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{11} Marquesas de Navidad

I’m all for including a bit of history around Christmas treat, and I assumed that marquesas de navidad had some long historical pedigree – with sugar, lemon and almonds, they share a lot in common with marzipan. Some sort of medieval delicacy? Something enjoyed during the heyday of the Spanish Empire by Queen Isabella? Their name means “marchioness of Christmas” which sounds very noble indeed. And they are made in these unusual square shapes – obviously special, as I had to hunt high and low to find them.

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Well…no. Apparently they were created as recently as 1924 by a confectioner in the town of Sonseca in the Spanish region of Toledo. They were a hit, their popularity spread, and the rest is history. Still, it is nice that new Christmas baking appears from time to time – and of course, everything was baked for the first time at some point in the past!

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While a comparatively new kid on the block, these marquesas are very straightforward to make – just whip eggs and sugar, then fold in the remaining dry ingredients. The result is a bit like a marzipan cake – they’ve got a fresh note from the lemon zest, and the lovely perfume of almonds, but they are also very light. Simple and delicious. Perfect!

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To make Marquesas de Navidad (makes 10)

• 2 large eggs
• zest of a lemon
• 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
• 60g caster sugar
• 60g icing sugar
• 125g ground almonds

• 20g plain flour
• 20g cornflour
• 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
• icing sugar, for dusting

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F). Line a muffin tray with 12 paper cases.

2. Put the eggs, caster sugar, lemon zest and almond extract into a large bowl. Beat with an electric whisk for at least 5 minutes until thick and foamy.

3. Mix the ground almonds, icing sugar, flour, cornflour and baking powder, then fold into the egg mixture in three portions. Try not to knock too much air out of the mixture – you should end up with a thick batter that still flows.

4. Fill the cake cases to three-quarters full. Bake for 12-15 minutes until puffed and golden.

5. Remove the baked marquesas from the oven and leave to cool – the tops will sink and create dimples in the top. Dust with icing sugar before serving.

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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.

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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.

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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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Scottish Food: Petticoat Tails

This evening is Burns Night, so time to celebrate all things Scottish! However, things like haggis can be a bit of an acquired taste, so I’ve gone for one of those perennial favourites, shortbread. Or more specifically, the rather pretty looking Petticoat Tails, a large disc of shortbread with a decorated edge and cut into elegant triangles.

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The actual origin of this rather curious name is lost, but there are a few suggestions. One is that the shortbread disc was said to resemble the stitches sections of cloth that formed the petticoats of ladies when them were laid out on the floor. Other ideas are less romantic, noting that the name could derive from petits cotés, a type of pointed biscuit, or the old French term for little biscuits, petites gastelles. Whatever the real source of the name, they are a perennial favourite and Mary, Queen of Scots was reputed to have been particularly fond of these sweet, buttery biscuits.

Petticoat Tails are very easy to make. You just need three ingredients (sugar, salted butter and flour), then roll out the dough, trim it and shape it, so it is perfect if you want to make in small batches. I think it is vital to use salted butter – that salt adds a little extra something, and takes biscuits from being a bit sweet but bland and into being rich and buttery with a tiny hint of caramel. The only other  tricks are to make sure that once you’re cut and shaped the dough, it should be chilled for about half an hour, then put into a fairly low oven and left to turn a golden colour.

When you make Petticoat Tails, you will have some offcuts when you cut out the giant disc. However, don’t throw them away! Collect them up, roll into a sausage and leave to chill in the fridge. You can then cut into thin slices and bake them until golden to enjoy with a cup of tea. Two bakes for the price of one!

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To make Petticoat Tails:

• 100g caster sugar
• 225g salted butter
• 300g plain flour
• 50g cornflour (not cornmeal)

1. Cream the butter until soft, then add the sugar and beat until light and fluffy.

2. Add the plain flour and cornflour, and mix to a soft dough. It might be easiest to use your hands, particularly if you’re working in a cold room.

3. Lay a sheet of greaseproof paper on a baking tray, put the dough on top and roll it out. Use a plate, a tin or some sort of circle as a template and cut out a disc (mine was 24cm diameter). Trim away the excess.

4. Decorate the shortbread – use a knife to divide the disc into eight, cutting about half-way into the dough. Use your fingers, a fork or whatever utensil you like the crimp or decorate the edge. Use a cocktail stick to make random holes on each piece. Put the whole tray into the fridge for 30 minutes.

