Category Archives: Feasts

Frustingolo Italian Christmas cake

This Christmas cake is specifically from the Marche region of eastern central Italy. It’s similar to those other dense, nutty, fruity Italian Christmas cakes – panforte from Siena, which is probably the best known, and pangiallo from Rome, which I got to know while living there. All of them are of a very ancient form – no chemical raising agents, no fancy sugar craft. Indeed, the very first cakes humanity concocted would have been of a similar format – dense discs that combined dried fruits, nuts and honey for sweetening. I called them “primitive cakes” in my post about pangiallo.

If panforte means “strong bread” and pangiallo means “yellow bread”, I’m not too sure what frustingolo means. The verb frustare means to whip or to lash, or, less violently and more related to cooking, to whisk. As it’s a very dense mixture, you don’t whisk it though, you laboriously turn it with a wooden spoon or silicon spatula. My old friend, Italian teacher and philologist Giammarco suggests the cake’s name instead derives from the adjective frusto, meaning well used or worn out, but also used to mean un pezzetto, a little piece.* So I suppose in the sense of little pieces of nuts and fruit.

Anyway. I saw a recipe first in a cookbook by Anna del Conte but hunting around for more I found more Italian recipes online, which included chocolate. I love chocolate. I’m not the biggest fan of Christmas fruit cakes, so adding chocolate was surely essential.

I give some procedural method, but frankly it’s just a case of adding everything and mixing well. You may be able to see in the pics I included some pecans – I didn’t have quite enough walnuts, and pecans are more of a treat anyway. It’s not a strict recipe. You can adjust the spices or ground coffee if you wish, and use other nuts or fruit depending on what’s in your store cupboard. You can also include a shot of brown spirits if you like. There’s a certain amount of QB here – an Italian recipe term meaning quanto basta, “how much is enough” or “just enough” or “as required”, ie just adding until the mix feels right.

300g dried figs
100g raisins
150g blanched almonds
150g walnuts
100g breadcrumbs (dried)
50g pine nuts**
60g dark chocolate, ideally 80% plus cocoa solids
Zest of 1 orange and 1 lemon
125g wholemeal flour
2g cinnamon powder
10g cocoa
100g caster sugar
80g honey
15g ground coffee, to taste
About 150g strong coffee, espresso, QB
Olive oil, QB
Rum or brandy (optional)

1. Heat the oven to 160C and grease and line with parchment a 22cm loose-bottomed round tin.
2. Melt the chocolate in a bowl over simmering water.
3. Soften the figs in hot water then drain and chop roughly.
4. Put the figs in a bowl with the raisins and mix.

5. Roughly chop the walnuts and combine with the pine nuts, the honey, the sugar and the peel.
6. Add the melted chocolate, coffee powder and the breadcrumbs.
7. Sieve together the flour, cocoa and cinnamon and add to the mix too.
8. Add the lemon and orange zest.


9. Soften the mixture with strong coffee, adding more or less as necessary, and some extra virgin olive oil. Aim for a stiff mixture, rather than a batter, mixing everything well. Add a splash of brandy or rum if you like.
10. Put the mixture in the prepared tin and bake for around 1 hour 20 minutes, until nicely browned.
11. Cool in the tin for about 10 minutes, then loosen and invert to cool completely.

12. To serve, you can decorate the top (formerly the bottom) with some more nuts or candied fruit and/or sprinkle with icing sugar.

 

 

Footnotes
* Giammarco explained frustare comes from the Latin fustis, meaning stick, rod or cane. Whereas frusto comes from the Latin frustum, meaning a little piece, a lump.
** Ideally Italian or European from Pinus pinea (the stone pine or umbrella pine) if you can get them, not Chinese ones from Pinus armandii (the almond pine or Chinese white pine). I couldn’t, and they’re considerably more expensive – but as with any expensive ingredient, it’s a treat to be used sparingly and doubtless better environmentally. I’m seriously mistrustful of Chinese agricultural practises, seeing as they supply much of the world with just about everything these days, and intensively intensive agriculture is one of our worst mistreatments of the planet: degrading and destroying soil that took millennia to develop; nuking it with toxins that end up in animals, rivers and the ocean; deforestation, etc etc etc etc.

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Ciastka miodowe, Polish honey cookies for St Nicholas’s Day, 6 December

Tradition is always changing. It’s fluid, not set in aspic like some people who see themselves as traditionalists and conservatives may believe. Just think of St Nicholas, the saint whose feast day is celebrated on 6 December and who morphed into Santa Claus.

Little is known of St Nicholas. He was of Greek descent and may have been born in the Roman period in 270 and died in the Byzantine period 70-odd years later. He was a bishop in Myra, now the small town of Demre on the south coast of Turkey. It was a long, baffling journey from there to the red-and-white clad fat man so beloved of children and soft drink advertisers today. As for traditions associated with St Nick, previously, in the Netherlands, his gift giving – or tellings off – occurred on the night of St Nicholas’s day. For most of us, that tradition shifted to Christmas Eve.

