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{7} Florentines

I can never resist a good Florentine. There is something about those golden discs of caramel, studded with cherries, citrus, nuts and ginger and dipped in chocolate that is just magical. They might not strictly be a Christmas treat, but I think they lend themselves very well to this time of year.

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In my younger days, I assumed that Florentines were named after the city of Florence, but it turns out this is only partly true. I should have suspected this to be the case when, years ago, I had a few hours to explore Florence while waiting for a train connection (and hey, it was Florence, I was hardly going to hang out at the station for three hours!). Were there shops groaning under the weight of these biscuits? No. I found one pasticceria selling square Florentines, so I cut my losses and went with one of them. But clearly this was not a biscuit that the citizens of this city were clutching close to their collective bosom.

So what is the truth? Well, this is lost in the mists of time, but the name probably has something to do with the French, and the resemblance of these caramel discs to the gold coins of Florence (incidentally, the British two shilling coin was also known as the florin).

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There are two ways you can make these cookies. If you drop spoonfuls onto a baking sheet lined with greaseproof paper, they will spread out and you get large, crisp and delicate Florentines (there is enough butter in them to prevent sticking). However, you can drop small teaspoons into the bottom of a non-stick muffin tray – they’ll be slightly thicker but perfectly round so good if you’re giving them as a gift and need to travel with them and want them to look fancy. My pictures are of these “neat” Florentines, and I think they look very pretty.

However…if you’re going to use a muffin tray, please make sure that it is sufficiently non-stick! I assumed non-stick means non-stick. Well, I have two pans. One works like a dream, but the other is anything but non-stick. I found myself trying and ultimately failing to remove one batch from the tray, and had to junk the lot. As the mixture does not need to be baked quickly, you can take your time and do a test version to make sure it works. If it doesn’t, just switch to making the bigger versions using a tray with greaseproof paper. You don’t want all that work to go to waste and they will still taste fantastic!

To finish them off, you can leave them as they are (or “naked Florentines” as I’ve seen them called) but I think you really do need to spread one side with chocolate. If you are a milk or white chocolate fiend, then by all means go for it, but I think it really has to be dark chocolate on these little beauties. I think it works so well with the toasted nuts, ginger and citrus in the biscuits, and why mess with a classic? To make them look impressive, use tempered chocolate for a nice shine and snap, and use a fork to make a wave pattern in the chocolate.

Incidentally, if you think you’ll do a lot of dipping things in chocolate, it really is worth getting a food thermometer. They are not expensive and it means you can get your chocolate to the right temperatures. I’ve tried various methods over the years, but using the thermometer is hands down the easiest and most reliable method I’ve every tried. Never have dull chocolate again!

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In terms of the ingredients, you can play around with them to get a mixture that you like. You can use slivered almonds instead of flaked, or swap some of the almonds for pistachios, hazelnuts or even a handful of jumbo rolled oats. You can also adjust the proportions of cherries, peel, ginger and sultanas, or even omit some of them altogether, but try to keep to the same overall weight. You can even go for a retro vibe if you can get your hands on some green candied angelica – I remember those flecks of bright green in Florentines from my childhood, but it seems to have vanished from most supermarket shelves these days. If you find some – it’s a sign that you should make Florentines!

To make Florentines (makes around 24)

Dry ingredients

• 90g flaked or slivered almonds
• 90g glacé cherries
• 60g candied peel, chopped
• 20g glace ginger
• 30g sultanas
• 15g plain flour

For the caramel

• 45g butter
• 30g soft brown sugar
• 30g white sugar
• 1 tablespoon double cream
• large pinch of salt

To finish

• 150g dark chocolate

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F). For large Florentines, line two large baking trays with greaseproof paper rubbed with a little butter. For small Florentines, get a non-stick muffin tray and rub lightly with butter.

2. Prepare the dry ingredients – chop the cherries, peel and ginger as you prefer, then add the almonds, sultanas and flour. Toss so that everything is coated and well-mixed.

3. Make the caramel – in a small saucepan, heat the butter and sugars. Bring to the boil, then take off the heat, add the cream and salt, and stir well. Pour onto the dry ingredients and mix well.

4. Put generous teaspoonfuls of the mixture onto a baking sheet or into a muffin tray. If using a baking sheet, flatten them as much as you can, but leave enough space for them to expand as they bake.

5. Bake the Florentines for 8 minutes, turning around half-way to get an even bake. They will be soft at first, but will harden as they cool.

6. To finish the Florentines, melt the chocolate (for a professional finish, you want to temper it – find out here). Using a teaspoon, spread some chocolate on the underside of each Florentine, then using a fork to make a wave pattern in the chocolate. It might not be obvious at first, but you’ll see it once the chocolate sets.

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{5} Cavallucci

When I started doing my annual Christmas baking project all those years ago, I tended to focus on what I knew, and with the exception of panettone, pretty much everything was from Northern Europe. Over the years I’ve looked beyond the well-known bakes, which has led me to look more and more at Italian Christmas cookies.

We have all seen those rainbow cookies with a chocolate glaze, but what I find interesting are the traditional regional specialities. Every part of the country seems to have its own unique baked goods, often reflecting the traditions and ingredients of the area the recipe comes from, which makes it rewarding to explore, as well as to make and then eat. Yes, unlike looking at lots of churches and medieval villages, exploring the culinary landscape has the bonus of being delicious. And today’s Christmas treat takes us to the city of Siena. Meet my batch of cavallucci.

