Wombat lebkuchen

iced lebkuchen

Glazed lebkuchen wombats and koalas with slivered almonds

This year, Christmas dinner will be low-key: just me, my husband and Harvey the Corgi. So there are no pressures to cook anything in particular.

No pressure to prepare my maternal grandmother’s stuffing made with dried white bread crumbs, a truckload of butter and chopped turkey livers; or my paternal grandmother’s stuffing made with white bread crumbs, a truckload of butter and celery. Not a turkey or goose in the style of my husband’s British family, nor Polish kielbasa as my dad’s mom used to do. And for one of the first times in a decade, we won’t be having Christmas dinner in Australia, eating winter foods in the heat of summer.

Instead of enjoying this freedom to do things just the way we like, I find myself befuddled trying to choose among the many culinary traditions my husband and I bring to the table.

Fortunately, there was support and inspiration from the BBC last night, via a programme called ‘Jerusalem on a Plate‘. It was a chef’s tour of the ancient city, featuring Arab and Jewish cuisine and the evolving, exciting fusion of the two. One chef remarked that the fusion of cuisines in Jerusalem is a way of creating a national identity and peace at the table, in a country struggling for both.

“Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you who you are”

Betty Crocker CB with grandmas notes

My main source of holiday cookie recipes: my late grandmother's 1950 Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book, with hand-written notes and recipes

This is a famous quote from one of history’s most famous foodies: Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, circa 1825. It reminds me why food goes beyond sustenance for many of us — it is linked to our identity and sense of belonging. I find this most striking during holidays like Christmas. What might Brillat-Savarin have said about the Christmas menu of a Polish-Hungarian-Swiss-German-American living in England, married to a half-English/half-Welsh man, with family ties to Australia? … especially when I serve up my first Christmas culinary offering of 2011: Wombat Lebkuchen.

Lebkuchen are traditional German honey-flavoured cookies, usually spiced similarly to gingerbread. There are as many variations of lebkuchen as there are decades since it was supposedly first made, in the 1200s. I’ve heard stories about strained arm muscles after stirring the stiff dough, and frustrations when rolling it out as it sticks to everything. The biggest challenge, though, is not eating them all at once: the longer they mellow, the better the taste and texture. With its long history and huge variation, lebkuchen seems appropriate for my experiment in culinary and cultural fusion.

The (grand) mother of all cook books

Cookie tab in BC cookbook

The worn out and then replaced tab for 'Cookies' in my grandmother's cook book

My choice of lebkuchen is something of a tribute to my paternal grandfather’s roots in Germany and Switzerland. But the recipe I’m using comes from my Polish grandmother’s American classic: the Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book, published in 1950. The book has tabbed sections for breads, cakes, salads, meats and desserts, and one tab has fallen off from overuse: cookies. My grandma replaced the tab with a sturdy bit of card on which she wrote COOKIES, and reinforced with a tiny bit of wood. She taped it all together with multiple layers of tape. She also added comments to some of the cookie recipes, such as ‘Delicious!’ next to the Russian Tea Cakes and a post-it on the Thumbprint Cookies page saying she added chopped nuts and chocolate chips when she made them in 1985.

The lebkuchen recipe is based on a mixture of molasses and honey, but I’ve replaced the molasses (less common in England) with black treacle, a sugar derivative which isn’t quite as dark as molasses but still has a strong, smoky flavour. I made the dough Monday night and let it sit in the fridge until Tuesday. The recipe suggests cutting the rolled out dough into rectangular bars, but I like to take any opportunity I have to make fun shapes. Once again, though, I had forgotten that I don’t have any Christmas cookie cutters  – the result of a transatlantic move and rarely being home at Christmas for the past decade. What I do have, however, is even better: my late sister-in-law’s Australian cookie cutters.

Rolling out the sticky dough

Rolling out the sticky dough required a lot of flour

Spicy German marsupials

Because my sister-in-law moved to Australia nearly two decades ago and even became an Australian citizen, the place has become a second home for our family. Adding Australia into my family cookie mix seems fitting, and so the wombat and koala lebkuchen were born.

