Stop and Smell the Cookies

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We have been baking for Christmas for the past few weeks. At last count we made sixteen different kinds of sweet treats – mostly cookies, but also toffee bars, marshmallows and fudge. And we came up with a few new recipes that I will be sharing with you soon, after a few more test batches to tweak them a bit.

I am done with the Christmas baking for this year. At least I think I am. We have enough cookies for gifts. We have enough cookies for holiday parties. We have enough cookies to set out when family comes over. And I don’t have any more time to bake – the schedule is full until after New Year’s Day. But I keep thinking of new cookies I want to bake – maybe just one more batch of almond shortbreads or cocoa snowflakes. I need to stop.

Along with reining in my compulsion to bake, I am also trying to rein in my need for perfection. Several batches didn’t turn out like I wanted this year – even the ones that I didn’t royally mess up with obvious mistakes. The gingersnaps tasted fabulous this year, but about half of them were flat, flat, flat. And the cocoa snowflakes spread out too much and were flatter and crunchier than I would have liked. And I messed up the Russian teacakes. And…

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All through the baking, and the packaging, and the gifting I have to talk to myself. I know no one will look at the cookies with my critical eye. I tend to forget that I am making the cookies for family and friends, as a gift of love and time. That is all they see, and that is all I should be giving. Not the worries that they aren’t perfect, or that last year’s were better, or that someone else could do better than I could.

I know I’m not alone in doing this. Maybe not about baking, but about finding gifts for our families and friends. We worry that we won’t have enough presents for people, or that we spent too much, or too little. Or that it’s the wrong color, the wrong size or just the wrong thing. I know it’s cliché to talk about finding the reason for the season, but sometimes the clichés are spot on. We all need to take a deep breath, step back a bit and relax about the whole thing – the to do lists, the parties, the gifts, the wrapping. It will all come together in the end and it will all be wonderful.

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The whirlwind of fun starts tomorrow for us, and it goes pretty much until after New Year’s Day. My brother and sister-in-law are visiting for Christmas week. Then we leave for Florida to spend a week with Rich’s parents. We are in for two weeks of family game nights, way too much food and plenty of visiting time. And you know they’ll be plenty of cooking and baking going on, just maybe no cookies.

In the spirit of letting go and enjoying the season, I’m taking a couple of weeks off from writing blog posts. Merry Christmas! Happy New Year!

Easy Fudge for Last Minute Treats

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Everyone needs a go-to recipe for those holiday dessert emergencies. And, yes, there are dessert emergencies – those times when you forgot you said you’d take dessert to a party, when you need a quick hostess gift or when the stresses of life call for an indulgence. This fudge fits the bill. Yes, it takes a few hours to set up, so it truly isn’t a last minute, but the hands-on requirements are short and then you can rush around doing whatever else you forgot while it sets. And it keeps for days, so you can make a batch and have it ready for when you need it.

This was the only fudge we made when I was growing up, and it is pretty much foolproof. As soon as my mother trusted my brother and me around a hot stove, she let us make it totally on our own. And it always came out right. The marshmallows ensure the fudge will work. Someday I will make real fudge, with no marshmallows, but not during the busy holiday season.

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Yes, this is one of those annoying recipes that use half a can of evaporated milk. Feel free to double the recipe so you use the whole can. I imagine you could buy the small five-ounce can and make up the rest with regular milk, but I have never tried that. I think it would probably work, but don’t quote me.

There isn’t much else to say. The fudge is sweet, very, very sweet. And it is chocolatey and well, fudgy. Use the darkest chocolate chips you can find, and good vanilla extract, as they are the only flavors beyond sweet. Then cut the whole shebang into tiny squares and wrap them up for gifting. Or eat them.

Print the recipe here.

Five-Minute Fudge
Makes 30-45 small squares
Doubles easily

If you want to make a double recipe, use a 5 to 6-quart saucepan and pour the fudge into a 9 by 13 inch pan.

¾ cup (6 oz.) evaporated milk
1⅔ cups sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1½ cups chocolate chips, semisweet or dark
1½ cups mini marshmallows
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract

Lightly grease a 9-inch square pan. Line the pan with parchment if you want to turn the fudge out of the pan to cut it. Set aside.

Combine evaporated milk, sugar and salt in a 3-quart saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly. When mixture comes to a boil, reduce heat to medium low and cook for 5 minutes, still stirring constantly.

Remove from heat and add chocolate chips, marshmallows and vanilla extract. Stir until marshmallows melt and mixture is smooth.

