Traditional European winter desserts - the stories and recipes
On 15-16 December, Head Chef from Café Europa Rueben de Wolf prepared a selection of traditional winter desserts from European countries.
Read on to discover the history behind each dessert, and the recipe for baking them yourself!
Panpepato is a typical dessert of the rural tradition, prepared during holiday periods. The first traces of a written recipe of Panpepato are from the 1800s but its origins date back to the 16th century. Its provenance is perhaps even further away and must be traceable in the East. In fact, probably the caravans carrying spices brought the oriental dessert to the Italian central area in the sixteenth century. The oriental recipe was then modified with the addition of local ingredients such as walnuts, citrus fruits and, above all, cooked grape. Even today, in some areas, Panpepato is prepared, according to tradition, on December 8th. It is instead from the old custom of "enriched bread" prepared under the festivities of the Panpepato di Ferrara. Probably this was born within the cloistered convents of the Ferrara area. Finally, in Siena, a variant of Panpepato has been prepared since the Middle Ages. It has been exported to Rome as well, becoming one of the most important and most desired Christmas sweets.
- 100 grams of walnuts
- 100 grams of hazelnuts
- 100 grams of almonds
- 100 grams of sultanas
- 100 grams of mixed candied fruit
- 200 grams of multi-flower or acacia honey
- 100 grams of dark chocolate
- 200 grams of flour
- cooked (grape) must (if any)
- 1 teaspoon of ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon of grated nutmeg
- Cinnamon to taste
* The quantity of spices is optional, depending on taste. Care should be taken especially with the pepper, adding a little at a time until you get to the right degree of "tingling": from raw gingerbread it should "pinch" enough, and once cooked the pepper will feel less overbearing.
Toast in the oven walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts in order to remove the skin easily and chop them. Put the dark chocolate in a bain-marie and melt it.
Pour the dried fruit without skin, raisins, cinnamon, melted dark chocolate, pepper in a bowl, and start mixing with your hands. Melt the honey in a bain-marie and add it to the mixture. Add the flour gradually, mixing well so that the mixture is well mixed. Leave the dough to rest overnight covered with a cloth.
The next morning, turn the oven on 180 ° to warm it up. Pick up the dough, work it quickly and make cakes by wringing the hands continuously to prevent the dough from sticking. Place the dough on a greased baking sheet or lined with parchment paper and bake at 180 degrees for about 15 minutes. They are ready when they are golden and compact.
Consume them a couple of days later - they are even better because they take on a stronger consistency and taste.
Sweet Poppy Seed Scroll Loaf (Croatian “Makovnjača”)
Makovnjača, or poppyseed roll is actually a traditional Croatian dessert that doesn’t have an exact historical story. There is no specific time when this dessert has become “Croatian” or where it was made for the first time.
There are actually a few countries in central and Eastern Europe that claim the poppyseed roll as their own national dessert.
In Croatia, Makovnjača is considered to be a Christmas time dessert although it is eaten during the entire year in many households across Croatia as well as in many restaurants.
There are also similar desserts that look like makovnjača, though these are instead filled with walnuts, cacoa powder, different types of jam, hazelnuts or also with carob powder. There are no limits to what flavours one can make, so get creative and try one for yourself!
Spice grinder. 1 mixing bowl. 1 roasting tray. Baking paper. Pastry brush.
50 grams of caster sugar
7 grams of instant yeast
100 ml milk, lukewarm
300 grams plain flour
75 grams butter, melted
Pinch of salt
2 egg yolks
A little extra flour for dusting
1 cup of ground poppy seeds, ground in a spice grinder
125 ml milk
50 grams caster sugar
4 tablespoons of apricot jam
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Grated zest and juice of 1/2 lemon
1 beaten egg to glaze
2 tbsp of additional poppyseeds to garnish
(nb, you need to begin this recipe the day before)
1) To make the dough dissolve the sugar and yeast in the lukewarm milk in a large bowl and leave in a warm place to activate for 15 minutes.
2) Sift the flour into the now-scummy-looking yeast/sugar/milk cocktail. Add the egg yolks, butter and salt and mix with your fingertips to bring into a dough.
3) Knead the dough until it is smooth and malleable.
4) Ensure there is plenty of space in the bowl for the dough to grow. Cover with clingfilm and leave in a warm place for three hours, until it has doubled in size.
5) To make the filling, first grind your poppy seeds in a spice grinder. Then bring the milk to a simmer on the stove and add the ground poppy seeds. Stir well and cook for 3-4 minutes so the seeds absorb the liquid.
6) Add the apricot jam, lemon rind and juice and cinnamon and allow to cool.
