Snowflake Sugar Cookies


Two years ago during the holidays I tried royal icing for the first time.  It didn’t go well.  I was hoping for cookies like you see above, and instead I got these.  Thanks to the innumerable batches of cookies I’ve made since that first attempt, my royal icing skills and decorating speed have improved, and finally I achieved the pretty snowflakes I dreamed about.


I served these for our holiday party this weekend and everyone kept commenting that they were too pretty to eat.  But eat them they did, and they were enjoyed by all.


I know a lot of cookie decorators use disco dust to add an extra twinkle to their cookies.  It is very pretty, but I don’t feel comfortable consuming or serving anything labeled, “Non-toxic, for decoration only,” so instead I found these sugar pearls and sanding sugars in my pantry and went nuts.  I loved the way these cookies turned out and they made me want to throw a whole winter wonderland-themed party.  Not sure how much the guys would like that, but I’ll keep it in mind for the future🙂


I also made a plateful of these cute little mitten cookies to coordinate with the snowflakes.  I had left over cake sparkles and used them to make the cuffs of the mittens look fuzzy.

I had such fun making and decorating these cookies, and thought I’d share for anyone needing decoration inspiration.  If you are new to royal icing, check out my tutorial to make your first attempt much more successful than my own.  For the cookies, I used this recipe.  Normally I go with a vanilla bean and lemon zest flavoring, but the almond extract is just better suited for the holidays.  These designs were inspired by two totally gorgeous pink and blue winter party concepts I found on Hostess with the Mostess.

Candy Cane Macarons for a Virtual Holiday Party


One of the most rewarding things about food blogging for me has been the wonderful friends I have made in the process.  There are a lot of really great bloggers out there, and I have become very close with some of them.  Even though we are spread all across the country, we still spend plenty of time emailing about much more than just food.  A few weeks ago as I was working on the guest list for my real life holiday party, I was thinking what a shame it was that I couldn’t invite some of the people I consider very good friends, just because we’re separated by pretty long distances.

And then I thought, who cares?  We could just have a virtual party instead!  So I emailed everyone to see if they would be interested in having a virtual party with me, and they were all game.  The idea is simple – each of us is posting something we would contribute to a holiday party.  Some made cocktails, some appetizers and some desserts.  Looking at everyone’s beautiful photos and tasty creations, it makes me really wish we could have done this in person.  (Ladies, you are always welcome in my home and we can make this a reality!)  I’ll definitely be trying each of these recipes in the future.  Below is the spread we have created together.  Click on the individual photos to be directed to the full recipes.


Tara of Smells Like Home made these beautifully festive cranberry lime bellinis.  I don’t know about you, but I enjoy just about any cocktail with cranberry and lime, so these are right up my alley.  She also shared a virgin version for those who can’t partake in the spirited variety.


Nikki of Pennies on a Platter made baked fontina.  A plate of amazing gooey melted cheese with herbs and seasonings, for eating with crusty bread?  Hello, I’m in love.  This was already on my list of recipes to try but now I think I’ll need to try it stat.


Kelsey of Apple a Day made sparkling pepper berry cocktails.  A beautiful bright red cocktail with a kick!  I’ll admit I’ve alway been a bit wary of things like desserts or cocktails including peppercorn, but if Kelsey recommends it, then I’m sure it is fabulous.


Elly of Elly Says Opa! made dolmades, a Greek dish of stuffed grape leaves.  Her version is vegetarian and includes a filling of rice and herbs.  I’ve never tried anything with grape leaves before but these look so delicious, I know I’ll be trying them soon.


Josie of Pink Parsley Catering made these gorgeous raspberry cream puffs.  Cream puffs are a wonderful dessert all on their own but the idea of filling them with raspberry pastry cream is pure genius.  And, these are definitely ideal party food since you can easily grab one (or three) with no utensils required.


And, I made the candy cane macarons you see above.  I actually did serve these at my real life holiday party which took place over the weekend, and they were a major hit.  I think it was the first time tasting French macarons for a lot of guests, and I think they are glad to have been introduced.  As usual, I was lukewarm about these because of the peppermint, but everyone else loved them and there were none leftover at the end of the night, despite me making a double batch!   The filling I used is a Swiss meringue buttercream, my favorite kind of vanilla frosting.  If you want something a little quicker, a basic vanilla buttercream would do just as well.  Or if you are a real mint lover, add a bit of peppermint extract to the frosting to enhance that flavor even more!

I had a wonderful time with this virtual holiday party and I’m very thankful for my food blogging friends.  You are all amazingly talented women and I feel lucky to know you!

