I love a good holiday cookie or confection as much as the next person, but to be quite honest there is a limit to the number of snickerdoodles or Christmas tree cookies my body can handle. By the time I’ve hit my fourth holiday party, my bloodstream seems to be 50 percent peppermint extract and liquid chocolate.
As someone who loves to bake for the holidays, I am always looking for new twists on old classics. A cookie that has been elevated with an unexpected ingredient, or a nut mix that veers away from totally sweet into slightly savory.
I also love to give baked goods as holiday gifts. A homemade, edible gift shows the recipient that you have put love, thought and care into what you are giving them. After all, this isn’t just a shiny bauble, this is something that they will consume. There are very few things more intimate than eating what another has prepared for you.
The following recipes have three things in common: they are easy to make, they travel well and therefore make great gifts, and they all are slight twists on familiar holiday treats.
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My partner, Harper Hornaday, and I really enjoy cooking with Asian flavors: stir-fries, curries, you name it. My pantry could double as an Asian market. Both of the following recipes have taken a familiar bar and nut mix on a little Eastern journey. Trust me, the detour is well worth the resulting reactions you’ll get from friends and family when you hand over a tin of homemade goodies with a twist.
Matt Lardie is a Durham-based food and travel writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Move over candied pecans, there’s a new favorite nut in town. Cashews are an addiction of mine – I add them to everything. Here I’ve taken the basic formula for candied pecans, switched in cashews, and tossed in a little Indian flavor. These nuts are still sweet with a healthy bit of salty savoriness to them. Do your best to not eat them all before you’ve packaged them up as gifts. Or don’t, I won’t tell! Note: Garam masala can be found in the international aisle of most grocery stores. Unsalted, unroasted whole cashews can be found in the bulk section of Whole Foods stores.
1 cup granulated white sugar
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 1/2 tablespoons garam masala
1 egg white (from a large egg)
1 teaspoon cold water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 cups unsalted, unroasted whole cashews
Heat oven to 300 degrees, placing the racks on the lower and upper third rungs of the oven. Line two rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper.
In a small bowl, whisk together the granulated white sugar, light brown sugar, salt and garam masala until no lumps remain. Set aside.
In a larger bowl, whisk together the egg white, cold water and vanilla extract until light and frothy.
Add the nuts to the egg white mixture and mix thoroughly with a spatula until all the nuts are coated.
Pour the sugar mixture into the bowl with the nuts and continue mixing again until all the nuts are thoroughly coated.
Divide the coated nuts between the two pans, spreading them into a single layer with the spatula.
Bake the nuts for 45 minutes or until the nuts are a deep golden brown; stir the nuts every 15 minutes and rotate the pans top to bottom about halfway through,
Once baked remove the pans and set them aside until the nuts have cooled to room temperature. Break the nuts into small clusters and serve or package for gifts. They will keep in an airtight container for up to three weeks.
For gift giving, divide the nuts between small cellophane bags and tie them tightly with colorful ribbon. Or for a fancier presentation, individual Mason or Tulip Weck jelly jars can be filled with nuts, sealed and labeled with a decorative sticker.
Yield: about 4 cups
Chai Tea Shortbread Cookies
A good shortbread cookie is a baker’s secret weapon – chock full of butter and sugar, and so easy to make, they are devoured by old and young alike. The dough comes together in seconds and keeps well in the freezer, making for an easy do-ahead holiday treat. The addition of chai tea adds a little Eastern earthiness to the cookies that will leave your guests wondering what your secret is as they grab second or third helpings
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup granulated white sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
2 bags Chai Spice tea, such as Stash brand
Maldon sea salt flakes
In the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a large bowl, using a hand-held mixer) cream together the butter, sugar and vanilla until light and fluffy.
Working in two batches, mix in the flour until fully incorporated. Cut open the two bags of tea, add the tea to the dough, and mix until just incorporated.
Dump the dough onto parchment paper, divide in half and roll each half into a log about 1-1/2 inches in diameter. Dust with flour if needed. Wrap in parchment paper and freeze for 30 minutes.
Heat oven to 350 degrees.
After 30 minutes, remove one of the dough logs, unwrap and place on a cutting board. Using a serrated knife, cut the the log into rounds about 1/3- inch thick. Place the rounds on an ungreased cookie sheet and lightly sprinkle each round with some of the salt.
Bake the cookies for 15 to 17 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through, until the edges are barely golden. Remove the cookies and let them cool slightly on the pan before transferring them to a wire rack to cool completely. Repeat with remaining dough logs. Serve cookies immediately, keep in an airtight container for up to one week, or package for gifts.
For gift giving, these cookies are best given as gifts in a tin or box. They’ll ship well if wrapped in parchment and secured inside a box or tin, with a little extra crumpled parchment for padding.
Yield: about 48 cookies
Blondies have a reputation (undeservedly, if you ask me) as the inferior cousin of the brownie. No longer! These blondies are gooey, sweet, salty and riddled with shredded sweet coconut and flecks of tangy lime zest. They almost taste healthy! Almost…
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
Pinch kosher salt
2 cups light brown sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Zest of 3 medium limes
2 cups shredded, sweetened coconut
Melt the butter in a small saucepan and place to the side to cool slightly.
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9-inch-by-13-inch baking pan with parchment paper (leaving a bit hanging over the edges and pushing and pleating the parchment down into the sides of the pan), and then grease the parchment. Set aside.
In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Set aside.
In a large bowl, whisk together the slightly cooled melted butter, light brown sugar, eggs and vanilla until smooth.
Fold the flour mixture into the sugar mixture until mostly blended together.
Add the lime zest and coconut and fold a few more times, just to incorporate.
Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and bake for 45 minutes, or until a knife inserted into the center comes out mostly clean.
When finished baking, remove the pan from the oven and set aside until the blondies have cooled. Once completely cooled, carefully lift the blondies out of the pan using the edges of the parchment and set onto a cutting board.
Cut the blondies into about 36 pieces, approximately 2 inches by 1-1/2 inches. Serve at room temperature or package for gifts.
To store, place all of the bars side by side (as if going back into the pan) on a large piece of clean parchment paper. Wrap the bars in the parchment paper, and then wrap again tightly in plastic wrap. They will keep this way for about a week at room temperature or up to a month in the freezer.
For gift giving, use small cellophane bags tied with string or decorative ribbon. If you are planning on shipping the blondies, wrap each gift portion as mentioned above, in the parchment and plastic, and then place that package inside a cookie tin or otherwise lidded container. Do not ship frozen as the blondies may condensate inside the package as they defrost en route to their destination, and no one likes a soggy blondie.
Yield: approximately 36 bars