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Sweeten your holiday celebrations by baking these tasty treats

Chocolate-dipped tangerine and toasted pecan biscotti. (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)
Chocolate-dipped tangerine and toasted pecan biscotti. (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)

It’s that time of year. Butter and sugar and chocolate and flour come out of the pantry and the holiday baking begins. Cookies and cakes, buche de noel, Chanukah doughnuts, Kwanzaa pies and casseroles.

Holiday traditions are deeply steeped in many families, but there’s always room for new favorites. With that thought in mind, here are four recipes from my kitchen to yours with the hope that they will expand your repertoire and build new traditions.

Chanukah, which began on Dec. 18 and ends on Dec. 26, traditions include serving food fried in oil — specifically potato pancakes (latkes) and doughnuts. These Moroccan doughnuts, dusted in spices or dipped in a saffron-cardamom syrup will add great new flavor to your holiday table. For Christmas, a crunchy biscotti (twice-baked Italian cookie) flavored with tangerine and toasted pecans. The cookie is then dipped into semi-sweet chocolate or served plain. And individual chocolate souffle cakes with a layer of fruit hidden in the middle are surprisingly simple and have a big wow effect. Best of all the mini souffle cakes can be prepared a day ahead and refrigerated or frozen for up to a week. (I’ve given baking times for all those possibilities.)

And finally a sweet potato pie with maple-glazed pecans to celebrate Kwanzaa, which begins Dec. 26 and ends on New Year’s Day.

And it wouldn’t be the holidays in my house with homemade buttercrunch. Every year I make many batches of this sweet, crunchy candy; it’s way easier to make than you might think and makes a great holiday gift.

Sfenj (Moroccan doughnuts)

Sfenj (Moroccan doughnuts). (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)

The recipe for these airy doughnuts comes from an old family recipe of Ron and Leetal Arazi, owners of New York Shuk, a terrific spice company. Sfenj are a Hanukkah tradition in the Arazi household. With the help of their two young children, Lily and Sol, they fry up a batch of these yeasted doughnuts every December.

There are several elements that make this recipe unique. The dough sits until it doubles in volume and is bubbling with life. The doughnuts are free form (no special equipment needed), and fried until golden brown and crisp on the outside, yet still airy and light inside. They are then drizzled with a saffron-cardamom syrup or can be dusted with a sugar and cinnamon mixture. You can also add New York Shuk’s Ras El Hanout or Kafe Hawaij, which bring great flavor to the sugar dusting.

The Arazis will be doing a free Sfenj master class on Zoom on Dec. 22 at 5:30 EST. You can get more information or sign up here.

Make the doughnut mixture at least 2 hours ahead of time and then fry them to order. Like most fried foods they don’t taste great after sitting around for hours. You can make both the cinnamon sugar and the saffron-cardamom syrup, or simply serve one.

This recipe makes about 12 medium-small doughnuts, but can easily be doubled for a crowd.

Ingredients

The doughnut dough:

  • 4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon yeast
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • About 2 cups water
  • Neutral oil, such as sunflower or canola for frying, about 4 to 6 cups


The saffron-cardamom syrup:

  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 5 cardamom pods
  • Pinch saffron thread


The cinnamon-sugar dust:

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 to 1 ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon Ras El Hanout or Kafe Hawaij, optional


Instructions

  1. Make the doughnuts: In a large bowl whisk together the flour, yeast, baking powder, salt and sugar. Add about 1 ¾ cup of water and mix together. The dough will be quite wet and won’t initially hold together; add another 1/4 cup or more water if needed. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and keep in a warm spot for 30 minutes.
  2. Remove the bowl, and using wet hands, fold the dough over onto itself several times. Cover again and let rest in a warm spot for at least another hour or until the dough has doubled in volume and is bubbling.
  3. Meanwhile make the toppings: For the sugar syrup, mix the sugar and water in a small saucepan over high heat and bring to a boil. Add the cardamom pods and saffron and reduce the heat to low. Simmer the syrup until it is thick like honey, about 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and discard the cardamom pods.
  4. Place a large skillet with deep sides over high heat and add enough oil to come up 2 to 3 inches, about 6 cups. If you have a candy thermometer, heat the oil to 375 degrees. If you don’t have a thermometer, heat the oil until it’s hot, but not smoking; place a tiny bit of the dough into the hot oil. It should bubble up immediately.
  5. Have a bowl of water by the side of the skillet. Wet your hands and take about ¼ cup doughnut dough, and working quickly, make a hole in the center of the dough and stretch the dough to form a ring shape. Add the doughnuts to the hot oil a few at a time and fry for about 2 to 3 minutes on each side or until golden brown and crisp looking on both sides. Remove with a slotted spoon to paper towels to drain.
  6. Serve immediately dipped into the sugar syrup or dusted with the cinnamon sugar.

