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{12} Speculaasbrokken

I had grand plans to make something from the Netherlands this year – the duivekater, a Christmas loaf which a long history that even appears in famous artwork from the Dutch Golden Age. Well, you can see from the name of this post that it is not what happened. I did manage to make a duivekater for Christmas day, and it was certainly delicious, but I did it all in something of a rush. So much so that it ended up looking like something that would not have been out of place on cakewrecks rather than being the jolly photogenic festive centrepiece I had in mind. Of course I will give it another go, so I’ve already added it to my list for next year’s baking.

But this leaves me with one bake missing. So what to do? Well, something else, obviously! I’ve reflected on all the complex, intricate things I made this year, and have decided to go in the opposite direction this time. I’ve made speculaasbrokken, which are simple, quick and delicious. You might think that I made something a bit fancy and then dropped it by mistake, but this is what they should look like – the name means “pieces” or “chunks” of speculaas, or Dutch spiced biscuits.


Speculaas cookies is a key part of Christmas in the Netherlands, and you can find the famous “windmill cookies” with their intricate designs formed using wooden moulds, and more simple “spiced nuts” which are rolled into little balls and baked. You can make the special speculaas spice mixture yourself if you have the time and inclination, otherwise you can used mixed spice or pumpkin spice for a similar effect. Whatever you do, make sure you’re pretty generous with the spices!

The method here is really easy. You throw everything in a bowl, make a dough, then chill it, roll it and bake it. Either make one mega-cookie or four smaller ones. After baking, you can either break it into pieces and serve it à la manière rustique but I think there is something quite satisfying and a little bit dramatic about brining it whole to the table and then smashing it in front of your guests. 

To make speculaasbrokken:

• 300g plain white flour
150g unsalted butter
160g dark brown sugar
• 6 teaspoons mixed spices
1/2 teaspoon salt (skip if using salted butter)
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
2 tablespoons cold water
whole or flaked almonds, for decoration

1. Put all the ingredients apart from the water and almonds into a bowl, and work with your fingers until it looks like breadcrumbs. Add enough cold water to make a soft dough. Wrap in cling film, flatten, and chill for 30 minutes.

2. Preheat the oven to 170°C (340°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

3. Roll the dough out to 3/4 cm thickness – you can do it in one large pieces, or make 4 separate pieces. Brush with milk and put almonds on top. If you are using whole almonds, you can make some sort of pattern, or you can use flaked almonds, in which case just sprinkle and press them down.

4. Bake the speculaas for around 45 minutes until it is dark looks evenly cooked. Turn half-way for an even colour.

5. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. Then either break it into pieces to store, or keep it whole and smash it when you have guests for maximum impact.

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{8} Broas Castelares

I’ve looked for quite a long time for a Christmas recipe for Portugal. I’ve found ideas galore from Spain and Italy, but for some reason I wasn’t seeing anything from the Lusophere. That is, until now.

I’ve made little sweet potato cakes called broas castelares. The name means “Castile corn breads” and they are named after their creators, the Castelar brothers who ran a bakery called the Confeitaria Francesa, or French Patisserie, in Lisbon. It was founded in 1860 and stood in the Rua do Ouro, or “Street of Gold”, which I think is rather fitting given the colour of these cakes.


Now I say “cakes” but this recipe is a very different way of baking to the festive recipes I have tried before. This is based on sweet potato puree, which I made by roasting some sweet potatoes and scooping out the tender flesh. I thought this would give a better flavour than boiling as it would keep (and perhaps even concentrate) their flavour. Then you mix this with sugar, and the whole lot turns from sort-of-fluffy mash into a gloopy, soupy mass – I’ve seen this before making a Scottish potato-based sweet, and it seems odd that you can add dry sugar to something and it seems to get wetter!

I saw a few different versions of this recipe with different amounts of sugar. These seemed to split into Portuguese recipes and then those from everyone else. The home of Fado makes extremely liberal use of sugar, so I figured that it was safe to assume these little guys were going to be on the sweet side. This expectation was further supported by lots of non-Portuguese bakers trying to cut down the amount of sugar. Choices, choices. In the end, I decided to plump for a more authentic Portuguese version. This is a Christmas sweet after all! The version I went with came from the website of Lisbon City Council. Surely these guys would get it right?