7) Once the dough has doubled in size lightly dust a work-table with flour. Roll out the dough to a rectangle, about the size of an A3 sheet of paper. If you can manage to make it taper down at the edges, all the better (this will mean when you fold them back in to protect the filling you won’t get a bulbous shape).
8) Spread the poppy filling across the dough, leaving a 2 cm border at each side.
9) Fold over each of the edges so it looks like a frame (this will help stop the filling from spilling out).
10) Roll the dough from top to bottom. Place the seam on the bottom of the loaf.
11) Place on a tray lined with baking paper and place in the fridge for 3-4 hours, or over night.
12) To bake, preheat the oven to 180C/350 F and brush the loaf with beaten egg. Sprinkle a stripe of poppy seeds down the top.
13) Bake for 40 minutes, until golden.
14) Allow to cool a little before slicing. Serve with coffee or tea.
At Christmas time Finnish mums and dads always bake their traditional Joulutorttu. These pastries are windmill-shaped tarts with a prune jam filling. The pastries can be in other shapes and apple is used in place of the prune jam. The name of Joulutorttu, is translated as Christmas tart (“torttu” for tart). It is also known as Tähtitorttu (Star Tart). Joulutorttu are traditionally made with a quark and butter pastry and filled with homemade jam. Although there is a bit of work involved in preparing the windmill shapes, one bite into a tart fresh out of the oven makes it all worthwhile. For our Finnish friends, the smell of the prune jam bubbling away on the stove always brings back fond memories. Joulutorttus are mostly made in Finland but also in Sweden, although Swedish media has accused the pastries of being “swastika-shaped” – which is an aberration.
250 g of butter or margarine
1 teaspoon of baking powder
4 decilitres of wheat flour
250 g of quark (= fromage blanc)
plum, apricot or “Wiener marmalade” that can be baked
- Cut the fat into cubes in a bowl. Mix the baking powder into the flour. Then, with your hands, mix the butter and flour in the bowl to a crumble-like mixture, as quickly as you can so the butter won't melt.
Add the quark mixing to it quickly. Do not work the dough too much, otherwise it will go tough. Make flat plates of the dough and put them in a cool place for an hour or until the next day.
- Sprinkle some wheat flour on the baking top and flatten the dough to make it thinner. Roll the dough with a floured rolling pin until it is big enough to be folded in three layers. Roll it again bigger and fold again in three layers.
You can repeat this one more (3rd) time if you want flaky dough. Keep the dough in a cool place for 30 minutes after rolling.
- Roll the dough to an appr. 0,5 cm thick plate and take from it either round or square pieces using a mould, a knife or a pizza slicer.
Put appr. 2 teaspoons of the filling on each piece. Moisten with cold water the bits of dough that will be pressed together. Seal the seams well.
- Lift the bakings on a baking paper on a cold baking plate. You can still let them cool down for a while before baking them in the oven. This will make them more crisp.
- Spread the tarts with egg and bake at 225⁰C until they are golden and ripe. Cool down and store in a cool place.
- Heat the tarts before serving and sieve a bit of icing sugar on them.
- If you heat the tarts in a microwave oven, be careful with the burning hot filling.
Vanillekipferl (Austrian Vanilla Crescent Cookies)
The Vanillekipferl was originally developed in Austria, in the city of Vienna, and this is the specialty cookie of the Bavarian town, the Nördlingen. These biscuits were traditionally served for Christmas in Europe, but today, they can be enjoyed any time of the year. If you are ever in Vienna, you will see these biscuits often available in the coffee shops. These biscuits are also widely baked and enjoyed in Germany and other parts of Europe like the Czech Republic, Romania, Slovakia, and Hungary.
According to one legend, the origin of this biscuit was all about celebrating the triumphant days of the glorious Austro-Hungarian Empire. Legend has it that the army of the empire had triumphantly defeated the Turks in September of 1683 in Vienna. To celebrate that day, the bakers in the city created sugary cookies shaped as crescents characterising the Turkish Flag. They called these cookies, Kipferl. The legend of the crescent shape cookies was concurrent with the legend of the beginning of the Viennese coffeehouses. Another legend has it that when the defeated Turkish army fled the city, they had to leave a coffee bean sack.
