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{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!

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Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things

{9} Pompe à l’Huile

I’ve written recently about my modest luck in the past when tackling festive breads, but I thought I would have another go this year. Meet the pompe à l’huile, which hails from the south of France.

The name refers to the shape of an old olive oil press (rather than an “oil pump” – a pompe à huile). It is a lightly sweetened bread made with young and fruity extra-virgin olive oil, which would normally still be just a few weeks old when making this around Christmas time. It also happens to be natually vegan if you brush the loaf with water rather than milk just before baking.

In addition to olive oil, it is traditionally flavoured with orange blossom water. I must admit I was more than a tad dubious as it can be very much like perfume and it is easy to add too much. But I thought I would give it a try as I could always make another if got too heavy-handed.

If you are using it, a little word of warning – check exactly what you are using, as you can get anything from very dilute to highly concentrated, and when it’s pure it is extremely powerful. Helpfully it is not always clear exactly what you’ve got, so I can’t give a more specific guide other than to say just be careful and remember you can add more but you can’t take away! If you can’t get hold of orange blossom water, a passable substitute is to use orange zest, plus a little vanilla extract and a dash of almond extract. It’s not the same, but you do get a sweet, floral and citrussy aroma that works in a pinch.

The stuff I got was from a Turkish grocery, and two tablespoons were quite enough to give it all the flavour and perfume I wanted. If you’re using the concentrated stuff, you may find just half a teaspoon does you.

As this is traditional French loaf, I assumed there would a clear single way to make it. Oh, how wrong I was. I found there are lots and lots of frankly dodgy recipes out there which are going to provide some strange results. One suggested equal weights of flour and olive oil, which would be marvellous if you just wanted greasy flour, and I discounted that one right away. Another suggested using no pure water, just orange blossom water. Either they were using something that was extremely dilute of they are the sort of person that enjoys swigging Chanel No 5 with their morning coffee. Next!

Anyway, I initially settled on a recipe which was about five parts flour to one part oil. I selected this one on the basis that surely the oil was important and therefore there should still be a lot of it in the dough. All seemed fine during the kneading even if it was a bit greasy, and it was easy to shape and bake, but it ended up being heavy and claggy (great word by the way!).

But I was determined to succeed. I kept looking and saw that several sources refer to this as being akin to an “olive oil brioche”. My first attempt was definitely not like brioche. That made me think that actually what I wanted was to keep the dough light, and that the oil was there more for flavour and aroma than to pool around the base of the bread as it baked.

My second attempt (and the recipe you see below) came out very differently. The dough was much more like an enriched dough and was not oily at all. It rose proved perfectly, and the resulting loaf was golden when it came out of the oven. It got a light brushing of more extra-virgin olive oil and a light sprinkling of sugar. It looked lovely and was light and aromatic when we ate it. You get the orange blossom flavour, but it is not overpowering.

So…I had made a pleasant slightly sweet dough. Had it all been worth it? Well, I also read that traditionally this would have been eaten with grape jam, which is not something I have in the house or actually ever see when I’m out and about. So instead I used blackcurrant jam made with fruit from my mum’s garden (and I carefully carried that container of berries all the way back from Scotland in the train to London to make that jam!). It was, quite simply, amazing. A complete flavour sensation. The bread is light, sweet and aromatic, and it merges just wonderfully with sharp dark fruit jam. I’m glad I persevered – it’s very different to most Christmas baking, and absolutely delicious.

To finish off, it is worth knowing a bit more about the pompe à l’huile. It forms part of the Provençal tradition of the Thirteen Desserts. While this might sound like a truly epic way to finish a meal, it is not actually a seemingly endless supply of little cakes. Instead it is a tradition that is rich in symbolism, and there are thirteen elements representing those present at the Last Supper – Jesus and the Twelve Apostles.

There is not a single fixed list of the Thirteen Desserts, but you find there are some common treats and then local variations depending on their specialities. For example, you will find fresh fruit, dark and light nougat, dates, and the “four beggars” standing for four monastic communities – almonds for the Carmelites, figs for the Franciscans, raisins for the Dominicans and walnuts for the Augustinians. Then there are a few regional variations (which probably also reflect the tastes of the host or hostess) and can include calissons from Aix, made from candied melon and almonds, or navettes from Marseille. I really like the idea of this tradition, as it is fun at the end of a meal to have little things to nibble on as you chat about anything and everything with your family and friends. Maybe not the high drama of setting fire to a plum pudding as the British do, but probably one that is more suited to the end of a large meal.

