Tag Archives: nuts

{12} Vanillekipferl

The tree is decorated. The presents are wrapped. There is far too much food in the kitchen. The fridge is groaning, but we’ve still had panic moments that we’ve forgotten something. Bearing in mind that we live in the middle of a major city, and the shops are only closed for one day, the chances of anything serious happening due to a lack of chestnuts, crisps or cheese are fairly remote, but that last-minute rush always happens. And to really big up the excitement, I decided at 2pm that we didn’t have enough decorations, so back into the loft we went and there are now baubles and figurines dangling from just about every possible place. We’ve just achieved peak Christmas cheer!

Christmas Eve also means that we’ve reached the end of the 2015 edition of the 12 Bakes of Christmas. To round off this year’s festive baking extravaganza, I’ve  turned to a real classic of central European baking – the simple but utterly delicious vanilla crescents that appear in (at least) German, Austrian, Hungarian, Czech and Slovak baking. These are buttery little pastries, rather like shortbread, enriched with nuts and perfumed with vanilla, which are rolled in icing sugar while warm. This might sound simple, but pile them up on a plate and pass them round, and they will be gone in a flash!

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The crescent shape of these biscuits is suggested to have come from the crescent on the Turkish flag, and they were created to celebrate a victory by the Austro-Hungarian army during one of many battles between them and the Ottoman Empire.

Unlike so many spicy biscuits at this time of year that need to rest for the flavours to develop, I think these really are best when they are still fresh, so a good thing to make when you need them the next day. Just try to keep everything as cold as possible – it makes it much easier to handle the dough, to shape it, and they will keep their shape in the oven if the dough has been chilled. And if you don’t keep things cool…well, good luck! You’ll need it!

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There is not too much scope for variation here, as you don’t want to play around with the dough so much that the texture changes. Vanilla is pretty much essential, and I would not dream of making them with anything other than butter. Most recipes call for unsalted, but I used salted – I think it actually works really well in these sorts of recipes as it balances the sugar in the recipe (I use salted butter in shortbread too). You could also add spices such as cinnamon or nutmeg, but I think it’s worth adding just a dash if you really have to.

Where there is real scope to play around is with the nuts that you use. Almonds or walnuts are traditional, with the latter lending a nice extra flavour. I think hazelnuts would also work, or you could even try finely ground pistachios for a hint of pale green to the pastry. The only thing you need to make sure is that the nuts really are finely ground – if you’re using whole nuts, I suggest chopping them as finely as you can with a knife, then putting them in a grinder with some of the sugar. This will get them to a fine powder, but prevent them from going oily. If you’re going to all the effort of making them, you want them to be the best they can be!

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So that’s it – the final installment in our festival of Christmas baking. I hope you’ve enjoyed it, I hope you’ve had some inspiration, and I hope you’re wise enough not to try to make this many cookies against the clock. But as always, it’s been fun and I’ve loved trying out some new techniques and flavours.

And now, time to crack open the champagne and enjoy a cheese fondue to bring Christmas Eve to a close. The newest addition to the family will be up first thing, ready for presents!

To make Vanillekipferl (makes around 40):

For the dough

• 100g salted butter, cold
• 145g plain flour
• 50g ground walnuts or hazelnuts
• 35g icing sugar

• 1 large egg yolk
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• seeds of 1 vanilla pod (optional)
• 1 teaspoon cream (or milk)

For the vanilla coating

• 100g vanilla sugar
• 100g icing sugar

1. Make sure everything is cold, cold, cold! Mix the flour, icing sugar and ground nuts in a bowl. Cut the butter into small pieces then rub into the flour mixture.

2. Add the egg yolk, vanilla extract, vanilla seeds and enough cream (if needed) so that the mixture just comes together. We’re talking seconds rather than minutes – you don’t want your hands to warm up the mixture! However if the mixture seems very sticky, add more flour, a spoonful at a time, until it forms a soft dough.

3. Wrap the dough in cling film, press into a slab (rather than a ball) and leave to chill in the fridge for a couple of hours or overnight. If you’re in a hurry, pop it into the freezer.

4. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 170°C (335°F) and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

5. Make the coating – mix the icing sugar and vanilla sugar and spread on a plate.

6. To shape the biscuits, cut the dough in half. Roll each piece into a long, thin sausage, then cut each into 20 equally sized pieces. If you want to be precise…I rolled out to 30cm, and using a metal ruler cut out 1.5cm pieces of dough! Nerdy, but precise. Roll each piece of dough into a ball, put on a plate, and put the plate in the fridge for 30 minutes.

7. Shape each piece of dough into a sausage. Shape to a crescent/horseshoe shape and place on the baking sheet. Pop the tray in the fridge for 5 minutes before baking. Aim to bake in batches of 10-15 so you can cover the hot cookies in the vanilla coating when they come out of the oven.

8. Bake for around 10 minutes until slightly coloured – the tips will colour more quickly than the rest of the cookie.

9. When baked, let the biscuits cool for 1 minute, then roll them gently in the vanilla coating. Be gentle – they will be very fragile. However, if they break, then it’s a cook’s perk! I found it works best to put the cookie on top of a pile of the sugar, then cover with more of the sugar mixture. Carefully shake off any excess and transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

10. Repeat the baking and coating process in small batches until all the dough is used up.

11. Store the cookies in an airtight tin – add any remaining coating sugar to the tin, so that your Kipferl keep their lovely white colour. They will soften over time, becoming soft, crumbly and melt-in-the-mouth.

