Saturday, December 24, 2011

12 Days of Christmas Baking: Sugar Cookies

There is nothing original about decorating sugar cookies for Christmas. Just about everybody does it and just about everybody has a favorite recipe for sugar cookie cut-outs. However, I have some very special memories of decorating sugar cookies for Christmas while still living at my parent's house. I was especially excited to decorate cookies with Matthew. So, this year, instead of trying to play with some fancy designs, I kept things simple by making a white icing and buying a package of Christmas sprinkles so that Matthew would be able to participate as much as possible.

Shortly before the cookie-making began, Matthew ran into a corner and skinned up his little nose. He was a champ about letting us clean and bandage him up. And he still looks pretty cute despite the fact that half his face is a bandage.

We had a blast rolling out the dough and showing Matthew how to use the cookie cutters. He caught on pretty quickly and was eager to do it by himself. The only problem was that he would overlap his cutouts - making some gruesome looking shapes (think snowflake on top of snowman on top of Santa). Please ignore my crazy hair. I just got out of the shower and Matthew helped me brush my hair. As you can see, he did a stellar job.

Once the cookies were cool and it was time to decorate, Paul and I would frost each shape and then hand them off to Matthew to administer the sprinkles. He absolutely loved that - except he was incredibly, incredibly slow at it, choosing to carefully place only a single sprinkle on the cookie at a time. It took him about 20 minutes to finish a single cookie. At least he had fun. When he started to throw the sprinkles, we knew his time was up.

In other news, it looks like this is the closest we're going to come to a white Christmas this year.

At least it was sunny outside! All three of us went for a walk around the neighborhood and it was absolutely glorious!

Merry Christmas Everyone!

Sugar Cookies
adapted from Allrecipes

1 cup butter, at room temperature
1 cup white sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 cup heavy whipping cream

In a medium bowl, cream together the butter and sugar. Stir in the eggs and vanilla. Sift together the flour and baking powder, stir into the creamed mixture alternately with the heavy cream. Cover dough, and chill for 2 to 3 hours, until firm.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line cookie sheets with parchment.

On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough to 1/4 inch thickness. Cut into desired shapes with cookie cutters. Place cookies 1 inch apart on the prepared cookie sheets.

Bake for 12-14 minutes in the preheated oven, until bottoms and edges of cookies are light brown. Remove from baking sheet and cool on wire racks. Store in an airtight container.

Merry Christmas Eve!

Friday, December 23, 2011

12 Days of Christmas Baking: Stollen

Baking stollen for Christmas has been a tradition in my family for as long as I can remember. My maternal Grandmother used to bake it yearly for my Grandfather. After Grandma passed away, my Mom continued the tradition and baked several loaves of stollen, reserving the largest and best loaf to ship to Grandpa. This is probably my absolutely favorite Christmas bread. For the past three years, this has been the snack of choice to tide us over until breakfast on Christmas mornings while opening presents.

Stollen is a traditional German holiday cake - basically, the German version of fruitcake. I despise American fruitcake - but, as you have probably guessed, I am very fond of the European variations.

This stollen recipe is incredibly easy and perfectly moist once baked. Many stollen loaves can be extremely heavy and dry, but these loaves remain perfectly moist due to the special (and non-traditional) addition of a buttery cinnamon sugar filling. Since Paul and I are huge fans of lemon glaze, we normally forego the traditional heavy coating of powdered sugar, choosing instead to drench our loaves in glaze. Delicious!

adapted from Betsy Oppenneer

For the Fruit:
1 cup mixed candied fruit (fruitcake mix)
1 cup raisins
3 tablespoons dark rum, amaretto, or orange juice

For the Sponge:
1 scant tablespoon active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water (about 110 degrees)
2/3 cup milk
1 teaspoon honey
1 cup all-purpose flour

For the Dough:
1/3 cup honey
1 large egg, beaten
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon mace (or 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg + 1/4 teaspoon all-spice, cinnamon, or cardamom)
1/2 cup chopped roasted almonds
3-4 cups all-purpose flour

For the Filling:
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
3 tablespoons granulated sugar

Prepare Fruit: Combine the mixed fruit, raisins, and rum (or orange juice). Cover and set aside. Shake or stir the mixture every so often to coat the fruit with the rum.

Prepare Sponge: In a large bowl, sprinkle the yeast in the water to soften. Heat the milk to 110 degrees F and add it to the yeast along with the honey and 1 cup flour. Cover the sponge with plastic wrap and let rise until light and full of bubbles, about 30 minutes.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, add the fruit mixture, honey, egg, butter, zest, salt, mace, almonds, and 2 cups of the flour to the sponge. Using the paddle, beat the mixture on medium low speed for 2 minutes. Gradually add the remaining flour 1/4 cup at a time until the dough begins to pull away from the side of the bowl. Change to the dough hook. Continue to add flour 1 tablespoon at a time until the dough just begins to clean the bowl. Knead 4 to 5 minutes on medium-low.

First rise: Put the dough in an oiled bowl and turn to coat the entire ball of dough with oil. Cover with a tightly woven towel and let rise until doubled, about 1 hour.

To Shape and Fill, turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Divide the dough in half and roll each half into a 7 by 9-inch oval. Brush the melted butter over the top of the oval. Combine the cinnamon and granulated sugar and sprinkle over one lengthwise half of the oval. Fold the dough in half lengthwise and carefully lift the bread onto separate parchment-lined baking sheets. Press lightly on the folded side to help the loaf keep its shape during rising and baking.

