Tag Archives: sultanas

{5} Cougnou

I lived in Belgium for almost four years, and in that time, I thought I had become pretty familiar with the local festive traditions. So it was something of a surprise to discover that they have a Christmas bread that I had never heard of! I finally found and tried one when I visited Brussels a few weeks ago, and I decided that it had to become one of this year’s Twelve Bakes of Christmas.


This is a brioche-like loaf called cougnou (in French) or volloard (in Flemish), and is also know as the pain de Jésus or “bread of Jesus”. It originated around Hainaut in south-west Belgium, and has spread across Belgium and the north of France.

The loaf is supposed to be formed to resemble the shape of the Baby Jesus. You can do this either using a special pot, or by forming the dough into three balls (two small and one large) and joining them together. Lacking the specialist mould and with no way to get hold of one quickly, I went freestyle and hoped for the best. As you can see, it worked and we ended up with a shiny, golden loaf that kind of has the shape of a swaddled baby. Which, when you think about it, really is just a little bit odd…!


There are a few different ways you can flavour the loaf. You could go for plain but raisins or sultanas seem to be pretty common. I happened to have some golden raisins in my baking cupboard, so I added those and they looked very pretty in the dough. Crushed sugar cubes are also popular as they leave little pockets of sweetness in the dough, while more modern versions us chocolate chips which are no doubt very popular with children.


You can make this with either plain flour, or bread flour. The former will give you a more cake-like texture while bread flour will have more gluten, so you will get a dough that rises more. I’ve tried both successfully. Yes, this was so nice I made it twice, since it turns out people are quite happy to tuck into a rich bread in the morning. It is best fresh, but is also nice sliced and toasted for a few days, so don’t worry if you can’t eat a whole one in one go.

The cougnou is topped off with a small decoration. In Hainaut they originally used terracotta circles (now plaster), but now it is common to see a little figure made from sugar to symbolise Jesus. In my case, I used a recipe for Dutch borstplaat sugar candy made in a jelly baby mould, and added some marzipan to finish him off. I think he looks quite sweet, but if you want to be more refined, you can make a figure using just marzipan.


If you have a go at making a cougnou, enjoy it the traditional way – with a cup of hot chocolate. It is also delicious toasted and spread with a little butter. So relax, enjoy your cougnou and as they say in Belgium – Vrolijk Kerstfeest (in Dutch), Joyeux Noël (in French) and Frohe Weihnachten (in German).

To make a Cougnou (makes 1 loaf):

For the dough

• 250g plain flour
• 50g unsalted butter
• 1 teaspoon instant yeast
• 40g sugar
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 100ml milk, scalded and cooled
• 1 medium egg
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 50g golden raisins or sultanas

To finish

• 1 egg, beaten
• pearl sugar

1(a). If using a bread machine: put the dough ingredients (apart from the raisins) into the mixing bowl. Run the “dough” cycle. When finishes, add the raisins and knead together. Simples! [But do check the consistency – you might have to add more flour or milk if it looks too wet or too dry]

1(b). If making by hand: put the flour and butter into a bowl, and rub with your fingers until the butter has been incorporated. Fold in the salt, sugar and yeast. In a separate bowl, combine the milk and egg, then pour into the dry ingredients. Add the vanilla. Stir with a spoon, then work 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. Fold in the sultanas or raisins.

2. Divide the dough in two. Roll one piece into a ball. Divide the other piece in two, and roll each piece into a ball. Moisten the edge of the big ball with some water, then place the smaller balls at either end. Loosely cover with cling film or place the whole tray in a plastic bag. Leave in a warm place until doubled in size.

3. When risen, remove the plastic. Brush the surface of the cougnou with beaten egg, then sprinkle generously with pearl sugar.

4. Bake the cougnou for around 30 minutes until it has a deep golden colour. Turn the loaf round half-way to get an even colour.

5. Remove the baked cougnou from the oven. Cover with a clean tea towel and leave to cool.

6. Finish the cougnou by topping with a little figure made from fondant or marzipan.

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Bara Brith

Hello! After a rather long hiatus, we’re recommencing regular service. Let’s just say that my priorities were elsewhere over the last few months, but when the important moment arrived, everyone said “yes” at the right moment!

Today’s post is a piece of classic British baking. Well, more precisely, a classic from Wales. The name – Bara Brith – translates as “mottled bread” and you can see how it got its name when the loaf is sliced. It is packed with lots of sultanas and raisins, which are plump from having been soaked overnight in sweet tea.

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This is something of a teatime classic, and is probably at its best cut into slices and spread with salted butter. If you like jam or honey, then go for it, but I think simplicity is best. When you’re faced with a platter of very sweet treats, a slice of Bara Brith provides a nice balance. I’ve been taking slices of it when we go out for the day – it’s a great addition to a picnic, and robust enough to handle being carted up hill and down dale without any problems.

