Merry Cookie to All ...

And to all a good bite!

Something about the holidays brings out the kid in all of us. There’s an instant magic in the air. It’s most potent in the smiles of children when talk of the big man in red starts up. When I was little, my family went to great lengths to keep my brother and me believing Santa was real for as long as possible. One year, my dad snuck outside on Christmas Eve and rang some sleigh bells before getting up on the roof and stomping around. My mother never had an easier time getting us off to bed. Another year, when we sprinted into the den at daybreak to see what loot had been left for us, we found sooty boot prints marking Santa’s path from the chimney to the tree and then back again. I was old enough to have begun questioning the whole “from the North Pole around the world in one night” idea, but that “evidence” kept me going just a bit longer.

But you don’t have to believe in Santa anymore to revel in this season’s childlike joy that so easily transforms into enchantment. Just look around. It’s still there. It floats along on every note of holiday music, hangs off the branches of evergreens and twinkles coyly behind the sparkle of a thousand brightly colored lights.

Despite the stress that’s induced by our long to-do lists (that somehow only grow longer this time of year) masquerading as Scrooge and trying to replace the merry moments with instances of bah humbug, I find the wonder again each holiday when I pull out my stand mixer and the ingredients to make Candy Cane cookies.

I’ve done it every year for as long as I can remember, beginning this baking ritual with my mom when I couldn’t even reach the kitchen counter without a stool. Every time I start it again, I can see her dog-eared cookbook sitting to the side of her mixer and her squinting to read the directions obscured by a thin dusting of flour. I recall my impatience as I quickly moved through my duties – measuring sugar, crushing peppermint candies with a rolling pin, getting the baking sheets down – so we could get to the really good part, licking the beaters and the bowl, and the best part, eating the finished product.

Baking Christmas cookies with your kids – not for them – is a tradition that they’ll cherish long into adulthood. And these Candy Cane cookies are easy and so good. I’ve modified the original recipe (a Southern Living standard) to make them somewhat easier and, I think, even tastier. So slow down a bit this year and spend some time with the little ones whipping up memories and making your own magic.

Candy Cane Cookies

Makes about 3 dozen cookies

  • ½ cup butter, softened
  • ½ cup shortening
  • 1 cup confectioners sugar
  • 1 egg
  • ½ teaspoon almond extract
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • red food coloring
  • crushed peppermint candy (about 1 cup at least)
  • 12 ounces of white chocolate

Using an electric mixer, combine the butter, shortening, sugar, egg and extracts. Add the flour and salt slowly and mix until incorporated. Add the red food coloring. It will take more than a few drops to get it to a dark pink/almost red, but don’t try to make it dark red (unless you have some super-duper fancy concentrated food coloring, and if you do, let me know about it!!). To do so will take too much food coloring, and that much liquid could alter the texture of the dough.

Roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface, and use a candy cane cookie cutter to cut out cookies. Place them on a sheet pan and bake about 8 to 9 minutes in a 375 degree oven.

In the meantime, place peppermint candies (I usually use starlight mints or the mini candy canes) in a ziplock bag, and then place that bag in a second ziplock bag. Use a rolling pin or other heavy object to break the candy into small pieces. Put the pieces on a plate.

Once the cookies are done, move them from the pan to a rack to cool.

While the cookies cool down, break up the chocolate bars and melt slowly in a double boiler. Once melted, remove the pot from the heat and carefully dip the bottom part of the staff portion of each cookie into the melted chocolate; let most of the excess drip off, and be careful not to break the cookies when doing this. Next, hold each cookie and gently sprinkle pieces of crushed peppermint onto the now chocolate-covered part of each cookie. Place on a sheet of wax paper to harden. You can put them in the fridge to speed this process up. Once the chocolate is set, store them in an airtight container until they’re gone. (It won’t take long!)

Note: Since it can be easy to break the cookies when dipping them into the chocolate, you may want to do this part yourself and let the kiddos concentrate on helping you measure ingredients, cutting out the cookies and sprinkling the peppermint on while you hold the cookies. They won’t all be perfect looking, and that’s okay! They’ll still be yummy.

