Tag Archives: Holiday Baking

Holiday Baking Day 4: Chocolate Covered Pretzel Brittle

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They do exist. Those people who claim, “I’m not really a dessert eater. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth.” I just don’t happen to be a member of their tribe. I do have a sweet tooth! However, I also happen to have a salty tooth. Wait; is there such a thing? I do know that I love the combination of salt and sweet. I think I first discovered this as a young child, when my mom would put out snacks when we were having company.

There would be bowls of jube jubes, chocolate covered almonds, salted cashews and potato chips. I would eat a few jube jubes and then follow them with a few salted cashews. Of course that was the gateway to the huge glass cookie jar filled with red licorice and then some salty potato chips to chase the sugar with. When I got older, I discovered Milk Duds at the movie theatre. A few handfuls of popcorn, followed by the sweet chocolate caramel flavour of Milk Duds is an incredible flavour combo. Then my daughter introduced me to McDonald’s French fries dipped into a chocolate milkshake. Hey, don’t judge until you’ve tried it!

All this to say that when I serve those from the “Non Sweet Tooth” Tribe, one of my salty-sweet treats, I get an entirely different reaction. There is something about the addition of salt that makes sweet taste so much better. Suddenly, they’ve grown a sweet tooth.

But, have you ever wondered why salt and sweet taste so good together? Justine Sterling, contributor to the food blog delish.com, explained it so eloquently,

“We all know that taste buds allow us to taste (it’s in the name, after all). But what you may not know is that each taste bud contains 50 to 100 taste cells, which are actually what do the tasting. Each of these cells responds to a different flavor: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, or umami. We perceive taste (let’s use sweet as an example) when sugar and a sweet receptor protein interact, causing the sweet cell to become excited and send a signal to the brain, which then registers the flavor as sweet. This is a process that scientists have known for a long time.

 But recently the process has been further complicated by what researchers have found out about certain sweetness receptors. A study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that certain sugar receptors that were thought only to exist in the stomach, were spotted on sweet taste cells on the tongue. Researchers, led by Dr. Robert Margolskee, of the Monell Chemical Sense Center, found the SGLT1 receptor — which transports sugars into cells only when sodium is present — on sweet taste cells on the tongues of mice. This could explain why sweetness is accentuated by salt — the receptors are activated when salt accompanies sugar.”

 O.K. science lesson is over. On the fourth day of holiday baking I bring to you a yummy salty and sweet treat guaranteed to convert those from the “No sweet tooth” tribe over to the dark, oops,I mean, sweet side!

Chocolate Covered Pretzel Toffee, comes from Lucy Baker, contributor to www.seriouseats.com. Essentially you make a sort of peanut brittle, but with crushed pretzels instead of peanuts. Then the whole slab is covered in dark chocolate and finished off with a sprinkling of coarse sea salt.

I have altered her recipe slightly. She originally called for topping the hot toffee base with chocolate chips, letting them melt and then spreading them out. I find that chocolate chips don’t melt quite as nicely as bar chocolate. Chocolate chips are actually formulated to hold their shape and are a bit too sweet for this, so I would recommend buying bittersweet chocolate (at least 64%) and chopping it up quite fine.  I used Cocoa Barry  64%. I buy it in bulk (20 kilograms at a time, and I get a great price of $15.79 per kilo. (The chocolate will keep for 2 years in a cool dry place.)

This is quite quick and easy to put together, provided you have the right equipment. Invest in a candy thermometer if you plan to do any sugar or caramel work. This is a great one as it has a foot at the bottom of the thermometer which prevents the bulb from touching the bottom of the pot, and giving you a false reading.

Butter, sugar, corn syrup, salt and water are cooked to 300° F.

Baking soda, vanilla extract and crushed pretzels are mixed in.

Spread out on parchment lined baking sheet and top with good quality finely chopped chocolate (NOT CHOCOLATE CHIPS!). I used Cocoa Barry  64%. I buy it in bulk (20 kilograms at a time, and I get a great price of $15.79 per kilo. (The chocolate will keep for 2 years in a cool dry place.)  Wait 3 minutes, spread chocolate and top with a light sprinkling of sea salt. Chill and break into pieces.

Click here to print recipe for Chocolate Covered Pretzel Toffee.