For the same reason, however much it pains me, I need to accept now that most people don’t even know or care that the Twelve Days of Christmas were from 25 December to 5 January. Although it’s been driven by modern commercialism and consumerism, the Christmas period has now moved forward, with many now celebrating from late November, then giving up between the second day of Christmas (Boxing Day, St Stephen’s Day) and the seventh day (New Years Eve, St Sylvester’s Day). People were especially desperate to get their decorations up this year as Covid-19 has been so tough. But even without Covid, the tradition has changed.*

Nice and spicy does it
Many cultures made a spice cookie or cake or even steamed pudding as part of their St Nicholas day celebrations. I’ve done the Dutch speculaas here before but here’s a Polish one. They include honey and various spices and are as such related to other European Christmas period cookies, notably lebkuchen. Basically they’re all gingerbread. These ciastka miodowe do not contain any butter, and the only fat comes from egg yolks. As such, they’ve got quite a solid crunch. Verging on hardtack.

I have this same recipe in two books: Feast Day Cookbook by Katherine Burton and Helmut Ripperger and Cooking with the Saints by Ernst Schuegraf. The former was first published in 1951, so it’s likely the source for Schuegraf’s 2001 book. Either way, the recipe has been repeated all over the internet. Do an image search for ciastka miodowe and there are plenty that vary in style from Schuegraf’s stipulations. Which is good, as it means I can cut out the cookies with my kids and give them some freedom choosing the cutters.

I was hoping to ask about these with the one Polish parent I know at my kids’ school but with Covid queuing regulations, school gate chit-chat isn’t quite so easy as it once was.

Anyway. I’ve dragged this recipe kicking and screaming into SI units of measurement, or at least grams instead of cups and all that silliness.**

130g honey
100g caster sugar
1 whole egg
2 egg yolks
500g plain flour
6g baking soda
4g ground cinnamon
2g grated nutmeg
2g ground ginger
Pinch ground cloves (ie less than 1g – cloves are so pungent I go easy with them; if you love the flavour, add more)
Pinch salt

1. Warm the honey together with the sugar. I weighed them straight into a stainless mixing bowl which I can then warm on a low setting on an induction hob, but otherwise use a pan.
2. When you have separated two eggs, save the whites for later and beat the yolks together with the whole egg. This mix will be about 85g.
3. Add the beaten egg to the honey mix and beat well.
4. Sieve together the flour, baking soda and spices and add the pinch of salt.

5. Add the sieved mix to the honey and egg mix and combine, first with a spatula or wooden spoon, then by hand to form a fairly dry paste. Do not overwork it.
6. Wrap the dough then leave to rest for at least 4 hours or overnight.
7. Preheat the oven to 180C.
8. Lightly whisk some of the saved egg white. You don’t need peaks, just froth it up a bit.


9. Choose your preferred cookie cutters – round, stars, flowers etc. If you have young children, they may have strong opinions about this. My five year old baking assistant was keen on hearts.
10. Roll the dough to about 5mm thick.
11. Stamp out shapes and put them on baking sheets lined with silicon mats or parchment. (Or not, if you have well seasoned trays like mine.)


12. Brush the cookies with some of whisked egg white.
14. Bake the cookies for about 10-15 minutes, depending on how aggressive your oven is. Until nicely browned.


15. Cool on a wire rack.

The Burton-Ripperger recipe adds a blanched almond to the top of each cookie before baking. This is optional, and absent from most of the images online from Polish sites.

Happy St Nicholas’s Day!

* Even here in Lewes, East Sussex, England, the most important tradition is Bonfire night – or more accurately, the Bonfire Season, where the various bonfire societies of the town and other villages and towns of Sussex, over a period of several weeks parade around, burn stuff, blow stuff up and stage wonderful pageantry, my favourite part of which is the tabs, tableaux, large papier- mâché effigies that skillfully satirise figures from politics and public life. My least favourite part of the celebration has been Lewes Borough bonfire society’s tradition of dressing up as “Zulus” – white people in blackface. The costumes may have been spectacular, but the blackface and imperial implications are a tradition that was long past its sell-by. Modern society doesn’t need this public racism. Although there was no Bonfire season this year due to Covid, I believe Borough has finally called an end to the blackface tradition. As I say, traditions change, whether organically or by necessary edict after years of campaigning by anti-racism groups.
** I’ve just bought a second-hand copy of a wonderfully comprehensive book called A World of Cakes. Quite excited to try some of the recipes, but not only does it use US cups, the author, Kyrstina Castella, can’t even decide how to list butter – she uses both sticks (which at least can be given a clearcut weight) and tablespoons. How do you measure butter accurately in tablespoons?!

