Posts Tagged ‘Christmas’

Having A Crack At Making Pan Pepato

Monday, March 5th, 2012

One of my favourite Christmassy things is panforte and I, also, love Nurnberger lebkuchen.  It hails from Siena which is probably my favourite city in Italy.  There really is something special about sitting out in the Piazza del Campo, looking across the amphitheatre shape of the cobbled open across to the Palazzo Publico.  Perhaps it is all a bit too idyllic and I am lucky never to have seem the Palio with its crowds and thundering horses which would distract from this view.  Anyway Siena is the capital of panforte.

While I went on the hunt for a panforte recipe and came across a recipe for pan pepato, a peppered biscuit-cake.  In fact, it appears that the history of both panforte and pan pepato are intertwined, with both coming from the region – there are various stories as to whether pan pepato came first then was rejigged in 1879 to make a cake, panforte, in honour of a visit by Queen Margharita of Savoy, while others say panforte came first and Sister Berta fiddled with the recipe to make a more wholesome breadcake, pan pepato, when Siena was besieged in 1554.

Pan pepato is a chocolatey and spicy biscuit cake that is more similar in flavour and texture to lebkuchen than anyone seems to indicate.  This suggests to me that this style of sweet baked goods was pretty ubiquitous across Europe in the Middle Ages, as there is no raising agent in it as would be found in most modern biscuits.  Then in a similar vein to British Christmas items, it is heavy on those grocery items that were really expensive in the past – dried nuts, dried fruits and spices.  They also contain chocolate or cocoa, so probably could not have included these flavours before 1585 when the first commercial shipments of chocolate were recorded nor perhaps until the mid 17th century when cocoa became more freely available.

It is pretty easy to make and is a good use of lots of unusual spices, giving the cake a decently warming aftertaste from the black pepper and cubeb pepper while it has the festive flavours of cassia, nutmeg and cloves coming through.  I like it but it is definitely an adult treat – our kids were decidedly unimpressed and gave that classic “What is that, Dad?” look after the one mouse-like, little bite.

Panpetato Layered In Black And White

Panpepato Layered In Black And White

Note that some recipes suggest that you boil the sugar mix to the soft ball stage, but I did not need that at all, and question whether that is just a modern adjustment to the recipe, e.g Waitrose, but these exclude chocolate and use cocoa instead.

Ingredients

75g / 2½oz sultanas
25g / ¾oz dried figs, chopped into sultana sized pieces
125g / 3½oz hazelnuts
125g / 3½oz almonds
50g / ¾oz pine nuts, chopped
100g / 3½oz chopped mixed peel
100g / 3½oz plain dark chocolate, chopped into medium sized chunks
200g / 7oz runny honey
2tbsp unsalted butter
80g / 2¾oz plain flour, sifted
1tsp ground black pepper
1tsp ground cassia (or ground cinnamon)
½tsp ground nutmeg
¼tsp ground cloves
¼tsp ground cubeb pepper
1tbsp icing sugar, sifted
1tsp pink peppercorns, crushed (optional)

The method

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F.

Boil the kettle and pour hot water over the sultanas and chopped figs to soak them.  Leave to infuse for 15 minutes, then drain.  I made a pot of strong black chai tea (you could use any strong black tea), and infuse them in this; it is not traditionally correct, but it worked well, or perhaps you could soak it overnight in a port or sweet white wine, ideally a vin santo.

Put the whole nuts on an ungreased baking tray at 180C/350F and toast for about 5 minutes, which will dry the skins.  Roll these in a clean tea towel for a couple of minutes to remove the skins.   Place the pine nuts on the baking tray and toast for about 3 minutes until they start to colour.  Leave all the nuts to cool down, then chop them roughly.

Turn the oven down to 170C/325F.  Lightly grease two baking trays; use the ones that you used earlier but make sure they have cooled down.

Tip the toasted chopped nuts, soaked fruit, mixed peel and ground spices into a mixing bowl.  Give them all a good stir to thoroughly mix it all together.

Weigh the runny honey in the saucepan, then add the unsalted butter.  Over a medium heat, heat these until the butter has melted.  Take off the heat, add the dark chocolate pieces and stir until all the chocolate has melted.

Pour the chocolate sauce into the nut-fruit mixing bowl and stir thoroughly.  Add the plain flour and mix everything together until it starts to clump.

Pan Pepato Arranged In A Tower

Pan Pepato Arranged In A Tower

Spoon the mix into 8 or 10 scoops, roll into balls then place each onto the greased baking tray.   Flatten the top of each of the balls until each is about 2½ cm thick (1 inch).

Bake for 20-25 minutes until firm.  Take from the oven and allow them to cool completely before removing them.

Dust the tops very generously with icing sugar.  Sprinkle with the crushed pink peppercorns if using them.

They will keep for many weeks and make good Christmas gifts.

A Little Bit About Myrrh

Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

I wrote some time back about gold and frankincense, so to complete the trio, here are some notes on myrrh.

