Baker’s Solstice Countdown: December 17: Pulla (Finnish Cardamom Coffee Bread)

This recipe’s success relies heavily on the freshness of the cardamom you use, which is why I encourage you to get cardamom pods instead of ground cardamom. Ground cardamom loses its flavor very quickly, so if you have a jar of ground cardamom that has been around for a while, you want to open it and give it the sniff test. If you can’t smell a floral, citrusy, piney fragrance, you won’t taste anything in your bread.

I use a mortar and pestle to crush open the cardamom pods and then crush the tiny seeds inside. If you have a coffee grinder dedicated to grinding spices, you could grind the seeds in that. If you need to forgo the hand crushing due to physical constraints, buy the smallest jar of ground cardamom you can find, and use it up within 3 months.

Pulla freezes very well wrapped in plastic wrap, then foil, then tucked into a freezer bag. Any bread that has been over-baked or has gone stale can be turned into little toasts, called rusks, by thinly slicing and baking the bread at a low temperature (300-325 deg F) until it is well and truly dry, but not burnt.

Pulla

Ingredients:

  • 2 teaspoons freshly ground cardamom
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 2 packages yeast (4 1/2 teaspoons)
  • 1/2 cup warm water
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 7-8 cups all purpose flour, plus more for kneading

Glaze and Decoration:

  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • pearl sugar

Method:

  1. Grind fresh cardamom with a mortar and pestle to measure 2 teaspoons.
  2. Melt the butter and set aside to cool.
  3. In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the yeast and warm water and leave to dissolve and foam, about 5 minutes.
  4. Heat the milk in a saucepan until it begins to steam, but NOT BOIL. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly.
  5. Add the milk, sugar, eggs, salt, and cardamom to the yeast mixture, and with the paddle attachment, mix together well on low speed.
  6. Switch to the dough hook attachment, add 2 cups of flour to the mixture, and mix in on low speed.
  7. Add another 2 cups of flour, mix in well on low speed, then add the butter to the dough, and mix until completely incorporated.
  8. Add the rest of the flour 2 cups at a time, and mix well until the dough is smooth and starting to climb the dough hook.
  9. Remove the dough hook, and allow the dough to rest, covered with a towel, for 15 minutes.
  10. Flour a surface to knead on, and oil a very large container for the dough to rise in. Turn the dough out onto the floured surface, and knead until smooth and elastic, adding flour only as necessary to work the dough. Do not over-flour; the dough is meant to be sticky.
  11. Form the dough into a big ball, put in the oiled container and turn to oil all around. cover and leave to rise in a warm place until doubled. This will take at least one hour, depending on the temperature of your kitchen.
  12. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. (Line two if using all the dough immediately.)
  13. Turn the dough out onto a clean surface, and press out the air. Divide the dough into 2 halves for ease of use. For braided loaves, divide one portion of dough into halves again, then divide each half into three pieces. Roll each piece of dough into a long rope about 1 inch thick. Join the ropes at one end, and braid the three ropes snugly, but without stretching. Tuck the ends under. Repeat for the next loaf. (The other half of the dough can be shaped the same way, or into buns or rolls, or refrigerated in a loosely covered container up to 24 hours.)
  14. Place the shaped dough on the baking sheet(s) with room to rise. Cover with plastic wrap and leave in a warm place to rise until puffy and visibly larger, 45 minutes to 1 hour.
  15. Preheat oven to 375 deg. F. Once the oven is preheated, glaze the dough with the beaten egg, and sprinkle generously with pearl sugar.
  16. Bake for 25 minutes, until dark golden brown and fragrant (smaller rolls and buns will take less time, 15-20 minutes).
  17. Remove to a cooling rack to cool.

***To use refrigerated dough:***

  1. Allow the dough to warm and soften at room temperature. Dividing it into two pieces will help.
  2. Shape, place on parchment-lined baking sheets, cover with plastic wrap, leave to rise, about 2 hours.
  3. Preheat oven, glaze and sugar dough, and bake as directed above.

Baker’s Solstice Countdown: December 16: Peppermint Kisses

Although these are not as pretty as I had hoped, they are absolutely delicious, crunchy at the start, then immediately chewy, but not sticky, and perfectly minty. Next time I make them, I might put the easy-to-manage meringue mixture in a piping bag with a star tip, to get a shape that’s a bit more refined. (from Herb Companion, 1995)

Peppermint Kisses

Ingredients:

  • 4 egg whites
  • 1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 1 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar
  • 1 drop red or green food coloring
  • 1/8 teaspoon mint extract (don’t be tempted to use more, this is quite enough)

Method:

  1. Preheat oven to 225 deg. F.
  2. Beat egg whites and cream of tartar until stiff. Add confectioners’ sugar, food coloring, and mint extract; whip for about 3-5 minutes, until mixture is stiff.
  3. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Use a spoon to drop a teaspoon of the mixture onto the cookie sheet, swirling the top. (This is easier said than done. Don’t worry if they aren’t perfect.) Bake for 40-45 minutes, or until the kisses are dry and have small cracks in the tips. (Mine didn’t ever crack, so I took them out when they were dry to the touch.) Cool completely and store in airtight containers at room temperature.