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Lekach honey cake

Back in the first 2020 lockdown, when most shops were closed, markets weren’t operating, supermarket delivery slots were like gold dust and actual visits to supermarkets were nerve-wracking disease roulettes, we started getting food deliveries from other sources. One was a catering supplier recommended by a friend. Somehow I managed to over-order honey.

Usually, I like to have two types of honey in the house – good quality local stuff and cheap commercial stuff for use when making big batches of granola and to satisfy the sweet tooth of my son on Sunday mornings, aka “jam day”, when we’re allowed sugary stuff with our toast, pancakes or porridge.

The good stuff I’ve had the past few years has been from my friends Karin and Alex, who keep bees in their garden just across town from where I live.

When I realised I had this surplus of honey, all starting to crystallise, I thought I’d better make honey cake. Most cultures have their own variations on honey cake – after all, aside from dried fruit, it was the main sweetener available before the rise of the sugar trade*. Looking in my cloud recipes, my cookbooks and searching around online, I came across numerous honey cakes, including the Jewish lekach, traditionally made for Rosh Hashanah. Aside from the religious and ritual elements, Rosh Hashanah is essentially a harvest festival – its origins in the ancient agrarian societies of the Near East, where taking in the harvest was a logical time to mark the end of the year; indeed Rosh Hashanah means “the head of the year”.

Karin is a great baker, from a Czech Jewish heritage, as well as a bee-keeper, so I asked her about lekach. Instead, she recommended medovnik, a Russian and eastern European honey cake. I will try that one of these days, but when I was round at their house – I work for Alex’s food business, Kabak – I found a recipe for lekach in their copy of Claudia Roden’s Book of Jewish Food. According to Wikipedia, the Hebrew name for the cake is ougat dvash, literally “honey cake”, with the word lekach being Yiddish, and from Middle High German lecke, “to lick” – appropriately, given that my five-year-old daughter was keen to help cook and was ardent about licking the bowl after we’d made the batter but wasn’t terribly interested in eating the actual cake.

Obviously lekach would be better if made with good quality honey, and Roden’s recipe says to use dark liquid honey, but it worked fine using up my cheapo honey – after I’d put the bottles in hot water to soften up the crystalisation. The very presence of so many sugars – honey and refined – as well as spices and dried fruit and nuts makes it clear this is a feast day cake, but that’s not so say it can’t be enjoyed at other times.

Roden says you have to make it “at least three days in advance”.

2 eggs
200g caster sugar
125g vegetable oil
250g liquid honey
2 tbsp rum or brandy
125g warm strong black coffee
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
Pinch salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp powdered cloves
Grated zest of 1 orange
300g plain flour, plus extra to dust
50g coarsely chopped walnuts or slithered or flaked almonds
40g raisins or sultanas

1. Grease and line a 22cm cake tin with baking parchment; alternatively use two 24x13cm loaf tins or even a bundt tin.
2. Preheat the oven to 180C (lower if you have an aggressive fan).
3. Beat the eggs and sugar together until pale and creamy.

4. Beat in the oil, honey, brandy and coffee.
5. Sieve together the flour, raising agents and spices.
6. Add the salt and orange zest to the sifted mix.
7. Gradually add the flour mix to the wet mix, beating well to create a smooth batter.
8. Dust the fruit and nuts with flour (to prevent them sinking to the bottom) then add to the batter.
9. Put the batter in the prepared tin(s).
10. Put in the oven and bake for 1 1/4 hours for the big one or about 1 hour for the loaf tins. You want it firm and brown on top and a skewer to come out clean.
11. Allow to cool in the tin for 10 minutes then turn out.
12. When totally cool, put in a tin and leave for three days.

Obviously, leaving a cake for three days is tricky when you have children and greedy people like me in the house. It was delicious on the day, but better when left before cutting, like many ginger cakes and fruit cakes; like them it also keeps well. The best technique for saving it for three days is to hide it. Then set a reminder on your phone so you don’t forget where you’ve hidden it.

* And of course the slave trade that accompanied the growth demand for sugar. The slave trade is something I think about a lot more these days as an adopter whose children have some African-Caribbean heritage – some slave heritage. We joke about having a sweet tooth, but as the European sweet tooth – sugar addiction – grew, so did the slave trade, and the accompanying horrors and abuse. Britain might be a mismanaged, fading entity now, but in its imperial heyday, much of that wealth – exemplified by those solid buildings and monuments that give London and other cities much of their character to this day, those old maps where red covered a large portion of the globe, the abiding wealth of some families – came directly from sugar, from centuries of industrial scale slavery, from man’s inhumanity to man.