Some religion

“Moreover the Lord spake unto Moses saying, take thou also unto thee principal spices, of pure myrrh five hundred shekels, and of sweet cinnamon half so much, even two hundred and fifty shekels, and of sweet calamus two hundred and fifty shekels, and of cassia five hundred shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary, and of oil an hin: and thou shalt make it an oil of holy ointment, an ointment compound after the art of the apothecary: it shall be an holy anointing oil.” Exodus 30: 22-25

“And when the wise men were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” St. Matthew 2: 11

“And they gave him to drink wine mingled with myrrh: but he received it not.”* St. Mark 15: 23

“And there came also Nicodemus, which at the first came to Jesus by night, and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred weight.  Then took they the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury.” St. John 19: 39-32

[Note: there any references to myrrh in the Bible but not in the Koran, but can it be found in other religious texts? Should someone know, I would like to include other examples]

The gifts given to Christ by the Magi are symbols for his life, being gold for royalty, frankincense for holiness and myrrh for suffering.  Even today the first two still are symbols for power and religion, but myrrh is much less well known now yet is used to a very limited in medicines.  But what is myrrh?

Some details

There are a few myrrh-type oleo-gum-resins produced in Arabia and Somalia from the Commiphora genus, all of which were probably lumped together as myrrh in ancient times and still are used to adulterate modern day myrrh.  C. myrrha is the chief source of myrrh today, while C. erythraea was probably the “ntyw” (myrrh) of the ancient Egyptians and the “scented myrrh” of Pliny.

Commiphora species are native trees of northeast tropical Africa in the region from Somalia to Egypt.  The myrrh trees form dwarfish thickets often with Acacia and Euphorbia.  And from a trade perspective, myrrh is mainly shipped through Aden, Djibouti, Massau and Port Sudan.

Common myrrh (C. myrrha) is a large shrub that grows to about 9ft.  Its branches are knotted with branchlets that are pointed and perpendicular to the main branches.  The trifoliate leaves are small and scanty, and are shed in the dry season.  It has whitish-gray bark that is filled with the myrrh oleo-gum-resin reservoirs, which is then collected by incisions of around 10cm (5 inches) being cut into the bark in much the same way as frankincense and rubber are tapped from other trees.

Myrrh Trees

Myrrh Trees

Myrrh Resin Tears On Myrrh Tree

Myrrh Resin Tears On Myrrh Tree

As the resin comes into contact with the air, it hardens into “tears”. Myrrh is a natural resin comprising: 3-8% essential oil, 30-60% water-soluble gum and 25-40% alcohol-soluble resins.  Myrrh has a reddish-brown colour, is hard to touch and has little aroma, but a mildy woody balsamic base note.  Myrrh burns readily with little smoke and gives off a white and pleasantly pungent aroma that is not as heady as frankincense.

Myrrh Tears

Myrrh Tears

Some ancient and modern business information

Myrrh has been used for incense and embalming since ancient times, with ancient Egypt importing large quantities as far back as 2500BCE.  Based on Pliny, myrrh comes from the western and west-central areas of South Arabia and in coastal Somaliland.  Per Pliny, the total production of myrrh in ancient times was approximately 450-600 tons per annum.  Pliny also states that the trees were incised twice every year to tap the myrrh resin, as well as mentioning that there were several kinds of myrrh with a wide range of prices from 3 – 50 denars a pound.

Much has been written about the trade routes for both frankincense and myrrh, however the detail is pretty much that these resins tapped into the general trading routes for general goods such as fish & pottery, and more exotic goods such as pearls (Oman), silks (China) and spices (India).  So after a land route to the major ports of Arabia, they went by sea to other major ports throughout Africa, Arabia and India then into the Mediterranean and by land to those places that could not be reached initially by sea.  These routes were intertwined and complex, so for example in ancient times, along these trade routes, cinnamon could move from Sri Lanka to Egypt to appease the gods after the death of Rameses III, and later throughout Arabia and the Mediterranean per Pliny with Petra at the centre of a global supply chain that stored and then distributed incense, silks and spices to feed demand from the Greek and Roman elite for luxury goods.

The aroma of myrrh is exotic, warm-balsamic and sweet and when fresh spicy-aromatic, sharp and pungent.  As such, myrrh is used by perfumiers as a flavour in Oriental-spicy perfumes and for woody bases, forest notes and pine fragrances.  Myrrh blends really well with geranium, musk, patchouli and woody spices and some strong floral bases such as rose.  For example, myrrh is used in branded perfumes like Fidji by Guy Laroche, KL by Karl Lagerfeld, Le Jardin by Max Factor and Gianni Versace by Charles of the Ritz.  In ancient times, myrrh was used as a base for perfumes that were used by royalty, so for example it was used as a fragrance (Song of Solomon 1:13, 5:5; Esther 2:12) and in Egypt by Hatshepsut, as well as gifts to Amenhotep and Akhnaton.

While myrrh defeated the inventive Heston Blumenthal in his “Perfect Christmas” programme, it is used in some products as a flavouring, for example toothpastes, mouthwashes, gargles and mouthsprays.  In these, myrrh is characterised by an acrid-aromatic taste that works well against clove, eucalyptus, mint, thyme and other cleansing and medicinal flavours.  It is interesting that some herbalists use tincture of myrrh as an astringent for the mucous membranes of the mouth and throat, which is similar to how it used in oral hygiene.

