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{12} Vasilopita Cake

Happy New Year! We’ve made it out of 2020, and we’ve also reached the last instalment of our 12 Festive Bakes for the year. Or more accurately last year.

I normally try to finish everything before Christmas Day so that all the goodies are on offer over the festive holiday, ready to hand to all those guests who will be popping in. Except that imperative was not there this year, and we’re working our way through the various baked goods. Another thing that is different this year is that I’ve run a little later, and as the final bake was due to coincide with New Year, I decided to make something that celebrates this time of year. Well, I found out that in Greece it is traditional to eat a vasilopita. So I made one.

The name vasilopita means “St Basil’s pie”. It can be no coincidence that the Feast of St Basil is on 1 January, and he happens to be the patron saint of wishes and blessings. Very fitting for the time of renewal, new hopes and good intentions. The vasilopita can come in one of two forms. It can either be an enriched yeasted bread, or a cake. As I was making this late on New Year’s Eve, I decided to go the cake version as I thought it would be quicker to make. Truth be told, on that day I had already spent many, many hours outside in the park, and all that fresh air and very cold temperatures left me ready for bed quite early. Those New Year’s Eve celebrations where we partied until the wee hours seem but a distant memory these days…


There is also a lovely ritual that goes with these cakes. A coin is hidden in the bread or included in the cake when it is baked. When the vasilopita is served, it is cut into pieces and offered to guests in turn, from the oldest to the youngest. The one that gets the coin will enjoy good luck in the year to come. This is presumably on the basis that they’ve already enjoyed some good luck by neither ingesting the coin nor breaking a tooth on it? Anyway, I think this is a fun thing to do, but make sure you have a clean coin, wash it thoroughly in hot, soapy water, and wrap it tightly in tin foil. Safety first.

Vasilopita cakes are usually smooth, and decorated with a dusting of icing sugar. Often the year will be written in numebrs on top, either using a stencil, in icing, or perhaps using nuts. However, I decided that I would just dust with icing, as this was a good chance to use my intricate Dutch cake mould, which is shaped like a Zeeuwse Knoop. This is traditional symbol from the Zeeland region. It has twelve points on it rather like a clock, and that felt like enough of a link to New Year’s Eve to justify using it.


The traditional flavour in a vasilopita cake is orange zest, which I’ve used here. Note that I was quite heavy-handed and used the zest of two whole oranges, plus a bit of lemon zest. I loved the result, but I love citrus and this cake did pack a punch. If you want a more delicate flavour, use just one orange.

I also saw a couple of recipes that suggested using mahleb (the ground pits of the St Lucie cherry, which has a bitter-almond flavour) and ground mastic resin which is popular in Greek sweets and baking. The flavour and aroma of mastic are hard to describe, but I think it’s reminiscent of something light, fresh and resinous, with a touch of pine about it. So I added both of those since I happened to have them in the spice drawer. Neither dominates, but they add to the overall result – an aromatic, zesty cake.

After all those rich spices and chocolate over the last couple of weeks, this made a very pleasant change. We enjoyed it with breakfast on New Year’s Day, then set about taking down the decorations. We always do this on New Year’s Day, and it feels right. The festive period is drawing to a close, the house returns to a calmer state, and we get to marvel at how spacious and airy our home suddenly feels. Yes, in lockdown times it feels a little sad to be putting away all the sparkle and wrap all the tree ornaments in their protective paper, but I’m hopeful that we will be unwrapping them again in December 2021 surrounded by our nearest and dearest.

I mentioned that the vasilopita can be both a bread and cake. I think I’ll also have a go at the bread version. I’ve seen a couple of recipes, and it seems similar to an Italian panettone, but without the dried fruit and the inclusion of orange zest and mastic. If it’s good, perhaps it will make the 2021 edition of the Twelve Bakes of Christmas?

To make a Vasilopita Cake:

For the cake

• 150g butter
• 250g white caster sugar
• zest of 1 or 2 oranges
• zest of 1/2 lemon
• 1 teaspoon mahleb (optional)
• 1/2 teaspoon ground mastic resin (optional)
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 3 large eggs
• 225g self-raising flour
• 1/2 teaspoon baking powder

• 50ml whole milk
• 75ml yoghurt
• 2 tablespoons orange juice
• 25g ground almonds
• 25g flaked almonds, roughly crushed

For the glaze

• 100g icing sugar
• 2 tablespoons orange juice

To finish

• icing sugar, to dust

1. Prepare a 20cm (8 inch) diameter cake pan. Either line one with greaseproof paper, or if using a fancy mould, grease it generously with butter, then dust it with plain flour.

2. Put the butter in a large bowl, and beat until fluffy. Add the sugar and beat until smooth, then add the flavourings (orange zest, lemon zest, mahleb, mastica and vanilla extract). Mix well.

3. Add the eggs, one at a time, and beat until smooth. Add a spoonful of flour with each egg to prevent the mixture from splitting.

4. Mix the remaining flour and the baking powder in a separate bowl. Combine the milk and the yoghurt in another bowl. Add one-third of the remaining flour, and mix; then half the milk mixture; then next third of the flour; the rest of the milk mixture; then the last of the flour. Finally fold in the orange juice, ground almonds and flaked almonds

5. Transfer the mixture to the prepared baking tin. If you’re using a fancy mould, spoon it gently so that you do not disturb the flour layer lining the mould.

6. Bake the cake for 1-1 1/2 hours until an inserted skewer comes out clean. Cover with tin foil after 45 minutes to prevent the cake from getting too dark. Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely.

7. Make the glaze. Mix the icing sugar and orange juice until smooth, then cover the top and sides of the cake. Leave to dry.

8. Just before serving, dust the cake with icing sugar.

 

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Filed under Cake of the Week, Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things

{11} Italian Rainbow Cookies

My previous festive baking post offered simplicity, so it was only inevitable that today we’d go back to complexity. And as it is New Year’s Eve, albeit the low-cal and less exciting version, it is only fitting that we do something that is colourful and has a bit of panache to it.

Earlier in this year’s baking extravaganza I posted some cookies from the Philippines and mused that I had not made many recipes from outside of the gingerbread-spice world of Western Europe. Then I got a suggestion from a helpful reader, Jamie, who suggested I have a go at Italian Rainbow Cookies. In spite of the name, they are a staple of American Christmas baking, particularly amoung the Italian-American community, so would tick the box of stepping beyond Europe for holiday inspiration. So…I did just that. I did actually have another recipe in mind for the No 11 slot this year, but for better or worse it has been bumped. Maybe it will make the cut for the 2021 edition?

Truth be told, I’ve seen these before, but I’ve been put off from making them as they look complicated. However what with lockdowns and the like, I’ve got plenty of time on my hands (i.e. my excuse has gone), so we were all set for some lurid rainbow cookies. All fabulous seven layers of them. And here is what I made!


I’m beyond thrilled with how they worked out. Seeing them all laid out neatly like this I have the vague feeling that I’ve made some sort of edible interactive Tetris set. I originally arranged them in neat lines all in the same way but it looked too orderly. Hence the more random arrangement. It’s chaos within order.

These little guys are also called Seven-Layer Cookies, and it’s easy to see why. There are three layers of almond-flavoured sponge, sandwiched together with jam, and then the top and bottom have a layer of dark chocolate. They are made as one giant sheet, then cut into individual bite-sized cubes.

I find them both cute and oddly extravagant. But are they Italian? Are they a rainbow? And are they really cookies? The last two are easy. You could go with any colour you wanted, but the red/white/green tricolore seems to be pretty ubiquitous. The tricky thing is to get more of a rainbow, you need more layers, which makes them more complex, and the size would become impractical. I also think it is wise to go with colours that could be natural as opposed to blues and purples. So they’re not a real rainbow, but I think the three colours do work well together.

Are they cookies? Well, not in the sense of something that is made from dough that has been rolled out and shaped or cut. But neither are they cookies made from balls of dough, or drops of batter. While the term “cookie” is pretty flexible, these guys are really are more like little cakes. The closest I can think of are petit fours, those fancy little bite-sized French cakes you might get with afternoon tea or after a special dinner.

So, they’re at least Italian, right? This is where things get more mixed. Some think they’re not Italian at all, while others think they must have at least a tenuous link to the old country. Other sources suggest the recipe was developed within the Jewish community that lived alongside Italians in American cities. Whatever the true origin, they have acquired the “Italian” moniker and they seem to be a key part of an Italian nonna’s festive baking repertoire, and given that it’s probably best not to argue.

