Christmas in July

DSC_0148Most holiday cookbooks are just gimmicks: whatever food you eat on a particular holiday is good on other days of the year too, and vice versa. The big exception here is Pesach: most year round food is not suitable for Pesach, and although Pesach food can be eaten at other times, many people, myself included, do not always want to do this. In this post we look at three books of Christmas desserts, and I had no problem cooking from these books in the middle of summer. A few of the desserts in these books are Christmas favorites: gingerbread cookies, meringue mushrooms, or cookies for tree decoration; a few of these desserts are more suitable for winter weather than the heat of summer: heavy cheesecakes or cranberry desserts. But a good dessert is a good dessert, and I am happy to eat one any time of the year. In one of the books of this post there are good desserts galore, but in the other two, good desserts are the exception.

rccPerhaps the best cookie cookbook that I have is Rose’s Christmas Cookies, Rose being none other than baker extraordinaire, Rose Levy Beranbaum. With a few more recipes this book could easily have been The Cookie Bible, a companion book to Rose’s Cake Bible. Instead, however, Rose and her publisher go for the Christmas market, with Christmasy photographs, and some Christmas-themed recipes, including an awesomely over the top gingerbread cathedral. Rose presents her recipes meticulously, with no room for error. She gives us the amounts for her ingredients three ways: by volume, by weight (ounces and pounds), and by mass (grams). I have complete faith in Rose: I fully believe that every recipe of hers is the best possible recipe of its type. I have been baking cookies from this cookbook for for the last 24 years, and intend to keep baking from this cookbook for many years to come.

chcrackPeople should bake crackers more often. They are just as easy to make as cookies, and homemade crackers are much better than their manufactured counterparts. In particular, you can avoid all the noxious additives that abound in cookies from Nabisco, Keebler, and Sunshine. “Savory Cheese Dollars” (page 155) are made of butter, flour, cheese, salt, and pepper, processed, rolled into a log, sliced, and baked. Eating these can deliver all the thrill that eating totally junk cheese crackers can deliver, and only a little of the self-disgust.

carbarDanny described “Chocolate Caramel Chews” (page 100) as “strangely resistible” and I can only agree. The cookies consist of an oat base topped with nuts, good chocolate, and a wonderful homemade caramel topping. They are baked until the chocolate has melted caramel topping is bubbling. So make no mistake, these are good cookies. But somehow, they are too good. With every bite, I was aware of how very caloric they were and how much the less than healthy ingredients buried the healthier components. I think our guests must have agreed, for I did not notice anyone (even myself) slicing off slivers of cookie for seconds, then thirds.

poisinPoison cookies have long been a favorite in our house. These cookies are Rose’s “Mexican Wedding Cookies” (page 51) without the coating of confectioners’ sugar. (And why, one may ask, poison? Because once when I made these, to prevent certain people in our house from eating them, I put signs by the cooling cookies with primitive skull and crossbones.) These cookies are simplicity itself to make: pull out the food processor, and process pecans, confectioners’ sugar, salt, vanilla, butter, and flour. Roll into balls, bake, and you’re done! I did notice that this batch of cookies was not quite as good as usual; I think the problem was the sugar. Instead of Domino’s or sugar from Whole Foods Market, I used some sugar that Shay had left at our house, Our Family brand, which might have had more actual sugar per volume than the sugars I usually use. [Go to the recipe.]

rugRose’s interpretation of “Lora Brody’s Rugelach” (page 126) are the best rugelach in the world. You start with a delicate cream cheese cookie dough, rolled into a circle. Spread the circle with apricot preserves, sprinkle with sugar, nuts, and chopped raisins, cut into wedges and roll up. Brush the crescents with milk, sprinkle with cinnamon sugar, and bake. So there is nothing revolutionary about these cookies, but Rose and Lora have worked out the perfect proportions. These cookies are the perfect size too: two bites to nirvana.

doccMarcel Desaulniers has appeared in a previous post with his salad cookbook, Salad Days. The salad cookbook was atypical for Marcel; his dessert cookbooks, focussing on chocolate and death, are more popular: Desserts to Die For, Death by Chocolate, Death By Chocolate Cookies, etc. There is no mention of death in the title of his Christmas chocolate cookbook: I’m Dreaming of a Chocolate Christmas, but otherwise this book is vintage Marcel. The book is full of excessive chocolate dessert recipes. Sometimes the excess works, but more often it is just too much. There is little that is explicitly Christmasy here except for the rather stupid and uninformative chapter titles: “Been Nice Sweets,” “Been Naughty Sweets,” “Santa’s Workshop,” to name a few. I only own this book because I found it remaindered. I had never cooked from it until recently, but I am glad that I did, for I found one of the best ever chocolate chip cookie recipes ever. I was less thrilled with the other recipes that I tried.

