Tag Archives: twelve days

{12} Speculaasbrokken

I had grand plans to make something from the Netherlands this year – the duivekater, a Christmas loaf which a long history that even appears in famous artwork from the Dutch Golden Age. Well, you can see from the name of this post that it is not what happened. I did manage to make a duivekater for Christmas day, and it was certainly delicious, but I did it all in something of a rush. So much so that it ended up looking like something that would not have been out of place on cakewrecks rather than being the jolly photogenic festive centrepiece I had in mind. Of course I will give it another go, so I’ve already added it to my list for next year’s baking.

But this leaves me with one bake missing. So what to do? Well, something else, obviously! I’ve reflected on all the complex, intricate things I made this year, and have decided to go in the opposite direction this time. I’ve made speculaasbrokken, which are simple, quick and delicious. You might think that I made something a bit fancy and then dropped it by mistake, but this is what they should look like – the name means “pieces” or “chunks” of speculaas, or Dutch spiced biscuits.


Speculaas cookies is a key part of Christmas in the Netherlands, and you can find the famous “windmill cookies” with their intricate designs formed using wooden moulds, and more simple “spiced nuts” which are rolled into little balls and baked. You can make the special speculaas spice mixture yourself if you have the time and inclination, otherwise you can used mixed spice or pumpkin spice for a similar effect. Whatever you do, make sure you’re pretty generous with the spices!

The method here is really easy. You throw everything in a bowl, make a dough, then chill it, roll it and bake it. Either make one mega-cookie or four smaller ones. After baking, you can either break it into pieces and serve it à la manière rustique but I think there is something quite satisfying and a little bit dramatic about brining it whole to the table and then smashing it in front of your guests. 

To make speculaasbrokken:

• 300g plain white flour
150g unsalted butter
160g dark brown sugar
• 6 teaspoons mixed spices
1/2 teaspoon salt (skip if using salted butter)
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
2 tablespoons cold water
whole or flaked almonds, for decoration

1. Put all the ingredients apart from the water and almonds into a bowl, and work with your fingers until it looks like breadcrumbs. Add enough cold water to make a soft dough. Wrap in cling film, flatten, and chill for 30 minutes.

2. Preheat the oven to 170°C (340°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

3. Roll the dough out to 3/4 cm thickness – you can do it in one large pieces, or make 4 separate pieces. Brush with milk and put almonds on top. If you are using whole almonds, you can make some sort of pattern, or you can use flaked almonds, in which case just sprinkle and press them down.

4. Bake the speculaas for around 45 minutes until it is dark looks evenly cooked. Turn half-way for an even colour.

5. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. Then either break it into pieces to store, or keep it whole and smash it when you have guests for maximum impact.

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{11} Brabanzerl

I’ve always assumed there must be lots and lots of delicious biscuits, cakes and sweets in Austria around Christmas and New Year. I think of those beautiful squares, twinkling with lights and lined with markets. But I must have been doing my research in the wrong way, as for such a long time I just kept finding recipes for crescent-shaped Kipferl  or jam-filled Linzer Augen. They are delicious, but surely there was more?

Well, finally I have managed to find some other sources of inspiration! I came across (and swiftly bought) a German book called Weihnachtsplätzchen by Angelika Schwalber. She features a recipe for Brabanzerl. I would love to be able to say that there is some sort of fascinating history behind them, and there may well be, but I was not able to find out anything. But it does seem that people love them.

These are two pieces of hazelnut and chocolate shortbread, filled with fruity redcurrant jelly, and coated in chocolate. They looked a little complex, but I remembered that I had some jars of redcurrant jelly in the jam drawer that I had made from fruit I grew in the garden. Clearly this was a sign I had to make them! For making jam from your own fruit in central London is rather a big deal, since gardens are generally the size of a postage stamp. The little lad and I were very pleased we managed to get five pounds of fruit from a single bush, and we got five decent jars of ruby-red jelly as our reward.


I will be totally honest – these biscuits are a labour of love. You need to make the dough, which is very soft. It is unusually made with melted chocolate, and it then needs to be chilled so you can work with it, so that means lots of getting to know your fridge really well. Once you’ve made the very fragile shortbread, you fill it with jelly, and then you need to coat them in chocolate. And that chocolate needs to be tempered to get a good snap and that appealing sheen. The recipe I was following suggested dipping them in dark chocolate, then using milk chocolate for decoration, so that means two lots of tempering. I can do it, but it is a bit of a palaver in the kitchen, although I do get a thrill when it works out right. As a testament to how much work they are, I styled a picture of the cookies on a fancy gold plate, with some dried thistles and pine cones I collected in holiday this year in Scotland. I don’t normally add props, but Brabanzerl seem like the sort of festive cookie that deserve some special treatment.


