Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas Gingerbread

December 26 is the day our family traditionally exchanges gifts with DaddyBob's side of the family.  We pile ourselves and all the presents into the car, drive over the hill from San Jose to Santa Cruz, CA, and enjoy a day of food, games, and presents with our cousins, Uncle S, and Aunt M, who you know from Becky's lovely post on her pumpkin chocolate chip cookies.

This year though, Mama B and DaddyBob came out to NYC to celebrate Christmas. So when Becky and I got a package from Aunt M a couple weeks ago with a gift that said "open me now," we were delighted to find a bag of crystalized ginger; we could make our own batch of Aunt M's Gingerbread to enjoy in NYC.

Before I get into the recipe though, a little reflection about one of our other aunts on DaddyBob's side...

Aunt S loves to spoil her nieces and nephews. As a kid and teenager, opening Aunt S's gifts was always an amusing activity. Every year I got at least one piece of jewelry - but not jewelry from Claire's or any store in the mall. Nope, this was interesting, one of kind jewelry that Aunt S got from various crafters or through her antiques business. I always opened these gifts with a smile, but as a young teenager, I was definitely thinking, "Oh gosh, some more weird jewelry from silly Aunt S..."

When I got home, I promptly put that jewelry in my jewelry box, I guess.

Well, later has arrived and now that jewelry from Aunt S is the jewelry I wear the most. I wear that jewelry so often that if that jewelry stood in a lineup with other random jewelry, my friends and coworkers would be able to identify it no problem. I wear it because it's sophisticated and artsy and classy and unique. It's not that I wasn't grateful for those gifts when I opened them, I just wasn't old enough to appreciate them. Funny how growing up changes your perspective, right?

Well, this gingerbread from Aunt M is kinda like that. It's always been a staple on Aunt M's holiday treat tray, but I can't say I fully appreciated it until a couple years ago - my palate simply wasn't sophisticated enough to enjoy it's spicy richness.

All I can say now is, I'm glad Aunt M sent enough ginger to make multiple batches, because that's exactly what I've done. The recipe is super easy to put together and tastes and smells incredibly festive.  It's not as molasses-y as some other gingerbreads, so if the molasses taste of gingerbread has kept you away in the past, this is the recipe that should call you back.

Aunt M, Uncle S, and you two no-longer-so-little cousins - we miss you and wish we were spending today with you, but know that we're thinking of you out here while we're buried in snow and enjoying this gingerbread.

And Aunt S - if I haven't said it before, thanks for all that "weird" jewelry :-)


Christmas Gingerbread
adapted slightly from Aunt M's recipe

1 c flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp cream of tartar
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 c cold butter, cut into cubes
1/2 c packed dark brown sugar
1 tbsp light corn syrup
2 tbsp chopped crystalized ginger

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease an 8" round cake pan. Combine flour, baking soda, cream of tartar, and ground ginger in a medium bowl.

2. Cut in butter with a pastry cutter until mixture is crumbly. Stir in dark brown sugar, corn syrup, and crystalized ginger. Mixture will still be very crumbly.

3.  Press mixture into prepared pan and bake for 40-45 minutes. Let cool on wire rack, then cut into wedges or squares.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Spritz Cookies

One of my favorite kinds of cookies to make with Mama B at Christmas time was always spritz cookies. It's the only time of year we made them, so the adventure began by digging to the back of the kitchen cabinet among lid-less tupperware and rolling pins in search of the amazing contraption I just learned a few years ago is actually called a cookie press. To a seven year old, it was simply "the weird thing-a-ma-jig that we use to make the spritz cookies every Christmas."

But it wasn't actually called a thing-a-ma-jig, and by sometime in high school, I finally got curious enough to ask my mom where she got it. I figured it might have been her grandmother's, like the ancient loaf pans we use for pumpkin bread. So I was completely surprised - confused, even - when she said it had belonged to Grandma B, DaddyBob's mom.

My memories of Grandma B don't include her in the kitchen, because I never knew her as the woman she was before Alzheimer's disease. DaddyBob says that Grandma B used that cookie press to make Christmas cookies, and so I now have a glimpse of who she was before the dementia changed her.

