Category Archives: Biscuits, cookies

Papassini biscuits – and lard

Papassini biscuits

Let’s be honest: lard isn’t a popular ingredient. It’s not fashionable, even in this era of nose-to-tail eating. Even when the media, from Britain’s Daily Bile Mail to the US Huffington Post, is running articles on lard’s virtues. It’s still got an image problem.

And yet, it’s a fat we cooked with for centuries, especially here in northern Europe, where we can’t grow olive groves and peasants may have had a pig but were less likely to have had dairy. Look at any collection of older – say pre-WW2 – British recipes and lard is ubiquitous. Not just as a fat for frying, but also as the main fat for making pastries and baked goods. The only legacy of this tradition most Brits are aware of these days is lardy cake. I talked about this subject back in April 2014, when making lardy johns, an ostensibly old Sussex recipe that’s a cousin to the scone.

Back then, I couldn’t get my hands on any decent lard. As Marwood Yeatman says in The Last Food of England, “A modern porker has little fat and therefore little lard, so most of it is imported”. The only stuff I could get hold of was from Ireland. Last week on a Sunday market here in Lewes, I was pleased to see Beal’s Farm, our favourite supplier of locally produced charcuterie and salumi, whose pancetta was a joyful discovery when we moved home from Rome, has started selling their own lard. Indeed, I wasn’t just pleased, I was excited! Quality lard! I’d been making a lot of game pies with a hot water crust, and this pastry is best made with lard.

Yes, even in the Mediterranean diet
It’s not just northern European foods that are traditionally made with lard though. The past month or so I’ve been researching and developing products for my Italian-oriented biscuit stall. I wanted to focus on Christmas and festive products last week, and one product I made was papassini.

Also called pabassini, pabassinas, pabassinos and papassinos in various Sardinian dialects, these are biscuits made for not just Christmas but also Ognissanti (All Saints, 1 November) and that other principal Christian festival, Easter. Pretty much all the Italian (nay Sardinian) recipes I read used strutto – lard. Only a few used butter.

I made my first batch with Beal’s lard, and they were great. The mix is pretty much a pastry, enriched with fat, sugar, spices and some fruit – sultanas or raisins. The name papassino, according to Italian Wikipedia, comes from papassa or pabassa, Sardinian for uva sultanina, a type of grape, that is dried to become sultanas1 . The lard gave them a nice fairly delicate crumb. I also made them using Trex, hardened vegetable oil. Where vegetable means palm.

This is the sort of ethical conundrum we face in modern life – eat a meat byproduct from local, well-husbanded pigs or eat a veggie alternative made from an ingredient that’s most likely grown in a corporate plantation that required the destruction of rainforest. The results weren’t as good either.

So I experimented with butter versions too, notably for the market, where I didn’t want to have to worry about repeatedly explaining why certain products weren’t vegetarian. Which seems faintly daft, but we live in complex times for food. In many ways, industrialisation and intensification have thoroughly messed up our relationship with food, resulting in innumerable dietary inclinations, phobias, rampant orthorexia nervosa, intolerances, allergies and imagined allergies. A whole slew of first world worries.

Papassini on my market stall, along with riciarelli, pangiallo and others

Anyway, butter was pretty good too. I mean, I love butter. I would say the result was similarly crumbly, slightly sweeter. But then all the biscuits were sweet once I’d iced them. I just iced them with a basic water or glacé icing – that is, icing sugar2 and water, or lemon juice. More “authentic” recipes would be topped with an Italian meringue glaze, but that wasn’t entirely practical for me.

Another note on “authenticity” – the grapiness of these biscuits would also have been enhanced with sapa/saba. This is a kind of grape syrup, also known as vino cotto (“cooked wine”) and mosto cotto (“cooked grape must“). It’s an ingredient that has been made for millennia. Imagine a grape cordial, or a kind of sweet cousin to balsamic vinegar. You can produce a semblance by simmering grape juice to thicken it, but frankly almost none of the papassini recipes I researched used it so I didn’t bother.

So yes, these are in no way authentic, but I’m not Sardinian. That said, as with any Italian recipe, every family or baker or pasticcere would have differences of opinion and ingredients, so I would like to think mine are just another variation on a theme. Ideally made with quality Sussex lard.

250g plain flour
6g baking powder
80g ground almonds
100g caster sugar
120g lard or butter
50g walnuts, chopped fairly finely
80g sultanas or raisins
Zest of half a lemon
Zest of half an orange
2 eggs, lightly beaten, QB3 (about 120g)
4g cinnamon
4g fennel seeds

Icing
Icing sugar, sieved
Water or lemon juice
Hundreds-and-thousands, sprinkles

1. Soak the sultanas or raisins in hot water for about 10 minutes then drain and squeeze out any excess water.
2. Sieve together the flour and BP.
3. Dice the fat and rub it into the flour, or blitz in a food processor, until the mixture is crumb-like.

Papassini mixture
4. Add the ground almonds, sugar, walnuts, sultanas and zest.
5. Add the egg and bring the mixture a dough. If it’s too dry, add a little more egg or some milk.
6. Form into a disc or slab then wrap in plastic and leave to rest for at least half an hour.
7. Preheat the oven to 180C.

Cutting papassini dough into diamonds
8. Roll out the dough to about 10mm thick.
9. Cut diamond shapes.
10. Reform the offcuts and keep cutting more diamonds.
11. Bake for about 10-12 minutes.
12. Cool on a rack, then ice. If you’re doing the easy option like me, just sieve icing sugar and add a little water or icing sugar to form a smooth mixture, not too runny. Dip each biscuit in the icing, then sprinkle with hundreds and thousands.

