My apologies for harking back to Christmas, which I am sure we are all sick of. I know if I see another turkey recipe I’m certain to go on a killing spree. That said, what I’m going to share with you today is pretty special – the culinary equivalent of family silver, you could say. Delicate Linzer biscuits and this exquisite black and white log have long been firm favourites among our family Christmas cookie recipes. And it is impossible for me to write about these little sweets before Christmas as they are made because it’s not me that makes them. So please excuse my lousy timing, hopefully the fact that I still have a practically untouched box of Christmas cookies sat in my kitchen helps to explain it. I know at this time when we must all pay for our collective sin of Christmas binging I should be writing about salad. Well, rules are there to be broken, even those fake ones created by marketing companies and glossy magazines.
Christmas cookies are a phenomenon in its own right. You can see a nice spread of them in my previous post about Czech Christmas food. Unfortunately, and I apologise for the digression into linguistics, the word cookie doesn’t really quite do these justice – and neither does biscuit. The two languages, Czech and English, sometimes have a habit of not quite aligning, and it’s hard to put my finger on the subtle difference (or the correct translation). As a chronic anal retentive, this causes me real pain. There has to be a way of spelling out the difference between delicate little flowers, florentines and miniature cream-filled tartlets whilst ascribing the common property of sweets, baked or otherwise, served at Christmas time. Cookies are plain – these Christmas beauties are as far from plain as possible, nor are they crunchy like biscuits are by definition. Sweets perhaps? To me sweets are chocolates and hard candy, not baked goods. Can you tell how much time I’ve devoted to this? Can you see how much time I’ve got on my hands?
Baking Christmas cookies is a lovely old Czech tradition, one that will definitely carry on in my future family. Every family has a set of good old favourites, cookie recipe they fall back on safely every year – and a few little experiments. There are beehives and rum balls, florentines and vanilla rolls, oat cookies, tartlets, macaroons, madeleins, cocoa nut bites and what have you. My Christmas is inextricably linked with cinnamon bird cookies that my mum bakes every year. I’ll leave those till next year, no point in giving it all away now. Then there are Linzers, the stalwart of tradition in modern Czech cuisine. Two layers of Linzer pastry, named after the city of Linz in Austria, glued together with jam sandwiched between them, have become one of the real symbols of Christmas during the 20th century. They come in any shape – the funnier the better, but always have a hole which the jam peeps through. I know they were always present on our Christmas table, and in the dining rooms of my friends and relatives.
This year Linzers have been a true triumph for my mother. The little playing card shapes were the only ones to survive my flight back to England intact, but I will have you know there were delicate little hearts and fish and cute teddy bears (“Pain in the backside!!”), painstakingly glued together with gooseberry jam one by one. I am told the pastry has never come out so short and crumbly, yet compact and light, and the redcurrant jam used this year gave those boring (traditional) strawberries or raspberries a serious run for their money. Every year the cookie shapes seem to get smaller and smaller – but if mum wants to make the job harder for herself then that’s surely her problem. It is mainly for this reason that I find our Linzers so exquisite.
Moving down one generation: the black and white log, or salami as we like to call it, is a creation of my grandmother’s. Again, the salami is one of those things that seem to always have been around, and it seems inconceivable that they shouldn’t in the future. It’s not traditional or famous, but it’s so dear to our family it has become a permanent fixture. There’s something mesmerising about the combination of dry, almost bitter cocoa biscuit layer and sweet and moist, buttery coconut. I remember as a little girl trying to unravel the two layers, a bit like trying to dismantle a Twix. No two ways about it, this is a complete sugar overload – but when can you if not at Christmas?
So, I promise, this is the last you will hear from me about Christmas – till the next time. In the meantime, do give these two recipes a try. The recipes as given to me were very sparse and contain only the quantities of ingredients, this gives you an idea of just how familiar the two women are with making these sweets. Even though we only make them at Christmas, you will be bound by no such constrains of tradition. Move over chocolate digestive, make space for something pretty.
Black and White Swirl Log
250g biscuits (Cocoa biscuits or anything dark you can get your hands on. If this isn’t possible use a larger amount of cocoa.)
150g icing sugar
3tbsp black coffee
30g cocoa powder
a splash of rum
Optional: softened butter for easier handling
120g caster sugar
120g softened butter
60g desiccated coconut
Crush the biscuits to smithereens. Mix all the ingredients for A together so they are completely combined. Roll out to the thickness of 0.5cm on a tea towel. In a separate bowl, mix the ingredients for B together, and using a spatula spread them on to the rolled out base. Using the tea towel carefully roll this up into a compact log, sprinkle with coconut and chill before serving
210g plain flour
70g icing sugar
140g softened butter, cut into cubes
2 egg yolks
zest of 1 lemon
jam of your preference – redcurrant is our new favourite
Sift the flour onto your worktop, add the sugar, butter, yolks and lemon zest. Work the pastry as fast as possible, shape into a ball, cover in cling film and chill for an hour.
Preheat the oven to 180. Roll the pastry out as thin as possible (aim for 2mm) and reach for your cookie cutters. Make sure you have a really small circular cutter for the aforementioned hole (circle is not required – see playing cards, but the simpler the better) You will need two shapes per cookie, one with a hole forming the top layer. Line a baking sheet with baking paper, carefully transfer your shapes across and bake in the preheated oven for 5 minutes. The cookies should be a pinky hue, not golden or brown.
Leave to cool, then glue the individual cookies and its see through counterpart carefully together with a thin layer of jam.