Tag Archives: twelve days

Almost Twelfth Night…

And just like that, another festive period is nearly over. But apparently it was not always like that. I was glued to Victorian Bakers at Christmas which explored the history of food at this time of the year, and apparently celebrations used to run over the whole Twelve Days of Christmas. This actually makes a lot of sense when you’ve got a predominantly rural and agricultural society with not much to do in the deep dark days of winter. It was the Industrial Revolution that did for this, and whittled the festivities down to just a couple of days. There was also a fascinating look at some of the festive “treats” of the past (and I use that term loosely). Mincemeat pies filled with real meat (beef if you were rich, chopped tripe if you were less well off), and a behemoth of a bake called Twelfth Cake, which seemed to be a yeast-raised fruitcake composed of 75% currants, and coated with some sort of meringue icing. Fascinating to find out a bit of history, but those are two baked items that I don’t think I’ll be turning my hand to in the near future!

Having seen how things were done by the Victorians, I can look back with a little pride at my own take on the Twelve Days of Christmas Baking for 2016. This year, I’ve completed my sixth installment of what has become something of a Christmas tradition. I’ve had a look at what I wrote in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 and I recognise all the usual pledges that I made. I keep banging on about being more organised, being more realistic about the complexity of the recipes I’ll attempt to make, and trying to avoid spending money on pieces of kitchen equipment that are needed to make only one specific type of cookie (pizzelle, I’m thinking about you!).  And of course, when December comes rolling around this year, we get to do it all again.

So here’s to my 2016 edition of the Twelve Bakes of Christmas! I’m pretty happy that I’ve managed to find some very different recipes this year, and I’ve managed a fairly good spread of traditional cookies and treats from across Europe. Some are very old, like the Italian Biscotti di Regina and Cavalluci, through to more modern creations like Spanish Marquesas de Navidad.

12bakes2016
As I’ve done in past years, here are the original lyrics from the Twelve Days of Christmas (which was my original inspiration for the Twelve Days of Baking Challenge) with each of my recipes next to them. Again, you can see there is absolutely no correlation. Not a jot. None whatsoever! Well, other than the Cavalluci might look like golden rings if your eyesight is not good, and I guess that there is a tree in the Borstplaat shapes, even if not a pear tree…

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me:

…twelve Drummers Drumming (Italian Nadalin de Verona)…
…eleven Pipers Piping (Spanish Marquesas de Navidad)…
…ten Lords-a-Leaping (Finnish Joulutorttu)…
…nine Ladies Dancing (Swedish Hallongrottor)…
…eight Maids-a-Milking (Greek Kourabiedes)…
…seven Swans-a-Swimming (Florentines)…
…six Geese-a-Laying (Danish Kransekager)…
…five Gold Rings (Italian Cavalluci)…
…four Colly Birds (Finnish Piparkakut)…
…three French Hens (Italian Biscotti di Regina)…
…two Turtle Doves (Norwegian Sandkaker)…
…and a Partridge in a Pear Tree (Dutch Borstplaat)!

And so we wrap things up for another year. I will be doing this again in 2017, so if you have any traditional recipes that you would like to see on here, please do leave a comment or get in touch. If they have an interesting history or amusing story to go with them, or are associated with a quirky tradition, then so much the better!

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Twelfth Night

Christmas Day has passed, and all the presents have been opened. The cats have played with the paper, and now retired back to their favourite sleeping spots. In our house, everything comes down on 1 January. I know you can keep the decorations up until Twelfth Night (the evening before Epiphany, commemorating the day that the Three Wise Men finally reached the manger) but I like the feeling of packing everything away on New Year’s Day. Perhaps that speaks to my moderation when it came to champagne this year?

While I love all the baking at Christmas, in some ways, I’m also really quite happy to be away from my kitchen. Yes, you’ve probably realised that I’ve just finished my fifth annual Christmas Baking Challenge. I’ve had a look at what I wrote in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014, and I recognise all the usual pledges that I made. I’ll be more organised. I’ll plan. I’ll be realistic about how difficult the recipes can be and how many cookies my friends can eat. And then I recognise that I just love the challenge, with the thrill of trying to do it all before 25 December. I mean…how do I even find the time to get all that baking done at the time of year that is packed with things to do and various social events?

