Tag Archives: chocolate

{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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{6} Kransekager

Each year, reaching my sixth post is something of a relief – we’ve made it to the half-way point without the kitchen catching fire or being destroyed by scalding molten sugar and burning butter. It feels like we’re on the home stretch, even if it means I’ve got to produce another six bakes to complete the series. Every time I do this challenge, I really enjoy it, but baking against a (self imposed) deadline of Christmas Eve does sap a little of the fun out of the process. And then we do it again the next year…

To celebrate getting this far, I’ve made a celebratory cake. Kransekager hail from Denmark, as well as Norway where they go by the radically different moniker of…eh…kransekake. They are made from a mixture of ground almonds, sugar and egg whites, which is mixed into a marzipan-like dough, and then baked until golden. The result is a slightly crisp exterior, with a soft, chewy centre, and they are utterly delicious. They also happen to be gluten-free if that’s your thing.

The impressive way to make them is by shaping the dough into ever-smaller rings (krans means wreath), then drizzling each layer with white icing to build a tall conical tower that can hide a bottle of champagne. These cakes are popular at Danish weddings, and in Norway on national day on 17 May. I’ve seen some suggestions from Danes that kransekager should be eaten at midnight on New Year’s Eve with champagne. I’m not a massive fan of champagne with very sweet things, so I’ll leave that one to you. To each their own!

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There is also a variation on the kransekage tower. Rather than a cone which rises into the air, the rings can be arranged into an overflødighedshorn (say that after a few glasses of champagne!) which means “horn of plenty” or “cornucopia”. This can then be filled with sweets and chocolates, for a truly dazzling showstopper. If you’re looking for a way to serve all your Christmas baking in a memorable way, then this might be the way to do it. Perhaps I’ll have a go at that next year.

All these fancy cakes are great when you’ve got the time, but as you can see, I’ve avoided the elaborate cake tower and a fantastical horn of plenty, and instead made a simple bar form, with either end dipped in dark chocolate.

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I have found a few Danish versions online which all suggest using marzipan, sugar and egg white. However I’ve learned the hard way that what we call marzipan in Britain has quite a high proportion of sugar to nuts (usually a 3:1 ratio, rather than the 1:1 in Danish “raw” marzipan). The result in the past has been that I’ve ended up making things that were so sweet they were inedible! No worries about that here – I’ve made this using equal parts of ground almonds and icing sugar to get the perfect balance. I’ve also added a little bit of almond extract for that distinctive flavour. I love it, and a little really enhances the kransekager, but if you want to leave it out you can.

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These were really easy to make – the dough comes together easily, and it straightforward to shape. I opted for some long batons – you just measure out the dough, roll it into a ball, then roll into a long sausage. I’ve finished them with traditional white royal icing, but I dipped the ends into dark chocolate  – this provides a flavour contrast to the sweetness, but it also tidied up the messy ends after I’d baked them. I was originally going to leave them with just the icing, but I picked up the chocolate tip from Gitte at My Danish Kitchen. If you’re interested in finding more Danish recipes, her blog is great and there are so many recipes on there – it it’s Danish, I think Gitte has made it at some point!

To make Kransekager (makes 10)

For the marzipan dough

• 1 large egg white
• 150g ground almonds
• 150g icing sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon almond extract

For the icing

• 75g icing sugar
• 1 tablespoon egg white
• few drops of lemon juice

To finish

• 100g dark chocolate

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper, and rub the paper with a dot of butter to prevent sticking.

2. Lightly beat the egg, then add the ground almonds, icing sugar and almond extract. Mix to form a soft dough (start with a fork, then finish with your hands).

3. Divide the mixture into 10 pieces. Dust a worktop with icing sugar. Form each piece into a ball, then roll each one into a sausage, around 9cm long. Press the sides so that you have a long triangle. Transfer to the baking sheet, leaving space between each for the kransekager to expand slightly.

4. Bake the kransekager for around 13-15 minutes until just golden, turning half way for an even bake. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.

5. If dipping in chocolate: temper the chocolate, then dip either end of the batons in the chocolate. Transfer to a sheet of greaseproof paper and leave to set.

