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{9} Brunkager

We are three-quarters of the way through this year’s insane bake-a-thon, so we’re heading north to experience a classic Danish cookie. I love crisp gingerbread biscuits at this time of year, especially when they are packed with spice, and rich with butter and brown sugar. These little morsels are from Denmark and are called brunkager, which literally means “brown cakes” or “brown biscuits”.

Just about every source I have looked at calls them a Danish “classic” and that they are the real “aroma of Christmas”. However, I have not been able to find much about their origin – no interesting story, no quirky history. It must be there somewhere, but I guess I’ve not just found it yet. If anyone has any information on this, please leave a comment!

The flavour is superb – spicy, buttery, nutty and hints of orange. They are wonderful with coffee or tea, and while it is a cliché, they do taste like Christmas. I think these cookies have a real air of class about them – but their secret is that they are a complete breeze to make.

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Normally I tend to just have pictures of the final result. However, today I’ve decided to do something different, and provide a few “action” shots so that you can see he various stages in making brunkager.

The reason that brunkager are so easy is that you melt down your butter and sugar into the most delicious caramel-like syrup, then mix it with spices, candied orange peel and whole almonds. At this stage, it is actually very tasty and no-one would blame you for sneaking a spoonful or two. Of course this is just to test that the balance of spices is right…

Once you’ve got the basic mixture, you add flour, then pour it into a tin to set. Then just let it cool, and it can be cut into slices and baked. One curious thing is that the warm mixture starts off the most luxurious shade of chestnut brown, but it fades to a duller, more grey shade when cold. I though this was a bit disappointing, but it is just a result of the butter setting, and the rich colour comes back during baking. Making the mixture and leaving it to set only takes around 20 minutes, so it can easily be done in the evening, and you can do the baking the next day. So pick your perfect moment to fill the house with their wonderful aroma.

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Once the mixture is set, there is no messing around with cutters or rolling pins. Just remove the slab of dough from the tin and the cut it into four strips. Then cut each of those into thin slices.

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The trick here is to get a very big, very sharp knife. Then sharpen it some more. Then use some force to get it to cut cleanly through the dough. What you want are nice clean slices of almonds in the cookies, so you should avoid serrated knifes and sawing motions. It can take a bit of practice, but I found the best way was to make sure the dough is cold, and push downwards with some force. There will be a few duff ones that don’t look good – you can gather the scraps, roll them up and bake as  them anyway and they will taste just as good.

Once you’ve done the careful slicing, arrange them on the baking sheet, and as you can see, they really do expand. The raising agent here is potaske (potassium carbonate) which makes them expand outwards, but they don’t rise up, resulting in very crisp cookies with a lovely dark brown colour. Potaske is the traditional ingredient, but you could skip this and use baking soda instead. I haven’t tested this, but a few recipes suggest this, in which case just mix it with the flour before mixing everything together. However, if you do manage to get your hands on a packet of potaske (check online), you can also make Danish honninghjerter (honey hearts) or German Aachner Printen in the authentic way.

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I’ve seen recipes that use whole nuts, and recipes that use flaked almonds. I like the look of the whole nuts – this does make it a little harder to cut into perfect slices, but I think the contrast of the larger pieces looks nicer. If you fancy more variation, you can use a combination of almonds and pistachios, or just pistachios.

Now, do be prepared for just how much this recipe makes. Each log will make around 30-40 cookies if you slice it thinly, so could end up with around 150 cookies! They’re very light and easy to eat, but don’t be surprised if you end up running out of space on the kitchen worktop!

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Faced with my mountain of brunkager, even I was not able to eat all of them over a couple of days. I noticed that they start to get a bit soft, but this is easily sorted. You can get the crispness back by popping them in a low oven for about 4-5 minutes. This won’t bake them, but it will dry them out to get the snap back.

If you have a go at these, I also recommend that you bake a test cookie before putting a whole tray in the oven. As they are thin, they can easily burn – they don’t take long to bake, so try with one and it should be done when it has an even, appealing brown colour. Keep in mind that they will be very soft when they come out of the oven, but will harden when cold, so colour rather than texture is what to look out for.

To make Brunkager (makes around 150)

250g butter
125g golden syrup
• 125g soft brown sugar
• 125g muscovado sugar
• 3 teaspoons ground cinnamon
• 2 teaspoons ground ginger
• 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
• 1 teaspoon ground cloves
• 150g almonds
• 10g candied orange peel, very finely chopped
• zest of one orange
• 2 teaspoons potaske (potassium carbonate)
• 1 1/2 tablespoons lukewarm water
• 500g plain flour

1. Put the butter, syrup and sugar into a saucepan. Heat gently until everything has melted and the mixture is smooth, but do not let it boil.

2. Pour the sugar/butter mixture into a bowl and add the spices, almonds, candied peel and orange zest. Leave to cool until lukewarm.

3. In a small bowl, dissolve the potash in the water – add a little more water if needed (be careful – it will discolour wooden worktops if spilled!). Mix into the sugar/butter mixture. Finally stir in the flour and mix until smooth (it will still be liquid, not solid).

4. Pour the mixture into a tray lined with greaseproof paper and even out the top. Leave to cool, then chill overnight in the fridge. The mixture will change form a glossy chestnut colour to a dull dark grey-brown colour.

