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Sweeten your holiday bash

Try some of these recipes for a new twist on that Christmas cookie tradition. Donata Maggipinto shares some secrets from her new book, “Christmas Family Gatherings: Recipes and Ideas for Celebrating with People You Love.”
/ Source: TODAY

Whether you’re planning a festive bash for cherished friends or just keeping the kids busy decorating Christmas cookies — relax and enjoy the moment. “Today” entertaining expert Donata Maggipinto has a holiday book chock-full of recipes and entertaining tips to help you enjoy special times with family and friends. It’s called, “Christmas Family Gatherings: Recipes and Ideas for Celebrating with People You Love.” She shares some of her secrets for sweets on “Today.” Check out her recipes below.

Peekaboos
Use miniature cookie cutters to create the “windows” in these cookies. You can also use a small, sharp knife to cut out your own designs (children should be supervised, of course).

Makes about 30 cookies

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

1 cup confectioners’ sugar

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest

1/4 cup seedless jam or jelly in flavor of choice

Preheat the oven to 350F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone-coated nonstick liners.

In a bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt; reserve.

In a large bowl, combine the butter, sugar, vanilla, and lemon zest. With an electric mixer set on medium-high speed, beat until the mixture is light and fluffy. With the mixer set on low speed, add the flour mixture and beat until a smooth dough forms.

Divide the dough in half and form each half into a ball. Wrap each ball well in plastic wrap and chill until ready to use, at least 30 minutes or for up to 3 days. Let stand at room temperature for 10 minutes before proceeding with recipes.

Lightly flour a work surface and a rolling pin. Place 1 dough ball on the work surface and pat it into a thick round. With the rolling pin, roll out the dough about 1/8 inch thick. Use 2 1/4- to 3-inch cookie cutters in the desired shapes to cut the cookie bottoms. With a spatula, transfer the cutouts to prepared baking sheets, spacing them about 1 inch apart. Reserve the dough scraps.

Repeat the rolling and cutting process for the cookie tops, using the remaining dough ball and the same cookie cutters. Reserve the dough scraps. With the miniature cookie cutters, cut out a shape from the center of each cookie top. Discard the tiny shapes that result from the pattern cutting (or bake them along with the cookies; be watchful though, as they will be done in the blink of an eye). With a spatula, transfer the cookie tops to a baking sheet.

Repeat the process with the remaining dough.

Place the baking sheets in the oven. Bake the cookies until they are light brown around the edges, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool on the baking sheets for 2 minutes, then transfer to racks and let cool completely.

While the cookies are cooling, melt the jam in a small saucepan over low heat, stirring until it thins.

To assemble the cookies, spread the cookie bottoms with a thin layer of warm jam, leaving a border of about 1/4 inch around the edges. Top with the cutout tops. Peekaboo!

White Chocolate-Cherry Christmas Fudge
This classic American confection is given a Christmas twist with white chocolate and maraschino cherries and mint leaves for decoration. You can make the fudge with the kids during the party, or you can prepare it beforehand and offer it as a party favor. This is a very sweet candy and kids love it. It’s pretty, too.

Makes 3 dozen squares

2 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar

3/4 cup half-and-half

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 4 equal pieces

12 ounces white chocolate, coarsely chopped

1 1/4 cups dried cherries

1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

18 maraschino cherries

2 bunches fresh mint (72 mint leaves)

Line the bottom and sides of an 8-inch square cake pan with parchment paper.

In a saucepan over medium heat, combine the confectioners’ sugar and half-and-half. Add the butter and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Once the mixture reaches a boil, stop stirring and let it cook for 5 minutes. It will be thick.

Reduce the heat to low and stir in the chocolate, whisking until smooth. Stir in the dried cherries and vanilla extract. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan. Chill until firm, about 2 hours.

