Mince Pies with Brandy Glaze



There are certain things in life that evoke memories from your childhood.  The smell of your mother's perfume as she tends to your scraped knee, the taste of holiday treats that were baked, unfailingly, each year until it turned into a tradition, and watching those old movies that you can remember from when they first came out.  For me, Christmas memories are filled with the smell of cinnamon and spice drifting through the house, and the sounds of "Oh Holy Night" and other Christmas hymns as the music softly strains through a winter evening.  I almost forgot.  It also, absolutely, without fail, includes the rich taste of Mince Pies.

These little pies are a Christmas & New Years staple in Wales, where I grew up amid rolling, patchwork hills dotted with woolly sheep, and winding roads lined with brick row houses and the occasional thatched roof cottage.  While my mother continued to cook mainly American cuisine at home, she threw in the occasional British treat that we had grown to love.  Every Christmas she would go to a little bakery that sold the best mince pies, and the box she brought home would be received by us all in a hushed silence.  As the lid to this box full of treasure was lifted, you could almost see the lights from heaven shining down on this glorious concoction:) And if you listened really close, you might even hear the "Hallelujah Chorus" being sung.  O.K...I may be exaggerating just a little, but they were really that good.   
 
These pies are a traditional British sweet pastry, that is usually eaten during Christmas and New Years. They can have a pastry top, or my favorite is a mince tart. The mincemeat filling is made from apple, raisins, sultanas, candied peel, spices and either suet or vegetable shortening. Mincemeat originally did contain meat in addition to the fruit, as the fruit, spices, and alcohol provided a means to preserve the meat. But nowadays the meat is usually left out. There are some that still make it with meat, but I prefer not to include it.

This year, I had a craving for these little pies that I couldn't get rid of.  So I determined I would make my own - because really, where was I going to find Mince Pies in my little Missouri town?  Well, my hopes of making some from scratch were dashed, since I couldn't find half of the ingredients I needed, so I settled for a jar of mincemeat filling that I found.  After tasting the filling from the jar, I realized it needed some doctoring.  So I added a little orange zest, orange juice, cinnamon and rum flavoring, and pronounced it decent enough.  The Brandy Glaze was an experiment of random ingredients, but the end result was very tasty.  The ingredients for the glaze are a rough estimate, but it should be fairly close.


Mince Pies with Brandy Glaze
Filling:
1 jar mincemeat filling (or whatever homemade mincemeat filling you like)
1 orange, zested and juiced
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp rum flavoring

Shortcrust:
1 1/2 cups + scant 2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
pinch of salt
7 Tbsp unsalted butter
3-4 Tbsp ice water

Brandy Glaze:
1 cup powdered sugar
1-2 Tbsp Brandy
1 Tbsp butter
1 tsp vanilla extract
milk

For the shortcrust pastry:
Combine the flour and salt in a large bowl.  Cut the butter into small cubes and add to the flour. Using your fingertips, rub the butter into the flour, lifting the mixture up and dropping it back into the bowl – you want to keep the mixture light and airy. Keep mixing until the texture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Sprinkle the ice water into the bowl, a little at a time, and mix through with a fork. Use your fingers to bring the pastry together; it’s ready when and the sides of the bowl are clean and it’s formed a solid ball. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and allow the pastry to rest in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.

For the mince pies
Heat oven to 400F. In a small saucepan over medium heat, mix your jar of mincemeat together with the orange zest, orange juice, cinnamon and rum flavoring. Bring to a simmer and cook for about 5 minutes. Lightly grease your tart pans

Flour your work surface and roll out the pastry as thinly as possible (about 1/8 inch). Cut out approximately 12 rounds with a pastry cutter, and place them in the base of your mini tart pans. Prick all the pie bases with a fork to stop them rising. Fill each case with about 3 tablespoons of the mincemeat mix – don’t overfill your cases or the mixture will leak through the pastry when cooking.  Place the tart pans on a baking sheet, and bake for approx 20 minutes.  Remove from oven and allow to cool on a wire rack.

