food: Cookie Christmas

Give them away (or keep them all to yourself)
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Indy Lifestyle Online
I love biscuits. I love making them, eating them and giving them as gifts. Unlike so many Christmas frills, they strike me as genuinely festive. Below, I offer three recipes, one savoury, one sweet, one fun for children.

The most useful advice to the novice baker is to use organic ingredients. Nowhere do these shine more than in baked goods, where they lend goodness, character and balance. All these recipes call for standard strong plain flour. If the dough is too dry, very (very, very) gradually add more liquid - good organic flour tends to be a bit thirsty. Conversely, if the dough is too wet, dust it lightly with flour and knead until it dries up a bit.

This first recipe, for anchovy puffs, is perfect for drinks parties. It comes from a rather romantic cookbook called Lulu's Provencal Table by Richard Olney. He learned it from Lulu Peyraud, the matriarch who runs the Domaine Tempier vineyard. He commends it as the perfect accompaniment for a glass of Bandol Rose. I find that it also goes nicely with a Tanqueray martini (proper, juniper-tasting gin stirred over ice then poured off neat, served in a frosted glass with a trace of vermouth and a twist of lemon).

Anchovy puffs, makes about 36

225ml/8 fl oz water

salt

85g/3oz butter, diced

170g/6oz flour

4 eggs

10 anchovy fillets, chopped

Preheat oven to 190C/375F/gas mark 5.

Combine water, a pinch of salt and butter in a saucepan, place over medium heat and bring to a boil. As soon as the butter is melted, remove from heat. Add all the flour and stir with a wooden spoon. Return to heat, stir vigorously, beating until the mixture pulls away from the sides of the pan into a smooth mass. Remove from heat and leave to cool for 2 to 3 minutes. Beat in the eggs, whole, one at a time, making sure the paste is smooth before adding the next egg. Add the chopped anchovies with the last egg and beat well. Drop teaspoons of the batter on an ungreased baking sheet at three inch intervals. Bake for 25 minutes without disturbing. Turn off oven, prick each puff with a sharp knife, and leave in the oven for ten minutes to dry out. Eat as fresh as possible.

Cucidati, fig-filled biscuits, are a sort of Sicilian answer to the mince pie. The recipe comes from a book called Great Italian Desserts by Nick Malgieri. I made the mistake at first of judging this book by its rather lurid cover. This was my loss, for these biscuits are sensational. The dough is rolled out almost as if one were making ravioli, then filled with a beautifully spiced fig mixture. Do not worry about bungling, the pastry is very forgiving, and exceptionally light once baked. You can make the pastry and filling up to three days in advance and the cucidati keep well in a tin in a cool dry place.

Cucidati, makes about 48

for the dough

500g/2lb 2oz flour

140g/5oz sugar

pinch salt

1 level tsp baking powder

185g/612 oz butter, cold and diced

2 large eggs

2-4 tbsp milk

for the filling

300g/1012 oz dried figs

55g/2oz blanched sliced almonds

35g/114 oz pine nuts

1 tsp instant coffee

75g/212 oz golden raisins

75g/212 oz dark raisins

55g/2oz diced candied orange peel

3 tbsp apricot preserve

generous double measure dark rum

12 tsp ground cinnamon

14 tsp ground cloves

55g/2oz good dark chocolate, broken into pieces

1 egg

icing sugar

Preheat oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4.

Combine the flour, sugar, salt and baking powder in a large mixing bowl and mix thoroughly with your hands. Rub in the butter until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. In a small bowl, combine the eggs with 2 tbsp milk and beat to blend. Add to flour mixture and stir to form a dough. If it is too dry, very gradually add more milk, tablespoon by tablespoon. A strong flour might require one or two more. Stir until the dough comes away from the side of the bowl, then knead briefly on a lightly floured surface until you have a nice, pliable ball. Wrap in plastic and chill in fridge while preparing the filling.

Find the stems on each fig and pull them out, then cut them off. Left on, these hard little stalks can be lethal tooth-breakers. Place figs in a bowl and cover with boiling water, then leave to steep for ten minutes. Lightly toast almonds and pine nuts under the grill. Dilute coffee in a tablespoon or two of hot water. Combine these ingredients in a medium- sized mixing bowl with the raisins, candied orange, apricot preserve, rum and spices. In short, everything except the figs, the egg and the icing sugar. Next, drain the figs, quarter them on a cutting board, then blend them to a pulp in a food processor. Add to the other ingredients and stir thoroughly to mix.

In a separate bowl, beat together egg and a pinch of sea salt for your egg wash.

Take the chilled dough and roll it out, more or less in the shape of a rolling pin. Divide this log into nine to 12 pieces. Set aside two or three and wrap and re-frigerate the others to prevent them from drying out.

Working with floured hands, on a lightly floured surface, take the first piece and roll it into a snake shape, about ten to 12 inches long. Then, using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll this out into a rectangle at least two-and-a-half inches wide, preferably three. Trim the pastry so the edges are perfectly straight (knead trimmings back into another working section of dough as you go along). Place a line of the filling down the centre of the dough and gently fold the dough over it, so it forms a tube around the filling. Roll the tube so that the pastry fold is on the bottom, then cut it into sections of about three or four inches each. Form into horseshoe shapes. Using a sharp paring knife, score the top of the pastry of each biscuit with a line of little slashes, then tug the biscuits ever so gently to open up the cuts a bit. Using a pastry brush, give them an egg wash. Bake on a lightly greased sheet for about 20 minutes, or until they are pale golden. Cool on a rack, then, using a tea strainer, dust with icing sugar.

Gingerbread men, makes 24

This is a very basic recipe for gingerbread cookies, originally from a 1965 copy of The Robert Carrier Cookbook. I have stuck to Mr Carrier's minimal formula, which contents itself with being perfectly edible rather than spectacular, for the simple reason that people seem to keep these cookies instead of eating them. For those who plan actually to consume them, by all means fiddle the flavourings. I tend to use less golden sugar and prefer ginger syrup to dried ginger. Some grated nutmeg, ground clove and lemon zest do not go amiss.

As for cutting the biscuits, very small children obviously would be better off using shaped cutters. However, I prefer hand-cut ones, and, luckily, the child labour I drafted in as test cooks, Sam and Jessie Benard, were old enough to work with a knife under supervision. Once baked, these cookies are one of the few instances when food requires dye. The icing should be lurid. They keep for ages.

335g/12oz sifted flour

1 tsp allspice

12 tsp dried ginger (or 2 tsp ginger syrup)

1 tsp cinnamon

1 level tsp salt

12 level tsp baking soda

170g/6oz butter

75g/212 oz dark brown sugar

8 tbsp golden syrup

6 tbsp milk

Preheat oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4.

Sift together flour, spices, salt and soda. Blend butter, sugar and golden syrup. Add to flour gradually, with milk, until you have a pliable dough. Wrap in plastic and chill for at least four hours in fridge. Roll out, make shapes and bake for ten to 12 minutes.

Mix icing sugar with small amounts of water and food colouring until you have a workable consistency and some screaming hues. When I give these as presents to adults, I make the icing with bourbon instead of water. Apply the icing with spoons, then affix raisins, candied fruit and nuts to make noses, buttons and so on. Do not hang gingerbread men on your tree if you have a dog, or you may find the tree on the floor and the dog looking guilty on Christmas morning

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