“I can’t believe it’s already over.” – Mom, on the drive home after Christmas dinner
This holiday is charged with so much expectation, emotion and excitement that when it’s over and done – after only a few short days of feasting, hugging and imbibing – it’s hard to believe it ever really happened. Christmas sometimes feels like one big blur of flour and sugar, sloppy two-cheeked kisses, chest colds, Burl Ives, and glitter (bits of which we’ll be finding in our apartment til March.)
The funny thing is, despite the rushing around, the prep, the chaos, the outbursts, the kitchen meltdowns, the set-up, the clean-up, the mountains of dishes, I can’t imagine having it any other way. It’s bacchanal, it’s over-the-top, it’s insane. But it’s Christmas. Not the idyllic, gilded Christmases of the glossy magazines, or of Martha Stewart, or of people we come across on the Internet with seemingly perfect lives. It’s real. It’s messy. It’s exhausting. It’s emotional. But in between the messy bits comes lots of love and togetherness, laughter and gratitude. When we lost power on Christmas Eve – right before the seven-fish dinner was ready for the oven – we managed to pretend we weren’t worried, ignoring the three dozen shrimp quietly defrosting on the counter, opting instead to drink bubbly and eat crackers, while my (ever-optimistic, buoyant) brother shucked oysters by lamplight.
Things certainly could have been worse.
When the power came back on, about an hour later, everyone cheered and kissed and toasted. It was like the final scene in It’s a Wonderful Life. Dinner was back on schedule, the wine flowed freely, and soon enough, the twelve of us gathered around the table for a feast fit for kings.
Once the last fork was laid down and the plates were cleared, Nonna pulled out her reading glasses, mom plated cookies and After Eights and we played Tombola, calling out the numbers in English, Italian, German, and French, so that everyone around the table could put their chips on the right spot. It didn’t feel good beating Grandma at Tombola three times in a row (it just instigated a fit of guilt-ridden, nervous laughter), but it did help me forget about my chest cold, as did learning – on Christmas Eve, no less – that the number 11 in German is both spelled and pronounced “elf”.
Family time aside, the thing I relished most this Christmas – the thing that ended up being the most restorative part of this whole holiday – was the baking. Not because the results were particularly successful (deflated meringues, chewy crackers, and lacklustre cioffe were among the flops), but because I had the chance to do most of it on my own – quietly and leisurely, in crumpled pyjamas. With the year winding down, I came to realise just how much that time on my own – especially in the kitchen – has been (was, is) a subtle luxury. When I used to hear food people say that baking was “meditative”, I’d roll my eyes, thinking Ugh, how cheesy… But it turns out they were right. When you bake on your own, it’s just you, the dough, and nothing else. The rest of it – the distractions and concerns, decisions and regrets – can stay suspended for awhile.
Somewhere between batches of madeleines and biscotti, shortbread cut-outs and these ginger cookies, I found that respite from an unquiet mind can come from nothing more than a little butter, sugar, flour and a rolling pin.
Here’s to making room for doing more of the things we love in the coming year. Wishing you all a bright and welcoming 2016 and looking forward to having you here again soon xx
Orange Spice Madeleines – adapted from Port and Fin
- 2 large eggs, beaten
- ⅔ cup sugar
- 1 cup + 1 Tbsp all-purpose flour
- ½ cup + 1 Tbsp unsalted butter
- ¼ tsp salt
- 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
- 1 large navel orange, zest
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 tsp ground cloves
- ¼ tsp ground cardamom
1) Melt the butter in a saucepan until it comes lightly browned and has a nutty fragrance (careful not to over-brown it – butter tends to burn rather easily). Set aside to cool slightly.
2) In a medium bowl, mix one cup of the flour, sugar, cinnamon, cloves and cardamom and set aside.
3) In a separate bowl, whisk the two eggs with the vanilla and salt until the eggs are frothy.
4) Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and, with a spatula, stir until just combined. Take care not to over-stir.
5) Add the cooled melted butter and the orange zest and stir. It may take a minute for the butter to blend into the mixture. Again, take extra care not to over-mix.
6) Cover the bowl and place in the refrigerator to rest at least one hour and up to overnight.
7) Prepare a madeleine tin by brushing the moulds with the extra tablespoon of butter and lightly dusting them with flour, tapping off any excess. Place the pans in the freezer for at least an hour.
8) Preheat the oven to 350°F. Remove the batter from the refrigerator and the pan from the freezer. Fill each mould with approximately one tablespoon of batter.
9) Bake the madeleines for 10-15 minutes until the edges are browning and the middle is puffed up slightly. Using your forefinger, press lightly on the center hump – the madeleines are finished baking when they spring back at your touch. Remove the madeleines from the oven and let cool for 2 minutes. Then gently loosen the madeleines from their moulds and arrange onto a cooling rack. Dust with icing sugar (optional) and serve.
