Tag Archives: shortbread

{8} Kourabiedes

Kourabiedes are a traditional cookie from Greece. And that should set some alarm bells ringing…

I always approach making traditional cookies with a little bit of trepidation. In this case, I have visions of Greek mothers and grandmothers raising their eyebrows and rolling their eyes. In my head, there is this Greek chorus of collective tutting as an entire people just know that their version is clearly superior to my attempt. And that their recipe is obviously better than everyone else’s attempts as well…

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With that disclaimer out there, I still think that my attempt is pretty decent. I mean, with all that icing sugar on them they look like they are made of snow!

In fact, they are part of a family of similar cookies – polvorones in Spain, Russian tea cakes or Mexican wedding cakes, or Austrian vanilla crescents. What they have in common is a sweet, crumbly pastry with chopped nuts, with the whole cookies dredged in icing sugar to provide even more sweetness.

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This is a very easy recipe to make. You just need to whip up the butter to get it nice and soft, then whip lots of air in as you add the sugar, egg yolk and various flavours. I’ve used vanilla as a background flavour, and combined it with brandy and orange blossom water. It is also important to use toasted nuts in this recipe – the nuts all some crunch to contrast to the soft, crumbly texture of the biscuit, but toasting them means the cookies had a richer flavour.

Shaping them is a doddle too – I found that it was worth chilling the dough slightly before shaping, as it made it a little easier to handle, but otherwise just scoop up spoonfuls of the mixture and roll them in your hands. However, I would not recommend my usual roll-into-a-sausage-and-cut-into-slices approach, as the mixture is a bit too soft for that. Tablespoons all the way!

Once you have baked the kourabiedes, you get another chance to add more flavour. I’ve seen recipes where Greek matriarchs liberally sprinkle ouzo over the hot cookies, which might be the way to go if you like aniseed flavours. I went for a less adventurous option and brushed them with some brandy cut with a little rosewater. There was a little sizzle, a puff of steam and a lovely aroma!

While the kourabiedes are still warm, you also need to get them into a dish full of icing sugar. They will still be fragile, so handle them with care. The icing sugar will combine with the butter in the cookies to form a sweet coating, then move them to a cooling rack and use a sieve to give them another coating of icing sugar. Get into the festive mood by imagining that this is snow. Then leave them to cool, and pile them high on a plate to serve alongside good strong coffee, or perhaps that herbal tea you picked up on holiday in Greece.

Καλά Χριστούγεννα (Kala Hristouyienna, Greek for Merry Christmas)!

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To make Kourabiedes (makes around 30)

For the dough:

• 250g unsalted butter
• 125g icing sugar
• 1 egg yolk
• 1 tablespoon brandy

• 1 tablespoon orange blossom water
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 75g toasted almonds, ground
• 75g toasted almonds, chopped
• 1 tablespoon baking powder
• 300g plain flour
• pinch of salt

To finish:

• 1 tablespoon brandy
• 1/4 teaspoon rosewater
• icing sugar, to cover

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F) and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

2. Put the butter in a bowl and beat well until light and fluffy. Add the icing sugar and egg yolk, and beat for another couple of minutes. Mix in the brandy, orange blossom water and vanilla and give it another good whip, then fold in the ground almonds.

3. In a separate bowl, combine the chopped almonds, flour, baking powder and salt. Fold into the butter mixture and mix until it all comes together. You might need to use your hands at the end. Pop in the fridge to chill for 10 minutes.

4. Take generous spoonfuls of the dough. Roll half of them into balls, transfer to a baking sheet and flatten slightly. Roll the other pieces of dough into balls, then shape them into crescent shapes and transfer a baking sheet.

5. Bake the cookies in batches of 12 for around 15 until just golden, turning them half-way to get an even bake. In the meantime, mix the brandy and rosewater in a dish.

6. Once baked, remove from the oven and brush immediately with the brandy-rosewater mixture. Allow to cool for a moment, then roll them in icing sugar. Transfer to a cooking rack, and dust generously with more icing sugar and leave to cool.

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Scottish Food: Petticoat Tails

This evening is Burns Night, so time to celebrate all things Scottish! However, things like haggis can be a bit of an acquired taste, so I’ve gone for one of those perennial favourites, shortbread. Or more specifically, the rather pretty looking Petticoat Tails, a large disc of shortbread with a decorated edge and cut into elegant triangles.

