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{6} Kransekager

Each year, reaching my sixth post is something of a relief – we’ve made it to the half-way point without the kitchen catching fire or being destroyed by scalding molten sugar and burning butter. It feels like we’re on the home stretch, even if it means I’ve got to produce another six bakes to complete the series. Every time I do this challenge, I really enjoy it, but baking against a (self imposed) deadline of Christmas Eve does sap a little of the fun out of the process. And then we do it again the next year…

To celebrate getting this far, I’ve made a celebratory cake. Kransekager hail from Denmark, as well as Norway where they go by the radically different moniker of…eh…kransekake. They are made from a mixture of ground almonds, sugar and egg whites, which is mixed into a marzipan-like dough, and then baked until golden. The result is a slightly crisp exterior, with a soft, chewy centre, and they are utterly delicious. They also happen to be gluten-free if that’s your thing.

The impressive way to make them is by shaping the dough into ever-smaller rings (krans means wreath), then drizzling each layer with white icing to build a tall conical tower that can hide a bottle of champagne. These cakes are popular at Danish weddings, and in Norway on national day on 17 May. I’ve seen some suggestions from Danes that kransekager should be eaten at midnight on New Year’s Eve with champagne. I’m not a massive fan of champagne with very sweet things, so I’ll leave that one to you. To each their own!

kransekager2
There is also a variation on the kransekage tower. Rather than a cone which rises into the air, the rings can be arranged into an overflødighedshorn (say that after a few glasses of champagne!) which means “horn of plenty” or “cornucopia”. This can then be filled with sweets and chocolates, for a truly dazzling showstopper. If you’re looking for a way to serve all your Christmas baking in a memorable way, then this might be the way to do it. Perhaps I’ll have a go at that next year.

All these fancy cakes are great when you’ve got the time, but as you can see, I’ve avoided the elaborate cake tower and a fantastical horn of plenty, and instead made a simple bar form, with either end dipped in dark chocolate.

kransekager1
I have found a few Danish versions online which all suggest using marzipan, sugar and egg white. However I’ve learned the hard way that what we call marzipan in Britain has quite a high proportion of sugar to nuts (usually a 3:1 ratio, rather than the 1:1 in Danish “raw” marzipan). The result in the past has been that I’ve ended up making things that were so sweet they were inedible! No worries about that here – I’ve made this using equal parts of ground almonds and icing sugar to get the perfect balance. I’ve also added a little bit of almond extract for that distinctive flavour. I love it, and a little really enhances the kransekager, but if you want to leave it out you can.

kransekager3
These were really easy to make – the dough comes together easily, and it straightforward to shape. I opted for some long batons – you just measure out the dough, roll it into a ball, then roll into a long sausage. I’ve finished them with traditional white royal icing, but I dipped the ends into dark chocolate  – this provides a flavour contrast to the sweetness, but it also tidied up the messy ends after I’d baked them. I was originally going to leave them with just the icing, but I picked up the chocolate tip from Gitte at My Danish Kitchen. If you’re interested in finding more Danish recipes, her blog is great and there are so many recipes on there – it it’s Danish, I think Gitte has made it at some point!

To make Kransekager (makes 10)

For the marzipan dough

• 1 large egg white
• 150g ground almonds
• 150g icing sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon almond extract

For the icing

• 75g icing sugar
• 1 tablespoon egg white
• few drops of lemon juice

To finish

• 100g dark chocolate

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper, and rub the paper with a dot of butter to prevent sticking.

2. Lightly beat the egg, then add the ground almonds, icing sugar and almond extract. Mix to form a soft dough (start with a fork, then finish with your hands).

3. Divide the mixture into 10 pieces. Dust a worktop with icing sugar. Form each piece into a ball, then roll each one into a sausage, around 9cm long. Press the sides so that you have a long triangle. Transfer to the baking sheet, leaving space between each for the kransekager to expand slightly.

4. Bake the kransekager for around 13-15 minutes until just golden, turning half way for an even bake. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.

5. If dipping in chocolate: temper the chocolate, then dip either end of the batons in the chocolate. Transfer to a sheet of greaseproof paper and leave to set.

6. Make the icing – briefly whisk the egg white, then add the icing sugar and lemon juice. Beat until smooth but stiff – add more icing sugar is needed. Transfer to a piping bag and drizzle a zigzag shape on top of the kransekager. Leave to set.

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{4} Panellets de Membrillo

You may (or, more likely, may not) wonder how I come up with my ideas for festive baking. In some cases, I’ve featured recipes from my travels. In other cases, it’s a simply case of typing something into Google, and seeing what comes up. I took the latter route to find today’s little treats. I’m just kicking myself it took me so long to find these little gems!

Panellets are almond confections that originate from Catalonia in Spain, the name meaning “little breads” in Catalan. They are incredibly easy to make – you just mix sugar, ground almonds and egg to make a simple marzipan, and then you can pretty much let your imagination run wild. They can be made with a range of flavours – rolled in nuts, made with chocolate or coffee, or filled with some sort of jam. One very popular and attractive version involves rolling balls of marzipan in egg white, rolling in pine nuts, and then brushing with egg white. The result looks superb, very much like Italian pignoli.

