Tag Archives: star anise

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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Diamond Jubilee: Regal Cola

You might have noticed that I’ve got yet another new header. It’s all about HM The Queen, and the regal theme is a not-very-subtle hint that the next few posts are all going to be about the Diamond Jubilee! And it’s not just me that’s going for it – shops are brimming over with Union Flag bunting, crown-themes cakes and treats and the nation is getting giddy about the prospect of four days of festivities next month.

So how to kick off this series? I thought about this for a while, and decided to start with this recipe for home-made cola. Now, I realise that “regal cola” is not perhaps one of the most obvious things to begin with, but I can assure you that there it a little method to my madness. Allow me to explain.

First of all, home-made drinks suggest summer and fun. This is all the most important as the weather has been lousy. London has been in a technical drought. I say technical because we have had below-average rainfall for around two years. However, you should never underestimate the capacity for the Great British Weather to surprise, and we’ve just emerged from three months of pouring rain and soggy feet. Today, for the first time in a while, it has been proper summer weather. The air is warm, the skies a crystal-clear blue and we’ve had lots and lots of sunshine!

Anyway, while we were in the dark, cold, days of the phoney summer, I decided to make some retro summer drinks to bring a little sunshine into our lives. Last year I made a lot of lemonade and this time I have decided to turn my hand to cola. I’m not a frequent cola drinker, as we tended not to drink soft drinks when I was younger. I’m pretty sure that as kids we used to ask for them, but they were rarely in the house and as such I’ve never really developed a taste for them. Pleasant on a warm day, but I just don’t get those folk that drink eight to ten cans per day. Having said that, when I do drink certain well-known brands of cola, I have tried – like many others have done – to  identify the flavours in there. I appreciate that this is at trade secret, and I don’t think that anyone in Atlanta will be losing much sleep, but I think that I’ve variously picked up hints of cinnamon, citrus and vanilla in there. There were obviously others, but I wasn’t really able to identify them.

So imagine my surprise when I finally stumbled upon this recipe for home-made cola. It’s essentially a combination of citrus, spices, sugar, vanilla and (for some reason) dried lavender. As I looked through the list, each of the flavours set of a little bell in my head – yes, there could be nutmeg in cola. Ginger notes, for sure. Lemon, lime, orange? All possible. Given that I had most of the ingredients lurking in the spice cabinet or my fruit bowl, I decided to cast caution to the wind and mix up a batch. I also though that it would be a fun addition to the local street party that is being held in the ‘hood for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. It’s home-made, so has that pleasing retro touch, and I think appearing with a batch of syrup I made myself will go down very well in free-thinking Stoke Newington, where many folk will be keen to cock a snook at The Real Thing. Me? I’m just very curious.

What I do love is the sheer range of things that go into this mixture. Each ingredient on its own is aromatic and something that I like, so I was intrigued how they would affect each other. Indeed, some of these flavours were very strong, and often overpower other flavours, so it was interesting to know just what they would taste like together, and whether the total would be greater than the sum of its parts.

And this all brings me to the second reason that I think makes this a fitting recipe to begin with. Yes, home-made drinks suggest summer street parties, but this particular recipe involves a lot of ingredients that recall many of the Queen’s realms. For HM The Queen is not just monarch of the UK, but also 15 other realms (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica, Barbados, the Bahamas, Grenada, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Antigua and Barbuda, Belize, and Saint Kitts and Nevis). I reckon that the various ingredients in this recipe cover off rather a few of her realms, so it’s actually something of a celebration of the flavours of the world. The aromas you have while making it from scratch (anise, vanilla, ginger, cinnamon, citrus) are so much more rewarding that just pulling the tab on a can.

In making this recipe, I did make a couple of tweaks. Firstly, I did not have any caramel colouring, so I used 50/50 white and light brown sugar, and used some of the white sugar to make a little caramel. It provided a reddish-brown shade to the syrup, but I think the colouring is essential if want the resulting drink to be dark brown. Otherwise, make do with a pale yellow. The taste is still there, but I guess it depends how much you like to eat (or drink) with your eyes.