And this is definitely one easy recipe. Make your tea, mix it with sugar and dried fruit, and leave overnight to soak so that the flavour of the tea infuses the fruit. The next day, you add an egg, flour and spices, then mix and bake it. Given this, one of the great things about Bara Brith is that you can make it with things that you’re probably already got in the baking cupboard and the fridge, and beyond leaving the fruit to soak overnight, it can be whipped easily, so perfect to make when you’re expecting guests. Or at least, more modern versions allow for this – some recipes still suggest using yeast to make a light loaf, but I find that’s just a bit more work that relying on self-raising flour, and I like to keep things easy.

I’m sure that each Welsh granny has her family recipe which they swear is the best, but I’ve tried a few different versions of this loaf and settled on the one below – it’s got a high ratio of tea to fruit, sugar and flour, meaning that the batter ends up quite wet compared to others that I tried, but I think the secret to getting a soft, moist loaf. I tried a version that used more fruit and flour, and the result was drier and denser. Some might like it that way, but I did not. And as with most things, the more tea, the better.

For the tea, I had a rummage in the cupboard to see what we had. Earl Grey or jasmine would certainly give you a very aromatic loaf, but I went for my all-time favourite, a good, strong brew using Assam. If black tea is not your thing, then you could easily use something like rooisbos, green tea or any other infusion you like, or even just orange juice instead.

Finally, there is the question of whether you add other flavours – some don’t add anything more, while some recipes add orange or lemon zest, and others like to add some spices. I’m a bit spice fan, so I’ve added some Christmas mixed spices and extra cinnamon, but you can go with whatever you like.

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So how authentic is this? Well, I made it and served it to a Welsh friend, Lowri. I asked her to score it out of 10, and waited, secretly hoping for a 9 or even a 10.

Lowri mulled it over, and gave a sensible 7, on the basis that this wasn’t a family recipe that went back at least three generations. Fair enough!

To make Bara Brith (makes 1 loaf)

• 100g raisins
• 150g sultanas
• 150g soft brown sugar (e.g. muscavado)
• 300ml hot black tea (e.g. Assam)
• 1 teaspoon mixed spice
• 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 275g self-raising flour
• 1 large egg, beaten
• 2-3 tablespoons milk or orange juice

1. Put the fruit and sugar into a bowl. Add the tea, mix, cover and leave overnight to soak.

2. The next day, make the loaf. Preheat the oven to 160°C (320°F). Line a 900g/2lb loaf tin with greaseproof paper.

3. Take the fruit mixture. Stir in the spices and the beaten egg, then add the flour and mix well. Add as much milk or orange juice as needed to make a soft batter. Pour into the loaf tin and smooth the top if needed.

4. Bake the loaf for around 50-60 minutes until an inserted skewer comes out clean. If the top looks like it is browning too quickly, cover loosely with tin foil.

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Scottish Food: Dundee Cake

We might be in the New Year, with all manner of good resolutions, but this is a recipe that I really could not resist posting. We’re about to hit Burns Night, when there are celebrations of Scotland’s most famous poet up and down the land. And yes, that’s him on my header, along with a few lines from one of his most famous poems Tam O’Shanter, a cautionary tale about drinking too much and the ghouls and spirits that a man might see in the wee hours.

As part of this celebration of Scottishness, I thought I would have a go at making something that comes from near to where I grew up, the Dundee Cake. This is a rich fruit cake that is most notable for how it is decorated – concentric circles of whole almonds are arranged on top of the cake before baking, which will toast gently as the cake bakes.

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As with all good cakes, there are various stories about who created it and the right way to make it.

Some stories say that Mary, Queen of Scots did not care for cherries, and Dundee Cake was created as a version of fruitcake that did not contain them. This may or may not be true, but I think this is a bit boring, and besides, I quite like cherries in cakes, so I’m not convinced.

The version of the story that I subscribe to is that this was created by the Keiller family in Dundee in the late 1700s. They are famous as the founders of the first commercial brand of marmalade, said to have been the result of a flash of inspiration when a boatload of Seville oranges arrived in the port and they were perhaps a little past their best. In a flash of inspiration, Janet Keiller turned the lot into marmalade, and a legend was born. The Keillers are also famous as bakers of the Dundee Cake, and in this version, I’ve added orange zest as well as a generous amount of marmalade as a nod to their orange endeavours, so I think this story could well be true (or perhaps have some elements of truth to it). Indeed, so much is marmalade tied up in the history of Dundee that it is famous as the home of the three “Js” – jam (marmalade), jute (from textile mills, weaving hessian from the East) and journalism.

