Category Archives: Biscuits, cookies

Speculaas for St Nicholas’s day

Totoro speculaas

Our Dutch friend Annely told us about speculaas a few years ago. They are the spiced biscuits traditionally eaten in the Netherlands and Belgium for St Nicholas’s day, Sint Nicolaas, Sinterklaas, on 6 December. They’re also, apparently, eaten in Germany at Christmas itself.

When I say “spiced biscuit”, what I mean basically is gingerbread. They’re all related these spiced feast day biscuits. What made speculaas interesting for me wasn’t just the recipe or spice blend – predominantly ginger and cinnamon, and possibly some quantities of nutmeg, coriander, cardamom, anise and white pepper depending on your family’s or your local baker’s recipe. No, it was more the way they’re made.

Traditionally, the dough is rolled into a wooden mould, the excess cut away, then it’s tapped hard – to free the dough, which takes on the stamp from the mould. The stamps can be ornate figures of men and women, as well as animals, windmills, and, of course, clogs. Such moulds can be purchased online, here and here for example. Maybe we’ll invest in a few moulds for next year; this year, it’s miscellaneous cookie cutters and Totoro (and Chibi and Chu, too).

I’m even more excited about this because while I was doing this recipe, with Fran making a few batches, I had a child-free chance to visit my local library. I was researching a fabulous local building and its clock tower, but in a book called Memories of Old Sussex by Lillian Candlin I found a chapter called Fair Gingerbread. This was all about the spice biscuits historically sold across the county at fairs, when gifted called “fairings”. One blog I read about speculaas said the figures could be given during courtship. I can imagine this happening with Sussex fairings too.

Candlin says they were patterned or shaped as “effigies” – ie figures. “The wooden moulds that were used for stamping ginger-bread are now museum pieces.” I must see if any are still on display in Brighton museum, as they’re very similar to those used to make speculaas. She mentions moulds of the “Duke of Wellington on horseback, all complete with sword and pistol; a solemn looking cat and a grandfather clock.” And then there’s this one, from Horsham, which appears to show a cockerel sitting on some trousers.

Horsham gingerbread mould

If I ever see such things in antique shops, I’ll know what they are now. Such a shame their use is another tradition we’ve lost in England.

Anyway, here’s a recipe for speculaas (the plural; singular speculaasjes). Frankly, I’m happier with it than my earlier gingerbread, as it’s got a nice snap: so long as it’s rolled thinly (thanks Fran). About 3mm. Tweak the spice mix to taste.

225g butter
300g light brown sugar
5g fine salt
80g milk – QB
500g plain flour
12g baking powder
15g cinnamon
10g ginger
2g ground cloves
A few grates of nutmeg
A pinch of white pepper
Flaked almonds & pearl sugar for decoration

1. Cream butter and sugar.
2. Add the salt and milk and blend. Note, the milk quantity is QB, as the Italians say – as much as you need. You might want to add a dash more.
3. Sieve the flour, baking powder and spice mix in then bring to a dough.
4. Form a ball, then wrap and rest – ideally for at least 12 hours but the results are fine if you want to do it sooner. Total dough is about 1200g – quite a lot. So you could freeze half.
5. Preheat the oven to 150C.

Raver sprinkles and rolls

6. Roll out the dough to about 3mm and cut with cookie cutters of choice. (If you have moulds, flour them and push in the dough. Cut away excess. Bash the mould on works surface to release the shape.)
7. Place on baking sheets lined with paper or mats.
8. Decorate as you wish with flaked almonds or nibbed sugar.
9. Bake for 30 minutes.
10. Leave to cool on a wire rack.

Oh, and etymology geeks – the name may derive from the Latin speculum. This means mirrror (in modern Italian, specchio… ah, that reminds me of via degli Specchi, the address of an old favourite haunt in Rome, Open Balandin, with its 50 or so craft beers). It’s a neat suggestion, as the mould’s stamp is then mirrored in the biscuit.


Oh 2. I realise my daughter’s hair looks a bit disreputable in the pic. I did brush it this morning, but well, she’d just got up from an afternoon nap when she was “helping” Fran make the biscuits. What I was more impressed with was her technique for sprinkling flour and rolling the dough. Go Raver, aged 2!


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Peanut butter buckwheat cookies

Peanut butter buckwheat cookies

Our kids are now three and two. The older one has a sweet tooth, the younger one isn’t too fussed. One thing they both do like is peanut butter. But not just any peanut butter, so I ended up in that situation where the shelf was littered with open jars of rejected spreads.

Now, nut butters are a great ingredient for cookies – eg here are some I made a few months ago. So that was the ideal solution for using up some of the extraneous stock. A quick browse of my cookbooks and good old Dan Lepard had a recipe for peanut butter cookies in Short and Sweet. His recipe uses wholemeal or spelt flour combined with rolled oats.  All ingredients I love, but I fancied making some buckwheat flour cookies, not because I’ve suddenly decided I can’t eat wheat or gluten, but just because buckwheat is yummy.

This is one of those great recipes that can handle tweaking. We did a batch that was half buckwheat, half plain flour, then I did another that was 100 per cent buckwheat. They worked very well. I reduced the sugar (as I always do) and used coconut sugar for one batch. Then in this one I used cocoa nibs and chocolate chips.

Peanut butter buckwheat cookies

200g peanut butter
125g unsalted butter, softened
125g caster sugar
140g soft brown sugar
8g vanilla essence
1 egg
250g buckwheat flour
6g baking soda
80g cocoa nibs
80g dark chocolate, chopped into rough chunks

1. Preheat the oven to 170C.
2. Prepare baking sheets by lining with parchment or silicone.
3. Put the peanut butter, butter and sugars in a large bowl and cream together until soft and light.
4. Beat in the egg and vanilla.
5. Sieve together the baking soda and flour then add to the bowl.
6. Add the nibs and chocolate and combine well.
7. Fall balls about the size of a walnut, around 30g each.
8. Place, spaced out, in the baking sheets.
9. Bake for about 15-20 minutes until nicely browned.
10. Allow to firm slightly on the sheets then move to a wire rack to finish cooling.

