Tag Archives: citrus

{11} Pepparkakor

Many years ago, when I arrived in Stockholm to study there for a year, I discovered pepperkakor, Swedish spicy gingerbread biscuits. Admittedly, I arrived there in August, and it was not really until December that we got into the Christmas mood, but you get my drift.

Unlike the slabs of soft, squidgy gingerbread we know in Britain, these are rolled out thinly, cut into just about any shape you can imagine, and then baked until crisp. They can be finished with royal icing and jazzed up with silver balls, drizzled with melted chocolate, or left au naturel. Or served in the shape of an elk. To each his own…

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I love pepparkakor for the very simple reason that they are among the least fussy of Christmas biscuits. They don’t need masses of decoration, and given they are rarely drowning in icing, jam or chocolate, you can happily nibble on them on an almost constant basis. Their spiciness also goes well with tea, coffee or the ubiquitous mulled wine.

As you can see, I’ve got a little crazy when it comes to cutting out shapes. Sure, I’ve got loads of the traditional stars, hearts, and circles, but I’ve also got a whole gingerbread forest going on here – trees, elks, foxes and squirrels. The elk, in particular, looks nothing short of amazing.

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While the woodland fantasy was purchased in Ikea (where else?), for the hearts and stars, it was an altogether classier affair. I received two copper cutters from my friend Anne, which not only cut the dough easily, but they look really lovely. They’ve already acquired a prime spot in the kitchen on the knick-knack shelf. These things are too pretty to hide away in a drawer.

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For the recipe, I’ve used the version from Signe Johansen’s excellent Scandilicious Baking, albeit with a few tweaks. The main changes I have made is to play around a little with the spices. While Signe added a dash of black pepper as a nod to the origin of the name of these treats, I quite like the heat from pepper, adding half a teaspoon of black pepper. I don’t find this to be too much – it is actually very rich, warming and aromatic – but if you’re a little less keep, feed free to go easy on the pepper. I’ve also thrown in some coriander and allspice, and toned down the cinnamon. I like cinnamon, but I do like to get the flavours of the other spices I am using. I’ve also added the zest of a clementine for an added dash of festive goodness. The flavour is not

I’ve also used dark brown sugar to provide the colour for these biscuits, and in place of Signe’s almost equal weights of treacle and golden syrup, I’ve used just two tablespoons of treacle here. I’m just not made keen on treacle, but if you’re a treacle (or molasses) fiend, then by all means, knock yourself out.

Now, while I’ve banged on about how amazing pepparkakor are just as they are, they also serve as the perfect foil to go totally nuts in the decoration department. Whip up some royal icing and get going – silver balls look particularly good, and if you want to do something a little different, try studding them with a few red peppercorns. Not only do these look really pretty and festive, but when you bit into them, you get the warm, rich hit of spice. If you want to use them the way I’ve used the silver balls here, then feel free, but do taste one before serving to your guests. They’ll thank you for that, believe me!

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When it comes to actually making these biscuits, I’ve got a few practical tips. First, it really is important to keep the dough chilled. It makes it much easier to roll out and cut (the colder dough comes out of the cutters). Second, if you want to cut out very fussy shapes, you’re best to roll the dough onto a sheet of greaseproof paper, then cut out the shapes and remove the excess. I tried cutting the elks on the worktop, and they all fell apart as I tried to move them onto the tray. Finally, it is worth putting the tray with the cut dough into the fridge for a few minutes before baking – this will help to keep the edges of the shapes in place. If you’ve gone to all the effort of cutting out pepparkakor to look like elks, you want them to look like elks!

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It’s worth knowing that this recipe does make masses of cookies. You can either make half the amount, or bake it in batches as you need to whip up new batches (or if you’re going to leave it a while between bakes, freeze the dough in batches). If you make these cookies and find that they get a bit soft after a few days, just pop into a low oven and allow to dry out for a few minutes. They will come out soft, but will crisp up when cool, getting back their ginger snappiness in no time.

So…what’s your favourite spicy biscuit at this time of the year?

To make pepparkakor, adapted from Scandilicious Baking (make 50-80, depending on size):

• 75g light brown sugar
• 75g dark brown sugar
• 150g butter
• 1 clementine, zest only
• 50ml milk
• 120ml golden syrup (add 2 tablespoons of treacle if you want)
• 2 egg yolks
• 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
• 1 teaspoon ground ginger
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
• 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
• 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
• 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
• 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
• 450g plain flour

1. Put the two types of brown sugar and the butter into a bowl. Beat until light and fluffy. Add the clementine zest, milk, syrup, egg yolks and spices and beat well for another minute.

