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 Nonnenf├╝rzle, 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).