Tag Archives: spice

{9} Snickerdoodles

You wait ages for some American Christmas cookies to make an appearance here, then two come along in quick succession. We had bizcochitos a few days ago, and now we’ve got New England’s snickerdoodles.

Snickerdoodle. It’s a funny name, eh? With a moniker like that, there is obviously some sort of fascinating story, and…well…I did look, but I didn’t actually find anything conclusive.

The obviously-always-reliable Wikipedia suggests the name is Dutch or German in origin and is actually a corruption of the German Schneckennudeln (the appetizing “snail dumpling”). But given the word ‘cookie’ comes from the Dutch koekje maybe the name has its origins in New Amsterdam rather than New England? It certainly sounds to anglophone ears like something a stereotypical Dutch character would stay on a comedy show. So I wondered if the name could be a more random literal translation. Well, the Dutch words snikker-doedel could be translated as “squeaky bagpipe”, but that really is getting rather silly. But hey, it’s Christmas, and I usually spend December 1/3 full of marzipan, 2/5 full of mulled wine and the rest full of chocolate and mince pies, so I’m really not so fussed.

Anyway, this crazy talk of squeaky bagpipes links to the other name origin theory, which is that New Englanders are apparently quite partial to whimsical names for their baking. This story sort of works, with other local names including Joe Frogger cookies (molasses, rum and nutmeg) and Hermit cookies (sultanas and raisins). Honestly, it is not exactly the long list of whimsical names I had hoped for, so I’m going with the corrupted German name story if it’s all the same.


That is enough talk about the name. What about the taste? These little guys are all about the cinnamon. It’s one of my favourite spices (the other being cardamom) and I’ll devour anything with a good dose of the stuff in it.

The recipe and flavour seems to be pretty universal – buttery dough (which might or might not have vanilla) that is rolled in cinnamon sugar before baking, and often with a traditional wrinkled and cracked appearance on top. Isn’t it nice when we all agree? Well, there is debate. There is a clear split in the world of snickerdoodle fans, is between those that like them chewy and those that prefer them to be more cake-like. Maybe it is being British that makes me prefer cookies that are either crisp or chewy. Anyway, my version are slightly chewy, which strikes a happy balance between the two.

When it comes to flavours, I’m usually all for experimenting. But this is one of those times when you just don’t need to. In fact, you probably shouldn’t mess around. Snickerdoodles are for lovers of cinnamon, and that’s why you would make them. I can’t imagine using any other spice to make these (clove cookies? Just…no!).

So happy snickerdoodling. Is it a verb? I really think it ought to be. And long may your bagpipes squeak!

To make snickerdoodles (makes around 30):

For the dough:

• 330g plain flour
• 1 teaspoon baking soda
• 2 teaspoons cream of tartar
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 225g butter
• 300g caster sugar
• 2 large eggs

For the cinnamon sugar:

• 100g caster sugar
• 2 tablespoons ground cinnamon

1. Mix the flour, baking soda, cream of tartar and salt. Sieve, and put to one side.

2. In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the flour mixture and mix well until combined. The dough will be fairly sticky. Wrap it in cling film and chill for at least an hour, or overnight.

3. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

4. Make the cinnamon sugar: mix the sugar and cinnamon, and place in a bowl for later.

5. Take pieces of the dough the size of a large walnut (around 30g) and form into a ball. Roll the ball in the cinnamon sugar. Place on the baking sheet and flatten slightly, leaving plenty of space for the cookies to expand. I baked them in batches, 8 per tray.

6. Bake the snickerdoodles for around 8-10 minutes (turning the tray half-way) until they have expanded and flattened. They will be soft when you take them out, but they will firm up and go a bit wrinkly as they cool. Immediately sprinkle over a little more cinnamon sugar, then transfer to a wire tray to cool completely.

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{5} Biberle

I’m sticking with the Swiss theme for this next bake. These little cookies are called Biberle, or gingerbread almond nuggets if you’re after a clunky translation. I tried to find out what the name means – Biber is German for beaver, so they could mean “little beavers” which I like. If someone knows for sure, let me know. Their shape sort of looks like a beaver’s tail, so maybe I’m right after all?

Biberle hail from the St Gallen area and they are the thing you want when you fancy something that is a bit like gingerbread and a bit like marzipan. There are two types – round cookies filled with marzipan and the tops elaborately decorated using moulds, and these versions which are the less fancy roll-and-slice cousins.


Biberle might look like a bit of a faff to make, but they are actually fairly straightforward. You make a simple spiced honey and flour dough, and leave it to sit for a few days so that the spice flavour gets a chance to develop. Then when you’ve got a moment in your busy week, you just need to roll it out, add a long thin log of marzipan, and wrap it in the gingerbread dough. Then slice into funky little trapezoid shapes, bake and you’re done.

I was a little wary of making these at first as the dough is not much more than flour, spices and honey. I’ve made something similar in the past – couques de Dinant but they were rock-hard, and it turned out the idea was you just gnawed at them slowly. I wasn’t too keen to have something similarly tough here. However, the recipe is made with some baking soda, which had a bit of an unexpected effect. When I added it, it reacted a little as the honey was still slightly warm. I left the dough to rest for four days and when I came back it had puffed up. Perhaps the dough was otherwise a little acidic or the soda reacted with the honey? I don’t know, but it did mean the dough was workable. I did wonder if that meant that any lift that the soda was going to give had gone, but there was no need to worry – the baking soda did its thing a third time in the oven, and the gingerbread element was pleasingly puffed up.


