The Twelfth Night Diet, or, How Baking Elisen Lebkuchen Could Kickstart Your Year

This is a Christmas recipe, but I make no apology for posting it today. Today is 6 January, or Twelfth Night so a) Christmas isn’t over yet, b) as it’s Twelfth Night I shall turn the world upside down and do as I please. The doing as I please part will include making a tenuous claim that baking these deeply delicious, nutty, fruity, gingery, chocolatey, and – yes – sugary biscuits could help you lose weight. So there.

Twelfth Night revels

This is what we should be doing, not sitting around worrying about work on Monday

You have almost certainly had Lebkuchen of one sort or another. The term encompasses a wide variety of gingery German Christmas biscuits. The Elisen Lebkuche is the Queen of Lebkuchen. Her capital is at Nürnberg (also spelt Nuremberg), so they are also known as Nürnberger Lebkuchen.

Nurnberg Nuremberg

The lovely city of Nurnberg. Please ignore the gibbetty things in the foreground.

While the good people of northern Europe have been baking spicy, gingery biscuits to celebrate the good times since they finally got the trade routes sorted in the middle ages, this particular variety of Lebkuchen was first sold in the early 1800s. I have seen many claims on the Internet that  Elisen Lebkuchen were named after a gingerbread maker’s beautiful daughter Elise and not one shred of substantiation but it’s a nice story, so let’s go along with it.

The distinguishing feature of these biscuits is they contain no flour, a lot of nuts, and generous quantities of mixed peel and my personal favourite, crystallised ginger. They are simultaneously chewy and melt-in-the-mouth gorgeous. They are so good and keep so well that I would like you to very seriously consider doubling the quantities below.

The ‘real’ biscuits from Nürnberg come in beautiful tins and boxes and have the magnificent gravitas that only a food that’s been made by a guild of incredibly serious bakers for hundreds of years can carry off. This recipe doesn’t offer you that kind of authenticity but it does present you with the opportunity to eat Lebkuchen any time of year. If you wanted to make them less Christmassy you could use more crystallized ginger and less mixed peel.

Lebkuchen UFO Nuremberg 1561

If you Google ‘nuremberg 1561’ you will find a number of websites claiming that this news sheet records a flight of UFOs passing over Nurnberg. Those aren’t UFOs you crazy people – they’re quite obviously Lebkuchen.

So here’s the diet part: After you’ve made the mixture you have to wait 24 hours to bake these little beauties. And after that you can’t eat them straightaway. In fact you have to wait another TEN DAYS. I hereby challenge you to go the whole eleven days without eating anything sugary. With Elisen Lebkuchen to look forward to at the end that should be easy. Says the Lady of Biscuit Misrule.

Elisen Lebkuchen (makes 30ish)

250g caster sugar
3 large eggs
½ teaspoon vanilla essence
100g chopped hazelnuts
160g ground almonds (ideally ground at home in the blender, so they are gritty rather than powdery)
25g walnuts, roughly chopped
1 tbsp. crystallised ginger, finely chopped (if you are a ginger fiend like me leave some lumps)
100g mixed peel, finely chopped (or whizzed but not pulverised in the blender)
½ tsp. cinnamon
⅓ tsp. each of ground cloves, coriander, allspice, nutmeg and cardamom
finely grated zest of ½ lemon and ½ orange
rice paper cut into 8cm circles (you will need about 30 – make 20 at first then see how many more you need)
1 apple
200g dark chocolate

Beat the eggs, sugar and vanilla essence until the eggs are foaming and all the sugar has completely dissolved. Then stir in the nuts, ginger, spices, mixed peel and grated orange and lemon zest.

spicy mix

Stir for just long enough to combine the ingredients. The mixture will look runny. That’s fine. You’ll see.

Cover the bowl and leave it in the fridge for 24 hours.

Next day preheat the oven to 200 C. Arrange some of your rice paper circles on a baking tray. You need to leave at least 2 cm between circles, so you won’t get many on a tray.

paper circles

These are 5 cm circles. They were too small. Go for 8 cm, maybe 12 cm.