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Marchpane for Lovers

I’m probably not the world’s greatest romantic, but even I’ve gotten into the Valentine’s mood this year, and made something inspired by the theme of romance. However, if you’re familiar with any of my previous offerings, you’ll know that I’ve tended to shy away from pretty pink cupcakes. I’ve variously made a deep red beetroot risotto, a bittersweet red salad, and most dramatically, a dessert which looks like something has chewed out a heart and abandoned it in the snow.

This year, I’ve eased back on the drama, and instead drawn inspiration from an era in English history with which it seems that everyone (or at least everyone in television working on historical dramas) is obsessed. Yes, we’re off to Merrie Olde Tudor England to sample a sweet delight called marchpane.

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So what is marchpane? It is a very simple confection, which is something of an ancestor to our modern marzipan. It consists of almonds which were finely ground, and then mixed with sugar which had been worked to a powder. Everything would then be mixed with rosewater, and the resulting firm paste could be moulded into intricate shapes, and then coloured or gilded. And those Tudors didn’t do things by halves…there are tales of whole golden swans made from marchpane, covered with gold leaf, and on one occasion, Queen Elizabeth I was presented with a model of Old St Paul’s Cathedral made from marchpane. Apparently, she was impressed.

But don’t just take my word for it. Here’s an original recipe from Robert May’s “The Accomplisht Cook” which dates from 1660:

To Make a Marchpane: Take two pound of almonds blanched and beaten in a stone mortar, till they begin to come to a fine paste, then take a pound of sifted sugar put it in the mortar with the almonds, and make it into a perfect paste, putting to it now and then in the beating of it a spoonfull of rose-water to keep it from oyling; when you have beaten it to a puff-paste, drive it out as big as a charger, and set an edge about it as you do a quodling tart, and the bottom of wafers under it, thus bake it in an oven or baking-pan; when you see it white, and hard, and dry, take it out, and ice it with rosewater and suger, being made as thick as butter for fritters, so spread it on with a wing feather, and put it into the oven again; when you see it rise high, then take it out and garnish it with come pretty conceits made of the same stuff.

It’s fair to say that this is not a “recipe” as we would know it today! This is a bit more of a vague description, and the fact that we’ve got some quantities in there (two pounds of almonds, a pound of sugar) is apparently quite unusual for that time. But otherwise, this seems like a fairly straightforward recipe to modern eyes. Just take two parts ground almonds to one part icing sugar, add rosewater, shape it and bake. Job done!

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Except…it was not that easy for your average Tudor baker, who didn’t have easy access to ground almonds. They would need to make them. And I suspect almonds did not come pre-blanched, so they would have to remove the skins. And all of this would take time. All very easy in our modern kitchens to boil the kettle, then pop a pan of water on the stovetop to skin the almonds, but less straightforward in a mediaeval setting. So once you have your almonds, skinned and dried, you need to grind them down. And no blender of coffee grinder then…more likely than not, it involved either a mortar and pestle or a hammer and a muslin bag!

Having sorted the almonds, we then come to the sugar. Today, we’ve got bags of lovely, fluffy, white icing sugar which you can use right away. So pity the poor Tudor confectioner, who had to take a solid cone of sugar, chip away at it to get manageable pieces, then use even more elbow grease to grind those pieces down to a fine powder to use in marchpane. All in all, a lot of time spent turning things into powders and pastes. And don’t assume it would be some kitchen serf doing all the work – I remember seeing a programme on the Tudor kitchen which claimed that it would often be left to noble ladies in the royal household to work with sugar, as it was still something of an expensive luxury at that time.

You might think that I’m labouring all this a bit, but I just want to point out that while marchpane might look easy to us, it included a couple of fairly expensive ingredients (foreign nuts, imported luxury sugar) and a lot of time, so this was not a sweetmeat to be enjoyed by the masses. Hence the fact it was made into elaborate showstoppers and covered in gold, as one does when trying to impress!

But that is enough history. In terms of actually making the marchpane, I was able to skip all the hard work, so I found making marchpane a doddle. Just mix the ground almonds and the icing sugar, then add rosewater to bind it. This is really the only tricky bit that you will face these days – if you over-work the marchpane mixture, or do it when things are too warm, the almonds will release their oil and the mixture will seem to “split”. I tested this on a small piece, and it does happen quite easily, so once you’re happy with the texture, try to handle it as little as possible and keep it cool, as there is no way to fix the marchpane (but you can still use it for something else). Once you’ve got the right texture, just roll it out and start shaping it as you fancy.

As you can see, I went for a round tablet, inspired by the way that petticoat tails are made, to be decorated with red beading and golden hearts, which I thought ended up looking a little bit like a Tudor rose. I made the hearts separately from thinly-rolled marchpane, so I’m happy to report that if you wanted to make these are individual sweets or wedding favours, then this is entirely possible. Alternatively, you can decorate the top with candied fruit and citrus peel, and sugared almonds and “comfits” (sugar coated seeds like aniseed and caraway). As you can see below, I also made a few marchpane hearts as separate sweets – and I couldn’t resist making one golden broken heart…

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It is worth saying a couple of things to note about flavours here. First, make sure you’ve got the right sort of rosewater. It should be the dilute stuff which has a mild flavour, not the very concentrated rose extract. You want a hint of rose, not something that tastes of soap! If you’ve got the strong stuff, just dilute it with water and use that to bind the marchpane. Second, there is actually something that I did not include in this recipe – almond extract. This is often used to boost the flavour of sweet almonds in baked goods, but I decided to leave it out here. This was quite deliberate – none of the traditional recipes suggested this, and I wanted the marchpane to have a more subtle flavour.

