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Friday, December 18, 2009

Holiday Baking

I know, I know, it's That Season...
...of perhaps one too many glasses of bubbly...of rich foods eaten in copious quantities...of occasionally frantic list-making...and, yes, the slightly wacky music that wedges itself in one's brain for eternity.  (Example:  Mele Kalikimaka.  It's a song from an old Bing Crosby holiday record--with the Andrews' Sisters singing backup-- about a Hawaiian Christmas and I know ALL the lyrics, by heart.  Weird.)

It's also the season for baking.

Suddenly, in the weeks leading up to the holidays, otherwise ordinary people I know turn into night-prowling, super-human pastry chefs...their lives becoming a cycle of double-shifts as they bake their way through challenging holiday cookie recipes after their day jobs are done and night has fallen.

I've had my own ups and downs with holiday baking.

Typically, early in December, I begin an overly ambitious list of baked goods I plan to tackle.  True to form, this year included a weeklong obsession with making croquembouche, or as my French friend, N., likes to say simply "choux".  This towering assemblage of profiteroles built in the shape of a giant cone and drizzled with caramel is like climbing Everest in the pastry world, so I'm not sure why I thought I might be up to the task.  (See above...I've had my ups and downs with baking.)   After several days of surfing various cooking sites and blogs, the enormity of such a project sank in and defeated, I moved on to searching the Bay Area Chowhound boards for suggestions on local bakeries that carry my beloved pastry during the holiday season.

My holiday baking list always includes the now near-legendary White Chocolate Apricot Biscotti, which as noted before, make me as well as others, very happy.  Another classic that makes an appearance every year or two is oddly enough...a brownie.  This one is a cream cheese swirl brownie, with the added festive touch of orange zest mixed into the cream cheese topping.  I cut the brownies into tiny, bite-sized squares and they never fail to delight adults and children alike.  I'll make a batch this year, simply to honor the fact that they are from a particularly beautiful back issue of, ahem, Gourmet.

Now that Gourmet is gone, my holiday issue magazine stack is not as large, and I'm still trolling for the year's  'new' cookie.  There needs to be a bit of challenge with all this baking going on, so I usually try one new recipe.  At the moment, I'm tempted by a Lemon Twist from Martha Stewart Living.  There's also the possibility of a ginger cookie from the Gourmet web site, but in the end, my tentative plan is to somehow bring back memories of Sicily and make a panettone.  My Battle Chocolate colleague, Mike G.,  is considering bringing in his own version if we can somehow coordinate each doing our baking this coming weekend.  I'll report back on the results if The Panettone Smackdown actually happens.

Finally, there always has to be a 'problem child'.  Something that ups the I-suffer-for-my-art element of holiday baking.  In my case these recipes range far and wide.  There have been repeated attempts (all failures) to re-create a pate de fruit-like little apple ball my grandmother used to make.  (It never, ever jells.)  Meringues also figure into the high-failure rate category.  Me and egg whites.  Usually a disaster.  This year I'm planning to reprise a high-suffering/low-yield recipe from Celia Barbour.  Her Brown Butter Cookies (an old family recipe from a Swedish grandmother I think) have an intense stress factor -- making brown butter is tricky -- but are insanely good.  By the time you've paired all the halves created in one batch, together, sandwiching some jam between each, you realize, you have, like, twelve cookies.  Total.  The last time I made these, my father reached across the table to grab a second as we all munched on desserts one Christmas Day, and I reflexively swatted his hand away, informing him there was only one per customer. 

The kind of cool part about all of this is the sense of holiday baking camaraderie I feel with everyone out there whose December is similar.  Those of you who begin stockpiling butter early in the month...find yourself toasting almonds at nine o'clock at night on a Tuesday, or wake with a start on the sofa when the alarm goes off at 1 am, telling you to pull the final batch from the oven know of what I speak.

Cheers to you all and happy holidays.

*         *          *

This is really an assembly of two different recipes -- the brownies are from the New York Times article on brownies a few years back and the orange cheesecake topping from the original Gourmet article mentioned above.  Feel free to substitute your own favorite brownie recipe for the base.

Orange Cheesecake Brownies

For cheesecake batter
  • an 8-ounce package cream cheese, softened
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 3/4 teaspoon finely grated fresh orange zest
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

For brownie batter:
2 sticks (16 tablespoons) butter, more for pan and parchment paper
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate
4 eggs
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup dark brown sugar

1 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup flour

Butter a 13-by-9-inch baking pan and line with buttered parchment paper. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Make cheesecake batter:
In a bowl stir together cream cheese, sugar, and zest with a wooden spoon until smooth. Beat in egg with a fork until blended and stir in flour.

Make brownie batter:
In top of a double boiler set over barely simmering water, or on low power in a microwave, melt butter and chocolate together. Cool slightly. In a large bowl or mixer, whisk eggs. Whisk in salt, sugars and vanilla.

Whisk in chocolate mixture. Fold in flour just until combined. Pour batter into prepared pan. Plop tablespoons of cheesecake filling a couple inches apart across top of the brownie batter.  Using a large fork (I use a serving fork) score the top, mixing and twirling the batters together to make decorative swirls). Bake for 35 to 40 minutes or until shiny and beginning to crack on top. Cool in pan on rack.

Yield: 15 large or 24 small brownies.

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