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{5} Cavallucci

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To make Cavallucci (makes 50)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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{4} Piparkakut

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

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

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

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

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

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

Makes around 40-50 cookies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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{9} Brunkager

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To make Brunkager (makes around 150)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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{4} Basler Brunsli

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

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

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

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

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

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

To make Basler Brunsli (makes around 50 cookies):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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{1} Taai Taai

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

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

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

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So what is the story behind these little tough guys?

Continue reading

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Spiced Tomato Jam

It’s a public holiday today in London – but my visions of a warm day at the beach or in the country were knocked on the head by the lashing rain that appeared this morning! Making the most of an unexpected day in the house, I’ve finished sorting through three years worth of administration and vacuumed and generally tidied the house. I know – very rock’n’roll! Then the moment came to reverse all the good work in the kitchen by embarking on a spontaneous culinary exploit.

So, forgetting the rain, today was also the start of what might be tentatively called “festive baking” as I’m making something that I’m looking forward to eating at Christmas – a sharp-but-sweet spicy tomato jam that is a great addition to a cheeseboard. It also means I can use some of our garden produce and enjoy them later in the year – our tomatoes were better this year than we managed last year (2014 yielded just three tomatoes!), but I’ve also got some big plans for next year to really get the most out of our garden. It might be small, but I’m determined to use it to grow useful things out there!

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This is actually somewhere between a sweet jam and a chutney – it sets and is made with a lot of sugar (like jam), and while it has spices, salt and vinegar that you’d expect in a chutney, it doesn’t have onions or sultanas. It is in turns fruity, sharp, tangy and savoury, with little bursts of flavour from the spices I used. It is absolutely delicious with strong cheddar on oatcakes or crackers, and a little goes a long way.

I made this using cherry tomatoes – partly the result of a glut that we’ve got in the garden at the moment, but you could just as easily do this with bigger tomatoes, red, yellow or even green. I cut half of the cherry tomatoes in two, and trimmed the rest into quarters so that there is some variation in size in the finished jam. If you’re using bigger toms, then you’ll need to chop them into smaller pieces, unless you’re the kind of person that enjoys really chunky jam! I also let the tomatoes cook down in a bit of water so that they break down a bit before adding the sugar. If you add the sugar with the tomatoes at the start of cooking, it can stop them breaking down and leave you with large lumps. This doesn’t affect the flavour, and I think is really just a matter of aesthetics.

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A word of warning – this recipe does not make a lot of jam, but that is not really an issue as you only need a little as it is packed with flavour. As it is easy to make, you can play around with different versions – I like nigella and cumin seeds, but you can also try aniseed or ginger and chilli. Using different colours of tomatoes also looks pretty – yellow tomatoes will keep their golden hue, while red tomatoes will produce anything from a deep orange to a ruby colour. I’ve ended up with one small jar that I can eat over the next couple of weeks, plus a large jar that I can keep in a cupboard for the December festivities. Now…let’s see what cheese I’ve got in the fridge to test out this batch?

To make spicy tomato jam (makes 2-3 small pots):

• 600g cherry tomatoes
• 100ml water
• 2 teaspoons nigella seeds
• 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
• 4 whole cloves
• pinch freshly-ground black pepper
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 75g soft brown sugar
• 100g white sugar
• 2 teaspoons pectin powder
• 60ml white wine vinegar
• juice of 1/2 lemon

1. Rinse the tomatoes and cut into a mixture of halves and quarters, removing the stalk part from each. Place in a saucepan with the water and cover. Bring to the boil, then simmer gentle for around 20 minutes.

2. In the meantime, dry toast the nigella and cumin seeds – put them in a saucepan and warm over a medium heat until they smell fragrant. Once done, pour them onto a cold plate.

3. Add the rest of the ingredients (apart from the lemon juice) to the tomatoes. Mix and bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for around 10 minutes. Add the lemon juice, the boil until the setting point is reached(*) before decanting the jam into prepared sterilised jam jars(**).

(*) How to check for a set? Chill a saucer in the fridge. Put a little jam on the cool plate, and return to the fridge for a minute. Push with your finger – if the jam visibly “wrinkles” when you push it, the jam is done. If it stays liquid, then cook longer and check again after a few minutes.

