18 December 2011

Rascals - 'Spitzbuben'

And here it is: my final German Christmas biscuit recipe for the year (I'll be back in January and I promse there won't be any new-year-resolution diet recipes from me). Spitzbuben are another ‘must have’ recipe in every self-respecting Christmas biscuit fanatic’s tins. I have no idea why they are so oddly named or what their origin is, but I do know one thing for sure: they are very good. Spitzbuben are traditionally cut out with a fluted round cutter and filled with either jam or chocolate. However, other shapes are also possible, of course, as the hearts in my picture below.

In Germany my favourite filling for Spitzbuben can be bought in every supermarket: this is called nougat, a paste made from chocolate and ground hazelnuts that tastes delicious. I have not yet found an equivalent for this in the UK. I guess it would be called something like a praline paste, but nothing of the kind seems to be commercially available. A good replacement for German nougat is a mixture of milk chocolate and Nutella (or another chocolate spread) melted together. Alternatively, I have used chocolates with a soft praline filling, such as Lindor or those Belgian sea-shell shaped chocolates. I don’t recommend using just plain chocolate or plain Nutella, as this would be either too hard or too soft. For Spitzbuben filled with jam it is easiest to heat up the jam slightly to make it more spreadable. I also pass it through a sieve if it contains large pieces of fruit. Biscuits filled with jam need to be dried overnight or at least a good few hours in a cool place before they can be put away.

The recipe makes about 60 double biscuits:

375 g flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
200g sugar
Seeds of one vanilla pod
250 g butter
125 g ground hazelnuts
1 egg yolk

For the filling: praline paste (see above) and/or jam of choice

Mix all ingredients until combined in a ball of pastry. Wrap in cling film and leave to rest in the fridge for at least 2 hours or overnight. Roll out the dough very thinly between two layers of cling film.  Cut out biscuits with a round fluted cutter or another shape. Transfer onto a baking sheet covered in baking paper. Bake at 180 degrees for about 7-10 minutes, depending on the size and thickness of the biscuits. The biscuits should not turn brown, only very slightly golden.

Leave to cool before removing from the baking sheet. Then sandwich the biscuits with praline paste or jam. It is easiest to place a blob of filling in the middle of one biscuit and then very slightly press down the second biscuit until the filling has spread to the edges. Leave the biscuits to dry until the filling has firmed up. Dust with icing sugar and store in a tin.

15 December 2011

Marzipan and coconut macaroons - 'Kokosmakronen'

I have eaten these macaroons every year around Christmas time for more than three decades. This is my mother’s favourite recipe and, although I am particularly partial to biscuits made with buttery pastry, I have to admit that these are pretty special. The recipe does not contain flour or butter so their consistency is different from a lot of the other biscuits I have baked. The main ingredients are marzipan and coconut and the macaroons are dried in the oven rather than baked. As a result, they are juicy and chewy - decorated with good dark chocolate they taste amazing. 

They are relatively quick to make and they keep fresh in a tin for several weeks. This year I made the macaroons for the first time with marzipan I bought in the UK and not with original raw marzipan paste (Marzipanrohmasse) imported from Germany. Raw marzipan paste is excellent for using in cake batters and cookies, as it contains less sugar and is softer. If marzipan paste is used for cake decoration it needs to be mixed first with additional icing sugar to make it rollable. Luckily, the result I got with the British ‘ready-to roll’ marzipan is absolutely fine. I cut down the amount of sugar used in the original recipe and I cannot tell a difference in terms of consistency or flavour. The recipe makes about 70 macaroons, depending on their size.

5 egg whites
200 g unsweetened desiccated coconut
200 g icing sugar
400 g marzipan
1 tablespoon rum

Some granulated sugar for sprinkling and dark chocolate to decorate

Spread the desiccated coconut on a baking sheet and dry in the oven at a very low heat (100 degrees) for about 20 minutes. Leave the oven door open a gap and make sure the coconut does not change its colour. Remove from the oven and cool.

Whisk the egg whites until stiff. Add 100 g grams of the icing sugar and continue mixing (an electric whisk works best). Then add the marzipan torn into small pieces and keep whisking. Add the rest of the sugar, the rum and the coconut. Whisk until everything is well combined. I usually leave the batter to sit for about 20 minutes or so. If the batter is too runny after this resting period I add a bit more coconut.

Cover a few baking sheets with baking paper. Place walnut-sized lumps of batter on the baking sheet. I use a piping bag as this is the fastest way of doing it. But you can also use a wet spoon to do this and then shape the lumps with wet fingers. Sprinkle the macaroons with a small amount of granulated sugar and bake in the oven at 150 degrees for about 15 minutes. The macaroons' ‘feet’ and their tips should turn a light golden colour. Leave to cool and decorate with melted chocolate. 

12 December 2011

Piped almond rings – ‘Spritzgebäck’

I inherited the recipe for these crunchy and buttery biscuits from my lovely grandmother, Mimmi. Every year when I was a child and when she was still alive (she would have been 103 years old this year!) she brought us a big tin of the little rings, decorated with chocolate. My mother baked these biscuits, too, until she gave her old Kenwood Chef to me and now I continue with the tradition. To achieve the specific shape of the rings as shown on the picture, a Kenwood chef or other food processor with a biscuit press attachment (basically a meat grinder with a mounted stencil for piping dough in different shapes) is required. However, the dough can also be rolled into thin sausages and formed into rings by hand. As an alternative, the dough can be pressed into Madeleine moulds. I suppose it could also be rolled out and cut into shapes with a cookie cutter, but I have not tried this yet. A regular biscuit press or piping bag will not work (I am speaking from experience), because the dough contains a lot of nuts and is too tough.

This recipe is enough for a very large tin full of biscuits. If the biscuits have to be shaped by hand the process will take quite a bit longer, so I would probably only go for half the recipe for a start.