Enjoy. In our case, quite possibly in a playground or on a walk up the hill.


Filed under Baking, Biscuits, cookies

Chocolate chip nut butter cookies

Choc chip nut butter cookies

This one is based on a recipe by New Zealander Miles Kirby, published in Guardian Cook to coincide with the release of his book Caravan: Dining All Day. Kirby’s version is called salted chocolate and almond butter cookies. They’re basically a variation on the chocolate chip cookie theme, and I’m always up for those.

I’m not sure about the whole salted chocolate thing though. I can see the appeal of salted caramel, and used to Hoover up the caramello di galles – Welsh caramel, that is salted caramel from the idiosyncratic gelateria La Gourmandise down the road from our flat in Rome. Until he stopped doing it – not a popular flavour among the other locals, apparently.

But, salted chocolate? Hm. Last night I went to the Depot, the splendid newly opened independent cinema here in Lewes, which I visited last year when it was a building site. While there, I ate a whole bar of Los Angeles salted chocolate, a gift from my sister. It didn’t exactly win me over, but then it was maybe a bad combo with a pint of overly gassy Harvey’s Golden Bier on keg I bought from the bar. (My first pint of Harvey’s keg beer I think; kegs from Harvey’s are pretty new, breaking with years of cask and bottle-only tradition.)

So anyway, I decided against including the sea salt in my version of Kirby’s recipe. Also, his uses 200g almond butter. The jar I bought was an odd 170g. As we had a jar of peanut butter rejected by my son in the cupboard, I added some of that. Kirby says the recipe works well with any nut butter. We’re getting a whole variety in our cupboard now as we’re not allowed to put peanut butter in school lunches any more.

For the chocolate buttons I used Montezuma’s organic Giant Dark Chocolate buttons. The bag says they’re “58%”, but then the ingredients say they’re 44% cocoa mass. Which I don’t understand, and I’m too tired to try and get my head around it. They’re still a quality button and I’ve messaged Montezuma’s for an explanation. Hope they reply.* They should do, as I eat enough of their product. Me and Fran are addicted (not really) to their Milking Maid truffles at the moment, which is odd as I’m usually a dark choc kinda guy. I digress.

Kirby’s recipe also says, “In a stand mixer, combine the…” Does everyone own a stand mixer? I don’t. They’re hellish pricey and I’ve never been able to justify one or find the funds. Luckily, my increasingly decrepit hand blender has beater attachments. If you don’t have any of these things, you’ll just have to beat by hand. Use some calories before you consume some.

Kirby also said to divide the mixture into 12. Now, as the total dough weight was about 1200g, this would mean some pretty massive cookies, scaled at about 100g each. I pared mine down to about 50g, a good dollop shaped between two desert spoons, and they’re still pretty substantial. I also knocked back the sugar a little from the original recipe, something I do as a matter of course.

Choc chip nut butter cookies mix

200g unsalted butter, softened
200g almond butter, or a mix of nut butters
85g muscovado sugar
40g caster sugar
2 medium eggs, that is, about 115g egg, beaten
Pinch salt
10g baking powder
300g plain flour
30g cocoa powder
200g dark chocolate buttons

1. Preheat the oven to 170C and line some baking sheets with parchment or silicone.
2. Beat together the butter, sugars and nut butters.
3. Add the egg a little at a time and beat until smooth.
4. Sieve together the baking powder, flour and cocoa, then add to the mixture along with the pinch of salt.
5. Combine, along with the chocolate buttons.
6. Form into lumps as described above. How big you make them is, of course, your call.
7. Put the lumps on the baking sheets, flattening them somewhat. Space out as they spread a bit.
8. Bake for about 12-14 minutes.
9. Cool on wire racks.

Eat. The nut butter gives them a light, crumbly texture, but not so crumbly they fall apart when you touch them.

Note to self, next entry probably shouldn’t be more chocolate cookies. This isn’t just a chocolate cookie blog…

* They did. A lady called Jacqui Boyd-Leslie in customer services says, “The Cocoa Mass is 44% plus the Cocoa butter 15% which is 1% over but this is to cover any slight variation. This is a little confusing, the cocoa butter is also known as cocoa mass.”


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Some chocolate cookies from Modern Baker

Modern Baker choc cookies

The latest addition to my library of baking books is Modern Baker by Melissa Sharp and Lindsay Stark. They have a bakery in Oxford of the same name, founded by Sharp in part as a response to a health crisis1 she experienced. As such, the book ties in with the recent “clean eating” movement.

The bakery’s “concept is based on good provenance, great tasting food and promoting healthy living”. This is something I’m broadly in agreement with – provenance is hugely important, and I’m also someone who suspects modern industrial food production is at the core of the rise of food intolerance, allergies etc, not to mention diseases like diabetes that can arise from people eating far too much refined sugar in junk food. But at the same time I’m somewhat wary of “clean eating” as it’s so closely related to orthorexia nervosa. There’s a fine line between trying to eat well, and obsessing to the point where you’re rejecting foods perceived as unhealthy. This obsessiveness is orthorexia nervosa, a term coined in the late 1990s to describe a newly identified eating disorder.2

One notable, nay faddish, food issue that’s prevalent now is the virtual demonization of gluten.

The Modern Baker, I’m happy to report, isn’t entirely anti-gluten. And why should it be? After all, gluten is just protein, or indeed two proteins – gliadin and glutenin. If you’ve not seen the Jimmy Kimmel video that exemplifies people’s ignorance about gluten, here it is. The big problem with modern bread instead is fermentation times. Time is the most important ingredient for bread-making, time for the dough to ferment properly. Indeed, Modern Baker emphasises the importance of fermented foods, notably sourdough. “Long fermentation breaks down the carbohydrates and gluten in the grains, so many find the finished loaf is much easier to digest and the nutrients more easily absorbed.”

Wholesome coconut sugar

Natural sugars
Modern Baker is staunch in its rejection of refined sugar – pure white, made from beet or cane. Instead, it uses other ingredients for sweetening: fruit, maple syrup, and where a direct refined sugar substitute is required, coconut sugar. It’s something I’ve not used before, but I’m happy to try new things. The book just got me wondering about the arguments for “natural sugars”.

