December 2008

rugelachI vividly remember the first time I tasted Rugelach.  It was about 10 years ago in Boca Raton, Florida.  Why do I recall this memory so clearly?  Because I was entranced by the charming croissant-like shaped pastry that was overflowing in flavours and textures.  It was sweet, it was caramely, it was crunchy, it was soft.  It was delicious.

I have since sampled a number of store-bought Rugelach – most recently a cinnamony flavoured version from Zabar’s in NYC.  I thought it was high time I made this mouth-watering treat myself.

The holiday seemed a perfect occasion to bake this cream cheese pastry yum yum.  I know Rugelach is a Jewish cookie, and not exactly ‘kosher’ for Christmas, but it seems so cheerful I could not resist including it in my Christmas baking selection.

To maintain as much authenticity to the Jewish recipe as possible, however, I consulted the much-loved version by Dorie Greenspan.  This recipe was passed to Dorie by her mother-in-law and has been successfully reproduced many times.

I love a good pastry and have considerable fondness for all the filling ingredients Dorie recommends … walnuts, currants, chocolate chips, fruit jam.  There was no need for any substitutions or omissions of the flavours on my part!

I made the recipe exactly per Dorie’s suggestion.  It was incredibly easy to make.  The cream cheese pastry came together like a dream.  The assembly and construction was very quick, too.  I baked my batch of Rugelach for 25 minutes and they were perfect – golden and gorgeous.

I greedily devoured these treats straight out of the oven.  I also, “for research purposes”, needed to taste test the impact of cooling … multiple times!  They were truly addictive.

Rugelach may never match the mystère of the French Macaron made famous by Pierre Hermé and Ladurée, but I maintain they are equally delicious.  I promise you will enjoy them, too.

{ A few tips … }

1. If you use regular sized chocolate chips, consider grounding them to make them smaller.  This will reduce the chance of ‘filling slippage’ outside of the cookie when rolled.
2. Even though the dough is incredibly simple to make, do resist over handling.
3. It is important to use good quality jam.  I always use St Dalfour in baking which has no added sugar.  This ensures that the sweetness of the jam is not overpowering and only imparts a fruit flavour.


mince-piesThe only request for baked goods I received this Christmas was from my lovely (and very English!) mother.  It was, of course, for mince pies.  I wanted to find a recipe that produced a melt-in-my-mouth result with the inclusion of shortening – shortening really does yield a lighter-textured result.

I found a recipe in Nigella Lawson’s How to be a Domestic Goddess cookbook.  In fact there were three options. I went with the ‘star topped’ version to use the same star cutter as my Linzer cookies.

It was all quite a quick process.  Given the time needed to typically handle pastry, it all came together quite speedily (which is helpful particularly in a sub-tropical climate!).  The resulting mince pies were received very well, with literally a dozen disappearing off the plate on Christmas day in less than 5 minutes.  I think that is a good sign!

If you like mince pies, you will like the lightness and sweetness of this recipe.

{ Star Topped Mince Pies } recipe by Nigella Lawson

Makes 2 dozen finished pies

* Ingredients *
1 cup plain (all purpose) flour
45g vegetable shortening
45g cold unsalted butter
Juice of 1 small orange
½ cup mincemeat
1 egg mixed with water for glaze
Icing sugar for dusting

* Directions *
Measure the flour out into a shallow bowl or dish, and using a teaspoon, dollop in little mounds of shortening, add the butter, diced small, combine with your hands and put in the freezer for 20 minutes.  Measure out the orange juice and put in the refrigerator.
Empty out the flour and fat into the bowl of a food processor and blitz until you have a pale pile of oatmeal-like crumbs.  Add the juice down the funnel, pulsing till it looks as if the dough is about to cohere; you want to stop just before it does (even if some orange juice is left).  If all your juice is used up and you need more liquid, add some iced water.  Turn out of the processor and, in your hands, combine to a dough.  Then form into two discs.  Wrap each in plastic wrap and put in the refrigerator to rest for 20 minutes.  Preheat the oven to 425 F or 220 C. 
Roll out the discs one at a time as thinly as you can without exaggerating.  Out of each rolled out disc cut out circles.  Press these circles gently into the moulds and dollop in a scant teaspoon of mincemeat.  Then cut out your stars and place them lightly on top of the mincemeat.  Re-roll pastry as required.
Glaze the pies before putting in the oven (I skipped this step as I wanted a lighter finish).  Bake pies for 10-12 minutes.  Cool on a rack and dust with icing sugar before serving.