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Now, I have to admit that I am no expert in making Dundee Cake (even if I grew up not that far from the city itself), so if you’re sitting there quietly fuming, thinking we dinnae make it like that, laddie! then I suggest you calm down!

I’ve made the sort of cake that I prefer – I’m not a massive fan of cake which is too dark and heavy, so I’ve made a fairly light version. There is also no spice in here, but if you want to play around and add things like treacle or dark muscovado sugar, or even mixed spice or crystallised ginger, then be my guest. The only thing you cannot miss out on are those rings of almonds on top of the cake!

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A couple of little tips to finish – this is not a cake that needs to be fired for hours and hours and hours. In fact, when you bake it, you really only want it to be just done. When you test with a skewer towards the end of the baking time, it is fine to turn off the oven if you only have a few little crumbs sticking to the skewer, as this will help make sure the cake remains soft and moist. This is also a cake that keeps well, so it’s probably best to make it a few days before you need it, so that it can rest for a while.

How you finish this cake off is up to you, but I used a glaze made from sieved apricot jam mixed with marmalade. I brushed this over the warm cake, then covered the lot loosely with tin foil and left the cake in the (switched off!) oven until it was cool. The glaze will dry a bit, and the cake will have a glorious rich brown colour. Nae bad as they might say in Dundee!

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To make a Dundee Cake:

For the cake

• 100g whole almonds
• 160g butter

• 160g light muscovado sugar
• zest 1 orange
• zest 1 lemon
• 3 tablespoons marmalade (approx 100g)
• 225g plain flour
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 3 large eggs, beaten
• 75g ground almonds
• 2 tablespoons milk
• 100g glacé cherries, rinsed, dried and halved
• 250g sultanas
• 100g raisins
• 50g currants
• 50g candied peel, finely chopped

For the glaze

• 2 tablespoons apricot jam
• 1 tablespoon marmalade
• 2 tablespoons water

1. Start by skinning the almonds – put them in a pan of boiling water. Simmer for 5 minutes. Drain, allow to cool for a moment, then remove the skins (they should slip off). Leave the blanched almonds to dry.

2. Preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F). Grease a loose-bottomed 20-23cm cake tin and line the bottom and sides with greaseproof paper.

3. In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the orange zest, lemon zest and marmalade and mix well.

4. In a separate bowl, sieve the flour and the baking powder and fold in the ground almonds.

5. Add one of the eggs plus a tablespoon of flour to the butter/sugar mixture. Beat well. Repeat with the other two eggs, adding a spoonful of flour with each, until you have a light, fluffy mixture.

6. Add the rest of the flour, mix well and then fold in the milk. The mixture should be soft and drop slowly from a spoon, but definitely not runny.

7. Add the cherries, dried fruit and candied peel and fold gently to distribute the fruit.

8. Carefully spoon the mixture into the tin and level with the back of a spoon.

9. Arrange the blanched almonds in concentric circles on top of the cake, pressing lightly into the cake mixture. Put in the oven and bake for 45 minutes at 150°C (300°F). In the meantime, make the glaze – heat the apricot jam and marmalade in a saucepan with two tablespoons of water, and sieve to make a smooth glaze.

10. After 45 minutes, lower the oven temperature to 130°C (265°F) and bake for another 40-60 minutes, checking the cake after 40 minutes using a skewer – it should be just clean, or even come out with a few crumbs (so the centre remains slightly soft). If the cake looks like it is browning too quickly during baking, cover loosely with tin foil.

11. When the cake is done, remove from the oven, and brush generously with the apricot-marmalade glaze. Cover loosely with tin foil and pop back into the (switched off) oven to cool completely. When cold, wrap in foil and store for a few days before cutting.

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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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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?

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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.

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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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Kulich

Have you been able to enjoy some good weather recently? In the last few weeks, things seem to be warming up, and my garden is full of the joys of spring – the clematis is heavy with pale pink blooms, and the tulips that seemed only a week ago to be tentative at best are now adding extravagant bursts of colour – reds, golds and purples. A few other more traditional flowers are also starting to peek out from the sea of green, and it really does feel like summer days are not far away now.

Actually, I’m under-selling this time of year. I have just spent Easter in Scotland, and against all expectations was able to enjoy some spectacular sunny weather – clear blue skies and lovely views. Walks in the countryside, a picnic by a loch, a ride in a hot air balloon and visits to ancient castles, all in the blazing sunshine. The result of all this excitement was that, eh, I actually got a little behind on blogging and did not get round to posting some of my Easter baking. So I’m afraid you’re going to have to bear with me as I write about some seasonal bakes with a slight time lag. Better late than never!

