Tag Archives: gluten free

{5} Gebrannte Mandeln

Ah, going to Christmas markets! Remember those? Another one of those things we’re not doing this year. To make up for this, I decided to recreate a classic sweet snack you’d find there: the Germans call them Gebrannte Mandeln and we Anglophones would call them caramelised almonds.

I think those almonds you can buy in markets are one of the classic aromas of the festive period, along with mulled wine. There is something about that rich, sweet caramel that just draws you in on a chilly day. In London, you also see pop-up stalls where vendors sell them to passers-by around the tourist hotspots.

So even if we’re not able to go to a pop-up winter village in the city centre and peruse little wooden huts looking at gift ideas, buying treats and tasting dubious liqueurs and spirits, we can still bring a little of that winter fun into the house. I really enjoyed the process of making my batch of Gebrannte Mandeln, popping a few into a paper bag, and then munching them looking at the tree with the Dolly Parton Christmas album blaring. I may or may not have then moved onto a Channel 5 afternoon Christmas movie for some feelgood fun…


They’re not difficult to make, they just need a little patience and a good dash of faith. You make a sugar syrup, then add the nuts and cook them, stirring all the time. Once enough water has evaporated, the sugar suddenly crystallises thanks to your stirring, coating the nuts. You keep on cooking, and the sugar melts and turns to caramel. And that’s your nuts ready! All in all you can do this in 10 minutes, so it’s easy to make if you want something to watch with a movie.

The only tip I have to pass on is to make sure that your vessel is sufficiently deep! I’ve now made these twice, and the first time I used our shallow frying pan. It worked, but it was tricky to keep everything moving without nuts flying out of the pan. I used the deep one for the second batch, and it made life much easier. Everything stayed put, and I could focus on ensuring the sugar was melting evenly and nor burning.

As this is a home-made version, I’ve been able to make the recipe as I like it. I’ve used one part sugar to two parts almonds, so the nuts are lightly coated but now swimming in caramel. You can use more sugar is you want. I’ve also played around with the flavours. You can make Gebrannte Mandeln with just almonds, sugar and water. However, I like the extra festive touch you get from adding some cinnamon, and I love the aroma of the vanilla so that went in too. Finally, a little dash of salt is a good addition as it balances the sweetness and makes for a more complex flavour.


If you want to make a big batch, then go for it. These nuts will keep really well if you put them in an airtight container. If you leave them out, they will get sticky. So as lovely as they look in a bowl or sitting in your grandmother-in-law’s glass bonbonnière, store them properly and transfer them into their lovely vessel when you serve them up. Or pour them into a paper bag, go outside, look at some sparklers and for a brief moment you can feel that Christmas market vibe.

And in the end, I even managed to find a substitute for the Christmas market today. I met up with a neighbour, we each had our mug of mulled win in hand, and – keeping the requisite distance apart – we wandered around the local streets to check out the impressive lights that have been put outside people’s homes this year. There were also a lot of Christmas trees in windows, so plenty for us to look at. It really made me think: the headlines we see are laden with doom and gloom, but even in the middle of all that, there is light and those little moments of joy that we can take pleasure in.

To make Gebrannte Mandeln:

• 200g almonds, skin on
• 100g granulated sugar
• 50ml cold water
• generous pinch of salt
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Put everything except the almonds into a non-stick pot or frying pan. Heat the mixture and bring to the boil, then reduce heat to medium.

2. Once you see large bubbles, add the nuts and start to stir well. At first it will seem like a glossy sticky syrup, but keep heating and stirring, stirring, stirring and eventually the syrup will start to turn white and go grainy. The nuts will be roughly coated in sugar, with some sugar dust in the bottom of the pan.

3. Keep heating the mixture on a medium heat – the sugar will start to melt and caramelise. Keep stirring the nuts so that the caramelisation is even and the nuts toast but don’t burn. Once you’re happy with the state of your nuts, pour them onto a baking sheet lined with greaseproof paper. Use some metal spoons or forks to separate the nuts. Leave to cool completely, then store in an airtight container.

