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{8} Stollen

Today we’ve hit upon that rarest of Christmas goodies…something that contains no spice! That’s right – no cinnamon! Nutmeg is absent. Mace is but a stranger. Cloves are no-where to be seen. Cardamom-who?

Yes, it’s Stollen time, and frankly, this tasty treat has just so many other good things in there that you don’t miss the spices.

This is another of those traditional German festive bakes. It just affirms my belief that Germans are just very, very good at this stuff. Visit a German city at this time of year and there are biscuits galore, stalls selling piping hot Glühwein with a shot of rum, decorations, oom-pah music and a good measure of festive cheer. When I lived in Brussels, the trek over to Cologne or Aachen became an annual tradition.

As for the Stollen, this is a rich, yeasted loaf enriched with fruit, cherries, nuts and citrus peel. When it comes out of the oven, the whole thing is brushed with melted butter, then covered in icing sugar. Some recipes even call for the whole thing to be dipped in butter! However, there is also a little surprise. There is a big old seam of marzipan running through the loaf. I have a little theory that the way you eat Stollen says a little about you. I am a picker, nibbling bits of the bread, then ending up with the marzipan at the end. I also tend to dissect bourbon biscuits and custard creams in the same way…

This recipe also has a lot of symbolism and history. There are records and recipes in Germany as far back as the 1300s, and the marzipan wrapped in the dough symbolises the infant swaddled in cloth. I really like this idea of symbolism, and it is nice that these traditions are still with us, all these years later!

To make Stollen:

To make the dough:

• 150ml milk
• 1 egg, beaten
• 1 tablespoon rum or water
• 50g sugar
• 115g butter
• 400g strong white flour

• 2 teaspoons instant yeast

Mix the milk, beaten egg and rum/water, and pour into the bread machine tin. Add the sugar and butter. Spoon in the flour and add the yeast. Run the dough cycle.

To shape and make the Stollen:

• Stollen dough
• 150g mixed dried fruit (sultanas, currant, raisins…)
• 75g glacé cherries, chopped
• 75g candied peel, chopped
• 50g slivered almonds
• 200g marzipan(*)

Knock back the dough, and turn onto a lightly floured worktop. Roll out to a large square. Spread the sultanas, cherries, candied peel and slivered almonds over the dough. Fold it in half, and then fold in half again. You should have all the “nice bits” safely in the dough, and a nice smooth outside.

Roll the dough again out to approx 25 x 15 cm (9 x 6 in). Form the marzipan into a long sausage and place in the middle of the dough(**). Fold the dough over the marzipan, tuck the ends, then flip over and put onto a greased baking tray lined with greaseproof paper. The seam should be on the bottom.

Leave in a warm place, covered with a damp teatowel, until doubled in size. In the meantime, preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F). When ready, bake for around 30 minutes until golden (turn half way through if needed).

To finish the Stollen:

• 25g butter
• 50g icing sugar

Once the Stollen is ready, remove form the oven. Melt the butter, and use it to brush the warm Stollen. Cover with the icing sugar, and add another dusing of icing sugar just before serving.

(*) If you like soft, squidgy marzipan, mix it to a thick paste with a spoon or two of rum or water.

(**) You can form the marzipan into a round sausage (as I did) to get a disc of marzipan when you slice the loaf, or you can flatten it so you have a strip in each slice of Stollen.

Worth making? I have a long-held soft spot for Stollen, and I was impressed with just how easy it is to make. It tastes great, and makes a lovely lighter alternative to heavy Christmas cake. The lack of spice makes it good for those that prefer things a little milder, but you can of course still add a teaspoon or two if you’re really hooked on cinnamon, allspice or nutmeg.

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{3} Pfeffernüsse

For the third part of the “Twelve Goodies of Christmas” I’ve made another of the festive classics – German Pfeffernüsse.

This is a classic version of the recipe, which contains a lot of spice and good amount of freshly ground black pepper. These pack a bit of a punch, but that is the way I like them – you often eat them with a glass of mulled wine, so they need to be able to hold their own and provide some contrast to the sweetness of the wine.

