Tag Archives: christmas baking

Almost Twelfth Night…

And just like that, another festive period is nearly over. But apparently it was not always like that. I was glued to Victorian Bakers at Christmas which explored the history of food at this time of the year, and apparently celebrations used to run over the whole Twelve Days of Christmas. This actually makes a lot of sense when you’ve got a predominantly rural and agricultural society with not much to do in the deep dark days of winter. It was the Industrial Revolution that did for this, and whittled the festivities down to just a couple of days. There was also a fascinating look at some of the festive “treats” of the past (and I use that term loosely). Mincemeat pies filled with real meat (beef if you were rich, chopped tripe if you were less well off), and a behemoth of a bake called Twelfth Cake, which seemed to be a yeast-raised fruitcake composed of 75% currants, and coated with some sort of meringue icing. Fascinating to find out a bit of history, but those are two baked items that I don’t think I’ll be turning my hand to in the near future!

Having seen how things were done by the Victorians, I can look back with a little pride at my own take on the Twelve Days of Christmas Baking for 2016. This year, I’ve completed my sixth installment of what has become something of a Christmas tradition. I’ve had a look at what I wrote in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 and I recognise all the usual pledges that I made. I keep banging on about being more organised, being more realistic about the complexity of the recipes I’ll attempt to make, and trying to avoid spending money on pieces of kitchen equipment that are needed to make only one specific type of cookie (pizzelle, I’m thinking about you!).  And of course, when December comes rolling around this year, we get to do it all again.

So here’s to my 2016 edition of the Twelve Bakes of Christmas! I’m pretty happy that I’ve managed to find some very different recipes this year, and I’ve managed a fairly good spread of traditional cookies and treats from across Europe. Some are very old, like the Italian Biscotti di Regina and Cavalluci, through to more modern creations like Spanish Marquesas de Navidad.

12bakes2016
As I’ve done in past years, here are the original lyrics from the Twelve Days of Christmas (which was my original inspiration for the Twelve Days of Baking Challenge) with each of my recipes next to them. Again, you can see there is absolutely no correlation. Not a jot. None whatsoever! Well, other than the Cavalluci might look like golden rings if your eyesight is not good, and I guess that there is a tree in the Borstplaat shapes, even if not a pear tree…

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me:

…twelve Drummers Drumming (Italian Nadalin de Verona)…
…eleven Pipers Piping (Spanish Marquesas de Navidad)…
…ten Lords-a-Leaping (Finnish Joulutorttu)…
…nine Ladies Dancing (Swedish Hallongrottor)…
…eight Maids-a-Milking (Greek Kourabiedes)…
…seven Swans-a-Swimming (Florentines)…
…six Geese-a-Laying (Danish Kransekager)…
…five Gold Rings (Italian Cavalluci)…
…four Colly Birds (Finnish Piparkakut)…
…three French Hens (Italian Biscotti di Regina)…
…two Turtle Doves (Norwegian Sandkaker)…
…and a Partridge in a Pear Tree (Dutch Borstplaat)!

And so we wrap things up for another year. I will be doing this again in 2017, so if you have any traditional recipes that you would like to see on here, please do leave a comment or get in touch. If they have an interesting history or amusing story to go with them, or are associated with a quirky tradition, then so much the better!

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{11} Marquesas de Navidad

I’m all for including a bit of history around Christmas treat, and I assumed that marquesas de navidad had some long historical pedigree – with sugar, lemon and almonds, they share a lot in common with marzipan. Some sort of medieval delicacy? Something enjoyed during the heyday of the Spanish Empire by Queen Isabella? Their name means “marchioness of Christmas” which sounds very noble indeed. And they are made in these unusual square shapes – obviously special, as I had to hunt high and low to find them.

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Well…no. Apparently they were created as recently as 1924 by a confectioner in the town of Sonseca in the Spanish region of Toledo. They were a hit, their popularity spread, and the rest is history. Still, it is nice that new Christmas baking appears from time to time – and of course, everything was baked for the first time at some point in the past!

