counting down and crossing off

 Ok folks, we're getting short on time, so let's do a quick run-down of what's already been checked off:
  • all gifts have been bought/made,
  • almost all non-Santa gifts have been wrapped,
  • Christmas cards finally made it out the door,
  • chocolate sandwich cookies have been dipped in mint chocolate and decorated,
  • Santa has been visited and snuggled with and given the best possible wish lists ("stuff" and a real vacuum),
  • cranberry chocolate chip bread has been made,
  • pie crust is chilling (which will become the base for this),
  • my great-grandmother's traditional anise Christmas cookie dough is chilling,
  • both sick children have finally crossed over the threshold and are headed into well,
  • gingerbread cookies have been baked,
  • various nuts/fruit pastes/cheeses have been bought for Christmas day snacking,
and (lest you begin to view me as too much of an over-achiever),
  • the lace scarf that I began to knit over two years ago, intending to give it to my mother for each consecutive Mother's Day/birthday/Christmas, is so close to being done that I've prematurely crossed it off, too.
Oh yeah, and enough snow fell last night that it appears we may have a white Christmas after all! So things are good here. Despite the fact that last night, in an exhaustion-and-illness-induced delirium, I blurted out Josh's Christmas present to him. Me, the one who hates spoiling Christmas surprises more than anyone. The one who, as a child, always needed to be told exactly where all the Christmas gifts were being stored, in order to give that sacred space a wide enough berth to prevent any accidental discoveries. Me. I ruined Josh's Christmas. (Well, not really, as Josh has been sweet enough to point out numerous times. But still, it's quite out of character of me, and I'm kicking myself for the slip. Josh, on the other hand, thinks it's amusing and charming. Lovely man.)

Anyway, tomorrow is Christmas Eve and things are pretty much under control around here. Of course, we leave in the morning for my parent's house and no packing has been done, or even been given much thought. And those anise cookies still need to be rolled, cut, baked, cooled, and iced - I'm stalling on that one because I can't decide if it would be wisest to involve the kids in the project, or keep them occupied and unaware with a holiday video in the other room. And, sadly, the blog post I had planned for you two days ago never appeared. (Remind me to never sign up for 60 inches of lace and cabling again!)

I was going to tell you about these gingerbread cookies I remember making with my mother many, many years ago. About how they were soft and tender and friendly, somehow. We decorated them with raisins and I'm pretty sure Mom switched out the white flour for whole wheat and would have used honey instead of white sugar, and I was small enough that I needed to stand on a chair, and even then only remember the counter being chest-height. I wanted to talk to you about the curious fact that I don't think it was Christmas-time when we made those cookies, and yet they are THE Christmas gingerbread cookie goal of every batch I've made for the past few years. That decades-old memory just has a festive feel to it, in spite of the absence of an actual holiday. I was even going to poke some gentle fun at Mom, who insists she can't remember making the cookies with me and that I must be thinking of something I did with my grandmother, and yet when Dad grabbed the first baking book he could find, he immediately found the right recipe, with Mom's notes all over it. Go figure.

But like I said, it's almost Christmas and my to-do list still needs a bit more of my attention. As do all the dishes piled up in the kitchen. And my children could use some more parent-child interaction, although they honestly don't realize it, reveling as they are in the novelty of being allowed to watch a video more than once a week.

And yet . . . it is almost Christmas. And with all the focus on giving and sharing, I can't let go of the feeling that I want to give all of you one more thing before I sign off for the holiday weekend. Even if you've already finished your holiday baking. Even if you're completely cookied-out, as so many of us are at this point. I want you to have this recipe. Because, as my memory reminds me, gingerbread cookies don't have to be just for Christmas. The warm spices and decorating-with-kids fun are perfect all winter long, and will be welcomed even without a backdrop of jingle bells and twinkling lights. And if making them reminds you of the coziness of the holiday season? Well, that sounds like a memorable baking experience if ever I heard one.

Wishing you all a wonderful weekend, my friends! May you eat, drink and be merry!

