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The pleasures of holiday baking

Shaun Smith speaks to three chefs with new cookbooks to get some delicious holiday baking recipes.
Shaun Smith is a writer, journalist and former chef in Toronto. He is the author of the young adult novel Snakes & Ladders.
What is it about the holidays that makes so many people want to bake? Is it to relive fond memories of homemade cookies and cakes from childhood? Or maybe the holidays are a time to put extra love into the food we prepare for families and friends. Or maybe we just want to spoil ourselves. Whatever it is, since the holidays inspire so many people to get in the kitchen and tackle a pie crust or whip up a soufflé, I spoke to three chefs with new cookbooks to get some delicious holiday baking recipes.

Elizabeth Baird and her test kitchen team from Canadian Living magazine serve up a recipe for lemon cheesecake bars from The Complete Canadian Living Baking Book.

Lucy Waverman takes us back to her Scottish childhood with a recipe for Empire biscuits, found in her new book, A Year in Lucy's Kitchen.

Mary Cech shows that not all baking has to be sweet, with her recipe for winter squash, brown butter and sage soufflés, from her book Savory Baking.

My own recipe this month is for cranberry galette. It is an old family recipe handed down to my mother, Anna, from her mother, Eva. My mother's family hails from Nova Scotia, where cranberries are native and plentiful. To the uninitiated, it may seem unusual to use such sour berries in a dessert, but by adding sugar, this becomes a wonderfully sweet and tart treat that goes beautifully with a dollop of whipped cream. My family's Christmas is not complete unless this galette makes an appearance.

Eva and Anna's Cranberry Galette

A galette is a rustic pie with a very large bottom crust, the edges of which have been folded over the filling to leave a large untrimmed hole in the top. Traditionally, galettes are made on baking sheets, not in pie plates, but I recommend using a pie plate for this recipe — cranberries can release a lot of juice, and if there is any break in your crust then the pie plate will contain that juice. Be sure to use fresh berries; frozen berries release too much liquid.

Ingredients (makes two pies)

Shortcrust for two galettes (If making only one galette, freeze half the dough for later use.)

  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 cup (½ lb.) unsalted butter, chilled
  • 2 pinches of salt
  • 12 Tablespoons ice water
  • 1 egg

Filling for each galette

  • 3½ cups fresh cranberries (the equivalent of a standard 12 oz bag)
  • 1 cup white sugar

Making the crust

Shortcrust pastry is easy to make. The most important thing is to not overwork the dough. The more you work the dough, the less flaky your crust will be. It is also very important to use chilled ingredients.

Cranberry Galette
Put one cup of water in the freezer with two ice cubes. Mix your flour and salt together in a large bowl. Cut chilled butter into cubes about the size of standard sugar cubes. Place the butter cubes in the flour, and using a pastry cutter, cut the butter into the flour until the butter is thoroughly coated in flour and the mixture has a texture ranging from large crumbs to pea-size.

Sprinkle four tablespoons of the ice water over the flour and butter mixture. Using a wooden spoon, toss the mixture together to distribute and absorb the water. Repeat, adding four tablespoons each time. As you add more water, target any dry crumbs, tossing them into the wetter portions of the dough until you have many small wads of dough.

Turn all of the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Dust your hands with flour and then gather all the pieces of dough together pressing them very firmly into one large mound. Do not knead the dough. If any of the dough still seems dry and crumbly, sprinkle on a little more water using your fingertips and press it into the mound. Cut the mound of dough in half and wrap each half in plastic, pressing each half once or twice firmly into a ball, as though making a snowball.

Cool the dough in the fridge for 30 minutes.

Making the galette

Set your oven rack to the centre position and turn the temperature to 400º F.

In a bowl, mix together enough cranberries and sugar for one galette. Butter the bottom and sides of a nine-inch pie plate. Unwrap one ball of dough and set it on a floured surface. Dust your hands with flour and press the ball into a flat disk. If any fissures or cracks appear, seal them by firmly pinching together the edges of the cracks. It is important that there be no holes in the crust through which juices can escape.

