This is the season when handmade gifts are shared with abandon – it is truly a baker’s wonderland. It does my heart good to hear people in line at the supermarket or the coffee house discussing pie and cake recipes or exchanging cookie decorating tips. Whether it’s a plate of your signature cookies, a loaf of pumpkin bread, or a box of lovingly decorated cupcakes, gifts of food connect us all, kitchen by kitchen. In these uncertain economic times, simple gifts from hearth and home create a more meaningful holiday season.
Here are some ideas to get you started:
Cookies: A plate of freshly baked cookies is a delight during the holidays. Just one type of really good cookie is all you need to spread the joy. If you decide to give a selection of your favorites, keep a few points in mind. Keep all the cookies in separate containers until it’s time to assemble the platter, then deliver it shortly. This will keep the flavors and textures intact – prolonged contact will make crisp cookies soft, and soft cookies stale, and they’ll all start to taste like each other. I like to wrap the cookies individually in cellophane bags or vellum envelopes, then tuck them into a tin or container.
For a cookie gift that keeps on giving, I like to give frozen dough logs or scoops of cookie dough, to be enjoyed long after the last holiday package has been opened. I wrap slice-and-bake cookie logs in plastic, then in holiday paper. A good idea to help them keep their round shape is to tuck the logs into cardboard paper towel tubes, then wrap the tube. Be sure to attach a tag that gives the name of the cookies and baking instructions. For drop cookies (chocolate chip-style), I scoop the cookie dough using a small ice cream scoop, then freeze the dough balls and transfer them into ziptop freezer bags. When it’s time for gift-giving, I fill airtight tins or containers with the dough, and attach a tag with all the pertinent information. Just make sure it goes from your freezer to the recipient’s freezer in a timely manner. This is a great way to be remembered on a cold January night, when your friends pull warm cookies from the oven.
Here are some of my favorites from The Art and Soul of Baking:
Cookies for baking and giving: Almond and Chocolate Spritz Cookies, Raspberry Cherry Crumble Bars, Cappuccino Biscotti with Hazelnuts and Chocolate, Peanut Butter Thumbprints with Caramel Peanut Filling, and Mexican Chocolate Crackle Cookies.
And, of course, the classic Roll and Cut Sugar Cookies – for ideas on decorating, see the December issue of Food and Wine Magazine (bold December… Magazine), in which they are featured in an article on the best baking books of the season. The same article features my recipe for simple yet addictive Vanilla Crescents, one of my most requested recipes ever.
Cookies for freezing and giving: Chocolate Earl Grey Coins (recipe provided below), a comfortingly sophisticated slice and bake treat; Cherry Oatmeal Cookies; Chocolate Cocoa Nib Cookies, Chocolate Chip Cookies; and Sugar Cookie Pillows.
Pie Dough: If I’m making a big batch of pie dough, I’ll make some extra to give to friends who love to make pie, but won’t attempt a pie crust. I roll it out so it’s ready to go, dust it lightly with flour so it doesn’t stick to itself upon thawing, then fold it in half and set it inside a pie tin lined with a piece of parchment paper. I’ll layer 2 or 3 between rounds of parchment, then wrap the whole thing in plastic (or slip it into a ziptop freezer bag), and wrap with holiday paper. I attach a gift tag reminding them to let each round thaw completely before unfolding (or it will crack in half), and giving baking temperatures and times. All they have to do for pie is toss some fruit together for the filling.
Crumble or Crisp Topping: Fruit crumbles are so simple and delicious, I think everyone should have some topping in their freezer for a quick, satisfying dessert. Crumble topping can easily be made in a food processor or stand mixer, and it’s child’s play to whip up several batches. Freeze it in ziptop freezer bags, then transfer into airtight food safe containers for gift-giving, along with your favorite recipe using the topping.
Cakes: A moist and tender cake is a thoughtful way to let friends and colleagues know you care. Simple pound cakes and tea cakes can be enjoyed any time of day, and freeze beautifully. I love the beautiful brown and gold baking papers that Sur La Table carries for just such baking. They come in an array of sizes, from individual cupcakes to mini loaves to standard-size loaves, to large tube or panettone style loaves. Once the cakes have cooled, wrap in plastic or cellophane and tie with a coordinating ribbon or raffia.
Good choices from my book include: Double Vanilla Pound Cake, Spice Cake, Orange Cardamom Cake, Chocolate Velvet Pound Cake, and Pumpkin Spice Cake. From the quick bread chapter, try Cinnamon Streusel Sour Cream Coffeecake, Chocolate Banana Marble Bread or Pumpkin Walnut Bread. Any of these are excellent on their own, or top them with a bit of Chocolate Ganache or Confectioner’s Sugar Icing and fun sprinkles for a festive finish. They can also be baked in cupcake form for home, office or school parties.
One of my favorite “big” cakes for giving is the Almond, Apricot and Chocolate Chip Cake with Amaretto Glaze. I bake it in one of the gorgeous Nordic Ware bundt pans, then let the glaze drip down the sides. The almond paste in the batter ensures the cake stays moist for days (and it freezes beautifully for a month, which means I can get ahead on my gift baking). If you bake it ahead and freeze it, don’t glaze the cake – it gets splotchy upon thawing. Instead, let the cake(s) thaw completely before you add the chocolate glaze.