I Scream, You Scream

It's hot. I know I'm not telling you anything you don't know. But it is. And it's so steamy and sticky and sweltering, that it's worth saying again. But the cool, creamy treat we all scream for this time of year will refresh you from the inside out, so here are two of my favorites -- one an old standard and one a more recent discovery -- that you can make yourself (no screaming required). 

Peach Ice Cream

It’s not embellished, gussied up, garnished or infused with anything. It’s not fancy. There are no frills. It’s just plain ole peach ice cream (my mama's recipe), but far from being pedestrian, it's perfect in its simplicity. Combine sugar, ripe fruit, Eagle Brand sweetened condensed milk (an icon of old-fashioned Southern desserts) and a tub of Cool Whip (yes, Cool Whip), pour into your ice cream machine, and a couple thousand spins of the dasher later, you’re left with a frozen delight full of pure peachy pleasure.

  • 3 small (5 ounce) cans PET evaporated milk
  • 1/2 of a 14 ounce can of Eagle Brand sweetened condensed milk
  • 8 ounces Cool Whip
  • 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 7 medium to large peaches, peeled, chopped and mashed
  • whole milk (approximately 1/2 to 1 cup)

Mix all the ingredients except the milk together, folding in the Cool Whip last. Pour into a 4-quart  ice cream machine and add milk to the fill line. Freeze following your machine's instructions.

Sweet Cream Gelato

My brother whipped this up for the family over the 4th of July weekend. We all agreed it doesn't have the texture that its name "gelato" implies; it has almost the same feel, just a bit airier, as regular homemade ice cream. But the taste was wholly different and delectable. Less sweet, but still satisfying. No fruity flavors, not even a hint of vanilla, but no blandness either, just the light, buttery simplicity of heavy cream and milk. The recipe came from allrecipes.com.

  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1/2 sugar

In a medium saucepan, mix milk and cream. Warm until foam forms around the edges. Remove from heat. 

In a large bowl, beat the egg yolks and sugar until frothy. Gradually pour the warm milk into the egg yolks, whisking constantly. Return mixture to saucepan; cook over medium heat, stirring with a wooden spoon until the mixture gels slightly and coats the back of the spoon. If small egg lumps begin to show, remove from heat immediately.

Pour the mixture through a sieve or fine strainer into a bowl. Cover, and chill for several hours or overnight.

Pour the mixture into an ice cream maker, and freeze according to the manufacturer's instructions. Transfer to a sealed container, and freeze until firm. If the gelato is too firm, place it in the refrigerator until it reaches the desired consistency.

Lavender-Laced Citrus Sorbet

Nothing brightens a dreary winter day like the burst of tangy sweetness from oranges, grapefruits, lemons and limes. Their bright colors, fresh scents and tart tastes jump-start dull senses like bugle call. And while many of my favorite fresh fruits and veggies are on hiatus right now, citrus is perfectly in season. 

If you’ve got a bunch of ruby reds and naval oranges nurtured by Florida sunshine, picked a their peaks and shipped straight to you (thanks Reggie!), you’re in luck. If not, go grab some at the grocery store. No matter how or where you get them, here's what you should do with a few of them: Make sorbet. 

I found a simple recipe online and added one of my go-to add-ins for drinks and desserts: lavender. Its subtle, soothing floral notes balance the sweetness and give this icy treat an extra layer of refreshing flavor. If you don’t like (or don’t have) dried lavender, try fresh mint or basil for a little twist. 

RECIPE

  • 3 cups of fresh-squeezed orange and red grapefruit juice run through a fine strainer to remove any pulp
  • 1 teaspoon orange zest
  • 1 teaspoon grapefruit zest
  • The juice of 1 lime
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 cup  water

Add the juice of one lime to your orange and grapefruit juices. Set aside.

In a small saucepan, stir the water, sugar, zest and lavender together and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a low simmer and cook for about 4 minutes to make a simple syrup. Remove from heat and strain the syrup. Let cool.

Once your syrup is cool,  stir it into your juices 

Add this to your ice-cream maker and follow its directions.

OR:

Pour the mixture into a shallow metal pan. Cover with foil or plastic wrap, and put the pan in the freezer to set up for four hours. Spoon the frozen mixture into a food processor (in batches if needed) and blend until smooth. Place in a sealable container and freeze until firm (about another hour). 

I did it the second way, and it turned out wonderful  but you’ll probably get a creamier sorbet using an ice cream machine.