Mince pies with a twist

As it’s practically dark by the time the boys are awake from afternoon naps and we’ve got ready to go out, we can’t go to the park or even in the garden really, so baking and craft activities have been filling our late afternoons and early evenings recently. And as we’re in December, I thought it was time for some Christmas baking.

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I don’t eat loads of mince pies, but it’s always nice to have a few over the Christmas period, and as I’m trying to use up jars and tins in the cupboards, I thought it would be fun to add some stem ginger that I opened a while ago to the mince meat, to add extra favour and spice. I prefer to make mince pies with unsweetened pastry, because the mince meat itself is so sweet, and to add another flavour I decided to put some cinnamon in with the flour. Finally, I added a splash of Amaretto to the filling, again because the bottle I have could do with using up having sat there untouched for a while since we’ve had kids.

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Andrew enjoys rolling out pastry, so that was also a good reason to make pies, and he helped me cut out the rounds and put them in the muffin tins – we went for deep filled pies rather than the little ones you can make in fairy cake tins.

If you’d like to give these a go, here’s the recipe….

Ingredients – makes 10 deep fill pies

Filling

  • 400g jar of mincemeat
  • about 4 chunks of stem ginger, cut into small cubes
  • optional: splash of Amaretto (or any other alcohol that you like)
Pastry
  • 100g unsalted butter
  • 225g plain flour
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • cold water

Method

  1. Lightly grease the holes in a muffin tin, and preheat the oven to 180ºC (fan).
  2. Put the flour and cinnamon in a bowl and mix until evenly distributed.
  3. Chop the butter into smallish chunks (make sure it’s as cold as possible) and toss into the flour.
  4. Use your hands to work the butter into the flour until it resembles bread crumbs.
  5. Add a small amount of water at a time and mix until it starts to form a stiff dough, then leave to one side whilst you mix the filling.
  6. Mix the ingredients for the filling together in another bowl.
  7. Take the pastry and roll out on a floured surface.
  8. Cut 10 larger circles and 10 smaller circles to fit the size of the muffin tin holes.
  9. Place the larger circles in the holes, fill with the filling, then places the lids on top, sealing with a bit of cold water run around the rim and the pastry pieces pressed together.
  10. Bake in the oven for about 15-20 minutes, until the pastry is lightly golden.
  11. Leave to cool in the tins, before turning out with the help of a sharp knife to loosen them from the tin.
  12. Eat as fresh as possible, and they can also be frozen.

Easter bunny Simnel biscuits

We’ve been busy little bunnies in the baking and crafting departments this week. There have been fewer groups due to the holidays, so I’ve been thinking of ways to keep Andrew amused. I can’t really go wrong with baking, especially biscuits as he loves cutting them out and of course tasting them 🙂 Granny was with us yesterday when we baked these bunny biscuits, and we made them with wheat-free flours so that Grandma can enjoy them too.IMG_0582

There seem to be quite a few Easter cakes in the shops now that are basically slightly different versions of brands that are available all year, usually involving lemon or yellow colouring in some way, for example Mr Kipling lemon tarts or Cadbury’s lemon mini rolls or Jaffa Cakes lemon cake bars. But I rarely see Simnel cakes around these days – a light fruit cake with spices such as cinnamon and ginger and a layer of marzipan in the middle and on top. I love marzipan and I like fruit cakes, so I enjoy Simnel cake. Traditionally it has 11 balls of marzipan on the top, which are said to represent the 11 disciples of Jesus minus Judas who betrayed him.IMG_0585

We didn’t have the time or attention span (in Andrew’s case) to make fruit cake, so we made biscuits based on the idea of Simnel cake. The spices are in the biscuit dough and the fruit is sandwiched between the biscuit and a layer of marzipan on top. We used a bunny shape cutter, although I was convinced I had seen an egg-shaped cutter in Andrew’s bumper pot of cutters when we were doing play-dough the other day, but I couldn’t find it when we came to bake the biscuits, so we had to switch from the egg-shaped biscuits that I had intended to make  originally. bunnies

If you fancy having a go, here’s the recipe, which makes about 20….

