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Friday, January 2, 2015

Sweets and Treats for the Holidays-- Part 2: A Baking Binge

I went a little crazy this year with my holiday baking. 

The almost-full spread of my holiday baking binge

Growing up, my mom always baked delicious Christmas cookies to share around the holidays: chocolate chip, noel balls, thimble cookies, spritz, sugar rollouts, and pizzelles (anise AND chocolate!) I still have especially fond memories of the pizzelles--the smell of them baking; the look of them laid out all over our butcher block kitchen table; the curve of my mom's back as she poured batter onto the press, lifted the lid to check their doneness, and used the stained spatula to take them off; the snowfall of powdered sugar dusting them when they cooled (sometimes I even got to help with that part!); the first bite...mmm.

Boxes of Christmas cookies leaving our kitchen were a part of Christmas, just as much as a Christmas tree.

When I moved out, I took her recipes with me and made and shared my own batches of most of the same varieties I enjoyed growing up. (Not pizzelles, though; I don't have a pizzelle maker. Sadly, she doesn't make those anymore, either. I haven't had a pizzelle in I don't know how long. But I digress...)

Although I've added other cookies to my baking repertoire, I've always made the core types. While tasty, it has started to feel like I was in a bit of a cookie rut. After all, there's so many kinds of cookies out there (I have the magazine clippings to prove it!)--what if I could happen upon some new favorites? What if I could spread some of those new favorites around to others, making an even more exciting holiday baking season?

Luckily, I discovered a wonderful baking blog early in 2014. I mentioned it in my last post, too, since the recipe I used for the Candy Cane Kiss cookies was found there. Do yourself a favor and visit  Sally's Baking Addiction. Sally is a great blogger. She's consistent, has fun & tasty recipes, is available to her readers, and has mastered the art of beautiful food photography! I bought her cookbook in the summer and have enjoyed making the recipes with my daughters. Of course, I couldn't keep up with all the recipes I wanted to try, so I bookmarked them (with real post its, or, virtually, on Pinterest, the greatest time suck in the world!) to revisit later.

What better time for that than this Christmas?

Visions of cookies danced in my head and in early December I was struck with another idea: what if I made themed boxes of cookies and let recipients pick the box that most appealed to them instead of making a one-size-fits-all box like usual?

Although some people I shared the concept with seemed dubious, the more I thought about it, the more excited I was to try it. I started to imagine people opening their boxes and offering trades to other box-holders: "Hey, I'll trade you some peppermint bark for an oatmeal raisin cookie!" (What? I have an active imagination.) It was thrilling in its strange way.

I decided to go for it. If it worked, yay, and if it didn't...well, at least I wouldn't wonder later if I should have tried it. Besides, what's the worst that could happen? It's cookies, after all!

It turns out I had no trouble choosing the ones that would make up this year's offerings. Not one of my staple cookie recipes, though, make the cut. With the exception of two cookies I made for the first time earlier in 2014, and two candy classics (caramel corn and pretzels), I chose a lineup of recipes I'd never made before.

Because I was making some seventeen (17) varieties of cookies and candy treats, I couldn't follow my normal schedule of spending just one marathon day baking; this year, I had to spread it out over the course of a week. I started with candy treats because they stay freshest longest-- especially refrigerated--and tackled cookies later in the week. The bulk of the baking still took place on a single weekend day, but it was a lot more manageable because I'd already finished several varieties by that time.

That night, I boxed up the cookies, used Glad Press & Seal wrap to individually wrap cookies with strong flavor profiles so they wouldn't ruin other nearby cookies (the only thing more disgusting than a peppermint cookie next to a peanut butter cookie is an Everything bagel next to, well, any other flavor bagel...), and made cute labels for each box so people knew what they were choosing. The next day--a few days before Christmas-- I hand-delivered the boxes at their maximum freshness.

While recipients did not engage in the cookie trading of my imagination run amok, they did, in fact, have a wonderful time choosing their box themes. Success!

Later that day and in the days that followed, I received a flurry of texts, emails, and phone calls excitedly telling me which cookies people liked best in their boxes. I'd started a dialogue about cookies!