Cover with a tightly woven towel or plastic wrap and let rise for 45 minutes.

About 10 minutes before baking, preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Bake loaves for 25 minutes until the internal temperature of the bread reaches 190 degrees F. Immediately remove from the baking sheet and place on a rack to cool.

To serve, drizzle with lemon glaze before slicing.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

12 Days of Christmas Baking: Cranberry-Orange Panettone

A very unwelcome and despised visitor suddenly barged into our home, throwing off my baking schedule and rendering both my husband and I to worthless lumps on the couch. I woke up with a stomach bug on Monday morning and spent the majority of the day with my head deep inside our toilet seat. Luckily, Paul was able to come home from work and relieve me from Matthew duty, allowing me the luxury of sleeping off the illness. Later that evening, Paul started running a high fever and developed a nasty, full-body cough that thunders throughout the entire household, shaking furniture and forging new cracks in the walls (at least that's the way he would describe it). Matthew, thankfully, has been spared and is just as hyper and playful as ever - although quite angered at his parents' lack of energy. We are all finally starting to feel better and were able to finish off a few errands today that we needed to get done before Christmas Eve. Hopefully, we'll all be back to normal in time for Christmas Day.

This Christmas bread is a particular favorite of Paul's. I read an article about Panettone in a magazine shortly before the holiday season during our first year of marriage. The article described Panettone as the Italian answer to American fruitcake. Unlike fruitcake, Panettone is a popular and beloved Christmas bread and is more cake-like in structure and complex in flavor then its American cousin. It is baked in a specially designed mold that enables the cake to rise into a high dome. For my inaugural attempt at baking Panettone, I lacked the proper mold for baking and substitute a metal coffee container which I lined with parchment. It worked beautifully, but I have since purchased the molds from King Arthur Flour and they work even better (and look much prettier). Either way, this bread is delicious - so much so, that Paul almost had a heart attack when, in my sickened state, I told him that I did not think I was going to be able to pull myself together in time to bake it this year.

Nice thing about stomach flu, it leaves fairly quickly. This was baked in a jiffy (luckily we had already candied all our oranges).

I used a quicker version of this bread this year (mainly due to my laziness). It is less complex than the one I normally use. In this version, you mix up the dough, let it have an intial first rise for a couple hours on the counter-top and then pop it into the fridge for up to five days (the longer the better). Then, you just divide the batter between your molds, let it rise a bit more, and bake!

Super easy and super delicious.

Cranberry-Orange Panettone
adapted from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes A Day

1 1/2 cups lukewarm water
1 1/2 tablespoons yeast
1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt
1/2 cup honey
8 eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1 teaspoon lemon extract
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 tablespoon lemon zest
7 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup dried cranberries
1 cup finely diced candied orange peel (recipe below)
Egg Glaze (1 egg yolk beaten with 1 tablespoon milk)
Coarse Sugar (for sprinkling on top of the loaf before baking)

Either by hand or using the paddle attachment of your stand mixer, mix yeast, salt, honey, eggs, melted butter, extracts and zest with the water. Mix in flour and dried fruit without kneading. You may need to use wet hands to get the last bit of flour to incorporate if you’re not using a machine. The dough will be loose, but will firm up when chilled (don’t try to use it without chilling).

Cover (not airtight), and allow to rest at room temperature until dough rises and collapses (or flattens on top), approximately 2 hours.

Refrigerate the dough in a non-airtight lidded container and use over the next 5 days.

On baking day, grease a panettone mold with butter.

Dust the surface of the refrigerated dough with flour and divide into three, even-sized pieces. Dust each piece with more flour and quickly shape it into a ball by stretching the surface of the dough around to the bottom on all four sides, rotating the ball a quarter-turn as you go. Place the ball into the pan, seam side down. Repeat with remaining dough.

Loosely cover the dough with oiled plastic wrap and allow to rest at room temperature for about 1 hour and 40 minutes.

Twenty minutes before baking time, preheat the oven to 375°F with the rack in the middle.

Remove the plastic wrap and brush the Panettone with egg wash and sprinkle with the sugar. Bake in the center of the oven for 50-55 minutes until golden brown and hollow sounding when tapped (or until it reaches an internal temperature of 180 degrees). The amount of dough and baking times will vary depending on pan size. If the top appears to be getting too browned, cover it loosely with a piece of aluminum foil.

Allow to cool completely on a wire rack before slicing or eating. When ready to serve, pour lemon glaze over each slice (powdered sugar plus lemon juice whisked to desired consistency).

Candied Orange Peel

6 Valencia or navel oranges

4 1/2 cups sugar, plus extra for rolling

1 1/2 cups water

Cut tops and bottoms off of the orange and score the orange into quarters, cutting down only into the peel and not into the fruit. Peel the skin and pith of the orange in large pieces, use the orange for another recipe. Cut the peel into strips about 1/4-inch wide. Put the orange peel in a large saucepan with cold water to cover, bring to a boil over high heat. Then pour off the water. Repeat 1 or 2 more times depending up how assertive you want the orange peels to be. (Test kitchen liked the texture of a 3 time blanch best, it also mellowed the bitterness. But it is a matter of preference.) Remove the orange peels from the pan.

