Holidays

A tasty fruitcake that is not appalling or anything

First, because this was last Tuesday, I needed one which wanted only a month to cure or less. I wanted one that was less cakey than the cakey ones, but not comprised entirely of fruit. And I wanted to use the combination I already had of organic dried fruit and some good quality glacéed fruit. Boozyfruit
I found Mrs MacKinnon's Christmas Fruitcake. I realized only after getting into making it that it has no nuts. And I think that is actually its virtue. The nuts will draw moisture from the cake, you see, so if you don't eat it within the first week, the cake part just won't be as good. To me. Plus, nuts are so expensive! I got a good deal on pecans and walnuts last month, and I'm saving them to make pecan tarts and Magic Cooky Bars in a couple weeks.

I was short the amount of fruit needed, and had to run up to Dollar General for some raisins. I dislike raisins mixed with other things, but they are actually just fine in this. I used my own combination of fruit; for the amount of golden raisins, I added chopped prunes, and for the amount of currants, a combination of chopped dried figs and apricots. If I make it again next year, I will use more of all those in place of the raisins, but it is really not raisiny at all. Chunkybatter
The bigger change is that I put in bourbon instead of rum. And I was a little generous with the molasses, but not by a lot.

My springform pan is 9.5 inches whereas the recipe calls for 10, and that left me enough batter to make a small tester cake to try. It was so delicious, I ate it in two sittings. Delicioussampler
Delicioussampler
You can eat the cake right away or within a few days. I wrapped mine in bourbon-soaked cheesecloth and then foil, and today I removed the foil and added more bourbon. A fruitcake will last for years if you do that, but I just want to eat it at the end of the year. Readytowrap
Readytowrap


Occasionally crafty, and tasty, too

I made a gingerbread house. I’d never made one before, except from a pre-baked kit my daughter found at a yard sale or something one time. And I think that’s all. Housefront
First I bought some candy, and then I went looking for templates, recipes, etc. I didn’t like any of the kits, and also, whenever you buy an all parts included kit of something, what you make never looks like the picture on the box. That’s not good for the psyche. But I found a different kind of kit that I did like! And I am recommending it to you if you want to try this, for a couple reasons. Bakeset
It contains just the frame pieces and a set of good instructions, which is all you really want. It even has recipes for the gingerbread and the icing. I compared them to some online, and decided their gingerbread recipe made very good sense. I am glad I used it. It has a very small amount of baking powder; recipes I saw at websites either had none, or too much. Well, I guess those ones either shrink or spread, or I might be wrong about that, but I’m not taking the chance since this one didn’t. Housepieces
I didn’t use molasses, though, and that might have been a good thing in terms of how it baked, or it might not have mattered at all. I used dark corn syrup I already had, because I was trying to make this house for an amount of money I could recommend without guilt. You might already have dark corn syrup for some other purpose, as well, but if you don’t, it’ll be less expensive than molasses. Royalicing
People were discussing whether it would taste as good or better, and worried the dough would be too light in color. This seemed odd to me, as all I was concerned about was the physical and chemical properties; would it have the same viscosity, and would it change how the dough rose? It turned out very well, barely changed size at all, and set up perfectly. Also, still brown. Spreadingtray
I used some candy from Big Lots and some my son brought me from the store he works at. And I took my time. Baked one day, assembled and decorated another day, decorated some more the next day. I might add a little more to the back. I’m a very “less is more” kind of person regarding this sort of thing, so I had to try to see it another way.  "Finish," go back, add more, repeat. Housebase
It still wasn’t super cheap. The kit was $12 and the candy also came to around $12. It could be done for less, though, if you make your own templates and follow the recipes I am sharing below. And it could be done for a lot more if you buy a fancier kit and/or fancier/more candy. Completehouse
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Shame to end on a blur, as phone decided to focus on background instead, but I didn't feel like going down to take another photo. So there we are. And here are the recipes. I used salted butter. Screen Shot 2016-12-07 at 11.40.20 AM
Roll the dough 1/4 inch thick and place on parchment-covered baking sheet. Bake for 12-15 minutes at 350º F. The edges will look crisp. Set your cutters or templates over the warm dough to see if the pieces need squaring. Let them cool completely before handling.

To make Royal Icing: 3 egg whites, 1 lb confectioner's sugar, 1/2 tsp cream of tartar, 1/2 tsp almond extract (go ahead and use vanilla if you don't have almond,) beaten on high for ten minutes. If you want to dye it, spoon some into individual bowls and add gel colors. It will harden quickly, so keep it sealed airtight or covered with a damp cloth.

If you do it yourself without a kit, just take your time, spreading icing over a foil-covered cardboard or tray (which I did only in the center first, adding more later when it was time to arrange the trees, etc.,) setting the completely cooled bottom pieces in and sealing them together with more icing, and be sure to let the base dry before adding the roof pieces with yet more icing; holding each section in place until it will stay on its own. Then wait until that's all dry before pasting on the decor. In the meantime, seal away the icing, and also keep a damp cloth over it while you work.

One other thing—when I took the dough out of the refrigerator, I worked with 1/3 of it at a time. I cut three house pieces each from the first 2/3, then used cookie cutters on the rest.