450g plain flour
1 egg
200 g sugar
250 g butter
250 g blanched and ground almonds
Seeds from one vanilla pod

150 g dark chocolate to decorate

Mix all of the ingredients (apart from the chocolate) in a food processor or by hand until you have a firm ball of dough. Leave to rest in the fridge for about one hour. Use the biscuit press attachment of your food processor to pipe long strings of dough, cut into pieces about 10 cm long and form into rings. Alternatively, knead sections of the dough until it is elastic, divide the dough into smaller pieces and roll these into sausage shapes about 1 cm thick. Cut into pieces and form into rings. If you would like to make Madeleine shapes, just press pieces of the dough into the mould.

Place the biscuits on a greased baking sheet (or on a baking sheet covered in baking paper) and bake at 180 degrees for about 15 minutes. Leave to cool and decorate with melted chocolate. The biscuits can be kept for quite a few weeks and they stay crunchy if kept in a tin. My grandmother was sometimes known still to have a stash of Spritzgebäck in her larder by Easter.

9 December 2011

Traditional Gingerbread - 'Lebkuchen'

Here is another classic and traditional recipe. Of course, there are a multitude of different types of Lebkuchen and this is just one variety of many. You can find gingerbread with nuts, with marzipan, filled with jam or crystallised sugar, baked on a thin wafer, topped with icing or chocolate – the list goes on. This recipe is a plain variety. It is fragrant and spicy, but without nuts or fillings. I like this gingerbread particularly because it reminds me of my childhood. It tastes just  like those brightly decorated gingerbread hearts that are always sold at fairs (do I need to mention the Oktoberfest?) and not only at Christmas time across the south of Germany. The recipe is easy to process and suitable for cutting out shapes that can then be decorated. It is also perfect for building a gingerbread house. Nicely decorated gingerbread shapes are often used as tree decorations (although I think it's a shame to let them go dusty, they taste too good).

Traditional gingerbread contains a lot of honey and the dough needs to be rested to mature and to develop its full flavour. As an avid reader of cookery magazines I am often surprised at the kinds of recipes sold to us as gingerbread. The addition of a few spices to regular buttery pastry does not make a Lebkuchen. Traditionally, gingerbread is baked with potassium carbonate as a raising agent. Regular baking powder or baking soda is not really suitable for gingerbread dough that needs to rest for several days. I have read elsewhere that in case of emergency potassium carbonate can be replaced with half the amount of baking powder. I have not tried this myself, but apparently it affects the flavour and the biscuits are harder and drier because baking powder does not reabsorb moisture into the gingerbread. In Germany potassium carbonate (Pottasche) is sold in little sachets in the run-up to Christmas. The same sachets can be purchased on ebay, but I have also seen food grade potassium carbonate for sale relatively cheaply elsewhere on the internet. The recipe makes about two tins full of gingerbread shapes.

For the gingerbread spice mix:
1 level tablespoon of cinnamon
2 generous pinches of ground cloves
1 generous pinch each of ground allspice, nutmeg, coriander, cardamom, ginger and mace

For the dough:
250g honey
250 g Demerara sugar
550 g flour
2 tbsp cocoa powder (optional)
1 egg
12 g potassium carbonate
4 cl rum or water

Heat the honey with the sugar and butter and stir until all the sugar has dissolved. Do not boil. Take off the heat and leave to cool down for a bit. Now stir in the flour, the egg and the spices (add the cocoa powder if you would like darker ginger bread, as on my pictures) and mix well with an electric hand blender, or in the food processor. Dissolve the potassium carbonate in the rum or water and add to the dough, mixing well. If the dough is extremely sticky add some more flour, but not too much. The dough firms up and becomes less sticky when it has rested. Cover the bowl with aluminium foil or a plate and leave to rest in a cool place. The dough needs to mature for at least two days and longer if there is time. My gingerbread dough rested in my fridge’s vegetable drawer for three weeks.

When the dough is ready bring it back to room temperature and knead it in sections until soft and elastic. Roll out the dough between two layers of clingfilm until about ½ cm thick. Cut out the shapes you like, place on a baking sheet covered in baking paper and bake at 180 degrees for 15 – 20 minutes (baking time depends on the size of the biscuits). The shapes will puff up and increase in size, so leave some space in between them. It is important to keep an eye on the biscuits and not to let them go too dark or to burn around the edges (the raw dough is quite dark, so this is not so easy to see). If the biscuits go too dark they will be hard and taste bitter. Leave to cool on the baking sheet before removing them.

The sky’s the limit when it comes to decorating the gingerbread. I like heart shapes decorated with half an almond for a traditional look (the almond is put on the biscuit before baking). The gingerbread also tastes great dipped into melted dark chocolate and it can be decorated with sprinkles if desired. 

The gingerbread is soft when it comes out of the oven and hardens as it cools down. The biscuits should be stored in a tin for a few days before you eat them to allow them to soften again. If the gingerbread is too hard even after a day or two put a piece of fresh apple in the tin as this helps to make them soft.

4 December 2011

Vanilla crescents - 'Vanillekipferl'

Vanillekipferl are another classic Christmas biscuit recipe. The recipe is simple, but they taste fantastic. Buttery, crumbly, and melt-in-the-mouth. From all Christmas biscuits, I think, these are at least in my top three. The good thing is that they don’t require any special ingredients or equipment. A bit of time, flour, butter, sugar, vanilla, a few nuts, and Bob’s your uncle.

The only things worth mentioning are 1) I recommend making relatively small crescents. They melt slightly and increase their size a little bit in the oven. Moreover, they just look nicer if they are dainty and delicate. In order to get uniform shapes and sizes I roll the pastry into a sausage shape and cut off equal-sized bits. I then shape them into little crescents. 2) It is crucial to get the timing right. The vanilla crescents should get a slightly golden tinge at most and they should not go brown. There is nothing worse than half-burned Christmas biscuits.

The recipe is enough for a large tin of vanilla crescents:

550g flour
180 g sugar
400 g butter, cold and cut into small pieces
200 g blanched and ground hazelnuts or almonds (hazelnuts taste best, in my view)
Seeds of one vanilla pod

To decorate: a mixture of caster sugar and icing sugar in a bowl or on a plate. You can add some vanilla sugar to the mix, but I am not keen on the artificial flavour of most shop-bought vanilla sugar.

