When it comes to holiday goodies, decadent doesn’t have to be complicated, and simple doesn’t have to be ordinary. These brownies—amped up with an extra dose of double dark cocoa and embellished with pieces of peppermint bark—are delightful as they are. But then, because I can’t leave well enough alone, I topped them with a dollop of candy cane-infused whipped cream.
Decadent, simple and way beyond ordinary!
The best part about it (besides the fact that it’s delicious and oh-so-Christmas-y) is that I didn’t have to make a scratch recipe. I used my favorite Ghirardelli dark chocolate brownie mix as the base, and folded broken up Ghirardelli dark chocolate peppermint bark squares into the batter before baking, along with a generous spoonful of double dark cocoa blend from King Arthur Baking Company (but any dark cocoa powder works fine).
Make the brownies as directed, using water and canola oil plus egg to moisten the batter. Gently fold in the broken pieces of peppermint bark and spread it out into a buttered brownie pan.
I considered using the chunkier peppermint bark, with actual bits of candy cane sprinkled on top, but decided on the Ghirardelli-style bark for its smooth, meltable qualities and so that we didn’t accidentally chip a tooth biting into a hidden piece of candy cane. They melted completely into the baked brownies, and offered gooey pockets of pepperminty flavor in each bite. If you don’t mind a little crunchy surprise, there’d be no harm in trying these brownies with the chunky style of bark. The contrast of chewy and crunchy would probably be especially popular with kids. No adjustment is needed to the baking time, and be sure to let them cool completely so they set up for easier cutting and serving.
The candy cane whipped cream is much easier than it sounds—I simply warmed heavy whipping cream in a small saucepan and melted two broken candy canes into the cream. This took about 20 minutes, and I kept a close eye on them to avoid letting the cream reach a boiling point. The candy canes did all the work, providing the sweetness, the minty flavor and the pretty pink color. After a thorough chilling, I used the whisk attachment of my electric mixer to whip it into a creamy emulsion.
Ready to make them? Use the “click to print” card below to save this for your recipe files. Merry Christmas!
These Christmas-y brownies bring together two favorite flavors for a 'simple meets special' holiday treat.
1 box Ghirardelli dark chocolate brownie mix (or your favorite, plus oil, egg and water as directed)
1 heaping tablespoon dark cocoa (I used King Arthur Baking Double Dark Blend)
8 squares Ghirardelli dark chocolate peppermint bark, broken into pieces
1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
2 standard size candy canes
It’s best to make this ahead, so that the candy cane-infused cream has plenty of time to chill before whipping and serving. Brownies should also be cooled for easier cutting.
Preheat oven as directed on brownie mix package, with rack in center position. Generously butter your brownie pan.
Combine dry brownie mix and dark cocoa in a bowl and whisk together. Add ingredients as instructed on brownie mix (this is usually some combination of egg, oil and water).
Gently fold in broken pieces of peppermint bark, and then transfer brownie batter to the prepared pan. Smooth the top with a spatula.
Bake as instructed and allow plenty of time for brownies to cool.
Pour cream into a small saucepan with broken candy canes, and place pan over medium-low heat. Stir gently and watch this closely to ensure cream does not boil. It should remain at a gentle simmer with steam floating above the pan. When candy canes have fully melted, transfer the cream to a bowl and refrigerate until fully chilled.
Use a handheld mixer (or a whisk, if you have really strong arms) to whip the cream to desired fluffiness. Spoon a dollop of the candy cane whipped cream onto each brownie square and serve immediately.
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!
No matter your religious leaning or background, this time of year is meant to inspire joy and wonder. It is inevitable as the new year approaches that we take stock of the year that is almost done, and we will begin to make plans (if we haven’t already) for the next one. As if our best-laid plans really set the course for anything these days. I can barely get things off the ground for a weekend, so I dare not even look ahead to the coming year just yet.
As the year closes, I find myself as frazzled and worn out as I always seem to be this time of year, and though some of my exhaustion is my own doing, the rest is the culmination of a busy season at my job, preparations for the holidays and confusion in the wake of our kitchen remodel (I still can’t find everything). I am convinced that peace does not come from getting everything done, but from letting things go.
We put up our tree last Friday night, an endeavor that always seems to provoke passionate differences of opinion. My Jewish husband (who only began erecting Christmas trees a few slight years ago when he hooked up with me) had some unconventional ideas about how to stabilize the wobbly tree in our cheapo plastic Christmas tree stand. And I (of course, being me) provided a fair amount of pushback on his helpful suggestions. To some degree, I admit my resistance to Les’s ideas was result of my perfectionism, but mostly, I was having flashbacks of Christmas trees past, toppled over in the middle of the night, with microscopic shards of glass splayed in every direction. This is no fun, especially with pets in the house, and given that our tree is adorned with special, impossible-to-replace ornaments, some of which I have had since I was a child.
After several rounds of shouting over the problem of stabilizing the tree (obviously, that didn’t help anything), I did what any reasonable (and utterly exasperated) person would do. I asked the internet if anyone, after all these centuries of decorating indoor trees, had yet discovered a better way to prop the damn thing up. Lo and behold, a German-based company has cracked the code on Christmas tree stands with a carefully engineered cable-and-lever system. So we shoved the half-steady, strung-with-lights tree into the corner and made a run to Ace Hardware the next morning to get this stand, which has an ingenious method for securing the tree, and even alerts me to the water level. Best $79 I’ve spent so far this Christmas. To be fair, since I haven’t yet begun my shopping, it is the only $79 I have spent. But this tree stand is not playing.