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The name cavallucci literally means “little horses”. They are said to date back to the time of Lorenzo de’ Medici (also known rather modestly as Lorenzo the Magnificent and who ruled Florence in the late 1400s). Their name comes either from the fact that the original cookies had an impression of a horse on top, or due to the fact they were eaten by stable hands who worked as part of whatever passed for the postal system of the gentry in those days.

Fortunately the flavour of cavallucci is very far removed from anything horse-like. They contain a lot of walnuts and candied orange peel, as well as traditional spices including coriander and aniseed.

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Luckily, this is a recipe that is fairly simple to make. Once you’re prepared the dry ingredients (flour, nuts, spices, candied and dried fruits), you add a sugar and honey syrup to forma dough. This is left to cool for a moment, then rolled out and sliced into individual cookies for baking. No fancy moulds, no intricate decoration, no gilding and no messing around with icing or tempered chocolate. What a relief! And if you’re looking for a vegan option, swap the honey for your favourite syrup. Or if you’re a honey fan, you can swap some of the sugar and water for more honey.

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These are very rustic-looking little morsels of festive cheer. They look like they have been dipped in sugar, but they’ve actually been rolled in flour before baking. I think it looks rather nice, as it goes them a slightly snowy appearance, and it means the cookies have a more balances level of sweetness.

As I was making these, I was reminded of that other Siena classic, panforte. You prepare the dry ingredients, add lots of spices, nuts and candied peel, then bind it all with a sugar syrup, although the ratios of ingredients are different, and cavallucci include some raising agent. I did wonder if a raising agent was traditional, and I think it probably is not, but most of the classic recipes that I found, including that of the Siena tourist board, suggest using baker’s ammonia. I used this too as I have some in my baking cupboard, and I’m always on the look out for a recipe that uses this most stinky of ingredients. It certainly makes the cavallucci puff up nicely in the oven and you get a lovely light texture, with a crisp outside and slightly soft centre. If you can’t get hold of baker’s ammonia, other recipes suggest using baking soda, so it should be alright to use that instead – if you do give it a go, let me know how you get on.

To make Cavallucci (makes 50)

• 200g shelled walnuts
• 100g candied peel (e.g. orange, lemon, citron)
• 30g icing sugar
• 2 teaspoons baker’s ammonia
• 2 teaspoons ground coriander
• 1 teaspoon mixed spices
• 1/4 teaspoon aniseeds, crushed
• pinch of black pepper
• 650g plain flour
• 300g white sugar
• 150ml water
• 25g honey

1. Preheat the oven to 150°C and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper rubbed lightly with some neutral oil.

2. Roughly chop the walnuts and candied fruits. Put in a large bowl and add the icing sugar, spices, baker’s ammonia (or baking soda) and flour. Mix well.

3. Put the sugar, water and honey into a saucepan. Heat gently until the sugar has dissolved and there are no crystals left (you want the sugar to just dissolve, but do not let it boil). Remove from the heat, allow to cool for a few minutes, then pour the liquid over the dry ingredients. Mix well with a wooden spoon. It should be firm but sticky.

4. When the mixture is still warm but cool enough to handle, take teaspoons of the mixture and drop onto a plate dusted with flour.

5. Roll each piece into a ball (it should be coated lightly with flour), place on the baking sheet and flatten to around 1cm thickness.

6. Bake the cavallucci for around 15 minutes until they are puffed up, but they are still pale (they only get a very slight colour during baking).

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{4} Piparkakut

Gingerbread biscuits are found across the Nordic countries around Christmas time. There are some different shapes, different spices and some might have nuts or fruit added, but they share a spicy flavour and crisp texture. The Finnish version are piparkakut. I won’t even try to work out if that is the singular or plural name, as the Finnish is fiendishly complex! Instead I will distract you with my “elk in a snowy forest with squirrels under the stars” gingerbread fantasy. Hands down these are my favourite cookie cutters from what is probably an unnecessary large collection to being with!

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These cookies are incredibly more-ish. Because they are so light and crisp, you can happily much on two, or three, or four of them, and really not get full at all. In contrast, try eating four British mincemeat pies in one sitting and you’ll be floored for the rest of the day!

I made these using “dark syrup” (tumma siirappi in Finnish). This is a thick, sweet syrup that has almost a chocolate-like flavour, but none of the bitterness of molasses or black treacle. It also seems to be the right stuff as a quick search online shows pictures of syrup containers with gingerbread figures on them! But if you can’t get hold of this stuff, you can happily use golden syrup. Honey would work in a pinch, but it tends to produce slightly different results, so you might not get the same crisp texture as you get with syrup.