Traditionally there would be one loaf for Christmas Eve, and a second to enjoy for breakfast on Christmas Day. A few people suggest hot chocolate as the prefect accompaniment, which sounds pretty good to me. I just wonder if you would find that it lasted that long if you’ve got hungry people in the house?

To make pompe à l’huile (makes 1 loaf)

For the dough

• 250g strong white flour
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 50g sugar
• 1 teaspoon instant yeast
• 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
• zest of 1/2 orange
• orange blossom water (or use vanilla and almond extract)
• water

To finish

• milk (to glaze, optional – skip to make a vegan version)
• olive oil
• caster sugar, to sprinkle (optional)

1. Put the orange blossom water into a measuring jug. Make up to 130ml with cold water.

2(a). If using a bread machine: put everything into the mixing bowl. Run the “dough” cycle. Simples! [But do check the consistency – you might have to add more flour or water if the mixture seems too wet or too dry]

2(b). If making by hand: put the flour, salt, sugar and oil into a bowl and mix well. Add the rest of the ingredients and work with your hands until you have a dough. Start to knead it until it is smooth, stretchy and elastic (at least 5 minutes). Leave the dough a warm place for two hours until the dough has doubled in size. Knock back and knead again for 2-3 minutes.

3. Put a piece of greaseproof paper on a baking sheet. On the paper, roll or press the dough out to an oval around 1cm thick. Use a wooden spatula with a straight edge to make a cut in the centre. Make 8 more cuts in the same way so that the dough looks like a wheel. Stretch the dough a little so that the holes are prominent. Put the whole baking sheet in a large plastic bag and leave somewhere warm to prove for at least an hour.

3. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F). Brush the top of the bread with milk if using. Put a pan of hot water into the bottom of the oven to create steam. Add the bread and bake for around 15-20 minutes until golden, turning half-way to get an even colour.

4. When they loaf is baked, remove from the oven, and brush lightly with more extra-virgin olive oil. Sprinkle with caster sugar, and leave to cool.


Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things

{8} Kourabiedes

Kourabiedes are a traditional cookie from Greece. And that should set some alarm bells ringing…

I always approach making traditional cookies with a little bit of trepidation. In this case, I have visions of Greek mothers and grandmothers raising their eyebrows and rolling their eyes. In my head, there is this Greek chorus of collective tutting as an entire people just know that their version is clearly superior to my attempt. And that their recipe is obviously better than everyone else’s attempts as well…

With that disclaimer out there, I still think that my attempt is pretty decent. I mean, with all that icing sugar on them they look like they are made of snow!

In fact, they are part of a family of similar cookies – polvorones in Spain, Russian tea cakes or Mexican wedding cakes, or Austrian vanilla crescents. What they have in common is a sweet, crumbly pastry with chopped nuts, with the whole cookies dredged in icing sugar to provide even more sweetness.

This is a very easy recipe to make. You just need to whip up the butter to get it nice and soft, then whip lots of air in as you add the sugar, egg yolk and various flavours. I’ve used vanilla as a background flavour, and combined it with brandy and orange blossom water. It is also important to use toasted nuts in this recipe – the nuts all some crunch to contrast to the soft, crumbly texture of the biscuit, but toasting them means the cookies had a richer flavour.

Shaping them is a doddle too – I found that it was worth chilling the dough slightly before shaping, as it made it a little easier to handle, but otherwise just scoop up spoonfuls of the mixture and roll them in your hands. However, I would not recommend my usual roll-into-a-sausage-and-cut-into-slices approach, as the mixture is a bit too soft for that. Tablespoons all the way!

Once you have baked the kourabiedes, you get another chance to add more flavour. I’ve seen recipes where Greek matriarchs liberally sprinkle ouzo over the hot cookies, which might be the way to go if you like aniseed flavours. I went for a less adventurous option and brushed them with some brandy cut with a little rosewater. There was a little sizzle, a puff of steam and a lovely aroma!

While the kourabiedes are still warm, you also need to get them into a dish full of icing sugar. They will still be fragile, so handle them with care. The icing sugar will combine with the butter in the cookies to form a sweet coating, then move them to a cooling rack and use a sieve to give them another coating of icing sugar. Get into the festive mood by imagining that this is snow. Then leave them to cool, and pile them high on a plate to serve alongside good strong coffee, or perhaps that herbal tea you picked up on holiday in Greece.

