Thursday, December 26, 2019

Basler Brunsli - Bruns de Bâle (Swiss Chocolate, Almond and Spice Cookie Bears & Pine Trees)

These traditional 'Swiss Chocolate Spice Cookies' are very popular for Christmastime and very simple to make. Typically known as 'Basler Brunsli' or 'Bruns de Bâle',  they are a dark chocolate cookie, made with a rather coarse looking dough that includes eggwhites, chocolate, sugar and almonds.

Although the Brunsli are produced throughout Switzerland, they are always associated with the city of Basel and were initially baked there not only at Christmas, but also for special occasions such as weddings, hence their name 'Basler Brunsli'. It is commonly accepted that the first known recipe for Brunsli was published in 1750 in a cookbook called 'Das süsse Basel' (Sweets from Basel), but it seems that the Brunsli cookie itself dates back all the way to the year 1725, when it was first mentioned in a publication in Winterthur (a city in the canton of Zürich in northern Switzerland) -in any case, there is a long tradition of serving 'Brunsli' cookies in Switzerland.

There doesn’t seem to be one standard Brunsli recipe. Historically, the most luxurious and expensive part of the cookie was the ground nuts. It was only during lean times that the nuts were replaced with flour. There is debate over which nuts to use, whether almonds, hazelnuts, or even walnuts. I prefer all natural almonds. Some recipes call for grated or melted chocolate, while others depend on cocoa, and some recipes call for both, my recipe calls for both dark grated chocolate as well as a high quality cocoa powder. As far as the spices go, I like to make my Brunsli with only cinnamon, however, some recipes call for cinnamon and cloves or even espresso. Some add a bit of grated orange zest to the mix which is aslo nice if you like the flavor combination of orange and chocolate. Finally, some recipes suggest the cookies are baked low in the oven and some forego baking completely and just leave them out to dry.

There is also a much debated question as to the shape of these cookies – which I find rather interesting. It is ofen said that while in the past the Brunsli were made using only wooden molds (much like the ones used to make gingerbread as menitioned in my previous post HERE) with motives including deer, swans, houses, musical instruments such as violins, fish, flower arrangements and farmers - starting around 1800 the cookies were made using metall cookie cutters of various shapes . Btw. the first mention of a cookie cutter was apparently made in the year 1766 in Styria (a state located in the southeast of Austria).

Personally, I like the sound and shape of 'Brunsli Bears', so Brunsli Bears it is this season. The cutters were given to me years ago by a very good friend of mine who brought them back from Canada.

Basler Brunsli Bears


For the Cookie Dough
  • 200g natural almonds, ground
  • 200g superfine baking sugar (aka caster sugar)
  • 1 tbsp Ceylon cinnamon (a level tbsp, not heaping)
  • 100g dark chocolate, grated (I recommend using a dark chocalate with about 72% cocoa solids)
  • 100g cocoa powder (I recommend Dutch process)
  • 3 egg whites (M), organic or free-range (each eggs weighs about 55 to 65g with the shell)
  • a pinch of fine sea salt
  • a shot kirsch OR rum
To Finish and Decorate
  • coarse white sugar (granulated or sanding sugar)
  • powdered sugar (optional)

  1. In a large bowl add ground almonds, sugar, cinnamon, grated chocolate and cocoa powder and whisk together well.
  2. In another bowl, beat the eggwhites with the salt until they are stiff, then fold in the dry ingredients and shot of kirsch or rum.
  3. Divide the dough into 3 discs, and wrap well with kitchen wrap. Cool in the fridge for at least  overnight or up to a day.
  4. The next day, pre-heat your oven to 180°C (356°F).
  5. Line two baking sheets with baking parchment.
  6. Roll out the dough (using granulated sugar) to be about 1cm (about half an inch) thick, then cut them out into desired shapes.
  7. Bake the cookies for about 8 minutes. 
  8. After they have cooled, dust liberally with powdered sugar (bears) OR leave plain (in my case the trees).

Anyone from Switzerland will tell you that the 'Basler Brunsli' should only be eaten around Christmas but, honestly, we enjoy these chewy, brownie-like cookies year-round. Statistically, the Brunsli rank among the three most popular cookies in Switzerland, the other two being Butter Cookies (Mailänderli) and Cinnamon Stars (Zimtsterne).