Although the research isn’t conclusive, it’s suggested that coconut sugar has a lower glycaemic index than conventional refined sugar and has more nutrients. Though a quick Google suggests that while is does contain iron, zinc and calcium, the quantities are not significant enough to offer your body much.

It does contain some inulin, a type of dietary fibre. According to this Huffington Post article “clinical research finds prebiotics like inulin support gut health, colon cancer prevention, blood sugar balance, lipid (fat) metabolism, bone mineralization, fatty liver disease, obesity, and immunity.”

As for its “sugariness”, coconut sugar breaks down as 71% sucrose (which is itself a disaccharide formed of a combining of glucose and fructose), 3% fructose and 3% glucose: that is 78% sugar, with the rest made up of fibre, nutrients and antioxidants.

As for its GI, well that measures glucose content, not fructose – which makes up around 39% of coconut sugar. So it’s still sugar, and not great when consumed in quantity. Modern Baker does indeed make this point: “The natural sugars we use are still sugar, however, and they should still be regarded as a treat.” This is very much in line with my philosophy – cakes are a treat, not a staple.

I’m not entirely sold on coconut sugar though. I’m also something of a locavore, where possible, so I struggle with the sugar question. In some ways, I do prefer the idea of supporting British farming and British produce by buying sugars made from British beets.

Although they may well be slightly more refined, and slightly more nutritionally dubious, they’re still from a plant, right? I’m not so sure about buying sugar made from a coconut palm grown in tropical climes and imported here. Indeed, the bag I bought is from Indonesia. Is this another example of a commercial crop that, like palm oil, involves rainforest clearance being replaced by a monoculture?

So while I’ll add coconut sugar to my store cupboard until I know more about its provenance, for the bulk of my baking I’ll stick with conventional sugar, ideally from British beet. In part, frankly, as it’s also more readily available. I call it the Ottolenghi factor. I rarely make Ottolenghi recipes as more often than not I’d be forced to resort to buying exotic ingredients online as they’re not available in small-town England.

Keeping it real
This post is getting far longer than intended. The point I’m trying to make it that while I’m broadly in agreement with Modern Baker about eating well, taking care of your enormously important gut flora, and avoiding the most industrially refined foods, I also need to be realistic about feeding my family, and that may mean a few more conventional, readily available ingredients here and there.

Plus, well, I’m just not as good a baker as the team at Modern Baker. My sourdough never quite seems feisty enough to reliably turn out my weekly bread requirements. By and large, I’m half-way there – from the pics and glossary in the book, I use the same flours as them (Stoates organic stoneground from Dorset) but I still rely on commercial yeast.

Oh, and as a matter of course, I always knock back the sugar quantities in recipes. I even did that here for their recipe modestly called “The ultimate chocolate biscuit”, reducing it by 10%, and the results were still good. Indeed, these are remarkably light, crumbly, moreish biscuits considering they’re made with spelt (Triticum spelta) flour, which can tend towards a slightly heavier result in cakes and biscuits than normal wheat (Triticum aestivum) flour. Indeed, as much as I like to use older, more nutritious wheat varieties in my bread-making, it’s great to discover a recipe where they’re used in really yummy biscuits.

Using a 60mm round cutter, makes about 60 biscuits

170g unsalted butter, softened
180g coconut sugar
Pinch salt
2 egg yolks (that is, about 38g)
60g coconut oil
200g spelt flour3
120g raw cacao4 powder
Cacao nibs

1. Melt the coconut oil in a pan on a hob or in a microwave.
2. Put the butter, coconut sugar and salt in a large bowl and beat until fluffy.
3. Add the egg yolks and coconut oil and beat again.
4. Sieve together the spelt flour and cacao powder and add to the beaten mix.
5. Combine to form a dough with no lumps or dry bits.
6. Bring the dough together, form a disc and wrap in cling film.
7. Put the dough in the fridge and chill for at least an hour, to help it firm up. Modern Baker says it will keep in the fridge for up to five days.
8. When you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 200C.

Cut out
9. Roll out the dough to about 3mm thick, cut out, put on baking sheets lined with parchment or silicone.
10. Sprinkle with cacao nibs. Or don’t, if you’ve got fussy kids like mine who reject these lovely additions. Honestly, they’re crunchy, nutty and chocolaty! What’s not to like?
11. Bake for about 12-14 minutes. Watch out for over-baking the bottoms.
12. Leave to cool on the trays then transfer to a wire rack to finish cooling.

Very good. Not sure they’re the “ultimate chocolate biscuit” but there are solid pleasures to be had here. Bravissime Sharp and Stark! One “however”, however – in true toddler fashion, my sweet-toothed chocoholic three-year-old doesn’t like them. Not enough refined sugar and chocolate perhaps? Oh dear.


1 In her introduction, Sharp refers to her “aggressive, triple-negative, grade 3 cancer”. Alongside radiotherapy and chemotherapy, she revised her diet. She also says she was “someone who spent much of her life fighting an eating disorder.”
2 For more information, as always, start with the Wikipedia entry.
3 I used Stoates Organic Light Spelt, which has been bolted – sifted – more, removing more of the bran and making it lighter for cakes etc. I use this flour a lot, it’s great in my pizza and my everyday bread doughs. Available here.
4 I’ve still not found a satisfactory explanation of any difference between “cocoa” and “cacao” in the English language. I’m coming to the conclusion that the latter is simply used in a more health foody context. I talked about this more here.



Filed under Baking, Biscuits, cookies, Discussion, Recipes

Cattern cakes for St Catherine’s day

Cattern cakes

November 25 is the feast day of St Catherine of Alexander. Chances are, St Catherine isn’t someone you’ve heard of, beyond having a firework named after her, or more accurately after her mode of martyrdom – on a wheel. In my childhood, St Catherine was quite a well known figure. Well, not the saint herself exactly, but a hill named after her.

I grew up in Winchester, Hampshire. It was the city that was the capital of the great Saxon kingdom of Wessex, and arguably the capital of England before London. Earlier than this, however, it was a Roman city. And even earlier than this, there was an Iron Age settlement (around 500BC), on a hilltop just outside the city. This hill is known as St Catherine’s and there was a 12th century chapel on the top of the same name, until it was demolished in 1537, I believe at the behest of that great money-grubbing vandal Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the Monasteries,  in his massive pope-won’t-let-me-divorce royal hissy fit.