Ingredients

  • 60g sugar
  • 120g margarine
  • 180g flour (I used 60g cornflour and 120g gluten-free flour)
  • 1 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 tsp groung nutmeg
  • about 30g raisins
  • 1/2 pack ready to roll marzipan

Method

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 150ºC (fan) and prepare two baking trays with greaseproof paper.
  2. Cream the margarine and sugar until smooth and fluffy.
  3. Add the flour and spices and mix with a spoon until a dough starts to form; then use your hands to bring it together as it gets too stiff for the spoon.
  4. Roll out the dough to about 1/2cm thick on the greaseproof paper that you put on the baking trays, and cut out the biscuit shapes. That way, when you’ve cut out the shapes, they are already on the place where they will be baked, and you avoid breaking them in transferring to the paper once cut out.
  5. Once you’ve cut out all the dough, press a few raisins onto the top of each bunny.
  6. Bake in the oven for about 25 minutes until lightly golden.
  7. Remove and allow to cool.
  8. Roll out the marzipan on a lightly floured board to about 1/2cm thick.
  9. Cut out the same number of shapes as the biscuits, and place on top of the biscuits, sandwiching the raisins between the biscuit and marzipan layer.
  10. Eat as fresh as possible!

Father Christmas mince tartlets

When I bought a 24-piece biscuit cutter set a while ago for Andrew to use with play dough, I noticed that there was a Father Christmas cutter included. As there aren’t many weeks of the year that you can get away with baking in such a festive shape, I thought I’d give it a go this week. I also had some marzipan left over from the star cupcakes that we made last week, so I came up with something that used it – mince pies with marzipan lids in the shape of Father Christmas. But because you can see some of the filling, they are really tarts rather than pies, and their small size means I’ve called them tartlets.

I’m not a massive fan of shop-bought mince pies, mainly because the pastry isn’t great unless you buy the really expensive ones. I actually prefer a plain unsweetened shortcrust pastry rather than a sweet pastry, because it tones down the highly sweet filling. Obviously the marzipan lids of these pies add sweetness, but at least it’s marzipan, which I LOVE – it’s one of the best tastes of Christmas in my foodie opinion. But the bases are unsweetened pastry, to which I added a dash of cinnamon, just to spice things up a little and make these tartlets a real twist on a classic bake.

I don’t usually bake mince pies in cake cases, but I have had times when they have stuck to the tin a bit, so I was pleased when I came across the idea of using paper cases on the website of Holly Bell, Great British Bake Off finalist 2011 – recipesfromanormalmum.com. We gave it a try, and it worked well.

Here’s how we made them. You could use whatever shape cutter you have for the lid, it doesn’t have to be Father Christmas (or Far Kissmas as Andrew is calling him 🙂 )! As there were two lots of rolling and cutting out dough , Andrew was very impressed, so I’d recommend it for toddlers who like that sort of thing. I’d also be interested to hear about other mince pie recipes, especially if they’re a bit unusual like this one – please leave a comment if you have one.

Ingredients (makes a dozen)

  • 110g plain flour
  • 2tsp cinnamon
  • 55g butter
  • cold water
  • mincemeat (I used about half a 454g jar)
  • ready to roll packet of marzipan (I used about a quarter of a standard supermarket packet)

Method

  1. First make the pastry. Chop up the butter into chunks and add to the flour and cinnamon in a bowl.
  2. Rub the butter chunks into the flour and cinnamon until you have a breadcrumb consistency.
  3. Add water, small amounts at a time, and combine with the butter-flour mixture until it forms a stiff dough. Don’t overwork it.
  4. Leave to rest in the fridge overnight, and get it out an hour or so before you want to roll it out, to get it to room temperature again.
  5. Pre-heat the oven to 180ºC (fan), and put paper cake cases into a fairy cake tin.
  6. Roll out the pastry on a lightly floured board to about 3mm thick.
  7. Cut circles out for the base of the tartlets using a circle cutter, and press them lightly into the cake cases.
  8. Add a heaped teaspoon of mincemeat to each base.
  9. Bake in the oven for about 10 minutes, until the pastry is lightly golden and the mincemeat is bubbling.
  10. Meanwhile, roll out the marzipan on the same lightly floured board, to about 3mm thick.
  11. Cut out Father Christmas shapes, or whatever festive shape you have a cutter for!
  12. When the tartlets are ready, remove from the oven and leave to cool.
  13. When they have fully cooled, place a Father Christmas on top of each tartlet and press down lightly.