Dust your rolling pin and begin rolling out the dough in even motions from the centre. As you roll, keep the crust as round as possible and its thickness as even as possible. Again, if any cracks appear, pinch the edges together firmly. If the dough sticks to the counter, use a metal spatula to flip it onto a fresh dusting of flour. Roll the dough to a 12-inch diameter. Do not trim the rough edges.

Lay the dough in the pie plate. Place the cranberry and sugar mixture in the crust, mounded slightly at the centre. Gently fold the edges of the dough over the berries, leaving a large rough hole at the centre. Beat together one egg and two tablespoons of water and then brush the crust with this egg wash.

Bake at 400º F for 45 minutes. Ovens do vary in temperature accuracy, so watch the galette closely in the last 10 minutes. The crust should have a deep, golden-brown tone, and the berries should be bubbling. Allow to cool to room temperature before slicing. Serve with whipped cream.


Canadian Living's Lemon Cheesecake Bars

(From The Complete Canadian Living Baking Book by Elizabeth Baird and the Canadian Living test kitchen, Transcontinental.)

(Edward Pond)
Elizabeth Baird has worked for Canadian Living for more than 20 years, first as a writer, then as the magazine's editor and for the last few years as director of cookbooks and special projects. This Dec. 24, she is retiring.

"It's the day before my 70th birthday," Baird laughs.

That's right, Baird was actually born on Christmas Day. "And my sister was born two days after Christmas the year before," she adds. "We always have a big, flaming Christmas pudding and blow out the flame."

Baird's final book with the magazine is The Complete Canadian Living Baking Book.

"This is a cookbook for someone who is interested in baking, but may not have any particular skills at the moment and wants to learn more," says Baird, who put the book together with a team of chefs at the Canadian Living test kitchen in Toronto. "There are a few recipes for which more skill is required, but generally they are within the range of any household cook. It is a great reference book if you are looking for a baking bible."

(Edward Pond)

The recipe below for lemon cheesecake bars was created for Canadian Living  by Heather Howe.

"She is no longer with the magazine," says Baird, "but she was our test kitchen manager for many years. She's a very, very good baker. Because the bars have cream cheese, they hit you with both a tart and creamy layer. They are great for dessert or for a tea party."

Baird says she thinks people like to bake at the holidays because of the desire to make something celebratory and special.

"There are some people who never bake except at the holidays," she says. "Sweetness and festive occasions go together, and it is very human wanting to make things special for the people we love the most."

Lemon Cheesecake Bars

A middle cream cheese layer makes these a change — for the better — from the usual lemon squares.

Ingredients (makes 60 bars)

  • 4 eggs
  • 1¼ cups granulated sugar (300 mL)
  • 2 tbsp finely grated lemon rind (25 mL)
  • ½ cup lemon juice (125 mL)
  • ¼ cup all-purpose flour (50 mL)
  • 1 tsp baking powder (5 mL)
  • 1 tbsp icing sugar (15 mL)

Cheesecake Layer:

  • 1 pkg (8 oz/250 g) cream cheese, softened
  • ¼ cup granulated sugar (50 mL)
  • 1 egg

Base:

  • 30 lemon social tea cookies
  • ½ cup butter, melted (125 mL)

Line 13-by-9-inch (3.5 L) metal cake pan with parchment paper or grease; set aside.

(Transcontinental)
Base: In food processor, whirl cookies to make two cups (500 mL) crumbs; pulse in butter until moistened. Press into prepared pan. Bake in centre of 325°F (160°C) oven until firm, about 12 minutes. Let cool in pan on rack.

Cheesecake layer: In bowl, beat cream cheese with sugar until smooth; beat in egg. Spread over base; set aside.

In bowl, beat eggs with sugar until thickened. Beat in lemon rind and juice, flour and baking powder until smooth; pour over cheesecake layer. Bake in centre of 325°F (160°C) oven until edges are set and lightly browned, about 35 minutes. Let cool in pan on rack. (Make ahead: Remove from pan; wrap and refrigerate for up to five days or over-wrap in heavy duty foil and freeze for up to one month.) Cut into bars; dust with icing sugar.