After a day in the fridge the biscuit mix should be nice and firm – more like dough. Take a large pinch and roll it into a ball. It should be about 7 cm in diameter – so when you set it on a piece of rice paper there’s half a centimetre of paper left showing all the way round.

When you’ve filled a tray pop it in the oven. Leave the Lebkuchen in for 12-15 minutes until they are light brown. It’s very important not to overdo them – the middle needs to stay soft and sticky. Transfer to a wire rack to cool and load up another tray. Repeat till all your mix is used up.

baked

When the biscuits are room temperature take a large piece of greaseproof paper and line an airtight box or tin. Put the biscuits in and tuck the paper over so they’re loosely wrapped.

Now – weird but true – lay the peel of an apple on the paper. This helps keep the biscuits moist and will eventually make them smell like a very beautiful medieval orchard.

biscuits and peel

Seal up the tin, put the tin in the cupboard, close the cupboard and forget they are there for ten whole days.

Almost there.

To finish them off gently melt the chocolate and use it to coat the biscuits. Wait a bit longer for the chocolate to set.

Elisen Lebkuchen

And then devour.

Checkout Workers, I Salute You (with cranberry sauce)

This post is dedicated to everybody who worked on supermarket tills over Christmas, and maintained their good humour while all around them lost their cool at the crowded aisles, the effort and the expense. In particular this post is dedicated to the woman with bronze-coloured cornrows and a Caribbean accent the absolute opposite of winter, who was working at the local Tesco when I did my Christmas shop.

She put my fresh cranberries through the scanner and asked me what I do with them. Thinking they looked delicious she had bought a punnet for lunch and tried eating them raw. Of course they were hard, sour and an all round disappointment. It’s a natural mistake to make. They look gorgeous: redder than strawberries, shiny as cherries, bite-size as blueberries. The fruit that combined all those qualities would be a wonderful thing.

raw cranberries

Sweet to behold, sour on the tongue.

I explained I had bought the cranberries to make a sauce with sugar and orange peel and… but there was a big queue of shoppers inching their trolleys towards me in a menacing fashion and I couldn’t go into detail. So here’s the full version. Too late for Christmas Day, but not too late to have with turkey left-overs, or cheese on toast, or ham, or cold venison, or even porridge – I had it with porridge this morning along with a dollop of cream and some golden syrup. Greedy, but it’s only the third day of Christmas…

IMPORTANT: this is a sour, tangy sauce and nowhere near as sweet as the sauce you get in jars. If you want something that sweet you will need to double or even triple the sugar. Which might be spoiling good cranberries.

300g fresh cranberries
2 small eating apples
1 large orange
75g golden caster sugar*
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. allspice

cranberry sauce ingredients

Raw sauce. Those chunks of apple are bigger than they ought to be.

Wash the fruit. Peel and core the apples and chop them into cranberry-sized pieces. Carefully peel the orange with a vegetable parer so you end up with one long, thin strip.

Squeeze the orange juice into a pan, and add the orange peel, apple pieces and cranberries. Stir in the sugar and spice.

Heat gently until the mixture is just simmering and cover. Heat, stirring occasionally. The cranberries will pop at uneven intervals like slow-motion popcorn. The sauce is ready when the apples are soft and all the cranberries have popped.

Fish out the orange peel and transfer the sauce to a serving dish. Let it cool, then keep it in the fridge. If you keep it covered it should be good for the rest of the Christmas season.

cranberry sauce.

Sauce. Good with all manner of things cooked and raw. Spoon it on.

Open-arse tart

This is a sad story. It was forged in ardent romantic illusion and quenched – this very evening – in the cold mud of disappointment. There will be a flutter of redemption and solace at the end, but not enough to match the initial high hopes. I was in love with something I had never seen or touched. I had heard great things, of its soft scent, its delicious flavour, its near magical powers to transform from something hard, cold and green to tender, giving, open flesh almost in the blink of an eye. The object of my imaginary desires was the medlar.

