It’s been ages since I last bought cranberry sauce in a can. That high-fructose corn syrup-laden jellied stuff that goes schhhluuuup onto the plate, retaining the shape of the can, right down to the rings that I once thought were meant to help you slice it into portions. What in the world was I thinking?
Sure, I know the canned stuff is kind of a standard and it’s certainly convenient. But real, fresh cranberry sauce is so simple to make at home, and I love jazzing it up with unexpected ingredients for a different take on the classic. I have made it relish-style with chopped raw cranberries and pecans. I’ve flavored it with citrus and pomegranate. Heck, I’ve even made cranberry sauce with jalapeno and orange (that was 2020, and it was awesome).
This year, I’m sharing a version that is just for the grown-up table, marrying the tangy flavors of traditional cranberry sauce with the spicy, fruity notes of red wine sangria. It’s a little bit boozy, a touch cinnamon-y and altogether yummy.
Any red wine will work for this recipe (and it doesn’t have to be expensive), but I would recommend choosing a pinot noir or other dry wine that is described with flavors of red berries and cherries. Steer clear of heavier wines such as cabernet sauvignon, which will overpower the brightness of the cranberry. Here’s a good rule of thumb—if the wine would make a good base for sangria, it’s perfect for this cranberry sauce.
Begin by rinsing the cranberries and plucking out any bad ones. Combine them with chopped apple in a medium saucepan. Add wine, orange liqueur, cinnamon sticks and cane sugar, and cook over medium heat until the mixture begins to bubble.
When the mixture reaches a light boil, add minced sweetened orange and stir to combine. Reduce the heat and simmer for about a half hour, until berries are easily mashed and mixture is bright red. Remove it from the heat and transfer it to a bowl to cool. As the cranberry sauce cools, the natural pectins in the berries will cause it to thicken. Stir the zest of an orange and a lime into the cranberry sauce. As the cranberry sauce rests in the fridge, the red wine will stain everything deep red, but that isn’t exactly a problem for me. 😉
If your Thanksgiving day isn’t too hectic, hold the zest until serving time for a bright pop of color.
Decked out with red wine, orange liqueur and warm, festive spices, this one should be served strictly on the grownup table!
12 oz. package organic cranberries, sorted and rinsed
3/4 cup turbinado sugar
1 crisp apple, such as Granny Smith, Fuji or Gala
1/2 cup dry red wine
1/4 cup orange liqueur (I used Cointreau)
2 pieces stick cinnamon, about 3 inches each
1/4 cup minced sweetened, dried oranges (such as Trader Joe’s)
Zest of one orange (organic is best when the zest is eaten)
Zest of one lime (organic)
If you wish, sprinkle additional orange and lime zests on top of the cranberry sauce at serving time for a bright pop of color.
Combine the cranberries and apples with the red wine, orange liqueur, sugar and cinnamon sticks in a medium saucepan.
Stir and cook over medium heat until the mixture begins to bubble. Add dried orange bits. Reduce heat and simmer until berries pop easily and sauce is reduced to a syrup-like consistency (anywhere from 20-30 minutes).
Remove from heat. Stir in orange and lime zests and allow the mixture to cool to room temperature. The natural pectin in the cranberries will cause the mixture to thicken more as it cools.
Refrigerate at least overnight, and up to two weeks. Remove cinnamon stick before serving.
There is no recipe that reminds me more of my time at A Pinch of Thyme catering in Greensboro, N.C. than this Thanksgiving standard. I look forward to the aromas of each stage of this dish to this day, and about the time I start chopping celery, the memories come flooding back.
It was November 1994 and I was in the Pinch kitchen, elbow-deep in a humongous Cambro, mixing up the familiar flavors of Thanksgiving dressing — sausage, sage, onions, celery and fresh herbs. (You have probably seen a Cambro; it’s a plastic food pan about the size of a carry-on suitcase, used widely in restaurant and catering kitchens. Sometimes, when I’m in the throes of holiday food prep, I wish I had a stack of ‘em.) Chef Rodney had scribbled out some notes to remind me how to put this dressing together, but after making so much of it for the umpteen in-home holiday parties we catered, I didn’t need them anymore. Nope, I knew that recipe like the back of my hand:
Crumble up the flaky buttermilk biscuits and honey-sweetened cornbread that Kathleen, the pastry chef, had made the day before. They needed to be stale, but not dry. Pull the strings off the celery, then chop it with the onions and cook them in the drippings left in the pan after browning the crumbled sausage. Add fresh herbs, including the signature pinch of thyme and toss it all together in the Cambro. Beat the eggs in one of the large stainless mixing bowls from the side shelf and add it to the dressing mix with enough chicken stock to moisten it all the way through. Pour it into a couple of greased, stainless steel hotel pans and over-wrap them with plastic film and then foil. Label the order with the client’s name and date of their event and move it to the walk-in. The service team would handle it from there, baking it and serving it up for the happy holiday hosts.
Then, wash up and repeat the whole thing for another party.
Today, wearing the very same apron (which I wore home one night and never returned), I make a scaled-down version of this dressing for my own Thanksgiving meals and it is my all-time favorite. I still don’t need a recipe to make it, but I had to write it down several years ago because everyone I ever made it for wanted the recipe. Even my ex-husband asked me to leave a copy for him when we parted ways (and yes, I did). What makes it so addictively good?
Biscuits and cornbread.
Though the flavors of the dressing are all familiar, the texture of the flaky biscuits and grainy cornbread—the two most popular breads of the American South—make it different from a typical dressing made with seasoned yeast bread cubes. And it doesn’t really matter what recipe you use for the biscuits and cornbread. It only comes down to how much time and baking skill you have, and whether you have a sweet tooth.
For this version, which I made last year when it was my year for the turkey — my husband, Les, and I alternate years, just as we declared in our wedding vows — I used Bob’s Red Mill whole grain cornbread mix (which is less sweet) and I made my own biscuits, using a partial amount of whole wheat flour.
Over the years, I’ve made it with everything from supermarket bakery cornbread to Jiffy mix (the sweetest option). My only suggestion is to stick with a cornbread that has some amount of flour in it; the kind made with only cornmeal will be too grainy for this dressing. I’ve used frozen biscuits, bakery biscuits and even biscuits from a fast food drive-thru. Other than the twist-can variety (which don’t have quite the right texture), any biscuit will work as long as you pay attention to the sodium factor. The best sausage is a bulk breakfast-style pork sausage (such as Jimmy Dean’s), and I like vegetable broth but chicken broth is also great. For the most authentic Southern version, put your hands on a Vidalia onion from Georgia; otherwise, any sweet onion will do (or you can even use leeks, as I did for this version). The fresh herbs are up to you; in the Pinch kitchen, we added fresh sage and thyme, but you know what your people like so go with that.
Now, I suppose you could technically use this mixture to stuff your turkey, if you do that sort of thing. As in most commercial kitchens, the policy at Pinch was to never stuff the bird because of the risk of food borne illness, and that’s a battle that I still face every other year when my hubby takes his turn with the turkey (yep, he stuffs it). My at-home version relies on the same clean and easy method we used back in the day— only, at home I’m baking it in a buttered casserole dish rather than a greased hotel pan. Sometimes I even “accidentally” make more dressing than my baking dish can accommodate and I wind up with a second dish that gets baked the day after Thanksgiving. That way, I can savor it twice for its lightly crunchy topping and the warm and fluffy insides.
Just as we did back in the day, you can easily prep this dressing the day before and bake it on Thanksgiving morning, then just warm it when it’s time for dinner. It travels well, too, if you happen to be going to someone else’s house for the big feast. However you go about it, please take my advice and make a large batch. You’ll be thankful for the leftovers!
