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{10} Brune Pinner

For this year’s tenth festive bake, we’ve gone back to Norway. Land of mountains, forest, fjords and a seemly endless supply of cookie recipes. These ones are called brune pinner or “brown sticks”. There was lots of imagination at play when someone came up with that name. Perhaps it’s a nod to those forests?

This year I’ve done a few recipes which are complex, take a lot of time, or need specialist equipment. Today’s recipe is the complete opposite of that.

These cookies are very easy to make, and they might just be about to become your new favourite accompaniment to morning coffee. They are thin, crisp, and by turns buttery, caramelised and lightly spiced. Christmas might be drawing to an end for this year, but we’re still in the middle of winter, and we need those little moments of comfort to keep us going, especially this winter. Everyone is facing the next wave of coronavirus in their own way; in London everything except essential retail is closed, hospitality is take-out only, and we’re limited to meeting one friend outside in the park. It is looking like the New Year will see us heading to Lockdown III and the closure of schools. So I’d wager this is not quite the ideal time to start resolving to give up cookies in 2021…


So. Brune pinner. These are part of the Norwegian tradition of syv slags kaker. Busy Norwegians try to do out-do each other by making seven different type of cookies to offer their guests over the festive period. I’ve made a few different ones over the years – serinakaker, krumkaker, berlinerkranser, sirupsnipper – but there are still plenty more to try. Among the “plenty more” are mainly the ones that need to be fried rather than baked, and I’ve still not managed to overcome my aversion to deep-frying things at home. Who knows – perhaps I’ll get round to them in 2021?

In my research for this recipe, I did find something that made me chuckle (which, to keep banging the same drum, we do need right now!). The Norwegian Christmas diet apparently involves quite a lot of butter, but back in 2011 and 2012 those hardy Nordic folk lived through the smør-panik (“butter panic”). Butter shortages were triggered due to heavy rains affecting grazing pastures earlier in the year, leading to a nightmare world of illicit butter smuggling, Swedish stores along the border jacking up butter prices, and a Danish TV show running a butter emergency telethon to get 4,000 packs of butter to desperate Norwegians. Clearly getting that syv slags kaker spread ready for guests is a serious business to the good burghers of Oslo, Bergen and Trondheim!

The method for making these is really very simple. Cream butter and sugar and add in the rest of the ingredients. You divide the dough into six sausages, then shape each just be pressing them down with your fingers. Easy! No oddly-named Norwegian cake devices needed, no cutters, no piping, no chilling overnight, and no layering of icing or jam. You then brush what looks like mega-cookies with beaten egg and sprinkle with sugar and chopped nuts, and bake. The raising agent is good ol’ baking soda, so they puff up, expand, and then collapse, which is a process that makes for very crisp cookies. Once you’ve baked the dough portions, you whip them out of the oven, and while the dough is still soft you immediately cut them into thin strips – either with a pizza cutter or a good sharp knife. Within a minute or two, they are cool, crisp and a bit more like sticks. There’s a helpful video from Norwegian butter producer Tine here (and yes, they were caught up in that butter crisis a few years ago).


For the topping, I have used pearl sugar, also called nibbed sugar, and some chopped almonds. If you can’t get hold of pearl sugar or don’t want another item cluttering up the baking cupboard, you could use coffee sugar crystals (give them a good crushing first) or large-crystalled demerara sugar. For the nuts, these would work equally well with chopped hazelnuts, pistachios or pecans. A good tip is to mix all the sugar and nuts together before you start, then divide it into six portions to use on the dough. This avoids ending up with the first batch being lavishly decked in sugar and nuts, and the final batch looking a bit spartan. I think you could skip the topping completely if you wanted to, but I liked the extra crunch and flavour, especially from the almonds, so I’d recommend sticking with it.

One note of advice: I found that these cookies are crisp when they are fresh, but if left out overnight they will soften quite quickly. You can easily fix this by popping them back in a low oven (120°C/250°F) for a few minutes to dry them out. Otherwise get them into an airtight container as soon as you can after baking, and they will stay crisp and delicious for your morning coffee as you start to contemplate the fact that you’re about to start another cycle of working at home. But at least you’re cookie game will be on point!

To make Brune Pinner (makes around 70), adapted from Tine

For the dough

200g butter
• 100g white caster sugar
• 100g soft brown sugar
• 1 egg yolk
• 1 tablespoon syrup (see note)
• 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 1 teaspoon baking soda
• 300g plain flour

To finish

• 40g pearl sugar
• 50g almonds, skin on
• 1 egg, beaten

1. Preheat the oven to 175°C (350°F). Prepare three sheets of greaseproof paper.

2. Prepare the topping – chop the almonds, and mix with the pearl sugar. In a separate bowl beat the egg. Set it all to one side.

3. Make the dough. Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the egg yolk, syrup, cinnamon, vanilla and salt, and mix well. Combine the flour with the baking soda, then add to the bowl and work to a soft dough. Pop into the fridge for 5 minutes to firm slightly.

4. Divide the dough into six pieces. Take a piece of dough, form into a thin sausage about 24cm long. Next press it down with your fingers until it is 1/2 cm thick – it will get a lot wider too. It should look like a long, flat pitta bread. Repeat so that you have 2 pieces of dough on each sheet of greaseproof paper.

5. Bake the sheets one at a time. Take the first sheet, and brush the two pieces of dough with the beaten egg. Sprinkle each with the mixture of pearl sugar and chopped almonds.

6. Bake for 10 minutes – the dough will have expanded and have a rich brown colour. Remove from the oven, and immediately cut into diagonal strips, around 2cm thick, using a pizza cutter or a sharp knife. Let the cookies cool on the baking sheet, then when they are firm, transfer to a wire tray to cool completely. Repeat for the rest of the dough. Stoare in an airtight container.

Note: many of the recipes I found called for “light syrup” which is a particularly Nordic thing. You can buy it online. I happened to have a bottle of Swedish “dark syrup” which I used – this is very sweet and like dark caramel, not molasses. The closest substitute I can think of otherwise would be golden syrup or maple syrup.

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{8} Queen’s Cinnamon Stars

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

For the dough

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

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

For the icing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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{6} Pulsnitzer Pfefferkuchen

If it’s Christmas, there has to be gingerbread. Given my penchant for finding obscure recipes, clearly I had to come up with something that comes from a specific place and has a backstory. Today, it’s all about German Pulsnitzer Pfefferkuchen (pepper cake from Pulsnitz).


