Christmas Sugarplums

Just right for Santa or snacking at Christmas

Just right for Santa or snacking at Christmas

Christmas Sugarplums

These pretty petite confections will surely have you reciting Clement Moore’s ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas while you prepare them, as well as when you find yourself taking dainty bites at midnight on Christmas Eve (probably as you put together the toddler’s new tricycle). A traditional combination of sweet dried fruit, toasted almonds, comforting spices, ground ginger cookies, vanilla, and even a bit of whiskey or other spirit of choice if you desire, these moist, delicate rounds bejeweled with sparkling coarse sugar make for perfect gifts, additions to a dessert table or petit four tray, or even in lieu of cookies for Santa Claus. If you’re preparing them days ahead of Christmas, be sure to make a goodly amount. Otherwise, you might not have enough to share with St. Nick on December 24th.

Makes about 42

6 ounces toasted slivered almonds

4 ounces dried apricots

2 ounces pitted prunes

2 ounces dried cherries

2 ounces dried figs, stemmed

2 ounces dried dates, pitted

1/3 cup finely ground gingersnaps

1 tablespoon whisky, dark rum, or amaretto (optional)

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon ground ginger

¼ teaspoon ground allspice

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

¼ teaspoon ground cardamom

Pinch of coarse sea salt

3 tablespoons good-quality honey

1 tablespoon mild molasses

Coarse or sanding sugar for rolling

Put the almonds in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade attachment and pulse several times until they are coarsely chopped.

Coarsely chop the dried fruit. Add to the almonds along with the ground gingersnaps, the whiskey, vanilla, spices, and sea salt. Process until the mixture forms a coarse paste, stopping once or twice to scrape the sides of the bowl, if necessary. You don’t want the mixture to be smooth; you want to see small bits of fruit and nuts.

Transfer the mixture to a medium bowl, drizzle with honey and molasses, and using your hands or a large spatula, gradually incorporate the sweeteners into the fruit and nut mixture. It should be sticky (not overly so or wet) and hold together when you squeeze a small bit in your hand.

Using a good-quality small metal scoop that holds approximately 2 teaspoons, shape the mixture into balls and set on a small parchment-lined rimmed baking sheet. Roll the balls into spheres. At this point, you can cover the baking sheet with plastic wrap and store at room temperature for up to 1 week or in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks. Alternatively, roll the sugarplums in coarse sugar and serve or package in small decorative muffin or candy paper cups.

Spatterware Leaves

Spatterware Leaves

Spatterware Leaves

Spatterware Leaves

Here’s a confection that merges my passions for decorative arts and patisserie. Using my traditional cut-out sugar cookies as petite canvases, I cover them with cut-out fondant leaves of the same size and sponge paint the smooth white sugar coating with food color paste mixed with a bit of vodka (which dissipates as they paint dries). The result is a whimsical and lovely treat that is reminiscent of 19th-c. English Staffordshire spatterware that was frequently exported to, and became popular in, America.

Dark Chocolate Beet Cake with Chocolate Ganache and Candied Beets

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Photos courtesy of Carolyn Helt

There are a surprising number of beet cake recipes out there. From Martha Stewart to David Lebovitz to many home cooks and food bloggers, the recipes are really quite intriguing–and vary greatly. Some call for cake flour. Some specify separating the eggs as with a sponge cake. Some use all cocoa powder, some just dark chocolate, and others a combination of the two. All, of course, rely on fresh beet puree. To obtain this, simply steam, boil, or roast peeled, chopped or sliced beets. Once they are tender, they will puree nicely in a food processor. I wasn’t able to achieve a smooth puree; mine was a bit coarse. But that’s okay. it worked just fine.

If you didn’t know this cake was prepared with beets, you probably wouldn’t notice. The combination of Dutch-process cocoa and semisweet chocolate lends to it’s intensely dark color, and the addition of vegetable oil and beet puree result in its moist texture and satisfying sweetness.

Serve it gussied up with Chocolate Ganache and Candied Beets or simply dusted with confectioners’ sugar.  

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Makes one 9-inch cake

Cake

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 ½ cups sugar

1/3 cup Dutch-process cocoa powder

1 ½ teaspoons baking soda

¾ teaspoon salt

¼ cup vegetable oil

2 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped

2 large eggs

½ cup hot brewed strong coffee or espresso

¼ cup hot water

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 1/3 cups pureed beets

Chocolate Ganache (recipe follows) for coating

Candied Beets (recipe follows) for deorating

To make the cake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray or brush a 9-inch nonstick springform pan with vegetable spray or oil and line the bottom with parchment paper.

Whisk together the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl.

