Tag Archives: nuts

{11} Italian Rainbow Cookies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the batter

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

To fill

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

To finish

• 200g dark chocolate
• 20g unsalted butter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things

{8} Queen’s Cinnamon Stars

Today’s festive delight is a right royal treat, quite literally.

I came across a recipe for Cinnamon Stars from the royal kitchens of Buckingham Palace (original here, including a video of how they do it). So, of course, I just had to have a go at making them.

These may be familiar to you as German Zimtsterne, or cinnamon stars. You start off making a dough with ground nuts and cinnamon, then finish them with a meringue topping. I’ve made cinnamon stars before, but they were a bit more basic.

The Queen’s version includes candied orange peel, a lot of cinnamon, and a dash of cloves. They are also topped with snow-white icing and feature a bit of elaborate piping. Very fancy, but you’d expect that if you’re ever popping round for a festive cuppa at the Palace.

When I read the recipe, I was convinced by the idea. However, I had a couple of quibbles with the method. The suggestion was to make a meringue, and use two-thirds of it to make the dough. Then you roll out the dough, cover it with the reserved meringue, and then cut out shapes. I think the idea is that the cookies are then pre-iced? Hmmm. This struck me as quite wasteful, as you would not be able to re-roll the offcuts since the meringue would make it all too sticky. Also I knew that smearing something with meringue was likely to be a messy affair with a child in the house who is enjoying touching everything within reach.

So I adapted the method. I adjusted the amounts of the meringue to start with – I made two-thirds of the amount to go in the dough, and would make the “missing” meringue later for the icing. Then I made and rolled the dough, cut out the shapes without the icing, and then I could happily gather the scraps and keep re-rolling until I was done. We did stars and moons (using a circular cutter and overlapping the cuts to get the right shape). Diamond shapes would also be good – easy with a knife, and I think rather fitting.

Once they were baked, I finished them off with the meringue royal icing suggested by the Palace. This looks like a bit of a pain to make, as you are essentially making thick icing and then thinning it down, and it would be easier just to make thinner royal icing to start with. However, the Palace’s approach results in a very light icing rather than one which cracks when you bite into it. You just need to be very, very patient as you sit down to finely ice all the cookies. Maybe that’s what the Palace’s all-in-one method is seeking to get round?

My split approach also had some extra benefits – the cookies looked very neat and the icing stayed perfectly white. I know that this all sounds terribly fiddly, but once you get into the swing of things, it’s the perfect sort of activity to do with a film or a radio play on in the background. And the final result is a tray of perfect-looking regal cookies.

In the Buckingham Palace version they are finished off with some sort of red jam in the centre and there is lots of intricate icing piped all over them. Piping icing is not one of my skills, and I don’t have the equipment to do it properly. I managed to find a small nozzle to give it a go, but I gave up around half-way. It looks kind of nice, but I don’t think it really adds that much to them overall unless this is something you are really good at. Of course, that might just be my frustration talking!

So all in all, were they worth making? Yes, I think so. They are up a level from my own take on cinnamon stars from a few years ago. The different technique to make the dough gives a far neater result, and I like the addition of the citrus peel and the hint of cloves. I would definitely make these again, but I’d perhaps use 50/50 ground hazelnuts and ground almonds. Then, my friends, I truly would have the ultimate cinnamon stars. I just won’t be piping decorations on top.

To make Queen’s Cinnamon Stars (my adapted, less wasteful approach)

For the dough

• 115g candied orange and lemon peel
• 240g icing sugar

• 55g egg whites (2 medium egg whites)
• 1 tablespoon lemon juice
• 300g ground almonds
• zest of 1/2 lemon or orange
• 5 teaspoons ground cinnamon
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

For the icing

• 1 medium egg white (30g)
• 225g icing sugar
• 1 teaspoon lemon juice
• water

1. Put the candied peel into a food processor. Blitz to a paste – you will need to scrape down the sides a few times to get it perfectly smooth.

2. In a very clean bowl, whisk the egg whites to soft peaks. Add half the icing sugar and whisk until it is well-combined. Add the lemon juice and the rest of the icing sugar. It will start off quite soft and wet, but keep beating until you have a soft meringue (more like the texture of floppy whipped cream). It might seem a bit wet at the start, but keep going and it will happen.

