Peppermint-powered cookies for the Christmas platter

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If you were a reader of my blog last year, you’ll know that I get intense about Christmas cookies. I’m the designated baker for our extended family gathering on Christmas Eve, and each year I like to find new recipes to add to the enormous platter of cookies for my family to enjoy.

Last year, I found this recipe for Chocolate Peppermint Brownie Cookies in California Bountiful magazine. As you know by now, brownies are my favorite dessert. Adding peppermint and putting them in cookie form seemed like an acceptable idea, so that’s what I did. I liked that the inside was chewy and the outside got slightly flaky when bitten into, just like a perfectly baked brownie. I made them teaspoon-size like the recipe called for, and they were perfect little bites of deliciousness.

If you’re baking cookies for the holidays, try this one. It was a nice, flavor-packed addition to the assortment I made. If you’re looking for a more mellow chocolate cookie, try these totally adorable cocoa cookies instead.

Ingredients
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp. baking powder
1/8 tsp. salt
2 eggs
2/3 cup sugar
1 tbsp. peppermint extract
1/2 tbsp. brewed espresso (see note)
7 oz. bittersweet chocolate, chopped
2 tbsp. unsalted butter
3/4 cup chocolate chips
1/2 cup sliced almonds

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Mix flour, baking powder and salt together. Set aside. Using an electric mixer, whip eggs for 1 minute. Add sugar, peppermint extract and espresso and whip on high speed for 15 minutes or until mixture is thick. While eggs are whipping, melt bittersweet chocolate and butter together in a bowl in a water bath.

Fold chocolate mixture into egg mixture until partially combined, as there should still be some visible streaks. Carefully fold flour mixture into batter, then add chocolate chips and almonds. If batter is runny, let it rest for about 5 minutes to thicken.

Scoop generous teaspoonfuls of batter onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake for 10 to 13 minutes or until cookies puff and are cracked on top. Allow cookies to cool before removing from baking sheet.

Note: In place of espresso, you may substitute an instant coffee extract (for example, 5:1 ratio of instant coffee to water).

Window cookies worth the work

If you’re a fan of jam in your cookies, this one is for you. Window cookies are the last item in my cookie countdown to Christmas. They require a bit of time and effort, but they’re beautiful. They’re worth it.

I found the recipe on the Better Homes and Gardens website. They’re a sandwich cookie, so be conscious of the thickness of the cookies when you roll out the dough. The recipe calls for 1/4-inch thickness, but I found that to be a little too thick once I made the sandwich.

You can make them your own by adding chopped nuts to the batter or using a different kind of jam. You can use any cookie cutter shape to make the design in the top cookie, too. I used a snowflake cutter and really liked how they looked. The jam and nuts complemented each other well, and I dusted mine with a bit of powdered sugar to finish them.

Make it fun, make them yours and have a Merry Christmas.

Ingredients
1 cup blanched almonds, toasted and chopped
1 tablespoon sugar
1 cup butter, softened
2/3 cup sugar
1 egg
1 egg yolk
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup chopped hazelnuts or almonds (optional)
3/4 cup apricot jam

In a food processor, combine almonds and the 1 tablespoon sugar. Cover and process until nuts are finely ground. Set aside.

In a mixing bowl, beat butter with an electric mixer on medium to high speed for 30 seconds. Add the 2/3 cup sugar. Beat until combined, scraping bowl occasionally. Add the ground almonds, the egg, egg yolk, salt, vanilla, almond extract, and nutmeg, beating on low speed until combined. Beat in flour until combined. If adding nuts, combine them into the dough.

Divide dough into four portions. Cover and chill about 2 hours or until dough is easy to handle.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Between waxed paper or parchment paper, roll out one of the dough portions to about a 1/4-inch thickness. Peel off top sheet of paper. Using a fluted 2- to 3-inch cookie cutter, cut out dough. Place dough cutouts 1 inch apart on an ungreased cookie sheet. Using a fluted 1-inch cookie cutter, cut out centers from half of the dough cutouts.

Bake for 10 to 12 minutes or until tops are a pale golden brown. Cool on cookie sheet for 2 minutes. Transfer cookies to a wire rack and let cool. Repeat with the remaining dough portions.

Spread 1 slightly rounded teaspoon of the jam in the center of each whole cookie. Top with the cutout cookies, flat sides down, pressing lightly together.

