-ish. Because they are so light and crisp, you can happily much on two, or three, or four of them, and really not get full at all. In contrast, try eating four British mincemeat pies in one sitting and you’ll be floored for the rest of the day!

I made these using “dark syrup” (tumma siirappi in Finnish). This is a thick, sweet syrup that has almost a chocolate-like flavour, but none of the bitterness of molasses or black treacle. It also seems to be the right stuff as a quick search online shows pictures of syrup containers with gingerbread figures on them! But if you can’t get hold of this stuff, you can happily use golden syrup. Honey would work in a pinch, but it tends to produce slightly different results, so you might not get the same crisp texture as you get with syrup.

I made these once with a special ingredient that I thought would make them extra-fancy. I had dried some peel from Seville oranges, so I thought I would grind it up and add it to the dough for an extra aromatic orange flavour. Well, it worked…except that it worked just a little bit too well. The flavour and aroma were superb, but after a moment a strong medicinal flavour and a numbness took over, rather like sucking on a throat lozenge. Sadly my attempt to be fancy just ruined the whole batch! I did leave them for a couple of weeks in a dark cupboard in the hope that they would improve, but that eye-wateringly extreme orange flavour was still there, lurking in the dark, waiting for me. Never again! Just stick with a normal orange, or perhaps some Clementine or mandarin zest if you want to feel fancy. I’ve still got that jar of dried Seville orange peel hidden in a cupboard, taunting me…

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This recipe is great if you want to make a lot of very intricate cookies that keep their shape after baking. As you can see, the various cutters I used worked really well and I got nice sharp edges. I mean, if you’re going to go to the effort of making an elk, you want people to know that it is an elk, right? I’ve left them plain, but you can easily coat them in dark chocolate, or ice them with intricate patterns.

Finally, a word of caution. You might think a teaspoon of baking soda is not really enough in this recipe. Well, don’t be tempted to up the quantity of baking soda – I’ve tried adding more to provide more rise (assuming this would provide a crisper cookie too) but it easily turns into a soapy aftertaste. Yes, I’ve had a few issues with trying to mess around with this recipe in the past!

Makes around 40-50 cookies

• 110g (80ml) dark syrup or golden syrup
• 100g caster sugar
• 100g butter
• 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
• 1 teaspoon ground ginger
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
• zest of 1/2 orange
• 1 large egg
• 400g plain flour
• 1 teaspoon baking soda
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• cold milk, to bind

1. Put the syrup, sugar, butter, spices and orange peel into a saucepan. Warm gently, then bring to the boil. Leave to cool.

2. Beat the cooled sugar mixture with the egg until fluffy. The mixture will be very soft.

3. Mix the flour, baking soda and salt, and stir into the rest of the ingredients. Add more flour if too wet, or add cold milk (a tablespoon at a time) to bring it together. Wrap in cling film and leave to chill overnight in the fridge.

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

5. Roll out the dough thinly (around 3-4mm). Cut out the cookies and transfer to the baking sheet. Tip: roll the scraps together and pop in the freezer to chill – it makes the dough easier to work with.

6. Bake for around 10-12 minutes until browned and slightly puffed, turning half way to get an even bake.

Note: It is worth baking one cookie first to test how long you need to bake them. If you are making different sizes, it is best to bake the same sized cookies together. Also be careful if your cookies have thin parts (like the legs on the elk) as they can burn easily.

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{3} Biscotti di Regina

Biscotti di Regina originate from Sicily, and the name means “queen’s cookies”. I’m not sure if they are named for or after a particular queen, but with a name like that, they are promising a lot!

These delightful little morsels are sweet and buttery, with a coating of sesame seeds the pop slightly when you bite into them. They also look very pretty, as the seeds form a neat pattern on the outside of the dough. I think they are a nice addition to the festive table, providing a contrast to all that chocolate, ginger, citrus and dried fruit. Yes, I know, shocking to believe that those flavours can all get a bit much, but sometimes you want something simple to enjoy with a cup of tea.

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I think these cookies have something of a Middle Eastern flavour, what with the sesame seeds and orange blossom water. Hardly surprising when you think about the history of trade across the Mediterranean.