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While a comparatively new kid on the block, these marquesas are very straightforward to make – just whip eggs and sugar, then fold in the remaining dry ingredients. The result is a bit like a marzipan cake – they’ve got a fresh note from the lemon zest, and the lovely perfume of almonds, but they are also very light. Simple and delicious. Perfect!

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To make Marquesas de Navidad (makes 10)

• 2 large eggs
• zest of a lemon
• 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
• 60g caster sugar
• 60g icing sugar
• 125g ground almonds

• 20g plain flour
• 20g cornflour
• 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
• icing sugar, for dusting

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F). Line a muffin tray with 12 paper cases.

2. Put the eggs, caster sugar, lemon zest and almond extract into a large bowl. Beat with an electric whisk for at least 5 minutes until thick and foamy.

3. Mix the ground almonds, icing sugar, flour, cornflour and baking powder, then fold into the egg mixture in three portions. Try not to knock too much air out of the mixture – you should end up with a thick batter that still flows.

4. Fill the cake cases to three-quarters full. Bake for 12-15 minutes until puffed and golden.

5. Remove the baked marquesas from the oven and leave to cool – the tops will sink and create dimples in the top. Dust with icing sugar before serving.

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Twelfth Night

Christmas Day has passed, and all the presents have been opened. The cats have played with the paper, and now retired back to their favourite sleeping spots. In our house, everything comes down on 1 January. I know you can keep the decorations up until Twelfth Night (the evening before Epiphany, commemorating the day that the Three Wise Men finally reached the manger) but I like the feeling of packing everything away on New Year’s Day. Perhaps that speaks to my moderation when it came to champagne this year?

While I love all the baking at Christmas, in some ways, I’m also really quite happy to be away from my kitchen. Yes, you’ve probably realised that I’ve just finished my fifth annual Christmas Baking Challenge. I’ve had a look at what I wrote in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014, and I recognise all the usual pledges that I made. I’ll be more organised. I’ll plan. I’ll be realistic about how difficult the recipes can be and how many cookies my friends can eat. And then I recognise that I just love the challenge, with the thrill of trying to do it all before 25 December. I mean…how do I even find the time to get all that baking done at the time of year that is packed with things to do and various social events?

So here’s to my 2015 edition of the Twelve Bakes of Christmas! I feel that this year I’ve been able to go back to more traditional recipes from European baking traditions (compared to my 2014 series), and I’ve really enjoyed digging around in some of the very location baking that goes in, particular in Italy and Switzerland. I loved making the mendiants and I’m so happy I’ve finally managed to crack the secret of tempering chocolate properly. The spicy Danish brunkager were a real hit, and the Italian cuccidati fig rolls were a pleasant surprise –  quite a few folk remarked that they were like a fancy version of a mince pie, with all that dried fruit and spice in them. But for me, there were two clear breakout stars this year – the dark, chocolately Basler Brunsli and the orange-perfumed ricciarelli, both of which flew off the serving plates, and were so simple to bake.

12bakes2015
As I’ve done in past years, here are the original lyrics from the Twelve Days of Christmas (which was my original inspiration for the Twelve Days of Baking Challenge) with each of my recipes next to them. Again, you can see there is absolutely no correlation. Not a jot. None whatsoever! Well, other than the Pfeffernüsse might look like goose eggs if your eyesight is not good…

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me:

…twelve Drummers Drumming (Austrian Vanillekipferl)…
…eleven Pipers Piping (Italian Cuccidati)…
…ten Lords-a-Leaping (Italian Ricciarelli)…
…nine Ladies Dancing (Danish Brunkager)…
…eight Maids-a-Milking (Italian Mostaccioli Napoletani)…
…seven Swans-a-Swimming (German Anisplätzchen)…
…six Geese-a-Laying (German Citrus Pfeffernüsse)…
…five Gold Rings (Spanish Truchas de Navidad)…
…four Colly Birds (Swiss Basler Brunsli)…
…three French Hens (French Mendiants)…
…two Turtle Doves (Swiss Mailänderli)…
…and a Partridge in a Pear Tree (Dutch Taaitaai)!