I used to make this dressing by the busload when I worked holiday season at a catering company. This scaled-for-home version brings together two beloved breads of the American South into a perfect dressing for Thanksgiving.
1 batch cornbread (see recipe notes for suggestions)*
8 buttermilk biscuits (see recipe notes)*
1 pound bulk breakfast sausage
1 medium sweet onion, chopped (or 1 leek, white and light green parts)
3 ribs celery heart, strings removed and chopped
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Leaves from two sprigs of fresh thyme
A few leaves of fresh sage, finely minced (optional, depending on how sage-y the sausage is)
2 cups chicken stock (or more, if breads are very dry)
1 large egg
Batch size for the cornbread should be for an 8 by 8-inch pan. A Jiffy mix works great, but it’s a little on the sweet side. Try pre-made cornbread from your favorite bakery or use your own recipe. My favorite is Bob’s Red Mill whole grain cornbread mix. The only cornbread I do not recommend is a recipe that uses only cornmeal without flour; it would be too gritty for this dressing recipe.
Almost any biscuits will work here, and they certainly don’t have to be perfect. If you make a good drop biscuit, go with that. Rolled-out biscuits are great, and you don’t have to fuss over cutting them into rounds. Frozen biscuits work well (baked, obviously), but the twist-can biscuits don’t have quite the right texture. I have even used biscuits from a fast-food joint, but be mindful of the extra salt they contain.
Cube or tear cornbread and biscuits into a large, open bowl or onto a parchment-lined cookie sheet. The pieces should be about 1-inch square; don’t make them too small or the dressing will be more like mush. Let the bread pieces sit out overnight to stale. Alternatively, you may choose to toast them lightly in the oven, but only long enough to stale them.
Place a cast iron skillet over medium heat and cook the sausage until most of the fat has rendered and sausage is lightly browned, but not crusted. Transfer sausage to a large bowl and keep the drippings in the skillet.
Saute the onions and celery bits in the sausage drippings until they are soft and slightly caramelized. If the drippings are skimpy, add a tablespoon or so of butter. Season this mixture with salt and pepper to taste. Transfer entire skillet contents to the sausage bowl. Sprinkle thyme leaves (and minced sage, if using) over the mixture and toss to blend.
While the sausage mixture is still warm, gently fold in the cornbread and biscuit pieces so that the lingering sausage grease will be evenly dispersed. Set this aside to cool slightly.
Whisk egg and broth together in a large glass measuring cup. Pour half of it evenly over the dressing mixture and fold to combine, and then pour in the remaining broth-egg mixture. The dressing should be wet but not dripping. After the breads soak up the liquid, feel free to add a little more broth if the mixture seems too dry.
Bake at 350° F for 35 to 40 minutes. If you want a very moist, soft dressing, bake it with a foil covering. For a firmer dressing with slightly crunchy top, bake uncovered. I usually split the difference, covering it with foil for the first 15 minutes then removing foil to finish it.
The Jewish High Holy Days are upon us, and that means it’s time for me to share one of my favorite breads. Regardless of your religious background or practices, you have probably heard of, seen or tasted this classic Jewish bread, which is rich with eggs, oil and honey. Challah is a mainstay of Jewish life, and is served weekly at Shabbat services and especially during holidays—or, at least, the ones in which leavened bread is allowed. Rosh Hashanah is a perfect time to enjoy this round version of challah, and there’s no doubt every last crumb will be gone before the fasting of Yom Kippur begins next Tuesday.
The great thing about challah, besides the fact that it is a sweet, soft and tasty bread, is that you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy it or to make it (I’m proof of both points). From the time I became seriously involved with my husband, Les, I have been very interested in learning the foods of his Jewish heritage, and challah has become a favorite in our rotation. My sourdough version is a bit sturdier than a yeasted loaf, thanks to the higher protein bread flour that ensures a good oven rise. But the texture is still airy and it makes excellent toast, French toast and bread pudding.
There are two main challenges I’ve faced in making sourdough challah, but both can be resolved with time and practice. The first is the challenge of getting this dough to rise; any bread dough with a high volume of sugar (or honey, in this case) struggles against the yeast action, and challah is even more so because it contains so much heavy oil. The best way to win this battle is simply to give it more time. From start to finish, this bread takes almost a full day, but most of that time is spent just waiting—for the pre-ferment to be ready, for the dough to double in size (which it hardly ever does), and for it to rise for baking. Make it on a day that you have lots of other things going on at home so you aren’t tempted to stand and watch it, which I have learned the hard way doesn’t make it happen any faster.
The second challenge with making challah (sourdough or otherwise) is creating the beautiful, braided shapes. This is not nearly as complicated as you might think, and I’ll share my own technique for doing this, whether you want to try making a basket-weave round (as in the featured photo) or a simpler straight braid, which is no more difficult than braiding a kid’s hair. For Rosh Hashanah, I like to make challah in a round, as its shape is a symbol for coming full circle into a new spiritual year.
For extra flair and flavor, I use orange- or lemon-infused olive oil in my dough because I love the aroma of the challah in the oven and the intoxicating citrus scent in the finished loaf. Extra virgin olive oil does impart a slightly stronger flavor to the challah, but I find it delicious. Also, I frequently add dried fruit to the dough as it is rolled up for braiding, but the photos I’ll share are mainly without it. If you do choose to add dried fruit, such as raisins or cranberries, don’t concern yourself with rehydrating it first; it bakes up beautifully straight from the package, and for your effort, you’ll be rewarded with beautifully studded slices. Did I mention that it is amazing in French toast? 🙂
This bread requires a ripe sourdough starter, an intermediate overnight feeding, about 3 hours to ferment on baking day, and up to 5 hours for final rise after shaping, so plan accordingly. Don’t let this lengthy process alarm you; if you make the starter the night before, you only need about an hour of hands-on time for making the dough and about half an hour to shape it for proofing. As I said, there’s a lot of waiting. All my measurements are metric, so please depend on a digital scale for getting your ingredients right.
You’ll begin the night before you plan to bake, with creation of a firm starter, which is essentially an in-between feeding that bridges the basic wet starter and the final dough. This type of starter, also called “levain,” uses less water than a wet starter, and it concentrates the rising power of the culture in your final dough. Begin with a slight amount of ripe wet starter, stirring in water to make a slurry and then flour and mixing it together until no dry flour remains. The firm starter must ferment several hours, so it’s easiest to do this the night before and leave the bowl covered at room temperature, then bake the next day. If you wish, you can make the firm starter farther ahead and then refrigerate it for up to one day.
The next morning, measure out your flour and get all the other ingredients lined up, including your firm starter, which should be cut into pieces for easy introduction to the final dough. Most of the moisture in this dough comes from oil and eggs, so there is very little water to measure for the final dough. In this picture, my honey is stirred together with the small amount of water, but I usually measure the oil first and then measure the honey in the same cup—it slides right out without sticking. You’ll have an easier time mixing the eggs into the dough if they are closer to room temperature, so give them a few extra minutes on the counter before you begin.
In the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a really large mixing bowl, if you don’t mind mixing by hand), combine the eggs, oil, honey and water and whisk until even. Add the flour all at once. Mix until all flour is completely incorporated, about two minutes in a mixer. Sprinkle the salt over the dough, cover the bowl and let it rest for about 30 minutes. This gives the flour time to absorb the moisture, and kneading is easier at that point.