Prep Time: 15 mins
Cook Time: 12 mins
Total Time: 27 mins
Author: Kimberly Killebrew
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 cup butter, at room temperature
- 4 ounces (about 1 cup) ground walnuts, almonds or hazelnuts (see blog post for more info)
- 1 package (1 1/2 teaspoons) vanilla sugar
- (see pictured instructions in post on how to make your own vanilla sugar)
- 3/4 cup powdered sugar (aka confectioner sugar)
- small pinch of salt
- For Dusting:
- 1/2 cup powdered sugar
- 1 packet (1 1/2 teaspoons) vanilla sugar
- Place all of the ingredients in a large bowl and knead until thoroughly combined. The dough will be fairly dry and flaky. Shape the dough into a log and wrap with plastic wrap. Chill in the refrigerator for at least an hour.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
- Cut off small pieces of the dough and shape them into crescents. Place the crescents onto a non-stick or parchment-lined cookie sheet. Bake on the middle rack for 12-15 minutes (depending on the size of the crescents) or until the edges begin to turn golden.
- Combine the powdered sugar and vanilla sugar. Let the cookies sit for one minute and then use a sifter to dust them with the vanilla-powdered sugar while they're still hot. Let the cookies cool completely and then give them a second dusting.
- Stored in an airtight container in a cool place, these cookies will keep for several weeks.
Cinnamon Speculoos Yule Log
The history of the Yule log cake stretches all the way back to Europe’s Iron Age, before the medieval era. Back then, Celtic Brits and Gaelic Europeans would gather to welcome the winter solstice at December’s end. People would feast to celebrate the days finally becoming longer, signaling the end of the winter season. To cleanse the air of the previous year’s events and to usher in the spring, families would burn logs decorated with holly, pinecones or ivy. Wine and salt were also often used to “anoint” the logs. Once burned, the log’s ashes were valuable treasures said to have medicinal benefits and to guard against evil. Some groups claimed the ashes would protect the bearer from lightning—an important quality at a time when houses (and most of the contents in them) were made of wood.
With the advent of Christianity, the Yule log tradition continued, albeit on a smaller scale. Families may have burned a log on Christmas Eve, but smaller hearths became the norm so huge logs were impractical. Those small hearths, however, were perfect for baking cakes. We don’t know who exactly made the first Yule log cake, but judging from the individual ingredients it could have been as early as the 1600s. Marzipan and meringue decorations, two of the most popular choices for Yule logs, appeared on many a medieval table. Sponge cake, which often constitutes the base of the log, is one of the oldest cakes still made today. It dates back to at least 1615, when the first known recipe appeared in Gervaise Markham’s tome “The English Huswife.”
Parisian bakers popularised the cake in the 19th century, and different bakeries became known for their more elaborate decorations. Nowadays, few people make Yule logs at home, but that doesn’t mean you should pass up a slice in favour of apple pie or a second helping of mashed potatoes. Enjoy your bûche de Noël, and think of the hundreds of years of history behind it.
Ingredients for 12:
For the Joconde biscuit :
250g tant pour tant
25g unsalted butter, clarified
4 egg whites
1 pinch of salt
For the speculoos cream filling:
200g speculoos biscuits
6 egg yolks
200g unsalted butter, soft
For the flling: (make the day before)
200g speculoos spread
150g dark chocolate Crispearls
For the syrup:
20cl cane sugar syrup
8cl amber rum
For the decoration:
300g speculoos biscuits, crushed
Leftover speculoos cream
See the step-by-step method for Cinnamon Speculoos Yule Log here: https://www.meilleurduchef.com/en/recipe/christmas-yule-log-speculoos-cinnamon.html
Vasilopita, as Greek tradition dictates, is cut by families on New Year’s Day to bless the house and bring good luck for the new year. This is usually done at midnight of New Year’s Eve in Greece. A coin is hidden in the bread by slipping it into the dough before baking. At midnight, the sign of the cross is etched with a knife across the cake. A piece of cake is sliced for each member of the family and any visitors present at the time, by order of age from eldest to youngest. Slices are also cut for various symbolic people or groups, depending on local and family tradition. They may include the Lord, St. Basil and other saints or the poor, the household, etc. The variations of the recipes are countless.
But where did this custom come from?
In popular tradition, vasilopita is associated with a legend of Saint Basil. According to one story, St. Basil called on the citizens of Caesarea to raise a ransom payment to stop the siege of the city. Each member of the city gave whatever they had in gold and jewelry. When the ransom was raised, the enemy was so embarrassed by the act of collective giving that he called off the siege without collecting payment. St. Basil was then tasked with returning the unpaid ransom, but had no way to know which items belonged to which family. So he baked all of the jewelry into loaves of bread and distributed the loaves to the city, and by a miracle (some believe that the miracle took place after the Divine intervention of Saint Mercurius, along with some angels), each citizen received their exact share, as the legend goes. In some variations of the story, the sieging chieftain is replaced with an evil emperor levying a tax, or simply with St. Basil attempting to give charity to the poor without embarrassing them.
