Articles in Baking w/recipe

These carnival doughnuts with boozy cream filling are dusted with confectioners' sugar and ready to eat. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

Two hundred and one years ago today, Europe’s glitterati were assembled in Vienna to dance, eat doughnuts and decide the fate of the world, not necessarily in that order.

The Congress of Vienna, as it was known, would make Davos seem like a convention of disheveled accountants. The 1815 Congress was attended by two matched sets of emperors and empresses, four kings, one queen, two crown princes, three princesses and armies of hangers-on.

Celebration of excess

Technically, the conference was political, meant to reestablish the Old World order, but most of the gossip was about who danced with whom, and who threw the swankiest Mardi Gras do. And during Carnival, no party was a party without great piles of jelly doughnuts or Faschingkrapfen, as the locals still call them. According to news reports,  8 to 10 million of Vienna’s beloved doughnuts were eaten during the 1815 carnival season.

Fried dough is traditional in many Catholic countries during the topsy-turvy period of Carnival, when men dressed as women and sweet doughnuts replaced plain bread. There used to be at least some practical dimension to cooking your yeast dough in fat, since the lard used in most frying was to be off limits for the duration of Lent. It’s one reason Shrove Tuesday is known is as Mardi Gras, or “Fat Tuesday.”

The sin of gluttony

But there is also a theological dimension to indulging in the sin of gluttony. One of the undeniable charms of the Catholic faith is the ability to sin Friday night and repent the following day. With Carnival, that idea is writ large: There’s no point in having six weeks of Lenten penitence if there’s nothing to be penitent about — which is why the whole point of the Mardi Gras is excess, transgression or, to give it a theological dimension, sin.

And what could be more indulgent and sinful than a giant platter of fried, sugary dough balls? If you can include a little booze, as in the recipe that follows, so much the better.

Today’s Austrians are still at it, celebrating the prelude to Lent by consuming vast amounts of fried dough, typically filled with jam, chocolate custard — or my favorite, a boozy custard variation flavored with an eggnog-like tipple called Eierlikör. Elsewhere in Europe, Carnival fritters take on myriad shapes and flavors, whether it’s a twisted pastry, as they are in Lyons, France, or a boozy and fruit-filled fritter in Venice.

The habit was even imported to America. In Pennsylvania Dutch country, they make a doughnut called a fastnacht, the name deriving from a German word for Shrove Tuesday.

But few are as obsessed with the tradition as the Austrians. Viennese records attest to professional doughnut bakers existing in the 15th century. By the 1700s, we hear of Carnival doughnut shooting competitions, where the dough balls were catapulted into sky like clay pigeons. Apparently, the winner got to go home with a set of silver pistols.

(For more on doughnuts, see my book The Donut: History, Recipes, and Lore from Boston to Berlin.)

When jam was a luxury item

It’s hard to imagine today, but the likes of Smucker’s used to be a luxury food — sugar-sweetened jam was the province of fancy confectioners. Accordingly, many “jelly” doughnuts were plain, or filled with some apple-sweetened concoction (fish guts was one favorite during the Middle Ages). In the decade before the famed doughnut congress, a really fine jelly-filled doughnut could cost as much as a multi-course dinner in a restaurant.

These days, the fried, jam-filled dough cushions are cheap and ubiquitous throughout Central Europe. Across Germany the recipe tends to be the same, but the names vary. In Bavaria, you will probably hear Krapfen (as in Austria), in Berlin Pfannkuchen is more common (elsewhere this might refer to a pancake) whereas to the west (though not in Berlin) they use the word Berliner.

President Doughnut?

The naming confusion led to the delightfully off-base urban legend about how in 1963, at the height of the cold war, John F. Kennedy stood before an adulatory crowd of 150,000 West Berliners and declared himself “ein Berliner.” Or a jelly doughnut, according self-declared German grammar experts in the United States, who claimed that by including the article “ein” the President identified himself as a thing rather than a person.

Oddly, the story only first seems to crop up almost two decades after the fact, and would be repeated with ever more embellishment. As a quick troll through youtube.com will confirm, the president did, in fact, declare “Ich bin ein Berliner.” But, as noted German linguist, Jürgen Eichhoff, points out, the speech was vetted by the president’s German hosts, and it is perfectly fine German to declare your self in solidarity with the citizens of Berlin by declaring yourself, “ein Berliner.”

It’s a pity the speech took place in June. If the president had visited Southern Germany or Austria during Carnival and tasted even a tiny percentage of the cream and jelly doughnuts on offer, he may well have begun to resemble a jelly doughnut.

Carnival doughnuts with boozy cream filling (Eierlikör Krapfen)

You can fill these doughnuts with jam, chocolate custard, prune butter or even Nutella, all of which are commonplace in Austria. Lemon curd is delicious too, if not exactly traditional. Like all doughnuts, these are best served as fresh as possible.

Prep time: 40 minutes including custard

Rising time: About 1 hour, 15 minutes

Yield: About 2 dozen doughnuts

Ingredients

2 envelopes active dry yeast

1 ¾ ounce (about 3 tablespoons and 1 teaspoon) (divided) sugar

2 cups and 2 tablespoons (divided) lukewarm milk (about 105° F)

2 pounds 3 ounces (about 8 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour

6 large egg yolks

3 ½ ounces (7 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted and cooled

2 teaspoons grated orange zest

Large pinch of salt

Flour for the work surface

About 1 1/2 cup Eierlikör cream (see following recipe)

Oil or shortening for frying

Confectioners’ sugar for dusting

The ingredients for the boozy cream filling for the Carnival Doughnuts are remarkably simple. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

The ingredients for the boozy cream filling for the Carnival Doughnuts are remarkably simple. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

 

Directions

  1. In a small bowl, stir together the yeast, 1 teaspoon sugar and 1/4 cup milk. Stir to dissolve. Stir in 2 ounces (about 1/2 cup) flour. Cover this “sponge” with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until doubled, about 20 minutes.
  2. In a separate bowl, whisk the yolks until frothy. Gradually, whisk in the melted butter. Stir in the zest.
  3. Transfer the risen sponge to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. On medium-low speed, beat in the egg mixture, the remainder of the milk and sugar then about half the flour. Switch to a dough hook attachment, gradually add the remaining flour and finally salt. Beat on medium-low speed until the dough is smooth, shiny and elastic. About 5 minutes.
  4. Remove the dough from the bowl and set on a floured surface. Knead very briefly to turn it into a ball. Set in a buttered bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until doubled in volume, about 45 minutes.
  5. On a floured surface roll the dough about 3/8 inch thick and using a 2 1/2-inch diameter cookie or biscuit cutter, cut out as many circles as you can. Gather up the scraps and roll out the dough one more time cutting out more circles. This is easier if you let gathered up scraps rest for 5 minutes before rerolling.
  6. Brush the edge of each round with water and mound a scant tablespoon of the cream in the middle of every other circle. Top each with the plain circle making sure the moistened edges touch. Press down on the edges spreading each doughnut slightly. Using the same 2 1/2-inch cookie or biscuit cutter dipped in flour, cut out each doughnut discarding the trimmings.
Top half of the circles with filling. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

Top half of the circles with filling. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

 

7. Brush doughnuts lightly with melted butter on each side. Set on a baking sheet lined with parchment and cover loosely with plastic wrap. Let rise until they are about fifty percent larger, any more than that and they will expand too much during frying.