And finally…how did it all taste? Well, actually really nice. Slightly sweet, nutty with a slightly toasted flavour, and a hint of rosewater. Maybe those Tudors knew a thing or two about sweets after all.

To make Marchpane:

For the marchpane:

• 200g ground almonds
• 100g icing sugar
• rosewater

For decoration:

• 100g icing sugar
• rosewater
• natural food colours
• gold or silver leaf
• gold or silver dusting powder

To make the marchpane:

1. Put the ground almonds and icing sugar in a large bowl. Mix with a whisk to combine (trust me – this works!).

2. Add rosewater, a teaspoon at a time, until you have a smooth paste. You’ll need around 6 teaspoons for this quantity but go with what you feel is right.  You can start with a spoon to mix everything, but you need to finish with (clean) hands to make a fairly stiff dough. It should not be sticky, and don’t over-work or it will turn oily.

3. Dust a worktop with icing sugar. Put the marchpane mixture on top, and roll out to about 1cm thickness. Use a plate as a template and cut into a circle. Transfer to baking tray lined with greaseproof paper. Decorate the marchpane as you wish.

4. Roll up any scraps and use to make decorations – for example, roll thinly thin, then cut out heart shapes etc.

5. Bake the marchpane disc at 150°C (300°F) for around 25-30 minutes until it is just starting to brown. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.

6. Bake any other pieces of marchpane until just starting to brown – they will take anything from 10-20 minutes, depending on size.

To decorate the marchpane:

7. Make the icing – mix the icing sugar with enough rosewater to make a fairly thick but flowing icing. Use this to ice the top of the marchpane disc. Try to give it three coats, allowing it to dry in between.

8. Ice the decorations – I made the hearts white, and then dusted them with gold powder when dry, and tinted some of the icing red to decorate the studs. Leave to dry.

9. Finally, assemble the marchpane – use any remaining icing to glue the various pieces onto the disc.

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{5} Bethmännchen

Some people love marzipan and almond-based sweets, and I should confess I’m one of them. I always think of marzipan as something with an air of the old world about it, no doubt as a mixture of ground almonds and powdered sugar mixed with rose water was a popular mediaeval confection is you had the substantial means necessary to buy the ingredients. Anyway, I was really happy to find out about Bethmännchen. These are little marzipan-based treats that originate from Frankfurt, and like all the best sweets, there is a bit of history about their creation.

Bethmännchen (meaning “little Bethmann”) are said to have been created in the 1830s for Simon Moritz von Bethmann, a prominent Frankfurt banker and city councillor, and were originally decorated with four almond halves to represent his four sons. When one of the sons died a few years later, the sweets were made with only three almonds as a mark of respect. Of course, like all the best myths, there are those that disagree – some suggest that Herr von Bethmann died well before the 1830s, others suggest Bethmännchen were around before him. Well, we’ll have to leave that one to the historians to sort out.

bethmannchen
Today, Bethmännchen are hugely popular in Frankfurt, particularly at the Christmas market. And I think they also look rather jolly – while they look like the might contain saffron, they are actually glazed with an egg yolk wash before baking, so they emerge from the oven with a glorious golden colour that really stands out among all the other biscuits and bakes at this time of year. Some versions even have a dash of rosewater, which I’ve added to my recipe below.

Making these sweets is actually very easy. You just need to prepare the ingredients, mix it all to a smooth paste, then roll into balls, add the almonds and bake. Indeed, the only tricky bit is splitting the almonds into halves – I found the best way was to blanch whole almonds in hot water, then peel them and use a sharp knife to split them while still soft. Whether you obsess about getting equally-sized pieces of the dough is up to you, but I weighed mine out (each piece was 14g).

One thing that is worth knowing is that you must get the right sort of marzipan, and sadly, the stuff you buy in most British stores has a high sugar to almonds ratio. For this recipe, you want something that is really 50/50 (also called almond paste) otherwise the resulting Bethmännchen will be too sweet, and you’ll have something that it a bit dry and brittle. I ended up using Odense Marzipan from Denmark (60% almonds), which I was able to pick up in Scandinavian Kitchen in central London. If you’re struggling, you can easily make your own marzipan at home with equal weights of icing sugar and almonds, and use a dash of rosewater, honey or glucose syrup plus a few drops of almond extract to bring it all together.

And the taste? I loved them. They are really not that sweet, but have an intense almond flavour and subtle hint of rose, more exotic than simply floral. The outside is firmer (indeed slightly crisp when freshly baked) and the interior is soft and marzipan-like. Very much an adult sweet!

To make Bethmännchen (makes around 30)

• 1 large egg, separated
• 60g plain flour
• 50g icing sugar

• 50g ground almonds
• 250g almond paste / raw marzipan(*)
• few drops of almond extract (optional) (**)
• few drop of rose water (optional) (**)
• 75g whole blanched almonds, split

(*) You need to get the right stuff – at least 50% almonds. If you use one with 20-25% almonds, the resulting Bethmännchen will be way, way too sweet. I used raw marzipan that was 60% almonds.

(**) The almond extract and rosewater are entirely optional. I find a few drops of almond helps bring out the flavour, and the rosewater adds a subtle extra fragrance, and makes for a very different bake to most festive fare. Just be sure to use both with caution – they are strong!

1. Preheat the oven to 160°C (320°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper and rub lightly with a dot of unsalted butter to prevent sticking.