So that is that for another year! But fret not, there will be plenty of posts during 2016, and I’ll be starting with the Twelve Bakes of Christmas all over again next December. If you’ve got ideas, hints, tips or suggestions, please let me know! Any recipes with strange ingredients or requiring some funny mould or tool are particularly welcome. And if they come with an interesting or amusing story behind them, so much the better!

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{5} Truchas de Navidad

One of my favourite Christmas songs is Feliz Navidad by José Feliciano (which you can listen to here, complete with a warming log fire video). I love a bit of Latin flair at this time of year, and Spain definitely has a fantastic selection of sweet treats, from nutty turrón and aniseed biscuits to marzipan cookies, but one of the most unusual that I have come across are truchas de navidad – or Christmas trouts – from the Canary Islands.

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The surprise here is the filling…these little pastries are filled with sweet potato! This is flavoured with cinnamon, lemon and aniseed, but you’re basically eating potato pasties. Mmmmm…

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I like sweet potatoes, but oddly I don’t tend to actually cook or bake with them that often. I was not sure exactly what to expect when I was making the filling, but the cooked sweet potato flesh is gloriously orange, and when you add sugar, ground almonds, aniseed, cinnamon and lemon zest, the flavour is rich and reminded me a little of marzipan. You might think that comes from the almonds, but ground almonds lack that characteristic “bitter almond” flavour, which leads me to think that it much be the combination of aniseed, cinnamon and lemon zest which is tricking the tastebuds. This might also be the point – a quick and easy local substitute on the Canary Islands back in the good old days. Maybe this is true, maybe I’m just making it up, so don’t quote me on that!

I made these truchas using a shortcrust pastry with a little bit of baking powder to provide some lift, and then baked them in the oven. This is certainly the easiest way to make them, but if you prefer, you can also cook them empanada-style by frying them in hot oil. And if puff pastry is your thing, then use that instead of shortcrust for even lighter pastries (and…you can just buy it and skip the whole “make your own pastry” business!). I suspect that these would be really rather tasty in their fried incarnation, and probably closer to the treats enjoyed in Spain.

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Finally, if you’re all tired out of those mega-recipes that make many, many more cakes, cookies or pastries than you realistically need, you can of course just skip the whole detailed recipe and make just a couple of these truchas “inspired” by it. If you’ve got some spare pastry, just mash a little sweet potato, add sugar and almond plus spices to taste, and make just a few of them. Quick, easy, and no-one needs to know that you didn’t make a huge batch! All the more time to enjoy the soothing lyrics of Feliz Navidad!

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To make Truchas de Navidad (makes 20-25)

For the pastry

• 500g plain flour
• 100g butter
• 50g icing sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
• cold water

For the filling

• 400g sweet potatoes (the orange type)
• 100g ground almonds
• 1 egg yolk
• 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon aniseed extract
• 1/2 teaspoon ground aniseeds
• zest of a lemon
• 125g sugar

To finish

• 1 egg white, beaten

1. Make the pastry. Mix the flour and the baking powder. Add the butter and work with your hands until it looks like breadcrumbs. Add enough cold water to make a dough – it should be soft but not stick. Wrap in cling film and leave to chill in the fridge for an hour or overnight.

2. Make the filling. Either bake the potatoes whole until soft and then scoop out the flesh, or peel, chop and steam until tender. Leave to cool and weigh out 400g of sweet potato. Transfer to a bowl and mash manually (don’t use a food processor – it will become gloopy!). Add the rest of the filling ingredients and mix well.

3. Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

4. Roll out the pastry to 1/4 cm thickness, then cut out 8cm diameter discs of pastry (the pastry is much easier to work with when cold, so try to keep it as cool as possible). Put a scant teaspoon of the potato mixture in the middle of each. Moisten the edges of the pastry disc, them fold in half. Press the edge lightly to seal, crimp the edges with a fork, and put on the baking tray.