Excerpted from The Complete Canadian Living Baking Book  by Elizabeth Baird The Canadian Living Test Kitchen Copyright © 2008 by Elizabeth Baird The Canadian Living Test Kitchen. Excerpted by permission of Transcontinental. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


Lucy Waverman's Empire Biscuits

(From A Year in Lucy's Kitchen by Lucy Waverman, Random House Canada.)

(Paul J. Lawrence)
"When I was a kid, we used to have Empire biscuits as special celebration cookies," says Lucy Waverman. "They are shortbread sandwiches with jam in the middle, white icing on top and a glace cherry. I don't know if it is a childhood hangover, but I've always loved them."

Waverman grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland, and moved to Canada at age 15. The recipe below for Empire biscuits is a variation on her mother's recipe and comes from her new cookbook, A Year in Lucy's Kitchen. The book gathers recipes in month-by-month chapters as served by Waverman to her family and friends at her home in Toronto. It includes everything from black cod cassoulet, to chilled pea soup with mint, to mustard-glazed prime rib.

Empire biscuits were originally derived from the jam-filled Austrian Linzer torte, and until the outbreak of the First World War were known in the U.K. as Linzer biscuits or German biscuits.

"My mother would make these biscuits at Hanukkah and throughout the holiday season," says Waverman. "She always loved to bake."

(Random House Canada)

Waverman keeps up the holiday tradition today, baking Empire biscuits for her family.

"My husband is not Jewish, so we get to have two parties," she says, adding that she thinks the holidays are a time when people put extra care into the food they make.

"There's a return to baking going on, the younger generation is baking for their kids. I think it is part of the whole movement toward being able to control what you feed your family, the quality of ingredients you use. At the holidays especially, you see a lot of home baking," she says. "People like to use their mother's or grandmother's recipes."

Empire Biscuits (makes 30 sandwich cookies)

My favourite British cookie is simply two melt-in-your-mouth shortbreads sandwiched together with jam and iced with a white confectioners' glaze, but you can also make thumbprint cookies or plain shortbread cookies with this dough.

If your jam has seeds, press it through a sieve before using.

Shortbread

  • 3½ cups all-purpose flour
  • ½ cup cornstarch
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 cups unsalted butter, softened
  • 1½ cups icing sugar
  • ½ cup seedless raspberry jam

Icing

  • 1 cup icing sugar, approx.
  • 1 tbsp unsalted butter, softened
  • 4½ tsp milk
  • ¼ cup dried cherries
Empire biscuits and peppermint bark - both recipes can be found in Lucy Waverman's new cookbook. ((Rob Fiocca))
Preheat oven to 350°F.

Combine flour, cornstarch and salt in a bowl.

Combine butter and sugar in a separate large bowl and cream together until smooth. Gradually beat in flour mixture.

Roll one tablespoon of dough at a time into a small ball. Flatten with your fingers until one quarter-inch thick.

Place half an inch apart on buttered baking sheets.

Bake for 12 minutes, or until creamy coloured and firm to the touch. Cool on wire racks.

Spread half a teaspoon of jam on half the cookies. Top with remaining cookies.

Beat together icing sugar, butter and milk in a small bowl. Add a little more icing sugar if necessary to make it spreadable.

Spread icing over cookies. Top each with a dried cherry. Let sit for 30 minutes before serving.

Excerpted from A Year in Lucy's Kitchen  Copyright © 2009 by Lucy Waverman. Photography by Rob Fiocca. Excerpted by permission of Random House Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited. All rights reserved.


Mary Cech's Winter Squash, Brown Butter, and Sage Soufflés

(From Savoury Baking by Mary Cech, Chronicle Books.)

