Tag Archives: salt

Karelian Pastries

These curious looking little fellows are one of Finland’s oldest dishes, called Karelian pies (Karjalanpiirakat) – simple savoury rice pies in a rye crust.

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Now, when it comes to pies, there is a lot of competition out there. Dozens of different cheeses, delicious vegetables and exotic and interesting spices to tempt the hungry. In such a competitive field, you might think that something that sounds as boring as “savoury rice pies” might not be a winner. But trust me on this one – I’ve had them in Finland and loved them, and the were equally delicious when I made them back home. Think of this as two types of carbs, baked with butter – now if you were in Finland and there was three feet of snow outside, you’d probably be in the mood for that sort of thing!

So what makes them so good? The fact they are delicious may or may not have something to do with the fact that the rye pastry is dipped in or brushed with melted salted butter just before baking, making it crisp and (unsurprisingly) buttery. The filling is a thick rice pudding, made with milk and a little salt, so it is both rich and satisfying savoury. The end result? These simple little rice pies are really rather addictive!

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The good news is that these pies are very easy to make, and you’ve probably got everything that you need in the cupboard right now. If you want to omit the milk and/or butter, then that’s easy too, so they can be veganised or made lactose-free too. They’re nice warm, but equally good cold, so they are a great addition to a picnic. The only drawback is that it is very tempting to have just one more, and then just one more again. So if you do whip up a batch, make sure you have enough!

I also love how they look – they seem rather fancy and impressive, but shaping them is quite straightforward. Just roll out the dough, add the filling, then crimp the edges with you fingers. Make it complex or make it as simple as you like – every baker seems to have their own version, but I wanted to go for something that was small and could be munched in a couple of bites. You can easily adapt this recipe to make fewer larger pies, or double it to make more.

If you want to enjoy these the traditional Finnish way, top them with a spoonful of chopped hard-boiled egg mixed with (you guessed it) more butter.

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Makes around 10:

For the filling

• 75g short grain rice (such as arborio or pudding rice)
• 130ml water
• 400ml milk

• 1/2 teaspoon salt

For the pastry:

• 125g rye flour
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 2 teaspoons vegetable oil
• 100ml water

To finish:

• 100g salted butter, melted

1. Start with the filling. Put the water in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Add the rice and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the milk, and continue to cook over a low heat, uncovered, until you have a thick rice pudding texture (30-40 minutes). Add the salt, stir well, cover and put to one side to allow to cool.

2. Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper, and preheat the oven to 220°C (425°F).

3. Make the pastry. Mix the rye flour and the salt. Add the oil and then add enough water to make a soft dough that is not sticky.

4. Roll the dough into a long sausage, and cut into 10 equal pieces. Roll each piece into a ball, then roll out on a floured worktop to make a circle of around 10-12cm diameter.

5. Divide the filling between the pastry circles – around 2 tablespoons each (tip: make sure the filling is cool – if it is warm, the dough can soften and make them harder to handle). Take each pie, and life the edges and press inwards to make an oval shape. Use your fingers to crimp the edges so that the pastry holds the filling in the pie.

6. Take each finished pie and dip the pastry into the melted butter. You can do this with your hands or a slotted spoon, or use a pastry brush to coat the pastry.

7. Arrange the pies on the baking tray and bake for 15-20 minutes until the pastry is golden and the filling is just starting to colour.

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Tortas de Aceite

If you enjoyed my last post on Spanish picos then chances are you’ll also like today’s treat – tortas de aciete, or olive oil cakes. I say cakes, but they are more like crackers. Or biscuits? Actually, it’s hard to work out quite what to call them – the best I can come up with is “sweet crispbread with aniseed” to give you a hint about what these are like.

Like picos this is another delight from the southern Spanish region of Andalusia. The most famous brand is Ines Rosales, which I’ve seen in Spanish stores in the past – they come in quite a retro blue and white wrapping promising that they are las legítimas y acreditadas. When we were in Seville recently, I finally got round to buying a packet, and when I finally tried them back home, I really was smitten.

I expected them to be savoury, so was surprised to find they are actually sweet. They are thin and crisp, sprinkled with sugar that has lightly caramelised during baking, and flavoured lightly with aniseed. And they’re really quite annoyingly more-ish. They’re great smashed into shards and enjoyed with tea or a cup of coffee.

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Their exact origins are unknown, but they date back to the 16th century where they are referred to in literature. Seen in context, these must have been a luxurious treat – they don’t have much sugar in them, so these seem to me a clever way of making what would have been an expensive ingredient go a long way.

There are, inevitable, lots of recipes to make these tortas. There is, of course, the secret version belonging to Ines Rosales. However, their recipe is safe, as you can make a decent version yourself at home – you just need white bread dough made with olive oil, or just take some pizza dough and work in some oil and aniseed.

Actually, I write that and make it sound so simple. Well, when it came to making these delights, I had to admit that I really, really struggled with them. Really struggled. The dough was soft and a bit sticky, so they were a complete and utter pain to roll out. They stuck to my hands. They stuck to my rolling pin. They stuck to my worktop! All in all, very frustrating! I tried chilling the dough, I tried using flour to dust, I tried using no flour and a drop of oil, but it was all to no avail. I was left facing that most awful of situations…I might have to chuck everything in the bin and admit defeat.

Before giving up, I thought I would give it one more try to make my tortas. I normally put greaseproof paper on my baking tray, but I tried adding the dough directly to the tray. As the dough contained olive oil, I reckoned the baked tortas would not stick, and I would be able to drop the dough on there and just press it out thinly into a circle.

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And…as you can see from those pictures, this worked like a dream! The dough went into a hot oven, and the tortas cooked quickly, browning on the edges and puffing up in places, leaving the typical mottled appearance. Success!

Would I make these again? Absolutely! They are actually quite easy to make, and offer lots of scope to adapt them – you could add other aromatic seeds such as fennel, or spices such as cardamom or cinnamon. Citrus zest would also work well, or you could go completely different – don’t sprinkle any sugar on top before baking, and make them into savoury crackers instead.