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Cookie of the Week: Amaretti

We’re going a bit nutty, so I’ve taken that as my theme for this week’s cookie. Here’s a tasty batch of amaretti cookies.

This is an old recipe of mine, and one that I make quite a lot. It’s also a perfect way to use up any left-over egg whites. I’ve got a couple of other good biscuit recipes in mind which use just egg yolks, and even in normal times I hate to waste egg whites. But now that we need to limit our visits of food stores (just once a week people!), it is just not an option.

And the real boon with this recipe is that the cookies taste really great, and actually much better than they really should given the limited amount of work you have to put into making them. This really is one of those throw-it-all-in-a-bowl recipes, then just roll them and bake them. They are the opposite to that other great user of egg whites, the complex, time-consuming macarons.


The method here is super-easy. Just lightly whisk the egg whites, then add sugar, ground almonds and a little flour. Then mix well. Job done! If this mixture is firmer, then you will ball-like cookies with a crisp outside and soft, chewy interior. If the mixture is softer, then they will flatten down during baking and look more like traditional cookies. As a rule of thumb – a medium egg white yields the former, and a large egg white yields the latter.

So there you have it – lovely golden cookies with jaunty, random cracks on the surface. An easy way to bring a bit of la dolce vita to your afternoon coffee while travel to actual Italy remains off limits.

To make almond biscuits (makes 12):

• 1 medium egg white
• 100g ground almonds
• 100g caster sugar
• 1/4 teaspoon almond extract
• 1 1/2 tablespoons plain flour(*)
• extra caster sugar to sprinkle

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper, and rub lightly with oil.

2. In a bowl, whip the egg white lightly. Add everything else and mix well. The mixture should be firm and not be wet – you should be able to take pieces and roll them into balls. If the dough seems too wet, add equal amounts of almonds and sugar to bring the dough together. If too dry, add a couple of drops of water.

3. Take teaspoons of the mixture and form into rough balls. Using slightly damp hands, roll into smooth spheres. Place them on the baking tray with space to allow them to spread. Flatten each one slightly. Sprinkle with caster sugar.

4. Bake the cookies for around 15 minutes until lightly golden on the edges (they will be paler in the centre). Turn the tray around half-way during baking to get an even colour.

(*) I’ve made these with wheat flour and gluten-free flour. Both work equally well.

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{11} Baci di Dama

For my eleventh post this year, I decided that I had to make something with chocolate. When I look back at my bakes so far in the 2019 edition of the 12 Bakes of Christmas, I was struck by the fact I’ve only used chocolate once, and I’m not sure that the other recipe with just cocoa really counts.

To rectify this I decided to attempt baci di dama – these are two little hazelnut biscuits sandwiched together with a little dark chocolate. Their name means “lady’s kisses” as they resemble a pair of plump puckered lips ready to lavish romance on someone fortunate. I’ve seen these cookies described as a symbol of sensuality.

Something I am also very curious about is what you think of the pictures I took of these cookies. I tried a few different setups to set a festive mood, some using tinsel, some using ribbon and some with a textured cloth. But none of them quite hit the mark for me, and I felt that I was going to have to resign myself to using shots I was not completely in love with. Then, as I was packing up, I noticed how they were reflected on the white surface and I thought that was the way to capture how they look – a sort of stripped-back, wintery look as if they are reflected in ice. Lady’s kisses, but that lady happens to be the White Queen of Narnia!


I have to be honest and declare that these are not really Christmas cookies per se, it just happens that they look adorable and they have flavours that seem very festive. They were created around a century ago in the city of Tortona in Piedmont, an area famed for its hazelnuts. One story says that they were the creation of a pastry chef in the employ of the House of Savoy, who was asked by Prince Vittorio Emanuele II to create something new. The chef could only use what he had to hand – nuts, sugar, butter and chocolate – and so baci were born. The other story is that they were born of fierce competition between two pastry chefs in Tortona. One created a version using hazelnuts and the other using almonds, and they both sought to obtain protection for their own special creations. Passion and rivalry seem somehow fitting for a cookie symbolising sensuality, not?