2. Separate the egg. Reserve the yolk, and in a separate bowl, lightly whisk the egg white.

3. In a large bowl, mix the flour, ground almonds and icing sugar. Break the marzipan into chunks and add to the bowl. Add the egg white. Work everything to a smooth dough (it should be firm but will still be sticky). Add a little more flour or ground almonds as needed.

4. Divide the dough into 30 pieces (if you have more or less, not the end of the world). Press 3 almond halves into the sides of each ball. Transfer the Bethmännchen to the baking sheet. You may want to bake them in two batches so they cook evenly.

5. Make the glaze – mix the egg yolk with one tablespoon of water, and glaze the Bethmännchen.

6. Bake for around 15 minutes until the cookies look golden and slightly puffed.

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Secret Chocolate (Not Brazil) Nut Brownies

It’s the Fourth of July, and who could resist a tray of soft, squidgy chocolate brownies?

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Given that we’re all a little bit obsessed with the World Cup at the moment, when I first thought of posting this, I planned to give them a bit of a tropical theme, with a liberal scattering of Brazil nuts in honour of the host nation. That was Monday.

On Tuesday, the USA got knocked out by Belgium, so suddenly that didn’t seem like such a good idea any more. The Brazil nuts were out, and good old patriotic walnuts and pecans went into them instead. I also made sure that I was not using Belgian chocolate in this recipe, as that would have been a bit of an insult after the Red Devils triumphed in Salvador…

At this stage, I need to ‘fess up to the fact that this recipe is more or less one from Delia Smith, but it also has the honour of being one of the recipes that I have been making the longest. I saw this on TV early on in my university days (remember that time when you saw things on TV and had to scribble them down, rather than just looking them up on Google later? Yes, this is one of those!). The only tweaks I’ve made are to use salted butter (believe me, it works), vanilla, a bit of cocoa powder and…some great big dirty spoonfuls of Nutella!

Yes, my secret weapon for making brownies it to add spoonfuls of the stuff. I’ve found the way to make them even less healthy than they normally are (unless, of course, I were to try deep-frying them, but I’m sure there is a chip shop in Glasgow that’s one step ahead of me). Yes, Nutella sounds odd, but it really is amazing. I pour half the batter into the tray, then drizzle with softened Nutella (pop in the microwave to make it runny), sprinkle with nuts and pour over the rest of the mixture. I think my original idea was that there would be a seam of chocolate spread running through the finished brownies, but in the end, it just soaks into them and makes them extra soft, sticky and delicious. I remember turning out trays of the things, and they would be wolfed down when we got in late, during film nights…you get the picture.

So, are these babies healthy? Absolutely not. But are they naught and delicious? Of course! And if you’re in the mood for celebrating, it’s only right to treat yourself.

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To make Chocolate Brownies (adapted from Delia Smith, makes 16-25):

• 175g salted butter
• 125g dark chocolate
• 3 eggs, beaten
• 275g caster sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 75g plain flour
• 25g cocoa powder
• 1 teaspoon  baking powder
• 100g chopped nuts
• 4 tablespoon Nutella, warmed

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F). Line a 25 x 25 cm (10 x 10 inch) square tray with greaseproof paper (I used one of 20 x 20, and filled a few cupcake cases to make mini-brownies).

2. Put the butter and chocolate into a bowl, and place on top of a pan of barely simmering water. Leave to melt. In the meantime, mix the flour, cocoa and baking powder in a separate bowl.

3. Stir the butter/chocolate mixture well, then fold in the sugar. Next, add the vanilla extract and the eggs. Whisk. Add the flour mixture and stir well.

4. Pour half of the brownie mixture into the tray. Sprinkle the nuts on top, then drizzle the Nutella as evenly as you can (doesn’t have the be perfect). Carefully pour the rest of the mixture on top, and smooth gently with a fork.

5. Put the tray into the oven and bake for 35 minutes. Watch out that the mixture does not burn – it will shrink back from the sides.

6. When ready, remove from the oven and leave in the try to cool. When cold, remove from the tray and cut into 25 pieces (I did 16, but remember I was using the smaller tray!).

Worth making?Absolutely. Got to be grateful for Uncle Sam for inventing these things!

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Badam Barfi (Indian Almond Fudge)

Today I’m posting just about one of the most bling bling things ever to come out of my kitchen! After something of rather long blogging break (so my apologies to loyal readers who as wondering what on earth I’ve been up to, but I can assure you, all is fine is rather busy), I’ve kept the Indian theme going from my last post and have made a batch of badam barfi.

This is an Indian sweet which rather loosely translates (in culinary terms) as almond fudge. But the really, really, really fun and frankly fabulous thing this little sweetmeat is that it is finished off with silver leaf on top. How cool is that? Frankly, it looks completely awesome! Sparkle, sparkle!

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As sensational as this looks, it is actually really rather easy to make, and it is certainly a whole lot simpler than “normal” fudge. To be honest, I’ve actually struggled over the years to make “normal” fudge successfully, often ending up with something a bit too grainy and over-caramelised, rather than the expected silky-smoothness. This recipe is completely different. You start off by boiling sugar and whole milk to make a syrup, then add finely ground almonds and cook until thick. While warm, them mixture is soft, but it sets firm and can be cut into pieces.

