Monday, December 21, 2015

Holiday Baking Day

There is something special about the holidays. Family time, big dinners, lots of visiting friends and relatives, lots of opportunities for sharing treats. Baking and the holidays go hand in hand for many families and this year I'm jumping back into action after a several year hiatus from the annual big baking day. Now, my family is not huge like some, so any time I make a batch of more than one or two treats it's often too much. The Chef and I are the only ones here at our house and even if I shared with all the kids I would still have tons of treats left over so when my new friend Katie suggested we do a baking day together, I jumped at the chance! It's the perfect solution for both families- we can make more different treats and split everything so neither family is overloaded with goodies that will hang around until Easter.

Katie and I became friends at work, chatting over the peculiarities of life with a chef, among other things. The night shifts. Crazy schedules. Messy kitchens. Crabby days off. We completely understand each other and "get" what the other is going through. With the holiday craziness all around us Katie suggested we have the baking day- and it was just the ticket for this still-quite-grinchy baker who needed a little kick in the pants to get in the holiday spirit. Besides, who wouldn't love hanging out with a girlfriend, up to our elbows in cookie dough and melted chocolate?

Of course, it was very difficult muddling through the work week to get to Baking Day. Miserable commutes in the never-ending rain, blustery cold wind, gridlock and backed up traffic. Disgruntled clients, disgruntled employees, hour long phone calls and the usual stresses made it hard but those few spare minutes during the day to jot down a recipe, an ingredient to pick up, or an idea for a flavor combo kept us both focused on the fun ahead.

The Big Day finally arrives! What did we decide to make? Lots of yummy things, of course. Peanut clusters with both white chocolate and one with milk chocolate and butterscotch morsels together. Pretzel goodies- some with white chocolate and m&ms, sprinkles, some with candy cane kisses and some with Rolo and walnut pieces. Fudge with walnuts, with and without sprinkles. Santa's Whiskers- a cookie that I have made for many years, and of course, cut out sugar cookies.

We had loads of help from Katie's three older boys Ben, Jeremiah and Elijah, and their friend Dawson. The boys had fun spooning out the peanut clusters, unwrapping the candies for the pretzel treats, filling baking sheets with pretzels,and of course, cutting out cookies like old pros.

Katie helps Dawson and Elijah scoop out the peanut clusters.
Now I have to be honest about something- we DID use a cookie mix for the sugar cookies instead of making this dough from scratch. I'll just say I am forever sold. The mix required just butter, an egg and a couple tablespoons of extra flour and the best part- no chilling before rolling, so we were able to get the boys busy cutting out the cookies before too long.

We started our day-long baking adventure with a trip to the store to grab the ingredients we didn't already have on hand. Just for fun, we piled it all together to get an idea of the enormity of what we have taken on, but I am determined to shake off my old grinchy attitude and get back in the holiday spirit and Katie has been a great cheerleader in that regard. To keep us fueled through the long day Katie even made a big crock pot full of barbequed pulled pork so we could have sandwich breaks and keep our energy up (and also to stave off treat snacking throughout the day).

The boys did a great job!
The first task of the day was the two kinds of peanut clusters. Super easy to prepare, simply melt your choice of chocolate and stir in dry roasted peanuts until you have the right consistency for your taste. Chocolate chips or candy melts are a snap to melt in the microwave but you can use a double boiler if you prefer. Spoon out onto waxed paper and chill. Katie got the chocolates melted, the nuts stirred in, and then set the younger boys up with a table covered in paper to spoon the clusters onto. They did a great job! The white chocolate clusters are so decadent and the chocolate butterscotch ones remind me of an old family favorite, Kris Kringles. I might have to make those now.

While the boys worked on the clusters I whipped up the recipe for Santa's Whiskers, since that needs to go in the freezer to firm up before baking. Katie's Kitchenaid made quick work of the dough, and the rolls were in the freezer in just a few minutes. There is a little back story about the Santa's Whiskers. I first came across it in a Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book from the early 1980s. Similar to a sugar cookie dough, Santas Whiskers are loaded with sweet cherries and crunchy pecans and edged with toasty coconut- the whiskers. So colorful and festive they are sure to be a hit at your home- they have been a favorite at my house for many many years.

