After taking on a bake with a serious degree of difficulty with make-your-own-strudel-pastry last week, it was time for something at the opposite end of the scale: a simple, unpretentious cookie that takes minimal effort and skill to prepare but delivers lovely flavour and texture. In short, Azerbaijan’s butter cookies called Shaker churek (to my shame, I have no idea how to pronounce the name).
This recipe comes from a splendid Dutch blog called the cookie companion. It’s the simplest version I found: there are other recipes that use yeast.
100g icing sugar
vanilla essence to taste
In a bowl, weigh out the icing sugar
Melt the butter, not letting it get too hot, and add it to the icing sugar: mix until smooth
Add the flour and mix thoroughly – you will get a dough that’s far too dry, which is fine at this stage
Separate the egg; keep half the yolk aside and add the other half yolk and all the white to your mix.
Add the vanilla essence, and mix thoroughly until you have a smooth, slightly damp dough
Cover and leave in the refrigerator for around an hour
Preheat oven to 180℃
Line a baking tray with a silicone sheet or baking paper
Divide the dough into eight equal parts (they should be just over 60g each). For each part into a ball, flatten slightly and place it on your baking sheet. Warning here: the cookies spread, so make sure you leave plenty of space around them.
With the end of a finger or some other implement (like the end of a rolling pin, if you have that kind of rolling pin), make a small depression in the middle of each cookie. Fill the depression with the reserved egg yolk.
Bake for around 15 minutes
Like most cookies, shaker churek are really, really good straight out of the oven: but leave them to cool for a few minutes so that they don’t actually burn your mouth!
When my daughter’s Argentinian colleague returns to London after a trip home, you can predict with certainty that he will be carrying a number of packs of Alfajores, his country’s favourite sweet treat. They’re biscuits made from a dough rich in butter and cornflour; a layer of dulce de leche (caramelised condensed milk) is sandwiched between a pair of biscuits, with the edges of the filling rolled in desiccated coconut – or, as in the version I’ve made here, dipped in chocolate, in which case they’re called “Alfajores marplatenses” (from Mar del Plata). The combination of crumbly, melt-in-your-mouth biscuit, soft caramel and chocolate is a sure fire winner.
I made alfajores of the most often recommended size, around 5 cm diameter, which are substantial enough to make a complete small dessert on their own, the alternative being to make smaller “alfajorcitos” of 3-4 cm diameter.
Recipes for the biscuits vary to a fair extent and my choices were largely dictated by the ingredients I had to hand. Here are some of the things you can adjust:
Ratio of cornflour to wheat flour (many recipes put in significantly more cornflour than my 50/50).
Flavourings: some recipes choose a dash of cognac or orange liqueur in addition to or instead of the lemon zest that I’ve used.
You can add cocoa powder and/or use brown sugar to get a darker biscuit
The recipe that follows made 12 fully assembled alfajores with plenty of biscuits and a bit of chocolate to spare. But this will depend very much on the thickness and diameter to which you roll and cut them.
The dulce de leche filling
If you’re in Spain or the Americas, the chances are that ready made dulce de leche is available in your local supermarket. Otherwise, here’s how to make it from sweetened condensed milk (if you can’t find that, you can make dulce de leche from scratch from milk and sugar, as shown in this post on Epicurious, but that looks like a lot of work).
1 can sweetened condensed milk (around 400g)
Heat oven to 220℃
Pour the condensed milk into a small oven proof dish
Cover the dish with foil and place it in a high-sided baking tray. Fill the rest of the tray with water to around 2-3cm up the side of the dish
Bake for around 60 minutes until the milk has turned light brown
Remove from the oven and leave to cool, stirring occasionally to get any lumps out
100g sugar (most recipes suggest icing sugar, which I didn’t have)
3 egg yolks
vanilla essence to taste
grated zest of one lemon
150g plain flour
10g baking powder
Preheat oven to 180℃ fan
In the bowl of your stand mixer, whip the butter gently
Add the sugar and beat until well creamed
Add the eggs and beat
Add the lemon zest and vanilla and mix in
In a bowl, combine the flours and baking powder and stir evenly. Add to the butter/sugar/egg mixture and mix until you have a smooth batter
Wrap the ball of batter with cling film and refrigerate for 30 minutes
Place the batter between two sheets of cling film and roll out to around 3-5mm thickness
Cut the batter into circles and transfer to a baking sheet lined with baking parchment. The biscuits will expand, so leave around 2cm gap between them (I didn’t leave enough), which means you’ll probably need two baking sheets.