8. Heat at least 2 inches of oil in a deep pan to 350° F. Slide the doughnuts in one by one making sure not to crowd the pan. Fry until the underside is light brown, about 1 ½ minutes. Turn the doughnut and cook until the other side is brown, about 1 minute. There should be a pale “collar” around the middle of the doughnut where it floated above the fat. With a slotted spoon, lift out the cooked doughnuts and drain on a cooling rack set above a baking pan or on paper towels.

A light circle around their belly indicates the doughnuts were light enough to float. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

A light circle around their belly indicates the doughnuts were light enough to float. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

 

9. Dust with confectioner’s sugar just before serving.

Dust the doughnuts with sugar and serve! Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

Dust the doughnuts with sugar and serve! Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

 

Eierlikör cream

Eierlikör is a liqueur somewhat similar to bottled eggnog, though boozier and noticeably absent of nutmeg. If you have some, omit the rum. Combine ¼ cup of the liqueur with 1 cup of milk and proceed with the recipe as written. Since the liqueur is sometimes hard to find, I have used rum instead though brandy or even a nice bourbon would work. If using rum, make sure it’s aged and of a quality that’s referred to as sipping rum, in other words complex enough to drink neat.

Yield: About 1 1/2 cup

Ingredients

1 cup whole milk

3 large egg yolks

4 tablespoons sugar

3 tablespoons good-quality rum

2 tablespoons corn starch

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Directions

  1. In a small, non-reactive saucepan, bring the milk to a bare simmer.
  2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, sugar, rum, corn starch and vanilla until very smooth. Pour the milk into the egg yolks whisking continually.
  3. Pour the milk mixture into a small saucepan over low-ish heat. Stir continually until it just begins to bubble. Remove from heat and whisk until smooth. If necessary, press through a fine sieve. Transfer to a bowl. Place plastic wrap directly on the surface of the custard and refrigerate until firm. If the custard is too thick, whisk in a tablespoon or two of milk. At room temperature, it should be the consistency of pudding.
The doughnut filling should have a pudding-like consistency. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

The doughnut filling should have a pudding-like consistency. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

Main photo: These carnival doughnuts with boozy cream filling are dusted with confectioners’ sugar and ready to eat. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

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Chocolate and raspberries blend deliciously in these cookies. Credit: Copyright 2016 The Weiser Kitchen

Having been married for more than two decades, I realize many factors contribute to the longevity of my marriage. Perhaps the most important is how my husband and I blend.

People often ask how we’ve done it, as if there is a secret. But there really is no secret. Just like the pairing of raspberry and chocolate, my husband and I are together despite our differences. We know how to compromise and work together, which we actually do most of the time.

Love is not “never having to say you’re sorry.” Chocolate is temperamental, so if you add the wrong amount of moisture from, say, fresh raspberries, you will have something to apologize about. But you get another chance. As in longtime relationships, you learn and grow.

Better together than apart

I love offering up treats that focus the partnership of raspberries and dark chocolate because of the magical synergy that makes them better together than individually.

In the past, dark chocolate was relegated to the lowest shelves in grocery stores. Over the last two decades, though, it has become very au courant. I would like to say that the only reason I give myself permission to eat dark chocolate is because of possible health benefits. But in truth, I like the taste. I find its bitterness to be complex and appealing.

What makes dark chocolate dark?

Dark is only defined relative to all other chocolates. It’s darker in comparison with milk or sweet chocolate candy bars. It has a higher percentage of cocoa, less milk fat and less sugar. The higher the cocoa percentage, the deeper and more intense the chocolate flavor. My favorite for baking and cooking is around 72%.

When choosing your dark chocolate, like choosing a mate, there are two more issues to consider: Where it was born and where (and how) it was processed. Dark chocolate is often labeled with the place of origin, the cocoa percentages and where it was processed. Climate and soil give chocolate its inherent nature, and that’s part of its heritage. The style of preparation is also key. To many, Switzerland’s chocolate production is the gold standard. In my book, it’s equaled or even bettered by Belgian chocolate.

Equal partners

In these cookies, chocolate and raspberries are equal partners. Credit: Copyright 2016 TheWeiserKitchen

In these cookies, chocolate and raspberries are equal partners. Credit: Copyright 2016 The Weiser Kitchen

Lest you think that chocolate is the alpha dog of this relationship, raspberries are an equal partner. They are more than just juicy and lovely to behold. They are rich in cancer-fighting compounds and vitamin C, and full of fiber. They taste sweet — with a uniquely tart undertone and a deep complexity. Just like chocolate. Raspberries aren’t mild-manned, singular sweetness, like the ever-affable strawberry or cherry. They are an assertive flavor in their own right.

Like any paramour partnership, each ingredient brings something unique and yet retains its distinctive character even as it blends with the other ingredients. Raspberries are juicy, but chocolate is silky. Both have a little sexy undertone that makes them interesting. Together they make a wondrous bite.

May they live happily ever after.

Chocolate and Raspberry Swirl Cookies

These charming swirl cookies, tucked, wrapped and snuggled like the spiral of a snail or a conch shell, are crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. The dough is oh-so-gently sweet, and the filling bursts with both the tartness of raspberry and a cacophony of rich chocolates. Like a good relationship, they contrast but support each other and together they create an enticing synergy. These cookies have one more touch of meaning: I developed them for my fantasy meal for Rashida Jones, an actress and writer I admire greatly. She is the co-author, co-producer and star of one of my favorite sad but sweetly tender and real films — “Celeste and Jesse Forever.” I wanted to make a cookie that hinted at the Jewish facet of her identity, so these cookies are a bit rugelach-ish. These are simply a joy to eat and fun to make.