5. Beat the reserved egg white with a teaspoon of water and use to glaze the top of each trucha.

6. Bake the truchas for around 10-15 minutes until lightly golden. When done, remove from the oven and dust liberally with icing sugar. Enjoy them warm – from the oven, or reheat quickly in the microwave before serving.

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Twelfth Night

Ah, Twelfth Night! If you haven’t already stripped the tree, this is the last day to do it, lest you suffer bad luck for the rest of the year (or so this suspiciously modern superstitious would have you believe). In our case, everything was taken down on New Year’s Day. It felt like the right time, bringing a bit of order to the house after the chaotic fun of the festive season. The cats, of course, were more displeased, as they had grown rather fond of drinking from the water under the Christmas tree.

Today was my first day back at work after the best part of two weeks spent watching films, meeting friends, enjoying culture (ballet, theatre and pantomime!) as well as playing for hours at a time with my cats. All in all, a great break, and today inevitably came as a bit of a shock to the system. I’m now firmly of the opinion that the best way to deal with it is to go headlong back into the daily whirl, and forget any notions of easing gently back into things.

However, in some ways, I’m really quite happy to be away from my kitchen. Yes, you’ve probably realised that I’ve just finished my fourth annual Christmas Baking Challenge. I’ve had a look at what I wrote in 2011, 2012 and 2013, and there are all sorts of vows to be more organised, to plan, to be more realistic in how I choose to challenge myself.

Well, let’s take a moment to be honest. This year, I didn’t get everything done by Christmas Eve, when I like to have posted all my recipes. No, life kind of got in the way, with lots of things diverting me. Then the baking had to keep going, past Christmas and towards New Year. The reality is that my cooking and my baking can be quite chaotic, very last-minute with choices made on the spur of the moment. And all too often, it has to fit around something else I have to do right this minute. I do this blog because I enjoy it and it is my hobby, a distraction from whatever else is going on, and I’m not quite obsessed enough at the moment to drop other things to perfect pictures of cookies.

So here’s to my 2014 edition of the Twelve Bakes of Christmas, in all its chaotic and crazy glory! I’ve particularly enjoyed this series, which I think have been a bit more unusual compared to some of the more traditional recipes in previous years, and I particularly loved getting some feedback from a reader about how to make more authentic Hálfmánar. The Dutch Kruidnootjes dipped in dark chocolate were utterly delicious and proved to be a massive hit with children (apparently they go particularly well with hot chocolate and an afternoon watching Frozen on a projector, I was later informed!). The Almond Jam Cookies  were gorgeous to look at, and it was lovely to play around with the different fillings. And my favourite was the blazing golden glory that were my Saffron and Almond Buns – easy to make, and utterly delicious.

12bakes2014
As I’ve done in past years, here are the original lyrics from the Twelve Days of Christmas (which was my original inspiration for the Twelve Days of Baking Challenge) with each of my recipes next to them. Again, you can see there is absolutely no correlation. Not a jot. None whatsoever! Well, other than the bright yellow Bethmännchen standing in for the five gold rings….

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me:

…twelve Drummers Drumming (Icelandic Rhubarb Hálfmánar)…
…eleven Pipers Piping (Almond Jam Cookies)…
…ten Lords-a-Leaping (Gingerbread Madeleines)…
…nine Ladies Dancing (Italian Anise Cookies)…
…eight Maids-a-Milking (Frangipane Mincemeat Tarts)…
…seven Swans-a-Swimming (Saffron and Almond Buns)…
…six Geese-a-Laying (Clementine and Clove Sableés)…
…five Gold Rings (German Bethmännchen)…
…four Colly Birds (South African Soetkoekies)…
…three French Hens (Dutch Kruidnootjes)…
…two Turtle Doves (Sparkling Quince Candy)…
…and a Partridge in a Pear Tree (Danish Vanilla Wreaths)!

So that is that for another year. Time to take down those decorations and pack them carefully into boxes for another year.