However, if you want to play around with the flavours, you could swap the vanilla and orange blossom water for something else – aniseed is a typically Italian choice, and orange or lemon zest would add a stronger citrus note than the orange blossom water. If you’re feeling particularly creative, you could really depart from Italian flavours, and add things  like cardamom or even rose water. There are even versions that use saffron, if you want cookies with a spectacular golden glow.

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These biscotti are very straightforward to make – just rub the butter into the dry ingredients, then add egg and flavourings to get a soft dough that is just very slightly sticky. You’re rolling these guys in seeds, so you want it to be a bit sticky. If it is clinging to your fingers in great lumps, you’ve probably got too much liquid, so just add a bit more flour.

I shaped the biscotti by rolling into balls, then flattening into a squat sausage shape, so when they baked they formed an oval shape. If you prefer, roll them into very long, thin fingers for a more elegant shape to dip in coffee or vin santo, and adjust the baking time accordingly. For finishing, I used hulled white sesame seeds, which I think makes them look quite festive, almost like they’re coated in snowflakes. If you’re feeling adventurous, add a few black sesame seeds for some contrast, or go the whole hog and roll them in only black sesame seeds for a dramatic look.

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To make Biscotti di Regina (makes 30)

For the dough:

• 375g plain flour
• 225g butter
• 150g caster sugar
• 1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder
• 1/2 teaspoon of salt
• 1 egg
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1 teaspoon orange blossom water
• cold milk, to bind

To decorate:

• 100g sesame seeds

1. Preheat the oven to 175°C (350°F) and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

2. In a bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Add the butter and work until it resembles breadcrumbs.

3. Beat the egg with the vanilla and orange blossom water. Add to the main bowl, and work to a smooth dough. If necessary, add cold milk, a tablespoon at a time, to bring the mixture together. It should be firm, but slightly sticky.

4. Divide the dough into three batches. Roll each piece into a long sausage about 30cm long, and cut into 10 pieces (3cm each).

5. Roll each piece into a ball, then form into a sausage shape between your hands. Roll in the sesame seeds to coat completely, then transfer to a baking sheet (leave enough space between each piece to expand).

6. Bake for around 25 minutes until golden, turning after 15 minutes to get an even bake.

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{2} Sandkaker

Sandkaker are a Norwegian Christmas cookie. Their name means literally “sand cookies” and reflects their golden colour and crisp-yet-crumbly texture. They often form part of the Norwegian tradition of syv slags kaker (seven sorts of cookie) whereby home bakers get themselves in a frenzy of flour, butter, sugar and festive flavours to produce an impressive selection of sweet treats. There isn’t a fixed list of what comprises the magic seven, so I like to imagine Norwegians quietly judging each other’s efforts after a few glasses of warm, boozy gløgg. If you’re keen to make some other Norwegian treats, I’ve made serinakaker and sirupsnipper and mor monsens kake in the past (so that’s four down, three to go to…).

So what are sandkaker? Well, they’re certainly, ahm, unusual. They are made with a buttery almond dough that is pressed into intricate tartlet moulds, and they look like…well…empty upside-down tartlets! I’ve come across all sorts of weird and wonderful Christmas baking in previous years, but this one might just take the biscuit (ha – bad pun!). For I have made cookies that have to be cut out with special cutters, or pressed into shape, or shaped in intricate ways, or decorated in a particular (i.e. time-consuming) way. But cookies that look like unfilled tarts? Well, you have to admit that this really is just a little bit odd!

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I could wax lyrically about the beautiful shapes and delicate flavours, but it is just plain strange that you would serve guests what looks like a tray of pastries without a nice filling. I mean…surely the filling is the whole point of a tart? And I’m not even that fussy when it comes to sweet treats – I’ll go for fruit, cream or chocolate, they will all do me just fine!

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But…having said all that…sandkaker are really rather nice. What you need to get your head around is that these are not pastry shells waiting to be filled, but cookies in their own right. The dough is rich – buttery and sweet – and I’ve flavoured it with vanilla and almond extract (or you can use ground cardamom, which is also a popular flavour).