Soft Gingerbread Cookies
yields 3 to 4 dozen, depending on the size of your cookie cutters

2 oz (57 grams/4 Tbsp) unsalted butter, room temperature
108 grams (1/2 cup, packed) light brown sugar
155 grams (1/2 fluid cup) molasses
80 grams (1/4 fluid cup) mild honey
1 large egg
410 grams Tara's gluten-free all-purpose flour mix
36 grams teff flour
1 tsp xanthan gum
1/2 tsp guar gum
1 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp ground allspice
1/2 tsp fine sea salt
1/8 tsp finely ground black pepper
2 fluid oz (1/4 fluid cup) water

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a large bowl with a hand-held electric mixer), cream the butter and sugar. Mix in the molasses and honey. Add the egg, mixing until combined. (Don't worry if the mixture looks curdled.)

In a medium bowl, sift together the flours, gums, baking soda, spices, salt, and pepper. Add half of the flour mixture to the sugar mixture, mixing on low speed until just combined, scraping down the paddle and sides of the bowl as needed. Pour in the water, and mix to combine. Add the remaining flour and mix until fully combined.

Divide the dough into two pieces (it's going to be very sticky), wrap each in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 3 to 4 hours, or overnight.

Preheat oven to 350ºF. Have ready parchment- or wax paper-lined baking sheets.

On a well floured board, roll out one piece of cookie dough to about 1/8 inch thick. As long as you work quickly and keep the dough dusted with flour, it shouldn't be at all hard to work with. If the dough gets too warm it will become too sticky; pop it back in the fridge to cool a bit. Using cookie cutters, cut out cookies into desired shapes and place on prepared baking sheets. Repeat with other half of dough. Scraps may be rerolled and cut, up to two more times.

Bake cookies for 8-10 minutes, or until their surface is dry and they indent slightly when you gently touch them, but are not yet beginning to get noticeably darker. (Unless, of course, you want a crispy gingerbread cookie. In that case just bake them longer and you'll end up with cookies strong enough to use for gingerbread houses!) Cool completely on a rack, then decorate as desired. Cookies keep, wrapped airtight and at room temperature, for up to three days.


cranberries for christmas

My family seems to have fallen off the holiday food wagon.

Actually, we may have forgotten to get on altogether. I think it's that we haven't recovered from the over-indulgences of Thanksgiving. Oh, on the surface it looks like we're full-force into the Christmas season. Our tree is up, the house is decorated, presents are being shopped for, and holiday music is our near-constant soundtrack. (Which would be a bit more tolerable if the Frosty the Snowman chorus was not screamed at maximum volume every time. Children, please.)

But food? No candy has been made at this house since Thanksgiving's marshmallows. There are no candy canes laying around. Until I sat down to write this, I'd completely forgotten about eggnog. We recently sent a care package to my in-laws, and I asked the boys to decide what kind of cookies they wanted to make to send to their grandmother. I assumed they'd choose something seasonal, something that they could decorate with icing or sprinkles. Instead, they chose peanut butter cookies. Turns out they really like pressing their fork on the dough to make that crisscross pattern! So no Christmas cookies for us yet. And my recent baking days have been filled with test batches of gougeres and focaccia. Yummy, but not very festive.

This is starting to feel weird. Every morning, the boys give us a dramatic countdown to Christmas, using their big felt Advent calendar as an aid. And every morning, the flutter of stress at not having done any holiday baking to speak of clangs around inside me with a bit more insistence. Soon, I am going to have to answer it.

'Soon' may be tomorrow, actually. Tonight at bedtime, while I was reading The Night Before Christmas, Wylie inspected the decorative border of one page, spied a gingerbread girl cookie, and asked for it. Immediately, Kalen joined the cause, pleading to make the kind of "people cookies" that he can decorate. Finally, an interest in Christmas treats! And I do mean finally, having been reminded no less than 5 times today that Christmas is "so soon! Only ten more days and then it's here!" So we've got a lot of baking to fit into a very little bit of time!