 

 

Notes
1. I think; I never really got my head around English-Italian translations for sultana, raisin, etc. I believe a raisin is uva passa – literally “past” or “spent” grape. I’m more confused by uva sultanina, which may be both the grape and the sultana. I’m not sure, and I can’t go to an Italian dry goods store or supermarket or market to check very easily from here in Lewes. Hope to get back to Roma after Christmas, so I’ll have to try and remember to see if I can work it out then. Heck, all this confuses me, even in English. Until embarrassingly recently, I though currants were dried black- or red-currants, when they’re actually also dried grapes too. I suspect the Italian words are often fairly generic – so uvetta (literally “little grape”) can be used for currant or raisin, or people use different words in different regions.
2. Powdered sugar, confectioner’s sugar, zucchero a velo.
3. Quanto basta, “how much is enough”. Ie you may not need all of it, just enough to achieve the desired consistency.

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Quintuple chocolate chip cookies

Quintuple chocolate chip cookies

Lots of bloggers and columnists have offered recipes for “the ultimate chocolate chip cookie”. I’m not sure it’s entirely possible to nail a perfect version of the quintessential US cookie and, well, it’s fun to play around with recipes. I’ve been experimenting with adding more chips and nibs. Others before me have taken the triple chocolate chip cookie as a starting point for quadruple and quintuple, so I’m not claiming any originality here, just having fun.

Let’s be clear, the quintuple here means there are five types of cacao-based product: three types of chocolate chunks, nibs and cocoa powder. When I say cacao-based product, I mean things derived from the Cacao theobroma tree. The tree is a native of Central and South America, famously beloved of the Aztecs, appropriated by imperialist Europeans and now grown from Ghana to Vietnam. I talked more about Cacao theobroma and nibs in this post, so won’t go on about them again.

Three types of chocolate chunks and cocoa nibs

Into the woods
We ate this batch while having a lovely walk in the woods: Friston Forest in East Sussex. After saying in my previous post about how awful the weather has turned, we’re having a week of gorgeous sun. Friston Forest is lovely; I particularly enjoyed a moment where we walked up a shady path then were suddenly in a clearing that offered a view that was full to the horizon with trees. This isn’t something that happens very often in East Sussex, a part of England that’s fairly populous, heavily farmed or defined by open Downland scenery, not forest.

Quintuple chocolate chip cookies in Friston Forest

So it was a day of treats – cookies, sunshine, woody views and even a pretty decent pub lunch at The Tiger Inn in East Dean (not to be confused with the East Dean in West Sussex), opposite Sherlock Holmes’ retirement house no less.

Sherlock Holmes' retirement house

The only disappointment was the lack of edible fungi. Perhaps the woods – largely a mix of beech, sycamore and ash on thin soil over chalk – just aren’t that suitable. But that’s OK, it’s all part of the process of finding a good spot for foraging.

Fridge-aged dough
This recipe is based on Dan Lepard’s dark chocolate chunk cookies, in his book Short & Sweet. Rather than using the following technique and baking them straight away, he says you can also use the US or even German technique1 of forming the dough into a cylinder and fridge or even freezer for later.

An article in the New York Times in 2008 asserted that this improves the quality of the finished cookie, allowing the flour to soak up the liquids and fats. Felicity Cloake in the Guardian did her own tests on this and said the dough kept longest in the fridge (48 hours) resulted in a more “caramelly” cookie, while those kept 12-24 hours had a preferable texture. I’m not entirely convinced though, especially when you’re adding cocoa powder to the mix.

125g unsalted butter, soft
190g light soft brown sugar
2 tsp vanilla essence
1 medium egg (about 52g), at room temperature2
175g plain flour
25g cocoa powder
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda (6g)
Pinch of salt
60g dark choc, roughly chopped into chunks
60g milk choc, roughly chopped into chunks
60g white choc, roughly chopped into chunks
50g cocoa nibs… or indeed cacao nibs

1. Preheat the oven to 180C and line some tray with baking parchment or silicon sheets.
2. Cream together the butter and sugar.
3. Add the egg and vanilla essence, and beat to blend.
4. Sieve together the flour, cocoa powder and bicbarb then add this to the batter, along with the pinch of salt.

Quintuple chocolate chip cookie mix

5. Add the chocolate chunk and nibs and bring to a dough.
6. Form balls. I scaled mine at 35g each, which resulted in 22 cookies.
7. Place the balls on the prepared sheets, well spaced about as they spread.

Room to spread while baking

Baked

8. Bake for about 12-14 minutes. Less = chewier, more = crunchier, according to taste.
9. Allow to firm up slightly on the trays then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Enjoy. Not necessarily on a walk in the woods. With a teatime cuppa or evening hot chocolate in the comfort of your own home is good too.

Plate of quintuple chocolate chip cookies

Footnotes
1. In the Oxford Companion to Food, in his entry for “Cookie”, Alan Davidson writes “The American habit of making rolls of cookie dough and and keeping them in the refridgerator or freezer may have come from Germany; the doughs for some German biscuits such as Heidesand are made into rolls and chilled before slicing.” He adds they’re sometimes known as “‘icebox’ cookies”
2. Always bake with your eggs at room temperature. I’m not sure it makes any difference to taste but it does help when beating eggs into a creamed sugar and fat mixture, reducing the chance of curdling. It’s also better when making things that require the egg, or the white, to be whisked, as the warmer egg incorpates air more effectively. Personally, I don’t even store eggs in the fridge. Eggs have a great storage system already – it’s called a shell. If the egg is off, having it cold and off won’t make any difference.

