Ginger & Sichuan Peppercorn Shortbread Hearts

Valentine’s Day. Love it or hate it, there’s no getting away from it- even here I’m afraid. BUT I am hoping to give you something a little bit different in the recipe department. Heart-shaped and pastel-pink hued? Yes. However that’s where the predictability ends- or at least I’m hoping you think so too.

These started inception as…well…I was hankering for something sweet in between grocery deliveries. I wish I could come up with a more romantic, Earth-shattering epiphany than that but alas, no. My recipe for shortbread has been tried, approved and is a breeze to rustle up in a hurry. The instantly seductive baking phrase comes to mind, ” Quick and with minimal ingredients“. So in an effort to kill two birds with one stone, I got to thinking of doing a Valentine’s Day recipe post on shortbread.

So how can I make it “Valentine-sy”? Heart-shaped chocolate chip cookies just didn’t cut it for me. and so the mental gears turned. I had recently stocked up the pantry of some baking ingredients. “Livin’ the lockdown” dream has me currently baking every couple days- can we say “Therapy Baking”? Anyway as part of a restock I had some crystalised (candied) ginger going spare. I have a love/ hate relationship with this ingredient. Whilst I absolutely LOVE it’s mellow, slow-burning, sweet heat (especially in combination with dark chocolate) and so that was at the front of my mind. Pink peppercorns was my initial selection for the next feature ingredient. My worry, however, was that it falls slightly into the territory of over-familiarity, bordering on a go-to spicy contributor to desserts. Sichuan peppercorns are ideal to fill this gap, lending their signature tongue-tingling sensation as an extra boon without the visual fanfare.

That, for me, was enough going on internally. I try to limit the flavors within a bake in order to stop them becoming a jumbled cacophony on the tongue. I was still thinking of how to finish the flavor experience that I had in mind. And of course- rose hits me! Now I don’t mean some random pensioner walking by whacks me with her Kate Spade tote- I mean Rose the flavor. Sure it can be a tricky ingredient to use but when handled properly it can really bring a decadent statement to a bake. And let’s face it (at the risk of being slightly predictable) what’s Valentine’s Day with roses in some form? I’ve combined it here with an understated addition of white chocolate to help compliment the heat from the spices baked into the shortbread, stopping it from sitting on your tongue too long and dominating your palette.

Finishing and decorating your baked shortbread cookie is entirely at your own discretion. Leave them plain and simple, or as I did add a few choice sprinkles and some edible glitter themed in the spirt of the amorous season. See? I can do pretty.

Whatever you choose to do, whether it’s make these and share them, or keep the all to yourself I hope you enjoy them.

Stay safe, and mask up.

Makes 16 heart cookies (I use a 2″ heart shape cutter), or 24 if cut into fingers

Ingredients

  • 1 2/3 cups AP Flour
  • 1/3 Semolina
  • 2 Tablespoons Rice Flour
  • 1 1/2 Tablespoons Cornstarch
  • 1/2 cup and 2 tablespoons fine sugar, divided
  • 1/2 tspn Kosher salt
  • 1 cup/ 2 sticks salted butter, cold and cubed
  • 1/2 cup crystalized (candied) ginger, chopped in to small pieces
  • 2 tspn ground ginger
  • 2 tspn Sichuan peppercorns, toasted and crushed/ ground

To decorate

  • 3oz White chocolate, broken into pieces
  • 1 tspn coconut oil
  • 1/2 tspn rosewater
  • Candy sprinkle, dragees to suit

