Tag Archives: cookies

{4} Magenbrot

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

For the dough:

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

For the glaze:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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{3} Berlinerkranser

Every Christmas selection has a place for a good old-fashioned buttery biscuit. Stepping up to the role is today’s recipe from Norway. These twisty bakes go by the name Berlinerkranser, or “Berlin wreaths”. Completely logical for a cookies from, eh, not Berlin.


I mean, it’s not as if a Norwegian city name would do. Oslokranser? Bergenkranser? Trondheimkranser? Lillehammerkranser? Tromsøkranser? Really, would none of these have worked? Alas I have not found the origin of the name, but I wonder if the knot shape refers back to German pretzels? If you know, do enlighten me!

It can be very easy to think of butter cookies as not being very interesting. But as with many traditional recipes, it helps to think about where and when they came from. Think back to the late 1800s, and butter would have still been a luxury to some people. This would mean that at Christmas it really was a treat to have something sweet and buttery, rather than something made with lard. Times were hard back then, folks.


Berlinerkranser sometimes make an appearance as part of the Norwegian tradition of syv slags kaker (seven sort of cookies, say that quickly after seven glasses of eggnog), where bakers can get into the competitive spirit of the season. They try to dazzle their guests with their baking skills by filling every biscuit tin in the house with cookies. If you want to have a go at a few other Norwegian treats, you could also turn your hand to serinakaker and sirupsnipper.

There is also an odd feature to Berlinerkranser, or at least something that I’ve never seen in a cookie recipe. Just about every version I’ve seen uses fresh egg yolks as well as hard-boiled egg yolks in the dough. I’m normally happy to try anything, but this one struck me as just a bit too strange. It’s also more work…I’m all for a lazy approach that skips avoidable faffing about…all the more time to watch a schmaltzy festive made-for-TV afternoon movie, probably involving some scrooge-like character in New York who rediscovers the magic of Christmas from the innocence of a young child. So, in a testament to laziness, my recipe uses two fresh egg yolks, but if you want to have a go at the more traditional version, use one fresh and one yolk from a boiled egg.


In terms of flavour, I have kept these very simple and traditional. I’ve seen recipes that add vanilla or citrus zest, but these have just the richness of egg yolks and butter. The only concession I’ve made is to use salted butter, as I think it gives a better and fuller flavour than using unsalted.

One tip for making them – once you start to shape the dough, it is easier to work as it gets slightly warmer and softer. If it is too cold, it will break. Howerver, soft dough will collapse in the oven, so put the whole tray of shaped cookies in the fridge for 15 minutes before putting straight in the oven. Voila – cookies don’t break and they keep their shape.

Now…go forth and make another six types of cookie before your guests arrive. Enjoy!

To make Belinerkranser (makes 20)

For the dough:

• 2 egg yolks
• 80g caster sugar
• 185g plain flour
• 125g salted butter

To finish:

• 1 egg white, beaten
• pearl sugar

1a. If using a hard-boiled egg yolk: push the boiled yolk through a sieve to break it up as much as possible. Add to the other egg yolk and the sugar and beat well for a minute.

1b. If using only fresh yolks: put the yolks and sugar into a bowl and beat well for a minute.

2. Add the flour, mix, then tip in the butter and mix until it forms a soft dough. Add more flour if needed, but remember the dough will firm up when chilled.

3. Wrap the dough in cling film, flatten as best you can, and pop it in the fridge for 30 minutes.

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

5. Divide the dough into 20 pieces. Take each piece and roll to an 18-20cm rope, and shape the cookies. Place each one on a baking sheet.

6. Chill the shaped cookies for 15 minutes in the fridge, then brush with beaten egg white and sprinkle with pearl sugar.

7. Bake the cookies for around 12-14 minutes until pale golden.  turning the tray around during baking to get an even colour.

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{2} Biskuttini tal-Lewz (Maltese Almond Cookies)

At Christmas time, I really like marzipan and all things with the flavour of almonds, so I was happy to discover these little cookies from Malta. They’re super-simple to make – just prepare a simple dough with almonds, sugar and egg white, roll and bake. Which is great when you’ve not done all your present shopping and time is fast running out…


Apart from that really amazing name, I have not been able to find out very much about these cookies, other than they are a festive treat and that they used to be served at christenings. In a way, I quite like the idea that in a world where you can in theory google anything, there are still things which have kept a fairly low profile. The other snippet of information I found is that these are traditionally made on rice paper. If you can find it, then great, but I used greaseproof paper that I rubbed with a little neutral oil which worked like a dream.

