Tag Archives: orange

{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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{8} Linzer Biscuits

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

linzeraugen

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

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

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

linzeraugen2

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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Spiced Pear Liqueur

I’ve managed to get myself a new hobby. It started oh-so-innocently when I made a batch of sloe gin two years ago with berries that I got hold of from the local park. The result? Quite simply stunning. It is just so ridiculously easy to leave fruit soaking in some sort of spirit, and come back months later to something magical.

Roll forward two years, and now I have not only two jars of sloe gin maturing in the cupboard, but various other concoctions steeping at the back of a cupboard. I promise that these will appear over time, but today’s little feature is one that I am particularly looking forward to.

First off, I have to ’fess up to the fact that this is a complete lift-and-shift from a recent cookbook acquisition of mine, the fantastic Salt Sugar Smoke by Diana Henry. If you’re into preserving things at home, this is definitely a book for you! It has wonderful photography that takes you through the world of jams and jellies, pickles, smoking, salt preserving and how to make a range of fruit liqueurs.

This autumnal recipe in particular really caught my eye – you just take a whole pear, pop it into a large jar, add a few spices and some orange peel, and leave the lot to steep for a few months.

pear_liquer

Now, I was a little unsure about this “whole pear” approach (surely I should be slicing the thing to get all the flavour out?) but sure enough after a few days, the pear skin splits and I’m imagining all the flavour mixing with the spirit. The mixture has already taken on a slightly orange hue, but the hard part is waiting for nature to take its course. The pear and spices need to sit for a month before the sugar goes in, and then the whole lot needs to site for another four months to mature. All this means that some time in February 2014 I should be able to enjoy this liqueur. That, or I might just sneak the stuff out from the cellar in time for Christmas….we’ll just have to wait and see how patient I can be!

To make spiced pear liqueur (from Diana Henry’s “Salt Sugar Smoke”)

• 1 ripe pear (an aromatic variety, like Williams)
• 1 cinnamon stick
• ½ whole nutmeg
• 1 piece orange zest (no white pith)
• 800ml vodka
• 225g white sugar

1. Pop the pear (unpeeled) into a large jar with the cinnamon, nutmeg and orange zest. Add the vodka. Seal the jar, and leave on a kitchen window for a month. Admire it from time to time as the alcohol takes on the colours (and hopefully flavours) of the fruit and spices.

2. Add the sugar and re-seal the jar. Shake lightly, then store somewhere dark. Shake every day for a week until the sugar is dissolved. Leave for at least four months before tasting.

3. Drink!

Worth making? We’ll find out in a few months…

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Oh Mon Amour! Bitter and Sweet

It’s that time of year when it is simply de rigueur to think pink. Heart-shaped chocolates, cupcakes, biscuits and desserts about. Heck, even emails at work are festooned with cherubs, hearts and flowers to persuade us that getting on top of our administration is somehow wonderfully romantic (is isn’t).

However, I’ve decided to depart from the usual Valentine treats (i.e. sweet and sugary) and instead to try something a little different. As an antidote to all those chocolates, this is just a simple salad to make us feel healthy during these cold, wintery days. And yes, obviously, it is in part hot pink.

ValentineSalad1

ValentineSalad3

To make this salad, I’ve used ingredients for both colour as well as flavour. It would be easy just to walk around and throw everything that is red into a bowl and suggest it conveys the essence of romance, but I wanted to be more subtle than that.

Most obviously, I’ve used red endive, which add a rich pink colour, but also have a little bitterness to them. What’s love if not occasionally bitter? Then there are pomegranate seeds and segments of blood oranges. Don’t read too much into the “blood” part, but I wanted some fruit that would add sweetness, the oranges providing some citrussy tang and the pomegranate seeds some crunch. In all honestly, I must say  that I was a little disappointed that these oranges were not, well, more “bloody” when I cut them open, but they did turn out to have very pretty orange and red mottling, which actually looked great on the plate. I also put in some aromatic fennel (I’ve been eating a lot of this recently) as well as some crumbled cheddar. I could say the cheese somehow symbolises strength and smoothness, but the reality is – strong cheddar is just brilliant with fennel, and there’s not too much more to it than that!

