The month of December marks the twentieth month of our international online cooking group, The Cottage Cooking Club. As a group, recipe by recipe, we are cooking and learning our way through a wonderful vegetable cookbook written in 2011 by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, entitled „River Cottage Everyday Veg".
One of the declared aims of our cooking group is to make a decided effort to use as much regional, organic and also seasonal produce as is reasonably possible.
This month I prepared three of the five designated recipes, plus a few extra ones. I will write about each dish in the order in which I prepared them.
My first recipe for this December post is the colorful Spicy carrot and chickpea pockets (page 193) from the chapter "Bready Things“.
This dish is all about buttery carrots and creamy chickpeas and cumin and that Spanish hotsmoked paprika – a perfect dish for the holidays as the ingredients that this recipe calls for can easily be bought way in advance or, depending on how well stocked your fridge and cupboards are, can easily be prepared at a moment´s notice.
I chose to serve the Spicy chickpeas and carrots as a starter with freshly backed warm Turkish Flatbread with Sesame Seeds instead of serving them with pita pockets. Those pita pockets are so omnipresent around here these days, that I presently find myself getting just a bit tired of those bready pockets. I also thought that serving Greek yoghurt alongside – to soothe some of the heat from the hot smoked paprika – was a really good and tasty idea. If you are a bit of a spice lover and enjoy eating chickpeas and carrots, then this dish is definitely for you.
The second recipe I prepared was a take on one of my favorite and most beloved recipes from the book, the Blue cheese and chives tart (page 216) from the chapter of "Store-Cupboard Suppers“.
This is another recipe that can come in very handy in the month of December when we are all so very busy with cooking up a storm for the holidays. With but a handful of ingredients, this is one of the best and most flavorful tart recipes that you can make. Storebought puff pastry, tomatoes, a good olive oil, freshly ground black pepper and a bit of sea salt – plus that lovely French Roquefort (or other blue cheese) and freshly cut chives from the garden. Could not be easier or more tasty than that.
I have made this tart more times than I can remember using feta or mozzarella and different herbs such as thyme or fresh basil (added after baking) – it is always a hit and I am always grateful for this recipe.
My third recipe this month was a dish that I missed last month, the Jerusalem artichoke frying pan gratin (page 382) from the chapter of "Side Dishes“. We love a good gratin, especially potato gratin, so I was curious to see how well this gratin would be received by the crowds – the cooking technique here is a bit different. As the title implies, first you pan fry the Jerusalem artichoke slices than you grill them.
The first step in this recipe is to fry an onion in some butter and olive oil, then add the sliced Jerusalem artichockes with thyme, salt and pepper and a bit of water (or stock, in my case) simmer and cook for about 20 minutes. The second step is to transfer the cooked mixture to a gratin dish (or individual dishes in my case) add crème fraîche and cheese and place under the grill for a few minutes – done.
While the sliced Jerusalem artichokes are prepared with herbs and cream and cheese, their distinct flavor is still very present. So, if you enjoy the taste of Jerusalem artichockes, this gratin is definitely for you. We enjoy eating them in different kinds of dishes and I love them in soup (even won a cooking competition with them in October) but, again, this is a question of personal taste as the flavors in this dish are rather a bit unusual.
The fourth dish was a repeat for me – another recipe I keep coming back to. Aren´t these the best cookbooks that have you come back to the same recipes again and again?! For Christmas day, I served an entrée of Chestnut and sage soup (page 158) from the chapter of "Hefty Soups“ that we first made back in November 2014.
Although I have made and written about this soup on more than one occasion, I still love it with fresh and abundant sage from our garden and I still consider it to be my favorite soup from the book.
What is not to love about the taste of creamy and velvety chestnuts. When we have fresh chestnuts from the tree in our garden, I use those. Later in the season, I buy vacuum-packed ones from France (as the recipe suggests). When I make this soup. I like to add the white parts of a leek for even more taste and instead of the crème fraîche, I sometimes go for milk (3.5%) and foamed milk. For the drops of oil, I like to use a really deeply flavored cold pressed pumpkin seed oil from my local oil mill. We love that soup and it made for a nice and elgant festive first course.
The fifth dish I made this month was a recipe that we made back in June 2014, the Pizza with new potatoes and blue cheese (page 182) from the chapter of "Bready Things“.