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To make tortas de aciete (makes around 25-30):

• 80ml extra-virgin olive oil
• 1 heaped teaspoon aniseed
• 100 ml water
• 1 teaspoon instant yeast
• 50g white sugar
• 250g strong white flour
• pinch of salt
• 1 egg white, beaten
• caster sugar, for sprinkling
1a. If using a bread machine: put everything except the egg white into the mixing bowl. Run the “dough” cycle. Simples!

1b. If making by hand: put the flour, salt, sugar and yeast into a bowl. Add the water and mix well. Knead for around 5 minutes until elastic, and then work in the olive oil and aniseed. 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.

2. Once the dough is ready, turn it onto a floured surface. Divide into equal pieces.

3. Preheat the oven to 210°C (420°F).

4. Roll each piece of the dough into a ball. Put onto a lightly oiled baking tray and press flat into a large, thin circle (12-15cm). I managed to fit 3 tortas onto a large baking sheet. Brush each torta lightly with beaten egg white and sprinkle with some caster sugar.

5. Bake the tortas for around 5-8 minutes until they are golden and browned at the edges. You might want to go easy on the first few to make sure you’re getting the temperature and baking time correct – it will depend on the size and thickness of the tortas.

6. Keep going until all the dough is used up. Once the baked tortas are cooled, store in an airtight container to keep the crisp.

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Picos

Back in May we spent a week in the Seville enjoying the city’s history, architecture and delicious tapas. Oh, and the absolutely roasting hot temperatures! You think I’m joking or exaggerating? At one point it reached a balmy 43°C in the shade. Not much you can do beyond sit in the shade and alternate been a cold beer and glasses of water, before wandering off for a siesta to dodge the worst of the heat.

Actually, things were not that bad at all. It was a dry weather front that had come from the Sahara and was sitting above southern Spain, so as long as  we moved slowly, it was absolutely fine. And the city of Seville is a real treasure trove, full of beautiful squares, hidden streets and some absolutely stunning architecture. The highlights are the cathedral and Alcazar, two gems of Moorish architecture and we spent several hours just wandering around each. I’ve included a few pictures below to give a little flavour of the place, and if you think the gardens of the Alcazar look familiar, that’s because they stand in for Dorne in Season 5 of Game of Thrones (first picture, top left). Yes, I admit that I found that bit quite exciting.

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Game of Thrones aside, the Alcazar also featured some wonderful tile work. Intricate mosaics and the typical Seville tiles, and you can see why this was a big industry there – it might have been baking outside, but it remained cool indoors.

For those with a foodie inclination, Seville and the region of Andalusia have a major draw – this is the home of tapas and many of the foods that we tend to think of as typically Spanish. This means that going out for dinner is a bit of a cultural experience in itself – find a little bar somewhere, grab a glass of vino tinto and a plate of food, then hop on to the next place and keep going until late. Of course, you will inevitably finish your evening in the small hours as this is Spain and the locals don’t really start their evening until it is already late. Indeed, given the heatwave, the Sevillanos only seemed to appear in the open-air cafés and bars once the sun was gone and the air had cooled from fiery to warm and pleasant.

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As we were in Seville for a whole week, this also gave us a chance to visit some of the surrounding cities, and when it comes to Andalusia, you’re really quite spoiled. One place that I’ve fancied going to for some time it Cádiz, the city that is almost an island, connected to mainland Spain by a narrow strip of land. I’ll admit that the initial attraction of visiting was down to the unique location of the place, almost lost in the Atlantic Ocean, but it also has a fascinating history – one of the longest continuously inhabited cities in Spain, and grew rich in the 1700s on the back of trade with the Americas.

This place really was quite enchanting – there is a sort of dreamy atmosphere here, a forgotten place, but still bustling and friendly. The cathedral is made from limestone, so is slowly crumbling, but the streets are pretty and the sea offered flashes of brilliant blue at the end of most of the streets. After the hot temperatures of Seville, the cool sea breeze was very welcome. We also got stuck in at the local mercado with fruit and snacks bought to eat later on the beach.

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After all that culture and history, it was a bit of a change of pace in the lovely town of Jerez, the home of…sherry!  We wandered around gardens and plazas with beautiful Jacaranda trees, visited the cathedral and explored the Alcazar. But of course the reason we were here was to find out about the wine that has made this town famous.

Sherry has a bit of a bad reputation, usually due to the sweet cream sherry that is a favoured tipple of grannies and maiden aunts. However, the good stuff is very different – made from the Palomino grape variety, and then left to mature in oak barrels that develop a layer of flor (yeast) on the surface. This transforms the wine into the bone-dry Fino that goes well with tapas, or it can be left longer so that the sherry oxidises to make the darker Amontillado or Oloroso varieties. We did the Tio Pepe tour, we took the little train around the bodega and come back with lots and lots of bottles. Always nice to have a little something to drink back home to bring back those holiday memories!

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Anyway, that’s enough of the tourism promotional activities. Time for the culinary element of this post, a little pre-meal nibble called picos. Whenever you sit down in a bar in Seville, you’ll order a drink while looking at the menu, and you beverage will appear alongside a bowl of picos.

If you’re sitting there thinking “these are just mini breadsticks” then you’re more or less right, but with one killer difference. While breadsticks are long, and you might think for a moment about having another, a bowl of picos are their squat cousins, and very addictive. They’re so small, surely just one more won’t hurt? And then you realise you’ve guzzled your way through an entire bowl of them. And, most likely, you’ll still want more.

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Now, I did come back from Spain with bag and bags of these little guys, but I still wanted to have a go at making them myself. I thought it would be easy, but recipes seem to be few and far between! Perhaps because…eh…they’re not very expensive?