Santas Whiskers

1 cup butter
1 cup sugar
2 tb milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 1/2 cups flour
3 ounces red candied cherries, chopped
3 ounces green candied cherries, chopped
1/2 cup chopped pecans
3/4 cup flaked coconut

Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add milk and vanilla. Beat in the flour in three batches. Stir in the cherries and pecans. Divide the dough in half. Set aside.

Spread the coconut on a clean baking sheet. Form each half of dough into a log and roll in the coconut until coated. Wrap with plastic wrap and chill for 2 to 24 hours.

When ready to bake, heat oven to 375 degrees. Slice dough into 1/4 inch rounds. Bake until the edges just start to turn golden, about 10-12 minutes. Allow the cookies to cool slightly on the sheet before transferring to a wire rack to cool.

Teenage boys come in handy when you have numerous tasks to get through. While The Grinch played in the background Jeremiah and Ben helped out by peeling the wrapper off the Rolos and Hershey Kisses, lining baking trays with foil and pretzel circles, and helping with the centers. They had fun and their help was a lifesaver!

Ben and Jeremiah unwrapping candies.
If you haven't ever had these pretzel treats you need to check them out. Simply place the pretzels on foil on a baking sheet and fill with unwrapped Rolo candies or Kisses- pop in a 350 degree oven for just a couple minutes until melted- watch carefully!

Katie also made pretzel circles filled with melted almond bark and topped with m&m candies or sprinkles. Again, super easy- break up the almond bark, place in a gallon size zipper bag and microwave in 30 second increments until melted. Snip off the corner of the bag and fill the centers.

Growing up my mom never made fudge. She never made candy at all. My grandmother made all kinds of Christmas goodies but I don't remember her ever making fudge either. It wasn't until I married that my mother in law introduced me to fudge. Now she was old school- she made it the old fashioned way with sugar and butter, lots of boiling and used a candy thermometer. Then she'd beat it by hand with a wooden spoon just until the exact second before pouring into the pan as quickly as possible. That stuff sets in seconds! Many a failed batch got thrown out in my kitchen. Many years later I came across a recipe in a magazine that changed fudge for me forever.

The Easiest Fudge in the World

3 cups chocolate chips
1 can sweetened condensed milk
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup chopped walnuts

Line an 8 inch square pan with waxed paper. In a medium bowl combine all ingredients except the nuts. Microwave until melted, stirring every 30 seconds. When melted and smooth stir in nuts. Spread in prepared pan. Chill at least two hours. Remove from pan and cut into squares. *Hint- the fudge is easier to cut if you let it warm up to room temp. 

This recipe is so awesome, you can use any flavor baking chips to make different flavors of fudge to suit your family's likes. We decorated one batch with sprinkles just for fun.

When it comes to Christmas baking most people would agree that rolled and cut out sugar cookies are the most popular Christmas cookie. Cut into favorite shapes and decorated simply or elaborately they are the art of almost everyone's holiday treat platter. For years I used the BH&G recipe for rolled sugar cookies but this year Katie convinced me to try a mix. Now.......I'm totally sold. So easy, so fast, no chilling before rolling. You just can't get any easier.

It's more fun when there is flour everywhere.
Mixing the dough was a snap, and then it was time to roll it out and turn the boys loose with the cookie cutters. Stars, wreaths, Santas, angels, trees, bells......sheet after sheet of cookies went into the oven and came out golden brown and perfect. I had a blast with these boys, rolling, cutting and singing along to Linkin Park, Seether and Slipknot- yes, we were rockin' Katie's kitchen.

The best cookies of all are the ones with the little
imperfections when kids are helping.
All cooled and ready to go, but Katie and I had reached the end of our energy level for the day. By unanimous decision we agreed to hold off the decorating til the next day, so we packed up our shares of the treats and I made my way home, exhausted and full of awesome memories. The next day I took it easy on myself- I made a simple powdered sugar drizzle and decorated with sprinkles. Done!

I'm taking it easy this morning.

Katie and her boys' cookies are quite a bit fancier!!
The holidays really are a time for fellowship and making memories. I am so thankful for my new friend and her awesome sons for making a wonderful holiday memory with me. I hope we continue this tradition for a very long time to come.

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