For the glaze:
In a small microwavable bowl, combine the powdered sugar, brandy, butter, vanilla, and enough milk to reach your desired consistency.  Microwave in 10 second intervals until the alcohol has cooked off, but the brandy flavor remains.  Drizzle the brandy glaze over the tart filling.  Store in the refrigerator and serve cold, with a dollop of whipped cream if desired.

If you want to make mini pies instead of tarts. Brush the edges of the bottom pastry with a little milk. Cut out another 12 rounds for the tops, and place over the filling. Pinch the pie edges together to seal. Brush over with egg wash and pierce the tops with a fork. Bake in the oven for approx 20 minutes until golden brown. Remove from the oven and allow to rest for 1 minute before placing on a wire rack to cool.  Sprinkle the pastry tops with powdered sugar and serve warm or cold.


I hope you had a Merry Christmas, and have a Happy New Years!

Amber


Cinnamon Bark Cookies

Cinnamon Bark Cookies
There are some ingredients that go hand in hand with the holiday season, and cinnamon is at the top of that list for me. Sprinkle it on a dollop of whipped cream that tops a cup of hot chocolate, mix it with sugar crystals that dust a snickerdoodle, or just use the cinnamon sticks as a holiday garnish.  When I came across a recipe for Cinnamon Bark Cookies in my local paper, they looked so festive I just had to make them.  While the ingredients seem simple enough, there is a bit of a learning curve when making these. 

Let's just say my first few attempts to assemble these cookies, resulted in a pathetic mess that you would definitely not want to leave out for Santa.  I quickly disposed of those, too embarrassed to capture my failure on camera, and set about making another batch.  After about the third or fourth batch, I finally got the hang of it, and was able to produce a few that weren't too shabby.  These little cookies are crispy and a little buttery, with a hint of cinnamon.  Yum!

Cinnamon Bark CookiesCinnamon Bark Cookies
Printable Recipe

8 large egg whites
2 cups sugar, plus 1/4 cup
2 cups all-purpose flour
pinch of salt
1 tsp cinnamon extract
10 tbsp unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1/3 cup heavy cream
brown gel food coloring
2 tsp cinnamon

Heat the oven to 375 F. Line a baking sheet with a nonstick silicon baking mat.

In a large bowl, use an electric mixer to whisk together the egg whites and 2 cups of sugar until foamy. Add the flour and salt and mix to incorporate. Add the cinnamon extract, butter and cream, then beat again until completely smooth. In small amounts, add the brown food coloring a drop at a time until desired color is reached, stirring thoroughly between additions. In a small bowl, combine the remaining 1/4 cup sugar with the cinnamon.

Scoop a teaspoon of batter onto the prepared baking sheet. Using a small offset spatula spread the batter thinly and evenly into a rectangle about 2-by-5-inches. Depending on the size of your baking sheet, you should be able to fit 2 to 4 cookies on at a time.

Sprinkle each rectangle lightly with the cinnamon-sugar. Bake the cookies for about 5-8 minutes, or until the surface looks dry. The edges should not be browned.

Working quickly and as soon as the baking sheet comes out of the oven,  use an offset spatula to flip each rectangle over. Tightly roll both long sides of each rectangle toward the center, similar to forming a scroll. Set aside to cool and repeat in batches with remaining dough.

TIPS
* These cookies must be shaped into the rolled cinnamon stick as soon as they come out of the oven.
* Only cook 2-4 cookies at a time, or the rest will cool too quickly before you can roll them.
* For best results use a silicone baking mat, but if you don't have one use a well greased baking sheet.
* To remove the cookies from the sheet, use an offset spatula.
* Spreading the batter thinly ensures even baking of this cookie. Working with the delicate cookie while still warm and pliable is essential.

Cinnamon Bark Cookies  (adapted from Springfield News-Leader, December 2010)


Basic Boule



Is there any better smell than a loaf of homemade bread baking in the oven?  The warm, fresh aroma drifts through the house making your nose twitch and your belly growl.  It makes your family come wandering into the kitchen, circling the oven like vultures, just waiting for the chance to pounce on that lovely little loaf the second it hits the counter.  Poor little loaf of bread.  You never stood a chance.