But where to start with baking them? Jaime pointed me in the direction of the Smitten Kitchen recipe from Deb Perelman. I’ve followed some of Deb’s recipes in the past, and been pleased with the results. In a pretty crowded online recipe world, and with what seem like dozens of YouTube videos of those nonnas making these things, I decided to go with a recipe that I was pretty confident would work. She also writes with candour about how she found the process and offers tips for getting it right, which is something I always like to see. A tricky recipe being described as “easy” or “a breeze” does no service to the reader and it underplays the work of the baker too.

I planned to do this over two days, as they baked cake part needs to chill for at least 8 hours with a weight on it. I think the idea is that this helps to ensure the cookies are perfectly flat, the layers bond to each other, and I think it helps with the texture too. I figured I could do all the baking and assembly one day, then do the chocolate and the chopping the next. I recommend doing it in this way as it helps keep you sane. The kitchen does end up covered in a fair few bowls coated in many different colours.

But was the whole process a breeze? I did have one major wobble. Once I’d done the baking, assembling and chilling, I removed the tray from the fridge to start doing the chocolate layers. I trimmed the sides, partly to neaten it all up, and partly to have some offcuts to eat. With a nice sharp knife it was a dream to cut. Then I was frankly horrified upon doing a sneaky taste – the cakes seems dry and hard. I panicked. Had they been over-baked? Had I wasted my time? In fact, they were just cold. As they came up to temperature, they softened and that delicious jammy almond flavour emerged. So yeah, just note that this happens!

The chocolate layer was the bit that worried me. You need to do the top and the bottom. Now, I can temper chocolate, but it takes time and patience. Plus it is about 1 degree (centigrade) outside, so our old London brick house is freezing which makes it all the more tricky to get chocolate to a precise temperature – not too hot, not too cold. This was a problem that the Smitten Kitchen recipe had too. Well, it turns out the answer was actually mercifully simple – you just add a little unsalted butter to the melted chocolate. No tempering, and this also means the chocolate has a bit of “give” so that it becomes easier to cut.


And what’s the verdict? Well this comes in two parts. How much work were they, and how do they taste.

In terms of effort, they are a lot less work than I thought. I probably spent one hour doing all the baking, and that was alongside keeping an eye on my son, who also tried to help (and promptly made a mess). Then maybe 20 minutes assembling it all before leaving to chill overnight. The chocolate was the job for the second day. Splitting it up in this way makes it quite easy. Manageable mess, and you don’t end up going doolally from it all. Italian Rainbow Cookies are also quite fun to make them if you’re slightly obsessive about precision in your baking. For indeed, my much-treasured Japanese steel metal ruler helped get those sharp lines and equal cuts.

In terms of how they taste, I love them. They have an intense almond flavour and lovely fruitiness from the jam (which I boosted with a little amaretto and some cherry liqueur). This is all balanced by the dark chocolate. I’d even go so far as to say that they taste much better than they look. While I’m all up for a bit of whimsy in the baking, the red/white/green colour scheme is a touch lurid for my tastes. But then, it is iconic, and I wonder if anything else really would do? Plus, where else are you going to find cookies that can symbolise the flags of Italy, Hungary, Ghana and Mali depending on how you place them? They are certainly some of the most striking things I’ve ever made in terms of the looks department.

So there we have it – my efforts in accepting one reader’s challenge. I’ll wrap up by sharing a tip of my own for recipes like this one where you have to divide the batter and the jam into equal portions. Get some electric scales, and weigh your bowls before using them. This makes it really easy to work out by weight how much batter or jam should be in each portion. I happen to know my main mixing bowl is 580g. Believe me, it saves a lot of guessing, eyeballing and general culinary angst. And it does help get even layers when making something like Italian Rainbow Cookies where you want to be precise to show off just how fancy you can get with your baking.

To make Italian Rainbow Cookies (recipe from Smitten Kitchen, with some tweaks)

For the batter

• 4 large eggs, separated
• 200g white caster sugar
• 200g almond paste (see note)
• 285g unsalted butter
• 1 teaspoon almond extract
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 260g plain flour
• 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• red food colouring
• green food colouring

To fill

• 1 x 340g jar apricot jam
• 4 tablespoons water or amaretto and cherry liqueur (I used Luxardo Maraschino)

To finish

• 200g dark chocolate
• 20g unsalted butter

1. Preheat the oven to 175°C (350°F). Prepare 3 sheets of greaseproof paper to fit a 33 x 23cm (13 x 9 inch) baking pan.

2. Put the egg whites into a large bowl. Beat until you have soft peaks, then add 50g of caster sugar, a tablespoon at a time, until it forms stiff peaks – it should look like a meringue.

3. In a separate bowl, grate the almond paste. Work with your hands so that it gets soft, then add the remaining 150g caster sugar and the butter. Beat until pale, fluffy and everything is combined. Add the yolks, almond extract and vanilla extract, and keep beating on high speed. If you can still see a lot of flecks of almond paste, keep beating to get it super-smooth. When done, fold in the flour, baking powder and salt and mix well.

4. Add half the meringue mixture to the other bowl, and fold in to lighten the batter. Then add the rest of the meringue mixture and fold that in.

5. Split the batter between 3 bowls. Add red food colouring to one, and green food colouring to another. Put the green batter into the fridge, and put the white batter to one side. Pour the red batter into the prepared baking tray, and spread as evenly as you can. Don’t worry if the batter does not seem very deep – it is supposed to be just under 1/2 cm (1/4 inch) deep.

6. Bake the red layer for around 10 minutes. It will still look a bit wet on top, but a cocktail stick should come out clean. You don’t want more than the lightest of browning at the edges. Remove from the oven, allow to cool for a couple of minutes, then transfer to a wire cooling rack.

7. Remove the green batter from the fridge to bring it up to temperature. Set aside. Now prepare the baking tray again, and bake the white layer. When that’s done, repeat for the green later.

8. While the cakes are cooling, prepare the jam. Put it into a saucepan, add 4 tablespoons or water or a mixture of amaretto and cherry liqueur, and bring to the boil. Pass through a sieve, and set aside to cool.

9. Once all the layers are completely cool, prepare a shopping board or tray by lining with a sheet of greaseproof paper. Flip the green layer onto the paper. Spread with half the cooled jam mixture, getting it as even as you can. Then flip the white layer onto the green layer, and spread with the rest of the jam. Finally, flip the red layer and place on top. Wrap the whole lot in cling film, place in the fridge, then put a heaving baking tray on top and add a few jars to weigh it all down. Leave to chill overnight.

10. Time to finish it off. Remove the tray from the fridge. Use a clean straight knife to trim the edges. You’ll notice that they seem quite firm and dry – this is normal.

11. Prepare the chocolate. Put 100g chocolate in a bowl, and microwave in 30 second bursts until it is melted. Add 10g of unsalted butter, and mix well. Spread evenly on the red layer, getting it as smooth as you can. Place in the fridge for a few minutes to set.

12. Remove the tray from the fridge, and flip it onto another tray (so now the chocolate is at the bottom, and you have a green sheet of cookie facing you. Melt the rest of the chocolate, then add the rest of the butter. Spread on top, and put it back to the fridge for 5 minutes to set.

13. Use a serrated knife to score lines on top of the chocolate, marking first vertical, then horizontal Go back over the vertical lines to cut through the layer of chocolate. Then switch to a clean straight-edged knife to cut through the cake layers, and swap back to the serrated knife to cut through the bottom lawyer of the chocolate. You should have long strips of rainbow cookies.

14. Take each strip and place on its side do you can see the pattern facing you. Use a small sharp knife to cut into individual pieces in a swift downwards motion. Keep going until all the cookies have been done. Store in an airtight container in the fridge, but allow to come to room temperature before serving.

Note: this recipe calls for almond paste (which is 50/50 almonds and sugar). The brand I used was Odense Mandelmassa that I panic-bought earlier in the year. The stuff you find in British supermarkets called marzipan is usually 75% sugar, 25% almonds. It’s great for decorating, but it’s not right for this as the sugar content is too high.

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Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things

{10} Brune Pinner

For this year’s tenth festive bake, we’ve gone back to Norway. Land of mountains, forest, fjords and a seemly endless supply of cookie recipes. These ones are called brune pinner or “brown sticks”. There was lots of imagination at play when someone came up with that name. Perhaps it’s a nod to those forests?