These gingerbread slices hail, unsurprisingly, from the town of Pulsnitz near Dresden in eastern Germany. They have been baking their Pfefferkuchen there since 1558. Indeed they love their gingerbread so strong that they even have a museum on the main square devoted to its history, complete with machines, moulds, tins and cutters. If you’re lucky (and in a post-pandemic world) you can even try your hand at making them there in a baking class. If I’m ever passing, I’ll be sure to drop in. But for 2020, I’ve had to be content with making my own at home.

In my research I read that this is considered by some to be a more “basic” type of gingerbread. Having made it, it isn’t exactly easy, and it takes quite some time. However, it does not contain all the richness of some other types of German Christmas cookies. Things like Nürnberger Lebkuchen need to contain a high level of nuts and no flour to pass quality standards and legally be sold as such. In contrast, Pfefferkuchen starts off as a mixture of flour (wheat and rye) and honey, which is then enriched with spices. It’s the spices that give it the Pfeffer (pepper) in its name – whereas we now think of black pepper, this was formerly a term for all sorts of spices.

When I read this description, I thought calling it “simple” was rather unfair, as the resulting gingerbread is really delicious. I thought about it and my guess is that the gingerbread you find in a given area depends on what is typical of the area. So a city that was a medieval trading hub would be likely to have more by way of nuts, spices and citrus fruits, whereas a more agricultural area is going to use wheat and honey for its treats. I think it is also easy to forget just how special a lot of what we now see as standard Christmas fare would have seemed to normal folk hundreds of years ago. Cookies, sweets, honey. Those were true luxuries. So eating a piece of spiced honey cake, possibly glazed with sugar, would really have been quite something.


Anyway, I decided to make this thing. And I’m clearly not posting this recipe today in any expectation that it will be made for Christmas this year! The reason is it takes time.

A typical feature of the dough is that it should rest a lot to allow it to mature before it is baked. In the recipe I used, the suggestion was that this should be for at least two weeks. In the end mine sat undisturbed in a cool corner of our kitchen for about three weeks. If I were being scientific, I would have made detailed observations and perhaps filmed the mixture to check the texture before and after. But I did not do that. From my fairly basic analysis (I looked at it and tried to remember what it had looked like three weeks before) it seemed to me that the dough had become softer and smoother during the resting period. I remember reading that there are enzymes in honey that will break down some of the proteins in flour, affecting flavour and taste. And hey, we’re stuck indoors for most the day at the moment, so it’s not as if I’ve been short of time to plan these bakes this year!

Once the dough has rested, you add in spices, cocoa powder and raising agents. This is the bit where it gets fiddly. I used two “authentic” (i.e. obscure) raising agents – pottasche and baker’s ammonia. Originally, one would have been extracted from wood ash, the other from ground-up deer antler. Mercifully today you can buy them online and avoid harming any animals or picking over a bonfire. The reason to use them is that they give a great raise and very light texture, much more than you will get with baking soda or baking powder. Note that I have not tested this recipe with traditional raising agents, so I can’t vouch for your results. If you give it a go, let me know and best of luck!

My dough ended up being pretty soft, but I was still able to work with it. I did this deliberately in the hope of keeping the resulting gingerbread as moist as possible. The good thing is that there is no elaborate shaping involved. You really just form a long strip, bake it, then cut it while warm in a similar way to biscotti.

Once you’ve started cutting, you can finally taste the dough (you can’t eat it raw due the pottasche and the baker’s ammonia). I thought I’d actually made a failure as it was not very sweet. Darn. But there was magic to come…the glazes ended up making all the difference.


I used three different ways to finish the cookies. The first was a simple sugar glaze. It starts off white, then it sets and slowly you get frost-like patterns appearing on it. It will darken due to the gingerbread, so if you want a sparkling white finish, you can add some white colouring to the icing, but it tastes just fine as it is.

The second was a spiced chocolate glaze. This was the same one I used a couple of years ago when making Swiss Magenbrot. This one starts of looking dark and shiny, and stays that way, so I think it wins for the combination of being easy to do, tasting great and looking good.

The third way was to dip pieces into dark chocolate. I was a little dubious as this was not going to add any additional moisture to the gingerbread, but I did not have to worry. It was utterly delicious. It’s a morsel of Christmas between your fingers. If you’re lazy, busy, or occupied with pets and small children, you can just melt and dip. But as you’ve come all this way, you might as well get it perfect and ensure the chocolate has been tempered. It’s fairly easy to do with a microwave and a food thermometer, plus your friends (remember them?) will be impressed you made something look so professional.

Of the three finishes, the dark chocolate was my favourite. The chocolate melts in your mouth, and the flavour is sublime. I’ve given all three below, but remember I divided my batch into 3. If you want to do them all the same, you need to make more glaze.

Now, a confession. I’m not massively confident that the recipe I’ve used is totally authentic. The traditional makers of Pulsnitzer Pfefferkuchen guard their recipes closely, so there were very few recipes out there and those that exist have no pictures. So I was forced to just muddle through. The result is delicious (if a bit of a faff) and I think the fact it is mostly rye-and-wheat flour bound with honey and some spices makes me think I’m somewhere in the right area. But 100% authentic? Not so sure. I might just keep my head down if I do ever make it to that gingerbread museum near Dresden.

So there you have it! My sort-of-Pulsnitzer Pfefferkuchen. Now I’ll just have to sit here and wait to be contacted by people who make the real thing to tell me I got it wrong…

To make Pulznitzer Pfefferkuchen (makes around 100 pieces):

For the basic dough

• 500g strong honey
• 400g plain flour
• 200g light rye flour
• 125ml water

Additional dough ingredients

• 75g ground almonds
• 30g cocoa powder
• 3 teaspoons mixed gingerbread spices
• 2 teaspoons baker’s ammonia
• 1 teaspoon potash

Chocolate glaze (to cover 30-35 pieces)

• 40g dark chocolate
• 10g butter
• 50ml water
• 200g icing sugar
• 1 pinch ground cinnamon
• 1 pinch ground cloves
• 1 pinch ground nutmeg

Sugar glaze (to cover 30-35 pieces)

• 300g icing sugar
• 6 tablespoons boiling water
• White food colour (titanium dioxide powder), optional

Chocolate coating (to cover 30-35 pieces)

• 300g dark chocolate

1. Start by making the basic dough. Put the honey and water in a saucepan. Bring to a simmer, then let it cool to lukewarm. Mix with the plain flour and rye flour until you have a sticky dough. Cover with cling film and leave to rest at room temperature – two weeks is recommended, but you can leave it overnight.