The Brunsli keep for about five days in a sealed container. But remember that the longer you keep them, the more they dry out. In the beginning their exterior is firm, while the interior is soft, the longer you keep them, the firmer they get.

The dough can also be frozen (either when shaped into a ball or cut into cookie shapes) for up to a month. If you bake from frozen, just add another minute or two to the cooking time.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Elisenlebkuchen (Traditional German Gingerbread)

Gingerbread has a very illustrious history. Depending upon how you actually define gingerbread, you can trace it back all the way to ancient time. Back in pre-Christian times, in Ancient Egypt, but also with the old Teutons, the Romans or the Greek it was traditional to use gingerbread as a burial gift or as an object of sacrifice. In royal Egyptian tombs, historians discovereed honey cakes in the shape of plants, animals or humans, that were given to the deceased pharaohs as provisions for their journey to eternity. The Romans already knew baked cakes called 'panus mellitus‘, a sort of cake that was enhanced and baked with a layer of honey. And the old Teutons used to bake a sort of gingerbread in the shape of their cattle – so they could sacrifice the sweet cakes instead of their live cattle.

Gingerbread as we know it today has its origins in monastery bakeries, where, following traditional recipes, gingerbread (Lebkuchen), spicebread (Gewürzkuchen) and honey cakes (Honigkuchen) have been baked since the 11th and 12th century. Back then, gingerbread was baked as medecine or cure for all kinds of ailments, they were also baked during Lent.

In addition, in Christian symbolism, the ingredients such as spices, honey, almonds and nuts played an important role (more on that later). An old manusript that dates back to the 11th century and which hails from the monastery 'Tegernsee‘ (in Bavaria, Southern Germany) that mentions the term 'Pfefferkuchen‘ (which literally translates to 'pepper cake‘) and thereby refers to the fact that pepper was a catch-all phrase for spice in general, and in particular those spices that came all the way from ‚the Orient‘ including cinnamon, cloves, anise, cardamom, coriander, ginger and nutmeg.

Outside of the confines of monastery bakeries, gingerbread was first menitioned in 1296 in the City of Ulm (Bavaria) and in 1395 in the City of Nuremberg. In the 13th and 14th century the craft of the gingerbread bakers developed (Lebküchner) – in the beginning as part of the regular bakeries. But in the year 1643, the Nuremberg gingerbread bakers decided to part ways with the ‚regular bakers‘ and establish their own guild. In 1806, all of this competition actually culminated in the so-called 'Gingerbread War‘ (Lebkuchenkrieg) – as the gingerbread bakers wanted to forbid the regular bakers to bake gingerbread, the 'white gingerbread‘ to be exact (the one covered with a white sugary, frosty looking glaze). The discord was finally settled by King Maximilian I who decided in favor of the gingerbread bakers, so that they alone kept the right to bake white (sugar coated), black (chocolate covered) and plain gingerbread.

Apart from Nuremberg, regionally different gingerbread was baked in a number of other cities. But whereas in Nuremberg it was only baked by specific gingerbread bakers, in other cities, bakeries in general offered gingerbread as part of their seasonal assorted baked goods.

Since 1927 the designation 'Lebkuchen‘ has been protected by trademark law. And in 1996 the term 'Nürnberger Lebkuchen‘ was granted the prestigious qualification as 'Protected Designation of Origin‘ (g.g.A. - geschützte geografische Angabe) – meaning that only gingerbread made in Nuremberg can today legitimately be labeled 'Nürnberger Lebkuchen‘ within the EU.

As far as the origins of the name 'Lebkuchen‘ are concerned, there are a number of different theories. It is commonly believed that the word 'leb‘ originated form the Latin word 'lebum‘ which is a designation for 'flatbread‘ or 'sacrifice bread‘.

For the people who lived in the Middle Ages, gingerbread was not a mere treat but rather a baked good that was enriched with Christian traditions and sybolism. The number of the spices used, namely 'seven‘ was meant as a reference to the 7 days of creation, to the fact that the number 7 regulates our rhythm of life, that the 7 spices permeate the gingerbread dough much in the same way as the rules of the Bible permeate our lives. Furthermore, the oriental spices were meant as a reference to the fact that the Three Wise Men gifted the Baby Jesus with precious gifts from the Orient. And the sweetness of the honey is a common methaphor and reference to the fact that the Promised Land would flow 'with milk and honey. Finally, the almonds and hazelnuts with their rather hard nutshells are meant as a reminder of the birth, death and resurrection of Christ.