This year I’ve done a few recipes which are complex, take a lot of time, or need specialist equipment. Today’s recipe is the complete opposite of that.

These cookies are very easy to make, and they might just be about to become your new favourite accompaniment to morning coffee. They are thin, crisp, and by turns buttery, caramelised and lightly spiced. Christmas might be drawing to an end for this year, but we’re still in the middle of winter, and we need those little moments of comfort to keep us going, especially this winter. Everyone is facing the next wave of coronavirus in their own way; in London everything except essential retail is closed, hospitality is take-out only, and we’re limited to meeting one friend outside in the park. It is looking like the New Year will see us heading to Lockdown III and the closure of schools. So I’d wager this is not quite the ideal time to start resolving to give up cookies in 2021…


So. Brune pinner. These are part of the Norwegian tradition of syv slags kaker. Busy Norwegians try to do out-do each other by making seven different type of cookies to offer their guests over the festive period. I’ve made a few different ones over the years – serinakaker, krumkaker, berlinerkranser, sirupsnipper – but there are still plenty more to try. Among the “plenty more” are mainly the ones that need to be fried rather than baked, and I’ve still not managed to overcome my aversion to deep-frying things at home. Who knows – perhaps I’ll get round to them in 2021?

In my research for this recipe, I did find something that made me chuckle (which, to keep banging the same drum, we do need right now!). The Norwegian Christmas diet apparently involves quite a lot of butter, but back in 2011 and 2012 those hardy Nordic folk lived through the smør-panik (“butter panic”). Butter shortages were triggered due to heavy rains affecting grazing pastures earlier in the year, leading to a nightmare world of illicit butter smuggling, Swedish stores along the border jacking up butter prices, and a Danish TV show running a butter emergency telethon to get 4,000 packs of butter to desperate Norwegians. Clearly getting that syv slags kaker spread ready for guests is a serious business to the good burghers of Oslo, Bergen and Trondheim!

The method for making these is really very simple. Cream butter and sugar and add in the rest of the ingredients. You divide the dough into six sausages, then shape each just be pressing them down with your fingers. Easy! No oddly-named Norwegian cake devices needed, no cutters, no piping, no chilling overnight, and no layering of icing or jam. You then brush what looks like mega-cookies with beaten egg and sprinkle with sugar and chopped nuts, and bake. The raising agent is good ol’ baking soda, so they puff up, expand, and then collapse, which is a process that makes for very crisp cookies. Once you’ve baked the dough portions, you whip them out of the oven, and while the dough is still soft you immediately cut them into thin strips – either with a pizza cutter or a good sharp knife. Within a minute or two, they are cool, crisp and a bit more like sticks. There’s a helpful video from Norwegian butter producer Tine here (and yes, they were caught up in that butter crisis a few years ago).


For the topping, I have used pearl sugar, also called nibbed sugar, and some chopped almonds. If you can’t get hold of pearl sugar or don’t want another item cluttering up the baking cupboard, you could use coffee sugar crystals (give them a good crushing first) or large-crystalled demerara sugar. For the nuts, these would work equally well with chopped hazelnuts, pistachios or pecans. A good tip is to mix all the sugar and nuts together before you start, then divide it into six portions to use on the dough. This avoids ending up with the first batch being lavishly decked in sugar and nuts, and the final batch looking a bit spartan. I think you could skip the topping completely if you wanted to, but I liked the extra crunch and flavour, especially from the almonds, so I’d recommend sticking with it.

One note of advice: I found that these cookies are crisp when they are fresh, but if left out overnight they will soften quite quickly. You can easily fix this by popping them back in a low oven (120°C/250°F) for a few minutes to dry them out. Otherwise get them into an airtight container as soon as you can after baking, and they will stay crisp and delicious for your morning coffee as you start to contemplate the fact that you’re about to start another cycle of working at home. But at least you’re cookie game will be on point!

To make Brune Pinner (makes around 70), adapted from Tine

For the dough

200g butter
• 100g white caster sugar
• 100g soft brown sugar
• 1 egg yolk
• 1 tablespoon syrup (see note)
• 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 1 teaspoon baking soda
• 300g plain flour

To finish

• 40g pearl sugar
• 50g almonds, skin on
• 1 egg, beaten

1. Preheat the oven to 175°C (350°F). Prepare three sheets of greaseproof paper.

2. Prepare the topping – chop the almonds, and mix with the pearl sugar. In a separate bowl beat the egg. Set it all to one side.

3. Make the dough. Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the egg yolk, syrup, cinnamon, vanilla and salt, and mix well. Combine the flour with the baking soda, then add to the bowl and work to a soft dough. Pop into the fridge for 5 minutes to firm slightly.

4. Divide the dough into six pieces. Take a piece of dough, form into a thin sausage about 24cm long. Next press it down with your fingers until it is 1/2 cm thick – it will get a lot wider too. It should look like a long, flat pitta bread. Repeat so that you have 2 pieces of dough on each sheet of greaseproof paper.

5. Bake the sheets one at a time. Take the first sheet, and brush the two pieces of dough with the beaten egg. Sprinkle each with the mixture of pearl sugar and chopped almonds.

6. Bake for 10 minutes – the dough will have expanded and have a rich brown colour. Remove from the oven, and immediately cut into diagonal strips, around 2cm thick, using a pizza cutter or a sharp knife. Let the cookies cool on the baking sheet, then when they are firm, transfer to a wire tray to cool completely. Repeat for the rest of the dough. Stoare in an airtight container.

Note: many of the recipes I found called for “light syrup” which is a particularly Nordic thing. You can buy it online. I happened to have a bottle of Swedish “dark syrup” which I used – this is very sweet and like dark caramel, not molasses. The closest substitute I can think of otherwise would be golden syrup or maple syrup.

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{9} Oriešky

When it comes to Christmas cookies, I have something of a penchant for acquiring yet more niche kitchen equipment.

So you can imagine that I was pretty happy to find jolly little oriešky from Slovakia which are baked to look like walnuts using special little moulds, and traditionally filled with a walnut cream. So yes, I’m now the proud owner of ten tiny walnut moulds.


Similar cookies pop up in a few countries across Europe, ranging from what you might think of as traditional cookie doughs to those made with a batter and thus somewhat closer in texture to wafers. If you are truly committed you can even go all out and invest in a little Russian walnut-making iron, similar to something you would use for making waffles. While I could justify buying a small set of walnut moulds, even I had to draw the line at an electric walnut maker. Sadly.

Finding a recipe that I liked the look of was tricky. I hunted high and low for one that would, firstly, not make about 400 cookies, and second, that I would actually like. There were a fair few recipes that I read and was not convinced by. The lack of pictures always makes me suspicious as to whether something has actually been tested. I did use one recipe which looked good, but the cookies ended up being so fragile that I baked two batches, saw most of them collapse in my hands, and I gave up. The failed cookies and the unbaked dough went in the bin.

Was I to be doomed to failure? No! I had a think about what I needed this recipe to do, and decided to adapt a recipe for Dutch speculaas cookies. I removed the spices and added a dash of cocoa powder and some ground walnuts. My little flash of inspiration worked like a dream. The dough is easy to make, easy to work with, very forgiving in terms of being handled, pressed into shape, trimmed and re-rolled, and the baked cookies are great.

The cookies keep their shape, go perfectly crisp during baking, and pop out of the moulds easily with just a sharp tap on the tray (full disclosure – my moulds are non-stick, and I’ve not tested this recipe with plain metal moulds). They also have the benefit of being a rich, deep nutty shade, so they do kind of look like walnuts. All this means they are easy to assemble, and after filling and some resting time, the cookie becomes a little softer and the whole thing is a little nugget of deliciousness.


In terms of actually shaping the cookies, it’s surprisingly easy. You pinch off a little ball of dough, then press it hard into the mould. And you really want to press – I don’t think there was more than a couple of millimeters of dough in there. At first I thought that there was not going to be enough, but have faith (and do a test bake) but they will puff up during baking. Thin dough means they will be crisp, and it also means that you’ll have a dimple afterwards that makes filling them quite easy. If the dough is too thick, the cookie will just expand and you’re going to suffer from a low filling-to-cookie ratio. No-one wants that.

If you are not in the market for investing in walnut moulds, then a small madeleine mould would work well. Otherwise you  could just roll out this dough and cut out circles to make sandwich cookies. But then they don’t look like nuts. And, well, if you’re going to all this effort, surely you want the whimsical sight of a bowl of edible walnut shells?