I also skipped the citric acid. I’m not entirely sure what this does (but I suspect it helps preserve the syrup), so I just used lemon juice. It’s easy, it’s natural and it saves trekking round the shops looking for a novelty ingredient.

With the syrup made and cooled, it was time to take the taste test. First, I made it up using still water and served it on ice. It was a pleasant enough drink, but there was something missing. It was a sweet spiced-citrus drink, but I had a vague niggle in the back of my mind. I think it was the fact that it tasted like cola, and it seemed to have gone flat. No fizz. So to remedy that, taste test number two involved soda water. Now this was where the flavour magic happened. It was a cola. It tasted like cola. Amazing! So it was literally the fizz that gave this drink its fizz!

And finally…to give it that proper Jubilee look, I served up the first soda-based batch in souvenir ERII glasses that I picked up in a Brussels vintage shop. Look pretty good, don’t they?

All in all, I spent about an hour minutes making this syrup, but really, it was just prep work, let it simmer, strain and let the sugar dissolve, so very much a taste that you can dip in and out of. I have ended up with about a pint (500ml) of syrup, which should make for about five pints (2.5 litres) of cola…which is probably just about enough for a street part over the Jubilee weekend! And now…I’ve made up a jug and I’m sneaking to sit in the sunshine and read the day’s papers. Cheers!

To make cola syrup:

• 500ml water
• Zest of 2 oranges
• Zest of 1 lime
• Zest of 1 lemon
• 1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/8 teaspoon freshly-grated nutmeg
• 1 section star anise, crushed
• 1/2 teaspoon dried lavender flowers
• 2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
• 4cm piece vanilla pod, split
• 1/4 teaspoon citric acid or 1 tablespoon lemon juice
• 250g white sugar
• 200g brown sugar

Put the water and all ingredients except the sugars into a saucepan. Bring to the boil, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes.

In the meantime, make some caramel to add a bit of colour – put three tablespoons of the white sugar in a small saucepan. Heat gently until the caramel is a deep golden colour (but does not smell acrid!). Pour onto the rest of the sugar – this will stop the caramel cooking any more, and it will also set to make it easy to handle.

Once the spice mixture is done, remove from the heat, and pour the liquid through a cheesecloth into the sugar mixture. You can give the cloth a good squeeze to get all the flavour out, but you might want to hang it from a cupboard handle to drip into the sugar and allow the spice mixture to cool.

Stir the sugar from time to time, until it has all dissolved. It might take a while for the hardened caramel to properly dissolve, but it will happen.

The syrup can be stored for 2-3 days in the fridge in a clean jar.

Worth making? This is an amazingly easy recipe, and it really is surprising how you get a genuine cola flavour from a bunch of very un-cola like ingredients.

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Recipe Challenge: White Christmas

We all love a good challenge! So here is a chance to try one! I am one of the judges in the December Challenge at Very Good Recipes where the theme is “White Christmas”.

To kick things off, all the judges have led the way, and we’ve turned our hands to creating something new – you can check out the creations in the links below, but here is my attempt – a festive take on the Mexican/Spanish drink horchata – based on almonds and with lots of traditional Christmas spices.

What led me to create this recipe? Well, I wanted to try something that was a little less obvious – I love all the cakes, biscuits, sweets, chocolates and puddings at this time of the year – but this was a chance to do something a little different. When leafing through a cookbook, I saw a recipe for horchata based on rice, and thought this could be easily adapted to suit the White Christmas theme.

The most obvious thing was the white colour. However, I thought it would be nice to make this snowy-white beverage, but round out the flavour with all manner of warming festive spices. This would – in theory – result in something quite fitting for  those drinks parties at this time of year. Personally I love a good glass of mulled wine, but sometimes it is nice to try something else, especially for guests who are not quite so keen on the strong stuff.

