I’m not sure what it is about brandy snaps that have placed them so firmly in the Christmas culinary tradition: this simple biscuit lacks the dried fruits and nuts of other yuletide stalwarts, its spicing is minimal, and its shelf life is fleeting compared to the cakes and puddings that require festive forethought months in advance. But whatever the reason, I can’t imagine making or eating brandy snaps at any other time of the year.
In fairness, my brandy bottle is rarely used other than in the lead up to Christmas – when it gets sloshed into every cake and bake that stands still for long enough – but the brandy in the name is misleading. Traditionally, there is no brandy in the recipe at all, rather the ‘brandy’ in the name is thought to be a bastardisation of ‘branded’ meaning ‘burnt’, referring to the caramelisation of the biscuit as it bakes. So, really, the biscuit is all snap and no brandy. But that snap is the key: a brandy snap should be sugar-brittle, and audibly crunchy – never soft, never soggy. Despite the misnomer, I can’t resist adding a little brandy to my cream filling where it creates just the right amount of festive, boozy hum.
While brandy snaps look similar to the Italian cannoli, they are far, far easier to make, requiring a biscuit batter rather than a dough, no moulds, and are baked flat rather than deep fried in their final shape. It would be wrong to say that their ease is their principal appeal – their compulsive caramelised crunch, pleasing shape, and ability to hold vast quantities of whipped cream are all to their credit – but equally, that ease and simplicity is not to be sniffed at during the busy festive season.
Brandy snaps are both an unusual and a simple recipe: equal parts of butter, sugar, syrup and flour are melted together to form a biscuit dough which feels simultaneously too loose and too firm all at the same time. This is dolloped out onto baking trays and cooked for just ten minutes until it has spread and bubbled into little discs of golden lace. These hot little sweet-smelling doilies appear useless for anything other than removing your fingerprints with their burning heat – you may even think you’ve gone wrong somewhere in the recipe. But as you throw caution to the wind, and lift a soggy nascent snap, convinced that it will fall apart before you can get it onto a mould, it will drape slouchily around your greased wooden spoon or pudding mould. Hold it tight in the shape that you want, and mere seconds later, you have a fragile tube of slightly spiced biscuit.
You can mould the mixture around wooden spoons to make the classic cigar shape, or place it over a small pudding mould or satsuma to make little baskets. Either way, brandy snaps were made to be filled with softly whipped cream – for festive cheer, I speckle my cream with vanilla, and lift it with a little clementine zest and the aforementioned splash of brandy before whisking until the cream holds its own weight. The biscuits will retain their snap surprisingly well for a few days if unfilled and kept in an airtight container – once they’ve come within sniffing distance of cream, however, they will begin to soften, so don’t fill them until just before you’re ready to serve.
You can prolong their lives a little by dipping part of the unfilled shells into melted chocolate and letting it harden – or dip the filled ends into crushed pistachios or finely chopped candied peel for an even more Christmassy look.
Takes: 15 minutes, plus cooling
Bakes: 10 minutes
For the biscuit mixture
50g caster sugar
50g golden syrup
50g plain flour
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
300ml double cream
Zest of a clementine
2 tbsp brandy
1 teaspoon vanilla paste
1. Preheat the oven to 180°C and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.
2. Melt the butter, sugar and golden syrup together in a small pan over a low heat. Once melted, fold in the flour and ground ginger. Spoon teaspoons of the mixture onto your prepared tray, well-spaced apart, as the brandy snaps will spread – no more than 4-6 per large baking tray. Bake for 10-12 minutes. Don’t try and cook two trays’ worth of biscuits at the same time, as you won’t have enough time to shape them all before they cool and harden.
3. When the snaps come out of the oven, they should be a dark golden brown. Set the tray in front of you for three minutes (no more!), and ready yourself with a wooden spoon or a small pudding mould or satsuma. Rub a little vegetable oil onto the wooden spoon or upturned pudding mould (the satsuma won’t need it). Lift a biscuit from the tray, helped by a small palette knife or similar, and immediately wrap it around your greased mould; if you’re using a wooden spoon, make sure that the two sides of the biscuit overlap and are pressed together. Hold and count to fifteen. Carefully slide the biscuit off the mould, and set to one side, allow to cool completely.
4. Repeat with the remaining cooked biscuits, and then repeat the whole process with the remaining uncooked batter. If the biscuits harden too much before you are able to mould them, you can rewarm them briefly in the oven to bring back their pliability.
5. When you’re ready to serve the brandy snaps, zest a clementine into the cream, and add the brandy and vanilla paste. Whisk the cream until it is thick and holds its own weight when you lift your whisk away. Transfer the cream to a piping bag and pop the end of the piping bag into your cooled brandy snap; pipe until the cream reaches the other end, and serve immediately.