Tag Archives: lemon zest

{9} Italian Anise Cookies

I realised that I’ve been doing a lot of baking that uses very rich, heavy flavours. While I love spices, fruit, nut and chocolate, something a bit lighter can be very welcome. In Italy, they seem to recognise this, with aniseed being a very popular flavour. It’s a little bit invigorating and had a very fresh taste that is very appealing. Very different from all those mince pies!

I saw literally dozens and dozens of recipes for these small, round, glazed aniseed biscuits. Probably every Italian grandmother has passed on her own recipe for these things! They seem to go by the name of both angelonies as well as genetti. From my non-scientific research, it seems angelonies are the round cookies with the brightly-coloured sprinkles, whereas genetti are similar but twisted into more elaborate shaped before being baked and glazed. If there are any Italians out there who would like to enlighten me, please do!

This is a very simple recipe, and indeed the biscuits are best enjoyed while they are still very fresh, which makes it a good choice for last-minute unexpected visitors. Well, I say that it is simple, but it took me a bit of time to get a recipe that I was happy with. Yes, I perhaps try to convey an air of perfection in the kitchen, but it’s all a veneer! I have to confess that in developing this recipe, I made a complete beginners error in working out the quantities. I had seen a few recipes using milk, and for some reason added about a quarter of a cup to the mixture. Enough to send everything haywire. I first noticed something was up when I added the flour, and the mixture looked more like batter than a biscuit dough. I started adding a bit more flour, convinced that everything would come together, but no – everything stayed rather wet, then became a sticky mess. No choice for me other than to try again!

The second attempt was perfect – I skipped the milk completely, reasoning that if I needed to add some, it was best to add this at the end only if needed, and in fact, I didn’t need to use any. The dough was soft without being too sticky, and it was very easy to handle. Again, a little sticky to roll into balls before baking, but nothing that I could not handle. Worth also saying that you really should add the lemon zest here – lemon and aniseed really do work very well together, I think it is the fresh and aromatic characteristics that they share. Definitely a case of the two being greater than the sum of their parts in terms of flavours!

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These were really easy to make, just a case of mixing up the sugar, olive oil and egg, then adding the flour and rolling into balls. The mixture was fairly sticky, so with my first failure in my mind, I did have a little doubt in my mind as to whether this second attempt was going to work. I had images of everything melting into a hard, dry cake. However, my fretting was needless – they kept their shape, then puffed up obligingly in the oven, and the kitchen was filled with the rich aroma of aniseed. Probably worth mentioning that you really do need to like aniseed if you’re going to have a go at these!

Actually, if you’re not an aniseed fan, then you can swap it out for just lemon zest (or add some orange too), or go for some other spice in place of the aniseed or flavour them with rose water or vanilla. They will have a very different taste, but they should still work, but I would suggest trying to match the decoration to the flavour (slivers of candied lemon peel if you have just used the zest).

Most traditional recipes seem to use coloured sprinkles to finish these cookies, and is that’s your thing, go for it. I prefer something more muted – you could go with simply white sprinkles, but I happened to have a large jar of whole aniseeds in the cupboard, so I added a few of them to the top of each cookie just after icing, which I think looked rather nice, and added an extra hit of aniseed flavour as you bite into them.

I should sound one word of warning – aniseed extract can be very strong, so use it with caution. You might think you’re not adding enough, but after baking, the flavour will be quite noticeable. If you feed you have not got enough flavour in the actual dough itself, you can always add a bit to the icing to enhance it.

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To make Italian Anise Cookies (makes 16):

For the dough

• 160g plain white flour
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
• 1 large egg
• 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon olive oil
• 50g white caster sugar
• 1 teaspoon aniseed extract
1 lemon, zest only

For the glaze

• 100g icing sugar
• 1/4 teaspoon aniseed extract
• whole milk
• whole aniseeds, coloured sprinkles or white sprinkles (to decorate)

1. Preheat the oven to 175°C (345°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper and rub lightly with a dot of olive oil.

2. In a bowl, mix the flour, salt and baking powder. Set aside.

3. In another bowl, beat the egg, olive oil and caster sugar for around 5 minutes until pale and slightly thickened. Add the aniseed extract and lemon zest, and fold in the dry ingredients. Mix well, adding more flour if needed – the dough should be soft, but you should be able to form the dough into balls with dampened hands.

4. Take teaspoons of the mixture and roll into balls. Place on the baking sheet, leaving a little space for them to expand.

5. Bake the cookies for around 12 minutes until puffed and the surface is slightly cracked, but they should not start to colour. Remove from the oven when done, and transfer to a wire tray to cool completely.

6. Finally, make the glaze – mix the icing sugar, aniseed extract and enough milk (a tablespoon at a time) to make a smooth, runny icing. Use to coat the cookies, and finish with a sprinkling of whatever takes your fancy.

