Archive for the ‘Christmas’ 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According to the website Patrimoine Culinaire Suisse, historical references to ‘Brünsli’ date back to at least 1725, where they are mentioned in the account of dishes served at a banquet in Winterthur, and while Brünsli are now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.

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.

Eggnog from another era

26 December 2014

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Berlin, 1945. Somewhere on the streets of Dahlem, a dashing US officer accosts a long-legged 19-year-old, demurely asking for directions to a place he has traveled a dozens times before. They are swept off their feet. One out of an ill-fated, fading marriage, the other from the rubble of war and desolation. They moved to Maryland. So goes our family mythology.

My grandmother always told us the same handful of war stories. Stories for small children, about young children in the war. She told of the day the war broke out while she was at summer camp, how she spent all her pocket money to buy her favorite hazelnut-studded chocolate (it is something little German girls knew in 1939 — that in times of war, chocolate becomes scarce), only to discover, too late, that the nuts were full of worms. She told how her parents had once asked her to watch over the cooking of a duck, a unique feast bartered by my great-grand father against school lessons. How else to know when it was done, other than to try it, just a little piece? Starving, she ate the entire thing. She told of her encounter with the Russian soldier reeking of alcohol who tried to steal her bicycle — unexpectedly pelted by a spew of Russian swear words from the long-legged German girl, he lost countenance just long enough for my grandmother to speed away, back the way she had come. She told us how she met our grandfather on a street corner in Dahlem.

When she married my grandfather, my grandmother became fiercely American; though they soon moved back to Europe she fully embraced an American expat life. But she also remained proudly German, and nurtured German traditions, especially around Christmas. We laid out milk and cookies for St Nikolaus on December 6th, we baked, we opened presents on Christmas eve, we lit our tree with candles.

So today, amid the wreaths and advent calendars, among the candles and the singing, the oysters and the cookies, there are two traditions that I hold dearest. They connect me to my grandmother, and in one grand sweep I like to think they link me not only to our family story but to Europe’s history too. The two recipes that my grandmother sent me, once upon a time, handwritten, slipped inside the letters she wrote regularly: Stollen and eggnog.

Sweet Stollen, a long, patient, and tedious process, which ultimately brings the reward of nibbled bites that taste of the promise of sheltered German childhoods. Boozy eggnogg, the stuff of joyful parties, the mirth-filled evenings of a war-less era.

My grandmother was an elegant, modern, impeccable hostess. Though she was a very good cook, she much preferred to delegate kitchen duties and sit on the sidelines with a glass of champagne and a cigarette. She loved company, and she loved parties. Every 26th of December, my grandparents hosted an eggnog party, to celebrate their anniversary. This is their recipe. In loving memory.

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Leonine eggnog recipe, verbatim, probably from the 1950s
(See further below for a slightly adapted recipe using a third of the bourbon, which is plenty.)

12 eggs, from Mrs. Cluck

12 level Tbsps granulated sugar

3 pints bouquet bourbon or rye

1 quart milk

1 pint heavy cream

Nutmeg

Crack eggs, separating yolks from whites. Setting latter aside for the nonce, go at yolks with an eggbeater, plying in furiously. Gradually add the sugar, beating it until entirely dissolved. Now enters the whiskey, poured slowly and stirred, its action on yolks being equivalent to a gentle cooking. Then milk, followed by cream (whipped cream if you prefer extra richness), likewise stirred in. Clean off eggbeater and tackle the whites till they stand without flinching. Fold them into the general mixture. Stir in one grated nutmeg. Will serve 12 people (or more). If it’s the whipped cream version, they’ll need spoons.

Merry Xmas!

***

Eggnog recipe adapted for 2014 — Serves 12
(I use a third of the bourbon stipulated in the original and it is perfect, but feel free to add much more!)

12 eggs

12 Tbsps sugar

1 pint (500 ml) good bourbon or rye whiskey

1 quart (1 l) whole milk

2 cups (500 ml) heavy cream

Nutmeg

Separate the egg yolks from the whites, which are set aside for later. In a medium bowl, beat the yolks thoroughly, gradually adding the sugar while continuing to beat firmly. Then slowly pour in the whiskey, still stirring more gently but constantly. Now add the milk, then the cream.

In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until very firm (until the peaks hold without moving). Gently fold the whipped whites into the rest of the egg/whiskey/cream mixture.

Garnish generously with freshly grated nutmeg.

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Merry Christmas Stollen

24 December 2014

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It’s Christmas Eve and finally time to cut the Stollen!

Read my story on Food&_ about this favorite German Christmas tradition and the proper way of savoring it (then bookmark the recipe for next year!).

A very merry Christmas and happy holidays everyone!

Christmas cookies | Zimtsterne (cinnamon stars)

23 December 2013

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Maybe I wasn’t being completely truthful last year when I exclaimed that the almond and currant cookies of my youth are my favorite. In reality I’ve always loved Zimtsterne most of all.

As a little girl, cinnamon stars represented the very promise of Christmas. The sweet tinge of icing an irresistible finish to the chewy bite. Nutty. Not too cinnamony. For some years I may have snubbed them a little, perhaps in a flaccid effort at emancipation from too obvious a childhood treat. But why resist the irresistible?

This is another recipe my mother has kept alive all these years. She received it initially, many years ago, from Marcelle, a close family friend and my grandparent’s neighbor in Switzerland.

*

Marcelle’s Zimtsterne
The cookies must rest for a few hours or overnight before baking, so plan accordingly. They are best made a few weeks ahead. (Ahem.
)
Store in an airtight tin box, separating the layers with parchment paper.

450 g (3 cups) almonds

3 egg whites

Pinch of salt

300 g (1 1/2 cups) unrefined sugar

2 1/2 tsps ground cinnamon

Kirsch (1 Tbsp for cookies and 1 Tbsp for the icing)

Star-shaped cookie cutter

100 g (3/4 cup) powdered (icing) sugar

Pulse chop the almonds in a food processor until they reach the consistency of coarse sugar. Transfer to a large mixing bowl.

In another bowl, beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until very firm.

Add the sugar, cinnamon, and 1 tablespoon kirsch to the almonds. Fold in the egg whites with a wooden spoon, then knead by hand until the dough holds together (kneading will help extract the almond oil).

Take the dough and flatten it evenly on a slightly moistened wooden board (working in batches if necessary). The height should be approximately 8 mm (1/3 inch), but the most important is that it be even so it also cooks evenly.

Prepare a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and sprinkled with sugar. Cut out stars from the dough with a wet cookie cutter and place them on the baking sheet. (Wet the cutter repeatedly throughout the process to avoid sticking.)

Let the stars rest, uncovered (they must dry a little), at room temperature, for a few hours or overnight.

When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C).

Slide the sheet in the middle of the oven and bake the cookies for 10 minutes. They will harden when they cool but must remain moist.

Make the icing by mixing the icing sugar with 1 tablespoon Kirsch and 1 tablespoon water. The icing should be quite liquid, add water drop by drop if necessary.

Using the back of a small spoon, coat each star, while still warm, with a light layer of icing. Let dry.

Store in a tin box, layers separated by parchment paper, for up to two weeks.

Merry Christmas!


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