The actual recipe is fascinating – the base is sweet potato (the orange ones, not the white ones) that you turn into a basic jammy paste. Then you mix in eggs, and add a veritable cornucopia of other nice things – ground almonds, cornmeal, coconut and orange zest. Some of the recipes suggested adding cinnamon to taste – I skipped this, but I think this could be a nice addition. You then end up with one of the stickiest doughs I’ve worked with. You leave it to chill overnight, and I thought the dry ingredients would have soaked up some of the liquid and made a thicker dough. I was wrong. The next day, it was slightly thicker but still seemed to be as sticky! But the way to deal with this is to have a plate with some neutral oil on it, and keep your hands well-coated. Any by coated, I mean pressing your palm into it, pretty often as it turned out. Then nothing sticks!

Shaping the broas was easy, provided you are making liberal use of that oil. Take a tablespoon of the mixture, roll to a ball, then form into an oval shape – I noticed that longer, slimmer ovals kept their shape better than shorter, fatter ones. The skinny ones set and keep their shape, the more squat ones seemed to spread more. Then make (or try to make) a little dent in the middle so they look like golden giant coffee beans. They are then finished with an egg yolk glaze, and baked in a hot oven.


And how do they taste? Amazing! I expected something more cake-life and reminiscent of cornbread, albeit sweet, but in fact they are more like marzipan, so I would call them a type of candy rather than a bread or a cake. As I expected, they are extremely sweet – sweet, sweet, sweet! Delicious, but for me this is something you want to eat with strong coffee or tea, rather than with mulled wine unless you’re the sort of person that wants to embrace hyperglycemia. The good thing is you can serve a tray of these and be confident that people will self-police and no-one will scoff the lot.

I hope you like this. I wasn’t sure I would and I am completely convinced. Obrigado e feliz natal!

To make Broas Castelares (makes around 40-45)

For the dough

• 1 large or 2 medium sweet potatoes (at least 500g), to yield 400g cooked flesh
• 700g soft brown sugar
• 125g ground almonds
• 50g desiccated coconut
• 125g cornmeal (fine polenta, not corn starch)
• 75g plain flour
• 3 medium eggs
• Zest of 1 orange

To finish

• vegetable oil, for your hands to work the dough
• 2 beaten egg yolks, to glaze
• tablespoon of water

1. Heat the oven to 200°C (400°F). Prick the sweet potato, then put in the oven and bake until it is soft. You should be easily insert a knife. This will take 45-60 minutes. When done, remove from the oven, cut the potato in half and scoop out the flesh – you want 400g of cooked sweet potato.

2. Put the cooked sweet potato flesh in a saucepan, and mash it. Do this manually – if you use a blender it may affect the texture. Add half the sugar and mix – it will look a bit transparent and become wetter. Cook over a medium heat for around 5 minutes, stirring constantly. It is done when you pull a wooden spoon across the base and leaves a clean trail that holds for a few seconds. Remove from the head and leave to cool to lukewarm.

3. Put the potato mixture in a large bowl. Add the eggs, and mix well. Stir in the remaining sugar, ground almonds, coconut, orange zest, flour and cornmeal. Mix to a smooth batter – it will be thick but sticky. Cover and chill overnight.

4. The next day, preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F). Prepare a few sheets of greaseproof paper and rub each with some vegetable oil.

5. Get your hands covered with vegetable oil, and keep some extra within easy reach to re-coat your hands as needed. Take a tablespoon of the mixture and roll it into a ball. Now shape into a long oval between your palms. Place on the greaseproof paper, then flatten and make a dent in the centre so they look a bit like coffee beans. Repeat until the sheet is covered – they will spread slightly so leave at least 5cm between them.

6. Make the glaze – mix the two egg yolks with a tablespoon of cold water, and mix well.

7. Slide the tray under the paper, then glaze the broas. I found it best to do this just before baking, and really get in around the sides and base as this seems to help them keep their shape. Bake for 15 minutes – the top might look mottled and very dark in some places, but this is normal. Leave for a moment to cool and set, then transfer to a wire tray.

Note: the broas are a little crisper on the outside when they are fresh, but will soften if you store them overnight in an airtight container.

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{3} Berliner Brot

I’ve teased you with aniseed and shortbread so far this year, but of course it wouldn’t be Christmas baking without chocolate and spice. So today we’re doing just that and having a go at Berliner Brot.

The name means “Berlin Bread” but this is a spiced cake that comes not from Berlin but from the Bergisches Land region in north-west Germany. It is rather like a brownie, with a cake-like texture rather than being soft and fudgy. It contains lots of nuts, dark chocolate and cocoa, and it relies on a surprise ingredient to obtain a unique flavour. You know me and baking with odd ingredients!