Combine the vegetable oil and chocolate in a large heatproof bowl. Heat gently at about 20-second intervals in the microwave until the chocolate has melted and the mixture is smooth and glossy. Set aside to cool a bit.

When the chocolate has cooled, whisk in the eggs, coffee, hot water, and vanilla extract. Add the beet puree and stir until combined.

Gradually incorporate the dry ingredients into the beet mixture, about ¼ at a time. Mix until just combined.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake until the cake is well risen, fragrant, and a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean, 40 to 50 minutes. Set the cake on a wire rack to cool in the pan for about 15 minutes before carefully removing it from the pan and setting on the rack to cool completely.

To finish the cake, cut off the top of the cake (about ¼ inch thick) to even the top. Remove the round of parchment from the bottom of the cake and set it on the cut top. Invert the cake onto a wire rack set on a parchment lined rimmed baking sheet. The top now should be nice and flat.

Pour the warm Chocolate Ganache onto the center of the cake and, using a small offset spatula or butter knife, gradually spread the ganache evenly over the top of the cake, allowing it to run down the sides. If you are game, gently “bang” the rack on the baking sheet to encourage the ganache to evenly distribute on and around the cake. Set aside at room temperature to cool and become firmer. (The ganache won’t harden completely.)

Carefully transfer the cake to a serving plate and decorate with Candied Beets and a drizzle of beet syrup (reserved in the Candied Beets recipe below), if desired.

Ganache

½ cup heavy cream

4 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon light corn syrup

Pinch of salt

Heat the cream in the microwave or in a small saucepan just below the boil.

Combine the chocolate, vanilla, and corn syrup in a medium bowl. Pour the hot cream over the chocolate and set aside for about 2 minutes, allowing the chocolate to begin to melt. Gently stir the ganache until it is smooth and glossy. If some of the chocolate still hasn’t melted, heat the ganache in the microwave at 10-seond intervals, stirring each time, until the mixture is completely smooth.

Set aside to cool slightly before using (it should be warm but not hot). Alternatively, cool the ganache completely, cover, store in the refrigerator for up to 1 week, and re-warm before using.

Candied Beets

1 ½ cups water

1 ½ cups sugar

1 medium beet, peeled and cut into 1/16-inch-thick slices

Combine the water and sugar in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Cook, stirring once or twice, until the sugar has dissolved. Reduce the heat to low, add the beet slices, and simmer gently until tender and nearly translucent, 25 to 35 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 225 degrees.

Drain the beets, reserving the syrup, and arrange at least ½-inch apart on parchment paper-lined baking sheets. Bake until dry and crisp, 1 hour to 1 hour and 15 minutes. Set aside to cool on the pans. Use them immediately or store in an airtight container.

 

 

 

Snow Day Honey-Roasted Peanuts (and Peanut Butter)

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Early yesterday morning, the mid-Atlantic unwittingly received remnants of the blizzard much of the mid-West had been battling for most of last week. Thank you for sharing! The snow fell so hard and fast, my family didn’t make it to church, let alone the supermarket. And after spending much of the day trying to keep the children from tearing the house apart and bouncing off the walls, by the afternoon I was in need of a snack. I was craving peanut butter. Not just any peanut butter–honey-roasted peanut butter. I admit I have developed a slight addiction to the freshly-ground nut butters available at Whole Foods. I guess the fact that I had just finished a ¼-pint of the honey-roasted variety is testament to my newest food craving. So, as anyone in need of a very particular sort of sustenance would do, I decided to create my own.

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I perused several recipes online and then settled myself in the kitchen to concoct my own version. As luck would have it, the only honey I had in the pantry was a ¾-full jar of Manuka honey I had purchased at Whole Foods last week. I have been eating this very special New Zealand honey for its healthy and healing attributes (possibly more on that later in another blog), but at $32 a jar, I decided to look further in the cupboard for an alternative. I decided to make use of the agave nectar we use as a daily sweetener. Unlike honey, this syrupy condiment doesn’t require heating to thin it, which saved me a recipe step. In addition, for those interested in a lower glycemic alternative to honey, the nectar might be just the ticket.

Tossed with the honey, a bit of sugar, and a sprinkling of salt, these sweet-salty peanuts required very little time in the kitchen, and the payoff was great, indeed. They really hit the spot on a snowy afternoon. To fully satisfy my craving, I decided to complete the entire task and whizzed some of the nuts in a mini food processor to make peanut butter. It was a success. After a few nibbles, I cared much less about the living room looking like a bomb of miscellaneous puzzles and train parts had hit it. I’m even thinking that in the future, I might not be making as many trips to the machines at Whole Foods as I used to—even when the weather isn’t so challenging.