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Melachrino cake for St George’s day, 23 April

Melachrino cake

George was born to a Greek family in Asia Minor or the Middle East in the 3rd century and, according to legend, became a soldier in the army of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. When he refused to reject his Christian faith and make sacrifices to the Roman gods he was tortured and beheaded, possibly in Nicomedia, an ancient Greek city now buried under the modern city of Izmit in western Turkey.

Through the marvellous convolutions of history he is now the patron saint of England. His reputation rose via the Crusaders in the 11th and 12th century. He was seen – honest ­– aiding Crusaders at the Battle of Antioch in 1098 and was made a patron saint of soldiers. It wasn’t until the reign of King Edward III in the 14th century that he became England’s patron.

Somewhere along the way he fought and killed a dragon. Dragons are so cool, it became a very popular subject among Medieval and Renaissance artists. In many versions, his shield is adorned with a red cross on a white field. Today, this flag – adopted as the English flag, again via the Crusaders – is mostly rolled out by desperate English football fans before desperate international football fixtures. Or for St George’s day, 23 April. (Or 6 May in the Gregorian calendar used by Eastern Orthodox Christians.)

Widespread patronage
Unsurprisingly, he’s also the patron saint of Georgia, as well as of cities as diverse as Beirut and Milan. He’s also an important figure in Greece, where he also gives his patronage to soldiers. Which is a long way to arrive at this recipe. It’s another one from Ernst Schuegraf’s Cooking with the Saints. He notes that it’s “an old Greek recipe traditionally associated with St George, and given to me by an employee of the Greek Embassy in London.”

Some of the supposedly traditional recipes in Schuegraf’s book have no other presence online beyond people making his, but looking up this one, various versions appear. Some are made with grape molasses instead of all the sugar used here, and oil instead of butter, but all feature a broadly similar combination of ground or chopped nuts (usually walnuts), citrus, spices, and a splash of booze in the syrup.

I’ve had a note in my diary to make this the past few years as I love cake batters featuring nuts, and semolina, and drenched in citrusy syrup. Like my favourite nutty cakes torta Caprese and Sachertorte, it’s made by separating eggs, then using the whisked egg whites to lighten the batter. In this case, there’s also a load of chemical raising agent too. I’ve tweaked the recipe a bit.

200g unsalted butter, softened
280g caster sugar
5 eggs, separated
1 egg
400g fine semolina
200g plain flour
8g baking powder
6g baking soda
8g cinnamon
2g ground cloves
250g walnuts, coarsely ground or chopped

Syrup
1 orange, zest and juice
1/2 lemon, zest and juice
500g granulated sugar
1kg water (ie, 1 litre)
30g brandy
1 cinnamon stick

1. Grease and line a 25cm cake tin, and preheat the oven to 180C.
2. Cream together the butter and caster sugar until soft and light.
3. Lightly beat the egg yolks, plus the 1 whole egg, then add gradually beat into the creamed mixture.
4. In a separate, clean bowl, beat the egg whites to stiff peaks.


5. Sieve together the semolina, flour, raising agents and spices and add to the mixture. Also beat in the nuts.
6. Beat in a little of the egg white to lighten the mixture slightly, as it’s quite stiff, then gently fold in the rest.
7. Put the mixture in the prepared tin and bake for about 50 minutes, until firm to the touch and a skewer comes out clean.
8. While it’s baking, make the syrup. Combine the sugar, water, zest and juice, and the cinnamon stick in saucepan and gradually heat up to the dissolve the sugar. I used a Sicilian blood orange, which was particularly pleasing.


9. When the sugar is dissolved, simmer the syrup, reducing the mixture by about a third.
10. When the cake it baked, remove from the oven and leave in the tin to cool slightly.
11. Take the cake out of the tin and transfer to a plate or platter with a rim, to contain the syrup.
12. Pour the syrup over the cake and let it soak in. Serve warm or at ambient temperature.

Enjoy, preferably on a sunny afternoon with a lot of friends – it’s a fairly substantial cake!

Melachrino cake

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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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Santa Lucia crown

Santa Lucia crown

The feast day of Santa Lucia,  St Lucy, is celebrated on 13 December. Her name derives from the Latin lux, as in “Fiat lux!” – “Let there be light!”. We also have a cat called Lux. She’s not divine in any way, she’s a needy, bony scrag, but we still love her.

Lucia was supposedly born into a wealthy family in Syracuse, Sicily, in 283AD, a time when the Roman Empire was still officially devoted to Zeus, Apollo and co. Christianity only won out a century later. The Emperor Diocletian was old-school, and she was killed during his reign, in 304AD. Medieval accounts of her death are grim, and involve her eyes being gouged out before she was burned at the stake. She remains the patron saint of the blind. As well as salesmen, oddly.

