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{11} Vihreitä Kuulia

Today’s recipe is a departure from the world of Christmas cookies. It’s time for some festive sweets!

These are called vihreitä kuulia, which translates as “green marbles”. The idea to make these came from my Finnish colleague, who explained they are an intrinsic part of the festive period in Finland. They are fruit jellies made by the iconic Finnish chocolate company Fazer.


Never one to shy away from a challenge, I looked into them a bit more. They these are essentially pâte de fruit that is made in hemispherical moulds. Two pieces are put together to form a sphere, rolled in sugar and voila we have ourselves some green marbles. They looked pretty cool, so I thought I would have a go. The fact I needed to buy a new mould, glucose, pectin powder and tartaric acid? Pffff, easy!

The traditional flavour is pear, and in fact they used to be known by the name päärynäkuulat (“pear balls”). But…pear?…this presented a bit of a challenge. I wanted to stay authentic, but I didn’t want to use pear flavouring. If you’ve ever had pear drop sweets, you’ll know that really strong overpowering flavour and I wanted to avoid that. So what could I do? I bought a few comice pears, and let them get really, really, really ripe. They ended up really soft and fragrant, which seemed hopeful. In fact, they were so soft that peeling and coring them was a bit tricky, but it meant that they were very easy to purée.


So I got my pear purée, but it quickly started to oxidise and go brown. I cooked it briefly to try and stabilise it, then let it cool. At this point, it was a pale brown colour, which left me thinking this was not going to work. But I persisted – I threw in the other ingredients and added a little green colouring. I would love to say that I’ve used something wonderfully natural, but I didn’t. It was a gel colouring, as I wanted to get a vibrant, intense green colour. I know, I know, a massive contradiction to be obsessed about the natural flavour and then achieve the green with some fakery! But look – no more brown, and we got the green marble look.

I boiled the lot, got to the magic 107°C, and added some tartaric acid to get the mixture to set, and a little spiced pear liqueur for a flavour boost. It was then a simple case of pouring the mixture carefully moulds, and the rest went into a lined pan to set so that I could cut it into squares like classic pate de fruit. I did have to work quickly, as the mixture started to gel really quickly – I just managed to pour 24 hemispheres, and by the time I poured the remainder into a tray, it was properly starting to set. I thought it would take longer for the pectin to start setting, so you really do need to have everything ready. Part of the dubious joy of pâte de fruit is working with pectin and all the science that goes with it, but it does mean these sweets are vegan, so a useful recipe to know if you’re trying to make jelly-type sweets that avoid gelatin.


As you can see, this worked! The pear paste set to a very firm jelly which popped right out of the moulds. I then took two pieces, pressed them together, and rolled them in sugar. The result was a collection of really pretty green spheres. And the flavour? Yes, we got pear. We got natural pear! This worked better than I hoped, and I think part of the secret to success here is that the mixture was not cooked for any longer than was necessary. I probably spent only 5 minutes cooking it on the stove.

Now, I mentioned that this recipe did require me to buy a few specialist items. I had to find pectin powder, tartaric acid, glucose and a special silicone mould. Once I had amassed all these goodies, I was bitten by the pâte de fruit bug and decided to have a go at something else. I also saw that Fazer makes a range of these coloured fruit “marbles”. And I had a bowl of plums on the sideboard, so I decided to used the same technique to make my version of sugarplums, except I chopped the plums and cooked them with a little water until they were soft and pulpy, and added cinnamon and mixed spices to the mixture. I’ve made a traditional version before using a mixture of ground dried fruit and nuts flavoured with spices, but I liked the idea of a spiced plum candy, ruby-red and glittering with sugar crystals. As you can see below, they worked and taste absolutely delicious. Fit for the sugar plum fairy herself!

To make Vihreitä Kuulia / (makes around 50 half-spheres)*

• 250g pear purée (3-4 large and very ripe pears)
• 75g glucose
• 1 heaped tablespoon yellow pectin
• 400g sugar
• green food colour
• 1 teaspoon water
• 1 slightly rounded teaspoon acid crystals
• 1 teaspoon pear liqueur or pear eau de vie

1. Make the purée. Peel and core the pears. Chop and put them in a food processor and blitz to a purée. Pass through a sieve to remove any remaining bits, and tip the purée into a saucepan and cook briefly. Leave to cool to lukewarm.

2. In the meantime, put the sugar and pectin powder in a bowl and mix well – you want to get rid of any lumps of pectin.

3. In a small bowl mix the water and tartaric acid crystals. Add the pear liqueur or eau de vie.

4. Measure 250g of the pear purée and put in a saucepan. Add the glucose and sugar mixture. Stir well – it should turn syrupy. Add the green colouring and mix well.