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Nut and cocoa nib cookies

Nut and cocoa nib cookies

I’m the kind of guy who always has to have some homemade biscuits or cookies waiting in a tin at home. Just in case of visitors, or in case of the munchies. So I’m always on the lookout for good recipes. I particularly like versatile recipes that can be tweaked depending on what you have in your store cupboards. I’m also enjoying adding cocoa nibs to things; see, for example, my crystallized ginger and cocoa nib cookies.

This one is based on a recipe for a biscuit Justin Gellatly calls “The nutter” in his book Bread, Cakes, Doughnut and Pudding. His recipe uses blanched almonds, blanched hazelnuts, walnuts, Brazil nuts and macadamia nuts, but he does say you can use whatever nuts you’ve got; I’ve done various versions, and they’ve all been great, with a nice crunch and warm nuttiness (unsurprisingly). You can even use nuts that aren’t technically nuts, like peanuts, which are actually the seeds of legumes.*

200g nuts, unsalted, mixed
50g cocoa nibs (or indeed cacao nibs)
125g butter, soft
125g caster sugar (you could also use soft brown, for a more caramelly flavour)
1 egg
150g plain flour
Pinch of salt

1. Heat the oven to 180C.
2. Put the nuts on a tray and roast for about 12 minutes, until lightly browned. Turn off the oven.
3. Put the toasted nuts in a food processor and whizz to a rough consistency – I like it a bit powdery, and bit chunky for crunch.

Grind the nuts and nibs
4. Add the cocoa needs and give it one last whizz, to break them a bit.
5. Beat together the butter and sugar until light. Beat in the egg. If it starts to curdle, add a little flour.

Form a dough
6. Add the flour and nuts and bring to a dough. It’ll be pretty sticky. Flour your hands a bit if it helps, and form a ball or disc.

Wrap in plastic and rest
7. Wrap in clingfilm and rest in the fridge for a few hours.
8. Preheat the oven again, to 170C.
9. Flour a work surface then roll out the dough to about 5mm thick. It’s quite a sticky dough, so be relatively liberal with the dusting if needs be.

Roll out and cut
10. Cut out biscuits with a cutter. I use a round 65mm one, but it’s up to you – and again, depends on what you’ve got.
11. Gather any scraps, squidge together and roll out again.
12. Put the biscuits on baking sheets, lined with parchment or silicon mats.
13. Bake for about 12-15 minutes until nicely browned.
14. Cool on wire racks.

Enjoy with a cuppa or coffee. We have hot chocolates most evenings in the winter. As the English summer seems to have given up, we seem to be starting to do that again already, and the cookies go well with that too. It’s a bit different to this time last year when we walked the South Downs Way in warm, rain-free weather.

Nut and cocoa nib cookies

* Peanuts are basically beans, but even weirder, unlike other beans, the pods grow underground. Anyway, if we’re being pedantic about nuts, in botanical terms, they are defined as dry fruits with one, or possibly two, seeds.

By this definition, most things we call nuts in English are technically not nuts: Brazil nuts, almonds, walnuts, pecans, cashews, cashews, and as mentioned, definitely not peanuts. However, when we say “nut”, we’re usually defining it in culinary, not scientific, terms, and can therefore include all these. In fact, the only nuts that seem to qualify both botanically and culinarily are hazels.

Many of the culinary nuts are actually the seeds of drupes – but who’s heard that word before, besides botanists and specialists??

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St Roch’s Fingers – a trifle, of sorts

St Roch's Fingers

Internationally, St Roch, whose feast day is 16 August, is also known has Rocco, Roque, Rock and even Rollox. Rock ’n’ Rollox. He sounds cool. Though actually he’s invoked against things like epidemics and skin diseases. And is the patron of a wide variety of people in different nations: the falsely accused, surgeons, tile-makers, gravediggers, second-hand dealers, wool-carders, pilgrims, apothecaries. As well dogs, sick cattle and bachelors.

He’s pretty multi-purpose.

The story says he was born in Montpelier in France and, after the death of his parents, became a pilgrim, bound for Rome. He didn’t get there (or maybe he did. The whole saga is hardly factual). Instead, he found himself in an area gripped by epidemic. Staying to minister, he apparently performed various miracles before himself contracting the disease, at Piacenza, northern Italy. He retreated to the woods. There, a dog found him, and brought him bread every day, taken from his owner’s kitchen.

Roch survived, and would only die in 1327 when he returned to Montpelier, was taken for a spy and stuck in a dungeon. Maybe. He may have instead died in Angleria, Lombardy, Italy, where he’s patron of two towns, Potenza and Gerocarne. Or he may have been an amalgam of other historical figures, or, like many saints and feast days, the story may have drawn on older, pagan stories. Hagiography does blur with folklore and legends.

As his story features the bread-bearing dog, I would have thought he would have a traditional feast-day loaf. But seemingly not. Instead, Feast Day Cookbook (Burton and Ripperger, 1951) and Cooking with the Saints (Schuegraf, 2001) say one should make something called St Roch’s fingers. The latter book says it’s Spanish in origina. It is basically another variation on the theme of trifle – sponge and custard, a dash of alcohol.

Sponge fingers
St Roch’s fingers requires sponge fingers. Now, you can just go and buy these, but they’re pretty easy to make and cooking from scratch is fun, rewarding, and means you can avoid any nasty additives you will very likely get in industrially made biscuits and cakes bought from supermarkets.

Sponge fingers, ladyfingers or savoiardi, are basically made with the same mix you use for Genoise, or a similar one. I wrote about that, and trifle, more here, but here’s another basic savoiardi recipe.