Berliner Brot is made with Apfelkraut. This is a type of apple butter, which originated in the border area between German, Belgium and the Netherlands. It was developed in medieval monasteries to preserve fruit from their orchards. Of course it is hard to find in Britain, so I had to trek off to the specialist German supermarket to see if they had any. Luckily they did!

Apfelkraut is a really odd ingredient, and I am not sure there really is any sort of substitute for it beyond apple butter if you can get hold of that. It looks how apple sauce might look like if you cooked it for a long, long, long time until it turns very dark and thick. This stuff looks like treacle or molasses, and the flavour is sweet and tangy. The texture is a bit like a very firm jam rather than just a thick syrup, which I think must be due to using apple puree and the pectin causing it to set.


This is an easy recipe to make, provided you’ve got the Apfelkraut. I’ve seen some recipes suggesting that you could swap it for molasses or honey, but I am not sure that would actually work. Being completely honest, this is a very rich and very sweet recipe. It contains sugar, and then there is more sweetness from the Apfelkraut. In fact, as I was making this, I really did start to wonder if this would be edible in the end, or if this would just end up being a sugar-fest.

In fact, it was delicious. But the reason it works is the reason I think you can’t swap out the Apfelkraut. It brings not only sweetness, but also sharpness and a fruity tang which balances the overall flavour. Honey or syrup would just be too sweet in this recipe. So if you’re tempted to have a go, like me, you’re going to have to go on the hunt for Apfelkraut!

If you do, best of luck!

To make Berliner Brot (makes 35 pieces):

For the dough:

• 2 large eggs
• 150g sugar
• 200g Apfelkraut
• 1 tablespoon dark rum
• 2 tablespoons water
• 250g flour

• 100g dark chocolate, finely chopped
• 2 teaspoons mixed spice
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 15g cocoa powder
• 200g whole hazelnuts and/or almonds

For the glaze:

100g icing sugar
2-3 tablespoons water

1. Preheat the oven to 170°C (340°F). Line a 9 x 13 inch tray with greaseproof paper.

2. Put the eggs and sugar in a large bowl. Whisk until pale and thick.

3. Mix the Apfelkraut, water and rum, and pour into the egg mixture. Add all the remaining ingredients except the nuts and mix to a smooth, thick batter. Finally fold in the nuts.

4. Pour the mixture onto the baking sheet. Smooth as best you can using the back of a metal spoon, and bake for 30 minutes (turn half-way to get an even bake).

5. In the meantime, make the glaze – mix the icing sugar with enough water to make a thick paste which just flows. When the dough is baked, remove from the oven and brush with the glaze. The glaze should set on the warm bread, and develop a “frosty” appearance.

6. Leave to cool completely. Trim the edges, and cut into 4 x 4cm pieces.

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{9} Snickerdoodles

You wait ages for some American Christmas cookies to make an appearance here, then two come along in quick succession. We had bizcochitos a few days ago, and now we’ve got New England’s snickerdoodles.

Snickerdoodle. It’s a funny name, eh? With a moniker like that, there is obviously some sort of fascinating story, and…well…I did look, but I didn’t actually find anything conclusive.

The obviously-always-reliable Wikipedia suggests the name is Dutch or German in origin and is actually a corruption of the German Schneckennudeln (the appetizing “snail dumpling”). But given the word ‘cookie’ comes from the Dutch koekje maybe the name has its origins in New Amsterdam rather than New England? It certainly sounds to anglophone ears like something a stereotypical Dutch character would stay on a comedy show. So I wondered if the name could be a more random literal translation. Well, the Dutch words snikker-doedel could be translated as “squeaky bagpipe”, but that really is getting rather silly. But hey, it’s Christmas, and I usually spend December 1/3 full of marzipan, 2/5 full of mulled wine and the rest full of chocolate and mince pies, so I’m really not so fussed.

Anyway, this crazy talk of squeaky bagpipes links to the other name origin theory, which is that New Englanders are apparently quite partial to whimsical names for their baking. This story sort of works, with other local names including Joe Frogger cookies (molasses, rum and nutmeg) and Hermit cookies (sultanas and raisins). Honestly, it is not exactly the long list of whimsical names I had hoped for, so I’m going with the corrupted German name story if it’s all the same.


That is enough talk about the name. What about the taste? These little guys are all about the cinnamon. It’s one of my favourite spices (the other being cardamom) and I’ll devour anything with a good dose of the stuff in it.