The dough would make great cookies just rolled out and cut into shape, so shaping the dough by pressing it into intricate moulds is really just a way of making them look fancier than roll-and-cut cookies. And as you can see, they do look very pretty indeed on the plate!

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After making these, I don’t have too many insights to share as they are fairly easy to make. I did think that it might be easier to roll out the dough and lay it into the tartlet shells like pastry, but this is dough, not pastry, and it was too fragile to roll out successfully. As long as you keep the dough chilled, it is very easy to push into the moulds (which in fairness is what every other recipe suggests doing, so lesson learned there!). Try to keep the cookies thin, and prick the base with a cocktail stick – I found that the bottoms puffed up a little and stayed pale, but pricking a few holes let any steam escape, ensuring the base (or top!) would become golden. If you don’t have fluted tartlet moulds, you can still make them with a non-stick muffin tray (except you won’t have the fancy fluted finish).

The real fun comes with getting the sandkaker out of their moulds. They did seem to stick a little, and I did panic at first. I tried prising them out with a knife, but it turned out for me that the easiest way to get them out was to let them cool for a few minutes after baking, then to drop them onto a wooden worktop. After a couple of drops, they would just pop out of the tin. Simple!

If you do make them, just be ready for your guests to ask where the filling is, and snap back (tartly – ha!) that they’re supposed to be like that. Or if you are feeling generous, use them like tartlet cases, fill with some whipped cream and add a little jam with a Scandinavian flavour like cloudberry or blueberry.

To make Sandkaker (makes around 40)

• 170g unsalted butter
• 150g caster sugar
• 120g ground almonds
• 1 teaspoon almond extract
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1 large egg
• 250g plain flour

1. In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the ground almonds, almond extract, vanilla and the egg and mix well.

2. Add the flour and mix to a smooth dough – it should come together but will be fairly soft. Wrap in cling film and chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.

3. Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F).

4. Very lightly butter some small fluted tartlet cases. Pinch off pieces of the chilled dough, and use your fingers to press into the tins until you have an even, thin layer. Trim off any excess dough from the edges, and use a cocktail stick to prick a few small holes in the bottom.

5. Bake in batches – put 10-15 filled tartlet cases on a baking sheet. Bake for 10-12 minutes until golden, turning half-way to ensure an even bake. Remove from the oven and leave to cool for a few minutes, then remove the sandkaker from the moulds. Leave on a wire rack to cool completely.

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{1} Borstplaat

Hello and welcome to 2016’s edition of the 12 Bakes of Christmas! I’ve been looking far and wide for some interesting festive baking, and hopefully you will enjoy what is to come over the next few weeks.

Today (5 December) is Sinterklaas in the Netherlands. This is the day on which St Nicholas (or Sinterklaas, the origin of the name Santa Claus) is said to come from Spain on a boat to distribute gifts and sweets to children, leaving those treats in clogs, or these days, more modern types of shoe. Alongside presents, it is traditional to get a chocoladeletter (your initial in chocolate!) as well as pepernoten and kruidnoten (spicy little biscuits – recipe here). Unless, of course, you are in Belgium, in which case you do all this on 6 December, because you’re Belgian and not the same as your Dutch neighbours.

One of the traditional treats is an incredibly sweet item called borstplaat. This name translates as “breast-plate”, and not “flat-chested” as I originally thought, which upon reflection would be a very peculiar name for a sweet aimed at children! But I can see where the name comes from – the resulting pieces are flat and glossy, and seem hard to the touch, just like pieces of armour.

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The reason that borstplaat is so sweet is that it is mostly sugar that has been cooked up with a little water, milk or cream, and sometimes a little butter, and then flavoured with whatever takes your fancy. Flavours such as chocolate, vanilla and coffee are traditional, but you could go with whatever flavour you like – strawberry, orange, lemon, just go crazy!