I finished this off with a simple dressing of olive oil, honey and red wine vinegar, which again balance sweetness, sharpness and smoothness. Finally, the sauce gets a little kick in terms of flavour and colour by adding some oil from a jar of harissa paste. It ended up more orange than pink or red, but the effect was still great.

So that’s really it! This salad is by turns sweet, bitter and sharp, so it has interesting tastes and textures as well as looking quite stunning. You can, of course, tweak the ingredients depending on what you have to hand and your own preferences, but I think the red quality from the endive and fruit is pretty much essential.

Whatever you have planned for tomorrow – dinner à deux or a fun-filled evening with friends – have fun!

ValentineSalad2

To make a Bitter and Sweet salad (serves 2, of course)

For the salad:

• 2 red endives
• 2 blood oranges
• 1 small fennel bulb
• 50g cheddar
• 2 handfuls pomegranate seeds

For the dressing:

• 1 tablespoon honey
• 1 tablespoon olive oil
• 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
• 1 teaspoon oil from harissa paste or sun-dried tomato paste (optional)

1. Break the endive into leaves, and cut each one into two lengthways. Peel the orange and cut into segments. Slice the fennel into very thin pieces. Slice the cheese and crumble.

2. Build up the salad on two plates – start with the endives, then the fennel, then the oranges, then cheddar and then scatter over the pomegranate seeds.

3. Make the dressing – whisk everything until smooth, then drizzle over the salad.

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{10} Panforte

As we get close and close to the big day, the Christmas baking gets grander and grander. I’m not going the whole hog and making a Christmas cake, but the Italian panforte gets pretty close. This is a real step up from small biscuits, and looks, smells and tastes amazing!

panforte_2

Panforte, Italian for “strong bread”, is not much more than lots of toasted almonds and hazelnuts paired with candied citrus peel and fruit, flavoured with spices and then bound together by a sugar and honey syrup. The result is rich, incredibly rich, but it really does have a flavour that can be described as the essence of Christmas. It’s also the sort of thing that you can have sitting somewhere, so you or guests can cut off the occasional sliver to enjoy with coffee or as an evening treat with a glass of liqueur.

This cake is a tradition from the Italian city of Siena. There are two versions, essentially white (as I’ve made here) and black, which is made with more dried fruits (such as figs and sultanas) and cocoa. It’s just a matter of personal choice which you prefer, but I like the former.

I’ve seen some recipes that say panforte should contain seventeen ingredients. This is said to link back to the number of districts within the city walls of Siena, and I quite liked the idea of trying to do this. It means you’re forced to add a bit of variety in terms of the ingredients. In my recipe, if you ignore the water in the syrup, but count the mixed peel (orange, lemon and citron) as three different ingredients, I did indeed get to the magic number. What does matter, however, is that if you’re going to make one of these, you need to go with the right ingredients, and try to use good nuts and candied peel. Almonds and hazelnuts are traditional, but I’m sure good pecans or walnuts would do the trick, but I’d  perhaps draw the line at putting peanuts in there! The candied peel is a must though – I used part candied peel and part papaya for the fruit, and while you could skip the papaya and instead use pineapple, apricots or even preserved pear, you should not miss out the citrus entirely. It’s such a fundamental part of the flavour.

You’ll see a lot of versions of panforte, from thick and even cakes in stores to my more “rustic” version. The rougher look is due to using whole nuts, rather than chopping then. You can chop the almonds and hazelnuts, but if you do, you don’t get the amazing look when you cut the slices. In addition, as the cake is so rich, I’ve kept it thin. When you taste how rich it is, you won’t feel the need to make a deeper panforte, as a little really does go a long way!