I started to do a little bit of digging for the “authentic” way to make these, and they all seem to be a bit of a variation on a theme – ground nuts, butter, flour and sugar in various quantities. But the recipe that really piqued my interest was this recipe from David Leibowitz using rice flour, and I decided to stop there and try that recipe. I liked the idea of using the rice flour as I expected it to provide a particular crispness and slight crunch to the cookies after baking in a way that plain old flour would not.


In following his recipe, I did find that the dough does seem to be very dry when you’re working it. He does recognise this and suggests you just keep working it until it does come together. I kept going and while I definitely noticed that the heat from my hands did help the mixture become more cohesive as I kept kneading, I also knew that I had gone way past the point I would have gone with a recipe using just flour. Ultimately I gave in and added tiny extra amounts of butter to get the dough to form. I didn’t need much, so when I say tiny, I mean tiny. The other option he suggests is adding a tiny amount of water, but this one I was really dubious about. That approach might work if you didn’t need to do too much with the dough, but I was concerned that given all the shaping and rolling of lots of small cookies that the rice flour would absorb the water and the texture would be affected (and that the dough would probably turn crumbly again and be impossible to work when you’re rolling the last of the cookies). The choice is yours, but this is basically a nutty shortbread. I’m Scottish, we’re shortbread experts, and would never add water when making shortbread!

For the hazelnuts, you have a few choices. You can use whole hazelnuts, and gently toast them in the oven until the skins start to come off. You then remove them from the oven, roll them in a teatowel, then carefully pick out the nuts as you try to avoid spreading the pieces of nut skin around your kitchen like brown confetti. I mean it – keep doors closed, as otherwise the slightest puff of wind and you’ll be finding bits of hazelnut skin for months. Otherwise you can use the cheat’s method and use ground hazelnuts, and just spread them on a piece of greaseproof paper on a baking sheet – bake at around 150°C (300°F), checking every few minutes until they are toasted. While less rustic than grinding your own hazelnuts, it does make life a lot simpler!

You don’t need to limit yourself to hazelnuts, although the flavour is delicious and combines wonderfully with the dark chocolate – the success of Nutella alone testifies to a winning combination. However, I think toasted ground almonds would also be good perhaps paired with some milk chocolate, and you could get very creative and use ground pistachios and white chocolate to create a little festive selection.

And in case you’re wondering, what does that rice flour do? It means when they come out of the oven the cookies are utterly fragile – I accidentally brushed against one and it collapsed. But they do firm up and go hard if you leave them, so patience if useful here. The texture is very crisp, and the rice flour and the hazelnuts give them an almost gritty texture (think breadstick rolled in polenta). I really liked it makes for a more interesting biscuit. However, in the interests of science, I also made a few using plain flour. The texture is closer to what you would expect from a nutty shortbread, so if you prefer to keep them classical, go with that. They are both, of course, delicious and they’ve been one of the most popular cookies I’ve made this year. They are wonderful with coffee, and their dainty size means you can easily nibble your way through a few of them without the feeling that you have over-indulged. I mean, you probably have, but you just don’t feel that way!


To make Baci di Dama (makes 40-50) – recipe by David Leibowitz (here)

For the dough

• 140g ground toasted hazelnuts
• 140g rice flour
• 100g unsalted butter, plus more if needed
• 100g white caster sugar
• pinch of salt

For the filling

• 60g dark chocolate

1. Put the ground hazelnuts, rice flour, sugar and salt in a bowl. Add the butter and use your hands to work it until you have a dough. Keep kneading it as the heat from your hands will soften the butter. If you find you’re really struggling to get it to come together, add a tiny amound more butter and keep going.