These cookies are undoubtedly one to make for people who like almonds, and I’ve been enjoying them with coffee to have a vague sense of Mediterranean sunshine during the cold London winter. They are also a good choice if you’ve got to make something for guests who are avoiding dairy or gluten.


As well as almonds, these cookies also include lemon zest plus a little lemon juice. This adds a fresh flavour note which I think works really well with the almonds. If that’s not your thing, I think orange zest is a good alternative – it mixes with the almond essence to give you a flavour reminiscent of orange blossom.

To make Biskuttini tal-Lewz (makes 25): 

• 200g ground almonds
• 180g caster sugar
• zest of a lemon
• 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
• 1 large egg white
• lemon juice, to bind
• whole almonds 

1. Preheat the oven to 170°C (350°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper rubbed very lightly with oil.

2. Put everything apart from the lemon juice and whole almonds in a bowl and mix well. Add lemon juice, half a teaspoon at a time, to make a pliable dough (I used two teaspoons).(*)

3. Roll the dough into a long sausage, and cut into 25 pieces. Roll each piece into a ball. Place each ball on a baking tray, flatten slightly, and press a whole almond into the centre.

4. Bake the cookies for 10-12 minutes until golden. You may need to turn the tray half-way for an even colour.

(*) If the dough is very dry, you can also add water as well as lemon juice to avoid the flavour of the cookies becoming too sharp.

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{1} Fedtebrød

Hello, hello, hello! And welcome to the 2017 edition of my 12 Bakes of Christmas!!! I know it’s been a while since I last posted (we’ve now got a toddler in the house, so free time’s a bit scarce these days) but the lure of festive baking brought me back. As is the custom, I’ve been on the hunt for some interesting festive baking, and hopefully you will enjoy what is to come over the next few weeks.

We’re starting off with something from Denmark. Fedtebrød is a nice cookie that is flavoured with coconut and finished with icing flavoured with lemon or rum. From what I gather, Danes have firm views about which one is correct, and you’re either Team Rum or Team Lemon. Whichever you end up going with, these little cookies pack a flavour punch which is pretty far removed from the spices and dried fruit that usually features in Christmas fare. If you’re not keen on mince pies or Christmas cake, this might be something for you.

First of all, thought, we need to deal with that name. Fedtebrød literally means “greasy bread”. Yum! Not scoring may points there in the branding department. Let’s hope it tastes better than the name seems to suggest…

Actually, I’ll admit to two attempts at making these things. First time round, I used desiccated coconut, and followed a recipe that has equal amounts of butter and flour, and then half that amount of sugar and coconut (a ratio of 2:2:1:1, which seems to be fairly standard for this cookie). The recipe sort of worked…I made the dough into logs, then it flattened out during baking, but there was a noticeable and not very pleasant greasiness. Seems that they delivered on that name! That first batch tasted fine, but I had the feeling that the result could be better.

My second attempt (and the recipe below) had less butter, and I used coconut flour rather than desiccated coconut. This stuff has a texture rather like ground almonds, and I thought this would help counter any greasiness from the butter and any coconut oil that was released during baking. This time it worked like a dream – the dough kept its shape and had a little bit of height, and the colour was very even. The cookies were buttery and crumbly, but didn’t have the odd texture from before. Result! Well…maybe it’s not how the Danes like them to be, but it was more to my taste.

In the spirit of fairness, I finished two of the bars with two glazes – some lemon, some rum. The choice of icing might make families argue, but I think they both taste great – the lemon is fresh and zesty, while the rum and coconut have a bit of a tropical thing going on. I did notice that the lemon flavour lasted better, so if you’re making these to eat over the course of a few days, I would go for the lemon. I also used neat lemon juice and rum for the glaze, and the flavour was fairly sharp. If that’s what you like, great, but you may want to use some water for a milder flavour if you prefer.

To make Fedtebrød (makes around 25-30 pieces):

For the dough

• 125g plain flour
• 100g unsalted butter
• 75g white caster sugar
• 75g coconut flour
• 1/4 teaspoon baking ammonia

For the glaze

• 100g icing sugar
• rum or lemon juice (don’t mix them!)
• water

1. Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

2. Put all the ingredients for the dough into a bowl and rub together into you have a soft dough. It might seem too dry, but you’ll find the warmth from your hands will soften the butter and it will come together. Note: due to the baker’s ammonia, don’t eat the raw dough!

