AS I write this week’s piece, the first snowflakes of the season are falling wetly around the house.
They’re gone in an instant but serve as a reminder that we are on the cusp of winter, and the colder, darker days are here.
Not that I mind at all. I’ll tell anyone that listens I much prefer the cold weather. I realise the inconvenience that the snow brings, but the inner child in me just wants to run outside and play.
And how beautiful the countryside looks beneath its snowy mantle. I can’t wait for that magical first covering of crisp, cold snow on the moors I drive across each day on the way in to work.
As the fluffy flakes melt on the lawn, my thoughts turn to baking again, and one recipe in particular which always puts me in mind of the run up to Christmas.
I remember that, for many years, my dad would come back from the final European business trip of the year, having called in on many of the German and Swiss outposts, and invariably would be weighed down with lovely gifts from the various executives and managers he knew so well. There were boxes of marzipan fruits, incredibly boozy chocolates, and often beautiful books and tree decorations. Champagne or kirsch figured highly, and there was always a beautiful artisan-baked stollen cake from our friend Klaus in Düsseldorf, made by the city’s finest bakery, and wrapped like a jewel in layers of colourful tissue paper and card.
This rarely lasted more than a few days in the house. Stollen and I have a dangerous relationship; let’s leave it at that. Sometimes, however, another treat would emerge from the suitcase, courtesy of the Zürich office.
It was always packed in a beautiful pewter-style engraved box, and wrapped in crimson ribbon. When opened it revealed the delights inside – a couple of dozen leckerli biscuits, the speciality of the Swiss city of Basle (or Basel, depending what language you speak). Leckerli (the name translates as ‘little tasties’) are amazingly dense, chewy biscuits, full of candied peel and spices, and sweetened with alpine honey.
The recipe appeared about 700 years ago, formulated by the spice merchants of the city, and they still remain a winter-time favourite to this day.
They are often given as gifts to special friends and family. Dipped into a cup of black coffee, as I prefer to do, they are utterly delightful.
The sweet kirsch icing adds a candied note, and the cloves and cinnamon give warmth and a real Christmassy feel to the biscuits. The texture is very tough and chewy because of all the honey and sugar, so warnings must be given to those with dentures or sensitive teeth – these things are no madeleines!
But that’s part of the fun of these little chaps. They require a thoughtful chew to be enjoyed properly, or dipped in a hot cuppa in true British style.
The recipe is nice and easy, and the leckerli will keep for weeks in an airtight container. They look lovely wrapped in cellophane and ribbons and given as gifts.
Just remember to tell the recipient about the unusual consistency. You don’t want your friends telling people that you give stale biscuits out at Christmas.
So, open the spice cupboard, put a pot of coffee on, perhaps even have a yodel or two. It’s time to get baking, Swiss-style.
For the biscuits:
300g unrefined light muscovado sugar
1½Štablespoons ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground cloves
½Šteaspoon freshly-grated nutmeg
200g candied peel
200g ground almonds
The zest of a lemon, grated
100ml kirsch (brandy will do)
600g plain flour, plus a little extra
1½Štsp baking powder
A knob of butter
For the glaze:
150g icing sugar
Food processor, suitable baking tray (36x30cm approx)
In a food processor, whizz the candied peel and grated lemon zest with the flour until the pieces are very small and totally mixed.
Put the honey, sugar, cinnamon, ground clove and grated nutmeg in a pan, heat up slowly and allow to cool a little, before adding the kirsch.
Sift the baking powder into the zesty flour, and add the cooled honey mixture, bringing the whole lot together to form a soft dough.
Roll out the dough to about 1/2cm thickness, adding a little extra flour if it gets too sticky.
Push the dough neatly into the baking tray, and smooth the surface with a damp palm or a palette knife dipped in water.
Cover the tray with clingfilm and allow the dough to rest overnight or for at least 5 hours.
This allows the flavours to mingle. The next day, heat the oven to 220°C/Gas 7.
Bake the dough for 15-20 minutes, until it goes a lovely dark golden colour, during which time you can make up the glaze.
Sift the icing sugar into the bowl and whisk in the kirsch until you have a smooth paste.
As soon as the biscuit is ready, remove from the oven and glaze thickly with the icing.
Using a sharp knife or pizza wheel, cut the leckerli into biscuits about 5cm square, and allow to cool on a wire rack or plate before tucking in.