2. Preheat the oven to 160°C (325°F) and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

3. Divide the dough into 4 pieces. Take the first piece and roll to a long sausage – I did mine 22cm, as I worked out that this would give me pieces of 5g each. Then use a knife and cut into equal pieces. I lined my dough up against the ruler and cut into 1cm pieces – they came out very even.

4. Take each piece of dough and roll into a ball. I found it easiest to press the dough into as round as shape as possible, then to work the dough quickly between my palms to get a perfect sphere. Place each ball on the baking sheet, leaving some room for them to expand. Repeat until you’ve used up all the dough. Do the same with the remaining 3 chunks of dough.

5. Bake the cookies for around 12-14 minutes until they look slightly golden – they will have puffed up ever so slightly, formed little dome shapes, and have slight cracking. Remove from the oven and allow to cool – they are extremely fragile when they come out of the oven, but they will become firm when cool. When they have stabilised, transfer them to a wire rack to cool completely.

6. Once the cookies are completely cool, match them up in pairs of the same size. I recommend you then line them up in rows, one row with the base facing upwards, and its partner immediately above it.

7. Melt and temper the chocolate (the easy way – finely chop all the chocolate. Melt 1/3 in the microwave, then add the next 1/3 and stir until melted, then add the final 1/3 and stir until smooth, and reheat in the microwave for 5 seconds on full power). Put the chocolate in a piping bag, then put a little chocolate, the size of a chocolate chip, onto the base of a cookie, and gently place its partner on top – you want chocolate peeking out of the edges. Keep going until they are all done, and leave to set completely.

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{4} Sugared Almonds

I spent yesterday watching The Nutcracker Prince to get into the Christmas spirit. If you want to know what Kiefer Sutherland did before 24 and just how Phyllis Diller would bring her vocal talents to the voice of the Mouse Queen, then do check it out. It also got me thinking about making some sweets rather than baking something.

I’ve always associated sugared almonds with Christmas, even if most people think of them as wedding favours. So I thought I would give them a go. I knew that it would be difficult to make something that was perfectly smooth and coated in crisp sugar, but then I stumbled on a French recipe that looked promising. They have a sweet called pralines roses which are best described as rustic-looking sugared almonds with a vibrant pink colour. I had found my inspiration.


Before I made these, I did a little digging. First the name: when I think of pralines, I think of chocolates.

Well, it turns out there are few different types of praline – French pralines are made from almonds and sugar, Belgian has its chocolate pralines, and American pralines which are made with cream and have more of a fudge-like consistency. The name apparently comes from the magnificently-named César, Duke of Choiseul and Count of Plessis-Praslin, and the French variety were the creation of a chef in his household some time in the 1600s. I’m familiar with nuts coated in caramel and often sold around tourist hotspots, but in the case of pralines roses they come in a vibrant shade of pink. These little treats are a speciality of the city of Lyon, and while they are eye-catching, the reason for the distinctive colour is a bit of a mystery.

So I had a go at making sugared almonds! While pralines roses are made with almonds and hazelnuts, I went with just almonds, and toasted them lightly in the oven. This is not essential, and you can skip it if you want, but I like the nuttier flavour that balances out the sugar. The recipe itself looks complex, but it is actually fairly simple. You’re making a syrup, pouring it over the nuts, then agitating the mixture by stirring until the sugar crystallises. You just repeat this a few times until the coating is thick enough. The end result has a slightly knobbly appearance – they look a bit like mulberries. And if you want to make different colours, at the very end you can add a few drops of colour to a little syrup to coat the sugared almonds, as I did for the pink and pale green almonds. I also tried to make some gold almonds – coated in a golden-yellow sugar syrup, then dusted with gold lustre. They look lovely, even if the pictures don’t show it. Trust me!


