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abrikossnitte (apricot-pecan twists)

30 Dec

abrikossnitte coffee tangerine drawing

I spent most of Christmas Eve at our kitchen bench, drinking tea and reading the paper, watching my mother cook. It was a different kitchen, a different city, from where I grew up, but sitting at that old, scratched bench it felt like home. It was where I had breakfast and after school snacks, where I made Christmas cookies with friends, where I perched for a last cup of tea and piece of cake when the house was dark and quiet.

Open on the bench was a copy of The Cooking of Scandinavia, for the split-pea soup recipe. It is a borrowed family tradition: the Swedish have pea soup on a Thursday, we have it on Christmas Eve. A thick yellow soup, flavoured with ham, onion and a few cloves, always served with a dollop of sharp mustard in each bowl. It has nothing to do with Christmas except that it is whole and hearty, good preparation for the onslaught of rich food ahead.

Leafing through the book and laughing (not unkindly) at the old-school food styling, I remembered some of the Scandinavian Christmas traditions I have bumped into: one Christmas Eve with a friend’s family, we had Danish risalamande, or rice pudding with whipped cream and flaked almonds. The person who found the whole almond won a small marzipan pig. This year on 13th December, or Santa Lucia, a Swedish friend brought us gingerbread stars topped with a bit of blue cheese, a surprisingly delicious combination. I have also been following Fanny Zanotti’s dreamy photos and recipes from a snowy Christmas in Sweden.

Then I found a comprehensive section on Danish pastries, which the Danish actually call Wienerbrød, literally ‘bread from Vienna’, which is where flaky breakfast pastries actually originated. Hence viennoiserie in as a general term in France. The recipe is pretty similar to croissant-making, but with egg and milk and fragrant cardamom in the dough, and slightly different folds.

This variation, the abrikossnitte, translated as ‘apricot slips’ are little rectangles of dough – layered with apricot jam – that look like they have been twisted or plaited. I was curious to try the shape, much easier to make than it is to describe. Or draw: my original drawings made my mother laugh for how vulgar they looked. A laminated dough is not difficult, once you know how, but it does take time. (A good holiday project.) So I spent Christmas Eve alternating kneading, rolling, and reading while the dough rested. They were ready for breakfast the next day: flaky twists, sticky and sweet with a crunch from the pecans on top. Perfect with a pot of strong coffee.

abrikossnitte folds

Abrikossnitte (Apricot-pecan twists)

adapted from The Cooking of Scandinavia, by Dale Brown and Time-Life Books

Scandinavian buns are often flavoured with cardamom and may be filled with jam or almond paste as well. This variation look like little twisted rectangles, layered with apricot jam, but the dough can be used for many different shapes or flavours. Try with Nutella instead of jam, or even cheese and mustard.

The whole process will take a minimum of 6 hours (most of which is time in the fridge). Or it can be done over 48 hours, depending on your schedule: just leave the dough in the fridge between steps. If at any point the dough feels too soft or sticky to roll – pop it in the freezer for 5-10 minutes to solidify the butter, then carry on. The dough can also be frozen at any point (up to a month) and defrosted overnight in the fridge, before continuing as before.

makes 8-10

260g plain flour

35g caster sugar

5g / 1 tsp salt

5g / 1 tsp fast-acting yeast

10 cardamom pods / ¼ tsp ground cardamom

100g milk

1 egg (50g)

125g butter, cold

100g apricot jam

to decorate: a little milk + coarse sugar + chopped pecans

Mix all the dry ingredients in a large bowl. (If using whole cardamom pods, remove seeds and grind them in a mortar and pestle.) Make a well in the centre, add the milk and egg and bring everything into a dough with one hand. Add a splash of milk if too dry or a touch of flour if very wet – although it should be a bit sticky at the beginning. Knead for 10 minutes on the counter until smooth and stretchy. Wrap in plastic and chill for 30 minutes.

Prepare the butter slab: place butter in the middle of a large piece of baking paper. Fold it around the butter, like wrapping a present, to make a parcel about 15x20cm, A5 size. Tap butter with a rolling pin to soften, then roll out to fill the paper parcel, of an even thickness all over. Chill until firm.

With a lightly floured counter, roll out the dough to about 20x30cm. Carefully unwrap and place the cold butter on the top two thirds of the dough rectangle (see picture above). Fold over the bottom third, then the top third with the butter. Rotate the dough 90° (so that it looks ‘like a book’ with the seam on the side). Press down gently on each seam – top, bottom and side – with the rolling pin so the butter can’t escape.