I’ve also jazzed up the decoration of these cookies – rather than just simple white icing, I added a sprinkling of crushed red peppercorns. This makes for a jaunty little festive touch and a little extra bit of extra peppery punch. It’s warm and aromatic, but without being too hot.

I made these last year, but as I recently did with my Aachener Printen, I’ve put a bit of effort in to getting the right ingredients, specifically the raising agent. In this case, it’s ammonium bicarbonate. Read more about it here, but essentially it gives more “lift” to biscuits, but it comes at a price – it stinks during the baking process! The strange aroma does vanish once the cookies have cooled, but it certainly livens up the process.

On balance, I think that it does make a difference – the texture is lighter, the resulting cookies are softer. Baking powder works, but ammonium bicarbonate is better if you can get hold of it. Look online, or I’ve put a source in London at the bottom of the recipe.

Now, you may ask, is it not a little early to make these things? Well, like a lot of spicy cookies, they get better if you store them for a while. So with them iced and decorated, these little fellows are tucked away in a box, waiting for Christmas.

To make Pfeffernüsse (makes around 20-25):

• 125g honey
• 50g brown sugar
• 25g butter
• 225g plain flour
• 50g ground almonds
• 1/2 teaspoon ammonium carbonate(*)
• 1 egg
• 2 heaped teaspoons Lebkuchengewürz or mixed spice
• 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Making the cookies:

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

Put the honey, sugar and butter in a small saucepan and heat gently until the sugar has melted. Leave for a couple of minutes to cool slightly.

In the meantime, in a large bowl combine the flour, ground almonds, ammonium carbonate, spices and pepper. Stir in the honey mixture and mix well. Add the egg and keep mixing until you have a smooth but sticky dough.

Using damp hands, divide the dough into around 20-25 portions – each should be the size of a small walnut. Roll each cookie into a ball between your hands (keep them moistened with water) and place on the baking sheet. Bake for around 10-12 minutes until puffed and just starting to brown.

Icing the cookies:

• 200g icing sugar
• 4-5 tablespoons kirsch, rum or water
• crushed red peppercorns

Put the icing sugar and kirsch/rum/water in a bowl. Mix well until you have a smooth, thick paste. It should just flow. Dip each cookie in the icing, then transfer to a wire rack to dry. Sprinkle some crushed peppercorns over the iced biscuits.

To get ammonium carbonate in London, you can buy this from Scandinavian Kitchen in the city centre (61 Great Titchfield Street, London W1W 7PP), tel: 020 7580 7161. Tube: Oxford Circus.

Worth making? I love these cookies. Sweet, spicy and very festive looking. Perfect with a glass of mulled wine after a bracing walk in the cold!

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{1} Aachener Printen

Why does this post start with a number?

Well, it has reached that time of year again…Christmas is around the corner, and this year I’ve decided to take on the challenge of making the “12 goodies of Christmas”. I’ve veered away from just doing cookies as there is a lot more festive fare out there. I’ll leave it at that, but there are a few interesting things in the offing in the coming weeks!

That said, for the first post, I am actually revisiting something that I made last year, the famous Aachener Printen.

Printen are traditional German biscuits which originate from the town of Aachen, near the border with the Netherlands. They are made from honey, citrus, spices and flour, but no egg or milk (so good if you don’t/can’t eat dairy, and you can substitute the honey for beet or other syrup if you want a vegan cookie). Traditionally, all those spices made them expensive and they were considered to be health-giving, so they were sold in pharmacies. Mercifully, spices are now available to all of us, and while I make no health claims, but I can confirm they are really very tasty.

This is not, however, a carbon copy of last year’s attempt. I’ve made one seemingly small but fundamental change. The secret is the raising agent. Last time, I used baking powder. This year, I have been pounding London’s pavements in search of a magic ingredient.  After much searching, I managed to track down the thing that the Germans traditionally use – Pottasche, or potassium carbonate. This both gives the dough a “lift” but also causes it to keep absorbing moisture after baking, so the biscuits will become softer with time. As the Printen have sugar crystals in them, this makes for a nice texture contrast too.