If you are going to make these, I would recommend doing it over several days. I did this and the result was great, and it really would be enough to drive most people to distraction to try to do it all in one go. But they really were worth the effort. The shortbread is soft and crumbly, flavoured beautifully with the hazelnuts and chocolate. Then you have the jammy filling, and here you want a good jam or jelly with a strong, tart flavour. I used redcurrant jelly, but you could also use high-fruit raspberry or blackcurrant jam, or even a tangy marmalade. Apricot might also work it you want a nod to the traditional flavours of the famous Austrian Sachertorte. This fruity filling balances the dark chocolate, and the result is sublime. They look elegant, and taste refined.

I decorated them by doing a series of lines in milk chocolate. For variation, I also tried some swirls which I think looked fine, but the lines definitely look more polished. It was quite an effort. A lot of effort. But these little morsels of festive deliciousness could well have become one of my new festive favourites. Way to go Austria!

To make Brabenzerl (makes around 25)

For the dough

• 50g dark chocolate
• 150g flour
• 50g icing sugar
• salt
• 50g ground hazelnuts
• 150g butter
• 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the filling

• 150g redcurrant jelly, or another tangy jelly or jam*

For the decoration

• 300g dark chocolate
• around 25 blanched almonds
100g milk chocolate

1. Make the dough. Gently melt the chocolate (use a double boiler or the microwave), then put in a bowl with the other ingredients and quickly knead to a soft dough. It will be very soft and slightly sticky. Wrap in cling film and leave to rest overnight in the fridge.

2. The next day, preheat the oven to 170°C (335°F). Line two baking trays with greaseproof paper.

3. Roll out the dough between two sheets of greaseproof paper to around 3-4mm. Form the cookies using a scalloped cutter (around 4cm diameter), and transfer to the baking sheets. The will spread slightly, so leave enough space between them. Gather the scraps and chill again in the fridge. Put the cookie trays in the fridge or freezer for a few minutes before baking.

4. Bake the cookies for 8 minutes, turning half-way to get even bake. Remove from the oven and allow to cool before transferring to a wire rack – they are very fragile when warm, but will firm up as they cool.

5. Now it is time to fill the Brabanzerl! Melt the redcurrant jelly (or jam) in a saucepan – if using something with seeds, then strain to remove them. Leave to cool slightly so it starts to thicken, then coat half of the biscuits. Sandwich together.

6. Dipping time! Melt and temper the dark chocolate. Dip the top and sides of the Brabanzerl in the chocolate. Transfer to a sheet of greaseproof paper. Press a whole almond into the centre. Next (if you want to and have time) melt and temper the milk chocolate and use this to pipe decorative lines or swirls on the edges of the cookies.

(*) If you are using jam or marmalade rather than jelly, you need 150g after you have removed any seeds and skins. Just melt the jam in a saucepan, then pass through a sieve.

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{10} Krumkaker

I’m a sucker for any recipe that involves a piece of specialist equiptment. Today’s recipe is for Norwegian krumkaker and needs a special waffle iron with an intricate patter to make them. So of course I had to get hold of one!


The name krumkaker literally means “bent cakes” and this is apt, as you make a waffle with a rich batter infused with aromatic cardamom, and when they are cooked, you quickly wrap them around something conical to get their distinctive shape. There is a specialist wooden tool for this, but I used a sugar cone (still in its packaging) I had in the kitchen. I think the curve is supposed to be a bit tighter, but you get the idea.


Now, I have to admit I have a little bit of an advantage here as a first time krumkake-maker. I’ve previously made Italian pizzelle which are similar but smaller wafers that are left flat. When I made pizzelle, I had a real problem with getting the iron to work properly when I made them, so I was fully expecting similar tribulations with krumkaker. I oiled up the hot iron, and waited for the first two attempts to be messy. And I was not disappointed!

I got the exciting task of picking off the dry bits that had stuck to the iron, and again applied oil for attempt number three. And this time it worked like a dream! Perhaps it was just a touch on the dark side, but this was just a matter of getting the temperature and timings right, and from that point I was sailing. The other trick that I had to master was where exactly on the iron the batter had to make contact. The very centre seemed to result in asymmetric wafers, as the batter would be pushed forward and squirt out the front. The answer was to place it a bit further back, then gently close the lid. This would get the batter in the centre when it mattered, and then I could give it all a good squeeze to get a nice, thin and reasonable even wafer.