For the filling, you are looking for proper marzipan – the stuff that is mostly almonds. Check a packet next time you’re in a store – very often the stuff called “marzipan” might only have 25% nuts in it. This can be easily fixed – either buy a high-nut marzipan/almond paste (i.e. more than 50% almonds) or just make it yourself! All you need are ground almonds, icing sugar and something to bind the lot together. I used a couple of spoons of glucose and a little water, plus almond extract and a dash of rosewater as flavourings. You really could go crazy when you’re making the filling – rum, orange zest, lemon zest, amaretto…the only thing to be a little wary of is that I don’t think you want a filling that is too moist, as it will probably go runny and leak out during baking. Not sure the Swiss would approve of that.

The final thing that is really, really weird in this recipe is the glaze you use to give the Biberle a shiny finish. You toast a tablespoon of cornflour in a pan until it goes brown (well, it goes from white to a very pale brown), then cool it, and mix with water and boil it to make a glaze. Whatever was going on, it seemed to work. Just go with it – if nothing else, you’ve learned a new cooking technique – the cornflour glaze!

When I baked these, the dough was a little hard at first, but that was very easy to sort out. Pop them all in an airtight container with a slice of bread. Leave overnight, and the next day, the bread will be dry and the cookies soft and full of spicy delight. Because if you go to all the effort of making Biberle, you want them to taste their best!

To make Biberle (makes 25) (adapted from here)

For the dough:

• 125g runny floral honey
• 25g soft brown sugar
• 75g plain flour
• 50g light rye flour (or just use more plain flour)
• pinch of salt
• 1 1/2 teaspoons Lebkuchen or pumpkin pie spices
• 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon baking soda

For the marzipan filling:

• 125g ground almonds
• 75g icing sugar
• 2 tablespoons liquid glucose
• almond extract, to taste
• rose water, to taste

For the glaze:

• 1 tablespoon cornflour
• 100ml water

1. Make the dough. Put the honey and sugar in a small saucepan, and heat gently until the sugar has dissolved. Don’t let it boil. Remove from the heat and allow to cool until just warm.

2. Sieve the plain flour, rye flour, salt, spices and baking soda into a large bowl. Add the lukewarm honey mixture and stir until to forms a dough. Cover with cling film and leave to rest (at least overnight, but I left mine for four days).

3. Next, make the marzipan filling. Grind the almonds and icing sugar. Tip into a bowl, add the glucose, and almond extract and rose water to taste. Add a little at a time – you can always add more! Add water if needed to bring everything together to a firm dough. Wrap in cling film and chill for at least an hour.

4. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F) and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

5. On a floured worktop, form the dough into a ball, then roll into a sausage about 45cm in length. Now flatten the dough and use a rolling pin to get a strip that is 10cm wide.

6. Take the marzipan, and form into a long log, also 45cm. Brush the dough lightly with water, then place the marzipan on one edge of the dough, and roll it up so that the marzipan is tightly wrapped. Trim the dough if needed, and seal the join.

7. Use a sharp knife to cut the roll into 20-25 pieces. You need to alternate the angle so that the Biberle have a triangular shape, but make sure the dough is connected all the way around.

8. Transfer the cookies to the baking sheet, leaving space between them to expand. Bake for around 12 minutes, turning the tray half-way to get an even colour.

9. While the Biberle are baking, prepare the glaze. Put the cornflour in a saucepan and heat until it turns a pale golden colour. Remove from the heat and cool. Mix with the cold water, the heat and bring to the boil – it should thicken and become less cloudy. Once the Biberle are baked, remove from the oven and brush each one while hot with the glaze. Leave to cool.

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{6} Citrus Pfeffernüsse

We’ve reached the half-way point in this year’s 12 Bakes of Christmas, so I thought it would be nice to return to a bit of a festive classic. I’ve made a batch of Pfeffernüsse, but have added a but of a citrus twist to them.

Pfeffernüsse are one of my favourites, and I can much through a whole pile of these. Pretty miraculous for something that doesn’t even contain chocolate!

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This is a comparatively “easy” Pfeffernüsse recipe. Many recipes tell you to make various syrups, then let it cool, work in the flour and let it sit overnight or even for days to let the flavours develop. Not here. You can make them and bake them right away, with no need to leave it resting over night occupying valuable space in your fridge that could be chilling eggnog or champagne instead.

There is only one “fiddly” bit here, which is making sure that the Pfeffernüsse are soft. This is worth doing, as it ensures that they have a good, rich flavour when you bite into them. You’ve got two choice here – add some pieces of soft bread to a tin with the baked but unglazed cookies, replacing the bread as it gets hard, until the cookies are soft, which can take a few days. Or use my cheat’s express method – I put the Pfeffernüsse on a wire tray, and then hold that tray above steam from a pan of water or a boiling kettle for a few seconds. Do this twice, then pop them back in an airtight tin. Repeat this the next day, and you should find that they have softened up nicely.