This recipe is from Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day, and is such a good recipe that is extremely simple to make.  What can be better than mixing up a pot of ingredients, and just letting it sit in the refrigerator to do all the work.  When you are ready for fresh bread, you just break off a hunk of the dough, leaving the rest covered in the fridge.  The method allows you to have fresh baked bread all week long, without having to go through the long process every day.  This bread goes wonderfully with a bowl of warm soup, or it can be used for tasty panini's.  If you're feeling extra naughty, you can just eat it by the handful, all day long.

Basic Boule
(from Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes A Day)
3 Cups lukewarm water (105F)
1 1/2 Tbsp active dry yeast
1 1/2 Tbsp Kosher salt (or 2 1/4 tsp table salt)
6 1/2 Cups all-purpose flour
cornmeal to dust your resting surface

For the Dough: Put the water in a large container (big enough to hold all of the risen dough - I use a 4qt stock pot).  Sprinkle the yeast and salt into the water. Add all of the flour, mixing with a wooden spoon until everything is combined and no streaks of flour are left.


Loosely cover the container, not airtight, and let the dough rise and then deflate a little. About 3 hours.  You can now bake your bread, or store in the refrigerator.

To bake: Dust your hands and the surface of the dough with some flour, and grab a grapefruit sized handful of dough. Gently pull the sides of the dough toward the bottom, rotating the dough until you get a smooth, round boule shape.  Be gentle and try not to deflate any gas bubbles.  The bottom doesn't have to be smooth, you won't see it:)


Dust a pizza peel or the back of a baking sheet with cornmeal to prevent sticking, and lay the formed dough on it. Let it rest, uncovered, for a least 40 minutes, or longer if the dough was chilled. For best results, bake the bread when no longer chilled. About 30 minutes before you are ready to bake, put a pizza stone on the middle rack of your oven, and put a broiler pan on the bottom rack. You can use any oven safe dish if you don't have a broiler pan. Preheat your oven to 450F. Dust some flour on the top of your loaf, and made 1/4-inch deep slashes on the surface of the dough.

Once the oven has preheated, slide the loaf onto the pizza stone. Pour a cup of warm water into the bottom broiler pan and shut the oven door to keep the steam inside. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes until you get a nice brown crust. Let cool completely on a wire rack. This bread is wonderful with a warm bowl of soup, or some comforting mac and cheese.


*Note: You can also bake this bread in a Dutch oven, which eliminates the need to use the broiler pan for steam. I prefer using my Dutch oven for this bread, since it makes the crust crunchier.  Just place your Dutch oven in the oven to preheat, instead of using a pizza stone. Check your manufacturer's instructions for the maximum safe oven temp for your Dutch oven lid.  My lid is only safe to 400F, since the handle is plastic.  I plan to replace the plastic handle with a metal one from the hardware store, but in the meantime I just cover my Dutch oven with a baking sheet when making this bread.


Creamy Broccoli Soup

creamy broccoli soup

Winter has arrived. Gone are the cool, crisp evenings of fall which have been replaced with frigid, toe numbing winter nights that have me snuggling beneath my comforter for warmth. Christmas is my favorite time of the year, but the weather is not. I can overlook this minor flaw, when I am distracted with adorned Christmas trees and twinkling holiday lights. In December, the weather is "festive", as we drink warm cups of hot chocolate speared with a candy cane, and tug on our mittens to go sledding. The snow is pristine white and the words to "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas", play incessantly over the radio.

In January and February however, winter is now an unwanted step-child that we can't wait to get rid of. The lilly white snow has become dirty, making you track muddy footprints through the house, the weather turns your nose an unbecoming shade of red, and instead of feeling like a Christmas elf, you now resemble Grumpy the dwarf. Well, that's what winter is like for me anyway:) So, I enjoy the season while it lasts and when cold weather hits, I invariably make a pot of warm, comforting soup. This broccoli soup is a recipe I've posted before, but it sounded good for lunch today and I thought it yummy enough to revisit.

creamy broccoli soup

Creamy Broccoli Soup
6 cups chopped fresh broccoli
7 cups cold water
1-2 tsp salt
2 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
1 red onion, peeled and diced
1 clove of garlic, minced
3/4 cup half & half (optional)
freshly ground black pepper

Save a handful of the broccoli, then in a large saucepan place the chopped broccoli, potatoes, onions, and garlic. Add 7 cups of cold water, then season with 1-2 teaspoons of salt. I ended up using the full 2 teaspoons. Bring to a boil and if necessary skim the surface of the potato starch.  Lower the heat slightly, and simmer uncovered for about 35 minutes. Add the reserved handful of broccoli and simmer for another 10 minutes. The broccoli should be easy to squash on the side of the pan. 