Once you’ve made the pile o’cones, you can eat them as they are – they are sweet and delicious thanks to that cardamom, and I think they do taste best when they are very fresh. But they can also be filled. If you have kids around, then they will festive ice cream cones if you can handle the pretty high change that they will shatter as they are more fragile that proper cones. The other option is to enjoy them filled with whipped cream and fruit. If want to go properly Nordic, try to find some cloudberry jam, and mix this with whipped cream to make multekrem. Use it to fill your krumkaker for a truly Norwegian experience.

To make Krumkaker (makes around 20 large wafers)

• 200g caster sugar
115g unsalted butter
2 large eggs
240ml whole milk
200g plain flour
• 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons ground cardamom
vegetable oil, to grease the iron

1. In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar until fluffy. Add the eggs and beat until the mixture is light and pale yellow. Beat in the cardamom, then add the flour and baking powder, and finally the milk. Whisk until smooth – don’t worry if it looks like it has split. Cover and leave to rest for 30 minutes. When you come back, it should look thicker. Whisk again to make sure it is smooth.

2. Heat a krumkake iron or pizzelle maker on a medium heat (don’t crank it up to full, or the wafers will burn). The iron is ready when a drop of water on top of the closed iron sizzles and quickly evaporates.

3. Open the iron and brush each side very lightly with vegetable oil. Add a tablespoon of batter and close the iron. Cook for 30 seconds on one side, then flip over and cook for another 30 seconds. Check how it is doing, and cook for a little longer if needed. Remove the krumkake from the iron and roll it into a tube or around a cone – do this fast as they will quickly cook and become crisp. Alternatively you can roll them around the handle of a wooden spoon to make a tube.

4. Serve the krumkake as they are, or fill them with whipped cream and fresh fruit. If you are making them in advance, keep them in an airtight container to keep them crisp.

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{9} Parrozzo

A couple of years ago, I made Marquesas de Navidad, some little Spanish Christmas cakes which at first I thought had some ancient pedigree, but which were actually created in the early part of the 20th century. Traditional recipes and classic bakes are great, but I also think it is nice that new things still appear from time to time.

And today is another fairly new kid on the block. This cake is called a Parrozzo. It was created in 1920 by an Italian gentlemen called Luigi d’Amico, who ran a pastry shop in Pescara in the Abruzzo region of Italy.

However Luigi’s idea was actually a modern take on a traditional local recipe called pane rozzo which means “rough bread”. This loaf had a domed shape and a dark colour due to being baked in a hot wood-fired oven. So his sweet Parrozzo kept the domed shape in homage to the source of his inspiration, and the chocolate glaze imitated the dark colour the bread would have gained during baking.


The Parrozzo is actually an almond sponge. It is traditionally flavoured by the judicious use of a few bitter almonds to provide the distinctive flavour. I’ve written already this year about how these can be risky if eaten in quantity, but I’ve taken the lazier route of using normal (sweet) almonds and added some almond extract. Some recipes also use lemon zest, which I’ve opted to use as I think it works very well with almonds, and lifts the flavour of the cake. You could miss out the lemon, or swap it for orange zest if you fancy something a little punchier.

The cake is finished with a simple chocolate glaze, but fret not – you don’t need to worry about tempering chocolate to get a nice sheet, you just melt chocolate with butter, and forget about the science of tempering and getting the right sort of chocolate crystals for a set. It’s Christmas and we’ve all got too many things to get done! You just melt, add butter, stir and pour. Job done!

This makes a fairly large cake, and it looks quite impressive as a centrepiece. I think it benefits from being made a couple of days in advance. The texture is light but not too fluffy, cuts well, and stays moist thanks to the butter, eggs and almonds in the batter. We really enjoyed this one – it tastes festive, but is very different to the fruit and spices of a British Christmas cake.

And as if a chocolate-covered dome cake that is impersonating a loaf of peasant bread is not exciting enough, this cake even has its own song: La Canzone del Parrozzo (the Song of the Parrozzo) written by poet and politician Gabriele D’Annunzio. It is a tango, and reminds me a little of the Italian socialist classic Ciao Bella.

To make a Parrozzo:

For the cake:

• 150g plain flour
• 150g ground almonds (skin on)
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 6 large eggs
• 50g butter, melted and cooled
• 250g caster sugar
• 2 teaspoons almond extract
• 1 teaspoon vanilla
• 1 tablespoon lemon juice
• zest of 1/2 lemon

For the glaze

• 200g dark chocolate
• 50g unsalted butter

1. Preheat the oven to 170°C (340°F). Prepare the cake mould (I used  20cm /8 inch hemispherical tin). Rub the inside really well with butter then dust liberally with flour. Shake out the excess.