 


Cookie Season Begins

I got to making pecan balls today. Most often I have heard them called snow balls. But they are also Russian tea cakes and pecan sandies, except as balls and rolled in powdered sugar. 

Since Better Homes and Gardens changed their recipe and it is rather different from the Land O’ Lakes one, I asked my friend Karen how her mom made them. It’s most like Land O’ Lakes, just slightly different. Karen was offended at the notion of powdered sugar in the cookies, which BHG said to add instead of granulated sugar, and that intrigued me. Her reasoning seemed sound and she has looked more into the science of these things than I have, but it made me curious so I decided to do it. As well, they recommended toasting the pecans, which sounded neat. And they added a little water to the dough. 

I ended up making a hybrid, and doing a couple of my own changes, on account of how I know what I’m doing. Don’t you do that unless you are pretty good at baking, and also know why you are. Baking is more of an exact science than most of the other kinds of cooking. 

So I did this. I had two sticks of butter on the counter while I cleaned. After an hour they were not soft enough, so I microwaved them for 30 seconds at 50% power. I have experimented with various degrees of butter melting in my microwave oven, which is very strong. They are not all the same, so you have to do your own thing. But you want the butter to be just softened, not at all running or melted

 

I combined them with 1/2 cup of powdered sugar, and two tablespoons of bourbon instead of vanilla or water and vanilla. You can instead use 1 tablespoon water and 2 teaspoons vanilla. Then I added two cups of flour. My flour is currently about 1/3 whole white wheat, so my cookies will reflect that, and I added 1/2 tsp of salt, which Karen’s mom and Land O’ Lakes did, but not BHG. I feel that with a wheaty cooky, a little salt is a helpful thing.

I pulsed 1 1/2 cups pecans and a heaping tablespoon of flour in the food processor to a crumbly condition, then lightly toasted them on the stove, and stirred them in. So the dough was warm, but it retained its consistency. Then I rolled it into 40 balls (I like mine a little larger than standard; it would be around 55 otherwise,) and chilled the pans while the oven preheated to 325º. I prefer this method when it’s possible, instead of chilling the dough first and then rolling. But sometimes that is the necessary path because the dough is too soft to shape. 

I decided to see how they’d do chilled for different times, so the first pan had about ten-fifteen minutes in the freezer. Then I moved the second pan to the refrigerator while the first one baked. Well, they both took 13 minutes to bake to my satisfaction. 

When the first batch was cool, I put them in a bag with 1 cup of powdered sugar, and removed them with plastic tongs. Metal ones will work if you are gentle. I'm not...a super dexterous person, myself. 

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I really like the texture super much. I think the powdered sugar did fine, and I might continue to use it. But they do taste just lightly sweetened inside, so if you'd prefer them a little sweeter, 1/2 cup of granulated sugar definitely works perfectly well. I like the salt, too, but it strikes me as unnecessary, unless you are using unsalted butter. When I make these again, I will use only 1/4 teaspoon.

Finally, the addition of white wheat flour in that proportion still made a very tender cookie (with a little fiber!) but for the classic texture and flavor, you'll want to just use all-purpose flour.


Thanksgiving Preparation: Stage One

I am preparing dinner for only five again, sigh. 

Still I like to go at it as though there are seven to twelve people, instead, as there often has been. It's my thing, you know, that I do each year. Actually, I am preparing enough for seven this year, as there's a slight possibility of guests.

I haven't decided on the turkey question. Going to look into that later today. The boys also enjoy duck on Thanksgiving, but for just five of us that seems a bit much, so I've sort of half-promised the youngest boy a splash-out duck dinner for Christmas, though I have never been one to spend Christmas in the kitchen.

So. Last month I cooked pumpkin and froze it. Yesterday, I bought six bags of cranberries for $1.29 each from the scratch and dent department at Jungle Jim's, and stuck them in the freezer. I might buy more next week. You can keep them frozen for quite awhile and do all sorts of things with them in addition to Thanksgiving cranberry sauce. I have emergency roll-out pie crusts in case something absurd goes wrong when I make pie crust on Wednesday. Those are good to have, anyway. You can make a quick quiche with them, or cut them up and stuff them with things for hand pies. 

This weekend I'll make chicken stock for stuffing (dressing, really,) and gravy. My Thanksgiving gravy would make you weep with pleasure. I need to pick up a bottle of sherry for it, because the one I have here is too sweet and also pricey to just be adding to gravy.

I have dinner rolls in the freezer. It's the one thing I never make from scratch for the holiday meal. The store makes them better than I do. I also have soup in the freezer for Thanksgiving lunch. I made two soups recently; split pea and butternut squash, and just stirred the leftovers together before freezing. (I tasted it to make sure it was good that way and not just weird.)

This afternoon I will order sweet potatoes and green beans from GREEN B.E.A.N., to be delivered Tuesday. We have gone over who likes what in the stuffing (the only other adventurous stuffing eater will be in New Jersey, sigh,) and are narrowing down the pie list.

We eat our Thanksgiving dinner around 5 pm, then I make whipped cream and we have pie around 7 or so, with the fire lit and music playing. I get out the tangrams or we play Apples to Apples. 

Yes, I also donate to food banks at this time of year as well as other times of year. But this thing I do, for my family, for myself, it's one of the few solid traditions I've been able to create and hold onto. It's the richest day of the year for me.