2. Add the flour and bicarbonate of soda and mix to a soft dough. Wrap in cling film and chill in the fridge overnight.

3. Preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

4. Take pieces of the chilled dough. Roll out very thinly on a well-floured worktop and cut out whatever shapes your heart desires.

5. Bake the cookies for around 10 minutes until browned but not too dark. They might need more or less time, depending on their size. When done, remove from the oven, the leave to sit for a moment then transfer to a wire tray to cool completely.

Worth making? These biscuits are highly recommended – very spicy, very crisp and very, very more-ish.

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Hot Cross Buns

It’s just not Easter without lots and lots of hot cross buns. On the basis of a rather busy social schedule this year, I had planned to just buy them (a shocking admission, I know). Well, karma kicked in, and when my shopping arrived, there were no buns in the bags. Unbelievably, they had run out! So I was straight in the kitchen and had to whip up a batch of my own.

I’ve made these buns a few times in previous years (my original post is here, which also contains a little bit of their background and history too) so I’ll just leave you to enjoy my most recent results. As you can see, they do have a pleasingly rustic look compared to their commercial counterparts.

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If you are minded to have a go at making these, I’ve got two tips.

First, it’s worth soaking the currants, sultanas and candied citrus peel in warm water, juice or brandy to ensure they are plum and soft (if not, they can be a bit dry after baking).

Second, when shaping the buns, I find the easiest way is to take a piece of dough and then roll it into a ball (so far, so obvious). Next, pull and stretch the dough from the top and sides and tuck under the bottom of the buns (the untidy party will be the bottom of the buns, so you won’t see it). This means you have a perfectly smooth bun.

There you have it! Tasty Easter treats which are wonderful either warm or toasted, served with butter and honey. Happy Easter everyone!

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To make Hot Cross Buns (makes 12-16):

For the buns:

• 400g bread flour(*)
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 150-200ml milk, scalded and cooled
• 1 egg, beaten
• 50g butter
• 75g caster sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
• 1/2 teaspoon mixed spice or Lebkuchengewürz(**)
• pinch ground cloves
• 2 teaspoons instant yeast
• 50g candied peel, chopped
• 100g sultanas and currants (proportions per your taste!)

(*) Make sure you are using proper bread flour – plain flour just won’t work
(**) If you prefer, just use two teaspoons of ground cinnamon

For the X:

• 3 tablespoons plain flour
• 3 tablespoons cold water

For the glaze:

• 2 tablespoons caster sugar
• 2 tablespoons water

1. Make the dough. If using a bread machine: place all the dough ingredients except the sultanas, currants and candied peel into the mixing bowl. Add the sultanas and peel to the raisin dispenser, and run the “dough” cycle. If making by hand: put the flour and butter into a bowl, and rub with your fingers until the mixture has the texture of fine breadcrumbs. Fold in the spices, salt, sugar 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. Work in the sultanas, currants and candied peel. Leave the dough a warm place for an hour until the dough has doubled in size.

2. Once the dough is ready, divide it into twelve to sixteen round buns. Place on a well-greased baking sheet or one lined with greaseproof paper. Leaving 4-5 cm between buns, and cover with oiled cling film or a damp teacloth. Leave somewhere warm until doubled in size.

3. Preheat the oven to 220°C (420°F).

4. Prepare the paste for the X by mixing the flour and water until smooth. Next, brush the buns with milk, then use the paste to make an X on each bun – you can use a piping bag, a plastic bag with the corner cut off, or just use a teaspoon and a steady hand.

5. Bake the buns for 15 minutes until they are a rich brown colour. You may need to tun the tray during baking to get an even colour.

6. While the buns are cooking, make the glaze: heat the water and sugar in a saucepan until the sugar has dissolved. Once the buns are ready, remove from the oven, and brush right away with the warm syrup.

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Open Sesame!

I tried my hand at Moroccan gazelle horn cookies recently, and one reader left a comment suggesting that they can also be made rather more easily with sesame seeds instead of the fiddly pastry way. I was intrigued and wanted to give this a try. Here are the results, and very delicious they are!

These really are very, very simple to make. It’s a simple almond paste filling, left to chill, then shape them, dip in lightly-whipped egg white and roll in sesame seeds. The seeds crispen up in the oven, while the centre is soft and chewy. I changed the filling slightly this time – adding orange zest and a dash of cinnamon, while the egg white is flavoured with a little orange blossom water. All in all, I think these fellows look rather jaunty! They are delicious with mint or green tea. Makes you think of the sun when it’s a blizzard outside!

sesame_gazelle_horns

To make sesame gazelle horns (makes around 25):

• 200g ground almonds
• 100g white sugar
• 1 egg, beaten
• zest of one orange
• almond extract, to taste
• ground cinnamon, to taste (around 1/2 teaspoon)
• egg white

• 2 tablespoon orange blossom water
• sesame seeds

Before making these, I recommend watching this excellent video which explains the technique.