2. Mix the flour, almonds and baking powder. Set aside.

3. Separate the eggs.

4. Beat the egg yolks, sugar, melted butter, almond extract, lemon zest and lemon juice for about 5 minutes until pale, thick and creamy.

5. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites to stiff peaks, around 4-5 minutes.

6. Folk the yolk mixture into the egg whites.

7. Fold in the flour mixture in 3 batches, as gently as you can until just combined.

8. Carefully pour the batter into a cake tin and bake for around an hour until an inserted skewer comes out clean. If the top looks like it is getting too dark cover it loosely with tin foil. When it is ready, remove from the oven and allow to rest for 10 minutes, then turn the cake onto a wire rack to cool completely.

9. Finish with the chocolate glaze. Melt the chocolate in a microwave (or use a bowl over a pan of barely-simmering water) then add the chocolate butter and stir until completely smooth. Pour the glaze over the cold cake, and either try to get it as smooth as possible, or make life easy and aim for generous swirls.

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{8} Broas Castelares

I’ve looked for quite a long time for a Christmas recipe for Portugal. I’ve found ideas galore from Spain and Italy, but for some reason I wasn’t seeing anything from the Lusophere. That is, until now.

I’ve made little sweet potato cakes called broas castelares. The name means “Castile corn breads” and they are named after their creators, the Castelar brothers who ran a bakery called the Confeitaria Francesa, or French Patisserie, in Lisbon. It was founded in 1860 and stood in the Rua do Ouro, or “Street of Gold”, which I think is rather fitting given the colour of these cakes.


Now I say “cakes” but this recipe is a very different way of baking to the festive recipes I have tried before. This is based on sweet potato puree, which I made by roasting some sweet potatoes and scooping out the tender flesh. I thought this would give a better flavour than boiling as it would keep (and perhaps even concentrate) their flavour. Then you mix this with sugar, and the whole lot turns from sort-of-fluffy mash into a gloopy, soupy mass – I’ve seen this before making a Scottish potato-based sweet, and it seems odd that you can add dry sugar to something and it seems to get wetter!

I saw a few different versions of this recipe with different amounts of sugar. These seemed to split into Portuguese recipes and then those from everyone else. The home of Fado makes extremely liberal use of sugar, so I figured that it was safe to assume these little guys were going to be on the sweet side. This expectation was further supported by lots of non-Portuguese bakers trying to cut down the amount of sugar. Choices, choices. In the end, I decided to plump for a more authentic Portuguese version. This is a Christmas sweet after all! The version I went with came from the website of Lisbon City Council. Surely these guys would get it right?


The actual recipe is fascinating – the base is sweet potato (the orange ones, not the white ones) that you turn into a basic jammy paste. Then you mix in eggs, and add a veritable cornucopia of other nice things – ground almonds, cornmeal, coconut and orange zest. Some of the recipes suggested adding cinnamon to taste – I skipped this, but I think this could be a nice addition. You then end up with one of the stickiest doughs I’ve worked with. You leave it to chill overnight, and I thought the dry ingredients would have soaked up some of the liquid and made a thicker dough. I was wrong. The next day, it was slightly thicker but still seemed to be as sticky! But the way to deal with this is to have a plate with some neutral oil on it, and keep your hands well-coated. Any by coated, I mean pressing your palm into it, pretty often as it turned out. Then nothing sticks!

Shaping the broas was easy, provided you are making liberal use of that oil. Take a tablespoon of the mixture, roll to a ball, then form into an oval shape – I noticed that longer, slimmer ovals kept their shape better than shorter, fatter ones. The skinny ones set and keep their shape, the more squat ones seemed to spread more. Then make (or try to make) a little dent in the middle so they look like golden giant coffee beans. They are then finished with an egg yolk glaze, and baked in a hot oven.


And how do they taste? Amazing! I expected something more cake-life and reminiscent of cornbread, albeit sweet, but in fact they are more like marzipan, so I would call them a type of candy rather than a bread or a cake. As I expected, they are extremely sweet – sweet, sweet, sweet! Delicious, but for me this is something you want to eat with strong coffee or tea, rather than with mulled wine unless you’re the sort of person that wants to embrace hyperglycemia. The good thing is you can serve a tray of these and be confident that people will self-police and no-one will scoff the lot.