To finish, I have dipped my Pfeffernüsse in icing, as they remind me of the ones you buy with their crisp, brittle icing. I used a couple of spoonfuls of Acqua de Cedro, a liqueur made with citron and like a posh version of limoncello with a sharp, citrus flavour, but you can equally use Grand Marnier or Cointreau. Now, you might be looking at these pictures and notice how amazingly white my icing looks – and it does seem just like snow! Well, the reason that it looks so brilliant is that I cheated (gasp!). I use a small dash of white food colour with the icing, so that it had that bright, snowy appearance. It doesn’t change the flavour and you can happily skip it, but in the interests of full disclosure I feel I should say that I’ve used it in case someone makes these and is surprised that they don’t look quite as white!

How you flavour them is up to you – I’ve used a mixture of spices, plus candied orange peel. You can make these extra-citrussy with the addition of some orange zest, or get creative and go for something completely different – cardamom and lemon anyone? Or convert to the dark side…cinnamon and cloves for flavour, and then dipped in dark chocolate? Now that would be pretty sensational!

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To make Citrus Pfeffernüsse (makes 20):

For the Pfeffernüsse

• 125g caster sugar
• 1 large egg
• 20g candied orange peel, finely chopped
• 50g ground almonds
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon mixed spice
• 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• pinch white pepper
• 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
• 125g plain flour

For the glaze

• 100g icing sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon white food colouring (optional)
• orange liqueur or water
• cubes of candied peel

1. Put the egg and sugar in a bowl. Mix well until thick and creamy (around 5 minutes).

2. Fold in the chopped orange peel, ground almonds and spices and mix well.

3. Combine the flour and baking powder, then mix into the wet ingredients until you have a smooth dough – it will slightly sticky, but you should be able to roll pieces into balls. If too dry, add a few drops of water; if too wet, add a tiny sprinkle more flour.

4. Pinch off small walnut-sized pieces of the dough. This is best done with damp hands to prevent the dough sticking. If you’ve very precise, weigh the dough, divide by 20, then make sure each piece is the same weight (mine were 17g each…)

5. Bake the Pfeffernüsse at 180°C for 15 minutes until golden and puffed, turning the tray half-way. When baked, remove and leave to cool on a wire rack. Transfer the cold cookies to an airtight tin and add a slice of bread – this will soften the Pfeffernüsse. Replace the bread when dry.

6. To glaze, mix the icing sugar with white colouring (if using) and enough water or liqueur to get a thick but smooth icing – think really thick double cream. Dip each cookie in the icing, shake off the excess, put some pieces of candied peel on top and leave to set.

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{1} Taai Taai

Hello and welcome to 2015’s edition of the 12 Bakes of Christmas!  Regular readers might have noticed a bit of a slowdown in posts in the last few months. I’ve not lost my love of cooking, but a recent arrival has been keeping us all rather busy, which has certainly also made Christmas this year a lot more special!

I’m kicking off a little later than usual this year, as my first bake Taai Taai (rhymes with bye-bye) originates from the Netherlands, where today – 5 December – is Sinterklaas (their Belgian neighbours confusingly celebrate it on 6 December, but as these cookies are Dutch, we’ll go with the earlier date). Sinterklaas is the day on which St Nicholas (or Sinterklaas, the origin of the name Santa Claus) is said to come from Turkey to distribute gifts and sweets to children by leaving them in clogs, or these days, more modern types of shoe. Alongside presents, it is traditional to get a chocoladeletter (your initial in chocolate!) as well as pepernoten and kruidnoten (spicy little biscuits – recipe here).

Taai Taai literally means “tough tough” in Dutch, and that name reveals their texture. Whereas the classic speculaas is often crisp and buttery, these are, well, tough and chewy.

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So what is the story behind these little tough guys?

Continue reading

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{8} Frangipane Mincemeat Tarts

We’ve done biscuits, we’ve done buns, so now it’s time for tarts! When it comes to Christmas, there is only one tart for me, that that’s a good old mince pie. These are one of the things that really tell you that Christmas is around the corner (even if they are in British supermarkets from about mid-August), and that mixture of dried fruits, citrus and spices, encased on buttery pastry is just irresistible. They’re often served up alongside mulled wine (which I also love), but I think you can get too much sugar and spice in one go. A mince pie and a good cup of tea is just about a marriage made in heaven in my book.

However, I recently saw a bit of a twist in mince pies that I thought would be interesting to try. Rather than topping them with more pastry, and running the gauntlet about whether the filling would make a break for freedom from under the lid (thereby sealing the pies into the tray), the suggestion was to top them with a frangipane mixture and a few flaked almonds. Having enjoyed great success with a frangipane and pear tart a few months ago, this sounded like a great idea. Not only that, but it worked, and it worked beautifully.

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If you’re stuck in a bit of a mince pie rut, then I think these are for you. The pastry is a doodle to make, and the topping is super-simple. Just whisk butter, sugar and an egg until smooth, add some flavours, a bit of flour and some ground almonds, and pipe on top of the mincemeat. In the oven, it transforms into a light, moist almond sponge with a glorious golden colour on top. Dust with a scant dash of icing sugar, and they look beautiful.