So there you have it – an Italian option in place of Christmas cake, and it’s not too late to make this – 20 minutes to prepare, and 30 minutes to bake. You’ve still got time!

panforte_1

To make Panforte:

• 100g almonds, skinned
• 100g hazelnuts, skinned
• 100g candied citrus peel (I used orange, lemon and citron)
• 135g candied fruit (such as papaya or melon)
• 50g plain flour
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
• 1/4 teaspoon ground mace
• 1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
• pinch black pepper
• 50g honey (I used orange blossom)
• 150g white sugar
• 25g butter
• cold water

1. Preheat the oven to 160°C. Grease a 20cm (8 inch) loose-bottomed tin with butter. Line with rice paper (if using).

2. Put the hazelnuts and almonds onto another baking tray and toast in the oven until just starting to colour. Remove from the oven and put into a large bowl.

3. As the nuts are cooling, cut the peel and papaya/mango into chunks (aim for pea-sized pieces). Add to the nuts.

4. Mix the flour and spices in a bowl. Sieve into the nut/fruit mixture, then stir briefly.

5. Make the syrup – put the honey, sugar and butter into a saucepan with some water. Warm on a medium heat until the mixture reaches the soft ball stage (113°C/235°F). If you don’t have a candy thermometer, then drop a little of the syrup into a bowl of very cold water – it should form a soft ball!

6. Pour the hot syrup onto the other ingredients and stir with a spoon until combined. Transfer to the prepared tin. Flatten the mixture with a buttered spoon (or if you have asbestos hands, but butter on your palms and pat the mixture into shape).

7. Bake the panforte for around 30 minutes until the syrup is bubbling. The mixture will firm up when the cake cools. Remove from the oven, allow to cool, then transfer to a plate to cool completely(*).

8. When the panforte is cool, dust with icing sugar, and rub lightly with your fingers so a bit of the fruit and nut details are clear. Serve in small slices with coffee or liquer after dinner. Or any time!

(*) If the panforte is difficult to remove from the tin, put it in a warm oven to soften slightly.

Worth making? This is a superb cake, and unbelievably easy compared to just how good the final result tastes.

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Diamond Jubilee: Regal Cola

You might have noticed that I’ve got yet another new header. It’s all about HM The Queen, and the regal theme is a not-very-subtle hint that the next few posts are all going to be about the Diamond Jubilee! And it’s not just me that’s going for it – shops are brimming over with Union Flag bunting, crown-themes cakes and treats and the nation is getting giddy about the prospect of four days of festivities next month.

So how to kick off this series? I thought about this for a while, and decided to start with this recipe for home-made cola. Now, I realise that “regal cola” is not perhaps one of the most obvious things to begin with, but I can assure you that there it a little method to my madness. Allow me to explain.

First of all, home-made drinks suggest summer and fun. This is all the most important as the weather has been lousy. London has been in a technical drought. I say technical because we have had below-average rainfall for around two years. However, you should never underestimate the capacity for the Great British Weather to surprise, and we’ve just emerged from three months of pouring rain and soggy feet. Today, for the first time in a while, it has been proper summer weather. The air is warm, the skies a crystal-clear blue and we’ve had lots and lots of sunshine!

Anyway, while we were in the dark, cold, days of the phoney summer, I decided to make some retro summer drinks to bring a little sunshine into our lives. Last year I made a lot of lemonade and this time I have decided to turn my hand to cola. I’m not a frequent cola drinker, as we tended not to drink soft drinks when I was younger. I’m pretty sure that as kids we used to ask for them, but they were rarely in the house and as such I’ve never really developed a taste for them. Pleasant on a warm day, but I just don’t get those folk that drink eight to ten cans per day. Having said that, when I do drink certain well-known brands of cola, I have tried – like many others have done – to  identify the flavours in there. I appreciate that this is at trade secret, and I don’t think that anyone in Atlanta will be losing much sleep, but I think that I’ve variously picked up hints of cinnamon, citrus and vanilla in there. There were obviously others, but I wasn’t really able to identify them.