Overall these were fun to make – you don’t need that much time to make them, and they do look pretty cool. Something I did find was that this works best if you use smaller amounts of syrup and aim for more thin coats than pouring all the sugar syrup over the nuts in one go. The latter approach leads to everything getting stuck together in a big sugary lump (because that absolutely did not happen to me when I got over-confident…). But follow the recipe and it does work. And with those pastel colours, you can sort of imagine them dancing around to the melody of the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

To make sugared almonds:

• 250g whole almonds, either blanched or skin left on
225g sugar
water
food colouring

1. Set the oven to 150°C (300°F) degrees. Lightly toast the almonds until they are fragrant, about 10-15 minutes – watch them carefully as you can quickly go from golden to burnt. Remove from the oven and put to one side.

2. Get a large non-stick frying pan. Add 75g sugar and a little water. Heat the mixture and bring to the boil. Once you see large bubbles, add the nuts and stir well. At first it will seem like a glossy sticky syrup, but keep heating and stirring until it turns grainy. The nuts will be roughly coated in sugar, with some sugar dust in the bottom of the pan.

3. Tip the lot onto a baking sheet lined with greaseproof paper. Separate out the nuts and put them back in the frying pan. Do not heat it.

4. Put the sugar dust that did not stick to the almonds into a small saucepan, add another 75g sugar and some water . Bring to the boil, and let it reach 124 degrees. As the syrup is reaching the right temperature put the frying pan with the nuts on a medium heat. When the syrup is ready, pour this over the nuts, and quickly stir to coat the nuts. Keep stirring until it becomes grainy (just like the first time…). Keep gently warming the frying pan for a minute or so until the nuts are separated, and again there is some sugar dust on the bottom of the frying pan.

5. Repeat steps 3 and 4, so you end up with the nuts coated with three layers of sugar. If you want coloured almonds, add a few drops of colouring to the last batch of syrup.

6. Transfer the sugared almonds to a sheet lined with greaseproof paper, and leave to dry in a low oven for about an hour (around 80°C/170°F). They will seem soft when you take them from the oven, but will go hard as they cool.

8. Allow the nuts to cool, and store them in an airtight container.

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{6} Kransekager

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To make Kransekager (makes 10)

For the marzipan dough

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

For the icing

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

To finish

• 100g dark chocolate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Aubergine Pasta

When I was younger, I was never really a fan of aubergines. In my student days, I started to experiment with them, and while I was always aware that aubergines mop up oil like a sponge, I still always ended up with something greasy and, well, just not that appealing. I probably made the novice error of adding more and more oil as the aubergine was cooking. Yes, this meant that I endured many, many meals involving badly-cooked aubergine with too much oil served pasta, with salt, pepper and spices seeking to mask the horror that I had cooked up.

These days, however, me and the aubergine have made up and get along just fine. I love them smoked and made into salads or baked and turned into baba ganoush (even if they’ve been known to explode all over the inside of my oven), but most recently I’ve been making lots and lots of this simple aubergine and tomato sauce. Very easy, very delicious and fantastic with pasta.

aubergine_sauce1

This recipe really is sheer simplicity. Just chop the aubergine into small cubes, then put into a pan with some olive oil and salt. At first, all the oil is soaked up, and you think that nothing will happen when you cook it. But be patient, and the  aubergine transforms into something browned, soft and delicious. The flavour is rounded out with some tomatoes and herbs, and that’s about it. This is great on pasta, cannelloni, polenta, gnocchi…with chillier days, that’s the sort of stuff we like!

aubergine_sauce2

To make aubergine sauce (enough to serve 4):

• 2 medium aubergines
• 50ml olive oil
• salt, to taste
• 4 tablespoons tomato paste
• 2 tins chopped tomatoes
• sugar, to taste
• pinch of chili powder
• 1 teaspoon dried oregano

1. Cut the aubergines into 1 cm (1/2 inch) chunks. Put into a large saucepan with the olive oil and a generous pinch of salt. Cook on a medium heat until the aubergine is soft and it is starting to brown, around 15 minutes (At first, the aubergine will soak up all the oil, but keep heating it and it will release the oil and cook down).

2. Add the rest of the ingredients, stir well and adjust the seasoning if needed. Leave to simmer on a low heat until the sauce has reduced down. Just before serving, adjust with a little water and/or olive oil if needed (this sauce can be made ahead and reheated at the last minute).