That's a pretty neat contraption - it makes cookies AND helps a granddaughter and grandmother who hardly knew each other connect in a way they never could in life. Making spritz cookies has always been special to me for this connection.

Katie and I now have our own cookie press for our own Christmas baking extravaganza.  I love making spritz dough; it comes together so quickly and has just the right amount of almond flavor to make the cookies melt in your mouth, but not overwhelm you. When we were small, Katie, Mama B and I made Christmas trees and candy canes and stars; mine and Katie's favorites are now Christmas trees and poinsettias. The red and green together are so festive.

Another reason I love these cookies is because over the years, spritz cookies have become one of the Christmas cookies I'm responsible for. Somehow, the spritz cookies have chosen me as their keeper, for while mine turn out well, the cookie press never works for Kate. Sometimes, I like to think of it as Grandma B's special gift to me, and me alone. Thanks, Grandma!


Spritz Cookies
slightly adapted from Betty Crocker
Makes about 5 dozen cookies

1 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon almond extract or vanilla
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 egg
red and green food coloring
sprinkles or sparkling sugar for decorating

1.  Heat oven to 400 degrees.

2. Cream butter and sugar together.  Stir in remaining ingredients.  Add food coloring if desired.

3. Place dough in cookie press and form cookies on ungreased cookie sheets.  Decorate with sprinkles.  Bake for 5 minutes, until cookies are set but not brown.

4. Cool on cookie sheets for 1 minute, then place on wire racks to cool completely.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Toffee Almond Crunch

Over the next few weeks, Becky and I are sharing some of the holiday treats we traditionally make this time of year. Today's treat is Toffee Almond Crunch and is, in the grand scheme of things, a newer addition to the K&B holiday baking menu.

I am quite proud of this toffee, mainly because it is mine. I didn't read about it on a blog and get inspired. No one requested that I make it, which is often why I try new recipes. Last Christmas I simply said to myself "I wonder how you make toffee?", found a recipe, got up the courage to face my fear of molten sugar, and made some.

Then I made some more, and some more, and some more. I can't even count how many batches of this I made last Christmas.

But enough talking, right? Let's make some toffee!

First, the prep work:
Toast your almonds and set them out to cool.

Generously grease a large cookie sheet, and when I say generously, I mean a Pioneer Woman + Paula Dean amount of butter. If you're worried about using that much butter, you shouldn't be making toffee in the first place, but we will be getting rid of some of that butter later, so calm down.

While the almonds are still cooling, get distracted by the Cookie Pizza recipe from the Betty Crocker Cookbook circa 1991 currently sitting on your table. Notice how there are M&Ms on the pizza, but none of them are blue. Think about how in 1991, no one had even dreamed of blue M&Ms. Then remember how your Grandpa B - King of M&Ms - never got to taste blue M&Ms himself because he died right before they debuted, and how you and Beck went to the cemetery and shared a pack of M&Ms with Grandpa, eating all the normal colored ones but putting all the blue ones in the vase with his flowers so he could try them. When you're ready to leave that memory, come back to the toffee, which, by the way, Grandpa B would have loved.

Coarsely chop one cup of blanched almonds. These will be for the toffee itself.
Finely chop a different cup of almonds. These will be for sprinkling on top of the chocolate layer.
Put the coarsely chopped almonds in a bowl near the stove so you have them handy.

Okay! Prep work done. Well...almost. It's best to measure your sugar, corn syrup, and water out before you start melting the butter, so as not to stress once you get going. Did you measure out those three things? Yes? Good job! Now we're ready for the good part (also known as the dangerous part. If you are baking with small children, best to keep them out of the kitchen for this next part).

Melt 2 sticks salted butter in a large sauce pan over medium heat.

If you're like me and have a super weird thing about setting timers and dials and clocks on exact, obvious marks, set your dial to slightly more than medium. (For years I had a problem setting my alarm clock exactly on the hour, half-hour, or quarter hour, always setting it for 6:59 or 7:01. I'm over that now, but the oven dial thing remains. One thing at a time, right?) 

Once the butter is melted, pick up the pan and swirl the butter around so the butter goes up the sides of the pan. This will help the sugar not stick to the sides. Then add sugar, water, and corn syrup, and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Now put down the spoon, and DO NOT TOUCH IT AGAIN UNTIL I TELL YOU TO! You are going to want to pick it up, but you shall not, because you are stronger than the spoon.

