Thursday, December 22, 2011

Fabulous holiday recipes

With just a couple of days to go before Christmas, you may be thinking of doing some last-minute baking or snack making, or you're looking for an ideal cocktail, appetizer or side dish to serve.

Here's my list of fabulous holiday recipes to give you plenty of great ideas.

Tempting treats
Orange Poppy Seed Cookies
Honey-Spice Cake
Double Chocolate-Peppermint Crunch Cookies
White Russian Sorbet
Cardamom Crescents
Maple Syrup Gingerbread
Butterscotch Shortbread
Fig and Rum Squares
Toffee Millionaires
Nutella Fudge Brownies
White Chocolate and Peppermint Brownies
Chocolate Dulce de Leche Bars
15-Minute Chocolate-Walnut Fudge
Anna's Walnut-Rum Wafers
Orange Butter Cookies with Grand Marnier Glaze
Clove-Scented Chocolate & Apricot Loaf
Red Velvet Whoopie Pies

Sensational sides
Pear-Quinoa Salad
Warm Spinach, Mushroom and Goat Cheese Salad
Noodle Kugel
Simple Two-Potato Gratin
Celery Root and Apple Salad with Hazelnut Vinaigrette
Garlic Mashed Potatoes with Smoked Gouda and Chives
Braised Fingerling Potatoes with Thyme & Butter
Greek-Spiced Baked Shrimp

Appetizers and snacks
Sweet and Salty Pecans
Nutty Pimiento Cheese Balls
Garlic and Cheese Crostini
Goat Cheese and Red Pepper Jelly on Crackers

Christmas Punch
Sparkling Ginger Cocktails
Ginger Rum Shandy
Sea Viper
Champagne Cosmo
Pomegranate Punch

The main event
Orange and Cumin Pork Loin
Pistachio-Crusted Rack of Lamb

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Go a little nuts during the holidays
with Sweet and Salty Pecans

Many households go a little nuts during the holidays.
   That is, many people like to set out trays of mixed nuts – walnuts, almonds, pecans, pistachios – for their guests to snack on. My father is a firm believer in this method of entertaining at Christmas.
   You can go one step beyond just setting a nut tray – you can dress them up in a delicious little coating.
   In the case of Sweet and Salty Pecans from Martha Stewart Living magazine, brown sugar, heavy cream and coarse salt dress up pecans in the most savoury manner.
   Served slightly warm or at room temperature, these nuts are guaranteed to please both young and old. It’s the kind of snack to pass around while everyone is watching a Christmas movie together.
   And the nuts are so easy to make, absolutely perfect if you’re looking for a last-minute holiday recipe idea.
   Light-brown sugar, heavy cream, ¾ tsp coarse salt and pecans are stirred together until the pecans are well coated. The nuts are spread onto a rimmed baking sheet in an even layer.
   The nuts are baked for 20 to 22 minutes, and are stirred every five. When they come out of the oven, the pecans are sprinkled with ¾ tsp more of coarse salt, then left to cool.
   The pecans keep well in an airtight container.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Taking my turn at the poppy seed
wheel with Orange Poppy Seed Cookies

Recently I wrote about Honey-Spice Cake, a recipe that attracted me to try it because it contains honey, a primary ingredient in Ukrainian baking.
   The same thing occurred with Orange Poppy Seed Cookies (click for the recipe) from Fine Cooking magazine.
   Poppy seeds are popular in Ukrainian baking and cooking. My Baba makes poppy seed buns, and my mother often serves kutia, a traditional Ukrainian sweet grain pudding dotted with poppy seeds, on Christmas Eve (although I have to admit, I don’t like kutia!)
   I wanted to take my turn at the poppy seed wheel, and so picked these cookies, which looked like they would be perfect for the holiday season.
   They are a perfect family-friendly cookie for the holidays – just a bit crispy, with the perfect balance of orange and poppy seed flavors.
   Once the dough is made and shaped into a log, the recipe says to freeze it for an hour or refrigerate for several hours until very firm. However, the recipe says the dough can also be kept frozen for several weeks, and so I took a cue from that and simply froze the dough for about three hours before I cut it into pieces for baking.
   Make sure to cut the dough-log into 3/16-inch thick rounds as the recipe suggests – it’s the ideal thickness to create cute, crispy cookies.
   Poppy seeds, by the way, can be found in the spice section of many supermarkets.
   The cookies are easy to make.
   Flour, poppy seeds, baking powder and salt are combined in a small bowl.
   Softened unsalted butter and sugar are beaten together with an electric mixer, then an egg, orange juice, orange zest (finely-grated lemon peel) and lemon zest (finely-grated lemon peel) are added and the mixture beaten some more. The flour mixture is added and beaten on low until just combined.
   The soft dough is put on a large piece of plastic wrap, and wrapped and frozen for 30 minutes. Though the recipe didn’t say to do this, I formed the dough into a log already at this point.
   After the dough is frozen for 30 minutes, it’s unwrapped and kneaded briefly to remove air pockets. The dough is rolled into a nine-inch log and wrapped (roll the log yourself, don’t bother letting the plastic do it as the recipe says.)
   After refrigeration or freezing time, the log is unwrapped, then sliced into 3/16-inch rounds. The rounds are set one inch apart on lightly-greased or parchment-covered cookie sheets (I used parchment paper), then baked in the oven.
   After a few minutes of cooling, the cookies are transferred to a wire rack to cool completely.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christmas Punch: For making
merry in a major way