Roll out lengthways to 40-50cm. Fold the narrow ends into the middle, then fold in half – this is a ‘double’, ‘wallet’ or ‘book’ fold. Chill for 30 minutes then repeat the double fold, making sure that it looks ‘like a book’ when you begin rolling.

Finally, roll out one more time, just long enough to fold the dough in half. Chill for 2-3 hours or overnight. (Or freeze the dough at this point for later.)

Roll out the dough block to a thin rectangle, about 20x45cm. Spread apricot jam on one long half (10x45cm) then fold over the bare half. Divide the long strip into 8 rectangles. Cut a slit in the middle of each rectangle, then tuck one end under and pull it through the cut, forming a twist effect (see picture below). Space the 8 twists out on a baking tray lined with paper. Loosely cover in plastic and allow to double in size at room temperature or in a gently warm place (no more than 25°C). Allow for at least an hour. OR refrigerate the tray overnight and carry on in the morning. OR freeze twists until later, then defrost when needed on a tray in the fridge overnight.

Preheat oven to 200°C. When twists have doubled, brush gently with milk, sprinkle with coarse sugar and (optional extra) chopped pecans. Bake for 5 minutes at 200°C then lower the heat to 180°C for another 10-15 minutes, until they are nice and golden-brown all over and underneath. Allow to cool for 10-15 minutes before eating.

abrikossnitte cuts

jen’s magic mushrooms

17 Dec

jens mushrooms

In Lisbon, we learned the art of sharing – the scant prices always tricked us into ordering too much. One main course was largely sufficient for two, especially as we had already eaten the olives, brown bread and queijo fresco brought as a cover charge.

In Madrid, we learned about small bites at the Mercado San Miguel – a cone of jamon iberico from one stall, two stuffed olives from another, a few croquetas, a pinxto with salt cod and caviar and one with octopus.

At home, I have been trying to learn that less is more. Instead of worrying about three courses when friends come over, now I offer soup and baguette and cheese. For dessert, a bowl of tangerines, maybe some sesame shortbread and yoghurt. A few flavours at a time, and really good ingredients.

Last night, we had a vernissage at home. (Which means varnishing day, literally, the day before the exhibition when the artist adds the finishing touches to the hanging pictures and their friends come over to chat and criticise and drink champagne.) I wanted a few snacks, inspired by the Iberian peninsula. There was a simple potato tortilla with coarse salt on top. Three red peppers, roasted whole, peeled and marinated in olive oil. Bread and liver paté. And after eating some incredible cepes at Botin, the ‘oldest restaurant in the world’, these stuffed mushrooms.

This is the perfect party dish for the holidays, since the effect outweighs the effort ten times over. It could have a myriad of additions, herbs, truffle salt, pistachios… but in the spirit of simplicity, the mushrooms are perfect as they are. Since you only need two ingredients, you can buy them on the way to a party and make them on arrival. Good for vegetarians too! I can’t take any of the credit though: they come from Jen, founding member of the Grape Leaf Club and Thanksgiving host extraordinaire.

Jen’s Magic Mushrooms

makes a plateful

500g white mushrooms (champignons de Paris)

150g Boursin cheese with garlic and herbs

black pepper

Snap all the stems out of the mushrooms, keep them for something else. Brush any dirt off the mushroom caps then fill the holes with Boursin. Grind black pepper generously over the top.

Bake for 10 minutes at 200C. Serve warm.

stollen (step 2)

20 Dec

stollen step2.1

The year that I announced a hand-made Christmas was not promising. I stayed up all night on Christmas Eve rolling truffles and finishing a painting for my mother. In the morning, I was bleary-eyed and smudged with oil paint. This time around, I made lists in October, went shopping in November and potato-printed wrapping paper in early December. I was feeling as smug as anything.

Then I remembered the stollens. The kilo of raisins, cranberries, apricots and prunes marinating quietly on the top shelf in the kitchen.

To be fair, we all laughed at my nice colleague when she announced her plans to make 25 stollens to send home to Japan – at Christmas time? With our insane work schedules and our ridiculously tiny Parisian kitchens?