There is a legend of the Elisenlebkuchenthe most delicious of the many types of gingerbreads available. The traditionally flourless Elisenlebkuchen, the masterpiece of the trade since the early nineteenth century, with over 45% nut (almond and hazelnut) content are my very favorite kind and I bake them every year for Christmas.

According to the lore, this name goes back to 1720, when the daughter of one of Nuremberg’s master gingerbread bakers fell violently ill. Her desperate father, who had already lost his wife to a severe illness, remembered the healing properties of the oriental spices and decided to bake an especially wholesome gingerbread for his ill daughter, made only with hazelnuts, honey and spices. After the girl had eaten some of the special gingerbread that her father had baked for her, she is said to have completely recovered from her illness and full of gratitude, her father named this special gingerbread after his daughter who was called Elisabeth - hence, the Elisenlebkuchen was born. While the original recipe for Elisenlebkuchen still calls for only ground and chopped nuts but no flour, today, most bakers use up to 10% of flour to create a more manageable dough which is placed on pre-cut edible paper, also called rice or oblaten paper. Elisenlebkuchen are usually glazed with sugar or chocolate, or plain. My favorite kind are glazed with dark chocolate with just a hint of white choclate for the final touch.

Elisenlebkuchen  (Traditional German Gingerbread)
(yields about 35 to 40)


For the Elisenlebkuchen
  • 235g superfine baking (caster) sugar
  • 3 eggs (M), organic or free-range (each egg weighs about 53g to 63g)
  • a pinch of fine sea salt
  • 8g pure vanilla sugar
  • 250g natural almonds, finely ground 
  • 50g natural hazelnuts, coarsely chopped 
  • 50g candied orange peel, very finely chopped (best done in a small food processor)
  • 50g candied lemon peel, very finely chopped
  • grated zest of each ½ organic/untreated lemon and orange 
  • ½ tsp Ceylon cinnamon, ground
  • ½ tsp cloves, ground
  • ½ tsp allspice, ground
  • ½ coriander, ground
  • ½ tsp mace OR nutmeg, freshly grated
  • ½ tsp cardamom, ground
  • ½ tsp ginger, ground
  • 35 to 40 round wafer papers for baking (about 5 to 6cm)

For the Decoration
  • 200g dark chocolate couverture plus some white chocolate/couverture

  1. In a large bowl, mix together the sugar, eggs, salt and vanilla sugar until the mixture has doubled in volume.
  2. Add ground and chopped nuts, finely minced candied peel, grated lemon and orange zest and all the spices to the mix. 
  3. Cover and let rest in a cool place for about 24 hours.
  4. The next day, prepare two baking sheets and line them with baking parchment. Then form dough balls (best done using a cookie scoop) - they shoud weigh about 15 to 18 g each. Place them on your baking wafer papers. NOTE: either order the wafer papers online, get them at your favorite German deli OR bake the Elisenlebkuchen on parchment lined baking sheets sans baking wafers. If you omit the wafers, you will need to glaze the bottom side of the baked and cooled cookies as well, otherwise they will dry out.
  5. Pre-heat your oven to 180° C (356°F).
  6. Place the Elisenlebkuchen on your parchment lined baking sheets and bake for about 12 to 15 minutes or until they have set and taken on a lighty golden color.
  7. Take the Elisenlebkuchen out of the oven, leave them on the baking sheets and place the baking sheets on cooling racks. 
  8. Once the Elisenlebkuchen have cooled, melt the dark chocolate couverture, and glaze the tops - while the glaze is still warm, draw lines with a bit melted white chocolate. 
Helpful Hints
  • to keep the Elisenlebkuchen soft and chewy, keep them in a cookie tin. Cover the cookies with baking parchment and place a few apple slices in the tin together with the cookies to keep them extra moist - make sure to change the apples every other day.
  • the seven spices can be substituted with 3 tsp Gingerbread Spice Mix (Lebkuchen Gewürzmischung) plus ½ TL ground cinnamon.
  • if you prefer larger Elisenlebkuchen, then chose larger baking wafers and increase the baking time by a few minutes.