After the rest time, the salt will have begun to dissolve. Knead on medium speed to fully incorporate the salt, which should take 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer the dough to the counter or kneading board and press several pieces of the firm starter all over it. Fold the dough into thirds (like a letter) and press in the remaining pieces of firm starter. Move the dough back into the mixing bowl and knead on medium speed for 6 minutes, long enough to evenly blend the firm starter into the dough and also to get the gluten development going. Transfer the dough to a large bowl, cover and let rest at room temperature for at least 3 hours to ferment.
When the dough has fermented (you’ll know because it won’t spring back from a good finger poke), turn it out onto the counter and divide it into halves. This recipe makes two loaves; return one half of the dough to the bowl while you shape the first. Depending on how adventurous you want to be with braiding, divide the first dough section into either 3 or 4 equal-sized pieces. A 3-strand challah is made the easy way, as you would braid a child’s hair. To make the basket-weave round challah, you need 4 pieces.
Stretch each section of dough out into an imperfect rectangle shape, and then use a rolling pin to roll it into a long, oval shape. The dough will be very thin on the counter, and that’s good. Use spray oil to keep it from sticking, or dust the counter with a very light amount of flour. Roll up the oval into a long rope shape, keeping it tight as you roll and pinching the seam to secure it. Roll it out firmly to stretch the rope into an 18″ length, with the ends somewhat tapered from the fuller, center part of the rope. Repeat with the other three pieces and arrange them in a tic-tac-toe shape, with the centers fairly close together (but not tight) and long strands extended in all four directions. Notice the over-under pattern, as this is the important starting position for braiding a round.
One important thing to note is that you do not want the dough strands to be too tightly crossed, either at the start or after braiding. You should be able to wiggle a finger between strands after braiding, and this is important because the dough needs room to expand during proofing; otherwise, it will expand into one large blob and you’ll lose the beautiful pattern.
Shaping the dough is probably best learned through pictures, but I’ll try to describe it here. Take any long strand that is under the piece that crosses it, and sweep it over the piece parallel to it so that its new position is parallel to the cross piece. Repeat with the other four strands. Next, reverse direction but do the same thing, taking the underneath pieces and cross over to make them parallel to the piece next door. Repeat with the other four. Continue this pattern of reverse-crossing until the strands are too small to cross over. At that point, twist and pinch together the ends you would otherwise cross so that the dough doesn’t unravel. Tuck the twisted ends underneath and transfer the bread to a parchment-lined baking sheet.
Repeat with the second batch of dough and lightly spray or brush the loaves with olive oil and secure a couple of layers of plastic wrap over them. Keep the plastic somewhat loose, allowing room for rising, but not so much that air can dry out your loaves.
Proof the loaves at warm room temperature for up to 5 hours, until they have at least doubled in size. They will be quite “poofy” when they are ready. Preheat the oven, brush all over with egg wash (get into every nook and cranny) and bake until they are deep golden brown all over, with internal temperature at 200° F.
Transfer to cooling racks and cool completely before slicing or wrapping.
The braiding technique is the easiest thing about these loaves, which are enriched with eggs, citrus-scented olive oil and sweet honey. The recipe takes time, but the reward is as sweet as my wish for you in the Jewish New Year.
35g recently fed sourdough starter
80g room temperature water
130g bread flour
Mix the firm starter ingredients together, cover and let stand at room temperature overnight. Or, refrigerate after 8 hours fermentation and remove from fridge one hour before proceeding.
65g warm water
3 large eggs, room temperature
55g olive oil
300g bread flour
100g white whole wheat flour
1 1/2 tsp. fine sea salt
all of the firm starter (above)
1 large egg, mixed with a tablespoon of water (for egg wash)
In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the water, honey, eggs and oil. Whisk together until fully blended. Add flour ingredients and mix with the dough hook until all flour is incorporated.
Remove dough from hook, sprinkle with salt and cover. Rest the dough for about 30 minutes, as this will make kneading easier. Rinse all dough bits from the hook so it’s ready for the next kneading step.
Turn the fermented firm starter out onto a floured countertop. Use a bench scraper to cut the dough into several pieces, toss them in the flour to coat, and then cover with plastic wrap or a clean towel to keep it from drying out.
After resting, the salt on top of the dough will have dissolved a bit. Knead with the dough hook for a few minutes to fully incorporate the salt, then transfer the dough to a lightly floured countertop.
Spread the challah dough out to enlarge it, and then press several pieces of the firm starter into it. Fold it up in thirds, like a letter, and press the remaining pieces of firm starter into it. Return the dough to the mixing bowl and knead with the dough hook for several minutes. You should not see any streaks of starter, and the dough should be dense, smooth and shiny. Transfer it to a large, oiled bowl and cover. Let it ferment at room temperature for about 3 hours. It likely will not double in size, but it will expand somewhat.
Turn the dough out onto a clean counter and use a bench scraper to divide it in half. Return one half to the bowl and cover to prevent drying while you shape the first loaf.
Cut the first dough portion into equal parts for braiding, either 3 or 4 pieces. Flatten into rough rectangle/oval shapes and roll up tightly into ropes, pinching to seal the edges. Roll out with the flat part of your palms to stretch the ropes to 18″, with ends that are tapered a bit.
8, Arrange the dough ropes for braiding, following visual instructions in this post. Place braided loaves on parchment-lined baking sheets and cover with lightly oiled plastic wrap. Proofing time will be anywhere from 3 to 5 hours, depending on the temperature of your kitchen, humidity and moon cycle. Just kidding on that last one, but honestly, the time needed for proof can vary broadly, so my best advice is to begin checking after 3 hours. Dough will double or nearly triple in size, and it is ready to egg wash and bake when it refuses to bounce back after a finger poke.
Preheat oven to 350° F. Gently brush egg wash all over every visible surface of the challah loaves. Bake for approximately 35 minutes, until bread is deep golden brown all over. Internal temperature should be about 200° F. Transfer to a cooling rack and cool completely before slicing or wrapping.
From the CDJ archive, here’s another way you can achieve a “round” challah, if you aren’t feeling the love for the basket-weave design. Divide your dough for one of the loaves into three equal segments and braid them like a hair braid, and then curl it around, tucking and pinching to seal the ends together. It’s more of a wreath than a round, but still has the circle symbolism. This was an experimental sourdough pumpkin challah, filled with Trader Joe’s “golden berry blend” dried fruit, and it was nothing short of fabulous. 🙂
Ice cream is one of my favorite desserts to make. It’s usually just me and my husband at the table, so I rarely make cakes, pies or other large-scale desserts because we don’t want all those leftovers in the house. But ice cream. Now that’s a treat that we can enjoy over a week or two, and for the holidays this year, I wanted to do a Christmas-y flavor. I had considered doing an ice cream with My Dad’s Irish Creme, which I made last week for sipping by the chiminea, though it has been unseasonably warm in North Carolina so we have only done that once. I’ll need to give that one some thought, because so much of the flavor comes from a hefty amount of Irish whiskey and that will hinder the freezing. I also considered eggnog ice cream, which can be made with less alcohol, but I could not find a commercial eggnog that wasn’t made with high fructose corn syrup (bleh). Maybe next year, with more careful planning.
This peppermint-and-chocolate combination won me over after my husband tasted one of these little peppermint bark candies. Mint is not a favorite of his, but combined with the chocolate, he declared it a winner. I wanted to include these candies in the finished ice cream, and I also wanted the ice cream base to have a minty flavor.
My inspiration for that part came from a post shared recently by one of my blog pals, Chef Mimi, who presented a gorgeous peppermint chocolate cocktail made with vodka that had been infused with candy canes. I thought, “well, why wouldn’t that kind of infusion also work in a base for ice cream?” And, as you can see, it does!