There is also an alternative explanation about the origins of the vasilopita. This story connects both the western and the eastern celebrations to the ancient Greek Kronia, the festival of King Cronus, which involved selecting a “king” by lot and then the Roman Saturnalia.
For the vasilopita
375g butter (13 ounces)
3 cups sugar
6 eggs (divided into yolks and whites)
a pinch of salt
zest of 2 oranges
1/2 cup orange juice
200g yogurt, strained (7 ounces)
1 tsp vanilla extract
750g self-rising flour, sifted (26.5 ounces)
For the glaze
3 cups icing sugar
3 tbsps hot water or milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
To prepare this vasilopita recipe, start by dividing the eggs into yolks and whites. Place the egg whites in the bowl of the electric mixer, along with a pinch of salt. Make sure your egg whites, bowl and whisk attachments are clean and free of any water. Whisk the egg whites until the mixture is very thick and glossy and a long trailing peak forms when the whisk is lifted (meringues). Place the mixture in a bowl and set aside.
Use the electric mixer, to mix the butter and sugar, for about 20 minutes, until the butter is creamy and fluffy, like whipped cream. Add the egg yolks, one at a time, whilst mixing, allowing time for each one to be absorbed, before adding another. Pour in the orange juice, the vanilla extract, the orange zest, the yogurt and mix to combine. Add 1/3 of the sifted flour and blend, using a maryse spatula. Add 1/3 of the meringues and blend with light circular movements from the bottom up. Repeat with the rest of the flour and meringue (adding 1/3 of the flour and 1/3 meringue and then the remaining flour and meringue).
To bake the vasilopita, preheat the oven to 200C (both top and bottom heating elements on). Butter the bottom and sides of a round non-sticking cake tin (approx.32cm diameter) and pour in the mixture. Place the cake tin in the preheated oven, on the lower rack, turn the heat down to 175C and bake for 50-60 minutes, until nicely coloured and cooked through. Check if the vasilopita is ready, by sticking in the middle of the cake a wooden skewer or toothpick. If it comes out clean, then the cake is ready.
Let the vasilopita cool down (otherwise it will break) and invert the pan on a plate. Wrap a coin with aluminium foil and stick it in the cake. Invert the vasilopita on a serving platter. Prepare the glaze for the vasilopita. In a large bowl add all the ingredients and blend with a spatula to combine, until the glaze is smooth and and glossy. Add a little bit more hot water, if needed (the glaze should be like a thin cream). Top the vasilopita with the glaze and even out with a spatula. Don’t forget to carve the number of the year on top of the glaze! Enjoy!
Walnut potica: “One village, one potica.”
Potica, a typical Slovenian festive dish/cake, differs in size, shape, and in particular, filling. Best known is the potica with nut filling, followed in popularity by a number of others such as poppyseed, cottage cheese, hazelnut, chocolate, tarragon, leek, honey, or carob fillings.
The poticas made today, which are the most festive, have a relatively short history. They were developed more than 200 years ago from older shapes of “povitice” rolled-dough cakes containing a variety of fillings. In those days the cakes were not prepared in earthenware baking-dishes, but directly in ovens. Even today, potica remains the pride of each housewife.
- 1 kg flour
- 30 g fresh yeast
- 3-4 egg yolks
- 300 ml of lukewarm milk
- 120 g butter
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- lard for greasing a baking dish
- 600-700 g walnuts
- 200 g honey
- 50 g sugar
- 100-200 ml milk
- 1 egg
- a dash of rum or homemade brandy
The dough must be prepared in a warm room. Mix the flour with a teaspoon of salt and mix the yeast with a teaspoon of sugar and two tablespoons of flour and 50 ml of lukewarm water or milk. Leave in a warm place to rise. Make a hole in the middle of the flour; add whisked eggs, yeast, melted butter and sugar into the hole. Add the lukewarm milk while stirring. Beat the dough for 15 minutes or until bubbles appear and the dough separates from the bowl. Sprinkle some flour on the beaten dough; cover the dough with a cotton cloth and leave in a warm place to rise. To prepare the filling, crush or grind the walnuts and pour some hot sweetened milk over them. Heat up the honey until it liquefies. Add the honey and cinnamon to the walnuts. Leave the filling to cool off. Add one or two eggs to the filling and mix thoroughly. Roll out the dough until it is ½ cm thick and spread the warm filling over it. Roll tightly and put it in a greased mould. Leave the potica to rise slowly. It will also rise during baking. Before baking, cover the potica with a whisked egg. Bake for an hour; when finished, leave it in the mould for 15 minutes to cool off. Sprinkle the potica with powdered sugar if desired. Bon appétit!