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{5} Cavallucci

When I started doing my annual Christmas baking project all those years ago, I tended to focus on what I knew, and with the exception of panettone, pretty much everything was from Northern Europe. Over the years I’ve looked beyond the well-known bakes, which has led me to look more and more at Italian Christmas cookies.

We have all seen those rainbow cookies with a chocolate glaze, but what I find interesting are the traditional regional specialities. Every part of the country seems to have its own unique baked goods, often reflecting the traditions and ingredients of the area the recipe comes from, which makes it rewarding to explore, as well as to make and then eat. Yes, unlike looking at lots of churches and medieval villages, exploring the culinary landscape has the bonus of being delicious. And today’s Christmas treat takes us to the city of Siena. Meet my batch of cavallucci.

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The name cavallucci literally means “little horses”. They are said to date back to the time of Lorenzo de’ Medici (also known rather modestly as Lorenzo the Magnificent and who ruled Florence in the late 1400s). Their name comes either from the fact that the original cookies had an impression of a horse on top, or due to the fact they were eaten by stable hands who worked as part of whatever passed for the postal system of the gentry in those days.

Fortunately the flavour of cavallucci is very far removed from anything horse-like. They contain a lot of walnuts and candied orange peel, as well as traditional spices including coriander and aniseed.

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Luckily, this is a recipe that is fairly simple to make. Once you’re prepared the dry ingredients (flour, nuts, spices, candied and dried fruits), you add a sugar and honey syrup to forma dough. This is left to cool for a moment, then rolled out and sliced into individual cookies for baking. No fancy moulds, no intricate decoration, no gilding and no messing around with icing or tempered chocolate. What a relief! And if you’re looking for a vegan option, swap the honey for your favourite syrup. Or if you’re a honey fan, you can swap some of the sugar and water for more honey.

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These are very rustic-looking little morsels of festive cheer. They look like they have been dipped in sugar, but they’ve actually been rolled in flour before baking. I think it looks rather nice, as it goes them a slightly snowy appearance, and it means the cookies have a more balances level of sweetness.

As I was making these, I was reminded of that other Siena classic, panforte. You prepare the dry ingredients, add lots of spices, nuts and candied peel, then bind it all with a sugar syrup, although the ratios of ingredients are different, and cavallucci include some raising agent. I did wonder if a raising agent was traditional, and I think it probably is not, but most of the classic recipes that I found, including that of the Siena tourist board, suggest using baker’s ammonia. I used this too as I have some in my baking cupboard, and I’m always on the look out for a recipe that uses this most stinky of ingredients. It certainly makes the cavallucci puff up nicely in the oven and you get a lovely light texture, with a crisp outside and slightly soft centre. If you can’t get hold of baker’s ammonia, other recipes suggest using baking soda, so it should be alright to use that instead – if you do give it a go, let me know how you get on.

To make Cavallucci (makes 50)

• 200g shelled walnuts
• 100g candied peel (e.g. orange, lemon, citron)
• 30g icing sugar
• 2 teaspoons baker’s ammonia
• 2 teaspoons ground coriander
• 1 teaspoon mixed spices
• 1/4 teaspoon aniseeds, crushed
• pinch of black pepper
• 650g plain flour
• 300g white sugar
• 150ml water
• 25g honey

1. Preheat the oven to 150°C and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper rubbed lightly with some neutral oil.

2. Roughly chop the walnuts and candied fruits. Put in a large bowl and add the icing sugar, spices, baker’s ammonia (or baking soda) and flour. Mix well.

3. Put the sugar, water and honey into a saucepan. Heat gently until the sugar has dissolved and there are no crystals left (you want the sugar to just dissolve, but do not let it boil). Remove from the heat, allow to cool for a few minutes, then pour the liquid over the dry ingredients. Mix well with a wooden spoon. It should be firm but sticky.

4. When the mixture is still warm but cool enough to handle, take teaspoons of the mixture and drop onto a plate dusted with flour.

