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{9} Hallongrottor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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To make Hallongrottor (makes 15)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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{5} Cavallucci

When I started doing my annual Christmas baking project all those years ago, I tended to focus on what I knew, and with the exception of panettone, pretty much everything was from Northern Europe. Over the years I’ve looked beyond the well-known bakes, which has led me to look more and more at Italian Christmas cookies.

We have all seen those rainbow cookies with a chocolate glaze, but what I find interesting are the traditional regional specialities. Every part of the country seems to have its own unique baked goods, often reflecting the traditions and ingredients of the area the recipe comes from, which makes it rewarding to explore, as well as to make and then eat. Yes, unlike looking at lots of churches and medieval villages, exploring the culinary landscape has the bonus of being delicious. And today’s Christmas treat takes us to the city of Siena. Meet my batch of cavallucci.

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The name cavallucci literally means “little horses”. They are said to date back to the time of Lorenzo de’ Medici (also known rather modestly as Lorenzo the Magnificent and who ruled Florence in the late 1400s). Their name comes either from the fact that the original cookies had an impression of a horse on top, or due to the fact they were eaten by stable hands who worked as part of whatever passed for the postal system of the gentry in those days.

Fortunately the flavour of cavallucci is very far removed from anything horse-like. They contain a lot of walnuts and candied orange peel, as well as traditional spices including coriander and aniseed.

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Luckily, this is a recipe that is fairly simple to make. Once you’re prepared the dry ingredients (flour, nuts, spices, candied and dried fruits), you add a sugar and honey syrup to forma dough. This is left to cool for a moment, then rolled out and sliced into individual cookies for baking. No fancy moulds, no intricate decoration, no gilding and no messing around with icing or tempered chocolate. What a relief! And if you’re looking for a vegan option, swap the honey for your favourite syrup. Or if you’re a honey fan, you can swap some of the sugar and water for more honey.

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These are very rustic-looking little morsels of festive cheer. They look like they have been dipped in sugar, but they’ve actually been rolled in flour before baking. I think it looks rather nice, as it goes them a slightly snowy appearance, and it means the cookies have a more balances level of sweetness.

As I was making these, I was reminded of that other Siena classic, panforte. You prepare the dry ingredients, add lots of spices, nuts and candied peel, then bind it all with a sugar syrup, although the ratios of ingredients are different, and cavallucci include some raising agent. I did wonder if a raising agent was traditional, and I think it probably is not, but most of the classic recipes that I found, including that of the Siena tourist board, suggest using baker’s ammonia. I used this too as I have some in my baking cupboard, and I’m always on the look out for a recipe that uses this most stinky of ingredients. It certainly makes the cavallucci puff up nicely in the oven and you get a lovely light texture, with a crisp outside and slightly soft centre. If you can’t get hold of baker’s ammonia, other recipes suggest using baking soda, so it should be alright to use that instead – if you do give it a go, let me know how you get on.

To make Cavallucci (makes 50)

• 200g shelled walnuts
• 100g candied peel (e.g. orange, lemon, citron)
• 30g icing sugar
• 2 teaspoons baker’s ammonia
• 2 teaspoons ground coriander
• 1 teaspoon mixed spices
• 1/4 teaspoon aniseeds, crushed
• pinch of black pepper
• 650g plain flour
• 300g white sugar
• 150ml water
• 25g honey

1. Preheat the oven to 150°C and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper rubbed lightly with some neutral oil.

2. Roughly chop the walnuts and candied fruits. Put in a large bowl and add the icing sugar, spices, baker’s ammonia (or baking soda) and flour. Mix well.

3. Put the sugar, water and honey into a saucepan. Heat gently until the sugar has dissolved and there are no crystals left (you want the sugar to just dissolve, but do not let it boil). Remove from the heat, allow to cool for a few minutes, then pour the liquid over the dry ingredients. Mix well with a wooden spoon. It should be firm but sticky.

4. When the mixture is still warm but cool enough to handle, take teaspoons of the mixture and drop onto a plate dusted with flour.

