Evergreen Sugar Cut-Outs

Evergreen trees frightened me as a child. No, really – I thought they looked sharp, like they’d pierce your skin if you got near them. Fortunately my Grandma Zella recognized that if I could see the pine in front of her house as pretty, I might be less intimidated by it. Thus she tied a ribbon around its trunk and helped me see that its needles were in fact soft. I’ve loved evergreens ever since, including the enormous pine at the side of our house. I’ve often told Mike that if the evergreen someday needs to come down I’m just going to sell the house and move, rather than see it felled.

These evergreen sugar cut-outs were originally intended to be fully decorated Christmas trees. But after I piped them and stood back, I liked how pretty they looked plain, like a little forest on my table. And so they remained, a plain little forest for our Christmas cookie dessert.

Ingredients

  • 1 batch sugar cut-outs, made with 2 additional teaspoons vanilla extract
  • Double batch Zella’s icing
  • Moss green and Kelly green gel food coloring

Preparation

Prepare dough and cut out with a tree cutter; bake cookies for about 9 minutes, then remove from oven and cool on wire racks completely before frosting.

Prepare Zella’s icing and add small amounts of moss green and Kelly green food coloring to reach your desired shade of green. Moss green is a muted shade while Kelly is a bright green, and combined they make a nice tree color.

Fit a piping bag with a small star tip and pipe icing onto each tree, moving your tip back and forth to create branch-like shapes.

Allow icing to harden before storing; store in an airtight container between sheets of waxed paper at room temperature. Cookies will stay fresh for about 4-5 days.

Makes about 40 cookies.

Christmas Sugar Cut-Outs

Per usual, I went a bit overboard with Christmas baking. Gingerbread and shortbread for colleagues, pear tart and spice cake for Christmas day dessert, and these sugar cut-outs and some Russian tea cakes for my trip to Deep Creek to see my cousin Barb and her family this past weekend. I’ve eaten an inordinate amount of sugar in the past few weeks, even for me.

These Christmas sugar cut-outs may be a bit over the top, but seriously, how can you resist a cookie that looks like this? I also made some trees and stars, but the houses pictured here were my best creations. I used a gingerbread house cookie cutter and decorated them to look like little village houses, complete with snow-covered rooftops and evergreens.

Ingredients

For the cookies

  • 8 tablespoons butter, softened
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 3 teaspoons vanilla

For the frosting

  • 1/4 cup shortening
  • 1-2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 2 1/4 cups powdered sugar
  • Red, green, yellow, and black food coloring (gel coloring is best)

Preparation

Stir together flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl; set aside.

Cream together butter and sugar until fluffy. Add egg and beat well. Add vanilla and about half the flour mixture, beating until combined; beat in remaining flour. Form dough into a ball, then flatten out into a square; refrigerate until just barely firm, about 20-30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line several baking sheets with parchment paper.

Roll dough to about 1/8 to 1/4 inch thickness and cut into desired shapes; I made stars, trees, and houses. Place same-shape cookies on each baking sheet to ensure even baking. For example, make all the stars on one sheet and all the houses on another so you don’t burn the stars while the houses are still baking.

Bake for 8-10 minutes, until just golden. Cool on a wire rack.

To make the frosting, in a mixing bowl, combine shortening, vanilla extract, water, and 1 cup powdered sugar. Mix on low speed, then increase to medium-high and beat for 10 minutes, until smooth. Add remaining powdered sugar and additional teaspoon of vanilla extract, beating until smooth.

Reserve a portion of untinted frosting for snow, windows, and doors of houses. Divide remaining frosting into small portions for your other colors; I used yellow for my stars, green, yellow, and red for my trees (which featured stars and garland), and red, white, green, and black for my houses. Fill piping bags and decorate as you like; I used a star tip to make the snow and evergreens on my houses above and plain tips to pipe the windows, doors, and window/door outlines.

Allow frosting to set before storing cookies between sheets of waxed paper in airtight containers at room temperature. Makes about 2 dozen, depending on cutter sizes.

Lemon Almond Yule Log

A traditional Yule log, or buche de noel, is a chocolate sponge cake with chocolate or vanilla filling. As migraine life doesn’t give me the option of chocolate, I decided to make one with my favorite flavors – almond and lemon – and jazz it up with some pine bough piping and almond pine cones.