Method

Shortbread Cookies

  1. Lightly grease and line a 9″ x 12″ traybake tin
  2. In a large bowl combine the flour, semolina, rice flour, cornstarch, sugar, salt, round ginger and ground Sichuan peppercorns. Whisk together to further combine
  3. Add in the cubed butter and rub together with your fingertips, or a pastry cutter, until the mixture is just beginning to bind together. Every so often do a  quarter turn of the bowl to make sure you’re using all the dry mixture. You’ll want a texture somewhere between breadcrumbs and damp sand before you stop. Be wary of overworking the butter into the mixture – you want to avoid a dough that is feels slimey from the butter melting too much into the dry ingredients
  4. Add in the chopped crystalized (candied) ginger and stir lightly to combine
  5. Tip the crumb mixture into your prepared tin and press the dough so that it forms a solid layer. Level the surface with the back of a spoon or measuring cup, making sure the mixture is evenly spread and uniform.
  6. Refrigerate for 30 mins minimum
  7. Preheat your oven to 325°F
  8. Remove the chilled dough from your fridge and using your cookie cutter mark 16 heart shapes by pushing the cutter roughly halfway into the dough. You don’t have to go the full way through to the bottom of the pan. If you’re not making heart-shaped cookies, you can use a knife or pizza cutter score the shortbread into 24 rectangular pieces (2 cuts by 7 cuts) taking care not to actually cut the full way through
  9. Bake the dough for 30- 35 minutes or until a very pale golden brown, and deeper golden brown at the edges
  10. Remove from the oven and using your heart-shaped cookie cutter, cut fully through the baked shortbread . The dough in the cutter should come away, giving you a heart-shaped cookie. On a wire cooling rack carefully push out the cookie. Repeat and leave to cool fully*
  11. (If you’re not using a cookie cutter simply cut with a knife or pizza cutter at the score lines you previously made, cut the the bottom of the pan to complete the cut the full way through. Leave the full slab of shortbread to cool in the tin for 15 minutes. Carefully lift the fingers out of the tin with a palette knife or the parchment paper overhang and finish cooling on a wire rack)

To decorate

  1. In a small bowl, set over a pan of simmering water, combine the white chocolate, coconut oil and rose water
  2. Heat over a gentle simmer, stirring occasionally, until the chocolate is fully melted and all ingredients are combined
  3. Turn off the heat and carefully remove the bowl
  4. Dip the shortbread hearts or bars into the melted chocolate and set on a rack or tray lined with baking parchment or silpat mat. (If you find you’re chocolate is becoming stiff and hard to work with, place the bowl of chocolate back into the hot water pan and leave to re-melt to a more workable state
  5. Whilst the chocolate is still setting finish decorating in your preferred way
  6. Because of the oil in the chocolate, fully decorated cookies should be stored in an air-tight container in the fridge for up to a week. Separate layers of cookies using baking parchment. To serve remove the cookies about 15-20mind before serving – or just eat straight from the fridge!

Homegating Huddle

Brace yourselves- it’s that time of year again. No, I’m not talking about the impending rush of Valentine’s Day. I’m speaking of Super Bowl. That annual tradition of swole men fighting to deposit an inflatable pig skin at one end of a grass field, only to fish it out again and start over upon successful completion. You can tell I’m a fan right?

Well what I am a fan of is the Super Bowl halftime show (this year it’s Scarborough’s own The Weeknd); the cinematic advert premiers and of course….the FOOD! What’s a Super Bowl without the food you say? Possibly 4 hours of my life I’ll never get back I say. But an ample supply of snacks, and edible treats, provide not only fuel for the event but a distracting highlight.

My advice is to take a two-pronged approach. During the game you want something snackable, easy to handle with minimum effort (I’m talking no utensils here people) and that you can eat on auto-pilot. Whether it’s because you’re too focused on the defense strategy of the Buccaneers, or Kansas City’s Tight End’s…well…tight end, less fuss is more eating here. There’s the old classic chips ‘n’ dip – Guacamole; Salsa; Blue Cheese and Ranch are all solid favorites. Have on hand a selection of chips and crackers and you’re good to go.

Speaking of crackers, another firm favorite that no Super Bowl viewing is complete without is the Cheese Ball. An amalgamation of cheese in it’s many forms and seasoned however you like, it’s sure to be a touchdown success (see what I did there?) In fact why not get into the spirit of the event and mold it into football shape- themed eating at it’s best! If you’re feeling particular artistic you can complete the look with a layer of pepperoni for…ahem… “authenticity”- much as I have below.

Halftime is when you want to bring out the big guns. I’m talking food that needs a plate, possibly a knife and fork. Heck we want convivence here so get yourself a spork! Right up there with the cheese ball, Super Bowl means “wings” to me. Crispy, succulent, and packed full of flavor wings. It’s a matter of personal taste as to whether you want them dripping in sauce, there for the dunking or dry coated to retain their crispy goodness. I’m a fan of the latter so I’ve included my recipe for “Chicken Dust”. Now before you get to thinking it’s some sort of anti-mite treatment for foul stock, I discovered the term whilst researching fried chicken treatments. I don’t spend ALL my time eating you know. It’s a versatile little number in that you can use it as a dry rub or, as I have done, combine it with some oil to lend extra crispiness to the finished wings. I’ve left the actual cooking method up to you as everyone seems to have their own preference. I, myself, air-fried them for 15mins, tuning occasionally to ensure even golden, crispness.