This time instead of the blue cheese, I used goat cheese with a red wine rind from my favorite regional goat cheese manufacturer. When we visited them the other day, I had brought back more cheese than we could handle all at once and I kept wondering what to do about this one with the red wine rind – I also had some wonderful small potatoes left over from Christams dinner, the gnarly ones called "les rats“ or "the rats“, so what better way to use those two lovely left-overs than to make this much beloved pizza of a different kind – with no tomatoes in sight but tasty potatoes, fresh goat cheese and fragrant rosemary from our garden.
The sixth recipe I made was actually in the December line-up of recipes, the Chachouka (page 20), from the chapter of "Comfort Food & Feasts“. This is a North African pepper and tomato stew with eggs baked on top, not unlike the famous Italian Peperonata that we made back in July of this year.
This was a first for me and the kids loved it – with onions, garlic, red peppers and tomatoes as well as cumin seeds, Spanish hot smoked paprika, saffron and eggs, this was a true winner of a recipe – I might not have cooked it quite as down as Hugh did but my taste testers preferred it that way and who am I to argue with them?!
The seventh dish I made this month is our all-time favorite potato salad from the book, the New potato salad „tartare“ (page 79) that we made back in June 2015 and that I have served many times since. We love the mixture of tangy Cornichons and capers, fresh dill and softly-boiled eggs and small French potatoes. One of the best potato salad recipes out there, trust us, we are know a thing or two about potato salads around here.
In summary, another month full of wonderful vegetable dishes – this month we were delighted to enjoy a few new as well as some much beloved recipes, main courses as well as side dishes or appetizer for lunch and dinner.
What a year 2015 has been - lots of wonderful vegetable dishes and I am quite proud of all my devoted taste testers and owe them a huge "Thank you!" for their enthusiasm! Another heartfelt "Thanks!" goes to my fellow members of The Cottage Cooking Club for their enthusiastic support of our international online cooking group! Hopefully, in the coming year we will continue to cook together as a group and move to a different book from the same author!
Please note, that for copyright reasons, we do NOT publish the recipes. If you enjoy the recipes in our series, hopefully, the wonderfully talented and enthusiastic members of The Cottage CookingClub and their wonderful posts can convince you to get a copy of this lovely book. Better yet, do make sure to join us in this cooking adventure.
To see how wonderful all the dishes from my fellow Cottage Cooking Club members turned out this month, please visit here. They would all appreciate a visit!
Gingerbread cookies or Lebkuchen are traditional German cookies made from honey (or molasses), citrus, spices and flour. Traditionally, all those spices made them expensive and they were considered to be health-giving, so they were sold in pharmacies. Hence the name „Lebkuchen“ which is derived from the German word for life, Leben. Thankfully, spices are now available to all of us, Please note that this lovely Honey-Gingerbread cookie recipe uses honey instead of molasses, lending a wonderful smell and taste to these Christmas cookies that are sure to become one of your favorites. And the addition of Dutch process cocoa powder lends these cutouts a gorgeous, rich hue with just a very delicate hint of chocolate flavor.
The secret in this recipe is the raising agent. You should not be tempted to use baking powder (Backpulver), instead you should go the extra mile and try to track down the thing us Germans traditionally use – Pottasche, or potassium carbonate. This both gives the gingerbread dough a “lift” but also causes it to keep absorbing moisture after baking, so the biscuits will become softer with time.
250 grams runny honey (use mild tasting, local honey if at all possible)
250 grams light brown Muscovado sugar (or use other fine light brown baking sugar)
150 grams unsalted butter
625 grams AP (plain) flour
a good pinch of fine sea salt
finely grated zest of an organic lemon (or use organic orange zest instead)
2 tsps. gingerbread spice mix* (Lebkuchengewürz)
25 grams Dutch process cocoa powder
1 egg (L), organic or free range
1 tsp. potassium carbonate** (Pottasche)
2 tbsps dark rum or water
(*) To make your own gingerbread spice mix, consult my recipe here.
(**) To get potassium carbonate outside of Germany, buy it from your favorite German Deli or order it online.