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The actual origin of this rather curious name is lost, but there are a few suggestions. One is that the shortbread disc was said to resemble the stitches sections of cloth that formed the petticoats of ladies when them were laid out on the floor. Other ideas are less romantic, noting that the name could derive from petits cotés, a type of pointed biscuit, or the old French term for little biscuits, petites gastelles. Whatever the real source of the name, they are a perennial favourite and Mary, Queen of Scots was reputed to have been particularly fond of these sweet, buttery biscuits.

Petticoat Tails are very easy to make. You just need three ingredients (sugar, salted butter and flour), then roll out the dough, trim it and shape it, so it is perfect if you want to make in small batches. I think it is vital to use salted butter – that salt adds a little extra something, and takes biscuits from being a bit sweet but bland and into being rich and buttery with a tiny hint of caramel. The only other  tricks are to make sure that once you’re cut and shaped the dough, it should be chilled for about half an hour, then put into a fairly low oven and left to turn a golden colour.

When you make Petticoat Tails, you will have some offcuts when you cut out the giant disc. However, don’t throw them away! Collect them up, roll into a sausage and leave to chill in the fridge. You can then cut into thin slices and bake them until golden to enjoy with a cup of tea. Two bakes for the price of one!

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To make Petticoat Tails:

• 100g caster sugar
• 225g salted butter
• 300g plain flour
• 50g cornflour (not cornmeal)

1. Cream the butter until soft, then add the sugar and beat until light and fluffy.

2. Add the plain flour and cornflour, and mix to a soft dough. It might be easiest to use your hands, particularly if you’re working in a cold room.

3. Lay a sheet of greaseproof paper on a baking tray, put the dough on top and roll it out. Use a plate, a tin or some sort of circle as a template and cut out a disc (mine was 24cm diameter). Trim away the excess.

4. Decorate the shortbread – use a knife to divide the disc into eight, cutting about half-way into the dough. Use your fingers, a fork or whatever utensil you like the crimp or decorate the edge. Use a cocktail stick to make random holes on each piece. Put the whole tray into the fridge for 30 minutes.

5. Preheat the oven to 160°C (320°F). Put the tray into the oven, and bake for around 40 minutes until golden. You might need to turn the tray round half-way, and adjust the time as needed – thinner shortbread will cook more quickly than thicker pieces.

6. When the shortbread is ready, remove from the oven and sprinkle lightly with caster sugar and leave to cool completely.

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Give it a whirl…

Okay, I realise that there has been a bit of an unexpected blogging hiatus. I was getting so good at posting with something that could be said to approach regularity. Then I went and mucked it all up by taking some time off and going to explore the lovely scenery of the Peak District national park. Long and bracing outdoor walks, charming country pubs, pretty villages and spectacular stately homes. Great to escape the big smoke and disconnect (and I mean really disconnect – almost no mobile phone coverage during the day, so no surfing the internet on an iPhone in the middle of a forest or on top of a hill…and that’s a good thing!). Of course, also less great for regular posts, so time to resume normal service.

Anyway, just as I’m back in town, I’m delighted to find that the Great British Bake-Off is back on our screens. We can experience the week by week baking trials and tribulations of an intrepid group of bakers as they take on breads, pies, biscuits and cakes, all the while seeking to deliver a “good bake” while avoiding the dreaded soggy bottom.

In honour of what is frankly my favourite TV show, today I’m going to get a little bit retro with a classic British biscuit. These are called Viennese Whirls, and are made from two very buttery shortbread biscuits filled with raspberry jam and vanilla buttercream. While these little babies look very fancy, I’m not too sure that they would make it as a technical challenge – they are fairly easy to do well, so the judges might be faced with tray after tray of perfect cookies.

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If you are British and of a certain age, you’ll be quite familiar with Viennese whirls, most likely the Mr Kipling variety. If so, I really recommend having a go at making them – they taste, on the one hand, just like you remember them, but as you’ve made them yourself, they also taste so much better than what you can buy. They are also fun to serve guests – you can fully expect to get gasps of excitement when you present them alongside a cup of tea.