Anyway, from the recipes that I could find for picos, I noticed that they seemed to have quite a lot of salt in them. I was a bit dubious, thinking that the flavour might end up being a bit too strong, so I ummed and aaahed about how much to add. Then again, the genuine picos were fairly salty, so I figured that I had little to lose and made them with a good amount of sodium chloride.

I started this recipe with a basic pizza dough, made with some extra-virgin olive oil. I wouldn’t bother with it when making a pizza base (by the time it is smothered in tomatoes, cheese and herbs, I don’t think it makes a difference, and in any event, a drizzle of the good stuff at the end provides the magic touch). But here, the flavour would matter, so in with the extra virgin stuff we went.

What really makes the dough into picos rather than a pizza or even breadsticks is how you shape it. This took quite a bit of experimentation and lots of sticky hands. What finally worked was to pinch off pieces the size of a fat olive (but not as big as a walnut), then dust a worktop with flour. Roll the piece of dough into a ball using your hands, then drop onto the worktop and shape it into the shape of a small baguette. If you press harder and work quickly, you will get the fat middle with the pointed end, whereas going slowly and with less pressure will get a longer, more even shape. Both are good!

As you shape the picos, transfer them to a baking sheet, and once you have filled the tray, cover loosely with cling film and leave somewhere until they around doubled in size. They puff up a little more in the oven anyway, so don’t obsess about giving them too long to prove – all you want is for them to be a little bit light and crisp and not too hard when you bite into them.

So I made my four trays of picos, baked the first batch, then tried one of them. They looked like the real deal, had a lovely colour, and the crisp…well, outside was crisp, but the centre was a little softthe texture was more like doughballs! ¡Que Horrible! But that was easy to fix – once I’ve baked all the picos, I dropped the oven temperature and left them all in there until they were nicely dried out and perfectly crisp. Success!

So now you’re made them, how do you eat them? Get the table into the garden or on the balcony, open a bottle of wine or sherry or grab a beer, and munch on them alongside a bowl of olives and some manchego cheese. And if your local climate is in the mood, you might even be able to imagine that you’re somewhere in Spain!

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To make picos (makes around 80, depending on size):

• 350g strong white flour
• 180ml water
• 1 teaspoon honey
• 3 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 teaspoon instant yeast
• 1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1(a). If using a bread machine: put everything in the mixing bowl. Run the pizza dough cycle. Simples!

1(b). If making by hand: put the flour and olive oil into a bowl, and rub with your fingers until mixed. Fold in the salt, honey  yeast. Mix in the water – start with a spoon, then work with your hands until you have a smooth, stretchy dough (at least 5 minutes). If too wet, add more flour. Leave the dough a warm place until doubled in size (around an hour). Knock back and knead again for 2-3 minutes.

2. Line a few baking trays with greaseproof paper and dust with flour.

3. Break off pieces of dough (the size of a very fat olive). Roll into a ball, then drop onto a floured worktop. Roll with your palm to make the mini-baguette shapes. Transfer to the baking tray, leaving space for the picos to expand.

4. When the tray is full, cover loosely with cling film. Move onto the next tray and keep going until all the dough is finished. Leave the covered picos until roughly doubled in size.

5. Bake at 210°C (410°F) until golden, 10-15 minutes, turning the tray half-way through.

6. When all the picos have been cooked, put them all on a tray and bake at 140°C (285°F) until they are completely dry and crisp.

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Papas Arrugadas

I’ve had a bit of a blogging hiatus since Christmas, as things have been pretty hectic. Sure, it was a shock to they system to go back to work, but life also has a habit of throwing a few random shocks and surprises too, and the last thing I felt like was getting adventurous in the kitchen.

Anyway, time to change all that! While this is the time of the year that I normally like to feature some Scottish recipes in honour of the celebration of the national poet Robbie Burns, I’m going to break with tradition and have a bash at something I ate rather a lot of on holiday last year on Gran Canaria. This is called papas arrugadas which roughly translates as “small wrinkly potatoes”, of which more later.

Below is a little selection of my pictures giving you a bit of a flavour of what the island is like – mountainous, sunny and warm, even in the early days of winter. The capital, Las Palmas, has a fantastic stretch of beach with strange, black sand and fantastic sunsets, while the days brought trips to inland villages with ancient churches, botanical gardens and, by pure coincidence, a rum distillery in Arucas (selling superb rum and rum/honey liqueur). Yes, this is an island that seems to have pretty much everything. Inland, the terrain gets very hilly very quickly, and you pretty quickly realise that the description of Gran Canaria as a mid-continent is no exaggeration. While the Canary Islands are geographically party of Africa, culturally they are very Spanish, but they also reflect their position as a trade centre with various influences passing through over the years. Oh, and did I mention all that glorious sun in the middle of winter? It made the chilly streets of Britain seem so far away.

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So back to the food…what are these papas arrugadas things? Well, they are about one of the simplest things you could every want to make as a snack with drinks. Take some small potatoes and boil them in very salty water – as a rule of thumb, it should be so salty that the potatoes float! That said, I chickened out and added just one tablespoon of salt to the cooking water for my bowl of spuds – I like savoury, but I’m not a salt fiend. Once cooked, you drain them, pop them back in the pan on a very low heat, and as the remaining water evaporates, you are left with a salty crust on the surface of the potatoes, giving them a frosty and wrinkled appearance. They are then served with a sauce, traditionally mojo rojo, made with peppers and olive oil. That’s it. Really, it’s that simple!

In the interests of full disclosure, it’s probably worth pointing out that you really need to enjoy salt if you’re going to make this – it packs quite a punch, so I think it’s best served with other dishes that are much fresher, like tomatoes, salads or mild cheese. Incidentally, there is also a fantastic local cheese on Gran Canaria calles queso de flor which is made with goat’s milk and milk from the cardoon flower, a thistle-like plant related to the artichoke. This cheese has an unusual smokey flavour which makes a nice partner to the papas. Yes, we’re all about healthy eating at the moment!