Easy.  Delicious.

{ A few tips … }

1. If you do not own tart pans, substitute patty case or muffin tins.  Simply cut out a circle of pastry slightly larger than the tin whole and carefully insert.
2. Use a fluted cutter for festive edging.
3. You can use all butter if you do not wish to use vegetable shortening.  Your pastry will be slightly heavier and denser.

peppermint-chocolate-cakesThere is something enduringly irresistible about chocolate.  When perusing dessert menus or flicking through baking books, my eye inevitably lingers on any chocolate selection.  This is not to say that other equally delicious flavours never get my attention, it is just that chocolate always seems to dominate.

So for my Christmas baking, I realised I was greatly remiss not to include a chocolate option.  I recalled the cover of Everyday Food (December 2007 edition) featured a delightful looking peppermint chocolate cake.  This memory flash was quite fortuitous as after chocolate, for me, peppermint runs a close second.  It seemed fated that I include this cake in my Christmas baking.

As I always like to produce individual assortments, a variation of this cake was required.  I adapted the original recipe into cupcake-sized portions so they could be individually wrapped.  The batter produced approximately 18 cupcakes.  Baked at 180 C or 350 F, they were done in around 20—25 minutes.

I wanted to top the icing with something festive, such as crushed candy canes, but could not find any in stores.  Never have I remembered a rush on these candies during the holidays, so that was quite disappointing.  Despite that, I hope the pepperminty goodness was well received.

Linzer Cookie

I recently had the privilege of learning a few essential pastry techniques from Andreas Stössel – Swiss master pastry chef and principal lecturer in patisserie at the College of Tourism and Hospitality at Southbank Institute of Technology in Brisbane.  
I have always had a bit of a soft spot for pastry, to which my family can attest!  Growing up, the best bit of a quiche or tart to me was not the filling (no matter how deliciously rich or tasty), but the pastry.   The humble pastry.
I have to admit I do not make enough pastry, which is a shame as it is enormously versatile.  I think the time to prepare, chill, bake blind and then fill deters me.  But I was inspired by all the new pastry options from Andreas, so with a bit of planning I hope to produce pastry delights more regularly.
Andreas shared his pastry recipe for Linzer slice and I was hooked.  I knew this recipe would be a perfect choice for the holidays.  How could you not enjoy a light, buttery hazelnut pastry weaved with cinnamon, cloves, and lemon, then sandwiched together with raspberry jam?  This cookie includes all the essential ingredients for Christmas!
{ Linzer Cookies }

Makes 2 dozen sandwiched cookies

* Ingredients *

250g (2 sticks) unsalted butter
2/3 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups plain (all-purpose) flour
1 1/4 cups hazelnut meal (ground hazelnuts)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1/2 cup raspberry jam

* Directions *

Beat butter and sugar until light and creamy. Add eggs and beat until smooth.  Beat in vanilla.
Combine flour, ground hazelnuts, baking powder, cinnamon, cloves, salt, and lemon zest.  Add to butter mixture and beat until combined.
Divide dough in half and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes but preferably overnight.  (See note below.)
Remove from the refrigerator and allow to stand to soften slightly. 
Line baking trays with baking paper or Silpats.  Preheat oven to 160 C or 325 F.
Dust a pin and roll dough out to 3mm or 1/8-inch thickness.  Cut out cookie shapes.  Keep half the cookies whole, and cut out the centres of the remaining cookies.  Carefully transfer to the baking sheets.  If the dough becomes too soft as you are working, cover with plastic and chill for a few minutes.  (See note below.)
When all the cookie shapes have been prepared, freeze until firm (about 30 minutes).
Bake cookies for about 10–12 minutes until golden.  Transfer to a wire rack to cool.
Warm up jam and spoon onto base cookie.  Top with the open cookie.  Sift with icing sugar. 

