Oh, what a Christmas

I can’t remember a Christmas with such unrelenting weather, especially in Kansas, which rarely, rarely produced a white Christmas during my childhood. But on our way down we got rain, followed by fog, followed by an absolute downpour during the most high-traffic part of the trip.

By Christmas eve the rain had turned to ice pellets, which gave us a treacherous drive downtown for lunch with my bff and her fiance (and some last-minute pickups at the grocery store). I have to tell you, though, that icy walk was so worth it. We had lunch at Dempsey’s, which is a bar that serves gourmet burgers. Thankfully, they have veggie options, too.

I had the Romesco burger, a lentil patty topped with feta cheese, marinated green beans, nuts and some kind of lovely red pepper sauce.

Mike had the falafel burger with a whole pile of yummy on top. We both had the sweet potato fries, which are reason enough to eat lunch there.

And that was just the beginning of our holiday gorging. Just as the ice was turning into snow, we headed to my dad’s for Christmas eve dinner of poached salmon, green bean casserole and my dad’s amazing mashed potatoes. (Unfortunately I didn’t take any photos of this part – doh!) We had just enough time to throw back a few cheesecake bites before we realized my car was very close to not being able to back out of the hilly driveway.

So off we went, back to my mom’s to prepare our Christmas tradition, bubble bread. I know some people call it Monkey Bread (frozen rolls, rolled in butter and dipped in sugar and cinnamon, set atop more butter and nuts) but it will always be bubble bread to me. This is why!

It gets HUGE overnight, and then you bake it for 30 minutes in the morning. We have ours with veggie sausage patties and mimosas.

But wait! There was more cooking to do. We had to frost the rest of the sugar cookies that I didn’t make it to.

Mike handed me this little heart with my name on it (awwww) so I had to make one for him in return.

Thankfully it wasn’t this one, which cracked in transit.

Then we got ready for one more dinner at my aunt’s house in KC. Grandma grated potatoes for her famous gourmet potatoes, Mike chopped veggies, Darrell scrubbed pans, and Charlotte relaxed in her new Snuggie. (Oh yes I did!)

By this point we weren’t sure we were actually going to make it to KC because that snow turned into a blizzard warning. We could barely open the front door.

Thank goodness for a lot of shoveling and sheer force of will because we did make it. Mike made the most fabulous eggplant parmesan, which several people pronounced the best they ever had, and I got to hang out with my cousins and their adorable dog, Lucy.

So much fun, so much food, and waaaayyy too much white knuckle driving is how I’ll remember this year. Thankfully we made it back safe and picked up our doggies. Now I’m ready for a little bit of normal. You?

Favorite cookies: Pepparkakor

These Swedish cookies are kind of like gingerbread, but thinner, crispier and with less of the heavy molasses flavor. I first made them in junior high, after I came home from an international food fair at school with a half sheet recipe for these hard-to-pronounce cookies. My mom wasn’t able to find the original recipe, so I poked around online and came up with this one. The spice flavor is definitely a little stronger, but it was as close as I could come to my recipe, which made cookies that were very light in color and very thin and crispy.

Unlike sugar cookies, the dough for these is much more finnicky. It tends to crumble and crack, so you have to be a little more careful. But when you smell the aroma of cardamom and cloves wafting from your oven, you’ll be glad you tried them.

You can frost them if you want, but we always ate them plain.

Pepparkakor

from allrecipes.com

3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 cup butter (2 sticks)
1 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
1 egg, beaten
2 tablespoons dark corn syrup

Combine the flour, baking soda, and spices in a mixing bowl.

Beat the butter with the white and brown sugars in a separate bowl until light and fluffy. Mix in the egg and corn syrup.

Gradually stir in the flour mixture. Divide the dough into 4 equal parts and wrap tightly with plastic wrap. Refrigerate at least one hour.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Using 1 portion at a time, work on a floured surface and roll out dough to 1/8-inch thick. Cut into shapes with cookie cutters, and place 1 inch apart on lined baking sheets.

Bake until light golden brown, about 5-6 minutes.

——-

That is the end of my holiday cookie collection (at least for this year). There are others in my file, but I must get on the road to spend some time with my family, and finish frosting all the sugar cookies. I hope you get a chance to make any or all of these recipes. I will never forget all the Christmases I spent up to my elbows in flour, and I hope to have many more.

Here are the rest of the recipes, in case you missed them:

Sugar cookies
Chocolate Suzies
Peanut blossoms
The million dollar cookie
Candy stripe cookie sticks

Favorite cookies: Sugar cookies

Is there any more quintessentially Christmasy cookie than this? We always decorated ours with frosting out of a can, and I have to tell you after fussing with royal icing last night, I’m not sure that the fancy stuff is really better. Better looking, if you get it right. But who cares?

