Almost every year I knock myself out baking for Christmas. Past journals tell of exhausting marathons through homemade candies, batches of cookies, rum cakes, stollen, and other treats to send to friends and bring to family gatherings. In years past I’ve sent care packages to friends, usually including four different things but often stollen, rum cake, some kind of cookie, and usually a cocoa mix or candy. It’s a masochistic labor of love: I enjoy doing it, except for the dishes, but I often wonder what the hell I was thinking when I made my list.
I decided to rein it in a little this year and didn’t do the packages, but I still had a few things to bake for my family Christmas party yesterday, and for our own enjoyment at home. After all, we have to leave something out for Santa. This is part one, because for part two I want to do a more traditional detailed recipe review of the Apple Maple Baklava I’m going to bake tomorrow to bring to my in-laws’ for my baklava-loving mother-in-law for Christmas. Today is just a brief overview of the other things I did.
Marzipan Fruit Candies
This is for my Oma, who is German and loves marzipan as much as I do. I gave her a Ritter Sport Marzipan bar last Christmas, and she told me she kept it in the fridge and literally ate the last square of it yesterday. You can get these at Ocean State Job Lot any day of the year, by the way.
I used the marzipan recipe from Wayne Gisseln’s Professional Baking textbook (Sixth Edition, page 657) using store-bought almond paste. I divided the marzipan roughly evenly into one-ounce pieces and sculpted them using the food-safe sculpture tools I bought years ago to practice gum paste flowers. Luckily I had some actual fruits to use as models for a few of the fruits. The rest I did from memory.
If the marzipan got too soft from handling, I rolled it in powdered sugar and worked it in to try and stiffen it up. I ended up with a banana, peach, apple, a pair of cherries, pear, grapefruit, lemon, orange, lime, and strawberry. I bought petal dust to color them, but the color was so faint that I decided to break out the Americolor gel pastes and vodka (for thinning) and paint them instead. I’m glad I did because they looked vivid and realistic.
Oma was delighted with them; she said they looked very realistic and that she would “treasure them slowly.” I won’t be surprised if she eats the last piece next December.
Butter Brickle Cookies
You may remember these as Nebraska’s cookie. At the time I noted that my Nana would love these since she loves toffee, so I baked her a batch of these. I set aside a dozen to share with the rest of the family, and they got rave reviews. My son sidled up to Nana during gift opening and suggested she open the container we gave her and “we can share together.” What a little mooch.
Rosemary Thyme Spiced Nuts
Recipe here. This has almonds, cashews, and pecans. Maybe another year if I’m feeling ambitious I’ll do a couple different flavors and gift them in partitioned tins (I did this last year with different flavors of Chex Mix). This year I just made a double batch, brought some to share with the family, and saved a jar to gift. These are yummy. They have some sugar too so they have that great sweet-salty combo, plus a little bit of cayenne (I used one batch’s worth for the double batch because I know some people don’t like it too spicy). I used my home-grown thyme and rosemary (dried instead of fresh, since it’s out of season now). Super easy, highly recommended.
This translates to “pepper nuts” in German. They are small, spiced cookies containing a bit of pepper, and they’re meant to have a bite to them. They also have cloves, ginger, and cinnamon, as well as orange zest. I found these to be an acquired taste, since the more I ate them the more I liked them. My husband, on the other hand, found he liked them best if he had one between eating other cookies and said the spice hit him “like a punch in the face, but in a good way.” They got mixed reviews with the rest of the family. I’m unsure of the origin of this particular recipe since I got it in International Baking class from a file on Blackboard that my professor put up, and it had no attribution attached.
Stollen tastes like Christmas to me. A slice with a hot cup of tea or coffee is my ultimate holiday comfort. My Oma likes to buy the ones from the store and I always enjoyed those, but when I tried the recipe from my Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, I found that to be ten times better. Instead of a cake-like, powdered-sugar-covered loaf, it’s a yeast bread with a bit of cardamom and a flat icing glaze. Instead of a cup of raisins I add half a cup of raisins and half a cup of dried cranberries for a welcome tang.
This year I let it proof overnight in the fridge, then after I shaped them I put my oven on its lowest setting with a roasting pan of water on the lowest rack. Once it preheated, I stuck the trays of bread in and shut the oven off. This is my MacGuyvered proofer and it works pretty well, I dare say.
I let the glazed loaves dry thoroughly and then wrapped them in foil instead of plastic wrap, and I find the glaze doesn’t get wet again the way it does when I wrap them in plastic.
This is a billion times better than fruitcake dreams of being.
Dutch Oven Crusty Bread
You can find recipes for this no-knead bread all over the place and I don’t remember where I found mine now (I must have printed it without headers and footers because the URL isn’t on my printout), but basically I mix dried herbs into the flour mixture (simply AP flour, salt, and yeast) before adding the water, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, let sit overnight on the counter and into the next day, then proceed.
It’s a very slack dough that can be hard to handle, but I found that if you do a generous dusting of flour, pour the dough out, then scoop your hands under the sides of the bread and fold it up into the middle instead of tucking down under the middle, it’s somewhat easier to ball it up. It’s similar to what I remember doing when making brioche in class. When you get a decent ball you can flip it and tuck under instead.
This year I must have done a better job of forming the ball, because previous attempts got pretty flat, but I got some good loft on this loaf. It tasted great, too. You should have seen my niece’s face when she found out I brought this bread. It’s a favorite of hers.
Stay tuned for another post after Christmas detailing the Apple Pecan Baklava. I have two more logs of Pfeffernusse in the fridge to bake for Santa too. Then after the holiday baking binge we can get back to the pies.
All images by Amber Sutton