Category Archives: Biscuits, cookies

Ricciarelli – Siennese almond biscuits

When I had my short-lived biscuit stall on a market a few years ago, ricciarelli were my most popular item. Ricciarelli are in the macaron family, kinds of meringue made with beaten egg whites and sugar, and in this case ground almonds. As such, they fit in with the inclinations of those with an aversion to wheat and gluten, of which there are many round here. I also gave this recipe to The Hearth pizzeria in Lewes, and they sold well there for a few years too before it closed down.

Ricciarelli are originally from Siena. Despite me spending two years living in Italy, and indeed doing an art history degree many years ago, Sienna is not a city I know. It’s a place I’d love to visit on a food pilgrimage due to its association with such wonderful baked goodies. Ditto its rhyming cousin Vienna, home to another of my favourite ground almond and egg white concoctions: the Sachertorte. One of these years…

Ricciarelli for Christmas
In Siena, ricciarelli are traditionally made for Christmas. My friend Karin likes me to make her bags every year to give away to her family as presents. I must admit I couldn’t muster the energy to do that this year. December is intense enough with our modern early Christmas hype, never mind the effects of all the pressure on our children. So anyway, I’m sharing this recipe for you Karin! She’s from a Czech family and this Christmas just gone I was lucky enough to experience her lovely plate of traditional cookies. We’re talking about doing a Christmas cookies masterclass next year, so watch this space.

Ricciarelli are distinguished from other almond paste treats by their soft centres, crisp outside and lozenge shape. I’m sure professional bakers in Siena churn them out swiftly but I like to take my time over the shaping, cutting the paste into sausages, lopping this into chunks, weighing these, then using two plastic dough scrapers to form the lozenge. If you do a big batch, this can take a little while, but I find it quite meditative and like the results.

I developed this recipe based on various others I researched. Some call for resting the paste for a day or even longer, but I think it’s fine to rest for a minimum of four hours in the fridge, or overnight.

Some notes
1. You can use whole blanched almonds and grind them, but frankly I think the results are great with ground almonds.
2. This recipe can easily be scaled up and down as it’s a basic ratio of 1 egg white to 100g almonds, 100g icing sugar.
2. Egg whites keep well in the fridge, but it’s best to make the ricciarelli with them at room temperature. So remember to get them out the day you’re baking.

Makes 24

2 egg whites, about 66g
5g lemon juice
200g icing sugar, sieved
200g ground almonds
4g almond essence
2g vanilla essence
Zest of 1 orange (or lemon if you ain’t got orange. Or indeed both is you like the citrus.)

Extra icing sugar for shaping and dusting

1. Line some baking sheets with parchment or silicone sheets.
2. Beat the egg whites to stiff peaks.
3. Add the essences to the egg whites at the end and combine. (Use more or less essences, to taste.)
4. Combine the almonds and sugar (sieved).
5. Add dry ingredients and zest to the egg white, combining to form a sticky paste.
6. Cover or bag and rest in the fridge for at least four hours, or overnight.
7. On a work surface well dusted with more icing sugar, form a rope the cut off pieces, each weighing about 20g.
8. Shape each into a into a lozenge or diamond shape. Using a pastry scraper – or indeed two – is ideal. The ricciarelli should be about 10mm thick.

9. Dust with even more icing sugar, to coat well. Really, don’t skimp.

10. Heat oven to 160C.

11. Place the ricciarelli on baking sheets lined with parchment or silicon.
12. Bake for about 15 minutes until only just starting to crisp up and but not colour too much. You want them soft inside, with a slight crunch to the crust.
13. Cool on a wire rack.

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Ginger snap biscuits for Saint Lucy’s Day, 13 December

The secular, consumerist frenzy version of Christmas may start in November or even earlier these days but in the traditional, ie Christianity based, calendar we’re only half-way through Advent. This was the lead-up to the Christmas, from the Latin adventus, meaning arrival, approach, coming – as in the coming of Christ. It was a period of fasting, but some cultures had traditional milestones during Advent – the festival of Saint Nicholas (yes, him) on 5/6 December, and the festival of Saint Lucia, or Lucy, on 13 December – when they could have a blow-out.

St Lucy’s name comes from the Latin lux, meaning light and her feast day is a festival of light in some cultures, but it’s also a festival of treats, breaking the fast – notably in Scandinavia and Hungary. The former, Sweden specifically, gives us saffron buns, the Saint Lucia crown (maybe*) I made a few years ago, and those classic feast day treats ginger biscuits, gingerbread, or a variation thereon. This recipe is for Luciapepparkaka, “Lucia pepper cookies” and is from European Festival Food by Elisabeth Luard (published 1990).

I get all these books, but not knowing the country, I can never, in all honesty, be entirely sure about their authenticity. But frankly, gingerbreads like this exist throughout northern Europe. And, well, authenticity is elusive and a concept I think it’s pointless getting hung up on. From my experiences in Italy, people will make slightly different recipes not only from town to town and village to village but also family to family and all argue theirs are the real deal.

Luard’s recipe – origins unknown – includes whipped double cream and “treacle”. I assume she means black treacle, but you could use golden syrup if you prefer a lighter result. Similarly vaguely, she also says, “brown sugar” – I used light soft brown, but similarly you could go dark or even muscovado if you prefer a less processed sugar. The recipe also called for a teaspoon – a few grams – of ground ginger. This seemed a bit meagre given you’re using half a kilo of flour so I’ve upped it to 5g, a couple of teaspoons.

Luard writes, “This delicately spiced cream-rich mixtures gives a fine-textured crisp biscuit”. I’d say it was a biscuit that’s all about the great snap and crunch.

Note, the dough needs a long rest – overnight, or for at least four hours.

The recipe makes a lot – depending on your cookie cutters. I made about 80 snowflake cookies.