So imagine my surprise when I finally stumbled upon this recipe for home-made cola. It’s essentially a combination of citrus, spices, sugar, vanilla and (for some reason) dried lavender. As I looked through the list, each of the flavours set of a little bell in my head – yes, there could be nutmeg in cola. Ginger notes, for sure. Lemon, lime, orange? All possible. Given that I had most of the ingredients lurking in the spice cabinet or my fruit bowl, I decided to cast caution to the wind and mix up a batch. I also though that it would be a fun addition to the local street party that is being held in the ‘hood for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. It’s home-made, so has that pleasing retro touch, and I think appearing with a batch of syrup I made myself will go down very well in free-thinking Stoke Newington, where many folk will be keen to cock a snook at The Real Thing. Me? I’m just very curious.

What I do love is the sheer range of things that go into this mixture. Each ingredient on its own is aromatic and something that I like, so I was intrigued how they would affect each other. Indeed, some of these flavours were very strong, and often overpower other flavours, so it was interesting to know just what they would taste like together, and whether the total would be greater than the sum of its parts.

And this all brings me to the second reason that I think makes this a fitting recipe to begin with. Yes, home-made drinks suggest summer street parties, but this particular recipe involves a lot of ingredients that recall many of the Queen’s realms. For HM The Queen is not just monarch of the UK, but also 15 other realms (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica, Barbados, the Bahamas, Grenada, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Antigua and Barbuda, Belize, and Saint Kitts and Nevis). I reckon that the various ingredients in this recipe cover off rather a few of her realms, so it’s actually something of a celebration of the flavours of the world. The aromas you have while making it from scratch (anise, vanilla, ginger, cinnamon, citrus) are so much more rewarding that just pulling the tab on a can.

In making this recipe, I did make a couple of tweaks. Firstly, I did not have any caramel colouring, so I used 50/50 white and light brown sugar, and used some of the white sugar to make a little caramel. It provided a reddish-brown shade to the syrup, but I think the colouring is essential if want the resulting drink to be dark brown. Otherwise, make do with a pale yellow. The taste is still there, but I guess it depends how much you like to eat (or drink) with your eyes.

I also skipped the citric acid. I’m not entirely sure what this does (but I suspect it helps preserve the syrup), so I just used lemon juice. It’s easy, it’s natural and it saves trekking round the shops looking for a novelty ingredient.

With the syrup made and cooled, it was time to take the taste test. First, I made it up using still water and served it on ice. It was a pleasant enough drink, but there was something missing. It was a sweet spiced-citrus drink, but I had a vague niggle in the back of my mind. I think it was the fact that it tasted like cola, and it seemed to have gone flat. No fizz. So to remedy that, taste test number two involved soda water. Now this was where the flavour magic happened. It was a cola. It tasted like cola. Amazing! So it was literally the fizz that gave this drink its fizz!

And finally…to give it that proper Jubilee look, I served up the first soda-based batch in souvenir ERII glasses that I picked up in a Brussels vintage shop. Look pretty good, don’t they?

All in all, I spent about an hour minutes making this syrup, but really, it was just prep work, let it simmer, strain and let the sugar dissolve, so very much a taste that you can dip in and out of. I have ended up with about a pint (500ml) of syrup, which should make for about five pints (2.5 litres) of cola…which is probably just about enough for a street part over the Jubilee weekend! And now…I’ve made up a jug and I’m sneaking to sit in the sunshine and read the day’s papers. Cheers!

To make cola syrup:

• 500ml water
• Zest of 2 oranges
• Zest of 1 lime
• Zest of 1 lemon
• 1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/8 teaspoon freshly-grated nutmeg
• 1 section star anise, crushed
• 1/2 teaspoon dried lavender flowers
• 2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
• 4cm piece vanilla pod, split
• 1/4 teaspoon citric acid or 1 tablespoon lemon juice
• 250g white sugar
• 200g brown sugar

Put the water and all ingredients except the sugars into a saucepan. Bring to the boil, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes.

In the meantime, make some caramel to add a bit of colour – put three tablespoons of the white sugar in a small saucepan. Heat gently until the caramel is a deep golden colour (but does not smell acrid!). Pour onto the rest of the sugar – this will stop the caramel cooking any more, and it will also set to make it easy to handle.