I moved away from using rice to using almonds, so that this version of horchata can be drunk chilled over ice, or warm with a dash of rum if you’re a fan of something a little stronger. I can assure you – warmed, with a spoonful of rum, a dash of orange zest and a dusting of cinnamon – it’s divine!

If you’re wondering what that is in the drink, it’s a gilded almond!

This recipe also plays with festive flavours in a number of levels. First of all, the base is made with almonds and pine nuts, the former being a festive classic, and the latter adding an extra creaminess to the mixture and a slight pine aroma.

The drink is also sweetened not with plain sugar, but a syrup that has been infused with a range of spices – cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, star anise and even a couple of jaunty red peppercorns! There is also some sweet vanilla and, in place of the classic lime zest, some orange zest for warmth and sweetness. But no need to stick to my list – adjust the spices according that what you like, or add other things that take your fancy (maybe a little syrup from preserved ginger, a dusting of nutmeg or a dash of mace?).

So all in all, rather a sophisticated little treat! And also useful to know that this drink, while being rich and creamy, is vegan, so also idea for those that are avoiding dairy at this time of year.

I hope that the idea and the pictures above are proving rather tempting, and that you are interested in entering the recipe challenge!

All the details can be found here, but basically the idea is to come up with something that covers the theme “White Christmas” – it can be sweet or savoury, a new dish to a new take on a traditional recipe. The colour can be snowy-white, or it can be something that just typifies the feeling of being wrapped up next to a wood fire while the snow is falling outside. Let your imagination go wild!

There are also some great prizes to be won, courtesy of the kind folks over at Savoury Spice Shop.

If you are just a little bit curious and would like to get some inspiration, have a look at the blogs of the other judges and see what each of us has done with the theme:

• Alex from Food 4 Thought
• Anne from Les Recettes du Panier
• Han Ker from Hankerie
• Kristina from Knuckle Salad
• Quay Po from Quay Po Cooks
• Rachel from Blissfully Scrumptious
• Suzy from Suzy Eats
• Vanessa from Vane Valentine

Best of luck!

To make White Christmas Horchata:

• 1 cup (150g) skinned almonds (*)
• 2 handfuls pine nuts
• 1 stick of cinnamon
or some cassia bark
• 2 cloves
• 3 cardamom pods, crushed
• 2-3 strips orange peel
• 1/3 vanilla pod
• 1/2 cup (100g) white sugar

Grind the almonds and pine nuts as finely as you can. Put them in a large bowl and add three cups (720ml) boiling water. Stir well, cover, and leave to sit for several hours – overnight is ideal.

At the same time, make the sweet spiced syrup. In a small saucepan, combine 1/2 cup sugar (100g) with 1 cup (240ml) water, the spices, vanilla and orange peel. Bring the boil and simmer for five minutes. Remove the vanilla, and leave to sit for several hours – again, overnight is ideal.

To finish the horchata, put the almond mixture in a blender and process until very smooth (it will change from slightly yellow to very white).

Strain the liquid through a cheesecloth – all those ground almonds can clog the cloth, so get in there and use your (clean) hands to squeeze out as much liquid as you can. If you like, you can take the nuts from the cheesecloth, whizz them up again in the blender with another cup of water, and strain again. You should end up with around 4 cups (1 litre) of liquid.

Next, strain the spice mixture.

Now the fun bit – mix the almond milk with the spice mixture! Adjust the amount of sugar to taste – I didn’t add any extra, but go with what you like. This horchata will keep in a sealed bottle in the fridge for two days – make sure to shake well before serving.

To serve, there are a couple of ways to let your imagination run wild:

  • Chilled – serve over ice, topped with flaked almonds, or go for glamour as I did and float a single almond that has been coated in gold leaf (decadent – but fun!).
  • Warm – heat the horchata, add orange zest and white rum to taste, and serve with a light dusting of cinnamon.

