Hi folks! My name is Russell, and I’m the guy behind the London Eats food blog. I’m a keen cook with a passion for travel, food and ideally, combing these two interests.
When I saw that Annika was off on holiday and asked whether I would like to do a guest post while she was off exploring the new and exotic, and I jumped at the chance. When I was still a baby blogger with very few posts, Annika fostered my baking habits – we arranged a clandestine handover of a Herman friendship cake via Twitter on a street corner in the centre of London, and Herman has since done the tour round my friends. So today, I am returning the favour!
I thought I would share with you a little of the thought process that I put into a blog post, and explain the lengths that I have gone to in this case to get hold of those kitchen essentials.
Basically, I get very excited around Christmas time, and I absolutely love to make Christmas biscuits. I put this down to early years spent in Germany when my father worked near Hamburg. I literally cannot get enough of those spicy little German Lebkuchen. As a small child, my favourite were the gingerbread Pfeffernüsse with the brittle white icing. They were strictly rationed, but I used to sneak them whenever I could. Later, once we moved back to Scotland, we would make special trips to the delicatessen in my grandmother’s town to get hold of German festive bakes as the owner was German, and back then, the stuff was hard to get hold of.
Fast forward many, many years (although not too many) and each Christmas I like to make lots of different types of biscuits. I probably make far more than I could ever hope to eat. What I like about the baking process (which may be due to the fact I’m a guy) is understanding what is happening in the dough during baking, what works and why it works, and the various techniques that you use and need to master to make some of the more spectacular cookies. I’ve amazing how you can take the same five ingredients and end up with either a light bread, a dense, chewy cookie, a crisp biscuit or something fanciful and elaborate. Funny as it sounds, I feel the baking at this time of year is equal parts science and art, with the heightened pressure to make it delicious, as you’re presenting baked goods that in some cases go to the core of someone’s childhood. Get those biscuits wrong and they’ll never forgive you (or at least make no bones about telling you that their grandmother made them better).
Festive baking also allows you to look into the culture of a country, and you very quickly notice the nutty, spicy baking of Northern Europe, compared to the fruited, honey-sweetened treats of Southern Europe, while Britain falls somewhere in between (mincemeat tarts, which contain no meat, just dried fruits). Over the years, I’ve turned my hand to German cinnamon stars, Lebkuchen and Stollen, Dutch Christmas wreaths and speculaas biscuits, Italian Pannetone, traditional British sugar plums and even created my own white spiced almond horchata, which was pleasant when drunk chilled and outstanding when warm with a dash of rum.
Last year, this all culminated in an attempt to cover the Twelve Days of Christmas Baking, where I thought I could easily tackle twelve recipes in the run up to Christmas. The research was fun – looking at traditional recipes and exploring new flavours. As time passed, the pressure to complete everything before Christmas Day grew, and I had not quite appreciated that the lack of daylight after about half past three in winter makes it rather tricky to take good photographs of biscuits. However, I managed to make it at the very last moment. I vowed never to do something so insane again, but I will of course be doing it this year too. Anyway, as part of last year’s process to select the bakes to make the final twelve, I needed come very special ingredients, and its fair to say that my Christmas kitchen shenanigans went to a whole new level when I discovered the world of novelty raising agents. I’ll wager that is a phrase you never thought you’d read here, eh? In part, I just wanted to try baking with something very novel and just a wee bit hard to get hold of. Yes, I’m a little determined and stubborn too.
Bear with me while I do the “science bit” as I assure you it gets more interesting (crafty/handmade) after this. All these festive bakes are traditional, so it is only natural that you have some very odd ingredients in there. The two culprits in my case are Pottasche (the name in German, which I use) and baker’s ammonia.
To prove the point, I made Aachener printen with baking powder and with Pottasche. The result? Those with baking powder were hard, and softened only very slightly after two months. Made with the (correct) Pottasche, however, they puff up in the oven and become porous, then become perfectly soft. Dip them in chocolate and you’re in for a treat.
The other magic dust I’ve become a little bit obsessed about is baker’s ammonia (also known as sal volatile or ammonium carbonate). But the price for the most wonderful names goes to Sweden, where it’s called hjortronsalt (“deer antler salt”). This stuff used to be made from the ash of ground up deer antler, and you do have to wonder how anyone would think that this was a good idea? I mean, would you trust someone that offered you a cake ingredient based on cat fur? Exactly. However, someone did have this idea, and it has a most magical effect on baked goods. They are incredibly light, and you’ll get lift like you’ve never experienced. But all this goodness comes with a slight drawback, for baker’s ammonia smells of exactly that – the sharp, piercing smell of ammonia. This means two very terrible things. First, you can’t eat the cookie dough. I’ve tried, and it tastes like strong soap. Second, when you bake the cookies, you’ll get a waft of ammonia fumes from the oven during baking. You’ll want to be aware of this so that you don’t make your eyes water. However, this stink is a sign that the ammonia is doing its thing, as it breaks down into water and gas. The heat drives off the ammonia, leaving tasty biscuits behind. I’ve made Icelandic air cookies which start 3-4mm thick, and end up an inch in height, and it makes Swedish dream cookies which are dreamily light and crisp. If you see baker’s ammonia, buy it, seal it in a jam jar (that stink!) and experiment in the kitchen.