5. Heat the mixture – it will come to a boil, and keep going until it reaches 107°C (225°F), stirring from time to time to prevent sticking.

6. Pour the cooked mixture into individual moulds or into a lined tray. Leave for several hours until completely cool and set.

7a. If making spheres: take two pieces of the fruit paste and sandwich together to make a ball. Roll in granulated sugar before serving.

7b. If using a tray: cut the set fruit paste into squares, or use cutters to make different shapes. Coat in granulated sugar before serving.

* I filled one tray of 24 hemispheres, and the rest want into a pan of 10cm x 20cm, and I got a block of pâte de fruit about 1cm deep.

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{8} Knäck

Had enough cookies yet? Then you’ll like today’s festive goodness – knäck, a traditional Swedish Christmas sweet. They are delicious caramels that are easy to make, and while the mixture simmers on the stove, you’ve got a kitchen that smells delicious.


To make knäck you only need to put cream, sugar and syrup in a pan. You cook it to the right temperature, then pour it into your preferred shapes. It is traditional to use little paper cups, and I’ve also made some paper cones from greaseproof paper. To stop the cones unravelling, I used some gold-polka-dot washi tape, and secured them with red and white baker’s twine. I’ve always had a bit of an aversion to piles of cookies tied with twine (seriously – who does that apart from in pictures?), but I feel pretty pleased with myself that it is entirely functional here. To note, I did not oil or grease the cups. The caramel did stick to the cups, but by the next day the caramel had absorbed a bit of moisture from the air, and the paper cups could be peeled off easily. The greaseproof paper was true to its name, and the caramel cones/spikes came right out.

The only “tricky bit” here is getting the caramel to the right temperature. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Get a candy thermometer. I’ve got a fairly basic electronic one, and it’s defiantly a great investment. Any time you are working with a sugar syrup (or doing things like tempering chocolate or making jam) it makes life a lot easier. I’ve tried testing whether something has reached the hard ball stage by dropping teaspoons of boiling sugar into cold water, and it’s far easier to push a button and check we’ve hit 130°C. If you don’t have one, perhaps you could ask Santa for a last-minute stocking filler?


If pouring the caramel into individual moulds is not your thing, you could just pour the caramel mixture into a single large sheet (called knäckbräck) and then break it into pieces later. This would be a good idea if you want to present it at a party and smash it up theatrically. Come to think of it, I remember that being a “thing” many years ago – you could buy a block of toffee, and it came with its own little hammer to break it up. Anyway, the single sheet approach is probably the best way to make knäck if you have kids and animals running around and not a lot of time to carefully pour hot syrup into fiddly containers.

One thing to watch is that you don’t end up with pieces of caramel you can’t eat. I recommend you opt for a “less is more” approach. If you fill the little cups too much, or your knäckbräck is too thick, you’re setting up yourself and any guests for dental problems. If the layer is thinner, you’ll actually be able to eat them.

The actual texture of this recipe is a hard caramel at room temperature, but they soften as you eat them. I recommend a little patience as you eat them, just to avoid cracking teeth and fillings being pulled out. I know I’m making the same point over and over, but I really don’t want people having dental issues over the festive period.

A good thing about knäck is that you have lots of scope to play around with flavours. I opted for simple toasted flaked almonds. I’ve also added some salt as I think this improves the taste and takes them away from simple sweetness to something more complex. Get creative! Play around with flavours – just before pouring, you can add citrus zest, or peppermint oil, or cocoa powder (or a combination of these) – or switch out the almonds for other nuts or dried fruit, or sprinkle the finished knäck with seeds, coconut, or even crushed candy canes for a properly festive twist. If you’ve got some helper elves in the kitchen, you could get a little production line going with different toppings.

To make Knäck (makes around 50 pieces)

• 200ml double cream
• 200ml golden syrup or Swedish light syrup (“ljus sirap”)
• 200g white caster sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 20g butter
• 50g chopped or flaked almonds, toasted

1. Heat the oven to 160°C. Spread the almonds on a tray and bake until they are lightly golden and fragrant. When they are ready, just turn off the heat but leave them in the oven so they stay warm.

2. While the almonds are toasting, make the caramel. Put the cream, sugar, syrup and salt in a large saucepan. Heat and bring to the boil.

3. Keep the mixture on a gentle rolling boil until it reaches 130°C on a sugar thermometer. It took about 20 minutes for me, but focus on the temperature rather than the time.

4. In the meantime, line a baking tray with 50 small paper cups. If you are using paper cones, find a way to keep them upright – I pushed them through a cooling rack balances above a saucepan to hold them.