6. Make the icing – briefly whisk the egg white, then add the icing sugar and lemon juice. Beat until smooth but stiff – add more icing sugar is needed. Transfer to a piping bag and drizzle a zigzag shape on top of the kransekager. Leave to set.

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Roasted White Chocolate

I’m really not one for following food trends. This nothing to do with me seeking to take some sort of stand about my intellectual and culinary independence and trying to set myself up as some sort of anti-trend baker – I mean, have you actually seen my annual festive baking bonanza? No, it is just the case that trends tend to very easily pass me by. It’s not that I don’t enjoy new things, but the various commitments of daily life mean I’m picking up on things as they are lukewarm, rather than fresh-from-the-oven hot. The result? I come to a lot of things rather late in the day. So I appreciate that roasted white chocolate has been around for a while, but it sounds interesting, so I thought I would give it a whirl.

There were two things that really appealed to me about trying roasted white chocolate. First, you only need one ingredient – a bar of decent white chocolate. Chop it, put it on a tray, heat in a low oven and move it about from time to time until it is of the desired colour. Dead easy! Second, I have very fond childhood memories of the Caramac bar (don’t judge!). It seemed like caramel chocolate to me back then, even if the wrapper carefully avoided the word “chocolate”, so I expected this little experiment to have a similar flavour, albeit one that was perhaps just a hint more sophisticated!

Making this roasted chocolate was an absolute breeze – I took a bar, chopped it into small-ish pieces, tried to artfully arrange it on the tray for a picture, and then put in my (fan) oven at 120°C. I did this on greaseproof paper as I didn’t want to scorch the chocolate on the metal baking sheet, and to make it easier to work it once melted.

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Now, this is the point at which you’ll find out whether your oven is accurate, or is running hot. The chocolate should melt, then after 10 minutes, you can spread it out with a spatula. Then keep cooking for 10 minutes, mix and spread, and repeat until the chocolate gets to the right deep nutty colour.

The first bake melted the chocolate, but not in the way you would see with milk or dark chocolate – the pieces held their shape but looked slumped. Try to imagine saggy chocolate chunks! It was almost as if the whole pile of chocolate looked a little bit sad. But working with a spatula turned the whole lot silky-smooth in an instance. Then it went back in the oven.

Now, after this second baking I suspected that my oven was indeed a little warmer than it should be if the various dials and knobs are to be trusted. This was the step where I saw the biggest single colour change – it had gone from pure ivory white to a light golden colour. The chocolate also had a rather grainy look, but this was easy to fix – again, just scrape the chocolate into the middle, work with the spatula, and spread out again.

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After adjusting the heat down a little, it was a case of baking the chocolate for 10 minutes, removing from the oven, scraping into the middle, working it with the spatula, spreading it out again and putting it back in the oven over and over until the colour gets deeper and deeper, ending up like a delicious caramel.

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All in all, this took about 2 hours from start to finish, but it really needs next to no culinary skills at all. I have no idea if you could just put the chocolate in the oven and leave it there, but it does not demand too much work to work the chocolate from time to time. You just need to be at home tidying up the kitchen cupboards, writing a novel or doing your tax return (or whatever else you do when pottering at home in January).

The flavour is, as you would expect, like white chocolate with a caramel flavour. I thought it was utterly delicious, probably more delicious than it should taste given how easy it was to do. But what can you do with roasted white chocolate beyond eating it with a spoon behind a locked door? This stuff will set – I spread it out thinly, left it to set, and then cut it into triangles to nibble on from time to time. I also lightly sprinkled powdered salt onto the still-melted chocolate to enhance the flavour, which gave it something of a salted caramel flavour.

You could also use this stuff for dipping things, spreading on top of traybakes or as a filling for biscuits, and it could also be used to make icing or ganache if you add a little bit of double cream. The only thing that you need to know is that the texture does seem to be affected by the process – the chocolate triangles I made didn’t have a snap to them – so I don’t know if you could temper this stuff to get a decent snap and shine. Maybe you can, but chances are that it probably won’t survive long enough for anyone to find out – it’s too good to resist for long!

