The weeks leading up to the winter holidays are intensely aromatic for me, as I start experimenting with new recipes for pastries and cakes. I hardly even need to wear perfume because as it is, everything gets permeated with the scents of vanilla, lemon peel, ginger and rosewater. Winter holiday baking is a relatively new tradition for me, but I plunged into it with zeal. I strongly associate winter holidays with Vienna, where I spent some of my student days: Christmas decorations glittering in the snow covered streets, the seductive bitterness of hot chocolate, Strauss concerts at the elegant Kursalon Wien, the light-hearted exuberance of being exam free!
As much as I love the modern city, I also have a passionate interest in the Vienna of the fin de siècle when the Hapsburg Empire lost much of its grandeur. No longer the capital city of a powerful empire, Vienna became an imperial residence. It is fascinating to consider that this period of political and social crisis in Vienna produced some of the most extraordinary movements in art, music and psychoanalysis and attracted a fascinating mix of artists.
One such brilliant personality was Katharina Schratt, a famous actress and a close friend of Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph. They were first introduced by Empress Elisabeth, and while the degree of their closeness is subject to much speculation, the warm friendship between Schratt and the Emperor lasted until his death in 1916. Franz Joseph loved taking breakfast at Schratt’s house and he often commented on her delicious cooking, complaining about the heavy and overly decorated dishes served by the Imperial kitchen. He also regreted that he never got to enjoy a proper hot meal due to the distance his dinner had to travel at the Palace. His favorite dishes were goulash, a hearty meat stew, and kugelhopf, a sweet brioche-like bread, which Schratt was glad to provide.
In the 1970s, at the estate sale of Anton Schratt, Katharina’s son, a Hungarian-American chef, Louis Szathmary, discovered a handwritten compilation of recipes simply titled “Kochbuch, 1905, aus dem Besitz Kat. Schratt” (property of Kath. Schratt.) The book contains an unusual mix of refined French haute cuisine and lusty Hungarian specialties. Goulash is well represented, and there is even a separate page with three recipes for kugelhopf. The book was published in English as To Set Before the King: Katharina Schratt’s Festive Recipes, and if you have an interest in history and traditional cooking, it is a fascinating read.
The almond crescent recipe below comes from Schratt’s compilation of recipes. Of course, adapting any recipe to modern ingredients is a challenge, but it is something that I enjoy doing. I imagine it allows me to get a flavor of the period, and for a romantic like me, this is a delicious fantasy. So, I make a cup of hot chocolate, top it with a lavish dose of whipped cream, listen to some Strauss waltzes, and although Vienna is far away, I can almost see its glittering splendor.
These almond crescents are delectable! They are essentially an almond meringue, reminiscent of confections like nougat or Italian torrone, but far easier to prepare. I will include the original recipe and my adaptation. While I stay fairly close to the original flavor, this recipe can be changed freely. Use hazelnuts, pecans or pistachios instead of almonds; add vanilla, lemon zest, cacao, cardamom, rosewater or the spices of your choice. The meringue is a perfect canvas to use for your own creations.
Original Recipe: “Beat 4 egg whites until stiff, blend in 234g sugar, 234g blanched almonds coarsely chopped. Spread on a board, form crescents, and roll them in chopped almonds. Bake on a well-buttered cookie sheet in a cool oven.”
My Adaptation: 160g ground, lightly toasted almonds
80g fine granulated sugar
20g egg white (approximately 1 large egg white)
Preheat oven to 350F.
Whip egg whites till soft peaks, add sugar and continue whipping till a firm, silky and shiny mass is obtained. Add 1/3 of the egg white mixture to the ground almonds. Mix well and add the rest in increments, making sure that you obtain a soft, but moldable dough. Keep a bowl of water nearby and divide the dough into walnut size lumps. Shape each into a crescent and place onto parchment paper covered baking sheet. Sprinkle with sliced almonds or pine nuts.
Depending on your oven, the crescents will need 10-20 minutes. They should be light, barely colored. It is best to bake them on a double baking sheet to prevent the bottom from coloring too much. It only takes a minute to burn meringue, so pay close attention to the cookies.
Photography © Bois de Jasmin