Here's the breakdown of each box. In case you'd like to try making some of these goodies, I've linked the treat to its original recipe whenever possible; just click on the treat name. I also included pictures of my treats and notes about each one.

The Nut-Lovers Box

As Leon Carr wrote in his jingle for Mounds/Almond Joy candies, "Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don't." In this box, I wanted to appeal to those people who feel like nuts. (haha!) Each cookie or treat features nuts, including pecans, almonds, walnuts, peanuts (well, peanut butter), and pistachios. Needless to say, people went "nuts" for these! 

Butter Pecan Cookie  These were one of my personal favorites from this year. I love pecans and these cookies pack a delicious burst of nutty deliciousness into each bite. They reminded me a little of a chip-less version of my mom's chocolate chip cookies recipe (we put ground pecans in ours) only with larger chunks of toasted pecans. I'll definitely make these again.

Butter Pecan Cookies with chunks of toasted pecans on my beautiful wedding china

Reese’s Stuffed Peanut Butter Cookie These are delicious! My mom, who doesn't even like peanut butter cookies, loves them. The dough is incredibly easy to work with, too. Sally's recipe calls for the small Reese's cups (the individually wrapped ones I show in the photo) but I make an assortment of "smaller" cookies used with that size candy and huge cookies that nest a full-sized Reese's cup within it. That massive cookie is a dessert in itself, and packs a huge punch in the calorie department, but this is a holiday treat so why not? I added a thick drizzle of melted Nestle's Chocolate-Peanut Butter Chips on top of mine. This is a recipe I tried a couple months back and, because it was such a winner, knew I had to include within the holiday boxes. I doubled the recipe so I could get more.

Reese's Peanut Butter Stuffed Peanut Butter Cookies- I cut into the one on top so you can see the surprise inside!

Chocolate-Walnut Thumbprint with Cherry Preserves Cookie I found these in Good Housekeeping magazine and thought they looked tasty. Since I usually make a more standard butter thimble cookie, I liked this twist on the old classic. Not only did my Aunt Sherry say they were her favorite cookie from her box, she said they were the best Christmas cookies she ate this year!

Pretty little maids all in a row...

Up close and personal with preserves.

Oatmeal Raisin with Walnut Cookie  I made a version of oatmeal raisin cookies last year, but the recipe I used had way too much sugar; they were cloyingly sweet. This year I tried Sally's recipe and she hit on the perfect amount of sugar. I split this batch of cookies in two, including walnuts in half the batter (to be included in my nut-lover box) and leaving the walnuts out of the other half (to be included in another box).

Chewy Oatmeal Raisin Cookies

Chocolate-Dipped Almond Biscotti  These cookies made their way into two boxes, too, by virtue of their nutty batter and utter coffee-pairing deliciousness. They were a winner in both boxes, and a cookie I was able to make during the week because they're crunchy to begin with. I left a few plain on the outside to offer a twist. Next time, I may add some dried cherries to the dough for extra interest.

Chocolate-Dipped Almond Biscotti-- coffee's best friend

White Chocolate Swirl Bark   I didn't link to a recipe for this one because it's a treat I found in the Sally's Baking Addiction cookbook. No worries, though, because it was super simple to make, consisting of melting bricks of white chocolate and semi-sweet chocolate, spreading the chocolates onto a silicone-lined pan (do yourself a favor and splurge on some Silpat mats! I received two for Christmas last year and I LOVE them!), swirling them with the edge of a knife, topping with pistachios and craisins, then popping the pan into the fridge to set. After about twenty minutes, take it out, break it into pieces (or cut it if you prefer the uniformity), and enjoy! This stuff was my Aunt Donna's favorite.

Pistachio and craisin-topped white & semi-sweet swirled chocolate

                          The Breakfast Blend Box

For this box, I kept breakfast in my mind. I wanted to create an assortment of cookies that either would pair well with one's morning cuppa, or that borrowed breakfast-y flavors or ingredients. What a delicious way to start the day!

Chocolate-Dipped Almond Biscotti   This cookie makes a second appearance here because it begs to be enjoyed with a steaming mug of something.

