Blog Archives

Holiday Treat Wrap-Up

Holiday Treats

It’s hard to believe that the frenzy of the holiday season is over. I’m still cruising on a sugar high. It’s time to come down soon, but first we have to finish off the dwindling supply of sweets.

It’s been my tradition for a decade or more to make an assortment of treats to share with friends. The whole process is one of my favorite parts of the holidays. First, there’s choosing what to make. I usually mix old favorites with some new recipes. I also enjoy figuring out the right balance of cookies, candies, and nuts. Then, there’s the actual cooking, stirring up a whirlwind of sugar in the kitchen. Plus, there’s packaging everything up in a festive and inviting way, and, finally, delivering the packages to the people that made my year a special one.

Then, we repeat the process, usually with a different assortment, for Howard’s colleagues for him to bring when he returns to the office after New Years.

For my friends’ packages, I made two kinds of cookies, some sweet and salty nuts, and chocolate bark.

Round 1

Round 1

For cookies, first up, I tried Speculoos from Dorie Greenspan’s newest book, Baking Chez Moi. These spice cookies are rolled into logs for slice-and-bake cookies, my favorite technique, though to be honest, I preferred the rolled out version I’ve made from her Around My French Table.

I also chose another cookie recipe from an unlikely source, the out-of-print China Moon Cookbook. A long time ago, at my library’s book sale, I bought a signed copy of this book from a Chinese bistro that was once located in San Francisco, but I’ve never made a single recipe from it. It’s the dessert chapter that always tempts me with a variety of small cookies and luscious sounding tarts, all much more bistro-like than Chinese. The recipe for chocolate stars was calling to me, though my star cookie cutter wasn’t small enough, so I made snowflakes instead. These chocolate shortbread cookies were delightful. Cocoa powder made the dough chocolaty and the chopped dark chocolate gave an added burst of chocolate flavor. Even for this non-chocoholic, this recipe is a winner.

I always like to include some kind of nuts for snacking. The Maple-Thyme Pecans in the new Ovenly cookbook, from the bakery in Brooklyn, were tempting. I made one batch with pecans and another with walnuts. With the second batch, I cut back on the amount of maple syrup to avoid the soupy puddle left in the pan with the first batch. The sweet from the maple was nicely countered by the herbal tones of the thyme and the saltiness of coarse sea salt.

Finally, I took inspiration from David Tanis’ One Good Dish and made some Espresso Hazelnut Bark. This was as simple as topping melted bittersweet chocolate with chopped toasted hazelnuts, crushed coffee beans, and flaky Maldon sea salt.

For packaging, I thought I had bought wintery gift bags at the end of last year’s holiday season, but I couldn’t find them. I used paper lunch bags which I rubber-stamped with snowflakes and tied them close with white yarn.

Snowflake Bag

For the individual items, I fill clear candy bags and typically seal them with our sealer. This year, I did something more interesting. Early in December, I was searching the internet to re-find a white felt wreath I’d seen, but couldn’t remember where. My search brought me to a new (to me) website, White Gunpowder. Though the felt wreath project I found on Kay and Bill’s blog wasn’t what I was looking for, I did discover lots of inspiring new packaging ideas. They were also having a giveaway for an assortment of their favorite packaging supplies. Miraculously, I won!

Packaging supplies I won from White Gunpowder

Packaging supplies I won from White Gunpowder

For this year’s holiday packages, I used the decorative tape to close up the bags. The colorful tape added festive color, plus made the bags easier to open and reseal. I’ll continue to enjoy playing around with the assorted bags, twine, ribbon, and tape that came in my package from White Gunpowder. You should check out their site when you get a chance.

For the New Year’s reprise for Howard, he wanted to go with an all-chocolate theme (his favorite flavor). We repeated the espresso hazelnut bark complemented by Karen’s Cracker Candy topped with chopped almonds (which we’ve nicknamed Toffee Crunch) and World Peace Cookies. To round things out, Howard wanted to include Peanut Blossoms, the peanut butter cookies with a Hershey’s kiss pressed into the top. A nostalgic favorite, I hadn’t made them since I was in high school, though I have sampled them on holiday cookie platters, just not at my house. I used the cookie dough recipe I found on Liz’s site, but baked the cookies a little longer and did not return the pan to the oven after pressing in the kiss (the candy melted too much). I located the gift bags in time for this set, and we used the decorative tape again to seal the individual treat bags.