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Snow Day Honey-Roasted Peanuts (and Peanut Butter)

Makes about 2 cups roasted peanuts

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a large rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Toss together 8 ounces of peanuts (they can be raw or, even better, already roasted), about 2 tablespoons room temperature agave nectar or honey (warmed first for about 10 seconds in the microwave until smooth and syrupy), about 2 teaspoons of raw or regular granulated sugar, and a light sprinkle of sea salt on the prepared baking sheet. Bake for about 5 minutes until fragrant. Remove from the oven and toss, somewhat separating the nuts. Bake until caramelized, another 5 to 8 minutes. Remove from the oven and set on a large wire rack to cool on the baking sheet. When cool, break the nuts apart as desired. Store at room temperature in an airtight container.

To make honey-roasted peanut butter, put as many peanuts as desired in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the blade attachment. Process until the nuts transform into butter, stopping to scrape the sides of the bowl, as necessary. If the peanut butter doesn’t emulsify and become as smooth as you wish, drizzle in a bit of neutral oil, such as canola, until it is the consistency you desire. Store in the refrigerator in an airtight container.

Decorative Sugar Ornaments

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Use these Christmas ornaments to decorate cupcakes, cakes, tartlets, or even cookies. Roll fondant to about 1/8 inch thick on a surface lightly dusted with confectioners’ sugar. Cut into desired shapes (these are 1-inch crinkle-edged rounds), brush lightly with a bit of water, and apply store-bought or handcrafted, piped royal icing decorations. Set them aside to dry at room temperature for at least 1 hour before applying them to your confection. They will keep nicely and can be used as needed for your Christmas desserts, stored at room temperature in airtight containers. Try to store them in a single layer, but if necessary, stack them in only as high as 2 layers with a piece of parchment in between. 

Individual Celebration Cakes

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These pretty little cakes, about three inches in diameter, would be perfect for just about any special occasion. The cakes here make use of the red velvet recipe posted below, but you can use just about any type of cake you wish. Covered with about one-eighth-inch of blue rolled fondant and decorated with molded white fondant and royal icing details, these treats are easy to prepare and sure to make your guests happy.

Kate’s Red Velvet Cakes

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I bake a lot. But when my daughter, Kate, asked me to make her a red velvet cake for her birthday last year, I self-assuredly replied, Okay, and then scurried to my books to find a recipe. The truth is, I had never eaten, let alone baked, a red velvet cake; the only one I could recall was the shockingly ugly one shaped like an armadillo from the movie Steel Magnolias.

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In any event, Kate’s favorite little pig Olivia prepared a red cake in one of her stories, so that’s what she wanted for her birthday. I researched a number of recipes, all fairly similar, and came up with this one. Many recipes call for a whole lot of red food coloring. Perhaps this is necessary when using the bottles from the grocery store, but I prefer the red paste available in craft stores, such as A.C. Moore and Michael’s. It’s very potent, and I found I only needed about half the amount when I used it instead of the supermarket varieties. In addition, although the amount of cocoa called for in this cake is relatively little in relation to the flour, do use natural cocoa instead of Dutch process. The latter will become too dark in the oven, lessening the intensity of the cake’s desired redness.

This is, indeed, a very red cake. The color can be a bit confusing to the palate, but you will be happy upon tasting this cake. It is incredibly moist and delicately (but distinctly) flavored with chocolate. Whether you make large cakes or cupcakes, a coating of vanilla, or white chocolate buttercream or cream-cheese frosting would finish them nicely.

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Makes 24 to 30 cupcakes (or two 9-inch cakes)

2 cups plus 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 1/4 teaspoons salt

1/3 cup natural cocoa powder

1 1/2 cups sugar

1 1/2 cups vegetable oil

2 large eggs

2 (1-ounce bottles) red food paste (available in craft stores)

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 cup buttermilk

1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

2 teaspoons vinegar

Frosting or buttercream (such as cream cheese frosting or vanilla buttercream) to serve Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line about standard 24 muffin cups with paper liners.

Whisk together the flour, salt, and cocoa powder in a large bowl.

Combine the sugar and vegetable oil in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat on medium speed until combined. Drop in the eggs, one at a time, incorporating completely before adding the next. Stop the mixer and add the red food paste and vanilla extract. Beat on low speed until incorporated.

Alternately add the flour mixture and buttermilk, beginning and ending with the flour, and stopping occasionally to scrape the sides of the bowl. Remove the bowl from the mixer, stir together the baking soda and vinegar, and fold into the batter.

Divide the batter among the prepared muffin cups and bake until fragrant, well risen, and a wooden skewer inserted in the centers comes out clean, about 15 minutes. Set the cupcakes on a wire rack to cool in the pan for about 5 minutes before removing directly to the rack to cool completely.

To serve, spread with your favorite frosting or buttercream.