It is so much fun to spread “love through food” with family and friends during the holidays. It can be hard to decide what the festive treat should be, but if you like to give homemade goodies, and can follow some simple guidelines, you will feel and look like a pro, and have your loved ones impressed by your efforts!
Brittles. Brittles are an easy and decorative gift with peanut and almond brittle being the most common during the holidays. These nutty, sweet, candies are extremely versatile. I’ve included brittle in spiced pumpkin cookies, chocolate brownies, and folded it into ice cream. Put your favorite brittle in the food processor until it is the texture of sugar, sprinkle on your favorite Brulée, and use the kitchen blowtorch to form the crunchy caramelized top we all love!
To create a successful brittle. sugar syrup must be cooked to what is called the hard-crack stage. the syrup must solidify when cooled, break easily when snapped, and no longer feel sticky. At this stage, the syrup will register between 305° and 310°F on a candy thermometer. BE CAREFUL when handling the sugar mixture, as it can easily burn.
Add baking soda or butter to make a more delicate brittle. You want the candy to be truly brittle so that it breaks when you bite it, rather than turning into a hard candy that must be sucked like a lollipop or toffee. By adding baking soda to the sugar syrup, you unleash a zillion minuscule air bubbles that give the candy a porous, delicate texture. Butter also helps to make the candy tender and easier to chew, as well as adding its own rich flavor.
Another trick is to prepare the brittle from start to finish in the microwave. This method works great if doing it the traditional way is just not your cup of tea. The results are quite pleasing, and cleanup is definitely easier.
Spiced Nuts. Seasoned nuts are a great evening starter, and a fun gift. Mixing different varieties or singling out a favorite, is half the fun! Some of my favorites include pistachios, pecans, walnuts, pinenuts, cashews, peanuts, macadamia, hazelnuts, almonds, and adding a variety of seeds like pumpkin, flax or sunflower seeds. A nut mixture can be served warm or at room temperature. Typically nuts are roasted then mixed with butter or egg whites to bind, and tossed in a flavorful mixture of spices. Sweet and Spicy nuts are favorites, use brown sugar or maple syrup and bourbon with cayenne pepper and paprika. Other favorites include fresh or dried thyme, cinnamon, ginger, cumin, nutmeg, allspice, soy sauce, and sea salt. To really wow your friends, prepare each nut in a different way, and then mix them together. Try smoking almonds, and candying pecans. Then cayenne roast walnuts and coconut toast some macadamia nuts. Mix them together and the flavors will really explode on the palette. Try mixing nuts and fruits together like dried cranberries, pineapples, raisins or figs. Get creative with seasonings, and don’t knock it till you try it!
Fruit Cake. Holidays can bring joy and happiness, but it doesn’t mean that family will always agree with one another. My father is a big fan of fruit cake, all my life, I have cringed at the taste and smell of candied, dried fruits and chopped nuts baked into a sometimes moist pound cake-like bread.
I was turned off even by the thought of it, until I tried a friend’s mother’s recipe. She calls it “Black Cake”! The recipe is as follows, and you should start now if you want to be on time for Christmas, as it takes up to a MONTH to soak the fruit properly! I have learned my lesson; always stay open minded, and never count a recipe out until you’ve tried every imaginable method. I am now a believer!
- 1 pound of prunes
- 1 pound of raisins
- 1 pound of dried figs
- 1 pound of dried dates
- 1 pound of dried cherries
- 1 pound of dried apricots
- 1 pound of dried peaches
- 8 oz of candied pineapple
- 8 oz of candied oranges
- 8 oz of candied lemons
- 8 o of pecans, hand chopped small, not in a blender (can also use walnuts or almonds)
- 1 pound of cake flour (no need to add baking powder)
- 8 oz of dark brown sugar
- 1 pound of white sugar
- 1 pound of sweet butter
- 1 tsp of salt
- 1 ½ tsp of vanilla
- 1 Bottle of Amaretto (can also use brandy or cognac)
- 1 Bottle of Frangelico
- 1 dozen large eggs
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Chop the fruits and nuts into bite size pieces. Put into a very large plastic container (DO NOT USE METAL)* Completely cover all the chopped fruits and nuts with the Frangelico and Amaretto. Cover tightly and put into a cool, dry spot. Let it stand for a month, checking weekly to be sure that fruit remains completely covered with liquid. Add additional liquors as necessary.
After 30 days drain the excess liquid from the marinated fruit, reserving the liquid to use later. Cream together the butter and sugar and the vanilla extract. Beat eggs for 3 minutes on the low setting on your electric mixer. Add to the sugar/butter mixture. Add salt to flour, gradually incorporate flour mixture into the creamed butter mixture.
Next add the marinated fruit/nut mixture mixing until your batter is the consistency of a traditional cake batter. If necessary, add flour, as the fruit mixture will be very ‘wet.’
Lightly butter and flour baking pans. (I like to use the small individual loaf pans.) Pour batter into pans ¾ full. Cook until toothpick inserted comes out clean. Be sure to check on cakes periodically, if top begins to darken, cover with aluminum foil to prevent burning. Depending on the size of your pan cooking time can take up to an hour (bundt pan).
Cool cakes completely. Using toothpick, prick cakes and drizzle reserved liquor over cakes. Repeat until all liquor has been ‘soaked’ up.
I wish you all a season full of love and success. We have a lot to be thankful for. Share your love through the taste of food. For now, Good Luck and Good Eating!