Our house doesn’t need any excuse to bake. Xak bakes nearly weekly all year round. When December hits however, “weekly” turns into practically “daily.” The good news is, not only does the house smell amazing, these bakes are never just for us. While we do keep some for breakfasts, Coffee and Trek time, or for treats accompanying our daily tea, Xak is extremely generous with his baked goods and loves giving them away to family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, or anyone else who may pop in during a baking session.
The week of Thanksgiving usually kicks off our festivities. During the week of leftovers (immediately after Thanksgiving), Xak uses this time to plan out exactly what he wants to make and when. In between bites of spice cake and sips of Creme Brulee coffee, the schedule is constructed and then put onto the calendar.
For this year, Xak and I decided we would make the following:
- Gingerbread Houses
- Cranberry and White Chocolate Biscotti
- Mini Pavlovas with sugared cranberries (gluten free)
- Cracker Candy (gluten free)
- Sugar Cookies
- Caramel Candy (gluten free)
We had a very busy and delicious month ahead of us!
The first thing on Xak’s list was gingerbread. Now that our Netflix subscription is canceled (sigh), Xak and I have been watching free Martha Stewart episodes on the Roku channel, including an elaborate gingerbread themed episode.
While Martha showed off her edible architectural prowess in the form of a stable and an entire Downton Abbey replica (seriously), we had some more basic goals in mind: 4 walls and a roof.
My History with Gingerbread
The first time I attempted a gingerbread house was years before I knew Xak existed. It was while I was in college living with two of my crafty and creative friends, Elaine and Regina. For whatever reason, we had a brilliant idea to have a gingerbread house making contest between Regina and me versus Elaine and another housemate.
Regina and I prioritized taste over structure which ultimately led to our downfall. Our gingerbread house quickly turned into a gingerbread tent and for years I wondered if I was capable of ever building a gingerbread house. Since that contest, I stayed far away from gingerbread construction.
Although we no longer live together, Regina, Elaine, and I try to find a weekend each year where the three of us can meet up together and do crafty and creative things. This year, Regina and I decided we wanted a do-over of our gingerbread failure. Although Elaine sadly couldn’t join us in our gingerbread redemption weekend, Regina and I were determined to prove to ourselves that we were indeed capable of creating a standing house.
Baking And Constructing
Regina arrived to our house armed with crochet supplies, LEGO sets, and loads of Halloween candy: Nerds, Skittles, M&Ms, chocolate, etc. Plenty of things to decorate a house… or a tent 😬. Xak happily volunteered to create all the gingerbread materials from scratch (including making templates) while Regina and I busily crocheted amigurimi while watching Hallmark films. The whole time, the house smelled simply magical. I peeked in on Xak a few times and he was in baking bliss.
After the gingerbread was baked and completely cool, we were ready for our chance at redemption!
Our mistake previously was not using Royal icing to connect our walls. I think Royal icing tastes foul and I had every intention of eating this gingerbread house. Xak, luckily, had a good recipe to create sturdy but good tasting icing. After filling up the piping bags, Regina and I focused on building our (hopefully) house, and Xak built his own.
All of us were able to successfully build a standing house!!! And not only did the house stand, but the gingerbread and the icing tasted amazing! We ended up eating both houses (minus the lime skittles) in less than a week. Thank you, Xak! 🥰
Cranberry and White Chocolate Biscotti
Biscotti is a twice baked crunchy Italian skinny biscuit or cookie which can contain various mix-ins like nuts, chocolate, or fruit. This is one of Xak’s favorite things to bake. In fact, Xak entered a workplace baking contest with his biscotti recipe and won 2nd place! I was (and still am) very proud!
For our seasonal baking, Xak wanted to make his winning cranberry biscotti with a white chocolate drizzle. The cranberry adds a little bit of tartness and the white chocolate adds sweetness. Xak sometimes makes the biscotti a little softer to ensure that “your teeth won’t break.” Some people like to dip their biscotti into their coffee, but if you get distracted (like me), you might leave it in their too long and then it begins to disintegrate! Xak refers to this kind of biscotti as “biscookie.” Still delicious and easier on your chompers.
For the holidays however, Xak opted for authentic biscotti meaning the crisp version, particularly because he wanted to put these in gift bags. Regardless of which version Xak makes, it’s a high quality recipe and I love it when I open up our cookie jar and see biscotti in there.
Mini Pavlovas with Sugared Cranberries
After our first successful attempt of making pavlovas for our “Casual Tea” murder mystery afternoon tea party, we knew we wanted to do this gluten free dessert again to ensure that our gluten free family members would be able to enjoy something with us during Christmas.
Since pavlovas take quite a while to dry out and since we knew there would be limited oven space where we were staying, we planned to make these prior to our trip. Our goal was to bring the completed pavlovas with us on our trip, and then make the stabilized Chantilly cream, and sugar some cranberries along with a mint garnish right before serving.
When we first made pavlovas, we used raspberries and blackberries, however I’ve always thought that sugared cranberries make any dessert look wintery and festive. I’ve never tasted or made them before and while I normally would freak out at the thought of “winging it” for others, I realized the worst that could happen is… people could just take them off.
Sugared cranberries are pretty simple to make. You make a simple sugar syrup of water and sugar, coat the cranberries, leave them out on a parchment covered baking sheet to dry slightly and then coat them with additional granulated sugar. Perched on top of the Chantilly cream along with a mint leaf and the pavlovas went from a great tea dessert to a wonderful, gluten free, seasonal dessert!
Cracker Candy aka Christmas Crack
When I was very young, I recall eating a buttery cracker with chocolate on it. It was delicious! I also knew it wasn’t exactly healthy which made it taste even better 😏. I had it maybe only one or two times (probably due to the butter content), but it definitely made an impact on me.