Now…I think I have to burst the bubble here. In spite of the name of these fancy biscuits, I’m not too sure that they have anything to do with either Vienna or Austria more generally. A quick search on the web does not make even a vague attempt to explain their origin. The only theory I can put forward is that when these biscuits were created, they were seen as sufficiently fancy to be biscuits fit to serve in the smart grand cafés of Vienna. Maybe the swirling of the biscuits recalls gentlemen and ladies whirling around at those famous Viennese Balls?

These are quite a fun biscuit to make – yes, it involves piping the mixture, but it’s quite easy to have a few practice shots (just scrape any less than perfect biscuits back into the piping bag and keep going), and the effect looks really good. They also taste quite decadent – the biscuits are very buttery, and using cornflour in the mixture makes them extra-short and crumbly, which goes fantastically well with the rich buttercream filling and fruity raspberry jam.

I liked the look of these Viennese whirls as they are, but it is traditional to dust them with icing sugar – this will help to highlight the shape of the biscuits and showcase your piping skills to maximum effect. But dusted or au naturel they look very elegant on a plate served with tea, and perfect for a quite moment on the sofa with a good book.

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To make Viennese Whirls (makes around 20):

For the biscuits:

• 250g salted butter
• 50g icing sugar
• 250g plain flour
• 50g cornflour
• 1-2 teaspoons milk (if needed)

For the filling

 • 100g butter
• 200g icing sugar
• ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
• 100g raspberry jam
• icing sugar, to dust (optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 170°C (340°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

2. In a large bowl, mix the butter, icing sugar, flour and cornflour until smooth. You should have a very soft dough – if need be, add a teaspoon or two of milk.

3. Transfer the dough to a piping bag fitted with a large star-shaped nozzle. Pipe out rosettes, leaving a decent gap between them, aiming for around 40.

4. Bake the biscuits for 12-15 minutes until they are a light golden colour (you may need to turn the baking tray half-way through to get an even colour). Remove from the oven and leave to cool.

5. Next, prepare the jam. Warm it in a saucepan until just boiling, then pass through a sieve to remove the seeds. Discard the seeds, and leave the sieved jam to cool until thick.

6. Make the filling – beat the butter, icing sugar and vanilla until smooth and pale. Transfer to a piping bag fitted with a large star-shaped nozzle.

7. Assemble the Viennese whirls – take one biscuit as a base, add some jam, then pipe a generous amount of filling. Top with another biscuit. Do the same until all the biscuits have been used (you might have some jam and buttercream left over).

8. Arrange on a plate to serve, dusting with icing sugar if desired.

Worth making? These are actually very easy to make and the result looks super. The flavour is also excellent – but be sure the use salted butter for the biscuits themselves, as this provides a better flavour. And don’t skimp on the filling – it should squish out as you bite into them!

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Thistle Shortbread for Burns Night

Hoots! Tomorrow is Burns Night, the unofficial celebration of all things Scottish in general, and specifically the life and times of the national poet, Robert (Robbie) Burns. Up and down the land, people will enjoy traditional fare consisting of haggis, neeps and tatties (swede and potatoes). Simple stuff, but usually rounded off with a lot of whisky and followed with a poetry recital and some energetic Scottish folk dancing.

As part of all this national pride, I’ve made some shortbread tablets with that traditional Scottish icon, the thistle. I’ve actually seen this mould sold online as a pineapple (“the symbol of generosity”) but if you know Scotland and the Scots, I don’t think they’re know for their pineapples or their (financial) generosity. Hospitality yes, but don’t expect them to walk around dishing out five pound notes. They’re a bit more “canny” (shrewd) than that.

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I got rather into making moulded biscuits at Christmas, and I’ll admit that I got a bit cocky. I assumed that I had mastered using the smaller Springerle moulds, learning the knack of sprinkling flour onto the dough then pressing the mould into it. However, what works on a cookie this size of a domino fails rather dramatically when you make a large biscuit the size of a side plate. Instead, I had to go back to the instructions that came with the wooden mould, which directed me to press the dough into the well-floured mould, then whack it with quite some force onto the baking tray (“being careful not to break the mould”). Well, it was more farce than force, but after three attempts, it worked, and I got what seemed like a nice, sharp impression.