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This time…no recipe! It’s just a bar of chocolate, you, your oven and a spatula!

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{3} Mendiants

If my last post about those buttery Swiss Mailänderli with a hint of lemon was a bit simple for your festive palates, today we are going just about as far from that as is possible. It’s a short hop across the border from Switzerland to France for mendiants, little discs of chocolate studded with all manner of delicious flavours.

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You probably know what these things are if you’ve ever pressed your face against the window of a high-end chocolate shop and then been shocked at just how much they are asking for what seem to be little more than chocolate discs covered in “stuff”. I could make those at home, you think. Then you buy them anyway, and usually guzzle them in fairly short order. Or at least we do in our house…

Alright, so my basic description of mendiants not really do them justice, as they really one of those sweets that is so simple but the overall result is so much more than the individual parts. And after that Mailänderli business, this time we’ve got a pretty decent idea about where the name comes from too! Continue reading

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{3} Kruidnootjes

Christmas would not be Christmas with lots of little spiced biscuits, and this is one that fits the bill perfectly. These are kruidnoten (“spice nuts”) or kruidnootjes (“little spice nuts”) from the Netherlands.

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Kruidnoten are small, crunchy biscuits made with brown sugar and loaded with Christmas spices. They are also incredibly cute – they are actually tiny (less than a small cherry!) and are often given to children in bags, or poured into bowls to munch on while you’re enjoying the festivities.

The good news is they are also incredibly easy to make, great if you’re in a hurry, don’t fancy tackling something too complex or need a quick home-made gift. You just have to whip up butter, sugar and a dash of syrup, then work in some spices and flour. The fun bit was shaping the kruidnoten. I cut the dough into four pieces, and rolled each into a long snake shape. Then (like the geek I am…) I used a ruler and a knife to cut equally-sized pieces, then rolled them into balls. That probably sounds like an unnecessary degree of obsession, but  you know what? All the cookies ended up exactly the same size when they were baked, so I was left feeling rather pleased.

Another real boon is that this is a good cookie choice to make with younger children as there are no complicated steps to follow and, critically, no raw eggs are involved. That means that if little fingers start to stuff the raw dough in their mouths, it will still be perfectly safe (even if the baking powder might not be the tastiest thing they’ve ever eaten). Cutting and rolling the dough into little balls is good fun, and the kruidnoten will cool quickly after baking. This means that little helpers can then eat the fruits of their labour quite quickly, preserving festive kitchen harmony.

Now, you could just leave them as they are and end there. Or…there is one alternative. Dip ’em in dark chocolate. This is definitely not traditional, but I can promise you that this is utterly delicious. The dark chocolate works beautifully with the sweet, crunchy, spicy biscuit, and if they if you add salt to the cookies, this contrasts with the sweetness of the chocolate too. If you have tempered the chocolate properly, they also look really rather stunning when served alongside tea, coffee or hot chocolate.

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One final tip – I’ve had shop-bought kruidnoten in the past, and they stay crisp for a while, but the home-made version can go soft after a day or so if you leave them out. This makes it essential to keep them in an airtight container, but if you don’t do that, you can easily re-crisp them by baking them for a few minutes in a low oven (remember you’re drying out, not baking them). Of course, if they are dipped in chocolate, you don’t need to worry about that…just sayin’…

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To make kruidnoten (makes around 64):

• 125g plain flour
• 2 teaspoons mixed spice
• pinch of ground black pepper
 • 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 1/8 teaspoon salt
• 50g butter

• 30g soft brown sugar
• 35g muscavado sugar
• 1 teaspoon syrup (golden, treacle or honey)
• milk, to combine
• 250g dark chocolate, for dipping (optional)

1. Mix the flour, spice, pepper, baking powder and salt in a bowl. Put to one side.

2. In a separate bowl, cream the butter, sugar and syrup until soft and fluffy. Add the dry ingredients and mix well. Add enough milk until the mixture comes together (a tablespoon at a time – the dough should be soft, but not sticky). Wrap in cling film and chill for an hour or overnight.