Something so sweet is easy to scoff at today (even if we Brits make it a personal challenge to eat our own weight in mince pies during December), but something like borstplaat makes sense when you look at it historically. In times when sweets were a real treat, it would be a really big deal to get a few pieces of something so sweet at Christmas time, and if you’re only getting this once a year, then it was easy for parents to look the other way. In fact, borstplaat does have a old-fashioned quality to it, which reminded me of things like sugar mice, with a texture rather like Scottish tablet. And this stuff is oh so sweet! Did I mention that?

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Borstplaat
is incredibly easy to make. You throw everything in a pan, bring to the boil, add a flavour, mix for a bit to encourage sugar crystallisation to start and then pour it out. You can make it in less than 15 minutes. It is also very simple to make different flavours – I made vanilla, chocolate and peppermint, but you can let your imagination run wild. Just be prepared for the fact that this stuff is very, very, very sweet. Either make just a small batch, or make sure you’ve got dozens and dozens of people coming to eat the stuff!

My recipe is something called roomboter borstplaat, made with butter and cream. You can make it more simply with water or milk, but the key thing is that you want to get the sugar to dissolve during the boiling process. I’ve added a few spoonfuls of water to the mixture. This doesn’t appear in a lot of recipes, but I found it guarantees that the sugar dissolves, and the extra water will evaporate during cooking anyway.

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To shape the borstplaat, you need to work quickly. You need to boil the mixture, then beat it until it becomes a little dull and just starts to go grainy. Then you pour it into a tray, or into prepared moulds, and leave it to set. You know you’ve got it right when the frosted effect appears on the top of the borstplaat.

As  you can see, I went a bit crazy and used lots of metal cookie cutters on a sheet of greaseproof paper as moulds. This definitely made for one my best pictures in a while, bit in the spirit of honesty, it was not the easiest way to make this stuff. Single pieces of borstplaat are fairly robust, but when you’re trying to get it out of these moulds with fiddly corners, it can be irritatingly fragile and I had quite a few breakages. If you want to try making them this way, go for simpler shapes, and make sure they are very, very well buttered so that nothing sticks. The hearts and discs were the easiest to get out of their moulds. It turns out that the Dutch have special moulds for making borstplaat which come apart in pieces! If only I’d known before…

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If you are impatient or prefer to make life easier for yourself, I would recommend that you just make a slab of this stuff, then break it into pieces as needed. Lining a bread tin with greaseproof paper will get you a nice, rectangular block.

If you want to get fancy, then use a silicone mould – I had one for making jelly babies, and made these cute little guys. The silicone mould was the easiest way to make elaborate shapes – they just slipped right out once the borstplaat was cool. Just be sure that your moulds are heat-resistant! The mixture it is pretty hot when you pour it in, and you don’t want a sugary molten plastic disaster!

So there you have it! We’ve kicked off with a tooth-achingly sweet treat, just eleven more bakes to go before Christmas. Simple, right?

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To make borstplaat

• 250g sugar
• 80g double cream
• 50g butter
• 4 tablespoons water

1. Prepare your moulds or pan. If making a slab, line the bottom of a loaf pan with greaseproof paper, rubbed with a tiny amount of unsalted butter to prevent sticking.

2. Put the sugar, cream, butter and water in a saucepan. Place on a low heat and cook until the sugar has dissolved. Bring to the boil and cook until the temperature reaches 115°C (240°F). If you don’t have a sugar thermometer, you’re aiming for the soft ball stage.

3. Remove the mixture from the heat. Add any flavours or colours at this stage. Stir with a wooden spoon until the mixture goes dull you can just feel the crystals of sugar starting to form.

4. Working quickly, pour the mixture into the moulds, or pour into the loaf tin. Leave to set until completely cooled.

Note: if the mixture goes wrong, or sets too quickly as you’re pouring it out, don’t worry. You can just add some water and re-boil per steps 2 and 3.

Flavour variants:

• Chocolate: use golden caster sugar. Add 1 tablespoon of coca powder and a pinch of salt before you start cooking.

• Vanilla: add 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract once the mixture is cooked but before you start mixing.

• Peppermint: add 1/4 teaspoon peppermint extract and some food colouring once the mixture is cooked but before you start mixing.

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