(**) How to sterilise jam jars? Wash in hot, soapy water, and then rinse very well – do not dry them. Now place up-side down on the shelf of a cold oven, and heat to 100°C / 210°F for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven using gloves, allow to cool slightly (they should still be warm) and fill with the hot jam. You can leave the jars in the oven with the heat turned off until you need them, as this keeps the glass warm, and warm glass is much less likely to crack when you add warm jam (science, eh?). Remember to sterilise the lids by washing in hot, soapy water, then rinsing well and then boiling them in a pot of hot water for a few minutes.

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{6} Clementine and Clove Sablés

I’ve done a lot of traditional baking this year, so today I’ve had a go at an original creation (although no doubt there is some corner of Europe where this is the seasonal biscuits and has been for 900 years…). These are actually just some simple butter biscuits that don’t have much sugar, and where the key thing is the flavours.

They are livened up with a combination of clementine zest and cloves. I know that cloves are a very strong spice and that not everyone is a fan, but trust me, they really work so, so well with the citrus zest. If you think this is not the combination for you, then I’m afraid tradition is against you – this is the classic combination used in an aromatic pomander, with whole cloves pressed into a fresh orange. They do smell delicious and were used historically by wealthy and powerful gentlemen and ladies to make the air around them smell just a little bit sweeter (at least those that were not rich enough to afford a solid silver pomander filled with all manner of exotic spices).

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This recipe does seem a bit funny when you’re making it. The dough is fairly soft, so you might think that there is not enough flour in the recipe. Don’t fret! The key thing is to pop the dough into the freezer for a bit, then cut off pieces as you’re making the biscuits. The chilled dough is easy to work with. And before baking the biscuits, I put the whole tray in the freezer for 3 minutes. This made sure everything was firm, and keeps a nice clean edge when baking. This might all sound like a bit of a faff, but it ensures that you have a higher amount of butter in the finished biscuit.

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As you can see, I’ve decorated the basic biscuits in two ways, so they are ideal if you’re in a rush and want to give the impression that you’ve been in the kitchen for ages turning out biscuits.

First off, the stars, which I brushed with a simple orange icing while they were still warm from the oven. This results in a rather pretty frosted effect on the stars, which seems somehow fitting at this time of year.

The rest of the biscuits were made with a scalloped cutter, and I just drizzled some dark chocolate on them. Not enough to coat them, but just enough for the dark lines to provide a nice contrast to the pale biscuit, and just a hint of cocoa. If you want some other contrasts, you can mix in some chocolate chips, dried fruit or chopped candied peel too. Just keep the fact you’ve done it all with one recipe can be our little secret.

And there we have it…we’ve reached the half-way point in this year’s Twelve Days of Christmas Baking (or Baking Madness, if you prefer). I hope you’ve enjoyed it so far!

To make Clementine and Clove Sablés (makes 50 small-ish biscuits*)

• 25g ground almonds
• 230g plain flour
• 100g salted butter, cold
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 85g icing sugar
• 2 clementines, zest only
• 1 teaspoon mixed spice
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
• 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1 large egg, beaten

(*) My biscuits were two-bite efforts – if you make them smaller, you’ll have loads more!)

1. Put the almonds, flour and butter into a bowl. Work with your fingers until it resembles breadcrumbs,

2. Add the baking power, icing sugar, zest and spices. Mix well, then add the egg and vanilla extract and work quickly to a smooth dough (it should be soft but not too sticky). Wrap in cling film and chill in the freezer for 30 minutes.

3. Preheat the oven to 175°C (350°F). Line a couple of baking trays with greaseproof paper.

4. Take chunks of the chilled dough and roll out thinly on a worktop. Cut out whatever shapes you like! If the dough gets too soft and sticky, just pop back in the freezer to firm up.

5. Bake for 10-12 minutes (depending on size) until golden.

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Gingerbread

When I moved house, I vowed that I would have the sort of garden that you might see in one of the glossy magazines. Nothing incredibly elaborate mind you, but with a nicely-kept lawn, and strategically planted bushes heavy with flowers (and hopefully fruit) amid herb plants and old-fashioned roses. The sort of place to laze on spring and summer days…

Fast forward eighteen months, and I can assure you that I’m certainly not a shoe-in to appear in Homes and Gardens or Elle Decor. Don’t get me wrong, I’m far from being the shame of the neighbourhood, but somewhere along the way I’ve kind of forgotten that a lovely garden tends to be the result of rather a lot of work. That has meant the last couple of weekends have necessitated rather a lot of work outside, removing weeds, trimming borders and fixing some of the damage that has occurred over winter (it seems the result of the polar vortex in the US was that a lot more storms were hitting the southern parts of Britain, and here we experienced a lot of windy weather).