While gingerbread cookies without nuts can be cut into a variety of shapes such as gingerbread men, this type of gingerbread (Lebkuchen) is more akin to drop cookies, soft and chewy, with lots of flavor from the different spices, the nuts and the citrus peels.

*Frohe Weihnachten! * Joyeux Noël! * Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all!*

Please note that this blog post is part of my series for a 'local' radio station, where, throughout the years, I present different baked goods that are closely tied to various holidays and seasons. If you are interested, have a LOOK & LISTEN (in German) HERE.

The various recipes of my series can be found here:

  • in January, for Three Kings Day (Dreikönigstag) two kinds of Galette des Rois (Dreikönigskuchen) (HERE)
  • for Lent (Fastenzeit) Lenten Soup with Lenten Beugel (Fastenbeugel) (HERE)
  • for Good Friday (Karfreitag) the delicious Hot Cross Buns (HERE)
  • for Pentecost /Whitsun (Pfingsten) the fun Allgäu Bread Birds (Allgäuer Brotvögel) (HERE)
  • for the beginning of the summer vacation, the lovely Sacristains (Almond & Sugar Puff Pastry Sticks) (HERE)
  • for St Christopher's Day (St Christophorus), the energy-packed Müsli Power Bars (Müsli Energieriegel) (HERE)
  • for Mary's Assumption Day (Mariä Himmelfahrt) my Tear & Share Herb Bread (Kräuterbrot) (HERE)
  • for Mary’s Birthday (Mariä Geburt) some very pretty Mary’s Sweet Rolls (Süße Marienküchlein) (HERE)
  • for Thanksgiving (Erntedankfest) a delicious and seasonal Thanksgiving Apple Tart with Frangipane (Erntedank Apfeltarte mit Mandelcreme) (HERE)
  • for Halloween a Pumpkin Spice Bundt Cake (Kürbis-Gewürzkuchen)
  • for St Martin's Day (Martinsfest) the cheerful Sweet Dough Men (Weckmänner) (HERE)
  • for St Andrew's Day (Andreastag) a classic Petticoat Tails Shortbread (HERE)
  • for Christmas Day (Weihnachten) these Traditional German Gingerbread (Elisenlebkuchen) (HERE
  • for New Year's Eve New Year's Eve Pretzel (Neujahrsbretzel)
  • for Candelmas Day (Mariä Lichtmess) some delightful Navettes de Saint Victor (HERE)
  • for Carnival Season (Karneval) these lovely Carnival Doughnuts (Karnevals-Krapfen) (HERE
  • for St Patrick's Day a traditional Irish Brown Soda Bread (Irisches Sodabrot)(HERE
  • for St Joseph's Day a long-forgotten but thankfully re-discovered Sweet Cotton Bread (Baumwollbrot)(HERE
  • for Palm Sunday (Palmsonntag) these very pretty Palm Pretzels (Palmbrezel) (HERE)
  • for Easter Sunday (Ostersonntag) an Easter Brunch at Home with Tarte Flambée (Flammkuchen) (HERE)
  • for the Month of May (Marienmonat Mai) these elegant Visitandines de Nancy (HERE
  • for Pentecost/Whitsun these festive Beignets (Heiliggeistkrapfen) (HERE) - more delicious treats to come very soon.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

December Filo Tart with Mini Brussels Sprouts l Winterliche Filotarte mit Rosenkohlröschen

Go easy on yourself this December, it doesn't have to be the most stressful time of the year - this easy, yet very flavorful, savory winter tart hits all the right buttons, it has a no-prep-required, crunchy and ruffeld filo crust, a layer of creamy, cheesy, herby filling with seasonal mini veggies – making this a perfect little starter for a festive dinner or, better yet, a nice little December lunch giving you time to tend to other pressing December activities.

To make a change from the usual short-crust pastry, I chose a filo crust instead, and in lieu of the traditional egg/milk/cream filling, I opted for a creamy local goat’s cheese and some crème fraîche mixed together with fresh soft herbs, pepper and salt. Then topped it all with my favorite veg this time of year. And that's about it.