Whisk the sugar with 1 1/2 cups water. Bring to a simmer and cook for 8 to 9 minutes (If you took the sugar's temperature with a candy thermometer it would be at the soft thread stage, 230 to 234 degrees F.) Add the peels and simmer gently, reducing heat to retain a simmer. Cook until the peels get translucent, about 45 minutes. Resist the urge to stir the peels or you may introduce sugar crystals into the syrup. If necessary, swirl the pan to move the peels around. Drain the peels, (save the syrup for ice tea.) Roll the peels in sugar and dry on a rack, for 4 to 5 hours. Return to the sugar to store.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

12 Days of Christmas Baking: Candy Cane Crisps

Today we woke up for early morning Mass and were delightfully surprised to find six inches of beautiful snow blanketing Erie. After all the rain, wind, and nearly 60 degree temperatures recently, it is finally starting to look a little bit like Winter. Although, according to the weather forecast, temperatures are supposed to increase during the week, melting off whatever snow we have accumulated thus far. In other words, the chances for a white Christmas are looking pretty bleak.

Speaking of "White Christmas," last night I finally had the opportunity to introduce Paul to the classic movie of the same name. Starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, and Rosemary Clooney (who looks a lot like her nephew George), the film is a delightful musical by the famed Irving Berlin that features some of the greatest song and dance numbers I have ever seen. I used to enjoy watching it with my Mom and my sisters around Christmastime each year. I finally was able to force Paul to watch it. And watch it he did. He grumbled about it the whole time and rolled his eyes every time one of the main characters would begin to break into song.

However, after pausing the film halfway through to get a snack from the kitchen, I caught him whistling to the tune of "Count Your Blessings." I asked him: "What's that you're whistling?" He glared at me and replied: "Some stupid song from that crappy movie." However, I know that secretly he quite enjoyed it.

This afternoon, Paul set out to make candy cane crisps, his favorite Christmas cookie. For my bridal shower, my Mom asked family and friends to send me some of their favorite recipes so I could start building a collection. My Mother-in-law and MaryRose, my sweet little sister-in-law, sent an email containing this recipe which I have printed off and laminated in my recipe binder.

The cookie batter is a basic butter dough, with rolled oats and ground up bits of candy cane added for chew and flavor. The dough is then shaped into balls, rolled in powdered sugar, scored, and garnished with a sprinkle of ground candy canes before being baked into a deliciously sweet, minty, chewy cookie. These are a fabulous and refreshing addition to any plate of Christmas cookies.

The most difficult part about the whole process is stripping the plastic wrapping from the candy canes. One of Paul's biggest pet peeves is being outsmarted by inanimate objects.

But soon, he is victorious over the candy canes and rewards himself by gleefully grinding them to a fine powder.

After mixing up the dough, he begins delicately crafting it into the perfect size and shape for baking. Look at the master hard at work...

And the end result is remarkably delicious and worth every bead of sweat!

Candy Cane Crisps
recipe from My Mother-in-Law

1 cup butter, softened
1 1/4 cups powdered sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1 1/3 cups flour
1 cup rolled oats
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup crushed candy canes

Beat butter and 1 cup sugar until creamy. Beat in the vanilla.

Stir together the flour, oats, and salt. Gradually add to the butter mixture. Pour in 1/4 cup of the crushed candy canes.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees with rack set in the middle.

Roll the dough into 3/4" balls. Roll each in remaining powdered sugar to coat. Place the dough balls 2-inches apart on greased and floured cookie sheets. Flatten the cookies with a fork, making a criss-cross pattern with the fork tines. Sprinkle each cookie with 1/2 teaspoon crushed candy cane.

Bake for 18-20 minutes, or until lightly golden. Let cool on the baking sheet 2-3 minutes, then transfer to racks to cool completely.

Make sure baking sheets are completely cool before baking additional batches. You can stick the dough in the fridge between batches.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

12 Days of Christmas Baking: World Peace Cookies

Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin...with these cookies.

This cookie recipe was a newcomer to the Christmas baking rotation this year. I honestly picked it for the title alone. A cookie that promises to be so delicious that, if given the opportunity, it may possibly serve to unite the nations of the world. A recipe that comes with such a lofty description is worthy of a try.

The recipe was a breeze to put together. The baking method is very similar to that of sables and shortbread, where the dough is refrigerated for several hours before being sliced into rounds or squares and baked.

After allowing the cookies to cool to room temperature, Paul and I performed a taste test. They sure didn't look like much, but they blew us away. Paul instantly declared: "WOW...these might be my new favorite cookies."

And I have to agree. They are that good.

They are completely different from any other cookie we have tried because of the addition of fleur de sel. This special type of salt has very wet flakes that are not as harsh on the palate as table salt. The soft flakes stay whole during the baking process and serve to enhance the chocolate and provide the taster with a delightfully surprising salty aftertaste. It is pretty hard to describe - but the finish of these cookies is both incredibly interesting and exotically exciting (how's that for some kick-ass alliteration?).

Matthew could not get enough of them. And his palate is the most difficult to please around here.

There really is no substitute for fleur de sel, although you could try using a fine sea salt. Fleur de sel should be available in the spice section of most grocery stores - although expect to get a bunch of funny looks when asking people at the grocery store for help locating it. One guy asked me if that was a type of plant food.

