Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Holiday Goodies

Gift-giving has been an important part of the winter holiday season since the holiday being celebrated was Saturnalia. It's one of my favorite rituals, but one thing that annoys me is the assumption that it has to cost a lot of money. During these tough economic times, I hear people say things like "maybe we shouldn't do gifts this year" and "I don't want to end up in debt for months."

I think this is kind of missing the point. For me, the joy and fun of giving and receiving gifts doesn't correlate well with the price tag those gifts had on them at all. I mean, sure it's nice to get something expensive, especially if it's something you could really use that you would have trouble affording, and it's given to you by someone who can afford it, but I don't think the choice here is between expensive gifts that leave everyone with "five months of bills" as the song goes, or forgoing the tradition completely.

One good option is homemade gifts. This is an especially good option for those of us who are unemployed or underemployed and are therefore short on money, but probably have extra time. You can knit a scarf, bake a batch of cookies, or can a batch of salsa. Often these things are much better than anything you can buy in a store anyway.

Just about every year I make a batch of pecan pralines. I've had this recipe for years and don't remember where I got it, so I hope it's ok to reprint it here for you. It's really very simple, and a great first step into homemade candy making.

Pecan Pralines

  • 1 1/2 cups pecans
  • 1 1/2 cups white sugar
  • 3/4 cup brown sugar
  • 6 tablespoons butter (that's 3/4 of a stick)
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
You'll also need a large saucepan, a candy thermometer (you can do the dropping-it-into-cold-water thing, which I did on my first few batches, but that's a pain and really, the candy thermometer is totally worth it), a baking pan or cookie sheet that has sides, some cooking spray, and some wax paper or parchment paper.

Put all the ingredients into the saucepan and bring up to a boil on medium heat. Position your thermometer. Ok, I'm actually using my probe thermometer and not a real candy thermometer (which is supposed to clip onto the side of the pan), but it works. The important thing is to not let the thermometer touch the bottom of the pan, or it will read hotter than what the candy is. I balance my probe on the side of the pan, and the boiling syrup keeps it lifted up off the bottom. I set the alarm for 240 degrees F, which is the "soft ball stage" in candy-making terms. If your thermometer doesn't have an alarm, just keep an eye on it and watch for it to get between 235 and 240 degrees.

It will get really bubbly and foamy. Be careful because boiling syrup is also known as "culinary napalm" for a good reason. When it gets close to pour time, it will stop being as foamy and have fewer, bigger bubbles blooping around. This is the point where if you didn't have a thermometer, you would start dropping syrup into cold water to see if it makes a soft ball, but like I said, that's too much trouble and you really should use the thermometer.
Have a pan ready that's greased and lined with parchment or wax paper to make de-panning easy. My original recipe says to drop it by spoonfuls, but I prefer to just dump the whole thing in and spread it out evenly. Let it cool completely.
When it's completely cool it should lift up off the pan easily in one big piece. You can then bust it up into individual serving size pieces and put it in a pretty tin. Yes, the tin is another monetary investment you have to make for this gift in addition to the ingredients, but hopefully your grateful relatives will give you back the empty tin once they're done with it for refills next year, like they do your canning jars. (Hopefully!) Then stick the tin in the freezer or something so you won't eat them all up before you have a chance to give them away for Christmas.

Pralines are kind of similar to peanut brittle but easier to make, since pralines are supposed to have a crystalline texture, while peanut brittle is supposed to be glassy and transparent, which requires a little more skill to achieve. They're also super-sweet like a pecan pie, but they're full of nutritious nuts, so that makes up for it right?

Of course, Yule is just not right without cookies. I made a batch of this recipe for Jam Filled Shortbread Cookies with homemade peach jam, and they turned out great.

One thing I did, after reading warnings in the reviews of the cookies spreading too much, was to chill them after they were formed, but before baking. I put them on parchment and then slid them into the freezer for a while until they were firm and cold, and then took them out, filled them, and preheated the oven. They only took about 1/4 teaspoon of jam each. I was tempted to put in more, but didn't want them to run over, and it turns out that was a smart move.

Here they are all baked up nice and pretty. Only a couple broke or ran over, so I had to eat those (darn!), and the rest went into gift tins after they were cooled completely. They are extremely buttery and delicate. I'm sure they would do well with any flavor of jam or preserves.

Now I'm trying to decide if I want to bake any more cookies. I've been drooling at some of the cookie recipes on Tigers and Strawberries. I've also already made a Freerange Fruitcake like I posted about last year, which is curing in rum right now. I think I will take that to a Yule campout I'm going to over New Year's weekend. Maybe baking even more sweets is overkill. My fiance is on a diet, so he can't have any, and I'm running out of people to give cookies to.

On the other hand, I don't have any cookies! Everything I've made so far is designated for other people! Maybe I should make some just for myself! But which kind? Tigers and Strawberries has so many good ones I want to try, like the elegant looking Frostflowers (I've always loved pfeffernuesse, actually, the brand I always got were not tooth-breaking in the least), or the yummy sounding Cherry Chocolate Chip Cookies. Even the so-called "humble" oatmeal cookies from that blog sound festive with their cranberries and cardamom. Such a hard decision. It may just come down to how I have all the ingredients to make the oatmeal cookies right now, but I'd have to go to the store to get stuff for the other recipes. And Daniel doesn't like oatmeal raisin cookies, so it would be less tempting for him to cheat on his diet with them. And even if he does cheat, the oatmeal cookies are probably the most nutritious of the bunch.

Yeah, I might go with that and save the other recipes for next year. Which seems so far away! (The Aphrodite Cakes sound perfect for Valentine's Day or Beltane, though, so I might have to wait THAT long to try another of Barbara's cookie recipes, if I can find some rosewater.) But yeah, now I've convinced myself that I MUST bake more cookies!

Finally, one shouldn't forget the non-humans in one's life. They should have holiday goodies too. I just got one of those big seed-cakes to put outside for the critters. One of these days I need to try out making my own. It's fun to watch Mr. Squirrel doing acrobatics to get it.

The woodpeckers like it too. Here's the female Golden Fronted Woodpecker getting some. I've also seen her husband here, and the female Downy Woodpecker than hangs around (she appears to be single), and some chickadees and titmice. The warblers and wrens seem to still prefer the suet.
Lily just likes "helping" with the gift wrapping, as most cats do. Cats always get into the holiday spirit, don't they? Tearing up the wrapping paper, attacking the bows, climbing the Christmas tree. They're very festive animals.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Io Saturnalia, Glad Yule, and Happy New Year to whoever is reading this!

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