Combine all ingredients and carefully knead until you have a ball of pastry. Leave to rest in the fridge for 2 hours. Shape crescents (see above), place on a baking sheet covered in baking paper and bake at 180 degrees for 10-15 minutes. If it is very hot in the kitchen it is helpful to firm them up in the fridge (or outside, if it is chilly) for another 15 minutes or so before you put them in the oven. Baking times can vary depending on the size of the crescents and on the temperature in your oven. Make sure the biscuits do not turn brown.

Remove from the oven and leave to firm up for a few minutes. Dip the crescents in the sugar mixture while they are still warm. They are very delicate when fresh, so a bit of caution is required. Leave to cool and store in a tin. 

PS: I ended up with a small tub full of broken crescents, which I put in the freezer and will use in a 'vanilla crescent parfait' for a Christmassy dessert.

3 December 2011

Little Bethmanns marzipan bites – ‘Bethmännchen’

Researching and translating my recipes for this blog I keep coming across some interesting facts. For example, I found that German bakers are considerably more daring when it comes to ingredients than their English counterparts. I first realised this when I was unable to purchase food-grade caustic soda for my Pretzels, because the English use this for drain cleaning only. Now I found out that bitter almonds, a basic ingredient in almond paste and marzipan, are actually illegal in the United States (and, judging by extensive googling, they are unavailable in the UK as well). And why? Just because they contain hydrogen cyanide. This is a shame, because at the end of the day there won't be homemade marzipan without bitter almonds (I also think that a bit of cyanide makes Christmas just that bit more exciting). 

Maybe it is just as well that I could not get my hands on bitter almonds this week and I had to resort to shop-bought marzipan. When I was about 13 or 14, I baked Bethmännchen from scratch. This involved the blanching and peeling of a whole pound of almonds (in addition to two bitter almonds, which I managed to process without poisoning myself). It took me almost an entire day to peel the nuts, make the almond paste and to shape, decorate and bake the biscuits. When I got up the next morning my dad had eaten every single one of them. Rather than taking this as a compliment I was not pleased and never baked them again. This is, until now, when I decided to give the recipe another go with readymade marzipan. This version certainly is a lot quicker. If the fast Bethmanns taste different or worse than the original recipe I couldn’t tell. I never even got to try a single on that fateful day about 20 years ago.

This recipe is for about 40 little Bethmanns. Legend has it that these biscuits were invented by a French pastry chef, who worked for a rich German bankers’ family in Frankfurt – the Bethmanns – at the beginning of the 19th century. Initially, four almonds symbolised the family’s four sons. When one of them died only three almonds were used for decoration from then on.

400 g good quality marzipan
120 g ground, blanched almonds
150 g icing sugar
1 egg white

About 100 g blanched almonds, cut in half, to decorate

Mix all the ingredients bar the halved almonds in a food processor or by hand. Roll into a sausage about 2 cm thick and cut off pieces the size of a cherry. Decorate with three half almonds and bake at about 150 degrees for 15-20 minutes. These burn easily and they should turn only slightly golden, so keep an eye on them!

29 November 2011

Cinnamon stars - 'Zimtsterne'

Cinnamon stars are a very traditional kind of Christmas biscuit. Although I am not conservative about many things I have always preferred traditional baking to the new and trendy recipes (the other areas my conservatism extends to are beer and wine). Give me nuts, honey, cinnamon, butter and chocolate any day. I don’t need basil, cranberries or espresso in my Christmas biscuits. The recipe is also fairly special in that it contains neither flour, nor butter. Nutritional value is added instead with a load of ground nuts and sugar. The recipe for cinnamon stars is simple, but it requires a bit of commitment. The dough is a bit sticky and it takes a steady hand and some patience to get the stars cut out evenly and transferred onto a baking sheet. I therefore do not recommend this recipe for a fun afternoon of baking with small children. The stars can be baked with almonds and amaretto as in the recipe below. A hazelnut and rum combination can be used also, but I prefer the subtle marzipan flavour of almonds. The recipe makes about 70 stars.

For the dough:
500 g ground almonds
250 g icing sugar
1 level tbsp cinnamon
1 small pinch of ground cloves
2 egg whites
2 tbsp amaretto (can be replaced with water and some almond extract)

For the icing:
1 egg white
150 g icing sugar

Combine all dough ingredients and knead into a smooth ball of dough. It is fairly sticky and always will be. Roll portions of the dough in between two layers of cling film until about 5 mm thick. Cut out biscuits with a star-shaped cutter. It helps to wash the cutter every once in a while to avoid it from getting too sticky. Carefully transfer the stars onto a baking sheet covered in baking paper. Leave to dry for 20 minutes or so (if you have room, put them in the fridge for a while).

For the icing whisk the egg white until it is very stiff. Gradually add the icing sugar and continue mixing until you have smooth icing. Cover the stars evenly with a relatively thick coat of icing. This takes a bit of patience. For best results I put a teaspoon of icing in the middle of each star and then spread this evenly with the back or the handle of the spoon. A pastry brush does not really work very well here. Leave to dry again for about 20-30 minutes (this will stop the icing from cracking in the oven). Bake at no more than 150 degrees for about 10-15 minutes. The icing should remain white and not go brown on top. The stars are very soft when they come out of the oven, but they firm up quickly. Their texture is chewy, rather than hard and crispy.

27 November 2011

Spiced biscuits with almonds - "Spekulatius"

Today is the first advent and the start of the Christmas baking season. The baking of a large variety of biscuits is a firm tradition observed all over Germany. The baking commences at the end of November and the result is a huge stockpile of metal tins filled with as many types of biscuits as possible in most houses. Some people take this to the extreme, baking 20 or even 30 types. The point of the exercise is to have a plate filled with biscuits on offer at all times in the run-up to Christmas and to exchange biscuits with friends, colleagues and neighbours. I partook in Christmas baking from a very young age and I continue the tradition now in the UK so I can participate in the great Christmas biscuit swap, albeit by post. Friends and colleagues here, too, as a rule tend to put up little resistance to the biscuits. 