I have, however, made one thing that, to me at least, is in the holiday spirit: that cranberry chocolate chip bread you see at the top of the page. What? That doesn't scream Christmas to you? Your grandmother or great aunt didn't make and lay out a platter of sliced cranberry bread on a sideboard or coffee table at every childhood Christmas in memory? Really? And you didn't toast the leftovers the next morning and slather them with cream cheese??


Well, whether it's a Christmas tradition in your family or not, cranberry bread feels festive to me. It's got the right color palate, for one thing. And it's a nice, tart compliment to all the overly-sweet offerings that fill (most) homes this time of year. Also, it's quick and easy to make, which is very appealing to me, given all the seasonal demands on my time during this month. Adding large pieces of chocolate to the batter just seals the deal.

I made this bread intending to gift it all to my dear friend Sammy. But I won't pretend that I wasn't pleased to find out that the only unoccupied loaf pans I had were smaller than the 9x5-inch pan the recipe calls for. So I filled one pan to the top to make a decent-sized loaf for Sammy, and - yay! - had enough batter remaining that I ended up with a half-sized loaf for myself! (Yes, I know I should have written "for my family." But really, why kid ourselves?) Over the course of the next 36 hours, I proceeded to eat all but the heal end of the loaf. I couldn't pass by the kitchen counter without grabbing a knife and helping myself to another slice - I was addicted, both to the flavor of the bread and to the rush of childhood Christmas memories each bite gave me. The bread, with its soft, tender crumb studded with bits of chocolate and shot through with the zing of unsweetened cranberries. And my childhood holidays, a bundle of warm, rose-colored memories, punctuated with acute moments of an awareness of the specifics.

When I'd finally had my fill I looked at the measly portion left and remembered that I still wanted to photograph it. So that's what you get: the remains. Not enough for you? Well then friends, I advise that you hurry right into your kitchen and whip up your own batch.

Happy holidays!

Cranberry Chocolate Chip Bread
yield: one 9x5-inch loaf, or two smaller loaves

8 Tbsp (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup plus 3 Tbsp Tara's gluten-free pastry flour
1/2 cup light buckwheat flour (my favorite is from Bouchard Family Farm)
5 Tbsp almond flour/meal (I like Bob's Red Mill)
1/2 tsp xanthan gum
1/2 tsp guar gum
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp fine sea salt
2 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla
5 fluid ounces orange juice (I like to use the kind with lots of pulp)
2 cups frozen or fresh cranberries, cut in half
1 cup semisweet chocolate chunks/large chips

Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Butter the bottom and sides of a 9x5-inch loaf pan, or two 8x4.5-inch loaf pans. (You will only get about 3/4-sized loaves using the smaller pans. But if, like me, your 9x5 pan is packed with ice cream in the freezer, or is similarly occupied, the smaller loaf pans will be fine.)

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a large mixing bowl with a hand held electric mixer), cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. While the creaming is happening, whisk together the remaining dry ingredients in a medium bowl.

Add the eggs and vanilla to the creamed butter, mixing until fully combined, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Add the orange juice and mix to combine. Add the dry ingredients and mix until thoroughly combined (you're not going to toughen this bread - don't worry about over-mixing).

Gently stir in the cranberries and chocolate chunks, until everything is evenly distributed. Be extra careful if you're using fresh cranberries, as mixing too vigorously will result in pink batter. Pour into prepared pan(s), using a spatula to smooth and spread the batter into the corners.

Bake for 55-70 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out nearly clean, with just a few dry crumbs clinging to it. (I realize the baking time seems fairly inaccurate; it's to take into account the two different pan sizes. Aim for less time for small pans, more for a large pan.) About 30 minutes into baking, loosely cover the loaf/loaves with foil to prevent the top(s) from getting too dark.