Unlike most of my ice creams, which begin with a cooked egg custard base, this one gets its rich texture from sweetened condensed milk. The base peppermint flavor and pretty pink color are the result of having dissolved a couple of candy canes into the milk portion of the ice cream, and I added chopped up chocolate peppermint bark squares at the end for a fun candy surprise.
An ice cream machine is recommended for this recipe, which will yield 1 1/2 quarts.
1 cup whole milk
2 regular size candy canes (if you have mini candy canes, I recommend using about 4 of them)
14 oz. can sweetened condensed milk* (see notes)
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1/2 tsp. peppermint extract oil
1/2 tsp. real vanilla extract
9 Ghirardelli dark chocolate peppermint bark squares, chopped
1 oz. good vodka*
Your favorite hot fudge sauce (optional, but yum!) for serving
Sweetened condensed milk is great for ice creams that do not have a custard base, especially when you want to have a brighter “white” base color. I used the whole milk version of Eagle brand, but I expect you could also use a reduced-fat or even fat-free version of condensed milk; if you choose a lower fat option, expect a slightly “icier” texture in the finished ice cream.
A small glug of vodka, mixed in for the final minute of freezing, ensures that the ice cream will scoop easily straight from the freezer. If you prefer not to add alcohol (or, certainly, if you intend to share the ice cream with children or non-drinkers), you can skip this ingredient. Simply take the ice cream from the freezer about 10 minutes before scooping.
Heat whole milk and candy canes in a small saucepan, over medium-low heat. As the milk warms, the candy canes will melt into it, creating a pretty color and a delicately sweet minty base. As I think of it, I imagine that this milk could also be used to make a minty version of hot cocoa. Maybe next Christmas!
When candy canes are fully dissolved, remove milk from heat and cool then chill in the refrigerator.
In a large bowl or mixing pitcher, blend together the sweetened condensed milk and heavy cream. Whisk in the peppermint milk. Stir in the peppermint and vanilla extracts. Cover and chill for several hours (maybe even overnight) until the mixture is very cold.
Put the chopped chocolate-peppermint bark in the freezer while you freeze the ice cream mixture.
Prepare your ice cream machine, following manufacturer’s recommendations for freezing the ice cream mixture. When the ice cream reaches the fully churned stage, add in the chopped peppermint bark pieces and churn an additional two minutes to evenly incorporate the candy pieces.
Finally, add the vodka and churn until the liquid has disappeared. This trick will improve the texture of the ice cream for very easy scooping straight from the freezer. The vodka is indiscernible in the ice cream, but if you (or someone you are feeding) avoids alcohol, it can easily be omitted.
Transfer the finished ice cream to an insulated freezer container and place it in the freezer for several hours, or preferably overnight. Serve it with warmed hot fudge topping for an extra special holiday treat!
Sometimes, saying your goals out loud is enough to cement them into reality, and this has been true for my quest to have a calmer, more peaceful Christmas season. Letting go of expectations for a “perfect” holiday has given me the freedom to enjoy it more, regardless of how things unfold. One thing I really wanted to do this year (for the first time in a long time) was settle in to making Christmas cookies, and I am on a roll—figuratively and literally—with these sweet little rugelach. They are my first cookies of the season and making them satisfies not only my desire for a pretty holiday treat, but also another item on my culinary bucket list.
As much as I love to bake bread and rolls, I hardly ever bake sweet things, such as cakes, pies or cookies. I’m not sure why, because I do like them, and I have fond memories of doing that kind of baking in my grandmother’s kitchen. The holidays are a perfect time for baking sweets, and so far, I am loving it.
Rugelach (which is pronounced in such a way that it might seem you are gargling with a feather in your throat) is a treat that originated in Poland and is popular in Jewish culture, and it has been on my bucket list for a couple of years. My husband, Les, remembers them from childhood, not only because he is of Polish-Jewish descent, but also from the bakeries and pastry shops all over New York, where he was raised.
The cookies are tiny, which makes them perfect for gift-giving or tucking into an extra little space on a dessert platter. My rugelach dough is made of butter, cream cheese and flour, with only a slight hint of powdered sugar. The rest of the sweetness comes from the layers of filling and the large crystals of sugar sprinkled on top before baking. Given the variety of flavors I have seen, you can put almost anything in rugelach, and the gears of my mind are already spinning ideas for my next batch. This time, I used a jar of jam we spotted while waiting in line to purchase our fancy Christmas tree stand.
The fruity filling in these bite-sized little rollups is F.R.O.G. jam, with the letters representing the flavors of fig, raspberry, orange peel and ginger. That’s a whole lot of holiday flavor happening in one spoonful, and though Les is not particularly fond of ginger, he likes the other flavors and said my addition of cinnamon sugar and chopped pecans rounded these out nicely for him. The cookies are made in stages, including a significant amount of time chilling the dough, and then the cookies before baking, so plan accordingly.
As always, I learned a few things along the way to making these, and I’ll share those discoveries throughout the instructions below.
4 oz. full-fat cream cheese (this is half a brick package)
1 stick cold unsalted butter
3/4 cup all-purpose flour* (see notes)
1/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour*
1 Tbsp. powdered sugar
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
2/3 cup jam, preserves or marmalade
2 Tbsp. organic cane sugar
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 cup chopped, toasted pecans
Egg wash and coarse sugar sprinkles, for baking
For best results, measure flour using the fluff, sprinkle, level method. If you dunk your scoop directly into the flour bag, you will compact the flour and end up with heavy cookies.
I always sub in a portion of whole grain into everything I bake, but if you do not have whole wheat pastry flour (I like Bob’s Red Mill) or white whole wheat (King Arthur is a great choice), it is fine to use a full cup of all-purpose flour. I personally like the flavor boost of the whole wheat, and it helps me justify eating an extra cookie. 😉
Combine flour, powdered sugar and salt in the bowl of a food processor and pulse a couple of times to blend them evenly. Add cold pieces of butter and cream cheese. Pulse a few times to cut the fats into the dough, then run the processor continuously just barely long enough to see it come together but not long enough for it to clump in a ball around the blades.
Scrape the dough out onto plastic wrap. Divide it into two equal pieces and shape them into disks about the size of hockey pucks. Wrap them tightly in the plastic wrap and refrigerate a few hours to overnight.
The rolling out and rolling up stage of this recipe moves quickly, so I encourage reading through it completely before beginning. As with any butter-based dough, you want to try to keep it as cold as possible so that it remains flaky during baking. Get all your filling ingredients measured, lined up and ready. Warm the preserves in a small saucepan until they loosen up to spreadable consistency, then remove from heat. Divide the cinnamon sugar and toasted pecans so that you have equal amounts for each dough disk. Set up two baking sheets, lined with parchment, and arrange enough space in the fridge to chill them for an hour or two.
Roll the dough out on a lightly floured countertop, until it is about 1/8” thick and roughly 12” in diameter. Working from the edges inward, brush half of the melted preserves onto the dough round. You should see quite a lot of dough through the preserves and try to keep the glaze light in the center of the dough round, which will ultimately be the tips of each rugelach.
Sprinkle the cinnamon sugar all over the glazed dough, and then scatter the toasted pecan bits evenly over the sugar. Lay a piece of parchment or waxed paper over the dough round and gently press to secure the pecan bits into the dough. Carefully peel the paper away and set it aside for the second batch.
Using a pizza wheel, cut the dough into 16 equal triangles, with tips at the center of the dough round. The easiest way to do this is to cut it into fourths, then cut the fourths into eighths and finally the eighths into sixteenths. This will make sense to you when you begin cutting. Some of the pecan pieces will fall off or come loose; just press them back onto the dough.