My last recipe is for that other feel-good favorite… tacos. I definitely do suggest you have a plate here, jam packing the tortilla with flavorsome fillings can often mean they’ll try to make a break for it! These tacos take advantage of one the prominent food trends emerging from this pandemic era…Plant-based alternatives to meat. Being confined indoors has brought about a dawn of a new age in the food world, the rise of the “Flexitarian”. Less strict than classic healthy diets it allows for the inclusion of occasional meat, with a prominence of plant based meat alternatives. Living in the time of Covid has people wanting a feeling of security and normalcy, often found in comfort food. But a deeper knowledge of associated health issues and ingredients has also meant a more health conscious approach. The abundance of plant based meat alternatives can now mean that people can enjoy their “meaty” experience and be content in the knowledge they’ve made a healthier, and at times more socially conscious, choice. The growth in the market means there are plenty of tasty varieties to try. Trust me- I love ribs and steak as much as your next carnivore so I was skeptical to say the least when plant based meat alternatives first arrived. But I have since been convinced (mainly due to Kristin & Justin at Guerilla Burger Co. ) and remain open to sampling the possibilities.

In this case with tacos. I’ve used ‘beef’ strips here coated in a sticky, glossy sweet ‘n’ spicy sauce with just the right amount of heat. The tacos themselves can be filled whatever way you like- be as restrained or as adventurous as you like. Just be plenty!

A parting word in the spirit of the weekend. Aside from food, the Super Bowl is also synonymous with gathering with friends at the likes of “tailgate parties”. However this year, like everything else since ‘Rona reared it’s head, we’re having to take a different approach to things. It’s definitely NOT a case of safety in numbers this time around. Think less Tailgating party and more ‘Homegating Huddle”. Let’s celebrate Super Bowl LV in fun way that’s still safe and socially responsible. Stay indoors, stick to your own family units, be adventurous and cook new things yourself. Celebrate separately this year, so that we can all celebrate together next year.

Enjoy the recipes, stay safe and mask up!

Superbowl Cheese Ball

Ingredients

  • 16 oz cream cheese (2 x 8oz packs), room temperature
  • 1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese blend
  • 1 cup shredded sharp cheddar
  • 1 cup finely grated parmesan
  • 1 Tbsp Parsley
  • 2 cloves Garlic, minced
  • 1 tspn red pepper flakes
  • 1 tspn Garlic powder
  • 1 tspn Onion powder
  • 1 tspn Hot sauce, or sriracha
  • 1 tspn Worcestershire sauce
  • Kosher salt, to taste
  • Ground black pepper, to taste
  • 2 cups Sliced pepperoni
  • 1 slice Processed cheese

Method

  1. In a large bowl, combine all the ingredients except the pepperoni slices and cheese slice, season with salt and pepper and stir together until fully combined
  2. Gather the mixture into a rough ball shape and transfer to serving platter. Using a cranked spatula or spoons, smooth and form into a football shape
  3. Finish the surface all over with a layer of pepperoni slices
  4. Slice the processed cheese slice into strips and arrange in a “football lace” pattern on top of the cheese ball
  5. Cover with cling wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours to allow the flavor to develop
  6. Remove the cheese ball from the refrigerator 30 minutes before serving, and serve with crackers, vegetable crudités or pretzels
  7. The cheese ball can be stored in the fridge wrapped in parchment paper and cling wrap for up to 1 week

Dusted Wings

Serves 1lb Chicken wings

Ingredients

For the Chicken Dust

  • 2 Tbsp. Onion powder
  • 2 Tbsp. Garlic powder
  • 2 Tbsp. Brown sugar
  • 1 Tbsp. Dried lemon peel
  • 1 Tbsp. Dried oregano
  • 1 Tbsp. Dried thyme
  • 1 Tbsp. Dried parsley
  • 1 Tbsp. White pepper
  • 1 Tbsp. Szechuan peppercorns
  • 1 Tbsp. Baking powder
  • 1 tsp. Celery salt
  • 1 tsp. Mace
  • 1 tsp. Cayenne pepper
  • 1 tsp. Mustard powder
  • 1 tsp. Smoked paprika
  • 1lb Chicken Wings
  • 2 Tbsp Canola oil (if using)

Method

  1. Place all the ingredients in a spice grinder, or clean coffee grinder. Blitz until a uniform powder, or dust, is formed
  2. Transfer to an airtight plastic container for storage
  3. The chicken dust can either be used in it’s own as a dry rub , or combined with the canola oil in a ziplock bag. Place the seasoning in a zip-lock bag, add in 1lb of prepared chicken wing pieces (drumettes and flats) and the tablespoons of canola oil. Shake and rub the bag contents together until the chicken pieces are fully coated
  4. Cook by your preferred method – baking, air-frying
  5. Remove and serve with preferred dip, or solo
  6. Sit back and tuck in!