Invert the pan onto a cutting board, lift off the pan, and peel off the parchment. Cut the fudge into 1-inch squares. Cut the maraschino cherries in half. Remove 72 mint leaves from the mint sprigs (the smaller the leaves, the better). To decorate the fudge, place a maraschino half, cut side down, on the fudge, pressing it gently into the fudge to adhere. Place 2 mint leaves at the top of the cherry to resemble cherry leaves, pressing them gently into the fudge to adhere.

Store in an airtight container for up to 1 week.

Brown Sugar Christmas Tree Cookies
These oversized tree cookies make wonderful party favors for the tree-trimming party. They’re also a thoughtful way to deliver Christmas trees to people who may not have them, like nursing-home residents. Look for oversized cookie cutters in well-stocked cookware shops.

Makes about 15 large cookies, each 8 inches tall

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

1 cup firmly packed golden brown sugar

1/2 cup granulated sugar

2 eggs

1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon salt

Royal Icing (see below)

food coloring, green and other color of choice

decorating sugar in the same colors as the Royal Icing

In a large bowl, using an electric mixer set on medium speed, beat together the butter and the brown and granulated sugars until light and fluffy. Add the eggs and vanilla and beat until well mixed. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt. With the mixer set on low speed, beat the flour mixture into the butter mixture. Divide the dough in half, and pat each half into a rectangle. Wrap separately in plastic wrap and chill for at least 4 hours or for up to overnight.

Preheat the oven to 350F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator and let it stand for 10 minutes or so. (This makes it easier to roll and less apt to crack.) On a lightly floured work surface, roll out 1 dough rectangle 1/4 inch thick. Using an 8-inch Christmas tree cookie cutter, cut out as many trees as possible. Using a spatula, carefully transfer the cutouts to the prepared baking sheets. Repeat the process with the remaining dough.

Bake the cookies, rotating the pans once midway through baking, until the edges are just beginning to brown, about 10 minutes. Transfer the cookies to wire racks to cool.

Repeat the process with the remaining dough.

To decorate the cooled trees, make the icing as directed. Put 2 cups of the icing in 1 bowl and the remaining 1 cup icing in a second bowl. Add green food coloring to the larger portion of icing and stir to mix well. Add another color to the smaller portion of icing and stir to mix well. Cover the ornament icing and refrigerate until ready to use.

Using an icing spatula, spread a layer of green icing evenly over each cookie. Let the icing dry at room temperature overnight.

Use the remaining icing to make ornaments. Spoon the ornament icing into a pastry bag fitted with a No. 2 plain tip. Pipe dots for ornaments, or pipe a greeting on each tree. While the icing is wet, hold the cookie over a piece of waxed paper and sprinkle it generously with the decorating sugar. Let it sit for a few minutes, then shake off the excess sugar. Let dry completely, about 6 hours.

Store the cookies in single layers between sheets of waxed paper in an airtight container for up to 3 days. On the day of the party, transfer the cookies to cellophane bags and tie with a red bow. Display them on a large platter or in big basket by the front door.

Royal Icing
You can substitute meringue powder for the egg whites. Follow package directions.

Makes about 3 cups

3 egg whites

5 1/4 cups confectioners’ sugar

juice of 1 large lemon

In a large bowl, using an electric mixer set on medium-high speed, beat the egg whites until stiff, glossy peak forms. Stir in the sugar and the lemon juice. The icing should be dense but spreadable. If the icing is too thick, add a drop or two of water. If it’s too thin, add more sugar.

Peppermint Stick Buche de Noel
I love the fairytale connotations of a bûche de Noël with its confectionery bark, berry, and mushrooms adornments, and this ice cream-filled Yule log cake, which can be made up to one week ahead of time, is a fitting end to a Christmas Day dinner.

Serves 8 to 10

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

cake flour for dusting pan, plus 1/2 cup sifted cake flour

1/3 cup sifted unsweetened cocoa powder

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt, plus pinch of salt

4 eggs, separated

3/4 cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 quart peppermint stick ice cream, softened

Chocolate Frosting
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened

1 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted, plus more for dusting

1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

3 ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled slightly

Decorations
confectioners’ sugar for dusting

Marzipan Mushroom (see below)

Sugared Cranberries (see below)

fresh mint leaves

small evergreen boughs (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350F.