Cool bread in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes, then turn out onto the rack to finish cooling. Bread keeps, wrapped airtight and at room temperature, for up to 3 days.


a time-honored necessity

I have a book in my kitchen, one of those spiral-bound blank books with a firm cardboard cover. Mine is inlaid with cork, and is decorated with botanical illustrations of cotton plants. The pages are wavy from moisture, and there is structural damage where some of the cork got ripped off. It is bulging, as it contains as many loose pieces of paper, folded and stuffed into it, as bound pages. It is one of my first collections of recipes, taken from magazines and books and friends, and is more than ten years old. (Which probably doesn't sound all that old, but considering that it's as long as I've been out of college, it feels like a long time to me.)

It's an interesting culinary-themed trip down memory lane to read through it, to see what types of food I was drawn to a decade ago. It is also interesting to realize how few of the recipes I ever made. Coriander Mushrooms, Highland Oat Squares, Mushroom Pâté, Tomato-Miso Soup - all untested. Can you tell I was a reader of Vegetarian Times back then? I wasn't even a vegetarian, but I think my post-college craving for healthy foods pushed me towards that publication. That and Cooking Light - I'm sure a lot of those never-tried recipes also came from Cooking Light. There are notes in the margins where I suggest ways to convert the recipes to gluten-free, but nothing to indicate that I ever took my own suggestions.

There's also not much to definitively say where all these recipes came from - most are handwritten onto the pages, and I was 100% consistent in failing to note where I found each recipe. So much for giving credit where credit is due! A scant few, the ones I have actually come back to over and over again through the years, I can remember the origins of. The pâte brisée and pumpkin pie come from Martha Stewart. The guacamole is Ina Garten's version. Bobbie Mills' Cinnamon Cake, which I don't remember making, obviously comes from Bobbie Mills. And although I have no idea who he/she is, a quick Google search reveals that the recipe was published in the September 1996 edition of Gourmet. It's heartening to know I was reading Gourmet back when I was still a teenager, but I do wish I'd had the foresight to save those copies.

Anyway, you probably care very little about my Gourmet-nostalgia, and even less about Mushroom Pâté, not that I can blame you. It's hard to focus on such things when I keep shoving big photos of fluffy, fresh marshmallows in front of you. But you see, everything you just read (or quickly skimmed, or skipped over completely, as the case may be,) really is relevant, if only marginally. Because contained in that overflowing and mostly-ignored culinary relic is a recipe I can't live without.

Homemade marshmallows.

I don't remember how much time passed between my writing down the recipe and actually daring to make it. I do know it seemed simultaneously straightforward and scarily complicated, which is exactly the type of recipe I like to take on. But kitchen essentials like baking pans and candy thermometers and mixers weren't present in my immediate post-college life, so I imagine this recipe had to wait around a bit while I got my act together.

But once I did, I never looked back. And I've never looked at store-bought marshmallows the same way again. Why eat a stale, stiff, dull-flavored sponge when you know how to make gloriously fluffy, satiny, fragrant sugar pillows? Because really, that's what these marshmallows are. So I make them whenever I can - for s'mores over the campfire, for floating in mugs of rich hot chocolate, for topping our Thanksgiving roasted sweet potatoes, for eating out of hand for no special reason at all. They never go out of style, they always get rave reviews, and the more I make them the less complicated they seem. In fact, they don't seem scary at all anymore, now that I know to keep my fingers away from the hot sugar syrup. That plus the fact that I take comfort in knowing any mess made during the making process is easily erased with hot water during the cleaning process. In fact, I used to make giant batches of marshmallows when I worked at the local bakery, and aside from the additional time needed to cut them all, I can safely say that quadrupling the recipe doesn't complicate things one bit. Assuming, of course, that you have a 20-quart mixer at your disposal!

