I know that snow is special for many people but it always makes me feel a particular kind of excitement every time I see thick, white flakes falling from the sky. In the area where I grew up, we rarely had any and yet one of my very first memories is of sledge riding down a hill close to our house on a wooden sledge my Dad made. I remember the excitement mixed with fear and the sharpness of the wind against my cheeks. It made me sad when a new housing estate was built there shortly afterwards. I love the silence which snow creates, the muffled whoosh of cars going by with their headlights on, the strange evening light in the streets with its reflections and the satisfying crunch of it underneath your feet. Some people don't like snow in the city for me but I've always found there's something so amazing about waking up, opening the curtains and seeing the buildings and parks under a thick white blanket. Everywhere is transformed, even the ugliest places and the sight of it makes me want to put on Wellington boots, coat, scarf and gloves and rush out to enjoy every second of it while it lasts.
As a child, I fell in love with the Snowman animation, a story about a boy who builds a snowman that comes to life. Together they fly through the air to the North Pole to meet Father Christmas and other snowmen. The end is so heartbreaking though that it made me cry year after year but the story became one the things I adored the most. I had the book, record, teddy bear, plate, cup and still feel its magic whenever I watch it every Christmas Eve at teatime; I associate it with the smell of clementines and ginger, of warm mince pies and the crackling of logs on the fire.
But for me, the most beautiful memory of snow was back in the 80's when a blizzard swept across the UK, bringing down trees and powerlines everywhere. Today I'm not sure if I'd enjoy it the same way without Internet, blogging, light, music and other gadgets but as a child, it was fantastic to be sent home from school and the landscapes around our house seemed like one giant playground. My brother was at university at the time which was also closed. On our way to pick him up, my Dad took the precaution of buying an enormous amount of chocolate to put in the car, just in case we broke down. This all disappeared mysteriously later on but as I get my sweet tooth from my Dad, it shouldn't surprise you! We all went out together for long walks, got into ferocious snowball fights and made enormous snowmen. People stopped to talk to each other on the streets and there was a real feeling of solidarity in that strange and silent world, cut off from everything. I can't exactly remember what we did for food; back then there were no enormous supermarkets close by but we obviously didn't starve! We were lucky to have a gas stove and heating and there were thick white slices of buttered toast whose smell mingled with that of the melted candlewax. In the evenings, candlelight flickered and we read stories aloud to one another; a highlight was the hilarious A Diary of a Nobody, especially the part where the narrator decides to paint his bath red. I won't spoil that delicious story if you haven't read it but I think you can easily imagine it isn't a success! My family is proud to own an antique bed warmer which my Dad couldn't wait to try out now that the electric blankets were no use. It was the first and last time because it leaked so my parents ended up sleeping on the sofa while their bed dried! Then late one evening, I was sitting in the kitchen when I heard a crash and the lights came back on; it seemed unreal to return to normal life again and thinking of those snow filled days always makes me happy and feel nostalgic. Last year, I cruelly regretted not being in the UK for the heavy snowfall when everyone had to stay at home but I'm still hopeful that we'll have snow again in Berlin this winter to compensate for the grey skies.
Berlin is currently packed in the countdown to Christmas which makes me want to avoid shopping altogether at weekends, especially since I read Magda's hilarious post on using on of my recipes. Also, I prefer presents with a more personal touch so for my friends, I decided to make the Weihnachtskekse (or Christmas cookies) from Mingou's blog, plus Cantuccini from here. I'd also like to start with a personal message which I hope doesn't sound too nauseating:
Dear friends, I know it isn't easy for you to put up with me. I'm very demanding, a perfectionist, I mess up all of your diets, I send you enormous emails which you take the time to answer, you cheer me up when I'm (frequently) frustrated, you always say the nicest things about my baking when I feel it's a disaster, you give me the coolest music and films. Actually, you guys are the best and I couldn't do without you so enjoy the cookies - you deserve them! And to all my readers - thanks for inspiring me and making me feel appreciated. I still can't believe it when I read all your lovely comments!
You can find the recipes in French in this beautiful post:
Lebkuchen (makes about 60) - There's no pic because basically, I had to leave them to dry overnight when they'd been iced which meant hiding them from my flatmate so they all stuck together. They were good, though, believe me!
300g rye flour (Roggenmehl)
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
175g icing sugar
1.5/ 2 tsp mixed spice or Lebkuchen spice (basically the same thing!)
3 small eggs
80g honey (you'll all be smarter than me and NOT buy honey in a squeezy bottle which took ages to get it out of!)