My first Christmas recipe is for subtly spiced biscuits with almonds. These are hugely popular in Germany and increasingly widespread in the UK. Their flavour is reminiscent of the little spicy caramel biscuits often handed out with a cup of coffee these days. Traditionally, Spekulatius are pushed into carved wooden moulds in the shape of a Santa, a windmill or the like, before baking. After a long search (they are no longer widely available) I was finally sent two such moulds from Germany. Unfortunately, the process of shaping the biscuits with the moulds is fiddly to the extreme. Although I have the patience of an angel when it comes to baking this was too much even for me. Removing the brittle dough from the mould without breaking it turned out to be extremely difficult and worked only for every tenth biscuit or so. This meant that it took about 10 minutes to shape one single biscuit and, as the recipe is for about 100 of them, I abandoned the moulds in favour of a heart-shaped cookie cutter. As an even quicker alternative, the dough can just be cut into rectangles with a knife and sprinkled with almonds.

Spekulatius moulds: pretty, but not suitable for those who have an ounce of impatience in them

500 g flour
A pinch of baking powder
2 tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp each of nutmeg, ginger, ground cloves and cardamom
250 g butter
220 g light Muscovado sugar
1 tbsp amaretto (can be replaced with another liquid or almond extract)
A few tablespoons of milk, if required
100 g sliced almonds

Mix the flour with the baking powder and spices. Add the sugar and butter (cut into small pieces). Quickly knead all ingredients, adding the amaretto and milk to bring them together. Don’t overwork the pastry. Wrap in clingfilm and leave to rest in the fridge for at least 2 hours or overnight.

Roll the dough thinly (2-3 mm) in between two layers of clingfilm. Cut into shapes of choice. Carefully transfer the biscuits onto a baking sheet covered in baking paper sprinkled with sliced almonds. Bake in the preheated oven for about 10-15 minutes at 180 degrees. The biscuits should not turn too brown. Leave to cool and store in a tin.

12 November 2011

Stollen bites with marzipan - 'Stollenkonfekt'

Yes, this is a Christmas recipe and no, it is not even the middle of November yet. However, these Stollen bites are not as premature as it might seem. Traditional Stollen needs to mature for 2-3 weeks until it has fully developed its flavour. Whilst these Stollen bites are not exactly traditional they also benefit from being hidden away in a tin for a few weeks. I baked them now so they will be ready to eat at the beginning of December. This is not a recipe for purists. Real Stollen is baked in large loaf shapes and not in gimmicky bite sizes. Moreover, marzipan or even double marzipan is not really a building block of the traditional German Christmas Stollen. Having said this, I prefer these bites to some of the more traditional renditions of the Stollen (which can be a bit dry sometimes). The bites are juicy and full of flavour and their small size means that they won’t spoil anybody’s appetite for all the other Christmas biscuits and cookies usually on offer. This recipe makes about 70 Stollen bites.

For the fruit mixture:

200 g raisins
80 g blanched almonds
Shot glass full of dark rum
50 g mixed peel

Mix the raisins and almonds with the rum. Leave to soak overnight or at least for 6 hours. Strain off any rum that has not been absorbed. Add the mixed peel and chop everything roughly in a food processor or with a knife.

For the dough:

500 g plain flour
50 g sugar
½ tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
A large pinch each of ground cloves and nutmeg
20 g fresh yeast (or one sachet dry)
130 ml warm milk

Mix the flour with the sugar, salt and spices. Dissolve the yeast in the warm milk and pour on top of the flour. Leave to stand for about 20 minutes or until the yeast has been activated.

For the marzipan mixture:

50 g marzipan
1-2 tbsp amaretto
200 g butter at room temperature
100 g icing sugar

Cut the marzipan into small pieces, add the amaretto and use an electric whisk to blend into a smooth paste. Add the butter and icing sugar and whisk until creamy.
Combine all three components (flour, fruit and marzipan mixtures) and knead for several minutes. The dough is fairly soft and sticky, some extra flour can be added if it is impossible to handle, but don’t add too much. Leave to rest and rise in a warm place for about 2 hours (it will not rise as much as bread dough).

For the marzipan filling (optional, but recommended):

150 g marzipan

Turn the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and roll into a sausage about 2-3 cm thick. Flatten into a rectangular strip of dough. Top this strip with small pieces of marzipan in intervals  of about 2-3 cm (see photo above). Fold one side of the dough over the marzipan pieces. Cut into chunks containing one ball of marzipan each.

Place on a baking sheet covered in baking paper and leave to rest for another 10 minutes or so. Bake for 15-20 minutes at about 190 degrees.

To finish:
200 g butter melted
1 pack of icing sugar

Dunk the baked Stollen bites into the melted butter as they come out of the oven (they have to be hot or at least warm).  Roll the bites in the icing sugar until they have a thick sugar covering. Leave to cool, store in tins (or in a few layers of aluminium foil) and hide. They will taste best if matured for 2-3 weeks.

8 November 2011

Poppy seed cake - 'Mohnkuchen'

This is the second recipe with poppy seed on my blog (the recipe for my poppy seed plait is here). Again, there is no story to go with this – it is only that I love poppy seeds in cakes and pastries (if you don’t, I recommend steering clear of this). I only have one warning: serious tooth brushing is required after eating this cake, especially if any kind of public speaking is on the cards. As I mentioned in my post on the poppy seed plait a few weeks ago the seeds need to be ground or crushed or they are unpleasant and gritty. If you can’t import ground poppy seed from Germany (or another central or east European country) a good food processor or spice grinder can do the job. With a bit of elbow grease the seeds can also be crushed with a pestle and mortar. This recipe should be baked in a round spring form of 23 – 26 cm. I used a 23 cm tin for a better poppy seed to pastry ratio.

For the pastry:

250g plain flour
80 g sugar
120 g butter
1 egg
½ tsp baking powder

Combine all ingredients and knead until you have a smooth ball of dough, leave to rest in the fridge.

For the filling:

40 g corn flour
4 tbsp sugar
1 vanilla pod
500 ml milk
250 g ground poppy seed
Swig of dark rum (or a handful of raisins soaked in rum)

Mix the corn flour and the sugar. Add a bit of the cold milk and whisk well until there are no lumps left. Boil the rest of the milk with the vanilla pod (seeds scraped into the milk). When it is boiling remove the vanilla pod and add the corn flour mixture. Boil for a minute or so whisking constantly until the mixture resembles thick custard. Add the poppy seed and rum (or raisins if using). Leave to cool slightly.

