Tag Archives: finland

{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.

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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.

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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.

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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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{4} Piparkakut

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

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

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

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

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

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

Makes around 40-50 cookies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Karelian Pastries

These curious looking little fellows are one of Finland’s oldest dishes, called Karelian pies (Karjalanpiirakat) – simple savoury rice pies in a rye crust.

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Now, when it comes to pies, there is a lot of competition out there. Dozens of different cheeses, delicious vegetables and exotic and interesting spices to tempt the hungry. In such a competitive field, you might think that something that sounds as boring as “savoury rice pies” might not be a winner. But trust me on this one – I’ve had them in Finland and loved them, and the were equally delicious when I made them back home. Think of this as two types of carbs, baked with butter – now if you were in Finland and there was three feet of snow outside, you’d probably be in the mood for that sort of thing!

So what makes them so good? The fact they are delicious may or may not have something to do with the fact that the rye pastry is dipped in or brushed with melted salted butter just before baking, making it crisp and (unsurprisingly) buttery. The filling is a thick rice pudding, made with milk and a little salt, so it is both rich and satisfying savoury. The end result? These simple little rice pies are really rather addictive!

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The good news is that these pies are very easy to make, and you’ve probably got everything that you need in the cupboard right now. If you want to omit the milk and/or butter, then that’s easy too, so they can be veganised or made lactose-free too. They’re nice warm, but equally good cold, so they are a great addition to a picnic. The only drawback is that it is very tempting to have just one more, and then just one more again. So if you do whip up a batch, make sure you have enough!

I also love how they look – they seem rather fancy and impressive, but shaping them is quite straightforward. Just roll out the dough, add the filling, then crimp the edges with you fingers. Make it complex or make it as simple as you like – every baker seems to have their own version, but I wanted to go for something that was small and could be munched in a couple of bites. You can easily adapt this recipe to make fewer larger pies, or double it to make more.

If you want to enjoy these the traditional Finnish way, top them with a spoonful of chopped hard-boiled egg mixed with (you guessed it) more butter.

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Makes around 10:

For the filling

• 75g short grain rice (such as arborio or pudding rice)
• 130ml water
• 400ml milk

• 1/2 teaspoon salt

For the pastry:

• 125g rye flour
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 2 teaspoons vegetable oil
• 100ml water

To finish:

• 100g salted butter, melted

1. Start with the filling. Put the water in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Add the rice and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the milk, and continue to cook over a low heat, uncovered, until you have a thick rice pudding texture (30-40 minutes). Add the salt, stir well, cover and put to one side to allow to cool.

2. Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper, and preheat the oven to 220°C (425°F).

3. Make the pastry. Mix the rye flour and the salt. Add the oil and then add enough water to make a soft dough that is not sticky.

4. Roll the dough into a long sausage, and cut into 10 equal pieces. Roll each piece into a ball, then roll out on a floured worktop to make a circle of around 10-12cm diameter.

5. Divide the filling between the pastry circles – around 2 tablespoons each (tip: make sure the filling is cool – if it is warm, the dough can soften and make them harder to handle). Take each pie, and life the edges and press inwards to make an oval shape. Use your fingers to crimp the edges so that the pastry holds the filling in the pie.

6. Take each finished pie and dip the pastry into the melted butter. You can do this with your hands or a slotted spoon, or use a pastry brush to coat the pastry.

7. Arrange the pies on the baking tray and bake for 15-20 minutes until the pastry is golden and the filling is just starting to colour.

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Nordic Inspiration

Today is a bit of a special offer, as I’m going to share not just one but two recipes on an autumnal theme. This all seems very fitting, as my morning walk to the local underground station had definitely changed from being warm or even just cool, and is now decidedly crisp with a little prickle of cold in the air.