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Traditionally this dish was apparently made with sea water, so it was quite easy to get a very salty finish on these spuds. This also makes sense when you understand the geography of the Canary Islands. These are not places where fresh water is in over-abundance. Instead, they rely on rain or passing clouds (in the case of the latter, water collects on trees inland and drips slowly down into the ground). Gran Canaria is not exactly a desert, but it did strike me as the sort of place that you’d prefer not to waste water if you had the choice. I did see my fair share of passing showers during my visit, but they never lasted for more than a few minutes, and being out in the middle of the ocean, the weather changed incredibly quickly.

Now, I have to fess up that I didn’t actually make the sauce to go with these papas, preferring instead to stock up with some in a local deli during my holiday. There were actually loads of foody treats that I was able to pick up, and in addition to the mojo and the cheese (and the quince paste, and the fig paste, and the sugared pine nuts, and the pastels de gloria, and the palm sugar treacle…)  there is a tasty spread called bienmesabe made from egg yolks, sugar, ground almonds, lemon zest and cinnamon. This is originally an Arabic dessert, but if offered all over Gran Canaria as a dessert. Delicious on ice cream or spread thickly on bread at breakfast. Yup, yet more tips for healthy living today!

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If you’re keen to make your own mojo rojo then aim for a spicy, but fairly thick and smooth sauce. I would suggest a few cloves of garlic, a couple of hot chilis, a spoon of paprika, a couple of spoons of vinegar, plus olive oil and salt to taste. If you’re feeling adventurous, you might also want to throw in some other spices like fennel or cumin. Make sure everything is blended to a smooth paste so that it coats to the potatoes when you dip them in. As long as you use plenty of oil, you could make this sort of sauce and store it in the fridge for quite some time, so perfect as a quick snack to impress guests when you’re knocking back some Spanish wine on a warm evening. Now all I need is…a warm evening to enjoy my back garden! The first snowdrops are starting to peek out of the soil, so hopefully we’ll be enjoying warmer days soon.

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And there you have it – a quick little recipe that can be pulled together in less than 20 minutes to impress hungry dinner guests!

To make papas arrugadas (makes one bowl):

• 225g / 8oz very small potatoes
• boiling water
• salt

1. Put the potatoes into a saucepan. Cover with boiling water and add either (1) add enough salt until then potatoes float, or (2) add one tablespoon of salt.

2. Boil the potatoes until soft – around 15 minutes, until you can insert a knife easily.

3. Drain the potatoes, then return to the pan. Place on a low heat, shaking frequently, until all the water has evaporated and the potatoes have a salty crust.

4. Transfer to a bowl and serve hot with dipping sauce.

Worth making? Of course! Who doesn’t love potatoes with sauce?

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Keepin’ it Cool

It feels a little like the tail end of summer at the moment. The heatwave has gone (even it if did hint at a comeback this weekend), but I feel that we are slipping slowly but inexorably towards autumn. Ripe blackberries are starting to appear, and the days seem to be getting just a little shorter.

However, I’m being optimistic. I’m hopeful we’ll have another hot spell in the next few weeks, so my various strategies to keep cool should stand me in good stead. Lots of water, beer, chilled white wine and icy glasses of Pimm’s (filled with strawberries, mint and cooling cucumber) are perennial favourites. And warm weather also allows the mind to wander to what may well be one of the most curious of English foods, the cucumber sandwich. This is a staple of afternoon tea and garden parties, and it is quite frankly amazing how much divergence of opinion there is about something that is fundamentally sliced gourd on soft white bread.

These sandwiches are very curious. They contain very little by way of nutrition, and even if you were to scoff a whole plate of them, they’re hardly going to fill you up. But, of course, they had their heyday back in the Victoria era, when the rich could afford to sit around, take tea and nibble on curious items like this. They feature as a motif for the upper classes in literature, and even today, they’re hardly the go-to item when you’re starving. They’re a bit of fun, and served really for their novelty value than anything else.

There are actually lots and lots of different ways to make these sandwiches, from the type of bread, whether to use butter or something else, and how to prepare the cucumber. Here’s my take on them, which make a rather fun and frivolous addition if you’re serving cake and scones for afternoon tea. I’m sure Downton Abbey’s Dowager wouldn’t attend tea if these sandwiches weren’t on offer!

First things first…the bread. People sometimes get rather sniffy about using the a good old British sliced white loaf, but it traditional in making these sandwiches. If you can’t quite bring yourself to use white, you could opt for brown. Whichever you go for, try to get thin slices. Doorstep loaves are not synonymous with elegance! However, using malted, wholegrain or rustic sourdough is probably going a little bit too far – cucumber doesn’t have the sort of flavour that stands up to a really robust bread flavour. You’ve got to think about this bread being used for making elegant finger sandwiches, and crusty and rustic don’t really fit the bill for our purposes. If you still can’t bring yourself to use sliced white bread, then you could try to get posh and refined by using brioche, but I’ve never tried it and have absolutely no idea how that would work. If you try it, do leave a comment and let know.

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Having decided on the bread, next thing to sort out it the filling. There are two parts to this – the cucumber itself, and any sort of spread you might want to use (butter or cream cheese – this is essential to stop the water from the cucumber making the bread soggy).

First, the cucumber. You can either leave on the skin (more cucumber flavour) or peel it, and leave the seeds in or take them out (a point to note – the original domestic goddess Mrs Beeton recommends peeling, but not de-seeding). Leaving on the peel will give you more dark green in the finished sandwiches. However, where you will want to have a view on to salt or not to salt. If you just slice the cucumber, it can get rather wet and make the bread soggy (not good). The trick to solve this is very simple – pop the cucumber slices into a colander, then sprinkle with salt and toss lightly. Leave to drain for about half an hour, and you should find that most of the moisture has been drawn out of the cucumber. Then simply dry with kitchen paper, and you’ve managed to avoid soggie sarnies. By using the salt technique, you also add a little flavour enhancement to the cucumber, which also means that you can avoid using salted butter.