Mary Cech suggests trying serving the soufflés described below as a first course. ((Frankie Frankeny))
Mary Cech lives in Park City, Utah. When she is not out on the ski slopes with her husband, the highly acclaimed chef, who has been named to the list of Top 10 Pastry Chefs in America by Chocolatier magazine and who has taught pastry at the Culinary Institute of America's Napa Valley campus, can be found developing some of the best baking recipes you're likely to find anywhere.

In her new book, Savoury Baking, Cech takes the sweet out of baking, presenting recipes designed to be eaten before dessert, such as seafood strudel, spicy tomato crumble, chicken Dijon brown betty, and Canadian bacon bread pudding.

"Savoury baking is baking without sugar," Cech says. "If sugar is used at all in these recipes, it is only used as a seasoning, like salt is used, to bring out the existing flavours, not to make the dish sweet. A lot of people don't want sweet. You can make cobblers, crisps and crumbles that aren't sweet, and you can make tarts and cheesecakes and a lot of other things."

Cech created the recipe below, for winter squash, brown butter and sage soufflés, specifically for the new book.

"I love brown butter and sage, and I love it with squash," she says, "so I thought it would make a really great combination in a soufflé."

For your holiday dinner, she suggests trying these soufflés as a first course. "You could make small individual ones and un-mold them warm on top of a salad with a sprinkling of parmesan cheese."

Winter Squash, Brown Butter and Sage Soufflés

(Makes six servings )

  • 1 medium winter squash (about 2 pounds)
  • ¼ cup chicken broth
  • ½ cup finely grated parmesan cheese plus more for dusting and for garnish
  • 1 tablespoon dried sage
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • ¾ cup whole milk
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 4 egg whites at room temperature

Choose from a variety of winter squash with a sweet taste and velvety flesh. I love the delicate flavor and smooth texture of acorn, kabocha, butternut, and hubbard squash. The brown butter adds an accent of nuttiness to the squash. A dusting of Parmesan cheese crowns each soufflé with a splash of pizzazz!

(Chronicle Books)

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Put the squash on a cutting board and carefully cut it in half lengthwise with a large chef's knife or serrated knife. Poke two or three slits into the squash skin and place the two halves, flesh-side down, on a baking sheet. Roast until tender to the touch, about 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool (see Note).

Scoop out the seeds with a spoon and discard them. Carefully scoop out the cooked flesh. Place half in a blender with the chicken broth and blend until smooth. You should have about half a cup of purée. Pour the purée into a large bowl; add the cheese, sage, salt, and egg yolks and whisk until smooth. Cut the remaining squash into half-inch chunks and fold them into the puréed mixture. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Lightly butter the sides and bottoms of six six-ounce (¾ cup) ceramic ramekins and dust them with grated Parmesan cheese. Arrange the ramekins on a baking sheet and set aside.

Put the flour in a small bowl and add the milk slowly while whisking. Whisk until completely smooth. Put the butter in a medium saucepan and melt over medium heat. Simmer the butter while stirring constantly, until it looks brown and smells toasty, about one minute.

Remove from the heat and whisk the flour-and-milk mixture into the butter. Place the saucepan back on the stove and cook for 30 seconds. Pour into the squash mixture and whisk together.

(Noel Barnhurst)

Pour the egg whites into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whip attachment. Whip at medium speed until the egg whites form shiny, medium peaks that hold their shape. Stir half of the whites into the squash base to lighten it. Fold in the remaining whites and spoon the soufflé mixture evenly among the buttered ramekins Sprinkle each soufflé with grated Parmesan cheese.

Immediately place the soufflés into the oven and bake until they are just set in the centre and golden on top, 15 to 20 minutes. To test for doneness, use a paring knife to pry the top of a soufflé open just enough to look inside; it should appear softly set. Serve immediately after removing from the oven.

NOTE: Roast your squash one or two days beforehand, if you like. Wrap and store in the refrigerator until you are ready to assemble and bake the soufflés.

From Savoury Baking. Published by Chronicle Books. Copyright © 2009 by Mary Cech. Photographs by Noel Barnhurst. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Chronicle Books.

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