So there you have it. A novelty ingredient in the baking cupboard, and I was looking for new things to make with it. Baker’s ammonia is essential for making a number of cookies and it doesn’t have a perfect substitute. You’ll get quite far with baking powder, but sometimes, it’s not quite enough. Indeed, I’ve become a little obsessed with finding recipes that use the stuff, and I was enthralled last year when I came across the German Springerle cookie. Frankly, I was rather amazed that I had never come across them before. You start with a thick dough made from whipped eggs, sugar, aniseed and flour, with a little dash of baker’s ammonia. The dough is very stiff, but pliable enough to be rolled out and shaped. This is where the fun starts, as you don’t just use a cookie cutter. Instead, you use presses. Yes, it turns out that there is a whole would of wooden presses out there, from festive scenes, fairytale motifs, fruit, nuts, animals...you name it, there is a press out there for it! And with that, a blog post was born, and an obsession kicked in – I had to get the moulds, and I have to make Springerle.
I though the name Springerle means “little springer” or “little jumper” given that during baking, they jump into the air. However, it is actually close to “little knight” and they can be traced back to medieval times. When most people could not read, they could still understand a story embossed on the top of a biscuit, and at a time when aromatic spices were a rare luxury, they would have been very fancy little treats indeed.
As I already had the baker’s ammonia (which you can buy in central London from Scandinavian Kitchen), all I had to do to fulfil this Germanic baking fantasy was to get hold of the presses. My appetite for these cookies had been whetted last year, so I’ve had my eyes open for the last twelve months. I’ve looked at markets in London. Nothing. I’ve looked at flea markets in Brussels and Amsterdam (nix), trawled a bazaar in Barcelona (nada). I thought I found one in a shop in Paris, but the pattern was terrible (dommage!). Then I discovered that Springerle seem to be big news in America (having been blessed by Martha herself). So when I spent two weeks over there on holiday recently, I went to just about each and every specialist cookshop that I could. New York might be the city where you can get anything, but not proper Springerle moulds (but, it turns out, you can buy a lot of other kitchen implements on the way). I did find a patterned rolling pin, but the design was not sharp, and it cost seventy dollars. For a rolling pin! I was ready to give us and try to source them from Germany, when I found the website for House on the Hill. I’m a modern guy, but the idea of buying them online never occurred to me. And here, you have a completely free choice in just about anything that you could possibly want. I’ve picked out a pine cone, and acorn, plus some random patterns. They might have taken two weeks to cross the ocean, but it was worth it when they arrived!
I’ve now made a batch of Springerle using my presses, and as you can see, they have turned out very well indeed! However, I’ll be a little naughty and keep you waiting to see the full post as it’s going to be one of my Twelve Days series for 2012, where I will also share my experiences in using the presses and how to get a good print. If you just can’t resist the urge to get baking or want to order your own presses, then I recommend the website House on the Hill for all your moulding needs, or even just to peruse and suggest to your nearest and dearest for gift ideas.
All well and good, but I feel that as a nod to Annika, I should make some more practical ideas for those that are keen to inject a bit more creativity into making Springerle. So what can you do if you don’t have the time, money or patience to hunt down a mould or buy one online? I’ve done a bit of thinking, and there are actually lots of workarounds. Most obviously, there are cookie cutters out there that will press some sort of design into your dough. Easy but a little boring. Far more exciting would be to go to London’s Camden Passage near Angel tube station, where you can pick up vintage printing blocks from one of the little open air stalls. After a good clean when you get home, you can use them to stamp retro patterns into your biscuits, allowing you to literally eat your words! Another idea is to rummage around for anything with a pattern – old coins, dominos, buttons – and use them to press designs into the dough. Or get even more creative and track down bits of lace that you can press onto the dough. Just run a rolling pin over the top, and get very unique patterns. This would also work with deep-veined leaves from the garden. There are pretty much no limits, provided you find something that has enough texture.
I see now that I’ve gone on far too long, but I hope you’ve enjoyed my first attempt as a guest blogger. Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and happy baking!