Yield: About 28 to 30 cookies

Prep and baking time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Ingredients

1/2 cup (116 grams/4 ounces) cream cheese, room temperature

1 1/2 sticks (¾ cup/170 grams/6 ounces/12 tablespoons) unsalted butter, room temperature

3/4 cup (54 grams) dark brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon (1.5 grams) salt

1 egg

1 tablespoon vanilla bean paste (see Notes)

1 3/4 cups (228 grams) unbleached, all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting

2/3 cup seedless raspberry jam

6 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, very finely chopped

3 ounces milk chocolate, very finely chopped

1 large egg yolk

2 teaspoons water

1/4 cup brown turbinado sugar

1/2 teaspoon any large-crystal salt

Directions

1. Prepare the dough: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment (or if you are using a hand-held mixer, in a large mixing bowl), combine the cream cheese and butter and mix until completely blended. Add the brown sugar and salt, and mix for 3 to 4 minutes, until light and fluffy.

2. Add the egg and mix well. Add the vanilla bean paste and mix well. Add the flour and mix just until fully combined. Prepare a large piece of plastic wrap and scrape the mixture onto it, wrap, shape into a rough square or rectangle and seal well. Refrigerate for 30 minutes or until fully chilled.

3. Wet a work surface with a few drops of water or a swipe of a wet paper towel. Quickly place a large piece (11 x 14 inches or larger) of parchment paper on top. It should stick. Dust the parchment paper very lightly with flour. Roll a rolling pin in the flour to coat it lightly. Place half of the dough on the floured parchment and roll it into a 6-by-9-inch rectangle that is 1/8 to 1/16 inch thick.

4. Using a pastry brush, coat the rectangle with raspberry jam, leaving a 1/2-inch border bare around the edges. Sprinkle the chocolates over the raspberry jam, distributing the pieces evenly. Position the parchment and dough so that the short side of the parchment is in front of you. Using the parchment, lift the short side of the dough up and over the filling, covering it by about 1/2 inch. Continue rolling to make a cylinder, rolling as tightly as you can. Place the roll on a large piece of plastic wrap and wrap well. Repeat with the second piece of dough. Refrigerate for 30 minutes, or until fully chilled.

5. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line 2 rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper or Silpats and set aside.

6. Remove the rolled dough from the plastic wrap and, with a very sharp, long knife, cut it crosswise into 1/2-inch-wide slices. Place the cookies onto the prepared baking sheets, leaving about 1 inch between the cookies.

7. Prepare an egg wash by beating the egg yolk and water gently in a small bowl. Using a pastry brush, liberally brush the egg wash over the cookies, making sure to cover both the dough and filling. Sprinkle with the sugar and salt and bake (both sheets at once) for 12 to 15 minutes, or until golden brown. Allow to cool completely on the baking sheets before removing them, as the raspberry jelly will be very hot. They will crisp as they cool off.

Notes:

1. Vanilla bean paste is a form of vanilla flavoring that is made from vanilla extract and vanilla bean powder (sometimes it’s what’s left over from producing the extract and sometimes fresh vanilla bean seeds), mixed with a binder such as sugar syrup, corn syrup or, in commercial preparations, xanthan gum. It has the consistency of a paste and an intense, distinctly vanilla flavor. It’s available in well-stocked markets and online, but if you can’t find it, use pure vanilla extract.

2. Turbinado sugar is a minimally processed, minimally refined sweetener made from cane sugar. Brown in color, it is often confused with brown sugar. Turbinado sugar, however, has a higher moisture content, which will make a difference in baking, so it’s best to use the sugar that is called for in the recipe unless you are skilled enough to reduce another liquid in the ingredient list. With its large crystals, it’s great for sugar toppings on cookies and other baked goods. Like demerara sugar, it is made by drying the juice of the sugar cane and then spinning it in a centrifuge to purify it. Store in a cool, dry place.

Main photo: These Chocolate and Raspberry Swirl cookies are crispy on the outside and soft on the inside.

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The proper proofing of the croissant dough leads to a perfect result: fluffy and airy on the inside with brittle, crisp, butter-infused layers on the outside. Delicious! Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

The new year of 2016 is fast approaching. I am now trying to complete the tasks planned for this year but left unfinished, both business and personal. By doing so, I can welcome a new year as a fresh start.

This is what we do in Japan at the end of each year. But something has bothered me for long time, and I have let the years pass without fixing it in my kitchen. It is the croissant. In Japan, croissants are deeply rooted in our culinary culture and have been a part of my life, long before coming to America. So, this October I attended a class at the International Culinary Center in New York City on making authentic croissants. I can now start the new year with the proper croissant that I have dreamed of.

Falling in love with croissants

The proper proofing of the dough leads to a perfect result - fluffy, airy inside with brittle, crisp, butter infused layers on the outside. Delicious! The perfect croissant requires labor, attention and dedication. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

The perfect croissant requires labor, attention and dedication. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

It was 30-some years ago when I first visited Paris and instantly fell in love with croissants. Flaky, crumbling, buttery croissants at small cafés in the city became my breakfast. I can still picture myself in the mornings, standing at a long counter bar in these cafés, staring at bottles of liquor and wine on the shelves behind the counter, and then biting into shattering layers of a crispy croissant. With small sips of strong coffee, I always reached for a second croissant in the always-full basket on the counter.

The richness of the butter stayed long in my stomach, but never enough to spoil my lunch. The real croissants back then were rather small (about 6 inches long), narrow, extremely brittle on the outside and airy inside. But today, this gem seems to have disappeared from the streets of Paris.

A bit of Paris in Tokyo

A dazzling selection of authentic French pastries, including baba au rum, is made daily at this Tokoy pastry shop. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

A dazzling selection of authentic French pastries, including baba au rum, is made daily at this Tokyo pastry shop. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

Now, let me take you to a very special place in Japan. There is a little patisserie called Aux Bon Vieux Temps near Oyamadai station southeast of central Tokyo. I lived near this station for about three years with my husband, Buzz. On one of our weekend walks, we happened to pass by a small, very French-looking pastry store. We entered and found that it was full of the highest quality authentic French breads, pastries and chocolates. The store became our Sunday breakfast pilgrimage destination — especially for very crisp, buttery, authentic croissants and a cup of very good coffee. Because of Aux Bon Vieux Temps, I no longer had to dream about the old croissants of Paris.