But fret not, I’ll be starting with the Twelve Bakes of Christmas again in December 2015, so if you’ve got ideas, hints, tips or suggestions, please let me know! Any recipes with strange ingredients or requiring some funny mould or tool are particularly welcome. And if they come with an interesting or amusing story behind them, so much the better!

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The Twelve Days of Christmas

As has become something of a festive tradition, I have just finished my annual Twelve Days of Christmas Baking challenge. It always seems like a good idea, although the first year I did it, I found myself frantically rolling pastry, shaping truffles and cutting out shapes until early in the morning to get everything done by Christmas Day.

That was 2011, and by 2012, I was vowing to be more organised. Clearly the realities of daily life stopped that happening, as they also did this year. But it would not be Christmas without the annual culinary chaos. So let’s have a little peek back at what I wrote when I wrapped up the Twelve Days of Baking in 2012:

…for all my vowing to be more organised if I were to attempt the same challenge this year, 2012 has been just the same. I had all the best intentions in late November, yet still ended up in a rush on Christmas Eve. Heck, it’s like a tradition by now! I kept coming up against the practicalities of normal life – I only own one cooling tray, I kept running out of biscuits tins, the need to do all your pictures are the weekend because you work full-time…and as it turns out even my friends with the sweetest of sweet teeth have a point beyond which they can’t face any more cookies. Yes, I sit here surrounded by those bad boys, which I estimate should all finally be gone by the third week of January.

More likely than not, I will be doing this challenge again in 2013, but I do wonder if there is a need to change tactics. Maybe I need some savoury ideas in there? It’s a little more tricky, as savoury foods are reserved more for the Christmas Day meal, or involve cheeseboards. I’m not too sure anyone really wants to see a picture of a block of Stilton I picked up from a shop…but we’ll cross that one when we get to it! Or maybe Christmas cocktails are the solution? Hmmm….

As I read those words, the various feelings of being slightly barking do come back, but it just would not be Christmas if there were not constant aromas of spice, toasting nuts and baking biscuits coming from the kitchen for the best part of a month.

You might wonder why I do this? Well, I love to use cooking and baking as a way to get to know the culinary traditions of different countries and regions, and Christmas baking provides a fascinating window into local traditions. I find it most interesting that the same or similar ingredients pop up again and again, but they can be mixed up into so many different ways to make a stunning variety of baked goods. Of this series of twelve, the biggest success were the Panellets de Membrillo, which I put down to the fact that they are fairly unusual to British eyes (and tummies), as well as being gluten and lactose-free. My own favourite was the Estonian Kringel made with saffron and cardamom, which looked and tasted sensational. I’ve learned how to use a very elaborate iron to make Pizzelle, mastered making delicious glazed Elisenlebkuchen and discovered that when you make Swedish Pepparkakor, everyone loves the ones in the shape of an elk the most.

In case you’ve missed any of them, or just want to gaze on all the bakes one more time, here are the Twelve Days of Christmas Baking 2013:

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In case you are wondering, here are the original lyrics from the Twelve Days of Christmas, with each of my recipes next to them. As you can see, there is absolutely no correlation whatsoever.

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me:

…twelve Drummers Drumming (twelve Ecclefechan butter tarts)…
…eleven Pipers Piping (Pepparkakor)…
…ten Lords-a-Leaping (Saffron Cardamom Kringel)…
…nine Ladies Dancing (Elisenlebkuchen)…
…eight Maids-a-Milking (Linzer Biscuits)…
…seven Swans-a-Swimming (Pizzelle)…
…six Geese-a-Laying (Ruiskakut)…
…five Gold Rings (Hálfmánar)…
…four Colly Birds (Panellets de Membrillo)…
…three French Hens (Giant Ginger Cookies)…
…two Turtle Doves (Janhagel)…
…and a Partridge in a Pear Tree (Chocolate Hazelnut Crinkles)!

So again, I hope that you have enjoyed this baking challenge! Obviously I will  be having another bash at this next Christmas. If you’ve got ideas, then do feel free to make a suggestion. Bonus points for unusual ingredients, strange shapes or elaborate methods of preparation.

