30 December 2011

Peppermint Dream Meringue Cookies


The Christmas Season

Today is the sixth day of Christmas. Though many folks have been celebrating Christmas since the day after Thanksgiving, according to tradition we are only half way through the real season of Christmas. Despite pre-Christmas advertising campaign countdowns to the contrary, the twelve days of Christmas actually begins on Christmas Day and continues through the celebration of Twelfth Night on January 5, until the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6 begins a new season.

Though we are truly only in the middle of the Christmas season a long trail of broken or discarded candy canes have already made their way into my kitchen. Candy Canes seem to have become more of a decoration to tie onto packages than a seasonal treat that anyone actually eats. Or maybe that’s just my family. Instead of being consumed they collect in a sad pile in my kitchen while my family’s traditions of thrift inspire guilty feelings whenever I consider tossing them in the trash.

Repurposing Candy Canes

That’s why I saved the recipe for White Christmas Dream Drops from the December issue of Sunset magazine. This year I am recycling those candy canes in a pretty meringue cookie. Reading through it I had to smile. It is based on the same basic recipe and technique as my mother’s Chocolate Chip Meringue Cookies, a recipe that makes a relatively soft centered meringue that is often hollow inside. I have seldom seen it anywhere else and here it is again, substituting bits of crushed peppermint candy for the nuts, white chips for the chocolate and adding a few minutes in the oven once it is turned off to set the meringue with a little added crunch.

These delightful cookies are gluten free, easy to make, low in fat and require only a few ingredients. They are a great way to use up leftover candy canes and are a good choice for celebrations late in the Christmas season and beyond, when you want a bite of something sweet but without the weight of butter-rich cakes and cookies. These cookies are instead a light and fresh way to enjoy the tastes of the season.



Peppermint Dream Meringue Cookies
from the December 2011 issue of Sunset

2 egg whites, at room temperature
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/8 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon vanilla
¾ cup sugar
6 ounces white chocolate chips (about 1 cup)
1/3 cup plus 1½ Tablespoons coarsely crushed peppermint candy

Preheat oven to 250F.

With an electric mixer beat together egg whites and cream of tartar just until soft peaks form. Add salt and vanilla. Continue beating at high speed as you add the sugar one Tablespoon at a time, allowing 10 seconds or so between additions. (Very stiff peaks should form). Fold in chips and 1/3 cup peppermint candy.

Cover two cookie sheets with parchment paper. Drop meringue by Tablespoonfuls onto the parchment paper. Sprinkle cookies with remaining 1½ Tablespoons of peppermint candy.

Bake at 250 degrees for about 30 – 35 minutes or until cookies are set and dry to the touch but still pale. Turn the oven off, prop open the oven door and allow the cookies to stand in the oven another 10 minutes. Remove pans from oven and allow cookies to cool on the pan.

Notes: I drop these cookies on the parchment paper using two spoons, one to scoop up the desired amount and the back of the other to push the batter onto the parchment. These could also be made, and might look more uniform, if the cookies were formed using a gallon sized Ziploc bag. To try this, simply scoop the meringue into the bag, seal it, then cut a 1-inch opening across a lower corner of the bag. Use it like a pastry bag to pipe meringue onto the parchment paper in Tablespoon-sized dollops.

These cookies are extra pretty dipped in or drizzled with dark chocolate for contrast. To do this dip the lower half of each cooled cookie in melted chocolate allowing the excess to drip back into the pan before placing the dipped cookie on a parchment (or wax paper) lined cookie sheet to set. When the cookie sheet is full place it in the refrigerator for a few minutes until the chocolate is firm.

Or, place the melted chocolate in a small Ziploc freezer bag and snip ¼ inch from a lower corner of the bag. Drizzle the chocolate over each cookie. Place cookies in the refrigerator until the chocolate is firm.

This meringue could also be piped into heart shaped cookies like Valentine Meringue Cookies. To do this I would suggest chopping the white chips before adding them to the meringue so they will be easier to pipe.

Enjoy!

21 December 2011

Hazelnut Truffle Cookies


These really are some of the best cookies ever. I wouldn’t call them Christmas cookies. Like Chocolate Chip cookies, they aren’t all that pretty and adding extra steps or decorations does little to enhance their appeal. That’s not to say they can’t be adapted, adding nuts or a ½ teaspoon of sea salt or, as I’ve done here, some crushed Hazelnut Praline like that used in the recipe for Chocolate Hazelnut Cheesecake Spread. It’s just that they don’t need it and once you taste them you won’t want to limit their usefulness to a single season.

