Holiday Sweets - Homemade Sweets Sweeten the Season
– Story and Photography by Lori Ross -
As the weather cools and the winter holidays approach, my thoughts turn to sugarplums and the sweets of the season. When I was little, my mother and I started making seasonal sweets at Halloween – popcorn balls, candy apples and molasses sponge candy. As Thanksgiving approached we made the Christmas fruitcakes – some for our family and some for gifts. As we aged the fruitcakes, my job was to unwrap them weekly, pour a tbsp or two of brandy over them and wrap them back up in linen, then foil, then plastic and place them in the cold cellar. A few days before Thanksgiving, along with the pies, we made candied citrus, date balls and lemon squares to serve Thanksgiving Day. In December, we would make confections for weeks – chocolate truffles, date balls, rum balls, chocolate bark, fondant mints, fudge, and nut brittles – then we would bake and decorate cookies. The scent of chocolate, cinnamon, vanilla and nutmeg filled the house.
During the holidays on the boat I don’t engage in that kind of sweets making. Instead I have found some simple, more convenient ways to make yummy treats. Happily, such conveniences as the microwave oven, chopped nuts, candied fruit and chocolate chips makes sweets easier to create.
I offer you several of my mother’s favorite sweets recipes that I’ve simplified for the galley. While I like them for the holidays, you can make them for yourself or as gifts any time of year.
Caramel Corn or Popcorn Balls
Makes 6 large or 12 small popcorn balls
This caramel corn is so delicious that it is a shame to eat it only at Halloween. Make the caramel corn into popcorn balls, enclose them in colorful plastic wrap, make a garland out of the balls and use them to decorate a Christmas tree. Include popcorn balls in an Easter basket and bring caramel corn to the Fourth of July picnic.
1 cup sugar
2 cup molasses
1 tbsp of white vinegar
2 tbsp water
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp butter
3 quarts cups popped corn (about 12 cups)
Mix all ingredients except popped corn in a large microwave safe bowl. Microwave on high for 15-20 minutes, stirring every 2-3 minutes to keep mixture smooth and prevent boiling over. When the mixture reaches 250 degrees on a candy thermometer or a drop of mixture forms a ball when dropped in cold water, take out of microwave. Carefully (avoid burning yourself with hot candy), pour over popcorn mixing well with a large spoon until the popcorn is evenly coated with molasses mixture. Wet your hands (to prevent sticking and to keep your hands cool) and quickly form popcorn balls. When cool wrap them individually in plastic wrap, wax paper or place in ziplock bags.
Variations: Add 2 cups of peanuts to popcorn and make popcorn-nut balls.
If you want to make this on the stove top, simply heat all ingredients in a 2- quart saucepan on medium-high, stirring every few minutes until the mixture reaches 250 degrees on a candy thermometer or a drop of mixture forms a ball when dropped in cold water.
Cinnamon Sugar Nuts
This is a recipe from my niece who, along with her three little girls, made cinnamon nuts as gifts for everyone in the family one Christmas. They were so delicious that I asked her to teach me how to make them. They have since become a favorite of ours any time of year. While any type of nut will work with this recipe, pecans and walnuts are especially good because they have tiny crevices to catch the delicious cinnamon sugar topping.
1 egg white
1 tsp cold water
2 cups of shelled nuts
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon
Separate egg white from yolk and add water. Beat until frothy and fold in nuts. Combine sugar, salt and cinnamon and add to nut mixture. Butter a 9x13 baking pan (I like to line my pan with aluminum foil for easy clean up. Pour the nuts into pan. Bake at 250F for 1 hour.
Fruit and Nut Bark
Nut bark is basically a chocolate bar with nuts – I like to add dried fruit such as raisins, craisins, currants, dried cherries or blueberries to give the bark a more interesting texture and flavor. My mother would make dark chocolate and white chocolate nut and fruit bark for the holidays. The bark can be made with chocolate morsels, chips or chocolate bars cut into chunks. The better the chocolate (e.g. Guitard, Callebaut Vahlrona) the better the texture and flavor of your bark will be. Experiment with flavors like milk chocolate, bittersweet, white chocolate and semi-sweet.