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{6} Ruiskakut (Finnish Rye Biscuits)

Are you someone who isn’t too keen on all those rich flavours like citrus, chocolate and spices in Christmas fayre? Then maybe these simple little Finnish rye biscuits are the thing for you!

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I, of course, am not one of those people that shuns spicy, fruity, nutty goodness at this time of year, but I’m still keen to try new things, and all the more so when they involve slightly more unusual ingredients. OK, rye is not exactly outré in the kitchen, but I’ve never come across it in sweet biscuits. So when I saw this idea, I really had to give it a bash.

While the name is a bit of a mouthful, this is a fairly straightforward biscuit, made with just butter, sugar, flour and rye. They are not particularly sweet, but the generous use of butter still makes them very rich. The rye flour adds some flavour, and also a little extra texture (or at least it did in my case – the flour I used still had some of the rye bran in the flour). Mine were probably a little sweeter than the traditional version, as I sprinkled them lightly with caster sugar. This isn’t necessary, and I would skip this if you want a less-sweet biscuit.

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The fun bit, of course, is how you shape them. You roll out the dough thinly and then cut into circles. Then use a fork to make little holes in the surface, and then cut out the middle. And voila! You have biscuits that bear more than a passing resemblance to Nordic rye crispbread.

Now, a little tip. I tried cutting out some circles, then removing the centres, and then piercing the holes with a fork. Doing it in this order made the edges a little messier, so I would recommend cut, pierce then cut out the centre if you want them to look as good as you can. Of course, nothing to stop you going a bit mad and cutting out stars, squares, angels or elks. Yes, I am the owner of an elk-shaped cutter. It might even feature in the near future…

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In Finland, these biscuits are tied to the Christmas tree and visitors invited to take one when they call. As you can see below, they look pretty attractive, in a rustic sort of way. However, I can tell you from experience that you might want to keep them above the height that little hands can reach for (that, or make sure that not too many of them are on offer at any one time…).

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If you are in the mood for some tree decorating fun, it’s worth knowing that these biscuits will get softer over time if left out. You can store them in an airtight container and hang on the tree as needed, but if the biscuits do get too soft, you can simply pop them back into a low oven for a couple of minutes to return them to perfect crispness.

While simplicity is sort of key to these, you could go for a more luxurious version by dipping them in dark chocolate. I haven’t had a go at that yet, but I think the nuttiness of the rye would work rather well.

To make Ruiskakut (makes 24):

• 50g soft brown sugar
• 115g unsalted butter
• 80g plain flour
• 60g rye flour
1 tablespoon cold water
• rye flour, for dusting
• caster sugar, for sprinkling

1. Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the plain flour, rye flour and cold water to make a smooth dough. Wrap in cling film and chill in the fridge for an hour.

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

3. Dust the worktop with rye flour. Roll out the dough to 1/4 cm thickness. Cut 8cm circles and transfer to the baking sheet. Spike with a fork and use a small cutter to make a hole in the middle of each biscuit. Sprinkle each biscuit lightly with caster sugar.

4. Bake the biscuits for around 10 minutes until golden. If necessary, turn the tray during baking to get an even colour. Remove from the oven, allow to sit for a moment (they come out very soft but soon harden) the leave to cool on a wire tray.

Worth making? Yes! The dough is easy to make, and the flavour simple but delicious. Very buttery with a nice crunch from the rye.

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{6} Springerle

I’ve done a few posts recently that involve the magic powder of the kitchen, baker’s ammonia. It’s fun to use as it gives off a blast of ammonia fumes during baking (OK, not fun, but quite dramatic), and produces amazingly light baked goods.

Once I managed to track in down in London (hint – it’s in Scandinavian Kitchen near Great Portland Street), I looked around to see what I could use it in, and quickly came across one of the most fancy biscuits I’ve ever seen, German SpringerleThese are made from an aniseed-flavoured dough, and the biscuits are formed into intricate designs using presses, resulting in some very fancy shapes indeed. They are then left to cure until to surface is dry, and then baked to get the baker’s ammonia going. At this point, the cookies expand dramatically, jumping four to five times in height.