(*) If you need to remove the skin from almonds, it’s very easy – just bring a pan of water to the boil, throw in the nuts, and boil for around a minute until they start to float. Drain, allow to cook, and you should be able to squeeze the nuts out of their skins. Voila!

Worth making? Delicious, easy and very, very festive. But I would say that, wouldn’t I? Now, go forth and come up with your own take on “White Christmas”!

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{2} Speculaaskruiden

If you’re going to make festive biscuits, you need to get spicy!

Hence the second part of the “Twelve Goodies of Christmas” is a traditional spice mixture from the Netherlands.

Last year, I made a batch of German Lebkuchengewürz. Rather than trying more of the same, this year I’ve taken some inspiration from further west, and made a batch of Dutch speculaaskruiden (speck-oo-lass-krau-den).

My last mixture served me well over the past year, in everything from biscuits to fruit pies and compotes. So if you’re a little apprehensive about making a batch of mixed spice on the basis you won’t use it all, don’t worry. A little pinch of these sort of mixtures will add a lovely gingerbread flavour in place of plain old cinnamon.

I know that you would not normally arrange spices on neat little paper squares, but I found it quite interesting to see how the colours of each spice vary, and as you work with each, the different aromas will fill your kitchen with the most wonderful warm, woody smells. The warmth of cinnamon and ginger, pungent cloves, fresh cardamom and coriander and aromatic nutmeg, star anise and mace.

In making this, I used ground spices for a number of the ingredients – I’ve tried to grind cloves before, but they are tough little fellows, so you end up using a coffee grinder, and frankly – you’ll never get rid of the smell! Fine if you happen to like spiced coffee, but I don’t. So for the really tough ones, I buy pre-ground. However, I did grind some of them myself – the cardamom seeds were tackled with a mortar and pestle, while the nutmeg and star anise got the grater treatment. Just be sure to pass them through a very fine sieve, so you get rid of any woody bits of spice.

What you will notice when you compare the Dutch and German recipes is that they use many of the same basic spices – cinnamon, cloves, ginger and nutmeg – but in different proportions. And just as with so many spice mixtures, there are dozens of recipes and many people have their own ways of making them. So treat the list below as a guide, and adjust the amounts as per your preferences. For the authentic flavour, you need to add the cinnamon, cloves, mace and ginger, but add or omit anything else that takes your fancy.

Now, the big question – what to make with this mixture?

Well, speculaaskruiden is the typical flavour in a number of biscuits – speculaas in the Netherlands, speculoos in Belgium and Spekulatius in Germany. As the names suggest, these are similar types of biscuit – they’re crisp, buttery, sometimes with almonds, and with lots of spice. While they are eaten all year round, they do tasty particularly festive.

That, or add it to cakes, muffins, carrot cakes, crumbles, compotes…whatever your imagination can come up with!

To make speculaaskruiden:

• 7 teaspoons ground cinnamon(*)
• 2 teaspoons ground cloves(*)
• 2 teaspoons ground mace(*)
• 2 teaspoons ground ginger(*)
• 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
• 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
• 1/2 teaspoon ground anise seeds or star anise

(*) These are essential. The other spices are entirely optional

Put everything in a bowl. Mix well – that’s it! Store in an airtight jar in a cool, dark place.

Worth making? This mixture is fantastic – different notes come out from the different spices, and adds a pleasant spicy note to many recipes. If you’ve got this to hand, it makes for an easy way to add a rounded spiced flavour to just about anything. Really recommended.

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{1} Aachener Printen

Why does this post start with a number?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stage 1: The dough

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

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

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

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

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

Stage 2: baking the cookies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Phở Chay (Vietnamese Vegetable Soup)

I’m not a great shopper. In all the New Year sales, there was little that I was focussed on buying, other than a set of very large bowls. Dull!

