Christmas just isn’t Christmas without baking. I grew up with mom’s holiday standards: gumdrop loaf, brown sugar fudge, fruitcake for dad, pork pies (that don’t contain pork), and shortbread cookies in festive shapes that we kids loaded with coloured icing and sprinkles, hanging some on the tree and gobbling down more.
I think my first foray into my own holiday baking was in university. Somebody had a simple drop cookie recipe for shortbread. They were little more than butter and air, whipped into a frenzy, that just melted in our mouths.
I’m not sure when I started reading cooking magazines, but somewhere in my mid-twenties, their delicious-looking recipes, gorgeous photos, and inventive packaging must have sparked my first holiday baking marathon. I picked at least 10 recipes and went to town in my apartment’s tiny kitchen, with my ever-growing collection of Christmas CDs playing in the background. Within hours, every surface was covered with stacks of cookies and pans of fudge and squares.
I’d be sick as a dog and as wide as a barn door if I ate all of it myself. So I assembled an assortment of goodies in tins for my co-workers and trotted off to the office. Everyone oohed and awed as they sampled, and I realized I’d found an outlet for my holiday baking madness. And so the marathon became an annual tradition.
I’ve gone through countless pounds of butter and dozens of eggs. I’ve traipsed out to buy a new hand-held mixer when one died, its beaters lodged in gingerbread dough. (Thank goodness I now have a KitchenAid – vroom vroom!) I ever-so-thankfully received a brand new oven from my parents as an early Christmas gift when mine went on the fritz just before the big baking day. And I’ve used a wide array of containers, from tins, plastic baggies, and Chinese food boxes to mason jars, coloured cardboard boxes, and lunch bags à la brown paper packages tied up with string.
Much like running a marathon, this year’s 17-hour baking day (including packaging and clean up) was a full-body experience judging by all the parts of me that were sore by the end of the day. Am I getting old? Maybe. I should try wearing sneakers next year – they ought to be more supportive than my fuzzy house slippers. But I don’t intend to slow down. Oh no. That wouldn’t be any fun.
What’s fun is sitting with a cup of tea and Charlie Brown Christmas music, clicking through websites and flipping through old and new holiday editions of Cooking Light, Canadian Living and Martha Stewart, picking out recipes, and building a grocery list. Fun is seeing a bunch of disparate ingredients come together to form something beautiful and delicious. Fun is coaxing that fudge to soft ball stage and then beating the living daylights out of it before pouring in the pan. Fun is working that dough into shapes with excited anticipation of all the pieces of the puzzle coming together in the end.
Fun is the pleasure my treats bring to family, friends and co-workers, and even beyond. More than once, I’ve been told my cookies saved the day when unexpected guests dropped by during the busy holiday season. This year, I’m all aw shucks with several suggestions that I go pro, and one disbeliever who couldn’t fathom a non-professional producing such treats. Grin.
My favourite this year – and I think the prettiest I’ve ever made – is the raspberry linzer cookie. It was nearly a flop with dough that kept falling apart and only produced half the batch, but that’s probably because I cheated. Yes, it’s true. I’m a bad, bad girl for trying to use pre-ground almonds. But I’ll try it again – properly – and hopefully with more success, and a whole batch.
The Dulce de Leche cookie is a close second, although I had to add a couple of tablespoons of cold water to get the dough to stick together. And everything else is a close third.
My dozen recipes for the 2012 edition of the holiday baking marathon are below. But first, a few tips for your own baking adventure:
- This may seem obvious, but read ALL the instructions for ALL your recipes in advance. You don’t want to be half way through and discover you need a food processor, or that something has to chill for 24 hours.
Mix all your dry ingredients in plastic bags, and do any chopping chocolate or toasting nuts etc. in advance. It will save you time on baking day, so your oven won’t be sitting hot and idle. Oh, and never, ever walk away from your oven when toasting nuts – watch them like a hawk because they go from toasted to burnt in mere seconds.
- Check all your recipes for chilling time for doughs, as well as oven temperatures, baking times, and anything else that will dictate the best order. Create a game plan based on this information. For example, while my dulce de leche was cooking for 1 ½ hours, I had time to make the doughs that needed to chill. I did everything that bakes at 350 degrees before turning the temperature up to 425 for pork pies – which flopped. Boo.
- Clear any unnecessary clutter out of your kitchen so there’s lots of space to work and to spread out cooling racks. Investing in double decker cooling racks is a great idea for small spaces.
- You wouldn’t run a marathon without water and food, right? So sip from your water bottle and have something ready to eat for lunch and supper. I didn’t follow my own advice this year and had to send H out for sandwiches at lunchtime. Boo.
Here are the hits from the 2012 edition of the holiday baking marathon:
Raspberry linzer cookies
Dulce de leche cookies
Double chocolate minties
Chocolate crackle cookies
Black and white striped cookies
Hello Dolly bars
Butter crunch toffee
Dark chocolate biscotti
I decided to make these lemon scented by adding about a teaspoon of lemon rind and replacing the vanilla with lemon juice. I also rolled them and gently patted them down, because I wanted a shape that’s less likely to break when packaged.
A lady who used to come to my aquafit class brought me a little package of this fudge as a gift one year. I took one bite and begged for the recipe. You may want help with the beating as it takes a long time. But it’s so worth it. Don’t forget to scrape the pot.
3 c. brown sugar
2 tbsp flour
2 tsp baking powder
4 tbsp butter
pinch of salt
1 c. evaporated milk
Cook on medium heat, stirring constantly (wear an oven mitt to avoid burns), until soft ball stage (7 or 8 minutes after it boils). To check for soft ball stage, put a teaspoonful of the mixture in a glass of ice water. If it’s all stringy, it’s not at soft ball stage yet. When it’s ready, it will form a soft ball.
Remove from heat and beat. Mixture will turn glossy. Keep beating. Long after your arm feels like it’s going to fall off, the mixture will thicken. Keep beating. When the glossiness fades from the surface and the spoon leaves traces through the mixture, pour into pan. Let cool for about a half hour. Cut into squares and let harden.