Boiling the glazing icing

Making a simple glaze of sugar and water

Once I tackled the tricky rolling out of the very sticky dough, I placed the critters on oiled cookie sheets. The recipe suggested giving them 10-12 minutes to bake, but in my fan oven each batch took about six-and-a-half minutes. As they baked I was meant to be making a glaze of boiled sugar syrup and confectioner’s sugar, then brushing it on the hot wombats as soon as they were out of the oven. But they baked so fast I wasn’t ready. The glaze was a bit gloppy, then it hardened and I had to add more water, which made it runny. Boiled sugar things are not my strong point.

My wombats won’t win any beauty contests and I won’t be crowned most elegant baker, but the cookies are pretty good. I’ve tasted them. Several of them. This whole “putting them away to ‘mellow’ in a cookie tin” isn’t going over very big in our house. (Try the recipe yourself and good luck letting them mellow!)

Sweet remembrance

pre-iced lebkuchen wombats

Baked wombats, ready to be glazed

Sadly, I can’t share these cookies with the two people whose far-flung kitchens inspired me to make them: my grandmother and my sister-in-law. They both passed away within two months of each other, in 2009. I can, however, imagine them laughing at my ragged, badly iced wombats and koalas, over a good cup of Italian coffee (with my sister-in-law) or a filter coffee with a shot of whiskey (with my grandma).

Next up: there’s honey-infused cookie dough made with my grandma’s Betty Crocker recipe for ‘Merry Christmas Cookies’. It’s chilling in the fridge, and just about ready to be transformed into red- and green-iced kangaroos.

Iced kangaroo red

Iced kangaroo prototype



iced lebkuchen

Glazed lebkuchen wombats, fresh from the oven

This recipe comes from my grandmother’s 1950 edition of Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book.

Mix together and bring to a boil: ½ cup honey, ½ cup molasses (or black treacle)

Cool thoroughly.

Stir in: 1 egg, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, 1 teaspoon grated lemon rind.

Sift together and stir in: 2 ¾ cups of sifted flour, ½ teaspoon of baking soda, and 1 teaspoon each of ground cinnamon, cloves, allspice and nutmeg.

Mix in: 1/3 cup each of cut-up citron (or candied citrus peel) and chopped nuts (I used slivered almonds)

black treacle, honey and flour

Mixing up the sticky dough, starting with boiled black treacle and honey, then flour

Chill dough overnight. Preheat oven to 400F (200C). Roll a small amount at a time, keeping the rest chilled. Roll out ¼” thick and cut into oblongs 1 ½ x 2 ½ “ (or use big-ish cookie cutters). Place them one inch apart on a greased baking sheet. Bake until, when touched lightly, no imprint remains (the recipe says this should take 10–12 minutes, but in my fan oven it only took about 6 ½ minutes). While the cookies bake (or before) make Glazing Icing.

Glazing Icing: boil together 1 cup sugar and ½ cup water until the first indication of a thread appears (230F). Remove from heat. Stir in ¼ cup powdered (icing) sugar.

Boiling the glazing icing

Making the glaze by boiling sugar and water to 230F, then stirring in powdered (icing) sugar

Brush the glaze over the cookies the minute they are out of the oven. Then quickly remove them from the baking sheet. (When the icing gets sugary, reheat slightly, adding a little water until it’s clear again.)

Cool and store your cookies to let them mellow. This recipe should make about 6 dozen 2” x 3” cookies.

Why Write About Food? | Cook ‘n’ Scribble

As we get ready to sit down at a table with loved ones, friends, strangers or even by ourselves over the holiday season, here’s some food for thought from two inspiring food blogs:

“How we eat, the people we share our food with, the thousand different ways we can wake up to our senses with one small bite — it’s all part of being human. Writing a list of what you ate for breakfast may not matter that much. But sharing with me how you came to be sitting at that table, sharing that food, with those people, in that moment? That’s life. I want to know all about it.”