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Now, I must confess that I’m not the sort of domestic perfectionist that makes there own mincemeat. Some people do, and that’s great, but I had a go once and it was a disaster. And you know what? You can buy amazing mincemeat, so I’m sticking with that route. Of course, I can never resist the urge to tweak, and mincemeat does accept additional ingredients rather well. I added a handful of crushed flaked almonds to mine, as well as a couple of tablespoons of brandy and the zest of a clementine to add a little more oompf. The additional citrus in particular really does help with getting a good flavour.

I also gave the frangipane a little extra helping hand – in addition to some almond extract, they have two spoonfuls of my home-made spiced pear liqueur and a spoonful of brandy, but you could add whatever you fancy – some Amaretto, Cointreau or dark rum perhaps? Again, I was not looking for a smack-you-in-the-lips flavour, just a subtle extra something.

If you’re not a mincemeat fan (and I gather, shockingly, that there are people who are not keen) then you could just replace it with jam. Something like spiced apple, plum or cherry would still be very seasonal!

And so…how were they? Well, I have to say that these are really, really good. This recipe makes quite a small amount of pastry, so the cases are thin and crisp, and the rich but light almond frangipane is a nice complement to the mincemeat. This is also a great option if you like the flavour of mincemeat but don’t want to use lots of it (or, alternatively, you’ve got to make a lot of pies and ran out of mincemeat!). This one is a keeper!

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To make Frangipane Mince Pies (makes 12):

For the pastry

• 150g plain flour
• 60g butter
• 50g icing sugar
• 1 medium egg

For the filling

• 200g mincemeat

For the frangipane

• 100g white caster sugar
• 100g unsalted butter
• 100g ground almonds
• 1 large egg
• 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
• 20g plain flour
• 3 tablespoons brandy (or other alcohol)

To finish

• flaked almonds
• icing sugar, to dust

1. Start with the pastry – rub the flour and butter until it resembles breadcrumbs. Mix in the icing sugar. Add the beaten egg and work to a soft dough (add a bit more flour if needed – the pastry will be very soft but not sticky). Wrap in cling film and chill in the fridge for at least an hour (or overnight).

2. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F). Lightly butter a 12-hole non-stick muffin tray.

3. Make the frangipane. Beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the other ingredients and beat until smooth and well-combined. You can do this manually, but it is much easier with an electric beater!

4. Assemble the tarts. On a floured worktop, roll the pastry thinly. Cut out circles and use to line the muffin moulds (if the pastry gets soft and is difficult to work, pop it back in the fridge). Put the tray of tart shells into the fridge for 10 minutes to chill, and then add a generous teaspoon of mincemeat to each tart. Spoon or pipe the frangipane filling into the tarts (fill to just below the pastry, as it will puff up slightly).

5. Sprinkle each tart with a few flaked almonds, and bake for around 20-25 minutes until the tarts are golden (you may need to turn half way to get an even colour).

6. When done, remove the tarts from the oven and allow to cool. Dust with a little icing sugar just before serving.

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{6} Clementine and Clove Sablés

I’ve done a lot of traditional baking this year, so today I’ve had a go at an original creation (although no doubt there is some corner of Europe where this is the seasonal biscuits and has been for 900 years…). These are actually just some simple butter biscuits that don’t have much sugar, and where the key thing is the flavours.

They are livened up with a combination of clementine zest and cloves. I know that cloves are a very strong spice and that not everyone is a fan, but trust me, they really work so, so well with the citrus zest. If you think this is not the combination for you, then I’m afraid tradition is against you – this is the classic combination used in an aromatic pomander, with whole cloves pressed into a fresh orange. They do smell delicious and were used historically by wealthy and powerful gentlemen and ladies to make the air around them smell just a little bit sweeter (at least those that were not rich enough to afford a solid silver pomander filled with all manner of exotic spices).

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This recipe does seem a bit funny when you’re making it. The dough is fairly soft, so you might think that there is not enough flour in the recipe. Don’t fret! The key thing is to pop the dough into the freezer for a bit, then cut off pieces as you’re making the biscuits. The chilled dough is easy to work with. And before baking the biscuits, I put the whole tray in the freezer for 3 minutes. This made sure everything was firm, and keeps a nice clean edge when baking. This might all sound like a bit of a faff, but it ensures that you have a higher amount of butter in the finished biscuit.

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As you can see, I’ve decorated the basic biscuits in two ways, so they are ideal if you’re in a rush and want to give the impression that you’ve been in the kitchen for ages turning out biscuits.

First off, the stars, which I brushed with a simple orange icing while they were still warm from the oven. This results in a rather pretty frosted effect on the stars, which seems somehow fitting at this time of year.

The rest of the biscuits were made with a scalloped cutter, and I just drizzled some dark chocolate on them. Not enough to coat them, but just enough for the dark lines to provide a nice contrast to the pale biscuit, and just a hint of cocoa. If you want some other contrasts, you can mix in some chocolate chips, dried fruit or chopped candied peel too. Just keep the fact you’ve done it all with one recipe can be our little secret.