3. Divide the dough into three pieces. Form into a sausage, around 25cm long, and transfer to the baking tray. Flatten each to a width of around 5cm.

4. Bake the fedtebrød for 10 minutes (turning the tray half-way) until golden. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for 4 minutes.

5. While the fedtebrød is baking, make the glaze. Mix the icing sugar with around 4 tablespoons of liquid (lemon juice or rum, plus water) to get a smooth but thick consistency.

6. Drizzle the glaze along the middle of each piece of cookie – you should find the heat from the cookies helps the icing spread a little and go smooth. Leave to set for 2 minutes, then cut diagonally with a sharp knife while still warm.

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Almost Twelfth Night…

And just like that, another festive period is nearly over. But apparently it was not always like that. I was glued to Victorian Bakers at Christmas which explored the history of food at this time of the year, and apparently celebrations used to run over the whole Twelve Days of Christmas. This actually makes a lot of sense when you’ve got a predominantly rural and agricultural society with not much to do in the deep dark days of winter. It was the Industrial Revolution that did for this, and whittled the festivities down to just a couple of days. There was also a fascinating look at some of the festive “treats” of the past (and I use that term loosely). Mincemeat pies filled with real meat (beef if you were rich, chopped tripe if you were less well off), and a behemoth of a bake called Twelfth Cake, which seemed to be a yeast-raised fruitcake composed of 75% currants, and coated with some sort of meringue icing. Fascinating to find out a bit of history, but those are two baked items that I don’t think I’ll be turning my hand to in the near future!

Having seen how things were done by the Victorians, I can look back with a little pride at my own take on the Twelve Days of Christmas Baking for 2016. This year, I’ve completed my sixth installment of what has become something of a Christmas tradition. I’ve had a look at what I wrote in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 and I recognise all the usual pledges that I made. I keep banging on about being more organised, being more realistic about the complexity of the recipes I’ll attempt to make, and trying to avoid spending money on pieces of kitchen equipment that are needed to make only one specific type of cookie (pizzelle, I’m thinking about you!).  And of course, when December comes rolling around this year, we get to do it all again.

So here’s to my 2016 edition of the Twelve Bakes of Christmas! I’m pretty happy that I’ve managed to find some very different recipes this year, and I’ve managed a fairly good spread of traditional cookies and treats from across Europe. Some are very old, like the Italian Biscotti di Regina and Cavalluci, through to more modern creations like Spanish Marquesas de Navidad.

12bakes2016
As I’ve done in past years, here are the original lyrics from the Twelve Days of Christmas (which was my original inspiration for the Twelve Days of Baking Challenge) with each of my recipes next to them. Again, you can see there is absolutely no correlation. Not a jot. None whatsoever! Well, other than the Cavalluci might look like golden rings if your eyesight is not good, and I guess that there is a tree in the Borstplaat shapes, even if not a pear tree…

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me:

…twelve Drummers Drumming (Italian Nadalin de Verona)…
…eleven Pipers Piping (Spanish Marquesas de Navidad)…
…ten Lords-a-Leaping (Finnish Joulutorttu)…
…nine Ladies Dancing (Swedish Hallongrottor)…
…eight Maids-a-Milking (Greek Kourabiedes)…
…seven Swans-a-Swimming (Florentines)…
…six Geese-a-Laying (Danish Kransekager)…
…five Gold Rings (Italian Cavalluci)…
…four Colly Birds (Finnish Piparkakut)…
…three French Hens (Italian Biscotti di Regina)…
…two Turtle Doves (Norwegian Sandkaker)…
…and a Partridge in a Pear Tree (Dutch Borstplaat)!

And so we wrap things up for another year. I will be doing this again in 2017, so if you have any traditional recipes that you would like to see on here, please do leave a comment or get in touch. If they have an interesting history or amusing story to go with them, or are associated with a quirky tradition, then so much the better!

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{10} Joulutorttu

Christmas treats are often all about cakes or cookies, but today’s recipe is one from that forgotten part of the baking world…Christmas pastries!