While the flavors in this cake were delicious, my sponge wasn’t quite as light and airy as I’d like. The best sponge I’ve ever made was the spice roll with caramel sauce from Thanksgiving, so I’ll keep practicing this cake until I get the texture I want. That’s one of the many benefits of baking; you can keep working on something in order to perfect it, and still have tasty treats along the way.

Ingredients

For the cake

  • 3/4 cup flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 4 eggs, at room temperature
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 3/4 teaspoon almond extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the filling and frosting

  • About 2/3 to 3/4 cup lemon curd
  • 12 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 2 3/4 cups powdered sugar
  • 1/2 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1 tablespoon almond extract
  • 1/2 to 1 tablespoon milk
  • Brown food coloring
  • Moss green food coloring
  • Flaked almonds, for pine cones

Preparation

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a 10 x 15 x 1 pan with parchment. Place a lint-free tea towel on a heatproof surface (I use a cutting board) near your oven and dust it with powdered sugar.

In a small bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, and salt; set aside. In a mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat eggs until foamy, then slowly add the sugar, beating on medium speed until the mixture is thick and a light lemon color, about 5-7 minutes; add vanilla and almond extracts just before you stop beating. When the batter is done, it will fall from the whisk in a ribbon, then mound on top of the batter before blending back in. Gently fold the flour mixture in (I used my whisk attachment for easy clean-up).

Pour batter into prepared pan, spreading with a spatula to create an even layer. Bake for 8-10 minutes, until the top is golden brown and you hear a crackling from the surface of the cake. Remove from oven, then quickly and carefully flip your cake onto the powdered sugar-sprinkled tea towel. Gently peel the parchment away, then starting at one of the short ends, roll the cake up in a tight spiral and allow to cool on a wire rack completely before filling.

To make the buttercream, in a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter on medium speed for about 1 minute. Add powdered sugar and beat on low speed until the sugar is fully incorporated into the butter, about 3-5 minutes. Add vanilla and almond extracts and milk; continue to beat on medium-high speed for another 1-2 minutes. You can add a bit more milk, 1 teaspoon at a time, if necessary to thin your frosting.

To fill, frost, and decorate: unroll the cake and spread with lemon curd; re-roll and place in the refrigerator for about 20-30 minutes for it to set.

Frost the cake to cover it completely, then use your spatula to make long bark-like markings along the top and sides and swirls on the ends. Tint a small portion of frosting brown and place in a piping bag fitted with a large plain tip, then pipe pine branches. Tint another portion of frosting moss green and place in a piping bag fitted with a medium plain tip, then pipe needles.

To make almond pine cones, pipe blobs of frosting, then place flaked almonds in rows to create the cone shape.

Carefully cover your log with foil and place it back in the refrigerator until about 20 minutes before you’re ready to serve it. Store leftover cake in the fridge.

Makes about 10 servings.

 

Gingerbread Dog House

Watching the Great British Baking Show will make you want to build something spectacular out of gingerbread. As I’m a gingerbread structure amateur, I decided to forego the Taj Mahal and Hogwarts Castle for a cute little dog house.

I recently bought the Wilton three-piece gingerbread house cutter set at the craft store and yesterday I tried it out. While it’s a very convenient tool, I wish I’d had a larger quantity of gingerbread from the recipe I used. Next time, I’ll either make smaller templates out of cardboard, or choose a larger-quantity recipe. Either way, this was a fun project. While I’d made a gingerbread house before, I wanted a better-tasting recipe this time, and I found this one at Food Network.I deviated from their instructions for baking a bit, but it turned out very well.

Ingredients

For the house

  • 1/2 cup butter, at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup light molasses
  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon ground ginger
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cloves
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons water

For the royal icing

  • 3 3/4 cups powdered sugar, sifted
  • 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 3 egg whites, at room temperature

Preparation

In a mixing bowl, cream the butter, brown sugar, molasses, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and baking soda together until the mixture is smooth. Blend in the flour and water to make a stiff dough. Chill at least 30 minutes or until firm.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. On a very lightly floured surface, roll out dough to about 1/4 inch thickness. Using the cutter set (or your own templates), cut sides, roof panels, and front/back panels.

