11 December 2010

Op ALPHABET SOUP: H is for Holidays

First of all, I definitely owe an apology for the delay between posts. If the point of a blog is to provide frequent content changes, I'm failing rather dismally at being a blogger. The reality of my life in the last five or six weeks is that I'm either at work, at home working after hours, or thinking about work. Doesn't leave much room for anything and certainly the blog has suffered for that.

But here I am, blogging while I think about work.

Today's post, then, is very à propos. Obviously, I need a break. And with Christmas just a couple of weeks away, it's definitely coming. In addition to giving us all a little time off – with family and friends, ideally – holidays bring out the culinary skills and tendencies of even the most reluctant cooks.

Holiday cooking is about comfort food, as much as it's about feeding a crowd. Whether it's parties with coworkers or friends and neighbours, or the giant turkey dinner with extended family, it's a chance to dust off the tried and true recipes in your repertoire, as well as branching out.

As usual, our humble kitchen has been a hub for some high volume holiday baking and cooking. The freezers are full of decadent treats, waiting to supply a couple of work-related parties and family functions.

Whether you're in the kitchen for days or hours, there are some ways to vary up both the new recipes and the family classics to give them your own twist. You might be craving great-grandma's shortbread, or you might want to tweak it to your liking. Below are three great baking recipes, new and old, which make the holidays delectable as well as dependable.

This is based on my great-grandmother's shortbread recipe. You could make them as simple shortbread cookies, but I'm a real fan of the toffee bits!

1 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup icing sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour (don't substitute any other kind!)
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1/3 cup Skor or similar toffee chips
1/2 teaspoon vanilla (optional)

Preheat your oven to 325 degrees.

Using a hand mixer beat the butter and icing sugar until fluffy. Add vanilla if you are using it.

In a separate bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder and salt with a fork. Add this mixture to the butter and sugar, mixing in with the beaters until it passes from crumbly bits to more significant clumps, which takes a few minutes. Add the toffee bits and mix about 1 more minute. Using your hands, you should be able to form the mixture into a large ball. Split the dough ball into two pieces, and put the bowl with the dough in it into the fridge. You'll need to chill it for about ten minutes.

Take two cookie sheets, and cover each with a sheet of parchment paper (if you don't have any, you can grease the cookie sheets with lots of butter instead, and lower your oven to 300 degrees). It's also time to wipe your counter, dry it well, and dust it lightly with flour. Grab a rolling pin, if you have one, and dust it with flour as well (you can improvise a rolling pin from a wine bottle, if need be).

Remove your dough from the fridge, and put one on the counter. Roll it out to about 1/4 inch thick. You can go thicker if you prefer, but don't go any thinner. Using cookie cutters, a knife, or a pizza wheel, cut into cookies of any shape. Roll up the scraps, repeating the process until you've used up all your dough. If it gets too sticky to roll out at any point, just throw it back in the fridge for about 5 or 10 minutes.

Place the cookies on your prepared cookie sheet. You only need to leave about 1/4 inch between cookies, as they do not expand.

Bake for 11 to 14 minutes (the longer times are for larger cookies). You need to keep an eye on the cookies as they top 11 minutes to be sure they aren't browning.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool on the pan, then remove carefully to a container with an airtight lid. Keep for a couple of weeks in a cool dry place, or freeze for up to three months. Makes several dozen cookies.

For a simple but delicious variation, omit the toffee, and use vanilla instead. Slit a whole vanilla bean lengthwise, and scrape out the sticky insides, mixing with your butter. You'll get a vanilla flavour to die for, with the delicate but telltale specks of vanilla seed showing on the very white shortbread cookies.

These are absolutely addictive. I used to think peanut butter wasn't much of a seasonal thing for Christmas, but it turns out everyone falls all over chocolate-peanut butter treats at any time of year.

If you ever buy those "two-bite brownies" you'll want to try these (made in mini-muffin tins, as per below) instead -- they're a lot more flavourful and are really easy to make!

2 squares semi-sweet chocolate (2 oz)
1/4 cup peanut butter (smooth or chunky)
1/4 cup butter
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 Tbsp cocoa
1/2 cup flour
1/2 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp salt

1/2 cup chocolate chips (or peanut butter chips)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Over very low heat, melt the squares of chocolate in a small saucepan. Stir often, and turn off the heat when it's just short of fully melted (the heat in the pan will melt the rest of the chocolate).

Meanwhile, using a hand or stand mixer, beat the butter, sugar, peanut butter until fluffy. Add the egg and cocoa, mixing thoroughly. Add the melted chocolate and blend in.

In a separate bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder and salt. Add to the mixer bowl, and stir in until completely blended and smooth. Gently fold in the chocolate chips.

Transfer to a well greased 8x8 inch baking dish lined with foil – spray the foil with cooking spray as well, once it is in the pan. If you want the proverbial "two-bite brownie", pour into very well-greased mini-muffin tins (or better yet, line the tins with mini-cupcake papers that have been sprayed lightly on the inside with non-stick cooking spray.

Bake the square pan for about 30 minutes, or the mini-muffin tins for about 15 minutes. The centre should be firm but not completely hard.

Cool on a rack. If using mini-muffin tins, after about 3 minutes of cooling, turn them upside down on racks, and then remove the tins after about 15 minutes (remove any stuck brownies by gently working around them with a knife).

For the larger square pan, set on a rack and allow to cool 15 minutes before removing the brownies by pulling the foil edges, and then peel the foil off before slicing to desired size.

Brownies will store in an airtight container for 5 to 7 days, or freeze wonderfully.

These are the softest, thinnest ginger cookies I've ever made, and since that's my favourite kind of ginger cookie, they're the ones I make just about every year.

3/4 cup unsalted butter (at room temperature)
1 cup brown sugar
1 egg
1/4 cup molasses
1 3/4 cups all purpose flour (or split to 3/4 c whole wheat and 1 c all purpose)
1 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp ground ginger
2 tsp baking soda
Optional: 1/3 cup roughly chopped crystallized ginger

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Line some cookie sheets with parchment paper.

With an electric mixer, in a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar for about 2 minutes. Add the egg and molasses and beat for another 30 seconds or so.

In another bowl, stir together the flour, spices, salt and baking soda with a fork.

Add about half of this mixture to the molasses mix, and blend. Add the rest of the dry ingredients and blend again until thoroughly mixed. If you're adding the crystallized ginger, mix it into the last part of the flour mixture

Put some granulated (aka white) sugar on a small plate. Using your hands, roll the cookie dough into small (approximately 1") balls, rolling lightly in the sugar before placing on the cookie sheets you prepared earlier. Leave a couple of inches between your cookies, as they do spread. No need to flatten the cookies before they bake, but if you're compelled to do it, just give them a little push down with your hand before you bake them. Resist the urge to really flatten them out.

Fill your cookie sheets, then throw the rest of the cookie dough into the fridge while you wait to do another round. This keeps the dough from getting too sticky to roll into balls.

Bake for about 11 minutes. As you pull the trays out of the oven, give them each a gentle whack on your stovetop or a large cutting board. This settles the cookies down further, making them their chewy best.

Allow the cookies to cool on the baking sheets for about three minutes, then transfer to cooling racks. Once they're fully cooled, you can freeze them in airtight containers or freezer bags, or keep them around for a good week on the counter. Just be warned, they're highly addictive!

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