Tag Archives: gingerbread

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Icing sugar, for rolling and dusting

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


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


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

 

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

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A baking lesson from videogame The Witcher 3

For those of you not in the know about the huge swathe of culture known as videogaming, The Witcher 3 is an award-winning bestseller where you have involved adventures in a fantastical open world. This is a genre that is getting increasingly sophisticated, with vast, detailed environments populated by innumerable characters and creatures. A few years back, I wrote about the pleasures of exploring the world of Skyrim, notably following its resident foxes. The Witcher 3, which I finally got for my birthday back in September, isn’t quite so good with its ecology, but there I did encounter one wonderful detail recently. Not about wildlife, but about food. The sort of thing that really chimes with me and my baking obsession.

So, your character, Geralt of Rivia, is attending a wedding celebration (while possessed by a ghost, no less. You probably don’t need any more detail). At the wedding, a mysterious character you’ve previously encountered makes an appearance. He’s called Gaunter O’Dimm, and he’s magical, knowledgeable and powerful. He talks about wishes, and I assume from his surname he’s some kind of djinn, or genie. I’ve not finished the game yet, so I’m not sure (and may never be). In this particularly scene, what nature of beast he is isn’t important – it’s his thoughts on baking.

As you approach, an old lady is saying, “But gingerbread’s nowt but honey, flour, eggs and spices.”  O’Dimm says, “I beg to differ madam. You omit the most important ingredient of gingerbread – time.” She responds, “Time? What do you mean, time? An ingredient?” So he explains: “Time gives the proper consistency. Time provides the ideal crunch on the outside, the delicious moistness within.” She then asks, “So how much of this time does it take?” And his discourse reaches its conclusion: “That you will not find in any recipe. You must surrender to your senses… Time, time is the key.”

Now, I’m not sure if he’s alluding to other things, you know, metaphorically, but in literal terms he’s saying something I often say to people who ask me about bread-making, and something I’ve mentioned frequently here too. For example, when talking about what makes for real bread or real beer, I said, “Fermentation time is just too import to neglect or reject. Time is just too important to rush. Time is the defining ingredient for craft bread or craft beer, or as I’d prefer to call them, real bread and real beer.”

In the Medieval-style fantasy world of The Witcher 3, baking – even gingerbread – would involve yeast, or at least a natural leaven. But even with commercial, cultivated yeast, time is arguably the most important ingredient. Use too much yeast and rush the proving and the result will be overly gassy and hard on your guts, potentially leaving you feeling bloated or uncomfortable. Use less yeast and allow for a long prove, and the yeasts will have time to feed on the maltose in the flour, changing the chemical balance of the dough. The resulting baked bread will taste better and easily digestible.

This is on the reasons people have trouble with supermarket “bread”. These industrial products do not respect the time factor. The dough is rushed in the industrial Chorleywood bread process, resulting in indigestible products the Real Bread Campaign and others have referred to as “pap”. Chorleywood is very much at the heart of our troubled relationship with bread these days.

“Artisan” bakeries offer real bread, but it can be so expensive it seems an item only for the well-off. But don’t let this force you to eat pap – how about trying your own baking? People say, “Baking’s too time-consuming.” But this isn’t quite true – I tend to create a sponge, or pre-ferment, with water, yeast and about half of the total flour as the kids are having breakfast. This can then be left for hours, allowing the yeast to get a head start. I then make the dough with the rest of the flour and a dash of salt, then leave that alone for several hours. I usually then bake late afternoon or in the evening.

Baking is more about a little bit of planning and can be fitted in around other activities – you know, work, childcare. It really is best to just leave the sponge and the dough alone for long periods, following Gaunter O’Dimm’s edict about the importance of the ingredient that is time.

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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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