– Shauna Ahern, Gluten-Free Girl

via Why Write About Food? | Cook ‘n’ Scribble.

Chocolate cake on a school night

Belgian chocolate cake with lemon-peel rose

Quick Belgian chocolate cake (with lemon-peel rose) based on my friend S's recipe

On a crisp, cold Monday evening in Brussels, I waited outside my hotel for my friend, S, to pick me up and take me to her house for dinner. I was met by an entourage of shiny black cars with tinted windows, a small crowd of smartly dressed people and a concierge in a top hat.

Turns out they weren’t there for me:  I’d blundered my way into the arrival of the Turkish Minister of Trade. I nodded and smiled faintly as the Minister and his people looked my way, and I shuffled away from the hotel entrance. I tried not to think about whether the Turkish Minister of Trade might have enemies, and if this would be one of those ‘wrong place, wrong time’ scenarios for me.

S's pumpkin tart

S's pumpkin tart in puff pastry crust

It all went fine (at least for me … I’m not sure how the Minister got on). S arrived and we walked the 15 minutes to her cozy home, where she regaled me with a pumpkin tart in a buttery puff-pastry crust. She served it with a refreshing salad that included toasted hazelnuts and thinly sliced chicon — also known as Belgian Endive, and one of my very favourite vegetables (baked or roasted chicon is divine). We drank red wine and competed with the youngest member of the household and his band of Napoleonic Lego soldiers to spear olives, cherry tomatoes and rounds of Belgian goat’s cheese on our toothpicks (or swords, in the case of the Lego soldiers).

S making chocolate cake

S preparing her quick Belgian chocolate cake in under an hour

The tart and salad were fantastic, but the real treat was yet to come.

A different kind of fast food

At around 8.30 pm S announced that she would be making a cake. Despite my unabashed reverence of cake, my first thought was: It’s a school night! A cake will take hours!’ But S has a reassuring manner — maybe it’s a Belgian thing, maybe it’s just her. As she got to work in the kitchen I decided to trust that she would, indeed, get me back to my hotel before sunrise.

Baking the cake

Lovely aroma from the oven as the chocolate cake baked

In fact, I only made my way through half a glass of wine before the cake was in the oven. Another half glass (delicately nursed) and the oven timer ‘pinged’. S boiled the kettle for tea (a blend from a special Brussels tea shop), and sprinkled powdered sugar over the cake.

S's Belgian chocolate cake with figs and pineapple

S's Belgian chocolate cake with fresh figs and pineapple

In less than an hour we were sitting down for a delicious Belgian chocolate cake, served with fresh pineapple and figs. The finished cake was very rich, like a light, fudgy brownie, and shallow like a flourless torte, rather than airy like a sponge cake. It’s made of only five ingredients: equal weights of butter,sugar and chocolate, a small amount of flour, and three eggs. That’s it. S told me the recipe demands good, dark chocolate (with a high percentage of cocoa), so don’t skimp on the chocolate.

I took her advice and bought a monster-sized bar of chocolate — a Jacques Bloc dessert cooking chocolate — at the supermarket before heading back to the UK, so I would be ready to try the recipe at home.

Supersize this

Jacques Bloc cooking chocolate

Giant Callebaut Jacques Bloc Belgian cooking chocolate (compared to a puny Snickers bar)

I found the recipe to be just as quick and easy as it looked that tipsy night in Brussels. In fact, I decided to make it again this morning, but with a few ‘American’ tweaks. No, this doesn’t mean making it three times the size and replacing most of the recipe with a box of cake mix, but you would be forgiven for thinking so.

First, I wanted to see if it would work as a pan of brownies rather than a cake — would it hold together in little squares?

Second, it’s common here to line a pan with grease-proof paper (in the US this is called parchment paper), which prevents baked goods sticking to the pan, making it easier to clean up. But I know this is less common in the US, so I buttered and floured the pan instead.