12 ounces chocolate morsels or chopped chocolate
1 cup toasted nuts (whole almonds, slice or slivered almonds, macadamia nuts, pine nuts, walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts)*
1 cup dried fruit (raisin, chopped apricots, craisins, blueberries, cherries, currants)
Place chocolate in microwave safe bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Microwave at MEDIUM for 6 minutes or until bits are glossy but hold their shape. ** Spread evenly over buttered, aluminum foil covered cookie sheet. Top with toasted nuts and dried fruit Chill until firm. Break into pieces to serve.
*Toast the nuts in a dry skillet over medium low heat for 3 to 5 minutes. Be careful not
to burn the nuts. Let cool.
**My GE Profile microwave oven has a setting specifically to melt chocolate. Check if yours does too!
Black and White Nut Bark:
6 ounces semisweet chocolate morsels plus ¼ cup for decoration
6 ounces white morsels plus ¼ cup for decoration
1 cup toasted nuts coarsely chopped (place nuts in a bag and crush using a rolling pin or can)
Melt 6 oz. semisweet chocolate as above, or until smooth. Pour chocolate onto prepared sheet and spread to cover entire surface and form 1 even layer. Melt white chocolate as above, or until smooth. Drizzle melted white chocolate attractively in swirls over semisweet chocolate layer. Sprinkle with nuts and remaining semisweet and white morsels. Gently press toppings into melted chocolates. Refrigerate for 30 minutes, or until chocolate is firm. Break into large chunks and serve.
Microwave Nut Brittle
My mother made nut brittle on the stove top using a candy thermometer. I like the ease of the microwave oven. The goal of the brittle is to cook it to hard crack stage and spread it as thin as possible on the baking pan so that you have thin, crackly brittle. You can use any type of nut, but I like pecans and walnuts best.
While all microwave ovens are different, the following recipe (using minimum times) works in both my boat and home microwave ovens which cook very “hot” on high. If your microwave oven is not very “hot”, cook brittle the maximum time listed below. Be careful not to burn yourself on the hot sugar mixture (I do it every time I make this!).
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1/8 tsp salt
2 cups pecan, walnut, peanut or cashew pieces
1 tsp butter or margarine
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp baking soda
In a greased 2-quart microwave safe bowl, mix sugar, corn syrup and salt and cook on HIGH for 2 to 3 minutes until boiling, then cook an additional 3-4 minutes.
Stir in nuts, butter, vanilla extract and cinnamon. Cook for 2 minutes more. Take carefully out of microwave and immediately add baking soda and stir until brittle is light and foamy. At this point the brittle will be very thick and sticky. Quickly pour brittle onto greased (aluminum foil covered) cookie sheet and spread as thin as possible. Cool and break into pieces. Store in airtight container.
Truffles are simply classic chocolate ganache formed into small balls and rolled in cocoa powder to resemble their namesake -- the French black truffle (the most expensive mushroom in the world). While truffles are easy to make, do not skimp on the ingredients – use heavy cream (not half and half, light cream or fat free cream), real butter (to complement the butter fat in the chocolate) and use the best chocolate you can buy. (I once tried this recipe with half and half instead of cream and it turned into cake icing delicious but my truffles never kept their shape)!
12 ounces semisweet chocolate (chips or coarsely chopped bar)
2/3 cup heavy cream
1 tbsp unsalted butter (at room temperature)
1 tbsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (e.g. Hershey, Droste Ghiradelli)
Place chocolate in a medium mixing bowl. Set aside.
Warm cream in a small saucepan over low heat. As soon as you start to see bubbles around the edges of the pan, turn off the heat and pour chocolate into the warm cream. Stir until the chocolate melts and the mixture is completely smooth. Add the butter and vanilla and stir until it is completely incorporated. Place the mixture in the refrigerator for 1 hour, or until it is firm enough to shape into balls.
Place powdered cocoa in a bowl and powder your hands with it (really, so the truffles won’t stick to your hands. Scoop out a heaping tspful of the chocolate mixture and roll it into a ball between your palms. Roll the ball in cocoa until it is completely covered. Roll it lightly in your palms again to make sure the cocoa sticks, then re-roll the truffle in cocoa. Repeat with the remaining chocolate mixture.
If the mixture gets too soft to hold its shape, place it back in the refrigerator for 10 minutes, until it can be handled easily.