I’ve been busy in the kitchen making cinnamon buns. I actually make them quite often, and took a batch to work last week for my birthday. I think they lasted less than three minutes, and I got five requests for the recipe. The lesson? If you’re keen to be a much-loved co-worker, fresh and buttery baked goods will always go down well. However, this time I’ve add a twist to my standard recipe. In addition to the buttery cinnamon filling, I’ve added a rich seam of apple jam running though them, with the seasonal flavours of apple and spice joining forces.

My inspiration came from an event at the Nordic Bakery in London a few days ago. In celebration of Cinnamon Bun Day on 4 October, they are offering five daily specials over the course of this week. I think it’s a great idea to put a twist on the classic, and I find it rather amusing that the Swedish idea of celebrating them for one day has been taken by people from Finland, extended to a week, and thereby made better. Below you can get a bit of an idea of their tasty Finnish wares from a visit to their branch near Piccadilly Circus during summer.

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The five flavours on offer are lemon and raisin, blueberry, almond and custard, apple jam and finally chocolate buttons. As we’re just heading into day five of five, I’m afraid you’ve missed most of them, but you can still nab the apple jam version on Friday.

I also had a chat with Miisa Mink, the lady behind the Nordic Bakery, and she shared her ideas about selecting flavours. The apple jam ones were a traditional Finnish ingredient and a favourite of her father. My verdict on the five flavours was that the blueberry and chocolate versions were good, but the apple jam was a bit of a star for me (maybe something to do with a strategic selection of the piece that had the largest pieces of jammy fruit peeking out from between the layers of pastry?). You can see some of them below – yes, they’re cut into pieces, but really, who could eat five whole buns and remain standing at the end of it all? I mean, I tried my best, but I did have to admit defeat eventually!

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So, if you’re a cinnamon bun fan and want to try these specialities, head to the Nordic Bakery. Otherwise, do as I did, and draw on them for a bit of inspiration.

Yes, after I had tried those apple jam buns, I decided that I would try to make something similar. My first task was to make the most of a few organic apples that were languishing in my kitchen and starting to look just a little bit forlorn. OK, that is perhaps a bit harsh – they actually looked more like real apples should look, with varying colours, sizes and a few little bumps and bruises.

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Unlike some of the other jams that can involve a fair bit of work to prepare the fruit, this one was easy. Peel, core, chop, add sugar and boil. Very easy, and the apples were transformed into something sweet, sticky and delicious with a rather pretty soft pink colour. If you’re only looking for a way to use up apples, then you can just make the jam, and look to flavour it with whatever spices you like – cinnamon and apple is classic, but you could get good results with cardamom, star anise or cloves (just be sure that you get the amount of spice right – with cloves in particular, a little goes a long way!). And there you go…first recipe of the day!

However, the real fun comes when you add the apple jam as a filling into cinnamon buns. I tweaked my standard recipe by omitting the cardamom that usually goes into the dough, and replacing it with nutmeg. I also swapped out the white sugar for soft brown sugar, and instead of the usual sprinkling of white pearl sugar, I gave them a shiny coating of brown sugar glaze. The result? Pinwheels of warm, delicious, apple-infused goodness.

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As you can see, not a bad result! And thanks have to go do Nordic Bakery for giving me the idea to have a go at them at home. I urge you to try them, but if you’re feeling a bit lazy/desperate but still want to get into the celebratory spirit of Cinnamon Bun Day, you can still hot foot it down there and nab the apple jam buns today!

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Full disclosure: I didn’t get paid for writing this post. I just positioned myself next to the table when the five types of bun were revealed and ate A LOT of them during my visit!

To make Apple Jam Cinnamon Buns (makes 12):

For the apple jam:

• 450g peeled apples, finely chopped
• 250g jam sugar (with pectin)
• 1 lemon, juice only

1. Put the apples into a saucepan with some water. Bring to the boil, then simmer until soft.

2. Add the sugar, and simmer gently until it is dissolved. Bring to a rolling boil, then cook on a medium heat for 5 minutes. Add the lemon juice, then test from time to time for a set. You want a slightly soft set – the fruit should be “jammy” but it should not be thick or stiff.