Ingredients
150g black treacle
150g double cream, whipped to stiff peaks
225g light brown soft sugar
500g plain flour
5g ground ginger
Zest of one lemon
Lemon juice

Icing sugar, for rolling and dusting

Method
1. Weigh the black treacle into a pan, then put on the hob on a low heat to soften until runny.
2. Sieve together the flour and ginger into a bowl with the whipped cream, sugar, zest and the treacle.


3. Combine, then add “enough lemon juice to form a soft dough”. I used the juice of one and a bit small-ish lemons.
4. Squidge together into two discs (it makes it easier to roll subsequently), wrap in a plastic bag and rest in the fridge for at least five hours or overnight.
5. Take out the dough discs. They’ll be pretty firm now from their time in the fridge. She recommends another knead, but I found it too firm so went straight to the rolling.
6. Dusting the work surface and rolling pin with icing sugar, roll out the dough – “as thin as a coin”. What coin? What was the optimal coin thickness in the UK in 1990? I’m guessing go for about 3mm.


7. Heat the oven to 180C and prepare baking sheets with parchment or silicon sheets (which I highly recommend as they’re washable and reusable).
8. Stamp out cookies in decorative, seasonal shapes. My mum’s just given Fran some snowflake cookie cutters so they seemed perfect** albeit fiddly.
9. Put the cut out cookies on the sheets and bake for about 12-15 minutes until nicely browned.
10. Transfer to a rack to cool.
11. Serve dusted with icing sugar and accompanied by coffee, hot chocolate or mulled wine. Good for St Lucy’s Day, Christmas itself or any time in the season (that is, until Epiphany, 6 January – the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas).

 

* I’m not suggesting these authors make stuff up, but that tradition, like authenticity, is an elusive idea. Tradition is mutable. Changes to society markedly change tradition. The move from an agrarian to an industrial society in Britain, for example, changed our folk culture as people didn’t live with the seasons of farming any more, didn’t get together to celebrate and sing in the same way any more. Cecil Sharp, let’s not forget, was driving the folk-song revival in his lifetime – and he died in 1924. The intensification of agriculture after the Second World War further changed things, and the ensuing rise of the supermarkets. Our culture became more generic. So these days, for example, our festivals and feast days, especially Halloween and Christmas are taking on the more US-influenced form, or are forgotten entirely.
* I live in Sussex, grew up in Hampshire, and for a decade or so lived in London, all in the south of England. It rarely, if ever, snows in December or at Christmas in this part of the world, at least not in my nearly-half-century lifetime. We occasionally get a bit of snow in March when we’re all desperate for Spring. A south of England white Christmas is even less likely as the world heats up. Yet, we still give Christmas cards with snow scenes, and are determined to perpetuate the myth of a crisp Christmas. Heck, any movie set at Christmas sprays the fake snow around even if the scene is set in the south of England – think Paddington, Love Actually, Bridget Jones etc. And I dread to think of the carbon footprint of all the ice rinks in the south of England at this time of year, their refrigeration systems fighting the generally mild weather.

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Mexican almond cookies

Now we’re in the mire of a soggy autumn, our school summer fete feels like ages ago, not mere months. They had so many second-hand books there they were almost giving them away and I was able to get a couple of baking books. Just the type I like: big, generic, unfashionable ones, proper compendia put together by diligent writers and recipe testers and totally lacking in a celebrity marketing boost or coffee table arty photography.

One was The Great Big Cookie Book, credited to Hilaire Walden, who has turned out 45 books over 45 years apparently. Respect. One of the recipes it contained was for something called Mexican almond cookies. Readers of this blog or those who visited by short-lived Italian biscuits market stall will know I love almondy confections.

No amount of research (OK, Googling) is giving me any real history or heritage for these cookies, but they’re likely related to Spanish, or specifically Andalusian, polvorónes – crumbly baked concoctions that take their name from pulvis, pulveris, the Latin for dust (and origin of the English words powder and pulverise). The presence of chopped or ground nuts, notably almonds, indicates to me they’re likely part of the Arab Mediterranean legacy, like Italian paste / pasticcini di mandorle and Maltese figolli. Another modern member of this diaspora seems to be US-Mexican cookies called snowballs or Mexican wedding cookies.

The texture here is crisp and crumbly. They crumble to dust. Hence the above assumption. As such they’re very different to my beloved pasticcini di mandorle and Sienna’s ricciarelli, which I make for Christmas and must put on here soon. Those almond confections are much closer to the almond paste we know here in the UK – marzipan sweetmeats. Every sweet treat made with ground nuts is a winner in my book though. Just try not to over-bake these or the icing sugar caramelises just a bit too much. I’ve reduced the oven temperature and baking time from Ms Walden’s original recipe and also used ground almonds, not her finely chopped, just cos I had some that needed using.

Ingredients
115g plain flour
175g icing sugar
50g ground almonds, or almonds ground in a food processor
2g vanilla essence
1g almond essence
115g unsalted butter
Icing sugar for dusting

Method
1. Heat the oven to 170C.
2. Sieve together the flour and icing sugar.


3. Dice the butter and add to the sieved mix along with the essences (using a tare function on electronic scales to weigh them in, or just go for 1 teaspoon vanilla, 1/2 teaspoon almond).
4. Rub the butter in and bring to a dough. Form into a ball.
5. Cover and rest for about half an hour.
6. On a lightly floured surface, roll out to about 3mm thick.


8. Stamp out with a cookie cutter. Round is suggested, but we (me and my helper, the Raver, aged 4) went round and heart as you can see. Squish back together and reuse any offcuts – this is the bit the Raver liked best.


9. Put the cookies on baking sheets lined with non-stick paper or silicone then bake for about 20-25 minutes until nicely browned.


10. Cool on a rack then serve, well dusted with icing sugar.

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Maltese Easter figolli

Small figolli

I was introduced to figolli by friends down the road, Anoushka and Francis and their boys Alexander and Casper. Anoushka is half-Maltese, and they make these every Easter. They called them biscuits, but they’re more a pastry, almost an iced pie, consisting of two layers of pastry sandwiched with an almond paste, then iced and decorated.