No shortcuts allowed

On my latest trip to Aux Bon Vieux Temps in Tokyo, Chef Kawada greeted me from the kitchen with a charming smile. His apron was smeared with splashes of chocolate, butter, cream....the ingredients he was working with on that day. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

On my latest trip to Aux Bon Vieux Temps in Tokyo, Chef Kawada greeted me from the kitchen with a charming smile. His apron was smeared with splashes of chocolate, butter, cream … the ingredients he was working with on that day. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

Chef Katsuhiko Kawata, the owner and pastry chef of Aux Bon Vieux Temps, has been making authentic croissants for years in Tokyo, while the super-sized, bread-like croissants have invaded France and America. Chef Kawata apprenticed and learned the art of baking croissants in his 20s in Paris. He is 70 years old today and still working in his kitchen. His approach to producing quality, artisan croissants and pastries is the same as that of classical music player. During every available minute, he practices his art and polishes his skills. Laziness and shortcuts are out.

On our most recent trip back to Paris, I was saddened by my encounters with ugly, fatty, dense and bread-like croissants at local cafés — the Americanization of the croissant in every aspect of quality had come to France. The use of industrial dough and shortcut baking processes may be among the reasons for this demise. However, last year in March, a very welcoming article appeared in the Wall Street Journal, “Welcome Back to Authentic Croissants in Paris,” by Alexander Lobrano. That article inspired me. I should stop complaining about fake, fat croissants in the city and learn how much labor, time and care is necessary to bake a good croissant by myself.

Dough techniques

Chef Galarch at ICC showed us how to laminate the dough with butter. The temperature must be carefully controlled so that the butter and dough are pliable, but the butter does not melt. Skill, attention and patience are required. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

Chef Gerlach at the International Culinary Center showed us how to laminate the dough with butter. The temperature must be carefully controlled so that the butter and dough are pliable but the butter does not melt. Skill, attention and patience are required. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

The croissant class taught by chef Mark Gerlach at the International Culinary Center was only a scant five hours in duration. The correct way to make croissants requires at least a full 48 hours, the chef said. In order for the students to engage in all processes of the preparation, we used dough that had been kneaded and rested in advance.

Real croissants: It’s in the dough

Here, from the class, are seven tips on how to make real croissants:

  • Use quality ingredients.
  • Dehydrate flour properly.
  • Use butter with 83% fat.
  • Proof the dough at a temperature of 68 F and humidity of 65-70%.
  • Apply proper lamination technique (folding butter into dough multiple times to create very thin alternating layers of butter and dough).
  • Roll out the dough into correct thickness and into the proper size and shape.
  • And finally, bake it just to the state where crumbling and fluffiness meet.
After cutting the dough into proper shape, length and size I rolled it into a perfect crescent shape. After painting with egg wash, my little babies are ready for baking. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

After cutting the dough into proper shape, length and size, I rolled it into a perfect crescent shape. Once painted with egg wash, my little babies are ready for baking. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

Now I am committed to baking fabulous croissants in my kitchen to celebrate the start of an exciting new year. I shall start the project two days before I enjoy the end of this year properly with a bowl of traditional soba noodles on New Year’s Eve. Maybe you will, too.

Croissant Dough

Instructions on creating the croissant can be found in many places, but here is how to make the dough.

Yield: About 1700g (18-21 croissants)

Prep and resting time: 3 1/2 hours

Ingredients

This recipe uses international measurements, because they are more precise — and precision is very important in this recipe. (Equivalents are 1 ounce = 28 grams and 1 pound = 453 grams.)

750 grams bread flour

15 grams salt

100 grams sugar

30 grams softened butter

38 grams fresh yeast

150 grams milk

285 grams water

345 grams butter

Directions

1. Mix the flour, salt, sugar, softened butter, yeast, milk and water in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Mix them on low speed just to combine. Increase the speed to medium and mix for 5 minutes or until a smooth sticky dough comes together.

2. Oil the inside of a large bowl and transfer the dough to the bowl. Cover the bowl with a plastic wrap and leave at room temperature for 1 hour.

3. Remove the dough from the bowl and flatten it. Using a rolling pin, roll it out into a 12-inch square. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate until it is between 50 and 60 degrees F.

4. Place a block of butter between sheets of parchment paper and, using a rolling pin, shape it into a 6-inch by 12-inch shape.

5. Place the butter in the center of the dough. Pull the parchment paper away from the butter. Wrap the dough around the butter, making sure that the dough completely covers the butter but does not overlap at the seam. Lightly pound the dough with a rolling pin to make the butter more extendable.

6. Roll the dough into about a 30-inch by 8-inch rectangle. Perform a double turn.

7. Rotate the dough and roll it again into 30-inch by 8-inch rectangle. Perform 1 single turn. Roll the dough into a 12-inch by 8-inch rectangle.

8. Wrap the dough with plastic wrap and refrigerate it for 1 hour or overnight.

Main photo: The proper proofing of the croissant dough leads to a perfect result: fluffy and airy on the inside with brittle, crisp, butter-infused layers on the outside. Delicious! Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

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Cut-out sugar cookies decorated with sprinkles and frosting. Credit: Copyright 2015 Lynne Curry

Sugar cookies are as essential to the Christmas season as lighted trees, wrapping paper and “Jingle Bells.” While there are as many varieties of holiday cookies as there are Christmas carols — from Linzer cookies to Mexican wedding cookies — I am talking here strictly about decorated sugar cookies.

I grew up with one grandmother in Boston and the other in Buffalo, New York. Their sugar cookies were as different as those two cities. My New England grandmother’s were extra buttery and lightly baked, almost shortbread-like; my New York state grandmother’s version was chewier and baked to a golden brown. Both were washed with egg white and showered with colored sprinkles before baking. I devoured both kinds with equal abandon.

How can there be so much variation in something as simple as a sugar cookie? This question hit me at a holiday party last year, when several friends brought their families’ versions of this holiday classic. As I tasted each one, the cookies were as distinct as snowflakes.

Sugar cookie dough basics

A selection of sugar cookie varieties. Credit: Copyright 2015 Lynne Curry

A selection of sugar cookie varieties. Credit: Copyright 2015 Lynne Curry

When it comes to sugar cookie recipes, the ingredients are universal: flour, baking powder or baking soda, butter, sugar, egg and vanilla (and sometimes milk). So, what causes all the variability?

I gathered a collection of five time-tested recipes and analyzed them. The biggest difference? Ratios, in baker’s terms, or the proportions of the three main ingredients: flour, butter and sugar. These ingredients are the “structural” elements of the cookies, and the ratio of each building block is what makes each cookie unique.

The biggest determinant of taste and texture is the ratio of butter to flour. Among the five recipes, the highest butter percentage was more than 50% of the flour and the lowest came in at just more than 30%. The quantity of sugar also varied wildly from recipe to recipe; the most astonishing example was two recipes that each contained three cups of flour, but one of the recipes called for three times as much sugar as the other (1 1/2 cups compared with 1/2 cup). Any of these ratios largely affect whether cookies turn out cakier, chewier or more crumbly. Interestingly, all the other ingredient ratios, from eggs to baking powder, were more consistent across the board. But each minor change can result in such subtle differences as the flavor of salt or vanilla in the baked cookie. You can’t know it until you taste it.