I am telling you all this because when you’ve been working it the garden, it’s one of life’s great pleasures to take a break and enjoy a cup of tea and a slice of cake. When it is still rather fresh outside, as it has been here, I find the best option in my opinion is something that is sticky and spicy, and I am a massive fan of a good piece of gingerbread.

gingerbread

It is interesting how this recipe seems to pop up when you travel. Similar spiced loaves and cakes seem to exist everywhere, from Dutch ontbijtkoek to French pain d’épices. These are also often made with honey, and while I do enjoy the flavour that this can add, I have experimented with both honey and golden syrup, and for some curious reason, the result is better in my experience with golden syrup. The texture is lighter and more delicate. However, to make up for the fact that golden syrup is not as aromatic as honey, I also swap a few spoons of syrup for some black treacle, which gives the cake a darker colour and some extra flavour. For a bit of extra oomph I’ve also added some dark marmalade and fiery preserved ginger.

How you want to finish gingerbread is up to you. These sort of cakes are sufficiently robust in the flavour department to handle thick icing or creamy frosting, but I much prefer them either with simple water icing or a light glaze of marmalade or ginger syrup, with a few pieces of preserved ginger on top. However, if you do want to add icing, it is worth bearing in mind that while the cake will last for quite some time (indeed, becoming better with time) the icing will start to colour from the brown muscovado sugar in the cake, so if you are not serving this cake until  few days after baking, then ice it the evening before or the morning of serving. The flavour is not affected, but you want to make sure you have the dramatic contrast between the dark cake studded with sticky ginger and the brilliant white icing.

Right, that’s that…I can see the garden outside, beckoning me to go back and sort out the rose bushes…well, maybe at the weekend…

To make a gingerbread loaf:

• 50g muscovado sugar
• 75g butter
• 125g golden syrup
• 2 tablespoons marmalade
• pinch of salt
• 75ml milk
• 1 large egg, beaten
• 2 generous teaspoons chopped preserved ginger
• 150g plain flour
• 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
• 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
• 2 teaspoons ground ginger
• pinch ground cloves
• 2 tablespoons marmalade and 2 teaspoons chopped preserved ginger

1. Preheat the oven to 160°C (320°F). Line a 1 kilo (2 pound) loaf tin with greaseproof paper.

2. Put the sugar, butter, golden syrup, marmalade and salt into a saucepan. Heat gently until everything has melted. Stir well and put to one side.

3. In another bowl, combine the milk, egg and preserved ginger. Check the syrup mixture is just warm, and add the egg mixture and mix well.

4. In a large bowl, combine the dry ingredients, and add to the wet ingredients. Whisk briefly to ensure everything is well-combined, and pour into the prepared loaf tin.

5. Bake for around 40 minutes. The loaf should be risen, springy to the touch and an inserted skewer comes out clean. Remove from the oven, allow to cool for 5 minutes, then brush with rest of the marmalade and sprinkle over the remaining chopped ginger.

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Filed under Afternoon Tea, Recipe, Sweet Things

{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…

pepparkakor8

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.

pepparkakor3

pepparkakor4

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.

pepparkakor5

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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pepparkakor9

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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Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things

{9} Elisenlebkuchen

One of my favourite Christmas treats is the German Elisenlebkuchen, packed with nuts, citrus peel and spice, and the base coated in dark chocolate and finished with a sugar glaze that takes on a frosty appearance. They are pretty much Christmas in a biscuit.