3. Add the candied peel paste and the rest of the ingredients to the meringue bowl. Mix well until it forms a dough. Don’t worry about being delicate with the dough, and towards the end you will have to use your hands. If it seems a bit sticky, add a few tablespoons of ground almonds. Wrap the dough in cling film and chill for an hour, or overnight.

4. Time to bake and shape. Preheat the oven to 160°C (320°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

5. Place the dough on a separate piece of greaseproof paper. Roll it out to 1cm thickness. Cut out shapes (stars, moons, diamonds…) and transfer to the baking sheet. Your cutters will get sticky, so keep a clean damp cloth to hand to wipe the edges often.

6. Bake the cookies for around 12 minutes, turning half-way to get an even bake. They will puff up slightly and darken a little on the edges. Remove from the oven and allow to cool on the tray for a couple of minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. They might seem quite hard at this stage, but they will soften.

7. Time to ice the cookies. Put the egg white into a bowl and whisk to soft peaks. Add the icing sugar and lemon juice, and beat well for several minutes until the mixture is thick and smooth – like the appetising texture of toothpaste. Now thin it down with water, a few drops at a time, until it is a flowing consistency. You want to be able to leave a trail on a plate that stays in place and does not run and spread. Put the icing into a piping bag with a small nozzle, and with a lot of patience, use to cover the tops of the cookies. Use a clean cocktail stick to manipulate the icing to cover any gaps. Leave in a dry place, away from children and pets, for the icing to dry.

Note: I found it easiest to ice the cookies one at a time – pipe on the icing to cover most of the top, then go in with the cocktail stick to tease the icing to cover any bald patches and burst any air bubbles. If you ice a few, then go in to clean up, the icing will be starting to set when you go back.


Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things, Uncategorized

{7} Calissons d’Aix

Do you like the idea of a grand total of thirteen desserts for your Christmas dinner? Then let’s take a jaunt to Provence in France where they do just that.

But first I will have to disappoint you. If you have visions of a seasonal table just groaning with thirteen separate cakes, it is not that. Not is it a selection of other puddings. Rather it is a selection of festive treats ranging from nuts and dried fruit to festive breads and small traditional sweets, including nougat. But hey, you still get thirteen things in total, and after lots of rich food, some vaguely heathy nuts and dried fruit might be just the little health kick you need as you promise not to over-indulge ever again. And, of course, you know it will happen again next year!

One of the traditional sweets is the calisson. They originate from the town of Aix-en-Provence and are made with several typical products of the area – candied melon, orange peel, orange blossom water and almonds. Everything is ground down to a smooth paste – with a texture similar to marzipan but somewhat fruitier – which is then shaped into almond-like lozenges and glazed with brilliant white royal icing. If you wanted to veganise these, you could even make your icing using aquafaba.

And as with all good Christmas sweets, they have both a bit of history and a disputed origin story.

One school of thought is that they trace their history back to medieval Italy, being mentioned in Martino di Canale’s Chronicle of the Venetians in 1275, and there are other references during the Middle Ages to “calisone” cakes being made from almonds.

The other version involved a bit more drama, and is therefore immediately more interesting. The tale goes that calissons were created after the marriage of René, Duke of Anjou and Count of Provence, to Jeanne de Laval in 1454. He was 45, she was 21. Before and after the marriage, the bride was reported to be in a dour mood, what with being basically told to enter into a marriage by her father. After three years of marriage the couple moved to Aix-en-Provence and the duke’s chef was charged with creating something to bring a smile to her lips so that the couple would impress their subjects. He created these sweets from melon and almonds, and upon tasting this new delicacy, she declared “di calin soun” which is “they are hugs” in the Provencal language. Alternatively, the assembled crowd said that the sight of the smiling Jeanne won their hearts and felt as if she was giving them all little hugs. Could one of these be true? It’s certainly a charming tale, and we can only hope the rest of their union was happy.

I’ve had an eye on making calissons for a while, but was always a bit dubious how much work it would take to make. The do look like it will be a lot of effort. Well it turns out that it actually…really easy. You let your food processor do all the hard work, which will blitz everything to a paste. Throw in the candied fruit, blitz to a smooth paste, then add the almonds and it all comes together like magic.