5. Roll each piece into a ball (it should be coated lightly with flour), place on the baking sheet and flatten to around 1cm thickness.

6. Bake the cavallucci for around 15 minutes until they are puffed up, but they are still pale (they only get a very slight colour during baking).

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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!

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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!

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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!

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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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Spiced Walnut Buns

How are you enjoying the chill? We’ve just enjoyed a spell of unusually warm weather (the warmest Halloween for many years), and then, almost overnight, temperatures plummeted. Last weekend we were sitting in the sunshine, this morning I woke up to frost on the lawn! It is starting to feel that winter really is coming, and alongside the colder weather, we also had that other seasonal signal where the skies of Britain were lit up with fireworks.

Yes, Bonfire Night! I do love it, but my two poor cats heard all those bangs outside, and scuttled into cosy corners under radiators until the noise had abated. This for me really does say that winter is just around the corner, but this time of year does have the fringe benefit of allowing you to gather outside and share your attempts to keep warm, from getting toasty hands around the fire, to spicy snacks and hot drinks (which may or may not contain a tot of rum for more mature firework-gazers). Or in my case, this delicious batch of spicy, sticky walnut buns!

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This was my contribution to a fireworks party, and I was originally thinking of making them with some sort of fruit. I’ve been having a “pear affair” in the last few weeks, but I wasn’t sure that their delicate flavour would be so good in these buns. Then I remembered that I had a huge bag of walnuts that I was given by my friend Nargis from a trip abroad. A few weeks ago, I had spent an afternoon opening them with a pair of nutcrackers. Alas, my aim of opening perfect walnuts like those trained squirrels from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory came to almost nothing – of the 150 or so I had to open, only one whole! The rest ended up in different stages of disintegration. Maybe not so pretty, but perfect for baking, and the flavour of freshly-shelled nuts really is magnificent.

 WalnutSpiceBuns

Again, I have just used my standard and dependable bun recipe, with a little brown sugar in the dough, but they were packed with lots and lots of walnuts. I chopped them up, some very finely and others left in larger chunks, as I quite like a nut filling that seems like nuts, rather than just being some sort of a soft paste. For the spice, I wanted something more complex and warming that just cinnamon, so added some garam masala spice mixture, which worked beautifully with the nuts.

Once they were baked, they got a brown sugar glaze to keep the soft, and they were finished with a light coating of water icing. As there is not too much sugar in the dough, they are not actually too sweet, but they did look rather pretty, the icing suggesting the frost that has finally arrived.

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To make Spiced Walnut Buns (makes 12):

For the filling:

• 70g butter, soft
• 70g soft brown sugar
• 2 teaspoons mixed spice (I used garam masala)
• 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 2 tablespoons milk
• 1 tablespoon plain flour

1. Mix everything until smooth.

For the glaze:

• 50g soft brown sugar
• 50ml water

1. Put the sugar and water into a small saucepan. Bring to the boil for about a minute.

For the icing:

• 200g icing sugar
• 3 tablespoons boiling water

1. Whisk the icing sugar and hot water until smooth (do this just before using).

For the dough:

• 2 teaspoons instant yeast
• 50g brown sugar
• 60g butter
• 150ml milk, scalded and cooled
• 1 egg
• ½ teaspoon salt
• 1 generous teaspoon cinnamon or mixed spice
• 325g strong white flour
• 150g walnuts, roughly chopped

1a. If using a bread machine: put everything except the walnuts into the mixing bowl. Run the “dough” cycle. Simples!

1b. 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, mixed spice and yeast. In a separate bowl, combine the milk and the 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.

2. Once the dough is ready, turn it onto a floured surface. Roll into the largest rectangle you can. Spread with the filling, sprinkle with the walnuts, then roll up into a sausage. Use a sharp knife to cut into 12 slices.

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

4. Preheat the oven to 200°C. Bake for 10-12 minutes until golden. If they are browning too quickly, cover loosely with tin foil.