So, what’s the appeal? In a word, chocolate. Seasonless and satisfying, these cookies are chocolate through and through. They ably round out an assortment of cookies that are brightly decorated and fragrant with spice, adding their own silky deep tone like a bass grounding those sparkly sopranos in the Christmas choir. While they seldom carry the melody of the season those deep tones fill out the sound and warm the soul.



Hazelnut Truffle Cookies
adapted slightly from Alanna's Gourmet Mocha Cookies

13 ounces chocolate chips
1 stick butter
4 eggs
1½ cups sugar
1½ Tablespoon espresso powder
1 Tablespoon vanilla
½ cup flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup Hazelnut Praline bits (recipe below)*

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a small (2 qt.) saucepan, melt the 13 ounces of chocolate with the butter over very low heat, stirring often. When smooth, remove from heat and set aside.

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs, sugar and coffee granules until thick and pale. Fold in the vanilla and warm melted chocolate mixture. Fold in the flour mixture. Gently stir in the crushed Hazelnut Praline (or other add-in of your choice), if desired.

Let the batter stand for 15 minutes.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Drop dough by Tablespoonfuls (I use a 1¼-inch cookie scoop to portion the dough) onto the parchment, leaving several inches between cookies for spreading, around 12 cookies per sheet.

Bake 8 to 10 minutes at 350 degrees until puffed and shiny on top. Do not overbake. Remove to a wire rack to cool.

* Note: ½ to 1½ cups of other add-ins (crushed Heath bars, dark chocolate chips, mini chocolate chips, toffee bits, or toasted nuts for example) can be substituted for the Hazelnut Praline Bits.


Hazelnut Praline Bits

1 Tablespoon coffee liqueur
¼ teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon espresso powder
½ cup hazelnuts, chopped and lightly toasted
6 Tablespoons sugar
2 Tablespoons water
1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt

Lightly oil or butter a 12-inch square of aluminum foil. Set aside.

In a small bowl mix together the coffee liqueur, ginger and espresso powder. Microwave on high for 15 seconds and stir to dissolve the espresso powder. Stir in the hazelnuts, mixing until well coated. Set aside.

In a small saucepan, stir together the sugar and water. Cook over medium high heat, stirring occasionally, until the mixture begins to turns a light golden color (approximately 4 minutes).

Stir in the hazelnuts and cook until coated and golden brown, (approximately 1 minute).

Remove from heat and immediately pour onto the prepared foil, sprinkling the sea salt evenly over the candy and spreading the candy with a spoon as thinly as possible.

Let set until completely cool.

Break into pieces. Place in a food processor and process until the biggest pieces are small bits.

Enjoy!

19 December 2011

Scandinavian Almond Cookies


The spirit of hospitality that comes with the Christmas season is truly a thing of beauty. Everyone seems inspired to make an extra effort to offer others something out of the ordinary. Twinkling lights greet us from the darkness, festive decorations dress homes and offices, and holiday treats are thoughtfully prepared to tempt us at every turn.

Many recipes for holiday cookies include a few extra steps that make them special. Some need time to chill the dough. Others need to be rolled and cut or shaped. Many call for added decorations and require waiting between steps. All of these extra steps have value but they can also add up to lots of time and extra effort.

Of course cookies don’t have to take lots of extra work to be special. These Scandanavian Almond Cookies, for example, have a neatly trimmed shape and are finished with icing and sliced almonds. Still they are relatively easy to prepare. Only four pieces of dough need to be roughly shaped. Nuts are scattered over each before baking. While the cookies are still warm they are cut and once cooled they are drizzled with icing while they are still nestled neatly together. Then, given a little time to set, they are ready to separate and share.



Scandanavian Almond Cookies
from my Cookie Swap files

1¾ cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup butter
1 cup sugar
1 egg
½ teaspoon almond extract
milk
½ cup sliced almonds

1 cup powdered sugar
¼ teaspoon almond extract
milk (3-4 teaspoons)

Makes about 4 dozen.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt until well combined. Set aside.

In a large bowl, beat the butter with an electric mixer until soft and smooth. Add the sugar and beat until fluffy. Add the egg and ½ teaspoon almond extract, beating until well combined. Add the flour mixture and continue mixing just until combined.