You’ve got some freedom with how to flavour the barfi, but from I could see online and in my cookbooks, cardamom is pretty much essential if you’re making the almond version. I added some of it when I added the almonds to the syrup, and the rest just at the end of cooking to keep the aromatic qualities of the spice. I also added a little ghee to the mixture, both to prevent it sticking, but also to add the wonderful nutty flavour and aroma that you get from this browned butter. I also added a few chopped pistachios to add some colour to the barfi. I don’t think these really had an impact on the flavour, but the flecks of green certainly looked pretty against the silver and creamy almond barfi.

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Now, there was one little drama when it came to the flavour. What about the almonds? The nuts I used did not have the sharp almond flavour you would associate with a Bakewell tart or a glass of amaretto liqueur, so should I add some almond extract to the barfi? Well, it looked like the answer ought to be a firm no. A few sources cautioned specifically against using bitter almonds as this would spoil the flavour, and I can see how this would be the case if you went crazy with the almond flavour. However, I always find that almond flavour needs a little boost, so I added a couple of drops (not teaspoons, drops!) which in this case really worked well. Just enough to give the merest hint at the almonds it is made from, without overpowering your sense of taste. However, you don’t need to limit yourself to this flavour combination, delicious as it is. You could skip the cardamom and instead add some saffron for a brilliant colour and exotic flavour, or use rosewater for a floral note. You can also replace the almonds for other nuts, such as pistachio or cashew, or finely-ground coconut.

This is all well and good, but of course the real fun came with the silver leaf, or vark as it is called in India (great name, fnar fnar!). I looked high and low for this stuff, but in the end I ordered it online. Once my barfi had cooled, I had to tease the sheets of silver from between their protective paper sheets, and carefully arrange them. The silver is so fragile that you can easily tear it if you take a cack-handed approach, and fingers are about the worst possible thing you can use! It took to the surface immediately, even though it did not seem particularly sticky, and then it was a case of lightly pushing it down onto the barfi with a soft brush. Soft is the operative word here, as anything with stiff bristles will damage the silver and cause it to tear. Clearly you don’t have to use silver (or indeed gold) leaf when you make barfi, but it does make the finished result look very special indeed.
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To make badam barfi (makes around 32 pieces):

• 400g white sugar
• 400ml whole milk
• 300g finely ground almonds
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
• 1 tablespoon ghee (*)
• 2 handfuls pistachios, roughly chopped
• silver or gold leaf, 8 sheets

1. Put the milk and sugar into a saucepan. Cook to the thread stage (110°C / 230°F).

2. Add half the cardamom and all the ground almonds. Cook until the mixture is thick and comes away from the sides of the pan – a drop left to cool on a plate should hold its shape and be slightly firm. This can take up to 15 minutes (or longer) so be patient and keep stirring to prevent burning. It will be a good upper arm workout!

3. Add the rest of the cardamom, the ghee and the pistachios. Stir well, then divide between two square trays lined with greaseproof paper (I also rubbed each lightly with a little ghee to help prevent sticking).

4. Use a rubber spatula to smooth the top of the barfi. Take a sharp knife and score lightly (I did squares of 3x3cm, but diamonds also look good). Leave until completely cold.

5. Cover the top of the barfi with silver leaf (you will need around 4 per tray, 8 in total). Press the silver leaf down with a soft brush, then use a sharp knife to cut the barfi into pieces.

(*) To make ghee: melt unsalted butter on a low heat, and watch it like a hawk. It will hiss and spit, then calm down. The solids will turn light brown and the butter will develop a nutty aroma. Remove from the heat, strain and put to one side to cool.

Worth making? This was really easy to make and the results are both delicious and look stunning when presented at the end of a meal.

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{8} Linzer Biscuits

Linzer biscuits are just about the most festive thing that you can make at this time of the year. Spiced, nutty pastry filled with bright red raspberry jam, and with snow-like icing sugar. And they are shaped like stars. Sort of like screaming good cheer at the top of your voice, isn’t it?

linzeraugen

Actually, Linzers have a rather ancient pedigree. They are closely based on the famous Linzertorte from the Austrian city of Linz, which is said to be one of the oldest (or indeed, the oldest) cakes in the world, with recipes found from as far back as the 1600s. It is made from a rich, nut pastry and then filled with a dark fruity jam, often blackcurrant, and then finished with a lattice top. These biscuits are essentially a variation on that theme, but with the lattice top replaced with some nifty cookie-cutter action. I’ve gone with concentric stars, but you could quite happily cut out circles and then cut out angels, Christmas trees or simple geometric shapes. If you go for a round version with a circle inside for the jam, they become known as Linzer Augen (“Linzer Eyes”).

I made these with quite a few tasty ingredients to get a really festive flavour, but not all of them quite traditional. While you can use almonds, I preferred to go with hazelnuts, as they add a great flavour to biscuit dough when baked. If you keep the skin on them before grinding, then you’ll get the typical brown flecks in the finished biscuits.  I also used brown sugar to get a slight caramel flavour, and then flavoured everything with cinnamon, ground cloves, vanilla and orange zest. While it is usual to add just cinnamon and vanilla, I think the cloves and orange really do make the flavour very special. The clove flavour lingers on the tongue, while the zest perks everything up.

If there is something annoying about making Linzers, it is that the dough is on the soft side. This can be easily addressed by making sure it is properly chilled before getting into the rolling and cutting, so ideally you want to make the dough the night before, rather than doing it in the morning and clock-watching in anticipation of turning the oven on. You will, however, find that you are constantly taking pieces of dough from the fridge, and then returning scraps to the fridge to re-chill. However, don’t be tempted to skip this – the heat from you hands alone will soften the dough, and can turn it oily and unworkable. It is also worth doing a test bake before committing a whole tray of biscuits to the oven – if the test does not keep its shape, then pop the tray into the freezer to chill – and when you bake them, they should stay pretty much razor-sharp at the edges.