Paul is already preparing to whip up another batch. He is rarely motivated to make anything (besides steak) this is kind of a big deal.

World Peace Cookies
from Baking: from My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 stick plus 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
2/3 cup packed light brown sugar
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon fleur de sel (if using fine sea salt, reduce to 1/4 teaspoon)
1 teaspoon vanilla
5 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped into small pieces or a heaping 3/4 cup mini chocolate chips

Sift the flour, cocoa powder, and baking soda together.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the butter on medium speed until soft and creamy. Add both sugars, the salt, and vanilla and beat for an additional 2 minutes.

Turn off the mixer and pour in the dry ingredients. Drape a kitchen towel (or use the protective shield of your stand mixer, if you have one) over the stand mixer to avoid being covered in flour. Pulse the mixer at low speed 5 times for 1-2 seconds until moistened. Remove the towel and continue to mix on low speed for 30 additional seconds - just until no more flour is visible. Try to work the dough as little as possible. Add in the chocolate pieces and mix just until incorporated.

Turn the dough out onto a work surface and divide in half. Working with one half at a time, shape into logs that are 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap. Repeat with the second half of dough.

Refrigerate for at least 3 hours and up to 3 days.

When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 325 degrees with a rack in the middle position. Line a baking sheet with parchment.

Remove one log from the refrigerator and slice, using a sharp, thin knife, into rounds that are 1/2 inch thick. The rounds will probably crack a bit, but just use your fingertips to press the pieces back into place. Arrange the rounds on the baking sheet, leaving 1 inch between each cookie. Bake for 12 minutes. Remove immediately and let the cookies cool to room temperature on the baking sheet set over a wire rack.

Repeat with the second portion of dough.

You should be able to get approximately 36 delicious cookies.

Friday, December 16, 2011

12 Days of Christmas Baking: Caramel Corn

I personally love those huge holiday tins filled with three different types of popcorn flavors: butter, cheese, and caramel. There were several Christmas mornings where each of us kids would receive our own large tub full of popcorn (mine was normally adorned with pictures of kittens snuggling next to a stack of presents). I always gobbled down the cheese and butter popcorn varieties rather quickly, but normally gave away the caramel corn. My brother Michael usually had his mouth open and stomach ready to engulf any leftovers I was willing to pass along. That kid was a bottomless tank. But we'll save the stories of him eating soggy leftover cereal and drinking curdled milk for another time...

Bottom line, I only like caramel corn when it is fresh and homemade. Or when it comes from the Boy Scouts - they have a couple different varieties that are pretty decent. I used to help Michael "The Bottomless Pit" Korson sell the stuff around our neighborhood when we were younger and often ended up ordering a few tins myself. Although, at nearly $14 bucks for a small tin, the purchase demolished nearly a months worth of savings from my paper route (paper kids really should form a union and demand more decent pay).

This recipe, while technically not a cookie or pastry, has been in our Christmas rotation for a couple years. It comes from my beautiful mother, who makes the greatest caramel corn I have ever eaten. We usually end up giving little decorative bags full of this stuff to neighbors and friends as Christmas gifts.

If you plan on doing that, you might want to make a double batch. It is extremely difficult to resist munching on this stuff.

Caramel Corn
from My Mom

7 quarts popped popcorn (28 cups)
2 cups dry roasted, salted peanuts
2 cups light brown sugar
1/2 cups light corn syrup
1 teaspoon salt
1 cups butter
1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoons vanilla

Preheat oven to 250 degrees.

Place popcorn and peanuts in shallow baking pans. I normally use a large roasting pan - we have a ridiculously large one that can hold a 40 pound turkey. I don't know why we own it since we have never roasted anything that big...but it works great for this. Otherwise, those large, disposable aluminum baking pans work really well.

Combine sugar, corn syrup, salt, and butter in a saucepan over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Bring to a boil and let cook 5 minutes, stirring constantly and being sure to scrape the bottom and sides of the pan. Remove from heat and stir in the vanilla and baking soda (the mixture will "poof" a bit).

Pour over the popcorn and stir. Don't worry too much about evenly coating it perfectly - it'll do that a little better after some time in the oven.

Bake 1 hour, stirring well every 15 minutes. When dried, break apart onto wax paper.


Thursday, December 15, 2011

12 Days of Christmas Baking: Fudge Brownies

Paul was getting majorly irritated with Matthew last night. I had been running some errands and walked back into the house only to be greeted by Paul pointing accusingly at Matthew and saying: "He's driving me crazy." Apparently, Matthew had been going to the diaper wipe container, removing a single wipe, rubbing it about his nose while making blowing sounds, and then promptly rushing into the kitchen to throw it into the garbage can. And then he would repeat this same routine - over and over again. By the time Paul saw what he was up to, he had gone through nearly half the package of diaper wipes. I thought it was pretty funny and think Paul was just lacking in a bit of humor that evening.

Although I shouldn't be so quick to judge Paul. Earlier in the day, I was getting pretty peeved myself at the little munchkin. Matthew is a major pain when it comes to wrapping gifts. Holy cow. I thought he would enjoy perhaps putting pieces of tape onto the seam. He's normally pretty good about helping out with little things like that. But no. He just wanted to stick the pieces of tape all over his forehead, cheeks, and tummy. Then, when I had finished wrapping a gift and put it aside to begin wrapping a new one, he would toddle over to it and begin removing the pieces of tape from himself and sticking them randomly all over the entire package. Needless to say, my wrapping job this year looks less than stellar. Then he got all mad at me because I refused to let him hold the sharp scissors. Forgive me son, but I would like to see you reach your 2nd birthday.