2. Time to finish the dough. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

3. Take pieces of the honey dough and knead briefly to make them soft (this will fix any drier bits that are near to surface). Be warned – it’s a workout for your hands.

4. Put the baker’s ammonia and potash into two separate dishes. Add just enough warm water to get them to dissolve. Then add them to the main bowl, plus the ground almonds, cocoa powder and spices. Knead until everything is well-combined and you have an even colour. Note the dough will be quite sticky, but if you find it too soft and sticky, add a bit more plain flour.

5. Sprinkle the worktop with flour. Roll/press the dough to 1cm thick and 20cm wide (the length does not matter, but it should be around 50cm). Cut the dough into strips of around 5cm. Place 3-4 on the baking sheet at a time, leaving plenty of space for them to expand. Bake for around 15 minutes until the logs are puffed and slightly firm when lightly pressed. Remove from the oven and immediately brush them with cold water to help keep them soft. Transfer to a wire rack and allow to cool slightly. Repeat until all the dough is baked.

6. Use a serrated knife to cut the logs diagonally into slices.

7. Coat the individual pieces in either sugar glaze, chocolate glaze or melted dark chocolate. Leave to set.

To coat with sugar glaze:

a. Sift the icing sugar and put in a bowl.

b. Add the boiling water and mix to a smooth icing – it should flow but not be watery. If too thin, add more icing sugar.

c. Dip each piece into the glaze, shake off any excess, then transfer to a wire rack to dry.

If you want a perfectly white finish, mix in some white food colour (titanium dioxide powder). Mix this with water first to get a smooth paste for a more even colour.

To coat with chocolate glaze

a. Put the butter, chocolate and water in a saucepan and heat very gently until everything is just melted. Stir to combine, then add the icing sugar and spices. It should flow easily but not be watery. If too thin, add more icing sugar.

b. Dip each piece into the glaze, shake off any excess, then transfer to a wire rack to dry.

To coat with dark chocolate

a. Prepare the chocolate – eithe just melt it, or temper the chocolate.

b. Dip each piece into the chocolate, shake off any excess, then transfer to a wire rack to set.

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{5} Gebrannte Mandeln

Ah, going to Christmas markets! Remember those? Another one of those things we’re not doing this year. To make up for this, I decided to recreate a classic sweet snack you’d find there: the Germans call them Gebrannte Mandeln and we Anglophones would call them caramelised almonds.

I think those almonds you can buy in markets are one of the classic aromas of the festive period, along with mulled wine. There is something about that rich, sweet caramel that just draws you in on a chilly day. In London, you also see pop-up stalls where vendors sell them to passers-by around the tourist hotspots.

So even if we’re not able to go to a pop-up winter village in the city centre and peruse little wooden huts looking at gift ideas, buying treats and tasting dubious liqueurs and spirits, we can still bring a little of that winter fun into the house. I really enjoyed the process of making my batch of Gebrannte Mandeln, popping a few into a paper bag, and then munching them looking at the tree with the Dolly Parton Christmas album blaring. I may or may not have then moved onto a Channel 5 afternoon Christmas movie for some feelgood fun…


They’re not difficult to make, they just need a little patience and a good dash of faith. You make a sugar syrup, then add the nuts and cook them, stirring all the time. Once enough water has evaporated, the sugar suddenly crystallises thanks to your stirring, coating the nuts. You keep on cooking, and the sugar melts and turns to caramel. And that’s your nuts ready! All in all you can do this in 10 minutes, so it’s easy to make if you want something to watch with a movie.

The only tip I have to pass on is to make sure that your vessel is sufficiently deep! I’ve now made these twice, and the first time I used our shallow frying pan. It worked, but it was tricky to keep everything moving without nuts flying out of the pan. I used the deep one for the second batch, and it made life much easier. Everything stayed put, and I could focus on ensuring the sugar was melting evenly and nor burning.

As this is a home-made version, I’ve been able to make the recipe as I like it. I’ve used one part sugar to two parts almonds, so the nuts are lightly coated but now swimming in caramel. You can use more sugar is you want. I’ve also played around with the flavours. You can make Gebrannte Mandeln with just almonds, sugar and water. However, I like the extra festive touch you get from adding some cinnamon, and I love the aroma of the vanilla so that went in too. Finally, a little dash of salt is a good addition as it balances the sweetness and makes for a more complex flavour.


If you want to make a big batch, then go for it. These nuts will keep really well if you put them in an airtight container. If you leave them out, they will get sticky. So as lovely as they look in a bowl or sitting in your grandmother-in-law’s glass bonbonnière, store them properly and transfer them into their lovely vessel when you serve them up. Or pour them into a paper bag, go outside, look at some sparklers and for a brief moment you can feel that Christmas market vibe.

And in the end, I even managed to find a substitute for the Christmas market today. I met up with a neighbour, we each had our mug of mulled win in hand, and – keeping the requisite distance apart – we wandered around the local streets to check out the impressive lights that have been put outside people’s homes this year. There were also a lot of Christmas trees in windows, so plenty for us to look at. It really made me think: the headlines we see are laden with doom and gloom, but even in the middle of all that, there is light and those little moments of joy that we can take pleasure in.

To make Gebrannte Mandeln:

• 200g almonds, skin on
• 100g granulated sugar
• 50ml cold water
• generous pinch of salt
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Put everything except the almonds into a non-stick pot or frying pan. Heat the mixture and bring to the boil, then reduce heat to medium.

2. Once you see large bubbles, add the nuts and start to stir well. At first it will seem like a glossy sticky syrup, but keep heating and stirring, stirring, stirring and eventually the syrup will start to turn white and go grainy. The nuts will be roughly coated in sugar, with some sugar dust in the bottom of the pan.

3. Keep heating the mixture on a medium heat – the sugar will start to melt and caramelise. Keep stirring the nuts so that the caramelisation is even and the nuts toast but don’t burn. Once you’re happy with the state of your nuts, pour them onto a baking sheet lined with greaseproof paper. Use some metal spoons or forks to separate the nuts. Leave to cool completely, then store in an airtight container.

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{1} Spongata Di Natale

Season’s Greetings to everyone! Yes, we’re back for the Twelve Days of Festive Baking 2020 edition!