5. When the caramel is ready, remove from heat. Add the butter and warm almonds, and mix quickly until combined.

6. Acting quickly but carefully, pour the mixture into the paper cups and leave to cool. If the caramel gets too thick as you are pouring it out, reheat it gently until it flows easily again.

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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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{2} Sparkling Quince Candy

In all the years that I’ve been tackling various Christmas delights, what has struck me is how few of them are actually suitable for vegans. Sure, a lot of them could be adjusted to make them suitable, but few of them are, from the out, completely plant-based. Perhaps the nearest traditional recipe I’ve tried has been sugarplums, albeit it you would need to swap out the honey for some other syrup. My festive sweet chestnut wagashi from 2012 were indeed completely vegan, but as they were more the sort of thing you might expect in Japan than from a German Christmas market, I’m not entirely sure that they would really count.

Well, it’s time to change that. The hero of the hour is that most frustrating of fruits, the quince, which appears in various countries as part of their festive fare. They always look so enticing, large, smooth and golden. Indeed, they are reputed to be the real “golden apples” that Hercules was challenged to steal from the Garden of the Hesperides (although others suggest they were actually oranges), and quinces were also thought to be sacred to the goddess Venus, making them a symbol of love and fertility.

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All well and good, but if you’ve every tried to cook with quince (at least the ones that grow in chillier Northern climes), you’ll appreciate that they don’t ripen into sweet, juicy fruit, but remain hard and rather astringent while raw. They might look tempting, but bite into one and you’ll soon wish you hadn’t!

This was very clear to me during autumn – two streets from my house, someone has a large quince tree in front of their house. Every few days, a quince would appear on the ground with some teeth marks. One by one, each of the quinces met the same fate. Clearly several passing opportunists had tried their luck, each being disappointed in turn. No, in this country, we need to cook quinces to change them into something fragrant and delicious.

Indeed, it is the cooking that makes the magic happen. This is not like cooking apples or pears (to which quinces bear similar appearance). Cooking quince down with some sugar and lemon juice transforms the hard pale yellow flesh into something completely different. Rich in colour, ranging from soft pink to deep garnet red, a delicious sweet with a rich pear-and-honey flavour!

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In reality, today’s post is really just a jazzed-up version of simple quince paste, with the sparkling element coming from being rolled in granulated sugar. All in all, it’s similar to Spanish membrillo served alongside manchego cheese. Of course, quince paste is not something that is limited to Spain. Similar things pop up all over the place, such as British quince cheese, France’s pâte de coing (which features as one of the Thirteen Desserts of Christmas (Les Treize Desserts de Noël) traditionally enjoyed after a festive meal in Provence) or Croatian kotonjata that is enjoyed at this time of year.

They all follow a similar recipe, but vary the amount of sugar, which results in different levels of sweetness and textures that range from firm and chewy to soft and melting. They are also suitable as a vegan treat, as they contain nothing more than quince, sugar and lemon juice, plus a little water to get things going, relying on the naturally high pectin levels in quince to get a good set (no gelatine here). The only thing you are asked to give to make quince candy is time, time and more time!

quincecandy2
I would describe this sweet as similar to Turkish Delight, so if you love that, then you’ll enjoy this. It has that same sweet, slightly chewy texture, albeit it has the graininess of quince rather than the smoothness of Turkish Delight. It’s worth noting that as you puree the quince, rather than just using the juice, you don’t get a completely smooth jelly. However, the main difference from Turkish Delight is that it is a lot, lot easier to make. There is no messing around with cornflour mixtures until everything turns to gloopy goo…just cook the quince until soft, puree it, then add sugar and cook the lot until done. Basta!

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I actually made this over two evenings, which is probably the easiest way to do it given how busy we all are at this time of year. The first evening, let the prepared quince cook down. This is the easy bit, and you can leave it on the hob to simmer while you’re doing something else (making cookies or watching a film…). This is the point where you’re also delighted that the quince flesh has turned to a soft pink colour, and you imagine that this will be the colour of the finished candy.

The second evening is a bit more involved. Once the sugar and lemon juice are in the mixture, the lot needs to reduce. Initially this is fine, and you don’t need to stir it very often at all, but as it cooks down, you’ve got a much higher sugar ratio in there, and towards the end, you have the sheer delight of stirring the boiling, bubbling mixture over a very hot stove. Lucky that it is so chilly outside! At this stage, I was amazed by the colour change – gone was the soft, gentle pink, and instead I had an intensely deep, dark red colour. Really quite amazing – this was just the result of the cooking process, where the heat of cooking causes a red pigment called anthocyanin to appear (or maybe it was there all along – I’m no scientist!). The final shade and its intensity is a result of the quince variety and where it was grown. If you make this, you could get the same garnet colour, or it might look quite different. So I guess what I’m saying is that there are no guarantees, so live a little and see what colour you end up with.