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Next, should you use butter or cream cheese? I prefer to use softened butter (unsalted), but you can also use cream cheese, which can be jazzed up with fresh chopped herbs and mint. Butter is the traditionally British approach, with cream cheese more American. What you use is up to you, but the key is to get an even spread, so that you coat the bread and prevent the cucumber turning the bread soggy.

Finally, assemble the sandwiches! I find the best way is the spread two slices of bread with either soft butter or cream cheese. Spread over the salted, drained and dried cucumber, then add the top slice of bread. Now, at this stage, you’ll come to the one things that is pretty much non-negotiable with cucumber sandwiches – trim off all the crusts to deliver dainty finger sandwiches that suggest the hight of refinement. Use a serrated knife, and press lightly and let the knife do the work. If you press too hard, you’ll squash the bread, and we want it all to look soft and light. I find the best way is to trim off all the crusts, then cut the trimmed bread into three of four fingers (depending on bread size).

So there we have it – how to make classic British cucumber sandwiches. Goes perfectly with scones and jam, cakes and lots of tea in the afternoon.

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Ajo Blanco

Do you remember the first time? By which I mean the first time you tried certain foods. There are a lot of things (Cake! Chips! Pasta!) that have just always been there, but then there are foods that I very firmly do remember trying for the first time. I can point to a family holiday to Port de Pollença on the north side of Mallorca as the first time I tried gazpacho. Sachertorte was at the Hotel Sacher in Vienna. Kanelbullar firs experienced in Stockholm’s Old Town. These are all pleasant memories as I liked the thing I was trying. You can probably guess where I am going with this…

Anyway, my first experience of ajo blanco was all rather different. It’s a cold Spanish soup, made with almonds and garlic, served with green grapes and olive oil. Sounds nice and refreshing, yes? Perfect in hot weather perhaps?

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Well, the first time I tried ajo blanco is still seared into my memory in vivid detail. I was at a Spanish restaurant somewhere on the fringes of Shoreditch, the distinctly non-latin sounding Eyre Brothers. Looked great, friendly service, and then we came to order. Bread, olive oil, olives all consumed with glee, and then it came to choosing what to eat. While Spanish food has a reputation as being very meaty (and thus not very veggie-friendly), I don’t find this to be the case. There is usually enough in terms of vegetables, bread and cheese to keep me happy.

Anyway, on this occasion, they were serving ajo blanco which I remember being described as an almond soup with garlic. As I’d never seen it before, I thought I should take the plunge. I mean – it’s cold soup, how bad could it ever be?

Well, I expected some garlic, but this stuff took your breath away, almost literally. Pleasantly creamy to begin with, it broke down in the mouth within seconds into pure, pungent garlic, complete with an unpleasant burning sensation on the tongue and throat. Now, I like garlic, but lots of the raw stuff can be just horrible, which tends to lead to garlic oil seeping from every pore. I made it half-way through before giving up, but by this point, the meal was spoiled. The garlic had overpowered everything else. For the rest of the meal, all I could taste was garlic. Patatas bravas? No, garlic. Green salad? No, garlic. Frozen turrón dessert? Nope, still the all-pervading taste of garlic. Yes, I did mention to the staff that the soup was too strong, and one of the serving ladies was very sympathetic, but this little episode did put me off ajo blanco for years.

That is, until yesterday. I thought I would try making it myself as part of my attempts to make refreshing summer meals.

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So I got my little mixer ready, and had a little think. Would I use garlic this time? Or more…dare I use garlic?

Well, I reasoned that the use of garlic was traditional, so it just had to go in there, somehow. Then I remembered a Pho soup I had made where garlic was added to the stock, and at the end of cooking, it was soft, mild and not pungent at all. This seemed like the perfect solution to my garlic issue, and so I blanched some cloves for a few minutes. Job done – garlic flavour, not garlic nightmare. However, you might find this approach to be a little mild. It you’re still after a little more “zing” you might want to rub the bowl with a cut clove of raw garlic before adding the other ingredients. That should still ensure your guests take notice, without gasping throughout dinner.

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The rest was a complete breeze – throw stale white bread, water, almonds, seasoning, garlic and olive oil into a blender and liquidise until everything is smooth and white. One little tweak that I did make was to add a handful of pine nuts. They give a little extra flavour, but also help to emulsify the soup and get a great texture.

Once made, all that remains to be done is to make sure the soup is completely chilled, then serve. The traditional way is with a drizzle of olive oil and some sliced green grapes. This might sound strange, but the combination of fresh, juicy grapes and the chilled, creamy ajo blanco is fantastic. It’s also not that common, so makes a nice change from gazpacho when you’re looking for a chilled soup as a starter when it’s pushing 33°C outside (yes, that’s how hot it got today in London!).

And with that – my fear of ajo blanco has been overcome!

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To make Ajo Blanco (serves 4):

For the soup:

• 3 cloves garlic
• 150g whole almonds
• Handful of pine nuts
• 80g stale white rustic bread (crusts removed)
• 4 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 tablespoon salt
• 1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
• 200ml water

To serve:

• olive oil
• 12 green grapes

1. Put the bread and water in a bowl. Leave to soak for 15 minutes.

2. Peel the garlic, slice in half and remove any green bits. Blanch for 3 minutes in a small pot of boiling water. Drain and leave to cool.

3. Skin the almonds – bring another pan of water to the boil, add the almonds and simmer for two minutes. Drain, and squeeze the almonds out of the skins (you can discard them – we only need the nuts!).

4. Put the garlic, bread, almonds, pine nuts, olive oil, salt and vinegar into a blender and blitz until very smooth. You may need to add more water to get the right consistency (think single cream). Pour into a large bowl and adjust the seasoning as needed – more oil, salt or vinegar according to taste. Cover the bowl and chill for at least two hours or overnight.

5. To serve, divide between four bowls. Slice the grapes in half and divide between the bowls, finishing with a drizzle of olive oil.