Candy Cane Macarons
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Yield: about 20 macarons
Ingredients:

For the macaron shells*:
200 grams confectioners’ sugar
110 grams almonds (blanched, slivered, or sliced)
90 grams egg whites (aged at room temperature for 1 day or 3-5 days in the fridge)
25 grams granulated sugar

Please note – measuring by weight is essential for macarons, so volume measures will not be provided.

For the filling:
½ cup sugar
2 large egg whites
12 tbsp. unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ tsp. vanilla extract

For garnish:
Crushed candy canes**

* If you haven’t made macarons before, you might want to check out this post about my first time making them.  It discusses some of the basics of this sometimes finicky cookie and has some step-by-step photos that might be helpful.
**It is really important to crush your candy canes well.  All too often I see holiday desserts with large, sharp chunks of candy cane that seem more likely to draw blood than make a dessert festive and appetizing.  Plus, crushing them is so fun!  I put them in a large plastic bag, grab the meat mallet and hammer away to be sure they are evenly ground.

Directions:
To make the macaron shells, combine the confectioners’ sugar and almonds in a food processor.  Pulse until the almonds are finely ground and the mixture is well blended.  In the bowl of a mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites on medium speed until foamy.  Increase the speed to medium-high and continue to beat, gradually adding the granulated sugar.  Beat until a stiff, glossy meringue forms (do not over-beat).  Add the ground nut mixture to the bowl with the egg whites.  Fold together with a spatula until all of the dry ingredients are incorporated and the batter is thick and smooth.  (This should not take more than 50 strokes.)

Line baking sheets with silicone baking mats or parchment paper.  Fit a pastry bag with a plain round tip and pipe small rounds onto the prepared baking sheets, about 1½ inches in diameter.  Let the piped rounds sit at room temperature for 30-60 minutes to harden their shells.

Preheat the oven to 280˚ F.  Bake for 15-20 minutes.  Let cool 15-20 minutes before removing from the baking sheet.  Let cool completely before filling or storing.

To make the frosting, combine the sugar and egg whites in a heatproof bowl set over simmering water.  Heat, whisking frequently, until the mixture is hot to the touch and the sugar is completely dissolved.  Transfer to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment.  Beat on medium speed until a thick and shiny meringue has formed and the bowl is cool to the touch.  Reduce the mixer speed to medium-low.  Add in the butter 1 tablespoon at a time, waiting until each is incorporated before adding more.  Once all the butter is incorporated, increase the speed to medium-high and beat until thick and smooth.  (The mixture may look soupy or curdled but it will come together eventually – just keep beating!)  Blend in the vanilla.

To assemble the macarons, pair up the shells by size.  Add the finished frosting to a pastry bag fitted with a plain round tip.  Pipe a small round of frosting onto the flat side of one shell from each pair.  Sandwich together with the other shell and push gently together so that the frosting reaches the edges of the cookies.  Place the crushed candy canes in a shallow dish.  Gently roll the assembled macarons in the crushed candy canes so they adhere to the frosting.

Source: Tartlette

Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Biscotti


In my house, holiday baking has become quite the production.  It requires a huge amount of time, energy, and organization.  I tend to make about five different treats to include in the bags for the sake of variety.  Then there is always the matter of making enough batches of each item so that every goody bag gets a decent amount.  I end up doing a lot of math – not my favorite.  I’m actually thinking of changing my game plan for next year, and spreading it out over the course of a week, working on one item each day.

Biscotti are one treat that I include in the bags every year.  Though the flavor varies, I think it’s ideal for several reasons.  First, they are easy to make.  When you make this many gift bags, the treats need to be on the easier side to keep it manageable.  Second, the biscotti keep very well, making them greatl for giving away and shipping when necessary.  Finally, they are a lovely compliment to the bags of hot cocoa mix included in each bag.  I considered a multitude of flavors of biscotti, and when I consulted Ben, the choice was made instantly – peanut butter chocolate biscotti.  This classic flavor pair is irresistible to a lot of people, and there was nothing else peanut buttery in the bags.  Thank goodness for the corner pieces of biscotti.  We were very happy to get to sample a few of these ourselves.

For those readers who have been asking, the final breakdown of my holiday baking went like this:
Vanilla Bean Caramels – 2 batches
Peppermint Brownies – 4 large pans
Hot Chocolate Mix – 2 batches
French Butter Cookies – 5-6 batches
Peanut Butter Chocolate Biscotti – 3 batches

I hope everyone is having as much fun in their kitchens as I am this month.  It’s tiring, but so fun and so worth it!