From a culinary perspective, Pliny points to the spicing of wine with myrrh among the Romans (catissima apud priscos vina erarit murrae odore condita; Pliny, Nat. Hist. 14.92), acting as a preservative and imparting a slightly bitter taste.  Also, wine is still mixed with resins (retsina in Greece), spices (mulled wine across Europe), and some wine can taste like burnt tyres (Chateau Musar White to my palate) but is still drunk; in life now, we all have different tastes and in the developed world we probably eat and drink less bitter foods and drink than in other parts of the world and perhaps should for our health, veering to sweet and salty foods.  In fact, Roman wine would have been highly aromatic as wine amphorae were lined with a resin from pine trees, so imparting a distinctive flavour to some of the long-hauled wine in the Roman Empire, which is basis for retsina idea today.

However, it was also mixed with wine for medicinal reasons.  Myrrh’s medicinal use in ancient times included 54 references to its use in Hippocratic literature.  Per Wikipedia, myrrh is used for blood ailments because of its purported blood-moving properties (Chinese medicine) and as a tonic in Ayurvedic medicine [interestingly Ayurvedic medicine has it as contraindicated for uterine problems, which are specifically promoted as a positive area by Chinese medicine].  The mixing with wine may simply be a red herring, with wine being the simplest method for dissolving the myrrh before using it as a medicine and takes about 10 minutes to dissolve in wine, within which time it has not dissolved in water.  So one finds it is used to cure wounds (Herodotus 7.181), as a soporific (Pliny, Nat. Hist. 34.140), or mixed with other substances as an analgesic (Columella 6.38; Pliny 28.179 and 29.137), but these qualities are not particularly strong.  But when mixed with wine it makes the wine unpalatable tasting like vinegar, so perhaps it could have been a cruel joke for someone gasping for a drink.

Finally, it was also used in embalming in Egypt and the region, being quoted by Herodotus as an ingredient for the most expensive embalming techniques.

* It is interesting to note that in the Babylonian Talmud wine is mixed with frankincense not myrrh, and it was given by the women of Jerusalem for those condemned to death to numb the senses – “Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto the bitter in soul.”

References – general

van Beek (1958) Frankincense and Myrrh in Ancient South Arabia, Journal of the American Oriental Society, 78 (3), 141 – 152, Boston, USA

van Beek, G. (1960) Frankincense and Myrrh, The Biblical Archaeologist, 23 (3), 70-95, Boston, USA

Koskenniemi, E., Nisula, K., Toppan, J. (2005) Wine mixed with Myrrh (Mark 15.23) and Crurifragium (John 19.31-32): Two Details of the Passion Narratives, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 27.4, 379-389, London, UK

Tucker, A. O. (1986) Frankincense and Myrrh, Economic Botany 40 (4), 425-433, New York, USA

Wikipedia (not dated), Myrrh, published on the Internet at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myrrh (Downloaded December 2011)

Give Some Time And Make Some Christmas Sweets

Friday, December 23rd, 2011

In this festive period, we have been asked out to various families for drinks, or the kids out to parties.  And the question always is what to give people in a period of giving.  So yesterday, the kids and I spent a happy day making sweets, much as we have done before.  So there was a kitchen full or sugar, ground almonds and the smell of chocolate.  Our clothes were covered in the light white snow of icing sugar and there was a healthy crunch of caster sugar beneath our feet on the kitchen tiles.

Our Kitchen Table Covered In Homemade Sweets

Our Kitchen Table Covered In Homemade Sweets

But why bother, when you can buy sweets in the shops.  And where they are way cheaper as well – excluding the ingredients, our time would cost each sweet at about 50p, and that’s sweet and not box of sweets.  The answer is in part that they taste much nicer as we use better ingredients like organic Fairtrade sugar, and are much more generous in the luxury components like chocolate and vanilla.  But also, it is the giving of our time.

In an age where everyone claims to be so time poor, giving excuses like I am far too busy to play with my children or cook a meal from scratch or to make sweets or bake, what is more generous than giving over some time to make something for friends and family.  And they taste pretty damn delicious as well.  Think if I were a hedge fund manager or big corporate fat cat, I could perhaps even get the cost per sweet up to £18 or more per chunk of fudge – think how generous my time would be then.

So I say, please give some time and make something for your friends and family and show how generous you can be by releasing some of your precious time to show how much you love and care.

Enough of that and down to the nitty-gritty, we made marzipan kugeln (or marzipan balls dipped in milk chocolate), peppermint creams (shaped as circles and stars and dipped in chocolate), milk chocolate shapes (Merry Christmas tablets, santas and stars), vanilla fudge and chocolate fudge.  There was something about the fudge that made it extra soft and velvety this year and less crystalline and tablet like.  I think it was the patience and extra diligence over the stirring, but it could just have been the recipe, which was tweaked for the ingredients I had to hand.

Homemade Chocolate Fudge

900g / 2lb caster sugar
100g / 3¼oz unsalted butter
1 large tin of evaporated milk (410g/ 14½oz)
¼ of evaporated milk tin of cold water
250g / 9oz milk chocolate

Prepare a tin, by lining the base with some baking parchment.  We use a 2cm (½ inch) deep pan that is 30cm by 20cm (12 inch x 8 inch).