Sweet potato and pecan pie

Sweet potato and pecan pie. (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)

I’m not a huge fan of pumpkin pie, but this sweet potato pie, surrounded by maple-glazed pecans, won me over. It’s ideal to serve for Kwanzaa or any winter holiday. There are a few elements that make this pie special: The potatoes are roasted and not boiled making their texture more appealing. And there’s not a ton of sugar in the pie. It’s subtly sweet, but not cloying.

The pie can be made several hours ahead of time and left at room temperature until ready to serve. Serve with whipped cream.

Serves 6.

Ingredients

  • The pastry (or 1 pre-made 9-inch pie crust)
  • 2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • Pinch salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 ½ sticks unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small pieces
  • About ⅓ cup ice cold water


The filling:

  • 3 to 4 medium sized sweet potatoes
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • ¼ cup sweetened evaporated milk
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • ½ teaspoon ground ginger
  • 2 ½ teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ⅓ cup sugar
  • ¼ cup maple syrup


The maple-glazed pecans:

  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1 cup pecan halves
  • ¼ cup maple syrup or honey


Instructions

  1. Make the pie crust: In the bowl of a food processor, whirl the flour, salt and sugar. Add the butter and pulse about 15 times, or until the butter resembles coarse cornmeal. With the motor running, add only enough water until the dough begins to come together and pull away from the sides of the bowl. Remove from the bowl, wrap in parchment or wax paper and refrigerate for at least an hour. The dough can be refrigerated for up to 3 days and frozen for 1 month.
  2. Remove the dough from the refrigerator and let it warm up a bit, about 10 minutes. Working on a well floured surface, roll out the dough to fit into a 9-inch pie plate. Crimp the edges. Chill the dough while you work on the filling.
  3. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Prick the potatoes several times with the tines of a fork, place on a cookie sheet, and bake until tender when tested with a fork, about 1 hour, depending on the freshness of the potatoes.
  4. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees.
  5. Remove the potatoes and let cool slightly. Remove the peel and place the potato flesh in a large bowl. Add the butter and mash the potatoes until mostly smooth and the butter is melted into the potatoes. Add the evaporated milk, egg, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and baking powder, and beat until fully incorporated. Beat in the maple syrup, sugar, and vanilla. You want the mixture to be as light and fluffy as possible. Pour the mixture into the pie crust and place on the middle shelf. Bake for about 55 minutes to an hour. The pie is ready when it’s slightly golden brown on top and set when gently wiggled.
  6. Meanwhile make the glazed pecans: in a medium skillet, heat the butter over medium heat until sizzling but not brown. Add the pecans and cook, stirring, for about 3 minutes. Drizzle on the maple syrup, stir well to coat all the nuts, and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes. Remove the pecans to a sheet of wax or parchment paper, make sure they are separated and don’t clump up, and let cool.
  7. Remove the pie and place on a cooling rack and let cool for 10 minutes. Arrange the glazed pecan halves around the outside edge of the pie.

Chocolate-dipped tangerine and toasted pecan biscotti

These twice-baked Italian cookies are flavored with tangerine zest and juice and toasted pecans. They are then dipped into semi-sweet chocolate to create a crunchy, not-too-sweet biscotti. These cookies are delicious dipped into hot cocoa or coffee, or served with a pot of tea. They will keep at least 10 days in a tightly sealed tin or container.

Makes about 2 ½ to 3 dozen biscotti.

Chocolate-dipped tangerine and toasted pecan biscotti. (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)

Ingredients

  • 2 cups pecan halves, or pistachio, almonds, walnuts, or your favorite nut
  • 2 cups, plus 2 tablespoons flour, plus more for dusting
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ stick (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, cold, cut into small pieces
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon tangerine or orange zest
  • ¼ cup tangerine or orange juice, preferably fresh (from the tangerine or orange you zested)
  • About 6 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped, or 1 cup semisweet chocolate chips


Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line two cookie or half sheet-size baking sheets with parchment paper.
  2. Place the pecans on a cookie sheet and bake for about 8 minutes, or until lightly toasted and the nuts begin to smell “nutty.” Remove from the oven and finely chop half the nuts and leave the remaining nuts whole. Place the chopped and whole nuts in a small bowl; set aside.
  3. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Add the butter and, using your fingers or a pastry cutter, blend the butter into the flour mixture until it resembles coarse cornmeal.
  4. In a small bowl whisk together the eggs, vanilla, tangerine zest and juice until well blended. Add the egg mixture to the flour mixture and stir with a wooden spoon until just blended. Fold in the chopped and whole nuts until combined.
  5. Generously flour a clean work surface. Using floured hands divide the dough into two equal pieces. Form each piece of dough into a log shape about 12 inches long and 8 inches wide, about 1 inch thick, adding additional flour as needed to prevent the dough from sticking to the work surface. Carefully place the logs 2 to 3 inches apart on one of the cookie sheets with the parchment paper.
  6. Bake on the middle shelf for 25 minutes, or until firm to the touch and just beginning to brown. Remove from the oven and reduce the oven temperature to 300 degrees. Let the biscotti cool for about 10 minutes.
  7. Transfer the logs to a cutting board. Using a serrated knife and a gentle sawing motion, cut the biscotti on a slight diagonal into ½-inch wide pieces. Place the biscotti cut side up on one or two cookie sheets. Bake for 30 minutes, turning the biscotti over halfway through baking time. The biscotti should be firm to the touch and golden brown on both sides. Remove and place on a wire rack and let cool completely.
  8. While the biscotti cool, melt the chocolate over very low heat or in a bowl set over barely simmering water. When almost all the chocolate has melted, remove from the heat. Stir until perfectly smooth.
  9. Dip one end of the cooled biscotti into the melted chocolate and hold vertically to let excess chocolate dip back into the saucepan or bowl. Alternatively you can brush the chocolate onto one flat side of the biscotti. Place the biscotti chocolate-side up on a sheet of parchment or wax paper to cool until the chocolate hardens, about 1 to 3 hours depending on the temperature of your kitchen. The biscotti will keep in a well-sealed tin or container for at least a week.


Variation for candy cane crushed biscotti: For a festive touch you can sprinkle crushed candy canes (place candy canes in a plastic sealed bag and use a rolling pin to crush them and crack them into small bits) on the biscotti while the chocolate is still wet and hasn’t completely dried.

Mini chocolate ‘souffle cakes’ with raspberries

Mini chocolate “souffle cakes” with raspberries. (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)

This is not a souffle in the technical sense of the word. It’s more like a cross between a chocolate molten cake and a mini souffle. The “cake” is done when it’s still gooey in the middle and the top is puffed and domed. It’s not meant to be baked all the way through, but still be ooey-gooey in the middle.

The cakes can be made hours or days ahead of time and refrigerated or frozen before baking. Varying baking times are given below.

Serves 6.

Ingredients

  • Vegetable oil spray for greasing the ramekins
  • 1 ½ sticks unsalted butter
  • 8 ounces good quality semisweet or bittersweet (60%) chocolate, chopped
  • 3 large eggs
  • 3 large egg yolks
  • ⅓ cup sugar
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup fresh or frozen raspberries, blueberries or blackberries


Instructions

  • Place a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 420 degrees.
  • Grease the bottom and sides of six 8-ounce ramekins with the vegetable spray and set aside.
  • Place the butter in a medium saucepan and place over very low heat until just sizzling but not brown. Remove from the heat and add the chocolate; using a soft spatula, stir until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth and somewhat cooled.
  • In an electric mixer, beat the eggs, egg yolks, and sugar at high speed for about 5 minutes, or until light and fluffy. Add the melted chocolate mixture and mix at low speed until just incorporated. Sprinkle on the flour and mix at low speed until just blended.
  • Fill up each of the ramekins about one third of the way. Divide the berries on top of the chocolate mixture and then place the remaining chocolate mixture on top.
  • Place the ramekins on a cookie or baking sheet and bake on the middle shelf for about 15 minutes. If you made the cakes ahead and refrigerated them, bake for 16 to 17 minutes. If you froze the cakes, bake for 18 to 20 minutes. The cakes are done when they are set on the edges but still soft in the center. If you gently wobble the cake the center should still seem wiggly. Remove from the oven and serve hot in the ramekin or, using a kitchen knife, loosen around the edge of each cake and carefully invert onto a plate. When you split the cake open the chocolate should ooze out of the center.


And it wouldn’t be the holidays in my house without homemade buttercrunch. Click here for a recipe or watch:

Watch on YouTube.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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