I’m not going to write too much more about Springerle here, as I’ve written all about them in a guest post at All The Live Long Day, so I’ll let you read that at your leisure. It also has some links to where you can get hold of the special biscuit presses that you need to make Springerle as well as some ideas of how to make patterns with things you may have at home if you lack the patience to track down the specialist tools.

However, I will share some of my experiences for making these cookies if the mood should take you. The recipe I used (set out below) is easy to make, and rolling out the dough presents no challenges. However, I found it tricky to get the moulds properly covered in flour to make sure that the imprint was sharp and, eh, the mould was not covered in the dough. A few attempts ended fruitlessly, with me scrubbing the mould out with a toothbrush, then waiting for it to dry before I could have another attempt. So had I wasted my time and money? Well, no. A simple trick solved this problem – it wasn’t necessary to get the flour into the mould, as long as you had a barrier between it and the dough. So I dusted the top of the rolled dough with flour, and voila – perfect impressions of flowers, cocoa pods, houses, harps and abstract designs.

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Another tip that makes life easier is to cut the dough into pieces once it has been rolled, and then press with the moulds. When you press down, the dough at the edges gets pressed out slightly, so if you just use one giant piece of rolled dough, you can get some distortions. Use individual pieces – no problems! Then all you need to do is trim the edges, and re-use the scraps to make more cookies.

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Once all the cookies has been pressed, they need to sit out for around 24 hours until the surface is dry and they look pale. I tried experimenting with a few different sizes – some very small biscuits (the side of a two pence coin) and some very large ones the sizes of playing cards. Against my expectations, when the Springerle are too small, they warp in the oven and go lop-sided. In contrast, the larger ones puff up evenly. I had expected the larger ones to be prone to cracking, but this proved not to be a problem. So it seems to me that going for large, intricate designs if the way forward.

As you can see below, after baking, the Springerle keep their shape remarkably well. There is a bit if puffing up at the edges, but the designs themselves are almost unchanged. The only thing you need to watch during baking is that they should remain pale. Watch them carefully to make sure that they don’t brown.

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Once baked and cooled, I tentatively tried one of my Springerle. I’m happy to report that for all the hard work involved (and let’s be honest, there is a lot of hard work involved in these things), they taste delicious. Light, slightly chewy and aromatic from aniseed. There’s a tiny hint of lemon in there too, just to enhance the aniseed, but not so much as to over-power it. They really make an unusual addition to the festive table.

Springerle are also noted as a biscuit that gets better if left to cure after baking. They should be stored in an airtight tin, but if they seem too dry, just add a piece of apple or a slide of bread to the tin (be careful to check in from time to time – no-one is a fan of mouldy apple…). This seems to be a common trait among biscuits made with baker’s ammonia – they all seem to get better it allowed to sit for a while.

And finally, just in case you are curious about the various patterns that you can find, in addition to the big tray above, I also got hold of this rather jolly pine cone pattern. They were also left to dry for 24 hours, and the baked versions retained the pattern with pin-like sharpness.

springerle_cones

To make Springerle (recipe adapted from House on the Hill):

Makes around 50 pieces

• 1/4 teaspoon baker’s ammonia (or baking powder)
• 1 tablespoon water
• 3 eggs
• 300g icing sugar
• 55g unsalted butter, softened
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 1 teaspoon aniseed extract(*)
• 450g plain flour
• grated rind of 1/2 lemon

1. Dissolve the baker’s ammonia in the water, and leave to one side.

2. In a large bowl, beat the eggs until pace and fluffy, around 10 minutes. Add the icing sugar in thirds, beating well after each addition, then add the softened butter and beat until combined. Add the baker’s ammonia mixture, the salt, aniseed extract and lemon rind. Mix well.

3. Start to add the flour to the egg mixture. Once the mixer gives up, add the rest of the flour, and use your hands to combine everything until you have a stiff dough.