That’s the theory. But does it work and was it worth it?

Well, the difference using the potassium carbonate was clear almost right away. The biscuits puffed up much more than last time, and they are softer from the out. Last year, I was left with some rather hard cookies that took a long, long time to soften. No need to wait this time. But if you can leave them, they do get better with time. In short – if you are able, I really, really recommend trying to get your hands on this magic powder!

Another quite nifty little thing about making Printen is that they lend themselves to being made when you have a spare few minutes. You make the dough ahead of time, let it sit for a few days so that the aroma of the spices can develop, then shape and bake them a few days later.

If you’re feeling fancy, you can also dip them in dark chocolate. The soft, spicy gingerbread, crunch sugar crystals and smooth, dark chocolate is quite a revelation. Enjoy!

To get potassium carbonate in London, you can buy this from the German Deli at Borough Market (3 Park Street, London SE1 9AB), tel: 020 7378 0000. Tube: London Bridge.

To make the Printen (makes around 20 large or 40 small biscuits):

• 250g honey(*)
• 25g sugar
• 250g plain flour
• pinch of salt
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon ground aniseed or star anise
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
• 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 50g candied orange peel
• 1 teaspoon potassium carbonate (“Pottasche”)
• 1 tablespoon water or orange blossom water
• 50g candy sugar (the large crystals for coffee)

Stage 1: The dough

Chop the orange peel very finely. Either do this by hand, or pulverise in a food processor.

Put the honey and sugar in a saucepan and heat gently until the sugar dissolves. Turn off the heat and put the pan to one side.

Add the flour to a bowl with the salt, cinnamon, aniseed/star anise, cloves and nutmeg.

Add the orange peel and the warm honey to the flour. Mix until the ingredients are well combined. The dough will be soft initially, but will start to become very firm as it cools.

Place the dough in a plastic container, seal, and leave at room temperature for at least two days. I’ve left it for up to two weeks with no ill effects.

Stage 2: baking the cookies

Pre-heat the oven to 200°C (400°F). Lightly grease a sheet of greaseproof paper.

Mix the Pottasche and the water (or orange blossom water) in a cup until the powder dissolves. Add to the dough and mix until smooth. It doesn’t seem like much, but it turns from being very stiff to quite pliable.

On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough to 1/2 or 3/4 cm thickness. Sprinkle with the candy sugar(**) and pass the rolling pin lightly over to press the sugar crystals into the dough.

Cut the dough into pieces of 4 x 8 cm (large cookies) or 4 x 4cm (smaller cookies). Place on the baking sheet, and bake for around 12 minutes until risen and brown. Turn the baking sheet half way through.

If you like your cookies to have a nice shine, when they come out of the oven, brush with a simple sugar syrup made with 100g white sugar dissolved in 100ml water (heat in a pan until the sugar dissolves). Store the cookies in an airtight tin – they will keep for several months.

(*) If you want to make a vegan version of Printen, replace the honey with the syrup of your choice, such as beet syrup or dark corn syrup. Aim for something that has the consistency of thick runny honey.

(**) You might have to crush the sugar crystals to make them smaller. The ones I bought were about 1cm long, so I used a mortar and pestle to break them down into pieces of 2-3mm.

Worth making? The ones I made with baking powder last year tasted nice, but these are sensational. If you can get hold of the Pottasche, then these are straightforward and delicious, with the real “taste of Christmas”.

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White Pfeffernüsse

Oh dear. It’s been a busy couple of weeks and I’ve gotten rather behind on my posts. I know the moment for Christmas cookies is sort of past, but this is a recipe that I made a few weeks ago and so I’m sharing it in time for…eh…next year!