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If you make these biscuits, it is worth knowing that they start of as very crisp. After a day or so, they will get softer and more cake-like in texture, so keep this in mind depending on how you like you bakes to turn out when you serve them. If you want to make them ahead of time, I recommend keeping them – without the jam – in an airtight container, and then baking them again briefly when you need them to get them back to their crispy best.

If you’re after a bit of variety, you can use different types of jam (like I did last year when making Swiss Spitzbuben). With the spices I used, I think plum jam (Victoria or damson) would be delicious, as would marmalade, or the traditional blackcurrant. The only think that you need to worry about is using jam that is sufficiently sharp and has a bit of a tang, to balance the sweetness of the biscuits.

So here we are at the two-thirds mark in this year’s Twelve Days of Baking (or Baking Madness, if you prefer). I hope you’ve enjoyed it so far.

To make Linzer Biscuits (makes around 40):

140g hazelnuts (skin on)
• 280g plain flour
• 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 225g unsalted butter
• 140g soft brown sugar
• 1 large egg
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• zest of one small orange
• 150g raspberry jam
• icing sugar, to dust

1. Grind the hazelnuts until fine. Mix with the flour, salt, cinnamon and cloves and set aside.

2. In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the egg, vanilla and orange zest and mix well. Fold in the dry ingredients and mix well (the dough will be very soft). Wrap the dough in cling film and leave to chill for a couple of hours, or overnight.

3. Preheat the oven to 175°C (350°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper. Take chunks of the chilled dough. Work briefly to soften it, then roll out the dough to 1/4 inch and cut shapes with a star or fluted cutter. Bake half the cookies until just lightly browned at the edges (10-12 minutes depending on size). In the meantime, remove the centres from the other half of the cookies with a smaller cutter, then bake those (they will need a little less time in the oven). Repeat until all the dough has been used, remembering that for every base, you need a top cookie.

4. Once the cookies are cooled, it’s time to assemble them. Put the jam in a saucepan. Heat until runny, then pass through a sieve (or use seedless jam). Allow to cool until thickened, then spoon a little jam onto the basis. Smooth with a spoon, then add the top layer. When all the cookies are done, dust lightly with icing sugar – any sugar that lands on the jam will dissolve, leaving perfect festive shapes.

Worth making? Yes! These are rich, delicious, and while they take a little time, they are fairly easy to make. You also get a large batch for little effort, and they store well in case of unexpected guests.

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Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things

Bonfire Night Flapjacks

If you’re planning to go to a Bonfire Night celebration, then chances are you’ll be looking for something to munch on as you’re looking skywards to take in the fireworks.

With this in mind, I’ve played around with my go-to flapjack recipe to make it a bit more seasonal. In addition to the usual butter, sugar and oats, I’ve also added some spices as well as a rather random selection of things from the store cupboard – pumpkin and sunflower seeds, apricots, dates, sultanas, hazelnuts and spelt flakes. The result is sticky, delicious and has a very autumnal flavour. It also takes about ten minutes to make, so it is incredibly easy to whip up in a hurry. Just to make the point, I’ve got the recipe below – and you’ll see that all the “extras” are measured either by the teaspoon or by the handful.

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If you’re keen to have a go yourself, you really don’t need much more than sugar, butter and rolled oats. Otherwise, just add whatever you want (or more realistically – whatever you have in the cupboard). Dried fruits work very well, as do nuts and seeds. The one unusual thin on the list is spelt flakes – I love using these in flapjacks as they stay very crisp and add some interesting texture. It’s actually taken me a while to track them down – I used to be able to buy then in a shop in Stoke Newington, but have not found them in Clapham. Lucky for me I stumbled upon a new Wholefoods store near Piccadilly Circus, so I’ve now got easy access to all manner of weird and wonderful ingredients. Result!

So there you have it – a quick and fairly healthy idea for Bonfire Night, or just to enjoy during a quiet moment with a cup of tea.

To make Bonfire Night Flapjacks (makes 16):

• 175g butter
• 175g soft brown sugar
• 40g (2 tbsp) golden syrup
• pinch of salt
• 200g rolled oats
• 45g (3 handfuls) sultanas
• 35g (3 teaspoons) candied ginger
• 20g (2 handfuls) pumpkin seeds
• 15g (1 handful) sunflower seeds
• 20g (2 handfuls) spelt flakes
• 40g (1 handful) apricots, chopped
• 25g (1 handful) hazelnuts, chopped
• 25g (1 handful) dates, chopped
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
• 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1. Pre-heat the oven to 190°C (375°F). Line a 20cm (8 inch) square baking tray or cake tin with non-stick paper.

2. Put the butter, sugar, syrup and salt (if using) in a pan. Heat gently until the butter is melted, and then boil for one minute. Add the candied ginger and mix well.

3. In a large bowl, mix all the other ingredients. Add the butter/sugar mixture and stir well. Put into a tray, spread the mixture evenly, press down and bake for 20 minutes. It should have a rich brown colour when done.