The facts are, of course, uncertain, but her veneration spread to Rome by the 6th century, and had even reached Britain by the 8th century. Today, she’s mostly celebrated on her home island and in Sweden. Her namesake role as a bringer of light was particularly important in the mid-winter gloom and her feast day may previously have been celebrated on the solstice, the shortest day of the year: now 21 December and more bound up in Christmas itself.*.

Santa Lucia crown cut in half

Anyway, this is based on another recipe from Cooking with the Saints by Ernst Schuegraf, “The Most Unique Catholic Cookbook Ever!”. It’s purportedly based on a traditional Swedish bake, but I can’t guarantee that. I’ve made Swedish inspired Santa Lucia buns before, which feature a similar enriched dough with saffron. And in the book Scandinavian Baking, Trine Hahnemann has a saffron bread recipe and recounts a Swedish legend about a man being woken by beautiful singing on the long, solstice night, 13 December 1764. It was St Lucia, bringing light, food and wine, and adding herself to the pantheon of Swedish annual traditions.

125g water
125g full-fat milk
A few sprigs of saffron
6g active dried yeast
250g plain (all-purpose) flour
250g strong white bread flour
2 eggs
120g caster sugar
50g butter, softened
3g salt

Plus
1 extra egg to glaze
100g icing sugar
30g milk, possibly more
3g vanilla essence
Candied fruit, lightly toasted flaked almonds, nibbed sugar or sprinkles to decorate

1. Combine the milk and water, warm slightly, add the saffron and leave to infuse for at least 20 minutes, even overnight.
2. Warm the liquid again then add the yeast and leave to froth up.
3. In a large bowl, combine the flours, sugar, salt, softened butter and two of the eggs.
4. Add the yeast mix and bring everything together to form a rough dough.
5. Turn out onto a lightly greased surface and knead to combine and create a smooth dough.
6. Form the dough into a ball and put in a clean, lightly oiled bowl.
7. Leave to prove until doubled in size. This will depend on the temperature. I don’t have a prover or warm cupboard, and our kitchen was about 19C; the doubling took a couple of hours.
8. The total dough should be about 1030g. Cut off a piece weighing about 350g, leaving the other at about 680g. Form these into balls, rest them for 10 minutes or so.
9. Stretch the balls slightly then slice each one into three equal sized pieces.
10. Roll the small pieces into snakes around 40cm long, and the larger ones into snakes about 80cm long.
11. Braid the three longer pieces, then form into a circle, pinching the ends together. Put this circle on a greased baking sheet.
12. Braid the three smaller pieces and go through the same process. Put this smaller circle on top of the larger circle.
13. Cover with a clean cloth then leave to prove again until doubled in size.
14. Preheat the oven to 190C.
15. Whisk the final egg, then brush over the dough to glaze.
16. Bake for about 15 minutes then turn down to 180C. Keep an eye on this bake as the glaze can brown then burn easily. If it does, cover with foil. Bake for another half hour or so.
17. Cool on wire racks.
18. Sieve the icing sugar, then add the milk (adding more as necessary) and sugar to create a basic icing.
19. Drizzle the icing over the crown and decorate as you wish – you could use glace cherries, I suppose, but they’re the Devil’s work. The kids like sprinkles, so I’m using vermicelli and nibbed sugar.
20. Serve the crown with birthday candles for Lux, Lucy, Lucia, light.

Enjoy in the pre-Christmas mayhem of Advent, close to the solstice.

St Lucia crown baked

* I’m talking about the northern hemisphere of course. The shift from the old Julian calendar to the new Gregorian calendar involved removing between 10 and 13 days, depending on when the transition took place. Strongly Catholic countries like Italy, Spain, Portugal, France and Poland made the switch in 1582. Britain, Canada and most of the US didn’t until 1752.

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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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Martinshörnchen – St Martin’s day crescent rolls

 

Martinshornchen

When I started this blog – blimey, five-ish years ago – it was because I was loving the products that appeared in Roman bakeries during certain periods of the Catholic calendar, for feast days and whatnot, notably Carnevale. I miss Carnevale, that indulgent period after Christmas and before the fasts of Lent when I gorged myself on such things as frappe and castagnole.

Anyway, for a spell, I researched and made several Italian feast days bakes, then continued to try and do the same, with British and international products, when we moved back to England at the end of 2013.

Soon after that, we started the adoption process, and in early 2014, our two wonderful kids moved in with us. Since then, I’ve been doing a lot of childcare. Almost full-time childcare. Now, some people manage to have children, jobs and involved blogs. And acclaimed books. Not me. That’s effing superhuman. Hats off to them. I’ve struggled to keep my blog going, let alone research new feast day bakes.

Martinshornchen

But my diary keeps on reminding me. I noticed Martinmas – 11 November – was coming up, the feast day that celebrates the life of one-time soldier St Martin of Tours and is conflated in the UK with Remembrance Day.