In the spirit of keeping this recipe very Spanish, I’ve flavoured these biscuits with membrillo, the classic quince paste eaten with Manchego cheese. It has a good, aromatic, fruity flavour, which is strong enough to balance the almond flavour of the biscuit. From what I have been able to work out, the traditional way to make these panellets de membrillo is to encase strips of membrillo in marzipan, then cut into slices. I just, well, didn’t bother, and went with a much simpler idea. This is the same technique for making thumbprint cookies, except you fill the dips with jam and bake it.

panellets

These biscuits are absolutely delicious, and I’m only sorry that I never saw them when I was in Barcelona last year! The next time I’m in that part of the world, I will definitely look out for a shop selling the full range!

The flavour is good, and the membrillo in the middle looks great and balances the nuttiness beautifully. If you’re not a quince fan, then go with something else equally bold – tangy marmalade, damson jam or candied cherries on top. Oh, but one little word of warning – paneletts have legal protection about how they are made and the ingredients they use. So if you’re making these for a bring-and-buy or flogging them in a cafe, be careful what you call them – imagine the shame of being arrested over a Christmas biscuit!

To make Panellets de Membrillo (makes 12):

• 170g ground almonds
• 130g icing sugar, plus extra to bind
• 1 medium egg, beaten
• 1/4 teaspoon almond extract, to taste
• caster sugar, to roll
• membrillo (quince paste)

1. Make the almond paste. Mix the almonds and icing sugar. Grind in a food processor to get the mixture as fine as possible. Mix with the beaten egg and almond extract, working to a smooth dough (you might need to add a few more tablespoons of icing sugar). Cover and leave to rest overnight.

2. Preheat the oven to 220°C (420°F) and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

3. Roll out the almond mixture into a long sausage. Cut into twelve equal pieces. Form each one into a ball, then roll in the caster sugar.  Arrange on the baking tray and flatten slightly. Use the end of a wooden spoon to make a dip in the centre of each biscuits.

4. Mash the membrillo into a paste, then fill the dips in each biscuits. Bake the panellets for 8-10 minutes until they are golden around the edges but not dark. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.

Worth making? These biscuits are super-easy to make and the results are delicious! You can also adapt them really easily with different fillings on top, so a nice way to provide lots of flavours for minimal effort. The perfect cookie for the harassed Christmas cook!

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{4} Speculaas

A couple of weeks ago I made a batch of speculaaskruiden. Now here is a way to use them up – Dutch speculaas cookies!

I feel I need to point out that these are not strictly Christmas biscuits per se, as you can get hold of them all year round, but the crisp buttery spiced flavour does suit this time of year particularly well. Imagine yourself sitting on a café terrace on an old market square on a chilly day in December, coffee or mulled wine in one hand, and one of these cookies in the other.

Now, this post has a number of interesting things related to speculaas. To start with, this is a very special recipe. It’s not one that I made up, nor it is one that has come from some random website. Nope, it comes from Het Haagse Kookboek (“The Hague Cookbook”). I am assured that this was, back in the day, basically the cookery bible of Dutch housewives. As you can see below, the version I have had access to is clearly from the 1970s, and I love the retro front cover.

Another interesting aside is that the origin of the word “cookie” also links back to the Dutch. It isn’t a British word – we have biscuits, cakes, tarts, traybakes and so on. But the cookie is an American “thing”. It comes from the Dutch word for a small cake. Cake is koek (say it like “cook” in English), then make it small by adding the diminutive ending -je – and that’s how we get to koekje (say “cook-ye”).

And finally…as another interesting aside, I come back charged with inspiration about all things from the Low Countries following a recent trip to Belgium. While in Brussels, I was persuaded to buy some classic moulds for speculaas – a man and a woman, a bird and, of course, a windmill. If these cookies are going to be Dutch, they are going to be very Dutch. Even if they were made with Belgian moulds…

My unwavering belief that speculaas is a legitimate festive bake is also supported by the fact that it appears in the window displays of lots of bakeries and chocolatiers in Brussels. These range from the size of your palm to the size of a small child (really). My favorite is from Maison Dandoy. If you are there, do go in and enjoy the aromas and flavours. You may also wish to buy something, mainly because you will go nuts thinking about speculaas after you leave there.

That’s the background, the theory and the linguistics lesson. How are they to make?

The recipe is pretty easy – put everything in a bowl, work to a dough, allow to chill and that’s it! OK, that’s not quite it. If you are making these in the proper way, you use a type of sugar the Dutch call basterdsuiker. Yes, very giggle-inducing, but it turns out to be a sort of brown sugar. I’m not sure there is an exact substitute in Britain, but I used soft brown sugar and they worked out a treat.

But…but…we just have to admit that the real fun is using the moulds. No messing around with a rolling-pin. Just press pieces of dough into the moulds, then flip them over and whack them on the table to release them. And there we have it – lots of little gingerbread people, birds and windmills!

