Christmas (Eve) Wrap Up

Merry Christmas! I hope everyone is having a lovely holiday, full of great times with family and plenty of gifts, drinks and good food. Per our family traditions, we celebrate Christmas Eve. Back in the D.R., they celebrate Christmas Eve and open presents on January 6th, also known as Epiphany or Three Kings Day. Here in the U.S, we do our gift opening on the 24th instead of the 25th. It’s always been that way since I was a kid, and it’s how it’s always going to be. Of course, as an adult, the amount of gifts dwindle to almost nothing. Unless you’re lucky, then things never really change.

Since I’m now an adult (depends on the day and who you ask, to be honest), the most important thing about Christmas Eve is the food. Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve dinners are basically interchangeable in my house. The only thing that is a major change is the main protein.

On this year’s menu:

  • Pernil: Roasted pork shoulder. I look forward to this amazingness every year. It’s tender and juicy and just absolutely delicious. Don’t be fooled by it’s appearance!
  • Moro de gandules
  • Pastelón
  • Dinner rolls: these are my standby recipe (again). I did half AP and half whole wheat flour. I also doubled the recipe. Remind me not to do that again by hand.
  • Potato Salad
  • Macaroni Salad
  • Green Salad
  • Fruit Salad (not pictured): a giant can of fruit cocktail, mixed with blended sweetened condensed milk and plain Greek yogurt. My Mami also threw in a shot of brandy, for good measure.
  • Piña Colada (not pictured)
  • Random fruit bowl: grapes and apples, given to us by the folks at our local grocery store. They also threw in a bottle of cider. This is another one of those traditions, where they give loyal patrons a bag of this stuff for Christmas and again on New Year’s Eve.

The last thing on the table is the Bahamian Rum Cake. Purposely left for last because OMG it is amazing! I saw this recipe in David Lebovitz’s book Ready for Dessert. I knew I had to make it because it has all of the components my folks like; cake, coconut, and rum! It was so good! Words cannot express how delicious this cake is. I almost want to dedicate a post to it but a few pictures should suffice 😉

Our Christmas Eve meal was spectacular, as always. The holidays this year brought a weird feeling but I’m just going to take it as a sign that next year will be better. I hope you guys have a fabulous Christmas, and that you continue to enjoy the rest of the holidays; straight up into next year!

Note: for detailed descriptions of the menu, please check out my Thanksgiving post

Crunchy Peppermint Bark

I feel like Christmas pretty much snuck up on me this year. It’s weird because when I was a kid, we’d count down the days til Christmas, dreaming of the gifts and the good times with family. For some reason, that holiday spirit is diminished this year. Seemingly without any warning, Christmas is only a few days away. In a desperate attempt to get into the holiday spirit, I walked myself into my kitchen to create some of my own.

I always tell my sister that my holiday spirit lies in my tree. I decorate it every single year by myself, and am in charge of taking it back down. I leave the tree up for as long as possible, until after my birthday; hoping to grab on to every last bit of that good feeling. I put up my tree this year but it left somewhat of a lackluster feeling. Seeing as how that wasn’t enough, I wanted to make as many festive cookies as possible. Evidenced on this blog, I made sugar cookies, coconut macaroons, and gingerbread cookies; which included a very poor attempt at a gingerbread house. It certainly made me feel better about the holidays but it wasn’t enough.

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Between all the hustle and bustle of holiday shopping, life got in the way. As much as I hate to be in a negative state of mind during a time where everyone should be happy, this is real life. When no one is in a holiday mood for whatever reason, it’s hard to bring it back up. Why am I telling you all this? Besides this being a way to get it all out, I also wanted to show that the holidays should be enjoyed; even when life gets in the way.

One of the last ways I wanted to spread some Christmas cheer was with some candy. I have never attempted to make my own candy, so I knew I wanted to do something I could handle. I saw this recipe for peppermint bark over at Shutterbean, from the lovely Tracy. Peppermint bark is one my favorite holiday candies. I always make it a point to get at least one square of the Ghirardelli Peppermint Bark from the drugstore during the holiday season. I was attracted to this recipe for three reasons: it looked easy to make, the ingredients weren’t completely unattainable, and it looked amazing!