Sticky Beef-free Tacos

Makes 6 tacos

Ingredients

“Beef” Strip sticky glaze

  • 2 Tbsp. Sesame oil
  • 3 cloves Garlic, minced
  • 1 Tbsp. fresh Ginger, minced
  • 2 tsp. Rice wine vinegar (white vinegar also works here)
  • 4 Tbsp. Honey (if vegan diet extends to honey, maple syrup can be used)
  • 4 Tbsp. Sweet chili sauce
  • 6 Tbsp. Vegan-friendly Tomato ketchup
  • 4 Tbsp. Soy sauce

Taco Filling suggestions

  • 500g Plant-based “Beef” (or “Chicken”) strips
  • 6 medium (8″) soft flour tortillas
  • Shredded lettuce (I find Iceberg works best)
  • Sliced red onions
  • Shredded cheese, strength to preference
  • Soured cream
  • Guacamole, or sliced avocados

Method (for the sauce)

  1. Combine all the sticky glaze ingredients in a medium pan
  2. Heat over a high heat until boiling
  3. Reduce heat to low/ medium and simmer until reduced by 1/3
  4. Whilst the sticky glaze is reducing, prepare your protein in accordance with packet instructions
  5. Toss the prepared/ cooked protein in the sticky glaze
  6. Assembly tacos using additional ingredients to personal taste
  7. Serve and enjoy!

Midnight Ginger Cake

So this started as riff on my Spiced Chocolate Cake and grew from there. I absolutely love those chocolate-covered ginger biscuits. You know the ones – those crunchy, brittle ginger-snap like ones that have that slow-burning throaty heat, enrobed in decadent dark chocolate? Yup- I can easily demolish an questionably inhuman amount of them in one sitting! So I thought of recreating that addictive marriage of heat and bitterness in cake form. Not content with just any form if chocolate flavor I wanted an extra oomph! Switching up to using black cocoa not only gives in my view wonderfully deep, earthy chocolate flavor but also the alluring sumptuous midnight-black of the title. Although it does provide a chocolate flavor, it’s a world away from the sometimes cloying richness of a traditional cocoa-fueled cake.

I also thought it would provide the perfect canvas for my newly acquired stock of Rosen Bun’s bun-inspired spreads– here, the deliciously addictive Babka variety, with it’s “deep chocolate flavor with a cinnamon left hook”. The darkly, luxurious flavors of the spread combining with the spicy, gingery antics of the cake. You can rest easy as using the spread here is nothing more complicated than spreading, or rather smearing, it in hypnotic, glossy waves of velvety, sweet goodness over the top of the cooled cake. In fact the hardest part is restraining yourself from scoffing the cinnamony-cocoa spread straight from the jar! Seriously – this is sinfully finger-licking good stuff. Check out the Rosen Buns website for a list of stockists.

Decoration of the finished covered cake is entirely to your own taste. I used dehydrated pear slices as I was experimenting with a newly purchased kitchen gadget. Using the dried pear slices as decoration rather than munching them straight out of the bag providing some form of self-deluding restraint in my mind!

As always with my posts where I mention, or name drop, specific items it’s done from a place of support and elevation. The producing companies are small, local Toronto businesses whose products have earned a special place in this cynical, hungry heart (and I mean LITERALLY). If there has been any compensation, sponsorship or re-imbursement, I’ll clearly flag it up for clarity and yes, it usually still involves me being head-over-heels with the product (case in point here, with the awesome team at Station Cold Brew Coffee).

I hope you enjoy this little exercise and experiment in flavors from me- who knows there may be more to come! In the meantime stay safe, stay home (and bake!) and mask up!