Καλά Χριστούγεννα (Kala Hristouyienna, Greek for Merry Christmas)!


To make Kourabiedes (makes around 30)

For the dough:

• 250g unsalted butter
• 125g icing sugar
• 1 egg yolk
• 1 tablespoon brandy

• 1 tablespoon orange blossom water
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 75g toasted almonds, ground
• 75g toasted almonds, chopped
• 1 tablespoon baking powder
• 300g plain flour
• pinch of salt

To finish:

• 1 tablespoon brandy
• 1/4 teaspoon rosewater
• icing sugar, to cover

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F) and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

2. Put the butter in a bowl and beat well until light and fluffy. Add the icing sugar and egg yolk, and beat for another couple of minutes. Mix in the brandy, orange blossom water and vanilla and give it another good whip, then fold in the ground almonds.

3. In a separate bowl, combine the chopped almonds, flour, baking powder and salt. Fold into the butter mixture and mix until it all comes together. You might need to use your hands at the end. Pop in the fridge to chill for 10 minutes.

4. Take generous spoonfuls of the dough. Roll half of them into balls, transfer to a baking sheet and flatten slightly. Roll the other pieces of dough into balls, then shape them into crescent shapes and transfer a baking sheet.

5. Bake the cookies in batches of 12 for around 15 until just golden, turning them half-way to get an even bake. In the meantime, mix the brandy and rosewater in a dish.

6. Once baked, remove from the oven and brush immediately with the brandy-rosewater mixture. Allow to cool for a moment, then roll them in icing sugar. Transfer to a cooking rack, and dust generously with more icing sugar and leave to cool.


Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things

{3} Biscotti di Regina

Biscotti di Regina originate from Sicily, and the name means “queen’s cookies”. I’m not sure if they are named for or after a particular queen, but with a name like that, they are promising a lot!

These delightful little morsels are sweet and buttery, with a coating of sesame seeds the pop slightly when you bite into them. They also look very pretty, as the seeds form a neat pattern on the outside of the dough. I think they are a nice addition to the festive table, providing a contrast to all that chocolate, ginger, citrus and dried fruit. Yes, I know, shocking to believe that those flavours can all get a bit much, but sometimes you want something simple to enjoy with a cup of tea.

I think these cookies have something of a Middle Eastern flavour, what with the sesame seeds and orange blossom water. Hardly surprising when you think about the history of trade across the Mediterranean.

However, if you want to play around with the flavours, you could swap the vanilla and orange blossom water for something else – aniseed is a typically Italian choice, and orange or lemon zest would add a stronger citrus note than the orange blossom water. If you’re feeling particularly creative, you could really depart from Italian flavours, and add things  like cardamom or even rose water. There are even versions that use saffron, if you want cookies with a spectacular golden glow.

These biscotti are very straightforward to make – just rub the butter into the dry ingredients, then add egg and flavourings to get a soft dough that is just very slightly sticky. You’re rolling these guys in seeds, so you want it to be a bit sticky. If it is clinging to your fingers in great lumps, you’ve probably got too much liquid, so just add a bit more flour.

I shaped the biscotti by rolling into balls, then flattening into a squat sausage shape, so when they baked they formed an oval shape. If you prefer, roll them into very long, thin fingers for a more elegant shape to dip in coffee or vin santo, and adjust the baking time accordingly. For finishing, I used hulled white sesame seeds, which I think makes them look quite festive, almost like they’re coated in snowflakes. If you’re feeling adventurous, add a few black sesame seeds for some contrast, or go the whole hog and roll them in only black sesame seeds for a dramatic look.


To make Biscotti di Regina (makes 30)

For the dough:

• 375g plain flour
• 225g butter
• 150g caster sugar
• 1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder
• 1/2 teaspoon of salt
• 1 egg
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1 teaspoon orange blossom water
• cold milk, to bind

To decorate:

• 100g sesame seeds

1. Preheat the oven to 175°C (350°F) and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

2. In a bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Add the butter and work until it resembles breadcrumbs.

3. Beat the egg with the vanilla and orange blossom water. Add to the main bowl, and work to a smooth dough. If necessary, add cold milk, a tablespoon at a time, to bring the mixture together. It should be firm, but slightly sticky.

4. Divide the dough into three batches. Roll each piece into a long sausage about 30cm long, and cut into 10 pieces (3cm each).