Worth making? Definitely! This is a really easy recipe to make, while the almonds and bread mean that it is light and fresh but still substantial.

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Sweet Beets

I think beetroot is one the most under-appreciated vegetables. It’s got a lot going for it – a sweet, earthy flavour and a colour that is literally shocking. But it has done rather badly thanks to the favoured British way of serving it. I mean, why would you want to use it in its lovely fresh state when you can pickle the thing in vinegar and turn it into something astringent and rather naff? I mean, why?

Well, time to change that. I love cooking with beetroot, and find that it is really versatile. It makes a great sauce for pasta or gnocchi (cooked up with cumin seeds, cream and fresh dill), sensational hot and cold soups and beetroot juice gives you vibrant, natural colours in savour and sweet dishes. When icing a cake, beetroot will give you one of the hottest pinks you could wish for. It can also be used in baking, making wonderful beetroot and chocolate cakes that are moist, chocolatey and nutritious. Convinced yet?

One of the easiest things to make is a Swedish-style beet and apple salad. Worth making for the stunning colour alone. My timing is also spot on – tomorrow is Sweden’s national day, so the country will be awash with flags, smörgåsbord and (probably) beetroot salad.

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This salad is just apple and beetroot, finished off with a little onion, sour cream and seasoning. It is by turns fruity, savoury, creamy and fresh. It is also incredibly easy to make – just chop-chop, mix-mix, and you have a colourful and delicious summery salad, which is great with a light lunch or as part of a brunch spread. This is my take on the version served at London’s Scandinavian Kitchen – I was too shy to ask them for their recipe (which I would imagine is secret anyway) so I’ve tried to re-create this so I can get my fix in the meantime.

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This makes a good lunch served alongside other Scandinavian delights like dill potato salad, crispbread and goodies like meat and fish.

To make Swedish beetroot and apple salad:

• 4 medium beetroot
• 4 crisp apples, peeled and cored
• salt, to taste
• pepper, to taste
• 1/2 small white onion, very finely chopped
• sour cream (use a 300ml pot)
• dill, to finish

1. Cook the beetroot – drop them whole into boiling water, cover and simmer until the beets are tender (around an hour). Drain and leave to cool (this is a good thing to do the day before).

2. Peel the cold beets – trim off and discard the top and bottom, and use the back of a knife to rub off the skin – it should just come off without the need to cut the beets. Once peeled, cut the beets into small chunks and put into a large bowl.

3. Peel and core the apples, cutting into small cubes. Add to the beets.

4. Add the onion, salt and pepper to the beets, plus as much sour cream as you like. You want the beets and apple to be well-coated, but not swimming in cream. Stir well until everything is shocking pink. Enjoy cold, and watch your tongue change colour!

Worth making? This is a straightforward summer recipe – easy, fresh and delicious. Recommended!

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Snow and Salt

Last week I got to enjoy a rare luxury. Not the actual maracons themselves, but the luxury of free time. My year at work has been rather fraught (in the understated British sense, which means absolutely manic) and thus no easy dates on which to take leave. Sure, I had a mega-trip in the US in November, but I’ve still ended up with way too much leave to carry over to next year. As a result, I’ve been enjoying the bonus of a few long weekends. As I’m the only one around on these random Mondays and Fridays, I’ve foregone the idea of foreign jaunts, and instead I’m able to enjoy a slower pace of life in my own big city. I can go to some of my favourite cafés and just walk in and get a table. No waiting, no sharing. I can go to galleries and enjoy them peacefully, standing in front of the same picture for ages without being jostled or moved along. I can also engage in small talk with some interesting people who are equally unhurried. Bliss.

However, last week was another story altogether. Those first hints of spring from a couple of weeks ago had gone, like some sort of Phoney Spring, and were  replaced with snow. Lots and lots of snow. On Monday, the new cats and I just did not fancy leaving the house, so I was left with a little time to fill. After spending an hour getting the cats to chase a piece of string (their joint favourite thing, along with clawing the sofa), I decided to hit the kitchen and have a go at my kitchen nemesis – French macarons.

I know there are some people out there that have “the gift”, who can just knock up a batch at a moment’s notice without a second thought. I, however, am not one of those people. I’ve grappled with them on numerous occasions with varying levels of success. True, I’ve made them successfully on occasions, but I think my hit rate is about one in four at best. So for every batch of picture-perfect delicacies with their smooth domes, frilly feet and perfect symmetry, I’ve ended up with three batches of cracked almond meringue biscuits.

Well finally, finally, I think I’ve nailed it. I think my mistakes can be put down not to faulty technique as such, but the fact that many of my attempts were small batches. The smaller the batch, the more precise the measurements need to be, and I fear that trying to make macarons with just one egg white was pushing things too far. You need to be bold and think big. Large batches are the way to go! And as you can see below, the results look pretty darned good! There is still some irregularity there, but I find it hard to put into words just how utterly thrilled I was to remove the tray from the oven and find perfect macaron shells with no cracks. Yay!

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I opted for the salted caramel flavour as it’s actually delicious when made well, and the filling is a doddle to make. However, the one thing that I didn’t go to town on was the colour the shells. I know some people like shocking colours, and that salted caramel is often some sort of day-glow orange. However, I wanted something more subtle.There are two reasons. First, I am not that happy about using colouring that is highly artificial – if it only takes a few drops to turn something bright yellow, vivid red or electric blue, then you have to wonder just what it is doing to your insides. Second, on a purely aesthetic level, I find the intense colours of some commercially-available macarons rather lurid! Instead, I just used a few drops of some natural vegetable dyes in the sugar syrup to provide a light caramel colour to boost the colour of muscovado sugar, which I think looks rather pretty.

When it comes to the filling itself, it can only be described as filthy. The base is a simple caramel made from white sugar. Throw in some salted butter, cream and a few drops of vanilla, then whip once cooled with even more lovely butter. The result is a silky-smooth salted caramel cream which can be easily piped into the macaron shells, but which does not leak out (which pure caramel, delicious as it is, is apt to do). You’ll end up with quite a bit of the filling left over, and you’ll probably just want to eat it with a spoon. As I said – filthy, and irresistible.