Easter offers quite a lot of options when it comes to baking. The most obvious thing to do is whip up a batch of Hot Cross Buns, rich with spice and finished with a sticky honey glaze. Well, it would be, except the bakery round the corner makes amazing buns, so I’ve been tucking into plenty of those rather than making them myself. So that left me with the task of trying something a little different, and I though I’d have a go at making traditional Russian kulich. Something like this!

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The most striking thing about kulich is the shape of the loaf – tall and slim, with domed top drizzled with a little icing (or in my case – slathered with lots of icing!). It is topped with a few slivers of candied peel, or more traditionally, some edible spring flowers. To get this shape, the easiest way is to use a large-ish tin can, then just wash it out, and line it well with greaseproof paper on the bottom and the sides, and you’ve got a good makeshift kulich tin. One little tip though – don’t use a can that held garlic cloves or strong curry – they can hold the flavours of their original contents, and I think an curry-garlic kulich is a flavour experience that I can happily live without. In my case, I used a tall milk pan, which had a useful handle that made putting it into the oven a little easier.

Now, I have seen this refered to in a few places as “Russian Panettone” which I think does a bit of a disservice to this bread. You find enriched, spiced, fruited breads across Europe, but I guess that the Italian version is so well-known that they’ve got that market cornered. While there are some superficial similarities, kulich has different spices, including cardamom as well as a little saffron for the adventurous. I find saffron and cardamom a curious combination, one that I really have not seen together very often at all, although I did make an Estonian Christmas wreath last year with that flavour pairing, and I can assure you that it really is very, very delicious. That, and the dough will have the most amazing golden colour!

That said…the recipe I’ve used is actually my own Panettone recipe, as it is one that I have made many, many times and I am very happy that it works well, with a good but not overwhelming amount of fruit and candied peel. Well, it’s Panettone, albeit tweaked to reflect the usual Russian ingredients, and baked in the traditional shape. Matryoshkas and babushkas might find this a little bit strange, but it works.

When faced with such a tall loaf, you might wonder how on earth to cut it. Well, rather than trying to cut it like a cake, lay it on the side and cut it into slices. Hey presto – circles of kulich! This does of course mean that some lucky person will get the last slide, smothered in sweet icing. Kulich is traditionally served with pashka, a sweetened cream cheese mixture prepared in intricate moulds. However, it is equally delicious on its own, or served toasted and spread with butter and jam or honey.

To make one large or two small kulich:

• 80ml milk
• Large pinch freshly ground nutmeg
• Large pinch saffron strands
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
• 1 egg
• 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 35g butter

• 25g sugar
• Pinch of salt
• Zest of 1/2 orange
• 3/4 teaspoon dried yeast
• 200g strong white flour
• 75g dried fruit (such as currants and golden sultanas)
• 40g candied peel, diced
• 25g slivered almonds

1. Put the milk in a small pan. Bring to the boil, then remove from the heat. Add the spices, then leave to one side until lukewarm.

2. Mix the egg and vanilla into the milk and blend well.

3a. If using a bread machine: Throw everything into the mixing bowl (put the fruit, peel and almonds into the raisin compartment). Run the “dough” cycle. Simples!

3b. If making by hand: put the flour and butter into a bowl, and rub with your fingers until the butter has been incorporated. Fold in the salt, sugar, orange zest and yeast. Add the milk/egg mixture. Stir with a spoon, then work with your hands until you have a smooth, stretchy, silky dough (at least 5 minutes). Work in the fruit, peel and almonds. 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.

4. Once the dough is ready, prepare either one large or two normal tin cans by lining with greaseproof paper (make sure to leave a high collar around the top, as the dough will rise a lot). Take the dough out of the machine, form into one or two balls as needed, then drop into the tin(s). Leave in a warm place covered in cling film for about one hour until the dough has reached to top of the tin.

5. In the meantime, preheat the oven at 180°C (350°F). Put the kulich into the oven, baking for around 15-20 minutes for smaller loaves or 25-30 minutes for a larger loaf (they should sound hollow when tapped). If the top is browning too quickly, cover loosely with tin foil. Remove from the oven and leave to cool before icing.

For the icing:

• 100g icing sugar
• 4 teaspoons water
• slivers of candied citrus peel

6. Mix the icing sugar and water until smooth. Spread on top of the kulich being sure the encourage a few dramatic drips down the side.

7. Finish with a few slivers of citrus peel on top.

Worth making? Definitely. This is a delicious, aromatic loaf which makes a lovely teatime treat. This is equally delicious slices and toasted for breakfast.

