Knusper, knusper, knäuschen,
wer knuspert an meinem Häuschen?
Nibble, nibble, gnaw
Who is nibbling at my little house?
So says the witch in the children’s fairy-tale ‘Hansel and Gretel’ by the Brothers Grimm.
I loved fairy-tales growing up, but I always found this one quite dark and chilling. However, like most children, I was completely enamoured with the idea of an edible house made from gingerbread and decorated with sweets!
There is something intrinsically Christmassy about a gingerbread house to me: it’s fanciful, it’s joyful, and it’s decadently spicy and sweet. At what other time of year would one take the time to make a work of art out of sweet foodstuffs, present it proudly for visitors to admire and then (I hope) eat it?
Historically, gingerbread wasn’t related to Christmas at first. It originated in Europe in the 11th century, inspired by spiced bread from the Middle East. Once recipes were perfected, attention turned to presentation – it was realised that the dough could be formed into many different shapes and then decorated.
Queen Elizabeth I pioneered gingerbread men when she commanded her cooks to shape gingerbread into the likenesses of visiting dignitaries. But it was Germany that became the epicentre of gingerbread development, and come the 1600s a guild had been formed in Nuremburg for which master craftsmen began creating works of art from gingerbread, everything from animals to reliefs of saints, from window decorations to talismans to wear in battle. The art of gingerbread was taken so seriously that you were only allowed to make gingerbread if you were a professional artisan other than at Christmas and Easter – which is likely how the Christmas association began.
We have the Grimm brothers to thank for the development of the gingerbread house. Inspired by the hexenhaus (witch’s house) of ‘Hansel and Gretel’, bakers added small houses to their ranges, which proved popular in Germany and then in other countries when travellers and immigrants shared the tradition.
Today, many people make gingerbread houses in the lead-up to Christmas, and the art of the gingerbread house is taken seriously the world over. In Bergen, Norway, for example you can visit the annual Pepperkakebyen (gingerbread village), which is like a model village but entirely made of gingerbread, and in Toruń, Poland, you can visit the Muzeum Piernika, a museum devoted to gingerbread. In the US, meanwhile, you can celebrate ‘National Gingerbread House Day’ on 12th December and take part in one of many good-natured contest to make the best, more creative or biggest house (the biggest so far was made in Texas in 2013; it was 234 metres square and contained no less than 1,327 kilograms of sugar).
Personally, when it comes to gingerbread houses I prefer miniature to giant. Here is a fantastic video from the Amazon Kitchen that inspired me to make tiny gingerbread houses to serve with hot drinks this Christmas season.
Here’s my tried-and-trusted recipe, which has been the basis of many gingerbread treats over the years:
350g plain flour
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon
175g light brown sugar
4 tbsp golden syrup
1. Melt the butter over a low heat.
2. Add the golden syrup and sugar, remove from heat and stir until dissolved.
3. Mix into the other ingredients.
4. Form in a dough, cover and refrigerate for 15 minutes.
5. Roll out and shape/cut as desired.
6. Bake at 180 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes (depending on thickness) until golden and just firm to the touch.
7. Cool, decorate – enjoy!
Are you thinking about Christmas yet? Are you getting in the mood for feasting and merriment?
No doubt if you’ve been to a supermarket recently you’ve noticed a proliferation of Christmas fare on offer, from mince pies to gingerbread houses, stollen to macaroons. But have you spotted the traditional confectionary from Cádiz, Andalucía, setting for my new novel Legacy? If you don’t live in Spain, you most likely haven’t come across this delicious treat in your local shops – which is why today I’m sharing a recipe so that you can try it for yourself at home.
[Picture credit: Tamorlan]
First, a little background on Pan de Cádiz. The name translates to ‘bread of Cádiz’, but in fact it is not a bread, it simply looks a little like a loaf. It is also known as Turrón de Cádiz (Cadiz nougat) or Mazapán de Cádiz (Cádiz marzipan), which more aptly convey the content of the sweet.