OK, I won’t shirk. I need to get things moving around here. So I reached for my spreadsheet and pile of books. I’ve made a couple of other things for St Martin’s day. This time I nearly tried the Sicilian biscotti di San Martino, which are not biscuits, but rolls with a ricotta filling. But, well, it looked like it might break me when the kids rejected them for the aniseed flavour after the hard work. So I’m trying Martinshörnchen instead.

These are crescent-shaped rolls from Saxony in Germany, literally “Martin’s little horns” or “Martin’s little crescents” (thanks Pa). I hesitate to call them croissants, as they’re not laminated. Without lamination (layering the dough with fat multiple times) they’re a lot easier to make, but don’t have the wonderful flakiness of laminated doughs and pastries. They are, however, made with a dough enriched with milk, butter, sugar and eggs. I love anything made with an enriched dough – you know, brioche, panettone, challah, doughnuts, hot cross buns, currant buns, saffron cake, babka etc etc etc. Yum.

So here we go. This is adapted from a recipe in Cooking with the Saints by Ernst Schuegraf. The original recipe has a slightly counter-intuitive method where you’re supposed to try and make a dough with 200g of milk and 500g of flour, then add the enriching ingredients later. I’ve revised this to make it more logical and straightforward, and less likely to carbonise the results.

200g full-fat milk
3g active dried yeast or 6g fresh yeast
250g strong white flour
250g plain (all-purpose) flour
35g caster sugar
3g fine sea salt
3 eggs, that is around 155g beaten egg
100g butter, softened

Plus
100g butter, melted
2 egg yolks
100g-ish nibbed sugar

1. Warm the milk (to about 35C) stir in the sugar, then add the yeast. Leave it to froth up.
2. Put the flours and salt in a bowl, then add the yeast mix, beaten egg and softened butter.
3. Bring to a dough, then knead well. It’s soft and sticky, but that’s good.
4. Form a ball, using flour sparingly to help, then leave to rest in a clean, lightly oiled or greased bowl. Leave to prove until doubled in size. Note, fat (butter and egg yolks) can slow the fermentation. It’s at this point I wish we still had our old hot water cylinder in the cupboard, or an oven with a prover… Hi ho.

Dough

5. When it’s proved, melt the second 100g of butter and preheat the oven to 200C.

Rolled out

6. Roll out the dough to about 3mm thick. I made a sheet about 48cm square, then cut this into 16, ie pieces at 12x12cm. Approximately… This being dough, of course it stretches and shrinks.

Cut into squares

7. Brush with the melted butter and sprinkled with the nibbed sugar.

Form crescents

8. Roll up the squares, starting from a corner, then curl the ends in to make a crescent shape.
9. Transfer to baking sheets, lined with parchment or silicone mats.

Brush with egg yolk

10. Brush with beaten egg yolk and sprinkle with more sugar.
11. Put in the oven and bake for about 15-20 minutes. Keep an eye on them – if they start browning too much, turn the oven down to 180C and/or cover the Martinshörnchen.
12. Cool on a wire rack.
13. Feel free to eat them with butter and jam, though I’ve no idea if that’s traditional in Saxony. Happy St Martin’s day!

Martinshornchen spiral

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Plum shuttles or Valentine buns for Valentine’s Day, 14 February

Plum shuttles, Valentine buns

Me and my wife Fran have been a couple for, blimey, nearly 17 years now. Through the years, Valentine’s Day has always been a bit of an issue for us. I think it’s a load of old bollocks and try to ignore it, she buys into the notion that it should somehow be more romantic than other days and tries to make a thing of it. We usually meet in the middle – with a bit of teasing and bickering. Maybe she’ll give me a card and I’ll feign confusion.

It is a funny feast day, any genuine older traditions now lost into the spoon-fed, commercial morass. It’s the ultimate Hallmark holiday where sales of cards and bunches of red roses have a massive spike.

In Cattern Cakes and Lace (pub 1987), Julia Jones and Barbara Deer talk about the theory that it’s a modern incarnation of the Roman fertility celebrations of Lupercalia, transferred into an association with not one but two characters martyred in Rome in the 3rd century AD. The Catholic Encyclopaedia meanwhile says “At least three different Saint Valentines, all of them martyrs, are mentioned in the early martyrologies under the date of 14 February.” How confusing! “One is described as a priest at Rome, another as bishop of Interamna (modern Terni)”. It also says the Roman city gate now known as the Porta del Popolo was called the Gate of St Valentine in the 11th century. “Of the third Saint Valentine, who suffered in Africa with a number of companions, nothing further is known.”