Makes about a dozen fingers.

2 eggs
62g caster sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
pinch of salt
55g plain flour

1. Preheat oven to 190C.
2. Line 2 baking trays with silicone or baking parchment.
3. Fit a piping bag with a plain 1.25cm nozzle.
4. Separate the eggs. Whisk the egg yolks with half of the sugar and the vanilla. Beat until light in colour.
5. In a clean bowl beat the egg whites. While beating, slowly add the salt and the remaining sugar, continuing to beat until you achieve soft peaks.
6. Gently fold the beaten egg whites into the egg yolk mixture.
7. Sieve the flour over the egg mixture and gently fold it in.
10. Pipe fingers, about 9cm long, 4cm apart.
11. Bake for about 12 minutes until firm to the touch and golden.

Sponge fingers unbakedSponge fingers baked
12. Place on racks to cool.

Crème de la crème
You also need custard. Again, you can buy this in tins, or cheat with a cornflour-based powder, but you simply cannot beat homemade stuff.

145g full-fat milk
145g cream
1 tsp vanilla essence
2 egg yolks
15g caster sugar

1. Heat the milk and cream together in a saucepan, and scald – that is, bring it almost but not quite to the boil
2. In a bowl, beat the eggs with the sugar.
3. Pour the hot milk over the egg yolks whisking continuously. When completely mixed in, return to the pan.
4. Stir over a low heat until the mixture thickens.
5. Pour into a bowl and beat in the vanilla essence. Allow to cool completely.

St Roch's Fingers

To assemble the dessert:
Some brandy. Or other alcohol. To taste.
Some whipped cream.
Some small glasses.

1. If you want to flavour the custard, beat in a little alcohol – brandy for example.
2. If you want to make the custard go a bit further, beat in some whipped cream.
3. Line the glasses with the sponge fingers: a piece in the bottom, and up the side.
4. I’d just made some jam – or indeed jelly – from the cherry plums (Prunus cerasifera) in my garden so I put a blob of that in the bottom.
5. Cover with custard.
6. Add some extra whipped cream on top if you fancy.

Quite why you’d eat this for St Roch’s day I don’t know. But enjoy, while basking in that protection from epidemics and skin diseases.

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Sardinian holiday – snacks and sweets

Picnic with durum roll

Considering we only had about five days on this holiday, we did manage to do a pretty impressive amount of eating, drinking, sampling and culinary exploration.

I didn’t really know what to expect food-wise of not just Sardinia, which is culturally distinct from the mainland regions of Italy, but also the small port town of La Maddalena, on the island of the same name, off the northeast coast. But as I was very gratified to find some Sardinian craft beers, I was also very pleased to encounter some snacks and treats I’d never even heard of before.

La Maddalena is a town of about 20,000 people, yet it had at least half a dozen bakeries and pasticcierie. Compare that to a British town of a similar size – it might have one dreadful chain bakery stinking of powdered cheese and onion mix, and perhaps a fake bakery (where pre-made dough is simply baked off) inside a supermarket.

Needing picnics for our days at the beach, we went to the small market and stocked up on local salami and pecorino Sardo (various local variations on sheep’s milk cheese) then bought breads and biscuits from a bakery on Via Vittorio Emanuele, down by the port. Called La Panetteria del Porto. (Love the Street View here, with a dog wandering around in the middle of the road.)

Biscuits

It was a small, gloomy bakery with a padrona who seemed determined to sell us more than we asked for or needed. But hey, I’m a glutton for baked goods, so was an easy mark. There was a display cabinet packed with biscuits, sold by weight, and breads in niches against the back wall. We bought rolls – notably yellowy ones made with grano duro (durum wheat, semolina) and dark, grainy ones she simply called pane nero (black bread). Our picnics, tweaked slightly every day, were completed by Sardinian-grown melon.

Acciuleddi

From the biscuits, I chose the twisty ones – unfamiliar looking, unfamiliar sounding. These were acciuleddi – a word with that distinctive “dd”, which seems to be not just Sardinian, but even specifically gallurese, a language spoken in the north of Sardinia and the south of Corsica. Eating them, I discovered they’re not unlike frappe, the deep-fried sweet pasta I gorge on during Carnevale in Rome, but with the added bonus of being drizzled in honey. I will make some at home at some stage, as there are recipes available.

Ficareddi in window

Another biscuit-type treat we bought from another bakery, doesn’t seem to have any online traces. So it may not just be specific to this part of Sardinia, it may be a speciality of this one pasticceria, Abat Jour on the pedestrian-only Via Giuseppe Garibaldi. These were ficareddi – a kind of figgy macaron concoction with a peaked form. They’re made with ground almonds and liquore di mirto, the quintessential Sardinian digestivo made from the berries of common myrtle (Myrtus communis), a shrub we’d passed regularly on our walks in the macchia scrub.

Ficareddu bite

We also bought some bastone di cardinale (“cardinal’s staff” or “cardinal’s stick”), a kind of sweet salami made with dried and candied fruits and nuts. It’s a gift for our friend who looked after our cats and tomatoes so the padrona wrapped it up beautifully. Again – compare this with the experience you’d have in your local Greggs. It makes me weep for our impoverished food culture and culinary self-respect here in England.

Bastone di cardinale

The morning we were catching the ferry back to the mainland, we thought we’d better get a snack for the journey, so went to Paposceria L’ Isola che non c’é on Piazza XXIII Febbraio. No, I’d not heard of a paposceria either, and I get the impression I’m not the only one as they have a big sign outside explaining the meaning of the word paposcia. Basically, they’re another variation on the theme of snack flatbreads, related to pizza. The paposcia was the piece of dough used to test if a wood-fired oven was hot enough to start baking the bread. If the oven was ready, the paposcia would rise and bake well. “Per non sprecare nulla” – to not waste anything – it was then used to make a sandwich.