Gingerbread men ….and other creatures (inspired by the Great British Bake Off, episode 8)

Anyone who’s following the Great British Bake Off as avidly as me will know that I’m a week behind on this one. Biscuits, specifically crackers, chocolate tea-cakes and gingerbread, were the theme of last week’s episode, whereas this week was all about French baking – petit fours, gateaux, choux pastry. I didn’t have time to do any baking last weekend, as we had a busy weekend visiting my brand new niece and taking Andrew to see the ‘choo-choos’ (model railway exhibition) at our local museum. Being as biscuits are more my thing than fancy French baking, I thought I’d stick to them rather than stretch myself too far. And besides, gingerbread men are something that I’d really like Andrew to get involved in with helping me bake.

Everything out ready to start on our baking adventure
Ready and waiting with my apron and wooden spoon!

Avid followers of the GBBO will of course also know that the contestants didn’t have to make just any old gingerbread, but rather build with it structures that went beyond the quaint little Hansel and Gretal houses that you see around Christmas-time these days. There were some impressive architectural feats, like a 2-foot tall Big Ben and a 2-foot diameter Colosseum! I wanted to stick with the classic ‘man’ shape for my gingerbread – though who has ever seen a man look like a gingerbread ‘man’?! This involved buying a cutter, because I realised that I’d only ever made gingerbread as a child at home, and I don’t personally own cutters in such a shape. I thought this would be easily remedied by a quick trip to the supermarket, but it seems gingerbread men cutters are harder to come by than I thought. In the end I found a bumper pack of kids biscuit cutters in Hobbycraft, and this included one classic gingerbread man shape as well as other assorted animals, birds and geometric shapes. I saw this as a good investment, because recently Andrew has got into play dough, and I have it on my to-do list to make some, so the cutters will come in handy for using with play dough as well as with edible biscuit dough!

Cutting out a man shape. But I think it's a BEAR Mummy!!

It turned out that Andrew, when given the choice of which shapes he wanted to use for cutting out gingerbread dough, wasn’t actually that bothered about the classic ‘man’ shape, which he insisted was a teddy bear anyway. He much preferred to cut out butterflies and hearts – two words which he loves to say (‘heart’ is pretty accurate, and ‘butterfly’ is something like ‘pap-pap’, which I presume is him picking up the French word ‘papillon’), and kept saying them in very excited intonation as he cut one out, and another, and another, and another…! I did persuade him to let me cut out some ‘men’, sorry I mean bears, whilst he was in charge of heart and butterfly creation.

Waiting for all our different shaped biscuits to cool down before decorating them

The recipe we used was from Paddington’s Cookery Book, which Andrew was given as a birthday present from his uncle and aunt. It has some great recipes that are perfect for getting little hands involved in baking, and this gingerbread was so simple to make. Along with the book, he was also given a lovely little apron, which now fits him well, with some growing room still, so he wore that whilst we baked together. I’ve given the list of ingredients below, which I altered slightly by using margarine instead of butter and omitting the salt, and I’ve also added ingredients for decorating that aren’t in the book. But I shouldn’t write the method out exactly as in the book as it’s under copyright. You do what you would do for making a shortbread-type biscuit, by combining flour and fat into a breadcrumb consistency and then adding the sugar, spices and finally milk to bring it together into a firm dough that can be rolled out and cut into shapes. The finished biscuit texture is quite soft and short rather than crunchy like some gingerbread, but I think this is a nice texture for little (and big) mouths.

Ingredients

  • 200g self-raising flour
  • 2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 100g margarine
  • 75g brown sugar
  • 3 tbsp milk
For decorating
  • white writing icing tube
  • 5 tbsp icing sugar
  • cold water
  • sprinkles
  • chocolate beans

    Putting chocolate beans onto an iced heart

Once they were cooled, we then set about decorating the biscuits with icing, sprinkles and chocolate beans. This was the really fun part! I was amazed at how good Andrew’s fine motor skills were, as he was able to accurately put a small chocolate bean onto each of two small blobs of writing icing that I had squeezed onto the men-shaped biscuits to make buttons down the front, in classic gingerbread man style. Even I found this tricky, though I guess smaller fingers is an advantage in this case. I then drew a mouth and two eyes onto the faces using the writing icing, and Andrew was keen to repeatedly say ‘eyes’ and ‘mouth’ as I did each one! We also mixed some icing sugar with a small amount of water to make a simple water icing that I then spread onto the butterflies and hearts and Andrew helped sprinkle the sprinkles and place the chocolate beans on the butterfly wings. I thought he might be tempted to eat some biscuits whilst we were decorating (or maybe that was just me?!) but he didn’t seem bothered, and I let him have one right at the end when they were done.