I recently posted a recipe for Pfeffernüsse using my festive German spice mixture. Great if you like all those spices (which I do!) but this version is different, with much lighter aromas, just using a little cinnamon and a pinch of pepper, and some lemon zest for a fresher note.

The method is also different – rather than a classic gingerbread-style recipe involving boiling up sugar and honey to make a basis for the dough, you whip eggs and sugar, then add the rest of the ingredients. The resulting cookies are lighter (in texture, I make no promises about the calorific value), and if you’re entertaining kids, this is also the messier – and therefore more fun – option. The resulting cookies are lighter in colour (as they don’t contain treacle) and so once iced, they take on a brilliant white colour.

I also replace some of the flour with ground almonds, to add to the flavour and keep the cookies softer. However, once made, these biscuits can have a tendency to become hard. In which case, just pop into a box with a slice of apple (don’t let it touch the biscuits), and after a day or so, they will be soft and aromatic.

To make White Pfeffernüsse (makes around 20):

• 1 egg
• 100g white caster sugar
• 20g ground almonds
• 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
• generous pinch white pepper
• zest of 1/2 lemon
• 130g plain flour
• 1/4 teaspoon baking powder

Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper and rub with butter or non-stick spray.

Whisk the egg and the sugar until light and creamy (about 2 minutes). Add the cinnamon, white pepper and lemon zest to the bowl, and mix well.

Combine the flour, ground almonds and baking powder, and fold into the egg mixture until you have a sticky dough.

Using damp hands, form the mixture into balls of 2-3cm, and place of greased baking sheet. Bake the cookies for 12-15 minutes until puffed up, but not browned. Remove from the oven, and after a minute, transfer to a cooling rack.

Cover the cookies with the icing (you might want to dip them, and do this twice to get a thick but even coating) and allow to dry overnight.

For the icing: 80g icing sugar and 4 tablespoons water (or non-sweet kirsch). Combine and stir well until smooth.

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Zimtsterne (Cinnamon Stars)

My “twelve cookies of Christmas” series continues with one of my favourites, and again, there is a bit of a German theme going on here.

Today, we are making Zimtsterne (German cinnamon stars). I absolutely adore these ones, and they always prove very, very popular. How do I know this? I gave a box of them as a gift to a friend a couple of years ago, and her house-guest found and ate most of them. But hey, I can’t blame her, they are incredibly more-ish.

While they undoubtedly look impressive, they are relatively straightforward to make, with the only really tricky bit being perfecting the rolling of the dough, cutting the cookies and glazing them. The dough has lots of fresh ground almonds and sugar, flavoured with cinnamon, orange zest and just a touch of honey. The resulting cookies are crisp at the edges, but soft and chewy in the middle, and topped with a crisp sugary icing, which turns a gentle light golden colour in the oven. If you leave them out for a couple of days, they will get softer and even more chewy.

I like to make my Zimtsterne using whole almonds that I grind at home, as I think the flavour is better than using pre-ground nuts, and the brown speckling from the skin looks quite nice in the finished product. The nut mixture can also be tweaked a little, with a 50/50 mix of almonds and hazelnuts, or even all hazelnuts if that’s what floats your boat. You can also miss out the orange if you want, but I think this adds a pleasant extra aromatic note.

Finally, these are also wheat/gluten-free and contain no milk products. Not something that is usually top of my worry list, but it proved to be very helpful at the weekend – I had Christmas drinks where two guest were, in turn, gluten intolerant and dairy intolerant. Lucky I had these to serve. That, and the Germans in the room also seemed to be suitably impressed. Whew!

To make Zimtsterne (makes around 50)*

For the dough:

• 2 egg whites
• 500g unskinned almonds, finely ground(**)
• 300g icing sugar
• 2 tablespoons acacia honey
• 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
• zest of 1 orange

For the glaze:

• 1 egg white
• 100g icing sugar

Preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F). Line a metal tray with baking paper and grease with non-stick spray.

In a large bowl, lightly whip the egg whites until just frothy. Add the rest of the ingredients and mix well. The mixture might seem dry at first, but keep going (eventually using your hands) and it will come together into a soft dough.