Baker’s Solstice Countdown: December 15: Star-Topped Mince Pies

These are another easy, tasty version of a traditional holiday pie, that allows you to have just a small perfect bite, rather than an overwhelming slab on a plate. The crust is very forgiving, and the filling can be a store-bought mincemeat blend, but Ms. Lawson has provided a not-exactly traditional recipe for a filling, that incorporates cranberries and port wine. I went down the middle, and used dried cranberries, clementine zest and juice, and brandy to augment the ready-made mincemeat from the grocery store. Mine are also tree-topped instead of star-topped, because my smallest star cutter was just a bit too large. The tart pan Ms. Lawson refers to is the trusty mini-muffin tin you may have in your collection, but I was eager to use my new tartlet pan, so that is what I did, making my tartlets just a bit larger than hers.

The link to the recipe, on Nigella’s website, is here.

Baker’s Solstice Countdown: December 14: Mom’s Caramels

I had never made my mom’s caramels before. I didn’t even have the recipe. They were just one of those things only my mom ever made. When I moved to the East Coast, I didn’t take the recipe with me because it makes a remarkable number of caramels, more than The Husband and I could ever eat, and I had no one to give them to.

For this project, I asked my mother to send me the recipe, and asked her if she had ever halved the recipe. She said no. She asked me to let her know if I halved it, and how it turned out. I did make half a recipe, and well, as you can see they turned out all right. I took them off the heat a degree or two too soon I think, and cutting the vanilla in half may have made their color and flavor a little light. I have adjusted the recipe for you to take these things into account. It still makes a somewhat remarkable number of caramels, but we will probably make our way through them, because they are delicious.

You will need a candy thermometer for this recipe.

Mom’s Caramels

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 cup light corn syrup
  • 1 stick (1/4 pound) butter, cut into 4 equal pieces
  • 1 cup heavy cream, divided
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Method:

  1. Prepare a 7-inch by 11-inch baking dish (or an 8-inch by 8-inch dish) by lining it with foil, leaving strips hanging over the sides to use as handles. Butter the foil inside the dish.
  2. Combine the sugar, corn syrup, butter, and 1/2 cup heavy cream in a large saucepan (mixture should only come halfway up the inside of the pan, to leave room for boiling and stirring). Attach a candy thermometer to the pan so you can read it.
  3. Heat over medium heat, stirring occasionally to help dissolve the sugar, until the mixture comes to a boil. Do not stir after it comes to a boil.
  4. At a full boil, slowly add the other 1/2 cup heavy cream, being careful not to stop the boiling. Keep boiling until the temperature reaches the “Firm Ball” mark on the candy thermometer. (250 deg. F)
  5. Remove from the heat, and stir in the vanilla extract. Pour into the prepared pan all at once. The mixture should be hot and liquid enough to level itself out. Anything left to scrape out of the pan should be scraped into a separate small dish. Allow to cool on a wire rack completely until cold and set. This will take a while, possibly overnight.
  6. Using the foil handles, remove the slab of caramel from the baking dish, and carefully peel the foil away from the caramel (if you’ve allowed it to cool and set completely, this should not be difficult). Flip the caramel slab upside down on a cutting board to finish removing the foil. Using a sharp knife, cut into desired pieces. Cut pieces of wax paper large enough to wrap your pieces, and wrap, twisting the ends to seal.

Baker’s Solstice Countdown: December 13: Aunt Hanna’s Cookies

These cookies are an everyday Finnish cookie, that I decorate with green and red glazed cherries for the holidays (inspired by Beatrice Ojakangas’ suggestion in The Great Scandinavian Baking Book). They have become one of my favorite cookies, because they are not terribly sweet, and are a nice change from all the sugary treats around this time of year. Don’t let the glazed cherries put you off. They hold their shape while baking, but add a sort of a pleasant jammy texture to the cookie when you eat it. They are so pretty on a plate of cookies, particularly if you go for the otherworldly green cherries along with the red.