Round 2

Round 2

Overall, this was the perfectly sweet way to end one year and bring in the new. I won’t tell you how many pounds of butter I went through! I will say that I see lots of soup simmering on the horizon to help push the diet back on track to more healthy eating.

If you still feel like indulging, you can follow links above or here are a few of the recipes I made that are not already on-line.

Espresso Hazelnut Bark

1 lb bittersweet chocolate (I used a “Pound Plus” bar of Trader Joe’s 54% Dark Chocolate)
½ cup hazelnuts
½ oz coffee beans
1 tsp Maldon flaked salt

Preheat the oven to 400F. Toast the hazelnuts for 10-15 minutes, until skin is very dark. Rub the hazelnuts in a dishtowel to remove the skins. Coarsely chop the hazelnuts. Set aside to cool.

Place the coffee beans in a ziplock bag. Use a rolling pin to crush the beans.

Line a baking sheet with foil.

Coarsely chop about 80% of the chocolate. Chop the remainder a bit finer. In the microwave, melt the coarsely chopped chocolate. (Start with 1 minute on full power, stir, then heat at 50% power in 30 second increments, stirring after each burst, until completely melted.) Immediately stir in finely chopped chocolate until it melts completely. This tempers the chocolate which gives it a nice sheen when it cools.

Use an offset spatula to spread the melted chocolate to cover the baking sheet. Sprinkle with the chopped hazelnuts, then the coffee beans, then the flaked salt. Lightly press the toppings so they adhere to the chocolate. Chill until firm. Cut or break into pieces.

Chocolate Shortbread Cookies
Makes 4 dozen 2-inch cookies

½ cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces
½ cup sugar
½ tsp vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/8 tsp fine sea salt
1/8 tsp baking soda
½ cup finely chopped bittersweet chocolate (1/8-inch bits)

In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar on medium speed until smooth and light, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the vanilla, flour, cocoa, salt, baking soda, and chocolate bits, and mix until well blended, about 2 minutes. Gather the dough into a ball and flatten slightly.

Dust a large piece of parchment paper with flour. Place the dough in the center. Place another piece of parchment on top. Roll out the dough to an even ¼-inch thickness. Refrigerate rolled-out dough until firm, about 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 350F.   Line large baking sheets with parchment.

Using a 2-inch cookie cutter, cut out cookies. Place ½ inch apart on the baking sheets. Reroll scraps and cut more shapes.

Bake until the cookies are firm enough at the edges to slide easily off the parchment, 12 to 15 minutes. The cookies will be soft but will crisp up as they cool. Cool on the baking sheets set on wire racks.

Notes:

  • I used the 72% dark chocolate from Trader Joe’s.
  • The recipe called for making stars, but my star-shaped cutters are 3-inch or larger. I have 2-inch snowflake cutters, so that’s what I used. I was going for size over shape. The 2-inch size is perfectly bite-sized.
  • When I rerolled the scraps, I did not chill the dough again.

simplest breton fish soup {ffwd}

Simplest Breton Fish Soup

Happy New Year, my friends! It’s always exciting to leave the previous year behind and start a new one. Actually, I feel this way each time the seasons change, but an excuse to recharge and restart is welcome, no matter how often it occurs. And, the transition from 2014 to 2015 is certainly the most “official” opportunity.

I’m not one for making resolutions. The past few years, I’ve tried to decrease my carbon footprint by giving up something environmentally wasteful, among them plastic grocery bags, paper napkins, sponges, and dryer sheets. This year, I’m going to try to decrease my physical footprint, trying to shed belongings that have built up over the 20 years of living in the same space. I’ve lived in this house for longer than I lived in my childhood home. Yikes! Not moving house also eliminated those natural times to cull the daily detritus that accumulates around me and pick only the necessary to bring to my next home. As a confirmed packrat, I’m sure my family and friends are laughing at my likely failure at my goal, but the pressure is on. 2015 is the year to lighten my load! Thank you in advance for your encouragement and support, not your mockery. (Jane and Jennifer, I’m talking to you. You, too, Howard!)

