Christmas Cookies: Baking up Memories


So many things about the holidays make me nostalgic – decorating the tree with ornaments that were gifted to us from friends and family members over the past 30 years, listening to Johnny Mathis’s Merry Christmas (the album we played every Christmas morning while the kids opened their presents), sending and receiving holiday cards with faraway friends, and baking Christmas cookies.

 Everyone’s favorite - Graham Cracker Delights, aka Peanut Butter Balls!
Everyone’s favorite – Graham Cracker Delights, aka Peanut Butter Balls!

My cookie baking tradition has shifted through the years. When our now-adult children were small, we made lots of cut-out sugar cookies. They were fun for the kids to make and decorate and they looked festive, but they were usually the ones left on the plate. I’ve also gotten away from magic bars (the ones with a layer of butter and graham cracker crumbs, coconut, chopped nuts and chocolate chips smothered with a can of sweetened condensed milk), Santa’s Whiskers (a rolled cookie with lots of candied cherries, nuts, and coconut), Russian tea cookies, and pecan thins.

Years ago, I needed the equivalent of a Pittsburgh-wedding cookie table because we gave so many away as gifts – a cookie tray for Rick to take to the office, cookie trays to take to holiday parties, and cookie tins for all of the children’s teachers, bus drivers and Sunday school teachers. Nowadays, I’m just concentrating on making the cookies my family enjoys the most. And taking a couple bottles of wine to holiday parties.

 Ready to scarf down a peanut butter ball in Mom’s kitchen.
Ready to scarf down a peanut butter ball in Mom’s kitchen.

First on the list is a cookie we simply call a Peanut Butter Ball. This is not to be confused with a Buckeye Ball, even though the outside appearance may be similar. Not to disparage Buckeye Balls…never mind, I am going to disparage them. Buckeyes are overly sweet and gross. Our Peanut Butter Balls are from a recipe my mother cut out of a magazine long ago. Probably Good Housekeeping or Better Homes. The magazine version was called Graham Cracker Delights, maybe because it was sponsored by a graham cracker company. Our kids christened them peanut butter balls and it’s a much more descriptive name. They do contain graham cracker crumbs, along with peanut butter (which I’ve doubled over the years), walnuts, coconut, butter and confectioner’s sugar. And then you dip the whole delicious morsel into a double boiler full of melted chocolate. Making these cookies brings back all the years of making them with my mom, who is now gone. It makes me happy in a sad kind of way. Is there a word for that? There should be.

 Since we don’t have any coffee cans, we have to rely on an old movie theater popcorn bucket!
Since we don’t have any coffee cans, we have to rely on an old movie theater popcorn bucket!

Our second favorite cookie is the Pizzelle. These remind me of growing up in a primarily Italian-American neighborhood and my friend’s mothers cranking out cookies on the exotic-looking (to me, at the time) pizzelle iron. They used to store them in empty coffee cans, which were the perfect size. Too bad the Starbucks Veranda blend we use comes in a bag. 

Our third cookie is a Holiday Biscotti from Bon Appetit magazine. I love this one because the combination of the red dried cranberries and the green pistachios make it look so Christmassy. And it tastes as good as it looks!

 Ma’amul, or Date Domes
Ma’amul, or Date Domes

New to our cookie rotation this year is the Ma’amul, or Date Dome. It’s taken me a long time to get around to making this cookie. Probably 20 years ago, we were visiting Rick’s cousin in Maryland and she gave me a tabi, one of the molds used to make the cookie. Finally, this past spring, my son wanted to make a special cookie to contribute to a friend’s wedding cookie table. So we dug out the tabi, sourced some of the unusual ingredients (orange blossom water and a spice called mahlab) and were bowled over by the results. Making this cookie brings up that happy/sad feeling too because Madelyn, who gave me the tabi, is also gone. She was a lovely generous woman and a great cook who made intricate dishes like Ma’amul all the time.