So here’s to my 2015 edition of the Twelve Bakes of Christmas! I feel that this year I’ve been able to go back to more traditional recipes from European baking traditions (compared to my 2014 series), and I’ve really enjoyed digging around in some of the very location baking that goes in, particular in Italy and Switzerland. I loved making the mendiants and I’m so happy I’ve finally managed to crack the secret of tempering chocolate properly. The spicy Danish brunkager were a real hit, and the Italian cuccidati fig rolls were a pleasant surprise –  quite a few folk remarked that they were like a fancy version of a mince pie, with all that dried fruit and spice in them. But for me, there were two clear breakout stars this year – the dark, chocolately Basler Brunsli and the orange-perfumed ricciarelli, both of which flew off the serving plates, and were so simple to bake.

12bakes2015
As I’ve done in past years, here are the original lyrics from the Twelve Days of Christmas (which was my original inspiration for the Twelve Days of Baking Challenge) with each of my recipes next to them. Again, you can see there is absolutely no correlation. Not a jot. None whatsoever! Well, other than the Pfeffernüsse might look like goose eggs if your eyesight is not good…

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me:

…twelve Drummers Drumming (Austrian Vanillekipferl)…
…eleven Pipers Piping (Italian Cuccidati)…
…ten Lords-a-Leaping (Italian Ricciarelli)…
…nine Ladies Dancing (Danish Brunkager)…
…eight Maids-a-Milking (Italian Mostaccioli Napoletani)…
…seven Swans-a-Swimming (German Anisplätzchen)…
…six Geese-a-Laying (German Citrus Pfeffernüsse)…
…five Gold Rings (Spanish Truchas de Navidad)…
…four Colly Birds (Swiss Basler Brunsli)…
…three French Hens (French Mendiants)…
…two Turtle Doves (Swiss Mailänderli)…
…and a Partridge in a Pear Tree (Dutch Taaitaai)!

So that is that for another year! But fret not, there will be plenty of posts during 2016, and I’ll be starting with the Twelve Bakes of Christmas all over again next December. If you’ve got ideas, hints, tips or suggestions, please let me know! Any recipes with strange ingredients or requiring some funny mould or tool are particularly welcome. And if they come with an interesting or amusing story behind them, so much the better!

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{12} Vanillekipferl

The tree is decorated. The presents are wrapped. There is far too much food in the kitchen. The fridge is groaning, but we’ve still had panic moments that we’ve forgotten something. Bearing in mind that we live in the middle of a major city, and the shops are only closed for one day, the chances of anything serious happening due to a lack of chestnuts, crisps or cheese are fairly remote, but that last-minute rush always happens. And to really big up the excitement, I decided at 2pm that we didn’t have enough decorations, so back into the loft we went and there are now baubles and figurines dangling from just about every possible place. We’ve just achieved peak Christmas cheer!

Christmas Eve also means that we’ve reached the end of the 2015 edition of the 12 Bakes of Christmas. To round off this year’s festive baking extravaganza, I’ve  turned to a real classic of central European baking – the simple but utterly delicious vanilla crescents that appear in (at least) German, Austrian, Hungarian, Czech and Slovak baking. These are buttery little pastries, rather like shortbread, enriched with nuts and perfumed with vanilla, which are rolled in icing sugar while warm. This might sound simple, but pile them up on a plate and pass them round, and they will be gone in a flash!

kipferl1
The crescent shape of these biscuits is suggested to have come from the crescent on the Turkish flag, and they were created to celebrate a victory by the Austro-Hungarian army during one of many battles between them and the Ottoman Empire.

Unlike so many spicy biscuits at this time of year that need to rest for the flavours to develop, I think these really are best when they are still fresh, so a good thing to make when you need them the next day. Just try to keep everything as cold as possible – it makes it much easier to handle the dough, to shape it, and they will keep their shape in the oven if the dough has been chilled. And if you don’t keep things cool…well, good luck! You’ll need it!

kipferl2
There is not too much scope for variation here, as you don’t want to play around with the dough so much that the texture changes. Vanilla is pretty much essential, and I would not dream of making them with anything other than butter. Most recipes call for unsalted, but I used salted – I think it actually works really well in these sorts of recipes as it balances the sugar in the recipe (I use salted butter in shortbread too). You could also add spices such as cinnamon or nutmeg, but I think it’s worth adding just a dash if you really have to.