3. Preheat the oven to 170°C (340°F). Double-line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

4. Divide the dough into four pieces (mine weighed 271g, so I had 4 x 67g…I’m rather nerdy when it comes to measuring). Roll each piece into a long sausage and cut into 16 pieces (again…I rolled mine out until it was 32cm long, then put a ruler next to it and cut equal pieces of 2cm…).

5. Roll each piece of dough into a ball and place them on the baking sheet with a little space between them. You might have to bake them in two batches.

6. Bake the kruidnoten for around 14-16 minutes (turning the tray half-way) until slightly puffed and a spicy aroma comes from the oven. Remove the tray and put the  kruidnoten on a rack. They should harden as they cool.

7. If you want to, dip the cooled kruidnoten in dark chocolate for a more indulgent festive treat.

Worth making? A definate yes – very easy to make, and utterly delicious and more-ish. A true Dutch delight!

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{1} Vaniljekranse (Danish Vanilla Wreaths)

Hello and welcome to my annual “12 Days of Christmas” festive baking extravaganza! I realise I’m a little late this year in getting started, but fret not, that just means I have been busy in the kitchen whipping up a few goodies. I’ve got a series of treats lined up which, if the past is any guide to the future, means that I will manage to do the first few posts in a calm and orderly fashion, before doing a series of posts for items eight to twelve in a panic in the final days before Christmas. Well, as I’ve said before, it is not Christmas if I’m not slightly losing it in the kitchen surrounded by nuts, marzipan, icing sugar and a range of spices. Long live tradition! If you’re curious, check out my baking from 2011, 2012 and 2013.

Today I’m turning my hand to vaniljekranse which are a traditional Danish biscuit. You’re probably familiar with them if you’ve ever had the chance to dive into a tin of Danish butter biscuits. Funny thing is, you used to see them all the time when I was younger, but not these days. I wonder where they’ve all gone? Perhaps I need to start going to more coffee mornings? Well, now I can make them myself.

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My inspiration to have a go at these came from Gitte at My Danish Kitchen. If these tasty buttery biscuits give you a hankering for more delicious delights, do head on over there are check out more Danish cooking.

The fun part of making vaniljekranse is that you get to use a biscuit press or piping bag. You squeeze out long strips of dough, then trim them and form them into little rings. Overall, these are actually really easy to make, but they do reward a little patience and some trial and error.

First off, there doesn’t seem to be a single standard recipe for making these (or at least not one that I found), so I recommend making your dough, then doing a test batch of a few rings. If they hold their shape, great. If they melt and go flat, add more flour and try again. You’ll probably develop a feel for how they dough should be – the dough needs to be firm, but still pliable enough to pipe out the strips – but better to lose a few test cookies than a whole batch. And when it comes to making the shapes, I found a simple ring (squeeze out the dough, cut, form into a circle) was a bit plain. To tackle this, I twisted the strips of dough slightly before shaping them, which made for more interesting shape.

Now, these cookies are delicious as they are, but if you want to make them a little more fancy, you can also try dipping them in dark chocolate, as I did with half of my batch. If you’re going to do this, think about using salted butter in the dough or adding a couple of generous pinches of salt to balance the sweetness and the flavour of the chocolate. The only problem is stopping at just one!

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To make Vaniljekranse (makes around 80):

• 150g unsalted butter
• 170g white caster sugar

• 1 egg
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1 vanilla pod, seeds only
• 70g blanched almonds, finely ground
• 255g plain flour
• 50g cornflour

1. Beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Mix in the eggs, almonds and vanilla extract. Finally add the plain flour and cornflour and mix to a smooth dough. Wrap in cling film and chill for 30 minutes.

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

3. Put the dough into a cookie press or a piping bag with a star nozzle. Squeeze strips of around 12cm (4.5 inches), twist them slightly, and form into rings. Place on the baking sheet leaving some space to allow them to expand.

4. Bake for 8-10 minutes until golden.

Worth making? I love these! Easy to make, just be prepared for lots and lots of cookies at the end of it!

