How Sweet It Is!

Creative pursuits have been the backbone of who I am as far back as I can remember, down deep in my DNA. My passions, to name a few, include gardening, cooking, home decorating, designing, painting, ceramics, and baking, a long-time treasured artistic outlet of mine much to the delight—or not—of certain family and friends.

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This holiday season I’m baking annual favorites along with some tasty newcomers. You may remember that last year, Russ and I made Golden Cashew-Curry Brittle that was out-of-this-world addicting and is now on our traditions short list, at least for the forseeable future. Although, after trying to refrain from munching on it, we may have to call the Brittle Addiction Hotline…

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One tradition I feel honor-bound to repeat every year is the Decorated Sugar Cookie from my childhood. And with each passing year, I try to finesse my icing and decor techniques bolstered by examples found in magazines and on the Internet—which never seem to measure up, but practice makes perfect, right?

You can find the recipe under the Sentimental Favorites tab (just scroll down a bit.) In fact, I’m a bit of a fanatic on this subject and nearly 10,500 pins—and counting—on my “Decorated Cookies” Pinterest board. Who knows, in my retirement with enough practice, you might see me on the Food Network TV show battling it out on Holiday Cookie Wars 😉

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It’s also not uncommon that we include M&M Cookies in the mix. But this year I tweaked the recipe a touch, using gluten-free baking flour so that Russ could enjoy them. For a colorful, festive approach and to brighten up the cookie array, I added the rainbow-colored dark chocolate M&M’s. But what a friggin’ disaster—and it wasn’t the gluten-free flour!

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It took Herculean effort to scrape this mess off of the baking sheet.

On the list of ingredients I had previously written in the new amounts if I were to double or triple the recipe. Well, I must have been experiencing a severe senior moment because I screwed up and added some of the amounts from each column. When Russ got home and saw the baking sheet in the oven with one large flat blob of molten dough, he looked at the instructions and asked how much flour I added. Duh… it wasn’t only the flour that I miscalculated… and then the next batch I wondered what was taking so long and realized I had inadvertently turned off the oven!! That’s when I started questioning my own sanity…

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Another custom I began a few years ago was including some sort of Chocolate Bark to my stockpile of artisan holiday goodies. Last season it was Dark Chocolate Mint Bark with Famous chocolate cookie wafers sandwiched between two layers of luscious white (tinted green) and dark chocolate then topped with chopped Andes Creme De Menthe Thins—a crowd pleaser for sure. For a similar flavor composite, but with only two ingredients, this year I whipped up several batches of Magic Mint Chocolate Bark topped with roasted almonds—seriously, it can’t get any easier than this folks!

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Joining us at the table this season were numerous batches of the show-stopper Peanut Butter and Chocolate Extravaganzas with Ganache Filling—with a holiday twist. This recipe is a mix of two classics: Peanut Butter Blossoms and thumbprint cookies. In this version, a little cocoa powder is added to the peanut butter cookies, and peanut butter is incorporated with the chocolate center—then topped with a red and a green M&M, how festive!

There aren’t many people I know (if any) who don’t like the peanut butter and chocolate combo. There’s something about that nutty, warm peanut butter mixing with a kiss of delicately sweet or dark chocolate. Why is it an irresistible favorite? Partly because about 90 percent of taste is the result of smell, and in the case of the peanut butter and chocolate partnership, the complex interplay of their odors works very well indeed.

Luckily I don’t have much of a sweet tooth otherwise I’d be 50 pounds heavier each January. Yes, I do taste some of most items, but in very small doses. The fun of it for me is in the creation and seeing the smiles on loved ones faces as they taste the holiday delights! Packaged all together they make great gifts for friends and family from afar, as well as those who stop by for a visit.
Wishing you all a happy, healthy and sweet New Year!

Magic Mint Chocolate Bark

Ingredients (for a single batch)

  • 1 2/3 cups (10-oz. pkg.) Nestle Toll House Dark Chocolate & Mint Morsels
  • 1/3 cup coarsely chopped oven roasted or toasted almonds

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After the morsels emerge from the oven, swirl the tip of a butter knife through all of the chocolate.

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You swirled sheet of chocolate should resemble this effect.

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While the chocolate is still warm sprinkle on the chopped roasted almonds and drop the baking sheet onto the counter so the nuts settle into the chocolate.

Directions

  1. PREHEAT oven to 325° F. Line small baking sheet with foil or parchment paper.
  2. POUR morsels onto prepared baking sheet. Arrange morsels so they are touching each other in a single layer (roughly an 11 x 9-inch rectangle).
  3. BAKE for 1 to 3 minutes or until morsels are shiny. Morsels will retain their shape. Remove from oven to wire rack. With tip of butter knife or wooden pick, immediately swirl morsels to create a swirled pattern.
  4. SPRINKLE with nuts. Hold baking sheet 3 inches above counter and drop to settle nuts into melted morsels. Refrigerate for 1 hour or until firm. Break into pieces. Store in airtight container in refrigerator.

VARIATION: Substitute broken pretzel pieces or another nut of choice for the almonds.

Peanut Butter and Chocolate Extravaganzas

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Ingredients

For the cookies:

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons natural unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine salt
  • 8 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 stick), at room temperature
  • 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons packed dark brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1/3 cup natural-style creamy peanut butter (no sugar added)
  • 1 large egg, at room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the ganache filling:

  • 3 ounces semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon natural-style creamy peanut butter (no sugar added)
  • 1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon heavy cream

To garnish:

  • 1 each red and green M&M per cookie

Instructions

For the cookies:

  1. Heat the oven to 350°F and arrange the racks to divide the oven into thirds. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.
  2. Combine the flour, cocoa, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl and whisk to aerate and break up any lumps; set aside.
  3. Combine the butter and sugars in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Mix on medium speed until lightened in color and fluffy, about 3 to 4 minutes. Stop the mixer and scrape down the beater and sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula.
  4. Add the peanut butter, egg, and vanilla and mix on medium speed until smooth, about 1 minute. Reduce the speed to low, add the reserved flour mixture, and mix just until the dough comes together.
  5. Scoop 16 level tablespoons onto each prepared baking sheet. Roll each portion between your hands to form a smooth ball and place them back on the baking sheet about 1 inch apart.
  6. Bake both sheets for 8 minutes. Rotate the sheets from top to bottom and front to back and bake until the cookies are set around the edges but still soft in the center, about 6 to 7 minutes more.
  7. Remove the sheets to wire racks and immediately use the back of a round teaspoon or the end of a large-handled wooden spoon to make an indentation in the center of each cookie. Let the cookies cool completely on the baking sheets, about 10 to 15 minutes. Meanwhile, make the filling.

For the ganache filling:

  1. Place the chocolate and peanut butter in a medium heatproof bowl; set aside.
  2. Place the cream in a small saucepan over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Pour over the chocolate and peanut butter and let stand until the chocolate softens, about 5 minutes. Stir until evenly combined and smooth.
  3. Fill the indentation of each cookie with about 1 teaspoon of the ganache filling, top with one each red and green M&M, and let sit until set, about 1 hour.
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