5. Roll each piece into a ball (it should be coated lightly with flour), place on the baking sheet and flatten to around 1cm thickness.

6. Bake the cavallucci for around 15 minutes until they are puffed up, but they are still pale (they only get a very slight colour during baking).

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{4} Piparkakut

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

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

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

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

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

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

Makes around 40-50 cookies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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{9} Brunkager

We are three-quarters of the way through this year’s insane bake-a-thon, so we’re heading north to experience a classic Danish cookie. I love crisp gingerbread biscuits at this time of year, especially when they are packed with spice, and rich with butter and brown sugar. These little morsels are from Denmark and are called brunkager, which literally means “brown cakes” or “brown biscuits”.

Just about every source I have looked at calls them a Danish “classic” and that they are the real “aroma of Christmas”. However, I have not been able to find much about their origin – no interesting story, no quirky history. It must be there somewhere, but I guess I’ve not just found it yet. If anyone has any information on this, please leave a comment!

The flavour is superb – spicy, buttery, nutty and hints of orange. They are wonderful with coffee or tea, and while it is a cliché, they do taste like Christmas. I think these cookies have a real air of class about them – but their secret is that they are a complete breeze to make.

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Normally I tend to just have pictures of the final result. However, today I’ve decided to do something different, and provide a few “action” shots so that you can see he various stages in making brunkager.

The reason that brunkager are so easy is that you melt down your butter and sugar into the most delicious caramel-like syrup, then mix it with spices, candied orange peel and whole almonds. At this stage, it is actually very tasty and no-one would blame you for sneaking a spoonful or two. Of course this is just to test that the balance of spices is right…

Once you’ve got the basic mixture, you add flour, then pour it into a tin to set. Then just let it cool, and it can be cut into slices and baked. One curious thing is that the warm mixture starts off the most luxurious shade of chestnut brown, but it fades to a duller, more grey shade when cold. I though this was a bit disappointing, but it is just a result of the butter setting, and the rich colour comes back during baking. Making the mixture and leaving it to set only takes around 20 minutes, so it can easily be done in the evening, and you can do the baking the next day. So pick your perfect moment to fill the house with their wonderful aroma.

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Once the mixture is set, there is no messing around with cutters or rolling pins. Just remove the slab of dough from the tin and the cut it into four strips. Then cut each of those into thin slices.

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The trick here is to get a very big, very sharp knife. Then sharpen it some more. Then use some force to get it to cut cleanly through the dough. What you want are nice clean slices of almonds in the cookies, so you should avoid serrated knifes and sawing motions. It can take a bit of practice, but I found the best way was to make sure the dough is cold, and push downwards with some force. There will be a few duff ones that don’t look good – you can gather the scraps, roll them up and bake as  them anyway and they will taste just as good.

Once you’ve done the careful slicing, arrange them on the baking sheet, and as you can see, they really do expand. The raising agent here is potaske (potassium carbonate) which makes them expand outwards, but they don’t rise up, resulting in very crisp cookies with a lovely dark brown colour. Potaske is the traditional ingredient, but you could skip this and use baking soda instead. I haven’t tested this, but a few recipes suggest this, in which case just mix it with the flour before mixing everything together. However, if you do manage to get your hands on a packet of potaske (check online), you can also make Danish honninghjerter (honey hearts) or German Aachner Printen in the authentic way.

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I’ve seen recipes that use whole nuts, and recipes that use flaked almonds. I like the look of the whole nuts – this does make it a little harder to cut into perfect slices, but I think the contrast of the larger pieces looks nicer. If you fancy more variation, you can use a combination of almonds and pistachios, or just pistachios.

Now, do be prepared for just how much this recipe makes. Each log will make around 30-40 cookies if you slice it thinly, so could end up with around 150 cookies! They’re very light and easy to eat, but don’t be surprised if you end up running out of space on the kitchen worktop!