Brussels sprouts are often confined to the Christmas roast, but they needn't be. Try Brussels sprouts shredded, either eaten raw in a salad or flash-fried with bacon and plenty of good butter or a few spoonfuls of crème fraîche. You can also opt to throw in some chestnuts for a particularly seasonal treat that’s a perfect accompaniment to any roast (around here we can buy very decent pre-cooked and shelled chestnuts that I like to use). Or blanch, douse in cream and bake in the oven for a delicious gratin. Every once in a while I like to mix the Brussels sprouts with leftover mashed potato, shape them into smallish patties and pan fry until golden brown. Or, of course, you could try these tiny brassicas in my December Filo Tart.

If your are lucky, you will find purple Brussels sprouts at the farmer’s market – although they do lose some of their lovely color during the cooking process, they still make for a ratherv pretty presentation. Treated with a touch of love and a bit of care, these little buds can easily become one of your winter favorites.

Just remember when cooking  these, that contrary to popular opinion, Brussels sprouts do not benefit from having a cross cut into the bottom of them. Instead of helping them to cook evenly, the cross can make the sprouts waterlogged. Instead, just cut off the dry bottom, leave whole (if mini) or cut sprouts in half, and just blanch the clean sprouts briefly in boiling, salted water until cooked but still bright and with some bite to them.

Filo Tart with Mini Brussels Sprouts

  • 350g mini Brussels sprouts (or use regular-sized sprouts, then halve them)
  • 4 to 5 fresh thyme sprigs, leaves stripped, plus extra to decorate OR use a a mix of rosemary and thyme
  • olive oil for brushing (chose an olive cook suitable for high temperatures)
  • 6 filo pastry sheets NOTE: filo pastry sheets vary in size, so you may need a few more sheets than stated in my recipe
  • 250g soft goat’s cheese (OR use crème fraîche)
  • 250g cottage cheese
  • 2 to 3 tbsp freshly chopped ‚soft herbs‘ such as Italian parsley, chives, basil, tarragon or dill
  • freshly ground black pepper and salt
  • a few sprigs of garden thyme 

  • First off, start cooking your Brussels sprouts: if the outer leaves are a bit shaggy, take them off and cut a thin slice off the bottom. Blanch in salted, boling water and refresh in cold water as soon as they are cooked. Leave them to dry on a sheet pan. Then quickly pan-fry them with fresh garden thyme, olive oil and salt. Set aside to cool.
  • Pre-heat your oven to 180°C (356°F).
  • Brush a pie dish OR baking pan (24 to 26cm/9 to 10in) with a little oil, then lay on a sheet of filo pastry, leaving some overhang at the edges. Brush with more oil, then lay another sheet over the first at a 45-degree angle. Repeat with the remaining sheets, overlapping as you go, until they are all used up.
  • In your food processor, mix together the soft goat’s cheese and the cottage cheese with a little salt and pepper and process until almost smooth. Then add a bit of olive oil and the soft herbs and process some more until all the ingredients come together.
  • Pour the filling into the pastry case and scatter over the cooked and cooled mini Brussels sprouts.
  • Make sure that the filo edges will stay clean (no drippings of filling) and brush them lightly with some more olive oil (to make the extended crust), place the tart on a lined baking sheet and transfer to the oven to bake for 25 to 35 minutes or until just set, golden and bubbling. NOTE: if the ruffled edge of the tart tends to brown too quickly, cover with foil during the last 15 minutes or so of baking.
  • Remove from the oven, then cool for 5 minutes before serving in slices with a mixed or green salad.

This filo tart recipe is the perfect midweek meal for the whole family. Happy December cooking.