While making the fruit-nut base was easy, I’ll admit the shaping was a bit tricky. You roll out the dough, then place rice paper on top and cut out shapes. I thought this would leave you with a lot of waste, but you can pick off the rice paper and re-roll the scraps. No, the problem is they are supposed to have an almond shape, and I didn’t have that exact cutter. Time for a workaround…

My very practical solution was to use a circular cutter (mine was about 5cm diameter), then offset it to create that almond shape. Place the rice paper on the dough, then press down hard and fast. That means you get a clean cut through the rice paper, and the dough doesn’t get a chance to move position. It’s also marvellously therapeutic after the year we’ve had. Then remove the cut circle, flip it over so the rice paper is on the bottom (if you have the rice paper on the top for the second cut, it doesn’t work as well). Offset the cutter so you can cut an almond shape (this way you will get two from each circle). I found it best to press down, then flip over the cutter and gently run a knife over the rice paper to cut if cleanly. It is a little tricky to start with, but you get the hang of it. It is also important to have a clean cutter – keep a damp piece of kitchen roll nearby, and wipe it often.

The classic fruit in calissons is candied melon. This is something I’ve rarely seen, and it strikes me as something that must be tricky to make given how much water is in a melon. But I managed to order some candied cantaloup melon online, and even then it’s not exactly easy to find. It’s definitely an interesting flavour, aromatic, and it has an attractive orange-pink colour. Many recipes also use a little bit of candied citrus peel, and if you wanted to go for orange overload, you could just use that. Alternatively, any candied fruit will work well, In fact, I’ve made a little selection of different flavours for over Christmas, and the same recipe works as long as you hold to the same weight of candied fruit, candied citrus peel, ground almonds and icing sugar.

I got the idea to experiment because I came across a few websites that have given calissons the full macaron treatment, presenting them in a dazzling rainbow of colours and flavours. I don’t know how traditional this is (and can imagine some French purists throwing their hands in the air with a gasp of quelle horreur!) but I have to admit they do look quite fun. I think you need to be judicious with the flavours, and veer towards the natural. I made some using candied pear, and some with candied peach, both of which were delicious. You could also use different nuts – hazelnuts and pistachios seem like fairly safe bets. I could even see a festive version using dates and gingerbread spices. However, I would steer clear of some flavours like peppermint extract or lavender or rose essence, especially if they are artificial. You could rapidly end up with a tray of sweets that is more reminiscent of soap than the sunshine of Provence. That said, if you’re now fixated on the concept of a calisson that tastes like a candy cane with a red-and-white striped top, knock yourself out!

To make Calissons d’Aix (makes around 40-45)

For the dough

• 150g candied melon (or other candied fruit)
• 30g candied orange peel
• 20g candied lemon peel
• 1 tablespoon orange blossom water (or other flavour) – see note below
• few drops of almond extract
• 170g ground almonds
• 100g icing sugar

To shape

• edible rice paper

To ice

• 1 egg white (30g)
• 150g icing sugar
• colouring (optional)
• flavouring (optional)

1. Put the melon, orange and lemon into a food processor and blitz to a paste. Scrape down the sides, add the orange blossom water and almond extract, and blitz again. Scrape down the sides again, and blitz again until the paste is smooth.

2. Add the ground almonds and icing sugar to the food processor. Blitz until it looks like crumbs. Scrape down the sides and base, then blitz again. It should come together to form a marzipan-like dough. If it stays crumbly, pour into a bowl, knead briefly, and it will come together. If the dough is very sticky, add more ground almonds. Wrap in cling film and leave to chill in the fridge for at least an hour or overnight.

3. Time to shape the calissons. On a piece of greaseproof paper, roll out the dough to 1cm thickness. Place a sheet of rice paper on top, smooth side up. Start to cut out the calisson shapes. For the scraps, peel off the rice paper and re-roll until it is all used up. Check all the calissons – you might need to tidy up the edges or trim some stray bits of rice paper. When you’re happy, turn them all so the rice paper is at the bottom.