And there we have it…we’ve reached the half-way point in this year’s Twelve Days of Christmas Baking (or Baking Madness, if you prefer). I hope you’ve enjoyed it so far!

To make Clementine and Clove Sablés (makes 50 small-ish biscuits*)

• 25g ground almonds
• 230g plain flour
• 100g salted butter, cold
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 85g icing sugar
• 2 clementines, zest only
• 1 teaspoon mixed spice
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
• 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1 large egg, beaten

(*) My biscuits were two-bite efforts – if you make them smaller, you’ll have loads more!)

1. Put the almonds, flour and butter into a bowl. Work with your fingers until it resembles breadcrumbs,

2. Add the baking power, icing sugar, zest and spices. Mix well, then add the egg and vanilla extract and work quickly to a smooth dough (it should be soft but not too sticky). Wrap in cling film and chill in the freezer for 30 minutes.

3. Preheat the oven to 175°C (350°F). Line a couple of baking trays with greaseproof paper.

4. Take chunks of the chilled dough and roll out thinly on a worktop. Cut out whatever shapes you like! If the dough gets too soft and sticky, just pop back in the freezer to firm up.

5. Bake for 10-12 minutes (depending on size) until golden.

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{3} Kruidnootjes

Christmas would not be Christmas with lots of little spiced biscuits, and this is one that fits the bill perfectly. These are kruidnoten (“spice nuts”) or kruidnootjes (“little spice nuts”) from the Netherlands.

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Kruidnoten are small, crunchy biscuits made with brown sugar and loaded with Christmas spices. They are also incredibly cute – they are actually tiny (less than a small cherry!) and are often given to children in bags, or poured into bowls to munch on while you’re enjoying the festivities.

The good news is they are also incredibly easy to make, great if you’re in a hurry, don’t fancy tackling something too complex or need a quick home-made gift. You just have to whip up butter, sugar and a dash of syrup, then work in some spices and flour. The fun bit was shaping the kruidnoten. I cut the dough into four pieces, and rolled each into a long snake shape. Then (like the geek I am…) I used a ruler and a knife to cut equally-sized pieces, then rolled them into balls. That probably sounds like an unnecessary degree of obsession, but  you know what? All the cookies ended up exactly the same size when they were baked, so I was left feeling rather pleased.

Another real boon is that this is a good cookie choice to make with younger children as there are no complicated steps to follow and, critically, no raw eggs are involved. That means that if little fingers start to stuff the raw dough in their mouths, it will still be perfectly safe (even if the baking powder might not be the tastiest thing they’ve ever eaten). Cutting and rolling the dough into little balls is good fun, and the kruidnoten will cool quickly after baking. This means that little helpers can then eat the fruits of their labour quite quickly, preserving festive kitchen harmony.

Now, you could just leave them as they are and end there. Or…there is one alternative. Dip ’em in dark chocolate. This is definitely not traditional, but I can promise you that this is utterly delicious. The dark chocolate works beautifully with the sweet, crunchy, spicy biscuit, and if they if you add salt to the cookies, this contrasts with the sweetness of the chocolate too. If you have tempered the chocolate properly, they also look really rather stunning when served alongside tea, coffee or hot chocolate.

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One final tip – I’ve had shop-bought kruidnoten in the past, and they stay crisp for a while, but the home-made version can go soft after a day or so if you leave them out. This makes it essential to keep them in an airtight container, but if you don’t do that, you can easily re-crisp them by baking them for a few minutes in a low oven (remember you’re drying out, not baking them). Of course, if they are dipped in chocolate, you don’t need to worry about that…just sayin’…

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To make kruidnoten (makes around 64):

• 125g plain flour
• 2 teaspoons mixed spice
• pinch of ground black pepper
 • 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 1/8 teaspoon salt
• 50g butter

• 30g soft brown sugar
• 35g muscavado sugar
• 1 teaspoon syrup (golden, treacle or honey)
• milk, to combine
• 250g dark chocolate, for dipping (optional)

1. Mix the flour, spice, pepper, baking powder and salt in a bowl. Put to one side.

2. In a separate bowl, cream the butter, sugar and syrup until soft and fluffy. Add the dry ingredients and mix well. Add enough milk until the mixture comes together (a tablespoon at a time – the dough should be soft, but not sticky). Wrap in cling film and chill for an hour or overnight.

3. Preheat the oven to 170°C (340°F). Double-line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

4. Divide the dough into four pieces (mine weighed 271g, so I had 4 x 67g…I’m rather nerdy when it comes to measuring). Roll each piece into a long sausage and cut into 16 pieces (again…I rolled mine out until it was 32cm long, then put a ruler next to it and cut equal pieces of 2cm…).

5. Roll each piece of dough into a ball and place them on the baking sheet with a little space between them. You might have to bake them in two batches.

6. Bake the kruidnoten for around 14-16 minutes (turning the tray half-way) until slightly puffed and a spicy aroma comes from the oven. Remove the tray and put the  kruidnoten on a rack. They should harden as they cool.

7. If you want to, dip the cooled kruidnoten in dark chocolate for a more indulgent festive treat.

Worth making? A definate yes – very easy to make, and utterly delicious and more-ish. A true Dutch delight!