Where there is real scope to play around is with the nuts that you use. Almonds or walnuts are traditional, with the latter lending a nice extra flavour. I think hazelnuts would also work, or you could even try finely ground pistachios for a hint of pale green to the pastry. The only thing you need to make sure is that the nuts really are finely ground – if you’re using whole nuts, I suggest chopping them as finely as you can with a knife, then putting them in a grinder with some of the sugar. This will get them to a fine powder, but prevent them from going oily. If you’re going to all the effort of making them, you want them to be the best they can be!

kipferl3 kipferl4

So that’s it – the final installment in our festival of Christmas baking. I hope you’ve enjoyed it, I hope you’ve had some inspiration, and I hope you’re wise enough not to try to make this many cookies against the clock. But as always, it’s been fun and I’ve loved trying out some new techniques and flavours.

And now, time to crack open the champagne and enjoy a cheese fondue to bring Christmas Eve to a close. The newest addition to the family will be up first thing, ready for presents!

To make Vanillekipferl (makes around 40):

For the dough

• 100g salted butter, cold
• 145g plain flour
• 50g ground walnuts or hazelnuts
• 35g icing sugar

• 1 large egg yolk
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• seeds of 1 vanilla pod (optional)
• 1 teaspoon cream (or milk)

For the vanilla coating

• 100g vanilla sugar
• 100g icing sugar

1. Make sure everything is cold, cold, cold! Mix the flour, icing sugar and ground nuts in a bowl. Cut the butter into small pieces then rub into the flour mixture.

2. Add the egg yolk, vanilla extract, vanilla seeds and enough cream (if needed) so that the mixture just comes together. We’re talking seconds rather than minutes – you don’t want your hands to warm up the mixture! However if the mixture seems very sticky, add more flour, a spoonful at a time, until it forms a soft dough.

3. Wrap the dough in cling film, press into a slab (rather than a ball) and leave to chill in the fridge for a couple of hours or overnight. If you’re in a hurry, pop it into the freezer.

4. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 170°C (335°F) and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

5. Make the coating – mix the icing sugar and vanilla sugar and spread on a plate.

6. To shape the biscuits, cut the dough in half. Roll each piece into a long, thin sausage, then cut each into 20 equally sized pieces. If you want to be precise…I rolled out to 30cm, and using a metal ruler cut out 1.5cm pieces of dough! Nerdy, but precise. Roll each piece of dough into a ball, put on a plate, and put the plate in the fridge for 30 minutes.

7. Shape each piece of dough into a sausage. Shape to a crescent/horseshoe shape and place on the baking sheet. Pop the tray in the fridge for 5 minutes before baking. Aim to bake in batches of 10-15 so you can cover the hot cookies in the vanilla coating when they come out of the oven.

8. Bake for around 10 minutes until slightly coloured – the tips will colour more quickly than the rest of the cookie.

9. When baked, let the biscuits cool for 1 minute, then roll them gently in the vanilla coating. Be gentle – they will be very fragile. However, if they break, then it’s a cook’s perk! I found it works best to put the cookie on top of a pile of the sugar, then cover with more of the sugar mixture. Carefully shake off any excess and transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

10. Repeat the baking and coating process in small batches until all the dough is used up.

11. Store the cookies in an airtight tin – add any remaining coating sugar to the tin, so that your Kipferl keep their lovely white colour. They will soften over time, becoming soft, crumbly and melt-in-the-mouth.

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{2} Mailänderli

Today we’ve got a little bit of a festive mystery. Yes, Christmas means mysteries in our house, and I love to binge-watch episodes of Poirot and Miss Marple. But this one is of a culinary nature, and thankfully does not involve death by biscuits…

Mailänderli are little buttery cookies from Switzerland, rather like shortbread, with a delicate lemon flavour and a jaunty yellow colour, and none of the flavours you normally associate with the festive season (nuts, fruit, spice, chocolate…). Their name means “little Milanese” and they are one of the most popular Swiss Christmas biscuits. Rather fun little guys, aren’t they?

Mailaenderli1
So…what is this mystery? Well, you might be thinking that it’s very logical that the Swiss have a Christmas biscuit that comes from Milan, given that it’s only the other side of the Alps. In fact, the origin of Mailänderli is a complete blank. I haven’t been able to find out the origin of the name, and even the mighty Duden dictionary of all things German doesn’t attempt to offer an explanation. Maybe the recipe really did come from a citizen of Milan many, many years ago? Or maybe it is a mistake by a Swiss baker, confusing Milan with Sorrento (given, well, the lemon link)? I guess we’ll never know. Perhaps not one to trouble Miss Marple!