Put the caster sugar, unsalted butter, evaporated milk and cold water into a heavy bottomed pan.  Put the pan over a medium heat and with a wooden spoon stir the mixture until it is fully dissolved.  While the sugar mixture is melting, melt the milk chocolate over a pan of boiling water, then when melted switch off but keep warm by keeping over the pan.

Turn up the heat a tad and let the sugar mixture boil rapidly, stirring consistently all the while.  When the mixture reaches the soft-ball stage (114C/238F), remove from the heat immediately.  I reckon this part takes around 20 minutes, but many books seem to claim it is much quicker.  Now you need to vigorously stir the mixture until it starts to thicken and begins to become rough – this takes 10 to 15 minutes and is quite tiring on the old arms.

Pour the fudge mixture into the baking tray, smooth over with a spatula.  Then using a sharp knife, cut the fudge into whatever sized cubes you want.

Leave to cool for 3 hours, then turn out of the baking tray, break off the fudge pieces, eating a few along the way to ensure the taste and texture are spot on, then put into an airtight container or some pretty gift boxes for pressies.

Homemade Chocolate Fudge In Gift Box

Homemade Chocolate Fudge In Gift Box

Recipe For Nurnberger Christmas Cookies – German Lebkuchen

Saturday, December 17th, 2011

Following on from the spekulatius blog, we have been having fun trying to make German lebkuchen cookies.

There really is something Christmassy about the spices used in these Christmas biscuits – it’s that glorious mix of cinnamon, nutmeg and that extra richness from the cloves.  Everything about Christmas smells seems to revolve around cloves whether it is the Christmas cake, lebkuchen cookies or making your pomander.  And cloves are such a tricky spice that can completely overpower many spice blends, but seem to conjur up the right flavour for this festive period.

After a few goes at this recipe, this is where we have gotten to this year, but just like for the spekulaas I need to invest in some festive cookie shapes for next year.  Also, I think it would work well with a light chocolate glaze as an alternative to the icing sugar glaze.

Christmas Cookies

Christmas Lebkuchen Cookies

Lebkuchen Recipe

Working On The Lebkuchen Recipe

Working On The Lebkuchen Recipe

The ingredients bit:

250g / 9oz / 1¾ cups plus 1tbsp organic plain flour
85g / 3oz / ¾ cup ground almonds
2½tsp Steenbergs lebkuchen spice mix*
1tsp baking powder
½tsp bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
175ml / ¾ cup clear honey (or golden syrup)
85g / 3oz softened unsalted butter
½tbsp lemon juice (this is lemon from ½ lemon)
½ lemon, finely grated zest (or combine to 1 lemon zested)
½ orange, finely grated zest
Some flaked or half blanched almonds (optional)

For the icing:

100g / 4oz / 1 cup icing sugar (confectioners’ sugar)
1 egg white, beaten

The recipe part:

Sieve the dry ingredients into a large bowl.

Warm the honey and butter in a pan over a low heat until the butter melts, then pour these into the flour mixture.  Add the lemon juice and lemon & orange zest.  Mix well with a hand held whisk until the dough is throughly combined.  Cover and leave to cool overnight, or for at least 2 hours. to let the flavours meld together and work that festive magic.

Heat oven to 180C/ 350F / Gas Mark 4.

Roll the lebkuchen dough in your hands into around 25 balls, each 3cm wide (1 inch wide), then flatten each one slightly into a disc.  Into the centre of the discs, place an almond flake. 

Divide the lebkuchen mixture between 3 baking trays lined with baking parchment, or ideally with an edible baking paper, with a decent amount of room for them to expand into.

Bake for 13 – 15 mins, or until when touched lightly no imprint remains, then cool on a wire rack.  While still warm, glaze the lebkuchen with the icing glaze, made as below.

Brush The Lebkuchen With Glazing Icing

Brush The Lebkuchen With Glazing Icing

While the cookies are baking, make your glazing icing: mix together the icing sugar and egg white to form a smooth, runny icing.

Brush the top of each biscuit with the glazing icing.  Leave to dry out.  I then glazed the top of the icing to give the lebkuchen a shinier lustre, but this is optional.

For the glaze, I took 100g (½ cup) caster sugar and 50ml (¼ cup) of water, melting these in a pan.  Then, I boiled the mix to 90C/200F, when I added 15g (1 tablespoon) of icing sugar.  This glaze was then bushed over the icing.  Granted that it is extra fussy, but then it is Christmas.

You should ideally, allow these Christmas cookies to mellow.  To do this, you should store the lebkuchen in an airtight container for a day or two to allow the flavours to mellow and the cookies to become softer.  To improve the flavours, you could include a few pieces of sliced orange or lemon, but make sure that they are not touching the lebkuchen as this will make them soggy and change the fruit every day to stop them going stale or mouldy.

* To make your own lebkuchen spice mix: ¼tsp ground cloves, ½tsp allspice powder, ½tsp nutmeg powder, 1¼tsp cinnamon

Recipe For Speculaas Biscuits – A Dutch Christmas Treat

Sunday, December 11th, 2011

One of my favourite Christmas cookies are spekulatius biscuits, or speculaas as they are called in the Netherlands.  I remember we always used to get a special parcel from Lebkuchen Schmidt in Nürmberg from my Granny.  In amongst all the beautiful tins and lebkuchen would be a few packs of their spekulatius cookies.  I loved their different shapes.