Ingredients

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup black cocoa powder
  • 3/4 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 3 tsps ground ginger
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/2 cup Canola oil
  • 1/2 cup fancy molasses
  • 1/4 cup orange juice
  • 3/4 cup dark brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup whole milk
  • 1 jar Rosen’s Babka Spread

Method

  1. Combine the oil, molasses, juice and sugar in a small saucepan. Set it on low heat and stir till the sugar has dissolved. Set aside to cool for about 10 minutes
  2. In a bowl combine the flour, cocoa, baking soda, salt and spices. Whisk to combine and set aside until needed
  3. Preheat your oven to 325 degrees F. Grease an 8″ x 8″ square cake pan with oil and line it with baking parchment, allowing allow the edges to overhang for easy removal
  4. Transfer the cooled molasses mixture to a large mixing bowl and add in the eggs, vanilla and milk. Whisk well until smooth and well combined
  5. Fold in the flour mixture gradually into the liquid until incorporated. Make sure the there are no pockets of dried flour mixture. The final batter may look a little lumpy- this is okay
  6. Pour the batter into the prepared tin, level the top and bake for 35 to 40 minutes until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. If the top is darkening quickly, cover the tin loosely with foil and continue baking
  7. Allow the cake to cool in the tin for 15 minutes, then invert, remove and place on a wire rack to cool completely.
  8. Once completely cool spread the babka spread over the top as you would a ganache. Decorate as you like. Here I’ve used some dehydrated pear slices (for no other reason than I was playing with a new piece of kitchen equipment!)
  9. Slice and enjoy!
  10. Store in an airtight container for about 3-4 days at room temperature

Christmas Couronne

A Christmas Carol holds a play in my household as a cornerstone of Christmas. In fact the 1984 version starring George C Scott is held in such high esteem as THE quintessential version that it heralds the “official” start of yuletide festivities on December 1st for us. Each time there is a new version I look forward to seeing how each of the ghostly visitors will be portrayed. My favorite being the largest of the all- the bountiful and exhuberant Ghost of Christmas Present. Maybe it’s their jovial grasp of transient life and joie de vivre? Or maybe it’s that they are a harbinger of plentiful – cornucopia overflowing with festive bounty. This is what brings me to this recipe- the couronne.

So many things about it that instantly makes me think of the Ghost of Christmas Present. From it’s wreath shape, to the fluted edges blossoming with sweet, festive fillings, to the sweet, heady flavor of marzipan (always a signature festive flavor for me). Consider it in the same vein as that other Christmas classic- stollen, alebit not as heavy I find. The braiding can be a little bit tricky to master – I’m not kidding when I swore at one point it must be like wrestling an octopus. Filling will fall out- just accept it. It is not a testament as to your prowess, it’s just inevitable. Any loose stray filling can just be sprinkled back over the fully shaped dough and nobody, aside from you and the kitchen walls, will be any the wiser.

Although this couronne is good for a week in an airtight container, it really is at it’s best up to three days after baking.

Ingredients

Dough

  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 1/2 stick butter  
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 4 cups Bread Flour 
  • 2 1/4 tspn yeast
  • 1/4 cup warm water
  • 1 Tbspn salt
  • 3 Tbspn and 1 tspn sugar divided
  • Zest 1/2 orange
  • 1/2 cup golden raisins
  • 1/2 cup Thompson raisins
  • 1/4 cup cherry wine (or orange juice for kid-friendly)
  • 1 tspn vanilla extract
  • 1 cup pecans, toasted and roughly copped
  • 1 cup almond marzipan

To glaze and decorate

  • 1/3 cup apricot jam
  • 1 cup icing sugar 
  • 1 tspn water
  • 1/4 tspn rum or rum extract 
  • 2 Tbspn Flaked almonds, toasted 

