Holiday Candy and Baking Ideas

Everyone’s been talking about how fast the holidays are flying by this year, and I’m no exception. There’s been so little time for holiday shopping, decorating, or even get-togethers with friends. In fact, my Christmas tree only went up last night, and still isn’t decorated. But this weekend we’re expecting some very wintery weather in Vermont, and I think it will be the perfect time to roll up my sleeves and stock the pantry with some holiday baking. With snow falling, a fire roaring, and Christmas music playing (A Charlie Brown Christmas and the Windham Hill Holiday Guitar Collection are two favorites), some time in the kitchen and the smell of baking will be sure to put me in the Christmas spirit.

What’s your favorite holiday candy or baked-good recipe? Here are a number of the holiday recipes I’ve turned to repeatedly over the years for family dinners, gifts for others, or to have for myself. Enjoy!

Fragrant Indian Brittle from Gourmet

With lots of cardamom, this feels Christmas-y, but it’s unexpected, too. Break it into pieces and wrap in cellophane bags tied with ribbon to give as gifts, or enjoy with a cup of Earl Grey tea.

Fleur de Sel Caramels from Ina Garten

As with all caramel you have to pay attention, but it’s pretty fool proof (just keep the candy thermometer in the middle of the pan, not the side like I did the first three—yes three—times. Rock hard block of caramel anyone?) Any fleur de sel will work, though I often use Maldon salt to top each caramel as it’s nice and flaky.

Rolled Sugar Cookies from the Joy of Cooking

I first make these for my close friends’ wedding. I added a ½ tsp lemon zest to each batch, cut them into silver dollar size circles, and stamped them with one of two stamps my friends were using as their signature for the wedding. After the first hundred or two, I got pretty good.  Recently I made them again, but instead of lemon zest I added ½ tsp of Fiori di Sicilia (which also makes a great hostess gift). The cookies were orangey and divine, and reminded me of the December I spent in Florence, Italy, where this flavoring is central to a good Panettone (something I have yet to tackle in the kitchen).

Good Ol’ Chocolate Chippers from your favorite package

When I was a kid my dad made about 16 dozen of these every year to give as thank-you gifts to the mail carrier, garbage men, newspaper deliverer, etc. (Best tip learned from Dad: Beat the butter and sugar until really creamy and fluffy, several minutes on high. The cookies will spread better.) I keep it to one batch and shape the dough into a log, roll it in plastic wrap, and freeze it so I don’t bake them all at once and end up the size of Santa. Then slice off as many as you want at a time and bake according to the package, possibly a minute more. Every cookie you eat will be fresh and warm. (Bonus: Make this before holiday houseguests arrive and you can wow them with fresh-baked cookies after dinner in no time flat without any mess.)

Steamed Ginger Pudding from Tartine

I love this, and have made it many times straight from the Tartine cookbook, but I’ll be honest: I still can’t get it quite right. At least not the way I remember it being at the real Tartine in San Francisco. Mine is still good, it’s just doesn’t rise very much (even with new baking powder). I suspect the pan I use might be the culprit. But I still love how dark and peppery it is—it’s not for the faint of heart!

Gingery Apple Crumb Pie from RealSimple

I make this every year at Thanksgiving and Christmas (sometimes two each), and it’s always a hit. The ginger smells amazing while it bakes, and it’s just the right amount when eating—it lives up to the beautiful smells from the oven, but doesn’t overwhelm. I strongly recommend making the pie crust for it from scratch (recipe included) the night before—this pie has a decent amount of prep and it helps to split it up. You know what else helps? This handy gadget. Easy on the wallet and the perfect gift for any baker.

Chocolate Soufflés from Bon Appétit

I’ve made these before for a New Year’s Eve dinner, and they were perfect. Don’t be scared of soufflé—it’s really not hard (but it’s fun that everyone thinks it is). I researched many chocolate soufflé recipes on Epicurious, and learned through the comments that this was the Goldilocks of soufflé recipes: Not too simplified, but not overly complicated. Just right. Tip: Before baking run your finger just inside the rim where the soufflé batter meets the edge of the baking dish; it helps them to have a nice puffy rise. (Also: If you don’t know what soft peaks are when beating egg whites, check out this guide. It’s not hard to make soft peaks once you know what to look for, and it matters to the recipe. Just keep checking as you go.)

Pistachio-Honey Torrone from Martha Stewart

It’s time to add something new to the repertoire, and I think this is it. After reading up on several different recipes and their comments (and watching a few videos) it’s clear it’s not a light undertaking. I see many sticky dishes to clean in my future. Timing seems to be the key—that and a steady hand when pouring molten honey into a running stand mixer (no joke). But faint heart never won fair candy!

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