I love Christmas cookie exchanges, but I do have a few theories on why they appear to be losing popularity: 1) who really needs 8 dozen (or more) cookies, all with the same expiry date? 2) There’s usually not enough freezer space, and 3) people tend to store them all in one giant container, making the crisp ones soft and drying out the soft ones – eventually they all start to taste the same.
I’ve heard of people holding Christmas appetizer exchanges, which is a great idea, but again limiting (I don’t want everyone to think they have to make a hundred tiny phyllo hors d’ouevres). Really, the holidays revolve around food in a lot of ways. There are those must-have foods that only appear at Christmas, like mincemeat, shortbread and fruitcake. There is an increased need for appetizers and snacks for the increased number of parties and guests. Of course it’s cookie season, and hot beverages abound – outdoor activities call for hot chocolate, spiced coffees and apple cider. Food gifts like preserves, caramel corn, spiced nuts, antipasto and truffles seem to make the rounds as friend/teacher/hostess gifts. And because December is a crazy month, fast food restaurants are busier than ever, preying on our lack of time – so frozen meals, big batches of soup, jars of pasta sauce and the like are always a good thing to have on hand.
So because I love food and an excuse to gather friends together and maybe even make life easier (and a little more interesting) I thought I’d hold a multi-faceted Christmas Grub Exchange, for which guests can bring whatever they like – cookies, candies, mixes, preserves, appetizers, packets of mulling spices, easy meals, fruitcake – it will be far more interesting than a cookie exchange, and everyone will go home with a variety of food to help get them through the season. (A little like those Chrisco holiday hampers I keep seeing ads for on TV – only better.) Plus we get to hang out, drink some mulled wine and have some snacks, and feel like we’re actually accomplishing something.
Here’s another idea: ask guests to email you their recipe anytime up until the day of the party, then compile them all and print copies out for everyone. Have fun!
Cranberry Maple Pecan Popcorn From Grazing
8 cups air popped popcorn (about 1/3 cup kernels)
1 cup pure maple syrup
2 Tbsp. butter
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 cup chopped pecans, toasted (optional)
a handful of dried cranberries (optional)
Toss popcorn and pecans in a large bowl that has been sprayed with nonstick spray.
In a small saucepan, bring maple syrup, butter and salt to a boil. Reduce heat and continue to boil for 15-20 minutes, until the mixture reaches 300 F on a candy thermometer (hard crack stage). If you don’t have a candy thermometer, drizzle some of the syrup into ice water and it should separate into hard, brittle threads that break when bent.
Pour over the popcorn and quickly stir to coat completely, adding the cranberries as you toss it together. Spread on a baking sheet to cool.
Makes about 6 servings. Per serving: 163 calories, 4.3 g total fat (2.5 g saturated fat, 1.2 g monounsaturated fat, 0.3 g polyunsaturated fat), 1.3 g protein, 31 g carbohydrate, 10.4 mg cholesterol, 1.6 g fiber. 23% calories from fat.
Marbled Candy Cane Bark
This bark looks (and tastes) great with red and white peppermint candy canes, or try using one of the new candy cane flavors such as cappuccino or maple.
8 squares (8 oz.) semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped
6 squares (6 oz.) white or milk chocolate, chopped
4 candy canes, coarsely crushed (place in a ziplock baggie and roll with a rolling pin)
Line a baking sheet foil. Place chocolates in separate microwave-safe bowls, preferably glass. Microwave separately uncovered on medium heat, for 2-3 minutes or until pieces are almost melted. Alternately melt in small saucepans set over low heat, stirring often, for 3 to 5 minutes. Stir each until smooth.Pour dark chocolate onto waxed paper in 1” wide strips. Pour white chocolate into space between dark chocolate and also along outside edge of one dark row to form stripes.Draw a knife back and forth through stripes in a swirled motion to create a marbled effect. Tap pan against counter several times to level chocolate and force out bubbles. Sprinkle with candy canes. Chill until firm and break into large pieces. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 weeks.
Dried Cherry, Almond & White Chocolate Biscotti
From One Smart Cookie – all your favorite cookies, squares, brownies and biscotti… with less fat!
Dried cherries, almonds and white chocolate make gorgeous biscotti. If you like big, long biscotti, shape the dough into one 6” wide rectangle instead of two. For extra almond flavor, substitute almond extract for some or all of the vanilla.
2 Tbsp. butter or non-hydrogenated margarine, softened
3/4 cup sugar
2 large eggs
2 tsp. vanilla
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 cup dried cherries or cranberries
2/3 cup coarsely chopped white chocolate
1/3 cup coarsely chopped, sliced or slivered almonds
Preheat oven to 350°F.
In a large bowl, beat butter and sugar until well combined; it will have the consistency of wet sand. Add the eggs and vanilla and beat until smooth.
Add the flour, baking powder and salt and stir until almost combined; add the cherries, chocolate and almonds and stir just until blended. If the mixture seems dry, use your hands to mix until the dough comes together.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, divide in half, and shape each piece into an 8” long log. Place the logs about 2” apart on a cookie sheet that has been sprayed with nonstick spray and flatten each into a rectangle that is about 3” wide.
Bake for 30–35 minutes, until golden and cracked on top. Transfer the logs to a wire rack to cool for a bit and reduce the oven temperature to 275°F.
When they’re cool enough to handle (they tend to crumble when they’re still hot), place the logs on a cutting board, trim the ends and cut each log diagonally into 1/2”–3/4” slices with a serrated knife. Place the slices upright on the cookie sheet, spacing them about 1/2” apart so that there’s room for the air to circulate between them, and return to the oven for 30 minutes. If you like, turn the heat off and leave the biscotti inside the oven until it cools down to make them even harder.
Makes 2 dozen biscotti.
Per Biscotti: 109 calories, 3.7 g fat (1.6 g saturated fat, 1.5 g monounsaturated fat, 0.4 g polyunsaturated fat), 17.1 g carbohydrates, 20 mg cholesterol, 2.2 g protein, 0.8 g fiber. 30% calories from fat.
Apricot Almond Chocolate Chunk Biscotti: Substitute 1/2 cup chopped dried apricots for the cherries and chocolate chunks or chips for the white chocolate. Fat content remains the same.
Julie is a best-selling cookbook author, food writer, cooking instructor and the food and nutrition columnist on the Calgary Eyeopener on CBC Radio. She lives in Calgary with her husband and her son, Wilem. Watch for her cooking show, It’s Just Food, with co-host Ned Bell on Access TV and CLT stations across Canada. For recipes and daily ramblings visit her blog at dinnerwithjulie.com.
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