Figolla cut in half

When I’m studying Italian recipes, there’s so much information online, and I can read some Italian, so I can usually work out the story. But Malta has a population of less than half a million, so its culture isn’t the most widely discussed thing online. And even my fairly reasonable collection of books about feast day foods doesn’t include any mentions of figolli. Which I deduce is the plural, with figolla the singular.

Some history
Francis told me that Malta has a complex history not unlike that of Sicily. It was Greek and Roman, with the Carthaginians and Phoenicians also having an influence. Like Sicily, it was subsequently Arab, then conquered by the Normans in 1091. The Norman reach in the 11th century always amazes me. Aragon and France followed. The Brits had a big influence during their imperial period, with the island famously a fortress port that suffered heavy bombing in the Second World War.

Anyway, so the language is complex and the culture is mixed. The presence of ground almonds and citrus flavourings in figolli would seem to indicate the Arab legacy, as similar ingredients are found in other recipes from Sicily and across the Eastern Mediterranean.

Francis gave me the recipe they use in their household, which I subsequently found online. It’s here. Its instructions aren’t the clearest, and its almond paste is fairly heavy duty. Watching videos of Maltese and Maltese emigrant cooks online, their paste is much lighter, more like frangipane than marzipan. So I’ve made some tweaks.

Not napping
This project has been a bit rushed. I was hoping to have it up sooner, but as you can see from the inactivity on my blog, I’m finding it hard to update it. Keeping the blog going with two pre-schoolers was always a challenge, but now they’re not really napping any more, I simply don’t have much time – or headspace. Researching, testing, photographing, sorting photos and writing up recipes is fairly demanding, and when I have a two year old and four year old also (yelling) their demands at me (bless ’em), it’s tricky. It’s especially tricky to be really satisfied with the results. So I’m not claiming this is a perfect recipe.

The Raver, aged 2, doing the decorating

As for the decoration of the figolli – that’s not exactly authentic or traditional. Fran and the kids took over for that bit. The kids do love sprinkles, and the opportunity to readily lick icing.

Figolli templates

The Maltese versions were traditionally shaped like men, women, fish and baskets. They would use large cutters. We don’t have any enormous cookie cutters, despite Fran’s somewhat obsessive collecting, so I drew shapes and made templates in cardboard. I went for a bunny, a heart and a fish. Other shapes are sheep, butterflies, and eggs – most of which are of course some kind of fertility symbol.

Recipe
The quantities here are fairly substantial. We made three large ones and a dozen smaller ones. If you don’t want to get so carried away, halve it.

For the pastry
800g plain flour
400g butter
Zest of 1 lemon
320g caster sugar
4 egg yolks, beaten
Cold water

For the almond paste
300g caster sugar
300g icing sugar
600g ground almonds
Zest of 1 lemon
Juice of 1 lemon
3-4 egg whites, approx, lightly beaten
A few drops orange flower water (optional)
A few drops of almond essence (optional)
Orange juice or similar
Cold water

To finish
Icing
Confection eggs
Sprinkles

1. Make the pastry by rubbing the butter into the flour until it resembles breadcrumbs, then stir in the sugar and lemon zest.
2. Add the egg yolks and enough cold water (but not too much) to form a dough. Knead briefly then wrap in plastic and rest in the fridge. You could use a food processor, but it would have to be a big one.
3. In a large bowl, make the almond paste by mixing the sugars, ground almonds and zest. Some recipes also include a little spice, such a cloves and cinnamon – so go for it if you like.
4. Lightly beat the egg whites, add the essences (if using) then start combining with the ground almond/sugar mix. I got in there with my hands. I added the lemon juice and even squeezed in some Clementine juice until it was reasonably soft, as noted above.
5. Cover the almond paste while prepare the shapes.

Cut out pastrySmear with paste
6. Roll out the pastry to about 6mm thick. Cut around your shapes, creating pairs – one for the bottom, one for the top.
7. Place the bottom pieces on baking sheets lined with parchment or silicon.
8. Cover the pastry shapes with a layer of the almond paste.
9. You can brush the edges of the lower piece of pastry with water, then put the top, and lightly press together. You don’t have to crimp firmly, as the filling isn’t that runny. Indeed, some of the pics online show the layers are barely pinched together at all. I tried both ways, and both were fine.
10. While you’re doing this, preheat your oven to 180C.
11. When you’ve filled all the shapes and topped them, put the baking sheets in the oven for around 20-25 minutes, until slightly browned.

Large heart figolla ready to bakeLarge heart etc baked

Small heart figolli ready to bakeSmall heart figolli baked
12. Allow the figolli to cool on the trays. I tried to move one too soon and it cracked badly.
13. When cool, transfer to a rack or tray for decorating.
14. You can decorate with elaborate royal icing piping and suchlike, but we just used a simple glacé icing – that is, icing sugar, water and colourings.* As well as eggs and sprinkles. It seems commonplace to include small chocolate eggs or half-eggs in their foil, but I couldn’t find any that suited, so we used candied mini eggs.

Misc figolli, decorated

Happy Easter!

 

* It amuses me that natural blue food colouring these days is made with spirulina. About 20 plus years ago, I remember spirulina, a green-blue algae, being the superfood du jour, but it’s decidedly out of fashion these days.

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Speculaas for St Nicholas’s day

Totoro speculaas

Our Dutch friend Annely told us about speculaas a few years ago. They are the spiced biscuits traditionally eaten in the Netherlands and Belgium for St Nicholas’s day, Sint Nicolaas, Sinterklaas, on 6 December. They’re also, apparently, eaten in Germany at Christmas itself.