Pour into prepared pan and level top. Let cool to room temperature for about 4 hours, or until firm. Cut into small squares, removing from pan first, if desired. Store in an airtight container for about a week.

Get the Scoop on Chilling Your Dough

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The weeks leading up to Christmas are cookie-baking time around our house. We give cookies for presents, take them as our contribution to potluck holiday parties and package them up for hostess gifts. We have done this since the first year we were married, and I don’t see us ending the tradition any time soon.

We make about twelve different kinds of cookies every year. Most of them are drop cookies, or the kind you roll into balls before baking. Some of them require a little more effort, but none of them are complicated or time consuming. As I write this, I realize many of our favorites are the roll-into-balls recipes – gingersnaps, Russian teacakes, chocolate chip doodles and snickerdoodles. The recipes instruct, “chill the dough before forming into balls for baking.” This often ends up with me using my forearm muscles of steel to scoop rock hard, chilled cookie dough.

The other day, when I was fiddling around, fixing my Russian teacake mistake, I had a revelation. If I scooped the dough balls first and then chilled the dough I would be getting the best of the process. I could scoop soft, creamy dough with ease and then chill the balls. Then, when I was ready to bake, the heavy lifting (so to speak) would be done and I could just place the balls on the pans and bake.

It works beautifully. Mistakes lead to innovation. And no, I’m not comparing myself to an inventor of say, rubber or the Slinky. It did kind of rock my cookie-baking world, though.

Try the method with any dough that calls for an hour or two of chilling. Portion out the dough right after you mix it and then chill the balls in an airtight container for up to a week. You can freeze them if you want to make them further ahead.

Oh, and in the free time that you will have if you use my revelatory method, you can kill some time on the internet. Try typing, “mistakes that led to inventions,” into any search engine and you will get some interesting reading.

And So It Begins

Have you heard? Thanksgiving is coming.  Christmas is coming. Time to spend money. Time to make food. Time to panic.

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Not really, but I am starting to plan when and what I am going to bake for Christmas presents. And what I am going to make for Thanksgiving desserts. And what kind of sweet potatoes I’ll make this year. And if I am going to try making a cranberry sauce that this canned cranberry sauce lover will like.

On top of all that holiday planning, I need to plan what to bake to sell at a vendor and craft fair at my church in a couple of weeks. It is the Friday before Thanksgiving, which means I really need to plan how to fit in all the baking.

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Periodically I get a little lightheaded when I think about making time for all the baking along with everything else I have to do. And I have to remember to do all the other stuff to get ready for the fair – cooking class flyers, price lists, signs, business cards, gift certificates, packaging materials. And figure out table decorations – not my strong point.

Can you tell I’m a little scattered these days? I chalk it up to the busy-ness of the coming months. And the planning I need to do. I guess I need to stop planning when to plan and just do it – lists, timetables, recipes, shopping lists.

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I’ll be selling gooey butter tarts at the fair – chocolate, traditional and peanut butter. I’ll also have mini loaves of homemade white and whole wheat bread. And organic rosemary bundles, ready to use or to give as gifts – they make great hostess gifts. If people don’t want baked goods, I’ll also have plenty of gift certificates for cooking classes. Those make great holiday gifts – easy to wrap and I’ll customize the class to the recipient.

Let’s be real. Yes, I am stressing a little right now. And it’s too early to start baking. But it’s never too early to advertise. If you are in the St. Louis area, come see me at the vendor and craft fair at Ivy Chapel UCC in Chesterfield on November 22 from 5:30-9:00.

Family Time, Chocolate and Butter

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We have had two weeks of treats and indulgences. Our Christmas gifts from and to each other included several versions of sea salt caramels, dark chocolate bars, cinnamon and chili chocolate, mint chocolate bars, several variations on peppermint bark and a few other kinds of chocolate. We had a full turkey dinner for Christmas, complete with butter in just about everything (yes, my butter-loving mother-in-law did most of the cooking). I made both pumpkin pies and a pecan pie (of which I proceeded to eat about half). We had chocolate pudding cake one night and blueberry almond muffins for breakfast one day. And that was just the week we were in Florida with Rich’s parents.

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The fun and indulgences didn’t end when we got home – flourless chocolate cake, homemade eggnog and almond Swiss cheese dip, along with a few meals out and working our way through all those chocolates we gave each other. We also fit in a few family game nights and celebration dinners.