I’ve been making joulutorttu, which are traditional star plum pastries from Finland (yes, Finnish baking is getting a double-feature this year). If you think that name is a mouthful, they are also called tähtitorttu, which means star pastries. Those names really are enough to make you give up and reach for more mulled wine…

The traditional way to make these pastries is with plum jam or prune filling. I had a look in my cupboards at home, and while I have plenty of jars of jam, I’m lacking anything made with plums. I went for the next best thing – a jar of blueberry jam, which I reasoned was suitably Nordic to be able to pass off as vaguely authentic. I also made some prune filling as a test – I just chopped up some prunes, then cooked them with water, cinnamon, orange juice and some brandy. In the first picture, I’ve used the jam in the top and bottom rows, and the prune filling in the middle row – you can see the different textures.

joulutorttu4

joulutorttu1
There are actually a few different ways to make these little guys. If you are feeling lazy, or are busy, or have pets/small children, then it is quite acceptable to buy a sheet of puff pastry and use that as the basis for the stars. Just be sure to make good, clean cuts so that you get lots of puffing at the edges.

I, of course, opted for a more challenging version. I’ve used a pastry recipe from the Nordic Bakery cookbook. It suggests using a really rich pastry that is made with a decadent amount of butter plus the same amount of quark to bring it all together. I’ve never worked with a pastry like that, so I wanted to give it a go. However, I didn’t have quark to hand, and being too lazy to make the short walk to the main street, I swapped it for some skyr. This is a high-protein and low-fat type of yoghurt which originates in Iceland (and those Icelanders take it very seriously, swearing that the stuff you get in Britain isn’t anywhere near as good as the real thing…well, I like the stuff here just fine, and it worked in my recipe!).

The dough is very soft, and at first I thought it would not work. But I wanted to believe, so I assumed the flour would soak up some of the moisture, and after chilling it overnight, the pastry was indeed perfectly workable. It rolled out easily, and it was straightforward to cut and form into those classic windmill shapes.

Now, the real magic was in the baking. The pastry? Just wonderful. As it has a high butter content (made with equal weights of butter, skyr and flour), it is rich, soft and has a lovely deep golden colour. It is definitely worth the effort of making it yourself. But I do have to warn you – it is a funny dough too. I made my twelve stars from the first rolling of the dough, and they worked perfectly. I then gathered up the scraps and made some more…and boy did they go haywire! It might have been due to the pastry on the first batches being comparatively cool, whereas the later batch was a bit warmer, but they puffed up extravagantly, almost like puff pastry, but they also struggled to bake properly without getting too dark. To avoid this, I recommend working with the dough in two batches, and in each case roll the dough out as square as you are able, so that you minimise any offcuts and can avoid re-rolling the dough.

joulutorttu3

joulutorttu2
Of my two flavour choices, the spiced prune was nice, but I loved the blueberry. I would happily make that flavour again. If you are making a large batch, you can also use various different flavours – plum is traditional, but apple and cinnamon would work well, and I think something sharp like raspberry would be delicious too.

All in all, these Christmas stars from the north were a great success. They are incredibly more-ish. I think I wolfed down three of them in fairly quick succession. They are also at their most delicious while still fresh. They will keep for a couple of days in a tin, but I don’t think you want to delay eating them, and frankly – they taste so good I don’t think you’ll have many hanging around for long.

joulutorttu5

To make Finnish Christmas Star Pastries (makes 12):

For the dough

• 250g butter
• 250g skyr or quark cheese
• 250g strong white flour
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• pinch of salt

For the filling

• jam or marmalade (or see my prune recipe below)
• 1 egg, beaten
• icing sugar, to finish

1. Make the dough. Mix the butter and quark/skyr. Add the rest of the ingredients and mix until it comes together in a dough – the dough will seem very soft. Wrap in cling film and leave to chill overnight.

2. Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F). Line a few baking sheets with greaseproof paper.

3. Sprinkle a worktop with flour, then roll out the dough thinly – no more than 5mm. Try to get as square a shape as you can. Cut out squares of 10cm x 10cm. Transfer each to the greaseproof paper, leaving some space between the pieces.

4. Make a small diagonal cut about one-third  towards the centre of the square from each corner, but do not go all the way. Add a spoonful of jam in the centre, then starting at the top, bring the top-right piece into the centre. Repeat on each side to build up the windmill effect. Secure the overlapping dough in the centre with some water and pinch together, then push down and add a dab more jam to cover. Repeat until you have a full tray (I baked them in batches of 4).

5. Brush each pastry with the beaten egg, then bake for around 8 minutes until a rich golden colour, turning after 4 minutes to get an even bake.

6. When done, remove from the oven, and leave to cool for a few minutes on the paper. Transfer to a wire rack to cool, then dust with icing sugar before serving.

To make plum filling: finely chop 100g of prunes. Add 150ml water and a large pinch of cinnamon. Bring to the boil then simmer until the mixture seems thick and almost too dry. Add a tablespoon of brandy and a tablespoon of orange juice. Mix well and leave to cool.