The recipe and flavour seems to be pretty universal – buttery dough (which might or might not have vanilla) that is rolled in cinnamon sugar before baking, and often with a traditional wrinkled and cracked appearance on top. Isn’t it nice when we all agree? Well, there is debate. There is a clear split in the world of snickerdoodle fans, is between those that like them chewy and those that prefer them to be more cake-like. Maybe it is being British that makes me prefer cookies that are either crisp or chewy. Anyway, my version are slightly chewy, which strikes a happy balance between the two.

When it comes to flavours, I’m usually all for experimenting. But this is one of those times when you just don’t need to. In fact, you probably shouldn’t mess around. Snickerdoodles are for lovers of cinnamon, and that’s why you would make them. I can’t imagine using any other spice to make these (clove cookies? Just…no!).

So happy snickerdoodling. Is it a verb? I really think it ought to be. And long may your bagpipes squeak!

To make snickerdoodles (makes around 30):

For the dough:

• 330g plain flour
• 1 teaspoon baking soda
• 2 teaspoons cream of tartar
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 225g butter
• 300g caster sugar
• 2 large eggs

For the cinnamon sugar:

• 100g caster sugar
• 2 tablespoons ground cinnamon

1. Mix the flour, baking soda, cream of tartar and salt. Sieve, and put to one side.

2. In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the flour mixture and mix well until combined. The dough will be fairly sticky. Wrap it in cling film and chill for at least an hour, or overnight.

3. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

4. Make the cinnamon sugar: mix the sugar and cinnamon, and place in a bowl for later.

5. Take pieces of the dough the size of a large walnut (around 30g) and form into a ball. Roll the ball in the cinnamon sugar. Place on the baking sheet and flatten slightly, leaving plenty of space for the cookies to expand. I baked them in batches, 8 per tray.

6. Bake the snickerdoodles for around 8-10 minutes (turning the tray half-way) until they have expanded and flattened. They will be soft when you take them out, but they will firm up and go a bit wrinkly as they cool. Immediately sprinkle over a little more cinnamon sugar, then transfer to a wire tray to cool completely.

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{7} Bizcochitos

If you are a regular follower of my Christmas baking endeavours, you’ll know that most of the delights I post about come from random corners of Europe. I think the only exceptions so far are  South African soetkoekies and Japanese-inspired chestnut sweets.

Well today we’ve got another addition to this exclusive set, as we’re heading all the way over to the Southwest of the USA – to New Mexico to be exact.


Bizcochitos are crisp-yet-crumbly biscuits dipped in sugar, and flavoured with aniseed and cinnamon. So far, so festive. However, bizcochitos are much more than just a festive cookie. It turns out that they are nothing less than the official state cookie of New Mexico.

Bizcochitos have a long history that can be traced back to the first Spanish residents of a region then called Santa Fe de Nuevo México, which would go on to become the state of New Mexico. Confusingly, the country of Mexico had not become independent of Spain at this time, so this name doesn’t seem to be as an alternative to the national of Mexico.

Anyway, over time, bizcochitos become associated with weddings and Christmas. Those original cookies were flavoured with the spices available at the time, either those that grew there or those that arrived via trade routes. And I think the use of lard in some versions can be traced back to this too – lard features in quite a few Spanish cookie recipes today. It is certainly the first time I have seen a recipe in which cinnamon and aniseed are the two prominent flavours. It’s an unusual but delicious pairing.


A key part of making bizcochitos is coating them in sugar while still warm from the oven. And you might wonder if you really need to add this layer of sweetness? In a word, yes!

First off, it is traditional, so if you don’t dip them in cinnamon sugar, you’ve just got some aniseed cookies. Oh, and it’s quite fun to dip them as you juggle them, hot from the oven, between your fingers to get them properly coated. Second, it is the sugar that adds the intense cinnamon flavour. I’ve added a little ground cinnamon to the dough in this recipe, but I think you’d be missing out if you didn’t do the dip. Finally, the dough itself is not that sweet – these little guys assume they’ll be rolling in sugar, so just go with it.

This is also a cookie that I discovered in a different way to most of my festive baking. I usually go on the hunt for ideas, trawling the web and looking in cookbooks. But I found out about bizcochitos as I was given a bag of them by our friend Jess when she visited from the US. They were addictive, so I looked them up, made them myself, and I was hooked. I can only hope that I’ve done them justice.


This is a great dough if you want to cut out fancy shapes and have the cookies keep their shape – I’ve gone a bit crazy with the cutters here. Some sources suggest stars and crescent moons are traditional, so I’ve gone with stars as well as hearts and scalloped cookies.