Holiday Baking Day 3: Oatmeal Lace Sandwich Cookies

On Day 3 of my holiday baking I present to you “Oatmeal Lace Cookies. My day 2 cookies, Chocolate Chunk Caramel, would qualify for the heavyweight division. Loaded with shards of dark chocolate and melting pools of caramel, these are a hefty cookie, not for the faint of heart. Oatmeal Lace Cookies, on the other hand, fall into the lightweight division. Gossamer thin, crispy,  delicate, and dare I say, a little fragile, these are a beautiful cookie. They may look a little anorexic next to the chocolate chunk caramel, but rest assured, they are no lightweight in the taste department.

These cookies are the creation of Nick Malgieri. They come from his book, “Cookies Unlimited” (Harper Collins 2000). I have been known to have my celebrity chef crushes. A few years ago it was Jamie Oliver, lately I have been lusting after Chuck Hughes. But these are mere dalliances, compared to my feelings for Nick!

Oh dear, just read that last paragraph back to myself, and even to my ears it sounds a little creepy and stalkerish. Nick, if you’re reading this, please don’t be concerned. My admiration for you is purely professional. I have been a longtime student and admirer of Nick. His book, “How to Bake” was really my baking bible. His recipes are clear and methodical, leading to outstanding results every time. In 2008 he published The Modern Baker.  A Challenge to bake the entire book was set up by a blogging friend of mine. Modern Baker is filled with creative contemporary recipes that offer great time-saving techniques. However, I think that, of all of Nick’s books, Cookies Unlimited is my favourite.

The cookie batter is simple to put together. No mixmaster required. One bowl and a wooden spoon and you’re ready to go. Start with large flake or quick cooking (not instant) oats. They will need to be ground up a bit in the food processor or blender. They should be finely chopped but not ground to a powder. They should look like the second photo here.

Add some melted butter, sugar, eggs, orange juice and

Forming the cookies is not difficult, but it does take a little time. Here is a video showing you the best technique and tools for the job.

Leave lots of room between cookies on the baking sheet, as they will spread.

This year I sandwiched 2 cookies together with chocolate ganache to make a sandwich cookie. Plain melted chocolate will also be a perfect filling. They freeze beautifully, carefully layered between sheets of waxed paper, in an airtight container.

Click here to print the recipe for Oatmeal Lace Cookies.

Holiday Baking Day 2: Chocolate Chunk Caramel Cookies

When it comes to chocolate chip cookies, people are very particular. Some like them thin and crispy; others love them thick and chewy. There are those who love them all warm and gooey from the oven.   Then there are those who prefer them once they have totally cooled, and the chocolate has a snap when you bite into them.  Finally, there are those who love them best straight from the freezer once they have cured for a few days.  Granted, that camp is quite small (by the way, I am firmly in this camp) but they have their followers. Here is a tale about one chocolate chip cookie that is far superior to any other I have ever tried.

A few months ago, while surfing various food blogs I came across the following sentence, “I have found the last chocolate chip cookie recipe I will ever need.” Wow, I thought, that is a very bold statement and one not to be uttered lightly. However, being a food blogger myself, I know how we, as a group, are prone to exaggeration. These cookies were originally created buy Ashley at notwithoutsalt.com.

As I read through her recipe I became intrigued. All of the chocolate chip cookie recipes I have made over the years use both white and brown sugar. The white sugar makes the cookies crisp and the brown sugar, because of its hygroscopic (i.e.: it absorbs moisture from the air) properties, makes the cookies chewy. This is the first recipe I have ever seen that uses a third sugar – Turbinado sugar. Turbinado sugar is a golden coloured natural brown sugar is produced by extracting the juice from sugar cane, heating it to evaporate water and crystallize the sugar, then spinning in a centrifuge to remove some impurities and further dry the sugar. It can commonly be found at bulk food stores.

I must say a few words about the chocolate you choose for these cookies. Ashley says you must use the best quality chocolate you can afford. I made them with Valrhona Manjari 64% Chocolate from Madagascar. I know, I sound like such a chocolate snob, but I really believe that this chocolate took my cookies from good to outstanding. The Manjari chocolate is often sold in what they call “Les Feves” or “pistoles”. Essentially these are discs of chocolate that are reminiscent of chocolate chips on steroids. But they have none of the chalky, waxy quality of chocolate chips. I cannot emphasize too strongly, do not use chocolate chips for these cookies. Chocolate chips contain an emulsifier in them to help them hold their shape during baking. You want the chocolate to completely melt in baking and then harden once again after cooling. There is some kind of physical change that takes place during the melting and cooling, that gives chocolate chunk cookies a special snap or bite to them that you just do not get with chocolate chips. Buy a few bars of good quality chocolate (at least 60-70% cocoa content). If you can’t find Valrhona Manjari 64% Chocolate, try some chopped Callebaut or even Lindt dark chocolate.

