Saturday, December 14, 2013

Candied Citrus Shortbread Bars

   With Christmas rushing in from all sides, now is usually the time when people start scrambling for presents, extra groceries & liquor for gatherings, and of course, cookies for when everyone starts to come visiting. Shortbread is a holiday staple, and there’s no big surprise why: it’s easy, versatile and melt in your mouth delicious. There are many ways you can use your shortbread dough, and every single one will taste delicious.

  There is, of course, a very good reason why shortbread is as widely beloved as it is, and it’s because when you break all the recipes down, they stem back to the same basic idea: one part sugar, two parts butter and three parts flour. People put their own spin on the recipe by adding eggs, or leaveners, extracts or fillings, but they all stem back to the same root.

  To make these cookies extra festive, I added candied citrus peel to my dough. You can find it in grocery stores at this time of year, and it’s incredible for adding a tasty zing to these cookies. Orange, lemon and lime candied zest, chopped up into a tiny dice gives a wonderful subtle citrus sweetness to these cookies, without being too over-powering.

  You’ll definitely want to chill this dough for 2 hours or more before you roll it out. It’s entirely possible to roll and cut your slices right away, but the texture of your finished cookies won’t be quite the same. Though if you’re in a rush and don’t have time to let it chill, relax! It’s shortbread; it’s a forgiving dough. They’ll still taste lovely.

  I hope you try these shortbread bars, because they’re so melt-in-your-mouth tender you have to taste it to believe it! Try adding your own take on fillings to mix in, or try them plain. Try dipping them in chocolate, or using white chocolate instead of dark. Try cutting them out with cookie cutters and decorating them with royal icing. There are endless combinations to try with this versatile dough, and I know that your friends and family will love you to pieces if they see you bringing a plate of these to your next Christmas party!

Candied Citrus Shortbread Bars
Tender, buttery shortbread flavored with tiny morsels of candied citrus will make you a real hit when visiting friends & family this holiday season!

Prep time: 10 min.
Bake time: 10-12 min.
Yield: 2-3 dozen bars

2 cups unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
3 cups flour
½ tsp. vanilla
½ tsp salt
1 cup fine dice candied citrus peel (Also called mixed peel)

1 cup dark chocolate, melted

In a mixing bowl, combine butter and sugar. Cream on medium with the paddle attachment for 3 minutes, until pale and fluffy. Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl to ensure all of the butter is evenly mixed & fluffy. Add vanilla and salt, mix an additional 1 minute.

Add in flour slowly on low, mixing until almost combined. Add candied citrus and mix until fully combined (30-60 sec.). Careful not to over-mix the dough! You want these cookies tender. Turn out onto your work surface and pat it into a large pile, pressing any almost-mixed pieces into the pile. It should look like a smooth, buttery-yellow dough. Wrap dough in plastic wrap and chill in the fridge for 2 hours or overnight.

Preheat oven to 350. Divide your dough in half. Wrap one half back in plastic and return it to the fridge. On a lightly floured surface, roll out your dough to about ¼ - ½ inch thick. Cut into 1x3” bars and transfer them to a baking sheet, spacing them 2 inches apart. You can re-roll and cut your dough scraps as well. Repeat with remaining dough.

Bake 10-12 minutes, or until slightly browned at the edges. Cool on baking sheets 2 min. then transfer to wire rack to cool completely. Once cooled, drizzle with melted chocolate and chill till set. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 5 days.*

*Shortbread cookies also freeze very well! They’re good wrapped in the freezer for up to 1 month.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Nanny Milly’s Bread

 You know that smell that hits you when you walk into a bakery, and I mean a real proper bakery, that makes you unconsciously take a deeper breath in through your nose? You do it because you can’t help it, it’s reflex, it’s every happy scent receptor in your nose screaming, “Give me more of that”! It sends a little warmth flooding through you and it lifts you up, in part because you’re filling your lungs up, up, up with that heavenly smell. The smell of fresh baked, buttery, soft, tear-apart-with-your-hands-and-devour bread. With this recipe, that’s the smell you can fill your kitchen (/whole house) with.

One of my earliest memories is of sitting on my kitchen counter, stealing little pinches of dough to play with and eat while my dad baked bread. Back when I was little dad would bake bread once every week or two and the whole house would smell heavenly. The recipe he used, and the one I use now, is my nanny Milly’s, my momma’s momma. Truth be told I’m not sure how many times this recipe has passed down the family line, but it’s tried, tested, and deliciously true.

