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
Printer-Friendly Version

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
Printer-Friendly Version

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
Printer-Friendly Version

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

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
Printer-Friendly Version

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

Vanilla Bean Caramels


This weekend was an honest to goodness baking marathon for me.  I baked for nearly two days straight with very little sleep.  But finally I’m sitting down, and I just couldn’t wait to tell you about these caramels.  They may not be the snazziest of holiday treats, but in my book it just doesn’t get much better than really good caramels.  These sweet, chewy candies have flecks of vanilla bean throughout and a touch of fleur de sel that almost sparkles on top.

I think candy making is such fun – there is just something so gratifying about making your own caramels.  It really doesn’t require much effort, just some patience and a candy thermometer.  In fact, I pull up a barstool to the stove, grab a good book and sit reading next to the stove, monitoring and stirring occasionally while the sugar works its magic.  I think anyone would be thrilled to receive these as a holiday gift.  And I’m thrilled to have a few left over to enjoy myself 🙂


Side note – My series of holiday giveaways is starting today on the Facebook page.  Details will be posted before 7 am.  Enter to win a copy of Martha Stewart’s Cupcakes!

Vanilla Bean Caramels with Fleur de Sel
Printer-Friendly Version

Yield: 64 caramels
Ingredients:
1 cup heavy cream
5 tbsp. unsalted butter
½ tsp. vanilla extract
1 vanilla bean pod, split lengthwise and scraped
1¼ tsp. fleur de sel, plus more for sprinkling
1½ cups sugar
¼ cup light corn syrup
¼ cup water

Directions:
Line the bottom and sides of an 8-inch square baking dish with parchment paper.  Lightly butter the parchment.

In a small saucepan, combine the cream, butter, vanilla extract, vanilla bean seeds, pods, and fleur de sel.  Heat over medium-high heat and bring to a boil.  Remove from the heat and set aside.

In a medium saucepan, combine the sugar, corn syrup, and water.  Heat over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally until the sugar is dissolved.  Boil, without stirring but gently swirling the pan occasionally, until the mixture is a light golden caramel color.

Remove the vanilla bean pods from the cream mixture and carefully stir the cream mixture into the caramel – the mixture will bubble up, so pour slowly and stir constantly.  Continue simmering the mixture until it registers 248˚ F on a candy thermometer.  Immediately remove from the heat and pour into the prepared pan.  Let cool for 30 minutes, then sprinkle lightly with additional fleur de sel.  Continue to let sit until completely set and cooled.  Cut into 1-inch pieces (a buttered pizza cutter works well).  Wrap the individual caramels in small pieces of wax paper, about 4-inch squares.

Source: Confections of a Foodie Bride

French Butter Cookies


Does this type of cookie look familiar to you?  You know, those tins you buy at the store around the holidays filled with really yummy, slightly crumbly butter cookies?  Guess what?  You can make them at home.  I’m pretty overjoyed about this myself.  I’m normally not one to buy cookies from the store, but any time one of those tins appears at my dad’s house I’m all over it.  There is something about them that is totally irresistible.  I’ve been wanting to make these since last winter but never got around to it.  So many things to bake, so little time!

Of course I know I can always count on Cook’s Illustrated for a stellar recipe and they certainly delivered in this case.  The dough requires very few ingredients, but in the usual Cook’s Illustrated fashion, they have included a special technique to take the recipe to the next level.  In this case, that step is using a soft-boiled egg yolk in the dough.  It sounds a little weird, I know, and I was very skeptical.  Now I don’t know if it really matters because I haven’t tried these without the soft boiled yolk but I can say that I think these cookies are just perfect.  The buttery flavor and slightly sandy texture are spot on.

The article includes a recipe for a basic sablé dough, as well as numerous variations for a range of other shapes and flavorings.  As you can see, I tried a few of these variations myself: the basic sablé, chocolate swirls, vanilla pretzels and chocolate sandwiches.  And let me tell you, I loved every single one of them.  Like, really loved them and didn’t want to share them.  I try not to be overly effusive so you know when a recipe really stands out for me – this is one of those times.  Another huge plus is that the dough for all of these is formed into logs, chilled in the freezer, then sliced and baked (obviously the pretzels are shaped after chilling).  This means they are really convenient for holiday baking because you can make and freeze the dough ahead of time, and then bake when needed.  I still have more than half of these batches in my freezer waiting to be included in this year’s treat bags.  But I really just want to eat them myself.  I love these cookies!