Other Kitchen Treats: Little jars of special treats are a welcome gift. I like to give Caramel Sauce, since most store bought caramel sauce is not caramelized sugar at all, but a combination of brown sugar and milk or cream. The real thing is rich and complex in flavor and light years beyond the others. If you don’t plan on heat processing the jars to seal them, be sure to attach a tag reminding the recipient to store it in the refrigerator, where it will keep for at least a month. Other fun treats are Sugared Flower Petals for decorating; and Candied Citrus Zest in sugar syrup for chopping and adding to doughs and batters or garnishing citrus desserts. Recipes for each of these can be found in the book.
Stymied on how to wrap your gift of food? Here are some ideas:
- Make a paper cone from pretty wrapping paper or scrapbook paper – tape a piece of waxed paper inside before rolling the paper to protect it from butter stains.
- Café au lait bowl tied with a ribbon
- Pretty printed cupcake liners (standard-size or minis, depending on size of cookies) with a different type of cookie stacked inside each one, all inside a craft or candy box, lined up like chocolate bon bons.
- Antique, thrift store or modern plates (for larger gift) or tea cup sets (for smaller gift) with cookies arranged on top or inside cup, then wrapped in clear cellophane.
- Chinese to-go boxes decorated with pretty paper cut-outs or stickers or rubber stamps and wrapped with a beautiful ribbon.
- Japanese bento box, with various cookies or candies in each wooden container inside the box.
- Cellophane bags -- available at candy and craft stores -- tied with a pretty ribbon.
- Cardboard or tin lunchbox with cookies arranged in rows inside or each type of cookie stored in separate cellophane bags or envelopes to keep flavors and textures intact.
- Canning jars tied with a pretty ribbon.
- Baking pans – either new or thrift shop – when packed in baking pans, the treats are a gift for now (to eat) and one for later (a pan to bake in).
Chocolate–Earl Grey Shortbread Coins
Makes about 36 cookies
Deeply chocolaty and delicately nubby from the texture of Earl Grey tea leaves, these are cookies for adults. Earl Grey, black tea flavored with bergamot oil (from a variety of bitter orange called bergamot), is an inspired match for dark chocolate. For the best flavor, use a top-quality bulk tea, which can often be purchased at your local coffee house. Serve the cookies with a cup of the tea—or any time you want a sophisticated cookie. Without tea leaves, they are a wonderful chocolate shortbread cookie that even children will love.
- ¼ cup (1¾ ounces) granulated sugar
- 1 tablespoon (¼ ounce) good quality Earl Grey tea leaves
- 1 stick (4 ounces) cold unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch pieces
- ¾ cup (3¾ ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
- 3 tablespoons (¾ ounce) unsweetened cocoa powder, either Dutch-process or natural
- ¹⁄8 teaspoon salt
- 3 tablespoons sanding or decorator’s sugar (optional)
- Place the granulated sugar and tea leaves in the bowl of the food processor and grind for 1 minute, or until the leaves are very finely chopped. Add the butter, flour, cocoa, and salt and process for about 45 seconds. Scrape down the bowl and break up any large clumps with the spatula. Process for another 15 to 30 seconds, until the dough looks uniformly dark and forms large, shaggy clumps. Dump the dough out onto a work surface and knead gently several times, just to bring it together.
- Squeeze the dough into a log about 12 inches long and about 1 inch in diameter, and gently roll it back and forth until smooth. Don’t add flour if the dough is sticky—simply refrigerate the dough for 15 or 20 minutes to firm up the butter, then try again.
- If you like, sprinkle the sanding sugar on the work surface alongside the log and gently roll the log in the sugar, turning to coat evenly. Cut a piece of plastic wrap several inches longer than the log and center the log at one long edge of the wrap. Roll the log into the wrap so it is tightly bound by the plastic. Twist the ends of the wrap to secure the log and help to create a rounded shape. You can use a cardboard paper towel roll to keep the roll of dough nicely rounded during storage. Just slit the cardboard lengthwise and slip the log inside it to help keep the rounded shape. Refrigerate for 2 hours.
- Preheat the oven to 300°F and position an oven rack in the center. Line the baking sheet with parchment paper.
- Remove the cardboard and plastic wrap from the dough log and use a thin knife to slice it into ³⁄8-inch-thick rounds. Place about 18 cookies 1 inch apart on the prepared baking sheet. Bake, rotating the sheet halfway through the baking time, for 30 minutes, or until the cookies are cooked through and look dry on top. (It’s difficult to tell when dark chocolate cookies are done. This is when an oven thermometer and a timer are your best friends in the kitchen.) Transfer the cookies to a cooling rack and let them cool completely.
Storing: Keep the cooled cookies in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 week.
Chocolate–Cocoa Nib Shortbread Cookies: Cocoa nibs are the cracked and roasted interior of cocoa beans—chocolate before it becomes chocolate. They are bitter (think coffee beans) and deeply flavored—and divine in this grown-up cookie. Omit the tea and make the dough as directed. Add an additional 2 tablespoons of flour to the dough (for a total of 1 cup minus 2 tablespoons, or 4¼ ounces). When the dough has finished mixing, add ¼ cup (1 ounce) roasted cocoa nibs to the processor and pulse 4 or 5 times to mix into the dough. Shape and bake as directed.
Tools of the Trade:
- Holiday Bake Shop
- Professional Baking Shop
- Professional All-Clad Gourmet Ovenware Baking Sheets
- Copper Snowflake Cookie Cutters
- Silicone Nonstick Tapered French Rolling Pin
- Parchment Paper
- Cooling Rack
- Nordic Ware Christmas Tree Bundt Pan
- Nordic Ware Mini Holiday Loaf Pan
- Silicone Ginberbread Muffin Pan
Recipes and Photos are reprinted with permission from Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC. The Art and Soul of Baking © copyright 2008 by Sur La Table, Inc.