Paposcia

It’s not specifically Sardo, but neither is it something I’d ever encountered in Rome. Indeed, I’m not even sure where the word paposcia is from, possibly Puglia or Naples. It may well be a dialect version of babbuccia (babouche in French) and, like ciabatta, also means slipper, for obvious reasons.

It was only 11am when we went in, and L’isola che non c’é (“the island that isn’t”) was pretty quiet, but the guys were friendly and the mozzarella and tomato toasty served us well, sitting on deck in the sunshine as we made the short crossing back to Palau on mainland Sardinia.

 

(I’ve written two most posts about this holiday: first one and third one. I’ve also done a recipe for acciuleddi.)

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Delicate shortbread fingers

Shortbread fingers

Every family has its funny little games. One I play with my mother is “What’s the most past its best-before-date ingredient in the back of the cupboard?” These tend to be spices, but in this case, at my folks’ place I found a box of cornflour1 that was… well, let’s say that at least it was from this century.

Now, one of the many wasteful habits we have in the modern world, especially in the West, is throwing away perfectly good food. Love Food Hate Waste says that in the UK alone “We throw away 7 million tonnes2 of food and drink from our homes every year, the majority of which could have been eaten.” This may be a massive underestimate though. Other stats3 have it at 15 million tonnes. Think of that. That’s a mountain of food. A mountain of food that was produced with vast amounts of energy, that goes into landfills, when elsewhere people are starving – or indeed, relying on food banks here in the UK, the sixth biggest economy in the world.

So rather than giving it to the birds or the bin, I thought, why not try and use up the cornflour. Certainly, in its long career at the gloomy back of the cupboard, it’s not improved, but nor has it become inedible – it’s probably lost some of its power-to-thicken, but it hadn’t rotted or become toxic or bad for you. It just got stale.

Shortbread/shortcake
I’d been browsing Jane Grigson’s English Food and naturally, given my inclinations, I was in the Teatime chapter. Among the entries is one for Shortcakes. Though these are actually shortbreads, or shortbread biscuits. Grigson, writing in 1974, before the internet made everyone a expert and/or pedant, simply says, “Scottish shortbread is one of the many international variations on the shortcake theme”.

Shortbread is one of those recipes that utilises memorable proportions: 3 parts flour, 2 parts butter, 1 part sugar. For the flour, the Grigson recipe gave an option for either using ground rice or cornflour mixed with flour, so this seemed like a great way to use up the museum piece.

I’ve made shortbreads with ground rice and semolina before, which gives them a bit of crunch, but using cornflour takes them the other way – into a softer biscuit that almost dissolves in the mouth. The delicate texture can be further enhanced by using icing (powdered) sugar wholly or partially for that 1 part sugar.

A note on techniques
Shortbread can be made by either creaming the sugar and butter, then adding the flour, or by rubbing the butter into the flour, then adding the sugar. Grigson’s recipe did the latter, and gave the delightfully in-depth instructions of “Mix to a dough”.

Shortbread isn’t a million miles away from a shortcrust pastry, so the rubbing-in method seemed like a logical choice. As with a shortcrust pastry, try to avoid overworking the flour.

Now, I’ve made these twice in the past week: once with the, er, vintage cornflour, and once with some fresh stuff now I’m back home. Both worked well: the, er, well-aged cornflour resulted in a slightly softer, more powdery biscuit that was perfectly edible and palatable. Stale flour isn’t ideal, but it won’t kill you. So don’t bin it the moment it goes over its best-before date. Think of those 7 – or 15 –  million tonnes.

200g plain (all purpose) flour
100g cornflour (corn starch)
200g unsalted butter
50g caster sugar
50g icing sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 180C.
2. Line a couple of baking sheets with parchment or silicone mats.
3. Weigh out the flours and sieve them together into a large bowl. Or just combine and whisk a bit with a fork if you can’t be bothered with the sieve.
3. Cut the butter into small cubes, add it to the flour and rub it in until the mixture is crumb-like.
4. Add the sugars to the mixture and squeeze to all together to form a dough. It will be crumbly. You want it crumbly – crumbly = short.

Shortbread fingers - cutting the paste

5. Roll out the paste on a lightly floured worktop, to a thickness of about 12mm. I made mine into fingers, cutting pieces about 70 x 25mm.

Shortbread fingers - prick with a fork
6. Put the piece on the baking sheets and prick them with a fork.
7. Put them in the oven and bake for about 15 minutes. The classic shortbread is baked to the point where it’s still pale, but I like mine just starting to colour. Your choice – add or subtract a few minutes from the baking time to suit your tastes.

 

1. What Americans call corn starch and Italians amido di mais. Whatever you call it, it’s a starch extracted from the endosperm – the carby bit – of kernels of Zea mais, maize, or corn in US English.
2. 7 million metric tonnes is 7.72 million short/US tons or 6.9 long/imperial tons. By any measure, a lot.
3. This article in The Guardian is about a new law in France to stop supermarkets wasting so much food. It has stats from Eurostat, with the UK at the top of an EU league table of food wasters.

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Cocoa nib and crystallized ginger cookies

Plate of ginger and cocoa nib biscuits

The past few years, my favourite chocolate bars have been those that contain both a high percentage of cocoa solids and cocoa nibs. I had a few brands I favoured in Italy, but back here in England I mostly eat Lordy Lord, from local Sussex chocolate company Montezuma’s. It’s “min cocoa solids 79%” and it contains nibs. I love the nutty crunch the nibs provide. Yet it’s taken me ages to get round to trying using nibs as a baking ingredient.