Anyway, here is the cookie recipe. It’s from my grandmother, the master baker (Mary Marie). It’s so buttery and wonderful. The cookies taste even better on the second or third day.

Sugar cookies

1/2 cup shortening
1/2 cup butter (that’s one stick)
1 cup sugar
3 eggs
3 1/2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons vanilla

Mix the dry ingredients in one bowl. I always whisk mine together instead of sifting, and you know, I think it works really well.

Cream the butter and shortening. Then mix in the sugar, eggs and vanilla.

Slowly combine the dry ingredients into the rest. At this point you will need to chill the dough for three hours, or overnight, if you can.

Once the dough is chilled, roll it out on a floured surface to about 1/4-inch thick (maybe even a little thinner), cut out your cookies and bake for 8-10 minutes at 400 degrees.

Just until the edges start to get browned.

Once the cookies have cooled, get to frosting!

Though this recipe is fantastic, I would add a few tips just to make sure you get the best result:

•I would divide the dough into fourths before you roll it. This makes a sheet that’s easy to work with.

•Flour absolutely everything. The surface, the rolling pin, even the spatula you use to scoop up cookies.

•Before you scoop the cutouts onto the cookie sheet, peel all of the in-between dough out and put it into a scrap pile.

•Put the scraps back into the fridge and start your next batch with chilled dough. When you have four re-chilled scrap piles, divide them in half and do two more rounds.

•Whatever I have left after that I usually just roll into balls, flatten into discs and have round cookies. If you overwork the dough too much it won’t have the same wonderful cookie texture.

•Just try to think of this like you would rolling pie crust. The colder the dough, the better. And if you get a tear from rolling too thin, just patch it up. No biggie.

As for frosting, I used the recipe that came in a can of meringue powder. You can also use Martha’s recipe for royal icing, here. I made mine way too thin, so I would hold back on some of the water next time.

This one came out beautifully, though.

Happy baking! One more recipe coming.

Favorite cookies: Chocolate Suzies

Isn’t it funny the ways you stumble on recipes that become your favorites? This one actually came from my fourth grade teacher, who’s first name was Sue. I guess she must have made them for the students one time, and then we recreated them at home.

This is really more of a technique than a recipe. You need a mini muffin pan and some adorable muffin liners like these.

One classic Nestle Tollhouse chocolate chip cookie recipe. Only for this one you’ll want to use mini chocolate chips.

And one bag of Reese’s mini peanut butter cups.

Unwrap all the peanut butter cups first. This way they’ll be ready when you need them (and you have to act fast before the cookies start to harden).

Preheat the oven while you make the cookie dough. Put a heaping teaspoon of cookie dough into each muffin liner. Resist the urge to make them too full. They’ll overflow when you squish the candy in. I might have overdone it just a bit this time…

Bake the cookies for 8-9 minutes and check them to see if they’re puffed up and just starting to get golden brown. At this point, remove them from the oven, press a peanut butter cup into the center of each one, and return to the oven for another minute or two of baking. When the cookies come out they should just be starting to get crispy on top and the candy should be nice and melty.

These cookies are so rich and indulgent. If you don’t love them you are not human.

Favorite cookies: Peanut blossoms

These cookies might be the ones that remind me most of holiday baking from my childhood. I can’t think of a year we didn’t make them. I don’t really like plain Hershey kisses, but there is something about biting the Kiss out of the center of a peanut blossom that I can’t resist.

This time I fancied up the recipe a bit by using crunchy raw sugar crystals and dark chocolate Kisses. But feel free to use regular sugar and milk chocolate Kisses, as we always did.

Peanut Blossoms
(you may want to double this recipe, by the way)

1 3/4 cup sifted flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1/3 cup creamy peanut butter
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 bag Hershey Kisses

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Start by unwrapping about 3 dozen Hershey Kisses.

Combine dry ingredients in a bowl. In a separate bowl cream butter and peanut butter. Mix in the sugars, then add the egg and the vanilla.

Slowly blend in dry ingredients until the dough is sturdy enough to form a ball.

Pinch off pieces of cookie dough and roll them into 1-inch balls. Roll them in a bowl of sugar and place them about 2 inches apart on a greased cookie sheet.

Bake for 8 minutes. When the cookies have puffed up, remove them from the oven.

Push a Kiss into the center of each cookie (this will crack the surface, but that’s OK). Return to the oven for 2 more minutes of baking.

**Or, if you don’t want the Kisses to get too melty, bake the cookies for 10 minutes and omit the second oven time. That’s what I did, and it worked out fine.