Ingredients for the Icing
250 grams confectioners' sugar, sifted, plus more if needed
1 egg white (L), organic or free range
a few drops of freshly squeezed lemon juice
Preparation of the Cookie Dough
To a medium saucepan, add the honey, sugar and butter. Heat gently using medium high heat and stir with a wooden spoon until the sugar has dissolved completely. Take the saucepan off the heat, transfer the honey mixture to a bowl and cool completely.
Transfer the cooled honey mixture to a large mixing bowl, then add the flour, salt, lemon zest, the spice mix, cocoa powder and the egg to the butter mixture.
Using the dough hooks of your mixer, mix all the ingredients together well.
In a small bowl or cup, stir together the potassium carbonate and the rum (or water) – stir until completely dissolved. Then add to the cookie dough.
Using the dough hooks of your mixer again, mix the dough until it is firm and sticky.
Cover the mixing bowl with food wrap and place in the refrigerator for at least four hours or better yet, overnight.
The next day, line your baking sheets with parchment paper.
Pre-heat your oven to 180 ° C (356° F).
Take a portion of the dough and place it on your lightly floured work surface.
Cut out cookie using your favorite seasonal cookie cutters and place on the baking sheets.
Bake the cookies for about 12 minutes or until slightly puffed and until edges turn golden.
Let cookies cool completely on baking sheets set on wire racks.
Preparation of the Icing
Combine all ingredients in a bowl, and beat with a mixer on low speed until smooth, about 4 minutes.
If icing is too thick, add some more lemon juice, a few drops at a time, until icing has the consistency of glue; if too thin, beat icing 2 to 3 minutes more, or add more sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time.
Icing the Cookies
Place icing in a pastry bag fitted with a small plain round tip. Pipe details on cookies.
Let set completely, uncovered, at room temperature, at least one hour or (ideally) overnight.
These Honey-Gingerbread Cutouts puff up a bit and if you can leave them, they do get better with time. So, if you are able, I really recommend waiting a few hours or a day before munching away on them and do try to get your hands on potassium carbonate.
Another quite handy little thing about making these is that they lend themselves to being made when you have some spare time during the busy pre-Christmas season. You can easily make the dough ahead of time, let it sit for up to a few days so that the aroma of the spices can develop, then shape and bake the cookies a few days later.
These Honey-Gingerbread Cutouts really are sensational. If you can get hold of the Pottasche, then add these lovelies with the real taste of Christmas to your „must-bake“ list and let your imagination be your guide when cutting out your favorite shapes.
When I baked these, I used cookie cutters shaped after the famous Swedish Dalecarlian horse, a traditional carved, painted wooden horse statuette originating in Swedish province Dalarna (Dalecarlia). In the old days the Dalecarlian horse was mostly used as a toy for children. Today it has become a symbol of Dalarna, as well as Sweden in general. Several different types of Dalecarlian horses are made, with distinguishing features common to the locality of the place where they are carved and painted. Loved these ever since I was a child and laid my eyes on them!
Lussekatter are typically eaten in Sweden for St. Lucia (the Festival of Light), on 13 December. This is a celebration of light in the middle of winter, with processions and candles. Young girls are dressed in white robes with a red sash, with one girl selected as “Lucia” who wears a crown of lit candles, the others carrying a single candle. At home, the eldest girl dresses up in robe, sash, and candle crown, and delivers coffee and lussekatter, or S shaped saffron buns to her parents for breakfast.
My best friend in primary school was named "Lucia" and she was always chosen to lead a St. Lucia procession on December 13th. Whether you are Swedish or not, you should give these saffron buns a try. Lussekatter look pretty, they have an attractive shape, and an amazing color, like a bright yellow, almost golden brown. And as they bake, the kitchen is filled with the sweet aroma of saffron and yeast. Once they are baked, the buns are light and soft, and they have a lovely rich, buttery flavor highlighting the aroma of saffron. They are definitely best enjoyed while still warm.
St. Lucia Buns - Lussekatter
(yileds about 20 St. Lucia Buns)
2 pkg. dry active yeast (4 1/2 tsp) or use fresh yeast
6 1/2 cups AP (plain) flour
2 eggs, (L), organic or free range, well-beaten, plus one egg white
a few raisins to decorate
Crumble saffron threads into melted butter.
Let sit about 30 minutes to an hour (this intensifies the saffron flavor).
Heat milk to a light boil, turning off heat when it reaches the scalding point (with small bubbles across the top).