These cookies are easy to make – just mix the ingredients, let the dough chill properly, then roll out and cut whatever shapes you like. I would just urge you to take the chilling part seriously – I tried a test bake without chilling, and they don’t hold their shape nicely. I also tried doing one or several coats of the egg yolk glaze, but I did not think that this made any difference. One coat does the trick.

Mailänderli are also great cookies to make if you’ve got smaller hands helping you as the chilled dough is easy to cut and the cookies hold their shape nicely. You can also give your helper a paintbrush to coat the tops with the egg yolk to give them their colour (and go non-traditional with sprinkles or pearl sugar). And perhaps best of all…they take almost no time to bake, and these little buttery morsels of lemony goodness taste great while still warm.

Mailaenderli2

To make Mailänderli (makes around 60 bite-sized cookies):

For the dough

• 125g unsalted butter
• 125g sugar
• 250g plain flour
• 1 pinch salt
• 1 large egg
• 1 lemon, zest only

For the glaze

• 1 egg yolk
• 1 teaspoon cold water

1. Mix the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Beat in the salt, egg and lemon zest. Finally, sift in the flour and mix until combined.

2. Wrap the dough in cling film and chill for an hour or overnight.

3. Preheat the oven to 200°C and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

4. Take the dough out of the fridge and roll out to 1cm thickness. Cut out whatever shapes you like, but try to keep the biscuits on the tray roughly the same size so that they bake evenly.

5. Make the glaze by mixing the egg yolk and water. Brush the tops of the biscuits with the glaze, and bake for around 10-15 minutes (depending on size) until the Mailänderli start to turn golden at the edges.

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{1} Taai Taai

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

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

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

taaitaai2

So what is the story behind these little tough guys?

Continue reading

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Twelfth Night

Ah, Twelfth Night! If you haven’t already stripped the tree, this is the last day to do it, lest you suffer bad luck for the rest of the year (or so this suspiciously modern superstitious would have you believe). In our case, everything was taken down on New Year’s Day. It felt like the right time, bringing a bit of order to the house after the chaotic fun of the festive season. The cats, of course, were more displeased, as they had grown rather fond of drinking from the water under the Christmas tree.

Today was my first day back at work after the best part of two weeks spent watching films, meeting friends, enjoying culture (ballet, theatre and pantomime!) as well as playing for hours at a time with my cats. All in all, a great break, and today inevitably came as a bit of a shock to the system. I’m now firmly of the opinion that the best way to deal with it is to go headlong back into the daily whirl, and forget any notions of easing gently back into things.

However, in some ways, I’m really quite happy to be away from my kitchen. Yes, you’ve probably realised that I’ve just finished my fourth annual Christmas Baking Challenge. I’ve had a look at what I wrote in 2011, 2012 and 2013, and there are all sorts of vows to be more organised, to plan, to be more realistic in how I choose to challenge myself.

Well, let’s take a moment to be honest. This year, I didn’t get everything done by Christmas Eve, when I like to have posted all my recipes. No, life kind of got in the way, with lots of things diverting me. Then the baking had to keep going, past Christmas and towards New Year. The reality is that my cooking and my baking can be quite chaotic, very last-minute with choices made on the spur of the moment. And all too often, it has to fit around something else I have to do right this minute. I do this blog because I enjoy it and it is my hobby, a distraction from whatever else is going on, and I’m not quite obsessed enough at the moment to drop other things to perfect pictures of cookies.

So here’s to my 2014 edition of the Twelve Bakes of Christmas, in all its chaotic and crazy glory! I’ve particularly enjoyed this series, which I think have been a bit more unusual compared to some of the more traditional recipes in previous years, and I particularly loved getting some feedback from a reader about how to make more authentic Hálfmánar. The Dutch Kruidnootjes dipped in dark chocolate were utterly delicious and proved to be a massive hit with children (apparently they go particularly well with hot chocolate and an afternoon watching Frozen on a projector, I was later informed!). The Almond Jam Cookies  were gorgeous to look at, and it was lovely to play around with the different fillings. And my favourite was the blazing golden glory that were my Saffron and Almond Buns – easy to make, and utterly delicious.

12bakes2014
As I’ve done in past years, here are the original lyrics from the Twelve Days of Christmas (which was my original inspiration for the Twelve Days of Baking Challenge) with each of my recipes next to them. Again, you can see there is absolutely no correlation. Not a jot. None whatsoever! Well, other than the bright yellow Bethmännchen standing in for the five gold rings….