Mazes and wheels
When I was young and fitter and my knees worked properly I used to love running up there. It’s a wonderful place, and very much worth a visit. The views are good, there are orchids and other wild flowers, and there’s even a mizmaze, carved into the turf, with the winding path in exposed chalk. The form of such mazes is to an ancient, mysterious pattern, but this one is most likely from the second half of the 17th century. A local legend involves its creation being punishment for a pupil of the nearby privileged seat of learning and abject arrogance, Winchester College.

St Catherine’s martyrdom in 310AD in Egypt on a wheel may also be the reason the hill is named after her, with the Iron Age ramparts forming a circular shape. Or it may just be because she is, among other things – wheels, obviously, librarians, knife sharpeners, hat makers, lacemakers, spinsters, etc etc – patron saint of hilltops. Or something. Such hagiography is a right shambles.

Another Catherine
Anyway, her feast day is 24 or 25 November. The date was also used to honour Catherine of Aragon, first wife of the abovementioned Henry, and the first victim of his desperation for a male heir. After 24 years of marriage, he blamed her for the lack of a living son, and changed the course of history to get shot of her. He had her imprisoned in Ampthill, Bedfordshire, 1531-1533. She became a patron of local lacemakers, and they began to celebrate her support on, naturally enough, St Catherine’s day.

One feast day treat for St Catherine’s day is Cattern cakes. These are closer to what we’d consider a cookie or biscuit today, and are flavoured with cinnamon and dried fruit. I’ve got recipes in a couple of books: Cattern Cakes and Lace by Julia Jones and Barbara Deer and Cakes Regional and Traditional by Julie Duff. Only one includes the peel, while the other includes caraway seeds. I like the idea of both, so here’s my version.

I’m only using self-raising flour here as I’ve got a lot in the cupboard. You could use plain instead, but use around 340g and 10g of baking powder.

350g self-raising flour
2g mixed spice
4g cinnamon powder
2g fine sea salt
50g ground almonds
350g caster sugar
50g currants
50g candied peel
4g caraway seeds
280g butter
1 egg, beaten
Extra sugar and cinnamon
1 more egg and 25g milk, beaten together, for a glaze

1. Preheat the oven to 180C.
2. Sift the flour, spices and salt into a mixing bowl.
3. Add the sugar, ground almonds, dried fruit and caraway seeds.
4. Add the melted butter and beaten egg.
5. Bring together to form a dough.
6. Bring the dough together, form a ball then cover with plastic and allow to rest in the fridge for about half an hour. This will firm the butter content up again.
7. Roll the dough out into a rectangle, about 12mm thick.
8. Brush the top with a little water, then sprinkle with extra sugar and cinnamon.
9. Roll the dough up like a Swiss roll to form a cylinder. It’s a pretty crumbly paste, but don’t worry: just squish it back together.

Space out well on baking sheets

10. Cut into slices about 10mm thick. As above squish back together as necessary. Place the slices on a baking sheet, lined with parchment or silicone.
11. Brush the tops with the glaze.
12. Bake for about 10-15 minutes, until lightly browned.

Cattern cakes

Despite the slightly fiddly dough, I like the results. They’re slightly unusual. One friend says “Christmassy” – but really, most feast day baked sweet treats involve similar spices and ingredients, such as peel, it’s just that we’ve lost so many of the other traditions, with most people’s only relationship with feast day foods being Christmas cake and plum pudding.

They spread as they bake, and come out somewhat wrinkly, like cooled lava. You can see a swirl or spiral from the rolling up, especially underneath. The caraway, or Persian cumin (Carum carvi) is a bit of a divisive flavour though, faintly medicinal and almost medieval. It’s perhaps most commonly found in rye breads these days, but for a long time a great British classic was seed cake – a sweet, teatime cake flavoured with caraway. It’s one of those flavours that’s arguably gone out of fashion somewhat for the British palette. If you don’t like it, just leave it out.

I’ll be in Winchester just after St Catherine’s day, so maybe we can go for a walk up the hill and take some of these for sustenance. Even if number one child, T-rex, has already rejected them, probably because of the caraway (unfamiliar flavour trumps sugary treat). Number two child, Stingray, is rather partial at least.



Filed under Baking, Biscuits, cookies, Feasts, Recipes

The gingerbread boy

Gingerbread men

Our toddler has been obsessing over the story of The Gingerbread Man recently. So it seemed only right that we started making actual gingerbread men together.

Now, every time he grabs the book for me to read, he points at the gingerbread man on the cover and says, “We make some buttons!” Handling the mixture, rolling out a soft-ish dough, doing the cutting and transferring the pieces to a baking sheet aren’t exactly jobs for a two-year-old (see previous post), but he’s very happy to be given the task of sticking currants in to make eyes and buttons. Nothing fancy. No icing decorations. It isn’t Bake Off, it’s just father-son “do making”, making something he then ardently scoffs whenever we allow.

Cake and biscuit
Gingerbread is a fairly generic name that covers both soft cakes and a cookies, but I’m talking about those distinguished in the UK and US traditions from other ginger cookies by being cut into the shape of a man. One source on Wikipedia says they were first recorded as being made in England for the court of Elizabeth I, who reigned 1558-1603. Though ‘breads’ sweetened with honey and spices are quintessential foods for feast days and celebrations and have probably been made in Europe since the Middle Ages, if not longer.

Various ginger-spiced biscuits and cakes can be found in the traditional feast day foods of much of Europe still, but notably in Britain, Germany (eg lebkuchen), Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Poland etc: that is, more northerly countries. It’s easy to imagine Medieval folks huddling round fires in the winter and very much appreciating feast day treats containing ginger, cloves etc, as such spices have a warming effect.

Dough and cutter

Sentient food
Now, before I get to a recipe, I must talk a little about the story The Gingerbread Man. I love folk stories, fairytales, Märchen. I’ve read a lot, and I look forward to the kids being old enough for me to introduce more to them. I know full well they can be illogical, macabre and confounding to the modern mind, but The Gingerbread Man is downright weird.