In the meantime make the crumple topping by combining the following:

100 g flour
70 g butter
70 g sugar

 Thinly roll out the pastry (this works best between two layers of cling film) and line the greased spring form. The rim should be about 3 cm high. Fill the pastry case with the poppy seed mixture and smooth the surface. Top with the crumble and bake at about 180 degrees for 60 minutes or until the crumbly top is golden brown. This cake is very moist and tastes even better on the second or third day.

5 November 2011

Swabian Twirls - Schneckennudeln

This is another traditional south-west German speciality with a silly name – translated literally these twirls are called ‘snail noodles’. (The epitome of silly names is the Swabian take on the doughnut, also called ‘nuns farts’ or Nonnenfürzle, but I’ll get back to this another time). The Schneckennudel makes a regular appearance at an old German ritual – Kaffee und Kuchen. Traditionalists observe Kaffee and Kuchen daily at about 3 pm. This includes vast amounts of hot drinks (coffee, of course, or tea if necessary) as well as a selection of cakes and pastries and gossip. An invitation to Kaffee und Kuchen is less formal than a dinner invitation and thus often extended to new acquaintances or to people you can’t face spending more than 2 hours with. Having said this, especially at weekends visitors often arrive in the afternoon for Kaffee and Kuchen to be followed by more food in the evening. When I was a child we had visits or visited relatives most weekends and usually this involved coffee and cake, followed by a few hours during which the adults chatted and the children made a huge mess in the garden or basement. Then dinner and the grand finale – disassembling the haunted houses/nomad tends/spaceships we had built, and tidying up the debris (usually by the mothers).

Working full time and living with somebody who does not fully appreciate this fine custom I rarely partake in Kaffee und Kuchen in the UK, but I still bake most weekends. In fact, I just finished baking these twirls and I will eat one with a coffee as soon as I have posted this post. Schneckennudeln can be found in every bakery in the south-west of Germany, but they are also easy to make at home. Traditionally they are filled only with melted butter, a mixture of sugar and cinnamon and raisins. However, as I don’t like raisins very much I prefer this nutty variant – baked with a mixture of hazelnuts and almonds in this recipe, but any combination of nuts will work. This recipe makes about 20 twirls, which can be frozen and reheated.

For the dough:

220 ml warm milk
100g melted butter
20 g fresh yeast (or one sachet dry)
500g plain flour
100g sugar
1 egg
1 tsp salt

For the filling:

200g ground nuts of choice
80 g sugar
1 shot dark rum or amaretto
1 tsp cinnamon
150 g double cream, whipped slightly
Some melted butter

Combine the warm milk and butter and dissolve the yeast in this mixture. In a large bowl combine the flour and sugar. Pour the warm milk mixture on top of the flour and leave to stand for about 30 minutes or until the yeast is activated and bubbling. Add the egg and salt and knead patiently until you have a ball of dough that is soft, but not sticky (add a bit of extra flour if required). Leave to rise for 1 hour. Stretch and fold the dough and leave to stand again for about 30 minutes.

In the meantime combine all ingredients for the filling – leave to stand at room temperature so all the liquid can be absorbed.

Roll the dough out in the shape a large rectangle – about 40 x 50 cm. Brush with melted butter then smooth the filling on top and roll up. Cut into pieces about 2-3 cm thick. I briefly freeze the dough before cutting as this helps the twists keep their shape more easily. Leave to rise for another 10 minutes or so then bake at 180 degrees for about 20 minutes.

2 November 2011

Spiced Apple Bread - 'Apfelbrot'


Yes, this looks suspiciously like a Christmas recipe already with its nuts and fruit and cinnamon. With apples as its main ingredient, though, this seems to me seasonal enough even at the beginning of November (subconsciously, of course, this might well be part of the build-up to the excessive Christmas baking I and many of my fellow country folk traditionally engage in from about the middle of November). Apfelbrot is a very old German recipe. This particular combination is my mother’s favourite and in my view it is the best there is. My feelings about dried fruit and raisins have always been ambivalent, but this recipe is the great exception. The bread is juicy and flavourful with none of this sticky toughness of raisins that I usually object to. Whether it should be classified as bread or cake is a matter of perception. There are no added eggs, milk or butter (which means that this bread is vegan) and it is certainly more wholesome than most cakes. Having said this, the Apfelbrot is sweet and rich and goes very well with coffee and tea. It can be eaten as it is, but it tastes particularly good spread with butter.

This makes one very large tin loaf or two smaller breads:

750 g apples, peeled and chopped
250 g Demerara sugar
250g raisins or chopped, mixed fruit

100 g ground almonds
100g roughly chopped hazelnuts
1 large tbsp dark rum
1 tbsp cocoa powder
1 tsp cinnamon
1 pinch of ground cloves

500 g plain flour
20 g baking powder

Mix the chopped apples with the sugar and raisins. Cover with a lid or with cling film and leave to stand overnight or for at least 8 hours. The sugar encourages the apples to release some of their juice so this period of rest is essential – there has to be enough liquid to absorb the rest of the ingredients.

Add the nuts, rum, cocoa and spices to the apple mixture and stir. Finally add the flour and baking powder and mix until all the flour has been absorbed. The juiciness of apples can vary – add some extra liquid (water, rum or apple juice) if the batter is too tough. The batter should be fairly firm and not runny.

Spoon the batter into one large or two smaller loaf tins. Bake at 180 degrees for about one hour or until a stick inserted into the bread comes out clean. The apple bread keeps fresh for a couple of weeks, but it should not be stored in plastic (tin foil or a tin is best).