cccookI made “Chocolate Chip Macadamia Nut Cookies” (page 72) mainly to use as the crust for “Chocolate Orange Cheesecake” (page 161) but also, who can resist chocolate chip cookies? I have noticed that at any potluck, if anyone brings chocolate chip cookies (and someone inevitably will), those cookies will be the first dessert to disappear. Marcel’s chocolate chip cookie dough differs from the usual dough in that he uses all brown sugar (dark brown, at that) and no white sugar. And why not? Brown sugar has a lot more taste than white sugar. He also uses macadamia nuts, a nut of which I am not that fond. They seem too slippery. But I chopped up my macadamia nuts well for this cookie in order to avoid this slipperiness. Although there is a knee jerk response in Cookie World to pair macadamia nuts with white chocolate, Marcel courageously pairs macadamia and dark chocolate. And after the nuts were chopped, the dough was mixed, the cookies were baked (at the interestingly low temperature of 300º), and I finally had a nibble, I was able to categorize these cookies in the top five per cent of all chocolate chip cookies: summa cum laude! The texture was perfect, which the slow baking might have had something to do with, and the macadamia nuts provided a very nice buttery nut taste. Over the next few days, these cookies only improved. [Go to the recipe.]

chcakeI made “Chocolate Orange Cheesecake” (page 161) not for Christmas but for Shavuot. The crust is made up of warm and still soft chocolate chip cookies smushed into the bottom of the springform pan. This is an all cream cheese cheesecake; I prefer the less cloying results of using cream cheese with sour cream. Half the cheesecake batter is combined with chocolate, half with orange juice, zest, and extract; the two batters are marbled together. After baking and cooling, the top of this cheesecake is decorated with a chocolate ganache (not shown in the picture). I ended up spilling more than half my ganache, so instead of piping decorative rosettes, I just poured the ganache that was left on top of the cheesecake. This cheesecake was heavy and none too subtle, but, like almost all cheesecakes, delicious.

“Vivacious Vanilla Ice Cream” (page 181) is vanilla ice cream with a secret ingredient: vodka. Marcel uses vanilla flavored vodka, but I was not about to go out and get some just for this ice cream, so I used the regular vodka in our freezer. This is a custard based ice cream; the amount of vodka (three tablespoons) is reasonable but not excessive. I was hoping that the vodka would increase the creaminess of the ice cream (which is, after all, the whole point of ice cream). This did not happen. What we got was a completely unremarkable homemade vanilla ice cream with just a trace of a nasty flavor lurking in the background.

csGeorgeanne Brennan’s Christmas Sweets is a bad book, and I do not think that I am alone in this opinion. I only own this book because the cookbook book club, The Good Cook, sent it to me for free; apparently giving this book away to unwilling recipients was the only way they could get rid of it. The author, Georgeanne Brennan, is a competent cookbook author and food person; she should be a little bit embarassed to have been involved in this project. The book has only three Amazon reviews, a three star, a two star, and a one star review. So what is so bad about this book? Lots. Unusual for Chronicle Books, the pages are unattractive: distractingly two-toned with an ornate and hard to read font for recipe titles. There are cutesy and unappealing decorating ideas presented in recipe format. “Candy Stick Tree Centerpieces” (page 48) left me longing for a Martha Stewart or even a Susie Fishbein. The photographs in the book are, at best, uninspiring. To be more positive, this book is clearly more Christmas-themed than the other two books of this post, and it is possible that someone looking for a Christmas book might actually like the decoration and gift ideas. The book does not have many recipes, with even fewer recipes that I was interested in, and the recipes I did try were merely okay.

lbI am for calling a pound cake a pound cake, and only a pound cake a pound cake. Georgeanne’s “Lemon Pound Cake with Warm Poached Cherries” (page 28) is a lemon flavored butter cake baked in a loaf pan. It does not have the density of a true pound cake, nor the perfection of Rose Levy Beranbaum’s pound cake from Cake Bible (which is also not a true pound cake, but I will let Rose call her wonderful cake whatever she wants to call it). But this is an acceptable cake; the lemon flavor, from lemon zest and lemon extract, is pleasant. I did not serve this with poached cherries, but rather with a mango dessert from Clotilde’s Edible Adventures in Paris by Clotilde Dusoulier. I liked the cake better plain, which I think would still have been the case even had I made the poached cherries. [Go to the recipe.]