For more Filo Tart inspiration on my blog, have a look at the following blog posts:

  • Filo Tart with fresh Figs & Prosciutto (Filotarte mit frischen Feigen & Prosciutto) (HERE)
  • Crispy, Crackly Apple-Almond Tart (HERE)
  • River Cottage "Veg Everyday" Courgette and Filo Rice Pie (HERE)
  • Filo Tart with White Asparagus, Goat Cheese & Meadowsweet Blossoms (Filotarte mit weißem Spargel, Ziegenkäse & Mädesüßblüten) (HERE)
  • Red Swiss Chard & Mushroom Filo Tart (Filotarte mit rotem Mangold & braunen Champignons) (HERE)

Friday, December 6, 2019

Pains d' Épices de Saint Nicolas for December 6 - Saint Nicholas Gingerbread (Nikolauslebkuchen)

Today, on December 6th, we celebrate the feast of Saint Nicholas (Sankt Nikolaus Tag). This special day always falls on December 6, at the beginning of Advent and it represents a time for celebration especially in Eastern Europe and many other countries including Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, France and Italy. St Nicholas was a Christian bishop who was born in the port city of Patara in what we now call Turkey and reportedly died on December 6th, 340 AD. He lost both of his parents at a young age and was brought up in a monastery. He reportedly used his inheritance to help the poor and sick. Nicholas became a priest at the age of 17 and travelled through Palestine and Egypt before returning to Myra where he was made Bishop.

Saint Nicholas is referred to by many names throughout Europe such as Sinterklaas in the Netherlands or Nikolaus in Germany. On the night of December 5th, children put their shoes or a special SaintNicholas´ boot (Nikolausstiefel) in front of the fireplace or the front door to find them filled with traditional, seasonal sweet treats, clementines, oranges, apples, nuts and small presents the next morning (December 6th).

To mark this very special day, over the years I have baked a number of different treats. I love the Dutch Kruidnoten (Spice Nuts/Cookies - recipe HERE) or the Belgian Speculoos (Spice Cookies formed in special wooden moulds - recipe HERE), this year I have lost my heart to these 'Pains d'Épices de Saint Nicholas' - literally translated 'Saint Nicholas' Gingerbread'. The recipe hails form the Alsace region (France) and its basically a honey gingerbread dough, cooled, rolled out, cut out, baked and decorated. Easy as they are, these traditional cookies make formidable gifts on Saint Nicholas' feast day.

Pains  d'Épices de Saint Nicolas - Saint Nicholas Gingerbread (Nikolauslebkuchen)

  • 500g AP (plain) flour, plus some to roll out the cookies (OR use white spelt flour, around here 'Type 630')
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • a pinch of fine sea salt
  • 200g superfine (baking) sugar
  • 16g pure vanilla sugar
  • 1 tbsp Ceylon cinnamon
  • 1/8 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/2 tsp ground anise
  • 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 250g runny (liquid) honey
  • 100 ml water
  • 150g powdered sugar and some more water for the glaze

  1. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, sugar, vanilla sugar, and all the spices. 
  2. Then add the honey and half the water. Knead the dough by hand or with the dough hooks of your hand mixer. If it seems too dry, add more of the water (up to 100ml).
  3. Wrap the dough in kitchen wrap and place in the refrigerator for at least an hour (or longer).
  4. Pre-heat your oven to 180° C and line two baking (cookie) sheets with baking parchment.
  5. On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the dough to about 1 cm thickness, cut out the cookie shapes, place on your prepared baking sheets and bake for about 10 to 12 minutes - the cookies should be puffed by not hard or dark brown.
  6. Cool the cookies on the baking sheets on a cooling rack, once they have cooled, place them directly on the cooling racks, mix the powdered sugar with some water and brush the cookies. Once the icing has set but is still wet, place a Saint Nicholas' paper cut-out on each cookie. Let dry completey and keep in a cookie tin in a cool place or gift wrap individually.

Like every year, our kids, as most of their frineds, lined up their big winter boots last night and this morning, their boots were miraculously filled with homemade Pains d'Épices de Saint Nicolas, Belgian chocolates, oranges, clementines, walnuts, peanuts and a few small gifts.

Saint Nicholas is famous for his many acts of charity, one of which involved a poor distraught man who had three daughters and who couldn´t provide a proper dowry. As Saint Nicholas learned of their plight, he came to their aid by throwing three small sacks of money through their window while they were asleep. So, in the spirit of Saint Nicholas it's seems like a wonderful and much beloved annual tradition to share some of our treats with friends and collegues, this year's most popular treat for sharing is lovingly decorated Saint Nicholas Gingerbread.

Bonne Fête Saint Nicolas! Have a nice Saint Nicholas' Day! Euch allen einen schönen Nikolaustag!