5. Roll each piece into a ball, then form into a sausage shape between your hands. Roll in the sesame seeds to coat completely, then transfer to a baking sheet (leave enough space between each piece to expand).

6. Bake for around 25 minutes until golden, turning after 15 minutes to get an even bake.


Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things

Gazelle Horns

I’ve done an awful lot of British food recently, so today we’re going to look somewhere slightly more exotic to banish the winter blues. We had snow flurries last week, and the mornings are still frosty, so this is a bit of an antidote to that – traditional Moroccan pastries called gazelle horns (or kaab el ghzal, which actually means gazelle ankles).

It’s probably pretty evident from the shape of these sweet treats how they get their name!


Gazelle horns are made with an almond paste filling wrapped in thin, crisp pastry. When I say thin, I mean thin. Look at my cross-section picture – can you see the pastry? Exactly! It needs to be wafer thin! Takes some time to make, but well worth it.

There are numerous versions of these things (I imagine that each Moroccan granny would have their own secret version, unless they just buy them in – they can be fiddly to make!), but I have flavoured the filling with lime zest and rose water, while the pastry has orange blossom water and olive oil. It is also possible to add flavours like orange zest, cinnamon or mastic gum, but I was keen to keep to almonds and some aromatic flavours. The orange blossom water in the pastry, in particular, is a nice touch and something that makes these pastries really very different from more usual baked goods.




These pastries look rather spectacular, but they are easy to make. However, as I suspect you’ve already realised, they demand quite some time commitment to make properly, so it’s the sort of thing you should set a good few hours aside to undertake. But fear not! They also keep really rather well, so you can enjoy the fruits of your labours for a long time after spending all afternoon elbow-deep in pastry.

Once I had made these (and eaten quite a few) I served them are a dessert – the gazelle horns were rolled in icing sugar, piled high on a Moroccan vintage metal plate and served with lots of mint tea. A nice and refreshing alternative to a rich dessert! It’s interesting to see your guests proclaim that they can really only manage one, only to make short work of four or five of these fellows.




To make gazelle horns (makes 40):

For the filling:

• 300g  ground almonds
• 175g caster sugar
• 1 egg, beaten
• juice and zest of 1 lime
• 1 tablespoon rose water
• almond extract, to taste

For the pastry:

• 250g plain flour
• 1 egg, beaten
• 60ml olive oil
• 2 tablespoons orange blossom water
• cold water

1. Make the filling – put everything into a bowl and mix until you have a smooth and firm (but not wet) paste. If you are using almond extract, add it a drop at a time – it helps to provide a subtle almond flavour, but be careful as it is easy to go too far. (The filling can be made the day before and refrigerated overnight).

2. Make the pastry – throw the flour, egg, oil and orange blossom water in a bowl and knead to a soft, elastic dough. Don’t worry about over-working it, as you need to pastry to be stretchy and capable of being rolled out thinly. Add cold water if too dry, or some flour if too wet. Wrap in cling film and chill for at least half an hour.

3. Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F) and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

4. Divide the filling into equal pieces (I find it easiest to roll it into a long sausage, then cut into equal slices). Roll each piece into a ball, then shape into a small cigar (fatter in the middle, thinner at the ends – about 4 centimetre/2 inches long).

5. Take portions of the dough (a quarter at a time) and roll it out as thin as you can (really – if you think it’s done, go thinner!). Cut into squares, and then place an almond paste “cigar” diagonally onto the square. Wrap the pastry around the filling, trim the excess then seal the edges. Smooth the seams and roll the ends into points. Bend the pastry shape into the “horn” shape so they look like small croissants. Place seam-side down

6. Bake the pastries for around 15 minutes until just starting to colour – golden at the points, but not dark (this is easier to do in batches). Remove from the oven. If any of the filling has leaked, use a knife to push it back into shape while they are warm. Leave to cool.

7. Roll the cold pastries in icing sugar before serving.

Worth making? I’ll be honest – these were a total faff to make, but it was quite fun to do on a rainy afternoon while listening to a radio play. The results are well worth it though, and last for a while, so overall – recommended!


Filed under Recipe, Sweet Things

{7} Frankfurter Brenten

I realised that this year, I’ve done quite a lot of posts that require some strange/odd/niche ingredient, which is of course not great if you want to try something at home and don’t have all manner of strange powders in the house with which to perform culinary magic.