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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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Secret Chocolate (Not Brazil) Nut Brownies

It’s the Fourth of July, and who could resist a tray of soft, squidgy chocolate brownies?

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Given that we’re all a little bit obsessed with the World Cup at the moment, when I first thought of posting this, I planned to give them a bit of a tropical theme, with a liberal scattering of Brazil nuts in honour of the host nation. That was Monday.

On Tuesday, the USA got knocked out by Belgium, so suddenly that didn’t seem like such a good idea any more. The Brazil nuts were out, and good old patriotic walnuts and pecans went into them instead. I also made sure that I was not using Belgian chocolate in this recipe, as that would have been a bit of an insult after the Red Devils triumphed in Salvador…

At this stage, I need to ‘fess up to the fact that this recipe is more or less one from Delia Smith, but it also has the honour of being one of the recipes that I have been making the longest. I saw this on TV early on in my university days (remember that time when you saw things on TV and had to scribble them down, rather than just looking them up on Google later? Yes, this is one of those!). The only tweaks I’ve made are to use salted butter (believe me, it works), vanilla, a bit of cocoa powder and…some great big dirty spoonfuls of Nutella!

Yes, my secret weapon for making brownies it to add spoonfuls of the stuff. I’ve found the way to make them even less healthy than they normally are (unless, of course, I were to try deep-frying them, but I’m sure there is a chip shop in Glasgow that’s one step ahead of me). Yes, Nutella sounds odd, but it really is amazing. I pour half the batter into the tray, then drizzle with softened Nutella (pop in the microwave to make it runny), sprinkle with nuts and pour over the rest of the mixture. I think my original idea was that there would be a seam of chocolate spread running through the finished brownies, but in the end, it just soaks into them and makes them extra soft, sticky and delicious. I remember turning out trays of the things, and they would be wolfed down when we got in late, during film nights…you get the picture.

So, are these babies healthy? Absolutely not. But are they naught and delicious? Of course! And if you’re in the mood for celebrating, it’s only right to treat yourself.

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To make Chocolate Brownies (adapted from Delia Smith, makes 16-25):

• 175g salted butter
• 125g dark chocolate
• 3 eggs, beaten
• 275g caster sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 75g plain flour
• 25g cocoa powder
• 1 teaspoon  baking powder
• 100g chopped nuts
• 4 tablespoon Nutella, warmed

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F). Line a 25 x 25 cm (10 x 10 inch) square tray with greaseproof paper (I used one of 20 x 20, and filled a few cupcake cases to make mini-brownies).

2. Put the butter and chocolate into a bowl, and place on top of a pan of barely simmering water. Leave to melt. In the meantime, mix the flour, cocoa and baking powder in a separate bowl.

3. Stir the butter/chocolate mixture well, then fold in the sugar. Next, add the vanilla extract and the eggs. Whisk. Add the flour mixture and stir well.

4. Pour half of the brownie mixture into the tray. Sprinkle the nuts on top, then drizzle the Nutella as evenly as you can (doesn’t have the be perfect). Carefully pour the rest of the mixture on top, and smooth gently with a fork.

5. Put the tray into the oven and bake for 35 minutes. Watch out that the mixture does not burn – it will shrink back from the sides.

6. When ready, remove from the oven and leave in the try to cool. When cold, remove from the tray and cut into 25 pieces (I did 16, but remember I was using the smaller tray!).

Worth making?Absolutely. Got to be grateful for Uncle Sam for inventing these things!

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{9} Elisenlebkuchen

One of my favourite Christmas treats is the German Elisenlebkuchen, packed with nuts, citrus peel and spice, and the base coated in dark chocolate and finished with a sugar glaze that takes on a frosty appearance. They are pretty much Christmas in a biscuit.