Once the spice mixture is done, remove from the heat, and pour the liquid through a cheesecloth into the sugar mixture. You can give the cloth a good squeeze to get all the flavour out, but you might want to hang it from a cupboard handle to drip into the sugar and allow the spice mixture to cool.

Stir the sugar from time to time, until it has all dissolved. It might take a while for the hardened caramel to properly dissolve, but it will happen.

The syrup can be stored for 2-3 days in the fridge in a clean jar.

Worth making? This is an amazingly easy recipe, and it really is surprising how you get a genuine cola flavour from a bunch of very un-cola like ingredients.

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Koninginnedag: Oranjekoek

You might have noticed that I’ve changed the blog header again. Do you recognise the famous figure?

If you’re still guessing, it’s Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. Yes, we’ve reached that time of year again when we go all orange to celebrate the de facto Dutch National Day, Koninginnedag or Queen’s Day. We’ve seen orange-themed mini-cupcakes and boterkoek in previous years, and this time we’re taking it to the maximum – Queen Beatrix is  part of the House of Orange, so what could be more fitting than a cake named after them, the Oranjekoek?

So…Oranjekoek…that’s an orange cake, right? Well, it is and it isn’t. It’s orange in the sense that it is named after the Principality of Orange (Oranje in Dutch) now located in France, rather than the fruit. However, to further confuse matters, it does contain lots of candied orange peel and orange zest, so it’s fair to say that it’s an orange Orange cake. Still with me?

The Oranjekoek itself originates in Frisia, the coastal region in the north of the Netherlands, and was traditionally served at weddings. And if you’re wondering, yes, Frisia is the place that gave the world the famous black-and-white Friesian cow.

In terms of texture, this is not a cake as we might think (soft, fluffy, clad in icing) but more like a firm traybake. You make a rather stiff dough, then knead in the orange peel and flavouring, and during baking, it puffs up a little. Traditionally it’s just the cake and a simple glaze, served with some cream. However, more modern versions also use marzipan in the middle, and I’ve got for this more bling-bling version.

So what do we put into Oranjekoek? I’ve mentioned the candied orange already, but another flavour is aniseed. Obviously you could use aniseed extract or powder, but you could get traditional and use gestampted muisjes (“crushed mice”). Now, rest assured this is less alarming that it first sounds. Muisjes are like sugared almonds, but much smaller and made with aniseeds. The stalk of the seed sticks out, so they look like mice. So these “crushed mice” will give the cake a light aniseed flavour. You may prefer to omit it, but I think the aniseed is essential to give the cake its flavour. Just the orange and marzipan would seem a little bit too much like a Christmas treat.

The glaze on top of this cake might look a rather shocking hot pink, but it’s actually all-natural thanks to a dash of beetroot juice. However, do be careful how much you use – I added a teaspoon of fresh juice, then discovered that it was concentrated. So keep that in mind, and aim for the traditional light pink, unless you’re a fan of the 80s neon look. And don’t worry – you don’t taste the beets.

When it comes to serving this cake, you need to go with tradition – cut into squares, then finish off with a squirt of whipped cream and a little candied orange peel. The Oranjekoek is fine on its own, but it’s even better with all that cream on top. Chances are you won’t make this often. So go with the cream.

Now, in the interests of full disclosure, this is one of those recipes that is quite easy, but does take a little time, so I’ve posted it in the run up to Koninginnedag rather than on the day itself. So if you are tempted to make this one, you’ve got a bit of time to get organised. And while you’re at it, don your orange clothes and get celebrating!

To make Oranjekoek:

For the dough:

• 350 grams self-raising flour
• 225 gram caster sugar
• 25g butter
• 1 egg
• 50-100ml water (as needed)
• pinch of salt
• 2 teaspoons “gestampte muisjes” or 1 teaspoon ground aniseed
• 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 1 orange, grated zest only
• 75g candied orange peel

For the filling:

• 250g marzipan
• 3-4 teaspoons orange juice

For the glaze:

• 100g icing sugar
• few drops of beetroot or red grape juice
• water

To serve:

• 250ml double cream
• candied orange peel

Step 1: Make the dough.