Then yesterday, our children had friends around before the School Christmas Disco, so to give them something creative to do between the pronouncements of “we’re bored – when is the party”, I made some spiced cookie dough using our Steenbergs koekkruidden spice mix and left the kids to cut out shapes.  Here are the recipes we tried; they are remarkably simple to make and the spice mix brings on those classic clove heavy aromas of the festive season.

Speculaas recipe – version 1

A Few Speculaas On A Plate

A Few Speculaas On A Plate

Ingredients

200g / 7oz self-raising flour
100g / 3½ oz light brown caster sugar
100g / 3½ oz softened butter
2-3 tbsp full milk
3tsp koekkruiden spices*
½ tsp baking powder
Zest of half an orange

For the top:

1 egg white, beaten
3tsp light brown caster sugar
2tbsp flaked almonds 

Preheat the oven to 180C/ 350F. Grease a baking tray.

Mix together all the ingredients in a mixer or blender until throughly mixed together.  Shape the dough into a ball and cover the dough ball with clingfilm and set aside for 1 hour in a cool place.

Flour a work surface and press the dough into an even, flat layer.  Using a cutter, cut shapes from the dough and place on the greased baking tray.

Brush with the egg white, then sprinkle with light brown caster sugar and flaked almonds on top of each speculaas biscuit.

Bake for 14-18 minutes and the biscuits are turning a slightly darker shade of brown. Remove from the baking sheet and allow to cool on a cooling rack.

Speculaas Recipe – Version 2

This recipe for St Nicholas Spiced Shortbread is based on a recipe from Elisabeth Luard’s excellent book – “European Festival Food”.  In it, Elisabeth Luard writes “Speculaas moulds themselves are made of wood – traditionally beech, pear, or walnut – shallow and relief-carved on the same principle as those used for Scottish shortbread.  They are usually 6 – 12 ins/15 – 30cm long and feature the Bishop himself, his donkey, or his servant Black Peter.  Smaller ones might be evergreen leaves and Christmas wreaths or little figures of children.”  We had none of these so just used normal cookie cutters, but I might invest in something for next year as these are really easy to make.

Round Christmas Cookies

Round Christmas Cookies - Speculaas

Ingredients

250g / 8½ oz self raising flour
125g / 4½ oz light brown caster sugar
3tsp koekkruiden spice mix*
50g / 1¾ oz ground almonds
100g / 3½ oz softened butter
1 egg, lightly whisked
1tbsp full milk

For the top:

1 egg white, beaten
3tsp light brown caster sugar
Flaked almonds
 (I bashed them a bit in a mortar and pestle to make them a better shape)

Preheat the oven to 180C/ 350F. Grease a baking tray.

Mix together all the ingredients in a mixer or blender until throughly mixed together.  I used the “K” blade on the Kenwood Mixer.  Shape the dough into a ball and cover the dough ball with clingfilm and set aside for 1 hour in a cool place.

Flour a work surface and press the dough into an even, flat layer.  Using a cutter, cut shapes from the dough and place on the greased baking tray.

Brush with the egg white, then sprinkle with light brown caster sugar and flaked almonds on top of each speculaas biscuit.

Bake for 14 – 18 minutes and the cookies are turning a slightly darker shade of brown. Remove from the baking sheet and allow to cool on a cooling rack.

* To make your own koekkruidden spice mix: ½tsp ground cloves, ½tsp allspice powder, 1tsp cardamom powder, 1tsp cinnamon

Review Of December 2010 Food Blogs (Part 2)

Sunday, January 16th, 2011

At Mahanandi, Indira shared some innovative menu ideas for the Christmas Season, or holiday season as it is called in America – see Menu 1 and Menu 2.  Maison Cupcake was cupcake decorating in a Masterclass in Islington’s The Make Lounge with Mich Turner and I love the recipe for Sweet And Savoury Spiced Nuts at Not Without Salt as they remind me of delicious toasted almonds that I used to get all warm and wrapped in cones of paper from street vendors in Munich.  Also at Not Without Salt in December Ashley posted a Quick Puff Pastry recipe that makes me feel so inadequate as I do not have light enough hands for something as delicate as that, while the post on Homemade Truffles reminds me of promises made to myself and not fulfilled – there is always this year, I suppose.

Orangette posted a neat recipe for Whole Wheat Sablés With Cacoa Nibs.  Sablés are another thing that I really should make and maybe I will during 2011.  At Smitten Kitchen, Deb has been active baking loads of cookies, mostly baking with a Christmas theme like Roasted Chestnut Cookies, Iced Oatmeal Cookies and the most amazing Spiced Gingerbread Cookies that have been so beautifully created.  Savoury wise, Deb made classic Garlic Butter Roasted Mushrooms.