Stir in melted butter, sugar, and salt.
Pour mixture into mixing bowl and allow to cool until “finger-warm” (still quite warm, but just cool enough to touch).
Stir in yeast and let sit for 10 minutes.
Mix 3 1/2 cups flour into liquid. Stir in two well-beaten eggs. Add enough of the remaining flour to form a soft dough.
Transfer dough to a large greased bowl and turn to coat all sides. Cover with a tea towel and allow to rise until doubled, about 1 hour.
Punch down risen dough. Lightly knead two or three times on a floured surface. Pinch off small handfuls of dough (about the size of a racquetball) and roll into "snakes." Shape snakes into "S"-shaped buns.
Place on a parchment lined baking sheet.
Cover with the tea towel again, and allow to rise until doubled (about another hour).
When ready to bake your Lussekatter, make sure to pre-heat your oven to 190° C (375º F).
Decorate Lussekatter with raisins, brush with egg white, and bake your preheated oven at 190° C (375º F) for about 15 minutes, or just until brown.
Transfer to a cooling rack and enjoy while still warm (if possible).
While Lussekatter are traditionally eaten on Saint Lucia's Day on December 13th, these buttery saffron buns make fabulous year-round treats, as they are are fantastic if eaten while still warm with a cup of tea, coffee or a glass of mulled wine.
Please make sure to drop by again for my nextspecial surprise in my Virtual Advent Calendar!
Classic shortbread contains just three ingredients, flour, butter and sugar and it all depends on the quality of these three ingredients and careful blending.
Shortbread is a cookie to really sink your teeth into. Crumbly, dense and rich, it's made with a generous amount of butter, which gives it its melt-in-the-mouth texture. Traditionally it is pale golden-brown in color and is baked in a round, flat shape, pricked with a fork and sprinkled with sugar. My Festive Shortbread is gently spiced with Ceylon cinnamon, freshly ground ginger and a bit of ground cloves.
Once baked my version of the classic shortbread will not only smell amazing from all that good butter used but will also have a wonderful warm color from the spices I have added.
Festive Shortbread (Festliches Shortbread)
150 grams unsalted butter, cut into small pieces, softened
75 grams superfine baking sugar (caster sugar)
150 g AP (plain) flour
75 g rice flour* NOTE: most recipes call for a mix of plain wheat flour and rice flour or cornflour, for a very soft texture, but you can also use semolina for a slightly crunchier result.
¾ tsp Ceylon cinnamon
½ tsp ground ginger
¼ tsp ground cloves
a pinch of fine sea salt
Demerara sugar, to finish (optional, you can also use superfine sugar here)
In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar together until pale and fluffy using a hand-held whisk or wooden spoon.
Sift the flour, rice flour and spices into the bowl, add the salt and mix together until well combined. The mixture will look crumbly at this stage.
Put the mixture out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead to form a soft dough. It might be difficult at first but keep going and it will come together.
Prepare two large pieces of baking parchment. Roll out the dough between the parchment to a thickness of 1cm (½ inch) NOTE: the baking parchment will make it easier to roll. Peel away the top layer of baking parchment and cut the dough into Christmas shapes using cookie cutters. Re-roll any leftover dough to cut out more shapes. NOTE: only do this once to avoid over-working the dough. Alternatively: Line a 22 cm (9 inch) cake or tart pan with baking parchment, and pat, or lightly roll, the dough into a shape slightly smaller than the pan. Prick the surface of the shortbread round with a fork or a wooden skewer. Sprinkle with some Demerara sugar.
When you have used all the dough, put the shortbreads onto prepared baking sheets, prick the surface of the cookies with a fork and sprinkle with some Demerara sugar.
Bake the shortbread in the oven until very lightly colored - about 20 minutes for cookies, 30–35 minutes for a shortbread round.
Leave to cool on the baking sheets or in the baking pan for a few minutes, then lift the shortbreads onto a wire rack.
Leave to cool completely.
Shortbread will keep for up to 4 weeks in an airtight cookie tin.
Remember that shortbread has so few ingredients that you can't get away with cutting corners. First and foremost the success of this recipe relies on really good-quality unsalted butter for its flavor. Good quality sugar is also essental. Rice flour gives it that special sandy texture that sets it apart from the common cookie, and a pinch of salt helps to balance that rich, delicious sweetness. Then add warm spices for a festive touch. And to gild the lily, sprinkle the shortbread with Demerara sugar - that will lend a wonderful sparkle and crunch.