Now puree the soup until smooth. I used a stick blender, since this is one of my favorite kitchen appliances. It is much quicker and less messy than using a blender. The soup should now be nicely thick, but if you find it too thick you can add some hot water until you reach your desired consistency. If it is too thin, then continue cooking it uncovered until the liquid is reduced. At this point, taste the soup and add more salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Now the soup can be served as is, or if you want a richer, creamier soup, swirl in half of the cream (or half & half) and heat through. Serve immediately. You can add another swirl of cream for looks, with some freshly ground pepper. Or you can sprinkle some grated cheddar cheese, then eat with a yummy crusty bread.

*Recipe Tip: Store leftovers tightly sealed in the refrigerator.  This soup tastes even better the next day, after the flavors have had time to settle in overnight.  This recipe makes a large batch of soup, so leftovers can be frozen.

* Slow Cooker: You can easily make this in your slow-cooker. Just add all the ingredients into your slow-cooker pot. Cook on low for 6-8 hours. When ready to eat, use a stick blender to puree the soup until smooth. Add more water to reach your desired consistency if desired. and salt/pepper to taste.

Source: (adapted from Apples For Jam by Tessa Keiros)

creamy broccoli soup

creamy broccoli soup


Chunky Twix Cookies

Chunky Twix Cookies


A little known fact about me, is that I have the tendency to get bored with making chocolate chip cookies. I am forever thinking of different ways to add a new twist to the faithful chocolate chip cookie.  I had great success with my Malted Milk Ball Chewies, and liked the malt ball candy substitution so well that I began to wonder about other candy cookie possibilities.

My brain train quickly came to a halt at the glorious Twix. Why not chop up Twix bars, throw them in, and see what happens?  Admittedly, it's sorta like putting cookies INTO cookies, but who says you can't do that?

The result was completely awesome, with the development of my husband's new FAVORITE cookie.  After picking up one of the freshly baked wonders, still warm from the oven, he took a tentative bite, not expecting anything too wondrous.  Then the next words from his mouth were, "These are freakin' AWESOME!"

Coming from my husband, who's usual response to a dish he likes is an abbreviated grunt and maybe a nod of his head, this was high praise indeed.  For the dough base I adapted my favorite chocolate chip recipe from Baking Illustrated. These cookies are great out of the oven and still taste good the next day. They can be baked immediately, or if you allow the dough to rest overnight in the refrigerator they develop an even deeper flavor. They are dense, thick and chewy, with a little crispness on the edges.  Yum!
Chunky Twix Cookies

Chunky Twix Cookies
Yield: 24 cookies    Printable Recipe

2 cups plus 2 tbsp all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
12 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted and cooled until warm
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg plus 1 egg yolk
2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 cups coarsely chopped Twix bars

Preheat oven 325°. Coarsely chop the Twix bars (about 1/4-inch chunks).  I like to cut each bar in half lengthwise, and then make several cuts width ways to make even blocks.  In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda and salt; set aside. In the bowl of an electric mixer, mix butter and sugars until thoroughly combined. Beat in egg, yolk, and vanilla until combined. Add dry ingredients to the sugar mixture and beat at low-speed just until combined. Gently stir in the Twix chunks.

Roll 1/4 cup of dough into a ball, place formed dough onto cookie sheet, leaving ample room between each ball. Bake until cookies are light golden brown and outer edges start to harden yet centers are still soft and puffy (about 15-18 minutes). Do not overbake.

Allow the cookies to cool completely on the baking sheet. Since the caramel from the Twix can make the cookies stick a little, I use an offset spatula to slide under the cookies without breaking them apart.  Enjoy!

Chunky Twix Cookies

Chunky Twix Cookies

Chunky Twix Cookies






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