Sprinkle the kitchen worktop generously with more icing sugar, and roll out portions of the dough to 1cm thickness. Cut out star shapes with a cutter and place the baking sheet. Make sure there is sufficient icing sugar under the dough to stop it sticking to the worktop (this I know from experience!).

Next make the glaze: whisk the egg white until just frothy, then add the icing sugar and mix until it is thick and syrupy. Spread thinly on the top of the stars (using the back of a teaspoon or a brush). Aim just to cover the tops, you will need a thinner layer than you think. If you add too much, it will bubble and blister, rather than forming a smooth surface.

Bake the stars for 10-15 minutes until the edges of icing are just starting to colour.

Once ready, remove from the oven and allow to sit for a minute before transferring to a rack to cool completely.

(*) Recipe can be easily halved, results are equally good.

(**) If you are grinding almonds, ideally use a coffee grinder to reduce them to a fine meal. If the almonds/nuts are too coarse, the stars will be too moist and lose their shape in the oven. If the dough seems very sticky, add most ground nuts and icing sugar.

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Lebkuchengewürz

For quite some time I have been promising/threatening loyal readers that I would make a start on Christmas baking. So here goes.

I think that cookies, cakes and all manner of sweet treats are a big part of the festive season, and I particularly like anything German in this regard. Lots of sweet, spicy cookies, flavoured with citrus and honey, which go well with glasses of hot mulled wine. But, before we start on the actual baking, we need to prepare something that features in a lot of German Lebkuchen.

You might think by way of spices a spoonful of cinnamon and  dash of nutmeg will do to trick, but just as Germans take their Christmas markets to the next level, so they do with their cookies and how they spice them up. The secret is Lebkuchengewürz, or Lebkuchen spices. This mixture is indeed made with mostly cinnamon, but with the addition of a few other strategic spices: ground coriander seeds, aniseed, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom and a pinch of paprika. This makes for a warm, fragrant spice mixture, which is in turn woody, sweet, fresh and spicy. The trick is for these other flavours to be present, but not to dominate. And what you end up with is something that is the very aromatic essence of Christmas.

If you are making this, one question is what sort of spices to use: pre-ground or whole?

Well, that could be the wrong question. The number one factor in making a good spice mixture is to use fresh spices. If they have been at the back of the cupboard since mid-2007 in an open packet, sure they will have some aroma and flavour, but they won’t pull their weight. And you who wants to be the one, Eastenders-style, who ruined Christmas, eh?

The next consideration is whether the grind or buy. There are some – star anise, nutmeg and cardamom – that I will do, as I have a useful Italian nutmeg grater which gets nutmeg and star anise into a fine dust (a useful gift, Miss E!), and a small marble mortar and pestle to grind cardamom or pepper. Once these are ground and sieved, you will have a great aromatic spice. But for tougher spices like cinnamon, coriander seeds or cloves, I go with the pre-ground stuff. I’ve tried attacking them with a grater and a coffee grinder, and while they will fill your kitchen with fabulous smells, they finished result is never as fine as when you buy it.

The big question: how it is as a spice mixture? Well, I find it really useful to have in the kitchen. Great at Christmas, obviously, but it can be used throughout the year in all manner of fruit cakes or chocolate dishes to add an interesting dimension to the flavour. And I can really recommend making truffles with Lebkuchengewürz – they truly taste like Christmas!

So, with the mixture made, I will shortly start on making all manner of sweet treats. In fact, there are a tray of Pfeffernüsse in the oven already. Mmmm…

To make Lebkuchengewürz:

• 5 tablespoons ground cinnamon
• 1/8 teaspoon ground aniseed or star anise
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom seeds
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
• 1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
• 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
• 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• pinch of paprika

Put all the spices in a bowl, and mix well. Pass through a fine sieve to get rid of all lumps and ensure the spices are properly mixed. Store in an airtight container in a dark place until needed.


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