Dad was the first one who went to my nanny Milly and tried to hammer out a clear idea of the ingredient amounts, but like all good old-fashioned Newfoundland recipes, the concept of ‘cups’, ‘teaspoons’ or measuring at all was utterly foreign. To this day, my nanny describes her recipe ingredients as “Oh a fair amount of this, about a handful of that”. Endearing, but frustrating when you want to try and replicate their delicious product!

To give your house that amazing euphoric ‘mmm, bread’ smell, I’ve tweaked this recipe until it’s now a near-perfect replication of my nan’s homemade bread. I say near-perfect, because nothing can add that wonderful magic to a loaf of bread that grandma’s seem to sprinkle over everything, from a quilt, to a knitted scarf, to a slice of bread still warm from the oven, slathered with creamy butter.

You can make this basic bread dough either by hand or with a stand mixer, though there is one part of the process that has to be by hand, and that’s when you cut in the fats into the flour. There really is no perfect substitute for feeling through the dough and using your fingers to work the butter into small little pieces. Don’t worry, after that you can let the mixer do all the hard work kneading it for you if you want!

Whenever I give this recipe to someone, their eyes always bug out when I mention that there’s both real lard and butter in my bread. This is a pretty old school Newfoundland recipe. My only reply is to smile and laugh, “Of course! Why do you think it tastes so good?”

Nanny Milly’s Bread
This homemade bread will make your whole house smell wonderful, and each piece will make you come back wanting another fragrant, fluffy slice!
Prep time: 20 min
Bake time: 20-25 min
Yield: 4 loaves

2 ½ tbsp. dry-active yeast
1 cup warm water
1250g all-purpose flour
¼ cup granulated sugar
1 tbsp. salt
1/2 cup lard, soft (or shortening, but real lard is best!)
2 tbsp. unsalted butter, soft
Additional water, as needed
Additional butter, hard (3-4 tbsp)

1.  In a small bowl, combine yeast and warm water. Stir gently just till dissolved, set aside. In a large bowl (or mixer bowl if using a stand mixer), combine flour, sugar and salt, mix to combine. Add butter and lard and squish the fats into the dough with your fingers. Work it through the flour, squishing any large lumps you find until all the pieces are pea-sized or smaller.

2.  Make a small well in the flour & pour in the foamy yeast mixture. (If using a stand mixer, set it up with the dough hook attachment.) Have a large jug of water beside you. Begin mixing in gradual amounts of water to your dough mixture, mixing and working it with your hands until it starts to come together, slowly adding water until it is able to form a ball. Sprinkle your work surface with flour and turn out the dough. Sprinkle it with flour & knead for 5-7 minutes, until it’s smooth and not tacky. (For a mixer, add water gradually on low until the dough starts to pull away from the sides and form a ball. Turn the mixer speed to med-low and knead for 5 minutes.)

3.  Coat the inside of a large bowl with non-stick spray and place the dough ball inside. Spritz the top with a little non-stick spray, cover with plastic wrap and let sit for around 30-60 min. in a warm place, or till doubled in size. While the dough is proofing, grease 4 loaf pans with butter and set aside.

4.  Punch down the dough and turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead for 1 min. Using a bench scraper, or knife, cut off three equal portions of dough. Pull or roll them into a ball shape, each a little larger than a tennis ball. (You can weigh each dough piece to make them identical in size, but I prefer to free-hand this.) Place them in a loaf pan and spritz with cooking spray. Cover with plastic wrap and set in a warm place. Repeat with remaining dough. Let loaves proof 30-40 min. or until doubled. While proofing, preheat oven to 350.

5.  Remove plastic and bake 20-25 min. or until golden brown. Remove from the oven and let cool in their pans for 5 min. Rub a piece of hard butter against the tops of each loaf while still hot to give them a nice shine and crisp, buttery crust. Remove from pans and cool on racks. Keep stored in an airtight container or bread bags for up to 5 days.