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me:

…twelve Drummers Drumming (Icelandic Rhubarb Hálfmánar)…
…eleven Pipers Piping (Almond Jam Cookies)…
…ten Lords-a-Leaping (Gingerbread Madeleines)…
…nine Ladies Dancing (Italian Anise Cookies)…
…eight Maids-a-Milking (Frangipane Mincemeat Tarts)…
…seven Swans-a-Swimming (Saffron and Almond Buns)…
…six Geese-a-Laying (Clementine and Clove Sableés)…
…five Gold Rings (German Bethmännchen)…
…four Colly Birds (South African Soetkoekies)…
…three French Hens (Dutch Kruidnootjes)…
…two Turtle Doves (Sparkling Quince Candy)…
…and a Partridge in a Pear Tree (Danish Vanilla Wreaths)!

So that is that for another year. Time to take down those decorations and pack them carefully into boxes for another year.

But fret not, I’ll be starting with the Twelve Bakes of Christmas again in December 2015, so if you’ve got ideas, hints, tips or suggestions, please let me know! Any recipes with strange ingredients or requiring some funny mould or tool are particularly welcome. And if they come with an interesting or amusing story behind them, so much the better!

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{12} Rhubarb Half-Moon Cookies

That’s the end of 2014! Hope you had a blast! I spent the evening in central London to see the fireworks, which is something I haven’t done for about ten years. It might have been chilly, but we were all wrapped up and there was enough champagne and fireworks so that we didn’t really notice how cold it was. Today all the decorations came down and it was back to normal with a bit of a bump. Hey ho…

Today is also the final instalment of the 12 Bakes of Christmas. I usually aim to get them all done before Christmas, or at least before New Year’s Eve, but this year, things went slightly awry. I would love to imagine that I am an organised person, and I had all the best intentions about the bakes I was going to do. Everything would be done in good time. Festive baking would be stress-free. For my final bake, I had something quite impressive in mind too. I hunted around for the ingredients. I even bought a special mould! And then I made them…and they were really awful. Unperturbed, I put it down to a mistake I must have made, and had another go. Also dreadful. It turns out that my baking skills were spot on…it was just that my chosen recipe (which you may notice I’ve avoided naming) simply was not actually that nice! So, I had to abandon my original plan, and go on the hunt for something else to round off this year’s baking. But what?

Well, as fortune would have it, someone read last year’s post about hálfmánar, or Icelandic half-moon cookies. I had used prune filling, but my Icelandic reader told me that apparently this is not really authentic (based on a straw pole of some Icelandic people, which I am willing to accept as 100% scientific). So I was given his mum’s recipe for making them, using rhubarb jam (which I love) as well as baker’s ammonia (which is my all-time favourite novelty baking ingredient). And so it was settled – I would just have another go at one of my favourite recipes from last year, just a more authentic version of it.

rhubarbhalfmanar

As with so many things, nothing beats an authentic recipe – the pastry is great (that baker’s ammonia makes they very light and airy) and the rhubarb jam really is nice in these things, a nice combination of tart and sweet. And yes – better than the prune fulling I used last time! I also took a little more time this year with the finishing – I used a scalloped rather than round cutter on the pastry, used a fork to get good, deep crimping on the edges, and brushed them with a little beaten egg to get a good colour and shine. They also provide a nice alternative to all those rich, spiced goodies at this time of year – lighter and a little unusual.

One final confession – this is not 100% my reader’s mum’s recipe. The recipe I got looked like it would make quite a lot of biscuits, so I divided it by three, which still yielded 25 little rhubarb pastries. Have some pity – when you do twelve recipes in rapid succession, you do get rather a glut of baked goods, and there are limits to how much my friends are willing to eat!

rhubarbhalfmanar2

Finally, I hope you’ve enjoyed the 12 Festive Bakes of Christmas series for this year. I’m sure we’ll be kicking off again in about 11 months’ time!

 To make Rhubarb Hálfmánar (makes 25):

• 165g flour
• 80g sugar
• 80g butter
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
• 1 medium egg

• 1/2 teaspoon baker’s ammonia
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• rhubarb jam
• milk, to seal
• beaten egg, to glaze

1. Start with the pastry: in a bowl, rub the butter into the flour. Mix in the sugar, spices and baker’s ammonia. Mix in the egg and work to a soft dough (add a dash more flour if needed). Chill in the fridge overnight (the dough will be quite soft, but will firm up in the fridge).

2. Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

3. Make the biscuits. Roll out the pastry, then cut out 8cm diameter discs of pastry (use a round or scalloped cutter – I used scalloped). Put about a quarter of a teaspoon of rhubarb jam in the middle of each piece. Moisten the edges of the pastry disc with milk, them fold in half. Use a fork to seal and crimp the edges.

4. Beat an egg and brush the top of each bookie.

5. Bake the cookies for around 10-12 minutes until golden.

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The Twelve Days of Christmas

As has become something of a festive tradition, I have just finished my annual Twelve Days of Christmas Baking challenge. It always seems like a good idea, although the first year I did it, I found myself frantically rolling pastry, shaping truffles and cutting out shapes until early in the morning to get everything done by Christmas Day.

That was 2011, and by 2012, I was vowing to be more organised. Clearly the realities of daily life stopped that happening, as they also did this year. But it would not be Christmas without the annual culinary chaos. So let’s have a little peek back at what I wrote when I wrapped up the Twelve Days of Baking in 2012:

…for all my vowing to be more organised if I were to attempt the same challenge this year, 2012 has been just the same. I had all the best intentions in late November, yet still ended up in a rush on Christmas Eve. Heck, it’s like a tradition by now! I kept coming up against the practicalities of normal life – I only own one cooling tray, I kept running out of biscuits tins, the need to do all your pictures are the weekend because you work full-time…and as it turns out even my friends with the sweetest of sweet teeth have a point beyond which they can’t face any more cookies. Yes, I sit here surrounded by those bad boys, which I estimate should all finally be gone by the third week of January.

More likely than not, I will be doing this challenge again in 2013, but I do wonder if there is a need to change tactics. Maybe I need some savoury ideas in there? It’s a little more tricky, as savoury foods are reserved more for the Christmas Day meal, or involve cheeseboards. I’m not too sure anyone really wants to see a picture of a block of Stilton I picked up from a shop…but we’ll cross that one when we get to it! Or maybe Christmas cocktails are the solution? Hmmm….

As I read those words, the various feelings of being slightly barking do come back, but it just would not be Christmas if there were not constant aromas of spice, toasting nuts and baking biscuits coming from the kitchen for the best part of a month.

You might wonder why I do this? Well, I love to use cooking and baking as a way to get to know the culinary traditions of different countries and regions, and Christmas baking provides a fascinating window into local traditions. I find it most interesting that the same or similar ingredients pop up again and again, but they can be mixed up into so many different ways to make a stunning variety of baked goods. Of this series of twelve, the biggest success were the Panellets de Membrillo, which I put down to the fact that they are fairly unusual to British eyes (and tummies), as well as being gluten and lactose-free. My own favourite was the Estonian Kringel made with saffron and cardamom, which looked and tasted sensational. I’ve learned how to use a very elaborate iron to make Pizzelle, mastered making delicious glazed Elisenlebkuchen and discovered that when you make Swedish Pepparkakor, everyone loves the ones in the shape of an elk the most.

In case you’ve missed any of them, or just want to gaze on all the bakes one more time, here are the Twelve Days of Christmas Baking 2013:

FestiveBaking2013

In case you are wondering, here are the original lyrics from the Twelve Days of Christmas, with each of my recipes next to them. As you can see, there is absolutely no correlation whatsoever.

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me:

…twelve Drummers Drumming (twelve Ecclefechan butter tarts)…
…eleven Pipers Piping (Pepparkakor)…
…ten Lords-a-Leaping (Saffron Cardamom Kringel)…
…nine Ladies Dancing (Elisenlebkuchen)…
…eight Maids-a-Milking (Linzer Biscuits)…
…seven Swans-a-Swimming (Pizzelle)…
…six Geese-a-Laying (Ruiskakut)…
…five Gold Rings (Hálfmánar)…
…four Colly Birds (Panellets de Membrillo)…
…three French Hens (Giant Ginger Cookies)…
…two Turtle Doves (Janhagel)…
…and a Partridge in a Pear Tree (Chocolate Hazelnut Crinkles)!

So again, I hope that you have enjoyed this baking challenge! Obviously I will  be having another bash at this next Christmas. If you’ve got ideas, then do feel free to make a suggestion. Bonus points for unusual ingredients, strange shapes or elaborate methods of preparation.

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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

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. 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 filling, sprinkle with the sultanas and then roll up into a sausage.

4. 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 greasproof 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.

5. 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.

6. 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.

For the filling:

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

Mix all the ingredients in a bowl until smooth.

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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Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things