Baking know-how

The basic sugar cookie recipe can be cut out into seasonally festive shapes and designs. Credit: Copyright 2015 Lynne Curry

The basic sugar cookie recipe can be cut out into seasonally festive shapes and designs. Credit: Copyright 2015 Lynne Curry

The baker, too, introduces variability in such simple recipes as this, especially through measuring and mixing techniques. For example, there are two methods for measuring flour: scoop and sweep or dip. The scoop-and-sweep method has become a standard for recipe writers because it is more consistent. The “dip” method can often pack down the flour too much. Nowadays, more recipes include weights, encouraging bakers to use digital scales, which are more precise and eliminate the need for measuring cups altogether.

Similarly, during the mixing, many bakers falter in the first step of creaming the butter with the sugar. When mixed long enough — about 3 minutes at medium speed in a stand mixer — the butter aerates while the sugar creates the air pockets that the action of the baking powder or soda enlarge to produce the lightest baked treats.

Butter temperature is a third potential pitfall in sugar cookie production. The ideal is room temperature butter — spreadable but still solid, preserving the emulsion of water with butterfat. When it is too cold or too warm, the butter cannot aerate properly to give the dough good structure. The right temperature is also important for shaping and baking, so chilling the dough both after mixing and after cutting shapes makes the best-looking cookies.

All-around cookie dough

Thumbprint cookies are one of many varieties of sugar cookies. Credit: Copyright 2015 Lynne Curry

Thumbprint cookies are one of many varieties of sugar cookies. Credit: Copyright 2015 Lynne Curry

After I tested the five recipes and sampled them side by side with an open mind, I discovered that there is no such thing as a dud sugar cookie. The truth is, the ultimate sugar cookie is the one you like best, whether the recipe is from your grandmother, the local paper or Food52.

What truly makes the sugar cookie a standout — apart from its wonderful simplicity — is the fact that it is the most multitasking cookie of all. With one dough in your repertoire, it’s possible to craft a whole dessert tray worth of distinct Christmas cookies.

Other than using sugar cookie dough for rolled and cut cookies, you can also shape it into sandwich cookies, thumbprints, bars or even slice-and-bake cookies from your freezer. You can flavor the dough with lemon or orange zest, spices like cardamom or nutmeg or almond flavoring — all to your taste. Or, mix in chopped nuts, dark chocolate or crystallized ginger.

When it comes to decorating cut-out sugar cookies, there are two camps: the sprinklers and the frosters. I am firmly in the colored sprinkles camp, both because of my Christmas cookie heritage and because I find most frostings make the whole endeavor too sweet.

No matter the recipe, the true goal is to celebrate the stellar pleasures of the sugar cookie that come but once a year.

Main photo: Cut-out sugar cookies decorated with sprinkles and frosting. Credit: Copyright 2015 Lynne Curry

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These pecan cinnamon macarons are easy to make for the holidays. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Rose Shulman

Finally, there’s an easy macaron that is as enticing as the French classic but can be made in less than half the time. French macarons can be intimidating. The method involves an Italian meringue that requires slow streaming of very hot syrup into egg whites while they’re being whipped, a task that is always a little scary.

These cinnamon pecan macarons, which come from pastry chef Genevieve Gergis, co-owner and pastry chef at Bestia in downtown Los Angeles, don’t call for the Italian meringue. Just fold a mix of ground pecans, powdered sugar, vanilla seeds and cinnamon into beaten egg whites and you’re ready to pipe. The egg whites require an overnight rest, but that’s nothing compared to the 48 hours that many traditional macaron recipes call for.

Gluten-free for the holidays

Box these pecan cinnamon macarons and you have an instant holiday gift. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Rose Shulman

Box these pecan cinnamon macarons and you have an instant holiday gift. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Rose Shulman

These are gluten-free cookies you can add to your usual Christmas repertoire. Macarons are a natural choice because they don’t require any substitutions.

“Flour substitutes take away from the integrity of the original dessert. There are plenty of desserts out there that don’t have gluten and never have,” says Gergis, whose gluten-free desserts fall into that category.

The mix of ground pecans, sugar and cinnamon gives the almost-decadent cookies a texture and praline-like flavor that are unique. “They’re like nutty, super chewy snickerdoodles,” Gergis says. A creamy, unsweetened filling of mascarpone mixed with crème fraiche creates a perfect balance inside the sweet, moist, chewy masterpieces.

Genevieve Gergis’ Cinnamon Pecan Macarons

These macarons use simple ingredients and can be baked in under two hours. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Rose Shulman

These macarons use simple ingredients and can be baked in under two hours. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Rose Shulman

Genevieve Gergis’ Cinnamon Pecan Macarons

Prep time: 15 minutes plus overnight rest at room temperature for egg whites

Batter and baking time: 1 hour 30 minutes

Yield: 3 dozen 2-inch cookies

Ingredients

For the macarons:

A little under 7 large egg whites

2 3/4 cups pecans

4 cups powdered sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

3 tablespoons granulated sugar

Pinch of salt

1/4 vanilla bean, scraped

For the filling:

7 ounces mascarpone

1 ounce crème fraiche

Directions

To facilitate working with this batter, divide the ingredients in half and make two batches. Even if you don’t choose to make two batches, grind the pecans and powdered sugar in two batches to avoid making pecan butter.

1. Put egg whites in a container, a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer. Cover with plastic wrap, pierce plastic wrap in several places and let stand at room temperature overnight.

2. In a food processor fitted with the steel blade, combine half the pecans and half the powdered sugar. Pulse until pecans are finely ground, taking care not to turn them into butter (this is why you should pulse, rather than turn on the machine full tilt). Transfer to a bowl and repeat with remaining pecans and powdered sugar. Stir in cinnamon and set aside.

3. In a small bowl, combine granulated sugar, salt and vanilla seeds.

4. In a standing mixer fitted with the whisk or using electric beaters, beat egg whites on medium low speed until soft peaks form. Turn speed to medium and gradually add granulated sugar mixture, a tablespoon at a time. Beat to stiff but not dry peaks.

5. Carefully transfer egg whites to a very large bowl. A cup at a time, slowly fold in pecan/powdered sugar mix, taking care not to deflate egg whites (they will deflate a little no matter what). Resulting mixture will be thick.

