Archive for the ‘Holidays’ Category

Christmas cookies | Basler Brünsli

13 December 2020

Happy third Sunday of advent! I am, as usual, far behind in Christmas preparations, not least because I intend (yes, still in the present tense, ahem) to make my own advent’s wreath, and because I’ve been baking batches upon batches of these little brown cookies in search of an ideal recipe.

Thankfully, the quest for the prefect Brünsli has been much more successful than the house decorating, and I’ve arrived at a version which in a blind tasting was unanimously voted the best by the family.

It is a collation of three different recipes, one from Saveur, one from the bible Classic German Baking, and, poignantly, my friend’s alsatian family recipe handed down through generations, peppered with comments and advice. There they are called ‘Bruns (de Bâle).’

Brünsli or Bruns mean ‘brownie,’ which refers to the colour of the cookies, imparted by the chocolate, and has no connection whatsoever to brownies.

According to the website Patrimoine Culinaire Suisse, historical references to ‘Brünsli’ date back to at least 1725, where they are mentioned in the account of dishes served at a banquet in Winterthur, and while Brünsli are now ubiquitous throughout Switzerland, a significant number of sources throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century link them expressly to the city of Basel.

The basic components of Brünsli are egg whites, sugar, chocolate, and nuts — nowadays essentially almonds, but historically also hazelnuts or walnuts. They are naturally gluten- and dairy-free. Some just have cinnamon and I like them with a hefty note of cloves too.

Basler Brünsli
Incidentally gluten- and dairy-free

Makes about 4 dozen cookies

250g (9 oz.) whole blanched almonds
250g (1 1/3 cup) sugar, plus more for rolling
125g (4.4 oz.) 70% chocolate, chopped
tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground cloves
2 Tbsps Kirsch
2 egg whites

Grind the almonds together with the sugar in a food processor until the almonds are finely ground. Add the (pre-chopped) chocolate and pulse until it is finely ground too. Transfer this almond/sugar/chocolate to a large bowl and stir in the cinnamon, cloves, and Kirsch, mixing well with a wooden spoon.

Beat the egg whites until stiff, then incorporate gently but thoroughly so that the entire dough becomes wet and comes together as one mass. Roughly shape the dough into a flat oval, cover with parchment paper, and transfer to the fridge for at least two hours (and up to one day).

To roll out the dough, sprinkle the workspace generously with sugar, transfer the dough onto the sugar, sprinkle it with a little more sugar and lay a piece of parchment paper over the dough. Roll out the dough through the parchment to about 1/2 cm (1/4 inch) thickness. Cut out the cookies with shaped cutters; transfer them to parchment-paper—lined baking sheets, spacing the cookies 1 cm (1/2 inch) apart (the cookies don’t expand much when baking). Re-roll the scraps and repeat.

Let the cookies dry for 3 hours.

When ready to bake, heat the oven to 150°C (300°F). Bake until the cookies are slightly puffed, just 12 to 14 minutes (the cookies will feel soft; the outside hardens when they cool and the inside should stay chewy). Let cool completely and store in tin boxes lined with parchment paper. The cookies get better after a couple of days and keep well for a few weeks.

Cranberry lemon squares for a singular Thanksgiving

26 November 2020

This year I wasn’t sure about Thanksgiving. Many things felt uncertain just a few weeks ago, and wouldn’t a celebration without friends bring more acutely to the fore the limitations of these times? Better perhaps to stick our heads into the soggy English soil and push on to Christmas. All around us decorations are already going up.

Impossible. Not with children in the house who have never known a year without turkey, they were appalled. And, things started to look up. First in the news, then on a more personal note. The arc had begun to shift. And who am I to deprive my children of Thanksgiving, especially if they start baking pumpkin pie?

In this singular predicament where less time was needed preparing today, I suddenly had time to bake things, to give to friends. So I made pecan bars, which are probably my favourite and will endure some more tweaking before I’m entirely satisfied. And also these ridiculously delicious Cranberry Lemon Bars. The season will undoubtedly be different, but it stubbornly refuses to be swept under the carpet.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Cranberry lemon squares adapted from the NY Times Genevieve Ko’s Cranberry Lemon Bars
I have slightly modified each component. The shortbread comes from Alice Medrich’s book Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy, it has a little bit less butter which, shocking as it may seems, works better here I find. I have increased the quantity of lemon curd, which in the original seemed just barely enough to cover the whole surface. You can find the original recipe here.

Note about the pan size: The quantity fits a 34 x 23cm (13 x 9 in) pan, but any rectangular cake pans or loaf tins can be used — once the shortbread is pressed (as thinly as possible, about 1/2 cm or 1/4 inch thick), if it doesn’t cover the whole surface of the pan just create a ‘rim’ by folding the aluminium foil where the dough ends.

First, make the cranberry sauce

340g cranberries
150g sugar
150ml (2/3 cup) water
Zest from 2 lemons

Wash and pick through the cranberries to remove any soft or discoloured ones. In a medium saucepan, mix the cranberries, sugar, water, and lemon zest and bring to a boil. Cook over a medium flame for about 10 minutes, until the cranberries burst and take on the consistency of jam. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Now prepare the shortbread
(Note: this shortbread is different to the one in the original recipe)

250g butter (+ plus a small knob for buttering the pan)
100g sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp salt
310g flour

Preheat the oven to 175°C (350°F) and position the rack in the lower third of the oven.

