Tag Archives: gingerbread

A baking lesson from videogame The Witcher 3

For those of you not in the know about the huge swathe of culture known as videogaming, The Witcher 3 is an award-winning bestseller where you have involved adventures in a fantastical open world. This is a genre that is getting increasingly sophisticated, with vast, detailed environments populated by innumerable characters and creatures. A few years back, I wrote about the pleasures of exploring the world of Skyrim, notably following its resident foxes. The Witcher 3, which I finally got for my birthday back in September, isn’t quite so good with its ecology, but there I did encounter one wonderful detail recently. Not about wildlife, but about food. The sort of thing that really chimes with me and my baking obsession.

So, your character, Geralt of Rivia, is attending a wedding celebration (while possessed by a ghost, no less. You probably don’t need any more detail). At the wedding, a mysterious character you’ve previously encountered makes an appearance. He’s called Gaunter O’Dimm, and he’s magical, knowledgeable and powerful. He talks about wishes, and I assume from his surname he’s some kind of djinn, or genie. I’ve not finished the game yet, so I’m not sure (and may never be). In this particularly scene, what nature of beast he is isn’t important – it’s his thoughts on baking.

As you approach, an old lady is saying, “But gingerbread’s nowt but honey, flour, eggs and spices.”  O’Dimm says, “I beg to differ madam. You omit the most important ingredient of gingerbread – time.” She responds, “Time? What do you mean, time? An ingredient?” So he explains: “Time gives the proper consistency. Time provides the ideal crunch on the outside, the delicious moistness within.” She then asks, “So how much of this time does it take?” And his discourse reaches its conclusion: “That you will not find in any recipe. You must surrender to your senses… Time, time is the key.”

Now, I’m not sure if he’s alluding to other things, you know, metaphorically, but in literal terms he’s saying something I often say to people who ask me about bread-making, and something I’ve mentioned frequently here too. For example, when talking about what makes for real bread or real beer, I said, “Fermentation time is just too import to neglect or reject. Time is just too important to rush. Time is the defining ingredient for craft bread or craft beer, or as I’d prefer to call them, real bread and real beer.”

In the Medieval-style fantasy world of The Witcher 3, baking – even gingerbread – would involve yeast, or at least a natural leaven. But even with commercial, cultivated yeast, time is arguably the most important ingredient. Use too much yeast and rush the proving and the result will be overly gassy and hard on your guts, potentially leaving you feeling bloated or uncomfortable. Use less yeast and allow for a long prove, and the yeasts will have time to feed on the maltose in the flour, changing the chemical balance of the dough. The resulting baked bread will taste better and easily digestible.

This is on the reasons people have trouble with supermarket “bread”. These industrial products do not respect the time factor. The dough is rushed in the industrial Chorleywood bread process, resulting in indigestible products the Real Bread Campaign and others have referred to as “pap”. Chorleywood is very much at the heart of our troubled relationship with bread these days.

“Artisan” bakeries offer real bread, but it can be so expensive it seems an item only for the well-off. But don’t let this force you to eat pap – how about trying your own baking? People say, “Baking’s too time-consuming.” But this isn’t quite true – I tend to create a sponge, or pre-ferment, with water, yeast and about half of the total flour as the kids are having breakfast. This can then be left for hours, allowing the yeast to get a head start. I then make the dough with the rest of the flour and a dash of salt, then leave that alone for several hours. I usually then bake late afternoon or in the evening.

Baking is more about a little bit of planning and can be fitted in around other activities – you know, work, childcare. It really is best to just leave the sponge and the dough alone for long periods, following Gaunter O’Dimm’s edict about the importance of the ingredient that is time.

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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 Baladin, with its 50 or so craft beers). It’s a neat suggestion, as the mould’s stamp is then mirrored in the biscuit.

Speculaas

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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Filed under Biscuits, cookies, Feasts, Recipes