3. Once the jam is ready, put to one side and leave to cool.

For the filling:

• 70g butter, soft
• 3 teaspoons ground cinnamon
• all the cooled apple jam

1. Mix the butter and cinnamon until smooth, then fold in the apple jam.

For the dough:

• 2 teaspoons instant yeast
• 50g brown sugar
• 60g butter
• 150ml milk, scalded and cooled
• 1 egg
• ½ teaspoon salt
• 1 generous teaspoon nutmeg or mace
• 325g strong white flour

1. First thing – whisk the egg and divide in two. You need half for the dough, and half for the glaze.

2a. If using a bread machine: put one portion of the egg and the rest of the ingredients into the mixing bowl. Run the “dough” cycle. Simples!

2b. If making by hand: put the flour and butter into a bowl, and rub with your fingers until the butter has been incorporated. Fold in the salt, sugar, cardamom and yeast. In a separate bowl, combine the milk and one portion of the egg, then pour into the dry ingredients. Stir with a spoon, then work with your hands until you have a smooth, stretchy, silky dough (at least 5 minutes). Leave the dough a warm place for an hour until the dough has doubled in size. Knock back and knead again for 2-3 minutes.

3. Once the dough is ready, turn it onto a floured surface. Roll into the largest rectangle you can. Spread with the filling, then roll up into a sausage. Use a sharp knife to cut into 12 slices.

4. Lay each slice, cut face up, on a bun case. Cover with cling film or a damp teacloth and leave to rise for at least an hour until doubled in size.

5. Preheat the oven to 200°C. Take the remaining egg (remember that?) and mix with a tablespoon of water. Brush the buns with the egg wash. Bake for about 12 minutes until golden. If they are browning too quickly, cover loosely with tin foil.

6. When the buns are done, remove from the oven and brush them while still warm with the hot glaze.

For the glaze:

• 50g soft brown sugar
• 50ml water

1. Put the sugar and water into a small saucepan. Bring to the boil for about a minute.

Worth making? Utterly delicious! These are like compact apple pies and add a whole new dimension to making cinnamon buns. I’m a convert!

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Kardemummainen Rahka-Mustikkapiiras (Finnish Blueberry Tart)

Now be honest – have you ever made a recipe from a tea towel? Well, today that is what served as my inspiration for this post. Sometimes it is travel, sometimes it is a mystery ingredient I bought on impulse, but today, it is a tea towel.

In fairness, this is not just any random tea towel. I got them as a gift from my friend Anne who was on holiday in Helsinki and St Petersburg over the summer. The theme is blueberries – one featuring two big black bears who have come across a woody glade filled with fruit, and the other has a rather full bear (complete with a blue tongue) and a recipe for a blueberry and sour cream tart – the Rahka-Mustikkapiiras in the title of this post.

These tea towels are from a Finnish company called Finlayson, a textile maker founded by a Scottish engineer called James Finlayson in 1820, who decided to set up a cotton mill in Tampere on Finland’s west coast. I like the idea of a brave pioneer decided to set out and live in one of the few places that is colder and darker than his native Scotland…but I’ve experienced the mosquitoes in Finland, so I’m sure they served as a reminder of the Scottish midges to cure any homesickness.

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Now, before I could even dream of using these cloths to dry things, I just had to try this recipe. The problem was that it is in Finnish, a language that I have no real idea about. A few trips to Finland have left me with the most limited of limited vocabulary extending as far as (and I am not making this up): yksi (one), kaksi (two), moi (hi), tervetuloa (welcome), kipis (cheers), glöggi (mulled wine), kiitos (thank you) and joulupukki (literally “Christmas Goat” but now closer to Father Christmas). So if I met two festive boks in the street, I would be able to count them, welcome them, toast with a glass of mulled wine and say thanks, which is clearly a very useful life skill indeed.