At The Pioneer Woman Cooks, I like Ree Drummond’s recipes for Mulligatawny Soup and Spinach Soup With Gruyere.  Then Ree gets into that Christmas spirit with Lia’s Dark Chocolate Truffles, including several photos of how to make a delicate chocolate butterfly from dark chocolate.  Then there are some offbeat ideas for the Christmas period including recipes for Meatballs With Peppers And Pineapple and Steak Au Poivre, but then in America they get the turkey over at Thanksgiving. 

At The Wednesday Chef, Luisa Weiss makes panforte which is one of those delicacies that I love, enjoying the familar chewy texture and nutty tastes, but perhaps I would settle for candied orange peel rather than quince.  I must admit that it is not something that I ever considered making, but maybe that is another good intention that I can put on my ever expanding list of things I would love to make, but never quite manage to get round to.  And at Wild Yeast, there is a recipe for Candied Lemon Peel which can easily be tweaked for orange, so now I have all the tools to make candied peel in 2011. 

Promises, promises…

Countdown To Christmas

Saturday, December 11th, 2010

It is that time of the year again when I start panicking that I have not got everything ready for Christmas.  What have you forgotten?  No presents bought that is for sure, but the thought and desire is there.  Soon, I feel myself say, there’s still plenty of time. 

The organic turkey has been ordered from Copas via our local village shop, The Smithy in BaldersbyChristmas cake made, but I must make the marzipan and also ice it.  Christmas pudding made for us, my parents and good friends.  Recipe for mincemeat tweaked and new batch of mincemeat made and stirred last weekend with heavenly, boozy smells.  The crib scene has been put out.  I must remember to get the Christmas tree this weekend otherwise we will end out with a scraggly twig like the last few years.  Our daughter’s nativity play watched and enjoyed, where Emily played the part of Mary, which she has been bursting to have forever.  Pantomine booked and to be watched in New Year at Newcastle Theatre Royal: Robin Hood with the fabulous father-son team of Clive Webb and Danny Adams. Lebkuchen from Schmidt & Co in Nuremburg ordered and received.  Treats from Forman & Field ordered and received.

I think I will just marzipan the cake now and try and stop worrying about it.

Wooden Crib Scene

Wooden Crib Scene

Beautiful German Biscuits From Lebkuchen Schmidt In Nuremburg

Beautiful German Biscuits From Lebkuchen Schmidt In Nuremburg

Forman & Field Box Of Christmas Food

Forman & Field Box Of Christmas Food

Recipe For German Stollen

Sunday, November 21st, 2010

My mother is German, our family coming originally from Eastern Germany; in fact, my maternal great great grandfather’s family were from even further east in modern Poland, being a headmaster for a school in Gdansk

Slices Of Homemade Stollen

Slices Of Homemade Stollen

As a result, one of my favourite treats has always been stollen and lebkuchen which my grandmother used to send us from Lebkuchen Schmidt in Nurnburg.  Everything came in gorgeous decorated tins or beautifully covered in pretty wrapping. It really was one of those magical things about my Christmases when I was young, but the mystery has gone a bit now that you can buy versions from Marks & Spencer through to Lidl, even if the quality just is not there; in the same way, Niederegger marzipan was a special treat, yet is now ubiquitous, and we used to get a 10 inch bar covered in chocolate, from which we used to cut off small slices to eat like manna.  As I said earlier, ours used to come from Lebkuchen Schmidt and I have treated myself to a pack this year, so fingers crossed that will arrive by Christmas (the wonders of the world wide web and its power to connect).

But I really felt that I could/ should have a crack at making homemade stollen as, unlike the lebkuchen, this is something (a) I ought to be able to make; (b) the treat factor in stollen is less great.   For reference, I used three books: Delia Smith’s “Christmas”, Christine Ingram and Jennie Shapter’s “Bread” and my other favourite Elisabeth Luard’s “European Peasant Cookery”, with “Bread” used as the key recipe.  Interestingly, modern stollen (or shop bought stollen) has morphed into a relatively dry, sweet fruit cake with some marzipan in it and smothered in icing sugar (nor is it a rich fruit cake like Christmas cake or Yorkshire brack, but quite plain), which is not the real thing which should be an enriched bread; the best locally made stollen cake comes from Bettys & Taylors, which is worth treating yourself to. 

Recipe For German Stollen
 
75g / 3oz / ½ cup organic sultanas
50g / 2oz / ¼ cup organic currants
3tbsp strong black tea or Steenbergs Christmas chai
375g / 13oz / 3¼ cup strong bread flour
Pinch sea salt
50g / 2oz / ¼ cup Fairtrade caster sugar
1tsp Steenbergs stollen spice (or ¼ tsp ground cardamom, ¼ tsp allspice powder and ½ tsp cinnamon powder)
40g / 1½ oz fresh yeast (or half the amount of dried yeast)
120ml / 4fl oz / ½ cup lukewarm full milk
50g / 2oz / ¼ cup unsalted butter, melted
1 medium egg, lightly beaten
55g / 2oz / ⅔ cup organic mixed peel
50g / 2oz / ⅓ cup blanched whole almonds, chopped roughly
Melted butter, for dusting
Icing sugar for dusting

For the marzipan: 

115g / 4oz / 1 cup organic ground almonds
50g / 2 oz / ¼ cup organic Fairtrade caster sugar
50g / 2oz / ¼ cup organic icing sugar
½ tsp natural almond extract
½ tsp lemon juice
½ medium egg, lightly beaten

Weigh out the organic sultanas and currants, then sprinkle the tea over these and leave to soak up the liquid until you need them later.  Sift the bread flour and salt together into a large bowl, then add the sugar and stollen spices and mix thoroughly together.

