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!
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.