So…I had a recipe in a language I had not a hope of understanding. I could have looked online for a similar recipe and made that instead, but that felt a bit like cheating. Instead, I typed each and every strange word into a translation website, and got a rough approximation of a recipe. At least I knew what the ingredients were, how much I needed, and roughly what I should be doing with them. I say “roughly” because the method was a bit rough and ready. But still, this felt like quite an achievement!

So what is this mysterious tart? It is rather like a simple blueberry cheesecake with a cardamom-flavoured biscuit crust. During baking, the berries release some of their juice, and the surface of the tart takes on a lovely mottled purple pattern. The whole thing probably took me about 20 minutes to make, so it really is a very, very easy recipe to have a go at.

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Traditionally this tart is made with a thick yoghurt-like fermented milk called viili. Lacking easy access to Finnish produce in London, I just swapped it out for some tangy cream cheese, but I think you could equally easily use yoghurt, or crème fraîche.

So – how was the recipe? I had to admit, I had a couple of wobbles and made a few changes to the flavours. First off, my translation of the recipe suggested that I melt the butter, then pour into the rest of the pastry ingredients. My head was telling me that this would produce an oily pastry, and I was right. However, it was fairly easy to press into place and the end result was fine. However, if I was making this again, I would use softened butter (rather than melted) and cream everything together, which would also make the dough easier to work with. The recipe also calls for a teaspoon of ground cardamom, but I found that this was a bit too much when the tart was at room temperature. I would go for half a teaspoon for a milder flavour, but bizarrely, the flavour was less intense when the tart was chilled. I’ve suggested half a teaspoon below, but if you love the flavour of cardamom, then go crazy. In terms of the filling, I added more berries than the recipe called for (who doesn’t love more berries?), and used only half of the suggested teaspoon of vanilla extract. This final change was a good call, so that there was a hint of flavour rather than anything too overpowering.

All in all – this was a success. The tart is easy, looks great and it does plug into those fashionable Nordic flavours of blueberries and cardamom. This is lovely with a cup of coffee as the days of autumn get increasingly nippy. Maybe we should all be using tea towels to inspire our baking once in a while?

To make Finnish Blueberry Tart

Pastry

• 100g butter, softened
• 50ml sugar
• 1 egg, beaten
• 200g plain flour
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 1/2
teaspoon ground cardamom

Filling

• 400g blueberries (fresh or frozen)
• 50ml milk
• 200ml sour cream or 200g cream cheese (full fat versions!)
• 50g sugar
• 1 egg
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F).

2. Make the pastry – cream everything into a smooth dough. Press over the bottom and sides of pie dish – don’t worry about it being a little rough, the rustic look is part of the charm.

3. Sprinkle the blueberries into the pie dish. Mix the milk, sour cream/cream cheese, sugar, egg and vanilla until smooth. Pour slowly over the berries.

4. Bake for 30 minutes or until the filling is set (it should wobble, but not look runny). Remove from the oven and allow to cool. Serve cold.

Worth making? Yes! Who knew a tea towel recipe could be so good?

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{6} Ruiskakut (Finnish Rye Biscuits)

Are you someone who isn’t too keen on all those rich flavours like citrus, chocolate and spices in Christmas fayre? Then maybe these simple little Finnish rye biscuits are the thing for you!

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I, of course, am not one of those people that shuns spicy, fruity, nutty goodness at this time of year, but I’m still keen to try new things, and all the more so when they involve slightly more unusual ingredients. OK, rye is not exactly outré in the kitchen, but I’ve never come across it in sweet biscuits. So when I saw this idea, I really had to give it a bash.

While the name is a bit of a mouthful, this is a fairly straightforward biscuit, made with just butter, sugar, flour and rye. They are not particularly sweet, but the generous use of butter still makes them very rich. The rye flour adds some flavour, and also a little extra texture (or at least it did in my case – the flour I used still had some of the rye bran in the flour). Mine were probably a little sweeter than the traditional version, as I sprinkled them lightly with caster sugar. This isn’t necessary, and I would skip this if you want a less-sweet biscuit.