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Faced with my mountain of brunkager, even I was not able to eat all of them over a couple of days. I noticed that they start to get a bit soft, but this is easily sorted. You can get the crispness back by popping them in a low oven for about 4-5 minutes. This won’t bake them, but it will dry them out to get the snap back.

If you have a go at these, I also recommend that you bake a test cookie before putting a whole tray in the oven. As they are thin, they can easily burn – they don’t take long to bake, so try with one and it should be done when it has an even, appealing brown colour. Keep in mind that they will be very soft when they come out of the oven, but will harden when cold, so colour rather than texture is what to look out for.

To make Brunkager (makes around 150)

250g butter
125g golden syrup
• 125g soft brown sugar
• 125g muscovado sugar
• 3 teaspoons ground cinnamon
• 2 teaspoons ground ginger
• 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
• 1 teaspoon ground cloves
• 150g almonds
• 10g candied orange peel, very finely chopped
• zest of one orange
• 2 teaspoons potaske (potassium carbonate)
• 1 1/2 tablespoons lukewarm water
• 500g plain flour

1. Put the butter, syrup and sugar into a saucepan. Heat gently until everything has melted and the mixture is smooth, but do not let it boil.

2. Pour the sugar/butter mixture into a bowl and add the spices, almonds, candied peel and orange zest. Leave to cool until lukewarm.

3. In a small bowl, dissolve the potash in the water – add a little more water if needed (be careful – it will discolour wooden worktops if spilled!). Mix into the sugar/butter mixture. Finally stir in the flour and mix until smooth (it will still be liquid, not solid).

4. Pour the mixture into a tray lined with greaseproof paper and even out the top. Leave to cool, then chill overnight in the fridge. The mixture will change form a glossy chestnut colour to a dull dark grey-brown colour.

5. When ready to bake, pre-heat the oven to 175°C (350°F) and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

6. Remove the mixture from the tin – it should come out in one slab. Slice into 4 pieces, then use a sharp knife to cut into slices (3-4mm). Arrange them on the baking sheet, leaving some space for them to expand. Bake for 5-8 minutes, turning the tray half-way to get an even colour.

7. Leave the baked brunkager on the baking tray for a minute to harden, then transfer to wire rack to cool completely.

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{6} Citrus Pfeffernüsse

We’ve reached the half-way point in this year’s 12 Bakes of Christmas, so I thought it would be nice to return to a bit of a festive classic. I’ve made a batch of Pfeffernüsse, but have added a but of a citrus twist to them.

Pfeffernüsse are one of my favourites, and I can much through a whole pile of these. Pretty miraculous for something that doesn’t even contain chocolate!

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This is a comparatively “easy” Pfeffernüsse recipe. Many recipes tell you to make various syrups, then let it cool, work in the flour and let it sit overnight or even for days to let the flavours develop. Not here. You can make them and bake them right away, with no need to leave it resting over night occupying valuable space in your fridge that could be chilling eggnog or champagne instead.

There is only one “fiddly” bit here, which is making sure that the Pfeffernüsse are soft. This is worth doing, as it ensures that they have a good, rich flavour when you bite into them. You’ve got two choice here – add some pieces of soft bread to a tin with the baked but unglazed cookies, replacing the bread as it gets hard, until the cookies are soft, which can take a few days. Or use my cheat’s express method – I put the Pfeffernüsse on a wire tray, and then hold that tray above steam from a pan of water or a boiling kettle for a few seconds. Do this twice, then pop them back in an airtight tin. Repeat this the next day, and you should find that they have softened up nicely.

To finish, I have dipped my Pfeffernüsse in icing, as they remind me of the ones you buy with their crisp, brittle icing. I used a couple of spoonfuls of Acqua de Cedro, a liqueur made with citron and like a posh version of limoncello with a sharp, citrus flavour, but you can equally use Grand Marnier or Cointreau. Now, you might be looking at these pictures and notice how amazingly white my icing looks – and it does seem just like snow! Well, the reason that it looks so brilliant is that I cheated (gasp!). I use a small dash of white food colour with the icing, so that it had that bright, snowy appearance. It doesn’t change the flavour and you can happily skip it, but in the interests of full disclosure I feel I should say that I’ve used it in case someone makes these and is surprised that they don’t look quite as white!