Now, if I’m going to dare to call these things Elisenlebkuchen, then I need to be careful what goes into them. I earn some credit for the hazelnuts, walnuts, almonds, various spices and lemon and orange peel I’ve used, but I would have scored a great big fat zero if I had let just one dash of flour get anywhere near them. As a mark of quality, these things are made wheat-free. As a result, they have a fairly flat shape, but the flavour is rich and the texture soft and dense.

elisenlebkuchen

My fondness for these is in part due to what goes into them – nuts, spices and candied peel. However, it is also due to the fact that they are one of the first biscuits I got to know. Unlike today, when we’ve got easy access to foreign Christmas goodies, it used to take a bit of work. Panettone, marrons glacés and Lebkuchen had to be searched out, found only in places familiar to those in the know. So it was with these biscuits. The specific brand I loved were Bahlsen Contessa, and they were sold in a branch of Spar where my grandmother lived. The German woman who ran the shop had a few of them in at the end of the year, so no visit was complete without a trip to pick up a box of Lebkuchen. I liked to pick off the chocolate and then eat the soft cake bit.

elisenlebkuchen2

While there are rules about what you can use, you still have some scope to play around. Various recipes seemed to suggest using just almonds, but I wanted to add a bit more depth to my attempt, so I used equal parts of hazelnuts, walnuts and almonds. For the candied peel, I changed the common 50/50 mixture of orange and lemon, using mostly orange, and relying on fresh lemon zest to provide the zing.

And finally, the spices. The traditional approach is to use Lebkuchengewürz (Lebkuchen spices). However, I had run out of this so I let my creativity run wild. Cinnamon, cloves, mace, ginger, cardamom, star anise and a dash of white pepper went in there. You can go with whatever you like, but I would aim for mostly cinnamon with just a dash of the more powerful spices. Also keep in mind that the flavour will mature as they are stored, getting stronger with time, so if you go with lots of really forceful spices such as cloves or black pepper, you might send your guests running to the kitchen for water. Going heavy on nutmeg, coriander or cardamom, in contrast, probably invokes less of a risk!

When it comes to finishing these Lebkuchen, you’ve also got a few options. They often feature whole almonds arranged either individually or in a circle on top. They can be left as they are, or coated with a simple glaze of icing sugar and hot water. This has a magical effect when you leave it overnight, taking on a white, frosted appearance. Alternatively, you can coat them entirely in dark chocolate, which works wonderfully well with the citrus and spices. I went from something that combined the two – the glaze on top, with a layer of chocolate on the bottom.

If you buy these, they tend to be on the large side, around palm-sized. I made them more bite-sized. Which…arguably means…you can enjoy twice as many. I think all in all, they take a fair bit of time to make (you need to allow for overnight drying of the icing, and then fiddling about with tempering chocolate and so on) but nothing is particularly difficult and the result is really delicious.

To make Elisenlebkuchen (makes 32):

For the biscuits:

• 3 eggs
• 150g soft light brown sugar
• 75g white caster sugar
• 200g ground nuts (walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts)
• 25g flaked almonds, crushed
• 100g candied peel, very finely chopped
• 1 lemon, zest only
• 1 1/2 teaspoons mixed spice
• pinch of salt
• 1/2 teaspoon baker’s ammonia

For the glaze:

• 100g icing sugar
• 2 tablespoons boiling water

 To finish:

 • 250g dark chocolate

1. Preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F). Line four baking trays with greaseproof paper, and rub each very lightly with oil.

2. Separate the eggs. In a bowl over a pan of barely simmering water, beat the yolks with the brown sugar until pale and fluffy (around 3 minutes).

3. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites until you have soft peaks. Add the caster sugar, and whisk on a high speed until you have a stiff meringue.

4. Fold the meringue into the egg yolk mixture in three batches. Stir in the ground nuts, crushed flaked almonds, candied peel, lemon zest, spice, salt and baker’s ammonia.

5. Transfer the mixture to a piping bag, and pipe out rounds onto the trays (I did eight per sheet – each one around 4cm diameter).

6. Bake the biscuits for 20 minutes, turning the tray mid-way through, until they are puffed up and browned. When done, remove from the oven, allow to cool and remove from the paper and cool on a wire tray.

7. Once all the biscuits are baked, make the glaze by mixing the icing sugar with the boiling water. Brush the glaze onto the domed side of the biscuits, and leave overnight to dry (the glaze should dry fairly quickly, and take on a “frosted” appearance by the next morning).

8. Finally, melt the chocolate and use to coat the flat side of the Lebkuchen.

Worth making? Definitely. These taste pretty much like the pure essence of Christmas, and well worth the time they take.

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Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things