6. Preheat oven to 225 F (200 F for convection) with rack positioned in middle. Fit a pastry bag with a 3/4 inch round tip. Line sheet pans with parchment and use a 2-inch cookie cutter and pencil to trace 2-inch circles on the parchment, leaving 1 inch between circles and staggering rows. Flip parchment over so macarons don’t absorb pencil marks.

7. Holding pastry bag with tip pointed straight down, pipe 2-inch circles. Bake 10 minutes in a regular oven, 7 minutes in convection. Cookies should have a skin on surface. Remove from oven and turn heat up to 325 F for regular oven, 315 F for convection. Return to oven and bake 15 minutes. Cookies should be crisp on outside and soft on inside. Remove from oven and allow to cool completely before removing from parchment.

8. Whip together the mascarpone and crème fraiche until smooth. Turn over half the macarons and place a teaspoonful of cream mixture on each bottom half, then top with another half and gently press together. For best results refrigerate overnight (but the macarons are also good right away). They will keep for a few days in the refrigerator. Don’t stack them, but stand them side by side in a container or box.

 Main photo: These pecan cinnamon macarons are easy to make for the holidays. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Rose Shulman

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Uri Scheft's pistachio financiers are baked in small pyramid-shaped molds. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Rose Shulman

Recently, master baker Uri Scheft of Breads Bakery in New York and Lehamim Bakery in Tel Aviv shared this recipe for his pistachio financiers. Baked in small pyramid-shaped silicon molds, they are delicious.

What I liked best about the little cakes were their crispy edges. This made me think the batter would make delicious tuiles, those delicate, crisp buttery cookies that are draped over a rolling pin when they come out of the oven so that when they cool they’re shaped like a roof tile.

I remembered that another great pastry chef, Sherry Yard, also uses cake batter for her tuiles; her recipe is in the pound cake chapter of her cookbook “The Secrets of Baking.”

My instincts were right! The nutty, crisp, rich-tasting tuiles are fabulous and have great staying power.

You will need pistachio paste, which is available in baking supply stores, Middle Eastern markets and online. If you can’t decide which to make, use half the batter for the financiers, refrigerate the other half overnight and the next day make tuiles.

Uri Scheft’s Pistachio Financiers or Tuiles

Delicate, crisp tuiles can be made from the same recipe as financiers. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Rose Shulman

Delicate, crisp tuiles can be made from the same recipe as financiers. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Rose Shulman

Prep Time: 1 hour (add overnight rest for batter for tuiles)

Baking Time: 20 to 25 minutes for financiers; 1 hour 20 minutes for tuiles

Yield: 50 tuiles or petits fours

Ingredients

6 ounces butter, preferably French style, such as Plugrà

5 large egg whites, at room temperature

1 cup sugar

1 cup less 1 tablespoon almond flour (without skins)

1/3 cup potato flour (or potato starch), sifted

1 teaspoon dark rum

2 scant tablespoons pistachio paste

2 tablespoons chopped pistachios (optional)

Directions

1. Place butter in a small saucepan and melt over medium heat until solids have settled and butter is golden brown with a nutty aroma (the solids on bottom of pan will be a darker brown), 5 to 10 minutes. Remove from heat and transfer to a heat-proof measuring cup. You should have 2/3 cup melted butter. Allow to cool to lukewarm, 90 to 105 degrees F. This will take more than 30 minutes, but best not to chill in the refrigerator, as butter should be liquid when you add it to the batter. Meanwhile, weigh out remaining ingredients.

2. Combine egg whites and sugar in bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle and beat at medium speed for 2 minutes. Stop and scrape down sides of bowl and beaters. Add almond flour and beat for 2 minutes at medium speed. Scrape down bowl and beaters.

3. Add cooled butter, including browned bits at bottom of pan, and beat at low speed for 1 minute. Add potato flour and beat at low speed until incorporated, about 1 minute. Scrape down bowl and beaters.

4. Add rum and pistachio paste and beat at medium-low until well combined.

Baking differences

Tuiles and financiers use the same ingredients, including rum, almond flour, potato flour and pistachio paste. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Rose Shulman

Tuiles and financiers use the same ingredients, including rum, almond flour, potato flour and pistachio paste. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Rose Shulman

For Financiers:

5. Preheat oven to 350 F, with rack in the middle. Line baking sheets with 1 1/2- x 1 1/2-inch pyramid-shaped silicon molds. Pipe or scoop batter into molds (I use a 1 1/4-inch scoop). Bake 20 to 25 minutes, switching sheets front to back halfway through, until cakes are dark brown on the edges and a tester comes out clean when inserted. Remove from oven and allow to cool completely in molds for one hour. They will detach from molds easily once cool.

For Tuiles:

5. Cover batter tightly and refrigerate overnight for best results.

6. Remove batter from refrigerator and allow to come to room temperature. Preheat oven to 350 F with rack positioned in middle. Line sheet pans with silicone mats or with parchment. (Silicone mats are easiest to work with).

7. Using a 1 1/4-inch scoop or by tablespoons, scoop batter onto baking sheets leaving a good 2 1/2 inches between each one and staggering rows. If desired, sprinkle chopped pistachios on top. You will only be able to get about 8 to a sheet. For super thin tuiles, use a small offset spatula to spread batter. (It will spread anyway when you bake, but spreading it before results in very thin, lacy tuiles). Place in the oven and bake 10 minutes, or until golden brown on edges and beginning to color on top. Cookies will spread on baking sheets.

8. Meanwhile, place a rolling pin on your work surface propped against something so that it won’t roll, or on a sheet pan, propped against edges. When cookies are ready, remove from oven and let sit on pan for 30 seconds to a minute, then slide an offset spatula under and drape each cookie while still pliable over rolling pin. They will curve and cool quickly. Transfer to a rack to cool completely. If cookies cool too much and are not pliable by the time you get the last ones off the baking sheet, place back in oven for 1 minute and they will soften up again. Repeat with remaining batter until all of it is used up.

Main photo: Uri Scheft’s pistachio financiers are baked in small pyramid-shaped molds. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Rose Shulman

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Try serving a

For simple holiday entertaining, take a cue from Italy and select a few quality ingredients that are wonderful alone, but that can dress up for any party. Three Italian classics — Grana Padano aged cheese, Prosciutto di San Daniele and Mortadella Bologna — can create dozens of delectable nibbles.

Following is a look at some of the possibilities.