5. When ready to bake, pre-heat the oven to 175°C (350°F) and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

6. Remove the mixture from the tin – it should come out in one slab. Slice into 4 pieces, then use a sharp knife to cut into slices (3-4mm). Arrange them on the baking sheet, leaving some space for them to expand. Bake for 5-8 minutes, turning the tray half-way to get an even colour.

7. Leave the baked brunkager on the baking tray for a minute to harden, then transfer to wire rack to cool completely.

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{1} Aachener Printen

Why does this post start with a number?

Well, it has reached that time of year again…Christmas is around the corner, and this year I’ve decided to take on the challenge of making the “12 goodies of Christmas”. I’ve veered away from just doing cookies as there is a lot more festive fare out there. I’ll leave it at that, but there are a few interesting things in the offing in the coming weeks!

That said, for the first post, I am actually revisiting something that I made last year, the famous Aachener Printen.

Printen are traditional German biscuits which originate from the town of Aachen, near the border with the Netherlands. They are made from honey, citrus, spices and flour, but no egg or milk (so good if you don’t/can’t eat dairy, and you can substitute the honey for beet or other syrup if you want a vegan cookie). Traditionally, all those spices made them expensive and they were considered to be health-giving, so they were sold in pharmacies. Mercifully, spices are now available to all of us, and while I make no health claims, but I can confirm they are really very tasty.

This is not, however, a carbon copy of last year’s attempt. I’ve made one seemingly small but fundamental change. The secret is the raising agent. Last time, I used baking powder. This year, I have been pounding London’s pavements in search of a magic ingredient.  After much searching, I managed to track down the thing that the Germans traditionally use – Pottasche, or potassium carbonate. This both gives the dough a “lift” but also causes it to keep absorbing moisture after baking, so the biscuits will become softer with time. As the Printen have sugar crystals in them, this makes for a nice texture contrast too.

That’s the theory. But does it work and was it worth it?

Well, the difference using the potassium carbonate was clear almost right away. The biscuits puffed up much more than last time, and they are softer from the out. Last year, I was left with some rather hard cookies that took a long, long time to soften. No need to wait this time. But if you can leave them, they do get better with time. In short – if you are able, I really, really recommend trying to get your hands on this magic powder!

Another quite nifty little thing about making Printen is that they lend themselves to being made when you have a spare few minutes. You make the dough ahead of time, let it sit for a few days so that the aroma of the spices can develop, then shape and bake them a few days later.

If you’re feeling fancy, you can also dip them in dark chocolate. The soft, spicy gingerbread, crunch sugar crystals and smooth, dark chocolate is quite a revelation. Enjoy!

To get potassium carbonate in London, you can buy this from the German Deli at Borough Market (3 Park Street, London SE1 9AB), tel: 020 7378 0000. Tube: London Bridge.

To make the Printen (makes around 20 large or 40 small biscuits):

• 250g honey(*)
• 25g sugar
• 250g plain flour
• pinch of salt
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon ground aniseed or star anise
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
• 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 50g candied orange peel
• 1 teaspoon potassium carbonate (“Pottasche”)
• 1 tablespoon water or orange blossom water
• 50g candy sugar (the large crystals for coffee)

Stage 1: The dough

Chop the orange peel very finely. Either do this by hand, or pulverise in a food processor.

Put the honey and sugar in a saucepan and heat gently until the sugar dissolves. Turn off the heat and put the pan to one side.

Add the flour to a bowl with the salt, cinnamon, aniseed/star anise, cloves and nutmeg.

Add the orange peel and the warm honey to the flour. Mix until the ingredients are well combined. The dough will be soft initially, but will start to become very firm as it cools.

Place the dough in a plastic container, seal, and leave at room temperature for at least two days. I’ve left it for up to two weeks with no ill effects.

Stage 2: baking the cookies

Pre-heat the oven to 200°C (400°F). Lightly grease a sheet of greaseproof paper.

Mix the Pottasche and the water (or orange blossom water) in a cup until the powder dissolves. Add to the dough and mix until smooth. It doesn’t seem like much, but it turns from being very stiff to quite pliable.

On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough to 1/2 or 3/4 cm thickness. Sprinkle with the candy sugar(**) and pass the rolling pin lightly over to press the sugar crystals into the dough.

Cut the dough into pieces of 4 x 8 cm (large cookies) or 4 x 4cm (smaller cookies). Place on the baking sheet, and bake for around 12 minutes until risen and brown. Turn the baking sheet half way through.

If you like your cookies to have a nice shine, when they come out of the oven, brush with a simple sugar syrup made with 100g white sugar dissolved in 100ml water (heat in a pan until the sugar dissolves). Store the cookies in an airtight tin – they will keep for several months.

(*) If you want to make a vegan version of Printen, replace the honey with the syrup of your choice, such as beet syrup or dark corn syrup. Aim for something that has the consistency of thick runny honey.

(**) You might have to crush the sugar crystals to make them smaller. The ones I bought were about 1cm long, so I used a mortar and pestle to break them down into pieces of 2-3mm.

Worth making? The ones I made with baking powder last year tasted nice, but these are sensational. If you can get hold of the Pottasche, then these are straightforward and delicious, with the real “taste of Christmas”.

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