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I was keen to use a recipe that didn’t puff up in the oven. I like light shortbread, and while it can be nice if a little airy, when you’re making a moulded biscuit like this, you want to be sure that it will remain pin-sharp after baking. As you can see from the picture, the image is not incredibly sharp after baking, but I rather like the rustic look that they have. If things turn our too perfect, you may as well buy them.

There’s also a little superstition about shortbread tablets – it is said that if given as a gift, you need to make sure that they are presented whole, and never broken up. The reason for this is that the shortbread symbolises luck, so a whole tablet is good luck and a broken piece is like shattering the mirror in someone’s front room and then blaming the cat. Alright, this is not quite accurate – the tradition only applies when presenting a shortbread to a new bride just after her marriage, but I think it could hold true whoever the recipient is. It’s also fun to bring it to the table and give someone the honour of breaking it into pieces.

If shortbread’s not your thing, then there are a few other pieces of Scottish culinaria that you could try. On the drinks side, you’ve got time to magic up a batch of Atholl Brose, the preferred tipple of Queen Victoria when she was in the Highlands. It is made from oats, honey, cream and whisky, and has a flavour not unlike Bailey’s. I made it last year for Hogmanay and it went down well indeed.

If that is not your thing, you could try another Scottish dessert – fresh orange slices with their own juice, a little honey and a dash of whisky. Very simple, but wonderful and so welcome after a heavy meal! Alternatively, you could make cranachan (with oats, cream, raspberries and honey), Scottish macaroon bars (lots of sugar and, eh, potato), tooth-achingly sweet tablet or the famous Ecclefechan butter tart. If sweet things are not your thing, some savoury options are good old-fashioned oatcakes or clapshot (a tasty mixture of potato and turnip/swede). Go forth and explore the cuisine of Scotland!

Wishing you a Happy Burns Night 2013!

To make shortbread:

Makes 2 shortbreads

• 175g plain flour
• 50g cornflour
• 50g caster sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
• 115g salted butter, chopped

1. Preheat the oven to 160°C (325°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper (all the butter in the dough will ensure it does not stick, no need to grease).

2. Sift the flour, cornflour and sugar into a bowl. Add the butter and work with your fingertips until you have a soft dough. It will come together eventually. You can add a drop or two of water if you need to – but only a drop (and I didn’t use any).

3. Shape the dough – either press into a shortbread mould, or roll out and cut into fingers, or use biscuit cutters to shape the pieces. Place the shaped shortbread onto the baking sheet.

4. Bake until the shortbread a pale golden colour (around 40 minutes for a large pieces, smaller biscuits may cook in as little as 10 minutes). Remove from the oven, sprinkle with caster sugar, and leave to cool completely. Once cooled, shake off any excess sugar.

Worth making? This is a rich, short, simple biscuit which is one of the classics of Scottish baking. Lovely in small pieces after a meal or just with a cup of tea.

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Utrechtse Spritsen

I realised today that this is my 300th post! It sometimes seems like I’ve only just started this blog, but then I look back at all those posts and realise just how much I’ve done. You forget a recipe or some special event, and then you see the post and it all comes back. Ah, memories!

Anyway, I promised a few days ago that I would try something from my new Dutch book of biscuits (which was a gift from Ria – thanks!). But which one should it be? I looked at several recipes, but in the end went for Utrechtse spritsen that my friend Sunshine had already spotted in my picture of the book. So that seemed about as good a way to start as any, and I decided to go with that one.

These are very rich butter biscuits which are named after Utrecht. It’s one of the oldest cities in the Netherlands, blessed with lots of history and impressive architecture and beautiful canals. The name means “Utrecht shortbread” but from what I have been able to find out, the name originally comes from German spritzen (to spray) which makes sense when you know that the cookies are formed by squeezing the dough though a nozzle to get the distinctive ridges.

This was a new technique for me – you cream butter and a little egg, then add sugar, and finally work in the flour. The trick is to get a very light, smooth, soft dough that you can then squeeze through a star-shaped nozzle. You then make a wave pattern and bake. This leaves you with a long “strip” of cookie that can be easily cut while hot, but which hardens as it cools.

If you’re interested to see how to make them, there is a video here, but be warned that it’s only in Dutch. However, I think you get the idea of how to do it.

I found making these cookies quite easy, with two small wrinkles that it would have been nice to have known about before I started!

