Another holiday season. Another batch of Holiday Treat Recipe Contest winners to offer inspiration.
We received dozens of entries from Triangle home cooks. We tested and tasted about 20 of them to come up with these eight winners. Surprisingly this year, we only received a few recipes in the two candy categories, especially the non-chocolate candy. So we decided to pick three winners where the entries were robust – the other cookie category – and only share one non-chocolate candy recipe.
Our grand prize winner this year is the Salted Orange Caramels dipped in Coffee Chocolate from Anne Brill, 69, of Cary.
It is not surprising that Brill won the grand prize. She is well known to us, having placed in some of our previous contests; her Buckeyes candy won an honorable mention in the 2012 Holiday Treat Recipe Contest and her apple pie with raspberry liqueur-soaked dried cherries placed in a 2007 pie recipe contest.
Brill explained that she has been making English toffee to give away to friends at Christmas for at least 25 years. “But I grew tired of making the same thing each year,” Brill wrote in an email. “About the time the holiday treat contest was announced, our daughter brought us a box of caramels from New Orleans, caramels half dipped in dark chocolate and decorated with a row of sea salt. They were a delight to the eye and the palate.”
I loved the result!
Taking a tip from Food Network star Ina Garten, Brill added coffee to the chocolate and orange extract to the caramel. “I loved the result!” she wrote.
We did too. Congratulations to Brill and all our other winners.
Thank you to all our volunteer bakers and judges: Matt Lardie, Jill Warren Lucas, Debbie Moose, Felice Bogus, Claire Cusick, Matthew Glassman, Colleen Minton, Elliot Acosta, Kim Alexander, Johanna Kramer, Tom and Kathleen Loescher, Chana Lynn, Lucy Martinez, Jennifer Palcher-Silliman, Troy McHenry, Stacey Sprenz and Gabrielle Kaasa.
Salted Orange Caramels Dipped in Coffee Chocolate
This is the grand prize winning recipe as well as first place winner in the chocolate candy category. From Anne Brill, 69, of Cary. Her advice: Making caramels can be tricky, but if you follow these cardinal rules, you will be successful. Avoid heat in the higher ranges; brush down sugar crystals from the side of the pan when making the syrup; try not to stir the mixtures; watch your candy thermometer vigilantly; and do not make on a humid day.
3/4 cup heavy cream
4 tablespoons salted butter, divided and cubed, at room temperature
3/4 teaspoon orange extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons sea salt crystals
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon shortening
1 3/4 teaspoons decaffeinated instant coffee granules
Line an 8- or 9-inch square pan with aluminum foil and spray the inside with cooking spray.
Heat the cream, 2 tablespoons butter, orange extract and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a small saucepan over medium-high heat until the mixture begins to boil. Remove from heat, cover, and keep warm while you cook the syrup.
Combine corn syrup and sugar in a 4-quart heavy-duty saucepan, fitted with a candy thermometer. Heat over medium low heat and cook, stirring gently, to make sure the sugar melts smoothly. Wipe down the sides of the pan with a pastry brush dipped in hot water to dissolve any sugar crystals on the sides. Once the sugar is evenly moistened, do not stir, but swirl the pan as necessary to keep it from getting any hot spots.
Cook until the syrup reaches 310 degrees. The mixture will turn a deep, golden amber. To get an accurate reading while the syrup is cooking, tilt the saucepan to make sure the bulb of the thermometer is fully submerged.
Turn off the heat and, using a clean spoon, carefully stir in the warm cream mixture (mixture will violently bubble), until smooth.
Turn the heat to medium-low and cook to 260 degrees. This stage requires patience and cannot be rushed. As it cooks, do not stir; swirl the pan if necessary. Be vigilant as the thermometer approaches 260 degrees.
Remove the pan from the heat, lift out the thermometer, and use a clean spoon to stir in the remaining 2 tablespoons butter until melted and smooth.
Pour the mixture into prepared loaf pan. Set on a wire rack and let cool completely. Once cool, lift out the caramel, peel away foil, and cut caramel with a long, sharp knife into 1-by-1-inch pieces and place them on wax paper.
Measure 2 tablespoons sea salt and put in a zip-top plastic bag and seal. Use meat tenderizer or back of spoon to gently break larger crystals so they are all about the same size, but still large enough to handle easily. Set aside.