It’s the time of year to make merry in a major way, and I always find a great way to do that is with an awesome festive punch.
   I’ve made it a bit of tradition to try a new punch each holiday season.
   This year’s selection is Christmas Punch from Martha Stewart Living magazine.
   It’s a wonderfully refreshing combination of pomegranate and cranberry juices, vodka and orange-flavored liqueur. Serve it with some festive appetizers and the party will be started.
   Although the recipe makes 12-16 servings, implying it’s meant for a crowd, this punch also works for the smallest of get-togethers. Just scale back the ingredient measurements in the recipe, and swap the punch bowl for a pitcher.
   The punch can be made in advance, which can be very helpful when things get busy. Combine all the ingredients, except the club soda, and chill them in a pitcher or bowl. Add the freshly-opened club soda just before serving.
   A simple syrup is prepared on the stovetop from sugar and water. It’s cooled and refrigerated until it’s cold.
   Chilled pomegranate juice and cranberry juice (I used cranberry cocktail), vodka, Cointreau or other orange-flavored liqueur (Grand Marnier, for example), fresh lemon juice and the simple syrup are combined.
   If serving right away, add the club soda. If serving later, refrigerate the punch and add club soda just before serving.
   Although I served the punch over ice, I didn’t bother freezing cranberries in the ice cubes as the recipe suggests.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Honey and spice and everything nice in lovely cake

I latched onto the name of the recipe immediately when I saw it in Saveur magazine: Honey-Spice Cake.
   I come from a Ukrainian heritage, and honey is used a lot in Ukrainian cakes and cookies.
   I remember my mom telling me about how her grandmother always used to make honey cookies and how delicious they were. They also kept for a long time without refrigeration.
   The recipe looked very promising, with savory cookie spices worthy of the best gingerbread along with a touch of Grand Marnier, so I gave it a whirl.
   I wasn’t disappointed. This is an amazing cake – moist and flavorful. I think my mother’s family would definitely approve of it.
   The cake will keep well for a few days if left in a cake saver and sliced as needed, but I found it tasted best on the day it was made. It was extra moist, with the orange flavor more prominent (but definitely not annoying).
   The cake would make a lovely dessert for a holiday supper.
   The recipe calls for a four-quart Bundt pan, which is a 16-cup Bundt pan. I didn’t calculate this at first, and so used a 12-quart Bundt pan to bake the cake.
   Although the cake was fine and didn’t spill over while baking – barely – I don’t recommend using a 12-cup pan. Use the 16 and don’t worry about overflow.
   The cake was very easy to make.
   Flour, cinnamon, allspice, ginger, baking powder, baking soda and salt are mixed together in a bowl.
   Sugar, egg yolks (six!), oil, honey, orange juice, orange zest (finely-grated orange peel) and Grand Marnier are mixed together, then the dry ingredients are added and everything is stirred until just combined.
   The egg whites are beaten with sugar until stiff peaks form (lift the beaters upwards and see if peaks form in the whites), and the whites are then folded into the batter.
   The recipe says to bake the cake for 60 minutes, but I baked it for about 53 minutes. It started to smell as if it was burning, so I took it out. This could have been because I used a smaller pan size than called for.
   The cake is cooled (I let it cool for about 15 minutes), then inverted on a serving plate. I let the cake cool completely at this point, then I made the glaze of orange juice and confectioners’ sugar (icing or powdered sugar) and drizzled it over the cake. It takes about 30 minutes for the glaze to set.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Cold adds to the charm of
Double Chocolate-Peppermint Crunch Cookies