How you flavour them is up to you – I’ve used a mixture of spices, plus candied orange peel. You can make these extra-citrussy with the addition of some orange zest, or get creative and go for something completely different – cardamom and lemon anyone? Or convert to the dark side…cinnamon and cloves for flavour, and then dipped in dark chocolate? Now that would be pretty sensational!

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To make Citrus Pfeffernüsse (makes 20):

For the Pfeffernüsse

• 125g caster sugar
• 1 large egg
• 20g candied orange peel, finely chopped
• 50g ground almonds
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon mixed spice
• 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• pinch white pepper
• 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
• 125g plain flour

For the glaze

• 100g icing sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon white food colouring (optional)
• orange liqueur or water
• cubes of candied peel

1. Put the egg and sugar in a bowl. Mix well until thick and creamy (around 5 minutes).

2. Fold in the chopped orange peel, ground almonds and spices and mix well.

3. Combine the flour and baking powder, then mix into the wet ingredients until you have a smooth dough – it will slightly sticky, but you should be able to roll pieces into balls. If too dry, add a few drops of water; if too wet, add a tiny sprinkle more flour.

4. Pinch off small walnut-sized pieces of the dough. This is best done with damp hands to prevent the dough sticking. If you’ve very precise, weigh the dough, divide by 20, then make sure each piece is the same weight (mine were 17g each…)

5. Bake the Pfeffernüsse at 180°C for 15 minutes until golden and puffed, turning the tray half-way. When baked, remove and leave to cool on a wire rack. Transfer the cold cookies to an airtight tin and add a slice of bread – this will soften the Pfeffernüsse. Replace the bread when dry.

6. To glaze, mix the icing sugar with white colouring (if using) and enough water or liqueur to get a thick but smooth icing – think really thick double cream. Dip each cookie in the icing, shake off the excess, put some pieces of candied peel on top and leave to set.

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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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{4} Basler Brunsli

The fourth instalment of our festive baking tour takes us to the northern Swiss city of Basel. This year I seem to have delved rather deeply into Swiss Christmas traditions. I’d love to say that this was because I had been doing lots of detailed research, but in reality, I asked my Swiss friend for some Christmas tips, and one of them was a family recipe for these tasty little spiced chocolate-and-nut creations.

Basler Brunsli are a very easy cookie to make – made with ground nuts and sugar, flavoured with cocoa and chocolate and spiced with cinnamon and cloves. And basically…wow! So good that they really should not be so easy to make. These are simply amazing! They are sometimes referred to as “traditional Swiss brownies” but I think they are so much more interesting than that. This is not just a brownie…this is a luxuriously warm and spicy hug of Alpine wintery cheer. They have a chewy, slightly macaroon-like quality, with a delicious note of dark chocolate enhanced by the spices. They taste rich, but are also incredibly more-ish. I think these would definitely be a big hit at any party, and they also look very striking.

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In the original recipe that I got, you only need to add cocoa powder, but I saw a lot of recipes that also had grated dark chocolate. I figured that when it comes to all things chocolate, more is more, so I added some chocolate in addition to the cocoa. My thinking went that the cocoa would give them a nice colour, and the chocolate would melt during cooking to really ramp up the flavour. I’m happy to report that this seemed to work like a charm.

Now, there is was one thing with the recipe that did niggle with me just a little – it calls for a Messerspitze of ground cloves, as does pretty much every other recipe that I saw. I take this to mean as much as goes on the point of a knife. I mean…really…how is that a measurement that you can work with? I’m exasperated enough when it comes to using American cups, so this just annoys me! It never seems like enough to add a real flavour if it really is just enough to fit on the tip of a knife. Maybe in German-speaking places it actually means a fixed amount, like half a teaspoon? Anyway, I experimented here and went with a quarter of a teaspoon of ground cloves. I tend to like things very heavily spiced, so this is something that you should just trust to your own tastes. It is not a spice that everyone loves, but I feel that clove is a flavour that is under-appreciated and which is really delicious with chocolate. My view? A Messerspitze would not be enough!