What are nibs?
Before I go any further, let’s clarify what cocoa nibs are. Chocolate is produced from the cocoa beans, the seeds of the tree Theobroma cacao, the first bit of which suitably means “food of the gods”. The pods containing the seeds are harvested then cracked open. The pulp and beans are  piled up and left to ferment, to reduce the innate bitterness of the beans. They’re then dried, before being roasted and cracked – the resulting fragments are the nibs.

Add nibs to dough

Cocoa vs cacao
Now reading about this online, I’m coming across the usual internet disagreement and misinformation about the difference between cocoa nibs and cacao nibs. Some sites insist the latter are the version where the beans bypass the roasting process; some health food sites say this results in a product that’s higher in antioxidants. This may well be true, but I can’t find any scientific reports. Plus, the words cocoa and cacao are often used as synonyms. Both words are translations, transliterations or fluid (mis)spellings of the word in the languages of the Mesoamericans (Mayans etc) who first cultivated the tree and added the term to European languages via the Spanish.

Indeed, in most Romance languages (Spanish, Italian, French etc), the English “cocoa” is simply translated as cacao.

I’m using Organic cocoa nibs from Naturya, and they describe the product as “simply unprocessed cocoa beans, broken into little bits. Nothing more, nothing less.” With no mention of roasting. Or cacao.

Chocolate cake with coca nib sprinkles

Sprinkles and chips
So I’ve been using the nibs as sprinkles for chocolate cake (above), or as an ingredient for biscotti and cookies. Cocoa nibs are funny as, strangely, they’re reminiscent like carob, which, for those of us who remember the 1980s, was another fad food that health foodie types tried to promote as an alternative to chocolate. I like carob, as carob, but as an alternative to chocolate, it just doesn’t cut it.

So if I want a chocolate chip cookie, I have to use chocolate. But my cocoa nib cookies are great – as something distinct. I’m enjoying playing around with a recipe for cookies that uses the technique where you form a cylinder of dough then cut it. This can be called “slice cookies”, or “icebox cookie” (from keeping the dough in the freezer, or fridge). I first encountered it years ago via the Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook, but the ever-informative Alan Davidson, in the Oxford Companion to Food, writes, “The American habit of making rolls of cookie dough and keeping them in the refrigerator or freezer may have come from Germany; the doughs for some German biscuits such as Heidesand are made into rolls and chilled before slicing.”

Crystallized ginger

Crystallised ginger
Adding crystallised ginger was just a hunch I fancied playing with, and I’m pleased with the results. Ideas are rarely new in this day and age – seven billion plus humans, the internet – and I’ve definitely enjoyed ginger and dark chocolate combined before, so that led me to nibs and crystallised ginger, an ingredient I enjoy in steamed puddings and pear cakes.

Ginger is the root of Zingiber officinale, but rather than being dried and powdered, it’s boiled in syrup, rolled in sugar – another name for crystallised ginger is candied ginger. As such, it’s a cousin of things like candied peel or candied angelica (the stems of Angelica archangelica, a somewhat out-of-fashion ingredient).

Recipe

140g plain flour
100g self-raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp powdered ginger (optional)
1/2 tsp fine sea salt
150g unsalted butter, softened
100g light brown sugar
100g granulated sugar [test with caster also]
1 egg, beaten (at room temperature*)
100g cocoa or cacao nibs
120g crystallized ginger, roughly cut up

1. Sieve together the flours, baking powder and powered ginger – only use the latter if you like the cookies a little bit more gingery. Stir in the salt.
2. In another bowl, cream together in the sugars and butter. Cream until light and fluffy.
3. Add the beaten egg, a little at a time.
4. Add the flour mix to the creamed mix and bring together, adding the nibs and chopped ginger.

Cookie dough

5. Bring the whole mixture to a dough. It should be a little sticky, not too much.

Dough cylinders
6. Form the dough into two cylinders, using slightly floured hands if you find it too sticky.
7. Wrap each cylinder in plastic and put in the fridge, for at least an hour. The cylinders will be fine in your fridge for a day or two, though the dough will dry and become slightly crumblier the longer you leave it. Some say this deepens the flavour, but that’s another discussion.
8. When you’re reading to make the cookies, preheat the oven to 180C.
9. Line a couple of baking sheets with parchment.

Slice the cylinders
10. Cut the cylinders into rounds, about 8mm thick. The mixture may crumble a bit, if it does, just gently squeeze back together. You won’t achieve perfect rounds, due to the nibs and chunks of ginger.
11. Place the rounds on the sheets, leaving some space for expansion between then, about 4-5cm.
12. Bake for about 15-20 minutes, until nicely coloured.
13. Transfer to wire racks to cool.

Cocoa nib and crystallized ginger cookies

 

* Always bake with your eggs at room temperature. I doubt it makes any difference to taste but it does help when beating eggs into a creamed sugar and fat mixture, reducing the chance of curdling. It’s also better when making things that require the egg, or the white, to be whisked, as the warmer egg incorpates air more effectively. Personally, I don’t generally store eggs in the fridge. Eggs have a great storage system already – it’s called a shell. If the egg is off, having it cold won’t make any difference. And, frankly, when was the last time you had an off egg? I’ve encountered them once or twice in my life. Plus, as I bake so much, and like omelettes and whatnot, eggs never last long in my house, so are are generally fresh, usually from these guys.

