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!