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The fun bit, of course, is how you shape them. You roll out the dough thinly and then cut into circles. Then use a fork to make little holes in the surface, and then cut out the middle. And voila! You have biscuits that bear more than a passing resemblance to Nordic rye crispbread.

Now, a little tip. I tried cutting out some circles, then removing the centres, and then piercing the holes with a fork. Doing it in this order made the edges a little messier, so I would recommend cut, pierce then cut out the centre if you want them to look as good as you can. Of course, nothing to stop you going a bit mad and cutting out stars, squares, angels or elks. Yes, I am the owner of an elk-shaped cutter. It might even feature in the near future…

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In Finland, these biscuits are tied to the Christmas tree and visitors invited to take one when they call. As you can see below, they look pretty attractive, in a rustic sort of way. However, I can tell you from experience that you might want to keep them above the height that little hands can reach for (that, or make sure that not too many of them are on offer at any one time…).

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If you are in the mood for some tree decorating fun, it’s worth knowing that these biscuits will get softer over time if left out. You can store them in an airtight container and hang on the tree as needed, but if the biscuits do get too soft, you can simply pop them back into a low oven for a couple of minutes to return them to perfect crispness.

While simplicity is sort of key to these, you could go for a more luxurious version by dipping them in dark chocolate. I haven’t had a go at that yet, but I think the nuttiness of the rye would work rather well.

To make Ruiskakut (makes 24):

• 50g soft brown sugar
• 115g unsalted butter
• 80g plain flour
• 60g rye flour
1 tablespoon cold water
• rye flour, for dusting
• caster sugar, for sprinkling

1. Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the plain flour, rye flour and cold water to make a smooth dough. Wrap in cling film and chill in the fridge for an hour.

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

3. Dust the worktop with rye flour. Roll out the dough to 1/4 cm thickness. Cut 8cm circles and transfer to the baking sheet. Spike with a fork and use a small cutter to make a hole in the middle of each biscuit. Sprinkle each biscuit lightly with caster sugar.

4. Bake the biscuits for around 10 minutes until golden. If necessary, turn the tray during baking to get an even colour. Remove from the oven, allow to sit for a moment (they come out very soft but soon harden) the leave to cool on a wire tray.

Worth making? Yes! The dough is easy to make, and the flavour simple but delicious. Very buttery with a nice crunch from the rye.

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Sienisalaatti

…or mushroom salad, if – like me – your knowledge of Finnish is less than fluent…

This was a little dish that I came across as a part of the Most Amazing Organic Breakfast at the Klaus K hotel when I was in Helsinki last summer for a wedding. It was hidden in amongst the breakfast goodies, and at first, it did not look all that dramatic. In terms of appearance, it was clearly overshadowed by bright orange buckthorn and vivid purple blueberry juices, cakes, cheeses, rolls and similar, but I’m a mushroom lover, and decided to take a little of it, just to try.

I must admit, this was with a slight twinge of reluctance, for their version was rather finely hacked, and a couple of us were looking at it for a while to work out whether it really was mushroom salad, or some disguised tuna mayo to catch out unwary visitors. Luckily, it was tuna-free, and it was delicious. So delicious. Utterly delicious! I kept going back for more, and by day three, I was piling the breakfast plate high with the stuff.

Given how good it tastes, this really is a rather simple recipe – sliced mushrooms, mixed with a savoury cream sauce. The only “trick” is that the mushrooms are boiled for a minute or two after slicing, so they take on a texture which is not quite raw, but they’re not as tough as they can been when they’ve been cooked for ages. They keep a little bite, but they are not too fragile. However, if you prefer your mushrooms fresh, I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t skip the cooking step and go raw.

