One place that has firmly stood outside of my past festive baking efforts has been France. I’ve only featured one recipe – chocolate, fruit and nut mendiants that form part of the tradition of the 13 desserts in Provence (calm down – this is not 13 actual separate miniature desserts, it includes items like fresh fruit and nuts). There are, of course, lots and lots of delicious things that the French enjoy at Christmas, including the famous bûche de noël (perhaps a bit too much work for me unless I am making it for a very, very special occasion) and various sweet treats such as candied chestnuts, and the various buttery biscuits that comprise the brederle of Alsace. But I’ve just not found that many French cookies to feature.
Well, today we break that trend. I’ve made canistrelli cookies from Corsica which are made with white wine and flavoured with anise, and they can also include almonds or chestnut flour. I’m not entirely sure that these are a Christmas cookie per se, as they are eaten all year round on their home turf, but I like the recipe, it is a contrast to some of the other things I’m making this year, and they also looked quite easy. Sometimes I like to make things that are complex, and sometimes I’m lazy. And look at the pictures? Those diamond shapes form giant snowflakes!
I don’t know if it is a sign of age, but I increasingly appreciate the flavour of anise. I was not such a fan when I was younger, but I find it a nice alternative to gingerbread spices, chocolate or citrus. It still seems festive but doesn’t have the ubiquity of other flavours of the season. Perhaps it is a sign of an increasingly sophisticated palate, or perhaps it is no longer drinking dodgy liqueurs like sambuca with wild abandon? We can only surmise.
Anyway, to our guest cookies. Canistrelli are reminiscent of Italian biscotti in the sense they are a crispy and crunchy cookie but they are much easier to make than their Italian cousins. No need to roll a log, bake it, slice it and bake it again. You just mix up a quick dough, shape it and bake it. Then just accept that as the dough is quite soft, they will inevitably have a somewhat rustic look, and if that worries you, drink some of the same wine you used to make the cookies and you’ll feel better.
When making these cookies, the method seemed very familiar to me – it is essentially a recipe for making little scones (of “biscuits” if you’re American) as you’re pouring liquid into the dry ingredients, then working quickly with a fairly soft mixture. However you’re not looking for a soft, pillow-like bake which is still fluffy on the inside. You bake them for a longer time so that they turn golden and start to dry out. As you can see, I did not worry too much about the shaping beyond getting pretty rough approximation of a diamond shape using a fluted cutter (actually a Play-Doh tool that I had washed quite intensively!). You can also do this with a knife, and go for any shape you want – squares, longer logs, or even circles if you want to go for the looks-like-a-scone-but-is-rock-hard approach and indulge in some festive trickery. You will just have to adapt the baking time so that they get enough time to properly dry out and harden in the oven.
If you’re keen on some anise action, I can share a little tip. I ended up making these twice, as they vanished pretty quickly. The first batch used just anise liqueur, and for the second I also added some crushed aniseed. The seeds really help give a stronger flavour, especially after you’ve stored them for a few days, whereas the liqueur on its own is a much milder affair.
But if that’s not your thing you can play around by adding lemon or orange zest, roughly chopped almonds or raisins. I think anything that you could imagine being grown and harvested on a warm, sunny island in the middle of the sea would work well. You could even add some chocolate chips if that’s your thing. You’re starting to stray rather far from the Corsican flavours but hey, things move on, and even the most traditional of recipes were new and experimental once upon a time!
For the wine, you want a dry white. Canistrelli should not be very sweet, and in any event they are sprinkled with sugar. However if you don’t want to use wine, you can use water or a mixture of fruit juice and water, which would make them a little more child-friendly. I mean, if you’re baking with kids, you want to recipe to be quick and easy to counter short attention spans, but you probably don’t want to be mixing wine in there. Of course, the alcohol will evaporate off during baking, so you don’t need to worry about serving these to little ones even if they didn’t help to make them.
Oh, and that comment I made about the bûche de noël? It might be a lot of work, but I am planning to make one this year, flavoured with pear and chestnut. But it will be at Christmas, hopefully by the time that I’ve done all 12 festive bakes, so it won’t be on here. Sorry!
To make canistrelli (makes around 30)
For the dough
• 275g plain flour
• 100g caster sugar
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 60ml olive oil (not extra-virgin)
• 2 tablespoons anise-flavoured liqueur e.g. pastis, ouzo
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1/2 teaspoon crushed aniseed or pinch of ground star anis (optional)
• 5 tablespoons white wine
• granulated sugar
1. Preheat the oven to 175°C (350°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.
2. Put the flour, sugar and baking powder in a large bowl and mix well.
3. In a separate bowl combine the salt, oil, liqueur, vanilla, aniseed/star anise and three tablespoons of white wine. Pour into the dry ingredients and mix with a fork. Add more wine, a tablespoon at a time, until you get a soft but workable dough rather like when making scones (aka “biscuits”).
4. Transfer the mixture to a workstop dusted with flour. Roll out or press to around 1 cm (1/2 inch) thick.
5. Cut out the cookies – use a fluted pastry wheel or a knife to cut strips about 2cm wide, then cut diagonally into diamonds. Don’t worry too much about getting them perfect as you won’t manage!
6. Transfer each piece of dough to the prepared baking sheets, leaving some space for them to expand during baking. Brush or mist with water and sprinkle with granulated sugar.
7. Bake the cookies for around 25-30 minutes until golden, turning half-way to get an even colour if needed. Watch them closely – you might need to reduce the heat by 10 degrees if they are colouring too fast. When done, remove from the oven and allow to cool. Store in an airtight container.