Various varieties exist, but the core recipe for Pan de Cádiz always includes marzipan made with ground almonds, sugar, egg yolk and candied fruit, and it often includes sweet potatoes (and sometimes crystallised pumpkin). The Moors, who once lived in Cádiz, had much to do with the uptake of turrón, a nougat made from almonds, honey, egg yolks and sugar, and back in the nineteenth century the people of Cádiz would eat marzipan rolls with fruit. But it was a pastry chef named Antonio Valls Garrido put the two together and pioneered the Pan de Cádiz in his pastry shop, the Pastelería Viena, on the corner of San Miguel and Novena streets in the city.
If you’ve never tasted Pan de Cádiz, you’ve missed a treat: it’s sweet and flavourful, with a lovely moist and creamy texture, and the candied fruit within makes it fun and colourful. The people of Cadiz – and, indeed, in surrounding territories – eat Pan de Cádiz at Christmas, when it is handmade at home or bought from bakeries.
Traditionally, the process for Pan de Cádiz is as follows: Make a syrup with water and sugar – heat, and then cool. Add to well-beaten egg yolks and stir until thickened. Mix in ground almonds, sugar and cinnamon. Knead the ‘dough’ well, and form into the preferred shape (often a loaf), scattering into the layers the candied fruits. Brush with egg yolk and bake until golden. Then leave in a cool, dark place for several days to mature.
I follow a much simpler recipe when I make Pan de Cádiz, which incorporates sweet potato. You can use this recipe as a base and experiment with different additions, like your choice of candied fruit (I especially like to add the citrus fruits lemon, lime and orange).
500 grams almond flour
500 grams caster sugar
200 grams candied sweet potato (yams)
3 large eggs
- Preheat oven to 180 degrees C (350 degrees F).
- Mix the flour, sugar and two egg whites. Knead.
- Mix in the sweet potato and two egg yolks to one-third of the marzipan.
- Halve the remaining marzipan and roll out into two rectangles.
- Spread the sweet potato mixture onto one marzipan rectangle, and then place the other marzipan slice on top.
- Shape as desired (I favour the traditional loaf shape).
- Brush with the remaining egg yolk.
- Bake for 20 to 25 minutes until the loaf is a dark golden brown.
- Allow to cool, and then slice.
I serve Pan de Cádiz for guests over the seasonal period as part of a platter of sweet treats from around the world, with either tea or a sherry – which of course originates from Jerez de la Frontera in Andalucía, and so is the perfect accompaniment.
If, like me, you enjoy exploring different cuisines in your own kitchen, and the Mediterranean flavours of Spanish cuisine appeal, I can recommend this new cookbook by British food and travel writer Paul Richardson, which offers more than 100 easy-to-follow and delicious recipes that deliver authentic Spanish cuisine to home cooks everywhere:
First on my list to try? The authentic Spanish Hot Chocolate – perfect for the colder, darker nights.
If there is one thing I know about the Spanish – having visited their beautiful country many times and set my most recent fictional works, the Andalucían Nights trilogy, there – it is this: they are fiercely proud of their culture and heritage.
That pride extends to cuisine, it has become apparent in the past weeks, when the Spanish nation united in outrage over a British chef fiddling with their beloved dish paella.
Newspapers have delighted in reporting on the backlash to Jamie Oliver’s simple tweet: ‘Good Spanish food doesn’t get much better than paella. My version combines chicken thighs & chorizo’.
Paella is a traditional dish in Spain, and while regional variations on the ‘pure’ Valencian recipe exist, they never extend past a core list of ingredients, which includes rice, chicken/ rabbit/snails/seafood, green beans, white beans, artichokes, tomatoes, salt, rosemary, paprika, saffron, garlic and olive oil. Nowhere in that list, as you can see, is chorizo.
Spanish respondents on social media were deeply unimpressed by Jamie Oliver’s tweet; reactions ranged from polite but irritated, through to downright vitriolic. So why the fuss? It comes down to pride and a sense of ownership. Paella belongs to the Spanish. It is their dish, made their way. ‘Putting a twist’ on the dish and still calling it paella is offensive and disrespectful.
One group feels so passionately on the definition of paella it set up a website called Wikipaella on which you can see the definitive recipe (Spanish dictionary at the ready). ‘Our objective is to have the majority of people know what an authentic paella from our region is,’ co-founder Guillermo Navarro told the Guardian. ‘We want it to be like pizza – where people can add in whatever ingredients they want, but that they know what a traditional pizza is.’