You don’t need me to tell you that this has, quite frankly, been a year that we’d all like to forget. And given what we’ve all been through it makes those chances where we can come together all the more important. Our original plans were for a low-key Christmas at home and the chance to see a few friends, mostly outside and from a distance. And then about six hours ago we got the news that London would be going into a new top tier of lockdown restrictions. Stay home, no household mixing at all, and you can meet one person in a park. It does put a whole new spin on the Judy Garland song “have yourself a Merry Little Christmas”.

I’m a little late to this year’s baking series as I was not actually sure I would do it. In part I wasn’t sure I was in the mood for it when the news seems unrelentingly grim. And working at home, staring at a screen all day, leaves me less inclined to look at a screen in my free time. But then, it’s just not Christmas without lots of home baking and those lovely aromas drifting up from the kitchen. The trying times that we find ourselves in also lend a different slant to this year’s tour of festive treats from around the world. We might be at home, but we can still take a little gastronomic tour in anticipation of being able to actually travel more next year. So here goes!

I’ve been doing my Twelve Festive Bakes for a few years now, and there has been a strong leaning towards cookies. We’re starting this year off with a recipe that swings the pendulum in the other direction, as we’re going to have a go at a sweet festive tart called spongata di natale from the Italian region of Emilia Romagna. To me this seems like something from the renaissance, and the compete opposite of picture-perfect sugar cookies coated in thick, neat icing.


This tart has a rich filling of fruit, nuts and spices wrapped in pastry, which reminded me of British mincemeat pies. I always like to look around at different recipes before having a go at something to get an idea of whether a recipe is very standard or allows some variety. I found quite a few differences among the recipes – some have more nuts, while others favour using figs, jam and other dried fruits. Personally I liked the idea of something that was a bit further from our mincemeat pies – we’ve been dodging them in the UK since mid-October – so I plumped for a version that was big on nuts and citrus, with the filling bound together with acacia honey and flavoured with spices.


The original recipe that I found actually makes 15 of these tarts! While I’m absolutely in favour of sharing the fruits of my baking efforts at this time of year, that was too much even for me. I mean, I could find 14 other people to give them to, but there is that pesky Tier 4 and the need to limit social contact, so it would have been irresponsible of me to visit lots of different homes with baked goods. So I had reduced the recipe by a factor of five, so that I could make three of them. One for me, one for a friend, and a spare in case it was delicious and I regretted giving one away.

The recipe below seems quite long-winded, as I’ve tried to lay out the various steps, but it is actually quite straightforward. You do it over several days, starting with the filling, then you just need to make a fairly simple dough which you roll out, fill, cover and bake. You are supposed to make the filling and leave this to rest, so it’s a good job to do in a chilly evening, so it is ready a day or two later when you’re full of the joys of Christmas and want to spend time fiddling with pastry. I left my filling to rest for three days as suggested in the recipe I looked at, but in all honesty I don’t know that it really makes that much difference. I did not have the patience to make two versions and compare them, but I like the idea of a bit of ritual in making my Christmas goodies, and it also spreads out the mess in the kitchen and the tidying up. But if you make the filling one day and bake the next, I’m sure it will still taste great.

For the filling, I had to work out the spice quantities as the original amounts were ten grams of cloves, one-third of a nutmeg and a stick of cinnamon. I’ve no idea how those convert into tablespoons and teaspoons, so I’ve ended up with amounts that suit my taste. I would recommend going easy with the cloves, as they are a dominant flavour and it can be easy to go too far. I happen to really like it, but remember the old culinary adage – you can always add more. My experience is that the flavour will also intensify over time after baking, so by judicious with the heavy spices like cloves. They work well here with the nuts and honey, but it is very easy to go to far.


One the filling had lingered in the kitchen for a few days, I got round to making the tarts themselves. The dough is simple – it’s a shortcrust pastry that uses white wine rather than water as the binding agent. It might seem a bit silly, but I always think it seems really decadent to use wine like this. And note that the recipe doesn’t make a lot of dough. At first I thought at first that it was never going to work. The key is that you work the dough a lot – it’s a dough, not pastry, and you want some gluten to develop in there. I persevered and duly managed to roll the dough out very thinly. And lo and behold, it worked like a charm. If you have a go at these, it is just a matter of taking time – roll out the base thinly; add the filling gently and pat it down; then cover it neatly, press out any trapped air, and make sure the edges are nicely finished. During baking the dough does not really move, but it will puff up very slightly and taken on a lightly golden colour. If you’ve ever been disappointed by the pastry-to-filling ratio of a British mince pie, then you’ll like the generous filling ratio of a spongata di natale.

I also made one final tweak to finish off the tart. I brushed the cooled tart with a simple water icing to make it a little more festive. This was not in the recipe, but seemed to be in the picture, and helped to make the whole thing seem a little less like a giant mince pie. If you’re going to keep them for a few days, the icing will dry out completely and take on a lightly frosted appearance, further enhancing their festive appeal.


And the verdict? I really like these. They are really delicious, very festive, and they do seem to be quite medieval in their character. The filling is rich, sweet and sticky, and very aromatic, packed with all the things that would have been outrageously expensive to a medieval Italian merchant looking for a good time at Christmas. They cut well into dainty slivers to enjoy with tea, coffee or an espresso for a dash of la dolce vita that we’re all craving this year!

To make spognata di natale (makes 3 tarts):

For the filling

• 40g breadcrumbs
• 40g sultanas
• 4 tablespoons dry white wine
• 100g walnuts, chopped
• 50g hazelnuts, chopped
• 50g almonds, chopped
• 200g acacia honey
• 30g pine nuts, roughly chopped
• 20g candied citron, finely chopped
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
• 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
• 1 tablespoon olive oil
• pinch of salt

For the pastry

• 200g plain flour
• 80g unsalted butter
• 80g caster sugar
• 40ml dry white wine
• pinch of salt

To finish

• 30g icing sugar
• cold water

1. Preheat the oven to 160°C (320°F). Put the breadcrumbs on a baking tray and toast in the oven until just golden. Watch them like a hawk – there is very little time between done and burned! Remove them when done and leave to cool.

2. Put the sultanas and the white wine in a bowl. Microwave for 1 minute, then cover and leave the sultanas for 30 minutes to absorb the wine.

3. In a large bowl, add the chopped nuts, toasted breadcrumbs, pine nuts, candied citron, spices and salt. Mix well. Drain the sultanas and squeeze out any excess moisture (keep the liquid). Chop them and add to the bowl.

4. Gently warm the honey to lukewarm in a saucepan over a low heat. Stir in 2 tablespoons of the reserved sultana wine. Pour it into the bowl, and mix well. Taste the mixture and add any more spices if you think they are needed. The resulting mixture should be sticky and very thick. Cover the bowl, and leave it in a quiet corner either overnight or up to 3 days, at room temperature, for the flavours to mingle.