5. When the buns are done, remove from the oven and brush them while still warm with the hot glaze.

6. Once the buns are cooled, make the icing and brush over the buns.

Worth making? These were fantastic – you’ll go nutty over these nutty treats!

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Secret Chocolate (Not Brazil) Nut Brownies

It’s the Fourth of July, and who could resist a tray of soft, squidgy chocolate brownies?

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Given that we’re all a little bit obsessed with the World Cup at the moment, when I first thought of posting this, I planned to give them a bit of a tropical theme, with a liberal scattering of Brazil nuts in honour of the host nation. That was Monday.

On Tuesday, the USA got knocked out by Belgium, so suddenly that didn’t seem like such a good idea any more. The Brazil nuts were out, and good old patriotic walnuts and pecans went into them instead. I also made sure that I was not using Belgian chocolate in this recipe, as that would have been a bit of an insult after the Red Devils triumphed in Salvador…

At this stage, I need to ‘fess up to the fact that this recipe is more or less one from Delia Smith, but it also has the honour of being one of the recipes that I have been making the longest. I saw this on TV early on in my university days (remember that time when you saw things on TV and had to scribble them down, rather than just looking them up on Google later? Yes, this is one of those!). The only tweaks I’ve made are to use salted butter (believe me, it works), vanilla, a bit of cocoa powder and…some great big dirty spoonfuls of Nutella!

Yes, my secret weapon for making brownies it to add spoonfuls of the stuff. I’ve found the way to make them even less healthy than they normally are (unless, of course, I were to try deep-frying them, but I’m sure there is a chip shop in Glasgow that’s one step ahead of me). Yes, Nutella sounds odd, but it really is amazing. I pour half the batter into the tray, then drizzle with softened Nutella (pop in the microwave to make it runny), sprinkle with nuts and pour over the rest of the mixture. I think my original idea was that there would be a seam of chocolate spread running through the finished brownies, but in the end, it just soaks into them and makes them extra soft, sticky and delicious. I remember turning out trays of the things, and they would be wolfed down when we got in late, during film nights…you get the picture.

So, are these babies healthy? Absolutely not. But are they naught and delicious? Of course! And if you’re in the mood for celebrating, it’s only right to treat yourself.

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To make Chocolate Brownies (adapted from Delia Smith, makes 16-25):

• 175g salted butter
• 125g dark chocolate
• 3 eggs, beaten
• 275g caster sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 75g plain flour
• 25g cocoa powder
• 1 teaspoon  baking powder
• 100g chopped nuts
• 4 tablespoon Nutella, warmed

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F). Line a 25 x 25 cm (10 x 10 inch) square tray with greaseproof paper (I used one of 20 x 20, and filled a few cupcake cases to make mini-brownies).

2. Put the butter and chocolate into a bowl, and place on top of a pan of barely simmering water. Leave to melt. In the meantime, mix the flour, cocoa and baking powder in a separate bowl.

3. Stir the butter/chocolate mixture well, then fold in the sugar. Next, add the vanilla extract and the eggs. Whisk. Add the flour mixture and stir well.

4. Pour half of the brownie mixture into the tray. Sprinkle the nuts on top, then drizzle the Nutella as evenly as you can (doesn’t have the be perfect). Carefully pour the rest of the mixture on top, and smooth gently with a fork.

5. Put the tray into the oven and bake for 35 minutes. Watch out that the mixture does not burn – it will shrink back from the sides.

6. When ready, remove from the oven and leave in the try to cool. When cold, remove from the tray and cut into 25 pieces (I did 16, but remember I was using the smaller tray!).

Worth making?Absolutely. Got to be grateful for Uncle Sam for inventing these things!

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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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{9} Elisenlebkuchen

One of my favourite Christmas treats is the German Elisenlebkuchen, packed with nuts, citrus peel and spice, and the base coated in dark chocolate and finished with a sugar glaze that takes on a frosty appearance. They are pretty much Christmas in a biscuit.