Melt all the butter and let it cool slightly.

Meanwhile, line a high rim 34 x 23cm (13 x 9 in) pan with aluminum foil and brush it generously with some of the melted butter, making sure to go up the sides.

In a medium bowl, mix the warm butter with the sugar, vanilla, and salt until the melted butter has been completely incorporated. Add the flour and mix just enough to combine into a smooth dough (it will be quite soft and oily).

Press the dough into the prepared pan to achieve a smooth, even layer as thin as possible, about 1/2 cm (1/4 inch) thick.

Bake for 16 to 18 minutes, until the sides barely start to turn golden.

Meanwhile, prepare the lemon layer

260g caster sugar
30g flour
Pinch of sea salt
4 eggs
200ml lemon juice (using the zested lemons plus 1 or 2 besides)
Icing sugar for dusting (optional)

In a medium bowl, whisk together the sugar, flour, and salt. Add the eggs and stir gently to combine without over-whisking. Finally, gently whisk in the lemon juice until smooth.

Let the shortbread cool for about 5 minutes and spread the cranberry sauce over it in an even layer. Carefully pour the lemon mixture over the cranberries. Return to the oven and bake for 18 to 20 minutes, until the top layer is set (it shouldn’t jiggle).

Let cool completely then place the tray in the refrigerator for at least two hours until cold and set. Slice into bite-size squares and, if desired, dust with icing sugar before serving.

Anzac biscuits

22 May 2020

Anzac day commemorates the arrival of soldiers from Australia and New Zealand (the ‘Australia and New Zealand Army Corps’ = ANZAC) at Gallipoli in 1915 to help the Allies fight against the Ottoman Empire during WWI. It has become the defining Australian national holiday, and is celebrated with Anzac biscuits.

Recipes vary, mostly just in quantities, as the ingredients are pretty set: oats, coconut flakes, butter, sugar, flour, golden syrup, and no eggs. This last point contributed to the biscuit’s history (or mythology) as overseas war care packages, since the absence of egg made them more durable.

We’re always happy to adopt traditions, especially when they involve food, and these biscuits deserve to be made much more frequently than just on Anzac day, as has become the case in this house.

I’ve tried quite a few recipes over time and tweaked them to achieve less sweetness without losing chewiness. I like how these turn out.

 

***

ANZAC biscuits recipe

100 g (1 cup) rolled oats (or porridge oats, see note in the first step)
125 g (1/2 cup) unsalted butter
80 g (2/3 cup) brown sugar
Squeeze of golden syrup (or honey)
1 Tbsp water
100 g (1 cup) flour
75 g (1 cup) unsweetened shredded coconut
1 tsp cream of tartar
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp sea salt

Blend the oats in a food processor briefly, just until they become coarsely ground but not too fine. ***I know this is an annoying extra step but it helps with chewiness. Otherwise use finer porridge oats.***

In a medium saucepan, combine the butter, sugar, golden syrup, and water, and warm over a low heat until the butter has melted and the ingredients are well combined.

Turn off the heat and add the oats, flour, coconut, cream of tartar, baking soda, and salt. Stir with a wooden spoon until the ingredients are thoroughly combined and moist throughout.

Divide the dough into two, onto narrow sheets of parchment paper. The dough will be soft but not runny — use the parchment paper to roll the dough into logs of approximately the same diameter. Place in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours, or overnight.

When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 160 C (325 F). Take the cookie dough logs out of the fridge and let them warm up a little at room temperature for about 15 minutes.

Once slightly softened, cut the logs into 1cm (1/3 inch) slices. Place the cookies onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and reshape the dough a bit into soft edged cookies.

Bake for 12 to 16 minutes until golden. Let cool on the baking sheet as the biscuits are still soft and crumbly when they come out of the oven.

Once cool, store in a cookie tin or glass jar. I hear they can keep for up to two weeks …

 

Edible gifts | Christine Ferber’s Christmas jam

29 November 2018

In her book Mes Confitures, Christine Ferber writes that her Christmas jam pays tribute to the tradition of berawecka, a fruit bread traditional in Alsace and neighboring German speaking countries during the holidays. It gives pride of place to the dried pears of the region and includes a plethora of other dried and candied fruits, nuts, and spices.

Indeed, this jam has no fewer than 21 ingredients! A fact that would ordinarily have me fleeing it like the plague. But in some instances, particularly around Christmas, my disposition mellows and I might find myself uncharacteristically drawn to somewhat tedious, day-long cooking challenges.

The reward, of course, is an unusual gift that unfurls in every bite, layer after layer, one fragrance after another, and which will hopefully, in an explosion of taste, convey all the affection (and time!) folded lovingly into each little jar.

Christine Ferber’s Christmas jam
Warning: this jam not only has 21 ingredients, it also takes 2 days to make!