A lot of you are probably thinking that brownies are not a Christmas cookie. They're really not...but I don't care. I love brownies and will use any excuse to make them.

Especially these brownies.

These, at least to me, are the ultimate brownies. They are dark, rich, and intensely chocolaty. They are almost like fudge - although not quite that rich (I really don't like fudge all that much). I made a whole bunch of cookies and brownies for my brother's wedding in June and used that baking project as an opportunity to test out a lot of different brownie recipes to determine which made the best batch. These won my heart hands down. I hosted a blind taste test for Paul of all the different brownies and he chose this one as well. I have since had the opportunity to cater a couple different parties/events through my parish and these proved to be very popular.

I guess I shouldn't be too surprised I loved this brownie recipe so much. It came from the same Brooklyn bakery that conceived my beloved Root Beer Float cake. Everything I have tried from their cookbook has been incredible.

Brownies are very difficult to photograph - they definitely do not win any baked goods beauty contest. So don't be turned off by my crappy pictures. Give these a try! They might become your new favorite brownie recipe!

The Baked Brownie
from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons dark unsweetened cocoa powder (such as Hershey's Special Dark)
11 ounces dark chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 cup unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 teaspoon instant espresso powder
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
5 eggs, at room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter the sides and bottom of a 9×13-inch glass or light-colored baking pan. Line the pan with parchment paper.

In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, salt, and cocoa powder together.

Put the chocolate, butter and instant espresso powder in a large bowl and set it over a saucepan of simmering water, stirring occasionally, until the chocolate and butter are completely melted and smooth. Turn off the heat, but keep the bowl over the water and add the sugars. Whisk until completely combined, then remove the bowl from the pan. The mixture should be room temperature.

Add 3 eggs to the chocolate mixture and whisk until combined. Add the remaining eggs and whisk until combined. Add the vanilla and stir until combined. Do not overbeat the batter at this stage or your brownies will be cakey.

Sprinkle the flour mixture over the chocolate mixture. Using a rubber spatula (not a whisk), fold the flour mixture into the chocolate until just a bit of the flour mixture is visible.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake in the center of the oven for 30 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through the baking time, until a toothpick inserted into the center of the brownies comes out with a few moist crumbs sticking to it. Let the brownies cool completely, then lift them out of the pan using the parchment paper. Cut into squares and serve.

Store at room temperature in an airtight container or wrap with plastic wrap for up to 3 days.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

12 Days of Christmas Baking: Chocolate Crinkles

The best way to describe these delectable treats are "brownies in cookie form." There are a million recipes out there for chocolate crinkles, but I prefer this particular one because it does not use vegetable oil (only butter!) and includes chopped, melted chocolate in addition to the cocoa powder. It intensifies the chocolate taste of these marvelous cookies.

These are one of those cookies that make self-control truly difficult, even heroic. You might tell yourself: "I'll only have half of one as a treat." Only to go back 20 seconds later for the other half.

And then a whole second cookie.

And perhaps a third.

Why not a fourth? After all, calories don't really count during the Christmas season...

And pretty soon the whole batch is gone and you're forced to make another batch to replenish the cookie jar before your husband notices. This may or may not be a completely hypothetical scenario.

Either way, these will be a welcomed addition to your Christmas cookie tray. The perfect accompaniment to a mug of hot chocolate or a steaming latte.

Chocolate Crinkles
adapted from Dorie Greenspan

1 stick plus 2 tablespoons (10 tablespoons total) unsalted butter, cut into 10 pieces
1 1/4 cups packed light brown sugar
10 ounces bittersweet chocolate chips
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa power
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
2 large eggs

Dump the butter, sugar, and chocolate (in that order) into the bowl of your KitchenAid. Grab a pot or saucepan with a lip large enough to allow the KitchenAid bowl to snugly tilt/fit. Fill it with water and bring it to a slow simmer. Place the KitchenAid bowl over the simmering water, and gently stir the mixture with a heatproof spatula as the chocolate, butter, and sugar all melt together. Once it is completely melted, fit the mixing bowl onto the base of your mixer. Let the chocolate cool slightly.

Sift together the flour, cocoa, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and cloves.

Using the paddle attachment, beat the chocolate mixture on low speed. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well between each addition to ensure that each one is well blended. With the mixer still on low, gradually add the dry ingredients, mixing just until the dough is smooth and shiny. It will clean the sides of the bowl and form a ball. Turn the dough out onto a work surface and divide it in half. Wrap each piece in plastic wrap and chill for at least 1 hour, or up to 3 days (if the dough is solid, leave it on the counter for 30 minutes before proceeding).

Position the oven racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Take 1 tablespoon of dough at a time and roll between your hands into a firm, shiny ball. The dough may break a bit as you work, but just squeeze and mold it into a ball shape. Place the balls about 1 inch apart on the baking sheets. Lightly press each one down just a little with your fingertips.