I want to build a house on this

I want to build a house on this

Now, I’ve never really messed with chocolate because of its temperamental nature (har har) but I moved forward, with much success. If you can melt chocolate, you can make this. Tracy’s bark is unique because it has a cereal base. This way, it’s not super cloying. She uses crispy rice cereal but since I didn’t have any in the house, I subbed Rice Chex with great results. I also drizzled some 72% dark chocolate over the top for added an added chocolate dose. This bark is definitely a cross between the traditional peppermint bark and a marshmallow crispy rice treat, sans the mallows of course. The sweetness from the white chocolate contrasts the crunchy cereal and bits of candy cane. The drizzled dark chocolate is subtle, which doesn’t make the bark overwhelming. I packaged some of it up in some cute takeout boxes for gifts, and am keeping the rest for Christmas night.

I hope everyone remembers to share their holiday spirit because you never know who may need it. A small token of appreciation can make a big difference. Happy holidays!

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Crunchy Peppermint Bark – adapted from Shutterbean

Makes about 35 pieces, depending on size

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound (16 oz) white chocolate, chopped (use GOOD white chocolate chips)
  • about 3 cups of Rice Chex, slightly crushed
  • 6-7 candy canes, unwrapped
  • 1 small bar of dark chocolate (1.65 oz), melted (optional)
  • nonstick cooking spray

Directions:

  1. Spray a 10-by-15-inch rimmed baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray; line with a piece of waxed or parchment paper. Crush candies in a Ziploc bag—strain out the powder.
  2. Place white chocolate in a heatproof bowl set over (not in) a saucepan of simmering water. Heat, stirring occasionally, until smooth, 4 to 6 minutes. Alternately, you can melt in a microwave safe bowl in the microwave. Heat for three 30-40 second intervals on high power until melted. Remove from heat; stir in rice cereal.
  3. Transfer mixture to prepared pan; with a spatula, spread to edges of pan.
  4. Sprinkle with crushed candy; with a piece of waxed paper covering the entire surface, press in gently (paper prevents hands from sticking to candy and chocolate). Drizzle with melted dark chocolate. Chill until firm, 20 to 30 minutes (no longer, as candy will begin to soften).
  5. Break bark into 2-inch pieces. Store at room temperature in an airtight container, up to 1 week.

Lucy’s Tips:

  • Use the best white chocolate you can get your hands on. 
  • For the dark chocolate, I used a bar from a three pack of small bars from Trader Joe’s. 
  • Have leftover dark chocolate? Use a pair of plastic spoons to scoop it up. Garnish with sprinkles or mini chocolate chips and pop in the fridge to harden. Dip in warm milk or coffee for instant hot chocolate or an awesome caffe mocha. 

Gingerbread Cookies and Rookie Mistakes

Gingerbread cookies are definitely my favorite Christmas cookie. I remember my mom used to buy us those boxes of Little Debbie Gingerbread Men when my sister and I were kids. They were my very favorite, besides the Oatmeal Creme Pies. The box used to bring about eight, and my sister and I would tear into those gingies within minutes. They were always pillowy soft, sweet, and just a tad spicy. After enjoying those cookies for years, I wanted to learn how to make them.

I started trying to bake cookies ever since I started baking. I always failed because of my fear of butter. Since allowing the sticks of golden, and sweet fat into my life, cookies have gotten easier. However, I made a lot of cookie rookie mistakes and learned some lessons along the way.

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Butter is of the utmost importance. Like I mentioned in my sugar cookies post, I didn’t use butter to bake because I was used to using vegetable oil spread, aka margarine, in my cakes. I learned the error of my ways soon enough. Butter is crucial for cookies to even happen. Unsalted unless specified in the recipe, please. If you can, use the best quality too, as it definitely makes a difference.

The refrigerator is your best friend. Ideally, dough is supposed to chill before rolling out, cutting and baking. All cookie recipes require this, except for some drop cookie recipes. The longer it chills, the easier it will be to handle. It will also give the ingredients a chance to develop a deeper, more delicious flavor. The freezer is also your new BFF if your dough softens on you. Dough that has gotten too soft can be popped in the freezer for a couple minutes to harden up for easier handling. It also helps to pop in your cutouts before baking, to ensure they keep their shape. I can’t tell you how much the freezer has saved me in a moment of cookie despair.

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Read the ENTIRE recipe before beginning. I feel embarrassed even typing this one out. This shouldn’t even be here, but sometimes we I forget. I chose Martha Stewart’s Gingerbread Cookies recipe because, well it’s Martha. I only read through the ingredients because I needed to know how much molasses I was going to need. I made a quick run to the supermarket to replenish my stock, and then skimmed the recipe. If I had read the recipe in its entirety before beginning, I would not have needed to be saved by the freezer, and the process would’ve gone a lot smoother. Do as I say, folks and not as I do; it’s a timesaver.

Keep a ruler on standby. I try my hardest when I’m rolling out any sort of dough to stay consistent with thickness. I have issues every time but a ruler helps. Even with the assistance of a ruler, I sometimes end up with cookies that are too thin. Make sure that the dough is the same thickness all around.

Always have essential tools nearby. For cutouts, my essentials are: the cutters, a bowl of flour for dipping the cookie cutters, a rolling pin, a small spatula (offset works too), a bench scraper, a rubber spatula, parchment paper, plastic wrap, and the cookie sheets. I also keep a ceramic plate in the freezer on standby, in case I need to chill a hunk of dough between roll outs. I also have a rolling mat because I don’t have a clean, flat surface or counter to roll stuff on. Having all this stuff nearby helps because there is minimal movement and the cutout process will go by quicker.

With all these tips in mind, your cookie cutting process should go by a bit smoother. These gingies came out great, despite the bit of trouble I had with the dough. I played around with the recipe a bit, and got deliciously spicy cookies. It’s a subtle spice at first but the ginger kicks in towards the end, in the back of your throat. It’s a nice surprise that reminds you that you’re eating a gingerbread cookie. The cookies can be soft or crunchy, depending on how thick they’re rolled out. I also made a rather feeble attempt at a gingerbread house. It looks more like a tenement, to be completely honest. I’ll probably do more planning to produce a well structured house next year.

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Gingerbread Cookies – adapted from Martha Stewart

makes about 24-36 cookies, depending on cutout size

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour (spooned and leveled), plus more for rolling and dipping
  • 2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice (optional)
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1/3 cup packed dark-brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup unsulfured molasses
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 large egg

Directions:

  1. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, spices, baking soda, and salt; set aside. With an electric mixer, beat butter and brown sugar until smooth. Beat in molasses and egg. With mixer on low, add dry ingredients; mix just until a dough forms. Place dough on floured plastic wrap; pat into an 8-inch square. Wrap well; chill until firm, 1 to 2 hours.
  2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Divide dough in half. Working with one half at a time (rewrap and refrigerate other half), place dough on floured parchment or waxed paper; roll out 1/8 inch thick, turning, lifting, and flouring dough (and rolling pin) as needed. Freeze dough (on paper) until firm, about 20 minutes.
  3. Loosen dough from paper. Cut out shapes, and transfer to baking sheets. Decorate with sugar or sprinkles, as desired.
  4. Bake until firm and edges just begin to darken, 10 to 18 minutes, depending on size. Cool completely on baking sheets before decorating with Royal Icing.

Lucy’s Tips:

  • If you neglected to read the recipe in full, like I did, you can still make this dough workable. Pop it in the freezer for 10 minutes prior to rolling out. 
  • Keep plenty of flour on hand to flour the rolling surface, rolling pin, and cookie cutters. 
  • I only had extra large eggs on hand, so I beat the egg in a small bowl and removed about a tablespoon’s worth before incorporating into the batter. 
  • Don’t have dark brown sugar? Increase the molasses to about a 1/2 cup. Alternatively, you can make your own dark brown sugar by blending molasses into your light brown sugar or white sugar in a food processor. Add in the molasses in tablespoons, until it reaches the desired color. 

Coconut Macaroons

During my December cookie planning, I knew I had to make something that included coconut. My family is basically made up of coconut fiends. We’re Dominican, so we love us some coconut however we can get it. When my family and I travel to the Dominican Republic, one of my favorite places, we eat it regularly. There actually used to be a few coconut trees next to my Mami’s house, but they have dried up over the years. Now, we enjoy them either through the generosity of our neighbors or we buy them.

The most common way we eat it when we’re there is from a young coconut. The top gets hacked off with a machete, and the water is harvested to drink (SO GOOD). Then, they break it open into two halves, where the soft and gelatinous meat can easily be scraped out with a spoon. My Mami used to scrape out the young coconut and put it in a pitcher with the water,  ice, and sugar. It is the most delicious, refreshing drink you can have! Of course, the water doesn’t really need the sugar but it’s still yummy.

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Another way we enjoy coconut is when it’s dried. The dried coconut is actually what’s most commonly found here in the States; the little brown, hairy orb that is impossible to open without a little hardware. In D.R., you have to break off the green outer shell, with the aforementioned machete to get to the brown shell, to finally get to the actual fruit. At this point, the coconut is completely developed and has a thick white flesh, and is also impossible to break out of it’s shell. I swear, for all the trouble you have to go through just to even eat this thing, it better be delicious. From this dried coconut, you can shred it (or scrape with a spoon, like we do back at Mami’s) using a box grater and dry it out to make desiccated coconut. Toss the shredded stuff with powdered sugar, and possibly small amounts of cornstarch and/or preservatives, and you’ve got the sweetened shredded coconut flakes you see in stores.

With a house full of coconut fiends, this was a given. We have enjoyed many different kinds of coconut desserts but I hadn’t made any real, traditional coconut macaroons. These were fun, and easy to make. Can pouring a can of sweetened condensed milk over a bag of sweetened shredded coconut, and then folding stiffly beaten egg whites, be any easier?! Seriously, if you have the necessary four ingredients, you can pull these together in less than an hour. Now, these babies actually require a chocolate layer. My folks aren’t fans of chocolate (blasphemy, I say!) so I left it out. Either way, these macaroons were exactly what I wanted. They weren’t overly sweet, despite the sweetened coconut and the addition of the sweetened condensed milk, and were amazingly chewy. The slight toasting of the coconut on top provided the perfect caramelized crunch. My Mami loved them, so I bet you will too.

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Coconut Macaroons – barely adapted from Food and Wine

Makes about 30-40 cookies, depending on size

Ingredients

  • One 14-ounce bag sweetened shredded coconut
  • One 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 2 large egg whites
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, melted (optional)

Directions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F and line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. In a medium bowl, combine the coconut with the sweetened condensed milk and vanilla. In another bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the egg whites with the salt until firm peaks form. Fold the beaten whites into the coconut mixture.
  2. Scoop tablespoon-size mounds of the mixture onto the baking sheets, about 1 inch apart. Bake in the upper and middle thirds of the oven for about 25 minutes, until golden; shift the sheets from top to bottom and front to back halfway through baking. Transfer the baking sheets to racks and let the cookies cool completely.
  3. If using the chocolate: dip the bottoms of the macaroons into the melted chocolate, letting any excess drip back into the bowl. Return the cookies to the lined baking sheets. Drizzle any remaining chocolate on top and refrigerate for about 5 minutes, until set.

Lucy’s Tips:

  • You should use large egg whites in this recipe, as it’s the standard for baking. I only had extra large eggs and used the two, when I probably could’ve gotten away with one. 
  • I’m thinking some booze would work well in this recipe, like a splash of brandy or something. Hmm….

Sugar Cookies

December is the month of cookies. I have been patiently waiting for this month, even with the unwanted onslaught of all things Christmas since November 1st. Cookies are a traditionally a December thing, and I wanted to get in on the action.

When I started baking, I mainly stuck to cakes. Cookies looked so easy and alluring; it was something I had always wanted to conquer. I would fawn over perfectly frosted cut outs, garnished with shiny sprinkles of colored sugar, desperately wanting to make some gems of my own. What took me so long to finally take the plunge? Butter.

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Now, let me explain. In my house, we don’t use real butter. My family swears off of margarine, and it is and always has been the “butter.” I knew about the real stuff, but didn’t think it made a difference. Whenever I made a cake that called for butter, I just used the margarine. It would still come out good, so I never really gave it much thought. I had somehow formed a bit of fear over butter. I mean, it’s a stick of fat that’s solid when cold, and not when warm. Don’t even get me started on shortening; that’s a fear I am just NOT ready to conquer.