Lightly brush a 10-by-15-inch jelly-roll pan with 1 1/2 tablespoons of the melted butter. Line the pan with parchment paper, leaving a 2-inch overhang on the short ends. Brush the parchment paper with the remaining 11/2 tablespoons melted butter. Dust the pan with a little cake flour and tap out the excess.

In a bowl, whisk together the 1/2 cup cake flour, the 1/3 cup cocoa powder, the baking powder, and the 1/4 teaspoon salt; reserve.

In a bowl, using an electric mixer set on medium-high speed, beat the egg yolks until fluffy. Gradually, add the granulated sugar and beat until thick. Beat in the vanilla extract. Using a wooden spoon, stir in the flour mixture until blended. The dough will be very stiff.

Rinse and dry the mixer beaters. In a bowl using the electric mixer set on medium-high speed, beat the egg whites with the pinch of salt until stiff peaks form. Using a rubber spatula, stir a few tablespoons of the beaten egg whites into the egg-and-flour mixture to lighten it. Then, one-third at a time, gently fold in the remaining egg whites. Do not overmix. Spread the mixture evenly in the prepared pan.

Bake the cake until it springs back when touched gently in the center, about 12 minutes. Remove from the oven, place on a cooling rack, and let cool in the pan for a few minutes. Run a knife around the edge of the cake to loosen it from the pan. Cover the cake with a large piece of parchment paper, then with a kitchen towel. Invert the cake onto the cooling rack so the parchment paper and the towel are on the bottom. Carefully lift off the pan and remove and discard the parchment that lined the pan. When the cake is just cool enough to handle, start at one long side and, grasping the fresh parchment and the towel, roll the cake into a cylinder. Let the cake cool to room temperature.

Unroll the cooled cake slowly onto a serving platter or surface large enough to hold the entire cake flat. Invert the cooling rack onto the cake, then invert the cake and rack together and remove the parchment paper and the kitchen towel. Return the kitchen towel to the serving platter. Flip the cake back onto the serving platter. Using a spatula, spread the cake evenly with the softened ice cream. Using the towel underneath to get you started, reroll the filled cake into a cylinder. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and freeze for at least 1 hour.

To make the chocolate frosting, combine the butter, the 1 cup confectioners’ sugar, and the 1/4 cup cocoa powder in a bowl. Using the electric mixer set on medium-high speed, beat until fluffy. Add the vanilla extract and the melted chocolate and beat until smooth and shiny, reserve.

Remove the cake from the freezer. Using a large, serrated knife held at an angle, cut off a 1-inch piece from one end of the roll and a 2-inch piece from the other end. Place the smaller piece on top of the log, and the larger piece alongside the log, positioning the straight edges against the cake. These are the tree limbs. Ice the cake log and tree limbs with the frosting. With the tines of a fork, draw concentric circles on the cake ends to resemble tree rings. Draw the fork along the log in lines to resemble bark. Wrap with plastic wrap and freeze overnight or for up to 1 week.

Remove the cake from the freezer, unwrap, and let stand for 10 to 15 minutes. Once the frosting has softened a bit, use a fine-mesh sieve to lightly dust the log evenly with confectioners’ sugar. Decorate the cake with the Marzipan Mushrooms, Sugared Cranberries, and mint leaves. If you wish, add small evergreen boughs, but caution your guests that these are inedible.

Marzipan Mushrooms
These mushrooms are much easier to make than the meringue mushrooms that traditionally decorate a bûche de Noël. Children particularly enjoy this part of assembling the cake. Let them form the mushrooms (and maybe a snowman or two) and put them on the cake. You can make the mushrooms up to 1 week ahead of time.

