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Thursday, 15 December 2011

Belsnickel Cookies

The name of these cookies raised a discussion amongst my friends, some of them of Germanic background. I thought "belsnickel" was some sort of gnomish or tomte-nisse figure. Some others said he was more like Father Christmas or Santa Claus. Again, others said the belsnickels were like mummers, dressed in costumes and going from house to house. Apparently it depends on the region of northern Europe or Deutsch Pennsylvania from which one hails.

So "belsnickel" cookies might be made in the shape of the belsnickel, or made to reward good children in December or in the Christmas festival, or they might be to serve to the belsnickelling neighbours who are proceeding from house to house in disguise.

Here's a warning about these cookies: they are a rich little butter and sugar cake. They burn. They burn fast. I had to adjust the cooking time and temperature from the original Amish recipe of a "hot oven" for ten minutes. The first batch was in for about seven minutes and was heralded by a  cloud of grey sugar-butter smoke.

I am not one to indulge in rich cookies very often, but at the Christmas holiday, why not? These are a small indulgence and there is no way to make them a health cookie.

Utensils: Mixing bowl, electric handmixer or sturdy wooden spoon, rolling pin, shiny baking sheets (I use well-washed aluminium foil pizza pans), cookie cutters.

Ingredients: 1 cup white sugar, 1/2 cup real butter, melted slowly, 2 eggs, 1 1/2 cups white flour, 3/4 tsp. Baking soda, 1/8 tsp plain table salt, 1/2 teaspoon rosewater. If you can't find rosewater, use vanilla or almond extract, but the rosewater is so lovely and old world.

Directions: Put the sugar in a large mixing bowl, pour the melted butter into it, and beat it until well blended. Add the eggs and beat in well, then stir the soda and salt into the flour and add that to the sugar mixture, stirring well after each addition. Blend in the rosewater. The dough should be cohesive but a bit sticky; don't add too much flour. Refrigerate for an hour or overnight, covered tightly - press a  piece of plastic, foil or a damp tea towel right down onto the dough.

Flour a board or counter top well, and if you have a marble rolling pin, chill it, too. If you have a glass pin, fill it with ice and cold water. Roll out about half the dough, cut into fancy shapes or simple circles, and place on a buttered cookie sheet. Bake at 350F for about 7-9 minutes, watch carefully, These should not even brown, just seem no-longer-raw; your index finger should make a minor dent, but not a hole - then they are done. Let them sit on the cookie sheet for a couple of minutes, and then gently pry loose with a thin spatula or knife blade before transferring to a wire rack to cool. They firm up considerably, so don't be scared of them. Scrape down and re-butter the cookie sheets if you need to re-use them for the next batch.

Everyone knows - it's a law everywhere - that damaged cookies belong to the baker.

These are good just like that - a plain sugar cookie with an exotic taste. I frost mine with a little buttercream flavoured with more rosewater. Try this: 2 tablespoons soft butter, one cup icing (confectioner's) sugar, a tablespoon or so of milk, a 1/4 teaspoon of rosewater. Beat the soft butter well, beat in the sugar, thin slowly with the milk to the right consistency, and add the flavouring. Tint if you like. I spread this on the cookies and then sprinkle with coloured sugar or jimmies or non-pareils.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Scarborough Fair Soup

I have a lot of lentils and barley in the house, along with beans, rice and bulgur wheat. We have all that it takes for lots of high protein vegetarian meals. Still, the usual curried lentils and rice, or baked beans and mashed potatoes meals can seem a bit repetitive. Winter is soup weather, I think, no matter if it is snowing and blowing, or raining and misting. And even on the bright, cheerful days, when we want to be outdoors, it is great to come inside to a warm bowl of hearty soup.

Soup can be made in the crock pot, but I recommend getting it started and at boiling point in a kettle on the stove, and then transferring it. I would give this soup at least five hours in a crock pot, and two on the back of the stove at a low, simmering heat, once it has come to a boil.

I also have dried herbs from the summer garden, and winter storage vegetables - this is a way to use all of that. I added some mild sausage; a vegetarian sausage can be used, or add two tablespoons of olive oil. Legumes and grains don't have much flavour without some fat.

Equipment: Soup kettle or large pot; (slow cooker or crock pot for unattended cooking); butcher's block and knife; measures and spoons.

Ingredients: 2 quarts water or stock or a combination of both; 2 tablespoons dried parsley, one teaspoon dried sage; 1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary; 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme (vary amounts according to taste): 1/2 cup lentils; 1/2 cup barley (double if not using sausage); 1/2 pound mild sausage - I used Danish sausage locally made, or add 2 tablespoons olive oil; 1/2 large onion, one cup peeled and sliced carrots, one peeled and diced white potato.

Directions: Bring the liquid to a rolling boil, add the herbs, lentils and barley. Let simmer for at least half an hour. Add the sausage and vegetables, simmer at least one more hour. If using the crock pot, brown the sausage and onion before adding to the soup with the rest of the vegetables.

Cut the sausage into pieces before serving and return to the soup. I served this with homemade Irish soda bread (  one night, and then with boiled pasta and cubed cheese the next. (Spoon the cooked pasta into a soup bowl, top with a handful of cheese cubes, then pour the hot soup over it.) I did not add a photo of the finished soup because lentils and barley do not lend the most appetising colour to a finished soup. If you are put off by the grainy-gray look of it, sprinkle liberally with fresh or dried parsley.

Are you goin' to Scarborough Fair? Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme.
Remember me to one who lives there, she once was a true love of mine.