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I love that these cookies are so quick and easy to make. There is no need to leave the mixture to sit overnight as with so many Germanic spiced bakes, and when you roll them out then keep their shape nicely during baking. They also have the benefit in being gluten-free, so a great cookie to have in the repertoire. If you wanted to play around with the flavour, it might be nice to use hazelnuts instead of some or all of the almonds, and perhaps sandwich two of them together with Nutella. You could also play with the spices, or add orange zest or switch the Kirsch for flavoured liqueur such as Grand Marnier or Amaretto, if you can accept that you’re probably starting to get rather far from the authentic Swiss recipe.

After I made my version of Basler Brunsli, I asked my Swiss friend for her verdict. She tried one, and confirmed they were good. Not as good as my mother’s, obviously. And you know what? I’ll take that complement. Only fair that my first attempt were not be as good as her mother’s. It’s only natural! And she clarified that I’d gotten the sugar decoration wrong. You should dip the cutters in the sugar, and then cut out the shapes to add some sparkle at the edges, rather than covering the tops. She didn’t thing it looked bad or tasted strange. Just not like mum makes them. Fair enough!

To make Basler Brunsli (makes around 50 cookies):

• 200g ground almonds, plus extra for rolling
• 200g icing sugar
• 40g finely grated dark chocolate
• 40g cocoa powder
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
• 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 2 large egg whites
• 2-3 teaspoons Kirsch or rum
• granulated sugar, for cutting out shapes

1. Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F) and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

2. Put the ground almonds, icing sugar, grated chocolate, cocoa powder and spices in a bowl and mix well.

3. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg white until foamy. We’re not trying to get whipped egg whites, so go easy!

4. Add all the egg white and the Kirsch or rum (a teaspoon at a time), to the dry ingredients. Mix well until it comes together to a soft dough that forms a ball. If the mixture is dry then add more Kirsch or rum, a teaspoon at a time, until it comes together. If the mix is too wet, add more ground almonds and icing sugar.

5. Sprinkle some more ground almonds on the worktop, and roll out the dough to 1cm thickness. Dip the edges of your cookie cutters in granulated sugar before you cut each cookie (of course, it won’t stick for cutting the first cookie). Cut out cookies in whatever shape you like.

6. Transfer the cut out cookies to the baking sheet. Bake for around 6 minutes. When done, remove from the oven and leave to cool.

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Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things

{1} Taai Taai

Hello and welcome to 2015’s edition of the 12 Bakes of Christmas!  Regular readers might have noticed a bit of a slowdown in posts in the last few months. I’ve not lost my love of cooking, but a recent arrival has been keeping us all rather busy, which has certainly also made Christmas this year a lot more special!

I’m kicking off a little later than usual this year, as my first bake Taai Taai (rhymes with bye-bye) originates from the Netherlands, where today – 5 December – is Sinterklaas (their Belgian neighbours confusingly celebrate it on 6 December, but as these cookies are Dutch, we’ll go with the earlier date). Sinterklaas is the day on which St Nicholas (or Sinterklaas, the origin of the name Santa Claus) is said to come from Turkey to distribute gifts and sweets to children by leaving them in clogs, or these days, more modern types of shoe. Alongside presents, it is traditional to get a chocoladeletter (your initial in chocolate!) as well as pepernoten and kruidnoten (spicy little biscuits – recipe here).

Taai Taai literally means “tough tough” in Dutch, and that name reveals their texture. Whereas the classic speculaas is often crisp and buttery, these are, well, tough and chewy.

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So what is the story behind these little tough guys?

Continue reading

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Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things

Bara Brith

Hello! After a rather long hiatus, we’re recommencing regular service. Let’s just say that my priorities were elsewhere over the last few months, but when the important moment arrived, everyone said “yes” at the right moment!