Tip In The Stollen Spice Mix

Tip In The Stollen Spice Mix

Put the yeast into a small bowl and pour over the lukewarm milk, breaking up the yeast with a fork and mixing to a creamy emulsion.  Make a well in the flour and pour the yeast mix into this and cover the liquid over with a bit of flour.  Cover the bowl with some cling film and leave in a warm place for 30 minutes.  This stage gets the yeast active and growing.

Leave The Yeast To Start Dividing

Leave The Yeast To Get Active

Next, we make the rich bread batter.  Add the melted butter and whisked egg and mix together to a soft dough.  Tip the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 10 minutes until the dough has a smooth, elastic texture.  Put the dough into a lightly oiled mixing bowl, cover with clingfilm and leave in a warm place to rise.  This will take 2 – 3 hours and you are after it doubling in size; I left mine close to a warm fire and it doubled in about 1 hour, but be careful about the warmth as the ideal temperature is about 37C, i.e. human body temperature – too low and it will expand slowly, but if it gets too hot, you will kill off the yeast (that is also why the milk should be tepid or touch tepid).

Add The Melted Butter And Whisked Egg To The Bread Batter

Add The Melted Butter And Whisked Egg To The Bread Batter

Knead The Enriched Dough

Knead The Enriched Dough

While the dough is rising, you should make the marzipan.  This is one of those mega-simple recipes where you simply mix all the ingredients together and knead to a soft, smooth paste.  When made, put in the fridge until you need it. 

When the dough has risen sufficiently, take the marzipan out of the fridge, then tip the dough onto a lightly floured surface and punch (knock back) the risen flour.  Flatten and roll the dough to 1 inch thick;. pour over the sultanas, currants, mixed peel and chopped almonds.  Fold over the dough and press and gently knead the dough until all the fruits have become incorporated.  Now roll out the dough to an oval shape about a foot long (30 x 23cm / 12 x 9 inches), then slightly depress the centre with the rolling pin to make it thinner like a crease on a card.  Roll the marzipan to a long thin sausage shape and place it into the slight depression on the dough, leaving a short space at either end.  Fold over the dough, so that it covers the marzipan and gently seal the edges. 
 
Place The Marzipan Roll On The Dough

Place The Marzipan Roll On The Dough

Place the loaf on a prepared baking tin that has been lightly oiled and cover with some oiled clingfilm.  Leave in a warm place to rise to double the volume again, which should take about 60 minutes.
Prepared Loaf Ready For Second Rising

Prepared Loaf Ready For Second Rising

Preheat the oven to 200C/ 400F.  Bake the stollen loaf for about 30 minutes until it is brown and it sounds hollow when tapped.  While warm, brush the surface with some melted butter and leave to cool.  When cool, dust it with icing sugar. 

Sprinkle Icing Sugar Over The Baked Stollen

Sprinkle Icing Sugar Over The Baked Stollen

 

Traditional Mincemeat Recipe

Sunday, November 14th, 2010

I am winning with Christmas food preparations this year, which seems unbelievable considering how little time I seem to have to do anything at the moment;. I am running about one week behind last year.  However, as a man who cooks, I do actually find baking strangely therapeutic and calming at the weekend.  I think it gives me some peace and quiet, allowing my thoughts to settle themselves down after a hectic week at Steenbergs, and this week has been one of those business nightmare weeks.

So Christmas cake was baked 2 weekends ago, Christmas pudding last weekend and this weekend I have made a new batch of mincemeat.  I always make a mammoth sized Christmas cake and extra Christmas puds, giving one to my parents and another to some great friends of ours, both of whom deserve just a little something for their help during the year.  As for the mincemeat, I have usually made one that does not include any sugar as I feel the dried fruit, apple and juices are usually sweet enough, however after some gentle prompting last year, I thought I would try a more traditional version and add some sugar, which is what I did this morning. 

Basically, it is my normal mincemeat recipe with the addition of 250g / 8oz dark molasses sugar from Billingtons crumbled into it and a reduced amount of apple as it seems to ferment a little over time.  Still simple and easy, so my old recipe is now called the “No Added Sugar Mincemeat Recipe” and this will become our “Traditional Mincemeat” recipe.  It really is worth the effort making this as it is really just a case of chucking some ingredients together and leaving to develop flavour over the short time to Christmas.

Ingredients 

175g/ 6oz raisins (Organic and/or Fairtrade if possible)
175g/ 6oz sultanas (Organic and/or Fairtrade if possible)
250g/ 8oz currants (Organic and/or Fairtrade if possible)
85g/ 3oz chopped mixed peel
85g/ 3oz flaked almonds, toasted
125g/ 4oz eating apples (Cox’s are good), cored and chopped but not peeled
125g/ 4oz shredded suet (I  use Community Wholefood’s vegetarian suet, but Atora also do one)
250g / 8oz dark muscovado sugar  (Organic and/or Fairtrade if possible)
1tsp organic Fairtrade nutmeg powder
½ tsp allspice powder
½ rounded tsp organic Fairtrade cinnamon powder
Grated rind and juice of 1 orange (or 50:50 orange and lemon)
75ml/ 1/8 pint “good” whisky or brandy (I use Bruichladdich from Islay)

1.  If possible, use organic ingredients and/or Fairtrade ingredients, as they are good for the environment and the communities that grow the crops.