I made these once with a special ingredient that I thought would make them extra-fancy. I had dried some peel from Seville oranges, so I thought I would grind it up and add it to the dough for an extra aromatic orange flavour. Well, it worked…except that it worked just a little bit too well. The flavour and aroma were superb, but after a moment a strong medicinal flavour and a numbness took over, rather like sucking on a throat lozenge. Sadly my attempt to be fancy just ruined the whole batch! I did leave them for a couple of weeks in a dark cupboard in the hope that they would improve, but that eye-wateringly extreme orange flavour was still there, lurking in the dark, waiting for me. Never again! Just stick with a normal orange, or perhaps some Clementine or mandarin zest if you want to feel fancy. I’ve still got that jar of dried Seville orange peel hidden in a cupboard, taunting me…

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This recipe is great if you want to make a lot of very intricate cookies that keep their shape after baking. As you can see, the various cutters I used worked really well and I got nice sharp edges. I mean, if you’re going to go to the effort of making an elk, you want people to know that it is an elk, right? I’ve left them plain, but you can easily coat them in dark chocolate, or ice them with intricate patterns.

Finally, a word of caution. You might think a teaspoon of baking soda is not really enough in this recipe. Well, don’t be tempted to up the quantity of baking soda – I’ve tried adding more to provide more rise (assuming this would provide a crisper cookie too) but it easily turns into a soapy aftertaste. Yes, I’ve had a few issues with trying to mess around with this recipe in the past!

Makes around 40-50 cookies

• 110g (80ml) dark syrup or golden syrup
• 100g caster sugar
• 100g butter
• 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
• 1 teaspoon ground ginger
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
• zest of 1/2 orange
• 1 large egg
• 400g plain flour
• 1 teaspoon baking soda
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• cold milk, to bind

1. Put the syrup, sugar, butter, spices and orange peel into a saucepan. Warm gently, then bring to the boil. Leave to cool.

2. Beat the cooled sugar mixture with the egg until fluffy. The mixture will be very soft.

3. Mix the flour, baking soda and salt, and stir into the rest of the ingredients. Add more flour if too wet, or add cold milk (a tablespoon at a time) to bring it together. Wrap in cling film and leave to chill overnight in the fridge.

4. The next day, preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

5. Roll out the dough thinly (around 3-4mm). Cut out the cookies and transfer to the baking sheet. Tip: roll the scraps together and pop in the freezer to chill – it makes the dough easier to work with.

6. Bake for around 10-12 minutes until browned and slightly puffed, turning half way to get an even bake.

Note: It is worth baking one cookie first to test how long you need to bake them. If you are making different sizes, it is best to bake the same sized cookies together. Also be careful if your cookies have thin parts (like the legs on the elk) as they can burn easily.

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Scottish Food: Dundee Cake

We might be in the New Year, with all manner of good resolutions, but this is a recipe that I really could not resist posting. We’re about to hit Burns Night, when there are celebrations of Scotland’s most famous poet up and down the land. And yes, that’s him on my header, along with a few lines from one of his most famous poems Tam O’Shanter, a cautionary tale about drinking too much and the ghouls and spirits that a man might see in the wee hours.

As part of this celebration of Scottishness, I thought I would have a go at making something that comes from near to where I grew up, the Dundee Cake. This is a rich fruit cake that is most notable for how it is decorated – concentric circles of whole almonds are arranged on top of the cake before baking, which will toast gently as the cake bakes.

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As with all good cakes, there are various stories about who created it and the right way to make it.

Some stories say that Mary, Queen of Scots did not care for cherries, and Dundee Cake was created as a version of fruitcake that did not contain them. This may or may not be true, but I think this is a bit boring, and besides, I quite like cherries in cakes, so I’m not convinced.

The version of the story that I subscribe to is that this was created by the Keiller family in Dundee in the late 1700s. They are famous as the founders of the first commercial brand of marmalade, said to have been the result of a flash of inspiration when a boatload of Seville oranges arrived in the port and they were perhaps a little past their best. In a flash of inspiration, Janet Keiller turned the lot into marmalade, and a legend was born. The Keillers are also famous as bakers of the Dundee Cake, and in this version, I’ve added orange zest as well as a generous amount of marmalade as a nod to their orange endeavours, so I think this story could well be true (or perhaps have some elements of truth to it). Indeed, so much is marmalade tied up in the history of Dundee that it is famous as the home of the three “Js” – jam (marmalade), jute (from textile mills, weaving hessian from the East) and journalism.

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Now, I have to admit that I am no expert in making Dundee Cake (even if I grew up not that far from the city itself), so if you’re sitting there quietly fuming, thinking we dinnae make it like that, laddie! then I suggest you calm down!

I’ve made the sort of cake that I prefer – I’m not a massive fan of cake which is too dark and heavy, so I’ve made a fairly light version. There is also no spice in here, but if you want to play around and add things like treacle or dark muscovado sugar, or even mixed spice or crystallised ginger, then be my guest. The only thing you cannot miss out on are those rings of almonds on top of the cake!

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A couple of little tips to finish – this is not a cake that needs to be fired for hours and hours and hours. In fact, when you bake it, you really only want it to be just done. When you test with a skewer towards the end of the baking time, it is fine to turn off the oven if you only have a few little crumbs sticking to the skewer, as this will help make sure the cake remains soft and moist. This is also a cake that keeps well, so it’s probably best to make it a few days before you need it, so that it can rest for a while.

How you finish this cake off is up to you, but I used a glaze made from sieved apricot jam mixed with marmalade. I brushed this over the warm cake, then covered the lot loosely with tin foil and left the cake in the (switched off!) oven until it was cool. The glaze will dry a bit, and the cake will have a glorious rich brown colour. Nae bad as they might say in Dundee!

