What a crazy couple weeks of baking! I've cleared through about 8 pounds of butter, a bag of sugar, tons of flour, and my Penzey's Cinnamon jar is looking much worse for the wear. The madness started about two weeks ago... wait a minute, scratch that. The true madness really started right after Thanksgiving, when I took a break for futiley decorating the Christmas tree (the cat has been dismantling it with surgeon precision ever since) to pull out my bulging recipe file. The Dessert section is overflowing, but rarely used. I don't make dessert very often. Matt isn't crazy about sweets, and I'd rather spend my precious points on savory cheeses and sweet, sweet carbs. I chiefly bake on special occasions, and Christmas totally counts. Last year my baking plans got sidelined by work, when an ice storm led to super-late hours and weekends in the office. Did I let this overtime onslaught memory dampen my hyperplanning? NO!! I will not predispose nature to screw up my holidays!
With deranged, elfish glee, I picked through the pile, yanking out the possibilities that looked the best. Gingerbread! Candied oranges! Peppermint fudge!! When I'd gotten through, I spread out the dozen or so possibilities and took a good hard look. Some things, like the chocolate cheesecake peppermint bars and cranberry bliss bars, were super-similar. And really, even I know I can't do every single flippin' one. Just most of them. After carefully vetting (and watching Max bat down my glass nutcracker from a low bough), I settled on must-have classics:
-Cranberry Bliss Bars
-Almond Cookies in Ganache
(more on these sacred guys later)
and some new and newish additions:
-Raspberry Linzer Cookies
Cranberry Bliss Bars may sound slightly familiar. They're the popular treats Starbucks tries to get you to tack on to your $5.00 coffee tab this time of year. Five years ago, during Matt and I's second Christmas in our tiny apartment, I was hoping for a signature baking treat to contribute to the company cookie swap. The Oregonian's FOODday ran a special dissecting "secret" holiday recipes, including the Starbucks treat. I decided I was going to make this my own, and went about buying all the ingredients that I needed to make a double batch. For someone in a miniature cooking space that hadn't yet amassed a pantry of essentials, this wasn't easy or cheap. But the end results were so worth it - all that tart-and-sweet, tangy cream cheese flavor spiked with ginger, minus the cooked-off-the-premesis-and-shipped-to-50,000-stores and preservatives garbage. Presumably less crappy pumped-in Muzak, too.
Unfortunately, the cookie swap was a total bust - I got my plate back filled with store-bought cupcakes and those hard tack-bread sprinkle shapes that Safeway calls cookies, and a tiny wedge of Bliss. Just because you work at a specialty food company doesn't mean your co-workers actually give a shit about cooking.
But I digress. Sort of.
Two weeks ago, I baked the Cranberry Bliss Bars and Sugar Cookies, since I knew they'd freeze pretty well. Matt even helped me decorate the sugar cookies, even though he was watching a football game. That was one of those moments I fell just a little more in love.
Then, the aforementioned FOODday came out again with its Best Homemade Food Gifts special. "If you had the foresight to can delicious gifts during the summer, when produce was at its peak - boo on you." Well I DID, thank you very much! It's called foresight, you biased journalists. But I will keep reading, because it's a good excuse to get up from my desk for a minute. They had an irresistible spread on chocolate bark, which Ina and Food Network Magazine have also been going crazy for this year. I should try that, I thought. I can't be left out, after all. But what am I going to stick in my bark?
Isn't it obvious? What says Portland to family and friends more than dark chocolate and BACON? Bacon Bark with Dried Cherries and Hazelnuts. I thought it was inspired.
This weekend was crunch time. I had 5 different things to make and tons of little boxes and bags to fill with them. Thank god for the Kitchen Aid, who was able to take over stirring. I don't have a food processor (I know, right?) so me and Wusthof had to contend with hazelnuts, walnuts, almonds, bacon and such on our own. So Santa, if you're listening, I'd really love a Cuisinart. Still, I think I did okay. I didn't get the almonds quite as fine as I would have liked for the almond cookies or linzers, but I guess they're more homey that way. What I don't need is a double-broiler, because my ghetto version works like a CHAMP. It sure is fun to dump a bunch of freshly-melted chocolate onto parchment, and stick random crap in it. No wonder all the food writers are falling in love with it this year.
I don't think I'd stick bark into my must-do-every-year pile. It's good, but I don't know if I could call it breathtaking. It's kind of you get what you put into it. Was it that amazing to melt chocolate you got at Trader Joe's and sprinkle things on top? Fun, yes. But after a bite, I wasn't desperate to throw caution to the wind and eat the whole sheet.
What I would eat a whole pan of, however, was that god-damn baklava. It was kind of the crazy-funk addition to my list, the thing I figured I could always throw away and deny ever happened. It certainly didn't generate much excitement in our household.
"What are you making now?" Matt asked, eyeing the puff pastry thawing on the counter.