{ A few tips … }

I found the pastry very delicate to work with.  Here are a few tips:

1. When you first form the dough, roll out in between some plastic wrap (Glad, Saran etc.) before refrigerating. 
2. When cutting out shapes, continue to work the dough on the plastic wrap.
3. If baking in summer or in a hot climate (it was very humid when I made these!), regularly pop the dough on a baking tray covered with the plastic wrap and chill for 10-15 minutes.
4. Ensure you do not roll out the cookies too thin as they can be fragile when baked.
5. It is important to use good quality jam.  I always use St Dalfour in baking which has no added sugar.  This ensures that the sweetness of the centre is not overpowering and only imparts a fruit flavour.

pfeffernussenMy Christmas baking usually includes a few cookies.  This year, my selection features a spicy German treat called Pfeffernussen.  I stumbled upon this recipe in my Martha Stewart Cookies baking book.  I immediately jotted it down as a choice for Christmas – spicy flavours are perfect at Christmas time.

Pfeffernussen means ‘pepper nut’ in German.  This cookie features pepper (but no nuts!), and a range of spices such as cinnamon, all spice, nutmeg and cloves.  The light sugary coating of the cookie complements the peppery flavour deliciously. 

These have to be one of the easiest cookies to make.  The dough does not require any real special handling or refrigeration.  Just mix it up, pop on baking trays, and you are done.

They are incredibly airy and light, and have a beautiful peppery flavour.  They taste like an ‘adult’ gingerbread coffee (just with a little more bite!).  Enjoy.

{ Pfeffernussen }

Makes 3 dozen

* Ingredients *
1 1/4 cups confectioners’ sugar
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup firmly packed light-brown sugar
1 large egg
1/4 cup unsulfured molasses
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

* Directions *
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Place the confectioners’ sugar in a brown paper bag.
In a medium bowl, combine flour, pepper, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, cloves, and baking soda. Set aside.
Place butter, brown sugar, and molasses in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with paddle attachment. Beat on medium speed until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Beat in egg and vanilla. With mixer on low speed, add flour mixture; beat until just combined. Pinch off dough in tablespoon amounts; roll into 1 1/4-inch balls. Arrange balls 1 1/2 inches apart on prepared baking sheets. (Dough can be frozen at this point, covered tightly with plastic wrap, up to 1 month.)
Bake until cookies are golden and firm to the touch with slight cracking, about 15 minutes, rotating sheets halfway through. Transfer sheets to a wire rack to cool slightly, about 10 minutes. Working in batches, place cookies in paper bag; shake until well coated. Let cool completely on wire rack. Store in an airtight container.

christmas-cake3Well, my first Christmas cake.  It is done.

I have to say, a bit of an anticlimax really.  It was all too easy.  Boil up fruit, let cool, fold in dry ingredients.  Voilà!  I was imagining some devilishly difficult task ahead of me.  But alas it was not to be – best leave that for the macarons, I suppose! 

I had selected the recipe from my first ever-baking book – The Australian Women’s Weekly Cakes and Slices.  It seemed fitting to bake something so traditional from a book that heavily features classics.

The resulting cake was deliciously moist, and loaded with brandy soaked fruit.  There is a lovely buttery-ness to the crumb as well.  Stored well, it keeps for up to 3 months – apparently!

Prepare your pan by lining base and sides with 2 thicknesses of paper, and bring paper 5cm above edge of pan.  Feel free to vary the fruit selection.  I am not a fan of glace cherries so they were swiftly omitted.  But whatever mixture you choose, I hope you enjoy this lovely cake.

