This week, allow me to whisk you away into a chocolate-box Christmas paradise, where, beneath clear night skies, in the shadow of vast, dark mountains, we find ourselves in a high alpine village.
Lights twinkle in the windows of the chalets that dot the hillsides. In the centre of the village people skate on the small rink that’s there every year, and there is laughter, steaming mugs of glühwein and a jaunty polka being played on the accordion. We shrug the snow off our shoulders and enter a small café full of lights, and the sweet smell of a roaring log fire.
Here comes our pot of strong black coffee, and with it a plate of wonderful spicy biscuits. Just the thing after a day’s tobogganing. The coffee is rich and dark, and the biscuits are just the right side of sweet, and full of those familiar Christmassy flavours – sweet scented spices, aromatic nuts and tangy candied peel.
These biscuits, which you may have not discovered before, are called Leckerli. Their name taken from the German word for ‘tasty’ (lecker), these biscuits are a traditional Christmas gift in Switzerland, although they are eaten all through the year.
One of the highlights of our food year, as a family, was the day when Dad returned from his hectic pre-Christmas whizz around the company’s various offices and factories across Europe.
Thankfully, back then, there were no low-cost airlines, with their draconian luggage allowances, only scheduled flights, and Dad would stagger from the car weighed down with gifts and treats picked up on his tour. Stollen and smoked hams from Bavaria, dark winter ales and dark filter coffee from Düsseldorf, and from Switzerland the essential Toblerones, Suchard chocolate and always an ornate metal tin of Basler Leckerli. I can’t describe the pleasure I got from opening that tin.
It became almost a ritual; the brewing of the coffee and the lighting of the fire. The lid comes off and one’s nose is filled with those magical, festive scents of spice and sugar.
The biscuits are deeply chewy, quite heavily spiced and not over-sweetened, making them rather a grown-up treat, and every now and then, especially as the air becomes cold and crisp and the late-afternoon lights shimmer across the Colne Valley, I’m compelled to make a batch. Essentially they’re very similar to many such cakes and biscuits from all over Europe, from the soft, honeyed Pain d’Épices of France to our own crunchy gingerbread.
The spice trade had brought the continent a panoply of sweet, exotic spices since the 5th Century, and resourceful cooks had instantly got to work creating new realms of flavour, gingerbread in its many forms appearing to become almost universal.
So wherever you go, you’ll find this familiar combination of sugar and spice – in Sweden it’s Pepparkakor, in Romania it’s Turta Dulce and in Portugal it’s Pão De Especiarias. It’s an easy recipe to put together, so it’s perhaps it’s a good one to help the youngsters occupy their time during the holidays, too. Plus, the aromas wafting through the kitchen will get anyone’s Christmas noses twitching.
For the biscuits:
180ml runny honey
80g unrefined golden caster sugar
½ tsp Maldon salt
220g plain flour
1½ tsps baking powder
1 large free-range egg, lightly beaten
130g ground almonds
3 tbsps candied peel, finely chopped
The grated zest of 2 oranges
The grated zest of 1 lemon
2 tsps ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp freshly-ground black pepper
A pinch of ground cloves
A pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
55g icing sugar
150g well-toasted flaked almonds (for the top)
A 12 x 9” baking tray with raised edges up to 1” height
A little butter and flour for lining the tray
In a small saucepan, combine the honey with the sugar and salt. Cook over a medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the honey and sugar are melted and beginning to simmer, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a large heatproof bowl and allow the mixture to cool slightly, about 20 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 180ºC / Gas 4 and lightly butter the baking sheet before lining neatly with the baking parchment. Grease the paper with a little more melted butter and add a couple of tablespoons of flour, swirling the tin around to coat completely, before discarding the excess.
In a small bowl,
sift the plain flour with the baking powder. Whisk the beaten egg into the cooled honey mixture. Stir in the almonds, candied peel, the fresh orange and lemon zest, plus the cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, then stir in the sifted flour and bring together into a soft dough.
Tip the dough onto the prepared baking sheet and, with well-floured hands, press into the corners evenly. Bake for about 20 minutes, turning the baking sheet halfway through, until evenly golden and slightly risen.
As the dough bakes, make the icing; in a small saucepan, combine the icing sugar with 2 tablespoons of water and bring to a boil over a medium heat. Bubble the syrup until it begins to thicken slightly, about 5 minutes.
Remove from the heat and keep warm. As soon as the leckerli dough is ready, brush the surface with the hot glaze and sprinkle over the toasted almonds and carefully slide the parchment onto a wire cooling rack. Allow the dough to cool completely before slicing into suitable squares and serving.