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Scottish Food: Selkirk Bannock

You’ll probably know by now that I’m Scottish, and that often comes through in a lot of the food I make. Well, it’s certainly been an interesting few months concerning the future of the nation (but of course, as a resident of London, I was an observer rather than a voter) and I get the feeling that this “interesting” period is only going to continue.

So how to deal with this disconnection? Make something Scottish of course! I decided that I really should turn my hand to making a traditional bake called the Selkirk Bannock, a rich bread made with dried fruit – and sometimes spices – which originates from the Royal Burgh of Selkirk in the Scottish Borders. Truth be told, I made about four of these over the last couple of weeks. Symptomatic of a touch of homesickness perhaps?

selkirkbannock1

Now, the name name “bannock” usually means something a bit more like a flatbread, often cooked on a griddle. Well, this really could not be more different. The Selkirk Bannock was originally a festive bake, but is now available all year. It is an enriched bread, made with milk and butter, but no eggs (at least in my version) and not a crazy amount of sugar. Most of the sweetness comes from the sultanas, so it can be eaten either as a savoury bread with cheese, or toasted and topped with butter, or jam if you want something very sweet. It’s certainly an easy and tasty bake to enjoy on these nippy autumnal days as the final days of summer pass quickly.

selkirkbannock2

I tried making a couple of versions before settling on my recipe below. From what I could see, most recipes did not use a lot of yeast and a limited amount of liquid, but this meant that my first attempt did not have much of a rise. While this seemed to chime with bannocks that I remember eating in the past, it was not quite what I was looking for. Flat flavour and a flat look! Fortunately, this was easy to fix – in my next attempt, I added more milk to make the dough softer, and I doubled the amount of yeast – I figured that it would be quite acceptable to have a light and tasty Selkirk Bannock that veers towards being a Celtic take on a panettone.

One thing to point out about the flavours in here – it’s traditional to stick just to dried fruit like sultanas, but more modern versions also include candied peel and/or spices (or even the ubiquitous cranberries!). I’ve stuck with a fairly traditional recipe, but I did add a dash of garam masala for a little extra flavour. Perhaps not quite what the purists would like to see, but I’m happy to face the wrath of some gnarly Scots master bakers – I’m rather happy with my bannock, with its light texture, a lovely golden soft crust, and lots and lots of fruit. I think it worked a treat – it was a big hit at brunch, sliced, toasted and spread with salted butter.

 To make a Selkirk Bannock:

• 60g butter, plus extra for greasing
• 150ml milk, scalded
• 250g strong white flour
• ¼ teaspoon salt
• 1 teaspoon instant yeast
• 2 teaspoons caster sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon mixed spice (optional)
• 200g sultanas
• 30g light brown sugar
• milk, to brush

1. Melt the butter and add to the milk. Leave until lukewarm.

2a. If using a bread machine: Put the flour, salt, yeast, caster sugar and mixed spice (if using) plus the milk mixture into the bowl and run a dough cycle. Simples!

2b. If making by hand: Put the flour, salt, yeast, caster sugar and mixed spice (if using) plus the milk mixture into the bowl. Stir with a spoon, then knead with your hands until you have a smooth, stretchy, silky dough (at least 5 minutes). 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.

3. Knead the sultanas and brown sugar into the dough, then shape into a round and put into a buttered and lined cake tin. Leave to prove until roughly doubled in size (ideally spritz lightly with water, put the whole thing in a plastic bag, then leave somewhere warm).

4. In the meantime, preheat the oven to 160°C (320°F). Brush the bannock with milk and bake for 40-50 minutes until the bannock looks risen and well-browned. You might need to turn it round at some point to get an even colour, but if it like it is getting too dark, cover loosely with tin foil. When done, the loaf should sound hollow when tapped lightly.

5. Let the bannock cool for 10 minutes in the tin, then transfer to a wire tray to cool completely.

Worth making? Delicious – easy to make, and a good all round bread for breakfast or a little snack.

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Filed under Recipe, Scottish Food, Sweet Things

Drink More Gin!

Last autumn I got into making a few of my own fruit liqueurs. Flavours of the season like quince, damson, sloe and spiced pear. Each of them was delicious and well worth the patience required to let them sit and quietly do their thing down in the cellar. Nothing quite as magical as pouring a little glass, and setting down to watch a festive film on the sofa next to the Christmas tree.

However, my autumnal shenanigans left me playing things fairly safely, as I had stuck to familiar fruity flavours. Of course, I had also made a batch of cinnamon-infused vodka, which packed quite a punch, even when served ice-cold, and this got me thinking about making something that was based on herbs and spices. And this quickly led me to the idea of trying to make my own gin.

Now, before anyone gets the idea that I might set fire to my own house or that they should call the police, I’m not actually planning to start running a home distillery under the stairs! No, the recommended approach for those of a gin-like persuasion and sufficiently bonkers to have a go at this at home is to take some decent-ish vodka, and then add various botanicals to allow their flavour to infuse into the alcohol. Given that most of the ingredients you use are fairly strong flavours, the whole thing is done in about three days. What you will get at the end is something that doesn’t look like the clear gin that you are probably used to, but it certainly has the flavours and aromas you might expect. The difference is due to the way commercial gins are produced, allowing the spirit to distil through the botanticals, taking the flavours as it goes and resulting in a clear spirit. My method will give you  bit more of an amber colour, but that probably means it has traces of vitamins in there too.