Bake for around 10 minutes until golden brown
Leave to cool
Assembly and dipping
Warning: the many wonderful features of alfajores do NOT include structural integrity. They are very fragile – the crumbliness is part of the appeal – so handle with care!
300g cooking chocolate (I used 150g milk and 150g dark, but choose anything you like)
Grease a sheet of baking parchment and put it onto a baking tray or board that you can put in the fridge
Break up the chocolate into a heatproof dish wide enough for you to dip a biscuit easily. Place the dish over boiling water and wait for the chocolate to be all melted, stirring occasionally
Spread the flat side of a biscuit with dulce de leche. The pros use a piping bag to do this, but if you don’t have one, a spatula works OK. Add another biscuit, flat side down, to form a sandwich.
Using a couple of forks, dip the biscuit into the melted chocolate and cover it completely. Hold it up to allow most of the excess to drip off, and transfer to your sheet of baking paper.
Repeat for the remaining biscuits
Place in the refrigerator for several hours for the chocolate to harden
Several Alfajores recipes point out that step 6 is more or less impossible to accomplish, including the one which goes “my mum always says these should be eaten the next day but I’ve never managed this”. I can confirm that they *are* better the next day, but I’ll leave the decision to you and your self-control…
Cocadas are everywhere throughout the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking world. They’re the bake is for coconut lovers: there’s nothing I’ve ever mode which has a higher percentage of pure coconut.
In most places, cocadas show up as balls or swirls (they’re often translated as “coconut cookies” or “coconut macaroons”). In Bolivia, they make them as “bar cookies”, which I take to mean baked in a tray and cut into squares, somewhat like brownies.
Western recipes tend to use sweetened condensed milk: I’ve started with a recipe from “Bolivia bella” in which you make your own condensed milk by starting with coconut milk and sugar. The original then adds freshly grated coconut, but I didn’t have any, so I’ve put in desiccated coconut at the beginning of the process to allow it to rehydrate while the coconut milk is condensing. I’ve also considerably reduced the proportion of sugar to coconut – you can increase it to 200g if you prefer a sweeter end product.
400ml coconut milk
150g desiccated coconut
3 egg yolks (mine clocked in at around 54g)
10g sesame seeds
grated rind of 1 lemon (around 2g)
Heat oven to 160℃ fan
Line a baking tin with parchment: I used a 23cm x 23cm tin
Mix the coconut milk, the desiccated coconut and the sugar into a saucepan.
Bring to the boil and simmer gently, stirring frequently, until thickened to a paste. Take it off the heat and stir in the sesame seeds, butter and lemon rind – mix until the butter is melted and combined. Leave to cool for a couple of minutes more: you don’t want to scramble the eggs in the next step.
Beat the egg yolks thoroughly, then add them to the mix and blend them in quickly
Return the saucepan to a low heat and cook for a few minutes longer until the mixture is very thick.
Remove from the heat and spread the batter evenly into your tin.
Bake for 30-40 minutes until firm to hard. Use a longer time for a crisp biscuit, a shorter time for a softer brownie-like consistency.
Leave to cool in the tin. You’ll struggle to extract it when it’s still warm.
Remove the whole thing from the tin and cut into squares or rectangles.