Now, if I’m going to dare to call these things Elisenlebkuchen, then I need to be careful what goes into them. I earn some credit for the hazelnuts, walnuts, almonds, various spices and lemon and orange peel I’ve used, but I would have scored a great big fat zero if I had let just one dash of flour get anywhere near them. As a mark of quality, these things are made wheat-free. As a result, they have a fairly flat shape, but the flavour is rich and the texture soft and dense.

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My fondness for these is in part due to what goes into them – nuts, spices and candied peel. However, it is also due to the fact that they are one of the first biscuits I got to know. Unlike today, when we’ve got easy access to foreign Christmas goodies, it used to take a bit of work. Panettone, marrons glacés and Lebkuchen had to be searched out, found only in places familiar to those in the know. So it was with these biscuits. The specific brand I loved were Bahlsen Contessa, and they were sold in a branch of Spar where my grandmother lived. The German woman who ran the shop had a few of them in at the end of the year, so no visit was complete without a trip to pick up a box of Lebkuchen. I liked to pick off the chocolate and then eat the soft cake bit.

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While there are rules about what you can use, you still have some scope to play around. Various recipes seemed to suggest using just almonds, but I wanted to add a bit more depth to my attempt, so I used equal parts of hazelnuts, walnuts and almonds. For the candied peel, I changed the common 50/50 mixture of orange and lemon, using mostly orange, and relying on fresh lemon zest to provide the zing.

And finally, the spices. The traditional approach is to use Lebkuchengewürz (Lebkuchen spices). However, I had run out of this so I let my creativity run wild. Cinnamon, cloves, mace, ginger, cardamom, star anise and a dash of white pepper went in there. You can go with whatever you like, but I would aim for mostly cinnamon with just a dash of the more powerful spices. Also keep in mind that the flavour will mature as they are stored, getting stronger with time, so if you go with lots of really forceful spices such as cloves or black pepper, you might send your guests running to the kitchen for water. Going heavy on nutmeg, coriander or cardamom, in contrast, probably invokes less of a risk!

When it comes to finishing these Lebkuchen, you’ve also got a few options. They often feature whole almonds arranged either individually or in a circle on top. They can be left as they are, or coated with a simple glaze of icing sugar and hot water. This has a magical effect when you leave it overnight, taking on a white, frosted appearance. Alternatively, you can coat them entirely in dark chocolate, which works wonderfully well with the citrus and spices. I went from something that combined the two – the glaze on top, with a layer of chocolate on the bottom.

If you buy these, they tend to be on the large side, around palm-sized. I made them more bite-sized. Which…arguably means…you can enjoy twice as many. I think all in all, they take a fair bit of time to make (you need to allow for overnight drying of the icing, and then fiddling about with tempering chocolate and so on) but nothing is particularly difficult and the result is really delicious.

To make Elisenlebkuchen (makes 32):

For the biscuits:

• 3 eggs
• 150g soft light brown sugar
• 75g white caster sugar
• 200g ground nuts (walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts)
• 25g flaked almonds, crushed
• 100g candied peel, very finely chopped
• 1 lemon, zest only
• 1 1/2 teaspoons mixed spice
• pinch of salt
• 1/2 teaspoon baker’s ammonia

For the glaze:

• 100g icing sugar
• 2 tablespoons boiling water

 To finish:

 • 250g dark chocolate

1. Preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F). Line four baking trays with greaseproof paper, and rub each very lightly with oil.

2. Separate the eggs. In a bowl over a pan of barely simmering water, beat the yolks with the brown sugar until pale and fluffy (around 3 minutes).

3. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites until you have soft peaks. Add the caster sugar, and whisk on a high speed until you have a stiff meringue.

4. Fold the meringue into the egg yolk mixture in three batches. Stir in the ground nuts, crushed flaked almonds, candied peel, lemon zest, spice, salt and baker’s ammonia.