Having fun with a less common fall flavor

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Fall is here, and that means it’s time for baking comfort foods with apples and pumpkin. Last weekend, I went wine tasting in the Apple Hill area and stopped at a farm stand on my way home. The best deal at the farm stand was a box of about eight pears for $2. I bought two boxes because I knew I’d want to bake with them.

But, before I proceed, I want to let you know that Red Pen Recipes now has a Facebook page. Like it here.

Screen shot 2013-09-25 at 8.14.25 PMI also recently purchased a ticket to see Curtis Stone in Reno. Those of you who read regularly know that I love his style of cooking. According to his response to the question I posed to him on Facebook, we’ll be having cocktails, stir-frys and chocolate. The countdown to Oct. 12 has begun.

So, back to the pears. When I got home, I started looking for recipes and found this Pear and Almond Tart recipe from Bon Appétit. I had all of the ingredients, and it sounded like the perfect way to use a few of those pears.

This recipe has three major components, all of which can be done separately and saved until you’re ready to assemble the whole thing. If you don’t want to spend hours at a time in the kitchen, do one piece at a time.

I know my crust looks burned in the photo, but it didn’t taste like it at all. I was pleasantly surprised.

The recipe didn’t say to save the liquid from poaching the pears, but I knew from experience that I could boil it into a syrup. A beautiful simple syrup is a terrible thing to waste so I decided to use it to make ice cream.

For the ice cream, I used this recipe. If you plan on using the syrup for ice cream, you have to do things just a bit differently. I’d recommend adding a fourth pear to the poaching process. Set it aside and, when you’re ready to make the ice cream, core it, then dice it and add it to the ice cream when it’s in the ice cream mixer. After the pears have cooled in the liquid, remove them. Then bring the liquid back to a boil and keep it on the heat until there’s about 3/4 cup of thick syrup. Take it off the heat and set it aside. Use it in place of the 1/2 cup sugar in the recipe by using 1/2 in the milk mixture and adding the remaining 1/4 cup to the egg yolks. I know it seems like a lot, but trust me. It works. The bits of pear in the ice cream provided a nice contrast to the texture, too.

If you’re not into that, bottle the syrup and use it on pancakes or find another way to use it. But I encourage you not to waste it, because it’s too delicious to throw away.

Pears
4 cups water
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3 medium-size firm but ripe pears (Bosc or Bartlett), peeled (each about 7 ounces)

Bring 4 cups water, sugar, and lemon juice to boil in large saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring until sugar dissolves. Add pears. Reduce heat to medium and simmer until pears are very tender, turning occasionally, about 20 minutes. Cool pears in syrup. Can be made two days ahead. Cover and refrigerate.

Crust
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1/4 cup almonds
1/4 teaspoon salt
9 tablespoons (1 stick plus 1 tablespoon) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 large egg yolk
1 1/4 cups all purpose flour

Blend powdered sugar, almonds, and salt in processor until nuts are finely ground. Add butter and blend until smooth, scraping down sides of bowl occasionally. Mix in egg yolk. Add flour. Using on/off turns, blend until dough comes together in clumps. Gather dough into ball; flatten into disk. Wrap in plastic and chill at least 3 hours. Can be made two days ahead. Keep refrigerated.

Almond filling
2/3 cup blanched slivered almonds
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
7 tablespoons sugar
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 large egg
Powdered sugar (optional)

Finely grind almonds and flour in processor. Mix in 7 tablespoons sugar, then butter, blending until smooth. Mix in egg. Transfer filling to medium bowl. Cover and chill at least 3 hours. Can be made two days ahead. Keep chilled.

Once you’re ready to assemble all three components, position rack in center of oven and preheat to 375 degrees F. Roll out chilled dough on floured sheet of parchment paper to 12-inch round, lifting and turning dough occasionally to free from paper. Using paper as aid, turn dough into 9-inch-diameter tart pan with removable bottom; peel off paper. Seal any cracks in dough. Trim overhang to 1/2 inch. Fold overhang in, making double-thick sides. Pierce crust all over with fork. Freeze crust 10 minutes.

Line crust with buttered foil, buttered side down, then fill with dried beans or pie weights. Bake crust until sides are set, about 20 minutes. Remove foil and beans. Bake crust until sides are golden and bottom is set, pressing with back of fork if crust bubbles, about 10 minutes longer. Cool crust in pan on rack. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees F.

