December. It's right around the corner. Usually I greet it with a great deal of trepidation and anxiety. If you've ever worked in a kitchen during the holidays, you know of which I speak. The long, long hours, providing merriment for everyone else, take a toll physically, mentally and emotionally. December is turbo charged with excitement and and a fast-paced ferociousness to churn out high volumes of food in a short amount of time. At the end of the day, after I drive home in the quiet dark of the Winter night, I peel off the boots and parka, sink into my couch for a good half hour and stare at the ceiling in a semi-vegetative state. The cats' cries for food rouse me from
I'm aiming for this year to be different - less shivers of anxiety, more comfort and joy. No tears in the bathroom - only Christmas cheer. (Ha ha. That sounds like I'm drinking in the bathroom at work, but I'm not, really!). I'm going to have a lovely elf help me out of peeling a million pounds of potatoes, and I've already decided to delegate. And ask for help. Being somewhat a control freak, this is huge for me. I've checked off "yes" to a couple of party invites and booked myself a few hours of massage. And breathe. I. Will. Breathe. I will make it through to the 23rd with nary a meltdown. Or a cranky panty. Promise.
Because of my frenetic work schedule, I like to get my Christmas baking done relatively early, so I'm not running around Safeway like a mad woman on Christmas Eve looking for condensed milk and Oreo crumbs. I adore baking at Christmas - I crank Charlie Brown's Christmas and cream butter like crazy. Boxing up my goodies for family and friends has become a tradition of mine - sending it across the country too, to places like Windsor, Toronto, Edmonton, Lloydminster and Preeceville. So far no one complains that they get shortbread instead of a gift card at Walmart. Or else they are just being very polite. Being of a crafty nature, if I can make a gift personal and from the heart, isn't that really what this season is all about?
My Christmas baking round-up looks something like this: some traditional standbys that I must bake or else the family would flip. Like gingerbread trees with lemon icing, chocolate espresso crinkle cookies, and my infamous rosemary oatmeal shortbread. Hold onto your hats, they are all coming your way very soon! I also like to shake up the repertoire and include new recipes (because they are everywhere my eyeballs go these days) into the mix. These cranberry bars from the Kitchn caught my gaze last year and as soon as I saw them I knew they'd make a pretty addition to my dessert gift boxes this year. That colour is fab, no? Three cups of cranberries produce that perfect shade of pink. Don't be intimidated by the few steps here, it's just some simmering and straining. The crust is easy-peasy press-in, and the walnuts really rock it. If you prefer pecans or almonds, go crazy. I know I say this all the time, but yet again I licked the pot of cranberry curd clean. A longtime lover of lemon curd, I'm happy to report that this tasty business holds up to par. It's smooth like butta and tastes like it too. In terms of recipe research I did sneak one out of the freezer to see how well they are holding up and I tell you they freeze like a dream. The candied lemon peel is a nice finishing touch, and not at all difficult to make. What ever doesn't make it onto your bars makes good snackage. Santa may like a taste too.
Cranberry Bars with Walnut Shortbread Crust
1 cup walnuts
1 cup flour
1/2 cup icing sugar, tamped down
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup butter
3 cups cranberries (fresh or frozen. I used frozen and it worked fine!)
1/2 cup water
1 cup sugar (use a little less if you want a less-sweet square, with more cranberry punch)
4 egg yolks
juice of 1/2 lemon
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup butter, chopped into 1/2 inch pieces.
To make crust, in a food processor, pulse the nuts 15 times or until coarsely chopped. Add the rest of the dry ingredients and pulse a bit more to combine. Add the butter and process until dough holds it shape. Line a 9x13 inch pan with parchment and press the dough into the pan, trying to get it as even as possible. Freeze for half hour. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes, or until golden around the edges. In the meantime, make your filling....
Add the cranberries and water to a medium saucepan over medium heat. Stir until they are popped and mushy, about 5 minutes. Pour and press this through a fine mesh strainer over a medium bowl. Using the back of a spatula works well. Cool puree to room temp. Discard all of the pulpy bits. To the bowl with the cranberry puree, add sugar, eggs, yolks, lemon juice and salt. Stir until smooth and even. Put this mixture back into a clean saucepan and over medium heat, stir continuously until it thickens and coats the back of a spoon. About 10-12 minutes. Remove from heat and add butter all at once. Pour the cranberry curd through a clean fine mesh strainer and into a clean bowl. Pour this mixture into your par-baked crust and bake for 10-15 minutes at 350 degrees. The centre should be set, but still a little jiggly. I baked mine for close to 15 min. Let cool on a rack, then refrigerate before slicing into squares. Makes about 24 squares. Dust with icing sugar and a little candied lemon peel to make them look pretty. Adapted from the Kitchn.
* You could also make the cranberry curd all by itself and keep it in the fridge for up to a week. Amazing on toast and fresh scones and anything else yummy.
Candied Lemon Peel
1 tsp salt
1 1/2 cup cold water
2 cups sugar
Peel lemons into long, thin strips. Fill medium pot 3/4 full of water and 1/2 tsp salt. Add the lemon peels and bring to a boil. Simmer 10 min, then drain. Repeat using other 1/2 tsp salt. This softens the peels and removes the bitterness from the pith. Drain peels second time and set aside. Add the 1 1/2 cups cold water and 2 cups sugar to pot. Stir to dissolve. Add the drained peels and bring to a boil, simmering over low heat for 45-60 minutes. Keep an eye that you don't caramelize them near the end. Spray wax paper with cooking spray. With a fork, remove peels from pot and place on waxed paper. Coil around toothpicks so they go all spiral-like. Let cool, then take off toothpick and garnish your cranberry squares. Makes about 1 1/2 cups. I halved this recipe and still had lots. Adapted from the Kitchn.