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{9} Hallongrottor

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

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

hallongrottor1

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

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

hallongrottor2

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

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

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To make Hallongrottor (makes 15)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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{8} Kourabiedes

Kourabiedes are a traditional cookie from Greece. And that should set some alarm bells ringing…

I always approach making traditional cookies with a little bit of trepidation. In this case, I have visions of Greek mothers and grandmothers raising their eyebrows and rolling their eyes. In my head, there is this Greek chorus of collective tutting as an entire people just know that their version is clearly superior to my attempt. And that their recipe is obviously better than everyone else’s attempts as well…

kourabiedes1
With that disclaimer out there, I still think that my attempt is pretty decent. I mean, with all that icing sugar on them they look like they are made of snow!

In fact, they are part of a family of similar cookies – polvorones in Spain, Russian tea cakes or Mexican wedding cakes, or Austrian vanilla crescents. What they have in common is a sweet, crumbly pastry with chopped nuts, with the whole cookies dredged in icing sugar to provide even more sweetness.

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This is a very easy recipe to make. You just need to whip up the butter to get it nice and soft, then whip lots of air in as you add the sugar, egg yolk and various flavours. I’ve used vanilla as a background flavour, and combined it with brandy and orange blossom water. It is also important to use toasted nuts in this recipe – the nuts all some crunch to contrast to the soft, crumbly texture of the biscuit, but toasting them means the cookies had a richer flavour.

Shaping them is a doddle too – I found that it was worth chilling the dough slightly before shaping, as it made it a little easier to handle, but otherwise just scoop up spoonfuls of the mixture and roll them in your hands. However, I would not recommend my usual roll-into-a-sausage-and-cut-into-slices approach, as the mixture is a bit too soft for that. Tablespoons all the way!

Once you have baked the kourabiedes, you get another chance to add more flavour. I’ve seen recipes where Greek matriarchs liberally sprinkle ouzo over the hot cookies, which might be the way to go if you like aniseed flavours. I went for a less adventurous option and brushed them with some brandy cut with a little rosewater. There was a little sizzle, a puff of steam and a lovely aroma!

While the kourabiedes are still warm, you also need to get them into a dish full of icing sugar. They will still be fragile, so handle them with care. The icing sugar will combine with the butter in the cookies to form a sweet coating, then move them to a cooling rack and use a sieve to give them another coating of icing sugar. Get into the festive mood by imagining that this is snow. Then leave them to cool, and pile them high on a plate to serve alongside good strong coffee, or perhaps that herbal tea you picked up on holiday in Greece.

Καλά Χριστούγεννα (Kala Hristouyienna, Greek for Merry Christmas)!

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To make Kourabiedes (makes around 30)

For the dough:

• 250g unsalted butter
• 125g icing sugar
• 1 egg yolk
• 1 tablespoon brandy

• 1 tablespoon orange blossom water
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 75g toasted almonds, ground
• 75g toasted almonds, chopped
• 1 tablespoon baking powder
• 300g plain flour
• pinch of salt

To finish:

• 1 tablespoon brandy
• 1/4 teaspoon rosewater
• icing sugar, to cover

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F) and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

2. Put the butter in a bowl and beat well until light and fluffy. Add the icing sugar and egg yolk, and beat for another couple of minutes. Mix in the brandy, orange blossom water and vanilla and give it another good whip, then fold in the ground almonds.

3. In a separate bowl, combine the chopped almonds, flour, baking powder and salt. Fold into the butter mixture and mix until it all comes together. You might need to use your hands at the end. Pop in the fridge to chill for 10 minutes.

4. Take generous spoonfuls of the dough. Roll half of them into balls, transfer to a baking sheet and flatten slightly. Roll the other pieces of dough into balls, then shape them into crescent shapes and transfer a baking sheet.

5. Bake the cookies in batches of 12 for around 15 until just golden, turning them half-way to get an even bake. In the meantime, mix the brandy and rosewater in a dish.

6. Once baked, remove from the oven and brush immediately with the brandy-rosewater mixture. Allow to cool for a moment, then roll them in icing sugar. Transfer to a cooking rack, and dust generously with more icing sugar and leave to cool.

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{7} Florentines

I can never resist a good Florentine. There is something about those golden discs of caramel, studded with cherries, citrus, nuts and ginger and dipped in chocolate that is just magical. They might not strictly be a Christmas treat, but I think they lend themselves very well to this time of year.