Repeat after me: "I will swirl, not stir."


You've got your butter/sugar mixture on the stove over medium. Set your kitchen timer for three minutes. The sugar will foam up and start to bubble. You may also see some vapor as the water evaporates. After three minutes - and only after three minutes - pick up the pan with both hands and swirl the mixture around a few times. Put the pan back down and reset your timer for three more minutes. When the timer goes off, swirl again. Then reset your timer for...wait for it...three more minutes.

Personally, I cannot watch sugar boiling for three minutes without picking up a spoon and stirring. It's simply not possible. Are you like me and need a distraction to get through those 120 seconds? I suggest these activities:

- Washing all the silverware in the sink.
- Pre-empting the calories in the toffee by doing jumping jacks.
- Seeing if you can hold your Pilates plank for a whole three minutes (for me, not quite, but pretty close).
- Drinking a bunch of water, because water is good for you!

Whatever you do, don't ever go far from the stove, especially during the last couple sets of three minutes. You want to be able to check the sugar at a glance to make sure it isn't burning.

You want the sugar to be a deep amber color. If you start to smell even a hint of burned sugar, remove the pan from the heat right away. Mine was done after about 14 minutes.

When you have the right color, remove the pan from the heat and working quickly but carefully, PICK UP THE SPOON and stir in the coarsely chopped nuts. Immediately dump the hot, sugary, buttery glob onto the greased cookie sheet and use the spoon to spread it towards the edges of the pan.  Set the pan aside to cool completely.

Gently invert the toffee onto parchment or wax paper. Get rid of all that butter by wiping the toffee with a paper towel.

Melt 1 1/2 cups chocolate chips in the microwave and spread over the top.

Sprinkle 1/2 cup of finely chopped almonds on top. Put the toffee in the fridge for at least 20 minutes so the chocolate sets.

When the chocolate is set, lay parchment over the top, flip the toffee, and do it all over again - paper towel, chocolate, nuts.  Place back in fridge so the second side can set.

Take the toffee out of the fridge and let it warm up just a bit. Wash your hands real good, then break the toffee into pieces. My advice here: DON'T try to break it using just your fingertips (unless you have abnormally strong fingers), or by pulling up on a corner with one hand while the other holds the toffee on the countertop (you'll only smash your average fingers). DO firmly grab the toffee with both hands and commit to snapping it in two, like you do when you break a banana in half. Take charge, people. You can do it.

Note: you'll lose a lot of almonds in this process. This is okay. I like to think that some of the almonds are happy to be martyrs for the sake of the overall deliciousness of this toffee.

And you're done! I like to store the toffee in the fridge so the chocolate doesn't melt in our insanely hot apartment, but it should be fine at room temperature, especially for short periods of time like in a candy bowl during a holiday shindig. This toffee also makes an excellent gift all wrapped up in tissue paper in a pretty box or tin.

Consider this my holiday gift to you.  Enjoy!

- Katie

Toffee Almond Crunch
Recipe adapted from

2 cups slivered, blanched almonds
1 cup (2 sticks) SALTED butter
1 1/3 cups sugar
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
3 tablespoons water
3 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips

1.  Toast almonds on a cookie sheet in a 350 degree oven for 7-8 minutes, stirring at the 5 minute mark.  Set aside to cool. Generously grease a large cookie sheet or jelly roll pan with butter.

2. Coarsely chop 1 cup almonds and set aside near the stovetop. Finely chop remaining cup and set aside.

3. Melt butter in a large saucepan over medium heat, swirling the pan so the butter goes up the sides of the pan. Add sugar, corn syrup and water, and continue to cook over medium heat, swirling the pan every three minutes.

4.  When sugar is a deep amber color (hard-crack stage on a candy thermometer, approximately 300 F), remove from heat and quickly stir in coarsely chopped nuts. Spread mixture on greased cookie sheet. Let cool completely.

5. Invert toffee onto parchment or waxed paper and wipe with a paper towel to remove grease.

6. Melt 1 1/2 cups chocolate chips in the microwave in 30 second intervals, then spread chocolate over toffee. Sprinkle with remaining 1/2 cup finely chopped nuts. Place in refrigerator to set.