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To make a Dundee Cake:

For the cake

• 100g whole almonds
• 160g butter

• 160g light muscovado sugar
• zest 1 orange
• zest 1 lemon
• 3 tablespoons marmalade (approx 100g)
• 225g plain flour
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 3 large eggs, beaten
• 75g ground almonds
• 2 tablespoons milk
• 100g glacé cherries, rinsed, dried and halved
• 250g sultanas
• 100g raisins
• 50g currants
• 50g candied peel, finely chopped

For the glaze

• 2 tablespoons apricot jam
• 1 tablespoon marmalade
• 2 tablespoons water

1. Start by skinning the almonds – put them in a pan of boiling water. Simmer for 5 minutes. Drain, allow to cool for a moment, then remove the skins (they should slip off). Leave the blanched almonds to dry.

2. Preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F). Grease a loose-bottomed 20-23cm cake tin and line the bottom and sides with greaseproof paper.

3. In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the orange zest, lemon zest and marmalade and mix well.

4. In a separate bowl, sieve the flour and the baking powder and fold in the ground almonds.

5. Add one of the eggs plus a tablespoon of flour to the butter/sugar mixture. Beat well. Repeat with the other two eggs, adding a spoonful of flour with each, until you have a light, fluffy mixture.

6. Add the rest of the flour, mix well and then fold in the milk. The mixture should be soft and drop slowly from a spoon, but definitely not runny.

7. Add the cherries, dried fruit and candied peel and fold gently to distribute the fruit.

8. Carefully spoon the mixture into the tin and level with the back of a spoon.

9. Arrange the blanched almonds in concentric circles on top of the cake, pressing lightly into the cake mixture. Put in the oven and bake for 45 minutes at 150°C (300°F). In the meantime, make the glaze – heat the apricot jam and marmalade in a saucepan with two tablespoons of water, and sieve to make a smooth glaze.

10. After 45 minutes, lower the oven temperature to 130°C (265°F) and bake for another 40-60 minutes, checking the cake after 40 minutes using a skewer – it should be just clean, or even come out with a few crumbs (so the centre remains slightly soft). If the cake looks like it is browning too quickly during baking, cover loosely with tin foil.

11. When the cake is done, remove from the oven, and brush generously with the apricot-marmalade glaze. Cover loosely with tin foil and pop back into the (switched off) oven to cool completely. When cold, wrap in foil and store for a few days before cutting.

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{11} Almond Jam Cookies

You might have noticed that there has been a glut of almond-flavoured goodies this year, so why stop a good thing? This recipe is based on one I saw for “Italian almond cookies” in a book that suggested filling them with flaked almonds or nuts. However, I thought a nice tweak would be to make them with a jam filling, and to use what I had made during the summer and autumn. And, thankfully, this year I made a lot of jam!

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I would love to be able to say that there was lots and lots of thought that went into the pairing of jams with these almond biscuits, with careful consideration of what would work with their nutty flavour, but the reality is that I just had a good old rummage around inside the store cupboard.

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I ended up using six different types – plum, raspberry, apricot and pear jams, which were all delicious. However, the real stars of the show were Seville orange marmalade, with the bitter citrus acting as a good partner to the sweet, aromatic almond, and the surprising pink grapefruit marmalade, with that little sharp twist providing a nice counter to the sweetness of the biscuits. I also left shreds of orange and grapefruit peel peeking out over the sides.

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All in all – I’ve very happy with how these turned out. The result was a very jaunty and colourful little selection…just in time for tomorrow’s New Year’s Eve dinner!

To make almond and jam cookies (makes around 30):

• 200g ground almonds
• 200g icing sugar
• 2 medium egg whites
• 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
• jam, marmalade or fruit paste (e.g. membrillo)
• icing sugar or flaked almonds, to roll

1. Put the almonds, icing sugar and almond extract in a bowl. Add half the egg white and mix. Add the rest of the egg white, a little at a time, until you have a smooth but fairly firm dough. If the mixture is too sticky, add an equal weight of almonds and sugar to sort it out. Wrap in cling film and chill for an hour or overnight.

2. Preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F), and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper rubbed with a dot of oil or butter.

3. Roll the dough into a sausage shape and cut into pieces (aim for around 25-30 pieces). If you are a bit obsessed, use a ruler to measure out equally-sized pieces!

4. Roll each piece into a ball, roll in icing sugar (or flaked almonds if you prefer) then place on the baking sheet and flatten slightly. Make an indent in the top and add a little jam or marmalade (be careful not to over-fill).

5. Bake the cookies for around 15 minutes until slightly puffed up and they have a golden colour.

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Kulich

Have you been able to enjoy some good weather recently? In the last few weeks, things seem to be warming up, and my garden is full of the joys of spring – the clematis is heavy with pale pink blooms, and the tulips that seemed only a week ago to be tentative at best are now adding extravagant bursts of colour – reds, golds and purples. A few other more traditional flowers are also starting to peek out from the sea of green, and it really does feel like summer days are not far away now.