1. Put the ground almonds, caster sugar, beaten egg, orange zest, almond extract and cinnamon into a bowl (with regard to these last two, be guided by your preference – a little of each, or a lot, depending on the flavour you like). Mix to a smooth, even paste. If the mixture is too dry, add a little cold water (a teaspoon at a time) but make sure the paste is fairly stiff – it should not be wet or liquid. Cover and chill in the fridge overnight.

2. Preheat the oven to 180°C (360°F) and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

3. Divide the almond paste mixture into 25-30 equal pieces (the easiest way to do this is roll it into a long sausage 25-30cm in length – then cut into pieces every 1cm to achieve equal pieces!). Roll each into a ball, then flatten into a sausage shape between your palms. They should be fatter in the middle, thinner in the middle, and around 7cm long).

4. Put the egg white into a bowl, add 2 tablespoons of orange-blossom water, and whisk until foamy. Dip each piece of almond paste in the egg white, shake off the excess, then roll in the sesame seeds until coated.

5. Place the sesame-coated almond paste onto the baking sheet. Roll each lightly between clean hands to press the seeds into the paste, then shape the pieces into crescents. Pinch the ends slightly to get points.

6. Bake the cookies for 12-15 minutes until just starting to turn golden at the edges, but they should not become dark. Remove from the oven and leave to cool on a wire tray.

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Sunshine and Lemons

Spring, where are you? I went to a bar at the top of one of the tallest towers in the City last night, expecting to show a guest a marvellous sunset over London. Instead – rain. The views were still spectacular as London lit up before us, and it was rather fantastic to see the BT Tower flashing red in support of Comic Relief, but gosh, I really, really am just fed up of the grey days. We all want sunshine and for warmer weather to arrive!

With that, here is a little recipe that does just that. Some sunshine-yellow lemon tartlets!

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These tartlets were prompted by my promise after my rhubarb tarts post to show an idea for using up the scraps of pastry you tend to end up with after making a sweet pastry shell (it’s always best to get the tart shell nice and thin, rather than trying to use up all the pastry – no-one likes a thick bottom!).

You’ll see how they look rather fancy, this the shape is achieved using a couple of very simple tricks. First trick – try to get the pastry as thin as possible. Second trick – use a fluted pastry cutter to get the scalloped edge. Third trick – get the ridged effect on the outside by placing the circles of pastry into a muffin tray lined with fluted cake cases. If you pastry is nice and buttery, it won’t stick, and looks pretty to. Final trick – place another fluted cake case on top of the pastry, press down gently, and weigh down with baking beads. Hey presto – vaguely daisy-like pastry cases for minimal effort! One last thing though is to make sure they are chilled before baking – this ensures that they keep their shape when popped in the oven.

The star factor, of course, comes from the filling, and what a filling it is. It is super-easy and takes no more than ten minutes from start to finish, but they really provide a rich, lemony flavour. This means they are very easy to whip up in a hurry at short notice. The colour is all-natural too, and the sharp tang of citrus bringing just a little bit of sunshine with them. The recipe also works with limes, and can be jazzed up with a little meringue on top to make them extra-special.

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To make lemon tartlets:

Makes 10:

• 10 pastry cases (cooked!)
• 1 egg

• 1 egg yolk
• 50g white caster sugar
• zest of 1 lemon
• 50ml lemon juice
• 55g unsalted butter

1. In a bowl, combine everything except the butter. Mix until well combined.

2. Pour the mixture into a small saucepan. Place over a low heat and whisk constantly until thick (around 4 minutes). Remove from the heat, add the butter and whisk until it is combined and smooth.

3. Immediately pass the mixture through a sieve to remove the lemon zest.

4. Spoon the warm lemon cream into the pastry shells. Shake slightly to event the top of the filling and leave to cool.

Worth making? This is easy lemon curd which works wonderfully – super colour, fantastic flavour. Really recommended! If you don’t have the tart shells, it works as a simple lemon curd too for toast, crumpets or English muffins!

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Candied Pomelo

Are you familiar with the pomelo? If not, you probably just recognise it as a large citrus fruit, about the size of a large cabbage, that you may have seen in Asian greengrocers. The sort of fruit that looks interesting, intriguing, tantalising…but you just don’t quite know what to do with it.

