15 January 2016

Holiday gifts from the happy baker

The countdown has begun, and the air is charged with anticipation as Christmas and New Year draw near. Pauline D. Loh suggests some gift ideas you can whip up in your kitchen.
I love shopping but I hate the crowds. I love my family but I've just about given up buying them gifts I know they will like. In these days when everyone's got everything they want or need, the best way to my boys' hearts is well, through their stomachs.

That's why I'm baking every spare minute I have this week. It's also easy to make up little hampers of cookies, bars and sweets for friends, and be assured that the presents won't get recycled, or worse, take up precious space in the back shelves of some store cupboard.

It also saves me fighting the crowds and waiting in futile desperation at taxi queues that seem frozen in time.

Through the years, my Christmas cookie repertoire has been fine-tuned. Most are easy to do, and the ingredients are simple, every-day pantry basics.

My favorite peanut butter cereal bar cookie is made from a jar of the sticky stuff, marshmallows left over from Thanksgiving and whatever cereal I have in the pantry - puffed rice, puffed wheat or cheerios. For Christmas, I jazz it up with a drizzle of lemon icing.

The all-time favorite is Rocky Road, that classic nut and marshmallow chocolate squares that everyone loves. And it's dead easy. If you know how to boil water, you can make this. Chocolate chips are now easily available at most supermarkets, and all the cooking you need to do is to melt the chocolate over a pan of simmering water.

For my festive Rocky Road, I added edible gold foil and little golden dragees. That's all it needed to make a very garden-variety sweet look downright regal.

The butter cookie, too, undergoes its festive transformation with a quick roll in chopped nuts and sugar. Or, place one single, perfect almond in the center of each cookie.

The basic butter cookie dough can be made into lemony crisps by rolling them in a zest and sugar mixture. The sugar melts during the baking and the citrus perfume is released, and it has become a favorite with the girls who like a little tartness in their sweet.

Finally, the Christmas cookie platter is incomplete without the tantalizing aroma of spicy gingerbread. These chewy spicy cookies are so comforting with a mug of hot tea that I often hold back a batch just for the cook.

Ginger snaps are fun too. You can cut out shapes and decorate, or draw funny faces on them as I did this year.

Try baking some cookies as gifts this Christmas for friends, or as a treat for yourselves. They are all easy, and won't take you all day. Besides, the smell of cookies baking in the kitchen is the best air freshener you will find.

Happy holidays!


Holiday gifts from the happy baker
Recipe | Lemon crisps Ingredients (about 2 dozen large):


2 cups plain flour

1 tbsp cornstarch

1 tsp baking powder

150 g butter, soften

1 cup icing sugar

1 large egg

1 tbsp vanilla

1/2 cup castor sugar

Zest of 1 large lemon

Method:

1. Sift flour, cornstarch and baking powder together.

2. Beat butter and icing sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in egg and vanilla extract.

3. Fold in flour mixture until just combined. Do not over-mix or cookies will be tough.

4. Put dough in a covered bowl or wrapped in plastic film and chill for 30 minutes to let it relax.

5. Shape spoonfuls of dough lightly into balls and roll in the zest and sugar mix.

6. Bake in pre-heated oven for 15 minutes, or until lightly golden.

7. Transfer to racks to cool completely before storing in airtight containers.


Holiday gifts from the happy baker
Recipe | Ginger snaps Ingredients (24 cookies):


2 cups all-purpose flour

1 tbsp five-spice powder

2 tbsp ground ginger

1 cup dark brown sugar

2 tsp baking soda

1 tsp salt

150 g butter

1 large egg

Method:

1. Sift together flour, five-spice powder, ground ginger, baking soda and salt in a small bowl.

2. Beat butter and sugar until thick and creamy. Add egg and beat well.

3. Slowly beat in the flour mixture until it's well mixed. Knead the dough with your hands until it comes together in a ball.

4. Wrap dough in cling film and place in the fridge to chill over night, or at least four hours.

5. Shape teaspoons of dough into balls and roll in sugar. Or roll out dough and cut out shapes.

6. Place cookies on a paper-lined tray and bake in a pre-heated 180 C oven for 12 to 15 minutes. Cool and keep in air-tight tin.


Holiday gifts from the happy baker
Recipe | Rocky road Ingredients (12 squares):


300 g semi-sweet chocolate chips
 
1 tbsp butter

12 large marshmallows

200 g walnuts, toasted

200 g dried cherries

100 g raisins

2 sheets edible gold foil

Little golden dragees

Method:

1. Line a 20 cm square baking tray with parchment paper.

2. Place chocolate chips and butter into a metal mixing bowl and sit on top of a pan of simmering water. Stir until chocolate is completely melted.

3. Mix in raisins, walnuts, cherries and marshmallows and mix well so that nuts, fruits and marshmallows are evenly coated.

4. Turn chocolate mixture into paper-lined tray and spread it out evenly. Leave the tops lumpy. While it is still sticky, drop the golden dragees on top and apply the edible gold foil.

5. Cool and cut into squares.


Holiday gifts from the happy baker
Recipe | Holiday peanut butter bar Ingredients (makes 24 bars):


150 g butter

1 cup chunky peanut butter

1 packet marshmallows

8 cups puffed wheat cereals

Icing sugar

Lemon juice

Method:

1. Oil a 5 cm deep baking tray and line it with an overhanging layer of parchment paper.

2. Melt the butter in a deep saucepan and add peanut butter and marshmallows. Cook at a simmer until blended. Add cereals and dried cherries and stir to coat well with mixture.

3. Turn mixture on to the oiled and papered baking tray and smooth it evenly out.

4. Mix just enough lemon juice into the sifted icing sugar to get a soft icing. Use a fork and drizzle ribbons of icing over the top of the cereal and peanut butter mixture.

5. Cool completely and cut into bars with a large sharp knife. Store in airtight containers.

Recipe | Nutcracker sweet
Ingredients (about 2 dozen large):

2 cups plain flour

1 tbsp corn starch

1 tsp baking powder

150 g butter, softened

1 cup icing sugar

1 large egg

1 tbsp vanilla

1/2 cup almonds, roughly chopped

1 tbsp castor sugar

Method:

1. Sift flour, cornstarch and baking powder together.
2. Beat butter and icing sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in egg and vanilla extract.

3. Fold in flour mixture until just combined. Do not over-mix or cookies will be tough.

4. Put dough in a covered bowl or wrapped in plastic film and chill for 30 minutes to let it relax.

5. Shape spoonfuls of dough lightly into balls and roll in the chopped nuts and sugar mixture.

6. You can also form little dough balls and press a single almond into the center for those who prefer a cookie that's not so sweet.

7. Bake in pre-heated oven for 15 minutes, or until lightly golden.

8. Transfer to racks to cool completely before storing in airtight containers.

Holiday gifts from the happy baker