The idea that St Valentine’s day was a Christianisation of Lupercalia was suggested in the 18th century and has been rejected by modern scholars. Instead, it’s suggested that the association of St Valentine’s day with romance arose in the 14th century, notably with Chaucer’s Parliament of Foules, which drew attention to the date as when birds partnered up:
“For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day
Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.”

Other medieval writers referred to the same avian motif. Clearly, modern society isn’t the only one to generate and perpetuate whimsical piffle. I’m not going to go on about it all here. If you’re really interested in such things, the Wikipedia page is, naturally, respectably comprehensive. Instead, here’s a recipe from Jones and Deer for some enriched dough buns.

Plums but not plums
The name “plum shuttles” might confuse – it doesn’t contain plums and what’s a shuttle? Well, Jones and Deer say “These buns are shaped like weavers’ shuttles”. It’s a nice idea, though if you look at a weaver’s shuttle, it’s longer and pointed at both ends. These are more bun-shaped. As for the “plums”, that’s just an older British English usage of the word used to cover not just fresh Prunus fruit, but also dried fruit such as prunes (dried plums) and raisins and currants (dried grapes).

There’s not that much sugar in this enriched dough but a high proportion of dried fruit makes for a notably sweet currant bun.

Currants

I found their dough a bit tight, so have increased the liquid. It also uses a lot of yeast, proportionately, and has a resulting short fermentation. I’ve reduced the yeast a bit, but if you prefer a really good, proper, healthy long fermentation time, knock it back even more.

450g plain flour (all-purpose, low protein)
5g fine sea salt
4g active dried yeast or 8g fresh yeast
5g caster sugar
60g warm water
50g unsalted butter
160g full-fat milk
1 egg, about 55g
225g currants

Extra egg to glaze

Makes 12 buns

1. Combine the sugar, yeast and water and leave to activate. The sugar really boosts the yeast so it should go seriously frothy.

Frothy yeast mix

2. Warm the milk with the butter until the latter is melted. Leave to cool a little.

Butter, milk, egg, frothy mix
3. Put the flour and salt in a large bowl.
4. Add the yeast mix, milk and butter and egg to the flour mix and bring together to form a dough.

Combine

5. Turn out and knead until smooth.
6. Stretch out and add the currants. Fold the dough over and knead again to combine and distribute.

Smooth dough, with currants

7. Clean and grease the bowl, return the dough, cover and leave to prove until doubled in size.

Doubled in size

8. The total dough weight should be about a kilo (with slightly variation depending on the size of your egg etc). Divide this into 12 pieces scaled at about 84g each.

Divide into 12 pieces

9. Form the pieces into balls, leave to rest, covered, for about 10 minutes.

Form balls

10. Stretch and roll these to form long ovals with pointed ends. Like weavers’ shuttles.

Shaped
11. Place the ovals on lined or greased baking sheets, with plenty of room for expansion.
12. Cover with damp cloths and leave to prove again, doubling in size, or until a finger pushed in forms a slight dent.

After final prove
13. Heat the oven to 200C.
14. Brush the buns with beaten egg.
15. Bake for about 15-20 minutes, until nicely browned.

Freshly baked
16. Cool on a wire rack.

Eat how you like – plain, with butter, with butter and jam or, if you really want to go crazy, add a load of whipped cream and pretend they’re maritozzi con la panna*. And of course, enjoy with your special someone… while arguing about what a lot of old nonsense Valentine’s Day is.

Plum shuttled Valentine bun, split

 

 

* Similar shaped Roman buns. Boy I miss Rome, especially at this time of year when it’s been grey and cold for weeks, and it’s apparently already 20C there. Bloody British winter. If we have a bad October and April, the British winter can last six months. Half the flippin’ year! We had sun today (see pic above) but it’s not due to last. Boo hoo.

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Mince pies for Christmas

Mince pies

Clearly, I’m interested in traditional feast day foods on this blog. Many, if not most, of our traditional feast day activities have been lost here in Britain. This is due to various factors, notably the 19th century industrial revolution that shifted the population from rural labour to urban industry; then the privations of two world wars and dependence on imported food; then the ensuing embracing of industrialised food production.

Christmassy flavours
When I made the Cattern cakes in November, a friend mentioned that they tasted “Christmassy”. This is interesting, as it demonstrates how the only strong legacy of our traditional feast day foods is at Christmas. It might be grotesquely commercialised, and shifted forward from the Twelve Days (25 December to Epiphany Eve, 5 January) into late November and Advent, but for many it still involves the consumption of traditional foods: mince pies, a heavy fruit cake and plum pudding. All of which feature dried fruits and spices.

We take them for granted now, as jars of dozens of types of spices are readily available from any supermarket, but in antiquity and the Middle Ages they were enormously expensive. Later, in the age of European empires, their trade fuelled many economies, notably imperial Dutch and British*. They really were only ingredients for special days, or for the wealthy, until fairly recently.