Fine motor skills in action (hence the blurry photo!)

We had such a fun afternoon making this biscuits, and I’m glad that Andrew enjoyed it and found it interesting too – it means a lot to me that he’s showing an interest in one of my favourite things to do 🙂

These hearts and butterflies are so pretty, I just can't resist grabbing one whilst Mummy is trying to take a photo of their loveliness!
Time to choose a 'man' to eat - I think I'll have this one with 2 blue buttons please

‘We love you Daddy’ mini heart-shaped cheese scones

So it’s the Saturday morning before Fathers’ Day, and I suddenly realise on an unrelated search through the fridge that we have 2 eggs that are at the day before their use-by date. This is probably because I’m doing less baking these days and I keep forgetting to do boiled eggs now that Andrew seems to be not so keen on scrambled but will eat boiled. Tom and I hate throwing away food, and very rarely do it – as we live so near the shops and do most of our shopping by foot or bike, we buy fresh stuff every few days and only as much as we need. So I was not going to let these eggs go to waste. I’m still not exactly back into baking like I was, but if it was bake or throw away food, I know which I’d rather do. As I’m generally feeling pretty good these days in the morning, I set about thinking up a recipe (or what turned out to be two) which would use the eggs up, and, to kill another proverbial bird whilst I was at it, bake something I knew Tom would particularly enjoy as a Fathers’ Day treat.

Given that Tom likes pretty much anything edible, I had quite a free rein on that front. The main factor in deciding on recipes was of course they had to have egg in. As my sweet tooth has yet to return from the pregnancy taste changes, I thought I’d give a savoury recipe a go. I flicked through some books to get inspiration, and the scones in good old Delia Smith grabbed my attention. I love a good cheese scone, so that was one egg decided on. For what I did with the other you’ll have to wait for another post.

Here’s the recipe that I used. It’s roughly based on Delia’s, but I always adapt recipes to suit our tastes and cupboard/fridge contents. I went for a ‘mini’ size so they would be easy for Andrew and also good as a snack. The heart-shape was supposed to be a sign for ‘We love you Daddy’ and we’d like to thank you for all you do.

Ingredients

  • 75g wholewheat flour
  • 75g self-raising flour
  • 25g margarine
  • 100g mature cheddar, grated
  • 1 egg
  • 3tbsp milk
  • 1 pinch cayenne pepper
  • 2 pinches cumin seeds

Method

  1. Rub the margarine and flours together in a bowl using your fingers, until it looks like bread crumbs.
  2. Stir in the cayenne and cumin until evenly distributed.
  3. Mix in about 3/4 of the cheese until evenly distributed.
  4. Beat the egg and 2/3 of the milk in a cup, then add it to the other ingredients, and stir until it forms a stiff dough that you can roll into a ball. If it’s too dry, add a bit more milk.
  5. Flatten out the dough on a floured surface to about 1cm thick, and cut out scones using a biscuit cutter. I used a small heart-shaped one, to make the mini scones as a ‘we love you Daddy’ treat 🙂
  6. Place the scones on a lined baking tray.
  7. Brush them with the rest of the milk, then sprinkle with the rest of the cheese.
  8. Bake in the oven at 180ºC until golden brown.
  9. Let cool and eat as fresh as possible.

We had ours with tomato soup, which worked brilliantly. In fact Tom liked them so much he ate most of them in one go! Andrew and I just about got a look in. I hadn’t expected them to be that popular, even knowing his appetite. He said his excuse was that they’re best eaten on the day of baking. I said he didn’t need an excuse – they were his treat!