Now, if I’m going to dare to call these things Elisenlebkuchen, then I need to be careful what goes into them. I earn some credit for the hazelnuts, walnuts, almonds, various spices and lemon and orange peel I’ve used, but I would have scored a great big fat zero if I had let just one dash of flour get anywhere near them. As a mark of quality, these things are made wheat-free. As a result, they have a fairly flat shape, but the flavour is rich and the texture soft and dense.

elisenlebkuchen

My fondness for these is in part due to what goes into them – nuts, spices and candied peel. However, it is also due to the fact that they are one of the first biscuits I got to know. Unlike today, when we’ve got easy access to foreign Christmas goodies, it used to take a bit of work. Panettone, marrons glacés and Lebkuchen had to be searched out, found only in places familiar to those in the know. So it was with these biscuits. The specific brand I loved were Bahlsen Contessa, and they were sold in a branch of Spar where my grandmother lived. The German woman who ran the shop had a few of them in at the end of the year, so no visit was complete without a trip to pick up a box of Lebkuchen. I liked to pick off the chocolate and then eat the soft cake bit.

elisenlebkuchen2

While there are rules about what you can use, you still have some scope to play around. Various recipes seemed to suggest using just almonds, but I wanted to add a bit more depth to my attempt, so I used equal parts of hazelnuts, walnuts and almonds. For the candied peel, I changed the common 50/50 mixture of orange and lemon, using mostly orange, and relying on fresh lemon zest to provide the zing.

And finally, the spices. The traditional approach is to use Lebkuchengewürz (Lebkuchen spices). However, I had run out of this so I let my creativity run wild. Cinnamon, cloves, mace, ginger, cardamom, star anise and a dash of white pepper went in there. You can go with whatever you like, but I would aim for mostly cinnamon with just a dash of the more powerful spices. Also keep in mind that the flavour will mature as they are stored, getting stronger with time, so if you go with lots of really forceful spices such as cloves or black pepper, you might send your guests running to the kitchen for water. Going heavy on nutmeg, coriander or cardamom, in contrast, probably invokes less of a risk!

When it comes to finishing these Lebkuchen, you’ve also got a few options. They often feature whole almonds arranged either individually or in a circle on top. They can be left as they are, or coated with a simple glaze of icing sugar and hot water. This has a magical effect when you leave it overnight, taking on a white, frosted appearance. Alternatively, you can coat them entirely in dark chocolate, which works wonderfully well with the citrus and spices. I went from something that combined the two – the glaze on top, with a layer of chocolate on the bottom.

If you buy these, they tend to be on the large side, around palm-sized. I made them more bite-sized. Which…arguably means…you can enjoy twice as many. I think all in all, they take a fair bit of time to make (you need to allow for overnight drying of the icing, and then fiddling about with tempering chocolate and so on) but nothing is particularly difficult and the result is really delicious.

To make Elisenlebkuchen (makes 32):

For the biscuits:

• 3 eggs
• 150g soft light brown sugar
• 75g white caster sugar
• 200g ground nuts (walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts)
• 25g flaked almonds, crushed
• 100g candied peel, very finely chopped
• 1 lemon, zest only
• 1 1/2 teaspoons mixed spice
• pinch of salt
• 1/2 teaspoon baker’s ammonia

For the glaze:

• 100g icing sugar
• 2 tablespoons boiling water

 To finish:

 • 250g dark chocolate

1. Preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F). Line four baking trays with greaseproof paper, and rub each very lightly with oil.

2. Separate the eggs. In a bowl over a pan of barely simmering water, beat the yolks with the brown sugar until pale and fluffy (around 3 minutes).

3. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites until you have soft peaks. Add the caster sugar, and whisk on a high speed until you have a stiff meringue.

4. Fold the meringue into the egg yolk mixture in three batches. Stir in the ground nuts, crushed flaked almonds, candied peel, lemon zest, spice, salt and baker’s ammonia.

5. Transfer the mixture to a piping bag, and pipe out rounds onto the trays (I did eight per sheet – each one around 4cm diameter).

6. Bake the biscuits for 20 minutes, turning the tray mid-way through, until they are puffed up and browned. When done, remove from the oven, allow to cool and remove from the paper and cool on a wire tray.

7. Once all the biscuits are baked, make the glaze by mixing the icing sugar with the boiling water. Brush the glaze onto the domed side of the biscuits, and leave overnight to dry (the glaze should dry fairly quickly, and take on a “frosted” appearance by the next morning).

