Christmas






























I've been enjoying some much-needed time off work at home with my family, and I hope you enjoy these little snippets of our house decked out for Christmas.  I'll be back in the New Year with some wonderful recipes, so until then, wishing a wonderful holiday for you and yours.

Bourbon Hot Chocolate






I remember driving up to Pennsylvania to my grandma's house for quite a few Christmases when I was little.  Growing up in South Carolina, spending Christmas in Pennsylvania definitely felt more "Christmasy" with the snappy cold air filled with the scent of snow, the woods my dad and his brothers had explored throughout their childhood, my grandma's calico cat and Sheltie dogs that she bred, and the smell of pine trees.

It's been 28 years since I've been in that house, but I still remember the double-sided fireplace my brother and sister and I slept beside under a pile of blankets, the musty basement filled with rows of matchbox cars, action figures and Tarzan books, a pink flowered cardboard set of drawers in the bathroom.

I was nine years old when my grandma passed away on my sister's 11th birthday.  Our parents took us out of school early that day, a chilly day in October, and we gathered together in the living room for them to tell us the news.  After crying for a while, I got up and made hot chocolate for my family.  Even at the age of nine, I felt the need to nurture the ones I loved with something sweet and comforting.  It was just spoonfuls of powdered mix stirred into hot water, but it was something I could do to make everyone feel better.








My husband generally doesn't like hot chocolate as it tends to be too sweet, and I've made my own homemade powdered mix, which is nice to have on hand, but is also on the sweet side.  So I finally came up with a recipe for homemade hot chocolate that is rich and dark, with no added sugar.  It's sweetened only by the sugar contained in the chocolate itself, which you can control with the level of cacao in the chocolate.

Start with good-quality dark chocolate - around 70-75% cacao would probably appeal to most, but you could certainly experiment with 80-85% for a more intense hot chocolate.  I didn't have a super dark chocolate on hand, so I added a spoonful of special dark unsweetened cocoa powder to mine to deepen the flavor.  The chocolate is simply melted into hot milk until smooth, with a little vanilla and some bourbon.  I grated fresh nutmeg over the top to finish it off.

It's been 28 years since that day, but I still remember the matching flowered dresses for Sunday that my mom dressed my sister and me in for the funeral.  I remember asking if we could keep the flowers from the ceremony.  And I still believe that hot chocolate comforts the soul.









Bourbon Hot Chocolate
  • 12 ounces whole milk
  • 4 ounces semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate chips or finely chopped good-quality chocolate
  • 1 tablespoon special dark unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1-2 tablespoons bourbon (optional; adjust according to preference)
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • freshly grated nutmeg
In a saucepan, combine all ingredients.  Over low heat, whisking occasionally, heat the hot chocolate until steaming hot and the chocolate is melted and smooth.  Pour into cups and grate a little fresh nutmeg over the hot chocolate.

Yields two 8-ounce servings

Recipe from Curly Girl Kitchen

Brown Butter Pumpkin Cake






I know it's almost Christmas, but it's still pumpkin season, I think.  And since I didn't bake any pumpkin bread, or pumpkin chocolate chip cookies this fall, I felt I had to do a cake.

This is a recipe I posted over four years ago, one that I made as my contribution to Thanksgiving dinner with my parents, but my photos were less than stellar then.  So, I thought it was time for some prettier photos that do this recipe justice.








It all starts with browned butter, which is also the beginning of my butter pecan cake.  If you haven't baked with brown butter, well, why not?  It's well worth the extra few minutes, and your kitchen will smell so fragrant.

And of course, cream cheese buttercream is everyone's favorite.  I left the sides of the cake completely naked, filling each layer with piped swirls of buttercream.

I remember my dad saying four years ago that this was the best cake he'd ever tasted in his life, and that's saying something since his favorite has always been white cake.  There will be a white cake for Christmas, though...









Brown Butter Pumpkin Cake Recipe

Cream Cheese Buttercream Recipe

Apple Pie Shortbread Crumb Bars






I woke up early today, when the frosty air was still quiet and the cloudy sky pale with morning light.  Still in my pajamas, I put on my warm things and shoveled the snow that fell last night.  It seemed that I was the first one awake on our street, and the shovel scraped loudly across the driveway, breaking the cold silence.