First, the mixture requires quite some muscles to squeeze the bag! The answer to this is probably to use a larger nozzle, but I did not have one to hand, so I just relied on sheer brute force. Also making sure that the dough is sufficiently light and smooth should make it easier to get spritsing.

Second, you need to cut the long strips of baked biscuit into pieces as soon as they come out of the oven. As soon as they come out. The biscuit starts to cool and harden very rapidly, and if you’re not quick enough, you get crumbly cuts instead of nice clean slices. This can be easily overcome by baking one long strip at a time, so that when it comes out of the oven, you can cut immediately with a very sharp knife.

The resulting biscuits are delicious – very simply, but perfect with a cup of tea or coffee. They’re about an inch wide and two inches long (3cm x 6cm) so they’re quite small, but I think that sometimes less is more. They’re the sort of biscuit you often get in a cafe with a cup of coffee – something small to nibble on. And when made yourself, they’re even better.

To make Utrechtse spritsen (makes approximately 30):

• 1/2 egg (30g), beaten
• 160g butter
• 100g light brown sugar
• 3g salt
• 15g vanilla sugar or 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 250g plain flour

1. Preheat the oven to 175°C. Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

2. In a bowl, beat the egg and butter until fluffy – keep beating, it will happen! Mix in the sugar, salt and vanilla sugar or extract and beat for another minute.

3. Add the flour and mix well – towards the end you might find it easiest to mix with your hands. The mixture should be quite soft and light.

4. Put a star nozzle into a piping bag. Fill with the dough, then start to pipe a wave pattern – but there should be no gaps in the strip of dough. If you find that the piping is not working well, just scrape off the baking sheet and put back into the piping bag and start again.

5. Bake the spritsen for around 15 minutes until golden brown (turn the sheet if necessary to ensure even colouring).

6. Remove from baked spritsen from the oven and immediately cut into 3cm (1.5 inch) pieces with a very sharp knife

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Scottish food: Shortbread, the National Biscuit

Ah, tomorrow is 25 January, Burns Night!

To mark the event, what could be more fitting than the classic Scottish biscuit, shortbread? Just butter, sugar and flour, but combined and baked, they turn into something meltingly delicious, buttery, sweet and incredibly more-ish. There really are few things better with a cup of tea. If you visit Edinburgh or Glasgow, you will see the stuff everywhere, but in my humble view, quite right too.

I like to keep shortbread simple, so I don’t go crazy with flavours. Of course, shortbread can be great with vanilla, spices, citrus peel, dried fruit or chocolate chips, and I would not turn it down if it were offered to me. I just happen to think that the simple sweet, buttery flavour is just great on its own. I will go as far as adding a little pinch of salt, but that’s about it. The only tweak that I make is to add a couple of spoonfuls of cornflour in place of some of the plain flour, which makes the shortbread just that little bit more melting when you eat it. But be sure just to add a little!

Shortbread is also a great recipe if you are looking for biscuits that keep their shape. No egg, baking powder or water, so the biscuits might puff up just a little bit, but generally come out of the oven as you put them in. If you are shopping, you might be tempted by the fancy, intricate petticoat tails variety, but at home, it’s usually a choice between rounds or fingers. I prefer fingers – far easier to dip into your tea! At this stage, I have to confess to being a bit of a nerd – I use a metal rule to cut the dough into strips, the measure equal lengths of dough to make all the shortbread the same size. But hey, sprinkled with sugar and baked, they do look good!

To make shortbread:

• 50g icing sugar
• 100g unsalted butter
• 150g plain flour (or 125g plain flour plus 25g cornflour)
• pinch of salt

Preheat the oven to 180°C (375°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

In a bowl, combine the butter and sugar until creamy. Add the flour and salt, and work until you have a smooth dough. You will probably have to use your hands towards the end.

Sprinkle a worktop with flour, and turn out the dough. Roll to 1cm thickness, and use a cutter or a knife to make the biscuits. Transfer to the baking sheets, and chill the biscuits for 30 minutes in the fridge.

Top the shortbread with a sprinkling of caster sugar, and bake for 15-20 minutes until the biscuits are a pale golden colour.

Worth making? A super-simple recipe that provides a melt-in-the-mouth texture. Can also be customised according to taste with spices, citrus peel, vanilla, chocolate chips or dried fruit.

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