One final trick – these are worth making ahead of time. If you can, leave the assembled macarons overnight in the fridge, and be sure to leave them to come up to room temperature before serving. This will help make the inside of the shells lightly chewy and the creamy filling with be delightfully soft and fluffy. Things to make you go wow.

So what’s your baking nemesis? Have you managed to beat it?

To make salted caramel macarons (makes 25-30):

For the shells:

• 175g icing sugar
• 175 ground almonds
• 130g egg whites (about 4 eggs), at room temperature
• 175g light muscovado or brown sugar
• 75ml water

• caramel food colouring

For the filling:

• 150g white sugar
• 50ml water

• 180g salted butter (divide into 30g and 150g)
• 150ml double cream

• vanilla extract
• salt, very finely ground

1. Preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F). Line two large baking trays with greaseproof paper.

2. Mix the icing sugar and ground almonds, and put into a food processor or spice mill. Grind until fine. Put into a large bowl.

3. Divide the egg whites into two portions (2 x 65g). Add one half to the almond/icing sugar mixture and mix until you have a smooth, thick paste.

4. Next, make an Italian meringue. Put the water and muscovado or brown sugar into a saucepan. Add caramel/brown colouring as desired (I used enough to enhance the brown tint from the sugar, probably 20 drops of water-based colour). Heat to 114°C (237°F). In the meantime, whisk the rest of the eggs whites until frothy. Acting quickly, pour the hot syrup into the frothy eggs and beat the living daylights out of them! The mixture should quickly start to turn pale and fluffy, and increase in volume. Whisk for 5 minutes until the mixture is stiff and glossy – it should easily hold its shape.

5. Take one-third of the meringue mixture, and fold into the almond paste mixture to lighten it. Fold in the next third, then fold in the final third. Try to do this gently, and don’t mix too vigorously or for too long.

6. Fill a piping bag fitted with a 1 cm hole nozzle. Pipe out the macarons, leaving a few centimetres between each. Leave to dry at room temperature for around 20 minutes.

7. Bake the macaron shells for around 12-15 minutes until the shells have developed little feet but they are not browned. You might want to open the door briefly during baking to let any steam escape. When baked, remove from the oven, allow to cool, then peel from the baking sheet. Arrange on a cooling tray and prepare the filling.

To make the filling:

8. Put the sugar and water into a small saucepan. Place on a medium heat until the mixture turns into a medium golden caramel (don’t be tempted to stir it at any point – it will turn into a crystallised mess!). The colour should be rich but without any burnt or acrid smell.

9. Remove the saucepan with the caramel from the heat, add the butter and stir well. It will sizzle, so watch out! Add the cream and vanilla to taste (just a drop or two) and stir until smooth. Put the pan back on the heat, and cook until it reaches 108°C (225°F). Remove from the heat and leave until almost cooled.

10. Put the cooled caramel and soft butter into a bowl and beat with an electric mixer until perfectly smooth. It might seem like the mixture has curdled at one point, but keep going and it will come good. You should end up with a very smooth cream. Add a dash of powdered salt (to taste, but go a little at a time).

11. Fill a piping bag with the salted caramel cream and use to fill the macarons.

12. Leave the macarons in the fridge for 24 hours, and remove from the fridge a couple of hours before serving.

Worth making? A complete faff, but the results are superb so it’s worth trying when you’ve got a few hours to yourself.

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Scottish Food: Aberdeen Butteries

This is part of a series on Scottish food. See more recipes here!

With Burns Night just behind us, this seems like an opportune moment to try another traditional Scottish recipe, and today I’ve turned my hand to rolls called Aberdeen Butteries (or Rowies) which originate from the North-East of Scotland. If you don’t know Aberdeen, it’s a coastal city where the buildings as made from glistening local stone giving it the nickname The Granite City, and it enjoys some of the most “bracing” winds and some of the chilliest beaches in the country!

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When I was young, there were two sorts of rolls in bakeries. Either the big, round, soft morning rolls, or these – flatter, heaving and a lot richer. Their texture was rather flaky, as the butter was folded in rather than being kneaded into the dough. And when I say “butter” what I actually mean is “lots and lots of butter”.

It is this slightly flaky character which has led people to refer to them as “rustic” or Scottish croissants. Now, I can see why you might make think to make that connection (it’s a yeasted dough to which layers of butter are added) but I don’t think the good burghers of Aberdeen would regard these as having too much in common with those fancy French thingies. Aberdeen Butteries are certainly a bit more robust, and I find them also much more savoury (certainly far saltier), without the sweetness of croissants. That, and they don’t have the delicate shape of croissants! In fact, the method for making them means that they tend not to be very photogenic. Unlike croissants or puff pastry, you don’t need to chill the dough between folding – just roll it out as large as you can, then spread with butter and fold – by the end of the process, there will be butter everywhere! I managed to make six large rolls, and perhaps two of them were presentable. All were delicious though!

Of course, by including all that butter and a good amount of salt, these are not an everyday treat, especially if you’re not spending your days tilling the land or manning a fish trawler. However, calls from a certain TV doctor to ban them sort of misses the point – they’re probably not amazing eaten every day, but as the occasional treat, why not? If you’re off for a day walking in the hills, then all that energy is going to serve you well.

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If you want to make these, they are great enjoyed while still warm, with some jam (no more butter needed!). Being Scottish, I think you want to eat them with something traditional – raspberry jam or thick-cut marmalade would do the trick.

To make Aberdeen Butteries:

Makes 12 small or 6 large

• 340g strong white flour
• 1 teaspoon instant yeast
• 1 tablespoon sugar
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 240ml water
• 240g salted butter, softened

1. Make the dough. If using a machine, put the flour, yeast, sugar, salt and water into the bread machine, and run the dough cycle. If making by hand, combine the same ingredients in a bowl and knead until elastic. Leave somewhere warm, covered, until doubled in size.