Medlar blossom

Let’s start with a pretty picture of medlar blossom to represent the dream.

My appetite was whetted by occasional references on Gardeners’ Question Time and a short account of the fruit in Andrew Dalby’s excellent The Shakespeare Cookbook. The attractive and intriguing traits of the medlar are these. It does not ripen like ordinary fruit – or at least it does, but it’s not ready to eat until it’s rotted, or more properly ‘bletted’. It is like an apple in miniature, arranged around five pips, but while these are larger than apple pips, the fruit is smaller. But best of all, it sounds like a fruit with a sense of fun and humour, for it was known, in the sixteenth century as an ‘open-arse’. If you look at it from a certain angle you can see what those jolly Elizabethans meant.

medlar open arse

This is the bottom of the fruit

My interest in the medlar was not easy to satisfy. It’s not for sale in shops. But then, at the beginning of this month, it was for sale at the farmers’ market, so I bought a punnet and took it home. I laid the little greeny-brown fruits out on the dining table and waited for them to blet. And waited. And waited. Not only did they take ages to blet, they did it one at a time. About one a day. It has taken almost three weeks for the whole lot to reach the edible stage. What happens is the firm apple-like greeny-white flesh turns a soft dark brown.

Medlars bletting

Medlars stubbornly waiting to blet

This was my first indication that the medlar might be hard to love but there were two redeeming features. The bletted fruit had delicately spotted skin and smelt exactly like an orchard on a damp morning, a smell I happen to like.

This evening I set to making a bastardised version of the medlar tart in The Shakespeare Cookbook. And this led to by second disappointment. The medlar did not give its flesh up easily. Maybe my medlars were smaller or more bletted than the ones Andrew Dalby had in mind. His suggested method was to “cut the medlars in half and scoop out the soft flesh with a teaspoon”. I ended up with a tiresome mixture of pulp, pips and skin on my hand and not much in the bowl. For me, grumpy squeezing and picking out the pips worked best in the end.

Will there be a third disappointment? Will the medlar be as fragrant and delightful to eat as they all promised… Find out in a few short lines after the recipe:

Pastry
225g plain flour
grated zest of ½ lemon
tiny pinch of salt
110g unsalted butter
½ tbsp caster sugar
2-3 tbsp cold water

 Filling
at least a dozen bletted medlars*
2 tbsp soft brown sugar
2cm3 fresh ginger
150ml whipping cream1 egg, separated
1 tsp cinnamon
* If you don’t have medlars, and you probably don’t, you could try replacing them with a large peeled and grated Bramley apple.

Preheat the oven to 180°C (reduce for a fan oven). Butter a tart or flan case.

In a mixing bowl stir together the flour, salt and lemon zest. Lightly rub in the butter. When you reach the rough breadcrumb stage stir in the sugar. Add the water one tablespoon at a time and stir with a fork until the crumbs start to bind. Give them a quick squeeze to bring it all together as pastry. Press this into the tart case, prick the base all over with a fork, and bake for twenty minutes.

Pricked tart case

When it’s done remove it from the oven and turn the heat down 20°.

Meanwhile, get the pulp out of those medlars any way you can. Put it in a saucepan with the brown sugar and grate in the ginger. Heat gently and stir till this mixture is smooth. Add the cream and heat again until it’s hot but not boiling. Beat the egg yolk and stir it in. Keep heating and stirring until the mixture thickens.

Pour this custardy mix into the cooked flan case. Bake for another fifteen minutes.

tart baked but not covered

Baked filling

I felt uncomfortable with the nakedness of my tart so I whipped up the egg white with a spoonful of caster sugar to make a soft topping. Spread this on and bake for another ten to fifteen minutes.

Tart with meringue topping

Less of an open-arse, more of a full moon

Tasting notes: Actually not bad. I’d cook it again if somebody brought the medlars round to my house ready-bletted and got the pulp out for me.