Put the flour, sugar, butter, egg, water, nutmeg, salt and aniseed/crushed muisjes in a bowl. Knead with your hands until you have a smooth dough. Add the orange zest and candied peel. Mix well, wrap in cling film and chill in the fridge for 30 minutes.

Step 2: Prepare the Oranjekoek and bake it!

Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper and grease lightly with butter.

Roll out half the dough into a square and place on the sheet. Roll out the filling to the same size, and lay on top of the first dough square. Now roll out the rest of the dough, and place on top of the filling.

Bake the Oranjekoek for 30 minutes, then remove from the oven, cover with a clean tea towel and leave to cool. This will catch the steam and help keen the top soft.

Step 3: Glaze the Oranjekoek

Mix the icing sugar, juice and enough water until you have a thick but spreadable icing (add a little water at a time – a few drops make all the difference). Spread over the cake and leave to dry for an hour.

To serve:

Cut into squares, and finish with whipped double cream and a few pieces of candied orange peel.

Worth making? This is quite an unusual cake, but it’s actually rather easy to make. The combination of white cream, orange peel and pink icing also means the whole thing looks great when you serve it. I might even go so far as to say that it’s fit for a Queen. Or at least Queen’s Day.

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{7} Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy

It is so easy at Christmas to get obsessed with food. But it also has a fabulous cultural heritage which really makes the season special. This time of year has some of the most wonderful music, and one of my favourites if the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite.

It’s light, sparkling music that makes you think of flickering candles and glittering frost. It’s also a special, secret sort of music, very careful and measured, not in a hurry – lending itself to the idea of magical things happening when no-one is looking. That hint of sneaking downstairs to look at presents when everyone else is asleep.

While we all know the melody, one question remains: what exactly are sugar plums?

I have to admit, even here in jolly old Britain where we usually go crazy for just about any twee Victorian treat at this time of the year, they are not very common these days. I had a look in town, and while they could be found in the food hall of Fortnum & Mason (or online here) you don’t really see them anywhere else. Now…just compare that to the ubiquity of the mincemeat pie or mulled wine!

I find this quite puzzling. And the reason I find it puzzling is because the idea of the sugar plum is actually still very much a part of Christmas folklore, at least in the English speaking world – in the famous poem The Night Before Christmas the children are asleep “…while visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads…” and of course we know of the fairy and her famous dance. So does this mean that sugar plums are destined to be something that lives on only in stories and turns of phrase?

Well, a little more sleuthing also revealed something else to me – there are, in fact, two candidates masquerading for the title of sugar plums!

First, there are whole plums that have been preserved in syrup, dried and coated in layers and layers of crysallised sugar. A very time-consuming method which sounds just like the sort of thing people might prepare as a special festive treat.

The other is a mixture of chopped fruit and nuts, mixed with citrus zest and spices, rolled together into “plums”. This might sound like a healthy Christmas alternative to the richness of chocolates and cream puddings, but we should not just think with our modern minds. What would this have meant to people but 150 years ago? Dates, prunes, apricots, almonds, exotic spices, oranges – this was the stuff of sheer luxury, that would suggest the flavours of the Orient and other far away lands. In context, this latter version starts to sound like the more luxurious treat.

So, faced with this choice, which one should I make?

Well, lacking of a jar of plums in syrup made the first option rather difficult, and I quite liked the idea of the nutty, fruity version. My sleuthing also suggested to me that the version commonly referred to in poems is the fruit-nut confection, and therefore I will pay homage to that version.

Sugar plums are actually ridiculously easy to make. You just need some honey, spices, citrus zest and dried fruit. Work out what you want in there, chop things up finely, and start mixing. You can use pretty much anything – I used toasted almonds, but you could go for walnuts, hazelnuts or pistachios. For the fruit, I plumped for juicy dates, prunes and apricots, but you can also add dried figs (whose seeds add a lovely “pop”), dried cherries, cranberries, sultanas, candied peel or preserved ginger. And the spice is up to you – I like the traditional cinnamon and allspice, but you could add cardamom, mace, ginger, aniseed, fennel or coriander. The honey can also be replaced by whatever type of syrup you like. All up to you! But once you’ve chopped and stirred, that’s it – no baking, and nothing more elaborate is needed to finish them off than to roll the mixture into balls and covering in icing sugar for a snowy look, or with caster sugar for a sparkling frosty appearance.