5. Preheat the oven to 160°C (320°F). Put the tray into the oven, and bake for around 40 minutes until golden. You might need to turn the tray round half-way, and adjust the time as needed – thinner shortbread will cook more quickly than thicker pieces.

6. When the shortbread is ready, remove from the oven and sprinkle lightly with caster sugar and leave to cool completely.

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{1} Vaniljekranse (Danish Vanilla Wreaths)

Hello and welcome to my annual “12 Days of Christmas” festive baking extravaganza! I realise I’m a little late this year in getting started, but fret not, that just means I have been busy in the kitchen whipping up a few goodies. I’ve got a series of treats lined up which, if the past is any guide to the future, means that I will manage to do the first few posts in a calm and orderly fashion, before doing a series of posts for items eight to twelve in a panic in the final days before Christmas. Well, as I’ve said before, it is not Christmas if I’m not slightly losing it in the kitchen surrounded by nuts, marzipan, icing sugar and a range of spices. Long live tradition! If you’re curious, check out my baking from 2011, 2012 and 2013.

Today I’m turning my hand to vaniljekranse which are a traditional Danish biscuit. You’re probably familiar with them if you’ve ever had the chance to dive into a tin of Danish butter biscuits. Funny thing is, you used to see them all the time when I was younger, but not these days. I wonder where they’ve all gone? Perhaps I need to start going to more coffee mornings? Well, now I can make them myself.

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My inspiration to have a go at these came from Gitte at My Danish Kitchen. If these tasty buttery biscuits give you a hankering for more delicious delights, do head on over there are check out more Danish cooking.

The fun part of making vaniljekranse is that you get to use a biscuit press or piping bag. You squeeze out long strips of dough, then trim them and form them into little rings. Overall, these are actually really easy to make, but they do reward a little patience and some trial and error.

First off, there doesn’t seem to be a single standard recipe for making these (or at least not one that I found), so I recommend making your dough, then doing a test batch of a few rings. If they hold their shape, great. If they melt and go flat, add more flour and try again. You’ll probably develop a feel for how they dough should be – the dough needs to be firm, but still pliable enough to pipe out the strips – but better to lose a few test cookies than a whole batch. And when it comes to making the shapes, I found a simple ring (squeeze out the dough, cut, form into a circle) was a bit plain. To tackle this, I twisted the strips of dough slightly before shaping them, which made for more interesting shape.

Now, these cookies are delicious as they are, but if you want to make them a little more fancy, you can also try dipping them in dark chocolate, as I did with half of my batch. If you’re going to do this, think about using salted butter in the dough or adding a couple of generous pinches of salt to balance the sweetness and the flavour of the chocolate. The only problem is stopping at just one!

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To make Vaniljekranse (makes around 80):

• 150g unsalted butter
• 170g white caster sugar

• 1 egg
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1 vanilla pod, seeds only
• 70g blanched almonds, finely ground
• 255g plain flour
• 50g cornflour

1. Beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Mix in the eggs, almonds and vanilla extract. Finally add the plain flour and cornflour and mix to a smooth dough. Wrap in cling film and chill for 30 minutes.

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

3. Put the dough into a cookie press or a piping bag with a star nozzle. Squeeze strips of around 12cm (4.5 inches), twist them slightly, and form into rings. Place on the baking sheet leaving some space to allow them to expand.

4. Bake for 8-10 minutes until golden.

Worth making? I love these! Easy to make, just be prepared for lots and lots of cookies at the end of it!

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Rødgrød med Fløde

Chances are you’re probably sitting there wondering what on Earth does that mean and how do I even begin to pronounce it?

Well, it is Danish, and a literal translation is “red groats with cream”. However, you can translate it more freely as the enticing-sounding Danish red berry pudding with cream. Something like this.

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I say something like this as this is one of those recipes that looks oh-so-simple, but in reality, many people have their own version, and everyone thinks not only that theirs is best, but that theirs is the only way to make it. So for any Danes out there that happen to read this, I’m fully aware that you’ll be rolling your eyes, and possibly tutting, but I think this version tastes pretty decent, and at the end of the day, that’s what matters.

My first experience with the words rødgrød med fløde was actually way back in the late 1990s, when I was an exchange student in Germany. There were a couple of Danes in our group, and the communal view at the time was that it was a “robust” language to outsiders with a “unique” sound. The Danes thought it was hilarious to ask us to pronounce rødgrød med fløde, which we all got spectacularly wrong. I just could not force myself to make those sounds! All to do with the fact that Danes swallow a lot of the contestants at the end of words, so what you might think is something like roo-d groo-d med floo-hd is closer to rhye-gry-meh-floo-e. If you’re keen to find out, you can hear people getting it right here. Then try to copy them – see how hard it is?