When I say “spiced biscuit”, what I mean basically is gingerbread. They’re all related these spiced feast day biscuits. What made speculaas interesting for me wasn’t just the recipe or spice blend – predominantly ginger and cinnamon, and possibly some quantities of nutmeg, coriander, cardamom, anise and white pepper depending on your family’s or your local baker’s recipe. No, it was more the way they’re made.

Traditionally, the dough is rolled into a wooden mould, the excess cut away, then it’s tapped hard – to free the dough, which takes on the stamp from the mould. The stamps can be ornate figures of men and women, as well as animals, windmills, and, of course, clogs. Such moulds can be purchased online, here and here for example. Maybe we’ll invest in a few moulds for next year; this year, it’s miscellaneous cookie cutters and Totoro (and Chibi and Chu, too).

I’m even more excited about this because while I was doing this recipe, with Fran making a few batches, I had a child-free chance to visit my local library. I was researching a fabulous local building and its clock tower, but in a book called Memories of Old Sussex by Lillian Candlin I found a chapter called Fair Gingerbread. This was all about the spice biscuits historically sold across the county at fairs, when gifted called “fairings”. One blog I read about speculaas said the figures could be given during courtship. I can imagine this happening with Sussex fairings too.

Candlin says they were patterned or shaped as “effigies” – ie figures. “The wooden moulds that were used for stamping ginger-bread are now museum pieces.” I must see if any are still on display in Brighton museum, as they’re very similar to those used to make speculaas. She mentions moulds of the “Duke of Wellington on horseback, all complete with sword and pistol; a solemn looking cat and a grandfather clock.” And then there’s this one, from Horsham, which appears to show a cockerel sitting on some trousers.

Horsham gingerbread mould

If I ever see such things in antique shops, I’ll know what they are now. Such a shame their use is another tradition we’ve lost in England.

Anyway, here’s a recipe for speculaas (the plural; singular speculaasjes). Frankly, I’m happier with it than my earlier gingerbread, as it’s got a nice snap: so long as it’s rolled thinly (thanks Fran). About 3mm. Tweak the spice mix to taste.

225g butter
300g light brown sugar
5g fine salt
80g milk – QB
500g plain flour
12g baking powder
15g cinnamon
10g ginger
2g ground cloves
A few grates of nutmeg
A pinch of white pepper
Flaked almonds & pearl sugar for decoration

1. Cream butter and sugar.
2. Add the salt and milk and blend. Note, the milk quantity is QB, as the Italians say – as much as you need. You might want to add a dash more.
3. Sieve the flour, baking powder and spice mix in then bring to a dough.
4. Form a ball, then wrap and rest – ideally for at least 12 hours but the results are fine if you want to do it sooner. Total dough is about 1200g – quite a lot. So you could freeze half.
5. Preheat the oven to 150C.

Raver sprinkles and rolls

6. Roll out the dough to about 3mm and cut with cookie cutters of choice. (If you have moulds, flour them and push in the dough. Cut away excess. Bash the mould on works surface to release the shape.)
7. Place on baking sheets lined with paper or mats.
8. Decorate as you wish with flaked almonds or nibbed sugar.
9. Bake for 30 minutes.
10. Leave to cool on a wire rack.

Oh, and etymology geeks – the name may derive from the Latin speculum. This means mirrror (in modern Italian, specchio… ah, that reminds me of via degli Specchi, the address of an old favourite haunt in Rome, Open Baladin, with its 50 or so craft beers). It’s a neat suggestion, as the mould’s stamp is then mirrored in the biscuit.

Speculaas

Oh 2. I realise my daughter’s hair looks a bit disreputable in the pic. I did brush it this morning, but well, she’d just got up from an afternoon nap when she was “helping” Fran make the biscuits. What I was more impressed with was her technique for sprinkling flour and rolling the dough. Go Raver, aged 2!

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Peanut butter buckwheat cookies

Peanut butter buckwheat cookies

Our kids are now three and two. The older one has a sweet tooth, the younger one isn’t too fussed. One thing they both do like is peanut butter. But not just any peanut butter, so I ended up in that situation where the shelf was littered with open jars of rejected spreads.

Now, nut butters are a great ingredient for cookies – eg here are some I made a few months ago. So that was the ideal solution for using up some of the extraneous stock. A quick browse of my cookbooks and good old Dan Lepard had a recipe for peanut butter cookies in Short and Sweet. His recipe uses wholemeal or spelt flour combined with rolled oats.  All ingredients I love, but I fancied making some buckwheat flour cookies, not because I’ve suddenly decided I can’t eat wheat or gluten, but just because buckwheat is yummy.

This is one of those great recipes that can handle tweaking. We did a batch that was half buckwheat, half plain flour, then I did another that was 100 per cent buckwheat. They worked very well. I reduced the sugar (as I always do) and used coconut sugar for one batch. Then in this one I used cocoa nibs and chocolate chips.

Peanut butter buckwheat cookies

200g peanut butter
125g unsalted butter, softened
125g caster sugar
140g soft brown sugar
8g vanilla essence
1 egg
250g buckwheat flour
6g baking soda
80g cocoa nibs
80g dark chocolate, chopped into rough chunks

1. Preheat the oven to 170C.
2. Prepare baking sheets by lining with parchment or silicone.
3. Put the peanut butter, butter and sugars in a large bowl and cream together until soft and light.
4. Beat in the egg and vanilla.
5. Sieve together the baking soda and flour then add to the bowl.
6. Add the nibs and chocolate and combine well.
7. Fall balls about the size of a walnut, around 30g each.
8. Place, spaced out, in the baking sheets.
9. Bake for about 15-20 minutes until nicely browned.
10. Allow to firm slightly on the sheets then move to a wire rack to finish cooling.

Enjoy. In our case, quite possibly in a playground or on a walk up the hill.