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Rava Kesari

I’ve always found Indian sweets rather daunting. I put this down to the fact that I really do not eat them that often. When you go for Indian food, by the time you’ve filled up on rice, bread and delicious curry, the last thing you are looking for is something sweet and heavy to finish the meal. Maybe, at a stretch, I could manage a little mango sorbet at most, but certainly not fried milk-rich sweets like gulab jamun or rasmalai.

However, I was keen to have a go at making some Indian sweets as I’ve had a hankering to try them for a while. I’ve done some digging recently, and it seems that a lot of them are actually incredibly easy to make. And so it is with rava kesari. There is a little work to be done in preparing some of the ingredients, but you’re not required to do much more than prepare a sweet, spiced syrup and then add it to a ghee/semolina mixture. You’re essentially making a white sauce, but one that is brightly coloured and sweet, which is then cooked until thick, then left to set and cut into fancy shapes. But doesn’t it look pretty?

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If you were trying to guess the ingredients here, you would probably not guess that this is mostly made from semolina. Forgot the nasty, grainy stuff you might have suffered at school. In this recipe, the result is firm but smooth. And you’re probably already guessed how these sweets get their brilliant yellow colour. They are flavoured with saffron, and I must confess that my pictures don’t really do it justice. The colour is amazingly vibrant. The saffron is balanced with ground cardamom (which seems to be to Indian sweet treats what vanilla is to British baking), and they are finished off with some toasted almonds and sultanas.

One of the other vital ingredients is ghee, and so I had to have a go at making it. I was able to buy it in a local shop, but I was going all-out on this one. Recipes often say you can switch ghee for clarified butter, but a quick peek in a Madhur Jaffrey cookbook confirmed that it is slightly different, but not unfamiliar – in fact, it’s simple browned butter. Just throw butter in a pan, leave over a gentle heat, and then wait until the solids darken and the butter has a delicious toasted aroma and flavour. This is well worth doing, as it adds a subtle nuttiness to whatever you are making. It is also so ubiquitous in Indian cooking that it would be a shame not to use it here.

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Frankly, I could not have been happier with how this turned out. Sure, there is a little faffing about with skinning some almonds, making the ghee, leaving the saffron to infuse the milk and in grinding the cardamom seeds, but nothing is too taxing, and all of these steps could be easily done ahead of time. The actual process of making rava kesari is a doddle – just cook the semolina in the ghee, then add the liquid and sugar, cook until thick and spread in a tray.

My version was not too sweet (which was the first shock, I was expecting something tooth-aching) and the combination of cardamom and saffron was light, fresh and aromatic, a combination of resinous and slightly minty with the warm flavour of saffron. I remember at Christmas being pleasantly surprised by this spice combination in a festive loaf, so it was a welcome reappearance for this duo in these sweets. I also loved how the pieces looked when cut – you can see pieces of sultana and almond, flecks of black cardamom and flashes of orange from the saffron threads.

Before service this, I had kept the rava kesari in the fridge. This had an unexpected but welcome impact on the flavour, and it meant these sweets had a very cooling quality. Served like this, I can see how they would be welcome at the end of a meal. In the interests of culinary exploration, I also tried a piece when it had come to room temperature, and while it was still delicious, on balance, I think the chilled version is better. Now, all I have to hope is that I’ve done justice to this delicious sweet!

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To make Rava Kesari (makes 24 pieces):

• 80g unsalted butter
• 3 generous pinches saffron strands
• 360ml whole milk
• 360ml water
• 200g white caster sugar
• 1 teaspoon finely ground cardamom seeds
• 160g semolina
• 30g toasted slivered almond
• 35g golden sultanas
• 24 whole almonds, to decorate

1. Put the milk into a saucepan until warm. Add the saffron and leave to sit for at least 30 minutes.

2. Make the ghee: melt the butter on a low heat, and watch it. It will hiss and spit, then calm down. The solids will turn light brown and the butter will develop a nutty aroma. Strain and put to one side.

3. In a pan, combine the milk, water and sugar. Heat until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture is just starting to foam. Add the cardamom, stir and remove from the heat.

4. Prepare a large tray (20 x 30 cm) for the rava kesari. Brush with a little of the melted ghee and set aside. I used a glass tray with no other lining and had no problems with sticking.

5. In a large pan, add five tablespoons of the ghee. Heat until melted, then add the semolina. Cook on a low heat for two minutes, stirring all the time (it should not go brown).

6. Now start to add the liquid mixture to the semolina. This is a bit like making a white sauce, so start with a ladle of liquid, and stir well. Repeat two more times, then finally add all the liquid. At this point, whisk the mixture until smooth and there are no lumps. It should be bright yellow and smell glorious!

7. Cook the mixture on a medium heat until it is very thick and starts to come away from the sides of the pan. You can test whether it is done by dropping a small piece onto a cold plate – it should quickly become firm.