Aunt Hanna’s Cookies

Ingredients:

  • 11 green glazed cherries
  • 11 red glazed cherries
  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup all purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup potato starch
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda

Method:

  1. Cut the cherries into halves, and set aside.
  2. Melt the butter on the stovetop or in the microwave. Leave to cool.
  3. In the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, lightly whip the sugar and the cream together on medium speed, until it is the consistency of a thin batter and the sugar is mostly dissolved. Do not over-whip; you don’t need it to form peaks.
  4. Add the butter, and mix in. Add the vanilla extract, and mix in.
  5. Whisk the flours and baking soda together in a medium bowl.
  6. Sift the flour mixture into the cream mixture, and mix until it’s a smooth, thick dough. Refrigerate until the dough is firm enough to roll into balls, at least 30 minutes.
  7. Preheat the oven to 375 deg. F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  8. Roll pieces of the dough into 1-inch balls, and place on the baking sheet 2 inches apart. Press half a cherry into the center of each cookie.
  9. Bake for 8 minutes, until just lightly colored and firm.
  10. Remove from the sheet to a rack to cool.

Baker’s Solstice Countdown: December 12: No-Bake Wreaths

This is another recipe from a homemaking/parenting magazine from years ago. Despite the look of them, and the “kid-stuff” list of ingredients, these crispy, sweet, cornflake and marshmallow wreaths are delightful. Rather than the sticky, chewy consistency of puffed rice marshmallow bars, the cornflakes take on a light glaze of marshmallow, and provide relief from possible over-sweetness. Yes, they are ghoulishly green, but if that’s a problem for you, simply adjust the amount of food coloring. Don’t take yourself too seriously while forming them either, just do your best and remember that every real-life wreath is different.

No-Bake Wreaths

Ingredients:

  • 5 ounces marshmallows
  • 1/2 stick (1/4 cup) butter
  • 15 drops green food color
  • 1 drop yellow food color
  • 2 1/2 cups cornflakes cereal

Method:

  1. Line a baking sheet with foil. Using a toothpick, trace a 3-inch diameter can or glass on the foil 6 times, for 6 circles 2 inches apart. Lightly oil the foil, and the inside of a 1/3 cup measuring cup, and when you’re ready to form the wreaths, oil your hands, too.
  2. Stir marshmallows and butter in a large saucepan over low heat until melted and smooth. Stir in food colors until blended. Remove from heat; gently fold in cornflakes. Working quickly, lightly pack mixture into the prepared measuring cup and drop in each outlined circle. Push a finger into the center of each to make a hole. Let stand until wreaths are firm.
  3. Decorate wreaths as desired. Be creative! They’re your wreaths, make them look however you like.

Baker’s Solstice Countdown: December 11: Spiced Rum Pecans

This is inspired by a recipe I collected and until now, never actually made. I don’t remember where I got it, exactly, but it is on the inside of a cardboard box, that I cut and glued to an index card, making it impossible to discern what was originally in the box. I suspect it was brown sugar, judging by the quantity of it in the recipe.

It is such an easy recipe. These nuts could become a more frequent treat, because they are so easy to make, and very tasty to munch. They’d be great for a holiday bake sale, I bet. When we start having those again.

Spiced Rum Pecans

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 cups packed brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup spiced rum
  • 2 tablespoons agave nectar (or corn syrup)
  • 1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice or baking spice
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 6-8 cups pecan halves
  • 1 to 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar

Method:

  1. In large saucepan, mix brown sugar, spiced rum, agave nectar or corn syrup, pumpkin pie spice or baking spice, and salt until blended.
  2. Heat mixture over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until sugar is dissolved. Stir in the pecans until well coated. Remove from the heat.
  3. Spread 1 cup of granulated sugar in a large baking dish or rimmed baking sheet, and scrape the pecans into an even layer on top of the sugar. Stir and toss the pecans to even coat with sugar, pouring more sugar over them if you are having trouble getting good coverage.
  4. Spread the nuts out on baking sheets to dry completely. Store nuts in airtight containers.

Baker’s Solstice Countdown: December 10: Snickerdoodles

Here’s another recipe from my mom, that I transcribed as she read it to me over the phone, some time in the distant past. Turns out that, upon closer examination, it came to us by way of Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book, and they, in turn, acknowledge they got the recipe from Mrs. Ronald Anfinson, of Benson, Minnesota. Mrs. Anfinson says it’s a delicious “family cooky”, and well, who am I to argue with her? These are very light, very crunchy, very delicious cookies with just a touch of cinnamon flavor.