Divide the dough into four equal parts. Form each into a 12-inch log. Place 2 logs 4 to 5 inches apart on an ungreased cookie sheet. Flatten each log until 3 inches wide. Repeat with remaining portions of dough.

Brush the dough with milk. Scatter the almonds evenly over the tops.

Bake at 325 degrees, 12 to 15 minutes or until the edges begin to lightly brown.

Remove from oven. While still warm, cut each section crosswise into 1-inch strips, straight or on the diagonal. (A pizza cutter works well for this step.)

Cool cookies on a wire rack.

To make the Almond Icing:

Stir together the powdered sugar, ¼ teaspoon almond extract and enough milk (approximately 3-4 teaspoons) to make icing with a drizzling consistency.

Drizzle icing randomly over the cool cookies. Allow to set before storing.

Enjoy!

13 December 2011

Jeweled Crab and Avocado Salad


Pomegranates are the most festive of fruits. Their beautiful garnet skin is the very color of Christmas cheer. Not only is the color of a pomegranate regal but the shape is that of a plump orb topped with a jaunty little crown, suggesting royalty.

Like the best jewelry boxes, the fine exterior of a pomegranate hints at, but pales when compared to, the beauty of the jewels that lie within. The pomegranate's bright skin is packed full of even brighter arils; the crunchy edible seeds enrobed in translucent bits of juicy crimson fruit. These abundant little fruits shine with festive color and are perfect for dressing up holiday dishes, both sweet and savory.

Here I have used jewel-like pomegranate arils to embellish a composed salad. This combination of crab meat and avocado with a simple dressing relies heavily on the quality of the crabmeat and the perfect ripeness of the avocado so choose your ingredients with care. The finished salad can be served as a first course for dinner or as festive party fare.



Jeweled Crab and Avocado Salad

Salad

½ avocado, sliced
4 oz crab meat, well drained
pomegranate seeds

Dressing

1 Tablespoon pomegranate molasses
1 Tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 Tablespoon olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Line a 7-ounce ramekin with plastic wrap.

Arrange the sliced avocado to line the bottom of the dish overlapping the pieces so that the dish is evenly lined.

Drain the crab meat, pressing excess liquid from the meat gently using the lid of the can or a white paper towel.

Arrange the crab meat on top of the advocado. Turn the ends of the plastic wrap over the crab meat and press it firmly into the ramekin. Set the ramekin in the refrigerator until ready to use.

Prepare the dressing by whisking together the pomegranate molasses, vinegar, olive oil and salt and pepper to taste.

Remove the avocado crab mold from the refrigerator. Pull the plastic wrap open and away from the crab. Unmold the salad onto a small serving plate. Carefully remove the plastic wrap from the salad.

Scatter the salad and plate with pomegranate seeds.

Drizzle with Pomegranate Dressing.

Serve with crackers or baguette slices.

Note: To make Pomegranate Molasses stir together 1 cup of pomegranate juice and 2 Tablespoons of honey or sugar in a small saucepan. Simmer the mixture until it is reduced to between ¼ and ½ cup, or approximately 30 minutes.

Enjoy!

08 December 2011

Scrumptious Soft Peanut Brittle


A tile of golden brittle studded with peanuts makes a tempting addition to any assortment of holiday treats. As it cracks into soft shards when you break off a piece, intrigue is added to the equation. When your first bite buckles in a melting soft crunch like the heart of a Butterfinger, you’re hooked. Any peanut candy fan will beg for more of this scrumptious Soft Peanut Brittle.

This recipe comes from a post at Wives with Knives that was first published a couple of years ago. When I saw it my interest was piqued. A recipe that promises to so closely resemble my family’s favorite candy bar needs to be tried. When I finally made it some weeks ago it was a huge hit. Now they are asking for the recipe...



Soft Peanut Brittle
From Wives with Knives

2 cups creamy peanut butter
1½ cups granulated sugar
1½ cups light corn syrup
¼ cup water plus 2 teaspoons, divided use
2 Tablespoons butter
2 cups peanuts, raw or roasted
1 teaspooon baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla

Generously butter a large rimmed cookie sheet (I used a heavy 11” x 17” inch nonstick baking sheet).

Dissolve baking soda in the teaspoons of water. Set aside.

