Pandemic Holiday Baking
This has definitely been the soggiest Solstice of my experience, with relentless rain (over an inch by mid-afternoon) and whipping wind lashing the treetops, brisk cannonades of fir cones pounding on the roof. The street is running like a river and the unwary are drenched within minutes of setting out to walk the dog or check the mail. My daughter and I were planning to have a little bonfire-in-a-bowl, filling our small fire bowl with sap-sticky pine cones and cut-up branches saved from several pruning extravaganzas. Alas, there’s no way we can celebrate with fire, as our proposed spot on the gravel parking pad is flooded and the wind is driving the rain sideways up into the porch. Still, we lighted our Solstice lanterns, put candles in all the windows, and strung the house with little lights to soften the gathering darkness. Let there be light!
This is always my favorite day of the year, when the grey and gloom begin their slow retreat. From here on out, the days grow just a little longer and night’s victory starts slipping away. Our inner darkness is lightened by social and political changes as well: with vaccines coming into play, it’s easier to believe that the end of our isolation is drawing nearer. With a new pandemic relief package on the horizon, there’s hope that those suffering financial hardship may avoid evictions and foreclosures that otherwise seem inevitable. Sadly, it seems all too likely that the relief will be too little and too late for the many people already dealing with food and financial insecurity when the pandemic developed. Happily, charitable giving is approaching all time highs, helping nonprofits to keep vital human services available. I’m proud of our Governor for committing to keeping human service levels stable despite budget shortfalls; such awareness of the underserved is refreshingly new and hopeful.
Baking For Sharing
It also helps that I’m doing a lot of baking, which always soothes and lifts my spirits. Although our holidays are definitely different this year, the tradition of holiday baking seems stronger than ever. Store shelves are once again emptying of flour and sugar, almost as quickly as they did back in March, when the pandemic stay-home orders began. Baking has been our solace for months now, yet there’s another very energetic burst in progress (around here, anyway). Almost every day, I find little plates of yummies or bags of cookies left on the porch to make us smile with the double delight of being remembered kindly and tasting deliciousness.
Almost every day, I too am making the rounds, delivering spicy cupcakes rich with pecans and dried cherries, tender peanut butter nuggets, or crisp biscotti all over the neighborhood. I’m very grateful to the pundits who pronounced homemade food safe to share, as the daily pleasure of giving and receiving such treats definitely brightens our days. I’m especially grateful that my grandkids are able to join me for holiday baking, something we all enjoy enormously. Today, we made our favorite gingerbread, a fragrant, spicy recipe with the texture of play-dough that never gets tough no matter how much it’s handled,
When my kids were little, I developed this sculptable gingerbread recipe; instead of rolling the dough out flat and using cookie cutters, kids could roll balls of dough for heads and bodies and roll little logs for arms and legs. My inventive grandkids made dragons, unicorns, mice and snails as well as the usual stars and cats. My original recipe uses butter, but you can make a vegan/dairy-free version with avocado oil, which has a light but subtly butter flavor. This recipe also works with a gluten-free flour mix but you need to add the water carefully to get the right consistency (not sticky, not crumbly). For decorations, I favor raisins or dried currents (smaller, thus better for buttons and eyes) but the kiddos prefer the various brightly colored sprinkle mixtures as well as edible glitter, a new passion of theirs.
3-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon each ground ginger, cinnamon and coriander
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
1/2 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1/4 cup unsalted butter
OR 1/4 cup avocado oil
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup unsulphured molasses
1/3-1/2 cup water
Preheat oven to 350 degree F. Sift dry ingredients together, set aside. In a large mixing bowl, cream butter or oil with brown sugar and molasses. Add flour in 3 parts, alternating with a few tablespoons of water as needed to make a soft but not sticky dough. Roll dough into a ball, then divide into 12-15 pieces. Use each piece to shape a ginger-person or snow-person or whatever you fancy. Bake at 350 for 8-10 minutes depending on thickness; when done, cookies will feel slightly springy to the touch. Cool on a rack before frosting. Makes 12-15 ginger-folk.
We are very fond of these crisp, crunchy Italian biscuits, though I find most recipes too sweet for my family’s taste. This less-sweet version can be made savory by reducing sugar to 2 tablespoons and adding up to 1/2 cup grated hard cheese (we like Parmesan), 2-3 tablespoons fennel or poppy seeds and/or up to 1 tablespoon dried garlic, and 1/2 teaspoon of black pepper. Interestingly, simple creaming and stirring results in smaller biscotti than if you use a hand mixer, which produces larger, crisper results. You can add lemon, orange, lime or tangerine zest with good results, or leave it out if you aren’t a citrus fan, and you can substitute any kind of nuts or seeds for the almonds as well.
Almond Lemon Biscotti
1/2 cup fine yellow cornmeal
1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
zest of one large organic lemon (or orange)
2 large eggs
1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3/4 cup sliced almonds
Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper and preheat oven to 350degrees F. Grind cornmeal in a food processor until very fine, set aside. Sift flour, salt and baking powder, stir in cornmeal, set aside. In a larger bowl, use a standing or hand mixer to cream butter or oil with sugar and zest (if using) for 3 minutes. Add eggs and beat for another 2 minutes, until very creamy. Stir in vanilla and add the dry ingredients, stirring until just blended. Blend in the almonds; dough should be soft and a little sticky. Divide dough in half and gently roll each into a snake about 12 inches long and 1-1/2 inches wide. Put them on the parchment paper several inches apart and pat each into a flat-topped rectangle. Bake at 350 for 15 minutes or until set and lightly golden. Put the baking sheet on a cooling rack for half an hour or so. Turn oven back on to 350 degrees. Slide the parchment onto a cutting board and cut each long loaf into 3/4 inch wide slices with a sharp serrated bread knife. Place each piece back on the baking sheet still in their upright positions (not on their sides) and bake for 15 minutes until golden brown and no longer soft. Cool completely before packaging. Makes about 30 biscotti.