I love baking. I learned to bake long before I learned to cook "proper" food. Of course, when I was really tiny, "baking" meant helping mom or dad gather the ingredients, and then diligently licking the bowl clean once the real baker was through with their work. Over time, I learned the non-dough-licking joys of baking. The actual combining of ingredients (so that's where the dough comes from!), shaping or rolling cookies (not all of them making it into the oven . . . ), fighting with yeast (possibly the most spiteful helpful organism with which a baker interacts). I knew I "graduated" with my beginner-baker degree the day I was first able to successfully make our family's yeast-based dill bread.
Despite my love of baking, I rarely actually make baked goods anymore. For one, it's much harder for me to clean out a bowl without losing all of my appetite for dinner. It's also much harder for me to eat 5 -- let alone 1! -- post-oven cookies without gaining roughly 20 pounds. Yes, my body defies the laws of physics and biology. So, baking now just means I end up with more cookies than I know what to do with. Unless, of course, it is Christmas. One of the reasons why Christmas has remained my #1 holiday is that I get to bake for days on end, and then give all of the beautiful cookies away before they do too much damage to my waistline!
So what do bake-a-holics do when they break their baking fast? Last Christmas, I made candy cane cookies, cinnamon sugar crispies, molasses spice cookies, candy cane biscotti, chocolate-dipped toffee, and inside-out peppermint bark.
Candy Cane Cookies (from the book, Santa's Favorite Cookies):
I made these without the icing -- and I'm pretty sure I used actual eggs. I also don't have almond extract (how do I not have this stuff? Bizarre!), so I used peppermint extract instead. I figured, hey, they're candy cane cookies, how could peppermint flavor hurt? Turns out that using just 1 tsp of peppermint extract in conjunction with the vanilla extract actually lends an extremely subtle -- almost unnoticeable, really -- minty flavor to the cookies. These bad boys definitely do take a little time to make, what with the refrigeration, the two dough colors, the twisting, etc., but they're not "hard" in the sense of being easy to screw up. Also? Beautiful presentation. Everyone who received these cookies thought they were just the cutest things. If you have the time to devote to making them, they're a pretty addition to your holiday gift basket.
Cinnamon Sugar Crispies:
These cookies were the first cookies I ever learned to bake by myself, back before I experienced life outside of my parents' house. They have been present in every single Christmas cookie gift basket since I learned how to make them. Not only are they super easy to make (and not mess up!), but everyone loves them. When my dad's mom was still alive, they were her favorite cookie; we would always sneak extra into her cookie box.
I do a couple of things slightly differently than specified in the original recipe. First, I ever-so-slightly under cook these guys (8-10 rather than 10-14 minutes). You want them cooked through, but not browned or too crunchy. Take it from me, these are best when they are still soft inside. I also have never once used the nuts -- but that's probably a matter of personal preference. I, for some unknown reason, absolutely hate nuts in cookies, candy, brownies, cakes, you name it. If you love nuts as much as I hate them, though, I'm sure you would adore them on these cookies. Regardless, these are a must-try!
Comfort: 10 (sorry, tied to my childhood, which means it's a totally biased rating of 10 from me!)
Molasses Spice Cookies (from the book, Santa's Favorite Cookies):
I love molasses. I will sneak it into everything I can, from french toast to caramel popcorn. So, when I saw these cookies in one of my go-to Christmas cookie books, I knew I had to make them. Every year. And I have -- in large part because the boy LOVES these cookies more than anything else I make. As you can see from the photo, something weird happened with them last Christmas and they didn't bake as "pretty" as they usually do. Don't worry, though, they were still delicious, and are totally worth adding to your cookie list at least once.
Candy Cane Biscotti:
I had never tried to make biscotti before last Christmas. And to be honest with you, I was pretty terrified--biscotti is so pretty, and has that oh-so-distinctive shape, so I thought it must also be very difficult to make. Turns out that I was totally wrong -- like those candy cane cookies, this beautiful biscotti is somewhat time-consuming, but not at all hard to make. And, like those cookies, the biscotti really beautifies and diversifies your Christmas cookie gift basket presentation.
When I made these, I added peppermint extract to the white chocolate. I think this might have been a bad idea -- something that I put in that chocolate (presumably the extract, as I don't recall adding anything else!) changed its consistency, making it very difficult to dip the biscotti in. So, I didn't end up being able to dip all of the biscotti in the chocolate. Despite that snafu, these were a total success. Light, slightly crunchy but still somewhat soft, lightly pepperminty
I first made this toffee several years ago, before I had a candy thermometer. I am still not sure how I managed that, but it worked out great both then and last year, when I was finally able to break in my new thermometer. Toffee, it turns out, is another easier-than-expected recipe. Very few ingredients go in, and the only real "trick" is getting the toffee to the correct temperature.
The main change I made with this recipe is that I totally dunked the toffee in chocolate rather than sprinkling a little on top. To dunk the toffee, I first broke it up into pieces after it cooled down. Then, I melted nice chocolate (usually Ghirardelli) in a double-boiler. I dropped each piece, one at a time, into the melted chocolate, flipped it with a fork to coat with chocolate on both sides, then removed it with the fork to a different wax-paper lined pan to cool. If anyone has recommendations to speed up or improve that process, please let me know!
Inside-Out Peppermint Bark:
"But why inside-out peppermint bark?", you may be asking yourself. The answer to that question is less profound than one might hope -- it's only because I wasn't paying attention and melted the white chocolate first. Whoops!
Peppermint bark is another candy that needs to be added to the "too easy to be true" list. Just melt one chocolate, let set, pour other melted chocolate (with mint extract!) on top, then sprinkle on crushed candy canes. Voila! Delicious, addictive peppermint bark. If you've always wanted to include candies in your cookie gift boxes, but have been too scared to try because candy can be (let's face it) intimidating, you should try out this recipe next year.
All of these recipes are delicious, and, importantly, feature different ingredients so that most tastes can be satisfied. So, any and all of these recipes are worth trying out if you love to bake. As for me, some of these will be making a comeback this year -- like the peppermint bark -- but many will be rotated out to make room for one of the other recipes I'll having been waiting 12 months to try.