Entertaining gluten-free

Wrap a slice of succulent prosciutto around veggies for elegant Italian umami "sushi." Credit: Courtesy of Mortadella Bologna IGP

Wrap a slice of succulent prosciutto around veggies for elegant Italian umami “sushi.” Credit: Courtesy of Mortadella Bologna IGP

Thinly slice prosciutto or Mortadella Bologna and serve on a pretty wooden board. Set out wedges of Grana Padano  with a cheese knife and clusters of grapes for simple, elegant party nibbles.

Wrap a slice of succulent prosciutto around veggies for Italian umami “sushi.” Try zucchini, carrots, enoki mushrooms, cucumber and avocado, which all pair wonderfully with prosciutto. Mortadella Bologna also makes a great roll-up. Sprinkle with chopped pistachios for color and crunch.

Fruit pair perfectly with cold cuts and cheese. Melon is a classic with prosciutto, so for a festive variation, dice cubes to create mini bites. Cantaloupe and honeydew melons make a pretty color mix.

Figs and fruits

Figs pair perfectly with cold cuts and cheese. Credit: Courtesy of "Philosopher’s Kitchen," Random House

Figs pair perfectly with cold cuts and cheese. Credit: Courtesy of “Philosopher’s Kitchen,” Random House

Figs too are a classic pairing, but fresh figs aren’t readily available during the holidays, so use dried instead. Simmer a dozen dried figs in a cup of white wine to make them soft and summer sweet.

Top with anything you like including prosciutto, chopped pistachios with honey and mascarpone cheese with a sprinkle of lemon zest.

Guests love a little skewer to nibble with a glass of bubbly Prosecco Superiore. Try Prosciutto di San Daniele and Grana Padano served with fried sage leaves and cubes of Mortadella Bologna accompanied by pistachio cream, made by blending finely ground pistachios with a little heavy cream and mascarpone or cream cheese. Fresh fruit like pears, apples and grapes pair perfectly with the naturally creamy sweetness of Grana Padano. It’s also wonderful with dried fruit. Spear chunks with olives and dried cranberries for a tangy-savory combo.

A toast to the party

Melt Grana Padano cheese with prosciutto or mortadella for bruschetta toppings. Credit: Courtesy of Grama Padano DOP

Melt Grana Padano cheese with prosciutto or mortadella for bruschetta toppings. Credit: Courtesy of Grama Padano DOP

Grana Padano lends itself to all sorts of bruschetta toppings. Melt onto bread to accompany Prosciutto di San Daniele or Mortadella Bologna, or for a vegetarian option top with chopped fresh or sun dried tomatoes or red bell peppers.

Mini sandwiches are always a party favorite. For an Italian riff — called “panettone gastronomico” — horizontally cut tall brioche bread into 7 equal slices to create 3 sandwich layers. Use your favorite filling, then stack and slice into triangles. The top section sits above as a decorative garnish.

Little baked pasta cups make a versatile appetizer. Just a quarter pound of pasta makes 24 bite-sized treats that can be eaten plain or topped. To make, combine cooked angel hair pasta with a beaten egg and some grated aged cheese. Twirl on a fork and bake into mini muffin tins until firm and golden at the edges. Then serve plain or topped with Prosciutto di San Daniele, Mortadella Bologna, shaved Grana Padano or pesto.

Everything Cheese Crisps

These cheese crisps are perfect to serve with cocktails, for garnishing soup or salad, or just as an afternoon snack. Credit: Copyright 2011 Quentin Bacon

These cheese crisps are perfect to serve with cocktails, for garnishing soup or salad, or just as an afternoon snack. Credit: Copyright 2011 Quentin Bacon

The usual bag of chips is OK for everyday, but dazzle party guests with these creative cheese crisps by cookbook author and PBS TV host Ellie Krieger who notes, “These easy, cheesy nibbles are a gigantic punch of Grana Padano flavor in a light lacy crisp. I brought in an extra touch of fun by flavoring them with all of the seasonings of my favorite “everything” bagel.”

Adapted from Comfort Food Fix, © 2011 by Ellie Krieger. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

Prep time: 10  minutes

Bake time: 8 minutes

Total time: 18 minutes

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

2/3 cup finely grated Grana Padano cheese (2 ounces)

1 teaspoon all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons sesame seeds

1 teaspoon poppy seeds

1 teaspoon dried minced onion

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

Directions

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a small bowl, combine the cheese, flour, seeds, onion, and garlic powder. Spoon heaping teaspoons of the mixture onto the prepared baking sheet, leaving 2 inches between each mound. Using your fingers, pat the mounds down, spreading them so each is about 2 1/2 inches in diameter. Bake until they are golden brown, about 8 minutes. Allow to cool completely on the baking sheet before lifting them off carefully. Make the crisps up to 2 days ahead and store in an airtight container at room temperature.

Main photo: Try serving a “panettone gastronomico,” a sandwich tower, at your next party. Credit: Copyright Rovia Signorelli, Alessandria Italy

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Main photo: Speculaas With Almond Filling are best when made with freshly ground spices. Credit: Copyright 2015 Michael Krondl

Long before there were Christmas lights, cards, trees or even Santa Claus, and before there were Christmas cookies, richly frosted Yule logs or candy canes … there was gingerbread.

At least since the Middle Ages, what we loosely call gingerbread — richly spiced cookies, wafers and honey breads — has been part of the winter holiday season. There’s a street in the medieval heart of Prague named after spiced honey cake makers. And we know that the Bavarian city of Nürnberg (Nuremberg) was a gingerbread exporter in the 14th century, as was the Dutch city of Deventer not much later. Ever since, the scent of Christmas has been that of gingerbread.

In much of central and northern Europe, the holiday season stretches for several weeks, beginning on St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6) and ending a month later on Epiphany (around Jan. 6). St. Nicholas was a semi-mythical 4th century Middle Eastern bishop, the sometime patron saint to merchants, sailors and thieves. In his modern incarnation, he is mostly known for rewarding good children and punishing the bad.

The Netherlands Santa: An old bishop and his servant

In the Netherlands, "Sinterklaas" arrives each year accompanied by a black-faced companion named Black Pete, deriving from Holland’s colonial history. Credit: Copyright 2015 Michael Krondl

In the Netherlands, “Sinterklaas” arrives each year accompanied by a black-faced companion named Black Pete, deriving from Holland’s colonial history. Credit: Copyright 2015 Michael Krondl

In the Netherlands, the white-bearded bishop (known there as Sinterklaas) arrives each year (supposedly) from Spain, accompanied by a black-faced companion named Black Pete. The tradition of an African servant seems to derive from Holland’s not altogether savory colonial history. That it endures is baffling to most outsiders even if the Dutch insist that it is all just good fun.