Method

  1. The night before you want to make the couronne, in an airtight container or jar combine the dried fruits, cherry wine and vanilla extract and mix well. Seal and set aside for the fruit to soak up the liquid, occasionally shaking/ stirring the mixture
  2. The following day, in a small pan combine the milk, butter and cinnamon stick. Heat gently, stirring occasionally until the butter has melted fully. Remove from heat and set aside to cool until tepid
  3. In a small bowl mix together the yeast, warm water and 1 Tbspn sugar until combined. Set aside for 10 minutes until frothy
  4. In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the flour, remaining sugar and salt
  5. Add in the frothed yeast mixture and the butter/ milk (depending on the humidity of your kitchen you may not need all of the butter/ milk mixture. Start with 3/4 of it and add more slowly if needed)
  6. Knead with the dough hook attachment for 6-7 minutes until it comes together as a dough. Continue mixing until the sides of the bowl are clean and the dough is soft. It should stop feeling sticky and have a smooth exterior
  7. Transfer the dough to a large pre-oiled bowl, cover with cling film and set aside to prove in a warm place approximately an hour
  8. When the dough has about doubled in size, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. Without knocking it back, roll out the dough into a rectangle roughly 13x10in in size
  9. Sprinkle the soaked plump fruits over the surface of the dough
  10. Scatter the chopped pecans over the surface of the dough
  11. Break/ tear the marzipan in to rough pieces 1/2″ to 1″ in size. Scatter these pieces over the surface as well
  12. By the time you’ve finished the surface of your dough should be covered with soaked fruits, pecans, and marzipan
  13. Roll the dough tightly like a Swiss roll along the long edge so you end up with a sausage shape approximately 13″ long and transfer the roll to a large lined/ prepared baking sheet.
  14. Cut the roll in half lengthways, all the way along it’s length. Turn the roll lengths so that the cut layers are exposed on top. Keeping the cut layers to the top overlap the two lengths of dough together forming a simple braid.
  15. Form the braided length into a circle shape and join/tuck the ends to form a ring shape. *I use a heatproof greased/ oiled can or circular bowl placed in the middle to wrap the dough around to help give the circular shape
  16. Cover the couronne ring and set aside in a warm place for 30-40 minutes to rise, until the dough springs back quickly when lightly prodded
  17. Preheat your oven to 425F
  18. Bake the proved couronne for 25-30 minutes, or until risen and golden-brown. Remove from the oven and leave to cool on the sheet for 10 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool
  19. While the couronne is cooling, heat the apricot jam with a splash of water in a small pan over a medium heat until runny. Pass through a sieve to remove any pieces of fruit, then brush the sieved jam all over the warm couronne to glaze. Set aside to cool completely
  20. For the icing glaze mix together the icing sugar, water and rum (extract) to form a runny glaze. Drizzle over the cooled couronne and scatter with the flaked almonds
  21. The couronne will keep for up to one week at room temperature in an airtight container

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

“Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
Next year all our troubles will be out of sight”

So I’ve finally ventured into the world of online baking, albeit to a select audience- my kids school. Living in the time of Covid-19 has us all at sea, missing connections and striving for some semblance of normality and familiarity in what has become a very isolated, displaced cyber age. Exchanging hugs and handshakes has become thing of the past replaced with online reactions of ‘thumbs up’ and real-time fleeting grabs at proximity with elbow bumps.

It was this want for maintaining connectivity that led me to the small cyber-screen. My kids’ school has a pretty close-knit community of parents and an active parents council. The sundering of this by the Corona virus and the resulting division between “in life” and virtual schooling presented a challenge- how to keep “everyone in the loop”? Both parents and kids missing school-yard friendships and school-gate gossips. Nearly 9 months of following covid-responsible protocols, vastly reduced personal interactions and hyper-vigilant hygiene routines have taken it’s toll on us all – I know they have on me and my family. Now there are feelings of covid-fatigue playing tug-of-war with impending excitement for festivities, all the while trying to hold some together some semblance of normality for ourselves and our children.

Yes, all of this might seem like an overly dramatic preamble to a few festive themed recipes. However, I think it’s in times like these that maybe were forced to look at things differently. Everyday habits and tasks becoming life-buoys helping to navigate the way. We look inward and discover dormant strengths. Especially when it come to our kids. Let’s face it as much as we might complain about them sometimes (oh, I’ll openly admit I do!) there is no judge, jury or executioner that will harm a hair on their heads will we draw breathe. So if distracting them for thirty minutes with cookie making and hot chocolate gives them a well needed little spark of festive joy; a diversion so they aren’t so down about missing playdates or such- then I’m in. I also know as a parent that in times like this when the children are otherwise occupied, you can breathe. Finally exhale and exchange a look with your significant other that says “You okay?… We got this.” Thirty minutes to centre and steady yourself.

A friend of mine said of our current times, “We are not all in the same boat. We are all in the same storm.” There is no cookie-cutter (forgive the pun) or one-size-fits-all way of dealing with this. But we’ll find ways to make it through. It’s what we do as humans and as parents. It’s what we’ll do this holiday season…look for and create some tinsel-tinged spark of festive joy to light the encompassing winter nights. If baking some cookies helps do that then you go ahead and break out those mixing bowls and fire up the oven. I know I will be.