Today’s post is a piece of classic British baking. Well, more precisely, a classic from Wales. The name – Bara Brith – translates as “mottled bread” and you can see how it got its name when the loaf is sliced. It is packed with lots of sultanas and raisins, which are plump from having been soaked overnight in sweet tea.

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This is something of a teatime classic, and is probably at its best cut into slices and spread with salted butter. If you like jam or honey, then go for it, but I think simplicity is best. When you’re faced with a platter of very sweet treats, a slice of Bara Brith provides a nice balance. I’ve been taking slices of it when we go out for the day – it’s a great addition to a picnic, and robust enough to handle being carted up hill and down dale without any problems.

And this is definitely one easy recipe. Make your tea, mix it with sugar and dried fruit, and leave overnight to soak so that the flavour of the tea infuses the fruit. The next day, you add an egg, flour and spices, then mix and bake it. Given this, one of the great things about Bara Brith is that you can make it with things that you’re probably already got in the baking cupboard and the fridge, and beyond leaving the fruit to soak overnight, it can be whipped easily, so perfect to make when you’re expecting guests. Or at least, more modern versions allow for this – some recipes still suggest using yeast to make a light loaf, but I find that’s just a bit more work that relying on self-raising flour, and I like to keep things easy.

I’m sure that each Welsh granny has her family recipe which they swear is the best, but I’ve tried a few different versions of this loaf and settled on the one below – it’s got a high ratio of tea to fruit, sugar and flour, meaning that the batter ends up quite wet compared to others that I tried, but I think the secret to getting a soft, moist loaf. I tried a version that used more fruit and flour, and the result was drier and denser. Some might like it that way, but I did not. And as with most things, the more tea, the better.

For the tea, I had a rummage in the cupboard to see what we had. Earl Grey or jasmine would certainly give you a very aromatic loaf, but I went for my all-time favourite, a good, strong brew using Assam. If black tea is not your thing, then you could easily use something like rooisbos, green tea or any other infusion you like, or even just orange juice instead.

Finally, there is the question of whether you add other flavours – some don’t add anything more, while some recipes add orange or lemon zest, and others like to add some spices. I’m a bit spice fan, so I’ve added some Christmas mixed spices and extra cinnamon, but you can go with whatever you like.

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So how authentic is this? Well, I made it and served it to a Welsh friend, Lowri. I asked her to score it out of 10, and waited, secretly hoping for a 9 or even a 10.

Lowri mulled it over, and gave a sensible 7, on the basis that this wasn’t a family recipe that went back at least three generations. Fair enough!

To make Bara Brith (makes 1 loaf)

• 100g raisins
• 150g sultanas
• 150g soft brown sugar (e.g. muscavado)
• 300ml hot black tea (e.g. Assam)
• 1 teaspoon mixed spice
• 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 275g self-raising flour
• 1 large egg, beaten
• 2-3 tablespoons milk or orange juice

1. Put the fruit and sugar into a bowl. Add the tea, mix, cover and leave overnight to soak.

2. The next day, make the loaf. Preheat the oven to 160°C (320°F). Line a 900g/2lb loaf tin with greaseproof paper.

3. Take the fruit mixture. Stir in the spices and the beaten egg, then add the flour and mix well. Add as much milk or orange juice as needed to make a soft batter. Pour into the loaf tin and smooth the top if needed.

4. Bake the loaf for around 50-60 minutes until an inserted skewer comes out clean. If the top looks like it is browning too quickly, cover loosely with tin foil.

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Filed under Afternoon Tea, Recipe, Sweet Things

Spiced Walnut Buns

How are you enjoying the chill? We’ve just enjoyed a spell of unusually warm weather (the warmest Halloween for many years), and then, almost overnight, temperatures plummeted. Last weekend we were sitting in the sunshine, this morning I woke up to frost on the lawn! It is starting to feel that winter really is coming, and alongside the colder weather, we also had that other seasonal signal where the skies of Britain were lit up with fireworks.