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In my younger days, I assumed that Florentines were named after the city of Florence, but it turns out this is only partly true. I should have suspected this to be the case when, years ago, I had a few hours to explore Florence while waiting for a train connection (and hey, it was Florence, I was hardly going to hang out at the station for three hours!). Were there shops groaning under the weight of these biscuits? No. I found one pasticceria selling square Florentines, so I cut my losses and went with one of them. But clearly this was not a biscuit that the citizens of this city were clutching close to their collective bosom.

So what is the truth? Well, this is lost in the mists of time, but the name probably has something to do with the French, and the resemblance of these caramel discs to the gold coins of Florence (incidentally, the British two shilling coin was also known as the florin).

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There are two ways you can make these cookies. If you drop spoonfuls onto a baking sheet lined with greaseproof paper, they will spread out and you get large, crisp and delicate Florentines (there is enough butter in them to prevent sticking). However, you can drop small teaspoons into the bottom of a non-stick muffin tray – they’ll be slightly thicker but perfectly round so good if you’re giving them as a gift and need to travel with them and want them to look fancy. My pictures are of these “neat” Florentines, and I think they look very pretty.

However…if you’re going to use a muffin tray, please make sure that it is sufficiently non-stick! I assumed non-stick means non-stick. Well, I have two pans. One works like a dream, but the other is anything but non-stick. I found myself trying and ultimately failing to remove one batch from the tray, and had to junk the lot. As the mixture does not need to be baked quickly, you can take your time and do a test version to make sure it works. If it doesn’t, just switch to making the bigger versions using a tray with greaseproof paper. You don’t want all that work to go to waste and they will still taste fantastic!

To finish them off, you can leave them as they are (or “naked Florentines” as I’ve seen them called) but I think you really do need to spread one side with chocolate. If you are a milk or white chocolate fiend, then by all means go for it, but I think it really has to be dark chocolate on these little beauties. I think it works so well with the toasted nuts, ginger and citrus in the biscuits, and why mess with a classic? To make them look impressive, use tempered chocolate for a nice shine and snap, and use a fork to make a wave pattern in the chocolate.

Incidentally, if you think you’ll do a lot of dipping things in chocolate, it really is worth getting a food thermometer. They are not expensive and it means you can get your chocolate to the right temperatures. I’ve tried various methods over the years, but using the thermometer is hands down the easiest and most reliable method I’ve every tried. Never have dull chocolate again!

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In terms of the ingredients, you can play around with them to get a mixture that you like. You can use slivered almonds instead of flaked, or swap some of the almonds for pistachios, hazelnuts or even a handful of jumbo rolled oats. You can also adjust the proportions of cherries, peel, ginger and sultanas, or even omit some of them altogether, but try to keep to the same overall weight. You can even go for a retro vibe if you can get your hands on some green candied angelica – I remember those flecks of bright green in Florentines from my childhood, but it seems to have vanished from most supermarket shelves these days. If you find some – it’s a sign that you should make Florentines!

To make Florentines (makes around 24)

Dry ingredients

• 90g flaked or slivered almonds
• 90g glacé cherries
• 60g candied peel, chopped
• 20g glace ginger
• 30g sultanas
• 15g plain flour

For the caramel

• 45g butter
• 30g soft brown sugar
• 30g white sugar
• 1 tablespoon double cream
• large pinch of salt

To finish

• 150g dark chocolate

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F). For large Florentines, line two large baking trays with greaseproof paper rubbed with a little butter. For small Florentines, get a non-stick muffin tray and rub lightly with butter.

2. Prepare the dry ingredients – chop the cherries, peel and ginger as you prefer, then add the almonds, sultanas and flour. Toss so that everything is coated and well-mixed.

3. Make the caramel – in a small saucepan, heat the butter and sugars. Bring to the boil, then take off the heat, add the cream and salt, and stir well. Pour onto the dry ingredients and mix well.

4. Put generous teaspoonfuls of the mixture onto a baking sheet or into a muffin tray. If using a baking sheet, flatten them as much as you can, but leave enough space for them to expand as they bake.

5. Bake the Florentines for 8 minutes, turning around half-way to get an even bake. They will be soft at first, but will harden as they cool.

6. To finish the Florentines, melt the chocolate (for a professional finish, you want to temper it – find out here). Using a teaspoon, spread some chocolate on the underside of each Florentine, then using a fork to make a wave pattern in the chocolate. It might not be obvious at first, but you’ll see it once the chocolate sets.

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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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