For the filling, you have options. I actually made two different ones – a whipped buttercream custard filling made with ground walnuts, and a whipped dulce de leche buttercream for some caramel goodness.

The walnut filling is based on a basic custard thickened with flour. While it might look complex, it’s a pretty easy method, and you get a lovely light smooth buttercream with a good walnut flavour to it. Just be warned that the amount would get will easily fill all 50 cookies, but I just could not make a quantity smaller than the one below without getting into silly micro-measurements. That said, the filling is delicious, so you can easily use it in other things. In fact, I made little sandwich cookies with some of my remaining paciencias and the walnut filling, and they were spec-ta-cu-lar. The dulce de leche filling is just caramel whipped with butter, so easier to make and if you’ve got extra caramel left over, that really is a nice problem to have.


Finally, for fun, I filled a few with some Nutella. They were just glorious. So if you are feeling lazy but still demand results, that’s defiantly the way go.

If you do decide to have a go at making oriešky, I recommend some trial-and-error testing. It seems obvious, but different moulds are different sizes, and will need different baking times. You’ll also want to check that you’re making them thin enough. It is really worth doing a rest run with just one and seeing how long it needs to bake. I often do this on a recipe that is very new to me or where I think the timings indicated might be off. Better to ruin one cookie than a whole batch.

One other thing to know – this will require a serious time commitment. Making the cookies is easy, but unless you’ve got lots of moulds, you’re doing this in a series of batches. The recipe makes 50 sandwich cookies, which needs 100 shells. I had just 10 moulds, so I had to bake 10 batches in total. I ended up spending a very, very long time filling, removing, and re-filling them…thank goodness they slipped right out and didn’t also need washing between each use too! But they look great, taste wonderful and they were fun to do. Because if your baking isn’t taking hours, does it even count as lockdown baking?

To make Oriešky (makes around 50)

For the shells:

• 95g butter
• 55g white caster sugar
• 55g soft brown sugar
• 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 25ml buttermilk
• 200g plain flour
• 50g ground walnuts
• 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
• 1 teaspoon cocoa powder

1. Preheat the oven to 175°C (350°F). Arrange the moulds on a baking sheet.

2. Put the butter in a bowl, and beat until soft. Add the sugar, salt, vanilla and buttermilk, then beat until creamy. Combine the flour, baking soda, cocoa powder and ground walnuts. Add to the main bowl and mix everything until you have a soft dough that comes away from the bowl.

3. Pinch off some dough and press into the mould. You want it to be pretty thin – 2-3mm at most. Trim off any excess with a sharp knife. Bake the cookies for around 8 minutes until the dough looks puffed and set, and they are a rich brown colour. Remove from the oven, allow cool for a moment, then remove from the moulds (I flipped them over and gave a sharp tap – the cookie popped out). Repeat until all the dough is used up.

4. Time to fill the cookies. Take a shell, fill it generously with the filling of your choice, then add another shell on top. Transfer the cookies to an airtight container, and leave to rest in the fridge overnight. Remove from the bridge 15 minutes before serving.

To make walnut cream filling

• 15g plain flour
• 100g white sugar
• 25g walnuts
• 120ml milk
• pinch of salt
• 110g unsalted butter
• 1 teaspoon rum
• 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Put the walnuts and milk into a small saucepan. Use an immersion blender to blitz until smooth.

2. Add the flour, sugar and salt. Mix well. Place over a medium heat and cook until the sugar has dissolved. Keep cooking for around 2 minutes, stirring constantly, until the mixture starts to thicken and looks slightly translucent.

3. Transfer the thickened mixture to a plate, cover with cling film and press it down on the surface. Leave to cool completely.

4. Put the butter in a bowl. Beat until light and fluffy. Start to add spoonfuls of the pudding mixture and beat well after each addition. Finally add the rum and vanilla. You’re done.

To make dulce de leche filling

• 100g butter
• 120g dulce de leche
• large pinch of salt

1. Put the butter in a bowl. Beat until light and fluffy.

2. Add the dulce de leche and salt and beat well. If the mixture seems too wet, add a little more butter and beat well to incorporate. You’re done.

To fill with Nutella

1. Open a jar of Nutella!

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{6} Pulsnitzer Pfefferkuchen

If it’s Christmas, there has to be gingerbread. Given my penchant for finding obscure recipes, clearly I had to come up with something that comes from a specific place and has a backstory. Today, it’s all about German Pulsnitzer Pfefferkuchen (pepper cake from Pulsnitz).


These gingerbread slices hail, unsurprisingly, from the town of Pulsnitz near Dresden in eastern Germany. They have been baking their Pfefferkuchen there since 1558. Indeed they love their gingerbread so strong that they even have a museum on the main square devoted to its history, complete with machines, moulds, tins and cutters. If you’re lucky (and in a post-pandemic world) you can even try your hand at making them there in a baking class. If I’m ever passing, I’ll be sure to drop in. But for 2020, I’ve had to be content with making my own at home.

In my research I read that this is considered by some to be a more “basic” type of gingerbread. Having made it, it isn’t exactly easy, and it takes quite some time. However, it does not contain all the richness of some other types of German Christmas cookies. Things like Nürnberger Lebkuchen need to contain a high level of nuts and no flour to pass quality standards and legally be sold as such. In contrast, Pfefferkuchen starts off as a mixture of flour (wheat and rye) and honey, which is then enriched with spices. It’s the spices that give it the Pfeffer (pepper) in its name – whereas we now think of black pepper, this was formerly a term for all sorts of spices.

When I read this description, I thought calling it “simple” was rather unfair, as the resulting gingerbread is really delicious. I thought about it and my guess is that the gingerbread you find in a given area depends on what is typical of the area. So a city that was a medieval trading hub would be likely to have more by way of nuts, spices and citrus fruits, whereas a more agricultural area is going to use wheat and honey for its treats. I think it is also easy to forget just how special a lot of what we now see as standard Christmas fare would have seemed to normal folk hundreds of years ago. Cookies, sweets, honey. Those were true luxuries. So eating a piece of spiced honey cake, possibly glazed with sugar, would really have been quite something.


Anyway, I decided to make this thing. And I’m clearly not posting this recipe today in any expectation that it will be made for Christmas this year! The reason is it takes time.

A typical feature of the dough is that it should rest a lot to allow it to mature before it is baked. In the recipe I used, the suggestion was that this should be for at least two weeks. In the end mine sat undisturbed in a cool corner of our kitchen for about three weeks. If I were being scientific, I would have made detailed observations and perhaps filmed the mixture to check the texture before and after. But I did not do that. From my fairly basic analysis (I looked at it and tried to remember what it had looked like three weeks before) it seemed to me that the dough had become softer and smoother during the resting period. I remember reading that there are enzymes in honey that will break down some of the proteins in flour, affecting flavour and taste. And hey, we’re stuck indoors for most the day at the moment, so it’s not as if I’ve been short of time to plan these bakes this year!

Once the dough has rested, you add in spices, cocoa powder and raising agents. This is the bit where it gets fiddly. I used two “authentic” (i.e. obscure) raising agents – pottasche and baker’s ammonia. Originally, one would have been extracted from wood ash, the other from ground-up deer antler. Mercifully today you can buy them online and avoid harming any animals or picking over a bonfire. The reason to use them is that they give a great raise and very light texture, much more than you will get with baking soda or baking powder. Note that I have not tested this recipe with traditional raising agents, so I can’t vouch for your results. If you give it a go, let me know and best of luck!

My dough ended up being pretty soft, but I was still able to work with it. I did this deliberately in the hope of keeping the resulting gingerbread as moist as possible. The good thing is that there is no elaborate shaping involved. You really just form a long strip, bake it, then cut it while warm in a similar way to biscotti.

Once you’ve started cutting, you can finally taste the dough (you can’t eat it raw due the pottasche and the baker’s ammonia). I thought I’d actually made a failure as it was not very sweet. Darn. But there was magic to come…the glazes ended up making all the difference.


I used three different ways to finish the cookies. The first was a simple sugar glaze. It starts off white, then it sets and slowly you get frost-like patterns appearing on it. It will darken due to the gingerbread, so if you want a sparkling white finish, you can add some white colouring to the icing, but it tastes just fine as it is.

The second was a spiced chocolate glaze. This was the same one I used a couple of years ago when making Swiss Magenbrot. This one starts of looking dark and shiny, and stays that way, so I think it wins for the combination of being easy to do, tasting great and looking good.