Oatmeal Raisin Cookie   Here's another repeat from the other box. In this version, though, I left out the nuts. Still, in either form, what's more breakfast-y than a bowl of oatmeal? Perfect for a cookie! (And bonus: When they start to turn toward the stale-phase and become more crunchy than chewy, they aren't half bad broken atop some vanilla ice cream.)

Banana-Walnut Chocolate Chunk Cookie   I was, perhaps, the least enthused over this cookie. It did, in fact, taste like banana-walnut bread which is why it was a nice addition to this themed box, but it was also consistently the last man standing on the trays. Sorry, Martha, but I probably wouldn't make these again.

Bananas, walnuts, and semi-sweet chunks - breakfast in a cookie

Chai Spiced Snickerdoodle Cookie  From the moment I first saw these cookies posted at the end of October, I knew I must make them. In fact, the idea of this twist on a classic was part of my inspiration for the breakfast box. I adore cardamom; it's such a delicious, warm spice. I put it in my homemade granola as a matter of course, and it's the "spice" part of last year's Starbucks Vanilla Spice Latte which I copied at home. Chai tea warms you from the inside and I knew this cookie needed to go in this breakfast box. Chai paired with chai? Yes, please! Note: The recipe calls for making a homemade vanilla frosting. I had planned on making it but by the time I'd finished baking all the cookies I was spent. I iced about half of the yield with some store-bought stuff, and left the other half plain. My Aunt Joy raved over these cookies and told me she preferred the iced ones. I bet she'll like them even more when I budget time to make the icing as per the recipe!

Plain or iced, chai spiced snickerdoodles are twice as nice!

Gingerbread Cookie  The happiest, cutest cookie there is. Everyone should start the day with a smile. I found this recipe and made it because my older daughter loves gingerbread. They cookies are tasty to eat but even more fun to decorate (the whole family got in on the action--we had an Eagles quarterback, a Princess Leia, and a one-eyed zombie among these more classic types) and the dough is easy to work with.

One big, happy, gingerbread family

The Candy Shoppe Treat Box

The original concept for this box was going to be chocolate lovers. But I had so many recipes for candy-based cookies that weren't necessarily chocolate-based that I revised my concept. This box was super popular, containing more of the most-raved-over recipes of the season than any other box. 

Salted Caramel Dark Chocolate Cookie  These cookies... oh my! Hands down, the most successful cookie of the season. My husband's new favorite cookie, and my new favorite chocolate varietal. My Aunt Holly and brother both loved them, asking more than once, "Do you have any more of those salty chocolate ones with the caramel inside?" That caramel inside is a Rolo candy and the salt on top is Fleur de Sel. As it were, I didn't have more because the yield for the cookies wasn't that high. Although I can't say the dough was easy to work with (it was sticky and required additional refrigeration even beyond what the recipe called for), the taste more than made up for the extra work. This cookie is going into the rotation-- next year, I'll double it so everyone can enjoy seconds!
Salty and sweet, chocolate with a caramel surprise in the center!

Cake Batter Chocolate Chip Oreo Cookie  I made these back in March when I sent them to school for my daughter's birthday (they're nut-free!); the teacher raved over them. I like them because they are a fun twist on the classic chocolate chip cookie, and they offer lots of options for customizing. When I made them before, I used a mix of white chocolate and semi-sweet chips and classic Oreo cookies. This Christmas, though, I used all semi-sweet chips and Birthday Cake Oreos (since the dough has actual cake mix in it, I was trying to really play up that birthday cake flavor). The bright rainbow sprinkles and visible chunks of Oreo help these cookies stand out and were among the first grabbed off my holiday trays, especially by my young cousins and my niece.

What's not to love in these happy candy-and cookie-packed cookies?

Reese’s Stuffed Peanut Butter Cookie   Yes, these again. I put them in the nut box for the peanut butter, but if I was forced to choose only one home for them, this box would be it. The Reese's cup surprise center makes these cookies a fan favorite. I prefer them with the full-sized cup in the center, but that's a lot of cookie; if you go that route and make a single-batch of cookie dough as per the recipe, the yield is 11 large cookies and 1 small cookie. Remember to increase cook time for the larger cookies. 

