Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Candy Cane Cookies

My mother has a Betty Crocker cookbook that has been falling apart for years. The binding has completely disintegrated and the pages are brittle from years of spills and splashes. It really isn't a very inventive cookbook. It was the type that was around in the 1960s and 70s when that generation was only interested in cooking "the basics." But every year, I think nostalgically of that particular cooking tome. It has three of my all-time favorite recipes in it. I've already shared the recipe for one of them: Crescents. This is another of those favorite recipes (with one minor tweak). They are somewhat labor-intensive in their original iteration, but kids love them (as do the adults who grew up loving them). This recipe doubles very well.

Candy Cane Cookies
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup finely crushed candy cane
1 cup butter or margarine, softened
½ cup milk
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp peppermint extract
1 egg
3 ½ cups flour
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
½ tsp red food coloring
2 tbsp finely crushed candy cane
2 tbsp sugar

1. Stir together sugar, 1/4 cup crushed candy cane, butter, milk, vanilla, peppermint extract and egg in large bowl. Stir in flour, baking powder and salt. Divide dough in half. Stir food color into one half. Cover and refrigerate at least 4 hours.
2. Heat oven to 375.
4. For each candy cane, shape 1 rounded teaspoon dough from each half into 4-inch rope by rolling back and forth on floured surface. Place 1 red and white rope side by side; press together lightly and twist. Place on ungreased cookie sheet; curve top of cookie down to form handle of cane.
5. Bake 9 to 12 minutes or until set and very light brown. While the cookies bake, combine 2 tbsp crushed candy cane and 2 tbsp sugar. Immediately sprinkle candy mixture over cookies when you remove them from the oven. Remove from cookie sheet to wire rack before the candy cane mixture melts to the pan. Cool completely, about 30 minutes.

Substitution Suggestions: I would NOT use anything other than peppermint-flavored candy canes for this recipe. You can add a very small splash of almond extract for extra flavor.

Lessons Learned: I am sometimes a lazy baker. If I'm running short on time, I forgo creating the candy cane shape and just create 1-inch balls out of each dough color and then alternate them on my cookie platter for the semi-twisted effect. (You won't run the risk of breaking the canes as you pull them off the pan.) You can also take bits of each dough and gently roll them together to create one ball with both colors.
The original recipe calls for 1 cup of sugar and does not require 1/4 cup crushed candy cane. My mother didn't stock peppermint extract in her pantry, so she substituted by using crushed peppermint in lieu of the extract. I do both for that extra minty flavor, but if you don't have the extract, just use crushed candy canes. In all, you'll need one cup total of the sugar-peppermint blend. Use more sugar than candy cane.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Mexican Wedding Cakes/Russian Tea Cakes/Crescents

Growing up, my mother made a trio of Christmas cookies every year (and yes, they are Christmas cookies, not holiday cookies, not winter solstice cookies --Christmas cookies!). She'd carefully pack them into homemade felt stockings for me and my brothers to give to our teachers. (That was back in the day when you didn't fell obligated to spend $20 on a teacher present.) I loved the aroma of those cookies, but more importantly, I loved being around when she wasn't looking and I could snitch one from the cookie tin on the counter. This is one of those favorite recipes. It goes by many different names. We call them crescents, but I'm now too lazy to shape them into crescents. So, I guess we could call them powdered snowballs.


1 lb. butter
4 cups flour
1 cup powdered sugar
1 cup finely chopped nuts
1 tsp. vanilla
Powdered sugar

1. Mix ingredients together.
2. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes or until lightly browned on the bottom.
3. Shake warm cookies in a bag of powdered sugar.
4. When cool shake again in powdered sugar or use a shaker to sprinkle heavily.

Substitution Suggestions: We always used walnuts, but I've also used chopped almonds and pecans. I think I like the pecans best. You can also add in a little almond extract. Whatever you do, don't leave the nuts out. They really add nice texture to this crumbly cookie.