8. When ready, stir in the almond slivers and sultanas, then pour the whole mixture into the tray. Flatten the mixture (a rubber spatula is ideal). Use a knife to score diamond shapes, and place a whole almond in the middle of each piece.

9. Leave the rava kesari to cool, then chill in the fridge. Before serving, use a sharp knife to cut along the score marks to separate into individual pieces.

Worth making? This is a really different and delicious sweet. It’s fairly easy to make, and you get a really good result from ingredients you might have in the cupboard already. Recommended!

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{12} Festive Ecclefechan Butter Tarts

Merry Christmas to everyone! Here is the final instalment of my 2013 festive baking marathon. I had intended to get them all done by Christmas Eve, but the social whirl, preparing for Christmas day and need to spend a fair amount of time in the garden tidying up after storm damage meant that I didn’t quite hit that target. However, we are still in the limbo period between Christmas and New Year, so at least this offers an easy little recipe to have a go at when you’ve had your fill of Disney films and chocolates.

Last year I made some mince pies to round of the baking madness, so this year I’ve done a bit of a variation on a theme. However, I understand that mincemeat can be a bit of an acquired taste, so instead I’ve made some miniature versions of a Scottish classic, the Ecclefechan Butter Tart, which also have lots of fruit and nuts in them, but rather than the spices, they are enriched with a thick mixture of butter, brown sugar and egg. This is all mixed together and baked, so it puffs up a little on the surface, while inside it is soft, moist and sticky. Ideal as an easy alternative if you have guests coming who just can’t get into mincemeat tarts.

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While it is tradition to use dried fruits like currants and sultanas, plus glacé cherries, walnuts and citrus peel, you can play around quite a bit with the filling. For example, brown sugar is traditional in the filling (giving a slight toffee note), you can easily use white sugar if you want a lighter filling so that other ingredients are not overpowered. Rather than lots of currants and sultanas, you could opt instead for mostly candied orange peel for a more citrussy affair (perhaps a little like that other Scottish delight, the Edinburgh Tart). By that stage, you’re probably getting rather far from a true Ecclefechan tart (and it would be a shame to have to forgo the highly amusing name when presenting to guests), but go with what you like.

I think it is important to get the pastry as thin as you can. I rolled it out, then pressed it in a buttered muffin tray to get it very thin. When you make them with these proportions, you might think there is not that much filling and feel they look a bit mean. All well and good, but the filling is very rich, so if you make them too big, you’ll probably struggle to eat even one of them. Just keep this in mind if you are tempted to double the quantities!

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When serving these tarts, they are great at room temperature, but I’m sure you could warm them slightly. I’ve left mine plan, but you can finish with a little water icing, or a sprinkling of icing sugar for a more festive look.

You might also recognise this tart from a previous post. Yes, I’ve made this before as a large tart to be served by the slice, so if you want something grander for a party, then that’s also an option.

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So…there we have it! The Twelve Festive Bakes of Christmas for 2013! I hope you’re enjoyed these recipes and they’ve given you a little bit of inspiration.

To make miniature Ecclefechan Butter Tarts (makes 12):

For the pastry:

• 150g plain flour
• 50g butter, cold, cut into cubes
• 25g icing sugar
• 1 egg yolk
• cold water

1. In a bowl, rub the butter into the flour. Once the mixture resembles breadcrumbs, add the sugar and mix well.

2. Add the egg yolk and just enough cold water so the mixture comes together (1-2 tablespoons of water is probably enough). Cover the pastry in cling film and leave to rest in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.

3. Grease a non-stick muffin tray with butter. Roll out the pastry very thinly and use a circular cutter to make discs to put in the tray holes. Use your fingers to press down the pastry, pushing it up the sides to make it as thin as possible. Spike the bottoms with a fork, and pop the tray into the fridge to chill while you make the filling.

For the filling:

• 65g butter, melted and cooled
• 100g soft brown sugar
• 1 egg, beaten
• 1/2 tablespoon white wine vinegar
• 25g walnuts, chopped
• 100g dried mixed fruit (currants and sultanas)
• 25g chopped candied peel
• 25g glacé cherries, chopped

1. Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F).

2. In a bowl, combine the sugar, butter and eggs. Stir in the vinegar, walnuts, dried fruit and cherries. Divide among the 12 pastry cases.

3. Bake the tarts for 12-15 minutes until the pastry is golden and the filling is slightly puffy and lightly browned in the centre (turn the tarts during baking).

Worth making? Absolutely. This is a very simple, yet rich, alternative to mincemeat pies at this time of year, so idea for those that don’t like (or want a change from) all that spice.