The comparison to pizza is interesting. It’s no secret that the pizza you eat outside Italy is quite different to the pizza you eat in Italy. How do Italians feel about that? Just as the Spanish do, I think. They don’t like to see their authentic cuisine misunderstood. Just last week Italian chef Antonio Carluccio was bemoaning the state of the spaghetti bolognese served in Britain. He told the Telegraph that spaghetti bolognese does not even exist in Italy. There, ‘it is tagliatelle bolognese, with freshly made tagliatelle and bolognese without any herbs whatsoever’.
So what is a food-lover to cook that won’t offend a nation? May I suggest this:
Les Diners de Gala is a cookbook that offers 136 recipes compiled by the Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí and his wife Gala. It’s already topping the bestsellers’ list on pre-orders alone, not for its authentic Spanish recipes, but instead for its highly inventive take on gastronomy. I can guarantee that tweeting ‘Here are the frog pasties I made from Les Diners de Gala; delicious!’ won’t get you in hot water with the Spanish.
‘Gastronomy has been the joy of all peoples through the ages. It produces beauty and wit and goes hand in hand with goodness of heart and a consideration of others.’
So wrote Charles Pierre Monselet, a French author, in the 19th century. He was right, don’t you think? Trying new foods is one of my favourite aspects of travel; I love to add to my repertoire whenever I can and then cook for friends and family.
Writing a new novel is a wonderful excuse to delve into the cuisine that is typical for the setting. For my Andalusian Nights trilogy, I was within my comfort zone of Mediterranean cooking, with its emphasis on delicious fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, fish and cheeses. The action in Indiscretion and Masquerade is largely set in Andalusia, with a small deviation to Valencia, and so I sampled plenty of foods from those regions – but as is the case in all countries, specialties of particular regions are also embraced elsewhere, so I toured all of Spain from my humble kitchen.
Today I have cooked up for you a simple dinner party menu that will give you the perfect taste of Spain. The recipes are from Andalusia, Valencia and Catalonia, but if you would like to tour other regions, why not draw up a wine list to accompany your meal? A Rioja, perhaps?
Gazpacho is served throughout Spain, in different varieties, but the original and true gazpacho is from Andalusian. It’s a cold soup, which to the uninitiated perhaps sounds odd, but in the hot climbs of Andalusia it’s wonderfully refreshing, and healthy too.
The soup dates back a long time, to the Romans, and it originated as a meal for peasants and shepherds.
The core ingredients are tomatoes, cucumber, red and yellow pepper, onions and garlic, blended together. Olive oil, vinegar and salt and pepper are added, to taste, and then stale bread, broken into bite-sized chunks, is stirred through. I like to make the gazpacho the day before; the flavor matures when the soup is refrigerated for several hours. Serve a little chilled, but not too cold, for the best taste.
Typical Andalusian garnishes include slices of pepper, chopped tomatoes and cucumber, herbs, orange segments, sliced almonds and, served on the side, hard-boiled eggs and the local ham. If preferred, the gazpacho can be served as a tapa or a main meal.
Main course: Paella
No doubt you’ve heard of – even sampled – paella, and recognise it as an iconic Spanish dish. In fact, it is not the national dish, but a regional one, pertaining to Valencia.
The ingredients of the original Valencian paella may surprise you: rice, of course, seasoned with saffron and paprika and cooked in olive oil, but also white and green beans, artichoke, chicken and even, if you’re lucky, snails or duck. Seafood paella developed as a variant dish; its distinguishing feature is seafood still in its shell.
Traditionally, paella is cooked in the great outdoors over an open fire on which burn orange and pine branches whose flavour is unfused into the dish. But in our modern times most of us cook in a kitchen, of course.
When cooking paella at home, I recommend using the best-quality olive oil you can find; it makes a difference to the flavor. Really take your time in the cooking, and aim to build a socarrat at the bottom of the pan, a layer of toasted rice, by using a high flame on the hob. Once the paella is cooked, cover it with a tea towel and leave it to settle for five to ten minutes; when you serve it the juices will be perfectly absorbed. I like to serve lemon on the side as a garnish and some extra olive oil for drizzling.