5. Make the dough. In a bowl mix the flour, sugar and salt. Add the butter and work until it resembles breadcrumbs. Now add enough wine to make a dough which is smooth, shiny and pliable. Knead it for around 10 minutes.

6. Time to assemble the spognata. First, preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F). Mix a tablespoon of wine with the filling, then divide the filling into three (200g) portions, and place to one side.

7. Divide the dough into 6 pieces. Take one piece and place it on a large piece of greaseproof paper. Roll to a thickness of 1-2mm (i.e. very thin). Cut a circle of 25cm – the easiest way to do this is to find a saucepan lid or a dinner plate of the correct size, and use that as a template.

8. Now take one portion of filling and spoon it onto the disc. Gently press it into a disc that covers most of the dough, leaving a 3cm border (i.e. 19cm diameter). Place this on top of the pastry disc.

9. Take another piece of dough and roll out to make another disc. Brush the exposed edge of the first disc with a little water, and place the second disc on top. Press down lightly, then gently use a rolling pin to go back and forwards over the cake a couple of times, then press the pastry down all around the cake to press out any air bubbles. Seal the pastry with your fingers, then cut around the edge with a fluted pastry cutter or a knife. Pierce the top of the spognata several times with a fork – either randomly, or try to make some sort of pattern.

10. Slide a baking tray under the spognata, and put in the oven. Bake for 15-20 minutes until the pastry is golden (turning half-way to get an even colour). Do not leave it in any longer or it will dry out the filling. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.

11. Repeat with the remaining filling and pastry.

12. Finish the spognata either with a dusting of icing sugar, or by brushing the top with a simple water icing glaze.

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Cookie of the Week: Lebkuchen

Over the last few weeks I’ve had an uneasy feeling of familiarity with lockdown, and have not quite been able to put my finger on it. Then it struck me – it’s a little bit like that time between Christmas and New Year. The normal routine is out the window, many people are at home and it can be a bit of a struggle to bring much structure to the day. Well, except for the fact that I am still working, or at least trying my best to do so. It reminds me of a radio comedy I heard years ago where an evil genius how somehow managed to trap the whole of Britain in the Christmas limbo period and it lasted well into summer, but people were so lost and listless they didn’t realise.

Anyway, that gave me the idea to make something festive for my cookie of the week. So here are some German Lebkuchen.


And boy, could my timing have been much better? The glorious sunny weather we had been enjoying in London for the past few weeks decided to take a break and we’ve had the best part of a week of dark skies and some really lashing rain. My cats hated it, truth be told I didn’t really mind it, and the plants loved it. But it did feel very autumnal, even wintery at times, and I was quite pleased that morning coffee was accompanied by a sweet spiced lebkuchen coated in chocolate


This is what I’m ambitiously calling an “easy” recipe for Lebkuchen. Many traditional German recipes will call for a high nut content, leaving the dough to rest overnight, and you might find yourself hunting down unusual leavening ingredients like potash or baker’s ammonia. However this recipe uses thing you’ve probably got the baking cupboard, and the only tricky bit is when you coat one side in dark chocolate. If you’re preparing them to take pictures (as I was!) then you want to temper the chocolate so it is smooth and glossy, but if you’re making them to inhale with your morning coffee or afternoon cup of tea, you can just melt, coat and leave them like that. They’ll taste just as good.

The one thing I did struggle with was getting candied peel. I have not been near a big supermarket in nearly three months, and the places I have been clearly don’t see this as a “must stock” item. But I did have a few oranges, some sugar and way too much time, so I made the candied peel myself. It isn’t that hard, and I’ll probably do a post on it in the near future as it is also delicious if you then dunk the bits of sweet orange peel into dark chocolate. I know in some other areas flour has been in short supply, but I have not found that to be a problem. The moment you step away from supermarkets and check out smaller stores and delis, it’s right there. Even our local coffee place is in the act with a range of pasta and Italian “00” flour for sale.

The one fiddly bit that it’s worth knowing beforehand is that you want to make the glaze just before the cookies come out of the oven. You make it with icing sugar and hot water, so that it sets quickly on the hot cookies, and it taken on a sort of frosted appearance as it dries. I’ve found that if you leave the cookies to cool while you make the glaze, or you make it with cold water, you don’t get the same effect. It doesn’t add to the flavour, but it does look nice!

So there we have it – the essence of Christmas, in the middle of June. I might be one of the few people out there who is grateful for that temporary chilly spell in our weather so I could enjoy them!

To make Lebkuchen (makes 12):

For the dough

• 40g butter
• 75g soft brown sugar
• 50ml runny honey
• 1 medium egg
• 40ml milk
• 2 teaspoons mixed spice
• large pinch salt
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
• 1 tablespoon cocoa powder
• 100g plain flour
• 35g ground almonds
• 80g chopped nuts (almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts)
• 40g chopped candied orange peel

For the glaze

• 150g icing sugar
• hot water

To finish

• 200g dark chocolate

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

2. Put the butter, sugar, honey, eggs, milk, spices and salt in a bowl. Beat until the mixture is well combined. Add the flour, ground almonds, baking powder, baking soda and cocoa powder and mix well. Finally fold in the chopped nuts and chopped candied peel. The mixture will be soft and sticky, but should not be runny.

3. Divide the dough into 12 portions – take tablespoons of the dough and place on the greaseproof paper – 6 cookies per sheet. Use damp fingers to press the dough to a circle of around 1/2 cm thickness.

4. Bake the cookies for around 15 minutes – they should puff up slightly and look dry, but should not start to darken at the edges.

5. Just before the cookies come out of the oven, make the glaze. Put the icing sugar in a bowl, and add enough hot water to make a glaze – you should be able to brush it onto the cookies, but don’t make it too runny or watery. Remove the cookies from the oven and immediately brush each with the warm glaze. As they cool, they should take on a “frosted” appearance, which will keep forming overnight as the sugar crystallises.

6. Once all the cookies are baked and the glaze is dry, temper the chocolate, then coat the flat side of each cookie and make any sort of whimsical pattern than you like. Leave to set, and enjoy!

To temper chocolate: follow this guide from the BBC using a thermometer!

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Cookie of the Week: Pain d’Amandes

Today’s cookie recipe is one that combines sophistication with simplicity. Just what you want with your lockdown mid-morning coffee.