I decided to doll them up a little bit for the holidays by using red, green, and gold decorating sugars, in place of the granulated sugar, in the cinnamon sugar the cookies are rolled in before they are baked. If you decide to do this, I recommend increasing the sugar amount to 3 tablespoons, or maybe even 4, and the cinnamon to 3 teaspoons, as I had to stop in the middle of the batch and make more cinnamon sugar.

Snickerdoodles

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup vegetable shortening
  • 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons cream of tartar
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

Method:

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 deg. F.
  2. In a large bowl of a stand mixer using the paddle attachment, beat the shortening and 1 1/2 cups sugar together at medium-high speed until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating until light and fluffy again, and scraping down the bowl between each egg. Scrape down the bowl again.
  3. In another bowl, mix the flour, cream of tartar, baking soda, and salt. Add the flour mixture to the shortening mixture, a third at a time, mixing and scraping between additions, until everything is thoroughly combined.
  4. In a small bowl, combine the 2 tablespoons sugar and the cinnamon, and mix well.
  5. Roll the cookie dough into balls approximately 1 1/4 inches in diameter. Roll each ball in the cinnamon sugar to coat, then place on an ungreased cookie sheet about 2 inches apart. Bake for 8-10 minutes (cookies will puff up, then flatten a bit, but will still be a bit soft when done), remove from oven and allow to rest on the cookie sheet, on a wire rack, for about 1 minute, then remove from cookie sheet to a wire rack to cool completely.

Baker’s Solstice Countdown: December 9: Mom’s Fudge

My recipe card simply says Mom’s Fudge, but I suspect it’s not just my mom’s fudge, but a lot of folks’ moms’ fudge, because it is suspiciously similar to the “foolproof fudge” recipes on the labels of both Kraft’s Marshmallow Creme and Durkee Mower’s Marshmallow Fluff.

Then there’s the whole Creme vs Fluff issue to explore. Contrary to a number of claims I read while researching this recipe, the two products ARE NOT the same. They do look the same, but they are formulated differently, and while that may or may not make a difference when slathering on a slice of bread to be nestled next to an equally peanut butter-slathered slice of bread, it does make a difference when you are trying to make the “foolproof fudge”.

Marshmallow Creme contains two ingredients that Marshmallow Fluff does not, cream of tartar and xanthan gum, which may prevent the crystallization of the sugar, and aid in the setting of the fudge, helping with the creamy texture you hope for in fudge. My results have improved each time I have made “Mom’s Fudge”, but have never quite been the same as hers. The fact that I am in New England and Marshmallow Fluff is made a couple of hours from my house, so therefore is the only jarred marshmallow product I can usually buy, may at last explain that.

I have made some tiny adjustments to Mom’s Fudge along the way, to try to improve the results, and so far this recipe seems to get pretty close.

Mom’s Fudge

Ingredients:

  • 4 cups granulated sugar
  • 12-ounce can evaporated milk
  • 2 sticks salted butter – cold, cut into 8 equal pieces
  • 12 ounces chocolate chips (semi-sweet)
  • 7 ounces marshmallow creme (7 1/2 ounces of Fluff works too)

Method:

  1. Line a 8-inch by 11-inch baking dish with foil, with strips coming over the side to use as handles later, and butter the foil.
  2. Mix sugar, milk, and butter in a large pot. Bring to a hard boil over medium heat, and boil 9 minutes, stirring constantly.
  3. Remove pot from heat. Add chocolate chips and quickly stir until completely melted and smooth.
  4. Quickly stir in marshmallow creme until completely blended and smooth.
  5. Pour into foil-lined pan, smooth the top, and allow to cool completely and set.
  6. Lift fudge out of the pan using the foil handles. Peel the foil from the fudge, and place the fudge on a cutting board. Carefully cut into desired pieces with a sharp knife, allowing the knife to do the work to avoid cracking the fudge into irregular pieces. Or don’t worry about it, irregular pieces of fudge are still delicious.

Baker’s Solstice Countdown: December 8: Pecan Tassies

Time for something a bit different from a cookie. Pecan Tassies are great for those who, like me, like the combination of savory flaky crust and sweet sticky nutty filling, but find a whole slice of pecan pie a bit of a challenge after a few bites. These are the perfect ratio, and the perfect size.

The recipe, from Martha Stewart, is at this link: Pecan Tassies-Martha Stewart. There’s even a video!

One complaint: The recipe tells you to roll the dough into “1-inch balls”. They need to be much bigger than that, say 1 1/2 inches to use up all the dough and fill the stated number of 18 spaces in your mini muffin tin. The filling only fills 18, so it’s no good trying to make more tassies. It’s also clear in the video that the balls are much larger than 1 inch. You be the judge.