 

 

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Digestive biscuits

Digestives, piles

Apparently this type of biscuit was first developed by two Scots doctors in the early 19th century who believed the bicarbonate of soda was the digestive aid. These days, however, we’re more likely to look to the bran, from wholemeal wheat flour, and the oatmeal, for the more healthful qualities of digestives.

This is another one of my recipes from my old notebooks from when I lived at Old Man Mountain, New Zealand, in 1994-95, from my friend Nadia. I’ve no idea where she got the recipe from. If memory serves, it was in one of her notepads. All I know is we were making a baked cheesecake, needed some digestives, and this was a better option than driving 15km to a shop.

This time round I’m making them because I want to try this amazing looking, amazingly indulgent recipe from Kate “The Little Loaf” Doran. Kate has her own, similar recipe, for digestives, but well, I wanted to use mine, another memory of Nadia.

Isometric digestives

A bit of chemistry
This is a slightly tweaked version of the one I’ve got in my notepad. That one used baking soda, aka bicarbonate of soda aka sodium hydrogen carbonate, for a little bit of raising agent. The thing about baking soda, though, is that it’s an alkali and it needs an acid to react with to create the carbon dioxide that gives lift. That’s why US muffin recipes, say, often include yogurt, for the lactic acid. Other recipes might use citrus juice, milk or even vinegar. But my old digestive recipe had nothing acid in it*. So I’ve replaced the baking soda with baking powder. And what is baking powder? It’s pre-mixed combo of baking soda and something acid for it to react with when you combine and bake. In this case, sodium phosphates: that is, sodium salts of phosphoric acid.

A word on the oatmeal: you can use whatever you fancy, though fine or medium are probably best. I didn’t have any, so I just used some porridge oats, which I whizzed in a food processor – to make a medium-coarse meal. Hence the results in this case are especially rustic.

Makes about 30 biscuits

150g unsalted butter
250g wholemeal flour (plain/low protein)
250g oatmeal (fine or medium)
80g light soft brown sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp BP
2 eggs, beaten (approx 120g beaten egg)

1. Preheat oven to 200C.
2. Combine the flour, oatmeal, salt and baking powder in a bowl.
3. Rub the butter into the flour mix until it resembles crumbs.
4. Stir in the sugar.
5. Bind with the beaten egg, to form a rough dough. Don’t overwork it, or you’ll toughen it up. You can wrap it in plastic and give it a rest in the fridge at this point, but I can’t say I noticed the difference.

Digestives, pinned outPinned out, cut out
6. Roll out (or indeed “pin out”, in British baker parlance) to about 5mm thick. It’s quite crumbly.

Rolled out, CU
7. Cut circles of about 70mm diameter. It doesn’t matter too much if you don’t have this size cutter; you could even just use a glass. Bring together any scraps, roll and cut circles to use it all up.

Digestives, prickedDigestives, baked
8. Put on lined baking sheet, dock or prick with a fork. Sprinkle with extra oatmeal if you like, but I find it mostly just falls off.
9. Bake until browned, around 15 mins.
10. Cool on a rack.

Digestives, cooling

They’re excellent with cheese, dunked in hot chocolate, or used for a cheesecake base.

* Food charts seem to vary in terms of whether whole chicken egg is acid or alkaline. Some list them as acidic, but egginfo.co.uk says, “The pH of the white and yolk are different and change differently during storage.  The initial pH of yolk is slightly acidic (reported values range from 5.9 to 6.2) and rises slightly during storage to about 6.8.  Egg white pH is initially in the region 7.6 and rises to 8.9 -9.4 after storage due to CO2 loss through the shell.  The natural ratio of egg white to egg yolk in an egg is 2:1 and therefore when mixed together liquid whole egg has a pH range of 7.2 to 7.9.” (If you can’t remember school science, low pH is more acidic, high pH is more alkaline. The mid-point, neutral, is 7pH, the pH of pure water.)

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Christmas biscotti

Christmas biscotti

So I wanted to create an all-purpose biscotti recipe, an equivalent to this eminently useful customised cookie recipe where you just make a basic dough then chuck in whatever else you feel like. The plan was to have a recipe that I could adapt to utilise some Christmas flavours, some spices, some peel – and use up some pistachios that were sitting in storage while we didn’t have a kitchen during our 12 weeks-became-24 weeks building project.

Here’s the Christmas version. I’ll post the all-purpose version when I’ve tried a few more variables.

3 cardamom pods
3 cloves
nutmeg
1/2 tsp cinnamon
250g plain flour
200g sugar (caster or granulated)
1 tsp baking powder
(30g raw cacao powder, optional – I just had some)
pinch salt
3 medium eggs, beaten (QB, see below)
100g pistachio nuts
85g candied peel

1. Preheat the oven to 180C.
2. Line some baking sheets with parchment.
Christmas biscotti, spices

3. Prepare the spices: crack open the cardamom pods and take out the seeds then grind them up, along with the cloves. I use a mini electric grinder, but you could use a pestle and mortar (can’t find mine). Mix these spices with the cinnamon and a few grates of fresh nutmeg. Again, the spice mix is up to you really – all these spices are wonderfully evocative of mid-winter feasting to me, but if you don’t like or don’t have cardamom, for example, don’t worry.
4. Sieve together the flour, cacao powder if using, baking powder and spices and add the salt.
5. Make a dough by adding the beaten egg, a little at a time. You may not need to use it all. For example, my 3 medium eggs produced 170g of beaten egg, but I only needed 160g to make a dough that was malleable, not too dry, not too sticky. That’s QB – which is found in Italian recipes, is short for quanto basta, and means, “how much is enough”. In this case 160g was enough.