America’s Santa Claus is largely derived from Sinterklaas, though he has no sidekick, is much jollier (perhaps because of the remittances from starring in Coca Cola ads?) and hails not from sunny Spain but from the North Pole.

Dutch bakers and their aromatic dough

The Dutch speculaas is made with a richly aromatic dough. Credit: Copyright 2015 Michael Krondl

The Dutch speculaas cookie is made with a richly aromatic dough. Credit: Copyright 2015 Michael Krondl

Whereas edible Santas are usually made out of chocolate, Saint Nicks come in the form of gingerbread; these may be the original gingerbread men. Dutch bakers follow medieval tradition by continuing to press richly aromatic dough into elaborately wooden molds carved in the shape of angels, animals and hearts, but most especially Sinterklaas. Since the large cookies are the mirror image of the mold, the Dutch named them speculaas — derived from the Latin word for a mirror — a term that they now use for any kind of gingerbread.

This shape, along with the distinctive spicy scent, announces the season. The winter treats are richly flavored with exotic, Eastern spices. In the Middle Ages, it was widely believed that spices such as cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon originated in the Garden of Eden, which was supposedly located somewhere east of the Holy Land. Accordingly, martyred saints, or their remains, were believed to emanate sweet and fragrant spice — and, naturally, so did their gingerbread images.

Moreover, some of these original edibles were literally precious because of the high cost of the Eastern aromatics. Imported from half the world away by ship, camel and ox cart, the spices were both expensive and rare. Accordingly, how much and which of these costly seasonings ended up in the cakes depended on the time and place. The British were fond of ginger, so we call our spice cakes “gingerbread.” In Germany and other parts of central Europe, the local “gingerbread,” or Lebkuchen, often contained no ginger whatsoever. The famous Nürnberg interpretation was made with cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and cardamom. And the cheap versions, sold at country fairs, were concocted of rye flour and honey and were barely spiced at all.

In the days when sugar was an elite treat, the peasantry often grated this inexpensive Lebkuchen on their porridge in lieu of sugar. Meanwhile, the French have their own spice bread, or pain d’épice, and add anise to the usual sweet spice masala.

Many varieties of spicy treats

This recipe for a spicy treat is adapted from the Dutch culinary historian Christianne Muusers and features an almond filling with many layers of aroma. Credit: Copyright 2015 Michael Krondl

This recipe for a spicy treat is adapted from the Dutch culinary historian Christianne Muusers and features an almond filling with many layers of aroma. Credit: Copyright 2015 Michael Krondl

Yet no one is quite as obsessed with gingerbread as the Dutch. Food historian Peter Rose has documented some 47 varieties of speculaas, and that doesn’t even include the pepernoten (spice cookies) handed out by black-faced Netherlanders on St. Nicholas Day.

Nobody can touch the Dutch when it comes to the quantity of spice in their gingerbread. This too is part of a colonial legacy, when the little country controlled the world supply of nutmeg and cloves. Today, the Dutch make cheese studded with whole cloves and often include nutmeg along with salt and pepper when setting the table. Not surprisingly, some speculaas has the kick of a cinnamon red hot. Most Netherlanders wouldn’t be able to tell you what goes into speculaas spice, since they buy the mixture already mixed, but cloves and nutmeg are typical, as is white pepper.

No matter the recipe, it seems purposely made to ward off Holland’s damp winter chill. A bite of sweet, intensely spicy speculaas sends a warm glow throughout your body. It’s not hard to understand why this was once thought an edible morsel of paradise.

Speculaas With Almond Filling

This recipe is loosely adapted from the Dutch culinary historian Christianne Muusers. She suggests putting a little rose water into the almond filling, which adds yet another layer of aroma to this profoundly spiced treat. Though just about everyone in Holland will just reach for a package of prepared speculaas spice, it’s worth grinding your own spices — they’ll be much more intense. I like to use muscovado, a natural brown sugar, in the dough, although another brown sugar will certainly work.

Prep time: About 45 minutes

Baking time: About 30 minutes

Total time: 1 hour and 15 minutes

Yield: 2 dozen pieces of speculaas

Ingredients

Spice Dough:

2 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 cup natural demerara sugar (or substitute light brown sugar)

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1 teaspoon ground cloves

1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper

3/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom seed

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons (1 1/4 stick) cold, unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

3 1/2 ounces (about 1 cup) sliced almonds

Grated zest of 1 lemon

1 large egg

2 tablespoons heavy cream

Almond filling:

10 ounces almond paste

1 egg

1 tablespoon rose water

1 lightly beaten egg for brushing

2 dozen to 3 dozen whole blanched almonds for decorating

Directions

1. To make the dough, combine the flour, demerara sugar, spices, salt, baking powder and baking soda in a food processor. Pulse to combine. Add the butter and pulse until the butter pieces are about as big as flakes of oatmeal. Transfer mixture to a bowl. Stir in the sliced almonds and lemon rind. Stir together the 1 egg and the cream. Sprinkle this over the flour mixture, then gently toss this mixture with your hands until you have a rather dry dough. If it doesn’t hold together, add another tablespoon or two of cream. It should be about the consistency of pie dough. Cover and refrigerate overnight; this allows the flavor of the spices to infuse the dough.

2. Make the filling by putting the almond paste into a food processor and gradually adding the egg and then the rose water, teaspoon by teaspoon. You need the filling to be spreadable but not runny. This may be made a day ahead and refrigerated.

3. When you’re ready to bake the speculaas, set your oven to 350 F. Take half the dough and roll it out on a floured board to about a 1/4-inch thick round or rectangle. (If it feels too hard, let it sit out for half an hour before rolling.) Transfer this to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Use plenty of flour when you’re rolling out the dough, and don’t worry if it breaks as you are transferring it — you’ll most likely need to cut it and patch it anyway to form an even round or rectangle.

Almond paste filling

The almond paste filling should be be spreadable but not runny. Credit: Copyright 2015 Michael Krondl

The almond paste filling should be be spreadable but not runny. Credit: Copyright 2015 Michael Krondl

4. Spread the almond paste over the dough, leaving a border of about 1/4 inch naked. Roll out the rest of the dough, drape it over the filling, and even out the dough to make a smooth edge.
Brush generously with lightly beaten egg, using the brush to smooth out any cracks and crevices. Using a knife, trace diamonds over the surface. Decorate the top with whole, blanched almonds.

5. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes in the preheated oven until firm and a rich brown. Make sure to cut it into pieces before it cools completely. I usually cut it into squares or diamonds of about 2 inches.

Main photo: Speculaas With Almond Filling are best when made with freshly ground spices. Credit: Copyright 2015 Michael Krondl

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