Treat the dough gently, if you have the time and patience chill it (for about 15 minutes), sprinkle liberally with sugar and cook it gently and serve it with a cup of my Winter Tea (recipe here). And for that delectable, friable texture, it's also important to keep a light hand. Overworking the mixture will develop the gluten in the flour and make the shortbread tough.
For my German readers: you can find a good-quality rice flour from "Müller´s Mühle" (link here) at most high-end supermarkets or go for organic rice flour at your favorite Natural Health Food Store.
If you are like me and really enjoy a good shortbread, you can take a look at my Vanilla Bean Petticoat Tails Shortbread (recipe here) - or my Lemon-Lavender Shortbread (recipehere) - or the Chestnut and Almond Shortbread (posthere) that I baked from a Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall recipe using chestnut flour, wholemeal buckwheat flour, and almond flour.
Please make sure to drop by again the day after tomorrow when we will open our nextspecial surprise in my Virtual Advent Calendar and pay a visit to the lovely country of Sweden for St. Lucia Day on December 13th!
So called Caramelized Almonds or Burnt Sugar Almonds („Gebrannte Mandeln“ in German) are most often purchased at Christmas Markets around here. Burnt sugar almonds are caramelized sugar-coated almonds, flavored most often with cinnamon and vanilla. They are usually cooked fresh in copper kettles right in front of you at the market. If you are lucky, you can buy them while they are still warm. They become harder, like brittle, when completely cool but no less delicious and tempting. Served in small vintage style paper cones or sold in seasonal cellophane bags, Caramelized Almonds are a treat you should not pass up if you happen to visit a German Christmas market.
If there is no Christmas market that you can visit to buy these almonds at, you can easily make them at home. Usually, I go for the cinnamon and vanilla variety, this year I prefer a Caramel-Fleur de Sel variety. When I posted the recipe for my Almond Cake with Fleur de Sel back in April of this year (recipe here) - I feel seriously in love with the combination of sweet and salty, especially when paired with almonds!
Caramelized Almonds with Sea Salt
Ingredients for the Almonds
100 ml water
100 grams sugar
scraped seeds from one vanilla bean or 2 tsps. pure vanilla sugar
400 grams raw, whole almonds
1 tbsp almond oil (I use the Almond Oil from my local oil mill (link here) but feel free to use another oil here such as sunflower oil)
½ - 1 tsp. Fleur de Sel (I use Fleur de sel de Guérande)
Special Equipment needed
a heavy pot, preferably cast iron, NOT a non-stick pan
a wooden spoon
a baking sheet lined with parchment paper
Preparation of the Caramelized Almonds
Scrape the inside of the vanilla bean and add it to the sugar. Mix well. NOTE: You should not discard the vanilla bean, but put the scraped vanilla bean in with your vanilla sugar to boost its aroma. OR: Use 2 tsps. pure vanilla sugar
Add the sugar and water to the heavy saucepan and set it over medium heat. Stir to mix, then bring it to a boil before adding the almonds.
Add the almonds to the pan. Then stir constantly until the water is boiled away.
The sugar will dry out after about 8 to 10 minutes and the almonds will take on a grey-brown tinge. Keep stirring, so that the almonds do not burn on the bottom of the pan.
At this stage, the sugar heats up and starts to melt. Just keep stirring, so that the almonds become evenly browned and about half of the sugar is melted and gives the almonds a shiny coat.
When they are shiny, but not burnt (this takes careful watching) remove the pan from the heat.
While stiring the almonds with a wooden spoon, add the almond oil, then the Fleur de Sel and mix carefully.
Place the Caramelized Almonds on your parchment lined baking sheet, separate them if they stick together. Be very careful, however. These are extremely hot, so use two spoons to separate them.
Either let them cool completely or serve them while warm.