Christmas biscotti, dough
6. Add the nuts and peel and combine. Don’t knead it, it’s not bread, mix it just enough to homogenise.

Christmas biscotti, logs, unbaked
7. Form the dough into three slightly flattened logs, about 40-50mm wide, and place these on the baking sheets, sufficiently spaced for some spread.
8. Bake for about 20-25 minutes. You want the logs baked but not dried out, not still gooey. If they’re too gooey inside still, they’re hard to slice for the next stage and the second bake.

Christmas biscotti, logs, baked
9. Allow the logs to cool slightly then, with a serrated bread knife, slice, on a slight angle, into pieces about 10mm thick.
10. Return the biscuits to the baking sheets and bake again, for about 10-15 minutes. Take them out, turn them over, then bake again, to crisp up.

Christmas biscotti, sliced
11. Cool on a wire rack.

As they’re baked twice – biscotto literally means “twice baked” in Italian, from the Latin – they’ll be crisp and hard. They keep well in an airtight container and are suitable for dipping in a glass of desert wine, or a digestivo, or a hot drink if you’re being abstemious. It’s the season for abstemiousness right?

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Lebkuchen in my new kitchen

Lebkuchen

So we’re in week 22 or 23 of our 12 week building project now, with the few final jobs dragging on and on. But the good news is that we got a kitchen back in the past few weeks. We’ve now got it in pretty usable order.

It’s a fairly slow process getting used to a new kitchen: the layout, your workflow in the space, the new equipment. In this case, the only new kit we got was an oven. As a baker, this is obvious the most important thing. Especially as, suddenly, we seem to be poised on the verge of that annual blow-out that is Christmas.

Now, I love seasonal and festival specialities, and over the years I’ve enjoyed trying various international seasonal baked goods like stollen, panettone and kringle. I did the latter, a Scandinavian sweet bread, while living in Italy, and the panettone, the classic Italian sweet seasonal bread, while living in England. I’m in the process of revising my panettone recipe but in the meantime, I wanted to try another classic European Christmas baked treat – lebkuchen, the traditional German biscuit or small cake that’s related to other European sweets like British gingerbread biscuits and cakes, Danish honning hjerter (honey hearts), Polish Toruń pierniki, and various international spice and honey cakes.

As biscuits, these were considerably less of a challenge than an enriched dough when trying to get used to a new oven.*

Lebkuchen were a big part of our Christmas eating when I was younger – perhaps strangely as we’re thoroughly English. But my dad had business partners in Switzerland and Germany and the latter would send us a bag or tin of these spicy, soft German biscuits every year, possibly starting in 1979. Indeed, one large tin, decorated with seasonal scenes, is still in use by my parents as a biscuit tin 15 or so years after it was gifted to them.

Despite enjoying them over the years, I’d never tried to make them. So it was nice to see a recipe in The Guardian’s Cook section last week, from 2013 Great British Bake Off contestant and now newspaper food writer Ruby Tandoh. This was the first of Tandoh’s recipes I’d tried, if memory serves, and it worked well. I tweaked a few things though, partly as I like a tad more spice than she was suggesting, and as I’m pretty sure lebkuchen need honey in them.

I would also say the spice mix is up to you. Yes, they need ginger, but you can mix up the other spices to taste: basically you’re going for that medieval winter feast vibe, and traditionally lebkuchen can involve aniseed, allspice, cinnamon, cloves. As fresh spices are always more alive with flavour, if you have a small spice grinder or pestle and mortar, that’s great.

Here’s the original recipe on The Guardian’s site, and here’s my tweaked version:

120g unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
160g plain flour
1 t baking powder
5 t ground ginger
1/2 t cinnamon
6 whole cloves cloves
2 cardamom pods (freshly ground)
1/2 t aniseeds (freshly ground)
100g ground almonds
80g soft light brown sugar
A pinch of salt
2 large egg yolks
60g runny honey

To glaze
20g water
100g icing sugar

1. Preheat your oven to 180C (fan oven)
2. Grind any fresh spices you’re using.
3. Sieve together the flour, baking powder and all the spices into a large bowl, discarding any big bits of cardamom pod etc.
4. Rub in the butter, until it resembles crumbs.
5. Add the ground almonds, sugar and salt to the flour and spice mix.
6. In a separate bowl, beat together the honey and egg yolks.

Lebkuchen 1
7. Pour the egg and honey mix into the dry mix and bring together with a fork or spatula to create a soft, moist dough.

Lebkuchen 2
8. Take lumps of the dough and roll into a ball. Ruby said “conker-sized” pieces, but as any British schoolchild of a certain age will know, conkers can seriously vary in size so I scaled mine at 30g. This resulted in 19 perfectly sized biscuits.

Lebkuchen 3
9. Squash the balls with your palms, flattening them out on lined baking sheets leaving some space between for expansion.
10. Bake for about 8 minutes then swap the trays around on the shelves so they bake evenly.
11. Bake for another 8 minutes or so – you want them nicely coloured, but not too dark. This will depend on the fierceness of your oven.

Lebkuchen 4
12. While they’re still baking, sieve the icing sugar into a small bowl then add a small dribble of water, about 20g, or 2 or 2 T. You want a runny, but not too runny, icing.
13. When the biscuits are baked, leave them on their trays and glaze by brushing on the icing “liberally”.

Lebkuchen 5
14. Leave to cool on the tray.

 

 

* A Rangemaster Professional + 110 Induction. My first impression is, sadly, that the ovens heat up slowly and are a good 10C less hot than it says on the dial. I should do a proper review at some stage as it’s not like you buy new cookers often, and it’s not like you can try before you buy.

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