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A few final little tips – once you’ve made the giant block of quince candy and you have cut it up, you are advised to leave it uncovered in a warm and dry place. This will help the candy dry out slightly. What you want is a surface that is sticky but not wet, so you can coat it in sugar, but the sugar won’t then dissolve and form a syrup that ends up clinging to everything (your worktop, your hair, your Rudolph jumper…).

It is also worth making sure you use the lowest heat possible for this recipe. It is very easy to burn, and the flavour of caramel might be delightful with salt, but it can ruin the fruity flavour of quince. Taking the slow approach will also allow you to control the final texture. My candy had a very firm but chewy texture, which I like, but you may prefer something softer.

So…after all that work…how was it? Frankly, I was terribly impressed with myself. This looked really great – each piece was very regular – and the flavour was  fantastic. It has that familiar honey-pear flavour and aromatic quality that you associate with quince, but as the mixture has been cooked for a long, long time, it is much more intense than membrillo you might have with cheese. I think getting a few of these after dinner or as a gift would be very much in keeping with the festive season. If you’re feeling creative, you could try to put the hot quince paste into small silicone moulds, or even just use a cutter to get different shapes before rolling in sugar.

Finally, I should just add that this recipe does make a lot of pieces of candy. I had about 80, all around the size of a walnut, so you might want to try a smaller batch unless you’re a real quince lover!

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 To make Quince Candy (around 80 pieces, depending on size)

• 4 large quinces
• juice of one lemon
• 300ml water
• granulated white sugar (plus extra for rolling)

Step 1: Prepare the quince pulp

1. Peel and de-core the quinces. Cut the flesh into chunks (I ended up with about 1.145kg of quince flesh from my four large quinces), discarding the peel and pips. Add the water and lemon juice, cover the pot and simmer until the quince is very tender and has a pink colour (at least 1 hour).

2. Mash the quince mixture so it looks like pulp and then pass through a sieve to remove any “stringy bits”. This might take a while, but keep at it and almost everything should go through the sieve. Discard anything that remains in the sieve, and you’ve got your quince puree!

Step 2: Make the Quince Candy

3. Measure the quince pulp by volume and put into a saucepan. For every 500ml of pulp, add 400ml of granulated sugar (i.e. 4:5 ratio of sugar to quince).

4. Prepare a non-stick baking tray ( at least 20 x 20cm/8 x 8 inches). Rub very lightly with a few dots of a neutral oil to prevent sticking.

5. Heat the mixture until the sugar dissolves. Cook over a gentle heat until the mixture darkens in colour and you can scrape the bottom of the pan – it should leave a trail for a few moments and not fall off a spoon. You can also test a few drops of the mixture on a cold plate – if it sets firmly, it’s ready. Initially, you can stir the mixture only every 15-20 minutes, but as the mixture reduces, you will need to stand over the pot and stir continuously (i.e. non-stop, otherwise it will burn!).

6. Once the quince mixture is ready, pour into the prepared tray and shake lightly to even the surface. Cover loosely with greaseproof paper and leave overnight to set and cool.

7. The next day, turn the quince candy slab out of the tin. Cut into pieces, and spread on a sheet of greaseproof paper and leave in a warm, dry place to dry out slightly. After a couple of days, roll each piece in more granulated sugar to finish.

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Beijinhos de Coco (Brazilian Coconut Kisses)

A few days ago I tried making Brazilian brigadeiros and have been really surprised at just how popular they are – I think they’ve had more comments than just about any other of my posts! As the weather has been rotten here, I found myself looking again at the cuisine of Brazil for some inspiration, and came across another sweet treat, very similar to brigadeiros, but made with coconut rather than cocoa. Again it is a simple matter of cooking up some condensed milk with a little butter plus your desired flavour, then cooking the lot until thick.

I’m rather impressed with how these turned out – they have a really excellent coconut flavour and a nice chewiness, rather like a firmer and chocolate-free Bounty bar. They are traditionally rolled in more coconut and finished with a whole clove. This might seem a little odd, but the hint of spice that this adds is surprisingly good (just remember to remove the cloves when you eat them!). If cloves aren’t your thing, you could try dipping them in dark chocolate for a more sophisticated treat.

BeijinhodeCoco

As with making chocolate brigaderos, I recommend that you don’t make these too far ahead of time. They can dry out, and you want them to be smooth and chewy. It is also worth saying that the longer you cook the mixture, the firmer the final sweets, so if you want them to be softer and more creamy, cook for less time, for very firm and more toffee-like, cook a little longer.