I hope you like this. I wasn’t sure I would and I am completely convinced. Obrigado e feliz natal!

To make Broas Castelares (makes around 40-45)

For the dough

• 1 large or 2 medium sweet potatoes (at least 500g), to yield 400g cooked flesh
• 700g soft brown sugar
• 125g ground almonds
• 50g desiccated coconut
• 125g cornmeal (fine polenta, not corn starch)
• 75g plain flour
• 3 medium eggs
• Zest of 1 orange

To finish

• vegetable oil, for your hands to work the dough
• 2 beaten egg yolks, to glaze
• tablespoon of water

1. Heat the oven to 200°C (400°F). Prick the sweet potato, then put in the oven and bake until it is soft. You should be easily insert a knife. This will take 45-60 minutes. When done, remove from the oven, cut the potato in half and scoop out the flesh – you want 400g of cooked sweet potato.

2. Put the cooked sweet potato flesh in a saucepan, and mash it. Do this manually – if you use a blender it may affect the texture. Add half the sugar and mix – it will look a bit transparent and become wetter. Cook over a medium heat for around 5 minutes, stirring constantly. It is done when you pull a wooden spoon across the base and leaves a clean trail that holds for a few seconds. Remove from the head and leave to cool to lukewarm.

3. Put the potato mixture in a large bowl. Add the eggs, and mix well. Stir in the remaining sugar, ground almonds, coconut, orange zest, flour and cornmeal. Mix to a smooth batter – it will be thick but sticky. Cover and chill overnight.

4. The next day, preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F). Prepare a few sheets of greaseproof paper and rub each with some vegetable oil.

5. Get your hands covered with vegetable oil, and keep some extra within easy reach to re-coat your hands as needed. Take a tablespoon of the mixture and roll it into a ball. Now shape into a long oval between your palms. Place on the greaseproof paper, then flatten and make a dent in the centre so they look a bit like coffee beans. Repeat until the sheet is covered – they will spread slightly so leave at least 5cm between them.

6. Make the glaze – mix the two egg yolks with a tablespoon of cold water, and mix well.

7. Slide the tray under the paper, then glaze the broas. I found it best to do this just before baking, and really get in around the sides and base as this seems to help them keep their shape. Bake for 15 minutes – the top might look mottled and very dark in some places, but this is normal. Leave for a moment to cool and set, then transfer to a wire tray.

Note: the broas are a little crisper on the outside when they are fresh, but will soften if you store them overnight in an airtight container.

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{7} Cordiales de Murcia

I am a big fan of marzipan, so Cordiales de Murcia really caught my eye. They are traditional sweets that originate in the town of Pacheco in Murcia, Spain. Their filling is also a little unusual – cabello de ángel, a sort of pumpkin jam.


The name cabello de ángel means “angel’s hair” and comes from the texture of the pumpkin. When cooked, the flesh of the pumpkin separates into lots and lots of strands. It is turned into jam and flavoured with citrus and sometimes a dash of cinnamon, but the pumpkin keeps quite a bit of its texture, so think of it as being candied more than turning into a jam. I find it tastes a bit like apple jam, maybe with a hint of apricot. I’d had this in pastries on visits to Spain, and it took me a while to work out what the filling was, since it seemed to be apple but wasn’t quite.

Anyway, I had a jar of this stuff in my store cupboard for ages from a trip to Spain last year. I had planned to use then, got everything ready to make these cordiales and then remembered that at the end of summer I had used it all in the based of a quick apple tart. If I was going to make them, I would have to hunt high and low for a pretty niche ingredient, for it turns out that unlike membrillo, manchego or chorizo, you quite quickly find that cabello de ángel is not really stocked anywhere easy.


The Spanish supermarket near Ladbroke Grove was reporting on their website that they had sold out, so I had to trawl a number of websites to find one that, firstly, sold the stuff, and secondly, would be able to deliver it quite quickly. The good news is I managed (even if it meant paying a lot more than I would have had to do if I had been organised!). But if you don’t have cabello de ángel then you could use Spanish sweet potato paste or quince paste, or in fact any sort of very firm jam or fruit paste. You just want to avoid something too liquid, which could melt and pour out of the sweets during baking.


The actual baking process is quite easy – you make marzipan, then work out how to stuff it. The dough is quite soft, so I found the easiest way was to put a piece on some greaseproof paper or cling film, then cover and squash it flat. Then you can add some jam to the middle, and gather the edges up without everything sticking to your fingers. My first few attempts were cake-wrecks, so just do a bit of trial and error and find a method that works for you.