The third way was to dip pieces into dark chocolate. I was a little dubious as this was not going to add any additional moisture to the gingerbread, but I did not have to worry. It was utterly delicious. It’s a morsel of Christmas between your fingers. If you’re lazy, busy, or occupied with pets and small children, you can just melt and dip. But as you’ve come all this way, you might as well get it perfect and ensure the chocolate has been tempered. It’s fairly easy to do with a microwave and a food thermometer, plus your friends (remember them?) will be impressed you made something look so professional.

Of the three finishes, the dark chocolate was my favourite. The chocolate melts in your mouth, and the flavour is sublime. I’ve given all three below, but remember I divided my batch into 3. If you want to do them all the same, you need to make more glaze.

Now, a confession. I’m not massively confident that the recipe I’ve used is totally authentic. The traditional makers of Pulsnitzer Pfefferkuchen guard their recipes closely, so there were very few recipes out there and those that exist have no pictures. So I was forced to just muddle through. The result is delicious (if a bit of a faff) and I think the fact it is mostly rye-and-wheat flour bound with honey and some spices makes me think I’m somewhere in the right area. But 100% authentic? Not so sure. I might just keep my head down if I do ever make it to that gingerbread museum near Dresden.

So there you have it! My sort-of-Pulsnitzer Pfefferkuchen. Now I’ll just have to sit here and wait to be contacted by people who make the real thing to tell me I got it wrong…

To make Pulznitzer Pfefferkuchen (makes around 100 pieces):

For the basic dough

• 500g strong honey
• 400g plain flour
• 200g light rye flour
• 125ml water

Additional dough ingredients

• 75g ground almonds
• 30g cocoa powder
• 3 teaspoons mixed gingerbread spices
• 2 teaspoons baker’s ammonia
• 1 teaspoon potash

Chocolate glaze (to cover 30-35 pieces)

• 40g dark chocolate
• 10g butter
• 50ml water
• 200g icing sugar
• 1 pinch ground cinnamon
• 1 pinch ground cloves
• 1 pinch ground nutmeg

Sugar glaze (to cover 30-35 pieces)

• 300g icing sugar
• 6 tablespoons boiling water
• White food colour (titanium dioxide powder), optional

Chocolate coating (to cover 30-35 pieces)

• 300g dark chocolate

1. Start by making the basic dough. Put the honey and water in a saucepan. Bring to a simmer, then let it cool to lukewarm. Mix with the plain flour and rye flour until you have a sticky dough. Cover with cling film and leave to rest at room temperature – two weeks is recommended, but you can leave it overnight.

2. Time to finish the dough. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

3. Take pieces of the honey dough and knead briefly to make them soft (this will fix any drier bits that are near to surface). Be warned – it’s a workout for your hands.

4. Put the baker’s ammonia and potash into two separate dishes. Add just enough warm water to get them to dissolve. Then add them to the main bowl, plus the ground almonds, cocoa powder and spices. Knead until everything is well-combined and you have an even colour. Note the dough will be quite sticky, but if you find it too soft and sticky, add a bit more plain flour.

5. Sprinkle the worktop with flour. Roll/press the dough to 1cm thick and 20cm wide (the length does not matter, but it should be around 50cm). Cut the dough into strips of around 5cm. Place 3-4 on the baking sheet at a time, leaving plenty of space for them to expand. Bake for around 15 minutes until the logs are puffed and slightly firm when lightly pressed. Remove from the oven and immediately brush them with cold water to help keep them soft. Transfer to a wire rack and allow to cool slightly. Repeat until all the dough is baked.

6. Use a serrated knife to cut the logs diagonally into slices.

7. Coat the individual pieces in either sugar glaze, chocolate glaze or melted dark chocolate. Leave to set.

To coat with sugar glaze:

a. Sift the icing sugar and put in a bowl.

b. Add the boiling water and mix to a smooth icing – it should flow but not be watery. If too thin, add more icing sugar.

c. Dip each piece into the glaze, shake off any excess, then transfer to a wire rack to dry.

If you want a perfectly white finish, mix in some white food colour (titanium dioxide powder). Mix this with water first to get a smooth paste for a more even colour.

To coat with chocolate glaze

a. Put the butter, chocolate and water in a saucepan and heat very gently until everything is just melted. Stir to combine, then add the icing sugar and spices. It should flow easily but not be watery. If too thin, add more icing sugar.

b. Dip each piece into the glaze, shake off any excess, then transfer to a wire rack to dry.

To coat with dark chocolate

a. Prepare the chocolate – eithe just melt it, or temper the chocolate.

b. Dip each piece into the chocolate, shake off any excess, then transfer to a wire rack to set.

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{4} Kakemenn

Today we’ve got something that is, quite simply, just delightful.  These are Norwegian cookies called kakemenn or “cake men”, but they also go by other more tongue-twisting names: julemanna, gøttekælla or kakekæller. Of course in these more inclusive times, it’s all about cake people rather than just men. And here are mine!


They are made from a very simple dough of flour, sugar, milk and a little butter. It can be left plain, or if you’re feeling daring you can pop in a little dash of vanilla or sprinkle in some cardamom. The white dough is then rolled out thinly, cut, and then baked in a low oven so that the cookies stay pale.

The leavening agent here is – surprise surprise – that Nordic favourite, baker’s ammonia. This gives cookies great lift and crispness, and a stinking waft of ammonia when you open the oven door. It’s easy to get online, but if you don’t have any, use a 50:50 mixture of baking soda and baking powder. And when I say lift, I mean lift. I rolled out my dough to 4mm, but they puffed up to about three times that during baking. This also means that you have a nice smooth surface for subsequent decoration.


Now, the catch. The dough is very simple, and as a result I found the flavour and texture of these cookies to be…underwhelming. I found lots of Norwegian bakers raving about them being the classic flavour of Christmas, but to me they were only slightly sweet, rather bland and nothing to really write home about. The texture was also not that amazing – kind of soft, kind of crisp around the edges, but again nothing being knocked out of the park compared to other festive cookies.

At first, I thought I had a duff recipe. I hunted for other recipes, and had several attempts at making them. I adjusting the relative quantities of sugar, butter, milk and raising agent to see if I was missing something. When I upped the sugar and butter and reduced the milk, I got a nicer cookie texture (albeit still pretty bland), but the surface was like a crater which did not lend itself to being decorated. So I decided that the connection Norwegians feel to them is emotional and linked to childhood memories rather than being based on flavour, and these really are just made for decorative effect. Or so I thought…

This year is the first Christmas that my son, who is five, has been really excited about. He found my tray of unadorned kakemenn and asked if he could have one. I expected he would take one bite and leave it, but instead he declared they were the best cookies and his “favourite” (which just means something he likes, since he’d never had them before). This was unexpected. I had imagined tempting him with marzipan or things dipped in chocolate. But no. When you’re small, it seems you like something that is simple and sweet. In fact, it’s become one of the preferred snacks since school wrapped up for the holidays. I felt this was success snatched from the jaws of defeat, and also a lesson for me not to judge a popular recipe so harshly! So I decided to post this recipe after all.


Beyond being popular with kids, the other reason I’ve included kakemenn is what you do once they are baked. You decorate them! You get to feel like a child and enjoy the whimsy of drawing on cookies.

This decoration is done with edible food colouring, so you can either paint them, or get hold of some edible pens and start colouring in. I’ll let you image the scene of the two of us sat there on Saturday morning, filling the time that would normally be football practice with a cookie colouring contest. It was fun, and they look really jolly when piled up on a plate. I am also reliably informed that the “cookie people” can also be easily included as part of playtime when you’re building complex railways with your wooden train set. Truly a cookie for all occasions. Their robust nature also makes me think they would be good if you want edible cookies on your tree – these things will defiantly withstand a lot.

For the decoration, I tried a few different approaches. By far and away the easiest is to use pens with edible ink. By which I mean the specialist ones you buy in the baking section. Don’t use normal pens that are marked non-toxic and hope for the best! What also worked well was painting on the colour. Either use liquid food colours, or use gel colours diluted with neutral spirit like vodka. The alcohol evaporates quickly, so the texture of the cookies is not affected, and you get strong, vibrant colours.


If you want a more natural option, you can actually have quite a bit of fun by experimenting – beetroot juice makes for a good pinkish-red colour; crush a saffron strand and add some hot water for a dazzling golden colour; matcha powder with hot water will give you a green. Of course they will still be more muted than food colourings, and I cannot promise that beetroot juice stains are any easier to remove from worktops and clothing!