Bake for 10-12 minutes, rotating the baking sheets from top to bottom and front to back at the midway point. The cookies should be delicately firm and crackled across the top. Be sure not to overbake. Remove the sheets from the oven and let the cookies rest on the baking sheets for 2 minutes before carefully transferring them to a wire rack to cool completely. Sprinkle sifted powdered sugar over the cookies as they cool, if desired.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

12 Days of Christmas Baking: Chocolate Babka

I first heard of a Babka while watching an episode of Seinfeld called "The Dinner Party." In the episode, Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer are all attending a dinner party hosted by a mutual friend. Elaine stops by a bakery with Jerry to purchase a chocolate babka as a gift for the hostess. After waiting in line to pick up their babka, they discover a hair perched at the top of the cake and try to exchange their chocolate babka only to discover that the bakery only has cinnamon babkas remaining, as the last chocolate babka had just been purchased by another couple on their way to the same dinner party. Reluctantly, Elaine is forced to leave with a cinnamon babka, which she describes as "a lesser babka."

A Babka is a slightly sweetened yeast dough that is generously filled with a mixture of chocolate or cinnamon-sugar before being twisted, topped with a simple streusel, and baked in a high loaf pan. They were made famous by Jewish bakers in New York City, although there are other European variations that bear no resemblance to one another.

I first baked a babka with my Mom when she came to visit after Matthew was born. Paul, Mom, and I devoured the loaf between us within a 24 hour period. The flavor was so addictively chocolaty, we could not stop cutting ourselves a slice each time we passed the loaf looking so innocently enticing while perched upon the counter top. Since then, I have tried a couple different recipes and variations of the babka and each loaf has been as wonderfully delicious as the next. It is simply perfect as a breakfast treat with a strong cup of coffee. Babkas also make wonderful Christmas gifts. Paul practically cries when he sees me packaging them up as gifts. He would much rather eat all the babka by himself. I don't let him because I love him (not that I wouldn't love him as a blimp with a cholesterol problem).

After having baked and enjoyed both types of babkas, I have determined the chocolate babka to be superior to the cinnamon version. The sweet, soft bread encompassing warm, rich swirls of chocolate seals its place as the king of all babkas. And I am sure that everyone who has tried one will agree with me. Well, everyone except maybe Jerry Seinfeld:

"Cinnamon takes a back seat to no babka. People love cinnamon. It should be on tables at restaurants along with salt and pepper. Anytime anyone says, "Oh this is so good, what's in it?" The answer invariably comes back, "Cinnamon." "Cinnamon." Again and again. Lesser babka?? I think not."

When I asked Paul what treat I should make for Saint Lucia's Day breakfast this year, he replied: "CHOCOLATE BABKA!"

In my opinion, that's the final verdict.

Chocolate Babka
adapted from Cooking Light

This is the simpler of my two favorite babka recipe. The other recipe I like to use is quite a bit more decadent and definitely more time consuming. I like the simplicity of this recipe and think that the end result is extremely rich and satisfying despite using a whopping 2 1/2 sticks of butter less than my other recipe. If you would like to try the richer babka recipe, you can find it on the Martha Stewart website.

For the Dough:
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1 package active dry yeast (about 2 1/4 teaspoons)
3/4 cup whole milk, heated to 110 degrees
6 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 large egg yolk, lightly beaten
1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/4 cups bread flour
5 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces and softened

For the Filling:
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon instant espresso powder (optional)
4 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, finely chopped

For the Streusel:
1/4 cup powdered sugar
2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons butter, chilled and cut into pieces

Dissolve 1 teaspoon granulated sugar and yeast in warm milk in the bowl of a stand mixer; let stand 5 minutes.

Stir in 6 tablespoons granulated sugar, vanilla extract, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and egg yolk. Weigh or lightly spoon flours into dry measuring cups; level with a knife. Add 1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour and bread flour to milk mixture; beat with dough hook attachment at medium speed until well blended (about 2 minutes). Add 5 tablespoons butter, beating until well blended. Scrape dough out onto a floured surface (dough will be very sticky). Knead until smooth and elastic (about 10 minutes), gradually adding about 1/3 cup all-purpose flour, 1 tablespoon at a time, to prevent dough from sticking to hands (dough will be very soft).

Place dough in a large bowl coated with cooking spray, turning to coat top. Cover and let rise 1 ½ - 2 hours or until doubled in size. Punch dough down; cover and let dough rest 5 minutes.

Line the bottom of a 9 x 5–inch loaf pan with parchment paper; coat sides of pan with cooking spray.

To prepare filling, combine 1/2 cup granulated sugar, cocoa, cinnamon, salt, and chocolate in a medium bowl; set aside.

Place dough on a generously floured surface; roll dough out into a 16-inch square. Sprinkle filling over dough, leaving a 1/4-inch border around edges. Roll up dough tightly, jelly-roll fashion; pinch seam and ends to seal. Holding dough by ends, twist dough 4 times as if wringing out a towel. Fit dough into prepared pan. Cover and let rise 45-60 minutes or until doubled in size.

Preheat oven to 350°.

To prepare streusel, combine powdered sugar and 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour. Cut in 2 tablespoon chilled butter until mixture is crumbly; sprinkle streusel evenly over dough. Bake at 350° for 40-50 minutes or until loaf is browned on bottom and sounds hollow when tapped. Cool bread in pan 10 minutes on a wire rack before removing from pan. Cool bread completely on wire rack before slicing.