* This recipe freezes very well. A loaf will last in the freezer for up to 1 month before quality begins to diminish. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Chocolate-Maple-Pecan Magic Bars

Do you sometimes get a craving for a treat, but when you go to the cupboard both everything and nothing seem quite right? I’d love the honey-sweet crunchy taste of some Teddy Grahams, but then there’s the sweet and sticky delicious tub of caramel in the fridge that’s begging to be drizzled over something. Then again, I could seriously go for some of those candied pecans I made yesterday, but I’m also craving chocolate… It’s a vicious cycle for me. Sometimes I wind up eating everything (too often), and sometimes I just throw up my hands in frustration because nothing is quite what I want.

Well these delicious bars are exactly my solution for that. They’re the result of staring into the cupboard and wondering, “how on earth can I put all these cravings in one?” A crunchy crumb base, sweet maple caramel-like filling, pecans, chocolate; how would it be wrong?

Magic cookie bars have always been one of my favourite treats to pile up on my plate at holiday parties. They’re easy, delicious and at least one or two people will bring their own variant of them to a Christmas open house, so I always manage to get my fix of them if I hover around the dessert table long enough (and where else would I be?)

In these magic bars you could use either regular pecans like I did, or pecans that you’ve already candied for an extra kick of flavor and texture! I drizzled a little extra chocolate over the tops just for a prettier bar, but they were perfectly delicious without that added step. I may have taste-tested one (or three) before I added the chocolate!

I hope you try these yourself and make someone else who’s hovering around the dessert table this Christmas very happy!

Chocolate-Maple-Pecan Magic Bars
 An amazing combination of every sweet-craving in each bite, these delicious easy to make bars are perfect to bring with you while you go visiting this holiday season!
 Prep time: 15 min.
Bake time: 20-25 min.
Yield: One 9”x13” pan, 32 bars

2 cups graham crumbs
½ cup – ¾ cup butter, melted
1 tsp salt
1 (14 oz.) can sweetened condensed milk
½ cup maple syrup (splurge on the real stuff!)
1 tsp maple extract
1 & ½ cup flaked coconut
2 cups pecan halves/candied pecans
1 cup mini chocolate chips
1 cup butterscotch chips
 ½ cup dark chocolate, melted (Optional)

1.  Preheat oven to 350. Spray the bottom and sides of a 9”x13” pan well with non-stick cooking spray. Press a sheet of parchment into the bottom of the pan and up the sides. This will help you lift out the bars later.

2.  Combine graham crumbs, melted butter and salt in a bowl and mix until combined. It should look like wet sand. Press crumb mixture onto an even layer in your pan. Set aside.

3.  Mix together condensed milk, maple syrup and extract in a bowl until fully combined, then pour mixture gently over the graham crust. Tilt the pan to ensure the milk mixture has covered the entire bottom of the pan in an even coat. Sprinkle coconut over the milk mixture, followed by nuts, mini chips & butterscotch chips. Press the toppings down slightly into the condensed milk.

4.  Bake 20-25 minutes, or until lightly browned. Allow to cool to room temperature on a wire rack. Chill 30 minutes until set. Run a knife along the edge of the pan to loosen the sides. Lift the bars out and onto a cutting board. * Cut the bars into the size you desire and store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 5 days.

* Optional: Melt ½ cup of dark chocolate in a double boiler, or in increments in the microwave until smooth. Drizzle over your magic bars and allow to set before slicing.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Peppermint & Dark Chocolate Ganache Cookies

   If you love the combination of dark chocolate and peppermint around the holiday season (I know I sure do), then these cookies are going to make your day. They stemmed from a friend I work with asking me to bake something with a real mint chocolate punch. I puttered around the net for a while, trying to find something that looked just right, when I found a recipe that looked promising on Cooking Classy.

   Now, while this recipe is based on another, I did make a few tweaks of my own to it. One of which was that I felt the cookies needed a bit more of a minty punch, so I upped the extract content. Working offshore presents its own little roadblocks in terms of what ingredients I have on hand to play with, and in this case it worked out well. Instead of a melted mint chocolate to form the tasty chocolate middle on each cookie, I decided to make a simple little batch of chocolate ganache.

   This also let me bump up my dark chocolate peppermint flavor, by making that ganache really minty. This way when your teeth sink through the firm, just-set ganache middle and down through the crisp cookie, you get a real surge of mint chocolate goodness dancing around your mouth.