2.  Simply mix all the ingredients together and seal in a large tub, or ideally a bucket with a lid.

Ingredients For Mincemeat Weighed Out

Ingredients For Mincemeat Weighed Out

Mix The Dark Muscovado Sugar Into The Fruit And Nuts

Mix The Dark Muscovado Sugar Into The Fruit And Nuts

Traditional Mincemeat All Mixed Up

Traditional Mincemeat All Mixed Up

3.  Stir it once or twice in the maturation period – at the end of November and maybe mid December.  Pot it up into a couple of good sized Kilner-style jars on or about the 20th December.

4.  It lasts for a good 2 – 3 years, so don’t worry if you haven’t used it all in one Christmas period.  It is good to use in baked apples or to make a quick mincemeat tart for pudding anytime in the year.

Follow the frankincense trail

Sunday, February 7th, 2010
A Bedouin checks a frankincense tree

A Bedouin checks a frankincense tree

With deft strokes, a Bedouin chips away the grey, papery bark, then smoothes a green patch the size of your hand on the tree; it’s a scrubby, scraggly and unpretentious tree.  As if by magic, milky white tears of gum-resin start welling up in the freshly made green wound.

The Bedouin moves to another tree continuing his harvest.  At some of the trees, the Bedouin man finds trees that he has recently tapped and from these he removes handfuls of precious sap that has now hardened to a golden hue – this is frankincense, one of the world’s most precious substances that is now so rarely used in the developed world.

The trees that the Bedouin would have tapped are Boswellia sacra and we were in an imaginary walk through the fabled frankincense groves of Oman’s desert plateau that borders the green mountains of Dhofar.  This is where the best frankincense is grown as this is where the ideal conditions are – a steady tropical sun, pale limestone soil and an heavy dew from the monsoon.

Omani frankincense has a subtle aroma of balsam that recalls distant shrines or northern pine forests.  The trade in frankincense struggles like many of the ancient spice and ingredients trades as they are hard work for the money that you can make – in the Middle East, young men would rather work in the oil fields rather than the frankincense fields, while in Sri Lanka, young men would rather work in a bank than learn to prepare cinnamon bark.

Chunks of frankincense

Chunks of frankincense

From these chunks of golden resin, a whole economy flourished along the frankincense trail, from ancient Arabia to distant Greece and Rome.  On the back of the camel, this river of incense built up fabled kingdoms with names that have a haunting romantic quality and litter the texts of the Bible – Main, Hadramawt, Nabataea, Saba (of the fabled Queen of Sheba) and Qataban.

These ancient city states had their own languages, their own histories, their own law and religions, their own art and architecture and they created dams and irrigation to develop agriculture to feed their peoples and water systems to provide pure, luscious water for their people.  Then their kingdoms collapsed before slipping into the dust of ancient history, becoming forgotten tales and monuments (like at Petra) for tourists to gawp at.

The Egyptians used the “perfume of the gods” for temple rites and as a base for perfumes; frankincense is first recorded on the tomb of Queen Hatshepsut from the 15th century BC, where it says that she had sent an expedition to the land of Punt (perhaps in Somalia) to go and get some frankincense.  In 450BC, Herodotus, the Greek Father of History, mentioned the aromatics of Arabia – “The whole country is scented with them and exhales an odour marvellously sweet.”  In the Roman world, incense perfumed cremation rites and Nero lavished a whole year’s production of frankincense on the funeral of his consort, Poppaea.

The trade in frankincense nowadays is obscure and a very small niche, but in 100 – 200AD, Southern Arabia sent over 3,000 tons every year along the frankincense trail to Greece and Rome.

The Hadramawat city of Shibam

The Hadramawat city of Shibam

This 2400 mile trail began in Hadramawt in South Yemen around the ancient of Sabota.  Pliny the Elder wrote “Frankincense…is conveyed to Sabota on camels…The Kings have made it a capital offence for camels so laden to turn aside from the high road”.  The camels would have collected the frankincense from the valley of Wadi Hadramawt with its cities, Shibam, Sayun and Tarim.  From Sabota, the camel trains would go to Qana for shipment overseas and trading with India for spices or north to Timna and then through Saba, the ancient kingdom of Sheba.  After Marib, they would travel to Main and then to Mecca, al Medina and finally to Petra, where the ancient Nabatean Kingdom traded incense and spices with the Roman Empire.

Was it from one or more of these ancient frankincense kingdoms, that the magi brought their wisdom and their gifts worthy of a prince.  Along the trail, the caravans would collect myrrh, salt and indigo.  For the Magi, frankincense symbolised divinity, an offering equal in importance to gold and myrrh.

Today, the best frankincense comes from Oman, with Hadramawt long gone as the centre of the trade.  Frankincense is also grown in India, Somalia and the Yemen.