I was particularly pleased with my little kakemenn families. We’ve got the snazzy family where dad is ready to party in a tuxedo and the lady of the house is wearing her jolly Christmas jumper. The children are dressed immaculately but who knows for how long? And the second family has a bit of a Nordic twist. Mr Kakemenn has something that looks a bit like traditional Norwegian national costume, while Mrs Kakemenn is in a floral print dress from Finnish design house Marimekko. And if you’re reading this thinking that I have put too much thought into all this, then you’d be right. I am getting desprate stuck at home!

One very practical thing to keep in mind – if you’re cutting out different sizes of cookies, try to bake the same sized cookies together, so that they bake evenly. I found the bigger figures needed a couple of minutes more in the oven than the smaller ones. Also, I tried rolling out the dough between sheets of parchment, but it doesn’t work. This is a dough you need to roll out on flour

And now the final-final thing. Here are the cookies that my son decorated, which I think are cute. He said they were the best, and ate those ones first!

To make Kakemenn (makes around 25-30 depending on size)

For the dough

• 50g unsalted butter
• 240g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
• 100g white caster sugar

• 1/2 teaspoon baker’s ammonia
• 80ml milk
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

• pinch of salt

To decorate

• edible food colouring

1. Melt the butter in a saucepan over a gentle heat. Remove, and leave to cool.

2. Put the flour, sugar, baker’s ammonia and salt in a bowl. Mix well.

3. Pour the milk and vanilla into the butter. Stir, then pour into the flour mixture. Combine until you have a soft dough – it should pull away from the sides, but might be slightly sticky. If necessary add a bit more flour. Wrap in cling film and leave to chill – at least one hour, or overnight.

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

5. Lightly sprinkle the worktop with flour. Roll out the dough to 3-4mm thickness. The easiest way to do this is to find something of the right thickness (e.g. some magazines) and lay them either side of the dough to act as rolling guides. Cut out shapes, and transfer to the baking sheet. Gather the scraps and keep re-rolling and cutting until it is all used up.

6. Bake the cookies for 6-10 minutes. They should be puffed up and pale, and only just starting to colour at the very edges. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.

7. Decorate the cookies, and store in an airtight container.

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{3} Paciencias

Each year that I’ve done my Twelve Bakes of Christmas, I’ve tried to go far and wide in search of inspiration. But each year I come back to the realisation that my selection has ended up being pretty Europe-centric. I’ve included a couple of recipes from America (snickerdoodles and bizcohitos) plus South African soetkoekies, but I’m still on the hunt for other ideas. Well, today – and in the spirit of the famous line from Ghostbusters – we’ve got one!


These are little meringue cookies from the Philippines. They are called paciencias, which derives from the word for patience.

I didn’t find an authoritative single reason as to why they have this name, but I can only surmise that since they are made from whisked egg whites, they would entail quite a lot of patience (as well as a demanding elbow workout) to get them whisked up to make the meringue base in the days before electric mixers. Or perhaps it comes from hungry little hands trying to reach for these cookies, only for parents to have to shoo them away as they try to instil some patience into their little darlings?


The recipe is pretty simple and quick to make – you make a meringue, add a little flour and baking powder for structure and lift, plus some flavouring. Most recipes suggest vanilla, but some also use almond extract. I happen to love all things almond, and I think the combination of vanilla and almond is really delicious, so I decided that I’d do the double.

Then I had a look on the ever-reliable Wikipedia which has a very brief article on paciencias which suggests they are flavoured with “calamansi”. I’ve never heard of this, but it is a citrus fruit grown in the Philippines that is thought to be a kumquat-mandarin cross. So if you wanted to add a little more oomph to the flavour profile, you could add some grated mandarin zest, which also has the added benefit of being a nice little festive touch. I lived on the edge and added a dash of orange zest, and I reckon they were all the better for it.


These took about 10 minutes to make, so they are a good activity with kids who don’t have a long attention span. The piping is pretty easy too – you could try to make them look identical and smooth, but I went for a quick approach and did the squeeze-and-lift, and got what I would politely call the shape of Hershey’s kisses, which I thought looked cute. Someone else in the kitchen said they looked like a tray of nipples, which I ignored! Hey, lockdown has been long and tedious, and we’ve all lost our social filters and have started saying what comes into our heads. Really, first day back in the office? It’s going to be interesting for sure.

Just after baking, the cookies are really nice – light, crisp on the outside and slightly chewy in the middle, and they’re pretty aromatic from the flavourings. Citrus zest was definitely the way to go. These are the kind of cookies which you can put in bowls and people can help themselves to without feeling like they’re eating too much. If you store them for a day or two, they stop being chewy and are completely crisp, which I found made a great companion to ice cream (I’m in lockdown, we need nice things!).

I feel that these are also cookies that will lend themselves to some experimentation. If you were so minded, then I am sure you could fill these cookies in the style of a French macaron. I feel they would suit something sweet and tangy, like lemon or passion fruit curd. They could also be coloured various festive shades, and I can imagine they would look quite jolly with all different shades mixed up in little bags as gifts.

To make Paciencias (makes around 50 cookies):

• 2 large egg whites
• 100g caster sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla or almond extract
• 30g plain flour
• 1/8 teaspoon baking powder
• zest of ¼ mandarin orange

1. Preheat the oven to 135°C (275°F). Line two baking sheets with greaseproof paper and lightly rub with neutral oil.

2. In a large bowl, start to beat the egg whites until they reach stiff peaks. Now add the sugar, a little at a time, and beat well after reach addition. Keep going until you have a smooth, glossy meringue – it should seem quite stiff. Add in the vanilla and/or almond extract and mix well.

3. Combine the flour and baking powder. Pour into the main bowl and add the orange zest, then fold everything together.

4. Put the mixture into a piping bag fitted with a round nozzle. Pipe 4cm (1.5 inch) circles on the baking sheets.

5. Bake the cookies for around 20 minutes until they are still pale but starting to turn lightly golden.

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{2} Alfajores

I’ve had alfajores on my list of things to make for a while, and I’ve finally had a go at the famous little Argentinean shortbread cookies filled with dulce de leche caramel. And as is the way of the world, I waited a very long time to try them, then ended up making them a couple of times this year. Turns out they’re pretty popular and go fast.


The first time was back in May in the middle of Lockdown 1 (remember that? And now we’re on Lockdown 3 here in London…possibly until February 2021…). There was a palpable frisson of excitement among European royalty watchers when Queen Maxima of the Netherlands whipped up a batch for her 49th birthday made to her Argentinean mother’s recipe. She explained they are her favourite cookies, and posted pictures of herself in the kitchen standing around in a gold ball gown.

I had a go at Queen Maxima’s recipe, sadly not dressed in formal wear, was going to post them as part of my lockdown baking series. I just never quite got round to it, but they were delicious, and they disappeared pretty quickly. But it did convince me that it was high time for alfajores to appear on my festive baking list.


In preparing for the festive version, I did a little reflecting on what I would like from an alfajor.

I am sure that South Americans have very clear views about what they should be like, but there does seem to be a bit of variety among the various recipes I looked at. Lots of recipes use a lot of cornflour to make them crumbly. This makes sense, and I agree to a point, but if the dough has too much cornflour, I find that it becomes too crumbly when you eat them. Instead I prefer to have a cookie that is slightly crisp and only breaks when I bite into it, as opposed to one that collapses. So my recipe has just a bit of cornflour, which I think gives a nicer texture and makes the dough easier to work with too. I’ve also omitted any eggs or egg yolks. I wanted the cookies to both crumbly but also a bit crisp to contrast with the smooth caramel filling.

I’ve also skipped the addition of lemon zest – I’ve tried alfajores both with and without the lemon, and while I can see that it lifts the flavour a little and cuts through the sweetness as well as being traditional, I just prefer it without. It must be my Scottish sweet tooth. If I’m going to have caramel, I want it to be pure, unadulterated sweetness. To provide the balance to the caramel, I’ve added a generous pinch of salt to the dough instead. I’ve also baked them so they have a slight colour to them. Lots of recipes keep them almost pure white, but I just prefer them to be slightly more baked.