Here’s the gist, if you don’t know it, or need reminding. A childless couple (which obviously resonates) decide the way to overcome their sadness isn’t to, you know, visit an orphanage, but instead to bring forth life through the medium of baking. Indulging in some kind of dough-based witchcraft. I suppose it’s not unlike Gepetto carving a son out of a piece of wood in Pinocchio.

The old lady makes a gingerbread man. But rather than being a dutiful son, he leaps out of the oven, out the door, and runs off. The old woman and her husband give chase. Various other people and animals see him and join the chase. The couple want their “son” back, the others want to eat him – despite him being ambulatory and self-aware, as evinced by his taunting song: “Run, run, as fast as you can, you can’t catch me I’m the gingerbread man!”

When he reaches a river, a fox appears and offers to carry the gingerbread man across. The sentient – but none-too-bright – biscuit agrees. But the fox tricks him and in three tosses of his head, he eats him all up. Snap! Snap! Snap! And that’s the end of the gingerbread man.

The moral of the story? Who knows. Maybe it doesn’t have one. It’s suggested that folk stories teach children about life, but it’s not always clear what the lesson is. The lesson here is not to be gullible or trusting of strangers, I suppose. Or alternatively to beware hubris. Certainly, the gingerbread man is a proud fool. Arguably the hero of the story is, instead, the fox. He’s cunning, and gets the snack. Cunning is quality in many cultures (eg the Italian concept of furbismo, which kept Berlusconi in power for so long), and is often exemplified by the fox, an archetypical trickster, in folk stories.

There are other folk stories about runaway food in British, German and Easter European folklore – balls of dough, pancakes, bannocks – but the gingerbread man story appears to be a variation that evolved with migrants who settled in America.

Cutting out

Melt or rub
Whatever the origins or moral of the story, the boy loves it. Finding a recipe we could easily make together has been a minor challenge. Pre-children, I probably would have tried half a dozen recipes, but today, with two under-threes, I tried just three recipes. One from Dan Lepard’s Short and Sweet, one from Leith’s Book of Baking by Prue Leith and Caroline Waldegrave and one from Geraldene Holt’s Cake Stall (a hand-me-down from my mum with a wonderful dated 1980s cover, where Holt looks like an Edwardian).

The two main approaches for making gingerbread men involve melting together butter and sugar, then combining with flour etc, or rubbing the butter into the flour, and adding the sugar etc. The latter is easier, but frankly, the best one of the three I tried was Leith one, which involved melting. The dough was trickiest to handle, but the resulting cookies had a proper snap – suitably enough considering the gingerbread man’s fate in the jaws of the fox.

Making the dough (or paste), then cooling it in the fridge to firm it up and relax the proteins isn’t exactly ideal if you have a small child chomping at the bit to “do making” right now! I tried to lull young T-rex by putting The Jungle Book on (it was a rainy day) but it still wasn’t ideal. So I suggest making a batch of the dough in advance, then freezing some or leaving it in the fridge until the optimal “do making” moment in your day.


This is based on the Leith version, but tweaked somewhat.

If you’re doing this with a small child, make the dough in advance to give it time to cool, so you can do the rolling, cutting and baking in one hit.

225g unsalted butter
200g caster sugar
160g soft dark brown sugar
350g plain flour
6g baking powder
3g fine sea salt
3g ground cloves
12g ground ginger
2 eggs, beaten (that is, about 110g beaten egg)

1. Melt together the butter and both sugars, stirring and cooking until the sugar has all dissolved.
2. Take off the heat, allow to cool slightly, then beat in the egg.
3. Sieve together the flour, baking powder, spices and salt.
4. Put the sieved mixture into a bowl then gradually add the butter, sugar and egg mix, combining to form a homogenous mixture.
5. It’s a very soft dough, so put the bowl in the fridge to cool it completely. Then you can divide the mixture into slabs, and keep one in the fridge for a day or so until you want to do the baking. You can also freeze it.
6. When you’re ready to roll, heat the oven to 180C and line baking sheets with parchment or silicone.
7. This dough warms up easily and gets soft, so to cut out the gingerbread men, do it in portions. Roll to about 4-5mm thick and cut out your men. We have a cutter about 13cm tall by 8cm armspan. Decorate with currants for eyes and buttons if you like.
8. Place on baking sheets lined with parchment or silicone, with enough room for some spread, and put in the oven. Note, this dough will spread slightly, especially if you’re oven isn’t quite hot enough. (What the knobs says and the actual temperature inside are very likely to not be the same if you have a domestic oven, so I recommend an oven thermometer.)
9. Bake for about 10-12 minutes until nicely brown. Leave to firm up on the tray for a few minutes then transfer to cooling racks and allow to cool completely. They should crisp up as they cool.

10. Satisfying the obsession of toddler. Briefly.

This is, obviously, a tricky area. I love to bake; he loves sugar; I try to be a responsible parent and not allow him too much. I want to nurture a sane relationship with food, where sweets are treats. This is a challenge as refined sugar is so addictive small children rapidly get a crazy-eyed for it, something that’s exploited by the food industry and insufficiently regulaed. Just look at breakfast cereals, some are a third sugar. But that’s another story, another rant. Run, run as fast as you can, I’m a two-year-old on a sugar rush….



Filed under Baking, Biscuits, cookies, Discussion, Parenting, Recipes

Papassini biscuits – and lard

Papassini biscuits

Let’s be honest: lard isn’t a popular ingredient. It’s not fashionable, even in this era of nose-to-tail eating. Even when the media, from Britain’s Daily Bile Mail to the US Huffington Post, is running articles on lard’s virtues. It’s still got an image problem.

And yet, it’s a fat we cooked with for centuries, especially here in northern Europe, where we can’t grow olive groves and peasants may have had a pig but were less likely to have had dairy. Look at any collection of older – say pre-WW2 – British recipes and lard is ubiquitous. Not just as a fat for frying, but also as the main fat for making pastries and baked goods. The only legacy of this tradition most Brits are aware of these days is lardy cake. I talked about this subject back in April 2014, when making lardy johns, an ostensibly old Sussex recipe that’s a cousin to the scone.