Or is it? Like millions of others, New Year for me (aside for sparklers, streamers and champagne at midnight) means that it’s time to try being a little healthier, and so I figured that I could use these larger bowls to start making healthy noodle soups, something that would be filling without meaning lots of oil or lots of pasta. With that in mind, here is one of my first attempts. I am calling this phở chay (Vietnamese vegetable soup). Or maybe faux-chay? OK, bad joke…

Now, I use the term calling quite on purpose.  I cannot make any promises about how authentic this recipe, but I can at least say that it is made from things that you stand a sporting chance of finding in a well-stocked kitchen and it is pretty darn tasty. Perhaps the only thing I don’t usually have in the house is lemongrass, which I just added as I found it skulking in the back of the fridge, the victim of a well-intentioned but never-attempted citrus and  lemongrass posset.

To bulk up the broth, I have also used the ingredients that I like in this sort of soup – marinated tofu chunks and green beans, and soba noodles as I much prefer them to rice noodles. Soba has the rich, earthyness of buckwheat, and I very much appreciate that it is more substantial and chewy than rice noodles.

Now, when you look at making a phở, it can look like one of those “bit of a faff” recipes, but in fact I have managed to do the whole thing in just over an hour. Just think of it as a simple two-step process:

Part the First: make the broth. I have omitted any attempts at frying anything to start with, and just throw it all in a large pot with lots of water. Onions and other vegetables, plus stock, soy sauce and rice wine vinegar, to serve as the basis, and then a range of aromatics and spices. Star anise and cinnamon seem pretty much essential, and ginger is very much a “nice to have” (I’ve made it without ginger; it’s good, but with ginger it’s better). A teaspoon of sambal olek provides a little more heat, and a heroic amount of garlic tops the whole thing off. But I digress: put everything in a pot, boil then leave to simmer for an hour. One of the very useful things about this soup is that the broth will be strained to remove the vegetables and spices, so there is no need to waste time trimming things so that they look pretty on the table, unless that is your bag. But when you do come to strain the broth, keep the garlic cloves: they are transformed into soft lumps of sheer deliciousness, which are absolutely sublime added to mash or spread onto slices of very crisp bread.

Part the Second: adding “stuff” to the broth. I just go with whatever is to hand. Some sort of noodle is clearly essential, and while rice noodles are traditional, soba noodles really do work a treat here and I much prefer them. Visually not as much of an impact as white rice noodles, but the taste and texture really is great. I also like to add tofu, which I bake, then add to the broth to boil for 10 minutes before serving. This means that it has the chance to soften in the broth and the flavours mix. Then…top it all off with vegetables of your choice. Quick-cooking items such as mushrooms can be sliced and left raw, beansprouts can be thrown in as they are, while string beans or asparagus can be quickly boiled before serving.

Then, assemble it all! Put noodles and vegetables into your serving dishes, then ladle over the broth. Top with spring onions and a sprig of basil, and you’re done! Nothing more to do than get chopsticks and say: Chúc ngon miệng! (*)

For the stock:

• 10 cups water
• 1 large onion, peeled and quartered
• 2 stock cubes
• 2 sticks cinnamon
• 2 star anise
• 1 clove
• 1 cardamom pod
• 3 tablespoons low-salt soy sauce
• 1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
• 1/2 stick lemongrass
• 1 teaspoon brown sugar
• 6-8 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
• 1 inch piece of ginger, peeled and sliced
• 1/2 teaspoon sambal olek / chilli paste

To put in the soup:

• marinated tofu chunks
• 75g rice noodles / soba noodles per person, cooked, drained and rinsed
• 2 handfuls bean sprouts
• 2 handfuls mushrooms, sliced
• other vegetables (string beans, shredded lettuce, shredded spinach, shredded carrot), briefly boiled if necessary
• Thai or regular basil, mint leaves and/or lime wedges to garnish

To make the broth: Place all the stock ingredients in a large pan. Bring to the boil, cover, and simmer for at least an hour (can easily be made the night before and allowed to sit so the flavours are able to infuse the broth with their aromas and flavours). Once ready, strain to remove the solids and the broth is ready. You may have to add more water at the end, according to taste.