Place the chocolate chips and shortening in the top of a double boiler with the bottom pan filled half way up with water, being careful not to have the hot water touch the bottom of the top pan. Heat the chips and shortening over low heat and do not let any water touch the chocolate. Stir occasionally until the chocolate is melted. Add the instant coffee granules and stir, getting the mixture as smooth as possible. (Some granules may still appear, but dipping will be fine.) Taste at this point to determine if you prefer more coffee flavor, in which case add 1 teaspoon more at a time to taste. Remove from heat but keep pan over hot water.
Using your fingers, dip each caramel halfway into the chocolate mixture, covering half of each piece in chocolate. Dip all the pieces and place them on wax paper to set. After all the caramels are dipped, use either your fingers (or tweezers if you prefer) to place a small row of sea salt crystals along the edge of the chocolate across the middle of the caramel. If any chocolate edges are uneven, after the chocolate sets, use a sharp knife to square up the sides.
Storage: These caramels can be placed individually in paper candy cups for boxing or wrapped in waxed paper. They should not be stacked without waxed paper separating them or they could stick together. Store in an air-tight container in a cool place and they will keep for about one month.
Yield: 18-24 pieces
Charlie Chaplin Candy
This recipe from Veronica Bucki, 74, of Cary won second place in the chocolate candy category. Bucki wrote: “My mother in-law enjoyed this candy from The Garden of Sweets, a candy-ice cream shop in Buffalo, N.Y. My sister-in-law found or created this recipe which was very similar to the one in the chocolate shop. I make it for my family every holiday.”
12 ounces milk chocolate chips
1 cup crunchy peanut butter
3 cups miniature marshmallows
1 1/2 cups unsweetened, shredded coconut
Place chocolate chips and peanut butter in microwave safe bowl; heat in the microwave for 1 to 2 minutes until melted enough to stir smooth. Add marshmallows, a handful at a time, while stirring. Then stir in coconut. Shape mixture into 3-inch logs and place onto wax paper. Roll up wax paper to cover logs and refrigerate for 1 hour. Slice into one-inch pieces to serve and refrigerate the remainder.
Yield: about 8 logs.
This recipe from Ginny Nugent of Apex tied for first place in the drop cookie category. Pine nuts can be expensive; Nugent recommends buying them at Trader Joe’s where she has found 8 ounces for $7.99.
3 egg whites
1 cup sugar
1 cup powdered sugar
1 pound (16 ounces) almond paste, cut into 1/4-inch slices
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 1/2 to 2 pounds pine nuts
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Place egg whites in a large bowl or the bowl of a mixer; beat on low speed for about 1 minute. Add sugars slowly until blended. Break almond paste into small pieces and drop into batter while blending. Add vanilla and almond extracts.
Place pine nuts in a medium bowl. Set aside.
The batter is very sticky so use an ice cream scoop to pick up batter and form into teaspoon-sized balls. Drop balls of dough into pine nuts and roll to thoroughly coat. Place on baking sheet. Bake for 10-15 minutes; check at 10 minutes and remove before they turn light brown.
Yield: about 36 cookies.
These cookies’ powdered sugar coating forms a unique crinkled design during baking. This recipe from Ginny Nugent of Apex tied for first place in the drop cookie category.
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 squares (1 ounce each) unsweetened chocolate
2 cups all-purpose flour, divided
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup chopped walnuts or pecans
Powdered sugar for rolling
In a small saucepan, melt butter and chocolate over low heat, 8 to 10 minutes. Cool. In large mixing bowl, combine melted chocolate mixture, 1 cup flour, sugar, eggs, baking powder and salt. Beat at medium speed, scraping bowl often, until well mixed, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in remaining 1 cup flour and the nuts. Cover, refrigerate until firm, at least 2 hours.
Heat oven to 300 degrees. Shape rounded teaspoonfuls of dough into 1-inch balls; roll in powdered sugar. (If making in batches, return dough to refrigerator.) Place 2 inches apart on greased cookie sheets. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, or until firm to the touch. Remove immediately to wire racks to cool.
Yield: about 4 dozen cookies
This recipe from Marion Laske, 67, of Raleigh won first place in the other cookie category.