Confession time on the photos: I got the baking temperature/time badly wrong on my first attempt and then inexplicably used the wrong baking pan on the second. So my final cocadas are too thin and unevenly baked. But they still taste great…
Carrying on from last week-end’s public holiday theme: July 11th in Belgium is the day when the Flemish community celebrates the 1302 Battle of the Golden Spurs, in which Flanders rebels routed the forces of King Philip IV of France. To this day, the Walloons and the Flemish don’t agree about much, but at least one thing unites them: a taste for the spiced shortbread biscuits they call speculoos. Traditionally, they’re baked for St Nicholas Day (on December 6th in Belgium), but I’d run out of biscuits and I didn’t feel like waiting…
As with many baking recipes that go back a long way, there are lots of variations. Speculoos recipes vary widely in ratio of the main ingredients (flour / sugar / butter). They vote for water, milk or an egg to stop the mix crumbling. Everyone agrees on using brown sugar (cassonade in French), but there’s lots of choice as to which sub-variety. For the spicing, everyone agrees on cinnamon, but there’s lots of choice as to what else to use: I opted for nutmeg and ginger; additions/alternatives include cloves, allspice, cardamom, star anise and even white pepper. My quantities of spice are on the low side compared to many, so feel free to play around with the quantities here until you have something that’s exactly to your taste. This really looks like a recipe that defies conventional wisdom about all baking needing to be super-accurate.
Ingredients for around 30-36 small biscuits
180g brown sugar (I used a mix of muscovado and soft brown)
50g ground almonds
½ tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
½ tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp ground ginger
¼ tsp nutmeg
Preheat oven to 175℃ fan
Soften the butter (if it’s straight from the fridge, chop into small cubes, around 1cm, and leave it while you do everything else).
Mix the flour, sugar, ground almonds, salt and baking powder in a bowl (if you have a stand mixer, you can weigh everything straight into its bowl). Stir everything until all the ingredients are evenly distributed – try to ensure that you’ve got rid of any clumps of sugar.
Add the butter and egg and combine until you have a smooth, even dough – either with the stand mixer or manually with a wooden spoon.
Roll the dough out on a flat surface to a thickness of around 5-7 mm. Try to get it pretty even, because you want your biscuits to be all baked at the same time.
Cut out biscuits with your favourite cookie cutter(s) or cooke mould. If you have young children, you’ll probably want animal shapes, hearts or whatever: my kids are grown up and I couldn’t find any in the house other than a fairly standard circle.
Place on a baking tray lined with a Silpat or silicone baking sheet (if you have one) or baking parchment. You’ll probably need to do two trays worth: this makes around 30-36 biscuits.
Bake for around 15 minutes.
The biscuits cool fine without taking them off the Silpat sheet, but if you’re using anything else, you probably want to turn them over after 10 minutes because the bottoms can get soggy.
Enjoy! Speculoos are the ultimate biscuit to accompany a coffee; they can also be crumbled to make an excellent topping for a fruit-and-cream type of dessert.
Having travelled so far to get to Australia and New Zealand for the Lamington, we might as well stay there for the region’s other iconic bake: the ANZAC biscuit. It’s a biscuit with a story, conjuring up images of the wives and sweethearts of soldiers in the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps lovingly baking them to be sent to their embattled loved ones at Gallipoli and other World War I battlefields. Whether or not this is actually true (Wikipedia is mildly sceptical about the evidence), ANZAC biscuits are a feature of Australian and Kiwi veterans’ fundraising events to this day, their popularity stemming not just from the history but from their general deliciousness: the flavour combination of butter, golden syrup and coconut is a surefire winner.
More prosaically, you can think of ANZAC biscuits are a kind of sweet version of the Scottish oatcake (bake 10). They’re fairly straightforward to make: I followed the basic recipe in the ever-reliable taste.com.au, which gives variants for increased crispiness or chewiness. Most recipes are similar, varying mainly in the amount and type of sugar, with occasional other flavourings added such as vanilla essence.
The quantities here make around 30 biscuits (the eagle-eyed will spot a level of attrition on the way to the biscuit tin).
150g plain flour
90g porridge oats (don’t use jumbo oats, which are likely to result in your biscuits falling apart)
85g desiccated coconut
100g brown sugar
55g caster sugar
40g golden syrup
½tsp bicarbonate of soda
Preheat oven to 160℃ fan
Line a couple of baking trays with baking parchment
Mix the flour, oats, coconut and sugar in a large bowl.