Beginning with one of the triangles, start rolling from the outer, wide end toward the center, as if rolling up a crescent roll. Keep it tight as you go and place the cookie on the parchment-lined baking sheet. I found it easier, once I had about three of the triangles rolled, to use my bench scraper to loosen a triangle away from the round before rolling. The far-away side of the dough round was the trickiest, and next time I may try rolling it on parchment paper that can be moved around for the rolling step.
When all 16 cookies have been rolled, cover the baking sheet with plastic wrap and place it in the fridge. Repeat with the second dough disk. Chill the cookies for at least an hour before baking.
Toward the end of chill time, pre-heat the oven to 350° F, with the oven rack in the center position. I baked only one sheet at a time, but if you wish to bake both at once, arrange the racks with enough room for both and plan to rotate the pans halfway through baking time.
Prepare an egg wash (beaten egg with a teaspoon of cold water) and lightly brush the chilled cookies. Sprinkle them with a pinch of sugar. You can use decorative sugar or (as I did with my second batch) a pinch of natural turbinado sugar.
Bake for about 25 minutes, until cookies are puffed up a bit and golden brown in color. Cool on the pan for about 5 minutes, then use a spatula to transfer them to a cooling rack.
Holiday preparation is fun for me—all the excitement, decorating and special trimmings gives me an exuberant sense of energy. But the extra fussing can also pile on unwanted stress, and having a “signature” cocktail for the holidays relieves some of the pressure when guests will be joining the fun.
Sure, it’s nice to be able to offer up an open bar, and ours is fully stocked with everything our friends and neighbors might ask for (and a few things they probably wouldn’t—I’m looking at you, absinthe). Imagine what that would look like if I related it to other aspects of our entertaining though; say, the decorations or the table settings. Our guests don’t choose those; we decide based on the occasion. Too many drink options can overwhelm a guest and leave them standing there contemplating, when they’d probably rather just enjoy a well-thought-out adult beverage, and I’d rather be back in the kitchen putting the finishing touches on dinner.
Naturally, a few people may request their own favorite (a beer or glass of white wine, perhaps), but most of our friends enjoy the unique tipple that we put together for them, and I do my best to keep the flavors within the season. Not too strong, not too sweet, always with a special ingredient twist.
This year, I agonized over my signature cocktail, not because I fell short of ideas (as if that would ever happen in my crazy brain), but because my best experiments this year felt too similar to the signature drink last year, the Pom-Pom-Hattan. At first glance, this drink may seem almost the same, given that cranberry has a similar tartness to pomegranate and both drinks are made with bourbon. But friends, this is no ordinary bourbon, and it was pleading with me to become part of my signature drink.
Before I get carried away, I’d like to emphasize that this distiller is not paying endorsement fees for my shameless raving (and if they did, I’d probably just spend it on more bottles). This is just between us bourbon lovers, and it’s what friends do—share the news about great things we find. The maple notes in this bourbon are very smooth, excellent for sipping neat, and I’ve done my share so far this season. The smokiness is subtle, but present, and a little tang of cranberry (spiked with some spices) is a perfect accompaniment for a cocktail that celebrates the warmth of the holidays.
The ingredients are simple, though one required a bit of advance effort. Rather than use a store-bought cranberry juice (which I didn’t even consider, frankly), I made a simple syrup infused with fresh cranberries, cinnamon for warmth and pink peppercorns for depth. Simple syrup is exactly that—simple. Just equal parts by volume of sugar and water, and for this one, I added the flavor infusers long enough to draw out the color of the cranberry. The rest of the drink is very Manhattan-like; a quality brand of red vermouth and a few shakes of bitters, with a premium cocktail cherry as garnish.
At our house, we enjoyed these on Thanksgiving and again on Saturday night with appetizers before our Ultimate Thanksgiving Leftover Pizza. But just as with last year’s Pom-Pom-Hattan, I have no doubt that this smoky-sweet-tangy cocktail will carry us through all the way to New Year’s.
Ingredients (makes two cocktails)
3 oz. Knob Creek smoked maple bourbon
1.5 oz. red (sweet) vermouth
1.0 oz. spiced cranberry simple syrup
2 dashes ginger bitters
Good quality cocktail cherries, such as Luxardo brand
Measure bourbon, vermouth, spiced cranberry syrup and bitters into a mixing glass or shaker. Add one cup of ice and stir well for about 20 seconds. Strain into coupe (or martini) cocktail glasses and garnish each with a cherry.
Repeat as desired.
Spiced Cranberry Simple Syrup
My confession is that my first attempt at the simple syrup was not great. Cranberries contain a lot of pectin, and I let them simmer a bit too long, releasing all that thickener. It did not taste bad, but left an odd, almost sticky residue in my drink (serves me right for multi-tasking). Keep a close watch over it, as I did with the second batch, and it will be delicious!
In a medium saucepan, combine 1 cup sugar and 1 cup water. Heat over medium heat, stirring until sugar is mostly dissolved. Add 1 cup rinsed cranberries, 2 pieces cinnamon stick and 1 rounded teaspoon pink peppercorns. Bring to a slight boil, and then reduce heat to low and allow it to simmer until the cranberries begin to pop and the syrup takes on a pinkish-red color. Remove from heat and let the berries steep for a few minutes before straining into a jar.
Use the cooked cranberries in another recipe if you wish or discard them.
Crispy outside, soft and chewy inside. A hint of onion and just enough salt. That’s what you want in a classic latke, the delightfully simple, traditional food of Hanukkah. Getting them just right takes practice, and what I lack in personal heritage, I hope to make up for in effort. When I started dating my husband in 2015, I found myself intrigued by the foods that are central to the Jewish holidays, and latkes have been on the menu every year since then. Let’s review:
My recipe has evolved, as has my technique. I’m not sure what I was thinking in my first couple of efforts, except that I wasn’t giving enough attention to the oil. And that means I was missing the point, because Hanukkah is all about the oil.
Hanukkah, nicknamed the “festival of lights,” is an eight-day observance of an ancient miracle. The story is multi-layered and, frankly, hard for me to fully understand, let alone explain. But the gist of the story is that God came through for the faithful, and a small jar of oil that was only enough for one night’s lighting of the eternal lamps at the Temple, somehow (miraculously) lasted for eight nights.
In observant Jewish homes, families still mark the occasion by lighting candles on a menorah for eight nights during Hanukkah, and foods are fried in oil in remembrance of the miracle. Traditional fried foods served during this eight-night celebration include jelly-filled doughnuts and, of course, latkes!
The secret is in the starch
The key to crispy latkes is removing the excess liquid from the shredded potatoes, while simultaneously preserving the starches that aid in holding those shreds together. After you shred the potatoes, which you can do either by hand on a box grater or (the easy way) in a food processor, simply soak them in ice water long enough to draw the starch out of the shreds. Next, squeeze as much moisture as possible out of the shredded potatoes, then reunite them with the sticky starch that has settled at the bottom of the soaking bowl. Add in some shredded onions (also squeezed dry), a beaten egg and a few sprinkles of flour, and you’re good to go!
The miracle of the oil
Frying latkes is the traditional way, and I don’t recommend trying to fry them in a thin film of oil as I did those first couple of years. You may get a nice crispness on the outside, but the inside won’t be done. You need about a half-inch of oil in a hot skillet to make a crispy latke, and the type of oil can make a difference as well. As much as I love and rely on unfiltered, extra virgin olive oil for most of my cooking, its smoke point is about the same temperature as you need for frying the latkes, so it is not the best choice. For this kind of frying, I’ve chosen grapeseed oil, which has a higher smoke point and produces a nice crispy exterior with a neutral flavor.
