Today’s festive delight comes from the Mediterranean land of Malta. The name is a bit tricky for those not familiar with the Maltese tongue (i.e. me!) but qagħaq tal-għasel (kaka-tal-hassah) translates to the more familiar honey rings – even if they often are not made with honey, but rather treacle or syrup.
I did think that perhaps it would be more apt to save these for the No 5 spot so as to follow the famous Twelve Days of Christmas carol, but I’ve not been that organised with my planning.
These ring shape of these sweet, spiced treats is said to represent eternal happiness, and the filling inside that sticks out a little apparently symbolises that happiness being in abundance. Perhaps a little bit shmaltzy, but I think we all need that sort of approach to life right now.
Now, I think I know what you’re thinking: these look complicated. I thought the same, and for years they were on my “too hard” list. but I grasped the nettle and it turns out they are actually fairly straightforward. They take a bit of time, but the technique is not tricky. The filling itself is easy to make, then you roll out the dough, wrap it around the filling, and make a very long sausage roll. Form into a loop, and then use a very sharp knife or a (clean) razor to make the patterns on top.
The filling is made with all manner of things which combine to create the essence of Christmas – honey, spices and orange – with the addition of fine semolina to give it some substance. However it was not smooth sailing. I like to check various recipe sources to be sure that the method I am going to use will have a sporting chance of working. This time I saw lots of recipes which talked about making a syrup and letting it cool. So I did just this, and what started as a super-runny syrup while warm remained stubbornly runny when it had cooled down. I had assumed it would thicken up, but it was a great big no. I thought I would have to throw it away, but then I tried just adding water to it. I reasoned that semolina needs liquid to absorb and then thicken the syrup, so I added a whole lot of water. And just like magic, after a bit of cooking, I did indeed end up with a nice thick filling that could easily be used to stuff pastries. Maybe bakers in Malta know this trick and it is so obvious to them that it does not need to be stated in a recipe? I don’t know, but I was pleased I got it to work.
After all that work of getting the filling to work, I finally got the chance to taste it. My immediate through was: “why on Earth did I wait so long to make these?” If you are a fan of a classic treacle tart, then think of these are a ring-shaped and portable version of that. It is sweet, sticky, rich and has lots of festive flavours. I admit that I ate quite a bit of it from the pan as part of my testing phase.
So top marks for flavour, and they also last really well. The pastry is crisp after baking, and stays so even when left out for a few days. If you want something that is similar to mince pies but is also a little but different , then I think these are great. They would be really nice to nibble on with a cup of tea watching a Hallmark Christmas movie while it is a raging storm outside. So it’s handy that I have a tray of these, as we’re having a fairly wet-and-wild festive season here in London so far this year. And I can see myself making these again, especially now that I know they’re not that tricky after all.
To make Qagħaq tal-Għasel (makes 6-8):
For the filling:
• 220g (150ml) golden syrup or honey (or a combination)
• 75g (50ml) black treacle or molasses
• 50g muscovado sugar
• 125ml water plus 200ml water
• 1 tablespoon cocoa powder
• zest of 1/2 orange
• juice of 1 orange
• 85g fine semolina
For the dough:
• 350 plain flour
• 50g caster sugar
• 50g butter or vegetable oil
• juice of an orange
• cold water
1. Make the filling. Put the golden syrup/honey, treacle, sugar and 125ml water into a saucepan. Bring to a boil over a gentle heat. Add the cocoa powder, orange juice, orange zest, spices and semolina and mix well.
2. Add another 200ml water and mix well. It will seem very runny. Allow to sit for 10 minutes, then place over a gentle heat. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 10-15 minutes or as long as you need for the mixture to become really thick. It should leave a trail when you pull a spoon across the bottom of the pan. Cover with a lid and leave to cool completely.
3. Make the dough. Put the flour, sugar and butter/oil in a large bowl and rub together. Add the orange juice and just enough cold water to form a soft dough. Wrap in cling film and chill for an hour or overnight.
4. Preheat the oven to 180°C. Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.
5. Divide your dough into 6-8 pieces. Roll each into a long strip, around 20cm. Divide the filling into 6-8 portions. Sprinkle the worktop with fine semolina, then take a piece of filling. Roll it out into a long sausage. Brush the dough with water, then place the filling on top. Wrap the pastry around the filling, then press down the seam to seal. Make sure the seam is at then bottom, and join the ends to form a ring. Seal using water. Transfer the ring to the baking sheet, then use a very sharp knife or a clean razor to make various decorative cuts along the top.
6. Bake the rings for around 15-20 minutes. They should remain pale, and be only very, very slightly golden. Serve warm or allow to cool.