Holiday Goodies

The holiday season’s most impressive gifts can be food.

It’s the silly season again, and I don’t know about you, but I am clean out of ideas. I’m talking about presents, but not for my dearly beloved or a favorite godchild. The category that has me stumped each year is for the person I don’t know well but want to greet in some way, to say, ‘Hey, I don’t know you so well, but I do appreciate you.’ What do you give them? You’ve never been to their home, and you don’t know what their interests are. Are they artistic, do they play golf? Do they hate music, or was it motorbikes? Did they mention they loved reading? Oh dear!

One of my traditions for the season now extends to the gifts I give. If I can possibly find that special present at a store or an organization that gives back some of its profits to charity, I will go that route. And if ALL else fails, then … bake!

I find that baked goodies need not go only to the hard-to-find-gift-for recipient. I test the enjoyment value of a present by my own gauge: Would I be thrilled to receive this? And if my answer is yes, it is a good possibility, and my test question on edible presents always requires a resounding YES. I suspect many others love a homemade treat, too. So some baking dates are set aside right before Christmas, to make treats for the hard-to-buy-for person, or for a favorite aunt, and also to stash away for when friends drop in during the season.

To make this a stress-free project, here are some simple rules: 1.) After you decide on recipes, make a list of all the ingredients you’ll need. 2.) Set aside a day so you are not pulled away in the midst of some serious creative fun. 3.) Think of ideas to package your goodies—presentation is part of the pleasure. Having said that … 4.) Choose recipes that last well and are not too difficult to package. And do adapt recipes—the Russian coffeecake is my own version of a Moosewood Cookbook classic.

All set. Are you going it alone? Grab a friend or the kids, to double the fun. Being a worrier about mega-mess, I find that dedicating a good chunk of time to a baking project involving the kids ensures there’s lots of clean-up time left over.

Fast forward and the baking is done! How to package? If you are a pack rat, you might have some glorious old cake and cookie tins stashed away that you are finally ready to part with. A hunt around the local op shops might produce some vintage treasures, too. Line these first with parchment paper, and then some pretty tissue. White cardboard Chinese take-out boxes are fun, and children can decorate these with red, green gold and silver stencils or stickers. Try inexpensive glass vases with wide mouths, baskets, and wooden boxes from craft stores. The sky’s the limit, but you know the goodies inside will be greatly appreciated.

There’s something very special about a homemade present at Christmastime in this world of store-bought everything. So, as you go down that checklist for Christmas presents this year, if in doubt, bake! You can’t go wrong. Season’s greetings to you and yours.

Lemon Sour Cream Cookies

1⁄2 cup butter 
1 cup caster sugar 
3 beaten eggs 
1 cup sour cream (250g) 
1 tablespoon grated lemon rind 
1 teaspoon baking soda 
1 teaspoon lemon essence 
1 teaspoon vanilla essence 
plain flour 
confectioner’s sugar

Cream together butter and sugar till light and fluffy. Add eggs and beat well. Stir in the sour cream, lemon rind, baking soda and lemon and vanilla extracts. Add, a little at a time, enough flour to this mixture to form a soft dough. Drop by the spoonful onto a buttered baking sheet. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes, or when they turn a pale gold color. When cool, dust with confectioner’s sugar, or sandwich with lemon curd or both.

Russian Coffeecake

2 sticks softened unsalted butter 
1 packed cup brown sugar 
4 large eggs 
1 teaspoon vanilla extract 
1 cup room temp buttermilk 
2 cups unbleached white flour 
1 cup whole wheat flour 
3 tsp baking powder 
1 tsp baking soda 
1 tsp salt

For the filling: Combine a cup of semisweet chocolate chips, 1 cup roughly chopped whole almonds and 1 cup shredded coconut. Set aside a generous cup peach or apricot jam and 1 cup sliced and dried diced apricots.

My adaptation from Moosewood Cookbook. Have your eggs and buttermilk at room temperature. Grease a tin, or bundt or cake tin with a hole in the middle. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy (not in a blender, please). Add the eggs one at a time, and beat well after each addition. Mix in vanilla. Sift together the flours and baking powder, soda and salt. Add the dry mixture and the buttermilk alternately to the butter mixture. Use a wooden spoon and mix just enough to blend after each addition. Spoon half the cake batter into the prepared pan, gently spreading it until even. Spoon the jam in blobs here and there, and sprinkle with the apricots and about 2/3 of the chocolate nut mix.

Add the remaining cake batter; sprinkle the top with the remaining chocolate-coconut mix. And bake cake for 50-60 minutes, or until cooked. Leave in tin until entirely cooled. To serve you can dust with icing sugar, or ice with a lemon icing and top with apricots and almonds.

Chocolate Coconut Balls

1 tin condensed milk 
2 tablespoons cocoa 
1⁄2 lb. crushed sweet cookies 
1 cup coconut 
1 cup sherry-soaked raisins 
1⁄2 cup chopped glace cherries 
1⁄2 cup chopped almonds 

Combine all the ingredients thoroughly, and roll into walnut-sized balls. Roll the balls in coconut, and chill.

White Christmas

1 cup Rice Crispies 
1 cup coconut flakes 
1⁄2 lb. copha shortening
1 cup powdered milk 
1 cup confectioner’s sugar 
1 cup mixed nuts and fruit

Mix dry ingredients, and then pour in melted copha. Make sure it is mixed well, then press into a shallow tin. Set in the refrigerator until firm, and then cut into squares. Keeps well in an airtight container. For a grown-up version, mixed in chopped crystallized ginger and dates instead of the mixed fruit.

Festive Almond Bread

2 eggs
1 cup (125 g) castor sugar, sifted
1 cup (125g) plain flour, sifted
1 cup (125g) whole almonds and glace cherries

Beat eggs with sugar and add the flour. Add the fruit and nut mixture and stir well. Bake in a lined and greased loaf pan for 30 minutes in a 360 oven. Leave to cool completely. Remove from baking pan, wrap in foil and leave in the refrigerator overnight. Then, with a sharp serrated knife, slice very thinly. Bake for 15 minutes in a low oven on a rack. When cooled, store in an airtight jar.  Delicious served with coffee.

Cheesy Walnut Cookies

8 1⁄2 oz. grated parmesan cheese 
3 oz. unsalted butter 
1⁄2 cup whole milk 
1 1⁄4 cups plain flour 
1 cup walnuts, chopped 
1 teaspoon salt 
1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line baking trays with parchment paper. Place all ingredients in a bowl and rub together until a dough is formed. Take teaspoonfuls of the mixture and roll into balls. Place on the trays and flatten slightly. Bake in preheated oven for 8 to 10 minutes. Cool on trays before serving.

Nutty Date Chews

3⁄4 cup plain flour 
1⁄4 teaspoon salt 
1 teaspoon baking powder 
1 cup superfine sugar 
1 cup chopped dates 
1 cup chopped walnuts 
3 beaten eggs

Sift together the flour, salt, baking powder and sugar. Mix in the dates, walnuts and eggs. Mix thoroughly. Pour into a buttered and floured 10” x 14” tin. Bake at 300 for about 30 minutes. Cool slightly before cutting into squares.

This article was originally published Nov. 5, 2015.

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