Cut the butter into pieces and put it into a saucepan with the golden syrup and water. Warm gently until the butter is melted and everything is combined.
Add the bicarbonate of soda to the wet mixture and stir to dissolve.
Pour the wet mixture into your bowl and mix thoroughly. You want to make sure that there’s no dry flour visible when you spoon the mixture away from the sides of the bowl.
Scoop out a level tablespoon of mixture (this is a good way of getting the biscuits to be around the same size), roll it into a ball and place it on your first baking tray. Now repeat for the others, allowing as much space as you can between your biscuits.
Now press each biscuit slightly flatter. The 1cm thick suggested gets you a biscuit with a slightly chewy centre: going flatter will get you a crispier version. Either way, the biscuits will spread out somewhat during baking.
Bake for around 15 minutes, switching shelves half way to make sure they’re all baked the same amount.
I eat between meals. Because I’m type 2 diabetic, I need things that I can snack on that are neither overly sweet (we’ll draw a discreet veil over the cake recipes in this series of posts) nor overly salty (I can eat bags of peanuts for days, but this is a terrible idea also). Scottish oatcakes contain little or no sugar, don’t have to be overly salty and are really delicious, either on their own or with a bit of cheese: in short, they are the perfect snack. And they turn out to be one of the easiest things on the planet to bake.
This recipe is only slightly modified from the recipe by BBC good food contributor “zetallgerman”: I’ve changed a few things and added some details, but it’s basically their recipe and hats off to them, because it works like a charm.
I’ve given quite a lot of detail on rolling and cutting here, because this is a really good beginner’s bake – I beg forgiveness from experienced bakers for whom this is all obvious.
225g oats (ordinary porridge oats if you can; jumbo oats need to be blitzed first)
60g wholemeal spelt flour (ordinary wholemeal whear flour is fine: my lockdown larder has spelt flour and it works very well)
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda or baking powder
½ tsp salt (zetallgerman says 1 tsp: I prefer ½ to ¾)
½ tsp sugar (optional, as far as I’m concerned)
60g unsalted butter (or use salted and reduce the amount of added salt)
70ml warm water, plus 10ml or so more for the next round
Preheat oven to 190℃ fan
Get a baking tray ready. If it isn’t non-stick, line it with baking paper. You’ll also need something with which to cut the oatcakes into circles: I use a fairly solid mug whose diameter is 9cm, so I just fit 12 oatcakes into my 30cm x 40cm tray.
If your butter came out of the fridge, soften. My favourite way is to cut it into small cubes and leave it in a warm place in the kitchen: five minutes in spring sunshine is plenty.
Mix the oats, flour, baking soda or powder, salt and sugar until everything’s reasonably evenly distributed.
Add the butter and mix thoroughly, pinching with your fingers until all the butter is absorbed. If you can, do this with one hand to keep the other one clean. Pastry and biscuit recipes always say “to the consistency of breadcrumbs”: personally, I’ve never succeeded in achieving anything looking remotely like a breadcrumb, but it doesn’t seem to matter.
Add 70ml of warm water and combine everything together into a dough. The amount of water is a bit variable: if your dough fragments horribly when you try to roll it, add a few drops more, remix and try again.
On a floured board, roll your dough out to 4-5mm thickness. Cut a circle (I use a mug) and transfer to your baking sheet (I have to first put the mug over my hand and then thump it for the oatcake to come out). Repeat: if all is well, you should be able to get six oatcakes.
Now gather together the off-cut dough and put it back in your bowl, add a few drops more water and recombine. You can now roll out the dough again and repeat. Hopefully, you’ll manage another four oatcakes this time.
At this stage, I normally have enough dough for two oatcakes. I divide it in half and roll them out individually
Bake for 20 minutes. As well as the usual oven variability, the exact time is a matter of taste: longer = crispier but gives more danger of a burnt taste
That’s it folks – a really low effort bake which has given me reliable results every time!