Today’s recipe is one that looks very fancy, but is actually made with rather more humble ingredients (or as humble as I get in the kitchen). But just to make sure that these biscuits still look very jolly, I’ve made them using biscuit presses, and finished them with a dusting of edible gold lustre, of which more later. Rather fetching, aren’t they?


These cookies are called Frankfurter Brenten. They are made from a soft dough made that contains marzipan, sugar and egg whites, plus a dash of orange blossom water. This gives you a dough that is finer and easier to mould than plain marzipan, allowing you to get some very fine details. I made these using an oak leaf motif, and I think it looks fantastic. There is something about the shape that seems very fitting for Christmas.



If you want to make these cookies without using a press, then I’ve got a few suggestions. First, have a look for something in the house with a pattern – think dominoes or printing blocks. If you are at a vintage market, a Victorian block with a festive pattern would look superb (just make sure they are not made from lead, and that they don’t still have ink in them!). Alternatively, look for things with a texture that you can press onto the rolled dough, then cut out shapes using normal cutters. The only limit I found is that very tiny biscuits will puff up too much in the oven, one side will expand faster than another, and they won’t look too pretty. I think you could remedy this by baking at a very, very low temperature or just stick to making larger Brenten.

Once baked, you could leave the Brenten plain, but I wanted to decorate them in gold. I though the design I had used had the look of medieval carvings, like the bosses you might see in the vaulted roofs of old cathedrals. They also reminded me of the Elizabethan marzipan tradition, and I wanted a nod back to that too. In Tudor times, a confection known as marchpane would be prepared from almonds and sugar. This mixture was bound with a little rose water, and the resulting paste could be fashioned into elaborate and intricate shapes. Think figures, pictures, fruit, swans, portraits. An essential part of the confectioner’s repertoire in those times, and essential to get right, as essentially whatever Good Queen Bess wanted in marzipan form, she more likely than not had to get, lest you wanted to risk being sent to the Tower of London. Given the ingredients, marchpane was a luxury (containing exotic almonds and sugar, out of the reach of all but the very wealthiest), and it was finished accordingly, often with real gold leaf. This was confectionery as art, and art that was intended to impress the great and the good.

Now, to be clear, I have not been so needlessly extravagant as to cover these biscuits with actual gold (we’ll leave that for another day when we’re feeling a little more flush with cash, which after holidays we are most certainly not) but to get a similar effect, I finished them off with a light glaze made with edible gold lustre dust, and then brushed some more of the dust of the details to produce almond confections that glow warmly under the Christmas lights. On a black plate next to the Christmas tree, they looked stunning, and almost too good to eat. So…feeling a little festive now?

brenten_4   brenten_2

Now, for all of this splendour, how to they taste? The flavour is clearly strongly of almonds. I used quality (high almond) marzipan, but the result of the mixing and the baking is that the almond flavour seemed even more intense, which I loved. They are also incredibly rich, even ignoring that they are covered in what looks like gold, and they have a read wow factor. I look at them, and think wow! They’re a good biscuit to keep nibbling over a long period of time, not one to be wolfed down in seconds.

The texture was a little surprising. I thought they would be soft and slightly chewy, but I could not have been more wrong. They are dry-ish and firm, but have a slight crumble while eating. I think this texture is due to their size, shape and the fact I left them overnight to cure so that the surface would be dry and the details sharp. If you were to make smaller Brenten that were more cube or sphere-like, then I expect the texture would be different. But then, they would not look as truly awesome as these golden delights!


To make Frankfurter Brenten (recipe from House on the Hill)

Makes 15-20, depending on size

• 55g plain flour
• 175g icing sugar
• 225g marzipan
• 1 teaspoon orange flower or rose water(*)
• 1 egg white, gently beaten

1. Mix the flour and icing sugar in a bowl. Grate the marzipan coarsely into the icing sugar. Mix briefly then rub the mixture with your fingers until it resembles coarse breadcrumbs.

2. Add the orange blossom/rose water and the egg white. Mix with your hands until you have a smooth dough. Wrap the dough in cling film and chill for one hour.

3. Now shape the cookies. Dust a work surface with icing sugar, and roll out the dough to 1cm (1/2 inch) thickness. If using a cookie press, dust the top of the dough with icing sugar, then press away(**). If using a cutter, just cut out shapes. Trim the edges of the cookies, and transfer to a baking sheet lined with greaseproof paper.