5. Transfer the mixture to a piping bag, and pipe out rounds onto the trays (I did eight per sheet – each one around 4cm diameter).

6. Bake the biscuits for 20 minutes, turning the tray mid-way through, until they are puffed up and browned. When done, remove from the oven, allow to cool and remove from the paper and cool on a wire tray.

7. Once all the biscuits are baked, make the glaze by mixing the icing sugar with the boiling water. Brush the glaze onto the domed side of the biscuits, and leave overnight to dry (the glaze should dry fairly quickly, and take on a “frosted” appearance by the next morning).

8. Finally, melt the chocolate and use to coat the flat side of the Lebkuchen.

Worth making? Definitely. These taste pretty much like the pure essence of Christmas, and well worth the time they take.

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Queen Elizabeth Cake

Today is sixty years since the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Last year we had the festivities of the Diamond Jubilee, marking sixty years since her accession, but today marks the anniversary of the great celebration in Westminster Abbey which provided such memorable images to the world. And in comparison to the rather wet day we had last year, today London is basking in sunshine.

I was looking for a recipe in honour of this day, and I was rather surprised that there were not more cakes and bakes that were associated with great event. Perhaps everything else has been overshadowed by the famous Coronation Chicken? Undeterred, I kept searching and finally came across the curiously-named Queen Elizabeth Cake. This is a tray cake made with dates and nuts, finished off with a caramel glaze and topped with coconut. So far, so good.

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This is a cake with quite an interesting story. The tale goes that Her Majesty used to enjoy dabbling in home baking from time to time, and would make this recipe herself, in the Buckingham Palace kitchens, to be sold for charitable purposes. In fact, this was the only cake she would make. With this sort of regal endorsement, I just had to try this recipe. Incidentally, I’m sure the Queen would appreciate the Great British Bake-Off – but what would she make of this cake featuring as part of the technical challenge?

The technique was new to me – the cake has a lot of dates in it, but rather than just throwing them in and hoping for the best, they are soaked briefly in hot water with bicarbonate of soda. This soda, in addition to helping the cake to rise, gives the batter greater saltiness which combines with the sweet dates to enhance their flavour. The overall result is light, airy and delicious. With the caramel glaze, it probably makes you think of sticky toffee pudding.

When it came to assembling the cake, and with the utmost respect to Her Majesty, I departed from the original recipe. My cake did rise in the oven, but it was about 2 1/2 cm in depth. I wanted it higher, so I cut the cake into two slabs, and used half of the glaze as a filling, and so ended up with two layers. If you’ve got lots of people coming to tea, just go with one layer, but I think the double-layer approach looks quite nice. When it comes to the coconut, I would go for the white stuff rather than the golden toasted coconut. Nothing to do with flavour, but the white coconut looks great against the caramel.

Queen_Elizabeth_Cake_2

Now, time for a reality check. Is this cake really a secret from Buckingham Palace? Well, we do know that the Queen is very practical and hands-on when she is at her summer home, Balmoral Castle in Scotland, and from her days in the Auxiliary Territorial Service. I have no doubt she would be more than capable when it comes of baking. This also seems like a very traditional cake to me – the dates and walnuts give it an old-fashioned flavour, and I felt the air of post-war austerity over the ingredients, jazzed up with exotic coconut, all of which lends an air of plausibility to the story of this recipe coming from a newly-crowned Queen in the 1950s.

However, a few things make me cautious. This recipe does seem very close to the very British dessert of sticky toffee pudding, so perhaps it’s just that with a better story? Also, lots of the versions of this recipe featured online from yellowing scraps of paper found in attics from American sources, with references to terms like “frosting” and “pecans”. We don’t frost cakes in Britain, we ice them (and if you’ve had the pleasure of a British wedding cake, you might think we plaster them). Pecan nuts are traditionally less common than good old-fashioned walnuts over here. So on balance, if I were asked to come down in favour of a “yay” or “nay”, I would need to plump for “nay”, but even so, there is a nice story behind this cake, and if Her Majesty were to be coming round for afternoon tea, I don’t think she would refuse a slice. Congratulations Ma’am!

