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.

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