I was pretty confident that I could work out a recipe for this salad myself – surely I just had to work out how to combine mushrooms, cream, salt, pepper and some chives. Well, I was more or less right on that. However, I checked a few sources, and was being recommended some horrific levels of salt. Two teaspoons to three tablespoons of cream! My brain was yelling to me that this was clearly far, far, far too much, so I decided to follow the method (cook the mushrooms in water with a squeeze of lemon juice, then make the sauce), but let myself be guided by by own sense of taste – just a little salt in the sauce, and then round it out with a dash of sugar and some freshly ground black pepper. This is also a good rule of thumb when you see a recipe, either in a book or online – read it, and think about it – does it work? Does it have everything you’re expecting? If someone promises the lightest, fluffiest cake but there is nothing in the method or the ingredients list to provide the necessary va-va-voom for lift off, are you really going to follow it blindly? Exactly!

With the mushrooms done and the sauce mixed to my taste, I combined the lot, and the flavour was almost perfectly as I remembered it. Substantial, earthy and intensely savoury. It reminded me a little of walking in the forest on a damp day – which is, in itself, a rather Nordic thing to do. But something wasn’t quite there. Then I remembered that I had not added any onion – it just needed a tablespoon of very finely shredded onion. I added it, and that did the trick – it just added that tiny extra tangy touch to finish off the dish.

So there you have it – a light, simply Finnish mushroom salad that you can enjoy when spring and summer finally get here, and a nice savoury contrast to the sweet Nordic goodies I’ve looked at recently (creamy semlor buns and cinnamon rolls). There has been a lot written of late about how this year we’re going to see Scandinavian and Nordic food become more popular, and frankly, it’s about time too! There are some real culinary gems in there waiting to be discovered. Think of dinner outside on a warm evening when the sun hardly sets…and given I am writing this as I see pouring rain and trails of water flowing down the glass, that cannot come soon enough for me!

To make sienisalaatti:

• 300g mushrooms (12 large-ish button mushrooms)
• Squeeze of lemon juice
• 3-4 tablespoons double cream
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• pinch of sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
• 1 tablespoon finely chopped onion or spring onion
• fresh chives, chopped, to serve

Wash the mushrooms and slice finely. Bring a pan of water to the boil, add a squeeze of lemon juice, then boil the mushrooms for 2 minutes. Drain and pat the mushrooms dry with some paper towel.

While the mushrooms are cooling, make the sauce – combine the cream, salt, sugar, pepper and onion. If too thick, add a dash of water. Taste and adjust the seasoning as required, the mix with the mushrooms. Just before serving, put into a bowl and sprinkle with chopped fresh chives.

Worth making? The only thing that is annoying with this reicpe is just how long I waited before making it. The flavour is absolutely delicious, the method is very easy, and it makes for a wonderful addition to dinner as a side dish, or as part of a breakfast spread. Highly recommended.

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…and a wedding in Helsinki

The week before, it was Dublin.

A few days later, I was in the airport, watching for the BA flight to Helsinki. Leaving early evening, but with a three-hour flight and a time difference, I was arriving at about midnight. Of course, none of this mattered – what did matter is that our friend Frank was getting hitched, and a bunch of us were heading off to the Finnish capital for the wedding.

Helsinki is the kind of place that people know about, but typically have not visited. OK, it’s not Paris or Rome, but it does offer some beautiful architecture, culture, great food, good nightlife and incredibly friendly people. And of course, on this trip, each part was to be tested in equal measure.

Now, I wasn’t doing the sensible thing and taking a long holiday that lasted all of August. So this trip merited a few special touches, and that included staying in the very stylish Klaus K design hotel. This is a place, dotted with lots of nods to Finnish design (Iittala glassware, blond wood) but without doubt the highlight was the “organic breakfast”. When I checked in, I asked what time breakfast was open until, and winced slightly when the receptionist said only until 10:00…

She noticed my reaction. “It is a very good breakfast, worth getting up for” she added with a smile. And frankly, she was absolutely right. There was a great choice of granola, seeds, fruit, yoghurt and dried forest blueberries to start, followed by a selection of breads, local cheeses, pickles and a fantastic mushroom salad (honestly, I went on about it for about two days…). There was even a list accompanied with a little map showing where in Finland the various goodies were from. But without doubt, the two things I could not get enough of were made with sea buckthorn. The juice was delicious – it was mixed with apple, and tasted something like mango and pine (the tree!) – I think I had about four glasses each morning for breakfast. There was also sea buckthorn jam, a bright orange colour, which was enjoyed in copious amounts piled high on top of buttered bread. I quickly realised that I was going to have to keep an eye out for something with sea buckthorn to take back home.