To make Beijinhos de Coco (make 25):

• 1 tin sweetened condensed milk (400g)
• 30g desiccated coconut (unsweetened)
• 30g (2 tablespoons) butter
• extra desiccated coconut, to roll
• whole cloves

1. Very lightly butter the bottom of a dish and place to one side.

2. In a small saucepan, melt the butter. Mix in the coconut and condensed milk. Keep stirring over a gentle heat until the mixture looks thick and comes away from the sides of the pan (around 10 minutes). Pour the mixture into the buttered dish, cover with cling film, and leave to cool completely.

3. Take walnut-sized pieces of the mixture and roll into balls between your hands. Roll in more coconut, press a clove into the top of each beijinho, and put into miniature cake cases.

Worth making? If you like coconut, these are a delicious and easy sweet to make at home. Recommended!

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Brigadeiros

I think every cook has a few technically complex things that they aspire to be able to make really well. In my case, it’s a pretty long list (I’ve got a thing for mastering tricky techniques) but I would love to be really, really good at making sweets. Fudge, caramels, chocolates…for all the artistry involved in making them, they also contain a decent amount of science, as too much mixing (or not enough), or being a degree or two above or below the right temperature can ruin you sweets or change them completely. When I was growing up, we had a “Candy Cookbook” with recipes for making fondant, then dozens and dozens of recipes to make with that fondant. Needless to say, my poor mother suffered years of sugary mess in the kitchen which yielded inedible results with tedious regularity.

For this reason, I’m always rather happy to make something that is easy and has pretty much guaranteed success attached to it, and brigadeiros tick that box. They originate in Brazil, and I would describe them as chocolate caramel truffles. They are also dead simple, as they are made from just butter, cocoa and condensed milk. I’ve also added a pinch of salt, both to get just a hint of that salted caramel vibe going, but also to cut through the sweetness of all that condensed milk.

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These little chocolate treats were said to have been created in Rio de Janeiro in the 1940s by supporters of Brigadier Eduardo Gomes, who was running for the Presidency of Brazil. Their slogan was “vote no Brigadeiro que é bonito e é solteiro”, which translates as “vote for the Brigadier, who is handsome and single”. Unfortunately for him, the power of confectionery was not enough, and he ended the campaign handsome, single and not the President. However, his name lives on in the form of these little bonbons which are a perennial favourite at parties in Brazil.

Actually making brigadeiros was a complete breeze. Just melt the butter, mix in the cocoa until smooth, then add the condensed milk. Keep stirring over a low flame until the mixture comes away from the sides of the pan. If things seem to be getting a little lumpy, just beat vigorously with a whisk until smooth. No worrying about setting points, whether things have been tempered or how to encourage the “right” sort of crystals to form. Just beat, boil, cool, roll! This is sweet making for the impatient, and suited me perfectly.

The traditional coating is to roll them in chocolate vermicelli sprinkles, but there are other options too. I’ve also used some finely chopped pistachios, and coconut would also look rather good with the white flakes contrasting with the dark cocoa interior.

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Finally, a little advice – you can make the filling ahead of time (e.g. the night before) and then roll the truffles in chocolate sprinkles just before serving. However, be careful about making them too long before you intend to eat them – as the ingredients are fairly simple, they will dry out after a couple of days, so you won’t have that lovely smooth texture. You could play around with the recipe and start adding glucose syrup and such like, but I recommend keeping things simple and just making them a little bit before you want to serve them.

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To make Brigadeiros (makes 18)

• 1 tin sweetened condensed milk (400g)
• 30g cocoa powder, sifted
• 30g butter
• pinch of salt
• chocolate sprinkles, chopped nuts, coconut etc. (for rolling)

1. Lightly grease the bottom of a dish and place to one side.

2. In a small saucepan, melt the butter. Mix in the cocoa and condensed milk. Keep stirring over a gentle heat until the mixture looks thick and comes away from the sides of the pan (around 10 minutes). Pour the mixture into the buttered dish, cover with cling film, and leave to cool completely.

3. Take walnut-sized pieces of the mixture and roll into balls between your hands. Roll in the topping of your choice and put into miniature cake cases.

Worth making? Considering how ridiculously easy these are to make, they are really delicious. This is a great idea for kids to make, as they look great on a plate, and you can add all manner of toppings.