But anyway, for all the humour of those words, I’ve never actually had the pleasure of trying rødgrød med fløde. So how do we make it? The starting point for any batch is lots and lots of delicious summer berries, ideally red. This is the sort of dessert that really is best made when fruit is at its most ripe and the peak of deliciousness! We’re not looking for fruit that looks perfect, it’s all about taste.

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As I mentioned, there are lots and lots of versions of rødgrød med fløde out there, but at its most basic, this is recipe that calls for fruit juice that is lightly sweetened, and then thickened slightly with starch (potato flour or cornflour), then cooled and served with lashings of cream. Lashings of cream. However, even within what seems like a pretty easy recipe, there is lots of scope for variety.

Many people seem to cook the berries, then purée the lot by pushing it through a sieve. I have to admit that I’m not too keen on this approach – I like my fruit either totally smooth or in recognisable pieces. I’m just not too keen on anything that seems like mush or has lots of stringy “bits” bobbing around in it. At the other end of the scale, some recipes suggest cooking the fruit, but then straining the liquid through muslin to get a clear red juice (a bit like making jelly). This would apparently result in a clear ruby-red colour and velvet-smooth texture, but I thought it was wasteful as you would throw away a lot of the fruit (and all the fibre from those seeds!). Then other recipes took a more pragmatic approach – just boil up all the fruit, then thicken the lot. Easy, albeit with more of a thickened fruity mush.

However, there were a few suggestions that combined the second and third approaches – making some fruit into a juice, then adding more whole fruit to the juice just before adding the starch. This looked like the best option by far. I love how berries look like little jewels, so it would be a shame to lose that completely. So I cooked up some of my fruit to turn into juice – in fact, this approach was useful as I was using some rhubarb in my version, and I wanted that lovely tart flavour without the stringy “bits”. Once my fruit had cooked down, I put the lot into a muslin bag, but rather than just letting it drip to get a clear juice, I happily gave it a good old squeeze. Maximum fruit, minimum “bits”, and who really cares about the pudding being slightly cloudy? I then put the juice back into a pan, added some berries, and cooked the lot lightly before adding some cornflour to get a thickened texture. Remember you’re aiming for something like a pouring custard, not glue! The result was the colour of garnet or red damask – luxurious, sumptuous, intense.

In terms of the fruit I used, I looked to tradition. In Denmark, redcurrants (ribs) are very popular, and apparently some Danes grow redcurrant bushes just to make this dish. Next were some raspberries (hindbær) – in my view, no summer fruit selection is complete without them. This probably comes from summers when I was very young, spent picking rasps, several plastic punnets attached to a plastic string around my waist (allows for faster two-handed picking, important when you’re keen to earn your first ever £100 as soon as possible!). They also have the requisite glorious red colour you want for this dessert, but they are a complex fruit – sweet, yes, but also aromatic and also a little tart too.

Strawberries (jordbær) are also favourites, and rhubarb (rabarber) seems to feature quite a lot. Personally I love rhubarb and I think small pieces of tender pink rhubarb in there would be delicious, and all a little gentle sharpness to balance the sweetness. However, I only had bigger stalks, so I used them for their juice rather than having big bits bobbing about. Blackcurrants (solbær) and blueberries (blåbær) will also work, but they will also have an effect on the colour, but then again, the flavour will still be delicious, so that is something you could easily live with. Another choice would be cherries (kirsebær), but I didn’t have any to hand. You could even go a bit crazy and omit anything red, going instead for a combination of whitecurrants and gooseberries, but then your dessert would not be red, and you miss your chance to ask people to pronounce the name!

Once I had made my spectacularly-coloured pudding, I mused on whether I should add another flavour. Cardamom is a classic Nordic flavour, but I was not really sure it was what I wanted with fresh summer berries. What about spices like cinnamon? Well, not really. Again, I think ripe fruit stands on its own here, but if you were making this with plums or brambles later in the year, then a little dash of cinnamon or clove would be really lovely. But in summer time – it just has to be pure, lovely fruit!