Monday, December 12, 2011

12 Days of Christmas Baking: Gingerbread Blondies with White Chocolate

These are the bomb.

Chewy, gooey, gingerbread flavored blondies. These pose some serious dangers to your waistline.

Four years ago, I would have told you I hated gingerbread. When Paul suggested that we make gingerbread men the first Christmas we spent together as a married couple, I was less than enthusiastic - I might have even flat out refused. My previous memories of gingerbread men were of the individually packaged cookies my family would receive in a Hickory Farms gift basket from one of our relatives. Those were incredibly stale and tasteless. However, the first batch of homemade gingerbread cookies that we pulled from the oven was heavenly rich, warm, and slightly spicy - simply perfect with a glass of milk (or, for lactose-challenged individuals such as myself, almond milk). Ever since, they have been my absolute favorite Christmas cookie.

When I saw a recipe for these gingerbread blondies in a Martha Stewart book last winter, I knew we would love them. I made a batch for a Christmas party Paul and I attended and the entire platter disappeared. Paul was super disappointed that we did not have any leftovers, so we ended up baking another batch the next day.

And another batch the week after that. They are that good.

Give these a try.

Obviously, I have been on a roll with the bar cookies. I love how easy they are to prepare, cut, and package. Unfortunately, having exhausted the bar cookies on my list, I'm going to have to move onto batch cookies and pastries (aka recipes that require a little bit more effort). Obviously, my baking enthusiasm has not quite returned.

Gingerbread Blondies with White Chocolate
adapted from Martha Stewart

2 3/4 cups plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1 1/4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
2 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/4 cups packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 large eggs, plus 1 large egg yolk
1 1/4 teaspoons vanilla
1/3 cup molasses (not blackstrap)
10 ounces chopped white chocolate (or one bag of white chocolate chips)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line the bottom of a 13x9 baking pan with parchment and coat with cooking spray.

Whisk together flour, baking soda, salt, and spices.

Beat butter and brown and granulated sugars with a mixer on medium-high speed until pale and fluffy. Add eggs and yolk, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition and scraping down sides of bowl as needed. Beat in vanilla and molasses. Reduce speed to low. Gradually add flour mixture, and beat until just combined. Stir in white chocolate.

Spread batter into prepared pan. Bake on the middle rack of the oven until edges are golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 30-35 minutes. Let cool completely in pan on a wire rack, about 2 hours, before cutting into squares. As the blondies cool, the middle will probably sink in a little more than the sides – don’t worry about it!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

12 Days of Christmas Baking: Cranberry Crumb Bars

Since Peyton Manning has been missing from my life for the past few months, Michael Bublé has become my new homeboy. I love his new Christmas CD and have really enjoyed listening to it while baking. Paul is mildly jealous and refuses to pronounce his name correctly, referring to him as "Michael Bubbles." His misguided jealously instantly disappears as soon as he gets the chance to taste a new batch of cookies.

It's amazing we ever manage to get anything baked with how Matthew likes to entangle himself around my KitchenAid as soon as we bring it out from the cupboard...

These perfectly festive bars are a pinch to make and one of my favorite new additions to the Christmas cookie list. I first made these last year as a treat for my family and I instantly fell in love with their sweet-tart flavor. They are not cloyingly sweet which allows the tartness of the cranberries to really shine. You could definitely increase the amount of sugar you toss the cranberries in if you want to mellow their flavor a bit more. You could also try switching out the orange zest for lemon zest for an additional level of citrus flavor. Either way, give these a try!

Cranberry Crumb Bars
adapted from Good Life Eats
1 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 sticks chilled butter, cut into 1 inch cubes
1 egg
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons orange juice
1-2 tablespoons orange zest
4 cups fresh cranberries
2/3 cup sugar (or more if you want to cut the tartness)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon cornstarch

Butter a 13x9 baking pan. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Whisk together the 1 cup sugar, flour, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. Using a pastry blender, cut in the chilled butter until coarse crumbs form. The mixture will still be fairly floury. Add the egg and continue cutting in with the pastry blender. Press half the mixture into the bottom of your prepared pan. Mix the cinnamon into the remaining flour mixture.

Blend the orange juice, zest, cornstarch, and vanilla with the 2/3 cup sugar in a bowl. Stir in the cranberries. Evenly spread the cranberries over the crust. Sprinkle evenly with the reserved flour mixture.

Bake for 45-55 minutes or until the top is a light golden color. Let cool completely on a wire rack before transferring to the refrigerator to completely chill before cutting into squares.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

12 Days of Christmas Baking: Seven Layer Bars

The first Christmas cookie recipe that I managed to whip up this year is a classic straight from my Mommy's kitchen. Seven Layer Bars are probably one of the easiest and most delicious cookies ever. Every year, Mom would make these around Christmas time and they were probably my absolutely favorite cookie while growing up. Since they were such an easy cookie to make, I bravely decided to recruit these peanuts to help me make them:

Matthew had a couple of his friends over that evening. All three of them were definitely more interested in eating all the ingredients than helping me layer them into the pan. When they did venture out to help me sprinkle, they would just pile handfuls of the same ingredient in a single corner of the baking pan. At least they seemed to have fun! When all three of them returned to the living room to dance to The Animal Alphabet, I had the pleasure of rearranging their handiwork.