The Caramelized Almonds with Fleur de Sel will make delicious gifts and while they are at their very best when enjoyed while still warm, they do keep well. If you plan on giving them as gifts, you can fill small cookie tins, Weck jars or small festive cellophane bags tied with pretty little ribbons. Or craft paper cones to package your Caramelized Almonds - you can use some pretty Christmas wrapping paper to make lovely little paper cones. They are also fun to make if you’ve got smaller hands helping you
And if you do not enjoy eating almonds, you can take the less traditional road and make this recipe using nuts of your choice. I usually make a batch with hazelnuts, justmake sure you use a hazelnut oil then instead of the almond oil that my recipe calls for. But the recipe also works with cashew nuts, macademia nuts or walnuts.
Trust me that these Caramelized Almonds with Fleur de Sel are the perfect blend of sweet and salty and they will make your house smell amazing – once you have tasted one, you will not be able to stop yourself from munching away on them!
Please make sure to drop by again tomorrow when we will open our eleventh special surprise in my Virtual Advent Calendar!
Today is December 8th and my Virtual Advent Calendar revoles all around one of my very favorite warm beverages, tea. There are a huge variety of teas, generally classified by the size of the leaves and the way in which they’re treated. The flavor will vary according to the conditions in which the tea is grown, the soil and climate, the way the leaves are harvested and the manner in which they’re processed after picking.
The tea most widely drunk around hre is so-called „black tea". The majority of black tea goes into blends. A few varieties of tea, however, are famous in their own right, such as Assam tea or Darjeeling tea. Flavored teas, that is green, black or fruit-based teas, are often flavored with ingredients such as jasmine, chrysanthemum, or dried fruit and are also hugely popular.
When buying loose-leaf tea, make sure it smells fresh and vibrant. Check the packet to see whether you’re buying a blend or single variety. If buying flavored tea, make sure the flavoring is natural. For example, Earl Grey tea should be flavored with bergamot oil rather than with bergamot flavoring.
Black teas are graded by their leaf size, from whole leaf, to „broken“ down to „dust“. The leaf grade will determine the tea’s brewing time - the smallest leaves are used in teabags because they brew very quickly.
You can also prepare customized, personal teas by mixing together a few of your favorite flavors. It is best to start with a „basis“ for your personal tea mix. Choose black or green tea, or even fruit teas – since I love the combination of black tea with wintry flavors, I usually choose a real-high quality black tea for starters and then add my favorite flavors. I have called my blend „Winter Tea Blend“ but feel free to experiment to your hearts content.
Winter Tea Blend
(for about 125 grams, which will yíeld about 4 liters of tea)
a few dried apple slices, peel on is fine (homemade or from your favorite natural food store)
peel from one organic orange
a few slices of fresh ginger (optional)
a few dried organic rosebuds
1 Ceylon cinnamon stick
100 grams loose leaf black tea (chose your favorite tea here)
Cut the apple slices into thin strips or break up into coarse pieces.
Peel the orange, taking care to remove all the white pith before continung with the recipe. Alternatively, you can use dried orange peel from a natural health store or tea merchant. Cut the orange peel into thin strips as well.
Peel the ginger (if using) and also cut into very thin strips.
Pre-heat your oven to 100° C (80° C convection) – 212° F ( 176° F for convection ovens).
Line one baking sheet with baking parchment and place the apple strips, the orange peel and the ginger on the parchment.
Place in the oven and leave to dry there for a good 90 minutes. Then leave to cool.
Cut up the cinnamon stick with a sharp kitchen knife (you should end up with fine splinters) and add all the ingredients to your loose tea. Then blend well.
Your Winter Tea Blend should be stored in an airtight container or canister in a cool, dark place in order to preserve the original flavor for as long as possible.
Tea blends are particularly enjoyable in winter time but also fabulous for a grey afternoon or any time you feel like sipping a cup of tea with lots of flavor. Homemade tea blends can make wonderful gifts to give to your tea loving friends and family members at holiday time or any time.
Your persomnal tea blend can also be used in cooking to soak dried fruit (for my recipe for a Poffert with with tea-soaked raisins go here), make syrups for poaching fruit or to smoke fish and poultry. And this Winter Tea Blend is far superior to anything store-bought.
Please make sure to drop by again tomorrow when we will open our ninth special surprise in my Virtual Advent Calendar!
Today marks the seventh day of December and for today´s Virtual Advent Calendar, I chose a wonderful recipe for Gingerbread Biscotti as well as a bit of a historical background about those lovely Nutcrackers. Although nutcrackers in various shapes and sizes have been around for thousands of years, the nutcracker soldier known the world over – and immortalized by Tchaikovsky – is of German origin, as is the story on which the popular ballet is based.