Actually, I’m under-selling this time of year. I have just spent Easter in Scotland, and against all expectations was able to enjoy some spectacular sunny weather – clear blue skies and lovely views. Walks in the countryside, a picnic by a loch, a ride in a hot air balloon and visits to ancient castles, all in the blazing sunshine. The result of all this excitement was that, eh, I actually got a little behind on blogging and did not get round to posting some of my Easter baking. So I’m afraid you’re going to have to bear with me as I write about some seasonal bakes with a slight time lag. Better late than never!

Easter offers quite a lot of options when it comes to baking. The most obvious thing to do is whip up a batch of Hot Cross Buns, rich with spice and finished with a sticky honey glaze. Well, it would be, except the bakery round the corner makes amazing buns, so I’ve been tucking into plenty of those rather than making them myself. So that left me with the task of trying something a little different, and I though I’d have a go at making traditional Russian kulich. Something like this!

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The most striking thing about kulich is the shape of the loaf – tall and slim, with domed top drizzled with a little icing (or in my case – slathered with lots of icing!). It is topped with a few slivers of candied peel, or more traditionally, some edible spring flowers. To get this shape, the easiest way is to use a large-ish tin can, then just wash it out, and line it well with greaseproof paper on the bottom and the sides, and you’ve got a good makeshift kulich tin. One little tip though – don’t use a can that held garlic cloves or strong curry – they can hold the flavours of their original contents, and I think an curry-garlic kulich is a flavour experience that I can happily live without. In my case, I used a tall milk pan, which had a useful handle that made putting it into the oven a little easier.

Now, I have seen this refered to in a few places as “Russian Panettone” which I think does a bit of a disservice to this bread. You find enriched, spiced, fruited breads across Europe, but I guess that the Italian version is so well-known that they’ve got that market cornered. While there are some superficial similarities, kulich has different spices, including cardamom as well as a little saffron for the adventurous. I find saffron and cardamom a curious combination, one that I really have not seen together very often at all, although I did make an Estonian Christmas wreath last year with that flavour pairing, and I can assure you that it really is very, very delicious. That, and the dough will have the most amazing golden colour!

That said…the recipe I’ve used is actually my own Panettone recipe, as it is one that I have made many, many times and I am very happy that it works well, with a good but not overwhelming amount of fruit and candied peel. Well, it’s Panettone, albeit tweaked to reflect the usual Russian ingredients, and baked in the traditional shape. Matryoshkas and babushkas might find this a little bit strange, but it works.

When faced with such a tall loaf, you might wonder how on earth to cut it. Well, rather than trying to cut it like a cake, lay it on the side and cut it into slices. Hey presto – circles of kulich! This does of course mean that some lucky person will get the last slide, smothered in sweet icing. Kulich is traditionally served with pashka, a sweetened cream cheese mixture prepared in intricate moulds. However, it is equally delicious on its own, or served toasted and spread with butter and jam or honey.

To make one large or two small kulich:

• 80ml milk
• Large pinch freshly ground nutmeg
• Large pinch saffron strands
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
• 1 egg
• 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 35g butter

• 25g sugar
• Pinch of salt
• Zest of 1/2 orange
• 3/4 teaspoon dried yeast
• 200g strong white flour
• 75g dried fruit (such as currants and golden sultanas)
• 40g candied peel, diced
• 25g slivered almonds

1. Put the milk in a small pan. Bring to the boil, then remove from the heat. Add the spices, then leave to one side until lukewarm.

2. Mix the egg and vanilla into the milk and blend well.

3a. If using a bread machine: Throw everything into the mixing bowl (put the fruit, peel and almonds into the raisin compartment). Run the “dough” cycle. Simples!

3b. If making by hand: put the flour and butter into a bowl, and rub with your fingers until the butter has been incorporated. Fold in the salt, sugar, orange zest and yeast. Add the milk/egg mixture. Stir with a spoon, then work with your hands until you have a smooth, stretchy, silky dough (at least 5 minutes). Work in the fruit, peel and almonds. Leave the dough a warm place for an hour until the dough has doubled in size. Knock back and knead again for 2-3 minutes.

4. Once the dough is ready, prepare either one large or two normal tin cans by lining with greaseproof paper (make sure to leave a high collar around the top, as the dough will rise a lot). Take the dough out of the machine, form into one or two balls as needed, then drop into the tin(s). Leave in a warm place covered in cling film for about one hour until the dough has reached to top of the tin.

5. In the meantime, preheat the oven at 180°C (350°F). Put the kulich into the oven, baking for around 15-20 minutes for smaller loaves or 25-30 minutes for a larger loaf (they should sound hollow when tapped). If the top is browning too quickly, cover loosely with tin foil. Remove from the oven and leave to cool before icing.

For the icing:

• 100g icing sugar
• 4 teaspoons water
• slivers of candied citrus peel

6. Mix the icing sugar and water until smooth. Spread on top of the kulich being sure the encourage a few dramatic drips down the side.

7. Finish with a few slivers of citrus peel on top.

Worth making? Definitely. This is a delicious, aromatic loaf which makes a lovely teatime treat. This is equally delicious slices and toasted for breakfast.