Welcoming the new year is also the perfect time to celebrate with friends. Howard and I hosted a small gathering of a few friends for a New Year’s Eve dinner. We popped open the bubbly right away. Our friends (and best neighbors ever) Cass and Mark brought some Chambord along with champagne for some raspberry cocktails to start us off. We enjoyed our libations with a variety of freshly shucked oysters, some cheese and crackers, and two different offerings of caviar. My friend Laury topped slices of cucumbers with salmon roe along with sliced hard-boiled egg or dill-flecked cream cheese, in the Scandinavian way. I also prepared aspic with caviar, but you’ll have to wait until next week to hear more about that one.

Happy New Year from my table to yours! (Clockwise from front: Mark, Howard, Laury, Cass)

Happy New Year from my table to yours!
(Clockwise from front: Mark, Howard, Laury, Cass)

At the center of the menu, we featured this week’s recipe for French Fridays with Dorie, Simplest Breton Fish Soup accompanied by my 2014 favorite, No-Knead Bread, and a beet, walnut, and Gorgonzola salad prepared by Laury.

Because this is a brothy soup, I tried my hand at making homemade fish stock. I went to Whole Foods where I’ve seen them filleting fish at the fish counter to see if I could buy some bones. It turns out that they stock the freezer case with bags of fish heads and bones for just 99¢ a pound. I bought the 5-pound frame of a red snapper and made a double batch of stock. Once you’ve procured the bones, making fish stock is a snap. You sauté aromatic vegetables in some butter, then add the fish bones and water and simmer for just 20 minutes. Strain the solids out of the pot and you now have several quarts of gently pure fish flavor. The bones really add substance to the stock because, once chilled, it’s a big gelatinous blob. Fortunately it melts back to liquid as soon as it heats up.

Fish Stock in Progress

Fish Stock in Progress

The fish soup itself starts with more aromatic vegetables, including leeks, shallots, onions, celery, and garlic, diced up and sautéed in butter. The stock is added and simmers for a few minutes before adding sliced potatoes. I also threw in a few thickly sliced carrots for extra color. Once the potatoes are partially cooked, bite-sized chunks of fish area added. I used mostly cod with a little oily bluefish for some variety. At the very end, mussels are simmered until they open up.

Fish Soup in Progress

I was confused by the recipe description which called for serving the fish, mussels and potatoes on a plate, served with the vinaigrette, with the broth in a separate bowl. I just ladled the soup in bowls, no separating of ingredients. I passed the vinaigrette around the table, and everyone tried it, but I think we preferred the soup without it. I’ve saved the leftover vinaigrette to use on salad.

My only quibble with the recipe is that the potatoes did NOT cook in time given in the recipe. I didn’t realize they would still be so firm when the fish finished cooking. I cooked everything a little longer, but, the fish ended up falling apart so it was more flaky than chunky and the potatoes were still firm. Next time, I will cook the potatoes separately until they are almost done and add them to the pot at the same time as the fish to allow them to absorb some of the flavors.

This simplest fish soup makes a wonderful meal. Everyone enjoyed it. It works well for company, but it’s easy enough (especially now that I’ve stashed extra fish stock in the freezer) to make on a weeknight. The leftovers are still fine a few days later. I do recommend removing the mussel meat from the shells and discarding the shells before storing.

Our New Year’s Eve dinner ended on a sweet note with Howard’s signature dessert, Pots de Crème. The rich chocolate pudding was just the right touch. I also brought out some leftover holiday treats, Karen’s Cracker Candy and Kathy’s Sea Salt Caramel Biscotti (made by Cass), so friends from both near and far ended up sharing our table as we welcomed the new year.

To read about my Dorista friends’ fish soups, check out their links here. You can find the recipe in Dorie Greenspan’s book Around My French Table or on-line at Google books.

It’s hard to believe that in just a few more months, we’ll have finished cooking all the recipes in Around My French Table. What a wonderful journey it’s been. I know that many of the friendships I’ve formed over the past several years will be lasting ones. In the upcoming months, we’ll be figuring out another project to keep us cooking together beyond the end of this book.

I wish you all a Happy, Healthy, and Delicious New Year!