The candy stripes of peppermint sticks abound in every direction our eyes happen to glance. Gingerbread men stand sentry at their sugary iced homes on display in the gourmet shop window. The sweet scents of fudge emanate from the candy store. Christmas is definitely a sweet tooth's fantasy come to fruition. Whether it is the quest for creating lasting holiday memories with family members gathered around the kitchen island, the desire to quell the season's chilling temperatures by firing up the oven for an afternoon of baking, or perhaps a primal response to bulk up our girth for the long cold winter, there is something about the holidays which prompts baking marathons in every home kitchen.
As adults most of us can fondly recall childhood weekend afternoons spent with Mom, Grandma or even Dad, putting those final red and green decorative touches on batches of homemade cookies fresh from the oven. These memories are so cherished because it returns us to a time of comfort, security and that youthful untarnished magic and joy of the holiday season. This is probably the most compelling reason for recapturing this activity with the next generations of children and grandchildren. For foodies like myself, these afternoons spent in the kitchen turning out batch after batch of cookies and other sweet treats are the perfect excuse to take in this holiday tradition as well as play with our mixers and cookie cutters.
There are thousands of cookie recipe variations. A handful of them have remained tried and true throughout decades of holiday bake offs. Gingerbread people are one example, an ideal choice for a group of bakers because no two gingerbread men have to look alike when trimming the faces and finishing touches and thus all imaginations are welcome. Pressed cookies will turn out batches of uniformly shaped wreaths and Christmas trees. For these one need only tint the dough with some green food coloring before feeding it through the cookie press, and then they can be decorated with a sprinkling red and green sugars. A few more classics include burbon balls, rugelach, jam-filled cookies and hazelnut crescents. The cookie which remains the most inspiring for artful creativity when decorating is the sugar cookie. Once the dough is rolled out, holiday shapes are cut with cutters, baked, cooled and then the real fun begins. These can be decorated with a whole plethora of embellishment, such as the snowflake covered in an ice blue tinted glaze and then finished off with strategically placed silvery or pearlescent dragees. Once iced with a white glaze and then striped with red sugar, a candy cane shape becomes festive. An entire decorator's 'buffet' can be set up with bowls of colored icings, glazes, sugars, cinnamon dot candies, licorice, sprinkles, dragees, chocolate chips, etc.
Homemade candies increase in popularity this time of year as well. Home kitchens turn into chocolatiers as truffles are formed and rolled in powdered cocoa, chopped nuts, toasted coconut flakes or confectioners sugar. Fudge is another much loved chocolate treat, dense blocks of rich dark, milk or white chocolate, often with the incorporation of additional flavors such as peanut butter, chopped nuts or toffee bits. One of my favorite holiday candies to make at home is chocolate peppermint bark. Very simply, dark chocolate is melted and spread over a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper and placed in the refrigerator until it hardens. Then white chocolate gets the same melting treatment and is quickly spread over the dark chocolate layer. It then gets dots of red food color lightly swirled over it for a marbled appearance, chopped candy canes get sprinkled over it, and back into the refrigerator it goes until hardened. Then the parchment paper is peeled off and the sheet of peppermint-studded chocolate gets broken up into snack-sized shards.
The marriage of chocolate and peppermint result in the ideal holiday couple. This pairing makes its annual appearance by way of the peppermint mocha drink enjoyed in coffee houses, as well as the adorning crown of a cone at your local ice cream parlor. On a shopping spree at Williams Sonoma I was welcomed by seasonal displays brimming with tins of their own peppermint bark and of their peppermint hot chocolate, the latter of which I highly recommend. Recipes for chocolate-peppermint desserts grace the dessert plates at many of the season's holiday dinners.
I have noticed this year's increasing popularity of the meringue cookie, also known as a meringue kiss. Meringue is a mixture of stiffly beaten egg whites with sugar. Soft meringue is then baked as a topping over pies and other desserts, such as lemon meringue pie, until the peaks and edges are browned. Hard meringue is piped onto parchment paper and baked at a very low temperature for a long period of time until it is dry and crisp. This method can be used to make meringue shells to be later filled with ice cream, pastry cream or fruit salads; or it can be used to make cookies which often have other ingredients mixed into the meringue such as chopped nuts, mini chocolate chips, crushed peppermint candy or toasted coconut.
3 egg whites (room temperature!)
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon flavored extract of your choice (see suggestions below)
Red or green food coloring, if desired
1/2 cup stir in of your choice, if desired
Preheat oven to 250 degrees and line two cookie sheets with parchment paper. Place the egg whites and salt in the bowl of a Kitchenaid or other stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat on a medium setting until the egg whites appear frothy. Add the cream of tartar and increase the mixer speed. With the mixer on, add the sugar in increments of one tablespoon at a time. Then add extract and a few drops of coloring, if using. Continue beating the mixture until the meringue is thick and glossy. Turn the mixer off and lift up the whisk. If the meringue holds a very stiff peak, then it is ready for the next step. If adding any stir-ins, gently fold them in with a rubber spatula. Gently spoon meringue into a pastry bag fitted with a star tip. Pipe the meringue onto the prepared cookie sheets in bite-sized stars, roughly two inches apart. Bake for one hour, then turn the oven off but leave the meringues in the oven for another two hours. Cool at room temperature.
Ideas for flavor extracts: vanilla, peppermint, orange, almond, or try a combination of 3/4 teaspoon vanilla and 1/4 teaspoon rum extracts and the addition of 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg for a flavor reminiscent of egg nog.
Ideas for stir-ins: crushed candy canes, finely chopped hazelnuts or almonds, finely chopped toffee, miniature dark or white chocolate chips, finely chopped dried cherries or cranberries.
Note: if you want to decorate the meringues with colored sugars for a festive look, dust them with the sugars before placing into the oven.
As you turn your kitchen into a Christmas confectionary, enjoy this time. For some, holiday baking is a labor of love. For others it is a way to bond with family or friends on a Saturday afternoon, and if you make enough to wrap up in colorful tins or cellophane secured with ribbon, it's a nice little gift to share with friends, coworkers, teachers, sitters, etc. Either way, you will not need to embark on sweet dreams, as the sweets will become a reality as you savor the flavors of the season.