1.7 kg quinces
1.7 kg (170 cl) water
1 kg caster sugar
200 g dried pears, very finely sliced
200 g dried figs
100 g dates
100 g prunes
200 g dried apricots
100 g raisins
50 g candied lemon peel
50 g candied orange peel
Juice from 1 untreated orange
3-4 pinches finely grated zest from an untreated orange
Juice from 2 untreated lemons
3-4 pinches finely grated zest from an untreated lemon
Pinch ground cinnamon
Pinch ground cardamon
5 g aniseed
150 g shelled walnuts
150 g blanched almonds

Wipe the quinces to remove all fuzz. Rince the fruit with water, remove the stalk and flower, and cut into quarters (do not peel or core the quince).

Place the quince quarters into a large (jam) pan and cover with 1.7 kg (170 cl) water.

Bring to a boil and simmer gently for an hour, stirring the quince around occasionally. Strain through a fine mesh sieve to gather 1.3 kg of juice.

Slice the dried pears very thinly and let them soak in the quince juice overnight.

The next day, pit and cut all the dried fruit as thinly as possible: figs, dates, prunes, and apricots. Finely dice the candied lemon and orange peel. Finely cut the angelica if using. Chop the walnuts and almonds.

Pour the quince juice and marinated pears back into the jam pan (or large heavy-bottomed saucepan). Add the sugar, and all the dried fruits (figs, dates, prunes, apricots, raisins), candied fruits (lemon and orange and angelica), citrus juices and zests, and spices.

Bring the jam to a boil, stirring continuously. Skim any foam that comes to the surface. Leave at a lively boil for 5 to 10 minutes, stirring continuously and skimming if necessary. **Do not overcook! 5 to 10 minutes is sufficient. My batch was a bit too thick, I will be wary next time.** Add the walnuts and almonds and cook for another 5 minutes. Check that the jam is setting (place a spoonful of juice in the fridge and, once cold, check that the juice has ‘gelled’).

Sterilize the jars for 5 minutes in a pan of boiling water. Fill the jars immediately and seal tightly.

Any-day yogurt cake aka my last-minute birthday lifesaver

23 June 2015

photo(30)

The no-hassle, mindlessly easy, infinitely versatile, all-season, all-occasion cake that will also save a thousand birthdays.

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t have the heart of a baker. I rarely follow recipes precisely, I am exasperated when a cake I’ve made many times suddenly doesn’t work because the butter or the continent or the ambient humidity has changed. I like the idea of baking, however. I like cakes. And I like to think I can make a cake for my children’s birthdays, at the very least.

So I gravitate towards simple recipes such as this one or this one. And yogurt cake.

Yogurt cake is a classic in France; it is the cake most French children first learn to make. While French home cooks use scales, not volume measurements such as cups, this cake is an exception: the unit of measurement is a pot of yogurt, the one whose contents are emptied precisely for the cake.

Because my family is not classically French, I discovered yogurt cake a bit later, in my twenties. It is brilliantly easy, and very clever, and can be easily spruced up for a special occasion.

Here first is the simple original recipe, though I rarely make it as is. The variations are just as easy.

Yogurt Cake, classic French recipe

The measurement used is one empty pot of yogurt (empty once the yogurt has been used for the cake!). In Anglo-Saxon countries where yogurts are not as ubiquitously sold in the same standard-size pots I use a measure of 100ml.

Note: 1 ‘pot’ = 100ml see explanation above
1 pot of plain unsweetened yogurt
1 pot of oil or melted butter
2 pots sugar
3 pots flour
2 eggs
1 tsp baking powder
Lemon zest

Mix all the ingredients together and bake in a medium oven for 35 to 40 minutes.

*

Yogurt Cake, adapted recipe

I have doubled the quantities, reduced the amount of sugar, substituted part of the flour with ground almonds, and added raspberries which are conveniently in season for my boys’ birthdays.

2 pots (200 ml) of plain unsweetened yogurt
1 pot (100ml) melted butter
1 pot (100ml) olive oil
3 pots (300 ml) brown sugar
3 pots (300 ml) flour
3 pots (300 ml) almond flour
4 eggs
2 tsps baking powder
Zest from 2 lemons
Fresh raspberries

Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C).

Line a 10-inch (26cm) baking tin with parchment paper and butter generously.

Mix all the ingredients together except the raspberries to obtain a smooth batter. Add the raspberries and incorporate gently in order not to squash the berries. Pour the batter into the baking tin, slide into the oven, and bake for 50 min to an hour, until the cake is set and a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean.

Remove from the oven and let cool. Sprinkle with icing sugar and a handful of raspberries for decoration.

*

Festive birthday cake (pictured above)

Make the above recipe without nuts — use 6 pots of flour (and no almond flour)
NOTE: I don’t use almond flour for this version because it renders the cake incredibly moist and crumbly, which would make it difficult to cut through

Once the cake is baked and cooled, cut it in half carefully crosswise. Smear raspberry jam on the bottom half of the cake and place the top half back on top.

Make a lemony mascarpone icing and decorate with fresh raspberries and a generous sprinkling of popping candy!


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