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Chocolate chip nut butter cookies

Choc chip nut butter cookies

This one is based on a recipe by New Zealander Miles Kirby, published in Guardian Cook to coincide with the release of his book Caravan: Dining All Day. Kirby’s version is called salted chocolate and almond butter cookies. They’re basically a variation on the chocolate chip cookie theme, and I’m always up for those.

I’m not sure about the whole salted chocolate thing though. I can see the appeal of salted caramel, and used to Hoover up the caramello di galles – Welsh caramel, that is salted caramel from the idiosyncratic gelateria La Gourmandise down the road from our flat in Rome. Until he stopped doing it – not a popular flavour among the other locals, apparently.

But, salted chocolate? Hm. Last night I went to the Depot, the splendid newly opened independent cinema here in Lewes, which I visited last year when it was a building site. While there, I ate a whole bar of Los Angeles salted chocolate, a gift from my sister. It didn’t exactly win me over, but then it was maybe a bad combo with a pint of overly gassy Harvey’s Golden Bier on keg I bought from the bar. (My first pint of Harvey’s keg beer I think; kegs from Harvey’s are pretty new, breaking with years of cask and bottle-only tradition.)

So anyway, I decided against including the sea salt in my version of Kirby’s recipe. Also, his uses 200g almond butter. The jar I bought was an odd 170g. As we had a jar of peanut butter rejected by my son in the cupboard, I added some of that. Kirby says the recipe works well with any nut butter. We’re getting a whole variety in our cupboard now as we’re not allowed to put peanut butter in school lunches any more.

For the chocolate buttons I used Montezuma’s organic Giant Dark Chocolate buttons. The bag says they’re “58%”, but then the ingredients say they’re 44% cocoa mass. Which I don’t understand, and I’m too tired to try and get my head around it. They’re still a quality button and I’ve messaged Montezuma’s for an explanation. Hope they reply.* They should do, as I eat enough of their product. Me and Fran are addicted (not really) to their Milking Maid truffles at the moment, which is odd as I’m usually a dark choc kinda guy. I digress.

Kirby’s recipe also says, “In a stand mixer, combine the…” Does everyone own a stand mixer? I don’t. They’re hellish pricey and I’ve never been able to justify one or find the funds. Luckily, my increasingly decrepit hand blender has beater attachments. If you don’t have any of these things, you’ll just have to beat by hand. Use some calories before you consume some.

Kirby also said to divide the mixture into 12. Now, as the total dough weight was about 1200g, this would mean some pretty massive cookies, scaled at about 100g each. I pared mine down to about 50g, a good dollop shaped between two desert spoons, and they’re still pretty substantial. I also knocked back the sugar a little from the original recipe, something I do as a matter of course.

Choc chip nut butter cookies mix

200g unsalted butter, softened
200g almond butter, or a mix of nut butters
85g muscovado sugar
40g caster sugar
2 medium eggs, that is, about 115g egg, beaten
Pinch salt
10g baking powder
300g plain flour
30g cocoa powder
200g dark chocolate buttons

1. Preheat the oven to 170C and line some baking sheets with parchment or silicone.
2. Beat together the butter, sugars and nut butters.
3. Add the egg a little at a time and beat until smooth.
4. Sieve together the baking powder, flour and cocoa, then add to the mixture along with the pinch of salt.
5. Combine, along with the chocolate buttons.
6. Form into lumps as described above. How big you make them is, of course, your call.
7. Put the lumps on the baking sheets, flattening them somewhat. Space out as they spread a bit.
8. Bake for about 12-14 minutes.
9. Cool on wire racks.

Eat. The nut butter gives them a light, crumbly texture, but not so crumbly they fall apart when you touch them.

Note to self, next entry probably shouldn’t be more chocolate cookies. This isn’t just a chocolate cookie blog…

* They did. A lady called Jacqui Boyd-Leslie in customer services says, “The Cocoa Mass is 44% plus the Cocoa butter 15% which is 1% over but this is to cover any slight variation. This is a little confusing, the cocoa butter is also known as cocoa mass.”

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Some chocolate cookies from Modern Baker

Modern Baker choc cookies

The latest addition to my library of baking books is Modern Baker by Melissa Sharp and Lindsay Stark. They have a bakery in Oxford of the same name, founded by Sharp in part as a response to a health crisis1 she experienced. As such, the book ties in with the recent “clean eating” movement.

The bakery’s “concept is based on good provenance, great tasting food and promoting healthy living”. This is something I’m broadly in agreement with – provenance is hugely important, and I’m also someone who suspects modern industrial food production is at the core of the rise of food intolerance, allergies etc, not to mention diseases like diabetes that can arise from people eating far too much refined sugar in junk food. But at the same time I’m somewhat wary of “clean eating” as it’s so closely related to orthorexia nervosa. There’s a fine line between trying to eat well, and obsessing to the point where you’re rejecting foods perceived as unhealthy. This obsessiveness is orthorexia nervosa, a term coined in the late 1990s to describe a newly identified eating disorder.2

One notable, nay faddish, food issue that’s prevalent now is the virtual demonization of gluten.

The Modern Baker, I’m happy to report, isn’t entirely anti-gluten. And why should it be? After all, gluten is just protein, or indeed two proteins – gliadin and glutenin. If you’ve not seen the Jimmy Kimmel video that exemplifies people’s ignorance about gluten, here it is. The big problem with modern bread instead is fermentation times. Time is the most important ingredient for bread-making, time for the dough to ferment properly. Indeed, Modern Baker emphasises the importance of fermented foods, notably sourdough. “Long fermentation breaks down the carbohydrates and gluten in the grains, so many find the finished loaf is much easier to digest and the nutrients more easily absorbed.”

Wholesome coconut sugar

Natural sugars
Modern Baker is staunch in its rejection of refined sugar – pure white, made from beet or cane. Instead, it uses other ingredients for sweetening: fruit, maple syrup, and where a direct refined sugar substitute is required, coconut sugar. It’s something I’ve not used before, but I’m happy to try new things. The book just got me wondering about the arguments for “natural sugars”.