One of my favorite childhood memories is this: Sneaking into the basement freezer at Baba’s house and retrieving one of her beautiful baked treats that were piled up in ice-cream pails. (Baba is Ukrainian for grandmother.)
   There was something about eating a completely frozen butterscotch bar or mint-chocolate cookie that made it even more delicious.
   My husband had a similar ritual at his Nanny’s house, sneaking frozen goodies out of the freezer.
   We were both reminded of these childhood escapades when we enjoyed Double Chocolate-Peppermint Crunch Cookies from Bon Appetit magazine right after they’d been taken out of the fridge.
   Although these cookies are fine served at room temperature, I prefer eating them right out of the fridge. The cold makes the crushed candy cane on top extra crunchy.
   These cookies are the ultimate fun family holiday treat. Everyone will scoop them up and eat ’em quickly, but not before admiring the crushed red peppermint candy on top.
   My one suggestion for this recipe is to finely crush the candy canes or peppermint candies, not coarsely crush them as the recipe says.
   I have learned through past experience that coarsely-chopped candy canes or peppermint candies can be very annoying to bite through in baked goods. They could even be a choking hazard, especially for children.
   I broke up candy canes into pieces, then crushed them into very fine pieces in a mini-chopper, though a food processor or blender would probably work too.
   To make the cookies look especially festive, buy candy canes or peppermint candies that have a large amount of red on them. I bought gourmet candy canes with lots of red color at a bulk foods store, and, once finely crushed and sprinkled on the cookies, they looked fantastic.
   The bittersweet chocolate chips called for in the recipe can also be found in well-stocked bulk and natural foods stores.
   Be sure to follow the recipe’s direction to make each cookie from one level tablespoon of dough. These cookies are meant to be small and cute.
   Bittersweet chocolate chips are melted in a metal bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water.
   Two-thirds of a cup of the melted chocolate is measured out to be used as drizzle later on. The recipe says to transfer this reserved chocolate to a small metal bowl to be rewarmed later on over simmering water. I sped things up a bit by measuring the reserved chocolate into a glass measuring cup. Later on, I put it in the microwave for a few seconds to warm and melt the chocolate again.
   Flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, instant espresso powder and salt are whisked together in a medium bowl.
   Butter is beaten in a large bowl until creamy, then sugar and vanilla and peppermint extracts are added and the mixture beaten until smooth (actually, it won’t be entirely smooth – more like pieces of buttery smoothness).
   Eggs, melted chocolate and the dry ingredients are beaten into the butter mixture, then ½ cup of bittersweet chocolate chips is stirred in.
   Level tablespoonfuls of dough are rolled into balls and placed on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper. (I got lazy and didn’t bother forming all the cookies into balls; I picked up pieces of dough and put them right onto the baking sheet. They still come out of the oven nice and flat.)
   After baking, the cookies are cooled completely.
   The reserved melted chocolate is rewarmed (see my microwave technique, described above), and drizzled over the cookies with a fork. The finely-crushed candy canes or pepperming candies are sprinkled on top.
   The cookies are chilled until the chocolate sets, about 20 minutes.
   As I said at the top of this blog entry, I prefer to store these cookies in an airtight container in the fridge, and serve them right after they’ve been taken out of the cold. However, they’ll also be fine at room temperature for a few hours.

Friday, December 9, 2011

White Russian Sorbet is perfect for winter

A White Russian is a cocktail I equate with winter.
   The sweet flavors of milk or cream mixed with a coffee liqueur are, for me, an ideal libation for a chilly evening.
   That’s why, when I saw the recipe for White Russian Sorbet (click for it), I knew I would have to make it in the wintertime, even though it was a sorbet recipe and I most often make icy sorbet in the summer.
   I made the sorbet for the first time last weekend, and it made for a delicious wintry treat. As I enjoyed the first spoonful, I knew my decision to make it in cool weather was right. I think all who try it would agree!
   It would make a lovely dessert at the end of a fancy holiday dinner.
   Although this recipe is extremely easy to make, it does take the sorbet a long time to freeze completely. I recommend freezing it overnight before serving.
   I made the ice cream-maker version of the sorbet, processing it in the maker for 20 minutes, then transferring the slightly icy liquid to an air-tight container and putting it in the freezer to firm up.
   The recipe can be made without an ice cream-maker. It then becomes a granita, which has bigger ice crystals than sorbet. Extra water is added to the sorbet mixture, which is then poured into a metal baking pan. The pan is put in the freezer and the mixture stirred occasionally for a few hours, then left to freeze completely.
   Water and sugar are stirred together in a saucepan and brought to a boil, then removed from heat. Instant espresso powder is added and stirred until its dissolved.
   The mixture is poured into a medium bowl. Corn syrup, whipping cream, vodka and Kahlua or another other coffee-flavored liqueur are added. The mixture refrigerated until cold, at least two hours.
   The mixture is transferred to an ice-cream maker, processed, then transferred to an air-tight container. After it is frozen, the sorbet is served.
   I skipped the bit about serving the sorbet in frozen coffee cups and garnished with coffee beans – I used small dessert bowls instead.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Dried blueberries and maple syrup
set this gingerbread apart