The filling is the famous dulce de leche. You can be efficient and just buy a tin of the stuff. But if you are feeling adventurous, you can make it yourself. When I was a kid, we did this by piercing the top of the tin to release pressure, and we would then let the tin sit in a pan of simmering water for an hour until it had turned into caramel, ready to be added to a banoffee pie. What actually happened was that some water got into the tin, and that wasn’t great if you wanted it to have a nice thick texture. Maybe tin cans have gotten stronger since the 80s, but I recently came across another way – you put a whole tin in water, unopened, and simmer the thing for a few hours. Then leave it to cool, and when you open it the next day, the whole lot has magically turned into thick, luscious dulce de leche. It’s simple, effective, and you get the thrill of living dangerously in case the can does actually explode and coat your kitchen in caramel. But hey, we’re still in various states of lockdown, and cleaning anything sugary from your whole kitchen would give you something to do for at least several hours!

I tried a couple of different techniques in making the cookies, and my clear preference is for the biscuits to be on the thinner side. You’re going to be sandwiching two of them together with a lot of filling, so they need to be thin for two reasons. First, if they’re too thick, the cookies will be too tall. And second, you want to get a good cookie-to-caramel ratio. No-one wants your cookie with too little filling. Mine were 4mm thick, which I achieved by finding two magazines of the requisite thickness, then laying them either side of the dough, and voila – they act as rolling guides when you’re too cheap to buy the real thing. The other thing to embrace is rolling this dough out between two sheets of greaseproof paper. The dough is sufficiently buttery that it will not stick, and since you are not using flour, it means the first cookie will be the same as the last, as you’re not adding more flour as you shape the dough and re-roll the scraps.


If you’re locked down and don’t think you can eat them all over the course of two days, then I would fill them in batches. The cookies will keep well in an airtight tin, and then you can just fill and serve them when you need them. If you leave them to sit, then cookies start to go soft after a couple of days, and while they still taste amazing, you start to lose the textural contrast.


Putting the risky business of the caramel to one side, this is a nice recipe to try with children. The dough is quite forgiving, and you don’t need to worry about cutting out any elaborate shapes. They also love the sandwiching together of the cookies, and trying this out at the weekend I found that there was a material “angel’s share” which was being sneakily scooped from the bowl and not being added to the cookies when a certain little someone thought I was not looking.

To make Alfajores (makes around 30)

For the dulce de leche filling

• 1 tin condensed milk

For the dough

• 175g butter, softened
• 80g icing sugar
• pinch of salt
• 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 4 teaspoons rum
• 200g plain flour
• 50g cornflour
• 1/2 teaspoon baking powder

To finish

• unsweetened desiccated coconut

1. Make the caramel – fill a saucepan with cold water. Put in the tin of condensed milk on its side – there should be a good 3-4cm of water above the tin. Bring the pan to the boil, then turn down the heat, cover the pan, and leave on a simmer for 3 hours. Check it regularly to make sure that the can stays completely immersed – add more water as needed. Turn off the heat, and leave to cool. Do not open the tin while warm – it can explode and cover you in burning caramel!

2. Make the dough. Beat the butter until soft. Add the icing sugar, salt, vanilla and run, and beat until pale, fluffy and completely combined. Add the flour, cornflour and baking powder, and mix everything until you have a smooth dough. Wrap in cling film and chill in the fridge for 30 minutes.

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

4. Roll out the dough to 4-5mm thick. Cut out circles of 4-5cm, and place on the baking sheet. Before baking, place the whole sheet of cut cookies in the freezer for 2 minutes. Then bake the cookies until they are starting to turn golden at the edges (around 8-10 minutes). Turn the tray half-way to get an even colour. Repeat until all the dough has been used. Leave the cookies to cool completely.

4. Time to assemble. Open the cooled tin of condensed milk, and it will magically have transformed into deep golden dulce de leche. Give it a good mix, then take a cookie and add a generous amount of filling. Place another cookie on top, press gently until the filling is just sticking out of the sides. Roll the edge in desiccated coconut.

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{1} Spongata Di Natale

Season’s Greetings to everyone! Yes, we’re back for the Twelve Days of Festive Baking 2020 edition!

You don’t need me to tell you that this has, quite frankly, been a year that we’d all like to forget. And given what we’ve all been through it makes those chances where we can come together all the more important. Our original plans were for a low-key Christmas at home and the chance to see a few friends, mostly outside and from a distance. And then about six hours ago we got the news that London would be going into a new top tier of lockdown restrictions. Stay home, no household mixing at all, and you can meet one person in a park. It does put a whole new spin on the Judy Garland song “have yourself a Merry Little Christmas”.

I’m a little late to this year’s baking series as I was not actually sure I would do it. In part I wasn’t sure I was in the mood for it when the news seems unrelentingly grim. And working at home, staring at a screen all day, leaves me less inclined to look at a screen in my free time. But then, it’s just not Christmas without lots of home baking and those lovely aromas drifting up from the kitchen. The trying times that we find ourselves in also lend a different slant to this year’s tour of festive treats from around the world. We might be at home, but we can still take a little gastronomic tour in anticipation of being able to actually travel more next year. So here goes!

I’ve been doing my Twelve Festive Bakes for a few years now, and there has been a strong leaning towards cookies. We’re starting this year off with a recipe that swings the pendulum in the other direction, as we’re going to have a go at a sweet festive tart called spongata di natale from the Italian region of Emilia Romagna. To me this seems like something from the renaissance, and the compete opposite of picture-perfect sugar cookies coated in thick, neat icing.


This tart has a rich filling of fruit, nuts and spices wrapped in pastry, which reminded me of British mincemeat pies. I always like to look around at different recipes before having a go at something to get an idea of whether a recipe is very standard or allows some variety. I found quite a few differences among the recipes – some have more nuts, while others favour using figs, jam and other dried fruits. Personally I liked the idea of something that was a bit further from our mincemeat pies – we’ve been dodging them in the UK since mid-October – so I plumped for a version that was big on nuts and citrus, with the filling bound together with acacia honey and flavoured with spices.


The original recipe that I found actually makes 15 of these tarts! While I’m absolutely in favour of sharing the fruits of my baking efforts at this time of year, that was too much even for me. I mean, I could find 14 other people to give them to, but there is that pesky Tier 4 and the need to limit social contact, so it would have been irresponsible of me to visit lots of different homes with baked goods. So I had reduced the recipe by a factor of five, so that I could make three of them. One for me, one for a friend, and a spare in case it was delicious and I regretted giving one away.

The recipe below seems quite long-winded, as I’ve tried to lay out the various steps, but it is actually quite straightforward. You do it over several days, starting with the filling, then you just need to make a fairly simple dough which you roll out, fill, cover and bake. You are supposed to make the filling and leave this to rest, so it’s a good job to do in a chilly evening, so it is ready a day or two later when you’re full of the joys of Christmas and want to spend time fiddling with pastry. I left my filling to rest for three days as suggested in the recipe I looked at, but in all honesty I don’t know that it really makes that much difference. I did not have the patience to make two versions and compare them, but I like the idea of a bit of ritual in making my Christmas goodies, and it also spreads out the mess in the kitchen and the tidying up. But if you make the filling one day and bake the next, I’m sure it will still taste great.

For the filling, I had to work out the spice quantities as the original amounts were ten grams of cloves, one-third of a nutmeg and a stick of cinnamon. I’ve no idea how those convert into tablespoons and teaspoons, so I’ve ended up with amounts that suit my taste. I would recommend going easy with the cloves, as they are a dominant flavour and it can be easy to go too far. I happen to really like it, but remember the old culinary adage – you can always add more. My experience is that the flavour will also intensify over time after baking, so by judicious with the heavy spices like cloves. They work well here with the nuts and honey, but it is very easy to go to far.


One the filling had lingered in the kitchen for a few days, I got round to making the tarts themselves. The dough is simple – it’s a shortcrust pastry that uses white wine rather than water as the binding agent. It might seem a bit silly, but I always think it seems really decadent to use wine like this. And note that the recipe doesn’t make a lot of dough. At first I thought at first that it was never going to work. The key is that you work the dough a lot – it’s a dough, not pastry, and you want some gluten to develop in there. I persevered and duly managed to roll the dough out very thinly. And lo and behold, it worked like a charm. If you have a go at these, it is just a matter of taking time – roll out the base thinly; add the filling gently and pat it down; then cover it neatly, press out any trapped air, and make sure the edges are nicely finished. During baking the dough does not really move, but it will puff up very slightly and taken on a lightly golden colour. If you’ve ever been disappointed by the pastry-to-filling ratio of a British mince pie, then you’ll like the generous filling ratio of a spongata di natale.