Although the research isn’t conclusive, it’s suggested that coconut sugar has a lower glycaemic index than conventional refined sugar and has more nutrients. Though a quick Google suggests that while is does contain iron, zinc and calcium, the quantities are not significant enough to offer your body much.

It does contain some inulin, a type of dietary fibre. According to this Huffington Post article “clinical research finds prebiotics like inulin support gut health, colon cancer prevention, blood sugar balance, lipid (fat) metabolism, bone mineralization, fatty liver disease, obesity, and immunity.”

As for its “sugariness”, coconut sugar breaks down as 71% sucrose (which is itself a disaccharide formed of a combining of glucose and fructose), 3% fructose and 3% glucose: that is 78% sugar, with the rest made up of fibre, nutrients and antioxidants.

As for its GI, well that measures glucose content, not fructose – which makes up around 39% of coconut sugar. So it’s still sugar, and not great when consumed in quantity. Modern Baker does indeed make this point: “The natural sugars we use are still sugar, however, and they should still be regarded as a treat.” This is very much in line with my philosophy – cakes are a treat, not a staple.

I’m not entirely sold on coconut sugar though. I’m also something of a locavore, where possible, so I struggle with the sugar question. In some ways, I do prefer the idea of supporting British farming and British produce by buying sugars made from British beets.

Although they may well be slightly more refined, and slightly more nutritionally dubious, they’re still from a plant, right? I’m not so sure about buying sugar made from a coconut palm grown in tropical climes and imported here. Indeed, the bag I bought is from Indonesia. Is this another example of a commercial crop that, like palm oil, involves rainforest clearance being replaced by a monoculture?

So while I’ll add coconut sugar to my store cupboard until I know more about its provenance, for the bulk of my baking I’ll stick with conventional sugar, ideally from British beet. In part, frankly, as it’s also more readily available. I call it the Ottolenghi factor. I rarely make Ottolenghi recipes as more often than not I’d be forced to resort to buying exotic ingredients online as they’re not available in small-town England.

Keeping it real
This post is getting far longer than intended. The point I’m trying to make it that while I’m broadly in agreement with Modern Baker about eating well, taking care of your enormously important gut flora, and avoiding the most industrially refined foods, I also need to be realistic about feeding my family, and that may mean a few more conventional, readily available ingredients here and there.

Plus, well, I’m just not as good a baker as the team at Modern Baker. My sourdough never quite seems feisty enough to reliably turn out my weekly bread requirements. By and large, I’m half-way there – from the pics and glossary in the book, I use the same flours as them (Stoates organic stoneground from Dorset) but I still rely on commercial yeast.

Oh, and as a matter of course, I always knock back the sugar quantities in recipes. I even did that here for their recipe modestly called “The ultimate chocolate biscuit”, reducing it by 10%, and the results were still good. Indeed, these are remarkably light, crumbly, moreish biscuits considering they’re made with spelt (Triticum spelta) flour, which can tend towards a slightly heavier result in cakes and biscuits than normal wheat (Triticum aestivum) flour. Indeed, as much as I like to use older, more nutritious wheat varieties in my bread-making, it’s great to discover a recipe where they’re used in really yummy biscuits.

Using a 60mm round cutter, makes about 60 biscuits

170g unsalted butter, softened
180g coconut sugar
Pinch salt
2 egg yolks (that is, about 38g)
60g coconut oil
200g spelt flour3
120g raw cacao4 powder
Cacao nibs

1. Melt the coconut oil in a pan on a hob or in a microwave.
2. Put the butter, coconut sugar and salt in a large bowl and beat until fluffy.
3. Add the egg yolks and coconut oil and beat again.
4. Sieve together the spelt flour and cacao powder and add to the beaten mix.
5. Combine to form a dough with no lumps or dry bits.
6. Bring the dough together, form a disc and wrap in cling film.
7. Put the dough in the fridge and chill for at least an hour, to help it firm up. Modern Baker says it will keep in the fridge for up to five days.
8. When you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 200C.

Cut out
9. Roll out the dough to about 3mm thick, cut out, put on baking sheets lined with parchment or silicone.
10. Sprinkle with cacao nibs. Or don’t, if you’ve got fussy kids like mine who reject these lovely additions. Honestly, they’re crunchy, nutty and chocolaty! What’s not to like?
11. Bake for about 12-14 minutes. Watch out for over-baking the bottoms.
12. Leave to cool on the trays then transfer to a wire rack to finish cooling.

Very good. Not sure they’re the “ultimate chocolate biscuit” but there are solid pleasures to be had here. Bravissime Sharp and Stark! One “however”, however – in true toddler fashion, my sweet-toothed chocoholic three-year-old doesn’t like them. Not enough refined sugar and chocolate perhaps? Oh dear.

nfd

Footnotes
1 In her introduction, Sharp refers to her “aggressive, triple-negative, grade 3 cancer”. Alongside radiotherapy and chemotherapy, she revised her diet. She also says she was “someone who spent much of her life fighting an eating disorder.”
2 For more information, as always, start with the Wikipedia entry.
3 I used Stoates Organic Light Spelt, which has been bolted – sifted – more, removing more of the bran and making it lighter for cakes etc. I use this flour a lot, it’s great in my pizza and my everyday bread doughs. Available here.
4 I’ve still not found a satisfactory explanation of any difference between “cocoa” and “cacao” in the English language. I’m coming to the conclusion that the latter is simply used in a more health foody context. I talked about this more here.

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Cattern cakes for St Catherine’s day

Cattern cakes

November 25 is the feast day of St Catherine of Alexander. Chances are, St Catherine isn’t someone you’ve heard of, beyond having a firework named after her, or more accurately after her mode of martyrdom – on a wheel. In my childhood, St Catherine was quite a well known figure. Well, not the saint herself exactly, but a hill named after her.