The traditional toy soldier nutcracker comes from the Ore Mountains (or Erzgebirge in German) inthe State of Saxony along the Czech-German border. Villages here developed alongside a booming mining industry after mineral resources were discovered in the mid-12th century. The miners in these villages would carve and whittle in their spare time, making toys and small items which they sold to peddlers. After the mining industry declined in the 17th century, these inventive craftsmen perfected their handicraft in order to earn their livelihoods.
One classic nutcracker is still made today after the 1870s original by Wilhelm Friedrich Füchtner. Known as the “father of the nutcracker,” Füchtner launched the first commercial production of these wooden figures, nevertheless, the creation of one nutcracker requires more than 100 steps, and it is assembled from about 60 individual pieces, before the finishing touches – fur, leather, and cords – are added.
Traditionally forms for the nutcrackers were figures of authority: soldiers, kings, policemen, and foresters. And of course, some nutcrackers also resemble miners, who are depicted with a crossed hammer and chisel on their hats.
Over the years, the nutcracker also took on new forms of identity such as German Chancellors and American Presidents as well as St. Nicholas and a variety of occupations became popular.
The ballet The Nutcracker is based on the story "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" (Der Nussknacker und der Mauskönig), which was written by German author Ernst Theodor William Hoffmann (1776-1822) and published in 1816. This dark fairytale follows a young girl’s fantasy in a world of fairies and princes, where toy soldiers battle an army of mice. And in 1891-92, Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky composed the music for the ballet The Nutcracker.
Gingerbread Biscotti - Lebkuchen Biscotti
Ingredients for the Cookies
200 grams (7 ounces) whole almonds (feel free to use hazelnuts if you prefer)
250 grams ( 8.8 ounces/2 cups) plain/AP flour, plus extra for dusting
1 tsp baking powder
200 grams (7 ounces) super fine baking sugar
1 1/2 tsp of Gingerbread Spice Mix*
a pinch of fine sea salt
1 vanilla pod, seeds only, you can substiute 1 1/2 tsp. pure vanilla sugar
1 tbsp Amaretto
25 grams (0.8 ounce/2 tbsp) unsalted butter, room temperature
2 eggs (L), free range or organic
Preparation of the Cookies
If you prefer to have the skins off the almonds, place the almonds in a pot of boiling water, boil for about one minute, carefully pour them through a sieve, place them on a kitchen towel and squeeze the almonds out of their skins. As a matter of personal preference, I always leave the skins on the almonds when baking Biscottis.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, sugar, Gingerbread Spice Mix, salt and vanilla until well combined.
Transfer the dry ingredients to the bowl of your mixer and add the Amaretto, butter and eggs then beat the wet ingredients into the flour mixture until the mixture is well combined and comes together as a dough.
Add the whole almonds and combine well. Divide the dough into four equal parts.
Wrap each dough piece in plastic wrap and place in refrigerator for about thirty minutes and up to a day.
Dust your work surface with some flour. Take the first batch of dough out of the refrigerator and using the palms of your hands, roll the Biscotti dough into a cylinder shape on the dusted surface. Flatten the dough a little to form an oval cylinder if you wish. Repeat with the three remaining parts of the dough.
Preheat your oven to 180° C (350° F).
Line two baking sheets with parchment paper (or use Silpat baking mats).
Transfer two logs of the dough to a baking sheet and bake for about 15 minutes, or until the logs have spread and doubled in size. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool a bit. Repeat with the remaining two logs of dough.
When the logs have cooled but are still warm, slice each about 1cm (½ inches) thick, you should cut on the diagonal, using a very sharp knife or a serrated knife.
Place each Biscotti slice onto a baking sheet or onto cooling racks that you place onto the baking sheets, thereby allowing for the hot air to circulate around each Biscotti cookie slice.
Return the baking sheets to the oven for a further 10 to 15 minutes, or until crisp, golden-brown and cooked through.
Transfer to cooling racks and cool completely.
When the Biscotti have completely cooled, place them in cookie tins with well fitting lids. If you store the cookie tins in a cool and dry place, they will keep well for a few weeks.
* If you cannot find Gingerbread Spice Mix in your store or online, you can prepare it using the following recipe: