For the past few years, I’ve embarked on making homemade treats at holiday time for the co-workers. Despite the fact that giving around the holidays is supposed to be a selfless act, in all honesty, making treats for the co-workers is actually a completely selfish act on my part. It’s really just an excuse to engage in some sort of baking or sweet making each year. Being single and somewhat health conscious, I just won’t bake any other time of year because I’m not about to eat an entire batch of chocolate chip cookies on my own or a cake or a pan of brownies or bars. No way…
But the holidays provide a good excuse to engage in baking that I wouldn’t otherwise do and, by giving it away as gifts, I’m not stuck with a bunch of sweets around the house that I’m not going to eat on my own. I taste while making them and try to leave it at that.
Holiday baking is a tradition for most families and mine was no different growing up. When I think back, the amount of baking my mom did on a yearly basis at the holidays was sort of insane. I swear we’d sometimes have about a dozen different kinds of cookies each year. Maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but there were copious sweets at our house around the holidays. There were always some standards that never fell out of the repertoire:
- Sugar cookies cut with holiday shaped cookie cutters and covered with colored sugar or those little round, crunchy ball decorations in both silver and multi-colored varieties.
- Italian nut balls, or what some people call “thumbprints.” These were my absolute favorites. They were rolled in pistachios and we’d put apricot jelly in the middle of the thumbprint. Some people use raspberry jam for these, but I love the apricot jam and pistachios.
- Pfeffernuesse. Blecch. I always hated pfeffernuesse. These were my mom’s favorite and only she and my dad would eat them–all of the kids thought they were nasty. They’re German and anise flavored. Although I’ve come to appreciate fennel as an adult, I’ve never been a fan of anything anise flavored. These cookies were about half an inch thick and cut into small rectangles about an inch or so long. They were sort of spicy–the German translation is “pepper nut,” so they had a peppery flavor in addition to the anise. The only thing I thought was tolerable about them was that they were rolled in powdered sugar.
- Lemon snowballs. These were my second fav. Buttery dough with slivered almonds rolled into the shape of little balls. Topped with lemon icing–yum.
Although I’ve made a variety of different things for the co-workers at the holidays, from fudge to peppermint bark and truffles, this year I decided to go with a couple of my mom’s old standards, in addition to making some spiced nuts and a couple kinds of boozy truffles.
Some people also call these “haystacks.” They fit well into the trashy 70s food genre only because they have chow mein noodles in them. Yes, chow mein noodles–those weird crunchy, 2-inch long strings of gluten-y stuff that they used to have at bad Chinese restos in the, yes, 70s. I believe they also came as a part of the La Choy Chow Mein dinner in a can–a twelve inch high can, split into two parts–one part canned chow mein, the other a small can of noodles to dump the chow mein onto. Not that my family ever ate a can of La Choy (seriously–we got our fill of chow mein noodles strictly from Mei Wah, the Chinese resto in town), I just found the two-part can that separated dry and wet ingredients sort of fascinating when I’d see it at the store. At any rate, these “cookies” do indeed contain chow mein noodles. (As an aside, a woman behind me in the checkout aisle at Target yesterday asked me if they were any good when she saw them on the conveyor belt.)
1 package semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 package butterscotch chips
1 package chow mein noodles
2 cups spanish peanuts
Melt chocolate and butterscotch chips together in double boiler. When melted add chow mein noodles and peanuts to chocolate mixture. Mix well. Drop soup-spoon sized stacks onto wax paper. Ready to eat when set.
Seven Layer Bars
I used to really like these as a child, as well. But, man, are they rich. Whew! It’s the condensed milk–that stuff is just out of control. The bars are a bit cloying for me at this point in life (again, why I’m giving them away), but they’re still darned good. Personally, I think these owe most of their goodness to coconut. We always used sweetened coconut for these when I was a kid, but I think that’s totally unnecessary now. Unsweetened coconut is plenty sweet on its own. But use whatever makes sense for you.
1/4 c. butter
1 c. graham cracker crumbs
1 c. shredded coconut
6 oz. chocolate chips
6 oz. butterscotch chips
1 can sweetened condensed milk
1 c. chopped walnuts
Preheat oven to 350. Melt butter and pour into 13×9 baking pan. Sprinkle crumbs over butter and pat down with fork to form crust. Layer remaining ingredients. Pour milk evenly over top. Press nuts into mixture. Bake for 30 minutes. Cool on wire rack.
Most years I’ve veered away from making any of the stuff we made as a kid and I’ve opted for trying something different that we never made at home. A couple years ago I tried Alton Brown’s peanut brittle recipe to disastrous effect. I have no idea what I did, but it did not work. It just never hardened. If I remember correctly, the recipe was made expressly to avoid having to deal with candy thermometers and the like, but I think I probably needed one after all. Thermometers are one reason I usually shy away from any candy making that doesn’t involve the simple melting of chocolate. That’s easy. Who needs to stress about burning sugar and spending a lot of time watching a pot so it doesn’t boil over or burn? And let’s face it, burnt sugar is just a big, nasty, stinky mess.
That’s why I stick with chocolate and make truffles instead. This year I made two boozy varieties–Rye Whiskey and Mexican Chocolate with Kahlua. These are proprietary, special recipes known only to moi, so you’ll have to settle for the photos.
Finally, I have to say I dig a good spiced nut (get your head out of the gutter). I like pretty much any variety, but especially pecans. To give credit where credit is due, I got the following recipe from one of the parents at an after school program I worked at in Brookline, MA for a few years. The family gave away these nuts as gifts to the teachers that year, and I liked them far better than all the Starbucks gift cards, scented candles and ugly coffee mugs from Pier 1 I got each year. These spiced pecans were the best gift I could have gotten, aside from gift cards to Brookline Booksmith, one of my favorite bookstores in the Boston area.
Per pound of pecans
1 egg white
1 tbsp. cold water
1/2 c. sugar
3/4 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
1/8 tsp. allspice
Mix egg white and water in large bowl, beat with fork. Combine dry ingredients separately. Add pecans to egg white mixture and stir to coat. Add dry ingredients and mix. Bake at 300 degrees, approximately 27-28 minutes. Stir at 10 minutes and at 20 minutes so that nuts don’t stick to the pan. (I lined my baking pan with foil to avoid messing it up.) When done, remove from oven and spread out on wax paper to set.
Enjoy, thanks for reading and Happy Holidays!