4. Leave the cookies to dry, uncovered, for at least 3 hours, or as long as 24 hours.

5. To bake the Brenten, preheat the oven to 135°C (275°F). Bake the Brenten for 15-20 minutes until the “peaks” of the details are slightly browned. If you want to keep them white, place an empty baking tray on the shelf above during baking.

6. If you want to gild the Brenten, mix 50g of icing sugar with 2 teaspoons of water. Add some gold luster dust, and paint the surface of the cold Brenten. Leave to dry, then dust with the gold dust again. Job done!

(*) This means the water with a mild flavour. If you’ve got very intensely flavoured extracts, then dilute them one part flavour to three parts water. Otherwise the flavour is too strong, and it will be like eating perfume!

(**) Remember that as you press, the dough will be pushed out. It might be easier to cut the dough into pieces to match the press, then do the pressing, so that you don’t distort the images as you go.

Worth making? This is the sort of Christmas bake that you will adore if you are a fan of Marzipan. It’s also super-easy to make and the ingredients easy to get hold of. You can also make life easier by just shaping the dough by hand and making patters with forks that would look equally good. Pop the baked cookies under a very hot grill for 10 seconds or blast with a blowtorch for some extra browning on top!


Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things

Pistachio Kadayıfı Baklava

You’ll know what I’m about to talk about. We all have one of those purchases lurking in the larder. Something that looked such a smart buy when you were on holiday or in that posh deli, and for which you had such grand, grand plans. It was going to be amazing. A taste sensation. Guests would be in awe, impressed with your skills. Then you got it home…and it went into a cupboard to be forgotten about, save for the occasional pangs of guilt you feel when you see it, then quickly close the cupboard door so you can forget about it again.

In my case, the “object of guilt” it was a packet of Turkish kadayıfı pastry (the “angel hair” stuff). I picked it up when  was in Brussels, and it was going to form the basis of an amazing tray of fragrant, sweet baklava. Last weekend, finally, finally, I got round to using it, and as intended, it was to make baklava – using pistachios, flavoured with orange blossom water and cardamom.

To use kadayıfı , you rip off as much as you need, fluff it up, let it sit outside for a few minutes (to get rid of whatever preservative gas is used to keep the pastry from spoiling…I prefer not to think about it!) and then pour on some melted butter. Next, there is not much you can do other than roll up your sleeves and mix the butter into the pastry until it is well-coated. This is the messier and more fun version of brushing sheets of filo pastry with butter, and means the strands on top become crisp during baking.

I had planned to use pistachio nuts to fill this baklava, and I got hold of a bag of good-quality unsalted nuts. What did not go through my brain until it was too late was the realisation that I would have to stand for the best part of half an hour shelling them, by hand, then picking off the papery inner skin. It you fancy testing your patience, then shelling pistachios is one of the best ways to do it. However, you can save yourself a heck of  lot of work by getting hold of some pre-shelled nuts. Just a suggestion!

Rather than the brown sugar I’ve used in baklava before (which works well with hazelnut baklava), I stuck to white with the hope that the colour of the nuts would still be apparent after baking. The filling was finished off with a little cinnamon and a dash of orange blossom water, again not too much as I wanted the pistachio flavour to stand a sporting chance of being apparent after baking. However, the real magic of the East came from the syrup – made with acacia honey, orange blossom water, rose water and crushed cardamom pods. The cardamom on particular was a great addition, adding the lightly peppery, citrus-and-aniseeed flavour to the syrup. Just enough to be add a little something, but not too much that it was overpowering.

When the baklava comes out of the oven, you’ll think it is very fragile and wonder how you’ll cut it without everything collapsing. And you’re right, the kadayıfı wants to break apart. But once you’ve drizzled the hot baklava with the cold syrup and left the whole lot to cool, it slices like a dream.

This is a very different type of baklava compared to when making it with filo pastry. The strands on top stay crisp (and you get lots of little “snaps” as you bite into it), while the syrup soaks into the bottom layer and the nut filling. This makes for a nice contrast in textures. And it shows that sometimes, it can be worth revisiting that abandoned ingredient – it might just surprise you!