Sometimes I feel nostalgic for things I ate when I was young. This includes cafeteria mac and cheese, sausage casserole, and fruit snacks. For whatever reason, I was feeling nostalgic for the chocolate cracker pieces I remembered eating and enjoying so much as a child. I started to research recipes that were similar to what I ate.
I learned that what I likely ate was called “Cracker Candy” or sometimes known as “Christmas Crack.” The name sounds suspicious, but It’s made of soda crackers or saltines, along with butter, brown sugar, and semi-sweet chocolate chips. It’s incredibly simple and incredibly dangerous to have in the house.
Since we knew gluten free family members were visiting for the holidays, we wanted to modify the recipe so everyone could enjoy it. Before our trip, I started researching the best type of gluten free cracker. There are rice crackers and even some Ritz-like gluten free alternatives, but after trying different brands, I landed on Schar’s Gluten Free Graham Crackers. They’re smaller and a little thicker than standard graham crackers, but the flavor is good. Gluten free food can be a little more expensive, so if you’re not gluten free I would recommend using regular graham crackers or saltines.
The recipe is pretty simple. Melt butter, add brown sugar until it boils and then pour over the graham crackers. I used 1.5 boxes of Schar’s graham crackers to fill up my cookie sheet and then broke a few to put half slices to fill in the gaps. One box contains about 3 silver packages of 6 grahams each.
The mixture is then baked for a few minutes and then you rip open a bag of chocolate chips (saving a few for tasting) and sprinkle on top of the covered grahams. You can also add nuts too if you want, but it tastes great without them.
I usually put foil on top and stick it back in the oven just for a few minutes to melt the chips so it’s easy to spread on top. This recipe is so addictive (hence the name) and took incredible willpower to refrain from eating it all at once.
The cracker candy was a huge hit and it disappeared pretty quickly. Definitely going to make this again for next year.
^Truly the highest compliment!
We got a special request during our visit to make tiramisu. Xak makes tiramisu about once a year, usually as a family birthday treat. Since Christmas Eve dinner consisted of pasta, polenta, and meatballs, tiramisu would make a wonderful accompanying dessert.
Tiramisu is a cold Italian dessert consisting of layers of coffee soaked ladyfingers, eggs, sugar, mascarpone, and a ton of cocoa and chocolate shavings. There’s no baking involved unless you make your own ladyfingers. Although Xak and I considered doing so this year, we realized sometimes it’s best to not stretch yourself too thin.
What we were not expecting though is the popularity of ladyfingers around holiday times. It took us three separate grocery stores to finally track down ladyfingers.
Tiramisu does take some time to prepare since it has to chill in the refrigerator. The night before our holiday dinner, we started the layering process beginning with sifting cocoa powder in the bottom of a 9×9 foil pan. We then soaked the ladyfingers in a bowl of coffee (previously made and chilled), and then placed them in the dish. After that, a whipped mixture of marscapone, eggs, and sugar is layered on top. The process is repeated until you run out of either ingredients or room in the pan. To finish off the top, a ton more cocoa powder is sifted along with shavings from some good quality dark chocolate (preferably with high cocoa percentage).
Unfortunately, during the chaos of Christmas dinner, I forgot to take pics of our tiramisu so here are some pics of our 2022 tiramisu. The big difference in 2023 is that I sifted a TON more cocoa and chocolate shavings on the top layer. 😄
The process reminds me of making a lasagna and the end result is super tasty! Maybe next time we’ll even make our own ladyfingers.
Every year, we make a ton of sugar cookies a few days before Christmas. Xak’s family has made the same sugar cookie dough since 2006! The dough includes flour, sugar, butter, eggs, and comes together fairly quickly, but takes about an hour to chill. It’s then rolled out and cut into a myriad of shapes: candy canes, mittens, llamas, dinosaurs, etc.
The dough makes a ton of cookies and has to be baked in batches. The oven makes the kitchen a very warm and inviting place and everyone has a place in the cookie factory assembly line:
- Rolling out the dough
- Cutting out the dough
- Placing the cut dough on trays
- Placing the trays in oven
- Removing trays from oven and placing cookies on wire rack
- Repeat x 20 (ha ha ha! no i’m not joking 😄)
Since I was busy in the cookie assembly line, I failed to take many pictures, but here are the few I managed to take.
After the cookies are cooled, we make icing out of sugar, light corn syrup, and a little bit of milk. This year, we also used some vanilla frosting with a little bit of powdered sugar to stabilize it. After the icing and frosting are piped or spread on, then comes the decorations and then everyone happily eats sugar cookies for the next two weeks.
In between baking, we also got another request to make caramel candy. This was a special recipe that took some time tracking down since it was an old handwritten recipe passed along from other family members. After about a half hour of sifting through zip-loc bags full of carefully transcribed potato chip cookie recipes, expired coupons, and torn magazine pages, we finally found what we were looking for!
The caramel candy only contained a few ingredients: light corn syrup, butter, vanilla, and sweetened condensed milk. The hardest part is knowing when the candy is at the right temperature. Since we didn’t have a thermometer, Xak’s grandmother taught us a trick to take a cup of ice water and put some caramel in it to see if it turns into a ball.
Sure enough, the caramel turned out excellent. After the caramel cooled, Xak cut it up into individual pieces and I wrapped them in wax paper. The caramels were a huge success!
Although we’re not quite candy experts yet, we are extremely excited to make these caramels again. They could be covered in chocolate, or perhaps sprinkled with some sea salt. Maybe throw in some nuts or fruit? There are so many possibilities and we can’t wait to try them!
The end of Delicious December
I’m extremely grateful for such a wonderful, delicious December. Although enjoying the treats ourselves is great, what we love the most is sharing with others. We can’t wait for next year to bake even more decadent desserts to share!