I’ve also done some smaller bite-sized cookies in the shape of a five-petal flower. These have a bit of a story about them. Yes guys, this is a post peppered with asides and memories! The shape is typical of a Japanese cookie called soba-boro which is made from buckwheat flour. I had originally intended to include soba-boro as one of my twelve bakes this year, and I made them twice. Sadly, I just didn’t like them. It turned out that they are known for a specific flavour which comes from using baking soda as the raising agent, and it just was not a flavour that I enjoyed. I thought I had made a mistake in my first attempt, so I was rather deflated when I realised on my second attempt that they tasted the same. Given they are a big hit in their culinary home of Kyoto, it may just be my personal preference. However I was quite taken with the shape, so I decided to try it one these cookies, and I think the result is really great. There is not fancy cutter involved – just cut out the flower, then find something round to cut out the centre (I used the tip of a large metal piping nozzle).


In terms of making these cookies, the process is fairly easy. The only advice I would offer is that once you’ve cut out the cookies and put them on the baking sheet, it is worth chilling them again so that they keep their shape as they bake. I put the whole tray in the freezer for 2 minutes, and it seems to do the trick. Other than that – get baking and think of the dramatic scenery of New Mexico as you enjoy the unusual flavour of bizcochitos.

To make Bizcochitos (makes 40-50, depending on size)

For the dough:

• 225g unsalted butter
• 150g caster sugar
• 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/4 teaspoon aniseed extract

• 2 teaspoons aniseeds, crushed
• 1 tablespoon brandy
• 1 large egg
• 350g plain flour, plus more if needed
• 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
• 1/2 teaspoon salt

To finish:

• 150g caster sugar
• 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1. In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar. Add the cinnamon, aniseed, aniseed extract, brandy and egg, and beat well until light and fluffy.

2. In a separate bowl, mix the flour, baking powder and salt. Add the flour to the butter mixture and mix with a wooden spoon and then your hands until it comes together to a soft dough.

3. Wrap the dough in cling film and chill it in the fridge for 30 minutes, or overnight.

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

5. Make the cinnamon sugar – put the sugar and cinnamon in a bowl and mix well.

6. Roll the dough out to around 4mm thickness and cut out cookies. Place them on a baking sheet (don’t mix shapes and sized on the same tray – some will burn before others are baked). Pop the tray and cookies in the fridge or freezer for 2 minutes.

7. Bake for 8-12 minutes until golden (the time will depend on the size – the flowers were 8 minutes, the scalloped cookies took 12), and turn the tray around during baking to get an even colour. Let the cookies cool for a brief moment, then fully dip each one into the cinnamon sugar, shake off the excess and transfer to a wire tray to cool completely.

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{6} Panpepato

It’s the sixth post in this year’s Twelve Bakes of Christmas, and the kitchen is still standing! I know I’ve still got six more recipes to go, but where would the fun be if I wasn’t surrounded by sugar, spice and all things nice at this time of year? Well, that plus a whole lot of mess, a sugar thermometer and more than a few burns due to my tendency to use tea towels rather than proper oven gloves…

Today’s recipe is a delicious Italian sweet treat called panpepato, which means “peppered bread”. It is associated with the Province of Ferrera on the Adriatic coast. It has more than a passing resemblance to panforte, but panpepato is dark in colour, flavoured with cocoa, chocolate and pepper, and sometimes even coated in yet more chocolate.


This is a cake with a long history, with some sources suggesting it can be traced back to the 11th century. Panforte and panpepato would originally have been consumed by the aristocracy – with sweet candied fruit and spices, these were firmly luxury confectionery. And as with many traditional recipes, there are various origin myths about which came first.

Some suggest it started with panforte, and panpepato was later created during a siege with candied fruit to address the lack of fresh fruit or less choice in terms of ingredients for the panforte. Others suggest panpepato is where it was at originally, and panforte was a later creation with lighter ingredients in honour of Queen Margherita of Savoy’s visit to Siena in 1879. Of course, just where cocoa and chocolate came from in medieval Italy is left unclear! Whichever version is true, they’re both delicious. And finally…those spices? They were thought to have aphrodisiac properties, bringing troubled couples together. Perhaps a slice of panpepato promises not just delicious flavours but a night of romance when it is chilly outside?


I was really pleased with how easy this was to make and how this turned out. Sometimes a recipe can feel like a slog, especially where you have lots of steps to follow, but it was really pleasant to prepare the almonds, hazelnuts and candied peel, and then measure out the various spices.