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Orange and Yuzu Teacakes

Three years ago, I was at the Christmas market on Place Sainte-Catherine in Brussels. It was the sort of place where you easily go overboard on all that mulled wine and the naughty festive sweets and fried food. On top of all that, and giddy from the thrills of ice-skating under a giant disco ball, I was checking out the gift stands, and found one that was selling silicone baking moulds. Obviously it just seemed like the best thing in the world ever to buy a few, and I walked away with couple of them, including a mini-kugelhopf tray. I got it home, and pretty much forgot about making kugelhopfs. I’ve had vague plans to use this tray from time to time, but never quite got round to it. So today I decide to finally get my act together and do it!

I’ve long had a fantasy of making zesty little cakes flavoured with Japanese yuzu fruit. It is hard to find here, but has a lovely sharp flavour, somewhere between lemon and mandarin, which holds up well during cooking and baking. However, I had also resigned myself to not being able to actually make them as I’ve never found the fruit in London (apparently they don’t travel very well). Well, I was over the moon to find the juice on sale near my work, so I bought a little bottle and started to make plans for making these little cakes. Below is the result of my baking, but do not allow yourself to be misled – it was not as easy as I thought!

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Well, in spite of my best laid plans, it took more than one attempt to get everything to work. I’ll regale you with the tales of woe in order to save other poor souls from my trauma!

First off, I tried to make them using a financier recipe. In theory, this should have been fine – they are rich with browned butter, and this should have allowed them to slip right out of the moulds. So I prepared ground pistachios, stirred in orange zest and yuzu juice and lovingly folded egg whites into the batter to ensure light little cakes. I popped the lot into the oven, they rose, and then the moment came to remove them from the tray. Every. Single. One. Of. Them. Stuck! I was reduced to shaking the tray like an idiot only for each one to partially fall out, leaving a particularly ugly set of cakes with the tops ripped off. I diligently drizzled some icing on them, and they looked a bit sad – something made by a child who cared nothing for appearances and was focussed only on eating as many as they could as quickly as they could. They did taste fine, but this was not the wow-moment I was hoping for. Hey ho…

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The next day, I junked the financiers idea and tried to make little bundt cakes. This seemed like a good idea, as bundt cakes are supposed to be made in these sort of tube tins (albeit on a larger scale), and they are rather forgiving of quite a lot of liquid in the batter. So I followed a recipe to the letter, made the things, and…oh, they were horrid. The crumb was tough and they did not really rise. I’m at a bit of a loss to work out what the problem was, as I was using a recipe that called for lemon juice, so I don’t think the acidity of the yuzu juice was the problem. By this point, frustration was starting to build. I threw the offending “cakes” in the bin and started over.

This time, nothing was going to go wrong. I reached for that workhorse of the cake world, the Victoria sponge, and made it the traditional way that always works. Cream the butter, work in the sugar, add the eggs, a little at a time, then fold in orange zest. Finally, add the self-raising  flour with a dash of baking powder, then fold in a spoonful of yuzu juice. The batter was perfect – creamy and light. I piped it into the moulds (sounds fancy, but actually it is easier than trying to do that with teaspoons) and baked them. They looked great when I took the tray from the oven, allowed them to cool, the turned it over…and…out they popped! Perfect little cakes with neat little ridges. I spooned over some icing while they were still warm, and it drizzled down the ridges and set easily. Honestly, they could not have looked any more perfect!

I’ve done some thinking about why one recipe worked when others did not. Financiers are not usually made in these ring tins, so I’m assuming the batter was too fragile and should have been baked in round or rectangular trays. I also thought about the sticking. With the first attempt, the moulds were well-buttered, but the second and third attempt involved butter plus a dusting of flour. I had assumed this would mean that they would slip out, and while I am sure that did help with the successful final batch, it didn’t seem to help with the second attempt. Perhaps there was just too much liquid in there? They just seemed too fragile when they came out of the oven, and remained soft and stodgy as they cooled.

Anyway, whatever the reason, the Victoria sponge method is clearly the way to go. These little orange and yuzu teacakes are buttery, light and fresh, with little flecks of orange zest and a welcome tang from the yuzu glaze. While fairly simple, they look very attractive and would be a great addition to an afternoon tea. If you need something fancier, they could be topped with a little chopped candied orange peel, or even served with some whipped cream with a dash of orange liqueur.

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To make orange and yuzu teacakes (makes 6):

For the cake:

• 100g butter
• 100g caster sugar
• 2 eggs
• 100g self-raising flour
• 1/2 orange, zest only
• 1 tablespoon yuzu juice (optional)

For the glaze:

• 100g icing sugar
• 4 teaspoons yuzu juice

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F). Prepare the tins by rubbing with butter then dusting with flour.

2. Cream the butter until soft, then add the sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Fold in the orange zest. Add the eggs, a little at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the flour, and mix until just combined. Add the yuzu juice and mix well.

3. Transfer the batter to a piping bag, then use to fill the six moulds. Bake for around 10-15 minutes until an inserted skewer comes out clean. If the top is darkening too quickly, cover loosely with tin foil.

4. In the meantime, make the glaze – mix the icing sugar with enough juice (or water) to make a smooth icing – it should not be thing, but should flow slowly.

5. Remove the teacakes from the oven, and leave to stand for 5 minutes, before turning out onto a cooling rack. Drizzle the icing on the top, and let it trickle down the sides.