"Huh, sounds Jewish." Then we got in an argument over how many Hanukkah songs there are. I'm almost certain that baklava is middle eastern, but whatever. It's still fun to say with a throaty accent: "baCCCHHHlahhhvah!" It's a blast to make, like dessert lasagna. Layers of generously brushed butter, sliced almonds and cinnamon, wedged between paper-thin sheets. I started to get excited when it came out of the oven, looking and smelling like the little wedges I've had at Aladdin's. It's important to slice it in the pan before baking, so the syrup poured right as it pops out can get into every minute crevice. I rationed myself to one little square, and to be fair, it is extremely rich. I still could have polished off the whole pan, but my paper treat boxes were hungry. And I wanted to share the joy! Matt had no interest in even a tiny bite ("you lost me when you dumped all that syrup on top"), so I had to have somebody validate my culinary experience.
Luckily, I had co-workers that were willing to oblige. After I dipped the almond cookies (a recipe I got from the caterer of my bridal shower) in their ganache and made all the linzer cookies with the 3-part cutter I picked up at Sur La Table while Matt watched Mallratz, it was time to package up the goodies for the impending Monday... and before I ate them all. Also, Kevin Smith movies are terrible. I had to get creative, since I wasn't able to get the boxes I really wanted from The Container Store, and I didn't have enough pretty boxes and bags for everything. But Saran wrap and little Ziplocs can also look good inside of a pretty gift bag.
I have an office full of baking-bribed coworkers (Tonya thought the baklava was divine! Scott ate the whole box of bliss bars!), a new holiday classic, and a whole round of Washingtonians to spread the love with this week. There's only one thing more soulfully happy than cooking, and that's sharing the end result. This is the holidays.
Well, the presents are awesome too.
Cranberry "Ecstasy" Bars
1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/4 cups firmly packed light brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup minced dried cranberries
1/4 cup minced crystallized ginger
For the frosting:
1 8-oz package of cream cheese at room temperature
3 tbsp unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup plus 3 tbsp powdered sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/8 tsp grated lemon zest
pinch of salt
For the drizzle:
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1 tsp milk
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9x13 pan with parchment paper and then grease the paper. In a large mixing bowl, cream together butter and sugar. Add eggs and vanilla, continue mixing until light. Sift together flour, ground ginger and salt; add to the butter-sugar mixture. Continue mixing until flour is incorporated. Fold in dried cranberries, chocolate and crystallized ginger. Spread the batter in the prepared pan and bake for about 20 to 25 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove from oven and cool completely in pan. To make frosting: In a medium bowl, mix together cream cheese, butter, powdered sugar, vanilla, lemon zest and salt until well-mixed.
Remove cake from pan and trim off the edges so the cake is uniformly flat. Using an offset spatula or the back of a large spoon, uniformly spread the frosting on top of the cake. Sprinkle minced dried cranberries on top of frosting and refrigerate for 1 hour. To make drizzle: in a small saucepan over low heat, melt white chocolate, whisk in powdered sugar and milk until well-mixed. Scrape into a small, sturdy plastic bag; cut a tiny corner of the bag and squeeze to drizzle chocolate decoratively over the entire frosted cake. To serve, slice the cake lengthwise down the center, making two long rectangles. Cut each rectangle into four equal portions, slice each of these in half diagonally.
If you have one of those nifty Pyrex pans with a lid, these freeze very well right in the pan.
Also, I always double this recipe and make it one of the really really big pans.
1 1/4 cups (2 1/2 sticks) butter, melted, plus more to grease pan
3 1/2 cups sugar
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
3 cups walnuts
1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 package frozen phyllo dough
Preheat oven to 375. Brush a 13x9 inch baking dish with butter; set aside. In a medium saucepan, combine 3 cups sugar, lemon juice, and 1 1/2 cups water; bring to a boil. Reduce heat, simmer until sugar dissolves and mixture is syrupy, about 10 minutes. Set syrup aside.
In a food processor, pulse walnuts with cinnamon and remaining 1/2 cup sugar until finely ground. Set walnut filling aside.
Alternatively, if you don't have one of these fancy-schmancy food processors, just use your knife and slice the sugar and nuts together. It sounds kind of ghetto, and... well, it is. But it does work.
Place a stack of thawed phyllo sheets on a work surface. Using a sharp knife, trim stack inith to a 13x9" rectangle, discard trimmings. Place 1 sheet of trimmed phyllo in prepared baking dish. Brush gently with butter, repeat with 2 more sheets of phyllo, laying each on top of the other. You now have a 3-sheet stack of buttered phyllo.
Sprinkle phyllo stack in dish with 1/3 cup walnut filling. Repeat with 7 more buttered phyllo stacks, sprinkling each with walnut filling. Top with one more 3 sheet stack; brush generously with butter.
Using a sharp knife, cut unbaked baklava into 24 squares. Bake until puffed and golden, 30 to 35 minutes. Transfer pan to a wire rack; pour syrup over baklava. Let stand at room temperature until syrup is absorbed, at least 3 hours. To store, keep at room temperature, up to 3 days.