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Once you’ve made rødgrød med fløde you need to give some serious thought to how to present it. First off, leave it to cool, or if you prefer, chill it in the fridge. Now, go off and find some suitable serving dishes. A lot of people seem to like ice cream cups, but I think the most spectacular way to present it is by adding a few generous spoonfuls to a wide dish, then adding a tablespoon of cream in a dramatic swirl. This will leave a fantastic and fairly stable colour contrast that will impress guests and provide a neat little nod to the red-and-white of the Danish flag. And when it comes to cream, go for the real deal. Not some low-fat version or a cream substitute. You want rich, golden, full-fat double cream!

In terms of taste, this dessert is wonderful. Rich and fruity, but also a little but sharp from the rhubarb, all balanced with cool, luxurious double cream. This really is a perfect dessert for the final days of summer.

And just the day after I made this, the weather changed. Autumn has arrived.

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To make Rødgrød med Fløde (serves 6):

Note the specific quantities of each fruit don’t really matter, just as long as you use equivalent weights of whatever you have to hand.

Part 1 – the juice

• 300g rhubarb, chopped
• 150g redcurrants
• 50g blueberries
• 200g strawberries, quartered
• 100g raspberries
• 150g sugar
• 300ml water

Part 2 – for the rødgrød med fløde

• 150g redcurrants
• 50g blueberries
• 50g blackcurrants
• 150g strawberries, quartered
• 50g sugar
• 100ml water
• 3 tablespoons cornflour

To serve

• double cream

1. Put the “part 1” berries into a saucepan. Bring to the boil then simmer very gently, covered, for 20 minutes. Break up the fruit with a wooden spoon, then strain through a muslin bag. When cool, give the bag a good squeeze to get as much juice as you can. Discard the seeds and skins.

2. Put the juice in a saucepan. Add the “part 2” fruit, sugar and water. Heat gently then simmer on a low heat, covered, for 10 minutes.

3. Mix the cornflour with a little water, and add to the fruit mixture. Stir well until it is smooth and thickened. If too thin, add a little more cornflour, it too thick, add a little water. Check the flavour – add more sugar if needed, or add a few drops of lemon juice if too sweet.

4. Pour the mixture into a bowl, cover with cling film and leave to cool.

5. Serve in individual bowls topped with double cream.

Worth making? This is a wonderful, fresh-tasting and luxurious dessert, with the benefit that it can be easily prepared in advance. Highly recommended!

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Thistle Shortbread for Burns Night

Hoots! Tomorrow is Burns Night, the unofficial celebration of all things Scottish in general, and specifically the life and times of the national poet, Robert (Robbie) Burns. Up and down the land, people will enjoy traditional fare consisting of haggis, neeps and tatties (swede and potatoes). Simple stuff, but usually rounded off with a lot of whisky and followed with a poetry recital and some energetic Scottish folk dancing.

As part of all this national pride, I’ve made some shortbread tablets with that traditional Scottish icon, the thistle. I’ve actually seen this mould sold online as a pineapple (“the symbol of generosity”) but if you know Scotland and the Scots, I don’t think they’re know for their pineapples or their (financial) generosity. Hospitality yes, but don’t expect them to walk around dishing out five pound notes. They’re a bit more “canny” (shrewd) than that.

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I got rather into making moulded biscuits at Christmas, and I’ll admit that I got a bit cocky. I assumed that I had mastered using the smaller Springerle moulds, learning the knack of sprinkling flour onto the dough then pressing the mould into it. However, what works on a cookie this size of a domino fails rather dramatically when you make a large biscuit the size of a side plate. Instead, I had to go back to the instructions that came with the wooden mould, which directed me to press the dough into the well-floured mould, then whack it with quite some force onto the baking tray (“being careful not to break the mould”). Well, it was more farce than force, but after three attempts, it worked, and I got what seemed like a nice, sharp impression.

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I was keen to use a recipe that didn’t puff up in the oven. I like light shortbread, and while it can be nice if a little airy, when you’re making a moulded biscuit like this, you want to be sure that it will remain pin-sharp after baking. As you can see from the picture, the image is not incredibly sharp after baking, but I rather like the rustic look that they have. If things turn our too perfect, you may as well buy them.

There’s also a little superstition about shortbread tablets – it is said that if given as a gift, you need to make sure that they are presented whole, and never broken up. The reason for this is that the shortbread symbolises luck, so a whole tablet is good luck and a broken piece is like shattering the mirror in someone’s front room and then blaming the cat. Alright, this is not quite accurate – the tradition only applies when presenting a shortbread to a new bride just after her marriage, but I think it could hold true whoever the recipient is. It’s also fun to bring it to the table and give someone the honour of breaking it into pieces.