To make Queen Elizabeth Cake (makes 12 pieces):

For the cake:

• 175g soft dates, finely chopped
• 240ml boiling water
• 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
• 200g soft brown sugar
• 120g butter
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1 egg
• 140g plain flour
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 60g walnuts, chopped

For the glaze:

• 75g soft brown sugar
• 75g double cream
• 25g butter
• pinch of salt
• 30g desiccated coconut

1. Preheat the oven to 175°C (300°F). Line a 23 x 31cm (9 x 12 inch) rectangular baking tray with greaseproof paper.

2. In a heatproof bowl, mix the dates, bicarbonate of soda and boiling water and set aside.

3. In another bowl, beat the butter, sugar and vanilla until light and fluffy. Add the egg and mix well, then fold in the flour and baking powder until just combined.

4. Add the nuts and the date mixture (the dates should have absorbed a lot of the water, but the mixture will still be very wet – it should be lukewarm, not hot). Stir with a light hand until smooth.

5. Pour the batter into the tray and bake for around 25-30 minutes until the top is a rich brown colour and an inserted skewer comes out clean. Leave to cool.

6. While the cake is baking, make the glaze – put the sugar, cream, butter and salt into a saucepan, and keep stirring until the mixture comes to the boil. Remove from the heat and put aside until cold.

7. To finish the cake, cut in two equal slabs. Spread half the glaze onto one piece, then place the other on top of it. Spread the remaining glaze on the cake and sprinkle with the coconut. Trim the edges for a neat finish and cut into pieces.

Worth making? An easy recipe, but gives a rich, moist cake which cuts easily. Perfect for coffee mornings or afternoon tea. Recommended, and with royal approval!

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Sour Cream and Cinnamon Swirl Cake

Ah, it’s Bastille Day. I should be making macarons, financiers or something with camembert in it. But I’m not…

I am a total cinnamon nut. I love it in biscuits, muffins, doughnuts, cakes, pastries, chocolate…you name it, and I will happily have cinnamon in it. Coffee too. I’ve even got a recipe for Moroccan carrots which are dressed in a cinnamon dressing.

So, here is an absolute cinnamon extravaganza. It’s a rich vanilla cake, rather like pound cake, and made with sour cream. The twist is a great big seam of cinnamon, brown sugar and chopped walnuts running right through it.

The result is superb. It’s got an air of an “olde worlde” Viennese coffee-house cake about it, assuming that you are able to limit yourself to a refined wafer-thin sliver.

The cinnamon seam is there to be mined, and it works nicely with the plain cake. The cinnamon mixture is soft inside the cake, and a little bit crunchy where it has been against the tin, making for a nice contrast. It also keeps amazingly well, so it will easily see you through several days if you are the sort of person that likes cake on tap.

Best enjoyed, one slice per day, when you’re at work. It’s been a very busy week, so that 11 o’clock break is all the more appreciate with a slice of the good stuff.


To make Sour Cream and Cinnamon Swirl Cake:

For the cinnamon swirl:

• 130g soft brown sugar
• 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
• 100g walnuts, finely chopped

Put all the ingredients in a bowl and mix well.

For the cake:

• 200g white caster sugar
• 170g butter
• 3 eggs
• 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
• 300g self-raising flour
• 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
• 300g sour cream

Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F). Grease a 2.5 litre (4 1/2 pint) ring tin or bundt pan with butter.

Cream the sugar and butter until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Fold in the vanilla extract.

In another bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and salt. Mix well.

Fold one-third of the flour to the butter/sugar mixture. Fold in half the sour cream. Add another third of the flour, mix well, fold in the rest of the sour cream, then add the last of the flour. Mix well until you have a smooth batter.

Put half the mixture into the cake tin. Sprinkle the cinnamon mixture over the batter. Add the rest of the batter (one spoonful at a time so as not to disturb the cinnamon mixture) and smooth the top with a spoon.