I grew up in Winchester, Hampshire. It was the city that was the capital of the great Saxon kingdom of Wessex, and arguably the capital of England before London. Earlier than this, however, it was a Roman city. And even earlier than this, there was an Iron Age settlement (around 500BC), on a hilltop just outside the city. This hill is known as St Catherine’s and there was a 12th century chapel on the top of the same name, until it was demolished in 1537, I believe at the behest of that great money-grubbing vandal Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the Monasteries,  in his massive pope-won’t-let-me-divorce royal hissy fit.

Mazes and wheels
When I was young and fitter and my knees worked properly I used to love running up there. It’s a wonderful place, and very much worth a visit. The views are good, there are orchids and other wild flowers, and there’s even a mizmaze, carved into the turf, with the winding path in exposed chalk. The form of such mazes is to an ancient, mysterious pattern, but this one is most likely from the second half of the 17th century. A local legend involves its creation being punishment for a pupil of the nearby privileged seat of learning and abject arrogance, Winchester College.

St Catherine’s martyrdom in 310AD in Egypt on a wheel may also be the reason the hill is named after her, with the Iron Age ramparts forming a circular shape. Or it may just be because she is, among other things – wheels, obviously, librarians, knife sharpeners, hat makers, lacemakers, spinsters, etc etc – patron saint of hilltops. Or something. Such hagiography is a right shambles.

Another Catherine
Anyway, her feast day is 24 or 25 November. The date was also used to honour Catherine of Aragon, first wife of the abovementioned Henry, and the first victim of his desperation for a male heir. After 24 years of marriage, he blamed her for the lack of a living son, and changed the course of history to get shot of her. He had her imprisoned in Ampthill, Bedfordshire, 1531-1533. She became a patron of local lacemakers, and they began to celebrate her support on, naturally enough, St Catherine’s day.

One feast day treat for St Catherine’s day is Cattern cakes. These are closer to what we’d consider a cookie or biscuit today, and are flavoured with cinnamon and dried fruit. I’ve got recipes in a couple of books: Cattern Cakes and Lace by Julia Jones and Barbara Deer and Cakes Regional and Traditional by Julie Duff. Only one includes the peel, while the other includes caraway seeds. I like the idea of both, so here’s my version.

I’m only using self-raising flour here as I’ve got a lot in the cupboard. You could use plain instead, but use around 340g and 10g of baking powder.

350g self-raising flour
2g mixed spice
4g cinnamon powder
2g fine sea salt
50g ground almonds
350g caster sugar
50g currants
50g candied peel
4g caraway seeds
280g butter
1 egg, beaten
Extra sugar and cinnamon
1 more egg and 25g milk, beaten together, for a glaze

1. Preheat the oven to 180C.
2. Sift the flour, spices and salt into a mixing bowl.
3. Add the sugar, ground almonds, dried fruit and caraway seeds.
4. Add the melted butter and beaten egg.
5. Bring together to form a dough.
6. Bring the dough together, form a ball then cover with plastic and allow to rest in the fridge for about half an hour. This will firm the butter content up again.
7. Roll the dough out into a rectangle, about 12mm thick.
8. Brush the top with a little water, then sprinkle with extra sugar and cinnamon.
9. Roll the dough up like a Swiss roll to form a cylinder. It’s a pretty crumbly paste, but don’t worry: just squish it back together.

Space out well on baking sheets

10. Cut into slices about 10mm thick. As above squish back together as necessary. Place the slices on a baking sheet, lined with parchment or silicone.
11. Brush the tops with the glaze.
12. Bake for about 10-15 minutes, until lightly browned.

Cattern cakes

Despite the slightly fiddly dough, I like the results. They’re slightly unusual. One friend says “Christmassy” – but really, most feast day baked sweet treats involve similar spices and ingredients, such as peel, it’s just that we’ve lost so many of the other traditions, with most people’s only relationship with feast day foods being Christmas cake and plum pudding.

They spread as they bake, and come out somewhat wrinkly, like cooled lava. You can see a swirl or spiral from the rolling up, especially underneath. The caraway, or Persian cumin (Carum carvi) is a bit of a divisive flavour though, faintly medicinal and almost medieval. It’s perhaps most commonly found in rye breads these days, but for a long time a great British classic was seed cake – a sweet, teatime cake flavoured with caraway. It’s one of those flavours that’s arguably gone out of fashion somewhat for the British palette. If you don’t like it, just leave it out.

I’ll be in Winchester just after St Catherine’s day, so maybe we can go for a walk up the hill and take some of these for sustenance. Even if number one child, T-rex, has already rejected them, probably because of the caraway (unfamiliar flavour trumps sugary treat). Number two child, Stingray, is rather partial at least.

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The gingerbread boy

Gingerbread men

Our toddler has been obsessing over the story of The Gingerbread Man recently. So it seemed only right that we started making actual gingerbread men together.

Now, every time he grabs the book for me to read, he points at the gingerbread man on the cover and says, “We make some buttons!” Handling the mixture, rolling out a soft-ish dough, doing the cutting and transferring the pieces to a baking sheet aren’t exactly jobs for a two-year-old (see previous post), but he’s very happy to be given the task of sticking currants in to make eyes and buttons. Nothing fancy. No icing decorations. It isn’t Bake Off, it’s just father-son “do making”, making something he then ardently scoffs whenever we allow.

Cake and biscuit
Gingerbread is a fairly generic name that covers both soft cakes and a cookies, but I’m talking about those distinguished in the UK and US traditions from other ginger cookies by being cut into the shape of a man. One source on Wikipedia says they were first recorded as being made in England for the court of Elizabeth I, who reigned 1558-1603. Though ‘breads’ sweetened with honey and spices are quintessential foods for feast days and celebrations and have probably been made in Europe since the Middle Ages, if not longer.