I do have to admit that these cookies were the result of some trial and error. The moulds were new, and probably need to be “seasoned” or similar. At first the mixture stuck badly, but I think after a while, the butter made for some sort of natural non-stick, and combined with a light coating of flour, they started to come out very easily indeed. By the end, we were experts!

And…after all that…here are the finished biscuits. Not quite as perfect as they looked before going into the oven, but they taste great – crisp, spicy and buttery – and they do have a certain rustic charm.

If you are tempted to have a go but lack suitable moulds, then have a look at this great version of speculaas from a Dutch girl living in London (here).

To make speculaas:

• 100g soft brown sugar
• 100g butter
• 1/2 teaspoon salt, finely ground
• 200g self-raising flour
• 2 teaspoons speculaaskruiden or mixed spices
• cold water
• 25g flaked almonds (optional)

To make the dough:

Sieve the sugar to get rid of any lumps. Put the sugar, butter, flour and spices in a large bowl. Use your hands to rub the ingredients together until they resemble breadcrumbs. Add just enough cold water (1-2 tablespoons) until the mixture comes together into a smooth dough. Work in the flaked almonds (if using). Wrap in cling film and chill for two hours or overnight.

To bake the cookies:

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

If using speculaas moulds: sprinkle the moulds with flour, tap out any excess, then press pieces of dough into the moulds. Then – in theory – they should come out of the moulds easily when you flip them over. Arrange on the baking sheet at least 2 cm apart.

If you don’t have the moulds: roll the dough out to 1/4 cm thickness and use cookie cutters to shape the speculaas. If you like, brush them with milk and sprinkle with some more flaked almonds. Arrange on the baking sheet at least 2 cm apart.

Bake the cookies for 25-30 minutes until the speculaas are firm, but have not started to darken.

Worth making? This is a very quick, straightforward recipe, and the resulting biscuits are great on their own, or can be used crushed over desserts, in crumble toppings or as part of a biscuit base for cheesecakes. You can also vary the spices depending on what is to hand and your own preferences – not bad for cookies made from simple ingredients you’re likely to have to hand!

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{3} Pfeffernüsse

For the third part of the “Twelve Goodies of Christmas” I’ve made another of the festive classics – German Pfeffernüsse.

This is a classic version of the recipe, which contains a lot of spice and good amount of freshly ground black pepper. These pack a bit of a punch, but that is the way I like them – you often eat them with a glass of mulled wine, so they need to be able to hold their own and provide some contrast to the sweetness of the wine.

I’ve also jazzed up the decoration of these cookies – rather than just simple white icing, I added a sprinkling of crushed red peppercorns. This makes for a jaunty little festive touch and a little extra bit of extra peppery punch. It’s warm and aromatic, but without being too hot.

I made these last year, but as I recently did with my Aachener Printen, I’ve put a bit of effort in to getting the right ingredients, specifically the raising agent. In this case, it’s ammonium bicarbonate. Read more about it here, but essentially it gives more “lift” to biscuits, but it comes at a price – it stinks during the baking process! The strange aroma does vanish once the cookies have cooled, but it certainly livens up the process.

On balance, I think that it does make a difference – the texture is lighter, the resulting cookies are softer. Baking powder works, but ammonium bicarbonate is better if you can get hold of it. Look online, or I’ve put a source in London at the bottom of the recipe.

Now, you may ask, is it not a little early to make these things? Well, like a lot of spicy cookies, they get better if you store them for a while. So with them iced and decorated, these little fellows are tucked away in a box, waiting for Christmas.

To make Pfeffernüsse (makes around 20-25):

• 125g honey
• 50g brown sugar
• 25g butter
• 225g plain flour
• 50g ground almonds
• 1/2 teaspoon ammonium carbonate(*)
• 1 egg
• 2 heaped teaspoons Lebkuchengewürz or mixed spice
• 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Making the cookies:

Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper and grease lightly.

Put the honey, sugar and butter in a small saucepan and heat gently until the sugar has melted. Leave for a couple of minutes to cool slightly.

In the meantime, in a large bowl combine the flour, ground almonds, ammonium carbonate, spices and pepper. Stir in the honey mixture and mix well. Add the egg and keep mixing until you have a smooth but sticky dough.

Using damp hands, divide the dough into around 20-25 portions – each should be the size of a small walnut. Roll each cookie into a ball between your hands (keep them moistened with water) and place on the baking sheet. Bake for around 10-12 minutes until puffed and just starting to brown.

Icing the cookies:

• 200g icing sugar
• 4-5 tablespoons kirsch, rum or water
• crushed red peppercorns

Put the icing sugar and kirsch/rum/water in a bowl. Mix well until you have a smooth, thick paste. It should just flow. Dip each cookie in the icing, then transfer to a wire rack to dry. Sprinkle some crushed peppercorns over the iced biscuits.

To get ammonium carbonate in London, you can buy this from Scandinavian Kitchen in the city centre (61 Great Titchfield Street, London W1W 7PP), tel: 020 7580 7161. Tube: Oxford Circus.

Worth making? I love these cookies. Sweet, spicy and very festive looking. Perfect with a glass of mulled wine after a bracing walk in the cold!

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