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{11} Gevulde Speculaas

When I lived in Belgium, Christmas was marked by the presence of speculoos biscuits. Actually, pretty much every day was marked with speculoos, but at Christmas, they went from being delicious small additions to a cup of coffee to something altogether grander, culminating the two or three foot biscuits that were shaped into the image of Saint Nicholas in December. They are also a feature of Christmas in the Netherlands, where their name is tweaked to speculaas, and they gain more spice than their Belgian cousins. If you want to make the biscuits, I turned my hand to them last year. They can be made either by rolling out the dough and cutting or using the chill/roll/slice technique, but ideally you would use traditional wooden moulds to shape into windmills, chickens, men and women.

There is also a more elaborate version of speculaas, which is called gevulde speculaas, or “filled speculaas”. This is made with a layer of dough, similar to that used to make speculaas cookies, then filled with almond paste, and topped with more dough. The whole is then baked, and finally cut into smaller pieces.

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The dough is a rather straightforward affair, but the filling was more interesting. I always just assumed this was made from marzipan, but this is something that the Dutch call amandelspijs. This is a paste made from almond, sugar and eggs, and in some cases flavoured with a little lemon zest. This was traditionally a high-quality ingredient in baked goods, and using it considered a sign of quality.

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However, it was also an expensive item, and the temptation was inevitably there to use cheaper versions. This resulted in the development of something called banketbakkerspijs (“bakery spijs”) which was made from a combination of weird and wonderful ingredients such as bitter apricot kernels and white beans. I can see why the alternative name developed – croissant aux amandes sounds nice, white bean and ground kernel croissant less so!

Anyway, back to today’s recipe. I made my amandelspijs the posh way (I’ll leave my bean-based confectionery to the Japanese, thanks). However, I felt that the mixture of just ground almonds, sugar and egg lacked sufficient almond flavour (I’ve probably been raised on things flavoured with apricot kernels and have thus had my sense of taste destroyed…). I corrected with a few drops of almond extract. You could also use a spoon or two of amaretto liqueur. I also added some lemon zest, which appeared in a few of the sources I looked at. This is entirely up to you, but it does add a little extra flavour and a certain “freshness” to the filling.

When it comes to the spices, there is traditional Dutch mixture called speculaaskruiden (“speculaas spices”) that can be made from things you probably have in the store cupboard. I find the key flavours in there are the generous use of cloves relative to other spice mixes. However, you could use any spice mixture you like, such as pumpkin pie spices, or even just good old allspice.

The resulting cake is very rich, as the speculaas does not turn crisp like a biscuits, but instead you get a spiced pastry encasing the rich filling. You can really use as little or as much filling as you like (I’ve seen everything from a small sliver to a very thick slab of filling!) but I think a ratio of equal parts pastry and filling seems to work pretty well.

To make Gevulde Speculaas

Makes 16-25 pieces

Filling

• 150g ground almonds
• 150g caster sugar
• 1 egg, beaten
• 1/4 lemon, zest only
• 1/4 teaspoon almond extract

Pastry

• 250g self-raising flour
• 125g dark brown sugar
• 2 teaspoons mixed spice or speculaaskruiden
• 150g butter, cold
• 1 egg

To finish: whole almonds

1. Make the filling – mix all the ingredients to a smooth paste (if too stiff, add a little water). Cover the dish and refrigerate overnight.

2. The next day, make the pastry – put everything apart from the egg into a bowl and work with your fingers until it resembles breadcrumbs. Add 2/3 of the egg (reserve the rest) and work to a smooth, soft dough. Wrap in cling film and chill for one hour.

3. Now prepare the speculaas. Preheat the oven to 170°C (340°F) and line a square tin with greaseproof paper.

4. Take half the dough. Roll out to a size a few centimetres larger than the base of the tin. Transfer into the tin – press the base down, and leave the edges. Add the filling, smooth down, then fol the edges onto the filling – you want a seam of around one centimetre (half an inch), so you might need to trim the excess.

5. Roll out the other half of the dough, and trim to the size of the tin. With a little water, moisten the seam you’ve left on the base, then add the topping to the tin. Press the edges lightly, then use a blunt knife to score lines to mark the edge of each piece. You can do 4 x 4 (for 16 pieces) or 5 x 5 (for 25 pieces).

6. Take the reserved 1/3 egg. Mix with two tablespoons of cold water and brush to top. Place an almond in the centre of each piece.

7. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove from the oven, allow to cool, then remove from the tin. You can either cut into individual pieces now, or keep whole and cut pieces as needed.

Worth making? This is straightforward recipe if you’ve got the time, and a nice idea if you want something that is almond-based by want to steer clear of using a lot of marzipan. The flavour works wonderfully with the spices in the pastry too.