In the top of a double boiler heat the peanut butter over simmering water until melted, stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, in a large saucepan combine the sugar, corn syrup and ¼ cup water. Clip a candy thermometer to the side of the pan with the tip of the thermometer resting near but not touching the bottom of the pan.


Cook the syrup mixture over high heat until it reaches 275 degrees. Lower the heat to medium and add the butter. Stir until melted.

Add peanuts. Continue cooking, stirring continuously for about five more minutes, until the syrup begins to turn brown and the thermometer reads 300 degrees.

Remove from heat. Add the baking soda solution you have set aside and the vanilla.

Working quickly and carefully, fold in the softened peanut butter, stirring gently. Then pour the candy mixture onto the prepared baking sheet. Spreading it as thin as possible. To quote Cathy at Wives with Knives, "The key word here is quickly."

Once cool, break the brittle into large tiles or bite sized pieces. Package some for gift giving and share the rest. It makes quite a bit but it won't last long.

Enjoy!

01 December 2011

Hazelnut Topped Chevre Cheesecake


Cheesecake is a versatile creation. The cake itself is fairly basic and made from eggs, soft cheese, something sweet like sugar or honey, sometimes a little liquid like cream or lemon juice and maybe a little flour.

The crust is even more adaptable. Use graham crackers or cookies, nuts or crumbs. Mixed with a little butter and maybe a pinch of spice it is spread or pressed in the pan.

Add a topping, if you like. Here the choices approach infinity. Fruit, cream, nuts, chocolate or another layer of crumbs can be sprinkled, spread or drizzled across the top before or after the cake finishes baking. Or you can simple dust the top with powdered sugar just before serving.

It's this versatility that makes cheesecake such a delightful dessert to play with. You can shop for the choicest ingredients and they will be showcased beautifully by cheesecake's simplicity. Or you can clean out the kitchen, get inventive and come up with a delightful and very personal creation.

Here I used a variation on the topping from my favorite Bread Pudding, added some local hazelnuts I found lingering in the cupboard and used both to top a larger version of a chevre based cheesecake I discovered in February. The result was beautiful and well worth sharing.



Hazelnut Topped Chevre Cheesecake

3 cups fine gingersnap crumbs (I used 1 package TJ’s Triple Ginger Snaps ground in a food processor)
½ cup melted butter

16 ounces Chevre with Honey (or use another plain soft goat cheese and double the honey)
¼ cup honey
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla
6 large eggs, separated
3 Tablespoons flour

Preheat oven to 350F.

To make the crust:
In a medium bowl, combine the ginger snap crumbs and melted butter. Press the crumb mixture into the bottom and up the sides of a 9-inch springform pan using a straight sided Metric Wonder Cup or similar measuring cup. It works great for pressing the crumbs high up the sides of the pan. (Then again you could just use your fingers.)

To prepare the filling:
In a medium bowl, combine the goat cheese, honey, lemon juice and vanilla. Beat at medium speed with an electric mixer until smooth and well combined.

Add the egg yolks, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the flour and mix on low until incorporated.

In a smaller bowl, beat the egg whites with clean beaters until soft peaks form. (They should be firm but not dry.) Stir 1/3 of the egg whites into the batter. Add the remaining egg whites folding gently until they are incorporated.

Pour the batter into the ginger snap crust.

Bake at 350F for 40 minutes or until set. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Once cool the cheesecake can be covered and stored in the refrigerator until ready to serve, up to several days.


Hazelnut Topping

½ cup unsalted butter
1 cup brown sugar
6 Tablespoons whipping cream
½ teaspoon Chinese five spice powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
pinch of salt
1 cup toasted hazelnuts, coarsely chopped

In a small saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat.

Add the brown sugar, whipping cream, five spice powder, vanilla and salt, whisking until well combined.

Simmer, whisking often, until thickened, approximately 3 minutes. Stir in the hazelnuts.

Cool until the mixture begins to thicken but is still easy to spread.

Pour over chilled cheesecake and spread to cover the top, allowing some to run down the sides if you like.

To serve:
Remove the cheesecake from the springform pan by running a knife along the outer edge and unlocking the side of the pan, pulling the pan away. Center the cheesecake on a serving platter.

Pour the Hazelnut Topping over the chilled cheesecake and spread to cover the top, allowing some to run down the sides if you like. Return the cheesecake to the refrigerator, if desired, covering it loosely until ready to serve.

Enjoy!