Now, if you’re going to make gin, the one non-negotiable ingredient in there is juniper berries. These have a wonderfully fruity and almonst pine-like aroma, very resinous, which when you smell them has that specific gin-like aroma. If I were being very ambitious, I would be harvesting these myself, as they grow wild in Scotland. Well, maybe next time, but I had to make do with dried berries from Wholefoods. The bushes tend not to grow wild in the streets of London. Do not be misled by the name London Gin!

Beyond the juniper, you’ve pretty much got complete freedom about what you want to add, and it is at this point that you might just want to raid your spice drawer or cabinet to see what you can get your hands on. The key thing to think about is what are the two or three key notes that you want to come out in terms of flavour, and then major on those, with other ingredients acting more as background flavours, to be hinted at rather than standing centre stage.

As supporting stars, I oped for cardamom, which is just about my favourite spice, with a fresh lemon-like aroma that I thought would enhance the juniper. In addition to that, I added some orange peel (rather than the more obvious lemon or lime) and a blade of star anise. This last spice in particular is very, very powerful. It adds an exotic sweet spicy note, but it really is easy to get this wrong. I added this on day two, and by day three (the last day of infusing) it was already quite noticeable.

GinBotanicals1

After that, free rein beckons. I also added a teaspoon of coriander seeds to add a little more citrus. I also did just as I suggest you do, raiding the spice drawer to add a pinch of the more aromatic items in there – red peppercorns, nigella seeds and caraway.

I also drew some inspiration from a Spanish gin that I enjoyed in Barcelona last year, which was infused with rosemary. That seemed like a good idea to try here. I also went for some thyme and lavender leaves. It was just like picking tea, I plucked only the fresh new leaves from the tips of each plant. Each of these could, on its own, be very powerful, and I did not want much more than a hint of their respective flavours.

Now, I mentioned already that I added a blade of star anise on day two. I also added a small piece of cinnamon at the same time. Both of these are sweet, woody spices, and I thought they would help to balance the fresher flavours that I already had in the gin. I make all of this sound like science, but of course, it really was all just guesswork.

GinBotanicals2

It is important to take all this merely as inspiration, and not to feel limited by what I’ve suggested. I enjoy Hendriks, a Scottish gin flavoured with cucumber and rose petals, as well as a recent discovery called Ophir, which strong notes of cardamom and black peppercorn (note to readers – talk to bartenders, they will introduce you to new things!). Whatever herbs and spices you enjoy, chances are someone makes a gin with it.

What is important is to think about what you’ve got to hand as well as what is in season. I’ve also got a blackcurrant sage bush in the garden, which could be interesting for next time? If I get back to this in summer, I can always add a few rose petals, a few violets, and perhaps a little lemon thyme…balanced with pepper, caraway and aniseed?

Whatever combination of botanicals you use, there is one way to get a rough idea of the aroma you can expect. Put everything into a bowl, then crush lightly. This should release some of the essential oils, and you’ll get a very vague sense of what you can expect. If something is dominating, then remove it, or add more of what you feel you are missing.

botanicals

Making home-made gin is a dooddle. I put everything (other than the cinnamon and star anise) into a bottle of vodka. After one day, that familiar aroma of gin was there, and the vodka has taken on a light amber hue. On day four (72 hours steeping) I strained the mixture, poured a shot into a glass with ice and a slice of cucumber, and topped it up with tonic to make what I hoped would taste not unlike a G&T. So how was it?

gin

Well…really quite fantastic. The flavours are much more pronounced than in distilled gins, and I could pick out the various flavours that I used, but the whole was definitely greater than the sum of its parts. The best way to describe this is as something that is very different from the gin that you are used to, not a replacement, but nice as an addition to the drinks cabinet. It is not as crisp, but you get more of the individual flavour components while drinking. I found that my particular gin was only so-so with lemon, nice with orange zest, but it really came to life with a slice of cucumber. Perhaps it was the fact that there was quite a lot of juniper and warm spice in there that meant it was complemented by the cool freshness of cucumber. All in all – I think I’ve had a success with this one!

To infuse your own gin (makes 750ml):

• 750ml good basic vodka
• 3 tablespoons juniper berries
• 1 teaspoon cardamom pods
• 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
• 1 sprig lavender leaves (tips only)
• 4 sprigs fresh rosemary (tips only)
• 4 sprigs fresh thyme (tips only)
• pinch red peppercorns
• pinch caraway seeds
• pinch nigella seeds
• 2 strips orange peel, shredded
• 1 blade star anise
• 1/2cm piece cinnamon

1. Lightly crush the seeds and bruise the leaves. Put everything in the vodka bottle, apart from the cinnamon and star anise. Leave to infuse in a dark place for two days, shaking from time to time.

2. Add the star anise and cinnamon. Shake well, and leave in a dark place for another 24 hours, shaking from time to time.