I ended up presenting this at a dinner as dessert. I’d merrily raided various Ottolenghi recipes for inspiration, so there had been a number of rich, aromatic and filling dishes, and I was sure that heavy chocolate cake wasn’t the way to go. So it was baklava with a few pomegranate seeds (colour contrast and a sharp tang to balance the sweet syrup) and the offer of whipped cream for those that wanted it. In the end, the cream went untouched, but all the baklava went. I just wish it wasn’t one of those things that is so addictively easy to pick at. Every time you pass it in the kitchen…just one piece…just one more piece…well, just one more…

To make pistachio baklava:

This looks complex – it isn’t. I’ve just tried to make the recipe as easy to follow as I can.

For the sugar syrup:

• 150ml water
• 200g white sugar
• 50g soft brown sugar
• 100g light honey (such as acacia)
• 2 teaspoons lemon juice
• 2 cardamom pods, lightly crushed
• 1 tablespoons of orange blossom water
• 1 tablespoon of rose water(*)

In a saucepan, heat the water, sugar, honey, lemon juice and cardamom pods until it comes to the boil and cook for a minute. Now add the orange blossom and rose waters, boil for a few seconds, and remove from the heat. Allow to cool. Remove the cardamom pods and any seeds before using on the baklava.

For the filling:

• 200g pistachios (or pistachios and almonds)
• 100g white caster sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 2 tablespoons orange blossom water

For the pastry:

• 300g kadayıfı (angel hair) pastry
• 150g butter

Preheat the oven to 200°C.

Grind the nuts. You want them medium-fine, but with a few larger pieces. Don’t turn them to powder otherwise the filling will be too dense. Combine with the sugar and cinnamon, then add the orange blossom water and mix well – it should be damp and sand-like, not wet and sticky. Set aside.

Prepare the pastry according to directions on the packet. This will most likely involve “fluffing up” the pastry and mixing it with melted butter and mixing well.

In a dish (I used one 21 x 28cm), add half the buttered pastry, and pat down until even but not too compact. Add the filling, and spread out. Be gentle so you don’t mess up the base. Now add the rest of the pastry, spread out, then pat down with the back of a spoon – you can be quite firm here.

Bake the baklava for 20-25 minutes the top is crisp and lightly golden. When done, remove from the oven, allow it to sit for a minute, then drizzle with the cooled syrup . Do it slowly – a spoonful at a time – so that all the baklava gets a soaking. If you see syrup forming pools in some areas, don’t worry – it will all be absorbed.

Allow the baklava to cool fully before cutting into pieces.

(*) By this, I mean the lightly aromatic rose water. If you have the much more intense rose extract, then use just a few drops and not a whole tablespoon!



Filed under Recipe, Sweet Things

Hark, the Royal Wedding! Maids of Honour Tarts

You might remember in the dark days of last winter, the announcement came from the Palace that there would be a royal wedding in 2011. Reactions were…muted.

Fast forward to Spring, and actually, the country seems to be completely cock-a-hoop about the whole thing. And the excitement is not contained to these fair isles, it seems the American media are really only just about able to contain how thrilled they are. We’ve seen Kate launching a lifeboat in Wales, Kate flipping a pancake in Ireland…yes, we (more accurately, the media) just can’t get enough of it. Kate shops, Kate crosses the road, buy Kate’s ring, wear her dress, and from late 2011, see her wax figure at Madame Tussauds. If you’ve got questions, there is a very helpful FAQ website here.

We were all supposed to throw street parties. We all thought “nope, won’t be doing that”. And then the shops were full of bunting and Union Flags for a bit of waving by the masses on the big day, and actually, we’ll probably all be doing it after all. The British, it seems, really do quite like a royal wedding after all. And best of luck to them!

To keep in with the mood of the nation, there obviously needs to be a little culinary nod to HRH Prince William and his future wife, and what could be more fitting that Maids of Honour tarts?

These certainly have a royal pedigree, but as with a lot of cakes that have a story to tell, there are a few versions floating about. Here are some of my more interesting findings:

Theory one: the maids of honour attending one of Henry VIII‘s Queens (possibly Catherine of Aragon) would nibble on these custardy, lemony treats (and the lemon link does fit with Catherine’s Iberian origins). So far, so nice. However, there is a darker element. The King, upon seeing how much the ladies enjoyed them, tasted one for himself, found it to be very good indeed, and so had to ensure that no-one else could learn the secret. How was this to be achieved? The unfortunate cook was locked up when he or she was not preparing pastry or zesting lemons. It’s probably a good thing we have moved from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy.