Well, I finally got round to buying a pomelo and doing something with it. It seems that candied pomelo peel is a thing. So I set off on my way. I cut the thing open and spent ages picking out the flesh from the central segments. I expected it to be a juicy, messy, sticky affair, but it was actually quite easy – the membranes come away from the juicy parts, leaving a large bowl of pretty much intact pomelo flesh. I did this in the morning, so was able to sit down to to a bowl of what I expected to taste like grapefruit. I was all set for something sweet but tart and slightly bitter, but here was the first surprise – it doesn’t taste as you expect. Indeed, pomelo is sweet – sure, there is a hint of sweet grapefruit in there, but it certainly is not bitter, even if it doesn’t have the sugary hit that you would get with orange juice. I can see how this works in some savoury dishes too, where you want something to add a citrus tang, but without adding to much moisture or excessive sweetness.

Once the edible parts of the pomelo had been finished off (providing a welcome shot of vitamin C and fibre in these dark, snowy days), I set to actual preserving the peel. It’s a case of removing the white pith to leave the yellow peel, then boiling the peel a few times in clean water to remove any residual bitterness, before cooking the lot in sugar syrup until all the water has gone and the sugar end up in the peel. And it looks something like this:

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As you can see, I left the peel in quite wide strips with pointed ends. It makes it look rather dramatic when compared with the thin strips of candied peel you usually see.

The flavour of this candied peel is also stronger than the stuff you can buy (which is always the much-hoped-for perk of making something at home) and I think that pomelo peel is probably best enjoyed as a single flavour, for example, in a cake. You can use the same technique to preserve orange peel, which is of course fantastic when paired with dark chocolate, but I suspect pomelo doesn’t want to get involved in all that tempering-and-dipping business.

And finally, for fun, I presented it in a glass. Looks a little bit like the crown of Jadis the White Witch from the Chronicles of Narnia, don’t you think?

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To make candied pomelo:

Makes 30-40 pieces

• 1 pomelo
• 300ml cold water
• 200g white sugar

1. Cut the peel from the pomelo. Remove as much of the white pith from the pomelo peel as you can. Slice the pomelo peel into strips of about 1cm (1/2 inch).

2. Put the strips into a saucepan of hot water. Boil for 5 minutes, then drain and rinse in cold water. Squeeze out as much water as you can. Repeat this process at least four times – this should remove any bitterness from the peel.

3. Put the no-long-bitter pomelo peel, cold water and sugar into a saucepan. Bring to the boil, then simmer on a very low heat for around an hour until the peel looks translucent and the syrup has been absorbed by the peel.

4. Transfer the peel to a wire tray to cool. If desired, roll each piece of peel in caster sugar (this will give is a sparkling appearance). Leave to dry – if you want to hurry things along, place the rack on a tray in the oven at the very lowest temperature you can (around 50°C). You want to dry the peel, not cook it.

5. Store the peel in an airtight container and enjoy as and when you want!

Worth making? This is a fun thing to do with citrus peel if you have some spare – it doesn’t need to be pomelo – and can then be used in all manner of culinary delights.

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That Cranberry Issue

I’m not quite sure when cranberries became part of a British Christmas. I’m sure they didn’t really feature when I was younger, but the moment when they popped up eludes me. All I know is that these days, they are available almost everywhere – in sauce, frozen and fresh.

Obviously they make a great sauce with the Christmas bird (if that is your thing), but my problem is that I tend to buy several packets of them based on the fact that they are bright red and look like something that belongs with the celebrations. All well and good, but apart from sauce, you quite quickly run out of options. Cranberries are so tart that you can’t eat them fresh, and even in baked goods they can be lip-smackingly sour (yes, there is a reason that lots of sugar is added to dried cranberries!).

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So, if you’ve succumbed to the temptation to buy cranberries, didn’t use them with dinner, and are now looking at them wondering what the heck to do with them, I have a suggestion. You can easily cook them up with that other festive favourite, clementines, and make a bright red, rather tart jam. It’s a little like marmalade (sweet, but with some tang) what can go on bread or scones, or alternatively with strong cheddar. Even if your cranberries are past their best and have been bruised, you can still throw them into the jam pot and transform them into something wonderful. The berries also have enough pectin to ensure that this jam sets easily, and you can be done with everything in less than half an hour if you’re organised. Problem solved!

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To make cranberry jam:

• 600g cranberries
• 200ml water
• 500g white sugar
• 3 clementines, zest and juice only

1. Start by sterilising some jam jars(*), and put a plate into the freezer – you’ll need this to test when the jam is set.

2. Put the cranberries and water into a pan. Bring to the boil, then simmer for five minutes. Use a masher to make sure all the berries have burst.

3. Add the sugar, clementine juice and clementine zest. Stir well, bring to the boil, the simmer until the jam sets (10-15 minutes)(**).

4. Once the jam is ready, ladle into the prepared jars, seal, label and hide it somewhere.

(*) To sterilise jam jars: wash with hot, soapy water, then rinse well. Place upside-down in a cold oven, and heat to 90°C for 15 minutes. Leave in the oven to cool down while you are making the jam . To sterilise the lids, wash with hot, soapy water, then rinse well, place in a saucepan with boiling water for 5 minutes.