30 October 2011

Butter crescents - “Butterhörnchen”

Once again I was unsure about how best to translate the name of these rolls. Literally, a Hörnchen is a small horn or ‘hornlet’, but this just doesn’t sound right. I considered calling them ‘German croissants’, too, but I did not want to risk breaking the European Union's Protected Geographical Status laws and they are also considerably easier to make. I love a good croissant and I am also partial to spending an entire day or even weekend testing complicated and time-consuming recipes. However, the time required to make real croissants is simply incompatible with a full-time job. Whilst these butter crescents are not quite as flaky and light as croissants they are the next best thing. They, too, take a while to make, but most of this time is required for the dough to rise and simply to sit in a warm place until it is ready to bake. They freeze very well and can just be defrosted and reheated in a warm oven for 10-15 minutes – they taste as good as fresh! 

There are a lot of different variants of the butter crescent available throughout Germany and this recipe with simple and buttery yeast dough is a popular version. I like the crescents plain so they can be teamed up with different toppings, but lots of variations are possible. They can be filled with jam, marzipan or with a piece of chocolate. For a savoury version I recommend sprinkling them with coarse sea salt or even with grated cheese. If you are in possession of food-grade caustic soda  for baking Pretzels you can use this to produce ‘Pretzel Crescents’ or ‘Laugenhörnchen’, which have become increasingly popular in Germany in recent years.

The recipe makes 12 crescents:

15 g fresh yeast (or one sachet dried)
1 tsp salt
300 ml warm milk
500 g plain flour
1 tbsp sugar
60g butter

Some melted butter (optional)
Some milk for brushing the crescents before baking

If you are using fresh yeast (recommended), add the yeast and salt to the warm milk, stir until dissolved, and leave to stand for about half an hour. If you use dry yeast just dissolve in the warm milk and salt – no waiting time required.

Mix the milk-yeast mixture with the flour and sugar. Leave to stand for 1-2 hours. Add the butter and knead the dough patiently (about 7 minutes in a food processor, longer by hand) until you have a smooth ball of dough that is not too sticky. Leave to rise for an hour. Stretch and fold the dough and leave to relax for about another hour.

Roll out the dough into a circle about ½ cm thick and leave to relax for a few minutes. Cut the circle into 12 slices like a pie and brush with the melted butter or top with topping, if using. Roll up into crescent shapes. Leave to rise for another 20 minutes or so then brush with some milk and bake at 220 degrees for 25-30 minutes or until they are as brown as you would like them to be.

20 October 2011

Hazelnut cake - 'Nusskuchen'

This is a very simple sponge cake and I can’t really think of any interesting facts or anecdotes to go with it. It is just a classic and very popular recipe that I have already liked as a child and I still love now. The combination of roasted hazelnuts and a dash of brandy is a winner and absolutely delicious. This is another one of those things that I like for breakfast (yes, I like my breakfasts and no, I see nothing wrong with eating cake first thing in the morning). For this reason I tend to leave the cake plain as in the picture and I do not cover it with a nice milk-chocolate icing, which also makes a very good match. The cake is light and moist and keeps fresh for about a week in a tin. All ingredients should be at room temperature before the baking commences. I like baking this in a large loaf tin, but two smaller tins and other shapes also work.

 250g butter
200g sugar
Seeds from one vanilla pod
4 eggs
1 large dash of brandy
350g plain flour
2 heaped teaspoons baking powder
200g roasted hazelnuts, ground
150 ml milk

Whisk the butter, sugar and vanilla for several minutes until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one by one and continue whisking. Add the brandy. Mix the flour, baking powder and hazelnuts. Alternate adding portions of the flour and the milk to the whisked butter and eggs. Combine well, but do not overwork the batter. Pour into a greased tin and bake at 180 degrees for about an hour.

16 October 2011

Sweet plaited bread - 'Hefezopf'

The Hefezopf (literally translated this means yeast plait) is another one of those bakery staples typical of south-west Germany, and of the region of Swabia – or Schwaben – in particular. To even call this a recipe seems kind of odd to me as it is just so basic. Every person growing up within an 80 km radius of Stuttgart can throw this together in their sleep from the age of three. I prefer having this slightly sweet and very good looking bread for breakfast, topped with butter and homemade jam or honey. I tend to make it for weekends or bank holidays, especially when friends or family are staying over and we have time to indulge in an extensive ‘continental’ breakfast. There are two basic variants of the Hefezopf: one with raisins and the other without. I am not a big fan of dried fruit, so I prefer the latter, but it is a matter of preference. Lately, I have given my Hefezopf a ‘British twist’, spicing it with some of the tasty ingredients used for hot cross buns. This is not traditional and therefore not suitable for purists, but I think it tastes great.

One slight drawback of baking a Hefezopf in the UK is the scarce availability of fresh yeast in regular supermarkets. Of course, this can also be baked with dried yeast, which I have tried. However, the fresh yeast taste is an important feature of this bread. I have been told that some British supermarkets sell fresh yeast and it can also be bought in some organic shops, especially in London. Unfortunately, I have never managed to find fresh yeast in shops that are in my vicinity. One way around this for me has been to buy yeast in bulk from a baker selling it on ebay (the price is very reasonable) and to freeze it in individual portions. Apparently, some traditional baking shops (if you can find one) are also willing to sell some fresh yeast if you ask nicely.

For one large plait:

20g fresh yeast (or 1 sachet dried)
500 g plain flour
250 ml lukewarm milk
1 egg
60 g butter
80 g sugar
1 tsp of salt
Finely grated zest of ½ organic lemon
A handful of raisins (optional) 

For a spiced version try a few of the following: infuse the milk with a pinch of saffron, a cinnamon stick, a cracked cardamom pod and/or a vanilla pod. Add a pinch of ground ginger, nutmeg and/or ground cloves.

Egg wash (one egg yolk mixed with a bit of milk to glaze the bread before baking)

Dissolve the yeast in the warm milk, add to all the other ingredients (apart from the egg wash) and knead until you have soft dough that is not too sticky. Cover in a bowl and leave in a warm place to rise until it has doubled in size. Divide the dough into three parts and roll each part into a string about 40 cm long and plait. Place on a baking sheet covered in baking paper and leave to rise again for about 20-30 minutes.  Mix an egg yolk with a dash of milk and brush this onto the bread (this will give it a nice shine). Bake at 200 degrees for about 40 minutes, or until the bread is a nice golden colour and sounds hollow when the bottom is tapped.