Favorite cookies: My take on the million dollar cookie

There’s been a lot of buzz about Pillsbury’s million-dollar-winning cookie recipe for Double-Delight Peanut Butter Cookies (get it here), so I thought I’d see if it was all it was cracked up to be.

I’m normally a natural peanut butter girl, but for the sake of accuracy, I went with Jif, plus the already made peanut butter cookie dough log. They only had the family-size log at my grocery store, so I’ll tell you later what I did with the extra half.

I did make one adjustment to the recipe, though. I left out the crushed peanuts. It’s just a personal preference, kind of like choosing creamy peanut butter over crunchy. I think plain peanuts are sort of dry and not all that tasty so I just left them out. I also think if I had it to do over, I would leave out the cinnamon and instead roll the dough balls in a coating of turbinado sugar. Perhaps the recipe would only be worth half a million then, but that’s what I’d do.

Anyway, here’s a peek at the assembly process.

First you have to make the sugary peanut butter balls that go in the center of the dough.

It looks like the powdered sugar will never mix in, but eventually it does and you get this.

I found the best way to divide the big ball into 24 even little ones was to divide it in half, then half again. From those pieces you know you have to get six little balls, and that’s pretty easy.

Then you divide the dough log in the same way. Take a piece of dough, flatten it in your palm, and drop the peanut butter ball inside. Then you sort of wrap the edges of dough around till they meet and roll it smooth.

Followed by a coat of cinnamon sugar (and nuts if you like them).

When you have all your dough balls lined up on a cookie sheet, then you’re supposed to smash them with the bottom of a glass coated in cooking spray.

Just for kicks I skipped that part for one tray just to see what would happen and I could see that if you leave them rounded, they end up very puffy in the middle and somewhat burnt at the edges. You can see the difference on the tray. My second batch was a little smaller, too.

The final cookies were very tasty, I have to say. I’m a huge fan of sugary peanut butter (hello Reese’s!), so I loved the soft centers of the cookies. I’m sure you could do this with regular peanut butter cookie dough from your own recipe and it would be just as good.

Oh yeah, and about the other half of that cookie dough log. I had some Reese’s pieces that I wanted to use up, so I just mixed them into the dough. My other version of peanut butter on peanut butter cookies was pretty awesome. I don’t know why the standard seems to be to make them with regular cookie dough.

How do you like your PB cookies? Have you tried the million dollar recipe?

Favorite cookies: Candy Stripe Cookie Sticks

There’s a reason why I haven’t made these cookies since 2005. They’re finnicky, delicate, complicated and impossible to make without burning your fingertips. But they are so beautiful (and actually taste good to boot) that I couldn’t help myself and had to make them again. The recipe, of course, comes from Martha. I’m not gonna paste it here because you can print off a nice copy from her site, and what you really need to know is how to assemble these lovelies.

(And I will say I’m glad I did make these, even if they did consume hours of my day off and result in a 2-inch-long baking pan burn. Because they won the “too pretty to eat” prize at my office cookie contest. $10 gift card, baby!)

Before you start baking, make sure you have either a pastry bag with a fine tip or a plastic squeeze bottle like this one to make your stripes.

I prefer the bottle because it has fewer parts and only costs about $1.

You can also invest in gel paste food coloring, which can be found at craft or specialty baking stores, but I got away with using half a bottle of regular food coloring. I know it thins the batter out a bit, but it’s thin to begin with, so it doesn’t really matter.

I would highly recommend that you have not one but two silicone baking sheets to use for this recipe. I only had one, and I discovered that parchment paper was just not the same as a Silpat when trying to make an ultra-thin cookie. You can only roll, at max, two cookies at a time before they get too hard and start to crack, so it’s nice to have one pan of two cookies in the oven and one pan of two getting started at all times. Since the batter actually performs a little better when it’s warm, you don’t have to worry so much about cooling off the pan to use it again. Just take a minute off the baking time.

I also tried using egg whites out of a carton instead of separating the whites from regular eggs.

I figured the last thing I needed after baking tons of cookies would be hollandaise from the leftover yolks. Although the container said not to use them for meringues, they seemed to work fine for this purpose.

And one last word of warning, you may need to strain the batter that you use for the stripes before you put it into your bottle or pastry bag. I don’t know if it was from the egg whites or another ingredient, but my bottle kept getting clogged with bits of something, resulting in explosive squirts when I finally got it to come out. Not so pretty.

So here’s what you do. Mix up the batter, which is easy peasy.
Transfer a cup of it to a separate bowl and add your food coloring (and strain if you need to). Pour into the bottle/bag.

Next, make yourself a little template (or maybe two, because they tend to get messy). It’s basically a piece of something with a 3×6 rectangle cut out of it. You smear the batter into this rectangle (with an offset spatula), then pipe on the red diagonal stripes to get the candy cane pattern.