The segment I “zoomed” (?) was just for making and decorating vanilla cookies, along with making peppermint candy cane hot chocolate. I’ve included a couple of other recipes that you can try out if you feel like it. All suitably festively themed and can be made by one or all. Whatever you make or do I hope you and your family have fun. Enjoy the time, the flavors…heck even enjoy the mess.

Wishing you all a happy, safe and healthy Christmas and holiday season. Enjoy the cookies!

“Someday soon we all will be together
If the fates allow
Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now”

Photograph: J Lee Frank

Vanilla Sugar Cookies

*Chilling the dough for at least 2 hours is required or else its too tricky and unworkable. I prefer to chill it overnight.

You can’t really go wrong with sugar cookies. Well you can actually. In my experience store bought sugar cookies err on the side of fudgy staleness enrobed in the tooth-aching sweetness of excess icing. This is definitely a case of “homemade is better”.

The only thing to bear in mind with these is the chilling time. I’ve seen various recipes suggesting 30 minutes, whilst others have up to overnight recommended. I’ve found that longer works better so I follow the overnight direction. If you find the dough becoming too soft, gummy and hard to work, wrap it back up in clingwrap and pop it back in the fridge for 30mins or so.

Makes approximately 48 cookies (this depends on your choice of cookie cutters)

Ingredients (all at room temperature)

Cookies

  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1 cup butter, softened
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 ½  cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • ½  tsp salt

Glaze/ Icing

  • 1 ½ cups icing sugar
  • 2 Tbsp milk
  • 1 tsp light corn syrup
  • ½ tsp almond extract
  • Food coloring (your favorite festive colors) *see note on coloring
  • Nonpareils; sprinkles; dragees (take your pick!)

Method

  1. In the bowl of a stand mixer, or with an electric mixer,  beat sugar, butter and vanilla until mixture is creamy, about 5-7 minutes. Scrape down sides of bowl. The mixture should become pale, fluffy and not feel grainy when you rub some between your fingers
  2. Whilst your mixture is beating, in a separate bowl combine flour, baking powder and salt and stir to combine. Set aside until needed
  3. To your sugar/ butter mixture, add eggs one at a time, beating after each addition, until fully incorporated. If you notice your mixture starting to split, add teaspoon of your flour mixture to bring it back together
  4. Once the eggs have been added, beat in the dry ingredients into the creamed mixture, until well combined. Increase the speed until the mixture comes together in a soft dough
  5. Remove the dough from the bowl and divide in to four even balls, flatten to discs and wrap in cling wrap
  6. Chill in the refrigerator for a least 2 hrs, or overnight (I personally find overnight works better
  7. When ready to bake, preheat your oven to 350°F
  8. Remove your chilled dough from the fridge, one ball at a time, and leave to become pliable whilst your oven heats to temperature. When your oven reaches temperature, roll out the dough to 1/4″ (0.6 cm) onto a well floured surface. (Avoiding rolling the dough too thin as it may stick and tear). Flour is your friend here – make sure you amply dust everything- counter surface, rolling pin, your hands, cutter
  9. Use cookie cutters of your choice for a variety of different shapes and sizes. Using a palette knife, or spatula, place cookies on your lined cookie sheets
  10. Bake at 350°F for 10 minutes or until the edges are just turning golden brown
  11. Remove from oven and leave to cool on their trays for 5 mins before using a spatula to transfer to cookies to racks to cool completely

Glaze

  1. Combine icing sugar with milk; corn syrup and extract to reach desired spreading consistency. It should be quite thick. If it is much too thick, add 1/2 Tablespoon more milk. If it is much too thin, add 2 more Tablespoons of confectioners’ sugar. If you drizzle a little of the icing with the whisk, the ribbon of icing will hold for a few seconds before melting back into the icing. 
  2. Stir in food coloring or leave icing white. You can pour some icing into different bowls if using multiple colors
  3. You can pipe the icing on to the cookies using a piping bag or squeezy bottle, or using a pastry brush, paint frosting over cooled cookies and decorate with your choice of sprinkles
  4. Allow to set for at least 30mins before eating (note: the icing will still be a little soft at this point. If you want the icing to be fully hard for gifting, leave the decorated cookies to air-dry on a rack overnight

*A note on adding coloring: I prefer to use coloring gels when coloring the glaze. They are a concentrate which with very little will pack a real punch of color without affecting the consistency of your glaze. If you’re using the squeezy tube color dyes be aware that because they have a more form you are adding more liquid to your icing mix.

Enjoy!