This time of year, gingerbread takes its rightful place at the centre of Christmas baking.
   Gingerbread cookies are seen on many a holiday treat platter, and gingerbread cake is served after supper.
   Although I have a very reliable recipe for delicious gingerbread, I also wanted one that stood out a bit from the pack.
   I found what I was looking for with Maple Syrup Gingerbread (click for the recipe), developed by Lauren Chattman. The recipe calls for maple syrup instead of molasses, and the very unusual addition of dried blueberries.
   The maple syrup gives the cake a light texture and feel that’s not characteristic of most gingerbread cakes.
   Many people won’t be able to guess what the little juicy bits are in the gingerbread, and it’s fun to inform them that they’re blueberries.
   The lemon glaze on top is an absolutely perfect crown to this delicious gingerbread, which is easy to make.
   Egg yolk, pure maple syrup and buttermilk are combined in a measuring cup and lightly beaten. Flour, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon, cloves and salt are combined in another bowl.
   Butter and sugar are creamed together in a large bowl. The buttermilk mixture is added, and the flour mixture. The dried blueberries are stirred in.
   The batter is scraped into an eight-inch square baking pan and baked for 35-40 minutes.
   After being inverted on a wire rack and cooled completely, the cake is iced with a glaze of lemon juice and powdered sugar.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Nutty Pimiento Cheese Balls: A fun retro appetizer

Every once in a while I’ll see a recipe for pimento cheese pop up in cookbooks or magazines.
   It’s a common food in the Southern U.S., I’m told. The three key ingredients are sharp cheddar cheese, mayonnaise and pimentos (also spelled pimientos).
   I’ve always been curious to try a pimento cheese recipe, and felt the time was right when I happened across a recipe for Nutty Pimiento Cheese Balls (click for the recipe) in Eating Well magazine.
   The recipe is created by Jamie and Bobby Dean, sons of the iconic southern chef Paula Deen. This pedigree practically guaranteed the recipe’s success.
   I was also on the lookout for a fun appetizer for a holiday party.
   These cheese balls scored very high on the taste and fun factor.
   They were delicious – sharp in taste, but not so sharp that children wouldn’t eat them. I think children would like them a lot, in fact.
   The cheese balls, rolled in finely-chopped pecans, have a retro feel to them that will score big at any party no matter the level of elegance. They can be served with the most high-end cocktails or champagne.
   The recipe calls for finely-chopped toasted pecans. For this, I toasted the pecans in a small skillet on the stovetop, instead of in the oven as the recipe suggests. Then I put the pecans in a mini-chopper (a food processor would work, too), and ground them to very small pieces. The cheese balls will roll and pick up the pecans most easily if the pieces are minute.
   The cheese balls are very easy to make.
   Cream cheese, shredded sharp cheddar cheese, shredded Monterey Jack cheese, mayonnaise, pimentos (find them in the pickles and relish section of the supermarket), grated onion, garlic powder, salt and pepper are pulsed together in a food processor until smooth. The mixture is scraped into bowl or container, then covered and refrigerated for at least 30 minutes.
   The toasted, finely-chopped pecans are placed in a bowl or plate. The cheese mixture is rolled into one-inch balls, then evenly in the pecans to coat.
   Serve the cheese balls at room temperature or chilled. They will keep well, covered in a container in the fridge, for about four days.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Cardamom Crescents become Cardamom Cookies due to laziness; delicious taste unaffected

When I bake, I forget about the fancy stuff.
   Generally, I avoid anything that calls for piping icing or cookie dough, I’m not keen on layer cakes, and I don’t usually decorate beyond spreading on required glaze or icing.
   I also have little patience for making things tiny and delicate and properly shaped, which is why my Cardamom Crescents (click for the recipe) from the December 2011 issue of Bon Appetit magazine were served as Cardamom Cookies.
   The recipe calls for bending pieces of dough into crescent shapes, which I grew tired of very quickly and instead shaped the pieces into small circles before baking.
   Luckily taste is not affected by shape. Cardamom Cookies, as I shall henceforth call them, are delicious.
   The ground cardamom gives these fragrant, shortbread-like cookies an extra somethin’-somethin’. People will eat them and know there is cinnamon present, but wonder about the extra dash of deliciousness. Let 'em know it’s cardamom!
   The cookies receive a generous coating of powdered sugar (also known as confectioner’s sugar or icing sugar), which add some extra flavor and make them look nice and wintery.
   Needless to say, these are lovely cookies to serve during the holidays, and are certainly family-friendly.
   They’re very easy to make.
   Powdered sugar and pecans are combined in a processor and pulsed until a coarse meal forms.
   Butter and vanilla are beaten together until creamy, then the nut mixture and a mixture of cardamom, cinnamon and kosher salt are added and blended well. A soft dough will form; transfer to a work surface and knead into a ball.
   To shape each cookie, a tablespoon of dough is formed into a ball, rolled into a log, then gently bent into a crescent shape (or be lazy like me and gently pat the top of a piece of dough into a circle).
   After baking, the warm cookies are rolled gently in powdered sugar to coat, then transferred to a wire rack to cool.