Back then, I couldn’t get my hands on any decent lard. As Marwood Yeatman says in The Last Food of England, “A modern porker has little fat and therefore little lard, so most of it is imported”. The only stuff I could get hold of was from Ireland. Last week on a Sunday market here in Lewes, I was pleased to see Beal’s Farm, our favourite supplier of locally produced charcuterie and salumi, whose pancetta was a joyful discovery when we moved home from Rome, has started selling their own lard. Indeed, I wasn’t just pleased, I was excited! Quality lard! I’d been making a lot of game pies with a hot water crust, and this pastry is best made with lard.

Yes, even in the Mediterranean diet
It’s not just northern European foods that are traditionally made with lard though. The past month or so I’ve been researching and developing products for my Italian-oriented biscuit stall. I wanted to focus on Christmas and festive products last week, and one product I made was papassini.

Also called pabassini, pabassinas, pabassinos and papassinos in various Sardinian dialects, these are biscuits made for not just Christmas but also Ognissanti (All Saints, 1 November) and that other principal Christian festival, Easter. Pretty much all the Italian (nay Sardinian) recipes I read used strutto – lard. Only a few used butter.

I made my first batch with Beal’s lard, and they were great. The mix is pretty much a pastry, enriched with fat, sugar, spices and some fruit – sultanas or raisins. The name papassino, according to Italian Wikipedia, comes from papassa or pabassa, Sardinian for uva sultanina, a type of grape, that is dried to become sultanas1 . The lard gave them a nice fairly delicate crumb. I also made them using Trex, hardened vegetable oil. Where vegetable means palm.

This is the sort of ethical conundrum we face in modern life – eat a meat byproduct from local, well-husbanded pigs or eat a veggie alternative made from an ingredient that’s most likely grown in a corporate plantation that required the destruction of rainforest. The results weren’t as good either.

So I experimented with butter versions too, notably for the market, where I didn’t want to have to worry about repeatedly explaining why certain products weren’t vegetarian. Which seems faintly daft, but we live in complex times for food. In many ways, industrialisation and intensification have thoroughly messed up our relationship with food, resulting in innumerable dietary inclinations, phobias, rampant orthorexia nervosa, intolerances, allergies and imagined allergies. A whole slew of first world worries.

Papassini on my market stall, along with riciarelli, pangiallo and others

Anyway, butter was pretty good too. I mean, I love butter. I would say the result was similarly crumbly, slightly sweeter. But then all the biscuits were sweet once I’d iced them. I just iced them with a basic water or glacé icing – that is, icing sugar2 and water, or lemon juice. More “authentic” recipes would be topped with an Italian meringue glaze, but that wasn’t entirely practical for me.

Another note on “authenticity” – the grapiness of these biscuits would also have been enhanced with sapa/saba. This is a kind of grape syrup, also known as vino cotto (“cooked wine”) and mosto cotto (“cooked grape must“). It’s an ingredient that has been made for millennia. Imagine a grape cordial, or a kind of sweet cousin to balsamic vinegar. You can produce a semblance by simmering grape juice to thicken it, but frankly almost none of the papassini recipes I researched used it so I didn’t bother.

So yes, these are in no way authentic, but I’m not Sardinian. That said, as with any Italian recipe, every family or baker or pasticcere would have differences of opinion and ingredients, so I would like to think mine are just another variation on a theme. Ideally made with quality Sussex lard.

250g plain flour
6g baking powder
80g ground almonds
100g caster sugar
120g lard or butter
50g walnuts, chopped fairly finely
80g sultanas or raisins
Zest of half a lemon
Zest of half an orange
2 eggs, lightly beaten, QB3 (about 120g)
4g cinnamon
4g fennel seeds

Icing sugar, sieved
Water or lemon juice
Hundreds-and-thousands, sprinkles

1. Soak the sultanas or raisins in hot water for about 10 minutes then drain and squeeze out any excess water.
2. Sieve together the flour and BP.
3. Dice the fat and rub it into the flour, or blitz in a food processor, until the mixture is crumb-like.

Papassini mixture
4. Add the ground almonds, sugar, walnuts, sultanas and zest.
5. Add the egg and bring the mixture a dough. If it’s too dry, add a little more egg or some milk.
6. Form into a disc or slab then wrap in plastic and leave to rest for at least half an hour.
7. Preheat the oven to 180C.

Cutting papassini dough into diamonds
8. Roll out the dough to about 10mm thick.
9. Cut diamond shapes.
10. Reform the offcuts and keep cutting more diamonds.
11. Bake for about 10-12 minutes.
12. Cool on a rack, then ice. If you’re doing the easy option like me, just sieve icing sugar and add a little water or icing sugar to form a smooth mixture, not too runny. Dip each biscuit in the icing, then sprinkle with hundreds and thousands.



1. I think; I never really got my head around English-Italian translations for sultana, raisin, etc. I believe a raisin is uva passa – literally “past” or “spent” grape. I’m more confused by uva sultanina, which may be both the grape and the sultana. I’m not sure, and I can’t go to an Italian dry goods store or supermarket or market to check very easily from here in Lewes. Hope to get back to Roma after Christmas, so I’ll have to try and remember to see if I can work it out then. Heck, all this confuses me, even in English. Until embarrassingly recently, I though currants were dried black- or red-currants, when they’re actually also dried grapes too. I suspect the Italian words are often fairly generic – so uvetta (literally “little grape”) can be used for currant or raisin, or people use different words in different regions.
2. Powdered sugar, confectioner’s sugar, zucchero a velo.
3. Quanto basta, “how much is enough”. Ie you may not need all of it, just enough to achieve the desired consistency.



Filed under Baking, Biscuits, cookies, Feasts, Recipes

Quintuple chocolate chip cookies

Quintuple chocolate chip cookies

Lots of bloggers and columnists have offered recipes for “the ultimate chocolate chip cookie”. I’m not sure it’s entirely possible to nail a perfect version of the quintessential US cookie and, well, it’s fun to play around with recipes. I’ve been experimenting with adding more chips and nibs. Others before me have taken the triple chocolate chip cookie as a starting point for quadruple and quintuple, so I’m not claiming any originality here, just having fun.