Yes, Bonfire Night! I do love it, but my two poor cats heard all those bangs outside, and scuttled into cosy corners under radiators until the noise had abated. This for me really does say that winter is just around the corner, but this time of year does have the fringe benefit of allowing you to gather outside and share your attempts to keep warm, from getting toasty hands around the fire, to spicy snacks and hot drinks (which may or may not contain a tot of rum for more mature firework-gazers). Or in my case, this delicious batch of spicy, sticky walnut buns!

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This was my contribution to a fireworks party, and I was originally thinking of making them with some sort of fruit. I’ve been having a “pear affair” in the last few weeks, but I wasn’t sure that their delicate flavour would be so good in these buns. Then I remembered that I had a huge bag of walnuts that I was given by my friend Nargis from a trip abroad. A few weeks ago, I had spent an afternoon opening them with a pair of nutcrackers. Alas, my aim of opening perfect walnuts like those trained squirrels from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory came to almost nothing – of the 150 or so I had to open, only one whole! The rest ended up in different stages of disintegration. Maybe not so pretty, but perfect for baking, and the flavour of freshly-shelled nuts really is magnificent.

 WalnutSpiceBuns

Again, I have just used my standard and dependable bun recipe, with a little brown sugar in the dough, but they were packed with lots and lots of walnuts. I chopped them up, some very finely and others left in larger chunks, as I quite like a nut filling that seems like nuts, rather than just being some sort of a soft paste. For the spice, I wanted something more complex and warming that just cinnamon, so added some garam masala spice mixture, which worked beautifully with the nuts.

Once they were baked, they got a brown sugar glaze to keep the soft, and they were finished with a light coating of water icing. As there is not too much sugar in the dough, they are not actually too sweet, but they did look rather pretty, the icing suggesting the frost that has finally arrived.

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To make Spiced Walnut Buns (makes 12):

For the filling:

• 70g butter, soft
• 70g soft brown sugar
• 2 teaspoons mixed spice (I used garam masala)
• 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 2 tablespoons milk
• 1 tablespoon plain flour

1. Mix everything until smooth.

For the glaze:

• 50g soft brown sugar
• 50ml water

1. Put the sugar and water into a small saucepan. Bring to the boil for about a minute.

For the icing:

• 200g icing sugar
• 3 tablespoons boiling water

1. Whisk the icing sugar and hot water until smooth (do this just before using).

For the dough:

• 2 teaspoons instant yeast
• 50g brown sugar
• 60g butter
• 150ml milk, scalded and cooled
• 1 egg
• ½ teaspoon salt
• 1 generous teaspoon cinnamon or mixed spice
• 325g strong white flour
• 150g walnuts, roughly chopped

1a. If using a bread machine: put everything except the walnuts into the mixing bowl. Run the “dough” cycle. Simples!

1b. If making by hand: put the flour and butter into a bowl, and rub with your fingers until the butter has been incorporated. Fold in the salt, sugar, mixed spice and yeast. In a separate bowl, combine the milk and the egg, then pour into the dry ingredients. Stir with a spoon, then work with your hands until you have a smooth, stretchy, silky dough (at least 5 minutes). Leave the dough a warm place for an hour until the dough has doubled in size. Knock back and knead again for 2-3 minutes.

2. Once the dough is ready, turn it onto a floured surface. Roll into the largest rectangle you can. Spread with the filling, sprinkle with the walnuts, then roll up into a sausage. Use a sharp knife to cut into 12 slices.

3. Lay each slice, cut face up, on a bun case. Cover with cling film or a damp teacloth and leave to rise for at least an hour until doubled in size.

4. Preheat the oven to 200°C. Bake for 10-12 minutes until golden. If they are browning too quickly, cover loosely with tin foil.

5. When the buns are done, remove from the oven and brush them while still warm with the hot glaze.

6. Once the buns are cooled, make the icing and brush over the buns.

Worth making? These were fantastic – you’ll go nutty over these nutty treats!

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Filed under Recipe, Sweet Things