They hail from Belgium, and go by the name of pain d’amande in French and amandelbood in Flemish, and just plain almond bread to you and me. Think of butterfly-thin crisp spiced cookies studded with almonds and you’re there. They’re a lovely addition to a cup of coffee, or used as a wafer with some ice cream. You can also stack them up like a house of cards, as we’re in lockdown and need to things to amuse us. I managed 3 levels!


I say that these are easy because they really are. You make a butter and sugar syrup, add the flour and spices, then add the almonds, then let it all set and chill in a block. Then you slice, bake and enjoy eating lots and lots of them.

The only bit that is vaguely tricky is getting those very thin slices. I found the best way is to make sure you have a very, very sharp knife, line it up, and go for it – press down in one clean move, and you should get an even slice. Avoid sawing or serrated knives so that you get nice, clean slices of almond peeking out.


You can play around with the flavours here. I used cinnamon, but you could add a dash of ginger, or cloves, or mixed spices. Orange zest would also work well, and you could swap out the almonds with whole hazelnuts or pistachios for a bit of contrast. I’ve seen some recipes that suggest you need to remove the skin from nuts before using them, but I happily used whole almonds, skin and all, and they were fine.

One little word of warning – whatever you do, don’t swap the sugar. I’ve made these a few times during lockdown, and they work well with dark brown sugar. But I decided to get creative and swapped it for light brown sugar. Big mistake. The dough seems like it is working, but once it has cooled, it becomes hard and brittle, so it is impossible to cut. It probably has something to do with the moisture content of different types of sugar, and I though it is worth sharing my culinary mishaps to prevent them happening to others!

I would also highly recommend doing a test bake with these – when you’ve sliced the first one, bake it solo to test how long you need in the oven. They are so thin that the difference between baked to crisp, buttery perfection and being incinerated is not that long. Better to go wrong on one than a tray of 30!

To make pain d’amandes (makes around 100 cookies)

• 100g butter
• 165g dark brown sugar
• 30ml water
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 250g plain flour
• 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
• 75g whole almonds, hazelnuts or pistachios

1. Put the butter, sugar, water and salt into a saucepan. Warm gently until the butter has melted and the sugar has dissolved, but do not let it boil.

2. Add half the flour and mix well. Add the rest of the flour, the cinnamon and the baking soda, and mix until combined. Mix in the nuts.

3. Put the mixture into a container to set. You want something with straight sides, and aim for a rectangle of 10 x 20cm. I used a square baking tray, then built a little “wall” of tin foil to get the right side, and lined it with greaseproof paper. Pop it in the fridge for a couple of hours to firm up.

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

5. Remove the dough from the fridge. Cut it in half lengthways. Now use a very sharp straight-edged knife to cut thin slices off the dough. Aim for around 2mm, and push the knife down in one clean movement. Arrange the slices on the baking sheet, leaving space fo them to expand(*).

6. Bake the cookies for around 8 minutes (or longer if your slices are thicker), turning half-way to get an even bake. They will be soft when they come up, but will turn hard once they cool. Store in an airtight container, and enjoy with coffee.

(*) I found it easiest to slice off as many piece of dough as I needed to fill the tray, then bake them in batches. Pop the dough back in the fridge while a batch is baking so it stays firm and easy to slice.

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Cookie of the Week: Fryske Dúmkes

You’re probably spending your days like I’m spending my days.

Indoors.

Away from people. Away from all people.

Unless you’re in a vital job where you still need to go out every day. Worrying what this means for you and your family.

We’re socially distancing, crossing roads to avoid people when we go out (if you’re even allowed to leave your front door, and we’re limited to once per day for exercise in the UK at present). We’re on endless Zoom calls. We’re spending a lot more time talking to people that are far from us. We’re juggling full-time work with having kids at home because school is shut. We’re rediscovering the joys of arts and crafts at home, those things we did in school as children, because we suddenly have the time, and what is happening out there, beyond our streets, is just so awful.

At the moment I’m fine with the days – work and home school keep us busy (mainly activities involving lots and lots of mess!!!). But everything can start to get to me in the evenings. Sitting at home, things can feel mundane and pointless when there is a battle to fight. At those moments I cling to the thought that by staying in and being away from our friends and family, we are helping to slow the spread of the coronavirus, and while many of us might feel powerless, this itself is helping to save others by giving our health workers more chance to save more lives, and reducing the risk that other essential workers have no choice but to face (including those in education, grocery stores, pharmacies, public transport, telecoms, power generation…sobering to think of all the people we need in order to live our lives). We’re all part of one team, so let’s all be a team players! It might mean missing trips, family events, birthdays, but all of these I will happily forgo if it helps people stay safe.

So you’re home. What do you do with these seemingly endless, endless days and evenings? I’ve decided to make a small attempt to lighten the mood, by baking cakes and cookies. It might seem trivial, but it provides a little ray of normality and makes staying home that little bit more bearable. I’ll be posting one cake and one cookie each every week, and might even share some (but probably note all) of how we’re coping with it all. Maybe you’ll see something new and want to have a go, and if you’re at home baking, you’re not out and about, and that’s what we all need to do right now.

Let’s get going. Now that going out is not possible beyond a single brief stroll on deserted streets, I’ve been looking back at what we were doing around this time in years gone by. Two years ago we were in the Netherlands, and I remember that trip well. I was assured that early spring is just lovely in the Low Countries, and the pitch was heady stuff – I conjured up visions of brightly-coloured tulips basking in spring sunshine as windmills turned in the distance. Nice in theory, but it will come as no surprise that it was less the first warm kiss of sunshine and more a fearsome wind blasting off the North Sea. The sort of thing we in Scotland would refer to politely as “bracing” or “invigorating”. In the end, we spent a fair amount of time indoors and I got some time to mooch around bakeries and shops. I had to bring something back for my colleagues so I picked up a bag of interesting biscuits called Fryske Dúmkes, or “Frisian Thumbs” in the Frisian language (a relative of Dutch). They also came in a bag swathed in the Frisian flag, which is pretty darned cool. It’s got blue and white stripes with a series of 8 red love hearts on it (correction: turns out they are called “pompeblêden” and are stylised water lily leaves). So heck yeah, let’s make Frisian Thumbs!


These little treats were traditionally made by the baker pressing their thumb into the dough before baking. This does not seem to happen so much these days, but if you like to make them look authentic the give it a try. I actually thought about it but decide not to, as I’m the sort of slightly neurotic baker that likes to make things that all look even, which probably says more about me than the recipe. In fact, to get an even size, I just used a ruler and cut along it to get straight lines – one width horizontally, and two widths vertically. Again, maybe it sounds fussy, but a good (clean) metal ruler takes the effort out of trying to get things the same size and shape.