Let’s be clear, the quintuple here means there are five types of cacao-based product: three types of chocolate chunks, nibs and cocoa powder. When I say cacao-based product, I mean things derived from the Cacao theobroma tree. The tree is a native of Central and South America, famously beloved of the Aztecs, appropriated by imperialist Europeans and now grown from Ghana to Vietnam. I talked more about Cacao theobroma and nibs in this post, so won’t go on about them again.

Three types of chocolate chunks and cocoa nibs

Into the woods
We ate this batch while having a lovely walk in the woods: Friston Forest in East Sussex. After saying in my previous post about how awful the weather has turned, we’re having a week of gorgeous sun. Friston Forest is lovely; I particularly enjoyed a moment where we walked up a shady path then were suddenly in a clearing that offered a view that was full to the horizon with trees. This isn’t something that happens very often in East Sussex, a part of England that’s fairly populous, heavily farmed or defined by open Downland scenery, not forest.

Quintuple chocolate chip cookies in Friston Forest

So it was a day of treats – cookies, sunshine, woody views and even a pretty decent pub lunch at The Tiger Inn in East Dean (not to be confused with the East Dean in West Sussex), opposite Sherlock Holmes’ retirement house no less.

Sherlock Holmes' retirement house

The only disappointment was the lack of edible fungi. Perhaps the woods – largely a mix of beech, sycamore and ash on thin soil over chalk – just aren’t that suitable. But that’s OK, it’s all part of the process of finding a good spot for foraging.

Fridge-aged dough
This recipe is based on Dan Lepard’s dark chocolate chunk cookies, in his book Short & Sweet. Rather than using the following technique and baking them straight away, he says you can also use the US or even German technique1 of forming the dough into a cylinder and fridge or even freezer for later.

An article in the New York Times in 2008 asserted that this improves the quality of the finished cookie, allowing the flour to soak up the liquids and fats. Felicity Cloake in the Guardian did her own tests on this and said the dough kept longest in the fridge (48 hours) resulted in a more “caramelly” cookie, while those kept 12-24 hours had a preferable texture. I’m not entirely convinced though, especially when you’re adding cocoa powder to the mix.

125g unsalted butter, soft
190g light soft brown sugar
2 tsp vanilla essence
1 medium egg (about 52g), at room temperature2
175g plain flour
25g cocoa powder
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda (6g)
Pinch of salt
60g dark choc, roughly chopped into chunks
60g milk choc, roughly chopped into chunks
60g white choc, roughly chopped into chunks
50g cocoa nibs… or indeed cacao nibs

1. Preheat the oven to 180C and line some tray with baking parchment or silicon sheets.
2. Cream together the butter and sugar.
3. Add the add and vanilla essence, and beat to blend.
4. Sieve together the flour, cocoa powder and bicbarb then add this to the batter, along with the pinch of salt.

Quintuple chocolate chip cookie mix
5. Add the chocolate chunk and nibs and bring to a dough.
6. Form balls. I scaled mine at 35g each, which resulted in 22 cookies.
7. Place the balls on the prepared sheets, well spaced about as they spread.

Room to spread while bakingBaked
8. Bake for about 12-14 minutes. Less = chewier, more = crunchier, according to taste.
9. Allow to firm up slightly on the trays then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Enjoy. Not necessarily on a walk in the woods. With a teatime cuppa or evening hot chocolate in the comfort of your own home is good too.

Plate of quintuple chocolate chip cookies

1. In the Oxford Companion to Food, in his entry for “Cookie”, Alan Davidson writes “The American habit of making rolls of cookie dough and and keeping them in the refridgerator or freezer may have come from Germany; the doughs for some German biscuits such as Heidesand are made into rolls and chilled before slicing.” He adds they’re sometimes known as “‘icebox’ cookies”
2. Always bake with your eggs at room temperature. I’m not sure it makes any difference to taste but it does help when beating eggs into a creamed sugar and fat mixture, reducing the chance of curdling. It’s also better when making things that require the egg, or the white, to be whisked, as the warmer egg incorpates air more effectively. Personally, I don’t even store eggs in the fridge. Eggs have a great storage system already – it’s called a shell. If the egg is off, having it cold and off won’t make any difference.



Filed under Biscuits, cookies, Recipes

Nut and cocoa nib cookies

Nut and cocoa nib cookies

I’m the kind of guy who always has to have some homemade biscuits or cookies waiting in a tin at home. Just in case of visitors, or in case of the munchies. So I’m always on the lookout for good recipes. I particularly like versatile recipes that can be tweaked depending on what you have in your store cupboards. I’m also enjoying adding cocoa nibs to things; see, for example, my crystallized ginger and cocoa nib cookies.

This one is based on a recipe for a biscuit Justin Gellatly calls “The nutter” in his book Bread, Cakes, Doughnut and Pudding. His recipe uses blanched almonds, blanched hazelnuts, walnuts, Brazil nuts and macadamia nuts, but he does say you can use whatever nuts you’ve got; I’ve done various versions, and they’ve all been great, with a nice crunch and warm nuttiness (unsurprisingly). You can even use nuts that aren’t technically nuts, like peanuts, which are actually the seeds of legumes.*

200g nuts, unsalted, mixed
50g cocoa nibs (or indeed cacao nibs)
125g butter, soft
125g caster sugar (you could also use soft brown, for a more caramelly flavour)
1 egg
150g plain flour
Pinch of salt

1. Heat the oven to 180C.
2. Put the nuts on a tray and roast for about 12 minutes, until lightly browned. Turn off the oven.
3. Put the toasted nuts in a food processor and whizz to a rough consistency – I like it a bit powdery, and bit chunky for crunch.

Grind the nuts and nibs
4. Add the cocoa needs and give it one last whizz, to break them a bit.
5. Beat together the butter and sugar until light. Beat in the egg. If it starts to curdle, add a little flour.

Form a dough
6. Add the flour and nuts and bring to a dough. It’ll be pretty sticky. Flour your hands a bit if it helps, and form a ball or disc.