Hazelnut Biscotti with Orange Zest – from Canadian Living’s Christmas
Makes about 24
- 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 3/4 cup whole hazelnuts, skin-on, toasted*
- 2 eggs
- 3/4 cup granulated sugar
- 1/3 cup butter, melted
- 2 tsp pure vanilla extract
- 1 1/2 tsp grated orange rind
- 1 egg white, lightly beaten
- 1/4 cup dark chocolate, melted, for drizzling (optional)
*to toast hazelnuts, simply lay them out on a baking sheet and bake at 300°F for about 6-8 minutes, or until fragrant.
1) To measure flour accurately, lightly spoon flour into dry measure, without tapping, until cup is heaping; level off with blunt edge of knife. In large bowl, combine flour, baking powder and toasted hazelnuts.
2) In a separate bowl, whisk together eggs, sugar, butter, vanilla, almond extract and grated orange rind; stir into flour mixture until soft sticky dough forms. Transfer to lightly floured surface; form into smooth ball.
3) Divide dough in half, roll each into 12-inch long log. Transfer to ungreased baking sheet.
4) Brush tops with egg white; bake in 350°F oven for 20 minutes.
5) Remove from oven and let cool on pan on rack for 5 minutes. Transfer each log to cutting board; cut diagonally into 3/4-inch thick slices.
6) Stand cookies upright on baking sheet; bake for 20 to 25 minutes longer or until golden. Transfer to rack and let cool.
7) If you choose to add a drizzle of chocolate to your biscotti: wait until they’ve cooled; then collect a teaspoon of the melted chocolate in a teaspoon and sway it back and forth over the biscotti. Allow the chocolate to set at room temperature before storing.
Note: Biscotti can be stored in airtight container for up to 2 weeks.
Hazelnut Shortbread – adapted from Bakers Royale
Makes about 40 cookies
- 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 12 Tbsp unsalted butter, slightly softened
- 1 large egg yolk
- 2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
- 1 1/2 cups toasted hazelnut, coarsely chopped
- 1 cup coarse sugar
- 8 oz. dark chocolate (for dipping)
To prepare and refrigerate the dough:
1) Sift flour and salt into a bowl; set aside. With a hand beater, cream the butter on medium-low speed until smooth, about 1-2 minutes. Add in the sugar and beat until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes.
2) Add in the egg and vanilla, beat until blended. Reduce the mixer speed low and in the dry ingredients in three additions. Turn off the beater and fold in the nuts with a wooden spoon or spatula.
3) Portion the dough in half and shape each half into 15x3x1 inch rectangular logs. Press coarse sugar into each side. Cover with plastic wrap and push both ends with your hand toward the centre to tighten the dough. Chill prepared dough for at least 3 hours.
When ready to bake:
4) Heat oven to 350 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Remove chilled dough and slice cookies to ½ inch thickness. Place each cookie 1 inch apart on a parchment-lined baking sheet.
5) Bake until cookies are lightly browned, about 18-20 minutes. Transfer cookies to a wire rack to cool completely.
6) Melt chocolate on the stove-top by making a bain-marie; stir occasionally. Dip one corner of cookie into melted chocolate and place on parchment paper to set. (you can also sprinkle a bit of flaked salt over the chocolate before it sets.) Serve or store in an airtight container for up to one week.
Toasted Almond Meringues – from mom’s repertoire
Makes about 40
But first, a few notes on meringue…
Theoretically, meringue is supposed to be simple – whip egg whites into soft peaks, add sugar, whip into stiff peaks, bake. But in practice, there are a few key things to keep in mind: 1) if the weather is humid, your egg whites might not rise enough, causing the meringue to deflate and become chewy. 2) It’s important that the equipment you’re using be extremely clean (bowl, beaters). Any trace of grease or fat (say, from a stray egg yolk that makes it into the bowl) can compromise the results. 3) Overbeating can also be a problem, causing the meringue to become more like taffy in consistency. (If you’re looking for more tips, Martha’s actually got some good ones here .)
This time around, my meringues deflated when they were pulled from the oven (see final photo below), on account of the fact that I made them on an unseasonably balmy/humid day and probably overbeat them. To see what these meringues should actually look like, you can find some photos here from my mom’s archive.
To all you meringue newbies – I hope none of this scares you off making meringue. With practice, you start to get a sense of its quirks and soon you’ll be able to whip some up with your eyes closed. At that point you’ll discover that pulling a perfect batch of meringues from the oven can be obscenely satisfying…
- 2 egg whites (or 1/4 cup thawed eggs whites)
- 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 1/2 tsp almond extract
- 1 cup sliced almonds, toasted*
*to toast the sliced almonds, simply lay them out on a baking sheet and bake at 300°F for about 4-5 minutes, or until golden.
Preheat the oven to 300º F .
In a bowl, beat egg whites with the cream of tartar until soft peaks start to form. Gradually add the the brown sugar until stiff peaks form. Fold in the vanilla, almond extract and sliced almonds.
Spoon teaspoonfuls onto a cookie tray which has been lined with parchment paper. Bake in a 300º F oven for 30 minutes. Remove from baking sheet and allow to cool on a metal rack.
Note: these meringues will appear a little more “toasted” than regular meringue – that’s ok. It’s because it calls for brown sugar instead of white.