(**) To test for the setting point, put a spoonful of the mixture on the icy-cold saucer. Let it cool, then tilt the saucer – if the jam wrinkles, the setting point has been reached.

Worth making? A nice, if somewhat tart, jam. Good if you like cranberries, and it does make a nice change from very sweet jams at breakfast. The clementine also adds greater depth of flavour and some freshness to the taste.

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{12} Mince Pies

Christmas Eve and everyone is busy with their last-minute preparations! Just to build a little suspense, I’ve held off with my twelfth and final post of the Christmas season until late on Christmas Eve. And what did you think it would be? I’ve love to know what the candidates were, but there was always a certain inevitability about mince pies. I mean, if I’ve made things from Japan, Norway and Italy, it just wouldn’t be right to ignore the perennial British favourite. And when it comes to mince pies, the home-made look is what it’s all about, so I’m happy that mine look charmingly rustic.

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Mince pies have a long history. They started out as meat pies flavoured with fruits and spices (more likely than not done in the days before refrigeration to mask the taste of meat that was, let us say, less than fresh, rather than for flavour itself). They were banned under Puritanism in the 17th century, and have today morphed into the sweet treats we all know. Many visitors from abroad look at you most curiously when you offer them a mince pie, expecting something savoury, but most tend to like what they find – small pastry tarts filled with a mixture of dried vine fruits, citrus and spices, plus a little brandy to keep everything.

Mincemeat is also not particularly hard to make at home. You just need to gather the ingredients, cook gently in the oven to preserve the fruit (you use applies, and if you don’t cook them, they tend to ferment, with a propensity to make the jars of mincemeat explode in a rather messy way). There is a great recipe from Delia here.

However, this year I’ve been a little bit sneaky. Today is a little bit of a cheat’s recipe as the real hard work – actually making the mincemeat – is skipped ever so artfully by buying it and then just adding a few bits and pieces to customise it and make it a bit fancier. In fact, for this reason I was going to go with the title “Pimp my Mince Pie”. I just went with whatever met my eyes in the kitchen, and as it happened, that involved the zest of a clementine plus the juice, some chopped crystallised ginger and finely diced candied papaya and a spoon of vanilla sugar.

Inspired by the Heston Blumenthal mince pies currently in stores, I also wanted to have a flavoured sugar to dust on top of the finished pies. I toyed with a couple of ideas. Rosemary would be aromatic and sophisticated, but I was not sure it was quite right. Mastic gum would be equally aromatic, but I didn’t go with this one as when you grind it to a powder, it tends to stick to things and get messy. But the third idea was just right – clementine sugar.

I was very make-do-and-mend in my approach to the flavoured sugar. I saved the used peel from the clementine I added to the mincemeat. I trimmed off the pith, shredded the peel and left it overnight in a jar of caster sugar. The next morning – clementine sugar to sprinkle on the mince pies! While this tasted lovely, it had to be dried before use. I sieved the sugar to remove the peel (pop the peel into some mulled wine) then spread it on a plate. Leave to sit in a warm place until dry, then grind to a powder (go as fine as you like). This adds a lovely extra citrus note to the pies, warm or cooled.

For the pastry, I thought I would look to the recipes of master baker Paul Hollywood. His recipe uses lots of butter and some ground almonds, but needs to be chilled for three hours. So long? Yes, as it turns out, so long. The pastry was very soft. Think the texture of peanut butter, more like a paste. It needed to be completely chilled in order to be able to roll it out and cut it. I was dubious that this was going to work, concerned that the pastry would be too fragile to contain the filling during baking or to hold its shape afterwards. However, my fears were baseless. The fragile texture before baking meant that they pastry was wonderfully crumbly and worked perfectly with the filling. So good that it made up for the total pain of working with a pastry that preferred to hang out on the kitchen worktop in a semi-liquid state. Expect frequent trips for this little dough back to the fridge before you’re done!

As for the taste…these were sensational! The mincemeat bursts with citrus and the papaya adds flashes of jewel-bright red. The ginger adds a little warmth, and the brandy and sloe gin are, of course, always welcome.