To prepare the soup: measure the “soup stuff” into bowl, and add enough piping hot broth to cover. Top with sprigs of Thai basil, mint and/or a wedge of lime.

Worth making? I was a little daunted by this at first, given that there are a lot of ingredients, but it was actually very simply to make. The only thing you need is time to allow the broth to simmer, so you get the maximum amount of flavour out of the spices – and I am afraid there is no shortcut for that. I would recommend trying to be light handed with the stock and soy sauce – you can always add more later, and we want the flavours of the anise, ginger, garlic et al to shine in this soup.

(*) Google tells me that this means bon appetit in Vietnamese! – I hope it does!

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Swedish Limpa Bread

I’ve blogged about the freezing winter weather we had recently, but I can honestly say that it was nothing compared to the average Swedish winter I lived through a few years ago when I lived in Stockholm. That was much colder, but I think the real difference was the fact that Swedes embraced the cold weather as a fact of life, and were both prepared for it and got on with things. So we’ve just passed Easter and it’s still freezing…

So the point of all this is that when I was in Stockholm (a beautiful city which I really recommend visiting), I also developed a real soft spot for Swedish food. I like the simple savoury salads with dill, fresh vegetables in summer, wonderful dairy produce (such as filmjölk, a type of thin yoghurt) and their cinnamon-cardamom buns. On of my favourites was a bread called limpa which is made with rye, syrup and sometimes filmjölk, as well as spices. Even with the syrup, this bread still works very well for savoury open sandwiches or as a companion to a spicy soup. Making it is also a pleasure – once you’ve put the orange peel and crushed spices in a bowl, the aroma is wonderfully fresh. Plus, this is a nice chance to post about something other than sweets and cakes.

For the limpa loaf:

• 220g  plain flour
• 60g rye flour
• 1 package dry yeast
• 1 tablespoon dark sugar
• 1 teaspoon finely grated orange peel
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1/2 teaspoon crushed fennel seeds
• 1/2 teaspoon crushed caraway seeds
• pinch ground star anise
• 125ml water
• 60ml low-fat yoghurt yogurt
• 3 tablespoons black treacle or molasses
• 2 tablespoons butter
• 1 teaspoon instant coffee granules

Mix the flours, yeast, sugar, orange peel, salt, crushed seeds and star anise in a large bowl.

Add the water, yoghurt, butter and three spoons of treacle to a saucepan and cook until the butter melts. Add the coffee granules and stir well.

Now pour the warm liquid into the dry ingredients, and start to combine. The mixture will can be very sticky, so if this happens, add more flour to get the mixture but we do not want a ball to form – if this happens, you added too much flour and the loaf will be dry. Knead for around 7-8 minutes until elastic.

Lightly oil a large bowl and put the dough in it, covering with a damp teacloth. Leave somewhere warm for 1-2 hours until almost doubled in size.

Next, punch down the dough, roll out to a rectangle in a floured surface, and then roll up the dough like a swiss role. Tuck the ends underneath the roll, and place into a lightly oiled bread tin. Leave the loaf somewhere warm to rise until doubled in size.

In the meantime, set the oven to 175°C. Once the loaf has risen, bake for 40-45 minutes. If you want to, after 20 minutes,  brush to top of the loaf with diluted treacle (50-50 treacle and water), and repeat 10 minutes later.

Once the loaf is cooked, allow it to cool in the pan for 5 minutes. Remove from the pan and cool completely on a wire rack.

Worth making again? This is not the sort of loaf that you would have for everyday use (for example, it doesn’t work too well in a bread machine), but it is nice from time to time when you have a spare morning and don’t mind coming back to it. I probably do this three or four times per year. The taste is quite unusual – the spices and orange make it aromatic, and there is a sweetness to it that isn’t to everyone’s taste, but I find it goes well with cheese in sandwiches. Or go the whole hog and make a smörgås (Swedish open sandwich) with cheese, dill and pickles.

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