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La vie en rose

Bring something for a tea party. We’re going for a romantic theme…

That was the brief, so what, oh what could I bring? Well, something that struck me as rather suitable would have been the rose creams that I recently sampled at Charbonnel et Walker in Mayfair just before the Jubilee. However, I didn’t have the time for a visit to central London, so it was going to have to be something home-made. So I thought: what the heck, I’ll just make rose creams. And…if they don’t work, it’s going to be a Victoria sponge…

My very unscientific research tells me that a lot of folk think of rose-flavoured sweets as rather old-fashioned. I think this is perhaps due, in part, to floral flavours usually being very strong, more like perfume, and often rather artificial. If you had Parma Violets as a child, you’ll understand. A rose has a fragile perfume, so if you are going to use it to flavour something, you want the retain its delicate character. While rose is undeniably very traditional, the flavour can also seem quite contemporary, at least to Western tastes. Rose water features in a lot of Middle Eastern desserts like baklava or lokum, so when used with a light touch, it can be quite heady and aromatic. It’s all about getting the right balance between the light, fresh notes of rose oil, but avoiding a flavouring that is too floral. Oh, and apparently rose creams are a favourite of HM The Queen.

We say we eat with our eyes too, and I think the colour of anything that contains rose has a lot to do with how it is received. A piece of Turkish delight that is bright pink suggests that it’s going to be rather strong in the flavour department, but if colourless, you’re not expecting the flavour to be too strong. So that was something that I took on board – my little creations were not going to be lurid neon pink!

However, when it came to making these sweets, I was faced with a bit of a quandary. What should the filling actually be made of? It is rather obvious that my rose creams were going to be very sweet. Lots of sugar would be unavoidable. However, there are still some variations.

An easy option is to combine icing sugar and egg whites. Personally, I try not to use uncooked egg white when possible, so that was a bit of a non-starter for me. Other recipes use double cream instead. This was more palatable for a picky chef, but I was also keen to have centres that were silky-smooth. I tested the icing sugar and cream mixture, but there was a perceptible graininess.

This process of elimination brought me face to face with one of my cooking demons. Fear of fondant. I was going to have to work with hot sugar syrup. Eek! I accept that some foods require a bit of science to understand them, but fondant is, for me, a huge step up. The thing with fondant is that you work the sugar syrup so that it forms very tiny crystals, so the resulting paste is very smooth when you bite into it, with no hint of graininess and thus a perfect melting texture. My fear comes from past attempts that ended up with a nasty, gritty mess, but this time I was determined to make sure that it worked.

First off, I tried adapting this recipe from Saveur for peppermint patties. I would just swap the peppermint oil for a little rose extract. However, I found the addition of cream and butter made the filling too rich, and the use of dairy meant that the base was not sufficiently “clean” for the rose flavour to work. Peppermint oil would probably have worked better here after all.

So I went back to the basic fondant recipe – sugar, water, glucose and a dash of cream of tartar. This time, it worked like a dream. The fondant turned out brilliantly white and once the rose was added, the flavour was just right. It could be subtle as there were no other flavours in there to compete with. For a moment, I wondered if I should add any pink colour at all – in the end, I added only the tiniest amount, but I think you could actually skip this quite happily, and keep them white for a more modern look.

With the fondant successfully made, I did what so many people do when they overcome a fear and made it again, just to be sure that the recipe did indeed work. I’m happy to report that it did. It’s amazing what happens when you finally learn that when glucose appears on an ingredients list, it is essential and not just an optional extra. That, and a candy thermometer makes life so much easier!

Finally, to dip or not to dip? I decided to dip these fondants in chocolate (2/3 dark, 1/3 milk). I felt the dark chocolate would work better with the rose flavour, but that pure milk would be a little to much – that sweetness needed something bitter to balance it.

Once the chocolates were made, I headed to the tea party. I turned up, presented my chocolates, and I think they were all gone in about five minutes. Nice to see hours of work in the kitchen appreciated like that.

And if you’re humming the tune, here is what I think is the best version of “La Vie en Rose” by Grace Jones (minus the hula-hoop).

To make rose creams (makes 20):

For the filling:

• 300g white sugar
• 1 teaspoon liquid glucose
• 2 pinches cream of tartar
• 75ml water
• 1/4 teaspoon rose extract
• 2-3 drops pink food colouring

To coat the chocolates:

• 200g chocolate (I used a 2:1 mixture of dark and milk)

1. Put the sugar, glucose, cream of tartar and water into a saucepan. Bring to the boil without stirring, and cook until the mixture reaches the soft ball stage (112°C / 235°F).

2. Pour the syrup sugar liquid onto a cold marble slab, and start to work with a spatula until the mixture becomes opaque. Be careful – this stuff starts of very, very hot! Eventually it will become firm and crumbly. When this happens, use your hands to work the fondant into a smooth paste. If it gets too dry, add a couple of drops of water.

4. Once the fondant is smooth, add the rose extract and food colouring (if using), and work until combined. Wrap tightly in cling film, and leave in a cool place (not the fridge) to cool completely.

