As my husband Oddur is Icelandic, I’ve had the pleasure to discover Iceland in all its splendor, especially around Christmas time, when local traditions come to life. I am so enchanted by Icelandic folklore, where fantasy meets reality. Christmas preparations are as important as the festivities themselves. Friends and family gather to bake, create and enjoy anything relating to Christmas. One of my favourites rituals for children is the ‘Shoe in the window‘. On the night before December 12th, Icelandic children put one of their shoes in the window. That’s the night the very first Yule Lad (jólasveinn) called “Stekkjarstaur” comes to town from the mountains. According to Icelandic folklore the thirteen jólasveinar live with their father Leppalúði, their hideous mother Grýla, and the much maligned jólaköttur (Christmas cat). This is the Icelandic version of father Christmas, instead of one, they have thirteen of them. They are much cheekier than Santa Claus! The shoe stays on the window sill until all the Yule Lads (all 13 of them) are in town. Each jólasveinn leaves a little present in the shoe. Only well-behaved children will receive these goodies. The naughty ones get a potato instead. We have pulled the potato trick a few times on our kids, just for fun. You should have seen the look of relief when they found the real goodies tucked away in the shoe!
My mother-in-law Jóhanna and her best friend Hrafnhlidur bake traditional cakes called Sarah Bernhardt every Christmas. Originally a special festive treat from Danmark, it has become a must-bake in most Icelandic homes during the holidays. Legend has it the Danes were so mesmerized by the French actress Sarah Bernhardt, a cake was created and named after her. There are a few versions, but these almond based meringues covered in a coffee chocolate cream frosting, dipped in dark chocolate, are simply exquisite. Hrafnhildur was kind enough to share her lovely recipe. I just love their crunchiness, to be eaten cold from the freezer. They are exceptionally delicious, I love how you can make so many and store them in the freezer, ready for your guests at any time of the day.
Ingredients: (makes about 40-50, depending on size)
Preheat the oven 180°C/ 350°F
For the meringues:
4 egg whites
230 g (2 and 1/3 cups) icing/ confectioner’s sugar (sifted)
250 g (2 cups) ground almond
In a large glass bowl, whisk the egg whites (I use a pair of electric whisks) on a high-speed until frothy – try to keep the whisk position as horizontal as possible. Add the sugar (1-2 tbsp at a time) gradually and continue whisking. You should add the sugar in small quantities until the end of the process. When the egg whites form stiff peaks (this usually takes about 10-15 minutes), gently fold in the ground almonds. With the help of two slotted spoons, spoon the egg whites (you can also use a pastry bag with a large round tip) onto the parchment-lined baking tray. The meringues should be about 4-5 cm large/ 1-1.5 cm high (there are no rules, you can make them any size you want!). I like them ‘macarons’ sized, but they can be smaller if you wish.
Bake for about 10-12 minutes on 180°C/ 350°F. Leave to cool for 8-10 minutes before transferring to a wire rack. When cooled store in freezer for 15-20 minutes (on a plate covered with cling film).
For the cream:
300 g (1 and a 1/4 cup) unsalted butter (room temperature)
250 g (2 and 1/2 cup icing) confectioner’s sugar (sifted)
3 egg yolks
3 tbsp instant coffee powder (mixed with 1.5 tbsp hot water to dissolve)
3 tsp cocoa powder
Dissolve the instant coffee with 1.5 tbsp hot water. Set aside to cool. Mix the sifted sugar with the butter. Whisk the egg yolks till light and fluffy, the gradually add in the butter mixture. Pour in the dissolved coffee gently, then add the cocoa powder. Mix well to form a smooth and thick cream/ frosting. Cover with cling film and refrigerate.
300 g/ (2/3 pounds) dark chocolate, melted (for dipping)
Break the chocolate into pieces and place in a heat-proof recipient. Melt over boiling water for a few minutes until chocolate is completely melted. (You can also use the microwave for those who prefer).
Take out the meringues from the freezer and cream from the refrigerator. Spread the cream (about one and a half tsp) over the base of each meringue (see photo). It should look like a small dome. Use the spoon or a palette knife to smooth the surface. Place in a container and return to the freezer for 15 minutes so they can harden.
After 15 minutes of freezing, take out the cream covered meringues (they should be hard by now) and dip each one in the melted chocolate so the cream side is entirely covered. Make sure the chocolate is not too warm. Leave to set.
Line a large tin/ container with parchment paper and place the meringues inside. Cover with paper and close lid tightly. Keep in freezer (they can keep for up to a month). They should be eaten cold and taken out 5 minutes from freezer before serving. Perfect with tea or coffee.