Worth making? I reckon so – I’ve probably made this four times in the last three weeks!

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Almond Biscuits

If you’re the kind of person that enjoys making things that use a lot of egg yolks (custard! ice-cream! mayonnaise!) then you’ll know the problem you can face with a bowl of egg whites. I faced just this predicament after making some raspberry tarts with a vanilla custard filling. I always think it’s incredibly wasteful to throw them away, so it’s useful to have a few recipes up your sleeve that you can whip us with things you have in the cupboard, and these tasty little almond biscuits tick that box.

almondcookies

These biscuits are essentially like simple Italian amaretti, round little domes with a nice crisp/chewy shell on the outside, with a little crunch and sparkle from caster sugar, but a soft marzipan-like filling. The name actually translates as “small bitter things” but I assume that refers more to the almond flavour than their temperament. They would be similar to what Italians call amaretti morbidi, a name that I always find rather sinister. I know it means soft amaretti, but I always translate morbido in my head as morbid (a false friend). I mean…a morbid biscuit…really? I think the results are about as far from that as possible – a lovely light golden colour and those jaunty, random cracks on the surface. They might not look perfect, but I think that adds to their charm.

If you’re lucky enough to have access to almonds with a pronounced flavour, they use those, but to make sure you get a proper almond flavour, it’s fair to cheat a little and add a dash of almond extract. I know some people get a little sniffy about this, but I think it really makes a difference, and takes them from just being sweet and chewy to proper little almond bites.

You’ll see that this recipe uses a little flour – I find this helps to bind the mixture, but I’ve made them using both normal plain flour as well as a gluten-free flour mixture. Both were equally successful, so these treats can easily be made gluten-free. It’s also the use of flour that means I haven’t called these amaretti. Don’t want to offend Italian grannies and all that.

How to enjoy them? They can be kept for a few days, but I think they are perfect with coffee, and you’ll probably struggle to stop at one.

To make almond biscuits (makes 24):

• 2 large egg whites
• 230g ground almonds
• 230g caster sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
• 3 tablespoons plain flour
• extra caster sugar to sprinkle

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper, and rub lightly with oil.

2. In a bowl, whip the egg whites until you have soft peaks. Add 200g of each of the almonds and sugar, plus the almond extract and the flour. Mix well. Add the rest of the sugar and almonds only if needed – the mixture should be firm and not be wet, but still soft enough to shape using teaspoons.

3. Take teaspoons of the mixture and form into rough balls. Using damp hands, roll into smooth spheres (you’ll probably have to rinse your hands after four cookies), place on the baking tray a few centimetres apart, and flatten slightly. Sprinkle with caster sugar.

4. Bake the biscuits for around 15 minutes until lightly golden (they will be paler in the centre). Turn the tray around half-way during baking to get an even colour.

Worth making? Definitely. The mixture is quick and easy to make, so easy to whip up when you’ve got a spare half an hour. And delicious too!

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Sweet Potato Wedges

Autumn is now with us. The mornings might be bright, but there is that unmistakable crispness in the air that signals things are about to get a lot “fresher” in the coming weeks, and the evenings are getting dark very quickly. Sure, it might still feel warm if you’re in a sunny spot, but when you’re in the shade, or a breeze blows past, you feel just how nippy things are getting.

With the chaos of moving house almost at an end, I’ve finally been back in the kitchen. All of a sudden, my cooking has moved away from the salads of summer, and quick, light suppers, and into much more substantial fare. Lentil dishes with lots of spices, curries, baked squash, soups, fritters…it’s the time of year to batten down the hatches and do all you can to fend off the cold weather that is approaching. It’s not a conscious change on my part, but there are certain dishes the you just have a craving for as the seasons roll by. I have, however, resisted the urge to buy Christmas pudding, even if my local shop has decided that this is exactly what we want to eat in October.