Bake for 50-60 minutes until the cake is risen and an inserted skewer comes out clean.

For a dressy look, dust the finished cake with icing sugar or sprinkle with a 50/50 mixture of cinnamon and caster sugar.

Worth making? Oh yes. This is a very easy cake to make, and it tastes superb. Great for a classy afternoon tea.

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Scottish food: the famous Ecclefechan Butter Tart

You thought I was done with the Scottish food? Guess again! It’s the Ecclefechan Butter Tart!


This is similar to one of the first sweet tarts I ever learned to make, called “Border Tart”. This was a simple pastry shell, filled with dried fruits, cherries and nuts, all in a soft mixture of sugar, eggs and ground almonds. Taking it up a notch, today’s recipe is the slightly fancier Ecclefechan Butter Tart, which originates in the Scottish Borders town of Ecclefechan. The difference between this and the Border Tart is (and from this point, I am probably just making parts of it up) seems to the loss of the almonds, a lot of butter, and a deeper filling in the Ecclefechan Tart. They might also have different fruit…


In fact, I know they have different fruit in them. Mixed dried fruit used to contain sultanas, raisins and – if you were lucky – a few small pieces of bright scarlet glacé cherry. The bag I picked up had two sorts of sultanas (normal! golden!) plus raisins, apricots, peel and dried cranberries. I’m sure granny wouldn’t approve. But no cherry, so I added a goodly amount of them too. It was interesting to see that the ones I found were “natural” and a deep reddish-purple. Probably better for you, but part of me misses the neon red cherries from back in the day.

This recipe came to prominence a couple of years ago, as these tarts were presented as an alternative to mince pies at Christmas. Leaving to one side why anyone would want to replace the mince pie (hey, we only eat them for one month of the year, hardly over-exposed!), I can see why this would be appealing – you have a buttery pastry, a filling of mixed dried fruits and chopped nuts, enrobed in brown sugar, but without any spices. And the texture? Ah, that’s where the magic happens. The best way to describe it is like the filling in similar to a pecan pie, but with lots of fruit instead of just the nuts. Most of the filling becomes a thick, rich, buttery caramel, while the surface becomes slightly puffed-up and lightly browned, contrasting with the dark inside.

As if all this were not enough, there is also one “mystery ingredient” to provoke a no, really? moment – a tablespoon of vinegar. I really have no idea what this does, but it works in this tart, so don’t skip this step. Just be sure to limit yourself to one spoonful, and use a wine vinegar or balsamic vinegar – industrial vinegar is just that little bit too sharp for me, and I don’t think it would work too well here.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little gastronomic tour through Scottish cuisine – how often do you make traditional foods?


To make an Ecclefechan Butter Tart:

For the pastry:

• 100g plain flour
• 50g butter, cold, cut into cubes
• 25g caster sugar
• 1 egg yolk

In a bowl, rub the butter into the flour. Once the mixture resembles breadcrumbs, add the sugar and mix well. 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. Use to line a 20cm loose-bottomed flan dish, and prick with a fork. Place the tart shell in the fridge while making the filling.

For the filling:

• 125g butter, melted and cooled
• 200g soft brown sugar
• 2 eggs, beaten
• 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
• 50g walnuts, chopped
• 250g dried mixed fruit
• 50g glacé cherries

Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F).

In a bowl, combine the sugar, butter and eggs. Stir in the vinegar, walnuts, dried fruit and cherries. Pour into the pastry shell.

Bake the tart for 25-30 minutes until the pastry is golden and the filling is slightly puffy and lightly browned in the centre (turn the tart during baking).

Worth making? Wow. This tart is superb. Lots of dried fruit might make you think of Christmas, the buttery filling is more like a pecan pie. It’s rich and sweet and a great afternoon treat, either as one large tart or individual little pies. I made it to take to afternoon tea with a housebound friend, and like to think that it helped with recuperation!

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