Cookies are tops for holiday baking


All across the land, folks are hard at work baking holiday treats.

All across the land, folks are hard at work baking holiday treats.

All across the country, little elves are hard at work churning out batch after batch of Christmas cookies. According to the research firm NPD Group, 60% of American households are whipping up cookies, cakes, pies and other goodies. For many of us, it’s the only baking we do all year long, says NPD VP Harry Balzer. “We keep to long-standing holiday traditions in December and many of those traditions include baking,” he says.

Cookies top the list of holiday baked goods. That makes sense, since they’re pretty much goof-proof, you can make several different kinds with little extra effort, and you can get a lot of gift-giving mileage out of a single batch. These attributes make them especially appealing to the occasional baker.

“We keep to long-standing holiday traditions in December and many of those traditions include baking.”

Sadly, I can’t participate in this year’s holiday bakefest–my kitchen is packed up in a moving pod and trundling across this great land of ours. So, I’ll have to enjoy the fun vicariously (or nibble on the fruits of others’ labor). Here’s what I would make if I could get to my Kitchen Aid stand mixer and cookie sheets:

Chocolate Mint BarsCooking Light. These triple-layer brownies may be light, but the result is decadent. I’d add a few extra drops of green food coloring to the peppermint layer so these scream “Christmas.”

15-Minute Chocolate Walnut FudgeCook’s Illustrated (membership required). The chef’s in CI’s test kitchen came up with a supereasy fudge recipe, which ran in the January 2007 issue. Last year, I went turned out many batches, playing with different types of nuts and flavorings. My favorite used pecans and bourbon.

Chocolate-Drizzled MandelbrotCooking Light. These Hanukkah cookies are great dunked in coffee.

Chocolate ShortbreadCooking Light. This recipe is easy enough for a child to make, and the addition of bit of canola oil lightens the saturated fat load without compromising the short texture.

Swedish Rye Cookies–101 Cookbooks. I love the flavor of rye, and I’m intrigued by this recipe, which would be flavorful but not too sweet.

Ali-Gyver Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies. I make these babies year-round, but this time of year, I’d be sure to use dried cherries or dried cranberries, and I’d replace up to 1/2 cup of the flour with almond meal.

Wing it


Guests of Rancho la Puerta prepare a lavish dinner at La Cocina que Canta.

Will work for food: Guests of Rancho la Puerta prepare a lavish dinner at La Cocina que Canta.

Because food is so central to the experience at Rancho la Puerta, and guests often want to learn how to make all that great food at home, The Ranch opened an on-site cooking school and culinary center: La Cocina que Canta on the grounds of Tres Estrellas organic garden last year. Of course, I was eager to check it out.

Located on the grounds of The Ranch’s expansive Tres Estrellas organic garden, La Cocina features a

Students check out the garden before cooking

Students check out the garden before cooking

 large demonstration kitchen that also offers ample space for students to cook hands-on. I’ll take a hands-on class over a demonstration any day, and, it appeared, so did about a dozen of my fellow guests, who also signed up for the 3 1/2-hour class. We gathered in the kitchen under the tutelage of Deborah Schneider, a San Diego-based chef who specializes in Baja California cuisine and is the co-author of Cooking with the Seasons at Rancho la Puerta. After watching a brief demonstration of basic knife skills, we divided up to prepare the eight recipes (some folks worked in teams on the more involved dishes) that would comprise our supper. There was a salad, of course, a Mexican-style lasagna (with tortillas and ancho-chile salsa standing in for pasta and tomato sauce), chiles rellenos, pinto beans, a quinoa salaed, chocolate sorbet, and almond cookies. 


While other students gravitated to the recipes, I decided to take up the No-Recipe Soup from the Garden. A bowl of vegetables plucked from the garden  and a few scribbled suggestions were offered as inspiration. I enjoy improvising, and the ingredients were good, so I couldn’t go too far wrong. I set about chopping onions, garlic, and celery; peeling, seeding, and cubing butternut squash; and chopping up a couple of apples. Healthy cooking requires getting well-acquainted with your chef’s knife. Chef Schneider stopped by my station as I sliced, and diced, and chopped.


Chef Schneider at the stove

Chef Schneider at the stove

“What do you think you’ll do?” she asked.


I had some ideas. “I think I’ll roast the squash in the oven, saute the aromatics in a pot, then add the squash and apples and some broth and let it cook.”

“I don’t think we’ll have enough time to do that,” she replied. “How about if we layer the ingredients in a pot and cook it that way?”

I’m all for simplicity, and a chance to learn something new. So, here’s the recipe, although, it’s not really a recipe, since the amounts aren’t precise, and you can use whatever is on hand. This is what we made (I’d halve the amounts when I make this at home), and it would be a terrific addition to any holiday spread:

You don't always need a recipe to make a great soup.

No-Recipe Soup from the Garden

1. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Layer 2 chopped onions, 3 minced garlic cloves, 4 chopped celery stalks, and about 1 tablespoons of peeled and chopped ginger in the bottom of the pan. Top with 2 peeled, seeded, and chopped butternut squash. Cut out a circle of parchment paper large enough to cover the vegetables; lay the parchment paper directly over the vegetables. This allows them to steam and sweat and soften. Cover the pot and cook 15 minutes or until the squash begins to get tender.

2. Uncover the pot; discard the parchment paper. Add 2 peeled and chopped apples. Add enough vegetable broth (homemade is ideal) or water to cover by 1 to 2 inches. Reduce heat, cover, and cook 30 minutes or until squash is tender. Puree in batches in a blender or food processor (or use an immersion blender to puree it in the pot). Add and additional 1 tablespoon peeled, chopped ginger; puree. Add salt and black pepper to taste, along with any other spices you like–fresh nutmeg, perhaps, or ground cumin. You also could stir in a little Sriracha or sambal oelek. Whatever suits your mood works here.

Yield: A hell of a lot (we didn’t measure it, but I’d guess this made about 12 cups).