During the month of December, my kitchen starts to resemble an eccentric, rather squiffy bakery.
Of all of the Christmas traditions, I like the baking bits best; and I'm never happier than when in a warm kitchen, with Christmas carols blaring and fine dusting of flour and icing sugar covering every surface.
This year, with both of our families coming, we've had more than the usual number of presents to buy. Because I've had the time to do it, (which is not always the case), I decided to go homemade for the presents for teachers, friends and neighbors.
Christmas presents, what to do? A couple of weeks ago, I was at my daughter's parent/teacher conferences and mentally totting up how many teachers and various other support staff help educate this one child of mine. I lost track at 17, and that still didn't include the school secretary, headmaster, and other important people. (It was all so much easier when there was one classroom teacher and everyone clubbed together with a gift certificate.) I want to give everyone something, but it does tend to get out of control . . . in terms of money and effort.
My solution was to make a huge platter of Christmas cookies for all of the office staff, and to make small boxes of English toffee for all of the individual teachers. This kind of Christmas baking is more unusual in England, and it always seems to be appreciated. (Her form tutor and the headmaster got a bottle of port, though. "A nice bottle" being more in line with this particular school's traditions.) I managed to find white "Chinese take-out" boxes for 10 pence each, and with a tag and a bit of colored paper, the whole project was really economical. One batch of toffee filled 3 to 4 boxes . . . and although it did require making about 5 batches, I've made this particular recipe so often that I could probably do it in my sleep.
I tend to stockpile trays and tins and gift bags, and then I can throw together gifts for friends. Some people will get a jar of mincemeat and a bag of spritz cookies, while others will get a tray of sugar cookies and gingerbread men. Anyone who comes to my house during the holiday season leaves with a takeaway bag of goodies from my pile of Christmas tins.
I don't know how many batches of English toffee I've made this year. I lost count a few batches back, and I will still make some for my sister-in-law's boyfriend -- who ate almost the entire dish of it two Christmases ago. Every time I go to the grocery store, (which is every other day), I buy at least three packages of butter. It might seem decadent, but I added up that a batch of toffee is not much more than two pounds to make -- and it makes a lot! What other good present can you buy or make for that price?
(My Texas family has been making this candy for years. We've always called it English toffee, even though I've never tasted anything like it in England.)
8 oz butter
8 oz brown sugar
4 oz finely chopped pecans
4 oz chocolate chips (or dark chocolate, finely chopped)
You will need a nonstick pan of some sort. My mom always used a pizza pan, while I use a heavy nonstick cookie sheet. Sprinkle about half of the nuts evenly over the pan’s surface.
Melt the butter and sugar in a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat. Stir continuously until the temperature reaches 295F/146C. You will need a candy thermometer for this bit – (and I like to have something to read as well) – as it will take awhile. Just like childbirth, time will seem to move really slowly and nothing will seem to be happening . . . but be careful and attentive at the end, because it will suddenly shoot up to the required temperature.
Quickly pour the mixture over the nuts. Be extra careful – you do NOT want to get burned. You can smooth it out with a plastic spatula or wooden spoon, but do that straight away as it hardens up quickly.
Let cool for a few minutes, and then sprinkle the chocolate evenly over the candy’s surface. The heat of the candy will melt the chocolate, and then you can spread it evenly. Finally, sprinkle the rest of the nuts over the chocolate.
When the candy is completely cool, you can break it into small pieces. It will cool on its own, but it you are in a hurry (and sometimes I am) you can speed it up by putting it in the refrigerator for a few minutes.
Store in an air-tight can . . . and don’t make it on a humid day!
Just for fun, I thought that I'd give you a look at the many, many tins which are taking up space on my kitchen counter. (There are also cookies -- namely, sugar, molasses crinkles and florentines -- stored in the freezer.)
In the afternoon, as various members of the Christmas party drift into the kitchen to make a cup of tea or coffee, you can hear tins opening and closing. On offer: peanut brittle, Oklahoma Brown candy, English toffee, sugar cookies, gingerbread men, spritz cookies, cardamom cookies . . . oh, and Chex mix (imported from Texas; thanks, Mom). This afternoon, after I take a long walk in the snow, I'm going to make a batch of mince pies . . . to have with the left-over mulled wine from last night's party.
As promised, a mince pie pastry recipe. Did anyone get around to making their own mincemeat?
I discovered this recipe several years ago, and I haven't been tempted (yet!) to try anything different.
Nigella Lawson’s Perfect Mince Pie Pastry
(with measurements taken from Nigella Christmas and method taken from How To Be A Domestic Goddess. The wording is sometimes/often my own.)
240g plain flour
60g cold vegetable shortening (Crisco in U.S., Trex in UK)
60g cold butter
Juice of 1 orange (or 3 clementines, if you happen to have those on hand)
Pinch of salt
Necessary embellishment: Icing (confectioner’s) sugar for dusting.
