I’m sticking with the Swiss theme for this next bake. These little cookies are called Biberle, or gingerbread almond nuggets if you’re after a clunky translation. I tried to find out what the name means – Biber is German for beaver, so they could mean “little beavers” which I like. If someone knows for sure, let me know. Their shape sort of looks like a beaver’s tail, so maybe I’m right after all?
Biberle hail from the St Gallen area and they are the thing you want when you fancy something that is a bit like gingerbread and a bit like marzipan. There are two types – round cookies filled with marzipan and the tops elaborately decorated using moulds, and these versions which are the less fancy roll-and-slice cousins.
Biberle might look like a bit of a faff to make, but they are actually fairly straightforward. You make a simple spiced honey and flour dough, and leave it to sit for a few days so that the spice flavour gets a chance to develop. Then when you’ve got a moment in your busy week, you just need to roll it out, add a long thin log of marzipan, and wrap it in the gingerbread dough. Then slice into funky little trapezoid shapes, bake and you’re done.
I was a little wary of making these at first as the dough is not much more than flour, spices and honey. I’ve made something similar in the past – couques de Dinant but they were rock-hard, and it turned out the idea was you just gnawed at them slowly. I wasn’t too keen to have something similarly tough here. However, the recipe is made with some baking soda, which had a bit of an unexpected effect. When I added it, it reacted a little as the honey was still slightly warm. I left the dough to rest for four days and when I came back it had puffed up. Perhaps the dough was otherwise a little acidic or the soda reacted with the honey? I don’t know, but it did mean the dough was workable. I did wonder if that meant that any lift that the soda was going to give had gone, but there was no need to worry – the baking soda did its thing a third time in the oven, and the gingerbread element was pleasingly puffed up.
For the filling, you are looking for proper marzipan – the stuff that is mostly almonds. Check a packet next time you’re in a store – very often the stuff called “marzipan” might only have 25% nuts in it. This can be easily fixed – either buy a high-nut marzipan/almond paste (i.e. more than 50% almonds) or just make it yourself! All you need are ground almonds, icing sugar and something to bind the lot together. I used a couple of spoons of glucose and a little water, plus almond extract and a dash of rosewater as flavourings. You really could go crazy when you’re making the filling – rum, orange zest, lemon zest, amaretto…the only thing to be a little wary of is that I don’t think you want a filling that is too moist, as it will probably go runny and leak out during baking. Not sure the Swiss would approve of that.
The final thing that is really, really weird in this recipe is the glaze you use to give the Biberle a shiny finish. You toast a tablespoon of cornflour in a pan until it goes brown (well, it goes from white to a very pale brown), then cool it, and mix with water and boil it to make a glaze. Whatever was going on, it seemed to work. Just go with it – if nothing else, you’ve learned a new cooking technique – the cornflour glaze!
When I baked these, the dough was a little hard at first, but that was very easy to sort out. Pop them all in an airtight container with a slice of bread. Leave overnight, and the next day, the bread will be dry and the cookies soft and full of spicy delight. Because if you go to all the effort of making Biberle, you want them to taste their best!
To make Biberle (makes 25) (adapted from here)
For the dough:
• 125g runny floral honey
• 25g soft brown sugar
• 75g plain flour
• 50g light rye flour (or just use more plain flour)
• pinch of salt
• 1 1/2 teaspoons Lebkuchen or pumpkin pie spices
• 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
For the marzipan filling:
• 125g ground almonds
• 75g icing sugar
• 2 tablespoons liquid glucose
• almond extract, to taste
• rose water, to taste
For the glaze:
• 1 tablespoon cornflour
• 100ml water
1. Make the dough. Put the honey and sugar in a small saucepan, and heat gently until the sugar has dissolved. Don’t let it boil. Remove from the heat and allow to cool until just warm.
2. Sieve the plain flour, rye flour, salt, spices and baking soda into a large bowl. Add the lukewarm honey mixture and stir until to forms a dough. Cover with cling film and leave to rest (at least overnight, but I left mine for four days).
3. Next, make the marzipan filling. Grind the almonds and icing sugar. Tip into a bowl, add the glucose, and almond extract and rose water to taste. Add a little at a time – you can always add more! Add water if needed to bring everything together to a firm dough. Wrap in cling film and chill for at least an hour.
4. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F) and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.
5. On a floured worktop, form the dough into a ball, then roll into a sausage about 45cm in length. Now flatten the dough and use a rolling pin to get a strip that is 10cm wide.
6. Take the marzipan, and form into a long log, also 45cm. Brush the dough lightly with water, then place the marzipan on one edge of the dough, and roll it up so that the marzipan is tightly wrapped. Trim the dough if needed, and seal the join.
7. Use a sharp knife to cut the roll into 20-25 pieces. You need to alternate the angle so that the Biberle have a triangular shape, but make sure the dough is connected all the way around.
8. Transfer the cookies to the baking sheet, leaving space between them to expand. Bake for around 12 minutes, turning the tray half-way to get an even colour.
9. While the Biberle are baking, prepare the glaze. Put the cornflour in a saucepan and heat until it turns a pale golden colour. Remove from the heat and cool. Mix with the cold water, the heat and bring to the boil – it should thicken and become less cloudy. Once the Biberle are baked, remove from the oven and brush each one while hot with the glaze. Leave to cool.