Side note – Today is the last holiday giveaway – a super cute apron from Anthropologie!  See the Facebook page to enter – details will be posted before 8 am.

Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Biscotti
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Yield: about 30 biscotti
Ingredients:
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
6 tbsp. unsalted butter, at room temperature
¾ cup creamy peanut butter
1 cup sugar
2 tsp. vanilla extract
3 large eggs
1 cup mini chocolate chips (or chopped dark chocolate)

Additional chocolate, for drizzling (optional)

Directions:
Preheat the oven to 350˚ F.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.  In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and salt.  Whisk to blend.  In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the butter, peanut butter and sugar.  Beat on medium-high speed until fluffy and smooth, 1-2 minutes.  Blend in the vanilla.  Beat in the eggs one at a time, scraping down the bowl as needed between additions.  With the mixer on low speed, blend in the dry ingredients just until incorporated.  Stir in the chocolate chips or chocolate chunks until evenly distributed.

Divide the dough in half.  Shape into logs on the prepared baking sheet, about 11- by 3-inches in size, spacing at least 3 inches apart.  Bake for 30 minutes.  Remove the pan from the oven while maintaining the oven temperature.  Let the logs cool for 10 minutes.  Slice the logs diagonally into slices about ½- to ¾-inch thick.  Lay the slices, cut side down, on the baking sheet.  Bake, turning once, until the slices are slightly crisp, about 20-30 minutes more.   Transfer to a cooling rack and let cool completely.  If desired, drizzle cooled biscotti with additional melted chocolate.  Let set before serving.

Source: adapted from The Chocolate Peanut Butter Gallery, originally from The Peanut Butter & Co. Cookbook

Eggnog Cupcakes


Eggnog seems to be one of those polarizing things.  You either love it or you hate it.  After spending most of my childhood on the fence and feeling unsure, I now definitely love it.  I mean, not so much I drink glasses and glasses of it, but enough that I look forward to enjoying it during the holidays.  I also look forward to finding other ways to use it, particularly in baked goods.  These cupcakes are not new to the blog, but this year I decided to revamp them slightly and make a sturdier frosting to top them.  If you are in the “yea eggnog” camp, you will like these cupcakes.  The cake is light and fluffy, and the creamy eggnog frosting is the perfect compliment.  I’m really happy with the updated version and thought I would share for those of you who can’t get enough of this seasonal treat!

Side note – Today’s holiday giveaway is a year’s subscription to either Cook’s Illustrated or Cook’s Illustrated Entertaining – your pick!  See the Facebook page to enter.  Details will be posted before 7 am.  Good luck!


Eggnog Cupcakes
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Yield: about 18-20 cupcakes
For the cupcakes:
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
¼ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. freshly ground nutmeg
¼ cup dark rum or bourbon (optional)
1 cup eggnog
¼ cup vegetable or canola oil
1 tbsp. apple cider vinegar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup sugar

For the frosting:
20 tbsp. unsalted butter, at room temperature
2½ cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
Pinch of salt
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
2½ tbsp. eggnog
1 tbsp. dark rum (0ptional)

For garnish:
Ground cinnamon or grated nutmeg
Cinnamon sticks

Directions:
To make the cupcakes, preheat the oven to 350˚ F.  Line cupcake pans with paper liners.  In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt and nutmeg; whisk to combine.  In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the rum, eggnog, vegetable oil, vinegar, and sugar.  Beat on medium-low speed until well blended.  Add in the dry ingredients and mix on low speed just until incorporated.

Divide the batter between the prepared cupcake liners, filling the cups 2/3 full.  Bake 22-24 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.  Allow to cool in the pan 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

To make the frosting, place the butter in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment.  Beat on medium-high speed until smooth, 20-30 seconds.  Add in the powdered sugar, salt and nutmeg, and mix on medium-high speed until incorporated and smooth, about 1 minute.  Scrape down the sides of the bowl.  Add in the eggnog and  whip on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, 4 minutes.  With the mixer on medium-low speed, blend in the rum.

Fill a pastry bag with the frosting and decorate the cooled cupcakes as desired. (I used a large, unlabeled star tip for these cupcakes). Sprinkle with ground cinnamon or grated nutmeg, and garnish with cinnamon sticks if desired.

Source: cupcakes adapted from Baking Bites, frosting adapted from Cook’s Illustrated

French-Style Stuffed Chicken Breasts


This meal was so fantastic, I wanted to share it with you immediately after eating.  I couldn’t stop thinking about it the rest of the evening after eating, and I wished it were on the menu for the following evening as well.  All signs of a great dish, I tell you.  It is definitely a meal that is nice enough to serve to guests, but I loved it so much I’m sure we’ll enjoy it on plenty of regular weeknights as well.  This may seem a bit complicated but I assure you, it’s easier than it may seem and definitely worth any extra effort it does require.