Place panels on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper a few inches apart; cookies will spread when baking. Bake for 12-15 minutes, until the dough feels firm – the cookies can burn, so keep a close eye on them.

Remove from oven and immediately trim off any uneven sides; you’ll want your sides as straight as possible for construction. Place cookies on a wire rack and allow to cool completely.

To make royal icing, place sifted powdered sugar and cream of tartar in a mixing bowl fitted with the whisk attachment. Add egg whiles and beat on low for a few seconds to combine, scraping the sides of your bowl to get all the powdered sugar evenly incorporated. Whip on high speed for 7-10 minutes; you want the icing to hold peaks.

Working quickly, place icing in a piping bag; cover any unused icing with plastic wrap to prevent it from drying out. Beginning with one of the side panels, pipe a line of icing on the bottom and side, then press it gently onto your platter or cake plate. It helps to have someone hold the panels for you so they stay upright during construction. Repeat with the front panel, then add another side, the back panel, and your roof. Decorate as you like; I added very simple doors and windows, along with some snow on the roof. And of course, the resident dog.

Store at room temperature; royal icing will harden as it dries, keeping your house upright (at least we hope so).

Toasted Almond Shortbread

Shortbread is a great holiday treat. It’s easy to bake and easy to embellish, making it a great canvas for fun flavors and decorations. These toasted almond shortbread cookies went to the graphic design team in my office – along with some plain and chocolate versions – as a special thank-you for all they do for me and my team throughout the year.

You’ll want to keep a close eye on your almonds as they toast; nuts can go from toasted to burnt in a matter of seconds. I toast mine in the oven, but I’ve also had success toasting them in a frying pan over medium-low heat. Whatever you decide, the almonds are done when they’re golden brown and very fragrant. As they cool, they’ll make a faint crackling sound – I usually put mine in the freezer for a few minutes to help the cooling process.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup unsalted butter, slightly softened
  • 3/4 cups sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 10 ounces (about 2 1/3 cups) flour
  • About 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons almond extract
  • 2-4 teaspoons water
  • About 1/3 cup flaked almonds, toasted and cooled

Preparation

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Lightly grease two 8-inch round cake pans.

In a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together butter, sugar, salt, and vanilla extract. Add flour and beat to combine completely. The dough will be ready when it pulls away from the sides of your mixing bowl.

Divide dough in half and press into the bottom of each cake pan, using the palm of your hand to create an even surface.

Bake for 32-35 minutes, until the edges are golden brown. Remove from oven and gently loosen the sides, then allow to cool in the pans for 5 minutes. Gently flip onto a cutting board and slice into 16 wedges, then place wedges on a wire rack to cool completely.

Once cookies are cool, make your drizzle: combine powdered sugar, almond extract, and 2 teaspoons water in a small bowl, stirring until smooth and adding additional water if necessary; you want a thicker drizzle, so don’t go too far with your liquids. Drizzle over cookies, then top with flaked toasted almonds, gently pressing the nuts into the drizzle so they won’t fall off.

Makes 32.

Chocolate Peppermint Shortbread

Chocolate and peppermint make a great flavor pair. These chocolate peppermint shortbread cookies are an elegant-looking treat that’s very easy to make and great for holiday baking.

You can buy peppermint candy bits at most craft stores and dollar stores around the holidays, but if you can’t find them, simply get some of the traditional red and white “star mint” style peppermints and crush them yourself. Give the chocolate just a moment to start to set once you’ve dipped the cookies; this helps the crushed candies adhere better without sliding off once you’ve placed the cookies on your cooling sheet.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup unsalted butter, slightly softened
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 ounce (about 1/3 cup) Dutch-process cocoa
  • 7 1/4 ounces (about 1 3/4 cups) flour
  • 8 ounces chocolate candy coating
  • About 3/4 cup crushed peppermint candies

Preparation

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Lightly grease two 8-inch round cake pans.

In a mixing bowl, cream together butter, sugar, salt, and vanilla, then beat in cocoa powder and flour.

Divide dough into two 12-ounce portions and press each portion into the bottom of the cake pans, using the palm of your hand to flatten the dough as evenly as possible.