As we began digging through our box of whimsical ornaments, including the one we picked up in Asbury Park at the end of our summer vacation, we realized that it had been exactly two years to the day since we lost our sweet cat, Zoe. This little girl looooved Christmas, especially lying beneath the tree, and she even knew which stocking was hers. I still miss her so much. When she left for the Rainbow Bridge, I had printed her sweet face onto a sheet of vellum paper and inserted it into a glass ornament tied up with ribbon.
Placing her precious kitty face in the best, most prominent spot on the tree was a reset button on our moods, and we spent the rest of the day reminiscing over the stories behind our eclectic ornament collection and eventually lighting the menorah on that seventh night of Hanukkah. And a short-lived peace fell upon us.
I have been reflecting on a message that our rabbi shared in his Hanukkah message, pondering the miracle of the oil. It is easy enough to understand what made the overall event of Hanukkah miraculous—the oil being enough to keep the eternal lamps going for eight nights, despite the fact there was only one night’s worth of oil in the jar—but what was the big deal about the first night, for which the oil was already sufficient? As Rabbi Mark put it, the miracle of the first night was that the people had faith to go ahead and light the lamp. They had no idea what would happen on the other nights, but they trusted that things would work out, and that it wouldn’t be by their own figuring or planning or careful conservation of oil. Without their faith on that first night, the miracle would not have been realized.
This is a good message for me. During the holiday season (and any other time I feel overwhelmed), my default mode is to freeze up and fret about whatever it is I’m running short of, and it’s always something: time, resources, strength, faith, help, extension cords. This year feels particularly rough—we had no sooner returned from our fabulous, much-needed vacation, and it was time to dismantle the kitchen for six weeks of remodeling, which wrapped up (mostly) at the start of what was literally the busiest, most hectic two weeks of the year for my day job. Amid the chaos of long workdays, Les and I had to move everything back into the kitchen, then it was time for aesthetic adjustments to the new cabinets just two days before Thanksgiving. Whew. Not 72 hours later came Hanukkah, and now here we are staring down the Advent season and barreling toward Christmas. Yep, I’m pretty well frozen in terms of getting things done, including sharing any of it here on Comfort du Jour. But another thing happened last weekend to give me pause and put my priorities under a microscope.
On Sunday, Les suggested that we take our dog, Nilla, to her favorite downtown brew pub for a relaxing afternoon. Nilla knows everyone at Fiddlin’ Fish, it seems, and we love watching her soak up the attention of the staff, fellow patrons and other dogs. It was a beautiful day and we should have gone. But we stayed home because I felt strangely obligated to follow through on making more latkes (using parsnips, carrots and purple sweet potatoes). I wanted to get that done and posted on the blog while it was still Hanukkah, as if it made any difference. My day in the kitchen did not end well, and if I could go back to that afternoon, I’d make a different decision. Our Nilla turned 13 at Thanksgiving and one (hopefully far away) day, we will have to memorialize her sweet face on the Christmas tree. Doing something together that is fun for Nilla brings joy, and I hate that we gave it up for lousy latkes. This weekend, we will be there.
It is not only the Hanukkah miracle that has been on my mind. There is a well-known story in the Bible’s New Testament about two sisters entertaining Jesus in their home. One of the sisters, Mary, sat at Jesus’s feet, enthralled at every word He spoke. And the other sister, Martha, was busy as a beaver in the kitchen and she complained that Mary was not helping and that she had to prepare the meal by herself. Jesus gently informed her that Mary had the right idea. Martha was missing out on the wonder.
When I’m doing Martha’s kind of “busy,” I can be robbing myself of peace, and when I am caught up in all the self-imposed trappings of the season, I do miss the joy and wonder. What I want most of all is to be fully present for the holiday season, and I will be thankful to see people face-to-face rather than on Zoom calls. I want to experience the pleasure of simple things like sipping hot cocoa by our chiminea on a cold December night. I want to make Christmas cookies—not for the blog, but just because I love making them and never seem to make the time. And this year, for the first time by myself, I’m going to make “crub,” a traditional Norwegian dish that was always on the table at my great-grandparents’ tiny little house on Christmas Eve. It is not a photogenic dish and I may or may not post it later, but it is special to me and tastes like home. Great-Gram, whose crub recipe is scattered across the country with her descendants, had words of wisdom for times like these. She’d say, regarding things that went wrong or didn’t get done, “a hundred years from now, nobody will ever know the difference.” It’s funny how that comes back to me now, and I’m grateful that I knew her.
Les asked me the other night if I was ever going to post the story from our vacation about the fantastic VIP tour I experienced at one of the nation’s top-ranked pizzerias. I’ve been sitting on it for three months now, and yes, eventually I will share it. Others (maybe even you, dear reader) have wondered, “Are you ever going to show us your kitchen?” Yes, and I’ll be excited to do it. But I am busy actually using the kitchen for Christmas and I don’t want to stop to tidy it up for pictures just now. But I promise, soon.
We will always fall short of something at the holiday season. This year, I want to fall short of stress, and I want to open the door for joy and wonder to enter. I hope the same for you! ❤
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!