You’ll also need something to roll the cookies around. I like using an unsharpened pencil. A chopstick is good, but is usually thinner on one side than the other, which can result in an uneven cookie.

As soon as the cookies come out of the oven, you need to start rolling them. One problem – they are screaming hot at this point. But you have no choice. You have to roll, and you can’t really roll while wearing gloves. First loosen and flip the cookie to the other side. Then VERY CAREFULLY wrap the cookie around the pencil and press it to seal. It will probably take a few cookies to get this process down, but that’s OK. More for you to eat.

I only ended up with about 20 cookies good enough to photograph before I ran out of steam, but I was still really happy with them. If you’re going to tackle this recipe, I’d definitely set aside a lot of time, and be prepared to smear your entire kitchen with multicolored batters. But if you can schedule it right before a cookie contest, you never know. You just might win.

Reese’s PB cups + cookies

Last year we bought mini Snickers and Reese’s peanut butter cups for trick-or-treaters. By the end of the night we had a bowl full of Snickers. Apparently kids prefer the Reese’s (and I fully get that!).

So this year we bought two giant bags of peanut butter cups, only to realize when we got home that they were mixed bags of regular milk chocolate and dark chocolate cups. Nice!

I couldn’t help it. Less than 24 hours later I got into the bags and stole a few cups to put into a batch of chocolate chip cookie dough. I made half the batch with regular chocolate chips, and for the other half I dumped in the peanut butter cups and mashed them up with a wooden spoon.

I don’t think I used quite enough (you can’t really see the candy poking through the tops), but the cookies were so, so good.

If you like this combination, you should also try our holiday favorite, Chocolate Suzies. You put chocolate chip cookie dough into mini muffin liners, bake them and then push a peanut butter cup into the top at the end of baking. Heaven.

By the way, if you live in the Des Moines area, you should sign up for Deb Cazavilan’s cookie baking workshops in Ankeny. Deb is a fab baker, and super cool lady, who recently taught me all about pie baking for a story I’m writing. She has a few spots left in her November cookie baking workshops, which are always popular. Perhaps because you get to take home 12 DOZEN cookies at the end. And you can peruse her collection of vintage aprons, which are also for sale.

Pumpkin bars with cream cheese frosting

What a good use for a can of pumpkin!

These bars are soft and moist, with just a thin layer of cream cheese frosting that keeps them from veering into too-sweet territory. The recipe calls for pecans, but I substituted walnuts because that’s what I had on hand, and they worked just fine.

Pumpkin Bars

adapted from BHG.com

2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 eggs
1 15-ounce can pumpkin
1 2/3 cup sugar
1 cup cooking oil
3/4 cup chopped pecans or walnuts

Cream cheese frosting

Beat together 3 ounces of softened cream cheese, 1/4 cup softened butter and 1 teaspoon vanilla until fluffy. Gradually add 2 cups sifted powdered sugar.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium bowl stir together flour, baking powder, cinnamon, baking soda and salt. In a large bowl beat together eggs, pumpkin, sugar and oil. Add the flour mixture and beat until well combined. Stir in nuts.

The recipe says to spread the batter in an ungreased 15x10x1-inch baking pan. My pan was looking a little worse for the wear, so I lined it with parchment paper. This made it really easy to remove when it needed to cool.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until a toothpick in the center comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack. When it’s cool, flip it back into the pan. This gives you a nice flat surface to frost.

Frost with a thin layer of cream cheese frosting and cut into 24 squares.

My first time making bread

No-knead bread, to be exact.

I don’t have the patience for a bread that needs multiple sets of kneading and rising. In my house, that’s Mike’s department. But I was getting kind of sad that I’d never made bread. And what kind of Martha would I be if I didn’t tackle that challenge?

So, since we are now in possession of an old cast iron dutch oven, I thought I would pull out the recipe I saved from Mother Earth News for no-knead bread and give it a try. Apparently the steaming action from the pot-with-lid method, mimics that of high-heat ovens that bakeries use. You may not get bread that good, but you can come close.

I think my bread came out great. I used half white and half whole-wheat flour, and even though I’m all about healthier breads I think I would go with all-white next time. The texture was fine – crusty outside, chewy inside. But for an artisan-type bread that begs for a slice of brie and a smear of jam, I just prefer white.

Anyway, I started the dough last night and let it sit overnight. Right before lunch I patted it into shape and let it rise for a couple hours. Then I put it in the oven and baked it for 45 minutes. Super easy. Definitely messy when you have to clean all that sticky dough off your dishes. But overall, for someone with very little patience for breadmaking, I think this recipe is a winner.