Beyond the measuring, you don’t need to more than pour all the dry ingredients into a large bowl, make a syrup from honey, butter, sugar and a few pieces of dark chocolate, them mix the lot and bake it. Once it came out of the oven and had cooled down, I dusted it with cocoa and rubbed it with a pastry brush. Some recipes suggested icing sugar, but I thought this would look a little more sophisticated. Other recipes suggested a coating of chocolate, but I think that would have been too rich even for me!


The flavour is reminiscent of British fruit cake, but without all the dried vine fruits – you’ve got nuts and candied citrus, plus spices and a bit of depth from the cocoa and chocolate. There isn’t really a chocolate flavour as such, but I think the cocoa helps provide a balance to the sweetness of the honey and sugar. And of course the cocoa also provides a dramatic contrast to the pale cream colour of the almonds and hazelnuts. Some recipes suggest coarsely chopping the nuts, but I love the pattern of the whole nuts when you slice into the panpepato.


From what I have found, there is no single “correct” recipe that you have to follow. You can play around with the types of nuts you use – just almonds, just hazelnuts, or add some pine nuts or pistachios – and there are various different dried fruits you could use. Some recipes have figs or sultanas, and even more exotic items like candied papaya or melon could be interesting. Finally, you can also try different spices in this recipe, but I do think you need to have that black pepper as a nod to this recipe’s origins.

I’d look at this as a sweet, rather than a cake or a bread. It is absolutely delicious, but it is also incredibly rich, so you might be surprised just how little of it you want to eat in one go. It is also a treat that will last for a while, so a good one to have prepared for surprise guests. I think it is great with tea or coffee, cut into very thin slices and then into nibble-sized morsels.

To make Panpepato (makes 1 slab)

• 150g skinned hazelnuts
• 150g blanched almonds
• 100g candied orange peel
• 100g candied lemon peel
• 50g plain flour
• 30g cocoa powder
• 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
• 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
• 100g caster sugar
• 225g orange blossom honey
• 3 tablespoons water

• 50g dark chocolate
• 25g unsalted butter
• Cocoa powder, for dredging

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C. Put the nuts on two separate trays, and toast in the oven for 10-15 minutes until fragrant and just golden. Watch them closely – the hazelnuts will be done before the almonds. When ready, remove from the oven and leave to cool.

2. Rub some greaseproof paper with a little vegetable oil, and use it to line a 20cm square tin. If you prefer, you can also use rice paper but this will stick to the finished panpepato – it’s a question of personal preference.

3. Reduce the oven heat to 150°C.

4. Chop the peel into fairly small chunks. Place in a bowl with the nuts, flour, cocoa powder and ground spices. Mix well.

5. Put the sugar, honey, water, butter and chocolate into a saucepan. Heat gently until the sugar dissolves, and boil until the mixture reaches the “soft ball” stage (or 113°C/235°F on a thermometer).

6. Pour the syrup onto the dry ingredients and mix well. Transfer to the tin. Use a metal spoon or spatula rubbed with a little butter or oil to flatten the mixture.

7. Bake the panpepato for 35-40 minutes. The surface will look “set” when the panpepato is done. Remove from the oven and leave to cool completely. If you have an uneven panpepato, take a piece of greaseproof paper rubbed with a little oil – lay on top of the still-warm panpepato and press to even it out.

8. Remove the panpepato from the tin, peel off the greaseproof paper and trim off the edges (they will be a bit hard). If using rice paper, leave it on the panpepato. Dust the top lightly with cocoa and rub lightly with your fingers or a pastry brush so a bit of the fruit and nut detail shows up.

9. Store in an airtight container. Cut into thin slices to serve.

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{5} Biberle

I’m sticking with the Swiss theme for this next bake. These little cookies are called Biberle, or gingerbread almond nuggets if you’re after a clunky translation. I tried to find out what the name means – Biber is German for beaver, so they could mean “little beavers” which I like. If someone knows for sure, let me know. Their shape sort of looks like a beaver’s tail, so maybe I’m right after all?

Biberle hail from the St Gallen area and they are the thing you want when you fancy something that is a bit like gingerbread and a bit like marzipan. There are two types – round cookies filled with marzipan and the tops elaborately decorated using moulds, and these versions which are the less fancy roll-and-slice cousins.


Biberle might look like a bit of a faff to make, but they are actually fairly straightforward. You make a simple spiced honey and flour dough, and leave it to sit for a few days so that the spice flavour gets a chance to develop. Then when you’ve got a moment in your busy week, you just need to roll it out, add a long thin log of marzipan, and wrap it in the gingerbread dough. Then slice into funky little trapezoid shapes, bake and you’re done.