3. Once the mixture is ready, strain to remove the seeds and herbs. If you prefer, pass through a filter.

4. Enjoy on ice with tonic and a slice of cucumber.

Worth making? Yes! This is super-easy and the flavours are really fantastic.

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Filed under Drinks

{9} Elisenlebkuchen

One of my favourite Christmas treats is the German Elisenlebkuchen, packed with nuts, citrus peel and spice, and the base coated in dark chocolate and finished with a sugar glaze that takes on a frosty appearance. They are pretty much Christmas in a biscuit.

Now, if I’m going to dare to call these things Elisenlebkuchen, then I need to be careful what goes into them. I earn some credit for the hazelnuts, walnuts, almonds, various spices and lemon and orange peel I’ve used, but I would have scored a great big fat zero if I had let just one dash of flour get anywhere near them. As a mark of quality, these things are made wheat-free. As a result, they have a fairly flat shape, but the flavour is rich and the texture soft and dense.

elisenlebkuchen

My fondness for these is in part due to what goes into them – nuts, spices and candied peel. However, it is also due to the fact that they are one of the first biscuits I got to know. Unlike today, when we’ve got easy access to foreign Christmas goodies, it used to take a bit of work. Panettone, marrons glacés and Lebkuchen had to be searched out, found only in places familiar to those in the know. So it was with these biscuits. The specific brand I loved were Bahlsen Contessa, and they were sold in a branch of Spar where my grandmother lived. The German woman who ran the shop had a few of them in at the end of the year, so no visit was complete without a trip to pick up a box of Lebkuchen. I liked to pick off the chocolate and then eat the soft cake bit.

elisenlebkuchen2

While there are rules about what you can use, you still have some scope to play around. Various recipes seemed to suggest using just almonds, but I wanted to add a bit more depth to my attempt, so I used equal parts of hazelnuts, walnuts and almonds. For the candied peel, I changed the common 50/50 mixture of orange and lemon, using mostly orange, and relying on fresh lemon zest to provide the zing.

And finally, the spices. The traditional approach is to use Lebkuchengewürz (Lebkuchen spices). However, I had run out of this so I let my creativity run wild. Cinnamon, cloves, mace, ginger, cardamom, star anise and a dash of white pepper went in there. You can go with whatever you like, but I would aim for mostly cinnamon with just a dash of the more powerful spices. Also keep in mind that the flavour will mature as they are stored, getting stronger with time, so if you go with lots of really forceful spices such as cloves or black pepper, you might send your guests running to the kitchen for water. Going heavy on nutmeg, coriander or cardamom, in contrast, probably invokes less of a risk!

When it comes to finishing these Lebkuchen, you’ve also got a few options. They often feature whole almonds arranged either individually or in a circle on top. They can be left as they are, or coated with a simple glaze of icing sugar and hot water. This has a magical effect when you leave it overnight, taking on a white, frosted appearance. Alternatively, you can coat them entirely in dark chocolate, which works wonderfully well with the citrus and spices. I went from something that combined the two – the glaze on top, with a layer of chocolate on the bottom.

If you buy these, they tend to be on the large side, around palm-sized. I made them more bite-sized. Which…arguably means…you can enjoy twice as many. I think all in all, they take a fair bit of time to make (you need to allow for overnight drying of the icing, and then fiddling about with tempering chocolate and so on) but nothing is particularly difficult and the result is really delicious.

To make Elisenlebkuchen (makes 32):

For the biscuits:

• 3 eggs
• 150g soft light brown sugar
• 75g white caster sugar
• 200g ground nuts (walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts)
• 25g flaked almonds, crushed
• 100g candied peel, very finely chopped
• 1 lemon, zest only
• 1 1/2 teaspoons mixed spice
• pinch of salt
• 1/2 teaspoon baker’s ammonia

For the glaze:

• 100g icing sugar
• 2 tablespoons boiling water

 To finish:

 • 250g dark chocolate

1. Preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F). Line four baking trays with greaseproof paper, and rub each very lightly with oil.

2. Separate the eggs. In a bowl over a pan of barely simmering water, beat the yolks with the brown sugar until pale and fluffy (around 3 minutes).

3. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites until you have soft peaks. Add the caster sugar, and whisk on a high speed until you have a stiff meringue.

4. Fold the meringue into the egg yolk mixture in three batches. Stir in the ground nuts, crushed flaked almonds, candied peel, lemon zest, spice, salt and baker’s ammonia.

5. Transfer the mixture to a piping bag, and pipe out rounds onto the trays (I did eight per sheet – each one around 4cm diameter).

6. Bake the biscuits for 20 minutes, turning the tray mid-way through, until they are puffed up and browned. When done, remove from the oven, allow to cool and remove from the paper and cool on a wire tray.

7. Once all the biscuits are baked, make the glaze by mixing the icing sugar with the boiling water. Brush the glaze onto the domed side of the biscuits, and leave overnight to dry (the glaze should dry fairly quickly, and take on a “frosted” appearance by the next morning).

8. Finally, melt the chocolate and use to coat the flat side of the Lebkuchen.

Worth making? Definitely. These taste pretty much like the pure essence of Christmas, and well worth the time they take.

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Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things