The traditional flavouring here is aniseed, which is very popular in Dutch baking, and hazelnuts, plus a dash of cinnamon. You can also use almonds, or a mixture of the two, but I love me a good hazelnut so I just used them. It’s also a very easy method – just make a buttery dough then mix in the nuts, then chill, roll it out then slice and bake. I made it a little more complex for myself by rolling the dough out between two sheets of greaseproof paper. It’s a bit more fiddly than using a floured worktop, but I’m a recent convert to this way of working. It means you’re not adding more flour to the dough, so you don’t get a batch where the first lot look OK, but the cookies made with re-rolled scraps start to look increasingly different due to more flour being worked into the dough. Maybe you’re the sort of person that is not bothered by that, but I’ve already mentioned my liking for an identical batch…


If you want to fancy them up…well actually I would not bother. Stick with the classic. The key flavours here – toasted hazelnuts, cinnamon and anise – complement each other wonderfully. I even thought I could detect a subtle hint of marzipan from the combination. They are undeniably delicious with a cup or tea or coffee. They definitely stand on their own, unadorned yet adorable. Skip any thoughts of icing or glaze, and let these little guys win you over with their rustic charm.

To make Fryske Dúmkes (makes around 30)

• 75g skinned hazelnuts (or almonds)
• 110g butter
• 120g soft brown sugar
• 1 1/2 teaspoons ground aniseed or star anise
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 25ml milk
• 200g plain flour
• 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1. Start by roughly chopping the nuts – you want them in small pieces, not a fine powder. Set aside.

2. Put the butter and sugar in a large bowl. Beat until well-combined and fluffy. Add the spices, salt and milk, and mix again.

3. Combine the flour and baking powder, and add to the mixture. Work it with a spoon, and then your hands, until the dough comes together – it should come away from the bowl. Finally add the nuts and mix well. Wrap in cling film and chill for at least an hour (I left it overnight).

4. Time to bake! Preheat the oven to 170°C (340°F) and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

5. Break the chilled dough into chunks, and work briefly with your hands so that it becomes softer and can be rolled out. Lay it on a sheet of greaseproof paper, and press it with your hands. Lay another sheet on top, and roll the dough to 1cm (1/3 inch) thickness. Using a very sharp knife, cut into strips of 2.5cm (1 inch) and then cut every 5cm (2 inches) to form rectangles. Transfer the cut cookies to the baking sheet, leaving space for them to expand during baking. You’ll have to bake in two batches. You can re-roll and scraps and keep going until all the dough has been used up.

6. Bake the cookies for around 20-25 minutes, turning after 10 minutes to get an even bake. They should have a deep golden colour when ready. When done, transfer to a wire rack to cool.

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Scottish Food: Perkins for Burns Night

I was having a look back at some past posts and I realised that it has been 4 years since I last did a Scottish recipe in honour of Burns Night. I did manage 2 years ago to make some lamingtons for Australia Day, so it’s not been a complete failure, but I did think that it was time to have another go.

So what should I make? I was doing a bit of research and I chanced upon a recipe for perkins, traditional spiced Scottish biscuits made with oats. Super! I could make those! Except I had no clue what they were. I must say, it was an odd feeling to be researching something from my home country, but yes, it turns out there are Scottish biscuits that I have no idea existed. And it seems that I’m not the only one – Amy at Baking with Granny seems to have had a similar reaction to perkins as they were suggested to her via Facebook.


I started looking for some ideas of what they were, and after wading through dozens of websites referring to perkins recipes “like granny used to make” and telling me they were “excellent with a cup of tea” it became apparent fairly quickly that I probably do know what they are, I just don’t know them as perkins. They’re flat, slightly chewy cookies made with oats, syrup and spices – not dissimilar to Anzac biscuits. I guess I would call them “oat biscuits” or “oat crumbles”. Anyway, there are some suggestions that they are linked to the famous Yorkshire parkin which shares many of same ingredients, but I’m sure there are the spirits of many proud Yorkshire housewives ready to haunt my nightmares for suggesting that parkin could have come from anywhere other than God’s Own County. So I’ll just say “those ingredients lists and similar names are such a coincidence”. In fact, beyond the oats, spice and golden syrup, I don’t think they are that similar. I think parkin should contain treacle, which these definitely do not.

As for a recipe, I found on on the website of the National Trust for Scotland. Bingo! Surely if anyone knows about traditional biscuits, it will be these people? I mean, a day out to a castle or a stately home always involves a visit to the tea shop and some cake or biscuits. So, dead cert?

Well…I started to read the recipe and there were a few gaps. It needs “flour” which I assumed would be plain, since there is baking soda in there to leaven them. Then “oatmeal” but what was that? Fine oat flour? Coarse? Oat flakes? Big ones? Small ones? I just improvised – I took jumbo rolled oats, ground them in a food processor so they were about half flour and half chopped oats and reasoned that a bit of texture in a biscuit isn’t a bad thing. I was pleased that they did measure out the golden syrup by weight rather than volume, which in my opinion is the right way to do it. By the time you’re measured 100ml of syrup, you’ve usually coated about 5 utensils with sugar and it is a mess. The size of the egg is also not clear – I went with medium and hoped for the best, thinking that if it was too dry I could always add some milk, but if the mixture gets too sticky, it’s always a pain to add more flour as it can throw off the quantities. Thus, the recipe you see below uses the Trust’s quantities, but is based on my tweaks to ensure it would actually works. I also had to double the number of almonds – the recipe asks for split blanched almonds, which I’ve never seen on sale. By the time I had skinned some almonds, I lacked the will to split them apart with a sharp knife, so I just used them whole.


But the recipe wasn’t the strange part. I was not entirely convinced the picture they used was of the actual recipe they were presenting. Their biscuits looked too big, too smooth, too pale. Mine – and those made by quite a few others, including Baking with Granny – are flatter, rougher and with a deeper golden colour. If I’m making something I don’t mind that it doesn’t look exactly the same, but I’d like some sort of family resemblance as a minimum! Let’s just say there is a Russian website with gingerbread cookies that look awfully, awfully similar.