While spiced (cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, ginger etc), fruity flavours were once more associated with various celebrations through the year, now we just think of them as “Christmassy”.

Mince pies

Anyway, that’s a thought for this post. Mostly, I realised that while I have various multinational feast food recipes here, I don’t have any basic British Christmas ones. That’s partly because I don’t like Christmas cake and plum pudding. I didn’t like mince pies growing up either, but then I discovered a simple recipe for mincemeat and gave them a whirl. They were good. Making your own is so much better. I know Christmas can be stressful for many but this recipe involves just a fruity preserve and some pastry – nothing too complex, and both can be made ahead of time. The mincemeat will sit in a jar, the pastry can be frozen.

Sweet meat
Oh, and many wonder why the filling – sweet, fruity – is called “mincemeat”. Well, in the Middle Ages, puddings and pies would often involve fillings that mixed what we’d considering today as sweet and savoury, notably meat, spices and sugar. I’ve written previously about the term “pudding” – which can still refer to sweet or savoury items in British English. The precursor of Christmas pudding (aka plum pudding), plum pottage, featured meat along with the dried fruit and spices. The legacy of this in mince pie fillings is suet – traditionally a fat from around the kidneys of beef cattle, or mutton (sheep older than two years).

I do tend to use vegetarian suet substitute, partly from force of habit as an ex-veggie, but also because it’s easier at parties when many guests may be too. But it is still a conundrum, as vegetarian suet used to be hydrogenated fat, since deemed a nutritional nightmare, and is now mostly palm oil, an environmental nightmare. So your call on the lesser of two evils.

The mincemeat recipe here was originally from Delia Smith, the pastry originally from Linda Collister.

First make the mincemeat, ideally in October or November – when you can get some fresh homegrown cooking apples. You will need a couple of medium sized jars, washed and rinsed thoroughly. I then tend to put them in a low oven when I’m ready to bottle, to dry them and sterilise.

Fill the pies and top with stars

225g Bramley apples, cored and chopped small (no need to peel them)
110g shredded suet
175g raisins
110g sultanas
110g currants
[total 385g of these]
110g whole mixed candied peel, finely chopped
175g soft dark brown sugar
grated zest and juice 1 orange
grated zest and juice 1 lemon
25g whole almonds, cut into slivers, or flaked almonds
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground allspice
1 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
3 tbsp brandy

1. Combine all the ingredients, except for the brandy, in a large mixing bowl.
2. Mix thoroughly.
3. Cover the bowl with a clean cloth and leave in a cool place overnight or for 12 hours, so the flavours have a chance to mingle and develop.
4. Preheat oven 120°C.
5. Cover the bowl loosely with foil and place it in the oven for 3 hours. It’ll look fatty. Don’t worry, this is right. As it cools, stir it from time to time.
6. When the mincemeat is cold, stir well again, adding the brandy.
7. Bottle in sterilised jars.

It’ll keep for months, even years. I had a jar for two years once and it was fine, indeed it was probably better as it gives time for the flavours to mature.

Pinning out for mince pies

Now, the pastry.

Readers of this blog will know I love ground almonds as an ingredient for cakes. They’re a great addition to sweet shortcrusts too. My mother has just been reminiscing about the mince pies made by her mother, my Granny Buckley, and how “Ground almonds in the pastry was her trick.” So such tastes must run in the family.

This recipe calls for one egg yolk but I’ve also done it with whole egg, and then just used less water to bind. Both are fine.

200g plain flour
30g ground almonds
30g caster sugar
Pinch salt
100g butter
1 egg yolk
2-5 tbsp cold water

1. Sieve flour into bowl.
2. Dice butter and rub in. Alternatively, combine in a food processor.
3. Add ground almonds, pinch salt and sugar.
4. Lightly beat the egg then add to the dry mix.
5. Bring together dough adding enough water to create a soft but not too wet dough.
6. Form ball and wrap in plastic. Rest in fridge for half an hour or freeze.
7. Roll out to about 4mm and cut discs to line the dips in a pie tray.
8. Fill each with some mincemeat.
9. Add lids – either whole discs or star shapes. The latter is easier (no crimping required), and cute to boot.
10. Bake for about 15-20 minutes at 200C, until nicely browned.
11. Dust with icing sugar before serving.

Freshly baked mince pies

If mince pies are a big part of your Christmas, I’d heartily encourage you to make your own. I don’t claim mine are the best mince pies, and they’re certainly not the neatest or most aesthetically pleasing – like everything I make these days, they’re slightly rushed as I’m either waiting for kids to wake from their afternoon naps or I’m knackered at the end of the day. But they’re easy to make and really, honestly, so much better than any of the industrial crap from the supermarkets.

 

* See this blog post by botanist Stephen Forbes for more about the origins and history of spices.

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