2 October 2011

Marble cake - Marmorkuchen

Marble cake is an absolute classic in Germany, and for good reason. I must have baked this for the first time when I was about 10 years old and I have made it hundreds of times since. One memorable occasion was my 18th birthday when I started baking this cake not long before my guests arrived. I somehow managed to get my hair tangled up in the electric whisk, which destroyed my carefully styled hair. My mother, inexplicably, found this very funny and struggled to help me detach the whisk from my head for she was laughing so hard.  In my family opinions on the marble cake are divided. For me, and also for my dad, marble cake has been a firm and constant favourite and we would pick this over elaborate cream cakes or fruit tarts any day. We particularly like eating large slices of this for breakfast. Some people, including my mother, think that marble cake is a bit basic – boring, even. I can assure you that they are mistaken.

In Germany marble cakes tend to be baked in a ring-shaped tin as shown on the photo. However, they can also be baked in a regular square or rectangular cake tin. The recipe makes one large cake.

250g butter
280g sugar
4 eggs
Seeds from one vanilla pod
500g plain flour
2 heaped tsp baking powder
170 ml milk
4 tbsp cocoa powder
A good swig of dark rum or amaretto (or extra milk)

Whisk the butter with the sugar for about 10 minutes until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one and keep whisking. Mix in the vanilla.

In a separate bowl mix the flour with the baking powder. Alternate adding flour and milk to the egg mixture, whisking slowly. Once all the flour and milk have been added pour two thirds of the batter into a greased cake tin. Add the cocoa powder and rum (or other liquid) to the remaining batter and mix well. Pour the chocolate batter on top of the white batter and swirl carefully with a fork for a marble effect.

Bake in the preheated oven at 180 degrees for about 45 minutes. Prick the cake with a match or toothpick – if it comes out clean the cake is done.

Leave to cool for a few minutes then turn out of the tin. It can be served as it is, dusted with icing sugar, or covered with chocolate icing. It keeps fresh in a tin for several days and also freezes very well.

1 October 2011

Swabian Poor Souls – ‘Schwäbische Seelen’

There are several theories regarding the origin of this bread’s strange name: Seelen, translated as poor souls. It appears to be of a religious nature and linked to All Souls’ Day, a commemoration day met on 2nd November in the Catholic Church calendar. In the region of Swabia food, including Seelen bread, was given as a symbolic offering tothe  poor souls in purgatory, because congregations believed that this would bring them a rich harvest in the following year.

However, to be honest it is not the religious connection that interests me, but the taste and specific texture of this lovely bread. Seelen are large, savoury bread rolls sprinkled with caraway seeds and coarse sea salt.  On the inside they are particularly fluffy and moist owing to the use of very soft dough and spelt flour instead of wheat. In the Stuttgart region Seelen are often eaten for breakfast fresh from the bakery. Another popular variation is to eat them as hot sandwiches filled with ham and cheese. Personally, I would describe this bread as the Swabian equivalent to the baguette or ciabatta. I like serving Seelen with vegetable stew or soup especially in the autumn and winter.

This recipe makes about 6 large Seelen

500g white spelt flour
20g fresh yeast (or one sachet dry)
300 ml warm water
2 tsp salt

For sprinkling: caraway seeds and coarse sea salt

Dissolve the yeast in the warm water and knead all ingredients for about 10 minutes to get soft and fairly sticky dough. Leave to rise in a warm place for about 60 minutes. After 20 minutes and 40 minutes of rising knead the dough again briefly with wet hands. 

When the dough has risen turn it out onto a lightly floured wooden board. With wet hands shape it into a square of about 20 cm. Use a wet knife to cut the dough into six strips. Wet the hands again and transfer the strips onto a baking sheet lined with baking paper. Don’t worry if the Seelen at this point look like a sticky mess, this is quite intentional and they will look rustic once baked.  The sticky dough gives the Seelen their distinctive, chewy texture and open crumb. Cover with a clean dish towel and leave to rise for another 20 minutes.

Preheat the oven to about 240 degrees and place a bowl of water on the bottom shelf. 

When the Seelen are ready to go into the oven wet them again with your hands and sprinkle with caraway seeds and coarse sea salt. Bake for about 20 minutes or until golden brown.

24 September 2011

Poppy seed plait - 'Mohnzopf'

Sweetened and plaited breads are popular in Germany – for breakfast at the weekend (or on any other morning of the week if I get the chance), but also with coffee or tea in the afternoon. A favourite variation of mine is this plait filled with a sweet poppy seed mixture. It tastes and looks quite special (even if I say so myself), but it is actually quite easy to make. The poppy seed in the mix can be replaced with ground nuts - hazelnuts and/or almonds are best. Many different variations in flavour are possible with the addition of, for example, grated lemon zest, cinnamon, cocoa powder or even grated marzipan.

Poppy seeds are widely used in cakes and other sweet dishes in Central and Eastern Europe. It is not a problem to buy packets of poppy seed in the UK – I usually get mine from the organic supermarket. Unfortunately, I have never found ground poppy seed as needed for this plait and also for other cakes (such as my poppy seed cake). However, poppy seed can be ground (or at least bruised) in a decent food processor or even with a mortar and pestle). I don’t recommend using whole poppy seed, as this has quite an unpleasant, sandy texture.

I usually bake this plait in a large cake tin (about 30 cm long) to give it an even shape. It can be baked without a tin, but this will result in a flatter shaped loaf.

For the bread:

20 g fresh yeast (or 1 sachet dry)
130 ml milk
400 g plain flour
40 g sugar
70 g butter
1 egg

For the filling:

100 g ground poppy seeds
25 g semolina
60 g sugar
175 ml milk
Seeds of one vanilla pod
A good swig of rum (optional)

Dissolve the fresh yeast in the warm milk, add to the rest of the bread ingredients and knead to get a fairly firm ball of dough. Cover and leave to rise in a warm place for about 45 minutes.

In the meantime make the filling. Boil the milk with the sugar and vanilla, and then add the poppy seeds and semolina. Bring back to the boil briefly and set aside to allow the poppy seed and semolina to swell up and the mixture to cool down. Add the rum and mix well.