Third, the recipe is measured in weights (grams) rather than volume (cups), so I wanted to see if I could convert it. I’m now devoted to cooking by weight rather than volume — I find it remarkably easier and more efficient. But I know cooking by weight is less common in the USA (and Australia), and I want everyone to be able to make this cake. Fortunately (sort of), when I got to the kitchen this morning I found that our scale needed new batteries, and we didn’t have any. So I had no choice but to measure by volume and hope for the best.

Overall, I think this recipe works best as a cake rather than brownies. Buttering and flouring is fine, except it makes it hard to remove the cake from the pan to serve it — greaseproof paper is far better in that regard. Also, the simplicity of this recipe is somewhat dimmed by measuring by volume instead of weight. The European method is easy to memorize: 150 grams each sugar, butter and chocolate + 50 grams flour + 3 eggs. But see the recipe itself for more on the Americanized version.

The ‘little black dress’ of baking

I gave a piece of my version of this cake to my Swiss friend B, and await her review. If I play my cards right, maybe she’ll share a secret Swiss chocolate cake recipe with me one day (knowing that it won’t be so secret anymore if she tells me …).

Belgian chocolate brownie

The brownie version of this recipe

It’s intimidating making chocolate desserts for friends from two of the most famous centres of European chocolate making: Belgium and Switzerland. But it’s worth the risk. I consider a simple, fool-proof chocolate cake recipe to be the ‘little black dress’ of baking — it’s perfect for any occasion, you can dress it up or down, and it never goes out of style. S’s recipe is the perfect example. I accessorized it with a ‘rose’ made of lemon peel and served it with single (pourable) cream. (In fact, some of the lemon from the ‘rose’ soaked into the cake and tasted very nice. Next time I might try adding some lemon or orange peel to the mix.) It’s equally good with fruit, ice cream or just a strong coffee, and with a few tweaks can be made into brownies.

I’ll be back in Brussels in a month’s time and plan to stock up on more giant blocks of cooking chocolate (hopefully fairly traded chocolate, so my conscience will be as satisfied as my taste buds). In the meantime, check out the recipe. Let me know if you try it and how it goes.

Sarah’s Belgian Chocolate Cake (or brownies)

This can also  be made as a pan of brownies (see notes below).

What you’ll need:

Jacques Bloc cooking chocolate

Good-quality (high cocoa content) dark chocolate is essential for this recipe

150 grams (or 2/3 cup) unsalted butter (softened — I do this in the microwave, on low heat, watching it like a hawk to avoid explosions)
150 grams (or 3/4 cup) sugar
50 grams (or just over 1/3 cup) plain white (pastry) flour
3 medium free-range eggs
150 grams (about 1/2 cup melted) of good-quality dark chocolate (this should be sweetened chocolate, with high cocoa content)

Preheat oven to 375F (190C). Line a round, shallow tart or cake pan with grease-proof (i.e. parchment) paper, or grease and flour the pan.*

Cream (ie beat together) the butter and sugar. Beat in a bit of the flour until well mixed, then add an egg until well mixed. Then add a bit more flour, beat thoroughly, then add another egg. Do this until the flour and eggs are all mixed in, ensuring it’s very well blended.

Pre-baked cake

I spread the batter into a shallow tart tin lined with grease-proof paper, but you could grease and flour the pan instead. Bake it for 25-30 minutes.

Melt the chocolate in the microwave (on low heat, again watching like a hawk so it doesn’t over-cook or explode). Beat the melted chocolate into the mixture until blended.

Belgian chocolate cake with lemon-peel rose

The cake should be thin and fudgy, with a crackly top. Serve with cream, ice cream, coffee or fruit.

Pour it all into your lined or greased/floured pan. Bake for 25-30 minutes. Check it at about 20 minutes by sliding a toothpick in and seeing if it comes out clean (if it doesn’t, lick the batter off the toothpick and put the cake back in the oven). When it’s finished, it might have some cracks on the top, which is fine.