5. To finish the chocolates, shape the fondant into pieces. Make them a little smaller than you expect, as they are larger once coated in chocolate. Let the fondant sit on a sheet of greaseproof paper while you melt the chocolate. To see how to temper chocolate (to get a shiny finish) see here or here.

6. To dip the fondant in the chocolate, balance a piece on a fork. Dip into the chocolate, then lift out. Tap on the side of the bowl, run the bottom of the fork over the rim of the bowl to remove excess chocolate, then place back on the sheet of greaseproof paper to set.

Worth making? Certainly! Very few ingredients, but a great result! Once you manage to make the fondant, the process is actually quite easy, so worth having a go at, and of course, you can change them with all manner of flavours.

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Let’s make a Crunchie bar…

All this sugar…this really is not a good idea. Lucky that I am still keeping up the New Year fitness regime, and so this means that it is therefore a brilliant idea, provided that I exercise a bit to offset all the sweet stuff I’m probably about to consume. And by “consume” I mean of course “enjoy“.

Yes, honeycomb candy. Also called cinder candy or sponge toffee. But most of us know it as “the stuff in a Crunchie bar”. I used to wonder how the “crunchy bit” was made – and it turns out it’s just a simple flavoured caramel with a little something extra to provide the puffed-up look.

I’ve made this a few times, and I must confess that my early attempts were less than successful. This was down to my rather cavalier attitude to reading recipes. Baking powder, baking soda…all the same. Eh, well actually, no – when it comes to making honeycomb, baking soda/bicarbonate of soda is your friend, and baking power just gets messy and unpleasant. At least you can learn from my errors!

Now, the flavour. You could just use sugar and caramelise it, but the flavour is a little flat. I added some honey (hey, honeycomb, it needs to have some connection with a real bee!) and some golden syrup, plus just the tiniest pinch of salt. Boil, add baking soda, allow to foam up and pour into a tray. And you know what? This works like a dream. It looks like honeycomb should, and in fact, I have to be slightly big-headed as the texture is, in my view, even better than a Crunchie bar, as there were a few big bubbles that continued the honeycomb-theme.

As you can see below, it’s a simple case of putting everything into a saucepan, and then just getting to the right point where the caramel, when dropped into cold water, becomes a brittle, spindly mass. You can use a sugar thermometer to measure when it has caramelised properly, but the “bowl of cold water” test works just as well in my experience.

Now, the problem with making anything that is virtually 100% sugar is that it very quickly absorbs moisture from the air, gets sticky, and rapidly becomes rather a mess. To cure this, what could be better than to dip pieces in chocolate? You end up with something that is a bit like a Crunchie, but the flavour is different – I think it has more of an adult side to it, all thanks to the use of good-quality dark stuff. A naughty, comforting little petit four to serve with coffee.

To make honeycomb:

• 200g white caster sugar
• 50g honey (I used manuka honey)
• 50g golden syrup (or corn syrup)
• 1 tablespoon water
• pinch of salt
• 3 teaspoons bicarbonate of soda

Start by preparing a tin to hold the honeycomb. Line with foil, and grease lightly with just a little neutral oil (e.g. sunflower) or non-stick spray.

Put all the ingredients except the bicarbonate into a large saucepan. Heat gently until the sugar has melted and everything is combined. Keep cooking over a low heat until the mixture is caramelised – you know that the mixture is ready when it darkens in colour, and  some of the mixture dropped into cold water becomes brittle. If the mixture is still pliable when you do this, keep cooking – we need brittle, but be careful not to burn the caramel!

Remove the pan from the heat and add the baking soda, stirring well. The mixture will foam up very dramatically, so be careful! Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and allow to set. The mixture might expand a little more in the tray, so put the pan on a baking sheet to prevent any sticky mess.

Once the honeycomb is cool, break into chunks and store in an airtight container.

To dip in chocolate: melt 200g dark chocolate in a double boiler. Use your fingers to dip each piece of honeycomb, making sure it is coated all over. Share off any excess chocolate, and leave to set on greaseproof paper. If you find a “pool” of chocolate developing around the base of each piece of honeycomb, just lift and move to another piece of greaseproof paper. YOu can then re-use (or just eat) the chocolate left on the first sheet!

Worth making? Very easy and surprisingly delicious. Good fun to make if you don’t have the patience for fudge or tablet, and can be easily turned into a quasi-science lesson with children, followed by a messy afternoon dipping the pieces into chocolate. Healthy? No. Fun? Yes! So if you are stuck in a far away land and cannot get hold of the Crunchie bar you so desperately want, this might just keep you going in the meantime.

