Friday, December 30, 2011

The 12 Sweets of Christmas

I hope everyone has enjoyed their holidays, with safe travels, fun with family and friends, and of course, good food!

The 12 days of Christmas, despite what many people think, actually begins on Christmas Day and ends on Epiphany (January 6th).  So I've decided to compile the complete list of the 12 sweets of Christmas for you, just in case you haven't had a chance to try one of the recipes or need an idea for your New Year's Eve party or New Year's Day dinner.

The 12 Sweets of Christmas
(you can sing along if you want to, but it's not required)
  1. Caramel Banana Cake
  2. Quick Sugar Cookies
  3. Chocolate Whiskey Cookies
  4. Easy Peanut Brittle
  5. Grape-Filled Cookies
  6. Almond Paste Cookies
  7. Peanut Butter Cups
  8. Italian Nut Chews
  9. Carrot Cake
  10. Italian Purple Grape Cake
  11. Iced Italian White Cookies
  12. Coconut Cream Pie

See you all in 2012!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Coconut Cream Pie (The 12th Sweet of Christmas)

Merry Christmas, everyone!  Here's the last installment in my special holiday series, "The 12 Sweets of Christmas."  And today we have....


Coconut cream pie!

Meet my Waterloo.

This is the most difficult pie I make.  It's time consuming.  It's fussy.  It requires constant vigilance. It has the potential to be completely disastrous.   But if it comes out right, it's oh so good!

Normally I make this for New Year's dinner, but my cousin (the same one who wanted the 12-layer cake for his birthday) is getting his wisdom teeth out on Tuesday and won't be able to eat much of anything on New Year's.

A few "musts" up front.  Allot yourself close to an hour to make this pie, all hands on time.  Use whole milk.  No not leave the filling unattended.  Adhere to the bold typed directions if you want to be successful.  If you don't have a double boiler, go buy one.  They really aren't that expensive, and even though you might only use the top part a couple times a year, the bottom of a double boiler is just a sauce pan that can be used whenever.  Trying to rig up a double boiler with two saucepans is tricky, irritating, and can lead to messes, burns, and a pie-fail.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Iced Italian White Cookies (The 11th Sweet of Christmas)

Ah!  The bread and butter of an Italian cookie tray, the cookie that, for my entire life (and the lives of my mother, aunt, grandmother, and all who went before me), meant, "Christmas is coming!"  The simplest of Italian cookies!

We called them "biscottis", even though true biscotti are the crunchy, twice baked delights you often find in coffee shops and specialty bakeries.  But the word biscotti in Italian can be used to refer to any type of cookie, which is probably why that's what my great-grandmother called them.

But in perfect honesty, even though my family persists in calling them biscottis (with the predictable flat, short o sound inherent to most American speech patterns), they're really iced Italian white cookies.  There are a gazillion variations on this type of cookie, because it really is the quintessential family recipe.  No two Italian white cookies are exactly the same, but they are all beautiful things.  You can use just the basic vanilla flavoring and call it a day, or make it your own by using other flavor extracts like lemon, orange, cherry, peppermint, anise, almond... the list goes on.

What's particularly great about these cookies is the fact that even little kids can get their hands in the action.  With a consistency similar to Play-Doh, they can be shaped in countless ways.  Letters, circles, loops, and so on.  Or just roll them into balls or, if you're like me and want to get the whole job done quickly (because you realized on December 23rd that you were totally out of biscottis already and decided to make more that very night), you can use a cookie scoop.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Italian Purple Grape Cake (The 10th Sweet of Christmas)

I stumbled on this recipe a couple years ago out of necessity.  My mother-in-law had bought some little purple grapes (which I now know are seedless Concord grapes) at our local farm market.  But they were very ripe, and I had too many left to eat before they spoiled.

Enter Italian fresh purple grape cake.

This is awesome at any time of year, but the seedless Concord grapes are only available in the fall (at least in my area).  However, if you wash and dry the grapes off the vines, they freeze very well in containers or ziplock bags.  Just measure and defrost when you need them.

With some fresh homemade whipped cream on top, and perhaps a sprig of fresh mint, this can be a very festive and different dessert for your holiday table.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Carrot Cake for Christmas? Why not? (The 9th Sweet of Christmas)

You probably don't think of carrot cake when you think about holiday sweets, but this particular recipe definitely has its place.  Think about it - spice cake is sort of a fall/winter cake flavor, and that's essentially what this cake is.

Just with some carrots thrown in.

Smear some cream cheese frosting on it and you've got something totally delicious, even though it does happen to have vegetables in it.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Italian Nut Chews (The 8th Sweet of Christmas)

Ah, Italian nut chews!  This is another family favorite that has been passed down from my great-grandmother. Turns out it wasn't one of her "original" recipes brought from Sicily, but rather one she clipped out of a newspaper before my grandmother was born.

Even though it looks daunting at first, it's really very easy and quick to make.  The longest part of the process is waiting for these cookies to cool.

Peanut Butter Cups (The 7th Sweet of Christmas)

My family isn't going to get to enjoy the 7th sweet of Christmas, because this particular sweet was made to brighten the day of a very good friend of mine who is currently serving our country in Afghanistan.  My homemade peanut butter cups have been a favorite treat of his since he first tasted them back when we were in seventh grade.

My understanding is that the peanut butter cups arrived at his base overseas rather quickly, given the time of year, and have been sampled by all and sundry with big thumbs up all around.