Theory two: these cakes were enjoyed by the maids of honour of Queen Elizabeth I when they were at Richmond Palace. The richness of these cakes (and remember – back in the day, lemons, sugar and butter were luxuries) made them famous and they were small objects of desire for fashionable members of the royal court.

Theory three: Henry VIII called these cakes “Maids of Honour” when he offered one to a future Queen, Anne Boleyn.

So we have learned…that we’re not exactly sure where they came from, but the Richmond link is strong, even to this day, and it seems to be a safe bet that they were around in the times of the Tudors. At this point, I confess that I am a huge fan of the recent TV series. Historically accurate? Maybe not, but a jolly good watch every weekend.

Now, at this stage, I realise two things. The links to the Tudors is probably not the parallel the I want to make with Wills and Kate (to whom I wish the best of luck). I’ve also failed to tell you what these cakes are actually like.

The cases can be made of shortcrust butter pastry of puff pastry. I used shortcrust here, but for the Big Day I will try them again but with puff pastry. The filling is a mixture of eggs, cream cheese, almonds and lemon zest plus a few aromatic “extras”. The filling sets when they are baked, so they are a little bit like mini-lemon baked cheesecakes. Some versions also add a little dash of something else under the filling – either lemon curd (to make them extra-citrussy) or some jam. I liked this idea, so I made some with lemon curd and some with seedless raspberry jam (typically British), but you could also use marmalade, apricot jam, strawberry jam or whatever else takes your fancy.

Now, the practical but – how exactly to flavour the filling? Lemon is a constant in all recipes, but as we are looking to make Maids of Honour for a Royal Wedding, I looked back to what would only have been available only to a royal kitchen back in Tudor times, and I went for broke: a pinch of saffron, citrus zest, orange zest, ground almonds, almond extract, orange blossom water, a pinch of cinnamon and a dash of nutmeg. Clearly not the sort of things your average peasant would have been able to get hold of. For for a queen indeed.

If you’re looking to make these, they are well worth the effort and make a nice treat for a picnic or tea. However, use saffron only if you like the flavour. I know it can be an acquired taste, so if you prefer, just play it safe and stick with the lemon and spices, which will still give a wonderful flavour and delicate aroma.

To make Maids of Honour (makes 10):

For the pastry:

• 125g plain flour
• 80g unsalted butter, cold and cut into cubes
• pinch of salt
• 2 teaspoons caster sugar
• iced water

Put the flour, butter, salt and sugar in a bowl. Use your fingers and work until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Add enough iced water until the dough comes together (no more than 1-2 tablespoons). Wrap the dough in cling film and leave to rest in the fridge for 30 minutes.

For the filling:

• 50ml milk
• very tiny pinch of saffron strands (optional)
• 150g cream cheese
• 40g ground almonds
• 50g caster sugar
• 1 teaspoon orange blossom water
• 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
• zest of 1/2 lemon
• zest of 1/4 orange
• pinch of cinnamon
• pinch of nutmeg
• 50g butter, at room temperature

If using saffron: put the milk in a saucepan and heat until almost boiling. Turn off the heat, add the saffron strands and allow to sit for 10 minutes until the milk is infused with the saffron colour and aroma. Put the cooled milk and the rest of the ingredients in a bowl, and mix with a balloon which until smooth.

If not using saffron: put all the ingredients in a bowl, and mix with a balloon which until smooth.

To prepare the tarts:

Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F). Grease a cupcake tray with butter.

Roll out the dough as thin as you can – you might find it easier to work the dough with your hands so that it is pliable and does not crumble. Cut our rounds of pastry, put into the to 2-3mm thin, and cut out rounds to line a cupcake tray. Use fingers to press the dough as thin as you can (we want a high filling-to-pastry ratio).

Add one scant teaspoon of jam or curd to the bottom of each case (not too much – or the jam will boil and leak out when baking). Fill each tart two-thirds with the filling mixture – it will puff up slightly during baking.

Bake the tarts for 20 minutes until the filling is puffed and the pastry is golden. You may need to turn the baking tray around half-way to ensure they colour evenly.

Once cooked, remove from the oven, and serve with a light dusting of icing sugar (which would also have been an extravagance in Tudor times).

Worth making? These are very simple but elegant little tarts, which are relatively straightforward to make, and taste great. The filling can be customised depending on exactly what you like in the way of flavours and spices. Will Kate eat them on the big day? We don’t know that yet, but might just be the perfect thing to impress guests are you’re gathered around the television on Friday.


Filed under Recipe, Sweet Things