Once you’ve stuffed your cordiales, you need to shape them and it is traditional to place them on a circle of wafer. I normally don’t do this as the brand of greaseproof paper I use never ever sticks to whatever I am baking, and there is enough oil from the almonds to prevent sticking, but I wanted to go traditional here.

Now, I’ve mentioned the effort I went to in order to get that pumpkin jam? Well there were some recipes that suggested using discs of communion wafer, but by this point my commitment to authenticity had fallen asleep by the roadside, so I got hold of some rice paper and cut out circles of that. In fact, this actually worked really well, as you are able to shape them really easily and move them around on their pieces of rice paper (or wafers).

The most important question is, of course, how did they taste? Absolutely delicious. The marzipan has that lovely flavour of almonds and lemon from the zest, and the filling keeps the filling soft and is a little like apricot or even a gentle marmalade. They are slightly crisp when you’ve just baked them, and if you like them softer, just keep them overnight in a sealed container, and they will soften right up. All in all, a lovely addition to the festive table, provided that you’re willing to track down the right sort of filling, and you’ve got the patience for lots of shaping and stuffing!

To make Cordiales de Murcia (makes around 25-30):

• 250g ground almonds
• 1 teaspoon almond extract
• 200g caster sugar
• 2 medium eggs, beaten
• zest of 1/2 lemon
• 200g cabello de ángel jam

1. Make the marzipan mixture. Combine the ground almonds, almond extract, sugar and lemon zest. Mix well, then add one beaten egg. Mix, and then add enough of the second beaten egg to make a marzipan. It should be soft enough to work with, but not wet or sticky. I used just over half of the second egg. If you add to much egg, just add equal amounts of almonds and sugar to get a texture you can work with.

2. Preheat the oven to 170°C (340°F). Line two baking sheets with greaseproof paper.

3. Pinch off walnut-sized pieces of the marzipan. Flatten between two pieces of greaseproof paper. Add a small teaspoon of the angel hair jam (the size of a small grape). Fold the marzipan around the jam, seal, and roll into a ball.

3. Place the ball on a piece of rice paper, and shape to a slight cone with your fingers. Repeat until all the marzipan has been used up.

4. Bake the cookies for around 20-25 minutes until golden but not dark. Turn the tray half-way to get an even colour. Remove from the oven and leave to cool

5. To serve, dust lightly with icing sugar. Go easy, as these things are sweet, so you’re dusting for effect more than anything.

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{6} Canestrelli

No selection of festive baking is complete without at least one trip to Italy, so here goes!


These cookies are canstrelli. They originate from the northern province of Liguria and their name means “little baskets”. They might look like simple shortbread cookies flavoured with lemon and vanilla, but they do have one little twist.

They are enriched with cooked egg yolks, which are crumbled and then added to the mixture. I thought this seemed pretty weird, but from my online digging, this does indeed seem to be the correct way to make them. This technique even appeared in this year’s Great British Bake Off. While it caused a raised eyebrows among the judges, the resulting biscuits were praised when it came to tasting time. So I had to try it!


I happened to make these after agreeing to make a bunch of macarons for a party, so I was left with egg yolks that had already been separated. I thought about trying to make them with uncooked egg yolks, but that would have resulted in a different consistency and we’d possibly be missing out on making authentic canstrelli. I then wondered if I could cook the yolks separately, and then I found some sites that suggested that you can cook the yolks on their own by poaching gently in simmering water. I did this, and it was a complete doddle. Just bring the water to a simmer, gently add the yolks, and simmer for about 5 minutes. When cooked, I transferred them to cold water, and then used them in the recipe.

When it comes to shaping these cookies, you can go with whatever shape you like, but the traditional one is a flower with the centre cut out so they look like a daisy. Normally I just roll dough out using flour, but this time I did it between two sheets of greaseproof paper to avoid adding more flour to the dough. Since it was cold and contained a lot of butter, there was no sticking and it worked easily. I’ll admit it is a little more of a faff than using flour, but it does mean you can roll up all the scraps and make more cookies, and the first ones will be the same as the last ones. If you’ve wondered by the end of a batch seem to look different to the first ones, it’s the extra flour you’re incorporating as you roll and re-roll those offcuts.


The resulting canstrelli were delicious – they have a very short texture and buttery flavour, enhanced with the vanilla and lemon. They are rich, but not in any way though, as you’re not really adding any liquid (which would have been the case if I had used uncooked egg yolks in the dough). So there we have it – two new baking techniques (well, new for me) that I look forward to trying elsewhere in the New Year!