So, that’s my cookie story. What’s yours? Do you make the same cookies every year? 

If you would like a copy of any cookie recipe, let me know and I’ll happily share it!

Strike that:) I’ve had a few requests, so I’m going to post all of the recipes here! I thought about retyping them and making them look cute, but I’ve got presents to wrap and more cookies to make (the peanut butter balls are gone already!) and, you know, making merry for the holidays! So here are my recipes in their smudged, well-loved, unadulterated state:

 I make the Traditional Italian Pizzelles. Though the Orange Rum version sounds pretty good too.  Oooh! Maybe I’ll try them dipped in chocolate!
I make the Traditional Italian Pizzelles. Though the Orange Rum version sounds pretty good too. Oooh! Maybe I’ll try them dipped in chocolate!
 Our family’s fave - Graham Cracker Delights - aka Peanut Butter Balls!
Our family’s fave – Graham Cracker Delights – aka Peanut Butter Balls!
 Holiday Biscotti - with a bonus recipe for peanut butter icing from the Barefoot Contessa. Lol.
Holiday Biscotti – with a bonus recipe for peanut butter icing from the Barefoot Contessa. Lol.
 And our newest fave - Ma’amul, or Date Domes. (This recipe is from a cookbook I bought decades ago when Rick and I were dating. You know the old saying,  “the way to a man’s heart…”)
And our newest fave – Ma’amul, or Date Domes. (This recipe is from a cookbook I bought decades ago when Rick and I were dating. You know the old saying, “the way to a man’s heart…”)

Step Up Your Culinary Game with Gaynor’s School of Cooking in Pittsburgh

Step Up Your Culinary Game with Gaynor’s School of Cooking in Pittsburgh

Tired of cooking and eating the same old things every week? Or are your cooking skills such that you opt to eat out and let someone else do the cooking? Maybe it’s time to schedule a class at Gaynor’s School of Cooking in Pittsburgh’s Southside neighborhood!

My son, Jordan, and I recently took a class in Cajun Soul Cooking and had a fantastic time while learning some new cooking techniques. We then recreated a few of the dishes at home for the whole family!

 Our team for the evening!
Our team for the evening!

Class started at 6 p.m. with 12 people milling around, but our instructor, Josh (a baker at Oakmont Bakery, previously a chef at Altius), quickly organized us into two teams of six. I had my doubts that we would finish in the allotted four hours of class after Josh handed out our menu and recipes for the night. Each team would be making a six-course dinner consisting of Chicken & Sausage File Gumbo, New Orleans Stuffed Mushrooms, Shrimp Étouffée, Cajun Blackened Fish, Smothered Okra, and Sweet Potato Pecan Pie!

Our team divided the dishes and got to work chopping, weighing, and measuring.  Josh helped each team debone their chicken and then circled the room offering tips. I worked on the pastry for the pie, Jordan chopped veggies and started the roux for the étouffée. With 12 people crisscrossing the room looking for ingredients and cooking equipment, it looked like a very busy ant hill. 

 Jordan attends to the Shrimp Étouffée
Jordan attends to the Shrimp Étouffée

I learned to use a food scale (The pastry called for 4 ounces of butter, which had to be taken from a two pound block. No cutting through the stick using the guidelines on the wax paper.) and I also learned that even when you don’t have exactly what the recipe calls for, things usually work out fine. The industrial-sized bottle of vanilla extract was empty by the time I needed it for the pie filling and I expected the pie to be bland, but it was delicious!

 Josh, pictured right, oversees final dinner preparations
Josh, pictured right, oversees final dinner preparations

By some miracle, every dish was cooked and ready to eat by 8:30 (I want Josh to come to my house next Thanksgiving and keep things moving on time:)). At that point, everyone worked together to convert the counter-height work stations to a long dining table and we sat down to enjoy the fruits of our labor.  


