This holiday season, I received about a dozen gourmet gift catalogs touting everything from imported Stilton blue cheese to very expensive chocolates. Shopping online and from catalogs is hassle-free but costly.
There are alternatives: I have friends who don’t bake much during the year, but around the second week in December, they pull out their pans, cookie cutters and baking sheets and spend a few days preparing delicious treats for gifts and entertaining at home.
Before you go searching for the rolling pin, head over to the dollar store or a craft emporium such as A.C. Moore and have fun purchasing decorative tins in a variety of shapes and sizes, ribbons, bows, tissue paper, colorful paper boxes and stickers. Then make a list of each person or family who will be fortunate enough to receive your homemade goodies. The final step will be to pack your gifts, tag them and keep them in a cool spot. You might want to make extra sugar cookies or truffles, should friends and neighbors drop in.
The order of battle for holiday baking and candy-making is easy once you get the rhythm going. Put on some holiday music, tie on your apron, attach a clean tea towel to the apron strings, get out all your equipment and ingredients and enjoy. The holidays are the perfect time for kids to get into the act in the kitchen. Santa needs helpers and so do we.
Cookie cutters come in all shapes, from dreidels to reindeer. A simple butter-cookie recipe is perfect when you want to use your cookie cutters because the dough forms the perfect base for decorating. Chocolate and multicolored jimmies, tiny silver and gold balls of sugar, an assortment of food colorings and flavored extracts, chopped nuts and several frosting flavors can turn a simple sugar cookie into an eye-appealing treat. You can find a recipe for butter-cookie dough in any number of cookbooks and on the Internet. But you can take a time-saving shortcut by buying several rolls of refrigerated cookie dough, roll it out, cut out your shapes, decorate and bake. Just follow the baking directions on the package.
My sister-in-law Jane loves to make candy and anything that calls for chocolate. The first time I tasted her chocolate-drizzled popcorn, I was in sweet heaven. The combination of bittersweet chocolate with the popcorn’s slightly salty taste was uncommonly delicious. She also makes chocolate dipped pretzel sticks. Now I know why I always liked chocolate ice cream with salty pretzels for dipping.
Truffles and fudge are also easy to make at home and will cost much less than either the domestic or imported variety. There are many chocolate choices on the market. Imported baking chocolate such as Valrhona from France, Lindt and Tobler have a fine reputation, but just as good are Baker’s, Ghirardelli, Hershey’s and Nestle. Many stores carry an assortment of chocolate in thick slabs suitable for making large batches of candy and cookies.
Here are recipes for easy homemade holiday treats.
Chocolate Drizzled Popcorn
Bittersweet or semisweet chocolate
Line a jelly-roll pan or baking sheet with waxed paper. Spread popcorn evenly in one layer over the waxed paper. Melt the chocolate in the microwave, in the top of a double boiler or in a saucepan over low heat. Using a large spoon, drizzle the melted chocolate all over the popcorn. Allow to cool completely and place in the refrigerator or freezer until the chocolate is set. Repeat, using up the chocolate and popcorn. Pack the popcorn in decorative tins.
Note from Phyllis: Obviously this is a freeform recipe with no concrete amounts.
Chocolate-Covered Pretzel Sticks
Bittersweet or semisweet chocolate
Line a jelly-roll pan or baking sheet with waxed paper. Melt the chocolate in the microwave, in the top of a double boiler or in a saucepan over low heat. Dip each pretzel stick into the melted chocolate and, using a spatula or butter knife, coat about half of each pretzel with the melted chocolate. Once each pretzel is coated, place it on the jelly-roll pan or cookie sheet. Sprinkle jimmies on the chocolate side of each pretzel. Allow to cool completely and place in the refrigerator or freezer until the chocolate is set. Repeat, using up the chocolate and pretzels. Pack the pretzels in square shallow decorative tins. You may wish to make layers using colorful tissue paper.
Note from Phyllis: This is another freeform recipe with no concrete amounts.
From Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Chocolate Desserts
4 ounces (4 squares) unsweetened chocolate
6 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 pound (4 loosely packed cups) strained confectioner’s sugar
3-1/2 ounces (1 cup) walnuts or pecans, cut or broken into medium-size or larger pieces
Place the chocolate in the top of a small double boiler over warm water on moderate heat. Cover until partially melted. Then uncover and stir occasionally until completely melted. Remove the top of the double boiler and set aside, uncovered.
In the small bowl of an electric mixer, mix the cream cheese (or stir it by hand in a bowl) until soft and smooth. Add the vanilla and salt. Gradually beat in the sugar and then add the chocolate and beat until smooth. Mix in the nuts.
Now, either line an 8-inch square pan with foil or wax paper and press the fudge into the pan, shape the fudge by hand on a piece of plastic wrap or wax paper into an even shape about 1-inch thick and 6 inches square, or roll the fudge into a sausage shape about 1-1/2 inches in diameter.
Wrap and refrigerate until firm. It may chill longer. Cut into squares or slices and wrap individually or package airtight.
Refrigerate or store at room temperature. Serve cold or at room temperature.
Makes 1-1/2 pounds.
Note from Phyllis: Maida Heatter is known as the Queen of American Desserts and is the author of seven cookbooks. She says this "uncooked cream cheese fudge is quick, foolproof, smooth, dark, delicious and so easy children can make it."
From The Silver Palate Cookbook by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons Grand Marnier
6 ounces German’s sweet chocolate, broken up
4 tablespoons sweet butter, softened
Powdered unsweetened cocoa
Boil the cream in a small heavy pan until reduced to 2 tablespoons. Remove from heat, stir in the Grand Marnier and chocolate and return to low heat. Stir until chocolate melts.
Whisk in the softened butter. When mixture is smooth, pour into a shallow bowl and refrigerate until firm, about 40 minutes.
Scoop chocolate up with a teaspoon and shape into 1-inch balls. Roll the truffles in the unsweetened cocoa.
Store truffles, covered, in the refrigerator. Let truffles stand at room temperature for 30 minutes before serving.
Makes 24 truffles.
Note from Phyllis: You can add finely chopped nuts to this recipe. You can use any type of chocolate, including white chocolate or semisweet.