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Scottish Food: Tablet

Very excited as LondonEats turns one today! Thanks to all for stopping by and your kind comments over the past twelve months! Taking stock of what I have been up to, I see I have made so many things over the last year, but looking through my recipe index, I noticed that something was missing. Japanese sweets? Got them . French macarons? In there too. Dutch pancakes? You bet. Scottish food…ah, well, bit of a black hole there.

To address this, I’m going to be doing a few posts which celebrate the cuisine of Scotland. But let’s get one thing straight: this does not include the deep-friend Mars bar! This has become the modern stereotype of Celtic cuisine, and one which I am proud to say I have not tried. But mention to people that you come from Scotland, and this is one of the first things that pop in to their heads. Not some of the finest smoked salmon in the world, not the fresh soft fruits, not the forest mushrooms or rich fruit cakes. No, it’s a battered fried chocolate bar. Well, today I start on the path to (trying to) change this.

My timing is also rather good, as later this month we Scots will celebrate Burns Night. This commemorates the birth of the man regarded by many as Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns, in an evening of haggis, potatoes and turnip, washed down with whisky and accompanied by some of the man’s best-known poems and finally, some dancing as the tables are cleared and the music goes on for a cèilidh.

Let’s start off nice and easy. Scots are known for their sweet tooth, and there is nothing much sweeter than tablet. It looks like fudge, has the colour of fudge, and might even smell like fudge, but it is essentially pure sugar, with enough butter and condensed or evaporated milk to hold it together. It really is that sweet and cloying, but it makes 5 million Scots very happy indeed.

With tablet, I think the right texture matters, and it is only fair to warn those that might want to make this that tablet does not share the smooth, soft texture of fudge. In fact, you are aiming to make something that is quite grainy. That is they way I grew up eating it, and for me, that is the way it should be. You can even see the ghostly frosted fleck from the sugar as it cools on the surface of the tablet. I do like the grittiness against my teeth as I eat it, although my teeth probably won’t last long against this stuff.

You could try to flavour tablet with vanilla or any number of spices, but I really don’t bother as I like it the way it is. Plus, this way you get all the rich flavours of cooked milk and caramelised sugar, which can be so easily lost when you add more aromatic ingredients. What I think is worth doing is adding a little pinch of salt to the mixture. Then simply boil, pour in a tray, cool and cut into pieces. Job done!

To make tablet:

• 150ml milk
• 1kg white sugar
• 1 tin (410g) evaporated milk(*)
• 50g unsalted butter
• pinch of salt

Prepare a large baking tray (e.g. 23 x 33cm) by lining with foil and greasing well with butter.

Put all the ingredients into a large pan. The mixture will bubble up later, so use the largest you can. Heat gently and stir until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture is smooth.

Bring the the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until the mixture has turned a rich, caramel colour. At this stage, start to test the tablet – drop a spoonful of the mixture into a glass of ice-cold water, and it should form a soft ball when rolled between your fingers. If the mixture is too soft, keep cooking until this stage is reached. If using a candy thermometer, you are aiming for 112-115°C (234-240°F), but testing with the bowl of water is far more fun.

Once ready, remove from the heat. Use a wooden spoon to beat the mixture. You are aiming for a mixture that is thicker and feels grainy (it may also lose its very glossy appearance) but will still flow. Pour into a prepared baking tray, and leave to set, ideally overnight. Once set, cut into pieces and store in an airtight box.

(*) Be careful! This is evaporated (unsweetened) milk, and not the thick, sweet condensed milk.

Worth making? You don’t know sweet until you’ve had tablet. Not really very healthy, but traditional and it is very simple to make, and if you’ve got a sweet tooth, you’ll love this.

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Usagi Wagashi

Today’s post is very brief, but I wanted to share a gift I received at the weekend. As the perfect alternative to the season’s chocolate, nuts and spices, I was given a box of usagi wagashi, little Japanese sweets in the shape of rabbits. I’ve blogged before about Japanese sweets, wagashi, from London’s Minamoto Kitchoan (see here), and so this was indeed a most welcome and thoughtful gift.

But before we get to the sweets, let’s appreciate the box:

Cute, yes?

And this is what the little rabbits look like:

These sweets are a perfect little indulgent treat. I would not eat more than one at a time, but only for the reason that I would run out too quickly. They are made with white bean paste, and have a perfectly silky-smooth texture, vaguely reminiscent of moist marzipan, lightly sweetend and with just a little whisper of citrus, not unlike French calissons. Tasty, decadent, whimsical. I loved them.

Tempted? You can get hold of them in Minamoto Kitchoan on London’s Piccadilly. I’ll be heading there shortly.

Minamoto Kitchoan, 44 Piccadilly, London W1J ODS. Tel: 0207 437 3135. Tube: Piccadilly Circus or Green Park.

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