apbarThere didn’t see anything particularly terrible about the recipe “Apricot-Pistachio Bars” (page 70), at least once I decided to omit the icing: 1½ cups of confectioners’ sugar with a few tablespoons of orange juice. And when I made these bars they weren’t terrible, but they were structurally unsound. The cake batter in which the apricots and pistachios lay was too feeble to accommodate such heavy add-ins. When I tried to eat a bar, the cake crumbled and the apricots fell out. I should point out that I chopped both the apricots and pistachios more finely than specified in the recipe. Heavy fruits need a heavy batter; Alice Medrich’s “Fruit and Nut Bars” from her Cookies and Brownies book are an excellent example of how apricot bars should be made.

peartartAfter starting out with a bad attitude about Christmas Sweets and making two mediocre recipes, I was ready to call it quits, but I had already bought the pears to make “Pear and Chocolate Tart” (page 96), so make it I did. Although I was not that wild about this recipe, it was far from a disaster: Danny liked it a lot, and our guests also seemed to enjoy it, especially the chocolate on top. The big problem with pear and chocolate tart was the extremely low taste to trouble ratio. In other words, this tart was a total pain to make with not enough payoff in terms of taste. To begin with, Georgeanne’s crust, which we are supposed to roll out, is unrollable; I had to press it into the tart pan. Then we cook pears for a pear sauce filling; Georgeanne’s instructions for this pear sauce needed a bit of modifying. The pear sauce is topped with sliced pears; peeling and slicing four pounds of pears was not fun. After baking, the tart is glazed with raspberry jam and drizzled with chocolate, neither of which tasks was that onerous, just two more things to do. Finally, this was not an easy tart to slice: the chocolate was brittle, the pear slices did not slice cleanly, and the crust stuck to the bottom of the tart pan.


Poison Cookies

Adapted from Rose Levy Beranbaum,  Rose’s Christmas Cookies

½ cup pecans
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
Pinch of salt
1 cup butter
½ teaspoon vanilla
1¾ cup flour

Preheat the oven to 350º. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.

Put the pecans and sugar in the bowl of the food processor and pulse until the pecans are almost as powdery as the sugar. Add the salt, butter, and vanilla, and pulse a few times, and then add the flour. Pulse until the dough comes together into a ball. This will not happen immediately, but eventually the dough will start clumping.

Break off pieces of dough, about 1½ tablespoons to each piece, roll gently into a ball, then slightly flatten between your palms. Or do as I do: separate the dough into two big pieces, then each of the 2 pieces into 3 pieces, each of the 6 pieces into 3 pieces, and finally each of the 18 pieces into 3 pieces. You will have 54 pieces of dough; roll into balls and flatten. Place on the cookie sheet, and bake just until the cookies start to brown, about 15 minutes.


Chocolate Chip Cookies

Adapted from Marcel Desaulniers,  I’m Dreaming of a Chocolate Christmas

½ cup butter, softened
¾ cup dark brown sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
1½ cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of salt
¾ cup macadamia nuts, very finely chopped
¾ cup  chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 300°. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Beat together the butter and sugar. Beat in the egg and vanilla. Mix together the flour, baking powder, and salt, then add to the butter mixture, and mix until fully integrated. Mix in the nuts and chocolate chips. Spoon out balls of dough onto the baking sheet; I made 24 cookies from this amount of dough, but you could also make fewer, larger cookies. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes. The cookies will not brown much, and should still be a little soft when you take them out of the oven. Cool on a wire rack.


Lemon “Pound” Cake

Adapted from Georgeanne Brennan, Christmas Sweets

½ cup butter, softened if possible
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
Zest of 1 lemon, grated
½ teaspoon vanilla
½ teaspoon lemon extract
1½ cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup milk

Preheat the oven to 350º. Butter a 9 by 5 inch loaf pan, line the bottom with parchment paper, and butter the paper.

Beat the butter and sugar together. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the lemon zest, vanilla, and lemon extract. Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Add the flour and milk alternately, in several additions, to the butter and egg mixture, beginning and ending with the flour, mixing to combine after each addition. Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan and bake until done (toothpick test!), which should take between 45 minutes and 1 hour. Cool in the pan a few minutes, then remove from the pan and cool on a rack.

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