{ Favourite Boiled Fruit Cake }

* Ingredients *
375g (2¼ cups) sultanas
250g (1½ cups) chopped raisins
250g (1½ cups) currants
125g (½ cup) mixed peel
125g (½ cup) halved glace cherries
¼ cup chopped glace pineapple
¼ cup glace apricots
250g butter
1 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
½ cup brandy
½ cup water
5 eggs, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon treacle
2 teaspoons grated orange rind
1 teaspoon grated lemon rind
1¾ cups plain flour
1/3 cup self-raising flour
½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

* Directions *
Combine fruit. butter. sugar, brandy and water in saucepan. Stir constantly over heat without boiling until sugar is dissolved. Bring to the boil, reduce heat, simmer covered 10 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl and cool to room temperature.  Add eggs, treacle and rinds to fruit mixture, stir until combined. Stir in sifted dry ingredients. Spread mixture evenly into a deep 19cm square or a deep 23cm round prepared cake pan. Bake at 150°C for about 2½ hours, but start checking at 1½ hours.

rainbow-cake-1It was my niece’s 8th birthday last week.  As the unofficial family baker, the very essential birthday cake (no skipping cake for an 8 year old!), to devour at the family celebration was up to me.

As we are in the warmer months of the year, cake selection is critical.  Or more specifically, frosting selection.  I have attempted delicate meringue buttercreams around this time of year in the past, only to immediately regret the decision.  Too hot.  Too delicate.

This year, I limited my frosting choice to ganache (we’ve been having some very warm days!).  Ganache is resilient for me in all sorts of weather, and is delicious, too!

For the cake, I originally had decided on a marble cake, but I was unsure of the randomness of the coloured batter.  Instead, I decided to stay with the ‘Neapolitan’ theme, but in nice neat layers.  I stumbled upon this recipe for a Rainbow Cake which sounded like it would fit the bill.  How could an 8 year old not like a cake filled with vanilla, strawberry and chocolate?  Bon Anniversaire!

{ Rainbow cake }

* Ingredients *

4 eggs
1 1/2 cups caster sugar
2 cups self-raising flour
50g unsalted butter
1 cup milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp rose pink food colouring
1 tsp strawberry essence
2 tblsps cocoa powder
Extra 1/4 cup milk, warmed
300ml carton thickened cream
1 tblsp icing sugar mixture
1/3 cup strawberry jam
250g dark eating chocolate, chopped
Hundreds and thousands, to decorate

Grease 3 x 20cm round cake pans.  Line with baking paper.
Place eggs in large bowl of electric mixer.  Beat until frothy.  With motor operating, gradually add caster sugar, beating well after each addition.  Beat for further 5 minutes until mixture is thick and creamy.  Fold in sifted flour until just combined.
Place butter, milk and extract in a small saucepan.  Stir over low heat until butter melts.  Gently fold warm milk mixture, in two batches, into egg mixture until combined.
Spoon one-third of the mixture into one of the prepared pans to make vanilla cake layer.  Divide remaining mixture between two bowls.  Add colouring and essence to one portion.  Stir to tint pink.  Pour into second prepared pan.  Blend cocoa and extra warm milk in a small bowl to form a paste.  Stir into remaining portion to make chocolate cake layer.  Pour into remaining prepared pan.
Cook pans, on two shelves, in a moderate oven (180C) for 20-25 minutes, or until cooked when tested, swapping pans halfway through cooking.  Stand cakes in pans for 10 minutes before turning onto wire racks to cool.
Place 1/2 cup of the cream and icing sugar mixture in a small bowl.  Beat with an electric mixer until firm peaks form.
To assemble cake, sandwich chocolate cake and vanilla cake with half the jam and half the whipped cream.  Spread vanilla cake with remaining jam and whipped cream.  Top with strawberry cake.  To make icing, place chocolate and remaining cream in a heatproof bowl.  Sit bowl over a pan of simmering water.  Stir until smooth.  Cool at room temperature until spreadable.  Spread icing over top and side of cake.  Decorate with hundreds and thousands.

I love Christmas.  Like many people, for me Christmas is a chance to have a break, take stock of life and spend quality time with family in friends.  In recent years, my enjoyment of the festive season has heightened with the opportunity to bake – and what baking opportunities there are!

With the big day looming near (19 more sleeps!), I have not been focusing on the requisite present or Christmas card lists.  No indeed.  I have been focusing instead on baking lists.  (My priorities are pretty transparent, huh?)