With a free day before the wedding, a bit of sightseeing was in order. There are two things you notice quite quickly: the lack of an old town with winding streets, and the presence of lots of very grand streets and a grid-like street layout. This is down the fact that the city was heavily rebuilt in the 19th century, leading to the open, airy feeling that makes the city perfect to explore on foot.

The sun was shining, and first thing to do was wander down to the waterfront, where you can see the boats to Sweden in the distance. There is something about ferries that is much more romantic than an airport – people checking in for a voyage across the seas. I did the trip from Helsinki to Stockholm a couple of years ago, but it was the middle of winter, and I really must do it again in summer when you can relax on the deck with a couple of beers and watch the thousands of islands that make up the Helsinki archipelago drift by…

By the water, you come to Kauppatori (Market Square).

Sure, one end of the market had a lot of stuff aimed at the cruise ship crowd…but…the other end was, quite simply, amazing. There was a fantastic selection of Finnish food and fresh product – pastries, cakes, fruit, forest berries and piles and piles of mushrooms. Forget the little punnets of blueberries you get in the supermarket, here the were selling them by the scoop. Stunning colours and wonderful aromas. I loved the very “Finnishness” of the berries on sale – lots of puolukka (lingonberries) and mustikka (blueberries).

At the market, I was also delighted to find a stall selling sea buckthorn jam. They were offering two varieties – normal and sugar-free. I went with the normal variety as, well, it tasted better. If you’re going to come all the way to Helsinki to buy jam, buy the good stuff!

After the market, it was time for a wander along the esplanade to check out a little bit of Finnish design. There is a general “Nordic design” look to a lot of it (clean lines, more blond wood, glass…) but a lot of strong Finnish brands that stand out. Iittala is a favourite – known for softly angular glassware, and these funky whisky tumblers with a birch-bark pattern on the outside. Yes, I bought them. Yes, I probably paid more than I would have paid in London. But I got to buy them in a lovely shop which was decorated with pictures of the Moomins. Got to be worth it, surely?

The afternoon was wrapped up with a stroll along the southern coastline of the city, dotted with parks and marinas. From here, keep heading due south and the next stop is Tallinn in Estonia.

That evening, there was an informal get-together at the happy couple’s apartment. However, our little group had not eaten, but a garbled phone conversation between a Dutchman and a German revealed that there was an old church on the square opposite their apartment, which had since been converted into a restaurant. Apparently, it served great food and was large enough that we could safely turn up without a booking. Not to bad for a place that was “one of the most popular places in Helsinki”. Well, let’s give it try.

On the way, we popped into that most curiously Nordic phenomena, the state alcohol shop, to get a bottle of fizz for the party. Those straight-talking Finns don’t waste words, and the place is branded “Alko”. It’s like the cleanest, most orderly and well-stocked off-licence you can imagine. They apparently ID you if they suspect you’re under-age, and do this quite a lot. Sadly, I did not get checked.

We walked through town, and headed to this great-sounding restaurant-in-a-former church. Well, it was indeed “one of the most popular places in Helsinki” as it was Temppeliaukion Kirkko, a very-much-still-in-use church hewn from the rock. People go there because it is an impressive sight, and the only service on offer is of a religious variety. Feeling very sheepish, we stepped back and went to see our friends. Lesson? Check if your dinner destination is on the “Helsinki Top 10 Attractions” list, and really, get a tip for dinner and book ahead!