So there we have it – another series of the Twelve Bakes of Christmas! I hope that you have enjoyed them this year. I’ve probably played fast and loose with the time in the festive season that these things appear on this site (as some people do not feel shy about pointing out!) and made tweaks to recipes that take them away from being truly authentic. However, I’ve tried to make things that are delicious and appealing, and things that I would want to eat and be happy to serve to people who come to my place over the Christmas period. I hope you’re also able to relax and enjoy time with friends and family. wishing everyone a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

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To pimp your mincemeat pies:

Makes 12 pies

The filling

• 1 jar mincemeat (400g)
• 1 small clementine, zest and juice
• 2 pieces candied ginger
• 1 small handful candied papaya
• 1 small handful flaked almonds
• 1 teaspoon vanilla sugar
• 1 tablespoon brandy
• 1 tablespoon sloe gin

The pastry

• 165g plain flour
• 25g ground almonds
• 120g unsalted butter, cold
• 55g caster sugar
• 1 egg, beaten

1. Pimp the mincemeat – throw everything in a bowl. Mix well, cover and leave to sit overnight.

2. Make the clementine sugar – remove the remaining orange peel from the used clementine. Cut into thing strips and put into a jam jar with some caster sugar. Seal, shake well and leave to sit overnight as well.

3. Make the pastry – put all the ingredients apart from the egg into a bowl. Work with your fingers until you have a mixture that looks like large breadcrumbs. Add the egg and mix to a soft dough. Cover in cling film and chill for two hours minimum.

4. To make the tarts, preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F). Grease a muffin tray with butter. Roll out two-thirds of the pastry and cut out large circles with a cutter. Use to line the muffin tray. Add around two generous teaspoons of the mincemeat mixture. Use the rest of the dough to cut out lids for the pies. Star shapes are easiest and look great!

5. Brush the tops of the pies with milk, then bake for 20 minutes until golden. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.

6. In the meantime, prepare the clementine sugar. Put the sugar into a sieve and shake – you’ll be left with the peel in the sieve. Spread the sugar onto a plate and leave in a warm place to dry. Once dry, grind until fine and use to dust the mince pies.

Worth making? I love these pies! It’s a great way to add more of what you like to the filling – I adore the extra shot of citrus, and there’s nothing quite the same as home-made mince pies.

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{10} Panforte

As we get close and close to the big day, the Christmas baking gets grander and grander. I’m not going the whole hog and making a Christmas cake, but the Italian panforte gets pretty close. This is a real step up from small biscuits, and looks, smells and tastes amazing!

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Panforte, Italian for “strong bread”, is not much more than lots of toasted almonds and hazelnuts paired with candied citrus peel and fruit, flavoured with spices and then bound together by a sugar and honey syrup. The result is rich, incredibly rich, but it really does have a flavour that can be described as the essence of Christmas. It’s also the sort of thing that you can have sitting somewhere, so you or guests can cut off the occasional sliver to enjoy with coffee or as an evening treat with a glass of liqueur.

This cake is a tradition from the Italian city of Siena. There are two versions, essentially white (as I’ve made here) and black, which is made with more dried fruits (such as figs and sultanas) and cocoa. It’s just a matter of personal choice which you prefer, but I like the former.

I’ve seen some recipes that say panforte should contain seventeen ingredients. This is said to link back to the number of districts within the city walls of Siena, and I quite liked the idea of trying to do this. It means you’re forced to add a bit of variety in terms of the ingredients. In my recipe, if you ignore the water in the syrup, but count the mixed peel (orange, lemon and citron) as three different ingredients, I did indeed get to the magic number. What does matter, however, is that if you’re going to make one of these, you need to go with the right ingredients, and try to use good nuts and candied peel. Almonds and hazelnuts are traditional, but I’m sure good pecans or walnuts would do the trick, but I’d  perhaps draw the line at putting peanuts in there! The candied peel is a must though – I used part candied peel and part papaya for the fruit, and while you could skip the papaya and instead use pineapple, apricots or even preserved pear, you should not miss out the citrus entirely. It’s such a fundamental part of the flavour.

You’ll see a lot of versions of panforte, from thick and even cakes in stores to my more “rustic” version. The rougher look is due to using whole nuts, rather than chopping then. You can chop the almonds and hazelnuts, but if you do, you don’t get the amazing look when you cut the slices. In addition, as the cake is so rich, I’ve kept it thin. When you taste how rich it is, you won’t feel the need to make a deeper panforte, as a little really does go a long way!

So there you have it – an Italian option in place of Christmas cake, and it’s not too late to make this – 20 minutes to prepare, and 30 minutes to bake. You’ve still got time!

panforte_1

To make Panforte:

• 100g almonds, skinned
• 100g hazelnuts, skinned
• 100g candied citrus peel (I used orange, lemon and citron)
• 135g candied fruit (such as papaya or melon)
• 50g plain flour
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
• 1/4 teaspoon ground mace
• 1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
• pinch black pepper
• 50g honey (I used orange blossom)
• 150g white sugar
• 25g butter
• cold water

1. Preheat the oven to 160°C. Grease a 20cm (8 inch) loose-bottomed tin with butter. Line with rice paper (if using).

2. Put the hazelnuts and almonds onto another baking tray and toast in the oven until just starting to colour. Remove from the oven and put into a large bowl.

