Culinary Christmas Series – Review 1 of 4

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything, but that’s only because I’ve been extra busy in the kitchen!  I had big plans for an epic Thanksgiving post, but that will have to wait until next October.  (One of you needs to remind me before Halloween, thanks.)  In the meantime, though, I wanted to share with you what I made this Christmas to give away as gifts and for noshing on Christmas morning.

I went full-on experimental this season; instead of tried-and-true recipes, everything I made was a first-run effort (with maybe one or two do-overs … no one’s counting). Here’s the lineup:

  • Christmas Spice Cookies
  • Whiskey Caramel Sauce
  • Candied “Limoncello” Peel
  • Cinnamon Rolls with Cream Cheese Icing
  • Breakfast “Cupcakes”
  • Blueberry Lemon Bundt Cake
  • Spiced Pear Vodka
  • Liquored-Up Lollipops
  • Caramel Bourbon Sauce
  • Gin & Tonic Truffles
  • Chocolate “Munchkins”
  • Dark Lemon Cordial

In this post, I review results for Christmas Spice Cookies, Whiskey Caramel Sauce and Candied “Limoncello” Peel.  Review #2 will include Cinnamon Rolls with Cream Cheese Icing, Breakfast “Cupcakes” and Blueberry Lemon Bundt.  Review #3:  Spiced Pear Vodka, Liquored-up Lollipops and Caramel Bourbon Sauce.  Then, Review #4 will wrap up the series with Gin & Tonic Truffles, Chocolate “Munchkins” and Dark Lemon Cordial.

Christmas Spice Cookies (recipe adapted from Citrus and Candy)

Christmas Spice Cookies

True to the recipe author’s promise, these are chewy little bites of exactly the spicy-sweet I imagine Christmas would taste of if you could eat it.  A couple of lessons learned from this:

  • I was out of vanilla beans (you’ll see why below), so I substituted vanilla powder in both the cookies and the icing.  I chose the powder instead of the extract because it does not alter the color of your dough and I thought it might be a little more intense flavor wise.  I don’t think the substitution left the cookies lacking in flavor.  Vanilla beans are really expensive, so if you want to make this substitution to save cost (especially if you’re making these in large batches), you should be okay.
  • Take the recipe author’s advice about letting the dough sit so the flavors develop. I did not with my first batch, because impatient.  There was a noticeable difference in the intensity of the flavor in the second batch, which did sit.
  • I did not add the all spice to the icing, because that felt like overkill to me with the great flavor of the cookies.  Instead, I doubled the cinnamon to two pinches.  This made the icing a little darker (to the brown side) than it appears in the pictures, but it really complemented the cookies well.
  • I did not make the vanilla sea salt.  Instead, I used gray sea salt, which I love.  This was just personal preference for me. I love vanilla, but vanilla in the cookies, the icing and the salt seemed like overkill.  The beauty of these cookies is the multiplicity of flavors.
  • Icing these is awesomely easy.  Storing them, not as much.  The icing does “harden” after about an hour or so, making storage much easier.  If you have to stack the cookies to store or box them, parchment or wax paper is your friend between layers. If the cookies warm much beyond room temp, the icing will soften and make a mess, so the parchment or wax paper will help minimize it.
  • I recommend you err on the side of undercooking.  There is a span of about 30 seconds between when the cookies will stay chewy when cooled and when they will seem soft but dry.  When the author says “firm to the touch” read that to mean “when the cookie gives any kind of resistance to the touch of your finger.”

Whiskey Caramel Sauce (adapted from Food52 / Becky Rosenthal at Vintage Mixer)

I made two batches of this recipe, which yielded 9 four-ounce servings plus about two ounces.  This is less than the yield stated in the recipe. It might have been because I kept taking out spoonfuls to “test” it.  Possibly.  Maybe.  What?  I had bacon.

I stored the servings in Mason jars, which I decorated with ribbon and labels (same idea you see in the photos on the recipe website, but with a holiday design), and I gave them away as part of gift baskets I made for friends and family.

No modifications except that I used sea salt for the salt called for in the recipe, because I like the stronger flavor and how it cuts the sweetness just enough.

A couple of things to note:

  • If you pour this into the Mason jars while the caramel is still hot, do not be alarmed if the jar lids “pop” as the caramel cools.
  • This pairs beautifully with cookies, brownies, apple pie, ice cream and coffee.  It also functions as a lovely dip for bacon.  I hear.  From a friend.
  • It needs to be refrigerated if not used within a day (because of the dairy).  When refrigerated, the sauce may separate but you should be able to shake it or stir it back into a whole.  Serving at room temp is fine.  If heating, I like to put the jar into a pot of simmering water for a few minutes.  I’ve burned myself one too many times on sauces reheated in the microwave, so I’m bitter and old-school.

Candied “Limoncello” Peel (adapted from The Kitchn)candied lemon peel

Booze, sugar and holidays go together for me.  Palate preference?  Coping mechanism?  Who’s to say? Po-tay-to, po-tah-to.  But, sticking with my theme, I adapted this recipe for candied lemon peel to make it full of boozy, sugary goodness by making two important modifications.

First, instead of using a vegetable peeler to remove the lemon peel, I cut the whole lemon in half width-wise.  Then, I used a sharp paring knife to separate the fruit from the peel.  I flattened the peel, then used the paring knife to remove most (but not all) of the pith from the rind.  I then cut the peel length-wise into 1/8″ – 1/4″ strips.  It is definitely more work, but I found it worth the effort.  Instead of a papery slice of rind, you get a chewy, gumdrop-like bite that more closely resembles candy than jerky.  Note that leaving some of the pith behind to get this result with the texture means that the peel will retain more bitterness.  If you will eat the finished peels like candy, you may want to boil them down a third time if the bitterness is too much for you.

Second, I substituted 1/4 cup of the cold water with 1/4 cup of cold rum (but any high-proof, clear alcohol would work).  This infused the peels with a mild liquor flavor that, when combined with the sugar coating, gives the finished peels a flavor reminiscent of Limoncello.

A couple of things to note:

  • Be patient.  It will take a long time for the sauce to develop into a syrup.  I let mine go the full 60 minutes recommended in the recipe, but I cook on an electric cooktop.  (NOT BY CHOICE!)  If you are using a gas cooktop, cooking time may go faster.  No matter what, though, keep an eye on the pot when you get about 30 minutes in.  If the sugar starts turning darker to any degree, you are done cooking!
  • Save the syrup after removing the peel.  It is delicious in tea, over pound cake or added to a fresh-fruit salad.  Keep it in the fridge.  It will keep a long time.
  • I did not use wax paper coated with cooking spray as suggested in the recipe. I just felt like I didn’t want any of that cooking spray soaking into the lemon peels and messing with the flavor. Instead, I used a dry piece of parchment.  I did not have problems with sticking.
  • Make sure the peels are still warm when coating with sugar (if doing this step).  You will need more sugar than you think, because some of it will melt into the peels.  You cannot possibly over-sugar the peels (remember:  bitter pith) so don’t be afraid to pour it on.  You can reserve the excess sugar, which will now be infused with a mild lemon flavor, for another use (but use within a few days or discard).
  • I stored the finished peels in clear Mason jars.  7 lemons filled six 6-ounce Mason jars with 15 pieces of lemon peel with a few pieces left over for me!

If you make any of these great treats, I’d love to hear about your experience – especially if you made changes to the recipe you think improves it!

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