Bake for 32-35 minutes, until it appears done around the edges. Remove from oven and loosen the sides with a knife, then cool in pans for 5 minutes.

Carefully turn one shortbread round out onto a cutting board and cut into 16 wedges; place wedges on a wire rack to cool. Repeat with the second round.

Once cookies are cool, place crushed peppermints on a plate or in a shallow dish. Melt your chocolate coating in a saucepan over very low heat, stirring until smooth.

Working quickly, dip the wide edge of each wedge into the chocolate and gently shake off the excess; hold over the pan for about 20 seconds just to let the chocolate begin to set, then dip in crushed peppermints.

Place on waxed paper or parchment and allow to set completely before storing.

Makes 32.

Note: shortbread will break if you try to cut it once it’s cool, so you must cut the rounds into wedges while they’re still warm.

Winter Wonderland Cake

When most people think about Christmas desserts, they probably think of cookies. And while there are some amazing cookie recipes out there, I like to get creative for our Christmas desserts. This year, I wanted to do something peppermint-based, and this little vanilla peppermint cake turned out very well.

I found several recipes for pine tree/winter wonderland cakes online, but decided to make my own from recipes I’ve previously baked. To make the pine trees, I melted some vanilla candy coating (rather than using candy melts, as I don’t really like the way they taste) and tinted them green with candy coloring.  It’s important to use candy coloring, which is oil-based and available at cake shops, rather than liquid or gel-based food coloring. Oil-based coloring will blend into your melted coating very well, while liquid or gel-based coloring will make the coating clumpy.

Ingredients

Candy Pine Trees

Ingredients

  • 4 ounces vanilla candy coating*
  • Green candy coloring
  • 10 lollipop sticks
  • Nonpareils

*I use CandiQuik vanilla candy coating, available at Target.

Preparation

Line two baking sheets with waxed paper; set aside.

Chop candy coating into pieces, then place in a microwave-safe bowl. Microwave for 2 to 2 1/2 minutes, stirring every 30 seconds to distribute the heat.

Add green candy coloring and stir well.

Dip the top of each lollipop stick into the melted coating, then place several inches apart on the prepared baking sheets. Spoon candy coating into a zip-top bag; carefully snip off one corner and pipe coating onto lollipop sticks in tree shapes.

Sprinkle nonpareils on trees while they are still wet; allow to set completely, then carefully peel off waxed paper. Trim stick bottoms, leaving about 1 inch to insert into the cake.

Vanilla Cake

Ingredients

  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • dash of salt
  • 8 tablespoons butter, softened
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 6 tablespoons milk

Preparation

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease two 6-inch round cake pans, line each with a parchment circle, and lightly grease the parchment.

In a small bowl, combine flour, baking powder, and salt; set aside.

In a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter and sugar until very well-blended. Add eggs and vanilla extract and beat well to combine, scraping the sides of your bowl a few times.

Add flour and milk alternatively in two batches, beginning and ending with the flour and beating until completely combined.

Pour batter into prepared pans and bake for 18-22 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean. Remove from oven and allow cakes to cool in the pan for about 5 minutes, then carefully turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely.

Peppermint Vanilla Buttercream

Ingredients

  • 8 tablespoons butter, softened
  • 3 1/4 cups powdered sugar
  • 2 teaspoons peppermint extract
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons vanilla extract
  • About 2 tablespoons milk
  • White cupcake pearls, optional

Preparation

Place butter in a mixing bowl and beat on medium speed for 1 minute using a paddle attachment. Add powdered sugar and beat on low speed until the sugar is fully incorporated; this will take several minutes. I cover my mixer with a kitchen towel to prevent a powdered sugar storm.

Scrape the sides of the bowl and add peppermint extract, vanilla extract, and 1 tablespoon milk. Beat until well combined, scraping sides of the bowl frequently; beat in additional milk and continue beating for 1-2 minutes for a smooth, even consistency.

To assemble the cake:

Place the bottom layer on your cake stand and frost the top, then top with remaining layer and frost the top and sides. Place remaining frosting in a zip-top bag; snip off one corner and set aside.

Press trees into cake top, starting at the back, and piping additional buttercream around the bottoms as you work toward the front of the cake. Sprinkle with cupcake pearls.

Store in an airtight container at room temperature for 2-3 days.