7. Repeat steps 5 and 6 for other side.

8. Break toffee into pieces. Store in refrigerator.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Almond Snowflakes

It's that time of year again. We've stocked our cabinets with loads of sugar, flour, nuts, chocolate chips, and graham crackers. I've made a trip to Michael's for Christmas boxes and tins. We've bought extra rolls of parchment and boxes of butter. My heart is a flutter, for our apartment has transformed into a Christmas cookie factory.

Christmas cookies have held a certain magic for me all my life. I have distinct childhood memories of Mama B baking batches upon batches of Christmas cookies throughout the Christmas season, starting at the very beginning of December. The treats, wrapped in multiple layers of saran wrap and wax paper, filled tin upon tin, each tin stacked on top of another on the corner shelves in the kitchen.

"Kate, get me some Chocolate Crinkles for this tray," she'd say.

I'd climb up on the kitchen bench, grab a tin from the top of the stack, and open it. Magic Cookie Bars.

Another tin. Spritz.

Another. Fudge.

Yet another. Chocolate Chip Cookie Bars. Russian Tea Cakes. Cranberry Orange Shortbread.

Finally, in the last and biggest tin, Chocolate Crinkles. I'd grab a handful, carefully re-fold the wax paper and saran wrap, close up the tins, and re-stack each of them, making mental note of which cookie was in which tin, for I secretly prided myself on being able to grab a specific cookie on a moment's notice. My own little Christmastime memory game, and proof that I was a good little helper.

There was such wonder in opening those tins for the first time every year, for while Becky and I helped with some cookies, Mama B did a lot of baking while we were asleep. There was also comfort in opening the tins, for in all but one of them, the cookies were familiar, staples of the family's Christmas cookie tray, signs that Christmastime was truly here and that some things never change. As for that one different cookie - that was a tradition, too - to try at least one new recipe every year.

Becky and I continue our family's baking tradition, often spending a full weekend baking hundreds of Christmas cookies for our east coast family of friends. Over the next few weeks, we hope to share some of those recipes with you.

Today's recipe, however, is this year's newbie - Almond Snowflakes.

I adapted this dough from an almond crescent recipe. With no eggs and quite a bit of butter, these cookies are a cross between a shortbread and a sugar cookie, and have a distinct almond flavor. Because the dough holds its shape so well, it's great for cutouts, in this case - 1.5-inch snowflakes. I chose to dust this batch with powdered sugar to keep with the snow theme, but if you want something more decadent, try dipping the bottoms in melted chocolate chips.

And now I'm off to a gathering. 

"Beck," I say, "get me some Almond Snowflakes for this tray."

To which she just rolls her eyes and says, "Get them yourself. I'm in a hurry, too."

Oh well. We're not little helpers anymore and sisters will be sisters. Doesn't mean the magic in our hearts is any less :-)

Almond Snowflakes
Adapted from Simply Recipes
Makes approximately 6 dozen small cutouts

1 cup of butter, room temperature
2/3 cup of sugar
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
1 teaspoon of almond extract
2 1/2 cups of flour
1 cup of slivered, blanched almonds, ground in food processor (or almond flour)
1/4 cup of powdered sugar for sprinkling

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Line cookie sheets with parchment.
2. Cream the butter and the sugar together until light and fluffy. Add the extracts and mix.
3. Add the flour and almond flour. Mix thoroughly.  Dough will be very crumbly at this point.
4. Use your hands to work the dough until it comes together.  This may take a couple minutes.
5. Divide the dough into four balls.  Place one ball between 2 sheets of parchment paper and roll out to 1/4 inch thickness.  Alternately, place the dough between two sheets of parchment, place a cookie sheet on top, and press down evenly with both hands, flattening the dough to 1/4 inch thickness.
6. Use cookie cutters to make cookies, and place on cookie sheets. You can place the cookies fairly close together; they don't spread much.  
7. Bake cookies for 6-8 minutes, until edges just start to brown.  Let cool 2 minutes on cookie sheets, then transfer to wire racks to cool completely. Dust with powdered sugar.