The chicken breasts are filled with a mixture of mushrooms, leeks and fresh herbs as well as very finely processed chicken tenderloins which help keep the filling cohesive, sturdy and moist.  The dish is finished off with an unbelievable pan sauce that is full of flavor.  Please, please don’t skip the sauce – it is what takes this meal from good to great.

Side note – Today’s giveaway is one of my most used and most loved kitchen items, a mechanical pastry bag from Williams Sonoma.  I actually just purchased a new one because after four years, I finally wore out my old one with so much use!  See the Facebook page to enter.  Details will be posted before 8 am.

French-Style Stuffed Chicken Breasts
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Ingredients:
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (8 oz. each)
3 tbsp. vegetable or canola oil
8 oz. baby bella mushrooms, sliced thin
1 small leek, white part halved lengthwise and chopped (about 1 cup)
2-3 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
½ tsp. minced fresh thyme leaves
1 tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice, divided
½ cup dry white wine
1 tbsp. chopped fresh parsley, divided
¾ tsp. salt
½ tsp. pepper
1 cup low-sodium chicken broth
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
2 tbsp. unsalted butter

Directions:
If your chicken breasts have the tenderloin attached, remove the tenderloins and set aside.  Using a sharp knife, butterfly each chicken breast horizontally, almost all the way through but not quite, leaving the two halves attached like the pages of a book.  Open up the butterflied breasts and lay them out flat.  Place each piece of chicken, laid out flat, in a large zipper-lock bag one at a time.  Pound the chicken pieces to ¼-inch thickness.  Trim about 1½ inch from the long side of the cutlets, to remove about 1½ to 2 ounces per piece of chicken.  (Use the reserved tenderloins in place of or in addition to the trimmings to equal about ½ cup total reserved chicken pieces.)  Process the trimmings in a food processor until smooth, about 20 seconds.  Transfer the puree to a medium bowl.  Do not wash out the bowl of the food processor.

To make the stuffing, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally, until all moisture has evaporated and the mushrooms are golden brown, about 8-11 minutes.  Add an additional tablespoon of oil as well as the leek; cook, stirring frequently, until softened, 2-4 minutes.  Mix in the garlic and thyme and cook just until fragrant, about 30 seconds.  Add 1½ teaspoons of the lemon juice and cook until the moisture has evaporated, about 30 seconds.   Transfer the mixture to the bowl of the food processor.  Return the pan to the heat; add the wine and scrape the pan to loosen browned bits.  Transfer the wine mixture to a small bowl and set aside.  Turn off the heat on the pan.

Pulse the mushroom mixture in the food processor until roughly chopped, about five 1-second pulses.  Transfer the mushroom mixture to the bowl with the pureed chicken.  Mix in half of the parsley, and the salt and pepper.  Use a spatula to fold together the stuffing ingredients until well combined.

With the chicken breasts laid out flat, spread a quarter of the filling mixture over each of the breasts, leaving a clear edge around the perimeter.  Roll up each breast as tightly as possible without squeezing out the filling and place seam-side down.  Tie evenly with 3 pieces of twine around each chicken breast.

Season the chicken pieces with salt and pepper.  Heat the remaining tablespoon of oil in skillet over medium-high heat until just smoking.  Add the chicken bundles and brown on all sides, about 2 minutes per side.  Add the broth and reserved wine mixture to the pan and bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook until a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the chicken reads 160˚ F, about 12-18 minutes.  Transfer to a plate or cutting board and tent loosely with foil.

While the chicken is resting, whisk the mustard into the cooking liquid.  Bring the heat to a high simmer, scraping the pan bottom to loosen browned bits.  Simmer until reduced to ½ cup, about 7-10 minutes.  Off the heat, whisk in the butter, remaining parsley and lemon juice.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Remove the pieces of twine, slice the chicken pieces on a slight diagonal, and serve with sauce spooned over the top.