This most recent batch, as you've probably guessed, was for Thanksgiving. I hadn't meant to make them. I had given myself a prep list that was WAY too long, and I figured my family would just have to live without homemade marshmallows for one Thanksgiving. Until I got notes like this: "No pressure Tara BUT  . . . we LOVE your homemade marshmallows," and this: "store bought marshmallows are just fine (though yours really are amazing, Tara.)" Honestly, how could I not make them after that? And that's what's so great about this recipe. It turns out a product that people will ask for year after year, a candy-type confection that seems impressive but really can be done the night before Thanksgiving in the last 30 minutes before you go to bed. (And a lot of that time is just waiting-and-watching-the-thermometer time. Easy to do when you're tired.)

So once again, our sweet potatoes were crowned with marshmallow glory, and I can't believe I even considered not letting it happen. I know that the whole sweet potato-marshmallow dish gets a bad rap, but I'm convinced it's because no one else is using homemade cinnamon marshmallows. Roast a sweet potato until it's soft, split open the top, lay a homemade marshmallow over it and stick it under the broiler until it caramelizes - I'm telling you, it's impossible to turn one down.

And after you do that, you'll have lots of marshmallows leftover. Which is great, because the weather is getting colder by the day and we're all feeling festive and cheery, and there's nothing better to come inside to after chopping down your Christmas tree or stringing lights around your shrubs or simply clearing away the last of Fall's leaves before the snow flies than a cup of hot chocolate topped with real marshmallows, ones that don't immediately dissolve when they meet the heat of your mug. Trust me. Your family will love you for it.

Homemade Cinnamon Marshmallows
yields A LOT - 5 to 8 dozen, depending on the size of the pan

Canola oil, for greasing pan
About 1+ cup confectioner's sugar (I never measure, I just make sure I have a good-sized quantity on hand)
1/2 cup cold water
2 Tbsp plus 2 tsp unflavored gelatin
2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1/2 cup hot water (about 115ºF)
1/4 tsp fine sea salt
2 large egg whites (the whites won't be cooked - use reconstituted powdered egg whites if salmonella is a problem in your area)
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
Special equipment: candy or digital thermometer

Oil bottom and sides of an 18x13-inch pan (for thin marshmallows) or 9x13-inch pan (for thicker marshmallows) and dust with confectioner's sugar.

Put cold water in the bowl of a stand mixer and sprinkle gelatin over to soften. Set aside.

In a large, heavy saucepan combine the sugar, corn syrup, hot water and salt, and cook over low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until all the sugar has dissolved. Stop stirring, increase heat to medium, and boil mixture until a candy or digital thermometer reads 240ºF (soft-ball stage), about 10-12 minutes. Immediately remove pan from heat and pour mixture into bowl of gelatin, stirring until all the gelatin has dissolved.

Using the whisk attachment, whip mixture on high speed until thick, white, and triple in volume, about 6 minutes.

While the sugar mixture is whipping, use a hand-held electric mixer to whip the egg whites in a large bowl until they just hold stiff peaks.

Whisk the beaten whites, vanilla and cinnamon into the sugar mixture until just combined. Pour the marshmallow into the prepared pan, using a spatula to spread it out evenly. Sift confectioner's sugar evenly over the top, to completely coat the marshmallow. Chill, uncovered, for at least 3 hours, and up to 1 day.

To remove marshmallows, run a knife or small offset spatula around the edges of the pan to loosen, then invert pan onto a cutting board. Lift up a corner of the pan and use the offset spatula (or your fingers) to further pull the marshmallow away from the pan, until it releases onto the cutting board. Dust the surface with confectioner's sugar, as the marshmallow will now be quite sticky. Use a large knife to cut the marshmallow into whatever size and shape you desire. Squares are traditional, but I've been known to grease cookie cutters and make duck-shaped marshmallows for Easter, and hearts for Valentine's Day. Toss the cut marshmallows around in a bowl of confectioner's sugar to coat the sides, then use a fine mesh strainer to shake the excess sugar off.

Marshmallows keep, at room temperature in an airtight container, for up to 1 week.

*Note: for plain marshmallows, simply leave out the cinnamon. Or replace the vanilla with another extract (almond or mint are good) for flavored marshmallows. And if you're a food coloring-type of person, by all means add a little color to your confections!
Creative Commons License