Wrap in plastic and rest
7. Wrap in clingfilm and rest in the fridge for a few hours.
8. Preheat the oven again, to 170C.
9. Flour a work surface then roll out the dough to about 5mm thick. It’s quite a sticky dough, so be relatively liberal with the dusting if needs be.

Roll out and cut
10. Cut out biscuits with a cutter. I use a round 65mm one, but it’s up to you – and again, depends on what you’ve got.
11. Gather any scraps, squidge together and roll out again.
12. Put the biscuits on baking sheets, lined with parchment or silicon mats.
13. Bake for about 12-15 minutes until nicely browned.
14. Cool on wire racks.

Enjoy with a cuppa or coffee. We have hot chocolates most evenings in the winter. As the English summer seems to have given up, we seem to be starting to do that again already, and the cookies go well with that too. It’s a bit different to this time last year when we walked the South Downs Way in warm, rain-free weather.

Nut and cocoa nib cookies

* Peanuts are basically beans, but even weirder, unlike other beans, the pods grow underground. Anyway, if we’re being pedantic about nuts, in botanical terms, they are defined as dry fruits with one, or possibly two, seeds.

By this definition, most things we call nuts in English are technically not nuts: Brazil nuts, almonds, walnuts, pecans, cashews, cashews, and as mentioned, definitely not peanuts. However, when we say “nut”, we’re usually defining it in culinary, not scientific, terms, and can therefore include all these. In fact, the only nuts that seem to qualify both botanically and culinarily are hazels.

Many of the culinary nuts are actually the seeds of drupes – but who’s heard that word before, besides botanists and specialists??



Filed under Baking, Biscuits, cookies, Recipes

St Roch’s Fingers – a trifle, of sorts

St Roch's Fingers

Internationally, St Roch, whose feast day is 16 August, is also known has Rocco, Roque, Rock and even Rollox. Rock ’n’ Rollox. He sounds cool. Though actually he’s invoked against things like epidemics and skin diseases. And is the patron of a wide variety of people in different nations: the falsely accused, surgeons, tile-makers, gravediggers, second-hand dealers, wool-carders, pilgrims, apothecaries. As well dogs, sick cattle and bachelors.

He’s pretty multi-purpose.

The story says he was born in Montpelier in France and, after the death of his parents, became a pilgrim, bound for Rome. He didn’t get there (or maybe he did. The whole saga is hardly factual). Instead, he found himself in an area gripped by epidemic. Staying to minister, he apparently performed various miracles before himself contracting the disease, at Piacenza, northern Italy. He retreated to the woods. There, a dog found him, and brought him bread every day, taken from his owner’s kitchen.

Roch survived, and would only die in 1327 when he returned to Montpelier, was taken for a spy and stuck in a dungeon. Maybe. He may have instead died in Angleria, Lombardy, Italy, where he’s patron of two towns, Potenza and Gerocarne. Or he may have been an amalgam of other historical figures, or, like many saints and feast days, the story may have drawn on older, pagan stories. Hagiography does blur with folklore and legends.

As his story features the bread-bearing dog, I would have thought he would have a traditional feast-day loaf. But seemingly not. Instead, Feast Day Cookbook (Burton and Ripperger, 1951) and Cooking with the Saints (Schuegraf, 2001) say one should make something called St Roch’s fingers. The latter book says it’s Spanish in origina. It is basically another variation on the theme of trifle – sponge and custard, a dash of alcohol.

Sponge fingers
St Roch’s fingers requires sponge fingers. Now, you can just go and buy these, but they’re pretty easy to make and cooking from scratch is fun, rewarding, and means you can avoid any nasty additives you will very likely get in industrially made biscuits and cakes bought from supermarkets.

Sponge fingers, ladyfingers or savoiardi, are basically made with the same mix you use for Genoise, or a similar one. I wrote about that, and trifle, more here, but here’s another basic savoiardi recipe.

Makes about a dozen fingers.

2 eggs
62g caster sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
pinch of salt
55g plain flour

1. Preheat oven to 190C.
2. Line 2 baking trays with silicone or baking parchment.
3. Fit a piping bag with a plain 1.25cm nozzle.
4. Separate the eggs. Whisk the egg yolks with half of the sugar and the vanilla. Beat until light in colour.
5. In a clean bowl beat the egg whites. While beating, slowly add the salt and the remaining sugar, continuing to beat until you achieve soft peaks.
6. Gently fold the beaten egg whites into the egg yolk mixture.
7. Sieve the flour over the egg mixture and gently fold it in.
10. Pipe fingers, about 9cm long, 4cm apart.
11. Bake for about 12 minutes until firm to the touch and golden.

Sponge fingers unbakedSponge fingers baked
12. Place on racks to cool.

Crème de la crème
You also need custard. Again, you can buy this in tins, or cheat with a cornflour-based powder, but you simply cannot beat homemade stuff.

145g full-fat milk
145g cream
1 tsp vanilla essence
2 egg yolks
15g caster sugar

1. Heat the milk and cream together in a saucepan, and scald – that is, bring it almost but not quite to the boil
2. In a bowl, beat the eggs with the sugar.
3. Pour the hot milk over the egg yolks whisking continuously. When completely mixed in, return to the pan.
4. Stir over a low heat until the mixture thickens.
5. Pour into a bowl and beat in the vanilla essence. Allow to cool completely.

St Roch's Fingers

To assemble the dessert:
Some brandy. Or other alcohol. To taste.
Some whipped cream.
Some small glasses.

1. If you want to flavour the custard, beat in a little alcohol – brandy for example.
2. If you want to make the custard go a bit further, beat in some whipped cream.
3. Line the glasses with the sponge fingers: a piece in the bottom, and up the side.
4. I’d just made some jam – or indeed jelly – from the cherry plums (Prunus cerasifera) in my garden so I put a blob of that in the bottom.
5. Cover with custard.
6. Add some extra whipped cream on top if you fancy.

Quite why you’d eat this for St Roch’s day I don’t know. But enjoy, while basking in that protection from epidemics and skin diseases.



Filed under Biscuits, cookies, Discussion, Feasts, Recipes