In much of my cooking at this time of year, I use a lot of spices, and I take a heavy-handed approach. I somehow feel that lots of cumin, pepper, ginger, garlic and sambal will help to fight off the sniffles during the colder months. It might work, it might not, but it certainly makes things a lot more tasty. It’s also worth getting a little more creating in how you season things – one of my current favourites is ground allspice, which is very common in sweet treats like biscuits and gingerbread, but it adds an interesting dimension to savoury dishes too.

It was with all this in mind that I got round to trying something that was on my “to make” list for quite some time. I love sweet potatoes baked and topped with feta, so I expected great things when they were spiced and baked as wedges.

Pleasingly, these are very, very simple to make – nothing much more than peeled sweet potato, cut to size, then tossed in oil with some spices, and then baked. They also have the benefit of looking very impressive – a jolly autumnal bust of orange when freshly cut, turning a deeper colour after baking. They can also be prepared hours ahead of time and left in the spice mixture to marinade (if it is possible to marinade potatoes?), and make a great snack or side dish. However it is the spices that take these from so-so to wow-wow. The spices you use are completely up to you – I went with some personal favourites (allspice, paprika, curry powder, black pepper and cumin). A tasty little dish as the long nights draw in.

As you can see below, these wedges hold their shape rather nicely too after being baked in a hot oven.

To make sweet potato wedges:

• 2 large sweet potatoes
• 3 tablespoons olive oil
• spices – select 5, and use 1/2 teaspoon of each(*)

1. Preheat the oven to 220°C (420°F).

2. Peel the potatoes. Cut lengthways into eight wedges, then slice each wedge diagonally (so each potato provides 16 pieces).

3. In a large bowl, combine the olive oil and spices. Mix well, then add the potato wedges.

4. Transfer the coated wedges to a tray lined with greaseproof paper and bake for 30-40 minutes until you can insert a knife easily, and the wedges are just stating to brown at the edges.

5. Serve immediately with the dip of your choice.(**)

(*) For the spices, I used allspice, paprika, curry powder, black pepper and cumin. And then I cheated and added some dried thyme too.

(**) I served these with a sprinkle of salt, and a dip made from tahini, yoghurt, sambal and lime juice.

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Tumis Buncis (Indonesian Green Beans)

Gosh, it has been a rather hectic week! Packing, sorting, tidying and living between two places. However, it’s also a rather cathartic process of sifting through what feels like mountains of “stuff” and getting rid of things that I either no longer want or need. One of the perks of where I live at the moment (Stoke Newington) is that if you put something in the street that is vaguely usable, it’s a virtual certainty that someone will take it and give it a new home. As a result, I’ve managed to de-clutter without actually throwing much in the bin. Result!

As part of all this packing, I’ve also rediscovered some long-lost items. Old t-shirts which I had forgotten but which I now love once more, books that I read years ago and want to read again, photos from my travels and…my recipe file. Yes, I’m old enough to have a recipe file. I started this when I lived in Brussels and it contains recipes from magazines, Internet print-outs and some scrappy hand-written ideas. As you can tell, this pre-dates the days when everyone has Internet access at home, and back then there was a need to have a bundle of never-fail recipes at your fingertips.

Funnily enough, I recently read an article in which the author was musing about the way that we record our recipes today. Wind back a decade or so and it was all about writing down recipes or cutting them out of magazines, but in the age of online content and blogs, there is just not that imperative to tear out recipes from the weekend papers to file for later reference. So it seemed fortuitous to me that I dug out my old file, and I was rather curious about what was in there.

Leafing through, I came across a simple but quite tasty recipe that I received from an Indonesian colleague when I lived in Brussels. It’s incredibly simple – just garlic, green beans and tomatoes, seasoned with salt, sugar, nutmeg and sambal or chili. It makes a great main dish with rice and some chopped peanuts, or as a side dish. The nutmeg in particular adds a little extra something to the overall flavour. So there you have it – a recipe for tumis buncis rediscovered as part of my packing, and I suspect the last recipe that I post from North of the River!

