When my house is overflowing with shards of toffee, piles of spiced nut mix, mountains of cookies, stacks of brownies, and buckets of homemade caramel popcorn, it must be the holiday season, right? I’m not even arguing that as a food blogger, I prepare for the holidays months in advance for my imaginary publishing schedule. I honestly have a list of names to match with homemade gifts to be hand delivered this weekend. Three months ahead of my normal confectionary madness!
It all came about innocently enough. I baked some cookies a couple of weeks ago. I then casually promised a good friend I will bring him a few when I see him this weekend in Minnesota. I realized I will also see many other friends from all over the continent. If I give them my small token of appreciation this weekend, I can save lots of money from shipping cost have I wait until December. Dollar signs danced before my eyes. Before I could even calm myself down with a mug of peppermint cocoa, I turned my kitchen into Santa’s workshop.
Since this was all rather spontaneous, I made up my selections as I went along. The salty sweet combination of pretzels, peanuts, and toffee caught my fancy early on. Large nuggets of roasted Virginia peanuts and crunchy pretzel waffles were embedded in honey toffee. True to the name, these hard candies were brittle. But as I kept chewing, the honey lend a pleasant chewy finish to these treats. The sprinkle of fleur de sel helped to keep them from tasting cloying.
I can never cook just one batch of caramel. What strange affliction do I suffer! After painstakingly blanching two cups of almonds, I threw them into a pot along with some sugar and butter. Almond Ding (or candied almonds) is a favourite treat especially when caramel cooking has gone awry. It happens to the best of us. On days when I am not diligent enough, I let my caramel turn grainy through crystallization. Don’t let disappointment drive you to wash away the ruined ingredients because you can save it! Simply throw in handfuls of blanched almonds, a pinch of salt, and optionally a pinch of spice such as pumpkin pie spice, quartre epices, ras el hanout, or garam masala. Keep stirring vigorously to encourage the sugar to turn sandy. When the mixture is the colour of a cafe au lait, tip the candied almonds onto a sheet pan lined with parchment paper in a single layer. Once it completely cools down, break it into bite size pieces and you can enjoy some delicious homemade candied almonds.
Few things beat the comfort of chocolate chip cookies and fudgy brownies. I used to scoff at the idea of making such “boring” things but I have since realized enjoyment weighs more than culinary gymnastics. People gravitate to the familiar. When they reach for a cookie, they are probably not looking for a taste challenge. For my gifts, I included two of my recent favourites for the classics: Cook’s Country Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies (recipe) and Apricot Almond Brownies (recipe).
I don’t know what kept me away from making caramel popcorn at home. All you need to know is that I regret all the time wasted in front of the television without a bucket of this addictive snack. I followed the recipe for Caramel Popcorn with Peanuts & Chocolate from BAKED Explorations with the exception that I baked the caramel-coated popcorn extra long time. I wanted every single kernel to be crunchy through and through. Cooking a batch of caramel and tempering both milk and dark chocolate indeed dirtied a lot of pots and pans. I can assure you the result is well worth the effort. I even made the recipe twice within 24 hours so my house was filled with over 10 quarts of caramel popcorn. Go big or go home.
This recipe brought back all sorts of nightmares from my chocolate course in culinary school. We learned to temper chocolate without a thermometer and I never was good at the task. With the assistance of a digital thermometer, you would think I aced it last weekend. Not so. I made three attempts each to temper the dark and milk chocolate all to no avail. Just as I threw my hands in the air, it suddenly dawned on me that I was not using couverture chocolate. At this point I quickly proceeded to bang my head against the wall instead.
I would have stopped my kitchen frenzy with these mighty fine confections but I remembered a few friends who greatly prefer savoury over sweet. I quickly put together this Spiced Nut Mix of almonds, Virginia peanuts, walnuts, and pretzels glazed with maple syrup, cocoa, smoked paprika, and cinnamon. I made this David Lebovitz recipe very many times before. The bowl always emptied quicker than I could imagine.
As usual, my favourite part was to break out my arts & crafts supplies. I adore making my gifts pretty. Due to the lack of time to shop, I fell back on some tried-and-true ideas I used in the past. I bought a few Japanese faux-lacquer boxes for containers. I cut to size some pattern paper to create a liner divider to create four quadrants. The treats were individually wrapped to ensure freshness and ease of transportation. After all, I will be flying with all these gifts this weekend (checked bag or carry on? Oh dilemma!). I highlighted the Japanese theme by decorating cellophane bags and other boxes with sakura motive seals. Handwritten notes will also be included using stationary dotted with pink sakura blossoms.
You know what’s scary? I will be doing this all over again when December rolls around for friends and family in Toronto!