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{10} Kringel (Estonian Christmas Ring)

Today’s bake moves away from the world of biscuits and into traditional yeasted celebration loaves. This is something called Kringel and (from the limited amount that Google was able to tell me) it originates in Estonia. This is an enriched dough flavoured with cardamom and saffron, and enlivened with cardamom butter and sultanas. Brilliant gold in appearance, and wonderfully aromatic. Oh, and it looks spectacular!

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Yes, today is my tenth Christmas baking post, and I always feel a little sense of relief come over me when I get into double digits in my festive bake-a-thon. I can see the end, and it means I’m 80% of the way there. In case you’re wondering, I’m not one of those people that plans everything in the middle of June, with posted timed to ping out with clockwork regulatory ahead of Christmas Day.

Nope, my world is one of baking chaos, with ideas on top of ideas, changes of heart, new inspiration and abandonment of things that are either over-exposed or no longer tempting. What this all means in a more practical sense is that I’ve been off work for Christmas since Friday, and I’ve been in the kitchen pretty much non-stop to prepare food for Christmas Day but also to make sure I deliver on my Twelve Days of Baking challenge. It’s all real-time action. When I say it’s freezing outside, I don’t mean it was a chilly October day when I made something – I mean there is a December rainstorm outside! This is probably one of the reasons I will never forge a career as a food journalist – I don’t think I would be terrible good at working on a food shoot when it is warm and sunny outside (although I would like a lot more natural light to come streaming in through the kitchen windows than I get at the moment…yesterday it seemed to get dark at quarter to three!).

Today’s recipe is one that sort of evolved in my kitchen. A few weeks ago, I decided to look for some festive ideas from countries that I’m not so familiar with, and once of them was the Estonian Kringel. Oddly, I was not actually able to find out that much about it beyond the shape. Most of the versions I saw online seemed to involve cinnamon, and while this is normally my absolutely favourite spice, I wondered if that was all there was to it. A little more digging suggested that the traditional flavour was not in fact cinnamon, but could involve saffron or cardamom. Cardamom made sense, given the frequency with which it appears in the baking of neighbouring Sweden and Finland. And saffron suggested some sort of link to Swedish luciabullar, those brilliant golden swirls. This did get me thinking…what about using the two of them? I have to admit that this was a strange combination that I would not have thought of putting together myself, so I checked it out in my trusty Flavour Thesaurus. Helpfully, this combination had an entry, and was recommended as a combination. It looked like aromatic, rich saffron and zesty, fresh cardamom would be a winner, and I was sold.

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For the dough, I’ve just adapted my recipe for Swedish cinnamon buns which worked out just fine. The dough contains a decent amount of butter, but not too much sugar. Most of the sweetness comes from the sweet cardamom butter used in the filling in any event, and I knew already that this was a dough that could cope with being rolled out and sliced up.

The fun bit here is how you shape the kringel. You roll out the dough, spread with the filling and the sultanas, the roll it into a long sausage. Next, slice it lengthways, and then you twist the two halves so that the cut side is exposed. This gives you the pretty ridged effect when the kringel is baked. In fact, the only tricky part here is getting a neat join when you form the whole thing into a ring. I’ve now made two of these things, and in each case, the joint was, eh, less than perfect. However, one tip I can share is that the loaf looks better if you keep the twists fairly tight (if they are not tight, then loaf is loose and does not get as much height as you want).

So there you have it – a loaf that looks fabulous and really does not take that much work to make. And trust me on the saffron and cardamom combination – it might seem odd, but it really is wonderful. It’s a nice contrast to some of the other flavours about at this time of year, but it still makes this taste like a very special treat indeed.

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So now, dear reader, a little request from me – does anyone know more about this bread? If you’re Estonian or just a fan of their baking, please do get in touch and let me know!

To make a Kringle:

For the dough:

• 3 generous pinches saffron
• 2 tablespoons boiling water
• 2 teaspoons instant yeast
• 50g sugar
• 60g butter
• 150ml milk, scalded and cooled
• 1 egg
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 1/2 generous teaspoon freshly ground cardamom
• 350g strong white flour
• cardamom filling (see below)
• 150g sultanas
• milk, to brush before baking

For the cardamom butter filling:

• 60g butter, soft
• 60g caster sugar
• 3 teaspoons ground cardamom

1. Crush the saffron and mix with the boiling water. Allow to sit for at least 10 minutes for the colour to develop.

2a. If using a bread machine: Throw everything into the mixing bowl (apart from the cardamom filling and sultanas). Run the “dough” cycle. Simples!

2b. If making by hand: put the flour and butter into a bowl, and rub with your fingers until the butter has been incorporated. Fold in the salt, sugar, cardamom and yeast. In a separate bowl, combine the saffron, milk and egg, then pour into the dry ingredients. Stir with a spoon, then work 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. Make the cardamom butter – put all the ingredients in a bowl and mix until smooth.

