Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Sweet Surprises

With the economy in the tank, there is widespread concern about how to express regard and affection for our nearest and dearest, not to mention both the inner ring and outer ring of people on whom rely to make our lives run smoothly--nannies, pet sitters, hairdressers, mailmen, and the like. In lieu of cash or other extravagant material goods, I offer the following suggestions for homemade treats in these lean times.....You'll notice, I'm sure, that fruitcake is conspicuously absent from the list.

These Are A Few of My Favorite Things.....

1. Christmas Bark

1 bag Ghirardelli White Chocolate Chips
1 cup crushed peppermints--candy canes or pinwheels work fine. (Put candy in large ziploc bag and smash with a meat tenderizer, rolling pin, or other heavy, blunt instrument.)

Equipment: 1 baking sheet, parchment paper, cello bags and ribbon

Melt the chips in a microwave bowl on 30% power for 4 minutes. (White chocolate has a tendency to burn, so be sure to keep the power at 30%). When melted, stir til smooth. Add the crushed peppermint and mix well. Spread on baking sheet lined with parchment. Refrigerate 15 minutes, til completely solid. Break into bite-sized pieces and put in the cello bags, tie with ribbon. Note: This keeps in the fridge for weeks, so make a few batches and keep on hand for unexpected gift needs--a bag of homemade Christmas bark accompanied by a tip for the postman or dry cleaner is a very nice, personal touch. There are many variations to this recipe. Use dark or milk chocolate, melt 4 minutes on 50% power (it is much less tempermental than white chocolate) and mix with nuts, dried fruit crushed peppermints or shredded coconut.

2. Chocolate Sauce

1 bag Ghirardelli Double Chocolate Chips
1 cup milk
1/4 cup dry, unsweetened cocoa powder

Mix milk and cocoa powder in small saucepan, heat til bubbles form around rim of pan. Meanwhile, pour chips into medium sized, heatproof bowl. Pour heated milk mixture over chips and stir til smooth. This keeps in the fridge for 10 days or frozen for several months. It's great as fondue or atop ice cream--heated in microwave on 50% power or on stove at low heat. A tablespoon or 2 can be mixed with hot milk for a particularly indulgent cup of hot chocolate.

3. Caramel Sauce

1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup water
1 cup heavy cream
3 tbsp butter
1 1/2 tsp sea salt

Mix sugar and water in medium saucepan. Heat over medium heat for about 15 minutes, til sugar melts and entire mixture browns. Remove from heat, add cream. Sauce will bubble up. Stir constantly til smooth. Add butter and salt. Cool slightly, pour into jars and refrigerate. This only keeps for a couple of days, so don't make an enormous batch for distribution 3 weeks in advance--advise recipients to heat it gently and stir before serving.

4. Cookies

Everyone loves cookies, and there are literally hundreds of recipes to choose from. Check out, the back of the chocolate chip bag, or the top of the oatmeal canister for ideas. No matter the recipe, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Always use baking parchment. Cookies never stick to it and it eliminates scrubbing.
  • Always have waxed paper in the house. When you make a batch of dough, separate it into 8 inch long, 1-1/2 inch in diameter logs which you can wrap in waxed paper and store in the fridge (for a week) or the freezer (for a month or more). When you need some cookies, simply slice off the number required, bake them and voila--perfect, freshly-made treats. This is great for gift-giving, but also for general consumption--nothing's better than a right-out-of-the-oven cookie, but you may not want 4 dozen of them sitting on your counter. With the dough log approach, you have great quantity control.
  • Use cello bags tied with ribbon for economical, attractive presentation.
  • Choose a basic recipe that offers variety. Make a double or triple batch chocolate chip dough, but before adding the chips, separate the dough into a few different bowls. Add chocolate chips to one, white chips and macadamia nuts to another, dried cherries or raisins to another, 1/2 cup of strong coffee and a few tablespoons of Kalhua to another. This also works with oatmeal cookies--mix some dough with raisins, some with chocolate chips, some with chopped apricots, others with cashews. Also with basic butter cookies--make some vanilla, some lemon, some coconut, some chocolate. This way, you will only have made one type of dough, but a produced a significant variety of cookies.

5. Truffles

1 bag Ghirardelli double chocolate chips
3 oz butter
1 egg yolk
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

Equipment: 5x9 inch loaf pan (or pan of similar size and dimension), parchment or wax paper, cello bags, ribbon.

Line pan with wax or parchment paper on bottom and up sides.

Melt chocolate and butter in microwave at 50% power. Stir til smooth. Add egg yolk and whisk til just mixed. Pour chocolate into prepared pan and refrigerate til firm, approx 45 minutes. Remove from fridge and check texture. Chocolate should be firm but still soft enough to cut without breaking. If it is too hard, leave it at room temp for about 10-15 minutes. Unmold chocolate and cut into 3/4 inch squares. Put cocoa powder in shallow dish, dust your hands with cocoa, and roll each square in cocoa to coat. You can leave them square, or if you believe truffles must be round, roll them into balls between your palms and coat them with the cocoa in the dish. These keep for 10 days in the fridge or 1 month in the freezer. Put a dozen or so in each cello bag, tie with ribbon, present to eager and awed recipient.

6. Sweet and Spicy Nuts

Heat oven to 350.

4 c nuts (I use pecans, but this works with just about any single nut or a mixture)
1 egg white
1 c sugar
1/2 tsp each cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice (or more to taste)
1 tsp salt

Beat egg white til it bubbles. Add nuts and mix. Add all remaining ingredients, mix again. Spread on cookie sheet and bake 20-25 minutes, stirring occasionally to ensure even roasting, til nuts begin to brown. Cool completely and pour nuts into cello bags; tie with ribbon.

Speaking of gifts, ya gotta love this clip from Modern Familywhere Phil expounds on his gift giving prowess, and well, other skills.

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