For all my gushing about how decadent, luxurious and delicious these sugar plums are, it’s also worth recognising that at this time of year, these “plums” actually make quite a welcome change from the heavy, buttery dishes we all get served. In fact, they are not a million miles away from those energy balls that have started to appear in health food stores. Surprising? Well, not really, when you think what they are made from – nuts, dried fruit, honey and spices. However, I’ll be bold, stick my neck out, and suggest that mine might, just might, be a little bit nicer. Maybe even enough to tempt the fairy to take a little break and indulge herself. It is nearly Christmas, after all!

To make sugar plums (makes around 35):

• 85g honey
• 1 teaspoon orange zest
• 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon mace
• 1/2 teaspoons nutmeg
• 1/2 teaspoon mixed spice
• 2 cups nuts almonds, finely chopped
• 1/4 cup dried apricots, finely chopped
• 1/4 cup prunes, finely chopped
• 1 cup pitted dates, finely chopped

Put the honey, orange zest and spices in a bowl and mix well. Add the chopped dates, nuts, prunes and apricots and mix well. If the mixture is too wet, add more almonds. If too dry, add extra honey or chopped fruit (if the fruit is moist).

Break off pieces of the dough and form into balls between your hands. The easiest way is to do this roughly first, then wash your hands, and while your hands are damp, re-roll the balls so you end up with perfect spheres.

Dust the sugar plums very lightly with icing sugar. Store in an airtight container, and re-dust just before serving.

Worth making? These are bursting with the flavours of winter – sweet, rich, nutty, spicy and citrussy. I’ll definitely make these again, using them as…eh…a healthy treat. Festive energy balls, you might say.

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Dark Chocolate Tiffin

For the last couple of weeks I have wanted to start on the Christmas baking. The temperature has dropped, the leaves on the trees have turned various shades of red and gold, and, well, it just feels like time to get started. That, plus I just know that starting with the festive cookies has got to be more fun than fixing insulating film to the rickety old sash windows in my house.

But rather than give in to this urge by late October, I thought I would have a try at chocolate tiffin instead. If you grew up in the UK, this was a rainy-day staple to make by kids, as it doesn’t involve baking and can be eaten pretty quickly (and it usually was). As a happy compromise, I made a version with a lot of the things that would usually go into Christmas bakes (nuts! dried fruit! chocolate! candied peel!).

As with so much of baking, I think getting good results has to start by using good ingredients, so I made it my mission on a chilly evening to source decent quality items to use in this batch tiffin, something like a quick-and-easy version of panforte.


But while tiffin might be easy, but I still thought quite a lot about what I would put in it. Aside from the tasty fruit and nuts, I ummed-and-aahed about using salted or unsalted butter. I normally use unsalted butter in baking, but here I thought that slightly salted butter might be a good idea. The hint of salt would (should?) combine with the chocolate and the syrup, and – at least in theory – provide a touch of kitchen magic to enhance the various flavours.

Tiffin is also quite a useful thing to have in your baking repertoire because you don’t bake it. This means it is incredibly helpful when you need to make something, for later, but you don’t have time to make a cake and wait for it to bake. So just chop, melt, mix and whack in the freezer. Job done, head off into town to shop/take in some gallery art/walk, then come back and it’s good to go.

How it is? So unhealthy and so delicious. I love it. Full of festive flavours, different texture from dried fruits, nuts, crunchy biscuits and velvety chocolate. My tip would be to make it for special occasions, and to cut into small pieces to serve with coffee or afternoon tea, while resisting the temptation to keep picking away at it.