   Around this time of year you probably want to make your cookies look festive, because the holiday season just has that effect on people. Right now I find myself looking at my cookie fridge at work and frowning, thinking “Not enough red and green…” which can be a bit of a problem sometimes! Baking enough cookies to feed 150 dessert-gobbling fiends every day is time consuming and sometimes I just don’t have the time to get fancy with my decorating. You probably get that at home too. Between work and all the social gatherings this time of year, it’s hard to find the time (and patience) to decorate every little snowman sugar cookie perfectly. Lucky for you, these cookies just require a few drops of coloured white chocolate and poof! Instant holiday cheer.


Peppermint & dark chocolate ganache cookies
 Prep time: 30 min.
Bake time: 8-10 min.
Yield: Around 4 dozen
¾ cup unsalted butter, softened
1 & ½ cups packed dark brown sugar
2 tbsp. water
1 tsp. salt
2 cups dark chocolate chips*
2 & ¼ cups + 2 tbsp. flour
2 tbsp. cocoa powder
1 tsp. baking soda
2 large eggs
1 & ½ tsp. peppermint extract
½ tsp. vanilla extract

6 oz. (170 g) chopped good-quality dark chocolate**
¾ cup cream
Pinch of salt
1 tbsp. Peppermint extract
1 & ½ tsp. butter, unsalted

White chocolate drops
6 oz. (170 g) chopped white chocolate
2-3 drops red food colouring
1-2 drops green food colouring

1. Preheat your oven to 350. In a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine your butter, brown sugar, water and salt. Place this over medium heat and let the butter melt, stirring occasionally. Remove the pot from the heat and stir in your chocolate until melted and smooth. Let your mixture cool for 10 minutes.

2.  Meanwhile, while your chocolate mixture cools combine your flour, cocoa and baking soda in a separate bowl. Mix them together with your hands, then set it aside for a moment. Pour your chocolate mixture into the bowl of your stand mixer and turn it on low with the paddle attachment. Blend in one egg at a time. Be sure that each egg has just been incorporated in before adding the next. Add extracts in with your eggs. Scrape down the sides and bottom of your bowl and give a little mix just to make sure those bits get incorporated.

3. With your mixer on low, slowly add your dry ingredients and mix until just combined. Scrape down the sides of your bowl to get any flour left around the edges, and mix just till it’s been incorporated.

* Optional: If your dough looks too soft here, you can pull a little plastic wrap over it and pop it into the fridge for 15 min. to firm up a bit. Be careful though! If you leave it in for too long it will go very firm because of all the chocolate in it and will be a big hassle to portion! (I learned this the hard way.) If this happens, just let your dough sit out at room temperature until it’s more manageable.

4. Portion the dough out by rounded tablespoons (or use a wilton 40 scoop, like me) and roll into a ball before placing them 2” apart on your parchment-lined baking sheet. Using the bottom of a glass or the palm of your hand, gently press down on each cookie until it forms a ¼” round disk. Bake for 8-10 minutes, or until they have pretty little crinkle crack lines and if you look close at the edges, have started to brown.  Let your cookies cool for 2 minutes on the sheet pan before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.

5. For the chocolate ganache: In a small, heavy bottom saucepan, scald your cream & pinch of salt then pour it over the chopped chocolate. Let it sit for 4-5 minutes, then gently whisk. It’ll look like it won’t want to combine at first, but whisk-whisk-whisk and it’ll turn into a lovely ganache. Whisk in peppermint extract. Pop in the little piece of butter and whisk till melted for a glossier shine.

6. White chocolate drops: In a double boiler, or a bowl set over simmering water, melt your chocolate. Once it’s melted, pour 1/3 into one separate bowl, and 1/3 into another, saving the last 1/3. Colour one bowl red, and one green. Transfer each colour (white, red and green) to small piping bags (or to ziplock bags and snip the tips for easy home-made, disposable piping bags).

7. Assembly: Once your cookies have cooled, use a small palette knife or teaspoon to spread 1-2 tsp. chocolate ganache in the middle of each cookie. Pipe tiny drops of white chocolate over the tops. Let the cookies sit until the chocolate is set, or chill in the fridge till set. Store in an airtight container for 5-7 days.

Recipe source: Based on a Cooking Classy recipe
*You can use semi-sweet here if you don’t want the cookies to be quite as intense a dark chocolate punch
**Again, if you’d prefer something more sweet than rich in your cookie, try opting for a good quality milk chocolate in the ganache for a creamier center!