The next weekend, Jordan and I made the Shrimp Étouffée, Stuffed Mushrooms, and Sweet Potato Pecan Pie. Daughter-in-law Silvan made Southern Collard greens and Cajun Rice and Rick rounded out the meal with The Barefoot Contessa’s Tuscan Chicken on the grill. Also our next door neighbors joined us and brought an appetizer of homemade gazpacho! OMG! I’m making myself hungry just writing about this meal. Is it dinnertime yet? (Checks watch.)

Do any of you have experience with other cooking classes in the Burgh? Please leave us a note in the comments section! We’re always looking for new places to try and foods to sample. I’d love to find a foolproof technique for baking bread. Or maybe we’d even attempt croissants or pain au chocolate! (Who am I kidding? For French pastry, I’m just going to head over to La Gourmandine.)

For more information about Gaynor’s School of Cooking, visit http://gaynorsschoolofcooking.com.  

 Shrimp Étouffée
Shrimp Étouffée

 Putting the Sweet Potato Pecan Pie in the oven. Using a cookie sheet prevents spillover messes in the oven.
Putting the Sweet Potato Pecan Pie in the oven. Using a cookie sheet prevents spillover messes in the oven.

 Our at-home recreation of the Gaynor’s Cajun meal.
Our at-home recreation of the Gaynor’s Cajun meal.

Below is the recipe for Sweet Potato Pecan Pie.  IMHO, it’s better than either pastry on its own.  The sweet potato tones down the sweetness of the pecan pie filling and the pecan pie elevates the sweet potato filling. This is definitely going to join the rotation of Thanksgiving desserts at our house (even if Josh won’t be there to run the clock.)

 Sweet Potato Pecan Pie
Sweet Potato Pecan Pie

Sweet Potato Pecan Pie

Pie Dough

1 C all purpose flour

1/3 t salt

2 T sugar

4 oz unsalted butter, but into small pieces

3-4 T water

Filling 

1 large or 2 small sweet potatoes, baked (enough to yield 1 C cooked pulp)

2 T light brown sugar

1 T sugar

1 lightly beaten egg with 1/2 t heavy cream

1/2 T butter, softened

1 1/2 t vanilla

1/8 t salt

1/8 t allspice

1/8 t ground nutmeg

Syrup

6 T sugar

6 T dark corn syrup

1 egg

3/4 T butter, melted

1 t vanilla

pinch of salt

pinch of ground cinnamon

6 T pecan pieces or halves

  1. Make the dough: Place the flour, salt and sugar in the bowl of a food processor and pulse 1-2 times. Add the butter pieces and pulse 4-5 times or until the butter is the size of lima beans. Add the water a little at a time and pulse just to incorporate. The dough should just hold together when squeezed in the palm of your hand. Do not process to a ball. Turn the mixture out onto a floured surface and “frisage” or blend it together with your hands, then form a flat disk, wrap in plastic film and refrigerate for at least 1/2 hour.

  2. Once the dough has rested, turn it out onto a floured surface and roll it our to approx. 1/4 inch thick disk large enough to line a 7-8” quiche pan. Line the pan and refrigerate for at least 15 minutes.

  3. Make the filling: Combine all the ingredients in the bowl of an electric mixer and beat until smooth. Set aside.

  4. To make the syrup: Combine all ingredients, except pecans, in the bowl of an electric mixer and beat a slow speed until the syrup is opaque. Stir in the pecans.

  5. To assemble: Spoon the sweet potato filling into the dough, smooth out, then pour on the pecan syrup. Bake in a 325 oven for about 1 and 3/4 hours or until a knife inserted into the pie comes out clean. Serve with whipped cream.

Making Peach Jam – With Peaches Fresh Off The Peach Truck!

Making Peach Jam – With Peaches Fresh Off The Peach Truck!

 Too many peaches for the fruit bowl!
Too many peaches for the fruit bowl!