I was a little wary of making these at first as the dough is not much more than flour, spices and honey. I’ve made something similar in the past – couques de Dinant but they were rock-hard, and it turned out the idea was you just gnawed at them slowly. I wasn’t too keen to have something similarly tough here. However, the recipe is made with some baking soda, which had a bit of an unexpected effect. When I added it, it reacted a little as the honey was still slightly warm. I left the dough to rest for four days and when I came back it had puffed up. Perhaps the dough was otherwise a little acidic or the soda reacted with the honey? I don’t know, but it did mean the dough was workable. I did wonder if that meant that any lift that the soda was going to give had gone, but there was no need to worry – the baking soda did its thing a third time in the oven, and the gingerbread element was pleasingly puffed up.


For the filling, you are looking for proper marzipan – the stuff that is mostly almonds. Check a packet next time you’re in a store – very often the stuff called “marzipan” might only have 25% nuts in it. This can be easily fixed – either buy a high-nut marzipan/almond paste (i.e. more than 50% almonds) or just make it yourself! All you need are ground almonds, icing sugar and something to bind the lot together. I used a couple of spoons of glucose and a little water, plus almond extract and a dash of rosewater as flavourings. You really could go crazy when you’re making the filling – rum, orange zest, lemon zest, amaretto…the only thing to be a little wary of is that I don’t think you want a filling that is too moist, as it will probably go runny and leak out during baking. Not sure the Swiss would approve of that.

The final thing that is really, really weird in this recipe is the glaze you use to give the Biberle a shiny finish. You toast a tablespoon of cornflour in a pan until it goes brown (well, it goes from white to a very pale brown), then cool it, and mix with water and boil it to make a glaze. Whatever was going on, it seemed to work. Just go with it – if nothing else, you’ve learned a new cooking technique – the cornflour glaze!

When I baked these, the dough was a little hard at first, but that was very easy to sort out. Pop them all in an airtight container with a slice of bread. Leave overnight, and the next day, the bread will be dry and the cookies soft and full of spicy delight. Because if you go to all the effort of making Biberle, you want them to taste their best!

To make Biberle (makes 25) (adapted from here)

For the dough:

• 125g runny floral honey
• 25g soft brown sugar
• 75g plain flour
• 50g light rye flour (or just use more plain flour)
• pinch of salt
• 1 1/2 teaspoons Lebkuchen or pumpkin pie spices
• 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon baking soda

For the marzipan filling:

• 125g ground almonds
• 75g icing sugar
• 2 tablespoons liquid glucose
• almond extract, to taste
• rose water, to taste

For the glaze:

• 1 tablespoon cornflour
• 100ml water

1. Make the dough. Put the honey and sugar in a small saucepan, and heat gently until the sugar has dissolved. Don’t let it boil. Remove from the heat and allow to cool until just warm.

2. Sieve the plain flour, rye flour, salt, spices and baking soda into a large bowl. Add the lukewarm honey mixture and stir until to forms a dough. Cover with cling film and leave to rest (at least overnight, but I left mine for four days).

3. Next, make the marzipan filling. Grind the almonds and icing sugar. Tip into a bowl, add the glucose, and almond extract and rose water to taste. Add a little at a time – you can always add more! Add water if needed to bring everything together to a firm dough. Wrap in cling film and chill for at least an hour.

4. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F) and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

5. On a floured worktop, form the dough into a ball, then roll into a sausage about 45cm in length. Now flatten the dough and use a rolling pin to get a strip that is 10cm wide.

6. Take the marzipan, and form into a long log, also 45cm. Brush the dough lightly with water, then place the marzipan on one edge of the dough, and roll it up so that the marzipan is tightly wrapped. Trim the dough if needed, and seal the join.

7. Use a sharp knife to cut the roll into 20-25 pieces. You need to alternate the angle so that the Biberle have a triangular shape, but make sure the dough is connected all the way around.

8. Transfer the cookies to the baking sheet, leaving space between them to expand. Bake for around 12 minutes, turning the tray half-way to get an even colour.

9. While the Biberle are baking, prepare the glaze. Put the cornflour in a saucepan and heat until it turns a pale golden colour. Remove from the heat and cool. Mix with the cold water, the heat and bring to the boil – it should thicken and become less cloudy. Once the Biberle are baked, remove from the oven and brush each one while hot with the glaze. Leave to cool.

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{4} Magenbrot

My baking this year has been on the lighter side, both in terms of colour and flavour. So it is time to change that. Meet Magenbrot, a spicy chocolate treat from Switzerland.


