In her bid for year-round brightness, food writer Nicola Miller says using cranberries’ jewel-like spheres should not be confined to the festive period and celebrates the sharp-sweet fruit with a recipe for mandelbrot
“A dog is for life, and not just for Christmas,” goes the saying. I feel the same about cranberries, whether they be dried, frozen or fresh.
At Thanksgiving and Christmas, they get their traditional time in the winter sun, only to fade into the background as we move into the New Year and our heads are turned by bright salads of blood oranges and shaved fennel, forced rhubarb made into tessellated tarts and warm, sloppy crumbles, bright cairns of satsumas, marmalade from the new season’s Seville oranges, and the red-flushed crunch of bitter leaves.
But when the world is cold and sere, and storms with mild-mannered names are smacking against the windows, the bright, parotid-triggering sour-sweetness of the cranberry is especially welcome. An atavistic urge to eat carb-laden stodge tends to exacerbate winter sluggishness and I can feel quite moribund by the end of January. Yet there’s nothing quite like the sharpness of a cold, sunny frosty morning after weeks of dreich, and its eating equivalent is something I seek out.
Sharp-sweet ingredients help stave off a descent into culinary slobdom which would otherwise render me hunched over a mess of winter pottage. You see, people talk of the food of winter as being about survival but I’m not a fan of this mentality because it is a dreary, enervating one. I don’t want to go through five months of the year just surviving and waiting for the sunnier, better bit. I want brightness all year-round, in texture, colour and flavour.
I did worry that this recipe for a honey-glazed cranberry, almond and Chinese five-spice mandelbrot might seem a bit festive for January when we’re all sick of the ‘C’ word, but as I type this my garden is in full berry-spate; the sweet box and the holly and hawthorn trees are laden with them. It’s still festive here. In the summer I like to eat fruit that is still warm from the sun, but the aromatic flavour of cranberry has, at its heart, a coolness which suits January and February so well. It makes me think of berries underneath a blanket of snow, of fir trees and ice and the painful-yet-good warming of hands frozen from snowball fights.
You might think of mandelbrot as a kind of Ashkenazi Jewish biscotti and you wouldn’t be far wrong. Their name comes from the Yiddish for ‘almond bread’; a reference to the inclusion of ground almonds which, in conjunction with the extra butter used in Mandelbrot, brings about a crumb that is a little softer than that of the biscotti, although they are rugged enough for dunking into bowls of coffee or hot chocolate without falling apart. And when you consider that the almond tree is the first to flower in Israel during February, its blossoms coinciding with the Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shvat (the New Year for Trees), I think I can say that this recipe was meant to be. I have deviated slightly and used a 50:50 mixture of finely chopped almonds and hazelnuts because I had two half-used packets of both nuts in my store cupboard, and the combination worked so well. Necessity is the mother of invention, so do feel free to replace the 50g of hazelnuts with more almonds if that is all you have. I like to add a honey glaze to the cooled mandelbrot too but again, this is optional if you have less of a sweet tooth.I like to serve mandelbrot with ice cream (I have made a port, cranberry and orange frozen custard to go with them in the past) and they can be sogged with alcohol and used in place of sponge fingers in trifles and tiramisu. You will need to ensure you get the right kind of Chinese five-spice mix as they do vary in their ingredients (the one I prefer has cinnamon, ginger, pepper, star anise, cloves and fennel in it), but seeing as I started working on this recipe back in December of last year – and in the USA it has become traditional for Jewish families to go out for Chinese food on Christmas Day – I thought I would create a mandelbrot which reflects this intriguing culinary meeting point.
* This recipe is adapted from Leah Koenig’s in The Jewish Chronicle.
HAZELNUT, CRANBERRY AND FIVE-SPICE MANDELBROT WITH A HONEY GLAZE
420g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
2½ tsp Chinese five-spice powder
225g soft unsalted butter
200g soft brown sugar
4 large eggs, beaten
1½ tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp orange juice
50g roasted unsalted almonds, finely chopped
50g finely chopped hazelnuts
200g dried cranberries left whole
Granulated sugar for sprinkling
Optional honey glaze:
55g icing sugar
1 tbsp runny honey
2-3 tsp hot water
Heat the oven to 180°C/160°C fan/350°F/gas mark 4.
Spread the chopped almonds and hazelnuts in a single layer in a small roasting tin and toast in the oven for five minutes. Watch them closely and give the tin a shake to ensure they toast evenly. Remove when they have turned a pale gold and allow to cool. Don’t worry if
this takes less time than five minutes; nuts vary in their oil content.
Whilst the nuts are toasting, line two large rectangular baking sheets with parchment/baking paper. I dab a bit of butter in each corner of the tray to hold the paper in place and you will see the importance of this when it comes to spreading the dough out.
Weigh out the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and Chinese five-spice powder and set aside.
Break the eggs into a jug and beat until foamy.
In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter and sugar using a spoon, handheld or stand mixer until it is fluffy and pale. Now you will need to add the eggs in four lots, beating each addition in, then add the vanilla extract and orange juice. Stir to combine well.
Now, fold in the flour mixture slowly with a wooden spoon, until it is just combined. Fold in the almonds, hazelnuts and cranberries. You will have a silky, sticky and spreadable dough.
The mandelbrot will need to be baked in four separate ‘loaves’ – two per baking sheet – but because the dough is so soft, dividing it is a bit tricky so I tend to do this by roughly scoring the dough into quarters with a knife while it is still inside the bowl.
Take one of your lined baking sheets and using an offset spatula or palette knife dollop one-quarter of the dough onto the sheet and spread it into a long flattish rectangle about 23x 10cm. If you have someone in the house with plastering skills, now is the time to deploy them.
Repeat with a second dollop of dough on the same baking sheet ensuring you leave a 4-5cm gap between each piece. Now do this again with the remaining two pieces of dough and the second baking sheet. (NOTE: if you only have one baking sheet it doesn’t matter. Just bake in separate batches; the dough will keep.)
Now bake for 20 minutes, turning each sheet halfway through the cooking time. When they are lightly browned and shaped a bit like flattish speed bumps, remove from the oven and allow them to cool for ten minutes.
Using a bread knife, slice each ‘speed bump’ width-wise into pieces that are 2cm wide. Turn each piece onto its side (gently!), sprinkle them with a little granulated sugar and bake for another ten minutes. Remove from the oven, turn each piece over, sprinkle with more sugar and bake for another ten minutes or until the mandelbrot are firm, brown and crunchy around the edges. Don’t worry if some of the mandelbrot break as you turn them over; this is a rugged-looking biscuit and they will taste just as good. Mine break all the time.
Remove from the oven and place the mandelbrot onto a cooling rack until they are completely cold.
You can glaze them with a honey icing, too. Make this by mixing the caster sugar, runny honey and hot water. Beat well, adding more water if it’s not runny enough. Drizzle the glaze over the mandelbrot when they are cool.
Mandelbrot will keep in a cool, airtight box for around a week and they can be frozen for up to three months.
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