I also made one final tweak to finish off the tart. I brushed the cooled tart with a simple water icing to make it a little more festive. This was not in the recipe, but seemed to be in the picture, and helped to make the whole thing seem a little less like a giant mince pie. If you’re going to keep them for a few days, the icing will dry out completely and take on a lightly frosted appearance, further enhancing their festive appeal.


And the verdict? I really like these. They are really delicious, very festive, and they do seem to be quite medieval in their character. The filling is rich, sweet and sticky, and very aromatic, packed with all the things that would have been outrageously expensive to a medieval Italian merchant looking for a good time at Christmas. They cut well into dainty slivers to enjoy with tea, coffee or an espresso for a dash of la dolce vita that we’re all craving this year!

To make spognata di natale (makes 3 tarts):

For the filling

• 40g breadcrumbs
• 40g sultanas
• 4 tablespoons dry white wine
• 100g walnuts, chopped
• 50g hazelnuts, chopped
• 50g almonds, chopped
• 200g acacia honey
• 30g pine nuts, roughly chopped
• 20g candied citron, finely chopped
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
• 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
• 1 tablespoon olive oil
• pinch of salt

For the pastry

• 200g plain flour
• 80g unsalted butter
• 80g caster sugar
• 40ml dry white wine
• pinch of salt

To finish

• 30g icing sugar
• cold water

1. Preheat the oven to 160°C (320°F). Put the breadcrumbs on a baking tray and toast in the oven until just golden. Watch them like a hawk – there is very little time between done and burned! Remove them when done and leave to cool.

2. Put the sultanas and the white wine in a bowl. Microwave for 1 minute, then cover and leave the sultanas for 30 minutes to absorb the wine.

3. In a large bowl, add the chopped nuts, toasted breadcrumbs, pine nuts, candied citron, spices and salt. Mix well. Drain the sultanas and squeeze out any excess moisture (keep the liquid). Chop them and add to the bowl.

4. Gently warm the honey to lukewarm in a saucepan over a low heat. Stir in 2 tablespoons of the reserved sultana wine. Pour it into the bowl, and mix well. Taste the mixture and add any more spices if you think they are needed. The resulting mixture should be sticky and very thick. Cover the bowl, and leave it in a quiet corner either overnight or up to 3 days, at room temperature, for the flavours to mingle.

5. Make the dough. In a bowl mix the flour, sugar and salt. Add the butter and work until it resembles breadcrumbs. Now add enough wine to make a dough which is smooth, shiny and pliable. Knead it for around 10 minutes.

6. Time to assemble the spognata. First, preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F). Mix a tablespoon of wine with the filling, then divide the filling into three (200g) portions, and place to one side.

7. Divide the dough into 6 pieces. Take one piece and place it on a large piece of greaseproof paper. Roll to a thickness of 1-2mm (i.e. very thin). Cut a circle of 25cm – the easiest way to do this is to find a saucepan lid or a dinner plate of the correct size, and use that as a template.

8. Now take one portion of filling and spoon it onto the disc. Gently press it into a disc that covers most of the dough, leaving a 3cm border (i.e. 19cm diameter). Place this on top of the pastry disc.

9. Take another piece of dough and roll out to make another disc. Brush the exposed edge of the first disc with a little water, and place the second disc on top. Press down lightly, then gently use a rolling pin to go back and forwards over the cake a couple of times, then press the pastry down all around the cake to press out any air bubbles. Seal the pastry with your fingers, then cut around the edge with a fluted pastry cutter or a knife. Pierce the top of the spognata several times with a fork – either randomly, or try to make some sort of pattern.

10. Slide a baking tray under the spognata, and put in the oven. Bake for 15-20 minutes until the pastry is golden (turning half-way to get an even colour). Do not leave it in any longer or it will dry out the filling. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.

11. Repeat with the remaining filling and pastry.

12. Finish the spognata either with a dusting of icing sugar, or by brushing the top with a simple water icing glaze.

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Cookie of the Week: Lebkuchen

Over the last few weeks I’ve had an uneasy feeling of familiarity with lockdown, and have not quite been able to put my finger on it. Then it struck me – it’s a little bit like that time between Christmas and New Year. The normal routine is out the window, many people are at home and it can be a bit of a struggle to bring much structure to the day. Well, except for the fact that I am still working, or at least trying my best to do so. It reminds me of a radio comedy I heard years ago where an evil genius how somehow managed to trap the whole of Britain in the Christmas limbo period and it lasted well into summer, but people were so lost and listless they didn’t realise.

Anyway, that gave me the idea to make something festive for my cookie of the week. So here are some German Lebkuchen.


And boy, could my timing have been much better? The glorious sunny weather we had been enjoying in London for the past few weeks decided to take a break and we’ve had the best part of a week of dark skies and some really lashing rain. My cats hated it, truth be told I didn’t really mind it, and the plants loved it. But it did feel very autumnal, even wintery at times, and I was quite pleased that morning coffee was accompanied by a sweet spiced lebkuchen coated in chocolate


This is what I’m ambitiously calling an “easy” recipe for Lebkuchen. Many traditional German recipes will call for a high nut content, leaving the dough to rest overnight, and you might find yourself hunting down unusual leavening ingredients like potash or baker’s ammonia. However this recipe uses thing you’ve probably got the baking cupboard, and the only tricky bit is when you coat one side in dark chocolate. If you’re preparing them to take pictures (as I was!) then you want to temper the chocolate so it is smooth and glossy, but if you’re making them to inhale with your morning coffee or afternoon cup of tea, you can just melt, coat and leave them like that. They’ll taste just as good.

The one thing I did struggle with was getting candied peel. I have not been near a big supermarket in nearly three months, and the places I have been clearly don’t see this as a “must stock” item. But I did have a few oranges, some sugar and way too much time, so I made the candied peel myself. It isn’t that hard, and I’ll probably do a post on it in the near future as it is also delicious if you then dunk the bits of sweet orange peel into dark chocolate. I know in some other areas flour has been in short supply, but I have not found that to be a problem. The moment you step away from supermarkets and check out smaller stores and delis, it’s right there. Even our local coffee place is in the act with a range of pasta and Italian “00” flour for sale.

The one fiddly bit that it’s worth knowing beforehand is that you want to make the glaze just before the cookies come out of the oven. You make it with icing sugar and hot water, so that it sets quickly on the hot cookies, and it taken on a sort of frosted appearance as it dries. I’ve found that if you leave the cookies to cool while you make the glaze, or you make it with cold water, you don’t get the same effect. It doesn’t add to the flavour, but it does look nice!

So there we have it – the essence of Christmas, in the middle of June. I might be one of the few people out there who is grateful for that temporary chilly spell in our weather so I could enjoy them!

To make Lebkuchen (makes 12):

For the dough

• 40g butter
• 75g soft brown sugar
• 50ml runny honey
• 1 medium egg
• 40ml milk
• 2 teaspoons mixed spice
• large pinch salt
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
• 1 tablespoon cocoa powder
• 100g plain flour
• 35g ground almonds
• 80g chopped nuts (almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts)
• 40g chopped candied orange peel

For the glaze

• 150g icing sugar
• hot water

To finish

• 200g dark chocolate

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F) and prepare two baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

2. Put the butter, sugar, honey, eggs, milk, spices and salt in a bowl. Beat until the mixture is well combined. Add the flour, ground almonds, baking powder, baking soda and cocoa powder and mix well. Finally fold in the chopped nuts and chopped candied peel. The mixture will be soft and sticky, but should not be runny.

3. Divide the dough into 12 portions – take tablespoons of the dough and place on the greaseproof paper – 6 cookies per sheet. Use damp fingers to press the dough to a circle of around 1/2 cm thickness.

4. Bake the cookies for around 15 minutes – they should puff up slightly and look dry, but should not start to darken at the edges.

5. Just before the cookies come out of the oven, make the glaze. Put the icing sugar in a bowl, and add enough hot water to make a glaze – you should be able to brush it onto the cookies, but don’t make it too runny or watery. Remove the cookies from the oven and immediately brush each with the warm glaze. As they cool, they should take on a “frosted” appearance, which will keep forming overnight as the sugar crystallises.

6. Once all the cookies are baked and the glaze is dry, temper the chocolate, then coat the flat side of each cookie and make any sort of whimsical pattern than you like. Leave to set, and enjoy!

To temper chocolate: follow this guide from the BBC using a thermometer!

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Filed under Cookie of the Week, Recipe, Sweet Things