Enjoy latkes your own way
Not all latkes are the crisp-textured, straw-colored wafers that I am sharing today. Some cooks make their latkes with a soft, almost mashed potato-like texture, and those are delicious also. Onions are usually included in the mix for flavor, but I have seen latke recipes that lean toward the sweet side and there are plenty of other vegetables that can be substituted for potatoes, if you don’t mind a less-than-traditional treat.
Not all spuds are created equal
Although it is true that you can use different ingredients to make latkes, it’s important to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of certain potatoes. For best results and crispy latkes, choose a starchy potato, such as russet or Yukon gold. Potatoes that are described as “waxy,” such as red potatoes, are higher in moisture and lower in starch. That isn’t to say you can’t use them, but you would need to give extra attention to the step of moisture reduction and supplement the starch a bit to hold them together. Also, be prepared for a slightly less crispy latke when using waxy potatoes, or any other substitute that doesn’t measure up in the starch department.
What to serve with latkes
Traditionally, latkes are served with applesauce and sour cream, and therefore I asked Les to cook up a batch of his mouthwatering overnight applesauce for Thanksgiving. With Hanukkah falling so close behind this year, I hoped to carry over some of that delicious, chunky applesauce as a side for what has turned out to be one of my best batches of latkes to date.
2 pounds potatoes (I used a combination of russet and Yukon gold)
1 smallish sweet onion
2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
Kosher salt and black pepper
A few shakes ground cumin (if you are not keeping strict kosher)
Grapeseed oil (or other neutral cooking oil with high smoke point, such as canola)
Peel and rinse the potatoes. Shred them by whatever means is easiest for you and transfer the shreds immediately to a bowl filled with ice water. Allow them to soak for about 45 minutes.
Trim, peel and shred the onion. Use paper towels to wick away the excess moisture from the onions.
Beat the egg lightly in a measuring cup. Add the shredded onion and mix to combine evenly. I have found this easier for even mixing of the onion into the potato mixture.
Pour enough grapeseed oil into a large skillet or electric frying pan to measure about 1/2″ deep. Heat oil to 375° F.
Use your hands to carefully scoop the soaked potatoes from the bowl and onto a clean kitchen towel. Try to avoid stirring up the starch from the bottom of the bowl. Spread the potato shreds out over the towel. Roll up the towel and twist to extract as much moisture as possible from the potatoes. Empty the shreds into a large, new bowl.
Sprinkle the cumin and flour over the shreds and toss with your hands to evenly distribute.
Pour out the water from the soaking bowl, and take it slow enough to keep the powdery white starch in the bottom of the bowl. Scoop the starch into the bowl with the dried potato shreds and toss again with your hands to combine. Finally, add the egg-onion mixture and toss until evenly combined.
Form a clump of potato mixture in the palm of your hand, pressing to shape it as best you can into a flattened ball. Do not try to shape it as a disc at this point. Carefully lay the ball of potato mixture into the hot oil and repeat until you have three or four clumps in the oil. When the edges begin to turn golden, use the back of a small spatula to gently flatten the balls of mixture into more of a disc shape. Turn the latkes after all edges (and the bottom) are golden brown. Fry the second side until golden. Transfer to a rack over layers of paper towel and repeat until all latkes are fried. Season the latkes with kosher salt as soon as they come out of the hot oil.
On Juneteenth, my mind is littered with so many emotions I find it difficult to put my thoughts down. I am thrilled for the modern Black community, for whom Juneteenth has always been woven into the fabric of life. I am embarrassed to realize that the meaning of this occasion escaped me until last year, when the U.S. entered a long-overdue season of racial reckoning after the horrifying death of George Floyd. Most of all, I am disappointed and angry that the significance of Juneteenth was not spelled out in the history books of my small, lily-white upstate N.Y. town. Or anywhere else, for that matter.
Along with so many others in my age group, I grew up learning about the greatness of the men whose tremendous business skills built this great nation, including the forefathers and later the business and industrial magnates—Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller and Cornelius Vanderbilt—you know, all the rich, white guys. But we did not hear the whole story, and that means we never got the real story. There is so much more to be said and taught about our nation’s history, but a great deal of resistance to teaching it, and I’m flat-out puzzled and pissed off about that.
Juneteenth, in case you have completely avoided all news outlets recently, marks a celebration for the last of the slaves being freed following President Abraham Lincoln’s famous Emancipation Proclamation. The news that slavery had become illegal spread throughout the land, but not exactly like wildfire. It was not until 2½ years later, when federal soldiers rode into Galveston, Texas, to read the edict out loud, that the enslaved African-Americans there even realized they were free. I suspect the delay of this information had a lot to do with the fact that the slaveholders had more to gain by keeping the joyous news on the down low.
Fast forward 156 years, and Juneteenth has at last become a federal holiday, under the pen of President Joe Biden, and it’s been a long time coming. We still have a lot of work to do to recognize full equality and taking the first step feels a little intimidating. Rather than assume what kind of celebration is respectful, I have done some research into the significant themes around Juneteenth, and I am responding with this bright red cocktail, created in honor of those for whom respect has been a long time coming.
Red drinks have always played a major role in celebration of Juneteenth, as the color symbolizes both the bloodshed of Black peoples’ ancestors and the courage and resilience that brings them to this point in history. Hibiscus, a deeply-hued flower, is a significant ingredient in red drinks for Juneteenth, as it was one of many favored foods that enslaved Africans brought with them to this land. Hibiscus has a delightfully tart flavor and somewhat astringent effect—not particularly sweet on its own, almost like cranberry, but with hints of floral. I first tasted hibiscus as a tea, and that is a very traditional way to enjoy it on Juneteenth, but I wanted to mix it into a cocktail for one specific reason: this whiskey.
As part of my own “first steps” toward racial equity, I have made a personal commitment to seek out and support Black-owned businesses, and Uncle Nearest is one, founded a few years ago by a Black woman named Fawn Weaver. The story behind this new whiskey brand is rich and complex, just like the spirit in the bottle. There is so much to know about it—more than I can say here in this post—but the kicker of this true story is that Nathan “Nearest” Green, an enslaved man in Lynchburg, Tenn., taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey. Yes, that Jack Daniel. This startling real story began to circulate a few years ago, and I think you’ll find the story linked here a fascinating read. I was elated this week to find that Uncle Nearest whiskey is already available in our local liquor store.
I’ve paired the Uncle Nearest 1856 premium whiskey with a couple of other ingredients that seemed right to me—hibiscus simple syrup, spicy ginger beer and a few drops of aromatic bitters, courtesy of Hella Cocktail Co., another Black-owned business. Finally, a subtle accent of vanilla, a flavor that seems so utterly common today, yet most of us would never have known it without the discovery and effort of an enslaved 12-year-old boy named Edmond Albius. I only learned about him last year when I went searching for the most popular flavors in America.
A cocktail will not fix the problems of racial inequity, but every little bit of awareness leads me into the light, and this is my small way of paying that forward. The drink is somewhat bittersweet—much like the story that inspires it—but refreshing and invigorating, nuanced with spice and freshness. It tastes exactly how I feel, now that I am finally beginning to understand the real story.