3. As the nuts are cooling, cut the peel and papaya/mango into chunks (aim for pea-sized pieces). Add to the nuts.

4. Mix the flour and spices in a bowl. Sieve into the nut/fruit mixture, then stir briefly.

5. Make the syrup – put the honey, sugar and butter into a saucepan with some water. Warm on a medium heat until the mixture reaches the soft ball stage (113°C/235°F). If you don’t have a candy thermometer, then drop a little of the syrup into a bowl of very cold water – it should form a soft ball!

6. Pour the hot syrup onto the other ingredients and stir with a spoon until combined. Transfer to the prepared tin. Flatten the mixture with a buttered spoon (or if you have asbestos hands, but butter on your palms and pat the mixture into shape).

7. Bake the panforte for around 30 minutes until the syrup is bubbling. The mixture will firm up when the cake cools. Remove from the oven, allow to cool, then transfer to a plate to cool completely(*).

8. When the panforte is cool, dust with icing sugar, and rub lightly with your fingers so a bit of the fruit and nut details are clear. Serve in small slices with coffee or liquer after dinner. Or any time!

(*) If the panforte is difficult to remove from the tin, put it in a warm oven to soften slightly.

Worth making? This is a superb cake, and unbelievably easy compared to just how good the final result tastes.

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{2} Queen’s Gingerbread

Earlier this year, we enjoyed the damp festivities of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. At the time, I saw this recipe by Dan Lepard for gingerbread that I wanted to have a go at there and then, but I felt that it really ought to be saved for Christmas. I’ve gone back and looked at it several times since, but finally, finally, it’s time to dust it off and give it a try.

Even before making this recipe, I thought it looked delicious – rather than the light, soft, cake-like gingerbread we’re used to, this looked light something dense and rich, more like Italian panforte. However, as always, I could not resist the urge to make a little tweak, and dropped the dried apricots in place of dates. I though they would add a touch of the exotic to go with the spices.

I was also keen to give this recipe a try early in December to see how the flavours developed when stored. There is certainly a heroic amount of spice in the recipe, and I opted for a robust heather honey that would not be overpowered by the ginger, nutmeg, mace and cinnamon. As of today, it’s a very rich treat, and it does have a very “traditional” flavour that is very welcome on these chilly days. It’s also a nice alternative to very sweet, chocolatey treats that are ubiquitous at this time of the year!

One tip – if you use a pan as per Dan’s recipe, the pieces are around an inch high. If you want smaller pieces, I suggest using a larger pan and adjusting the cooking time accordingly. However, I quite like my diamonds, cut small, yet somehow towering on a plate.

Dan’s recipe refers to this as something the Elizabethans would have called a sweetmeat. This certainly strikes me as something that would, in another time, have seemed like the utter height of luxury. There is a decadent, almost obscene, amount of spice in this recipe, as well as treacle and honey and dried fruit. In the era of Gloriana, this would have been something that only those with rather a lot of money would have been able to afford. The access we have to ingredients these days – we are very blessed indeed!

To make Queen’s Gingerbread (original recipe here):

• 450g plain flour
• 5 teaspoons ground ginger
• 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 1 teaspoon ground mace
• 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
• 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
• 150g unsalted butter
• 250g caster sugar
• 150g honey
• 150g black treacle
• 75g candied citrus peel, chopped
• 75g dates, chopped
• 75g preserved ginger, chopped
• 100g unskinned almonds

1. Preheat the oven to 160°C (320°F). Line the based of a 20cm square tin with greaseproof paper.

2. Put the flour, spices and bicarbonate of soda into a bowl. Stir well, then sieve to make sure everything is properly mixed.

3. Put the butter, honey, treacle and sugar into a large saucepan. Heat gently until combined and the sugar has melted. Stir in the citrus peel, dates and ginger. Allow to cool until only slightly warm (if too warm, the baking soda will start to react).

4. Add the flour mixture to the saucepan and stir to a thick dough. Press the dough into the tin (you’ll find this is easiest with damp hands).

5. Cut the almonds in half, and sprinkle evenly over the top (some with the white side showing, some with the skin showing). Press lightly into the dough.

6. Bake for around 25 minutes – the dough will be puffed up. Remove from the oven, leave to cool, then cut into diamonds. Store in an airtight container.

Worth making? I love this recipe! In spite of all that sugar and honey, the result is not too sweet, and lends itself to a rich snack with a cup of tea. So far, it seems to keep well, and the flavour is actually nicer after a few days (but also very tasty right away too).