To make Canestrelli (makes around 30-35)

• 150g flour
• 100g cornflour
• 75g icing sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• zest of 1 lemon
• 150g butter
• 1 vanilla pod, seeds only
• 3 egg yolks, hard boiled

1. Mix the flour, cornflour, icing sugar and salt. Sieve to ensure if is well-combined and there are no lumps.

2. Add the lemon zest, vanilla seeds and extracts (or vanilla bean paste) and cold butter. Mix with your hands until just combined (or whizz in a food processor).

3. Now take those egg yolks. Press these through a very fine sieve. Add to the mixing bowl, then knead the lot until it comes together as a pliable dough. Flatten to a disc, wrap in cling film and leave to rest in the fridge for an hour.

4. Preheat the oven to 170°C (340°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

5. Remove the dough from the fridge. Roll out on a floured worktop or between two sheets of greaseproof paper to around 1cm thickness. Cut out flower or scalloped shapes and then cut a circle from the middle (a round piping nozzle is good for this). Transfer each to the baking sheet. Chill the cookies in the fridge for 2 minutes.

6. Put the cookies in the oven and bake for around 15 minutes until pale golden – I recommend turning the tray half-way, and keep a close eye on them. Go by colour rather than time.

7. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for a moment – the cookies will be fragile. Transfer to a cooling rack.

8. Store in an airtight tin, and dredge with icing sugar before serving.

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{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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{4} Sugared Almonds

I spent yesterday watching The Nutcracker Prince to get into the Christmas spirit. If you want to know what Kiefer Sutherland did before 24 and just how Phyllis Diller would bring her vocal talents to the voice of the Mouse Queen, then do check it out. It also got me thinking about making some sweets rather than baking something.

I’ve always associated sugared almonds with Christmas, even if most people think of them as wedding favours. So I thought I would give them a go. I knew that it would be difficult to make something that was perfectly smooth and coated in crisp sugar, but then I stumbled on a French recipe that looked promising. They have a sweet called pralines roses which are best described as rustic-looking sugared almonds with a vibrant pink colour. I had found my inspiration.


Before I made these, I did a little digging. First the name: when I think of pralines, I think of chocolates.

Well, it turns out there are few different types of praline – French pralines are made from almonds and sugar, Belgian has its chocolate pralines, and American pralines which are made with cream and have more of a fudge-like consistency. The name apparently comes from the magnificently-named César, Duke of Choiseul and Count of Plessis-Praslin, and the French variety were the creation of a chef in his household some time in the 1600s. I’m familiar with nuts coated in caramel and often sold around tourist hotspots, but in the case of pralines roses they come in a vibrant shade of pink. These little treats are a speciality of the city of Lyon, and while they are eye-catching, the reason for the distinctive colour is a bit of a mystery.

So I had a go at making sugared almonds! While pralines roses are made with almonds and hazelnuts, I went with just almonds, and toasted them lightly in the oven. This is not essential, and you can skip it if you want, but I like the nuttier flavour that balances out the sugar. The recipe itself looks complex, but it is actually fairly simple. You’re making a syrup, pouring it over the nuts, then agitating the mixture by stirring until the sugar crystallises. You just repeat this a few times until the coating is thick enough. The end result has a slightly knobbly appearance – they look a bit like mulberries. And if you want to make different colours, at the very end you can add a few drops of colour to a little syrup to coat the sugared almonds, as I did for the pink and pale green almonds. I also tried to make some gold almonds – coated in a golden-yellow sugar syrup, then dusted with gold lustre. They look lovely, even if the pictures don’t show it. Trust me!


Overall these were fun to make – you don’t need that much time to make them, and they do look pretty cool. Something I did find was that this works best if you use smaller amounts of syrup and aim for more thin coats than pouring all the sugar syrup over the nuts in one go. The latter approach leads to everything getting stuck together in a big sugary lump (because that absolutely did not happen to me when I got over-confident…). But follow the recipe and it does work. And with those pastel colours, you can sort of imagine them dancing around to the melody of the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

To make sugared almonds:

• 250g whole almonds, either blanched or skin left on
225g sugar
water
food colouring

1. Set the oven to 150°C (300°F) degrees. Lightly toast the almonds until they are fragrant, about 10-15 minutes – watch them carefully as you can quickly go from golden to burnt. Remove from the oven and put to one side.

2. Get a large non-stick frying pan. Add 75g sugar and a little water. Heat the mixture and bring to the boil. Once you see large bubbles, add the nuts and stir well. At first it will seem like a glossy sticky syrup, but keep heating and stirring until it turns grainy. The nuts will be roughly coated in sugar, with some sugar dust in the bottom of the pan.

