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Sweet Dreams

Baking for the holidays

EUGENIA UHL PHOTOGRAPH

When it comes to Christmas sweets I’m more of a candymaker than a cookie baker, and my edible holiday gifts run more along the lines of pepper jelly, sugared nuts and cheese straws. However, I’ve always admired the energetic cooks who turn out tins and tins of delicious and beautifully decorated cookies.

I recently realized that I’ve never done a column on cookies since I started this gig seven years ago. I do know how to make cookies, dating back to peanut butter cookies in seventh grade home economics. There are even certain cookies of which I happen to be quite fond.

One of these is what I call the Russian teacake, for which a friend gave me the recipe decades ago. I later learned that Russian teacakes are also called Mexican wedding cakes and that many countries have their own renditions of these rich cookies. One synopsis I read said they’re also called brides’ cakes and may be closer to the original wedding cake than the giant extravaganzas we know today.

Comparing my recipe with some on the Internet, I discovered different versions called “Melting Moments” because they melt in your mouth. I couldn’t resist so I picked a recipe, added some finely chopped pecans from my Russian teacakes recipe and the next thing I knew I was in a truly melting moment.

The secret is cornstarch; otherwise they’re almost identical to Russian teacakes.

Most of the recipes are without nuts. I tried it both ways and like both.

My daughter Elizabeth lived in Italy for a couple of years and her cooking now leans toward the remarkable cuisine of that country. Her biscotti are to die for and, although they are based on a recipe from a Martha Stewart cookbook, she has made them her own. I have added yet another twist – dried cranberries – to highlight the Christmas season. You can do what you like with biscotti; choose your nuts – hazelnuts, almonds, walnuts – and dried fruit and flavors such as anise and chocolate. Biscotti store well in tins and will stay crisp for a week or more.

They say if you eat enough bourbon (or rum) balls you may have a hangover.  That is because, in most recipes, the bourbon is added after the cooking is done. I say, have one less drink and eat more bourbon balls.

I like to stick to local tastes when possible and my tried-and-true praline cookies do just that. Pecans and brown sugar give them that traditional taste of pralines but in cookie form. Best of all, they are a lot easier to make than pralines.

Melting Moments Cookies
1 1/2    cups all-purpose flour
1/2    cup cornstarch
1/4    teaspoon salt
1    cup unsalted butter, softened
3/4    cup confectioners’ sugar, divided
1    teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4    cup finely chopped pecans


Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.

In a medium bowl whisk flour, cornstarch and salt together. Set aside.

In an electric mixer, blend 1/4-cup confectioners’ sugar and butter until smooth. Mix in vanilla and add flour mixture, beating until just mixed. Stir in pecans. Cover and refrigerate until firm, about 1 hour. When firm, roll into 1-inch balls and place on cookie sheets about 1 inch apart. Bake in center of the oven for about 12 minutes or until the edges of the cookies are just beginning to brown. Carefully remove from oven and cool for about 5 minutes.

Place a couple of cooling racks over waxed paper and put cookies on them. When cooled completely, sift remaining confectioners’ sugar over the tops of the cookies. This prevents crumbling, which sometimes happens if you roll them in the sugar.

Store in airtight containers for up to 2 weeks.

Makes about 3 dozen cookies.

Praline Cookies
1/2    cup unsalted butter,
    softened
1    cup brown sugar
1    large egg, beaten
1    teaspoon vanilla
1    cup flour
1/4    teaspoon baking soda
1/4    teaspoon salt
1 1/2    cups chopped toasted
    pecans*


Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line baking sheets with parchment paper. In an electric mixer, cream butter and sugar. Beat in egg and vanilla until smooth.

In a separate bowl whisk together flour, soda and salt; gradually blend into batter. Fold in pecans.

Drop by rounded teaspoons onto prepared baking sheet, allowing about 3 inches between each for cookies to spread. Bake for 15 minutes, until browned. Cool on sheets for 2 minutes and carefully remove to racks, using a large spatula.

Makes about 3 dozen.

* To toast pecans, place them – chopped or unchopped – on a cookie sheet and into a preheated 350-degree oven for about 5 minutes or until they smell toasted.

Bourbon Balls
1 1/2    cups confectioners’ sugar,
    divided
2    Tablespoons cocoa powder
2 1/2    cups finely crushed vanilla
    wafers, about 75
1    cup toasted pecans,
    coarsely ground
2    Tablespoons light corn syrup
1/2    cup bourbon


Sift 1 cup confectioners’ sugar and cocoa powder into a large bowl.

Place vanilla wafers in a food processor and pulse until they look finely crushed. (Or crush with a rolling pin with wafers between two sheets of wax paper or in a large plastic bag.) Add to dry ingredients.

Place pecans on a cookie sheet and toast in a preheated 350-degree oven for 5 minutes. Cool. Put into food processor and pulse until they appear coarsely ground. Mix into other ingredients.

Add light corn syrup and bourbon and mix well. Pinch off dough and form into 1-inch balls. Roll in remaining confectioners’ sugar, coating evenly. Place on baking sheets, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. Store in airtight containers with layers separated by wax paper for up to 2 weeks.

Makes about 60 bourbon balls.

Chocolate-Almond-Cranberry Biscotti
2 1/2    cups all-purpose flour,
    plus some for dusting
1/4    cup cocoa powder
1    teaspoon baking soda
1    teaspoon salt
12    ounces semi-sweet
    chocolate chunks, divided
1 1/2    cup slivered almonds, toasted
4    large whole eggs
1    large egg white
1 1/2    cups granulated sugar
1    cup sweetened dried
    cranberries (optional)


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking pans with parchment paper.

In a food processor, pulse flour, cocoa, soda, salt, 1 cup chocolate chunks and almonds until chocolate and nuts are the size of peas.

In an electric mixture, beat whole eggs and granulated sugar on high speed until mixture forms a trail when raised on a whisk. On low speed, add flour mixture, remaining chocolate and cranberries. Beat to combine.

Turn out in three equal parts onto a lightly floured surface. Flour your hands. Shape into 18-inch logs. Transfer to baking sheets. Press with the palm of your hand to flatten slightly, making the logs about 2 inches wide. Brush with the beaten egg white and sprinkle lightly with sugar.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes until logs start to brown slightly. Take out on a wire rack and cool for 20 minutes. Place on a cutting board. With a sharp knife, slice on the diagonal into 3/4-inch slices. Place on wire racks or baking sheets cut-side down. Reduce oven heat to 300 degrees and bake for 12 to 15 more minutes, until the biscotti are dry and beginning to color around the edges. Transfer to wire racks and cool completely.

Store in airtight containers at room temperature for up to a week.

Makes about 30 pieces.

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