But she was determined: months ago she went to G. Detou to buy kilos of fruit. She candied her own orange peel, made her own marrons glacés.  This week she spent her day off kneading dough, and her lunch hour (lunch-twenty-minutes, really) sliding the oblong loaves into the wide baker’s oven, wielding the wooden spade with ease. She bought fancy Bordier butter to brush on top when they came out, the brown crust bursting with fruit, and sucre neige or ‘snow sugar’ to cover the stollens the next day, veritable drifts of icing sugar that contrast with the simple dough and boozy fruit, and help keep the preserve the stollen for a month or two. Or so she tells me. I fear that I am not only lacking her work ethic but also her self-control.

I did copy her and left some dried fruit to soak in the headiness of dark rum. (That was the easy part.) I thought I could make a reasonable dozen. It turns out that my child-size oven will only fit one stollen at a time and my tired hands and brain only want to sleep after the long night-shifts in December.

This time around, then, I shall be a grown-up and admit defeat. I have made you all stollen, people that I love, delicious fruit bread with a marzipan centre that should leave you with a smile and a trail of powdered sugar on your jumper. It is not too rich for afternoon tea and will keep well even after the Christmas madness dies down, well enough to liven up a dull January day.

I have made you stollen, but it is only virtual.

All you have to do is follow the instructions and get your hands a little sticky kneading buttery dough speckled with fruit. Spend a lazy afternoon by the fire as you wait for it to rise, stroke a cat, wrap some presents. Think of me in the bakery, placing raspberries on Christmas logs with geometric precision, as you pat the dough out and enfold tubes of marzipan inside. Try not to cut into the loaf as it comes out of the oven, though you will be tempted by the smell of yeast and almonds. Brush with butter and sprinkle with caster sugar, and wait until the next day. Cover in handfuls of icing sugar, on both sides, and still, don’t eat it! Distract yourself with mince pies, speculoos. Wait a week, if you can, for it to settle and mature, absorb the sugar and become a rounded whole.

However in the spirit of lowering the bar, of reasonable expectations and an absence of self-flagellation, I could certainly understand if you were to nibble, a little early, on your homemade stollen. If you forgot to soak fruit in rum months ago, do it now and leave it for two days – you are forgiven. For it is Christmas and there is no space for guilt, only indulgence.

stollen step2.2


makes 2 large loaves – or even 4 small ones for postable gifts

200g plain flour

30g sugar

5g salt

10g active dried yeast

80ml water

80ml milk

70g egg yolks (about 3 large eggs’ worth)

120g butter, room temperature

360g dried fruit pre-soaked in rum

100g walnuts

250g marzipan

to finish:

120g butter, melted

caster sugar

icing sugar, lots

Mix flour, sugar and salt in a large bowl. In a small jug, mix the hand-warm water with the yeast and just a pinch of sugar. Leave for 15 minutes to bubble. Heat the milk in the microwave, again to body temperature, and stir in the yolks. Pour both milk and yeast into the flour bowl and stir well to combine.

Start to knead the dough. If there are lots of dry flaky bits, add a tablespoon water. When you have made a smooth ball, break off a piece and squish it together with the butter, which should be nice and soft. Then combine with the rest of the dough. It will be a sticky mess, no matter, as long as it is a homogenous sticky mess, work in the fruit. (It is probably best to drain the fruit in a sieve beforehand so that it is not too wet.) When the fruit is evenly distributed, sling the mass of dough back in the bowl and cover with clingfilm. Leave to rise for an hour. (If your kitchen is as cold as mine, microwave a cup of water until bubbling, quickly shove your bowl in the microwave and close the door. Then it will have a warm humid environment for good rising.)

Tip dough out onto a floury bench, roughly shape into two or four balls. My dough was still too shaggy at this point to really form a ball. Dust with more flour and cover with a teatowel. Leave for 20 minutes.

Depending on how dry your dough is, either roll it out or push it into a rectangle about 30x20cm for two large stollens. Squeeze the marzipan into a cylinder 30cm long, enfold in the middle of the dough. Gently place the roll seam side down onto a baking tray lined with baking paper and let rise for 40 minutes.

Heat oven to 175C. Bake stollens for 30-35 minutes, depending on their size. They should be golden brown, firm to the touch and leave a toothpick clean when prodded. Brush immediately all over with melted butter and sprinkle with caster sugar. The next day, cover  with icing sugar, lots and lots of it, top and bottom.

Try to resist eating the stollen for a week. Or at least, eat one loaf and save the other. If you want to post one, dust extra-well with icing sugar, wrap in several layers of clingfilm, then wrapping paper and bubble wrap and you should be good to go.

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