4. Once the mega-flapjack is cooked, let it cool completely, then turn onto a chopping board and cut into pieces.

Worth making? Absolutely! This reicpe is incredbily easy to make, tastes delicious, and can be

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Ajo Blanco

Do you remember the first time? By which I mean the first time you tried certain foods. There are a lot of things (Cake! Chips! Pasta!) that have just always been there, but then there are foods that I very firmly do remember trying for the first time. I can point to a family holiday to Port de Pollença on the north side of Mallorca as the first time I tried gazpacho. Sachertorte was at the Hotel Sacher in Vienna. Kanelbullar firs experienced in Stockholm’s Old Town. These are all pleasant memories as I liked the thing I was trying. You can probably guess where I am going with this…

Anyway, my first experience of ajo blanco was all rather different. It’s a cold Spanish soup, made with almonds and garlic, served with green grapes and olive oil. Sounds nice and refreshing, yes? Perfect in hot weather perhaps?

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Well, the first time I tried ajo blanco is still seared into my memory in vivid detail. I was at a Spanish restaurant somewhere on the fringes of Shoreditch, the distinctly non-latin sounding Eyre Brothers. Looked great, friendly service, and then we came to order. Bread, olive oil, olives all consumed with glee, and then it came to choosing what to eat. While Spanish food has a reputation as being very meaty (and thus not very veggie-friendly), I don’t find this to be the case. There is usually enough in terms of vegetables, bread and cheese to keep me happy.

Anyway, on this occasion, they were serving ajo blanco which I remember being described as an almond soup with garlic. As I’d never seen it before, I thought I should take the plunge. I mean – it’s cold soup, how bad could it ever be?

Well, I expected some garlic, but this stuff took your breath away, almost literally. Pleasantly creamy to begin with, it broke down in the mouth within seconds into pure, pungent garlic, complete with an unpleasant burning sensation on the tongue and throat. Now, I like garlic, but lots of the raw stuff can be just horrible, which tends to lead to garlic oil seeping from every pore. I made it half-way through before giving up, but by this point, the meal was spoiled. The garlic had overpowered everything else. For the rest of the meal, all I could taste was garlic. Patatas bravas? No, garlic. Green salad? No, garlic. Frozen turrón dessert? Nope, still the all-pervading taste of garlic. Yes, I did mention to the staff that the soup was too strong, and one of the serving ladies was very sympathetic, but this little episode did put me off ajo blanco for years.

That is, until yesterday. I thought I would try making it myself as part of my attempts to make refreshing summer meals.

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So I got my little mixer ready, and had a little think. Would I use garlic this time? Or more…dare I use garlic?

Well, I reasoned that the use of garlic was traditional, so it just had to go in there, somehow. Then I remembered a Pho soup I had made where garlic was added to the stock, and at the end of cooking, it was soft, mild and not pungent at all. This seemed like the perfect solution to my garlic issue, and so I blanched some cloves for a few minutes. Job done – garlic flavour, not garlic nightmare. However, you might find this approach to be a little mild. It you’re still after a little more “zing” you might want to rub the bowl with a cut clove of raw garlic before adding the other ingredients. That should still ensure your guests take notice, without gasping throughout dinner.

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The rest was a complete breeze – throw stale white bread, water, almonds, seasoning, garlic and olive oil into a blender and liquidise until everything is smooth and white. One little tweak that I did make was to add a handful of pine nuts. They give a little extra flavour, but also help to emulsify the soup and get a great texture.

Once made, all that remains to be done is to make sure the soup is completely chilled, then serve. The traditional way is with a drizzle of olive oil and some sliced green grapes. This might sound strange, but the combination of fresh, juicy grapes and the chilled, creamy ajo blanco is fantastic. It’s also not that common, so makes a nice change from gazpacho when you’re looking for a chilled soup as a starter when it’s pushing 33°C outside (yes, that’s how hot it got today in London!).

And with that – my fear of ajo blanco has been overcome!

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To make Ajo Blanco (serves 4):

For the soup:

• 3 cloves garlic
• 150g whole almonds
• Handful of pine nuts
• 80g stale white rustic bread (crusts removed)
• 4 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 tablespoon salt
• 1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
• 200ml water

To serve:

• olive oil
• 12 green grapes

1. Put the bread and water in a bowl. Leave to soak for 15 minutes.

2. Peel the garlic, slice in half and remove any green bits. Blanch for 3 minutes in a small pot of boiling water. Drain and leave to cool.

3. Skin the almonds – bring another pan of water to the boil, add the almonds and simmer for two minutes. Drain, and squeeze the almonds out of the skins (you can discard them – we only need the nuts!).

4. Put the garlic, bread, almonds, pine nuts, olive oil, salt and vinegar into a blender and blitz until very smooth. You may need to add more water to get the right consistency (think single cream). Pour into a large bowl and adjust the seasoning as needed – more oil, salt or vinegar according to taste. Cover the bowl and chill for at least two hours or overnight.

5. To serve, divide between four bowls. Slice the grapes in half and divide between the bowls, finishing with a drizzle of olive oil.

Worth making? Definitely! This is a really easy recipe to make, while the almonds and bread mean that it is light and fresh but still substantial.

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Filed under Recipe, Savoury

Chocolate & Nut Biscotti

By now you will have noticed that I get my ideas for my posts from a wide variety of places, events and travels. It’s great to come up with my own ideas, or my take on some of the classics, but it’s also nice to get a recipe challenge to test. And so I got a request from the good people at Titan Supper Club to have a bash at Italian biscotti. The challenge was a rich chocolate and nut version, which sounded excellent and here we are!