1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese
1 cup grated Gruyere cheese
1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Asiago cheese
1 cup grated mild cheddar or Mexican four cheese blend
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
Cayenne or hot pepper to taste
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh rosemary
Sea salt to garnish
2 pounds pecan halves
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Mix together butter and all four cheeses, then gradually add flour. Add salt, pepper and rosemary. Mixture should be soft enough to put in cookie press or, alternatively, roll 1 teaspoon of mixture into a ball.
Put cheese balls on ungreased cookie sheet. Press flat with fingers or the back of the fist. Sprinkle with sea salt and top with pecan half. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes.
Yield: about 19 dozen
Hungarian Fruit Squares
This recipe from Barbara Lewandowski, 76, of Cary won second place in the other cookie category.
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter or margarine, cut into 1/2-inch slices, chilled
2 eggs, beaten
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 (12-ounce) jar apricot preserves
1 (12-ounce) jar seedless raspberry preserves
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Combine flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. Use two forks or a pastry blender to cut the butter into the dry ingredients until the butter is reduced to the size of peas.
Add eggs and vanilla to the dough mixture and mix well. Chill between 1/4 to 1/3 of dough for lattice topping.
Press remaining dough onto bottom and sides of an ungreased 15 1/2-by-10 1/2-inch jelly roll pan. Spread half of dough with apricot preserves and the other half with raspberry preserves.
Roll chilled remaining dough on slightly floured board or countertop and cut into 1/2 strips. Place strips diagonally across preserves to form a lattice. Press around edge to seal.
Place in oven and bake for 30 minutes or until edges start to turn brown
Cut into squares; larger for dessert portion, smaller for cookie bars. Refrigerate any leftovers.
Yield: about 12 desserts or 24 cookies
Chai Tea Crescents
This recipe from Jennifer Smith, 43, of Apex came in third place in the other cookie category.
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup light brown sugar, packed
1 tablespoon finely ground chai tea leaves (Stash is a good brand. Basically 1 tea bag is enough. A coffee grinder is best.)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup unsalted butter, softened
3 cups powdered sugar, divided
1 tablespoon milk or more as needed
1 teaspoon vanilla
Finely chopped candied ginger
Make the cookies: beat butter with electric mixer on medium to high speed for 30 seconds. Add brown sugar, ground chai tea, vanilla, baking soda and salt. Beat until light and fluffy, scraping the sides of the bowl occasionally. Beat in as much of the flour as you can with the mixer and the rest by hand, if needed. Divide the dough in half, cover and chill for about 1 hour.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line two cookie sheets with parchment; set aside.
On a lightly floured surface, roll out half the dough at a time to about 1/4-inch thickness. Cut out crescent shapes using a 2-inch crescent shaped cookie cutter or one large circle cutter and a smaller one to do the same. Place cookies 1 inch apart on cookie sheets.
Bake in the oven for about 8-10 minutes or until the edges are firm and lightly browned. Use a timer and keep an eye on the cookies. They can get real dark, real fast if you’re not paying attention. Cool the cookies on a wire wrack.
Make frosting: Beat 1/3 cup butter with an electric mixer until smooth. Gradually add 1 cup powdered sugar, beating well. Beat in 1 tablespoon milk and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Add 2 cups of powdered sugar, beating well. If needed, beat in more milk, 1 teaspoon at a time until it’s a spreading consistency.
Once the cookies are cooled, spread each one, end to end, with buttercream. Sprinkle the top with candied ginger. Ice a few cookies at a time and add the ginger before moving on to ice more cookies; otherwise the icing will get a crust and the ginger will not adhere.
Yield: about 48 cookies.
Candy Apple Popcorn
This recipe from Alice Stallings of Raleigh placed first in the other candy category. Stallings has used 3 to 4 large bags of microwave popcorn to make the amount required for this recipe. Stallings and our recipe tester found the candy apple kit at Food Lion and Lowes Foods respectively.
12 to 14 cups popped popcorn
Salt to taste
1 box candy apple kit
1 cup water
2 1/2 cups sugar
Place popcorn in a large metal bowl and salt to taste; set aside. Lightly grease two rimmed baking sheets with cooking spray; set aside.
Place candy apple mix, water and sugar in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat. No stirring is required. Cook to 300 degrees on a candy thermometer. Pour syrup over popcorn and toss with a wooden spoon. Then spoon onto rimmed baking sheets to cool and harden; otherwise, it will be hard to get out of the bowl.
Yield: about 10-12 servings.