Christmas is known for bringing out the ancestral origins in all of us, with every culture celebrating the holidays enjoying their specific holiday foods. Although my parents were born here in Canada, our German heritage was very evident in my mother’s cooking and baking.
One cookie that has been made specifically for holidays for hundreds of years is gingerbread. Across Europe you will find many versions of the spicy cookies in different shapes, colors and textures.
‘Lebkucken’, a traditional German gingerbread was invented by medieval monks in Franeonia, Germany in the 13th century. Prepared in monastery bakeries with ingredients that not only had symbolic religious meaning but were highly prized for their healing properties.
There are a variety of types of lebkucken, each distinguished by slight alterations in ingredients. Most common ingredients include: * honey, flour, sugar and eggs * gingerbread spice mix or ‘Lebkuckengewurz’ * almonds, hazelnuts and/or walnuts * candied lemon and orange peel. The most critical ingredient being the ‘exotic’ spices from all around the world such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, anise, cardamom, coriander and ginger.
Lebkucken can be round, square or rectangular. They can be glazed or not. Sometimes cocoa is mixed in with the dough making it rich and chocolaty. Other times, roasted apple, marzipan or cashews may be mixed in to add different flavors and textures.
‘Elisen lebkucken’ are the highest quality made. They must have at least 25% almonds, hazelnuts and/or walnuts and must contain no more than 10% flour if any. The ‘Nuremberg lebkucken’, baked in the city of Nuremberg, Germany, are known worldwide to be the best. Marzipan is often an ingredient in these gingerbread.
Of course this brings me back to another memory. Some years ago I had the experience of spending some time in the presence of a Dutch baker. At Christmas time, he would bake these incredible Dutch cookies called ‘Speculaas’ that were filled with marzipan and had that glorious similar spice blend. I just loved it and can’t resist making some version of it every Christmas season since.
Today, I’m making a large batch of lebkucken which I’m going to divide. Half of it is going to be made into ‘glazed’ triangles and the other half I want to dip in white chocolate and add a little holly decoration. Should be good!
Preheat oven to 350 F. Spread hazelnuts on a baking sheet & toast until the skins blister, about 5 minutes. Let cool slightly, then transfer nuts to a clean kitchen towel & rub together to remove the skins. Cool completely.
In a small bowl, combine almond meal, flour, baking powder, baking soda, spices & salt. Transfer hazelnuts to a food processor, add walnuts, candied citrus rind & crystallized ginger along with 1 cup of the dry ingredient mixture; pulse until very finely chopped. Add remaining dry ingredients & pulse ONLY to combine.
In a large bowl, using a mixer, beat butter with brown sugar until creamy. Add honey & beat until smooth. Add eggs & vanilla, beating to combine. Fold in dry ingredients then beat until evenly combined. Divide the dough in half. Wrap in plastic wrap & chill for at least 4 hours or overnight.
Line an 8 x 8-inch square baking dish with 2 pieces of parchment paper (this will allow you to easily remove squares fro the pan). Spread the half of the chilled dough evenly into baking pan & bake in the center of the oven until surface is dimpled & a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 20 minutes. The cake should be springy but firm. Let cool on a wire rack for 15 minutes.
In a bowl, whisk powdered sugar with your choice of flavoring & water to make a thin but spreadable glaze. Spread glaze on just-warm cake & let cool completely. Remove cake (with parchment) from pan onto cutting board. Cut 16 squares then cut each square into 2 'triangles' giving you 32 pieces.
Making Individual Cookies
Line a large cookie sheet with parchment paper. Scoop about 1 1/2 Tbsp dough out at a time. Roll into balls. Place on parchment about 2-inches apart & bake at 350 F. for 15 minutes or test with a toothpick. Remove from oven & cool completely.
White Chocolate Icing
In a microwave safe bowl, melt white chocolate chips with 1 Tbsp shortening on HIGH for 10 second intervals, stirring between intervals, until melted, smooth & fairly runny. Dip half of each cookie in melted white chocolate mixture then run bottom of cookie slightly along edge of bowl to remove excess. Place on parchment paper to set at room temperature.
For the holly decoration, melt candy melts, one color at a time. Place in a small piping bag with a #4 tip & pipe decorations. Allow to set up at room temperature. You should have around 26 cookies.
If you would like a dark depth of flavor, add 2 Tbsp dark, unsweetened cocoa to your cookie dough as well as using a dark brown sugar instead of the light.
If you prefer to not make 2 different versions, make the whole recipe into either bars or rounds -- your choice!
This is one of those cookies that gets better as it ages.
Something I did & found it worked well was to portion out my cookies before chilling the dough.
Halloween is one of the oldest holidays in the world. Few people are aware that its roots date back to Samhain, the ancient Gaelic harvest festival celebrated in Celtic countries, such as Scotland, Ireland and Wales. It was believed that spirits from the underworld and ghosts of dead people could visit the world of the living on the night of October 31st. These spirits could harm the living or take them back to the underworld. To avoid this, people started dressing up as ghosts and spirits, if they left their homes, to confuse the underworld spirits. Bonfires and food played a big part in the festivities.
