• Biscuits and Van der Hamen´s sweet-shop

    Today we are cooking a painting… Cooking a what? Yes, cooking a painting, you´re not crazy. Sounds yummy, right? I guess you already know what I´m talking about, so let´s dig in…

    In the calle Alcalá in Madrid we can admire an assortment of sweets on canvas, they seem to be taken directly from an old sweet-shop, a zuclería as my great-grandmother would have said. No chance of finding mass-produced sweets wrapped in plastic here. Only quality products made with care, or at least that´s how I imagine it. Of course they are also made with butters and sugar, but hey, eaten once in a while they taste wonderful. Even more if you realize they can be admired in a museum.

    Workshop of Juan van der Hamen, Still life with sweets, 1596-1611. Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid.

    Today we are making exactly what a biscuit means: from the latin bis coctus: baked twice. With this method they keep very well, actually so well that these type of biscuits were taken as staple at sea. Maybe not as fancy as the ones I´m making today, because these are filled with nuts, seeds and spices. On ships I assume they would be plain and simple, just like the ones we use nowadays to spread pate or cheese.

    Workshop of Juan van der Hamen, Still life with sweets (detail), 1596-1611. Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid.

    A recipe of these delicious biscuits can be found in the cookbook: Polpo, a Venetian cookbook (of sorts). It´s certainly worth taking a peak in, and to prepare one or two delicious recipes from it. Yes, we also have these biscuits here in Spain, similar to the ones we can see on the painting. This cookbook however, is conveniently placed on one of my bookshelves, in this case I didn´t had to look much further, and besides, I was looking forward to taste this particular recipe, so there you go. The touch of fennel and the different nuts make it a biscuit worth trying.


    For 60 biscuits


    • 3 medium egg whites
    • 3 whole medium eggs
    • 400 g caster sugar
    • seeds from 2 vanilla pods
    • 2 teaspoons sesame seeds
    • 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
    • 600 g 00 flour
    • 4,5 teaspoons baking powder
    • 375 ml sunflower oil
    • 500 g mixed walnuts, almonds and pistachios, roughly chopped


    Take a large mixing bowl and a wooden spoon and beat together the egg whites, the whole eggs, the sugar and all the seeds – vanilla, sesame and fennel. Make sure everything is nicely combined. Slowly add the flour, the baking powder and the oil and continue to combine with your spoon. Add the chopped nuts and mix thoroughly. Place, covered, in the fridge and leave overnight to stiffen.

    The next day, preheat the oven to 200ºC. Oil a baking sheet and line it with baking parchment. Lay the mixture in a mound like a long squat loaf of bread from one end of the tray to the other. You should be able to fit two of these elongated mounds (about 30x15x4 cm) on the tray. Bake for 30 minutes in the preheated oven.

    Remove from the oven and when cool enough to handle slice into 1 cm slices. Meanwhile, turn the oven down to 140ºC. Lay the slices flat on a wire rack and place back in the oven for 15 minutes, or until the biscuits are completely dried out.

    These cantuccini will last for weeks if stored in an airtight container. To serve, place 2 biscuits alongside a chilled glass of Vin Santo (or any dessert wine you like, of course)

    Come on, what are you waiting for? Go bake these delicious biscuits. And go contemplate some mouth watering canvases, I´m sure they can inspire you to make sweets worth selling in a shop like Van der Hamen´s.