I recently decided to overcome my fears and began to bake with butter. I started out slow, and quickly realized that there is a huge difference. Butter is made out of the milk fats found in milk or cream, as opposed to margarine’s oil. The key factor to this stuff, besides the fact that it’s not all vegetable oil, is that its solid when cold and spreadable when warm characteristics are crucial to baking. Especially with cookies, you need the butter to be cold so that the cookies can hold their shape; something I never realized when using the always soft margarine. I don’t know how I got through many years of baking without it, but I quickly saw the error of my ways and am glad I let butter into my life. I sound crazy saying it, but believe me; the difference is that big. So now that I have real butter stocked in my fridge regularly, I was ready to take on some cookies.

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These sugar cookies are Bon Appétit’s “ultimate.” What makes them ultimate? In BA’s own words: the cookies are “crisp yet tender, keep their shape when baked, and taste great too.” With that description, I knew this one was a good start. I mean, a recipe that has not one, but two and a half sticks of butter in it has to be good.

Making the dough was tricky for me because as most of you know, I do not own a stand mixer. Now, you don’t necessarily need one but this process will be eons easier if you have one. I tried to use my trusty old  hand mixer for this, and ended up messing up one of the functions. I’m not ready for my only mixer to kick the bucket, so I proceeded with the rest of the recipe by hand. It takes a bit longer but it does come together.

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My sister and I had fun decorating and eating these cookies. Even though we may not be artistically inclined, we had a blast channelling our inner Picasso. The cookies definitely held their shape when baking, and were exactly as described; crisp and tender. Even when iced with royal icing, the cookies weren’t overwhelmingly sweet. I baked off half the batch, and am already looking forward to baking off the rest in the coming weeks.

Ultimate Sugar Cookies – slightly adapted from Bon Appétit

Makes 2-3 dozen, depending on size

  • ¾ teaspoon kosher salt
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour, plus
  • more for rolling
  • 1¼ cups (2½ sticks) chilled, unsalted butter, cut into ½” pieces
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 teaspoons lemon zest (optional)

Directions:

  1. Place racks in lower and upper thirds of oven; preheat to 325°. Whisk salt, baking powder, and 3 cups flour in a small bowl.
  2. Using an electric mixer on high speed, beat butter and sugar until well combined (butter does not need to be fluffy), about 3 minutes. Alternatively, you can whisk the butter and sugar with a whisk. Add egg, egg yolk, and vanilla; beat just to combine. Reduce speed to low, or switch to wooden spoon or rubber spatula, and gradually add dry ingredients; mix just to combine. Form dough into two ¾”-thick disks; wrap in plastic. Chill at least 2 hours.
  3. Let 1 disk of dough sit at room temperature until softened slightly, about 5 minutes. Roll out on a lightly floured sheet of parchment paper until about ¼” thick, dusting with flour as needed (if dough gets soft or sticky, chill on parchment until firm). Cut out shapes with floured cookie cutters; transfer to parchment-lined baking sheets. Pop your cut outs in the fridge between batches, so cookies won’t spread when baked.
  4. Bake cookies, rotating baking sheets (switch sheets from top to bottom racks, and rotate 180 degrees) halfway through, until edges are golden, 12–16 minutes, depending on size.
  5. Transfer to wire racks and let cool. Repeat with scraps and remaining dough. Decorate cooled cookies as desired.

Royal Icing – adapted from Bon Appétit

Makes about 2 cups

  • 3 1/4 cups (or more) powdered sugar, sifted
  • 2 large egg whites
  • 1 teaspoon strained fresh lemon juice
  • Assorted food colorings (optional)

Directions:

  1. Using electric mixer, beat 3 1/4 cups powdered sugar and egg whites until thick and shiny, adding more powdered sugar by tablespoonfuls if mixture is too thin to spread, about 3 minutes. Add lemon juice.
  2. Divide icing into portions, if desired, and add different food coloring to each. Cover until ready to use.

Lucy’s Tips:

  • I added about two teaspoons of lemon zest to my dough, for added freshness. The taste is subtle and brightens up the cookies. It’s totally optional but if you want more of a lemon punch, add in a couple teaspoons of freshly squeezed lemon juice along with the zest.
  • When cutting the cookies out, it’s important to keep the dough cold or they’ll spread out. If you’re waiting to put in two complete trays in the oven at the same time, put your cut outs in the fridge until ready to bake. I learned this one the hard way.
  • If your dough gets too soft when rolling and cutting, pop it in the freezer for a couple of minutes for a quick chill.
  • For the icing, make sure it’s not too thin or it’ll run off your cookies.