Rudolph Oreo Cookies

Now these look like SO much more work than they are. At worst they can be a little fiddly but that just means there’s more “mis-shapes” for the family to enjoy. This is a great recipe to get the little ones involved in. Once the chocolate is melted you can pretty much give them free reign! Step back and enjoy some chocolate covered chaos.

“And now,” cried Max, “let the wild rumpus start!”

Ingredients

  • 24 Double-stuffed Oreo cookies (if you can find “Mega-stuffed” even better
  • Large twist pretzels
  • 48 White chocolate chips (or candy eye decorations)
  • 24 red candy shell chocolates (M&Ms are ideal)
  • 160z chocolate (sweet or semi-sweet, to taste)

Method

  1. Line a cookie sheet with baking parchment or silicone baking matt
  2. Start by cutting up the pretzels. Use a sharp knife to cut them in half, then carefully cut away the center section where the pretzels were joined until to have a vaguely “antler” shape.  This bit can be a bit fiddly as the pretzels can break easy but do remember they don’t have to be exact – all reindeers antlers are different after all! Repeat until you have 24 sets of pretzel antlers
  3. Melt the chocolate in a medium bowl set over a pan of water OR in the microwave, stirring after every 30 seconds to prevent overheating. Once it’s melted and smooth, using two forks or a confectionary dipping scoop dip and coat an Oreo cookie until it is full coated. Remove using your chosen tools, then place the dipped cookie on the prepared baking sheet.
  4. While the chocolate is still wet, press a red candy chocolate into the center of the cookie- there’s your nose!
  5. Make your eyes using two white chocolate chips or candy eye decorations
  6. Create two pretzel antlers by pressing them between the cookies and into the space where the cream filling is. You may need to use a fork to hole the top cookie layer pressed in place while you poke the “antlers” in. Once you’ve assembled one reindeer this way, repeat until all of the cookies are dipped and decorated
  7. Lastly to give your reindeer more “eye appeal” dip a toothpick in the melted coating and give each reindeer two black dots in the center of the white chocolate chip eyes
  8. Refrigerate the tray to set the chocolate completely, for about 20 minutes. Store Oreo Reindeer Cookies carefully in an airtight container at room temperature. They will keep for several weeks, but for the best taste and texture, enjoy them within a week

Candy Cane Hot Chocolate

Well…we need something to wash those cookies down with don’t we? If you want to REALLY treat yourself, dip the rim of your mugs into some melted chocolate and then some crushed peppermint candy canes for a stress-free, festive finishing touch.

Ingredients

  • 3 cups milk
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 4oz semisweet chocolate, broken in to pieces
  • 4 peppermint candy canes, crushed

Optional decorations

  • 1 cup whipping cream, whipped to soft peaks
  • Mini marshmallows
  • Crushed peppermint candy canes
  • 4 small peppermint candy canes, to stir

Method

  1. In a saucepan, combine the milk and cream and heat over a medium heat until hot, but not boiling
  2. Whisk in the chocolate and the crushed peppermint candies until melted and smooth
  3. Pour hot chocolate into four mugs, and garnish as preferred. Serve each with a candy cane stirring stick
  4. Enjoy!

Baileys Edible Cookie Dough

Because even the grown ups need a li’l something in the festive season. This can easily be made kiddie-friendly by omitting the Baileys liqueur. Looking for that gift that’s a bit different? Then look no further! Place in mason jars, decorate and tag accordingly et viola! Cookie dough can be stored (in jars or other air-tight containers) in the refrigerator for up to a week. To enjoy at it’s best remove from the fridge and allow to come to room temperature.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups All Purpose Flour
  • 1 cup light brown sugar
  • ¼ cup white sugar
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • ¼ cup butter, softened
  • 3 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 Tbsp milk
  • 2 Tbsp Baileys liqueur

Extra Fixings

(added to taste but I usually keep it to including 2-3)

  • Festive Candy Sprinkles
  • Dark Chocolate Chips
  • M&M’s
  • Crushed Oreos
  • Crushed Peppermint Candy Cane

Method

  1. Combine all ingredients in a large bowl of a stand mixer and stir to combine.
  2. Add in extras and stir until well incorporated. Enjoy! (A note here – I usually keep the extra fixings to a maximum of 3, or else your cookie dough is in danger of becoming an over-sweet mess).
  3. Store in the refrigerator for up to one week. Before eating, remove from refrigerator and let come to room temperature for a softer texture.