Let the cake cool for a few minutes then move it to a serving dish and sprinkle with powderded/icing sugar (I put the sugar in a fine sieve to get a nice even sprinkle). Serve with cream, ice cream or fruit. Also great with a cup of coffee.

I also made this as a pan of brownies, in a 8 1/2″ x 11″ by 2″-deep baking pan. It was also good, but recommend trying it with only two medium eggs  (or 1 large) and see how it goes.

*I’d never used grease-proof paper before moving to Europe, and was accustomed to greasing and flouring cake pans instead. This recipe worked well both ways, but the paper makes it so much easier to lift the cake out and ensures easier clean-up. Some people line a pan with the paper, then grease and flour it. That seems like a lot of work to me, so I don’t do that. You could also use a cake pan with a removable bottom.

Belgian chocolate brownie

The brownie version of this recipe

Greens not greed

Nothing makes me lose my appetite like a big food company that stomps on the little guy, especially when that little guy is holding one of my favourite vegetables: kale.

Kale for sale at East Oxford Farmers Market

Kale for sale by Clay's Organic Farm, at the East Oxford Farmer's Market (www.eastoxfordmarket.org.uk/), one of the top 3 community markets in Britain

American fast-food chain Chick-fil-A has a catchy advertising campaign featuring cows holding up a sign reading ‘Eat mor chikin’, and they’re suing a small Vermont t-shirt printer because he makes t-shirts and stickers that say ‘Eat More Kale’.

This Vermonter, Bo Muller-Moore, first designed the t-shirts at the request of two local farmers who were growing and selling kale. Apparently, Chik-fil-A’s lawyers are afraid that we, the eating public, will get confused and mistake the advice to eat kale for the message about eating more overly processed chicken sandwiches (see: Eat More Kale. Just Don’t Confuse It With Chikin. | Common Dreams).

‘What the cluck’?

I remember Chick-fil-A from when I worked at the Woodville Mall in Northwood, Ohio. After a long day flogging jeans at the County Seat, or panty hose at Parklane Hosiery, I would enjoy a Chick-fil-A chicken sandwich and waffle fries with lots of ketchup. In fact, Chick-fil-A’s success seems to be in part its drive to populate shopping malls from sea to shining sea with its shops. Mmmm … shopping mall food … a guilty pleasure.

I’m all for occasional guilty pleasures, but when Chick-fil-A starts messing with a vegetable as beloved to me as kale, I draw the line. It seems I’m not the first person to slam Chick-fil-A for some of its practices: Organic Authority and Eat Me Daily beat me to it. In fact, my literary stylings are no match for some of the clever headlines about this issue from other sources, for example: What the Cluck, Chick-fil-A? (from a People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) press release) and Chick-fil-A Sues Hippie Because They Are Insufferable Assholes (from Gawker).

In my view, Chick-fil-A is doing a disservice to kale (not to mention small farmers and locally owned businesses). By selling heart-disease-friendly foods using the captivatingly misspelled refrain  ‘Eat mor chikin’, they may also be damaging the hearts and spelling skills of today’s youth. And their representation of cows as advocates for eating chicken suggests something disturbing about the consciousness of farm animals, and begs the question: if chickens could advocate, who would they tell you to eat?

Curly kale close up

Curly kale glamour shot

Leafy greens, southern lawmakers and the NBA

While I consider myself something of a kale enthusiast, I didn’t even know what kale was until I was in my 20s. In my Yankee family, ‘greens’ were lettuce. When I moved to Cincinnati, just north of the Mason-Dixon line, I discovered that collard and mustard greens, as well as kale, are part of the culinary heritage of the south (so much so that, just a few months ago, South Carolina voted to make collard greens the official State leafy green … not the best example of critical policymaking, but a great boost for the humble green). I even met a former professional basketball player from the Deep South who moved north and lamented the absence of collard greens. When he retired, he bought a farm in Wisconsin to grow nothing but collard greens.