1.5 oz. Uncle Nearest 1856
0.5 oz. hibiscus-vanilla simple syrup* (see notes)
2 or 3 drops Hella aromatic bitters
Quick squeeze of fresh lime
About 2 oz. spicy ginger beer*
Lime wheel to garnish
A simple syrup is made with water and sugar, and in our house, that means fair trade-certified sugar because I learned the real, true story about slave labor in the sugar industry several years ago. Profit-driven exploitation of human beings must stop, and as consumers, we have the power influence companies to do the right thing. Is it more expensive? The answer depends on who you ask.
Here’s how I made the hibiscus-vanilla simple syrup:
If spicy is not your thing, any ginger beer or ginger ale will lend a nice little zip to this cocktail. I chose the Q brand “hibiscus ginger beer,” obviously for the hibiscus twist but also because it also includes spices that are celebrated in African-American cuisine. I stumbled onto this ginger beer by accident, and it turned out to be perfect in this drink.
Combine Uncle Nearest 1856, simple syrup and bitters in a cocktail mixing glass. Add 1 cup of ice and stir until the outside of the glass becomes frosty. Strain over new ice in a double rocks glass. Squeeze in lime juice and top with ginger beer. Garnish with a lime wheel.
You may be wondering if I’m a paid endorser for the brands and products I spotlight on Comfort du Jour, and the answer is “no.” I do not receive money or merchandise for my recommendations, and what that means for you is that you can count on me to give an honest opinion. If something changes, I will update my disclosures. Either way, you can still count on me to be honest in my recommendations, as I will only stand behind services and products I believe in. Fair enough? 😀
Everyone knows the classic English carol, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” But have you wondered, as I did for so long, what the heck is a figgy pudding? In the traditional carol, the singers on the doorstep become more and more demanding of this figgy pudding, first requesting it (O, bring us some figgy pudding), and then threatening for it (we won’t go until we get some), until finally resorting to justification (we all like our figgy pudding). This must be some good stuff!
I always imagined that a figgy pudding was some kind of smashed up prune-like paste that wobbled and jiggled, but I’ve recently learned (thanks to this recipe by British superchef, Jamie Oliver) that it’s quite different from my Americanized vision of “pudding.” Common in the U.K., where my father’s roots are planted, figgy pudding is actually a sweet, dense fruitcake. Not the artificially colored, sickeningly sweet loaf that could serve as a doorstop and is usually the unwanted prize at an American office party gift exchange. Nope, a traditional British figgy pudding contains chopped dried fruits, nuts, golden syrup, citrus peel and spices. It’s steam-baked in a bowl, then inverted to a platter where it is lavishly bathed in booze (brandy, rum, bourbon—you decide) and set ablaze for a presentation that can only be described as spectacular.
No wonder the carolers demand that figgy pudding be brought “right here!” A boozy, sweet holiday treat—I guess my dad’s people really knew how to party.
My figgy bourbon drink is less dramatic, but still swimming in the warm and festive flavors of Christmas, with spice and fruit and bourbon to spare. The bourbon is lightly sweetened with fig simple syrup, accented with hazelnut liqueur and cardamom bitters, then garnished with a sweet and simple-to-make skewer that includes figs, cranberries, crystallized ginger and a generous twist of fresh citrus peel.
Given that figgy pudding may contain any combination of dried fruits, nuts and spices, the possibilities are very open for a cocktail interpretation. I might just as easily have chosen amaretto rather than hazelnut, or fresh cherries rather than cranberries, or cinnamon sticks rather than cardamom bitters. But this is what my imagination (and my bar inventory) gave me on this particular night.
The fig syrup is central to the drink, and easy to make. Because my dried figs are already sweet, I made a “light” simple syrup, which is 1 cup water to 1/2 cup cane sugar. Heat it to a quick low boil, then stir in several cut-up dried figs and let it steep until cooled. Strain out the fig pieces (reserving them, of course, for garnish purposes) and this syrup will keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks. Going light on the sugar allows the fig to shine more than the sweet. If you prefer a sweeter drink, go with equal parts sugar and water.
Making the cocktail was easy, beginning with the garnish:
Making the Cocktail (makes two drinks)
3 oz. favorite bourbon (we are currently pouring Elijah Craig Small Batch)
0.5 oz. hazelnut liqueur (or amaretto, if you prefer almond flavor)
1.5 oz. fig simple syrup (as described above)
1.0 oz. freshly squeezed orange juice (or maybe Meyer lemon)
2 drops cardamom spice bitters* (see notes)
2 drops cherry or cherry-cacao bitters*
I have found some really interesting bitters online, but Total Wine and well-stocked supermarkets usually carry a good variety, too. My goal for this drink was spice and fruit (in keeping with the flavors of a figgy pudding), so these could probably be replaced with orange, aromatic or Peychaud’s bitters. Be creative, but don’t go overboard as you’ll lose the essence of the fig and bourbon. 🙂
It’s warming and Christmas-y, lovely for sipping by an open fire, with or without chestnuts. Or, as it will be at our house, in front of the gas logs. 🙂
Wishing you a Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!
Childhood is one of the greatest examples of selective memory banking ever. I remember the smells and sounds of baking these molasses cookies at my grandma’s house, all the way back to when I needed to stand on a chair to reach the counter and make the cookie shapes. What I don’t remember is working so hard to get the dough right. Perhaps I’m overthinking it and not taking a simple, intuitive approach. Or could it be that these were a cinch for Gram because she made them all the time and I haven’t dared an attempt for 25 years?
As I was rolling out the dough for these—my favorite cookies ever—I found myself missing the metronome-like cadence of the cuckoo clock that hung on the back wall of my grandparents’ family room, and the rising aroma of potatoes simmering on the stove, much less the patient encouragement of Gram saying something like, “That’s it, now change direction and roll it the other way—good job.” What I had last weekend at my house was the sound of Led Zeppelin blasting from the Bose speaker in the next room, me cursing up a storm and vowing to NEVER make these freaking cookies again, and my husband and the dog just staying the heck out of the way. Yes, I’m certain that Gram had this process down to a science, and she probably handled all the hard parts of this exceptional recipe and let us grandkids show up just in time to have all the fun.
This was the first time I’d flown solo on this family heirloom recipe for Molasses Cookies—and yes, I do believe it should be capitalized, same as a classic novel or an epic film, because they’re just that good. For as long as I can remember, visiting my Gram’s house (anytime, but especially at Christmas) meant that I could reach my short, grubby fingers into the brown and tan beanpot she used as a cookie jar, and pull out one of these super-sized, super soft, sugar-crowned molasses cookies. Several years ago, I spotted a similar bean pot in an antique store and bought it without even checking the price tag. Last year, I found another bean pot and sent it to my younger cousin, Brad, who was my sidekick for so many baking adventures at Gram’s house. Just after we lost Gram in the summer of 2019, I found on Etsy a sweet creative soul who helped me turn our family recipe into a tea towel keepsake. Yes, these cookies deserve serious respect.
Mixing the dough was not complicated. It was just a little confusing, without solid direction on which order to add certain ingredients. The recipe card says, in Gram’s distinctive scrawl, “Mix. Chill at least overnight.” A more thorough explanation might have suggested first creaming together the butter and sugar, then adding eggs one at a time, blending completely after each one, and scraping down the sides, etc., but I suppose that knowledge is meant to be in my genes (and apparently it is). I did OK to that point, but lost my confidence when I got to the baking soda. Oh, how I wished I could just call her up and ask, “should the soda be dissolved in boiling water, or just hot tap water? Also, is it alright if I use butter instead of shortening? And the card says 6 or 7 cups of flour, but how do I know when the dough is right? I’m so confused, Gram, and I need you here.”