I intended to brighten my friend's holiday, of course, but I'm glad some of the other servicemen and women who are stationed with him were also able to get some cheer from my festive box-o-goodies.

First, I know you're going to say that these look nothing like peanut butter cups.  And you're right.  They should probably be called peanut butter bars.  But they taste almost exactly like Reese's peanut butter cups, so you'll forgive the fact that they are not in "cup" form.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Almond Paste Cookies (The 6th Sweet of Christmas)

When people think of Italian cookies, I bet a lot of people picture the delicate, chewy cookies kissed with almond flavor and topped with a jewel of a candied cherry.

That's right, I'm talking about almond paste cookies.

My husband had never tasted almond pastes until he met me.  (He's not Italian.  But nobody's perfect.)  I think they're now his favorite Christmas cookie.

The number of ways to make almond paste cookies is great and varied, but I'm going to share an extremely simple recipe passed down from my Nana Savona.  It's so simple, in fact, that when I first got the recipe from my great aunt, we thought she'd forgotten to write down some of the ingredients.  But then we were perusing my nana's recipe box at my grandmother's one day and discovered her original recipe card.  And after some trial and error in preparation and storage, we discovered the secret to making these almond paste cookies the way my mom remembers from her childhood.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Grape-Filled Cookies (The 5th Sweet of Christmas)

Are you ready for possibly the most challenging cookie ever?  This is my Everest.  This is my Waterloo.  This is my "coconut cream pie of cookies."  (I'll get to that reference in a later post.)

But, if you take the challenge and are willing to deal with the possibility of crazy gooey oozy grape mess on your cookie sheets, you'll be delighted with the final result.  I promise.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Peanut Brittle from the Microwave! (The 4th Sweet of Christmas)

That's right, you heard me.  You can make peanut brittle in the microwave.  Your hands-on time is something like 15 minutes or less.  And it's delicious.

To be fair and honest, I can't take the credit for this particular batch of peanut brittle.  My mom made it and gave me a generous share.

That share happens to be gone already, but we won't discuss it.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Chocolate Whiskey Cookies (The 3rd Sweet of Christmas)

I have to say this might be my favorite Christmas cookie out of all the Christmas cookies my family makes.  It's an old family recipe; I'm not exactly sure where it originated, but my Nana Savona's recipe box seems to be the origins of the delightful and slightly naughty chocolate whiskey cookies.

I will warn you ahead of time that you should not attempt to make these cookies unless you have at least one helper because they have to be frosted while they're still warm from the oven.  And you're going to have 5 to 6 trays, 20 cookies to a tray.  So expect to frost between 100 and 120 cookies.  Also be forewarned that you won't end up with 100 to 120 cookies at the end of the baking day - because you'll be "forced" to quality test at least one cookie from each batch.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Quick Sugar Cookies (The 2nd Sweet of Christmas)

"The second sweet of Christmas my true love made for me...."

This past Saturday morning, I rolled out of bed about forty-five minutes before I had to leave for my church's annual craft show and bake sale.  As a member of the choir, I was on "kitchen duty".  I also realized, to my chagrin, that I had nothing baked for the bake sale.

This really wasn't that big of a deal because we ended up with lots of donated goodies.  But I felt really bad because what if nobody brought anything?!?  I have a bad habit of worrying about these sorts of things and taking responsibility for stuff like this.  And I don't know if it's my upbringing or what, but I couldn't go empty handed.  It just would've felt.... wrong.  So I embarked on an early morning speed-baking adventure.

I knew I wouldn't have time to bake anything and have it be completely cool before I had to leave, but my husband would be showing up for kitchen duty (he's also a member of the choir) later in the morning and could bring my goodies with him.  But what can you make in a half hour?

You can make sugar cookies.

These cookies are exceedingly easy and quick to whip up. They're perfect for that evening when you get a phone call from those old friends who no longer live in town but happen to be around for the holidays and, "We'd like to stop by later and visit!"  But you have nothing sweet in the house to offer your guests.

I swear on my life, I had the first tray of cookies in the oven in about seven minutes flat.  That's how quick they are to make.  And if you have a cookie scoop (like me) it's even easier than if you're dropping them by teaspoon with actual, you know, teaspoons.

They're not an overly sweet cookie, either, and you can dress them up for company in a variety of ways.  You can make a glaze (and tint it festive colors) to drizzle over the top, with or without sprinkles.  You can dust them with powdered sugar.  You could melt some milk chocolate and pipe pretty designs on top.  Or just serve them up with coffee and tea and give your guests the option to dunk.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Caramel Banana Cake (The 1st Sweet of Christmas)

I'm starting a little "series of sweets" this month, which hopefully will give some of my readers ideas for holiday sweet treats for family and friends.  And the first sweet of Christmas is Caramel Banana Cake.

We do birthdays big time at my school.  Anytime somebody has a birthday, their grade level breaks out the metaphorical party hats and celebrates with the birthday girl's (or boy's) favorite baked treat.  A coworker of mine requested a banana cake for her birthday, because she loves banana cake and hasn't been able to find a recipe that really knocks her socks off.

I scented the challenge a mile away.  Especially since I was already primed to try out this caramel banana cake after Amanda at i am baker gave it a whirl (with her own buttercream twist).  My coworker's birthday proved the perfect opportunity.

I called dibs on making her birthday treat almost two months before her birthday rolled around.  It proved particularly delightful because my grade level happened to be participating in DIBELS Next training the afternoon we had chosen for the birthday lunch.  As much as we "love" training, having cake definitely made the afternoon much more enjoyable.