I was enchanted by the nutritional value of greens and the multitude of ways they can be prepared. My then-boyfriend and I planted Seeds of Change Red Russian Kale, an heirloom variety, in our community garden (aka allotment) in Cincinnati. The seeds started producing small leaves in the early spring (which can be eaten raw in salads), and kept producing big, hardy crimson-veined leaves until they were covered in snow in December. We planted a 3 foot by 6 foot bed with the seeds, which was way too much. So we became skilled at finding ways to cook kale.

Kale burgers. Kale burritos. Kale and pasta. Stir-fried kale. Crispy kale side-dish. White bean and kale soup. I could go on, but won’t. Instead, I’ll share with you my favourite kale recipe, which is an adaptation of the Sunday’s at Moosewood ‘Ziti with Chard’. I call it …

… ‘Whatever-Kind-of-Pasta-You-Have with Kale’

Removing the leaves from curly kale

How to easily remove the leaves from curly kale

First, prepare your kale. My favourite is the curly-leaf variety, rather than the black russian kale, but it’s all good. One thing I love about the curly leaf kind – compared to many other types of greens – is how easy it is to remove the stalks. Just grab the stalk at its base with one hand, and run the index finger and thumb of your other hand up along the stalk to shear off all the leaves. Rinse your kale, but leave some of the water on the leaves to help it steam while cooking. Chop it coarsely.

Next, cook your pasta.

Meanwhile, in a skillet heat two or three tablespoons of olive oil, and throw in several chopped cloves of garlic and a dried chilli. You can let the garlic get a bit brown if you like, then throw in the chopped kale. Put a lid on the skillet and cook for about 5-7 minutes, until the kale is bright green and just getting a bit wilted. I don’t like to overcook my kale, so 10 minute would probably be too much. Season with salt and lots of black pepper.

When the pasta and kale are done, spoon pasta onto your plate, top with the kale and garlic sauté, drizzle with more olive oil, top with chopped fresh tomatoes (**see disclaimer), squeeze on some lemon juice, and grate on some hard cheese (e.g., Parmesan).

**Disclaimer: this recipe contains fresh tomatoes, and if you live in the northern hemisphere, I don’t recommend (in fact, I object to) buying tomatoes at this time of year. Those pale red things they sell in the supermarket, the ones they call tomatoes, well, that’s not what this recipe requires. So do me a favour and try this without the tomatoes, or wait to make it until next summer. Better yet, try this recipe from the BBC, which is pretty similar but without tomatoes.

Here’s another recipe to try: Pumpkin, kale and chicken curry.

Pumpkin, kale and chicken curry

In celebration of two recent posts– about the glory of pumpkins and kale, and the evil of a fast-food chicken chain — I’m combining pumpkin with kale and chicken for a quick and simple curry.

Pumpkin, kale and chicken curry

Pumpkin, kale and chicken curry, served over rice

Heat 1/2 tablespoon oil and toss in 1 small chopped onion and 1 clove of crushed garlic. Throw in a teaspoon or two of the following spices: ground cumin, ground coriander and turmeric. Add 2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger root (or half a teaspoon of powdered ginger), and let it sizzle so it smells really fragrant.

Now toss in half a small pumpkin or other winter squash, peeled and chopped into 1/2-inch chunks (scoop out the string and seeds from the pumpkin first), 1 large or two medium chopped carrots, a bunch of finely chopped kale (stems removed first), a pinch of salt and 1/4 cup of water.

Cover loosely and simmer on medium heat until the vegetables are tender (about 15 minutes — top up the water if it’s looking dry), then add some cooked chicken, cut into chunks (you can also use chopped raw chicken breasts, but add it earlier, when you fry the spices). Heat the whole mixture and then turn off the heat. If you like it saucier than it is, stir in a tablespoon or two of plain yogurt.

Serve this curry over rice or with naan or other Indian bread.