I have been investigating a range of cheerful treats.  Macarons (due to my enduring obsession) is top of the list.  If lady luck is with me on Christmas Eve – when I am baking these tricky wonders – they will be included in my assortment.  Accompanying the Macaron will be a few other European cookie delights, including Palmiers, Pfeffernusse and Linzer sandwiches.  Yummy!  I can almost savour the cinnamony, spicy, peppery, jammy, and chocolately flavours already.

Complementing the cookie indulgences will be a few other rich tasting wonders.  To ensure some bite-sized snacks are at hand, I will be including some chocolate macaroon tartlets and Turkish delight into the already sugar-ladened mix.

To satisfy those more traditional tastes, I will bake a few Christmas cakes as well – for the first time, too!  My memories growing up are mostly of Lions Christmas cakes or similar purchased cakes.  Even though my mother is a fantastic baker, with so many priorities at Christmas time it was hard to cover everything.  So this will be my year.  It seems appropriate that something so traditional will be made from my first ever baking book – Women’s Weekly Cakes and Slices – which I bought in 1991.  (Great book by the way.)

In keeping with the traditional recipe selection, I will also make a handful of mince pies (request from my very English mother!).  She mumbled something about simply buying a box of Mr Kipling’s Mince Pies.  Well, I know Mr Kipling makes some exceedingly good cakes, but only home made from me!  Sorry, Mr Kipling.

With my list now completed, and a corresponding preparation and baking timetable all in order, I endeavour to accomplish all my baking tasks and the deliver the promise of a scrumptious Christmas.  Stay tuned for updates on the (hopefully) successful outcomes of each baked delight!  Bon Noël.

I have attempted a handful of different macaron recipes – mostly vanilla and chocolate.  With each new recipe or trial, I endeavour to perfect my technique just that bit further.  There is an abundance of macawrongbasic macaron recipes on the web and unfortunately I have had some poor outcomes.  These poor shells were the innocent victims of an over beaten batter.  Too much zeal from me!

Though perseverance paid off and happy to say (fifth time lucky!), I struck gold.  The batter was probably still stiffer than I would have anticipated, but it worked.  It was the first time I managed feet, a flat top, a dry bottom, a crispy exterior and chewy interior.  Watching these in the oven was a delight.

A feeling of pride welled up inside me.  I could not believe my humble hands had created these macarons.  But I did not want to get too ahead of chocolate-macaron-6myself.  These little cookies had risen well in the oven before, only to flatten when cooling!  But lady luck was on my side that day.

Though my obsession is far from over.  Not only had I just baked these fine treats, when my next batch a couple of days later was nowhere near the same standard.  More practice for me I think.  I drool over the variation of macarons posted by Tartelette.  So I think I can find inspiration for further practice no trouble at all!

But in the meantime, here is the recipe that did work for me.  Bonne chance!

{ Chocolate Macarons }

Makes about 36 shells or 18 sandwiched macarons

* Batter*
50g ground almonds
100g pure icing sugar
25g cocoa
65g egg whites (separated for 48 hours)
65g caster sugar

Preheat oven to 180 C.  Process the ground almonds and icing sugar together.  Separately, beat egg whites until they start to foam.  Add the sugar and beat until soft peaks form.  Fold the almond mixture into the egg whites. Only fold until the mixture comes together – over beat and you’ll have macawrongs (see above!).  Transfer the mixture to a piping bag with about a 2cm tip.  Pipe the batter onto prepared baking sheets with parchment paper or Silpats, in about 3cm circles.  Allow a few centimetres to spread.  Let the macarons rest for 30 minutes.  Bake for about 12-15 minutes.

 * Filling *
125g dark cooking chocolate, roughly chopped
125ml heavy cream

Gently warm the cream.  Pour over the chopped chocolate and stir until melted and blended.  Cool to room temperature before using.  Sandwich the filling between two macaron shells.  Store assembled macarons in an airtight container.  They are best if refrigerated at least overnight before sampling – if you can resist.  The flavours tend to come together nicely.