Store the truffles in layers, separated by wax paper, in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. They are best served at room temperature, but they must be stored in the refrigerator.
Add 3 tbsp almond liqueur (such as amaretto) when you add the butter and roll the truffles in finely chopped almonds instead of cocoa powder, or push a whole toasted almond inside the rounded truffle before rolling it in the cocoa.
Add 3 tbsp whiskey with the butter and roll in finely grated white chocolate.
Add 3 tbsp orange liqueur (such as Grand Marnier) and 1 tsp finely grated orange rind when you add the butter.
Double Chocolate Truffles:
Roll the balls in finely grated chocolate or chocolate jimmies instead of cocoa powder
2 tbsp butter
3/4 cup sugar
1 ½ cup dates, finely chopped
1 pkg. shredded coconut (enough to roll date ball in) or confectioner’s sugar
2 c. Rice Krispies
1/2 cups chopped walnuts or pecans
1 tbsp vanilla
Melt butter in medium saucepan or in microwave (about 20 seconds). Mix sugar, eggs and dates, and then add to butter. Cook 7 minutes on the stove top stirring constantly (so the sugar and dates won’t stick to your saucepan) or cook for 3-4 minutes on medium in microwave, stirring once every minute until mixture is smooth. Take off heat and stir in vanilla and nuts. Pour mixture over Rice Krispies in another bowl and blend well. Dip your hands in cold water and then form date mixture into small balls. Roll lightly in coconut or confectioner’s sugar. Store in refrigerator or cool, dry place in a covered dish or tin.
Makes 20 or more 1 “ balls. These date balls are sweet, soft, crunchy and chewy and a snap to make stovetop or in the microwave.
Lemon or Lime Squares
1 ½ cup crushed graham crackers or other cookies (gingersnaps, shortbread, animal crackers)
1 tbsp sugar
½ tsp cinnamon
½ cup butter
2 ounces cream cheese
1 tbsp lemon or lime zest grated
Pinch of salt
14 ounce can of sweetened condensed milk
1 egg yolk
½ lemon or lime juice (fresh is best)
Mix crushed cookies with butter, sugar and cinnamon and press into 9 x 13 inch pan. Bake for 20 minutes at 350 degrees. Remove and cool completely before filling.
Stir cream cheese, zest and salt in a bowl until softened. Add condensed milk and whisk until well mixed and no lumps of cream cheese remain. Whisk in egg, then juice and stir until mixture is slightly thickened.
Pour filling onto cooled crust and bake at 350 degrees for 15-20 minutes or until edges pull away from sides. Remove from oven and cool then refrigerate covered for at least 2 hours before serving. Let stand at room temperature about 15 minutes before serving.
Makes 16 squares
Makes 2 dozen
1⁄4 lb. or 1 stick butter
2 tbsp confectioner’s sugar
1⁄2 tsp vanilla
1 cup flour
1 cup finely ground almonds, walnuts or pecans
Preheat oven to 375°. Cream butter until fluffy. Add confectioners' sugar and vanilla. Beat until smooth. Gradually beat in flour. Stir in ground nuts. Shape dough into 1" balls, using about 1 Tbsp of dough for each. Place 1" apart on an ungreased cookie sheet and bake 15 minutes, turning cookie sheet so that cookies bake lightly and evenly. Transfer to a rack, cool, and then roll in confectioner’s sugar.
Makes 4 dozen
½ cup cornstarch
1 cup flour
¾ cup softened butter
1 cup confectioner’s sugar
Sift together cornstarch, sugar and flour. Blend in butter until a soft, smooth dough forms. Shape into 1 inch balls and place 1 ½ “ apart on an ungreased cookie sheet then flatten with fork or roll out dough about ¼ inch thick and use cookie cutters to make cookies various shapes. Bake in 325 degree oven 15-20 minutes until edges are lightly browned. Alternatively, you may pat the dough into a 6-8” round pan to make a shortbread circle and bake for 40-50 minutes until edges are lightly browned. The cookies will be soft until they cool completely, so you may wish to score them into even triangles so they break apart more easily. Store in covered tin.
If you wish, before cooking, top cookies with nuts or pieces of crystallized ginger or once cooled, you may dip in chocolate.