Lebkuchen – a taste of Christmas

One of my favourite foods at Christmas is Lebkuchen [pronounced something like layb-koo-chuhn (ch as in Scottish ‘loch’) for those who don’t sprechen any Deutsch]. These soft and chewy biscuits spiced with flavours like ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg remind me of Christmas as a child, as Mum would always buy a few bags for us to eat over the Christmas period. It wasn’t until I went to Germany just before Christmas as an adult that I realised that the small Lebkuchen bought from supermarkets here in England were not the same as the much bigger, flatter and (let’s face it) better ones found over there, where they originated. Ever since I tasted the real German ones, I’ve wanted to have a go at baking my own, but I’ve only just got round to it this year, probably because I came across a recipe in a chocolate recipe book that I’ve used a lot recently.

As usual, I adapted the recipe slightly (I don’t think I ever follow a recipe exactly!): raisins instead of candied fruit peel (which I don’t really like), and I halved the chocolate glaze, because the biscuits were quite fragile even when cool, so I didn’t think they would ‘dip’ well to coat them as the recipe said, and I made a thicker glaze to ice just one side as they lay on a flat surface. Anyway, that’s enough of an intro…. on with the important stuff!

Ingredients

Biscuits

  • 100g unsalted almonds (brown skins left on)
  • 25g plain chocolate, chopped
  • 2 tbsp raisins
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/2 tsp grated nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
  • 1/4 tsp ground cloves
  • 2 large egg whites (I used 3 medium)
  • 115g icing sugar

Glaze

  • 50g plain chocolate, chopped
  • 50g icing sugar

Method

  1. Finely grind the almonds and chocolate in a food processor, then mix with the raisins and spices.
  2. Put the egg whites in a spotlessly clean, greasefree bowl and beat with an electric hand mixer until soft peaks form.

    Egg whites at the stiff peak stage
  3. Gradually beat in the icing sugar to make a thick, glossy meringue.
  4. Add the chocolate mixture and carefully fold in with a large metal spoon.

    Lebkuchen mixture
  5. Put tablespoon-sized mounds of the mixture on several baking trays lined with non-stick greaseproof paper, setting them well apart, then spread each into a circle about 3 inches in diameter.

    Trays with blobs of biscuit mixture, ready for the oven
  6. Bake in a preheated oven at 160°c for 15-20 minutes until the biscuits are pale gold. Let cool, then peel off the greaseproof paper.

    Close up of a biscuit just out of the oven - a lovely pale golden colour
  7. To make the chocolate glaze, melt the chocolate gently (I use these cool microwaveable pans and do it in short bursts at a time so the chocolate doesn’t burn). Then let it cool.
  8. Mix the icing sugar with 2 tablespoons of hot water to make a smooth glaze, then stir in the chocolate to make a fairly runny mixture – if necessary, stir in a little more warm water (I ended up putting in a few more splashes from the kettle).
  9. Ice each biscuit with the glaze – I found that they were fragile, so I iced them on the bottom where they had come away from the greaseproof paper, as this helped to keep them together. This isn’t quite as traditional as dipping in a thin glaze, but it tastes the same and it meant I didn’t risk ending up with a chocolatey broken biscuit mess!
    Waiting for the iced lebkuchen to set

    A plate of lebkuchen good enough to eat

As an aside, I decided to whip up a quick sponge mixture with the egg yolks, because I can’t stand wasting the other half of the eggs when a recipe calls for only whites or yolks. It’s basically 110g of plain flour, 110g of butter, 110g of sugar and 2 eggs (but I used 3 egg yolks and a generous splash of milk instead). You beat the sugar and butter together, then add the eggs (and in this case the milk) and then the flour.

I decided to use the sponge mixture to make cupcakes. I wasn’t sure whether the exchange of milk for egg whites would make a difference to how they turned out, but I’m always up for experimental baking, and most of the time it’s edible, even if slightly odd looking or a strange texture! In this case they came out quite crispy on top, softer inside, though slightly denser than the usual light sponge, and still yummy to taste.

After I tried one fresh from the oven (just to make sure it was worth icing them, you understand), I decided to add some simple melted chocolate on the top to finish them off.

Chocolate-topped cupcakes (note that only 5 made it to the chocolate stage - I had to try one to make sure they tasted good enough to keep 😉 )

So there you go, two recipes for the price of one! Both delicious as a snack with a cuppa, and one as a lovely taste of Christmas which reminds me of childhood.