Saturday was the big day, so after another delicious breakfast, we wandered around in town. The gang headed to check out one of  Helsinki’s gems, the beautiful white cathedral on top of a hill. It’s one of the symbols of the city, and appears to float gracefully on the skyline. The simple white decoration is continued inside the cathedral, and it really did feel like an oasis of calm. As you can see, it also looks stunning against a brilliant blue sky.

With a little time to kill before getting dressed for the wedding, I remembered the Ateljee Bar on the rooftop of the Torni hotel. This 13-storey building was, until the mid-1980s, the tallest building in Helsinki. It’s been overtaken since, but that does mean that it does still offer spectacular vistas over the city. The last time I visited, we went up at night, and apparently you can see all the way across the Gulf of Finland to the lights of Tallinn.

While wandering the streets, you will see that the signs are bilingual – in Finnish and in Swedish. But this one really caught my eye – a testament to the location of Helsinki and its history between Sweden and Russia. And if you’re curious, my best translation is that this all means “South Red Valley Street”.


Sights seen and  friendships renewed, we went back to the hotel, got dressed up, and headed to the wedding. The location was stunning – out to the west of the city, in the forest bounded by the Porkkalanselkä sea lake. The sky was cloudless, the sun was shining and the ceremony was perfect. Very simple and incredibly touching. We celebrated with the newlyweds until late in the evening, watching the sun go down and then as darkness fell, we ate, drank, danced and sat by the lakeside chatting and peering into the mysterious woodland night.

Now, a little confession. Those that were staying in Helsinki got a late bus back to town, and someone spotted a karaoke bar. We couldn’t resist. It was when someone said “How often do you get the chance to sing karaoke in Helsinki?” – we just had to. We piled in, bought outrageously expensive Finnish beers, and did a few rounds of Queen and Bon Jovi. And of course, all fired up from the wedding, we sang a raucous version of Always...

…but of course, this meant the next day involved mostly getting up late and mooching around town all day drifting between coffee here and a snack there. One undoubted highlight is the Fazer café, which is a fantastic 1930s-inspired venue that serves up a proper selection of fancy cakes. Think olde-worlde Viennese coffee house. You can also sample the range of Fazer chocolates – they are basically the much-loved confectionery brand that Finns hold very dear to their heart.

Aside from eating, we…well, actually we didn’t do much other than eat. The sense of achievement came from having the bright idea during the day to make a dinner reservation (we learned from Friday night!), so we tucked in to some good Italian food in Toscanini, and then, eh…went our for …more karaoke. That lasted from 9pm until 2am. Finns love their karaoke, so we just chalked it all up to a rich exchange of cultures. We did actually leave the bar around midnight, but unable to find somewhere that was as much fun, we went back. The look on the face of the hostess was priceless, as she clearly thought she was rid of these funny foreigners that kept on requesting songs in English rather than appreciating the Finnish classics.

To make up for all that (admittedly out-of-tune) singing, Monday necessitated a bit of culture, so it was off to the Design Museum. There was an interesting retrospective on some of the designers behind Iittala, and how its range has developed from the 1950s up to the modern day. I loved seeing how some of the ceramics and glassware that had been on sale in their flagship store earlier in the weekend had actually come to be.

And finally, regular readers will also know that I have a soft spot for cinnamon buns, and have been on a bit of an oddesy to find them (most successfully at the Finnish-inspired Nordic Bakery in our own Golden Square in London). Well, as a last goodbye from Helsinki, before departing for the airport, I was able to enjoy a proper piece of cinnamon-infused loveliness with a cup of coffee. Sheer bliss.

Hotel Klaus K, Bulevardi 2, 00120 Helsinki. Tel: +358 20 770 4700

Toscanini, Bulevardi 2/4, 00120 Helsinki. Tel: +358 20 770 4713

Fazer Cafe, Kluuvikatu 3, 00100 Helsinki

Ateljee Bar, Hotel Torni, Yrjönkatu 26, 00100 Helsinki

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