Source: Cook’s Illustrated, May/June 2008

Peppermint Brownies


In honor of the chocolate-mint combo that 99% of people seem to adore, I made these brownies.  Even though they would never be my first choice dessert, I knew “normal” people would enjoy them, particularly at the holidays.  The pretty red and white chopped Candy Cane Kisses melted on top dress up regular ol’ brownies and make them cute and festive for the season.  The good news for me is that the mint flavor is not overpowering at all.  These are still first and foremost a moist, fudgy brownie, and the peppermint flavor is more of an afterthought.  Ben and I thought the balance was just right, but if you want more of a mint kick then double the peppermint extract in the recipe.  Speaking of the recipe, I now know it by heart after making 8(!) batches for holiday baking.  But really it was just 4 batches – I don’t consider an 8×8-inch pan of brownies to be a full batch, no siree!  A 9×13-inch pan is more like it.  And I don’t think your friends, family, neighbors or coworkers will be disappointed you made some extras🙂

Side note – today’s holiday giveaway is a copy of one of my very favorite cookbooks, The New Best Recipe.  See the Facebook page to enter.  Details will be posted before 7 am.  Good luck!

Peppermint Brownies
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Yield: 1 9×13-inch pan (about 36 brownies)
Ingredients:
8 oz. unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped
1½ cups unsalted butter
3 cups sugar
6 large eggs
1½ tsp. peppermint extract
1 tsp. vanilla extract
½ tsp. salt
2 cups all-purpose flour
4 (1.55 oz) milk chocolate bars, broken into segments
1 bag Hershey’s Candy Cane Kisses, wrappers removed and coarsely chopped

Directions:
Preheat the oven to 350° F.  Line a 9×13-inch baking pan with foil and spray lightly with cooking spray.

Combine the chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl set over simmering water; heat, stirring occasionally, until completely melted and smooth.  Remove from the heat.  In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the chocolate mixture with the sugar and eggs until well blended.  Whisk in the peppermint and vanilla extracts and the salt.  Whisk in the flour just until incorporated.

Spread half of the brownie batter into the prepared pan.  Layer with the milk chocolate pieces.  Spread the remaining batter evenly over the milk chocolate pieces.  Bake 30-35 minutes.

Remove the brownies from the oven but maintain the oven temperature.  Sprinkle the chopped Candy Cane Kisses over the top of the brownies and return the pan to the oven for 3 more minutes.  Transfer to a wire cooling rack and let cool to room temperature.  Chill the brownies until the candy topping has firmed up.  Slice and serve.

Source: slightly adapted from My Baking Addiction

Herbed Turkey Meatballs with Cranberry Sauce


Are your teeth aching from the sweets that abound this time of year?  (I know, I know, I’m partly to blame.)  Are you already missing the flavors of Thanksgiving, or maybe you still have some cranberry sauce without a purpose?  Or, maybe you are just looking for a quick and healthy weeknight meal?  This dish helps satisfy any or all of those problems!  I had leftover cranberry sauce, some celery and a variety of fresh herbs after Thanksgiving and they needed to be used quickly, so I decided to give these meatballs a try.

This is a pretty cool hybrid of meatballs, a classic comfort food, with the flavors of turkey day.  Served with some mashed potatoes and broccoli, this was a great dinner with the flavors of a holiday meal minus all the fuss.  As with many dishes including fresh herbs, you can adjust the herbs to suit your tastes and what you happen to have on hand.  I used a combination of fresh thyme, rosemary and parsley with a touch of dried oregano.  All three of us really enjoyed this dinner, and I think it will be a nice addition to the weeknight repertoire.

Side note: Today’s holiday giveaway is one of the few kitchen unitasker items I just can’t live without – a Whirley Pop!  Enter on the Facebook page (details will be posted before 7 am).

Herbed Turkey Meatballs with Cranberry Sauce
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Ingredients:
1 tbsp. butter
1/3 cup yellow onion, finely chopped
1/3 cup celery, finely chopped
1 lb. ground turkey
1 cup bread crumbs (I used panko)
1 large egg
2 tsp. minced fresh thyme
2 tsp. minced fresh parsley
½ tsp. minced fresh rosemary
¼ tsp. dried oregano
½ tsp. poultry seasoning*
½ tsp. kosher salt
¼ tsp. black pepper
Cranberry sauce, for serving

Directions:
Preheat the oven to 425° F and lightly grease a baking sheet, or line with parchment paper.  Melt the butter in a small skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the onion and celery and cook just until softened, about 4-5 minutes.  Remove from the heat and set aside to cool slightly.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the celery and onion, ground turkey, bread crumbs, egg, fresh and dried herbs, poultry seasoning, salt and pepper.  Mix together until well combined.  Form the mixture into evenly sized meatballs, about 1½ inches in diameter.  Place the meatballs, evenly spaced, on the prepared baking sheet.

Bake 10-15 minutes, until completely cooked through.  Serve warm with cranberry sauce on the side.

*I usually have a poultry seasoning blend on hand, but if you don’t, you can make your own with spices you may already have.

Source: Williams Sonoma via Pink Parsley