My jeans (and arteries) are asking me to get back to a normal diet, with at least a few vegetables. We are gradually weaning ourselves off the treats and back to healthy eating – we had roasted vegetables and whole wheat pasta the other night. Oatmeal has been on the breakfast menu for several days and we are trying to get back into our workout schedules, though that has been less than successful. I am scared to get on the scale and may put that off for a few weeks more.

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It was a wonderful time off, full of family time, lots of relaxation and plenty of days when we weren’t sure what day of the week it was. I love days when I can sleep as late as I want and hang out in my pajamas until late in the morning. Conversely, I also love days when I can get up early just because I feel like it, not because I have to.

Today it is back to work for Rich and dentist appointments for Calvin and me. Tomorrow is back to school for Calvin and back to the normal routine for me. I guess the glory days had to end sometime. Though I am already thinking about what to bake this weekend – maybe whole wheat bread. The thought of anything rich or sweet just doesn’t appeal, for some reason.

Christmas Baking: Chocolate Peppermint Pinwheels

We are currently in the middle of our Christmas cookie baking. When our son, Calvin, was a toddler, he ate dough while I mixed up batch after batch. Then he progressed to helping to shape the cookies before they were baked. Now that he is twelve he is in on it all, measuring, cracking eggs, shaping cookies and even coming up with new ideas for recipes (I’ll explore that more in a future post). I love that we spend time in the evenings and on weekends making cookies that will be presents for friends and family.

And I can’t forget my husband, Rich, who is in on it all. Most importantly, he does the dishes. Never underestimate the value of a spouse who offers to wash the dishes.

We usually make about 12 different kinds of cookies and give them away for Christmas presents to friends and family. And we always know what we are going to take as our contribution to holiday potlucks and parties. We have our old standbys, but we usually try to include a new recipe or two. Some are spectacular failures, and we eat those ourselves or bring them out only for close family. We have never made anything truly inedible, so far.

The following recipe was one of the unqualified successes. We saw Alton Brown make these on Good Eats and immediately got the recipe off the Food Network website. I have simplified the directions and changed the shaping just a bit to make smaller cookies. You might have to make a trip to the store to get starlight mints and mint extract, but it is worth the time. Be sure and post if you make these, and let me know how they turned out for you.

Chocolate Peppermint
Pinwheel Cookies
about 72 small cookies

(originally from Alton Brown)

These are showstoppers and are sure to impress everyone who sees them. And just wait until they taste them. The recipe looks long, but these are not hard to put together if you follow the directions.

3 cups all-purpose flour
¾ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1 tablespoon milk
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon peppermint extract
½ cup crushed peppermint candies, 20-25 starlight mints (crush in a plastic bag with a rolling pin, or in a food processor)
3 ounces unsweetened baking chocolate, melted and cooled slightly
1 teaspoon vanilla

Stir together flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside. Cream butter and sugar in mixer until light in color. Add whole egg and milk and beat to combine. On slow speed, gradually add flour and beat until dough pulls away from the bowl.

Divide dough in half. Set one half aside and leave one half in the mixing bowl.

Add egg yolk, peppermint extract and candy to the dough in the mixing bowl and mix well. When dough is thoroughly mixed, shape into a thick rectangle, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 5-15 minutes.

Place other half of dough in mixing bowl and add melted chocolate and vanilla. Mix until thoroughly blended. Shape into a thick rectangle, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate 5-15 minutes.

Divide peppermint and chocolate doughs in half. Place each piece of dough on a sheet of waxed paper or parchment. Use powdered sugar or flour to keep the dough from sticking.

Shape each section of dough into a rectangle, and roll until about ¼ inch thick. Place chocolate dough on top of peppermint, and press together around the edges. (The chocolate dough may be crumbly.) Using waxed paper or flexible cutting board underneath, roll dough into a log. Repeat for other two sections. If dough gets too difficult to work with at any point, return to refrigerator to chill for a few minutes. Wrap each log in waxed paper, and refrigerate for at least two hours.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line baking sheets with parchment paper. This is pretty essential, as the candy bits will stick to the pan and make the cookies hard to get off in one piece. If you absolutely don’t want to use, or don’t have parchment paper, heavily grease the baking sheets.

Remove dough from the refrigerator and cut into 1/4-inch slices. Place cookies about 1 inch apart on parchment paper lined baking sheets.

Bake 12-13 minutes, rotating pan halfway through. Remove, cool on baking sheet for 2 minutes then move to wire rack to cool completely.

Download the recipe here.