To make tumis buncis (main for 2 or side for 4)

• 350g green beans, washed and sliced diagonally
• 350g cherry tomatoes, chopped
• 2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
• 2 tablespoons oil
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• sambal or chili

Heat the oil in a large saucepan. Saute the garlic for a couple of minutes.

Add the green beans and tomatoes and cook for a further two minutes. Add the salt, sugar, nutmeg and sambal/chili and cook on a high heat until the tomato juice has made a slightly thick sauce, but the beans are still firm. Check the seasoning, and add more salt and sugar if needed.

Serve with white rice, and if you want to go to town some satay (peanut) sauce.

Worth making? This is a really easy dish to make, but bursting with flavour from the tomatoes and nutmeg. It all comes together to make a very satisfying dish that can be whipped up in a few minutes, and makes a great main or side dish.

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Fourth of July: Boston Baked Beans

Today it’s the Fourth of July – so let’s make something traditionally American, the good old-fashioned Boston Baked Beans!

Well, I say “good old-fashioned” but actually, I don’t know very much about them other than I like their name, so I thought it was about time to give them a bash. And a recipe from The Well-Cooked Life looked just perfect.

I know some people get terribly snobbish about baked beans and don’t like the tinned ones, but I’m not one of them. One of life’s greatest pleasures is a Saturday morning involving toast covered in cheese, grilled and then topped with baked beans. Delish.

Nevertheless, I was intrigued by the idea of making beans from scratch that had a bit more pep to them. A few minutes on Google told me that they are normally made with salted pork and molasses, so you’ve got a powerful savoury/salty yet sweet flavour. Clearly the pork was not going to happen in my case, so I added a bit of soy sauce instead to get more “savoury” than just salt would contribute. The other ingredients also promised something rather grand – lots of spices, hotness from sambal (my preferred way of adding heat to a dish), sweetness from molasses and fried onions and sharpness from some cider vinegar.

Boston Baked Beans are also a complete doddle to make, albeit a little planning is needed to make sure that the beans are properly soaked and cooked, but it’s mainly a case of soak, boil beans, mix sauce, bake.

One little wrinkle that affected my beans – I didn’t have dinky little beans (like you get from the tinned ones) so I used the ones I had in my cupboard, which were crab-eye beans. They were a little larger, and stayed a little firmer when cooked. They were still delicious, but when I make these again, I’ll be using the smaller beans in the future.

What you do need to be prepared for is that these beans are not a neon orange hue – all that molasses or treacle makes the sauce a rich red-brown colour. However, the flavour is completely, totally, utterly sensational. The sum is greater than the individual parts – and actually, that makes this a rather fitting dish for Fourth of July.

To make vegetarian Boston Baked Beans (adapted from here):

• 350g beans
• water
• 3 tablespoons oil
• 1 clove garlic, chopped
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 2 white onions, chopped
• 2 heaped teaspoons paprika
• 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 2 large pinches ground cloves
• 2 tins chopped tomatoes
• 2 tablespoons concentrated tomato puree
• 1 teaspoon of chili or sambal
• 2 tablespoons soy sauce
• 240ml treacle or molasses

• 120ml cider vinegar

1. Soak the beans overnight in cold water.

2. The next day, cook the beans according to instructions on the packet (how long you boil and simmer depends on the type). When cooked, drain the beans.

3. In the meantime, make the sauce. Fry the onions in the oil until golden. Add the garlic, cook briefly, then add the rest of the ingredients. Bring to the boil, then simmer for 20 minutes.

4. Mix the cooked beans and the sauce. Taste and adjust seasoning as required.

5. Pour the beans into an ovenproof dish. Cover and bake in the oven at 160°C (320°F) for 2-3 hours until the sauce is thick and the beans are soft. If the beans get too dry, top up the water.

Worth making? This is a complete flavour explosion, and utterly delicious. The basic recipe should appeal to most tastes, and you can tweak and adjust the spices to suit what you like. Definitely worth having a go at.

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