After a while, Jamie woke up and made coffee while I curled up under a blanket on the couch.  We toasted leftover pumpkin spice waffles for breakfast, and then bundled up to hang Christmas lights on the house.  He climbed the ladder while I uncurled strings of lights, handed him clips, and scraped the remaining ice from the driveway that started to thaw under the heat of the sun.  My fingers and toes were numb by the time we were finished, and after a hot shower, there was no agenda for the rest of the day but to watch Christmas movies and eat when we were hungry.  There was some sampling of cake at some point during the day, too, of course.

These apple pie bars, though, dare I say might be better than cake.  That is, if the thing you're wanting is pie and not cake.  The filling is cooked a day ahead, and the apples are coated in spices and sugar, with a hint of lemon.  The crust and topping is a simple shortbread, a mixture of just butter, flour, sugar and salt, pressed into a pan for the bottom crust, and sprinkled over the apples for a crumb topping.  They're perfect to take to a holiday party, or to enjoy at home with a second cup of hot coffee.  Or a third.









Apple Pie Shortbread Crumb Bars
printable


Filling.
  • 3 pounds apples
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon cloves
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
Peel and core the apples, and slice 1/4 inch thick.  Toss the apples with the rest of the filling ingredients in a stock pot.  Bring to a simmer over medium heat, then reduce to medium low and simmer for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until thickened and the apples are slightly softened.  Cool completely.

Crust and Topping.

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 teaspoons coarse Kosher salt
  • 1 1/2 cups cold unsalted butter,cut into pieces
Preheat the oven to 350.  Spray a square 9x13 baking dish with non-stick spray.

In your food processor, combine the crust/topping ingredients until pea-sized pieces of butter remain.  Reserve 2 cups of the crumbs for the topping, and press the remainder of the crumbs firmly against the bottom of the baking dish.  Bake crust for 15 minutes.

Remove from the oven, let cool for 5 minutes, then spread the prepared apple filling over the crust.  Sprinkle with the reserved crumb topping.

Bake for 45-50 minutes, until the filling is bubbling and the topping is a pale golden brown.  Cool uncovered for several hours, then serve warm or at room temperature.  Best eaten within two days.

Recipe from Curly Girl Kitchen

A Gingerbread House, Rum Raisin Apple Butter Cake, and an Advent Calendar









I always kind of wanted to live in a gingerbread house...  wouldn't that be magical?  A cookie house covered in brightly colored candy, everything twinkling and sparkling.  Or an elegantly iced, snow-covered cottage tucked away in an enchanted forest, nearly hidden so that you stumble upon it unexpectedly.

We've been decorating for Christmas this week and brought home our first real tree.  It smells wonderfully of pine and winter and cozy evenings at home.

I baked gingerbread, too, having rolled out the dough and cut the house from templates I drew up.  The gingerbread is heavily spiced, and so fragrant, its scent filling our kitchen with the aromas of molasses, cinnamon, ginger and cloves.

After assembling the sides, roof and chimney with royal icing, I thinned out the icing with a little water to decorate the house, embellishing it with drifts of snow and dripping icicles.  It was my first time baking and decorating a gingerbread house from scratch, and it was so much work that I have no intention of letting anyone eat it...













Having made a big batch of apple butter, I thought it would taste lovely in a cake, so I also baked a rum raisin apple butter cake, frosted with salted and spiced vanilla buttercream.  I originally intended to put the gingerbread house on top of the cake, but the house ended up far too big for that, so I just photographed them together, and they complemented each other so beautifully.

On December 1st, I surprised my husband with an advent calendar, made with a memo board, tiny little envelopes full of treats and notes for him for the whole month, and some pretty watercolor tags.

It definitely feels like Christmas around here.















Rum Raisin Apple Butter Cake
printable


Cake.
  • 3 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 cups dark brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup raisins
  • 1/2 cup oil
  • 1 1/2 cups apple butter
  • 3 eggs
  • 2/3 cup whole milk
  • 1/4 cup dark, spiced rum
Buttercream.
  • 1 1/2 cups unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 3 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 tablespoon meringue powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • pinch cloves
  • 2-3 tablespoons milk or cream
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
Cake.
Preheat the oven to 350 and grease three 8-inch cake pans with non-stick spray.

In the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the dry ingredients.  Add the wet ingredients and mix on medium speed for two minutes.  Divide the batter between the pans.  Bake for 20-22 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean.  Cool in the pans, set on wire racks, covered loosely with a clean kitchen towel.

Buttercream.
In the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, mix the butter and powdered sugar and meringue powder to combine.  Add the remaining ingredients and whip for 4-5 minutes on medium high speed until very light and fluffy.

Frost the cooled cake.

Recipe from Curly Girl Kitchen