8. Finally, melt the chocolate and use to coat the flat side of the Lebkuchen.

Worth making? Definitely. These taste pretty much like the pure essence of Christmas, and well worth the time they take.

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{1} Chocolate Hazelnut Crinkles

Ho ho ho! It’s that time of year again when we tackle the various baking challenges that the festive period has to offer. Over the last few years, I’ve done the “Twelve Days of Christmas Baking” challenge, which basically sees me take on an insane amount of biscuits, cakes, cookies and breads in the month of December. I did it first in 2011, vowing at that stage that I probably wouldn’t do it again. Of course, I had another bash in 2012, and so it’s become a bit of a Christmas tradition. So, here goes again!

For my first festive bake, I’ve had a go at a traditional American favourite, the chocolate crinkle cookie. Think of these as basically mini-brownies. This does make the dough a little tricky to work with (you need to keep it as chilled as you can while working with it) but the result is fantastic – soft, slightly chewy and incredibly rich and quite indulgent at this time of year. The perfect little treat with a mug of coffee when you come inside from a brisk walk in the crisp winter air.

However, the real magic here comes from rolling the dark balls of dough in icing sugar. During baking, the cookies expand, and create the cracks that are the hallmark of these cookies. The contrast of snowy white icing sugar and the rich chocolate looks really striking.

crinkles

The traditional way to make these cookies seems to be just with chocolate. However, I happened to glance at a jar of Nutella as I was rummaging in the baking cupboard, and thought it might be nice to add some hazelnuts to the mixture for some extra flavour. If you don’t want to do this, just replace the ground hazelnuts with flour, but I think it is worth doing. It certainly adds a little extra something to the final result.

I’ve also got a top tip for getting these cookies to look great – it really does make a difference if you keep the dough as cold as you can when working with it. My initial batches looked perfect. However, I left the last batch to sit out a little too long, and so the dough was not as cold as it could have been. As a result, the combination of all that butter and chocolate can mix with the icing sugar and leave the cookies looking less snowy and more brown. However, they will still taste amazing!

To make Chocolate Hazelnut Crinkles (makes around 40):

• 225g dark chocolate
• 100g plain flour
• 50g ground hazelnuts
• 55g cocoa powder
• 2 teaspoons baking powder
• 1/4 teaspoons salt
• 115g butter
• 240g light brown sugar
• 2 large eggs
• 1 teaspoons vanilla extract
• 80ml milk
• 100g icing sugar, sieved

1. Put the chocolate into a heatproof bowl and place over a pan of barely simmering water. Leave to melt, the put to one side and allow to cool to lukewarm.

2. Next, prepare the dry ingredients. Mix and sieve the flour, ground hazelnuts, cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt.

3. In a large bowl, beat the butter and light brown sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, and then the vanilla, and beat well.

4. Beat the melted chocolate into the butter/sugar mixture. Make sure the chocolate is not too warm, otherwise it will cause everything to melt.

5. Add the flour to the chocolate mixture in three batches, alternating with the milk until everything is just mixed.

6. Cover the bowl in cling film and leave to chill in the fridge, ideally overnight.

7. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 175°C (350°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

8. Cut a quarter of the chilled dough and remove from the fridge. Take generous spoonfuls of the mixture, rolling each into a ball. If you’re obsessed about getting everything perfect, you can weigh each piece using digital scales (I did, with each being 20g…). Put the balls onto a plate and return to the fridge for 10 minutes.

9. Remove the balls from the fridge and roll each in icing sugar. If any chocolate is showing through, re-roll until covered.

10. Arrange the cookies on the baking sheet, leaving space for them to expand. Bake for around 12-14 minutes until they have flattened a little and the sugar has cracked. Remove from the oven when done, let them sit for a moment, then allow to cool on a wire tray. Repeat with the rest of the mixture until it has all been used up.

Worth making? This recipe does take a little time, but it is fairly easy and the result is both visually stunning and absolutely delicious. Well worth making!

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