Dessert: Catalan cream
As a resident of France for half of the year, I am well acquainted with the delicious dessert crème brûlée, the classic dessert comprising a creamy custard topped with a layer of hard caramel.
Did you know that the Catalans have their own variation of this dish? They call it crema catalana. The custard is made from egg yolk, milk and sugar, and is flavoured with cinnamon and the zest from an orange and lemon. The cook sprinkles sugar over the top, and this is then caramelised. Traditionally, for the Catalan cream you don’t use a chef’s torch for the caramelising, but a specialist iron: a round disk with a handle that you heat on the hob and then apply to the surface of the custard as a sort of brand.
You can make these desserts up to three hours in advance, but I advise doing the caramelising right before serving, so that the sugar is fragrant and warm. Delicious!
I hope you have enjoyed your gastronomic visit to Spain. Are there other Spanish recipes you’ve enjoyed? What other countries’ cuisines would you like to try?
For many countries, Christmas is but a distant memory (have you taken down your decorations by now? I expect so). But not for the Spanish, for whom today, 6th January, is the most important day in the Christmas festivities.
While researching my romantic series Andalucian Nights, I read a lot on Spanish culture, and over the years I have been lucky enough to visit Spain several times. Of all my Spanish experiences, La Fiesta de Los Tres Reyes Mages stands out as a poignant and colourful one.
The fiesta, which translates in English into ‘the Day of the Three Magi Kings’, is to celebratethe three wise men who brought gifts to the baby Jesus: Gaspar, bringing Frankincense; Melchior, bringing gold; and Balthazar, bringing Myrrh. They usually represent Arabia, the Orient and Africa.
In Spain, today is the equivalent of the UK’s and America’s Christmas Day in terms of its attributed meaning and popularity. Last night Spanish children left out their newly polished shoes (rather than stockings) ready for the three wise men to fill with gifts during the night. Rather than a carrot for Santa’s reindeer, they left straw for the wise men’s camels to eat and perhaps a bucket of water for them to drink. Children who’ve been good find presents with their shoes; children who’ve been naughty may find carbóndulce instead: a hard lump of candy dyed black to represent coal.
All day, Spanish families celebrate. Having attended lively parades that represent the arrival of the three wise men, they come together to eat roscón de reyes (which translates to ‘twisted roll of kings’):
The bread is designed to resemble a crown, and is studded with fruit and nuts to represent the gems. All kinds of variations exist (some filled with chocolate or cream – delicious!). Here’s a very simple recipe, which I’ve found to be popular with my guests.
Roscón de Reyes: Three Kings Bread Recipe
Bread:450g bread flour; 7g yeast sachet; 75g caster sugar; 75g butter (softened); 2 large eggs; 2 lemons (zest); 2 small oranges (zest); 150ml room-temperature milk; 1/2 teaspoon salt; 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract; 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Topping: Beaten egg; candied fruit (e.g. orange peel, lemon peel, dried figs, candied cherries); nuts
- Combine all the bread ingredients and knead. I use a mixer, but by hand it takes around ten minutes. Keep kneading until the dough is stretchy and gleaming.
- Cover the dough and leave overnight.
- Form into a crown shape (you may choose to make three long sausages and plait them). Seal the join with a touch of flour and water.
- Lay the crown on a greaseproof-paper-lined baking tray.
- Beat the remaining egg and apply an egg wash; then stud the surface with colourful candied fruits and nuts in the pattern you prefer.
- Leave to prove for a little longer (covered) and then bake in a pre-heated oven at 180C (Gas Mark 4) for about an hour until the bread is well risen and golden brown.
- Leave to cool, and then enjoy!
A hidden extra: You may hide a gold coin inside the bread: the recipient will have good luck all year. Or you could follow the old Mexican tradition of placing a figuring of the baby Jesus in the roscón de reyes. Whoever finds the figurine in his or her chunk of bread is supposedly blessed, and should take the figurine to church on the Día de la Candelaria, 2 February.