Are you familiar with The Peach Truck? Neither was I until Rick showed up with a 25-pound box of peaches after going to the hardware store for a garden hose. The Peach Truck Tour travels through Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Texas, and Florida, stopping at select locations (usually hardware stores and garden centers) to sell half-bushel cases of fresh Georgia peaches. The truck stops at each location for just two hours, and then they are off to the next stop.

Why not just get peaches at the grocery store, you say? (Or I might have said, to Rick, as I looked at the massive amount of fruit on the kitchen counter.) One juice-dribbling-down-the-chin bite later, I doubted no more. These peaches are amazing!! After we shared some of the bounty with our kids, both our son and son-in-law raved that they were the best peaches they’d ever eaten.

After doing our own little peach tour to our kid’s homes, we still had 15 pounds of fruit left to make jam and a pie!

 A dozen jars of fresh peach jam. Bring on the toast!
A dozen jars of fresh peach jam. Bring on the toast!

We found a recipe and canning tips on YouTube (thanks Cog Hill Farm!) and got down to work.

Fresh Peach Jam (Recipe courtesy of “Saving the Season” by Kevin West: http://amzn.to/2wdzAQP

5 pounds ripe peaches

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

3 1/2 cups sugar

  1. To peel the peaches, slash a shallow X in the end of each fruit. Working with a few at a time, blanch the peaches for 60 to 90 seconds in boiling water. Lift the peaches out of the water using a slotted spoon and set them in a bowl of ice water to cool. Remove the skins and pits from the peaches. Chop peaches and combine with the lemon juice and sugar. Leave to macerate for 30 minutes.

  2. Turn the fruit mixture into a large heavy bottomed pot and bring to a full boil. Reduce over high heat to the gel point, 8-10 minutes, at a full rolling boil, while stirring constantly. If the jam is too chunky for your liking, turn off the heat and stir with a whisk to break down the chunks. Ladle the hot jam into six prepared half-pint jars, leaving 1/4 inch headspace. Seal the jars and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.

 Scoring the peaches
Scoring the peaches

 Blanching…
Blanching…

 Ice water bath
Ice water bath

 Add sugar and lemon juice.
Add sugar and lemon juice.

 Boil while stirring until your arm falls off.
Boil while stirring until your arm falls off.

 Ladle hot jam into clean pre-warmed canning jars. (We placed our jars in a warm oven for 5 minutes.) Using a funnel makes the process less messy. Place lids and rings on jars and hand tighten before placing them in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.
Ladle hot jam into clean pre-warmed canning jars. (We placed our jars in a warm oven for 5 minutes.) Using a funnel makes the process less messy. Place lids and rings on jars and hand tighten before placing them in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.

 Make sure your jars are covered by an inch of boiling water. After boiling for 10 minutes, remove to drain and cool. Don’t be alarmed by the popping sounds the lids make as they cool. That means they are properly sealed. All of the lids should be indented when sealed and there should be no movement when you press down on them. If any of your jars don’t seal, just refrigerate the contents and use them first.
Make sure your jars are covered by an inch of boiling water. After boiling for 10 minutes, remove to drain and cool. Don’t be alarmed by the popping sounds the lids make as they cool. That means they are properly sealed. All of the lids should be indented when sealed and there should be no movement when you press down on them. If any of your jars don’t seal, just refrigerate the contents and use them first.

I think I’m supposed to add a disclaimer here stating the fact that I am not a professional canner or chef, so don’t rely on this recipe or my instructions alone to safely make preserves. For the latest guidelines on canning and processing, visit http://nchfp.uga.edu/ .

Interested in getting your own bushel of the Peach Truck’s peaches? They’ll be rolling back into the Pittsburgh area on Sunday, July 21 with stops at Ambridge Do It Best, Rural King in Washington, Hampton Do It Best in Allison Park, Bedner’s Farm & Greenhouse in McDonald, Tractor Supply Co. in Natrona Heights, and Rollier’s Hardware in Mt. Lebanon. For more information, visit https://thepeachtruck.com/pages/tour.