Over the years, Samhain became merged with the later Christian holidays of All Saint’s Day on November 1st and All Soul’s Day on November 2nd. This explains our modern holiday’s focus on spirits and the dead.
Halloween traditions were brought to America by the Irish and Scottish immigrants. Through time other traditions have blended into Halloween for example the harvest time tradition of craving pumpkins.
Brion and I live in a ‘young’ neighborhood. We’ve been very fortunate to have great neighbors on either side of us. One family has two boys and the other side has two girls. It is fun to make something special just for ‘our’ little people. This year, I’m making some Halloween cookies for their treat. My choices are SPIDER WEB & 3-D PUMPKIN cookies! Hope they will like them.
In a large bowl, with an electric mixer, cream together butter & sugar until light & fluffy; add orange zest. Beat in eggs & milk. Whisk flour, baking powder, baking soda & salt together in a small bowl. Combine flour mixture with butter/egg mixture.
When dough is mixed, divide into thirds. Place one third in a plastic bag & place in the refrigerator. From the remaining dough, take a small amount & knead green food coloring into it. Once the color is fully worked into the dough, place it in another plastic bag & refrigerate. With remaining dough, add orange food color, knead it in, place in a plastic bag & refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or longer. When dough has chilled, cut into pumpkins & spider web cookies.
3-D Pumpkin Cookies (30)
For each 3-D pumpkin you'll need:
(2) Orange scalloped or plain circle cookies 1 7/8" diameter.
(2) Orange scalloped or plain cookies 2 1/4" diameter with a 1 1/4" or 1 1/2" circle cutout.
(1) Green scalloped circle 1 1/4" or 1 1/2" diameter with a hole cutout in the center using a straw.
(1) Green stem, made from rolling a small amount of green dough into a 'snake', & cutting it into pieces about 3/4" long, then bake. Feel free to adjust the sizes a bit based on the cutters you have, or the finished size you desire.
Place chilled orange colored dough on a LIGHTLY floured work surface. Place a piece of parchment paper on top of dough. This helps to roll out the dough without adding additional flour. Roll out the dough to about 1/4 of an inch thick. Cut out pumpkin pieces ( 4 per cookie ). Place cookies on prepared baking sheet, topped with either silicone liners or parchment paper. Remove green colored dough from refrigerator; roll as above, cut lid circles & stems ( 1 each per cookie ). Make sure to only put cookie pieces of similar size on the same baking sheet to ensure even baking. Place entire baking sheet (with cookies on it) in the freezer or refrigerator for about 3-5 minutes. This will help them to keep their shape while baking. Preheat oven to 350 F.
Bake cookies for 5-6 minutes depending on their size. Bake ONLY until they are just barely beginning to take on a golden tone. After a minute or so, remove cookies from baking sheet to cooling rack. Once cooled, you are ready to assemble the pumpkins.
Starting with one of the solid circles & one cutout circle. Add a line of your 'cookie icing' onto the solid circle, then place cookie 'ring' on top.
Add a line of cookie icing onto the first cookie 'ring'. Add the second cookie 'ring'. The base of your pumpkin is now complete.
Assemble the pumpkin top by first attaching the small green stem to the green circle (using a bit of cookie icing). Then add a line of icing onto the bottom of the green circle, & place the green circle on top of a solid orange circle.
Allow the pumpkin top & pumpkin base to dry completely for at least 1-2 hours. Fill pumpkin cavity with mini M&M candies. Arrange on serving dish with tops.
Spider Web Cookies (24)
Place remaining chilled dough a LIGHTLY floured work surface. Place a piece of parchment paper on top of dough. Roll dough to 1/8" - 1/4" thickness. Cut circles using a 3-inch round cookie cutter. Place cookies on a parchment lined baking sheet. Bake for about 6-8 minutes, until just golden. Do not allow cookies to brown. After a minute or so, remove cookies from baking sheet to cooling rack. Cool completely.
Reserve some regular chocolate chips for spider bodies, however many you plan to make. Place remaining regular chocolate chips in a microwave safe bowl with 1 TBSP shortening. Heat in microwave on high for 1 minute bursts, stirring after each minute, until chocolate is melted & smooth. Dip half of each cookie into chocolate & set aside.
In a separate bowl, quickly melt white chocolate chips with 1 TBSP shortening the same way as the semi-sweet chocolate. Pour melted white chocolate into a zip lock baggie & cut off a tiny piece of one corner. Make semi-circles on the dipped chocolate part of the cookie. Use a toothpick & draw lines through both dark & white chocolate from the center out to the outside edge of the cookie to create a web effect.