For these challenges and more, I had a helpful assist from my aunt, who offered her own experiential wisdom, plus a bonus family history lesson that I never knew. It seems that my great-grandmother, original author of this recipe, ran some kind of underground cookie business. These molasses cookies and her famous-to-our-family sugar cookies were her top sellers. Great Gram also saved up her own money to buy laying hens, and had an eggs-for-sale business. She was an entrepreneur long before women were supposed to be! I do remember the old hen house in back of her house, come to think of it. And suddenly, I realized again that these are big family shoes to fill.
I took deep breaths and followed the advice Gram gave me so many times on so many things—she’d say, “try it and see.”
For starters, I halved the recipe, which is a little tricky given that the original calls for 3 eggs, but I’ll explain what I did when we get to the instructions. Gram’s recipe card lists shortening, which was a common ingredient when money was tight (and before research showed how awful the stuff is), so I subbed in real unsalted butter. I never bake anything with only white flour, so I swapped about a third of it with whole wheat pastry flour, which is nice and soft and perfect for cookies, quick breads and pastry dough. Finally, to aid in keeping the dough soft, I used a combination of white and brown sugar, hoping that the latter would help compensate for the softness that would be lessened with the butter swap. Yes, I think Gram was also my first science teacher.
This is at least a two-day recipe (the dough must be thoroughly chilled), and several kitchen tools will be needed on baking day. I recommend review of the entire recipe before committing to the baking step. Once you begin rolling the dough, things move quickly and you’ll want to have your ducks in a row.
The ingredients list reflects my own changes I made to the recipe, and I’m certain my grandma would have approved these choices. 🙂
1 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) unsalted butter, softened, but not room temperature
3/4 cup cane sugar* (see notes)
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 1/2 large eggs*
1/2 cup plus 2 Tbsp. molasses (unsulphured)
3 tsp. baking soda, dissolved in 1/2 cup hot tap water
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour* (measure for success; see notes!)
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour*
3 tsp. ground ginger*
1 tsp. baking powder*
1 tsp. salt
Coarse sugar for decorating
For all baking and cooking, I prefer organic cane sugar, which is not as processed as common white sugar. The fineness of cane sugar varies by brand, and I’ve found the Florida Crystals brand to be my favorite, as it is closest in texture to typical fine baking sugar. It’s slightly tan in color, compared with pure white sugar that has been heavily refined.
My recipe adaptation is half the original recipe, which called for 3 eggs, meaning I had to get to 1½ eggs. Here’s how to divide one of them to get the proper amount: crack 1 egg into a glass measuring cup, and beat it well to fully blend the white and yolk. Note the total volume of the egg, and pour half of the volume into a separate bowl for another use. Voila!—half an egg. Add a whole egg to it, beat lightly and you’ll be ready to go.
One of my grandma’s golden rules of baking was correct measuring of flour, so listen up. Always begin by sifting or fluffing up the flour before you measure. Spoon the fluffed flour over your measuring cup and fill to overflowing. Then use the back of a knife to scrape off the excess flour. Do not plunge your measuring cup directly into the flour bag or canister, or you will not have successful cookies.
Whole wheat pastry flour is a low-protein variety of flour, and can be substituted 1:1 for all-purpose flour in many recipes. It doesn’t have the strength needed for yeast-risen breads, but it is perfect for cookies, quick breads, pancakes and pastry dough. It also meets one of my primary goals of introducing whole grain into our foods. For this recipe, the whole wheat pastry flour is approximately 1/3 of the total flour in the cookies. If you prefer, combine for a total amount of white, all-purpose flour.
Ginger and baking powder both lose their power after a period of time. Ground ginger should provide a pleasant “zing” to the cookies, and active baking powder is needed for leavening. If you can’t remember buying the containers you have, they are probably too old. This is less a concern for the ginger, as that will only affect flavor. Baking powder that is old will give you poor results, because your cookies won’t rise during baking. I use aluminum-free baking powder with excellent results.
Using a stand mixer or handheld electric mixer, cream together the softened butter and both sugars. If you want to go old-school, as my great grandmother would have done, you can do this in a large bowl with a good strong wooden spoon, and it would help you to have biceps like Rosie the Riveter. The mixture should be beaten until it looks uniform and slightly fluffy.
Combine all-purpose and whole wheat pastry flour in a medium bowl. Scoop out a heaping cup of the flour blend to a second bowl, and add the ginger, baking powder and salt, stirring to combine. This ensures the ginger and leavening agent will be evenly mixed into the dough. Set both flour bowls aside.
Add beaten egg mixture, half at a time, to the creamed butter-sugar mixture. Beat until well blended, and stop to scrape down the sides of the bowl after each addition.
Dissolve baking soda in hot water and set aside briefly.
Add molasses to the creamed mixture and beat until fully blended.
With mixer running, slowly pour in the soda water. This mixture looked very unorganized and messy; it reminded me of quicksand.
Add the second bowl of flour (with ginger and baking powder) to the molasses mixture and stir until blended. Stop mixer and scrape down the sides. Stir in remaining flour, a few tablespoons at a time, until all flour is blended. Scrape down the sides. Cover the bowl tightly and refrigerate at least overnight, or preferably a day or two.
On baking day, gather your supplies:
2 or 3 large cookie sheets, lined with parchment paper
Rolling pin (a round wine bottle works nicely in a pinch)
Dough mat (or board, or a really clean countertop)
Cookie cutters (preferably round, or anything not too intricate as the cookies will spread)
Extra flour for dusting (keep it handy, you’ll use this a lot)
Paper towels for wiping your hands
Small, thin spatula to assist with moving cookies to baking sheet
Large spatula for moving baked cookies
Cooling racks (at least two will be helpful)
Coarse-grained sugar for decorating (I used turbinado sugar)
A baking timer
Christmas music for inspiration (I recommend Vince Guaraldi’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas” soundtrack)
A glass of wine (seriously, I found this very helpful when things got ugly)
My aunt on speed-dial (oh wait, that was just for me!)
Preheat oven to 450° F (much hotter than most cookie recipes, and they bake fast)
Generously flour your rolling mat or board, and begin with about 1/4 of the chilled dough. Put the rest back in the fridge until you’re ready for the next batch.
Sprinkle the top of the dough with flour. My aunt suggested that I use “a lot of extra flour,” and I think she meant to say, “Make it look like you had a blizzard in the kitchen.” You need a lot of flour to keep this ultra-soft dough from sticking. Roll it gently to about 1/2” thick.
Dip your cutter gently into the cookie dough bowl, then liberally into the extra flour to prevent sticking. Cut as many shapes as you can from the first rolling, and transfer the cookies to the prepared cookie sheet. Aim for only 6 cookies at a time, as they will puff and spread quite a bit during baking. Knead up remaining dough scraps and add them to the next batch.
Generously sprinkle each cookie with turbinado sugar.
Bake for 5 to 8 minutes (depending on your oven) until cookies are soft and puffy but not brown on the edges. Transfer cookies as quickly as possible to a cooling rack. Place the hot cookie sheet somewhere to cool.
Prepare a second batch of cookies on the extra pan. This whole scene was very stressful for me, and I found myself wondering how my grandma did this with such grace and ease, and with excitable grandchildren “helping.”
Repeat this process until all cookies are baked. You should have flour everywhere (including your hair), about 5 molasses-coated spoons stuck to the counter, a sink full of bowls and random sticky objects, a dining table covered in molasses cookies and an empty wine glass bottle. If you’re crying, well, join the club. If you’re crying and laughing simultaneously at the end of it all, you get bonus points and a commemorative recipe tea towel.
Is it OK for me to share your recipe, Gram?
She would say—no, wait, she would sing, “Oh, ya, sure!”