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Diamond Jubilee: Queen of Puddings

The Diamond Jubilee festivities are ongoing – the Thames Flotilla yesterday and the Concert on the Mall this evening. Today I’ve moved on from baked goods and tried my hand at a pudding recipe. It’s the suitably regal Queen of Puddings.

The Queen of Puddings is a very rich dessert, which has a custard base, flavoured with lemon and vanilla, with a layer of jam (usually raspberry) and then topped off with lots and lots of fluffy meringue.

There are two ways to make this pudding – either in individual ramekins, or fill a large oven-proof dish for an even larger pudding. The result was – surprisingly – not unlike lemon meringue pie. Of course the custard was not as rich, nor as lip-smackingly tart as in a lemon meringue pie, but the citrus notes are still there. The pudding is traditionally served warm with custard sauce, but I think it also works well when served cold – you can appreciate the flavours of the custard, and the meringue becomes soft and marshmallow-like. In individual ramekins, I think they make for quite a stunning little dessert.

I suspect you might share my first reaction to the name of this pudding – I mean, it’s quite a bold claim, isn’t it? There are lots of desserts out there, so what makes this one so special? The first clue to the name is that this is the Queen of Puddings, not desserts. In days gone by, those that could afford sugar would make simple puddings with sweetened milk and left-over breadcrumbs. In time, a more luxurious version appeared, which included a layer of jam and which was finished off with a meringue “crown”, and hence the name “Queen of Puddings”.

This is a very easy pudding to make – you bring milk and cream to the boil, then add butter, sugar, vanilla and lemon zest. Then pour over fresh breadcrumbs and leave them to absorb the liquid. Once cooled, add egg yolks, then bake until set. Then you add a layer of jam, and then your imagination really can run wild. You finish off with a meringue topping which you can either pile up and swirl like clouds, or pipe it into swirls or cover in lots and lots of peaks. The recipe below is my own creation based on a number of sources – I’ve gone with what seemed right, what would give the right amount of sweetness and flavour.

Now…I’m going to confess that making this dessert was not quite as drama-free as I may have led you to believe. I started out making a large Queen of Puddings. I made the custard, baked it, added the jam, then piped the meringue on top to look like lots of little peaks. It looked superb. I baked it until the peaks were just golden, removed from the oven, and then tried to take pictures of it. The light was starting to fade, and I was keen to get the last of the sun’s rays for my shot, and hence I needed to get a surface to shoot on that was as close as possible to a window. At this point, I had two options. Either do it on a solid, stable surface, or build a precarious tower of cookbooks and balance a tray on top, then put the lot on a soft footstool.  So, like an idiot, I went with the latter, and after three pictures, the pudding started to slide. And it kept on sliding. The it fell off. I ended up with hot pudding all over my right hand (which spend a long time in cold water, then had anaesthetic cream applied to stop the sting!) as well as jam stains on my trousers and the carpets. Next time I am making something warm and want that “just from the oven” shot, I’ll be making sure my foundations are much more stable!

Now, time to setting down and watch the Diamond Jubilee concert!

To make a Queen of Puddings (makes 6 ramekins)

For the custard base:

150ml milk
• 150ml cream
• 25g butter

• 25g sugar
• pinch of salt
• zest of 1/2 lemon
• 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 75g fresh white breadcrumbs

• 1 egg yolk

For the topping:

• 120g  jam (any, but red fruits are best)
• 2 egg whites
• small pinch salt
• small pinch cream of tartar

• 100g caster sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon cornflour
• 1 teaspoon icing sugar

Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F). Rub six individual ramekins with butter.

Put the milk and cream into a saucepan and bring to the boil. Add the sugar, butter, salt, lemon zest and vanilla. Stir well until the sugar had dissolved. Add the breadcrumbs, and leave to sit for 20 minutes until the breadcrumbs have absorbed the milk and the mixture has thickened. If lumpy, blitz in a food processor for a few seconds. Once cool, add the egg yolk and mix well.

Pour into the ramekins and bake for around 15-20 minutes until the batter is just set but has not browned. Remove from the oven. Turn the oven heat up to 190°C (375°F).

Next, heat the jam in a saucepan. Once hot and runny,  divide between the six ramekins.

Now, make the meringue topping – in a clean bowl, whisk the egg whites, salt and cream of tartar to stiff peaks. Fold in the caster sugar and beat until stiff and glossy. Add the cornflour and beat for another few seconds. Spoon or pipe the meringue mixture over the puddings, dusting each with the icing sugar, and bake for 10-15 minutes until the topping is lightly golden.

Note: if you want to make a large pudding, double the amount of custard, pour into a 1 litre ovenproof dish. Use the same amount of jam. Make the meringue using 3 egg whites and 150g sugar.

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