Place a little drip of melted chocolate on the cookie near the web. Use a toothpick to draw out 8 legs from the chocolate. Place a regular chip at one end for the spider body & a mini chocolate chip at the other for the head. Place the cookies on wax paper & allow chocolate to cool & harden before serving.
1 egg white
1/2 tsp orange extract
orange gel food color
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
With an electric mixer, whip egg white, extract & color until frothy. Slowly beat in powdered sugar, a little at a time, until mixture is thick but still liquid enough to beat. Beat on high until the mixture becomes thick & glossy, about 3 minutes. Cover the surface with plastic wrap while waiting to use it.
Royal Icing will set to a firm, glossy finish when applied to cookie. This icing can be stored , tightly covered, in the refrigerator for up to a week.
Father’s Day, that special day set aside to honor our fathers and the father figures who have influenced our lives. A father’s love is such a special gift beyond compare. You only know the meaning when he is no longer there.
My father passed away in 2005 and Brion’s in 2011. The passage of time will never dim those precious memories we have of them. They followed very different paths in their life’s journey; my father was a farmer and Brion’s an army soldier. Both of them gave so much of themselves to their life’s work as well as to their families.
There are not enough words to describe how important my father was to me and the powerful influence he continues to be in my life even though he’s gone.
As a tribute to our dad’s on Father’s day, I am featuring a CHEESE CRUSTED APPLE PIE. Both of them loved apple pie so it seems like a good choice for the blog recipe.
In a large bowl, whisk together flour, salt & cheese. Cut in half the shortening to resemble coarse meal; then remaining shortening until it resembles small peas. Add water, a little at a time, mixing lightly with a fork. Shape dough into a firm ball; chill for 10 minutes.
Preheat oven to 400 F. On a lightly floured surface, roll pastry out to fit a 9-inch flan pan; trim edges. Cover pastry with a piece of parchment paper; cover with dried beans & bake for 7 minutes. Carefully remove beans & bake another 7 minutes. Remove from oven & cool.
Chop apples coarsely, place in a saucepan with lemon juice; cover & cook about 10 minutes or until just tender. Stir in flour, sugar & cinnamon; cool to room temperature.
In a small bowl, combine sugar, flour & pecans. Rub in butter until mixture is coarse & crumbly.
Place filling into pastry shell, sprinkle with topping. Bake at 400 F. for 15 minutes; reduce heat to 375 F. & bake further for 15 minutes. Cool to room temperature. Decorate with whipped cream, extra chopped pecans & powdered sugar, if desired.
Due to the fact that ovens sometimes vary in temperature, you may need to adjust the baking temperature a little higher or lower than recipe states.
With Valentines Day almost here, I decided to do a prelude post with a few dessert ideas.
In the food industry, this day was always fun to prepare food for. Definitely a more intimate occasion, all revolving around chocolate, ‘hearts’ and roses. Strangely enough, every time Brion and I have tried to go out for supper on Valentines we usually come home wondering why we did that. The restaurants were packed, the wait is long, the music is loud, etc, etc. Nonetheless, I’m always happiest if I can prepare a ‘special meal’ for us to enjoy at home. That being said, my choice of dessert for this Valentines Day areStrawberry Yogurt Parfaits with Chocolate Cheesecake Squares.
The fresh strawberry compote has a nice lemony tang that pairs well with the creamy Greek vanilla yogurt. Brion isn’t much for cheesecake but just loves these chocolate cheesecake squares.
Rinse, hull & slice strawberries. Zest & juice lemon. In a small saucepan, whisk together sugar, water, lemon juice, zest & cornstarch. Add strawberries, mixing gently while bringing to a simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat, cool.
In parfait glasses, spoon layers of strawberry compote & Greek yogurt. Garnish with a strawberry leaf if desired. Refrigerate until serving time.
Chocolate Cheesecake Squares
Line a 9-inch square baking pan with 2 sheets of parchment paper so cheesecake can easily be lifted out later. In a small bowl, combine the graham crumbs, pecans & butter. Press into prepared pan; set aside. In a large bowl, beat cream cheese, sugar & sour cream until smooth. Add eggs; beat on low speed just until combined. Stir in vanilla. Pour over crust.
Bake at 325 F. for 35-40 minutes or until center is almost set. Cool on a wire rack. Refrigerate until chilled. Freeze overnight.
Melt chocolate & shortening; stir until smooth. Cool slightly. Using parchment paper, lift cheesecake out of pan. Gently peel off paper; cut into 49 squares. Remove a few pieces at a time for dipping; keep remaining squares refrigerated until ready to dip.
Using a toothpick, completely dip squares, one at a time, in melted chocolate; allow excess to drip off. Place on waxed paper-lined baking sheets; spoon about 1 tsp chocolate over each, reheating chocolate if needed to finish dipping. Let stand for 20 minutes or until set. Store in airtight container in the refrigerator or freezer. Yield 49 squares.