With a small sprinkling of fleur de sel, just before baking, these cookies are pretty close to perfection. But, not one to leave well enough alone, I added chopped caramel candies to mine. These are a hefty cookie, crammed full of large shards of chocolate and little tunnels of caramel.

This recipe makes about 32 cookies, or less if you are they type to nibble on raw cookie dough. You know who you are, so adjust your yield expectations accordingly!

I used a 2 inch ice cream scoop and put 9 cookies on a 18 x 31 inch cookie sheet.

Warm from the oven or cold from the freezer, these cookies are pretty fantastic.

Click here to print the recipe for The Perfect Chocolate Chunk and Caramel Cookie.

Holiday Baking Day 1: Dark Chocolate and Pecan Biscotti Slabs

My youngest sister once told me that the sight of 24 pounds of unsalted butter in her freezer makes her very happy. I have to admit, the same is true for me. Although in my case, the butter would all be neatly stacked in orderly rows. In my sister’s freezer, more like haphazardly thrown in wherever they would fit. Now, that’s not a dig at my sister. It’s just part of her unique charm.

Why, you may be asking, would these sisters need 24 pounds of unsalted butter in their freezer at any given time? Do we operate a bootleg bakery out of our homes? No. Were we children who came from poverty? No, as a matter of fact, we grew up in a middle-class suburb of Toronto. I guess you could say we come by our hording honestly. Our mother stockpiled our freezer with Swanson’s T.V. dinners and chicken pot pies, Sara Lee Banana Cakes and Highliner fish sticks. We hoard butter because you never know when the urge to bake will hit, and you must never be caught unprepared. We both love to bake. We both find baking an extremely creative outlet and a way of showing our love to those around us.

Rather than shop for gifts for all the people in my life for whom I am grateful, I decided many years ago to bake. And somehow, over the years my gratitude has grown to include a circle of about 40 people! I usually bake about 7 or 8 different kinds of treats and package them all up in a beautiful unique container.  There are a core 4 items I bake that must be included each year. If I leave any of them out, there may be a mutiny. These treats include Peanut Butter Bark, Chocolate Peppermint Cookies, Lemon Coconut Cookies and Gingerbread Snowflakes.

This year I added a few new items to the mix. The first are Biscotti Slabs. These are a creation of Montreal baker Marcy Goldman. Essentially, you take a typical biscotti batter, bake it in a loaf pan, chill, slice, re-bake and voilà: a new product. Slabs of crisp cookie-like biscotti with a delicious middle layer of chocolate and pecans and a glittering topping of cinnamon sugar. These are serious biscotti. Perfect for breakfast with a cafe latte. Anyone I have ever offered them to looks at them and says, “Oh, these are huge, I’ll just have a small piece.” They break off about a third, nibble on it quietly and then come back and finish the rest off. Sweet, but not too sweet, crunchy and quite addictive.

These biscotti begin with melted rather than softened butter. Marcy uses melted butter in many of her recipes. Not quite sure why this is. If you are melting the butter in the microwave, save yourself a lot of grief and a huge butter explosion and cover butter with a sheet of waxed paper first!

Butter and sugar are creamed together. Be sure to take the time to do this properly. It takes at least 4-5 minutes of creaming. It should look like this when it is done.

Eggs, vanilla, flour, baking powder and salt are added to complete the batter.

Here is my foolproof technique for lining the baking pan. No greasing required and the biscotti slab will lift out very easily without any sticking.

Toasted pecans and bittersweet chocolate are chopped up to make the biscotti middle layer.

Mix together some cinnamon and sugar.

Then it’s time for assembly. Spread half the batter into the prepared loaf pan. Use wet fingers to spread it evenly. Spread the chocolate and pecan topping evenly over the batter. Sprinkle on half the cinnamon sugar mixture. Top with remaining batter and finish with a dusting of remaining sugar-cinnamon mixture.

Bake for about 50 minutes. Let cool completely and remove loaf from pan. Wrap well in foil and freeze for about an hour. Then slice into slabs and bake a second time.

Arrange slabs on baking sheet and bake for an additional 10-15 minutes until crisp and slightly browned. They will continue to firm up as they cool.

Click here to print recipe for Dark Chocolate and Pecan Biscotti Slabs