To make dark chocolate tiffin:

• 50g blanched almonds, toasted
• 50g blanched hazelnuts
• 50g candied peel
• 80g glacé cherries
• 80g sultanas
• Zest of an orange
• 225g biscuits (digestives, ginger nuts or Hobnobs)
• 150g dark chocolate
120g (4 tablespoons) golden syrup
• 170g butter
• Sunflower oil, for greasing the tray

Prepare a loose-bottomed square baking tin (mine was 20 x 20cm) by rubbing lightly with a little sunflower oil.

Roughly chop the hazelnuts and cut the almonds into slivers. Roughly chop the cherries and candied peel. Combine the nuts, candied peel, cherries, sultanas and orange zest in a bowl.

In a separate bowl, crush the biscuits with a rolling pin. Aim for 1/4 reduced to crumbs, and the rest in pieces of 1-2cm. Combine the biscuits with the fruit and nut mixture and mix well (I hands the best way to do this).

In a saucepan, heat the chocolate, golden syrup and butter until melted. Stir well, then add the dry ingredients and combine.

Pour the mixture into the tray and spread out. Smooth out the tiffin as best you can (however hard you try, it will look rather “rustic”). Transfer to the fridge and chill for at least two hours until the tiffin is firm. Easier to cut into slices while cold, but best served at room temperature.

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Orange Balkava

After Lebanese or Turkish food, I am usually too full for dessert. All those little mezze dishes are deceptive, as you just keep pick-pick-picking at them. Then it’s time for a coffee, you scan the dessert menu – “just to see” – and there you see baklava, coquettishly beckoning you on with the promise of sweetness, nuts, crisp pastry and the fact that as it is so small, you can certainly manage just one little piece. I almost always end up going for it.

I like baklava for those times when you want to have something sweet that does not have chocolate in it and does not have any cream. I love the golden brown, crisp, buttery pastry, and then a syrup-soaked layer of nuts and spices. If I make it at home, I am pretty free and easy with the nuts, but I do favour a mixture of almonds and pistachios with a few pine nuts. This is combined with cinnamon, and sometimes a little vanilla, cardamom or a pinch of cloves, then rounded off with a rose water and orange blossom sugar syrup. I’m going to be a bit big-headed here and declare that my version is pretty good, as guests usually refuse to believe that I made it.

Then, last weekend, I was leafing through the Observer Food Monthly supplement, and I saw something that intrigued me. This was “Istanbul Orange and Vanilla Baklava”, referred to as the “Queen of Baklavas”. This version substituted the nuts for a puree of whole oranges (yes, whole oranges). I have never seen this done before. I’ve seen baklava with different nuts, different pastries (the usual filo or thread-like kadaifi) and different spices or flavours, but the nuts were always a feature. Could this fruity version work?  It would surely be a vibrant-tasting treat, so I thought that it would be worth trying it.

The recipe is taken from the Observer Food Monthly, available here (scroll down for the recipe).

The filling basically involved cooking whole oranges, then preparing a sweet, spiced puree to fill the baklava. I cooked the oranges the night before, then left them to cool before preparing the puree the next day. This is a useful way to do it, as it means you can prepare the baklava the next morning relatively quickly. It all really was super-easy, but I found I had to cook the sugar syrup for about 20 minutes rather than the suggested 10. I also added half a teaspoon of rose water to the syrup as I like the baklava to be really fragrant. You could avoid the “specks” on the cooked baklava by clarifying the butter you use for the filo, but I don’t bother. Just hide them using the chopped pistachio nuts!

Worth making? Wow, did this taste of orange. Not a subtle flavour, but a real citrus-fest in the mouth. I really liked it and it was a lot lighter and fresher than nut baklavas, but it is such a strong taste that I would be inclined to serve it in larger pieces with mascarpone or creme fraiche as a dessert proper, rather than as a post-dinner accompaniment to coffee. I also found that it is best served relatively fresh (really as soon as it has cooled), as the filling is moist and thus does not absorb the sugar syrup the way that a nut-filled baklava would do, meaning that the filo pastry becomes soft quite quickly.

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