The name Magenbrot translates as the rather curious “stomach bread”. Not, of course, that this means there is some sort of offal in there. The name comes from the combination of spices such as cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and aniseed used in Magenbrot which were thought to improve digestion, in a similar vein to those strong herbal post-dinner drinks you encounter in Alpine countries. The question of how many pieces of sweet Magenbrot you could eat without upsetting your stomach remains unclear, but I rather suspect the answer is not “as much as you want”.

Magenbrot is not just a purely Swiss affair, and I have memories of it from visiting funfairs in Germany as an exchange student. I even brought a couple of bags home from a two-week exchange visit, but made the mistake of not eating it all quickly enough, and it went hard. Lesson learned! I also remember Magenbrot being incredibly addictive. The pieces were wonderfully spicy, and with that classic combination of spices which seems to be the essence of the festive period, and the fact those pieces are quite small means you can keep having another piece. And another piece. And another piece…


I have made this recipe with two surprising ingredients. First, the main liquid here is cold espresso. However this does not have much of an influence on the final flavour – it just means the chocolate flavour has just a little more depth to it, but you certainly don’t taste coffee when you bit into it.

The other odd thing you’ll see here is potassium carbonate. This is a raising agent used in traditional German baking, and provides a lot of lift to the dough when making cookies. You could use baking powder or baking soda instead of the potassium carbonate (note I haven’t tried this recipe with either), but I quite like using these quirky raising agents in my baking, and these days they are fairly easy to track down online. If you want some other recipes using it, you could try German Aachner Printen or Danish brunkager.

The actual process of making Magenbrot is fairly easy and will be familiar if you’ve ever made Italian cantucci. Essentially you make a dough, roll it flat, cut strips, bake them, then cut the resulting “logs” into pieces. At this point, the dough doesn’t seem sweet enough, and will seem a bit dry. Then you coat the lot in a sweet chocolate glaze, which provides the necessary sweetness and softens the Magenbrot. The result is absolutely delicious, which is a good thing since this recipe will leave you facing dozens and dozens and dozens of pieces of Magenbrot. Hopefully you’ve got the stomach to cope with it all!


Magenbrot will benefit from being kept for a few days in an airtight container, as the spice flavour will develop. If you keep it too long, it can dry out, but you can easily solve this by adding a slice or two of fresh bread to soften up the Magenbrot again.

To make Magenbrot (makes 80-90 pieces) (adapted from here)

For the dough:

• 250g syrup (I used 2/3 light and 1/3 dark)
• 75g butter
• 1 medium egg
• 125ml cold espresso
• 500g bread flour
• 1 tablespoon cocoa powder
• 2 teaspoons Lebkuchen or mixed spices
• 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1 teaspoon potassium carbonate

For the glaze:

• 200g dark chocolate
• 40g butter
• 200ml water
• 500g icing sugar
• 4 pinches ground cinnamon
• 2 pinches ground cloves
• 2 pinches ground nutmeg

1. Make the dough. Put the syrup and butter in a pan. Heat to melt the butter, mix and leave to cool.

2. Add the potassium carbonate to the cold espresso and stir until dissolved.

3. Put the cooled syrup and egg in a large bowl. Mix well. Add the flour, cocoa and spices, then the coffee. Mix and knead to a dough. Add more flour if needed (I used an extra 50g).

4. Flatten the dough into a square, wrap in cling film and chill in the fridge overnight.

5. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

6. Roll out the dough to a long rectangle. The length doesn’t matter, but it should be 1cm thick and 20cm wide. Cut the dough into five long strips of 4cm width.

7. Bake the strips for 20 minutes, turning the baking sheet half-way. I baked them in two batches – one of two strips, and one of three strips – and be sure to leave plenty of space for the dough to expand during baking.

8. When baked, immediately brush each log all over with cold water. This will help to soften the bread. Once cool enough to handle comfortably, cut each into diagonal slices, 1cm thick.

9. Make the glaze. In a pan heat the chocolate, butter, water and spices. Beat well to ensure it is smooth, but do not let it boil. In the meantime, sift the icing sugar into a large bowl, then add the chocolate mixture and beat until smooth.

10. Time to glaze. Put around 10 pieces of the bread in a separate bowl, and add a generous amount of the hot glaze. Mix to ensure the pieces as well-coated, then put each cookie on a wire rack to dry. Keep going in batches until all the cookies are glazed. If the icing gets too thick, add 1 tablespoon of water and heat it up again until to becomes thin.

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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.

hallongrottor1

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.

hallongrottor2

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.

hallongrottor3

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.

cavallucci1
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.

cavallucci2
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.

cavallucci3
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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