Worth making? These are delightful little bakes. They’re incredibly easy to make and the fancy tray does all the hard work for you. The flavour is also lovely, but quite delicate. These are the sort of thing to nibble on with a cup of green tea or Earl Grey, so that the citrus flavours really come out.

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Filed under Afternoon Tea, Recipe, Sweet Things

{11} Pepparkakor

Many years ago, when I arrived in Stockholm to study there for a year, I discovered pepperkakor, Swedish spicy gingerbread biscuits. Admittedly, I arrived there in August, and it was not really until December that we got into the Christmas mood, but you get my drift.

Unlike the slabs of soft, squidgy gingerbread we know in Britain, these are rolled out thinly, cut into just about any shape you can imagine, and then baked until crisp. They can be finished with royal icing and jazzed up with silver balls, drizzled with melted chocolate, or left au naturel. Or served in the shape of an elk. To each his own…

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I love pepparkakor for the very simple reason that they are among the least fussy of Christmas biscuits. They don’t need masses of decoration, and given they are rarely drowning in icing, jam or chocolate, you can happily nibble on them on an almost constant basis. Their spiciness also goes well with tea, coffee or the ubiquitous mulled wine.

As you can see, I’ve got a little crazy when it comes to cutting out shapes. Sure, I’ve got loads of the traditional stars, hearts, and circles, but I’ve also got a whole gingerbread forest going on here – trees, elks, foxes and squirrels. The elk, in particular, looks nothing short of amazing.

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While the woodland fantasy was purchased in Ikea (where else?), for the hearts and stars, it was an altogether classier affair. I received two copper cutters from my friend Anne, which not only cut the dough easily, but they look really lovely. They’ve already acquired a prime spot in the kitchen on the knick-knack shelf. These things are too pretty to hide away in a drawer.

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For the recipe, I’ve used the version from Signe Johansen’s excellent Scandilicious Baking, albeit with a few tweaks. The main changes I have made is to play around a little with the spices. While Signe added a dash of black pepper as a nod to the origin of the name of these treats, I quite like the heat from pepper, adding half a teaspoon of black pepper. I don’t find this to be too much – it is actually very rich, warming and aromatic – but if you’re a little less keep, feed free to go easy on the pepper. I’ve also thrown in some coriander and allspice, and toned down the cinnamon. I like cinnamon, but I do like to get the flavours of the other spices I am using. I’ve also added the zest of a clementine for an added dash of festive goodness. The flavour is not

I’ve also used dark brown sugar to provide the colour for these biscuits, and in place of Signe’s almost equal weights of treacle and golden syrup, I’ve used just two tablespoons of treacle here. I’m just not made keen on treacle, but if you’re a treacle (or molasses) fiend, then by all means, knock yourself out.

Now, while I’ve banged on about how amazing pepparkakor are just as they are, they also serve as the perfect foil to go totally nuts in the decoration department. Whip up some royal icing and get going – silver balls look particularly good, and if you want to do something a little different, try studding them with a few red peppercorns. Not only do these look really pretty and festive, but when you bit into them, you get the warm, rich hit of spice. If you want to use them the way I’ve used the silver balls here, then feel free, but do taste one before serving to your guests. They’ll thank you for that, believe me!

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When it comes to actually making these biscuits, I’ve got a few practical tips. First, it really is important to keep the dough chilled. It makes it much easier to roll out and cut (the colder dough comes out of the cutters). Second, if you want to cut out very fussy shapes, you’re best to roll the dough onto a sheet of greaseproof paper, then cut out the shapes and remove the excess. I tried cutting the elks on the worktop, and they all fell apart as I tried to move them onto the tray. Finally, it is worth putting the tray with the cut dough into the fridge for a few minutes before baking – this will help to keep the edges of the shapes in place. If you’ve gone to all the effort of cutting out pepparkakor to look like elks, you want them to look like elks!

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It’s worth knowing that this recipe does make masses of cookies. You can either make half the amount, or bake it in batches as you need to whip up new batches (or if you’re going to leave it a while between bakes, freeze the dough in batches). If you make these cookies and find that they get a bit soft after a few days, just pop into a low oven and allow to dry out for a few minutes. They will come out soft, but will crisp up when cool, getting back their ginger snappiness in no time.

So…what’s your favourite spicy biscuit at this time of the year?

To make pepparkakor, adapted from Scandilicious Baking (make 50-80, depending on size):

• 75g light brown sugar
• 75g dark brown sugar
• 150g butter
• 1 clementine, zest only
• 50ml milk
• 120ml golden syrup (add 2 tablespoons of treacle if you want)
• 2 egg yolks
• 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
• 1 teaspoon ground ginger
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
• 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
• 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
• 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
• 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
• 450g plain flour

1. Put the two types of brown sugar and the butter into a bowl. Beat until light and fluffy. Add the clementine zest, milk, syrup, egg yolks and spices and beat well for another minute.

2. Add the flour and bicarbonate of soda and mix to a soft dough. Wrap in cling film and chill in the fridge overnight.

3. Preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

4. Take pieces of the chilled dough. Roll out very thinly on a well-floured worktop and cut out whatever shapes your heart desires.

