Christmas Baking

Every year, I feel as if the last parts of December hurtle by at the speed of light. Each month brings it's own enjoyments, but December is a tricky one. He enters quietly, on the heels of the Thanksgiving feast, and the days quietly tick by until Christmas Eve.

Benevolent Christmas Day enters, that singular day when it seems the whole of the world is silent and reverent. Stores are closed, streets are empty. Families gather and some lonely souls feel lonelier than any other day of the year. Then, all too soon, collective breaths are released as the 26th dawns and the same harried consumers who wait all year for Black Friday are at it again: on line at countless stores stocking up on merchandise hideously discounted. The world returns to it's day-to-day life and I wish the time would slow down, that my Christmas present could somehow miraculously meet all of my Christmas pasts and that my memory was as clear as I will it to be.

The week between Christmas and New Years seems like a spare month, unrelated in all ways to December. In the past, when I held conventional jobs, I always took Christmas week off. The seven days separating holiest day of the year from the last day of the year hovers weightless and without expectation. There is not really much that needs to be done. The house is a mess, I enjoy the last week of my lighted Christmas tree, I inventory how many cookies are still left to be consumed.

Vowing a platform of homemade or consumable gifts for this year, I have 13 or 14 varieties of sweets as of the 22nd of December, 2010. With each batch that left the oven, I thought of the people that would most like each varietal. A single batch never seems like that much work, or that many cookies and then suddenly, I view the stores in the basement hiding spots and it's overwhelming how much sugar I have pack-ratted away.

mint chocolate crackles.

I never follow the good advice of making the same tried and true cookies that I've made for years. There are a few that are old friends of course, but my Christmas season of baking is generally made up of new recruits, cookies that have piqued my interest from other blogs, my kitchen library, or from rented cookbooks.

One such rented cookbook was Crazy About Cookies by Krystina Castella . I had actually bookmarked three varietals to try out this year, but only got to two of them. The first was a delicious cross between date bars and fig "newton" type bars. I have had these on the brain since Julia posted a picture of Linda Ziedrich's version! Krystina uses both dates and figs, reduced in pineapple juice. Being a proud VitaMix owner, I made fresh pineapple juice with ice and whole pineapple - core and all. I think it made the the filling pleasantly tropical. I have to make these again using some whole wheat flour.

Krystina's book also had a recipe for marzipan, which I have never made at home. I used almond meal that was not made from blanched almonds, so it was more "rustic" in appearance than I was prepared for. There is also a raw egg in the dough, so with these two "undesirables", I quickly searched for a way to make a baked marzipan cookie. Fortunately, I came upon this recipe from Chef Jeena. I was excited to try these little cloaked cookies, and I was not disappointed. They were surprisingly light, perfect with coffee or tea, and intriguing due to their shape. They will go on the save list.

Because I used two sources, you may have a little more marzipan than cookie batter. Marzipan freezes well, and can be added to all kinds of baked goods. I want to try dropping some in to the center of a muffin...

Marzipan Cookies (adapted from Krystina Castella and Chef Jeena)

For the marzipan:
  • 2 1/4 c. almond meal (finely ground almonds) - use blanched almonds for the whitest result
  • 1 c. powdered sugar
  • 1 c. superfine sugar
  • 1 t. lemon juice (pretty sure I used a tablespoon by accident...)
  • 1/2 t. or more almond extract (I can never have too much almond extract)
  • 1 egg, beaten
Combine almond meal and powdered and superfine sugars together in a bowl and mix well. Add the rest of the ingredients, and mix until a dough forms. Taste to see if you added enough almond extract. Using about a tablespoon of dough, roll dough into balls.

For the Cookie Batter Topping:
  • 1/2 c. butter, room temperature
  • 1/2 c. granulated sugar
  • 2 T. milk
  • 1/2 t. vanilla extract
  • 1 egg
  • 2 egg whites
  • 1 1/2 c. ap flour
  • 1/2 t. baking soda
  • 1/2 t. baking powder
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 t. "mixed sweet spice", I used combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and cloves
Preheat oven to 350.

Cream butter and sugar until fluffy. Add milk, vanilla, and whole egg and blend until well combined.

Sift flour together with baking soda, baking powder, salt and sweet spice. Add to butter mixture and mix briefly to combine.

Beat egg whites until frothy, but not forming peaks. Add into batter, mixing until well combined. (Try and be gentle, and not over beat.) Add a little additional milk if batter seems too dry. It will be sticky and rather thick.

To make the cookies, top a marzipan ball with a little "hat" of batter. It may take a few tries to get your method down, but I smashed the balls down slightly so there was a flat base that wouldn't topple over the weight of the "hats" (see photos). Leave plenty of space for expansion between cookies. Bake for 15-18 minutes, until the tops are lightly browned.

Chef Jeena recommended topping with powdered sugar or a drizzle of icing, but I liked them as is.

I also finally made some peanut butter cups. I have wanted to make these forever and never have. When I saw the pictures from Chicho's Kitchen this fall, I made it a point to bring an end to the procrastination. I didn't officially temper the chocolate, which may have been a mistake, but they are still tasty. I did temper the chocolate to dip some candied orange peel (leftover from my secret Daring Baker's Challenge, but more on that after Christmas...), and what a difference it made. I followed the instructions from the King Arthur's catalog that just happened to print it in their latest issue.

Glossy, gorgeous, tempered chocolate!

I now have one last batch of cookies to bake, the Kringle Cookies that won the Journal Sentinel's cookie contest. The sour cream and butter dough is resting now in the refrigerator, and later, I'll cut them and fill them with jam prior to baking. I'm thinking to use some of the last of my tart cherry jam and maybe some strawberry that is ample on the basement shelves.

As I approach the end of my baking, I realize that Christmas still holds every fascination for me that it did growing up. Every year, making cookies, I think of my Mom making hundreds of sugar cookies to give away. After they were baked and cooled, the whole family would stand around in the kitchen decorating them. Mom would spread the icing, and the rest of us would decorate with sanding sugars and red hots, silver dragees that would nearly break your teeth (you aren't actually supposed to eat them!). My brother's favorite cookies were church windows, made with colorful mini-marshmallows and coated in chocolate and coconut. Though none of us have made them in years, I can still taste them when I think about it - and that is all part of the magic of Christmas. The good and the not so good of all the years past come flooding in at Christmastime, and remind me in particular of the most important things given to me in life.

Giving cookies seems appropriate to me because of that. Something sweet and given with no strings attached: I hope my recipients gain just a touch of the joy that I've had making, baking and giving. It seems such a small gesture compared to what I've been given.

Merry Christmas!!!