These cookies are dangerously rich. Cut them small and enjoy!

Seven Layer Bars
adapted from The New Best Recipe

1 cup sweetened coconut flakes
9 whole graham crackers, crushed into crumbs with a mallet
1 stick butter, melted
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 cup butterscotch chips
1 cup finely chopped walnuts
1 14-ounce can of sweetened condensed milk

Grease a 13x9 baking pan with cooking spray. Line with two perpendicular sheets of foil, allowing the excess to hang over the sides. This makes a sling that facilitates removal of the bars from the pan once they are cool.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Toss the coconut on a baking sheet and stick it in the oven for 5-8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until lightly toasted.

Increase the oven temperature to 350 degrees. In a small bowl, combine the melted butter and the graham cracker crumbs with a fork. Press the mixture into the bottom of your prepared baking pan. Sprinkle crust evenly with walnuts. Sprinkle with (in order) chocolate chips, butterscotch chips, and coconut. Pour the condensed milk evenly over the top.

Bake until the top is golden brown, about 20-25 minutes. Cool completely in the pan set over a wire rack for approximately 2 hours. Use the sling to lift the cookies out of the pan and cut into even squares. Enjoy!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Christmas Traditions

Christmas Morning 2010

Christmas traditions. Some are good. Some are not so good.

The Good

1. Celebrating the Advent season with prayers around the Advent wreath.

2. Decorating the house and tree in joyful anticipation for the birth of Jesus!

3. Being cozy in front of the fire with a mug of hot chocolate while watching the snow fall.

Little Matthew (11 months) ready to open his presents!

4. Baking cookies and other homemade goodies to be given away as Christmas presents.

5. Making cioppino and crab dip for a fancy Christmas Eve dinner.

6. Attending the beautiful midnight Christmas Mass.

7. Singing Christmas songs all season long.

The Not So Good

For some reason, these all involve Paul.

1. Dying my Almond milk green or red because it is "in the spirit of Christmas."

2. Sticking a wire reindeer on top of our tree in place of a star or an angel. "We'll be the only ones with Rudolph as a tree topper!!" he gleefully says every year. There is a reason for that, Paul.

The infamous reindeer tree topper

3. Playing Mannheim Steamroller over and over and over again. Don't get me wrong...they are very good but sometimes I like to listen to Christmas songs with lyrics.

4. Decorating Christmas cookies. I personally love decorating sugar cookies, but not with Paul. Every year, he gripes about how much he hates it the whole time and really takes the joy out of it. Last year, I suggested that we try to decorate sugar cookies to look like melting snowmen. Paul did not take the concept seriously and decorated his snowmen as if they had been run over by a truck, complete with tire tracks running across the torsos and black X marks for eyes. We'll see what he comes up with this year.

Notice one of Paul's dead snowman on the lower right. As if I even need to point it out.

5. Messing up the Au Gratin potatoes. Every single year, Paul pines for this dish to serve with our ham on Christmas day. And every single year so far, we have messed up this dish. Either the sauce curdles or the potatoes remain hard. Or both. Last year, I ended up having an emotional breakdown when I discovered the sauce had broken for a 3rd year in a row. We always blamed our faulty oven (it had trouble maintaining a 350 degree temperature). We have a new oven this year, so maybe we'll finally succeed.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Baking during Christmastime is deeply rooted in nostalgia. While we tend to test out new recipes every year, there are always a few childhood favorites that make it into the rotation. While making these old favorites, both Paul and I spend the time telling stories of Christmases gone by and old family traditions. I especially love hearing Paul tell some of his favorite memories - he just recently shared how much he enjoyed going to pick out the family Christmas tree as a little kid. Apparently, Dad would pull the kids by a sled attached to the suburban as they set out on their quest to find the perfect tree in rural Montana. Paul always thought those sled rides were so much fun. So much so that apparently, as an idiotic teenager, Paul and his intellectually-gifted buddies decided to enhance the thrill level by hooking up the sled to the back of one of their cars and then pulling it down a busy section of highway. Paul likes to give his guardian angel a run for his money.

Anyway...I finally baked my first batch of Christmas cookies yesterday. I chose a super simple recipe that pretty much involves dumping some pantry ingredients into a 13x9 pan and then putting it in the oven. Even though they were probably the easiest cookies to make, it felt good to check one of the items off my list of Christmas baking. My heart broke a little bit when Matthew refused to sample the finished product. He wanted to eat a pickle instead. He's been on a pickle kick lately and has nearly finished the 46-ounce jar of Kosher Dills I bought special for him.

While refusing to eat Mommy's cookies, Matthew LOVED the cookies sent in a package from Grandma Nistler! And I can't really blamed him because they are pretty darn delicious! He especially loves the Hershey Kiss/pretzel cookies. He has asked for one after getting up from his nap the past couple days. What a special treat it was to receive a little taste of Christmas from our Montana family!

Beginning on Saturday, I will start posting a series titled The 12 Days of Christmas Baking. This is not exactly an original blog idea (I have really not been all that creative lately) but I thought it would be a fun series to do and get me back into a blogging rhythm. Each day, I will post a different recipe from our family collection of Christmas recipes. This might be a bit ambitious considering I have only made one pan of BAR COOKIES so far...but I'm hoping the momentum continues.