Friday, November 30, 2012

Almonds, Sugar & Spice

kruidnoten (nut-shaped spiced cookies)

Spices are scenting up many a household in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Cinnamon, nutmeg, clove. Spiced pears, mincemeat, mulled wine. For some of us from the Low Countries (most commonly the Netherlands and Belgium), it starts with "Sinterklaas" a festive winter event celebrated with gifts and sweet treats: chocolate coins, almond paste biscuits, marzipan shapes and figures, chocolate letters, spiced cookies, gingerbreads, and so much more.

Sinterklaas finds his origins in the legendary figure of Saint Nicholas. Born in the 3rd century in Lycia (then part of Greece), he was the bishop of Myra (in present-day Turkey). Associated with many miracles, he is also known as Nicholas the Wonderworker. Saint Nicholas was famed and loved for his generosity and kindness to those in need, and in particular to children. He was a 'secret gift-giver'. If you left your shoes outside, he would come by and leave a little something, usually good things to eat like an apple or nuts, but also coins.

Over centuries, the festive event of Sinterklaas on December 5 (the eve of Saint Nicholas' Name Day) became a celebration of traditions, folklore, special songs and tales. The 'shoe and the gift" became a traditional part of the Sinterklaas celebration: children put their shoe with a carrot or apple "for his horse". The next morning, they will find a small gift or a sweet treat in return. Saint Nicholas (or rather perhaps through the folklore figure of Sinterklaas) was also the inspiration for Christmas' Santa Claus.

These days, Sinterklaas is a merry event for children and adults alike. It is a festive evening of sharing gifts and indulging in sweet treats, hot chocolate and bishop's wine (similar to mulled wine). Gifts are still "wrapped in secrecy and surprise", but no longer does it have anything to do with kindness to the poor. Similar to Christmas, it is more about wish lists and commerce. An apple is still a much desired gift, as long as it is the logo on an electronic device.

Below you'll find a couple of tips and recipes that will put you in a festive mood come Sinterklaas OR Christmas! 
profiteroles wrapped in golden threads of caramel fragrant with Season's Spice Mix
Season's Spices
It is the heady spice mix of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, pepper, anise, ginger and cardamom that puts you right in the mood for hot mulled wine by the fire place. Or a chilled version outside on the patio if you live in warmer climes. This is a great spice mix to make "speculaas"(spiced biscuit). You can also use it to spice up pumpkin for a delicious pumpkin pie, or for spiced pears, for instance. I used this spice mix recently to spice up the caramel to drizzle over cream-filled profiteroles.

Season's Spice Mix
30 gr cinnamon
10 gr ground cloves
10 gr ground nutmeg
5 gr ground white pepper
5 gr ground anise seeds
5 gr ground coriander
5 gr ginger powder
5 gr ground cardamom

If you live in Dubai (or generally the Middle-East), shelled, blanched, and cleaned almonds are readily available. You can have it ground fine on the spot as well. It means you can skip the labor-intensive steps of blanching, cleaning and grinding the almonds yourself, and move right on to making either a marzipan, almond paste, or frangipane, depending on what you want to use the almonds for. 

Marzipan is very easy to make. Simply mix together equal amounts of finely ground almonds and icing sugar, made smooth with water. You can use egg white instead of water (it binds the marzipan even better, but I find water works just fine). Knead well, shape into a log and leave it overnight in the fridge to settle. Color the marzipan (with food coloring) and use your creative craft skills to mold fruits, farm animals, Christmas decorations. 

Marzipan "dough" is a cooked marzipan. It is based on a thick sugar syrup, cream of tartar, ground almonds and egg whites (recipe here). 

Almond Paste (recipe below) is similar to marzipan, but stickier. It doesn't do for kneading, but it is perfect for filling. Almond paste is made with ground almonds, sugar, egg and a little lemon juice. 

Frangipane is almond cream: the ground almonds are mixed with granulated sugar, butter, egg, and flour (recipe here). Frangipane is popular in (French) pastry.

"gevulde speculaas": spiced biscuit filled with almond paste

Kruidnoten (Spiced Nut-Shaped Cookies)
250 gr self-raising flour
100 gr soft, unsalted butter
125 gr soft brown sugar (the darker the sugar, the darker your cookies)
pinch of salt
2 tbsp Season's Spice Mix (recipe above)
2-3 tbsp milk

Rub flour, spice, sugar, butter, and salt together to a sand-texture. Add the milk and knead into a smooth dough (you can add an egg yolk to make it more smooth). Let rest, wrapped in plastic and in the fridge, for about an hour. 

Preheat the oven to 175C. Roll the dough into marble-sized rounds and place on a buttered baking sheet (or on a silicon mat). Bake in the oven for about 20 minutes. Let cool completely.

Gevulde Speculaas (Almond Paste Filled Spiced Biscuit)
250 gr self-raising flour
2 tbsp Season's Spice Mix (see above)
150 gr soft brown sugar (I use raw cane sugar)
150 gr unsalted butter, chilled and cut in cubes
pinch of salt
2 tbsp milk
400 gr almond paste (recipe following)
flakes or slivers of white almonds (for garnish)
1 egg yolk, beaten with a splash of milk (to glaze top)

Mix flour, salt, spices, and sugar in a bowl. Add the chilled butter and start rubbing together to a "sand" (all butter should be worked in, no lumps left). Add the milk little by little and knead to make a smooth dough. Do not overwork the dough! Wrap in plastic and keep in the fridge for an hour to settle. Butter a cake pan or baking tray (approx. 20cm diameter)

Preheat the oven to 160C. Let the dough come to room temperature and divide into two equal parts. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Press the biscuit dough in a single, even layer on the baking sheets. Divide the almond paste on one layer of doug (thickness: I don't like the almond paste to be too thick, so usually go for about 1 cm, but you can make it as thick as you prefer). Carefully lift up the remaining dough sheet and place on top of the almond layer. Brush with the egg yolk-milk to make smooth and scatter slivers or flakes of almond across. Bake in the oven for about 30-45 minutes (or until the biscuit is turning a darker brown). Allow to cool for about 10 minutes, then carefully cut into squares and leave to cool completely.

Almond Paste

(makes about 400gr)

200 gr ground almonds

200 gr granulated sugar

1 egg (beaten0
1 tsp fresh lemon juice

Mix all ingredients together and shape into a ball. Cover with plastic wrap and keep in the fridge overnight to settle.

Wrapped in puff pastry and garnished with red and green "bigarreau" (candied cherries), almond paste makes for a delicious "Christmas Log". I like to use this almond paste in Christmas Stollen. It makes for a moist deliciousness of almonds (marzipan tends to be drier and firmer). And at the risk of offending mince pie traditionalists: I like a lush layer of almond paste at the base of a mince pie.

almond paste (left) and spiced cookie dough (right)
What is your favorite Festive Season's Treat?

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