Spread almond filling evenly in crust. Stem pears and cut each in half lengthwise; scoop out cores. Cut each half crosswise into thin slices. Gently press each pear half to fan slices but keep slices tightly overlapped. Slide spatula under pears and arrange atop filling like spokes of wheel with narrow ends in center.

Bake tart until golden and tester inserted into center of filling comes out clean, about 55 minutes. Cool tart in pan on rack. Push pan bottom up, releasing tart from pan. Let stand at room temperature. Cut tart into wedges; sprinkle with powdered sugar, if desired, and serve.

Coffee’s sidekick made easy at home

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Biscotti might seem intimidating at first, but it’s really just a twice-baked, sweet, quick bread. Once you make it at home, you’ll no longer feel the need to buy it with your morning coffee.

This is the second time I’ve made biscotti in the past few years. The first recipe I used called for about 10 eggs, but this time I used the Orange Almond biscotti recipe from Cook’s Illustrated cookbook, which only called for two eggs. There was no noticeable difference in the texture of the finished biscotti.

Biscotti is a lot like a cookie in the way that, once you have a good base recipe, you can put whatever you want in it. The first time I made biscotti I put pistachios in it. This time around, I opted to add dried cranberries. You can also dip it in tempered chocolate for a special treat. Have fun making your own flavor combinations.

The most important thing to remember when making biscotti is to keep the slices a half-inch thick or less. Any thicker and the biscotti becomes hard to bite into when it’s done.

Enjoy!

Ingredients
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder (use 1/2 teaspoon if at high altitude)
1/4 teaspoon salt (use 1/2 teaspoon if at high altitude
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
3/4 cup sliced almonds
1/3 cup dried cranberries
2 tablespoons grated orange zest
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract (use 1 teaspoon if at high altitude)
1/2 teaspoon almond extract

Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees F. Line baking sheet with parchment paper. Whisk flour, baking powder and salt together in small bowl.

Using a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter and sugar together at medium-high speed until light and fluffy. Reduce speed to low and add eggs one at a time, then add almonds, cranberries, orange zest, vanilla and almond extracts until combined, about 30 seconds, scraping down bowl as needed. Stir in flour mixture until just combined.

Halve dough and turn each portion onto prepared baking sheet. Using floured hands, quickly stretch each portion of dough into rough 12-inch-by-2-inch loaf, placing them about 3 inches apart. Pat each loaf to smooth it. Bake until loaves are golden and just beginning to crack on top, about 35 minutes, rotating baking sheet halfway through baking.

Let loaves cool for 10 minutes; reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees. Using a serrated knife, cut each loaf diagonally into 1/2-inch slices. Lay slices cut side up about 1/2 inch apart on baking sheet and return them to the oven. Bake until lightly golden on both sides, about 15 minutes, turning over each piece halfway through baking. Immediately transfer biscotti from baking sheet to wire rack and let cool completely.

Ginger cookies without the snap

chewy ginger snaps

For my last Christmas cookie post of the season, I give you the chewy ginger cookie.

Years ago, I picked up a small container of The Ginger People crystallized ginger at Williams-Sonoma. At the time, I was just playing around with baking and I liked to pick up ingredients I hadn’t used before so I could figure out a way to use them. The ginger had a recipe on the back for the World’s Best Chewy Ginger Snaps. I’ve never been fond of ginger snaps, mostly because of the snap, but the concept of a soft version had never occurred to me. I tried the recipe and I liked it quite a bit. The ginger flavor wasn’t overwhelming and I got the soft cookie I had anticipated.

I put these on the Christmas Eve plate for two years in a row, and my family enjoyed them. This year I have opted for the chai spice cookies instead of these, but will be keeping this recipe on hand.

However you spend your holiday, I hope you and your family have a Merry Christmas.

Ingredients
2 cups + 2 tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup dark molasses
1 egg
3.5 ounces crystallized ginger, chopped coarsely
1/4 cup sugar for rolling dough

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Sift dry ingredients together. Set aside. Combine softened butter, sugar, molasses and egg. Using a mixing, beat well. Stir in crystallized ginger. Sift dry ingredients together. Add dry ingredients to wet mixture. Mix well. Form 1-inch balls. Roll in course sugar. Place on greased cookie sheet, 2 inches apart. Bake 8-10 minutes. Makes 3 dozen cookies.