3. Tip the lot onto a baking sheet lined with greaseproof paper. Separate out the nuts and put them back in the frying pan. Do not heat it.

4. Put the sugar dust that did not stick to the almonds into a small saucepan, add another 75g sugar and some water . Bring to the boil, and let it reach 124 degrees. As the syrup is reaching the right temperature put the frying pan with the nuts on a medium heat. When the syrup is ready, pour this over the nuts, and quickly stir to coat the nuts. Keep stirring until it becomes grainy (just like the first time…). Keep gently warming the frying pan for a minute or so until the nuts are separated, and again there is some sugar dust on the bottom of the frying pan.

5. Repeat steps 3 and 4, so you end up with the nuts coated with three layers of sugar. If you want coloured almonds, add a few drops of colouring to the last batch of syrup.

6. Transfer the sugared almonds to a sheet lined with greaseproof paper, and leave to dry in a low oven for about an hour (around 80°C/170°F). They will seem soft when you take them from the oven, but will go hard as they cool.

8. Allow the nuts to cool, and store them in an airtight container.

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{3} Berliner Brot

I’ve teased you with aniseed and shortbread so far this year, but of course it wouldn’t be Christmas baking without chocolate and spice. So today we’re doing just that and having a go at Berliner Brot.

The name means “Berlin Bread” but this is a spiced cake that comes not from Berlin but from the Bergisches Land region in north-west Germany. It is rather like a brownie, with a cake-like texture rather than being soft and fudgy. It contains lots of nuts, dark chocolate and cocoa, and it relies on a surprise ingredient to obtain a unique flavour. You know me and baking with odd ingredients!


Berliner Brot is made with Apfelkraut. This is a type of apple butter, which originated in the border area between German, Belgium and the Netherlands. It was developed in medieval monasteries to preserve fruit from their orchards. Of course it is hard to find in Britain, so I had to trek off to the specialist German supermarket to see if they had any. Luckily they did!

Apfelkraut is a really odd ingredient, and I am not sure there really is any sort of substitute for it beyond apple butter if you can get hold of that. It looks how apple sauce might look like if you cooked it for a long, long, long time until it turns very dark and thick. This stuff looks like treacle or molasses, and the flavour is sweet and tangy. The texture is a bit like a very firm jam rather than just a thick syrup, which I think must be due to using apple puree and the pectin causing it to set.


This is an easy recipe to make, provided you’ve got the Apfelkraut. I’ve seen some recipes suggesting that you could swap it for molasses or honey, but I am not sure that would actually work. Being completely honest, this is a very rich and very sweet recipe. It contains sugar, and then there is more sweetness from the Apfelkraut. In fact, as I was making this, I really did start to wonder if this would be edible in the end, or if this would just end up being a sugar-fest.

In fact, it was delicious. But the reason it works is the reason I think you can’t swap out the Apfelkraut. It brings not only sweetness, but also sharpness and a fruity tang which balances the overall flavour. Honey or syrup would just be too sweet in this recipe. So if you’re tempted to have a go, like me, you’re going to have to go on the hunt for Apfelkraut!

If you do, best of luck!

To make Berliner Brot (makes 35 pieces):

For the dough:

• 2 large eggs
• 150g sugar
• 200g Apfelkraut
• 1 tablespoon dark rum
• 2 tablespoons water
• 250g flour

• 100g dark chocolate, finely chopped
• 2 teaspoons mixed spice
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 15g cocoa powder
• 200g whole hazelnuts and/or almonds

For the glaze:

100g icing sugar
2-3 tablespoons water

1. Preheat the oven to 170°C (340°F). Line a 9 x 13 inch tray with greaseproof paper.

2. Put the eggs and sugar in a large bowl. Whisk until pale and thick.

3. Mix the Apfelkraut, water and rum, and pour into the egg mixture. Add all the remaining ingredients except the nuts and mix to a smooth, thick batter. Finally fold in the nuts.

4. Pour the mixture onto the baking sheet. Smooth as best you can using the back of a metal spoon, and bake for 30 minutes (turn half-way to get an even bake).

5. In the meantime, make the glaze – mix the icing sugar with enough water to make a thick paste which just flows. When the dough is baked, remove from the oven and brush with the glaze. The glaze should set on the warm bread, and develop a “frosty” appearance.

6. Leave to cool completely. Trim the edges, and cut into 4 x 4cm pieces.

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