Various ginger-spiced biscuits and cakes can be found in the traditional feast day foods of much of Europe still, but notably in Britain, Germany (eg lebkuchen), Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Poland etc: that is, more northerly countries. It’s easy to imagine Medieval folks huddling round fires in the winter and very much appreciating feast day treats containing ginger, cloves etc, as such spices have a warming effect.

Dough and cutter

Sentient food
Now, before I get to a recipe, I must talk a little about the story The Gingerbread Man. I love folk stories, fairytales, Märchen. I’ve read a lot, and I look forward to the kids being old enough for me to introduce more to them. I know full well they can be illogical, macabre and confounding to the modern mind, but The Gingerbread Man is downright weird.

Here’s the gist, if you don’t know it, or need reminding. A childless couple (which obviously resonates) decide the way to overcome their sadness isn’t to, you know, visit an orphanage, but instead to bring forth life through the medium of baking. Indulging in some kind of dough-based witchcraft. I suppose it’s not unlike Gepetto carving a son out of a piece of wood in Pinocchio.

The old lady makes a gingerbread man. But rather than being a dutiful son, he leaps out of the oven, out the door, and runs off. The old woman and her husband give chase. Various other people and animals see him and join the chase. The couple want their “son” back, the others want to eat him – despite him being ambulatory and self-aware, as evinced by his taunting song: “Run, run, as fast as you can, you can’t catch me I’m the gingerbread man!”

When he reaches a river, a fox appears and offers to carry the gingerbread man across. The sentient – but none-too-bright – biscuit agrees. But the fox tricks him and in three tosses of his head, he eats him all up. Snap! Snap! Snap! And that’s the end of the gingerbread man.

The moral of the story? Who knows. Maybe it doesn’t have one. It’s suggested that folk stories teach children about life, but it’s not always clear what the lesson is. The lesson here is not to be gullible or trusting of strangers, I suppose. Or alternatively to beware hubris. Certainly, the gingerbread man is a proud fool. Arguably the hero of the story is, instead, the fox. He’s cunning, and gets the snack. Cunning is quality in many cultures (eg the Italian concept of furbismo, which kept Berlusconi in power for so long), and is often exemplified by the fox, an archetypical trickster, in folk stories.

There are other folk stories about runaway food in British, German and Easter European folklore – balls of dough, pancakes, bannocks – but the gingerbread man story appears to be a variation that evolved with migrants who settled in America.

Cutting out

Melt or rub
Whatever the origins or moral of the story, the boy loves it. Finding a recipe we could easily make together has been a minor challenge. Pre-children, I probably would have tried half a dozen recipes, but today, with two under-threes, I tried just three recipes. One from Dan Lepard’s Short and Sweet, one from Leith’s Book of Baking by Prue Leith and Caroline Waldegrave and one from Geraldene Holt’s Cake Stall (a hand-me-down from my mum with a wonderful dated 1980s cover, where Holt looks like an Edwardian).

The two main approaches for making gingerbread men involve melting together butter and sugar, then combining with flour etc, or rubbing the butter into the flour, and adding the sugar etc. The latter is easier, but frankly, the best one of the three I tried was Leith one, which involved melting. The dough was trickiest to handle, but the resulting cookies had a proper snap – suitably enough considering the gingerbread man’s fate in the jaws of the fox.

Making the dough (or paste), then cooling it in the fridge to firm it up and relax the proteins isn’t exactly ideal if you have a small child chomping at the bit to “do making” right now! I tried to lull young T-rex by putting The Jungle Book on (it was a rainy day) but it still wasn’t ideal. So I suggest making a batch of the dough in advance, then freezing some or leaving it in the fridge until the optimal “do making” moment in your day.

Decorating

Recipe
This is based on the Leith version, but tweaked somewhat.

If you’re doing this with a small child, make the dough in advance to give it time to cool, so you can do the rolling, cutting and baking in one hit.

225g unsalted butter
200g caster sugar
160g soft dark brown sugar
350g plain flour
6g baking powder
3g fine sea salt
3g ground cloves
12g ground ginger
2 eggs, beaten (that is, about 110g beaten egg)

1. Melt together the butter and both sugars, stirring and cooking until the sugar has all dissolved.
2. Take off the heat, allow to cool slightly, then beat in the egg.
3. Sieve together the flour, baking powder, spices and salt.
4. Put the sieved mixture into a bowl then gradually add the butter, sugar and egg mix, combining to form a homogenous mixture.
5. It’s a very soft dough, so put the bowl in the fridge to cool it completely. Then you can divide the mixture into slabs, and keep one in the fridge for a day or so until you want to do the baking. You can also freeze it.
6. When you’re ready to roll, heat the oven to 180C and line baking sheets with parchment or silicone.
7. This dough warms up easily and gets soft, so to cut out the gingerbread men, do it in portions. Roll to about 4-5mm thick and cut out your men. We have a cutter about 13cm tall by 8cm armspan. Decorate with currants for eyes and buttons if you like.
8. Place on baking sheets lined with parchment or silicone, with enough room for some spread, and put in the oven. Note, this dough will spread slightly, especially if you’re oven isn’t quite hot enough. (What the knobs says and the actual temperature inside are very likely to not be the same if you have a domestic oven, so I recommend an oven thermometer.)
9. Bake for about 10-12 minutes until nicely brown. Leave to firm up on the tray for a few minutes then transfer to cooling racks and allow to cool completely. They should crisp up as they cool.

10. Satisfying the obsession of toddler. Briefly.

This is, obviously, a tricky area. I love to bake; he loves sugar; I try to be a responsible parent and not allow him too much. I want to nurture a sane relationship with food, where sweets are treats. This is a challenge as refined sugar is so addictive small children rapidly get a crazy-eyed for it, something that’s exploited by the food industry and insufficiently regulaed. Just look at breakfast cereals, some are a third sugar. But that’s another story, another rant. Run, run as fast as you can, I’m a two-year-old on a sugar rush….

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