For the covering
400g dark chocolate
In a large bowl, mix together the rye flour, sugar, biarb of soda and spice.
Add the eggs and honey and mix until you have a smooth mixture (add more flour if it's too sticky).
Pre-heat the oven to 180°C.
On a well-floured (and I mean with A LOT of flour) work surface, roll out the dough until it's roughly 1/2 cm thick. Using the cutter shape of your choice, cut out the Lebkuchen and place them on a baking tray covered in non-stick paper, at least 2 cm apart. Bake for 10 minutes maximum - they should still be moist and soft! Leave to cool on a cooling rack.
When they're cool, melt the chocolate and butter together in a small saucepan (no need to use a double boiler) or in the microwave. Using a fork, dip each Lebkuchen into the chocolate so it's covered all over, scrape off the excess and place on a plate covered with non-stick paper. Leave to dry for several hours.
Zimtsterne (Cinnamon Stars) - makes around 50
I've added bicarb of soda here and even if Mingou's recipe isn't traditional, it's still fantastic!
200g ground almonds
60g caster sugar
100g icing sugar
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
3 tsp ground cinnamon
2 egg whites
For the icing
150g icing sugar
1 egg white, beaten to the stiff peak stage
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
In a large bowl, mix together the the almonds, sugars, cinnamon, bicarb of soda and flour.
Add the eggs and mix well until the pastry forms a ball.
Pre-heat the oven to 150°C.
On a well-floured work surface, roll out the dough until it's 1cm (maximum) in thickness, cut out the stars with your cutter and place them on a baking sheet covered with non-stick paper. Bake for 10 minutes maximum (they should be just golden brown underneath). Remove from the oven and leave to cool.
To make the icing, mix the icing sugar with the whipped egg white and vanilla essence. Spread over the stars and leave to dry.
Linzer Augen (Linzer eyes) - Actually, these are my favourites and I couldn't resist making them with raspberry jam which I adore.
100g icing sugar
2 egg yolks
100 ground almonds
Zest of 1 lemon
2 sachets of vanilla sugar
a pinch of salt
1 egg, beaten for coating
Seedless raspberry jam (I like Wilkin and Son, expensive but so delicious)
Some icing sugar
1. Pour the flour into a large bowl, add the cold butter, cut into small pieces and rub together until you have a mixture like breadcrumbs.
2. Add the rest of the ingredients and blend until you have a smooth dough. Add some water or flour as needed. Wrap the dough in clingfilm and leave to rest in the fridge for about 30 mins - while you're waiting, you can start with the Vanillakipferl dough.
3. Pre-heat the oven to 180°C.
4. After 30 minutes, roll out the dough on a well-floured work surface and cut out round shapes. On half on the circles, also cut out a hole in the middle (in Berlin, I found a really cool cutter with a removables smaller cutter for the centre but you can use anything).
5. Brush the cookies with egg and place on a baking sheet covered with non-stick paper. Bake for 10 minutes or until golden brown.
6. Leave to cool then decorate by sandwiching the biscuits together with raspberry jam and dusting with icing sugar.
Vanillakipferl (Vanilla crescents)
100g ground almonds
60g icing sugar
1 packet of vanilla sugar
1. In a large bowl, mix the flour with the ground almonds and vanilla sugar.
2. Add the cold butter cut into pieces and use your fingertips to combine until you have a mix like breadcrumbs.
3. Add the icing sugar and the egg and mix everything in until the dough forms a ball.
4. Wrap the dough in clingfilm and leave to rest in the fridge for about 30 mins.
5. Pre-heat the oven to 200°C.
6. If you're in Germany, you can find great Kipferl moulds at Karstadt, for instance, or you can just form little crescents yourself, about the size of your finger. Place on a baking sheet covered in non-stick paper and bake for about 10 minutes. When they're done, coat them in a mixture of vanilla and icing sugar.
Storage tips: I keep mine in 4 different metal, air-tight tins with a slice of apple as Mingou suggests for the Lebkuchen and Zimtsterne to keep them soft.
To give as presents - if you live in Germany, you can find lovely star covered plastic sachets at DM, Rossmann or many supermarkets. I use red ribbon to tie them up with. In France, you can get them from Lavande. Or you could pack them in beautiful tins. I'm sure they'll be apprciated however you present them.
The cantuccini recipe is from Pascale Weeks and amazingly simple.
This weekend is my last full one in Berlin before I fly to the UK next Sunday but I promise you another post before I leave - next time with some serious and non-sweet comfort food.