If shortbread’s not your thing, then there are a few other pieces of Scottish culinaria that you could try. On the drinks side, you’ve got time to magic up a batch of Atholl Brose, the preferred tipple of Queen Victoria when she was in the Highlands. It is made from oats, honey, cream and whisky, and has a flavour not unlike Bailey’s. I made it last year for Hogmanay and it went down well indeed.

If that is not your thing, you could try another Scottish dessert – fresh orange slices with their own juice, a little honey and a dash of whisky. Very simple, but wonderful and so welcome after a heavy meal! Alternatively, you could make cranachan (with oats, cream, raspberries and honey), Scottish macaroon bars (lots of sugar and, eh, potato), tooth-achingly sweet tablet or the famous Ecclefechan butter tart. If sweet things are not your thing, some savoury options are good old-fashioned oatcakes or clapshot (a tasty mixture of potato and turnip/swede). Go forth and explore the cuisine of Scotland!

Wishing you a Happy Burns Night 2013!

To make shortbread:

Makes 2 shortbreads

• 175g plain flour
• 50g cornflour
• 50g caster sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
• 115g salted butter, chopped

1. Preheat the oven to 160°C (325°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper (all the butter in the dough will ensure it does not stick, no need to grease).

2. Sift the flour, cornflour and sugar into a bowl. Add the butter and work with your fingertips until you have a soft dough. It will come together eventually. You can add a drop or two of water if you need to – but only a drop (and I didn’t use any).

3. Shape the dough – either press into a shortbread mould, or roll out and cut into fingers, or use biscuit cutters to shape the pieces. Place the shaped shortbread onto the baking sheet.

4. Bake until the shortbread a pale golden colour (around 40 minutes for a large pieces, smaller biscuits may cook in as little as 10 minutes). Remove from the oven, sprinkle with caster sugar, and leave to cool completely. Once cooled, shake off any excess sugar.

Worth making? This is a rich, short, simple biscuit which is one of the classics of Scottish baking. Lovely in small pieces after a meal or just with a cup of tea.

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Scottish food: Shortbread, the National Biscuit

Ah, tomorrow is 25 January, Burns Night!

To mark the event, what could be more fitting than the classic Scottish biscuit, shortbread? Just butter, sugar and flour, but combined and baked, they turn into something meltingly delicious, buttery, sweet and incredibly more-ish. There really are few things better with a cup of tea. If you visit Edinburgh or Glasgow, you will see the stuff everywhere, but in my humble view, quite right too.

I like to keep shortbread simple, so I don’t go crazy with flavours. Of course, shortbread can be great with vanilla, spices, citrus peel, dried fruit or chocolate chips, and I would not turn it down if it were offered to me. I just happen to think that the simple sweet, buttery flavour is just great on its own. I will go as far as adding a little pinch of salt, but that’s about it. The only tweak that I make is to add a couple of spoonfuls of cornflour in place of some of the plain flour, which makes the shortbread just that little bit more melting when you eat it. But be sure just to add a little!

Shortbread is also a great recipe if you are looking for biscuits that keep their shape. No egg, baking powder or water, so the biscuits might puff up just a little bit, but generally come out of the oven as you put them in. If you are shopping, you might be tempted by the fancy, intricate petticoat tails variety, but at home, it’s usually a choice between rounds or fingers. I prefer fingers – far easier to dip into your tea! At this stage, I have to confess to being a bit of a nerd – I use a metal rule to cut the dough into strips, the measure equal lengths of dough to make all the shortbread the same size. But hey, sprinkled with sugar and baked, they do look good!

To make shortbread:

• 50g icing sugar
• 100g unsalted butter
• 150g plain flour (or 125g plain flour plus 25g cornflour)
• pinch of salt

Preheat the oven to 180°C (375°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

In a bowl, combine the butter and sugar until creamy. Add the flour and salt, and work until you have a smooth dough. You will probably have to use your hands towards the end.

Sprinkle a worktop with flour, and turn out the dough. Roll to 1cm thickness, and use a cutter or a knife to make the biscuits. Transfer to the baking sheets, and chill the biscuits for 30 minutes in the fridge.

Top the shortbread with a sprinkling of caster sugar, and bake for 15-20 minutes until the biscuits are a pale golden colour.

Worth making? A super-simple recipe that provides a melt-in-the-mouth texture. Can also be customised according to taste with spices, citrus peel, vanilla, chocolate chips or dried fruit.

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