Unnecessary embellishment: Egg wash (egg yolk watered down) for brushing over the top – if you think you need it, and I rarely do.
Pulse the flour and the COLD fats in a food processor until fine and crumbly. Mix the salt into the orange juice and add it gradually into the flour mixture – just until the dough starts to come together. Remove from the processor, and bring the dough together into a ball with your hands. Make sure all ingredients are well-incorporated. Then divide into three sections, pat down, wrap in clingfilm (Saran wrap) and put in the refrigerator to “rest” for 20 minutes or so.
(If you don’t have a food processor, you can do this the old-fashioned way. Just “cut in” the fats with a pastry cutter or fingertips and thumbs.)
Working with one section of dough at a time, roll out fairly thinly – but it should still be sturdy enough to make a pastry case. Lightly flour the surface you are working on – and also your rolling pin – but it is not a sticky or temperamental pastry.
I use a fluted round cookie/biscuit cutter to make the discs which will line miniature muffin/tart pans. Then I make some little stars to put on the top. You might need to go with a glass (or whatever you have), as long as it makes a circle which will fit into the tart pan you are using. The dough should come all the way up to the top, but not overhang.
This pastry is really easy to work with – and really flaky and delicious to eat. You can roll it out, and patch it, and mess with it, and it will still be tender. The orange juice is the master stroke – both for a hint of sweetness, and also for its tenderizing properties.
Place a teaspoon or so of mincemeat into the pastry case. It should come almost up to the top. Put your little pastry star on top, and brush with eggwash if you want that golden, shiny look.
Bake for 10-15 minutes in a very hot (220 C/ 440 F) oven.
Ease out of the pans onto a wire rack after a minute or so of cooling. When the pies are cool, or even almost cool, sprinkle some powdered sugar over them. I use my flour sifter for this delicate job!
For extra delicious decadence, spread brandy butter or rum butter on top of your mince pie.
According to Nigella, these freeze well. I can't speak to that - as I never have any left over.
I made 24 of them on Sunday, when we had friends over for lunch, and by the end of the afternoon they had all disappeared! They are very "more-ish," as the English say. I keep giving my mincemeat away, but I should have enough for at least two more batches -- and the mincemeat ice cream that I'm making for Christmas Even dinner.
sugar cookies, spritz cookies, molasses crinkles
We will be having at least five festive lunches/dinner this week . . . which means extra guests in addition to my family and my parents (who are visiting for two weeks). The really wonderful thing about baking ahead is that you can just load up trays of cookies and candy -- instead of making separate desserts. (I did make a key lime pie last night, partly because I was serving Mexican food, and partly because I was afraid that I might start running low on baked goods . . . what with all of the gift boxes I keep assembling.)
Just like at a wedding, I believe that every Christmas season needs "something old" and "something new." My something new this year was a recipe for cardamom cookies.
I found this recipe in a magazine called More . . . which makes me laugh, as that could be the theme of this Christmas! I've never had so many friends and family for Christmas, and I've never baked so much. For me, that is saying something.
This is a grown-up, sophisticated cookie -- probably more suitable for adults. (Having said that, my youngest daughter -- the same one who had to be closely watched as a small child, because she would try to drain any sherry/port glasses left around -- loves them.) It's full of freshly ground spices, and set off with an aromatic cognac icing that makes the pillowy brown rounds look snow-capped. Don't even think about leaving off the icing . . . it really "makes" this cookie.)
Cardamom Pepper Cookies
2 3/4 cups plain flour (approximately 15 ounces, if weighed)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
some freshly grated nutmeg for the tops of the cookies
6 ounces softened unsalted butter
four ounces granulated sugar
four packed ounces of dark brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
6 ounces sifted icing (confectioner's) sugar
2 tablespoons cognac
2 tablespoons cream
Just whisk together these ingredients until smooth.
Preheat the oven to 350F/175C.
Whisk together the dry ingredients in a large bowl and set aside.
Using a mixer, cream together the butter and the white and dark brown sugars until light and fluffy. Beat in one egg at a time, and then add the vanilla. Add flour mixture and mix until just combined. Don't overmix, but you do need for the ingredients to be thoroughly incorporated.
Roll rounded tablespoonfuls of dough into balls and disperse evenly across your cookie sheet. (If you don't use silpat mats, you should put down some parchment paper.) Twelve cookies per sheet is about right. They will need between 9 and 11 minutes to bake. They should be firm to the touch at the edges and puffed in the middle.
Cool on a baking rack. When the cookies are completely cool, you can add the glaze.
I half drizzled/half smoothed my glaze with a spoon. Grate some nutmeg over the top for a final touch.
Baker's Reward: a cup of strong coffee and two of these cookies and feet up in your favorite chair.
Happy baking . . . and a very Merry Christmas to you all!