2. In the meantime, cream the butter until smooth, and divide into four.

3. Roll the dough out to a large rectangle (go as large as you can). Take one-quarter of the butter, and spread over two-thirds of the dough. Fold the un-buttered part of the dough back on itself, then flip again. Repeat the process another three times until all the butter has been incorporated.

4. Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F). Cut the dough into twelve pieces, shape into rolls and lay on a baking sheet lined with greaseproof paper. Cover the rolls lightly in cling film, and leave somewhere warm until doubled in size.

5. Bake for around 15 minutes until golden.

Worth making? These have been on my to-do list for a while, and I’m happy to say they are super-easy and delicious. Just a note of caution – watch out for all that melted butter when they’re in the oven!

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Pumpkin Gnocchi

Yes, I am back from my big holiday in the US – lots of pics and a write-up coming soon! In the meantime…my “back from holiday” recipe

If you’re anything like me, you will have recently gotten into the Halloween spirit and bought lots of pumpkins and squashes, carved them, and then been left with some amazing lanterns plus lots of pumpkin flesh. So what can you do with it? Well, I made the lot into soup, but got back from holiday this week, and still found an assortment of squash in the fruit bowl. So…

While I think I have a pretty amazing pumpkin soup recipe (I usually enhance the flavour with lots of spice and top it off with toasted pumpkin seeds for a bit of crunch) as with so many things, there comes a point where you want something a bit more creative than soup. Back at home, suitcase in hand, I wanted to make something that did not involve a trip to the shops – I’d just “enjoyed” 8 hours in a plane, two busy airports, a severe lack so sleep, jet lag and a trip on the tube, which made a trip to the local store unappealing. So I came up with the idea of making pumpkin gnocchi with the stuff I had in the fridge and cupboard.

At this point, I can imagine some Italians clasping their hands to their faces in horror as an outsider commits culinary heresy with their classic little potato dumplings, but this was a tasty little dish so frankly, I’m not too worried. Indeed, there’s actually a lot of variety out there with gnocchi seemly made from just about anything you can imagine, so there may even be a strand of Italian authenticity in here somewhere.

This is a remarkably easy dish to make, provided you’ve got a little time to dedicate to it (i.e. quite good when you’re unpacking cases and making the washing machine work overtime). The squash is roasted in the oven with a little oil and garlic until tender, then mixed up with cheese and flour to make the dough. What was a sheer delight when making the dough was the colour – somewhere between the deep orange of the squash flesh and the sort of vibrant yellow you get from using saffron. My picture doesn’t really do it justice, but it is very firmly on the jaunty side of things.

One realisation I had in making this is that while you want the squash to be soft, you also want it to be on the dry side. I would therefore avoid steaming (which will get you a soft texture, but increases the moisture in the dough) and instead opt for roasting. Pop the squash pieces in a dish, mix with a little olive oil, add some garlic, then cover in tin foil and bake until tender, before uncovering and allowing the edges of the squash to caramelise. This imparts flavour, and keeps moisture levels down. The result? You need less flour in the gnocchi.

I actually made this gnocchi in two batches – one for pictures and a quick bite to eat after my travels, and another the next day for lunch (yup, I’d taken an extra day off to get over the jet lag). The first attempt was based on making large gnocchi. Or at least, these were my attempt at normal-sized gnocchi, they just turned out slightly larger. I had them with a little butter, black pepper, nutmeg and pecorino cheese. While they might look a little large on the place, they were very tasty, with a clear flavour of squash.

For the second version, I rolled the dough into very thing strands, and cut out what were really tiny gnocchi (the side of peanut M&Ms). They looked very pretty when cooked, piled up on the plate, but this time I made a change when serving them. I added only a tiny knob of butter, and instead used a dash of pumpkin oil to impact a rich toasted flavour to the dish. This combination was, frankly, sensational, giving two very different pumpkin flavours in the same dish.

So here you have it – squash gnocchi, made with butternut squash and goat cheese. Now all I need to get hold of is one of those proper little gnocchi rollers to get the ridges right!

To make pumpkin gnocchi:

• 400g squash, peeled and cubed (I used butternut squash)
• 2 cloves of garlic
• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 100g soft goats cheese
• 1 egg
• 25g pecorino cheese, grated
• 200-225g plain flour
• salt and pepper, to taste

1. Heat the oven to 200°C (390°F). Place the squash pieces in an ovenproof dish. Add the olive oil and garlic cloves, and mix. Cover with tin foil, and roast until tender (at least 30 minutes). Once ready, remove the tin foil and continue to roast until the edges of the squash are just starting to brown and caramelise. Remove from the oven and allow to cool – if the squash seems watery, reduce the heat to 150°C (200°F) and cook uncovered for another 5 minutes, then check again.

2. Put the cooled squash into a bowl (make sure to peel the garlic and discard the skin). Mash, then add the goat cheese, egg and pecorino cheese. Add enough flour to make a soft dough – it will still be quite sticky, so be careful not to over-work. Try to keep your hands and surfaces well-floured to prevent sticking, rather than adding more and more flour to the dough.

3. On a floured surface, roll out the dough into strands, then cut into pieces. You’ve made the gnocchi!

4. To cook the gnocchi, bring a pan of salted water to the boil. In the meantime, melt a knob of butter in a saucepan, and pour into a serving dish. Once the water is boiling, drop the gnocchi into the water. They are done when they float (around 2-3 minutes). As the gnocchi reach the surface, remove with a slotted spoon and place into the serving dish. Serve immediately.

To serve, add the sauce of your choice. I like to coat them in butter, add a little nutmeg and black pepper, and top with pecorino. If you have pumpkin oil, try adding a dash of that too.

Worth making? Easy? Yes. Quick? Not especially, but these are fun to make and delicious solid fare for cold days, so overall, worth the effort.

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