When the dough has risen roll it into a rectangle of about 20 by 30 cm. Evenly distribute the topping on the dough and roll up so you end up with a sausage about 30 cm long. Carefully cut this sausage down the middle with a serrated knife. Then twist the two halves into a braid and place in a greased cake tin. Cover and leave to rise again for about 30 minutes.

Bake in a preheated oven at 180 degrees for about 45 minutes.

22 September 2011

Tarte flambée – Flammkuchen

Flammkuchen is a cross-border specialty that can typically be found in the French Alsace region as well as in the Baden and Pfalz regions of Germany. Although it is not entirely typical of my own home region, I wanted to include it in this blog because a) it is incredibly tasty and b) it is a somewhat more elegant version of my last recipe, the Zwiebelkuchen. Flammkuchen literally translates as ‘flame cake’. This is because, traditionally, they were baked in wood-fired stone ovens while the flames were still too hot for baking bread. Villagers thus made most of the firewood; and the time it took to bake a Flammkuchen allowed them to gauge when the oven was ready for the bread. 

I remember going to a traditional restaurant serving Flammkuchen in the city I grew up in. The waitress kept bringing out large Flammkuchen on wooden boards to be shared by everyone around the table until we asked her to stop. The meal was usually finished with a sweet variation of the tart, topped not with onions and bacon, but with cream and fruit. We didn’t get to go there often and it always was a really special treat.

If only I had known back then how quick and easy those Flammkuchen are to make. Only very recently, having just returned from a cycling holiday through the vineyards of Alsace and Baden, I decided to give it a go and I was amazed how easy it is to recreate an authentic looking and tasting Flammkuchen. (I am also now, with hindsight, amazed at the prices they get away with in Alsace). This crispy and savoury tart can be served with a salad as a main meal, but it is also excellent as a snack with a nice glass of wine.

The following recipe is for two pizza-sized Flammkuchen (they are very thin so two people will easily eat this with a salad as a main meal).

For the dough:

200g flour (I used a mixture of type 00 and plain white)
120 ml water
A few pinches of salt
2 tbsp oil

For the topping:

150 g crème fraîche or sour cream
1 large onion, halved and cut into thin slices
80 g bacon lardons or bacon cut into thin strips
Salt and pepper

Mix the flour with water, salt and oil and knead until you have a smooth and elastic ball of dough that is not sticky (add more flour or water if required). Cover in cling film and leave to relax for a while.

Preheat the oven as hot as it will go – 270 degrees are ideal.

Divide the dough into two pieces and roll these out on a floured surface as thinly as you possibly can – they should be almost paper thin. This takes a bit of patience, because the dough is reluctant at first to keep its shape. Top the dough with the crème fraîche or sour cream – two heaped tablespoons per pizza-sized Flammkuchen are enough. Traditionally the onions and bacon are added raw, but I find that cooking them first results in a better flavour (this is probably because it is difficult to recreate the extremely hot temperatures of a bread oven in a conventional kitchen). Melt some of the fat off the bacon in a hot frying pan, then remove the bacon and soften the onions in the same pan for a couple of minutes. Top each round of dough with half of the onions and bacon and season with some salt and freshly ground black pepper.

For the crispiest results (unless you have a proper pizza oven) the Flammkuchen are best baked on a pizza stone – a large and thick ceramic tile that is preheated in the oven for at least 45 minutes. However, it is also fine to bake the Flammkuchen on a preheated baking sheet. It is easiest to transfer the raw Flammkuchen into the oven if you place the rolled dough on a chopping board covered with baking paper before you add the toppings. You can then pull the Flammkuchen with the paper directly from the board onto the hot stone or baking sheet.

Bake for about 10 minutes or until the edges are crispy and brown and the toppings are bubbling. Cut into pieces and eat straight away.

20 September 2011

Swabian onion tart - 'Zwiebelkuchen'

Zwiebelkuchen is a seasonal dish that can typically be found in the wine-growing regions of south-west Germany in early autumn. It is the perfect accompaniment to new wine, which is unfiltered grape juice in an early stage of fermentation with an alcohol content ranging from four to 11 percent. New wine, also known as Federweisser (white) or Federroter (red), is only available directly from wine producers and for a few weeks in September and October. This drink is traditionally served and consumed in the popular ‘Besenwirtschaften’, or ‘broom taverns’. These taverns are set up in the barns, garages or even living rooms of wine growers in the autumn, when they are allowed by law to serve their produce without a license for a short period of time. Traditionally, a broom is placed outside the building in order to signal that a tavern is open for business. In addition to wine simple savoury snacks are also served and the Zwiebelkuchen is a firm favourite. I have not been able to source new wine in the UK so far, but the tart also goes very well with a glass of chilled Riesling or a light red, such as a young Pinot Noir. It would probably also team up nicely with a good vintage cider!

The recipe below can be baked in a round form or in a rectangular tin. Choose the size of your tin depending on how deep you would like the onion filling to be. I have used a 32 cm tart form in the photo. The tart is best served warm but it also tastes good reheated on the next day.

For the dough:

20g fresh yeast (or 1 sachet dried)
250 g plain flour (you can also use whole wheat or spelt)
1 pinch sugar
1 tsp salt
50 g butter
150 ml warm water

For the filling:

600 g onions
40 g butter
1 tbsp plain flour
2 eggs
100 ml single cream or crème fraiche
Caraway seeds
80 g bacon lardons

Dissolve the yeast in the warm water and combine with all the other dough ingredients. Knead for a few minutes until you have a smooth and elastic ball. Leave the dough to rise in a covered bowl until it has doubled in size. Line your greased tin with the dough (not too thick, but not as thin as for pizza).

For the filling chop the onions into small squares. Cook slowly in the butter over a medium heat. The onions should become translucent, but they should not turn brown. It is important to take your time with this – make sure the onions are nice and soft.

When the onions are cooked, stir in the flour and leave to cool slightly. Add the cream and eggs and mix well. Season with salt and with some caraway seeds – make sure you taste the mixture as the onions require quite a lot of salt. Pour the filling into the tin and sprinkle with more caraway seeds and the bacon lardons. Dot with some extra butter, if you like. Bake at 200 degrees for 40-50 minutes.