4. Time to ice. Make the icing by lightly beating the egg white, then sifting in the icing sugar. Stir until the mixture is smooth – it needs to flow, but a drop on a worktop should hold its shape and not run. Add in any colours or flavours. Use a spoon or a piping bag to top each calisson with a thin layer of icing. Leave uncovered overnight to set.

Note: check exactly what sort of orange blossom water you are using. You can get anything from very dilute to highly concentrated, and when it’s pure it is extremely powerful. I used a fairly light and dilute version from a local Middle Eastern grocery. If you have a concentrated version, you will need just a drop or two unless you want something that tastes like soap!

Leave a comment

Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things

Cookie of the Week: Pain d’Amandes

Today’s cookie recipe is one that combines sophistication with simplicity. Just what you want with your lockdown mid-morning coffee.

They hail from Belgium, and go by the name of pain d’amande in French and amandelbood in Flemish, and just plain almond bread to you and me. Think of butterfly-thin crisp spiced cookies studded with almonds and you’re there. They’re a lovely addition to a cup of coffee, or used as a wafer with some ice cream. You can also stack them up like a house of cards, as we’re in lockdown and need to things to amuse us. I managed 3 levels!

I say that these are easy because they really are. You make a butter and sugar syrup, add the flour and spices, then add the almonds, then let it all set and chill in a block. Then you slice, bake and enjoy eating lots and lots of them.

The only bit that is vaguely tricky is getting those very thin slices. I found the best way is to make sure you have a very, very sharp knife, line it up, and go for it – press down in one clean move, and you should get an even slice. Avoid sawing or serrated knives so that you get nice, clean slices of almond peeking out.

You can play around with the flavours here. I used cinnamon, but you could add a dash of ginger, or cloves, or mixed spices. Orange zest would also work well, and you could swap out the almonds with whole hazelnuts or pistachios for a bit of contrast. I’ve seen some recipes that suggest you need to remove the skin from nuts before using them, but I happily used whole almonds, skin and all, and they were fine.

One little word of warning – whatever you do, don’t swap the sugar. I’ve made these a few times during lockdown, and they work well with dark brown sugar. But I decided to get creative and swapped it for light brown sugar. Big mistake. The dough seems like it is working, but once it has cooled, it becomes hard and brittle, so it is impossible to cut. It probably has something to do with the moisture content of different types of sugar, and I though it is worth sharing my culinary mishaps to prevent them happening to others!

I would also highly recommend doing a test bake with these – when you’ve sliced the first one, bake it solo to test how long you need in the oven. They are so thin that the difference between baked to crisp, buttery perfection and being incinerated is not that long. Better to go wrong on one than a tray of 30!

To make pain d’amandes (makes around 100 cookies)

• 100g butter
• 165g dark brown sugar
• 30ml water
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 250g plain flour
• 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
• 75g whole almonds, hazelnuts or pistachios

1. Put the butter, sugar, water and salt into a saucepan. Warm gently until the butter has melted and the sugar has dissolved, but do not let it boil.

2. Add half the flour and mix well. Add the rest of the flour, the cinnamon and the baking soda, and mix until combined. Mix in the nuts.

3. Put the mixture into a container to set. You want something with straight sides, and aim for a rectangle of 10 x 20cm. I used a square baking tray, then built a little “wall” of tin foil to get the right side, and lined it with greaseproof paper. Pop it in the fridge for a couple of hours to firm up.

4. Time to bake. Preheat the oven to 160°C (320°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

5. Remove the dough from the fridge. Cut it in half lengthways. Now use a very sharp straight-edged knife to cut thin slices off the dough. Aim for around 2mm, and push the knife down in one clean movement. Arrange the slices on the baking sheet, leaving space fo them to expand(*).

6. Bake the cookies for around 8 minutes (or longer if your slices are thicker), turning half-way to get an even bake. They will be soft when they come up, but will turn hard once they cool. Store in an airtight container, and enjoy with coffee.

(*) I found it easiest to slice off as many piece of dough as I needed to fill the tray, then bake them in batches. Pop the dough back in the fridge while a batch is baking so it stays firm and easy to slice.

1 Comment

Filed under Cookie of the Week, Recipe, Sweet Things

{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.


Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things

{2} Mandelhörnchen

Today we’re going to celebrate two of the most traditional flavours – chocolate and almonds! I think they are both delicious, so when I saw these nutty marzipan crescents, I knew I had to give them a go. Not only that, but they were also going to be my entry for our Festive Bake-Off at work (well, assuming that they worked!).

As with my Icelandic jólakaka I don’t really have much history to write about these little treats, other than they are very German and part of the wide range of Christmas baking from that part of the world.

This is a remarkably easy recipe, and I think you’re getting a lot of bang for your buck in terms of amount of effort as compared to the end result. The dough is just a simple marzipan, and you don’t even need to worry about letting it rest for hours in the fridge, which makes this a good recipe if you don’t have masses of time to wait.

But let’s be honest, you’re probably still something of an obsessive perfectionist given you’re in the realm of home-made cookies which involve playing around with a thermometer to temper the chocolate for that perfect shine? On that note, if you’re at a loss as to what to get from Father Christmas in your stocking, ask for a digital food thermometer – it’s brilliant for recipes that need a precise temperature. I used to just guess and hope for the best, which led to variable results, and it makes it easier when working with chocolate or making sweets.

So how did I get on in the competitive baking challenge? I submitted them into the “12 Identical Christmas Bakes” category, and I got good feedback, but did lose out to a colleague’s cranberry and orange spiced cupcakes, which frankly were really good. I guess that’s the thing with marzipan – it is often something people really love or really don’t care for. Hey ho…there is always next year!

If you are minded to give these a try, there is one tip I can share with you. It’s about the flaked almond decoration. Lots of pictures online show perfect cookies with whole flaked almonds on them, and I thought I would try to go for that too, but it ended up being a a complete pain to get them to stick to the marzipan after shaping without falling off. It was a case of each movement or slight puff of wind making yet more of them give up. It turns out that it really is a lot easier to roughly chop the flaked almonds. Then when you roll the marzipan in the nuts the adhere perfectly. I think if you went for smaller, fatter crescents then you would find it easier to get larger pieces of almond to stay put, but I had decided on the shape I wanted, and no bag of nuts was going to determine what I did!

One final thing to watch out for is that these cookies can dry out easily if you don’t keep them stored in a sealed container, which is not brilliant when you really want that tender marzipan texture. However, you can easily fix this by storing them in an airtight container with a slice of bread, which is basically magic and makes them soften up after a day or so, which is helpful if you want to make them in advance. Perhaps for a work baking challenge that you don’t win….!

To make Mandelhörnchen (makes around 20)

For the marzipan:

• 250g icing sugar
• 250g ground almonds
• 2 large egg whites, lightly beaten
• 1 teaspoon almond extract

To decorate:

• 150g flaked almonds, roughly chopped
• 1 egg white, beaten

To finish:

• 150g dark chocolate

1. Preheat the even to 160C. Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

2. Make the marzipan. Put the ground almonds and icing sugar in a large bowl. Add the almond extract and mix well. Add about two-thirds of the egg white, and mix well. The marzipan will seem dry and crumble, but keep adding more of the egg white until you get a soft marzipan which holds is shape but is not too sticky. If it gets sticky, just add equal amounts of icing sugar and almonds to get the right consistency.

3. Shape the cookies. Take pieces of dough, around 20-25g (yes, I used my electric scales to get exact pieces) and roll into a ball. Roll on a worktop to form a sausage – mine were 15cm. Brush some egg white on a plate, and roll the marzipan on it to get a thin, even coating, then roll it into the chopped flaked almonds. Transfer the baking sheet and form into a crescent shape.

4. Bake the Mandelhörnchen for around 12 minutes until just turning golden. Turn the baking sheet half-way to get an even colour. Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely – they get firmer as they cool.

5. Melt and temper the chocolate. Dip each end of the cookies in the chocolate, transfer to a sheet of greaseproof paper and leave to set.

Leave a comment

Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things

{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!

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!

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!

kipferl3 kipferl4

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things

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.


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!


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…


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.


Filed under Recipe, Sweet Things

{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.

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.


Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things

Secret Chocolate (Not Brazil) Nut Brownies

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

brownies1 brownies2

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.


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!


Filed under Recipe, Sweet Things