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First off, full disclosure. I’ve never made biscotti before. Saffron-flavoured biscotti are on my radar for (whisper it) Christmas baking, but the technique is new to me. I was vaguely aware of the need to form the dough into large sausage, part bake it, then cut into thin slices and bake further until they are dry. So were these cookies as easy as the theory would suggest?

The good news is that this is an absolute dream to make. You just mix up all the dry ingredients, add eggs, then fold in melted chocolate and nuts. Bake, cool, slice and bake again. Their slightly rustic appearance also makes them ideal for smaller kitchen hands who have lots of enthusiasm but who might lack a steady hand to make neat edges.

The original recipe suggested making these biscotti with hazelnuts, and I think this would be delicious (it’s the combination that makes Nutella great). However, I fancied trying something a little different, and went with a mixture of pistachios and pine nuts, to add different colours and flavours. The result looks great, with flashes of green and creamy white against the rich chocolate biscuit.

This is also a great recipe for chocolate lovers. The dough already contains cocoa, and is enriched with melted dark chocolate. This is rounded out with a dash of vanilla and some fresh orange zest. The aroma from these little treats during baking was sensational, and the flavour is fantastic.

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So what do you think? I’m thrilled with how they turned out. Perfect with a cup of tea or strong coffee on a warm day in the shade, with dreams of la bella Italia!

To make Chocolate & Nut Biscotti (makes around 25-30 cookies):

• 140g nuts
• 100g dark chocolate
• 300g plain flour
• 75g cocoa powder
• 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
• 1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 200g caster sugar
• 1 teaspoon vanilla essence
• zest of 1 orange
• 3 large eggs

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F). Line two baking trays with greaseproof paper and grease lightly.

2. Melt the chocolate in a bowl over a pan of boiling water. Put to one side.

3. In a large bowl, mix the flour, cocoa, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, salt and sugar.

4. In a separate bowl, whisk the eggs with the vanilla and orange zest. Add to the flour mixture and mix until the dough just comes together. Add a drop of water if needed. Add the chocolate and mix well. Fold in the nuts.

5. On a lightly-floured worktop, shape half the dough into a long rectangular sausage (aim for about 22cm long, 8cm wide). Transfer to a baking tray. Repeat with the rest of the dough.

6. Bake the dough for 25 minutes (it should be puffed up). Remove and cool for 20 minutes. In the meantime, reduce the oven temperature to 160°C (320°F).

7. Using a sharp serrated knife, cut on the diagonal into 1cm slices. Lay flat on the baking trays and bake for 20 minutes (10 minutes each side, turning over half-way). Remove from the oven and leave to cool on a wire tray.

Worth making? Definitely. If you’re a fan of chocolate and nuts, you’ll love these.

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Filed under Recipe, Sweet Things

Fried Dates

I have what could be modestly described as a large collection of cookbooks, and like most people I go through cycles of using them. At the moment, I’m working my way through The Essential Madhur Jaffrey, which contains some fantastic Indian recipes. I’ve actually had this tome for nearly seven years, so its about time it gets used properly. Each time I looked through it, there was a recipe that caught my eye. One to make at some point. That recipe was for fried dates, and finally, I’ve made this dessert. All I can say is – wow!

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While I love Indian food, I tend not to eat Indian desserts. This is not because they are not nice (they are!) but they seem just a little bit excessive once you’ve nibbled on curry, dahl, rice, chapatis, poppadoms, pickels and chutneys. What you do want, if anything, is something small.

Fried dates seem to tick this box – it’s a small dish, but boy does it pack a punch! Madhur Jaffrey’s original recipe is almost foolishly simple – shallow-fry dates in oil for around 30 seconds until hot, then serve with cream and chopped pistachios. The quantities suggested are very modest, and you initially thing that it will never be enough. However, when you try these dates, those doubts will melt away. It is very rich and very sweet, so you can reliably work on the assumption that each person will actually consume only two whole dates.

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When I got round to making this, I made some inevitable tweaks. The original recipe was silent as to the type of dates to use, other than they should be pitted and of “good quality”, so I plumped for juicy medjool dates. Given that these dates would be fried, I wanted to be sure they would not be too dry, and the delicious medjools seemed to fit the bill perfectly. Madhur also suggests using vegetable oil to fry the dates, but I wasn’t so sure. Instead, I opted for clarified butter. If in doubt, use butter…

The result is spectacular. This is a buttery, sticky, chewy dessert with a rich, caramel flavour (yes, this might just remind you of sticky toffee pudding). The richness of the dates is balanced well by thick double cream and has some colour and crunch from the pistachios. You won’t be able to eat too much of this, but it does mean you’ve got a very simple, very delicious way to finish off a meal.

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To make fried dates (served 4-6):

• 50g unsalted butter
• 12-16 medjool dates, pitted
• thick double cream
• unsalted pistachios, chopped

1. Clarify the butter – melt in a saucepan, skim off any foam, and allow to sit for a few minutes. Pour off the clear liquid, leaving any milky liquid or solids at the bottom of the pan.

2. Slice each date lengthways into quarters.

3. Heat the clarified butter in a frying pan until it starts to bubble. Add the dates, cooking for around thirty seconds (they should be hot, but should not start to brown!). Remove the dates from the butter using a slotted spoon, letting as much butter as possible drain off. Divide the dates between small plates.

4. Top the dates with a generous teaspoon of double cream, sprinkle with pistachios and serve immediately.

Worth making? Why, oh why, did I wait so long to make this? It’s just about the richest thing I have eaten for a while, but it makes a quick, elegant dessert for the end of an exotic meal. Delicious!

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Filed under Recipe, Sweet Things