4. Take portions of the dough and roll out on a well-floured worksurface. Aim for 1/2 cm or 1/4 inch. Sprinkle the top lightly with flour (a tea strainer is the ideal way to sprinkle the flour), then use your press to make the pattern. Trim the edges of the cookies, then transfer to a baking tray lined with greaseproof paper.

5. Leave the cookies to dry, uncovered, for 24 hours.

6. Preheat the oven – at this stage, it’s an art rather than a science, so it’s best to test with one cookie to make sure they don’t burn. The temperature should be 120° to 160°C (255° to 325°F) – the test cookie should puff up from the base. The bottom should be barely coloured, and the top should not be starting to brown. Allow 10-20 minutes, depending on the size of the cookie.

(*) Be careful what you use – my aniseed extract had the strength of aniseed liqueur. If you’ve got something stronger, such as pure oil, you may need less – a lot less!

Worth making? I’m really glad that I finally got the chance to make Springerle. Sure, they are fussy, tricky and take a lot of time, but they taste great and have a wonderful traditional flavour. Worth trying if you’ve got the time, patience and inclination.

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Lebkuchengewürz

For quite some time I have been promising/threatening loyal readers that I would make a start on Christmas baking. So here goes.

I think that cookies, cakes and all manner of sweet treats are a big part of the festive season, and I particularly like anything German in this regard. Lots of sweet, spicy cookies, flavoured with citrus and honey, which go well with glasses of hot mulled wine. But, before we start on the actual baking, we need to prepare something that features in a lot of German Lebkuchen.

You might think by way of spices a spoonful of cinnamon and  dash of nutmeg will do to trick, but just as Germans take their Christmas markets to the next level, so they do with their cookies and how they spice them up. The secret is Lebkuchengewürz, or Lebkuchen spices. This mixture is indeed made with mostly cinnamon, but with the addition of a few other strategic spices: ground coriander seeds, aniseed, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom and a pinch of paprika. This makes for a warm, fragrant spice mixture, which is in turn woody, sweet, fresh and spicy. The trick is for these other flavours to be present, but not to dominate. And what you end up with is something that is the very aromatic essence of Christmas.

If you are making this, one question is what sort of spices to use: pre-ground or whole?

Well, that could be the wrong question. The number one factor in making a good spice mixture is to use fresh spices. If they have been at the back of the cupboard since mid-2007 in an open packet, sure they will have some aroma and flavour, but they won’t pull their weight. And you who wants to be the one, Eastenders-style, who ruined Christmas, eh?

The next consideration is whether the grind or buy. There are some – star anise, nutmeg and cardamom – that I will do, as I have a useful Italian nutmeg grater which gets nutmeg and star anise into a fine dust (a useful gift, Miss E!), and a small marble mortar and pestle to grind cardamom or pepper. Once these are ground and sieved, you will have a great aromatic spice. But for tougher spices like cinnamon, coriander seeds or cloves, I go with the pre-ground stuff. I’ve tried attacking them with a grater and a coffee grinder, and while they will fill your kitchen with fabulous smells, they finished result is never as fine as when you buy it.

The big question: how it is as a spice mixture? Well, I find it really useful to have in the kitchen. Great at Christmas, obviously, but it can be used throughout the year in all manner of fruit cakes or chocolate dishes to add an interesting dimension to the flavour. And I can really recommend making truffles with Lebkuchengewürz – they truly taste like Christmas!

So, with the mixture made, I will shortly start on making all manner of sweet treats. In fact, there are a tray of Pfeffernüsse in the oven already. Mmmm…

To make Lebkuchengewürz:

• 5 tablespoons ground cinnamon
• 1/8 teaspoon ground aniseed or star anise
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom seeds
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
• 1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
• 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
• 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• pinch of paprika

Put all the spices in a bowl, and mix well. Pass through a fine sieve to get rid of all lumps and ensure the spices are properly mixed. Store in an airtight container in a dark place until needed.


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Filed under Christmas, Recipe