4. Once the dough is ready, turn it onto a floured surface. Roll into a large rectangle of around 30 x 60cm  (my  rolling pin is 30 cm long, so use that as a rule of thumb). Spread with around four-fifths of the cardamom butter filling, sprinkle with the sultanas and then roll up into a sausage.

5. Use a sharp knife to cut the sausage lengthways. Arrange the two strips, cut side up. Starting at one end, twist the pieces around each other, keeping the cut sides face-up at all times. Form into a wreath, then join the ends, tucking them into each other as tightly as you can. Place on a baking sheet lined with greaseproof paper. Cover loosely with cling film or place in a large plastic bag, and leave to rise for at least an hour until doubled in size.

6. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F). Brush the loaf with the milk and bake for around 25 minutes until puffed up and golden but not too dark.

7. To finish the loaf, take the reserved cardamom butter. Melt in a saucepan, and add two tablespoons of milk. Bush the hot glaze over the warm kringle.

Worth making? This loaf looks amazing, but is actually incredibly straightforward to make. If you’ve got a bread machine to do all the heavy lifting, then it really takes very little work at all! It makes a spectacular centrepiece for a breakfast or coffee morning, and can be easily customised according to taste (for example, make it with cinnamon and/or other types of dried fruits).

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Belgian Buns

The eyes of the world might be on London in anticipation of a certain new baby, but today saw another royal development across the English Channel in Belgium.  Today is Belgian National Day, and after 20 years in the top job, King Albert II choose today as the moment to abdicate in favour of his eldest son Philippe. Hence the Brussels-themes header, complete with the Atomium.

To mark this, I’ve foregone the more familiar waffles or baked endive, and instead made a batch of Belgian Buns. Spirals of rich, yeasted dough, filled with sultanas and topped with icing and cherry.

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The funny thing is that, in spite of their name, there does not seem to be any basis for linking these buns to Belgium. Indeed, a Belgian friend told me that while they have something similar, it is named after Switzerland (the couque suisse). In the same way that the Danes refer to Danish pastries as coming from Vienna. Sort of.

While Belgian Buns might not be big in the low countries, they are a favourites in Britain. That said, I was quite surprised about how few recipes there are in cookbooks or online for these tasty treats. I’ve actually used my recipe for Swedish cinnamon buns, but without the spices. The cinnamon butter is replaced with brown sugar and sultanas, and the buns are finished with a soft fondant icing and the traditional red cherry.

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After making these buns, I realised that it has been a good few years since I’ve last enjoyed one of these little fellows, but I am very pleased with the result. The dough is rich and buttery, and allowing a decent amount of time for the dough to prove means the texture is very light and fluffy. The only little note of caution I would sound is that you should go easy on the icing – it’s very sweet, so unless you’ve got the sweetest of sweet teeth, you don’t want more than a drizzle.

So there we have it – some (fake) Belgian Buns for the coronation of the new Belgian King. And part of me thinks that it would be rather nice if these things are being served in the Royal Palace of Brussels today.

To make Belgian Buns (makes 12):

For the dough:

• 2 teaspoons instant yeast
• 50g sugar
• 60g butter
• 130ml milk, scalded and cooled
• 1 egg
• ½ teaspoon salt
• 325g strong white flour

For the filling:

• 120g sultanas
• 30g brown sugar
• milk

For the glaze:

• 200g icing sugar
• 3 tablespoons boiling water
• 12 glacé cherries

1(a). If using a bread machine: put the dough ingredients into the mixing bowl. Run the “dough” cycle. Simples!

2(b). If making by hand: put the flour and butter into a bowl, and rub with your fingers until the butter has been incorporated. Fold in the salt, sugar and yeast. In a separate bowl, combine the milk and egg, then pour into the dry ingredients. Stir with a spoon, then work 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. Once the dough is ready, turn it onto a floured surface. Roll into a large square (around 25 x 25cm). Brush the surface with milk, then sprinkle the sultanas and brown sugar across the dough. Roll the dough into a fat sausage, then cut into 12 equal slices.

4. Lay each slice, cut face up, on a bun case. Cover with cling film or a damp teacloth and leave to rise for at least an hour until doubled in size.

5. Preheat the oven to 200°C. Bake the buns for about 10-12 minutes until golden.

6. When done, remove from the oven and cover with a clean tea-towel (this will catch the steam and keep the buns soft).

7. When the buns are cool, make the glaze. Combine the icing sugar and boiling water, mixing until smooth. Drizzle over each bun and top each one with a glacé cherry.

Worth making? These buns are amazing! Very easy to make and they really look impressive when stacked up high, either on the breakfast table or with morning coffee.

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