Making them was actually very easy – throw it in a bowl, and get mixing. Because they are leavened with baking soda, you also get a bit of chemical magic during baking, which gives that amazing golden colour. They go in as fairly pale balls of dough, and during baking they sort of puff up and then collapse. If you look at them about half-way, they look very pale and are only just starting to colour. However the baking soda will work its spell on them and a few minutes later they get a crinkled texture and take on a deep golden colour. So watch them like a hawk, of if you’re feeling very Scottish, like a golden eagle. I actually did a test run with the first cookie to see how it worked and how long it had to be in the oven. I’d rather get one wrong and save a batch than try baking 20 and ruin the lot. How you approach it depends on whether you’re a gambler.

For all that, how do they taste? They’re actually delicious – the oats mean they are substantial, and they have a lovely deep flavour from the syrup and spices. It’s the sort of biscuit that might also be improved massively by the addition of a layer of chocolate if you’re in the mood to start messing around with a thermometer to get that glossy, shiny finish, but all that Scottish restraint perhaps points to keeping them pure. I’ll definitely make them again, and the chocolate option is rather appealing. Views?

To make Perkins (make around 45):

• 250g rolled oats
• 250g plain flour
• 180g caster sugar
• 1½ teaspoon baking soda
• 1 teaspoon mixed spice
• 1 teaspoon ground ginger
• 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 125g butter
• 1 medium egg, beaten
• 180g golden syrup (*)
• 60g whole almonds, blanched (**)

1. Preheat the oven to 160C (320°F). Line two baking sheets with greaseproof paper.

2. Put the oats in a food processor. Grind until medium-fine – about 2 minutes. Half should be flour, the rest should be chopped oats.

3. In a bowl, combine the oats, flour, sugar, baking soda and spices. Mix well, then sieve to ensure there are no lumps. You’ll have some oats left in the sieve – tip those into the bowl.

4. Add the butter, and work with your hands until it is incorporated. The mixture will seem quite dry – you don’t get a “breadcrumb” texture.

5. Add the egg and the syrup, then use your hands to mix to a firm dough. You should be able to take pieces and roll them into balls – if too dry, add a little milk. If too wet, add more flour.

6. Take pieces of dough “the size of a large marble” according to the National Trust for Scotland (or weigh them – 20g – they’re about the size of a Fererro Rocher, Mr Ambassador). Roll them into a ball, and place on the baking sheet. Press down very slightly, then gently press an almond on top. It should still be more or less a ball, not flat.

7. Bake for around 13-15 minutes, turning half-way to get an even bake. They are ready when they are an even, rich brown colour. Remove from the oven, allow to cool for a moment to firm up, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

(*) That’s golden syrup, not corn syrup. You need this for flavour. As a substitute you could use honey or the Swedish-style “light syrup” which has a similar consistency and flavour. Maple syrup is not great here as it is much runnier so you will need to adjust the amounts…

(**) Either buy almonds that have been blanched, or do this at home – bring a pan of water to the boil, add the nuts and simmer for a minute. Drain, allow to cool for a moment, then the skins should slip off when you squeeze them gently.

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{7} Bruttiboni

Sometimes I am all for making something that looks neat and precise, and I get a certain pride when each cookie in a batch ends up looking identical. The most recent case in point was my checkerboard cookies.

However, today we’re going to the opposite end of the scale with these little guys. They’re from Italy and they’re called bruttiboni. The name roughly means “ugly-good” because they look as they look, but the are utterly delicious.

As with many Italian celebratory cookies, their precise origin is not clear. Today they are typical of the city of Prato in Tuscany, and they are also known as brutti ma buoni (“ugly but good”) or the more poetic-sounding mandorlati di san clemente. They are delicious little cookies made from meringue and hazelnuts.


To make them, you start with a simple meringue mixture, which I flavoured with some vanilla and a little hint of cinnamon. I don’t know if the spice addition is tradition, but I think it works well with the flavour of the nuts. Then you fold in ground, toasted almonds and hazelnuts – you can grind them to a fine powder, or leave a few more chunky bits if you prefer a bit more texture. And then…you do something plain weird. You put the whole bowl over a pan of barely simmering water, and then stir it gently. This makes the mixture somewhat looser, and all I can think that this does is to cook the meringue mixture in a similar way to making Swiss meringue. I’ve never come across this technique before, and in fact, not every recipe that I saw for bruttiboni thought this was necessary. One recipe even suggested making a Swiss meringue and just adding nuts. But I’m all for experimentation so I decided to give this strange approach a go.

From what I could tell, this extra step makes the mixture both a little softer and more stable, as once I had done it, the batter certainly seemed to keep its volume. I think it might also have impacted on the texture – these really are nothing like the miniature meringues I had been expecting – there was no brittle exterior and or marshmallow centre. They are more like the sort of thing I would expect from a “traditional” cookie made with flour and butter, so there is clearly some kind of magic at play here. But they do have a crisper outside and a softer middle. And they are, indeed, absolutely delicious!

To make Bruttiboni (makes around 24)

• 125g ground almonds
• 125g skinned hazelnuts
• 3 large egg whites
• pinch of salt
• 140g white caster sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1. Start by toasting the nuts. Preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F). If you are using whole nuts, ground them in a food processor. They can be fine or you can leave chunks for texture. Spread the ground nuts on a baking sheet lined with greaseproof paper, and until the nuts are golden and fragrant (tip: I put them in for 5 minutes with the timer on; check them, then keep doing them in 2 minute intervals, in each case using the timer to make sure they don’t burn). When done, remove them from the oven and allow to cool.

2.When you’re ready to make the cookies, start by preheating the oven to 170°C (340°F). Line two baking sheets with greaseproof paper. Also put a saucepan of water on the stove over a medium heat.

3. Now make the meringue. Get a heatproof bowl. Add the egg whites and salt. Whisk to the soft peaks stage. Now add the sugar, a spoonful at a time, mixing well after each addition, until you have a stiff meringue. Fold in the vanilla and ground cinnamon. Finally fold in the cooled nuts.

4. Now put the bowl over the pan of water – it should be barely simmering. Gently stir the mixture with a spatula for 10 minutes. It will become slightly darker and slightly more runny by the end, but don’t expect to see massive changes.

5. Next, remove the bowl from the heat. Take tablespoons of the mixture and put them on the prepared baking sheet. The neatest way to do this is with an ice-cream scoop, but spoons work just as well. Just don’t expect them to be too neat or too regular!

6. Bake the cookies for around 25 minutes until golden, turning half-way to get an even colour. When done, remove from the oven and leave to cool on a wire rack. The cookies will become firmer as they cool.

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Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things