Makes about 12 mushrooms

1 package (7 ounces) marzipan

few drops fresh lemon juice, if needed

1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder

Using your hands, knead the marzipan on a work surface until it becomes easy to mold. If the marzipan seems too thick, work in a drop or two of lemon juice.

Roll small pieces of marzipan into mushrooms stems. Make different sizes, some thick, some tall. Roll larger pieces of marzipan into balls, then flatten and pinch to form mushroom caps. Attach the stems to the caps by pressing gently. Using a small, fine-mesh sieve, dust with the mushrooms with the cocoa powder. Arrange the mushrooms in single layers on waxed paper in a tightly covered container, and store in a cool, dry place until ready to use.

Sugared Cranberries
When you’re not gilding your bûche de Noël with these sweet-tart jewels, use them to garnish glasses of sparkling wine or sparkling cider or to decorate other holiday desserts. You can make the sugared cranberries up to 1 week in advance.

Makes 1 cup

1 cup cranberries

1 egg white

pinch of salt

1 cup sugar

Bring a saucepan filled with water to a boil over high heat. Add the cranberries, reduce the heat to medium, and cook just until the cranberries begin to pop open, 3 to 5 minutes.

Drain the cranberries and pat dry with paper towels. In a small bowl, combine the egg white and salt and beat lightly with a fork until foamy. Using a pastry brush, paint the cranberries with the egg white.

Place the sugar in a shallow bowl. Add the cranberries and, using a fork, toss to coat them evenly with the sugar. Transfer to waxed paper to set, about 20 minutes. Arrange the cranberries in single layers on waxed paper in a tightly covered container, and store in a cool, dry place until ready to use.

Chocolate-Cookie Mousse Cups with Peppermint Candy Cream
Chocolate cookies give this luscious mousse another dimension of flavor and texture. To ensure the cookies are at their crunchy best, fold them into the mousse just before serving.

Serves 12

8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons brewed espresso

6 eggs, separated

1/3 cup sugar

1 cup heavy cream

1 teaspoon peppermint extract

1 cup crumbled chocolate wafer cookies

Peppermint Candy Cream (see below)

12 miniature candy canes

In the top of a double boiler set over gently simmering water, combine the chocolate and butter, and heat, stirring constantly, until melted and smooth. Stir in the espresso.

Transfer the mixture to a bowl. Add the egg yolks one at a time, beating well after each addition.

In a bowl, using an electric mixer set on medium-high speed, beat the egg whites until foamy. Add half of the sugar and continue beating until stiff peaks form. Rinse and dry the mixer beaters. In another bowl, using the electric mixer set on medium speed, combine the cream with the remaining sugar and the peppermint extract and beat until soft peaks form.

Using a rubber spatula, stir a few tablespoons of the egg whites into the chocolate to lighten it, then fold in the remaining whites gently but thoroughly. Fold in the cream. Pour the mousse into a large bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and chill until ready to serve, at least 2 hours and for up to overnight.

Just before serving, using the rubber spatula, fold the cookie crumbs into the mousse. Divide the mousse evenly among twelve 1/2-cup ramekins or cups. Spoon a dollop of the peppermint candy cream onto each serving and garnish with a candy cane.

Peppermint Candy Cream
This yummy cream is delicious on all manner of desserts. It will elevate a lowly slice of pound cake or a single scoop of chocolate ice cream to lovely holiday heights. To crush the peppermint candy, place it in a zippered plastic bag and hammer it with a meat pounder or the side of a soup can.

1 cup heavy cream

1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar

1/2 teaspoon peppermint extract

1/2 cup finely crushed peppermint candy

In a bowl, combine the cream, confectioners’ sugar, and peppermint extract. Using an electric mixer set on medium-high speed or a whisk, beat until soft peaks form. Using a rubber spatula, fold in the peppermint candy.

Recipes excerpted from “Christmas Family Gatherings: Recipes and Ideas for Celebrating With People You Love.” Copyright 2003 by Donata Maggipinto. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Chronicle Books.