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Diamond Jubilee: Queen of Puddings

The Diamond Jubilee festivities are ongoing – the Thames Flotilla yesterday and the Concert on the Mall this evening. Today I’ve moved on from baked goods and tried my hand at a pudding recipe. It’s the suitably regal Queen of Puddings.

The Queen of Puddings is a very rich dessert, which has a custard base, flavoured with lemon and vanilla, with a layer of jam (usually raspberry) and then topped off with lots and lots of fluffy meringue.

There are two ways to make this pudding – either in individual ramekins, or fill a large oven-proof dish for an even larger pudding. The result was – surprisingly – not unlike lemon meringue pie. Of course the custard was not as rich, nor as lip-smackingly tart as in a lemon meringue pie, but the citrus notes are still there. The pudding is traditionally served warm with custard sauce, but I think it also works well when served cold – you can appreciate the flavours of the custard, and the meringue becomes soft and marshmallow-like. In individual ramekins, I think they make for quite a stunning little dessert.

I suspect you might share my first reaction to the name of this pudding – I mean, it’s quite a bold claim, isn’t it? There are lots of desserts out there, so what makes this one so special? The first clue to the name is that this is the Queen of Puddings, not desserts. In days gone by, those that could afford sugar would make simple puddings with sweetened milk and left-over breadcrumbs. In time, a more luxurious version appeared, which included a layer of jam and which was finished off with a meringue “crown”, and hence the name “Queen of Puddings”.

This is a very easy pudding to make – you bring milk and cream to the boil, then add butter, sugar, vanilla and lemon zest. Then pour over fresh breadcrumbs and leave them to absorb the liquid. Once cooled, add egg yolks, then bake until set. Then you add a layer of jam, and then your imagination really can run wild. You finish off with a meringue topping which you can either pile up and swirl like clouds, or pipe it into swirls or cover in lots and lots of peaks. The recipe below is my own creation based on a number of sources – I’ve gone with what seemed right, what would give the right amount of sweetness and flavour.

Now…I’m going to confess that making this dessert was not quite as drama-free as I may have led you to believe. I started out making a large Queen of Puddings. I made the custard, baked it, added the jam, then piped the meringue on top to look like lots of little peaks. It looked superb. I baked it until the peaks were just golden, removed from the oven, and then tried to take pictures of it. The light was starting to fade, and I was keen to get the last of the sun’s rays for my shot, and hence I needed to get a surface to shoot on that was as close as possible to a window. At this point, I had two options. Either do it on a solid, stable surface, or build a precarious tower of cookbooks and balance a tray on top, then put the lot on a soft footstool.  So, like an idiot, I went with the latter, and after three pictures, the pudding started to slide. And it kept on sliding. The it fell off. I ended up with hot pudding all over my right hand (which spend a long time in cold water, then had anaesthetic cream applied to stop the sting!) as well as jam stains on my trousers and the carpets. Next time I am making something warm and want that “just from the oven” shot, I’ll be making sure my foundations are much more stable!

Now, time to setting down and watch the Diamond Jubilee concert!

To make a Queen of Puddings (makes 6 ramekins)

For the custard base:

150ml milk
• 150ml cream
• 25g butter

• 25g sugar
• pinch of salt
• zest of 1/2 lemon
• 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 75g fresh white breadcrumbs

• 1 egg yolk

For the topping:

• 120g  jam (any, but red fruits are best)
• 2 egg whites
• small pinch salt
• small pinch cream of tartar

• 100g caster sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon cornflour
• 1 teaspoon icing sugar

Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F). Rub six individual ramekins with butter.

Put the milk and cream into a saucepan and bring to the boil. Add the sugar, butter, salt, lemon zest and vanilla. Stir well until the sugar had dissolved. Add the breadcrumbs, and leave to sit for 20 minutes until the breadcrumbs have absorbed the milk and the mixture has thickened. If lumpy, blitz in a food processor for a few seconds. Once cool, add the egg yolk and mix well.

Pour into the ramekins and bake for around 15-20 minutes until the batter is just set but has not browned. Remove from the oven. Turn the oven heat up to 190°C (375°F).

Next, heat the jam in a saucepan. Once hot and runny,  divide between the six ramekins.

Now, make the meringue topping – in a clean bowl, whisk the egg whites, salt and cream of tartar to stiff peaks. Fold in the caster sugar and beat until stiff and glossy. Add the cornflour and beat for another few seconds. Spoon or pipe the meringue mixture over the puddings, dusting each with the icing sugar, and bake for 10-15 minutes until the topping is lightly golden.

Note: if you want to make a large pudding, double the amount of custard, pour into a 1 litre ovenproof dish. Use the same amount of jam. Make the meringue using 3 egg whites and 150g sugar.

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