5. Bake the cookies for around 10 minutes until browned but not too dark. They might need more or less time, depending on their size. When done, remove from the oven, the leave to sit for a moment then transfer to a wire tray to cool completely.

Worth making? These biscuits are highly recommended – very spicy, very crisp and very, very more-ish.

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{9} Elisenlebkuchen

One of my favourite Christmas treats is the German Elisenlebkuchen, packed with nuts, citrus peel and spice, and the base coated in dark chocolate and finished with a sugar glaze that takes on a frosty appearance. They are pretty much Christmas in a biscuit.

Now, if I’m going to dare to call these things Elisenlebkuchen, then I need to be careful what goes into them. I earn some credit for the hazelnuts, walnuts, almonds, various spices and lemon and orange peel I’ve used, but I would have scored a great big fat zero if I had let just one dash of flour get anywhere near them. As a mark of quality, these things are made wheat-free. As a result, they have a fairly flat shape, but the flavour is rich and the texture soft and dense.

elisenlebkuchen

My fondness for these is in part due to what goes into them – nuts, spices and candied peel. However, it is also due to the fact that they are one of the first biscuits I got to know. Unlike today, when we’ve got easy access to foreign Christmas goodies, it used to take a bit of work. Panettone, marrons glacés and Lebkuchen had to be searched out, found only in places familiar to those in the know. So it was with these biscuits. The specific brand I loved were Bahlsen Contessa, and they were sold in a branch of Spar where my grandmother lived. The German woman who ran the shop had a few of them in at the end of the year, so no visit was complete without a trip to pick up a box of Lebkuchen. I liked to pick off the chocolate and then eat the soft cake bit.

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While there are rules about what you can use, you still have some scope to play around. Various recipes seemed to suggest using just almonds, but I wanted to add a bit more depth to my attempt, so I used equal parts of hazelnuts, walnuts and almonds. For the candied peel, I changed the common 50/50 mixture of orange and lemon, using mostly orange, and relying on fresh lemon zest to provide the zing.

And finally, the spices. The traditional approach is to use Lebkuchengewürz (Lebkuchen spices). However, I had run out of this so I let my creativity run wild. Cinnamon, cloves, mace, ginger, cardamom, star anise and a dash of white pepper went in there. You can go with whatever you like, but I would aim for mostly cinnamon with just a dash of the more powerful spices. Also keep in mind that the flavour will mature as they are stored, getting stronger with time, so if you go with lots of really forceful spices such as cloves or black pepper, you might send your guests running to the kitchen for water. Going heavy on nutmeg, coriander or cardamom, in contrast, probably invokes less of a risk!

When it comes to finishing these Lebkuchen, you’ve also got a few options. They often feature whole almonds arranged either individually or in a circle on top. They can be left as they are, or coated with a simple glaze of icing sugar and hot water. This has a magical effect when you leave it overnight, taking on a white, frosted appearance. Alternatively, you can coat them entirely in dark chocolate, which works wonderfully well with the citrus and spices. I went from something that combined the two – the glaze on top, with a layer of chocolate on the bottom.

If you buy these, they tend to be on the large side, around palm-sized. I made them more bite-sized. Which…arguably means…you can enjoy twice as many. I think all in all, they take a fair bit of time to make (you need to allow for overnight drying of the icing, and then fiddling about with tempering chocolate and so on) but nothing is particularly difficult and the result is really delicious.

To make Elisenlebkuchen (makes 32):

For the biscuits:

• 3 eggs
• 150g soft light brown sugar
• 75g white caster sugar
• 200g ground nuts (walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts)
• 25g flaked almonds, crushed
• 100g candied peel, very finely chopped
• 1 lemon, zest only
• 1 1/2 teaspoons mixed spice
• pinch of salt
• 1/2 teaspoon baker’s ammonia

For the glaze:

• 100g icing sugar
• 2 tablespoons boiling water

 To finish:

 • 250g dark chocolate

1. Preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F). Line four baking trays with greaseproof paper, and rub each very lightly with oil.

2. Separate the eggs. In a bowl over a pan of barely simmering water, beat the yolks with the brown sugar until pale and fluffy (around 3 minutes).

3. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites until you have soft peaks. Add the caster sugar, and whisk on a high speed until you have a stiff meringue.

4. Fold the meringue into the egg yolk mixture in three batches. Stir in the ground nuts, crushed flaked almonds, candied peel, lemon zest, spice, salt and baker’s ammonia.

5. Transfer the mixture to a piping bag, and pipe out rounds onto the trays (I did eight per sheet – each one around 4cm diameter).

6. Bake the biscuits for 20 minutes, turning the tray mid-way through, until they are puffed up and browned. When done, remove from the oven, allow to cool and remove from the paper and cool on a wire tray.

7. Once all the biscuits are baked, make the glaze by mixing the icing sugar with the boiling water. Brush the glaze onto the domed side of the biscuits, and leave overnight to dry (the glaze should dry fairly quickly, and take on a “frosted” appearance by the next morning).

8. Finally, melt the chocolate and use to coat the flat side of the Lebkuchen.

Worth making? Definitely. These taste pretty much like the pure essence of Christmas, and well worth the time they take.

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Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things

{8} Linzer Biscuits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To make Linzer Biscuits (makes around 40):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things