Lessons learned: These cookies freeze well  after they are baked. The powdered sugar will get a little gummy if you shake them immediately as they come out of the oven. So, let them cool about five minutes or so before shaking them in the powdered sugar.

Sherried Lamb Chops

I am pretty traditional when it comes to proteins -- chicken, turkey, pork, beef, fish. I don't like rabbit and I'm not a huge fan of duck. But, a center-cut lamb shank was calling out to me at the grocery store, so I picked it up and figured I could do something with it. If the experiment failed, oh well. It turns out the make-it-up-as-you-go recipe was absolutely delicious. I accepted a little ingredient help from Alton Brown, but the measurements and cooking prep are entirely my own.

Sherried Lamb Chops

2 bone-in lamb chops
olive oil
2 tsp ground coriander
2 tsp ground thyme
2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup cooking sherry
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
1 tsp rosemary, crushed

1. In small bowl, combine coriander, thyme, salt, pepper and garlic. Set aside.
2. Blot lamb chops to remove excess moisture. Cover liberally with olive oil on both sides. Coat both sides of chops with spice-garlic mixture.
3. Place seasoned chops in hot skillet. (If the chops don't sizzle when they hit the pan, the pan is not hot enough.) Sear for 2-3 minutes, then turn over for another 2-3 minutes. Before garlic burns, deglaze pan with sherry. Add mustard and rosemary and stir into the pan drippings. Turn the chops over a few times to infuse the sauce. Cover and cook on low heat until desired doneness is achieved, about five minutes.

Substitution Suggestions: I suppose you could experiment with the alcohol used to deglaze the pan, but I like the sweetness of sherry. Fresh is better, obviously, but if you don't have it on hand, dried spices will work just fine.

Lessons Learned: I learned that I should experiment with new meats more often. This recipe was absolutely delicious. I used one large chop (the size of a large hand span), but it's written here for two small chops (the size of two small hands). If you don't think you have enough spice garlic mixture, add to it before you smear it on the chops. I turned the meat over several times to really get the flavor into the meat, then served it with couscous. This is comfort food at its finest.

Not Too Tart Cranberry Sauce

Cranberry sauce from a can may be OK for crock pot recipes, but it is definitely not OK for Thanksgiving or Christmas. Last year's recipe was really random (with balsamic vinegar and jalapenos) and my brother requested straight, plain Jane sauce this year. I can't just do plain Jane, so I went on the hunt for something better than just berries and sugar. I found this recipe and it gets five stars from me. It's not too sweet, not too tart and has lots of extra texture that makes it more interesting than straight mushy berries. It comes courtesy of Wayne Deen, son of Paula Deen, with some tweaking and substitutions by yours truly, which I've written into the version below.

Not Too Tart Cranberry Sauce

1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1 (16-ounce) bag fresh cranberries
1 cup chopped apple
1 cup chopped pecans
1/2 cup raisins
1 tbsp orange extract
1/2 orange, juiced
1/2 lemon, juiced
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg, freshly grated

1. Combine sugar and water in large saucepan and bring to a boil. Add the cranberries and return to a boil, then lower the heat so that the liquid simmers.
2. Add the apples, pecans, raisins, extract, orange and lemon juices, cinnamon and nutmeg. Cook for 10 to 15 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and let the sauce cool.

Substitution Suggestions: The original recipe called for walnuts. We like pecans. It also called for 1/4 cup Grand Marnier, but since I don't drink, I don't have it in the house. So, I substituted 1 tbsp orange extract for the orange liqueur. Orange juice concentrate would also work. I omitted the raisins, but only because I didn't have any handy.

Lessons Learned: It's a really easy recipe and unless you're serving a big crowd, you will have plenty of leftovers. If you don't include the nuts, you could easily use the leftovers for cranberried pork or cranberried chicken, which is also posted on this blog.
Use sweet apples, not Granny Smith. The cranberries are tart enough that you don't need extra pucker power from Granny Smith apples.