French Butter Cookies
Printer-Friendly Version

Yield: about 40 cookies
Ingredients:
For the dough:
1 large egg
10 tbsp. unsalted butter, softened
1/3 cup plus 1 tbsp. (2¾ oz.) sugar
¼ tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1½ cups (7½ oz.) unbleached all-purpose flour

To finish:
1 large egg white, lightly beaten with 1 tsp. water
Turbinado sugar, for sprinkling

Directions:
Place the egg in a small saucepan and cover with 1 inch of water.  Bring to a boil.  Once boiling, remove from the heat, cover and let sit 10 minutes.  Meanwhile fill a small bowl with ice water.  Use a slotted spoon to transfer the egg to the ice water and let stand 5 minutes.  Crack the egg and peel away the shell.  Separate the yolk from the white; discard the white.  Press the yolk through a fine mesh sieve into a small bowl.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the butter, sugar, salt and cooked egg yolk.  Beat on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes, scraping down the bowl as needed.  Turn the mixer to low, add the vanilla and mix until incorporated.  Add the flour and mix on low speed just until combine, about 30 seconds.  Use a spatula to press the dough into a cohesive mass.

Divide the dough in half and roll each piece into a log about 6 inches long and 1¾ inches in diameter.  Wrap each log in a piece of parchment or wax paper.  Twist the ends to seal and firmly compact the dough into a tight cylinder.  Chill in the freezer until firm, about 1 hour.  (At this point, the dough can be stored in a freezer bag and frozen for up to 2 weeks.)

To bake, preheat the oven to 350 ˚F.  Line baking sheets with parchment paper.  Using a chef’s knife, slice the dough into ¼-inch thick rounds, rotating the dough log every few slices so that it does not become misshapen.  Place the cookies 1 inch apart on the prepared baking sheets.  Brush lightly with the egg white mixture and sprinkle evenly with turbinado sugar.

Bake until the centers of the cookies are pale golden and the edges are slightly darker, about 15 minutes, rotating the baking sheets halfway through baking.  Cool on the baking sheets about 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Variations:
Vanilla Pretzel Cookies
Follow the recipe for French Butter Cookies, increasing the vanilla extract to 1 tablespoon and reducing the chilling time to 30 minutes.  Slice the dough into rounds as instructed.  Form each round into a ball.  Roll into a 6-inch long rope with tapered ends.  Twist into a pretzel shape.  Brush with the egg white mixture, sprinkle with turbinado sugar and bake as instructed.

Chocolate Sandwich Cookies
Follow the recipe for French Butter Cookies.  Slice the dough into 1/8-inch thick rounds.  Omit the egg wash and sprinkling sugar.  Bake the cookies as directed, reducing the baking time to 10-13 minutes.  When all the cookies are completely cool, melt dark or semisweet chocolate, spread a thin layer onto one cookie and sandwich with another cookie.  Let sit until the chocolate has set completely.

Black and White Spiral Cookies
Make one batch of French Butter Cookie dough.  Make a batch of chocolate dough by following the recipe for French Butter Cookies, reducing the flour to 1 1/3 cups and adding ¼ cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder with the flour.


To form the spiral cookies, halve each batch of dough.


Roll out each portion on lightly floured parchment or wax paper into a 6- by 8-inch rectangle, ¼-inch thick.  If the dough is at all soft, chill until firm enough to handle.


Place one rectangle of the chocolate dough on top of one rectangle of the plain dough.


Roll out the stacked dough into a 6- by 9-inch rectangle.  Starting at the long end, roll each stack into a tight log.  Twist the ends of the parchment and chill for 1 hour.  Omit the egg wash and sprinkling sugar.  Slice and bake as directed.

Source: Cook’s Illustrated Entertaining, Holiday 2010