Candy Cane Kiss Cookie  I did an entire post on these cookies because I received a free sample of the Candy Cane Kisses from Influenster. I can't overstate how popular these were, especially among the kids. I would have made a second batch but my daughter ate all my leftover Kisses! I'm planning to make them again soon, though, with some blue and white sprinkles (for winter) and Cookies and Cream Kisses on top.

Fun and festive for the holiday season with just a Kiss of mint

Peppermint Bark Candy  Honestly, it just looked so pretty I wanted to try it. Who doesn't like a little mint treat, especially around the holidays? Bark is so simple to make. The hardest part of the process is waiting the 15-20 minute set-time for each layer before getting to taste it!

Peppermint Bark

Candy Cane Swirl Fudge   I'm not doing this fudge justice with this photo, but I forgot to take a close up picture of the fudge by itself; the one I'm including here is a zoomed-in shot from the full spread shown in the very first photo of this post. I made this fudge specifically to share with the baristas at Starbucks (it was gone before I finished my latte!) and the staffers at my gym. The leftovers (pictured) I added to some of the candy shoppe treat boxes in the bottom layer with the rest of the peppermint treats.

Candy Cane Swirl Fudge

White Chocolate Swirl Bark    It's candy, so I put some in this box, too.

Extra Treats  

I made a few other treats that were weren't included within the three themed treat boxes. Some of them were stand-alone gifts, and some of them supplemented other items, whether purchased or homemade. 

Caramel Popcorn   I love this Kraft recipe, and I use the individually wrapped Kraft caramels and air-popped popcorn (which I have my husband pop for me) to make it. Sometimes I add the peanuts and sometimes I don't. This year, I didn't add them in either of the two batches I made (one each for my dad and my father-in-law.) Coincidentally, on Christmas Eve my brother presented my dad a tub of caramel corn which he'd bought at a specialty popcorn shop at the mall. We couldn't resist conducting a blind caramel corn taste test. Of the six people who participated, everyone voted my homemade corn better, citing the caramel flavor as more pleasantly prominent, whereas the specialty shop's popcorn had a saltier, more buttered-popcorn flavor. Homemade wins the day!

Caramel popcorn - what could be sweeter?

Triple Chocolate & Caramel Covered Pretzels  This is my own "recipe" which consists of plenty of melting and pouring but involves no actual cooking. I use Snyder pretzels, Kraft caramels (melted), and three types of candy melts (dark chocolate, milk chocolate, and white vanilla). I lay my pretzels on two large unlined baking sheets in a single layer and pour melted candy on top of them in turn. I always start with milk chocolate, then move to dark chocolate, then to the white. As the candy melts cool on the pretzels, things harden, so I try to stir it around on the pan a bit so both sides get some coating (not that it matters too much). Then I pour the melted caramel on top. I like it to glob a little. Once everything sets, it can be broken up into chunks. This stuff is addictive and people always ask for more. I give it in its own container.

Chocolate Caramel Coated Pretzels

Peppermint Brownie Cake Pops    I took inspiration from the delightful Starbucks Peppermint Brownie Cake Pop and tried to cook up my own version. (It turns out the real Starbucks "brownie" pops aren't brownies at all but are chocolate cake with butter cream. Go figure.) I went with real brownies for mine, but used a boxed brownie mix in my Baby Cakes machine (makes perfect balls!) to make things easy on myself. Then I melted white candy melts which I flavored with some peppermint flavoring. I dipped each ball into the melty goodness and sprinkled with ground candy canes. I bagged these up in festive holiday treat bags and included them as gifts for teachers and babysitters alongside gift cards where appropriate. My girls loved grabbing them as snacks, too.
Bite sized treats

The plain brownie bite balls underneath and the pops on top


That's it. Seventeen varieties of sweet treats selected, baked, packed, photographed, and shared with love. 

It was lots of work (and TONS of butter-- over 16 sticks! Wowsa!) but trying so many new recipes and getting such positive feedback was wonderful.  It was gratifying spreading holiday cheer with these food gifts as people genuinely seemed to enjoy what they received. 

A fresh batch of treats breathed new life into the staid (but wonderful) tradition of holiday baking. The result of little changes was novel and personal and oh so sweet. 

Now that you've seen it all: which box would YOU have chosen? Let me know in the comments!

Wishing everyone the happiest of holidays 
and a delicious 2015!